Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Chris Gethard Show 141: Should We Keep Doing This Show?

In my last post, I talked about how network TV shows have their creative direction constantly affected by the network's ability to cancel or renew them.  In an age of long-term story arcs, the network show is never quite sure just how long it will last.  On the exact opposite end of this spectrum is The Chris Gethard Show.  A product of public-access television and Internet streaming, the show can go on for precisely as long as the creators keep showing up to the studio.  And as a call-in/variety show, Chris Gethard doesn't have to think about when a story goes on to be wrapped up.  Theoretically, this show could go on forever, or at least until New York is underwater.

This is the most absolute form of creative freedom you'll find in TV (as in most popular art forms, freedom and obscurity go hand in hand).  But as we've all learned from Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility -- or, more precisely, with great freedom comes great significance.  Ending Chris Gethard would be a deliberate act, one that cannot be blamed on ratings or storylines.  There can be no "save our show" campaign, as the fans would have to uncomfortably argue that the show should be saved from those who create it[1].  I don't like to talk about "agency", but in independent art the agency of the creator is both blessing and burden.

"Should We Keep Doing This Show?" is a mostly symbolic attempt to extend this agency to the fans of the show.  The format is about as barebones as Chris Gethard gets: each caller phones in and responds to the titular question with either "yes" or "no".  After three weeks of deliberation and ambivalence by the creators, the yes-or-no format is refreshing in its directness, although it doesn't stop one caller from hemming and hawing through a longwinded list of TV analogies.

This episode is the culmination of a month-long arc titled "Evolve or Die", with each episode dealing in some way with the possible impending end of the show and the possibility of its reinvention.  This is another divergence from the chronological world of the TV series, which resists both evolution and death.  If anything, there's a palpable fear of The Chris Gethard Show becoming an institution, or even a regular job.

In part this is a discomfort with the show's success and its ever-growing cult following.  A few weeks prior, a remarkably sober panel discussed how Gethard could no longer describe himself as the underdog.  What was a scrappy public access call-in show watched by no one is now an internationally-watched show that is praised and criticized just like any other TV program (by people such as myself).

The Chris Gethard Show's improvisational interaction with its audience and friendly, accepting ethos (summed up by Mal Blum telling the audience "no one should ever be alone" the previous week) created an affectionate bond between performers and audience that was far beyond the usual relations of fandom.  Several viewers have spoke of the show as a kind of therapy.  But what is becoming increasingly clear is that this relationship is not all warm feelings, but also constitutes a responsibility, perhaps even a burden.  In previous episodes, Gethard despaired at the idea that he would have to stay on the air to keep helping people through their mental issues.  He said that it wasn't his responsibility to look after the mental health of strangers, especially at the expense of his own mental health, and that's certainly true.  But perhaps what's psychologically helpful about the show is precisely that it allows the audience to believe that they aren't strangers to Chris Gethard and the rest of the cast.

After weeks of experimentation, including the shocking cold open of "Why Did You Stop Watching The Chris Gethard Show" and the solo lunacy of "I Can Be Bad All By Myself", we get a conventional Chris Gethard opening: Murph screams at the camera, the LLC play the opening theme (sans Hallie this time), and the panel introduces us to the theme for the week.  It's a classic Chris Gethard panel too, with all of the show's regulars.  This return to convention serves two purposes in the episode.  Firstly, giving the audience what they've come to expect after weeks of scorning them is a gesture that helps invite them back into the fold.  (Although this is mitigated a moment later when Gethard chastises the audience for chanting.)  Secondly, it repeats the typical opening with the knowledge that this might be the last time it happens.

The actual call-in portion of the show is fairly straightforward.  There's some early pretense at keeping score, with Bethany drawing a tally on Jesse's chest, but pretty much everyone who calls in says "yes", and even the few who say "no" just want to see the crew work on other projects.  Whatever mixed feelings that are felt by the crew aren't shared by the audience.  This puts the creators of the show in a somewhat awkward position.

What emerges from the conversation is less a sense of creative exhaustion than physical exhaustion.  Gethard says "I'm very tired, almost all the time.  I'm growing up.  I don't know if I want to spend my whole life getting hit with broom by relative strangers".  As such, this string of episodes has felt a lot like Gethard asking the audience and the rest of the crew permission for a decision that he's already made, frustratingly disguised as a discussion.  This is permission that, for the most part, the audience refuses to give -- most if not all would be accepting of Chris's decision to end the show, but there are few "nos" among either callers or panelists.

But a funny thing happens.  A guy calls from Pakistan, and talks briefly about the weird cricket-star-lead revolution that's taking place in his country.  Gethard gets excited at the prospect of connecting to someone in such a radically different situation.  Towards the end of the episode, a guy with tattoos ased on the show calls in and proceeds to blow everyone's minds.  Far from the dejected, exhausted Gethard of "Why Did You Stop Watching?", we have the Chris Gethard of endless and uncomplicated enthusiasm, the force of positive energy that provides the ethos of the show.  He starts making plans for "If we come back".  By the end of the episode, I was distinctly more convinced that we'd see the show return than I was at the start.  The audience renewed their commitment to the performers, not by simply voting "yes" but by engaging Chris on a human level.

As usual, there's a lot more weirdness going on around the edges of the episode's main topic.  The set of The Chris Gethard Show is designed to convey total anarchy: there's Mimi on the Hoops, a man behind the plant, and a bunch of people in costumes sitting behind the main action.  These aspects are rarely commented on, but there's a sense that any one of these people could step up and become the protagonist of the show at any time.  Starting with its tradition of including "randoms" on the panel, The Chris Gethard Show has made the line between performer and audience porous to the point of nonexistence.

This sense of anarchy extends to the show's proceedings, where unexpected tangents often take on a life of their own.  The most notable example was a monologue by the Human Fish.  Besides being a great visual, the Human Fish usually doesn't do much more than his typical "A vs. B" judgement.  But suddenly, he speaks at length, and of course he has a complex inner life, and the flimsy backstory about him being here to learn about human society becomes meaningful and even touching.  The moments that have been self-conscious markers for the show's dumbness, like the "eat a burrito off my belly" episode, are moments of hope here.  When he announces that he will be returning to the sea, it's a more poetic rationale for why it might be time to end the show than any other justification made over the last month.

Less memorable is a recurring bit where the writers try out "characters we have to get on the show before it ends", which are of course all stupid one-note puns (Santa and Satan, Dr. Heckle and Mr. Snyde, the Nun-Chucks).  The purpose of The Chris Gethard Show's writers, as the show is usually better when it's being spontaneous, and as such the writing has often been the but of jokes.  This hews pretty close to the alt-comedy isn't-it-funny-to-think-someone-would-laugh-at-this routine, which I'm not a big fan of.  But even these jokes are enlivened by the positive energy that flows through The Chris Gethard Show, which suggests that maybe terrible puns deserve to be celebrated as well.

If this is the last episode of the show, it will be an odd one but definitely a fitting one.  Lots of television series, some quite mainstream, have done self-reflexive finales, but I can't think of any that have tackled the act of ending a beloved show so head-on.  But even with such a seemingly depressing topic, so much positivity comes flooding in through the phone lines and the energy of the performers.  Even the grimmest episode of "Evolve or Die" had a moment where a story about Gethard going to a baseball game made everyone crack up.  Even though I hope the show comes back, there would be no more appropriate way to end than everyone beaming and trying not to laugh at the end of a night they were prepared to be miserable.

[1]Although this hasn't stopped Doctor Who fans over the past decade.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Freaks and Geeks 1-16: Smooching and Mooching

What happens when you attain the unattainable?  What do you do when you get what you always wanted?  Well, if you're a fictional character it's the end of the story.  But things are a little different in television.  Because of the material conditions network television is produced under, writers find themselves producing a story whose length they have no control over.  The result is that TV shows have to choose between endlessly delaying the resolution of their central conflicts, or finding out what happens after the resolution.

As it would happen, Freaks and Geeks didn't really have to make this choice.  There were only two episodes aired after "Smooching and Mooching", and with a little helpful rearranging this episode could have easily been the happy ending that would tie a neat bow on the series.  This is an episode in which multiple characters have their fantasies fulfilled: Sam gets to make out with Cindy Sanders, Nick finds a supportive family, and Bill gets treated like a human being by the popular kids.  In fact, some of the later scenes come off like a male fantasy.  In the sixteenth episode of the first season, this is a bold bolt-from-the-blue moment.

The news in the episode's first act that Cindy has dumped the personality-less Todd and is now interested in Sam as more than a friend is rather sudden, perhaps justified by the fact that we never really know Cindy as a character in her own right.  Cindy's gradual disenchantment with Todd has been going on somewhere else while Sam has been taken up by other things (mostly sliding into the role of a secondary character in his own show).  For all his fixation on her, Sam really has little understanding of Cindy's life and her psychology, and needs to be coached on what she wants and how to approach her.  We're told that Sam and Cindy have an hours-long phone conversation, but they don't really seem to share much at all -- which leads to Sam's disappointment in the next episode.

Part of this is Sam's immaturity, but I think part of it is also the writers' lack of interest in Cindy as a character.  Paul Feig, Judd Apatow and the other writers (including Steve Bannos, who plays Mr. Kowcheski and is credited as the writer for this episode) are certainly capable of portraying realistic and three-dimensional female characters, with Lindsey and Kim being the least easily-stereotyped characters on the show.  But when women appear as the objects of desire in the male protagonist's storyline, this depth seems to go away.  Cindy's behaviour appears arbitrary and unpredictable, which is probably exactly how Sam would see it, but unlike so many of the series' other secondary characters it's hard to imagine her interior life.  This will in turn make the episode's conclusion a little unconvincing.

With Sam temporarily elevated to the status of desirability, Neil and Bill become the underdogs of the story, torn between envy and trying to ride on Sam's coattails.  One of the more interesting character dynamics throughout Freaks and Geeks is the fluctuating element of power within the geeks' friendship.  Talkative and bossy Neil is usually in control, while Bill is the one that the other two clearly consider even more of a loser than they are.  (You also have Gordon and Harris orbiting on the edges of this group, who both have fairly nebulous places in the hierarchy.)  This stands in contrast to the freaks, who despite their frequent fights all seem to be on a more or less even playing field.  While the geeks also exist on the hated fringes of high school life, Freaks and Geeks suggests -- correctly, at least as far as my experiences with nerd culture go --that those on the outside can also be as status-conscious as those on the inside.  The female geeks in "Looks and Books" also have a clear hierarchy, suggesting that in the view of Feig there's something insidious or at the very least paradoxical about the geeks that their own self-pity prevents them from realizing.  Whereas the freaks willfully reject the society of the popular kids, the geeks desperately dream of entering it.

It's a small and pathetic world, but Neil enjoys being at the top of it.  When Neil's control of the world around him is undermined, as in "The Garage Door", it creates a kind of social vacuum that all parties involved are obviously uneasy with.  In this episode, Sam's success with Cindy destroys Neil's self-appointed position as the worldly ladies' man of the group, the one who can dispatch advice about girls even if this advice is only based off sitcoms and magazine articles.  He frantically invites himself to the popular kids' make-out party, and doubles down on his attempts to systematically master the world of romance.  In one scene he displays his apparent mastery of spin-the-bottle, confident that this will win him the heart (or at least the lips) of Vickie Appleby.  Like the classic (perhaps stereotypical) geek, Neil can only think in systems and is not aware how his straightforward logical thinking will collapse in the realm of emotion.

Speaking of spin-the-bottle: I don't think I had quite realized before this episode just how cruel that game is [1].  At best, it conceals teenage sexual desire beneath an element of chance, allowing someone to kiss who they want (especially if it's someone, or multiple someones, they're not supposed to want to kiss) without taking responsibility for it.  At worst, it's a group denial of consent with results from humiliation to sexual assault.

Bill nicely points out the element of pain for the undesired: "What if they don't want to kiss us?  [...]  I just don't want to see the expression on their face after the bottle lands on me".  Neil, on the other hand, is thrilled with the chance to compel girls to kiss him: "That's the genius part of the game.  They have to kiss us.  Who cares [about their expression]?"  Neil's callousness would be extremely creepy if it weren't obviously covering up for deep-seated insecurity.  And so the trio of geeks prepare for the make-out party with their usual reaction to any milestone of adulthood they encounter: Sam with apprehension, Neil with fake bravado and expertise, and Bill with full-throttle resistance.  There's a great scene set in the cafeteria where Bill details the physical acts of French kissing in a way that makes them disgusting, focusing on all of the germs and detritus that gather on the tongue.  "Do you lick the inside of the mouth?  Do you lick the inside of her tongue?"  Up until the episode's final moments, the prospect of making out with a girl is more horrifying than erotic.  "Smooching and Mooching" clearly suggests by the end that Bill's resistance is fueled by immaturity, but it's also worth noting that Gordon and Harris are completely uninterested in the party, undermining Neil's idea that getting to make out with a cheerleader against her will is an obvious goal.

The actual experience of the party is a reversal of expectations for both Neil and Bill, and a fulfillment of dreams for Sam.  For the actually popular kids, the party is a way to fulfill their omnidirectional sexual desire without actually admitting a desire for anything outside of "going steady".  Neil's mastery of bottle-spinning fails him, with his spins constantly landing on Bill.  For Bill, who keeps landing on Vickie, he receives at first his expected humiliation.  Vickie clearly finds the prospect of kissing him revolting (not entirely unfair) and only allows him to kiss her hand or forehead.  The mutual discomfort is conveyed through body language, Vickie's desperate negotiating, and the soundtrack, "Poor Poor Pitiful Me".

The torturous recognition of Bill's status as undesirable culminates when he and Vickie are selected for "seven minutes in heaven", which they both react to with obvious pain.  But this is a TV show, so they end up making out instead.  It's not unbelievable per se, and it fits in nicely with Freaks and Geeks' continued interest in friendships and other connections which transgress the seemingly clear-cut boundaries of high school[2].  But it's hard to deny that this feels like a nerdy male fantasy, in which the loser's ability to recite lines from comedy movies attracts the head cheerleader to him (as reported in The Onion).

Spin-the-bottle is just as repulsive for Vickie as it is for Bill.  While she may be interested in using the game as an excuse to make out consequence-free with members of the football team, it quickly becomes a forum for boys she isn't attracted to forcing their bodies on her.  This is, if one stops to think about it, much worse than the humiliation Bill feels from her repeated rejections.  But the (almost entirely male) writing staff doesn't focus on this side of the game.  Bill asks Vickie what it's like to be pretty, assuming that it must be great, and there's no sense that being an attractive teenage girl can be incredibly hazardous.  The montage of the two geeks making out with their dream girls is set to Bob Seger's "You'll Accomp'ny Me", a song whose chorus insists on an inevitable romantic future over unheard refusal or disinterest.  In a roundabout way, Bill's happy ending proves that Neil was right: making out with an unfamiliar girl is in fact universally desirable, and it can be accomplished through compulsory games.

This problematic message is all the more surprising, since it is set in parallel to Cindy's straightforward and open desire for Sam.  Despite the suggestion that she dumped Todd for only being interested in sex, Cindy is the most openly libidinous character in the episode.  Instead of couching her desire in games, she all but tells Sam that she wants to make out with him, and tells him how she wants him to do it.  In fact, as we find out in the next episode making out is just about all Cindy is interested in.  Pairing this awkward but open courtship with the furtid compulsion that forces Vickie together in a softly-soundtracked montage that encourages us to think of both as part of the same magical moment feels like a betrayal.  I'm not suggesting that Freaks and Geeks needs to be didactically sex-positive, but I would have preferred a tenuous connection and perhaps a budding friendship between Bill and Vickie that respects both of their initial refusals to kiss instead of brushing them aside [3].

The episode's Freak-centred plot is also about a teenage boy's fantasy coming true, although a less libidinous one.  Nick briefly moves in with Lindsay and bonds with her parents, who provide the kind of loving and unconditional support he's been desperate for throughout the series.  The last straw for Nick is when he comes home and finds that his father has sold his drum set.  This could easily be presented as a goofy sitcom-father overreaction, but there are a number of factors that makes this incident seem like a chilling betrayal.  One is that Nick's musical aspirations are well-established and have been the subject of previous episodes.  Characters in Freaks and Geeks have a tendency to pick up interests for one episode and then never talk about them again, but this is not one of those instances.  In addition to script continuity, the visual choices give this scene an aura of violence that make it seem like much more than a father-son squabble.  Kevin Tighe remains seated and never raises his voice, projecting an air of cold-blooded menace.  It would be one thing to get rid of his son's drums out of stubborn passion or tough love, but here it seems like a calculated act of violence, one of the thousand cuts by which Mr. Andopolos controls Nick.  The confrontation is blocked so that Mr. Andopolos grows gradually more menacing.  Nick is initially in an aggressive, physical posture, but as soon as his father stands up he visibly shrinks.  Kevin Tighe is shorter than Jason Segel, but it sure doesn't look that way.

Nick's father's action doesn't really come across as a pointlessly cruel punishment: the series has frequently mocked Nick's delusions of musical genius and even hinted that this dream is keeping him from achieving greater things (a hint which is given greater nuance later in the episode).  His father also references his drug use, which the series has presented as a problem before.  So there is a logic to Mr. Andopolos's actions, and it's that framework of emotionless logic that he uses to justify himself, saying that Nick broke their deal.  Nick sounds less angry and more frustrated.  He can argue all day, but there's nothing he can do to change his father's actions.  Here Freaks and Geeks fully draws out the agony of adolescence: not just coming to grips with bodily urges, as in the Geeks' plotline, but also the pain of being an adult-sized person whose world is completely controlled by another.  Mr. Andopolos is a classic example of the disciplinairan, using his control of the environment and ability to act suddenly and arbitrarily to enforce his own allegedly fair rules and remind his subjects of their ultimate powerlessness.  His power is precisely the ability to act without consent or justification -- he repeatedly tells Nick "end of conversation", emphasizing that he does not need or want Nick to understand, much less agree with, his actions.  So of course, Nick revolts.

Lindsay is clearly reluctant to have Nick stay at her place.  She sees this request as just another one of Nick's attempts to get close to her and try to sneak back into a relationship with her.  Nick basically imposes himself on her, so it's easy to understand Lindsay's irritation, but at the same time it's an example of how people find it difficult to adjust between dealing with everyday personal issues and dealing with life crises like Nick leaving home.  Lindsay's quickness to leap to the "well, I would, but my parents" line suggests, as "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers" did, that as much as she berates her square and unpermissive parents Lindsay also likes being able to go to a "straight" world that's divorced from her flirtation with the freaks.  When Nick moves in, that space vanishes -- and Lindsay is even more horrified to see her parents actually getting along with him.

Lindsay is sort of right to suspect that Nick is using this crisis as an attempt to get back together with her.  It may not be a conscious effort, but there's a scene where he wanders around half-naked and pesters Lindsay at the middle of the night.  Then again, this could simply be the increased intimacy of actually living with a person -- an intimacy that Lindsay wants nothing to do with.  She's also right to feel a little slighted by the fact that her parents, normally so critical of her, are so accepting of Nick.  Her father's justification for this different treatment is that he expects more from her than he does of Nick, and that Nick has had a harder childhood than her.

I think there's a bit more to this, though.  One of the major differences here is gender -- consider the way that the Weir parents generally encourage Sam's mischief with a boys-will-be-boys attitude, while restricting anything Lindsay wants to do.  This is the old law of conventional parenting: encourage your sons' desires, and protect your daughters from theirs.  But the Weir parents also probably sense that a disciplinarian approach is not what Nick needs right now.  Strict discipline is in fact what he's fleeing from.  Instead, Harold Weir sees through Nick's psychology in a way Mr. Andopolos doesn't try to, and calls him out on using his ambition to be a drummer as an excuse for laziness.  This is, it turns out, the kind of chastisement that Nick needs: one that recognizes his ambitions, unlike his father, but one that treats them as serious work that needs to be done.

And so Nick goes from wanting to get closer to Lindsay to wanting to get closer to her parents, from wanting to be her boyfriend to wanting to be her brother.  Lindsay is even more horrified by this turn of events.  (Seriously, Linda Cardinelli's reaction shots are the best thing in the show, and if Freaks and Geeks was around today you wouldn't be able to visit a webpage without seeing a .gif of horrified Lindsay.)  But as with Sam and Bill's fantasies, it can't last forever. Nick's father returns to take him home, and even makes a show of contrition.  Nick seems stunned that his father even cared enough to make the trip.  You can read this one of two ways -- as a sign that Mr. Andopolos cares about Nick more than he lets on, or a sign of the lack of affection he usually displays.  We see so little of Nick's familiy life -- his father only appears in two episodes -- that it's hard to tell whether the relationship really is abusive, as some speculate, or whether it's a more benign case of over-strictness and a generational divide in expectations.  But, as Nick's interactions with Harold show, there are ways to cross that divide and avoid the cold warfare of the Andopolos house.

But even if Nick eventually has to return to that frosty house, he still has those moments of connection, listening to Gene Krupa and dancing with Lindsay's mom.  More than anything, Freaks and Geeks is a celebration of these brief and unlikely connections -- the cheerleader kissing the biggest dork in school before they both head back to their normal lives, the straight-laced Christian girl talking her freak friend down from a drug trip.  The ostensible central narrative of the series, Lindsay turning from mathlete to freak, is another one of those moments of brief but powerful connection.  Freaks and Geeks isn't utopian enough to suggest that these connections can persist and subvert the social world they exist within.  In the two episodes after this, we see bonds that have existed throughout the whole series coming undone and the characters in the early stages of drifting apart.  In a way it's a good thing that Freaks and Geeks only ran for one season, as having these characters be in constant and static social groups would seem increasingly contrived.  As it stands it reminds us that our dreams can't come true forever, because then they would cease to be dreams.  But it's those all-too-brief dreamlike moments that give us happiness.

[1]I hadn't given it much thought before because, well, let's just say that my teenhood did not involve very many make-out parties.

[2] In this, as in many other things, Freaks and Geeks follows its obvious influence Dazed and Confused.

[3] This ending also trivializes Bill's subtextual crush on Cindy, which makes many of the earlier scenes in this episode so heartbreaking at the same time they are miraculous from Sam's more explicit perspective.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Frontline: Separate and Unequal/Omarina's Story

In this two-part episode, PBS's venerable investigative-journalism series Frontline takes on the issue of education in America and its unequal distribution.  Education is one of those issues that everyone says is important to them on opinion polls, but rarely forms the subject of mass debate.  For TV producers, education is a less visually exciting topic than crime or medicine -- there's no such thing as a "teacher procedural".  Learning, at least as practiced in contemporary schooling, is a process that takes place over years, mostly through dull-as-dirt lessons and repetitive work.  For another thing, there are few political loyalties to flare up when it comes to discussing education, as both U.S. parties are committed to the same (disastrous) neoliberal education policy.

Even when people talk about education, they have a way of not really talking about it.  That extends to the most recent Frontline episode.  In the first segment, the question is all about distribution of education funding, but in this discussion schooling is talked about like a concrete and measurable resource which various groups are fighitng over.  Obviously, funding is an important aspect of education in a capitalist system -- underfunded schools can't provide the same programs and opportunities that richer schools can, which results in students having even less opportunity to pursue their own interests and learn organically.  But still, the episode struggles to express, visually and verbally, what "good education" is.

That difficulty is key to the segment's central conflict, between a group of affluent Baton Rouge residents who want to secede from the city's school system and a municipal authority which wants to hold on to its shrinking funding base.  The secessionists argue that Baton Rouge schools are too poor to save, and that they must start again with a new town.  The opponents of the newly-proposed town, Baton Rouge's mayor among them, argues that this desire to separate is rooted in race and class and is akin to the "white flight" that bankrupted inner cities in the 1970s.  Frontline implicitly takes the latter side, editing the program so that anti-separation talking heads always get the final word in, but there's little way to tell if complaints about the quality of education are actually valid.

One school's principle tells us that it has recently been upgraded to a "C" school from a "D" one, but we have little idea of what that means.  On the other side of the argument, we hear that this school has a notorious record for fights, many of them uploaded to YouTube, but again it's hard to say what the causes of these fights are or whether they compromise the process of education.  We get generic shots of students listening and doing homework, but again it's hard to see a direct relationship between the school's funding and the ability of children to actually learn.

The way in which the process of education vanishes in this conversation is indicative of liberal discourse around the issue.  Here, education is a commodity like any other that can be distributed equally or unequally.  Liberals prefer to distribute it through the government, while conservatives want to edge it towards the marketplace.  There is no room here for debate about the purpose of education, pedagogical technique, or a wide-ranging critique of the system a la Ivan Illich.

What this Frontline story does point out is the way in which school inequality can't be broken down into a private-public dichotomy.  Under the new town, both school boards would be public, but there would exist a substantial inequality between two ostensibly public schools.  There's a brief mention of the pattern of "white flight" which suggests that this is not an isolated or new phenomenon.  Without the drastic step of making a new town, many white middle-class families essentially did the same thing in the 1970s by moving to suburbs and draining the coffers of actual cities.  What the program doesn't mention is the way in which current government policy such as Race to the Top, the very programs that separate a C school from a D one, exacerbate already-existing divides.

This is perhaps an inborn limitation of Frontline, and of any PBS program.  It can examine quite cogently a controversy or an instance of corruption or a minor scandal.  It can in some circumstances even raise a criticism of an entire system, as in an episode last season that raised doubts about the use of forensic evidence.  But structurally it's a product of the government, and it can't create a fundamental critique of any major institution, private or public.  Any corporate-owned network would be unable to do the same for the same reason.  Still, it doesn't take too much thinking to realize that Baton Rouge is not an isolated incident, and knowledge of a conflict like this -- one which is largely unknown outside of its local area -- can help to create a broader critique.  So even if Frontline can't be a voice for a truly radical critique, it can perhaps help to contribute to a general awareness about the world and the systems that govern it.

The second part of the episode, "Omarina's Story", further highlights the class divide in education across the United States.  This is a follow-up to an earlier episode, which I haven't seen, about a program to intervene in middle school when children show the first signs of going off the rails.  This seems like the usual technocratic silver-bullet narrative, in which Omarina is the shining exemplar.  In this segment, we learn that she has been accepted to Brooks, an elite private high school.

Omarina's presence at Brooks could be seen as a confirmation of America's essential meritocracy, but to its credit Frontline never presents it as such.  The point is not that there is a black inner-city girl at a prep school full of rich white kids, the point is that the prep school is full of rich white kids to begin with.  "Omarina's Story" suggests that many poor children -- Omarina suggests that her brother is just as smart -- could accomplish the same things if it weren't for systemic problems.  The scenes of her struggling adapt to a new environment imply that tokenistic scholarship programs don't do anything to make an environment less privileged and less alienating to people who come in without a sense of economic privilege.  When she has to come home to visit her brother in the hospital, she becomes a gripping character, caught between two worlds.

The narrative presented here is rather schematic, like a scientific experiment: Omarina succeeds with the intervention of the program, but her twin brother Omarlon (the control group, if you will) slides into a life of crime without the program.  But anyone who thinks about it for a minute will realize that not everyone who receives middle-school intervention will go on to Brooks.  What about the impoverished kids who are nurtured to a steady attendance record and a B average?  From the academic perspective their lives have been improved, and they may perhaps have a more comfortable adolescence (and that may be enough).  But will they really have more opportunities once they get out of high school?

"Omarina's Story" provides a better sense of what education is than "Separate and Unequal" does.  In this short, education is very much an affective relationship, with the close and nurturing relationship between Omarina and her teacher Miss Miller stretching beyond middle school itself.  Robert Belfans, creator of the "middle school moment" program describes it as "that sense of shepharding that kids need to tell them that not only an adult cares but that an adult can help them".

But there's a way in which this narrative removes any kind of agency or intelligence belonging to Omarina herself.  The narrator begins by saying that Omarina probably wouldn't be there if it wasn't for Belfans' intervention, then describes her as "lucky" that her middle school had the program he created.  In this way "Omarina's Story" becomes not Omarina's story at all, not the story of a black girl achieving remarkable things but the story of a white man's genius.  There's a sense throughout the segment that Omarina's own voice is struggling to overcome the more authoritative one of the documentary.  She reads an essay describing her life as a "one-way street", but instead of dealing with her concerns the teachers simply praise her eloquence.  The narrator says that "she didn't know it, but she was starting down a path that so many other students take" -- even though her comments suggest that she was well aware of the systemic problems in her area.  This, too, is a problem in talking about education: that in focusing on administrative process programs like Frontline can silence the very children it is attempting to help.

I don't mean to suggest that this should be a story of individual achievement either.  The infrastructure that supported Omarina is undoubtedly important, but there needs to be a way of talking about it that doesn't diminish Omarina's own intelligence.  This is perhaps the true difficult in describing education, or describing any kind of institution: how to maintain both structural analysis and individual agency.  It is not surprising that a PBS documentary does not succeed in untangling this knot.  But Frontline's flaws do a lot to remind us how even the most well-intentioned and earnest attempts to engage with the institutions and systems that rule our lives are constrained by our culture's imaginative limits.