Sunday, December 30, 2012

Curb Your Enthusiasm: TV, The State of Criticism, and the Dramatic Potency of Abusive Relationships

Remember back in 2000, when Big Brother brought reality TV to North America and everybody thought that this was the end of television drama? Or by “everybody” perhaps I mean me. But I couldn't have been more wrong. TV drama was about to undergo a renaissance, beginning with HBO and Showtime and later extending to basic cable. First came The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, then The Wire, Mad Men, and now, Breaking Bad. TV that's such a pop culture phenomenon you can't escape it; TV that's everywhere; TV that you have to watch or be profoundly exiled from the cultural loop. It's not just what everyone's watching, it's what everyone has to watch.

There is a blanket consensus among TV critics, whether writing for established, elitist magazines like The New Yorker or for pop culture websites like The AV Club and Slant, about the quality of the trendiest shows that baffles me. It's not just that there are no dissenting voices: there is nothing to temper the breathlessly laudatory terms in which these shows are praised, as if there weren't five centuries of Western literature to measure them against; as if the “showrunners” (a term recently introduced into cultural discourse) of premium cable shows invented drama roughly three decades ago.

The 1960s French intellectuals who defended the value of studio-era Hollywood cinema and their American acolytes, like Andrew Sarris, may have been guilty of taking themselves as seriously, but at least they were struggling against a cultural consensus when they argued for the art of American movies. In contrast, online TV critics are setting the cultural consensus when they praise the premium cable show du jour. And this strikes me as a shame, because I once hoped that the internet might be a place where you could find writers with a healthy scepticism towards cultural trends. But I couldn't have been more wrong about that, either: the internet has turned into a place where giddy praise of pop culture poses as pop culture criticism. And since practically no one at all is paying any attention to the traditional arts, pop culture criticism is criticism today. And it's not good enough. Pop culture deserves better criticism; it deserves more critical criticism.

In fact, however, I'm less worried about pop culture than I am about the state of criticism. A small portion of pop culture has become very smart, but criticism has dumbed way down. Not its prose, not its analysis of tropes, not its close readings – that's all as sophisticated and earnestly thorough as you can ask for. But it's dumbed down its expectations.

And Then There's Robot Chicken

One problem with regarding TV as an art form is that it offers nothing new as a medium. To cinephiles like Pauline Kael it was a repetition of cinema on a small scale, visual-kinetic storytelling with none of the power and grandeur of the big screen. Technically TV shows are serial drama, which was introduced by radio, but no one has ever seemed much excited about that novelty in either medium. Yet it gave rise to the familiar TV format, which may be summarized briefly as: a group of characters have adventures. Although most TV shows have a protagonist (the owner of the workplace where the show takes place or the business the show is about; the character whose name is in the title; the character who narrates; the normal one; the newcomer; the boss or leader or captain or mother or father, although sometimes the son if the show is after a youth audience; the one with the skill or ability or problem the show is about; in the case of some comedies, the star, even if their character isn't named after them and in the title), TV shows are much less focused on the protagonist than either the majority of novels written for adults or stage dramas. An adventure-of-the-week show can have as few as two regular cast members, the protagonist and the sidekick, and in a long-running show the sidekick can be replaced. The pure soap opera (the daytime soap) has no protagonist; it's about families and couples. Some sitcoms give it away in their title that protagonist duties are shared (Mork and Mindy, Laverne and Shirley, Will and Grace). The father is the protagonist of most family sitcoms, but sometimes a sitcom really is about the entire family, like The Simpsons. If the daughter is the protagonist, you may have a sitcom-soap hybrid, like Mama's Family.

Serial drama, it seems, is a democratic genre at both its poles, the sitcom and the soap, one made up of self-contained episodes in which at best only the romance between the leads develops, the other of ongoing dramatic developments: the sitcom is virtually always about a family (whether nuclear or metaphorical); the soap opera is always about multiple families. The affection the viewer feels for the characters, which is necessary for the sustained interest the medium demands, is built up by watching the family-like ways in which the characters interact every week. In TV's implicit epistemology, “family” is the only way in which we know how to relate to the rest of the world. This has sometimes been mistaken for a cozy worldview, but the nuclear, workplace, and friend families portrayed on TV have often been deeply dysfunctional since long before premium cable.

Adventurous TV doesn't so much challenge the established genres and sub-genres as see what can be done with them: it's a question of how dark and complex the writers can make the soap, how dark and messed-up they can make the sitcom. TV is only ever dark and complex relative to TV, not to other media (messed-up, I'm not sure about); and as for experimental, the closest you'll get to that other than half a dozen Twin Peaks episodes is the pop surrealism of some children's fantasy programming and animation. I'm thinking of British fantasy from the 60s and 70s and Henson's Muppets in the 70s (Looney Tunes shorts, being made for theatrical release, don't count); but for a contemporary examples there's the stop-motion-animated Robot Chicken, which updates the pop nihilism of MAD magazine in the 50s in ways so vulgar and deranged that Robert Warshow might have taken back his endorsement of Krazy Kat if he knew where this was going. But then, we're post-South Park, and post-internet.

She Wouldn't Even Harm a Fly”

Breaking Bad is the first critically untouchable TV series that hasn't made me fear for the critics' sanity. It's not that I think it's notably well-written, and I wouldn't quite count myself a fan, but at least it's not just another campy soap, like Mad Men or the colossally stupid Downton Abbey. I like Breaking Bad but I don't love it; I watched the first four seasons on Netflix in a couple of weeks with half-attention, but I kept watching.

Warning: SPOILERS for up to the end of Season Four.

The show starts out with a premise combining the premises of two premium cable hit shows, Weeds and Dexter: a genteel white parent launches a career in drugs to get money for their family and must make their way in the violent but authentic world of the non-white Other; in the process developing a criminal double life under the nose of a sibling who works in law enforcement. On my Netflix home page, Dexter and Walter glower out at the viewer like the white dude badasses they are.

In no time at all, however, Breaking Bad has virtually nothing to do with drug manufacturing or dealing. Walter no sooner cooks a batch than all hell breaks loose and he spends the rest of the season struggling to survive. If the show is about anything, it's about the relationship between Walter and his “partner,” Jesse, a former high school student of Walter's. But where that relationship comes from or what it's about is, again, enigmatic.

Walter and Jesse's relationship is about the only humanly recognizable one in the series; it's certainly the only relationship that seems to have any meaning for Walter, despite his posturing about his family, whom he pursues with the tenacity of a stalker after his wife, Skylar, discovers his double life and tries to leave him. He seems to view his family as possessions, and as we'll see, he treats Jesse the same way, but at least there's passion in his grotesquely abusive and destructive relationship with his partner. His wife is viewed satirically from the outset as a spouter of platitudes, only taking on a certain dignity and interest after she goes over to the criminal side of the plot, while his son is barely characterized – moody teenager, victim, or daddy-worshipping angel as the plot demands. For his part, Walter seems incapable of relating to them except through lies and platitudes. None of these family members know each other, which makes it difficult to believe that any very valuable relationship exists between them; instead I often felt during the first two seasons that I was watching a satirical Douglas Sirk-style characterization of a middle-class family, except that the effect didn't seem altogether intentional.

For me the show kicked into gear in the third season, with the introduction of Gus, and really started to fly in the fourth season, with the establishment of a chess game between Mike and Gus on the one hand and Walter on the other, with Jesse as pawn. By this time most of the drama was going on between Walter, Jesse, Mike, Gus, and Saul, with Gus as an entertaining villain and Saul as an entertaining comical crooked lawyer. Obviously, this is a show that's all about men and their world of one-upmanship; Skylar and her sister are the only regular female cast members in the whole series, and except for Jesse, none of the men in the criminal plot seem to ever give women a thought. It's hinted that Gus's relationship with his murdered partner was homosexual, which extends Gus's function of Clare Quilty-like double for Walter to Walter's relationship with Jesse. Certainly, whenever Jesse tries to establish a heterosexual life for himself, independent of Walter, Walter attacks it – responsible for his crossing of the Moral Event Horizon at the end of the second season and again at the end of the third. In the first instance, he's just getting rid of a “Yoko,” as Saul sulkily dubs Skylar after she takes charge of her husband's money laundering (she was a bookkeeper, you see), but the second and, in dramatic terms, morally graver attack – that's got to be pure spite.

Season Four's admirably constructed, darkly comic melodrama of manipulation reminded me of the chess game between Maggie, her father Adam, and her friend and stepmother Charlotte in Henry James's The Golden Bowl, in which Maggie marries off father and friend only to discover that Charlotte is having an affair with Maggie's husband; she then has to figure out how to vanquish Charlotte and win Amerigo back, in a long and exhausting mental game in which no one may be directly confronted and in which every move Maggie makes against her rival compromises her impeccable moral credentials. Similarly, after Gus moves against Walter by using Mike to seduce Jesse away, Walter must figure out how to win Jesse back, which he does in a desperate gambit that delivered the best season finale audience anagnorisis I've seen since “Death is my gift” on Buffy, though to very different emotional effect.

Again, there's no explanation for the destructive passion that exists between Walter and Jesse. Walter is either telling Jesse he's shit or saving his life, and it's hard to understand why he does either, and impossible to understand why Jesse remains loyal to Walter: he behaves like Ariel but gets treated like Caliban by Walter the irascible chemist-magician. Their sadomasochistic relationship fills up practically the whole universe of Breaking Bad, in a grand tradition of love-hate fictional character relationships that extends from Lovelace and Clarissa to George and Martha to, oh, Sam and Diane. In a couple of striking episodes that evoke the starkness, simplicity, and claustrophobia of modernist theatre, “Four Days Out” from Season Two and the even more stylized “Fly” from Season Three, Walter and Jesse respectively spend the episodes stuck in the middle of the desert facing likely death under absurd conditions (all because Jesse forgot the key in the ignition of the RV) and trying obsessively to kill a fly in Gus's lab, which with its bulky equipment and shiny red floors looks like some circle of hell envisioned by Samuel Beckett via 1970s sci fi. I can't recall the last time a TV show was confident enough in its writing, or in writing, to offer up episodes consisting entirely or almost entirely of dialogue between the two main characters. I only wish I found the characters compelling enough to remember any of that dialogue, instead of finding them vaguely, distantly fascinating.

The Great Man and The Girl

Speaking of destructive, obsessive relationships: I was surprised by the furor, particularly in England, over the HBO-BBC TV movie The Girl, about the relationship between Tippi Hedren and Hitchcock. The British are sure protective of their cultural institutions, and in this case it's turned into cries of “How dare that little slut make up stories about a great man” vs. feminist rejoinders of “How dare you men not believe a woman who says she was sexually harassed?” Step right up and choose an archetype to irrationally defend: the victim-woman or the great man.

For my part, I heard the stories about Hitch and Hedren years ago, mainly, I think, in Camille Paglia's BFI monograph on The Birds. That's because I am actually a Hitchcock fan, and do occasionally read a book about him. Hedren's stories seemed perfectly plausible given other things known about Hitch through his own admission as well as what anyone can see: that he was repulsive in appearance and had never had sex with anyone but his homely wife, in a marriage that, by the time of The Birds, had been celibate for years.

As for why other Hitchcock blondes didn't have the same experience with him, that makes perfect sense to me as well: Hedren was nobody when Hitchcock cast her in The Birds, whereas after Psycho he'd risen to a position of unprecedented power in Hollywood. He simply couldn't have gotten away with it with any of his other leading ladies. And then, too, as a nobody with the quality of impassivity that Hitch had always valued in his blondes, Hedren was a blank slate; Hitchcock may have thought he could play Svengali (an obvious reference that The Girl makes at one point) like Scottie in Vertigo. However, since he was dealing with a real woman, not a character written for him, he was in for a rude surprise.

Believing all of this as Hitchcock (and I do happen to believe Hedren's stories, which does not, of course, mean I'm right) has had no effect whatsoever on my opinion of him as a filmmaker: I think he's a genius. If anyone finds such stories shocking in association with Hitchcock, they evidently haven't been paying a lot of attention to his best films, which are precisely about sexual obsession, voyeurism, and the physical and/or psychological torture of his blondes. Not that it follows that an artist will act out the obsessions of his art, but surely Hitchcock fans shouldn't find it surprising that a human being could act as the Hitchcock character does in The Birds.

As a movie, The Girl is not very interesting if you already know the stories: although I only caught about an hour of the movie on HBO, it adds little to what I've already read and appears to be directly dramatizing incidents recounted by Hedren or others, with loads of exposition and little attempt to interpret the material. (There's a bit of pop psychology here and there, but it's talk, again; the motivations aren't dramatized.) However, I “got” the dramatic interest the story does have even from that partial viewing: I understood that the movie was about a battle of wills between a powerless and vulnerable but strong young woman and a powerful young man, in which the woman refuses to be crushed. The value of the movie is in providing inspiration for other sexually harassed young women – or really for anyone struggling with a huge power imbalance in a relationship, to which men are hardly immune. The interviews I've now read on the internet with Hedren on the movie have confirmed that this was the intention. It pains me to think that you would have to be a woman to understand and appreciate what the movie was doing, but from the reaction of male reviewers and commenters on the internet, for whom the movie is character assassination or at least “one-sided,” it appears to be the case. A movie about Hitchcock that's not about Hitchcock? Then the title wasn't kidding.

The reaction to the movie is ultimately more interesting than the movie itself – and so are Hedren's interviews, in which she fills in more of the picture and of her perspective. She speaks, for example, of how her moral and religious upbringing gave her strength in the situation, which was not apparent from the hour or so of The Girl I watched. Ultimately, the Hedren-Hitch story is an inspiration for young women in a curiously conservative way. Hitchcock's movies with cool blonde heroines inherit the rape theme of the British novel that goes back to Clarissa, but the Hedren-Hitch relationship, as recounted by Hedren, much more closely resembles the plot of Clarissa than anything he put on film – with the difference that instead of being sexually irresistible, like the diabolical Lovelace, Hitch was the opposite. Hedren was not only physically, but also morally repulsed by his sexual attention, and no doubt Hitch bombarded her with vulgarity all the more in an effort to break down the reserve that attracted him. 

The Pleasures of Incomprehension

In the article “Child's Play,” New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum notes that despite Vince Gilligan's daring in pulling the moral carpet right out from under Walter at the end of Season Four, fans have found ways to justify Walter's reprehensible action – an action that makes him arguably worse than his supposed double, Gus, or at least every bit as bad. I'm sure this is nothing new; I'm sure the readers of Clarissa found ways to justify Lovelace's rape of the heroine. They must have, since fans (surely female readers among them, who were surely Richardson's main readership) wanted Clarissa to forgive and agree to marry Lovelace. Never mind if the writer wants to portray a character's tragic moral downfall; the reader/viewer's desire for two characters with chemistry to get together and live happily ever after, or to root for the protagonist, trumps all merely fictional crimes, no matter how great their magnitude.

Didn't Nabokov definitely prove that in Lolita? We forgive Humbert the ultimate taboo crime because he's the sole protagonist, the narrator in fact; we're stuck with his point of view; and he's charming. How much do we forgive Walter because he's positioned as “normal” and “safe”? He's a WASP, middle-class, middle-aged high school teacher and husband and father with children, and so, even though we've had more evidence of his anger management problems and seen him commit worse crimes every season, we continue to assume that he must be a good guy after all. Whereas what we learned in the paradigm-shifting Season Four finale is that we weren't on the side of good (however deeply compromised); we were simply, contingently, on a side in a war between identically vile individuals.

Like much of the best television drama of recent decades, Breaking Bad succeeds in keeping the objective stakes for the characters high, delivering dramatic gratifications unknown to stage drama since the Greeks and certainly absent from 20th century stage drama, whether in its middle class or avant-garde manifestations. Because of our pleasure in these high objective stakes, we forgive TV drama the silliness of fantasy – plots about saving the world from evil or overthrowing psychotic drug lords. My problem with accepting Breaking Bad either as “great TV” or great drama, period, isn't so much that Walter is too awful and Jesse too passive for me to care much about them, as that I don't understand what the stakes of their relationship are. I know why Clarissa and Lovelace can't live with or without each other; I understand the fantasy and mutual disappointment that bind George and Martha. But I don't understand what Walter and Jesse need from each other, practically or psychologically, and even in TV land, “subtextual homoeroticism” can't explain everything.

It's not unlike my reaction to this year's critically-acclaimed film The Master, which was also about a warped father-son love affair between an aimless younger man and an older man who at least offers the semblance of authority, although in this case it was the younger man with anger management problems. At least, however, the reviews of The Master that I found online through Rotten Tomatoes acknowledge how tremendously strange the film is. So far I'm willing to say about Breaking Bad: it's strange, and I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. I think I might like TV criticism better if it would linger with me in incomprehension more often, rather than rushing to a verdict. It's safe to say that until you don't understand everything, you don't have an art form.