Recently the NYT hopped on the bandwagon of folks claiming television has transcended (Hollywood) film. About six months ago during dinner with a couple in their 60s, I said almost exactly that: “In the last decade or so, I think TV has surpassed film in terms of quality.” The matriarch picked up her wine glass, waved it slightly, and murmured, “Damning with faint praise.” That one stung – but it isn’t particularly surprising. Sometimes I forget that other people aren’t as invested in media, as in love with the art form, as I am. Likewise I sometimes forget that our parents’ version of TV was Kraft Mac & Cheese compared to our current gourmet buffet. The discerning epicure has plenty of delights from which to choose these days, as does the gent who really just wants his Velveeta (who in the bloody hell actually watches Two and a Half Men?!). The thing is, some (some, mind you) “junk food” TV is paving the way for a richer, more diverse future.
As a slight snob and consumer of all things buzzing, I watch the good stuff. I tune in and burn through House of Cards, Mad Men, Game of Thrones (farewell Joffrey, you deplorable, inbred psychopath. Sorry not sorry for spoilers), The Walking Dead, True Detective, Dexter, and Breaking Bad.
But on top of these things, I’m also paying attention to a bunch of shows I don’t usually admit publicly. I watch Scandal, Revenge, and Hannibal every week. I’m way behind on The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural, but I’m watching them. If you know much about me, you’ll see the tonal connection: they’re dark, soapy, and totally implausible, every one. In these alternate worlds, though, I can turn off my brain for 47 minutes and not contemplate life, the universe, and everything.
But you know me. Even in “off” mode, I’m thinking about the context, the casting, the creators. These shows, the ones that are “marginalized,” at the edges of popular culture, have immense room to play with gender, race, and sexuality; they have the freedom to subvert norms and mores. Revenge‘s Nolan Ross is virtually the only bisexual male on broadcast television, and you know what? Nobody cares, either out here in the real world or in the goofily decadent Revenge-verse. (Let’s not talk about House of Cards‘s Frank Underwood. We’ll leave that for later.) Scandal‘s team of Gladiators, led by Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), is richly comprised of women and men of color. (I thank Shonda Rhimes for this – it’s amazing what happens when you stick a woman of color in the director’s seat.)
Hannibal, which is playing topsy-turvy with the world created over decades by Thomas Harris and made famous by Anthony Hopkins, has taken an original cast of old white dudes (it is the FBI, after all) and transformed them. The new Jack Crawford is played by Laurence Fishburne (and Crawford’s wife by Fishburne’s real-life partner Gina Torres). Further, Dr. Alan Bloom became Alana Bloom, and the despicable Freddy Lounds is now Frederica Lounds. Dr. Beverly Katz was portrayed by a Korean woman. The original novel and film Silence of the Lambs were uncomfortable and immensely compelling in their portrayal of Clarice Starling’s struggle for respect in an organization populated almost entirely by men. With the absence of Starling in Red Dragon (around which Hannibal is loosely based), the creators have done an interesting service to the material by including PoC and women where there were none before.
Coincidentally, Netflix released a new trailer for its amazing Orange is the New Black today.
It’s gonna be so good.
As my mentors and favorite TV and fashion bloggers noted last year, “When the season is done, you will be astonished at the vast range of women you’ve been exposed to and if you reflect on it, will probably be a little depressed that such stories are so rare in our culture.” It’s duly notable that Jenji Kohan, a woman of color, is also behind OitNB, and put Scandal‘s Guillermo Díaz on the radar in Weeds. These stories are rare – and it’s shows that sit on the edges of pop culture that make success possible for Orange is the New Black. It’s the shows that slip under the radar, whose creators insist on diversity, that are able to stir the pot. They’re here to show us there are stories in dire need of telling, stories that aren’t solely about straight, wealthy, white people.