Monday, March 14, 2011

The Monster Promise Keepers of Syfy’s Being Human

syfy-being-human-josh-deer The executive producer of Syfy’s Being Human, the US remake of a UK series now in its third season, explained to TV Guide that he wanted to maintain the dark and morally ambiguous tone of the original, but there’s nothing ambiguous about the morality of the show.  What Jeremy Carver probably means is that his characters wrestle with temptations and occasionally falter, but there’s never much deliberation about what's the right thing to do or about who the bad guys are.  The moral universe of Being Human is clear: “Nature” is evil and “being human” means resisting it.

Being Human is only the latest to tap into the expanding popularity of vampires and the like.  As evidence by Twilight, True Blood, and Vampire Diaries, monsters are currently in season.  Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, in his introduction to Monster Theory (1996), the anthology that gave birth to that particular niche of cultural studies, argues that one could learn a lot about a culture by looking at the monsters it envisions.  Monsters embody a culture’s hidden fears and secret desires, it’s prohibitions and exclusions.  Monsters enforce traditions, scare children straight, and articulate differences between the self and the other.  So what does Being Human say about us?

The series begins when coworkers at a Boston hospital who happen to be a vampire and a werewolf decide to become roommates.  Aiden the vampire has been trying to stay on the straight and narrow path—not feeding on living human beings—but he falls off the wagon in the first episode and kills a nurse in the heat of passion.  Josh, meanwhile, has reacted to his werewolf transformation by living in a self-imposed, punishing social exile from the friends and family of his former life, but even so he’s terrified once a month of what he might do and whom he might hurt.  Taking a cue from the promise-keepers manual, Aiden the chaste and Josh the hermit decide a brother might help them keep their promises.

being-human-syfy-tv-show The monster mash is complete when the pair discover a ghost, Sally, haunting their quaint brownstone.  Sally was engaged to the landlord, Danny, who makes a friendly first impression but pushed Sally down the stairs in a fit of jealous rage and feels little remorse for killing her.  The moral choice shaping up for Sally is whether she should turn the other cheek and move on or become a vengeful poltergeist and make him sorry.

So each monster is tempted by some “natural” urge one’s humanity should resist: 

Vampire nature is predatory and power hungry.  Aiden must contend not only with his blood-thirst but also with his vampire friends, who have installed themselves in positions of authority (priests, police) and continually pressure him to do the same.  Werewolf nature is hyper-masculine and aggressive.  One of Josh’s plots included meeting his “maker,” who exhorts him to embrace “the Wolf,” which primarily involves hitting on women and starting fights with vampires.  Ghost nature is defined by the past.  They exist because they can’t let something go. 

These characterizations add up to how the show constructs the culturally-specific “nature” out of which humanity emerges as its negation. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

5 Reasons Why You Should Be Watching Fringe (If You Aren’t Already)

To help you discern whether you should really invest time in a television series, it’s good to ask if you would recommend it to someone.  Ask yourself: are you watching this show merely out of habit, because you watched it last week and the week before, because some past version of you once took a chance on it and you’ve just been taking it for granted ever since that he made the right choice?  Or would you still, after declaring all obligations to past decisions null and void, bravely commit yourself anew?

Tonight’s episode of Fringe is titled “Os.”  I will be watching it, and you should too. Here’s TV Guide’s description:

The team investigates a gang of thieves who can defy gravity; Walter assesses the harm he’s caused to the fabric of the universe. (Drama), (V=Intense Violence, L=Strong Coarse Language).

“Wow!  Say no more!  I’m already way interested!” is what you’re probably thinking.  But as if that brief summary weren’t already enough to convince you, I’m going to identify 5 more reason why you should be watching Fringe


fringe.span But first a selective overview: “The team” is the FBI’s Fringe Science division, composed primarily of Agent Olivia Dunham, her assistant Astrid, and consultants Walter and Peter Bishop, father and son (sort of).  The Fringe division investigates strange phenomena, often employing strange techniques and equipment themselves in the process.

Similarities and Differences to X-files

The similarities to X-files are already apparent, but that’s roughly as far as they go.  The skepticism and faith set in romantic tension that defined Scully and Mulder’s relationship is wholly absent from Fringe.  From the first episode, Olivia demonstrates her openness to the unusual when, with the urgency of Jack Bauer, she accepts Walter’s administration of hallucinogenic drugs and enters a sensory deprivation tank in order to directly access the mind of a man in a coma.  Instead of skepticism and faith, the duality that Olivia and Peter set in romantic tension is, at least in the beginning, that of action and inaction.  (Although one further similarity to X-files, is that, like Mulder and Scully, Peter and Olivia are both pathological about the ways they represent their respective approaches, because they’re symptomatic of repressed childhood traumas.)

Also missing is the general atmosphere of horror and dread characteristic of X-files.  Much more of Fringe is filmed in the light of day.  It’s monsters appear mostly as men.

One last difference worth mentioning is that although both X-files and Fringe employ a two-part plot structure in which almost every episode advances not only the stand-alone plot (whatever strange occurrence they happen to investigate that week) but also the continuation plot (the series arc), Fringe’s series arc tends to dominate much of the time.  The reverse was true of X-files; individual episodes of X-files work much better as stand-alones, but Fringe episodes discourage missing episodes or out-of-order viewing.

Two Universes

So here are the major spoilers: the continuation plot begins, in a way, back in the early 80s, when Walter Bishop invents a window (and later a door) to a parallel universe that is different in mostly subtle ways; for example, Walter’s doppelganger (whom Walter names “Walternate”), instead of challenging reality’s boundaries, focused his equally brilliant energies on reinforcing and protecting order and stability, entering politics. 

Both Walters’ sons contract the same rare, genetic illness, and both fathers work towards a cure, but “our” Walter’s son dies before it can be stabilized.  Watching through his dimensional window, Walter observes his double overlook a lab result that would lead him to the cure and can’t bear to watch the other Peter die while he has the power to save him, so he resolves to cross between universes, administer the cure, and return.  But events don’t transpire according to plan, and Walter ends up abducting the other Peter, ostensibly to cure him over here.

fringe_tv_show_image_joshua_jackson__3_ Several consequences are the result of this kidnapping, Walter’s original sin.  Notably, 1) the physics of the other universe are destabilized by the penetration.  For example, a giant, bottomless vortex appears in the East River, symbolic of the emotional void opened up in Walternate by his son’s abduction.  2) Our Walter, having determined the doorway technology to be too unstable to use again, endeavors to find another way to return the Peter who is not his son.  His new method involves conducting radically experimental drug trials on young children in the hopes of turning them into a kind of passageway or key between the worlds, and as it turns out, his most promising subject is the young Olive Dunham.

Note, however, that these early childhood memories (of Peter being from another universe and of Olivia being subjected to abusive chemical and psychological experiments) are deeply repressed at the beginning of the series, so that the overall plot trajectory could, in some sense, be thought of as the gradual psychoanalytical process whereby these memories are unearthed and explored.


1. It’s dark.

For all the sci-fi whimsy of the parallel universes, drug trips, mind-reading, etc, this series is no Warehouse 13.  Psychological trauma is at the scarred heart of it.  Walter is a Victor Frankenstein; his science is fundamentally transgressive.  But his materials aren’t (limited to) corpses.  They also include the fragile minds of children.  And the series cruelly manipulates its viewer into sympathizing with him, ironically, as we would sympathize with any protective, distraught father.

2. Olivia Dunham is awesome.

She’s no Super Wizard, of course; she has very human limitations, but she’s relentless and (usually) fearless on the case, which makes her great to cheer on.  Her past has also made her intense and complicated, and she drinks bourbon, unlike her more well-adjusted doppelganger.

3. Intelligent characters. 

Fringe is a JJ Abrams production, just like Lost, but it seemed to me that there were so many times during Lost that “drama” was the result of unnecessary, irrational miscommunications.  Like so much interpersonal “tension” could be avoided if the characters collected their thoughts and explained themselves in the least hyperbolic, most honest ways.  Not so with Peter and Olivia.  Both characters, if anything, are hyperrational.  They clearly have emotions, but they explain their emotions, and the suffering that sometimes results from one revelation or another is never of the “unforced error” kind, but rather of the “so this is the truth, in the most honest way I’m capable of saying it” kind.

4. Cool cameos.

Leonard Nimoy as Walter’s partner-in-crime, Dr. William Bell.  Kevin Corrigan (Grounded for Life, Kicked in the Head, Buffalo 66, one HILARIOUS episode of “Community”) as a mysterious guide-figure/bowling alley attendant who is much older (like centuries?) than he looks, and now Joan Chen (Josie Packer from Twin Peaks) as Walternate’s advisor/woman on the side.  TWIN PEAKS BONUS: In one episode, Walter is seen wearing green and orange glasses; he explains that an old friend of his from Washington state, Dr. Jacoby, invented them!

5. Thoughtful exploration of the theme of estrangement.

I’ve written about estrangement on this blog before in a couple different ways, but what I mean is the experience of alienation—perhaps what Becket calls “defamiliarization”—the traversal of otherness and the rupturing of the usual or the comfortable.  Fringe explores this experience in any number of ways, through an alternate universe that is similar to ours but different, through one character who makes his home in a universe in which he is a stranger, through another character who returns after a period of crisis to discover a stranger had lived her life in her absence, a stranger who looked like her, who wore her clothes, who even loved her beloved, and yet wasn’t her, who is therefore led to ask: if she isn’t those things, then what exactly is she?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

I’m CT, and I’m a TV-aholic

testPattern Step 1: Admit you have a problem.  The average American watches about 20 hours of television each week*, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data.  I watch more than this.  A lot more.  The overarching theme of this blog is about breaking my bad habits, so it’s time I confront this elephant in the room and ‘fess up in the hopes of significantly reducing how much TV I watch. 

Why should you read this post?  You probably shouldn’t, but there are two possible reasons: 1) to rationalize your own excessive television-watching, which won’t seem so bad in comparison, or 2) schadenfreude.

The basic procedure:

  1. Get a clear picture of the size of the problem and identify its parts.
  2. Systematically evaluate the types of television I watch and the reasons why I watch specific shows.
  3. Resolve to adopt measurable changes.

Current Schedule.  My television habit falls into three broad categories. 

  1. The TV I watch deliberately and routinely. (~16 hours a week)
  2. The TV I watch “when there’s nothing on,” like cable news, Lifetime movies, Jeopardy, Daily Show, etc. (???? >20 hours?  The TV is on pretty much all the time, so it doesn’t get full attention or anything but it’s always there when I am.)
  3. Movies. (~8 hours? )

The necessity of one broad goal is already apparent: Be more deliberate about what I watch and cut out the incidental viewing (category #2).  Just eliminate that and I’m already close to the average!  And movies I’m going to deal with in another post maybe, but I might make a rule that if I watch a movie, I have to make a blog post about it, to justify the time spent.

But what follows is the specific in-season (so not counting Mad Men or Big Brother, I’ll deal with them when they return) that I routinely and deliberately watch:







The Simpsons

Matt Groening’s once-revolutionary animated comedy has seen better days, and I rarely get a laugh out of it, much less a new thought.  I shouldn’t look forward to this except that it’s on when I’m likely to be eating and we watch TV during dinner in the household.  Hmm.  Maybe that’s something that needs adjustment.



Family Guy

I guess I still find this funny, but it’s definitely on the bubble.


A tentative Yes.



Chuck used to be about two things: the balance between Chuck’s amateur bumbling and the dangerous situations he found himself in, and the romantic tension between him and Sarah.  Even then it wasn’t great but now I find it pretty intolerable.  I started watching this because I was bored.  I liked when Scott Bakula was Chuck’s dad, but I should be embarrassed to watch it.


Definitely not.

How I Met Your Mother

Hard to believe this CBS sitcom is already in its 6th season.  There are a bunch of early episodes I still never saw, but that’s ok because I don’t think Robin’s character ever started working until she was clearly being placed in the “Not Your Mother” category.  Barney (NPH) is a great character.  I laugh good laughs frequently during this show, but I think each character is running out (if not already run out) of ways to develop, and I’d like the writers to start moving towards closure.


OK for now.

The Event

Crap.  This sci-fi, conspiracy drama just returned and I think I’m done with it.  The Event tried to capitalize on the popularity of Lost by imitating its structuring ambiguity as well as the popularity of 24 with political back rooms and terrorist threats.  But it lacks the strong characters of Lost and there’s nothing similar to the guilty pleasure we get out of watching righteous Jack Bauer punish the wicked of 24’s simplistic moral universe.



Being Human

Based on a UK series, Being Human is premised on a vampire and a werewolf moving into a Boston house that’s already inhabited by a ghost.  They want to live normally, but they have issues.  Given my interest in the ways we represent humanity, I’m bound to give this show a fair amount of leeway.  I like the characters, I guess.  I wish it were cleverer though.


Tentative Yes.

Hawaii Five-O

Awful.  I began watching this out of respect for the original, but Alex O’Laughlin is no McGarrett.  Like McGarrett, his people respect him and he makes every case personal, but there’s something missing: Lord’s sense of propriety? His Hamlet-like graveness?  Only one character on TV today possesses the missing je ne sais quoi, and that is Horatio from CSI: Miami.  Also, Scott Caan as Danno is intolerably one-dimensional.  And he’s playing Danno, so that’s really saying something.





Ah, this alien invasion remake I’m a little torn on.  It’s better than The Event, for sure, and stars Morena Baccarin from Firefly and Elisabeth Mitchell from Lost, but it’s like the writer’s have no plan.  The show is thematically incoherent.  Is it about human souls? Emotions? Is it about media and propaganda?  Is it about justice and revenge? 


Yes, for now.


American Idol

Although I’ve really been enjoying this season: there’s a lot of talent on the stage and Steven Tyler and J-Lo are fantastic replacements for Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul, I could easily stop watching this show if it weren’t that it’s a household show.  I would never watch it by myself, but I have fun watching it with others.  I really wish it were just an hour, and not three hours spread over two days each week.




Survivor is like Big Brother, but where as Big Brother is primarily mentally punishing and paranoid, Survivor is much more physically punishing.  Also, the set is frequently breath-taking. 



Modern Family

A great ensemble sitcom that always promises lots of laughs.  I’m hard-pressed to identify any weak players.  Maybe the Dunphy kids.




American Idol

See above.



Big Bang Theory

Now that Two and a Half Men is finished, this will be my only source of Chuck Lorre jokes, but maybe I should outgrow them.  I don’t care about the characters and can’t count on belly laughs, so this one is nixed.




The funniest show on TV right now, I’d say.  They’ve really taken off with the second season (similar to Parks and Rec) with more and more outrageous plots.  I’m glad that television has a place for Chevy Chase.



The Office

I’m ready for this to be over, ever since Pam and Jim got married.  Steve Carell has signaled that he’s leaving, so hopefully the show will end with him.  Still reliably funny, though.  I’m seeing this series through to the end.



Parks and Recreation

Another great ensemble sitcom operating on all cylinders. 



30 Rock

I guess Alec Baldwin is who makes this show for me, but now that I think of it, 30 Rock is probably on the downslope along with The Office.  Those two shows were the original anchors of NBC’s comedy line-up, and one of the main reasons why Thursday’s are/were “TV Night” for me (despite every night being TV Night).  But I’m not so committed to this show that they won’t be due for a reevaluation at the end of the season.



The Mentalist

Hmm.  This investigative procedural has a gimmick like they all do.  Simon Baker’s Patrick Jane isn’t a crime novelist (Castle), a math genius (Numbers), a psychic (Medium), or a pretend psychic (Psych).  He used to be a pretend psychic, but then his wife and daughter were murdered by a serial killer, Red John, and now he’s one of the most cynical, nihilistic, vengeful, calculating characters in all of TV.  On the other hand, Robin Tunney is awful, and the rest of the CBI team are pretty non-essential as well, with the exception of the internal affairs investigator LaRoche, who operates as a foil to Jane, calculating, intelligent, and solitary.  Eventually he and Jane will be teaming up against Red John, and I can’t wait.





Probably my favorite show of all.  I avoided this show until its 3rd season based on my initial reaction to the first 30 minutes of the pilot episode.  I hated Dawson’s Creek and I hated Pacey, so I took it out on Joshua Jackson, who plays Peter Bishop in this X-files-y, family drama, parallel universe sci-fi series.  Like those other show I loved and then were cancelled, Dollhouse and Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, FOX has moved Fringe to the Friday night slot, where it’s already low ratings will continue to drop.  The world is not long for Fringe, unfortunately.



Well, that was exhausting, but I’ve whittled down 15.5 hours down to 11.5 (provided I muster the force of Will to carry out my plan).  For several of the shows which I’ve decided to keep watching, I’m going to force myself to justify those decisions even more deliberately by writing blog posts about several of them.

Bureau of Labor Statistics: This number is skewed a little by the unemployed and old people, who watch more TV than anyone else.  Here are some more specific details I found interesting:

Hours of TV

Weekdays Weekends


2.80 3.81


2.43 2.87

25-34 year olds

2.06 3.16

Employed F/T

1.85 2.98