Friday, May 24, 2013

Watson, I Need You: Thoughts on Elementary's First Season

A week or so ago, the US broadcast networks announced their lineup of new and returning shows for the fall of 2013, and since then the internet's premier TV sites have been abuzz with a flurry of analysis.  Trailers have been dissected, ratings and demographics calculated, schedules critiqued.  It's all a lot of fun, in an inside baseball sort of way, but in the midst of all this excitement, it's good to be reminded that in the end, nobody really knows anything.  Exhibit A: Elementary, a show that had absolutely no business being any good whatsoever.  On paper, it seems to epitomize all the worst failings of network TV, the kind that make us TV snobs sigh and complain that everything would be better on HBO.  Its genre is arguably the most overexposed, and dramatically inert, on TV, the procedural, and what's more, it's a procedural featuring a quirky, irascible detective surrounded by put-upon enablers, of which we've had far too many over the last decade.  It's based on an idiosyncratic, format-busting British series whose defining traits it seems to have shaved away, apparently in an attempt not to get sued.  And its pilot episode is unexciting, and creates the impression, as I wrote last fall, that the show is little more than a more dour version of Castle, with the NYPD inexplicably allowing a civilian to tag along and even take point on all their murder cases.  And yet, here we are in the spring, and Elementary is not only the only new show of the fall that I'm still following, but it's fast climbing the chart  of my current favorite series.  What's more, and completely unexpectedly, Elementary has found a new, meaningful take on Sherlock Holmes--or, more precisely, on the way that modern pop culture has perceived Sherlock Holmes, to which it offers a much-needed corrective.

For a character who has been modernized four times in the space of less than a decade (I'm counting the Guy Ritchie films as modernizations because they're essentially steampunkish SF)[1], Sherlock Holmes is oddly unsuited to the preoccupations and preconceptions of modern pop culture.  The quintessential Victorian hero, Holmes is defined by control--of his surroundings, of his time and leisure activities, of his emotions, of the people that he or society define as his inferiors: servants, women, lower status men, anyone who isn't as smart as he is.  In the 21st century, we don't think as much of control.  We most certainly don't think as much of the intellect that is the reason--perhaps even the justification--for Holmes's control.  In most modern stories, a character like Holmes--cold, cerebral, calculating--would be the villain, not the hero.  So when called upon to modernize Holmes previous takes on the character have tended to vilify his intellect, to treat it as a curse, a double-edged sword, or something that makes him a little less human than the rest of us.  House is so perceptive of other people's lies and inadequacies that he can't form a successful relationship; Sherlock is an out-and-out sociopath.  Both shows stress that their version of Holmes solves cases not because of any moral imperative or compassion towards the people they're helping, whom they don't care about at all, but for the thrill of solving a challenging puzzle[2].  At the same time, modern pop culture is arguably even more obsessed with Great Men than the Victorians were.  Holmes, the mere consulting detective, will not do as a hero; he has to be something grander and much more powerful.  So Guy Ritchie imagines Holmes as a superhero, who uses his intellect to plan out terrifyingly efficient beatdowns for his opponents and saves the world from Bond villain Moriarty's evil schemes, and Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss imagine Holmes as, well, the Doctor, somehow a central figure in the battle between good and evil even if they can't quite articulate why or how.

It's almost a physical relief, then, to come to Elementary and find a Holmes who is much more down to Earth, a Holmes who is, in some ways, much closer to Conan Doyle's original, and in other ways, a much-needed contravention of Conan Doyle's assumptions.  Set in New York, Elementary begins with Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) leaving rehab after a months-long stint for heroin addiction.  Watson--Joan Watson, in this story (Lucy Liu)--is a former surgeon turned sober companion who is hired by Holmes's father (who remains unseen during the first season) to babysit his wayward son through his reintegration into normal life.  Almost immediately after his release, Holmes reaches out to the NYPD--represented by Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Detective Bell (Jon Michael Hill)--and becomes a consultant on their homicide cases.  Dragged along on these cases, Watson soon becomes intrigued by investigative work, and when her period of companionship ends Holmes invites her to stay on as his partner and learn how to become a detective.

Miller plays Holmes with a jittery, almost manic energy, switching from moments of utter stillness to frenetic action and back again.  What's perhaps most interesting about his performance, and the way that the series presents Holmes, is how unconcerned they both are with making Holmes cool.  He's unkempt and unshaven, but in a way that suggests "junkie" rather than "rakishly disheveled."  His wardrobe seems designed to evoke a child who can't dress himself--shirts buttoned all the way to the top, sweaters in garish colors and patterns, layers that conceal Miller's impressive physique (meanwhile, the lovely Liu and well-built Hill are, if not quite on display, certainly dressed in a way that suggests that Miller's wardrobe is a choice, not a mistake).  He's louche and disdainful of authority, but in a fussy, almost old-fashioned sort of way that makes him seem like a man out of time--he says dorky, improbable things like "Poppycock!", "It is a conundrum," and "I shall keep you apprised of my progress via email" (there simply can't be enough said in praise of Miller's work to sell this kind of dialogue as the sort of thing that a real person born in the 1970s might say while at the same time conveying how weird and out of step such a person would have to be to speak that way).

It was only once I'd watched Elementary that I realized how much an obsession with coolness--in the middle school sense of never being impressed or taken aback by anything that doesn't come from you, and resenting the few things that do manage to pierce your shield of disaffection--had rendered previous Holmes modernizations inert and inhuman.  Sherlock pronounces himself bored by almost anything that isn't a thorny mystery; Elementary's Holmes, as he tells Irene Adler at their first meeting, tries hard not to be boring, to which end he allows himself to be an enthusiast--of art, of beekeeping, of tattoos, of, as he says to Watson in a direct quote from Conan Doyle "all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of daily life."  He wins Irene over by taking her to a completely unknown Roman site in the bowels of London, and there is a sense of joy and wonder in that scene that is quintessentially Holmes-ian, and yet completely missing from versions of the character like House and Sherlock.

That willingness to let Holmes be man rather than superman extends to Elementary's handling of his deductive skills.  This is still a Holmes who can recognize a dozen different kinds of cigar and ash by sight, but part of his genius lies in knowing when a more specialized level of knowledge is required, and in collecting people who possess that knowledge and turning to them when a case requires it (this also means that over the course of the season Elementary amasses a body of supporting players who help to dispel the sense that Holmes is a lone genius).  The show also resists the temptation to conclude that Holmes is the only competent detective around, or that his methods are the only effective ones.  Gregson and Bell's competence is frequently displayed and commented upon, and when Watson begins to take her own cases she often cracks them precisely because she and Holmes have different skill-sets--in one episode, she finds an important clue when she visits a client to apologize for not being able to solve the case, something that Holmes wouldn't have done, while in another she realizes the identity of the killer by relating her own feelings to them.

The show even punctures some of the more famous Holmes-ian aphorisms, such as the notion that it's important to keep useless information out of the brain in order to keep useful, potentially crime-solving information in it.  "That's not even how the brain works!" an exasperated Watson replies, and later in the episode Holmes solves the case by imbibing some of the information he had previously dismissed as useless.  And, of course, Elementary's Holmes has a moral compass.  The show makes no bones about the fact that he derives satisfaction from his investigations in their own right, or that he regards the people he helps with professional detachment, but unlike House or Sherlock it doesn't stress either fact, or pretend that they make Holmes a flawed person.  What it stresses, instead, is the fact that despite his detachment Holmes does have compassion for the people he helps, and disdain for those who take lives or hurt people.  It's particularly gratifying when the show makes this point by referencing Conan Doyle directly, as it does in an episode in which Holmes expresses "a particular disdain for blackmailers.  They are in some respects more despicable to me than even murderers," echoing Holmes's words from "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" (also the name of the blackmailer in the episode) that "I've had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow."

This is not to say, however, that Elementary's Holmes is a saint.  The show may not ask us to believe that being smart and observant makes Holmes a bad person, but it does present Holmes as someone who grew up rich, privileged, and smarter than everyone around him, and reaches the obvious conclusions.  As several characters point out, Holmes is self-absorbed and selfish, unaccustomed to thinking about anyone other than himself.  What Elementary doesn't do, however, is use Holmes's genius to justify his bad behavior, or the other characters' tolerance of it.  As Watson learns early in the season, the defining tragedy of Holmes's life, and the event that precipitated his spiral into addiction, was the murder of his lover, Irene Adler, and his inability to bring her murderer to justice.  In the season's lynchpin episode, "M.", Holmes catches the murderer's scent again (the architect of Irene's murder turns out to be, unsurprisingly, Moriarty), and lies to Watson and Gregson in order to get his chance at violent revenge.  It's a betrayal that has serious repercussions--in particular, Holmes and Gregson's relationship never fully recovers; though Gregson recognizes that he still needs Holmes's skills, his personal opinion of him is ruined, and for the rest of the season he is the show's most outspoken advocate against the notion that Holmes can change.  The show itself, however, is more hopeful--when Moriarty resurfaces again later in the season, Holmes refrains from going outside the law, explicitly stating that this is because he realizes that there are things he could do that would cost him his relationship with Watson. 

What's most interesting about Elementary's handling of Holmes, however, and what to my mind makes it not only an excellent Holmes adaptation, but a necessary and almost revolutionary one, is its handling of addiction and recovery.  Arthur Conan Doyle made Sherlock Holmes a drug addict, and his handling of addiction in the Holmes stories and novels is surprisingly in line with contemporary attitudes towards drugs, especially considering that Holmes's drug of choice, cocaine, wasn't even illegal at the time[3].  Nevertheless, the Victorian attitude towards addiction and the modern one are opposed in ways that touch on the very heart of the character, his control.  A Victorian gentleman seeking to shake off an addiction might be exhorted to control himself, but in the modern narrative of addiction and recovery, control is, at best, an illusion.  The very first of the twelve steps is the recognition that an addict has no control over his addiction, and the serenity prayer urges acceptance of that fact.  At the core of the recovery process as practiced in organizations like AA is the willingness to humble oneself, whether that means surrendering to a higher power or facing up to the damage you've done and the necessity of making amends.  That humility is completely antithetical to what Sherlock Holmes, as created by Arthur Conan Doyle and as reimagined by people like Guy Ritchie or Steven Moffat, is--a character who, even at his finest moments, acts from a position of strength and authority.

As a result, recent modernizations of Holmes have found his addiction impossible to cope with[4].  If Ritchie's Holmes is an addict, then the point is mentioned so briefly that I don't remember it, and while Sherlock pays lip service to the notion that its title character has a history of addiction, in the show's present that addiction is essentially cured--when Mycroft tells John, after Irene Adler's alleged death at the midpoint of "A Scandal in Belgravia," that Sherlock is in danger of falling off the wagon, does anyone in the audience believe him?  House, meanwhile, acknowledged almost from its outset that its main character was an addict and showed how addiction soured his life, ultimately destroying almost everything he cared about.  But it could not face the possibility of recovery, and the humility required by it.  To do so would be to take apart too much of what House was (which is probably why, when the character does enter rehab in the sixth season, the result is utterly generic--all the familiar platitudes of recovery, but the person imbibing them is completely unrecognizable as House).

Elementary is the first Holmes modernization I'm aware of to not only take addiction seriously, but to suggest that, even for someone as proud and self-regarding as Sherlock Holmes, recovery is possible[5].  "I've finished with drugs.  I won't be using them again," Holmes tells Watson when they first meet, and a lifetime of imbibing not only Sherlock Holmes, but the characters inspired by him, and in fact all of pop culture, tells us to believe him.  Of course Sherlock Holmes can just decide that he's not going to do drugs anymore.  Isn't the very definition of a hero someone who doesn't have unappealing weaknesses like an uncontrollable compulsion to take drugs?  When Holmes denigrates Watson's efforts to get him involved with the apparatus of recovery--attending NA meetings, finding a sponsor--we're similarly inclined to be on his side.  Surely Sherlock Holmes doesn't need the same depressing crutches as ordinary people?  Surely he isn't anything like those other addicts?  Surely he's special?  And indeed, even when Holmes acquiesces to Waton's demands, he does it in a Holmesian way, regaling his support group with tales of his previous cases, and taking a case that involves his former drug dealer because "You mistake the support group ethos for a complete system of living.  It is not; at least not to a man like me."

And yet, over the course of the season Elementary consistently chips away at the notion of Holmes's specialness.  When Watson tries to explain Holmes's reticence to his new sponsor Alfredo (Ato Essandoh), he tells her to be patient, because "Newcomers like him don't always understand the scope of the work involved."  In one sentence, the show dismantles Holmes's view of himself, even within the process of recovery, as somehow unique.  Instead, he's just another newcomer going through the same motions as millions before him, including the belief that his process is different to everyone else's.  Later in the season, Holmes resists receiving his one year chip, and after giving a lot of excuses for that resistance finally admits that the date of his anniversary is wrong--he actually relapsed the day after entering rehab.  When a confused Watson points out that even 364 days of sobriety are an accomplishment, an almost tearful Holmes answers that that isn't the point: "I decided to stop using drugs, yes?  I decided.  Me.  And yet twenty-four hours later..."  It's an admission of what the season has been hinting at all along, that even someone of Sherlock Holmes's caliber can't simply decide not to be an addict--that he will, as he admits to Irene in the season finale, always be one.  "I'd like to promise you that if I find a syringe of heroin tomorrow, I won't shoot it into my arm," a wiser Holmes tells Watson near the end of the season, and then admits that he can't make that promise.

Images of addiction recur throughout the first season, often in the cases that Holmes and Watson investigate, and sometimes in roundabout ways--in one episode, a figure in a case accuses Holmes of being "a fellow addict," and then clarifies that she means crossword puzzles; later Holmes is able to prove that she is the murderer through the presence of a solved crossword entry on a piece of paper used in the murder, but the solved word is the suggestive "Novocaine."  As the season draws on, however, and as Holmes's sobriety comes to seem more steady and reliable, the show begins to introduce the concept of dependence, the idea that rather than learning to live sober, he's replaced his need for drugs with a need for Watson.  "That guy is always going to need someone," Gregson tells Watson when he tries to persuade her to move on from Holmes, and Holmes himself calls Watson, and his partnership with her, the main reason for his determination to stay clean (and keep from killing Moriarty).  Even the pun in the title of the season finale, "Heroine," in which Watson is instrumental in outsmarting Moriarty, seems to point towards a transference of Holmes's dependence.  At the same time, the show isn't necessarily suggesting that that dependence is a bad thing--for one thing, it seems to run both ways.  When Watson's friends find out about her second career change, they express their concern by staging an intervention, and as noted, Gregson tries to detach her from Holmes for her own good.  By the end of the season, though there have been voices expressing concern about the healthiness of Holmes and Watson's partnership, there have also been those--like Watson's mother, who despite being branded by Holmes as "conventional" is the first to recognize that his unconventional way of life suits her daughter--who have encouraged it.  Given how often the Holmes-Watson bond is treated as a matter of course, even when it proves destructive (on House, in particular), it's nice that the show is questioning it, and at the end of the season it's still not clear whether this relationship will prove codependent or nurturing.

For all the praise that I've heaped upon it, it's important to acknowledge that the one way in which Elementary is not a great Holmes adaptation is the trait that is arguably most closely associated with the character, the mysteries.  Many of the season's early episodes are bog-standard murder investigations that wouldn't have seemed out of place on Castle or Law & Order, and for all of Holmes's alleged brilliance, his solutions are often arrived at less because of his intellect or deductive abilities, and more because he has access to advanced forensics techniques and law enforcement databases.  The show improves on this point later in the season, when Holmes and Watson begin to detach from the NYPD.  Though it would be a shame to lose Gregson and Bell (as well as Quinn and Hill's strong performances), Elementary is a stronger show when Holmes's cases come to him in something like the idiosyncratic ways that Conan Doyle imagined, and not always in the form of a murder scene[6].  Nevertheless, even that stronger show isn't a particularly strong mystery show--Moriarty, for example, makes several mistakes in the season finale, breaking lifelong habits of secrecy and anonymity, in order to allow Holmes and Watson to spring their trap.  As much as I admire Elementary's handling of Holmes's flaws and weaknesses, I can't help but wonder how worthwhile that handling is if the thing that makes Holmes worth reading about is missing, or watered down.

Another point worth making is Elementary's handling of female characters, and particularly Watson.  Given the low bar set by Sherlock, it's pretty much impossible for a Sherlock Holmes adaptation to look bad on this front, and the fact is that by making Watson a woman, and a true partner to Holmes, Elementary makes a powerful statement that it only reinforces through its introduction of other interesting, intelligent women over the course of the season[7].  I can't help but wonder, however, whether the comparison to Sherlock doesn't end up giving Elementary too much of a pass.  This is a show that, in keeping with the conventions of its genre, has few compunctions about displaying the bodies of murdered (or terrified, about to be murdered) women, and in the early stages of Holmes and Watson's relationship he is all too eager to goad her with casual references to her gender and sexuality (speculating on the last time she had sex, charting her menstrual cycle) that are not made any more tolerable by the fact that Watson explicitly comments on their misogyny.  And then there's Watson herself.  While I admire Elementary's choice not to make Watson a quintessential tough girl--that she is squeamish about the sight of murdered bodies and a bit of prude when it comes to sex doesn't undermine her strength of character or her courage--the fact remains that she enters Holmes's life as his caretaker, and that despite becoming his partner in detection she still plays a caretaking role in his life, worrying about his sobriety and even assuring Gregson that she will manage him when his pursuit of Moriarty threatens to fly out of control.  While this is not an uncommon role for Watson to play in Holmes's life (again, see House), it takes on a very different meaning when Watson is a woman.

While these concerns have marred my enjoyment of Elementary's first season, they don't undermine the fact that this show still feels like the most thoughtful, most progressive modernization of Sherlock Holmes in a decade that has seemed obsessed with him (I haven't even said anything about the impressive diversity of the show's cast--though to my mind still not diverse enough for a show set in New York City--or the fact that Mrs. Hudson is a transwoman played by Candis Cayne).  It's often seemed as if the people trying to bring Holmes into the 21st century decide to discard and keep exactly the wrong things about him.  Elementary is a show that seems to admire Holmes's intellect without accepting it as an excuse for bad, or self-destructive, behavior.  It's amazing how badly it was needed.


[1] Another Holmes modernization that falls outside this time period and is not widely remembered nowadays is Jake Kasdan's 1998 film Zero Effect, starring Bill Pullman as Holmes, Ben Stiller as Watson, and Kim Dickens as Irene Adler (though none of the characters are called by these names).  As those casting choices suggest, the film far from follows the letter of the Holmes stories, but to my mind it captures their spirit far more successfully than many more obvious homages.

[2] It's almost fascinating how thoroughly this perception has permeated the modern understanding of Holmes.  In this review of the Elementary episode "A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs" at the AV Club, for example, reviewer Phil Dyess-Nugent, who by his own admission has never read Conan Doyle's Holmes stories--in which Holmes frequently expresses moral outrage at some of the crimes he learns about or prevents--opens by parroting it as if it were the gospel truth.

[3] In searching for information about the canonical Holmes's drug use, I came across this article discussing it, which suggests that Conan Doyle's experiences as a doctor may have given him a first-hand glimpse at the horror of addiction, and thus informed Dr. Watson's anti-drug stance.

[4] Though it is interesting to note that most Holmes modernizations have taken care to switch his choice of poison.  Conan Doyle's Holmes is addicted to cocaine, a stimulant which he says helps his already nimble brain make connections and solve cases.  Sherlock is silent about its title character's drug of choice, but both House and Elementary posit a Holmes who is addicted to analgesics.  In House's case, a literal painkiller, Vicodin, which dulls the pain of his mangled leg.  Elementary's Holmes is addicted to heroin (which House also dabbles in).  As he says to Watson about another addict, "Heroin users are looking for oblivion," a point later made more strongly by Moriarty, who posits that Holmes uses heroin because he's "in almost constant pain" from the burden of seeing so much all the time.

[5] It is, however, not the first Holmes story to do so.  Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Per-Cent Solution revolves around Holmes going into rehab--presided over by Sigmund Freud, no less.  Meyer, however, seemed to take the view that recovery was a one-time event.  Once Holmes undergoes analysis and uncovers the root cause of his dysfunction, he has no further need for drugs.

[6] Something that a lot of people seem to forget when decrying Holmes's alleged indifference towards the victims of the crimes he investigates is that in many of Conan Doyle's stories, there isn't a murder victim to begin with, and sometimes not at all.  People apply to Holmes because something strange is going on in their lives--they've been hired to copy out the entire Encyclopedia Britannica; weird drawings of dancing men have started appearing in their garden--but they're not always in distress about it.  Later on, some of these cases become matters of life and death, but to begin with they are merely puzzles.

[7] It's also worth noting that the show seems determined to undercut any sense of Holmes and Watson as romantic or potentially romantic partners, to the extent that Liu and Miller hardly ever touch one another, and only once--and that very fleetingly--as a show of affection: in the closing moments of "M.", when Holmes is at his lowest, Watson briefly rests the very tips of her fingers on his arm.  That, however, is something that could easily change in the future--I can't help but recall the early seasons of The X-Files, a show with which Elementary shares some traits, when the idea of a romance between Mulder and Scully seemed vaguely prurient.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Recent Reading Roundup 33

The last recent reading roundup chronicled several months of slow reading.  This one covers several weeks of fast reading (a period that also included the Clarke shortlist, reviewed elsewhere).  There are several books here that I would have liked to write full-length reviews of, but I read them in such quick succession with several others that any chance of disentangling my thoughts enough for that is now lost.  Here, then, are some shorter reactions.
  • Anno Dracula by Kim Newman - Newman's much-loved vampire novel, originally published in 1992 and reissued, with a snazzy new cover design, a few years ago, has a crackerjack premise that is simultaneously the best and worst thing about it.  Best simply because it's so much fun: Newman posits a world in which not only do the historical and literary figures of the Victorian era rub shoulders--in which Fredrick Abberline serves on the same police force as Inspector Lestrade, for instance--but the ending of Bram Stoker's Dracula is radically altered.  In this world, Van Helsing and his allies failed to defeat the Count, who cemented his hold on England by seducing and turning Queen Victoria.  When the story opens, a few years later, vampirism is openly acknowledged and running rampant.  The rich turn in order to curry favor with the vampire ruling class, while the poor are turned as a result of predation, and often starve because of it.  Newman does a good job of folding the supernatural into Victorian poverty and misery--in the novel's world, a person can turn into a vampire if they're drunk from too often, so East End prostitutes who open their veins to their customers can find themselves turning, cut off from that income stream just as they develop a new thirst for blood that they can't afford to slake.  Being a vampire, in this setting, isn't a ticket to power and control as it is in other stories, simply because there are so many vampires, and the privilege of the rich and powerful still applies.  This is still a world of law, even if that law is unfair and exploitative--none of the newly-minted poor vampires, for example, are running wild feeding off their social superiors, no more than the real Victorian London played host to a class war--and Dracula's influence is merely exacerbating the inequality that ran rampant in Victorian London.

    This intricate worldbuilding also feels like the book's greatest weakness, however, because Newman often seems not to be interested in anything else, and especially not in a plot.  Anno Dracula was expanded from a novella, "Red Reign," in which one of the defeated characters from Dracula turns out to be Jack the Ripper.  But in doing so Newman doesn't seem to have expanded or complicated the story, so his characters--Charles Beauregard, a proto-James Bond employed by the Diogenes Club, and Geneviève Dieudonné, a vampire not of Dracula's line who is trying to alleviate the suffering he's brought to London--spend most of the novel in a holding pattern.  The readers find out who the Ripper is in the novel's prologue, but the characters don't even seem to be working hard at their investigation until a few chapters from book's end, and the actual conclusion, exciting as it is, feels disconnected from the novel's action, most of which seems to exist mainly so Newman can introduce characters who will recur in Anno Dracula's many sequels (two of which have already been published, with another coming later this year).  It's tempting to say that Anno Dracula has such a great premise that you wish someone had done something better with it, but that's obviously the thinking that got Newman to expand the original novella to begin with, and the result is a fascinating world and a lackluster story, so maybe keeping it short and sweet was the way to go.

  • Child of Light by Muriel Sparks - The chapter on Frankenstein in The Madwoman in the Attic left me curious to find out more about Mary Shelley, and though I'm not quite sure who pointed me at Muriel Sparks's biography (originally published in 1951, revised and republished in 1987), I'm glad that it's the one I chose, and not just because of this recent article in the Times Literary Supplement arguing that it is partly responsible for the modern recognition of Shelley as a major figure in the history of the novel.  Sparks's short biography is split into two segments, a biography of Shelley's life and a critical reading of her major works.  The first places Shelley in the context of her reformer parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and moves on to her marriage to Percy Bysshe Shelley and her life after his death.  Sparks is perhaps a little sentimental about the marriage between Percy and Mary--to the extent that the bulk of the biography segment seems dedicated to this marriage even though Mary lived for decades after Percy's death--but she does make a compelling argument for its having been a genuine marriage of equals, who respected and encouraged each other's intellectual and literary pursuits, and does a good job of sketching not only Percy, but the other important figures of the Shelleys' married life, such as Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont, and of course Lord Byron.  The criticism segment feels less grounded to someone who has only read Frankenstein, but it did leave me interested in reading more of Shelley's writing, in particular The Last Man, a post-apocalyptic novel that, according to her foreword, was out of print until Sparks drew attention to it.  I'm sure that in the intervening decades there have been more in-depth, less fond biographies of Shelley, but as an introduction to her life, and as a work of advocacy for a writer who has too often been dismissed as a footnote to her husband's accomplishments, Child of Light was exactly what I needed.

  • The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates - This sprawling, baggy novel has got to be one of the most delightfully weird things I've read in years.  It's also almost indescribable, and the closest that I can come to explaining its loopy charm is to compare it to the similarly indescribable House of Leaves.  Like Mark Z. Danielewski's experimental novel, The Accursed is a multithreaded, metafictional horror story that often seems just on the cusp of solving itself--of revealing some underlying original sin that will explain the terror and misfortune that have infected its characters' lives, or some act of appeasement or redemption that its characters can perform in order to bring the story to a neat conclusion--only to veer off again into chaos, and the sense that the characters are trapped by forces too great to even notice them or their feeble attempts to fight back.  Where Danielewski played with the basic building blocks of the novel, however, down to the font and writing direction, Oates has written an outwardly more conventional work, a piece of historical fiction and literary pastiche, comprising letters, journal entries, and newspaper reports as well as straightforward narrative.  It's in the substance of what she describes that Oates lets the madness of her story shine through.

    The setting is Princeton, New Jersey, in the early years of the 20th century and the drawing rooms of the town's rich, aristocratic, almost incestuously interconnected ruling class.  Over the course of a year, the influential, respected Slade family experiences a stream of supernatural misfortunes, ranging from a "demon lover" who steals the oldest Slade granddaughter from her wedding to her young cousin being turned into stone.  Meanwhile, the friends, neighbors, and relatives of the Slade family also find themselves at the mercy of supernatural forces, seduced, driven mad, and murdered in ways that the community, so intent on not seeing and not speaking about certain things, can only barely acknowledge.  Oates draws a connection between the unspeakable hauntings and other transgressions which the aristocrats of Princeton will not see or speak of--lynchings just at the edge of town, the kidnapping and murder of a poor girl, the unhappiness and misfortune of servants which their masters remain oblivious to--but this is to suggest a relatively straightforward tale of supernatural comeuppance, of demons and ghosts appearing to claim the justice they were too weak to demand in life.  The Accursed is much weirder and more slippery than that, and at the points where it seems about to reduce itself to such a simple story Oates takes care to veer off into historical recreation (figures such as Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair and Mark Twain rub shoulders with the fictional characters) or literary pastiche (virtually no major work or author of the late 19th century escapes being namechecked by the characters or referenced by the narrative, with the notable exception of Dracula, which seems at points to be the novel's template, and at others its antithesis).  The result is that The Accursed is never one thing or one story, and that even at the moments where it seems to wrap up its narrative it takes care to unravel a few loose ends that leave the reader wondering and uncertain.  It's a baffling read, and as I've said already almost indescribable, but it's also a hell of a lot of fun, and especially recommended to readers who enjoy scratching their heads over a novel long after they've turned the last page.

  • The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes - If I had to pick a single word with which to describe Lauren Beukes's third novel, it would be "calculated."  A much more tame version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with heavy lashings of The Time Traveler's Wife thrown in, it seems to have been designed to cash in on the success of both works (and is certainly being marketed accordingly).  This, in itself, isn't a point against the novel--a good, effective thriller is worth reading even if it's derivative, and to my knowledge the meeting of serial killer thriller and time travel story hasn't been attempted before.  Beukes's execution, however, leaves too much to be desired.  As a thriller, The Shining Girls is no more than serviceable.  Serial killer Harper Curtis is moved to destroy women who "shine"--who have some potential for greatness, such a talent for art or science, or who try to change their community for the better.  It's a broad message that the book does very little with, as if merely laying out its fundamental misogyny would be enough.  The victims themselves tend to blur together--since they're all introduced shortly before Harper kills them, it quickly becomes obvious that it's pointless for the reader to invest in them.  This tends to reflect back on Harper, whose MO with almost everyone he meets, not just the shining girls, is to kill them almost immediately, which quickly makes him seem more boring than scary.  The book's other protagonist is Kirby Mazrachi, a shining girl who survived Harper's attack and is now trying to leverage an internship at a newsroom into an investigation of her case.  She's clearly meant to be the novel's Lisbeth Salander--edgy, punky, a little unbalanced--but Beukes's construction of her is too tame, too obviously intended to be outrageous without ever really crossing the line of audience identification, that Kirby comes off, at her worst, like a brat, and at her best, like a plucky girl reporter (which, given the kind of character she's meant to be, is probably worse than a brat).  It certainly doesn't help that her main relationship in the novel is a romance with a much older colleague.

    As for the time travel that gives the novel its unique edge, this comes from a house that Harper discovers in the 1930s, whose door opens onto various time periods where he can find the shining girls.  For this reason, the police don't connect his various murders, and even when they happen in close succession don't realize that they could be the work of a single killer because the regular pattern of escalation and specialization that is common to serial killers has been jumbled up.  Beukes uses the time travel conceit to jumble up her story as well, giving us Harker and Kirby's narratives in a relatively non-linear fashion, but this is actually a lot easier to follow than you might think, and given how by the numbers the thriller story is it's hard not to suspect that the non-linear narrative is there mainly to obscure that fact for as long as possible.  There's certainly no attempt in the novel to address time travel as anything more than a McGuffin that makes the plot possible and a little more complicated than it might be.  There are none of the fun closed loops, or scary questioning of free will, that you tend to find in good time travel stories.  In one scene, Harper dumps a body in the future, and finds the body of another person he knows already in the same spot.  You might expect Beukes to make the story of how the other body got there a circuitous tale of predestination, of people achieving certain results by trying to avoid them.  But instead, Harper simply meets his future victim, whom he doesn't really care about, and, since he's a psychopath who has already killed half a dozen people by that point, kills him with no compunction, and dumps him where he knows he'll be dumped.  Instead of playing with causality and free will (something that a serial killer story might very well find some interesting things to say about) time travel is merely a way of making it a great deal easier for Harper to do exactly what he was going to do anyway.  When Beukes finally reveals what's special about the house, it's similarly underwhelming (and not at all SFnal)--the house exists because it needed to exist, because otherwise Beukes wouldn't have had a story.  Or rather, she wouldn't have been able to conceal how familiar her story is, and how run of the mill her execution of it.

  • Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson - Wilson's well-received debut novel takes place in an unnamed Emirate, where a young hacker called Alif is dumped by his girlfriend and then receives from her a manuscript that turns out to have ties both to the world of the spirits from the One Thousand and One Nights and to computer programming, unlocking a language that allows him to hack reality itself.  The setting, with its focus on the intersection between Islamic dictatorship and computer hackers, is vividly described, and though I can't speak to its accuracy Wilson's handling of the position of women in such a society is intriguingly nuanced, presenting characters who work within the limitations of such a society and others who even draw power from them, while also acknowledging how precarious a woman's position in the novel's world is.  The freshness of the setting doesn't quite do enough, however, to make up for the predictability of the plot, which is essentially a less vibrant, less fun recapitulation of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (albeit, and despite the centrality of computer hacking, from a fantastic perspective, as more emphasis is placed in the novel on magical creatures, and the plot is moved more through their powers than through Alif's hacking).

    Alif himself is a familiar figure, a callow, self-absorbed young man who is too busy feeling sorry for himself to notice how much the people (mostly women) around him do to make his life easier.  That he grows into maturity over the course of the novel never quite makes up for the fact that I wasn't that interested in reading a story about such a character to begin with, especially since that growth includes Alif learning to reject one "bad" love interest--the girl whose breakup with him precipitates the novel's plot, whom he learns to think of as shallow and greedy--and to love the "good" one.  This character, Alif's neighbor Dina, is the most interesting in the novel, strong-willed, resourceful, and possessing an unerring moral compass that is rooted but not summed up by her devout Muslim faith.  But she spends too much of the novel either working to help Alif or completely sidelined from the story, and the way that the novel contrasts her and Alif's other love interest--who at the end of the story returns to beg Alif to take her back, only for him to turn her away with superior detachment and go back to Dina--plays into some very poisonous virgin/whore narratives.  When the uproar about the all-male Clarke shortlist erupted a few weeks ago, Alif the Unseen was one of the titles most frequently mentioned as a deserving potential nominee that could have prevented the problem.  There are two or three books on the shortlist that I disliked enough that Alif would have made a reasonable replacement for them (even though it is only barely SFnal), but I don't think its presence would have made the shortlist much stronger, and it certainly wouldn't have deserved to win.

  • The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord - For a while now I've been trying to put into words my reaction to Lord's second novel, and the best I can come up with is "puzzled."  Not so much because of the novel's project--a sort of quasi-Le Guin-ian, episodic social SF story whose disparate segments are tied together by a romance--as by its execution, which is steeped in romance tropes that leave me almost entirely cold.  The setting is a future in which several sub-species of humans coexist more or less peacefully and have colonized many planets (Lord is rather vague on the history of this setting or its broader shape outside of the one planet we see, but the story is so insular to that planet that this lack of detail isn't a problem).  In the novel's prologue, one of these sub-species, the Sadiri, who are renowned for their intelligence, emotional control, and powerful psychic powers (as several reviewers have by now pointed out, the Sadiri are essentially Vulcans), suffers a near-genocidal attack in which their home planet is rendered uninhabitable.  The novel's narrator is Grace Delarua, a government functionary on a planet that plays home to several genetically and culturally distinct types of humans, where the surviving, and mostly male, Sadiri arrive looking to intermarry into a community sufficiently similar, genetically and culturally, to their own, so that they can preserve their culture and way of life.  The novel's structure, then, is a wife search, as Grace joins a delegation made up of Sadiri representatives and her fellow bureaurcrats, who together visit various communities looking for one where the Sadiri can find suitable wives.  That search, however, seems intended mainly as a justification for throwing Lord's characters together.  Her focus is more on sketching the communities the expedition encounters and on the trouble they get into along their journey, and even more so, on a romance that develops between Grace and her opposite number, a Sadiri called Dllenahkh.

    My core difficulty with The Best of All Possible Worlds is that a lot of its emotional beats make no sense to me.  I understand why Grace falls for Dllenahkh--he is, in many ways, the epitome of the romance hero, stoic yet wounded, emotionally reserved except where our heroine is concerned--and if the reasons for his attraction to her are less obvious, Lord does a good enough job of positioning Grace as the heroine of a romantic story that it's obvious that someone--someone central and interesting--is going to fall for her, and Dllenahkh is the novel's top prize.  But aside from the fact that they are obviously intended for one another, Grace and Dllenahkh aren't a terribly compelling couple, and almost everything that happens around them, in the tangled interpersonal relationships that build up in the expedition, or in the communities they visit, is opaque and unconvincing.  Grace narrates the novel in a brisk, chatty voice, frank about her own foibles and obsessive about the details of the expedition, but her alleged perceptiveness, especially where emotions are concerned, doesn't come through the page.  Too often, Lord has characters interpret a line of dialogue, or an action, as conveying deep emotional turmoil, but the even, lighthearted tone of her narration (which tends to report speech, but drown out or downplay inflection and body language) means that this interpretation, though it always turns out to be accurate, isn't persuasive.  The characters come off as ridiculously oversensitive, and the author as telling rather than showing.  In one scene, for example, the expedition's security officer says something sarcastic to Grace, to which she responds that he has never liked her and is now riding her even harder.  But this is a novel in which all the characters (except the Sadiri) are sarcastic to one another all the time, and despite this exchange happening near the end of the novel this is the first we've heard that the security chief doesn't like Grace, so her sudden reaction to a throwaway and, ultimately, rather gentle prod feels completely overblown--at best, it makes Grace look bad; at worst, it drives home the feeling that we've been missing most of the story.

    For all that, the reason that The Best of All Possible Worlds leaves me merely puzzled, rather than straight-up disappointed, is that I'm pretty sure that Lord is deliberately reaching for reading protocols that I don't possess.  I've encountered the same style before in other romance stories (and been baffled by it there as well), which makes my inability to connect with the novel seem more like my problem than Lord's.  That said, I have other problems with the novel that can't be explained by its genre.  Lord's emphasis on Grace and Dllenahkh's relationship has the effect of drowning out the questions raised by her premise--what do the Sadiri mean when they say they want to preserve their culture?  Is that kind of chauvinism really an uncomplicated good?  Should they be more open to new ideas and customs?  Is it even possible for these not to seep into Sadiri culture as a result of intermarriage?--and of obscuring how problematic the Sadiri project, which often seems to view the sought-after wives as merely the means to an end, can come to seem (for example, the fact that hardly any Sadiri women were off-planet when the attack occurred, or the tossed-off reference to a project to grow Sadiri women from frozen embryos so that they can become the second wives of the long-lived male survivors after their human wives die).  Even when it comes to her main characters, Lord can be surprisingly casual about revelations that feel as if they could have fueled a novel in their own right.  In one interlude, Grace visits her family, and through Dllenahkh's interference realizes that her ex-fiancee, now her brother in law, has undisclosed psychic powers and has been using them to control her, her sister, and their children.  The revelation itself is one of the most successful in the novel, because for once Grace's opaqueness and inconsistent emotional reactions are deliberate signs that something is wrong, but the aftermath is handled almost glibly, with Grace continuing her journey while the rest of her family have (completely understandable) nervous breakdowns.  And towards the end of the novel, Grace discovers that Dllenahkh's first marriage ended because his wife was unfaithful to him, and that he broke her lover's jaw in response.  You might expect a woman--especially someone who has been described as level-headed and even-tempered, as Grace has been--to be taken aback by the revelation that her lover has such a propensity for violence, but Grace's reaction is merely to feel sorry for Dllenahkh for experiencing that kind of betrayal.  There are aspects of The Best of All Possible Worlds that I'm willing to excuse on the grounds of its genre even though they don't work for me at all, but the way that Lord leaves vast, and often very troubling, swathes of her premise and characters unexplored in order to give the romance room to breathe is, for me, a dealbreaker.

  • Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker - Barker's 2007 novel Darkmans was another work, like House of Leaves and The Accursed, that I loved despite not being able to say why, or even having a very strong sense of what happened in it.  It left me eager to read more of Barker, but also a little nervous--what could possibly measure up to Darkmans's zany goodness?  Burley Cross Postbox Theft is thus a perfect place to start with Barker's remaining bibliography.  It's not as good as Darkmans, but it's so different from it that the comparison seems less urgent.  It's also a much more straightforward novel, one that not only unravels itself in the final chapter, but whose structure seems designed for ease of consumption.  As the title suggests, the central event is the theft of the contents of a postbox from the small English village of Burley Cross.  The local policeman charged with investigating the crime presents his report in the form of the letters themselves, recovered from a nearby dumpster, reasoning that one of them might provide the motive for the theft, but this framing story doesn't seem to hold even Barker's interest for very long (for one thing, as the constable himself points out, if the purpose of the theft was to retrieve a letter, then it's unlikely to have been recovered).

    The actual purpose of the novel seems to be to paint a highly satirical portrait of Burley Cross, and by extension of the English village, riven by family feuds, failing businesses, local politics, and sordid affairs.  The tone throughout the letters is relentlessly comedic and exaggerated.  In one letter, a villager spends pages upon pages detailing his feud with a neighbor over whether he should pick up his dog's feces from the moor.  Another is a translation, commissioned by the police, of a letter written in French by an African ex-pat, whose translator transforms a melancholy family reminiscence into a planned drug deal.  It's all a bit much, but Barker's satire is so brazen and over the top, and her ability to switch styles and tones so expert, that even her exaggerations are a delight.  It's a bit of a shame, then, when the framing story reasserts itself, and the investigating policeman presents a solution to the mystery that not only ties the letters together but simmers the novel's satire down to a more naturalistic, and almost sentimental, conclusion in which order is restored to the village.  That same benevolence underpinned Darkmans and made its excesses palatable, but in Burley Cross Postbox Theft, a novel that until its final chapter seemed merciless in its skewering of the villagers and their petty disputes, Barker's sudden shift towards sentiment feels less grounded, and maybe even like a loss of nerve.  Still, finding Barker writing something so conventional (for certain values of conventional that would still be quite weird for any other writer) leaves me a little less nervous about exploring the rest of her bibliography.  Even if none of it lives up to Darkmans, there will certainly be some worthwhile reading there.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The (Belated) Pilots of Spring

The original plan was for this post to go up a month or so ago, when all of these shows were really at the pilot phase or just a bit after it.  But with one thing and another, here we are already at summer's doorstep (and thus, at the doorstep of the summer pilot season), and some of the new shows I'm about to write about have already wrapped up their debut seasons.  Still, there's a lot here to talk about--some interesting ideas even if the execution sometimes leaves a bit to be desired, and several venues that I hadn't been paying much attention to and which now might be worth a closer look.
  • In the Flesh - Despite its unnaturally long afterlife, the zombie craze is at least five years past its peak, so it's a bit surprising to find anyone, much less the BBC, trying to put a fresh spin on it.  Still, the premise that In the Flesh comes up with is at least a little bit different, as its focus isn't on surviving the zombie uprising (which has already happened, and been quelled, by the time the series begins) but on one zombie's reintegration into society.  In the series's world, zombies are actually suffering from Partially Deceased Syndrome, and can be returned to their old selves (if not to full life) with regular courses of medication.  Teenager Kieran (Luke Newberry) is one such PDS sufferer, and at the series's beginning he is reunited with his family and returns with them to a small, insular Northern village, whose leaders--particularly Bill (Steve Evets), the head of the anti-zombie militia which emerged during the rising and who is now missing the respect and social status he gained during that period--are unhappy that Kieran and his kind are being released back into the population.  To begin with, there's some interesting handling of the villagers' hostility to the policy of reintegrating PDS sufferers.  In particular, the choice to fold that reaction into a historical distrust that rural Northerners feel towards Southern government (which, we're told, left the countryside to fend for itself during the worst of the rising, concentrating the army in the cities) feels nicely nuanced, since after all, not wanting Kieran and people like him in the neighborhood isn't an entirely unreasonable stance--he did kill people, and could return to his feral state at any time if he went off his meds.  In fact, the series's opening scenes reveal that there are zombies who are choosing to do just that.

    Before long, however, In the Flesh comes down on the side that sees anti-zombie sentiment as narrow-minded prejudice, and specifically an extension of the kind of small-town conformity that made the sensitive, weird, artistically-inclined Kieran feel out of place in his home town even before his undeath.  The show finally draws a parallel between hatred of zombies and homophobia, as it slowly and delicately reveals that Kieran was involved with Bill's son Rick (David Walmsley), and committed suicide after Rick was killed in Afghanistan.  When Rick turns out to be a PDS sufferer as well, the show gets to draw attention to the way that prejudice can sometimes seem irrationally distributed.  Rick, who can perform traditional masculinity, gets a pass on his father's, and the town's, hostility, even though everyone knows that he's just as dead (and just as gay) as Kieran, and despite being vocal in Kieran's defense.  The hypocrisy of forcing Kieran to sit in a designated PDS area at the local pub until Rick insists that he be allowed to sit with everyone (and Rick's hypocrisy in downing drinks he can't digest, and which make him sick, just to seem alive) draw attention to the fact that prejudice is sometimes less about what people are and more about how they present themselves--Rick is tolerated because he's "properly" ashamed of what he is and tries to perform normalcy, while Kieran is ostracized for not hiding it. 

    None of that, however, gets around the core problem of paralleling gays and zombies, which is the same core problem of any work that tries to parallel a discriminated-against group of humans with supernatural creatures who have the potential to be extraordinarily dangerous--works which nevertheless keep being made with no acknowledgement of how flawed their premise is.  Not helping matters is the fact that In the Flesh is weirdly coy about actually using the G word, and won't even come out and say that Kieran and Rick were lovers even though there's no other way to interpret its insinuations.  The result feels weirdly retrograde--as if we were back in the day when naming homosexuality on TV was impossible, and so PDS was needed as a metaphor for it.  That's not to say that there's nothing worth watching for here.  Kieran's arc of returning to life, going from numb and monosyllabic when he first returns home to a slow rediscovery of his emotions, his sense of humor, and his rebellious streak, is well handled, especially by Newberry, and a joy to watch (and all the more impressive given that it's accomplished over a mere three episodes).  His relationships with his family--parents who are burying their pain and anger over his suicide beneath social niceties, and a sister who is torn between loyalty to her family and her new role as Bill's anti-zombie disciple--are meaty and affecting, and the suppressed yearning between him and Rick almost palpable.  But when it comes down to it, it's hard to understand why In the Flesh needed to be a zombie story, and the most likely reason seems to be that if you told the same story about young gay people in a small, conservative town, it would come off as familiar to the point of being trite, and its ending tragic in a way that is nowadays considered exploitative and melodramatic.  The series's end leaves some open threads, and it's possible that a second season will better develop the zombie side of the story, but as it stands In the Flesh feels like a well-made miscalculation.

  • Rectify - Part of the reason that I'm coming down so hard on In the Flesh is that I'm writing this piece after having watched Rectify, one of the first original series produced by The Sundance Channel, which tells a very similar story without resorting to a genre twist that it isn't ultimately very interested in, and ends up doing much more with it.  After nineteen years on death row, Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is released when DNA evidence sheds doubt on his conviction for the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend.  Like In the Flesh, Rectify is a series about a character who is returning to life, rediscovering not only the world he's been locked away from, but feelings and aspects of his humanity that had been allowed to whither during his years of incarceration.  And as in the BBC's zombie show, the small Georgia town that Daniel returns to is not entirely welcoming, with many townspeople still convinced of his guilt, either because even as a teenager Daniel was an oddball who never quite fit in, or because their careers have been made on the back of his conviction (the premise of Rectify obviously draws very strongly on the West Memphis Three case, which makes it rather disappointing that the series's creators opted to replace the victims in that case with a raped girl).  Even as he enjoys his newfound freedom, the authorities are planning to retry Daniel, and other townspeople might take the law into their own hands.

    The focus of the first, six-episode long season (which spans the first six days after Daniel's release) is less on these developments, however, and more on Daniel's rough reintegration back into the world, and on his family's attempts to reconnect with him and help him with that process.  The result can sometimes be a little stagey--Daniel in particular is prone to making long speeches that spell out his inner turmoil and the shock of being out in the world after having resigned himself to death--and the show sometimes can't seem to decide whether Daniel is suffering from arrested development, still the eighteen year old who was locked up all those years ago, or whether those years have allowed him to grow learned and introspective (his primary activity in prison, we see, was reading), only for the bustle of the real world to knock his serenity aside.  But Young is a strong performer in either case, and the low-key, often dialogue-light scripts give him plenty of scope to convey how painful, and yet also wonderful, it is for Daniel to be back in the world after being locked up for so long.  Rectify is at its best when it shows us Daniel experiencing the world--lying in the grass, or riding a bicycle with his teenage brother--or trying, and often failing, to process what's happened to him--at the instigation of his sister-in-law, he decides to be baptized, hoping to wash away the ugliness of what's happened to him, but the feeling of exhilaration proves temporary, and his interest turns out be more in the woman than in God.  (The show is equally strong at showing the reactions of Daniel's bewildered, well-meaning family to his unexpected return, with Abigail Spencer and J. Smith-Cameron in particular shining as his sister and mother.)  Rectify is less convincing at constructing the story of Daniel's new trial, or teasing the mystery of who really killed his girlfriend (including the question of whether Daniel might not, after all, be guilty), and towards the end of the season these plot strands veer towards the melodramatic, sharply contrasting with the low key naturalism of Daniel's regrowth.  I'm a little concerned, given the events of the season's end, that the just-greenlit second season will veer more towards this melodrama, but for the time being I'm content to admire Rectify as a narrowly focused character drama, a window onto how the soul can be brutalized by incarceration, and how it can return to life.

  • Top of the Lake - Continuing our theme of repressive small towns and the misfits who are victimized by them, the New Zealand-produced miniseries Top of the Lake begins with the attempted suicide of twelve-year-old Tui (Jacqueline Joe), who is discovered to be pregnant.  When the girl disappears soon after, the  police call in Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss), a former local who now works for the Australian police investigating sex crimes in minors, and who has returned to New Zealand to nurse her dying mother.  The premise sounds like the beginning of a mystery, and in terms of its style and atmosphere Top of the Lake does share a lot with the moody, miserabilist Scandinavian sex crime mysteries that are all the rage these days.  But the show's focus isn't really on the mystery (which anyway isn't a murder--Tui runs off on her own, and though the characters repeatedly stress how dangerous that is in her condition, she seems able to look after herself in the wild) so much as it is on the town of Laketop and its secrets, most of which touch on gender relations.  Tui's father, Matt (Peter Mullan), is the town's local crime-lord, used to getting his own way in all things, and happy to resort to violence to get it, but driven by an abusive relationship with his mother.  At the beginning of the series he's incensed because a lakefront plot of land called Paradise, where his mother is buried, has been sold out from under his nose to a commune of middle-aged big city women who have followed an androgynous guru (Holly Hunter) on a voyage of self-discovery, and find Matt's bluster and intimidation both ineffective and typical of what they came to Paradise to escape.  Matt's youngest son, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), and the only one to get out of the family business, is Robin's high school sweetheart, who like her is haunted by the night on which she was raped by several older men, who were never prosecuted.  The police officer in charge at the time, Al (David Wenham), is Robin's current boss, who despite his urbane exterior is in too deep with Matt, and prefers to run the town according to an old-fashioned, eye-for-an-eye code of propriety rather than Robin's law and order approach.

    The result is that Top of the Lake feels patchy--various plot strands, such as Matt's lingering dysfunction where his mother is concerned, or Robin's strained relationship with her mother, who compelled her to carry the baby conceived by her rape, are raised but neither delved into nor resolved--and a lot like a crash course in rape culture 101.  Sometimes this can work, as the ways that the characters are shaped, and deformed, by the expectations of gendered behavior and roles they were raised with feel fresh and organic--when Johnno finds himself incapable of confessing his love to Robin until he runs the ringleader in her rape out of town, or when Al proudly tells her that her rapists "got theirs" because after she left town, he and several other men gave them a whuppin', and clearly expects her to be satisfied by this act (something, he explains, that Robin's father would have done if he had been alive).  At other points the story is intriguingly slippery in the way it handles gender roles--in one scene, one of Hunter's disciples walks into the local bar and imperiously offers to pay for a quickie that takes place entirely on her terms, and the man who abides quite happily with those terms turns out to be Robin's chief rapist.  But for the most part, Top of the Lake feels like it's parroting the basic talking points of your average feminist internet discussion, as when a boy who is the town misfit turns out to be gay, or when Matt, searching for the worst possible insult to hurl at the commune women, finally settles on "unfuckable."

    It's no doubt a little churlish to complain at this obviousness, since for a lot of people the ideas that Top of the Lake handles are by no means obvious, and it lobs them at the screen with such speed that viewers who have never heard the term "rape culture" will no doubt feel overwhelmed by how baldly co-creators Jane Campion and Gerard Lee boil the balance of power in Laketown down to gender and the essentialist, supposedly chivalrous but really pernicious attitudes of the men in charge of it.  On top of which, the show is beautifully shot, making excellent use of the New Zealand scenery, and often quite tense, and it delivers a moving performance from Moss, as a tough woman who has never been allowed to process a terrible trauma, who falls apart when forced to confront it again and then has to put herself back together.  But none of that gets around the fact that to someone who has a bit of grounding in these issues, Top of the Lake doesn't feel as revelatory as it clearly wants to be, and that in the absence of that revelation, it's easier to notice how lackadaisical its approach to its central mystery is, how slack the pacing is in some of its episodes, and how abrupt its ending is.  I don't want to come down too hard on Top of the Lake, because there isn't a lot of TV that is even trying to deal with issues of rape in a way that is non-sensationalist, and that recognizes it as a sickness of the whole community, not a single perpetrator.  But on top of this admirable accomplishment, I wish that Top of the Lake were also better TV.

  • Hannibal - Of all the many things that are weird about this prequel series to Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps the weirdest is how of a piece it feels with showrunner Bryan Fuller's still-lamented Pushing Daisies.  Like that show (and Fuller's earlier Wonderfalls), Hannibal is an intensely visual series, one that often concentrates on interiors, and on the quirky, idiosyncratic design elements that some hardworking set designer has painstakingly collected and arranged just so within them--a weird labyrinth pattern on a bathroom tile that no sane person would ever want in their house, some beautifully carved wall paneling.  One could, in fact, argue that the two shows have the same visual sensibility with different color palettes, Hannibal's being much darker and gloomier (that shift certainly expresses itself in the two shows' fondness for food porn--Pushing Daisies was all technicolor desserts while Hannibal is all meaty main courses in dark reds and browns, but both are somewhat disturbingly mouth-watering).  And the truth is, for all the supposed difference in their subject matters, Pushing Daisies was arguably as preoccupied with death and darkness as Hannibal is, and its main character was, like Hannibal's (and despite the latter's title) a young man with an affinity for death that he doesn't fully understand, and which has warped his life.  In Hannibal this is Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a character from Red Dragon who is preternaturally empathetic towards violent killers--in Thomas Harris's version of the story, because he's just on the cusp of being one himself, though Hannibal is less convincing on this point.  Emotionally fragile and rattled by the horrors that chasing serial killers confronts him with, Will resists the FBI's top profiler Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) when he tries to return him to active duty, so Jack suggests a release valve in the form of sessions with a psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), who quickly becomes entangled with the entire FBI team.

    Hannibal is beautifully shot, well-acted, and has sharp, witty scripts that often riff in interesting ways on the canon established in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, but seven episodes into the season, I'm still not clear on what it's trying to do.  Fuller has stated that he doesn't plan to tell the story of Lecter's capture until the show's second season (which at the moment seems an uncertain prospect), but that leaves the question of what story he's trying to tell in his first season.  At various points in the season so far, Lecter has tried to hobble the FBI's investigation of his murders, drive a wedge between Jack and Will, torment Jack over the death of an FBI trainee, and encourage Will to give in to his murderous urges.  But he hops between these schemes haphazardly, dropping one half-finished and picking up another, and sometimes seeming perfectly happy to actually help the FBI in their inquiries.  There's no sense of what Lecter wants, or indeed of who he is as a person.  This is a problem that afflicts Will as well--for all the show's harping on it, his growing disconnect from reality and alleged propensity for murder don't feel as urgent or as convincing as Hannibal needs them to be.  (The only character who escapes this sense of malaise and comes off seeming like a real human being is Jack, and Fishburne's performance is surprisingly nuanced, especially to someone who has gotten used to thinking of him as little more than Morpheus.) 

    The result is a show made up of great scenes that don't seem to add up to any sort of whole.  Most of the time, it feels as if Hannibal is putting all its eggs in the atmosphere and visuals basket, and here's where the comparison to Pushing Daisies makes Hannibal look not only like the lesser show, but like a heartless one.  Pushing Daisies presented its audience with an over the top, heavily stylized visual aesthetic, and then pushed through it to reveal the real, raw emotions pulsing beneath all that carefully arranged set dressing--pain, grief, anger, yearning.  Hannibal takes those emotions, and the terrible acts of murder and mutilation that express them or cause them, and reduces them to aesthetics.  A major component of the show's visual style is how it arranges the bodies of murdered people--one killer uses his barely-alive victims as a growing medium for fungus, and the camera lingers over the grotesque sight of naked bodies with mushrooms sprouting out of them; another skins his victims' backs and rearranges the strips of flesh to resemble wings.  It's all beautifully shot, of course, but also emotionally numb--we're not meant to feel pity for the victims of these mutilations, or even for their killers for being compelled to such horrible acts; we're just meant to feel awed (and a little horrified) at their inventiveness.  With the invention of Hannibal Lecter Thomas Harris is largely responsible for pop culture's fascination with the urbane, sophisticated, impossibly intelligent serial killer, despite the fact that in reality most serial killers are pathetic mouth-breathers who get off on murders that are as unimaginative as they are cruel.  Hannibal seems to be taking that fascination to its illogical conclusion, asking us to not only sympathize with Lecter (something that Harris's original books did already, by having Lecter target people who are rude or unpleasant) but to see human beings as he does--as pieces of meat to be artfully arranged and then eaten.  The result is a smart, compelling show that I can't let myself think too much about, because when I do I find myself getting rather sick.

  • Defiance - SyFy (and the various media sites that have been publicizing it like crazy) has proudly touted Defiance as a return to proper, future-set science fiction, with aliens, spaceships, and futuristic technology.  And "return" does feel like the right way to describe the show, since despite an original premise, there's almost nothing about Defiance that isn't depressingly derivative.  That premise is that several decades ago, a convoy carrying refugees from several alien species arrived on Earth, and promptly began terraforming the planet to suit their needs.  A war ensued but ended indecisively, and now the transformed Earth is home to humans and aliens, who sometimes manage to live peacefully and sometimes not.  There's an enormous amount of potential here: you've got an alien planet that is also Earth; humans living on a world that both is and isn't theirs; alien cultures forced to rub shoulders in the wake of an unforgivable violation.  So it's sad but, given the venue, somehow unsurprising that instead of trying to explore this premise and all the questions it raises about the concept of alienness, what Defiance does instead is repeat the basic plot of Eureka--a sarcastic, bull-headed outsider (Grant Bowler) rolls into the titular weird town with his aggro daughter (Stephanie Leonidas), clashes with the goody-two-shoes, rule-following female leader (Julie Benz) who sees him as nothing but an oaf, and somehow manages to save the day through the sheer power of his masculinity, which leads to him being made the head of local law enforcement.

    There's a healthy dollop of Firefly sprinkled over, so the hero is Mal Reynolds-ish ex-soldier and lout, his daughter is actually an adopted alien who has mad martial arts skills and psychic powers, the town is a ramshackle frontier settlement struggling to survive alien hordes and stay independent from surrounding empires, and one of the main characters is a madam (Mia Kirshner).  (As an aside, when the time comes to sum up Joss Whedon's contribution to feminism in pop culture, let it not be forgotten that he has single-handedly convinced an entire generation of writers that no futuristic setting is complete without a Miss Kitty.)  None of this, however, does much to conceal how conventional Defiance's storytelling ultimately is.  This is a series whose main source of tension, so far, comes from local politics--a squabble for power between the town's two premier businessmen.  That one of these characters is an alien and the other is excavating the ruins of St. Louis turns out to matter a lot less than you'd expect.  In itself, of course, this needn't be a bad thing--a lot of science fiction series have gotten mileage out of telling entirely mundane stories in an alien setting.  But to do that, you need sharp writing and well-drawn characters, and Defiance is derivative and unoriginal all the way down.  In four episodes, there hasn't been a single surprising moment or character beat.  Even stories that touch on alien cultures are thoroughly conventional--in one episode, human and alien authorities clash over an alien ritual that the humans see as cruel, but the story progresses with depressing predictability, and with no recognition of the fact that these are invading aliens we're talking about.

    Only two characters on the show--Irisa, the hero's adopted alien daughter, and Stahma (Jaime Murray), the wife of the alien businessman who turns out to be the brains of his operation--feel like more than obvious types, but on their own they can't combat the predictability of the rest of the cast and the show's storytelling.  Especially since, when given the chances to shade in these predictable characters, Defiance resolutely backs away.  The most recent episode had the opportunity to portray the stick-in-the-mud mayor, Amanda, as an ambiguous figure when it reveals that she has for years lied to her sister about their mother's death--in reality, the mother chose not to go back through an alien attack to retrieve the younger sister, and told Amanda to meet her at prearranged location, which Amanda didn't do.  Instead of suggesting that Amanda's good qualities, such as her devotion to her sister, come from the same rigid, unforgiving place that led her to cut all ties with her mother, the episode reaches the most simplistic conclusion, painting Amanda as a saint and her mother as a villain.  It's an approach that is sadly typical of Defiance's storytelling, and doesn't leave me with much hope that this show will find--or that it is even searching for--its own identity.

  • Orphan Black - For all of Defiance's inexplicably positive reception, the undisputed winner of the spring's genre show buzz wars is BBC America's Orphan Black.  The show begins with Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), a grifter and ne'er-do-well who has just left her drug dealer boyfriend and stolen his stash of drugs, witnessing the suicide of Beth, a woman who looks just like her.  She immediately switches identities with Beth, scheming to empty her bank accounts, but soon discovers that the dead woman was one of several doppelgangers, or rather clones, who are now being hunted and killed off.  It's easy to imagine that the idea for Orphan Black came from someone watching Dollhouse and wondering what that show would have been like with someone who could actually switch personalities on a dime in the lead role, and Maslany is indeed the chameleon that Eliza Dushku wasn't, so convincing as several very different people that it's sometimes easy to forget that these characters are being played by the same actress (especially when the clones appear in the same scene together, which is handled seamlessly not only by the production but again by Maslany, who has to act against herself and carries off this task, too, as if it were effortless).  Impressive as this is, however, what it amounts to is an acting exercise, and when called upon to wrap that exercise in a plot, Orphan Black stumbles.  To begin with, Sarah, though impressive for her quick thinking and resourcefulness as she insinuates herself into Beth's life, is frustratingly short-sighted.  It takes her forever to realize that something strange was going on in Beth's life, or to fully commit to investigating her other clones.  For the most part this is because of her focus on getting at Beth's money, but this too is in service of a short-sighted goal--Sarah wants to regain custody of the daughter she abandoned, and doesn't realize that merely having a lot of money isn't enough to make her a good mother.  Later in the first season, Sarah grows as a person and starts caring about people other than herself (well, technically, since the people she comes to care about are her clones, she still is concerned only with herself), but this redemption arc feels unearned--no one whose first response to witnessing a suicide is robbing the dead should find it so easy to rediscover their moral compass.

    What's particularly disappointing about this is that Orphan Black had the chance to do something different and new with the reformed grifter premise.  The encounter with her clones could have spurred Sarah to introspection, to wondering what makes her who she is, and what kind of person she would be if she'd grown up in different circumstances.  Instead, Orphan Black's writers don't seem to have considered the importance of the fact that their main characters are genetically identical, fundamentally the same person.  They've taken the Dollhouse approach, in which the clones are merely masks to be worn--a cop, a housewife, a scientist--and in constructing these characters they've often plumped for the most stereotypical versions of these types.  So Alison, the affluent housewife, is uptight and a little bit racist, and Cosima, the scientist, is geeky and slightly weird.  Maslany brings both of these characters to life--Alison, in particular, is a delight, barely tamping down on her rage at the fact that her picture perfect life is being disrupted by her being a freak of nature--but she can't find the common thread that lies at both their cores, because it doesn't exist.  Orphan Black had the opportunity to ask some interesting questions about identity--what does it mean, for example, that Cosima is attracted to women while none of the other clones are?--but its choice to construct its characters from stereotypes scuttles that chance--Cosima's queerness feels like yet another trope, like the fact that, as a scientist, she naturally wears glasses even though none of the other clones seem to need corrective lenses.  What's left, then, is a technothriller, and an effective and interesting one at that, and I suppose that it's not fair for me to criticize a show for not telling the story I would have liked it to tell.  Still, I can't help but wish that the most successful new genre show of the year had a little more ambition.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Crooked Timber Seminar on Felix Gilman's Half-Made World Books

If you haven't yet discovered the group blog Crooked Timber's book seminars, in which several participants are invited to write essays about a certain book, you're in for a treat.  Previous seminar subjects include Francis Spufford's Red Plenty, China Miéville's Iron Council, and Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

The latest seminar focuses on Felix Gilman's duology The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City, which I previously reviewed for Strange Horizons, and to my great surprise and pleasure I was asked to participate.  My entry, "On the Meeting of Epic Fantasy and Western in Felix Gilman's Half-Made World Duology," appears today.

Don't forget to check out previous entries by Francis Spufford, John Holbo, and Lizarbreath, with future pieces from Miriam Burstein, Henry Farrell, and Maria Farrell yet to come.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The 2013 Clarke Award Shortlist Reviewed + SpecFic '12

This evening will see the announcement of the winner of the 2013 Clarke Award, after the more than normally contentious response to this year's shortlist.  At Strange Horizons, I take on the traditional task of reviewing the shortlist (in two parts)--for the first time since 2008, which means I've had five years to forget how exhausting a task this is, but also how much fun.  At the Strange Horizons blog, Niall Harrison has collected other reviews of the nominated books (including several others from Strange Horizons), as well as the various responses to the shortlist that have appeared in the last month (in three parts).

In other self-promotion news, my review of Frances Hardinge's A Face Like Glass was selected to appear in the inaugural volume of SpecFic, a series seeking to highlight online genre criticism, with the first volume edited by Justin Landon and Jared Shurin (as were several Strange Horizons reviews).  A full list of contributors can be found here, and the book itself can be purchased here, with proceeds going to the charity Room to Read.  SpecFic '13 is already in the works, and if you'd like to suggest works for that anthology, editors Ana Grilo and Thea James have set up a website--my first (and admittedly, not terribly original) choices are Sophia McDougall's utterly essential "The Rape of James," which I'll be referring to from now whenever the question of "realism" in grimdark fantasy crops up, and Jonathan McCalmont's "How to Fix (Discussion of) the Hugo Awards," which says a lot of what I would have said about this year's Hugo nominations, and the depressingly toxic conversation that has emerged around them, if I'd had the energy to wade into it.