Lunchtable TV talk: The woman’s hidden path: Transformation by need or desire

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In the same way as Crime and Punishment is ostensibly about Raskolnikov, its women are the compelling draw of that make me continue to think about the story, years after last reading it. What influence do they have, what sacrifices have they made — and why?

In many of modern television’s biggest draws, women characters embody and drive the growth, change, multidimensional development and complexity of the story, sometimes even within stories in which the men’s experience is the story. The women’s transformative journey isn’t given the same fanfare as men’s… but it’s arguably a more dramatic, if understated, journey. Not unlike everyday life.

The show that got me thinking about this transformation was Better Call Saul. We know — both from Breaking Bad and from the development of the lead, Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman — that Jimmy/Saul is going to go through professional and familial upheaval, and given what we learn about his early life, return to his “Slippin’ Jimmy” origins on a grander scale. The quieter transformation, though, happens more slowly, with Jimmy’s counterpart, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Built incrementally over the entire series, Kim’s transformation has been hinted at, as she occasionally joins Jimmy in some of his minor pranks and cons and seems to enjoy it. But her conscientious, driven, all-business demeanor imply that Kim is always going to be on the right side of the law. Yet time after time, when most would expect Kim to be the voice of reason, she retorted with something unexpected. Despite these surprises, it was never as though Kim acted completely out of character, jarring a viewer into finding the journey unrealistic or unearned. Instead she became more multilayered and complex as a character, which is not what I anticipated when the show began. In fact when Better Call Saul premiered I dismissed Kim as a secondary, possibly temporary, on/off love interest kind of character (I should really have known better, considering the creators of the show).

With Kim, as with all things in her life, she is controlling her transformation and choices, never letting the out-of-her-control circumstances make the decisions (or so it seems). Some of television’s latest and greatest shows offer glimpses of women at crossroads and turning points, as well as points of vulnerability, projecting creative and unexpected evolution for their characters. (Some of these transformations are the best — and only engaging — parts of the programs they appeared in.) A few of my picks include the transformation of Sarah Paulson‘s character, Alice, in Mrs America; Merritt Wever‘s spontaneous grab for a life that almost-was in Run; Kathryn Hahn‘s role as Eve Fletcher, as Eve moves from single mother to empty nester trying to figure out who she is, particularly sexually, in Mrs Fletcher; Shira Haas embodying a young Hasidic woman running from everything she knew to discover an entirely different kind of life in Unorthodox; almost all of the women in The Deuce experience transformation – some quite involuntarily but others, in particular, Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s Eileen/Candy, Dominique Fishback‘s Darlene, and Emily Meade‘s Lori, look to find voice and agency in a changing city in tumultuous times. Similarly, all the of the women in the underrated show Queen Sugar (Rutina Wesley, Dawn Lyen-Gardner, Tina Lifford and Bianca Lawson), have transformed completely — many times — and continue to evolve — as the show continues. It probably goes without saying but needs to be said that the women of Pose are television’s most transformative and inspiring group of all.

This is what women are uniquely good at doing — not just transforming, but adapting to changing realities. An unfortunate example from real life is Norma McCorvey, remembered best as Jane Roe, the plaintiff in the landmark case Roe v Wade, which made abortion legal in the United States. After the precedent-setting ruling, McCorvey became an anti-abortion activist, but nearing death, she confessed that she’d never actually changed her mind — but instead had been paid for her anti-abortion activism. This is chronicled in a new documentary called AKA Jane Roe. Sometimes the journey involves inconsistency that benefits the individual — never mind the social impact or ethical position.

As in real life, television’s transformations often come about less willingly, driven by circumstance and need. In the Canadian Pure, a Mennonite pastor and his stubborn rigidity and black-and-white view of the world continue to cause trouble and harm to his family, but his wife Anna (Alex Paxton-Beesley) adapts to the situation at hand with greater skill, being able to operate in greyer territory. Skyler White (Anna Gunn) in Breaking Bad represents a slow but sly turn to “the dark side” as it becomes clear what she is being forced to do. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) in The Good Wife is forced to return to work after being humiliated by her husband’s infidelity and malfeasance. He goes to prison, and she begins to practice law. Somewhere along the line, her naivete and sense of being overwhelmed are supplanted by wily dealing and shrewd calculations about her future. Ozark‘s Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) follows a similar path, reviving her past as a political operative/adviser and applying it to altogether more nefarious enterprises. In many of these cases, it appears as though these ambitions have always lay dormant and get triggered unexpectedly.

 

Photo by Chandra Oh on Unsplash

Lunchtable TV talk: “Men’s TV” – The Kominsky Method and Men of a Certain Age

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It’s been a long time since I devoured the rather under-the-radar Michael Douglas vehicle, The Kominsky Method; I won’t be diving into its finer plot points or achingly funny comedic value here. It’s been even longer since I saw Men of a Certain Age, but I think it aligns thematically with the point I want to make.

I watch, let’s face it, an alarming amount of television. For this reason alone, I would not have been able to avoid Kominsky or Men even if I’d wanted to. Not that either show earned popularity or love in the ways they should have. This probably explains, in part, why I found both so endearing.

After watching Kominsky, I recommended it to someone else, who watched and reported back that he loved it, but he was surprised I liked it so much because “it’s kind of a men’s show”. Here he didn’t mean anything sexist but simply thought that the themes were quite middle-aged/older man in nature, and the male characters reflected this bias. The women characters were a bit underbaked and inconsequential, although there was potential for growth. (Not that women or minority groups aren’t used to their stories and voices taking a back seat.)

To these observations, I could only reply:

  • Human stories are not gendered. They may be about gender, but one’s interest in watching them, or even finding them relatable, isn’t that reductive. That’s not to say that some entertainment isn’t offensive because of its depictions of gender, but that is not the case here. Deciding what something is before we give it a chance is one of the worst things about human nature; it may serve us well in not eating something that will poison us, but it does not serve us well in our interpersonal relations (and entertainment prospects).
  • It’s a human show more than a “men’s show”. Perhaps why women (sweeping generalization here) understand men better than men understand women is because we (generally) pay attention to people, what they say, what entertains them, what they fear. By listening to all people, we have a better understanding of humanity.
  • By classifying entertainment by gender or deciding that something is a “man’s show” or “woman’s show”, many stories are being sidelined and left unheard.
  • Pre-determining that a form of entertainment will have limited, possibly gender-based, appeal, we not only don’t give credit to others and the expansive nature of their interests, sympathies and imagination, we create conditions for prematurely canceling or never making diverse stories at all.

Of course, it’s true that different people will be drawn to different types of action, and sometimes this appears to run along traditional gender lines (and again, I know this is a broad and inaccurate descriptor). A lot of research exists about television and its role in sex stereotype acquisition and sex-role behaviors. I don’t plan to write a dissertation on this topic. There’s a wealth of work also on television-based gender discourse. Again, fascinating stuff, plenty of research out there.

I, instead, will highlight a point that struck me from TV writer and producer Tony Tost‘s Twitter feed:

Tony Tost, who has written some great (underrated) shows that on the surface would appear to be “men’s shows” (Longmire, Damnation) but which bubble over with strong, diverse characters, highlights that attention/interest level appears to be gendered on some level. I happen to think Tost has managed to create a balance in his works that holds the interest of the entire audience. This isn’t true of all such entertainment, but even those that aren’t invested in appealing to everyone or being perfectly representative interest me as a reflection of the society we live in. Our entertainment perhaps should reflect the world we’d like to see (maybe we’d have liked to have seen greater diversity in Friends), but would that have been realistic?

I’d like to get past the idea that entertainment has barriers and boundaries, realizing of course that the entire discipline of marketing deals in divisions and personas and targeting them. I want to be able to fall in love with the curmudgeonly Norman (Alan Arkin) of The Kominsky Method while also empathizing with Sandy’s (Michael Douglas) long-suffering daughter, Mindy (Sarah Baker). I want to see Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher at their finest, struggling their middle-aged struggles. I don’t need television characters to be relatable, to always reflect me or even be sympathetic. In fact because the stories told are different, they draw me in.

But I also want to live in a world where a show like Queen Sugar, which is mostly about black women in a single family (but is actually about the entire community they live in, their conflicts, socioeconomics, land rights, and a whole slew of human and societal debts and situations), and is run by women, gets a lot more attention and traction than it gets now.

What kind of a world are we living in when even the most enlightened of people expresses surprise that I’d like something that is about and “geared toward” men? We’re on the road to improving this, but it’s hard to say how we could speed it along. More visible promotion of things like the aforementioned balanced work from Tost, which shakes off and subverts expectations, and much more mainstream focus on nuanced works like Queen Sugar will hopefully go some way toward eradicating assumed preferences and the perceived “gender exclusivity” of entertainment.

Curiosity, interest, attention lead to questioning, and it’s here, in asking and listening to the answers, that we find common ground.

Photo by Josh Kahen on Unsplash