Big Little Lies: An Unexpected Meditation on Violence

April 13, 2017

Dear Reader,

Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto asserts “If by declaring myself a feminist I must reassure you I am not angry, I pose no threat, than feminism is definitely not for me. I am angry. And I do pose a threat.”

The heavily hyped and yet somehow undersold HBO miniseries Big Little Lies begins with a murder. From there we go back to the beginning, when young and relatively poor mother Jane (Shailene Woodley) is introduced as the newcomer to an affluent California beach community and its reigning women: Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), and Renata (Laura Dern). Each woman is the mother of at least one first grader all attending the local (and undoubtedly excellent) school. Madeline is trying to get a production of Avenue Q past the small town censors, Celeste and her husband are just having so much sex, Bonnie is the new sexy yoga instructor in town (and married to Madeline’s ex), and Renata is a very entitled helicopter mom who is convinced that Jane’s son bit her daughter. But there it is again- that splash of violence. It’s at this moment we have to ask ourselves a question: what is the murder doing in here? The presence of the murder is where the genius of Big Little Lies hides. For the first few episodes it can seem jarring to be ostensibly watching a cozy beach read that is interspersed with little pockets of violence reminding you that someone is going to get murdered. Jane’s son Ziggy denies that he bit Renata’s daughter Amabella, leading to a good old fashioned class showdown. You think you are watching an episode about Madeline stirring up trouble to punish her old rival Renata, luring the kids away from Amabella’s birthday party by promising them tickets to Frozen on Ice instead. But someone is actually abusing this six year old and she has the bruises to prove it. We quickly learn that Jane was violently raped and Ziggy is her son from that encounter. Jane has a gun under her pillow and every time Ziggy startles her awake because of a bad dream there’s a moment where she conflates the child and his father.

And so it goes with each woman. There’s an atmosphere laid atop the soapy catfighting and female bonding. It’s like a storm is gathering and heat lightning keeps flashing in the corner of our eye. Celeste’s husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) is indeed a dish and they are indeed having a lot of sex. Every encounter hovers in the liminal space between consensual and rape, catching the audience right as they’re enjoying the scene and dealing them a swift punch in the gut. Perry beats the shit out of Celeste on a regular basis. She goes through the whole gamut of grief trying to find a way to make that situation acceptable.

As a viewer you come to see how constant the threat of violence is in these women’s lives, even as you see how unspoken that threat is. Jean-Marc Vallée, the director, highlights the undercurrent of male on female violence incredibly well. Jane’s rape is presented to us over and over. She imagines herself running after her rapist on the beach, cocktail dress torn, often with a gun in her hand but unable to catch him and unable to remember his face. This first violent act is mirrored in the accusations her son faces and then magnified in the increasingly unbearable scenes between Celeste and Perry. Throughout the series even smaller acts of violence are held accountable for their ubiquity. When one character’s ex lover pulls away from her violently during an argument I visibly flinched. Vallée does not let his characters get away with calling violence “passion,” instead indicting them for behavior that is unacceptable.

By the last episode, the audience must have been begging for the storm to fully break and provide them with relief. A murder seemed inevitable. But just like in S-Town, the murder was the tease but not the point. In fact, I imagine you can guess at each mystery before you start that last episode and if you’ve been paying attention you probably won’t be wrong. The point, it turns out, is that these women are not going to reassure you that they pose no threat. These women live with an undercurrent of male violence running through their lives and we are here to watch them deem that unacceptable. Six year-old Amabella experiences it. Bonnie’s young daughter screams in anguish when she sees it. It’s there when Madeline’s husband Ed complains they don’t have good sex like Celeste and Perry. It’s there when Renata and her husband have loud sex in his office and from the outside, you can’t really tell if they’re screwing or fighting. In the end, Big Little Lies is a meditation on female friendship as a bulwark against unacknowledged violence. And it’s a damn good one.

The Mavelous Mrs. Maisel

April 6, 2017

Dear Reader,

The Mavelous Mrs. Maisel pilot brings together the following: late 50s fashion, Rachel Brosnahan (not her identical twin Evan Rachel Wood), the creators of Gilmore Girls, and Amazon’s checkbook. The result is a fast-talking delight. Amazon has pioneered the concept of making some pilots available before they have been greenlighted for a full season, then allowing their viewers to fill out a survey indicating whether they’d invest in a whole season of the same. This year there are five candidates and Mrs. Maisel is almost certainly going to make it through the final eliminations, so don’t worry about wasting an hour or so on a show you will never see the rest of.

Midge Maisel is living her version of the perfect life: funny cute husband, two kids, pre-kid body, Upper West side apartment in the same building as her parents’, and the rabbi is even coming over for Yom Kippur. Her whole life appears to be a version of that feeling you get when you’re just on fire and couldn’t possibly trip or drop anything or say the wrong thing to anyone. Her children are so well-managed there’s barely any evidence they exist and her cooking is scrumptious enough to melt the hardest of hearts. Basically, Midge has it all figured out.

Her husband Joel (Michael Zegen) is an amateur stand-up comic by night and Midge has thrown herself into promoting his hobby, trading her cooking for better time slots and recording each laugh in a pink notebook. The level of control she maintains over her universe could put some viewers off (she measures her baby’s forehead frequently to see if it’s abnormally large), but Rachel Brosnahan and the writers invoke the magical efficiency of Donna Reed without allowing Midge to seem trapped in a gender stereotype. There’s something of “Lorelai on five cups of coffee” about Midge and even a little bit of the better parts of Emily Gilmore in the portrayal. Midge could plan any party to perfection but there’s little evidence that’s the only thing her world expects of her.

The plot moves forward through an expected route and Midge soon realizes that it’s not her husband who’s funny: it’s her. As soon as she does, I expect everyone will feel themselves loosen up and smile, as the one thing the pilot suffers from is the consciousness that Midge is hiding her light under a bushel without even knowing it. You spend the episode wanting to see what this broad can do because damn, has she got potential.

The show creators make what I will assert is a near-perfect pilot (Westworld‘s pilot is last year’s reigning champ), hitting all the notes a solid pilot should. All our main characters make a memorable appearance (Joel’s secretary Penny Pam takes the award for most done with the shortest screen time) and we are given a hint of the shape of things to come through Alex Borstein’s Susie and Luke Kirby’s Lenny Bruce (yes, that Lenny Bruce). For any fans of mid-century Jewish comedians, this is already obviously for you. For any devoted fans of Gilmore Girls, this is also already obviously for you. For whoever is left out of that Venn diagram, there’s plenty to entice you in: Tony Shaloub as Midge’s reticent father, bad Abraham Lincoln jokes, dreamy portrayals of The Village in 1958, Allen Ginsberg references, and did I mention the late 50’s fashion?


April 3, 2017

Dear Reader,

The Atlantic has called S-Town “A well-crafted monument to empathy” and I suspect no other review will express that sentiment quite so well. The new podcast series is startling lovely, an Alabama fairy tale crossed with a sad country song crossed with a season of Rectify. Like with that show, the promise of a murder mystery is what will draw the audience in, then will quickly becomes the least important thing about it. This podcast is the story of a man named John B. McLemore and a reporter named Brian Reed’s attempt to understand John’s strange and extraordinary life. John is an antique clock restorer, climate change-obsessed fanatic, doomsday soothsayer, and genius horticulturalist. He is a lonely and singular human who contacted a reporter at This American Life because he believed that a murder was going unpunished in his small Alabama town. That is where the story begins, but there are no straight lines here, and few answers.

The first season of Serial really is an excellent murder mystery and anything with the Serial name attached to it (including the second season of Serial) is going to stir up some expectations. S-Town is protean, though, and what starts as a true-crime teaser quickly morphs into a story with as many possible courses as John’s maze, some of which lead nowhere at all.

John gives Brian three short stories to read the first time they meet in person: William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” and something by Shirley Jackson. Later, we learn that John was also obsessed with Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain.” There’s a quality these stories share, a healthy does of small-town claustrophobia and homespun folktale that further uncouples the two layers of John’s story. First there are the fairytale elements to John’s life and to this story. John restores antique clocks and potters around like an alchemist, even turning a dime into gold at one point. He has built an intricate hedge maze on his 100+ acre property and his antique farmhouse is filled with odd treasures. There is, I kid you not, an element to this story that will even involve a literal hunt for buried gold treasure. With John B. McLemore, the realm of possibility stretches as far as the eye can see.

Then there is the earth-bound John B. McLemore. He is a small-town Alabaman with an accent to match, occasionally racist and sexist, and at one point he pees in a sink during a phone call. He also self-describes as “queer,” dedicates a significant portion of his time to educating himself about climate change, and is as liberal as any coastal elite you’ll encounter in a given day. Many have noted, and rightly so, that the seeming contradictions in John’s character have been brought sharply into focus by the election of Donald Trump and said coastal elite’s desire to understand the white male small town voter. Right there is where Brian Reed and his team could have made some serious errors. It would be easy to give us John the showman, the strange Alabaman horologist and horticulturalist, half magician half man. Or it would have been easy to give us John the outlier- perhaps predisposed by birth and company to vote Trump and deny climate change to the ending of the earth, yet somehow “enlightened.” Look at the strange thing we found in Alabama! Instead, we get the human man John B. McLemore. 

It helps that Brian Reed loves this man, loves his strangeness and his wit and his genius as well as his failings and his fears. He does not give us a caricature of John, or of any of the other characters that weave in and out of this story. He lets them tell their stories and he listens to them, so we listen to them too. Of course there is a discussion happening right now that should be happening right now concerning whether or not a podcast like this should have ever been made. It is unlikely we would kick up much of a fuss if Brian Reed had fictionalized John B. (although how one further fictionalizes a man like John is beyond me) and written a novel instead of creating a podcast. But this is the medium he chose to create his art in and that choice is a part of why it is so good. Our voyeurism is inescapable, as is the dissonance that results from talking about real people with the same avidity as we talk about the characters on Big Little Lies. John’s life is literature now, and I don’t know if he intended that, or if maybe this is why we often reach for the mediating shade of fictionalization.

At one point John says life is “tedious and brief,” but his story is neither. The episodes were released all at once- seven hours of audio that we are implicitly encouraged to binge. You should listen to them close together in order to fully immerse yourself in the gothic strangeness that is another person’s life. Doing it that way hurtles you forward through the maze-like story (this man’s life is metaphor) and drops you neatly in the same place we all ended at the end of Seasons one and two of Serial– at the uneasy understanding that human beings are the mysteries and answers are incomplete, if they come at all. But the journey through their stories is, unsurprisingly, the worthier part.

A Post – O.J. World

February 12, 2017

Dear Reader,

It’s unsettling to watch a period piece about the 1990s. Period pieces about the 1890s made up a decent majority of what I watched throughout high school, but my mid-twenties seem suddenly marked by more than just 9os boy band nostalgia. This whole year has been rife with 90s references that I am just a few years too young to understand. The history of Hilary, for instance, is something I have had to educate myself on. For me, Hilary is a Senator, then a candidate, then a Secretary of State. This is where she begins for me. When her campaign ads and her opponents talk about her time as First Lady and this scandal or that achievement, the references mostly don’t reach me. But there’s this scene in The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story where Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark walks into a courtroom ready to do battle against a wife-beating accused murderer. All anyone cares about is her haircut. In that moment, I think I understood more about Hilary Clinton than I ever have.The series is a study in all the Murphy/Falchuk team can do right. It examines the O.J. crime, trial, and acquittal in as much granular detail as a contemporary audience can tolerate. There are many characters but each are established and given proper motivation and focus; we see Robert Kardashian, for instance, take the daily journey from presumption of innocence to queasy certainty of guilt. In a fascinating reversal of this journey we see O.J. himself seem to walk that journey in reverse.I came to The People V. O.J. Simpson knowing very little about the story. A good deal of the intended audience must be those who watched the original trial and I was just a bit too young. The kind of national obsession it commanded is something I have experienced in various smaller and more tawdry ways: Casey Anthony, Anthony Wiener, the Kardashians. But watching this fictionalization of the O.J. phenomenon has shed light for me on all that has come after. I live in a world where I am frequently asked to care about Kim Kardashian without really understanding where that demand came from. But theres something about seeing those mini Kardashians giddily caught up in their father’s O.J.-adjacent fame. It brings it all into some sort of warped focus. And though I wish I could help bringing politics into everything, there is much about this that presages the election of the first reality TV president.A lot of The People V. O.J. Simpson is predicated on the idea that a good story is the most powerful way to reach someone. Both the prosecution and the defense understand this, though it’s the defense that makes it their whole mantra. In many ways the show functions as a new appeal to another jury, almost an act of wish fulfillment that if only all that raw footage could be placed in its proper context- could be made into a story, we might take more than four hours to deliberate. Much has been made of the casting, and a quick google shows how incredibly on point it really is. Sarah Paulson portrayed Marcia Clark in an incredibly humanizing way that drew everything from feminist rage to tears of incredible pity. The best fiction aspires to portray its characters as complex enough that we can believe they are fully human. Although there are villains here, there are somehow… no villains here. There are a collection of humans who are alternately buoyed by the better angels of their nature and drowned by the fatal weaknesses in their characters.



Can Pods Save America?

February 9, 2017

Dear Reader,

President Trump’s first post-election press conference drove me into the Grey Lady’s arms. I bought a Times subscription nearly the moment the words “fake news” leapt from his lips. I have come to know intimately the frisson of fear and curiosity each time a New York Times alert promises another update. A close friend of mine told me recently that he reads his Times Morning Briefing as soon as he wakes up, eager to know what could have happened in the last seven hours. I’ve become equally addicted to the quick-drip of information. It doesn’t feel like it’s possible to keep up, inspiring me to download a speed reading app and attempt to understand Twitter. I don’t think my friend and I are the only ones eager to keep ourselves abreast of everything in the world of politics; it is one vaguely healthy(?) response to current circumstances.

One reason I think I’m not alone in my coping strategy is the debut of several new podcasts all aimed at providing information and analysis on politics/current events. Here are the ones I have been finding most useful. Warning: Do not listen to all of these unless you are an insatiable politics nerd. Pick approximately two if you are a normal person.

Pod Save America: From those charming guys from Keepin’ It 1600, former speechwriters and aides to President Obama, comes a new hilarious and insightful podcast. Jon Lovett, Jon Favreau, and Tommy Vietor sit down and discuss the political aburdities of the week, pull in some fascinating and often very funny guests (Obama is a hoot), and bring some clarity to some complex issues. This podcast is for you if you’re looking to listen in on three informed guys chatting about the news of the week. For bonus Crooked Media, check out Pod Save the World, the foreign policy arm of this fabulous threesome.

The Week Unwrapped: This is from our “special relationship” partners across the water. Host Olly Mann brings together some smart and funny people (there seem to be so many in podcasting) and chats about the news of the week with one specific focus: news that has flown under the radar. The hosts each bring up a news story that they think will impact us all long term, but hasn’t been covered sufficiently. Some previous stories have included the debate in Britain over who should care for the elderly, if squatting is ever morally justified, and if life might have been better before the iPhone. This podcast is for you if you want to dip out of the main(lame?)stream media.

The Daily: This is a new podcast from Michael Barbaro of the New York Times. Five days a week for 20 minutes, The Daily gives a rundown of what stories are featured in the NYT. As someone who reads it as much as I can, but often has trouble reaching into some of its corners due to time constraints, listening to insightful snippets helps me get ready for the day.

Can He Do That? This is a new weekly podcast from the Washington Post that examines a specific controversial move from the Trump administration per episode and tries to answer the question “can Trump do that?” Each episode features a reporter from the Washington Post, sharing their particular depth of knowledge and experience. This podcast is great if you are looking for a bit of a civics primer. They do a great job of explaining the rudiments of government and examining what powers each branch actually possesses to accomplish their diverse campaign promises.

That’s probably enough to be getting on with. But I’ve got more, friends, so catch up soon on all of these so I can recommend some more loveliness to fill up your ears.