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 – Better Call Saul: ’sall good, man…

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I often wondered, as I watched Better Call Saul from its debut to its freshman season finale: Would we watch if it weren’t the prequel to Breaking Bad? Is it good or engaging outside the explicit context of Breaking Bad? We cut it some slack and keep watching because we really liked Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad. And who doesn’t like Bob Odenkirk in just about everything he has done? Giving him a leading role in a one-hour, “dark dramedy” would seem either a genius move for which we would all reap the rewards or an overblown failure. Maybe this curiosity made us want more and made us ask the question: how did Saul Goodman come to be? (I like the small nods, winks and tips of the hat to Breaking Bad that subtly appear throughout Better Call Saul.)

But as to whether I felt the show could stand on its own merits, until the end, I was not entirely sure. In the final two episodes, during which Jimmy (the given name of our titular antihero) puts together an almost airtight class action lawsuit, despite all the factors stacked against him, he ends up finding out who has really been standing in his way all along. That storytelling and slow building of a character won me over. Seeing Jimmy struggle, take care of his brother Chuck, strive to make a name for himself, continue to try to do the right thing, only to have his efforts slapped down, illustrates exactly how Jimmy cast aside an aspirationally “good” self to aspire to – and succeed – at being his “bad” self.

At the crux of this transformation is the painful and heartbreaking relationship Jimmy has with his brother, Chuck (played to perfection by Michael McKean). A bitter and probably overdue confrontation ensues, in which Chuck spews a hateful monologue about Jimmy’s incompetence and propensity to fuck up, mocking his law degree as “not real”.

Chuck explodes: “I know you. I know what you were. What you are. People don’t change. You’re ‘Slippin’ Jimmy’.” From here, Chuck delivers perhaps the most quoted and heartbreaking line of all, citing Jimmy’s conman past: “Slippin’ Jimmy I can handle just fine, but Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun.”

With that, the relationship is broken, and Jimmy is never turning back. The final episode of the inaugural season begins to hint at and chart Jimmy’s new course, which will eventually lead us to the Saul Goodman he becomes.

Stat Explosion and Data Overload

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May 18 skewed my blog statistics in a big way. As someone who manages a very niche, limited-reach blog for a corporation in my professional life (obviously not THIS blog), this sudden and brief explosion was an interesting look at what immediately drives traffic (a retweet from a famous person). Or rather what won’t. The corporate blog gets readers, and the number of readers and subscribers grows slowly but steadily. It is such a specialized area that it is not as though it would ever get the kind of readership that even my personal blog gets – and my personal blog is all over the place – personal, lacking in a theme or point and not actively trying to drive anything. It started as a baking/recipe blog when my colleagues (whom I had stuffed to near-death with cookies and cupcakes) demanded recipes. It evolved into a dumping ground for my thoughts and commentary on television, news/current events and all manner of other nonsense. Even if my personal blog had a steadier stream of traffic than my work blog (makes sense because the randomness of my personal blog means that all kinds of Google searches, from Mobutu Sese Seko to white chocolate macadamia cookies, from the benefits of telecommuting, to pictures of brown sugar cupcakes piled high with mounds of maple Swiss meringue buttercream and candied bacon. might lead someone to my blog), I never achieved any great reach.

on the bacon bandwagon

on the bacon bandwagon

Until today, my personal blog’s best stats never reached more than 250 visitors – and that was when I was baking a lot and posting recipes and pictures of cakes. In the absence of that, I maybe get 30 or 40 visitors. I am not that concerned with the statistics on my personal blog – I write it for my own sake and if someone else gets there and likes it, or even doesn’t like it, that’s fine with me.

But this morning, which has felt like a neverending night now that Swedish near-endless light nights are here, I posted an article about how I finally watched the witty and insightful Inside Amy Schumer, despite the misleading, one-dimensional Comedy Central ads for it that had so long turned me off. I posted about the blog via Twitter, which was retweeted from Schumer’s own account, which then led to what is for me an unprecedented avalanche of activity. Suddenly my phone was chiming: ding ding ding ding ding ding because, thanks to Schumer’s devotees (a more pleasant word than “followers”), people were retweeting and favoriting my original tweet. (Yes, I am perfectly aware of how asinine this sounds. A non-Millennial person describing the tweet and retweet process like it’s really serious business just sounds funny – even if it does have its own importance. It’s just not the be-all, end-all.)

But more than that, the link to the blog in which I wrote about changing my mind about Amy Schumer’s show made the blog statistics skyrocket. In a couple of hours, there were well over 1,000 visitors. The downside is that this opens the door to a lot of unprovoked criticism from complete strangers. But then yeah, the world’s full of haters, and that is completely fine. I hate a lot of stuff too. It is also easy to have a knee-jerk reaction (no emphasis on “jerk” or anything) – as I did to the ads, and as the commenter had to my post. But I am sure we are both cool enough people in our real lives.

The only comment on the Amy Schumer blog entry, in fact, was a negative one, basically laying into me for my “judgmental, accusatorial” observations about an ad. But, as I commented back (and I think we’re cool now), most of our judgments and decisions are kind of “split second” in nature – especially to ads. They are meant to appeal to us on some level, get our attention and in 30 seconds to make us want to do something, consume something, watch something or buy something (I won’t even use as strong a word as “persuade” since it’s more like advertisers tease and tempt with an elevator speech – so shouldn’t it be a bit more tempting, somehow?). Of course, I don’t know who the target audience was with the Schumer ads, but it’s not me – and that’s fine. But I still had to see them, and I made a judgment that watching the show might not be the best use of my time. Or that it would be as crass and shallow as the ads made it seem. That is no judgment of the show itself or Amy Schumer. And my writing about it was more like, “Hey, I was completely wrong about this – and the two people who read this blog and generally trust my opinions on these matters should know it. Watch Inside Amy Schumer!”

With a fleeting moment of greater reach, you simultaneously become a lightning strike (gone in a flash) and a lightning rod.

I suppose a celeb retweet or starting/being part of a trending topic is the sort of thing that one has to get to gain some traction. Even if, for example, in this case, it is a bunch of clicks – not “traction”. We all know it but there’s no way to predict whether any social media activity will lead to anything. Visitors to my personal blog are nice – but much like in the corporate blog environment, it’s not like they stuck around and read other things. And for personal writing, it doesn’t matter. I write what I write, I post it online and to a limited extent in social channels, but I am not writing for an audience or to achieve something.

But for the corporate writing, you sort of want to extend the reach – establish yourself as a thought leader – but you cannot do anything to damage your credibility or try to somehow get that reach artificially. It doesn’t work and won’t hold anyone’s interest. For instance I could try to steer the corporate blog in a direction where “celebrity surgeons” (is there such a thing other than the odd Dr Oz and some plastic surgeons who show up on makeover shows??) somehow feel compelled to retweet the content, but while that might extend reach for a day, it is not delivering quality or longevity or even the target audience we’d want to reach.

In a kind of related area…

“Data data data – you cannot make bricks without clay…” –Sherlock Holmes in TV show Elementary

All this discussion of statistics should lead to an action plan on how to take advantage of statistics and visitor data to guide future blog content – “give the readers what they want”. At least this is true for the corporate blog – consumer/user/customer responsiveness and centricity is really the only way to ensure continued growth for something like this.

I have been participating in a Coursera/Wharton School online class about marketing, and this week was all about customer-centricity. Since I work a lot with the ideas underpinning “taming Big Data” to gain customer insights in my freelance work, the whole idea of customer focus as one of the only real ways to differentiate makes a lot of sense – and customer data (overload) is the key to giving users what they want.

Never mind that I am totally distracted listening to the professor, Peter Fader, deliver his lectures, because he sounds too much like Bob Odenkirk – so I am supposed to be looking at a PowerPoint slide describing a couple of case studies of companies that have put customer data to good use, but it’s like I am hearing Saul Goodman explaining customer centricity to me. (And Saul Goodman arguably did put his customers first, sometimes to his own detriment and at his own peril.)

This customer-centric, data-driven approach is finally taking root in all kinds of business segments and industries. As Fader pointed out, direct marketing has always used data to target customers – but now, in the digital age, this data is readily available to almost everyone (I won’t get into the ethics of data collection, privacy, etc. except to say that while it’s great for businesses, it’s creepy for customers – see a recent article about a pregnant woman and Princeton professor who had to go to insane lengths to hide her pregnancy from advertisers, retailers and the Big Data machine.) At first companies like Google and Amazon tapped into user data because it’s in their DNA – I have spent a lot of time looking at how old-style, traditional publishers who lost both revenue and subscribers in the big digital shift are now taking back control their data (they had ceded a lot of it to third parties who started taking an ever-larger share of the pie from them) to target their website visitors, readers, subscribers with content and advertising that is highly personalized. And just today I saw a news report about a museum in London that has begun to use all kinds of data collection (traditional and digital) to continue to attract visitors. As the report stated, “Research is a key part of the museum’s arsenal.”

The application of data and personalization is the next logical step, but I wonder about the quality and longevity of this too. Collecting, analyzing and applying user data can only go so far before people feel as though someone is always looking over their shoulder. I cannot help but wonder if that sense of Big Data infiltrating one’s life will start to feel too much like Big Brother and begin to change and influence consumer behavior?

(As advertised – I rambled aimlessly!)