comfort viewing

February 16, 2015

BBC America has been airing Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes 2-3 nights a week for a good long while now, and I find myself very often after leaving off work and before foraging for dinner, melting into my sofa and watching for a bit.  Or I’ll put it on as background chatter while I’m knitting.  Somehow, some way, it’s very comforting.

The thing is, the show as whole does not hold up  well.  Especially in the notorious first season, the actors clearly aren’t sure just what they’re doing, they’re not comfortable with each other (oh my gosh, the number of times they have to point out Data doing something android-y or Worf doing something Klingon-y, gah), the stories are often very staid, the philosophy ham-handed, and the dialog… oh my.   ST: TNG has moments of brilliance — “The Inner Light” is one of the best hours of dramatic television in existence.  But then there are times when the show sounds like a role-playing game run by fifth graders.  Very smart fifth graders, usually, but still.

For awhile, I couldn’t re-watch the show at all, and I winced at how I was so enamored of it when I was a teenager. (The excuse was we didn’t really have any other science fiction on TV, and that was very true.)  But….  and yet…  I’ve started watching it again.  Like I said, it’s sometimes just voices in the background.  But these characters are so familiar, and so likable, and their world is also so familiar.  Did you know you can go to YouTube and play the Enterprise’s ambient engine noise for 24 hours?  And isn’t that weirdly soothing?  At this point, the whole show is like a warm fuzzy blanket.

The phenomenon of how much I’ve come to appreciate just hanging out with Picard and Worf and the rest is fascinating to me.  Fiction, entertainment, comfort — powerful stuff, here.

(How many of you are still playing that engine noise?  *raises hand*)

I suppose I could call this post talking about TV, but I really want to call it talking about women characters, ’cause that’s what I’m going to do.  One of these shows is pissing me off, and one of them isn’t.  Can you guess which is which?  Heh.

Penny Dreadful

By the penultimate episode, our two strong, interesting, active women characters are both lying in bed at the edge of death, being watched over by the men.  They aren’t just ill, they’re infected:  one with TB (Victorian gothic bingo FTW!), one with some kind of “evil” that I suspect will end in a Rosemary’s Baby situation.  Both of them have become, by this episode, mere conduits for the plot in which the men will act.  For all their earlier strength, they are in the end damsels in distress.  (Like Mina, who is barely worth mentioning, really.)

This is what writers must guard against.  You can create the most wonderful, interesting, strong, well-rounded women characters in the world.  But if you reduce them to the usual roles in the plot — McGuffins, creatures who are acted upon rather than acting — then you haven’t actually written a strong woman character at all.  You can call them powerful and liberated because they sleep around with no consequences. But if that’s all they do?  If that’s the only agency they have?  No.

I keep flipping the genders on that possession scene.  What if it were Dorian Gray lying tied to that bed?  Or Mr. Murray, who has peered too long into the darkness?  What if the women were set to looking over him, to find a way to save him?  What would that story look like?

I would like to keep watching because despite my frustrations I want to see what they do with the mess they’ve made.  Also, at least no one has actually said the words “American werewolf in London,” but we’re all thinking it.

Agent Carter

Oh my yes.  I have some quibbles.  There’ve been some real bone-headed plot beats.  But I forgive the show, because of what it’s doing and what arc it’s setting up:  I propose that the whole premise of the show is to establish that Peggy Carter is Steve Rogers’ equal, and that she is worthy of carrying on his legacy.  Moreover, she must learn to believe that she is worthy of carrying on his legacy.

The show is doing a couple of things that I love:

1. In Peggy’s personal life, she’s surrounded by supportive women (“Love the hat!”) who are going through the same things she is — fighting sexism, finding their places in the world.  There is a whole world of women here.  Peggy may be the only woman at work, but she isn’t alone.

2. In the same way Steve Rogers represented the common soldier — he never claimed to be any different from the soldiers around him, no more deserving of accolades, no less willing to shoulder the same burdens — Peggy Carter represents post-war working women.  The radio show that dogs Peggy?  It plays the same role here that the USO stage show played in Captain America — the fiction at odds with reality, that they must put behind them.  That thing I said above, about Peggy being Steve’s equal?  It’s there in that conversation she has with Jarvis (this is massively paraphrased):

Jarvis:  Everyone in this line of work needs a support network.

Peggy:  Steve didn’t.

Jarvis:  It’s my understanding that Captain Rogers had you.

She wasn’t his sidekick.  She wasn’t his “girl.”  They were partners, full stop.  Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter are the same.  It doesn’t have anything to do with superpowers, but with the people, and we finally have our heroine who is a hero.  I weep for the joy of it.

 

mythical history

December 26, 2014

So I’ve finally started watching Penny Dreadful.  I’m only a couple of episodes in, but I’m already simultaneously amused and frustrated, because it’s such the standard Mythic Victorian London.  With a little more horror, maybe — but even then, it’s bouncing up against From Hell and various Wolfman and Jekyll and Hyde retellings.  Look, everybody:  Grubby slums!  Garish prostitutes!  Jack the Ripper!  Upperclass gents in cravats with deep dark secrets!  I’m going to keep going with the show, because this is an excellent take on the Frankenstein story so far.  I love Proteus.  He’s broken my heart three times in two episodes, and I want to see more.  (I’d been drinking the rest of the champagne from what was leftover after making cheese fondu — in other words, a lot of champagne — and I turned to my friends and said, “You know why this story’s going to break my heart?  Because in every version of Frankenstein, Victor’s always such a shit!”  Yeah, I got a bit emotional.)

But it’s got me thinking about mythic settings.  Especially mythic historical settings.  Because it seems to me at this point most of the shows/stories I see set in Victorian London have very little to do with Victorian London, and are instead amalgams of all the stories about Victorian London that have been handed down to us.  This setting got its start with Dickens and Conan Doyle, but it’s now taken entirely for granted that a story set in Victorian London will have grubby slums and garish prostitutes and upperclass gents with deep dark secrets.

World War II is another space where this is happening, and it’s really come to a head over the last few years.  We don’t see too many stories about Vietnam anymore, but darn it if we haven’t had half a dozen World War II stories — Monuments Men, Fury, Unbroken, Defiance, Enemy at the Gates — even Captain America counts.  Heroic men, impossible odds, triumph over evil and adversity, etc.  The mythologization of World War II really comes clear for me when I watch movies about that war that were made in the few years after — because the war in those stories isn’t the mythologized one we’ve grown familiar with.  Even the frame story in White Christmas (released 1954, I think) deals with issues we don’t see told about that particular war anymore — coming home, the way war experiences continue to affect the people who fought.  But since then, we don’t really tell stories about World War II — we tell stories set in this backdrop that’s been handed down, with a certain expected set of tropes, whole cloth.

Not sure where I’m going with all this.  Except maybe that it reinforces my feeling that if you’re going to write about a familiar historical setting, it’s very useful to research that setting, rather than to take for granted the familiar — perhaps overly familiar — tropes of that setting that have been packaged up and handed down to us over and over again.  This is not to say using those tropes is automatically bad, but it’s important to recognize which details are perhaps overused tropes, and which are details that will actually seem fresh and interesting.

 

cheap drama

October 29, 2014

This is the week I’m supposed to be doing all the stuff I was putting off until after MileHi Con (no more traveling this year!).  That’s not going as well as I’d hoped.  But — I got a really nice surprise last night because I had forgotten that I had tickets to go see Erasure at the Ogden.  Fortunately, I remembered, and went, and had a great time, because Andy Bell is a god.  He came out in sequined tails and top hat and opened with “Oh L’amour,” and I pretty much burst into tears, which makes me think I’ve been a little more stressed out than I realized.  Whew.  I danced for an hour and a half solid.  Nice, huh?

I caught up with last week’s episode of Arrow and it had a bunch of examples of why I like the show so much — most of them involving Ollie and Thea.  So Ollie flies to Corto Maltese to try to talk Thea into coming back home.  And it’s all very straightforward.  While another show might have tried to turn it into some big cat and mouse hunter-seeker thing, where Ollie has to spend the whole episode just looking for her, none of that happens.  He finds her working in a coffee shop, they hug, they sit and talk like adults.  It’s unexpected and it’s great.  Then, when Ollie apologizes for keeping secrets and that he wants to be open with her now, what is the first secret he reveals?  It’s not, “I’m the Arrow.” It’s that their father survived the wreck of the Gambit, but then killed himself so Ollie would have enough food.  It’s an awful story, it’s another bit of lore about their family, and it affects Thea.  Because now Thea is the one keeping secrets — that she’s been training with Malcolm Merlin — and that half the reason she’s doing what she’s doing is so she’ll have secrets of her own, and maybe that’s not a good thing after all.  It’s super clear that this brother and sister still love each other.

The reason I like these story beats is because they avoid low-hanging fruit.  They’re not obvious.  They don’t go for cheap drama — cheap drama would be Thea hating Ollie and them screaming and fighting.  But no, they sit and talk, and there’s a ton of stuff going on in subtext.  The guiding principle in scenes like this isn’t “Let’s get our conflict by having all our characters go after each others’ throats.”  These scenes are anchored on a premise that doesn’t change:  Ollie and Thea love each other, even when they hurt each other and keep secrets and screw up.  The drama comes from watching them try to work it out.

It’s refreshing and I’m really enjoying it.

We truly live in an age of riches, don’t we?  At least on TV.  I can’t keep up with it all, but here’s what I’m trying to keep up with.

Castle:  Well, that’s a strange little storyline they’ve picked up with the season cliffhanger.  I’m glad they’re pretty much ignoring it for now and going back to fun one-off episodes.  This may not be my favorite show anymore, but I’m still enjoying it and the characters, and it hasn’t actively pissed me off yet, and I’m starting to wonder when that’s going to happen.

Arrow:  Still love it, but they’re not giving us a break, are they?

The Flash:  It’s just so goofy and earnest I kind of love it.  One thing I’m really liking:  setting Barry up as this very young, naive hero with two mentor/father figures who know who and what he is, who are protective of him (for different reasons) and at odds with each other.  I’m liking that dynamic.  They’ve also nailed the look and attitude.  Sometimes, voice overs work.

Sleepy Hollow:  I’m just along for the giant WTF ride.

Agents of SHIELD:  Yeah, the standard for superhero TV seems to be “Just throw everything at the viewer all the time yay!” and that’s okay with me.  I’m loving Kyle MacLachlan’s character, and loving that he’s on the show at all.  Adrienne Palicki has given us a hint of what that Wonder Woman TV show that failed to launch a few years ago might have been like if the people making it had known what they were doing.  I’m really liking her (and not just because she was also Lady Jaye in the last GI Joe movie).  In an alternate world, the makers of Arrow worked on Wonder Woman instead.  And now I’m sad about the whole thing all over again.

Face Off:  Still watching, it’s always pleasant watching good art, but this season has been low key and kind of predictable.  I will love it if the former cake decorator wins.

What I’m not watching, not caught up on:

Doctor Who:  I keep telling myself I want to watch this, then keep not watching it.  I know I saw the first episode with the new Doctor.  I can’t actually remember anything about it.  Oh — dinosaurs, right?  I think what I remember about it is that I really want a show starring Madame Vastra and Jenny.

Justified:  Fifth season is spun up and ready to go. No spoilers!

Penny Dreadful:  This is out on DVD now, and it’s the one I really want to see.  Victorian Gothic, with literary references?  This should be called “Carrie, Here Is Your Show!”

 

more things I’ve watched

September 15, 2014

I finally finished the last season of Lexx.  This one dragged a bit, I think because there was a clear over-arcing storyline, but they kept digressing into one-off episodes — episodes that were hilarious, mind you, because they were parodies of things like Dracula and The Re-Animator and Survivor.  “ApocaLexx Now” left me bug-eyed, no pun intended. But these episodes did feel like a distraction.  Still — I love this show.  It felt like it was all leading up to this season, because we’ve previously spent three seasons exploring just how weird and crazy and messed up and awful various corners of the two universes are.  And then we get to Earth.  And it’s the worst of the bunch.  The craziest, most messed up, most incomprehensible off-the-rails planet they’ve been to yet.  The satire lands like a thousand pound anvil in a cartoon.  For all that, the last episode was absolutely perfect and made me cry.  Kai’s laugh?  Just perfect.

The Gold Diggers of 1933.  This is a famous movie musical that I run across every time I research the 1930’s or old Hollywood or anything like that.  It was an early film of Ginger Rogers — she sings the opening number, “We’re in the Money,” including a verse in pig latin.  Because Busby Berkeley, apparently.  Seriously, it’s worth watching any Busby Berkeley movie because the dance numbers are all pretty much insane. (One in this one features a 9 year old Billy Barty playing a trouble-making baby committing acts of sexual harassment through the whole thing.)

So when it popped up on TCM, I had to watch it.  The musical numbers are all kind of weird (I mentioned the harassing baby, yes?).  But the story?  The story was great.  I took notes, because I loved how it managed the characterization of the heroes and the antagonist.  This slice of the story, in a nutshell:  a Boston blue blood confronts one of our plucky showgirl heroines to inform her that she can’t marry his younger brother.  Trouble is, he’s got the wrong showgirl.  Plucky showgirl Carol tries to tell him that she isn’t Polly, the showgirl who’s in love with his brother.  But he won’t listen.  He interrupts.  He’s really quite terrible to her, going on and on about how awful and uncouth showgirls are.  So when Carol and another showgirl Trixie (this movie has a lot of showgirls) decide to have one over on the older brother, they pull out the stops. Carol pretends to be Polly, and she and Trixie really work over the guy and his lawyer, behaving just like the rude gold diggers he insists they are, as they try to get everything they can from them in exchange for not marrying the brother.  Meanwhile, Blue Blood thinks he’s conning them, luring Polly away from his brother.  But no, he’s the one being conned here, full stop.

So yeah, Carol and Trixie are being pretty terrible, but it’s okay and hilarious because a) the guy really, really, really deserves it, b) they tell everyone involved (like Polly and the younger brother) as soon as it’s happening and bring them in on the con, and c) Carol knows exactly when they’ve gone too far, even when Trixie keeps going.  The end result is our heroes looking smart and awesome and funny, and the antagonist totally earning his comeuppance.  And then of course everyone falls in love with everyone else and gets married.  But up to then the characterization as it’s tied to the plot is spot-on.

I like a lot of these old movies because they tend to be shorter and the plotting is often a lot tighter than we see in more current films.  This is one I’m going to remember.

 

Since I don’t really follow any of the TV shows that are running new episodes now (I’ve tried to watch True Blood but I just get really confused), it really has felt like the summer hiatus seasons of old, when you catch up on old things and watch videos — and also go outside and play instead of watching anything at all, which I’ve done quite a bit of.  Huzzah!

Rewatched:  Galaxy Quest, which holds up surprisingly well.  I’m not sure it needs the sequel everyone’s been talking about, but I’m suddenly curious as to what such a premise would turn into if the source show was, say, Battlestar Galactica.  As a recent meme I encountered says, Harry Potter fans would love to go to Hogwarts, Narnia fans would love to go to Narnia, and Hunger Games fans are all, “No thanks, we’re good.”

Brazil:  Holy crap, this movie is way, way more scary and upsetting than the last time I saw it, maybe 10 years ago.  The bureaucracy parody stuff was always spot on, but this time the terrorism thread really jumped out, and it was really. . accurate.  “And why do you think this terrorist scare has been going on for 13 years?”  “Bad sportsmanship!”  My groups of friends and I sat there gaping at the TV.  We are closer to that world than we ever have been.

Watched:  The Hollow Crown, or at least much of it.  This is a recent BBC miniseries of a set of Shakespeare’s Histories — Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 (See, guys, this whole sequel mania thing isn’t new!), and Henry V.  Jeremy Irons as Henry IV, Tom Hiddleston as Henry V.  SWOOOOOOOON.  I cannot stop swooning at this man.  When he comes on the scene wearing an oxblood red leather doublet, his gilded hair in waves, grinning.  Wow.  Plus, Shakespeare is just so damned sexy.  Really sexy.  I’m trying to figure it out, and it has something to do with him codifying modern English in way that no one had ever done before.  So many turns of phrase started with him — or he’s the one who wrote them down first, and cleverest.  For me, hearing Shakespeare done well is like hearing the source code for English zapping straight into my hindbrain.  So sexy.  (See, this is how I know that English was definitely the right major for me.)

Also, I didn’t realize how tall Hiddleston is until watching these.  In the Marvel movies he’s surrounded by all these very tall, very buff, superheroic dude-guys, and he looks like the short skinny nerd guy.  Turns out, he’s 6’2″ (I looked it up) and he’s half a head taller than everybody else in The Hollow Crown.   He looms.  It’s cool.

 

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