Tag Archives: television


The heroic, sexy, smart Connie Britton

During a fall semester so busy that I haven’t been able to blog for almost eight weeks, one of my guilty television pleasures has been watching Nashville (ABC), which is now on hiatus until January 9.  How could I resist a series starring Connie Britton, much beloved from five seasons on Friday Night Lights and just off of one season in American Horror Story?  In Nashville, the country music soap opera written and produced by Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise), Britton stars as Rayna Jaymes (oh for those twangy “ay’s”!), a middle-aged country star who feels her heels nipped by a young, all-about-Eve-inspired upstart named Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere).

Juliette making her music video

To Rayna’s chagrin, her two young daughters love Juliette and her music.  Rayna thinks that Juliette represents a new generation of country, gaudy and arrogant, inspired by pop and rock and boasting the kind of celebrity in which talent is boosted into the limelight by notoriety.  But as FS2 says, though the show might critique Juliette’s looser morals, it doesn’t dispute her talent.  She’s young; she became a star quickly; and she knows how to manipulate her fan base with music videos and social media, while Rayna clearly prefers a more old-fashioned cult of personality and charisma.  But when Rayna’s latest album fails to move up the charts, her bottom-line-oriented record company suggests she tour with Juliette, performing as the younger woman’s opening act.  Rayna refuses, sparking a personal and professional competition between the two women that plays out on the storied stages of Nashville, in small local bars, in the singers’ rehearsal halls, and even in their bedrooms.

I love seeing Britton return to a version of her Friday Night Lights character, Tami Taylor, the stalwart, smart, feisty but empathetic wife/mother/guidance counselor/school principal she played for five years (2006-11) on the acclaimed and way too short-lived NBC series.  While Rayna has all of Tami’s grit, she’s gilded by country music stardom, which requires Britton to refashion the earthy Tami archetype into a sexier, more public version of herself.

Eric Close plays Teddy, who's running for mayor of Nashville

No one does exasperation quite like Britton, and Nashville gives her a lot to roll her eyes over.  Eric Close, as Rayna’s husband, Teddy Conrad, plays a morally flawed, emotionally ambivalent character that lets Close shake off years of playing close-mouthed detectives in crime dramas like Without a Trace. The lock-jawed, impassive, and not too impressive Powers Boothe plays Rayna’s father, Lamar Wyatt, the local kingmaker who’s intent on using Teddy to fulfill his own political desires and his capitalist greed.

Teddy has been jostled into political position by the scheming Lamar, who sets him up to run for mayor of Nashville so that Wyatt can protect his own real estate interests.  Rayna had promised her support to Coleman Carlisle (Robert Wisdom), the local African American politician who now must run against Teddy and Wyatt’s heavy-handed interests.

Nashville seems vaguely interested in the city’s racial politics, although they no doubt won’t figure as heavily as they did in Friday Night Lights, in which Britton’s character often sorted out the taut tensions of race and class in the two high schools the show depicted.  But Rayna, in Britton’s hands, is acutely sensitive to political undercurrents and empathetic to the marginalized.  Britton excels playing a particular brand of heroine:  the casually sexy, liberally inclined, irony-aware but earnest, strong but emotionally resonant middle-aged woman.

Britton captures the charisma and thrill of performing as a beloved country music star

Britton isn’t exactly a singer, but as an actor, she plays a very convincing version of a country music star.  With her low-slung jeans and studded shirts, her relatively bigger hair, her closed eyes and clutched microphone, she delivers on the soulful, thwarted romance themes of the genre.  Britton fashions Rayna into a country music icon who won’t be shoved aside.

Until he leaves the band, Deacon haunts Rayna onstage and off

One of Nashville’s plotlines follows Rayna’s still-simmering attraction to her band member and former writing collaborator, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten).  Esten’s handsome, smoky-sexy Deacon provides the polar opposite to Close’s buttoned down, diffident Teddy.  Britton and Esten have terrific chemistry.  In the show’s second episode, Rayna joins Deacon in a duet at the Bluebird Café, a (real life) proving ground for up-and-coming singer-songwriters and an intimate setting in which old-timers try out new material and play for the love of music.  A powerful producer has suggested that Rayna and Deacon go out on the road alone to perform their old songbook, so they play a number in front of sympathetic fans at the small café.

Acoustic crooning at the Bluebird Cafe shows the couple's true feelings

The beautiful guitar-backed song adds more heat to the couple’s old flame and the actors handle the moment with a lovely sense of rue and longing.  Seeing a man and woman with lines on their faces regret their lost romantic opportunities just isn’t that common on television.  I found myself moved by the moment, partly because Rayna’s wistfulness and her on-going desire for Deacon is so persuasive and clear.

The plot uses Deacon as another pivot around which Rayna’s and Juliette’s competition turns.  Juliette wants to steal him from Rayna’s band, and seduces him into her bed as a prelude to the professional coup she schemes.  It’s a tad unbelievable that the otherwise upright Deacon would fall for her wiles; he’s a recovering addict with a sober sense of morality. He’s also a middle-aged man no doubt flattered by young Juliette’s sexual attentions.  But he and Rayna seem to have a long-lasting, deep bond, which makes his betrayal seem too easy.

Deacon and Juliette hash it out front porch-style

That said, Deacon’s tryst with Juliette is casual and fleeting.  He ushers the girl’s wild-card mother, Jolene (Sylvia Jefferies), into rehab and tries to help Juliette forgive the woman’s bad parenting.  But Juliette resents the depravations of her white-trash past and only sees her mother as a threat to the fairy-tale image Juliette and her handlers try to create.  When Juliette acts out with some gratuitous shoplifting and then refuses to atone for the theft properly to her adoring fans, her manager insists she date Sean (Tilky Jones), a squeaky-clean athlete, to burnish her public image.

Sean and Juliette making music

Although she bristles at the arrangement, Juliette and the square-jawed Sean hit it off.  Turns out he’s from a conservative religious family and, in one of the show’s least believable plot twists, refuses to have sex outside of marriage.  That a guy with six-pack abs and palpable sex appeal would be a chastity-promoting bible-thumper strains credulity.  But the always wily Juliette plays along—in the last episode aired, she asks Sean to marry her.

None of Nashville‘s characters are quite as good as Britton’s Rayna James.  With Britton’s trademark determination to do right by her character, and her insistence that Rayna should have a life of respect and dignity, Rayna is the series’ fulcrum and focus.  And as FS2 says, what a pleasure to see a female lead character who’s not a gun-toting detective, like most other central women on television.  Rayna’s struggle to maintain her dominance (and her heart and her ethics) in the country music world gives Nashville some feminist heft.

Scarlett and Gunnar transport audiences at the Bluebird Cafe

Some of Nashville’s secondary characters are drawn too quickly, but maybe they’ll gather depth as the show plays along.  Rayna’s sister, Tandy (Judith Hoag), is their father’s toady, with nefarious financial motives of her own for cow-towing to the old man.  Scarlett (Clare Bowen), a poet/waitress at the Bluebird, starts the season living with Avery (Jonathan Jackson), a would-be rocker eager to make his mark in the music business.  But she’s drawn into a song-writing/singing partnership with Gunnar (Sam Palladio), who’s already fallen in love with her.  Their romantic duets are heartfelt and tuneful and nicely mirror the primary relationship between Rayna and Deacon.

The Avery subplot carries the weight of conventional how-to-make-it-in-show-biz stereotypes.  When he starts sleeping with his older female agent to make his way to the top, Scarlett leaves Avery.  But the remarkably naïve (though wonderfully talented) young woman can’t yet admit that she already reciprocates Gunnar’s desire.

Khouri’s husband, T Bone Burnett, provides original music for Nashville, and has contracted a host of famous musicians (Elvis Costello and Diane Krall, among others) to write for the show.  Although Nashville follows in the music-theatre-television footsteps of Glee and Smash, the music here is integral to the narrative, and so far, the show has a clear sense of the soapy story it means to tell.

With singing a natural part of the character’s lives, Nashville doesn’t have to force rhyme and reason onto its musical numbers.  The first season of Smash did so without much success, unable to fuse its Broadway musical setting with the strangely unmotivated performances that happened in the characters’ off-stage lives (like that notorious Bollywood number).  Even Glee often forces performances into its story inorganically, though it’s maintained a healthy sense of its own absurdity, where Smash saw itself as fatally serious.  (With a new show-runner onboard Smash for the upcoming season, all bets might now be off.)

Bridging generations at the Ryman Auditorium

Unlike Glee or Smash, the music on Nashville has a logical function in the narrative.  Watching Britton and Panetierre put over songs curated by Burnett is a lot of fun and the country style hides the weaknesses of the actresses’ vocal talents.  They both act the hell out of their songs, keeping most of the singing firmly ensconced in the narrative trajectory that the music helps deliver.  (See Jon Caramanica’s smart piece in the New York Times, “The Soundtrack as Co-Star,” about how the show takes advantage of real Nashville musicians to produce some very good cuts, now released as an original soundtrack recording.)  For example, when Rayna and Juliette are forced to sing a duet at the Ryman Auditorium, a marquee Nashville venue, they reluctantly but successfully write and then perform a number that lifts the roof off the hall while it keeps their characters’ mutual mistrust and distaste intact.  It’s a beautiful performance (and a terrific song).

Deacon (Esten), the love object whose back-story isn't at all as important as the two female leads'

Britton and Esten, as Deacon, cook up some nice heat, playing their never resolved, still simmering romance.  Will Rayna and Deacon be together at the end as they’re meant to be?  Will he maintain his hard fought sobriety and stave off the addictions that kept him from being with Rayna in the first place?  Will Teddy’s relationship with an old high school sweetheart sabotage his campaign for mayor?  Will Juliette’s addicted white trash mother ruin the career of a daughter trying very hard to cover up her less than pretty past?

Ultimately, none of this matters very much.  The actors lift the material from melodrama’s nether regions, but it’s mostly the music that carries the series.   When Khouri keeps her eye on the songs and everyone’s relationship to them, Nashville tightens up and means a little something more than contrived competitions and comeuppances.  You can see why young and fading stars would want to keep wrapping their vocal chords around those lush tones and twangs.  When the music is the message, Nashville sings.

Of course, it’s also just nice to see Britton headlining a series.  And it’s great fun to see her paired with such a worthy nemesis as Panetierre’s Juliette.  I just wish the stories were a little more complex and sophisticated and that the show regarded its audience as adults with attention spans and reading skills.  Kind of like Friday Night Lights used to do.

The Feminist Spectator



With only two episodes aired, it’s difficult to say where exactly Smash, the new NBC series about backstage Broadway lives, will take us.  Executive produced and so far written by playwright Theresa Rebeck, the show responds to Fox’s Glee by embedding lavish musical numbers in its story of a lyricist-songwriting team creating a Broadway show about Marilyn Monroe.  The plot line so far addresses the intrigue that surrounds producing, casting, and directing such a behemoth.

Of course, the whole thing is an elaborate fantasy.  First, Angelica Huston (whose once expressive face is now, sadly, barely mobile) plays Eileen, the sole producer of the new musical.  In reality, Broadway shows are littered with people whose financial investments, if nothing else, give them above-the-title producing credit.

Second, Rebeck’s script for Smash has streamlined the process so that in just two episodes, the dynamic music-and-lyrics duo Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle) have moved from the glimmer of an idea into staffing and casting the show.  In real life, a project like this would be workshopped for years and involve a zillion people before it arrived at the point where Smash picks up.

But here, by the second episode, Eileen has encouraged the director, Derek (written as a sexy sleaze and played by the British actor Jack Davenport, late of FlashForward), to do a quick workshop production and then get the show on Broadway’s boards.  Would that it were all so easy!

The musical’s partners are played with verve and somehow, believability, by Messing (cast as Rebeck’s doppelganger) and Borle (who last season played a superb Prior in Angels in America at the Signature Theatre Off Broadway).  So far, Borle has little to do as Tom but basically play out-and-proud gay.  He flirts with his impossibly cute but untrustworthy assistant, Ellis (Jaime Cepero), and lobbies for his friend, Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), to get the lead in his show.

The show’s conflict comes from the competition it manufactures between its would-be Marilyns, two talented young women with very different looks and takes on the iconic star.  Hilty (Wicked and 9 to 5), a bona fide Broadway performer both in actuality and in character as Ivy, represents the body-type.  She’s blond, buxom, and can belt with the best of them.

Former American Idol star Katharine McPhee plays Karen Cartwright, an untested young woman from Iowa (of course), whose brown hair and slight build make her less recognizable, at first, as the curvy, breathless 50s personality who seduced Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, and President Kennedy.  But in the show’s intercut fantasy sequences, dolled up in the right costume, wig, and make-up, Karen passes for Marilyn very well indeed.

The first two episodes have careened along on the suspense of who Derek would cast as the musical’s lead. He summons both young women for private meetings, calling Karen late at night and requiring that she come to his (mouthwateringly lavish) apartment for a private audition. In the first episode’s most unlikely scenario, she goes, and somehow maintains the upper-hand in a situation clearly constructed for sex.

Derek tells her he needs to “see everything,” and she changes in his bathroom into a large, white, man’s shirt, then performs the equivalent of a private lap dance and signature Monroe-style song. At its end, she tells Derek that’s all he’s getting, and leaves his apartment unscathed (though it’s unclear whether he respects her for her fortitude or loathes her. He must ultimately respect her, because he calls her back and lets her continue the audition in public).

Hilty’s character, Ivy, is less reticent when Derek makes his moves.  They’re working alone in a rehearsal hall when he asks if he can let down her hair (literally) and then frames her blond locks around her face meaningfully.  The next scene shows them rollicking naked in bed together.

All this reaffirms the stereotype of the Broadway (and Hollywood) casting couch, the mythic place where powerful men have sex with desirable and desiring young women to authorize and launch their careers.  Because Karen has a boyfriend, Dev (Raza Jaffrey, who plays a functionary at the mayor’s office), and because she’s rejected Derek’s advances, she’s portrayed as the ethical, fresh-faced, unspoiled young thing from the flyover states.

Ivy, on the other hand, is already performing in a Broadway show.  Her friends are gypsies, the corps of performers who sing and dance in musicals and make their living as unknown but employed and talented company members.  Many of the men are gay, and in Smash, that stereotype holds fast.  One of Ivy’s friends is hired to dance in the Marilyn musical’s rehearsals, and passes information on to Ivy about Karen, her competitor.  Since Ivy is already part of Broadway culture, she’s portrayed as wiser to the ways of the world and more willing to play what Rebeck describes as the professional theatre’s necessary games.

Subplots abound here, all meant to humanize Julia, the Messing character, who is the show’s lead.  Julia and her husband, Frank (Brian d’Arcy James), live in a comfortable brownstone with a huge kitchen, huge bedrooms, and a huge patio or porch off its dining room, its real estate representing another of the show’s fantasy aspects.  He stays home to supervise the household and their teen-aged son.  Julia is the family breadwinner, although in the pilot, she’s supposed to be taking a break from her professional work to concentrate on her family’s child adoption process.

Frank’s disappointment in her decision to develop yet another musical instead of being available for the social workers and other bureaucrats who fill the U.S.-China adoption pipeline establishes another plot conflict that will no doubt play out this season.  Julia balances on the precarious edge between being a good artist and a good wife/mother and Smash tries not to judge her for putting her work first.

But by the second episode, the balance shifts, as Julia reveals her deep emotional commitment to the adoption and Frank wavers, admitting he wants to go back to work as a science teacher and that he’s afraid he’s too old for a new baby.  Watching how this dilemma plays out along or against typical gender expectations should be interesting.

Smash is fun television, and the musical numbers, which so far represent more of a tease than the series’ meat, are energetically choreographed and beautifully performed.  Smash has an impressive pedigree; it’s produced by Steven Spielberg in conjunction with a number of Broadway notables, directed by the very talented Michael Mayer, and cast with some of the best actors in New York.

Rebeck, the series’ show-runner, is one of the few successful women playwrights who, like Wendy Wasserstein before her, can open a play directly on Broadway.  Her most recent hit, Seminar, which stars Alan Rickman (though Jeff Goldblum has just been announced as his replacement) and Lily Rabe, is a funny, smart play about a creative writing workshop lead by a preemptory, haughty snob.  Rebeck’s ear for dialogue and witty repartee and her talent for slick plotting is unparalleled in the contemporary American theatre.

And Rebeck’s commitment to women playwrights is well-established.  Her keynote for the 2010 Laura Pels Awards excoriated powerful theatre producers and critics for their gender bias and demanded action.  She’s been an outspoken, visible, and powerful advocate.

Sometimes, though, Smash tells stories in which its women are maligned without necessarily critiquing how they’re forced to compromise.  The first two episodes turn on the caricature of the mean-spirited but talented, wicked but sexy straight male director who tests his female stars in the sack as well as on the stage.  The story line forces Karen and Ivy to compete for his attention sexually as well as professionally.  That might be how Broadway business is conducted, but ifSmash is a fantasy anyway, why not imagine a different kind of theatre world?

I’ve only seen two episodes so it could be entirely too soon to tell where the story of Smash will take its characters and its audience.  It’s fun to watch a television show that’s actually about theatre, instead of one like Glee in which the musical numbers are justified by the high school club setting.  And it’s fun to see the gay subculture of Broadway represented so nonchalantly.

The song-and-dance numbers (choreographed by Joshua Bergasse) so far are energetically performed and filmed with high style and verve.  And it’s wonderful to see Rebeck’s name splashed across the credits so prominently.

I’ll stick with Smash, because it’s significant and important that Rebeck is a woman carrying a high profile, big-budget series.  And I’ll keep believing that the women characters will get more complicated and the show’s story lines more nuanced.  Then the show really will be a smash.

The Feminist Spectator

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Showtime’s Homeland debuted on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. The series stars Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a CIA operative who’s learned that an American soldier in the Middle East has been “turned” and now works for an Al Qaeda cell. When Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is found after eight years in captivity and returns to a hero’s welcome, Carrie is certain he’s the double agent.

Since she can’t persuade her dubious CIA superiors to follow her instincts, Carrie goes rogue, setting up an illegal surveillance on Brody’s house and then engineering a personal relationship with him that lets her follow her own course.

The series plays the country’s paranoia for all it’s worth, constantly turning the plot to keep viewers and characters off guard. The performers hold their characters’ secrets close; they’re as difficult for us to read as they are for one another to truly understand, even though viewers are given key bits of information early.

For instance, Carrie’s surveillance cameras can’t pick up the inside of Brody’s garage, where we know well before Carrie that he retreats regularly for Muslim prayers. Hearing his chanting and seeing him perform the rituals seems chilling, but it later appears that the show’s producers have played on mainstream viewers’ stereotypes about Islam to enhance our sense of foreboding.

In a later episode, Brody explains to Carrie that he adopted Islam because he needed religion—any religion—to survive the ordeal of his captivity. Because Lewis plays Brody so convincingly, it’s difficult not to be persuaded and even moved by his explanation. But the most recent episode’s plot twist once again upends our understandings, playing both with and against viewers’ presumptions.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible for a series about terrorism not to trade on knee-jerk expectations of which characters will be good and which bad. The Arabic-accented, Middle Eastern-appearing men are instantly marked as villains. The only thing that makes Brody truly interesting is that he’s a red-haired, archetypally American soldier who might, in fact, be working for the enemy.

And in a subplot that hasn’t yet been consistently developed, a young Middle Eastern professor and his blonde American wife have moved into a neighborhood that puts them within shooting range of a U.S. military landing strip.  The CIA believes the man might be Brody’s Al Qaeda contact, but it turns out that it’s his wife, Aileen (played by the always wonderful Marin Ireland), who is the mysterious operation’s architect.  Her back-story gives her ample reasons to love the Middle East and to despise the United States, but her centrality to the series’ plot has so far been tenuous.

Homeland’s producers, then, try to keep twisting the plot so that the binary of American/good, Middle Eastern/bad won’t maintain.  But its visual scenario tells a different story.   Middle Eastern male characters are constantly beaten, attacked, or killed by white military or intelligence officers.  The guard who confined Brody for all those years, whom Brody beats when he asks to visit the captured man in prison, subsequently slits his wrists with a razor blade somehow smuggled in to him.  Aileen’s husband is killed when CIA operatives catch up to him and Aileen and blast automatic rifle fire through the walls of their motel room.  (She escapes.)

Even the henchman of Abu Nazir—the archenemy who Carrie suspects is the mastermind behind a new plot to attack America—is nearly strangled when Brody breaks into his house to confront him about his presumed dead comrade, Tom Walker.  Homeland invites viewers to watch with a kind of vengeful pleasure as these brown men endure violence meted out by righteous white men.  Although the series wants to disrupt our assumptions, its images nonetheless secure conventional ideology about the Middle East as the dangerous, obvious locus of terrorist threats.

Danes plays Carrie, the smart, difficult, unruly operative who receives the intelligence that a soldier has been turned and rests her suspicions on Brody.  Danes does a wonderful job communicating the obsessions of someone high up in the CIA’s ranks who takes it as her personal responsibility not to let 9/11 happen again.  In fact, in Danes’ voiceover on the show’s credits, Carrie insists that she should have caught the clues, that she should have seen the 9/11 attacks coming and been able to prevent them.  The weight of personal guilt for a national tragedy fuels Carrie’s passion and her mania.

Homeland suggests that only enormous ego or narcissism could explain one solitary CIA agent’s single-minded pursuit of justice and her insistence that 9/11 was in some way her fault.  At the same time, the show proposes that another terrorist event might in fact be foiled by a single agent.

The show seesaws between these two different desires.  It appeases our yearning for a hero who can stop speeding bullets with his or her bare hands (like Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 24, on which some of Homeland’s producers previously worked).  But it also underlines that national security is a complicated priority that takes way more than a village, let alone any individual.

Homeland mostly resists 24’s fantasy that one man could save us all.  In fact, Homeland’s hero is a woman.  While the show admires Carrie for her superior intelligence and her willingness to dedicate her life to her job, it also burdens her with an unnamed but determining psychological problem.  Carrie can’t tell the agency about her condition or she’d be fired from her high-level security clearance position.  She pilfers drugs from her impatient, unsympathetic pharmaceutical rep sister to self-medicate and keep herself even.

By explaining Carrie’s obsessions as at least partly the result of her illness, Homeland cuts the character off at the knees.  We’re never sure if her paranoia is justified or chemical, and none of her reactions can be trusted because we don’t know what really fuels her obsession.

Her superiors don’t know Carrie’s medical history; they find her difficult because she breaks rules and resists censure.  She is a loose cannon in a carefully regulated world.  In fact, Carrie’s vigilantism is one of the least believable aspects of an otherwise smart show.  Certainly, an agent who bugged the home of a returning war hero without authorization would be summarily fired.  And certainly, an agent who initiated a sexual relationship with that war hero would be denounced.  (But then again, indiscretions like these didn’t hamper Jack Bauer, either.)

Instead, Carrie confesses her misdeeds to Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), her father-figure mentor.  He scolds her, knits his thick eyebrows together in deep disapproval, and then absolves her, hugging her tightly in understanding parental embraces that free her to go on drawing outside the lines of agency protocol.  Saul, you see, is also emotionally haunted.  His obvious though unnamed Jewishness—inescapable in any character Patinkin plays—emphasizes his moral ambivalence.

Like Carrie, Saul’s obsession with his job compromises his emotional and domestic life. In fact, his South Asian wife has decided to leave him after 25 years of marriage to return to her family in Delhi because he’s emotionally and physically inaccessible. Their scenes together allow Patinkin to indulge his hang-dog, maudlin side. The producers haven’t quite figured out how to bring more nuances to a character caught between his righteous ambitions and his sincere love for his wife. Their costly commitments to their jobs make Saul and Carrie the show’s real soul-mates.

Damian Lewis performs Sergeant Brody as a time-bomb set to detonate, controlled by unknown forces on an unknown schedule. Brody was isolated for eight years before being rescued by an American SWAT team. Lewis clarifies the force of will required to survive captivity, and never shies from inhabiting Brody’s vulnerabilities. He makes palpable the depth of Brody’s need for connection while he remained in captivity, after he was released from extended solitary confinement and torture.

After sustaining himself by making unimaginable moral choices, Brody returns to a domestic life that’s moved on without him. Brody finds that his wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin), has been sleeping with his best friend, Mike (Diego Klattenhoff). But after being told that Brody was presumed dead, how long was she supposed to keep her life on hold?

Likewise, Brody’s friend and fellow captive, Sergeant Tom Walker, whom Brody is lead to believe he killed with his bare hands, left behind a wife who’s since remarried. Both couples have kids who barely know their fathers. One of Homeland’s conversations, then, also concerns the place of biological fathers in families that survive without them. The series implicitly asks whether men like Brody have any right to walk back into their patriarchal roles without acknowledging how their domestic spheres have closed around their absences.

Baccarin, as Jessica, plays Brody’s conflicted wife with emotional depth and precision. She’s given little to do—wouldn’t a soldier’s wife have to work for a living when he was presumed dead?—and she mostly reacts to Brody’s presence. But Baccarin communicates the complicated feelings of a woman who has to pick up a marriage that was suspended and presumed ended for eight years. Her struggle to play the dutiful, faithful wife makes Jessica more interesting in Baccarin’s performance than she is in the show’s dialogue.

Homeland’s latest twists (Episode 9) stretch the credulity of an already somewhat confusing story. (I’ve noticed the on-line concern that the show might go the way of The Killing, last season’s atmospheric new series that finally irritated viewers with its cliff-hangers and unlikely plot turns.) But I’ll keep watching to see how Danes continues to bring depth and complexity to one of the more interesting roles for women on series television, and to see how the writers unravel the current host of secrets and complications and set us up for more in season two.

The Feminist Spectator

Homeland, Showtime, Sundays, 10 p.m., ET/PT

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With Nurse Jackie and The Big C on hiatus for now, I’ve returned to Hung on HBO, which is enjoying its third season of social observation through the foibles of a male prostitute and his female pimp.  I’ve also been watching Homeland on Showtime, to see how it unravels its post-9/11 tale of paranoid intrigue.  My viewing is selective, but it does seem that subscription television offers more nuanced women characters than many of those in mainstream films (Bridesmaids aside).  The women in these two series actually grow and change over time, taking advantage of the more capacious narrative potential of episodic TV (see my next post for a discussion of Homeland).

Hung continues to follow the unlikely pairing of Tanya Skagle (Jane Adams) and Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane), a pimp and her prostitute, who use his impressive physical prowess to make a common living.  Although I missed much of Hung’s second season, which is now out on DVD, I’m reminded what fun it is to watch Adam’s hapless but deeply feminist Tanya make her way through the illegal and sexual thickets of pimping out her man to middle-class, middle-aged, and (unfortunately) white women (except for current guest star Ana Ortiz).

Tanya has established a Wellness Center for women where she instructs her acolytes in the fine art of reclaiming their sexuality.  Tanya calls herself a “happiness consultant.”  Rehearsing the “our bodies, ourselves” mantras of 1970s feminist self-help, Tanya invites her students to “know your vulva,” encouraging them toward embracing the power of their sexual identities.

Much of the show’s humor comes from its admixture of feminist sexual activism with capitalist entrepreneurship.  After all, Tanya’s goal is to make a living for herself and Ray, and she’s the first to admit that she’s often out of her league.  But she’s ambitious enough to seek advice from a middle-aged African American male pimp who also becomes her lover.

Hung’s pedigree includes executive producers Alexander Payne (the writer/director of Sideways and the just-released film The Descendants) and Angela Robinson (director alum of The L Word and of the terrific lesbian spy spoof, D.E.B.S.), who help secure its insights into middle-aged men and middle-aged, feminism-informed women.  Created by Dmitry Lipkin and Collette Burson, the show engages the economic dilemmas of middle-class and marginalized people desperate to make ends meet and creative enough to brook convention and taboo.

The show is set in Detroit, although it’s obviously white, suburban Detroit, not the economically devastated, racially diverse, struggling inner city.  But the working class history of the area allows its producers to contemplate the shrinking professional horizons of ordinary people who nonetheless boast a sharp analysis about their right to reap the promised rewards of lauded American enterprise.

Tanya, for example, has an MFA in poetry, and Ray is a high school basketball coach.  That Tanya is also the businesswoman who takes advantage of Ray’s extraordinarily large penis lends the show its feminist angle and much of its humor.  Her face shiny with sweat and anxiety, her hair floating in frantic frizz around her face, Tanya is a smart if inchoate bundle of determination.  In recent episodes, she and Ray face competition from Lenore (Rebecca Creskoff), Tanya’s former would-be business partner, who’s found her own well-endowed stud, Jason (Stephen Amell), and intends to intrude on Tanya’s territory.

And Ray is burdened by the role-playing expectations of Lydia, one of his johns (or would it be janes?), a woman who insists on meeting him in unlikely situations in which she plays cop to his robber.  When it turns out Lydia (Ortiz, late of Ugly Betty) really is a police officer, Tanya and Ray’s business is threatened.  In the last episode I watched, the comedy was acute, but the explanation for Lydia’s outsized desires felt too psychologically lame for a show that’s best when it’s parodic.

Who cares that Lydia’s police officer husband is a brute who regularly frequents his own stable of prostitutes?  Instead of leveling the gendered playing field by suggesting women can be as physically desirous and emotionally detached about sex as men, the episode attributed Lydia’s appetites to a bad relationship.  And Ray freed himself and Tanya from potential arrest by offering Lydia an emotionally sustaining freebie.

But most of the time, Hung keeps its balance and doesn’t fall into sentimentality.  For example, Ray’s ex-wife, Jessica (Anne Heche), has divorced her second husband.  Though she has no apparent work skills, she desperately needs a job, and finds one working for a pompous, self-important doctor with whom she and Ray used to socialize.

When the doctor seduces her, their sex scene shows him moving way too slowly on top of her while crooning lyrics from musical theatre.  Heche’s pitch-perfect reactions to her sexual and emotional boredom fill the screen.  When the doctor unexpectedly visits her at home to reassure her that their liaison won’t jeopardize her job, Heche’s incredulity registers how even men who are sexually and romantically inept still maintain more social and professional power than the women they lord it over.

Likewise, Lenore pressures Jason into working for her and tries to thwart his engagement, which she assumes will be an obstacle.  But when she confronts his fiancée, she’s far from shocked by her future husband’s sexual adventures.  Instead, the young woman bargains with Lenore for the spoils from his extra-curricular work.

Sex, Hung points out, can be a negotiable, even exploitable business relationship instead of a prize kept on the rarefied pedestal of marriage or romance.  This is a plank straight out of feminist sex workers’ platforms; see, for only one example, the activist ideologies of COYOTE, a sex workers’ rights group founded in 1973 by the prostitute Margo St. James.

The small moments that upend stereotypical expectations about sex and sexuality make Hung a series worth watching.  It’s full of smart and funny social observations about the economic and political, as well as the emotional, tolls of gendered sexual interactions.  The casts’ rich performances and the producers’ excellent writing keep it consistently engaging.

Although it’s Ray’s anatomy that keeps their business going, it’s Tanya’s understanding of women’s desires that sells their product.  And the women who buy Ray’s services are somehow always proactive, powerfully in charge of their encounters.  Ray is a good guy in Hung, but he’s objectified in ways that limit his masculine privilege to the power of his member.  He spends much of the series befuddled and bossed around; happily, though he might be a stud, he’s not a patriarch.

Hung tries to do new things with old gender roles.  Take a look.

The Feminist Spectator

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Winnie Holzman, who wrote the libretto for the blockbuster Stephen Schwartz musical Wicked and the 1990s television show My So-Called Life is back on tv co-producing with her daughter, Savannah Dooley, ABC Family’s summer show, Huge. The story, based on Sasha Paley’s book of the same name, is set in a summer camp for overweight kids (what used to be called disdainfully a “fat farm”), run by a bi-racial woman who has eating issues of her own.

At first glance, the premise seems vaguely offensive. The advertisement, which shows series star Nikki Blonsky (of John Waters’ 2007 Hairspray remake) in a teal one-piece bathing suit looking embarrassed, signals everything that could stink about a show like this. But instead, after watching the first two episodes, I think Holzman and Dooley are doing something much more subversive: creating a television series about overweight teens that’s utterly sympathetic to their self-image issues and at the same time critical of a culture that peddles extreme thinness as a way to sell products and impossible dreams of oxymoronic skinny healthiness to young women.

Blonsky is largely responsible for delivering the show’s critique. She plays Willamina, a teenaged girl furious with her disapproving parents for sending her off to this camp in the first place. She prefers to be called “Will,” signaling both her defiant gender-blurring and her determination not to cave in to public pressure to be thin. She’s proud of being an “angry feminist,” as she calls herself, and decorates her bunk with cut-outs from magazines, using their impossible images of thin women to form letters into words that spell “stop body fascism” and other anti-weight loss messages. That she’s the voice of resistance in a machine trying to help kids conform makes Will one of the most interesting teenage characters I think I’ve ever seen on television.

Gina Torres (I Think I Love My Wife) plays the camp’s biracial owner, Dr. Dorothy Rand, who employs her once estranged white father as the camp’s cook. Although the backstory for their revived relationship and Dorothy’s anxious rapport with her mother has only been hinted at, strain is apparent in Dorothy’s inability to tell her mother about her father’s new presence in her life. The second episode reveals Dorothy’s own eating issues, as her father makes her a “healthy” blueberry muffin that she at first resists, and then unwittingly devours as she’s trying to type out a truthful email to her mother, which she continually deletes.

Already, one of the summer’s residents has been expelled for throwing up (no bulimics allowed here), and her replacement, too, has departed, after suffering extreme anxiety when she’s removed from the gauzy over-protection of her over-weight parents and younger sister. But the remaining kids—especially the girls, on whom the series focuses—are all fairly well-adjusted and insistently “normal,” which makes their weight just another issue to address on their way to adulthood.

Typical kid stuff ensues. Chloe Delgado (Ashley Holliday) keeps secret that her brother, Alistair (Harry Guillen), is also a camper. She hangs with the cool kids, while he seems rather fey. In a nod to Holzman’s musical theatre hit, Alistair wears a Shiz University t-shirt, product placement for Wicked but also perhaps a signal that he’s a budding musical theatre queen.

Alistair and Chloe meet alone in the woods to share news of home and the care packages their mom sends. He tolerates the pretense with a bit of sarcasm, while she feels separating from her brother is necessary to secure her role in the girls’ hierarchy. At night, though, she wears a braces retainer with a harness that circles her head and makes her talk with a lisp, hardly a sign of “mean girl” status.

Most of the girls pop in their teeth-straightening devices at the day’s end, a reminder that despite what sometimes seems their sophistication, they’re still kids. And they’re all staunchly middle class, though fairly diverse racially. One of the lead characters is Will’s best friend, Becca, who’s African-American and wonderfully played by Raven Goodwin, who made her screen debut at eight-years-old as the wise-beyond-her-years kid in the film Lovely and Amazing. One of the boys, Ian Schonfeld (Ari Stidham), wears a big Jewish star around his neck, and several of the campers look racially and ethnically mixed. This, along with the size of the actors, provides a refreshing change from the all-white, svelte profile of most situation comedies.

In fact, Huge really isn’t just a comedy. Although the writing sometimes falls into cliché, with the kids responding to one another’s crises with predictable, wince-inducing platitudes, the show also takes seriously the angst of growing up in a body that doesn’t conform to impossible cultural standards. Will’s refusal to acquiesce to conventional body image offers a refreshing perspective on a wider range of young women’s desires.

The fit, athletic physical profiles of the camp counselors and staff, however, secures the model to which the campers are supposed to aspire. But these characters, so far, are all a bit daft, which undercuts what might be the mocking hegemony of their thinness. The girl’s counselor is well-meant but sweetly clueless, sweeping trauma under a very heavy rug and donning very rosy glasses to cheer her girls on their way to weightlessness.

The hot, deaf-in-one-ear male counselor, George (Zander Eckhouse), is good at sports but diffident and shy instead of more predictably macho. The female athletic director wears sports bras and tight-fitting capris that show off her muscly frame, but her enthusiasm for games is played way over the top. She shrieks her encouragement with such vigor, George could soon be deaf in both ears. And even Dr. Rand, who’s supposed to be in charge, mostly wrings her hands, evidence of her own anxiety about doing the right thing.

Camp, in other words, is full of imperfect people, regardless of their weight. The producers take care not to make fun of them, but to instead encourage empathy among them and from spectators toward the characters. They also differentiate empathy from pity, careful to clarify that nothing is necessarily out of these kids’ reach because of their weight. The move to lose is mostly about health.

The show’s web site includes this admonishment to viewers:

At ABC Family, we believe that healthy living means living life to the fullest. In order to live your best life, it’s important to take care of yourself — physically, mentally and emotionally. Here you’ll be given tips on how to eat nutritious snacks and meals, add exercise into your busy life, and build a stronger, more positive sense of self — because living a healthy life means having healthy self-esteem too!

Ask The Panel Huge questions and get Huge answers as they share with you important information about health and provide you with ways you can get healthy today! Reach out to our self-esteem specialist and discover how to appreciate yourself even more!

Love Huge, Think Huge, Act Huge. Whatever you do, do it to the fullest – LIVE HUGE!

Cool message, one that also runs between commercials when the show is broadcast. “Healthy living” is code for “losing weight”; will Huge never be mistaken as an infomercial for fat liberation. Nonetheless, the effort to program for kids in ways that might offer them agency and more reasonable role models to emulate around body image can’t be bad.

I worry, though, about how Huge already psychologizes weight as a result of family dysfunction. For example, a camper who’s good at sports lives with his father, since his mother died when he was young. But when he’s lonely and sad, he writes her letters about how much he misses her, since he and his father only communicate about teams and statistics. Will’s parents seem to disapprove of everything Will does, which heightens the alienation her weight could be meant to manifest. Ian says his parents don’t get along. The alpha girl, Amber, lives alone with a mother who seems oppressively co-dependent on her daughter.

Only the quickly departed camper who suffers from panic attacks has supportive, warm parents. They even adopt Will in their short time at camp, encouraging her to play basketball until she realizes to her surprise that she likes the game. That these parents are overweight, too, suggests that feeling good about yourself despite your body might be the healthiest option.

I worry, too, over Will’s quick concern that she’s been mistaken for “queer” when Ian implies he thinks she is. Becca is uncomfortable with the idea that Will could be queer, and says she’s never met any lesbians her own age (although the easy way she says “lesbians” belies her discomfort). Becca vindicates them both by quickly announcing to Ian that Will is straight and the issue is dropped. But fishing out a lavender herring this early in the series to reassure viewers that Will might be fat and feminist but she’s a normal heterosexual seems cheap.

I also worry that Amber, the one character who’s already heading toward a romance with the hard-of-hearing counselor, George, is the thinnest girl at camp. Played by Hayley Hasselhoff, daughter of David, who was a plus-size teen model before she turned to acting, Amber is beautiful and even a bit soulful, but at least 50 pounds lighter than the other girls. Against the prevailing effort of the show, her character telegraphs that thinness and beauty do bring rewards.

Still, Huge has potential as a summer series. Blonsky is terrific as Will. Proud of her weight and her intellect, full of sarcastic comebacks but vulnerable underneath, as observant about the other kids as she is about herself, Blonsky plays the character with subtle understatement and a healthy empathy of her own. She’s not afraid to make Will loud, aggressive, hostile, and unappealing. She’s also able to temper Will’s anger without making the character appear to capitulate or sell-out her own firm beliefs. Blonsky’s intelligence as an actor reads powerfully on television. Her performance alone is enough reason to check in on Huge.

The Feminist Spectator

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