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: Lost – the real freedom is choice

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“The opposite of addiction, I have learned, is not sobriety but choice.” –Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel

This isn’t really about television — only tangentially. It’s actually about perspectives on addiction. Watching the tv show Lost just provided a pop-culture window into how it’s depicted.

Years after it ended, I binged on all six seasons Lost, which isn’t something of which I watched so much as one episode during its original run. I don’t know why I chose now—perhaps it was because someone referenced it, and I didn’t know the reference. Perhaps because it seems like a blind spot in my encyclopedic knowledge of television. Most of the world is in lockdown, and it’s as good a time as any to indulge.

On the subject of indulgence and, by extension, addiction (clearly I indulge in my television addiction no matter how many times I claim I won’t), the thing that stuck with me from my Lost immersion was the character John Locke’s insistence that addiction is about choice. Right after reading Judith Grisel’s Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction, in which Grisel states that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but choice, I watched Locke give another character, Charlie Pace, a heroin addict, the opportunity to make the conscious choice about whether to use or not. Simple but powerful. It’s always about choosing to do or not.

Yes, choice. The true freedom.

“I understand firsthand the despair that grows as drugs come to make our choices for us, deciding whom we will be with and what we will do. This gloomy cell of repetition occupied by every addict, despite variation in periodicity, strips us of our most precious commodity, the freedom to choose. This is why I’m not against drugs or drug use, but am so thoroughly opposed to addiction: it strips us of our precious freedom. And this is also why it makes no more sense to cure addiction by imposing permanent or semipermanent limits on our range of choices than it does to teach compassion through corporal punishment. How could one give rise to the other? Just as children need autonomy in little doses in order to learn restraint, people in recovery obviously can’t be entrusted with ourselves all at once. But given social support, a range of attractive alternatives, and perhaps short-term medical interventions, we can learn to choose life—despite its obvious imperfections—over death. Ultimately, this freedom is the antidote to addiction. When I occasionally hear sober people say that using is no longer an option, I cringe. It is precisely an option. That’s exactly the point. So, what might be an ideal cure?”

I didn’t expect Lost to offer parallels to books on addiction, but it’s interesting to see depictions of addiction on television. Most of them don’t theorize about sobriety versus choice, most don’t look compassionately at the addict’s plight, and we as a society so, as Grisel writes, demonize and pity addicts… especially so when it’s seen as a moral failing and usually the use of “hardcore” drugs, like opioids.

But what always strikes me, given the damage it does, is that we fail to recognize alcohol as a hardcore drug. Its legality and ubiquity – and the expectation that drinking will accompany every occasion (everything from mourning to exuberant celebration) – has entirely skewed the perception of its danger.

“Social convention is pickled in the intoxicating juice of alcohol. In 1839, an English traveler named Frederick Marryat noted in his diary that American practice was “if you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain, you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make it up with a drink. They drink, because it is hot; they drink, because it is cold.””

This is one of the most powerful parts of Grisel’s book – that she takes alcohol and the cultural imperative that it be an integral part of our lives – to task.

“I am also particularly curious about the general practice of celebrating peak experiences with a sedative. I understand that it is easy to be overwhelmed by strong emotions, and I appreciate the desire to evade stark reality, but still, it seems odd that we drink and use to permit or enhance strong feelings as well as to mute them.”

“Alcohol is a neurological sledgehammer. By acting throughout the brain to influence a multitude of targets, the drug affects virtually all aspects of neural functioning. One or two drinks help to blur the edges, and a reduction in anxiety promotes relaxation. But with a few more drinks, a person loses inhibitions as cortical monitoring is shut down and subcortical, “emotional” regions are freed from normal constraints. As one approaches the legal limit for alcohol in the blood, behavior is sedated, and speech and coordination are impaired. Still more drinking and the person might lose consciousness. These effects are what justify alcohol’s classification as a sedative-hypnotic.”

“Alcohol has been such a huge part of our culture since we had culture that it can be nearly impossible to see the ways we all participate in the unsustainable epidemic of alcoholism. So we walk a fine line, glancing up at the scope of the battlefield, looking in the mirror at the ways we contribute, but mostly walking with our eyes cast down, perhaps as my colleague felt meeting me in the hallway after my successful dissertation defense.”

“This seems funny, because it obviously isn’t creating the occasion, but rather the excuse to use an occasion for drinking. These businesses are well aware of psychological learning principles as they work to associate contexts with alcohol, noting that “insights have enabled us to create and position products for specific moments of consumption: enjoying a game or music event with friends, shifting toward a more relaxed mood after work, celebrating at a party or sharing a meal.” Along similar lines, in 2014 the British Beer Alliance, a consortium of major British brewers, invested £10 million in the marketing campaign “There’s a Beer for That,” aiming to showcase “the variety of beer available in the UK and how these different styles fit perfectly a wide range of occasions.””

“What might we do differently? As a start, we might work to ensure more spaces where not drinking isn’t just tolerated but acceptable. In addition to offering more beverage options, we could convey this acceptance by really seeing and hearing each other, putting the “social” back into the drinking. Practicing this, we might notice that at least some of those we meet will be better sated by friendship than by booze.”

Alcohol may be the “socially acceptable” addiction, and probably the most common, which is why it’s so perplexing.

“…thought-provoking paradox. If alcohol and other drug addictions were rare events, unlikely except for a few tragic cases, it would be one thing. But in the face of superabundant examples proximal, ubiquitous, and concrete, as well as our own family wounds concerning the stuff, our deep collective denial is strange. The manic insistence on ignoring the obvious is reminiscent of cigarette commercials I grew up watching. The juxtaposition of youthful athleticism with a nicotine habit seemed as odd to me as a child as the insistence today that alcohol somehow makes everything sexier and livelier. I still remember one commercial in particular that showed a group of gorgeously tanned young adults whitewater rafting down a rugged canyon as they promoted a popular menthol brand. Really? Smoking while rafting? This incongruity is thoroughly pervasive. We always kick off the annual meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism, where I recently received my twenty-five-year membership pin, with a reception. Free drink tickets—two per person, just right for the social drinker—are offered to everyone, and the drug flows freely (because you can pay cash when your tickets run out).”

Lunchtable TV Talk: Tiger King + The Family + Ozark

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I’m a long way behind the curve in saying anything about the improbable Tiger King phenomenon, and there isn’t much to say about it except… well, there are idiots everywhere — some of them manipulative, some of them manipulated — and all of them thoughtless and selfish. I can’t stand watching or thinking about animals being mistreated, and under no circumstances could one claim that animals weren’t mistreated at the facility where Joe Exotic bred these creatures. No point describing this further except to say that this reflects the worst of society, its selfish streaks and disregard for life and nature.

I am nevertheless (briefly) bringing it up now largely because of the strange way that totally different programs end up having a surprising thematic overlap. What, then, does Tiger King have to do with the documentary, The Family, and by extension, Ozark? On the surface, absolutely nothing. But if you watch them one after the other in short succession, you will find a theme of destruction of one type or another, brought about by the selfishness, self-preservation, ugliness of what people can do and become.

The Family focuses on a conservative, right-wing, religious organization/cult that influences American politics heavily. Not a fantastic documentary, but it does chronicle the toxic and insidious influence an ultra-right-wing “religious” group has on American politics, and by extension, American life. I put “religious” into quotation marks because I find these interpretations and manifestations of faith to negate true spiritual or religious belief. Anything that excludes, vilifies and targets people with hatred and discrimination — or official government policy or law codifying hatred or discrimination — is not qualified to be anything but a power-hungry cult in my estimation. The Family illustrates the destructive nature of hypocrisy – how it can profoundly benefit small groups (particularly white men) and have a deeply destructive, corrosive effect on everyone else. And even those privileged by this system can be burned by it if they fail to follow its rules or if the “movement” demands a scapegoat.

Meanwhile, in Ozark, the conversion of Marty and Wendy Byrde from fearful accidental money launderers to active crime lords isn’t without its parallels to The Family — power and money corrupt, and the constant threat of violence or the long hand of the law on either end of the spectrum make for similarly destructive potential… the destruction of the family, the destruction of individual moral fiber, the destruction of a sense of right and wrong. Eventually, again, hypocrisy comes into play — as one gains more power and influence, the perception of what’s right and legal seems to shift. One of the early schemes in Ozark is Marty and Wendy’s attempt to bankroll the building of a fundamentalist church – which felt worthy of the snake-oil salesman “religious” orientation of the people in The Family. It felt equally slimy and misleading… sliding rapidly down the slippery slope.

Life is, for some, a performance: a marriage of performative religion and stupidity. A PT Barnum three-ring circus of people buying exotic animals, having no idea how to care for them (this is central to Tiger King but also appears in Ozark, in which Ruth’s two relatives buy two bobcats or something — thinking they are a male and female who will breed, but turn out to be two males), digging deeper holes for themselves, bending or making entirely new rules for themselves. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned things were in the beginning. There were probably good, if misguided, intentions driving each of these three stories before they went full circus. Fiction or non-fiction, there seems to be no immunity to the most destructive impulses.

Photo by Mark Williams on Unsplash

Lunchtable TV talk: Dispatches from Elsewhere

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When I tried to describe Dispatches from Elsewhere to someone, I found that it defied categorization. It was part mystery, part drama, part scavenger hunt, part comedy, part human, part magical realism, part moving… and very much about identity and community.

This is one of the few times I am actively curious and wish other people would reach out and tell me how they would describe a show, how they felt about it. What was the journey like in watching Dispatches? I use the word “journey” because watching it felt like taking one — one that starts slowly, lacking in sure steps, because we don’t know quite what we’re getting into, whether or not we like it or whether or not it makes any sense.

What were your thoughts, feelings and impressions?

What stays with you: Identity is not a straight line

Plot points don’t stick with me too often, while well-drawn or evocative characters get under my skin and stay there. In Dispatches, four very different people are pushed together, and despite the plot being unclear, the identity struggles of each of the four become clear quickly.

Our introduction to this world is the meek Peter (Jason Segel, also the creator of the show), whom one could argue never had much of a personality or identity at all, but in the course of the show, begins to discover it. He is the least interesting of the characters but seems to represent a bigger theme: keeping the mystery going, a sense of wonder (both at what the characters are chasing and discovering, but more so, what he experiences as his identity awakens).

Peter meets Simone (Eve Lindley), a trans woman, who has taken the steps in her life to be who she truly is, but despite this courageous journey, the path to finding identity, acceptance and love is much more complex than just being who you are. That is step one, which Simone has mastered, solving the core ‘identity crisis’, but the deeply human challenges of trust and vulnerability appear to be even harder for her to overcome.

This pair meets Janice (Sally Field) and Fredwynn (Andre Benjamin) as the plot thickens, and the foursome embarks on some sort of mystery-driven game/scavenger hunt to find a woman called “Clara”. Janice’s situation reflects how a lifetime of compromises and choices lead you to an eroded version of yourself, and even though you don’t regret those compromises, you don’t realize how much of the original you you lost along the way – nor in fact how much of yourself you’re able to reclaim if you embrace the change and silence the fear.

Fredwynn, Janice’s unlikely game partner, is a mad genius, paranoid, and always on the edge of something either brilliant or insane – possibly both. While all of the characters are genuine, my heart breaks for Fredwynn, who, despite his intelligence and wealth, seems the worst equipped of the group to cope with his own fractured identity and how part of who he is always drives people away. (If you can’t tell, I loved all these characters, but loved Fredwynn the most.)

Until the very end it’s unclear quite what’s going on with the Clara mystery, and this is unimportant and immaterial compared to watching how the characters emerge, take chances and evolve. The Clara mystery, too, is enrobed in a story of someone who lost their identity/self, and to atone, wants to make sure that others find or reconnect with their own true selves. Dispatches shows us in a fanciful way that it’s never too late to discover or rediscover ourselves, and that often the best  – or only – way to do this is through our connections to others – a community. (Which is also a driving theme in the late, great show actually called Community… which, like Dispatches, was wildly experimental, and necessary viewing.)

 

 

Lunchtable TV talk: I Know This Much is True – Grief and depression porn

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Part of what increasingly turned me off as the three seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale unfolded was the tendency to torture for torture’s sake. After the first season, we got the point. Watching its abundance and extremes play out didn’t add value to the story and plight of the characters. It felt like we were being bathed in torture porn.

Watching the television adaptation of Wally Lamb’s book, I Know This Much Is True, feels similar. It is being besieged by the torpor of other people’s grief, the heartsick hopelessness of spiraling mental illness, the relentless anger unleashed as life goes by.

The setting is grey; the mood is dark and ominous – it dwells on unpleasant moment after unpleasant moment, and relies on performances that are raw and tortured. This is not to say that it isn’t a well-told story; it’s exceptionally well done, and the performances are outstanding, particularly from Mark Ruffalo and Kathryn Hahn. But it’s painful and sad drudgery to watch.

 

 

Lunchtable TV talk: Another hit – Jett

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In my effusive praise of Mr Inbetween, in which I listed a number of contemporary TV shows with murder-for-hire themes, I failed to mention one of my most recent indulgences: Jett.

I thought of it again suddenly as I was writing about women characters and their often much more transformative journeys as compared to the men with whom they share the screen. In particular, I reflected on some of the more fearless moves women characters have made, and how some of the coldest, most calculating women characters betray almost no emotion, despite how women are framed as being the more emotionally fragile of the sexes. And then I remembered: Jett, something/someone in the no-man’s-land of questionable and violent actions. Jett (Carla Gugino), is a fresh-from-prison, world-class thief who gets pulled back into this underworld, and repeatedly has to insist that she is “not a hit man” and that she does not kill people. Yet the danger in which she finds herself ensnared leaves her always on the edge of making that choice. She doesn’t always succeed in keeping her hands clean.

While not overtly about a hit man, or hiring people to kill for money, Jett does exist in the criminal universe in which a strategic hit isn’t far from possible. And despite her best efforts, she’s always adjacent to this action. Jett as a character isn’t moralizing and does not appear to agonize over very much, but there are moments when she comes to lines she doesn’t want to cross, and it’s fascinating to see how the character manages these dilemmas.

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

 

Lunchtable TV talk: Pure and simple every time… or not

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An article about television recommendations gave a show called Pure its blessing. All I remembered about the description was that a character starts having wildly inappropriate (sexual?) thoughts; possibly something about a brain tumor. I noted the title and forgot about it.

Imagine my surprise then when the time came to start to watching Pure, and I was greeted by Mennonites driving buggies and speaking their own language (I was not expecting a partly subtitled show when my viewing began). It’s a Canadian production, and feels like it – as most Canadian shows do. Same sort of production values, same Canadian extras as usual. I can’t explain what makes a Canadian show Canadian (beyond just the abundance of Canadian vowels and pronunciation). This was not the Pure I was expecting.

I can’t say, having watched two brief seasons of the Canadian Pure, that it’s worth recommending. It’s kind of a different story from what television usually offers, but it feels as though it has missed an opportunity to tell a deeper story. I noticed the same recently in another Canadian show, Mary Kills People, in which a doctor helps terminally ill patients to end their lives. The premise held considerable promise for being able to tackle a challenging topic, but only ever touched briefly on the meatier moral issue, focusing almost entirely on the “the law and the outlaws both have you in their clutches” aspect of illegal assisted suicide. Never mind that assisted suicide has been legal in Canada since 2016, and Mary didn’t even begin until 2017.

Where Pure seems to miss a turn is in having too little time to dig into characters and the path the community’s new pastor follows that leads him to becoming a police informant, as drug trafficking has taken hold in his community. The story unfolded in a too-rushed way that made motivations feel forced and didn’t let all of the actions make sense.

In years past, Banshee had a take on the Amish/Mennonite criminal connection/drug trafficking underworld and the “outcasts” from this world. Even though it was not the central theme of Banshee, it rivaled what Pure managed in two seasons that almost completely focused on the community. The second season seems a bit better paced, and no one can argue with the addition of Christopher Heyerdahl to anything. But overall, perhaps the problem is twofold: Canadians have not yet mastered a six-episode storytelling pace (Brits seem best able to do this); both Mary Kills and Pure suffer from this; secondly, the only time we’d get to see Mennonite (or Amish)-related stories (think back to 1985’s Witness, for example) is when outsiders are involved, which would only likely be an insidious infestation by a criminal element. It’s an insular world, after all.

Photo by Doug Kelley 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

Lunchtable TV talk: The reluctant hit – Mr Inbetween, Barry, Killing Eve & Mary Kills People

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My ambivalent relationship with televisual entertainment has led me into a pattern of overdose, give up cold turkey, and then find some middle-ground, rationing my TV intake. In recent months, however, we’ve all mostly been stuck at home (not that this is anything new for me), I’ve fallen back into my multi-tasking, tv-viewing patterns of yesteryear.

These patterns aren’t terrible, but at some point I’m taking such an overload of information in, I don’t always absorb finer details of what I am watching. The constant stream makes me forget where I saw or heard something – which streaming platform, which character said what, what show was it? Unless I make notes while watching, which I don’t normally do because I am busily doing something else simultaneously, I can’t remember where anything came from and am already on to the next thing, diving into the endless flow of available content.

I preface my brief discussion on the unusual Australian dark comedy, Mr Inbetween, in this way because I want to explain that most things I watch do not affect me deeply. I don’t find myself reflecting on them a lot after watching them. But a couple of weeks after bingeing the two seasons of Mr Inbetween, I am still thinking about it.

When I stumbled on it, I didn’t know what it was – and didn’t know what to expect. Was it meant to be funny, serious? Turns out it was very much… both of these things. Other articles have pointed out the abundance of “hitman”-related shows currently in production – from the offbeat Barry to the histrionic and, frankly, annoying Killing Eve.

“There are two immediate touch points elsewhere on your dial in Barry and Killing Eve, but Mr Inbetween is neither of those. The ethical axis in HBO’s Barry finds its equilibrium too easily, and in Barry an anti-hero too much in need of redemption, while Killing Eve spirals into its own emotional cyclone too quickly, playing fast and hard notes in a way that is thrilling but also dizzying.”

Shows like Fargo also have their share of hit-for-hire ‘workers’. And just this week I discovered a Canadian show called Mary Kills People, which I knew was about a doctor illegally helping terminally ill patients to die with assisted suicide. On the surface, Mary isn’t about hitmen, but its content turned out to be cat-and-mouse attempts to outsmart the police, morally ambiguous “hitman” allusions and a main character who is completely neglectful of her children. The poignance and humanity of euthanasia is almost entirely missing here (you’d be better off watching Louis Theroux‘s Altered States… and its coverage of people who choose death).

This, though, is yet another reason why Mr Inbetween is so extraordinary. Presenting extended moments of subdued comedy mixed deftly with matter-of-fact but emotionally wrenching moments (in particular, a season two moment in which the lead, Ray, assists in a suicide – quite a contrast to Ray’s detached approach to killing people professionally). The “inbetween” is what happens all the rest of the time (“Save for the moments that most people would do anything to avoid, life is pretty slow and uninteresting and undramatic and uninspiring.” –Jonathan Safran Foer, Here I Am).

Lunchtable TV talk: Billions – a dick-measuring contest in need of neutering

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I’ve written about Billions before, early on in its run. I mostly thought of it favorably.  While Showtime’s Billions has always been focused on characters who are petty, smug and selfish, it’s reached a whole new level of narcissism, disconnect and cruelty. Featuring a cast that includes Damian Lewis just off his Homeland run, the inexplicably magnetic Paul Giamatti, and the most compelling of all, bringing soul and humanity to a show largely devoid of either – Maggie Siff. There have been plenty of other notable performances throughout the series’ run (five years), but it’s fair to say this trio is the heart of the show.

I use the word “heart” liberally. Because the show really doesn’t have any. It’s always been a combination of soulless Wall Street-meets-tech bro, concocted in a simmering cauldron of rivalry between an aggressive, Machiavellian US attorney, Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti) and hedge fund giant, Bobby Axelrod (Lewis). Stuck in between the two is the US attorney’s wife, Wendy (Siff), who also happens to be the in-house performance coach/psychiatrist to the hedge fun and personal friend/advisor/conscience to Axelrod.

The show has always shakily walked the tightrope between gripping and ridiculous. The decline into full-time ridiculous started last season; the show has completely fallen off the tightrope in the latest season. It’s just become stupid.

There was a time when the ridiculousness was tolerable, possibly humorous, but we are living in the exact wrong moment for the self-satisfied, hellbent-on-destroying-others, dick-measuring contest this show has become. Please neuter it.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash