I often begin writing blogs that for one reason or another don’t get finished.  I’m taking this New Year’s Day 2014 opportunity to spend a few words (well, more like 5,000 words!) mentioning a few films, TV shows, books, and other theatre- and pop culture-oriented events that I missed discussing fully in 2013.  I’m hoping that for the continuing TV series I engage here, I’ll be able to post full blogs in 2014.  (And later, I’ll break the writing below into short individual posts for easy searching, so that you can read in full or read by topic.)

Thanks as always, this New Year’s Day, for reading The Feminist Spectator.  Sharing the blog with all of you is one of my chief pleasures.

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I’m jazzed by Masters of Sex, the new Showtime series that stars Lizzy Caplan as the pioneering sex researcher Virginia Johnson, and Michael Sheen as her collaborator, Bill Masters.  A stable of women writers and show-runners use the series to explore the bias in the 1950s against women doctors and against research into women’s health (including the then-nascent Pap smear to detect cervical cancer).  Masters of Sex also considers the judgments brought against women who dared to enjoy their own sexuality in an historical moment in which they were taught otherwise.

Masters of Sex, posterThe show also addresses racism and homophobia hand-in-hand with sexism.  Beau Bridges is wrenching as the closeted gay provost of the university hospital where Masters and Johnson conduct their research, and Allison Janney is eloquent and heart-breaking as his sexually frustrated but finally forgiving and progressive wife.  Janney’s story arc mirrors Caplan’s, as both characters come at the question of sexual self-determination from different directions.  Julianne Nicholson plays a talented but overlooked and therefore bitter woman doctor, herself suffering from cervical cancer, who fights to get her own study approved by the university.

Caplan is the reason to watch this show so far, although it’s also interesting to see how verboten sex research was in the mid-1950s.  She’s glorious as a woman who was a nightclub singer and takes a clerical job in a hospital that brings her to the attention of William Masters (Sheen), who hires her as his assistant because she’s plainspoken about sex and shares his curiosity for all things scientific.  She had no formal schooling, but a keen intelligence and a frank, unflappable ability to deal with research subjects who had to perform sexually with strangers, wearing all sorts of measuring devices and knowing they were being watched through the two-way glass mirror.

Caplan and Sheen as Johnson and Masters

Caplan and Sheen as Johnson and Masters, watching

Johnson is sexy and charismatic, but she’s also very smart, a woman ahead of her time (she’s divorced, with two kids, likes friends-with-benefits sex, and doesn’t want a relationship).  The man she beds, a doctor determined to make her his wife, can’t understand how someone with such sexual appetites could be anything but a whore, especially when she rebuffs his desire to have a real relationship.  Infuriated, he slaps her and calls her names, but she’s undaunted and determined.  When he comes around again, later in the season, he’s contrite and forced to be more progressive in his views about women’s sexuality and their work.

The show charts how Johnson’s reactions to her experiences predict the women’s movement and its focus on female sexual agency and employment equality.  (The real Virginia Johnson died in July 2013.)  With smart writing and elegant, intelligent and emotional performances, this feminist series perceptively addresses historical themes with contemporary resonances.  Catch the first season and stay tuned for season two.

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In a delightful case of mainstream culture catching on to a chestnut of feminist criticism, Sweden last year adopted the “Bechdel test” for rating films.  It’s simple:  a film passes the test if 1) it includes at least two women characters who 2) talk to one another about 3) something other than a man.  Amazing, though, how many films still fail the test.  Watch Kirby Dick’s masterful documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, which exposes the hypocrisies of the long-standing American rating system and its arbitrary, secretive, and capricious way of judging films.  The MPAA system actually punishes projects that depict female sexuality with strict R ratings in favor of those that gleefully display what my dad calls “murder and mayhem.”  Rating systems are bankrupt, in my opinion, but think about how a feminist critical consciousness would be popularized if Bechdel’s test were widely employed in the U.S. to consider the “appropriateness” of films.

Speaking of Alison Bechdel, writer Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori’s musical adaptation of her graphic novel, Fun Home, at the Public Theatre, is one of the best shows in New York this season.  The ground-breaking musical about a lesbian growing into her sexual identity and confronting her father’s barely concealed, morally suspect queer life uses both humor and pathos to spin Alison’s story against the backdrop of 1970s America.  Beautifully written, sung, and acted, Fun Home deserves a spot on upcoming regional theatre seasons around the country.  Here’s hoping it joins the popular repertoire.

Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, and Alexandra Socha in FUN HOME

Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, and Alexandra Socha in FUN HOME

I caught the show for the second time last weekend, and was struck once again by its elegance and emotional intelligence.  This is one of the first productions to depict lesbian memory on stage (think of The Glass Menagerie, so well received on Broadway this season, narrating a gay man’s family memories).  The second time around, I was still amused and awed by Sydney Lucas’s portrayal of Small Alison, and loved her “Call me Al” and “Ring of Keys” numbers, in which the young girl discovers her lesbian moves and desire.  Emily Skeggs, the replacement for Middle Alison, wasn’t quite as convincing as Alexandra Socha as the college-age woman who comes out at Oberlin, thrilled to her core by finally enacting her desire.

But I was more moved this time by Beth Malone’s adult Alison, and better understood the story through her watchful, meditative eyes.  In a way, Fun Home is a “making of” musical, as Alison the graphic artist threads herself through her memories, sketching her novel and deliberating out loud how to caption her images of her family and her friends.  The show meditates not just on memory itself, but on the vexed ways we try to name and claim the past, to understand people and events that form us, like it or not.  All three Alison’s relationships with her father, played by Michael Cerveris, have also settled in and become more heartbreaking than ever.  (The show plays at the Public Theatre in Manhattan through January 12, 2014.)

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Playwrights Horizons continues to model what a truly democratic, gender- and race-aware Off Broadway theatre season should be, presenting a majority of plays written and directed by women without fanfare.  The 2013-14 season last boasted Madeleine George’s The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence, a smart, lively inquiry into the dilemmas technology has wrought across history (crisply directed by Leigh Silverman).  This production followed Marlene Meyer’s The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters and Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which has made several year-end “best of” lists in New York.  Mr. Burns’ innovative premise—in a post-apocalyptic world, people trade staples for currency derived from remembering the dialogue and plot of episodes of The Simpsons—was theatrically realized by director Steve Cossen.

Coming up at Playwrights Horizons

Coming up at Playwrights Horizons

Coming up in 2014 is Sarah Ruhl’s latest, Stage Kiss, directed by the fabulous Rebecca Taichman (whose production of Paula Vogel’s lovely A Civil War Christmas I had the pleasure of catching at Baltimore’s Center Stage), as well as the Rude Mechs‘ resident playwright Kirk Lynn’s Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra, directed by Anne Kauffman (who’s also directing Lisa D’Amour’s new play, Cherokee, at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia starting this month), and a new musical called Fly by Night conceived by Kim Rosenstock, Michael Mitnick, and Will Connelly, and directed by Carolyn Cantor.

Louisa Krause and Aaron Clifton Moten in THE FLICK

Louisa Krause and Aaron Clifton Moten in THE FLICK

Last season at Playwrights included D’Amour’s razor-sharp social satire, the Pulitzer Prize-finalist Detroit, also directed by Anne Kauffman; Amy Herzog’s The Great God Pan, directed by Carolyn Cantor; Annie Baker’s elegiac three-hander, The Flick, a study of historical shifts and character growth set against the backdrop of a movie house changing from celluloid to digital projection; and Tanya Barfield’s excellent family drama, The Call, directed by Leigh Silverman, which addresses the complications of race, class, and adoption.

PH artistic director Tim Sanford continues to belie the misbegotten claim that you can’t program a season with an eye toward gender and racial parity and aesthetic quality at the same time.  His selection of plays and productions is consistently artistically challenging and socially diverse.  Continued kudos to him and his company.

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The Women's Project's BETHANY, with America Ferrera

The Women’s Project’s JACKIE, BETHANY, and COLLAPSE from 2012-2013

The Women’s Project, so ably lead by artistic director Julie Crosby, had a terrific 2012-13 season, with Bethany, Jackie, and Collapse in their current cozy and compatible presenting space at City Center.  Written by Laura Marks and directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, Bethany starred America Ferrera as a woman caught in the economic downturn who’s frantic to reclaim the child taken from her by social services.  As a smart and relevant critique of the inequities of class, the play was impeccably produced and performed.  Likewise, Jackie, a one-woman play by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelenik, directed by Tea Alagic, showcased performer Tina Benko’s elastic physical and emotional talents in this North American premiere of the post-modernist text by the famed Austrian female playwright.

ROW AFTER ROW, coming this spring

This year, the Women’s Project’s three-production season includes two full-length plays—one by Jessica Dickey and one by Catherine Trieschmann—alongside The Architecture of Becoming, a piece directed by three women ,written by five women, and produced by five women, conceived by all of them and two others.  The Women’s Project continues to be a visible, powerful incubator and launching site for excellent plays written and directed by women.

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The Women’s Project also has a directing lab that trains generations of young women in a field that’s still too dominated by white men.  But, in fact, the visibility of mostly white women directors off Broadway and on has been notable this year.  In alphabetical order, Tea Alagic, Anne Bogart, Carolyn Cantor, Anne Kauffman, Tina Landau, Pam MacKinnon, Emily Mann, Diane Paulus, Lisa Peterson, Leigh Silverman, Anna Shapiro, and Rebecca Taichman are among those consistently working in high profile New York and regional venues on notable productions by new and established playwrights.  Their continuing clout can only help improve the status of all talented women working in theatre.

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From Tanya Barfield's THE CALL at Playwrights Horizons

From Tanya Barfield’s THE CALL at Playwrights Horizons

I participated in a panel discussion at the National Theatre Conference (NTC) in December 2013, for which the wonderful Alison Carey (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) organized me, Lisa Kron (Fun Home), Tanya Barfield (The Call), Caridad Svich, and Elizabeth Frankel, the literary manager of the Public Theatre, to discuss the on-going status of American women playwrights.  The NTC has an three-year project, founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, which advocates for increasing the visibility of women playwrights in university and regional theatre seasons, and collects data from those that meet the challenge of mounting full productions.  (Read about the December conference and the NTC 2013 awards–one of which went to playwright Lynn Nottage, another to OSF’s Bill Rauch–here.)

While I’m always happy to talk about issues of gender discrimination and the still relatively low visibility of women playwrights in American theatre, it struck me as we all spoke last month that perhaps it’s time to reframe our thinking about this issue.  The data is dispiriting, I agree.  But the work that is produced is really very good, and deserves to be discussed in some critical detail.  That is, one way of advocating for women’s work is to teach it, produce it, and discuss it as often as possible, to address what is there instead of the ongoing imbalance in numbers of production that aren’t there.

I’m not saying that the continuing discrimination doesn’t matter, or that the good work of 50/50 in 2020 (whose members were represented in the audience at the NTC panel), or the League of Professional Theatre Women, or On Her Shoulders, or History Matters/Back to the Future doesn’t remain crucial to activism for increasing the gender and racial diversity of American theatre.  But after that NTC panel, I wished we’d spent the time talking instead about Kron’s, Barfield’s, and Svich’s terrific work, and atomizing what’s good about it, and who they worked with, and how it got produced.  Or I wish we’d talked about Carey’s own important work directing the American Revolutions United States History Cycle of plays project with OSF (where the remarkable Bill Rauch and his own thoughtful producing is another national model of gender and race parity, along with Sanford’s at Playwrights), instead of once again bemoaning the numbers.  Just a thought.

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Television continues to be the best place to consume long-form dramatic writing, with well-written scripts with complicated story lines and complex characters getting high-caliber artistic treatment.  In addition to Masters of Sex, watch the eight-episode mini-series Top of the Lake, written and directed by the Australian feminist filmmaker Jane Campion.

Elisabeth Moss as Robin in TOP OF THE LAKE

Elisabeth Moss as Robin in TOP OF THE LAKE

I binge-watched this series on the Sundance Channel, utterly enthralled by the austere New Zealand lake-country setting and by Campion’s equally grim story.  Elisabeth Moss stars as Robin Griffin, a young woman who returns to her hometown—isolated, insular, secret-filled Laketop—after starting her career as a detective in Sydney and dawdling in a nine-year engagement to a policeman named Steve.  Her mother’s cancer brings her home, but the pregnancy and subsequent disappearance of a 12-year-old girl named Tui persuades her to stay.  Robin is an expert in child sexual abuse, for personal reasons that become clear halfway through the show’s eight-episode arc.  She immediately attaches herself to the enigmatic, biracial Tui (Jacqueline Joe), and begins to rehearse her own adolescent traumas through her reintegration into Laketop.

Robin and the soon-to-go-missing young girl, Tui

Robin (Moss) and the soon-to-go-missing young girl, Tui (Joe)

Campion writes and directs, leading a terrific cast through stories as murky and mysterious as the frigid lakes that wend their way through the mountain town.  With craggy peaks enshrouded in fog looming over the proceedings, and icy water the seems to beckon troubled characters into its depths, Top of the Lake’s setting becomes as defining to the story as the past that lurks around the corner of every life.  Robin rekindles an affair with Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), an old high school boyfriend, which soon leads her to confront the sexual assault that haunts their relationship.  Lording over the town and its incestuous relationships is Johnno’s tyrannical, psychotic father, Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), a long-haired, desiccated white warlord whose iron-clad control over his elaborate family and the townspeople, most of whom work for him, becomes the focus of Robin’s investigation.

GJ (Hunter) and her acolytes

GJ (Hunter) and her acolytes

Moss’s award-nominated performance shows her range as an actor.  Her accent is impeccable and her sharp watchfulness as Robin, combined with her ambivalence about her own history and the complexity of her own desires, make her riveting to watch.  Holly Hunter also has a wonderful turn as GJ, the charismatic leader of an all-women commune that sets up camp just outside of town, enraging the violent local patriarch and his clan.  The scenery is gorgeous, the writing elliptical, the characters richly drawn, and the story entirely feminist.

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Nurse Jackie, posterShowtime’s inimitable dramedy Nurse Jackie ended its fifth season last fall.  This was the year of Jackie’s recovery (or so we thought).  She began a relationship with Frank (Adam Ferrara), an NYPD cop with a sunny disposition and a kind temperament, who is more patient and reasonable than any grown person should somehow be able to be.  Dating him, Jackie (Edie Falco) tried to reinvent herself as someone with fewer quirks and flaws, as a “real” woman who dresses up for dates (even if they turn out to be at down-heeled outdoor restaurants where Jackie and Frank eat fried fish).  She even puts on lipstick and tries to be a responsible parent to Grace (Ruby Jerins), her teenaged daughter,whose rebellion is based on her mother’s addiction and her parents’ divorce.

In other words, instead of narrating an out-of-control life balanced precariously by a woman who was very good at keeping her addiction a secret, Nurse Jackie reincarnated its heroine as a paragon of ordinary virtue and lost some of its more interesting edge in the translation.  But in the final moment of the season (spoiler alert!), when she’s on her way to her one-year sobriety anniversary, Jackie reaches for the single pill she’s kept in a jewelry box on her bedside table . . . and takes it.  Jackie proceeds to celebrate her anniversary high, which will bode poorly for her, but no doubt well for the returning series.

Falco and Cannavale on NURSE JACKIE

Falco and Cannavale on NURSE JACKIE

Because Dr. O’Hara (Eve Best) was missing in action after she delivered her baby last season and suddenly, inexplicably returned to her native UK, the close female friendship that once grounded the series was replaced by Jackie’s sexual and romantic interest in Frank (and her grief sex with Mike Cruz [Bobby Canavale], the hospital administrator whose son died of an overdose).  As part of her purported recovery process, she also apologizes to her ex-husband, Kevin, as he stands suspiciously behind the counter of his bar.  The well-written scene is lovely.  Dominic Fumasa, as Kevin, was reduced to steely silence and frustrated reactions to his ex-wife’s antics this season, but he’s a terrific, empathetic actor.  Kevin’s willingness to forgive Jackie and their new-found, unfortunately necessary bond over their daughter Grace’s deterioration is convincing and frank, and gives the narrative some nuance and emotional weight.

Merritt Wever, terrific as Zoey on NURSE JACKIE

Merritt Wever, terrific as Zoey on NURSE JACKIE

Hopefully, when the show returns for its sixth season, the happily Emmy Award-winning Merritt Wever will get even more airtime as Zoey, the green but maturing nurse who Jackie mentors and comes to befriend.  Although Zoey can’t quite take O’Hara’s place, their more sisterly or mother-daughterly relationship has the potential to shift the emphasis back to intimate relationships between working women that gave the show its feminist bona fides.

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OITNB, posterThe Netflix series Orange is the New Black polarized viewers who debated its representations of women of color in a story (adapted from a memoir by Piper Kerman) about an upper-middle class white woman who goes to prison for drug-running for her then-lesbian lover, ten years after the fact.  As Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) shows up at prison to serve her term, she’s about to be married to her boyfriend (a sad-sack New York Jewish boy played by Jason Biggs).  As narrative coincidence would have it, her former girlfriend, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), is serving her term in the same facility and after a bit of trial and error, they resume their old relationship.  Their central story is surrounded by those of the other female inmates, many of whom are African American or Latina, and who keep to racially self-segregated groups.

Piper starts out as unlikable, privileged, and presumptuous, but she comes to see how much she shares with her fellow inmates, who find cautiously common cause even as they preserve their separate spaces, histories, and experiences.  The initial focus on Piper shifts as the other women inmates accumulate back-stories that explain how they arrived in prison, which typically involve economic constraints and social options delimited by their race, ethnicity, and/or class.  The male prison guards, played mostly for laughs, demonstrate degrees of oppressiveness, from the extreme of Pablo Schreiber’s “Pornstache” Mendez to Michael Harney’s bumbling chief, Sam Heaney, to Matt McGorry’s naïve newbie, John Bennett.

The cast

The cast

The excellent cast is a pleasure to watch, and make the most of often too-short scenes.  Danielle Brooks is particularly good as Tasha “Tasty” Jefferson, who is released and returns to prison shortly after, unable to “make it” in the “real world” for reasons the episode depicts frankly. Dascha Polanco is excellent as Dayanara Diaz, who becomes pregnant by the earnest new guard.  Trans actor Laverne Cox is quietly sensitive as the trans inmate, Sophia, who worries that she won’t be able to continue her hormone therapy while she’s serving her time.  Annie Golden is sweet as the mute Norma, who breaks her silence with a haunting Christmas song in the season finale.  Michelle Hurst is uncompromising as the stern Miss Claudette, who has been imprisoned for a righteous revenge killing and sets the rules in the African American women’s population to which Piper is assigned.  Kate Mulgrew is sharp and sardonic as “Red,” the Russian tyrant who runs the kitchen.  And Natasha Lyonne is great as Nicky, the lesbian whose wry observations and laid-back demeanor provide a counterpoint to the mayhem that ensues around her.

Taryn Manning as Pennsatucky

Taryn Manning as Pennsatucky

The first season ended with a melodramatic showdown between Piper and her nemesis, Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning), a working-class white woman whose zealotry is engineered by a rabid organization of the religious right.  I’ll be curious to see where show-runner Jenji Kohan (Weeds) takes season two.  With so many juicy roles for women (white and of color), and with such a diversity of race, class, gender, religious, sexuality, and ethnic issues entangling in the hot-house prison atmosphere delivered with dramedy shadings, I admit that I find Orange irresistible.

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Olivia Colman in BROADCHURCH

Olivia Colman in BROADCHURCH

This year (well, as of today, last year), I also enjoyed Broadchurch on BBC America, the British mystery about a young boy’s murder in another remote, seaside town in the UK.  Although David Tennant headlines the show as a detective who comes from the outside to work the case, Olivia Colman stole it out from under him as his locally-based partner.  Her effort to be empathetic but ethical as her fellow townspeople behaved badly was marvelous to watch, in a restrained, nuanced performance that inevitably shifted focus her way.

I’m still watching the first season of The Returned, a French series on the Sundance Channel about a group of formerly dead people who mysteriously return to their lives in yet another small, remote town.  The performances here, too, are understated and compelling, as survivors’ loved ones suddenly reappear and they have to corral their astonishment and figure out how to reconcile their present happiness with their former grief.  That “the returned” come back as less than benign presences keeps the plot suspenseful, though the show’s “horror” is mostly unseen.  The series creates an uneasy, moody atmosphere.

Alicia (Margulies) and Cary celebrate in THE GOOD WIFE

Alicia (Margulies) and Cary celebrate in THE GOOD WIFE

I’ve also continued to enjoy The Good Wife, with this season’s surprising machinations and Julianna Margulies’ persistently excellent performances and, of course, Scandal, with plot turns that never fail to shock and delight, all grounded by Kerry Washington’s terrific, Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated performance as Olivia Pope, fixer.  The turn to melodrama on network television series isn’t news (see also the wonderful Connie Britton and Hayden Panetierre in Nashville), but Scandal and The Good Wife did exceptionally good jobs this season of twisting and turning plot points in unexpected and refreshing directions.

Kerry Washington stars as Olivia Pope on SCANDAL

Kerry Washington stars as Olivia Pope on SCANDAL

Scandal is one of the few shows I want to watch when it airs, instead of on demand or on DVR, mostly because I don’t want Facebook and Twitter feeds to spoil the plot surprises.  The scene toward the season’s end between Joe Morton as Olivia’s evil (or is he?) father, Rowan, and Tony Goldwyn as President Fitz Grant, her boyfriend, offered terrific writing and acting, as Rowan called Fitz “boy” up and down and slurred his authority and his relationship with Olivia.  That scene alone demonstrated the tours de force of which show-runner Shonda Rhimes is capable.  As the ABC teaser goes, this is “OMG TV.”

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Getting On, PosterI was also happy to catch the first short season of Getting On, the new HBO series starring Laurie Metcalf as Jenna James, a doctor with aspirations working below what she thinks is her pay grade at a geriatric women’s hospital.  Metcalf masters the art of smiling with only her teeth, lifting her lips in perfunctory grimaces meant to impersonate warmth, and then dropping them abruptly without really caring if she’s convinced anyone.  Like the female leads in Veep (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) and the tragically cancelled Enlightened (Laura Dern), Metcalf’s Dr. James is far from a heroine.  She’s flawed and often unlikable, especially when she’s obtuse about the straitened financial circumstances of her nursing staff.  But Getting On also clarifies that as a middle-aged, only moderately successful but still ambitious woman doctor, James has to work five times harder than white male peers.  Her effort to be taken seriously for her research on geriatric stool discharge is hilarious but also poignant, as her colleagues laugh her off thoughtlessly.

Borstein and Nash as Dawn and Didi, on the job

Borstein and Nash as Dawn and Didi, on the job

Alex Borstein and Niecy Nash are pitch-perfect as nursing colleagues caught in the twilight zone of a hospital that wants to treat its patients like customers on a cruise, while at the same time addressing difficult-to-manage conditions like dementia, incontinence, end-of-life, and the sexual appetites of the elderly.  Borstein is terrific as the sexually voracious, misguidedly romantic head nurse, Dawn, and Nash is all sarcasm and surprising empathy as Nurse Didi, her more sober, stable counterpart.  Mel Rodriguez is hysterical as Patsy De La Serda, the closeted gay male nursing supervisor who leads Dawn on and always wears his Bluetooth earpiece (though he rarely talks on his cell phone).

Laurie Metcalf as Jenna James in GETTING ON

Laurie Metcalf as Jenna James in GETTING ON

Getting On satirizes a medical system in which for the most part well-meant nurses are guided by preoccupied, self-centered doctors, all at the expense of patients warehoused as they die.  Class, race, ethnicity, and gender biases are lampooned with subtle but pointed humor and adept physical comedy.  Metcalf, Borstein, and Nash exemplify the talent and potential of middle-aged women assigned complicated characters whose motives and methods are always surprising.  The writing somehow manages to be razor-sharp and funny but at the same time compassionate and conscious of the complexities of aging, gender, sexuality, race, and class.  I look forward to seeing how the series develops.

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I also read some good fiction this year, including A.M. Homes’ award-winning May We Be Forgiven, which I found a lovely, funny, bittersweet story of one dissolute middle-aged man’s redemption; Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which draws so well and poignantly the long-term relationships of a group of friends that begins at summer camp when they’re kids and extends into their fifties; and part of Veronica Roth’s young adult Divergent trilogy, still another consideration of a dystopian, fascist future in which a young woman with ethically staunch special powers saves the day.  I’ve finished Divergent and am halfway through Insurgent.  I admit to being entranced by these stories and glad for their “girl power,” though this one feel a bit too centered in its heterosexual love story, unlike The Hunger Games trilogy, in which the romances seemed a less important byproduct of the narrative.  Still, Roth’s plotting is fast and compelling, and it’s fun to read about a slight sixteen-year-old girl triumphing over evil.

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Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in CATCHING FIRE

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in CATCHING FIRE

Speaking of The Hunger Games, I was disappointed by Catching Fire, the second film installment, in which I thought the only things catching fire were the costumes.  The new director, Francis Lawrence, shoots Catching Fire in dark blues and greys, an oppressive visual scheme unalleviated even when the tributes are sent back into the arena for their next gladiatorial combat.  Jennifer Lawrence’s gifts as an actor were on display elsewhere this year (especially in David O. Russell’s American Hustle, in which her determined Jersey housewife was a model of corrupt righteousness and grit).  In Catching Fire, Lawrence is given criminally little to do but react to the special effects happening around her, or to look alarmed or dismayed at the displays of state fascism Katniss’s growing popularity seems to inspire in the oppressed districts of Panem.  This film sets up the growing revolt against President Snow and the capitol, as Katniss and Peeta’s victory tours across the country are met with citizens who raise their arms in a three-fingered revolutionary salute to their heroine and are quickly dispatched by the misnamed Peacekeepers.  But little of import happens and very little emotion flickers across any of the actors’ faces.

Jena Malone, as reported by critics elsewhere, makes a strong showing as Johanna, one of the tributes who is surreptitiously working for Katniss and Peeta in the arena.  And New York stage mainstay Lynn Cohen is lovely as Mags, the elderly tribute who’s carried around the arena by Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) until she commits suicide by fading away into the poison fog to allow the young ones to escape.  But the dialogue here is laughable, and the final line (“District Twelve doesn’t exist anymore” or some such ominously intoned proclamation) provoked peals of incredulous laughter in the audience with whom I watched the film.  I liked the first film, but this one doesn’t at all capture the story’s building excitement.  Such is the fate of trilogies adapted one-by-one for the screen, whose attenuated release dates and money-making machinations tend to leach out all the momentum gained by reading them on the page.  (That said, here’s a link to a smart NPR piece about how Peeta is Katniss’s “movie girlfriend,” which reads the film’s representation of gender roles in interesting ways.)

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(Spoiler alerts!)  In other bad pop culture news, after her second Emmy win in two years for Best Actress in a Drama, season three of Homeland consigned Claire Danes’ Carrie Matthews to being Saul’s pawn and to yearning for the missing-in-action Brody.  That Carrie went off her bipolar meds didn’t seem to affect her work at all, an unlikely scenario for a woman whose condition so profoundly influenced her actions in earlier seasons.  I found this season’s complicated plot difficult to follow and the stakes manufactured from events, rather than from character growth or considered story-telling.  Fine, Brody’s off the show; by the time he was hanging from that crane in Iran as Carrie shouted to him frantically over a fence, all I could think was good, let’s move on.  As episodes unraveled, the writers seemed to be visibly scratching their heads over what to do with Damien Lewis’s character.

Mandy Patinkin as Saul in HOMELAND

Mandy Patinkin as Saul in HOMELAND

More interesting to me this season was the increased role of Saul Berenson, played by Mandy Patinkin as a morose, ambivalent leader in a position he never asked for.  Seeing a Jewish man as a figure of authority, wearing his ethnicity so clearly, was fascinating.  And by pairing him with F. Murray Abraham as his nemesis and/or compatriot, Homeland did something I’ve never seen a TV series do, which is to take Jewish men seriously.  How often do we see Jewish men on television who aren’t schlemiels or comics or ethnic sidekicks?  Saul’s style is rabbinical, almost Tevye-like in his indecision, and utterly compelling to watch.  The odd couple combination of Patinkin and Danes was also compelling, he of the keening Jewish soul and she of the manic and then maudlin bipolar shiksa spirit.  I would rather have seen more screen time between Saul and Carrie than Carrie and Brody, which became the inevitable emphasis as the season devolved.

Berenson desperately clung to his position as interim head of the CIA, while Tracy Letts’s slimy Senator Andrew Lockhart conspired to replace him.  Saul’s gravitas and his doomed determination in the face of threats from Letts’ very WASP-y, Machiavellian superior read as a certain kind of ethical Jewish intellectualism, and the discrimination against him felt somehow racial.  His complicated, bittersweet but grounded relationship with his South Asian wife, Mira (so thoughtfully played by Sarita Choudhury), rounded out the personal and the professional for Saul, and also somehow kept him othered.  F. Murray Abraham played a wily, ethnically marked if less determinate, character called Dar Adal, Saul’s colleague (or his boss?  hard to tell) at the CIA.  Watching Abraham and Patinkin perform their ethnicity and debating how its meaning shaded their characters and resonated through the series kept me tuned in to an otherwise disappointing season.

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I look forward to engaging with you about all matters theatre, film, television, novels, and popular culture in 2014.  My warmest wishes for the new year.

The Feminist Spectator

 

 

One Response to The Feminist Spectator’s Year End Round-up

  1. Great stuff. Practically a guide to what I *should* be watching now. I waited quite a while to read the flurry of feminist takes on “Orange” before making it the series for my Monday night potlucks. We loved it and look forward to the next season too. But I’ll suggest Getting On to folks too. (Did already by sharing this post on Facebook with my potluck crew there.) thanks for doing the hard work for us all!

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