Ink Master, Season 1

I’ve seen clips of later seasons and found them mesmerizing. So with lockdown wearing on me one day and looking for a short, easy lunch-break something to watch, I clicked “play” for season one.

It seems clear to me that no one filming this show knew if it was going to amount to anything or not, and there’s clearly some confusion about the basis for the competition: is it a pure skill test or is there also a social element to the game. The result is a very distanced, mercenary sensibility: the artists are here to win 100,000$ and never quite check into the show itself. They disagree with the judges at every moment, grant them zero credibility, and more or less think they (the judges) can go fuck themselves.

What I was surprised by is how macho the world of tattooing is. These people are aggressively cool, touchy as hell, and ready to fight. Very chill, very understanding people had done my few pieces, and I had automatically assumed most other tattooists were like that as well. So I was genuinely caught off guard by the general vibe of the world.

Star Trek: Discovery

I lost track of the Star Trek series early on in Voyager. So aside from the three film reboots, I’ve been a bit disconnected. Recently though, I decided to give Discovery a try, and as I started the first episode, my hopes soared. Without a doubt, the opening credits and theme are the best to appear since the original series and The Next Generation. “This show,” I thought, “has figured out how to update the right way.” 

Unfortunately, our contemporary moment is quite ugly, and I’m not sure Roddenberry’s show survives the contact.

An Ethical Objection

I’ve only seen the first season at this point, but Discovery is, in important ways, not Star Trek. Not really. Instead, it’s like a half-bizarro Star Trek. The characters wear recognizable uniforms, the ships are discs with wings, and the Federation, Klingons and Vulcans are all there. But the utopian ethos that defined the earlier series is absent.

In Discovery, every room is dark enough to be gloomy, paranoia is normalized and horror elements abound in the cinematography and montage. Torture and violence are foregrounded and often sexualized. The emotional range of the narrative is also extremely constrained. People here are angry, afraid, desperate, resentful and confrontational. Thinking back, I can’t remember any character feeling a single moment of joy or happiness. This emotional constraint is signalled by the capacities of the show’s empath: no Betazoid, he can only sense fear and danger. Given the narrative, that’s enough. (Full disclosure: he’s also the character I find the most sympathetic.)

More troubling, however, are the many ways that the earlier series’ utopian commitments to non-violence and co-existence are absent. Phasers here are never set to stun. Violence and aggression are continually presented (by Vulcans no less!) as the best and most logical path toward peace. And all of this seems to be kind of okay because, in another dimension, things are even worse and because, in the end, the Discovery’s crew don’t act as bad as those really really bad guys. Go Federation! 

As a kid I aspired to become Nemoy’s Spock, and as a young adult, I (along with so many other nerdy boys) saw Stewart’s Picard as a role model. This show feels like a repudiation of their peaceful convictions.

Geeky Nitpicking

On a less fundamental level, there were Trek-fan things that bothered me too. Science has always been “science” in Star Trek, but Discovery jumps squarely into the realm of magic, eliminating basic spatial and temporal limits fundamental to good storytelling. Basically anything can happen here at any time and problems are problems only until someone activates a teleporter or releases blue glowing spores. Is this bad writing or a symptom of the shift from physical to biological science?

Speaking of bad writing, I also found the dialogue to be surprisingly weak. To cite only one example from the pilot, the Vulcan trained (and top of her class) first officer is on a space walk near a binary star and speaks about what she sees. Apparently thinking she’s on a home-reno show, she reports that “the only word to describe it is ‘wow.'” To which I can only say:

And yet, hope…

Despite all of this, I find it hard to say the show’s terrible. I’m not sure I liked it, but it’s well made and coherent within the bounds it sets for itself, and I’m definitely going to watch the later seasons.

My problem with it is that it more or less rejects the socialist, cooperative utopia of Roddenberry’s Star Trek, a legacy it evokes to lay claim to my attention and which, therefore, sets the horizon for my expectations and judgments. Watching the show from within that field, I can’t ignore how far the series has fallen from the original’s admirable hopes for our future.

My own hope for the future of the show is that there will be a course correction, that the whole spore drive business will go away and that this “Federation” will rediscover the value of cooperation, of ethical inquiry and of peaceful contact (and coexistence) with the unknown.

Because I want to love Star Trek.

True Detective

My brother loved the first season of True Detective. My sister-in-law loved it too. So did my mother. It stars Woody, and both his and the show’s reviews were pretty great. So I gave in and watched it.

Why did I hesitate at all? Because crime fiction gives me nightmares. Few things do, but crime fiction does. Almost always.

Still, I watched, and the first season of this show is absolutely great television: beautifully shot, tightly written, well acted, and everything felt purposeful and controlled. I genuinely loved it.

And then the nightmares set it. They were bad, started immediately, and kept me from sleeping for days. They also set off my sleepwalking (alas, it’s a thing I do) which meant the Beav wasn’t sleeping either. It was miserable.

Things only went back to normal when, after a few days of rain, the skies cleared and the wind warmed up enough to feel like the beginnings of spring rather than the remnants of winter. I worked in the garden, I ate by the river and then I lounged in the grass under the sun. In short, I spent the day outside reminding myself of all that is right in the world. And that night, finally, I slept.

So are the rest of the seasons of this show as good as the first?

Maybe. But I promise you that I will never know.

Legion, Season 1

Marvel does Inception.

Sigh.

If there had been even one more episode, I wouldn’t have finished. But I got to four in a binge and realized I was half done, so I gave it a shot.

Sigh.

It’s interesting to see self-consciousness about the medium that is neither political nor anti-consumerist. Sets off the value of Soloway in Transparent and I Love Dick by way of contrast.

The Expanse, Season Two

The poster image for this season is awkward, unattractive, and confused.

I look at it and all I see is that ominous, grasping hand attached to a blank mask surrounded by fire. Call me a coward, but that pretty clearly reads as “RUN! Monster coming!”, no? But when I saw it in wide format versions, I realized this isn’t some faceless thing crawling toward me and reaching out to grab me. It is someone clinging to a ship in space, trying to save themselves. All images are ambiguous, but this one is divided against itself in the worst possible way.

That said, the image actually works pretty well as a representation of the second season of The Expanse because the episodes themselves are pretty confused about what they’re up to.

If I’m generous, the first season’s slow-crawl through less than half of the book it was adapting (and its many pointless changes to the plot) surely threw the second season off-balance. To keep going, the second season needed to pick up the pace and move through a book and a half of material. It also had to push the narrative back in line with its multi-volume source. That’s a big task, and it was rough going.

Actually, I struggled to get through it, quitting for several months after watching only the first half of the season. Eventually I started back and then quit again after a few boring wandering episodes mid-season. Only recently did I watch the last four.

Here’s the odd thing though: the fact that the story does get on track and that it seems to be settling into a steady pace in those last episodes has left me unexpectedly (but mildly) optimistic about what’s to come. (And I do like watching Steven Strait, Dominique Tipper and Shohreh Aghdashloo.)

Still I’m not jumping in right away on the third season. Despite my enthusiasm for Leviathan’s Wake, I found Caliban’s War dull and repetitive. I haven’t read the third book yet and I probably won’t watch the third season until I do, which might take me awhile. For now, it’s deep in the reading pile with a lot of better books sitting on top of it.

Transparent, Season One

I hate the act of watching television: the weekly schedule, the commercials, the hassle of figuring out what’s on, the crappy episodes that fill space and the cliffhangers that try to bring you back once you’re done. It all annoys and frustrates me, and as a result, for long stretches of my adult life I’ve had no television. And when I have had one, I haven’t subscribed to anything beyond basic cable, because cable just makes everything worse by orders of magnitude.

(As an aside, once when I was young—maybe nine or ten—I did something (I don’t remember what) and my father sent me to my room as punishment. Whatever I did must have upset my mom pretty badly though because she intervened and said, “No. He’s going to sit here and watch television with the rest of us.” So for the next half-hour I sat crying on the couch in front of the TV. Lesson learned.)

DVD box sets and now the combination of Netflix, iTunes and Apple TV changed all of this because now I can watch television series without having to watch television. This has been a revelation. Yes, managing multiple subscriptions is a hassle—and I came to Transparent late because I wasn’t subscribed to Amazon Prime—but  it’s worth the trouble.

In general, the shows that appeal to me the most generally reach for a novelistic scale. (And in those cases where a series doesn’t seem to be reaching for it, if I like it, it’s usually because I see an unintentional reach emerging across the episodes.) Concretely this scale usually manifests as seasons of ten or twelve episodes, each of which is roughly fifty minutes long. These episodes develop a complex, multi-threaded narrative which, thanks largely to the recent successes of HBO, seems to have become something like the standard for “quality” television.

Jill Soloway moves this notion of “quality” in a very different direction. Like I Love Dick, the first season of Transparent is built of brief episodes of only thirty minutes each. Each operates something like an overtly incomplete collection of scenes. These scenes develop a story, but they also make visible gaps in the narrative that are filled in only by implication and supposition. Imagined in terms of painting, the series is a careful combination of positive and negative space.

I have two lingering thoughts about the first season.

First, I can’t help seeing Soloway as the true dauphin of 90s New Queer Cinema, a movement of real aesthetic power that I worry will slip away into the past and be lost. Soloway clearly works within its aesthetic. Her concrete treatment of media, her use of found images, her reliance on technique from underground film, and her self-consciousness and deep political commitment are all direct links to that earlier historical moment. Yet importantly, she fuses this heritage with comedic and melodramatic story forms that make her work attractive and accessible in a way so little of the New Queer Cinema was.

Second, there are no gay male characters in this season. Gay men appear—partying unseen but loudly next door early on for example—but they do not matter. Given the self-awareness and political commitments of this very queer series, I don’t think their absence is an oversight. Quite to the contrary, I read it as a kind of calling out: gay men’s lives have been improved immensely by the efforts of legions of queer people, but as the political needle has moved toward accepting the idea that white, affluent, stylish men might be allowed to love each other, the political fire seems to have died out in many of these white guy’s bellies. The fight for all queer people’s rights continues, but, as this series points out, these gay men aren’t around. I think this is a purposeful and powerful gesture.

Mr. Robot Season One

The first season of this show started out as The Matrix and ends up as Fight Club. As crazy as it sounds, I feel like I should have seen this switch coming several episodes earlier than I did.

The narrative here is gimmicky and the visuals and narration wallow in ostentation. Cramped framing of figures, disorienting jumps over key events, these are, I suppose, thematic. They are certainly expressive. At root though, they are a kind of stunt. And they work.

Someday—and I know what kind of day it will be: rainy or snowy, after a long week, when I’m feeling spent but alert—I’ll surely click “play” on the first episode of season two. But I don’t really feel much urgency about it.

Mr. Robot: First Impressions

A reboot of The Matrix with Freedom standing in for The Real World and Keanu Reeves played by an autistic.

Less cheeky: part of what is compelling about Henry James’s novels is the pleasure of reading third person narration that is close enough to a character’s experience of their selves as to be near synonymous with it and yet that is also calmly, devastatingly clear-seeing to an extent that exceeds what we imagine to be possible for most people. That I thought this thought watching Elliot interact with the people in his life tells you which gear the first two episodes of the show shifted my mind into.

I’m excited for the rest of the season.

I Love Dick

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched something that left me as excited about art and cinema, storytelling and life as I Love Dick.

My highlights?

In the third episode, “Scenes from a Marriage,” the two unfettered performances: the first, part of a gallery workshop, the second, an adoration.

Episode four, “The Conceptual F**K”: a woman lays down nude to burn in the sun. This is art, it is broadcast, it trends. Then it goes analogue and is challenged, redescribed, dismantled. A shirt it turns out unmakes a man.

The fifth episode, “A Short History of Weird Girls,” is a startling, discreet gem of pop experimental cinema.

The final moments of the last episode are an apotheosis, both for the series and for the protagonists.

Later, after I’d taken the time to read a bit of the popular press around the show’s release, I wondered if people had missed its depth. Calling it “comedy” seemed wrong to me, but that’s what everyone did. Soon enough I realized that I was the one who was wrong. Dick is full of fools and laughter, and I eventually remembered that laughter—raucous, vulgar, norm-destroying laughter—was characteristic of Bakhtin’s appropriative, novelistic genres.

So a thought: if movies are short stories (or maybe comics), then maybe streamed episodic narratives are novels, empowered with all the freedom and breadth and consuming variety the analogy implies.

I’m working in broad strokes, loud colors, but this is what Dick taught me.

Game of Thrones Binge Report

This show has an extraordinarily ugly vision of the world. Cruelty is everywhere and everywhere it bleeds into a sadism enabled and sustained by the production aesthetic. Noble ideals like honour and justice predominate in the dialogue and motivate character action, but in this world they serve rather than counter the cruelty. Despite the noble talk, there is no real notion of “the good” that is not childish or foolish, and so becoming adult means becoming cruel and hard.

It took me awhile to catch on to all of this which made watching the show incredibly painful. I kept being disappointed by characters who I thought were better than they were or caught off guard by violence that unsettled me. Eventually, I reached the point where, I watched for plot rather than people: a gigantic machine is in motion and I want to see how it rumbles along and how it finishes.

In terms of characters, I’m attached to only three.

Tyrion: he has money and a powerful family but he wants the pleasure of love and happiness. Best of all, he doesn’t live as if his world was a zero-sum. He wishes these pleasures for others, offers them when he can, and, in doing so, is the only character who is freely, personally good. That he and Varis—a character I could have added to this list but haven’t because he’s minor—have joined forces makes perfect sense. Given the ironic-mythic mode of the narrative, I continue to hope this fool will end up being king, although I doubt it will happen and just hope he survives to the end.

Arya: she has the misfortune of being a child and a woman in a world that tortures both. Her response is to live in a dream. That dream is a nightmare but it is a nightmare in which having nothing and being no one grants power. Because this story is a fantasy, Arya’s dream is real, and in an admittedly bloodthirsty way, I’m rooting for her.

Cersei: she’s a villain. She destroys too many lives, accepts to easily radically violent means to achieve her goals to be anything else. But with Robert, with Ned, later with her father, she speaks tragically of her situation: she, like Arya, has been born a woman and so has been hobbled from birth despite her obvious and extraordinary talents. Unlike Arya, she has not retreated to a dream. She has chosen the world she was given, set her sights on specific goals (that if she were a man would be admired), and within the possibilities available to her, has set to work making a place for herself and her children. I dislike so much of this world that watching her turn its own cruelty and deceit against its institutions and leaders, watching her beat them at their own game is deeply satisfying (and often funny). Foolish as it sounds, I also yearn for her to redeem herself and to use her talents for good.

Saying all of this, it must sound like I hate the show, but having finally read the first book, I feel confident saying that the show and it’s source are together a major work worth consideration. I dislike this world and its perspective on life. Yet, it’s compelling, powerful and, ultimately, I’m not able to dismiss it as an obviously false vision. Which means that despite everything (and as I said in a previous post), I am all in.

Game of Thrones Conundrum

This past winter I finally sat down and watched through all the available seasons of Game of Thrones. My reactions were intense and complicated and I haven’t yet taken the time to sort them out enough to write about the show after the first season.

(The short version is that the violence directed at some characters and the religious turn got under my skin and upset me badly. Plus characters I had very strong investments in have either met ugly fates or have gone off the rails. The series is amazing and well done—I’m hooked and all in—but damn, I was wrecked from watching it through so quickly.)

Which brings me to the point of my post: I’ll definitely be watching the new season but don’t have HBO. (I know. I know.) So I have to wait to see it. But this means that, if I don’t want spoilers (and I really really don’t), then what I am going to have to do? Stay off the internet for two or three months?

I may have a problem.

Iron Fist

Iron Fist was a comic character I loved when I was a kid even though he was marginal and even if I didn’t have many issues with him in them. The issue where he was killed (back when people died in comics and stayed dead) completely upset me. So I have some bias toward buy-in when it comes to the Netflix series.

Oddly though, I’m not feeling it, which means that, of the five seasons of television springing from Netflix’s and Marvel’s collaboration I’ve liked only Jessica Jones. That’s not a great record. (And I’ve really not liked Daredevil.)

I’m not done with (and not binging) Iron Fist though so maybe things will turn around. For now I just want to note for future reference that the thing that drives me crazy with the series so far is the sense that Danny Rand isn’t so much a character as he is a mash-up of various possiblities of how to imagine the character.

Contradictory responses and desires are one way to generate the illusion of depth and complexity. But here, the variations in character traits read as confusion because they so often manifest at moments when the shift enables a plot development. So Danny’s naive but menacing when he needs to be misunderstood enough to be confined to a mental hospital, but he’s controlled and cagey when he needs to suddenly have money and cultivate allies. And the difference between the two feel less like personae adopted by a complex character than alternative versions of the character, each appearing when necessary to advance the plot.

This interaction between plotting and character development makes sense, but I hadn’t thought of it so directly before watching the initial episodes of this show.

So maybe more to come about the series…

Teen Wolf, Season Five

The show has been changing bit by bit each season, and at this point it’s become something completely different from what I first started watching.

Stylistically this season draws on steampunk and medicalized horror for its aesthetic. The steampunk worked and, when combined with a cleverly deployed flickering camera effect, was genuinely creepy. The horror element turned around medical experiments being performed on various kids by reckless pseudo-scientists bent on “improving” their subjects. The kids don’t understand and are often unaware of what is being done to them, and the resulting story, which I think gestures toward contemporary debates about the medicalization of youthful behaviour, was disturbing and, at times, unpleasant.

Thematically the show is preoccupied for a long stretch with the challenges (and attendant dangers!) of literacy. The scary center of the core plot is a book. Anyone who reads it has their mind opened to reality. Because reality is so different from what the young readers think it is, the change they experience makes them feel nuts. This is an unbelievably perfect allegory of the risk students accept when doing homework.

The anxieties resulting from the medical and educational plot lines often play out in the school’s library, which appears as an important setting for the first time this season. Members of the pack keep finding themselves there, and nothing good ever happens when they do. It’s just violence, mayhem and death.

Penny Dreadful, Season One

This show proposes that a story might emerge from a mash-up of the popular sensations alluded to by its title and of the familiar monster tales evoked through its choice of characters. However it resists inventing that story. Instead it turns the raw material this way and that considering the initial premise’s possibilities in the light of the various, endless options, and only ever settles on the narrative’s path forward when it absolutely must.

The result is not unpleasant and can even be beautiful if you like late-20th century Goth-influenced takes on Victorian furniture and clothing. The wallpapers are gorgeous. There is velvet and lace galore and even smatterings of glossy leather. Corsets and vests are de rigueur. Everything is cut and coloured—like the actors hair—to read as cool and everything at every moment is macabre.[note]The one exception are the scenes of Frankenstein’s monster at work or at rest backstage at Le Grand Guignole. They are sentimental enough to turn me impulsively against the character and by extension against the entire Frankenstein subplot. They are nearly unbearable to watch.[/note]

The narrative however goes nowhere, lurching from one subject to the next and one genre to the next until the sprawl begins to place a sizeable burden on the “Previously on Penny Dreadful…” introductory montages. I remember one montage that worked through previous events three different ways before things had been sorted out enough to make some sort of sense, and then incredibly—and this says everything about how the series operates—the episode that followed had nothing to do with any of what had come before!

The result is a sense that things are being made up episode by episode, that anything can happen, and that we are expected to watch not for the story but for the style, which is to say, the spectacle of the style and of it’s presentation in ostentatious poses drawn from fashion photography. Any resulting pleasure is a product of the moods this style and these poses conjure, which means the show’s appeal rests squarely in the domain of taste: you either like these moments or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s very little for you to hold onto.

For my part, I found the stretches between the moments I loved—even though there were many of them—bleak and long. So the season was heavy going.

Teen Wolf, Season Four

After a season where they were only incidentally students, the kids* are back in school. They meet incoming freshmen, discover a (gay) werewolf playing for the Lacrosse team’s ‘cross-town rival. They also have to figure out how to deal with a mysterious figure hiring assassins to knock off supernatural teenagers, cope with some kind of were-jaguar or something, and also, Berserkers.

The big news though is that Scott gets a beta, a major event that rejuvenates the established theme of masculinity by introducing questions about mentorship and about boys’ relationships to their fathers. The whole thing works because the young werewolf, Liam, is so convincingly frightened and so desperately needs an older brother/father-figure to help him cope. The moment near the end of the season when he saves everyone by trusting that Scott hasn’t become a monster is pretty great.

Teen Wolf isn’t Sophocles, but at this point, it has established its terrain and generates serious and genuine turmoil under the surface.


* The promo image shows what high school “kids” look like in Beacon Hill. Gotta wonder if a few of them weren’t held back a grade or five.

Teen Wolf, Season Three

This is the season that broke my binge.

The script and direction are under control in a way they weren’t in the weirdly wonderful first season. As a result, this season manages to gather up loose ends and weave them all tightly back into the fabric of two main story arcs.

In the first of these, Scott becomes an alpha wolf (read: real man). In the second, Stiles overcomes and banishes a mischievous trickster spirit that operated as a second personality. Both arcs signal that fun time is over, and by the end of the season, the group of guys has broken up into a gang of three straight couples (some real, some potential), and the gay characters have either left town or dropped out of sight.

This shift is obviously a let-down and more than earns Teen Wolf a spot on my long list of those TV series in which I have over-invested by rooting for off-story readings that cannot possibly pan out as the show develops.[note]”In a show like House of Cards or Damages, first seasons, which are powerfully suggestive but also necessarily fragmentary, are like traps. When later seasons make choices about what was not said previously, the contradictions between them and what I loved—which is necessarily an amalgam of textual detail and the products of my imagination—make later seasons a real disappointment. In pre-internet days, water cooler talk might have regulated my fancy, but in the world of Netflix, I watch seasons quickly and alone and love what I love on my own terms without check. And that makes later seasons hard to swallow.” (post)[/note] Unlike these previous series though, the disappointment I feel this time around is friendly and free from frustration. I like the cast, like the set up, and still like the show.

And yes, if I’m honest, I knew all along that the fun couldn’t last: a mainstream show directed at adolescents, especially one with a break-out star with a budding movie career, cannot (or at least will not) pick apart the seams of contemporary masculinity for very long, even if it’s fun to pretend otherwise while binging. The best that can be hoped for, I think, is for the show to be “cool” and to signify that coolness by being “cool with” gay people.

And that’s what’s happened here in spades.

Teen Wolf, Season Two

On the surface, Season Two throttles back on the guys-in-the-locker-room gayness of the first season, while doubling down on Scott and Alison’s romance plot. There’s also some kind of killer lizard on the loose, a menacing grandfather up to no good, and a dive into lore through subplots that lays the groundwork for future seasons. Which is a lot of ground for a single season. Of all of this, my favourite sub-sub-plot involves a mid-teens rich kid giving his girlfriend a key to his parent’s place. It’s a silly but sweet fantasy vision of what it’s like to be a grown-up that turns out to play a vital role in the resolution of the central storyline.

That all said, no matter how far you pull back on the throttle (and the writers are clearly trying to do so), it’s hard to quell the anarchic, queer connotations unleashed in the first season in one go. And it’s going to be that much harder if you make the villain a frequently shirtless Abercrombie model who also happens to be one of the guys. Or if you let a running joke be about how Stiles knows everything about how Scott looks. All of which is just my way of saying that this season remains ripe for willful misreading even if the low-hanging fruit is gone.

The season’s highlight—and when googling for images I discovered it is a scene that has driven the internet into a frenzy—takes place in a pool and involves Stiles, Derek and the lizard monster. The lizard is afraid of water (don’t ask), so Stiles treads water for hours at the center of the school’s pool holding a helpless Derek in his arms and saving them both from the increasingly frustrated lizard.

The internet believes this is love, and I concur.

Writing this post (and the last one as well), I realize how ridiculous everything about this show sounds. And it is. But is also too much damn fun. And “Sterek” must be celebrated.

So:

(You’re welcome. But enjoy it while it lasts. I’ve seen the next season and there is trouble on the horizon.)

The Expanse, Season One

This adaptation of the first half of Leviathan Wakes is an odd combination of imagination and shyness. It leaps forward, building the world in detail but pulls back from the narrative, hitting the main events while fiddling with the character relationships that wove them into a story in the book.

Nothing here is great, but nothing’s a failure either. Instead, everything feels provisional, like a long test run made before the decision to commit. I like the choice of actors for Holden and Avasarala, and think Miller has the most unexpected and effective haircut I’ve seen in a while. Surprisingly, that’s enough to have my hopes up for season two.

True Blood, Seasons 6 & 7

I have a complicated history with this show. I over-invest in the best parts, and gripe about the rest.

The best parts are easily identified: anything centering on the gloriously bitchy Pam or on Eric or on Lafayette (*snap*) or on Jessica (“I’m a virgin again!”) qualifies. These characters represent (or in some cases aspire to) a sophisticated and fashionable cosmopolitan ideal that I love.

Across the seven seasons of the show, this ideal has survived in a narrative space nestled between two other strata of society. Above the cosmopolitan, sits the soulless bureaucratic, commercial and political interests of the Vampire Authority, the Fellowship of the Sun and the various Senators and Governors that come and go. These interests operate like weather. They set conditions the cosmopolitan characters work around and cope with. Occasionally they kick up a storm and do damage. The cosmopolitans can’t escape this strata but keep their heads down and try as much as they can to do their own thing and to stay out of sight.

Beneath the cosmopolitan ideal are the provincials. They’re Bon Temps and they know little about the world. They mistake folksy common sense for wisdom and often wind up tolerating the inevitable ugliness of ignorance.

A folksy character like Sookie is, at her best, open-minded and full of unspoiled life. At her worst, she is just the small-town outsider’s version of open-minded and acts like a square and a scold. The show, which is deeply Rosseauian in its approach to noble Bon Temps (a stance that comes from the source novels) usually doesn’t distinguish between these two ways of being and treats them both as “spunky.” This is deeply annoying. [note]The purity of Sookie’s natural state of mind and view of the world—she’s a romantic ideal—is allegoraized by her fairy light, which is slowly corrupted and dimmed across the series by her repeated exposure to dark, worldly vampire blood.[/note]

The provincial is not simply a function of place though. Bill is, to my mind, the worst of the rubes and nearly unbearable to watch. He’s seen the world, and yet he rejects it, choosing instead to embrace folksy values (from a previous century) and weds them to extensive political ambitions. Worse he speaks continually about love. He’s awful.

The cosmopolitans are nothing like Bill. They know how to live (even those who are dead) and aren’t fooled by the folk or sucked in by the organizational tools. They are fabulous.

 

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m rooting for Sookie, Jason, Sam, Tara and the rest of the gang. And I adore Arlene. But face it: she lives in a small world, and she and her friends are all convinced that remaining small is a kind of victory.

In my True Blood, a series that exists only in my head, events take place in the bigger world we’d find if we followed Jessica after she got over Hoyt and left Louisiana or if we visited Pam and Erik in their new digs in Tokyo or maybe Hong Kong.

In that world, I am Ginger.[note]ps—thanks to whoever made the gifs I found floating on the inter webs.[/note]

 

Teen Wolf, Seasons 1

I’m not a fan of teen or young adult fiction. I’ve got nothing against it, but it has never been my thing. So imagine my surprise when MTV’s Teen Wolf shut down my life with a bout of binge watching that spanned three seasons and lasted the better part of a week. How could this happen?

Well, what I discovered after watching the first episode is that Teen Wolf is the gayest straight show I’ve seen in years and it is howlingly, talk-out-loud-to-the-TV good. Sometimes I even have to stamp my feet and clap.

I mean these guys—and it is relentlessly, undeviatingly a show about guys—seem to live in their school’s locker room, and when they are overcome, born down, and need to have long deep conversations about the troubles in their lives, they prefer to have them bare chested in towels with the other guys on the team (although sometimes older guys in leather coats also drop by the school to talk with them in the locker room). When the guys get dressed and go elsewhere, which they sometimes do, it’s usually to class, but even there, they have long deep conversations, usually about very secret things that no one else must learn. And while they talk—and they talk at length, spun around in their chairs and hunched together—the teacher goes on and on, clueless, at the front of the room and the nearby students pay no attention at all.

Ostensibly the show is about Scott Macall’s struggles to adapt to his new life as a werewolf, which we are made to understand is complicated and difficult because of all the excitement and adventures it forces him to deal with.  But this is just window-dressing. At it’s core, this show is a gloriously off-kilter exploration of 21st century masculinity and the problem of becoming a man.

The show’s model of successful masculinity is a minor recurring character, a gay man named Danny who is handsome, does well in school, has a job, has a fake ID, goes to parties (and knows what to do when he’s there), has an older boyfriend (not from school), and most importantly (given the frustrations of his classmates) has sex without being hung up about it. In short, he’s an openly gay high school student leading a secret life as an adult. Everyone in the school knows it, everyone likes him, and even the popular kids text him. What’s a straight guy to do when faced with this paragon of masculine success?

If you’re Stiles—Scott’s best friend and the best thing on the show—you worry about whether or not Danny finds you attractive.

If you are Scott you fall for the new girl in school, Alison. Scott has a problem though: when he becomes excited, especially when he becomes emotional, he risks turning into a flesh-eating monster. So what happens if he and Alison get serious? Fortunately for Alison, it’s the guys on the lacrosse team that get Scott’s heart racing, so they are the ones forced to deal with the violent, hairy beast. Scott wants to keep things together out on the field though, so he needs a way to stay calm even when the other guys are giving him a hard time. Enter Alison! It turns out that if Scott thinks of Alison, sweet perfectly coiffed Alison, his heart slows, the heat fades away, the beast retreats. She is his anchor, his true love, his cold shower.

This is so perfect I could die.

Camp aside, I think this first season is still fascinating stuff.  It sets out to be a boys-becoming-men tale but the content of the masculinity they’re after is up for grabs and largely unpoliced which makes everything a bit like a fun-house mirror: familiar but out of whack. The show is not a revolution or a political intervention. It’s carnival, an old-fashioned critical concept, but apt I think. Teen Wolf is a grotesque and it’s full of (or at least provokes) a laughter that eats away at the powers that be. In later seasons, I think it begins uneasily to realize it. But more on that later.