I Watched the Fall Premieres So You Don’t Have To

September 30, 2011

[tweetmeme]It’s that time of year again when we get excited for all the new TV shows only to be terribly disappointed that they’re basically the same stories and characters recycled and repackaged. This year’s fall line up has been getting a lot of buzz about how many women-led shows are being created and aired.  While this might sound like a good thing, I wouldn’t get too excited just yet.  Quite a few critics have pointed out that although we might be seeing women’s faces on screen; women’s participation behind the scenes has actually dropped.  To be honest, none of the new shows seemed all that interesting, but my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to check out a few that specifically star women.

There are plenty of reviews out there that do a great job of recapping and analyzing the episodes so I’m just going to offer very short thoughts about the way gender and race are presented and if I think the show is worth sticking around for. (Check out a few observations/thoughts about my process at the end of the post).

So here we go:

2 Broke Girls (CBS)
Of this season’s new sitcoms, 2 Broke Girls was one of the more highly anticipated.  Sadly though, it was pretty much awful.  While Max’s character could almost be interesting and almost be dynamic, she just wasn’t. They had an older black man in the background who occasionally spoke, and when he did, he said mostly highly offensive jokes.  I think the breaking point for me however was near the very end of the episode when one of the kitchen staff sexually harasses Max.  While previous harassment on the show was met with disdain and antagonizing remarks, this time Max expressed appreciation for her perpetrator’s sexist commentary as it alleviated her newly heartbroken emotional state. This scene insists that women with low self esteem appreciate sexual harassment and will view objectification as a compliment, deeming harassment acceptable in ‘certain’ circumstances.

I would not watch again.


Playboy Club (NBC)
I don’t really know what to say about this show; it’s everything I expected it to be.  Horrible, offensive, oppressive; sexualizing, eroticizing and objectifying women and a white-washed revisionist history.  One of the first scenes, of course, utilizes violence: “Bunny” Maureen is shown physically fighting off an attempted rape.  What did strike me as interesting (in an entirely patriarchal way) was that the main character, Nick Dalton, a regular patron and key holder of the Playboy Club, is portrayed as a rich, successful, womanizer who values “smart” women and actively supports civil rights.  You know, he’s a sensitive womanizer *eye roll*.  This makes it easier for the audience to sympathize and identify with him, thereby excusing the imbalance of power in his oppressive relationships with women and his ignorance to his own privilege.

I would most definitely NOT watch this again.


New Girl (FOX)
Okay so New Girl made me laugh a couple of times.  I’m a huge Dirty Dancing fan so this episode had a couple of entertaining moments, but overall the show dwindles into “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” territory very quickly.  The creators are using the Hot Goofy Chick and The Manic Pixie Dream Girl tropes (what Zooey Deschanel is best known for) to pit her against what it means to be a “proper woman”.  Jess is clearly attractive by Hollywood standards so the writers have created very contrived scenarios to show how socially awkward she is, and therefore not conforming to traditional ideals of femininity.  Playing against traditional gender roles could be an interesting concept, but that is not what this show is doing. At nearly every turn the creators reinforce that she needs to learn to be a “woman” and conform to conventional standards of feminine behaviour.  By the end of the episode I was really rather sick of the Big Boys teaching the Little Girl how to be a “woman”.

The men… oh the men.  It seems that all sitcoms need to have The Sensitive Guy and The Sexist Asshole Guy (in this case I couldn’t get past how Veronica Mars’ former awesome boyfriend was being a complete jerk).  Schmidt’s exaggerated attempts to be macho and tough frames him as a sexist prick–as in, we’re supposed to actually recognize his actions as sexist behaviour.  This is made clear when the other characters confront him (i.e.: the douchebag jar). However, we might need to revisit Retro Sexism here: while other characters are pointing out that he is being sexist, it doesn’t stop him from being sexist, nor is it really in anyway critiquing sexist behaviour.  Schmidt’s sexism is supposed to be funny and endearing.  Basically the take away from these Retro Sexist comments is that Boys will be (sexist) Boys but we love ‘em anyways, (but serious, we don’t love it!).

And let’s not ignore the amazingly racist portrayals of a sexualized woman dressed up as “The Indian Princess” paired with the racist comment from Schmidt about “motorboating a member of the Cherokee Nation” followed up with a statement about how it’s not racist “because it’s for a good cause”.  Again, sitcom writers think that by acknowledging or making racism and sexism obvious it drains the oppressive power from the comment or action, but in fact, it doesn’t.  They are still perpetuating racism.

Maybe might consider watching again, but I seriously doubt it.

 


Up All Night (NBC)
Okay I loved this episode. I really liked the authenticity of Reagan and Chris.  While using humour, they were able to provide genuine examples of the struggles with being in a married relationship and having a new baby.  I also appreciated the way they handled the stay-at-home dad story.  They showed sincerity and emotion in Chris without demasculating him or making fun of him (ex.: talking to his new friend about his feelings).  And the couple actually, however briefly, addresses issues of resentment that can arise when one parent sacrifices their career to raise their child.  I also liked the way the show was edited as well as the progression of time.  My only real criticism so far is Ava’s character:  she’s a little too over-the-top and I think could benefit from some nuance and subtly, but that may come in future episodes.

Will definitely watch again.


Ringer (CW)
My first thought when watching Ringer: “Look it’s Buffy!”  My second thought: “Oh god, it’s so not Buffy.”  Remaining thoughts: “Wow, this is really awful.”  While I’m a HUGE Buffy fan, I’m not necessarily on the Sarah Michelle Gellar bandwagon so she’s not enough to hold my interest. I found the show to be quite dull, predictable and just not appealing.  As Rebellious Pixels said while watching the episode, “This is an impressive level of bad”.  The episode starts with a scene portraying violence against women. Then we find out that the season’s villain is a Native American man.  It is so entirely rare to see indigenous folks on TV shows, and the few times we do, they are often portrayed as evil, manipulative, casino owners, or magical and this case is no different.  I don’t see where this show’s overall story can go after a season if it gets renewed, and at this point, I really don’t care.

Side note: Remember when Siobhan–er…Bridget–was on the roof and she sees a man lingering in a trench coat? Did anyone else think, “Hey, it’s Angel being a stalker again”?

Really not interested in watching again


Revenge (ABC)
Before even watching an episode I knew I would hate everything about this show.  I really hate revenge story lines.  I really hate the manipulative, conniving woman trope.  And I loathe stories about how hard it is to be rich, especially when the woes of wealth are fed through catty, white female characters.  So basically, this is not the show for me. I was however surprised by how it kept my attention. Emily/Amanda had a good amount of subtlety in her tone and her facial expressions in playing this highly manipulative role and she sort of grew on me, or maybe I just watched it after Ringer so the bar wasn’t set very high.

Additionally, the voiceovers were painfully scripted/cliche: Emily/Amanda said things like “When deception cuts this deep, someone has to pay.” Revenge is not justice, and I’m sick of seeing the glorification of revenge in so many of our TV shows and movies.

Seriously doubt I’ll watch again unless I’m really bored


Whitney (NBC)
Critics predicted this show to be pretty bad, but nothing could have prepared me for the mess of horrible it really was.  The jokes were terrible, the acting was terrible, and the laugh-track was painful.  In essence this was yet another show with a neurotic, “crazy” woman and her sweet, sensible, tolerant boyfriend.  There was a joke in there somewhere about how Whitney’s boyfriend had sex with her while she was unconscious, but how that was okay because it was their anniversary.  Note to screenwriters: people in the real world call that rape.  At one point Whitney dresses up as a “sexy nurse” to reinvigorate their sex life, and while the whole sexy nurse concept is frustrating in and of itself, they depict Whitney as not doing sexy “right” further playing into the neurotic, ‘crazy’ woman stereotype.  The creators also threw in The Asshole Guy (similar to New Girl) with Whitney’s friend at the wedding, again showing the other characters shame him for being sexist, yet they’re still hanging out with him and his behavior doesn’t change.

As Mary Elizabeth Williams said over at Salon, “Whitney Cummings’ aggressively promoted new sitcom may just be the most unself-awarely retro-sexist show on television.” That pretty much sums it up.

Will NOT watch again

 


The Secret Circle (CW)
Yet another show that begins with horrific violence against women, this time the torture and murder of the protagonist’s mother. Cassie seems like an interesting character so far: she’s capable, can change a tire, and is struggling to fit into a new town and school after the death of her mother and only parent. Oh, did I forget to mention this is a show about witches? Turns out she’s a witch. But in this case, being a witch isn’t entirely stereotypical and isn’t reserved only for evil, conniving women (it’s just reserved for white people — and their one black friend).

Some choices the writers made were a little over-the-top. For instance, the scene where a male witch opens Cassie’s bedroom curtains to watch her undress, which was meant to help Cassie realize her new town is a little bit strange, was clearly an extreme way to convey that message. AKA, they probably could have done without the sexual harassment. Also, the “evil” witch, Faye, is a bit too much of a throw back to The Craft. I hope they settle her character out, but I doubt they will.

Personally, I have a hard time getting past the intentional casting of actors that fit the typical Hollywood model. I mean, a little size, age, and appearance diversity wouldn’t make the show any worse. I didn’t believe the parents were actual parents who cared about their kids at all. Casting adults to play teens, and adults (who aren’t that much older) to play parents makes the situation all the more unbelievable.

One little thing that nagged at me was how much Cassie (Britt Robertson) looks like Hayden Panettiere, and with the casting of Thomas Dekker, I kept getting thrown back to the friendship from Heroes. The show isn’t good, but it isn’t entirely bad either. And with all the crap I’ve been watching this week I’m probably giving this a chance when I normally wouldn’t.

Will unenthusiastically watch again

**Addendum: I watched a few more episodes and my final conclusion is that this show is unwatchably bad, please don’t even bother with it!


Unforgettable (CBS)
I’m really not a fan of police procedurals.  I usually can’t get over the glorification of the American Justice System. The cops and the prosecutors are usually depicted as “good guys” who protect us from all the horrible, vile people in the world.  This is such a conservative, skewed worldview that is perpetuated in the abundance of cop shows.  These weekly crime shows also tend to have an extraordinary amount of violence against women, dead women, and evil murdering women as a way to maintain sensationalism.  Clearly I didn’t go into this show with much optimism.  And while this episode didn’t begin with violence, we were quickly following a story about solving the murder of a dead woman.

What I found however was a pretty interesting female lead.  I didn’t care for the sexy-badass-with-a-gun number in the beginning, but once we focused on protagonist Carrie Wells, there was a bit more complexity.  I was also impressed with how the actor, Poppy Montgomery, avoided the usual pit falls for “strong women characters” by not playing the tough, badass, tortured, pessimistic, misanthropic woman.  She conveyed a message more akin to “yeah, things are a little rough for me, but I’m still functional and I’m actively working on taking care of myself.”

Clearly, she’s going to rejoin the police force and be guided by her ex-husband to figure out her big haunting past, which I suppose would be expected.  But how much more interesting would this show be if Carrie found a female sidekick and solved problems for folks around her (kind of what Lost Girls is trying to do without the creepy soul sucking).

I’ll probably watch a few more episodes


Charlie’s Angels (ABC)
I don’t think I even have the heart to get into the ineffable levels of oppressive gender problems that is the Charlie’s Angels remake, this show pretty much exemplifies everything that is wrong with Hollywood.   Just don’t watch it.

Although, it does provide me the opportunity to express my frustration about the way technology is used on television.  There are so many forms of innovative tech in the world today, and even more that is under development, so why can’t TV shows use realistic portrayals of tech!?  It would be cool, I promise.  There was much screaming in my house when Bosley tapped into a satellite to view into a hotel room… with his iPad (is there an app for that? I don’t think so).   And don’t get me started on the much overused “enhance” photo.  There is only a limited amount of data in video footage, you can’t just zoom in and get a crystal clear shot of someone’s face.

As for the rest of the show, I think my series of tweets while watching it generally sums up my take:

Will absolutely NOT watch again


Pan Am (ABC)
Let’s address this whole retro nostalgia for the 60’s thing that is flooding US television. The 60’s was a great time if you happen to be rich, white, American, a man and straight – for almost everyone else it kind of sucked, it especially sucked for women and people of colour.  So this all-white-middle-class-privileged 60’s revival that is going on right now to capitalize on the popularity of Mad Men is offensive at best.  Pan Am is revisionist history pure and simple, they have created a clean and glorified, sexy version of the 60’s that never existed.

This show follows around a group of Pan Am flight attendants who are really nothing more then glorified waitresses in the sky wearing cute outfits serving the rich.  While the writers have conveniently ignored any race issues during the pilot episode, they certainly haven’t forgotten about the Cold War and we quickly learn that one of the flight attendants is a super secret CIA spy, (which is another pet peeve of mine: depicting the CIA as the “good guys” in the battle to do justice around the world… because they are really not the good guys).

We see the Pan Am flight attendants being weighed and critiqued on their appearance and as audience members, we are supposed to be appalled (“My God, look at the rampant sexism!”).  But just a few scenes later we “ooooh” and “awww” at how fun and cute they look in their matching outfits during their slow motion walk through the airport.  We are supposed to love and admire the retro throw-back appearance and style, yet we are also supposed to be appalled about the way that appearance gets manufactured!?  You can’t have your cake and eat it too.   These women trade the ability to make money and travel the world with being put on display, and this, of course, is not critiqued.

Not interested in watching again.


Suburgatory (ABC)
This was a surprisingly funny show, I definitely laughed out loud on more then a few occasions. It’s hard not to like Tessa especially in comparison to her fellow classmates.  Tessa relocates from Manhattan into what appears to be White Suburban Hell: catty gossipy housewives, plastic self centered teenage women and an obnoxious jock.  The repeated jabs at white suburban folks appropriating Black Hip Hop culture was hilarious, and sadly all too true.  There is definitely a lack of people of colour but maybe that is kind of the point in the suburbs… it’s just how many shows are specifically made about and for white people at the exclusion of everyone else!?

The show is funny and entertaining but the ending had me a little worried.  Tessa was given a lacy, pink bra and found that she actually liked it.  This in and of itself is not a bad thing, but it does indicate that the theme of the series might be Tessa learning how to be a “normal” woman. Clearly, the suburban, plastic fantasy world is scary and frightening and that is pitted against Tessa being a City Girl who wears “lesbian” boots.  The bra might be an indicator of trying to find a middle ground between these “extremes” but really… there is nothing extreme or wrong or needing to be changed about Tessa… so here’s hoping the show isn’t entirely predictable.

Will watch again.


A few observations/thoughts:

  1. I do not like sitcoms. There I said it. I find sitcoms to be generally badly acted, badly written, badly edited, uncreative and some of the most oppressive television to exist (of course there are exceptions but…)  That said, many of these new shows are sitcoms so I reluctantly sat through them.
  2. When watching so many shows back to back it’s hard to not compare them to one another as opposed to my own set standards for good quality television.  This means I may give a little more credit to some shows that weren’t quite as bad as, say, Whitney, even though I wouldn’t consider them “good” shows overall.
  3. After having refused to watch some shows because of bad pilots, only to learn that they are actually pretty good shows (i.e.: Fringe), I don’t think it’s entirely fair to judge a show based on only one episode.  Also as a pop culture critic, I don’t think judging a show based on a single episode is responsible.  There is a lot of subtlety and growth that can happen throughout the run of a show, which is a major reason why I like the long term form of storytelling that television offers.  My criticisms and ratings below should be read with this point in mind.
  4. I noticed a disturbing reoccurring pattern in many of the season’s dramatic shows. In nearly all of the dramas violence was used within the first scene or two, and nearly all of that violence was directed towards women.  Violence against women is a common pattern repeatedly used for sensational effect in television and movies, but I was a little surprised to see how many of these shows used it as the opening ‘hook’.
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