The Least Interesting Character On Orange Is The New Black

That title goes to Piper Chapman. It is not often that the supposedly central character on a show can pull this off, but we have evidence now that such an accomplishment is possible. This is not just because Piper is guilty of being WASP’ily ‘precious’ or ‘special’ or ‘privileged’ in the way that her fellow inmates describe as her as being; neither is it because her on-screen persona can very often be teeth-grindingly irritating; and it certainly is not because she is capable of a great deal of pettiness and petulance. Quite simply, there just isn’t that much there. She doesn’t have great lines, and she has little substance to flesh out the front she puts on. Every appearance of her on screen is guaranteed to suck the life out of the episode; it is with relief that we welcome the show’s many other fascinating characters back on stage. (Taystee for instance.)

Piper’s background–shown in flashback, like that of many other characters on OITB–is not particularly intriguing: she ran drugs, was a small business owner in Brooklyn, once had a girlfriend, got engaged, and then got busted. (So unremarkable has this history been that I cannot even remember if we have been granted access via time travel to her childhood years, exposure to which in the case of the other characters has often been quite illuminating.) Her personal conflicts with her fiancée, Larry Bloom, are mildly diverting, but they do not make us empathize or sympathize; somehow, amazingly enough, we fail to feel the pain of a couple separated by imprisonment. (Indeed, her supporting crew on the ‘outside,’ including Larry and her brother, are far more interesting; the latter, especially, should have a spin-off show of his own.) Her relationship with her former partner in crime and girlfriend, Alex Vause, has its moments, but there again, it is sunk by a certain banality; would we care if they broke up or stayed together or punched each other out in the dining hall? Indeed, the injection of the used panty business and the new romantic interest, Stella Carlin the tattooed Australian felon, in the third season, seem like rather desperate attempts by the show’s writers to spice up not just Piper’s life in prison, but also our interest in her. It is just not clear why we should care about this woman with so many other interesting and intriguing women (and men) around. It’s OK to find a character hateful, or irritating, or offensive; it is fatal to find the character just plain boring.

It is not entirely clear to me how this state of affairs has come about. I have not read Piper Kerman‘s book so I do not know if such a banality is present in the original story that underwrites the show. Still, I can only hope–like some other fans of the show that I know–that when Piper’s sentence runs its term, she will be packed off to Brooklyn, and the show will continue without her.

The Mad Men Can’t Quite Get Hold Of Me

A year or so ago, I wrote my first brief response to AMC’s Mad Men. Three episodes in, I described it as ‘grim’ and a ‘serious downer’. Now, five seasons in, I’m still inclined to that description. (The fact that it has  taken me this long to come close to exhausting Netflix’s online repository of its episodes should indicate I haven’t indulged in any kind of binge viewing and have been happy enough to suspend watching the show for a variety of reasons–like watching other television series and movies.)

I do not mean to be reductive in my take on Mad Men. I find its writing enjoyable and like many other viewers find Roger Sterling‘s lines particularly memorable (indeed, I often find myself wishing he was given more screen time); I appreciate its careful attention to its ‘look and feel’ – its sumptuous interiors and clothes most notably; I am cognizant the show attempts to highlight the misogyny, gender discrimination and racism of days gone by. This is a very slick and smart show in many ways.

But for all that, it simply isn’t compelling enough. I do not know if there is a story in there somewhere or whether I am merely paying witness to an episodic dysfunction of family, society and business. Perhaps I have made matters worse by watching it in the distracted fashion I have employed, but this consideration seems to involve a rather insuperable chicken-and-egg question: Was I distracted because Mad Men didn’t grab me, or was I not grabbed because I was distracted?

Perhaps it’s because I find Don Draper utterly vapid and uninteresting. I do not know if Draper is supposed to cut a tragic figure or whether my reaction is the appropriate one to have to a man of Madison Avenue. Perhaps the writers of the show have succeeded in making me realize the shallowness of the advertising executive.

Perhaps the show’s attempts to serve as a chronicle of the times don’t always work; I’m not sure why, but its references to, and attempts to integrate, ‘the world outside’ –as in its incorporation of the JFK assassination, the civil rights struggle, the death of Marilyn Monroe–sometimes feel forced.

But in the end, I think the reason I don’t find Mad Men as compelling as many others do remains the same as I articulated in my original post: I find advertising and its business and supposed creativity not very interesting at all. (It doesn’t help I consider mass advertising to have had a ruinous effect on political discourse in the US.) I am not intrigued by the processes that bring ad copy and art to life; I do not imagine those who work in advertising’s creative departments to be inspirational geniuses; (I am intrigued to hear so many of the shows fans say they find Draper’s pitches ‘clever’); I find talk of ‘account servicing’ tedious. These prejudices, I suspect, get in the way of my being able to enjoy the show fully.

Still, the show exerts a peculiar fascination on me; I intend to watch it in its entirety and will write on it again. This post, and my first one, have been rather superficial takes; perhaps my summation will be rather more synoptic and thoughtful.

Why The Talking Dead is a Bad Idea

Last night, I declined to watch the Oscars and chose The Walking Dead instead. If you’re going to watch zombies, why not watch a more interesting group of them? Snark aside, I had not seen most of last year’s crop of nominees, other than the mildly diverting Argo, and more to the point, I’ve burned out on the Motion Picture Academy’s annual orgy of self-congratulation. (Last year’s post on the Oscars described the genesis of this gradual turning away, one which started much, much earlier for the Grammys, and is now firmly in place for most awards of a similar kind.)

So, my choices for the evening settled, I turned to AMC. This represents a novelty of sorts for me. My following of television series has been restricted to watching the commercial-free episodes available on Netflix or bittorrent sites.  But my hankering for the Grim Grimesmeisters Hijinks had grown too acute, so there I was, braving myself to sit through the barrage of commercials that would inevitably accompany the latest installment of Zombie Apocalypse Bulletins. (I had begun this brave adventure last week, with the second episode of season three.)

The commercials were painful, but far more bothersome was AMC’s show The Talking Dead, which followed the new episode, an hour-long discussion of the episode with in-studio guests, a studio audience and a ‘surprise cast character.’ I had stopped watching after fifteen minutes the previous week, and this time around, my patience ran out after five.

The problem with The Talking Dead, and with any other show like it, which aims to dissect, discuss and lay threadbare an ongoing television show and wax ‘analytical’ about it, is that it dispels fantasy all too quickly. The point of watching a show like The Walking Dead (or Breaking Bad, or The Wire, or ) is to enter an alternate reality for a while, to be caught up in its story and characters, to come to believe, if only fleetingly, that the trials and tribulations of those on screen are real. A discussion show blows this imperative out of the water. It reminds us relentlessly, that the characters are just actors, often uninteresting people in their non-character personas, that directors, writers, and producers are pulling the strings and are often insufferably pompous, that locales are studio lots.  It connects the artfully constructed parallel universe to ours far too quickly; it raises the hood and peeks at the innards a little too closely. The Walking Dead in particular is supposed to be a grim show; it has little humor (both in the comic book and the series); the goofiness of The Talking Dead is especially grating.

I realize that I’m taking the on-the-surface silliness of The Talking Dead too seriously, so let me reiterate that the point being made here is a general one: too much inquiry into an ongoing fantasy is a bad idea. The serious fan should stay away; suspend disbelief, watch the show, and when you’re done, keep it that way. Till the next episode.

‘If It’s Dead, Kill It’: The Second Compendium of the Walking Dead

Last year, I discovered The Walking Dead (the television series and the comic book). Like most fans of the television series, I’m all caught up now with the second half of the third season. Given the disappointing nature of the first two episodes of the second half, I’m glad that I have something else to take care of my Walking Dead jonesing: the massive second compendium of the comic book (Compendium Two, Image Comics, 2013), which collects issues 49 through 96. (The series is up to issue 108 by now, so it will be a while before the third compendium will be released; in terms of tracking the relationship between the comic book and the television series, the third season is right about where the first Compendium ends.)

I’ve written on this blog before about the relationship between the comic book and the television series so I will not get into that again. Rather, reading the second Compendium has provided me an opportunity to make some educated guesses about where the show might be going, and even more interestingly, to examine the particular vision the creators of the comic book have about the post-zombie-apocalypse world.

Most prominently, it is clear the most interesting conflicts in the zombie world are not with the dead but with the living.  While zombies are deadly, and require vigilance, violence and nous to keep at bay, the human survivors are more insidious and harder to combat. Allusions to Hobbesian states of nature and methods to alleviate them are never too far from the surface in the comic book especially in the two Woodbury-like developments encountered in the second compendium.People are prickly, selfish, angry, paranoid, greedy, and all of the rest; turns out, in a world ruled by zombies those qualities are merely enhanced, not ameliorated. For the most part, this is what gives the comic book (and the television series) its edginess: there is almost always perpetual conflict between those who have survived. Like the first compendium, there is grotesque violence directed at humans even as we note that acts of violence directed against the dead have now become mild amusements.  And this is what makes the zombie world just so bothersome: there is no getting away from plain folks. Hell really is other people. (The second compendium also, finally, starts to allude to what really would be the biggest problem of all: an inconsistent and fast dwindling food supply.)

There is internal conflict too. Rick Grimes continues to be (literally) haunted by his memories as do other characters in a variety of ways. And there is a great deal of mourning, painful introspection and just second-guessing, for the numbers of the dead continue to pile up, each death generating its own profuse regret and bitterness. Indeed, if you’ve survived, you’re traumatized and will act out that trauma in one way or the other. This makes some episodes in the compendium a little tedious, as reading them approximates listening into a therapy session. Which should remind us: the busiest service providers in a zombie world would be grief counselors and psychotherapists. The Walking Dead are not just the zombies, they are the living too.

The Walking Dead and the Puzzle of Cinematic Adaptations

In my recent post on The Walking Deadin comparing the comic book series to the AMC television series–I said that I found the comic book more complex, more brutal, truer to the darkness of a post-apocalyptic world ruled by the dead and diseased. In saying this, it seemed to me that the filmmakers would have done better had they hewn closer to the comic’s story-lines and characters, thus capturing its zeitgeist by trying to display a greater literal fidelity to it.  In response, a friend said he preferred the show deviate from the comic book, as it already has, considerably, because he liked the idea of being surprised, of finding out anew what the show’s writers had done with it. I  take it that by this he also meant that he looked forward to the possibility of the show reinvigorating the comic book’s basic premises.  And thus, we found ourselves at the oldest of debates when it comes to cinematic adaptations: Should you-the writer–stay (with the original)–or should you go (by yourself)?

My friend is right, of course, that writers in charge of a cinematic adaptation have the blessed freedom to clear up confused storylines, eliminate weak characters, straighten out plots and all of the rest. Thus, in the case of The Walking Dead they have–besides the opportunity to exploit the medium’s possibilities to bring the animation to life–the chance to provide readers of the comic books with an entirely new experience. Conversely, they also have the chance to–pardon the French–fuck things up completely: they may introduce plot twists that make little sense, introduce not clarity but obfuscation to the show’s narrative, and make characters not stronger but considerably weaker and less interesting. (On the Internet Fan Planet of The Walking Dead, there is much dissatisfaction expressed about the characters on the show; I agree with some of those views.)

This leads me to suspect the show’s makers have backed away from a central fact about the comic series: To wit, it is  grim, very grim. Some of the conflict–of all stripes, not just the physical kind–and violence is, er, cartoonish, but a great deal is not, and bringing that frame by frame to the screen would have resulted in a show of almost unrelenting darkness. There is a grimness that must be faced up to if the post-apocalyptic world is to be reckoned with and translating the comic book closely to the screen would have been one way to have done it. I do not think it is an impossible task, and I do not think viewers would not have been able to deal with it. But the makers of the show seem to have decided–unfortunately, it must be said–to introduce more conventional characters and story-lines of conflict and resolution, in keeping with well-established television tropes, perhaps in the hope of keeping some of the grimness of the zombie-world at bay.

This does not mean that The Walking Dead is not a good television show; it still is. But comparing it to the comic book would be a mistake. The final word in these matters, to resolve the minor dilemma posed in the first paragraph above, is to treat these two cultural productions that happen to share the same name, as two entirely distinct entities, and to evaluate them accordingly.  A cop-out perhaps, but in these sorts of matters, it’s the only reasonable thing to do. (I wonder if this is a bit like comparing translated versions to originals?)

The Walking Dead Claim Another Victim

I have finally succumbed to The Walking Dead. As I had noted in a post earlier this week, I am ensconced in a friend’s apartment, house-sitting, with access to–among other things–an impressive collection of graphic novels. Included in them is the first compendium of The Walking Dead comic book series (Compendium One, May 6, 2009, issues 1-48), which I’ve worked through. I’ve also immersed myself in the AMC television series, watched the six episodes of the first season and am five episodes deep into the second; as you can see, I’ve been spending my time well. (I’m not a serious consumer of comic books so this represents a change in my reading habits and an investment in time. It has not been one I’ve regretted in the least.)

Obligatory show-comic comparison: the novel is starker, darker, more complex, but the show has its own strengths in creating and sustaining  moments of chilling horror and in the development of interesting characters and story-lines.

So, post-apocalyptic horror, eh? What is it good for? Well, the taglines at the back of the Compendium say it quite well:

How many hours are in a day when you don’t spend half of them watching television? When is the last time any of us REALLY worked to get something we wanted? How long has it been since any of us really NEEDED something that we wanted?

The world we knew is gone.

The world of comfort and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility. An epidemic of apocalyptic proportions has swept the globe causing the dead to rise and feed on the living. In a matter of months society has crumbled, no government, no grocery stores, no mail delivery, no cable TV.

In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living.

And living, really, when you get down to it, is a series of hard choices that need to be made. Portraying the making of those choices, in a world whose most distinctive characteristic is the corrosive proximity of death, disease,  and danger, is what gives both the comic books and the television series their gravity.  There is violence aplenty, but it is not what gives The Walking Dead its air of dread. That has been accomplished, quite well, by ensuring the world inhabited by Rick Grimes and his family is one whose relentless demands can produce in a parent the otherwise unthinkable thought that it might be better for an injured child to succumb  than to recover into a world made anew like this one. It’s  the visceral thought of a world like that is the fear that animates The Walking Dead.

For philosophy professors looking for pop culture material to illustrate reading lists: the show and the novel both bristle with segments that could be drawn into classroom discussions of states of nature, libertarian philosophy, ethical dilemmas, philosophy of technology, feminism, race relations and so on.

Note: I intend to write a follow-up post on the show’s treatment of sexuality.