Craving Creativity

blown-awayLately I have found myself both gripped and soothed by a particular genre of television, and happily for me there turns out to be a lot of it–in fact, since I brought it up on Twitter I’ve learned of many more options, which means that even at my current rate of consumption I won’t run out for months. The shows I’ve been binge-watching (as much as I can binge-watch anything in this busy time of term!) are all examples of what you might call ‘gamified creativity’: shows in which dedicated amateur practitioners of some art or craft compete through a series of challenges in the hopes of being recognized as the best of the bunch.

canadian-baking-showThe well-known Great British Baking Show is one such show; over the past few years I’ve greatly enjoyed both the original series and the Canadian version. I didn’t initially think about it as showcasing creativity because in some ways baking is such a practical and also such a non-negotiable skill: the cake either rises or it doesn’t, the bottom of the pie is either soggy or it isn’t. Watching Blown Away, Next In Fashion, and some of The Great Pottery Throw Down, however, has clarified for me that a big part of the appeal of TGBBS always was the combination of that practicality with ingenious concepts and creative designs and decorations. That’s what these other shows highlight as well: it’s not enough to be able to sew a hem (or a whole jacket), or throw a pot–you also have to come up with a concept for the project and execute it in a way that (if all goes well) sparks both admiration and pleasure. “Fit for function” is an essential standard on the pottery show, but if all your teapot does is pour, it’s not going to make Keith cry!

pottery-titleI’ve been wondering what it is about these shows (which have been around for years, after all) that is so appealing to me right now. Certainly part of it is that they are not particularly demanding to watch, and also that overall they are quite cheering: the very idiosyncrasy of the participants combined with their shared passion for their craft is just so heartening, so humane, at a time when there seems to be so much anxiety and inhumanity going around. These shows also celebrate qualities that are often devalued in the wider world, including not just creativity but also beauty, originality, and mastery outside the domain of the relentlessly technical and utilitarian. Sure, there’s something artificial about the competitions themselves (must everything be turned into a game show?) but I actually find the judging process fascinating: speaking as someone who recoiled from Elizabeth Gilbert’s “all that matters is that you made anything at all” pitch in Big Magic, I embrace the idea that it is worth striving to do something well, and that people who themselves have achieved excellence are entitled to weigh in on what that means. I feel that I learn something about the technical skills they are evaluating by listening to their comments, which in turn helps me appreciate related artifacts in my own world (such as my own modest pottery collection), and while aesthetic judgment is inevitably more complicated, here too I feel I learn from how the experts carry it out–much as I think we all, as readers, can learn from reading analyses of books by experienced critics, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them.

turtle-toiletI think too that I am engaged by these shows because I have been feeling restless in my own work. What I feel, often, watching the participants demonstrate their plans and then do their best to carry them out, is envy. I think it must be wonderful to be able to do the things they can do–and also to be passionate about doing them, so much so that you never question why you are doing them and are happy to keep trying and trying and trying again to do them better. I especially envy the leap of imagination that takes them from “here’s the task” to “here’s my idea for that task”: bread that looks like a lion, a toilet that looks like a turtle. (That turtle toilet filled me with such irrational joy when it turned out so well! Who would ever think of such a thing? Who would ever make it? And yet isn’t it just delightful?) By comparison, my relationship with my own work is often much more uncertain, and the work itself–whether it’s teaching, grading, researching, or reviewing–doesn’t really feel creative, or at any rate it doesn’t really satisfy my vague desire to be creating something. That’s one reason I took that drawing class a couple of years ago–it was an experiment in bringing more creativity into my life, which I guess to me means bringing more art into my life–and it’s also the reason I still sometimes wonder why I gave up so early in my life on the idea of writing, rather than just reading, fiction.

three-guineasAnd yet there are creative aspects to my job. As I was starting to write this post, for example, I was also working on my class notes for some new (to me) material I’m teaching next week, including Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” and Three Guineas, both of which I’ve read before, of course, but which I’ve never assigned. This means that I have to come up with a teaching strategy for them, which means figuring out what story I’m going to tell about them: where I’ll begin, what background exposition I’ll include, what plot (for want of a better term) I’ll try to shape our experience of them into. I also think of book reviewing as a kind of storytelling: what might look to a reader of the review “just” like a bit of plot summary, for example, is actually a highly selective retrofitting of the book’s own elements in order to tell my story of what the book is about. The hardest part of writing every review is spotting that story and figuring out how to tell it (and one of the freedoms I most enjoy when writing blog posts, by comparison, is being able to discover it as I go along rather than having to shape the piece around it from the beginning).

shawlIs it because the building blocks of these particular processes are someone else’s stories that, for all the pleasures they really can offer, they don’t quite satisfy the craving for creativity in my own life, the underlying hunger for it that I am feeding with the vicarious experience of it offered through these shows? Perhaps. So what to do about that? I don’t particularly want to change up my approach to either criticism or teaching: I don’t much like criticism that crowds out its real subject (as I see it) with too much other stuff, and though I know my approach to teaching isn’t the only one (I have colleagues, for instance, who incorporate creative writing and other activities into their classes), it is one I believe in and feel comfortable with. I do have some hobbies–crochet and quilting–that give me the satisfaction of actually creating something, but it’s interesting that they are both (for me, anyway, at my limited skill level) pattern-following crafts; my self-expression in both is limited to choosing a pattern and choosing the materials. That’s not nothing, of course! (Also, crochet in particular is perfect to do while watching TV shows of other people making amazingly creative things. 😊)

Will I ever find the courage (not to mention the time) to try something else? What would it be? Would doing it badly–as I am bound to, at first and perhaps always–actually be rewarding at all? Could I ever shut up my inner critic long enough to just enjoy myself while I was doing it? (Here is where I wryly acknowledge that if only I could join in with Gilbert’s  celebration of the “disciplined half-ass” I would no doubt be bolder and maybe have more fun!) The only way to find out would be to try, I guess, as I did with drawing. Maybe I should get back to that — or maybe at some point I should try a pottery class. Or try writing something that isn’t about someone else’s writing…


Catching Up: Recent Reading and Rectify

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) The Reader 1877 Oil on canvasIt certainly is easy to fall out of the habit of blogging–and this in spite of the fact that the most fun I’ve had in the last little while was writing my two previous posts. I enjoyed doing them so much! I felt more engaged and productive than I had in a long time, not because I was fulfilling any external obligation but because I was sorting out my ideas and putting them into words. To be honest, though, in both cases I was also a bit disappointed that the posts didn’t spark more discussion in the comments, and that set me back a bit, as it made me wonder what exactly I thought I was doing here–not a new question, and one every blogger comes back to at intervals, I’m sure. I appreciate the comments I did get, of course, and there was some Twitter discussion around the Odyssey post, which as I know has been remarked before is a common pattern now–though I can’t help but notice that there are other blogs that routinely do still get a steady flow of comments. Anyway, for a while I felt somewhat deflated about blogging and that sapped my motivation for posting. I know, I know: it’s about the intrinsic value of the writing itself, which my experience of actually writing the Woolf and Homer posts more than proved–except it isn’t quite, because if that was all, we’d write offline, right?

hunting meet cuteIt hasn’t helped my blogging motivation that not much has been going on that seems very interesting. I certainly haven’t read anything since the Odyssey that was particularly memorable. I’ve puttered through some romance novels that proved entertaining enough but aren’t likely candidates for my “Frequent Rereads” club. Two were by Helena Hunting, a new-to-me author–Meet Cute and Lucky Charm, both of which were pretty good; one was Olivia Dade’s Teach Me, which had good ingredients but seemed just too careful to me, too self-consciously aware of hitting all the ‘right’ notes; and finally Christina Lauren’s Roomies, which was diverting enough until the heroine breaks out of her career funk by writing her first (ever!) feature essay, submitting it (not pitching it, submitting it) to the New Yorker, and learning in THREE WEEKS that it has been accepted. I’m not sure which struck me as more clearly a fantasy: the acceptance itself or the timeline.

peonyThe other book I finished recently is Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, for my book club. I wanted to like this one more than I did. It certainly illuminates a lot about the Chinese community in Vancouver in the time it is set (the 1930s and 1940s): one thing our discussion made me appreciate more than I did at first is how deftly telling the story from the children’s perspectives lets Choy handle the historical and political contexts, as they often don’t quite understand what is happening and so our main focus is on the young characters’ emotional experiences in the midst of them. The book reads more like linked short stories than a novel, and for me it lacked both momentum and continuity as a result (that’s not my favorite genre), but many of the specific scenes have a lot of intensity and I think they will linger with me more than I initially thought.

obasanWe chose Joy Kogawa’s Obasan for our next read. I’ve been trying to sort out why I’m not entirely happy about this. It makes perfect sense given our policy of following threads from one book to the next, and also Obasan is widely considered a CanLit classic, so it’s not that I don’t expect it to be a good book. I was mildly frustrated, though, that one of the arguments made in its favor was that The Jade Peony was very educational (about a time and place and culture not well-known to the group members) and Obasan would be more of the same. It will be, I’m sure, and in some ways this is an excellent reason for us to read and discuss it. But at the same time this “literature as beneficent medicine for well-intentioned consumers” approach is what turns me off Canada Reads, and I’m not sure it’s the way I want my book club to play out.

I’m torn about this, though! It is undoubtedly good for us (all white middle-aged middle-class Canadian women) to unlearn some of the complacency of our upbringing. I mentioned at our meeting that when I visited Vancouver’s Chinatown as a child I thought about it wholly in terms of feel-good multiculturalism–it never occurred to me in those days that it housed a community that had experienced many hardships including persistent and ongoing racism. Reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers similarly made me reconsider my childhood trips to the Museum of Anthropology and what I once thought they meant. We chose The Jade Peony because our discussion of Katherena Vermette’s The Break contributed, as it should have, to a collective sense that we should be trying as hard as we can to understand experiences of Canada that aren’t our own. But at the same time I want us to choose and discuss our books for lots of different reasons–and also not to fall into approaching books as if they are valuable only for their representative and/or didactic potential, using them to check off boxes rather than giving them room to be idiosyncratic works of art, if that makes sense. I think, too, that if you go looking for a book whose lessons suit the demands of your conscience, you may not end up with a book that really surprises or challenges you. I’m not sure if these concerns are reasonable ones or if I’ve articulated them properly. I’d love to hear from other people who puzzle over things like this when choosing what to read next, whether for themselves or for a book group or for some other purpose.

rectifyMy recent viewing has actually been more engrossing than my recent reading: we just finished watching Rectify, which I thought was superb–it is intense, thoughtful, and full of turns that surprise without seeming like cheap twists. It is very much character- rather than plot-driven, and it works because every performance is entirely believable. I hadn’t even heard of Rectify before I noticed it on a list of ‘best TV dramas’ and decided we should give it a try. It is not at all what I expected from the premise (a man is released after 19 years on death row): it is much more about how he and his family and community deal with this unthinkable change in circumstances then about the case and his guilt or innocence–though what they do with that question is also very interesting. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it; if you have, I’d be interested to know what you thought of it.

And that’s what I’ve been up to since I last posted! Well, that and reading Téa Obreht’s forthcoming novel Inland, which I am reviewing, so I won’t steal my own thunder by laying out what I think about it here. (I’m writing the review ‘on spec’ so if the magazine doesn’t want it, then I’ll come back and thunder away about it!)



bones-s1I don’t write up every TV show I watch, but I just finished a complete viewing of all 12 seasons of Bones and 12 seasons is a lot–so I thought it deserved a bit of comment. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

The first thing that strikes me is that Bones is not actually a show that prompts a lot of reflection. It’s certainly unlike Buffy and Angel, both of which invite interpretation in a non-literal way that makes them quite different even from the other TV shows I have enjoyed thinking and writing about (Friday Night Lights, for example) or that I am always happy to dip into again (for me, this list includes Sex & the CityGilmore Girls, and The West Wing, for example). Bones is not as good a show as any of these–it has no layers, its characters are remarkably static, its storylines are often ridiculous, and its favorite plot device is the manipulative fake-out. Overall I thought the show’s writers played it really safe: they just kept doing more or less the same kind of thing over and over and over.

And yet, having said that, I watched all 12 seasons because the kind of thing Bones did was pretty entertaining and its consistency made it a comfortable imaginative space to hang out it. I started watching it while running on the treadmill over the winter: it was perfect for that. Then I kept going because it was also perfect for the odd moment after work or after dinner or whenever nothing else in particular was going on that demanded my attention (something you never think will happen when your kids are small) but when I was too tired or distracted to feel like reading. The plots kept me just curious enough every time, and I cared just enough about the people involved, that I was never bored watching it. I just can’t imagine watching it all again.

bones-s8My biggest bone to pick with Bones is that the writers didn’t have the courage not to marry off Booth and Brennan. I understand that there’s a lot of cultural pressure to have a romantic relationship between your male and female lead and that this is something a lot of fans wanted. Watching the first few seasons in the wake of the #metoo and #timesup movements, though, I found it really refreshing to see a man and a woman in a working relationship who didn’t lust after each other. It felt really healthy, and I enjoyed the way Booth and Brennan pushed back against the constant assumption that because they trusted and fought for each other they must also be lovers. It’s true that marriage and children add elements to a series that are useful for both plot and character development–but I can easily imagine how much richer the arcs could have been if they had married other people, especially people outside law enforcement, and then dealt with the challenges of those people’s feelings towards their work and their partnership. I knew when I started the show that they did eventually marry, so I knew it was coming; still, I was disappointed. I got used to it, though, and I admit I thought their married relationship was pretty cute overall. I’m glad they never stopped bickering, at least.

bones-s10Probably my favorite thing about the show was the science. I read around a bit to see if it was any good, and I gather it’s at least not terrible, though of course it is all sped up and simplified. (I don’t know if any of the things Angela does are plausible: I found the “Angelatron” stuff the hardest to take seriously.) Regardless of the accuracy of it all, it’s always presented as if we should find it gripping, and I especially appreciated the unapologetic enthusiasm of Brennan and Hodgins for their work. (I loved Hodgins’s experiments.) Even Booth’s frequent impatience with the “squints” didn’t detract from the fact that in this show, nerds are not just cool–they are heroic! And with the exception of Avalon the psychic, the show had little truck with unscientific theories or methods. Booth’s “gut”–and his faith–are significant parts of his individual character, but solving the case always came down to the evidence.

The other thing that kept me loyal to the show was how much I enjoyed the characters as a group. This was key to my enjoyment of Buffy and Angel as well. While the characters in Bones really don’t evolve–not at all, not just not in the remarkable way characters like Spike, Wesley, and Cordelia do in the Whedonverse–they are a nice group to (virtually) hang out with. By and large they are all good to each other, and they all aim to do good in the world. I will say that watching 12 seasons of David Boreanaz being staunch and upright–which of course he’s very good at–made me nostalgic for the moral complexity of Angel/Angelus. I’m pretty disappointed that Angel has disappeared from Netflix! I might have to somehow add it to my permanent collection. But not every show is worth that kind of commitment, and that’s OK. I mostly watch TV for a bit of company, and for all its gross decomposing corpses and creepy serial killers, Bones was just right for that.


Slaying the Dragon: First Thoughts on Five Seasons of Angel


“Well, personally I kind of want to slay the dragon.” – Angel (S5 E22, “Not Fade Away”)

I recently finished my first complete run-through of Angel. I can tell that, as has already been the case with Buffy, re-watching will complicate my response to particulars as well as to the show overall. It’s interesting to me, though, that I can already imagine watching it again (though maybe not all of it, especially not the second half of Season 4, which I really did not enjoy). Like Buffy, Angel seems to do things that are worth taking another look at after the dust has settled, after you know the answer to “what happens next?” There are ideas at stake in it, sometimes confused or swamped by the action, but at other times driving it towards moments of real insight. Unlike the other shows I happily rewatch in order to bask in their familiar pleasures, Angel and Buffy are shows that seem to change, and often deepen, when you go back to them.

angelusMy initial thought at this point is that overall, while I like Buffy the series better than Buffy the character, I like Angel the character more than Angel the series. I would happily watch another two or three (or more!) seasons about Angel, despite how dreadful Angel occasionally was, because I find him complicated and fascinating, whereas Buffy (though she does develop over the course of her series) always seems somewhat two-dimensional to me. I suppose this is a version of the age-old artistic problem that virtue is intrinsically less interesting than vice, except that of course with Angel we’ve got the best of both worlds: good and evil in unending tension, Angel and Angelus distinct but never entirely separable. Buffy, on the other hand, has a clear and singular role to play: while she sometimes rebels against it, when things turn bad she always, always, rises to the occasion — which is great and inspiring, because she’s strong and principled and brave and autonomous, but also somewhat predictable.

Angel is quite limited in Buffy, too: I was actually startled, in the early episodes of Angel, to see him laughing and talking and generally interacting with people, and with the world, like a real person, rather than just brooding in his crypt. (I’m not sure I ever saw Angel really smile in Buffy, never mind sing or dance — though I suppose that’s just as well.) I loved the way Angel made a running gag out of his broodiness, rather than romanticizing it,  and I appreciated that the other characters and also many of the plots that unfolded over the series challenged him to think about his life and choices in varied and often quite ethically complicated ways. His role as a “champion” is never as straightforward as Buffy’s, because he carries Angelus with him, with all the baggage of his past sins but also the lurking possibility of reverting to evil. In some ways I think that gives his moral choices more weight than Buffy’s can ever have, because she’s never actually going to do the wrong thing, and when Angel does the right thing (like destroying the Gem of Amara) it’s often at considerable cost to himself.


This is one reason I liked it so much when Spike joins Angel: their different paths to the same place become so mutually illuminating. Spike made a deliberate decision (and went to considerable pain and trouble) to get his soul back, and that heroic quest makes him more noble in some ways than Angel, whose transformation was involuntary. But Spike has nothing like Angel’s experience of repentance. As Spike eventually says to Angel, “I never looked back at the victims,” and in that respect Angel, who has suffered years of tormenting guilt and chosen over and over to seek redemption, has something of a moral lead. “I spent a hundred years trying to come to terms with infinite remorse,” Angel expostulates; “you spent three weeks moaning in a basement and then you were fine.” (Spike’s entrance into the show also, as that line shows, brought back the wonderfully comic quality that Season 4 is mostly missing, and that keeps the show from falling into self-importance. Here’s an entertaining compilation of some funny Angel-and-Spike moments. 🙂 )

I enjoyed the noir atmosphere of the earlier seasons, with its blend of superhero crime fighting and hard-boiled private eye investigations: it’s Batman meets Philip Marlowe. I can see, though, how that genre could lose momentum: while having a vampire as the investigator is initially a cool twist, it could easily have become just a gimmick. So it makes sense that they moved the show away from that episodic approach towards larger arcs in which Angel’s ongoing fight for redemption, and the overarching conflict between good and evil in the world, gave it purpose and depth. (This is how Buffy develops too, with the first season — as others warned me when I first started watching it — following pretty tedious “monster of the day” plots and then later seasons taking on more ambitious unifying themes and story lines.) I know that I’m not alone in feeling that in Angel the result can sometimes be terrible (did I mention that I don’t really want to watch Season 4 again?), but a show with a reach that exceeds its grasp is still preferable in lots of ways to one that doesn’t even try. And even the worst story lines in Angel sometimes yielded great moments. I hated everything about the way Jasmine came into the show, for instance — parts of that plot were truly abhorrent — but the episode in which she finally faces off against Angel was both dramatically satisfying and philosophically significant.

wesleyI didn’t like the Angel ensemble as much as the Scoobies in Buffy, but another thing Angel and Buffy have in common is that they both show individual characters transforming in ways that leave them astonishingly far from where they started but that somehow happen in utterly believable ways. Other long-running shows I’m familiar with put fairly consistent characters into lots of new situations, but what happens with Spike in Buffy happens with both Cordelia and Wesley in Angel. If you’d told me while I was watching Buffy that one day Wesley would make me cry, I would not have believed you! As for Cordelia, I couldn’t possibly do better than Jennifer Crusie at explaining how good her character becomes and how terribly she is ultimately treated. Kudos to the actors, of course, as much as the writers. As for our new friends, Gunn was good; I found Lorne a bit bland and Fred annoying ditsy — until she wasn’t any more.


Since I’ve only seen them all once so far, I can’t really say much in detail about individual episodes, though there are a few that do already stand out in my mind, including “I Will Remember You,” “Epiphany,” “Reprise,” and “You’re Welcome.” (Oh, and “Smile Time,” of course — though I still haven’t decided if it’s awful or brilliant. Maybe it’s both? Ditto “The Girl in Question,” which was almost too hilarious.) I also thought the final episode of Season 5 was quite wonderful: each character chose to have a day that beautifully represented who they were. My favorite bit there was Spike reciting his poem: what a nice return to our love-lorn William. When the season, and the series, was over, I felt satisfied with the way it went out, but also bereft because now there’s nowhere new left for me to go in this imagined universe that, to my surprise, I have ended up enjoying so much.

After I finished watching Buffy I discovered this excellent series of episode guides, which includes a pretty smart one called “Why You should Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I knew from watching that video that if I watched the matching one about “Why You Should Watch Angel” I might inadvertently pick up some spoilers from the illustrative clips he uses, so I didn’t watch it until I’d seen the whole series. I’ve watched it now, and like the Buffy one, I think it makes a pretty good case, as well as offering some insights into the plots, characters, and themes of the show.

Weekend Miscellany: Reading and Watching

SweetDisorderIt’s a busy time at work, with papers and midterms piling up a bit, so it’s still a bit quiet over here at Novel Readings.

I have been doing some extra-curricular reading, but the serious stuff has been for reviews, which I don’t usually anticipate with commentary here. I’ve been filling in the interstices with some light reading, mostly romances. I’ve been trying out some more recent “historicals” to see if I can find more writers among the many, many there are to chose from that I can reliably enjoy. I have had pretty mixed success with historicals up to now: a lot of them seem really thin and formulaic, and only a few authors so far (notably Cecilia Grant and, sometimes, Loretta Chase) have become personal favorites. I read Rose Lerner’s Sweet Disorder and quite liked it (I’d read her In For  a Penny before, and liked it too). Then, encouraged by having mostly liked My American Duchess, I also read another of Eloisa James’s, Any Duchess Will Do, and I enjoyed it as well, enough that I’ll probably keep poking around in her vast back catalog. Both of these books, however, did add to my sense that, for me, the pacing, or maybe the balance, is off in a lot of modern romance novels: when the hero and heroine have sex fairly early on, instead of as the culmination of their developing relationship, the book becomes (again, for me) too much about their lusty goings-on and the romantic tension is lost. Other forms of angst are typically introduced, something to tear them apart before they can finally have it all, but I usually find that angsty part tedious and the final resolution belated. This is one reason I often skim the last third of these books: the fun part seems to be over before then. In contrast, I just reread Heyer’s Venetia and it seemed to me perfectly balanced: just sexy enough, just tense and surprising enough, and just charming enough to be thoroughly satisfying.

longviewThe “literary” book I’ve been reading “for fun” is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View, which I bought after my book club read and enjoyed The Beautiful Visit and, in the same week, Hilary Mantel coincidentally published a persuasive essay about Howard in which she singled out The Long View as exceptional. It is very good of its kind, I think, and yet I am bogged down about half way through it because right now that “kind” feels claustrophobic. It’s an emotionally intense, scrupulously nuanced examination of an unhappy marriage — well, it’s unhappy when the novel begins, but because of the novel’s ingenious backwards-chronological structure, the relationship is building towards happier beginnings. Howard’s prose is wonderful and the psychological, social, and sexual complications of the couple’s life together are exquisitely, if painfully, drawn, but the novel feels airless to me: it doesn’t seem to be offering me any sense of the broader view of their life — of its impersonal contexts. The novel feels too personal, too minute, and it makes me restless for a narrative, or a narrator, that looks around and draws connections between these small complicated lives and the bigger world they’re set in. I may be missing ways in which Howard’s subtleties do exactly that, and of course since I’m not finished the novel yet, I can’t say whether things change in it, either. But my boredom (shocking! but true) with the novel got me thinking about the books that have really excited me lately and they have tended to be books with wider scope, often (though not always) historical: Dunnett’s King Hereafter, Nicola Griffith’s Hild, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. Is it because I already live a narrowly personal existence (and spend enough time scrutinizing the complex nuances of marriage on my own behalf) that right now I want fiction that does something, goes somewhere, else? Or maybe it’s just that when I’m busy and distracted, I lack the patience for novels that are all about the finely-wrought sentence and the emotional minutiae of daily life.

happy-valleyAlso, when I’m busy and distracted, the lure of television is very strong! And, conveniently, Netflix recently dropped two tempting series — the fourth season of House of Cards and the second season of Happy Valley — both of which we’ve now seen. In retrospect, I’m actually kind of sorry I watched House of Cards. After the third season, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see any more of it, and this season will almost certainly be my last. The show is just so unpleasant: the people are loathsome; the acting is … well, it has its moments, but mostly it’s uninspiring; the plot is absurd; and the show overall is so cynical, not just about the world it depicts but also, I think, about what its viewers want or will tolerate. I did admire the color palette and cinematography, but otherwise, it’s a show that made me feel bad about myself for wanting to see what would happen next. Happy Valley, in context, though very grim in its own way, is brilliantly acted and tells stories about richly human individuals trying to bring some sense and order into their lives, with a protagonist whose anger and toughness are offset by compassion and a strong, if often thwarted, desire for justice. Even the crimes, horrific as they are, come out of contexts that are believable and morally complicated. It’s also almost absurdly refreshing to see women play prominent roles without having to look like stick insects and wear ridiculous stiletto heels.

OK, that gets me about caught up! Now, back to the next book I’ll be reviewing, if I can just get it all read, and then to Hard Times, which I start with my 19th-century fiction class tomorrow. Now there’s a classic that still has something to say “for these times.”

Family Drama: Balancing Act and Parenthood

balancingactBoth my reading and my TV viewing this week have been all about the intricacies of family life. Joanna Trollope’s Balancing Act is a classic “slice of life novel” — classic Joanna Trollope, anyway. I haven’t liked Trollope’s recent novels as much as her older ones (A Village Affair, for instance), and Balancing Act didn’t break that pattern: it felt a bit thin and perfunctory to me, as if she’d come up with the scenario and populated it with characters, but didn’t have much at stake in what happened to them. She’s adept at filling in the outlines of her characters, and I appreciate her attention to the personal significance of minutiae. But underlying Balancing Act are some pretty fraught questions about work and family (or work vs. family, as the novel’s title suggests), about work and identity — or work as a source of identity — as well as about creativity, autonomy, and emotional control. I suppose you could call her treatment of these themes “suggestive”: she doesn’t like a lot of exposition, preferring to step nimbly from one character’s point of view to another’s and let their individual experiences hint at the depths she’s not exploring on our behalf. The result is an easy read and one that highlights Trollope’s strengths — emotional finesse, clever orchestration of time and action — but also one that suggests the limits of her particular formula.

Parenthood is kind of similar. For one thing, like all of Trollope’s novels that I’ve read, it begins with disruption — a spanner (or, in the case of Parenthood, a few spanners) thrown into the works of a family situation that already quivers with the potential for conflict as well as connection and celebration. The first season of Parenthood, for instance, includes Sarah moving back into the fold, bring her own children and thus complications with her and inevitably creating more complications; the unexpected news that Crosby has a son; and Max’s Asperger’s diagnosis. That’s a lot of hares to start running all at once, but a weekly serial drama needs lots of subplots to sustain it, after all! I wasn’t immediately hooked on Parenthood, but I was content to watch something low key after Wallander (which is great but also intense, violent, and pretty dispiriting), and the show has definitely grown on me. (We’re not even done with Season 2 yet, though, so please don’t throw out plot spoilers in the comments!)

Parenthood_S1One thing that I find different about Parenthood, compared to much of the TV we’ve binged on over the past year, is that precisely because it is so focused on family life, it provokes personal reflections in a way that most crime shows rarely do (the exception would be Last Tango in Halifax, another intimate family drama). Happily, most of us will never encounter the kind of horrific scenarios that drive each episode of Wallander forward. But we all have families, in one form or another! And parenthood has preoccupied a great deal of my time, energy, and mental resources for 18 years now. As I commented in my last post, I prefer to keep the details mostly to myself, so all I’ll say is that there have already been plenty of moments in Parenthood that resonated with my own experience of both the challenges and the rewards of being a parent — or, for that matter, with being a daughter, and being a wife! Watching Wallander, I might mutter “he shouldn’t be going out there without back-up!” but it doesn’t really mean anything to me personally. Watching Parenthood, it’s hard not to get caught up in debating whether they (any of them!) are making the best choices, or wondering what I would say or do in the same situation — or just to laugh ruefully and say “yup, that’s about right.” So far nothing about the show strikes me as particularly artful or groundbreaking, but that’s fine with me: it’s sincere and well-acted, and while some of the plot twists are kind of silly, others seem to me spot-on examples of why parenting is at once the best and the worst gig imaginable. This may not be the most sophisticated reason to like a TV show, but hey, not everything has to be Deadwood, right?

Recent Watching: House of Cynicism Cards

house-of-cardsI’m not in any position to evaluate how accurately American politics is depicted in Netflix’s remake of House of Cards, but if people even think that Congress and the White House are run solely on greed, ambition, and ruthless back-stabbing, as the show suggests, no wonder voter turnout is so low. The series is one of the most dispiriting things I’ve ever watched — not just because of its relentless cynicism about both human nature and democracy but because it seems to have embraced that nihilistic cynicism so wholeheartedly. Imagine how different the show would be if it wrapped the story of its sociopathic central characters in some irony, or developed their story as tragedy, so that we could be caught up in their rise — as we are with Shakespeare’s Richard III or Macbeth, or with Thackeray’s Becky Sharp — but also see them suffer and fall. Instead, their vicious dishonesty wins them triumph after triumph, while the few around them who so much as raise questions, never mind try to stand for something else, are weak and ineffectual — or just dull. “She did what she had to do,” one character says in Season 2 about another who betrayed him for her own political gain: the show does not provide any alternative narrative, so even if we are repelled watching we have to look outside the box (literally!) to find a critique that goes beyond wishful thinking.

Richard III is definitely an apt point of reference (even the wink-y addresses to the audience, which I know are a carry-over from the original British series, are reminiscent of Richard’s gleefully oversharing monologues). But Shakespeare’s play is about ambition and greed and politics in a way that I don’t think House of Cards is. The show seems to me to reduce villainy purely to spectacle. It was just interesting enough that I kept watching (how far can they go? will they perhaps meet their match, or get their comeuppance?) but it didn’t provoke any serious thought about the issues its plot-lines touch on: unlike, say, The Wire or Deadwood (both of which are much more graphically and disturbingly violent but which reach for insight and explanations — and improvement), House of Cards operates purely at the level of individual malice (or, much more occasionally, good intentions). Francis is also much less charismatic than Richard, which is at least partly the fault of the writers (who often mangle idioms or resort to cliches) but I think can also be blamed on Kevin Spacey’s performance, which (like everyone else’s in the show) seemed extraordinarily limited in range. Most of the characters require at most two facial expressions over the whole series, and since the show is premised on deceit, the dominant one for almost everybody is a kind of grim deadpan stare.

The other inevitable comparison is to The West Wing. I joked on Twitter during Season 1 that I’d need to watch it all the way through (again!) as an antidote to House of Cards, and now that I’ve finished both seasons of House of Cards I don’t see any reason to take that back. Whatever its faults, The West Wing at its best shows recognizably human people struggling to make the messy process of democracy — with its competing interests and different ideologies and, yes, its components of greed and ambition along with its idealism — serve the common good. It works with the clash between what Francis characterizes (self-servingly, of course) as “ruthless pragmatism” and a high-minded commitment to public service. It has a quality of sincerity as a show, and allows for the same possibility in its characters. Where are the people in House of Cards who give a damn about ideas, or about other people, including — crucially, in a show that could be about governance in some deep way — those they are supposed to serve? Where is even the possibility of gravitas? Where is the capacity for real and difficult moral struggle? You might with justice say that these are simply not House of Cards’s concerns: that it’s not that kind of show. And you’d be right — and that would be exactly why, though I did watch it all, I won’t watch it again, whereas the show that gave me the episodes “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” or this extraordinary confrontation between an earthly and a higher power is one I’ll go back to over and over.

Weekend Watching: Foyle’s War

foyleIt has been very quiet around here, I know. It’s a combination of re-adjusting to the start of term and having been hard at work on my review of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch for the next issue of Open Letters Monthly, which has taken up the couple of hours each day when I have both time and energy for writing. I’ve been getting up pretty early (for me, anyway) a few days a week to get in some regular exercise, and that has meant I fade sooner at night, too.

In that faded state, when I don’t feel I can be particularly articulate anymore, or attentive enough to do serious reading, I’ve been working my way through Foyle’s War (I’ve also been watching it during my workouts, which helps me look forward to them rather than dreading them!). Other shows I’ve watched recently include ER (I started it from the beginning a couple of years ago and bit by bit have made my way up to Season 11)  Homeland (we’ve seen through Season 2 – I’m not sure how much more I want to watch), and Hostages (which we started watching because Toni Collette — who really deserves better — we only stuck with it out of curiosity about how they were going to get everyone out of the implausible tangle they’d created).  Compared to these (or to MI-5, which I have now seen twice all the way through!) Foyle’s War is very slow-paced, and it took me a while to adjust to that. I have occasionally felt that they could have tightened up the plots and told the story in one hour rather than over their more leisurely 90 minutes, but most of the time I appreciate the care with which different strands are introduced and then woven together into the case. I also appreciate that the plot moves slowly enough that I can easily work on my crochet at the same time (when not on the treadmill, obviously!).

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I’ve just started Season 6 (and Seasons 7 and 8 are not yet on Netflix), so I don’t know how everything develops now that the official war is over. One of my favourite things about the series to this point is its emphasis on the moral challenges of the home front, especially the need to fight for the values that the military campaign is ostensibly being waged in service of. (It’s hard not to wonder if the creators were deliberately hinting at similar challenges that have arisen our post-9/11 world.) It’s pretty clear that the show’s title is meant to mean something besides “how DCS Foyle spent his time during WWII” –his is a war against morally slipshod, self-serving, or opportunistic people who use the war as cover for their offenses or as a means to personal profit. “There’s a war on” never works as an excuse with Foyle, and that staunch clarity of judgment is clearly what makes him the hero of the series, surrounded as he is by greedy businessmen, dishonest politicians, power-hungry bureaucrats, and the many vexing shades of both incompetence and ruthlessness he runs into among those fighting the actual war. I think Michael Kitchen plays the part perfectly: he doesn’t parade his virtues, and indeed, in his own way he is also quite ruthless, but he conveys an attractive and endlessly reassuring combination of uncompromising principle, intelligence and humanity.

I think there’s quite a bit going on with the historical context: it would be interesting to work out more about just how the series is shaping its version of wartime England, something I don’t feel I have the right range of knowledge to comment on. It doesn’t strike me as a simplistically idealized portrayal of stoicism and valor, but the heroic music every time the RAF planes take off bespeaks a kind of ‘glory days’ nostalgia, and there’s plenty of talk about “the few.” Not that there shouldn’t be respect and admiration for their bravery or heroic stories about wartime sacrifice, but I’m curious about whether those who know more about this can see patterns or myths in the historiography of wartime Britain being used in significant ways in the series, whether subversive or conservative or predictable. The show seems particularly sensitive to the human costs of the victories that were won: I’m thinking of the S2 episode “Enemy Fire,” for instance, in which Foyle’s own son breaks under the strain of “combat fatigue.” I know there are shows about the making of the series and perhaps some of these issues are discussed — I’ve put off watching them until I’ve caught up on the series itself.

The one thing I don’t like about the show — and  in the spirit of this woman I’ve tried not to let it bother me too much — is Sam. Again, I haven’t seen the whole series, but by about half way through Season 4 I was at the point where if Foyle and Milner traded patronizing ‘isn’t she cute?’ glances one more time I was going to burst a blood vessel, not because she isn’t cute but because I wish so much that she had been written as a character with more gravitas. When I first met her on the show, I anticipated an arc of character development for her that would bring her (if probably unofficially) into the investigative team in a more serious way. Instead, though she has been involved in solving cases, her contributions have almost always been by accident or luck, and her personality has stayed perky and slightly silly, if good-hearted. It seemed both painfully predictable and wholly unlikely that a romance would break out between her and Andrew, who is a much more emotionally complex character. (His erratic comings and goings in the series keep the writers from having to deal with this in any serious way, at least to this point.) That it turns out Foyle never really needed a driver anyway was the final insult! There are more interesting (substantial, competent, deliberate) women in the show as secondary characters, but Sam is the only main female character, and I wish she’d been set up as one who carried her own weight, rather than as a figure of indulgent fun and chivalric or paternalistic concern.

foyleseason6I started S6 Episode 1 this morning so I’ve just entered the post-war world, though as the characters and stories emphasize, VE Day has not magically restored the world to idyllic happiness. The war Foyle was fighting continues unabated, returning soldiers struggle with how both they and their old lives have been transformed, and the realignment of the wider political world is creating new enmities. Also, Milner’s become a bit of a jerk. Wondering how this will go will be a good motivation to face another early morning session on the treadmill tomorrow!

I’d love to hear from other Foyle fans (or haters, for that matter) — but try not to tell me what happens in the seasons I haven’t seen yet! Am I underestimating Sam, do you think? What do you think the series is doing with the history of Britain in the war?