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February 2016

Spotlight: Why The Oscars and #Oscarsowhite Mattered

From what little I saw, Oscars host Chris Rock didn't just address the elephant in the room; he rode that (white) elephant all around the stage. And if that was a little uncomfortable for the blindingly white, tuxedoed and gowned millionaires in the room, so be it.

However, I did not watch or live-tweet the Oscars, primarily because my antenna had other plans. I think CultureGeek HQ needs a new antenna. I'll catch the salient bits (and weep over the obit reel) off Hulu tomorrow.

I did keep up with the awards via Twitter, knowing all along that Spotlight would never win. This proves I should never actually gamble in Vegas.

To be fair, I've made an unofficial study over the years of the resoundingly negative portrayal of the news media in television and film (and books, to a lesser extent), and so expected no real groundswell for a movie in which reporters are heroes. I've done several presentations 0n the subject at conventions, and gave one such presentation just Saturday, with some very interesting discussion.

I do not believe it is a coincidence that as the portrayals of journalists have become increasingly unrealistic and negative, the public's opinion of journalism and journalists has become downright hostile. 

I pointed out to the audience on Saturday that when journalism movies are portraying real life, the movies tend to show us as heroes. Oh, there's always a Shattered Glass or two. But when there's a Veronica Guerin, The Insider, Good Night and Good Luck, Frost/Nixon, All The President's Men or Spotlight, you see the work we really do, and sometimes, the bravery it takes.

I told the audience in that presentation that I really hoped Spotlight would win, because we deserved it for all the years of J. Jonah Jameson. So when Twitter piped up with the news Sunday night, I squealed loudly enough that CultureGeek Jr. emerged from his room, making sure I wasn't dead.

It's easy to dismiss the Oscars, because at its heart it is a popularity contest among uber-rich celebrities. The people who vote for the Oscars are the people who made the movies; if they let the movie-goers vote, Transformers would have won best picture. Shudder.

Who cares what spoiled millionaires think was the best film of the year? For that matter, why care about films when there are real problems, when real people are hurt? From what little I was able to garner of Rock's monologue at the beginning, that's a real reason for the lack of protest in, say, the 1960s. "We had real things to protest," he said, or so I think, before my antenna died. 

But it matters. Movies matter. Popular culture matters. That's the reason for this blog, why I've kept it going in my (ha ha) spare time after it was canceled. That's the reason for #Oscarsowhite.

If journalism is the first rough draft of history, popular culture is the first rough draft of the artistic legacy we leave behind for future generations. 

That means skillfully crafted works of art like Spotlight and dregs of the film industry like Ted 2. If that last one makes you shudder, just imagine if that was the only surviving example of the 21st century's film legacy left for future generations to study.

Since the beginning of civilization, art has been a reflection of the society that humankind has built. Whether it's Michelangelo in the pay of wealthy patrons and under the thumb of a Pope painting a ceiling, a woman writing an audacious novel about a slave named Uncle Tom, a group of screenwriters appearing before Congress on allegations of treason based on their jokes, or a story of five journalists digging into rumors around the Catholic church in Boston, the art we create reflects the times in which we live, for better or for worse.

By studying popular culture and its representations of heroes and villains, of races and genders, both good and bad, we learn about ourselves, then and now. And in future generations, the art that survives tells them about what kind of people we were, about the world we built for ourselves, and perhaps more about from whence they came.

If that seems like too much to put on a highly commercialized industry like Hollywood, you might be right. But it matters. It's too easy to dismiss as spoiled celebrities patting themselves on the back before they go off to make more millions entertaining us in overpriced theaters. The art that survives is the art that resonates with us, even moreso than the art that makes money. 

Something about Spotlight resonated with us. And to me, that's enormously important. Spotlight showed journalists doing what we do best: shining the light on a problem, because it forces those in power to do something about it. That means there might be hope yet for the rest of the country to recognize what we do, and why it's important. To them, and to all of us.

So, congratulations not only to the cast and crew of Spotlight, but to Martin Baron and the real journalists who conducted the Globe's investigation. May history remember what they did, and why it was important, through the art that depicted it and better days for all the survivors.


Dear SVU: There’s a fine line between “homage” and “ripoff.” You skated right up to that line last week.

Look, we get that you wanted to do something with Clinton Correctional, and Yates is the creepiest critter we’ve seen in years on this show. And I was right with you on the poster on the wall - that was an “homage.”

Having an officer stick his hand through the poster and rip it away to reveal the hole? Yeah, there’s that pesky line.

Some have argued that this venerable show is running out of stories. Sadly, SVU lives off the headlines of sex crimes and child abuse, and we never seem to run out of inspiration. We’ve topped our quota of “Benson is taken hostage” with the recent townhouse incident, but despite the repetition, it was horrifying and compelling enough to overcome the fact that this always. happens. to Benson.

And we get that you’re ordered to help out lesser shows like Chicago P.D. with the crossovers, though I could not care less about the bungee stars joining our heroes. But I'm kind of resentful that I'm going to have to go look it up to see how this ends. It was much more fun when it was Homicide.

You’re still one of the finest shows on television, and on a strong forward push to defeat your parent show’s record (and Gunsmoke’s) to eventually be the longest-running show on television. The quality is unsurpassed, the characters continue to evolve and you hit on serious, important issues on a regular basis. That’s one of the reasons I’ve always loved your show: few enough TV shows care to do anything with a social conscience, and SVU has done everything from campus rape to police shootings to violence against transgender people.

So please be careful. Another fist through a poster and you’re circling shark-infested waters. Remember: one is an homage, another is a ripoff.

TVGeek: The Best Show You Aren't Watching

Sad news for Agent Carter fans, though probably good news for Hayley Atwell: the marvelous British star has been cast in a new show.

Usually that would mean a knife to the heart of, quite frankly, the best superhero show on television right now. Granted, that's an opinion with an asterisk after it, as I am not watching Arrow, so fans of that one can throw all the rotten tomatoes they like. But Agent Carter is consistently entertaining, nuanced, fun, and has the best superhero star ever. Peggy Carter is smart, capable, occasionally bullheaded and also carrying an eternal torch for the long-lost Captain America. But it doesn't stop her from being amazing, folks.

See, Agent Carter realizes that a woman can be smart, and feminine, and fall in and out of love, and still be absolutely kickass at her job. It's an astounding leap that 99.999 percent of television (fantastic and otherwise) hasn't yet figured out. Watch the latest episode, in which we find out some background on another woman, who is a science genius but forced into model-acting and arm candy because of the times in which she lives. As a young woman, her mother sneers at her science homework and forces her to look at herself in the mirror, telling her this is all that she is, all that anyone cares about. "No one cares what's in your head," Mommy Dearest snaps.

That's the world in which Peggy Carter lives, and sadly, it informs most of television as well. Pretty means dumb, smart means "quirky" or downright ugly, women in love generally become morons and always they need saving. Peggy doesn't just bust that stereotype; she kills it with a back spin kick and then shoots it for good measure. And she does so with intelligence and integrity, while carrying just enough hard edge to keep from being perfect. 

It's almost embarrassing how much better Agent Carter is than its partner show, Agents of SHIELD. Wait, did that show come back this year? Because I keep losing interest, and I go back and find it when everything else is on hold. Supergirl makes weak slaps at feminist principles; Agent Carter smacks down patriarchy without mussing her awesome red hat. If all the superhero shows were lined up in my Apple TV at the same time, Agent Carter is the one I turn on first (though Jessica Jones is close). All that is setting aside the embarrassing lack of female superheroes - particularly leads - in this new golden age of superhero fiction.

And you're not watching.

Yeah, you. Agent Carter has ratings lower than the root cellar under my basement. If you watched one hour of reality TV instead of Agent Carter, you officially get the CultureGeek Side-Eye. I'm not the only one who loves this show: it's got 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and is calling for its renewal despite Atwell's new gig, as both networks say they'll work out the schedule if it comes to that. Check this out:

"It effortlessly uses its time period to its advantage by telling relatable and familiar stories that are honest about sexism, racism, and even the Red Scare without the series feeling like a stuffy period drama. It treats all of its characters with respect and care, depicts women as being complex individuals with hopes and dreams to rival their male counterparts, and none of it feels like a heavy-handed agenda." --

It's nice when the big boys say it, because then I don't have to. Why aren't you watching this show? Catch it now, before it goes away.

TVGeek: Heroes Reborn

This will be the shortest review I’ve ever written: Yuck.

Okay, not quite that short. Look, I loved the first season of Heroes. It was amazing, transcendent television, worthy of binging any weekend. The second season fell off a cliff, and the third season never got back on its feet. It was sad, but I did not mourn when they put it out of our misery.

So I was tentatively excited for its rebirth, even though I knew all the gold-plated latinum in the universe wouldn’t lure Hayden Panettiere away from Nashville.

And I barely made it through the pilot.

It’s like they took all the worst parts of season three and mashed it up with a horrible stereotypical Asian-fetish subplot and then threw it in a video game for extra eyerolls.

Every time the idiot gamer showed up at the stereotype’s door and watched her jump into a goddamn video game - to rescue her father, natch - I wanted to fast-forward. Plus Mohinder was now a villain - or was he? - and no sign of Hiro, Matt Parkman or the Petrellis, though I hear they show up later. Zachary Levi shows up, which provided a brief moment of fun, but really, not enough. CultureGeek Junior was out the moment he saw his hero Chuck as a bad guy. “Do not want,” he declared.

I suffered through the first hour. I have no interest in going back unless someone tells me I gave up too soon. I’ll rewatch Season One instead.

TVGeek: Homeland

I’m strangely fond of this convoluted, dour, intense and ultimately repetitive show. It began as a spin on The Manchurian Candidate, with a POW war hero who is only suspected of being a double agent by one highly unreliable operative: Carrie Mathison, played brilliantly by Claire Danes as a barely-functioning bipolar woman with questionable taste in men.

Season Four has just wrapped up, at least for me. Season One was brilliant, taut and kept me pressing “next episode” far past my bedtime. Season Two continued that, but Season Three wavered off of the story premise and follows Carrie into insanely convoluted world politics.

Season Four is a tad less convoluted, thank goodness. It’s actually possible to keep up with the various storylines and who’s screwing who (in the figurative and literal sense) without a diagram. Characterization is much improved among the minor characters, and I finally remember enough people's names to know who to yell at. The shining star continues to be Danes as Carrie, while I wonder how the hell Mandy Patinkin is still on this show. He allegedly quit Criminal Minds after its first season because he found it too dark. And this isn't?

On the one hand, the show is brilliant and sadly realistic in the near-futile repetition of fighting the same battles over and over in different countries. On the other hand, this isn’t a documentary. Season Four at least managed to streamline enough so that the action compensates for the intrigue, a step from Season Three.

In the end, “convoluted, dour, intense and ultimately repetitive” is a good analogy for global politics and anti-terrorism. But Homeland walks a fine line between realism and the need to keep the story entertaining and not so hopelessly nihilistic that the viewership runs off to watch Dancing With the Stars.


Superb Owl 2016 Roundup

While the fans of the Mean Kitties mourn and fans of the Fire Horses celebrate, it's time for the real competition: The Ads. 

Overall, this year was a yawner. None of them stuck out as truly hysterical, powerful or even effective. At least we lacked the theme of several years running, "weak men and the women who harangue them." Or last year's quasi-depressing "heartfelt" ads that made us all run for the bar. This year, the theme was pretty much mediocrity. The good ads were mildly good; the bad ads were mildly bad; and the only real theme seemed to be, "inanimate objects will insult you." 

On to the ads, as nominated by those at the marvelous Superb Owl party I am honored to attend each year, and the good folks who followed along my livetweet and cross-post to Facebook. It's always more fun to watch with friends.



Helen Mirren's Budweiser-sponsored PSA calling all drunk drivers "pillock." Important and amusing, with the bonus of wondering if Mirren actually would drink Bud. 

Jeep's "Portraits," one of the few truly moving ads this year with images from history interspersed with Jeep's part of it. I found it compelling, and even more interested in Jeep, which is kind of the point of ads.

• Who would have expected one of the best ads to be promoting avocados? Sci-fi zoo displays the blue dress (yes, it's blue) and poor Scott Baio, who doesn't even get the guac. Amusing and it made me want avocados. By the end of the night, everyone was giving it a thumbs-up.

• Lady Gaga's rendition of the National Anthem was beautiful and highlighted her considerable talent. The automatic comparison to Whitney Houston falls short, but barely. One amusing meme already circulating pointed out that her costume was "Super Bowl" by day and "hosting the Hunger Games" by night, but by Gaga standards, it was practically subdued.

BMW Mini's "Defy Labels" falls in the win column for me solely because I am dead tired of car ads that center on "image" and "lifestyle." Look, a clue for Madison Avenue: It's a car. Four wheels and an engine, a method of transportation. If you want to sell me a car, talk to me about gas mileage, reliability, safety and price. Stop trying to sell me an image and then relate it to the car as though buying the car makes me a different person. So even though I could never afford a BMW, I appreciate their attempt to shunt off the labels that say a car makes you more this and less something else or whatever. It's a freaking car.

• Others that people liked: "Moving On Up" spoof for, Death Wish Coffee with the valiant Vikings, the Singing Sheep (who really rocked, but didn't actually sell me a truck, which is baaaaaad.)

The Halftime Show. Granted, every show is a comparison to the nadir of live entertainment, the year of the Blackeyed Peas and the Dancing Boxheads. This year, I struggled past the realization that Coldplay's "oldies" segment dated to my college years and that 1995 really was 21 years ago. Then Bruno Mars stepped up, and Beyonce was queen, as usual. She never fails to impress, and the subtext of her Michael Jackson jacket and backup dancers in Black Panther gear was apparent (and the racists rose up on Twitter). I enjoyed it despite my decrepitude, and CultureGeek Jr. liked it as well. It's a rare musical act that can please both old and young.



• In all fairness, several people nominated the Town Full of Ryan Reynolds as one of their favorites. I was mildly interested at first - Reynolds isn't my thing, but it was amusing in a "whut" kind of way, and I'm intrigued by Hyundai's pedestrian-alarm auto-stop feature. But later, others pointed out that car commercials underscoring "women are lousy drivers" should be relegated to the 1950s where they belong. My usual test for sexism is to flip the genders: would this be possible or considered funny if the genders were reversed? If it were a man distracted by a town full of beautiful women, would we be laughing? Maybe, but for the same reason: a stereotype that men are hormonally stupid, whereas this one said that women were hormonally stupid. So it's a good thing the car is smarter than we are? 

Shock Top beer's trash-talking tap continues that brand's strange idea that insulting its patrons is a good way to get them to drink your beer. I was amused by speculation that if Helen Mirren had been in that ad, she'd have put that mouthy orange wedge in its place.

Audi aimed for the heartstrings with the retired astronaut reliving his glory days by... driving an Audi, while listening to David Bowie. Points for intent, but in the end, it fell short, as did Steven Tyler's Skittles portrait.

• The Snickers "you're not yourself" ad caused a little controversy. Willem Dafoe transforms into Marilyn Monroe, so we can film The Seven-Year Itch. I thought it was amusing at first; then some discussion referred to it as transphobic. Was it funny because of the ongoing schtick, or because we were looking at Willem Dafoe in a dress? At first I didn't think much of it; last year, after all, we howled when Danny Trejo turned into Marcia Brady. But quite frankly, it isn't for me as a cisgendered heterosexual white woman to say what is or is not transphobic.



• Christopher Walken doing hand puppets with colored socks? It started out so well! And then the ad - with a message of "don't be beige" - switches to a Kia Optima. A white Kia Optima. Perhaps, if trying to teach us to be individuals, maybe not showing us such a boring product.

T-Mobile tries to blame lawyers for evil cell phone company policies. Yawn. Likewise Turbotax's "Never a Sellout," because Sir Anthony Hopkins deserves a better ad.

• There was one person excited about LG's "Man From the Future" ad with Liam Neeson. But seriously, who's hunting after wafer-thin TV shows? Waste of talent.

Prius's bank robber chase would have been mildly amusing, except it seemed to stem from some perceived public opinion that Prius's are slow, inefficient or otherwise mockable. Maybe I haven't been listening to the right late-night comedians, but everyone I know either loves Prius or wants one. It's also not much of an endorsement: "Prius is the preferred brand of felons everywhere!"

• The side effect of being tired of political news is that even when it's a spoof, we don't want to join the Bud Light Party. As writer Keith R.A. DeCandido pointed out, Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen were diminished by their Budweiser commercial; Budweiser was elevated by Helen Mirren's.

Doritos "Ultrasound" was annoying and quasi-horrifying for any woman who's been in labor, with bonus creepy points if you realize the subtext: "Doritos: Causing Miscarriage/Horribly Premature Birth!" Note: This was one of those fan-made spots, and there were some fans.

• Actively offensive: Buick believes women will fight each other over a bouquet, because naturally we're all vying to get married. Ah, sexism. What would the Superb Owl be without it? Note: My mockery of this one got me MRA types messaging me on Twitter! Ah, Internet, never change.

• The ones that were so mediocre as to be unmemorable: Squarespace with Key and Peele, Michelob's "Breathe," Doritos' dogs attempting to sneak into a grocery story, Marmot's marmot is disturbed (as are we) by an amorous camper.

Hyundai's "First Date" was a close contender for worst ad, with Kevin Hart stalking his clearly-adult daughter on her date. In full disclosure, several people thought it was funny. But frankly, I am tired beyond words of the whole "overprotective dad threatens boys with murder" schtick. It is insulting to girls because it robs them of their agency, their autonomy and their right to choose their own partners without clearing it with their owners - er, fathers. It is insulting to boys because it assumes they have no control of themselves and have no sense of right or wrong save fear of mutilation. Instead, read this column, which has been traveling around the internet this week. "If I treat my daughters with respect, listen to them when they speak, nurture their self-confidence, and honor who they are as young women then they will expect that from other men as well."




Movie ads get their own category, because the quality of the ad is inherently tied to the quality of the movie it advertises. Someone who hates superhero movies will not be moved by the best ad showcasing one. So here's a roundup of the coming attractions, and whaddya mean, no Ghostbusters?

• Jason Bourne gets a teaser, and for some reason I didn't know this was happening. I thought they had rebooted with Jeremy Renner, so it just goes to show that I need to keep my ear to the ground more. And, um, catch up with two or three more movies. The promo shows us nothing about the plot beyond "Another Bourne Movie," with bonus Tommy Lee Jones.

• 10 Cloverfield Lanethe sequel no one asked for and most of us aren't sure should happen. At first I thought it was  gender-switched Misery, and John Goodman makes everything better. (Well, almost everything.) Bonus: It doesn't appear to be shaky-cam! (Seriously, I don't mind found footage, but Cloverfield nearly made me ill. I spent some of the movies "watching" with my eyes closed to avoid nausea.)

• Independence Day: Resurrection told us nothing we didn't already know about the movie. The only actual line is Jeff Goldblum's "What goes up must come down," which is something we were all screaming during the first movie only nobody was listening then! #physics Still, since I adored the original movie (warts and all), I can't help but be excited... and the visual of a city in literal upheaval? Almost (but not quite) as amazing as 1996's Super Bowl ad blowing up the White House.

• Captain America: Civil War pretty much had me squeeing on the floor, even if I'm annoyed that Black Widow is on Team Iron Man. (I'm totally Team Cap, in case anyone cares.) Still wondering how/why Tony is flitting about in the suit when he had the glowy thingamabob removed in the last movie (spoilers! Wait, that was, like, two years ago. Bite me.) But... it's Cap!

• Speaking of movies I can't wait to see... the flashback crew made me love X-Men again after the debacle that was X3, so Apocalypse looks pretty nifty. What am I saying? I'd watch it no matter what. 

• Deadpool was a big hit at the party. I'm not a big fan, but I'll probably watch it. Just not on Valentine's Day. (Bonus: "I always wanted to be a professional athlete. Because I wanted to have children in cities all over the world." Ouch.)

Others. There was Teenage Mutant Ninja Reptiles or something. Look, I didn't watch the show when it was cartoon or comic, and Megan Fox would not have been my choice for the smart, capable young reporter. And there was a cobbled-together 30-second spot for Jungle Book that didn't impress (and gave at least one reader the impression that Baloo was going to be a dumbass bro-type). So here's a better Jungle Book trailer. Finally, it doesn't matter how many times they show me trailers for Gods of Egypt. It's still the whitest Egypt in modern film historyHere ya go, moviemakers.



 • We're tired of Verizon vs. T-Mobile, but props to Steve Harvey for owning his mistake and turning it into a funny.



• The decidedly unscientific poll is rarely unanimous, but in this case, Mountain Dew's unsettling puppymonkeybaby was the clear winner - or loser. Disturbing, unfunny and generally termed "nightmare fuel," no one liked this one.


 • If you're going to steal a mini Coke from the Hulk, you'd best be Ant-Man. 

TVGeek: The Affair

I don't really know how to write coherently about The Affair. I watch far too much television, and most of it ends up being background noise while I'm working on the laptop in the evening. But this is a show that haunts me, and no matter how many different ways I come at it, its true depths elude me.

In terms of plot, it is no different than any other family-drama soap opera. The story is bone-simple, almost paint-by-numbers. But the characters drawn in this series are so complex, so brilliantly acted and wonderfully damaged, that I am helpless to stop watching them or feeling for them.

As the series begins, Noah is a frustrated writer. He is married to Helen, and they have four kids. Noah wrote one book, which did rather poorly, and settled into a life as father and teacher. Each summer, they take the kids to the seaside town of Montauk where they visit Helen's parents. Helen was a wild hippie in college and is now an antiques dealer. But she has uber-rich parents; Dad is a celebrated literary genius and egotist, and Mom is the nastiest, most poisonous bitch in television. Seriously, you can look at Claire Underwood all the way back to Joan Collins, and it'd be hard to match Helen's mom. 

Noah is trapped. He genuinely seems to love his family (and his quasi-spoiled, decidedly messed-up kids), as well as Helen, with whom he has decades of shared history. But every time he speaks to the in-laws, they dig the knife into the places where we see him hurting: he's a failure as a writer, he's financially dependent on his wife's family money, he's useless and unnecessary in his own life story.

That's when Noah meets Alison, a former nurse turned waitress who is recovering from a terrible trauma. She is married to Cole, who isn't handling their shared trauma any better than she is. Alison is bright but unstable, occasionally quasi-suicidal, a lifelong resident drawn to the ocean in a love-hate balance that is captivating to watch. For his part, Cole has a whacked-out family full of drug dealers and low-IQ crazies, and delves into some pretty dark, violent shadows.

Montauk itself is a character, a seaside town that simultaneously lives off the rich summer people and despises them. That isn't a new story any more than "mid-life crisis" is a new story, but The Affair does not glamorize the townies either. The summer people may be self-involved 1-percenters, but the townies are not blue-collar heroes. It reveals the prejudices, longtime feuds and willful ignorance that is, sadly, sometimes the way of small towns. 

And of course, there's a murder.

At its most basic, The Affair is nothing more than the chronicle of a mid-life crisis. A married man bored with his pedestrian life sleeps with a woman he shouldn't, and lives are wrecked. But there are two things that make it different. One is the characterization, as mentioned before: every character is fascinatingly complex and strangely damaged. The other is the structure: Every episode tells the same story from multiple perspectives.

In the first season, we see each moment from Noah's perspective, and then from Alison's. And there are differences in the perspectives: for example, when Noah and Alison meet the first time, he sees her as wearing a much shorter skirt than she remembers. In a later moment, both perspectives agree that Noah caught sight of Alison and Cole having sex. In Alison's version, Noah is a creepy voyeur getting off on watching them; in Noah's version, Alison is a teasing exhibitionist, enjoying watching Noah watch her.

There is something fascinating about seeing the same story through different eyes. We never know which is true - in fact, with unreliable narrators, neither may be the whole of any truth. We have to piece together the story from two different truths, and even better, the story jumps around. We have a frame story in the supposed present, in which someone is being investigated for a murder (we don't even know the victim for half of Season One) and it's years after that summer at the seashore. And then the main story follows that summer and its disastrous consequences.

In the second season, we mix it up even more: we see the progression of both stories through Noah's eyes, and Alison's.... and Helen's, and Cole's. Nobody deals very well with the mess created that summer, and I found myself yelling at characters for their poor life choices, just like a soap opera. Noah particularly got a lot of yelling from me - he spends much of season two as the most undisciplined, selfish prick you can imagine. Take every stereotype about the rock-star author behaving badly on the book tour circuit, and roll it up into Noah. Yeah, I've seen that guy on the tour, and I didn't like him much then, either.

On the surface, The Affair is simply enjoyable as an incredibly well-acted soap opera. From its haunting and transcendent theme song - one of only two TV theme songs I have sought for my writing playlist - to the intensity of its character conflicts to the visuals of Montauk, it can be watched simply as intense personal drama.


But to me, it is trying to say something more. Both Noah and Alison are struggling against something more than their forbidden lust. Noah's struggle is against himself, the feeling that he is more than either life he has chosen. In the second season, he has a therapy session (with the amazing Cynthia Nixon) in which he spins an elaborate web of rationalizations for the choices he has made. This is long, but bear with me.

NOAH: Helen once told me that when she reads obituaries, she's looking for whether the person loved or was loved. Did they have a family, were they married long, did they have children, grandchildren. It kind of blew my mind at the time, because it never occurred to me to judge someone by their family.  

THERAPIST: Instead, you're looking at what?

NOAH: What they did.  

THERAPIST: Meaning their work, their accomplishments.

NOAH: Yes.

THERAPIST: And yet there's something about what Helen said that stayed with you.

NOAH: I just think there are so many different matrices by which to measure a man's worth, and I don't know which is right. I'm writing a whole book about this question, at least I'm trying to...

(snip as he talks about the new book)

NOAH: He was flawed, and imperfect and selfish, and that, I now realize, is what makes the book compelling. It's the center of all of it. What do we make of this guy? Does the fact that he had sex with a movie star outside his marriage, does that somehow negate all his achievements? Or do those traits that led him to cheat: ego, intensity, drive... do they also lead him to achieve? 

THERAPIST: Those are some big questions.


NOAH: I've known for a while I wanted to take the next step. I wanted to do something with scope, something serious and significant. 

THERAPIST: Do you notice the words you use to describe Bradley's life - big, significant, great - you're now using them to describe the new book... How does this subject relate to your own life?

NOAH: I want to know if it's possible, really possible, to be both. A good man, and a great man. The way Helen reads the obituaries, for long-lasting marriages, for virtue, basically. Monogamy, partnership, love. I mean, do the men who Helen thinks led good lives, how many of them also had great lives?

THERAPIST: It depends on what you mean by great.

NOAH: Would General Bradley have conquered Normandy if he'd been home changing diapers? I'm serious. You look at the way this guy led his life, he went out in the world and he followed his instincts and he took whatever he wanted. Maybe he was narcissistic,  maybe Mary was unhappy, but his life had consequence. He basically won the war for us. So do we judge him for his absence for his family  and his infidelity, or do we just let that slide, because what does it matter in the end? The guy stopped Hitler.

THERAPIST: What does it matter... to whom?

NOAH: There is a certain type of man that history reveres. You see it over and over: Jefferson, Hamilton, Picasso, Hemingway, all of them cheaters. It's like they have this bald desire, this willingness to take whatever they want, that ends up making them remarkable.

THERAPIST: Again, I want to understand how this connects to you.

NOAH: What if, I mean, what if I have it in me to be great? What if the only thing that separates me from Ernest Hemingway is that he never had to choose? He just gave himself permission to do whatever the fuck he wanted in the name of his work and he didn't care who he made suffer.

THERAPIST: And he blew out his brains at 60.

NOAH: (laughs) Well, what does that mean?

Alison, meanwhile, is grappling with horrific grief and a lack of focus; she doesn't know what she wants, or who she wants. Usually a character that indecisive is annoying as hell for me, but Alison is different. She's a force of nature, she changes with her environment, and we see her not as a victim per se, but perhaps as a leaf on the wind, and just as fragile. She tries on several roles: Cole's "wounded bird" wife, Noah's smiling girlfriend out of place in sophisticated New York, capable assistant to strangely hot-and-cold neighbors, restaurant owner, medical student. Nothing really seems to fit her, including Noah's image of her as portrayed in his second book, the one that sets him free from his in-laws but also chains him to a creative life that, in its way, stifles him as much as failure ever did. 

It seems like the show is trying to say things about the roles we play in our lives, about striving to be more than we are and our inevitable failures to live up to our own expectations or the expectations of others. This is where The Affair stops being a soap opera: while it is certainly melodramatic, it does not ascribe to a candy-coated happily-ever-after view of love or marriage or even sex. Even the layers have layers, and there is no one who does not end up trapped at some point or another. The Affair seems to say that more than money, status, education or circumstances of birth, it is those we love who trap us the most - and yet money, status, education and circumstances of birth play the vital parts in each person's life as it unfolds. There is no action without consequence.

I've written much more about this show than I usually do, but that's because it haunts me. Perhaps because it centers so much on the creative life - if you're a regular reader, you know that I'm a fiction novelist, though not nearly as successful or egocentric as Noah, I hope. The purpose of art is to evoke emotion and thought, and The Affair does that and more.