Said and read – June 2018

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I can’t explain why, but June, despite having had some vacation time, wasn’t filled with as much reading as I’d have liked. This disappointing sentence seems to be a variation on my opening sentence for every single one of these monthly posts. I may finish about 20 (or a few more) books by the end of the month, which of course is shy of the book-a-day pace I’d (however unintentionally) set through most of the early part of this year. I realize it’s not about quantity, but somehow having neglected reading for so many years, I feel as though I am playing catch-up. And I know I will never ‘catch up’. Catch up to what exactly?!

…I’d prefer to begin with some riveting tale about how I feel that too much can be read within a person’s eyes – it’s out of their control and completely unguarded, and each time I try to tell myself to be more open, don’t judge anyone by what their eyes immediately tell me, my initial reaction to a person’s eyes seems accurate. I wish this were not the case. These stories, too, about people’s eyes betraying their true nature, might be more interesting than how I start these chronicles of my random reading.

It might also be more interesting to go on wild tirades about the tyranny and insanity of several world governments at the moment, but what can I really add to that collective outcry? Many books have been and are being written about related subjects – last month I unabashedly recommended Sarah Kendzior‘s The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America, for example; Peter Temin‘s The Vanishing Middle Class is another good one that illustrates that the US is not the ‘best country in the world’, as it boasts in the loudest, most bellicose, violent way possible but is rather a developing country. There are really too many to count.

I can also calmly reaffirm my great love for Scots and how it sounds. A friend shared The Allusionist podcast about my beloved Scots language with me, and I think it’s worth sharing onward.

Dig further into what I was reading, liking, thinking, hating in May, April, March, February and January, if you’re curious.

Thoughts on reading for June:

Highly recommended

*StonerJohn Williams

I did not know what to expect from Stoner – first mentioned to me by a friend not long ago, which caused me to add it to my to-read list. I was never sure when I’d get around to reading it. Some books, after all, linger aimlessly and endlessly on this expansive list (in many cases because the books are not available as e-books or because they are entirely out of print and not easy to get my hands on).

But the simplicity of the narrative – the heartbreaking simplicity and humanity – make Stoner an enduring, if under-the-radar, classic. William Stoner, a farm boy in Missouri who has modest aims and wants, goes to college to study agriculture, and ends up pursuing literature and philosophy and becoming a professor. His life is beset by the troubles and pains of … the average. He never sought much, and his modest needs and wants ensured that he had a life of contentment, marked by his principled nature, even if there were professional struggles, domestic unpleasantness and a brief but intense love affair that ends. It’s almost sad for its/his lack of striving, or at least never striving beyond what he could reach (apart from early on breaking away from a future in farming). Hard to describe what is so compelling, which is largely why it’s a must-read.

“And it might be amusing to pass through the world once more before I return to the cloistered and slow extinction that awaits us all.”

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

“Then he smiled fondly, as if at a memory; it occurred to him that he was nearly sixty years old and that he ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love. But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there.”

*Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequencesEdward Tenner

The last book I read in June, and also the one that put me at 200 books for the year so far. Like many books I find myself immersed in, this was a random choice, a recommendation sourced through some other article. It’s hard to say exactly why I enjoyed this book. I think on the surface of it, it is interesting because it chronicles the unintended consequences of some of the most ingenious inventions and innovations (some good, some bad… some positively catastrophic), but at a deeper level, it coaxes the reader to think more holistically about how anything and everything can have unintended consequences and almost prompts one to think in a different or more careful way about planning and implementation of virtually anything, while at the same time, pointing out the folly of believing that even the most careful of risk assessments and examinations of ‘domino effects’ can foresee all the consequences.

“Doing Better and Feeling Worse.” This phrase from a 1970s symposium on health care is more apt than ever, and not only in medicine. We seem to worry more than our ancestors, surrounded though they were by exploding steamboat boilers, raging epidemics, crashing trains, panicked crowds, and flaming theaters. Perhaps this is because the safer life imposes an ever-increasing burden of attention.”

*FuelNaomi Shihab Nye

Poetry. Need I say more?

*Anything by Donald Hall

US Poet Laureate Donald Hall died near the end of June, and it was the perfect opportunity to revisit his poetry. I re-read a few volumes and don’t have one single book to recommend but think you’d do well to start with any.

When he died the other day, I reread and shared this piece about solitude and loneliness, moved anew by the love for solitude but the possibility of finding solitude while still coming together with another person, as Hall did with his partner, fellow poet, Jane Kenyon, with whom, as he wrote, he shared “the separation of our double solitude”, and from which each day they would emerge to be together as it suited them.

*Olive KitteredgeElizabeth Strout

I had long ago seen the HBO film adaptation of Olive Kitteredge, so it was hard to form new ideas about the characters (e.g. Richard Jenkins as Henry and the formidable Frances McDormand as Olive… impossible to erase while reading). Still, I had forgotten so much of what happened in the film that the book was almost like a new experience, and I was carried away by the beautiful, fluid writing, the vivid characters and their lives (and stages of those lives) and by how moving the entire thing was overall.

“Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most, it was a sense of safety, in the sea of terror that life increasingly became. People thought love would do it, and maybe it did.”

Good – really good – but not necessarily great

*What is the WhatDave Eggers

Dave Eggers isn’t really the story – he’s just the writer of the story. And the story is a heartbreaking and challenging story based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese child refugee who migrated to the United States under the Lost Boys of Sudan program.

“Humans are divided between those who can still look through the eyes of youth and those who cannot.”

*IndignationPhilip Roth

I came late to reading Roth (the last two years), and I don’t love everything he wrote. That said, there’s still quite a lot for me to read. I don’t want to recount the plot of Indignation, but there were some thoughts that I took away that have stuck with me for several days, which is, I suppose, one of Roth’s hallmarks: planting thought-provoking seeds, however little or much they have to do with the story.

“I persisted with my duties, determined to abide by the butcher-shop lesson learned from my father: slit the ass open and stick your hand up and grab the viscera and pull them out; nauseating and disgusting, but it had to be done.”

“If you ask how this can be—memory upon memory, nothing but memory—of course I can’t answer, and not because neither a “you” nor an “I” exists, any more than do a “here” and a “now,” but because all that exists is the recollected past, not recovered, mind you, not relived in the immediacy of the realm of sensation, but merely replayed. And how much more of my past can I take?”

“Because other people’s weakness can destroy you just as much as their strength can. Weak people are not harmless. Their weakness can be their strength. A person so unstable is a menace to you, Markie, and a trap.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The Order of TimeCarlo Rovelli

I don’t know what I can write about Rovelli and the way he presents physics and complex concepts in … elegant and beautiful ways that make them transcend the page and provoke thought, imagination and curiosity indefinitely.

“How does one describe a world in which everything occurs but there is no time variable? In which there is no common time and no privileged direction in which change occurs?”

“The difference between past and future, between cause and effect, between memory and hope, between regret and intention . . . in the elementary laws that describe the mechanisms of the world, there is no such difference.”

Coincidences

* Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 QuestionsValeria Luiselli

In keeping with what I wrote above about all the books that chronicle our difficult times, in the most timely fashion, coinciding with the Trump administration’s child-migration concentration camps (I cannot even believe I am writing those words), I read the brief but important Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, in which Valeria Luiselli writes about the legal crisis and cruelty facing children who come to the US from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, etc. She wrote her reflections before the latest nightmare (detention camps filled with children put in cages, separated from their parents), but it was nonetheless stark and painful in the narrative it painted. Who would have imagined it could get worse?

“From the beginning, the crisis was viewed as an institutional hindrance, a problem that Homeland Security was “suffering” and that Congress and immigration judges had to solve. Few narratives have made the effort to turn things around and understand the crisis from the point of view of the children involved. The political response to the crisis, therefore, has always centered on one question, which is more or less: What do we do with all these children now? Or, in blunter terms: How do we get rid of them or dissuade them from coming?”

We have also seen the resurgence of old books that foretold the kind of rise in tyranny and dictatorial rule that we’re seeing in chilling abundance now, such as Sinclair Lewis‘s hastily written 1930s/Depression Era *It Can’t Happen Here. As he himself writes, “The hell it can’t.”

And when I just can’t take more of the timeless and timely old warnings (yes, somehow the US avoided becoming a fascist/Nazi state in the 1930s, but just as well might not have, as Lewis imagines, or as the recently passed Philip Roth envisioned in his alt-future imagining, The Plot Against America. Having resisted these tendencies once certainly doesn’t inoculate one from future tyranny. The same concerns and fears seen, for example, in the 1930s, have echoed in the present day and led to a dictatorial moron to the WH. Despite some brilliant passages and predictions in Lewis’s book, the book itself was not smooth reading and felt both like it was rushed and dragged out at the same time.

“(but)… that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!

“Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word—just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours—not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini—like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days—and have ‘em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again.”

*My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace Ehud Barak

It does not exactly qualify as a coincidence so much as it was a random fluke that I decided to read this autobiographical account of Ehud Barak’s life. I never would have considered it except that one morning while heading out for a coffee in Oslo with AD, we ran into one of her acquaintances (because it’s impossible to go anywhere in Oslo without running into at least one person she knows). This particular acquaintance, squinting into the sun on one of Oslo’s blazing, and unusually, hot early June days, immediately started telling us how he was reading this particular book, and if I may say, sort of mansplained Israel, (cultural) Judaism, kibbutz culture and military strategy and Ehud Barak’s role in all of the key moments of Israel’s brief history. Yes, I suppose I have often complained about Norwegians knowing nothing about Judaism, so someone having a clue is surprising – but having a man (however ‘enlightened’ and committed to equality Scandinavian men are purported to be, middle-aged men of all nationalities seem particularly keen on demonstrating their knowledge… maybe in some bid to seem important, intelligent, relevant?) try to explain Judaism and Israel to me is not a surprise but is completely laughable.

Nevertheless, having heard him recount much of the book himself, I decided to read the book. Mostly I could have done without it, although there were a few key passages that capture, I think, fairly succinctly many of the strategies and ways of thinking behind Israeli military actions (not recent actions, as the country has moved further and further right). That’s not to say I would concede that any of the actions made sense – just to say that it was interesting to get the insight.

Overall the book itself could be skipped. Heavy on detail of Barak’s life running in parallel with the birth and development of the state of Israel and his role in it. Maybe a bit more detail than I needed at times, but, as I said, a valuable POV of someone who was inside the fateful moments and decisions in Israel and the Middle East as a whole – including some circumspection. Not perfect but … worth the read if only for the epilogue alone, which was oddly moving.

“The cause to which I’ve devoted my life—redeeming the dream of Zionism in a strong, free, self-confident, democratic Jewish state—is under threat. This is not mainly because of Hizbollah or Hamas, ISIS, or even Iran, all of which I feel confident in saying, as a former head of military intelligence, chief of staff, and defense minister, are real yet surmountable challenges. The main threat comes from inside: from the most right-wing, deliberately divisive, narrow-minded, and messianic government we have seen in our seven-decade history.”

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

*War & WarLászló Krasznahorkai

I didn’t despise anything I read, but for some reason had had high hopes for War & War, but it ended up being disappointing. I suppose this is because expectations always betray us. It was not a bad book – it just didn’t hold my interest.

“16. Should we die, the mechanics of life would go on without us, and that is what people feel most terribly disturbed by, Korin interrupted himself, bowed his head, thought for a while, then pulled an agonized expression and started slowly swiveling his head, though it is only the very fact that it goes on that enables us properly to understand that there is no mechanism.”

Images by SD 2018

Goodnight, sweetheart – lies of reality and images

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Could that illusion have only been a single year ago? Baudrillard has argued that ‘reality barely has time to exist, if it does at all, before it has begun disappearing’. It’s a bit like the last (spoiler) part of the HBO modern classic, Six Feet Under, in which Nate appears posthumously to tell younger sister Claire that she cannot capture the moment with a photograph – it’s already gone. (And this is pretty much its own snapshot of how I feel about photography. An image can be a trigger for a memory, ‘moments, nostalgia but incapable of capturing reality in its ephemeral and disappearing(ed) state’. Actually Baudrillard deals with this, too (in The Intelligence of Evil: or, The Lucidity Pact):

“Can photography exempt itself from this flood of images and restore an original power to them? To do so, the turbulent operation of the world would have to be suspended; the object would have to be caught in that single fantastic moment of first contact when things had not yet noticed we were there, when absence and emptiness had not yet dissipated . . . It would, in fact, have to be the world itself that performed the photographic act, as though the world were affording itself the means to appear, quite apart from us.”

And

“At any rate, the lens simultaneously captures the way we are there and the way we are no longer there. This is why, before the eye of the camera, we act dead in our innermost being, as God does before the proofs of his existence. Everything in us crystallizes negatively before the material imagining of our presence.” (italics – mine – as usual)

Go figure. The way this is described almost breaks my heart. Weakling.)

What does photography reveal in this possibly-real reality, though? Do we get anything from it? Especially in a now-visually-desensitized age, where a microsecond glance-and-swipe constitutes a dating decision?

“The worst thing for us is precisely the impossibility of a world without image feed – a world that would not endlessly be laid hold of, captured, filmed and photographed before it has even been seen. A lethal danger for the ‘real’ world, but also for the image, since where it merely recycles the real and immerses itself in the real there is no longer any image – not, at least, as exception, illusion or parallel universe. In the visual flow submerging us, there is no longer even time for the image to become image.” (italicized emphasis mine, emphatically mine)

It is a peculiar feeling, to be in one’s own life, or to see images of that life, and feel as though, in either case, upon reflection, you were not really there. Just outside watching it unfold, as though a secondary observer, but through a looking glass.

“This is the miracle: that a fragment of the world, human consciousness, arrogates to itself the privilege of being its mirror. But this will never produce an objective truth, since the mirror is part of the object it reflects.”

The reality is real and can be reflected but isn’t anything that can tasted, touched, felt ever again. Was it truly felt the first time… in that momentary, illusory glimpse of reality that possibly existed?

Image (c) 2018 S Donaghy (an image as good as any to convey the randomness of the simultaneously ephemeral and interminable moments of life…)

TV renewal tease: The Brink

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No!

It’s one thing when a TV show just gets unceremoniously cancelled. It’s entirely another when a show you like is declared “safe” and gets renewed for another season… only to have the network pull out the proverbial rug from under you. Seriously, HBO… why did you renew and then renege on the brilliant, satirical The Brink?

Tease!

Lunchtable TV Talk: The Affair and Ballers

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Sometimes inspiration for writing about the TV I love does not come easily. Sometimes, for some shows, no inspiration comes at all. There’s no way to know what will hit the spot and what won’t. For example, there are many shows I watch(ed), love(d) and would recommend, but unless I think of some particular angle that I feel I want to express, I will never bother to write specifically about them.

Mad Men is one of those shows. It was analyzed, torn apart, beloved, criticized and everything else you can do to a TV show from the comfort of your couch (by professionals and amateurs alike). I don’t have anything to add to that discussion, apart from noting how Don Draper seemed to be something like a drunken traveling handyman there near the end. (And I was able to note the semi-subtle red Coca-Cola thread sewing the final season together, but I only did that in order to compare and contrast it to another already-dead series about ad men, HAPPYish, which also got into the ring with the Coca-Cola theme.)

There are others. It might not be that they were revered and torn limb from limb and sucked dry of all their marrow. It might just be that I would not know what to add. The upcoming second season of Fargo counts among these. The first season was untouchable, and my rambling about it would not do it justice or be a very good use of my time. (But who am I kidding? Is any of this a good use of my time?) What about stuff like Boardwalk Empire? Slow, simmering, complex, an acquired taste, not for everyone… what could I really write that could give that epic its due? No, there is nothing. Maybe one day I will feel some great urge to “unpack” (one of those overused-of-late terms I hate, which seems to have seeped from academia into corporate jargon) Bobby Cannavale’s performance in Boardwalk or Boardwalk’s courageous and unusual choice of offing one of the leads early (setting the “no one is safe” tone early) or effusing about Michael K Williams in yet another unforgettable and iconic HBO role. But probably not.

In fact, writing about things I love is considerably more challenging than writing disparagingly about content that just does not make the cut. The more disappointing something is, the easier it is to excoriate.

And that’s how I reach my tale of watching The Affair, and my increasing hostility toward it. The only good thing about it: Richard Schiff. Seriously. Actually in the first season, which started off with some promise and a lot of positive buzz, Joshua Jackson stood out as both a good performance and as a good character. Every other character was so unlikable and selfish – and I mean everyone, right down to the main guy, Noah’s and his wife, Helen’s, kids – particularly the oldest daughter. Maybe the self-centered nature of man (and woman) is what the story is meant to be about. Every man for himself. And the actors in the roles play that selfishness and the slivers of perspective we get (when they point of view shifts from one character to another) to a T. I have read plenty of analysis about this show and its squandered potential, so I won’t bother in that vein.

I mostly wanted a reason to write that Richard Schiff commands the screen even when he only appears for two minutes. I mean seriously – I watched the show Ballers the other day just on the strength of his being in it. He is not even in it that much, but again, his presence elevated the show. And, oddly, because I did not go into Ballers with any expectations except maybe believing I would find the show stupid, I was pleasantly surprised (particularly in the episode in which Michael Cudlitz shows up… because, you know, Cudlitz always shows up. He’s almost as everywhere as the frighteningly omnipresent Tom Skerritt and still has plenty of time to increase his presence – and maybe join a ballet production – to reach Skerritt-like levels).

All I can say for these things – TV expectations, letdowns and surprises – is go figure.

Lunchtable TV Talk: True Detective – It would take a detective to find something good about this

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What made the first season of True Detective delightful was its sense of coming out of nowhere with something unexpected. No pretension, no weight of expectation. Sure, some of the dialogue was out there, but the unexpectedly great Matthew McConaughey delivered even the strangest dialogue.

Under the heavy weight of expectation, the second season has been bogged down in a convoluted mess pushed further into laughable territory by the presence of Vince Vaughn. I suppose he and his handlers expected a career boost or surge along the same lines as McConaughey – maybe we had all been underestimating Vaughn all these years and he had just never been given a role that allowed him to sink his teeth in. McConaughey had been perceived for many years as a one-trick pony too even though much of his long career is studded with hidden gem performances, the likes of which do not fill out Vaughn’s resume.

Every scene with Vaughn was eye rolling. The script was not great to start with – he was asked to pull off some babble that no one would ever say. But a greater actor might have been able to do it without the viewer feeling the need to laugh. And the constant lingering of Vaughn’s character’s wife (played by British actress Kelly Reilly)… what was that all about? Throughout I was expecting that maybe she would play some larger role in the end game – otherwise what other point does her constant presence and artificial brooding play? If it was just to try to humanize Vaughn’s character, it didn’t work. Their conversation is so stilted, so fake, so forced. It looks like two people who joined an “intro to acting” course at a community college and are just fumbling their way through their first scene together. NO chemistry. And hilariously in the finale, Reilly states, “You can’t act for shit. Take it from me.” Haha. Guess what? Neither one of you can act, and the script sucks!

The season ended, and those questions about her role were not answered. What purpose did Vaughn’s wife really serve other than perhaps being some kind of glorified nanny/part-time mum for Rachel McAdams’s kid? Even if the plot questions were more or less answered, the bigger question – what was the point of any of this? – was not.

The end did not satisfy and ended up being just as stupid as the rest of the seven episodes preceding its unceremonious fizzling out.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Togetherness: The ark of the ache of it

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The ache of marriage
-Denise Levertov

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

Today is my parents’ wedding anniversary. I spend a lot of time thinking about marriage as an institution. It is not something I ever really wanted, and as I have become older, it seems less than desirable and more of the “ball and chain” that it’s classically described as. Not being a religious person or in need of some kind of monetary or tax benefits that might come from legal marriage – and not being particularly sentimental – marriage is not a priority. That said, I also think a lot about marriage and the equality of access to it. If someone – anyone – wants to marry, s/he should be legally permitted to.

Fie on Love
-James Shirley

Now, fie on foolish love! it not befits
Or man or woman know it:
Love was not meant for people in their wits;
And they that fondly show it,
Betray the straw and feathers in their brain,
And shall have Bedlam for their pain.
If single love be such a curse,
To marry, is to make it ten times worse.

But then, I see a nuanced TV show like HBO’s Togetherness and wonder why anyone would want to sign up for marriage. The ache of marriage is fully alive here. I wasn’t totally into the idea of Togetherness when I read about it. It sounded like an unfolding tableau of overprivileged ennui, as middle-class midlife boredom clashes with midlife identity crisis. People stop being individuals, give up on their dreams, are stuck in the humdrum of daily life. This is at the heart of Togetherness, and could easily have been either as dull as HBO’s Looking or as self-indulgent and preachy as the recent miniseries The Slap. But Togetherness walks the tightrope and avoids conventional appearances – largely because of its cast, and the handling of its creators, the seemingly ubiquitous Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, and Steve Zissis. It could easily sink to a whiny, pretentious semi-sitcom focused on a 30-something married couple with two small children. They seem to have everything a young couple, Brett and Michelle (Mark Duplass and a transcendent Melanie Lynskey) could want – the marriage, the happy family, the house and the white picket fence. Against this “stable background”, Brett’s best friend (an out-of-work, down-on-his luck actor, Alex, played by Steve Zissis) and Michelle’s sister (Tina, an event planner, played by Amanda Peet) both move into Brett and Michelle’s place temporarily, and this change seemingly upends the bored equilibrium Brett and Michelle have settled into.

Both “sides” see the beauty of the other side. Alex and Tina, who have a really powerful chemistry but keep denying it, represent the initial spark we all recognize that comes from the beginning of a relationship and envy what Brett and Michelle have – but only because they are not trapped by the constraints. Brett and Michelle envy the freedom Alex and Tina have, and start to search outside the relationship for diversions – not necessarily diversions that lead them to infidelity. But just other entertainment, other sparks, ways to find their way back to who they used to be before middle-aged family life.

The bottom line, what I took away, what Togetherness imparts, with some humor and humanity, is that whether or not we are “together” with someone, we are still alone. We swallow so much of ourselves, not because someone else forces us to, but because we let some of ourselves go naturally with the march of daily responsibility and priorities. In following this path, sometimes when we are together with someone, we are more alone than ever.

“Together Alone” – Crowded House

Lunchtable TV Talk – Cucumber: “It’s a gay TV!”

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After enduring the tiresome and boring Looking on HBO, I wondered if it were possible to find something funny, real, sad, multidimensional and human on television that was just a normal but engaging depiction of gay life. Not caricatures, not some empty, juvenile idea of what gay life is. Something that feels like a genuine slice of life in a gay/LGBTQ context. And Cucumber is it. At least partly. Nothing is ever quite the whole package.

Cucumber’s creator, Russell T. Davies, brought us groundbreaking TV content in the past, such as Queer as Folk (the original UK version of course, which featured the now well-known Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy and Aidan Gillen of The Wire and Game of Thrones. Davies delivers in Cucumber (and in the accompanying, more lighthearted, half-hour program, Banana, which focuses on younger, secondary characters) all the things viewers could have hoped for in Looking. (Incidentally, Davies praised Looking and explained his view that perhaps it just went over viewers’ heads and that those who did not get it are “dumb”. He thought it was brilliant, but I don’t see it and don’t think there was anything deep to understand. Cucumber and Banana together deeply explore the themes, both comedic and tragic, that Looking could have elucidated without being a whiny, self-serving drag. It’s kind of Davies, though, to give Looking so much credit. Looking broke some new ground in certain areas – story for another time – but was not remotely relatable. Maybe the fact that we are left to compare these very different shows to each other is the bigger issue – TV shows that depict gay life aren’t a dime a dozen. Maybe there is a whole new paradigm we should be exploring.)

I care about these characters (both those in Cucumber and in Banana). In Cucumber, they can be frustrating, infuriating, silly, charming, funny, heartbreaking, showing the full range of their lives, relationships, fears – whether it is fear of and anxiety about sex (“Sex is for sexy people and the rest of us can just give it up.”), fear of aging, fear of being alone, fear of feeling and so much more. (Not everyone agrees, of course, as there was some backlash about Cucumber when it originally aired in the UK, with viewers finding “the characters unsympathetic and unwatchable. For others, the drama was inconsistent and tonally weird”. I can see those complaints, but at the same time don’t think it’s possible to create anything to absolute perfection. Unlikable, tonally weird or not, and unclear on whether it’s “light” or “dark”, Cucumber does not always walk the tightrope delicately. Both Looking and Cucumber, as the aforementioned article from The Daily Beast notes, are “about gay discontent at a time when the prevailing social winds—marriage equality, growing acceptance—seem to blow in another direction”. In contemporary entertainment channels, Cucumber is still better than anything else of its kind, which, if nothing else, should inspire storytellers and networks to raise the bar.)

Cucumber‘s most shocking episode, and the catalyst for where Henry (the main character) ends up, begins with Lance (Henry’s long-term partner until the show begins) wandering in the grocery store, where all of the episodes begin. It ends up revealing the timeline of his life and is actually so powerful and separate from the overall narrative in many ways that it could almost stand alone without the context of the rest of the show’s seven other episodes. You would not necessarily need to know the characters or the story that led to this point to feel his angst, his joy, his uncertainty, his humanity, his pain, his fear and his untimely end.

It reminded me, strangely (not in tone or theme but as a storytelling device) of a disjointed episode of Hell on Wheels that focused on the character Elam Ferguson (Common) after he had disappeared the previous season to go look for lead character, Cullen Bohannon. It also ushered in the surprise ending of a well-loved character. We suddenly see, near the end of the next season, that Ferguson, who had been mauled by a bear at the end of the previous season, survived the attack and is being nursed back to health by an Indian tribe. The entire episode is like a self-sustaining capsule that looks and feels nothing like the rest of the series. (Mr Firewall happened to be visiting when that episode aired, and it was the only episode he had ever seen, so he did not get an accurate impression of the show at all.) The idea of taking a character out of the normal run of things, away from the rest of the ensemble, and telling a tale that is uniquely his makes these episodes highly unusual.

Cucumber succeeded in creating a tense, terrifying and real hour of television while Hell on Wheels devised a very slow-moving tale of recovery that falsely led us to believe that Elam would even have a triumphant homecoming (we were misled/cheated. Elam does return in another episode and has gone so completely mad that he is gunned down like a rabid dog – so what was the long road to recovery episode even for?).

Cucumber‘s near-standalone episode six was heartbreaking. Lance was so desperate to please and to find someone he loved that he first spent nine ambiguous and somewhat unsatisfying years with lead character, Henry, who spewed hateful, vile stuff at Lance as they split up, ultimately told Lance that he had no spine and that Lance would wait for him to return. And when that relationship really ended, Lance pursued a conflicted, identity-crisis-ravaged, violent caveman who could not admit his own sexuality or accept even his own sexual curiosity. The Twittersphere came alive with a lot of “It’s 2015 – why do gay characters have to succumb to violence?” exchanges, but such statements ignore the realities that sexual minorities (or perhaps all kinds of minorities) face. Society has seemingly moved forward – legally and on a superficial level – but there will always be haters (whose hatred is really for themselves above all, even if it is unleashed on others). It’s a universal this sense of wanting something so much that ignoring danger makes sense. Hope springs eternal. Is the one night with a handsome man really worth it? Lance gets a warning – “go home, go to bed and sleep. You could walk away, right now… never look back. But he’s so damn handsome.” Devastating when you know what’s coming.

I’d say that though the show is focused on 46-year-old Henry, facing a midlife crisis and struggling with a stagnant relationship, Lance is its heart. Henry moves out of their common home into a warehouse apartment with two younger guys whose sexuality is a lot more open and fluid, which introduces the very different generational dynamics at play in the gay community. But Lance is what we care about and hope that maybe, just maybe, Henry will come to his senses and go back to Lance. When we lose Lance, we lose the sappy American idea of the “happy ending” reconciliation and see Henry grieve on all the different paths grief takes.

As stated, with a dearth of content on TV that focuses on the daily minutiae of LGBTQ life, comparisons between mostly dissimilar shows with only a similar theme in common are inevitable, e.g. Cucumber and Looking. The look that both take at discontent and dissatisfaction is telling in, as quoted above, a time when gay marriage is closer to becoming legally sanctioned in a majority of western countries and gay/LGBTQ relationships are becoming more openly accepted. Does this acceptance take away from or redefine the gay identity – usurp what many gay individuals need to feed their perceptions of themselves (e.g., young Dean, who features in both Cucumber and Banana, pretends to be alienated from his unaccepting, homophobic family, but we learn that he actually has a very accepting and loving family. He seems resentful of the fact that he cannot shock them with his being gay or “sexually subversive”). Does it change the foundation of what LGBTQ people thought their lives would be?

“Many of the arguments against marriage equality in the United States, an issue that may soon be settled nationally, have centered on the idea that admitting same-sex couples to the institution would irreparably alter it. But making marriage an option for those couples inevitably changes LGBT life too, if only by widening the scope of experiences available to lesbian, gay and bisexual people.” … “Advances towards equality still leave us, no matter who we are, with our own very human, very personal problems.”

LGBTQ on TV: Let’s not get it on

Maybe this is partly the point. Gay sex, gay identity, gay openness is not shocking enough to the average person any longer. I don’t want to diminish the reality of homophobia (the aforementioned “Lance” episode of Cucumber illustrates tragically that homophobia in all its forms is alive and well). While having sex probably does not define any individual or group, many people have long tried to insist that the LGBTQ experience is only about sex. When we reach a point at which it no longer shocks a wide swath of the population, and characters like Cucumber’s Henry are somewhat sex-averse (he has never tried penetrative sex, which is an unusual plot point, in that it flies in the face of what most non-gay audiences would imagine about gay men, and gets to a question recently addressed in an article on Salon), it is no longer just a story about people having sex.

The Salon article asserts that TV’s gay characters are a fairly sexless bunch, and that gay sexual lives on TV are too tame. It’s tempting to overreact to this article – to claim that shows like Banana and Cucumber, and for example, HBO’s Six Feet Under, have not shied away from gay sexual encounters at all (any more than any show in America at least – real, non-commoditized sexuality and nudity are still something of a taboo on American TV).

The article argues that the sexlessness is attributable to America’s squeamishness about seeing gay sex (or overt suggestions of it) on mainstream TV. Is this true? Does mainstream America at “family time/prime time” (i.e. before 22:00 in the evening) want to see overt sexuality from anyone? Plenty of innuendo but nothing explicit, so it is hard to say. Similarly the argument rests on the idea that Cam and Mitchell, Modern Family’s married gay couple, are so innocuous and sexless and appear to barely like each other. They are popular and easy to cheer for as gay characters because they pose no threat. While this might be true (because other characters are sexualized to some degree in the same show), it is still a primetime show, so nothing is overly sexual in its time slot. If you move a little later in the evening, you get the openly bisexual Nolan Ross on Revenge or Cyrus Beene on Scandal. And even ABC Family’s The Fosters, while presumably less “alarming” to middle America than gay men, focuses on a mixed-race, married female couple who are not only affectionate with each other but openly discuss their struggles to make time for sex with the demands of their careers and large, and always growing, family.

It is true that a lot of the best, most realistic, LGBTQ characters and couples don’t appear on mainstream, network TV – certainly not the most sexually active and adventurous characters. But cable channels (particularly paid channels, like HBO and Showtime) have always led the way with groundbreaking content, and in this sense, this is not an exception. Showtime’s Shameless gave us a truly fresh perspective on the subject with its improbable young couple, Ian and Mickey. HBO’s True Blood gave us a glimpse at very different kinds of sexuality in general, not just the out and proud sexuality of Lafayette. But various characters are changing the face of TV in subtle ways: Captain Ray Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a black police captain who faced both racism and homophobia in his work and who enjoys a loving, long-term interracial relationship with his partner; Omar Little the Robin Hood-like criminal in The Wire; David and Keith in Six Feet Under – another interracial relationship that came to be only after the uptight David could accept his own sexuality; Kevin and Scotty in Brothers & Sisters (and eventually Kevin’s Uncle Saul, who comes out quite late in life); Callie Torres and Arizona Robbins in Grey’s Anatomy; John Cooper in Southland; numerous characters who live unhappy, closeted lives because of the times they live in (Thomas Barrow in Downton Abbey, Sal Romero in Mad Men along with many other subtle and ambiguous characters who have come along throughout the seven season run of Mad Men, Nurse Mount in Call the Midwife). I did not always buy everything these characters did, and sometimes the stories involved them could feel a bit “placed” and token in nature. But it is encouraging that, slowly, this array of LGBTQ characters has become the new norm.

We have come a long way from the Jodie Dallas character in Soap, who started as a gay character who offered to have a sex-reassignment operation to be with his ultra-masculine football player boyfriend. Advertisers threatened to pull their support for the show, and for a while the show stood its ground. But eventually Jodie had relationships/flings with women and fathered a child. While he as a character maintained all along that he was gay, his character was a lightning rod in that he did not satisfy gay rights groups (justifiably concerned that the character would appear stereotypical or at the very least not representative of the gay community) and he did not make conservative groups happy simply because the character existed. But the character was a kind of pioneer – and we can at least see that the variety and depth of representation has changed a lot since the late 1970s when Soap was on the air.

With everything else that has changed in how the LGBTQ population is seen and accepted and has changed in how entertainment is produced and consumed, we should be able to think more creatively about how to produce and present things outside of the standard template.