Media Mondays: You Actually CAN Say That On Television

If the English language were on Facebook, my relationship with the word “bitch” would best be described as “It’s complicated”. I’m okay with it when it’s thrown at me in a playful kind of way by people I know and trust. I’m definitely okay with it when it’s used in a reclaiming sense. I was a regular reader of Bitch Magazine in the past, and once I have the disposable cash to spend on magazine subscriptions, I definitely will be again. At the same time, it is a slur, and when it’s used in that sense, I’m not really a fan.

On the other hand, I also believe this: if you want to use a certain word, just fucking use it. Oh, yes, that use of the f-bomb was quite deliberate. I really think that everyone is entirely too anxious about the use of profanity on television, the FCC most of all, and while I certainly don’t think Bert and Ernie should be cussing like sailors, I also think we should really just relax and take a cue from British TV. If you want to say ass, or bitch, or fuck, then you should just say it. Maybe set up a system where those words are only used after the watershed, to borrow another concept from our friends across the pond, but for fuck’s sake, just say the words you want to say. Don’t get cute about it.

So when I hear titles like GCB (originally Good Christian Bitches, then Good Christian Belles, now an abbreviation that everyone’s just going to look up on the Internet anyway) or Don’t Trust the B- in Apt. 23, I can’t help rolling my eyes. Oh, to some degree, the words as used in the titles of these shows are definitely meant as slurs, and I can appreciate ABC‘s decision not to expose America’s sensitive eyes to such mind-scouring filth. (Okay, maybe I can’t appreciate that decision without a little bit of snark.) But we’re talking about a word that’s used frequently, including, yes, on network TV, and I think it’s frankly ridiculous that they can’t and won’t just say what they mean.

It doesn’t help that the shows themselves – especially GCB – are just as ridiculous.

All the devils are here. I say devils because I am apparently not allowed to say bitches on television.

And on that note, let’s take a closer look at these shows, starting with GCB. You know what that means: a barrage of catty puns. It’s no secret that ABC is desperate to replace Housewives, its Sunday night juggernaut of the last few years. Since Pan Am didn’t really pan out, they’ve turned to a show that’s much closer to the series they’re trying to emulate, a program all about sex, lies, family and women being completely horrible to each other in the middle of a small, tightly-knit community.

When I first heard of this series, I actually had high hopes. There were rumors of central gay content (and that storyline actually is one of the best parts – read: only good parts – of the show), and of course I’ve adored Kristin Chenoweth for ages and ages. The basic premise of the show – a woman who was the Queen Bee and chief bully in high school returning to her hometown to find the women she’d tormented ready and waiting to make her life a living hell – really intrigued me. I absolutely adored Mean Girls (to the point of quoting it at the drop of a hat, and using it as a major inspiration for a project I’m working on and not quite ready to discuss yet) and this sounded like it could very well be Mean Girls: The Series. Except, you know, in that fresh hell we call adulthood, and right smack dab in the middle of that hell we call Texas.

That hope has carried me through a lot of GCB, but it’s been a few weeks now, and it’s time to admit the hard, sad truth: I’m watching this series for the show I want it to be, not the show it is. The show as it stands is, frankly, not all that great. It’s not even amusing in a trainwreck sense. And that’s a real shame, because each and every actor on it is giving it their all, and there are a hell of a lot of individual things to like. Kristin Chenoweth can play a smiling, backstabbing HBIC (look it up on the Internet, kids) with the best of them, and she is just full of energy and seemingly effortless grace as always. Leslie Bibb does a great job as Amanda Vaughn, formerly the Queen Bee of her high school and now a widow and a single mother forced to return to her hometown in disgrace. The relationship between Cricket Caruth-Reilly (played by Miriam Shor) with her openly closeted husband Blake (played by Mark Deklin) is actually incredibly sweet and interesting – she knows he’s gay, and romantically involved with the man managing his ranch, and she’s okay with it. They’ve chosen to stay together because they do love each other, just not romantically, and because they make such amazing partners in business and in life. Of all the relationships on the show, theirs is perhaps the strongest, the most powerful, and the most free from judgment.

But you have to take the bad with the good, and there’s a lot of bad. It doesn’t really feel like any of the characters are evolving. Any time it looks like the status quo might change, like Amanda might actually find some forgiveness from the ladies she tormented in high school and might actually be accepted into the community once more, those hopes are dashed. And maybe I shouldn’t expect these characters to evolve. You know what, I went through a lot of shit in school (although I was homeschooled during my adolescence), including some physical and emotional abuse that actually does cause me a hell of a lot of pain when I think about it, even now. But I also recognize that that time of my life is over, and thank God for it. I don’t want to go back to that place. Not even for the purpose of gaining some petty vengeance against my tormentors. Honestly, I’d like to think that my tormentors grew up, got over themselves, and became better people as well. And if they didn’t – that’s not my problem. I don’t know if I can forgive. I tend to think forgiveness has to be asked for, and no one’s ever asked for mine. But I can move on with my life. The ladies of GCB clearly can’t.

I may keep watching through the end of the season, but it’s dropped off my must-see list, especially now that Mad Men is back and occupying the same time slot. Like I said: I wasn’t watching it for the show it is. I was watching it for the show I wanted it to be. And I don’t think it’s going to become that show.

The Dream Team?

Don’t Trust the B- in Apt. 23, on the other hand, shows every sign of becoming the show I want it to be, though it’s certainly not there yet. Unlike GCB, I didn’t really have high folks for this show. It sounded like it was going to be patently, gleefully ridiculous and probably misogynistic and horrible, and I was totally expecting it to be the next Work It. My interest was piqued when I realized that Krysten Ritter and Dreama Walker were the leads – they’ve both spent their careers playing a lot of solid supporting characters, and it was about time someone let them take point – but I honestly figured this show would be awful, and it would almost immediately flop, and they’d move on to better things.

To borrow from someone on Twitter whose name escapes me, though: even if the show isn’t surprisingly good (it really isn’t), it is at least surprisingly not horrible. Chloe, the Krysten Ritter character and titular bitch, is an awful person, yes – but she’s not irredeemably awful. There are hints of something deeper, something better, in her character. She seems to genuinely care about the people she calls friends, even if she has a decidedly funny way of showing it. She doesn’t seem to like it when other people mess with said friends. There are tantalizing hints of complexity to her character that might – if they’re followed up on – actually contribute to a decent series.

And Dreama Walker’s June isn’t the wide-eyed farm girl I was expecting, either. That should have been obvious from the moment she was introduced, fresh out of grad school and ready to take her place at a powerful financial company. She was, from the outset, clearly intelligent, and if perhaps she was a little innocent, that could easily be forgiven. Still, it was easy to underestimate her, as Chloe obviously did – but then, victimized by her roommate, June turned around and got even in a truly spectacular fashion. By the end of the episode, she’d clearly earned Chloe’s respect. And mine.

The most eye-rolling aspect of the show, even now, is James Van Der Beek pulling a Neil Patrick Harris and playing James Van Der Beek. It’s pretty gimmicky. But he’s actually kind of funny, and the Dawson’s Creek jokes do not get old. The show is pretty uneven, but it shows a lot of promise. The relationship between June and Chloe is already changing, and they’re already smart, strong, complicated characters. I’m willing to give the show a season to work the kinks out and find its voice. If it’s done well, it could turn into a genuinely amazing series about a complicated but genuine friendship between two very different women. If it’s done poorly, well…hopefully its death will be swift and painless.

But seriously, people: as complicated as my feelings toward the word bitch can be, can we all just agree to say what we mean? It doesn’t matter how good or bad your show is – when I have to use stupid abbreviations just to talk about it, I just feel silly. Get over yourselves, America. The world will not come to an end just because you said the word bitch. In fact, on show after show, you’re already using that word. It turns out you actually can say that on television. So just say it.

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Media Mondays: Once Upon A Time

As you may have noticed, I got a little sidetracked yesterday, and then I was distracted most of the day today, so this week’s Media Mondays post is extremely late. It’s also a bit of a cheat: Once Upon A Time‘s first season is already over halfway done, and most of the reviews are already in. But I’ve been spending most of this time trying to decide whether or not I like it, and why I feel that way, and those thoughts have only recently gelled.

So, short version: yes, I like Once Upon A Time. But not without reservations.

Let’s briefly recap the premise of the show: long ago and far away, the Evil Queen of Snow White fame unleashed a vicious curse upon the fairy tale world, creating new lives for all of the characters we know and love, good and bad alike, and casting them into our world, and more specifically the town of Storybrooke, Maine. The curse would not only change their lives and destinies, but warp their personal stories to prevent anyone but the Queen herself from finding their happy endings. Faced with this terrible curse, the people of the fairy tale world found one small glimmer of hope: the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, who would one day break the spell and set their world to rights. Using a magic wardrobe which could send one, and only one, person on to our world, whole and unscathed, Prince Charming and Snow White sent their infant daughter ahead, hoping against hope that she would find and save them. Years later, that daughter, now grown and going by the name Emma Swan, is confronted with her own son, who she gave up for adoption years ago. This young boy, Henry, has learned all about the fairy tale world and the curse that destroyed it, and he persuades Emma to come with him to Storybrooke, Maine. After some memorable encounters with various people in town – including the Evil Queen, who is now Storybrooke’s Mayor and Henry’s adopted mother – Emma decides to stay and try to bond with her son, despite the Mayor’s opposition and her own distinct skepticism regarding Henry’s beliefs. The story in each episode flashes between our world and the fairy tale realm, gradually revealing more about the show’s characters and their world before and after the curse.

Emma Swan, Hero of Storybrooke

Let’s start with what I like about the show. First and foremost: I love Emma Swan.

This woman is a complete and utter badass. She’s the only one on the show who seems at all willing to stand up directly to the Mayor/Evil Queen. This is not to say that she is without fear, or without emotion: her friendship with Mary Margaret (a.k.a. Snow White) is genuine, and her love and concern for her biological son, Henry, is obvious. Though she was initially reluctant to become involved in Henry’s life, their relationship has grown organically over time, and the thought of losing Henry now is clearly among her worst fears. But she does not let her fear rule her, or sway her from doing what’s right. Whenever Henry has been placed in danger, Emma has conquered her fear, marched right in and saved the day.

And she has never, not once, needed some man to come running to her rescue. Emma Swan is not a damsel in distress. She’s a knight in stylish leather armor. A Big Damn Hero. Not that she’d ever call herself that – from her perspective, she defends the helpless, upholds the law and chases down criminals simply because it’s the right thing to do. Though circumstances have sometimes prompted her to compromise her principles, she always questions herself, always accepts the consequences of her actions, always shows genuine remorse in the face of her mistakes. She isn’t perfect. She’s certainly made more than her share of mistakes. But she accepts those mistakes, learns from them, and moves on. If you ask me, that’s true strength – true character. For all her faults, Emma Swan is an amazing role model, and possibly one of the strongest, most genuine characters on television today.

I. Want. That. Hat.

I also have to give serious props to Regina, the Evil Queen of the fairy tale world and the Mayor of Storybrooke. She’s wonderfully manipulative and deliciously malevolent. Her costumes (particularly in the fairy tale world) are ridiculously awesome, and her plots are intelligent, ruthless, and horribly effective. As Henry’s mother and the town’s Mayor, she makes an excellent foil to Emma; in the fairy tale world, she is omnipresent, weaving in and out of one tale after the next, spreading her dark influence.

Despite her villainy, she is not without a certain human element. Her deep love for her aged father is obvious in the pilot, and while it’s not entirely clear what she has planned for her adopted son Henry (named, notably, after her late father), she does seem to feel some genuine affection for him, and sometimes seems genuinely frustrated and baffled by his open hostility toward her. Her animosity toward Emma Swan seems to have as much to do with Emma’s role as a rival for Henry’s love as any actual threat Emma poses.

Leaving the main characters aside, I love the way the show toys with and reinvents the Disney canon. Their close association with ABC allows them to play freely with Disney’s interpretations of classic fairy tales; thus, their retelling of Beauty and the Beast features Belle and Gaston, Jiminy Cricket is a recurring character, and Maleficent is one of the Evil Queen’s buddies. And yet none of these characters are quite like their counterparts in the animated canon. Even in areas ruled by ostensibly ‘good’ kings and queens, the fairy tale world is not an idyllic paradise. People are routinely pressed into wartime service, or forced into loveless marriages, or faced with all kinds of destitution and suffering. Prejudice, violence and oppression are not the sole province of the villains. Power corrupts in the fairy tale world, just as it corrupts in real life, and while the reign of Snow White and Prince Charming seems peaceful and relatively equitable, they are an island in a sea of chaos. As our understanding of the fairy tale world grows, we are forced to question, again and again, if it’s actually any better than the reality of Storybrooke.

Then, too, there’s this: for good or ill, the women of the fairy tale world seize their own destinies. Cinderella doesn’t simply accept the help of a fairy godmother who miraculously appears out of nowhere – when her tale goes wrong, she makes a deal with the devil to win her happy ending, and has to face the consequences of those actions down the road. Snow White doesn’t simply flee into the wilderness and stumble upon a band of merry dwarves; she spends years surviving in the wild as a thief before she even meets the dwarves, let alone Prince Charming. Belle chooses to go with the ‘Beast’ of her piece to save her father’s realm from annihilation, and rejects the possessive, controlling overtures of her betrothed, Gaston. Red Riding Hood has appeared in a few tales now, offering a few glimpses of her role as a kind of courier or scout and a friend of Snow White’s; her real-world counterpart, Ruby, is similarly omnipresent, tying a number of the characters together. We’ve been promised a Ruby/Red story in an upcoming episode, and I can’t wait to see exactly what her tale might be.

So what’s not to like about the show? Well, the storylines are still somewhat contrived, and some of the writing can be awkward. The show has steadily improved, to be sure, and I’m more than willing to give it a chance to find its footing – lots of series have awkward first seasons. With such luminaries as Jane Espenson on the writing staff, I have high hopes for Once Upon A Time‘s continued evolution. Even so, some stories are still distinctly lackluster. This past Sunday’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast was particularly disappointing; though I enjoyed some aspects of the tale, I was left wondering exactly what Belle saw in her love interest and exactly what kind of message the show was trying to send. The Beast flirted with Belle, to be sure, and was not always horribly unkind to her, but he also threw her into his dungeon upon a whim, and generally treated her too poorly to be worthy of her affection.

And as much as I love the way the female characters of the fairy tale world are portrayed, I find their counterparts in Storybrooke similarly aggravating. Snow White is a badass. Her real-world counterpart, Mary Margaret, is horribly passive, rarely showing Snow White’s backbone in any respect, and hewing closer to the animated Disney princess than her own true self – for heaven’s sake, the pilot even had her releasing a bluebird out a window! I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with kind, gentle female characters, but I’d like to see Mary Margaret stand up for herself more and show a little more inner fire. Ashley, the counterpart to Cinderella, was very much a damsel in distress when we met her, and her legitimate problems with her boyfriend are all forgotten when he surprises her with a proposal. Belle’s real-world counterpart isn’t even really present in her showcase episode. And Ruby’s omnipresence in the town – at the diner, at the bed & breakfast, as Ashley and Mary Margaret’s friend – is virtually her only defining characteristic, aside from her distinctly racy attire and her contentious relationship with her grandmother (whom we haven’t even seen outside the pilot). While I accept that the Evil Queen’s curse distorted their histories and their destinies, I’m not sure I love the way it’s seemingly changed their personalities and left Emma and Regina as the strongest, most active, most interesting female characters on the show.

Still, all in all, I’m still watching, and I expect I’ll finish out the season. While I had slightly higher hopes for Grimm (which has completely failed to hold my interest, to be honest), and I still wish ABC had gone ahead with the proposed adaptation of Fables, Once Upon A Time has turned out to be far more compelling than I expected, and I’m eager to see where it goes. The show has a great premise, fantastic characters, and a hell of a lot of potential, and I truly hope it lives up to its promise.