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1. Nick Greenlights A Weiner: ‘Pinky Malinky’

The "social-media influenced comedy" will debut in 2016.

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2. The Perils of Biopics: Life in Squares and Testament of Youth


The universe has conspired to turn my research work this summer into mass culture — while I've been toiling away on a fellowship that has me investigating Virginia Woolf's reading in the 1930s and the literary culture of the decade, the mini-series Life in Squares, about the Bloomsbury group and Woolf's family, played on the BBC and the film Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain's 1933 memoir of her experiences during World War One, played in cinemas.

I've now seen both and have mixed feelings about them, though I enjoyed watching each. Life in Squares offers some good acting and excellent production design, though it never really adds up to much; Testament of Youth is powerful and well constructed, even as it falls into some clichés of the WWI movie genre, and it's well worth seeing for its lead performance. 

The two productions got me thinking about what we want from biographical movies and tv shows, how we evaluate them, and how they're almost always destined to fail. (Of course, "what we want" is a rhetorical flourish, a bit of fiction that would more accurately be expressed as "what I think, on reflection, that I want, at least now, and what I imagine, which is to say guess, what somebody other than myself might want". For the sake of brevity, I shall continue occasionally to use the phrase "what we want".)



Testament of Youth is easier to discuss in this context, partly because it's a single feature film based (mostly) on one text and not a three-part mini-series depicting the lives of people about whom there are shelves and shelves of books. Though the filmmakers clearly read some of the biographies of Vera Brittain, as well as her diaries, and occasionally incorporate (or at least allude to) some of this material, the structure of the film of Testament of Youth is pretty much the structure of the book, even though the screenplay takes some massive liberties. (I expect the 1979 mini-series was able to be more faithful, since it had more time, but I haven't gotten around to watching it on YouTube, which is pretty much the only place it seems still to be available, never having been released on DVD.)

For any 2-hour movie of Brittain's memoir, massive liberties are unavoidable, and overall I think the filmmakers found good choices for ways to streamline an unwieldy text — 650 pages or so, with countless characters who constantly bounce from one locale to another.

I should admit here that I don't much like Brittain's book. Some of the war parts are compelling, and it's certainly important as a historical document, but it seems to me at least twice as long as it needs to be, and Brittain simplified the main characters to such an extent that I find it hard to care about any of them. For instance, when Roland, the great love of her life, dies, it's all supposed to be terribly sad and devastating and I just thought, "Finally! No more of that insipid pining and those godawful letters back and forth and that hideous poetry!" (Which is not to say that I wanted more of the slog of the first 100+ pages of the book with all the details of Oxford University's entrance exams.) Someone could create an abridgement of Testament of Youth, maybe reducing the book to 150 or 200 pages, and it would be vastly more interesting and compelling, because there really is some excellent material buried amidst it all. Concision was not among Brittain's writerly skills.

I am not the right reader for Testament of Youth, however. None of us are, really. The book became a bestseller for a number of reasons, but one of them was that readers could fill in its thin parts with their own memories, experiences, and griefs. What the film of Testament of Youth achieves is to evoke some semblance of the emotion that was, I expect, present in the book for its first readers, most of whom would have had memories of the war years, and many of whom would have suffered similar losses as those described by Brittain — losses both of loved ones and of a certain, more innocent, worldview.

The deaths in the film were, for me at least, far more powerful than the deaths in the book. One reason is the change in medium: the move from the words on a page to actors embodying roles. Deaths in books can be hugely powerful, of course (see A Little Life for a recent example), but Brittain's ability as a writer was not up to the task, at least in a way that would transfer beyond the experiences of people for whom the First World War was still an event that had defined important portions of their lives. The characters in the film are less idealized than in the book, more human. The screenplay by Juliette Towhidi creates situations, moments, and dialogue that allow the characters to live a bit more than they do in Brittain's narrative, where the characters are more asserted by the writer than dramatized. The acting by the men is generally good, and Taron Egerton is especially effective as Brittain's brother Edward. (Kit Harrington struggles a bit in the role of Roland, but it's a nearly impossible role, since its primary requirement is for the actor to make poetic mooning somehow alluring.) But I think the real reason this film of Testament of Youth ultimately succeeds at evoking some emotion and making us care about what we watch is that Alicia Vikander is a truly extraordinary actor. Her portrayal of Brittain manages to convey the important overall arc of the character: from naive, idealistic girl to war-hardened woman shattered not only by the events of the war but also by the deaths of all the men she most loved.

Life in Squares might have been saved by its performances as well, given the talent of the actors in the show, but they never get a chance to do much. Writer Amanda Coe tries hard to give focus to the story she wants to tell, but she was unfortunately undone by the limitations of time — three episodes of not quite an hour in length is simply too little for what Coe and the other filmmakers attempt, and the result is mostly thin and unaffecting. Coe does some great things with the material, but there's just not much for the actors to work with, because the scenes move forward so quickly that there's no chance to build up anything. It's a real waste, unfortunately, because the lead actors in the first two episodes, James Norton (as Duncan Grant) and Phoebe Fox (as Vanessa Bell), capture some of the energy, attraction, and personality of young Bloomsbury in ways I've never seen before. The mise-en-scene is important, too, and marvelously rendered, giving a sense of the physical world through careful attention to the detail of sets, props, and, especially, costumes. But it's a mise-en-scene in service to ... well, not much.

For anyone who doesn't know the intricacies of the personal relationships among the "Bloomsberries", Life in Squares must be terribly confusing, especially given the choice to have two sets of actors play the main characters: a younger group and an older one, with the older group seen in quick flashbacks in the first two episodes, then dominant in the third, which is set in the 1930s. (The BBC has a helpful guide to the characters on their website.) With so many people coming and going through the show, and only a handful of characters given more than a few lines, it's difficult even for a knowledgeable viewer to know who is who.

The best decision the show makes is to focus primarily on Vanessa Bell, a fascinating person who has too often been invisible in the pop culture shadow of her sister, Virginia Woolf, but who was really much more at the core of the Bloomsbury group than either Virginia or Leonard Woolf. Her life also exemplified the ideals and aspirations of the group — she was an artist, had an open marriage to Clive Bell (with whom she had two children), and had a child with Duncan Grant, who preferred sex with men but for whom Vanessa was about as close as a person can get to what might be thought of as a soul mate. Their lives included mistakes, prejudices, jealousies, and great grief, but nonetheless seem to me to have been quite beautiful.

The problem Life in Squares fails to solve is the problem of showing entire lives over a long period of time. This was a problem Virginia Woolf knew well, and tackled again and again in her novels. But the problem of narrative time in a movie is very different from the problem of narrative time in a novel, because cinema's relationship to time is different from that of prose narratives, as lots of filmmakers and film theorists have known (Deleuze's second Cinema book is subtitled "The Time-Image"). This is one of the big perils of biopics, since they seek to show the progression of a life, and yet cinema is usually at its best when taking a more focused, less expansive view. Some wonderful films have covered entire lives — Citizen Kane comes to mind, as does 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould — but most history-minded movies that take on such a large expanse end up feeling thin, especially if they try to tell the story in a fairly conventional way, as Life in Squares does. (For comparison: The Imitation Game can thrive in its utterly conventional, audience-pleasing form because its narrative is relentlessly straightforward and the history is simplified to fit the linear movement of the plot and the characters' desires. Life in Squares doesn't simplify the historical figures or events nearly so much, but it also doesn't find a form that fits what it seeks to depict.)

Actually, the problem for Life in Squares is that it can't decide quite what approach it wants to take — will it be fragmentary and impressionistic, or will it try to string events together in a more linear structure? Linear becomes impossible because there's just so much material, and thus the show has to skip over all sorts of things, but it still retains an urge for linearity that sinks it. (How much better it would have been to, for instance, show us just three days in the lives of the characters. Or to take a page from Four Weddings and a Funeral and base it on the weddings of Vanessa, Virginia, and Angelica and the days of the deaths of of Thoby Stephen, Lytton Strachey, Julian Bell, and Virginia. Or base it on particular art works. Or ... well, there are any number of possibilities.) Coe structures the story around the love lives of the characters, but there's too much else that she wants to throw in, and it all ends up a muddle that, sadly, too often domesticates people who, in reality, very much did not want to be domesticated.


What's worse, Life in Squares ultimately fails to show anything much of what's important about Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and the people around them — their contributions to culture. We see paintings around, we see the artists working now and then, and there are a few brief moments when we hear talk of books (Woolf's first novel, The Voyage Out, is, if I remember correctly, the only one we actually see, though there's some brief mention of The Years being a bestseller in the third episode). If not for the significant contributions to art, literature, and politics (hello there John Maynard Keynes, who gets maybe three lines in the whole show), these would not be especially noteworthy people, nor would there be much historical record of them. But more importantly, it's impossible to think of these people without their contributions to art, literature, and politics, because they lived for art, literature, and politics. (Well, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were less politically inclined than many of the others, but that's relative — the first biography of Leonard Woolf, for instance, was a political study.) Life in Squares does an admirable job of showing the truly radical sexual politics of the group, but it subordinates everything else to the personal relationships, which of course makes for easier drama, even if that drama is, as here, unfulfilling. But what it looks like and feels like and sounds like to devote your life to the things the Bloomsbury Group devoted their life to ... that isn't really here in a meaningful way.

(Is there a movie about a writer that gives a real sense of the writing life? Nothing comes immediately to mind. For artists, yes — Mr. Turner, Vincent & Theo — but the making of art is itself visual action. Carrington, which could almost be Life in Squares Episode 2.5, was better because it focused very closely on its two protagonists and allowed Lytton Strachey to talk to Carrington about books and Carrington to work on, and discuss, her art. It's still pretty flat as a movie, but it's earnest and Jonathan Pryce and Emma Thompson are quite good in their roles.)

Which brings me back to the original question: What do we want from biopics? Why was I excited to see a new film of Testament of Youth and a mini-series about the Bloomsbury Group? Why, even now, given all I've said especially about Life in Squares, am I glad these exist?

Partly, there's a sense of validation. It's a powerful feeling when mass culture recognizes the perhaps strange or esoteric thing you yourself obsess over. I watched the first episode of Life in Squares with a friend who only knows Virginia Woolf's name because he's seen her books around my house. He was bored by the show, but seemed amused by my ability to expound on the various relationships and histories of the characters flitting across the screen (and indistinguishable to him) — and in that moment, suddenly all of the work I've done this summer (not to mention the past twenty years of sometimes casually, sometimes obsessively reading in and around Woolf and her circle) felt somehow less ... hermetic. This, I could say, is something the wider world cares about, too, at least a little, at least superficially, at least...

It's possible that Life in Squares was a more fulfilling experience for me than for most viewers who know less about the characters and era. Not only could I figure out who was who, but I could also fill in the blanks that the show didn't have time or ability to dramatize. In that way, the show was, for me, pointillistic: my mind's eye filled in the space between the dots and extrapolated form from the individual moments of color.

Knowledge of the book of Testament of Youth is not necessarily helpful for the movie, because the film takes so many (mostly necessary) liberties that it's likely the knowledgeable viewer will become distracted by thinking about where the book and movie diverge. Both Testament and Life in Squares suffer from common problems of biopics, particularly name-dropping and random, obligatory cameos. Characters in Life in Squares constantly have to say each other's names because there are so many of them and they're all so quickly dealt with. Large historical moments must of course be alluded to in dialogue. And then important people must at least show up — there's a pointless moment with Vita Sackville-West in Life in Squares, for instance, and the presence of Winifred Holtby in Testament of Youth is only explicable because Holtby was so important in Brittain's life; but she gets so little time in the movie that she feels like she's been airdropped in at the last moment, and the portentousness of her announcing herself is never really dealt with. This brings me back, as ever, to the wonder that is Mr. Turner — director/writer Mike Leigh in that film and in his other historical movie, Topsy Turvy, avoids this sort of thing, because he knows that a movie is not a history book, and that what matters is not so much who people are as what they do and how they behave with each other.

What do we want to be accurate in our biopics ... and why? Does it matter if three minor characters are melded into one? Does it matter if chronologies are rearranged or simplified? Does it matter if people are put into places where they never were? "Well, it depends..." you say. Depends on what, though? I want to say that it depends on the ultimate goal, the effect, the meaning.

For me, the only changes that feel like betrayals are ones that distort the personality of characters I care about. Both Testament of Youth and Life in Squares do pretty well on that count, which is why, for all my grumbling, I was overall able to enjoy them and feel not great animosity toward them. I wish that the makers of each had been more imaginative, certainly — Life in Squares needed more imagination in order to come alive and feel vital, while Testament falls into too many clichés of the WWI story (plenty of which are directly from Brittain's text, which is why circumventing them requires significant imagination) and adds a couple of credibility-straining coincidences (particularly with Edward in France). If the Vera Brittain of the movie is a bit less naive and jingoistic at first than the real Vera Brittain was as a girl and the textual Vera Brittain is in the book, there is still a strong sense of her development in the film and, especially, in Vikander's performance, which begins with idealistic energy and ends with something far more profound.

In the end, I suppose what I want from biopics is a sense of the ordinary moments of extraordinary lives and the emotional realities of worlds gone by. This is something that drama in general can give us, and that cinema can give us especially well, with the camera-eye's ability to zoom and focus and linger and look. I got a sense of all that now and then in Life in Squares, especially when it calmed down and didn't try to squeeze so much in — I got a sense (imaginary, of course, but real in the way only the imaginary can be) of why everybody who ever met him seems to have fallen in love with Duncan Grant, and why Vanessa Bell was such a bedrock of the group, and what, in some way, it maybe felt like to wander those rooms and landscapes when they were not museums but just the places these people lived.

Testament of Youth offers a bit more, and also shows some other virtues of the historical or biographical film — it enlivened the material for me, and I returned to the book with a certain new appreciation, a new ability to find my way into it, to care about it and to imagine how its first readers cared about it.

The cinema fell upon its prey with immense rapacity, and to this moment largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim. But the results are disastrous to both. The alliance is unnatural. Eye and brain are torn asunder ruthlessly as they try vainly to work in couples. The eye says: 'Here is Anna Karenina.' A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes before us. But the brain says: 'That is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria.' For the brain knows Anna almost entirely by the inside of her mind -- her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls, and her velvet. Then 'Anna falls in love with Vronsky' -- that is to say, the lady in black velvet falls into the arms of a gentleman in uniform, and they kiss with enormous succulence, great deliberation, and infinite gesticulation on a sofa in an extremely well-appointed library, while a gardener incidentally mows the lawn. So we lurch and lumber through the most famous novels of the world. So we spell them out in words of one syllable written, too, in the scrawl of an illiterate schoolboy. A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse. None of these things has the least connection with the novel that Tolstoy wrote, and it is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess from some accidental scene -- like the gardener mowing the lawn -- what the cinema might do if is were left to its own devices. 
—Virginia Woolf, "The Cinema", 1926

Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant

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3. ‘Regular Show: The Movie’ Gets A Trailer

"Regular Show: The Movie" will debut on digital platforms and DVD before it airs on Cartoon Network.

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4. Phil Lord and Chris Miller Create Pilot for ‘Son Of Zorn’ Series

A barbarian warrior would rather wage animated war than work a real-world office job in the forthcoming animated/live-action comedy, 'Son of Zorn.'

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5. New Footage: Disney XD’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Series

A series of mini-shorts will debut on Disney XD tomorrow.

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6. C. H. Greenblatt ‘Not Thrilled’ With Nick’s Treatment of ‘Harvey Beaks’

New episodes of "Harvey Beaks" were pulled from the network's summer schedule with no warning to the staff.

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7. ‘Over the Garden Wall,’ Steven Universe,’ and ‘Wander Over Yonder’ Score First Emmy Noms

Some popular animated programs are being recognized for the first time this year.

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8. ‘Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans’ Takes Flight in New Teaser

In October, Sunrise will spin off the storied mecha anime franchise when "Iron-Blood Orphans" touches down in Japan.

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9. Nelvana, Sony Team Up For ‘Hotel Transylvania’ TV Series

Sony Pictures Animation and Nelvana's 'Hotel Transylvania' animated television series is scheduled for an early 2017 launch.

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10. Nelvana, Sony Team Up For ‘Hotel Transylvania’ TV Series

Mavis and company will arrive on TV in 2017.

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11. Disney’s ‘Pickle & Peanut’ Star Attacks Cartoon Brew Commenters

Johnny Pemberton used a crude sexual insult to describe commenters of this site.

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12. ‘The Simpsons’ Will Soon Start Selling Real-Life Duff Beer

Fox, which once considered selling "Simpsons"-branded beer "detrimental to children," has changed its tune.

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13. Viacom is Floundering Creatively — Here’s Why

Viacom, the parent company of Nick, MTV, and Comedy Central, insists it's still relevant. No one else thinks so.

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14. First Look at Disney’s ‘Pickle & Peanut’

It's a buddy comedy with a pickle and a peanut.

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15. ‘Adventure Time,’ ‘Uncle Grandpa’ Among Cartoon Network Renewals

Five Cartoon Network shows have earned season renewals.

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16. ‘Dream Defenders’ Brings International Exposure to Singapore’s Tiny Island Productions

Tiny Island founder David Kwok talks about Discovery Family Channel's pick-up of "Dream Defenders."

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17. Boomerang Reboots With Original Bugs, Scooby, and Bunnicula

Time Warner is relaunching its archival animation showcase Boomerang with original content -- and commercials.

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18. NBC Reveals First Heroes: Reborn Trailer

As a teenager, Heroes was one of the shows that influenced me most.  I guess you could read into what that says about me, but I always appreciated the show even as it spun off into increasingly strange and non-sequitur directions.  The show’s ability to take itself in a deadly serious manner while actually being incredibly campy was part of its charm, and it seems as though that charm will be preserved in NBC’s new Heroes: Reborn mini-series, whose first trailer was released today.

The trailer features the tagline “Where are the Heroes?” plastered up against buildings, flags, and other places that will surely bring the superpowered people out of the deep hole they escaped into after the end of the final season of the original show.

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19. ‘My Little Pony”s Meghan McCarthy Will Head Storytelling at Hasbro

Meghan McCarthy's success with the "My Little Pony" franchise leads to a much bigger role at Hasbro.

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20. Ben, Again: Cartoon Network Reboots ‘Ben 10′

Beginning in 2016 internationally, Cartoon Network's rewinds the alien-powered kid hero for a new generation.

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21. CGI Pioneer ‘ReBoot’ Reboots With ‘The Guardian Code’

TV's first fully computer-generated animation series gets a new 26-episode upgrade.

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22. Christy Karacas and Titmouse are Reviving ‘The Three Stooges’

The series will be directed by a rotating group of directors.

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23. Sense8


It's possible that Sense8, the new Netflix series from the Wachowskis, is the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. I don't know, because from the second episode it put its hooks into me so deeply that my critical, skeptical mind could not keep up. Certain elements of this show appealed to me so deeply that I was overwhelmed and had no ability to keep critical distance. Those elements were all related to a kind of queer ethic and queer vision, an approach to life that I've been a sucker for for decades, but have hardly ever seen expressed in a mainstream pop culture item.

First, I should note that even in my soggy, sappy, besotted love affair with this show, I couldn't miss some of its more obvious weaknesses. The major one for me is its globalized Americanism, well critiqued by Claire Light at The Nerds of Color in a post I pretty much entirely agree with, especially regarding the lost opportunity of a truly global production — imagine if, instead of writing it all themselves with J. Michael Straczynski, the Wachowskis had worked more as showrunners and farmed out the writing and maybe even directing to people from the actual places they depicted. I appreciate, for instance, that they reportedly liked Nairobi Half Life (I did, too!) and so had one of its producers, Tom Tykwer, direct the Nairobi scenes. But what if they'd brought in the actual Kenyan residents who wrote and directed Nairobi Half Life instead of just the German director who supported it but didn't really have a lot to do with its production? (For that matter, why not at least help Nairobi Half Life get broader distribution? I was lucky enough to see it when it played for one night in a nearby theatre, but as far as I know it's not available for home viewing in any way in the U.S.) But no. Though Sense8 is remarkable in many ways, it's still a product of big money, big egos, and a traditional production process. An anti-hegemonic pose is a whole lot easier to achieve than actually doing something to undermine hegemony.

Despite all this, I still fell hard for Sense8, and a lot of that has to do with a thought I had during the first episode: "I'm watching a sci-fi action soap opera kind of thing with queer people in it," and then later, "I'm watching a sci-fi action soap opera kind of thing that actually has more than a whiff of queer ethos to it."



That got me thinking about representation. I'm so used to seeing major media depict the world not as I know it, but as it is supposed to be known by a narrow norm, that when something like a pop cultured representation of something like what I know does make it into the mainstream, the gob smacks. It's not just about what I know of the world, however, because pop culture isn't really about the realistic representation of anything. It's more like a realistic representation of what we dream and hope for, a representation of yearnings and desires that are familiar and fitted into the whizzbang and weep of melodrama.

Halfway through my viewing of Sense8, I took a break and watched the documentary Vito, about Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet and an important gay rights activist. The documentary is effective, though hagiographic — The Celluloid Closet may be historically important in having reached a large audience, but it's awful as film criticism, and the material in the movie about the gay liberation and AIDS struggles gets terribly simplified (a perhaps inevitable consequence of a focus on one person). Nonetheless, Vito was interesting to watch while in the midst of Sense8 because it's a powerful story and because it does a good job of showing the importance of chosen families and chosen communities for queer people, even ones who have, as Russo did, a supportive biological family.

That's one of the great attractions of Sense8: it is very interested in communities, especially chosen ones. The sensates themselves have no choice about being part of their group (and I wonder what they'll do if they ever get tired of each other!), but the show does an excellent job of presenting good and bad families, chosen families, biological families, and communities of support. This stands in fierce opposition to mainstream family values, where biological family ties are sacred and uplifting. That's a story many queer people have no ability to participate in, and an important emphasis in a lot of queer culture is on the creation of intentional families and chosen communities.

In Sense8, for instance, Nomi's mother is horrible: she misgenders her, and she is complicit in torture of her. It might be nice and affirming and optimistic if they could reconcile, as they would in a mainstream show. Her mother would then learn to see Nomi as she wants to be seen and blah blah blah. But no. There's no redemption for her, nor should there be. She's no better than Wolfgang's abusive father was. We don't necessarily want Nomi's mother to be killed, but there's no need for Nomi to put effort into keeping this dreadful woman in her life. Call it a queer commandment: Thou shalt not put effort into maintaining a relationship with a family member who doesn't recognize you as you, or who doesn't respect your humanity.


I've never seen a mainstream movie or show that so well embraces the differences of queerness within a general ethic of common humanity. The mainstream liberal impulse these days is to take the queer out of queerness and extend the umbrella of normality. (Even your racist, sexist, bullying old uncle is welcome to the gay tent if he's willing to stop calling us faggots! Hooray for progress!) It's a message that appeals to Gay, Inc., allowing the mainstream to celebrate gayness alongside white supremacy, militarism, neoliberalism, etc. And certainly there's some of that in Sense8, but there's also an attention to details of sexual difference and oppression that Richard Dyer was writing about way back in the late '70s in a piece that's a bit dated (obviously) but still useful:
Now it may be true that we are still at the stage where we need to assert, to others and to ourselves, that we are part of the human race. But such assumptions assume that there is no real difference between being gay and being straight. Yet, from a materialist standpoint, gayness is different physically, emotionally, and socially from heterosexuality. It is physically different not in the sense of involving different genetic factors (the equivalent sexist argument for the fascist arguments of behavioral psychology) but in the sense of being a different physical activity—two women in bed together is not the same as a man and a woman together or two men. It is different emotionally because it involves two people who have received broadly the same socialization (being both the same gender) and have thus formed their personalities in relation to the same pressures and experiences. It is socially different because it is oppressed. ... 
What this boils down to in terms of films is that if you are representing sexual and emotional relationships on screen, it does make a difference whether they are gay or straight. One will not do as a metaphor for the other. Neither will either do as general metaphors for human sexuality and relationships.
The various relationships in Sense8 — gay, straight, trans, poly — are represented as the same in the sense of filled with love and capable of love and defined by love. (The Wachowskis are, in terms of their sensibilities, hippies.) But these relationships are not materially the same either to each other or to heterosexual relationships, and there's some good attention paid to exactly what Dyer pointed to: the physical, emotional, and social differences.

This is announced with a wonderful shot early on in the show where, after sex with Nomi (Jamie Clayton), Amanita (Freema Agyeman) drops a wet strap-on to the floor — a gauntlet plopped right into the center of the viewer's field of vision.


Sense 8 is definitely explicit (including full frontal Max Riemelt, which I would never complain about), and so it attends to the basic material, physical reality of queer sex in ways that movies and shows that don't have any explicit scenes do not. If anything, I wish Sense8 was more explicit, particularly in the Lito scenes (but the filmmakers probably pushed the actors as far as they were comfortable, and some viewers are already saying the show is porn, so...). Emotionally, Sense8 keeps the queer in queerness primarily through the affinity and comfort the sensates feel with each other, which seemed to me like the experience of first being in a space with other people whose emotions and desires are similar to yours — the first experience not only of a liberatory queer space, but also of, say, a particular fan community or any other place where your marginalized pleasures and enthusiasms are shared. This experience is sexualized in the sensate orgy scene, which wonderfully shows the erotic currents within that feeling of being around people who get you as you. (There's a certain Stranger in a Stranger Land element to it, too.) That the orgy is centered around Will (Brian J. Smith), the working class cop who's pretty darn hetero, is a great touch — instead of the queer being welcomed by and into the norm, the norm is brought into the queer. Late in the season, when Will and Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) first encounter each other, Will says something like, "Have we met?" and Lito responds, "Yes, we had sex," and the look on Will's face is perfect: right there, we see him come to grips with the queer within himself.

It's socially that Sense8 really fits into Dyer's rubric, particularly through the experiences of Nomi and Lito. The Wachowskis and Straczynski found a pulpy but effective way to make clear the emotional stakes in Lito's life as a closeted movie heartthrob — if you can sit through some of the later episodes without screaming out at him, "Come out! It'll be okay! Come out, Lito!" then you are stronger than I.


One of the reasons I typically prefer melodrama to verité drama is that I'm not especially interested in "rounded" characters — "roundedness" is a construction that depends on particular conventions and ideologies that I generally find boring and/or exhausted. Dyer gets at how this relates to queer subject matter:
Inscribed in the concept of the well-rounded character is the ideology of individualism, the belief that an individual is above all important in and for himself, rather than a belief in the importance of the individual for her or his class, community, or sisters and brothers. This cardinal precept of bourgeois ideology as against feudal or socialist ideology is built right into the notion of the "rounded character," who may well feel some pulls of allegiance to groups with whom she or he identifies, but who is ultimately seen as distinct and separate from the group, and in many cases, antagonistic to it. Rounded characterization is then far from ideal when you need (as we do) expressions of solidarity, common cause, class consciousness, fraternity and sorority.
Sense8 doesn't give us well-rounded characters, at least not in the way Dyer means, though the characterizations have some depth. They're still types, sometimes even clichés. This is melodrama, after all. The ways the actors and writers work with the expectations and possibilities offered by the types and clichés is what's interesting, and the ultimate effect of the show is indeed toward "expressions of solidarity, common cause, class consciousness, fraternity and sorority".

In some obvious ways, Sense8 draws on superhero stories, but the superhero stories it draws on are ones like The X-Men and Fantastic Four rather than Superman or Batman, and the kinds of superheroes it gives us are not ones with extraordinary, alien superpowers (beyond the psychic powers), but rather people with specific, relatively human skills who are able to benefit from each other. It is, then, a story of mutual aid.

The premise of people with special psychic powers and particular connections to each other pre-dates superhero stories, and the familiarity of that premise is, I think, actually a virtue of the series. What's innovative is not the basic idea, but the way that idea is developed. The entire first season of twelve episodes (each roughly an hour each) is, in traditional terms, basically set-up. What almost any other series would dispense with in an episode or two, Sense8 spends the season on: the characters discovering their abilities and each other, learning a bit about the malevolent forces that seemingly want to destroy them (but by the end of the season we learn hardly anything about this malevolent force), wandering around. It's a triumph of subplots with the main plot only becoming clearer by the end when the sensates realize they need to band together to protect each other. This allows us to spend a lot of time seeing their circumstances — meeting not just each major character, but developing an understanding of the various minor characters who are the people of their lives. It's a wonderfully humane structure, even if it denies some viewers the sort of plot-driven arc they'd prefer.

I could go on and on about various details I appreciated, including the exquisite use of the divine Jean-Claude van Damme and the sometimes goofy but amazingly powerful use of such familiar songs as "Mad World" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (in the haunting Antony & the Johnsons version; very well chosen for all sorts of reasons) and, especially, "What's Goin' On" ...  but I won't go on. You can make up your own mind. For all the ways Sense8 falls short, for all its faults and even failures, its virtues overwhelmed me, and I'm grateful this show exists, grateful it was made, grateful to have watched it.


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