Sunday, December 11, 2011

A feminist Review: Three TV Shows

Apparently my immune system is not quite up to the challenge of Korean germs; I’ve been in South Korea for three and a half months and I’ve been sick three times. Unfortunate and time consuming? I think so. Ergo, I have spent a fair amount of time lying in bed, coughing and sniffling, looking for something to do and I of course found that the Internet is just a candy land of free TV. So, despite being in rather exotic locale, I’ve watched a decent amount of TV, hence today’s lovely and informed blog post.

Be excited.

Northern Exposure

This is perhaps an odd choice for a review in 2011 (almost 2012) however, even though this show ran from 1990-1995, it’s still a great TV show in my opinion and it seemed like maybe it was time to rediscover it and share it with you all.

The show is sort of an academic, fairytale for adults; sounds like an odd mix I know, but it’s one that works well thanks to clever writing, great characters and gorgeous scenery.

The show takes place in the small town of Cicely, Alaska (the name Cicely being a tribute to the lovely woman who journeyed there in the early twentieth century with her lesbian lover, Roslyn, where they sought to remake the frontier town into a cultural mecca fashioned after a Paris salon—Franz Kafka even makes a brief appearance). Perhaps because of it’s unique roots, the town features a cast of unconventional characters and themes which we discover through the eyes of Joel Fleishmann, a brilliant young Jewish doctor from New York who must repay the scholarship that Alaska gave him by serving as Cicely’s town doctor for four years.

Granted, Joel hates the town, seeing the petty injuries and colds that he treats as beneath the metropolitan education New York and Columbia medical school offered him. However, the beautiful female pilot, Maggie O’Connell becomes his character foil, as she is his opposite in taste, temperament and belief. Joel is a neurotic doctor from New York who isn’t exactly outdoorsy (almost Woody Allen-esque), while Maggie is the independent offspring of a wealthy couple, yet she strikes out on her in the Alaskan wilderness, becoming Joel’s landlord and often taking care of him.

As a feminist, while I didn’t always love her character, I did often enjoy it and I think she’s an interesting portrayal of a woman, certainly not perfect as a character, but neither is she wholly stereotyped.

Northern Exposure’s surreal episodes are often couched within the framework of an unexpected philosophy, which is usually delivered by Chris, the young radio DJ who shares poetry from Edgar Allen Poe, theory from Nietzsche and the wisdom of Buddha (all of this information was of course obtained during Chris’s years at a juvenile detention center).

The few characters mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg as more emerge from Cicely’s history, and in the case of the misanthropic, no shoes-wearing, five –star chef Adam and his hypochondriac wife Eve, the surrounding forests (literally).

In the scene I've provided you can see Chris (who is also an artist) waxing customarily eloquent as he shares some of his artwork with the town.

Pan Am

Now this show is one that is actually billed as a feminist show, or at least a show with feminist-based content. I have to say though, that while I think the show does have many redeemable qualities, most of the feminism here feels a little fluffy, a little mainstream.

Obviously the show follows the exploits of a specific Pan Am team, the four stewardesses and main cockpit crew (who are of course, all young and beautiful). It’s also set in the 1960’s, a tribute to the madness that has stemmed from the ever brilliant, Mad Men.

The show focuses mainly on their various romantic adventures, although it does manage to hit on some of the major political concerns of the day: the Berlin wall, JFK, racism and communism.

There is one aspect of the show that I do enjoy though, that it depicts the beginnings of a new lifestyle, of a new type of woman that began to emerge (or re-emerge according to The Feminine Mystique) during this period. All of the women are well educated, speak several languages (which was a requirement to be a Pan Am stewardess originally) and had a burning desire for independence, to move outside of what would have been expected for them.

The opportunity to travel, have your own apartment and live as an adult prior to marriage is a great facet of the show as we see them coming of age.

The show does have its moments though, in one episode, a leering passenger gets handsy with Christina Ricci’s character, actually becoming forceful, and so, in response to his unwanted and violent advances, she pokes him with a large fork. Obviously he threatens to report her and have her fired however, the co-pilot, who discovers what has happened when the passenger complains to him, apologizes to the passenger and promises to ensure that she will be punished. Excited that he seems to have saved her job, he rushes to her and tells her to bring the man a drink as an apology. He’s astounded by her disgust, believing that she should be grateful to him for having saved her job. She refuses to bring the man a drink and tells the co-pilot that all he has done is enabled that man to try the same thing again with a different girl.

I love the point his makes about sexual harassment; just because we can laugh it off doesn’t always mean we should, especially if it allows someone to act that same way towards someone else.

True Blood

I know what you’re thinking, isn’t that the show about vampires on HBO? I’m ashamed, ok. Really ashamed. I don’t watch the Twilight movies and I’m not obsessed with vampires, alright? I was sick for the third time, bored, and a friend had recommended the show and so I watched it….and got hooked.

Stop judging me, alright? You have a guilty pleasure TV show too. Just finish reading the review, ok?

Incidentally, I’m going to stop this review right now and say that this show is definitely for mature audiences only. Pan Am and Northern Exposure can probably only be enjoyed by adults, given their themes and content, but besides some kissing scenes, both shows are pretty appropriate for teens and kids. However, True Blood is intense; the show has violence, nudity, drugs, and a lot of swearing. Don’t watch this show if you’re uncomfortable watching an R rated film, (basically, if you didn’t feel comfortable watching The Departed, you won’t like this show either).

Within the show we find a unique microcosm of small-town Louisiana life where Sookie Stackhouse is a telepathic waitress, living with her grandmother in a world where vampires have “come out of the coffin” so to speak and are now a fact of life (they’re also actively campaigning for civil rights). Personally, I find the storyline involving Sookie and her romantic vampire Bill to be a little cliché, (ok really cliche) but I think that the host of other characters that swim through this town to be a redemptive nature. For instance, Sookie’s best friend Tara has a (for me, relatable) personality of intelligence, anger, and intensity as she sarcastically bullies her way through life; for example, she introduces herself to someone in the first episode saying, “Yeah, isn’t that funny, naming a black girl after a plantation” and then when the man smiles amusingly back at her she snaps, “No, it isn’t cause it means my mother was either stupid or mean.” End of discussion.

The tender and victimized side of Tara emerges though as we see her also taking care of her alcoholic and devoutly religious mother, a role played by Adina Porter, quite possibly the best actress in the show: in many scenes she juxtaposes these two facets of her self with incredible ability. One scene in particular stands out as Tara reaches to grab the alcohol from her mother, causing her to spill it; the woman, heartbreakingly begins to cry and reaches down to suck the last drops that fell on her sweater.

Similarly, Tara’s cousin Lafayette, a drag-queen, cook, road-crew worker, and occasional bad boy who’s masculine (and muscular) portrayal of homosexuality I find provocative. I appreciated the fact that he became a true character, not just a sexual orientation to provide interest for the show. Even Todd Lowe, Zach from Gilmore Girls, plays a surprising role as a gentle soldier suffering from PTSD.

Place all this against a deep southern accent and the hanging moss of Louisiana and you get a show that is easily evocative of an Anne Rice novel. The show also spouts some entertaining writing as the last few episodes of season two had me laughing at loud at the straight-faced sarcasm and blithe mocking commentary of American politics.

If that sort of humor isn’t your cup of tea, perhaps the ridiculous, but completely serious image of the queen vampire forcing Bill (a rather serious and brooding vampire) to play Yahtzee with her and her consorts might be more enticing (and for me thought-provoking, if you could live forever in wealth, even if you were a blood-sucking supernatural being, how would you spend your time)?

The opening sequence as well is one of the best I’ve ever seen as it mirrors the themes of the show: life, death, and the dichotomy between sex and religion (I think the opening sequence has actually won awards, that’s how good it is). I would recommend you google it if you're interested in seeing it, however just as the show is certainly not for kids, neither is the opening sequence as it does parallel the show with some disturbing images and brief flashes of nudity.

While this show might not exactly be a feminist show and does have a tendency to get a little campy and over dramatic, I think it is an interesting show for those concerned with social issues as it does deal with sexism, racism, homophobia, religion, and uh….well, the supernatural.


  1. Confession: my tv guilty pleasure is Vampire Diaries. It's actually really interesting to compare how similar dilemmas play out in this vampire story versus that other famous one. Not that I actively compare it, because that would get old really fast. (I'm still not referring to it by name - it's amazing how few discussions you get sucked into, if you just don't name it).

  2. Also, Racialicious and Womanist Musings both tend to post discussions of True Blood. You may find it interesting to look up some of their posts.