Lunchtable TV Talk: Rosewood

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We’re not long into the new TV season, but there are already some things I really do not like.

Life in Pieces, which I mentioned in another post, is a disaster, despite the presence of Jordan Peele. Limitless, boring, formulaic and dead-end in only the way “gimmick” shows can be. Dr Ken – oh my god. I am not sure I have ever in my entire life seen something as bad, wholeheartedly, offensively and truly bad, as this. Code Black – flatline. Absolutely no chemistry among the cast, nothing is believable, and I think we have enough medical dramas already to last a lifetime.

Rosewood, which I wanted to like because Morris Chestnut (his V and Nurse Jackie characters outshine this by a mile even though he was not the lead in either of those shows) is eminently likable and nice to look at, does not hold my interest at all. I seriously struggle to sit through the 45 minutes of the show, and in fact skipped the last ten in the third episode. None of the characters possesses anything that makes me want to come back for more (or even finish what I start). Lorraine Toussaint, who has been in virtually everything in the last few years (seriously! The Fosters, short-lived Forever, Orange is the New Black, Body of Proof and countless guest roles in popular shows…) cannot even command interest. Should I keep trying?

The only upside to all of this is that my overstuffed TV schedule will be scaled back – and quickly.

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.

That’s Entertainment – Binge Viewing

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Funny thing about going on TV and movie-viewing binges – there are so many threads that connect so many things together. This past two weeks, for example, I have not seen a single TV show that did not use a reference to someone being another person’s “wing man”. It started when I went on a Suits-watching marathon, and there was an entire episode in which the characters were excessively quoting Top Gun (which is not even a film with dialogue – just a long series of annoying one-liners). After that, every show has referenced the ubiquitous “wing man” and in some other show (unfortunately I have half-watched so much TV that I don’t remember which show), the characters argued about who was Maverick and who was Goose.

Smaller connections can be seen if paying attention – binge watching allows for sewing together disconnected threads in specific series – but it also allows for small connections and thematic linking between things where there really is no reason to believe there are connection. For example, the obsession with Quaaludes in The Wolf of Wall Street pops up again in HBO’s True Detective, where Matthew McConaughey’s character wants to get some Quaaludes. Not to mention that McConaughey turns up briefly in The Wolf as a drug-obsessed Wall Street guy schooling Leonardo DiCaprio in how to behave (that is, take drugs, more drugs and only care about making money for yourself). And frankly, how often do you hear about Quaaludes in everyday life? Never. Now it’s twice in one day – thanks to entertainment.

TV

In the midst of other things, I have done a lot of wasteful TV and movie viewing lately. It’s on in the background while I do a million other things. There are plenty of other things I have been watching and love (not listed here, such as Shameless, House of Lies, Episodes, Justified, etc.), but I am only listing things that I have not really written much about elsewhere – new shows or things that I have something to say about them.

Among the dumbest or most infuriating shows:

The Following: This show just makes law enforcement look like it is all bumbling idiots, always ten steps behind. But the bad guy never quite seems like he could be smart enough to pull it off. In general the show just makes no sense to me because it is just not believable.

The Fosters: This is classic-style ABC network family programming with a “clever” (or not) title (the titular Foster family are also foster parents) and lots of hot-button topics (lesbian, biracial couple with a bunch of kids – one biological and the others adopted fosters). The good part is that this backdrop is not overdone or made to seem unusual. This is just the way it is. But the storytelling is one step away from overdramatic soap opera with too much shit going on to be real. So I don’t like the show, and both the leads (Teri Polo and Sherri Saum) lack the personal warmth to make them seem like loving parents – they try to oversell it to the detriment of the end effect.

Helix: I keep waiting for it to get better and it isn’t. I felt the same way about Caprica. And is it just me or is Billy Campbell becoming a worse and more false actor as he gets older? The only good thing is the actress who was Kat in Battlestar Galactica. I did not like her that much in BSG, but here she’s tough without the immature, annoying, extreme edge she had as Kat. Oh, and Jeri Ryan is going to show up any minute now, so that’s a good thing, right?

Looking: I don’t know – a show about a group of gay friends in San Francisco. Would be fine as a premise, but it just feels so pointless every week.

The Crazy Ones: I keep trying to watch this and this is not funny. The end.

How I Met Your Mother: I started watching this only around the time that the show was in its sixth season on TV. It could be quite funny for network comedy, but this last season is dragging out in the worst way. Boring and unfunny to an unmanageable degree.

Not bad but not good:

Nashville: This gets worse all the time. I want to like it because I really like Connie Britton. But every storyline is annoying and over-the-top. While all are annoying, the worst one is Rayna’s determination to start her own record label. It belies the whole direction of the music industry – and I refuse to believe that a huge star that this character is supposed to be would be that blind to the trends of the industry. Or that she would be so naive as to not realize the intricacies of the business and getting out of her contract. There is something naive about the whole story – her former label maneuvers against her by making a couple of phone calls (as if it is as easy as that) after we have just heard from another businessman that deals are made and cemented months or years in advance for retail shelf space. And the whole thing comes down to – who the hell needs retail shelf space any more? That’s the thing – why not try to move forward with your new, innovative, fresh label using the new, innovative, fresh tools that the modern music industry is built on? Most people are downloading and streaming. Getting distribution at Wal-mart or wherever is still part of the strategy for a huge star – but a huge, veteran star starting up a label would not be so completely blind to the business end of the business. And if she were, she would have lined up a lot more industry-specific advisers (rather than her sketchy sister?!) to help her plan and get the whole thing off the ground. She would not just mouth off at her music label and leave and decide to fly by the seat of her pants and suddenly find that she is stuck.

If they stuck with the music, this would be a better show.

Trophy Wife: Surprisingly funnier than I expected but still not something I cannot live without. I find myself questioning the man in the story – how is it that he just keeps getting married – and is he so lacking in discernment or so desperate not to be alone or just so open-minded that he married these three massively different women? I can’t figure that out. I mean really – who would marry that second wife? He seems too normal and put together to marry someone like that unless it was a whimsical rebellion after the uptight, driven and mean first wife? I don’t know, I really don’t.

Almost good, but not totally sure:

Orphan Black: I never planned to watch this but recently watched the whole thing – I was entertained, surprised and impressed with Tatiana Maslany’s performance in multiple, quite different roles in the same show. I will give the second series a whirl. I am interested in the ethics of cloning and identity, and this show has started to explore some of the issues that come to light as a result of this kind of scientific experimentation.

Suits: As a kind of entertaining filler, I am enjoying Suits. It can be a laugh, but it’s not classic television or anything. I enjoy the constant movie quoting and references the characters make to other things (Top Gun, Mississippi Burning as examples), but that’s the best it gets for me.

The best shows:

True Detective: By far the best new show I have seen. Understated, great cinematography, great soundtrack, great dialogue and superb performances. The tense relationship between the two leads, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and their outstanding verbal exchanges, makes the show worth watching. I never imagined in my life that I would claim McConaughey had done something great, but in truth, he has actually built a fairly impressive resume without my paying attention. (His role in Dallas Buyers Club was pretty powerful, but I have not seen him do something as inspired as his role in True Detective.)

Movies

I watched a bunch of movies in recent weeks – but I have not really kept track of them. I saw Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave, the recent Mandela movie starring Idris Elba… but there is not much to say about these films. It’s difficult to distill a film into just key points. And films like these – well, they’re kind of Oscar bait, meaning that everyone writes about them.

I saw the film The Wolf of Wall Street, and hated it. Frankly I don’t like stuff like this. Movies in which people behave stupidly, get all fucked-up on drugs and live and die by their own greed and excesses don’t do anything for me. I am only interested in the fact that Kyle Chandler is in a small role as a tenacious FBI agent. He’s just so bloody cute! Happily he will be in a new Netflix series soon.