Sunday, December 25, 2011

Lost 1-17: ...In Translation

This was totally not planned, but somehow the gods of have assigned me to cover specifically the Korean episodes of Lost as I go through it in my attempts to cover the gaping holes in my TV-viewing experience.  I'm a little worried about avoiding redundancy here, which shows you just how poor I'd be at covering anything week-to-week.  But I think it's also interesting because "...In Translation" acts as a counterpart to "House of the Rising Sun" in more intereting ways than being a direct sequel.  The two episodes are interlocking pieces of a small puzzle within the larger puzzle of the series.

Usually the flashback plotlines in Lost involve discovering new information about a character's backstory, information which (ideally) helps the viewer make sense of the choices the character makes in that episode.  This formula is more than a little contrived, but it basically reflects the inherent difficulties and contrivances of ensemble television -- characters have to fade in and out of importance, with a secondary character getting a "showcase episode" where they're really important and then being back in the background next week [1].  But "...In Translation" breaks the mold just a bit.  Essentially we don't learn anything new about Sun and Jin.  We see Jin's criminal activities in new detail, but everything we really needed to know was implied in "House of the Rising Sun".  Instead the flashbacks show a shift in perspective, looking at the events of the couple's past through Jin's perspective.

There's a bold element to this in that it demands memory from the audience, something television shows are famously loathe to do.  To fully appreciate this episode you need to remember the details of a B-plot from 11 episodes ago (four months during the original airing[2]), being able to recognize where the two perspectives interlock and where they differ.  But what's really interesting is how different a change of perspective makes the story become.  This isn't a Rashomon episode where the basic facts of what happened are in dispute -- Sun and Jin's flashbacks mesh completely.  Instead, it's what we take away from the stories that changes.

In "House of the Rising Sun", Jin is an initially romantic husband who becomes distant and cold.  Sun's desire to leave him seems reasonable -- this is essentially a story of a disillusioned woman in danger.  In "...In Translation", Sun is an ignorant wife whose innocence has to be maintained, and is ungrateful for this.  She's basically the Lois Lane character.  From both characters' perspectives they're the victims and their spouse is, if not a villain, at least a burden.  This is actually a quite clever use of a flashback structure that is usually sadly conventional.

Jin's story is a quintessentially noir-ish one, concerning his attempt to maintain his morals (e.g. not killing the safety inspector) in the face of a corrupt world, and inevitably becoming half-corrupt himself in the process.  Lost returns again and again to the world of crime fiction, a genre it weaves into its tapestry of science fiction, survival narrative, and human drama.  The backstories of characters like Kate, Sawyer, and to a lesser extent Shannon and Boone all seem to be lifted out of pulp crime novels.  This is why the "outside world" that exists only in flashbacks usually seems less real than the world of the island.  The direction of "...In Translation" cements this tone, with most scenes taking place in almost unreasonable amounts of shadow.

(This government bureaucrat doesn't keep his house very well lit.  Maybe he's conserving energy?)

Jin's flashback then traces his evolution (or devolution) from the doe-eyed suitor we see at the start of "House of the Rising Sun" to the violent, stand-offish man we see on the island.  The flashback is more interesting than his plot on the island this week, which rests on the same problematic aspects that I've previously mentioned about the Koreans as characters.  Jin's patriarchy remains essentially racialized, with all of the white characters trying to protect Sun and her right to speech (essentially identified here with her right to speak English).  At the same time there's a tolerance plot where Jin is unfairly suspected for sabotaging Michael's raft.  The result is a kind of contradiction: Lost condemns prejudice while engaging in it itself.

All of this speaks to the vulnerability of the liberal humanist ideology that Lost bases itself upon.  In its most positive aspects, liberal humanism is anti-discriminatory, viewing all human beings as deserving equal rights.  However, issues arise when oppressions intersect, and at this point liberalism can become an ideological justification for the very discrimination it situates itself against.  This is how well-meaning left-of-centre types end up signing on to imperial adventures in the Middle East to protect the rights of women in burqas.

Of course, I'm not genuinely comparing an episode of Lost to the Iraq war, but the same ideological constructs are at play.  Early on in the episode we see Sun in a bikini, and Jin frantically tries to cover her up, invoking a conflict between Sun, more Westernized and liberated (being able to speak English), and Jin, patriarchal, prudish, and unapologetically foreign.  (Funny, isn't it, how Americans seem to view womens' most important right as the ability to dress scantily.)  This is a conflict within liberal humanism, between respect for other cultures and respect for women, although at the same time it's engaging in the racist depiction of foreign cultures as backwards and less liberated[3].  The way in which Jin is both the perpetrator of and victim of prejudice could show a key example of intersectionality, but in the end the show is unsure of itself and falls back on the same narrative of the foreign brute and the beautiful foreign woman who just wants to be an American -- and who saves the day by speaking English.

What's really required is a more complex model that recognizes intersecting identities and oppressions.  It needs to consider the web of social forces instead of simply condemning individuals.  Lost makes motions towards this, but hesitates, and the Koreans are in a half-world between stereotypes and decent characters.  This kind of uncertainty goes to the roots of Lost: Jin's speech is sometimes subtitled, sometimes not; the characters are placed in a social context through their flashbacks but also ripped from that context by the premise of the show.  Ultimately this splintered, unsure approach fails.  The opening scene is telling: when we see Jin covering up Sun, the camera cuts away numerous times to the various white American characters watching on the beach and looking uncomfortable.  Even on TV, the viewer can only take on the role of a white spectator gazing on at these strange half-people and wishing they would go away.

The other plots in this episode fall more within Lost's ideological wheelhouse.  There's not much of the bizarre mythos and ongoing plots that Lost became famous for, and instead we have the characters facing dilemmas straight out of an ethics textbook.  The primary one is Michael's attempt to build a raft, and the inevitable question of who gets a seat on the raft.  Of course, this is a Gilligan plot[4] in the most literal sense -- as viewers we know (or are at least pretty sure) that Michael's raft is not going to find a nice boat of ordinary people who will rescue everyone and take them back to the States.  The series even acknowledges this.  At the end of the episode we learn that it was in fact Walt who set fire to the raft, and this is not even known, much less addressed, by any of the castaways except Locke.  His rationale is that he finds the island fun and wants to stay there.  This is our rationale as viewers as well: we like the island, we want the Lostaways to stay on the island for our amusement, and we're okay with the show going to extremes to keep it there.  What could be an annoying cop-out is turned into a kind of self-aware contract with the viewer.

The question of who should ride the raft, discarded by the catastrophe, does pose ethical questions that are never fully explored.  It's the old ethical dilemma of who to save, one that hasn't lost its power through repetition.  This is probably not new to philosophy students, but even presenting thought-provoking questions, ones that don't have a right answer that can be arrived at by the end of the episode, in the margins of a hit TV show is a bit of a revolution.  This is true especially considering the serialization-adverse network television scene that Lost hit like a tidal wave in 2004.

So who do you save in a situation like this?  The weakest and neediest?  The most deserving?  Women and children first?  In Lost it mainly goes to the ones who have done the most to contributing to the raft: Michael, Walt, and Sawyer (who provided the materials), with one seat hanging in the air and the subject of debate.  The liberal capitalist order has restored itself on the islands -- the raft becomes the property of Michael because he has put in the work to build it, with Sawyer a sub-contractor.  This may sound fair, but it seems less so when you consider people like Claire who couldn't have contributed much if they wanted to.  This debate isn't really played out in the episode, but it's batted into the laps of the audience, and Lost trusts that its audience is smart enough to consider the possibilities themselves.  The ratings rewarded them for that trust -- the TV audience is smarter than network execs usually aim for, or at least like to feel smarter.

The other plotline in this episode is a fairly trivial one about the budding relationship between Sayid and Shannon.  This one doesn't quite work in the context of the characters -- the super-serious Sayid worrying about a crush in what is still a survival situation, and the general lack of chemistry between the two -- but it's perhaps a better display of liberal non-discrimination than the Korean plotline that dominates the episode.  The show is matter-of-fact about the interracial couple, not speechifying on it but having it still present through Boone's definite but not overpowering animus.

"...In Translation" is then an episode that shows Lost's ruling political ideology more than most.  Like a lot of American TV, it takes a noisy stance against explicit discrimination, but this is less ideal than it appears beneath the surface.  But Lost presents all of this more explicitly than most, even going so far as to name characters after key liberal thinkers like Rousseau and Locke, and embodies the desert-island man-in-nature thought experiment that these thinkers were so fond of.  This is what I think makes it worth studying, besides its considerable merits as a television show: it's a banner of the ruling ideology of our age, with all that ideology's benefits, flaws, and contradictions clear to see.

Next week: Bob Newhart gets all mad and shit.

[1]Primetime Adventures, a quite witty (and fun) roleplaying game based around TV storytelling tropes, actually has a mechanic for "screentime this episode" that codifies this unwritten rule.  The Koreans don't have a lot of 3s.

[2]Of course, it's less time if you're watching it through after the fact, even on my slow schedule.  This may be why so many people like watching serial dramas on DVD better than following them week-to-week.  But I'm always trying to consider how these shows would have appeared in their original presentation first and foremost, as that's still the primary method of television consumption.

[3]Korean culture may or may not be more patriarchal than American culture -- I'm not really qualified to make a distinction either way.  Most likely it is in some ways and isn't in others.  I'm more interested in the implications of this portrayal than its accuracy.

[4]A term I may have just invented, in which characters try to challenge the premise of the show and obviously fail, because if they succeed there wouldn't be a show.  Think Gilligan trying to get off the island, or the Losties doing the same.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia 7-13: "The High School Reunion Part 2: The Gang's Revenge"

No screencaps this week due to technical difficulties.  Your tables shall remain sadly unbroken.  Triple ho.

It's Always Sunny has done a lot of shocking things over the years, but perhaps the most shocking part of this episode is that it opens with a "Previously On" segment.  I mean, there's a standard opening: we see the time and place (almost always Paddy's Pub) flash up on a black screen while hearing the audio of an inane, bizarre conversation, then cutting into that conversation, which continues until one of the cast members barges in with the plot of the week.  I mean, it's the formula for a reason.  Come on, people!

All joking aside, the unprecedented "previously on" segment reflect a remarkable turn to continuity in a normally episodic show.  These are episodes aimed squarely at people who have been following the series since episode one, and know who all of the recurring characters (some of whom have only been alluded to before now) are, know why Dee is wearing a weird metal contraption, and the ongoing downward spirals of the waitress and Rickety Cricket.  None of this is covered in the "previously on", of course: it's almost a futile gesture in an episode as geared as this one is to long-term fans.

There are some who might criticize an episode like this for being lazy, relying on the show's established history to recycle past gags with the joke being nothing more than "Hey, remember this?"  And there's some merit to that.  But to some extent this is the nature of episodic television.  Even shows without ongoing storylines build a world and a shared past for the characters and the viewers, and that past is always an unstated presence.  It would in fact be stranger for a show to never refer to past episodes, as though the characters were constantly being mind-wiped, although this was the standard on TV for many years.

The call-back is then cheap in some ways, but in other ways neccessary.  It's Always Sunny falls into the category of comedies that rely on a cult audience, from their courting of politically volatile subject matter to the clearly personal nature of the audience.  This is a show that started without any kind of introduction to the characters or the setting, as though it had been going on for years and we just got the chance to see it.  I've discussed this kind of bond with the audience before, and call-backs are a big part of establishing that "I'm one of the people who get it" dynamic.  But if they're done well the new audience isn't completely left out in the cold.  When Charlie describes himself as an expert in bird law, that's funny in itself, not just because it refers to a previous episode.

"The Gang's Revenge" even offers a call-back in microcosm.  At one point the gang references Schmitty (himself a character from an older episode), who should be at the reunion, but eventually decides that he'll most likely "swoop in at the end and pick up the drunkest chick here".  Later he does exactly that -- far enough away that we've almost forgotten the original comment, and placed in a context we didn't quite expect (e.g. said drunkest chick being the waitress). And of course, the entire episode "calls back" to the one before it.  The entire thing is structured as a Russian nesting doll of callbacks.

The episode employs continuity in other ways too.  For example, we've been getting hints all season that Dennis has turned into a full-blown sexual predator, a natural extension of his existing personality, through the discovery of weird crawlspaces in the bar and tapes of underage girls and so on and so forth[1].  In this episode we see him produce a "kit" from the back of the van in a fit of rage, made up of what are, for all intents and purposes, rape supplies.  The kit, and his frantic explanations for it, are darkly funny, but even more so if you've been watching this side of his   character be slowly exposed over the course of the season.

This isn't really a character arc  -- the characters of It's Always Sunny are too permanently wretched to really have such things.  Instead of growing or gaining a kind of redemption, they only have new facets of their awful personalities revealed.  Still, it's worth noting how even a mostly episodic show has started to incorporate season-long storylines -- Dennis's emergence as a predator and Mac's fatness this season, and Dee's pregnancy in season six.  In times where serialization is so popular, diluted versions of it pop up everywhere.
Which isn't to say that this episode is only watchable if you're a religious viewer of the show.  If this was the first episode you tuned into, you'd probably feel dropped in the middle of something you didn't quite understand, but as I mentioned above that's the same feeling you get if you start with season 1, episode 1.  It's Always Sunny grounds its inner mythology in the universal, the pop cultural, and the relevant.  This episode may not be a ripped-from-the-headlines story like the ones more popular in the early seasons, but it still takes as its basis a well-known phenomenon both on TV and in real life: the high school reunion, which is basically a recreation of high school starring adults who have supposedly matured since then.

Obviously not everyone has been to a reunion, but everyone is familiar with high school and its resultant drama and emotions -- which is probably why American TV keeps returning to it, to the point of obsession.  The gang shares this obsession, particularly Dennis, who has over the course of the show built up quite a mythology surrounding his prowress and popularity in high school.  Other characters' teenage lives have also been established over the course of the season, such as Dee's "aluminum monster" persona.  Of course, Dennis's delusions of being a "golden god" are shattered when in this episode the popular kids (still acting as the dickish popular kids from high school but also inhabiting the "harried normal person" role that pops up all the time on It's Always Sunny) reveal what seems only reasonable in retrospect: nobody really liked Dennis to begin with, and he was always an outsider like the rest of the gang.

These are outsiders of a different type than the glorified losers you usually see on TV, though.  As arrogant as the popular kids in this episode may be, it's hard to blame them for rejecting the gang.  Who would want to spend their high school years hanging out with a filthy paint-huffing guy, a narc who kept trying to imitate kung fu movies, and a sociopathic prick?  Dee may have been unpopular because of her back brace, but she had an awful personality to go with it.  As much as it celebrates the margins and fringes of society, It's Always Sunny suggests that its characters may be on the fringe for a valid reason.  When the gang decides that their bar is the home they belong in, it's less of a warm-hearted moment than it would be in a show like Community -- it's just another failure to deal with the world of well-adjusted people.

This all culminates in a climactic dance number (no, really) which continues to play with the narrative of the outsider.  It's more subtle than the recent episode of Community, but it's an equally savage take on the kind of mythology that underlies tripe like Glee: there are outsiders (clean-cut, attractive and morally flawless outsiders) but they can win acceptance from those cruel bullies by putting on a big performance.  This narrative is presented in an extended fantasy sequence, rare for the show, and then undercut by the reality.

Interestingly enough, the show lets the viewer determine that the fantasy is just that before the big reveal.  At first it looks like It's Always Sunny may actually be playing this trope straight, but by the time Mac throws off his shirt to reveal a six-pack we know this is firmly a fantasy... and yet the sequence continues for a little bit.  By allowing the viewer to make the connections themselves, it makes said connections all the stronger.

In its form "The Gang's Revenge" triumphs the insider, the superfan who can get all these references and is stoked to see characters that have only been referenced before appear in the flesh.  But its content is a different matter, inverting the outsider narrative and focusing on how sometimes the rejected turn into loathsome people, or were rejected precisely because of this loathsomeness.  It's a contrast between form and function that I don't think It's Always Sunny has fully worked out.  But in a way this contradiction -- along with its nonstop humour -- is what makes it such a viscerally entertaining, violently unstable show.  A show in its seven season should feel like a staid institution by now, but It's Always Sunny still manages to feel perennially on the verge of collapse.

Next week: More about those damn Koreans

[1]This is a lot funnier than it sounds.  Or at least I thought so -- someone who's actually suffered sexual abuse may have a different reaction.  The politics of "offensive humour" are probably worth discussing in relation to It's Always Sunny, which travels in a kind of "political incorrectness" I usually find really aggravating, but for some reason works in this series.  Maybe it's just because the characters are portrayed as terrible people instead of honest men telling it like it is.  Or maybe it's just my priveledge kicking into high gear.  But it deserves a deeper discussion than I'm giving it here.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Amazing Race 19-11: We Are Charlie Chaplin

By the time any given TV show reaches its nineteenth season, it's either gone beyond stale or become an institution -- usually both at once, and one could say that the two are simply different ways to describe the same state.  Indeed, it's slightly startling to be typing "19-11" in to the episode box.  To be fair, the count is a bit deceptive -- The Amazing Race has only been on TV for about a decade now ("only"), airing two shorter seasons each year.  A low-rated critical darling for the first few years of its run, it's become a stable presence that nobody bothers to cancel, one of the sedate elder statesmen of the reality TV world along with Survivor.

But is it still worth watching?  It's hard to think of a show whose quality persisted this late into its run -- the decline of The Simpsons is probably the most famous example.  It may be better (or at least more flattering) to view these competition reality shows less in the vein of fictional TV and more in that of competitions like sports.  After all, nobody wonders when they're going to get around to wrapping up that whole NFL thing.  But it's hard to deny that there's a sense of malaise setting in.  It's not so much that the recent seasons are that much worse than the initial ones -- you'll find people who say this, but it's mainly nostalgia -- but just that the formula has lost its power to surprise.  It's a comfortable show to watch, for me a bit of a family tradition, but the other side of comfort is complacency.

This episode is the penultimate one of the season, in which the final four is whittled down to the final three who will compete for the million bucks before taxes in the finale.  Geographically, it takes the teams from Belgium to Panama, as part of the continual quest for new destinations.  But it's most notable for the surprise elimination of perennial leg-winners and snowboarding stereotypes Andy and Tommy.  It's one of the few moments of genuine surprise this season has produced.

It also involves the perennial draw of competition reality shows: the joy of watching someone else fail.  I wish there was a more convenient word for that.  This is really what competition shows promise us: sure, every week someone will win, but more important than that someone will fail and be eliminated because of some monumental error that we're all sure we would never make.  With the exception of the finale, every episode is situated around the question of who will lose.  (Except for those non-elimination legs that everyone hates).  And this is very rarely presented as simply being the least good of a good group: it's always some kind of character or skill failing.

In a way this is a simple exhibition of cruelty, allowing the viewer to triumph in another's suffering in the way they are rarely invited to in fictional television.  Of course, this may just be my own individual reaction -- perhaps there are viewers out there who bite their nails hoping that everything works out for the best.  But in order to maintain the justice of the competition, the editing has to suggest that everything a team suffers is what they deserve -- effectively giving us permission to laugh.  And it's worth noting how comedic this show, and reality TV in general, is.  The Amazing Race occasionally highlights its contestants' stumblings with jokey music, but even when it doesn't it's easy to laugh at the pratfalls and slip-ups of the team.

Of course, as the omniscient viewers we're able to see the right path beforehand, and as such it seems obvious to us.  The best example is a tricky-to-find clue (printed on a dancing girl's skirt) at the end of this leg.  We receive narration of where it is, and the camera repeatedly flashes to it, but the teams are stumped.  What's obvious to us is not obvious to the contestants, making them seem dumber and weaker than ourselves.  Once again, a good deal of the pleasure lies in mockery -- seeing Andy and Tommy nosing around the docks of Panama in search of a nonexistant clue and laughing and saying "What the hell are they doing?"

On the other hand, "cruelty" is probably overstating things a bit.  After all, we're only watching people lose a game show, not be tortured.  In its genial family-friendly way, The Amazing Race doesn't even involve much humiliation, aside from the occasional eating challenge.  Still, it's important to keep in mind the pleasures these shows offer and to consider what it means that they're offering them.

The fist challenge for this episode involves the contestants dressing up as characters from the comic Tintin and trying to identify who it is they're dressed as.  I liked this challenge for a couple reasons.  It makes the racers actually engage in a limited way with the culture they're in, instead of just going somewhere and going through some motions.  And it also involves funny costumes.

Do you see what I mean about the comedic elements?

Of course, none of the racers have any idea who the Tintin characters are, and so rely on a combination of friendly locals and the Internet to learn the answer.  The co-operation of local passerbies is a big part of just about every episode of The Amazing Race.  Competitive reality shows have been attacked, with some fairness, for being advocates of dog-eat-dog neoliberalism.  But it's also worth noting how co-operation is an essential part of theses hows, especially The Amazing Race and Survivor.  There's a kind of reassuring note to the show, that the streets of every city on Earth are teeming with people who will help you if you get lost or just need assistance in some silly game show[1].

Amusingly, in this episode the cabbies of several of the teams end up working together and sharing direction, much to the chagrin of the racers trying to make it a competition.  Once again, co-operation occurs despite the focus on competition -- and the fate of the whole thing is, as usual, left in the hands of anonymous taxi drivers.

Having completed their comic book-character identification task, the teams can now take a plane to Panama, in order to walk a tightrope between two buildings.  If that sentence sounded like a string of non-sequiters to you, you're not alone.  The Amazing Race and many other reality shows take on a carnivalesque atmosphere, using their loose plot (a race around the world) to string together a series of disparate visual pleasures -- like, say, people dressing up in funny costumes or walking on tightropes.  In this way they're heirs to the legacy of variety shows, providing a little something for everyone, much more so than variety's official heir, late-night tak shows.  While the race provides a diegetic impetus for these performances, it usually doesn't provide a justification for them.  For instance, all four teams get on the same flight to Panama, so there's no

This accounts for the popularity of challenges which are visually striking but not all that, well, challenging or skill-testing.  Heights challenges, which usually occur several times per season, are the key example of this.  The only challenge is whether or not the teams will work up the nerve to jump or rappel or cross or whatever itis, which they pretty much always do -- although a shocking amount of people go on this show while being afraid of heights.  This episode's rendition is at least a little visually scary, although the tension is tempered by the fact that obviously none of these people are going to fall to their deaths in the middle of the episode.

The final challenge on this leg is a more quotidian one, a Detour that requires teams to choose between, to quote erstwhile host and certified choo-choo chrarlie Phil Keoghan, "two of Panama's oldest professions".  Fortunately, no prostitution is involved.  The actual tasks are constructing a sandal out of leather and transporting fish to the right stands in an open-air fish market.  Usually on The Amazing Race you end up with challenges that exoticize the country of the week, but here they just seem content to ignore it.  All I really learned about Panama from this episode was that it had tall buildings, shoes, and fish -- very distinctive traits.

In a way this is an extension of the humiliation factor -- affluent first-worlders forced to do manual labour in a developing country -- although this element isn't focused on in the editing.  But it's also the most competitive section of the leg, pitting the teams against each other in a contest that involves unusual and unexpected skills.  And somehow this shoe-making race is edited to actually create tension and excitement.  The Amazing Race never lingers on a single scene for more than a minute, always switching between teams and between tasks, so there's never really the potential for boredom.  The techniques used here are the conventional shooting methods of action movies (there's a reason Jerry Bruckheimer is a producer), which on their own are quite effective in making a dramatic narrative out of literally anything.

But after a while this narrative and this style grows thin, and nineteen seasons certainly qualifies as "a while".  Unlike most shows, a competitive reality show grows weaker the more you watch of it. The first season of Survivor or The Amazing Race or Top Chef seems amazing, dramatic, and almost iconic -- all of the characters are new to you, the tension seems genuine, and the format is fresh.  This is true even if you start with a comparatively weak season.  But as the format of the show repeats again and again, diminishing returns set in.  The new faces are edited into the same old archetypes, making them seem like nothing more than imitations, and you've already seen the drama a hundred times before.  That doesn't mean that watching more than one season of one of these shows is redundant, or that their current incarnation is neccesarily bad.  I still enjoy the show, albeit to a lesser extent than I did when I first started watching it.  But diminishing returns is endemic to the genre.

There are three pleasures that The Amazing Race promises its audience, then: schadenfreude, visual splendour akin to Andre Bazin's "cinema of attraction", and novelty.  The first two spring eternal.  The third is something that each episode of the show endlessly grasps for, constantly juggling between strange activities and stranger people, but something that is always fleeting.  If staleness is not inevitable, then I'd love to see a reality show that proves that -- and that show might just be a hit.

Next Week: A cornucopia of callbacks on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

[1]The cameras may induce a lot of this charity, but that's certainly not in the text of the show.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Shield 7-05: Game Face

Despite all the (deserved) focus and praise that gets heaped on the Strike Team and their antics, my favourite character on The Shield is probably Dutch.  He's a character who's obviously flawed -- arrogant but with a fragile ego that needs boosting through intellectual accomplishment and puerile chest-beating -- but also one who's basically a good guy.  It's the same balance the series tries to strike with Vic Mackey, but one that seems to fit together into a more real character, although that may just be because Dutch never falls near as far as Vic does.  Dutch is a "good cop", but in the sense of The Wire, in that he's motivated more by the intellectual rush of outsmarting criminals than material reward.  He's the kind of overcompensating beta male that's difficult to like, but at least manages to avoid the corruption of Vic and the complacency of Billings.

But in another way Dutch is just an alternate universe version of Vic.  It's worth noting that in their police work the two deal with very different criminals: Vic and the strike team deal with gangs, whereas Dutch's plotlines tend to involve serial killers and crimes of passion.  And while the strike team becomes more and more of a criminal gang, Dutch comes to resemble the killers he profiles.  This is an old trope, but it's well-executed here.  There's the scene a few seasons ago where he kills a cat, but more generally he begins to resemble a serial killer in his obsession, his preening and his ability to dehumanize the people around him (his relationship with Corrine a season or two ago being the best example of this).  And yet this is what makes him a good cop.  It's like Dexter, but less ridiculous.

"Game Face" deals with this dynamic a lot, along with the usual strike team maneuvering and flailing.  I want to focus on the serial killers for now.  First there's Kleavon, the killer Dutch and Claudette dealt with two seasons ago, who returns in this episode to confront Claudette with a legal challenge[1].  The second is Lloyd, a teenager Dutch suspects but can't prove is a future serial killer who's just committed his first murder.  Together these two plotlines present not just a before-and-after picture, with Kleavon as the potential future of Lloyd, but also presents a direct challenge to the characters of Dutch and Claudette.

Unlike most of the cast, Claudette doesn't have much in the ways of obvious moral or character flaws -- sure, she can be self-righteous and stubborn sometimes, but that mainly stems from her intense moral compass, one that just about everyone else on the show lacks.  She's the only one who views morality as more than a justifying pretext.  So instead of a moral flaw she's been given a physical one: she's been struggling with a hidden case of lupus.  Her disease has mainly been in the background, exactly how she or Dutch would see it: a looming problem, but one under the surface.  Kleavon, acting as his own attorney, returns to try and dredge this problem up to the light.

There's an interesting parallel with Claudette's actions at the end of season three, in which she revealed a public defender was on drugs, forcing all of her cases to be retried and earning the enmity of the top brass.  Obviously it's not the exact same situation, but Kleavon is making the same case: if the mechanisms of justice are flawed in any way, then they are illegitimate.  Whether or not he has a legal leg to stand on, it momentarily places Claudette in the same position as Vic -- the representative of flawed justice, who raises the question of whether it's better than no justice at all.

(There's an argument that could be made that the stresses of the chief's position have corrupted or at least worn down Claudette -- after all, her reign hasn't exactly been the radical change we'd been led to believe it would be.  I'm not sure whether this is a flaw in the character or a flaw in the show though.)

On the other side of things we have Dutch dealing with the potential future serial killer in Lloyd.  He's butting up against the natural limit of police work -- the police are there ostensibly to maintain order, but they do that by catching and punishing people after they commit crimes.  This may be justice, but the deed is already done.  The serial killer actually presents the clearest case of how arrest can be preventative, as they'll clearly kill again otherwise.  It's more questionable whether locking up a crime-of-passion case actually does much good, aside from deterrence.  Of course, there's no alternative, unless one wants to talk of Minority Report-style future crime.

So Dutch decides to go beyond the bounds of his job to deal with Lloyd.  The role he envisions is not criminal like Vic's extracurricular activities, but more of a social worker, trying to save Lloyd (and his future victims).  And yet it involves using the powers of his job for other means, as the strike team does repeatedly, and involves the same "I can't prove it but I know he did it" logic we see routinely on this show.  Problematically, this intuition almost always turns out to be correct, as if evidence is just a burden to confirm a cop's gut feeling.  Everyone Dutch talks to about the case expresses doubt about it.  On the other hand, Kyle Gallner plays Lloyd as a smarmy sociopath so well that it seems believable -- although to an extent he's just drawing out the sociopathy present in all teenagers.

Michael Chiklis wrote this episode, stepping into a star-auteur role a la Louis C.K., Bryan Cranston, and (to a lesser extent) Michael Imperioli.  Despite this, it's not really a showcase episode for Vic, at least not any more than the rest of the show is.  The strike team is mostly involved in an episodic plot involving rescuing the daughter of a Mexican drug kingpin who's about to flip.  There's nothing really wrong with this plot, but it feels like filler.  This is a bit of a reversal -- usually it's Dutch and the other "straight" detectives who get the one-off B-plot, while Vic and the strike team are involved in a serialized storyline.  Of course, all of the running plotlines advance in small increments, both in Vic's "professional" life (his conflicts with Shane and Pezuela) and in his personal one (the rebellion of his daughter Cassidy and Danni's attempt to get him to sign away paternity rights for their child).

In a way, it's remarkable how the show juggles all of these balls without it ever being confusing.  This is probably best seen in the scenes on the floor of the Barn, which switch rapidly between plotlines, managing to hit up nearly everything in five minutes or less, both recapping and advancing plots.  Even the visual aspects of these scenes reflect this through the chaotic jumble of figures in the background.  If you watch closely (which I usually don't) you can even make out tiny stories and actions going on silently behind our main characters.

(Catherine Dent isn't looking so great in this screenshot, but mainly I'm just trying to figure out what the old guy in the background is doing.)

And the sheer multiplicity of these storylines is not just a case of overstuffing -- it's a very conscious effect.  Vic has to juggle all of these dilemmas in the same way that the show (and the audience) does, and as the plots pile up his life spins out of control, with a thousand forces tugging him in different directions.  Even his family, the golden ideal that he says all of his actions are for, is beginning to come apart at the seams.  When Danni wants Vic to sign away his paternity, he reacts badly because she's threatening to take away the only thing he can use to justify his actions.

In large part this is because he chooses to do things for them (or at least things he says are for them) instead of actually being with them.  The Cassidy plotline in this episode is a great example.  Vic discovers that his daughter was at a rowdy, drug-and-sex-fueled teenage party, and instead of talking to her about it decides to deal with it the Vic Mackey way -- i. e. abusing his authority to punish some guy.  The problem arises when the teenage boy he interrogates reveals that Cassidy herself was the organizer of the party.  Vic has by this point lost the ability to deal with problems outside of the cop/criminal paradigm, and as a result he's beginning to lose his family.

This could only happen in the final season of the show -- there's really nowhere to go from here, no way that things could spiral out of control any worse.  That's more obvious by the time we get to the midway point of the season, but even here in the earlier episodes, we have a sense that everyone is on the edge, that the usual tactics aren't working, and that doom is on the horizon.  And, like Dutch with Lloyd, we can't prove it but we know bodies are about to drop.

Next Week: I do my best Phil Keoghan impression.

[1]I've probably mentioned this before, but I really like how The Shield brings back characters from the past just when you'd started to forget about them.  This really ties into the series's main idea of recurrence, how the effects of your actions never really stop, and how there's no such thing as safely in the past.  (For instance, despite being dead for several seasons Ben Gilroy still manages to make trouble for Vic every once in a while).  Deena, a carjacker from an earlier season, shows up in a more damaged and scarred form in this episode as well.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Homeland 1-08: Achilles Heel

There's something a bit audacious and high-school-Englishy about putting your episode's main symbol in the title.  The Achilles' heel seems like an awkward attempt at giving the episode a motif to thold it together as more than just the next installment of the ongoing plot.  This is a perennial issue in the age of serialized drama -- how to make an episode appear to cohere into an individual work while still making it a seamless part of a larger whole.  Here, the answer appears to be shoehorning the episode title into conversation.

But the idea of the most fearsome warrior having a weakness is key to this series, no matter how ham-handed the mythological allusions may seem.  The main conflict of the series is between two warriors whose flaws are numerous and visible, from Carrie's obsessive and invasive nature to Brody's trauma and alienation.  This even extends to secondary characters, as our recent glimpses into the lives of Saul and Aileen have revealed.  There's almost the suggestion that Achilles couldn't be a warrior without his heel -- that the broken parts of Carrie and Brody are exactly what makes them good combatants.

It's ironic, then, that the term is first used to refer to the most human element of Tom Walker, the newly-revealed terrorist agent.  Walker's Achilles' heel is described as his love for his family -- in other words, the same aspect lacking in Saul and Carrie.  It's not particularly new to have the heroes be chasing a villain who is in some ways an inverted version of himself, but it's at the very least unusual that this isn't used as an attempt to humanize Walker at all.  There are no scenes of him agonizing over the choices he's making or doing some good deed -- he's just a terrorist who loves his family, but still a terrorist.

This reflects the rather ambivalent way Homeland treats its villains.  Other than the shadowy supervillain Abu Nasir, they all seem to have personal, almost sympathetic motivations -- but this isn't used to excuse them from their actions at all.  In some ways this ambivalence is at the core of the series thus far, with Brody always in a position halfway between hero and villain.  But the existence of these labels in the first place shows that the show isn't exactly impartial.  Like its predecessor in the cable-spy-thriller genre, Rubicon, it doesn't fully engage in the rhetoric and narrative of the War on Terror, but it does flirt with it in some queasy ways.

For the most part this functions by implication.  In the second episode we see Brody praying towards Mecca in his garage, and this is set up as a big and scary (but not definitive) revelation along the lines of him staring at the White House in the pilot.  In the episode after that a Muslim man buying a house near the airport is treated as an ominous revelation.  And in this episode we have the SWAT team accidently shooting up a mosque in pursuit of Tom Walker.

This last bit suggests that it's a mistake to read the War on Terror as in any way Islamophobic or anti-Arab[1].  When the police kill too innocent Muslims, it's a genuine mistake, not reflecting any kind of racial animosity -- in fact, the idea that it's racist is in fact a tool planted by the terrorists.  Two men are dead, but the main implication is that this is tremendously unfair for the men who shot them.  Homeland's heroes may be flawed, but the show never suggests that their mission is -- there's a genuine threat to the country, constantly plotting and scheming to bring destruction to America, and the CIA is trying their best to stop it.  Their agents may sacrifice their families or their sanities to do so, but this isn't really a critique of their goals.  After all, when we see Batman or Spiderman sacrificing their personal lives to pursue justice, we view it as not a character flaw but a noble sacrifice, and a similar suggestion is at work here.

This is, of course, mostly wrong.  Most of the "terror threats" that make the news in America are sting operations that verge on entrapment.  Terrorist attacks happen, but they're mainly in the Middle East or other places that Americans don't care about.  The idea of the country as swarming with secret terrorist networks, as envisioned in both shows like this and neocon political rhetoric, is somewhat belied by the fact that there hasn't been a single attack on American soil in a decade.  And as anyone who's read William Blum will tell you, the CIA is far from a well-intentioned bureau of heroes, although I'm sure plenty of people inside it view themselves that way.

It's not as though I expect radical leftism from a Showtime spy thriller.  But I'm worried about the ideas embedded in Homeland because it's so damn good.  The writing is tight and well-judged, managing to be suspenseful and offering frequent swerves without seemingly like a potboiler  The cinematography is amazing, playing constantly with light and shadows in a way that's hard to describe other than just to sit slack-jawed and stare at it.  Michael Cuesta, who's directed three of the series's episodes (but not this one) probably deserves the bulk of the credit for this aesthetic, but I don't think an auteurist approach is really helpful here.  The cinematography isn't simply used for presenting an aesthetically pleasing image -- it's key to setting the mood of the scene.  For example, when we see the Brody family bonding over the dinner table, the lighting is warm and intimate, almost yellow.  The palette for this scene is rustic and nostalgic for an almost old-fashioned kind of family togetherness.

On the other hand, we have the Brodies at the dinner party of a prominent politico.  The setting is similarly domestic, but here everything is bathed in sterile white light, reflecting the phoniness of the universe this humble family is entering.

And the cinematography is just one element of the excellent execution of Homeland.  It's that execution that can make me internally nod instead of roll my eyes at the humble military family/cold world of politics duality, by placing it (primarily) in the background instead of the foreground.  And that's why I'm so concerend about the political ideas at its core.

All of this and I haven't even got to the big plot twist at the end of the episode.  Ah well, there's a lot to talk about with this show, and this week I didn't have much time to talk about it due to school overload.  So I'll leave this on a moment of praise and uncertainty, because that's where I am right now with Homeland.

Next week: Serial killers, seriality, and The Shield.

[1]The show's prominent use of non-Arabic terrorists -- Brody, Aileen, and now Walker -- is another part of this.  Rubicon also engaged in this, making its big end-of-season terrorist a white guy.  Of course, terrorism is not a distinctly racial practice, but those that don't fall into the al-Qaeda stereotype are typically considered Not Terrorists (e.g. abortion clinic bombers and Cuban ex-pat groups).  The motivation behind this is probably to avoid racism, but it's more of a whitewashing that glosses over instead of addressing the underlying racial tensions.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Bob Newhart Show 1-11: I Want To Be Alone

A few days ago I started reading Alone Together by Sherry Turkle.  Turkle's argument, or at least part of it, is that at the same time social interaction becomes ubiquitous because of all the Facebooks and Twitters and what have you, we ironically begin to live in a world where we are isolated from each other and only communicate through our machines.  In this world both togetherness and solitude both fall to the wayside, and what emerges is a kind of social half-life where we are constantly, well, alone together.

I mention this because this is the type of society that creeps up on you unobtrusively until you realize how different things use to be.  And that was exactly my experience watching this episode of The Bob Newhart Show, a sitcom from 1972, back in the day when The <star's name here> show meant something other than a late-night talk show.  The plot concerns Bob's increasing social exhaustion and his desire to be alone.  This is certainly a feeling I've had before, being a natural introvert, but still it shocked me to see this narrative on screen -- you would never see it on a contemporary sitcom.  The young-professionals sitcom still exists, of course (the most notable examples are Friends and How I Met Your Mother, which are good points of comparison) but its characters live in a regime of constant youthful activities, the neverending sociality of the college campus.  These characters are never alone[1], and if anything their worries are about not getting out enough or being cool enough.

So for a sitcom like Bob Newhart -- a mainstream comedy in the age of monoculture, where there were three channels all trying to offend you the least -- to dedicate an episode to a desire for solitude is remarkable and to me a bit alien.  I mean, Bob doesn't even have a particularly busy social life.  He talks to his coworkers during the day, goes home to his wife, and sometimes has a dinner party.  It's not like he's out at the club every night like I assume the cool youths are today[2].

Still, it's not like this is out of character for him either.  Robert Hartley (the why-bother pseudonym for Newhart's character) has always stood a bit apart from the more gleeful and open members of the cast.  Newhart's performance is a big part of it -- instead of delivering the punchlines with a big smile and a hammy voice, he does it quietly and with a rather resigned look on his face.  More often than not he seems like the last sane man on Earth, and one can imagine how that would create a need to be alone.

Of course, the people in this episode do misconstrue Bob's desire for solitude -- not as strangeness, but as a rift between him and his wife Emily, even as (when he checks into a hotel for a weekend) an affair.  But there's no genuine frission here -- Emily supports Bob's desires, and is remarkably unsuspicious.  If Bob and Emily are suggested to have an ideal relationship, then it's a relationship that's fueled by mutual trust and a recognition that even the closest bond can sometimes use time apart.  (It's also worth noting that its a relationship whose major trait seems to be Emily supporting Bob's desires and needs.)  The only difficulty is that the supporting cast -- all flawed and clueless in some kind of way -- don't understand this kind of relationship.

This ties into another part of the show that seems foreign from a modern perspective, which is just how much these people like each other.  MTM Productions, the studio behind Bob Newhart (named for its most famous show, Mary Tyler Moore), didn't really do unlikeable characters -- even the dimwitted Howard and Carol are portrayed as basically good-natured, and all of the characters seem to genuinely like each other.  Even on relatively warm-hearted shows like The Office today, you get a lot more sniping and bickering than you would here.  In part this can make Bob Newhart kind of dull -- everything's so hunky-dory that it's hard to hold any real interest in the plot, because there's no possibility that any threat to these characters' relationship would really come to anything.

To understand why this is requires an understanding of the sitcom genre, especially the warm version of it that MTM specialized in.  As I've mentioned before, the sitcom essentially invites us into its home, encourages us to identify with its characters.  Sitcom characters are the friends we wish we had, the ones that are always funny and never dull or annoying.  They are meant to be basically like us, ordinary people, except ones that we can have a good time with without any commitments or consequences.  To sensationalize a bit, the sitcom is to friendship as porn is to love.

Still, this expectations that sitcom characters are basically like us can make them valuable time capsules -- they embody who we think we are.  For Bob Newhart, the ideal is that of the young urban professional, the childless youth who still has his head on the right track.  Of course, Bob Newhart is not particularly young and not particularly cool.  In fact you could say that the show, premiering in 1972, is in some ways a conservative vision of the younger generation -- witty and indepdenent, but not really challenging the system or involved in social movements.  Bob and Emily don't have children, but aspire to in the future, and other than that they have a very traditional marraige.  The single characters all aspire to the ideal of relationships they present -- for instance, the previous episode is about Jerry getting engaged.

These young characters are also very carefully situated in an urban environment -- in this case, Chicago, a setting the show mentions frequently.  This is not simply Everytown, USA: it's a specific hip city, a place you wish you could be (unless you live in New York).  The opening credits, which show Bob travelling home through an urban environment, specifically foreground this setting, much as The Sopranos' drive-home credits would foreground suburbia decades later.  It's also worth noting that Emily is distinctly not out in this urban environment, but is in the home, the very image of domesticity.

(As an aside, Lorenzo Music is a fantastic freaking name.)

The characters' professions also play an interesting role.  Our main cast consists of a psychologist, a teacher, a pilot, a dentist and a receptionist[3].  These are, for the most part, all important what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up type of jobs.  (Although only the weird kids answered "dentist", and the troubled ones "psychologist".)  They're professions that one aspires to, that assure a kind of middle class stability.  Nobody in this show is working in a gas station.  The show doesn't spend much time on the characters' jobs [4] -- in fact, they almost seem tokenary, a random descriptor like names or hair colour, key to establishing identity but not something you really dwell on.  There's an earlier episode where they all do career day, and at times these careers can almost seem like Halloween costumes -- witness Howard's constant pilot suit.  This is awfully familiar to the ways careers are described and deployed in shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother.

For what it's worth, however, we do see some more of the characters' careers in this episode.  Towards the beginning we see Bob with a patient, a neurotic guy worried about his toupee.  All of Bob's patients so far have had to deal with comedically trivial problems, and while in part this is a simple effect of the genre it's also interesting to note how psychology is neutered to make it sympathetic to a mass audience.  Bob seems to deal with just the niggling little problems that annoy you but which you're ultimately able to accept about yourself -- for instance, the first episode of the series deals with a therapy group for fear of flying.  To venture into dealing with deeper issues and disorders would lead to a world outside of the technicolour cheer of The Bob Newhart Show.  This is not, after all, In Treatment.

We also get a glimpse of Emily here in professional mode, in a rather awkward school meeting scene.  Freed from her wifely role, she actually has a chance to engage in school decisions -- in this case about teaching sex ed to younger children.  It's a rather abrupt political topic to bring up for a show that usually tries to be apolitical, and the circular, almost joke-free dialogue shows the writers' discomfort.  But it's an interesting scene because it gives us an idea of who Emily might be when she's not in her usual role of understanding wife -- her identity removed from her relationship with others.  For her, solitude is not what she needed, but independence is.

All of which leads to a rather uncomfortable question: if this short separation is so good for Bob and Emily, might it not be a permanent good idea?  It's a rare sitcom acknowledgement that there are downsides to marraige, which go beyond the usual "please, take my wife" jokes.  Marraige is, after all, a state of never being alone and never being fully independent -- and that can be damaging.  In its own subdued, moderate way, "I Want To Be Alone" calls into question the ideology of compulsive sociality Turkle finds so disturbing, in part intentionally and in part just as an artifact of a different time.

Next Week: Plot twists abound on Homeland.

[1]Of course, this is in large part due to how central dialogue is to the entire sitcom enterprise -- you can't exactly have dialogue with just one person.  But I wonder if this simple formal fact has contributed a lot to the devaluing of solitude and introversion.

[2]If I sound like a bitter loner during this entry it's because, well, I am one.

[3]Okay, Carol the receptionist doesn't quite fit into this argument, but at the very least it's a white-collar job.

[4]I understand that later episodes delve a lot more into Bob's practice, but I haven't reached that point in my viewing yet.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Shield 6-10: Spanish Practices

As it's gone on, The Shield has found its heart, which is the relationship between Vic and Shane.  Shane is the failed mimic of Vic, attempting to walk the police/criminal line and play the dangerous schemes like he does, but always ending up a little worse, a little more onto the side of definite darkness.  Through the foil of Shane Vic becomes more defined: we can see that it is only precisely a man like him who can (and would) do the things he does, and the people who follow his footsteps inevitably end up in over their heads.  This is reflected in the complex bond between the two partners, one that is equal parts love and envy.  Of course, this could be an easy out for the show: it's okay for Vic to do this because he's really good at it, but other characters are evil for doing the same thing.  But it also shows just how tenuous these moral compromises are, and how vile they can seem from just a slightly different perspective.  Moreover, opposing Vic and Shane makes Vic into a character I can grudgingly accept as the protagonist in a way that none of the first season's dog-petting did.

This is in large part due to Walton Goggins's performance.  He inhabits Shane with puerile aggression and instability, making him eminently human but also someone who could realistically snap at any moment.  In this episode, when Shane is running around switching sides in an Armenian mob dispute that he's managed to jump right in the middle of, he seems like less of a manipulator and more of a flailer.  And again, a large part of this is due to performance -- if it was Vic, with Michael Chiklis's cool demeanor and detatched humour, we would probably come away from the scheming with quite a different impression.

"Spanish Practices" is the sixth season finale, which means it should theoretically bring the season's plotlines to a close, but it's also the season finale going into the last season, which means it needs to set up the storylines that are going to bring the show to a close.  Truth be told, the heavy serialization of The Shield has moved beyond even the season model at this point.  Whereas normally in even serialized shows the end of the season brings things to an at least temporary conclusion, the seasons of The Shield (with the exception of the fourth, probably the most conventional (and my least favourite) of the series) don't feel the need to wrap things up that neatly.  For instance, the Kavanaugh storyline that dominated the fifth season was allowed to continue to the second or third episode of the sixth.  This is the series-as-novel method David Simon always shouts about taken to its extremes.

There are a couple of stories taken care of, although they're generally minor ones.  Kevin Hyatt, the frat boy-esque cop brought in to replace Vic as leader of the strike team, ends up being shown the door.  Hyatt, like Shane, is defined as a character as not Vic, and this episode shows that as much as Vic's warped brand of intelligence is necessary for his underworld scheming, it's also needed for his effective police work as well.  In this episode Hyatt enforces a kind of broken windows strategy by going after a gang initiation, which spirals out into disastrous consequences [1].  His error shows how vital a more nuanced and perhaps shady approach is than simply enforcing the law as written.  It's perhaps unfair that he gets demoted over this when Vic managed to keep his leadership over five seasons of shady deeds, but Kevin's decision to simply leave afterwards doesn't help his case.

What Hyatt shows in this episode is a distinct lack of appreciation for fallout, the future consequences of his actions.  This is one of the predominant themes of The Shield, and a key to its structure -- in many ways its characters are still dealing with the aftereffects of things that happened in the first season, not the first episode.  Whereas Kevin views actions as quickly over and done with (his break-up of the gang initiation or his one night stand with Tina, both of which have longer-ranging consequences he doesn't want to deal with), Vic acknowledges that nothing really ends, and that every action has a seemingly endless string of reactions.

I don't want to go into too much detail on the Tina subplot, but it shows that the show has gotten better at its comic relief as well.  Instead of Danni and Julian's wacky case-of-the-week, we have the awkward courtship between Dutch and Tina, and Billings's police hackwork and petty jealousy.  (I have to give a lot of credit to David Marciano here, who turns what could have been a one-note character into something hilarious.)  Watching this episode and the last, with the constant gossip mill about who Tina is sleeping with, one can't help but be reminded of high school.  From Dutch's awkward seriousness to the frattish atmosphere of the strike team (maybe extending even as far as Vic's bad one-liners), none of the characters (except maybe Claudette) seem to have matured out of that selfish and emotional stage.  The Shield isn't as explicitly critical of police as an institution as, say, The Wire (which it was tremendously unfortunate to be a contemporary of), generally presenting them as a necessary force to contain the evil in this world, and with any abuse being motivated only by good intentions.  But on the other hand it doesn't really seem like a good idea to place the kind of power Vic Mackey wields into the hands of a bunch of oversized teenagers.

We can see that immaturity in the way they relate to their families.  Vic (and Shane imitating him) is constantly talking about protecting his family and doing all of the terrible things for him, but at the same time his actions and personality increasingly estrange him from that same family.  This is another idea that Breaking Bad would take from The Shield -- the man who claims to do everything for his family, until it becomes a false mantra that only he believes in.  When Shane tries to protect Vic's family from the fallout of his failed scheming, he ends up kidnapping them and locking them in a shipyard container -- for their own protection, of course.  It becomes distinctly hard to tell who is the protector and who is the threat.

(This scene, while great, was remarkably difficult to take a screencap of.  The trademark directorial style of The Shield is alive and well here, with everything in constant motion, and in this scene it becomes even more swimmy than usual, conveying the panic motivating everyone in the scene.)

Vic, meanwhile, has gotten himself involved with a bad guy distinctly higher up the food chain, namely the corrupt developer Pezuela.  Pezuela is being set up here as the ultimate Shield villain, embodying both the vicious gangs and the beauraucratic officials that have been attacking Vic from both sides.  He's also a quintessential Shield villain in that he's essentially a fantasy, the racialized super-predator white suburban folks stay up at night worrying about.  In truth there's no one that's as easy a villain as Pezuela, a convenient fiction to patch together disparate villainized groups that seeks to break down a complicated situation into a dualistic struggle.  Of course, things are still pretty complicated in The Shield, with both sides of the struggle fractious and self-defeating.  But it still reminds me of Machete, where the plot contrives to put American racists and Mexican cartel killers on the same side.  The difference is that Machete was self-conciously a dumb action movie whereas The Shield presents itself as a realistic cop show.

Still, there are some nice notes in this plotline.  It brings the series full circle by forcing Vic and Acaveda into a reluctant partnership once again.  The trunk full of evidence implicating all of the important local politicos in sordid affairs is a nice example of the series's well-humoured cynicism.  But what's most interesting is how Pezuela only comes to the attention of Vic and Acaveda because he wants to ally himself with both, believing they will be useful to his cause.  There's more than a hint that the kind of man both are, the guy willing to break the rules for what he thinks is right[2], can ultimately be a very useful pawn.  The Shield is at its best when it's emphasizing the thin line between Vic and the criminals he despises, and that line is appearing thinner by the episode.

And that's ultimately why Vic has been able to survive so long, both in his department and out on the streets: he's a useful evil.  Claudette wants him gone, but still relies on him to solve the San Marcos murders and save her own job.  Acaveda wants to wash his hands of Vic, but somehow keeps having to rely on him.  The same goes for his wife Corrine.  If one of the main ideas in The Shield is that sins keep reoccuring and dragging the sinner back into the dark, then Vic is the living embodiment of those sins.

But ultimately Vic can't be summed up that easy.  He does have a moral code, albeit a strange and hole-ridden one, and this is exactly what makes him dangerous and not just another thug.  In this episode, despite pulling all kinds of shady and illegal business in an attempt to keep his job (including attempting to blackmail Acaveda over being raped and a city official over his dead daughter's drug use), he refuses to use his autistic children to garner sympathy in front of a review board, a tactic that is at worst a bit exploitative.  The man who claims to be doing everything for his family walks out on the hearing, preferring to do more off-the-grid justice than lose his dignity in an attempt to save their livelihood.  Vic would probably present this as caring for his family, but Corrine's expression certainly doesn't show appreciation.

And this brings us back to Vic and Shane and the family locked in the back of a truck for their own protection.  I've argued above that Shane is a dark mirror of Vic, all of his brutality without the smoothness and the vener of benevolence, and this scene -- abusing Vic's family to protect them -- certainly plays into it.  But a dark mirror still shows a reflection, and it's clear that the choices Vic makes are trapping those he cares about as much as they are protecting him.  It's not a dirty truck, but it's about as dark.

Next week: The technicolour dream of The Bob Newhart Show.

[1]Rewatching the episode I found it remarkable that this whole plotline didn't even start until about 40 minutes into the special 60-minute (of running time sans commercials) episode.  Another example of how The Shield is willing to play with TV narrative convention without entirely abandoning it.

[2]Stating it this way is probably being too flattering to both.  As the series goes on Vic claims more and more to be doing everything for his family, but is willing to hurt many others to do so -- isn't this really just a kind of displaced selfishness?  Although we haven't seen enough of Acaveda in recent seasons to have a clear motivation other than a thirst for power, this would seem to apply to him as well.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Un-Go 2: Pitiless Song

Like many anime, Un-Go positions itself at a cross-section of genres.  Most obviously it is a mystery series, in which our mysterious protagonist (a protagonist who always takes the back seat to the rest of the plot) solves a murder case by discovering a perpetrator that no one else would have suspected.  But it also has a distinctly science fictional setting, taking place after a war of counter-terrorism and filled with day-after-tomorrow technology.  And on top of that we add in a blatantly supernatural and fantastical element in Inga, the main detective's sidekick, who has the power to turn in a hot babe and extract the truth from people.  First and foremost this demonstrates that genre is not as concrete a category as we often like to think: fantasy and science fiction and horror and mystery and all of our other favourite literary junk food emerged from a bubbling morass called "the weird" in the 19th century, only later became distinct traditions of their own, and are now frequently merging back into that morass again.  But I want to look at how each genre plays its part in this episode, and that's going to involve some artificial separation again, but so be it.

Mystery: The whodunnit plot is one of the most recognizable ones in the game, simple to understand but difficult to pull off.  There are two essential strands to the classical mystery: first, the audience has to be able to "play along" with the detective, meaning that they have to be able to piece together who the killer is before it's announced in the story.  This is a kind of ludic thrill that adds an appeal more commonly seen in games to the particular pleasures of narrative.  Un-Go sort of breaks the rules in this respect.  Inga's supernatural truth-finding ability goes beyond the kind of deduction that a mundane viewer can do, and could be considered a cheat in classical genre terms.  Still, thus far it's been confined to motive, whereas the actual events of the crime are presented cleanly to the viewer -- the kind of necessary compromise that arises in cross-genre projects.

The second rule, one that usually isn't stated as explicitly, is that it can never be the first or most obvious suspect.  There may be crime stories or detective stories which feature the detective just trying to find enough evidence against the obvious bad guys, but these can't be properly described as mysteries.  Un-Go adds another layer to this by presenting two different layers of red herring.  Beyond the immediately suspicious culprit (in this episode the murdered idol singer's bandmates), there's the culprit apprehended by the foil of Detective Kaisho, the less obvious suspect with some evidence behind them, the character who would be the real murderer in many stories [1].  In this episode it's the ex-idol's cross-dressing boyfriend, which raises issues about the villification of the   Other, although these are never directly addressed.  Finally, we have the real, third culprit, revealed by Shinjuro and Inga.  The final culprit has to be someone whose presence in the story has seemed natural, and who makes sense, but should still come as something of a surprise -- this is a difficult line to walk, and this episode doesn't quite handle it, but it does a better job than a lot of other mystery series.

However, there's an additional element in the soup, which is the persistent taint of corruption.  Shinjuro is nicknamed the "Defeated Detective" because, even if he indusputably solves the case, his truth is ignored for the official truth announced by Detective Kaisho.  The real truth is buried beneath a convenient fiction.  In one respect this is a hand-me-down from the cynical world of noir, as argued by E Minor.  But it also calls into question the very idea behind mystery stories: that the truth matters, and revealing the truth is a heroic act.  Is Shinjuro simply fighting a futile battle, realizing who's commited the crimes to a society that doesn't care?  This calls to mind one of my favourite series EVAR, Veronica Mars, and how it continually played with the question of whether or not the truth ever solved anything (although it did it much better than this series has so far.)

Science Fiction: The stories Un-Go was adapted from were set in an entirely different genre, being historical mysteries, but this adaptation instead sets it in the future.  In some ways this adds an additional mystery into the mix, as we are never exactly presented with the events that took us from the present to this point in time: we know there was a war involving some kind of terrorist group, and that society has been radically restructured, but we don't really know any of the details.  What we do know is that we are in a new kind of gilded age, with an elite ruling class that visually presents themselves as the aristocrats of old -- see the costume ball last episode or Rie on the horse in the episode following this.  Hell, it even shows up in the opening credits.

The futuristic technology takes a backseat in "Pitiless Song", but in many ways it's a science-fictional story.  In essence the story is about the potential for technology to divorce humanity from itself -- in this specific case the divorce between the singing of Osada An and the rest of her person, with an entire new human being created through media spectacle.  Based on this and the next two-parter, Un-Go is as suspicious of technology as most classical sci-fi: instead of leading mankind into a better age, technology ends up making us less than human, and in the end we're just left with a shallow version of what we had before.  The transplanting between past and future makes sense in this context: the show is arguing that the future will just be old wine in a new jug.

Un-Go in particular belongs to the "day after tomorrow" subgenre of sci-fi, in which current trends are satirized by taking them to hyperbolic extremes.  The mysterious but seemingly all-powerful censorship law plays that role in the background, while in the foreground this episode the fever of war patriotism, something that can be seen in the unceasing fellating of soldiers and the military in American culture, is attacked as being a source of shallow calculation.  By making themselves martyrs, the members of Yonagahime capitalize on the existing trends in the media looking for icons of wartime resistance.  Both "Pitiless Song" and the episode before it feature victims who took advantage of the country in wartime to gain fame and fortune.  This is almost a quaint message -- the condemnatory phrase "war profiteer" is so pre-Blackwater, after all.  But it's a worthwhile one to have around.

Fantasy/Supernatural: Inga is the great unexplained element of the story.  All of the other genre elements are twenty minutes into the future, but we have no predecessors for creepy little boys that turn into scary ladies that can magically extract truth from you (although that would be pretty cool).  In some ways Inga is the common sidekick character, a character who can be emotionally expressive while the main detective has to remain stoic and serious.  Often, as in Batman or Sherlock Holmes, the sidekick is the audience's surrogate, although Inga is far too strange to play that role.  He/she does act as a kind of pure id figure, much like the penguins in Mawaru Penguindrum, in that as a child he is always motivated by simple desires and ignores social convention or propriety.  The adult Inga's porno-fantasy body may connect her to the id as well.

(Incidentally, I have to give a lot of credit to Aki Toyosaki for her voicing here, which manages to make Inga sound both playful and absolutely unhinged.)

In terms of the plot, Inga is a deus ex machina in the classical sense: she appears despite logic to restore order to a chaotic world.  Shinjuro inevitably solves the mystery of who was the "real culprit", but the real point of the narrative, as suggested by that guy from 2-D Teleidoscope, is the restoration of social order -- and this is what Inga provides.  In child form, he spreads chaos by his carefree actions, but in adult form she uses her powers to eliminate the secrecy that has splintered a community.  Both of the murders we've seen so far were based around long-simmering secrets.  If Un-Go is playing with the importance of the truth, it seems to at least suggest that secrecy is a malevolent act that grows like a cancer, undermining the community it's set in.  Inga is then a healer of long-hidden illnesses.

Of course, there may also be a genre metaplot mystery associated with Inga, where the viewers gather clues as to what he/she really is.  On the other hand, the truth may never be revealed -- and in some respects that would seem fitting.

Anime: Okay, listen.  I'm the first one on the "anime is a medium not a genre" bandwagon [2].  But here anime was minding its own business and then otaku culture just sprand up around it like a bizarre weed infestation, and at some point these shows have to either acknowledge it or pointedly ignore it.  Un-Go does this by centring "Pitiless Song" around the idol business, exposing its seamy underside.  To track down information on Yonagahime Shinjuroh has to immerse itself in his subculture.  These are not the power otaku of Genshiken or the geurilla nerds that Anonymous likes to present themselves are: these are people with technological power that acquiesce mildly to the regime of censorship, content with chasing after the latest electronic gadget or idealized virtual girlfriend.  We begin the episode in a massive line-up of shifty looking men waiting for the latest update to their holographic idols, the colours dull and grey, and it's hard to identify with any part of this.

(That is one very understanding girlfriend on the left.)

Of course, only in this situation could a negative portrayal of nerds be viewed as challenging the audience or taking a risk, and "evil occurences behind innocent pop music" is hardly a new trope.  But what this episode calls attention to well is how important paratext is to our understanding of texts.  With all of the idol groups producing identical bland pop music, all that becomes important is their personality, their story, and what it means to be a fan of them.  Without the patriotic/tragic element to them, Yonagahime would never have been successful.  It's unlikely that the wider ramifications will register for the audience, but it still forms a good example of how dangerous paratextual fandom is.

While I've been detailing in this post how Un-Go plays with genre in lots of interesting ways, this shouldn't be taken as general praise.  The formal restriction of anime to the half-hour format seems to really hurt here, as everything seems to be rushed with no time for the viewer to find their footing in the plot, nor for most of the interesting thematic territory to be mapped out.  Shinjuro is also disappointing as a detective, lacking the quirks and character that make procedural shows watchable, although Inga might make up for him.  Sure, this is the most interesting new anime of the season, but that's not saying much.  Still, the sheer amount of stuff being fused into one product, no matter how jumbled, is enticing, and if this show ever fully follows through on its ambition -- well, I'll want to be watching.

Next Week: Shit gets and/or remains real on the penultimate season finale of The Shield.

[1] This is not by any means an innovation on the part of Un-Go: the middling detetive who finds another red herring goes back to the bumbling police lieutenants in Sherlock Holmes stories.

[2]Well, to be more precise, animation is the medium.  Anime is more of a tradition, something that encompasses multiple genres but still has a distinctive style -- like Hollywood movies.  But this isn't nearly pithy enough to fit on a bandwagon.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Community 3-05: Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps

I'm not sure if there's ever been a show as aware of its own textuality as Community.  (Okay, maybe some reality shows, but certainly nothing fictional.)  Beyond all the pop-culture references and fourth-wall-breaking humour (usually courtesy of Abed), there's a willingness to fold, distort and mangle the traditional narrative methods of television.  It also relies on the audience's knowledge of TV conventions for humour.  Last season's clip show episode, for example, would just seem like a really weird narrative if you had never seen clip shows and didn't know that there wasn't supposed to be new content in them.  Like I mentioned in my 2 Broke Girls review, this is a kind of audience-hailing -- "you watch way too much TV, but that's cool, because you can get the jokes here!  We're your friends!"

"Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps" is far from the furthest down the rabbit hole Community has gone -- in some respects it's a fairly conventional sitcom episodes, riffing off the "Everyone Tells A Story" format that's been used many times on The Simpsons and a modified version of The Rashomon.  The basic joke is that each character tells a horror story that reflects his or her skewed worldview -- in Pierce's story he's a debonair playboy, Abed's is autistically dry, Shirley's is an excuse for moral condemnation, and so on and so forth.  The similarly-structured previous episode is a much more adventurous one.

And yet, even here, Community takes up the task with an execution that still manages to go beyond the norm.  The jokes here reference back to storytelling, mainly referring to the incongruity between the form of verbal storytelling and that of its televisual representation.  This is similar to "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" in that we can see only the fantasy and are left to infer the verbal telling of the story, although there are a few cutbacks to the telling at some points.  This is first established in Britta's formulaic slasher story, where her lack of effort or storytelling skill is reflected in the dialogue: "An escaped convict from the asylum has escaped and he's mental and on the loose and stuff.  He was last seen in the woods and has a thingy for a hand -- a hook thing where a hand should be, you know what I mean."

The episode is then about the transition from a raw story to the processed medium of television, and how something that seems normal if not ideal in the former becomes absurd in the latter.  This is somethign that has no doubt frustrated many aspiring screenwriters.  For example, Abed telling a story in his natural affect is normal, but Britta speaking in an unnatural monotone along with him?  Is funny.  And that's partly just because we get to see all of the established characters act so completely out of character.

And I think that leads into what makes this episode really tick: Community is writing fanfiction of itself.

I dabbled in the fanfic world as a teenager (it was a dark time in my life), and while there are many, many issues with the medium there's also a kind of anarchic energy, the pure joy of wish fulfillment and absurdity in equal measures.  In its more out-there episodes, Community has interpreted itself through a number of distinctly fannish lenses -- The gang is turning into zombies!  There's a dark alternate timeline!  Jeff and Britta are hot for each other... no, it's Jeff and Annie... no, Jeff and Britta is the OTP!  What prompted this particular revelation of mine was that the episode used the fantasy sequences as an excuse to feature simultaneously pairings of Jeff/Britta, Jeff/Annie, and the off-the-wall pair of Abed/Britta.  (There were a lot stranger, and mostly gayer, couples in the fanfic world.)

I talked about the perils of writing fannishly in an earlier review I did of Steins;Gate, but here I think this type of writing works.  In part this is just the change in genre.  A comedy offers a lot more room for play and free articulation of ideas without dramatic consequences -- which is a pretty important element of fandom.  The sitcom in particular wants to develop a fannish rapport with its audiences -- after all, there's a hair's breadth between water-cooler chatter about your favourite will-they-or-won't they couple[1] and obsessive shipping wars on the Internet.  But most of all what makes it work in Community is both the excellent execution and the show's well-established own voice of fellow hipness (or geekery, depending on how you look at it.)

"Horror Fiction" was written by series creator Dan Harmon, who is best described as an insane genius -- appropriate enough for an episode that ends up celebrating insanity.  Interestingly enough, Harmon has actually written fairly few scripts for Community -- a quick glance at Wikipedia reveals that he's only written the first two and last year's claymation Christmas special [2], only the latter of which can really be counted amongst the series best.  Harmon tends to indulge in play even more than the other writers of Community, and that kind of low-stakes fun definitely best appears in holiday episodes, which are almost invaribly fluff anyway.

Tristam Shapeero directs this episode.  He seems to have become the go-to guy for film parodies, which Community indulges in a lot.  What Shapeero understands about parody, and so many fail to grasp, is that it works better in general than the specific -- making fun of scary movies is great, making fun of Saw is done to death.  Genres have a cultural lifeblood that make them a much richer vein (blood and vein?  See what I did there?) for comedy than individual works do.  So Shapeero's episodes -- "Contemporary American Poultry", "Messianic Myths and Ancient People", and "Paradigms of Human Memory", two of the show's best episodes and one solid one, don't focus on one particular gangster movie or postmodern headtrip or clip show, but in the totality of the genre.  And when they work at their best, parodies always end up as being great examples of the genre -- for example, you can probably learn more about Gothic fiction from Northanger Abbey than from any particular Gothic project.  Parody also takes a great amount of school, requiring mastery and not just mockery of the genre on display -- just look at the note-perfect costumes in Annie's fantasy-horror.

This episode, while funny, doesn't really join the ranks of great parodies.  In part, its stabs at the horror genre only graze -- the main focus is the characters telling the story, and drifts away from it starting some point during Annie's story.  (No, I don't count the "sexy vampire" genre as horror.)  Of course, this is the point, in a move that hearkens towards the basis of criticisms: stories exist not by themselves but as a tool utilized by the storyteller, whether to act out fantasies (Annie, Troy & Pierce), provoke a reaction (Britta), offer moral condemnation (Shirley) or counter another storyteller (Abed).  The obvious next step is to point towards how the episode itself, as a story, is no less complicit in this.  But there's never any gesture towards the episode as text, and I'm not sure what to make of that.  Whereas "Remedial Chaos Theory" pointed directly towards its own constructedness, "Horror Fiction" never makes the self-reflexive move.  Don't get me wrong, there are some great lines in here -- "We now interrupt your death metal for heavy news", "I hope you're as fertile as I am tonight" -- and on the whole it's a really enjoyable episode, but it doesn't go to the level that truly great Community episodes do.

Before I finish I realize I should probably mention the actual framing device for all these stories -- Britta receives a psych evaluation that reveals that one of the group members is dangerously psychotic, and wants to evaluate their sanity by making them tell scary stories.  Of course, in the end it turns out she input the papers backwards, so in reality only one of them is sane -- which is, in a slightly intrusive final shot, revealed to be Abed.  This is a kind of obvious joke on one level, the "aren't we crazy hahaha" lampshading tha Community is occasionally guilty of.  But it also speaks to the show's embracing of its own outsider status -- it realizes that it's abnormal and so are we, and thinks that rather than pathologize that it should be celebrated.  After all, to be normal would to be like Abed -- obsessed with surface and data, a virtual robot.  (This raises the possibility that this is a skewed perspective that only makes the rest of the group's histrionics look normal, with Abed actually being objectively sane and only seeming dry in comparison.)

This celebration of difference or insanity obviously works best in a show with a small but dedicated fanbase, like this one -- being a fan of the show is an emotional experience beyond the mere experience of a text.  But ultimately this feeling of insider-ness doesn't stem solely or even primarily from circumstance.  In the end, Community could go from a show on the verge of cancellation to a universally beloved hit, and it would still give the impression that you and it are part of a secret, dorky but ultimately awesome club.  And that's probably why I love it.

Next week: I alienate my audience even more with semi-obscure anime.

[1]Community plays with this trope mercilessly.  This can be seen most prominently in the clip show episode where it's revealed that Jeff and Britta have been casually hooking up for the past season, with the implication that these characters' romantic entanglements don't really matter anyway.  It's also evident in the show's willingness to spend an episode teasing a certain pairing and then ignore it afterwards.  To be honest, I'm perfectly fine with fucking with these types of people.

[2]Of course, American sitcoms are more collectively written than anything else, so this attribution probably doesn't mean too much.