Sunday, February 26, 2012

Luck 1-03

Luck is a self-consciously slow series.  Its format, which examines an eventful week at a racetrack one day at a time, parcels out events at a drip [1].  So, when in this episode we learn that Walter's horse is going to race in two days, we realize that it will be in one or two weeks of our time -- at the midpoint of the season.  This isn't an aesthetic criticism -- in fact, I think it's a deliberate, quite well thought-out choice.  The characters also seem to embody this slowness in their aged bodies, with the long, worn-out looks of Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte telling the story of a long, glacial life that's mostly passed.  The same can be said of the desperate, middle-aged characters that hang around the tracks -- there's a reason that Marcus, the brains of the gambling quartet, is personally immobile, travels around in a slow electric scooter, and is constantly advising caution to his overly excited friends.  And all of this is, of course, a brilliant contrast to the subject that all these characters are fixated on: horse racing, an activity that consists of short, desperate bursts of speed.

The series' third episode (frustratingly unnamed except for the generic "Episode Three") brings this into focus by bringing Ace into contact with a character who seems to go against everything he stands for.  Nathan Israel, a young businessman working on one of his mysterious front companies is the opposite of the patient, calculating Ace, tactlessly trying to acquire everything at once, from money to knowledge.  His crime is not really anything he says or does, but rather his assumption is a finite, knowable place, one that he in his youth has already complete knowledge of.  Ace's main objection is that he hasn't had the slow life experience necessary to know anything: "Never lived a day in his life, gonna tell me why I did something".  Even his business area, derivatives, suggests a kind of recklessness and a focus on futurity.

In another series his impatience to get right to the point might make him a hip go-getter, but here it makes him something of a fool.  Throughout the episode I kept expecting Nathan to meet a grisly end, the kind of sacrifice of a foolish character that you see often early in HBO shows, both to assert the show's own willingness to cross puritanical boundaries (although at this point those boundaries are well-trodden) and as a kind of violent moral fable.  In a show like Boardwalk Empire or Sons of Anarchy, Nathan wouldn't survive the episode.  But creator David Milch, having already gone down that route in the premiere of Deadwood, knows what audience expectations are and subverts them quite considerably -- Nathan not only survives the episode, but ends up with a major opportunity, one that the more demure lackeys didn't get.  Of course, to seize that opportunity he's tasked with observing everything around him -- living slowly.

That same frustrating dynamic -- the slowness of life and the enticing attraction of speed -- is perhaps what drives gambling addict Jerry.  What comes across most in the gambling sequences, moreso than the importance of the titular luck, is how quickly fortunes can be won and lost.  In the first episode these men win more money than they would ever have at one time if they dedicated themselves to "normal" jobs, and this is portrayed as a cinematic, almost heroic triumph -- the get-rich-quick moment everyone dreams of, complete with soaring music.  It's a moment that feels so good it partly explains why Jerry keeps going to the casino and losing thousands of dollars each night.  When the stakes are so titanic, when everything happens so fast, there's a natural drama that neither characters nor audience can resist.

Of the foursome of gamblers Jerry's the most "TV-looking" one, resembling a conventional hero instead of the lowlifes he hangs out with, but he's actually the most troubled.  Unlike the other three, he has no plans for how to spend his windfall -- he just takes it right to the casino.  The conventional looks of Jason Gedrick create a strange dynamic.  We start automatically thinking of him as the hero, we start wanting to see him silence the jackass across the table from him -- in other words, we fall into the same narrative that Jerry himself falls into, which allows him to ignore the insanity of what he's doing.

At the same time, this episode lets us see a more positive side of Jerry.  He sets out to achieve the goal that Renzo, attempting the honest methods, couldn't in the last episode -- buying the horse they want.  Jerry's persistence in this matter, and his willingness to throw good money after bad, are the traits that enable his gambling addiction -- and yet here they get him what he wants quickly, and they do seem like a kind of heroism.  It suggests that it's not as simple as Jerry being a bad person, or a good person with a flaw -- the bad elements and the good are inverted sides of the same traits.  It's possible to sense in this a commentary on our ideas of a great narrative, and how poisonous they can be to everyday life.

The larger metaphor of the racetrack also sustains this ambivalence.  In every episode (at least thus far) we have a horse race as the centrepiece, a piece of cinematic excitement complete with heroic personal narratives.  But even as it pulls us in with the glory of victory, Luck lets us know the costs that the track imposes on everyone involved.  That's most dramatically illustrated in this episode's abbreviated race, where the veteran jockey Ronnie is thrown from his horse in mid-race, breaking a collarbone that's apparently been injured many times before. The long shot of Ronnie tumbling away from the retreating camera, being left behind by the callousness of the race (and, it's implied, the joy we take from it) tells the whole story -- well, that and the wince-inducing crack we hear as he tumbles.

What starts to emerge in this episode is the tight regulation of the bodies of the jockeys, who have an intensified form of biopower imposed upon them by both the sport itself and people like stuttering but menacing manager Joey.  Leon, Joey's hot young jockey, is seen in this episode collapsing in a sauna during his attempt to make weight through starving himself.  Once again the horses, the muscular beasts that the camera revels in, serve as an interesting contrast here -- they are all massive muscle, cared for exquisitely by trainers like Escalante, who would never dream of being as rude to his horses as he is to humans.  The jockeys, meanwhile, are forced to be almost nothing, a mere appendage of the horse, and are constantly the subject of verbal abuse.

(Then again, as we see in the first episode -- and in the filming process of Luck, apparently -- horse life is cheap.  They're celebrated as long as they're useful, and then discarded.  Maybe they're more like the jockeys than I thought.)

All of this is only scratching the surface of what happens in this episode.  I haven't really touched on the race plans of Walter and Rosie, probably the two least corrupt characters in the show, or on the strange relationship between Escalante and Jo.  Like many of the great HBO dramas of the past, it's not just an ensemble drama, but a sociological one -- what Milch is trying to capture here is not a particular character or group of characters, but a social group -- in this case, the strange and fading subculture that loiters around one dying racetrack.

This kind of sociological approach is typical of the modern cable prestige drama, especially those of HBO -- shows like Deadwood, The Wire and Rome involved a continually broadening frame, trying to capture as much as the world in question as possible.  This is one type of story that television tells very well, better than film or your average novel[2], if only due to the sheer amount of time a TV series has to work with -- and the way it can spread that time over months and years in the lives of the viewers, coming to seem like a separate world with its own continuity.  The story that's being told is then not about the arcs of any of the individual characters, but rather the ways in which the track draws together or breaks apart these characters as a community.

The way that Luck differs from the standard HBO show, however, when it comes to genre.  Most of its predecessors have fallen roughly into either the crime (The Sopranos, The Wire) or the historical (Deadwood, Game of Thrones[3]) genres.  Luck certainly has toes in both of these genres, with the involvement of gangster Ace and the setting of a rather backward-seeming part of the present day, and incorporates other ones like the sports drama.  But while it draws on a number of generic traditions, it's its own beast.  All comparisons to Milch's previous work aside, it's hard to think of a TV show past or present that's quite like Luck, and that's exciting.

In the end, no matter how far-ranging the show gets, it always comes back to Ace and Gus.  Thus far, every episode has ended with the two talking each other to sleep.  They spend some more time complaining about Nathan, but this time they seem like less badass old men and more envious, slowly dying creatures.  The vulnerability of these final sequences are inevitably a contrast to all of Ace's scheming and posturing throughout the day.  Ace goes to sleep, promising himself to some charitable endeavours tomorrow, while Gus is consumed with an image drastically different from his still, fading-to-sleep form: their horse, hazy and in slow motion, caught between its natural speed and Gus's imposed slowness.  In the episode's final shot, it becomes apparent that this contradiction can't last.

Next week: "The kitchen, it's dangerous."

[1]This one-day-per-episode format has been used before in television -- in Milch's Deadwood, obviously, but also in shows like Twin Peaks.  In a way this hearkens all the way back to classical theatre, where it was taken as an aesthetic rule that the narrative time of a play could last no longer than one day, and take place within a single general location.  While this is obviously rather restrictive for a complete story, the day matches up to the episode nicely as an unit of time -- it's in some way complete and distinct, separate from the next, but it also belongs to an ongoing continuity.  It's weird how the old ideas never really die.

[2]TV is certainly not the only medium that can, or has, taken this sociological view.  Long novels or other forms of serialized storytelling can do it -- think War and Peace or Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar comics, respectively.  Still, TV is unique in being able to do it in a really commercially successful and well-developed way.

[3]Game of Thrones doesn't take place in an actual historical setting, but it belongs to basically the same genre as shows like Rome or The Borgias.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Saturday Night Live 1-16: Anthony Perkins

By this point in its first season Saturday Night Live (at this point still called Saturday Night or NBC's Saturday Night) had become a phenomenon.  It drew attention, like MAD Magazine did in the 1950s, at least in part for being the only game in town for idiosyncrasy and subversiveness.  This was the era before cable, when everything on television was focus-grouped to death and aimed at a mass audience -- so to see something so obviously low-budget, with an offbeat sense of humour and an almost personal edge, in an inhospitable timeslot.  It was maybe the first show to cultivate the kind of insider atmosphere that contemporary favourites like It's Always Sunny or Community rely on.  Gags continued from week to week, and others were based on the show's established formula -- if you were just tuning in for the first time, a line like "Good evening, I'm not" makes no sense, but if you're familiar with the show it's a hilarious show on Chevy Chase's usual Weekend Update intro.

But at this point the show was expanding beyond its low-budget cult audience, and already transforming into the starmaking institution we know it as today.  The Not Ready For Primetime Players, who originally seemed to just be time-fillers in between guests, were now becoming stars in their own right.  This extends to the opening credits: whereas earlier the actors' names just flashed quickly on screen, now everyone gets their own chryon and their name announced, each one given the same billing as the guests.

At this point a show as knowing and audience-focused as the early Saturday Night Live was had to address this newfound fame.  The opening segment, in which an extended skit ends in Chevy Chase taking a scary fall and then welcoming everybody to the show, increasingly becomes metafictional, with the "out of character" actors talking about the upcoming fall.  In the opening segment this week we have Chase addressing allegations that the show relies on a lot of filler to fill out its 90-minute timeframe (a fair complaint), and doing so in as longwinded a manner as possible.

This is actually a pretty subtle joke, at least by 70s-television-standards.  Nothing Chase says seems like deliberate filler, so it takes a little while to notice his longwindedness -- but once it does, it's much more funny than the simple irony of the joke would suggest.  And then Chase does the fall in mid-speech, which is as usual a masterpiece of physical comedy.  This is what made SNL a show that could appeal to a mass audience as well as a cult one -- and perhaps what made it so easy to transition into a show targeting the mainstream -- it would talk circles around the obvious cheap laugh, make it a source of meta-humour, but in the end give you the cheap laugh, in this case a low-comedy pratfall, anyway.

I'm not going to go through the show segment-by-segment like I did for Jimmy Fallon last week, mainly because I'm not insane.  Instead, I want to talk about the main categories the segments break down into.  The first one, which can be pretty safely filed away in a corner, is the musical guest.  Although it quickly became more or less a sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live was originally conceived as a kind of variety show, and the musical segments would be a key part of this -- witness the second episode, which was mostly devoted to a Simon & Garfunkel reunion.  However, they seem out of place in this version of the show, the kind of filler that Chevy Chase jokingly admitted to in the opening.

Despite this, they've remained an essential part of SNL's makeup, and are even more often than not what generates buzz for the usually bland modern edition (e.g. Lana Del Rey's panned performance from a couple weeks ago).  A part of this is just its convenience as a venue to launch or promote music, but in a way it also appeals to the zeitgeist-embodying (or zeitgeist-forming) nature of the show.  Going through these older episodes involves a tour of the B-list musical stars of 1976, some hidden gems (Janis Ian!) others justly forgotten (this week's guest, Betty Carter, more or less falls into this category.)  For better or for worse, the musical guests of Saturday Night Live are great at preserving the pop-cultural detritus of a previous year in amber.

The celebrity hosts are a similar part of this zeitgeist, although they seem more scattershot on this first season, composing of everything from comic greats (George Carlin and Richard Pryor have both stopped by at this point) to out-of-work actors.  Every host seems to treat the show a bit differently: some treat it as just another performance, others as a chance to goof off out-of-character.  In both cases tonight's host, Anthony Perkins, falls into the latter category.  Perkins is of course famous for portraying Norman Bates in Psycho, but that was 16 years prior to this episode, so at this point he's in permanent "Whatever happened to..." category.

Perkins' presence is mainly an excuse for the show to do a bunch of Psycho jokes, although he does have a funny opening monologue -- a boring thank-you speech where he periodically does something weird, like peel off a bandage mid-speech or eat a fly.  This is another instance of the show insisting on patience from its audience, making them wait a long time for a fairly subdued joke, like the creepy happiness Perkins expresses at feeling the bandage pull his hairs out.

Of course, it's still not particularly highbrow, but I can't help but think that today Perkins would be jumping on a couch and laughing maniacally by the end of the sketch.  He performs in several of the show's sketches, and while he's not a great comedian, he does seem to be having fun -- and that's infectious.  The genuine joy of performance is something that commercial TV rarely captures, and that may be part of what made Saturday Night Live such a hit.  While he may not be the most memorable host, Perkins fulfilled the roll of the guest host, which is giving each episode a sense of individual identity and specialness -- something that's quite important, given how repetitive the comedy sketches can be.

Far from hurting the show, this repetition is a source of its humour.  Once again displaying remarkable patience, Saturday Night Live is content to make the same joke several weeks in a row, until they vary it to hilarious effect -- or just keep repeating it, making it funnier each time, such as news anchor Chevy Chase announcing every week that Francisco Franco is still dead.  (Most of these recurring or repeating jokes occur in the context of Weekend Update.)  Of course, not every instance of this works -- the repeated fake ads, or the formula of the Muppet segments[1] come to mind -- but it's still a remarkable formal innovation, one that hasn't really been taken up and developed further over the years.

Of course, the comedy is what everyone came for.  What's notable more than anything is the variety of humour on an average episode of the show: there are political jokes, broad gags like movie parodies and physical humour, risque sexual jokes (a sketch about Gilda Radner hiring a dominatrix to clean her house), home-movie strangeness, and stupid puns.  And yet somehow, it all has a distinct voice behind it, one that's just a little weird but not too weird that it isn't approachable, and that utterly refuses to take itself seriously.

It's possible to see in the early Saturday Night Live the roots of all of today's cutting-edge comedy -- Weekend Update has transformed into The Daily Show, the more bizarre segments into Tim and Eric, the hyperactive pop-culture jokes into Community, and so on and so forth.  And it accomplishes all of this without any radical formal innovation or even exceptionally great jokes.  Instead it introduced a new aesthetic -- cheap, personal, and weird -- that has proved an enormously fruitful one.  It's sort of insane how much modern comedy owes to a half-hearted attempt to program Saturday nights in the 1970s.

Next Week: "I'll get some overalls and some earthworms."

[1] Oh yeah, there were Muppets on here too.  Jim Henson created grotesque adult-oriented Muppets for the first season of the show, but they didn't really catch on, and were quickly axed.  The Muppet segments weren't terrible, but they were kind of sitcommy, and didn't really jive with the weirdness going on around them (and for the Muppets, that's saying something.)  This is reflected metafictionally in this episode, as the Muppets go around campaigning for airtime and other roles, and finally seem to get it... only for the credits to roll.  At this point Saturday Night Live was on such a roll that it could even make lemonade out of its failures.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon 1/30/12: "Glenn Close, Emmy Rossum"

Jimmy Fallon raises the interesting question of how funny a late night talk show host has to be.  The late-night format has long settled into a format of half comedy, half celebrity adulation/promotion, and Fallon is undeniably talented at the latter part.  He has a kind of energy and clueless enthusiasm that makes you think that every night is going to be a great show, and that he's genuinely excited to be doing another interview with the Shameless people or some guy from Jersey Shore.  The value of hype men to society is very questionable, but it is a kind of skill, and Fallon has it.

As for the comedy... well, it's acceptable and inoffensive, and that's kind of the problem.  The late-night joke format is as ossified as the format of the shows itself.  The host describes a current event, makes a decent but kind of obvious joke about it, sometimes the sidekick adds in a comment, and then it's onto the next topic.  (Some of Fallon's desk segments, like "Pros and Cons", follow a similar format.)  The main issue is that the set-up to joke ratio is way out of skew (at least for the level of reward the jokes give), and the kind of ADD flitting from one news topic to another without any semblance of transitions.  It's not that all of the jokes are bad, but at the same time it feels as though this part of the show only exists because a late-night show has to have it.  The set is even dressed up to have an almost archaic, Vaudevillian look.

But of course, a late night show is designed to be conventional and inoffensive, the kind of wind-down fare you can watch before bed (or possibly fall asleep to) without having to think about.  There's nothing wrong with that function, and in some ways it's comforting to think about the continuity of comedians doing essentially the same show all the way back to the 1960s.  I'm not sure how many people watch TV this way anymore, but most nights on a network are structured in a distinct arc, starting off with some easy-to-digest comedy, moving into a (theoretically) more involving drama, and finishing off with news and a late-night show to wind down.  It's a full emotional experience you can get without leaving your couch all night.  And Late Night with Jimmy Fallon perhaps deserves to be judged in this context: I've found I enjoy it a lot more the later in the day I watch it [1].  I watched this episode at 2 AM and loved it.

The second segment is probably the most "pure" comedy segment, in that it's more devoted to getting laughs than fitting into late-night conventions, and it's easily the funniest part of the show.  In what's apparently some kind of recurring segment, Fallon presents viewers with a "do not read" list, presenting the goofiest titles the writers could find on Amazon.  This segment is a great fit for Fallon because it doesn't really require him to be funny, which he has trouble doing consistently -- the books, a product of the naturally absurd world of self-publishing, do the work for him.

This is followed by another recurring segment, "Battle of the Instant Bands", in which thrown-together audience members with musical talent have to come up with a song in a short amount of time.  (Normally I would wonder about the odds of getting two bands' worth of musicians in the studio audience, but then again, this is New York.)  Of course, the actual interesting part of this process -- the chaotic attempts to come up with a song and gel as some sort of group -- is not televised.  Instead, all we get is the final, remarkably polished performance.

This probably says something about the show: any moments that aren't a pure performance are excised.  Jimmy Fallon, and the larger tradition he belongs to, exists in a world where everyone is made-up and beautiful and everything is the finished product, with no indication of process or progress.  Everything is already great.  Even the audience members seem a little larger than life, apparently being sent from Hipster Central Casting.  I would almost say that it was fixed but, again, this is New York.

Oh, and the worse band wins because they have a cute girl and pandered, based on an audience applause-o-meter.  It reminds me of the one time I went to the Apollo Theatre, and this is another moment where the vaudeville routes of the show poke through.  This isn't really a self-reflexive version of the late night show a la Ferguson or early Letterman.  Rather, it's very conscious of the tradition it belongs to, and respectfully submits itself as a follower of tradition instead of mocking or questioning it as other shows do.  In some ways this makes Jimmy Fallon frustratingly conservative, unwilling to ditch late-night staples that don't really work well here [2].  But at the very least it has a deep knowledge of its forebearers and has learned from them, which we can possibly attribute to showbiz veteran and producer Lorne Michaels.

After this we get into the interview segments. The interview is in many ways the main draw of the show: it's what they announce at the top of the hour, and what usually takes up the most airtime (although this episode is more heavily waited towards host segments). It's worth noting, however, that this is a distinctly neutered version the interview as a form. It's more of a friendly chat with a minor celebrity, which segues into an advertisement for whatever the celebrity is currently involved in. So when Fallon sits down with Glenn Close, it's more or less a given that he's not going to ask her much about her craft as an actor, or roles she's done less recently, and that nobody will mention the rocky critical reception of her pet project Albert Nobbs. This is not so much a criticism as an observation that the performative aesthetic extends here: on late night, everyone is awesome, and no one ever makes a bad film.

These interviews are then a service mainly to the subject and not the audience. (The subjects of the interview aren't even described as such – the official terminology is “guest”.) But the audience, at least the ideal audience imagined by the genre – which is not too different from the ideal audience of the National Enquirer – does get something from this, which explains the format's enduring popularity. There's the idea that this is the celebrity in their natural form, not performing in one role or the other or having to justify themselves as they would in a harsher interview. Instead, the illusion is that the host, and by extension the audience, is just hanging out with this famous person – cracking jokes, playing games, talking about trivial things. Much like many sitcoms, it's a fantasy of friendship, although more of an impossible dream than, say, Friends.

Of course, on the talk show circuit the guests are playing a role no less than they are in their films: it's ultimately a performative space. But Glenn Close is playing the character Glenn Close[3], as opposed to the character of Albert Nobbs or Monica Rawlings or whatever, and that character is designed to be fun to (virtually) hang out with. So there's a pleasure for the audience even if they're aware that the interview is a disguised advertisement.

For the night's biggest guest Fallon usually takes a second segment to play a game with them, which usually seems to be some variant of charades. This is usually more entertaining than another five minutes of interview would be, and it furthers the goal of putting these celebrities in a seemingly casual hang-out setting. In this episode's variant, Glenn Close and her makeup-artist husband work magic on Jimmy's face. This is actually quite a well set-up gag: we're lead to expect an Albert Nobbs-level transformation, and then the chair turns around to reveal... Jimmy Fallon with a bunch of pieces of tape stuck to his face. It's a good joke, riffing off the silliness of the transformation trope, so good that they do it again with Glenn Close to diminishing returns (although it's technically better executed the second time around.)

After this there's an interview with Emmy Rossum, which sort of shows the pitfalls of this kind of interview.  Once again, we have the compulsive friendliness, which turns the short interview into mostly Rossum talking about her flight.  You could overhear the exact same conversation on the bus, and with lesser celebrities the hanging-out factor is a lot less appealing.  No one is going to say "Holy shit, it's like I'm actually chilling out with Emmy freaking Rossum."  This segment is over with in a blink, and other than Rossum's beauty there's not much to interest one in her or in the show she's there to promote, Shameless.  It's inoffensive, but on the other hand the segment is a waste of five minutes or however long it lasts.

The show closes out with a musical performance from Nada Surf.  If there's one thing that could be said to distinguish Fallon from his late-night competitors, it's the emphasis on music, which can be seen in both the house band (The Roots!) and his frequent musical guests who are actually the kind of hip up-and-coming artists that both (a)could genuinely use the exposure and (b)help give some cred to the show, which in most other ways is rather square and credulous.  Musical performance is always a little visually uninteresting, but not more so than an interview.  I do have to wonder, though, what's up with the guys in the crowd behind the band.  Did they watch the whole show from there?  Did they get special stare-at-our-musical-guests'-backs tickets?

(Unfortunately I couldn't find a good screencap of these strange individuals.)

All in all a perfectly harmless and mostly entertaining hour of television.  Nothing overstays its welcome, and one is never bored or forced to think.  But is it okay for art -- and we have to consider television to be art -- to be harmless?

That's a loaded question, of course -- Late Night with Jimmy Fallon shares little more than a medium with something like Breaking Bad, and asking it to be revelatory is like holding your morning newspaper to the standards of a literary novel.  The function these shows exist to serve -- a kind of mental cleansing before bed -- is perhaps an important one, even if it's the opposite of intellectual stimulation.  Of course, a lot of stuff can get slipped by you when you're not thinking, so it's important to consider the content of these shows even when they present themselves as trivial.  A critic has to walk a fine line between taking a show on its own terms and dragging it out of the way it wants to be defined.  So I think it's possible to define Fallon as both a fun hang-out show and a vapid cog in the great machine celebrity industry -- and it would be possible to excise either without destroying the show, and the genre it belongs to, completely.

Next week: "Live, from New York... it's Saturday Night!"

[1]Of course, this might be what makes late night shows such an effective advertisement for movies, TV, and other media properties -- they get you when your critical faculties are shutting off.

[2]The show would be much better, for instance, if they ditched the opening monologue and replaced it with perhaps another musical performance.  Hey, maybe The Roots could play a full song once.  That would be cool.

[3]In other words, the interview is about as real as those interviews you see at the start of porn films where the girl talks about how excited she is to do double anal. Er, or so I've heard.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Another 2: Blueprint

The episode titles of horror anime series Another have thus far suggested a drawing in process: "Rough sketch", "Blueprint", "Bonework".  It seems to say a lot about the series's idea of its early episodes, which are just groundwork being laid for what will presumably be the horrific events to follow.  As such, it's hard to really write about "Blueprint", because quite frankly nothing happens in it.  Our protagonist sees Mei, mysterious eyepatch girl, a few more times and has some cryptic conversations with her.  He has some dull conversations with his other classmates, and we get further evidence that they're hiding something from him.  He follows Mei to a creepy doll shop, and she offers to show him what's under her eyepatch, which is presumably not an empty eye socket.  Then, just as it looks like something's about to happen, the episode ends.

Perhaps the horror genre is difficult to plug into a serialized television narrative.  The arc of a horror film, in which slight cracks in a mundane normalcy eventually grow to threaten everyone within, doesn't fit in with the repeating threats that fit a serialized format.  For example, in The Exorcist almost the entire first half of the film is mostly mundane domestic drama with only a few hints that something beyond the rational is happening.  Imagine if you chopped that film up into half-hour segments and aired it as a TV miniseries.  Wouldn't those first couple of episodes be awful television?

Similarly, most TV horror shows[1] spend about half their runtime as rather dull affairs, with only gradual signs of the oncoming terror.  The philosophy of this blog is that an individual TV episode has to stand up as a piece of work on its own, in addition to how it fits into the series' larger narrative -- and from this perspective, most horror shows fail the task.  (David Simon and a lot of other people would disagree with this, but I think it's the only tenable position given the format and how it's delivered.)  Of course, some shows manage it -- Shiki was pretty good on the whole, although the first half still dragged a bit -- but it's a problem that most don't really deal with.

Of course, what you do have in these episodes is atmosphere.  The banal conversations with classmates and focus on routine and regularity recall nothing so much as the high school slice-of-life anime, a strangely popular genre that has no real analogue in American TV [2].  I don't want to call it an uniquely Japanese genre, because that calls to mind all kinds of quasi-racist stereotypes, but the focus on atmosphere and setting almost to the exclusion of plot is something that I've only encountered in Japanese media.  Of course, the cynical explanation for this genre's popularity is that it usually involves hordes of cute teenage girls, sometimes revolving around a nondescript male love interest.  Another falls into this category as well, admittedly, and is produced by P. A. Works, notorious creators of cute-girl fluff like last year's Hanasaku Iroha.

But I think there's something more than that at work here.  The slice of life genre fundamentally is about imagining a kind of utopian space that can be inhabited not just during moments of extraordinary passion but in mundane, day-to-day existence.  This space is constructed in such a way that the viewer feels he is visiting it simply by watching.  I don't want to discount the pleasures such a space can bring, or the skill that goes into crafting it.  Steins;gate spent much of its first half building such a space, in its community of outcasts, and I found that quite effective.

The horror in Another, then, is not one that stems from underlying social cracks.  Instead, it's a threat to the idyllic society of the high school -- a society that has its deep secrets, but is basically cohesive as long as nobody starts poking around.  Another wants to present a slice of life world that horror threatens, much in the same way that Twin Peaks presents a small-town sitcom world where murders start breaking out.  But it doesn't go about developing this world well -- we get the mundanity, but none of the charm that would make us care about this small town.  The characters are all ciphers with vague personalities.  Other than hairstyle, it's hard to tell them apart.

I want to go beyond judging quality, as I find that conversation mostly boring.  Another is mediocre.  Most television is mediocre, and there's not much interesting about mediocrity.  There are, however, some interesting things that Another brings to the table, and they emerge not from the fairly unimaginative minds of its creators[3] but from the unintentional conflict between genre and medium.

Take the motif of dolls.  This is a reoccurring image in Another, so much so that during the first episode there were rapid, extradiegetic cuts away from the show's story to still images of dolls.  The final scene of "Blueprint", and its most interesting, takes place in a doll shop.  Of course, dolls have long been associated with horror.  Freud argued that they were a prime example of the uncanny  because they resembled humans but at the same time weren't quite human, mixing the lifelike and the artificial in a way our minds can't quite deal with.  And the dolls in Another are especially creepy, or at least they're supposed to be.  We even go into the basement, to see the more-uncanny spare parts of dolls in progress.

Another specifically calls attention to this uncanny aspect of dolls.  We run into a doll that looks eerily like Mei, a fact that she remarks on.  The horror comes, or is supposed to come, from the breaking down of the barrier between living and non-living.  And to a certain degree this scene is effective at being creepy, probably the most successful the series has been at being creepy so far, although that may be through the blunt-force application of darkness and eerie music more than anything else.

However, this use of the uncanny seems to conflict with the anime medium.  Like dolls, anime characters are human but not human, with proportions and features just slightly out of whack -- and yet we're asked to identify with them as full, canny, nonhorrific humans.  And I'm okay with that, although it does present a barrier that stops some people from getting into anime.  But because we're already being asked to identify with a simulacrum, it staves off the uncanny feeling of the dolls, which are filtered through another layer of artificiality (animation).  Really, the dolls aren't any less lifelike or more uncanny than the characters.  This is a great example of why tropes can't simply be ported between media.

My goal here is certainly not to limit the types of story we can tell in a certain medium.  Like I said, there have been effective horror TV shows, and horror anime.  But artistic creators have to take into account the form they're working with, and be aware of its central features -- and when it doesn't, you end up with a story that doesn't have anything obviously wrong with it, but just feels undeniably weak and distant.  And that's Another.

Next week: "They put the word 'Desire' on the side, just so you know what emotion to feel when you're reading it."

[1]I'm basing this mostly off anime, as there's not much in the way of American horror TV outside of anthology series like The Twilight Zone, which don't need to worry about the serialization problem.  And then there's American Horror Story, which takes the opposite tack of ignoring the horror formula completely and just throwing everything at the screen as quick as possible.

[2]In American TV, high school is the most dramatic, important, over-the-top time of your life, whereas in anime (with some exceptions) it's the most peaceful, harmonious and happy time of your life.

[3]Yeah, I know, death of the author, yada yada.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that the interesting bits come more from the show's existence and less from its aesthetic quality.