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Posts Tagged ‘tv’

Jessica Jones

My husband dubbed this show “Trigger Warnings: The Musical,” and apart from the complete lack of song-and-dance numbers, it’s very apt. The central premise is that Jessica Jones, the super-strong protagonist, spent an extended period of time as the captive of a guy whose power is the ability to control people’s minds. Now she’s an alcoholic who does her level best to sabotage her dealings with everybody around her. If you’ve ever been raped, or trapped in a controlling relationship (sexual or otherwise), or gaslighted, or addicted to anything, or had panic attacks, or suffered parental abuse, or I could keep going, then this will probably not be a comfortable show to watch.


But . . . I wound up liking it anyway. Even though it does a tap dance on a whole array of grimdark elements, which would normally be very off-putting to me. It isn’t just that the show is good — though it is; that on its own isn’t enough to make me sit through thirteen episodes of characters’ lives being miserable. (I can’t watch The Wire.) It somehow manages to tell the stories of those things in a way that doesn’t remotely softpedal how dreadful they are, without making me feel like I can’t take it any more.

And I finally figured out why. This show is about the survivors of trauma, rather than the victims.

By which I mean the narrative is one of survivorship, not victimization. It’s about how people cope with trauma — not always well, not always in a healthy fashion, but their lives keep going afterward and that, to the show’s creators, is the interesting part. We get very few flashbacks to Jess’ time with Kilgrave: one innocuous-seeming restaurant scene, to establish that he was mind-controlling her. Another whose purpose is to show the difference between Kilgrave’s perception and Jessica’s. The night she escaped. The night they met. But no scenes of him demeaning her in obvious ways, no on-screen rape. Instead we infer those things from what we see of Jessica afterward, the scars that trauma left on her, and from her own statements on the matter. Showing us what happened would have a damned hard time avoiding voyeurism. Showing us what comes after dodges that bullet, keeps the focus on the horror rather than the titillation. It makes this a story about a survivor, rather than a victim.

Jessica isn’t the only character the show handles through this lens. Partway into the series, a support group forms for people who have been controlled by Kilgrave. Even if individual moments within it sometimes seem awkward or silly to those of us on the outside, the overall sense is that this helps the characters, gives them a way to process their trauma and deal with its effects on them. We see characters using psychological techniques to reduce anxiety and ground themselves in reality. We see them asserting their boundaries against people — not limited to Kilgrave — who have trampled on those boundaries in the past. Jessica Jones very accurately depicts not only gaslighting, but how to defend against it. It explores the narcissistic rationalizations of rape apologists, and refuses to accept them. Watching this show, it’s clear how shallow the “realism” espoused by a lot of equally grim narratives is. They forget this part of the story — the part where the story keeps going.

And my god, the female characters. Not since the first season of Revenge have I seen a show so willing to tell a story about women who are unapologetically themselves, warts and all. Jessica Jones is a problematic person, not always sympathetic, possessed of mostly-good instincts but occasionally cruel to those around her, on purpose (to push them away) or just because she doesn’t care enough about their feelings to think before she says something hurtful. Jeri Hogarth, the lawyer played by Carrie-Anne Moss, is a reprehensible human being: initially I kept waiting for the revelation of her squishy compassionate center, but after a while I figured out it just isn’t there. Robyn the unstable neighbor, not entirely in touch with reality but not totally disconnected from it either, screaming at people in the hallways of her apartment building. The women of this show are allowed to be unlikeable. They’re allowed to be the kinds of abrasive, broken, complicated people male characters get to be all the time, without the story hastening to reassure us that really they’re nice after all, or demonizing them and kicking them out of the story. As one of the pieces I just linked points out, Kilgrave often compels women to smile for him — a command many women in the real world receive from men all the time, because if we aren’t smiling then we don’t look pretty and nice and don’t we want to be pretty and nice? Fuck that, says this show. These women don’t have to smile unless they want to. And mostly? They don’t want to.

Their relationships matter. Jess and Trish, her adoptive sister. Jess and Jeri, a combative boss/employee power struggle. Jess and Hope, the young woman she sets out to save in the first episode. Trish and her abusive mother. Jess and Trish’s abusive mother. Jeri and her soon-to-be-ex-wife, Jeri and the secretary she’s having an affair with. Robyn and Reva and Louise Thompson. I find it telling that when, late in the season, the show acknowledges that it exists not only in the same universe but in the same city as Daredevil, it does so via a female character from that series. Having Matt Murdock wander through would have been massively distracting, but it could have been Foggy; instead it’s a woman (I won’t spoil who), reminding us that she has a life outside of her role in that show. Heck: when Kilgrave wants to make the ultimate threat against Jess, it isn’t Luke Cage he goes after, the man Jess has fallen in love with. It’s Trish, the friend who’s the closest thing to family Jess has in the world. When the chips are down, that’s the relationship that matters most.

Jessica Jones is still a very uncomfortable show to watch, full of triggering content and characters not always dealing with it in optimal or admirable fashion. But it cares about its subject and its characters in ways that are, in my experience, rare for stories this grim. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be in the mood to watch it a second time — but I can’t wait for the next season.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

I’ve heard about this anime for a couple of years now, but only recently got around to watching it.

Dude. It’s amazing.

The name in Japanese translates to “Magical Girl Madoka Magica”; I’m not sure why they decided to translate the title to Latin* for the English release. It probably works best if you have at least a basic awareness of the “magical girl” genre, as exemplified by things like Sailor Moon: young girls get supernatural powers so they can fight evil. Usually this involves some kind of flashy “by the power of Greyskull”-type transformation from their ordinary, unassuming persona to their more wondrous selves. Madoka is a deconstruction of the genre, one where being a magical girl is not all it’s cracked up to be — but I think it would be good even if you don’t have any familiarity with specific genre under discussion. “You get magic powers to fight evil” is a broad enough concept that anything problematizing it will still be comprehensible.

It’s hard to say much about the show without giving stuff away. Madoka and her friend Sayaka encounter a creature called Kyubey, which offers to make them magical girls: if they make a wish, Kyubey will grant it, and that creates a contract wherein they get powers but have to fight witches to protect the people around them. But right from the start, a magical girl named Akemi Homura is trying to prevent them from signing up; eventually, of course, you find out why. It probably isn’t what you expect, though.

Right from the start, I liked the way the show approached the whole “witches” concept. Apparently the original plan was to make them basically kaiju, but instead they’re much more abstract: a witch is basically a hidden pocket realm a magical girl must enter, and only by defeating what she finds in there can she destroy the witch. The realms are surreal, trippy places, each one usually on a theme (one looked like “craving” or “addiction” to me), and so the battles proceed along less-predictable lines.

One of the nice things about the series is that it’s short and self-contained: twelve episodes and you’re done, though the franchise as a whole contains other components. This isn’t the kind of story that could support a much larger structure. Before long everything is spiraling wildly out of control for the characters; if the tale kept going, you’d lose that sense of genuine desperation.

I won’t call it a happy show. But if you’re looking for something dramatic, I highly recommend it.

*I bought the soundtrack, and discovered that most of the song titles are in Latin. One of them caught my eye: “Numquam vincar.” Hmmm,, I thought to myself, that’s an odd form. They’re probably just making up dog Latin, like most people do. But wait a sec — “vincere” is a third-conjugation verb, so the A would make that subjunctive. Why an R, though? That’s an bizarre ending. <a wind stirs, shifting the dust that has accumulated atop my knowledge of Latin grammar> Hang on. “Loquor.” That’s an R ending. What the heck is that? It’s, uh. Passive? Passive. First person singular passive. “Vincar” is first person singular present subjunctive passive. HOLY SHIT IT’S ACTUAL GRAMMATICALLY CORRECT LATIN. Yayyyyyyy!

For those who never studied Latin, if I’ve blown enough dust off my Latin knowledge to translate it correctly, “Numquam vincar” means “May I never be defeated.” EDIT: Sovay reminds me in LJ comments that the tense marker falls out of third conjugation verbs in the future tense, so while I could be correct in my translation — the two forms are the same — it probably means “I will never be defeated” instead.

Eeeeeeeeeeeek!!!! Or, how many people actually scream?

A couple of hours ago I asked on Twitter how women react when they see something terrible. My proximate reason for asking was that I’ve discovered Netflix has Murder, She Wrote available streaming; in watching it, I’ve been reminded of the standard-issue scream uttered by women in TV and movies when they find a dead body. You know the one: hands to the cheeks, mouth and eyes wide in horror, a high-pitched and wordless shriek coming from her mouth.

It’s always seemed weird to me because I don’t do that. Okay, to be fair, I’ve never come across a dead body. But I have accidentally lit myself on fire — my clothing, anyway — and my reaction at the time was to bellow “FUCK!” at the top of my lungs while beating at the flames with my other sleeve until they went out. The top of my lungs . . . but not the top of my range. Same thing when my husband accidentally kicked my badly-sprained toe, causing me no small amount of pain. I don’t scream so much as yell, often with a great deal of profanity.

So I posted on Twitter because I wanted to know: how many women out there do scream at such things? Is it the majority, and I’m a weird outlier, or is that just a convention of media that doesn’t happen so much in real life? Twitter anecdata thus far suggests a moderately even split; there are definitely women who do the high-pitched wordless shriek thing, but not an overwhelming majority by any means. (Also, at least one guy has testified to uttering a scream of his own when subjected to sudden pain.) It seems the trope isn’t unfounded, then, but it’s also not universal. Which, because I’m an anthropologist at heart, means I’m now wondering whether that reaction has become less common over time (as women are no longer socialized in the same way as thirty or fifty years ago) and whether our media depictions have changed as well.

I have no idea. But it’s interesting to think about, because the standard-issue scream has always felt so very fake to me.

two sensory experiences

By which I mean, two pieces of media that focus on sensory experience in one way or another.


Perfect Sense did not, in the trailer I saw, bill itself as a science fiction movie, and in a lot of ways it isn’t. The focus is primarily on how the relationship between two people (a chef at a restaurant, and an epidemiologist who lives in an apartment overlooking the restaurant alley) is affected by an unexplained (and inexplicable) global epidemic that begins with people losing their sense of smell. But the epidemic doesn’t stop there: next they lose taste, then hearing, then sight. What makes it SFnal is the exploration of how individuals and society adapt to these changes. Eva Green’s epidemiologist never does figure out what’s causing the change, but at the restaurant where Ewan MacGregor’s chef works, they keep looking for ways to pursue their art even as the basis for it is pulled out from under them. Smell is a huge part of how we experience food, so when that goes away, they begin putting together the most strongly-flavored dishes they can. When taste goes, they turn to sound and texture: crunch, squish, softness, grittiness. (There’s a great scene where the restaurant manager reads out a glowing review of their work.) The transitions are bad; they’re always preceded by some kind of huge emotional swing, and many of these are extremely destructive. But after hearing fades, you see a table full of people at the restaurant carrying on a cheerful, animated conversation in sign language. Since the characters we’ve been following are still communicating through written notes and a handful of very rudimentary signs, there’s an unspoken implication that the people at those table were deaf long before this began: what the viewer has been encouraged to see as a calamitous loss is ordinary life for them, and that life can still be good.

I usually like my SFnal exploration more front and center, rather than squeezed in around the edges. But the anthropologist in me quite enjoyed this one.


Sadly, I was not as enthused by Sense8, the new Netflix series from the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer.

They did a great job setting up the cast. Our main characters are eight individuals linked by telepathy, and it’s obvious the writers had a mission statement to represent a broad cross-section of the world: the cop from Chicago and the hacker from San Francisco might seem like standard issue, the DJ from Iceland and the thief from Berlin a little less so — but then you get the banker from Seoul, the film star from Mexico City, the privileged young woman from Mumbai, and the bus driver from Nairobi. Four are women, four are men; one of the men (the film star) is gay, and one of the women (the hacker) is a transgender lesbian. I’m sure some people have sneered at this as “diversity for diversity’s sake” (as if that’s a bad thing), but it also matters to the story — because one of the important things going on here is that they have different backgrounds, different skill sets, different assumptions about the world. And it’s fun to watch those things collide. The “sensates” can project their spirits out so they see each other’s surroundings, and then they learn to possess each other’s bodies. It means they can give one another comfort and advice and, in a pinch, solve their problems for them: the Korean banker is also a participant in underground fighting rings, and kicks the asses of people threatening other members of her cluster. The Kenyan driver winds up behind the wheel of more than a few getaway vehicles. The Mexican movie star lies like a rug to get the German thief out of trouble, etc.

So why didn’t I like it more?

In a nutshell: too much boyfriend, not enough roller derby. In the first episode of the series, it becomes obvious that (of course) there’s some kind of nefarious conspiracy to control and/or kill sensates. By the end of the twelve-episode first season, we know that . . . there’s some kind of nefarious conspiracy to control and/or kill sensates. We can put some faces and names to individuals involved, and we know there’s a doctor who specializes in lobotomizing them — but we don’t know why, or what makes sensate clusters come into existence, or really anything of great substance about the metaplot. Most of the show’s attention is devoted to the lives of the sensates in this cluster and how they interact with one another. This means you’re tracking eight different plotlines at once: there are hints that some of them may connect, but even after twelve episodes, it’s little more than hints. And however much I may enjoy some parts of the character development (like the horrific encounter between Nomi and her family, or the hilarity of the kind-of threesome Lito ends up in), ultimately, I was really frustrated that the show seemed mostly content to wander around in the characters’ lives without really tying the whole group together and going somewhere with them.

Really, the opening credit sequence perfectly represents the problem. It’s a montage of shots from all around the world: famous sites, scenes of daily life, brief little snippets from Nairobi and Seoul and San Francisco and Mexico City and all the other places the characters are from. But there’s no arc to it, no coherent thread other than “hi, our show takes place all over the world!” It is, to use the old description of history, just one damn thing after another. Individually the bits may be lovely, but I want the whole to add up to more. And while it’s entirely possible the show will get there eventually . . . I’m not sure I’m willing to wait around for “eventually” to happen. I gave it one season to hook me; I don’t know that I’ll give it more.

bright doesn’t have to mean flimsy

My husband and I are finally caught up on both Arrow and The Flash, which means I can finally make the post I’ve been drafting in my head for a while. The following contains mild spoilers for both shows, as well as Daredevil. It also contains a fair bit of complaining about how much The Flash disappointed me, so if you really love it and don’t want to see someone dissect its flaws, you may not want to click through.


Protagonists and Villains

This post is going to talk about the new Daredevil TV series. It isn’t really spoilery, but if you want to avoid all hint of what the characters do in later eps, be warned that I do hint.

So my husband and I finished watching Daredevil last night. I liked it well enough; there were some elements I really appreciated, and it turns out I have some hard-coded subconscious switch that responds really well to black masks tied at the back of the head, because they remind me of the Man in Black from The Princess Bride. 😛 (I actually didn’t want to see him get his proper costume, because I liked the simple black mask so much.) If you want to chat about the show in general in the comments, feel free.

What I’m here to talk about is Karen Page and Wilson Fisk.



Orphan Black and the Reverse Bechdel Test

I promise one of these days I’ll post about something other than Voyage of the Basilisk or TV. 😛 It’s just that right now, I can’t say much about either of the books I’m revising (because spoilers), and I have limited brain for anything else.

So let’s talk about TV! Again!

My husband and I have started watching season two of Orphan Black, finally. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the show follows a group of young female clones (in the modern world) who are finding out where they came from and what’s going on around them.

To begin with: can I say how much the main actress, Tatiana Maslany, impresses me? Not only does she play all the clones (and we’re talking more than half a dozen characters, here), but she differentiates them beautifully. Not just the obvious things like accent and clothing changes, but body language and so forth — and then there are the times when she’s playing one of the clones pretending to be a different clone, and that performance, too, is distinct. Maslany playing Sarah pretending to be Allison does not look the same as Maslany playing Allison. It’s a remarkable achievement.

My praise is not just an idle side note. It’s critical that she be able to pull that off, because the vast majority of the show’s weight rests on her shoulders. She’s playing literally half of the major characters, for crying out loud! Virtually all of the protagonists, and some of the major villains as well!

There’s something else that struck me while watching the first season, and it has to do with the way Maslany carries the show. In a nice reversal of what we so often see on TV, the male characters are almost completely defined by their relationships to the women.

Sarah’s brother. Sarah’s ex. Beth’s boyfriend. Beth’s partner. Allison’s husband. One of the big male antagonists is a scientist deeply involved with the clone project; his entire raison d’etre is this group of women. And because a lot of those men exist in separate spheres (the individual lives of the clones), they don’t talk to one another. When those spheres start colliding? It’s because of the women, and that’s what they end up talking about. It’s entirely possible the show up until this point has failed the Reverse Bechdel Test. Everything that’s going on is mediated by the clones and their stories; they are the engines driving the plots, the forces other characters respond to.

But at no point do I feel like the show is doing that just to hammer home a point. It’s simply a matter of: these clones are the story; they are women. Therefore, this is a story about women.

It is, in short, exactly the kind of structure I would expect if the story had been about a group of male clones. Just gender-swapped.

(When it comes to hammering home a point, though: my god, how often have we seen Felix’s ass? I find it kind of hilarious that most of the nudity so far has been male, and something like 50% of that has been Felix, with another 30% being Felix’s lovers.)

Anyway, we’re very much enjoying S2 so far. I’m cautiously optimistic about the Evil Science Organization metaplot; that sort of thing is often where SF/F shows fall down for me, but this one is doing okay, at least for the moment. And I love the clones: the range they show, the odd quirks and the way their strengths and weaknesses combine. I would drop-kick Allison out a window if I had to deal with her in person — but she’s a fantastic character, and has vastly more depth than you think when you first meet her. And Helena, oh my god. Ten pounds of Mentally Unstable in a five-pound sack. (Not without good reason.) The other characters, too: Mrs. S is becoming fascinatingly complex, and I’m rooting for Art to figure things out. (And is it wrong of me that I’m trying to remember whether Felix is bi instead of gay, because I’m starting to hope he’ll hook up with Allison? I mean, he came to her musical.)

No spoilers, please: I’m only three episodes into the second season, i.e. well behind. But it’s rock-solid so far.

Less Is More

I just sent the first draft off to my editor; that makes the fourth Memoir a Real Thing now, ’cause other people are going to be reading it.

Doing the final polishes before kicking it out the door, I came upon one scene where I felt like I needed to amp up the emotional force a bit. So I went to the middle of the scene, stuck in a few line breaks, and started typing a new paragraph that would take what was going on and foreground it a bit more overtly. I wrote a sentence . . . started another one . . . deleted it . . . wrote a second sentence . . . started a third . . . deleted that and the second sentence . . . and after a lot of fiddling, I had a new paragraph, which I joined up to the following text. I looked it over, polished it a bit, tweaked some words — and then deleted the whole paragraph.

Because I was trying to play the wrong game.

These aren’t the sorts of books in which the narrator lays out her emotional state for the reader to marinate in. Those lines I had so much trouble writing? They were too overt. They were modern in style, rather than the buttoned-up Victorian tone I’ve been aiming for this whole time. I don’t pretend this will work for every reader, but: as far as I’m concerned, that scene has more impact, or at least more the kind of impact I’m going for, when I keep it simple. Less is more.

This is on my mind right now because my husband and I just finished watching Agent Carter, and we’re also nearing the end of the first season of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. I realized tonight that I’m starting to crave passionate, operatic, heart-on-sleeve declarations of love, because both of those shows feature a lot of very proper characters having All the Feels but never talking about it openly. I said before that I ship Peggy Carter and Edmund Jarvis in a totally platonic way, and I stand by that — but it doesn’t mean I wasn’t flailing during one of the last scenes of this last episode, with the two of them being so very Britishly reserved at one another. And my god, if Jack Robinson and Phryne Fisher don’t kiss by the end of this season, I might throw things at the TV. (A real kiss, I mean. Not a “no I only did that to keep the murderer from noticing you I swear that’s all it was” kiss.)

My reaction means the writers are doing their jobs correctly, of course. And this is the thing romance and horror have in common: they both carry more impact if they tease you for a while first, hinting at stuff and building it slowly before finally delivering the emotional payoff. If you rush the process, it doesn’t work as well. But if you play the tension right, if you see only hints of the monster or the occasional Meaningful Gaze between the characters . . . then you don’t need an enormous payoff to get a lot of energy out of it. One kiss can work as well as — or better than — the characters falling into bed; one brief shot of the monster’s face can horrify you more than seeing the entire thing.

When it’s done well, I adore this sort of thing. Too steady of a diet, though, and I start feeling like I need some characters with a bit less self-control. But tell me: what are your favorite “oh my god this tiny thing was so incredibly meaningful” emotional payoffs in a story, or your favorite “and then we pulled out all of the stops and fired up the jet engines and went so far over the top we couldn’t even see it with binoculars” moments?

Three shows that have pleased me lately

I mentioned a while ago that I was tired of grim ‘n gritty TV shows, things full of cynicism and decidedly lacking in color. In contrast, I’d like to recommend three TV shows that are bright! and energetic! and feature almost no death whatsoever!

Bonus, of a sort: all of these shows are short-run, with the longest having only ten episodes. So if you’re looking for something you can marathon for weeks, these will not fit the bill — but if you want something that isn’t a huge time commitment, they’re perfect.



Adapting the Wheel of Time

I doubt they’ll ever make the Wheel of Time into a TV series — but it’s an interesting mental exercise, thinking about how they would do it. (I do this sort of thing a lot, because it makes me think differently about story structure and how to create the appropriate shape.)

Up front: no way in hell would they just film it the way they’ve done with Martin’s books, (roughly) one book per season; that would make for fourteen seasons of TV, and even in a hypothetical scenario nobody’s going to do that. Even allowing for reductions based on things like “you don’t have to describe clothing when you can just show it” and “we’ll go straight to the meeting between these characters, rather than spending an entire chapter setting it up,” you’ve still got too much. Even if you go further and cut out a lot of the side viewpoints. You have to make it smaller. We’ll give them seven seasons to play with: that should be enough.

The next thing is that you have to restructure it. You can’t just condense the material and then film it straight through, because you’ve got to make sure the beats fall where they should. The end of every season needs to have something significant happening with the protagonist. I said in my discussion of writing long fantasy series that you need to hammer in some pegs for major events, and then navigate a path between them; in this case that means deciding what’s happening with Rand at the end of every season, and then shifting everything else to form a good shape around that. Theoretically the same should have been true of the books, but — well. Because of the way the structure got out of control, there are several books where the actual climax of the book is in somebody else’s plot strand.

Going through the series, what are his big events at the end of each book?