Saturday, October 29, 2011

Chihayafuru 2: The Red That Is

In American TV there's a limited amount of lives that are considered dramatically interesting: cops, doctors, lawyers, gangsters, sexy teenagers, and... well, that's more or less it.  (Comedies are a different story, but we'll leave that alone for now.)  But in Japan, it sometimes seems like there's a competition as to the most mundane activity that can be sensationalized and made the centre of a dramatic story.  There are entire genres of manga dedicated to cooking, mahjong, fishing, advancing as a salaryman... you name it, there's a manga that makes it look exciting.  Chihayafuru is a show that stems largely from that tradition, structuring a (melo)dramatic narrative around karuta (literally a localization of "card"), an old-fashioned memory game usually used to teach children poetry and then forgotten about.

Even by the standards of the strategy-game story genre, karuta is a distinctly unfilmable game.  It doesn't have any of the intricate strategy of go or one of the brain-teaser gambling games in Liar Game or Kaiji, nor does it have the visual spectacle of physical sports or fantasy-themed games like you would see on Yu-Gi-Oh! (the embarassing standard bearer for this genre.)  The main skills being tested are memorization and dexterity.  Some of the thrill of, for instance, Liar Game comes in being able to follow every move of the game and "play at home", as it were (this is the same ludic thrill as a mystery narrative, in which the viewer tries to figure out the solution before the protagonist.)  There's no real way to do that with karuta: the skills required are simply not ones that can be exercised in spectatorship.  Chihayafuru tries to make it more visually entertaining by having Arata snatch up cards so fast they fly into the wall and become embedded, but I suspect this will grow old after a couple episodes.

However, there are virtues to the dullness of the game that lays at the heart of Chihayafuru.  There's a certain fundamental nerdy impulse to triumph in obscurity which underlies this show along with much of the genre.  It's the impulse that drives countless geeks to competitive gaming and drove me to grad school: the egocentric thrill of being the best in the world at something nobody else gives a shit about.  There's an almost romantic element in the dedication to something so unglamorous, and that's what the narrative of Chihayafuru is about as much as anything.

It also helps it become an empty signifier, a kind of hollow centre.  At its root, we're not supposed to care about karuta, or at the very least it's not a prerequisite in the same way that, say, caring about mahjong at least a bit is a prerequistie for Akagi.  Karuta works the same way: it's ostensibly about poetry, but only as a matrix to memorize: the poems could be swapped out for literally any other set of data and the game would remain the same.  The fragments of poetry that Chihaya memorizes are meaningless to her except for their relation to another line (the one she has to associate it with) and the game.  Similarly, karuta has no meaning except for its relational one: it matters because our characters think it matters, and it's significant only in how it affects the characters around them.  This is similar to how, say, Friday Night Lights was never really about football.

Thus far, Chihayafuru has been a story about geekery, with the tomboyish Chihaya becoming the friend and defender of bullied Arata.  But if the positive side of geekery is the kind of obsessive joy described above, which appears in the opening scenes of "The Red That Is", its negative side appears soon enough: having aligned herself with Arata, Chihaya finds herself a target of the same bullying and isolation that affected him.  Their interests are simultaneously marginalized and made all-encompassing, as they have to bear the stigma of such obscure passions.  Even their moments of triumph are viewed as insignificant -- when Chihaya wins the karuta tournament in this episode, her mother doesn't really care, being caught up in the modelling success of her more gender-compliant sister.

(Of course, this is all very melodramatic, as E Minor points out -- there's not much subtle about this show.  At the same time, it's pretty believable behaviour, as middle school kids are, with few exceptions, evil pieces of shit (whether this is dramatically interesting is an entire different matter).  In what we've seen of the "present day" high school setting, everyone's mellowed out a bit, and Chihaya's karuta obsession is not greeted by outright bullying so much as a general "Whatever, weirdo" attitude.  The parents can't really be defended this way though.  I feel like since anime doesn't usually go for a straightforward drama show it often falls into melodrama in its genuine attempts to do something outside the box -- see Rainbow or that one with the long title about the flower.)

Still, Chihaya and Arata are granted a chance to confront their tormentor on their home filed when Arata and Taichi meet in the finals of the school karuta tournament.  This is in itself a fantasy -- your school bully is never going to sit down and let you whoop him at Magic: the Gathering.  The problem for the anime is that Arata has already been established as a preternatural karuta player, so once the game starts he's no longer the underdog -- in fact, he becomes such a prohibitive favourite that he stops really being a sympathetic character at all.  So how do you get the audience to root for someone who's almost certainly going to win?  Use the same trick pro wrestling promoters have for decades: have the other guy cheat his ass off.

Taichi steals Arata's glasses, switches around cards on him, and generally does everything he can to avoid a fair fight.  Do you see what I mean about the game being given significance based entirely on context?  Interestingly, this cheating allows the interjection of a kind of strategy that the actual game doesn't: Arata and Taichi engage in a battle of wits where one tries to adapt to the other's cheating while the other is constantly trying to come up with new ways to tilt the odds in his favour.  However, at the end we're left with the same problem: there are a limited number of dramatic possibilities in a karuta game, and we seem to have burned through all the obvious ones in two episodes.

There's another thread which emerges towards the end of "The Red That Is", which is the redemption of Taichi, used as the villain for most of the episode.  Enemies or rivals becoming friends is a frequently recurring trope in shounen anime, and I would wager it extends to shoujo series like Chihayafuru.  There's a really annoying tendency to tie everything made in Japan to World War II, which I'm going to have to indulge in a bit -- there's a strong possibility that, given Japan's forcible transition from enemy to friend of Western powers, there's a desire to see this kind of reconciliation play out on screen, especially when it involves the redemption of a villain (as Japan are viewed in the war narrative the rest of the world holds.)  It also fits into the pacifistic message advocated (sometimes quite hypocritically) in many shows aimed at young audiences.  As far as tropes go, this is a pretty benign one, but it's still worth paying attention to.

The whole redemption scene is sculpted to be a feel-good moment like something out of a Lifetime movie[1].  Everything after the end of the tournament is shot in a hazy orange glow.  There's enough light humour -- Arata running into a door, Chihaya having a super sense of hearing -- to make you smile but not laugh, putting you in a positive nostalgic frame of mind.  And then there's the soft, comforting music.  It's actually very pretty -- Madhouse has had their reputation put through the ringer by a lot of dodgy adaptations of Western properties, most notably the recent string of Marvel anime, but if nothing else Chihayafuru shows they still have the competence to put together a moving moment in a quite ordinary show.

Ultimately, however, what causes Taichi's redemption and move into the group is not any kind of penance or admission of guilt, but the simple activity of play.  There's almost a religious aspect to karuta presented here -- the game may be one of conflict, but at the end both parties are closer.  When the three finally become friends, it's in a scene of play, goofing around in the woods.  In some ways this goes back to the experience of geekery, bonding over the shared interest.  But I think it's also important in recuperating play as being, somewhat ironically, productive.  It's precisely the rituals and activities that have no productive purpose[2] that bring us together.  As someone who has met most of his friends through tabletop gaming, I kind of desperately want this to be true, and fortunately for me I think it is.

As I mentioned above, Chihayafuru is animated by the prestigous Madhouse studio (although probably not as prestigous as a year ago), who does a reassuringly good job -- the animation is smooth and the art beautiful, looking just soft enough to convey the warm tones that the series aims to create (see Usagi Drop and Wandering Son for examples of this style just from this year).  Of the staff for this episode, most are rookies, signifying that either Madhouse wants to develop some new blood or just isn't stressing about the scriptwriting for a manga adaptation.  Series director Morio Asaka is the only experienced crew member, and he's done a wide variety of adaptations (most notably Nana and the No Longer Human portion of Aoi Bungaku.)  Adaptation is an art in itself, and Asaka's signature may be a lack of signature -- every one of the above-mentioned adaptations seems to have its natural style, and this is no exception.  In short, other than a framing device in the first episode, this isn't a staff that wants to make the material more than it is, but rather just translate it into a different medium.  There's nothing wrong with that, but I'm not sure this material justifies it.

In the end, this is a show that hits close to my heart -- from the obsessive game-playing to the isolation and accompanying frantic desire to keep friends close, Chihayafuru is probably closer to my childhood and adolescence than almost any coming-of-age narrative I know.  But when something hits close to your heart it can do a lot of damage.  The narrative is often deliberately cloying, and ready to settle for effective cliche instead of looking for complexity.  It's competent, but low-reaching.  In this season's weak anime crop, that just might be enough to get it into my TV schedule.  But maybe that's less the show itself and more a kind of mirror shock.

Next Week: A super spooky Communiy.

[1]As I was writing this, I realized that I had never actually seen a Lifetime movie, and I'm not even sure if Lifetime is a channel in Canada.  I'm using the idea of "the Lifetime movie" as a received package of cultural ideas transmitted through snarking on the Internet, with a lot of connotations of "those silly women things" attached to it.  Then again, it's not like I'm going to go and actually watch a Lifetime movie just to confront my biases.  But I thought it was worth noting.

[2]Of course, a strict Marxist would say that the purpose of leisure activitise like games was to reproduce the worker in order to make him ready to work again (and to sell the game materials), but those guys are sourpusses anyway.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lost 1-06: House of the Rising Sun

There's something charmingly democratic about the ensemble structure of Lost.  There are fourteen credited series regulars for the first season, many of which fade into the background for most of the time, but are all in turn given a flashback storyline, a chunk of the episode designated purely to them.  Of course, this is neccesarily partial -- the fourteen main cast members make up only a fraction of the plane crash survivors, most of whom just hang around far from the cameras -- but it's still notable for popular entertainment, which usually implies that only the main characters -- the Jacks and Kates -- are worth caring about, to take some time and reveal that actually those Koreans that haven't been doing much actually have had some pretty interesting shit happen to them, and have a story all their own.  Ideally, this might even lead people to wonder if the Korean people in the background of their own life are worth considering as human beings -- kind of a TV version of David Foster Wallace "this is water" speech.

For the past five episodes (depending on how you count the pilot) the Koreans Sun and Jin have been thoroughly cast as the Other[1], mainly through their use of unsubtitled Korean.  Without any understanding of their meaning, these words sound harsh and alien to a Western audience, and the characters that speak them are just strange, untrustable bodies.  In "House of the Rising Sun" they are granted the power of language for the first time, along with their backstory that grants them (or is at least supposed to) humanity.  This takes the form of not only English subtitles, but the revelation that Sun has been able to speak English all along.  Language is then tied to humanity -- a worthwhile idea from the humanist tradition that motivates Lost, but it's worth noting that here it's specifically the English language.  Does Sun show she's more human by showing she's more Western?  This sets the stage for what's to come: Lost's inability to get out from under the hegemonic tendencies of its philosophical inspiration.

In the Sun-Jin flashback story, episode writer Javier Grillo-Marxauch seems to have set out not so much to tell a story about the Koreans as to tell a story about Korea.  Korean society is defined as one that is deeply based around divisions of class and gender.  At the beginning of their narrative Sun and Jin are a cross-class romance, and fear that their relationship will lead to ruin if discovered.  Later, once they are more complacently married, Jin takes a patriarchal view of Sun, at one point (in a scene the show felt important enough to show in this episode's "previously on") forcing her to button up her shirt so as not to show too much skin.

It's worth noting that, in both the flashbacks of the Western characters and the present storyline thus far, class and gender have been more or less avoided.  I think this is quite common: the West Others its own prejudices and contradictions, extrapolating patriarchy and social class as something that fundamentally happens Somewhere Else (see the tremendous concern over women's rights in the Middle East while such rights are being quietly scaled back here at home.)  The Koreans, with their seperate language and hostile temperament, are obstacles to the unity that Jack is trying to build within the castaways.  The separation between the normal and the Other are, as usual, blamed on the actions of the Other, as in this episode when Jin attacks Michael for his unknowing taking of a watch that belongs to him, instead of trying to communicate this to them.[2]

This broad community is split by other means by the end of the episode.  The island plots in "House of the Rising Sun" are thoroughly serialized, more about advancing numerous subplots -- Charlie's drug use, the mysteries of the island -- than providing a definitive story in themselves.  The main development, however, is the split of the castaways between those going with Jack up to the river, where living will be easier, and those living on the beach, still hoping for rescue.  The question here is really utopianism against pragmatism, a conflict we can see playing itself out right now, in countless debates on Occupied lands.  Do we do the best with what we have, or aim for a more perfect solution with the price of more present hardship?  The beach-dwellers can be seen as hopeless, almost religious devotees of a rescue that isn't coming.  On the other hand, there's no real future on the island -- a dessicated skeleton shows up in the caves where Jack wants to move to, raising the question of what the ultimate end of the strategy of survival is.

This also brings up the leadership of Jack, which is a tricky subject.  Lost has thus far had its cake and ate it too by making its all-American action hero Jack Shephard be a leader without him having to really do anything to seize or maintain power: his show of expertise seems to have been enough to make people turn to him, much to his own sometimes frustration.  However, if the castaways are to become a more permanent community, this situation is not really tenable -- Jack has to either give up his power or enforce it.  In the end, he does a little of both.  He decides to go to the caves himself unilaterally, and makes a lot of big speeches convincing others to follow him, but allows those who want to to remain behind.  Ultimately, this is a kind of anarchist model of leadership -- respecting others' right of free association and actions, but trying to influence them in the way he thinks is best.  Jack is still acting as the head of the castaways, but he is unable or unwilling to exercise the punishment and coercing arms of the state, and the result is a necessary fracture.

It's worth noting that there are no illusions of democracy -- there's never a vote as to whether they should stay or go, for instance, with the minority following the wishes of the majority.  Instead, people simply vote with their feet.  This seems fine here, but what happens when the next disagreement happens, and the one after that?  Social cohesion is ultimately untenable under an individualistic solution.

"House of the Rising Sun" is written by Javier Grillo-Marxauch and directed by Michael Zinberg, both veteran (especially Zinberg) TV B-listers who mostly follow the show's general style.  The main visual accomplishment of Lost is the simple visual splendour of its island location, a setting that is always shot with such flattering cinematography so as to make it look like a pretty nice place to be stranded after all.  The flashbacks are usually separated from this space by colour schemes: the island is mainly rendered in green, blue and white, all light, whereas the flashback sequences do something different, usually with darker colours.  Here, the Korea scenes are dominated by orange and black, with staid interiors that are reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai's movies.  All of this is fairly basic, but it's a skilled, unobtrusive way to establish distinct screen spaces.

There are lots of elements to Lost -- the survival drama, the metaplot mystery, the character studies -- but the one that dominates most of this episode, and which I find most interesting, is the story about a fledgling, thrown-together human society.  For the most part Lost takes a classical Enlightenment view of man and the state, as one would expect of a show with a guy named John Locke running around.  In this episode, in addition to the division described above, the new anarchic society has to confront the problem of crime and justice.  Jin assaults Michael, and according to what the castaways have broadly been brought to believe, he must be punished for this -- but once again, there are none of the apparatuses that underly and enforce state power, such as prison or the police, so Jin just ends up handcuffed to some wreckage.

Of course, there already is a criminal on the island, which is Kate, but somehow this seems different -- Kate's vaguely-defined crimes took place before the crash, and with the death of her warden the island has been positioned as a fresh start.  But this kind of clean-slate forgiveness is not enough in Lost.  Jin was some kind of mobster back in Korea (what else do rich people in Korea do?), and that crime reoccurs on the island, even when he's taken out of the social environment of the mob.  The notion of forgiveness goes against the entire structural assumptions of the show, where understanding the characters' past is essential to understanding their present island self.  Forgiveness that simply represses the past is bound to fail, but ultimately it's the only thing they can do.  In addition to the lack of any kind of justice system, the castaways simply can't afford to lock up anyone that could be working.  So in the end Michael cuts the handcuffs off Jin -- not just forgiving him, but destroying any possibility for future confinement, not because it's the best solution but because it's all he can do.

Still, it says something to the show's humanism that this punishment-less society has only had to deal with some hoarding and scuffles a week in.  Under a negative, Hobbesian view of the world, we'd expect half the castaways to have descended into murderous orgies by now.  Instead, some people snap under pressure and others are surly to begin with, but everyone somehow manages to survive together.

And despite all the baggage that comes with Lost's liberal humanist tradition -- the racism mentioned above, the focus on authority and history -- this shows that there are also really positive things about it.  In a world full of crime shows, Lost is the one hit show that argues that somehow, despite everything, people will find a way to get along.

Next week: The art of weird Japanese haiku concentration.

[1]This is, of course, different from the group of characters I understand comes in later in the show and who are literally called the Others.

[2]I don't want to come across as pointing a finger at Lost for Being Racist.  As mentioned above, it humanizes these characters more than a lot of stories do.  The issue here is really a larger racial discourse, that Lost isn't able to escape from despite what are probably good intentions.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

American Horror Story 1-01: Pilot

To use a ridiculous generalization, making a great work of art involves ambition and skill.  With skill but not ambition what you have is something that's pleasant to watch, maybe a weekly comfort, but also something that will be forgotten soon -- something like this year's Lights Out, for instance.  With neither what you have is something that's assembly-line crap, a work of art that follows every trope in the book while tripping over its own feet.  Perhaps the most fascinating, however, is ambition without execution, creating works that seem to hunch visibly under the weight of their failed dreams, and make you vaguely wish you could watch whatever show the creators originally envisioned.  In more colloquial terms, it's a trainwreck.  American Horror Story falls firmly into this last category.

The pilot opens on what is probably its dullest segment, an unimaginative haunted house story in which two mean twin brothers enter an old house, vandalize it, and are promptly punished.  Series creator and my personal nemesis Ryan Murphy (Glee, Nip/Tuck) uses his usual archetype of inexplicably brutal youths, both here and in the later high school scenes, bringing one-dimensional children's show archetypes to ostensibly adult television.  Before the twins enter the house their vileness is established by having them mock a girl with Down's Syndrome.  This girl, who shows up later as an adult, is symptomatic of the appropriation of otherness seen on Glee: Murphy aligns himself with the opressed of society, from the handicapped to the racially or sexually Other, but does so only to prove the point of the show's own progressiveness while reproducing the most malicious archetypes associated with them and/or leaving them to the wayside while more acceptable main characters get the spotlight.  Here, the disabled girl instantly falls into the "creepy retard" slot, having some kind of eerie connection to the haunted house and constantly warning everyone they're about to die.  I think this is symptomatic of the weakness of predominant liberal morals: shows of tolerance are all-important, so important that  children (or so it is implied) deserve to be killed over it, but all this tolerance doesn't stop you from actually beleiving that the disabled are creepy and quite possibly Satanic.

After our evil kids have been dispatched, we cut to a time called "Today", which is surprisingly ambivalent.  The events it depicts are immediately followed by a time skip of something like six months -- so is the main thrust of the plot set slightly in the future?  This kind of temporal dislocation occurs throughout the pilot -- some plot elements would seem to take months to unfold (e.g. poor Connie Britton's character (I'm not going to use her ridiculous name) becoming pregnant and learning about it, her psychiatrist husband noticing a change in his patient's behaviour), but there's really no impression of time passing, and it seems ridiculous to have other plot threads be going on for months.  Managing temporal unity without the aid of clumsy title cards is one of those many invisible but crucial skills that every competent filmmaker needs, and since there are none of those involved with American Horror Story it's notably absent.

Of course, that falls under the invisible-but-essential umbrella of directing, which is also poorly done here.  One of the reasons really bad shows are instructive in that the baseline aspects that enable a coherent narrative to take place are exposed by their absence.  Pretty much anyone out of film school can do "invisible" directing, which presents the story in as straightforward a manner as possible and calls no attention to itself.  For an example of this, turn on your TV to just about any channel.  Of course, you can go beyond this to create compelling visual images, as you can see in most "arthouse" films or shows like Breaking Bad or Mawaru Penguindrum.  But when you try to go for this stylistic flourish and fall flat on your face... that's when truly bad direction is created.[1]

The direction in the pilot of American Horror Story, attributed to Murphy, is a natural extension of increasingly annoying trends in mainstream film and television over the past decade or so, mostly the use of faux-handheld "shakycam" and rapid cutting.  No shot lasts more than a couple seconds, and the camera is constantly in motion, an effect that is very noticeable and very nauseating.  While this technique could be used to create suspense in a tense scene, when used for the entire episode it's just visually repellent.  Even in the horror scenes, the scare comes not so much from anything on screen but the fact that we can't see shit.

For an example of this in action, here's a clip from the next episode I found on Youtube, although the hyper-cutting doesn't start here until about half a minute in.

The issue is basically that this quick-cutting prevents the viewer from having a stable perspective -- in the above clip we have no time to put ourselves in the shoes of poor Connie Britton peering through the peephole, or someone beside her, or someone out on the porch, because we're being rapidly shuffled between all of these positions.  There's also no time to linger over any distinct screen image.  It's ADD directing, pitched at a culture used to viewing and not thinking.

Of course, this might be for the best, because there's not much to be scared of even if we could see clearly.  Murphy, in his usual postmodern way of recycling and referencing popular culture, draws on a wide variety of horror films, sometimes going so far as to recreate a famous sequence shot-by-shot.  One could say that the hypercutting is an attempt to bring contemporary horror films into the mix.  But the root of the issue is that Murphy never really seems to understand or offer a critical perspective on these films and conventions, so much as piling them all into a blender to make a sour cocktail.  At the root of it, American Horror Story doesn't really know what it wants to be, but only what it wants to be like.  This is probably most visible (well, audible) in the music, an unending assault of cliche horror tracks and direct lifting from the soundtracks of better things.  As a result, when it is forced to deliver original scares and ideas, it trips over its feet.

A great example is the scene I screencapped above.  The main couple's troubled teenage daughter (who, of course, cuts herself, because why not?) is trying to get back at her bullies, existing in that bizarre space Ryan Murphy thinks high school is like (where the only thing stopping students from smoking in the school courtyard is the bitchy student council).  She turns to the psychopathic patient of her father, a teenage boy whose intimidation value is cut down by his boy-band looks and his penchant for Hot Topic t-shirts.  She lures the one-dimensional teenage bitch down to her basement with the promise of drugs (memorable dialogue includes "I want my goddamn drugs")[2] and surprises her with the psycho, who is presumably supposed to be scary here but is wearing a shirt that says "Normal people scare me" just like every smarmy goth from your high school.  No, really.  And then there's a bunch of flickering lights and the kid turns into some furry monster momentarily, but you can't really get a good look at it because if you did it would look stupid.  It's like when you were a kid and your sibling would mess with you by flicking the lights on and off, except this show is supposed to be pitched at an adult audience.

I could really write a blog post five times this length, maybe a full book, on the failures of this pilot and what larger significance it has.  I've left untouched the characteristic misogyny, the ridiculous number of plots stuffed in here, the rushed pacing, and the thin regurgitated characters.  Making fun of this show feels fun, and I'm wary of that -- this kind of shit can get in our bloodstream from both ways, making us ignore better things in our focus on the trainwreck.  So while I'm almost tempted to watch future episodes of American Horror Story just to watch this wreck unfold, I won't.  I don't have enough time to watch all the good TV out there, let alone the bad stuff.

Next Week: I give you a flashback to that time you watched Lost.

[1]"Directing", as a category of critical analysis, usually includes things like cinematography and editing that are done by people other than the listed director -- which is a big issue with auteur theory.  As troubling as it can be to lump all these elements together, I'm doing it here for simplicity's sake.  The Film Crit God will hopefully forgive me.

[2]You may also notice that no one in this scenario, or in this show, acts remotely like a normal person, especially the characters that are supposed to be normal.  Poor Connie Britton is trying to act normal, but it's a losing effort.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

2 Broke Girls 1-02: ...And The Break-Up Scene

As I mentioned in my post on Samurai Girls, bad television exists, and in abundance.  Because of this, they're worth talking about, especially when so many bad shows are so widely viewed.  But bad television that had the potential to be good is especially worth looking at, if only for its tragic value.  2 Broke Girls is one such bad show that feels like a program that could have been decent got lost along the way.  Or maybe it's a purely bad construct with good things trapped inside.  In any case, it's as fascinating and repelling as any case of failed ambition.

Of course, ambition is perhaps not the best word to describe 2 Broke Girls.  At most it wants to be a modest advance on the classical three-camera live-studio-audience sitcom, bringing it up to a new generation while also attracting a group of skeptical youth to the sitcom model.  It's probably worth spending a bit of time on the sitcom as a form, as it's so central to this show's mission.  The live-audience sitcom is at heart a communal form, basing itself on the psychological fact that people are more likely to laugh if other people are laughing.  This isn't just a kind of pressure on the viewer to fall in line with society: at best, it turns the singular model of art (creator beams wisdom and beauty directly into the brain of the reader) into a shared creation, in which audience and performers are both reponsible for creating something meaningful or at least entertaining.  This is the energy that, at best, can elevate a mediocre stand-up comedian or play into something unforgettable.  (There's a similar dynamic at play in professional wrestling.)  The sitcom is very specific about how it constructs its audience, trying to make the content democratic enough to match its form -- this is why three-camera sitcoms are almost always (supposed to) be about average people having funny but plausible lives.  The sitcom represents the masses as much as its audience does, rendering the communication model not me watching somebody else, but us watching ourselves (or at least the version of ourselves that the sitcom hails us as.)[1]

The contemporary "edgy" comedy (for lack of a better term) doesn't aim for quite so broad or communal an experience.  Its imagined viewer is more sophisticated, able to keep up with references, humour, or explicit content that an imagined "mainstream" audience could not.  These are the shows that always seem to be on the verge of cancellation, or that thrive on far-off cable networks.  While its fans may be loath to admit it, at least part of the fun of watching something like Arrested Development is being hip to something cool that others aren't, or being enough of a pop-culture maven to catch every reference on Community.  These shows are single-camera, shot without laugh tracks because they purposefully elide a mass audience.

There are surely ways to marry these two approaches together and reconcile their jarring elements into a greater whole.  However, 2 Broke Girls shows the dangers of such a combination.  Through the laugh track and its broad humour, it positions itself at a mass audience, but tries to impart on them the edgy comedy's sense of audience superiority by scoffing at its own setting.  This is in essence a show set in Brooklyn that lets people in quote-unquote Middle America laugh at those dang hipsters in Brooklyn.  Obviously not every show has to be feel-good about its main characters, but there's a difference between in-group ribbing and out-group attacking, and 2 Broke Girls falls squarely into a latter camp.  This is more noxious than either of the two comedy traditions it draws on: when you're alone in your sense of superiority it's just elitism, but when you invite other people to join in it veers towards bigotry.

The Brooklyn of 2 Broke Girls then becomes a collision of stereotypes past and present.  Our two titular waitresses (the title, with its simple meaning and pornographic connotations, is a rare example of the broad/edgy fusion working) have one fit in the impoverished shithole Brooklyn of old and one in the hipster playground that Brooklyn has become, and it's never able to reconcile these contradictory stereotypes -- so you have a greasy-spoon hole in the wall filling up with refuse from the Arcade Fire concert [2].  Like the formal fusion, there's the potential for interesting things stemming from this collision, but when it deals with it at all it's to have Max, the representative of the hard-nosed working class, tell off some guys in wool hats (allying herself with the broader audience, who likes to identify themselves with the poor and brash no matter their salary) and then go back to her ridiculously spacious apartment in the most desirable neighbourhood in the country to complain about how much it smells.

(Of course, all TV characters live in houses that are way too nice for their alleged class, but you would expect at least some restraint if poverty is supposed to be such a central focus of the show.)

Structurally the episode is mostly plotless, serving as an excuse to revisit all of the characters and settings from the pilot, but not really doing anything with them.  Plotlessness can be great, if the characters have a suitably developed repertoire that the characters, but the banter is both not particularly clever and kind of meanspirited.  A lot of it, like the two girls' jokes about being vampires and avoiding sunshine, are the things that would seem funny when you and your friends are saying them, but are not particularly noteworthy on TV.  Furthermore, most of the characters are the kind of easy stereotypes that only great on further repetition: the elderly black hepcat, the lecherous Eastern European fry-cook, the vapid rich girl and the muscle-bound idiot.  For a comedy that has at least some aims at youthful innovation and edginess, including such well-trodden sitcom stereotypes is a sign that it sits directly in the parents' territory.

What is at stake here is reality versus the reality of television, the world we see around us against the world our screens tell us exists.  In reality we know that people are more nuanced than the easy tropes 2 Broke Girls resorts to and that Brookyln is not in fact an impoverished working class area, but unless we're regularly confronted with this fact -- if we live in Brooklyn or regularly deal with the types of people stereotyped here -- the screen image can become more real than the reality, more frequently encountered.  I've never been to L.A., but I feel as though I know it through countless screen renditions of it.  Similarly, I've never had a sassy waitress, probably because any actual waitress who engaged in rampant insulting of her customers for minor points like Max does in this show would be quickly fired -- and yet the sassy waitress is a type so prevalent and familiar that it seems just as solid as any actual waitress encountered in life.  This is, I believe when the danger comes in.

Most TV shows take place in the big city, but are aimed squarely at Middle America, star youth but are aimed at the middle-aged people who actually sit down and watch TV every night.  So there's a sense of dislocation here, where the stories of youth are filtered through the lens of older writers and audiences, creating a voyeuristic spectatorship.  As Todd VanDerWerff put it, show creator Michael Patrick King "seems fascinated by the idea that there are people who live in this 'Brooklyn' he keeps hearing about."  More insidious than false representations of a city are the kind of racist stereotypes perpetuated by the one-dimensional supporting cast -- the most egregious is the girls' slurring Asian boss, who prompts a seppuku joke that would have seemed maybe a bit too far in the 1940s.  TV viewers in isolated whitopias (whether it be Middle American suburbs or urban intellectual society) may encounter people of colour on TV more than in real life, making their screen images seem more real than the real thing -- and when they're screen images like this, I think it's legitimately dangerous.

2 Broke Girls does have its merits, and they're it's two lead actresses.  It's refreshing to see two women relied upon to carry a comedy, and with better writing this could have been the TV equivalent of Bridesmaids.  Kat Dennings takes her sassy waitress lines and manages to make them seem like they come from an actual person, the kind of brusque defensive girl who would probably actually come from a situation like hers.  Beth Behrs has less to do as an ex-rich blonde schemer, but shows a gift for physical comedy.  I just watched Connie Britton trying her best to redeem American Horror Story, and there's a certain sense of tragedy to the talented actor in the bad show (or movie), in which they always end up trying to elevate it but end up being humiliated.  So in that show Britton ends up getting fucked by a guy in a gimp suit, while here Beth Behrs takes a header into a pile of horseshit.  No, really.  I think a six-year-old must have snuck onto the writing staff here.

I feel like I should apologize for detouring into theory a lot here, but I really didn't want to deal with this episode here, nor was there much to deal with -- there was not so much a plot but a series of uninteresting events and jokes, mostly recycled from the pilot.  In attempting to ressurect the traditional sitcom with a modern sensibility it ends up only capturing the worst qualities of both.  Quality seems pretty irrelevant to a show's longevity, but even if 2 Broke Girls catches on, it'll just be another mediocre sitcom filling up a network lineup -- and those mediocre sitcoms are, in so many ways, crushing us.

Next Week: Anatomy of a (bad) genre drama

[1]I don't have the time/space to get into too much theoretical mumbo-jumbo here, but all of this ties in with Michael Warner's idea of publics and how they're constituted by and can respond to the text.  If you're interested by my garbled version of Warner, I would reccomend picking up his book Publics and Counterpublics.

[2] Part of the issue is that the show never commits to any references that might be obscure but would establish it knows what the hell it's talking about.  All of the hipster references are far too mainstream (Coldplay in the first episode is pretty egregious) and at best two years out of date.  Forgoing something believable for something that everyone will get is an unmissable sign of fakeness, and that's instant death for an edgy comedy.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Archer 3-02: Heart of Archness Part 2

(I'm getting conflicting info on whether this three-episode block is in fact the end of the second season of Archer or the beginning of the third.  Wikipedia says the latter, and it's always trustworthy, so that's what I decided to go with for the blog post header, but my OCD brain is probably going to lose sleep over this.  Details!)

A few weeks ago I talked about Frisky Dingo, an Adult Swim full-scale assault on the superhero genre.  Adam Reed's follow-up series to this was Archer, a series that does much the same thing for the equally iconic (and equally frequently parodied) spy genre.  Archer is, however, a bit more conventional -- it's the usual half-hour for comedy, is more episodic (although this episode is a bad example of that) and has a more common style of animation and comedy.  The animation is meant to be realistic, drawing off human models and 3-D techniques to an extent that resembles rotoscoping.  Truthfully, this style edges into the uncanny valley -- the characters look just real enough that their jerky or overly mechanical movements can  (This goes double for the assorted floozies Archer beds throughout the series, which have the same kind of pubescent awkwardness that attempts at 3D computer-generated porn have.)  In the end this creates a style which is no less disorienting than that of Frisky Dingo.

The comedy often strikes me as a spy-ified version of 30 Rock.  Instead of the Adult Swim-style awkward humour Archer prefers to throw as many jokes at the screen in a short time as possible, and grant that the audience is intelligent enough to catch at least most of them.  The broad range more or less ensures this -- this is a show which places in close proximity jokes about anal sex and ones about William S. Borroughs.  There's also a strong focus on workplace humour, with a lot of subplots dedicated to characters like Pam the HR head and Cheryl (or is it Carol?) the secretary having office-bound adventures.  At times it seems like the central joke of Archer is that in real life a James Bond-style spy agency would be run with just as much beauraucracy and office politics as any other job.  All of this makes it more in line with many modern comedies than the weirder style of humour favoured by Frisky Dingo.

At the same time there are clear continuities -- the megalomaniac, childish hero Archer and his long-suffering butler Jeeves are successors to Xander and Stan -- and it's certainly just as auteurist as the previous series, with Reed writing or co-writing every episode thus far as well as providing the voice of Gillette.  The general source of humour -- the collision of the fantastical with the mundane -- is also the same.  All of this can be taken to mean that Archer is not just a successor to Frisky Dingo but an improvement on it, using the same template to move towards a more perfect television show.

"Heart of Archness" is probably the most ambitious thing the series has attempted thus far.  It's a three-part serialized storyline placed in between seasons, almost a kind of split-up Archer: The Movie.  The show has used serial elements before, mostly in terms of the characters' relationships, but there was always an episodic structure that these elements were placed around.  Which isn't to say that there's no concern for the episode, as each of the three parts seems to form a distinct chunk: the first part was about Rip Riley hunting down Archer, this week is about Archer's fall from grace as the pirate king, and presumably next week will concern the spies' escape from the pirates' prison.  This is basically the conventional three-act structure, with each episode being given its own act.  The second act, usually the most interesting in any given film, is all about introducing complications to what we thought we learned from the first one.  It also usually ends with our hero(es) at the lowest point, with seemingly no hope, and this episode certainly fulfills those criteria.

Part 2, however, starts at the office.  I've mentioned the gap between the fantastic and the mundane as at the heart of Archer's humour, and these office scenes fully play off this clash.  The spy-focused characters -- Archer, Lana, Mallory -- are fundamentally viewing things through that lens, as basically an action movie, while the office characters treat it all as another job -- Carol doesn't want to work late, Pam just wants drinks after work, and Cyril is worried about how all of these adventures will affect the budget.  In a way this is a very clever satire on the action genre.  We all cheer when the boss proclaims that all resources will be devoted to the hero's mission, but Archer shows us the put-upon beauraucrat trying to find room in the budget for this largesse.  Essentially, there are two completely perpendicular world-views -- the managerial and the cinematic -- and no one in the series is able to see both.

This is what gets Archer in trouble with his new tribe of pirates.  In essence, he can't view the pirate clan as a business that needs money just as he doesn't notice the more mundane business-like elements of ISIS.  Archer, the quintessential man-child, only views life as a string of exciting attractions.  It's this myopia that gets him in trouble, but it's also what makes him an appealing comedy lead -- Archer becomes the one who does what we cannot and should not, id unleashed.  He usually comes into conflict with a stern, rules-abiding figure, the superego if we want to go fully Freudian.  Lana, Cyril, and his mother all fill this role at various points in the series, but in this episode it takes the form of David Cross's guest character Noah, a kidnapped anthropologist who acts as translator and middleman.  Curiously, the character is designed to resemble Cross himself, translating the idea of the familiar guest star (I'd bet there's a significant overlap between the audiences of Archer and Arrested Development) into a seemingly alien form.  Archer does this tie between character and actor a lot, further contributing to its sense of the uncanny.

Of course, the binary between id and superego isn't as clear-cut as that.  The office characters all seem to have their own barely-repressed but viciously hungry desires, from sex-addict Cyril to masochistic Carol to the hedonistic Pam.  As much as characters like Noah or Cyril may seem to be the sensible side of the equation, they're fighting a losing battle, as in Archer human desire is always crushing the superegotary attempts to destroy it.  The only difference is between those who try to resist this force and those who don't.  So it's no surprise that a thieving Cyril and a drunk Pam end up sleeping together instead of being the straight men they're supposed to be.  And it's also no surprise that underneath her dowdy HR-rep sweater Pam bears a giant back tattoo (revealed in an earlier episode but called back to here.)

(I apologize for that screenshot.  Really.)

Besides Archer's pirate adventures and the usual office debauchery we also have the C-plot of Ray and Lana trying to rescue Archer.  Of course, this is a bit of a Gilligan's plot as their rescue mission obviously can't be successful this episode, and they end up being caught fairly easily.  As a C-plot in a half hour show, we don't spend a lot of time with them, and what we do hangs upon the two central jokes of the characters: Lana's barely suppressed feelings for Archer, and Ray's stereotyped gay persona, now given hedonistic reign with an unlimited credit card.  Besides the obviously problematic natures of these jokes (Ray in particular has gone from a competent agent who happened to be gay to one shade short of Billy Crystal over the course of the series), these are also things we've seen before not just in this series but in countless other comedies.  Archer and Lana's love-hate relationship feels ported over from some other show without any of the usual Reed skewing, and is as familiar and basically uninteresting as any other sitcom romance.  These are two of the weaker characters on the show, and it shows when they're given nothing else to do but bounce off each other.

At the end, then, this middle of the three-parter is essentially more familiar than one would think.  The classic Archer formula is a mostly self-contained major action story, some chaos back at the office that is its own story while also fitting into a general arc like Cyril's downward spiral, and maybe some advancing of the characters' relationships in a serialized way.  There are plenty of shows (particularly comedies) that function just like this.  The major difference here that the episodic plotline stretches across three episodes, but in the end it'll probably be ultimately as self-contained as what comes before it.  Really, at this point the line between episodic and serialized television has become blurred, with most shows deciding to adopt a mixture of the two, and this is shown by how easily Archer pops over the line and back again.

There's nothing wrong with a show that's conventional, or episodic, or that broadly fits within the main storytelling modes of its time.  At the same time it's necessary to carve out your own identity even within the form you're using.  This is what Archer really succeeds at: what we see is familiar, but slightly off-kilter -- the definition of the uncanny.  At the same time there's a simple level of competence that elevates Archer above most of its contemporaries, delivering gags that are bpth unexpected and executed perfectly.  The traditional sitcom may be moribund, but Archer provides an example of how a comedy can be great without needing to innovate.

Next Week: Anatomy of a (bad) sitcom.