So I’m already deep into the semester with a new lecture class, which means I spend most of my time prepping, grading, and hyperventilating. This makes it all the more important that I can watch an episode of Orange is the New Black on Netflix every couple of days to decompress. Because if there’s ever a show that overturned every hoary teevee trope, it’s the way this one has told a new story about women’s prison.

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This show is amazing, and I’m pretty sure it was created because someone read my blog and said, “Let’s throw this bitch a bone: a show about women’s prison with a whole bunch of unknown actors of various races, sizes, and sexual orientations. This blogger will lose her shit.”

Which is pretty much what has happened. I only wish I had time to sit down and watch it all in a single popcorn and martini-fueled binge weekend. From the opening credits all the way through every single 60-minute rich episode, I’m in heaven.

If this seems at first like yet another story of a blonde girl who finds herself in strange and comical circumstances, you haven’t watched what’s really happening here. Sure, our protagonist is a WASPy blonde upper-middle class woman named Piper (Taylor Schilling) who enters the prison because a while back she transported drug money for a girlfriend — and the show gets a lot of its early raison d’être from Piper’s wide-eyed introduction to prison realities. Whoa, a Black woman they call Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) forms a crush on Piper! What will she do? Whoa, everyone in prison huddles in groups by race! Will Piper hang out with only white women?

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But it doesn’t take long before you realize that this is only partly a show about Piper, especially as successive episodes dedicate themselves to complex backstories for each of the key inmates. In fact, we should have anticipated this from the beginning, for the opening credits — featuring a montage of the faces of real and former female inmates — gives us intimate images of the eyes and freckles and piercings and wrinkles of real, non-WASPy faces.

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While Piper tries to maintain a relationship with her risk-averse fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) — who goes on living a spectacularly comfortable New York life — her fellow inmates’ lives and intrigues become far more compelling. There’s the post-op trans Sophia (Laverne Cox), the prison’s hair stylist, whose estrogen pills are curtailed during budget cuts, and who forms a prickly, unlikely relationship with the incarcerated nun with the hope that she can persuade the nun to hand over her post-menopausal hormones. Cox plays this role with an extraordinary delicacy, particularly in scenes with Sophia’s family back home — the wife and son who remain supportive, despite the fact that she failed them when she used stolen credit cards to pay for the sex reassignment surgery.

orange-is-the-new-black-laverne-cox-1024x682Even the vindictive, whisper-tiny Bible-thumping redneck and former meth addict, Tiffany (Tamryn Manning), who gets played as more of a heavy than most of the characters, proves to have a method to her madness.

Question: will Tamryn Manning ever get another role after this besides as Bible-thumping crazies with rotted teeth and strong Southern accents?

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Among my Facebook friends there has been nothing but expressions of fast-burning love for Alex (Laura Prepon, formerly of the unwatchable That 70s Show and one of the very few recognizable faces here). Alex isn’t just tall, dark, and blessed with those eyebrows. Nor is she merely a woman who knows how to throw her shoulders back, how to level a heavy-lidded direct gaze at a gal, and how to choose a great pair of specs.

She’s also Piper’s former lover — the one who ran the drug cartel operations, the one who asked Piper to carry the money, and maybe the one who gave Piper’s name to the Feds … felicitously tossed into the same prison. She’s that one — The One? — with whom Piper carried on a long, passionate relationship charged in part by the riskiness of their work and the glamour of all that money. One look at Alex and I dare you not to start fantasizing. We know immediately that poor Larry, the hapless fiancé, has got himself a problem.

blgoitnb2Yes, Alex is one of those perfect fantasy objects, for whom no stint in prison is going to alter her impeccable eyebrow maintenance or lipstick choices. Yes, perhaps not all of us would run into such a vision while in prison. Yes, this feels a lot like one of those “let’s tempt our viewers to want Piper to go gay again!” kinds of teevee moments.

But although her character is used to forward the plot in particular ways (and to send my Facebook friends into orgasms of thrill), Alex is not the story here. Nor is Piper the story. The real story is the new narratives of possibility opened up by focusing on women.

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This goes so far beyond the famous Bechdel Test — that incredibly low standard for gauging how much a film gives a single thought to women — that you wonder whether you can ever go back to stomaching the rest. Let me just focus on one tiny thing here: women of different races in conversation with each other, in proximity to one another, fighting with/ hating/ distrusting/ accommodating/ getting to know one another.

Think about it. Can you think of any show, ever, in which this happened?

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So yes, creators of Orange is the New Black: my mind is officially blown. And best of all, Piper gradually becomes something very different than that wide-eyed woman who was immediately the favorite of the seemingly soft-hearted counsellor Healy. I can hardly wait for Season 2.

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I know, I know … lots of radio silence from my end. Hey, it’s been a busy summer, after a busy school year.

Paula_Deen_can_cookBut holy crap, the Paula Deen story has brought me out of my writing-and-watching-tennis malaise. Maybe you’ve heard about Deen’s racism, her frequent use of the N word to her employees and her poor treatment of Blacks in her several businesses. In focusing so intently on her use of the N word, however, journalists have ignored the vast bulk of the story which deals with sexual harassment, misogyny, racial and sexual violence, and over five years of ignored complaints about all of the above.

Don’t want to read the full formal court complaint? Let me offer some crucial details as I ask: What’s wrong with our culture that we can’t see this is a case of BOTH racism and sexism?

It would be easy to attack Deen’s public persona, the syrupy-accented Food Channel cook who naughtily put more butter into everything while winking at her viewers. But no matter how you feel about that persona, you have to admit she’s a canny and spectacularly successful businesswoman — a woman who has used gender to her advantage in every way. She has built a multi-million dollar empire on food and her self-portrayal as “The Lady” — her restaurant in Savannah is called The Lady and Sons, for example.

The problem is not just that behind the scenes Deen is a racist. It’s also that she maligns, under-pays, and permits sexual harrassment and violence toward her female employees. Old South, indeed.

Mainstream coverage of the case has focused on racial slurs used by Deen or implicitly condoned by her when her managers or business partner/brother used them. But Deen and her partners were equal-opportunity bigots. They referred to the litigant as “almost Jewish” because of her business acumen — in fact, Deen’s brother Bubba (sigh) called her his “little Jew girl” — while they insisted on a strict policy of paying women far less than men, and refused to promote women to positions that might pay more.

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Deen’s brother Bubba (“Uncle Bubba”) Hiers, the main source of the charges of sexual harassment and physical violence

“Women are stupid because they think they can work and have babies and get everything done,” was one such (alleged) pronouncement by Karl Schumacher, the douchebag who oversaw compensation for Deen’s empire of companies. Schumacher was also responsible for taking away the litigant’s annual bonus when she got divorced, because he disapproved of divorce. (Hm. Deen herself was divorced at the age of 23. Oh well, never mind.)

Meanwhile, the court documents reveal that brother Bubba sexually harassed the litigant with sexual and misogynistic jokes, pornography, insulting comments about female employees’ weight or physical attractiveness — all the while skimming profits off the top and wallowing about in a drunken stupor.

All in all — by my eyeballing of the 33-pg court document — the specific cases of gender bias and sexual harassment total about three times the amount of evidence of racial discrimination and violence. This should not surprise us, as the litigant is a white woman and has launched the case based on her own experiences as a manager within Deen’s empire; doubtless a Black employee would have far more evidence of racial crap. Nevertheless, I’m stunned by the fact that the vast majority of misogyny is ignored by the mainstream press in order to focus most of all on the racial slurs used by Deen, Bubba Hiers, and her managers.

The racism is stunning and awful — but why can’t we see that it is of a piece with Deen’s and Hiers’ overall plantation mentality? Why can’t journalists demonstrate that this is not a case of simple racism, but a corporate culture in which white men and a single plantation “lady” reign supreme, all the while insisting on the subjection of all black and female others?

I’m sorry, but I think the American public can grasp that the Old South exemplified in the Deen corporate empire is not simply racist. Leaving the female employees’ stories out of the mainstream coverage is a crime, for it points out the kinds of experiences that millions of women encounter every day in their jobs as well.

Racism and sexism aren’t separate problems in the workplace; nor do they fall in a hierarchy in which one or the other is more important. Racism and sexism intersect in myriad ways, all of which become clear in the court documents in the Deen case. The public is smart enough to recognize that — and smart enough to know that when mainstream media coverage ignores 3/4 of the damning evidence against the Deen empire, it represents an implicit message: “Ladies, your workplace complaints are not important.”

It may be that Deen getting fired from the Food Channel and losing her corporate sponsors results entirely from those accounts of her using the N word to her employees. That would be too bad. I venture to guess that a huge percentage of her support comes from women — women who see her story of a young divorcée building success in a classically American way (bootstraps, gumption, self-made woman) as inspiring and worthy of support. That‘s the public that needs to hear how women of all races were treated behind the scenes. Because Deen’s claim to be “The Lady” has a long history in the United States — a history rooted more in the Plantation Mistress than the Self-Made Man. We need to know this.

I woke up this morning to another thin layer of snow and ice outside — how appropriate for watching The Americans, a terrific new series about the 1980s Cold War with the Soviet Union. It’s so refreshing when TV gets it right.

How exactly does this show get it right? Let me count the ways.

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1. An awesome, unexpected storyline. Rather than, say, yet another attempt to ride the wake of Mad Men, this one takes you by surprise: it’s a story about two KGB agents who have been embedded in American society for some 15 years, appearing as utterly normal Americans to everyone around them.

Is it a takeoff on Homeland? Only insofar as it places you into the mindset of people who want to do harm to the United States. To a large extent it goes further — our protagonists are the KGB agents, and the creepy antagonist is the FBI guy who hunts them. Wow.

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2. Two terrific leads, and a terrific supporting cast. And while we’re on the topic, let’s sing the praises of finding actors who are this good yet haven’t been on our radar for a while. Keri Russell is a far cry from her America’s sweetheart roles (Felicity, Waitress) as a clenched-jaw, steely-eyed ideologue whose dedication to her motherland has never wavered. And the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys does such interesting work here as the more ambivalent of the couple — she calls him “fragile” in one interesting scene — but also capable of a huge range of strategy, violence, uncertainty. These two people are great to watch as they live out their roles as ordinary American travel agents … most of the time, anyway.

This show wouldn’t work if Russell and Rhys weren’t such compelling, three-dimensional actors. Plus there’s the spycraft, which is just fun.

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3. An interesting relationship. No family could look less like an advertisement for heteronormativity, yet we learn immediately that Phillip and Elizabeth’s marriage is a fiction: they were paired up for this work by higher-ups and Elizabeth, at least, has never considered this to be anything more than a convenience. Yet with a 13-yr-old daughter and younger son who know nothing about their parents’ secret lives, this couple also has a lot to lose.

And yet when events transpire in the series pilot, we see the possibility that this show might turn into an interesting love story — perhaps one of the more counter-intuitive love stories we’ve seen. The Americans is a story about a marriage in mid-life, except backwards.

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4. Set in 1981, this show reminds you of those early Reagan vs. Evil Empire days while also showing it to you through the looking glass. How might that America have appeared from the perspectives of Soviets? Best of all is the episode that circles around that day in March 1981 when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate the president — I won’t tell you more, because it’s too delicious to ruin.

Can I also say that it’s more fun without the cell phones and crime scene investigators? There: I said it.

5. It’s a show about politics. Real politics, as they appeared during the early 80s. It reminds you that the Cold War made politics interesting — and makes you wonder if all our culture wars have resulted from missing our old battles with the Soviets.

Why not spend your own cold day catching up with this great new bit of brain candy? It’s showing on the basic-cable channel FX, and all 6 episodes to date are streaming on Hulu. (There will be 13 episodes altogether this season, and the series has also been renewed for a second season, so there’s much more to look forward to.)

How ironic is it that the very show that purports to give awards for achievements in television is itself horrible?

It started with canned “funny” clips projected above on such themes as asking comedians “what would your high school teachers say about you?” These clips lasted too long and, like the writing for host Jimmy Kimmel and the presenters, was awful. I’m not sure I saw a single line that genuinely made me laugh.

Following these pre-recorded interviews the presenter would immediately announce the winner of … what? “Wait, what category is this? is this best writing for a comedy? or is it best comedy?” I’d ask, completely confused about where we were in the program.

The only funny bits were those invented by the attendees on the fly. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Amy Poehler switching their acceptance speeches — clearly a bit they’d cooked up between themselves — and Ricky Gervais, who obviously ignored what they’d written for him and went off on his own. Thank you, Ricky!

There was a particularly stupid moment when Josh Groban sang a “tribute” to host Kimmel. But that was no worse, really, than when Kimmel asked Tracy Morgan to come up on stage and lie there, as if he’d collapsed, to rein in an audience from Twitter. One might say that by getting Morgan on stage, we saw something other than a sea of white faces. Except that Morgan was prostrate and immobile.

Even worse, they spent so much time on these early-evening canned clips that by the end of the show, when they were getting to the very biggest awards (Best Drama Series, etc.), they had to rush through the lists of nominees so quickly one could hardly pause to consider. Isn’t the whole pleasure of watching an awards show to think, “If Mad Men doesn’t win, I’m going to throw a hissy fit”? I could barely absorb the list before they announced the winner and hustled hir through an acceptance speech. (In contrast to the early part of the show, which allowed winners to drone on incessantly.)

Also, how is it possible Lena Dunham didn’t win for best comedy writing for Girls?

Lest I sound like a big whiner — and lest you say, “well, what did you expect? It’s the Emmys!” — here’s my real point: the horrors of the Emmy Awards Show exemplify what’s going wrong with broadcast television overall. Writers have long noted the growing dominance of cable TV shows over broadcast network offerings, a dominance nowhere more evident than at the Emmys. It’s no longer just The Daily Show that wins an Emmy every year. The lists of nominees are dominated by premium channels like HBO and Showtime, of course, but also basic-cable stalwarts like AMC, TNT, and FX.

Broadcast TV’s ineptitude with this awards show is of a piece with its increasing incapacity to create decent shows. Broadcast TV has largely become, like trying to use the prone body of Tracy Morgan on stage at the Emmys as a “joke,” a tragically pathetic affair.

Which makes Modern Family‘s surprising wins last night in multiple categories all the more impressive. Now, I quite like that show (and especially Eric Stonestreet as Cam), but I have a hard time seeing its many awards as truly deserved given the strength of the competition (again, Girls.) So excuse me while I see Modern Family‘s success as the last gesture of good will to broadcast TV, while it is left behind by cable channels that throw their resources toward the unexpected.

A small moment of enlightenment: Maggie Smith won Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her endlessly quotable role as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey. Smith disdained to attend the show, so will receive her award presumably by international mail. So perhaps there is a god.

Does TV and film have a race problem? Hell yeah.

But would someone please tell me why it’s so important to have a shit fit about the fact that none of the four leads in HBO’s new celebrated show Girls is a woman of color, when no one made a peep about the all-white, all-dudes Entourage? (Melissa Silverstein, you stole that thought right out from under me.) Why does it get reduced to a women vs. people of color argument, when the relevant point is that white men dominate everywhere?

This is one of those unbelievably rare moments — when HBO actually throws its considerable resources toward a brilliant and celebrated show with nothing but a whole lot of women in the cast. Girls isn’t just the first show about women on the network since the finale of Sex and the City in 2004; it’s also written and directed by a woman, the preternaturally gifted Lena Dunham. As a result, it saves the network from being one of the most truly retrograde in existence with regard to gender balance.

(Apologies for slight hyperbole here: I realize that Enlightened features Laura Dern as its lead, and that Big Love had a lot of women at the center of the story. I still maintain that Girls, with its multiple female leads and female creator/director, is exceptional.)

In addition, the show appears to me to be deeply satirical, if not outright critical, of its self-centered, privileged, clueless leads. This is no Friends or Sex and the City.

The sidelining, ghettoization, and/or ignorance of people of color on TV and film in general is stunningly racist, especially when it comes to Latinos — but the enemy in that story isn’t Girls. Don’t make women have to face off against people of color… again. It’s one of those classic zero-sum games from the goddamn 19th century: who gets voting rights, women or Black people? When, in fact, any rational person can see that both groups should have received the right to vote, instead of fighting it out in the nastiest possible way about who was most worthy.

Let’s get outraged about the casting decisions by the makers of Two and A Half Men or the shameful tokenism of virtually every show you can think of. Better yet, let’s have a come-to-Jesus conversation about race on TV and in film more broadly. Let’s not make the women and the people of color battle amongst themselves.

I’m not singling out any one of the numerous articles on this subject, because the problem isn’t any one of them but rather the media pile-on that has occurred over the course of the past week. I firmly believe that individually, any given writer is entitled to write or post on whatever subject that moves them. But in total, this media firestorm makes it look as if Dunham has committed some kind of crime in casting the show the way she did — when there’s nothing unusual about it in the least except that it’s full of women.

Eyes on the prize, people. We’re together in this fight against the white male domination of the media — if we refuse to fall for that divide-and-conquer false consciousness.

… And as soon as I can catch up with all the episodes: more on why I think this show is so good.

Give Klea Scott more work

5 December 2011

When you first see her in the Canadian TV series Intelligence (2005-07), you see her through someone else’s eyes, and he hates her. Klea Scott plays the steely, ambitious head (pictured here) of an federal intelligence unit in Vancouver.

The gender politics of the office are fascinating to watch, particularly during the show’s first season, when the writers permitted a high degree of subtlety to infuse the intra-office battles. The show — like all other shows, it seems — was weighted heavily toward its male characters, Scott only got about one-third of the most major face time, at best. No other woman on the show was permitted character development like she was (although I’d also like to put in a plug for Ona Grauer, whose portrayal of a high-rent Russian madame running a stable of Slavic prostitutes; I’d watch Grauer in anything, too).

Scott is riveting to watch with her low, soft voice, those unusually wide-set eyes, and crazy long jaw — and with that hair that looks like it’s in a snood, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’s tailor-made for 19th-century period dramas; actually, I’d love to see her go for a Wide Sargasso Sea kind of role. If the TV show didn’t allow her to display a lot of emotional range, her unusual, era-bending looks made her role in Intelligence all the more unexpected. All I can say is, let’s give this woman more work and see what else she can master.

Maybe I saw Sidney Lumet’s Network in high school — I remember the “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” scenes — but I wasn’t prepared to find its satire so brilliant 35 years after its initial release. What I’d completely forgotten was all the other satirical elements, from the sex scenes between Faye Dunaway and William Holden to the subplot of Dunaway’s attempts to sign a group of violent radicals, the Ecumenical Liberation Army, to a TV contract. Considering that it’s a satire of the TV-ification of America I can’t believe it’s so fresh today, and so prescient of what we experienced in television during the last generation. From the opening scenes to the conclusion, this film is perfect.

One of the film’s themes is the generation gap; so how perfect that Holden — anti-hero star of Stalag 17 and Sunset Boulevard, whose cynicism helped create such 1950s anti-establishment protagonists as Holden Caulfield — would play Max, the head of the United Broadcasting Service news division. Now in late middle age, he’s found himself defending principles and idealism against the über-cynical corporate types who are taking over UBS. Of these, Diana (Dunaway) is the worst: a gorgeous series programmer with a preternatural gift for repackaging TV to get a bigger market share. She can see that “the American people are turning sullen. They’ve been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression; they’ve turned off, shot up, and they’ve fucked themselves limp, and nothing helps.” Whereas Max and his news anchor, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) joke darkly about a new program like “Terrorist of the Week”:

Max:  We could make a series of it. “Suicide of the Week.” Aw, hell, why limit ourselves? “Execution of the Week.”
Howard:  “Terrorist of the Week.”
Max:  I love it. Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups: “The Death Hour.” A great Sunday night show for the whole family. It’d wipe that fuckin’ Disney right off the air.

Diana is utterly serious about such plans. She hires a radical black commie feminist to wrangle the crazy members of the Ecumenical Liberation Army into creating a popular new show (the scene of their contract negotiations is worth a Netflix subscription). Most of all, Diana can see that the newly insane Howard, with his TV rants about all the bullshit in American society, can be repackaged as The Mad Prophet for a new-and-improved news hour that also features Sybil the Soothsayer. Diana is television: for her, all publicity is good publicity, all political agendas can be transformed into catnip for audiences, there is no meaningful distinction between news and amusement. She doesn’t care in the least that Howard tells viewers to turn off their televisions, because she knows that his show gets more viewers than any competitor.

Even more dark is the film’s portrayal of Howard, who really is saying something important about TV — even though no one pays any attention:

Man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell. We’ll tell you that, uh, Kojak always gets the killer, or that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker’s house, and no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, just look at your watch; at the end of the hour he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds… we’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! WE are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now! TURN THEM OFF… (He collapses in a faint on the set. The studio audience explodes with applause and cheers; the studio cameras pan out from his limp body.)

They don’t turn off their sets, as Diana well knows; they can hardly wait for more. The script by Paddy Chayefsky — his third to win an Oscar for Best Screenplay — is perfect at every turn. When I watched this last night with my friend Susan, we commented on one of those mini-moments in which Diana’s assistant (a very young Conchata Ferrell) pitches ideas for new series:

The first one is set at a large Eastern law school, presumably Harvard. The series is irresistibly entitled “The New Lawyers.” The running characters are a crusty-but-benign ex-Supreme Court justice, presumably Oliver Wendell Holmes by way of Dr. Zorba; there’s a beautiful girl graduate student; and the local district attorney who is brilliant and sometimes cuts corners. The second one is called “The Amazon Squad.” The running characters include a crusty-but-benign police lieutenant who’s always getting heat from the commissioner; a hard-nosed, hard-drinking detective who thinks women belong in the kitchen; and the brilliant and beautiful young girl cop who’s fighting the feminist battle on the force. Up next is another one of those investigative reporter shows. A crusty-but-benign managing editor who’s always gett… (Diana cuts her off there.)

No wonder the film won so many awards. Watch it again — it’s gone right up to my list of Best Films Ever.