Friday, October 31, 2014

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2014 Edition, part 3

Well, here we are at the end of another fall TV season.  There are still a few stragglers who will be making their bows in November, but for the most part the networks have delivered their bounty and it is... not great.  Of all the shows I've written about, the only ones I'm still watching are The Flash and How to Get Away With Murder (though the latter is already beginning to wear me down, its twisty plot and soapy shenanigans not doing quite enough to make up for the emptiness of its characters).  As it turned out, however, some of the more interesting work of the new season debuted relatively late, so at least we're closing out these reviews on a high note.
  • Jane the Virgin - The premise of the CW's new hit dramedy should send any thinking person--especially women--running for the hills.  Having been raised her whole life by her strict grandmother to believe that the unplanned loss of her virginity will mar her irreparably (and having had the example of her irresponsible, unwed teenage mother before her to reinforce that lesson), heroine Jane (Gine Rodriguez) has arrived at her early 20s not only still a virgin but someone who obsessively plans her whole life.  She has a job she likes at a hotel, is working towards a teaching certificate, and plans, in a few sensible years, to marry her loving but slightly frustrated boyfriend.  Then a mistake at her gynecologist's office leads to Jane being inseminated with another couple's sperm, and upends not only her life but the lives of several families.  What makes Jane the Virgin work despite this cringe-inducing premise is first its comedic style.  This series is based on a telenovela, and it wears that influence proudly (not least in fielding a cast almost entirely made up of Latin@ actors), featuring, already in its first two episodes, star-crossed lovers, mistaken identities, hidden parentages, evil schemes, and many, many, many coincidences.  The arch tone--intensified by the dry voiceover that accompanies the series and the many intertitles that explain its events--makes Jane the Virgin simultaneously a melodrama and a show bemused by its own melodramatic tone.  But what makes the show come to life--and, so far, my hands-down favorite new series of the fall--is the fact that underneath its stylized parody, it has a beating heart.  Jane's dilemma, and the pain that her situation causes her and her family, are treated seriously and explored sensitively, and the relationships between the various characters--even the ones that are most steeped in telenovela tropes, such as the marriage between Jane's baby-daddy and his scheming wife, who tried to get pregnant on the sly in order to stave off a divorce long enough to get a big payout per her pre-nup--have a weight of humanity and real emotion.  The result feels a little like a cross between Pushing Daisies and Switched at Birth, and the fact that the show can balance the former's artifice with the latter's earnestness is very promising.  Though I suspect that Jane the Virgin only has a season or two of story in it--the telenovela format, after all, is designed to run just a few seasons before squaring everyone away in their deserved happy or sad endings--for the time being, it is a delightful and surprisingly affecting new show.

  • Survivor's Remorse - It's tempting to just stand up and applaud whenever a new series about the African-American experience shows up, but Survivor's Remorse has a chunky, instantly-engaging premise to boot: up-and-coming basketball player Cam Calloway (Jessie Usher) hits the big leagues when he signs a multi-million-dollar contract, and as his family relocates from a Boston slum to an Atlanta penthouse, they have to adjust not just to wealth but to sudden fame and constant visibility.  As a comedy, Survivor's Remorse can sometimes feel a little too earnest, with characters delivering what sound like canned speeches about the hot-button issues of the day--the second episode, in which Cam's mother Cassie (Tichina Arnold) endangers his wholesome, rags-to-riches image by revealing that she supports corporal punishment for children, is so timely that it's shocking to realize that it must have been written months ago.  What keeps the show lively are its actors--in particular, RonReaco Lee as Cam's cousin and manager Reggie, who is carefully grooming his cousin's image in an attempt to ensure that he becomes a household name rather than a flash in the pan, and Erica Ash as Cam's foul-mouthed gay sister Mary-Charles--who make the characters seem lived in, and their relationships instantly believable as those of a cantankerous but deeply loving family--a particular highlight is the cordial but slightly frosty relationship between the family and Reggie's wife Missy (Teyonah Parris), whose upper-class background imposes a distance that is no less obvious for going unacknowledged. 

    From the show's premise, you'd expect a lot of fish out of water humor, but Survivor's Remorse is a show about people who are smart and savvy, who have been consuming mass media for long enough to understand how it will spin every story that explodes around Cam, even if they don't yet realize what it means to be at the center of those stories.  That intelligence is so rare on TV that it makes the show worth watching in its own right--when Reggie tries to get Cassie to apologize for her comments about corporal punishment, we expect over the top shouting matches and a stubborn digging into opposing positions.  Instead, both aunt and nephew recognize that what's important is Cam's image, and what follows is a battle of wits between them to see how they can achieve that goal while still preserving her pride and his position of power.  Survivor's Remorse is therefore often more interesting than it is funny--especially since its humor frequently depends on raunch and on some rather broad gags, which along with the show's overfondness for displaying naked female bodies creates some serious tonal whiplash with its more intelligent aspects--but it's interesting in ways that are so rare on TV as to make it worth watching in their own right.

  • The Affair - Alongside all the new network shows, Showtime makes a stab at the prestige drama crown with this series, which chronicles the titular affair between Noah (Dominic West), an author summering by the beach with his family, and Alison (Ruth Wilson), a local waitress.  It's about as low-concept a premise as you could possibly imagine, and perhaps for that reason The Affair crams its storytelling with any number of gimmicks meant to dress up its familiar story.  Each episode relates its events twice, first from Noah's perspective and then from Alison's, and the differences between their narratives shed a light on how each sees the other more as what they needed them to be than who they actually are: Noah, who is bored and restless, sees Alison as a temptress; Alison, who is barely hanging on after the death of her son, sees Noah as a borderline-creep whose imposition on her life offers a distraction from her pain.  The problem with this approach is that, once the fairly obvious point that memory is fluid and self-serving has been made, we're unable to avoid the fact that neither of these stories are terribly interesting in their own right (and trying to work out where the "real" truth lies feels like a mug's game, since Noah and Alison's recollections are often so distinct as to leave no room for a happy medium). 

    Alison's story is much more engaging than Noah's--the middle aged, middle class white guy who is unhappy in his perfect marriage is an over-familiar cliché, and somehow being a writer doesn't encourage Noah to veer away from a simplistic, self-obsessed narrative.  Alison, meanwhile, has a broad, complex family history that is slowly being revealed, and despite being drawn to Noah she doesn't suffer from his tunnel-vision, noticing that the other members of her and his family are going through their own crises and major life events.  But the bifurcated format of the show means that we have to sit through Noah's boring, self-serving narrative before getting to Alison's more interesting one, a tediousness that is not alleviated by the fact that both Alison and Noah are telling their stories to a detective who is investigating some as-yet unspecified crime that occurred that summer.  The Affair is extremely well-made--West and Wilson are both very good, as are Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson as their respective spouses; and the look of the show, which stresses the sunny, windswept scenery and the contrast between the vacationers' opulent houses and the locals' ramshackle ones, helps to create a solid sense of place.  But without an engaging story at its core, the show's constant teasing of mysteries--who is telling the truth about Noah and Alison's affair?  What is the crime being investigated and who committed it?--feels like an attempt to distract from that absence rather than a worthwhile storytelling choice.

  • Constantine - There's an odd sort of protectiveness that comics fandom seems to feel towards John Constantine that far outstrips all other forms of adaptation-phobia.  Perhaps it's because I've only ever seen the results of those adaptations--this pilot, and the Keanu Reeves movie from 2005--but I've never really understood the attraction.  Constantine has always seemed to me like a fairly run-of-the-mill bad boy--hard-drinking, hard-smoking, a chain of bad relationships and even worse life choices in his wake--of the kind that television and movies throw out fairly regularly (though admittedly, and as in this case, not before carefully filing away anything that might not be entirely mainstream friendly, such as Constantine's chain-smoking and, apparently, his occasional bisexuality).  The pilot for the latest attempt to adapt this beloved property doesn't bring me any closer to an understanding.  One hour in, the show feels like grimdark, the TV series--set in a crapsack world whose normal surface conceals nothing but death and corruption, and revolving around characters defined by their cynicism, but not willing to actually own up to the full darkness of what that implies.  Constantine himself feels like an empty artfully-disheveled trenchcoat.  His sole defining feature is a tendency towards snarky but not particularly clever humor, and even allowing for the infelicities of the pilot requiring him to deliver a lot of infodumps, none of what the show tells us about him--that he is damned to hell and a bit anxious about that, that he's tortured by what he knows and can see--feels like anything more than empty posing, the desire to seem tortured without doing any of the hard work of writing an actually tortured character.  To work as a procedural, the pilot for Constantine needs to have some inkling of a sense of fun, even if it's a grim sort of fun that comes from spitting in the face of certain doom, but instead it is dutiful and plodding (and almost entirely lacking in women, certainly as movers and shakers in the show's world).  I don't know whether Constantine is the faithful adaptation that comics fans have been waiting for or yet another bowdlerization, but either way I'm not feeling motivated to keep watching.


Camille said...

I think the difference in the original Constantine is that both the stories and the character fully own up to the full ramifications of that darkness, something the adaptations have never managed.

Constantine is not a Keanu-esque damaged woobie. (I liked that one well enough, but I see it as the story of the real Constantine's distant American cousin; he has enough canonical distant family members behaving similarly, so what's one more?) Nor is he, as this series apparently thinks (haven't yet seen it) a "bad boy," he is a *bad person*, and the fact that he is wholly dedicated to, and consistently saves, the world and this plane of existence cannot ever fully mitigate the tide of collaterally damaged people -- real, complex, long-term and fully drawn people -- in his wake. And both the series and the character know this and are aware that it will destroy him and he will deserve it. (The series has ended, not entirety satisfactorily - in fact I'd say the conclusion might have been outright stupid - but I'd say a good 80 percent of it is as I describe.)

It works because it's made clear that he is exactly what is required to stand against the full might of the badness that lurks if the rest of us are to live in relatively benign consensus reality, unaware of our own complicity. He doesn't waste (too much) story angsting away time better put towards efficacy. He is the consummate trickster, and even if he is technically a Good Guy, he can never be good.

It's not perfect by any stretch, but it is complex, and I've never seen any adaptation, or indeed any other snarky, betrenchcoated protagonist in any genre come close to capturing what Hellblazer did. Maaaaybe The Operative from Serenity, but it's not quite the same, as Constantine is freelance, is not deluded, and does more good, even untainted good from time to time.

I think it's fair to say Hellblazer is closer to horror than dark fantasy.

Camille said...

That last line was meant to read "the dark fantasy the adaptations appear to veer toward." Whoops.

Oddly enough, I've often thought of John Constantine as The Doctor (Who), but with everything wholesome subtracted. The Doctor, when properly executed, doesn't really get humanity, but loves us and fights for us anyway. Constantine gets humanity a little too well, but fights anyway, while getting his hands irreparably dirty. (And he is funny. I'm disappointed if the show hasn't captured that. Of course, his humor isn't so much snappy one-liners as it is Nelson-laughter in the face of demons he's just outwitted. Flipping off Lucifer in the Keanu version is a good example.)

Kate Nepveu said...

I had literally never heard of _Survivor's Remorse_ before.

(PS: generally, one is not occasionally bisexual, though one may occasionally sleep with members of one's own gender and with members of genders other than one's own.)

Kate Nepveu said...

(I keep forgetting to check the "notify" box in these comments; this is accordingly a content-free comment for that purpose only.)

S Johnson said...

Tow episodes into The Affair, I am puzzled as to whether what we see is what the protagonists remember, or what they tell the police. I'm sure that the voiceover remarks they make are supposed to be direct statements to the detective, but did Noah really tell the detective his son faked hanging himself? Did Alison really tell the detective what she and her friends' said to each other about sex? It seems to me that Noah is minimizing problems, reducing everything to a familiar narrative, living in denial. Alison by contrast is very open with a cop about her anguish, yet we don't see her showing this to any of her actual friends. Her statement that she didn't have friends was odd. I wouldn't talk about anal sex with an acquaintance, but maybe that's just me? As to the story, whether this is how Alison marries Noah (or Bruce?) and moves to the city and has a new baby, or how Scotty is killed after his affair with the daughter, makes a difference I think.

Constantine is apparently damned because he couldn't keep a little girl from being torn out of his hands. I have no idea what theology construes insufficient grip as a mortal sin.

I'm seeing How to Get Away with Murder as how Annalise manipulates her minions into getting rid of her husband for her, so I don't know if the characters are so much thin as stupid from plot necessity. Detached from their families but not really in place in the wider world, I'm not sure how much "character" young people have.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


That's very interesting, thank you. And yes, the show hasn't even come close to capturing any of what you describe - the second episode was an improvement on the first but still too tedious for me to give the show a third chance, and the character itself never rises above a very familiar type.


It's been shockingly under-discussed. I keep waiting for something like the AV Club to at least acknowledge its existence, but no joy. Alyssa Rosenberg has a very nice write-up, though.

(Constantine's bisexuality: fair point. I was thinking about several discussions I'd seen that pointed out that some Hellblazer writers tended to ignore or forget Constantine's bisexuality, but that's not how it came across.)

S Johnson:

It's obvious that we're meant to wonder whether The Affair's narrators are lying to the police as well as themselves, and to try to puzzle out who the murder victim is and where Alison and Noah are in the present. My problem is that I don't find any of these questions terribly interesting, largely because, three episodes in, the show is so opaque on all these fronts that it feels like a waste of my time to try to work any of these matters out. I keep comparing this show to True Detective, which used a very similar format to very similar ends, but was so much smarter about laying down clues that enabled an observant viewer to work out and guess its twists ahead of time in a way that was almost instantly addictive. The Affair is nowhere near that clever.

I have no idea what theology construes insufficient grip as a mortal sin.

Heh. In general I find it so annoying that shows like Constantine (and, for example, Sleepy Hollow) normalize a certain hysterical reading of Christianity as the one true faith that I don't even bother to grapple with their theology, but yes, as mortal sins go that one is fairly mild, and ties into Camille's guess that the show isn't willing to let Constantine be as bad a person as his comics antecedent.

how Annalise manipulates her minions into getting rid of her husband for her

Huh. It's obviously not impossible that this will turn out to be the story, but if so it will contradict everything we've seen of Annelise - who so far seems unreasonably devoted to her husband. If the show can pull off that twist it'll be quite neat, but I'm not sure it'll make up for so many weeks spent with its bland leads - and whether or not their blandness is realistic, I still expect the leads in a TV series to be even marginally interesting.

Stanoje said...

The Affair: In the second (I think) episode Noah tells the detective that he kept his distance from Allison, while the episode shows him stalking her. There are many other instances of the characters' statements to the police contradicting the events as shown in the episode. And from a sheer logistical point of view, it would be impossible for the interviewed characters to convey everything that happens in the show through words alone. So, yeah, we're not seeing "reconstructions" of their statements to the police.

rushthatspeaks said...

I am so annoyed by the adaptations of Hellblazer. This one doesn't sound like it has even as much good in it the film version's one saving grace, Tilda Swinton's morally ambiguous angel Gabriel (who would fit right into the Hellblazer comics).

John Constantine in the comics is one of the most complex sets of changes rung on a particular archetype that I have ever seen. He ought to be full of inconsequential manpain, and he ought to be overdramatic with his trenchcoat and his eternal cigarette, and his backstory is usually the sort of thing that is a hideously conventional explanation of things we didn't need explained about a character, and none of the above is true, because, somehow, he remains John Constantine, and that is sufficient. Many of the individual issues and story arcs of Hellblazer are terrible, and that doesn't matter either; it always comes back to Constantine, and he carries the series. Somehow, as an aggregate, he's unbreakable as a comic books character, throughout all the bad writing, bad art, bad art crossed with bad writing, and every plot without a thought in its head the company powers-that-be can manage to throw at him-- somehow, he has always been John Constantine. I knew Vertigo was finished as an artistic endeavor when they ended Hellblazer.

And somehow, he doesn't cross mediums. Mike Carey's Felix Castor novels are a transparent attempt at Constantine in prose, and by a writer who has written successful Constantine comics, and they fail amazingly at being any good, being Constantine, or even being anything else. No film or TV adaptation has worked yet. Which fascinates me, because the problem seems to be that he is too three-dimensional for what the adaptations have been trying to do, and that is not usually a problem one has when going from comics to cinema.

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