TV

The Deuce episode one – Review

Setting a series narrative during a specific timeframe can be problematic. While attention to detail is key, too often the temptation is to positively laden the set with key signifiers while neglecting to develop characterisation. Frequently, the setting itself, rather than feeling like a natural backdrop to an engaging narrative, almost becomes a character in its own right, demanding the attention of the viewer and detracting from the central conceit.

Thus, for a period piece to be done so successfully, the setting needs to feel natural. The characters must feel like they inhabitant this era fully, complete with attention to costuming and location that ensures a believable and realistic result. Thus, clothes need to be appropriately scuffed, streets suitably dingy where appropriate. Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire both ensured that the narrative focus was on the character development, and while, for some, the setting may have enhanced its appeal, it was the writing itself that led to success. Similarly, Vinyl, the lacklustre series set in the 1970s, paid little attention to writing and chose instead to highlight to an almost hyperbolic degree the apparent glamour and idiosyncrasy of its setting.

The Deuce, the latest effort from David Simon, best known for The Wire, correctly, and impressively, at least thus far, chooses to focus on character, while simultaneously creating an entirely real world. Set in 1971, the series focuses on the rise of the pornography, localising the events around Time Square and the titular 42nd Street. The pilot, as pilots are always compelled to do out of necessity, spends time establishing various storylines which begin to interweave and overlap.

The streets of New York, complete with grime, and bright lights, never feel jarring. Instead, its ability to both present the era and also seamlessly fade into the background highlights the intelligent concept of the series.

James Franco plays Vinnie, a bar worker who struggles with both the demands of family life and his increasingly estranged wife, along with the strain of maintaining a seven day a week job. Given Franco’s recent artistic exploits, it has become all too easy to forget his rather formidable talent when on form. In The Deuce, his laconic style is wonderfully matched to the engaging, exhausted Vinnie, who quickly discovers a talent for attracting punters to his new bar when afforded the opportunity to excise his exploitative business ideas.

Really though, the show thus far belongs to Maggie Gyllenhaal, and her performance as Candy, the sex worker who refuses to align her business with a pimp. Declaring her desire to ensure that nobody makes money from her exploits other than her, Simon’s series goes a long way to both humanise and validate sex work. Candy is an intelligent woman, who, for reasons as yet unknown, has engaged with this lifestyle in a manner that seemingly affords her both agency and control.

While it is impossible to predict the trajectory of the series based on a pilot episode, The Deuce is an impressive first episode, allowing its characters, and actors, an opportunity to truly breathe and inhabit the period.

 

 

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The reality of Dr Foster

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It’s rather telling that for some, the actions of the titular Dr Foster are hyperbolic in the extreme. Indeed, reviews of the first episode of the second series pointed towards her supposedly unhinged, and preposterous behaviour. Certainly, it is easy to refer to Gemma Foster’s behaviour towards her ex-spouse Simon as entirely unrealistic and at times, utterly extreme, but to simply decry them as unhinged undermines the trajectory of these actions.

Clearly, the series is intended to be viewed as a glossy thriller, which while retaining elements of the inane and banal everyday life, is elevated to an extreme level. There is then, no suggestion that the actions of Gemma, which includes blackmail and sinister, calculated machinations, is truly supposed to represent the sane actions of a wronged woman, and yet, largely, they are only narrowly removed from reality. Certainly, her actions are dangerous, yet, it is easy to identify and understand the steps that have taken place beforehand that have subsequently led to her actions.

Some may find Gemma’s actions isolating. Her ability to orchestrate the behaviours of those around her is almost undeniably admirable. Yet, despite, or perhaps due to, Gemma’s intelligence, she is distant from others around her. Colleagues and neighbours who profess to be her friends or supporters willingly lie to her. A fellow GP, a supposed friend, knew about the affair in the first series and neglected to inform Gemma. In the first episode of the second series (aired last week), this friend openly denied that she would be attending Simon’s wedding party, only for Gemma to find her in attendance.

Gemma is continually betrayed, and in Simon’s decision to embark upon and sustain an extra-marital affair, is deeply hurt. Her actions then, while certainly punishing, are, given the upset caused, almost reasonable.

Dr Foster then, is not, as many reviewers have claimed, a melodrama intended to gratify through shock. Rather, it is a depiction of the vulnerability and injury caused when a person is betrayed by the person that is supposed to know them best. The person to who you have exposed your true self. Gemma’s hurt is not simply one of jealousy or betrayal. Its pain and subsequent consequences will never truly leave her. She cannot move on from Simon’s actions. The casual disloyalty of those who profess to be friends is inconsequential. Simon is the epicentre.

 

The fallacy of Friends

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Much has been written about the problematic nature of Friends. Despite finishing in 2004, the influence and popularity of the series has hardly waned, and indeed, with its continued airing, the series has attracted a new, younger generation of fans who live vicariously through the characters.

The series is problematic for a myriad of reasons, and arguably, has little success in representing almost any demographic. Its reductive depiction of people of colour was highlighted towards the end of the series run, and the writers attempted, rather weakly, to address this with the inclusion of Charlie (Aisha Tyler) in season ten. The fact that this was the first time that such a character was included given both the setting and the narrative focus, is rather ridiculous. Similarly, its depiction of homosexuality, or rather, its professed perception of it is hugely questionable. Numerous YouTube videos are dedicated to highlighting the openly hostile and homophobic humour that underpinned much of the series.

Seeing a Twitter thread recently, which argued for a central Joey and Rachel relationship rather than Rachel and Ross, the impact and influence of the series upon viewer’s perception of romance cannot be underemphasised. This is a series that has impressed upon multiple generations a hyperbolic, idealised version of love and relationships. A series which has professed that romance must be declarative, and rigid in order to be deemed successful. The damaging nature of this fallacy can be seen in its audience’s devotion to this idyllic concept.

Friends created and consistently perpetuated a myth, a myth that in turn, has become a reality to aspire to for its impressionable viewership. An ideal that focused on relationships that were only complete if its characters could partake in witty banter, grand gestures and supposedly comic set pieces. Regardless of the questionable healthy status of these relationships they were, and continue to be held up as aspirational.

Take Monica and Chandler’s relationship, one which is borne out of friendship. Initially, the relationship is highlighted as passionate. One that is built on mutual respect for one another. However, as the series progresses, their clear disdain and fear of one another increases. Chandler’s lack of sexual prowess is frequently mocked, and Monica’s strict adherence to tidiness and cleanliness is enough to terrify Chandler’s with his less rigid habits. There is a running joke in which Chandler, having broken the couple’s wedding crockery, is secretly reinstating it, surreptitiously purchasing pieces to replace those which have smashed. The secrecy, and the implications of this, are held up as comedic, despite the clearly uneven dynamic between the two. Monica’s domineering attitude is presented as inducing hilarity, rather than being highlighted for what it truly is: a rather damaging and entirely questionable wielding of power.

Similarly, Rachel and Ross, whose relationship is arguably the central relationship throughout the series, is presented idealistically. Their relationship though, despite its popular perception, is torrid. Ross’ ambitions are deemed as more important than Rachel’s, and his decision to ask her to stay in New York rather than pursue her career is presented as the romantic solution. Ross never considers travelling to France with Rachel, and allowing her to develop professionally, despite his own lack of career progression. Indeed, insights into Ross’ teaching ability are held up for ridicule, and he is presented as being terrible at his job, whereas Rachel’s ability is consistently reinforced.

How then, have these relationships become so entrenched within popular culture? Why have they become the ideal to which its viewers aspire to? It seems bizarre that they are largely still presented unquestioningly, particularly when set against the backdrop of more recent relationship incarnations.

In praise of Fresh Meat

It would be easy for the casual viewer to dismiss Fresh Meat as another hyperbolic comedy. Certainly, its comedic moments, while often grounded in reality, do frequently present as entirely inane and improbable. Its characters too, for some, are largely unlikeable, with their selfish nature preventing true audience engagement. Yet, to believe this is to not truly engage with the brilliance of the series.

Highlighting the all too recognisable types that students meet, or aspire to become, at university, the series offers a realistic insight into university life, while employing ridiculous moments of humour, moments that, in stemming from reality, offer as cautionary conceits.

What largely helps to make the series so wonderful, is its dedication to character development, particularly the development of the female characters. Each character embarks on a clear trajectory, and each is left changed by the series end. The series initially presents each character as a clear type, utilising well-known tropes to convey to its audience their characterisation. This simplistic use of stereotyping is effective, particularly when these stereotypes are so clearly subverted as the narrative progresses, encouraging the audience to question their previous misconceptions.

Take Josie, for example, a character whose seemingly sensible nature and devotion to becoming a dentist is rapidly unravelled as she struggled to truly embed herself within university lifestyle. Her Welshness is initially used to convey a familiarity, and the other characters, perhaps through her nationality, perceive her as the group’s matriarch. She cooks food for her housemates when ill, and is the one character who is studying a course that will lead to a clear career.

The breakdown of her relationship with Dave, who she has left behind in Wales to start university, causes Josie to question the nature and state of her life and results in a rapid spiralling out of control. Quickly, Josie begins to act in an increasingly erratic and unpredictable nature, resulting in her being forced to leave her course. Her subsequent relationship with Kingsley does, briefly, bring her stability, but she quickly realises that this form of traditional stability is not one that she wishes to embark upon. Through her breakdown, Josie is compelled to question her actions, and in turn her own nature.

Similarly, Oregon, aware of her class privilege, attempts to hide her origins as the horse owning Melissa, essentially adopting a costume through her assumed moniker. Her admiration of Vod, causes her to lose sight of herself and her roots and causes her to lose any sense of stability that she previously had. Her belief in her academic ability is never personally brought into question, and Oregon, despite her lack of self-belief in terms of her very personality, never doubts her academic ability until it is too late. This then forces to Oregon, like Josie, to question the preconceived idea that she had for her own life. Both Josie and Oregon started university with a clear plan, and by the end of their study, have rejected their previous notions of themselves.

Vod too is confronted with the idea that her nature is not static, but is susceptible to change and development. For Vod, a character whose troubled childhood is only alluded to, the idea that she can be academically and professionally successful proves to be a revelation. Interestingly, Vod, like Oregon, is dependent on her best friend. Both Oregon and Vod view each other through the lens of their friendship, and before the end of the series, allow this relationship to define their identity.

The male characters in the series are engaging, but their development is not as notable as that of the female characters. It is praiseworthy that Fresh Meat allows the female characters in the series the room to progress and grow. Notably, they are largely afforded this opportunity through the more stable nature of the male characters, who, while allowing themselves to become embroiled in various escapades, are largely dependable. Fresh Meat’s approach to its female character, while problematic at times, is relatively innovative and refreshing, allowing for thei

r trajectories to change and develop while also proving to be a source of comedy. Importantly, the female characters in Fresh Meat are allowed and indeed encouraged, to be funny. That this is still notable, demonstrates its vital nature.

Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow: Shifting power dynamics

The meeting that took place between Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow in the latest episode of Game of Thrones has been much mythologised. Fan’s anticipation meant that this meeting was, not only memorable but heralded as a crucial point in the show’s trajectory. Many, already, are feting the episode as the best episode thus far.
Episode quality aside, the most striking element of this meeting was, for me, the clear shift in power dynamics. Daenerys, away from Westeros, has been the subject of much praise and loyalty from her followers. This level of adoration has, in turn, coloured the audience’s perception of her. We believe she is good, and caring, despite some errors, because we are repeatedly told that she is. Characters who we trust, or feel an affinity for, openly declare their belief in her, thus, we too have stated our belief in her intentions.

Jon Snow too is a character who we have been led to trust and believe in, but not simply through character perception. Indeed, Jon has had characters openly state their disdain and difficulty with his actions, yet the audience, through witnessing his acts of selflessness, has long trusted his judgement.

The meeting between the two then is a notable moment largely because of what they both represent. Both ostensibly, believe in the virtue and validity of their actions, and both steadfastly believe in the value of doing what they deem to be right and true. What marked the meeting between the two, and made it so noteworthy, was the manner in which it was edited.
We see Jon’s arrival to Dragonstone before we see Daenerys. We witness his boat landing and his meeting with Tyrion and Missandei. There is a suggestion, through a high shot taken from the castle window, that Daenerys is perhaps watching his arrival, but we don’t know this for sure. This in itself is worth noting, as the usual tendency would have been to show Daenerys intently watching Jon’s arrival, perhaps commenting on his appearance to a trusted advisor. Instead, the first time that we see her in this episode is the first time that Jon sees her. Thus, our perspective and interpretation of her, despite the fact that we have met her many times before, is immediately aligned with Jon’s perception.

Through Jon’s eyes, Daenerys is weak, overly intent on her birth right, with little regard to the dangers that Jon speaks of. Simply put, she is depicted as being entirely fallible, no longer the unconquerable leader that she has been portrayed as in earlier seasons. The audience already knows that her war strategy has been unsuccessful thus far, but to witness her appearance and actions through the eyes of a trusted character, a character who has proven his ability to fight and lead on numerous occasions, clearly highlights Daenerys’ potential inability to be the leader that she has had the audience believe she can be. Her statements of loyalty from the Dothraki and the Unsullied are no longer impressive, rather, when openly and boastfully declared to Jon, they read as childish and naïve.

Peep Show’s problem with women

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During its twelve year run, Peep Show certainly achieved cult status. Its depiction of Mark (David Mitchell) and Jez (Robert Webb), two flatmates whose first person perspective and account of events make up the narrative of the series, remains both inventive and engaging. Creating a first person perspective through interesting and unusual camera use was initially the series’ USP and, in the early series in particular, the camera is continually bobbing and weaving across the screen, forever drawing the audience’s attention to its use.

The employment of the first person narration from both Mark and Jez allowed the audience to not only gain an insight into character motivations, but also their machinations. With both characters sharing thoughts with the audience that would never be said audibly, a form of kinship can be created. The audience is privy to Mark and Jez’ innermost wants and desires, ones that are often, fleetingly, dark for comedic purposes.

Initially, it is this strain of dark humour that is the show’s strength. Largely because, no matter how objectifying, or bizarre Jez and Mark’s thoughts are, the other characters are there to temper their actions. Thus, Mark’s call to Sophie early on in their burgeoning relationship, in which he phones and leaves a voicemail singing to her, is reiterated back to him by Jeff. Jeff, also in a burgeoning relationship with Sophie, recognises the strangeness of Mark’s actions, and uses the knowledge of it to mock him. While we may not like Jeff, and certainly first viewings do not endear his character to the audience, we align our perception with his. We too recognise that Mark’s actions are becoming obsessive, and it is the very nature of these actions that promote much of the comedy. Jez’ behaviour too, is tempered by those around him, including Mark. His sexual proclivities are often brought into question, and Mark regularly expresses distaste for Jez’ actions. Together the pair, while both individually questionable in their actions towards women, are initially able to monitor one another, largely preventing their actions from becoming too damaging.

It is later on in the series run, that their actions frequently become rather more repugnant. Take Mark’s treatment of Sophie. Throughout the series, almost until the moment that the pair finally got together, Mark had promoted Sophie to a position of high regard. He places his affections for her above anything else, and regularly proclaims his belief that she is ‘the one’. This belief, it quickly becomes apparent, is clearly based on Mark’s own projections towards Sophie. He doesn’t truly know her, or understand her character, and when he is finally in a relationship with her, does all he can to avoid spending time with her (joining a gym, nearly reneging on his decision to propose). Mark seems to accept that once in a relationship with someone, happiness doesn’t matter and isn’t the end goal. It is simply being in a relationship that is enough. It could, of course, be argued that the audience is supposed to question Mark’s actions and treatment towards Sophie. After their disastrous wedding, Sophie becomes a former shadow of her once vivacious self, and we see a woman who was once capable (being promoted ahead of Mark at work) become a liability. Yet, Mark’s actions, being used for comedic purposes, are never truly brought into question, particularly when the early episodes have spent so long attempting to commend Mark to the audience.

Mark’s treatment of Sophie is not his only misdemeanour. His treatment of women, in general, is hugely questionable, and, upon repeat viewing, merely highlights itself as outdated and tired. Take his actions towards the vulnerable university student that he meets under false pretences. After he purchases shoes from her while shopping, he tracks her down at her university, pretending that he too is a current student. Allowing her to share her fears and feelings, he quickly sets about attempting to engineer a relationship between the two of them, regardless of age disparity or lack of honesty. Similarly, when regretting the demise of his relationship with Dobby, we discover that he tracks and monitors her location surreptitiously. These actions are not sources of humour, and should not be heralded as such. Rather, they are the actions of a man abusing his position of power.

Jez too, while not as damaging in his treatment of women (he does, at least, appear to respect women and enjoy their company) regularly involves himself with women through manipulation and lies. His relationship with Zara, for example, is entirely based on fabrication, and despite his working for her partner, he frequently attempts to contrive a moment in which the pair can begin a relationship.

Notably, much of Jez’ actions towards women are borne out of apparent love, and he does seem damaged or hurt by the breakdown of his relationship with Big Suze. His issue though, despite the affection and high esteem that he holds women in (he genuinely appears to care for Elena and Nancy) is that he, like Mark, projects his own vision of a relationship onto these women. He never truly attempts to get to know them, but rather, would rather admire them for their physical attributes. His connection with these women are superficial, and after the relationship breaks down, quickly becomes manic. He too, like Mark, is prone to outbursts in which he declares his current love interest as ‘the one’, and it is this concept that is perhaps the most damaging. Mark and Jez’ version of ‘the one’ is whoever is around at that moment. Their personality and characterisation does not matter, but rather what they represent at that moment.

Thus Mark’s interest in the university student is borne out of his regret of his choice of degree. Her studying of History, a degree which Mark always regrets not doing, allows Mark to create an alternative fantasy life for himself. One in which he is recognised for his supposed academic attributes. It is not the university student herself that he is interested, but rather what she represents: an opportunity to mould himself into the image that he desires for himself. Similarly, his interest in Sophie is reignited when he perceives the opportunity that the ownership of ‘nanna’s cottage’ would represent. He immediately begins to envision a life for himself, forgetting or neglecting to recognise, that this life with ‘nanna’s cottage’ would entail a marriage and life with Sophie.

While Peep Show was, and remains, progressive in its form, its depiction of women is entirely questionable. This representation is, interestingly, often made problematic through the very use of the first person perspective that is only ever male. We only ever see Mark and Jez’ perception of events and characters, and thus, the audience is encouraged to align their own viewpoint with the very characters whose discernment is so challenging.

G.L.O.W. Review

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There has been much fanfare surrounding the release of G.L.O.W. Netflix originals are becoming deluge like, and there is the risk that quantity is beginning to overtake quality. With so many originals released, it is becoming increasingly difficult, even for the most avid Netflix viewer, to keep track. Given that all episodes of a series are available instantly, and given the sheer plethora of choice, viewers are becoming increasingly discerning in their tastes. That is why then, it becomes increasingly important to highlight those programmes that are worth watching, and worth sticking with.

G.L.O.W, or the gorgeous ladies of wrestling, is one such show. A show entertains, but also highlights progressive and pertinent issues of race and gender. Based on the concept of the 1980s syndicated women’s wrestling circuit, the series follows the attempts to create a women’s wrestling TV show. Set in the eighties, the show follows Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) an actress who is either largely unsuccessful, or is consigned to the reductive female roles that are on offer at the time.

The opening scene in the series shows Ruth auditioning for a role, a role into which she has clearly invested herself in, only to be told that she is reading the man’s part. Quickly reading for the female character, we see Ruth’s lines reduced both in length and quality. Desperate, and struggling to fund her increasingly unrealistic aspiration, she auditions for G.L.O.W.

It is here in which the viewer is introduced to the eclectic ensemble cast which, initially at least, feels trope-like and rather regressive. Each character we are introduced to is largely defined by either a stereotype or an obvious characteristic feature. Kate Nash, as Rhonda then, is the British character. Jackie Tohn as Melrose, is the wealthy, spoilt party girl. These stereotypes and simple signifiers are, while seemingly reductive, actually both necessary and considered.

Firstly, as with all first episodes of a series, a stereotype is often necessary to allow initial engagement with a character; a simple signifier to tell us what we need to know about the character, and how the writer intends for the character to perceived. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, these stereotypes are then fed into the stereotypes that the female wrestlers create for themselves. Creating their own character, one over which they can claim ownership.

While the narrative of the series is largely simplistic, focusing on the creation of the show as well as Ruth’s difficulty in dealing with the aftermath of her own actions (sleeping with her best friend’s husband), it is the interaction between the women that help bolster G.L.O.W.’s quality. The female characters are individuals, each complete with their own motivations and desires. Importantly, the cast is made up of actors from a range of ethnic backgrounds, and while their representation is certainly not perfect, this is to be commended given the lack of representation of people of colour in mainstream television.

It is crucial that a show like G.L.O.W. exists. One in which the cast is female-focused, and successfully passes the Bechdel test. One in which the female characters are engaging, allowed to make mistakes, and allowed to take issue with their treatment. Debbie, in dealing with her cheating husband, highlights the standard by which her husband expects her to adhere to. Attempting to curtail her artistic ambitions if he deems them to be superficial or silly.

 

Murdered for Being Different – Review

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Producing a factual drama is always a complex task. A writer may feel indebted to the reality, and thus reluctant to stray from the truth. Others may adapt, or alter the truth in pursuit of drama and narrative engagement, risking alienating the audience (particularly those familiar with the case). Often, the factual dramas that have been best received are those that intentionally adopt an alternative perspective. Thus, The Moorside, detailing the Shannon Matthews case, chose to focus on Julie Bushby rather than Karen Matthews, allowing the audience an insight into the case, without casting aspersions.

Since moving to online only, BBC Three has focused on generating creative, socially important output. Murdered for Being Different appears to form part of an unofficial triptych which includes the critically acclaimed Murdered by My Boyfriend, and Murdered by My Father. 

Murdered for Being Different details the well-known case of Sophie Lancaster. Sophie, and her boyfriend of three years Rob, were brutally attacked in a park in Lancashire by a group of teenagers ten years ago. The media largely focused on promoting Sophie and Rob’s ‘otherness’, highlighting their participation in alternative culture and their Goth appearance. Rob, the only survivor of the attack, has subsequently decried the media’s focus on their appearance, rightly stating that this focus has implications of victim blaming. As Rob has stated in interviews that were held as part of the BBC three production of the event, Sophie was murdered because ‘some arseholes killed her. What can’t we ask what it is about them that made them want to murder someone?’

Dealing with such an event, one which received much media attention, and has had considerable ramifications on both society and those affected, can be problematic. Creator Nick Leather combats this by inviting the direct involvement of Rob. While Rob remembers little of the attack, such were the extent of his injuries, he does remember his relationship with Sophie. These memories, presented as idyllic and almost dreamlike, act as a stark contrast to the aggressive violence that both Rob and Sophie suffered. Rob paints wings onto Sophie’s back, turning her into the angel that he perceives her to be. She reads Harry Potter to him after he purchases the last instalment for her at midnight. Rob has trekked through the night after he is left with no bus money after the purchase.

Wisely, the drama does not attempt to create any sense of narrative tension. There is no need when the audience knows the result. Rather, the drama focuses on the futility and senselessness of the violence, and the tender nature of Rob and Sophie’s relationship. Their first meeting, depicted as taking place in a loud music venue in which the pair are forced to communicate via non-verbal gestures, utilises both music and visuals. Rob spots Sophie across a crowd, and the attraction is instant. Her face, flickering in and out of frame in time with the lights, draws both Rob and the audience to her.

While we are only afforded an insight into their relationship, its depiction created in collaboration with Rob, allows for the portrayal of a meaningful connection, ensuring that the pair’s attack (only truly revealed in its horror at the end of the narrative) is all the more brutal.

In depicting Sophie’s death, the drama does not set out to entertain or create drama. Rather it hopes to highlight the crime, and the impact that it had on those around them. Leather succeeds in this aim, resulting in the creation of an affecting piece. A piece that will stay with you long after the credits have ended.

3/5