A Jane Reaction

I fell in love with Jane the Virgin hard and fast, not unlike some of the show’s characters have done with one another. It had everything I was looking for in a TV program: strong female characters, self-referential wit, melodrama, bright colors, babies and a central love triangle that put the female protagonist between a good boy and a bad one. A remake of a Venezuelan telenovela, JtV never shies away from tropes—instead, it imbues them with both humor and depth—so it made sense that Jane would be forced to choose between Michael, the sweet, safe fiance of her past and Rafael, the hot, misunderstood accidental-baby-daddy of her present (read this synopsis if you don’t understand that sentence).

It also made sense that I would root for the bad boy. As with Jess, Ben, and Logan before him, I quickly and proudly labeled myself “Team Rafael.”  I know that if Jane and I were friends in real life, I would warn her to steer clear of the guy who comes from a different world, has a lot of baggage and tends to hurt others when he’s hurting (which is often). Still, I watch TV to escape my reality, and it’s fun to visit a fantasy world where it’s possible to fix the sexy, damaged ones with your love. Plus, a will-they-or-won’t-they can be even more titillating if they probably shouldn’t.

It didn’t help that the first season of JtV played up Jane and Rafael’s star-crossedness. Years before she was artificially inseminated with his sperm by mistake, Jane and Rafael shared a tender moment that might have blossomed into something real had Raf not been such a playboy at the time.  Fortunately, a brush with cancer reformed him in time for Kismet to bring them back into each other’s lives. While Jane seemed happy with Michael at the start of the series, he reacted poorly to her decision to keep the baby and his subsequent dishonesty ended their relationship.  Meanwhile, Rafael’s marriage to walking-nightmare Petra was all but over, so when Jane and Rafael increased their prenatal hangouts and learned they had more in common than just their fetus, they fell in love. It was the best.

Jane the Virgin was setting up something that I had seen many times before. Take Veronica Mars, for example. In my eyes, Jane was Veronica and Rafael was Logan, which made Michael, by default, Duncan. Michael, like Duncan, was a perfectly fine ex-boyfriend: funny, kind, smart, ambitious, probably a better fit for our main character as far as sustainable, healthy relationships go. But who can give a shit when Veronica and Logan are spanning-years-and-continents-lives ruined-bloodshed epic. Being on Team Piz is one thing, but no one is on Team Duncan. When Rafael self-destructed at the end of season one and ruined things with Jane—as Logan had done many times to Veronica (and Ben did to Felicity in multiple timelines)—I settled in for what I thought would be an awkward few episodes before their inevitable reunion either at the end of the next season or during sweeps.

I should have known better. Jane the Virgin may embrace familiar storylines but it’s plot is almost Mad-Men-like in it’s unpredictability (though the two shows could not be more different in tone). Showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman confirmed that Jane would get married this season, but it was anyone’s guess who to. The first half of the second season had Jane changing her mind at least once an episode, and for a little while it seemed she’d spurn both Rafael and Michael in favor of a hunky professor at her graduate school. Then notorious drug kingpin Sin Rostro died and Michael revealed that he’d only been pushing Jane away in an effort to protect her and her son while he investigated the case (Sin Rostro once kidnapped Jane’s son, Mateo, and was responsible for the deaths of a handful of JtV characters. Did I mention the show’s telenovela roots?). Jane and Michael immediately professed their love and by the next episode, they were engaged.

As much as it pains me to retire my “Team Rafael” gear, I can acknowledge that the Michael choice is a natural one, not just for Jane the character, but for Jane the television show. For starters, Jane is not Veronica Mars. Veronica  pathologically put herself in harm’s way; it made sense that she always went back to Logan, because Veronica could never really be happy, or herself, when there wasn’t some risk involved. On the contrary, Jane is set up as an optimistic life planner. Her accidental insemination may have taught her to appreciate life’s unplanned miracles, but it didn’t fundamentally alter who she is a human being. She still values organization and stability—even more so now that she has Mateo—and it makes sense for her to love Michael, a man who can provide those things. Her relationship with Rafael would always be dramatic and unpredictable, even when that wasn’t necessarily his fault. Jane simply isn’t in the habit of making decisions that seriously risk her emotional and physical well-being, and Jane isn’t in the habit of letting its characters make decisions that feel inauthentic.

Jane the Virgin is incredibly kind to its characters, allowing them the freedom to be themselves, without judgement, while also continually moving them forward on paths of personal growth. Take Rafael’s ex-wife Petra, who ended the first season by making the very shitty decision to inseminate herself with Rafael’s sperm without his consent. She has since grown into one of the richest story lines of season two, as she struggles with the arrival of twin daughters and tries to free herself from her own mother’s toxic grasp.

These character studies all happen admidst the sort of heightened reality that only television can provide.  JtV employs tropes that have historically been associated with “low-culture” genres like the soap opera, but does so without sacrificing nuance, authenticity, or depth. An over-the-top murder involving a hook for a hand forces Petra to decide whether or not she can let her mother, the only person she believes has ever really cared for her, be a part of her daughters’ lives. When Jane’s parents Xiomara and Rogelio break up and get back together multiple times, it’s not just drama for drama’s sake, but a reflection of how hard it is to let go of a love when you know you want different things. It’s not unusual for a primetime drama to drag out a love triangle over multiple seasons, but when JtV did it, it gave Jane the time and space to be with each of her suitors, and then apart from both, so she could honestly decide what was best for her and her son. Above all else, JtV wants its characters to make good choices, as if they were less like characters, and more like real-life friends.

Jane the Virgin extends this very same kindness to it’s audience, allowing people like me to indulge in thrilling melodrama without ever feeling like they should label this pleasure as a guilty one (even though no one should feel guilty about TV, anyway). With JtV I can escape to a fantasy world, but still see my own struggles reflected onscreen and this sort of inclusivity is what makes Jane the Virgin one of the best shows on television. Though I may never be Team Michael—he just bores me—I can allow Jane that freedom. She would do the same for me.

 

 

Le(o)nd me your ears

Leonardo DiCaprio's Big Oscar Win Commemorated with Street Mural in L.A.

I started bickering with a colleague about Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-viability a couple of months ago, shortly after the release his now career-defining brah-vs-nature thriller, The Revenant. We weren’t arguing about whether Leo would or should win the Academy Award for Best Actor. We both acknowledged that he was a shoe-in for an honor that was a long-time coming, but we could not agree why we wanted DiCaprio to win the award. My colleague considered Leo a talented actor who has given a couple decades’ worth of strong performances that entitle him to join the ranks of the De Niros, Day Lewises and Brandos of this world. The Revenant may not have been the best movie or his best performance, she said, but come on, he’s Leo, he’s great and he’s earned it.

My argument was considerably more cynical. I was happy to see Leo take home Oscar gold not because I think he is extraordinarily skilled in the dramatic arts, but because  I hoped a win would get him to stop making the pretentious Oscar bait movies of which I considered The Revenant to be only the most recent example (too long, too self indulgent, not even a compelling revenge fantasy, etc.). Leo is far from terrible, but I’ve always felt that his serious dramatic performances scream “Look how hard I’m acting!” or “Hear how good my accent is!”as if he’s still trying to defend himself against Titanic‘s legacy twenty years after the fact. When a performance constantly calls your attention to the actor performing it, then the actor isn’t doing the best job, no matter how much raw bison liver he eats.

I didn’t think DiCaprio’s Revenant performance could be described as the “best” in any objective sense, but the Oscars have never been that objective. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded so that Hollywood power players could better exert control over the powerless (writers, contracted stars, etc.) and the awards they hand out each year are mostly a reflection of how the industry wants to be viewed at that particular time. Can you think of any reason for Argo to have won best picture in 2013 other than Hollywood patting itself on the back for once having kind of saved lives?

These days studios will spend millions marketing a film during the balloting period. Actors must submit Oscar-winning performances on talk show couches and at gala luncheons long after their films have wrapped; this year, Leo played that game with precision. He broke up with his young model girlfriend before his seriousness could be obscured by an association with the Baywatch franchise. He did a bunch of interviews in which he referenced multiple near death experiences. He donated $15 million to environmental efforts and met with the Pope about climate change. He posed for photos with Kate Winslet at every available opportunity and even referred to her as his “homegirl.” He kissed Maggie Smith! And through it all he emphasized the physical challenges of making  The Revenant, which is exactly what you should say if you’re appealing to a group of people that tend to favor physical transformations over emotional ones.

It took Leo & Company eleven months to make The Revenant and at least another six to promote his performance, so yeah, he deserved something for his efforts. That something might as well be an Academy Award.

 

New Year, New Post

When I started this blog, I intended to post new content every Friday, a commitment I stuck to for four whole weeks. Needless to say, getting back to the blog was at the top of my New Year’s resolutions, so late January/basically February seems like a good time to finally put something up.

In the spirit of the “Best ___ of 2015” list I procrastinated posting at the end of last year, here are a few of the pop culture events I am most looking forward to in 2016. They are not all TV shows, as one of my other New Year’s resolutions was to branch out.

New episodes of  You Must Remember This

I wish I was cool enough to have been an early YMRT adopter, but it took somebody else’s “Best ___ of 2015” lists to bring this 2-year-old podcast about the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century to my attention.  I made up for lost time though, blowing through YMRT‘s 70 episodes in a couple of weeks.

The brain child of film historian Karina Longworth, You Must Remember This combines most of my favorite things into one handy podcast: film criticism, historical relevancy, gossip, sexual innuendo, extensive research, the macabre, great writing, true crime, Humphrey Bogart, reenactments, occasional celebrity guests and more! Early episodes focused on a single star or film, but Longworth upped the ante last year with three seasons organized by theme. Her 12-part series on “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” last summer cemented YMRT as one of the best podcasts currently in production.

Longworth has been on hiatus since last December (after her 15-part study of MGM during the reign of Louis B. Mayer, which I loooooooved), but promises new episodes to return on February 2nd. No word on what her next series will cover, but social media stalking and Wikipedia searches lead me to believe she’s working on something about HUAC.

She is so cool.

 

The Crown

No one was more excited than I to see Netflix post the release dates for their 2016 original series last week. Then no one was more disappointed to see that the Young Queen Elizabeth II series The Crown was not included on that list. Despite the returns of crowd favorites like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and all that Marvel mumbo jumbo*, I am much more excited to see what Liz II was like as a 20-something, not that my reasons for this are particularly intelligent. As you can tell from the section above, I’m pretty into behind the scenes looks at historically significant celebrities. Though I imagine Liz II was much less wild than, say, Kay Francis, I’ll take a fancy drama in any form. Also, Prince Phillip will be played by Matt Smith, who was my favorite Doctor and is the owner of my current favorite Hollywood butt.

Still waiting on specifics, but The Crown will premiere on Netflix at some point in 2016.

*I loved Jesssica Jones very much despite it’s occasional reliance on poorly written dialogue, but most episodes of Daredevil were so bad I almost stopped thinking Charlie Cox was hot. [side note: watch Stardust on Netflix starting February 1st!]

The Witch

I really enjoy horror movies, but have this weird thing where I desire for them not to be bad. For every It Follows there are a half-dozen films associated with Eli Roth, and it can be hard to find a movie that satisfies both my desire to be spooked and my love of artistic, meaningful storytelling that’s not just about hot women being slaughtered. When a horror movie like The Witch gets favorable buzz on the festival circuit, I get excited. It doesn’t hurt that The Witch is also set in 1630s New England, since I am a sucker for period costumes of all kinds. The film follows a family of puritans who leave their colonial plantation to settle on an isolated, and super creepy, plot of wooded farmland.

Though it premiered at Sundance in January of last year (where it won the 2015 Directing Award), The Witch will hit theaters nationwide on February 19th, 2016.

X Men: Apocalypse Press Tour

Because of the Hunger Games and various Oscar bait, for the past three years I have come to regard October through December as Jennifer Lawrence Press Tour Season. Though many may have tired of J. Law’s habits of falling down and talking about poop while wearing couture, I continue to be entertained, and I look forward to the spectacle anytime she has a movie coming out. Her next big film, X Men: Apocalypse, also stars Oscar Isaac, dancer-extraordinaire and keeper of my heart (with a butt that gives Matt Smith’s a run for it’s money). Isaac dominated a press tour of his own last year, and I imagine he and J. Law will be able to come up with more than a few moments to go viral and provide a welcome distraction during my work day.

X Men: Apocalypse comes out on May 27, 2016 so expect Lawrence and Isaac to show up on your Twitter feed starting in late April/early May.

Nashville They or Von’t They?

rayna-jaymes

I’ve only written three posts on this blog, but have managed to squeeze in multiple jokes at Nashville‘s expense, so it’s clear I have a love/hate relationship with the ABC drama. I am  a card-carrying member of the Church of Connie Britton (aka Our Lady of the Auburn Coif) and have been watching Nashville every week, without fail, since its Fall 2012 premiere. In my defense, the show started out promising, but devolved into sappy soap opera nonsense sometime early in its second season, after the first of what would come to be multiple coma plots. These days I spend most of every Nashville hour yelling at the TV, rolling my eyes, wishing for characters to die just so that I don’t have to look at their stupid pouty faces for one more g*ddamn minute. Considering how over-committed I am on weekly TV, you’d think I would abandon a show that clearly isn’t giving me joy, but I don’t see myself ditching Nashville until ABC makes me (via cancellation). Whether this is because the show has  crossed into favorite-show-I-love-to-hate territory or because I continue to hold out hope that the writers will stop wasting Connie Britton and Hayden Pannettiere’s considerable talents, it looks like I’m in it for the long haul.

That doesn’t mean I can’t have fun with it. Nashville‘s story lines are so soapy and trite that they have become predictable. Did I mention multiple coma plots? Thus, at the genius suggestion of a friend of mine (and fellow Nashville fan/masochist) I will now blog weekly predictions before episodes air on Wednesdays at 9 pm. I’m still working out the details, but I think one of the rules will be that I’m not allowed to watch any trailers or promotional materials, because ABC teasers leave little to the imagination.
Continue reading “Nashville They or Von’t They?”

The Best is Yet to Stream

giphy

A benefit of wearing your television addiction proudly on your sleeve is that you are often asked for show recommendations by family and friends. Telling people what to do is fun, but telling people what to watch is the sort of bossing around I was born to do. I take the task (probably way too) seriously, tailoring my recommendations to the following questions:

  1. What are your favorite shows?
  2. What streaming services do you use?

The first question is a no-brainer; it helps me identify the type of TV viewer I’m talking to and keeps me from recommending Jane The Virgin to a die-hard Boardwalk Empire fan. The second question is one that has become necessary only in the last couple of years, as Neflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, etc., have become to new normal method of watching TV. These days viewers can access large quantities of pre-paid, relatively-cheap television content without having to get out of bed. Subscribe to a mix of streaming services (Netflix + Hulu + Amazon Prime + your roommate’s parents’ HBO Go password) and the possibilities seem endless.

They aren’t, though. Not by a long shot. There is a long list of awesome TV shows not currently offered on prepaid streaming services, many of which I would be recommending left and right under different circumstances. I rarely do, since I’m afraid if I suggest one of these shows to people, they’ll only reject it in favor of something with five whole seasons only a click away.

I know my frustration is irrational and pretentious (not being able to recommend shows to people is not an actual problem/ how do I think I am?).  I’ve nevertheless decided to channel it into a new blog series. Consider this the inaugural  “The Best Shows I Wish You Would Watch, But Won’t Hold My Breath About” post. We’ll start with the one nearest to my heart, but I consider them all worth the cost of a Netflix DVD subscription.
Continue reading “The Best is Yet to Stream”

The Mail Gaze

I started this blog to write about television, so you’d think I’d have a wealth of material to cover, given how much TV I watch. Still, I was plum stumped what to write about for my second post, so I asked my friends to email me TV-related questions. I thought this would be a nice way to ease myself into longform TV criticism. For starters, answering five questions is way easier than pulling an 1000-word plus essay on David Simon’s use of Bruce Springsteen in Show Me A Hero out of your a**. Second, some of my favorite TV writing comes in question-and-answer form, specifically Margaret Lyon’s weekly column Stay Tuned, and Andy Greenwald’s too-infrequent TV Mailbag. Why reinvent the wheel?  Finally, puns!

Thus, I give you The Mail Gaze, my not-very-original attempt to be like Dear Abby, but with something that won’t actually improve your life.

Let me warn you in advance, this is a series of unedited rants.

Should I give True Detective another chance with season 3? 
Continue reading “The Mail Gaze”

TV or not TV

 

This past Tuesday, Vulture posted their Fall TV Calculator, an interesting (if cruel) tool that allows you to calculate the hours you’ll dedicate to television this fall based on the shows you plan to watch. In a turn of events that should surprise no one who has ever had a conversation with me, I scored in the top 82% of Vulture readers with a whopping 298 hours and 4 minutes planned for fall TV. That is an embarrassing statistic and a bold commitment for someone with a full-time job and a desire to maintain relationships with family and friends. Even more shameful, however, is that I’ll probably watch more than that.

I enjoy many hobbies but dedicate by far the most time and attention to the small screen. I’ve always been a passionate TV watcher (you should have seen how I lobbied my parents to get basic cable in high school), but my habit has grown increasingly time consuming in the past few years. We are in the middle of a so-called “Golden Age of Television.” This period has not only produced more scripted content on the air than ever before, but has given rise to the phenomenon of recap culture. These days it is no longer enough to just watch TV, one must understand and be able to talk semi-intelligently about each episode. I once took a course on The Wire, and my professor often talked about this idea of “cultural capital,” the intangible value that comes with having seen, read or heard some work of art generally considered to be good. I am obsessed with having it, so these days, with nearly 400 scripted shows airing and even middle-of-the-pack stuff considered “worth watching,” I’ve got my work cut out for me.
Continue reading “TV or not TV”