Category Archives: tv

from zit remedy to downtown sasquatch: a multi-generational degrassi journey

Many, many years ago, when Paul and I were much younger parents, we discussed how we were going to handle talking with our child about all things related to puberty and being a teenager. Paul did actual research into the topic, and ended up purchasing a copy of “It’s Perfectly Normal”. I, on the other hand, did exactly zero research and instead announced that I would just plunk Ben down in front of reruns of Degrassi Junior High, as is the tradition of my people.

It’s Perfectly Embarrassing That This Book Even Exists (according to Ben)

Paul chuckled indulgently at me upon this declaration and did not believe that this plan would work for our American-raised child, especially after we actually did try to run the show for a ten-year-old Ben. Our then 5th grader announced that he hated the original episodes from the 1980s, and that this was the most boring show ever. He was marginally more interested in the 2001 reboot, called in true nerd homage style Degrassi: The Next Generation. Those kids at least had computers and the Internet and modern clothing, whereas the generation I grew up with were weird and boring!

Degrassi Junior High (Series) - TV Tropes
These kids are not hip with the musics of today (the first generation of Degrassi Junior High circa 1987)

Part of this problem was that the first generation of Degrassi kids were not consistently trained as actual actors, . Degrassi Junior High, as most Canadians know it, started in 1987 as a follow-up to the CBC “after school special”, The Kids of De Grassi Street, which ran from 1979 to 1986. Unlike the American shows though, none of the Toronto children who appeared first in in Kids, and later, in Degrassi Junior High, were really full time actors. They were Toronto kids, the same age as their characters, who showed up on weekends in a working high school to appear in what would eventually become a cornerstone of Canadian culture.

In contrast, the kids of the Next Generation, the reboot that started in 2001, were actors who could consistently project emotions. And while the first few episodes leaned heavily on the adults from the first generation (now turning thirty in 2001) to provide context and continuity, the show quickly transitioned over to the rising 7th and 8th graders, born in the late 1980s when the first generation was in junior high. Degrassi: TNG initially centered on one 7th grader girl who had been born to an 8th grade mom in the first generation of the show, but the plots quickly expanded to cover a dozen 12 and 13 year olds and their stories within the first few episodes.

Obviously, I didn’t watch TNG when it came out in 2001. I was a 23 year old grown adult, and even with the nostalgia factor, I had no interest in watching a show about teenagers. Therefore, when I flipped it on as a 40 year old grown adult, I was immediately engaged in finding out what happened to the characters I had grown up with. Ben, however, was very engaged in the story of the 7th grade boys, the pre-teens like him who were still focused more on goofing off than on chasing girls. This led to a lot of me yelling at Ben to shut up because I wanted to see what happened to Lucy after Wheels almost killed her drunk driving in the 1992 series finale, while Ben complained that the adults were getting too much screen time and he didn’t think we were seeing enough of the kids.

Unfortunately, we only had one season of the 2001 episodes that our then 5th-grader could relate to before the kids aged up a year. When we moved on to the second season, the actors and their characters aged up to grades 8 and 9…and four episodes in, the show took on date rape. And while TNG had already covered pedophiles on the Internet, recreational use of Ritalin, gay parents, taking Ecstasy, and Not Having Sex Before You’re Ready, those were still “light” issues compared to the physically abusive parent and teen date rape narratives that opened the second season. These traumatic storylines were more than Ben could process as a 10 year old, and as he was really just not that interested, we decided that we would take a break on the show until he was old enough to understand it. (Also, Paul was genuinely shocked by the intensity of these episodes. I think this was when he realized the show was just going to go for broke on every issue possible without sugarcoating or cutting away from very traumatic depictions.)

Cut to quarantine in Toronto this fall: with Ben and me in lockdown, I decided to take a second try at the show together. We re-watched the first season, and 12 year old Ben was much better equipped emotionally to connect with the narratives for both the 7th and 8th graders. When we got to the second season, he was able to process and take in the much more emotionally intense and traumatic situations the now 8th and 9th graders were facing. And suddenly, my seventh grader was very engaged with a Canadian government subsidized teen drama where every episode was a Very Special Episode. Also: baby Drake when he was a duckling!

Ben was so into the show that he and I started bingeing episode after episode while in Toronto in December. We continued when we got to Pittsburgh for the holidays, as I attempted to explain the show to my American in-laws. We kept going after the holiday break, watching two or three episodes a day even as the kids aged up into grades 10 and 11, and the issues became more complicated. I would use the subject matter to introduce topics to Ben, and then reference back to It’s Perfectly Normal to reinforce the biological aspects where necessary. I got to work in all the topics, across the major areas of Coming of Age. We hit everything from teen pregnancy to coming out, from gay bashing to drug use, from child abuse to gender stereotypes, from studying science to inappropriate boners. (side note: nothing I have had to discuss with my child has been quite as mortifying as explaining to him what the term “boner” refers to…except maybe the plotline where I had to explain how a character contracted oral gonnorrhea)

Degrassi: The Next Generation Season 2 Now Available On Youtube – Kary's  Degrassi Blog
Apparently in 2001, all 7th graders looked like a Zellers catalog.

Finally though, as the characters became older, the scenarios became more complicated, and Ben and I were both concerned that he would not be able to relate for much longer. In Season 5, when a character considered plastic surgery for her acting career and I had to explain breast implants, we decided that these issues were too mature for a seventh grader. We had to find a new option to watch, where we could show kids Ben’s age again. Without a viable modern option, I opted to try again with the first generation. This time, despite the “weird” clothes, and the complete lack of technology (not even an Apple IIe!), we discovered that kids had the same problems in the 1980s as they (probably) would in 2020 (if there wasn’t COVID!) Kids still struggled with being accepted! Kids still struggled with pregnancy and drugs and drinking! And most of all, high school kids still struggled with being honest and vulnerable thirty years ago! Who would have thought that being a GenX teenager was every bit as emotionally challenging as being a Gen Z teenager?!?

So after retreading the stories of Canadian teenagers born in the 1970s (ME: “Ben, these kids are only a year older than your dad! This is what high school looked like for us!” BEN: “MOOOOOM NO STAWWWWP”), we had covered even more issues: abortion, being sexually confused, the stigma around AIDS, and teen suicide. The original Degrassi Junior High was light-years ahead of its time with a commitment to covering genuinely uncomfortable issues, and some episodes that addressed homosexuality or abortion were even banned in the United States. The first generation featured real-looking teens who wore their own clothes and did their own makeup, and represented a wide socioeconomic range of East Toronto, and even if that was because CBC clearly had no money to pay for wardrobe or makeup, it made the show that much more authentic, especially compared to American contemporary shows like Saved by the Bell and 90210.

More importantly, Degrassi covered issues that were so relevant, I remember watching key episodes about pregnancy and AIDS as educational supplemental videos in Health class in Grade 10. Paul, wandering in and out as we plowed through the original Junior High in January, even remarked he was surprised how progressive the show was. I got to be a Smug Canadian (TM) about how my country subsidized this particular teen drama and brought issues to the forefront that are still underrepresented in American media. Degrassi Junior High reinforced the Canadian cultural mosaic message of the late 1980s by including first generation Canadian kids in their cast, covering both the stigma of the Vietnamese boat refugees as well as racial slurs against a Nigerian-Canadian boy, both within the first two years of the show. Junior High even worked in a storyline about accepting a gay older brother in 1988 (who would never be seen again), and featured a significant arc about de-stigmatizing homosexuality and AIDS in Degrassi High in 1990. These are all values our son takes for granted, as immersed as he is in the progressive ethics of Brooklyn, but as we keep having to explain, even as recently as the 1990s, these narratives were important to humanize the very real issues seldom shown on national TV.

Even starting over with the original kids only bought us a few weeks though and Ben and I eventually ran out of time with his age range as the 7th and 8th graders approached grades 12 and 13 (Grade 13 was still a thing in Ontario in the 80s and 90s). Ben decided he wanted to try again with the older kids in the newer show, so when the first generation ended with the School’s Out! movie, we resumed TNG already in progress with Season 5, taking a little extra time when necessary to discuss the challenges outside of Ben’s pre-teen frame of reference.

Throughout the series, Ben has related to some stories more than others, and has been more disturbed by some plotlines than others. He found it very hard to watch the infamous school shooting episode in Season 6, in which Drake’s character is shot in the back and paralysed. Still we’ve consistently kept watching, even as the show managed to veer into the ridiculous several times. As TNG picked up steam in the early aughts, the commercial network behind it began to syndicate the show to the USA, and needed new hooks to keep the audience growing. This gave us one of the worst and least realistic narratives when CTV brought in Degrassi superfan Kevin Smith to guest star in a half-dozen episodes across two seasons, under the premise of filming a fictional installment in his franchise called Jay And Bob Go Canadian, Eh!. This is only worthwhile because it led to this hilarious scenery-chewing cameo by famous Canadian Alanis Morissette:

Even as the show started to spin off from After School Special into into Teen Soap Opera style drama, it still covered what I just started referring to as VALUABLE LESSONS (TM). Every day, Ben and I would watch a few episodes and then I would quiz him on what valuable lessons he had learned. Every episode includes at least two plots, with Plot A featuring the Tough, Thorny Issue of the episode and Plot B being the lighter, more day-to-day story. Multiple plotlines means lots of conversation points to work with, almost all of which result in Ben eye rolling and mumbling “mommmmm, stawwwwwp” at me while I pause YouTube and inform him that if he wants to keep watching, he will listen to me sidebar about the relevant topic. I’ve even been been able to work in our son’s responsibilities as a cisgender male, which include:

  • Don’t ever make another person feel like they need to consent to sex for you to like them!
  • Watch your female friends’ drinks so they do not get roofied!
  • If you get a girl pregnant, your role is to support her through HER decision!
  • Be a good ally: stand up for your friends with less privilege than you!

We also learned other VALUABLE LESSONS universal to all kids:

  • Tell the truth, because people will find it out anyways and then it will be WORSE
  • Drugs are a bad idea every time, but prescription painkillers are significantly worse than marijuana
  • Having sex before you’re ready will mess your brain up because hormones.
  • If an adult is making you uncomfortable, trust your instincts, get away from them now and tell another adult you trust
  • Do not be an idiot on social media because it will backfire and cause you to get socially ostracized or suspended from school or both.
  • Do not sext or encourage other people to sext because naked photos will never go away and will end up being distributed to people you did not intend them for.
  • Did we mention consent?

In both the first and second generation though, I believe that that the producers never meant for the show to run more than a couple years. In the first generation, the 12 and 13 year olds in 1987 ended with a made-for-TV movie centered on their 1991 graduation, and no new characters were introduced to keep the series going. In the second generation, the characters who were 12 and 13 in 2001 didn’t end their narrative until their first years of college (which allowed me to plug the Canadian university system)…and then the show had to contrive a plot to bring new 10th graders in for Season 7 to re-fill the cast. By Season 8 in 2008, the kids still aged up, and graduated high school, but the show stopped following graduates to university. Instead, new 9th and 10th graders would show up every season until the “Next Generation” kids from 2001 were completely aged out, and the show became just Degrassi in 2010. Around the same time, seasons went from twelve episodes to over twenty episodes and eventually to over forty episodes per season. The episodes are still 23 minutes, but there is just a lot more of them.

This extension into the “telenovela” production style is a byproduct of what I call “America Money”: the transition to MuchMusic in Canada and Nickeodeon in the USA. By 2008, the show was radically changed from the 12-episode season CTV-based series that started in 2001. Gone were the cheesy synthesizer soundtrack themes, initially replaced by in-show music clips from CBC3 indie bands, but then expanding to feature five or six songs from major labels per episode (I just heard Imagine Dragons on an episode Ben is watching). The show’s production values increased, with the school suddenly acquiring more elaborate facilities beyond the original handful of classrooms. More episodes means more commercial airtime money after all…but it also requires more drama to fill those episodes, and the show became a full on teen soap opera, ending Seasons 6 and 7 with made for TV movies that took the characters to US cities (Degrassi Goes Hollywood!, Degrassi Takes Manhattan).

Even with the format change and 200% more drama though, show still covers VALUABLE LESSONS, and features groundbreaking narratives for a mainstream TV show. Very few teen shows in 2010 would heavily feature the story of a FTM trans boy, but Degrassi had one struggling to just to use the boys’ washroom. However, the format change also means that Ben has been plowing through at least four episodes a day since he hit Season 9 because it feels like there is a never ending supply of teen drama to watch. We’re in Season 12 now and we still have at least a hundred episodes on the MuchMusic/Nickelodeon run before we even get to Degrassi: Next Class on Netflix. We’re also on at least the seventh teen pregnancy plotline, the second school shooting, and the third character with a self harm/cutting problem, so the show is retreading over its Greatest Hits pretty hard. The timeline has also only allowed for coverage from Facebook (“Facerange” in Seasons 9 onwards) and MySpace (“MyRoom” in Seasons 6 and 7) to date from the social media sphere, because we’re just not at Instagram or TikTok until Next Class.

After four months of watching though, I am still surprised by Ben’s interest as neither Paul nor I thought our son would be so enthusiastic about this show. He is genuinely engaged with these narratives and situations, mostly due to the effects of COVID. After all, Ben hasn’t been in a school situation for a year now. He misses being with other kids his age, the teens and tweens he’s used to seeing every day at school. Watching a TV show every day with kids interacting in a very authentically awkward (albeit scripted awkward) way makes him feel like he’s still able to pick up some of the social behavior examples he’s missing at school. Degrassi allows him to see a dramatized version of what social interaction looks like for kids in the grades immediately above him. He is so into the show that even the use of the over-dramatized situations as teaching tools for his parents to bring up HORRIBLY EMBARRASSING TOPICS is acceptable if we can just watch another episode. And Paul has acknowledged that this actually was fantastic parenting on my part to just plunk our kid down in front of a Canadian television show because it covered way more VALUABLE LESSONS, and with much more emotional impact, than my American husband thought a TV show could. (Canada: Telling Teens It’s OK to Be Gay Since 1986!)

Now, after almost 300 twenty-three minute episodes, we’ve covered teen problems from four years of GenXers (born 1965-1980) and twelve years of Millennials (born 1980-1995), and we’re just getting into the later Degrassi and Degrassi: Next Class years that feature members of Gen Z (born 1995 – 2010). Just as Paul and I are among the youngest GenXers, our son, born the year I turned 30, is one of the youngest GenZers. This is why it’s disappointing that Netflix canceled Next Class in 2018, just as the students started to include children born in 2000, but before the show could include children born after 2005. It’s also a strange parallel that, just as the original generation ended with characters born five years before I was, the Next Class ends with characters born five years before Ben was. The most time we’ve spent has been with the seasons featuring characters born in the mid-90s, halfway between each of our generations. But so long as they have cell phones and the Internet and their clothes aren’t weird, Ben can relate to them, and we’ll just keep on covering all the teen issues until we run out of time and only see these characters in Drake videos.

Finally, for those GenXers who followed the original generation: Snake is now the principal of Degrassi Community School, like he has been placed under a curse that prevents him from ever leaving the school. And he eventually married Spike, and became Emma’s stepdad, and stayed friends with Joey Jeremiah and yes, we did have to hear the occasional rendition of “Everybody Wants Something” even as late as 2004. (Thankfully, all the high school bands featured in the show since 2001, have been actual bands with more than one song.)

You can find all the seasons of Degrassi except for Degrassi High (1990-1991) and Degrassi: Next Class on the official YouTube channel (along with plenty of best/worst, first/last, etc videos You can find the original Degrassi High and its finale movie Degrassi: School’s Out! on YouTube but you’ll have to hunt around for them. Finally, you can find Next Class on Netflix, although these kids all seem to be in their 20s like the producers decided to 90210-ify it. And no one seems to have a good source for the original Kids of De Grassi Street, which I 100% would have made Ben watch if I’d been able to find it when he was younger so HEY CBC GET ON THAT.


When The Big Bang Theory came out in the seemingly halcyon year of 2007, it was immediately shunned in my household.  It was clearly mocking nerds who worked at CalTech spinoffs and lived in Pasadena.  This was NOT ACCEPTABLE.  And that was before the nerds actually went to Bar Sinister to pick up goth girls:


Paul would like everyone to know he finds this personally insulting to imply that nerds would go to a goth club only for the hot goth girls!  He would like everyone to know that as a nerd, he also went for the music!  Furthermore, he never degraded himself with fake tattoos, eyeliner, or studded belt accessories and finds this entire scenario ridiculous. A nerd should be capable of forming a relationship with a goth girl without having to look like a Hot Topic threw up on him.  (Side note: when I met Paul at the aforementioned Bar Sinister, he was wearing a black shirt and black pants and zero accessories and he still managed to successfully ask me to dance despite his minimal wardrobe pretension.  Then I made fun of him for being a nerd living in Pasadena.  Then he got his job at a CalTech spinoff in summer 2006)

And yet, despite the show’s initial ridiculous premise, here we are twelve years later with the show on it’s deathbed, but still the top sitcom by no small margin.  I read the recaps rather than watch the show, with no small amount of schadenfreude.  There is something about TBBT that irritates me when I binge-watch it on airplanes, the way the writers try to portray female nerds and yet rely heavily on female tropes.  I wrote about my issues with the funny/straight girl dichotomy in a past post on gender equality in sitcoms:

It’s the shows where a character can behave based on who they are, regardless of their gender role, and have it be accepted in that universe that I’m fascinated by.  Otherwise, having a “cute” girl who’s programmed to react in socially appropriate ways just makes the “funny girl” seem like she’s there for comic relief.

That is a part of what irritates me about TBBT: that when the female nerds act in non-“traditional” ways, they are still being compared and contrasted to a “normal” female role in the form of Penny, the original female character.  And Penny’s response to everything seems to be “I’m gonna drink some wine!  Because women love wine!”  Despite plays at depicting equal female characters, the show ultimately continues to remind those women that they are, well, women, and therefore are required to:

  • laugh off lazy male behavior
  • over-coddle their men

And yet, I feel I should credit the show for its depiction of female scientists who are just as committed to knowledge, curiosity, learning and their careers as their male counterparts, making being a nerd a gender-equal proposition.  The best balanced character is undoubtedly Mayim Bialik’s Dr Amy Farrah Fowler, whose enabling of her romantic partner is less about tolerating lazy male behavior and more about working with a neuro-atypical partner’s brain.  I think a lot of this is the real-life passion for knowledge that the actor herself brings to the role, but the character herself is remarkably balanced in her work and personal interactions.  This is a step forward in sitcom culture, but, like all acknowledgements of females as equal, it just isn’t enough.

Also to the show’s detriment, with the exception of the somewhat brownface Apu-esque depiction of a South Asian astrophysicist, there are no scientists of color on this show, even outside the core cast.  If the show wasn’t so lazy about this, they could use this glaring omission in the last season  to deliberately highlight the lack of diversity in tech and sciences.  However, that would require CBS to acknowledge the problem and then find a way to cleverly and compassionately write in characters of color who could serve to make some meta-level awareness about the show’s universe being strangely devoid of all non-white people (with the exception of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, of course).  I find it strange that more writers and critics don’t call this out: for a successful show, it could have done a better job depicting people in science from less white privileged backgrounds.

There are plenty of reasons this show has been successful despite its flaws though: Vulture nicely sums up the more tangible, quantifiable reasons.  What I genuinely cannot figure out though, and the reason I have to actually give Chuck Lorre & Co more credit for this sitcom, is that this show has been successful given the culture of stupidity and anti-science that we’ve cultivated in America since before it debuted.  The show came out in an era where being an “anti-intellectual” was becoming a valued quality thanks to the then-president; it is still running and still popular in an era when half the country literally does not believe in science.  Who are these viewers watching this show?  Are they wannabe geeks?  Real nerds who are happy to be acknowledged?  Middle Americans who just really like hearing the same familiar jokes over and over again?  How is this show still popular in the post-truth era and why can’t we use it as a vehicle to convince the population of this country that science is real and climate change isn’t something you can choose to believe in or not?

How is it that in an era when 40% of the country believes in creationism over evolution, and a similar number do not believe that climate change is caused by humans, has a show about a bunch of actual working scientists, featuring actual working science, been the #1 sitcom hit for as long as it’s reigned?

I supposed despite my mixed feelings, the missed opportunities to do good, and general resentment of its use of gender cliches, I should accept TBBT as being an overall positive in society for its depiction of female nerds, and autism.  Still, at this point in the show’s arc, I agree with the deathbed metaphors: this show, much like The Simpsons, has been phoned in for years.  It’s like someone set up the plot arc, yelled SEE YA and peaced out, leaving a combinations of interns and AI to write the scripts.   It’s extremely formulaic, with what I suspect ratio of 3:2:1 jokes: three Sheldon Behavior jokes for every two Gender Trope jokes for every one single genuinely funny nerd reference joke.  And most egregious of all, it still has that goddamn laugh track, which is the second biggest reason my nerd husband won’t watch it.  One wonders if, without a laugh track, the show would become an existential commentary on the futility of being overeducated similar to Garfield Minus Garfield.

Still.  This show insults nerds who live in Pasadena and work at Cal-Tech spinoffs!   I’m contractually obligated to mildly resent it in the same way I obligate my husband to mildly resent shows about quirky girls who move in with multiple guy roommates.  In the land of general TV it’s the least of many evils.  It’s not a CW groundbreaking sitcom, but one can hope that it’s a very small step forward in depicting difference in characters in future television.


why dietland matters

Coming off of SaTC week, let’s focus on some very different television: Dietland.  Based on the 2015 book by Sarai Walker, this show tells the story of a “morbidly obese” woman, Alicia “Plum” Kettle, who has put her entire life on hold until she is no longer fat.  She denies herself more than just food: she denies herself feelings, love, sex, socializing, a career, her writing, baking, hopes and dreams.  Her life is limited to a few blocks of Brooklyn (HI PARK SLOPE!) except for days she goes in to her employer, a Hearst Media style publisher in Hudson Yards (which is where L’Oreal is based in reality), where she ghostwrites for a glamourously thin editor played by Juliana Marguiles.  By the third episode though, she’s realizing she isn’t denying herself life because she hates herself.  She’s denying herself life because the world hates her.

Show protagonist Joy Nash – in “normal” joyful clothes as herself, and as the self-denying trying-to-be-invisible Plum Kettle

So far the reviews have been mixed: the show is well written, well put together, and different than anything else on TV, but tries to cram in a lot.  The original material is almost hallucinatory in its surreality at times, so I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise.  The problem is that the sheer density of the book has resulted in reviews which speak too much to the crowded nature of the show, and fail to notice that this is the first show to openly talk about two important topics.  The first of these is the way American society has, for years, taught women to enable and ignore poor behavior by men, while, at the same time, punishing and mocking women for behaving (or appearing, which seems to be considered a behavior in itself) in non-standard ways.  The second of these is the national addiction to antidepressants, and the impact of long term use and withdrawal.  Selling pharmaceuticals to one in four Americans is so lucrative than I’m genuinely shocked anyone called out that it might not be a good idea.


First of all, I’m incredibly impressed that this show actually depicts and narrates the constant pressure women feel  in society to allow men to engage in the behavior that makes women feel bad, while simultaneously pressuring us to not engage in behavior that would make anyone else around us uncomfortable.  It is the first time I’ve seen a show on TV that portrays a fat woman being sexually harassed for no reason, and acknowledging that she is reluctant to speak up or clap back because g-d forbid she she should make it worse. Dietland actually takes this a bit further, and not only calls out men’s shitty behavior, but actually tries to show us all how to hold men accountable for it, without putting all the pressure to resist on the women who are the victims of said shitty behavior.  In last night’s episode, when a man harassed a woman in a convenience store, the other women in the bodega banded together to film and shame him.   We do not all have to torture and kill rapists as the shadowy “Jennifer” organization does, but as a society, we do need to call out men who harass women on the street or who slut-shame them in convenience stores.

This is one of the reasons why Dietland matters.  It shows men’s response to women who do not follow a socially acceptable code of conduct, which includes not only behavior, but appearance.   Society should hold men accountable for making choices to “grab women by the pussy”, rather than giggling and infantilizing those choices as “boys will be boys“.  And when a man bro’s out at the expense of a woman, making a comment on her weight or appearance for his own amusement (as a custodial worker does, mocking Plum to his buddy in an elevator), it is the responsibility of the other men to tell him he’s an ass.

The second reason this show matters is that it shows a protagonist going off anti-depressants and the consequences for doing so.  There are many voices of reason that remind Plum she was on doctor prescribed pills, that she should, at the least, wean off them rather than go cold turkey.  But antidepressant withdrawal is a BFD as we begin to discover that it is easy to reap initial benefits from medication, but difficult as hell to get back off said medication when it becomes ineffective.  No one really wants to talk about how awful it is to try to come off antidepressants, a consequence that is not well researched and on which patients are certainly not well educated when they start the medication in the first place.  It’s doubtful that I would have turned down antidepressants in 2005 had i known it would be such an awful experience to come off those drugs in 2018.  However, I was not prepared for how awful the withdrawal would be, nor was I really prepared to face the fact that the antidepressants hadn’t been working for years.  The NYT has been running a whole series on this recently, which is as much about the withdrawal as it is about the fact that no one is studying withdrawal.  To have a mainstream TV show address the idea of antidepressant withdrawal feels extremely timely as we start to investigate what the real long term effects of these medications are.

I do wish Dietland addressed the proven fact that antidepressants rarely remain effective for more than a few years.  In the book and TV adaptation, Plum is on Y, an antidepressant that seems to have successfully repressed her feelings ever since she began taking it to cope with rejection from a man she trusted with her feelings.  The show addresses the ready willingness with which we sacrifice joy to avoid despair, the way we are encouraged to embrace antidepressants out of emotional risk aversion.  It does not address the real challenge, which is that if an antidepressant is prescribed for real depression, we are very likely on borrowed time with it – and we must take ownership for hacking our own brains in anticipation of the day it no longer works.

So for these two threads alone – Dietland matters.  It’s got its clunky parts, and can be jarring and unfinished in places.  The reviews are not wrong in that it is trying to cram a lot of plot and theme into a single hour long episode.  However, I believe this is important TV.  The more we portray these issues in television, the more we address the way we, as a society, still choose gender inequality.  This show reminds us that as women, our inequality is constantly reinforced through the beauty and body image standards imposed on us, both by men and by ourselves. The more we show the methodology in which women are made lesser, the more we can find ways to make us equal.




happy 20th to impressionable women everywhere

Parts of the Internet this week have been celebrating Sex & The City: The 20th Anniversary, since the show debuted on June 6th 1998.  These articles and discussions seem to be based in one of 3 major streams of discussion:

  • The show is fantastically dated, in a way that makes it a time capsule of (white, middle-class) Manhattan at the turn of the 21st century.  It is from that parallel dimension of existence, modern life without the Internet or smartphones or even widespread email.
  • The show was both forward and backwards for its time.  Forward in its focus on female relationships and for its lack of judgement of pre-marital sex, backwards in that it only includes LGBTQ+ characters as caricatures and punchlines.


#WokeCharlotte is the BEST 

(There is a good post up on Jezebel illustrating the blinding whiteness of the show, btw)

  • THE MEN ARE ALL GENUINELY AWFUL.  In hindsight, every single one is terrible.  Except Harry.  And Smith.  But it took the show until season six, five minutes before ending, to come up with these grown ass man characters who could be in genuine equal partnerships between a man and woman.  (Also, no one should be Team Big because I agree with the Dirtcast podcast that he is likely a Republican BUT THATS OK BECAUSE NONE OF THE GIRLS EVER VOTED LOL WTF)

The show, however, did apparently inspire an entire generation of women to move to New York City and live fabulous, SaTC type lives.  This mostly applies to women my age, women who were in our impressionable 20s when the show was at its height, who then went on to use it as a model of sophistication and worse, a model of potential for what life should look like in a big city.

I actually think the portrayal of New York City was limiting to what is possible here.  This city is a kaleidoscope of experiences, and is never the same two days in a row, a constantly shifting myriad of possible experiences and storylines told through the eyes of millions of people from thousands of cultural backgrounds.  If anything, Sex and the City had blinders on to the majority of experiences possible in the city, limited as they were to their stratum of society, their parties and galas and balls and weekends in the Hamptons and only the most two-dimensional of art.  It calls into question how one should define sophistication: should it be familiarity with a conventional white upper-class culture, or should it be the ability to know one’s city from multiple perspectives?

However, I didn’t pick up my drive to live in a big city from SaTC.  I’ve wanted to live in a big city since I realized there were big cities to live in.   What I did absorb was a lot of  modeling for heterosexual relationships with emotionally immature men.  This is fine when you are 24 and you are dating a Jack Berger type and you need a framework with which to understand what the hell his problem is.  This is not fine when you actually find the love of your life and find yourself actually afraid to express emotion because you have picked up too many bad lessons from a TV show.

It’s this latter point that worries me a bit about Sex and the City.  Are there other women my age who use the show’s storylines as one way to map out our experiences with males?  By creating characters for a dramedy, could Sex & the City have inadvertently have given us a set of male character references that we’ve internalized by mistake?  Did the show contribute to the normalization of emotional immaturity in men by providing us with those models at a vulnerable time in cultural history?

I do not hear my friends actively making statements like, “oh, he’s just being like Big” because a) they’re not idiots and b) that reference is two decades old.   Still, could the idea of Carrie and Big’s relationship dynamic, where he is an emotional man-child who sabotages all her other relationships to keep her attached to him, and she still ends up with him as a reward for his bad behavior – has that permeated our culture as acceptable?  Could the idea of these insecure men like Steve or Berger, men who couldn’t accept high earning women (and yes, I know Steve got over it) have entered our brains as an acceptable thing that we should just put up with and make excuses for?  Has SATC reinforced these behaviors as acceptable or did it just reflect our own inter-gender dynamics back to us?

I am afraid I can’t answer this through my own experience: I’ve been with my husband since I was twenty-seven, when the guys I was dating were also in their late 20s and early 30s, and were all still emotionally immature.  My knowledge of male behavior by men over the age of 30 is therefore limited to third-hand insight: pop culture, advice columns, and the tales of my friends.  Therefore, the idea of this kind of poor male behavior being normalized may be a pop-culture stereotype.  But as we begin to hold men accountable for their immaturity and entitlement , we have to re-evaluate what behavior women have normalized and internalized over the years as part of heteronormative dynamics – and SaTC may be one of the sources we have to question.

Still.  Happy birthday to Sex & The City, happy 20th to all of us for having the show, and all its modeling of women, their friendships, their sex-positivity and their ability to pursue vocational callings in the big city.   Even if their characters still couldn’t figure out how to use a smartphone (aaaaaaaargh) in 2009, we still should celebrate Miranda having a BlackBerry in 1999, buying her own apartment and being an unapologetic “Esq”. We should still celebrate Charlotte eventually recognizing that Harry’s love and devotion to her was something special.  And we should celebrate the merciful death of the movie series thanks to Kim Cattrall, whose Samantha was the best of the characters, not because of her sexual independence, but because she was a business owning badass who loved herself more.

For that, and for silly women everywhere, happy 20th.




I have been watching more TV lately.  This started when I realized how much content I could download to my phone or Kindle to watch while in transit on the subway.  This was initially great!  I could immerse myself in television programming any day of the week, not just the one or two days when a favorite show came online.  I started picking entire series to watch, starting with Parks and Rec and adding Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  I watched a huge chunk of the first season of Outlander while traveling to and from Toronto.  And I could keep watching all the weekly shows that come up in “real time” like Divorce, so long as I watched them on the above ground bus to work in NJ.

Then the TV watching time began to creep up.  I started watching episodes of TV at home, on an actual TV.  I would watch two or three episodes at a time.  Suddenly, entire hours were disappearing.  I would look up and realize I was looking at a screen still at 11pm or midnight, throwing off my sleep schedule and my body’s ability to stay asleep due to the light suppressing the melatonin production I need for a good night’s rest.  I’d make up for that with a melatonin pill, and then I’d wake up groggy and start compensating for that with caffeine.  Which, as I learned last fall, I can only consume in moderation as well.  TV is both a bad influence and a bad habit.

Image result for download netflix meme

It isn’t as if I’m watching crappy TV even!  I’m watching a lot of consistently smart, female led, well reviewed content.  CexG , for example, is an extremely smart show, digging into its characters motivations and human frailty and mental health and changing sense of identity with a great sense of compassion and insight, sometimes expressed through musical numbers.  Parks and Rec is one of the best comedies ever, mostly based on the strength of its ensemble.  Neither show relies on gender tropes to build their characters.  Neither is based on laughing at its characters, as some sitcoms consistently do.  They are both well written, compassionate programs.  But they’re also passive content, and as long as I’m sitting there consuming the content, I’m not engaging in anything else.

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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: the only show to compare our mammary glands to the density of white dwarf stars.

It’s addicting to consume passive content.  It’s addicting to have an entire entertainment feed directly into my brain.  I have always read so much that I’m used to what Jasper Fforde called the “imaginotransference” process in the Thursday Next books.  To have multiple senses provided for me, without having to use any imagination myself, is fantastic.  It is so much richer an experience to see each nuance of a character’s facial expression, to see their setting, to hear their voice. This is why we all universally love television and movies, after all: they are a full display of storytelling that shows us a full, exacting vision, without relying on our brains to place the information in context or create our own visuals.

So as much as I try to justify my consumption of television, I also know I’m being lazy when I watch.  And I also know that as long as I”m watching, I’m not creating anything of my own.  I’m not blogging or writing.  I’m not practicing piano.  I’m consuming someone else’s creation, and as smart as that creation may be, the only good it does me is to be entertained by it.  I’m not thinking my own thoughts when I’m consuming passive content.  Sometimes, that’s OK, because I need a break and it’s nice to be entertained and heartwarmed by someone else’s vision of, say, Pawnee, IN: a place full of hope and positivity.  Other times, it’s just consumption, and it’s just taking up my time…and, to an extent, my energy.

Am I judging passive content?  No.  I’m judging how easy it is to be passive when consuming media.  With the infinite access to entertainment that is Netflix and its counterparts, one can access the cream of the art form of TV, the best comedies that are out there.  Even those of us with very specific comedic preferences (“Female Driven Sitcoms With Women Who Swear A Lot“) can find hundreds of hours of our preferred content on these platforms and watch those hours all at once.  Yes, I’m sure passive TV watching happened before this, but it didn’t happen to me.

I have to figure out more balance in this area.  Still, I enjoy watching these shows.  I’ve rarely watched much TV.  Doing so now opens up my ability to participate in more conversations around what makes a good vs. bad piece of video content.   And it’s also given me a whole new respect for the writers who make their visions happen in the long run.

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From symbolism to symbols

There is a moment, in the First Sex in the City movie, where Carrie realizes that Big isn’t coming to their wedding venue (because he is a ridiculous man child, obviously, who only showed devotion when he could buy his way out of it BUT I DIGRESS) Carrie, panicking, asks for a phone. Samantha throws her an iPhone. She looks at the screen, covered in the first generation of apps, and says, simply, I can’t use this. I don’t know how.

Thinking of that scene, it seems so quaint. How could anyone be so clueless as to not be able to use a smartphone? How could anyone have lacked the intuition to grasp the technology, driven as it is by pictures and icons? It is a moment made for empathy from the audience, as if to say, see this confusing technology? It’s OK not to understand it! Even sophisticated New York women cannot efficiently use this newfangled geek device from Silicon Valley!

Now, at the age that the character was in that movie, I think, how did we manage to grasp all this technology? How is it that most of us swam so smoothly into the tide of all of this change? All of these smartphones, all of these computers, all of this digital existence? How is it all of us, all of my generation, managed to transition from the first days of a text-only Internet, to the bright icons, shapes, colors, all of the wordless material that makes up the apps and pictures on our phones? How did our brains transition from having the information, in the format of words that we were used to for centuries, and just suddenly seeing it flow through in a completely different interface every few years?

Look at all these tiny pictures!

In the world of today, I feel fortunate enough to be from a unique generation. I remember A World Before the internet, but only barely. I am still able to see the internet as something miraculous, a conduit that allows for a flow of information and communication we never could have imagined in the past.

That, however, was words. The smartphones are all about images. They are a new way of looking at information, full of symbols. There are the pleasingly aesthetic squares of apps, the shortcut sentences of emojis, the flash of lights on the phone itself to represent a message from another person. My phone speaks to me in a code of shortcuts.

This is why I had to delete the Facebook app off my phone: the notification icon babbles at me otherwise.

How did the Xennials all learn this so quickly, changing the way we interpret information in so few years? How were we poised for this absorption of information? Words alone, I get – Western culture prizes ourselves on our ability to absorb words and change them into images and emotions in our brains. We have done that collectively for half a millennium, since the printed, widely distributed word accelerated the ability to read. The Internet as it was in 1995 makes perfect sense to me. The way we choose to communicate now though, it goes around the words. It is a direct transfer of simple information, including emotions, without the need to take in words and change them, in our brains, to a concept.


Pretty sure this means something filthy IN PHONE SPEAK

Maybe this is how we moved so quickly to smartphones and this image and metaphor laden technology. It isn’t that we went forward, it’s that we went backwards. Most of what is done in smartphone communication is images and symbols because it is too cumbersome to pull together a coherent set of words. Going without words entirely may be more efficient on this device, but it strikes me as lazier .

I’m actually typing this on a smartphone, using it as a small computer. It isn’t efficient, but it’s how I write on the subway. The concepts I’m trying to express, I want a reader to interpret through the nuances of words. There are no cookie cutter symbols that can replace original paragraphs. Maybe there are images, but I’d rather forces a reader to create those themselves. It’s effort for both the writer and reader this way.

Oh and that smartphone Carrie caught in the movie? Thrown to her by Samantha. Who is ten years older than the other girls. Proving, of course that anyone can learn this nerdy new tech, especially when it helps them run their successful small business. And I am sure the writers would have forced a gratuitous use of a series of sex icons like the ones above in lieu of dialogue on the extremely well spoken and articulate Kim Cattrall if the 3rd movie had taken place, proving my point about laziness as well.

NYC is about being Younger

I have always been a fan of Darren Star’s work. I watched 90210 in high school, Melrose Place in what should have been college years, the entire run of Sex and the City. It sometimes surprises people when I can quote entire swaths of the latter, complete with episode numbers and titles (Side note: My favorite season is Season 2, although I appreciated Seasons 5 and 6 more as I grew up. and I am Team Aidan, since he isn’t creepily old like Mr. Big.  I realize that is supposed to be sophistication but yeesh. )

It should therefore come as no surprise that I am a huge fan of Younger, the TV Land series produced by Star and costumed by Pat Field, the SatC wardrobe mistress. It is the story of a forty year old divorcee, Liza Miller (Sutton Foster), who, after being a SAHM her whole adult life, finds herself not only on her own, but with no assets due to her husband’s gambling debts. Liza doesn’t even have a roof over her head after losing her New Jersey suburban home. She goes to stay with her dear friend, artist Maggie (Debi Mazar) who owns a loft in Williamsburg she bought in the 90s (SLIGHTLY PLAUSIBLE). Liza attempts to go back into the workforce in her old career as a book editor, but soon learns she is unhireable after being out of the industry for sixteen years. It is only when she starts lying about her age and says she is 26 that she secures employment as an assistant to the marketing lead of the fictional Empirical Books, Diana Trout (Miriam Shor).  (Note that this addresses every mother’s worst fears: that staying home will kill our careers.)

The clever premise of the show is the way that this lie, while created for work, extends to personal. Through the inadvertent friendships and relationships she forges along the way, Liza must keep up the facade of being 26.  The show is therefore ultimately about relationships and trust, and the stress it places on the former when you lack the latter.

Trust – or lack thereof – is not the part I find relatable though. What I do find relatable is the need to be young in New York City. Los Angeles thrived on youthful appearance as a commodity; New York seems to thrive on the cultural aspects of being young, or rather, it is a city that emphasizes the culture that one cares about most while young. Fashion is the most obvious: the street style here is amazing no matter the age of the person wearing it. There’s an expectation though to know the best restaurants, bars, neighborhoods, music, art, plays – all these cultural touchpoints that most people stop paying attention to when they reach a certain age, that in New York are still as relevant to a 26 year old as a 40 year old.

Perhaps I am biased in that regard, since I work in an industry that is extremely heavy in millenials. Still, I feel like there’s more opportunity here to keep the most culturally dialed in parts of one’s 26 year old self. When I was 26, I cared about all of the things 26 year olds care about:seeing indie bands at Spaceland, shopping in Venice Beach boutiques, going to parties at MOCA. In New York, I still care about those sort of things.  I may not actually do those things, but I know they are there in a way that I might not if it wasn’t always a possibility to engage with culture. Perhaps it says something about American culture in that, when one gets older, one is supposed to stop caring about fashion and music and art, but in New York, those things are so perennially important that they can’t be abandoned as one ages.

It’s also the access and option to participate in so much youth culture that conflicts with my responsibilities as an almost 40 year old. There are always going to be club nights I want to go to, new restaurants to try, trendy fitness classes to do – things I might have had time and energy to do at 26 but not at almost 40. More than Los Angeles, I feel younger here myself: having access to this much ageless culture makes me feel like I am caught.  I’m torn between having the same enthusiasm I had for being in the Big City in 2004, and being the responsible adult I am in 2017.

So that’s why I empathize so much with Younger. It isn’t the emotional premise, as it was with SaTC, but rather, the cultural premise. Liza’s character dresses like a millenial for work, a pronounced difference between her image and her boss’. She lives in Brooklyn(!)  Her friends go to House of Yes. She goes out to parties and rooftop bars in Manhattan. She does all these things that are age appropriate for 26 – but are still so available to those of us who are almost 40.

gender equality, sitcom style

“Funny”, in females, is not portrayed in American media as a desirable trait.  It’s something reserved for the sidekick or the comic relief wing-girl, not something for the romantic lead.  I have often believed that girls are encouraged to keep their hilarity within the confines of what’s still considered cute: witty banter, not full on vulgar humor.  There have been women who have gone outside of this mold as comedians, from Joan Rivers to Sarah Silverman, but they are an exception.  Comedy, whether vulgar or smart, can be constricted to gender roles.

Recently, there has been a sort of paradigm shift in how women are portraying themselves in television.   They didn’t come here to play “cute”  They came here to laugh, and they are all out of f’s to give if people do not like it.  There are sitcoms now with female leads that are far from charming, who are not polished, who are just going to go with their characters and all the vulgarity that comes from it.  Now, we have Julia Louis-Dreyfus making statements like, “I just got Brit-fucked by that balloon animal,” and Ilana on Broad City saying, “I am so hard right now,” Now we are getting somewhere in allowing women to put their energy into being hilarious, and not asking them to make sure it stays “cute”.

Fifteen years ago, the closest thing we had to a show where women just went for that kind of bawdiness was Sex and the City – and that was only because Kim Cattrall is an amazing comic actress.  Still, the show felt it had to represent all the areas of the female psyche, so it gave us the traditional female elements and their shocked reactions along with the less traditional characters and their shocking statements.  When Samantha talked about Richard’s “long, pink, perfect dick”, there was a reaction from half the characters where they were somehow still shocked at her crudeness.  Those reactions are there to provide empathy to the poor shocked audience, to show an acceptable reaction to a woman making a sexually explicit statement.  Now, we have episodes of Broad City where Ilana says, “I think I’m just craving pink dick,” and her friend doesn’t even blink.  And just the way she says it, and the way it’s accepted, makes it NBD.  That is what I’m looking for: a universe where hilarity and comedy can come from anyone, and not be defined by their gender.

I often wonder if this is an actual generational gap. Is it that the generation of fifteen years ago felt constrained to these traditional gender roles?  I think that is what frustrates me the most about that mentality when I re-watch Sex & the City.  It was a groundbreaking show for the time, but it still frustrates me how much it adheres to traditional female archetypes, especially since it is essentially conceived and developed by men.

And now we have sitcoms with flawed female leads!  Look at 30 Rock, a show I’m shocked not only was made, but that ran for as long as it did.  Or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a total phenomenon based on a woman whose behavior is completely out of touch with social expectations.  Or Parks and Rec. It’s not “ladylike” behavior.  It’s just funny behavior.  We have hundreds of shows where brassy, bossy, bawdy behavior is taken for granted when it’s done by guys.  Now we finally have a handful where it’s done by women, and in the universe they live in, it’s totally OK.

I love that we are finally getting to shows that do not feel like they need to map characters to traditional female roles.  It’s no longer required to put a Charlotte in, or to channel Helen Lovejoy in a sort of Greek chorus.  This is where something like Two Broke Girls fails: it has a traditionally female character to be shocked by her smartass friend.  It still has a traditional female gender role to balance out, and tell us that we should be leery of this kind of unladylike behavior.

It’s the shows where a character can behave based on who they are, regardless of their gender role, and have it be accepted in that universe that I’m fascinated by.  Otherwise, having a “cute” girl who’s programmed to react in socially appropriate ways just makes the “funny girl” seem like she’s there for comic relief.  Having a person just be hilarious, without anyone reacting based on gender stereotypes, is what I really love about this next generation of female comedy.  I hope the next seasons of all these sitcoms I’m so into can keep it rolling to remind us that our gender restrictions can no longer keep us from being equally bawdy and hilarious.



wednesday recap: morning TV housework

Wait, it’s Wednesday already? I woke up today and seriously thought it was Tuesday. FOUR DAYS TO PITTSBURGH!

My day today kind of flew by. I’ve almost stopped watching TV in the mornings again. There was a novelty to being able to watch Today and The View the first few weeks of unemployment. Watching those shows made me feel like life was simple, like all I had to worry about was cooking dinner, preparing my lawn for winter, and knowing what purse trends would be hot for fall. Then I realized that I didn’t WANT my life to be that simple. I chose to care about different things than what the morning shows focus on. I choose to get my food from a farm collective, to live in a big city where I couldn’t afford a lawn, to never carry a purse with faux-fur on it, even if it’s supposed to be “hot”. I choose to care about the kind of bands that headline Bonnaroo or Coachella, instead of the artists who win American Idol or are weirdly popular despite being formulaic. And then that was the end of the morning shows…except maybe as background noise while I’m sifting through email or running reports. I admit, I kind of like some parts of “The View”, because I enjoy the discussion and commentary on the tough, thorny issues they choose to take on.

Today, I admit, I did watch some morning TV – but I did it while tackling today’s Major Project, the Pantry Re-Organization And Inventory. Because I’ll be gone for five weeks, and Paul will be here on his own for most of that (sometimes alone, sometimes with Ben), I decided to re-organize and inventory the pantry area so my husband would be able to find things, and would know what he had available. Also, I am tired of spending money on things like peanut butter, just to find that there were two jars already hiding in among the salsa and pickles. So I pulled everything off the shelves – over a hundred items, by my count – and entered each item, by category and sub category (for easy spreadsheet sorting), with the item name and the expiration date. Now everything is in a Google Doc I can access, if need be, while at the store. I’m not usually that OCD, but in this case, it was sorely needed.

Also, our pantry was a disaster area. I felt like the “before” case in a Real Simple article…only with more dirt, dust and spillage than any article would ever show. So I pulled out all the open bags of sugar and flour and put them in airtight storage bins, where they would keep and wouldn’t spill. I dumped out the bins of random snack foods and bulk food items, and sorted them out by category. I put what I could into jars and Oxo storage containers, washed and re-organized the bins, and dusted all the shelves. I threw away the expired foods, the almost-empty bags, the things that had gone stale…and the flour with moths in it (which explains our moth problem). The whole project, including cleaning up the floor afterwards, took over 3 hours…done in three one-hour stints, because at one point, I looked at the piles of miscellaneous stuff, and got totally overwhelmed. I can handle stacking eight jars of pasta sauce or five cans of Pixar-branded chicken noodle soup, but I lost it trying to figure out what to do with all the small stuff. At one point, I looked at the floor, covered in Miscellaneous Items that had been living in random bins for the last six months (kiddie Clif bars, single-serving bags of cookies, packages of instant rice pilaf, small amounts of bulk-bin legumes, a half-empty bag of raisins, individually wrapped loose tea bags, airline snacks I save for Ben, etc., etc), and almost short-circuited trying to organize all the items so they would be easily found and eaten. Finally, I put all the grab and go snacks into a bin, put all the bags of nuts, dried fruit and popcorn in a “Some Assembly Needed” snack section, found enough jars and containers to neatly combine and put away all the bags of kidney beans and split peas, put the rice pilaf in a bin with all the other types of rice and put all the tea and coffee together in a separate section. I’ll go through the whole thing today with my label maker, and hopefully, my husband will be able to feed himself and our son in the limited time he has available to do so before Ben starts whining for attention.

None of this should be that difficult, but I absolutely suck at organizing clutter zones. I have to go through a Clutter Zone as a whole, dumping everything out and re-evaluating each item. Places like the baskets on my desk, the pantry, the bookshelves, my dresser…they all turn into Clutter Zones quickly. I’m proud of myself when I clear through one of the Zones though, because organization is such a learned skill for me. Now, we can see everything in the pantry, and even if we can’t, Paul has a list so he knows what’s in there. Soy sauce? Check. Mustard? Check. Juice boxes, granola bars and jars of applesauce? Yep. Farro, quinoa and lentils? Check. I just need to make a list of what’s in the freezer, and he should be all set to be a single parent for a couple weeks…without having to waste time grocery shopping.

I was going to write more in this entry, like about the hardcore Pilates class I did this morning, or about More Goth Cliche Observations done at MODE:M tonight, but I just realized, I’m tired. It’s time to go to sleep. G’night everyone!

the tudors s4e1: introducing john doe as rapey mcstabberson

Last night, it was with great joy that I welcomed back a fresh installment of The Tudors. I read a lot of Alison Weir and Phillipa Gregory because I love historical fiction, and The Tudors combines that with a lot of very pretty scenery. I love the scenery and settings, appreciate the soundtrack, and I completely covet and look rapturously on the costumes. There’s not a lot of historical accuracy left in the show, outside of the scenery and music and costumes, but it’s so well put together that I can’t help but genuinely appreciate and enjoy it.

However, I do feel that Showtime is stretching it a bit (NO!) this season. Usually, they wait at least three minutes before showing ladyparts; this week, I think they made it less than two into the actual show. Hey, look, there’s a naked teen girl covered in rose petals! Yes, we get it. Henry VIII is shtupping a child, who is lacking in “honor, cleanness, and maidenly behavior”, and whom he openly makes fun of in court when he introduces her. We’re going to continue along this theme throughout the episode, how Henry is sexually enthralled by this child-woman, but bears her no respect as a person.

Chapuys has been given better lines this season at least. First, he gets to make a quip about the only mourners at Thomas Boleyn’s funeral being the ghosts of his children; then he gets to make snarky comments about the King of France’s reaction to Henry’s marriage to a teenager. It seems the Spanish ambassador’s role is larger in this show as the controlling hand behind the dwindling and confused Catholic faction. He continues to encourage Mary, and act as a surrogate father to her. It’s hard to tell if his interest in Mary is genuine, or if it is for the political end – but then, that would have been a question in history of any confidant for any of the women around whom the religious and political factions gathered.

We also get to meet the charming Earl of Surrey. Just in case there was any doubt, he immediately announces his ambition and his relation to the current Queen. Immediately, we’re to make parallels and understand his place as the replacement for the old Duke of Norfolk, Anne Boleyn’s uncle. I have wondered why, if the Norfolk/Howard/Boleyn faction was so despised, as they must have been after Anne’s destruction, so many of them returned in high positions at court. Surrey just seems to wish to introduce himself as This Season’s Sneaky Slimeball, complete with attempts at seduction of Lord Seymour’s wife.

I will say that the actress portraying Catherine Howard is brilliant in her portrayal of that queen as a silly, shallow twit. Even for seventeen, she seems young – more like a fourteen year old in today’s era. I can’t figure out if this is because her backstory calls for her development being stunted by her time in the Dowager Duchess’ household, or if it is because the writers just need to exaggerate that character. There’s a lot of giggling and flurries of teenagers, and genuinely immature behavior that is written to be completely at odds with her sexual maturity. Lady Rochford looks on impatiently, seeming like an old matron compared to the fluttering and laughter. I love the moment when Catherine saunters off her throne in one of her first scenes without Henry, when she gathers her ladies around her and makes them all swear to “dress in the French fashion”. When Lady Rochford comes in, even Catherine quiets suddenly in front of the older woman, and then she remembers that she’s the Queen, and sashays over to collect her letter like a teenager on My Super Sweet Sixteen.

And then we meet the poor unfortunate Lord Culpepper, the silly boy who will end up being beheaded for treason: having sex with the new Queen. Whether before or after her marriage to Henry, I’m not sure history has ever proven. Here, he’s played by UBC alumni Torrance Coombs, who is previously known for playing John Doe on the CBC’s jPod. Apparently, John Doe has learned to turn up the smoulder a notch or two, because it’s extremely clear by the way he looks at Queen Catherine that he lusts after her, in a way that suggests he knows exactly what he’s lusting after. We can only imagine what terrible things will happen to him for lusting after the Queen – after all, the Tudors has already exaggerated much torture of Anne Boleyn’s lovers. But, just so we don’t feel TOO bad about poor Thomas Culpepper, he immediately goes out with his posse of boys, rapes a local woman in her own barnyard, and then kills her husband when he threatens to call the squire. Oh, Showtime, did you have to ruin John Doe’s innocence? At least he only has a few more episodes to go around raping and stabbing before he gets executed for nailing the Queen.

It’s also interesting watching Tamzin Merchant playing a seventeen year old meeting Henry’s children for the first time. Mary, of course, is less than amused at having a young girl as her stepmother. Elizabeth I, by contrast, is charmed. While Catherine is flustered at dealing with the austere and serious Mary, she is on better footing with the younger children, and is able to conduct herself with authority with Edward and Elizabeth. The latter, especially, by all accounts, was smart enough to play up to whoever was in her father’s favour at the time. The girl playing Elizabeth actually looks a bit like the paintings of the future queen, and conveys the brisk, serious manner of the character Alison Weir depicts in her Lady Elizabeth. I hope they continue to develop and bring out Elizabeth – it will be interesting to see how Showtime approaches the future queen (Hey, there’s a spinoff in the making!)

But Showtime is banking heavily on their almost underage Catherine this season to turn up the softcore factor. From the suggested lesbian teenage interlude with her friend (and subtle blackmailer Joan), to the end scene of the young queen dancing in the rain in a see-through gauze nightgown, there’s no question that Showtime wants us to understand the sexual thrall that Catherine holds Henry in, and the palpable tension she creates that makes it easy to see how the entire court understood his decision to marry a teenager. Whether they need to push it so far to convey her unsuitability as Queen to the television audience, I’m not sure. Yes, we get it – she gets in mud fights, and throws rose petals, and giggles and acts silly and uses sex like a child would use any other manipulative tool. Whether the real Catherine Howard was so childish and sexual, there’s no real way to tell. By all accounts, she was a good deal plumper, at least. Perhaps Showtime chose the slender Tamzin Merchant to convey a more childlike character – breasts and hips would convey a stupid woman, not a Lolita figure. But it’s more likely that they chose the actress to match an overly slender modern ideal of beauty, because the writing that defines her character as silly, vapid and childlike is heavy handed enough to make her seem more immature than any seventeen year old of that era had any right to be.

This season will cover a lot of the plot of the Boleyn Inheritance. Having read that book does make this season easier to understand. I wonder if it will continue past Henry’s death at all. It’s a shame this will likely be the last season of the Tudors – there could be at least a few more to be had out of the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth, and the wars with France and Spain they fought. I suppose those are being saved for made-for-TV movies…or Showtime feels they have already been covered by the movies with Cate Blanchett. For now though, I’m glad to have my historical smut back.