Helen Mirren is the exception. At 65 she’s getting a ton of work, is widely recognized as a top-notch actor (and “national treasure” in the UK), and has just as many online photos of her in a bikini as Mila Kunis. Moreover, she’s getting work that’s fantastic, and not just a bunch of queens. Julie Taymor converted one of Shakespeare’s canonical male roles into a woman, Prospera, for last December’s The Tempest; then there’s R.E.D.‘s Retired, Extremely Dangerous killer Victoria; Sofya Tolstoy in The Last Station (2009)…. Remember how the peevish Ellen in the wonderful show Slings and Arrows used to talk about an actress’s career as going from the ingénues to the queens to the “dreaded nurse” parts? Mirren has gone from queen to kingand people online call her a GILF. (People online are jackasses. But if I had my chance…) In contrast, I remember reading something about how Meryl Streep had “let herself go.” People online are jackasses.

But rather than simply hoover up all the best parts, pull up the ladder after herself, and show up in flattering gowns to awards events, Helen Mirren speaks openly, frankly, and eloquently on the complexities of age and gender onscreen. Here she appears truly exceptional: she acknowledges that she’s an exception to the rule. My favorite is her speech accepting the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award in December. But she’s appeared in many other interviews just recently now that The Tempest is due to appear in theaters in the UK; see here for an interview in The Guardian — many thanks for that link, JE — as well as on the Film Weekly podcast. In that latter interview she discusses the career problems faced by her young female co-star in The Tempest, Felicity Jones, who’s dying for a part in which she doesn’t have to cry prettily. That’s one problem for young actresses, Mirren opines: “you’re always sniveling in a corner somewhere” onscreen.

I have a colleague who’s a golden boy — he can’t seem to do anything wrong, according to my senior/important colleagues. I tried to talk to him one time about how white male privilege works in my department and he got angry, as if I’d implied he didn’t deserve the plaudits he’d received. No, all I mean is that if you’re the exception, you’ve got to be exceptional and not act as if it’s the very least you deserve.

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Bereft for “Slings & Arrows,” I turned to the only thing on TV that looked watchable:  “Justified,” the new Elmore Leonard-based show on FX — it had been getting a lot of good press, and after watching Timothy Olyphant play Seth Bullock in “Deadwood” for three seasons, I was prepared to watch anything in which he dons a cowboy hat again. 

But let’s make no mistake about the gender politics of the show.  Set in eastern Kentucky most of the time, “Justified” takes advantage of what Hollywood sees as a back-assward locale to trot out tried-and-true stereotypes about rural Southern women and the men who protect them.  Olyphant’s character seems mighty courtly, to be sure, but that quality mostly allows him to be an enlightened sexist.  That is, they pay some lip service to the idea that gender roles aren’t locked in prehistoric times, but only long enough to allow the characters to go Neanderthal again.  It’s plain old sexism — dressed up in slightly more knowing clothes, as Susan Douglas shows us.

Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal who’s managed to shoot a few too many of the fugitives and renegade prisoners he was hired to oversee, so they transfer him back to Kentucky as punishment.  Although it’s awful close to his hometown, he’s too stoic to talk much about his misgivings about going back home again (instead, we see him suffer silently when he runs across his ex-wife, now happily remarried).  Luckily, Raylan’s views of cowboy justice — and his frequent refrain that his shootings were justified because those other guys drew first — fits right in with Kentucky lawmakers. 

Olyphant gets a lot less actorly exercise here than he did in “Deadwood,” but it’s hard to separate the two characters. Both make great use of the actor’s skill in speaking softly, as if he might be a modern-day Gary Cooper, but his dark, beady eyes show him to be a closet sociopath.  In short, he’s an absolute pleasure to watch.

If only the show had decided to give him any other three-dimensional character to work with.  Instead, he plays with the usual suspects:  comically fat white supremacists (because…being overweight and racist go together?), a sassy black woman co-worker, a bunch of hillbilly drug runners, and — for love interest — a hot, blonde, rifle totin’ missy, Ava, who’s had a crush on Raylan since she was twelve, and who just shot her abusive husband to death. 

In Episode 4, the show indulges in enlightened sexism to try to assuage haters like me — it’s a textbook scene.  Although Raylan was supposed to cede control of a job to Rachel (sassy black woman co-worker, played by Erica Tazel), he’s gone and taken charge.  He brings this up in the car as they leave.

Raylan:  “I’m sorry if I crossed a line with you at the office.  If I shouldered my way to the front of the line it wasn’t intentional.  I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you to get where you are in the marshal service.”

Rachel, smiling wryly:  “Because I’m black, or because I’m a woman?”  …

Raylan:  “Look, I understand I’m the low man on the totem pole—I understand that.  But Rolly and I have a long history and I should be walking point.”

Rachel:  “This isn’t just about this case. You did walk to the front of the line.  And I don’t know if it’s because you know the chief from Glenco but you walked in and you went right to the front.”

Raylan:  “Yeah. You ever consider I happen to be good at the job?”

Rachel:  “And you being a tall good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger?  That has nothing to do with it? You get away with just about anything.”

Raylan:  “What do I get away with?”

Rachel:  “Look in the mirror! How’d you think it’d go over if I came in to work one day wearing a cowboy hat?”  (Raylan smirks.  Rachel persists.)  “You think I’d get away with that?”

Raylan:  “Go on, try it on.”  (Rachel looks at him curiously, as if she might.  End of scene.)

See?  It’s really Rachel’s fault that she’s not more assertive.  Not only did she fail to take control in her own case, but in this very conversation she permits the subject of the white man’s aggression to drop.  After this scene, the episode spends zero more time fretting about the fact that Raylan has completely taken control.  He continues to use the same tall, good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger persona, and he wins.  Now that we’ve had a moment to take feminism into account, we can go back to appreciating a 1950s version of gender/race relations, where the white guy is always in charge.

And what happens at the end of the episode?  Rachel does try on the cowboy hat.  But it doesn’t fit.

“Slings & Arrows”

29 March 2010

For a moment, let me sing a song about the magical moment we enjoy in history:  not only are we fully in the middle of a renaissance for television shows, but we don’t have to pay attention to their schedule.  Between DVRs (I don’t have one, but I envy those of you who do), Netflix sending us DVDs by mail and streaming over the internet, and Hulu and all its cousins, we’re free to partake of the wonder and glory that is television today — and on our own schedule.

Give me the chance and I’ll be one of those people who gets derailed from all normal human conversation at dinner to insist, without blinking, that you should watch “The Wire.”  This is not a short conversation.  Discovering a great new show that’s already available on DVD can be dangerous, as it leads to the binge.  After my first, horrible year of teaching I watched the first two seasons of “The Sopranos” in about four days, only slowed down by the drive back and forth to the video store; I described the show as akin to crack cocaine.  Last summer, with my partner away for a few days, I swallowed the first season of “True Blood” in about a day and a half.  Steven Johnson tells us that watching these kinds of complex shows makes us smarter, but I don’t think he meant watching an entire season in one crazed, unwashed lost weekend.

Almost every night we have a routine:  we finally stop working, we drink a glass of wine and have a late dinner, and we settle down to watch something to cleanse our brains so we can sleep without having dreams about sentences, paragraphs, or teaching anxieties.  About half the time we watch a film, but the problem with film is you have no idea where it’s going to take you.  It feels like a big emotional commitment (and can haunt your dreams, as my previous post showed).  Television shows, in contrast, have a snappy pace and severely delimited structure.  Even if you’re sitting down to a couple of episodes of something dark, complex, or full of cliffhangers (“Lost,” for example, or the Shakespearean “Deadwood”), you know it’s merely a part of something longer.  It’s tidy, like a Lean Cuisine.

The problem is, we occasionally run out of shows — and we were in precisely that condition until we remembered the Canadian comedy, “Slings & Arrows.”  It’s a terrific comedy about a somewhat hopeless theater troupe trying to stage “Hamlet” after its artistic director dies and is replaced by one of his old protege/enemies, played by Paul Gross — a less malevolent Ray Liotta with Dionysian hair and raw sexuality, who’s still nursing himself back to mental health after a breakdown while acting in “Hamlet” seven years earlier.  Gross’s character is promptly haunted by the ghost of the old artistic director, and the show is off and running with Shakespearean jokes, swordfights, jealousies, young romance, and overblown theatrical egos.  We were hooked immediately.  (It doesn’t hurt that Gross can be funny, eminently watchable, and ridiculously sexy all at once.)

There’s no laugh track.  The cast is having fun, but they’re not just playing for yuks — I don’t quite know how the show does it, but it feels substantial.  It’s punctuated with some stock characters, but are they stock for Shakespeare or for modern television comedy?  There are two old queens who offer chorus-like eye-rolling and one-liners for the viewer’s benefit; an aging leading lady who sleeps with a series of hot young delivery boys; a pretentious director in leather pants who announces that the production’s unifying ethic will be “rottenness”; and the uxorious financial director (played by the great Mark McKinney from “Kids in the Hall”) and his new girlfriend, the aggressive Texas transplant determined to replace Shakespeare with productions of “Mamma Mia.”

Oh, to discover a new show — heaven.  My only regret is that it’s only three short seasons long — only six DVDs.  So I’m accepting recommendations for future viewing.