Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Talking Cure

In her Oscar special interview with Barbara Walters, Helen Mirren tells an hilarious story about going to see a therapist.

The therapist, it seems, had a very thick Scottish accent, and though she went on at length with speculations meant to help Mirren with the problems she had come to address, the patient could understand barely a word. Mirren didn't return.

So much for the talking cure.

Dropping Like Flies

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport.
Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Writing twenty years ago, in one of the first full-fledged considerations of television narrative, Sarah Kozloff would announce, seemingly without fear of contradiction, that "because so much of fiction television is so formulaic, and because we know that (except in the case of special broadcasts) the hero or heroine will be back next week, we are hardly ever in the real suspense we might feel with a film or novel as to whether the hero and his love interest will triumph, or even survive” ("Narrative Theory and Television." Channels of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Robert C. Allen. Chapel Hill, NC: U North Carolina P, 1987. 51).

It is still rare for a television series to kill a major character. Dallas did kill Bobby Ewing in a flaming crash, but then again it didn’t really—see he was in the shower, and Pam Ewing was just dreaming, for a whole season, and . . . Bobby Simone died on NYPD Blue, but the reasons were extra-diegetic: Jimmy Smits wanted to move on. (The career ambitions of actors are often the cause of death for a television character.) Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer did, of course, kill Buffy—twice, but brought her back each time (thanks to Xander’s mouth-to-mouth and Willow’s witchcraft) and put an end, on Angel, to Fred (only to morph her into Illyria) and Wesley (whose death, in the series’ final episode, would never have happened if the show had not been canceled). Six Feet Under almost killed Nate Fisher in Season Three, then really did at the end of its five season run. And of course, as Claire heads east for her new life in New York in the final episode, we saw everybody die, Ruth, Keith, David, Brenda, Federico, and Claire herself—a fitting end to a show about death. Lost, too, has been on a killing spree, knocking off important castaways at an alarming rate: first Boone (as the result of a fall), then his sister Shannon (shot by Ana-Lucia), then Ana-Lucia and Libby (shot by Michael), then Mister Eko (dead at the hands of The Monster), and apparently Charlie is now doomed too (if Desmond’s pre-cog skills are indeed unfailing).

But minor characters—George's bride-to-be Susan (Seinfeld) or Edgar Stiles (24) or Big Pussy, Tony B., Vito Spatafore and Adrienna LaCerva, to name a few (The Sopranos) or Ellsworth (Deadwood) or Ellen Tigh (Battlestar Galactica) or Carolyn Bigsby (Desperate Housewives), Denny Doucette (Grey's Anatomy) or, most recently, Simone Deveaux (Heroes) and Sheriff Lamb (Veronica Mars)--now dropping like flies, should definitely keep their day jobs. Joss Whedon was certainly not the first to kill a significant character, but his liquidation on Buffy of Jenny Calendar (Season Two), Buffy's mother (Season Five), Tara (Season Six--a death that outraged many in the gay community), and Anya (in the final episode) set the gold standard.

Minor characters are expendable. TV creators kill them for their narrative sport (i.e., to goose the story line, boost the ratings, inspire buzz). I remember an interview with Paul Schrader in which he was asked why he killed—his arm ripped off in a zoo cage by a leopard--a seemingly significant character (played by Ed Begley, Jr.) in the first half hour of his (otherwise forgettable) remake of The Cat People (1982): to show the audience what was he was capable of. Minor character termination on television series has a similar motive.

I remember reading somewhere that Kiefer Sutherland challenged the creators of 24 to be willing to kill his Jack Bauer (Jack still lives). Last week, Meredith Grey survived, to no viewer's surprise, an NDE on Grey's Anatomy. The death of Jack or Meredith--now that would be a shock.

Friday, February 23, 2007


As one long intrigued by spoilers—I am by inclination a “spoiler whore” (see Emily Nussbaum, “Must See Metaphysics” [New York Times 22 September 2002])--I found the following query on the Television Without Pity website intriguing. (For the uninitiated a “spoiler” is advance knowledge of an upcoming development in a narrative, especially a television series. If, before it airs, I find out that on an upcoming episode of Lost Claire is going to die as the result of boredom, that would be a spoiler.)

TWoP asks: “Have you been boning up on your Tacitus to try to anticipate Rome spoilers?”

Spoilers are customarily acquired by other means—visiting spoiler sites on the web, for example, or reading Michael Ausiello’s column for TV Guide—than delving into the works of a great Roman historian. The future course of Veronica Mars or Grey’s Anatomy or Battlestar Galactica is not set in stone. The writers of such series need not worry about continuity with the historical record as they come up with a way to write Dr. Preston Burke out of the story (and the homophobic Isiah Washington off the headlines). But when the show’s main characters are Julius Caesar and Octavian and Marc Antony, the narrative is, within limits, proscribed. If, in the final episode of Rome’s first season, J. C. had fended off his assassins, Brutus and all, and remained emperor, now that would have been a spoiler of an entirely different kind.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Evil Genius of Life on Mars?

"I will suppose not that God, who is most good and the fountain of truth, but rather that some evil genius, at once more powerful and cunning, has bent all his efforts to deceive me. . . ."--Rene Descartes

"The greatest sorcerer [writes Novalis memorably] would be the one who bewitched himself to the point of taking his own phantasmagorias for autonomous apparitions. Would not this be true of us?

I believe that it is. We (the undivided divinity that operates within us) have dreamed the world. We have dreamed it strong, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and secure in time, but we have allowed tenuous, eternal interstices of injustice in its structure so we may know it is false."--Jorge Luis Borges, "Avatars of the Tortoise"

In Episode One of Life on Mars (41:15 in), our hero, Sam, walking through a busy street in Manchester, the Who's "Baba O'Reilly" playing on the soundtrack, contemplates the show's central mystery (is he really in 1973, teleported back in time after being hit by a car in 2006?), engaging in a philosophical experiment/debate which has a long history, as the epigraphs above demonstrate.

Strolling alongside "CID Girl" Annie Cartwright, the only one in the past to whom he has confessed his "true" situation, Sam insists that a "mind can only invent so much detail" and announces his intention to walk--following the Yellow Brick Road--until he "can't think up anymore faces or streets." It is a transcendent TV moment, linking Sam with cinematic heirs like John Murdoch in Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998) and Truman Burbank in The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998), both of whom succeed in seeing through the artifice of their worlds. At this point in the narrative (10 of 16 episodes have aired) Sam has not walked out of the cave.

But Sam's escape-from-illusion plan has other ancestors. Writing in the 17th century, Descartes considered the possibility that some sort of "evil genius" had generated the world presented to his senses (at least his thinking self, "cogito ergo sum," was real, he found assuring, ready to abandon the res extensa of the material world).

The polymathic Borges, however, with greater faith in the reality of the imagination, was ready to accept that we have "dreamed the world," while leaving clues, cracks (interstices) in the fabric, to remind us that the world we take to be real is a work of imagination. We are our own evil genius, our own "greatest sorcerer."

Sam's world is, of course, full of cracks: the Test Card Girl's message, the many communication from radios and televisions that bombard him from his supposed future. Indeed, many in his Sweeney-ish world think him to be "cracked." But who is the "evil genius"/"greatest sorcerer" behind his situation? (not counting Tony Jordan, Ashley Pharoah, Matthew Graham). Is it Sam himself? Is it that man he talks to on the phone at the end of Episode One of Series Two?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Giving and Taking Offence

In June, I will be delivering a keynote address at the Giving and Taking Offence conference at the University of Aveiro, Portugal.

My title:

"’Holy Fucking Shit’: Profanation, Parody, and Bleeping American Unreality in The Onion, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report.” Keynote Speaker, Giving and Taking Offence, University of Aveiro, Portugal (June 2007).

In case you don't recognize the source of the title, it refers to the front page headline in The Onion in reponse to 9/11.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sam's Mission

At the very end of Episode One of the second (and final) series of Life on Mars (which aired last night on BBC One), Sam answers the telephone only to learn something of great importance.

The voice on the other end of the line--for the first time a message our hero receives via technology (from the television for example) isn't one way; the voice on the phone actually responds to Sam--tells him that his mission is almost complete and that he must be patient and not disclose his situation to anyone. Soon, it assures him, he will be able to go home.

All in Sam's mind? By the end of Series One, it seemed virtually certain that Sam's return to 1973 was the hallucination of a man in a coma in the present day. Now I, for one, am filled with doubt.

Interesting, is it not, that both Juliet and Jack (on Lost) and Sam have been promised a return home.

Both series have something else in common: we are still not certain whether either series, both deep into their respective narratives, is science fiction. Indeed, we may not know until the very end of their runs: until their central enigmas are resolved. (I have just completed an essay on Lost's SF affiliations: "The Island's Greatest Mystery: Is Lost Science Fiction" (forthcoming in The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader, ed. J. P. Telotte [Lexington: U P of Kentucky, 2007]).

If Sam is in a coma, Life on Mars (despite its title) will not have been SF; if Sam was sent back to 1973 on a yet-to-be-understood mission, why then it would have been SF.

Joss Whedon Book

With Joss Whedon now no longer the director of tbe Wonder Woman movie, the title of my under contract book (with I. B. Tauris) obviously needs to change.

Likely new title: Joss Whedon: A Creative Portrait.


In one of the most interesting intertextual crossovers in recent memory, the word "frack," the all-purpose expletive made famous in Battlestar Galactica, was used on Veronica Mars ("Welcome Wagon," episode 1 of Season Three).

A "fuck" stand-in on the Sci-Fi channel borrowed to serve a similar function on the CW.

Frackin' brilliant.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Life on Mars

With Life on Mars returning to the BBC this week, I decided to prepare by buying Series One on DVD and screening all eight episodes.

I appeared on Front Row, Mark Lawson’s show on the BBC, a couple of years ago to talk about the astonishing difference in length—number of episodes per season/series; total number of years on air—between British and American series. The Office, Ricky Gervais' and Stephen Merchant’s brilliant comedy, ran for only twelve episodes (plus a two part Christmas special); the American version has already aired forty two.

Life on Mars is a police drama in which Manchester Detective Investigator Sam Tyler is hit by a car in 2006 and finds himself trapped in a Starsky and Hutch (the British would say The Sweeney) world in 1973. By the end of its first run we are not certain whether Sam has actually traveled back in time or remains in a coma (or possibly insane) in the present day. As an open-ended, serialized, enigmatic mystery, the series calls to mind Lost, but unlike its American contemporary (now fifty four episodes in), its lifespan will be short: the upcoming series will be Mars’ last, which appreciably reduces the challenges of serial creativity.

Still, the pleasures of Mars are many and diverse. I especially like its sense of (often intertextual) humor. Asked by his 1973 (potential) love interest Annie Cartwright (the only one who knows that he thinks he is from the future) whether he has come to terms with his time traveling, Sam replies that he has “seen Doctor Who, who prescribed some pills.” (As a Mars ancestor text, Doctor Who has been on the air, off again/on again, since 1963.) In another episode, Annie commits an intertextual malaproprism worthy of The Sopranos, referring to the movie David Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

I am only beginning to discover British television, but I am certain of this: Life on Mars is a masterpiece, however short its run. I can’t wait for Series Two.

Getting Away with It on Television

Someone should do a book on the ingenious ways television writers have found to say really x-rated things in ways that would find their way around the censors. An infamous Seinfeld episode, "The Contest," dealt with a contest to determine which of the Fab Four (Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George) could go the longest without masturbating (the "M" word was never used).

In "The Zeppo," a Season Three episode of the always-naughty Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we find the following exchange between bad girl slayer Faith and Xander in a scene in which the latter will lose his virginity.

FAITH: Hold me (uses him for leverage while popping her shoulder back in) .That's better. She got me really wound up. A fight like that and ... no kill ... I'm about ready to pop.
XANDER: (nervously) Really? Pop?!
FAITH: (smiles sexily) You up for it?
XANDER: (nods) Oh, I'm up. I'm suddenly *very* up. It's just, um ... I've never been up with people before.
FAITH: Just relax ... And take your pants off.
XANDER: Those two concepts are antithetical.

That Up With People was, of course, a schmaltzy Christian singing group and "moral re-armament" organization made Xander's reference to his first-ever non-solo erection all the more delicious.

Living now in the UK, I am only just beginning to discover, with glee, the British versions of GAWIT. In the fourth episode of the BBC series Life on Mars, Gene and Sam force their way into the office of Manchester mobster Stephen Warren, where they find him fellating a young man. “How dare you come in here!” Warren growls angrily. “You could have said that to the boy,” Gene replies.

He said that--on the BBC!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Lost: "Not in Portland"

Some random observations on the February 7th, post-hiatus, episode of Lost.

1. The opening sequence (Juliet on the beach and then walking down a tawdry hallway) was yet another first scene mislead. We assume, at first, that (a) the beach is on the “Others’” island and (b) the hall is in one of the Others’ buildings. When Juliet passes Ethan Rom (who says hello), we are invited to alter our assumption slightly: since Rom is dead in Lost’s present tense, the scene must be from the past. When, after Juliet, acting as a sister and not a doctor (she claims), injects something into Calamity Jane’s--woops, I mean Rachel’s (Robin Weigert)--stomach and then pulls back the curtain while insisting everyone lives on the beach in Miami (at just the moment an Oceanic jet crosses the frame), we are forced to revise our reading once again: the scene is a flashback, a revery in the mindscreen of Juliet taking place just seconds after Jack's ultimatum at the end of the previous episode ("I Do"). Indeed Juliet’s backstory is “Not in Portland’s” major focus.

2. Yet another 18th century thinker is evoked: in the wake of Hume, Locke, and Rousseau, now we have Edmund Burke, Juliet’s ex, now dead spouse (played by a villain from 24’s 1st day: Zeljko Ivanek).

3. Tom’s answer to Jack’s question about why they did not seek help (for Ben’s tumor) off the island is interrupted by the need to attend to a severed artery, but he was about to say something very interesting about nothing working since “the sky turned purple.” A reference, most likely, to the “event” that resulted from the Locke-engineered failure to input the Numbers in the Season Two finale.

4. The Clockwork Orangey brainwashing of Carl was fascinating. I am sure someone else has already dissected the messages, but even as they flashed by too quick for my old eyes, I did notice something about Jacob (assumed by many to be the man with the patch seen on a TV screen in “The Cost of Living”): “God loves you as He loved Jacob.”

5. If the “not in Portland” Mittleos Bioscience (or whoever funds it—The Hanso Foundation, Widmore Laboratories?) has the power to make Juliet’s wish that her husband be hit by a bus (the most striking [pun intended] death by mass transit vehicle since Nate Fisher, Sr.’s demise in the first episode of Six Feet Under), what can’t they do? Could they arrange for certain people to all end up on a mysterious island? Bring down an airlinew? Arrange for a sailboat to crash on a certain shore? Could they have predetermined Michael’s being hit by a car in Season One (for whatever reason)?

6. All the speculation of fans about wormholes and string theory and time-bending got a big boost in this episode from hapless Aldo's reading material: Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

7. The Juliet who seemed so befuddled in this season’s opener (burning muffins, for example) in this episode shows herself capable of gunning down Danny without hesitation.

8. Jack looks shocked in the episode’s final scene at Ben’s persuasive promise to Juliet (to let her leave in return for help): after all, Ben had made him the same promise.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The (BT) Number of the Beast

One of the great pleasures of living in the UK is the relative invisibility of religion. It is, of coure, possible to spot an occasional bible thumper--those folks outside of the Wood Green Morrison's do seem concerned for the state of my mortal soul, but this is so not the US when it comes to matters of belief

A UK friend told me that a British politician who flaunted his personal religious beliefs would be laughed off the slate. In America, of coure, it is virtually impossible to be elected to any major office without wearing religion on your sleeve. ("W," after all, when asked who the greatest political philosopher was, answered "Jesus Christ." Jesus Christ almighty!) Richard Dawkins has hit the bestseller list here with The God Delusion, a delusion that is, in my native land, the status quo.

Still, a recent development here has me a bit taken aback. When I recently signed up, after long delay, for a BT landline, I was assigned a number that ended 666. Yes, I had heard recent news stories that the Number of the Beast might not be quite as evil as once thought, but why give me that number? Imagine being assigned that number in the US?

It is true, of course, that I am a scholar of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show damned by L. Brent Bozell and the religious right in America. Was BT trying to tell me something, to damn my scholar/fan obsession?

And then today I learned something truly disconcerting: my dear friend Stacey Abbott, likewise a Buffy scholar and the mother of Angel studies as well, also has a 666 in her phone number. (I have heard through the grapevine that her evil telly digits once gave a phone operator a chill when Stacey order a copy of the poster for The Omen for her partner.)



I just finished serving as the external examiner on a PhD thesis at Brunel University, and reading through the candidate's three hundred+ pages on Doctor Who fandom, I was struck by the author's frequent (and not uncommon) use of the word "whilst." The forty undergraduate essays I just slogged through also showed the word in common usage.

In the room in which I teach, a message on the remote control keypad tells me to wait "whilst the projector warms up."

Not surprisingly, the American Heritage Dictionary notes that this archaic word is "mostly British" in usage. Use of "whilst" in the US would produce, I think, snickering if not outright laughter.

It is impossible to conceive of an American using this in conversation or in print. If he did, he would have no friends. To my ear it sounds pretentious--sounds like something a Pythonesque contestant in an "Upper Class Twit of the Year" contest might utter.

It is snowing today in London. As soon as the sun comes up I intend to go out amongst my fellow Londoners.