Play All, p.8Clive James
Gilligan almost ditched the Breaking Bad project when he heard that HBO was going to make Weeds. He would have been wrong to do so—hundreds of millions of dollars wrong, and in show business you can’t get more wrong than that—but there is a case for Weeds being the better product. It has a better subject, simply because the central figure is a law-abiding woman, not a law-abiding man, turning criminal in order to cope with adversity: we don’t expect it from a woman. (Perhaps it is patronizing of us not to.) In Breaking Bad, Walter copes with lack of money by dispensing chemical danger to thousands of people. In Weeds, Nancy copes with lack of money by doing nothing worse than growing the soft and fragrant high that got so many of us through our belated adolescence, back there when the guitar licks of Jefferson Airplane floated sweetly over a crowded field of smoke. In fact Mary-Louise Parker looks a bit like Grace Slick. I soon got past my idée fixe that Parker was really the girlfriend Josh might have married instead of Donna. In The West Wing she was just another knockout Sorkin female highbrow with a fistful of Ph.D.s, but in Weeds she copes in the womanly way that so many of us fatherless ones learned to admire in our youth, although it tended to scare us in perpetuity by just the degree that we felt compelled to admire it. A lasting tribute to the female show-runner Jenji Kohan, Nancy is a heroic figurehead for womanly competence, a Florence Nightingale with incense in her lamp. In the course of seven seasons she gets through three husbands (one of them a DEA agent) and leaves every male in the cast looking like an appendage. The show is vast in emotional scope and I still haven’t finished watching it, but nor have I quite dealt with its basic proposition that integrity can be maintained in a criminal context. Would the story work at all, if it paid due attention to the insistence by John Phillips that pot was the gateway to hard drugs and grim death? Phillips loved the sweet music too (as a member of the Mamas and Papas he created more than his share of it) but he wasn’t fooled by the notion that a tie-dyed T-shirt was an expression of wisdom, and his argument—backed up by his glittering track record as someone who tried to kill himself with every known substance—that marijuana is the enticing entrance to needle park has yet to be answered. It was never invalidated just because Nancy Reagan said the same.
The Scandinavians, to do them credit, don’t fool around with cosmeticized crime. Throughout the box set years, the Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians have done their best to keep crime ugly. Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl), the head girl in The Killing, is not Mary-Louise Parker from any angle. Sarah Lund is a thin bundle of neuroses plunged into the gloom of a bad sweater. In The Bridge, the head girl Saga Norén (Sofia Helin) has a case of near-autistic something-or-other which would make any hetero male viewer think twice about angling for a lift in her Porsche, although it’s probably true that any hetero male viewer would think of it once, because behind her unblinking stare she is very comely. At one point we see her having sex with her bemused bloke and she is under him, over him and off him in a matter of seconds, like the Scandinavian version of the female black widow spider, the one that carries a text book on how to form normal relationships.
And these head girls are just the cops. The criminals really get you down. Most of them are serial killers spreading terror in the standard Scandinavian ambience in which the lights are turned off even indoors, so that sometimes you have to search for the little green diode to make sure that your TV set is still on. Sarah, don’t go into that stygian stairwell! You might shoot your partner accidentally! Oh. Even in the dark, however, it is made clear that a serial killer is a rare event, just as it is a rare event for someone to drop litter or travel without a ticket. This is Scandinavia, after all (it’s all the one place: the bridge that joins Sweden and Denmark obviously joins everywhere else as well), and the scene is basically clean. Basically but not reassuringly. Far from it: under the cleanliness there is a current of angst, like someone weird softly reading aloud from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.
And there is also the boredom. It is hard to get a job as a cop unless you are as boring as hell. (Saga is the spectacular Scandi cop because she not only stares at the wall, she occasionally stares at the wall for a long time.) I blame Wallander, who has been boring the world for so long by now that three different actors have played him if you count Kenneth Branagh. Of the two Swedish Wallanders, Rolf Lassgård tries to make the character interesting by looking around a lot, often approaching the looking-around record that Ben Kingsley established in Species; but the other, and by far preferable, Swedish Wallander, Krister Henriksson, accepts his northern destiny and just looks worried, like your dull cousin fretting about his tax return. Fretting away during the slow solution of a not very interesting crime, Henriksson’s Wallander will stare out to sea as if wondering why Scandinavian waves are so small and dull. At such moments, which seem to last for hours, it is important to remember that elsewhere in the total Scandi crime-show effort important things are happening, especially when the story is about male evil on the loose, and what its resonance does to the female police who have to deal with it. It would be hard to imagine anything more consistently and legitimately frightening than the two episodes of the Swedish series Arne Dahl (it’s the screen nom de plume of the writer Jan Arnald) that go under the collective name of Mörketal. Called Hidden Numbers in English, the two-part show is directed by Caroline Cowan, and for pace and atmospherics it deserves study, if only to remind you that there can be humanoid creatures far more horrible than vampires and zombies: people who look just like us, but whose humanity has failed to form.
Even at their least unexciting, however, Scandi crime shows seem designed to help you make sure that you won’t be booking a flight in that direction, or indeed anywhere north of Paris. When the Americans remade The Killing, they turned the lights on and upgraded the heroine’s sweater slightly so that you were merely incurious about it instead of incredulous; and in Dexter the serial killers get the benefit of a glittering Miami environment in which to lose the bodies. Dexter’s neurotic sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) would be enough on her own to prove that nothing quite so glamorous happens with the Scandis even when they try, but even if she weren’t there, Lucinda and I would have been transfixed by Dexter himself (Michael C. Hall), especially when he was transfixing his victims, although we sometimes turned to each other between episodes and wondered aloud if we might not have gone a bit strange. We agreed, after some discussion, that it was even more strange to buy one box after another of The Following, in which everyone is a serial killer except Kevin Bacon, but that it was worth it to watch James Purefoy (he who was such a bloody-minded Mark Antony in Rome) so credibly playing a psychopath.
That would be him, not us. On Lucinda’s recommendation, indeed insistence, I joined her in watching True Detective throughout, as if I hadn’t had enough, with the David Fincher movie Zodiac, of a couple of American guys taking so long to track down a serial killer that everybody including the audience grows old and gray. As an American serial killer serial, True Detective had the lights turned right up, even when on location deep in the Louisiana backwoods, but I could barely stand it: not for its horror, which is only about seven on the Seven scale, but for its main casting. It isn’t their fault that I so dislike watching Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Harrelson did good work in Wag the Dog and McConaughey in Contact was not really sufficient reason for Jodie Foster to flee the Earth: downbeat minor films such as The Lincoln Lawyer or Killer Joe have actually been held upright by his snarling, drawling energy. But add his face to Woody Harrelson’s and you get a kind of reverse version of Butch and Sundance in which each seems bent on lowering further the spirits already lowered by the other. It was a relief when the extravagantly gorgeous Alexandra Daddario took her shirt off: the sequence, quite apart from its startling visual impact, had rarity value, because she has elsewhere always been careful to retain her clothing, to the extent, in her Esquire shoot, of keeping her high heels on when she was half underwater in a swimming pool. But a show is in trouble with at least one
With Scandi politics, it’s different from Scandi crime. Though the level of lighting is still not high, Borgen seems designed to get you running to the airport for a standby flight to whichever of those double-glazed countries has the greatest number of female politicians. The reason, dare I say it, is that the central character, Birgitte Nyborg, is fascinating not just because of her situation—how can she keep her family life together while being prime minister?—but because she is played by an outstandingly disarming actress, Sidse Babett Knudsen. She needs to be disarming because Birgitte is living under a fearsome double pressure. (Really it’s the same double pressure that Alicia is living under in The Good Wife, but Birgitte has got it in Swedish, so it’s serious.) With the radiantly intelligent Knudsen in the picture, Birgitte’s headquarters generates something of the same witty tempo as The West Wing. Her brilliant but twisted young adviser Kasper (Pilou Asbæk) could be Josh Lyman with his anxiety neurosis not yet diagnosed, and the media darling Katrine (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) is a combination of Ainsley Hayes and Donna Moss, with enough teeth for both. Call the show The North Wing in conversation and people will know what you mean. It all sounds vaguely as if Aaron Sorkin had dictated it into a tape recorder while imitating a drunken German officer with a speech impediment, but one puts one’s trust in the subtitles and tunes in for every episode, even after Birgitte, in the final season, falls from power. I’m bound to say that she suddenly then seemed much more ordinary, although the women in my family assure me that I’m a clear case of what Birgitte was up against all along.
What was she up against? Possibly it was residual male fear of female competence. Personally I can’t get enough of being told what to do by powerful women, but I’m half dead. Back in the real world, women still must fight for a fair position. On the strength of the television output, we might tend to think they have a better chance of doing that in the European countries. Take a long look at the export-hit French cop show Spiral and you will notice that the head girl, Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), can never stage a raid without the targeted culprit getting away through the back door, but that she is allowed to retain command of her squad of lumbering male dimwits. Meanwhile the beautiful female lawyer Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) pays few penalties for her gender: despite her corruptibility she goes on wowing the courtrooms like Alicia Florrick minus the scruples, while her equally smart male coeval Pierre Clément (Grégory Fitoussi) gets written out by gunfire. Sexual excess would have nailed him anyway: Laure and Joséphine both had their way with him. In Spiral, women are in the lead. It’s a long way from the modern prototype of all French policier screen stories, La Balance, in which even the divine Nathalie Baye (be still, my foolish heart) was a helpless toy.
Is it fair to favor a pretty face? No, but it’s life, and in fact the balance of evidence in screen history proves that a pretty face earns no automatic favor if it tries to say something funny. My late friend Christopher Hitchens was willfully wrong when he contended that women aren’t funny: he was just generating controversy so that he could bathe in the uproar. There have always been funny women in real life, but on screen they were handicapped if they looked pretty, or even just normal. The Hollywood screwball comedy era, so formative for its stylistic boldness, had a swathe of wisecracking beauties, snappy with a line even if they didn’t write it; but that temporary fashion died abruptly after World War II and was a long time returning to the big screen. On the small screen it looked as if it might never get started. As an admirer of Richard Benjamin (his 1982 movie My Favorite Year, which harked back to the formative television comedy years at 30 Rockefeller Center, set the mark for all the modern American screen comedy that I love best), I was as frustrated as he must have been that the comic talents of his wife, Paula Prentiss, were so often downrated simply because she was so fetching. Today, when I can spend hours watching boxes of 30 Rock, I give thanks for all the fruitful groundbreaking that had to go on before there was a landscape that could contain Tina Fey: in all her work except for an oddly flimsy autobiography, one of her virtues is a capacity to honor the tradition from which she has emerged, and the 30 Rock scenes in which Carrie Fisher plays a washed-up writer from earlier times are therefore touching as well as funny. But the biggest advance resides in the blessed fact that the power to decide these issues is no longer exclusively in the hands of men. The Hollywood screwball heroines could strut their enchanted stuff only because men thought the shtick would sell. Now, women are in on the thinking: they are in a position to take over the office and make Alec Baldwin entertain them, thereby giving him the best role of his life. In Britain, one of the threads of the wonderful all-women comedy show Smack the Pony was about how femininity and feminism linked up or failed to; and in America Veep cleverly (some of the cleverness is due to its British show-runner, Armando Iannucci) examines the pressures on an attractive woman of being a second-class citizen, i.e., of being vice president of the United States.
Veep would perhaps not seem quite so amusing if, in our heads, The West Wing’s absurdly superheated verbal atmosphere did not already exist to be spoofed, but nothing can detract from a sensationally authoritative central character: sensational at having no authority short of hysteria. The show’s wildly funny star, the Seinfeld alumna Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is at the head of the picnic table in Amy Schumer’s epic sketch Last Fuckable Day (permanently viral on YouTube), in which the assembled females, including Tina Fey, discuss the questions of youth, age, attractiveness, and the cruel dying of male desire. When the male viewer gets over his fits of guilty laughter, he might feel entitled to give himself a pass: how victimized are women now, if they can do this? For women it’s been a long trail since The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but look at the trail now: it’s a freeway. And comedy doesn’t even look like a tough life any more, which used to feel like a decent reason for not being too sorry when women were kept out of it: male protectiveness, after all, is the acknowledged reason why women, though welcomed into the Israeli Defense Forces, are not allowed to fight in the front line. But however men turn the question over in their souls, women are likely to deal with it better on the screen: and I, speaking as a man, am glad not to be speaking at all when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler host the Golden Globes. Standing there cracking ten times as wise as Bob Hope ever dreamed of, each of them is backed up by a stack of box sets that few male headliners will ever equal. Seven seasons of 30 Rock and five seasons of Parks and Recreation: how much of my time do these deprived people want?
No, the female performers of today are equipped with the power, as well as the impulse, to deal with the dialectics of their position. They would have slightly less freedom to do so if they were appearing on Al Jazeera, but by now most of them know that, and the point has almost ceased to be worth making; though as long as female writer-performers in some of the Islamic countries must go on risking their lives if they wish to speak freely, it will probably be worth remembering that Western civilization has some claim to its title. That television has been taking such an influential part in this great battle for equality is surely a cause to be thankful for having been alive in these times. The finally ineradicable conundrum, however, has to do with nature’s casual cruelty in making some of us less desirable than others. Of all t
The Way We Weren’t
IN THE SECOND DECADE of the twenty-first century, the twentieth century has already become a strange land, ripe to be looked back on through TV fiction. If you were there, the results often taste wrong, especially if they look right. A mental flavor is hard to re-create; but never mind, because you won’t be around long to object. Trying to be generous as I bow out, I personally am careful to give points for any attempt at fidelity to the way we were, although all too often the flashback shows strike me as adding up to a startling registration of the way we weren’t. What are these young people trying to achieve, when they pour so much money, talent, and effort into telling us what they think our lives used to be like? Well, if the first thing they strive for is a financial return on investment, they’re certainly achieving that. And anyway, they’d do the same for Henry VIII: The Tudors and Wolf Hall between them must already have made more money than the dissolution of the monasteries. We should never forget that we’re watching a market at work, even if the market is making the market the subject: self-reference is no guarantee of objectivity. It’s more likely that objectivity had been made part of the pitch.
Play All by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes