Whitney is for the parents, kids.

I also watched Whitney last night. It will tangle a viewer up! It is a show that is a mess, and a mess that you think you should watch so that you can talk about such messes, but then the mess is so sticky and bad that you think you should leave the room.  Like a lot of things lately, it got me conflicted.

The good news is we have a show about with a central female character.  I was interested in the sitcom to see if it hearkened back to that earlier era of “real lady” sitcoms from the early 1990s, when we had Roseanne and Grace Under Fire.  Sure, the advertising for Whitney was certainly selling a young-ish kind of misery (well parsed by Splitsider here)  instead of the middle-aged ladies above, but the show suggested it would have whiffs of the same autonomy of a complicated woman leading the show, using the gap between idealized femininity and real life as a motor for the show’s comedy and heart.

The bad news is Whitney spends 98% of the show in underwear. Like, for the entire week that they produced the pilot, she went to the costume trailer and maybe asked “still no pants? ” I think there is so much lingerie in the first episode to scream to the audience, “really, it’s okay, we are not that kind of show. Nothing you know will be threatened here. We aren’t a ‘smart’ show. Look at her ass! No challenges, promise!”  And then, the show goes on to suggest that having a girlfriend who eats or who uses mild sarcasm is coded as “loud” and overall an unattractive burden to the poor lout who happens to love her.  We see this as a classic hot chick tries to hit on Whitney’s boyfriend, wondering at his insane choice (in a very attractive successful woman, who seems to maybe slouch more than the hot girl?).

I don’t see this as an attempt to win over a female audience. This is not Girlfriends or any kind of network ready SATC rehashing.  This show is pretending it wants me to watch it, which is why it has such a strange boomerang of irony and generic form (the much commented on laugh track, three cameras, and constant wink). As Troy Patterson said at Slate:

Well isn’t she fresh. And isn’t that stale…There is a peculiar flavor to this cheese. If you caught a snippet of Whitney unawares, you would be forgiven for assuming that it’s one of those shows-within-a-show that exists to caricature bad television.

My guess is that this more akin to network TV branding lineups as “Laughapaloozas” in the early 90s, appropriating what they lately identified as youth culture and using its energy to promise a safe explanation to everybody else. What I’m saying is, I think Whitney’s  target audience are not 30 somethings who identify with the  weak gawk and struggle of commitment and having nice things (really, who has a couch in their bedroom, or a dresser in their walk in closet? And lingerie is expensive, folks). I think it’s for the parents of those 30 somethings (I’m including myself in this 30ish demographic).

This show does shit for women, women in comedy, and women in Hollywood.  But, it does promise our parents that we are loved even if we aren’t married. That our vague professional careers (she is a photographer) are legitimate. That partners with long hair are really nice young men. That our parents’ divorce did affect us, but it didn’t really harm us. Whitney lets parents watch their be-hoodied, belching, whimsical and sloppy ‘untraditional’ kids turn out as conventional and unworrisome as a parent could hope. If your parents watch Two and a Half Men, then I bet they will watch this. And when they do, they will probably talk about you.

This show is going to make it as a generational artifact of what we hope other people are up to.

Yours,

CF

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A Female Moment?

Dear Millicent,

The world is falling apart. But, I have some frivolous and cheering news. I think we might be in for a bit of a female moment, coming soon, to movie theaters near us.

I say this because, yesterday, I went to go see the new Simon Pegg Nick Frost genre bender, Paul. It was fine. Fine-ish. I will forget it all by next Thursday. BUT, the previews that aired before this dude-heavy sci-fi comedy movie were kind of like some of my wildest dreams coming true. Every movie previewed had a female lead. There was not a princess, a hooker, or a mother…shit, there was a princess, but she was schooling her menfolk. The women were often kicking ass and taking names. And, doing despicable, unattractive things.  The theaters are going to be populated, come April and May, with actual three-dimensional womens. (Possibly, if one is to believe the promises of one set of movie trailers).  I think  we can look theaterward and see,  rare but real, a constellation of sloppy janes, women heroes, and a supreme passing of the Bechdel test.  An optimistic outlook for sure, but I am so used to cursing the movie industry as I sit in a theater, that I was caught a bit off guard to see every movie presented have a woman allowed as many dimensions as the men. I doubt this moment will last. It might be a like a comet. But, also, proof that Hollywood can actually do this thing that it has insisted on ignoring since like, forever.

First up was Hanna:

We have Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchette, Focus Features, antler rifle practice, female friendship, and a dad not knowing how to prepare his daughter for the battles she’s got to face.  I love assassin movies that get to the marrow (my favorite movie, possibly ever is La Femme Nikita), and am hoping Hanna does it. It reminds me of Run Lola Run. Here’s hoping.

Next, Bridesmaids:

The first time I saw the trailer, I thought, compared to everything on British television, this is all too little too late. I was worried that this movie might boil down to what men think women do that is funny. And it might be. I have a feeling it had a thousand rewrites, even though it kept Wiig’s fine name on it. And that may be what needs to happen to get anything out of this stature and oomph, because this thing is getting the full Apatow big movie treatment.  It’s the big honcha–getting the chance that the likes of Spring Breakdown never had. We might have a eyeful of the awkward woman, showing us how expansive and devastating (the good way) comedy can be when we let women in. Or, it might be The Hangover sent to the cleaners, and back with a box of tampons and some lesbian jokes. My aim is that this movie pushes things forward.  That’s all I ask, Apatow.  Keep the Wiig gold.

Then, Your Highness:

Yes, it’s about two brothers, but it is NaPo herself that lends the effort a sense of…establishment? Yes, the trailer includes a shot of her stripping down to a leather thong, but it also shows her legitimately being a better “quester” then her male cohort.  The movie is banking on inverting the prince charming trope, and playing with all of its accessories. This, and dick and pot jokes.  But, she gets to make a lot of them, and is never rescued, but does indeed rescue.

Next up: Bad Teacher

Or what I like to call, Sloppy Jane extraordinaire. She doesn’t like kids, she wants things that are bad for her, unapologetically. I am excited about this because here we have an unattractive female protagonist (at least morally, if not physically), where the joke is that she is an asshole. I can’t think of the last morally unattractive female lead along the lines of Tracy Flick in a long time.  Diaz might be able to do here what was attempted in The Sweetest Thing, and hope this will reward for her long suffering in The Green Hornet. I am also trying to forget that Justin Timberlake has anything to do with this.

And last, Arthur.

My fingers are crossed that while this movie wants to be Russell Brand heavy, the women will sweep the show. Replacing key male roles from the original with female leads (Mirren as the new Gielgud), and surrounding Brand with a nanny, a fiance, a mother, and manic pixie (maybe authenticized, because, after all, they chose Greta Gerwig and not Minka Kelly), along with the fact that Brand can’t really carry a movie on his own (Get Him to the Greek) but fabulously supports others (Sarah Marshall), I think we might have a good recipe for a good time. Or, this will be about women telling men what to do. It’s a gamble, especially since they have removed all the alcoholism from the original 1981 script. Why can’t we have fun drunks anymore? Can you imagine The Thin Man without all  the codependent drinking?

So, in all, we have an action movie, Apatow with ladies, a stoner comedy castle quest, a rom-com that offers nothing sweet, and a remake updated and upfemmed.   This spring might be a heavy moment. Or, this might be a skewed representation, pulled from the inadequate sample of one set of previews that were shown before a movie that relied heavily on jokes about an alien’s balls.

Fingers warily crossed,

CF

 

 

 

Part 2: The Brits Get It

Dear Millicent,

So, as far as accepting and reveling in the fact that women are as uncertain and undefined (unshaped? we do wear formative undergear), America is kind of one note.  We have raunchy women (Chelsea Handler, Margaret Cho), we have shocking women (Sarah Silverman), we have mature irreverent women (Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Bonnie Hunt), etc.  Usually, they more or less stay in the bounds of their particular stable.  Women are allowed to be all of these things, but they have to stay in their compartments, just as a Sex in the City character must stay in costume as if they were assigned Power Ranger Colors.

In part 1 of my ramble on women and comedy, I introduced the Nu woman (a label that sounds irritatingly like a birth control brand).  What I meant by it is a woman who is as flummoxed, average, and compelling as men are portrayed, and who usually has a messy life that is full of unguarded or foibled moments of humanity.  This means she is not a smart Miranda, a creative fucked up Carrie, a sweet Charlotte, or a ravenous Samantha.  She is a dash of all of them, and some other stuff that Patricia Field will never get to accessorize.

The Brits, who have a long history of not demanding perfection from their televisions (see jokes about teeth, unhappy endings. etc.), understand the Nu woman, and benefit in spades. Their television is at least twice as good as ours, and at times is actually perfect (I attribute some of this to the fact that they are willing to end shows before they collapse in on themselves, usually limiting a show to 2 seasons with a reunion special somewhere down the line.)

When asked who she would want to direct her movie “Best Buds,” which promises to be a Nu woman heavy film starring Natalie Portman, screenwriter Jamie Denbo said:

“Somebody with a great comedic sensibility, who doesn’t distinguish between male and female comedy. So basically, somebody British. It seems to be a very American thing, distinguishing between male and female comedy. Overseas it feels like, If it’s funny, it’s funny.”

Here’s the proof in the pudding:

1.) Green Wing: In this show, the women are as sexually voracious, despicable, introspective, and timid and coarse as any of the equally extreme male characters.  Dick jokes abound, as do vagina jokes, and calls on male violence, female jealousy, and all the very ugly things that people do to each other to answer their own needs.  It’s a ridiculous show, and a marvelous one.  Topics include incest, seduction, murder plots, and apparitions of Jesus as well as passing exams, kissing too many people at parties, and the difficulties of having a roommate with wonderful hair. The two standout women are Michelle Gomez who plays Sue White and Pippa Haywood who plays Joanna Clore.  Both woman are masters of physical comedy, and neither shy away from very direct gags about female sexuality.   When I first saw this show, I had seen nothing like it, which is ashame, because it skewers and reveals in the way that only brilliant comedy can.

2.) Spaced: Spaced was written partly by Jessica Hynes who is also an odd saint on this site, a la her character Daisy Steiner.  Daisy lives with Simon Pegg’s equally effed up character, as they both mope around and try to figure out a life that isn’t exactly finding them.  Daisy is an inspiration because she thinks she is grander than she is, she futzes and is happy to eat chips and watch television, and she is a lackluster pet owner.  She is an aspiring writer, with all of the narrative, and none of the rest of it.  She is a wonderful mess, and one that was a balm to my own messy heart.  The first female character I had seen that was so honestly ungood and reaching. The show does an amazing job of articulating that particular pang of late twentyhood, and it is neither slick nor snarky.  A rare feat, and she and Pegg are equal foundations for it.

3.) The Book Group: Okay, an American wrote this…but she wrote it for Scottish television.  The protagonist is portrayed without glamor or sympathy, and by the end of season 2, eveyr chance of a classic formula arriving is squashed.  It is an assault on the narratives we tell ourselves.   Creator Annie Griffin seriously delights in refuting the neat endings of any character, emotion, or happenstance.  It is gloriously messy, confusing, and ugly–again making for a sum total of something that is fascinating to participate in. Also, it stars the divine Michelle Gomez, who does not let us down.

4.) Peep Show: Peep Show is a male heavy show, but I bring our attention to Nu woman Sophie, who starts as love interest and becomes a bit of an albatross to both characters.  She is as effed as both our narrators, and unapologetic as she clumsily navigates in and out of the plot.  One could argue that she is there only for Mark and Jez’s growth, except that her performances (especially at her wedding) are so pivotal and grotesque, and understandable, that she is very much in the pantheon (and she also stars on Green Wing, where she quietly does a stunt on motherhood, sexuality, and doddiness that will amaze).  Also, the show insists men are as self-conscious as women are often portrayed.

5.) Lizzie and Sarah:  I know less about this show, except that it is written by Jessica Hynes, of Spaced, and that it has been described as

“challenging comedy. Lizzie and Sarah are two suburban housewives (played by Davis and Hynes) whose lives suddenly go very wrong – although, as it turns out, things had actually been going very wrong for a long time. The humour is brutal enough to make Nighty Night look like You’ve Been Framed, and there are moments of cruelty so biting that it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry; spousal abuse, murder, grief and adultery are all thrown into the mix. It would be easy to dismiss it as shocking for the sake of being shocking, were it not also brilliant. It’s funny, inventive and angry comedy, and there’s little that can compare.”

Hopefully, this all hops the pond soon.  Drew Barrymore recently said about Whip It!

“I’m a woman so I’m going to make stories about women because I understand them, but I’m also a boy and I can’t stand the term ‘chick flick.’ That turns me off. I’m as turned off by that as any guy because I am a ‘dude.’ I have a very male mentality — the comedy in the film is not little girl comedy. It’s boy comedy, it’s androgynous comedy.” [Mirror]

Perhaps “dude” is code for Nu? Maybe instead of this kind of qualifier, we can just have better television and movies, more gasps of delight, more women who aren’t as much “attractive” or “shocking” as much as fucking brilliant.

Yours,

CF

She had me at ungraceful exposure of honest thought, Part 1

Dear Millicent,

The attacks against and defense of Tina Fey in the past week have made for an interesting keyhole to peek in on the state of women’s humor in our fine media.  Fey has been called out on being too attractive, judging other women, and saying whore all the time.  My biggest problem with her grand work on 30 Rock is that Jack always saves the day for Liz Lemon when she gets in a pickle.

But what I love love love about Fey isn’t her insistence she is ugly, as much as the depiction of society’s insistence that she is ugly–that she lives in a world where the aptly captured pretty bubble exists for the likes of John Hamm and Cerie (the braless socialite receptionist).  Jack also lives in this bubble, though his is also padded by extreme wealth, and the joke is that the world does suck for the not infinitely blessed.   We can’t hate on Fey for being good looking.  That isn’t what she is doing here.  As our parents told us all through high school, we  are all very attractive, and as we learned in high school, that does jackshit for your self esteem when you are swimming with beautiful sharks every day who don’t have the same trials of plainitude as the masses.  How can anyone fully announce their prettiness, when they are obviously not within the pretty bubble? I think Rebecca Traister nailed it in her defense of Fey when she said “Occasionally suffocating self-awareness is the hallmark of Fey’s style. She’s not pretending to be anybody’s ideal, least of all her own.”

But what this really got me thinking about is how my favorite TV creation, and one that is rarely stumbled on, is the messy woman that is neither adorable or nunnish.  This might be considered the omega female, but it doesn’t have to be.  Instead of full out loser, she is simply as uncensored as the menfolk.  She is allowed the ambiguities and inanity of being a real human.

She may be attractive or unattractive, but what makes her interesting is that the camera doesn’t cut away when things get unladylike.    Also, I should add that I’m not suggesting that fictional characters have to be painfully set in realism, as much as that male characters (especially in comedy) are allowed all kinds of disgraces and the depth they offer, where women usually don’t.

For lack of a more creative term, I’m calling these dames the Nu woman, as Nu is  stuck in the middle (like most of us) of that Greek alphabet which has become our powerseat rating system.  (Let me know if you think of a better name, the other choice I had was the Mu, or the MuNu?).  The Nu women have a little sprinkle of both Alpha and Omega in their landscape, and they are a very rare breed.  I get so spooked (happily) when I see one on my TV that I usually lean forward, and my pulse quickens. “They went there!” I think, or “A woman definitely wrote that.” or “Oh, I do get that.”  I watch with glee and worry at what they are exposing about the darker corners of my adult charade.

Faux Nu women are rampant, and perhaps we owe them a trailblazing award, but I’m not feeling generous.  They are usually identified by their escapades with the nitty gritty of grooming or birth control (I’m thinking of Bridget Jones cursing as she waxes herself, or Rachel Griffiths in the very good Me Myself I watching as her diaphragm zings across the bathroom). I’m also thinking of all the sitcom tries at this…Rachel, Monica, Phoebe…Caroline in the City…even the ladies of my beloved Girlfriends.

Elaine Bennis leans heavily toward the Nu woman, especially with her lack of sentimentality (who can forget her questioning of “sponge worthiness”), and it was her prickly self-absorption that made her a character first in that ensemble cast, instead of a woman that was only there to prod the boys along in their understanding of themselves.  We also have Maude.  Yes.  Maude was definitely a Nu.

Also, as I have mentioned before, I think the 70s were kinder to Nu woman development. We have Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, leaving her body during sex, and all the ambiguity that her character symbolizes about relationships and their unarticulated endings. And, Ellen Burstyn  in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, who treats her child with a less than standard ideal of care.  They often have moments where expected sentimentality is strikingly lacking (a woman untender and unhysterical towards her lover, a mother disliking her child or her station), and it ultimately isn’t because they are lacking, as much as resisting any pat formula that is ready to fall on them and wrap them in the expected veil.

And that is why I love the women on TV who exist as creatures of the same universe as the men.  Sarah Haskins embarked on this well with her “Women and Advertising” series, always contrasting the image of a woman (tamed, perfumed, in love with housework) to the earthy existence that wasn’t a Cathy version of pathetic ladyhood as much as the fact that girls live very much as men: they drink beer, they poop, they wake up looking less than pert.  Are their differences? Yes, but the brass facts exist that a real woman is a sloppier less attractive thing than what is usually presented, and a more interesting thing as well.

And, as we’ll discuss in Part II, the Brits are so much better at this than we are.

Yours,

CF