Fractured subjectivities in contemporary telefantasy

Science fiction and fantasy share a history of being able to probe existential questions because of the distance afforded by their displaced representations of reality. Their worlds are slightly skewed from our own, allowing for greater allegorical play and deeper investigation into the assumptions of our society.  From Star Trek‘s notoriously unsubtle metaphors for racism and geopolitics to Buffy‘s high school is hell framing, telefantasy (a broad term for the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres) provides room for questioning what the world means and –occasionally–what it means to be human. [Note: from here on there will be spoilers (Fringe and  Supernatural season 6 especially) as I trying to analyze what I see as a recent trend.] Recently, it’s been the last issue that has captured the cultural imaginary in telefantasy: Fringe is using alternate universes to delve into what makes a person unique (or not), Supernatural has spent the first half of its sixth season interrogating the assumed necessity of a soul, and a few years ago, Dollhouse and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles both blurred the lines between programable machines and humans. This trend is perhaps part of a larger cultural shift as we spend more and more of our time interfacing with and expressing ourselves through technology and is certainly worthy of a larger and deeper investigation.  Though I can’t discuss fractured or multiple subjectivities without invoking postmodernism, for now, I want to lay the groundwork for future attention by examining one element  of the inquiry into what it means to be human: characters who articulate their sense of human self through fractured subjectivities, including Fringe‘s Walter Bishop, Supernatural‘s Sam Winchester, Dollhouse‘s Echo, and T:SCC‘s Cameron.  In this, I am relying on the characters and the various ways they say “I’m me” as the basis for their human self.  I’m not launching my own existential investigation into what it means to be human (yet).

Walter’s Humanity vs. His Mind

Fringe’s season 2 episode, “Grey Matters,” reveals that part of what drove Walter Bishop mad enough to be committed for 12 years was a three-pronged lobotomy to remove the memories of how he crossed universes. Throughout the series, Walter has been a fan favorite, a character formed from the mercurial mix of childlike glee and wonder, astounding genius, and tragic melancholy.  He is a man who struggles to locate himself after losing his mind, but it is in “Grey Matters” that we find that metaphor to be literal.

However sympathetic Walter’s character is, the narrative includes the understanding that he was once the kind of man willing to dangerously experiment on children.  Until “Grey Matters” and later episodes that included Walter’s alternate universe self, we don’t see that man, only know of him.  Then Walter is reunited with the three tissue samples taken from his brain, and the arrogance and antipathy toward other humans are suddenly undeniably present.  For a moment, he could be a villainous mad scientist instead of a doddering one. After the parts of his brain die and lose their connection, Walter is our Walter again–a point buttressed when the alternate-reality Walter enters the narrative, characterized so closely to that glimpse of the villain–and somehow more human for the absence of certain parts of his mind.  As if their absence provides room for his soul.

Sam Winchester: Body or Soul

In contrast to Walter Bishop gaining a sense of humanity through the absence of parts of his mind–both physical and metaphorical–Sam Winchester in Supernatural‘s sixth season tries to articulate how he is himself even without his soul.  Soulless Sam undermines the Aristotelian conception of the soul as an essence inseparable from  both the body and the self, but he also seems simultaneously more alive than Sam-with-a-soul.  Part of this is the early characterizing of Sam as primarily empathetic, a trait that (d)evolved into near-constant angst as the circumstances surrounding his life got more dire and tragic.  But there also seems to be something liberating about the lack of soul.  (One could read Sam’s increased sexual drive in psychoanalytic terms, linking his lust to his libinal drive as a conception of the self.)  Moreover, other characters repeatedly discuss the possibility of Sam’s self being hampered or even destroyed by the joining of his soul to his body.  Below is the clearest example of the warnings weighing Sam’s soul against his human existence:

Soulless Sam forces the question of which self is more legitimate: a soul, no matter how warped or broken, or the body, memories, and activities that encompass the practicalities of living.

Of course, the key element in this debate on the show is those few personal relationships Sam has forged and kept in his lifetime, relationships which I have previously argued for their centrality to Supernatural. By the mid-season cliffhanger, “Appointment in Samarra,” it has become clear that the soul is necessary for meaningful human connection, for it is Sam’s decision to kill his surrogate father Bobby that makes Soulless Sam no longer acceptable–both within the narrative and for the viewers.  Despite this ultimate decision in the debate, it’s important to note that Soulless Sam was a viable character for almost half the season and one that garnered both fan and critical approval.  The fractured subjectivity of Soulless Sam–material Sam topside and Sam’s soul still stuck in Hell–was compelling and challenging, and has found some duration in the implementation of a psychic “wall” created by Death between Sam’s self and his memories of his soul’s time in Hell.

Technological Imprinting and Humanity on Dollhouse and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Though few people watched Dollhouse–or perhaps because of the reckless capacity gained from imminent cancellation–it became one of the strongest investigations into what it means to be human on recent television. In the show, Caroline agrees to give over five years of her life to the Dollhouse, a high-end corporate entity that creates temporary identities that are imprinted on “actives” to fulfill the wish-scenarios of their wealthy clients. It’s indentured servitude, human trafficking, prostitution, and identity theft all rolled into one, but by the second season, one active has become self-aware, maintaining all the memories of her imprints and a gestalt self with and beyond them: Echo. To create actives, the brain becomes analogous to a computer system; thus, Echo becomes a metaphor for the singularity, a self-aware computer program. By the series finale, Echo fully occupies the body that once belonged to Caroline and Caroline is an imprint in the body of a little girl. What was once–or could have been again–a united subject, Caroline and Echo in one, becomes a point of existential crisis. Echo must decide if she is strong enough to not be lost should her original self become incorporated. In the end, she chooses her composite self, Echo, over Caroline, refusing what would traditionally thought of as her true self in favor of her fractured and experiential self.

The pairing of Dollhouse with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles invites us to compare Echo and Cameron, a terminator who over the course of two seasons seems to learn toward humanity. For both Echo and Cameron, their “programming” is overcome by their articulated sense of human self, though this sense of self is interestingly in contention with what would traditionally be thought of as their true selves and is for each character is applicable to different degrees. Cameron’s relationship with John Connor grows increasingly human throughout the series, with her proclaiming love for him–albeit as a probable survival tactic–at the beginning of the second season. She is learning emotions, or at least she is learning how to fake emotions. Her journey navigating between her nature as a cyborg and her seeming to learn how to be human is beautifully represented when Cameron discovers ballet and culminates in the episode “Allison from Palmdale.”

In that episode, Cameron glitches and loses all of her memory and identity as a terminator.  She is drawn to certain places and experiences memories of her human identity–before she became a terminator, an element of the mythos of the Terminator franchise that would take center stage in Terminator: Salvation–implying that there is always some element of humanity and the human self or soul that cannot be erased. Some form of essence remains despite the imposition of technology and programming. Humanity will out for both Cameron and Echo.

As I wrote earlier, it’s impossible to discuss fractured subjectivities without discussion postmodern theory. One of its tenets is challenging the idea of a unitary identity, instead turning to the ways the self is articulated in multiple ways. Multiple subjectivities undermine the meta-narrative of a pure self, and to an extent, that is what these telefantasy programs are doing.  They privilege the fractured self over the idea of the self before it was broken. Walter is a better human being for losing some of his grey matter, and Sam’s humanity can only survive through forced compartmentalization. Cameron and Echo both find humanity through but ultimately in opposition to memory of their past traditionally human and whole selves. The concept of the self and humanity is constantly being negotiated.

“You’re delusional!”: Patti Stanger and Tabatha Coffey as aggressive heralds of reality

I have never seen Moonstruck, but because of its pop-culture ubiquity, I know the few-second clip of Cher’s famous “Snap out of it!” slap.  Without knowing its context, I still understand it as an aggressive act in favor of reality, and it is this scene I most often think of when trying to explain why I find pleasure watching The Millionaire Matchmaker and Tabatha’s Salon Takeover.  Both programs share a core of bubble-bursting sometimes hidden under troubling gender and sexuality conventions and/or the trappings of the self-adjacent (love, business, etc. as a way of becoming a more whole individual) improvement reality genre.  The idea that these two women and the shows they carry act as heralds of reality within a reality show, of course, troubles the idea of a reality removed from artifice, but the reality that these women preach ties into the percieved reality of the audience.  That is, Patti and Tabatha derive their power and induce viewer pleasure by engaging the unheard voice of the audience.  They often say what I and the friends with whom I watch these shows are thinking or have articulated among ourselves.  The reality aggressively wielded by Patti and Tabatha calls for their self-deluded clients to “snap out of it!” and thus be better able to interact with their fellow human beings.

Patti in the early seasons, ready to pop any delusional client's bubble

The Millionaire Matchmaker: “Truly successful people have to be somewhat delusional”?

In its first episode of 2011, The Millionaire Matchmaker featured a “millionairess”–as Patti calls them–Robin, who provided the above quote.  Patti accused her of being delusional for believing that her behavior on her date: including getting visibly drunk, physically groping her date, and implying that she would buy him an expensive motorcycle in exchange for his continuing to date her.  While watching the date, I was shocked, not only by her behavior–she blatantly broke a number of Patti’s rules and guidelines–but also by the obviousness of her date’s gold-digging tendencies.  He repeatedly told the camera that he was not attracted to Robin but would continue seeing her because of her money.  Moreover, his reactions to her advances–and her physical body itself (she was plus-sized)–verged on disgusted.  Robin chose him for his looks alone, and he followed her for her money alone, with both laying bare their superficial conceptions of each other to an unexpected degree.  Yet Robin, who as the client was given more follow-up camera time, seemed totally oblivious to her own shallowness, maintaining that her date was an excellent step on the path to finding love.  This is where Patti began yelling.  After spending a great deal of time before Robin’s date coaching her on what she should seek in a partner and how to behave to find that person, Patti sees her words fall on self-styled deaf ears and proclaims that she has nothing else to do with Robin.  This is a typical narrative for Patti’s interactions with her clients this year and illustrates how I can derive pleasure from such shrillness and schadenfreude.

While Robin’s crimes are mostly against propriety and expectations–perhaps in that she is the most self-aware of the delusional clientele Patti has found in New York–Patti’s most notorious clients, the ones that I derived the most pleasure from witnessing their breakdowns or comeuppance, have been those that think they are great human beings but their interviews, interactions with Patti and her staff, and most clearly in their dates prove them to be completely deluded in this idea of themselves.  Clients have: run away screaming from a man 5-10 years older than she, called or insinuated that their dates were low-class, and even brought their fiends or assistants on dates with them.  Most often they are rude, inconsiderate, and condescending, and to see Patti verbally eviscerate them for their behavior provides pleasure.  We had to sit through their abominable behavior and have encountered people similarly removed from the minimal consideration of others, so when Patti tells them exactly what they did wrong and how horrible they are to others, it’s cathartic.  Although the “reality” that Patti’s tirades reinforce is only what is presented through the editing and chosen narrative for each episode, there is only so much “editing” can create, emphasizing some form of reality amidst the artifice.

Tabatha Coffey: styled to aggressive perfection

Tabatha’s Salon Takeover: “I think I’m a great boss/hairstylist/assistant.”

Where Patti’s verbal smacks to her deluded clients are loud and occasionally mean-spirited, Tabatha almost always keeps a cool demeanor and an acerbic approach to the salons she’s been contracted to help.  Her criticisms are authoratative because of her personal success as both a hairstylist and a salon owner and manager (an authority that is always present but never provided with evidence) and give her aggressive characteristics legitimacy.  (This is unlike Patti who consistently draws fire from [anti-]fans and clients for being unsuccessful in love herself.)  Tabatha’s show premiered years after The Millionaire Matchmaker, but they seem two sides to the same coin.  Tabatha constantly battles with her “clients” to get them to see their own strengths and–more importantly–weaknesses in hairstyling and management just as Patti does for her clients in the field of love, but Tabatha’s attempts involve a whole microeconomic system in the salon.  To take Tabatha’s advice to heart impacts the livelihoods of multiple people, so the pleasure derived from seeing her pop the delusional bubbles of those in the salons add an element of social uplift to the shadenfreude.  For both to occur, though, reality must be forced onto those who choose not to recognize the reality of their effect on the world.  They must see how the way they treat others negatively impacts their love lives or business prospects; it’s a painful but necessary realization for those who can see it.  But from the viewer’s perspective,  it’s a necessary slap to the head.

Is Glee (still) a melodrama?

 

"Why are we outside?" "Because Yentl sang this while outside." (no gaps here!)

 

A few weeks ago, my TV Theory and Criticism class watched Glee‘s second season premiere alongside two episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful in anticipation of a discussion of soap operas.  Instead of drawing comparisons between the two, the contrasts appeared more starkly than I had anticipated.  While the soaps made extensive use of dialogue and plot gaps, emphasizing reaction shots to convey emotions and plot progression, Glee seemed to be saying everything.  The soap opera may be the example par excellence of television melodrama, but Glee seems to be moving away from the elements of melodrama that made the first season (on a whole) interesting.

After last week’s Glee, with its explicit discussions of religion and atheism, it seems nothing was left unsaid.  On popular television, explicit religion is often reserved for didactic religious television such as 7th Heaven and Touched By An Angel.  There are exceptions, of course.  Battlestar Galactica perpetually dealt with explicit questions of faith and belief and atheism, but the degree of displacement afforded by science-fiction (particularly on BSG where monotheism was defamiliarized through its association with the Cylons) presents explicit religion as if it were implicit, requiring similar interpretive reading strategies.  As Horace Newcomb writes in “Religion on Television,” “Producers avoid the specifics of belief, the words of faith, and concrete images of the transcendent like the plague.  Such specificity could cost them audience.  In the meantime, we are given the deeply, powerfully embedded notions of the good that must come from  . . . somewhere.”

Religion, like may topics deemed too polemic for broadcast, often goes unsaid, conveyed instead through costuming or set dressing (i.e. a cross necklace or a menorah in the background in a TV apartment).  As with melodrama, there exists a “feeling that there is always more to tell than can be said” (Thomas Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury.”).  If melodrama corresponds with “a sublimation of dramatic conflict into decor, color, gesture, and composition of the frame,” as Thomas Elsaesser argues in “Tales of Sound and Fury,” then is Glee (still) a melodrama?

 

Finn, praying to Grilled Cheesus

 

Though one episode isn’t really enough to make a case either way, “Grilled Cheesus” is an exemplar of the trend seen thus far in Glee‘s second season: the text is consuming the subtext.  In Glee the subtext that would often be sublimated in melodrama often finds expression (though through some displacement still) in the musical sequences.  Last season, such sequences were mixed in their presentation: variation between integrated musical numbers (with the characters taking the stage or self-consciously performing the songs) and fantasy sequences (see: “Like A Virgin,” “Keep Me Hanging On”) with many songs sliding between the two modes of address.  This season, however, even the fantasy sequences are explained: in the Brittany Spears episode all of the fantasy songs resulted from a dentist’s disbursement of nitrous oxide.  And “Grilled Cheesus” is the first fully integrated musical episode of the show, according to Amanda Ann Klein at AntennaGlee is clearly moving away from the sublimation of action or emotion into fantasy song sequences.

Something is lost in the movement away from melodrama’s mode of expression, but in the instance of “Grilled Cheesus” and its primary subject matter: religion and atheism, perhaps it was necessary.  The episode pushed at the boundaries of explicit religion and–more uniquely–explicit atheism presented earnestly on television.  Kurt, as the voice of atheism for the show, needs to be explicit and steadfast in his non-belief to provide balance with the explicit beliefs of his Christian and Jewish peers.  Glee has always been somewhat socially didactic, calling for tolerance explicitly and implicitly, but “Grilled Cheesus” foregrounded that strain to confront the controversial topic of atheism.

 

Mercedes tries to comfort Kurt through the power of song (and God)

 

To a degree, this subject’s avoidance of subtext and sublimation worked.  Most clearly, it worked when it was exploring the limits of how people offer comfort.  Mercedes, Rachel, Quinn, and Finn cannot conceptualize offerings of comfort outside of their religions.  Mercedes, as Kurt’s closest friend, has the most trouble.  First, she sings “I Look To You,” saying that it’s about looking to God in times of darkness, and even tells Kurt after he rebuffs her attempt at religious comfort, “I feel like I don’t know how to be around you anymore.”  Mercedes connects with Kurt on many levels of friendship and understanding, but she never really sees how Kurt can find any comfort outside of God and religion.  Kurt’s continued resistance to religious forms of comfort and Mercedes repeated explicitly religious attempts  would not work a well as they do in creating tension if one or both were sublimated.

However, the erosion of subtext on Glee also makes the show less engaging for me as an active viewer.  I find less gaps in both narrative and character development to fill with my imagination or interpretation.  Like the choice of “Losing My Religion” and “One of Us,” the episode seemed much more literal than figurative, flattening out the story, songs, and characters.

I don’t know if Glee will continue to eat its own subtext or if, as is its wont, it will be consistent in its inconsistency, but I want to close with a comparison of one of the last scenes of “Grilled Cheesus” with one of the last scenes of Supernatural‘s “Swan Song.”  In both scenes, a two-person family unit is brought back from the brink by the phrase,  “I’m right here; I’m not going anywhere/going to leave you.”  Kurt tells his comatose father, Burt, this after saying that he loves him and that he believes in him.  In Supernatural, however, Dean tells this to his Lucifer-possessed brother, Sam, without saying anything else.  The phrase is not the punctuation to a sentiment; it is imbued with the sentiment through the sublimation of brotherly love into banal expression, presence, and most importantly an object, the family Impala.  Both scenes argue for humanism if not over then before religion, yet it is the horror show that expresses it through the melodramatic mode, not the supposed melodrama, Glee.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Super-Suit: Superhero Adaptation in a Cold War Setting

A little over a week ago, news sites, blogs, and twitter lit up with the news that Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, produced by Bryan Singer, will be set in the 1960s.  Though there is a long history of popular comic adaptations evoking the aesthetics of a bygone era: Batman: The Animated Series famously used art deco and 1940s film noir as its visual guide; Richard Donner’s Superman films, Singer’s Superman Returns, and Superman: The Animated Series all hark back to the 1940s and early 1950s in their clothing and sets, but all these examples were clearly set in the contemporary period with the technology to go with it. Few details accompanied that news, but producer Bryan Singer made it clear that the 1960s culture will be an integral part of the film, mentioning historical figures like JFK and Malcolm X as well as saying that some part of the action will occur in the U.S.S.R.  While most opinions I’ve seen offered on this praise the decision to return to X-Men‘s Silver Age roots, especially in terms of aesthetic and mutant-as-allegory, I’m intrigued by the return to the height of the Cold War, sure to play a vital role if scenes are indeed set in the U.S.S.R.  In particular, I’m curious if this is to be a trend as one of the better-reviewed DC Animated straight-to-DVD features was also set in this Cold War era, Justice League: The New Frontier. Are these superhero comic adaptations merely riding the wave of the 1950s aesthetic exemplified by Mad Men‘s  cultural capital?  Or is there something else undergirding this possible trend?

Setting the Cold War stakes in the opening titles

Though, as Noel Kirkpatrick replied when I first floated the question on twitter, Matthew Weiner may take credit for the upswing in early Cold War popular culture settings, The New Frontier addresses the tension in a much more overt but no less complicated manner than Mad Men does.  Hal Jordan, who will become the Green Lantern by the third act, is introduced as an American fighter pilot at the moment of the Korean War’s cease-fire who is shot down and must kill a young soldier to survive.  That moment of guilt and survival, wrapped around a truly needless death–he keeps telling the boy that the war is over, but the language barrier is insurmountable–sets the tone for both the character and the film.  Hal is a character born of an unsanctioned battle.  The war is officially over, but it continues in the trenches between one soldier who knows of the official cease-fire and another soldier who cannot understand.  The New Frontier delves deeply into the tension between the sanctioned and unsanctioned battles that speak to the Cold War sensibility.

One of the major tensions among the heroes before the appearance of the villain (the Center), is the idea of superhero registration and complicity in McCarthyism.  Certain heroes agreed to work for the United States government while others refuse to do the dirty work of the late 50s/early 60s Cold War.  Both sides are portrayed as equally fraught: Those who refuse to give up their individualism are labeled as vigilantes, but those who agree to conform lose some of their fundamental heroism by perpetuating an Us vs. Them mentality rooted in the Red Scare. This tension between the push for conformity and the desire and need for exceptionalism is one of the key tensions of the era (and why I chose to title my post after the book and film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit).

Conformist in a Super-Suit?

Superman is the Company Man in this feature, and I’d argue that’s why he is largely absent for the main battle.  In addition to making way for the DC heroes that haven’t had as many adaptations–Flash and Green Lantern in particular (and I must wonder if this is due to wheels in motion for their respective live-action features, the former still in development purgatory)–injuring Superman to the point that he is assumed dead for most of the battle perhaps serves as a punishment for his conformity.  Certainly, it is curious that he is returned to the screen and saved by the appearance of Aquaman, a DC superhero who in the Animated Universe, can be portrayed as an outsider and even political separatist (often choosing Atlantean needs over American ones).

If Superman is the man in the gray flannel super-suit more than the Man of Tomorrow in terms of conformity, Green Lantern appears to be the superhero to tackle the ever-present–but increasingly discussed in the 1950s–crisis of masculinity.  Hal deals with having to kill a young soldier by removing himself from the military and moving toward the private sector, yet he refuses to kill after his initial moment of violent survival.  As a result he acts against the label of “coward” that he faces due to his pacifist streak.  The dichotomy is set: to be a true man is to be willing to kill among his peers.  However, it is his respect for all life that draws the Green Lantern ring to him and grants him the true power of the Lantern corps.  Hal still performs a rather hegemonic masculinity: virile, powerful, and heterosexual; however, he advocates for gender equity and doesn’t let the homosocial pressure to do violence sway him.  He represents a shifting idea of desirable masculinity, moving away from War Hero masculinity of WWII and entering into the more ambiguous proving ground of the Cold War.

Using the early Cold War era in recent superhero comic book adaptations capitalizes on the fashionable trend of the time period and Silver Age nostalgia, but it also provides a setting defined by its contradictions–and to a degree the narrative of its lack of contradictions–providing ample ground for allegorical readings and contemporary meaning-making.

Wonder Woman says: be(a)ware the consequences of providing arms to proxy warriors.

Chronology, Class, and the Mise-en-scène of The Wire

I recently began to watch The Wire for the first time.  The series is one of the most discussed in academia, and I and a few other budding media scholars decided we had to rectify our lack of knowledge of the show.  The catch-up plan was part entertainment and part edification. Though I didn’t begin watching completely ignorant of the narrative and setting, I spent much of the first season questioning when the action takes place.  Only after a reference to September 11 did I fully accept that it was set during the early 2000s.  To my eye, much of the mise-en-scène–especially female costumes and hair–seemed straight out of the mid-1990s.  Most clearly, the character of Asst. State’s Attorney Rhonda Pearlman looked like she was styled as if she were Dana Scully‘s sister.

Season 1 Rhonda

The X-Files's Scully

Maybe the style of women-of-authority hasn’t changed much in the years between these two shots, but I think it runs deeper than that.  The ostensible time-lag on The Wire may be another element of the show’s much-heralded realism, but I think it also speaks to the show’s portrayal of class both within and of the city of Baltimore.

The sense of lagging chronology is explicitly discussed on the show in the first season, with police officers complaining about having to fill out paperwork on typewriters (though this apparently still occurs) and discussing why the drug dealers use beepers instead of cell phones.  Despite these explanations of the use of old technology, its presence still adds to my sense of time displacement.  The computers used for the wiretaps in the first season are massive and clunky, looking more like my old Windows-97-running desktop than what I’d imagine law enforcement to have. But, I think that may be the point.  The Baltimore police is embattled and the group investigating the Barksdale drug ring even more so.  Each police officer and piece of technology on the detail has been fought for and begrudgingly won from the higher-ups in the department.  They are given the least-valued people and equipment as a marker of the investigation’s low status.

I could swear I played the Oregon Trail on that computer

Beyond the costuming and props, some of the camera shots from the first season also seem rather mid-nineties.  Perhaps it is David Simon’s Homicide influence or someone just thought it would look cool, but the first season featured a few cuts from shots framed in a more standard television-realist mode to feed from a nearby surveillance camera.  While Simon attributes this style to wanting to convey the panoptical oppression of the wire, it’s a method I associate more with 1990s television procedurals that were still fighting for the attribution of realism.  Moreover, I don’t entirely buy Simon’s interpretation of the surveillance shots because so much of the first season deals with how little the police actually know about Barksdale and how difficult it is to obtain even that information.  Despite the presence–and highlighting through cinematography–of surveillance equipment, there is no real sense of police omnipresence among the criminals. The panopticon isn’t at work in Baltimore.

Bodie can break the surveillance camera in broad daylight because he has no fear of authoritarian consequences from the video watchers.  He knows the camera isn’t actually linked to any kind of police power.

The security cameras so highlighted seem obsolete, as if they were established in order to create the panoptical gaze often attributed to CCTV but without any follow-through of punishment.  In addition to the time-lag corresponding with bureaucratic status, the technology, fashion, and camera shots seemingly from a bygone decade give the viewer the sense that the mid-nineties didn’t make it to Baltimore until 2002, which inherently places the city as a whole in a lower class than other American cities.

Pookie, Bodie, D'Angelo, and Wallace: keeping warm never goes out of style

Of course, discussing class on The Wire is inextricably linked to race, and as such I must examine my own expectations and biases.  While much of my musings on fashion focuses on white women because that is the fashion genealogy I know, I found fewer male costume choices as examples of a classism-tinged temporal lag.  The time-markers for the black male characters often corresponded to clothing branding–such as Sean John, RocaWear, Phat Farm, and the like–that fit with a very specific time in the early 2000s, but in terms of cut and style of wear, I am unable to see changes as I can with women’s wear.  Maybe I can’t see it because I don’t know it, or maybe there is less chronological dissonance the styles of The Wire‘s black drug dealers because their image is so tied to a lower class that their style choices fit with the lower-class portrayal of Baltimore.  While I know that Beadie’s look from the second season (below) is dated because I lived through the time when the stick-straight flipped-out hair was “in” and I may have owned a similar sweater tank top in the 1990s, I simply don’t have the cultural memory or knowledge to place D’Angelo’s, Bodie’s, or Wallace’s dress (above) in a specific point of the last two decades.

Oh, Beadie

Baltimore, as a city, is often portrayed as dying, and many of the establishing shots of the first two series are of boarded-up, condemned, and abandoned buildings.  Most of the police homes we see are lower-middle-class, and their investigations in the first two seasons center on the projects and the docks without straying too far from those class barriers.  Though I’m only a few episodes into the third season, that seems about to change with the advent of the “political” season.  But the groundwork has been laid.  As The Wire moves beyond the lower classes in narrative, so too do they appear to move beyond the 1990s in mise-en-scène.  The technology is newer and the clothing is more time-appropriate.

From season 3, episode 2: Rhonda looks like she works in the 21st century as does the laptop

Yet this movement supports my argument that the time-lag presented by the mise-en-scène of the early seasons links to Baltimore’s lower class both as a characteristic of the city as a whole and as a segment of its people surrounding the investigation.

“Magnicifent!”: Verisimilitude and Theatricality on Party Down 

Last week, Starz dropped the axe that many of us knew was coming when they canceled Party Down, a brilliant comedy that reached most of its audience through Netflix Instant Watch, which streamed new episodes the day after they aired on Starz.  I consoled myself that Party Down could at least live on and gain admirers through it’s presence on Netflix’s streaming service.  Then, it was reported today that all 20 episodes of the show will be removed from Netflix tomorrow.  Someone who knows more about distribution and business models featuring streaming content will perhaps ask and answer the questions many fans of the show have: What metrics are used to mark viewership on third-party sites like Netflix?  Did Starz or Netflix make money off of the deal?  Why would Netflix be taking it down only a week after the series cancellation?  And what does Martin Starr need to do to make it to 22 episodes on a series?

Are We Having Fun Yet?: Martin Starr, Ryan Hansen, Lizzy Caplan, Adam Scott, Ken Marino, and Jane Lynch

I can’t offer answers to those questions, but I can highlight one of the show’s most intelligent thematic motifs: the use of theater tropes.  The first scene of the first episode is of Ron Donald (Ken Marino) directly addressing the camera, making his pitch as Party Down team leader, ostensibly to the audience but in reality to that week’s party host.  It’s a monologue disguised as a soliloquy, laying out the exposition of both the situation and of Ron as a character.  Moreover, it establishes an unstable relationship with reality.  Though Ron is the only caterer of the crew without Hollywood aspirations, his monologue underlines the “All the world’s a stage” theme of Party Down. While he is putting on a show for his client, the series begins down a path that will develop just how many “shows” are being put on in the world of Party Down. The show doesn’t occur in a “real” world, but instead it’s characters are constantly performing themselves and their Hollywood dreams in the world of theatricality.

In “Investors Dinner,” Constance (Jane Lynch) brings in Baretta‘s prop gun to settle a bet, then right before the act break, the scene from the above clip happens followed by Casey (Lizzy Caplan) saying, “Well you know what they say about a gun in the first act, Ron.”  While Casey understands the absurd world she’s living in enough to make a reference to Chekhov’s gun, Kyle response, “What act?”  There are varying degrees of self-awareness of the theatrical elements of Party Down, but even Casey doesn’t expect the gun to actually play a dramatic role in the final act of the episode.  The party is revealed to be an investment scam, with two con men/actors playing their roles in the presentation and Ron pretending to be a tough action hero because he knows the gun is fake.  All of the masks the actors wear are eventually broken in a fittingly theatrical reveal, as if the show suddenly became a dinner-theater whodunit, but with the shyster getting away with it and the “hero” cleaning his own pee off the carpet.

Ron tries so hard to be the star of his own life

Even formally, there’s a bit of theatrical echoing, as each episode ends with a bonus clip embedded in the closing credits, an encore of sorts.  Nowhere is this better used than in the most “theatrical” of all the Party Down episodes: “Not On Your Wife Opening Night.”  Geneveive Koski at the A.V. Club mines well how the episode uses the framing device of a community theater after-party to play its own farce, complete with mistaken identities, semi-happy endings, and more couplings (and a mild bacchanalia behind the bar) than comedy superstars in the episode.  Throughout the episode, failed screenwriter/scifi novelist Roman (Martin Starr) is plied with wine and praise by pretentious community theater actors.  What begins with the actors proclaiming, “In the theater, the writer is God,” proceeds to their creation of him in the form of the God of the Theater, where everything is “magnificent,” complete with laurel leaf and orgy.  In the final moments, the credits role, then they cut to the declaration of the theater being saved, to which he declares:

Roman, briefly, buys into the theatricality of his life, taking the reigns as a caterer-turned-Bacchus and declaring, just as his actor-acolytes did, the theater to be “magnificent.”

In Party Down, this level of theatricality does not break nor bend the show’s verisimilitude, fitting well into a world where the absurd expectations of a theatrical world have become normalized.  Baretta’s gun has become Chekhov’s gun, and Roman has become Bacchus for a night.  These metamorphoses work because the show’s foundation is the stage, one that has been built stronger with each episode.  Monologues, acting–conscious for work, schemes, pranks or unconscious for self-preservation in a sad life–mistaken identities, reversals of fortune, and discovery abound with each new party the group caters.  “Cole Landry’s Draft Day Party” turns into a melodramatic farce with secrets revealed and a reversal of a reversal of fortunes, and “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday Party” revolves around a script workshop and read-through, with Steve Guttenberg playing a version of himself amped up enough to be read in the fifth (or fiftieth) row.

And like some theater, Party Down will only be accessed and loved by few people.  But perhaps that’s part of their struggle.

The Fantastic, Feminist Religion of Wonderfalls at FLOW

As a summer column editor for flowtv.org, I got the chance to write an article for them.  It appeared last week; you should read it (and the other great columns Flow puts out biweekly!).

The Fantastic, Feminist Religion of Wonderfalls

The Wax Lion says, "Read the words."