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Archive for the ‘TV’ Category

Mazel Tov, Cindy: On Orange Is the New Black’s New Jewish Convert

In race, TV on July 6, 2015 at 6:51 pm

Cindy

Sarah T.

The most moving story about faith you’re likely to see on a television series this year starts with a kosher meal and ends with a small-scale prison break. At the center of it all is Orange Is the New Black’s irreverent Cindy Hayes (aka “Black Cindy”), who would seem to be an unlikely candidate for finding religion. What kind of spiritual seeker announces her decision to convert by shouting “Where my dreidel at” in the middle of a cafeteria?

Well: a wonderful new Jew, is who.

Cindy’s surprisingly joyful journey to Judaism stood out in a series that has featured many other stories about how people use religion to justify oppression, exclusion and manipulation. This season, the Netflix series skewers a flower-child cult that swindles naïve believers and a present-day prison sect that appears harmless but winds up forcing an already-depressed inmate into further isolation. Traditional religions also come under scrutiny. In a flashback, one woman’s father forbids her from running track to get a college scholarship, calling her uniform indecent by the standards of the Nation of Islam. A Christian father threatens his young daughter with the prospect of eternal damnation for sneaking a taste of mashed potatoes during grace. In all of these cases, belief itself isn’t the problem. The danger lies in people who want to wield it as a weapon.

In the midst of these darker tales, Cindy stumbles into a spiritual awakening. And the very qualities that would seem to make her resistant to faith—her deep-rooted skepticism, her refusal to take anything seriously—turn out to make her feel right at home with Judaism. Read the rest of this entry »

Breaking Down ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’

In Netflix, race, TV, Uncategorized, violence on April 20, 2015 at 5:00 am

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Sarah S.

For me, Kimmy Schmidt came out of the bunker as an incongruous maelstrom—a pickle juice cocktail, fuschia and lime confetti, hail on a sunny day. I was excited for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, show creator Tina Fey’s “television” follow-up to 30 Rock, and it almost immediately presented a combination of the expected and the surprising, the standard and the bizarre.

Ellie Kemper as Kimmy brings an oddball charm to a rather complicated role. Kimmy takes up life in New York City after being rescued from a bunker in which she was held captive for 15 years. She and the other “Indiana Mole Women” were kidnapped and held by a deranged preacher who told them the apocalypse had happened and they were the only people left on earth. So Fey set herself a challenging task: create a comedy about kidnapping, rape, trauma, and the will to survive. Fortunately, Kemper is all in, playing Kimmy as an uncomfortable-but-funny combination of plucky, outdated, dopey, and indomitable.

Kimmy surrounds herself with a motley crew—Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), an aging, trophy wife who hires Kimmy as a nanny, personal assistant, and general underling; Lillian (the incomparable Carol Kane as), a Jewish, New York hippy who owns Kimmy’s apartment building; and Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), Kimmy’s roommate, an impoverished, down-on-his-luck actor (is there any other kind?). All of these characters are stereotypes but with enough twists or charm or combinations thereof to make it work. Titus works the black GBF for all it’s worth and Lillian is a genuine kick in the pants. Jacqueline is a Native American passing for white in order to sustain the materialism she always idolized, an interesting twist on “demanding, clueless, rich white woman”—a character Krakowski has made a career out of playing. These characters aren’t going to change narrative television but they are played and written with enough aplomb to carry them through, particularly as offsets to Kimmy’s quirk.

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The Downside of Being Good: Paris, Rory and “Gilmore Girls”

In feminism, gender, girl culture, teen soaps, TV, YA on September 25, 2014 at 11:24 am

Sarah Todd

Paris Geller scares people. It’s a beautiful thing. As a teen prep-school Napoleon taking the quirky citizens of Gilmore Girls by storm, she intimidates parents, students and teachers alike. At a debate meet, she engages in psychological warfare to freak out the competition. Her silent scowl is enough to persuade her opponent to change his call in a coin toss before the silver lands. She throws a literary bad boy off his game by dismissing the Beats as self-indulgent jerks. She makes her guidance counselor cry. When a suitor goes Casper on her after he heads off to Princeton, do you suppose that Paris weeps? Does she create a complex flowchart to determine whether some stray remark or unflattering hairstyle has driven him away? She most certainly does not. She simply jots his name down in her revenge notebook.

As a girl too focused on achieving world domination to stop and worry about what other people think of her, Paris is an honors graduate of the Amy Poehler “I don’t care if you like it” school of thought. It is this quality that makes her the perfect foil for her classmate Rory Gilmore, who appears–at least outwardly–to be the ultimate good girl.

While Rory is undeniably charming, I’ve long been annoyed by the way Gilmore Girls insists on having other characters go out of their way to tell her so. Teenage boys fall for her on sight, from a high school Don Juan (Tristan) to the aforementioned literary bad boy (Jess) to a sweet-and-steady jock (Dean). Rory almost always has at least two boyfriends, one current and one would-be, and it’s a safe bet that they’ll resort to fisticuffs over her at one dance-a-thon or another.

Not only does Rory invariably set hearts fluttering, she also wins steady praise for her intelligence. A teacher commends her for honing a school newspaper article about a repaved parking into “a bittersweet piece on how everybody and everything eventually becomes obsolete.” And the reading! Characters are constantly tripping over themselves to remark upon her book intake. (“Aren’t we hooked on Phonics,” a suitor observes upon entering her room for the first time—a hilarious line, since the only books visible in that particular shot are on two small, perfectly standard shelves above her desk.)

Rory’s mother Lorelai is particularly invested in the Rory-is-magic narrative, as Anne K. Burke Erickson notes in her essay on the show. Having gotten pregnant with Rory at age 16, Lorelai desperately needs to believe that Rory is a younger version of herself who can have the future she never did. As a result she’s constantly praising Rory for virtues large and small. “Rory’s never late,” she notes. “She’s almost annoyingly on-time.”

It’s a lot to handle. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s the Patriarchy, Stupid!: Orphan Black and the Mainstreaming of Feminism

In body politics, feminism, gender, spoilers, Television, TV, Women's health on August 21, 2014 at 8:05 am

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Sarah S.

The Canadian television series Orphan Black begs the question, what if the future really is now? Its central protagonist is Sarah Manning, a British ex-pat, orphan, and grifter whose life changes forever when she sees a woman commit suicide in the subway. The catch? The woman turns out to be Beth Childs, a New York City police detective who looks exactly like Sarah. Given their shared appearance, Sarah decides to assume Beth’s identity and discovers in the process that Beth is not a long lost sister or cousin but that Beth and Sarah are two of several clones. A group of them is only just discovering this truth about themselves, or to use the parlance of the scientists who created them, becoming “self-aware.” The plot thickens as Sarah learns that Beth is under review by her department for shooting a civilian and someone is systematically murdering the clones. In short, Sarah’s life gets very, very complicated very, very quickly.

In many ways, Orphan Black seems like a classic science fiction plot—science is run amok, humans pay the consequences. But wrapped inside this broad perspective is a representation of patriarchy’s effects on women’s lives. Despite their shared genetics, Orphan Black emphasizes the personality differences between the clones, from uptight soccer mom Alison, to brilliant scientist Cosima, to mad, traumatized Helena. (I should note here the mesmerizing performance of Tatiana Maslany, who plays all the clones; she makes you believe each one is a distinct person.) Despite the characters’s individuality, they find themselves equally subject to exterior forces that deem them less than human and therefore able to be owned, manipulated, and objectified.

Two social institutions vie for control of the clones: corporate science and religion. Specifically, the Dyad institute, who took over the clone research and monitors the women in secret, and the Proletheans, a zealot sect that believes the clones flout God’s creative power. For both of these organizations, the clones exist to be controlled and forced to adhere to each group’s worldview. But by emphasizing the humanity and individuality of these women, Orphan Black makes viewers emotionally reject this premise, siding with the clones over the forces that seek to control them. Thus Orphan Black sets up Dyad and the Proletheans as metaphorical stand-ins for the patriarchy, blindly pursuing its own power at the expense of women’s independence and self-actualization.

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“Get Older!” Women, Aging, and Adventure

In Aging, detectives, feminism, TV on May 30, 2014 at 5:42 am

Jessica FletcherPhoebe B.

“You silly old woman,” a murderer mutters as Miss Marple reveals him to be a killer. His dismissive words signal his assumption that because of Miss Marple’s age and gender, she should not be taken seriously.

This prejudice is not unique to freshly unmasked murderers. Men of many stripes frequently insult and dismiss women they perceive as threats in much the same way–particularly when age is added to the equation. As women age, at least in the U.S., our power and visibility in pop culture decreases, even as men’s status grows: older women are often constructed and perceived as useless; men only become more distinguished in the eyes of our culture.

My grandma Elsa spent part of her retirement volunteering at a wildlife habitat on Long Island, where she handled snakes and other seemingly scary reptiles. During the summer, she’d walk with me down dirt roads in rural Massachusetts pointing out beaver dams and teaching me to make plaster casts of deer hooves. After she and my grandfather moved to the West Coast, she took jewelry-making classes and dance lessons. A crossword wiz, she was unbeatable at all word games from Scrabble to Boggle.

Both of my grandparents made aging look active, interesting, and engaging. They also had pensions from the New York school system, so that helped. Growing up, this was what getting older looked like to me. She was fun, silly, always smart, and for her, being old seemed nothing more than a circumstance of aging. Certainly, aging was nothing to be ashamed of or hidden away. As I got older, however, I realized that this image was not one often reflected in pop culture.

But women don’t always age out of the pop culture imagination. There are a few wonderful exceptions within the murder mystery genre that feature elderly lady detectives: Murder She Wrote and Miss Marple (both available on Netflix).

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Against prevailing notions that women become less socially useful as we age, these shows model an active and exciting version of older women. Jane Marple and Jessica Fletcher are not bitter spinsters, old maids, or caregivers (in fact, neither has children). Rather, they are heroines who use their brains to solve problems that no one else can.

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Why Teen TV Needs to Find New Ways to Talk About Sex

In girl culture, sexuality, TV, violence on May 14, 2014 at 7:04 am

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Sarah T.

The virginity-loss plotline is standard fare for teen television, right up there with eating disorders, unfaithful parents and high-school dance drama. Female protagonists in particular get a lot of screen time as they start to navigate sexual waters. Angela Chase makes a self-aware decision to put off having sex with Jordan Catalano, while Joey Potter has a sweet first time with Pacey Witter on a ski trip. Blair Waldorf makes an impulsive and steamy decision to get down with Chuck Bass in the back of a limo; Emily Fields sleeps with her first girlfriend, Maya St. Germain, just before they’re torn apart.

But teen TV tends to spend a lot less time focusing on all the decision-making that comes after first-time sex has been had. In fact, teen series tend to ignore sex-driven storylines altogether once female characters have slept with someone for the first time, unless sexual assault or pregnancy is involved. This silence at once reinforces a patriarchal obsession with virginity—if a lady has already done the deed, who even cares what her sexual experience are like?—and implies that the only time anybody makes sexual choices that matter is the first time around.

Of course, in real life, we have to make a whole fresh set of sexual decisions with each new relationship. Whether we’re hooking up, dating or seriously involved, we constantly face choices about when to have sex and when not to have it, what kind of sex we prefer and under what circumstances. By ignoring this reality, teen shows can wind up suggesting that sex is something that just happens automatically and without discussion once people are no longer virgins. That’s a dangerous message. It risks reinforcing the beliefs of young men who think they’re entitled to sex—which in turn perpetuates misogyny and rape culture. Our cultural productions all too frequently squander the chance to follow women as they develop their sense of sexual agency. It’s a silence that feeds directly into a system that devalues women and their right to make choices about what they do with their bodies.

A recent episode of the ABC Family series Switched at Birth offers a welcome corrective to this silence. Bay, a senior in high school, has been dating college freshman Tank for a while. One night they wind up back in his dorm room. They start to kiss and fall back on the bed; Tank reaches to slide down the zipper on Bay’s hoodie. And then Bay calls a time-out. Read the rest of this entry »

Hateship, Friendship, and the Power Dynamics of “Doll & Em”

In girl culture, TV on April 22, 2014 at 8:56 am

Sarah T.

Because I am very lucky, I’ve known a lot of smart, funny, talented, gorgeous women in my life so far. There’s no question that these friends have made my life richer and helped shape me into a better human being. There’s also no denying that—particularly in my younger years—I’ve sometimes compared myself to them and wound up feeling decidedly second-rate.

Of course, it’s not productive to feel gloomy because your friend has just nabbed a plum book deal or won a grant to spend ten months rafting down the Amazon or happens to have the luminous skin of a woodland elf. But feeling occasionally competitive with the people who are close to you—or at least having a little bit of a reflexive inferiority complex mixed in with all the love and genuine admiration—is only human. What’s important, I’ve found as I get older, is learning how to deal with those emotions. I can recognize the things that make my friends awesome and feel proud to know them while actively choosing not to listen to the little self-doubt piano tinkling away inside my head. Or I can let insecurities rankle and seethe until they finally threaten to torpedo the friendship for good.

The new HBO series Doll & Em, created by real-life pals Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer, is about two old friends who take the latter, messier road. The power dynamic between Doll and Em seesaws back and forth as the women use one another as measuring sticks of success and find themselves constantly wanting. They know each other well enough to wound. But they also care about each other enough to decide that their broken friendship is worth fighting for.

Doll (Wells) and Em (Mortimer) grew up together in London. At 40, they love each other just as fiercely as they did in their childhood bathtub-splashing days—as is evident from the weepy phone call Doll makes to Em shortly after breaking up with her no-good boyfriend. Em, a successful movie star, ducks away from a red-carpet interview alongside Bradley Cooper to lend her old friend some support. She even comes up with what seems like a generous offer, hiring Doll as her new personal assistant and flying her out to Los Angeles. Read the rest of this entry »

Marriage Woes: “House of Cards” and Critiquing Marriage

In gender, House of Cards, Marriage, TV on April 14, 2014 at 7:00 am

Phoebe B.

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I got engaged about a month ago. Around the same time, we started watching House of Cards. This is perhaps not the most romantic of gestures, since the relationship between Frank and Claire is hardly the most fairytale-like of marriages. Their connection is one forged on the battleground of politics and power. The show offers up their partnership as a testament to what two people so committed to each other can accomplish. On the flip side–and here is what I’m most interested in–it is also a truly dystopic portrait of marriage.

As individuals, Claire and Frank are powerful; they are equals in intelligence, strength, and determination and most importantly, here, mostly equal partners in their relationship. Thus, each of them is quite possibly the only character who could ruin the other. Together they are vicious, ruthless even, and seemingly unstoppable.

Frank and Claire accept each other in their most savage forms. Is that perhaps what marriage is really about? To find love and be loved even in darkness and in the most unlikely of places, when our makeup and protective gear are off.

But their complete acceptance of and devotion to one another creates an us-against-the-world mentality that allows them to hurt others who get in their way. Everyone else–from the President of the United States to political aides, journalists and many others–winds up as collateral damage in their meteoric rise to power.

For instance, Frank helps a congressman, Peter Russo, get sober, mount a semi-successful governor’s race, only to orchestrate his downfall, help Peter return to drinking, and ultimately Frank kills him, staging his death as a suicide. This pattern of manipulation repeats itself throughout the series, as Frank and Claire help their marks rise in the ranks and then, inevitably crush their hopes and dreams, rendering each victim desperate and dependent on the Underwoods.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sit Down, Devil’s Advocates: SNL Tries On a New Look

In misogyny, TV on April 4, 2014 at 11:04 am

Sarah T.

Comedians who employ racial stereotypes, homophobic slurs and misogynistic language in service of their jokes often try to deflect criticism by arguing that comedy is about pushing boundaries. But it hardly seems edgy to insist on targeting people who already occupy marginalized positions in American culture—particularly when the person telling the jokes is a straight white guy, as they so often tend to be. I mean, Daniel Tosh can insist that his rape jokes are about breaking cultural taboos all he wants, but it seems obvious that all the man is doing is reinforcing the status quo.

There are, however, plenty of ways to be funny and fresh about race, class, gender and sexuality without making the jokes come at the expense of people that American culture seeks to disempower. This season, several sketches on Saturday Night Live—a show that has plenty of diversity problems of its own—have explored topics like privilege, white guilt and the problems that arise when people outside specific cultural groups try to appropriate insider language.

One recent example is “Dyke and Fats,” a sketch penned by the two Saturday Night Live cast members who star in it: Kate McKinnon, the show’s first openly gay female comedian, and Aidy Bryant, the series’ first plus-size female hire.

The sketch, which unfolds as a promotion for a vintage buddy-cop TV series, incorporates multiple cultural stereotypes about fat people and ladies who like ladies. McKinnon’s character, Les Dykawitz, is an arm-wrestling cop who keeps a scroll of dog photos tucked behind her police badge. Bryant’s character, Chubbina Fatzarelli, has a string of bratwurst under her badge and slips a particularly juicy-looking hamburger her phone number. (A very smooth move, and one that I will certainly emulate when I come across perfectly crisped French fries in the future.) The show-within-the-sketch has obvious affection for the characters as they bust down doors and use each other’s bodies to roundhouse-kick a semi-circle of bad guys. At the same time, it seems straight out of the 1970s exploitation boom.

But the last moments of the sketch reveal that it has no interest in exploiting the characters’–or cast members’–identities. And any viewers who were watching and laughing because the sketch affirmed their prejudiced beliefs have a knock-out punch coming. Read the rest of this entry »

True-er Detectives: “The Bletchley Circle,” Lady Sleuths, and Friendship

In feminism, gender, girl culture, TV on March 11, 2014 at 9:06 am

Phoebe B.

THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE S1

I sit on the floor with my legs crossed, just a foot from the television, enraptured. I watch The Bletchley Circle alone, almost as if sharing the show with anyone else will change the way I feel when I’m watching it, interrupt my complete and utter devotion to the mystery.

Susan utters, “When this is over, we’ll have to be ordinary.” What she means is, We will have to pretend that we’re not brilliant. We will have to pretend we’re ordinary because we are women and smile politely at others’ accomplishments. It’s only been two minutes, but I am already devoted. I fear ordinary too. I fear boredom and expectations of marriage, children, home-owning. A life that is not your own.

I can feel my mouth forming a smile as Ted walks into the room to ask what I’m up to. I don’t want to answer and I don’t want to pause the show, because I’m worried that I might lose this feeling. But I do, and I do. Luckily, I don’t.

***

The Bletchley Circle tells the story of four former World War II code-breakers who happen to be women. The mystery at the center of the show is amazing; the characters who solve it, even more so. The series is about power in the face of powerlessness, determination and solidarity and what four brilliant women can do together. Read the rest of this entry »

The Nerdy Girls of Super Fun Night

In Television, TV on March 7, 2014 at 7:22 am

Sarah T.

On television, nerdy girls are few and far between. In what is clearly a wish-fulfillment fantasy hatched in the depths of writers’ rooms populated by men who are former social outcasts, the dude-nerds of shows like Freaks and Geeks, The O.C. and Friday Night Lights tend to spend their time around the popular girls of their dreams—Sam and Cindy, Seth and Summer,  Landry and Tyra.

When nerdy girls do make an appearance on TV, they’re typically sassy, confident pixies, boasting about their in-depth knowledge of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels while clad in ironic t-shirts and edgy haircuts. That is an awesome way to be, but these characters hardly seem like they’ve logged time at the very bottom of the social totem pole. It’s doubtful that Anna from The O.C. has ever sat by herself in a cafeteria while jocks fired spitballs at her through a straw. (Not that I would know anything about that, ahem ahem.)

The Fox sitcom Super Fun Night, starring Rebel Wilson, attempts remap the nerd landscape by featuring a trio of women with genuinely awkward personalities. Kimmie (Wilson) is a naïve young lawyer whose idea of a romantic Valentine’s Day surprise is an elaborate restaging of Phantom of the Opera. Her roommates are prim and proper Helen Alice (Liza Lapira) and gruff, sporty Marika (Lauren Ash). The show follows the friends as they decide to abandon their trusty group motto—“Always together! Always inside!”—and venture into the world of bars, karaoke clubs and other venues that exist outside their apartment. Read the rest of this entry »

Ditching Live TV

In Streaming, TV, Viewing Habits on February 24, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Phoebe B.

When I ditched cable–just a short six months ago–I was nervous. After all, I study TV. What would I miss? How would I keep up with conversations about contemporary TV? What if I couldn’t get access to my favorite shows? What would life be like without Tuesday night Pretty Little Liars dates or Monday nights with Castle? Sure, maybe this all sounds overly dramatic, but I was seriously anxious.

Nonetheless, after a big cross-country drive and a move from Portland to Atlanta, it felt like a good time to give streaming television a shot. After all, cable was and is super expensive and we were aiming to save money. Moving cross-country is by no means cheap and I have a deep and abiding love for British murder mysteries like Midsomer Murders and Inspector Lewis and the fantastic Canadian Murdoch Mysteries, so streaming seemed liked a win-win. I mean, I already had a Netflix subscription and Amazon Prime and I could get Hulu Plus. Surely, I figured, I wouldn’t miss too much.

After six months without cable or any live television, it is safe to say there is something lost in watching certain television shows the day, or sometimes week, after they air. However, there are very few shows that meet this criteria for me: ScandalPretty Little Liars, and perhaps Drop Dead Diva are truly the only shows I watch that fall into this category. When I had cable, I made appointments with these shows each week, sometimes with friends and wine and sometimes with just me, myself, and I (and usually wine).

I miss the sense of real-time community that unfolds as viewers discuss the latest twists and turns via Facebook and Twitter. Plus, the knowledge that people across the country (or at least in my time zone) are all tuning in at the same time to do the same thing has long intrigued me. Even if I couldn’t see them, I knew they were there, and there is something comforting about that sensibility. Read the rest of this entry »