Reconsidering GIRLS

A month ago I participated in a blogathon devoted to the new HBO program Girls. The impetus for the blogathon was a series of discussions I was having with some media studies scholars (primarily Kristen Warner and Jennifer Jones) about the hype leading up to the show’s April 15th premiere. The public discourses surrounding the Girls premiere — in commercials created by HBO, interviews with the press, and reviews by critics who received advanced copies of the first three episodes — primarily stuck to the same theme: Girls is an authentic portrait of what it is like to be a twentysomething female today. Had the show simply been promoted as a new quirky portrait of a pirvileged, highly-educated but emotionally immature young woman’s struggles to make it as an artist in New York City, I am not sure our blogathon would have taken place at all. But the show’s generic title, which implies a universality (even as it mocks the maturity of its protagonists), coupled with the ecstatic reviews lauding the program’s authenticity, bumped up against the program’s rather rigid white, heterosexual, upper-class cast in an unpleasant way. Thus, the blogathon was our attempt to ask: do we take a television series to task for claiming to provide an authentic female bildungsroman when its “authenticity” is limited to one vision of female life?

One thing I did not say in my original post about the show, and which I think needs to be said, is that I do not blame Lena Dunham, the show’s creator, head writer, and star, for the way HBO advertised her show or the way television critics made her show, before a single episode ever aired, into a text that “speaks” for all of today’s young women. Dunham did not, for example, ever claim that her show was “FUBU” (for us, by us). That unfortunate statement came from a glowing preview written by television critic Emily Nussbaum. I enjoy Nussbaum’s work, particularly the way she writes about female characters on TV, but this was an absurd thing to write (well, to be fair, she was quoting her colleague). In addition to the problem of appropriating the phrase “for us, by us,” which was first used by Daymond John for his 1992 clothing line, FUBU (made by and for African American clientele), the claim that Girls was written for “us” by “us” implies that the white, heterosexual, upper class experience is generalizable to all women.

Mmmm, FUBU.

I suppose I understand why Nussbaum would include this statement in her review of Girls. Sometimes when I watch a film or television show, a moment rings so true that I wonder, briefly, if the creator has somehow read my diary. Knowing that this is impossible — I burned all of my diaries! — I then wonder if perhaps this truthful moment is something “universal.” That is an exhilarating feeling — that a private, personal experience is actually an experience linking me to a larger group of individuals. Indeed, you can feel Nussbaum’s excitement and her joy as she writes about Girls — the show clearly tapped into something personal and true for her. I too had moments like that when I watched Girls this season. But, I am also aware that I will have many more moments of personal recognition than, say, a white woman who had to pay her own way through college, or an African American woman who is looking at the screen and seeing no black faces, or a lesbian who is thinking “Seriously ladies, this is one of the reasons why I don’t date men.” To call Girls a show “for us, by us” implies that all of those other “us-es” don’t count.

White.

My reactions to the Girls pilot probably seems nitpicky. “Okay fine,” you might be thinking,”so you’re mad about the way the show was promoted. But what about the show itself? Isn’t it important to judge it on its own merits?” Yes, hypothetical, puzzled reader, you are right. Let’s talk about the show itself: in my original post about the pilot, I was critical of the show’s tone. I felt that Girls was playing coy with its politics. It felt like Dunham was adding a “first world problems” hashtag (complete with air quotes) to the pilot, rather than actually grappling with these issues head on. I wrote:

…the show is awash in its own privilege. It winks and nods, but then dismisses it as if to say “I acknowledged this okay? Can we move on to what I want to talk about now?” If you have the critical fortitude to acknowledge privilege, like when Hannah’s friend scoffs at her for whining about having to pay her own bills (reminding her that he has $50,000 in student loans), then you better well deal with it.

I was honestly confused about what, exactly, Lena Dunham was trying to tell us about her character, Hannah Horvath. Are we supposed to genuinely sympathize with her “plight” or are we supposed to view her existential struggle to become the “voice of her generation” (or “a voice of a generation”) as the whiny complaints of a young woman whose biggest dilemma is that her ex-boyfriend from college has finally come out of the closet? Or that her shirtless, douchebag lover doesn’t text her enough? Or that her best friend is dating a man with, to quote Hannah’s diary, “a vagina”? If, according to Jason Mittell, the goal of a pilot is “to educate viewers on what the show is, and inspire us to keep watching,” then I do think Girls failed in one of its primary jobs — to let us know what the series’ tone will be. Is it a serious drama with sympathetic characters (Parenthood) ? A broad comedy in which characters are built for punchlines (Big Bang Theory)? A world filled with unlikable characters who do awful things and it’s funny (Curb Your Enthusiasm)?  A world filled with unlikable characters who do awful things and it FREAKS YOU OUT (Sopranos)?

The Girls pilot did not make its tone clear. If you take that ambiguous tone, couple it with the show’s overblown hype and claims to authenticity, and then look at the blinding whiteness of its cast, then that is the best way to explain why I (and so many others) did not react favorably to the pilot. But I feel differently now, which is why I am writing this follow up post. I think the tone of the series became crystal clear partway through episode 2, “Vagina Panic,” when Hannah decides to get tested for STDs. The scene opens with Hannah wearing one of those flimsy hospital gowns that open in the back, a piece of clothing that is engineered to make patients feel humiliated and therefore, pliant. As Hannah lays back on the examination table, feet in stirrups, she begins to ramble. I want to pause for a moment and point out that generally I hate the way movies and television depict the “foot in the stirrups” scenario because it is usually played for drama — “My God, Mrs. Smith, you’re seven months pregnant!” — or for comedy — “My God, Mrs. Smith, I’ve found your car keys!”

THE WORST

Instead, this scene reveals the pelvic exam, that necessary female rite of passage, for what it is — very, very, very uncomfortable. I don’t care how old I get, I will never be comfortable having a doctor  slide her gloved hand into an area which is normally pretty selective about who may enter it, insert a cold metal instrument inside of me so as to make that personal opening wider, and then have a perfectly casual conversation about my summer travel plans as she examines my holy of holies like a miner digging for diamonds. The pelvic exam is one of the few scenarios in which a woman must act like she is totally cool with a stranger rummaging around in her  vagina, not for the purposes of generating an orgasm, but to figure out if there is anything “wrong with it.” So I found Hannah’s verbal diarrhea in this scene to be completely appropriate (even if the content of her ramblings was not). This was my “universal moment,” in which I saw a genuinely frustrating experience from my own life recreated accurately on screen.

Do NOT Google the words “pelvic exam.”

The tone of the series also became clear to me here because Hannah, in her attempt to fill the air with conversation, launches into a ludicrous monologue about AIDS. I will quote it at length because it must be read to be believed:

The thing is that, these days if you are diagnosed with AIDS, it’s actually not a death sentence. There are so many good drugs and people live a long time. Also, if you have AIDS, there’s a lot of stuff people aren’t going to bother you about. Like, for example, no one is going to call you on the phone and say ‘Did you get a job?’ or ‘Did you paid your rent?,’ or ‘Are you taking an HMTL course yet?’ because all they’re going to say is ‘Congratulations on not being dead.’ You know, it’s also a really good excuse to be mad at a guy. It’s not just something dumb like, ‘You didn’t text me back,’ it’s like ‘You gave me AIDS. So deal with that. Forever.’ Maybe I’m actually not scared of AIDS. Maybe I thought I was scared of AIDS, but really what I am is… wanting AIDS.

What the hell, Hannah?

A nice recap of the episode over at Press Play compares this scene to a scene in the pilot episode of My So Called Life (1994) in which Angela Chase (Claire Danes) tells her English teacher, during a discussion of The Diary of Anne Frank, that Anne Frank was “lucky.” Angela’s teacher is horrified by her response: “Is that suppsosed to be funny? How on earth could you make a statement like that?” she asks. Angela, who has been mooning over her first real crush, Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), suddenly snaps out of her reverie. After her teacher prods her again, Angela begrudgingly clarifies her response: “I don’t know. Because she was trapped for three years in an attic with this guy she really liked?” If you’d like to watch this scene, start at the 3.30 minute mark on the video below:

This scene is the epitome of that oft-used term “First World Problems.” Only a young woman who is well fed, well loved, and generally provided for would look at the plight of a little Jewish girl forced into hiding during the Holocaust and be jealous of her. Angela is so caught in the throes of her own teenage crush that she is only capable of viewing the world in terms of young women who get to be with their crushes and young women who are kept apart from them. Even something as large as the Holocaust becomes invisible in this world view. If my daughter said something like that I would be forced to give her a lengthy lecture on the nature of “real problems” even as I know that I possibly said something similarly awful at age 15. Indeed, this moment appears in the My So Called Life to tell us almost everything we need to know about the series’ protagonist, Angela: she is privileged; she is uncomfortable in her own skin; she misunderstands and is misunderstood by the adults in her life; and most importantly, she is desperately in love (or what she believes to be love) with Jordan Catalano. This is all that matters to Angela Chase and so her skewed (and horrifying) analysis of The Diary of Anne Frank makes perfect sense in this context. The audience is not expected to identify with Angela here (unless she is also a privileged 15-year-old in love, in which case, she might) but to understand that this scene is telling us what we need to know about Angela as we move forward through this series.

Angela tells us: “I’m in love. His name is Jordan Catalano. He was let back, twice. Once I almost touched his shoulder in the middle of a pop quiz. He’s always closing his eyes like it hurts to look at things.”

In the same way, Hannah’s infuriating rant about AIDS is a wonderful crystallization of her character. Only a young woman with no “real problems” would fantasize about having a really real problem. Hannah feels that having AIDS would somehow be simpler and more desirable than having to find a job or a boyfriend just as Angela can only see the benefits of being hunted down by blood-thirsty Nazis.  As I listened to Hannah blather on I wanted to chastise her for saying such obnoxious things. But then her gynecologist did it for me. She looked at Hannah and said, with the utmost sympathy, “You couldn’t pay me to be 24 again.” This moment acknowledged Hannah’s self centeredness, her privilege and her ignorance about her own privilege, and then, very carefully, cut her some slack. Hannah is, after all, 23. And if I learned anything from Blink-182, it is that “nobody likes you when you’re 23″:

In fact, people in their early twenties are really no better than people in their early teens. In many ways they are worse because they are now equipped with college degrees that lead them to believe that they “understand” things about “the world.” A recent roundtable discussion in Slate, called “Girls on Girls,” offered this perspective on Hannah’s age:

 Isn’t that funny arrogance and vulnerability the special purview of the 22, 23, and 24 year old? You are confused, on the low end of the work totem pole or still trying to prove yourself (unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg), and yet you also are young. You’re the next thing. You’ve left your parents’ home and are free to reject all the posters and accoutrements and funny habits and small town-ness of their lives.

A 23-year-old is like a very independent, very entitled toddler who can drive a car and is legally allowed to drink. We say and do very, very dumb things when we are in our early twenties, and that seems to be what Girls is about.

So as this season of Girls draws to a close, I find myself in an uncomfortable situation. On the one hand, I am really enjoying this series. Not every scene or character works (I could completely do without Shoshannah [Zosia Mamet]), but every episode contains at least one scene that I would characterize as “sublime.” And yes, I am using sublime in the Kantian sense of the word, meaning an overwhelming experience that generates awe and respect. I felt this way when Charlie (Christopher Abbott) serenaded his girlfriend, Marnie (Allison Williams), with excerpts from Hannah’s stolen diary that document their relationship from her cynical and judgmental perspective.

Charlie humiliates himself in order to prove a point

When Charlie gets on stage and announces that his next song was wrriten for his girlfriend, Marnie looks pleased (even though we know she does not truly love Charlie). Then, looking Marnie right in the eye, Charlie sings:

What is Marnie thinking

she needs to know what’s out there

how does it feel to date a man with a vagina.

As I watched this slow-moving car crash I was overwhelmed with a confusing mixture of sadness, humiliation, and awkward triumph.  To watch Charlie completely abase himself — to throw himself onto his own sensitive-boyfriend-sword — in order to drive home the point that he deserves to be treated with respect, was truly beautiful. Sublime. As Charlie tells Marnie in a follow up episode, he just wants to be treated “like my life is real.” His song did that. This is the kind of scene that makes me happy that I study film and television for a living.

Marnie realizes that this isn’t a love song

But still, I keep coming back to my original problem with this show — it makes whiteness and it attendant privilege the default setting (and as John Scalzi recently pointed out, “white” is the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life). Why am I picking on Girls for doing what just about every single TV show currently on the air does? Because Girls is written and produced by an extremely smart and talented young woman and if she can’t find a way to make non-white characters, non-straight characters, or non-wealthy characters the default setting, then who is going to do this? Cord Jefferson’s piece in Gawker really nails this issue:

One of the reasons Girls seems to be so adored is that its depiction of upper-middle class, Urban Outfitters ennui reads as more true than most everything before it, as if, at long last, there is finally a team of young people that “gets it.” Many sub-30, post-college men and women look at the show and nod their heads in agreement with every abortion joke, drug reference, and unfortunate sex scene. This stuff is indeed happening in Ivy League pockets throughout the United States, the only difference is it’s happening to black, Latino, and Asian people as well, not just Dunham and her trio of white friends.

There is currently not a single leading character on Girls that couldn’t be played honestly and convincingly by a black actor or a Pakistani actor or a Taiwanese actor. It may come as a surprise to some Americans, but there are women of all races who freeload off their wealthy parents and work in tony art galleries.

Jefferson concludes his piece with this heart-breaking statement:

The guys begging for money look like us. The mad black chicks telling white ladies to stay away from their families look like us. Always a gangster, never a rich kid whose parents are both college professors. After a while, the disparity between our affinity for these shows and their lack of affinity towards us puts reality into stark relief: When we look at Lena Dunham and Jerry Seinfeld, we see people with whom we have a lot in common. When they look at us, they see strangers.

Like the fictional Charlie, the very real Jefferson wants for television to acknowledge that his life is “real.” Like Charlie, he is tired of sleeping over at the white folks’ apartments all the time and hanging out with their friends. He likes them and all, but he wants them to meet some of his other friends. Like Charlie, Jefferson (and every audience member whose world view is routinely hidden from mainstream television) has his own apartment, filled with cleverly constructed shelving units and lofted beds. But like Marnie, white audiences won’t ever know this until we take the time to visit this apartment and look around. So no, Girls is not unique in its erasure of all that is not white, straight and middle to upper-class. But I wish that it were.

For another reconsideration of the series by one of my fellow blogathoners, check out Jennifer Jones’ “GIRLS at the Half.”

Blogging GIRLS: Reactions to the Pilot

Full disclosure: I am an upper-middle class, highly educated (I have a PhD!), white woman. So when the protagonist of Girls, Hannah (played by the show’s writer/producer/director Lena Dunham), admits to her emotionally distant, sometime-lover Adam (Adam Driver), that her parents have cut her off financially at age 24, and then adds, sheepishly, “Do you hate me?” her mixture of white privilege and liberal guilt reverberated with me. It was a moment of resonance, a particular feeling generated by a particular situation, and I experienced it as a “real” moment.

My guess is that Girls will create lots of resonant moments for many viewers for a variety of reasons.  I imagine that some will relate to Marnie (Allison Williams) and her mixed feelings about her too-nice boyfriend or Jessa (Jemima Kirk) and her desire to travel in order to avoid impending adulthood. These are interesting characters. They are messy and imperfect, which is almost always preferable to neat and perfect characters. And I like that Hannah is slightly overweight, or as her fuck buddy assures her “You’re not that fat anymore.” I daresay that this is one of the most radical aspects of Girls: the very ordinariness of its protagonist.  As I watched Hannah move across the screen, examining her for an inkling of physical charisma, I was both frustrated and elated. I was frustrated because I am so accustomed to looking at perfectly formed women on TV, with tiny waistlines and flat-ironed hair, that looking at a normal one was a little bit of a let down. But I was also elated by Hannah’s ordinariness and the radicalness of placing a slightly frumpy, slightly average-looking female character at the center of a television series about young women. Jenny Jones offers up a lovely analysis of Hannah’s appetites in her own response to the pilot:

The shot opens with Hannah in close-up but off-center, shoved into the bottom right corner of the shot, breathlessly stuffing spaghetti into her mouth. As the scene continues, she and her father voraciously shovel down food while Hannah’s mother encourages them to slow down. From the start this positions Hannah against her mother and toward her father, an issue which springs up later when her mother is also the instigator for stopping Hannah’s money flow. Hannah is portrayed as consuming carelessly–including sex, drugs, and money–and food does seem to be a primary way that’s characterized. Eating a cupcake in the shower seems to be the ultimate example of this.

I, too, loved seeing Hannah shoveling food into her mouth because I also eat this way and I know it is disgusting. It’s also unusual for a not-stick-thin actress to eat heartily on camera and not make it into a schtick (as Bridesmaids did with Melissa McCarthy’s character). As I watched I asked myself: what if every model and every actress was as average-looking as Lena Dunham? Note that I did not say “ugly” or “fat” (she is neither of these things). She’s just…plain. If film and television were populated with ordinary women would I feel less critical of my own aging body? Would my 5-year-old daughter be less likely to tell me, as she examines her perfectly perfect little body in the mirror,”This shirt makes me look fat”? (True story).

We got lots of these.

Why is it so rare and exceptional to have an ordinary-looking female protagonist? Ordinary male protagonists are ubiquitous, of course, but for some reason a female character can’t just be smart or powerful or deadly with a broadsword. She has to be fuckable. I don’t want to my 5-year-old to think she has to be fuckable. And the media are working against me and my attempts to bolster her self esteem. And that sucks.

But even as I praise Girls for these praiseworthy elements,  it must be acknowledged that there is a wide swath of audience who will have difficulty finding an entryway into this show. As Francie Latour wrote in a recent editorial for the Boston Globe: 

It’s a zeitgeist so glaring and grounded in statistical reality that Hollywood has to will itself not to see it: America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted, yet the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in America is delivered to us again and again on the small screen as a virtual sea of white. The census may tell us that blacks, Latinos and Asians together make up 64.4 percent of New York City’s population.

Latour’s observations are not in any way surprising. Films and television series are usually not made with a non-white, non-middle class viewer in mind. And when television shows do feature, for example, an all African American cast, it is rare that these shows are allowed to explore the subtle realities of their character’s lives. These shows tend instead to be broad comedies or exploitative reality shows. So no, I’m not surprised that there were no brown faces (no poor faces, no queer faces) in the pilot episode of Girls. But I am disappointed.

Everyone is white and straight in GIRLS

No show can (or should) offer to represent all possible identities since this is both impossible and by nature unsatisfactory. But Girls is a specific kind of show. It is a show that aims for verisimilitude — with its focus on the plastic retainer Marnie sleeps in,  the scene in which Jessa talks to Marnie while taking a dump and wiping herself (gross, but okay, there was some realism there) and the spartan decor in struggling actor Adam’s apartment. If this show takes the time and care to present the realities of life in New York City for this group of young women in their early twenties, then I do expect to see some homosexuals and some African Americans and definitely some Spanish-speaking characters. It’s New York City for crying out loud! It’s telling that the only person of color to speak a line of dialogue in the entire pilot is a crazy, homeless, African American man who makes a pass at Hannah as she leaves her parent’s hotel room. I mean, seriously, HBO? That’s the role you decided to give to the black guy? [note: I forgot about Hannah's Asian coworker who asked for the Luna bar and the Smart Water and the Vitamin water. So that's two POC]. They found  a way to bring a British woman onto the show (she’s that Mamet girl’s “British cousin” of course!) so couldn’t an Indian girl be Hannah’s old friend from the weight loss camp her parents made her go to as a tween (I just made up that backstory, by the way)? Couldn’t an African American guy be an actor friend of Hannah’s fuck buddy? There are ways to do this that do not stretch the credibility of this program. And that would make the show more real because I just don’t buy that a girl like Hannah would only interact with straight white people when living in Brooklyn. I do not buy it. And by the way, saying that you wish you could have done this doesn’t count. Consider the following exchange from an interview with Dunham in The Huffington Post:

Are you concerned that people might just think “Girls” is another example of white people problems?
Definitely. We really tried to be aware and bring in characters whose job it was to go “Hashtag white people problems, guys.” I think that’s really important to be aware of. Because it can seem really rarified. When I get a tweet from a girl who’s like, “I’d love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color.” You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I’ll address that.

What? Why could you not do that this season? As the show’s closing credits inform us, you run this show, Ms. Dunham. If your hands are tied, you’re the one who’s tied them.

Boy apartment

So is identification necessary to the pleasures offered by Girls? I would argue yes. It is a program that aims to create “real” moments, such as Hannah awkwardly trying to maintain a sexy bondage position while her doltish lover looks for lube and condoms. We are meant to watch this scene and think “Ah yes, I remember having an awkward sexual encounter like that!” And this is not to say that a gay man or a black woman cannot identify with a straight white woman and her awkward, somewhat humiliating sexual experiences. Of course they can. But I don’t think the show is cultivating that identification. I believe this show is zeroed in on a particular kind of viewer, a viewer who is like Dunham: white, middle- to upper-middle class, educated, and liberal. A viewer like me.

Why do I think this? Because the show is awash in its own privilege. It winks and nods, but then dismisses it as if to say “I acknowledged this okay? Can we move on to what I want to talk about now?” If you have the critical fortitude to acknowledge privilege, like when Hannah’s friend scoffs at her for whining about having to pay her own bills (reminding her that he has $50,000 in student loans), then you better well deal with it. Kristen Warner addresses this nicely in her post on the pilot:

White womanhood holds in its grasp innocence. They are the only ones who can truly be innocent. The only ones who can truly and sincerely have a conversation about why working at McDonalds is not an option while waiting on a cup of opium with Jay-Z playing in the background without remotely considering the juxtaposition of all these um…ideas. And the way that the main character, Hannah, and her girlfriends deploy that innocence (in sometimes successful but mostly unsuccessful ways) reveals the invisibility and instability of whiteness.

To offer up a counterexample, the current season of Mad Men is finally starting to do a respectable job of acknowledging its insulated whiteness. In the past Roger Sterling (John Slattery) has been a likable cad, making skirt-chasing, cheating on your wife, and getting drunk at lunch almost (almost) seem charming. But this season Roger has become a dinosaur, an artifact of the white male patriarchy. He is no longer charming. He can’t bring in new clients because he can’t understand that the world is changing. Instead he sits in his office and stews, getting drunker and hazier as the days goes by. In the meantime, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) puts her feet up on her desk, wears ties, and extorts money from her desperate boss. She is going to replace Roger because she at least understands, in a limited way, that the culture around her is changing. Roger just puts his head in the sand and this will be his downfall.

Poor Roger

But Girls does not really address its privilege in a satisfactory way (meaning, I was not satisfied). When Hannah steals the housekeeper’s money we cut to her walking on the street (being harassed by the craaaazy black man) and smirking a small smirk of triumph. What did I need after that scene? I needed a 30 second scene depicting the housekeeper walking into the hotel room, instinctively looking around for her tip, and then muttering something about “cheap motherfuckers” before stripping the bed. That’s all I needed. Just a moment of consequence. Instead, Hannah gets to commit her selfish act in a vacuum and whoosh, it’s gone. Invisible. Quirky.

Am I being picky? A little. Can you judge an entire series based on its pilot? No. But let me explain myself through a teaching analogy: when I am grading essays I tend to be harder on my best writers. I challenge them more on their ideas, get more annoyed at their grammatical errors, and more outraged at their lazy arguments. “I know you are capable of better work than this” I might write at the end of a perfectly respectable essay. If you have the ability and the intelligence, then why create something subpar? I’m taking the same critical eye to my study of Girls. Dunham is a great writer and a pretty good actress with an ear for smart dialogue, and I know she can do better. Do better, Dunham, you are capable of better work than this. I give you a B. I know you can get an A.

For more reactions to Girls, I encourage you to check out our Facebook group, which is the hub of our Girls blogathon.

MILDRED PIERCE, PARTS 4 & 5: Glendale Sucks!

If you are one of the five people who has been keeping up with my Mildred Pierce recaps, please accept my sincerest apologies for the delay. The final two installments of Todd Hayne’s miniseries clocked in at 2 1/2 hours and I simply could not stay awake to watch the final half hour on Sunday night.

Laguna Beach - the L.C.

Parts 4 and 5 of Mildred Pierce are all about location: where characters live, where they want to live, and how where we’re from indelibly marks us. So it is fitting that Part 4 opens with a establishing shot of the ocean. Seagulls alight on the beach and then fly away again. We soon find out that this is Laguna Beach (before it was Laguna Beach). Mildred (Kate Winslet) and Lucy (Melissa Leo) have come here to check out a new location for her restaurant. From their conversation we discover that Mildred has already opened a second restaurant in Beverly Hills and that the Laguna location would be her third. Mildred plans to serve her signature chicken and waffles dinners, the dinners that have served her so well, but Lucy has a different idea. Lucy explains that when people are vacationing at the beach they want “a shore dinner”: fish, crab, lobster and maybe a steak. Mildred balks at the idea but Lucy is insistent. When the restaurant opens later in the episode, Mildred is surprised to see that her wealthy patrons want to eat outside on the patio. Moments like these reveal the divide between Mildred, hard-working but always working class, and the upper class clientele she serves. She might be serving them food and taking their money, but she will never truly understand them. The distance between Glendale and Pasadena is too great.

Veda, who is now 17-years-old and played with haughty perfection by Evan Rachel Wood, is all too aware of this distance. When her piano teacher dies suddenly, she must seek out a new one. Of course, Veda being Veda decides that she can only work with the best, a snooty Italian conductor, Carlo Treviso (Ronald Guttman). Halfway through Veda’s audition he gently closes the piano cover, as she is still playing, which is a total dick move. She flees the audition, sobbing (as she did in Part 3), and Mildred attempts to comfort her daughter, but her encouraging words enrage Veda, “You think I’m hot stuff, don’t you?” she spits, “Well I’m not, there’s one like me in every Glendale!” Veda’s point is that she is a big fish in a little pond, just like her mother. And if her mother were more cultured, more high-class, then she would realize how average and ordinary her daughter’s talents are. In other words, Mildred’s love and admiration for her daughter mean nothing to Veda because of who Mildred is: she is Glendale. And Glendale is filled with middle brow people with middle brow tastes, people who don’t know the first thing about “real” piano playing talent or the necessity of wearing tight turtlenecks. Did you know, by the way, that Veda hates Glendale?

Veda

Veda hates the ordinariness of Glendale/Mildred because she fears (or possibly knows), that deep down, she might be Glendale too. Mildred’s success in the restaurant and pie business is the result of hard work, sacrifice, intelligence, and perseverance, all qualities that Mildred values. However, it is precisely these qualities that Veda hates. Because anyone can work hard. Anyone can persevere. But only a few special people are born with true class and true talent. Veda desperately wants to be one of those special people and hates her mother for not bestowing this specialness on her at birth. This becomes painfully clear during my second favorite scene of the miniseries. Mildred has just discovered Veda’s plans to blackmail the son of a Hollywood director and she questions why her daughter would need this money, “I’ve never denied you anything, anything money could buy I’ve given you.” Veda replies:

“With enough money I can get away from you and your pie wagons and your chickens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from Glendale and its dollar days and its furniture factories. Women who wear uniforms and men who wear smocks. From every rotten, stinking thing that reminds me of this place or you!”

Oh man, what a speech! Where to begin? First, Veda borrows Monty’s (Guy Pearce) words when she refers to Mildred’s “pie wagons,” the chain of restaurants that have created the life of privilege Veda now enjoys (and resents). She is a young Monty in the making. Veda also elaborates on what she hates so much about Glendale: people work in Glendale. There are furniture factories and department stores with … gasp … dollar days! Obviously, Veda would never buy anything on sale. But what is most interesting about this speech is Veda’s anger over “women who wear uniforms and men who wear smocks.” Veda clings to old-fashioned notions about gender. Specifically, she resents that her mother has taken on the role of breadwinner in her home, that her mother emasculated her father, and that Mildred takes “what she needs” from the men around her.

So Mildred kicks Veda out, Mildred is sad, and we get lots of sad, long takes of Mildred alone in Glendale, staring longingly at photographs of her two departed daughters. And what has Veda been doing all of  this time? Apparently, Veda is a magnificent singer, a rare singer known as a coloratura soprano. She is so magnificent that mean old Treviso begged her to be his student. I am willing to buy that Veda is suddenly this amazing singer. But I do find it odd that, with all of her training and exposure to music instructors, Veda has only discovered this rare talent at the age of 18?

Monty and his turtleneck, BFFs!

After so many months apart, Mildred is desperate to win Veda back. She runs into Monty (Guy Pearce), her old flame, and she makes the impulsive decision to purchase his withering estate. Monty even adjusts the price to account for all the money he borrowed from her years ago. What a great guy! He also gives her some oral sex, which she clearly appreciates, but then Mildred has to ruin all that sex and purchasing of expensive real estate by deciding that she and Monty should get married. Really Mildred? Really? Monty agrees, but only because he senses that to say no would mean that the real estate deal would fall through. And damn it, tight turtlenecks don’t come cheap!

Veda and Mommy, together again

Did I mention that this final segment of the miniseries was 2 1/2 hours long? That is a lot of melodrama! So let’s summarize quickly, shall we? Mildred and Monty get married. Veda shows up at the wedding reception and agrees to move back in with Mommy, now that Mommy is living in Pasadena in a sweet mansion. Mildred gazes longingly at Veda while she sleeps as if she can’t believe that her baby is home again. Veda gets to sing at the Philharmonic. Monty is spending all of Mildred’s money on fancy liquor, jodhpurs, and turtlenecks. Mildred is falling behind on payments and her creditors are pissed. Wally, for some reason, has turned on Mildred (WTF Wally?). Burt (Brian F. O’Byrne) and Mildred decide that they need to borrow money from Veda to save the business and Burt tells Mildred that she’s got to ask Veda for the money now, in the middle of the night!

Bad, bad daughter

So Mildred rushes home to look for Veda and can’t find her. She heads to Monty’s quarters (apparently Monty and Mildred no longer sleep together) and guess who’s in bed with Daddy? Yep, it’s Veda! [My favorite scene of the whole miniseries] This revelation is not a surprise for those familiar with the novel or the 1945 film, but Evan Rachel Wood manages to make it shocking by her sheer defiance. As Monty attempts to put the blame on Mildred (he claims that Mildred used him as “bait” to lure Veda home), Veda simply reclines in bed, smoking a cigarette with those blood-red nails of hers. Then, to drive home the point that she really hates her mother, Veda gets out of bed, stark naked, and walks slowly over to the vanity. This is a real “fuck you” walk. It says “I’m young, I’m skinny, I’m beautiful, and I just stole your man. Suck it, Mommy.” She then begins to slowly brush her hair, eyeing her mother through the vanity mirror. Monty approaches and puts a robe around Veda’s shoulders, which is the final straw for Mildred. She lunges at her daughter, knocking her to the ground, and begins to strangle her. She only stops when Monty pries her hands from her daughter’s throat. Then, in a moment of perfect melodrama, Veda dashes down the steps to the piano, and tries to sing. All that comes out is a hoarse moan. Veda collapses on the very expensive Oriental rug, gasping and crying.

My husband and I pretty certain that Mildreds house in Glendale is the same house used as the Walsh family home in Beverly Hills 90210

When we next see our characters, it is a few months (weeks?) later. Mildred and Burt have just returned from Reno, where Mildred got a divorce and then remarried her ex-husband. Because, of course. They decide to move back into the Glendale house, which will, in the 1990s, become the home of the Walsh family of Minnesota. Veda shows up to wish her parents well. Her voice is nearly healed and she’s headed to New York City (at last, no more Glendale!). Apparently, her old sponsors, Pleasant Cigarette, dropped her after her mother strangled her, which conveniently freed Veda up for a far more lucrative contract with Consolidated Foods. So what we are supposed to understand is that Veda was hoping her mother would attack her? That being caught in flagrante delicto was the only way for her to get out of her old contract? I find it all to be very far-fetched. but it’s enough for Mildred to finally decide that she is done with Veda. Weeping over Veda for the last time, Mildred retreats to the original pie wagon, where Burt urges, “To hell with her.” Mildred agrees, “All right, Burt, to hell with her.” Then they decide to get “stinko,” which is an old-timey word for getting shit-faced drunk.

Overall, I found this ending to be very unsatisfying. I understand that the HBO version is a faithful retelling of James M. Cain’s novel. However, I much prefer the ending to the original Mildred Pierce (1945, Michael Curtiz), in which Veda murders Monty because he refuses to marry her, and Mildred attempts to take the blame. No matter what Veda did, and no matter how angry Mildred became, she never gave up on her daughter. And maybe this Mildred hasn’t given up either. Maybe getting drunk and declaring “To hell with her!” is the only way Mildred can deal with her daughter’s betrayal.

Mother and daughter, before daughter slept with mothers husband

So, for those managed to read through this very, very long recap, what did you think? Did you enjoy this miniseries? Was it worth 5 1/2 hours of your life?

MILDRED PIERCE PART 3: Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner

Part 3 of Mildred Pierce opens with a close up of a child’s doll. The camera then tracks over to a set of feet on a bed. The camera makes its way up the sleeping body and we see that this is Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet), huddled in bed with her oldest daughter, Veda (Morgan Turner), who is also asleep. Mildred wakes with a start, momentarily forgetting why she is in bed with Veda. Then she glances over at the second, empty bed across the room and remembers that her youngest is dead. As the full weight of this memory begins to register, her face crumples and she squeezes Veda once more. Losing a child is unthinkable. But to momentarily forget this loss, and to remember it anew each morning, is a particular form of torture.

Mildred and her two girls

But,  Mildred does not dwell on her youngest daughter’s untimely death for too long. We see her select the clothing that her daughter will be buried in (a ballerina costume and pink socks), we see the tiny coffin being carried from the hearse to the cemetery, and we see Mildred take her black dress and place it, decisively, in the back of her closet. This final act signals Mildred’s ability to compartmentalize her life.  After all, she has a restaurant to open and Veda’s new grand piano isn’t going to pay for itself! So in the very next scene Mildred is haggling over chickens at the poultry farm, buying produce, and taking money out of her bank account. While in many ways the impending opening of the restaurant is poorly timed, it is probably exactly what Mildred needed to distract her from her daughter’s death. It is much easier to work hard than it is to mourn.

The preparations for Mildred’s opening night appear in a montage of furious cooking: Mildred butchers chickens, shells peas, and chops vegetables. She instructs her waitstaff on how meals should be ordered and prepared (chicken and waffles or chicken and vegetables, everyone gets biscuits). When customers begin pouring in (Wally launched an effective direct mail campaign), Mildred realizes that she is understaffed. Once again, Ida (Mare Winningham) and Lucy (Melissa Leo) come to the rescue, expediting the service and clearing tables. Once again, the miniseries makes clear that while Mildred can depend on some men like Wally (James LeGros), it is the women in her life who are her true safety net.

Winner winner, chicken dinner

After closing up for the night, the entire waitstaff, plus Veda, Monty (Guy Pearce), Wally, Bert (Brian F. O’Byrne), Ida, and Lucy gather outside to toast the new restaurant’s success (they made 47 dollars!). Veda even hugs her mother in a rare moment of public affection. But almost immediately the entire group falls silent, aware that their joy is an affront. Nobody mentions Ray by name, but her ghost is there, an absent presence.

"Monty, I love you and your sexy Hitler mustache!"

But that’s pretty much the last we’ll hear of Ray in this episode. The remainder of Part 3 works to establish the increasingly frustrating, increasingly dysfunctional relationship between Mildred and Monty. I spent a lot of this installment yelling at Monty and his silly Hitler mustache: “No Monty, Mildred does not want to have sex with you tonight! Her daughter just died!” But then, Monty does something totally creepy involving his toe and Mildred’s matronly underthings, and boom, they’re screwing. This happens a lot in Part 3. Mildred is angry or annoyed, Monty drops trou, and then it’s sexytime.

Watch out for those toes, Mildred!

Mildred is no fool: she knows that Monty is a snob and that he looks down on her for being a working woman. Even worse, Monty is financially dependent on Mildred — he is above working but dependent on those who work. At one point he derisively refers to Mildred’s, the restaurant that is keeping him in handmade shoes and polo club memberships, as “the Pie Wagon.” But I think Monty sticks around for more than just the money. I think he also likes the idea of “slumming it” with Mildred and her shapely, working class legs. As he tells young Veda: “The best legs are found in kitchens, not drawing rooms.”

Monty's digs

But why does Mildred keep Monty around? First, she’s flattered. Remember that Mildred is also a snob. Although she knows that she lacks the pedigree her daughter craves and that Monty claims to have, she still loves the idea of old money. Monty may be broke, but the dude is classy. Have you seen those white turtlenecks? And Monty exploits Mildred’s insecurities about her social standing. When Mildred visits Monty’s cold, empty family estate in order to end their relationship, she berates him for taking her money and disdaining her at the same time. But Monty knows what buttons to push. He actually makes Mildred feel low class for caring about money. “Maybe I was mistaken,” he sniffs, “You never were a lady” (or something like that). The scene culminates with Mildred tossing a crumpled up 10 dollar bill in Monty’s face (to prove that she doesn’t care about money either) and Monty saying (I kid you not) “All this needs is the crime of rape.” Yes, that is Monty’s version of foreplay. And this is the second reason why Mildred is around. She likes the sex. Especially when the sex involves class-based humiliation and Guy Pearce’s naked behind. Mildred, you are a dirty, dirty birdie.

Part 3 also devotes time to Mildred’s increasing estrangement from her remaining daughter.  As Mildred works away in her restaurant, she relies on Monty to entertain her daughter. The last thing a budding snob needs is a bigger snob as her mentor. Indeed, by the end of Part 3, Veda has completely transformed into the venomous bitch that HBO’s previews promised us. Towards the end of the episode, we see Veda opening her Christmas presents. She is still in her pajamas, but she wears a red bow, rouge and red lipstick, all in attempt to look more “mature.” But the make up only highlights how she is still very much a little girl, especially when she begins to smoke a cigarette. Mildred tells her to put it out, but Veda refuses. What Veda won’t articulate (remember, this is a melodrama, and no one says what they really mean) is that she is angry that her mother did not buy her a new grand piano. Mildred had planned to do this, but had to spend the money she saved up on a bar for her restaurant instead (no more Prohibition! Wheee!). Veda wasn’t supposed to know about any of this, but of course, good old Monty spilled the beans because that’s what rich people in tight white turtlenecks do. The fight culminates with Mildred slapping Veda in the face and Veda responding with a slap of her own. Recall that in Part 2, Mildred disciplines Veda with a good, old fashioned spanking. Veda is too old to be spanked , of course, but she sure does deserve it! And she took it. But in Part 3 Veda retaliates, a small taste of what is to come. Now, bring on Evan Rachel Wood!

So what did you think of Part 3? Overall, I found it to be less satisfying than the first two, but maybe I was too distracted by Monty’s Hitler mustache?

MILDRED PIERCE PARTS 1 & 2: Food and Women

Let me begin with a confession: I have been anticipating the premiere of HBO’s adaptation of Mildred Pierce ever since I first heard about the project last spring. Then, there were just a few tantalizing shots of Kate Winslet in red lipstick, looking both stern and forlorn (which is exactly how poor old Mildred must always look). There is very little director Todd Haynes could have done in the premiere to discourage me from watching the rest of the series. Luckily, however, Parts One and Two, which aired last night, were solid (for a look at some more tepid reviews, check out James Poniewozik and Alan Sepinwall).

I am a huge fan of  the first Mildred Pierce, Michael Curtiz’s 1945 adaptation of the James M. Cain novel of the same name. The film is amazing for so many reasons: Joan Crawford’s Academy Award-winning performance, its explicit (and fairly radical) commentary on the limits that gender places on women,  that beautiful, beautiful cinematography, etc. But Mildred Pierce remains one of my favorite classic Hollywood films because it deftly blends film noir with the maternal melodrama. If you are an aficionado of American film genres as I am, then you know that film noir and melodrama are considered to be “modes” of filmmaking, rather than coherent genres in their own right. Unlike the gangster film or the Western, these two modes cannot be defined by a specific setting, nor do they have consistent plot formulas or conventions. Rather, these two modes of filmmaking transcend generic boundaries, so that we can speak of noir-science fiction films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise) and Western melodramas like Brokeback Mountain (2005, Ang Lee). In other words, noir and melodrama are like a cloak that other films (generic or not) can try on as way to compliment, but not consume, their own unique elements. So while Mildred Pierce is a drama about the plight of the American woman of the 1930s and 1940s, who is constantly subject to the whims of the lecherous, selfish men around her, it is also a tortuous account of a mother sacrificing everything for the happiness of her children (maternal melodrama) and a murder mystery that begins at the end and then winds its way backwards to discover the truth (film noir). This is an amazing combination. For me, that’s the cinematic equivalent of carrot cake cheesecake. Have you ever had that? They actually mix carrot cake together with the cheesecake!

The original MILDRED PIERCE is a lot like this delicious cake

Since I mentioned cheesecake, let’s move on with this review. After its simple and decade appropriate Art Deco credits (love!), Part One of the miniseries opens with a pair of busy hands making biscuits and pies. We see close ups of perfectly crafted pie crusts awaiting their bright lemon custard fillings and stiff white meringue toppings. Yes, this is food porn. Indeed, throughout the first two parts of the miniseries, Haynes gives loving attention to food. Some might view these scenes as slow, but I enjoyed Haynes’ “elastic attitude towards time,” to quote Matt Zoller Seitz’s recap in Salon:

TV has permission to do this — settle into a scene the way you might settle into a warm bath, and linger. And yet it rarely avails itself of this privilege. On most scripted TV dramas, as in most movies, the mentality is more often “Just get on with it!” All climax, no foreplay, as it were.

Yes, we gets lots and lots of food foreplay here, but it serves a purpose. As in all melodramas, Mildred Pierce‘s mise en scène serves a specific narrative and thematic function. In his famous essay “Tale of Sound of Fury,” Thomas Elsaesser argues that the melodrama is an expressive code, a form of dramatic mise en scène. Specifically, in the domestic melodrama of the 1940s and 1950s, the scope of action is restricted. All of the turmoil is happening inside the characters, rather than outside. Characters want to speak and act, but social decorum, class restrictions, and pride prevent them from doing so.  And so the mise en scène becomes a vehicle for helping to express the tense emotions roiling just below the surface. In the image, below, for example, Mildred is carefully decorating a cake as she carefully points out to her husband that most folks wait to water their lawns until later in the day (so that the water isn’t dried up by the heat of the late day sun). But Bert (Brian F. O’Byrne) has watered the grass early in an effort to meet up with his mistress. She lays out her reasoned argument, bit by bit, as she adds small decorative details to the cake (a cake she must make because her husband is no longer supporting the family financially). Thus, in Mildred Pierce extended, loving shots of food offer us insight into characters, their experiences, and their emotions.

Cake porn

Along the same lines, the opening shots of Mildred’s impressive pastry skills signify not only that Mildred is talented, but also that she is a hard worker and a perfectionist, two traits that are central to her character’s development over the course of the story. Furthermore, it is significant that Mildred’s talents are definitively domestic. When Mildred goes looking for work after good-for-nothing husband, Bert, leaves her to fend for herself and their daughters, she discovers that she has “no skills.” Her head hunter reminds her that as a housewife she is only qualified for domestic work: waitressing and housekeeping. But what we know, and what it takes Mildred about 75 minutes of screen time to realize, is that her seemingly useless “feminine” skill set will eventually lead to the creation of an empire. An empire of PIE!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To return to the mise en scène of food: one of my favorite shots of the miniseries so far is an extreme close up of the ham sandwich Mildred orders after a discouraging day of trying to find work. Mildred has spent her morning pounding the pavement and becoming increasingly aware of the fact that the only jobs available are in the service industry. Mildred, you see, is a bit of a snob. As she explains to her neighbor/confidante, Lucy (Melissa Leo in another “feisty role”), she has something inside of her, pride or possibly nobility, which makes it difficult for her to accept a job in which she must kowtow to class-based roles and take commands from others. This, we are told, is why young Veda (Morgan Turner), her first born, is such a shit; she’s her mother’s daughter.

Mildred and young Veda

Anyway, at this point, we know that Mildred has little money to buy food. In an earlier scene Mildred calls a customer to see if she wants her usual order of baked goods, while fixing her daughters breakfast. When the woman declines we see Mildred pause, and then decisively cut a sausage in half, placing a serving on each girl’s plate. Mildred’s breakfast is a single triangle of toast; she starves herself so her daughters can eat. Therefore, I was relieved to see Mildred order herself a ham sandwich. When the meal arrives, Haynes offers an aerial shot: the bright white plate matching the white bread, the bright pink of the ham, and a dish of mostly-white coleslaw. Unlike the elaborate, sustaining meals we have seen Mildred prepare in her own home, this meal is devoid of color, and we can only assume, flavor. As Mildred chews her sandwich, she looks around the diner, overhearing a conversation in which two men discuss the Great Depression and how the lack of jobs is only going to increase. This is the turning point for Mildred — does she want a lifetime of tasteless sandwiches or is she going to swallow her pride and do whatever it takes to feed her family?

Moments later, a job opens up in the diner and Mildred takes it. Yes, this job is in the service industry, but unlike the housekeeping position offered by Mrs. Forrester (Hope Davis), a cruel snob, this job is filled with female allies. True, head waitress, Ida (Mare Winningham) bosses Mildred around, corrects her techniques, and ultimately tells her she did a terrible job on her first day. But we know that what Ida is actually doing is helping Mildred. She’s making her into a good waitress, and Mildred needs to be a good waitress.

This leads me to the second thing I loved about this mini-series: its focus on women. This is a world in which men use women to fulfill their sexual desires, keep their homes clean, raise their children, and support them in their careers. When they’ve had enough, the women are tossed aside to become “grass widows,” an American institution. Men control and limit Mildred’s actions: Bert leaves her financially destitute, Wally (an unrecognizable and totally awesome James LeGros) takes advantage of her new status as “grass widow” (though we get the sense that Mildred was a little bit horny and didn’t mind this too much), and Mildred is dependent upon people like Bert, Wally, and Monte (Guy Pearce) to finance her restaurant. Nevertheless, Mildred Pierce celebrates the bonds between women. Her neighbor, Lucy, fills in the holes left by Bert’s absence: she makes excuses for leaving “left overs” in Mildred’s fridge so that the proud woman won’t go hungry and she (rightly) urges Mildred to keep her new job as a waitress.

Wally has eaten too many pies

*SPOILERS LURK BELOW! PROCEDE WITH CAUTION!*

And then, of course, there are the bonds between mothers and daughters. This female relationship forms the heart of Mildred Pierce. Motherhood is what motivates Mildred to get past her own pride, look for work until her heels bleed, refrain from bad-mouthing her husband in front of her daughters,  and to spend any extra money she earns on food and clothing for her daughter (notice that for most of Parts One and Two, Mildred can be seen wearing just one “nice” dress). When Ray dies at the end of Part Two (I won’t say much about this since, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I have difficulties watching and dealing with the death of children on film and television), we know Mildred’s fate is sealed. The love she had for her two daughters will now be channeled into one, all-consuming love for Veda. That’s the thing about maternal love. It may change forms, but it doesn’t disappear. And love like that can be dangerous (see, for example, Toni Morrison’s Beloved). So far I have yet to pick up on the noir aspects of this story, but with Mildred’s and Veda’s unhealthy relationship established at the end of Part Two, the twisted tale of jealousy and deceit that ends in murder is just around the corner.

A Few Other Things:

* When Mildred is sitting in the diner eating her nasty ham sandwich, we hear two young women discussing Greta Garbo. One of the women mentions that she loves Garbo so much she could watch her sleep. Then both women declare in unison, “Garbo snores!” This conversation is intended to serve as a contrast to the more “serious” economic discussion the two men near them are having. But it’s also a great little nugget for film buffs who remember the tagline from Garbo’s first talking picture, Anna Christie (1930), “Garbo talks!”

* I am (or rather, was) smitten with Mildred’s youngest daughter, Ray (Quinn McColgan), because she is almost exactly like my own daughter: a motor mouth who will talk and talk and talk, even when no one is listening (she, too, is her mother’s daughter). Ray is always recreating scenes from films, such as when she performs the famous moment when  James Cagney is shot in Public Enemy (1931), “I’m not so tough!” That’s one of my favorite movie scenes (and is at the center of the arguments I make about the links between gangster films and melodrama in the first chapter of my book).

"I'm not so tough!"

* Todd Haynes is killing the cinematography so far. Everything is a feast for the eyes. I swooned over the 30s era fashions while my husband swooned over the automobiles (yes, I see the gender breakdown there, but I’m being honest).

* Once again Kate Winslet’s boobs appear on screen. When I mentioned this to my husband he noted, “Well, those boobs won her an Oscar. Maybe they’ll win her an Emmy too.” Leave it to the software programmer to come up with the most cynical yet succinct summary of Winslet’s career that I’ve ever heard.

So what did you think of Parts One and Two of Mildred Pierce? Too long? Too slow? Will you watch again? And most importantly, did it make you want to eat some pie? Please share your thought below.

Nucky Thompson: The Gangster who Won Me Over

When Boardwalk Empire premiered on September 1 of this year, I was unenthused with Terence Winter’s decision to cast Steve Buscemi in the role of the series’ central protagonist, Nucky Thompson. Traditionally the gangster hero is played by an actor (almost always male), who is formidable in stature (Vito Corleone), personality (Rico Bandello), or both (Tony Soprano). The gangster is the very definition of a “tough guy.” If he shoulder checks you on the street, you’re not going to demand an apology.   The gangster inspires fear, even when he’s a puny as Little Caesar‘s (1931, Mervyn Leroy) Rico Bandello.

By contrast, Buscemi is a character actor best known for playing weaselly, neurotic, or pathetic characters. In Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino) he objected to his assigned alias, Mr. Pink (“Why do I have to be Mr. Pink!”) and petulantly refused to tip his waitress, inspiring one of my favorite movie lines of all time:

Mr. Pink: [rubbing his thumb and index finger together] You know what this is? It’s the world’s smallest violin playing just for the waitresses.

In The Big Lebowski (1998, Joel and Ethan Cohen), he is Donny, one of  The Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) bowling buddies. While good-natured, Donny is incredibly annoying and is often told to “Shut the fuck up!” Buscemi has a face that almost demands that it be told to “Shut the fuck up!”

Even when animated, as he is in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (2001),  Buscemi plays Randall Boggs, a duplicitous chameleon who delights in his profession (the scaring of children), and is consumed with jealousy over the success of his rival, Sulley (John Goodman). As always, Buscemi’s character  fails to master his bigger, smarter, braver and, almost always, better looking, foes.

As a fan of  Buscemi’s work, this is how I like him. He is a “character actor,” after all. Character actors, by definition, are not the leading men. They are there to support, antagonize, or bewilder the leading men. Thus, I was surprised to hear that he was cast as the lead in a television series. A movie only demands that an actor be charismatic for 2 hours but a television series asks that actor to command the screen week after week. As I watched the opening credits of Boardwalk Empire, which, like The Sopranos, features its protagonist taking stock of his domain, I was doubtful:

Buscemi stands on the beach, looking like something out of a Magritte painting; he appears stylized and  inscrutable, devoid of the fire and passion I expect of my gangster heroes. “This is not going to work,” I sighed to myself.

After the first few episodes of the series, I believed that I was right. A gangster story is only as good as its hero, and Boardwalk Empire lacked one. Nucky seemed too calm, too polite, too contained, too un-Buscemi-like, to carry the series. In his seminal piece on the genre, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” (1948), Robert Warshow argued that “[t]he gangster’s whole life is an effort to assert himself as an individual to draw himself out of the crowd, and he always dies because he is an individual.” Thus, Nucky’s seemingly reasonable demeanor stands in stark contrast to one of the gangster hero’s central qualities: his excessive nature. The gangster’s outsized desires and ambitions are what lead to both his success as well as his demise.

Nucky, by contrast, appears to be a conciliatory man. He gives money to anyone who asks for it, endures back talk from his ward/employee, Jimmy Darmody  (Michael Pitt), and wines and dines politicians whose piggish desires clearly disgust him. We don’t see Nucky lose his cool, punch a disrespectful underling, or accidentally kill anyone (as say, Tony Soprano might do). What kind of gangster hero is that?

But as I continued to watch the series I realized that Nucky was a  great gangster hero and that Buscemi was nailing the role. While other gangster heroes are defined by their unbridled passion, their inability to contain their desires and emotions (such as Tom Powers’ suicidal decision to avenger his best friend’s murder in Public Enemy), Nucky’s power lies in his ability to be in control at all times. And given Buscemi’s small, 5 foot, 9 inch frame, such control makes sense. A Tony Soprano can throw a punch when he likes, but a little man like Nucky would invariably fail as a physical aggressor. Instead, Nucky must rely on his intellect and reason in order to remain dominant.

This quality is best exemplified in the finale, when Jimmy, who has recently discovered the role Nucky played in the procurement and rape of his mother at age 13, confronts Nucky at a party. Jimmy is not just angry about the abuse his mother endured, he is also hurt to discover that Nucky took care of him out of an obligation to the Commodore (Dabney Coleman), rather than out of love. Jimmy always saw Nucky was a father figure but he now realizes that Nucky just viewed him as another item on his long to-do list. When Jimmy directly poses this question to Nucky, the aging gangster responds, “What difference does it make?” Nucky seems almost perplexed by Jimmy’s anger, as if the love between a father and a son is incomprehensible to him. And given Nucky’s abusive relationship with his own father, it probably is.

Just because Nucky appears controlled on the outside does not mean the man is not excessive. He is just adept at having others enact his excess for him. For example, when Nucky discovers that Margaret Schroeder’s (Kelly MacDonald) husband, Hans, has beaten her to the point that she has a miscarriage, he decides to have the man killed. But Nucky’s decision proves to be dangerous to his empire. It attracts the interest of Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who is sure that the murder is somehow linked to Nucky. We only find out in the finale that Nucky’s decision to have Hans killed was based purely on emotion; his son died when he was just a few days old and therefore the death of any baby strikes a nerve. Even when telling this story to Margaret, Nucky’s emotions are barely visible, registered in the twitch of his lips or perhaps a moment when we can detect tears in his eyes. But only for a moment. Then he shakes it off and once again becomes “Nucky Thompson.” For this reason, one of my favorite moments of the season was when Nucky burned down his father’s home. It was so out of character for him, but also very revealing of the emotions he normally keeps buried.

Nucky must reign in his emotions and dispassionately govern those around him in order to maintain his power. The few moments when he does slip up and allow his emotions to take over, such as the murder of Hans,  are the cause of most of his problems. Indeed, his hasty to decision to fire his brother Eli (She Wigham) will likely prove to be his greatest mistake yet: the finale closes with Eli, Jimmy, and the Commodore conspiring to oust Nucky from his seat at the top of the Boardwalk Empire.

In this way, Nucky hearkens back to one of cinema’s most beloved gangster hero’s, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). Like Michael, Nucky uses reason to get ahead and both men know how to run a tight ship. Nucky  and Michael embody the mantra, first articulated by Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) inScarface (1932, Howard Hawks) “Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it.” However, both characters inevitably alienate those who love them most because of their inability to emotionally connect. Terence Winter must be aware of these parallels because the season finale clearly references The Godfather‘s famous Baptism scene:

In the above scene from The Godfather, Michael and his family are attending the baptism of their infant son. As Michael’s son is washed clean of his sins, and Michael repeats the prayers, his henchmen kill off his rivals one by one, thus securing his place at the top. Similarly, in Boardwalk Empire, Nucky speaks at a voter rally in support of his hand-picked candidate for mayor of Atlantic City. As Nucky assures the crowd that a Republican administration will crack down on crime, specifically seeking out the individuals who murdered five bootleggers in the woods at the beginning of the season (the true culprits being Jimmy and Al Capone, of course), we see Nucky’s henchmen carrying out this “justice.” There is even a moment in which Jimmy slits the throat of Leo D’Allessio (Max Casella) as he sits complacently in a barber’s chair, a direct reference to Moe Green’s (Alex Rocco) execution as he received a massage.  If The Godfather‘s baptism scene was about the contrast between family and business, and how it is impossible to keep the two separate, Boardwalk Empire‘s homage is about the contrast between American politics and crime, and how it is impossible to keep the two separate. Applied specifically to Nucky Thompson, this scene is also about the contrast between reason and passion, brain and body, and how, soon enough, Nucky will not be able to keep them separated.

So while initially I felt that Steve Buscemi was wrong for the role of Nucky Thompson, and that Nucky Thompson was the wrong character to play the role of gangster hero, I am happy to say that Boardwalk Empire has changed my mind.  Buscemi, with his small, squirrelly body and his sad, trout face, was the perfect choice for a character who has spent a lifetime privileging his ambitions over his emotions.

So what do you (or did you)  think of Steve Buscemi in the role of Nucky Thompson? Do you find him, ummm, sexy? ‘Cause I certainly don’t. No, not me. Don’t find Buscemi sexy at all. Now look away, nothing to see here folks…

Televising New Orleans in 2010…or Why Sonny isn’t Watching the REAL WORLD: NEW ORLEANS

I love the Real World. I’m not proud of this. I’ve tried to quit several times. I managed to stay away from the series in both 2001 (“Back to New York”) and 2002 (“Chicago”). But then in 2003 came the famed “Las Vegas” season, the season that gave us the gift of Trishelle, and I was hooked again. I also skipped the “D.C.” season (even though my husband still watched) and I was so proud of myself. But people, there is no support group for addiction to bad reality TV. There is no methodone for this heroin. So this season I find myself hooked yet again. To justify my addictions I did what I always do — I decided to write about it.

So check out my short piece on Antenna (a media and cultural studies blog operated and edited by graduate students and faculty in the Media and Cultural Studies area of the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin – Madison). I’m writing about my experiences watching HBO’s Treme alongside MTV’s Real World: New Orleans and their very different depictions of the city of New Orleans.

Here’s the link. Give it a look and leave a comment!