Tribute to Television

david

Last month for the second time we gave some much needed (and deserved) love to three under-recognized series, and today we continue that tradition. You might notice that I’ve changed the title of the series from “Reasons to Stay Inside” to “Tribute to Television”; I’ve done this because I think the ironic intention of the former has a pretty short expiration date before it turns sour and unironically depressing[i].

With the rise of independent distributors such as Netflix, we’re seeing an increase in creative freedom in televised media, and I think this is wonderful: even if all of the globe were charted in every sense, I feel a kind of mixed joy in knowing that I myself could never live long enough to finish discovering it, and that, if I stay open to them, its stories will keep surprising me. All kinds of people all over the world have so much to share, and so the broadening of such a platform of expression should be celebrated! Hence our celebration, the first edition of our fresh start, our series-redux, Tribute to Television.

Let shower some love on some hidden gems. Allons-y!

  1. Brèf (2011) – Khyan Kojandi (82 episodes, 2 minutes)

You read that right: as the name of this French series suggests, the running time of nearly every episode of this series amounts to no more than two minutes. In Brèf, an unnamed everyman[ii], played by Kojandi himself, narrates the details of his life, two minutes at a time. While a breakneck approach to everyday banality is a constant of the series, the tone nevertheless varies wildly skit to skit, with the themes of episodes ranging from whimsical – such as an unsuccessful attempt at flirting with “cette fille”[iii], learning to play the guitar, or being all-forgetful – to poignant – such as the ability to be children with the ones you love, or feeling your age, or burying an on-and-off fling’s cat together[iv]. These reasons, amongst many others (that I will deliberately not divulge here so you HAVE to watch it now) make Brèf a very fast and very clever must-see.

  1. Atlanta (2016) – Donald Glover (8 episodes, 25 minutes)

Anyone who has kept up with Donald Glover in the past few years will know that the man can do basically everything. He’s a successful actor, standup comedian, rapper, and – the latest in a long string of achievements – director. Yet as is often the case, such a resume-centric description rarely really captures a person, and the same goes for Glover: yes, he has done and been these things – but wait! There’s more.

Precisely this same “wait! There’s more”-ish quality is reflected in his new series, Atlanta. Described by Glover himself as “Twin Peaks with rappers”[v], the show follows the life of Earn (Glover), a meandering Princeton dropout with a one-year-old kid and without a clear plan for the future. When he takes up managing his aspiring rapper cousin Paper Boi, things start looking up – but wait! There’s more: while this description is true, such a functional summary doesn’t do justice to the things that make the series so good.

One such cool thing about Atlanta is how it consistently manages to subvert expectations. Whenever it seems apparent where an episode is going, the show will often take a turn for the bizarre and leave the viewer – indeed – in a Twin Peaks-esque limbo in which all possibilities are up for grabs: one episode has Paper Boi furiously wrestling with an unexpectedly racebent, Black version of Justin Bieber[vi] while Earn accidentally impersonates a music agent, and another episode consists almost entirely of a hilariously surreal televised panel-debate on identity politics. Armed with subtle, smart dialogue and sharp left turns, Atlanta never fails to leave the viewer something to mull over.

  1. Mushishi (2005) – Hiroshi Nagahama (26 episodes, 25 minutes)

If you are into either Japanese mythology, history, medicine, beautiful scenery, or perhaps all of these, Mushishi might be just your cup of tea. Taking place in a magical version of 19th century Japan, this anime follows traveling doctor Ginko as he wanders the country from patient to patient.

The hook of the show is that these patients are not sick in ordinary ways; their suffering is often the result of some ordeal concerning the eponymously mushishi, a strange species that can only be broadly defined as a “life-form” takes many different shapes. The series, then, uses this device – along with the main character of the traveling doctor – to tie several old, often Grimm-like, fairy-tales from Japanese mythology together. If there is a curse in the tale, in the series it has something to do with mushishi; if someone becomes plagued by visions of ghosts, it has something to do with mushishi – you get the drift.

Drawing on my superdeep philosophical insights into everything ever, I squint into my hipster coffee mug and predict that some of those reading this article will have skipped to the next paragraph after glancing the word “anime” – one of their more prominent arguments being that all emotion in anime is hyperbolic; that there are no medium-levels of sadness, anger, fear, #yougetthepoint. To them I shout (otherwise they may not hear me all the way over at paragraph four):

“You’re being silly, come back! Wait, I didn’t mean that, I love you!”

Dramatics aside, Mushishi is unusually low-key as far as anime and most live-action series go. As opposed to other many doctors on television[vii], Ginko actually believably feels like a good doctor, and the tone of his character is reflected in the tone of the series; he’s been in the business for a while now, and from the start of the series he treads a careful balance between a sensitive yet professionally distanced bedside manner. He is confident, mellow, yet never cocky, angsty or arrogant, as many anime-characters are wont to be. He is reliably low-key, and it allows the series to reserve most its focus on exploring the beautifully rich world around him.

[i] That, and I’m pretty sure the third show on the list will actually strongly motivate many viewers out there to get out the door and take a long walk along Amsterdam’s beautiful canals and lush parks.

[ii] In the cast-listings, the main character is only referred to as “Je”. Cute.

[iii] Who is also a mainstay on the series and who, much like the “Je”, is only credited as “Cette fille”

[iv] Equally brief and on point are the episode titles. Respectively, the ones mentioned here: “I flirted with that girl”, “I play the guitar”, “I have no memory”, “We were kids”, “I’m old” and “We buried Croquette”.

[v] http://www.tvguide.com/news/donald-glover-atlanta-twin-peaks-rappers/

[vi] Stephen Glover, Donald’s brother, is a writer for the show, and actually came up with this idea. In an interview with Vulture he points out the merits of such a seemingly random subversion of expectations: “There’s a lot of reasons why it’s a good idea because it makes you ask yourself questions about the way you perceive Justin Bieber”(Full interview: http://www.vulture.com/2016/09/stephen-glover-atlanta-black-justin-bieber.html)

[vii] Looking at you, House MD, General Hospital, Strong Medicine, etcetera, etcetera

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“That Gum You Like is Going To Come Back in Style”: The Revival of Twin Peaks and the Uncanny

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Next year, one of the creepiest murder-mystery TV series Twin Peaks will return for a new season. Being over 25 years old, the show is a true cult classic and has been subject to many tributes and references from various other famous TV-shows like The Simpsons and Adventure Time. Last summer I watched the first two seasons, and at times, when I lay wide awake in bed, paralysed by the sheer creepiness of it all, hoping that when I opened my eyes I wouldn’t come face to face with a grey-haired maniac in denim that was staring at me from beside my bed, I really wish I didn’t because it is genuinely the most horrifying thing I have ever seen.

Anyone familiar with David Lynch’s work would know what I am talking about. Twin Peaks is incredibly stylish and truly surreal, its plot occasionally narratively inexplicable yet drawing from familiar narratives. It has no definite genre, but alternates within one breath from cheap soap opera, to quirky comedy, to melodrama, to visual horror, and back. Crucially, it thrives on immense audience discomfort. Known for playing with the limitations of human reason, Lynch’s horror is not full-blown and more than just creepy. Twin Peaks is repulsively horrifying and in its confusing horror irresistibly attractive. In this, it lends it aesthetic from the Uncanny, a psychological concept first posed by Ernest Jensch and later famously adopted by Sigmund Freud in 1919. Positioning the German word for uncanny, das Unheimliche, opposite of heimlich, meaning “familiar”, “native”, and “belonging to the home” (Heim), Freud concludes that what is uncanny “is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.” In being familiar, yet incongruous, the uncanny creates an intense discomfort, due to being both attracted yet repulsed by it, leading to aversion and rejection rather than rationalisation and understanding.

Twin Peaks likewise revels in the limitations of human understanding by using elements that persuade the viewer to believe that there are matters and worlds which reason and common sense cannot account for. The series revolve around the investigation of the horrendous murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer, led by FBI special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan), a charming, genuine good-guy with an unconditional love for coffee and an unusual interest in Oriental spirituality. Despite the fact that the series initially seem to follow the familiar detective plotline, the series progresses towards the mythical, initiated by Cooper’s infamous Red Room dream, which elevates the series from generic murder investigation to supernatural horror. Being yet unclear on whether Cooper’s dream is merely a deus ex machina-like plot device or whether there really is a supernatural presence in Twin Peaks that helps him find the murderer, the series continuously messes with the mind of its audience by fluctuating between the ordinary and the otherworldly.

The woods outside Twin Peaks especially play an ambiguous and sinister role, being a site where the most eerie events seem to take place. As sheriff Harry Truman observes, “there’s a sort of evil out there. Something very, very strange in these old woods. Call it what you want – a darkness, a presence. It takes many forms but it’s been out there for as long as anyone can remember and we’ve always been here to fight it.” Originating from the woods, the show’s demon, a feral grey-haired man in denim who goes under the inappropriately ordinary name of Bob, haunts the series, showing up unexpectedly, causing extreme discomfort among the characters and the viewer. He says nothing, only stares or smiles manically – behind the footboard of Laura Palmer’s bed, crawling over the sofa towards the camera, appearing in the mirror images of characters. Bob is a human form of the uncanny; his appearance and name suggests a human familiarity, but the fact that we don’t know anything of him – not even whether he is actually human – and the fact that he behaves unearthly, gives his aura a certain unfamiliarity which turns him into an intrinsically creepy guy.

In its focus on the woods as a place for mythical supernatural forces, Twin Peaks uses folkloric elements, and this is where it gets psychologically interesting. Following his canonical ideas of humans being driven by repressed sexual and primitive impulses, Freud claims that the uncanny similarly is an expression of impulses that have become alienated through repression, but nevertheless come to the light. For instance, he assigns the fear of the Sandman, a folkloric figure who puts people to sleep by pouring sand in their eyes, to the repressed fear of going blind, which can ultimately be substituted for the fear of castration[1]. The uncanny is, then, a confrontation with the limitations of human reason in repressing primitive anxieties or impulses. In fairy tales, folklore, and mythology the woods are likewise a place for imagined supernatural forces where all sorts of human anxieties and impulses are projected on imaginary monsters.[2] In this context, the woods in Twin Peaks are not merely supernatural but also a place of projected repressed anxieties and primitive impulses.

And so, as we learn throughout the series, Bob is not the only disturbing presence in the Twin Peaks. As the plot unfolds, the inner darkness of the characters, most of whom at first seemed rather innocent and likeable, come to the surface with unsettling and destructive consequences. Charming little Twin Peaks is infested with all sorts of dark affairs like domestic abuse, drug-related crimes, and underage prostitution. So whereas the murder of Laura Palmer, who caught the sexual fascination of many adult men in Twin Peaks, is initially linked to the ominous woods, it actually took place in the confined space of her own living room. Laura Palmer’s murder alone, with its suggestive oedipal motivations, show that the real threat is not only coming from the woods but also from the people themselves.

This brings me to the other thing that is uncanny and surreal about Twin Peaks. Apart from the obvious nightmarish scenes like the Red Room in Cooper’s dreams and Bob’s disturbing appearances, Twin Peaks is creepy in the sense that nobody seems to know how to behave normally. The characters are absurd, floating around a spectrum of slapstick, surrealism, and melodrama. Occasionally this results in amusing absurdism, as is the case with Nadine, a woman with an eye patch, superhuman strength, and an obsessively needy relationship with her husband Ed, or from lanky dopey police officer Andy. Yet, often this behavioural fickleness balances towards the uncanny. Sarah Palmer’s terrifying dreams of Bob and consequent hysterical fits, and Leland Palmer’s psychotic episodes in which he spontaneously starts to sing or to dance, are clearly melodramatic but also incredibly distressing.

In short, Twin Peaks is a psychological train wreck. It evokes laughter, confusion, discomfort, horror, and is excruciatingly weird and inexplicable, yet, or rather consequently, irresistibly attractive. In this day and age, we have long ceased being perceptive of the horrors of folklore, myths, and supernatural forces. Through the rationalization of society as a result of scientific developments and secularization, we have become unknown to the unknown. So maybe this is why Twin Peaks is so unnerving. Since we are not used to the unfamiliar anymore, any confrontation with a supernatural anomaly may unleash the muffled fears and anxieties that reason and logic have been shushing for so long. Twin Peaks exposes the limitations of human understanding, causing us, after having abandoned irrational fear for many decades, to look over our shoulders again, feared to be haunted by unknown ghosts creeping up on us from the borders of our rationality.

[1] In Freud, castration anxiety not only refers to the fear of literal loss of, or damage to, the penis. It can also refer to the fear of metaphorical or symbolic castration in the sense that one may feel emasculated, dominated, or made insignificant.

[2] The vampire, for instance, can be interpreted as a creature that represents repressed mortal anxiety and sexual desires.

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*Stares into the Camera*: On The “Jim Look” and The Age of Irony

roos-stares-into-a-camera

A few weeks ago I was at a housewarming, and while using a phallic-shaped bottle opener to remove the cap from my beer because it was, regrettably, the only one available, some guy said “I can see you thinking; this one is slightly smaller than what I am used to”. Because I didn’t want to make the situation any more awkward than it already was, I laughed, trying to mute the discomfort that echoed through the kitchen. Yet it was not enough. I could still feel a cringe starting to work its way up my spine. So I did what I would normally do when the uncomfortableness can’t be laughed away: I picked a spot on the wall opposite of me and stared at it, pretending to look straight into the camera as if I were on The Office. It’s not that I like to flatter myself thinking that my life is being documented in a The Truman Show-like way[1], but at moments like these I find that the only way to properly deal with the sheer awkwardness of daily life is by reaching out to an imaginary audience. This is not just a personal quirk but symptomatic for the internet-driven chaotic experiences of modern life. From Modern Family to Parks and Recreation, the look into the camera assumes a stance that reflects contemporary tendencies to fluctuate between seriousness and the remains of the 90s-like postmodern irony.

Any person, be it someone who watches the show faithfully or someone who only caught a glimpse of it, would say that The Office is driven by awkwardness. The “cringe comedy” humor that is adopted in most mockumentaries like The Office relies on what humor theorists call “incongruity”, which refers a situation that is socially conceived as being out of place, or running against our expectations. The humor here does not lie in the incongruity itself, but in the characters’ realization of and reaction to the things that are out of place. American philosopher Noel Carroll links this notion of incongruity to black humor and argues that black humor an sich is not what people find amusing, but rather the idea that other people might find it annoying and uncomfortable. And the black humorists “revel in their discomfort”[2]. Likewise, Jim Halpert from The Office US doesn’t play practical jokes on office harlequin Dwight because he finds the jokes themselves funny, but because he revels in the awkwardness caused by Dwight’s reaction to them. For instance, in the very first episode of The Office US, when Dwight finds his stapler in jello (“again!”), he completely loses it in front of his boss, his new colleague, and the entire camera crew. This scene is not funny because of the incongruity (the stapler in jello), but because of Dwight’s embarrassingly exaggerated and inappropriate reaction to the incongruity. And the audience revels in the consequent discomfort (or awkwardness) created around the office. The Office is, then, a reactionary comedy; it does not primarily rely on jokes and punchlines but on the characters reactions to the incongruities that result in the signature awkward situations.

For Jim, the only thing that makes the awkwardness bearable is by reaching out to an audience that revels in the awkwardness with him. His look into the camera is a detachment from his here-and-now; by connecting with his (fictional) audience, he detaches himself from the present moment to a stance in which he observes his daily life with the same amusement as if he was part of the audience. This amused detached stance towards the awkwardness of daily life is similar to the iconic 90s irony. American scholar Adam Kotsko writes that, departing from the linguistic “irony” as saying what one doesn’t really mean, the 90s-style irony “created a more general stance of detachment from life in general – a stance of somehow not “meaning” whatever it is that they were doing”[3]. This typical indifference towards life is notoriously adopted in 90s icon Seinfeld, the show that was famous for being about “nothing” and whose observational humor (“What’s the deal with airplane peanuts?”) encouraged the audience to assume a detached and bemused stance from basically everything and everyone, even the most mundane realities of everyday life. Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are almost sociopathically alienated and apathetic towards the world and other people, using their irony and detached bemusement to shield themselves from the show’s signature awkward situations. With their ironic stance and chronic bewilderment they assume a detachment similar to Jim’s look into the camera when watching Dwight rage over his stapler, amusing themselves with the awkward quirkiness of others.

The “Jim look”, then, creates an ironic detachment that serves to shield oneself against the awkward and complex confrontations of modern life. In this context, the modern office space is the perfect environment for the 90s-like ironic detachment. Being a cultural symbol of monotony and pointless bureaucracy, nothing about the office calls for a genuine connection and enjoyment. In this it is only fitting that Jim works for a company that sells office paper. His weekdays revolve around something that is blank and in and of itself completely worthless. In other words, Jim’s job is quite literally about nothing. So Jim’s ironic detachment from his office life is a form of escapism. His shenanigans are defense mechanisms against the painfully pointless, bureaucratic, and mundane reality of his career. His look into the camera negates the seriousness of the office, turning the moment into an opportunity of ironic amusement.

Interestingly, it is mostly the young generations to whom Jim’s look appeals most. Actor Rainn Wilson, who portrays Dwight Schrute, says that whereas older generations find The Office too awkward to watch, the young kids allegedly “eat it up”. It is unlikely that these “kids” have already been scarred by the Kafkaesque ordeals of office life. So what’s the deal with that? Like Carroll, Wilson believes that The Office’s comedy doesn’t really rely on the jokes and the characters’ awkward behavior, but on the reactions to that behavior; “Dwight will do something stupid, but the laugh is on Pam or Jim seeing it and then turning to the camera. I think that that is how young people feel today. They’re seeing all this absurdity in life and if they could they would all just look at the camera and go, what?”.[4]

This may also explain why the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ emoji is the perfect representation of internet culture today. In a world where people spend the majority of their daily lives on the internet being exposed to a wide range of impressions varying from capricious memes and weird Japanese commercials to social media trolls and the poisonous hate culture of comment sections, their initial rage, fear, and confusion towards the incredible immensity of the World Wide Web is channeled to nihilistic emotional numbness. The easygoing shrug combined with the mildly amused smile conveys a detached bemused acceptance of the chaos of the universe. Like Jim watching Dwight raging over a stapler, the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ emoji serves as reversed John Nada glasses that turn the painful awkwardness of daily life into something amusing. Likewise, during my housewarming debacle I decided to just shrug it off, instead of mentally jumping into the rabbit hole of the sexist nature of inappropriate sex jokes I come across every day. In my mind, the audience I locked eyes with would feel for me and laugh at the guy’s cringing buffoonery. There was a group of friends watching silently, until one individual would verbalize what the whole group was thinking; “What’s the deal with this guy?”

[1] If it is, then feel free to laugh at this moment of dramatic irony.

[2] Carroll, Noel. Humour: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp 34.

[3] Kotsko, Adam. Awkwardness: An Essay. Winchester: John Hunt Publishing, 2010. pp 21.

[4] Hirschman, David. “Rain Wilson: Why the Awkward Humor in “The Office” is Funny.” Big Think. 20 May 2011.

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Less Is More

fireflyWe have all felt the initial pang of sadness when we discover one of our favorite shows’ lifespan is shortened to less seasons than you might have liked to watch. I had such an experience with the two shows Freaks and Geeks and Firefly. Each of these was only given one season—and for both of them that feels far too short.

Freaks and Geeks is a show that centers on teenage protagonist Lindsay Weir and her little brother Sam, who go to the same high school. The setting takes place in a small town in Michigan in the school year 1980–1981. Her friends are notoriously called “freaks” and feature, among others, a young James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel. Her little brother’s friends are called the “geeks” and both groups experience hilarious and heartstring-pulling situations. As neither Lindsay nor Sam truly fit into these groups (nor any other groups, for that matter), it is easy and a lot of fun to invest into and identify with their characters.

Firefly takes quite a different angle. This show features a crew of misfits and do-gooders alike, working, smuggling and struggling through the vast endlessness of space inside of a Firefly-class spacecraft called “Serenity”. Set up as a Western in outer space, Firefly revolves around the following nine individuals: Mal (the captain, kind of a Han Solo-like character), Zoe (the second in command), Wash (the goofy pilot, married to Zoe), Kaylee (the cute mechanic), Jayne (the nitwit muscle), River (wanted by the government), Simon (a doctor, River’s brother), Book (a shepherd with a dark past), and Inara (a “companion”). The way in which these different characters with their different gimmicks and traits work together, clash with each other and beautifully form a family, makes this one of the most captivating shows I have watched. Luckily, Joss Whedon (the creator) made an additional movie called Serenity.

Having watched and re-watched all the episodes of both these shows more than twice I continue to wonder what it would be like if their plugs hadn’t been pulled. On the one hand, having the pleasure of watching more, and enjoying more of it seems very appealing. Especially because there are so many sides of these one-season long shows that could have been explored to a far greater degree. On the other hand, the compactness and tragedy of their duration does immortalize their awesomeness. As it is now, the shows will not be spoiled with filler episodes, unnecessary plot twists, or general dragging of plot—like it is done with so many other shows, for obvious financial reasons (read: Lost, or How I Met Your Mother, or Two and a Half Men, etc.). No, now I can bittersweetly say that I am happy these shows were this short, because there is no way I will ever forget them.

 

Ines

Header image courtesy of moviepilot.com