Archive for November 2010

To Made In Dagenham, An Apology

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Now that Made in Dagenham has arrived in the US, I revisited my original review (here). I am quite disappointed in myself, in that I find it a bit patronizing, which absolutely does not reflect how I feel about the movie now, upon reflection, and it CERTAINLY does not reflect how I felt when I actually watched it. I loved it, and had never felt so full of positivity. And would tell anyone to see in a heartbeat. Again and again. The power of its story is more than enough to overcome certain stylistic choices.

That review was one of the earliest I'd written in this blog about 'new movies,' and I suppose I was trying to mimic the more sarcastic variety of professional critic (even now I'm still experimenting with various styles). Well, apparently I succeeded, but I ended up imitating the wrong guy. Many of the reviews written by males (and some females, to be fair) focus on the movie's twee-ness, jauntiness, and general frothiness. On the other hand, most of the reviews I've read by females focus on celebrating the film, its open feminism, and the strength of these women's accomplishments.

There is a sad irony that, the same week that this film was released in the US, the Senate declined to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Bill. The bill already passed in the House, it just needed Senate approval. In the face of failures like these, the value of an uplifting celebration of female revolt increases tremendously. In some ways, it's a more political statement to create a joyful story of success that keeps our eyes on the prize. Why? Because it's inspiring. It keeps us fighting. There comes a point when tales of strife only break our morale and our will to continue. Of course we need to be realistic. But we also need stories to remind us of the powerful impact of success based on collegiality and togetherness and leadership.

So, so what if it's more like a two-hour celebration of women instead of a hard-fought journey to victory? The sad truth is, the only people that are vocally celebrating women publicly in the US are Sarah Palin and the Mama Grizzlies.

State of the Union: Gay Rights

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It's been a long time coming, but it would seem that support for gay rights has finally become the new normal in America. What accounts for this transformation? Read on.

The first chink in the armor was clearly the repeated hypocrisy of vocal anti-gay crusaders being repeatedly caught en flagrante with members of the same sex. So now when we hear a politician or religious leader making virulently offensive statements about gays, we assume it's just a matter of time before they demonstrate their love and respect for family and for proper American values, in ways including but not limited to internet prostitution, airport cottaging and general duplicitous douchebaggery (that one's for you, David Frum).

It's not just the closet gays in the Right that have set these wheels in motion. Again and again, the people who preach 'family values' most loudly have proven that they possess the least understanding of it. Everytime a David Vitter or Mark Sanford appears on the news with walls of frost separating them from their wives, real Americans with real families question whether these are the people we want to follow on any sort of 'values.' And by extension, we then question the substance of the values themselves and return, if only for a little while, to revering ideals of tolerance, honesty and Golden Rules of every stripe.

Flash-forward to summer 2010. School bullying had already been front page news for most of the year, due to the general interest raised by the circumstances surrounding the Phoebe Prince case. So in a sense, America was primed to be horrified by any new suicides caused by bullying. The Phoebe Prince case reminded the aging media consumer exactly how cruel kids can be, and how that cruelty is intensified by modern technology. Bullying was no longer ignored as the product of harmless childhood insecurity.

This meant that when the news was saturated by the rash of gay teen suicides in July/August, these poor kids captured the general public's empathy: we recognized that these children were perniciously victimized, they were not emotional weaklings who took their lives because they couldn't' handle a bit of teasing. The synergistic energy of these events have rebranded all acts of victimization, even semantic ones (gay epithets) as an epidemic that needs vaccination, not bandaids after the fact. Ensuring the safety of all youth means, by default, GLBT youth as well.

Of all the deaths that were reported, one really captured the public imagination: Tyler Clementi. In this case it wasn't just the bullying that horrified us, it was the way it was conducted. His roomate made disdainful comments on twitter, sending the news of Clementi's activity to the entire world. But of course the biggest privacy violation was yet to come: when Clementi asked for private time in the room for a date, the bully set up a secret camera and a live feed so that the whole world could intrude on Clementi's private activity. Social media as a tool for privacy violation has been big news as more and more revelations come up about Google and Facebook selling data on users to the highest bidder. The ring of a familiar tragedy, exacerbated by the extensity and velocity of modern communication, made for an explosive combination. For the first time, the horror people displayed at the broadcast was not the fact that two men were kissing, it's the fact that the roommate thought he had the right to violate Clementi in this manner.


Media Pressure
  • Andrew Shirvell, Michigan's assistant attorney general, has been summarily fired after a bizarre crusade against the gay student body president of the University of Michigan. The cause of his downfall? Like many a Greek tragedy, hubris. The blog he created, filled with accusations with no relation to fact, went largely unnoticed for months, until Attorney General Mike Cox agreed to an interview with Anderson Cooper to defend his decision not to fire Shirvell. And then of course, like the champion chump that Shirvell is, he went on the Daily Show to defend himself, and was promptly eviscerated by Jason Jones. He was fired two days later.

  • While John McCain continues to cement his status as hypocrite of the year by promising to do everything he can to prevent the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell (henceforth referred to as DADT), his wife, Cindy, and his daughter, Megan, are running around the country, acting in ads and writing editorials eviscerating the government for institutionalizing discrimination against gays in the form of DADT and the ban on gay marriage. As you can imagine, the Cindy McCain story caught fire in the media, because her ad was released the same day that John McCain proclaimed his crusade.

Market Pressure
  • Disney is forced to pull the trailer for The Tourist, (which admittedly looked pretty dire anyway). The reason? Almost everyone who saw the trailer was offended by Vince Vaughn's joke using the word 'gay' in a derogatory manner, and spammed Disney with letters and calls. I can personally speak to how glad I was about this, given how often I had to listen to jocks call gay kids 'faggots' in high school, and each time it sounded like a whip crack.

Legal Pressure
  • While the Supreme Court has declined to make a ruling on DADT, the federal judge's injunction still stands, at least until the Department of Justice fulfills their legal obligation to defend the practice. Thus, Obama travels an Orwellian circle and becomes the first President in history who not only gets what he claims to want (a repeal of DADT), but returns it with a note saying, "Thanks but no thanks, but I'd prefer to do this the hard way. Congress is awesome." Even so, the precedent is set, and once a legislative decision is achieved, then the principle will be enshrined in multiple bodies (and will therefore be almost impossible to overturn).

  • Unlike in the federal courts, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown have declined to appeal the court decision overturning Prop 8 in California. A citizen activist group has appealed the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court rules on Dec. 6, but it is widely expected that the case will be thrown out on the basis that the citizens group had no standing to appeal. Only the state government had the right to appeal, and they declined to participate. So there's a high likelihood that come the New Year, gay marriage will be legal in California.

Military Pressure
  • While the final ruling on DADT is pending, Army officials are using their discretion and choosing not to discharge outed soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • The leaked Pentagon review has proven that the majority of soldiers and commanders do not have a problem with openly gay soldiers serving in the military, which directly contradicts the long standing argument that allowing openly gay troops will compromise military readiness.

I'm not trying to say there aren't difficult hurdles to cross in the forms of wealthy activist groups and entrenched intolerance. President Obama has been especially disappointing in the arena of gay rights. But, after all, this is The Oncoming Hope, not The Oncoming "Things That Make Me Tear My Hair Out." And the fact is, there has never been so much mainstream media attention on these issues before, and with each new revelation of misconduct, more people will shift to the cause.

Fringe: "6995 kHz" or "FauxLivia has Pronoun Trouble"


I cannot begin to explain how simultaneously exciting and frustrating it is to see Fringe on schedule now (there's no way to spoil myself, and I get the pleasure of being shocked by each new revelation). BUT WHY ISN'T NEXT WEEK HERE ALREADY?!?


One of the things that makes Fringe great is that the way the story has developed, minute character developments can be just as mindblowing as big reveals like the Twin Towers in the parallel universe. We watch Fauxlivia closely for any betrayal of her true identity. We watch, desperate for any character to show a glimmer of recognition that Fauxlivia is not Ourlivia. Part of the reason this storyline works in this show, when it has failed so completely in other shows, is that it is not completely obvious that it's the wrong Olivia. There are slight moments when she's a little 'off,' but that's it. We know it's not her, but we can't really fault any of the other characters for not knowing, owing to Anna Torv's fantastic parsing of the two Olivias.

We can't fault poor hapless Peter, who's obviously blinded by romance. We can't fault Walter, for obvious reasons. Astrid only ever dealt with Olivia on a professional level, so it's not surprising that she doesn't detect the nuances. But Nina. Oh Nina. She is the first to really cotton on that something's not right, which makes perfect sense. She and Olivia have always had an adversarial relationship, and so she has probably studied Olivia extensively to understand how to manipulate her. And Olivia has never been as forthcoming to Nina as Fauxlivia was in this episode, so that probably sent up some kind of flag. While it's slightly surprising that she didn't say anything during her heart-to-heart with Walter, we all know that Nina plays things close to the vest.

(Unless of course, as other commenters have suggested, there's a massive long con going on where Walter, Nina and Peter already know that it's the wrong Olivia, but that's too convoluted even for this show.)

The only way to get through the opening scene is to pretend it's Ourlivia, which makes it cute and fun, otherwise the whole thing is pretty squicky. But it is sweet, and mercifully short. I like that Fringe doesn't dwell too much on melodrama, instead using emotional moments for short and sweet effect, rather than using character drama as a substitute for a plot (cough cough LOST!)

There was a lot happening this episode (I am very grateful to Fringe that it advances the plot every episode, and doesn't treat it's mythology as the be-all and end-all of the entire show, unlike that other J.J. Abrams show). This episode gave us the first hints about how this particular storyline might resolve: Fauxlivia shows the first sign of hesitation about whether her mission is actually the righteous one. Between Nina, Walter and Peter, we learn about a key difference between Earth Prime and Alt-Earth: hope still exists in Earth One. Science can be used as a tool to help humanity, and not just for destruction. We get the sense throughout that Fauxlivia has only been exposed to science as a tool for military dominance, for keeping society in check, not as a constructive device in its own right. So when Peter tells her, Doctor-style, "There's got to be another way," you can see her almost start to believe it.

FauxLivia breaks cover on three separate occasions in this episode, each one not enough to blow it completely, but hopefully are sufficient to create a few scratches on her facade. The first is what I mentioned earlier, that she won't confront Walter directly, but asks  Nina to do so instead. We all know Olivia is ridiculously brusque with Walter when he gets goopy (hence in Alt-Verse, all she has to do to prove that she's Ourlivia is yell at him, hilariously.) The next two are with silly Peter: first, she doesn't remember Ed Markham, midget bookseller extraordinaire. Then, more obviously, she betrays the fact that she doesn't have Olivia's photographic memory, when she struggles to recall the fateful numbers of Lost (sending me into shuddery flashbacks of hatred of Lost).

This episode also introduced an exciting new element: the First People, a race of humans that theoretically existed before even the dinosaurs. According to the only source, one Seamus Wiles, they were far more technologically advanced than modern man, and thusly proceeded to wipe themselves from the face of the universe. Also, most importantly, and I take absolutely no credit for noticing this, but ANAGRAM AHOY! Seamus Wiles = Samuel Weiss, who you will recall as being 'older than you think.' Before someone cracked that anagram, I assumed that the First People are one and the same as The Observers, but now I don't think so.

Finally, we get a tantalizing coda in the Alt-Verse, where we learn that Olivia is in imminent danger. And then I yelled at the tv for ending the episode. Cause shit be goin' down next week. 

Walter and Nina, sitting on a bench, sharing a joint and lamenting 'kids these days.' It was a wonderfully warm scene with two characters we wouldn't normally associate with warmth.

Astrid actually has a role! And that role is channeling Alt-Strid and being a numbers whiz (seriously is there anything this girl isn't an expert in?) Sudden increase in screentime = red-shirt alert...

On The Viewing Habits of Political Parties

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I really don't know what to say about this list. On the whole I'd like to say it means Democrats have better taste, but there's that #3, Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami. As Lucille Bluth once said, "I don't know what it is, and I certainly won't respond to it."

It's encouraging though that Modern Family is so popular on the Republican side, it's a great show for many reasons, not least of which that it normalizes the idea of gay marriage. Though the whole thing is a bit disingenous, as the company that ran the survey admitted that shows like The Good Wife and Modern Family are equally popular on both sides, which is absolutely not reflected in their little chart.

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (Stephen Shainberg, 2006)

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Nicole Kidman really gets a bad rap these days. While in many ways it's deserved (has any actress of quality made so many TERRIBLE career choices?), it saddens me, knowing how good her more left-field movies are.

Fur is Stephen Shainberg's follow-up to Secretary, and shows the same tenderness and respect to subjects that may disturb society. While Fur is ostensibly a biopic, Shainberg opts for a more fantastical approach, creating a fairytale imagining of what might have gone one in Diane Arbus's head when she shifted from being a moderately content housewife to developing a one of a kind career as a chronicler of the weird and wondrous.

Left is from the movie, right is an Arbus original.
Nicole Kidman plays Arbus beautifully, as Alice descending into the rabbit hole of Robert Downey Jr.'s Lionel Sweeney, a man suffering from an obscure condition where he is covered in fur. Kidman excellently plays the processes behind the way that Arbus transforms every fear into curiosity and develops an overwhelming desire to not only study and document the freaks but to understand them and join them.

The movie makes no concessions to reality, which I suspect may irritate some people, but I enjoyed the dreamlike (and extremely erotic) atmosphere, where Arbus goes back and forth between a normal, sepia toned family life and Lionel's colorful carnival world.

Not!Modern Family with Phil Dunphy
Swimming pools in la-la land (also pretty shot!)
Just as in reality, people are left behind when when one life transforms into another, and our constant reminder of this is Allan Arbus, played with great pathos by Ty Burrell (in a serious role, natch!). You really do feel his pain again and again, as Diane leaves him to manage the business, the house and the children, while she pursues her odd 'fancies.' Nevertheless, and maybe it's the way Kidman plays Arbus, you can't fault her for it, and you can't but help being seduced into that other life yourself (though for the seduction Robert Downey Jr. is to blame, with his lovely, lovely voice).

Oscarbait 2010: The Social Network

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I know that for many of the people in my generation (the so-called Facebook generation), the main reaction to the announcement of this film was "meh" and a shrug. For whatever reason, the establishment movie-sphere and media (at least 20 years ahead in age) are completely enamored by the topic, while for people my age it's just one tool that exists in our lives (and often a hassle requiring eagle eyes on privacy settings).

So when the critical hoopla about the film reached a fever pitch, I started to question why it was that I had no interest in seeing the movie (not in the theater, at least). Once I enumerate them, I will answer them in the next section, having seen the movie (loved it).
  1. Oversaturation: I was sick of every move that FB makes being front page news, especially when it was starting to be seen as more of a menace than a tool (anonymous bullying, data mining, privacy violations, etc).
  2. Accusations that the film is rabidly misogynistic: these criticisms were loud enough that Aaron Sorkin actually issued a formal response to people criticising the film on this level. Given that he felt a need to respond, it suggested to me (falsely, mind you) that there was some truth to the accusation.
  3. The Aaron Sorkin Factor: I love the West Wing, I LOVE Sports Night, but lets face it: Sorkin's movie output hasn't been that appealing, and I was worried about the fact that, much like his Charlie Wilson's War, he admitted upfront that he invented most of the story.
  4. I kinda assumed it would be boring: This probably ties back into point 1, but having heard so much about Mark Zuckerberg, and yet so little of actual substance, I assumed the movie would suffer the same failing.
Ok, and then, as I was busy riding on my obviously superior lack of need to see this film, my boyfriend got two tickets to see it, and naturally I went. And loved it. Point by point on my own assumptions:
  1. Oversaturation: The greatest thing about the movie is that while it's ostensibly about Facebook, it's really more of a Greco-Roman tragedy of brotherhood. The central line running through the film is the foundation and destruction of the friendship between Zuckerberg and Saverin, and the betrayals and interlopers seeking to hasten that destruction for their own devious ends. That said, I still wish it wasn't 'about' Facebook. The way the story was structured, it would have been interesting no matter what it was about. The acting, the directing, the story itself would have been better served without the distraction of 'facebook.'
  2. Accusations that the film is rabidly misogynistic: I think I'm pretty attuned to (and some might say over-attuned to) slights against the feminist body politic. That said, as with most cases where things just get out of hand, I suspect the accusations were made without any reference to the text: many of the protesters cannot have seen the movie. Those that make the argument in good faith seem to be confusing the admittedly rabid misogyny of the lead characters with some sort of point behind the writer. 'Nerd doesn't get the girl which then drives his messianic desire to take over the universe while maintaining a healthy hatred of women' is a fairly timeless plot, and no one really thinks Star Wars or Buffy is misogynistic because of that theme, for instance. Yes, Mark Zuckerberg treats women like dirt, but to be fair he treats everyone like dirt (except for his idol, Sean Parker)
  3. The Aaron Sorkin Factor: While I dwelled on my worries on this point, apparently I forgot to consider his main strength: cracking dialogue. The dialogue is sharp all throughout, especially Zuckerberg's and the Winklevi's.
  4. I kinda assumed it would be boring: Wrong, wrong, I was oh, so wrong. Did I mention destruction, betrayal, interlopers and hatred? These are strong characters, played by very strong actors (and yes, Justin Timberlake fits into that camp). And of course the soundtrack really strengthens the suspence in the movie. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have done a fantastic job, drawing from what sounds like lost tracks from The Downward Spiral. The technoey beats with the soft piano licks is perfect for what's happening in the development scenes: you have the classical desires for greatness and revenge, and the modern weapon known as the internet.
The best thing that has come out of this movie is that finally, FINALLY, people will stop confusing Jesse Eisenberg with Michael Cera. I've seen 4 movies with Eisenberg where he effectively plays completely different characters, while Cera is trapped in George-Michael hell (sad but true).

So, in a nutshell, see it or don't, but I think it's only fair to tell you that it's probably not what you expect. It's certainly not perfect, but it's entertaining and interesting, and you barely notice the time passing by.

Rom-Com Central: L'Arnacouer

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Rumors of the death of quality romantic comedy are greatly exaggerated. They're just not made in English. Romantic comedies are meant to be fun, which seems to be an element lost in the equation recently.

L'Arnacouer is essentially a heist movie, but instead of robbing banks, Romain Duris and his gang are in the business of stealing hearts. Specifically, concerned fathers and brothers hire him to break up relationships they see as unfit for their sisters/daughters. So while he is generally pretty successful in his business (providing us with lots of hilarious montage sequences showing his methods and his victims), he inevitable gets the one client who is impregnable to his charms, Vanessa Paradis, better known to us as Mrs. Johnny Depp.

His early failure is a blow to his confidence, perhaps making him a bit more vulnerable, until the inevitable happens. The movie moves in fairly predictable directions (there are certain expectations in a rom-com, after all), but what sets it apart is how much charm its leads have, and how delightful individual sequences are. There were scenes where I was sporfling with uncontrollable laughter, and others where I smiled so widely I was about to break my cheeks. Duris is funny and sexy, and his energy leaps off the screen. His sidekicks are equally charming, especially his sister's husband, who aims to be a suave heartbreaker like he is but instead comes off as a creepy stalker.

Please rush out and see this, because Hollywood is already remaking it, and they are guaranteed to ruin it (I'm not a hater of Hollywood, but they have lost their way in making sweet romantic comedies that are witty and light without being cloying and unbearable. Case in point, Kate Hudson is still hired in leading roles).

Extreme Show Catch-Up: Fringe

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-Walter and his friendship with Astral/Asteroid/Asterix. His inability to remember Astrid's name despite his obvious affection for her makes me giggle everytime. My all-time favorite misnomer though is Ostrich.

-The whole concept of the Observers is so Classic Who that it makes me squiggle with glee. Mystery creatures living outside of time. The Observer-centric episode is definitely my favorite episode so far.

-The organic development of the Bishops' Father-Son relationship. There's something very deep (in Walter's case, so deep that there must be something supernatural involved) driving their love for each other, and that shows in every single scene; it's not like other shows that rely on cheap sentimental plot points to develop family relationships.

-Anna Torv's acting: I know some people think it's absolutely terrible, but the weird awkwardness as Olivia makes the character interesting and fun to watch despite the fact that THE WRITERS REFUSE TO DEVELOP HER BACKSTORY OR FRONT-STORY (though I hear this changes dramatically toward the end of the season).

-Most shows, especially genre shows, expand their main cast in the second season. Fringe seems to have taken the opposite route, where everyone's a red shirt apart from our Fringe team and Lance Reddick (I'm sorry, I have to refer to him by the actor's name. I don't know the character's first name, and I can't keep typing 'Broyles.' Seriously, it drives me nuts: "We gotta tell Broyles." "We need Broyles's permission." The only way I will get over this is if there's an episode where Broyles invites the gang over for BBQ in a very special episode called 'Broyles Broils'.)


-Mainly, I like the fact that the show is well and truly science fiction, complete with wibbley-wobbleys and timey-wimeys.

-Walter. Period. Has there ever been a more entertaining character on television? And it's even better as we learn, more and more, that he really used to be a quasi-evil bastard with no regard for ethics or the good of humanity; it's all about him and his science. So it's simultaneously saddening and heartening that that kind of misbehavior is rewarded with complete madness, reducing Walter to an almost doddering fool (with an insane hankering for processed foods). Ironically, the more that Walter's sanity returns to him, with accompanying guilt, the more we learn about how twisted he truly was.

Modern Family: "Chirp"

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While I know that "Chirp" wasn't the funniest episode the show's produced, it's one of the most unique episodes. Like "The Dinner Party," the best episode of The Office, it lets the comedy develop out of quite serious dramatic issues which are clearly on the edge of blowing up.

Having now seen Ty Burrell outside of a purely comedic role (as Diane Arbus's put upon husband in Fur), I've realized that part of what makes Phil Dunphy so effective as a comic character is the slight sadness that always seems to be hanging behind his eyes, a bit like Charlie Chaplin or Madeline Kahn. As a result we never completely write Phil off as a complete doofus. And like last week, except more subtly this time around, we see Phil's silliness driven by very normal insecurities (not the sort of la-la dreamland ones that Michael Scott is often plagued with in lesser episodes of The Office). His existing fears are only amplified by the fact that not only is he failing at his own job, but he's failing at doing Claire's job while she's sick.

As for the Pritchetts, we get to see Gloria being hilarious as usual (she really has become the scene-stealer in a show full of scene-stealers).

And as for the gays, it starts off as a usual parental disagreement: Cam wants to be a showbiz dad, and Mitchell absolutely does not. But Cam sneakily gets Lily into a commercial anyway, and while this could go into predictable Cam and Mitch fight and then make up territory, it takes a left turn into...RACISM YAY RACISM. As it turns out, Lily was only cast to be one of two Japanese twins fighting off a monster that can only be described as Foreclosure-Zilla (straight out of Arrested Development). So blah blah, Cam makes a big speech about the nature of stereotypes to the director of the commercial, and then, in a twist that's too funny to imagine, HE TAKES THE WRONG BABY. Because all Asians look alike.

Now I know I didn't write about last week's episode (which I really should have, it was too hilarious for words. Especially when Gloria talks in an "American Accent"), which was one of the show's comedic high points. But this episode showed how strong the cast is, that they can do a little bit of drama just as well as anything else.

Chirp chirp!

Election Night 2010

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Ok guys, the votes are tallied (mostly), the results are in, and things went pretty much as expected. Which is why I'm confused why the media is treating the whole event like some kind of SEA CHANGE. Yes, the Republicans overwhelmingly took the House, but they didn't take the Senate, which means that, substantively, they still don't have any real power (as John Boehner wimpily noted in his 'victory' speech).

The Tea Party didn't take any seats that weren't already conservative strongholds, thereby negating this whole 'populist outrage throws the government out' narrative that has been obsessing pundits for months. There is no 'seismic shift' as The Guardian so outrageously claims. Nor is it a 'historic shift,' as the New York Times proclaims loudly on p1. The fact of the matter is, Americans (and the founding fathers) fundamentally distrust government power, and when one party holds the House, the Senate, and the Presidency, the party in question always gets thrown out in the midterms.

That said, in an election season where coverage simultaneously was more shrill and more cynical than ever before, there are as many things to celebrate as there are to regret.

Perhaps Citizens United has not had quite as disastrous effect as opponents (myself included) predicted. Jerry Brown's victory over Meg Whitman in California has shown that you still cannot buy major elections outright. A Whitman victory would have been problematic for a number of reasons, but none more disturbing than showing that inept politicians don't have to explain their attitudes or policy, they just need to spend more money.

Tea Party meltdowns: What the crushing defeats of Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, and (probably) Joe Miller have illustrated is that despite the fever pitch hoopla, the Tea Party has not had any effect on the body politic, it has merely caused a thousand headaches to the Republican establishment. Where they did win was in districts/states that are already heavily conservative, so their far-right positions are reflective of the existing populace; they didn't turn them rightward.

I think I speak for people on both sides of the aisle who care about honesty and fairness in saying one of the major losses this year is Russ Feingold, the only Senator that I can say with any certainty is a man of integrity, and can be trusted to make decisions based on principle and not political expediency. In spite of this, he still managed to reach across the aisle and create one of the most significant pieces of legislation in recent history, the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reforms (many of the provisions have now been overturned in the Citizens United case, but the Reforms were remarkable accomplishments when they came into effect).

The other worrying development is the unceremonious dismissal of three Supreme Court justices in Iowa. All three judges had voted to overturn the ban on gay marriage (and ironically, two were appointed by the old Republican governor in Iowa). While gay marriage remains legal in Iowa, it's very disconcerting to see what happens when the job of justice can be affected by political fancies (and a boatload of spending by The National Organization for Marriage, a misnomer if I ever heard one).

All in all, I think this may be the shot in the arm that Obama needs to actually LEAD.

Best Doctor Who Episodes for Newbies


Doctor/Tardis = OTP

The internet is chock-a-block with top ten lists of Doctor Who episodes, ranging from "best monsters" to "best use of glasses-porn" to "best cases of the Doctor licking things". But I am a longstanding fan, and I've had a lot of friends, particularly in the US, comment that they've seen and loved Torchwood: Children of Earth, and want to get into the mothershow, but find it completely intimidating to sift through.

So this is my attempt to create a sort of handy guide to the best episodes from the new series for people who have never seen the show. There's a combination of episodes that are there for pure quality and episodes that best introduce the broader mythology of Doctor Who. And even if you never watch another episode of Doctor Who apart from these, you'll know what people are generally referring to, and you'll think the show is bloody brilliant (There are a number of absolutely terrible episodes that make even me embarrassed to watch the show. I am, however, keeping you clear from the really really naff stuff that producers still feel compelled to put in the new series.)

Fair warning: the "Place in the Mythology" subheadings will more than likely contain spoilers.

"The clock on the mantle is broken, it is time! Doctor, it is time!"

For fans of: The Time Traveler's Wife, steampunk, generally beautiful things
Best for: melding history and science fiction together seamlessly

The Story:
Louis XIV's court at Versailles is under attack from sinister alien robots. Louis' lover, Madame de Pompadour, contacts the only man who can help, the mysterious 'fireplace man' that saved her from the same robots when she was a child. The Doctor, who has crossed her fireplace into her boudoir multiple times, answers her call and leaves Rose and Mickey stranded in the 51st century. Who are the robots, and why are they so obsessed with Madame de Pompadour?

Why You Should Watch It:
Casting the impeccably good-looking David Tennant led to a lot of speculation that the Doctor would suddenly become a time-traveling Kirk. And yet, this is the first real romance we see on the show. Madame de Pompadour takes the term 'companion' to its logical conclusion (Aside: Joss Whedon did an interview long, long ago, about why he named the prostitutes on Firefly 'companions' - apparently he got irritated with the subservient, genderless and formless role of companions in classic Who, and wanted to subvert it).

There's no sex in Doctor Who that isn't deeply disguised (at least not until the current Moffatt era), but this episode is the closest we get to a true love affair, and not just with anyone, but with the favoured courtesan of Louis XIV.

Place in the Mythology:
This is a purely standalone episode, it has no link to anything that happens before or after. And yet, it tells us, and his companion at the time, so much about the Doctor, who he is, what he's fighting internally, and what really drives him. He will always save someone in need, even if that means leaving others even MORE at need. He is quick to fall in love, but falling is the furthest he can go.  When he gets caught up in the pure joy of some of his adventures, he forgets some of the human costs. Until he doesn't. And that's when you can almost see it in his eyes, a piece of his heart ripped out everytime. Which makes you wonder if eventually, he doesn't let it be ripped out anymore (and in the case of David Tennant's Doctor, this definitely happens at the end of his tenure).

"Everything has its time. And everything ends."

For fans of: J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, hard sci-fi
Best for: learning why the Doctor has moments where he seems to be suddenly shrouded in darkness.

The Story:
The Doctor takes Martha Jones to Earth's future as a reward for saving his life. When they get there, they find millions of people stuck, quite literally, in traffic gridlock. As the Doctor works to find out what's keeping humanity trapped in their vehicles underground, he meets a rogue's galleries of anthropomorphic cats and squabbling old lesbians. And once he finds out what's at the end of the tunnel, he'll never be the same.

Why You Should Watch It:
It's one of the only new Doctor Who episodes that has a pure sci-fi premise; most Who episodes are more in the "fantasy with future technology" realm. More importantly, we get to see the Doctor open up completely about his past, about his people, about everything he's lost in an honest, emotional way without disaster knocking on the door.

Place in the Mythology:
It has a villain from the old series that even I am not aware of (there are years of episodes that were burned by the BBC during a writers' strike, and are lost to posterity). We get an info-dump about the Doctor's home planet, which establishes the mythology of the new show. Most importantly, we find out what happens to Captain Jack Harkness, esteemed hero of Torchwood (though we won't find out exactly what until much, much later).

"The the stop everywhere..."

For fans of: Alien, complicated time travel stories
Best for: Seeing the Doctor evolve before your very eyes.

The Story:
The Doctor receives a message from someone claiming to be a friend, drawing him to what was once the biggest library in the universe. However, when he arrives, he finds that all the patrons had disappeared one hundred years ago, leaving an ominous message to 'count the shadows.' The Doctor is left to solve a number of mysteries: what happened to everyone, what exactly are the flesh-consuming shadows, and most importantly, who is River Song?

Why you should watch it:
It's brilliant, for a start. It's set in a library that has spoilers for everything that ever happens. It's genuinely terrifying in places, both emotionally and physically. It's clever and complicated in a way that longtime fans would not have expected from Doctor Who, and it has an ending that Neil Gaiman would be proud to have written (in fact he has said something to that effect). Nothing happens as predictably as you'd expect. Entire lifetimes come and go, without any magical potion.

It's one of the rare Doctor Who episodes that doesn't undermine the depth and darkness of its story with a cheap happy ending. In fact, even though you're rooting for the Doctor's plan every step of the way, there's a coda that makes you really question whether he saved the day at all.

To say anything more would spoil the experience. This is one of the few episodes that really had me guessing every step of the way.

Also, it has a terrific soundtrack.

Place in the Mythology:
Silence In The Library introduces firecracker archaeologist River Song, who has since become key to the mythology of the series. But owing to the non-linear nature of her story, how and why she's so important remains a mystery.

For the first and probably only time, we see the Doctor genuinely on the back foot, as he struggles with the idea of this woman who will one day be deeply connected to him, and knows more about him than he knows himself. It's particularly touching because we know that David Tennant's Doctor has too much baggage, so much heartbreak and angst, that he couldn't possibly be so at ease with another (human? Timelord? god knows), but you can see the glimmer of hope in his eyes (and the snap of his fingers) when River convinces him that one day that will change.

And I haven't even mentioned Donna's story. Oh god the heartbreak.

"The stuff of nightmares reduced to an exhibit...I'm getting old."

For fans of: Buffy/Angel (though more Angel)
Best for: introducing the Doctor's tortured past.

The Story:
In the far future, under the harsh Utah desert, billionaire Henry Van Statten maintains a collection of all the alien detritus that has every arrived on earth, including the last of the Dalek kind. As the Daleks destroyed all of the Doctor's people except himself, what will happen in this face-off between the last of the two ancient and mighty species?

Why You Should Watch It:
The Daleks are historically the Doctor's greatest enemy, a bunch of technologically superior neo-fascists. They are the villains that turned the show from a curiosity into must-watch television back in the 1960s, and were generally pretty scary (until all manner of silliness occurred, which the new series is bent on repeating).  There's an excellent moment in the original series where the Doctor has the opportunity to stop the Daleks from ever being created, and his failure to act led to countless deaths and extreme devastation later on.

So seeing the Doctor face off one-on-one with the last of the Dalek kind, just as he is the last of his kind, has a beautiful poignance. There is an even lovelier moment in the resolution of the episode which questions the whole nature of predetermination, of revenge, and of forgiveness.

It's important to see this because it is the only Christopher Eccleston episode that has stood the test of time, which is unfortunate because his version of the Doctor really is one of the best but the writers gave him the worst story-lines of the series. Ever. Farting aliens were involved in not one, but THREE episodes.

Place in the Mythology:
Let's face it, where the Daleks are concerned, there is no such thing as mythology, past events, total elimination, or any logical narrative sense. They became too popular so they were hideously overused by pretty much every Doctor Who producer ever. But Dalek aired before the writers managed to ruin the overgrown pepperpots completely (again!).
"The Angels have the phone's my favorite! I've got it on t-shirt."

For fans of: Greek Mythology
Best for: a beautiful tale of how people on the periphery are affected by the wars of the 'gods'

The Story:
When visiting an old house, Sally Sparrow finds a number of cryptic messages from a man called "The Doctor." Then, when her best friend disappears, she starts to take the the mysterious warnings more seriously. She follows a trail of breadcrumbs spread throughout time, but still doesn't know what to do, except for one piece of advice from the Doctor: 'Whatever you do, don't blink.'

Why You Should Watch It:
In this case it might be fair to confuse causation with correlation; the following year, Carey Mulligan had an Oscar nomination. The episode has the Doctor in it for a very brief time, which perhaps makes it an odd choice for the best intro episode. But Mulligan really sells it as winsome Sally Sparrow, drawn into time travel shenanigans purely by accident.

Again, the balance is pitch perfect between humor and horror, and there are actually moments where I jumped out of my skin. To this day, my grandmother can't look at a statue without a twinge of fear. The beauty of the whole thing is the nature of the threat - when you close your eyes, inanimate objects  move to steal your life.

The fact that the Doctor appears so little in the episode, and often only in slight clues or cryptic messages, means that the viewer gets to really understand his approach to and relationship with being a hero; more often than not, he's in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he'll fix the problem, and damn the collateral damage.

Place in the Mythology:
We meet the best modern villains on the show, the Weeping Angels. Part of the beauty of this episode, though, is it's standalone nature; we are privy to an episode of Sally Sparrow's life, not to the Doctor's, which makes a change. We get the start and the finish of her time with the Doctor, which has a closure that few other companions get. (There were numerous rumours that they were going to bring her back full time, but then the Academy rang.)

"He's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun...And he's wonderful"

For fans of: Neil Gaiman, especially the darker bits of Sandman.
Best for: Letting the companion shine, seeing what happens if the Doctor is not really the Doctor...

The Story:
In England just before WWI, a teacher named John Smith starts to have strange dreams of travel to far off lands and impossible places. Meanwhile, Martha holds the only key to getting the Doctor back, which becomes increasingly urgent when a menacing family arrives from the stars. Unfortunately, that key is stolen by one of the students...

Why You Should See It:
It is desperately stressful to know that there is a fearsome threat in the town and being able to see a man who looks just like the Doctor but has hidden that side of himself away so completely. We see John Smith live the life the Doctor never can: uncomplicated, simple, committed.  There's a great tension between this wonderful love story that we want to see work and our (and Martha's) desperate need to get the Doctor back.

Also, the ending is terrific. It goes to a dark place that the show never had before or since (though Neil Gaiman will hopefully correct that!). There's a Brothers Grimm fairy tale element, which leaves you wondering which part of the Doctor is actually subsumed when he shifts identities: the human or the omnipotent alien?

Place in the Mythology:
We are introduced to a magical plot device known as the "Chameleon Arch," which essentially rewrites every cell of a Timelord into a new species, even replacing real memories with false ones. The original Timelord "essence" is then stored in a key, which always seems to be an old-timey fob watch that the Timelord in questions recognizes, but never opens. The minute we learn about this, we know (though the Doctor doesn't figure it out quite yet), that there might be other Timelords scattered about the Universe, their identities subsumed into a new consciousness, which is how they've managed to survive when the rest of the species died. 

Moving on:
Right then, I hope some of you find this helpful! There are a number of other episodes that I considered for this list, but writing this post is already ruining my entire life, so I'll leave you here.

But, if you need some immediate recommendations to follow on, here they are:

Fires of Pompeii
Planet of the Ood


Dexter: Season So Far

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I don't know why I haven't blogged about Dexter at all this season, I've really been loving it. This is the first season where I've started to watch it week after week and then continued (in the past I've gotten bored with waiting and then left it until I can watch the whole season in a weekend).

When the season started, I wasn't really sure what impact Rita's death would qualitatively have on Dexter's life. For one thing, I was concerned that the writers would dehumanize Dexter, turn him into a less disciplined, cold blooded killer. While he certainly has become less disciplined, Dexter has lost some of his bloodlust, which is a nice twist.

The second great decision the writers made was to get rid of Astor and Cody. While the bond between Dexter and Cody was one of the most heartwarming aspects of the show in the past, I don't think anyone wants to see Dexter deal with teen angst (and Astor had just become a pain in the ass by that point). The kids can still come back when necessary, but as the season moves along, the new connections Dexter has made more than make up for the loss of his past connections.

Which brings us to the third great thing about the show: Lumen. Julia Stiles plays her just right, with her pain and desperation barely concealed behind every move she makes; she's too damaged to be as calculated as Dexter of old, but ultimately she is looking for the same thing. But post-Rita Dexter has become less calculated as well, so at the moment they are kind of at the same level in their quests for meaning through revenge. It's nice for Dexter not to have to deal with a big bad evil superkiller, instead trying to help a vigilante in search of justice - a woman who is essentially Dexter on a small scale. She's such a kindred spirit that Dexter can't 'compartmentalize' her; at the end of the day, all he feels for her is compassion, real compassion, which is not something we've seen in Dexter before (at least not on this scale). I don't think I'd have a problem with a romance between the two, but I do hold a hope that they become partners in crime for seasons to come. A romance would lead to all sorts of complication from others in Dexter's life -

Which brings us to what does not work in the show: EVERYTHING NOT RELATED TO DEXTER. Until the end of last night's episode, Angel and Battista had reached a level of stupidity where the only appropriate response is the fast forward button. Quinn's 'bring down Dexter' thing is getting really old, really fast. It was annoying with Doakes, but we always understood the root of Doakes' suspicion and hatred of Dexter. What's Quinn's motivation really: that Dexter wouldn't watch a basketball game with him a year ago? Blech. Which is doubly annoying cause otherwise I would really buy the romance between Deb and Quinn if he weren't such a waffling turd.

But I look forward to what happens in the Dexter v. Lumen storyline, mainly because I can't predict where it's going, apart from lots of torture and blood, naturally.

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