mr. robot season two

Mr. Robot sneaks up on you. Last season, I got about halfway through and then it fell into the bottomless, always full pit of DVR hell. It was interesting, and Rami Malek was great, but there was always something else to watch.

Eventually, I caught up, inspired just before Season Two began, to see what all the fuss was about. I’m not sure what happened, except that maybe I just wasn’t ready for it during my first attempt. But by the time I finished binging Season One, I couldn’t wait for the new season to begin. And Mr. Robot became one of the few shows that I had to watch when it was aired.

In the season finale, a character recites the William Carlos Williams poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”. This poem is ever present in high school and college English classes, where students grapple with the deep meanings said to reside inside the poem’s sixteen words. I am not here to explicate the poem, nor am I here to specifically place it in the context of Mr. Robot. But one thing seems crucial to me: the meanings that reside inside Mr. Robot are often just as hard for viewers to ascertain as Williams’ meanings are for students.

Or maybe it’s something as simple as writer Sam Esmail wanting to give his character something short to recite.

Mr. Robot got a lot of acclaim for its first season, in particular the ways in which the show, which was unlike other series on the USA Network, expanded that network's possibilities. (In truth, Mr. Robot is unlike most series on most networks.) Whatever constraints USA might have placed on Esmail for Season One seemed to disappear for Season Two, perhaps hiding under all the acclaim. Remarkably, Esmail rarely resorted to self-indulgence, and when he did (the “Alf” episode), it was often so fun no one cared about indulgence. But Esmail walked a thin line with what seemed to me to be conscious obfuscation. While some obsessive viewers correctly anticipated some of the more startling plot moments, others (i.e. me) were simultaneously intrigued by the mystery and frustrated by the lack of revelation. Yes, Mr. Robot specializes in big, grand revelations, and they are part of what makes the series compelling. But they are satisfying in part because Esmail has been leading us along for long stretches. (Again, for me ... others claimed to know everything before it happened.)

We haven’t yet fallen into Lost territory yet, but the potential is there.

Meanwhile, Rami Malek’s Emmy was well-deserved, and the casting in general effectively matches actors and characters. Carly Chaikin looks like Malek/Elliot’s sister, and she does great work as a bad-ass who is vulnerable on the inside (but not as much as that cliché might suggest). I don’t think Michael Cristofer has ever given a bad performance. Best of all is B.D. Wong as a mysterious character (are there any other kinds on this show?) who is both a transgender head of the “Dark Army” and the Minister of State Security for China.

Like I say, there’s nothing else like this out there right now. That novelty won’t carry the show forever, although Rami Malek might be able to pull it off. Suffice to say that, at the end of an erratic finale to an erratic season, I can’t wait for Season Three to begin.


stranger things, season one

This Netflix series comes from The Duffer Brothers, whose previous work I haven’t seen. In fact, I’m not familiar with too many of the people connected to the show, including the many child actors who play prominent roles. Cara Buono, who featured in a season of Mad Men, has a fairly minor role, and Matthew Modine’s character is important even though he doesn’t make too many appearances. Yet Stranger Things feels quite familiar nonetheless, despite the title suggesting otherwise, because it wears its influences on its sleeves, in plain sight. The series, which takes place in a Midwestern town in the 1980s, borrows from Spielberg’s suburban movies and plays homage to many other movie and TV artifacts of that era. Someone even made a half-hour video noting what they claim is every single reference in the entire season:

Appropriately, the one actor who is easily recognizable is Winona Ryder, who in the 80s starred in films like Beetlejuice and Heathers. Ryder was a point of contention in our house ... while my wife and I are both fans of the actor, she thought Ryder was unconvincing as a mom on the edge after her son disappears. I felt that Ryder’s quirky performance fit the character, and it is the kind of role that invites awards, for what that’s worth.

Like the best Spielberg movies with kids, Stranger Things does a wonderful job of presenting life from a kid’s perspective. There is no condescension, just an acceptance that kids see things their own way. The kids are far from perfect ... their silly squabbles are there for all to see ... but their loyalty is there, as well. It’s not just the kids whose perspective we get ... Winona Ryder’s mom, creeping into near madness, has her own definite way of seeing, and it is among the strongest parts of the show (my wife would probably not agree). My favorite part of the entire series is the Ouija-board she makes out of lights that she puts on her wall. You see, she is convinced her missing son is somehow inside her walls, trying to communicate with her:

Stranger Things is full of ominous paranoia and a hearty nostalgia for the period it recreates. It has its ups and down, but then, I never expect cheesy sci-fi horror to be perfect ... I just expect it to be fun. Stranger Things is fun.


the night of

Great television series can be found everywhere these days, including some surprising places like Lifetime and USA, not to mention all of the streaming possibilities. Still, when HBO offers a prestige mini-series event, it gets our attention. HBO still represents quality for most people. So The Night Of has a lot going for it from the start, and it must be said, for the most part, it delivers on its promise. The first of eight episodes is as good as TV gets, and if the rest of the series can’t live up to that introduction, it’s still plenty good. The story of a Pakistani-American college student who is the prime suspect in a brutal murder case, The Night Of casts a wide net as it examines the effects of institutions on people, not just victims but the people working within those institutions.

That first episode takes us through a long night where college student Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) meets a girl, has some wild times, wakes up to find she has been murdered, rather accidentally gets arrested, and spends time waiting in a police station before he is finally locked up. The dread is overwhelming ... it’s almost guaranteed they can’t keep this up for eight episodes, and they don’t, but at least the audience gets to breathe. Ahmed is the best thing about the series ... somehow, using only his eyes and the way he walks, he shows us Naz as a scared kid who gradually, in his time in jail, becomes harder. It is the most subtle kind of acting, and needs to be seen to be believed. John Turturro, perhaps the biggest name here, is fine in a role originally intended for James Gandolfini ... his defining visual characteristic is his eczema. There are a few other names I recognized in the cast, most notably the always great Micheal K. Williams, along with Jeannie Berlin, Glenne Headly, and Williams’ old Wire buddy J.D. Williams.

Richard Price and Steven Zaillian are trying to do at least two things here, a character study and a procedural. The procedural is what makes us wonder what will happen next, and of course, the inevitable whodunnit angle keeps our attention. There is no reason why these two can’t coexist, that we can learn about how the process affects the people it swallows while also learning what happened on the night of. But in the final episode, the procedural took over, and not for the better. Bill Camp plays a retiring cop, Dennis Box, who identifies a suspect on the first night (Naz) and doesn’t look at anyone else because the initial evidence is good, and, one assumes, he wants to go home with his new golf clubs. They needed to establish this about Box with more clarity, though, because in the final episode, feeling uncertain about the case, he finally applies his strong detective skills to the case, becoming convinced Naz was innocent. If Box was as good as he seems, he would have done this work sometime during Episode Two, but that wouldn’t make much of a mini-series. Meanwhile, several characters throughout the series act like morons, not because they are stupid but because it allows for an eight-episode mini-series. So Naz gets himself in a predicament, but he makes it infinitely worse by pocketing a bloody knife that turns out to be the murder weapon. One of his attorneys, who seems as bright as any other lawyer, kisses Naz in front of a jail camera ... dumb ... and later smuggles drugs to Naz in her vagina. The only reason she turns stupid is so Turturro, who has just sat at the defendant’s table the entire trial, can give the closing argument (he does fine, the speech is fine, but it’s like a movie about horse racing ... the ending is always great because horse races are exciting, and this works because closing arguments always work).

When you spend seven episodes with something as good as The Night Of, you won’t want to have stupid things turning up in the last episode just to make the mystery more entertaining. Zaillian and Price work hard to elevate The Night Of above the usual crime drama, then turn it into something far more ordinary at the end. It’s a shame, because much of that last episode is equal to what came before. The result is a series where the first episode was an A+, the next six episodes were A/A-, but the last episode fluctuated between A and C.


casual

There are television shows (and movies, for that matter) that my wife tends to avoid because they have no characters to “root for”. It’s not about a contest, it’s just that she likes to have a least one person who has some chance of becoming a good person, if they aren’t there already.

For this reason, I’ve told her that she should avoid Unreal, a series that takes us behind the scenes at the making of a reality dating show. Almost every character has ulterior motives (some actually wear their motives on their sleeves, so I guess those aren’t ulterior) ... almost every character is concerned almost entirely with their own personal agendas of advancement. Shiri Appleby is presented as the one person with a conscience ... when the series begins, she is returning to the dating show (called Everlasting) after having a nervous breakdown during the show’s previous season. She is very good at her job, which requires that she manipulate the women who appear as contestants trying to win the heart of the man of their dreams, doing what she can to get them (and that year’s Man of Dreams) to act in a way that will make for a good season of Everlasting. Over time, she abuses every one of the women she deals with, but because she has a conscience, she feels bad about what she does. Thus, we think she might become a good person.

Except, at least through Season One, she never makes it. She is still pulling shit as the season ends. And she is what passes for a likable character. (I haven’t yet watched Season Two. It has drawn some seriously negative reactions ... I threw out a query to some of the critics I trust most, whether I should continue watching Season Two, and the best I got was Mo Ryan saying the first two episodes were good, but that then it went downhill.)

The thing is, the people behind Unreal are quite aware of what they are doing with these characters. They are not meant to be likable. I don’t think the creators of Casual are in that place, however. Casual, a Hulu series which just finished its second season, is about a woman who is breaking up with her husband and moves, with their daughter, into her brother’s home. Once we meet the siblings’ parents, we understand why they are having such trouble as adults ... they had a rough childhood in a psychological sense. And over two seasons, the three main characters work gradually towards becoming better people. All three of them are extremely self-absorbed, but when they step outside of themselves we see some pretty decent people. The characters feel real, with all of their flaws, and we root for them.

Except ... the brother is the #1 amongst equals when it comes to self-absorption. He tramples on the lives of others, always thinking that he is the one who is suffering (in fairness, he often is). I know this kind of person ... I am this kind of person. And I try to do better, as does the character. But he is so horrible that, using my wife’s criteria, he is practically unwatchable. The writing is good, the acting is good, but I simply can’t stand that guy. I don’t even like when he gets a comeuppance, because I know it will lead to more scenes where he thinks only of himself and his traumas.

Let’s just say he hits too close to home for me. It’s a good show, but I can’t say I enjoy it much.

Everyone loves Leon, though:

 

(I wrote about the first half of Season One last year.)


triumph's summer election special 2016

Last night, as my wife was reading in bed, I joined her, opened up my Kindle, put in my ear phones, and turned on Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s latest special on Hulu, Triumph’s Summer Election Special 2016. If you are unfamiliar with Triumph, imagine Don Rickles’ shtick coming out of the mouth of a hand puppet doggy operated by Robert Smigel. He made his name for his occasional appearances on Conan O’Brien’s various late-night shows, where he often got tossed out of events he was “covering” (most famously the Westminster Dog Show, more than once). Arguably his most famous sketch is his demolition of Star Wars fans waiting in line for the premiere of one of the movies. A favorite at our house is when, for some reason, a Hawaii TV station asked him to substitute for the local weather reporter.

The new Election Special comes on the heels of an earlier edition that has actually been nominated for an Emmy.

After I was done watching, I pulled out my ear phones, at which point, my wife said she had rarely, if ever, heard me laugh so much for an extended period of time. Oh, a minute or two here and there, but consistent, full-throated laughter for an hour? She was amazed.

I’m not going to try and analyze why this is. Suffice to say that I find Triumph to be hilarious at his best, and always worth watching even when he’s not as good. What interests me here is how Triumph has become a political comedian with these two specials. He’s been here before ... he did bits in both the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns ... but for the most part, he’s famous for those Star Wars fans, and Bon Jovi fans, and American Idol contestants, and the Tony Awards, etc. His act never really changes, which is one reason I’m surprised that I still find it funny. He works his way into situations where he can pepper people with questions that are either insulting, or lead to insults. You may feel a bit guilty for laughing at his victims, although apparently as his fame increases, he often gets asked by fans to be tormented on camera. Triumph is first and last a comedian ... there is no social commentary to his bits.

Except when he’s dealing with politicians. It’s one thing when he makes fun of Star Wars fans (confronted with a fan in a Darth Vader costume, he points to a box of buttons on the costume and asks which button calls up his parents to pick him up), but another when he applies the same basic techniques to politicians (and, more often, their representatives):

Triumph’s comedy is based on insults, but when he addresses politicians and their lackeys, he asks the questions “real” journalists would not. OK, there’s only so many jokes you can make about Bernie Sanders’ age, or Hillary Clinton’s hair, or Donald Trump’s anything. But when his insulting questions are directed at actual issues, you see how the need for politeness mutes even the most “hard-hitting” journalists.

Triumph is an equal opportunity insult artist ... in this special he takes on Democrats and Republicans alike. But Donald Trump is so easy that he gives Triumph his best material. At one point, Triumph says he has footage of Trump visiting neighborhoods with mostly minority residents. We imagine Donald pressing the flesh, but when we see the footage, Trump shows up in a tank, speaking through a megaphone about how he loves black people and Mexicans, showing nothing but his hand waving out of the top of the tank.

Most revealing, if perhaps too reminiscent of an old Daily Show sketch, is when Triumph sets up a legitimate focus group of Trump supporters and asks their opinions on various proposed ads for the campaign. The fake ads are ridiculous, but the supporters find something to like about all of them. After one ad, where Trump says during the time the wall is built, he will put up an electric fence and force all Mexicans to wear collars that will shock them if they try to cross over into the U.S., the focus group spends a bit of time not condemning the ads but analyzing the logistics to make the plan work better.

Still, for me, it comes back to laughter. And so I preferred the segment when Triumph couldn’t get into the Republican convention. He turns up with a Roger Ailes lookalike. It works.


the man in the high castle (tv series)

I have a tendency to judge adaptations of the works of Philip K. Dick by how much I think they reflect the spirit and tone of his novels. I suppose we all do this, and it’s not like there’s an official stand on which everyone agrees. Dick is said to have loved Blade Runner, while I felt that movie left out the wrong parts from the novel. There is also the disorienting feeling his books bring on the reader. This is something that has rarely been captured on film ... one scene in Total Recall did it, and A Scanner Darkly got it for an entire movie.

Amazon’s TV series, The Man in the High Castle, doesn’t really get Dick, either, but that doesn’t matter as much as I thought it would. The novel is unlike his other books, so the “non-Dick” factor is built in. The premise of book and series is simple, an alternate history where the Axis wins World War II. The series does a beautiful job of world creation, especially with the sets and cinematography. Much of the world we see is dark and grimy (it takes place in 1962, with Japan in control of the West Coast and Germany controlling the East). While I wouldn’t say the tale is simple, it’s very controlled for a Phil Dick story. Once you set up the alternate history, everything else falls into place. I don’t want to overstate the ways the book differs from his other novels. The ways the characters interact with each other and with their environment are very Dickian. But the hallucinatory feel of his writing is mostly absent from The Man in the High Castle, which may be why it’s the one that won awards.

I usually attribute that psychedelic feel to drugs, both the ones Dick was taking as he wrote, and the ones that turn up in his books in the mid/late-60s. But this stuff was there, even before High Castle, even before drugs. Take this Wikipedia description of an early novel, Eye in the Sky:

The title refers to the gigantic, all-seeing eye of God; at least, that is, as a manifestation of one Arthur Silvester's personal worldview. He is an elderly schismatic Bábí World War II army veteran whose inner life is initially forcibly imposed on several other characters as the result of the involuntary formation of a gestalt consciousness after a nuclear accident.... While on a visit to the (fictional) Belmont Bevatron in then near-future 1957, eight people become stuck in a series of subtly unreal worlds, caused by the malfunction of the particle accelerator. These are later revealed to be solipsistic manifestations, bringing the story in line with Dick's penchant for subjective realities.

Or this, from another early novel, Time Out of Joint:

Ragle Gumm believes that he lives in the year 1959 in a quiet American suburb. His unusual profession consists of repeatedly winning the cash prize in a local newspaper competition called, "Where Will The Little Green Man Be Next?". Gumm's 1959 has some differences from ours: the Tucker car is in production, AM/FM radios are scarce to non-existent and Marilyn Monroe is a complete unknown. As the novel opens, strange things begin to happen to Gumm. A soft-drink stand disappears, replaced by a small slip of paper with the words "SOFT-DRINK STAND" printed on it in block letters. Intriguing little pieces of the real 1959 turn up: a magazine article on Marilyn Monroe, a telephone book with non-operational exchanges listed and radios hidden away in someone else's house.... A neighborhood woman, Mrs. Keitelbein, invites him to a Civil Defense class where he sees a model of a futuristic underground military factory. He has the unshakeable feeling he's been inside that building many times before.

Despite the enormous effect the alternate history in High Castle has on the reader, who knows what “really” happened, the characters live as if the world is “normal”. This is what makes the book different than most other PKD novels, and it’s why I think of it as simpler than his other books. Easier to take in, perhaps, but without the disorienting feel Dick is so good as portraying, The Man in the High Castle is a bit dull.

(I wrote a silly, I Ching-based post about the novel, which you can read here.)

All of this is a long-winded way of explaining why I don’t expect The Man in the High Castle television series to feel Dickian ... the novel doesn’t feel that way to me, either. It’s actually rather liberating, as the series can focus on the story and the characters, making great use of their creation of the alternate history, without worrying how close they are to Phil Dick.

When it is good, The Man in the High Castle is very good indeed. I can’t say enough about the great work of the people who put the vision of the creators on the screen. And there are a couple of excellent performances, Rufus Sewell as a Nazi bigwig, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as a Japanese trade minister. (Special shout out to Burn Gorman as a bounty hunter.) But one of the main characters, Joe Blake, is as boring as his name, and I can’t tell if the character is written poorly, the actor is too bland, or both, but it leaves a hole in the screen. Alexa Davalos is asked to carry much of the show, and she’s adequate, but in this case, she might be better suited to a supporting role.

Still, the world creation is remarkable, the plot moves along, and if it isn’t a great series, it at least has me looking forward to Season Two.

Addendum: Tim Goodman wrote a piece today about what he calls “Amazon’s baffling TV strategy”, which seems to amount to getting people to buy Amazon Prime where they can get free shipping for that pair of socks they purchased, and oh, we have movies and TV shows too, and oh, a few of those TV shows are ours.


she saved the world. a lot

This starts out being about sports, but it wanders, so here’s a spoiler warning for Penny Dreadful.

The Warriors lost their title to the Cavs. I didn’t like it while it was happening ... as I said at one point on Facebook, I didn’t want a good game, I wanted a Warrior victory, the bigger the better. And so it was a good game, even a great game, and LeBron James is the best player of his era, and his team accomplished something great. I am happy for the fans in Cleveland who have waited so long. Actually, I’m not happy, but one day I will be. It helps that 1) we got to celebrate just last year, and 2) the entire season up until these last games was such a joy.

Another thing that helps is being a fan of more than one sport. So while the Warriors lost, the Giants have won 8 in a row, and 27 of their last 35 (a record for the San Francisco team). They are for the moment comfortably in first place.

And the U.S. men’s national soccer team has made it to the semi-finals of the Copa América Centenario, where Argentina awaits them on Tuesday. That gives us 40+ hours to imagine what it might be like for the USA to beat Messi and company.

So it’s not bad being a Bay Area sports fan right now, even if the Warriors game hurts.

The NBA season is over, but it will return. And tonight, after the sadness of the basketball game, there was the Season Three finale of Penny Dreadful. Showtime claimed it was two hours long, but it was just two episodes shown back to back. While the first episode, and half of the second, featured interesting stories about the show’s many characters, along with the usual excellent acting, Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives was noticeable by her absence. And since we knew everything was headed for a showdown with Vanessa, Dracula, and our intrepid heroes, it felt like a bit of stalling ... come on, I kept thinking, get down to it. When Green finally showed up, we were reminded why Penny Dreadful has, above all, always been her series. There were all the great fictional characters thrown together: Dr. Frankenstein, his monster, and the Bride ... Dorian Gray ... Dr. Jekyll ... The Wolfman ... Dracula and Dr. Seward and Mina Harker and Van Helsing and Renfield ... I half expected Abbott and Costello to show up. But in all of this, Eva Green rose above the rest. She was the best thing about a very good show.

And yes, here come the spoilers, and yes, I was speaking in the past tense in that last sentence. For Vanessa Ives died to save the world from evil, rather like Buffy in “The Gift”. Buffy was resurrected, of course, and hey, Penny Dreadful features Dr. Frankenstein, so I suppose Vanessa could come back. But it was her death that finally ended Dracula’s reign of darkness, and it was explicitly Christian ... her last words were that she could see “our Lord”, whose battle she had fought her entire life.

Much has been made of late about how frequently television series use “surprise” deaths of important characters these days, but even in that context, Vanessa’s death snuck up on us, even as it seemed inevitable. More surprising were the words that appeared on the screen at the end of the episode, after we’d spent a few minutes trying to imagine Penny Dreadful without Eva Green. “The End”. Surprise, surprise. Showtime managed to keep that under wraps. I hadn’t even noticed that Penny Dreadful had yet to be extended for a fourth season. I just assumed it would happen, given that Showtime has a well-deserved reputation for letting their best shows run long past their sell-by date. But it turns out that Penny Dreadful is expensive, and it doesn’t get many viewers in the right demographics. I love Eva Green, but she’s 35 years old, and the other main characters included the likes of Timothy Dalton (in his 70s), and Patti LuPone and Wes Studi (both in their late-60s). It felt like Josh Hartnett was there to appeal to the younger crowd, but heck, he’s older than Eva Green. Add the fact that most of the characters came from turn-of-the-last-century literature, and I suppose it would be asking too much for young people to take a shine to it.

I mean, I went to Twitter to find fellow fans to mourn with, and everyone was talking about Game of Thrones. Truth is, I barely know anyone who watched Penny Dreadful.

So it’s gone, an A- series that flirted with an A. And the Warriors are gone, at least until next season, an A+ team that slipped to a B+ at just the wrong time. But there are still the Giants, and the U.S. national team. And Game of Thrones, and Outlander. And hey, Orange Is the New Black is back! Mourn for a day, but then see what joys await us.

Saved image from Tweetium (8)


the 100, season three finale

I posted this brief note on Facebook, but I should probably put it here, as well, for posterity's sake:

Tonight's season finale proved that the creators of The 100 know quite well how to properly send off a beloved character. If the send off we got tonight had occurred in, say, Episode 307, I'm guessing the uproar would have been reduced, or even absent. That those creators felt perfectly happy saving this send off for the finale, while participating in a trope that lost them a significant part of their viewership, is remarkably clueless at best.

I love The 100, and I loved most of the season finale. I really loved that send off. But it pisses me off the way it was mishandled. It's like a combination of when Tara died on Buffy, and when Friday Night Lights was derailed by that stupid murder subplot in Season Two. For many people, Episode 307 made The 100 beyond redemption. I'm still here, just as I stuck with Buffy until the end. But part of me wishes I'd just skipped all the episodes between 307 and the two-part finale.

I can't speak for the LGBT fans. I think it's obvious The 100 screwed up in falling into the Dead Lesbian Trope, and those fans are right to contest this.

But I don't want to exaggerate. I never wanted to quit watching. And I don't think artists should have to adjust their work to fit the desires of an audience. I also thank Jason Rothenberg for creating the character of Lexa in the first place. (I don't believe she was in the books.) Rothenberg finally seems to understand why the method of Lexa's death outraged so many. It's not about giving in to your audience, it's about understanding the place of your work in a broader social context. The 100 does not exist in a vacuum.

It's also true that I, too, am trying to tell Rothenberg how to write his show. I wanted Lexa to go out the way she did on the finale, not as Tara Part Two. The frustration I expressed on Facebook relates to that: Rothenberg had always planned to give Lexa/Clexa one last moment, and there is simply no good reason why that moment was displaced by the random gun shot. I understand that every character on The 100 is one scene away from dying (well, I doubt they'll ever kill off Clarke). I understand that Alycia Debnam-Carey was leaving for Fear the Walking Dead. I don't object to the decision to kill off Lexa. It's the way it was done that's the problem, and while I'm beyond happy that Clexa got their final moment, and that Lexa went out a badass, I would have been just as "happy" if it happened in Episode 307. Better put, the emotional damage of Lexa's death would have been tied directly to her final moments as a warrior and a lover, instead of being Just Another Dead Lesbian. Her death would have carried more dramatic weight within the context of the show.


jane the virgin: meta

met·a

adjective

US

 (of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.

Jane the Virgin is as self-referential as any series currently on TV.

Let’s start with the character Rogelio De La Vega ... I could start any number of places, but that’s as good as any. Rogelio is a top star in telenovelas. He is played by Jaime Camil, who is a top star in telenovelas. Telenovelas differ from soap operas because they are limited series, whereas soap operas can theoretically run forever. Jane the Virgin could run forever, but the telenovela trope is still utilized by having Rogelio star in various telenovelas of limited length. When we first meet Rogelio, it is in his role as the titular character in The Passions of Santos. Later, we learn he is the father of Jane (the virgin). He takes a role on Pasión Intergalactica, a “sci-fi telenovela”, returns to Passions of Santos, and currently stars in Tiago a Través del Tiempo, a time-travel telenovela. Meanwhile, Rogelio is a character on Jane the Virgin, which itself is a form of telenovela.

Or how about the character played by Anthony Mendez? He is known only as “The Narrator”, which is an exact description of what he does. The show’s creator, Jennie Snyder Urman, has said that “The narrator does have a connection to the narrative; the narrator is specific, and he is a person”. We have never found out his specific connection to the narrative, but he is a fan favorite, and for good reason. Whether it’s the dialogue, Mendez’ delivery, or a combination of both, The Narrator is one of the most delightful characters on television. And, on a show that defines “meta”, he is more meta than them all. His preliminary spiels make every “previously on” segment on other shows seem pedestrian, and they regularly include comments about how this or that plot development is “like a telenovela”.

One of my favorite meta-moments came in a late episode in Season Two, which just finished. Jane is getting married, and she wants to have the wedding at her home, but the house gets flooded and is thus unusable. Her father has the crew from Tiago a Través del Tiempo build a mock-up for Jane’s house, so realistic looking that it could be the actual set the program uses. Later, we see the three Villanueva women sitting on the porch, as they so often do. They hear music, and when they follow the sound, they find Charo with her guitar, testing the acoustics for the yard. (Charo, we are told, is Rogelio’s third-best friend in all the world ... Rogelio is shown as pretty goofy most of the time, but in the world of Jane the Virgin, he really is a big telenovela star, and it makes sense that he’d be friends with Charo.) The women decide to go inside for some tea, which also seems very mundane. Until one of them points out that they are on a set, and there is no running water. The set and the house are interchangeable ... until they aren’t. (And, of course, “the house” is merely “a set” for the show Jane the Virgin.)

The meta moves are endless. Here’s one more, and I promise I’ll shut up about it: Jane’s professor tells her about The Bechdel Test, and the rest of the episode makes explicit connections between the test and the series in front of us. (The Narrator makes several references to this.)

There is more going on than just inside jokes. The telenovela structure allows for plot shenanigans that would be unacceptable otherwise. Something outrageous occurs (they play around with twins a lot, for instance), we start to roll our eyes, but then The Narrator says something like, “OMG! This is just like a telenovela!”, and somehow, everything is better. The integration of Latino culture, in particular the Spanish language, is fascinating. (Kathryn VanArendonk discusses this with sharp intelligence: “Jane’s bilingual dialogue has become a familiar, overlooked element of the series. It’s so commonplace to the show’s identity and tone that it’s easy to forget how fundamental bilingualism is to the [sic] its culture, relationships, and underlying DNA.”) There is great acting all over the place, starting with Gina Rodriguez as Jane, along with Camil and Mendez. Urman embraces the telenovela genre, but she is not limited by it ... the show’s core comes from the realistic portrait of family relationships. Even the guest cameos are fun ... Charo, of course (she loses her job as entertainer at the wedding to Rogelio’s other third-best friend, Bruno Mars, but she still turns up at the wedding ... as a bridesmaid!), but even someone like Britney Spears:

I think there are reasons why Jane the Virgin doesn’t get as much acclaim as it deserves. It’s not the usual anti-hero blood fest we see so often on HBO. (It’s on the CW, which used to mean “blah” to me, until I started watching The 100.) It’s got women at its center, even if it doesn’t always pass The Bechdel Test. Still, critics in general love it, none more than Maureen Ryan, who calls it the best show on TV. (Don’t follow that link unless you are caught up ... she discusses the season finale in some detail.)

 

Here are some other times I wrote about Jane the Virgin:

Season One Break

Season One Finale


game of thrones and penny dreadful

Game of Thrones is the centerpiece of the current HBO lineup. HBO has long established itself as the place for “quality” television. Game of Thrones may be a genre series based on fantasy novels, but its presence on HBO lifts it above genre. (This is not a value judgment or a dismissal of genre fiction, just a way of noting that HBO makes a series more than genre ... “it’s not TV, it’s HBO”.) HBO’s stature has declined since the days of The Sopranos ... there is a lot of competition nowadays. But there is no question that Game of Thrones is treated with respect in part because of the network on which it airs. It has won 26 Emmys and counting. Even if you don’t like it, you can’t escape it.

There has been some recognition of newer outlets like the streamers Netflix and Amazon, and their shows also achieve a level of acclaim. It seems a bit harder for already-existing premium cable networks to get the same kind of attention. Starz can’t escape its original reputation as a dumping ground for Encore movies, even though Spartacus was rather like a cheesy version of HBO’s Rome, and the current series Outlander is quite good (and, like GoT, is based on a popular series of genre novels, in this case, historical romance).

The true step-brother of HBO, though, is Showtime, which has been around for a long time, and which has offered many fine series, but which lacks a certain HBO-level of respect. Some of Showtime’s original series seek a different, broader audience, like Queer as Folk and The L Word and Soul Food, and others are attempts at “quality television” that are scaled down from the beginning, like Weeds or United States of Tara. Showtime does have “prestige” shows ... Dexter, like many of their series, ran for several seasons past its sell-by date, but it got lots of attention. Shameless, which is as good as anything on HBO and features a performance by Emmy Rossum that will apparently go unrecognized by the Emmys until Rossum dies, hasn’t yet begun to stink, and it’s hard to imagine why it hasn’t made a bigger impact. (Maybe if it was on HBO?)

Besides Shameless, Showtime does have a few series that have captured some of the cultural attention, most notably Homeland, which in true Showtime fashion was great for one season and has faded ever since without getting cancelled.

But the best series currently on Showtime is Penny Dreadful, which recently began its third season. It’s hard to assign a specific genre to Penny Dreadful ... perhaps the title gives us a label. It is a project by playwright and screenwriter John Logan, who has won Tonys and been nominated for Oscars ... he also wrote the two most recent 007 movies. As far as I can tell, Penny Dreadful is his first television series.

A series like Game of Thrones thrives on its immense landscapes and countless characters. It always looks expensive. Penny Dreadful, on the other hand, just looks great, without preening over its budget.

Penny Dreadful is also original ... it is not based on novels. But its construct couldn’t exist without novels, for Logan got the idea to do a mash-up of characters (in the public domain) from 19th-century fiction and early horror films. So there are major parts for Dr. Frankenstein, his monster, and the monster’s mate ... Dorian Gray ... Dracula, Van Helsing, Renfield, and Mina Harker ... Lawrence “Wolfman” Talbot ... and now, Dr. Jekyll has turned up, as well. These famous characters surround Logan’s inventions, mainly Eva Green as Vanessa Ives and Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm Murray. (Has there ever been a show that starred an ex-007 and an ex-Bond girl?)

You would be forgiven if you thought this would add up to a mess, glorious or not so glorious, and if you perhaps hoped Penny Dreadful was mostly camp, that would be understandable. Except for the most part, Logan is quite serious about all this stuff. The main method for demonstrating this is through the fearless performance of Eva Green, who at times appears to be channeling the great Barbara Steele. Green’s face reflects all of the craziness surrounding her, and the attempts by Vanessa to create meaning out of her chaotic existence is wonderfully portrayed by Green.

Yet for all of this, I don’t hear many people talking about Penny Dreadful, certainly not in comparison to Game of Thrones. Both series have complicated narratives with fine actors, both are full of sex and violence. But GoT, whose most prominent female characters are at best only nominally central, is taken more seriously than Penny Dreadful, where Vanessa Ives is more fascinating that Khaleesi and Cersei et al combined.

Penny Dreadful suffers, I think, from being the wrong genre. (Outlander is the real example, here ... I really should be writing about that show, but it airs on Saturdays, while Penny Dreadful airs right after Game of Thrones on Sundays, so I tend to think of those two series together.) We’re still in a time where a “guy show” gets more attention than something like historical or Gothic romance.

barbara steele

Barbara Steele

vanessa ives

Eva Green in Penny Dreadful