Sunday, November 13, 2011

Le Boob Tube

I count myself lucky for having the good fortune of growing up in the 80s and 90s, as it was an era of really great television. From Saturday morning cartoons, including 90 whole minutes of smurftastic Smurf time, to after school cartoons including The X-Men and The Tick, to having new episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 every week, to The X Files, to the rise of the animated sit com, it was an awesome time to be a television viewer. 

Some time after the end of TNG and Deep Space 9, I completely lost interest in live action television. Nothing held my interest, and nothing excited me. And live action sit coms were awful (with the exception of Herman's Head, which left the world all too soon). I got tired of the Home Improvement formula - well-meaning, lovable, but ultimately stupid and bungling dad has to be talked to like a child by the over-bearing, intelligent mom who keeps everything together while the dad floats around aimlessly and causes trouble. This formula was lampooned to great success by The Simpsons and is probably one of the many reasons it was popular. But this formula didn't reflect my life, nor the lives of anyone I knew, and it certainly wasn't the kind of life I wanted for myself. It was obnoxious and grating. 

So I stuck to animated television - The Simpsons, Futurama, The Critic, Family Guy, and later South Park. There were a few shows I liked throughout the late 90s and early 00s - Dead Like Me, Boston Public, and Dark Angel. I also became hooked on American Idol and watched every episode until Adam Lambert didn't win. And then I just lost interest and stopped watching. 

But then something awesome happened in 2009 - Glee premiered and I got hooked on television again. 

I love musicals. Love, adore, cherish, consume. I also love dark, twisted humor and satire, and Glee is all these things. It's an over-inflated parody of high school that still somehow manages to be sweet, touching, and heart-wrenching. The show has tackled some of the biggest issues that teens face today - bullying, sexual identity, living out as a GLBT student, navigating the often hostile cyber world, eating disorders, etc. They even took on teen pregnancy in a very blunt and direct manner, with teen mom Quinn often stating how much it sucks (she didn't keep her baby, but opted to have it adopted). And on top of it all is the great music. The current story arc that just ended was the group doing the musical West Side Story. This past Tuesday's episode used the music from the musical to tell the story of what the kids were going through in their real lives, and it was brilliant. I haven't loved an hour of television as much since TNG went off the air. 

And then last year I started watching Mad Men. I know, little late to the party. But I had Netflix and an interest in the subject matter as it's often studied in Women's Studies. I had a friend who started watching it and she said "Was it really like this for women? Could you really be groped in the work place?" Yes, sadly, it was. Man Men fascinates me for it's linear, real-time progression through the 1960s, and it's depiction of the evolving lives of women. Betty Draper is the epitome of "the problem with no name" that Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique in 1963. She is a bored and lonely housewife, suffocating in her white-washed suburban existence while her husband Don does whatever the hell he wants. Peggy Olsen represents the rising women's movement. She brilliantly points out that the discrimination faced by blacks are also faced by women. She tells a friend and civil rights supporter "There are clubs I can't go to because I'm a woman. The country club told me the only way I can have dinner there is if I come out of a cake." She uses this point to talk about the glass ceiling and how business deals are often made places that she can't even go to. It's all very fascinating stuff. 

Sadly, though, Mad Men isn't on right now and won't be back until about March. I have Glee, but I missed being in the 1960s for an hour a week. So how fortunate was it for me that Pan Am debuted? 

Like Mad Men, Pan Am is set in the 1960s and has a real-time timeline. But what's great about it is that the principle characters are all women. The show does a great job of showing the incredibly sexist and degrading physical standards that stewardesses had to endure just to keep their job in those days - wearing a girdle, stockings, make up, hair just right. They had to meet minimum height requirements and were weighed in weekly and had to keep under a certain weight. Christina Ricci's character, Maggie Ryan, often speaks out against it, and also speaks out against the sexual harassment the women often face from the male passengers. It's a great show, and like Mad Men, accurately portrays life for women in the 1960s. 

I also started watching these new shows:

  • American Horror Story - holy poop this show is intense. I always make the mistake of deciding to get caught up on my shows late at night, when I'm alone. Brilliant, I know. This show has me hooked, and I'm totally in love with Jessica Lange who is beyond fantastic as eccentric neighbor Constance. She steals every scene and is a force of Nature. What I love most about American Horror Story, though, is that it's scary in the traditional sense. It doesn't resort to cheap, jump-out-at-you tactics, nor does it turn into a gore fest like far too many horror movies today. It's just good and creepy, full of mystery and suspense. 
  • Once Upon a Time - another love of mine is fairy tales. I'm a lover and reader of folk lore and myths and love stories that assume fairy tales are true. The premise of this show is that a Wicked Queen has put a spell on all the fairy tale characters we know - Snow White, Prince Charming, Jiminy Cricket, Geppetto, Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty, etc. - and they're all trapped in the modern day town of Storybrooke, ME. The Queen's adopted son Henry (played by the awesome child actor Jared Gilmore who used to play Bobby Draper on Mad Men) has figured it out, and sets a plan in motion to unravel the Queen's plans. I can't get enough of this show. The principle characters are women - The Queen, Emma, and Snow White and none of them are feeble or stereotypical. It's refreshing to see a Snow White who isn't useless and helpless and who can take care of herself. All of them show their strength and capability without being masculinized or stereotyped, and I love that about it. I also really dig the naming conventions and word play - The Queen becomes Regina, Snow White's last name becomes Blanchard, Rumpelstiltskin becomes Mr. Gold, etc. I don't want to give too many of them away, because part of the fun of the show is figuring out who everyone is. 
  • Grimm - just like Once Upon a Time, Grimm's premise is set in the world of fairy tales. Taking inspiration from The Brothers Grimm, these stories are darker and more violent than those of Once Upon a Time and is more in line with American Horror Story. I like this show, but some of it is sloppy. For instance, the depictions of police work don't seem well researched and some of the plot devices are a bit contrived. But over all, it's a good show with promise. I'm interested in seeing where it goes. If nothing else, it's helping me brush up on my German. 

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