Thursday, June 18, 2015

Stories about terrible people doing terrible things

(Sorry for the lateness of this post--I have been busy and exhausted and there's only so much of The Wheel of Time that a man should be exposed to without protective gear and a powerful course of antibiotics.)

I've had a fair heap of free time this year, which means that, among other things, I watched the entirety of Breaking Bad a few months ago.  I was underwhelmed.  I'd heard that it was ultimately an indictment of the American healthcare system, but the show very quickly and immediately goes out of its way to give its protagonist other options (so he's not just forced into a life of crime to save his family) and frequently highlights that the real problem is that he's motivated entirely by pride and (intellectual white male) entitlement.  The show wasn't strictly badly written, but I never once had sympathy for Walter White, and I mostly watched to find out who would survive the shrapnel of his inevitable downfall.  It was a show about angry men doing violent things and daring anyone else to insult their power, grr, manly grr man guns I AM THE ONE WHO KNOCKS.

Breaking Bad was absurdly popular, in the same style as The Sopranos, in no small part because it was a power fantasy for men who never got to be terrifying manly villain-heroes in their own lives and feel like they somehow got short shrift.  Neal Stephenson spoke one of our world's great truths when he wrote:
Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.
Breaking Bad struck me as a show for people who were well past 25 and still had those fantasies, especially if they were science nerds.  Personally, I meet enough terrible people in my day-to-day existence and don't generally feel the need to hang around more of them.  Grim gritty stories about anti-heroes and murderer-protagonists really don't compel me.  And I have even less patience for 'he's a good guy, but he's flawed, so he's racist and misogynist and homophobic'--in these cases I really want people to reconsidered what their criteria for 'good guy' should be.

All of this brings me to a new show that my Science Mom introduced me to while visiting this week, called UnREAL, which you'll forgive me for just calling Unreal hereafter.  It's a story about people making a 'reality' television show in the style of The Bachelor, called 'Everlasting', with one dude and a dwindling phalanx of women trying to win his heart.  In order to ensure high viewership, of course, the producers are in charge of making something as close to an exploitation film as possible--manipulating and provoking the women into getting intoxicated, getting naked, getting into fights, and screaming heartfelt pleas and threats in front of the cameras.

Basically everyone is terrible.  Quinn, the executive producer, is really obviously terrible: on the first night of filming, the first contestant revealed on camera is a gorgeous black woman who approaches the dude while performing a violin solo, and Quinn's response behind the scenes is to demand who allowed a black woman to be first, insisting that 'the first one is always wife material--don't look at me like that; it's not my fault America is racist'.  Our Hero Rachel, a returning producer, is first introduced looking exhausted and wearing a grey "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" t-shirt, and seems like the most likely person to have a conscience, except that she also has a downright satanic gift for whispering exactly the right wrong words into someone's ear, and she does so again and again to keep her job.

Both of Unreal and Breaking Bad are shows about terrible people doing terrible things, but I found Breaking Bad pretentious and crude while I've found Unreal fascinating and legitimately entertaining.  Why the stark difference?

There are some obvious objective differences--the 'terrible things' on Breaking Bad tended to be 'selling drugs to recovering addicts' or 'literally murdering people', while the terrible things on Unreal are more personal and emotional betrayals.  One of these things is easier to get over than the other.  But the most important difference is that where Breaking Bad used its premise as a justification for us to just watch crimes happen, Unreal is dogged in continually dissecting and revealing as much as it can about the details of the vices at play.

Rachel's producer friend Jay (a gay black man) pulls aside the two black contestants early on to "be real" with them, stating that no black woman in the history of the show has ever gotten past the 'final four' and that there are certain archetypes they need to play into (the aggressive, loud, independent-but-jealous type) if they want to be popular enough to stay that long.  One of the women declares that all she cares about is getting some fame to boost the business she plans to start after the show, while the other calls him an Uncle Tom and refuses to pander to racist white audiences.  Far from being a throwaway 'racism exists' scene, their choices continue to be reflected in subsequent events, with an ultimate conclusion that no, you can't win at racism.  In another scene, Our Hero Rachel tries to incite a good shouting match during a ballroom dance lesson, only to have her intended puppet back off at the last minute and quietly declare "I just realised I was about to slut-shame a woman on national television, and I'm not about that." (I said before that everyone is terrible, but of course part of the point of the show is that the contestants mostly are not, and that is why they have to be manipulated into doing terrible things to make for 'better' TV.)

I'm only four episodes in to what will be a ten-episode season, so I have no idea if the show will remain good or crash and burn or what.  There are forms of representation it could improve on (our one confirmed gay character is a guy with no hint of partner, and the cast is as implied mostly white).  There's a distinct lack of supportive female friendships, but a distinct lack of friendships in general--most people are either rivals or allies of convenience, and no one is supposed to have anything as vulnerable as feelings.  But there are so many women.  It's a show filled with women, varied women, women with amazing skills and terrible flaws and complicated motivations.  (Needless to say it passes Bechdel several times per episode.)

The connection that I want to make here is ultimately that one of these shows is For Men and the other one is For Women (Breaking Bad was on AMC; Unreal is on Lifetime) and that means that when they created stories about terrible people, one was a story about a lone dude who decided he didn't have to play by the rules anymore, and the other is a story about a host of women who have been varyingly shaped to operate on the wrong sets of rules, and to one degree or another know that the system they live in is wrong but question the power they have to change it...

Well, now we're talking about something relateable.

(If you want to check Unreal out and you don't have Lifetime, I recommend you grab your pirate hat.  Putlocker has been serving me well for the first episodes.)


  1. If I want to see stories about rotten people doing rotten things, I've got a newspaper.

  2. I agree with the stuff about insufferable assholes antiheroes being tiring, uninteresting, and unentertaining. Personally, I'd say the worst very of the "bad character" bit is where the writer thinks "rotten person being rotten" somehow constitutes a joke.

  3. Aashyma Never WouldJune 19, 2015 at 3:35 PM

    Personally I found Gus the most sympathetic among the dealers in Breaking Bad. Wouldn't mind watching the show from his viewpoint.

  4. the thousand lakesJuly 4, 2015 at 1:28 AM

    I'm not sure that Breaking Bad or The Sopranos were written as power fantasies, although I'm certain that a very large part of their popularity is owed to certain kinds of fans latching onto those shows as such. I always had Walter White pegged as a straight-up villain protagonist rather than an anti-hero (only on purpose, not by accident as often happens). I never really figured you were meant to have much sympathy for him past the very early episodes. The show goes way out of its way to show how shit of a person he is and always was. IDK, I always figured the writers and Bryan Cranston knew what they were doing when they presented their bitter ball of hatred, gave him an arc designed to get a certain kind of dude to want to be like him, and then spent a looooooooong time slowly stripping away every one of his excuses until we get to see how petty and pathetic he is. From having grown up with an embittered and prideful pathological liar of a father, you don't get that particular mixture of selective charm and constantly shifting excuses across by accident. The personality, if not the supervillain level actions, were too true to life for me to believe the people in charge of making it genuinely believed Walter White was an aspirational figure. It had all the self-awareness that The Walking Dead lacks (to be fair, that would be any self-awareness at all, but the way the writers, directors, and even actors think and talk about Rick Grimes is starkly different from the way people involved with Breaking Bad talked about Walter White, despite fan reactions to the two characters being pretty similar).

    But then some people watched MAD MEN and thought Don Draper was the unambiguous hero of the whole story. Or thought Scarface was someone you should want to be. Or thought The Godfather ended on a happy note because he's in charge of the mafia now and who wouldn't want that, really? So I suppose I should never underestimate the straight Dude demographic's ability to miss the point.

    UnREAL sounds super cool, I'll have to check it out.

  5. "There are some obvious objective differences--the 'terrible things' on Breaking Bad tended to be 'selling drugs to recovering addicts' or 'literally murdering people', while the terrible things on Unreal are more personal and emotional betrayals. One of these things is easier to get over than the other."

    I would question this (though hesitantly and with trepidation). I've been through personal and emotional betrayals, and some would say ("some say") that I've committed a few myself. I live with and live through the effects of them every day. I don't believe that I've ever "gotten over" any of them in any real sense; I don't believe I was meant to "get over" them by the people who carried them out (and who intended their actions to be memorable); and if I were offered a Forgetfulness Pill I would be reluctant to take it, because I believe that the memories which tend to get characterized as "bad" can be instructive, and that one ignores the messages they convey at one's peril.

    The standard response to which is (of course) "What are you complaining about? You're still alive, aren't you? Quit whining." Very true. I am still alive. But the price has been high, in my own estimation, and there are times when I wonder whether it was worth it.

    "...the other is a story about a host of women who have been varyingly shaped to operate on the wrong sets of rules, and to one degree or another know that the system they live in is wrong but question the power they have to change it..."

    Yes, and how have they been shaped to act according to "the wrong sets of rules?" (The wrong sets of rules are the right sets of rules as long as it's more dangerous to break them than to follow them. As long as the violation of a bad rule is punished more severely than observing it is, the "wrong rule" is a right rule, because the would-be rule-breaker is made to pay so dearly for his or her defection.) If you were to ask the women in question, and if they were willing to tell the truth, I think you'd find that they were shaped to operate according to the wrong sets of rules largely through a process of personal and emotional betrayal, which proved to them that there would be no place and no sympathy and no toleration for them were they ever to move substantially out of line. Personal and emotional betrayal is one of the ways you get a woman to do what you want, especially if it's against her own interests. Personal and emotional betrayal is a tactic widely employed against women, so it's no surprise that many women are intimately familiar with it, and (also) it's no surprise that it's widely dismissed as inconsequential by our society at large.

    "What, you mean you're not over that yet? What in hell is wrong with you? I didn't mean it, or if I did mean it I didn't mean it the way you think I meant it, and even if I did mean it and even if I did mean it the way you think I meant it you probably deserved it, and even if you're right on all counts it's not cool of you to get yourself in so much of a knot over it. And what are you doing bring it up now, anyway? It's not like it did you any harm (heck, probably made you wake up and take notice) so quit moaning, you're fine."

    End of rant.