What I’m Watching: GLOW

What I expected: an exaggerated, high-energy, soapy drama set behind the scenes of women’s wrestling in the ’80s.

What I got: an understated, pleasant, yet meaningful character drama following the creation of a women’s wrestling league, still in the ’80s.

nhzrwr2maujtnyygbyrm

Why are we screaming again?

I mean, with those promo photos, who could blame me for wrongly assuming the show’s tone? But it turns out that, like the wrestling in the show, they’re just a flashy front to a complex, diverse cast of characters whose inner lives are portrayed with a great deal of respect.

The two most important of those characters are Ruth and Debbie. Ruth is trying to make a name for herself as an actress, but is held back by wanting more substantial roles and not being conventionally attractive (which I don’t think is actually true of the actress, but okay); Debbie, on the other hand, was a reasonably-successful soap actress but was frustrated by sexism on the set and retired from acting to raise a kid with her husband.

These establishing details put both characters in sympathetic places, which is good, but they’re also crucial to the show’s examination of just what kind of people would be drawn participate in women’s wrestling in the ’80s. As portrayed in the show, it’s primarily those who exist outside of the mainstream’s very narrow view of what women in media should look like and be: white, conventionally attractive, and subservient to male authority.

GLOW is at its best when it focuses on giving voice and narratives to these women, but unfortunately it’s a little mixed in how well it does that. Debbie is drawn to the wrestling production when she realizes it’s like a soap opera, but in this case it’s one that she gets to have some degree of creative control over. That creative control is not extended to the other women in the show-within-a-show, however, resulting in the women of color being forced to represent racist stereotypes.

These stereotypical characters might be historically accurate, I guess (although I’m not personally familiar with the real-life GLOW the show is based on), but it’s disappointing that the only reason Debbie really gets to have control here is because she’s the only one of the wrestlers who has mainstream success and is therefore the star. The women of color might be getting roles, but they’re still reductive and even harmful. The show does make efforts to have its characters point this out and express their discomfort with it, but these concerns aren’t given enough space to feel more than obligatory. There is a nice sequence, however, where Cherry goes behind the director’s back to swap things so she and the other black wrestler are the heroes of their double fight instead of the villains.

While the show-within-the-show does get bogged down in caricatures and stereotypes, the show itself is a lot more empathetic and respectful of its characters. All of the women are given meaningful, if sometimes light, characterization and character moments over the course of the season, which is impressive given that there are 14 of them. I do wish that the show had leaned a little bit more into its ensemble, though–one episode gives a decent subplot to Sheila that really digs into who she is, but a lot of the other characters aren’t examined as closely. Just a little bit more could have gone a long way toward fleshing out some of the more tertiary characters.

glow_s01e02_still_1

Leaving the audience wanting more is hardly a terrible problem to have in this case, though, as my desire for more character moments is fueled by how good the moments we get are. The bulk of the show’s first season is spent focused on Ruth and Debbie, even more so on Ruth, following their personal struggles and conflict in the wake of Debbie learning that Ruth twice slept with her husband. The show does a really good job portraying the two’s fractured friendship, that weird space where they both care about each other a lot but now there’s this betrayal hanging between them that prevents Debbie from really letting Ruth in.

Ruth and Debbie’s plotline is also important to one of the show’s less prominent themes, where it goes into what it is to be a heel (the villain in wrestling). There’s a connection built between Ruth, who is arguably the “villain” between her and Debbie, and Ruth’s character in the ring, a Russian foil to Debbie’s American hero. The show remarks upon how a good heel is needed to make the hero look better and be easier to root for, but how the audience also, in a strange way, loves the heel. The exploration of this fairly universal storytelling concept is interesting, but unfortunately the way it relates back to the characters in the show is a little weird.

The first part of this weirdness is the framing of Ruth and Debbie, where Ruth is more or less the show’s protagonist. We spend the most time with her, she gets the most in-depth and complex character work, she is who we’re ultimately rooting for. And so because of this, she’s isn’t the heel in the story. The second thing is that she’s really not a bad person, making the focus on her “villainy” feel hollow. With the exception of sleeping with Debbie’s husband, Ruth doesn’t really do anything morally questionable–in fact, she’s one of the most responsible and mature characters on the show.

This creates a disconnect where a large part of Ruth’s plotline is about accepting the importance of villainy within a narrative and how she feels like she is that villain in her personal life, but that villainy is not actually present in her character. We’re never even given a particularly compelling reason for why she slept with Debbie’s husband, making her one bad act seem more like a contrivance than a character flaw.

While that theme did leave me a little wanting, it’s a small nitpick in what is otherwise a very compelling plotline. And I do really appreciate Ruth as the protagonist–she’s driven and passionate, but that passion sometimes manifests itself as a sort of dorkiness that makes for a really entertaining and easy-to-root-for character. I can easily see a version of the show where Debbie is the protagonist and I think it would have been lesser for it.

So, yeah, that’s GLOW. Not what I anticipated, but I think it was better for subverting my expectations to tell an almost gentle in tone, but still meaningful and nuanced, story.

Speech & Debate is a Movie about Speech & Debate the Club and Also Speech and Debate the Concept

This is another of those tiny indie movies that Netflix picks up distribution rights to and is basically impossible to gauge the quality of until you try it. Fortunately this one was more Eat With Me than Jenny’s Wedding (which I haven’t written about, but trust me, it’s awful).

poster

I don’t actually have anything snarky to say about this poster, it’s pretty cute.

Speech & Debate is about three high school seniors in Salem, Oregon and ostensibly follows their struggles for creative and social freedom in their school. That thread kind of gets lost a bit along the way, but we’ll get to that.

Let’s start with the teens. There’s Solomon, who works for the school paper and wants to pursue journalism as a career, but the limits placed on what subjects he can write about (anything controversial is off-limits) makes him feel silenced. Next is Diwata, an aspiring actor/singer/etc., who’s frustrated by the school’s decision to alter its production of Once Upon a Mattress to appeal to social conservatism (and is ticked off she didn’t get the lead role). Finally is Howie, openly gay but used to big-city Portland, who feels isolated as a result and wants to start a GSA but is blocked by the school board because it’s “more of a social hour.”

This all works pretty well, and writing it out like that it seems like there’s a pretty clear trajectory for the movie wherein the characters try to find ways to affect change and stick it to The Man. The problem is that the movie never really gives its characters tangible goals until the very end and spends most of the second act on stuff that’s functionally irrelevant to the movie’s plot and themes. I think the movie intends to frame this section, where the characters get involved in Speech & Debate club, as the characters trying to follow their interests in a system-approved manner to less-than-stellar results, but there’s two problems with the execution.

First, the characters aren’t actually pursuing Speech & Debate club in an approved way. They go off to a competition without a faculty sponsor for the club, or even seemingly alerting the faculty of what they’re doing, which results in them getting detention for fraudulently representing the school. Second, their less-than-stellar results don’t really have anything to do with Speech & Debate not fulfilling their desires, but rather because they’re inexperienced with the format and don’t properly prepare. If they’d just gone through the proper channels and learned the rules of the competition, there would have been no problems.

As a result of this, the characters don’t have a meaningful realization about how following the decisions made by those in power isn’t going to work for them, and so their subsequent decision to cause a scene at a school board meeting in order to draw attention to their being stifled doesn’t have nearly as much weight. The only reason they couldn’t have done it right at the start of the movie is because they didn’t know each other well enough, but any plot in the second act could have accomplished that. The movie could have spent half an hour on them at Disney World and the same character work could have been done.

still3.png

There’s also a problem with the conclusion to the film in that the way it resolves the characters’ goals is unsatisfying and reveals how low-stakes the whole thing was. Solomon is interviewed by a local news station, getting him recognition in a journalism context and implicitly pressuring the school board to change some things (although it’s never shown that this happens), so he pretty much gets what he was looking for, but it’s more complicated for Howie and Diwata.

It’s implicit that the reason Howie wanted to start a GSA was to find friends and to date, so the fact that there’s no indication the school is going to start a GSA isn’t a problem for him because he made friends and gets a romantic interest. But that romantic interest, as far as I could tell, was someone from the Speech & Debate competition, and the same is true for his friends. This means that while his personal goals were accomplished, the climax in the third act has no bearing on them, and his thematically-relevant goal is left totally ambiguous.

Diwata, on the other hand, never even seems to be that concerned with the alteration to Once Upon a Mattress and is more interested in being the lead in any sort of performing. So in that way her goals are fulfilled by the trio’s performance at the school board, but continuing with Speech & Debate club would have accomplished the same thing. And she has the same issue as Howie, where her personal desires led her to the issue around free expression, and so while that’s the theme of the movie neither character actually has to succeed on that front to be successful. The result is that the movie’s themes are played up and made to seem like the important thing, but they really aren’t. Speech & Debate is torn between telling personal, individual stories and exploring a wider topic and because of that it doesn’t really execute either vision.

So . . . that’s all pretty negative, but the thing about fiction is that it doesn’t have to be thematically and structurally solid to be enjoyable, and Speech & Debate totally was enjoyable. The leads all have strong characterization and are easy to like and root for, and their actors do great work to make them come alive. The movie also has a pretty charming sense of humor that keeps things feeling breezy and entertaining even when the plot is going down pointless detours.

And while I am pretty harsh on the movie’s handling of its themes, I do appreciate that it’s trying. Exploring the world of bureaucratic school decisions and their affects on students is a solid premise, and even if the movie doesn’t dig as deep as it should it still touches on important and engaging ideas.

The movie also does a pretty decent job of incorporating modern technology. The usage of texting feels really natural (there’s a great bit where Diwata texts Solomon’s mom as him and the mom immediately knows it’s not him because of Diwata’s excessive emoji usage) and there was a good sense of how Youtube fame works. The on-screen presentation of Youtube did bug me a bit though since the bar showing the like-to-dislike ratio never fit the videos’ views and like counts. Aside from that, though, the movie had a great sense of style. There were a lot of original-but-not-distracting editing flourishes and musical cues in key places that made things more interesting.

Finally, a little nitpick: when Diwata auditions for the school play, she briefly sings from Hamilton, and then later in the movie Lin-Manuel Miranda shows up but not as himself in an instructional video the leads watch. Apparently in this world Hamilton exists but Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t? It’s kinda weird.

Overall, I’d give Speech & Debate a pretty solid three out of five stars. It’s far from exceptional and has a lot of issues, but it’s got good heart and even if it doesn’t quite work, you can really see what the movie was going for and that helps me forgive its faults.

What I’m Watching: The Good Fight

When I wrote about The Good Fight’s pilot, I hoped the show would maintain the high caliber of quality of the first episode set up. It was a tall order, one I’m not sure its predecessor The Good Wife ever managed for a ten episode streak, but, astoundingly, The Good Fight succeeded. There’s a drive, a sense of purpose and relevance, to the show that makes it in many ways superior to The Good Wife after just one ten-episode season.

The-Good-Fight

I like to think this is actually a room in some Chicago highrise that exists solely for generic cast photos.

First off, despite the high-class world the characters navigate, the show wisely keeps its characters as more-or-less underdogs. Reddick, Boseman, and Kolstad, the central law firm, is predominantly African American, while Maia’s public reputation has been destroyed by her parents’ scandal and Diane has lost all her money in addition to her reputation. The clear societal forces working against the characters make their successes feel more triumphant and hard-earned.

This underdog theme carries over into the show’s cases of the week, which are surprisingly strong. In The Good Wife, the weekly cases became trite filler after the first two or three seasons, usually skimming from the headlines without any meaningful commentary or interesting plotting. The cases in The Good Fight, however, feel very purposeful, focusing on “little guy” individuals fighting against more powerful opponents and exploring social issues in a way that feels relevant and genuine rather than perfunctory.

The more serialized plotting is pretty good, too. There are three major running plotlines–an attack on the firm by the State Attorney’s office, Lucca’s relationship with a guy working at the State Attorney’s office named Colin, and the financial scandal–that all intertwine in interesting ways. It’s a testament to Michelle and Robert King’s (the creators and writers of both The Good Wife and The Good Fight) writing skills that they can still make these legal machinations interesting after eight seasons in this world.

I do, however, think that the first of those three plotlines was much more successfully executed than the others. Lucca and Colin’s plotline often felt separated from the rest of the show, and I would have liked something a little more substantive for Lucca. The show has positioned her as roughly analogous to Kalinda from The Good Fight in being kind of mysterious in her motivations and feelings, but that mysteriousness doesn’t work as well with Lucca since she’s one of the three main characters, not a part of the ensemble. This combined with her not actually being as mysterious as Kalinda makes it frustrating rather than intriguing to not know what’s going on in her head.

Meanwhile, the financial scandal plotline doesn’t have any flaws in and of itself, but the context–a scandal with mystery surrounding it setting up the first episode in a plot-driven show–makes it look initially like it’ll be a twisty, plot-heavy storyline, but instead it’s a more character-driven story designed to test and challenge Maia. And for what it is it works very well, but in a show otherwise filled with traditional twisty plotting, it comes across as incongruously simple and un-thrilling.

43108a05a556c57329fa2b936d51

It’s the strength of the characters, though, that keeps the less-exciting-than-possible storylines from feeling dull or too much like missed opportunities. Maia isn’t a particularly original character in her conception but she works well as an audience surrogate and the show does an effective job of making her sympathetic to the audience. It’s thrilling to watch when she has her first cross-examination and that’s all thanks to stellar execution on the writing and acting level.

As I mentioned above, I’m disappointed that Lucca’s inner life wasn’t explored as much as it could have been, but she’s still a really engaging character, competent and brassy but while still being compassionate. And while I’m not sure there’s a lot to say about Diane since her character has had a lot of screentime in The Good Wife, she’s still a crucial and enjoyable part of the main cast.

The show’s other characters are also really good as well. The new characters at Reddick, Boseman, and Kolstad (the main law firm) mesh well into the show’s world and I was super excited to see Marissa added as a series regular after recurring on The Good Wife for years.

Marissa’s place in the show does get into some of its more questionable subtext, though. It’s a good move to set the show in a mostly-black law firm, but immediately adding a bunch of white characters (Maia, Diane, and Marissa) into it feels iffy, and the way the show had them ingratiate themselves by using their privilege felt off in its execution. Rather than the vibe being “we’ll use our privilege to help you achieve justice,” it was more “look at how useful and great our privilege is, and doesn’t that make us better at performing the same tasks.” If the show had explored how some of the characters’ marginalized identities could be equally helpful in other contexts I think it would have come across better. The show on a couple of occasions has a white character deal with a racist for better results, but never, say, has a black character handle going into a mostly-black social space for better results.

I also didn’t love how the show handled Maia being gay, or rather how the show didn’t really handle it at all. For a show that is steeped in commentary on social issues, it’s really weird how completely absent any discussion of Maia’s sexual orientation is. None of the public backlash against her takes on homophobic forms that I noticed, her ex-boyfriend harassing her didn’t explicitly have any real homophobic bent to it, and Maia being a lesbian in a homophobic society was never brought up as a motivating factor in her pursuing a career as a lawyer. The show almost seemed to go out of its way to not explore gay identity and homophobia, which was disappointing since the show didn’t show the same avoidance when it came to racism, sexism, antisemitism, ageism, etc.

Despite those quibbles, though, I was really impressed by season one of The Good Fight. It’s an extraordinarily solid show and is a promising start to original programming on CBS All Access.

What I’m Watching: Season Finale 2017

Heyoo, this blog has officially made it through an entire season of TV! I had no idea when I started if I’d make it past a month or two, but somehow, despite how draining this fall-through-spring has been, I’ve still been interested in babbling about media. The summer’s probably going to be lighter on posts (although I might try doing some stuff about video games), but I expect to be back at it when the next season of TV starts up. Anyway, here’s the final rundown on the shows I watched:

Madam Secretary

Good Bones

❤  my team of world-improvers!

This show felt a little listless coming back from the midseason break, like the writers weren’t quite sure where they wanted to take things. The primary serialized plot that ended up developing was with Henry’s investigation into an extremist religious group and that whole plotline felt pretty stale until the end.

Looking back at the list of episodes, though, the show still put in a bunch of good plots of the week, and it picked up a lot toward the end. A real standout episode was one right near the end of the season that started with a focus on Elizabeth’s assistant, Blake, and took turns over the course of the episode following each of the employees working for Elizabeth. It was a really neat idea for an episode and it was structured really well–each character gained focus as it was their turn to be instrumental to the plot of the week–and did a fantastic job of telling us something interesting about each character. And the season finale was a really good, not to mention timely, cap to the season.

Madam Secretary still sometimes veers too far into cheesiness or contrived storytelling (a plot about a political Romeo and Juliet was . . . a bit much), but when it’s on, it really packs a punch. And in the wake of the election, the show’s real-world parallels feels especially relevant which should help give the show life in season four.

Conviction

This one only came back for four more episodes in January and it didn’t really do anything to change my opinion of it. Conviction was hardly a masterpiece, but it was a solid procedural with good potential and some interesting, modern hooks. It’s too bad that the show never went anywhere in the ratings.

Fresh Off the Boat, The Real O’Neals, Agents of Shield

I ended up dropping all of these due to my life schedule making me extremely tired on Tuesday nights. I probably would have kept watching them if not for that, but I can’t say I especially missed the latter two shows–The Real O’Neals totally failed to live up to its potential, and Agents of Shield was really starting to bore me. I’ll probably pick Fresh Off the Boat back up when it returns in the fall, though.

The 100

So this season was really good. After the overambitious season three, the writers pulled back in the complexity in season four (even as the stakes were raised), focusing on moral quandaries over political machinations. This resulted in a kind of weird situation where this season was definitely better than season three (and in some ways was probably better than season two, which started pretty slow), but because of the reduction in scale and shocking moments it in some ways felt underwhelming.

Part of that is for the better, I think, as The 100 really Went There in season two with the death of Finn and the eradication of Mount Weather, and trying to top that probably would have ended up feeling stale and monotonous. But one of the best things about season three was, as much as the execution was fumbled, the ambition to it, the amount of stuff going on at any given point. Season four being so much simpler made it easier for the writers to execute, but it also meant that the show took a step back in terms of scope which was a little disappointing.

Still, though, this season proved that even at its simplest The 100 is just really good. The moral questions the show dealt with were handled well and seeing the culmination of Clarke’s growth into a pragmatic leader was fantastic, if kind of sad to see given her early idealism. Meanwhile, Octavia continued her arc as one of the most interesting, unique characters I’ve ever seen period, a young woman who’s basically forsaken society but not in a Holier Than Thou way, but in an angry, vengeful way. A lot of stories might have used Octavia as a moral compass, but instead she’s just a brutally effective warrior. To then conclude this arc with her literally fighting for peace, though, was really cool, and continues to move her character in new and interesting directions as she now finds herself in a leadership role.

Although, I think there was definitely some iffy subtext with Octavia this season, where her growth as a white woman was fueled by the death of a black man, Lincoln, and the mentorship of a black woman, Indra, a character whose agency was pretty limited this season. I wish Indra had been given a bit more importance within the narrative to alleviate some of that.

The finale was really a capstone in the “simple but good” thing the season had going for it, as it had no big decision or twist or dramatic shock. It was presented from the beginning as “the characters have to prepare the ship to launch,” and while you knew things were going to go wrong, that was about all there was to it. And yet, the last twenty minutes of the episode were just as tense and exciting as previous season finales and the flashforward at the end left me incredibly hyped up. Who knows if season five will live up to my expectations, but after season four I’m really hoping it will.

The Good Place

This one also only came back for four more episodes (although it’s been renewed, unlike Conviction), but, damn. I’m not exaggerating when I saw that this is one of the all-time best stories I’ve ever seen in a TV show. The twist in the finale was a masterclass in shocking, game-changing plot moves that totally recontextualizes everything that came before it. It’s astounding that all of this is going on in a sitcom, and that something like this exists on network television at all, but I’m so glad it does.

I really should have done a winter finale for this and Conviction because I can’t remember much of my more in-depth thoughts on this show, but suffice to say that it is incredible.


And that does it for the season! It was a pretty good one all around, although my viewing got pretty light by the end. There are a few new shows that look interesting next season (although most are being held for midseason), though, so it should expand again next season. (I don’t know if that’s interesting information but I needed a way to end this post lol.)

The 100, Diversity, and Death: Second Edition

With the conclusion of The 100‘s fourth season I figured I ought to update my post on the show’s demographics and how those demographics intersect with character death. The previous post can be found here.

the-100-season-4-poster

This season four promo image is very thematically appropriate.

What’s New

The most notable difference between this and the first edition is that there are seven new characters counted from season four, and those, as well as new character deaths, have affected the numbers.

Additionally, whereas in the first edition I compared the show’s numbers to the GLAAD “Where We Are on TV” report for the 2015-2016 season, in this post I compare the show’s numbers to the average of what GLAAD reported for all seasons the show has been on air. I think this is pretty clearly a more fair comparison.

Methods

I used IMDB’s page listing actors who have appeared in The 100 and counted named characters who have appeared in four or more episodes for my analysis. I chose to make four episodes a minimum to ensure that characters on the list had significant screentime (as it would be unfair to compare a character who appeared in a single scene to a character who appeared in dozens of episodes). Also note that I used seasons one through four for my analysis.

Once I had gathered my list, I categorized the 53 characters on the following attributes: male/female; white/black/Latinx/Asian; and straight/gay or bisexual. I then determined the percentages of each demographic in the categories of: total; regular; recurring; dead; and alive. (This post focuses on total and dead characters, as in my opinion the other categories are not as significant.)

There were some characters whose actors appeared racially ambiguous and for whom I couldn’t find concrete information on how they identified; in these cases, I used my judgment to make a subjective determination that may have been incorrect. These characters, along with a few exceptions and other notable categorizations, are listed at the end of this post.

Findings

Total Characters

Total Characters Gender

60% of The 100‘s characters are male and 40% are female.

According to GLAAD’s “Where We Are on TV,” the average gender makeup of series regulars on network TV since the season The 100 began airing in is 57% male and 43% female. This means that The 100 is slightly below average in representing women compared to other TV shows, and is notably off from real-world statistics in which women make up approximately 50% of the population.

Since the GLAAD numbers are for regular characters specifically, it’s worth noting that 69% of The 100‘s regular characters are male and 31% are female. Counting only regular characters who are alive,* the split is 56/44 in favor of male characters.

*This is worth doing, I think, as starting in season two the show has consistently each season killed one or two of its male regular characters and added a new one as if in replacement. It’s disappointing that the show hasn’t added female characters to fix the gender imbalance, but it does mean that in any given season the gender disparity is not as large as it is overall.

The rest of this post can be found under the read more.

Continue reading

What I’m Watching: Sense8

Alright! Season two of Sense8 is here and the world is a little bit better.

Sense8-Season-2-Preview-Trailer-Netflix-Tom-Lorenzo-Site-12

Nooo Wolfgang get away from Kala!

Senseis one of the most visionary, original TV shows I’ve ever seen. Shot on location all across the world with characters from seven different countries and incredible production value, not to mention highly-involved action sequences, there’s simply nothing else like Sense8 on TV, streaming or otherwise. The show just oozes creative vision and cinematic sensibilities and it’s awesome.

The premise of Sense8 is that eight people across Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas end up mentally linked through some magic-y sci-fi stuff, allowing them to telepathically visit each other and share their skills, knowledge, and perspectives on life. And while there is some meta story going on, the first season especially pretty much focuses entirely on these eight characters’ different plotlines–Capheus as a bus driver in Kenya, Will as a cop in Chicago, etc.–and how their newfound connection allows them to better handle their situations. The show uses its sci-fi concept to explore the ways in which we’re connected as humans, how we have more similarities than we might think and how much our lives are improved by using our capacity of empathy. That message happens to be right up my alley and it’s one of my favorite things about the show.

I was impressed by how season two furthered the meta plot, though–where a lot of shows either overexplain or underexplain their central mysteries, Sense8 uses a sort of dreamy, vague method of exposition for its underlying story that allows the viewer to follow what’s going on without explicitly giving away anything. Additionally, the show expanded its mythology in other ways by introducing new sensates with their own agendas and relations to the nefarious BPO. The whole concept of the sensaste archipelago, allowing for indirect communication via a chain of connected sensates, was especially interesting.

I don’t think Sense8 is without faults, though. By having eight main characters and seven or eight concurrent plotlines, the show is unable to have a meaningful sense of structure–there’s simply no room for per-episode plots or a great deal of momentum to any given plotline when each character only gets an average of an hour and a half of screentime per season. This has the tendency of leaving the show without much underlying tension or drive, especially with how the show tends to give its scenes a lot of time to breathe. This works great with the action sequences, which can get really long and elaborate and intense, but can drag when the show gets conversation-heavy.

On the other hand, I do appreciate how fully the show utilizes its medium. The visual language of the show does such an evocative job of portraying a reality-breaking sci-fi concept that I don’t think it could work outside of TV or film, but no movie could handle this many characters and storylines. Combined with the aforementioned filmic qualities of the show in terms of cinematography and scope (which are easier to get when you’re filming on location, I imagine), it really stands out as a completely realized, masterfully-envisioned creative work.

Getting a little more specific, I have to say that I was a little disappointed with the final half or so of the last episode of season two. It seemed to cover about 40 minutes of screentime in half that, leaving what should have been a really big moment–the sensates all meeting each other in person–as an aside in the rush to get to the final moments. I understand that the writers wanted to avoid feeling repetitious to the BPO break-in that capped season one, but I think there could have been a more elegant way to accomplish what they wanted.

Still, that’s a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things, and it was a pretty thrilling sequence even if it had some unfulfilled potential. There’s just nothing else like Sense8 and after two seasons the originality of the show isn’t even beginning to fade.

What I’m Watching: Dear White People

Uhh, let’s start this post with a big ol’ “I’m white” disclaimer. I’m going to avoid delving too deep into the way the show engages with racism, but nevertheless everything I write here should be taken with a grain of salt as I don’t have authority on the subject. (I probably wouldn’t write this post at all if I had any meaningful audience here.)

dearwhitepeople_us

I’m not sure how relevant the title really is to the show but I guess that’s the point.

Dear White People is about a group of black students at a university and chronicles a couple weeks of their life as they grapple with the campus’ pretty crappy racial politics. The choice of protagonists is one of the areas where I think the show really succeeds, as you have Sam and Reggie who are on the more radical activist side, and then there are Troy and Coco who are more into appealing to the system and working within the establishment. By focusing on differing opinions on how to combat racism from within the community, the show avoids easy answers or clear villains and good guys. I get the impression you’re mostly meant to root for Sam and Reggie’s side (or at least I did), but the show acknowledges that there’s more nuance involved.

So while the character side of the premise is quite good, I think the plot side of things is where the show drops the ball a bit. There’s a lot of stuff happening in the show in terms of plot (and especially twisty revelations), but there is no one event that the show revolves around. This would be fine in normal circumstances, but Dear White People uses a structure where each episode focuses on a different character, with a bit of overlap between episodes. This format is best-suited, in my opinion, to narratives that focus on a singular event so that new details can be revealed as we switch to different characters, but because there is nothing like that the format sometimes feels distracting. Instead the overlapping is used to an inconsistent degree (and is more prominent in the early episodes), which comes across as, well, inconsistent.

I also wish the show did a little bit more with the way it inspects its characters through its format–again there’s an inconsistency to it. Lionel and Coco both get childhood flashbacks, while the others don’t; Reggie doesn’t even have any flashbacks that I remember; none of the flashbacks Sam is in are from her perspective; and Coco’s first focus episode is almost entirely a flashback to her Freshman year. There’s no real rhyme or reason as to who gets what kind of flashback or how these flashbacks are used to reveal information about the characters, and the end result is that the flashbacks feel like they’re used haphazardly rather than with real purpose.

Those are my only main issues with the show, though–otherwise I thought it was very strong. The characters deepen a lot beyond their basic archetypes over the course of the season and become really engaging, and I like the way the show doesn’t overtly tell the audience how they should feel about the important characters. I feel like my reading of various characters’ likability and morality is mostly based on my own opinions and could be quite different from someone else’s reading, which I generally I think is a good thing in fiction, especially in a character-driven story like this.

And then of course there’s the themes of social issues and activism that Dear White People puts at the center. I think the show does a really good job of exploring the complexities involved in activism and unlike a lot of politically-related fiction that I’ve seen, it doesn’t paint things in black and white or make its protagonists so obviously correct. The show also very deftly avoids feeling stilted when its characters discuss social issues, or like characters have been assigned opinions at random. Everything feels very natural, very effortless, in a way that a lot of fiction fails to be when tackling social issues.

I’m not sure the show is as good when it comes to issues other than anti-black racism, however. References to other forms of racism tend to be paired with the show’s flippant sense of humor in a way that feels dismissive of them Also, I don’t think the whole “supposed lesbian getting with a guy despite being engaged to a woman” thing was a great look, as either a) it’s portraying a lesbian as still being attracted to men, or b) it’s portraying a bisexual woman as a cheater. Both of those seem pretty bad.

There was a little more going on in the show thematically than just social issues, though, which I liked. There’s this recurring thing with the five protagonists being romantically involved/interested in someone they shouldn’t (or “shouldn’t”):” Sam is dating a white guy; Lionel is into Troy, who’s straight; Troy is having an affair with an engaged professor; Reggie is into Sam, who’s not single; and Coco is involved with Troy more because she thinks she should than because she wants to. And by the end of the season none of these relationships/crushes work out. I’m not totally clear as to what the show is trying to communicate–I wouldn’t really say that interracial relationships and gay guys being into straight guys are equally doomed–but I like that there’s an extra layer here.

Anyway, while I do have some quibbles with Dear White People, overall I very much enjoyed it and I think it nails the execution where it really matters. I should note again, though, that I really don’t have the authority to say whether the specific messages the show sends are correct or good, so my opinion of the show should not be considered particularly important.