Summer TV Catch-Up: #iZombie, #MrRobot, #Sense8, #Transparent

Anyone who tries to tell you that this isn’t the Golden Age of Television needs to go back and watch all of those classic TV shows from the ’50s and ’60s with an objective eye. Not to say that there aren’t some gems—of course there are. But in an age where everything is an homage to something else, if not a soulless digital double, it’s easy to mistake nostalgia for quality. Which is not to say that today’s shows are any different—they can still be subdivided into the good, the bad, and the ugly—but with cable and streaming services constantly upping their game, the result is some spectacularly good TV.

Possibly too much. I’m a regular TV watcher—unrepentantly so, given the slim pickings at the multiplex these days—and even I can’t keep up with all the good stuff. And there is *so much* good stuff on TV these days: ambitious dramas, cutthroat fantasy, inspiring superheroes, auteurism at its best. If you would rather go see Furious 7 or Jurassic World than watch a season of [insert popular and critically acclaimed show here], then… you should probably go read some other blog. 😉

This quality TV glut is one of the many reasons I love the summer. Even though some channels have smartened up and started featuring original content in the summertime, mostly the powers that be might as well have a great big “Gone Fishin'” title card playing 24/7.

So once I had my fill of baking in the sun, I had time to catch up on four shows that I personally think are worthy of a few of your precious viewing hours. While they are far from perfect, each is fun, provocative, and egregiously entertaining, at least in my humble opinion.

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iZombie

I resisted this one for a while, even though it comes from the creator of Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas. Mostly because I am zombied out. I also don’t like gross body horror stuff. But I should have known better since a) this is on network TV, so the brains and intestines are kept to a minimum, and b) Veronica Mars is one of my favorite shows of all time. The plot is about Liv, a promising med student with a hunky fiance and a great family life who goes to a party one night where there is a zombie attack. She gets infected and has to give up everything in her life to work at the morgue so she has a steady supply of brains, brains, brains. The brain she’s eating also gives her the personality of the deceased, which she uses to help solve their murder.

The procedural element is the weakest part of the show, since it’s the same case of the week structure that endless cop shows use, and it’s impossible at this point to bring anything new to that. But the serial aspects of the show won me over very quickly, mainly the stellar supporting cast. Also, the show never cuts corners in the suffering department. In the first season alone, each character is put through the ringer emotionally, and the writers always choose the most painful development for them. And all this with a ton of witty banter and just plain fun interactions. Liv taking on the personalities of the people she eats results in some side-splitting and heartbreaking interactions. Thomas, like with Veronica Mars, is committed to strong multicultural casting, and the best part of the show is her fellow mortician Ravi, who needs to be my boyfriend, like, now. Also great are David Anders as the big bad zombie Blaine and Robert Buckley as her ex-fiance Major Lilywhite (best name ever). The only character who didn’t quite hit for me is her detective partner Clive, partly because he isn’t aware that zombies exist, and therefore is kept out of a lot of the serialized aspects of the plot.

If you’re looking for a fun, fresh take on the zombie genre, or even just some witty banter, check out iZombie.

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Mr. Robot

And the award for the worst title of a new television show goes to…

A lot of factors kept me away from this one when it first started airing, but, wow, was I wrong. This is easily one of the best first seasons of a show I’ve seen in a long time, a cinematic pressure-cooker that had me holding my breath when not theorizing about what exactly is going on. In the tradition of ’70s paranoid cinema but with an up-to-the-minute take on technology and societal woes, this show evokes Kubrick, Fincher, and those nightmares you can’t wake up from.

Our unreliable narrator is Elliot, a mega-introvert who works at a tech security firm but who moonlights as a hacker Robin Hood, righting the wrongs in his environment through cyber blackmail. He nemesis is Evil Corps, an Apple/Google-esque company that controls, well, everything. He and his best friend Angela both lost their parents to cancer caused by Evil Corps’ negligence, so it’s no surprise Elliot gets in bed with fSociety, a group of hackers set on eliminating everyone’s debt by destroying the corporate infrastructure. The enigmatic Mr. Robot is their fearless leader… or is he? Elliot is the Alice in this tale, and as he steps through the looking glass, he discovers a whole other world, and parts of himself that he never expected. ‘Unreliable’ is the watchword here.

By the end of ten riveting episodes, every one of your expectations will be met while subverting all character tropes. Angela, Elliot’s friend, is a tigress in disguise. Sweet Shayla at first seems one-note, then turns into an aria. Menacing businessman Tyrell Wellick and his snobby wife at first seem like stereotypes of the up-and-coming business class, but prove far shiftier, and more human, than first expected. Then there’s Darlene, who just plain rocks. I can’t say more for fear of ruining the many, many surprises to come, but trust me, this is one roller-coaster you want to ride.

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Transparent

Despite the overwhelmingly positive critical reception, I had resisted watching this show because of the conflicting opinions within the transgendered community about whether the way it represents that community is a good thing or not. To read more about their criticisms and concerns, click here. (Like any community, there are a variety of opinions, but from what I could tell, the common consensus leaned towards the negative.) I personally cannot speak to whether the show accurately or positively depicts the experience of transitioning, so I’m going to focus on the show as a show.

It’s an exceptional show. These are flawed human characters—some might say they are characters defined by their flaws—that you will recognize and cringe over. You will panic and think, “Is that me? Please don’t let that be me.” Nominally, it’s a show about a 67-year-old father of three’s transition, but it’s actually a show about a family, the Pfeffermans. There’s Maura, trying to navigate this major change in her life with dignity and grace (her family does not make it easy). There’s lackadaisical Sarah, the oldest, who reconnects with her long-lost girlfriend, leaves her husband pretty much on a whim, and spends the rest of the series white-knuckling it through that decision. There’s petty Josh, the commitment-phobic middle brother who has an ongoing affair with his former babysitter. There’s self-centered Ali, still on the gravy train, who will try anything once and can’t seem to make any solid decisions for herself. And there’s Shelly, the distant mother more worried about trivialities than whether her current husband is missing.

Watching them battle through their respective life challenges could seem like torture, except that creator Jill Soloway and her team of writers imbue the show with whimsy, emotionality, and an honesty that is beyond affecting. There’s definitely an Office UK version of this show to be played for squirm-inducing laughs, but they go the more fulfilling route. It’s also nice to see a show that depicts a religion other than Christianity (they are Jewish), and isn’t afraid to engage with it on a critical level. That said, the writers’ interests quite obviously evolved away from Maura and towards the children, with her barely appearing in the last episode. Irritating Ali, who I believe is the character that stands in for Soloway herself (the show is semi-autobiographical), is given showcase after showcase, as if the narrative is somehow as narcissistic as she is. But that is a small criticism in what is really a beautiful and heart-rending depiction of family life.

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Sense8

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I want to say I loved this show to bits and pieces. It is daring, it is passionate, it is avant garde, it is maddening in all the best ways. It’s about a cluster of eight people who can feel and communicate with each other even though they are spread across the globe, but this sci-fi premise plays a backdrop (a deep backdrop) to an exploration of other cultures and life experiences. The creators tip their thematic hand pretty early with the idea of the universality of human experience, but you never really mind because the message is a strong and resonant one.

Structurally, there are some very slow and navel-gazing parts, but you forgive these because the phenomenal cast gives it their all and then some. My personal favorites were Sun, the badass corporate dragonslayer; Lito, the melisma-loving Mexican soap actor; and Nomi, the former hacker and current LGBTQ blogger. And so many others. The show was shot in the eight different countries the lead actors represent, and it works if you turn the sound off and just gape at the beauty of each place.

Still, I would be remiss in not mentioning that I had some serious issues with the representation of all these diverse cultures. Specifically, the inability of the creators to escape privileging the white characters. Though Sun does get a few good fight sequences, overwhelmingly it is the white male cis-gendered American who jumps in to save the day for the male, female, and trans characters. He’s also the one who has all the agency in terms of learning about them being sensates and the hazards of that new world. Not to mention that the narrative for every character of color is resolved in the penultimate episode, so that the last episode can concentrate on the romance between the two white straight characters, and how the white American dude rushes to save his love interest. To top it all off, the series ends in a Pieta-style tableau of the characters around the white male savior.

Whether consciously or not, the creators really struggled to subvert these common narrative tropes and get away from archetypes. I also think they should re-evaluate the need for gratuitous action and violence in a show that purports to be about authentic human experience and multiculturalism. I’m not saying they should turn it into some kind of We Are The World sing-along, but several of the characters drop a lot of bodies with little to no consequences. That Wachowski-style, “Guns, lots of guns,” approach to the action doesn’t quite mesh with the show’s themes. For the second season, I hope they work harder on the plot structure, so that every act, violent or no, is character-motivated and realistic. But is it worth your time? Hell yes.

Have you watched any of these shows? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Selina

The Normal Heart

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In the tradition of And the Band Played On…, last night HBO aired the film version of the 1985 agit-prop masterpiece by Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart. If you haven’t watched it yet, especially if you are an M/M devotee like I am, it is absolutely worth your time. (Spoiler warning from here on out.)

I’ll confess I had my doubts about the project, mostly due to the involvement of Ryan Murphy. To be blunt, I’ve never liked his work. Too camp, too lightweight, too silly, too trashy. But even Murphy admits that he restrained himself because of the importance of this project, to him and to the gay community at large. The fact that he can say that about his own work should perhaps give him pause, but anyway. He had excellent source material here, and, despite a few quibbles, I think he knocked it out of the park. If you aren’t sobbing by the end of this, I think you should go in for a chest x-ray to make sure you aren’t a robot.

The story centers around the ground zero for AIDS, the NYC gay community circa 1981, in the midst of unprecedented sexual and personal freedom for homosexuals. Ronald Regan publicly acknowledged the existence of the disease in 1985, but during the four years in-between, there was a lack of information, a black hole of support from governmental institutions, and even some resistance/disbelief within the gay community itself. And yet men young and old were dying by the hundreds, from a disease that wasn’t understood and that desiccated them from the inside out.

It might be fair to ask, “Why a movie about the beginnings of AIDS when we are so advanced, both socially and medically, now?” But when you consider how quickly the government reacted to SARS or H1N1, and how slow they were to address this out of prejudice and bigotry (not to mention the fact that 6,000 people get infected with HIV daily), the timeliness of the tale becomes clear. The Normal Heart is really a story about advocacy. What is the best way to make your voice heard? Some would say it’s through diplomacy, negotiation, awareness that doesn’t challenge anyone. But how much does that really get you, in the end? Isn’t it preaching to the converted? When it comes to life or death situations, to hate crimes, to racism, to a sub-culture that has no rights and no visibility, do you barter, or do you roar? And what are the consequences of that roar, even within your own community? The Normal Heart illustrates this conflict beautifully, and gives no easy answers.

It is also, in its heart of hearts, a romance.

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Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer play one of the most enchanting onscreen gay couples ever. Their passion and their devotion gave me Brokeback-level chills (and tears!). Anyone who doubts that there should be more gay romances in film and on TV needs to watch these two woo each other. Their relationship anchors the film, underlining the stakes for all the men living in that time, both personally and socially.

Which isn’t to say that the movie is perfect. I would have liked some of the other men who worked at the Gay Men’s Heath Crisis Center to have been a bit more well-rounded. Taylor Kitsch’s Bruce Niles, in particular, sometimes seemed to put up a fight because that’s what the narrative called on him to do rather than because that’s what viewers felt he would do as a person. One of the most stirring monologues is given by a character who is little more than a background player. These moments land, but they could have been that much more powerful with a bit of backstory.

But I’ve not heard a better defense of how anyone who is different should be treated within their own families than the one Mark Ruffalo’s Ned makes here. And the ending is perfect: a defeat for Ned on the personal and career fronts, but he is undaunted. He knows that sometimes a series of little victories can ultimately win the war.

Why Aren’t There Any Gay Superheroes in Film and on TV?

With every film studio trying to get in on the Marvel Cinematic Universe game and a slew of new superhero televisions shows (most also courtesy of Marvel), the question of why there aren’t more gay superheroes in movies and on TV demands to be asked.

While it’s encouraging that we are somewhat beyond the point where we need to ask why there isn’t more LGBTQ representation on television as a whole—shows like Looking, Orange Is The New Black, Grey’s Anatomy, Orphan Black, Modern Family, and others being on the front lines of that particular cultural war—we’re still a long way from universal acceptance. From a world where all forms of sexuality are categorized under the banner of mere sexuality, with no sense of otherness or alternatives to the norm. Still, many shows only have one token gay character, or one gay character plus a revolving door of love interests. This is hardly progress.

In the case of Arrow and Revenge, homosexuality is represented by a bisexual character who switches sides depending on narrative convenience. The depiction of bisexuality is a pervasive problem on television, since writers don’t make characters bisexual in order to say something profound, but because that way, they don’t have to add a bunch of other gay characters to the show and they can still have the character in question hook up with the opposite gender. It’s the television equivalent of getting some ass and eating it, too.

In film, unfortunately, the situation is bad. I was chatting with a friend and challenged her to come up with a movie that was about a gay couple—or had gays as the lead characters in situations unrelated to romance—in a mainstream film since Brokeback Mountain. She could not. I could not, either. Everyone thought Brokeback Mountain would open a floodgate of films where gay characters took the lead, but not one film since has dared.

Now comes word that an animated children’s fantasy film, How To Train Your Dragon 2, has a gay character. Enfin, some progress! But is it the lead character? Of course not. An important secondary character? No, not really. The comic relief? Duh. Because if anyone of significance were to be gay, then there would have to be other LGBTQ characters to support that person. They might even have to make a whole, entire film with gay characters. Break out the fainting couches, the executives are looking a little pale!

The state of affairs in non-fantastical film and television, while not exactly dire, is far from ideal. But as an avowed geek, the lack of LGBTQ representation in sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book stories pains me all the more. The very nature of the genre is to explore new worlds and new ideas, to make us feel the humanity in the alien, to underline how people made to feel other are just like everybody else, to think as far outside the box as possible. To boldly go. These writers and creators dream up the most death-defying and time-bending scenarios for their characters, but they can’t manage to squeeze in a few who aren’t heterosexual?

It’s a little bit outrageous, when you think about it. Let’s break it down:
-Marvel (Disney styles) has Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy, Incredible Hulk, Agents of Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z, Agent Carter, and four—count ’em, four—new TV series set to be streamed on Netflix within the next two years. Total LGBTQ characters: 0 (Joss, I’m calling you out for this. This isn’t like you and it stinks.)

-Fox has the X-Men—a fricking allegory about people being ostracized for being different! Total LGBTQ characters: 0 (I won’t add to your woes, Bryan Singer, but check yourself)

-Sony has the Spider-Man series, old and new school, which they are hoping to spin off into an Evil League of Evil franchise (actual name: Sinister Six). Total LGBTQ characters: 0.

-Warner Brothers/DC has Nolan’s Batman films, Snyder’s Superman film, Batman vs. Superman (with a cast of thousands) leading into an eventual Justice League, not to mention Arrow, The Flash, Gotham, and Constantine on TV. Total LGBTQ characters: 1. (Bisexual, natch. Arrow is otherwise flawless.)

(Note: I may be forgetting someone here. A couple of these shows haven’t premiered yet, so TBD. Please feel free to correct me in the comments and I will update. Still, one or two additions do not a revolution make.)

This list isn’t depressing just because it confirms that the corporate overlords who control these movies and series have succeeded in whitewashing them (people of color being poorly represented to an almost laughable degree as well). It’s depressing because it shows just how much these talented filmmakers and showrunners are lacking in the imagination department. They pay lip service to themes of diversity, self-acceptance, and what being a true hero really means, but do nothing to push those boundaries in their own work.

It’s about past time, isn’t it, that we got a little action between Cap and Bucky? (Maybe women are a thing of the past for both of them.) That Batman takes Robin in because he pushes buttons that the cowled one can no longer ignore? That Rogue figures out the person she would most want to touch her is Kitty Pride, even if she’ll never be able to? That Loki admits once and for all just why he’s so obsessed with Thor?

In the immortal words of no less than Spider-Man himself, Andrew Garfield:

“I was like, ‘What if MJ is a dude?’ Why can’t we discover that Peter is exploring his sexuality? It’s hardly even groundbreaking!…So why can’t he be gay? Why can’t he be into boys?…I’ve been obsessed with Michael B. Jordan since The Wire. He’s so charismatic and talented. It’d be even better—we’d have interracial bisexuality!”

Now that is the kind of courage and imagination I like to see in my superheroes.

Of course, this entire post was written as an excuse to show just how amazing Mr. Garfield really is. Check him out in the new video by Montreal darlings Arcade Fire, for “We Exist”, a song about someone coming out to their parents and one of my current faves:

Cheers,
Selina

Buffy’s Daughters

Lately, I’ve been binge-watching the latest season of Teen Wolf (having sworn never to watch it again after the steaming turd that was Season 3A, but what can I say? The Olympics are giving my DVR an enema, cleaning out all the old shit I haven’t watched), which is going through its very own Dark Willow storyline in the form of trickster!Stiles. That, and the latest cover story in Entertainment Weekly, on the Veronica Mars movie, got me thinking about how many shows owe their existence and a huge debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the blueprint for supernatural and occult-influenced fantasy horror shows. If you’ll indulge me in a little pop culture riffing, I’ll share.

***Please note that the following contains mild spoilers for a host of television series, notably the most recent season of Teen Wolf. If you haven’t seen them and want to, tread carefully.***

While not the first television show to explore things that go bump in the night, Buffy weaves together the strengths of its predecessors without outright copying any of their elements, spinning these disparate strands into a strong, original yarn. Even The X-Files owes more to Kolchak the Night Stalker and the Twilight Zone than Buffy does to… well, to no television show I can think of. Buffy is a unique mix of  action, horror, mythology, pathos, and humor, subverting archetypes and promoting girl power while resonant with emotion. Buffy, the cheerleader-turned-chosen one, is the nominal star, but she’s supported by a true ensemble. Unlike most eponymous characters, she’s not the loss-leader in that she’s just as interesting as everyone else. These qualities, along with the season-long big bad structure and the light flirtation with camp, would go on to be mirrored in every supernatural show that followed.

And some where the only demons are of the metaphoric variety. That EW article reminded me that Veronica Mars was, like Buffy before her, a mean girl forced to go good because she no longer fit in with the Plastics of the world. Like in Buffy, Veronica’s best cases of the week illuminate something about the emotional struggles of one of the characters, most often Veronica herself. But Veronica does Buffy one better in that she is much more capable, competent, and confident in her abilities where solving mysteries is concerned. Her love life is just as much of a train wreck, and the consequences of some of her bad decisions – like the show itself – are a bit more real, if no less visceral. Joss Whedon was an avowed fan of Veronica Mars, which is no surprise, because it’s basically a love letter to him.

It’s one thing, though, to be inspired by Buffy and create a whole new world as a consequence; it’s another to copy the format and approach wholesale, making only superficial changes. Like the gender of the lead character(s). Yes, kids, it’s time to play Buffy But With Boys, AKA Smallville, Supernatural, and Teen Wolf.

I can’t say I was ever an avid watcher of the first two, but I was persuaded (some might say peer-pressured) by my two long-time friends N. and A. to give Teen Wolf a try. Of course, they dangled the promise of slash in front of my nose like the proverbial carrot – how could I be expected to resist? Unfortunately, the slashy couple in question, nicknamed Sterek, wasn’t of particular interest to me, but I found myself entertained by the show all the same. It’s a fascinating case study, since the show gets at least as many things wrong as right in any given episode, but is still fun and watchable.

If anything, the writers might want to learn a few more things from Buffy, such as writing genuinely strong female characters with agency. They also have this frustrating tendency to manipulate their characters to fit the plots they have outlined, as opposed to letting the plots be inspired by their character’s inner struggles and shortcomings. The current Dark Willow ‘homage’ storyline is the perfect example. In Buffy, Willow went over to the dark side for a host of deeply emotional reasons: her irritation at not being allowed to explore her powers to the fullest, her resentment towards Buffy, her fear of how much magical potential was inside of her, and, most heartbreaking of all, the murder of her lover, Tara. On Teen Wolf, Stiles is possessed by a nihilistic trickster fox spirit, but I can’t think of one concrete emotional reason why this would happen to his character, other than to give the cast’s strongest actor, Dylan O’Brien, a chance to shine. Which he does. The storyline is fun, and thrilling, and engrossing by turns, but it’s all glossy artifice. On Buffy, the Dark Willow storyline hurt viewers where we lived.

To my mind, the true successor to Buffy’s throne is… wait for it… Fringe. Yes, it started off as an X-Files rip-off. I actually remember saying to someone that I’d stopped watching the first season after a few episodes because “I’ve seen The X-Files.” But then, at the end of that first season, something curious happened. Fringe learned how to go deep. It began to mine and mine and mine its characters, all the while bedazzling us with some diamond-quality mythology and sci-fi gems. Olivia Dunham out-Buffy’d Buffy in terms of emotional isolation and willingness to sacrifice herself to the cause. Her doomed romance with John Scott was like a mini-Angel situation, with Peter later cast as a gloomier, but no less sarcastic meld of Spike/Xander. With her very own Scooby Gang around her, each member so unique that that’s really where the direct comparison with the characters on Buffy ends, Olivia, like her mother slayer before her, came to understand that she was, in her own way, a chosen one. Then Fringe took some basic Whedon tropes psychedelic, and blew everyone’s mind, with its alternate universes, dopplegangers, and Observers.

While too derivative to be a blueprint in its own right, Fringe went where no sci-fi action show had gone before, while never losing its emotional core. Just saying certain characters’ names makes my heart sigh: Lincoln Lee, Astrid, September, Walter. Oh, Walter! I can cite Fringe episodes that moved me to tears the same way that I know the names of the Buffy episodes that cut deep: “White Tulip” and “The Bullet That Saved The World” in the former, “The Body” and “The Gift” from the latter. In spirit and execution, Fringe is Buffy’s spiritual daughter.

There are countless other shows whose creators undoubtedly double-dipped in the Buffy, er, dip – True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and Sleepy Hollow come to mind, and to a lesser degree Arrow. I keep hoping that one day an innovative showrunner will get the chance to bring his or her (preferably her) original spin on the action-horror genre to life, that someone will sketch a new blueprint for lesser shows to follow. Until then, I’m just grateful to have gotten in on the ground floor of Castle Whedonverse, when only the chosen few knew how special and how revolutionary their little show about a girl who slays vamps and saves the world a lot was.