Category Archives: TV

The first episode of the Magicians…and Julia

The-Magicians-Book-Cover-e1317909429117The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a very cerebral fantasy book. It stands out from others of its genre for its self reflexivity, its almost painful self awareness. Unlike other fantasy authors who quite openly and intelligently engage with the tradition they are part of (notably Samit Basu and Terry Pratchett), Grossman doesn’t use humour to deal with the weight of ‘the canon’ in his writing. Or he does, but it’s not the dominant emotion in his relationship to it. His work is almost painfully earnest in its desire to deal with the question of what an existential crisis would look like for a modern day, culturally aware fantasy nerd, who stumbled onto magic but didn’t have a Dark Lord to fight.

The answer is apparently the existential crisis would just be worsened, because you would realise that ultimately, magic does not give your life meaning and you’re just stuck with having to create one, like everyone else around you.

As you might guess, this is pretty complex stuff. It’s hard to showcase this in a  sexy, appealing manner on screen, and that was why I was a bit worried about the decision to adapt the book into a TV series. Sure, I’ll watch it, but I can’t help but be a little scared that the core of the book, its ‘meaning’ and ‘question’ as critics might call it, would be compromised in the name of entertaining a larger, not so existential-question-loving audience.

Jason Ralph as a disoriented Quentin Coldwater
Jason Ralph as a disoriented Quentin Coldwater

So, worries in place, I watched the first episode of Syfy’s The Magicians. It was entertaining enough—good graphics, some nice showcasing of magic, and quick intros to all the main characters. There were some familiar faces (Ros from Game of Thrones! Ben and little Emma from Gossip Girl!), some sort of surprising changes (since when has pudgy, awkward loner Penny been a Kamasutra sex god? I thought Alice was brown haired and surly quiet rather than obviously Type A fragile quiet…) but I explained these away as either good moves for diversity casting (the former) and need to stick in at least one blonde girl (the latter). The move to age up the characters and have them graduate from college rather than high school before stumbling onto magic was also, I thought, a good one, as it was only after leaving the sheltered environment of undergrad that the aimlessness of existence sort of became obvious to me and several of my friends. Yes, I realise that’s our privilege talking, but since the characters of The Magicians are similarly (if not more) privileged, I thought it relevant to mention here.

What I did not expect, and did not like at all, was the weird scene with Julia.

I should expand on Julia here. She was, hands down, my favourite part of the series, once she came into her own in the second book, The Magician King. I identified with her, to a great extent, and thought it was amazing how Grossman developed her character from, primarily, being Quentin’s unrequited, unattainable love Julia_Wickerinterest, to someone who really goes through a lot to get what she wants: mastery over magic. Julia acts as a brilliant foil to Quentin, making his angst and worries look like the griping of spoiled schoolboy, but still not robbing them of their centrality to the narrative that they hold up together.

In this episode, Julia, who has been turned out of Brakebills but still remembers the world of magic, has decided to do whatever it takes to get back the one thing that really means something to her now, magic. She teaches herself spells from the internet, we assume, refusing to listen to a condescending Quentin when he tells her she doesn’t ‘have it in her’ to learn, that Brakebills has not made a ‘mistake’ in turning her away. Julia then gets near-assaulted in a club bathroom, where is forced to reveal her magical abilities and then led by her creepy stalker to what we assume is a hideout and ‘school’ for the ‘non official’ magicians.

So far, so good? No. I did not see why the scene with Julia had to be so, for want of a better word, rapey. Her buttons pop off her shirt one by one, her shirt is stripped off, and she is pinned by an invisible force against what I think are pipes. Then a smiling man approaches her, and it’s obvious to us that he is the one responsible for it all. He asks her how it feels to know that he can do anything to her, to which Julia somehow manages to respond by yanking herself out of his invisible hold and making her hands flare with electrical surges.

I felt really disturbed while watching this. While I understand the writers might have wanted to push Julia into an extreme state of vulnerability in order to showcase her latent talent (a common theme in many superhero/magical stories), I didn’t see why they had to use such an obviously sexual way of doing it. Did she really have to be stripped down and threatened with physical and sexual assault to come out shining? I hate to ask this, but would they have done that if she were a boy? I somehow don’t think the sexual overtones would have been present if that were the case.

Maybe what got to me about Julia’s…experience was how absolutely nightmarish but simultaneously terrifyingly realistic it was. You don’t need to be in a fantasy world to be afraid of something like that happening to you, and I know plenty of people, women especially (me included), who are aware of just how easily that could happen to them. For this reason, I was not able to focus on the ‘magic’ aspect of it, or ‘appreciate’ what it revealed of Julia. I couldn’t wrap my head around why she had to be pushed specifically in that direction, in what felt like a very voyeuristic fashion. And it was quite literally voyeuristic, not inspiring, since her tormentor and near-rapist (though he explicitly disclaims the title) stands around watching with a creepy smile on his face.

Julia goes through some really dark places in the course of the series, but she always comes across as extremely strong. I don’t know if the show is going to explore all those elements (they’ve changed so much already, so who knows), and this may just be their disturbing precursor, but I don’t think that’s really enough reason. I can’t keep thinking this was a Game of Thrones-esque use of rape, or near-rape, to illustrate that this is a ‘heavy’, ‘serious’ show. My point is, you don’t need that to show that a character is releasing energies in a stressful situation. And while Grossman does deal with sexual abuse in his books, he never makes it seem voyeuristic, as the show did.

I hope this was a one-off, and am crossing my fingers that things don’t continue in this fashion further down the line. As we know, the magic only gets weirder here on out.

Why Mindy Kaling doesn’t have to be my pioneer

Written in response to the piece ‘Mindy Kaling is not your pioneer’ by Alex E. Jung in Al Jazeera America. Original article here: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/1/mindy-project-racetv.html

mindy1‘To be born a woman is to know/That you must labour to be beautiful’

I’m sorry for the pretentious quote (it’s from W.B. Yeats’ ‘Adam’s Curse’ by the bye, for those who are interested). One of my professors gave me a great piece of writing advice in my third year of college: ‘Never open with a quote,’ he said, ‘let the reader hear your voice straightaway.’ Then he paused and added, ‘Also it sounds incredibly annoying.’

I try to stick by those guidelines, but something about the topic today just called out desperately for a quote, and that one has been bouncing around in my head all day, ever since I read this article on how Mindy Kaling, and her on-screen alter ego, Mindy Lahiri, are not/is not a pioneer. The Yeats quote, for some reason, sums up my feelings perfectly, but I would add an extra dash to it:

‘To be a coloured woman in entertainment is to know/ That you must labour to be everything’.

The author of this article has one major problem with Mindy Kaling, and that’s this: she is not a pioneer for Asian-American women. At least, not enough of one. She uses the age-old rom-com formula of ‘ upwardly mobile white Americans whose aspirations are to find love; its women tend to find belonging by marrying the right man.’  And worse, she does this by dating only white men.

Alex Jung (the author) makes a number of good points, I will admit that. He says that Kaling, through this character, is ‘the [perpetuating] the great lie of romance, which suggests that love and marriage are not somehow informed by class, race and gender conventions.’ By dating and settling down with a white man, Lahiri, the character,seeks the ‘ultimate assimilation’ into the American context, a specially white American context.

Mindy and her boyfriend, Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina)
Mindy and her boyfriend, Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina)

He points out that we know nothing of Lahiri’s parents, that none of her partners or she herself comment on her Indian heritage (even her very Christian boyfriend, Casey, says the reason he cannot be with her is because she is ‘selfish’, not because she is a Hindu) and that she seems to be a ‘character simply born of the imagined community of lovelorn career women whose identities are defined purely by what they buy’. Instead of revolutionizing and reworking the conventions of the 90s rom com, Kaling has adopted it unapologetically, and simply inserted herself into the lead role.

Harsh.

Kaling’s own response to her success has been double pronged: on the one hand, she has gone on record stating that she ‘embraces’ her position as a role model for younger women, specifically younger Indian-American women. On the other hand, she’s also said that refuses to be ‘treated as an outsider’ and made a token representative of her race. In other words, she seeks to beat the majorly white entertainment establishment by ignoring her ‘otherness’ altogether, and thereby urging others to ignore what many might see as a handicap in their own quest for success.

This deliberate negating of her ‘race’ as a potential issue, and thereby as a constituent of her character’s identity in The Mindy Project, is what Jung seems to take offence at. There is a difference between denying something and ignoring it—Jung accuses Mindy of denying the importance of race in something like romantic relationships or professional dynamics; I think Kaling simply ignores that her character’s race and non-white upbringing might be an issue and thereby, in some ways, presents an even more revolutionary perspective. What would it be like to live in a world where it really didn’t matter if you were Indian-American and are unburdened by societal expectations and cultural baggage? That’s Mindy Lahiri’s world.

Second—on the character’s decision to date only ‘white’ men. Mindy Lahiri is NOT Mindy Kaling. Mindy Lahiri is an overblown, ridiculous, gossipy and extremely selfish character—even her creator thinks so. Lahiri’s life and decisions are not something anyone should seek to emulate, except perhaps for her professional credentials (which, in Season 3, she seems to be really working on). It’s the same way no one can possibly look to Michael Scott, Steve Carrell’s character on The Office, for guidance. Is it not possible that Lahiri is an object of spoof here—that her decision to only date a certain kind of man shows more about her character than it does about Kaling’s racial politics?

Can you take this character seriously?
Can you take this character seriously?

And finally—why does Kaling have to face these questions at all? What sort of responsibility does she have to her audience that someone like, say, Charlie Sheen or Lisa Kudrow doesn’t? Charlie Sheen could play a drunken, debauched man on Two and a Half Men and no one called him out on the terrible representation of Malibu residents. The two were not conflated as the same person (which is funny considering that, based on all reports, Charlie is much more similar to his onscreen character than Mindy is). Kudrow’s character on FRIENDS, Phoebe Buffay, dates a series of men over the course of show, but not one of them is non-white. In fact, the only character on that show who dated anyone ‘not of his race’ was Ross, possibly the least popular of the six.

By expecting Kaling to answer questions that other, non-minority actors don’t have to is a form of discrimination. By asking her work to showcase her ‘difference’ from the run of the mill show runner is also ascribing her a ‘token representative’ status, it is implying that she is not like the others. It’s pretty much the equivalent of someone asking you why you made angel cake when you are Indian—can’t you make halwa instead? Maybe you don’t want to make the halwa. Maybe angel cake is what you love and want and damned if you haven’t worked hard on learning the recipe. If you can make that angel cake better than anyone else in your class can, why not go ahead and do it?

Kaling is an entertainer, a performer, and forcing her to handle the unresolved tensions of an entire society is unfair. She is not in her line of work to speak for the Indian-American community, she is there to make a successful career out of it. Kaling’s fun, smart and she’s certainly broken a number of barriers for women in television, but don’t expect her to be a culture-mascot or a politically-correct watchdog; don’t expect her to be ‘everything’.

High Class Satire or, Why I Love Blair Waldorf

IDiademas-blair-waldorf-5 love the trashy TV series Gossip Girl. To be specific, I love Blair Waldorf, one of the five main characters on the show. Blair has been, for a few years, one of my favourite people to watch on screen, to emulate in real life, to quote in any situation. I’m tempted to copy every other website on the Internet and put down my reasons for this in concise points (accompanied by witty gifs), but I think that would be an embarrassment to the teachers who put so much effort into teaching me how to write well structured, flowing essays.

Now, it’s easy enough to figure out why any ambitious, self-important girl would automatically have a fondness for Blair. She’s in abundant possession of both those qualities, and along with that, she’s smart, well networked, and downright ruthless when it comes to getting what she wants. ‘If you really want something,’ she tells Serena, ‘you don’t stop for anyone or anything until you get it.’ She certainly seems to employ this philosophy, and doesn’t always play by the rules to ensure that she’s successful in her endeavours. And despite her bitchy asides and scheming takedowns, Blair has her heart in the right place.

For someone who adores the conventional markers of success as I do, Blair seems the pinnacle of perfection. She has a near-perfect GPA, impressive internships and recommendations and, maybe best of all, an intensely passionate and never boring relationship. The last is something that takes up a lot of space in most discussions of Blair—how can you discuss her without bringing up Chuck, after all—but I’ll save it for another post.

Separated from her context like this, Blair seems a commendable achiever, and not someone you’d assume would provide much in terms of emotional variety. Lay out her traits, and she comes across as someone who’s always living life on the more intense plane, plunging from one dramatic escapade to the other (in her love life) or charting out strategies to get to the next goal. You wouldn’t think this is a girl who, more than any other in her social circle, would entertain you and keep you engaged. Surely she has no time to appreciate the lighter side of life.

High fashion and high drama and lots of pretty people. This is what Gossip Girl is made of.
High fashion and high drama and lots of pretty people. This is what Gossip Girl is made of.

The Gossip Girl TV series is based, loosely, on the books of the same name by Cecily von Ziegesar. I’ve only had the privilege (or can confess to the shame) of reading one of those, and the tone of the books can’t be more different from that of the TV show. Where the books are lighthearted, irreverent and, at times, openly satirical about their over-priviliged characters, the TV show makes their hijinks life and death issues, their dating lives endlessly complicated and emotionally draining, and more than one character is faced with the prospect of utter and complete social elimination.

This is in keeping with the TV genre the series seeks to conform to: that of teen drama. Like the earlier show from the same producers, The OC, Gossip Girl is meant to portray a world that most of its viewers will never be a part of. It’s hard to get people invested in this world—how is it possible to feel sad for someone like Serena van der Woodsen, the perfect ‘it’ girl who seems to have everything? The only way you can do that is to make her life hellish, her family seem a toxic waste dump, and give her a sackload of issues that she can only deal with by running away to the countryside and changing her name. To keep up a satirical take on the Upper East Side for six seasons, for an audience that it not known for its interest in that kind of comedy, would have been difficult. So the makers opted to change the books’ tone and make it darker, more serious and much, much more deadly.

But suspension of disbelief fades after a while. It’s hard, no matter how many drug overdoses you portray, or daddy issues you dump in, to feel any sort of sustained

Sorry honey, it's just hard to feel sad for you when you look like THAT.
Sorry honey, it’s just hard to feel sad for you when you look like THAT.

sympathy for characters who quite obviously have much more than you. You can’t help but realize, after a while, that all their problems are self-created, and they must be the stupidest people on earth to find themselves in these terrible situations again and again. Why would I feel bad for Serena, who seems to get into Brown, Yale, Columbia despite doing nothing in high school? Why would I care about Nate’s broken heart when he’s shown me, time and again, that he can and will pick himself up just in time to fall for the next scheming, beautiful new face on the UES?

Seriously, this was me every time a new female character entered the show:

natefacepalm

‘Nate! No, Nate don’t look at her! No, don’t kiss her! Oh honey, don’t, don’t go and fall in—‘

Damn it,pretty boy. If only you weren’t, as Raina said, as smart as you look.

So all these characters get pretty unbearable, even Dan Humphrey. But the ones who constantly rescue the show from taking itself too seriously, who remind you time and again of what the books were originally intended to convey, are Blair and her posse.

Seriously, straight out of 'Mean Girls'.
Seriously, straight out of ‘Mean Girls’.

I dont know if it’s just Leighton Meester’s superb delivery and comic timing, but Blair, despite having as ‘intense’ and dramatic a storyline as any of her peers, never becomes an emotional drag in the same way. She alone of the main characters doesn’t appear to always take herself seriously all the time. Meester never makes her lack conviction in herself, but at the same time, her character is one that could as easily belong in a comedy as in a self-styled drama. Blair’s scenes on the steps of the Met, with the ‘mean girls’, her plans to wrangle an internship with Indra Nooyi and become a ‘powerful woman’, her ‘bridesmaid contest’ serve not only to make her appear a woman serious about her position in the world, but also underlines the utter ridiculousness of that world and its traditions and hierarchies. Around her, the other characters look silly and diminished too, while she just comes across as smarter for having realised and played along with the utter stupidity of her surroundings.

One of my friends once said that she liked people who ‘were so smart they can be openly silly because they are just that secure about themselves’. I think Blair, at least as played by Meester, is like that. Her overdone eyelash flutters, doe eyed looks and quicksilver facial expressions belong in a Mean Girls movie, or a romcom parody. And then she reminds you of her intelligence and intensity by declaring undying love for Chuck Bass—emotions which you can take all the more seriously because she’s not always operating on that register. Her ability to swing between levity and drama make her palatable, give you room to laugh at her and her world (thus reducing the threat an envy-potential of her world) as well as keep you hooked and rooting for her eventual happiness.

I don’t know if Meester intends to get into comedy a la Mindy Kaling,but she certainly has a talent for it. And given her life story and ultimate crossover marriage, I’m sure any book she decides to write will be a more than interesting read.

That's right, bitches.
That’s right, bitches.