Current shows: Big Little Lies, Catastrophe, Clique, Decline and Fall, Girls, Imposters, Iron Fist, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Jane the Virgin, Legion, Making History, Powerless, Riverdale, Snatch, The 100, The Americans
Non-current shows: Animaniacs, Being Human, Life in Squares
Pilots tried: The Arrangement
Other TV events: Carnage, The Flash‘s musical episode
Things of note:
What is it: A six-part BBC series about childhood friends starting school at University of Edinburgh. It seems at first like it might just be a thing about female friendship and all of the fraught social dynamics of that particular leaving home, gaining independence, finding yourself period of undergrad–and that certainly is part of it. But it’s also a corporate thriller? With some interesting commentary on whatever wave of feminism we’re currently in?
How did we feel about it: Pretty great! It was one of the shows I most looked forward to watching while it was airing. The university setting is pretty rare in TV and I always appreciate it; you could make a facile comparison to season 3 of Veronica Mars, in that the protagonist of Clique is also a female college freshman investigating a conspiracy, taking some dangerous risks to uncover the truth, and making herself sort of unlikable to the people around her in her dogged pursuit, but apart from that–not so much.
Holly strikes me as an unusual protagonist, although I could not quite pinpoint why–maybe it’s just that she shows some of the aloof and brooding characteristics that we’re more used to associating with male protagonists? She seems normal and well-adjusted in a lot of ways–she can make small-talk, she enjoys herself at college parties, she dresses generically well (i.e. attractively and on-trend, but not in such a way that indicates an obsession with fashion or a particular subcultural affiliation). And yet, at the same time, she is borderline clingy with her childhood best friend, can be brusque and dismissive with everyone else, and as her investigation goes on, starts behaving in more and more “socially inappropriate” ways.
Also, and this contains major spoilers for the finale, I can’t believe this ended up turning into a Hannibal: gender-bent Scottish university AU, but INTO IT. That cliff scene confrontation between Rachel, Holly, and Georgia, with Rachel and Holly staring into each other’s eyes as Rachel asks “Isn’t it beautiful?” as she’s trying to convince Holly to murder Georgia—that had to be deliberate, right? Has the Hannibal s3 finale reached that level of iconicity? It seems like it couldn’t be accidental, with the reveal that Rachel is convinced that Holly is just like her (i.e. capable of enjoying murder) and has been plotting all of this to put Holly in a situation to realize it? Especially when the series ends with a shot of Holly visiting Rachel in prison… Anyway, I’m not sure it was necessarily good plotting for all of that to be the finale reveal, effectively pushing aside all of the corrupt business stuff, but whatever: gender-bent Hannibal omg.
Life in Squares
What is it: A three-part BBC series about the Bloomsbury Group; well, more specifically focused on the Vanessa Bell/Duncan Grant relationship (and the ensuing drama wrt to the Angelica Bell/David Garnett relationship) with some Virginia Woolf sidebars.
Fun facts ahoy: I’d recommend looking up Duncan Grant’s list of liaisons, because it was actually just everyone. At the very least, it included at least two of his first cousins (Lytton Strachey and his brother James), Maynard Keynes, Vanessa Bell, and David Garnett. One ought to make a graph.
David Garnett was the son of Constance Garnett, prolific translator of Russian literature and sister of a mathematician who apparently independently reached some of same conclusions as Pearson but is more noteworthy for murdering his wife and child before taking his own life in 1893. David Garnett also was the editor of the 1938 collection of T.E. Lawrence’s letters (apparently after E.M. Forster dropped the task).
But more relevant to this series, David Garnett, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell were living together during WWI; Garnett and Grant were lovers and working as farmers because of the whole conscientious objector thing, and Bell was in love with Grant and wanted a child by him. Bell did indeed have that child–Garnett was present and wrote to Strachey (also a former lover?), “bro what if I like marry this baby”1 And he actually did! Weirder still, Garnett may not have been the only man to sleep with both Duncan Grant and his daughter.
How did we feel about it: James Norton as Duncan Grant is such good casting; you can see why everyone is in love him and you also can’t really begrudge him any of his relationships, because he’s so beautiful and there’s just something about him that makes it hard to bear him ill-will–it’s not necessarily that he’s especially Good, but maybe that he’s seemingly so easy-going? It’s an aspect of his character that comes across both in Lytton Strachey’s writing about him and this show’s portrayal–although who knows how close either is to the actual, real life Duncan Grant; that he’s this sort of object that everyone else is projecting their desires and expectations onto, but on his end, he’s just, like, existing?
Unfortunately, it’s kind of unfocused as a series–it’s an interesting setting with people who are automatically interesting because of their names and then also all of the complex relationships, but in terms of plot…well, what can you do? Three episodes is both too many and too few–it seems like it would have been better as either a movie with a tighter focus or a longer series that had time to flesh out more of the characters and relationships. Not sure how I feel about the time-skips–the casting of older versions of the characters maybe isn’t handled super well, because it’s not immediately clear who’s meant to be whom, and one just wants more James Norton and Phoebe Fox. But on the other hand, if they really wanted to work in the David Garnett/Angelica Bell marriage–and how can you resist that delicious drama–it was necessary to show both time periods, and I don’t know that our old-age make-up effects are currently advanced enough to make it work with the same actors without being laughable.
Legion was fun, but I don’t have much to say about it. Set design, casting, soundtrack, cinematography, miscellaneous weird stylistic choices: all great. Almost ruined by all of the “whoa, what a mindfuck” reactions it provoked, but I’ve been reading TV reviews and comments sections less and less frequently and that’s probably been a solid life decision.
Still, something that I keep thinking about: in the last episode, it’s revealed that a dude we previously only knew as a villain has a husband and son. Which is supposed to humanize him and make him seem like a more nuanced character, rather than a 2-dimensional baddie. TV shows and movies have been deploying that sort of reveal to instantly make villains sympathetic forever, right? Usually–obviously–it’s a wife. And yet, I think we’ve reached a point in pop culture where the reveal of a wife wouldn’t be as effective; I suspect the fact that this character has a husband makes us think he’s a better person than he would be if he had a wife, even though the spousal reveal, regardless of gender, is meant to signify the character’s capacity for love and empathy. So why is that? Is it because the wife reveal feels clichéd and the husband reveal, while effectively serving the same purpose, is just fresher? Is it because we’re thinking of the character as a gay man in contemporary society and thus extrapolating whatever prejudices he’s had to deal with and how they might better enable him to empathize with the mutant cause? (Even though it’s not totally clear what era Legion is meant to be set in and what it’s societal norms are.) Is it because we sort of unconsciously believe a relationship between two men will be more equitable than a relationship between a man and a woman–that it’s less likely that a character would view his wife as an equal human rather than as a possession or something, and thus revealing that a formerly unsympathetic villain has a wife doesn’t necessarily say as much about his capacity for empathy? In any case, it’s basically the opposite of the much-discussed gay villain trope, which is kind of interesting.
Oops, I definitely meant to have more to say about this a month or two ago, and now I can’t be bothered.
- This article is from a few years (and seasons) ago, but interesting in light of the direction Marnie has taken as a character.
- I guess I was into the final season of Girls, after being on the verge of dropping the show at any moment for the past few seasons. Which is good, since it was seemingly the only reason (apart from the general fear) I was paying for HBO while it was on. But yeah, I basically think it’s a Quality Show and the writing is often really specific and funny; it’s just that the cringe factor is so high and the characters are so frustrating/unlikable in such a realistic way that it’s not always “pleasant” to watch.
- Like Jesus, I almost forgot about how awful Adam is, since I’ve seen Adam Driver in so many other likable and/or compelling roles by now. He really is just repulsive on Girls. (The Power of Acting, I guess.) He and Jessa together are just: so gross, so shitty, and not in a fun or interesting to watch way, mostly. And yet: I don’t necessarily think they’re poorly written or that the film storyline was a bad idea.
- I can’t fathom the people who thought that Adam was a good boyfriend and that Hannah was lucky to have him. She’s awful, and Dunham’s mannerisms as her2 –those very specific babyish vocal inflections and postures–are also awful, but is she more awful than Adam? Or Jessa? Or Desi? Or Marnie, who by this point has transcended Realism and become so awful in such an un-self-aware way that she’s hilarious? But that’s one of the interesting things about Girls vs other TV shows–people’s reactions to the Girls characters and their (horrible) life choices seem more visceral and deeply felt, because, I think, they’re much closer to the type of people who watch Girls than characters from other TV shows. And probably for the same reason, people’s views on the characters also seem way more revealing–like the aforementioned unfathomable Adam supporters: for other shows, I feel like I can understand why people like or dislike characters more and wouldn’t necessarily prejudge the person to be awful or just completely not on my wavelength based on their opinions. But not so here.
- Anyway, Girls ended and it was not the series ending we might have expected after season 1, but it seemed…fine? I personally would have found it more satisfying for Hannah to realize that she’s a shit writer with nothing to say, give up on her dreams, and get a soul-crushing 9-to-5 job, but would that have actually been an artistically “better” ending? I don’t know.
1. Okay, fine, the actual quote is: “I think of marrying it: when she is 20 I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous?” Close enough. ^
2. Unclear to what extent they are Dunham’s own mannerisms and to what extent it’s Acting. Let’s be charitable and assume the latter. ^