I didn’t mean to leave the last post so anticlimactically, especially since I was getting to the good part: the reconfiguration of the relationship between drama and audience and the resulting destabilization of identification with characters that was a constant in literature for most of the 19th century and still haunts young adult literature and a good deal of genre fiction, even some contemporary literary works. In film, of course, seeking to attract as much as repel the audience is not new. But for tv it is, partly because tv is extremely representational and is often obsessed with realism. Interestingly, BSG is a realist show, a mimetic or imitative show (the reality indexing that happens when the inside of a spaceship looks like what we think of the inside of a submarine, for example) in spite of the fact that its “appropriate” genre is sci fi. And it is this realism, down to the untidy and uncomfortable heroic characters, that provokes attraction and repulsion that is not a gimmick but rather part of an unraveling mystery.
As I mentioned in the earlier post, the human forms of the Cylons is being fully explored in this third season. On the one hand, the plot implications of this detail are tantalizing, though almost completely exhausted by this season: in season 1 and 2, there are enough encounters with these humanoid Cylons to provide suspense and adventure. Finding more hidden Cylons in the fleet would just be repetitive and unimaginative. The more important aspect of the epistemological confusion this Cylons form entails is a questioning of what is human. The question had been suggested in seasons 1 and 2, but Cylons then were united in their pursuit of destroying humans. That goal is now questioned. The diversity of opinion, the debates among the Cylons, their visceral discomfort of resurrection (the download into now bodies when they die), and their obsession with love puts us firmly into the world of “humanity.” Moreover, the humans’ use of suicide bombings and thirst for revenge upon the human collaborators of Cylon occupation suggest their “inhumanity.” A version of this is already offered in the Pegasus’ crew physical and sexual abuse of their captured number 6 model. What emerges is a model of humanity that is extremely contingent, situational. The monotheist/polytheist debate subtends this contingency, particularly as the mystics of each camp consider each other’s visions valid: the future is already written and does not define the characters, their subject positions are reconfigured given the relational networks in which they exist and through which they move. This is BSG’s recasting of our globalized world.
As unsatisfying as this contingency may be for aesthetic and philosophical theories of the subject–and it IS unsatisfying–the series does a much better job of exploring these issues than the hints of the post human Morrison’s run in New X-Men offered. The problem with how Morrison did this with the X-Men have very little to do with either Morrison or the merry mutants. It is probably a genre problem of the comic book, particularly the superhero comic. But it does suggest that humanity’s others: mutants, Cylons are the actual protagonists of the drama, not the vectors of destruction they represent, and the original humans, though they are the targets of the narrative focalization, are the actual ancillary subjects.
BSG continues to offer a new look of what is human, and it certainly indexes quite well the specific shades of this question most important to the mid 2000’s.
Originally published on 15 Mar 2012
Recently, I have been re-watching old shows: I think it’s the cheeto presidency that’s driving me to shows that make me feel comfortable. One show in particular I’ve been watching is Battlestar Galactica.
I’m currently in the beginning of season 3, in which the epistemological problem that Cylons are indistinguishable from humans is being fully exploited: after having her hybrid baby, Sharon has been made into a lieutenant aboard the Galactica, humans are engaging in suicide bombings of other humans and Cylons in the name of the resistance, and the uniformity of the Cylon models is cracking thanks to the Cylon war heroes, Caprica 6 and Boomer. These plot reversals and inversions are important not so much in terms of creative plot development (though that creativity must be acknowledged) but most importantly because of how they reconfigure the audience’s relationship to the series. That is, who are we to root for? And why? Well, yes, the humans. But the characters themselves remind us that suicide bombing crosses a line. And are we now going to throw in with Colonel Tigh, a character we are constantly reminded is not to be trusted? The viewer has to be pragmatic here, even if it is distasteful. And the Cylons, what to do with them? As dastardly as they are, our apprehension is intimately related with how like us and our history they are. What even the human characters are beginning to grapple with is the idea that Cylons have souls (something the audience could always entertain but which now they have to face more seriously). And yet they decimated billions, a crime that cannot just be forgiven, especially by the survivors of such decimation.
This is why Battlestar Galactica is such a great show: the series seeks to constantly reconfigure the bonds of identification and disidentification between audience and fiction. For there is much we admire about the characters as well as what repels us. President Roslyn’s moral certainty, until it becomes tyrannical. Adama’s decisiveness and leadership is comforting at the same time that it’s narrow minded and the character can never truly be approached; we are Lee in many ways. This push and pull goes down to the setting: space age humans in a gritty, rust bucket fleet. Not the star trek sleekness we’re used to for a space drama.
I’ll sign off for now, but I have more to say on this topic.
Originally published on 13 Mar 2012
As an immigrant to this country, I take it as a given that everyone in the United States smiles way too often. Even in a stereotypically unfriendly city such as New York, there is a lot of grinning. Whatever smiles mean, in the U.S. context they’re saying: “I’m nice. You’re nice too, right?” Sometimes they say: “Please buy something/thank you for buying something.” But some smiles are neither seeking approval nor responding to consumer culture. If only smiles could always be that banal.
It’s not in my nature to meditate on smiling. Rage is a great deal sexier. But I found myself confronting what smiles mean while watching the last few episodes of season 6 of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Specifically, it was Cersei Lannister, played by Lena Headey, who put me on this path. There she is, during the penultimate episode of the season, dressed in a dark armor-dress hybrid (think sidesaddle but for armor) and golden circlet crowning her short-cropped hair, looking out of the royal palace’s window over the faux yet meticulously medieval city of King’s Landing. As this happens, the city’s great temple, a massive domed structure in which all of her enemies have gathered to ostensibly witness her be tried for the crime of incest (among many, many, many others) explodes in green flame. The corners of her mouth rise to form a self-satisfied, close-lipped smile. Think: the cat who ate the canary. The smile is delicious in every way, the culminating sign of a plan set in motion long ago and that plan’s fruition. This triumphant yet composed smile is only the shadow of the pleasure she must feel—as she commits mass murder. To be sure, she does not see this act as murder but war; Cersei sees it as annihilating her enemies and finally attaining the power she has sought for so long. In short, she is owed her revenge. And yet, I can’t help thinking about all those make-believe bodies and how the explosion of the domed temple suggests what might be a scene of terrorism in a far-away country in our very own world. In response to her pleasure, I can only feel horror.
More to my liking was a different scene far away from King’s Landing. You see, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the rightful heir of the throne at King’s Landing, has been missing from the city she rules, Mereen. In her absence, the city is attacked by the previous rulers, the masters. With a nod to our own world, this fight is not only about Daenerys’ fate but also about the battle between slavers (the masters) and freed slaves (who follow Daenerys). Unbeknownst to the masters, Daenerys returns to Mereen in full command of her three dragons (think jet fighters with flamethrowers and missiles). She destroys—by burning—many of the ships and crews attacking her city. Is this not mass murder? Yes, but while she sits abreast the greatest dragon, Drogon, as he swoops through the sky over the bay upon which Mereen is built, breathing fire and destroying man and machine, I know that this is not the destruction of troops but rather of a system. I feel exultant as the show’s plot and imagery reinforces my own moral position, though it is only “moral” when you take into account our history, not the world of Game of Thrones, which is decidedly amoral. As culture confirms my worldview and I experience the scene as justice, I feel joy. Daenerys does not smile.
Even though Daenerys seems to think that her task is a grim one, the staging of her victory leaves me unperturbed. However, another scene featuring Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) leaves me a little uneasy. Sansa, thought to be the last remaining true heir of House Stark, has been enduring a kind of unsentimental education, or reeducation through pain, throughout the series. The breaking point comes during the last season: her title gives her rights to rule the North, and that has made her vulnerable to a northern family, the Boltons, whose heir, Ramsay, is a sadist. Ramsay forcibly marries Sansa and abuses and rapes her continuously during their short “marriage.” When Ramsay is defeated by Sansa’s brother, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Ramsay’s fate is left in Sansa’s hands. Look: he is seated in a cell located in a space that is not quite dungeon and not quite a stable. Or a kennel. He is bound to a chair or stool in the center of the cell. Light falls upon him, and he stirs as he senses Sansa’s quiet approach out of the gloom. Covered in a dark, gray cloak, the only color we register is the actress’ red hair, which frames her pale skin. We know that Ramsay has trained his hounds to rip, shred, and consume human flesh. Ramsay laughs and tells Sansa that his hounds will never harm him. She replies by reminding him that he hasn’t fed them in days. We are saved the spectacle of the dogs tearing him apart. The director is kind enough to look away…or is he? Instead, the camera lingers on Sansa’s face and slowly closes in until it frames her in a tight close up. She is implacable, stoic. Here I am reminded of Ned Stark, who was so honorable that he carried out death sentences himself, as I watch his daughter bear witness to the justice she has meted out. As Ramsay dies, Sansa expressionless turns away from the cell and walks away. Ah, this is Ned Stark’s daughter indeed, brimming with honor and dignity even as she must be cruel. As she leaves, the vague shape of the cell behind her, she walks slowly out of this beastly space. And as the screen slowly fades to black, she smiles. I do not. Whereas a moment ago, I saw the repayment of a social “debt,” justice, now I am not so sure. Am I going to quibble with a rape survivor avenging the sin committed against her? Not a chance. And yet, in response to that smile, I feel dread—for Sansa and for myself.
By the last episode of the season, I am emotionally in disarray. The kids these days call it “shook.” So much has happened this season, and while no one in the series is perfect, no one can or should be admired, I am heartened that during the last episode, we see a rise of gyno power in the world of Game of Thrones. All but one of the male leaders have been swept away, and it is women who plot, inspire, cajole, rule, command. Game of Thrones, it seems, has decided to take seriously the challenge of imagining what if women ruled the world, especially a world that is deeply patriarchal. I am delighted. I smile. So I am surprised that during this last episode we are visiting with old, decrepit Walder Frey (David Bradley, Hogwarts’ own Argus Filch) famous for being disloyal, famous for putting himself ahead of oaths of fealty through which his family is bound to other noble families, famous for marrying teenage girls and siring a great many children. It was Walder Frey who planned and hosted the Red Wedding, in which Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), mother to Sansa, and her son Robb Stark (Richard Madden), the King in the North, died brutally. Indeed, barbarically: for Walder Frey committed an unforgivable sin by murdering his own guests. So there is Walder Frey, sitting at the high table of his own deserted hall. It is late at night and the hall is dark, a fire burning dimly in one of the recesses, and he is alone in the hall save for one young serving girl. But he aims to revel in his power, celebrating by having a meat pie brought to him by the serving girl. Oh, but we know where this is going: deserted hall, very old and powerful man, a young girl there to cater to his needs. At best, some coercion is on its way. He notes that she is new, an unfamiliar face, and she playfully tells him that she has arrived with one of his noble guests and is helping his castle’s staff (oh, why is she playing with him? Get out of there). A few more exchanges reveals that she doesn’t believe herself to be in any danger, and some of her answers are strangely cryptic. Then Walder Frey wonders, as he begins eating the meat pie, where everyone else is. The meat pie itself is thickly reddish and the consistency odd (it’s not just you, Walder, that looks kind of gross). Responding to his question about where his sons are, where his family is, the serving girl says that they’re in the hall with them. Walder Frey asks but where in the castle have they gone to…and she restates that they’re right here. If you’ve read or seen Titus Andronicus, you know what’s coming and the nausea cries out from deep within your belly. Yes, reader, she has fed him his family. But why? She reveals herself to be Arya Stark (Maisie Williams). Arya, Sansa’s younger sister, presumed killed or lost in Westeros but who instead has been learning hard lessons about the world and in the process learning how to fight, how to hide, how to become someone else, and how to exact revenge upon those who killed her father, her mother, and her brothers. And Walder Frey orchestrated the murder of her mother and one of her brothers. Arya, who throughout her travels has recited over and over the names of those who deserve to pay for the deaths of her kin, grabs the very old Walder Frey from behind his chair and while holding him with one arm stabs him with her free hand. And she is absolutely beaming, her smile radiant. And so am I. The nausea has morphed, and as the gorge comes up at the thought of cannibalistic infanticide, it transmutes into the sheer pleasure of revenge and expresses itself as a gleeful smile.
The show has trapped me, for in my reaction to Arya’s disturbing act of revenge and to Sansa’s tarnished justice I realize that I am Cersei Lannister, a homicidal monster—at least in my unrestrained emotional life animated by fiction. The relative power and positionality of the different characters is important: a person can bring about someone else’s death, but it is the specific relationship between the two persons, intersected by power, history, law, culture, family, desperation, that renders that death a murder or self-defense. In other words, aren’t all these character committing murder, often mass murder? And do they not all have good reasons for such acts? The power to insulate oneself from harm. The casting down of an unjust system and daring to imagine a different kind of political reality. The comeuppance richly deserved by the rapist. The need to annihilate those responsible for destroying the people who brought you into this world. These good reasons, however, cannot hide that the pleasure we associate with smiles can derive from goodness but also from violence—and this goodness and violence can be real or imagined. And yet we do not know in real life, in the moment in which we see the smile and in the moment in which ourselves smile, what is the true source of that pleasure, of that smile. “I’m nice. You are too, right?” “Please buy something/thank you for buying something.” Shift the mood just a bit, and these become: “It doesn’t matter who’s nice or how you feel, as long as I get what I want.” “As long as you buy something, I don’t care how much you have to go into debt or whether you and your family have to go hungry.” I am not arguing that there is no goodness in the world. Nor am I advocating for a completely cynical, paranoid view of the world. I am saying that what we do matters, the story behind our smiles and pleasure matters, especially when the ripple effect of how we feel and how we plan, stage, and experience pleasure produce, or contribute to, the destruction of others.
Game of Thrones has rightly been criticized for its violent content, and yet it has also rightly been lauded for depicting how mercurial power truly is. But, as a product of our culture and by addressing our culture, this show also stages how we feel—how we affectively respond to crime, punishment, and all manner of transgressions. The analysis is: this fantasy world is but a mere reflection of our own true world, of our wants, feelings, desires, and pleasures. The destruction of slavery in Mereen brings me pleasure, no matter how many die for it, just as the destruction of her enemies brings Cersei pleasure. The valence is different, but the pleasure is real. And so the show has revealed me to myself: I am Cersei Lannister. But, reader, hold on to me, let us comfort each other because, reader, I suspect that you too may also be Cersei Lannister.
What I am about to write is pretty much a given: the police procedural/crime drama on tv is an exhausted genre. The modern detective drama in the Anglo-American world was inaugurated by Edgar Allen Poe’s detective short stories in the 1840s. His master detective was Dupin, a Frenchman (the stories were set in Paris), who postulated that a detective could apprehend a criminal by examining clues and retrospectively inhabiting the criminal’s mental state and/or habitus. Arthur Conan Doyle quickly took up the mantle and exploited it quite soundly. Both Poe’s and Conan Doyle’s (detectives Dupin and Holmes, respectively) had partners who were both kind of audience stand-ins. Later detectives, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Poirot were not always part of a pair but worked alone or acquired a partner mid-story.
On TV, we have famous examples of both versions such as Columbo, who was good but smarmy deluxe, and Cagney and Lacey. Unlike their British counterparts, these latter examples were part of the police force and subject to a fetish of American culture, self-realization comes primarily through one’s work. In the UK, the cultural legacy of detective fiction is everywhere: after all, isn’t even Harry Potter just a version of such fiction? In America, detective fiction is almost exclusively riffraff literature – no offense here, but James Patterson, give me a break. However, in the 90s, the advent of the Law and Order franchise brought back the detective story fully within the police drama, producing the first version of the modern procedural.
Here are the main markers of a Law and Order episode: Crime, police shows up, ironic quip (sometimes fails), obvious suspect is not the doer, real suspect, guilty verdict. At least in the beginning. In the show’s offshoots, the guilty verdict is now often missing because who did it is not really in doubt. And thus, this franchise now uses at least two reversals (see Aristotle) in its work with plot. The good thing about this franchise, which is now–again–exhausted but marching inexorably on until Mariska Hargitay’s kids college educations are paid off, is how news stories and such are drawn into the dramas. In the best of cases, these shows try to deal with complex social issues, though the treatment is strained: the police, as complexly as they can deal with issues, really want one outcome—to catch a bad guy. As the work of the Innocence Project has shown, any “bad guy” sometimes is fine. Moreover, the adversarial court-system with an either-or configuration (guilty-not guilty) looks at complexity in the face and throws up on it.
The problem has become, of course, that with many offshoots and many copy shows (Cold Case–Law and Order with flashbacks, NCIS–Law and Order but in the military), the format of the show is fried. Yes, there have been changes, but part of the problem of making too many format (generic) changes is that the audience expects it and likes it. There’s only so much one can do there. And then there are the stories, and here’s where we’re getting to the almost criminal. I’m thinking of SVU. In the last several years alone, stories that touch upon incest, either suggested or actual, are their crown jewels. Not only are they disturbing and quite truculent, they push the envelope of what we’re ready to believe. I do not object to touching upon incest: I actually wrote my dissertation on two novels that feature incest as an “open” secret. The problem is that they are pulling all the rabbits they can out of all the hats they can: so they shock us and shocks us with incest (something that cannot but create an effect), and what happens then is that we get inured to it. Worse yet, their use of such a powerful story element means that they’re not coming up with anything new and that slowly we are getting USED TO IT.
SVU is enjoyable, even at its most cliched and moralizing. Who among us have not been caught into a TNT or USA SVU mini marathon? We cannot resist an abstract sense of looking for “justice,” of catching the criminal, sympathizing with the victim, and knowing that in the end, even if they can’t put the criminal in jail, we know we are morally superior to both the sins of the criminals as well as the sins of the justice system. But getting used to shock after shock, especially within a predictable structural formula, cannot but impoverish us as individuals, as a society, and as tv viewers. In the end, shows like this can inure us to true horror. When we witness videos of violence perpetrated upon black bodies, LGBT bodies, and refuges, we cannot avoid but to respond by either feeling helpless or feeling that someone else will take care of the horror, will be the true agent for justice. That’s if we allow ourselves to feel at all.
Originally published on 8 Apr 2011, updated 24 Jan 2017
I was streaming a lot of the 2005 Doctor Who (BBC) series in 2011 (because that’s what doctoral candidates who are trying to write their dissertations do?). Aside from the Doctor, I would most like to marry Martha Jones, though Rose Tyler is an awesome Doctor companion. In the second series (in the UK, seasons are series–get this, in the UK they expect a show to have a narrative arc and therefore each season is a series!), the Doctor and Rose Tyler meet Captain Jack Harness. He’s cheeky, bombastic, good looking, ridiculous: American (though the actor who plays him, John Barrowman, was born in the UK but was raised in the U.S.). Jack Harness is stereotypically debonaire and reminds of me an Elizabethan braggadocio character – a lot of hot air, good looks, but more an impediment to the resolution of the plot than anything else. And that Jack Harness is: he is not quite an impediment to plot resolutions but, unfortunately and interestingly, he is often at the root of the problem; his past actions set in motion events that he will later have to clean up and/or redeem, though he can’t often do so. We learn that Jack Harness is polysexual (I say that because it seems that he’ll sleep with any gender of any species, so there you have it), and he seems to develop a crush on the Doctor. Steeped in sci fi, I was surprised to see bisexuality represented on a sci fi show–and so nicely matter of fact. Whatever the appeal (the actor is very handsome, almost to the point of looking artificial), the character and actor are so charismatic that the show Torchwood was developed with Jack as the leader of the Torchwood team, a team based in Cardiff whose mission is to protect the Earth (UK) against alien threats. The team has its own cast of pretty interesting characters: Gwen Cooper, Owen, Toshiko, and Ianto Jones.
What strikes me both about Doctor Who and Torchwood is that while the plots are interesting and action packed, the shows are very geared toward relationships and exploring the nuance of relationships. These shows are particularly good at tying the plot/problem they have to solve with the characters that have to solve them. They also expect a smart audience. In Torchwood, as the team solves the problem, characters will voice some of the conclusions the viewer might come up with herself and push beyond. The point is that you’re trying to solve the puzzle, just like them, and they really know their stuff. But it’s in the romantic entanglements that both characters and viewers delight and get stumped. I’ve already noted that Jack is bisexual (Torchwood is really set on Earth, and though we can argue about how many genders there are, the show really only has men and women as love objects), but all characters except Owen engage in same-sex action. What the show does with sexuality, then, is to make it so movable and fluid as to make it a given, not something to be solved.
Within that matter-of-fact fluidity, though, we are activated by gay love, or at least same-sex love, through the relationship of Captain Jack and Ianto Jones. Ianto Jones is adorable, by the way. Their relationship spans the first three seasons of the show, and at least in the last two seasons, it is a constant. However, because Jack is secretive and Ianto is professional (in his nicely tailored “smart” suits), their relationship is not center stage. Which is to say that it doesn’t have to be because it is not exceptional the way a gay plot might be in another show (I shudder at the ridiculous lesbian plot in The O.C.–bleargh!). We are treated to passionate kisses in aside moments, one character barging during a pre-sexy sexy scene (pants on), and other moments both sexual and romantic.
Weirdly, then, what makes this character pairing nostalgic for me is that the peripheral representation of same-sex love in this show reminds me of the kind we used to see in the 90s, where a movie would be “gay” if someone’s best friend’s sister or brother on tv was gay. At that time, and at that age (teens), I was hunting for any representation of gay love I could find but couldn’t find a thing, or at least not very much. My favorite movie at the time was the film version of E. M. Forster’s Maurice and that because it was so (unrealistically) romantic…but it lacked in passion (in a way that Edwardian period pieces do not these days). So Torchwood makes me hunt for these peripheral moments, and when I get them, I get passionate kisses and slow dances: I get passion and love. In a sci fi series. On tv. Completely flabbergasted by that. Of course, it is British tv, so that makes it less surprising. At any rate, the nostalgia is for a remembered sensation of a pleasure that came from finding something but fleetingly because it was so taboo. The pleasure now comes from the fleeting moment that is normal, that can be fully real in the same way the other relationships in the show are portrayed. Captain Jack is a man plucked from the 51st century and has been on Earth since the nineteenth century waiting for the Doctor to return. He is, as the Doctor says, a fixed point in time and space. Because of his longevity and the tasks before him, everything is fleeting: he outlives most of his partners while on Earth. The thematic unity between the Jack-Ianto plot is at the heart of the Torchwood/Doctor Who theme of being both a traveler through time and space but also, because of it, being out of sync of both. The Doctor and Jack’s permanent state is one of loss and nostalgia, even though they focus, of course, on the present and fleeting. In this way, those of us who are “out of sync” notice the powerful same-sex relationship, but the show of course speaks to everyone as this theme is reworked through other characters and many of their adventures.
I realize blog posts should not be this long, and I apologize. But I think the fragmentariness and fleeting quality of this love plot in Torchwood produce and reflect nostalgia, a nostalgia organic to the show but also organic to what it is to be human in the 21st century. I can’t tell you how the love affair ends—it’s a doozy, but this show doesn’t have good writing for a sci fi show. It just has good writing.
Originally published on 21 Mar 2011
Thanks for visiting! I’ve had this site for quite a while, but I’ve been lax on producing new content. So what I’m doing is relaunching the site with a new look. At first, I will refresh the old posts, enhance them, and re-publish them. I’ll also be producing new content so that when all the old posts have been reissued, I’ll have fresh new stuff for you to read. For me, it’s all about gaining forward momentum, and of course it’s always easier to do something when you’re not starting from scratch.
Why this blog? I hold a doctorate in comparative literature; I study Latin American, Brazilian, and U.S. literature of the nineteenth century. But I absolutely LOVE tv and popular culture. I’ve noticed that people talk about shows as if they’re in a vacuum: they’ll connect them to a previous version or a genre, but many of the most successful scripted shows on tv are very much related to Western Literature. I want to write about these shows and also connect them to the predecessors out there. By predecessors, I don’t mean a “direct descendant,” but rather cultural products that have affinities to each other. Many of my posts, especially in the beginning, will be about shows or episodes from the past, though as I say my piece on older shows, I hope that newer, current shows will take precedence. Every once in a while, I will drift into music, comics, and video games. While my first love is tv, I enjoy a lot of popular culture.
I hope to have some fun with this and that any readers that I may come can enjoy the commentary. I will also be tweeting about mostly ridiculous things, like reality shows, that may not make it onto the blog themselves. I also express my views on politics and culture in general on twitter, so be forewarned that it’s now always going to be about culture narrowly defined. You can follow me on @thatwasdeep). I will try my best not to insert my personal life in this blog, but it seems as if personal life/commentary is endemic to this genre, so I can’t promise anything.