Saturday, March 14, 2020

Unwilling Victims: notes on Christine Keeler, Deadwater Fell and Flesh and Blood

How do you stand up for women in this day and age — ordinary women — without being overlooked or ignored? I keep hearing — in this #MeToo era — how wonderful it is that we’re hearing so many female voices on television: authentic, passionate female voices. But I mostly see viewers cheering about empowerment when the heroine can punch a hole in the wall or toss a man across the room. In a recent New York Times article entitled "I Don't Want to Be the Strong Female Lead," OA creator and star Brit Marling argued that although the film and television industries — after decades of portraying women as victims and sex objects — have done a 180, the results haven’t been entirely satisfying. Instead of applauding women for the qualities that make them admirable and unique, they’re now imbuing them with traditionally male traits. Consider the new female lead, Marling wrote: “She’s an assassin, a spy, a soldier, a superhero, a C.E.O. She can make a wound compress out of a maxi pad while on the lam. She’s got MacGyver’s resourcefulness but looks better in a tank top.”

And although I see Marling’s point, I think the problem lies as much with audiences as with studios. I see a whole lot of female writers and directors fighting to bring fascinating, “ordinary” women to the screen; I even see many of them focusing on the systemic victimization of women in a way that doesn’t diminish their subjects, but elevates them instead. I just don’t see viewers paying attention.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Doctor Who: the companions' best and worst performances (part 3)

Completing my alphabetical look back at the actors who’ve played companions on Doctor Who, and judging their best and worst performances. To start from the first chapter of this three-part essay, click here; to take a look at the Doctors’ best and worst performances, click here. In the previous chapter, I noted that writer David Whitaker had penned a lot of best performances: Hartnell, Padbury, O'Brien, John and -- if I hadn't eliminated "Enemy of the World" because of the dual-role aspect -- Troughton. I wondered if there were directors who, similarly, had been responsible for a lot of the actors' finest work, and a cursory look back revealed that seven of the best performances were guided by Paddy Russell or Fiona Cumming. They were, in fact, the only directors responsible for more than two. Both women: is that a coincidence? (And if we're looking at female directors, we'd need to add in Alice Troughton, who helmed Tennant in "Midnight.") I don't want to fall back on reverse sexism, but did the female Who helmers tend to devote more time to shaping performances than their male counterparts? As the kids say on social media, discuss. Meanwhile, let's finish our look back at the Doctor Who companions, below. As always, although I bold the actors’ best and worst performances, for easy scrolling, I vary the order in which I list them — so presume nothing.

Peter Purves (Steven Taylor): Purves does whatever is asked of him, diligently:

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The 10 Best "Designing Women" Episodes

Was there ever a great show that peaked for as short a time as Designing Women? It’s undeniably a classic — beautifully acted, frequently well-written, and unafraid not only to tackle social issues, but to get passionate about them — but the series, at its very best, had such a short lifespan. Less than a year passed between the show maturing and it showing signs of age, and although sporadic greatness would continue for a few more seasons, that peak level of sustained brilliance never returned.

But even sporadic greatness isn’t anything to sneeze at.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Doctor Who: the companions' best and worst performances (part 2)

Continuing my alphabetical look back at the actors who’ve played companions on Doctor Who. This latest set turned out to be a bit of a love-letter to writer David Whitaker; it wasn’t intentional, but it was inescapable. Anyway, to start from the first chapter of this three-part essay, click here; to take a look at the Doctors’ best and worst performances, click here. And as you scroll through, remember: although I bold the actors’ best and worst performances, for easy viewing, I vary the order in which I list them — so presume nothing. Occasionally, some of the best-loved stories contain some of my least favorite performances.

Louise Jameson (Leela): Jameson commands the screen in "Face of Evil" like no companion before or since.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Hannah, Hanna and Hampshire: The Best of 2019

My annual year in review, following overviews of 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

2019 was a ridiculously good year for television. After 2018, when I had trouble finding ten shows I wanted to write about, 2019 left me struggling to trim down my “best of” list to a manageable size. There were too many shows I wanted to praise or — at the very least — acknowledge. (Not that there weren’t disappointments: several series that had topped my year-in-review lists in the past — Grantchester, Elementary, Mindhunter — are noticeably absent here.) So seeing how this entry is coming on the heels of my “10 Best Mary Tyler Moore Show Episodes,” which gave me as much pleasure as any piece I’ve written, I’m adopting a similar approach: I’m counting down my ten favorite shows of 2019, but after each, noting another (vaguely related) show I quite liked. So you're getting twenty recommendations for the length of ten.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The 10 Best “Mary Tyler Moore Show” Episodes

This entry began as The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 3, but honestly, I’ve written so many long essays lately, I needed a change of pace, and an old-fashioned 10-best list — drawn from the entire seven-season run — seemed like a good solution. What distinguishes this “best of MTM” list from all the others? Well, first of all, I’ve been watching the series since it originally aired. Second, I couldn’t settle on ten favorites, but I could settle on twenty, so after each episode, I’m offering up another that I love — so consider this sort of a “two for the price of one” sale. Third, as is my wont, I’m going to focus a lot on the intent behind — and development of — the episodes themselves (and how they reflect the seasons in which they aired). And finally, it’s the only Mary Tyler Moore Show list that won’t be counting down to “Chuckles Bites the Dust.”

Monday, November 11, 2019

Doctor Who: the companions' best and worst performances

In an essay in the summer of 2018, I looked at the actors who've played the title role in Doctor Who, and judged their best and worst performances. I thought I'd do the same for the companions. Doctor Who has, by and large, been blessed with such extraordinary actors as companions that it's easy to take their work for granted -- to presume their performances are uniformly strong. But actors, like the rest of us, have good days and bad days, and in the case of Doctor Who, there are all kinds of factors that can contribute to the quality of a performance -- just as there are all kinds of criteria I have for judging them. A few words in advance. I'm only considering companions who stuck around for more than two full-length stories, and I’m not including the threesome traveling with the current Doctor, as they’re only partway through their journey. And just to mix it up, I'm listing the companions alphabetically — so get ready to bounce around the decades. (As in my essay about the Doctors, I've bolded the stories that contain the companions’ best and worst work, but I vary the order in which I present them. Sometimes, I list the good before the bad, sometimes vice versa; if you only look at the titles bolded, you might be surprised, when you read the text, to discover which is which.)

Friday, November 1, 2019

Star Trek: Voyager season 4

I’d never seen an episode of Star Trek — in any of its incarnations — before last spring. At that time, BBC America typically ran eight-hour marathons of The Next Generation on weekdays, and after breakfast, my customary routine was to turn the living room TV to BBC America and hit “mute.” My husband and I — who work from home — knew that if we had to run errands suddenly, we could simply unmute the TV, and the puppy would be well cared for while we were gone. The little we knew of The Next Generation suggested that there’d be a steady stream of chatter and background music that would block out the street noise, and that it was unlikely to contain any of the sounds (thunderclaps, gunshots, fireworks) that tended to frighten him.

That was what I knew of Star Trek: it was a great dog sitter.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Doctor Who: in praise of "The Abominable Snowmen"

When I did my Classic Who countdown in the summer of 2017, I noted that many of my favorite stories remain missing. And I quoted a Whovian who had recently dismissed the lost serials by insisting, "There's no way of knowing what they're really like." Of course there is, I argued. If the surviving audio is engrossing, if the telesnaps and production photographs reveal a credible design, if the director's talents are well-established or the dialogue feels well-played and well-paced (suggesting he had a good grip on the material), then the reconstructions tell you most of what you need to know. Since I started watching Doctor Who, quite a few missing episodes have been unearthed, and not once has a discovery made me radically rethink my impression of a serial. My favorite Cybermen story, my two favorite Dalek stories, and my four favorite historicals are partially or fully missing. Let's pray they're someday recovered, but in the meantime, the lack of video footage doesn't impair my enjoyment. So in that spirit, I thought I’d delve into four of my favorite “lost serials” (four that, to my mind, don’t get the attention that they deserve), starting here.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Crime Pays: The Best of 2018

My annual TV year-in-review, the key difference this year being that the essay is ten months late. But truth be told, when I finished my final Knots Landing essay in July of 2018, I felt perhaps it was time to lay this blog to rest. Maybe I’d said everything I needed to say. I’d written up all fourteen seasons of my favorite series, and the other show that had most inspired me — Doctor Who — had fallen into a creative black hole that rather dampened my desire to discuss it. But recently I was moved to start writing again, and came across a list I had meant to publish last January, of the ten series I’d most enjoyed in 2018. So I’ve written it up. As always, this is not the sort of “best of” list proffered by formal TV critics, who have to watch (and have access to) every quality show they hear about; I never purport to have “watched everything.” These are simply the shows I saw that I loved the most. As always, they’re a pretty eclectic bunch. And happily, since time isn’t a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff, all ten series are still available for streaming, ten months later.

But first, a warning: