A friend was telling me about someone she knew who worked incredibly hard, was incredibly talented and incredibly lucky and landed a staff writing job on a sitcom where she was the only woman in the room. (Very common.) She left the room to use the restroom one day and when she returned, the other writers had left a picture of a penis on her chair and were encouraging her to guess whose dick it was. “That’s so disappointing,” I said, and then, searching for the argument that might have adequately explained to the other writers why they shouldn’t do this again, “it’s just such a fucking cliche.”
The news has been full of stories about sexual harassment and sexual assault throughout this industry and others. When this story broke about the writer who was fired from Mad Men, my brain automatically added in context that he was probably saying she should get naked to give him inspiration. Which is not in the article, by the way, although it does say they were working late, but did lead me to realize the connection between this behavior, the disappointment, and The Muse Trope.
The best explanation of The Muse Trope I’ve seen was in Dogma. Salma Hayek plays a literal muse, a celestial being who inspires great works of art and literature. But when she decides to come to Earth to create things for herself, she finds the well is dry. Her value is only in inspiring others, which as the movie finds her, she is doing as a stripper.
I’m just going to pause to let that sink in for a minute. The inspiring real-world job she finds is as a stripper.
The Muse Trope plays into a lot of other tropes in our culture. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a Muse. The fat husband with a skinny wife exists as a trope because men can have value by being funny but women can only be attractive. (Skinny and attractive are two different things, but we can talk about that another time.) Women are fridged as a means of providing inspiration to men. The fact that most of our stories center men means that women are often relegated to “inspiration.” And since inspiring usually means “fuckable,” and we live in a racist society, that leaves women of color getting left out completely or filed under “fetish” characters.
And none of this would matter if it didn’t bleed into real-world attitudes, but it does. If women exist as muses, it’s nice to have one or two in a writers’ room but they are not, strictly speaking, necessary. And they never have to be promoted. If, for instance, you have a really good assistant who busts their ass, if that assistant is a man, you’ll think, “he’s angling for a promotion.” And if the assistant is a woman, you think, “better not let her get away!” Because her entire purpose is to serve you.
But for creative women, being expected to inspire others and not create work of your own is horrible. And that’s why all of these cases are so disappointing, because all of these are women who are ambitious, who have worked very hard and found themselves in a position to prove themselves and their art, and are now being told no, you’re just the stripper. You’re there for Tony to look at while he does business. And it’s such a fucking cliche.
I don’t get very many job perks, but last Tuesday I got two: an email that as a full-time CBS employee, I now have free CBS All-Access, and the ability to go to the new Star Trek press premiere in Hollywood. On the first: knowing that I’m able to watch future episodes gave me permission to like this show. Because there was no way I was going to shell out money for yet another streaming service, and so I was feeling a guilty duty to hate it. That’s sort of how that works. Also, the news this morning announced that CBS is very excitedly saying this is their biggest week yet for people signing up, just to watch Star Trek, and while I’m sure that would be true even if they didn’t suddenly give a couple thousand people free accounts, I’m also sure it didn’t hurt. I mean, they didn’t offer us the free accounts before The Good Fight premiered. (A show I’m looking forward to getting caught up on as soon as I have a free weekend.)
The premiere event was a lot of fun. I ended up, through sheer dumb luck, in the front row, center seat. They brought out the producers and cast and they were right in front of me. They asked William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols to stand and we all applauded. The audience was full of cast from the various series so they all stood and we applauded. A couple fans were in costumes and when I left I saw Bill Nye talking with Robert Picardo (the Doctor from Voyager) and had a totally-unchill freakout. They also gave us Federation pins so I promptly put mine on my favorite sweater and keep “forgetting” to take it off so people keep asking me about it.
But it’s hard to give a review of the show itself, because they screened the first two episodes for us (which is also what was released on All-Access last night) and those two episodes function as a sort of stand-alone movie; a prequel to what the show will be. The show is called Star Trek: Discovery because it takes place on the USS Discovery, except that ship doesn’t even appear in those first two episodes, which take place on the USS Shenzou. Only two of the main characters even survive the first two episodes. These episodes are about the start of the Klingon-Federation war that presaged The Original Series, but while these episodes are entirely about that war, I have no idea how much it will figure into the ongoing series. I can tell you that I enjoyed watching it, and not just because I was at a big Hollywood premiere, but also that I can’t justify spending more money watching TV (every six months my cable bill goes up another $5) so really what I recommend is that you work for my employer so you can watch it for free. It’s REALLY worthwhile.
Last night, Fox premiered the first two episodes of The Orville, a sitcom by Seth McFarlane that is decidedly ripping off Star Trek. And honestly, the “ripping off Star Trek” part was fine. It was the “sitcom” part where I had trouble.
Seth McFarlane stars as a
Star Fleet Planetary Union officer who is given command of his first ship, populated with misfits, most of whom are getting their first assignments. And… they’re all competent and try really hard and are generally nice to each other. His first officer is his ex-wife, whose only concern is the state of their relationship (she feels guilty for cheating on him) and not at all the state of her career. Is this a step up for her? Were they previously at the same career level? Was she actually higher than he was? No idea. This is about a guy who has to work with his ex-wife. Her motivations don’t play much into it. (That said, the actress does a wonderful job with what she has. If the writers just thought about her character and perspective a bit more, she could steal the show.)
And that’s the frustrating thing about this show: the pieces are there. The problem isn’t in the concept, it’s in the execution. One of the officers is a cyborg from a race notorious for being racist against all organic beings. Except saying that is the entire joke. He doesn’t try to bond with the ship at the expense of the crew, he doesn’t get upset when the ship is damaged by enemy fire, he doesn’t even react when the captain and another crewman openly discuss urination. We all know how shows about misfits coming together are supposed to go: they’re supposed to be hamstrung by how odd they really are and initially fail to come together, but when the chips are down they learn how to rely on each other and also that they each have unique skills and traits that, when combined, make them successful in a way they couldn’t be individually. None of that happens here. None. From the jump, they are all competent and nice and try really hard. One of my friends asked if this was an “unfunny-funny show,” lumping it in with shows like One Mississippi and Transparent that aren’t so concerned with the three-jokes-per-page rule. I’d argue that this is a different category, because those shows are usually sacrificing humor for deep character moments and psychological study, but what’s holding Orville back is Seth McFarlane’s deeep and earnest love for Star Trek. While I believe that loving something is important to being able to parody it, you still have to want to say something unique about it. It seems all Seth McFarlane has to say is “I want to be there.” I’ll give it more of a chance because I CAN see the promise, but my hopes aren’t particularly high.
It can be really hard to work in an industry where abuse on the job is not only common and accepted, but sometimes encouraged. One of the reasons I feel so far behind in my career is that I’ve moved from production jobs to office jobs, but the path forward in office jobs is in Development, and the Development career path starts with working at an agency. And I refuse to work at an agency. I have too much respect for myself to put up with the treatment that agencies are famous for. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t put up with shit, or that other paths aren’t full of the same abuse. I’ve worked with wonderful actors, lawyers and executives, and also some who would scream insults all day because they locked themselves out of their offices or couldn’t figure out how to work their GPS devices. And they felt entitled to this behavior.
Abuse is especially common in entertainment because whistleblowers don’t have to be fired to never work again. No job lasts very long so it’s easy to simply not hire someone who makes trouble, and the person “making trouble” is never the abuser. And it’s not like assistants get to be abusive. Nobody bullies their boss. You have to have some degree of success before you can turn asshole. Other people have to be invested in you.
I think the part that still hurts, all these years later, is feeling like putting up with all of that didn’t even pay off. Not only am I still an assistant, but I’m not on an executive track. I love television. I can discuss ratings the way other people discuss draft picks. But every interview with someone who’s been successful in television will include how lucky they were, that somebody gave them a break. Nobody is guaranteed that break. But some people get it, and think that luck entitles them to be assholes. And far too many people on the receiving end of their shit agree.
A while ago, I read an article about a wealthy couple getting divorced and how the husband was trying to hide hundreds of millions of dollars in offshore accounts and the wife had to hire a private investigator to track it all down. But the article also described how the couple had made their money; basically, they invented new and even more obnoxious versions of pop-up ads and toolbars that claimed to clean your computer. They specialized in annoying people out of their money. They started with nothing and became very, very wealthy, and suddenly it hit me that when people talk about the American Dream and how anyone can become rich, that is true with a caveat. You have to be willing to be evil. If you can look at your fellow human beings and see nothing more than rubes, then absolutely you can become rich. But if you actually care about other people and their happiness and comfort, your income potential is severely limited. It was hammered home again for me a few weeks later when I saw an article about how a breast cancer “charity” was being fined $350k for defrauding contributors. As I read into the article, it described how the “charity” had made at least $3m a year for six years. So they made $18m and were fined $350k and this was described as a win for the justice system. Being evil is really lucrative.
I was thinking about this while Marty Byrde was giving us his opening monologue, about how the amount of money you have is directly proportional to the amount of work you’re willing to do. The way he lets the word “work” drip, we know it’s just a stand-in for “evil.” So our first introduction to the main character is knowing that he’s a giant douche. But it’s a tricky needle to thread, introducing us to a character through his point of viewing and trusting us to understand that he’s not right. True Detective tried it and it didn’t go well for them.* Ozark has it a little better by sheer virtue of being able to be binge-watched, so if you haven’t picked up on Marty’s life philosophy from his monologue, you certainly will within a few episodes. It’s slightly undercut when the second thing we learn about Marty is that he’s surrounded by even bigger assholes than he is, but that’s the nature of Marty. He tricks you with his innocent-seeming Jason Bateman-ness into thinking he is the spark of good in the murky lake of assholes, but the truth is that Marty CHOSE this lake. He made the effort to surround himself with terrible people, because he thinks this is a lake he can swim in. The third thing we will learn about Marty is that he believes he can talk his way out of any situation.
There is something that differentiates Marty from all of the people you know in real life who think they can talk their way out of anything, and that is that he’s smart enough to know he also has to do to the work to back up his stories. His mouth isn’t plan A, it’s plan C, but it hasn’t failed him yet. This is why his bosses don’t kill him immediately, not that he’s actually the best money launderer in existence but that it’s just so entertaining watching him thrash around on a string. And that’s why we keep watching, to see what happens when Marty is suddenly thrown into another lake.
In the world of Ozark, people live stratified lives. It’s like those tanks demonstrating pollution in water that you can see in aquariums. Most people live more-or-less law-abiding lives, getting loans from banks and running small hotels and maybe finding a tourist to have consensual sex with on weekends. Then there are people who live lives of petty crime, who don’t see the difference between earning a paycheck and “earning” someone else’s belongings, and are just working on getting through each day as it comes until the days stop coming. And then there are the hard-core criminals, who don’t think twice about resorting to murder and value money above all else in life. Marty’s career places him in that last group with the bottom-feeders, but when he’s dropped into the lake and sinks straight to the bottom, he stirs up all the other layers as he goes. Suddenly, the other bottom-feeders are exposed, the petty criminals are contemplating murder and lives of luxury, and the law-abiding people are committing arson just to stay afloat.
Marty is used to talking his way out, but he doesn’t understand the language of this new lake. Even when he’s told repeatedly that gestures matter, he insists on doing things his way, without consulting any locals. In the end, well, you’ll have to watch it to the end. But Marty does have an amazing way of talking himself in circles, and it is very fun watching him thrash about on the line. Even if we no longer know who’s holding the other end.
The first season of Ozark, 10 episodes, is on Netflix. The show has already been picked up for a second season.
*As a bystander, this is still one of the weirdest reactions to a TV show I’ve ever seen. In the True Detective pilot, Cohle has a whole speech about how humanity is a scourge upon the planet and if we had any dignity we’d lock arms and march straight into extinction. I interpreted this as Cohle being emotionally immature and depressed, like most college freshmen who have just discovered nihilism. The way most viewers seemed to interpret it was that Cohle is really, really smart. Then, after the show was lauded for being so smart, the backlash came in the form of people pointing out that nihilism was already a philosophy that existed, and viewers felt betrayed. I swear I could hear the writer’s confusion from the other end of town.
I first witnessed this power out on the Yard, that communal green space in the center of the campus where the students gathered and I saw everything I knew of my black self multiplied out into seemingly endless variations. There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were the high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set. There were California girls turned Muslim, born anew, in hijab and long skirt. There were Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses. It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of “Redemption Song,” each in a different color and key.
-Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
I haven’t seen the movie Dear White People, but I watched the first season on Netflix. As near as I can tell, this is like watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer the TV series without watching the movie. The movie is fine, but the show is something different and completely worthwhile on its own. The first season is 10 half-hour episodes, following a group of very different black students as they navigate life in college, trying to find themselves and their places in the world. And it’s really good.
Most episodes focus on a different student and their experience. While the stories overlap, the timeline does move forward a little each time, so we can see how the same kids went from an act of overtly uncovering racism on campus to being driven to riot. We get some flashbacks, so we can see how one student expressly requested to not be assigned to black student housing, was anyway, but then grew to love it and feel that living there helped her to define her identity in a way she wouldn’t have been able to on her own. We see people who have ideas about the “right” and “wrong” type of black person realize that it’s not about the type of person so much as how far they’ve been pushed. Students of other ethnicities aren’t ignored; they’re just not the focus. Every character has strengths and weaknesses and goals. They make mistakes and they make friends and they struggle to identify themselves against parents and a school and a society that’ve already identified them.
The show puts a lot of thought into the difference between “segregation” and “having space.” And it doesn’t pretend that there are easy answers, although there are definitely some wrong answers. It can sometimes throw in a little absurdism a la Atlanta, but for the most part plays it straight and is well worth the viewing time, giving it to characters that don’t get nearly enough representation. The show, knowing that’s the case, makes the time count.