Sunday, August 21, 2011

Samurai Girls 9: The General's Return

Warning: ANN describes this series as "Objectionable Content: Significant" and, well, that pretty much sums it all up. I've stayed away from blatantly NWS images, but there are still some chicks without pants. Get back to work, drone!

Bad shows exist. Bad shows exist in great quantity, much greater than good shows. This is true in the low-stakes world of simulcast streaming anime. While streaming has got shows like Wandering Son or The Tatami Galaxy to an American audience legally and conveniently, every season seems to bring a new heap of cookie-cutter fanservice shows onto the hallowed halls of Crunchyroll and Youtube. It's easy, as critics and fans, to demand that all these bad shows vanish, even if we know it will never be done. But I don't think the dialectic is as simple as that. Simple "guilty pleasure" shows with a broad appeal often underwrite the more ambitious critically praised projects, which are often loss leaders. Networks have born their critically acclaimed shows on the back of cheap-but-popular reality shows. Major publishing houses can only afford to publish "literary" authors because of all the money they're swimming in from the Dan Browns of the world. Hell, you could even make a case that The Wire wouldn't exist without Sex and the City, as heretical as it seems to say that.

Hakku Ryouran Samurai Girls (or Samurai Girls, as I'll call it here for sake of my sanity) is one of that horde of fanservice shows that comes with every new anime season. In particular it's in the semi-historical fanservice genre, a genre started by the sadly influential Ikki Tousen, in which half-naked girls re-enact historical battles, usually from the age of the samurai. The result is a heady mixture of sex, violence and nationalism not usually seen outside of sporting events. (Sengoku Basara could be said to be the fujoshi equivalent of this type of show.)

flomu over at Yukko Thursday suggests that watching a random episode of a show divorced from context can in fact be a good way to evaluate said show. I can see the logic in this. Instead of being concerned with the plot events of a particular episode, what changes from the norm, the outside viewer can view the norm and the specific -- the series-wide generalities and the episode-only specifics -- at once. Certainly not every review should be like this, but it wouldn't help for some to be, and this one certainly is. My wildcard randomizer happened to land on The Anime Network's streaming website, and in particular this episode. I haven't seen any of the previous episodes, and probably won't ever.

I don't entirely grasp the plot, but the plot's not really important for this kind of show. Here's what I managed to pull together: it's the modern day, but samurai are still a thing, except they're all hot chicks. The hot chick samurai gain their power by having sex with their lord. A bunch of samurai chicks are competing to bone this one lord, but he wants to really understand their true feelings. An evil samurai chick with an eyepatch shows up, strips for the lord guy and tries to seduce him, but he's too much of a Nice Guy so she just hypnotizes him to... do something. Then the evil eyepatch chick fights a bunch of other samurai chicks. Some of these chicks are "master samurai", except apparently later we find out there are no master samurai, and they have to clone some from the DNA of the general and the annoying redhead girl who is I guess the main character. idk.

Oh, and the pig-tailed chick whose role in the plot I still can't figure out keeps getting knocked out, which is admittedly kind of funny.

All of this is tosh. The real story of Samurai Girls is of a poor creative art director stuck on this thankless borderline-pornography project. Instead of just taking the cheapo anime style and cranking up its trademarks (big eyes, small mouth), as is usual for the genre, Samurai Girls actually has an interesting and aesthetically appealing visual style. There are some sequences here that wouldn't look out of place in your usual noitaminA-esque prestige show, such as the black-and-white pan up to the airplane at the start of this episode. Ironically, the further the show gets from sexploitation and the Barbified bodies of its girls, the easier on the eyes it is.

The main visual effect used here is the heavy inking of the characters' outlines, making them look extremely cut off from the world around them, almost two-dimensional. Transitions from scene to scene are made by having the screen splattered with ink and then fade away, directly linking creation and the tool responsible for that creation. In a way the art of Samurai Girls seems to be a bitter commentary on its storyline, portraying the characters as exactly as two-dimensional and artificial as they are. The whole thing is made to look like a perverted old man playing with paper dolls. (A more positive spin on this style would be that it lets the audience know that the show isn't taking itself too seriously, and that they should feel free to sit back and enjoy the boobies, although that's kind of problematic as well.)

(The pixelated-ness of that screenshot is my fault, but feel free to take it as another directorial technique.)

The series director is listed under the pseudonym of KOBUN, which furthers my "genuine artist who needs to put food on the table" suspicion. He makes a pretty solid go of it, managing to work in the visual imagery discussed above while fulfilling his genre obligations -- the camera, taking the idea of male gaze to extreme ends, never misses an upskirt shot or flash of breast, managing to competently capture the action on screen while taking the most sexualized view of it possible. This is a skill, albeit a disgusting one.

The writing, on the other hand, is done by a definite soft-porn hack. Ryunosuke Kingetsu, who writes this episode and nine others in the series as well as being the general series composer, has had his name attached to a star-studded roster of battling-boobs projects like Ikki Tousen and Queen's Blade (both produced by ARMS, the studio for this show), as well as some bottom-of-the-barrel video game adaptations. As I mentioned above, this is a genre that's been popular for at least a decade, and the best that can really be said about it is that at least it mostly sexualizes adult women.

The writing here is mostly a welding-together of whatever genres Kingetsu can get his hands on, with shounen action being the most prominent, although you can also see the form of the harem romance, slapstick comedy, sickly-sweet shoujo, and even a stab at high-concept science fiction all worked into this episode. In a way this genre hodgepodge is admirable, although Samurai Girls does none of these genres very well. Kingetsu is only well-versed in their lexicon of tropes: the evil seductress, the silly miniboss trio, the moment in a shounen fight scene where there's a huge explosion and, after the smoke clears, the adversary is completely unharmed. The fight scene that makes up a big part of this episode even mimics a shounen battle, with secondary characters standing around to explain what's going on to the audience. Later in the episode things start to resemble a mediocre sci-fi product like Jyu Oh Sei, as clones of the main characters show up in vats [1].

What's probably most noteworthy here is that even though this is an adults-only show, the genres it draws on are all juvenile, with storytelling techniques aimed at people who would not legally be allowed to watch this show. Of course, shounen and shoujo have a large fanbase outside of their target audience, for reasons both justified and not. Samurai Girls is, it would seem, pornography for people who don't want to grow up, who just want to hear their own childhood stories retold but now with full frontal nudity. This is probably most intense in the manchildish culture of otaku, but the West can't really cop a sense of superiority here, with all the infantilization that goes on in American porn.

But beneath all these hacked-together genre bits there are some more troubling things at play. (It may seem silly to rally at a soft-porn show for not being ideologically correct, but bear with me.) This is the way ideology functions -- through bad and good media, with or without conscious thought, so ubiquitous it seems like the unavoidable truth of the universe. The series has borrowed the ideals of the bond between a samurai and his general, which is in itself an ideological justification for a rigid class system, portraying domination as personal loyalty and sacrifice. In Samurai Girls the bond is sexual -- a male general and his female samurai make their "contract" by, well, you can guess the rest. On the one hand this is just a justification for all the cheesecake, but it also reflects something I'm awkwardly dubbing "sexualism" -- the cultural assumption that romantic and sexual relationships are the most and maybe the only significant ones [2]. Sure, all those old samurai movies may have talked about how great the bond of servitude was -- but wouldn't that bond have been better if they were doing it on the side? This is a natural technique of pornography, so I guess I could excuse its presence here, but it pops up all the time in other places -- such as the assumption that every close bond between characters (or sometimes people) is sign of a sexual attraction. The bromance genre (noxious in its own way) aside, the works of art about friendship or family or whatever are ridiculously outnumbered by those about capital-R Romance. The explosive growth of pornography, both soft and hard, can only add to this.

But in "The General's Return" it becomes apparent that not all sexual relationships are created equal. Gisen, the evil eyepatch lady mentioned above, is the archetypical whore/slut/other bad word, throwing herself at Muneakira, the male lead, and using her sexuality as a weapon. She literally hypnotizes him with her naked body. I am not making this up. Her actions are contrasted with those of the female lead Jyubei, who I believe is her sister or something, and believes in her catchphrase of "trust and bonding".

Now, I've got nothing against trust and bonding, and something like that is probably at the base of most healthy relationships. Hell, this is in a way the language of sex-positivism: the problem isn't sex, it's mechanical objectified sex, and people should do it in a trusting, loving relationship. But these values are being used here in an age-old patriarchal dialectic: the lady versus the whore, the Sweet Girlfriend versus the Evil Sex Lady. This is made literal in Samurai Girls, as Gisen's seduction and Jyubei's "trust and bonding" become magical forces battling for Muneakira's soul, represented through flying colourful energy and everything. And at the same time we're being asked to objectify both, to ogle Gisen's exposed tits and blunt attempts at seduction even as we hate her for it. This is the refitting of "enlightened" attitudes about sex back into the familiar misogynist schema, and it's happened in far more important cultural arenas than late-night sexploitation anime.

There's also the spectre of nationalism lurking. We find out towards the end of "The General's Return" that there are no more master samurai being born in Japan, that the nation's much-vaunted protectors are dying out. Samurai Girls is a nationalistic fantasy as much as it is a pornographic one. In it the era of shogun and samurai has never ended, and Japan is powerful not in spite of its traditional culture but because of it. In the closing minutes of this episode the series sets up a new conflict: the quest to preserve Japanese culture against modern society, through the traditional morality ("trust and bonding") of Jyubei and Muneakira. Come for the tits, stay for the crypto-conservatism.

On one level, Samurai Girls is a qualified success: it isn't high art, but it's a competently executed genre production, even if that genre is as sleazy as it gets. Pornography is always going to exist in some form or another, so it may as well have the attempt at artistry that we have here. But on another level Samurai Girls is a profound defeat: a defeat of feminism and of anti-nationalism, a co-optation that can be felt down in the lowest fringes of the culture. Bad shows are important, if for no other reason, because it is when we are aiming only for cheap pleasures that we most thoroughly reproduce our ideologies.

Next week: Wilfred tries to convince me to leave my house.

[1] Whenever a show resorts to having rows of vats containing clones of one of the characters, it's probably time to abandon ship.

[2]For more on this see the bitter old spinsters over at Onely.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mawaru Penguindrum 5: "This is What Drives Me"

Ah, the flashback. It's a device used very commonly used and one frequently derided. At the root of the flashback is the humanist/liberal assumption that the roots of a person's character and/or present circumstances lie in the past, and therefore through viewing their backstory we can come to understand them. Lost went so far as to include a B- or C-plot in every episode constructed entirely of flashbacks, with the assumption that this would help us to know the characters involved.

There are, however, a lot of good reasons to doubt the way this device is deployed. In addition to the idea that revealing a character's past by just displaying it is easy and perhaps lazy, the concept that learning a character's past necessarily sheds more light on them is kind of an ideological construction as well – see IOZ and Mark Fenzel on this topic.

Flashbacks are also a big part of Mawaru Penguindrum and are even marked off by their own signature device, the blinking subway sign. They are even diegetically (at least in gg's translation) described as flashbacks.

But the flashbacks we see in “This is What Drives Me”, that even begin the episode, don't quite fit into the Lost archetype. These episodes simply illustrate what we already knew – Kanba is loyal to Himari and desperately wants to protect her, and that at one point the siblings had parents. This raises the question – why include this event at all? Is it just lazy writing, or is there something deeper going on here? [1]

The idea of fate or predestination has been presented as central to Mawaru Penguindrum, evident from the opening of episode 1. The repeated subway motif seems to depict an essentially linear and restricted plot structure. During the eyecatch the train moves from one stop to the next, as the plot moves from one episode to the next. There's no doubling back or going off in an unexpected direction – fate has one path for you, and it's not a path you can deviate from at all. By contrast, the central motif of Kunihiko Ikuhara's previous series Revolutionary Girl Utena is the spiralling staircase that Utena climbs to every battle. The show is structured like that staircase – it progresses, but in a way that brings it back around in circles a lot.

So under the Penguindrum subway model the flashback, in which Kanba and his father help a sick Himari through a typhoon, is just an early stop on the line. We may have “got on” after this stop, but that doesn't stop it from being the inevitable predecessor of where we are right now. There isn't the humanist point of “this is what made Kanba who he is”, which has the corollary of “if this hadn't happened then Kanba would be different”. Under this model there is no if, this could never not have happened and Kanba could never be different. This is the deterministic model of time, and it's a somewhat bleak one. The episode is entitled “This is What Drives Me” -- on the surface a normal bit of modern self-help-book-talk but structured as a disturbingly passive sentence. The characters are like the train – driven by an external force, not their own will. Even in the explicit plot Shouma and Kanba are simply forced into following the hat's orders instead of having their own free choice -- if this were a RPG campaign the proper term would be "railroading".

In this episode, however, the train model starts to break down. For the first part of the episode, the plot is a mechanistic extension of what we've seen before. After the flashback opening we begin in the hospital, where Himari is undergoing follow-up examinations after her miraculous recovery. This is a natural progression from what's previously happened, an almost beauraucratic next stop on the line. We also see Natsume discussing things mysteriously with Asami, who appears to be her minion. These two are in a different type of plot, the mysterious-people-talk-mysteriously puzzle plot (see my Kamisama Dolls review), but one that also adheres to a pretty linear structure of inductive reasoning. The promise (one that may or may not be fulfilled) is that as the series continues this plotline will slowly progress by having more and more information revealed until the big final reveal, presumably towards the end of the series.

So far, so straightforward. The first half of “This is What Drives Me” consists of exploring the past of these characters, through the arrival of the older generation that they have a tenuous relationship with. Ringo's lunch with her father and Kanba's meeting with his uncle are both examples of this, and are directly juxtaposed. In one way this is simply more of the backstory-revealing that the flashbacks started. We're learning where these people came from, the part of the linear journey that we didn't get to see. But there's also a friction between past and present. Ringo fears that she's being replaced in her father's life, and Kanba's uncle wants him to sell the family house and risk splitting up the three siblings. Suddenly the past is not just a set-in-stone part of the linear story: it's actively in danger, possible of being erased and twisted. Of course, what's at stake is not the actual past but the objects that represent it. Still, it's a bit of a challenge to the linear progression the narrative has followed up until now.

(I also love Ringo's distress over her father's phone charm. Mawaru Penguindrum has been using Ringo to satirize the cute craze that has swept anime in the past decade and all its materialistic trappings, from her homemade bento boxes last episode to the cell phone charm which is apparently as significant as a royal banner in proclaiming alleigance.

There's a lot to love about this shot – the framing device of the cell phone camera, the zoom-in function that looks at first to be extradiegetic, and the interesting idea that Ringo can only see the ugly truth when it's mediated by technology. Her reaction to discovering that her father is no longer using their signature cell phone strap is also telling: she immediately starts thinking about her imaginary storybook romance with Tabuki, retreating back into fantasy.)

The dinner scene is, however, where things really start going off the rails. (I know I'm dragging this train metaphor out, but bear with me.) Shouma tries to convince Ringo to let him see her notebook, and through his insistence they both end up revealing their secrets to each other. The covert stalking plotline has been ended in a surprisingly nonviolent way – both characters learn what's happened without any sudden discovery or climactic fight. All it takes is two people who can't keep their mouths shut, and we are far away from our presumed destination.

Then Himari enters her penguin-head mode, and things get really crazy. We have the same introductory sequence as the previous three times, but still something is different – namely the presence of Ringo instead of Kanba. Penguin-Himari tries to go about things as normal, lecutring her captured peons and eventually dumping one into a pit. But she isn't aware that the internal logic of these sequences has already been broken by the presence of Ringo. When Ringo pulls herself up out of the pit, we know that the order this show has spent the past four episodes developing has been completely disrupted.

Ringo is the X-factor -- she doesn't know the rules of this sequence, as can be seen by her shock at Himari's sudden foul-mouthed cruelty. This is contrasted with the resigned head-shaking of Shouma. At first we think that Shouma is the wise on in this situation, knowing what's going on, but it's precisely Ringo's ignorance that lets her do what Shouma has never even tried to do and break the exact script (definitely a kind of fate) of this sequence. She runs up the stairs, violating the linear and almost class-like structure of this strange space where Himari always descends but the brothers can never ascend, and then whips off the penguin hat and throws it away.

This is the first time we've seen the snap from this fantastical sequence back into the real world, which is sudden and abrupt, and marked by a shift from symbolic consequences (the violation of the normal sequence) to real ones (Himari's collapse in the absence of the hat.) We end up with a great sequence of Kanba chasing the hat through a stormy city that has a kind of Chuck Jones-esque humour while also creating serious suspense as to Himari's fate. Moreover, the chase directly paralells the earlier flashbacks, with Kanba braving a terrible storm for the sake of his sister's health. Ringo's intervention has disrupted the linear sequence of the story, causing it to loop back on itself, the past repeating.

Both events -- the flashback and the present-day chase -- are structured in a similar way. Kanba goes after Himari, while something stops Shouma from doing the same. He gets hit by something midway through, but is rescued by intervention of another (first his father and then his penguin). In both cases, we never see him actually achieving his goal, only the aftermath. This is one of the major ways Ikuhara uses repetition -- after seeing something repeated so many times, a difference (minor or significant) is always meaningful.

ANN doesn't list episodic writer credits for Mawaru Penguindrum, but just has Ikuhara and Takayo Ikami as writers for the whole series. If this is actually the case, then it makes sense -- with such a thematically intricate and firmly serialized story, having a strong singular creative presence creates the necessary cohesion. However, Ikuhara is listed as doing the storyboard here, which suggests an extra degree of attention paid to what I beleive is a pivotal episode. The episode is directed by Koichiro Sohtome, who seems to be a relative newcomer, and he mostly follows in the footsteps of previous episodes. He continues the stylistic devices of previous episodes, but doesn't really bring anything new, even when that might have been useful -- some more shot-by-shot paralells between the two storm sequences, for example.

There's an image in this episode that's been getting a lot of attention from bloggers lately. During the dinner conversation we see one Shouma's penguin spraying down some roaches, as we've seen the critters do in a previous episode. However, instead of getting rid of the roaches, this causes a whole bunch more of them to descend on him, and the penguin is quickly overwhelmed.

This has been interpreted as signifying Shouma's fecklessness in the conversation, as well as the rottenness hidden in the cute Takakura house. But I think it also reflects the breakdown in linear logic. Eliminating bugs is, at least our erstwhile penguin assumes, a linear task -- you eliminate one, there's one less, and if you do this enough they'll eventually be none. But here eliminating one creates a whole bunch more. Straightforward logic no longer applies.

It took most of the series to reach this point in Utena, where the logic we'd been learning for most of the series broke down and left our heroes stranded. In Mawaru Penguindrum it seems to be happening very early, which should make for some very interesting developments in the weeks ahead.

[1] There's an intruiging theory that all of the main characters in Mawaru Penguindrum are actually dead and in some kind of purgatory where they have to repeat their lives until they find peace. I don't really want to go into plot speculation in this blog, but it's put forward pretty clearly by a day without me. If this theory turns out to be correct than the flashbacks have an obvious purpose, subtly showing the point where Kanba (maybe) died, but I think there are more interesting explanations here.

Next Week: Another wildcard entry. We'll have fun fun fun until our daddy takes our T-Birds away.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Shield 4-01: "The Cure"

The third season of The Shield ended in a suitably apocalyptic fashion. The strike team dissolved in a fight over the now-mostly-destroyed money train cash, while Claudette's sense of justice destryed her chances to become the new captain. The end of the show's second season was similar in promising major changes (Dani's firing, Claudette replacing Acaveda) but pulled back on them in Season 3 and maintained a kind of status quo.

“The Cure” wants to reassure us that this won't happen again, that significant things have changed and will continue to change. So we are introduced right away to Monica Rawlings, Acaveda's replacement as captain of the Farmington division. The disruption starts even in the credits, as we see Glenn Close suddenly appear second on a title sequence that hasn't had anyone added to it since the first season, with even major characters like Corrine and Ronnie stuck at guest star status. She directly appears in the first scene, joking around with a rookie cop and letting him off the hook for killing an attack dog in the line of duty. Close plays Rawling with a soft, almost motherly demeanor that directly contrasts with the show's other two female cops, but with just enough inner toughness that she seems believable. For Vic Mackey being all-business means being a tough guy who doesn't take anyone's shit or follow niggling things like the law, whereas for Rawlings it involves putting aside that tough guy posture and just levelling about things. Her way of turning a potentially stressful situation into a joke also differentiates herself from the serious Acaveda, obsessed with the rules when he isn't breaking them himself.

(Another sign that times have changed: when Vic breaks into the guy's house, makes a lame joke, and arrests him, he actually has a warrant for once! Woah.)

The first several scenes of this episode are dedicated to introducing Rawlings, a decidedly noticeable focus for the usually ensemble-driven series. We see her joking around with pretty much everyone, establishing her gentle outside discussed above. It's also established that she worked as a beat cop in the past, placing her in direct contrast with the “paper-pusher” Acaveda. Already this positive portrayal complicates things due to the fact that Rawling's very presence is a result of Claudette's failure to get the post promised her due to, well, “giving a shit when it's not your turn to give a shit.”[1] We may like Rawlings, but that clashes with the fact that strictly speaking, she's here because of corruption and politics.

There's a further, more pragmatic layer to her character, which is revealed during her sit-down with Vic late in the episode. She wants to put Vic at the head of her new anti-gang initiative, but she says she needs to trust him first. Her emotional honesty is placed in direct contrast with Vic's frequent lies and tough-guy facade, and is its own kind of bravery. From this early scene it seems like the clash of personalities will be less violent than the one between Vic and Acaveda, but still significant. She also goes behind Acaveda's back to start negotiating with a criminal, looking to continue the AGC sting despite not being captain yet. For all her outward friendliness, there is also a cunning, take-no-prisoners side to Rawling's personality, and “The Cure” poses the question of which of these sides, if any, is the true Rawlings that will emerge in the season to come.

This scene also begins in an interesting way: instead of cutting directly into the action, we see shots of a crowd passing through the street. The main focus here seems to be on the diversity: an Asian woman in a SARS mask, a rasta dude on a bicycle, and some guys in cowboy hats are all thrown at us rapidly. It's only a few shots that take up about twenty seconds interspersed with the opening credits, but it does a lot to re-orient the viewers in Los Angeles. The Shield has never transformed its location into a defining characteristic the way a show like The Wire or Treme or even Breaking Bad does, but here it's taking a step in that direction – Los Angeles is portrayed as a meeting point for all sorts of cultures and societies, and in The Shield this is not a gentle meeting of cultures but a violent collision, less of a melting pot and more of an exploding pot. We see our police officers walking among this crowd, headed to their job, just another culture warring with all the others.

There's a significant time gap between seasons 3 and 4, and to a certain extent “The Cure” is about filling in that gap and dealing with the fallout from it. Other than the strike team's disbandment the most obvious gap is the AGC sting Vic has been running that started in the last season, which has taken up a lot of resources and been a total bust. The sting is the dull time-consuming type of police work which rarely makes it into TV shows. Vic Mackey, so we are told, has spent the past six months sitting in an office watching video tapes trying and failing to find any criminal activity on them. This is an effective use of the ellision of time that usually falls between TV seasons. Plotwise this is something that has to take place, but at the same time it would not really make riveting viewing material. It would be possible to make a TV show out of this kind of boredom and fruitlessness – in a time long ago, this was the premise of The Office – but it is difficult, and if The Shield steers away in order to do something more to its strengths then it can't really be begrudged for that.

In any case, with the absence of the strike team Vic appears to have finally been tamed. At the same time, his work during this period turns out to be useless: the police department has itself been scammed through the AGC sting, with the perpetrator quietly hiding genuine criminals from the investigation. Vic, usually always half-expecting betrayal, was completely taken for a ride here. He also finds out in this episode that he's missed a job opportunity due to a scathing letter from Acaveda that has pretty much ruined his chances of any position outside the Barn. As the season starts we see Vic as powerless as we ever have. The dead dog at the start of the episode seems especially symbolic here, seeing as how Mackey has been implicitly compared to a dog throughout the series (see my previous post on The Shield for a good example.)

The changes we see in “The Cure” reveal just how strongly the characters, no matter how much they want to picture themselves as individual heroes, rely on each other. Without his loyal followers Vic is reduced to doing desk work, and doing it poorly. The male bond between the strike team has become an increasing focus throughout The Shield's run, and it is clear that without it Vic can't get up to any of his old tricks: it's hard to bend the rules if your partners will eagerly report you for it. For as much as Vic was the clear leader of the strike team, he needed them as much as they did him. Claudette and Dutch also find out how much they were reliant on others when those others explicitly shun them, leading them to do the grunt work in their homicide case and not receive any credit for what they do accomplish. Even the criminals in the case-of-the-week play into this – one relies on another to finish the job by drowning a little boy, but the other relents, leading at least in part to their capture. This feels like a necessary corrective for the show that has valorized the lone wolf working against the system. Vic, Dutch and Claudette all essentially picture themselves as this lone-wolf hero in different ways, and while often The Shield has given credence to this, now it seems to be panning back to reveal that mavericks, for all the good they can do, require their own intense support system behind them, or else they'll just be out lost in the wilderness.

On the other side of the equation gang members, the criminals Vic specializes in, are powerful precisely because of their social bonds. Without his own gang Vic can't truly tackle them. This kind of dangerous community is seen with the introduction of Antoine Mitchell, immediately positioned as this season's long-term villain. The Shield has been experimenting with this character role since the second season. In the first season The Shield followed a kind of cop show standard – the crime plotlines were episodic but the character-based plots centred around the police officers were at least to an extent serialized. Introducing longer-lasting villains was a part of the transition towards full serialization. The first attempt at this was the psychopathic Mexican drug lord Armadillo. This didn't go too well, as Armadillo quickly became something of a cartoon supervillain. The role was then passed to Margos Desarean, who was more ominous and less heavy-handed mainly by staying off screen for most of the time.

Antoine Mitchell, however, is different from Armadillo or Margos. Instead of being a lunatic driven by base desires, he's more of a silver-tongued manipulator. Although The Shield pretty much instantly confirms that he's not the reformed humanitarian he makes himself out to be[2], there's still some degree of ambiguity over Mitchell's actions – he makes several actions in this and the next couple episodes to try and bring peace to the neighbourhoods even as he rules over them, which is not that different from Vic's mandate for his drug-dealer partners in seasons past. With that said, there's also a bit of dog-whistle racism that his character unfortunately brings up. When we first see him Mitchell is in the centre of a black anti-gang rally. Although their message is anti-crime, his speech is distinctly racialized, focused on the hip-hop-inspired chant of “Respect!”. Of course, this ultimately turns out to be a front for criminality, dismissing the idea that the black community can save itself instead of being saved by Vic Mackey.

The fact that Mitchell turns out to be a criminal and not the leader he presents himself as could just be viewed as The Shield's usual cynicism, and that was probably the way the writers justified it in their discussions and their minds. But it also cultivates the idea that the racist mistrust of black leaders and black communities is at its root justified. The Shield rarely engages in out-and-out racism (the only major exception I've come across so far is “Rice Burner”, in which we learn that Korean gangsters play Starcraft, have restaurants with filthy kitchens, and have every Korean in town on their side, even the cops). However, it portrays almost all of its criminal characters as foul and instinctively evil, and – true to American crime demographics – the majority of those characters are Black or Latino. Of course, there are also positively portrayed characters of colour, mostly in the police force. But it's still a combination that makes for a lot of problematic scenes and plotlines.

“The Cure” is directed by Scott Brazil, one of The Shield's regular directors and a veteran of the crime genre, having started off on Hill Street Blues, the show that made gritty serialized cop shows like The Shield and The Wire possible. Brazil directed more episodes of The Shield than anyone else, so if anyone can be credited with the series's distinctive directorial style it's him. I've described the style in my previous Shield post (linked above), so I'll mostly note here that it continues without any major differences in “The Cure”. The episode is written by Glenn Mazarra, another Shield regular. The consistency of tone and style that using such a regular crew establishes is quite evident here. Despite the many changes in plot, this is still evidently an episode of The Shield, with all its gritty cynicism and sudden camera movements. By the fourth season both creators and viewers are completely accustomed to this house style, and it creates a distinct and familiar world that the series can call its own despite being set in LA, the most filmed city in the world.

I'm not entirely sure how to end this review, so I'll end it where the episode itself does: with Shane Vendrell. Shane has been a sidekick for the past three seasons, Vic's loyal partner whose instability frequently caused problems. Walton Goggins has done a great job hinting at a more angry side of him, and with him finally removed from Vic's command that side seems to have taken control. Vic comes across Shane unexpectedly when going to talk to a new CI, who turns out to be dead. Whether or not Shane killed the guy is left open, but in any case Goggins has turned the creepy instability in the character up to 11, and it comes across in the awkward conversation with Vic. The two make small talk over the dead body, and then Shane steals the victim's Blackberry while implying a connection to both him and Mitchell's gang. The whole scene is shot in deep shadow, increasing the dark and uncertain atmosphere.

Shane's turn to the dark side shows the other side of the time-skip between seasons. For Vic, it's used to skip over a dull part in his life, watching tapes all day, that is important to the plot but not really thrilling television. For Shane, we want to know what's happened in these six months, what's led him even further down the path of corruption, but that information is elided. By this late in the series the creators of The Shield know thoroughly how to use the conventions of the crime genre, and this mastery is evident throughout “The Cure”.

[1] There was quite a bit of moral ambiguity regarding Claudette's decision to report the DA for drug use at the end of last season, but whatever the situation was she was playing by the rules and her punishment for it is a pretty clear case of corruption.

[2] It would have been funny – and a lot more realistic – to see Vic harassing an innocent community leader for several episodes, but The Shield can really only maintain its ambiguous morality by making all of the people Vic really goes after guilty anyway. This is why I've said and continue to say that the thematic question central to the show's premise – whether or not Vic is justified in his brutality – is actually The Shield's biggest weakness, requiring unrealistic plot contortions to maintain some degree of nuance, and the show is a lot better the more it gets away from this question.

Next Week: The roaches... the roaches...

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Eastbound and Down 1-05: "Chapter Five"

The Wildcard entry is a slot I put into my usual weekly randomizer to get me to explore the wider world of television as a form and not just examine individual pieces. The channel numbers on my cable service go up past 1800, which doesn't mean there are 1800+ channels, but that still means there's a heck of a lot more that makes up the vast morass of television than the handful of cable dramas and anime series that I regularly watch. Eastbound and Down is not an exceptionally strange thing to find at the end of one of these wildcard randomizers. It is, however, a strange path that lead me to it.

Through ample use of I landed on Eastbound and Down not on HBO, where it originated, but on The Score, Canada's third-tier sports network. The show can certainly be described as sports-related, centred around an arrogant baseball star who returns to his hometown retired and broke. But despite this episode ending in a climactic pitching contest, the actual sport seems to be beside the point in Eastbound and Down. Even for a sports network to branch into scripted programming it seems like a show like Friday Night Lights, which focuses much heavier on the sport in question, would be a better fit. In part this is a product of the cobbled-together nature of cable television – if you can pick up a good show in syndication*, grab it, even if it doesn't really fit your network's remit. This is why most cable channels, at least most of the ones anyone watches, seem to have little to do with whatever their name implies. (Can you believe that TLC was once an educational network?)

But there's more than that here. The Score airs Eastbound and Down twice a week, after both of the WWE's weekly shows. This means that the sports network is now pretty much airing two nights a week of scripted programming. This isn't just network drift. This is a question of whether the essential nature of sports requires it to be a legitimate contest with an unplanned outcome.

If we view the essential point of sports as an attempt to determine who the best runner or fighter or soccer team in the country or the world is, then the answer seems like an obvious yes. But the entertainment complex that's built up around sports has a different point entirely. If our interest was essentially in the competition, then team sports wouldn't be so popular – after all, as far as burning athletic questions go “which billionaire can hire the best people that can play the confusing sport known as American football” is not really at the top of the list. But the reason people turn into a sports game isn't just interest in who's the better competitor. The main draw is a mixture of athletic spectacle and emotional catharsis shaped by the storylines developed by the commentariat. This is a description that could just as well fit the draws of pro wrestling – or, for that matter, a Harlem Globetrotters game or ballet or the football sequences in Friday Night Lights. This all stems from the turn of the millenium, when sports realized in pro wrestling (which was finally abandoning the remaining shreds of kayfabe) and drama realized in reality TV the same thing almost simultaneously: that as far as entertainment goes, it really doesn't matter if a story is real, fake, or something in between. Eastbound and Down is a lot further afield than this (there's no element of athletic spectacle and unlike the WWE it doesn't formally ape a sports broadcast), but it's easy to see how there's a small leap from following the troubles of a disgraced ex-player in real life and following one in fiction.

So, uh, Eastbound and Down. I've only watched one episode of the rest of the series, in a rare bout of channel-surfing some time ago, but despite being a heavily serialized storyline it's not really hard to follow. Of course, it doesn't hurt that this episode (the unimaginatively-titled “Chapter Five”) begins with a recap of sorts, in which a despondent Kenny records an “audiobook” lamenting his problems and his descent to normal people status. Typically we would expect this to be the end of his character arc – the arrogant athlete made humble who commits himself to a life among regular people and not looking down upon them. But in Eastbound and Down, this is the lowest point for Kenny. As much as we're supposed to laugh at his ego and macho personality, the show is also a kind of celebration of that all-American brashness, and in this episode it becomes clear that the narrative arc of this season is not about Kenny's reformation but whether Kenny can resist being reformed, whether his attitude will survive contact with his new mundane life.

In part this is just a function of the show's set-up. Eastbound and Down is basically centred around Kenny as the comedic disruptor: he walks into normal situations and makes them funny. Virtually every line that comes out of his mouth is made into a joke. Even lines that are there purely to advance the plot are twisted into laugh-lines through both a twisted dialogue style and Danny McBride's macho-casual way of delivering it. For example, in a scene with Kenny and Stevie just talking in a car, there's a dialogue exchange like this:

STEVIE: I hope we get in a car wreck right now, I do. I hope we get in a motherfucking car wreck. I hope we do. I hope we get in a car wreck and then we can live in heaven.

KENNY: I'm not gonna get into a car wreck because I'm an excellent driver.

STEVIE: You're excellent at everything. I fucking hate it.

KENNY: I'm thinking we should just sit here quietly now, not really say anything, and let you just kind of contemplate the news I just dropped on you and let me kind of contemplate on my own pains and sorrows right now.

In this exchange Stevie has the major joke (the bit about getting into a car wreck and living in heavan), but even as something of the straight man Kenny still twists everything through his style. His responses are versions of what would be expected but strange versions. It's kind of exhausting at times, the barrage of jokes that constantly comes out of his mouth. In this way it's the type of comedy typically made by episode director Adam McKay and producer and guest star Will Ferrel – a man with cartoonishly exaggerated vices (usually played by Ferrel, but here with McBride) interacting with a mostly sttraight world. The arc of these movies usually trends towards the redemption of the main character, but while they can be redeemed they can never be truly changed, because it's their vices that make them funny and draw us to the film in the first place. As much as we migh not like hanging around someone like Kenny Powers in real life, we like hanging out with him on TV for half an hour every week, because he makes us laugh, and to that extent as viewers we don't want him to change. For television this dilemna applies even more: if the show is to continue after the redemption arc, what's going to make the comedy work?

This is why, essentially, the climax of the episode and I believe of the entire season – the pitching context at the used car dealership – is not one of redemption but of un-redemption, of Kenny Powers reclaiming his old arrogance. Faced with his old baseball rival, Kenny misses a couple times before taking his eye out with a vicious bean. This is, of course, a parody of a climax, complete with slow-motion celebration and dramatic music that contrasts well with the fact that a guy just got his eye torn out Dan Dorrity-style – but in the narrative it's also a celebration of Kenny's return to being an egoistic asshole.

Now, needless to say, this is kind of problematic. Kenny's machismo and other faults are mocked but celebrated by the show. On the other hand, less macho characters – such as his romantic competitor Terence or the bitchy city lady in this episode – are mocked a lot less warmly. Like the protagonists of Will Ferrel movies, while Kenny is a buffoon he's also meant to be a lovable one. In the A.V. Club review Nathan Rabin writes
I think by this point we love Kenny just the way he is: insane, arrogant and swimming with venereal diseases and substance abuse problems.” Kenny Powers and the comedic protagonist archetype he belongs to are loved because they embody pure untrammeled id: they can do and say the things that we know are wrong and a bad idea, but secretly wish we could.

I think there's a darker side to this character type too. There's a long line of loveable assholes which runs down the TV geneaology from Eastbound and Down to All in the Family, including such diverse shows as It's Always Sunny and The Sopranos. The loveable asshole is usually contrasted with a blue-state foil, the unloveable good person (Terence in this show, Bruce Mathis in It's Always Sunny, etc.) This is an interesting enough idea individually, but it's become so prevalent that it risks permanently inverting our morality. Read any forum or comment thread about The Sopranos and you'll find that the most despised characters are not the murderers and mobsters that populate the show but characters like Noah and the various psychiatrists who are only guilty of being kind of smarmy. This is the essence of red state politics: it's better to be ignorant than arrogant. If Obama was elected by playing Bill Cosby, then Bush the second was elected by playing Archie Bunker.

It's probably not fair to saddle that on Eastbound and Down, and it doesn't exactly fit the situation – after all, Kenny is more arrogant than any of his foils, but he does so in a more manly way, and that's supposed to make us root for him. The montage at the finale of “Chapter Five” where he embraces April in slow-motion after “winning” the pitching contest is obviously viewed through an ironic filter, but it's kidding on the square: we're supposed to celebrate as the he-man Kenny wins the girl from his effeminate rival. The audience's intended reaction is suggested by the reaction of the in-show audience at the dealership, who cheer on Kenny and take him as an inspiration to start living out their id and smashing stuff.

The love interest April also presents another problem with the “loveable asshole” character: women never get to inhabit this trope. If a woman does a tenth of the things that a character like Kenny Powers does, she's a bitch, and there's no such thing as a “loveable bitch” (see the “city bitch” in this episode, who is portrayed negatively for mostly just being bossy.) In the traditional sitcom the woman is there to be the ever-suffering wife, there to look hot and be the straight man and not do much else. To be fair April does get in some funny lines here, mocking Kenny's premature ejaculation in the previous episode, but there's an obvious visual difference between the genders here. The male half of the cast is a theatre of grotesques, with ugly faces and uglier hairstyles. April is a pneumatic brunette who's practically popping out of her shirt. The climactic kiss scene is reminiscent of those cartoons when an anthropomorphic cartoon critter would fall in love with a realistic-looking woman.

Eastbound and Down does have it's virtues. It's one of those shows that goes for a joke every three seconds and at that rate even with limited accuracy you're bound to get a lot of hits. Danny McBride's way of inflecting each line with Kenny is also quite wonderful, although it's worrisome that other than McBride the rest of the regular cast is outshone by two guest stars (Will Ferrel as a Ric Flair hairdo-sporting car salesman and Craig Robinson as Kenny's longtime baseball rival.) But there's still something that stops me from getting into it. The kind of ideological rant above might not have much to do with it – after all, what I've said about the “loveable asshole” can just as easily be applied to It's Always Sunny, a show I love – but there's still a lot of ugliness on screen, on an aesthetic level more than a moral one, and I have a hard time distinguishing between the ugliness I'm supposed to love and the ugliness I'm not.

* Strictly speaking this can't be called syndication, as Eastbound and Down only has thirteen episodes and not the hundred or so usually required, but the principle is the same. This is also a kind of ratings grab as syndicated shows always are, looking to capitalize on the recent E&D-related memes and ad campaigns.

Next Week: More of The Shield, now with Glenn Close.