Lunchtable TV Talk: The West Wing

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I force-fed myself seven annoying seasons of The Gilmore Girls recently, thinking it could play unassumingly in the background while I did other things. But it was so annoying with too many fast-talking, high-pitched, histrionic characters that I could neither concentrate on and absorb it nor concentrate on everything else I was meant to be doing.

The West Wing, also seven seasons long, 22 episodes per season, is the opposite. (Hard to believe that it has been almost ten years since it ended!) It’s equally fast-talking and sometimes a bit preachy, but it is designed in a way that I can pay attention to it and do whatever else I need to do and get the most from both. I even heard Rob Lowe exclaim in exasperation, “Good night, nurse!” – an expression I had only ever heard my grandmother (and the character Mike Sloan in the long-gone but much-loved show Homefront) use (most people don’t believe me when I tell them that yes, in fact, this is a real expression).

I had seen isolated episodes of The West Wing during its original run, but most of it happened during a period when I did not watch much telly, much less ingest it like a pig at the trough as I do now. I was always impressed with The West Wing – its stories, its cast, its pace – but only now, thanks to Netflix, am I watching it from end to end. And it’s providing sheer contentment. I haven’t reached the point yet where Rob Lowe leaves or where John Spencer dies, depriving the show of one of its greatest assets.

Can you argue with a show that at its worst seems a little like a “very special episode” on some issue – but never overdoes it, really? And at its best, weaves words like “ensorcelled” into the script? Or with a show that during its run had a stellar leading cast and unparalleled caliber of guest stars (Oliver Platt, Edward James Olmos – he’s Admiral Adama now and forever for me, or Jaime Escalante!, Mary Louise Parker, John Larroquette, – great in his recent role in The Brink, Marlee Matlin, Gerald McRaney – who turns up everywhere, usually as a former or current military guy – and an insane, bursting list of others) but many others who were virtually unknown at the time but went on to other, big things (Ty Burrell of Modern Family, Evan Handler of Sex and the City and Californication, Nick Offerman of Parks & Recreation, Clark Gregg of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Danny Pudi of Community, Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives and American Crime, Lisa Edelstein of House and the mercilessly shitty Girlfriends Guide to Divorce, Jorja Fox of CSI, Lance Reddick of The Wire and Fringe and Connie Britton, looking teenager-young, of Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story and Nashville…). And more… so many more.

This show encapsulates Aaron Sorkin‘s golden age. America wasn’t ready for him or his style in the too-clever but too-soon Sports Night, and he went too far with the overblown The Newsroom. But The West Wing was the pinnacle.

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.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Girls: No friendship is static

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I recently read an article asking whether women being friends on TV is done right. It used HBO’s much talked-about Girls as an example and contrasted it against the “I would kill for you” friendship portrayed in one of TV’s best and most unusual comedies, Broad City. The writer argues that representations of female friendship are important and as such asks whether the characterization in Girls can be counted among representative examples.

You get no arguments from me that Girls does not make female friendship look appealing, and one could argue that the girls whose lives play out in the show are not friends. This discounts the idea that there are different and always changing dynamics in friendship that include widely swinging moods and various ebbs and flows. And different kinds of friends – fair weather friends, dyed-in-the-wool Ilana and Abbi types and everything in between. Regardless of the type of friendship, the friendship is not less real just because it does not examine and display the best of female friendship. Sometimes it is human nature unfolding at its worst and takes a sideline to individuals’ ambitions. Sometimes women friends, even the best of them, don’t tell each other everything (all kinds of reasons for this – even best friends can get very jealous and envious and a friend might like to head that off before it happens; maybe the friend feels ashamed or private about some things and can’t share with anyone – or can only share with those NOT closest to her). Like it or not, female friendship can be complicated and nasty business – just as much as it can be beautiful and life-affirming.

We have seen life-affirming in the aforementioned Ilana and Abbi in Broad City, from Leslie and Ann in Parks and Recreation and even to some degree from Jules and Ellie in Cougar Town. But not every representation is going to be the same.

Beyond this, I don’t believe it is the responsibility of any TV show to singlehandedly take on any issue. Girls does not need to be the defining source on friendship, on sex, on life in the city in your 20s any more than anyone would want or expect Modern Family to be the defining reference on gay marriage. Bottom line: we might want and even expect more from those representations that do make it to TV, but it is not ultimately their responsibility, creative or otherwise, to deliver what we want or take the moral or cultural high ground. Or even necessarily to be realistic.

With all of this said, I would argue that Girls, as the worst, whiniest, most entitled, horrible set of characters I have seen in years, is a truer representation of friendship falling apart, friends growing apart. Once-close friends drift all the time. The author of the aforementioned Indiewire piece writes that the girls in Girls don’t seem to like each other much, especially compared to earlier seasons when they seemed to genuinely care. But that is true in a group as well. Real rifts create real dislike. Hannah is annoying. I don’t see why all of them do not dislike her. Jessa is an addict and a sociopath who gets off on stirring up trouble and drama, so you can see why people would be drawn to her but then repelled. Shoshanna is annoying as hell, but sometimes you can see her faults and vulnerabilities and see how she could be adopted into the circle of friends, but at the same time she says cruel and uncalled-for things (wrapping it in a blanket of “honesty”). The Indiewire writer cites a time when Shoshanna says she “never even liked Marnie” as if that also illustrates the falsehood of these friendships. But we have all been part of a group of friends and been forced to spend time with the friends of friends – some of whom we did not much like. We did it to preserve harmony, stay in the good graces of the friends who are closest to us.

It happens – all these things happen. Especially in that period right after the late teens and in early adulthood. People start to identify their own interests and paths. They find their own footing. Of course they will not always remain close. The tendency in Girls is a common one – when other factors in your life change, you try to cling to the familiar things. New friends and interests take over, but you still seek the comfort of friendships that meant something at really intense times in your young life. But it does not have to be forever, and the more the characters let go of the past, the truer and deeper their later friendships will be and the truer they will be to themselves (the people they have developed into).

Girls is a perfect playing out of the death of the adolescent close friendship. Despite this symbolic death, it also does not mean that the actual friendship will die. It can be a lot more like an animal that sheds its skin and starts again – but then, even if the two people in the friendship are the same people, their experiences and what they bring to the friendship will be different. I can see that happening with the women in girls. No friendship is static.

The show does not, as some argue, misrepresent female friendship. It is about how very different people handle disintegration and moving on to new experience and paths.

Otherwise, Girls uses music perhaps more effectively than any other show on TV at the moment. I love that part of it. Otherwise I don’t love anything else and have find each season increasingly difficult to watch. It’s polarizing and difficult – not what I would call entertainment – but I can’t stop watching and usually recommend it to others as well.

The Latest TV Ticking Time Bombs: Bunheads & Lone Star

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Recently I decided to spend some time watching TV shows that did not last.

First up – Bunheads. The title alone put me off, and then the fact that the creator is one and the same guilty party responsible for The Gilmore Girls. I know Gilmore was a really popular, beloved show – but for all the chances I gave it, I could not get into it. I realized eventually that it’s just Lauren Graham I don’t like (at all), not the show. (Graham seems to play a version – without much variation – of the same kind of ditzy, neurotic, irresponsible and not-put-together person in everything she is in.) I enjoyed the first few episodes of Bunheads, but eventually it grated on my nerves. I enjoyed some of the pop-culture references (they’re everywhere! Notably, I enjoyed a nice reference to Stringer Bell from The Wire and a couple of references to the worst movie ever, Footloose, which seems to be an uncontrolled phenomenon on TV these days, most recently on Modern Family). and some of the rapid-fire dialogue, although this trademark rapid-fire talk is part of what eventually grates. No one talks this way in reality, and if they did, I would be tempted to commit some kind of assault.

Alas, Bunheads lasted for just one season, so I only needed to plow through a limited assortment… relief. On the whole, even though I was relieved when the end came, I think it was an entertaining show while it lasted. It’s hard to tell whether the show was gone too soon or was around just long enough.

Another show that had an almost criminally limited run was Lone Star. It lasted for only two episodes (yes – two episodes!), so it is not possible to assess whether it was good or not. It had promise, though, and it only started to show. I decided to watch the two existing episodes because of James Wolk since it’s hard not to love the guy after watching his roles in Mad Men, Political Animals and more recently The Crazy Ones (by far the best aspects of that mediocre show). Wolk’s role in Lone Star seems to have been training ground for his role as Bob on Mad Men. (His character’s name in Lone Star, coincidentally enough, was “Bob” also.) Wolk’s role in Lone Star as the ultimate con man was not quite believable yet, especially for a guy who had supposedly been pulling cons all his life. Actually, maybe his performance was spot-on because no matter how long his character had been living his lifelong con, he was never comfortable with it. Lone Star’s Bob fooled a lot of people – the too-cute smile and slightly awkward charm – would not have been enough to carry him through the kinds of cons he was successfully running – not slick enough to mask his reality. By the time Wolk walked into the role of Bob Benson in Mad Men, he had mastered the cool, easy veneer and milquetoast cover that made Benson seem non-threatening and ultimately outstanding. But we only got two episodes of Lone Star. I am tempted to call it a gem – but we did not get enough of it to really find out.

Why I Changed My Mind: Minnie Driver

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During my recent headache-inspired film-viewing overdose, I randomly decided to see the film The Governess, starring Minnie Driver and Tom Wilkinson.

While some actors, actresses, musicians or writers strike me the wrong way right off the bat (and I later change my mind), I have no rational explanation for why I decided I did not like Minnie Driver. It was not her performances (all of which were superb, right from the beginning, e.g. Circle of Friends, or one of my all-time favorites, Big Night). There was just something about her that rubbed me the wrong way. Many actors I have disliked and about which I later changed my mind evolved or grew more into themselves, which explains the evolution of my opinions about them. It might not even be about their performances or their aging gracefully into different roles so much as it is about the roles they are actually offered.

But none of this was applicable to Ms Driver. Unlike someone like Kim Dickens, about whom I changed my mind, I did not groan to myself if I knew Driver was in a film – I still watched and enjoyed it. For a while she seemed to be everywhere and showed a great range – period pieces, drama and humor, smaller parts to leading roles, and eventually film to television. Arguably she is a bigger star than most of the people I sat on the fence (and eventually jumped to one side or the other) about – a fact that made her harder to avoid, had I wanted to.

It was not until I saw her in the underrated TV show The Riches (which itself was something I avoided during its original run) that I began to respect the depth of her talent. I think a lot of people sort of fell in love with her when they saw her in Good Will Hunting, but for me, I guess I could have fallen in love with her work, so to speak, much earlier if I had really been paying attention. Her work in the aforementioned Big Night was subtle and insightful, her turn as Debi in Grosse Pointe Blank was believable (in the most broad and comprehensive way – “believable” makes it sound like it was barely passable, when in fact I mean the opposite). Later her memorable TV appearances proved that she was also not afraid to make fun of herself and to make fun in general (Will & Grace in particular, but also more recently in Modern Family).

Considered, reconsidered – being in the public eye and putting oneself out there for the world to see, while a choice, is a vulnerable act. Actors are scrutinized constantly, so the armchair criticism of someone like me – on an individual level – does not matter much. But on the whole, if exposed to this constant criticism en masse – I cannot imagine it’s fun. The public’s – and fandom’s – taste is fickle.

That said, Minnie Driver has been delivering top-notch performances all along.

the baking plan

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