LUKE: Where are we going?
LORELAI: To Funkytown.
LUKE: Hey, wait!
LORELAI: What? Did you change your mind? Oh, how did I screw it up so fast — was the “Funkytown” thing too quippy? ’cause I thought you liked that about me, but….
Without any particular search, I’ve managed to acquire, in the space of a month, the 6th season of Gilmore Girls, the 3rd season of Desperate Housewives, and the Dixie Chicks’ defiant semi-comeback album Taking the Long Way. Sometimes things just run in strings like that. Gilmore Girls and the Dixie Chicks were in our cabinet of care-package orphans — affectionately known as the “Wal-Mart” — while at the PX it was a choice between Housewives and Ugly Betty. And since, right now, I’m living a life devoid of even the most marginal privacy, let alone domesticity, I don’t mind at all. Bring on the housewives. Bring on quaint New England towns. Bring on the, uh, unpatriotic but still pretty hot Texans. I am ready — eager, even.
I haven’t seen Gilmore Girls since its first season, many years ago, back when I used to watch TV with my much-younger sister. She and I went cheerfully through Xena and Buffy and reruns of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse together, though we squabbled over less hip and witty shows like 7th Heaven and Roswell. Gilmore I watched quite willingly, though I suspect that, as was the case with Xena, our motives were somewhat different. Gilmore Girls, as I noted in my blog at the time, was the first show I ever watched where I was more interested in the mom than the daughter.
Six seasons later, that remains the case, and Lauren Graham — or, to give Graham some credit, her character — is still the initial draw for me. Obviously it’s not marketing rocket science to have a hot mom and bubbly cute daughter as your main characters, even on a show marketed to girls, but sooner or later, it’s got to offer more. Which it does, of course. Family Guy famously mocked the rapid-fire, pop-culture-reference-laden dialogue — and called out the dirty old leches in the audience — but I mostly find it invigorating, and once you get past the oddness of it it turns out to be, not a gimmick, but a genuine mode of interaction between the characters. The wit conceals, as wit often does, brittleness and insecurity, and in the hands of this family it’s a poisoned blade in disputes. It’s an interesting, ongoing thread in the show — really, its main source of tension and conflict — that Lorelai can see clearly what her parents did to her, can avoid doing the same thing to Rory, but can’t resist rising to the fight whenever she’s back in their orbit. This is nothing new, of course, but Gilmore Girls gives it a nice twist, because while Lorelai and her parents are first-class snipers, a page out of My Man Godfrey, Lorelai and Rory use the same kind of hyperverbosity to express love. Their gentle, playful relationship is a deliberate inversion of her relationship with her parents.
That’s not to say the zingers can’t be taken too far. In particular, it’s hard to believe that a 20-year-old girl, educated as she is, has a Bob&Carol&Ted&Alice reference at her fingertips, or that a French immigrant has Breaking Away or Benson at the top of his mind. And while Valerie Plame jokes play well enough now, will the show become impenetrable at five or ten years’ distance?
But the main problem the show has is that it is constantly in danger of being about nothing at all. Difficulties in the girls’ lives often seem extraordinarily manufactured — manufactured in an unbelievably charming way, but still…. The season is divided in two halves — the first half deals with a split between Lorelai and Rory, while the second half deals with their trouble with men. It’s hard for me to gauge the severity of the split, since it seems to have happened at the end of season 5, but it involves Rory moving out of the house and in with her grandparents, and quitting Yale to boot. Lorelai and Luke have to postpone setting a wedding date until the whole fracas is settled, so you know it’s a big deal. So it’s a little disappointing when, halfway through the season, Rory simply realizes, not quite out of the blue but certainly out of the indigo or the teal, that she’s been doing the wrong thing, and the whole fight just dissolves in a sweet, tearful cell phone call that ends with Rory pulling up to the house and rushing into her mother’s arms and well, it’s just a little sudden. There’s no tentative step toward reconciliation — the conflict just turns to dust like a Buffy vampire running into the wrong end of a stake.
The sudden decompression of the tension throws one out of whack — it’s hard not to feel the whole thing has been a distraction, a drama for the sake of drama. And many of the background stories and single-episode problems seem similarly manufactured. Rory’s experienced class prejudice? Paris is a tyrant as the editor of the school paper? These are not exactly surprises, and they don’t feel particularly strong as sources of conflict. On the other hand, the issues raised in the show are often so superficial that when occasional real problems show up — such as the sleazy behavior of Logan Huntsberger (rich, spoiled boyfriend of Rory, who shares a name with the rich, spoiled boyfriend of Veronica Mars — mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Logans) and Rory’s disturbing willingness to let him get away with it — we feel inadequately prepared to handle it. And it seems like the show is, too.
I remember feeling similarly about Bonnie Hunt’s Return to Me — the whole plot device of Minnie Driver’s character being embarrassed and tentative after her surgery is ridiculous and feels like a stalling tactic — but it does give the characters room to be charming and sweet, and though the movie is made of absolutely nothing and dissolves like spun sugar on the tongue, it’s loving and gentle and that’s enough.
Gilmore Girls has more weight than that, of course — you can’t spin a seven-year TV series out of air and sucrose — but whatever significance the show has comes from its well-wrought family relationships, and not from the plot problems the writers throw up in order to justify keeping us on the hook for 22 episodes at a time.
Desperate Housewives is excellently plotted. It dispatches its problems and creates new ones with cheerful, ruthless efficiency. Like Bree VanDeKamp in full social aggression mode, it can serve up muffins of intrigue, keep its plot mechanics spotlessly clean, and refresh your drink, all with a smile. It’s that good, unlike this metaphor.
But Bree is the heart of the show. Marc Cherry has mentioned in commentaries that Bree is based on his own mother, which explains why she’s a throwback to stereotypes of another age, but it’s also her family that in each season gives the show its distinct Gothic flavor. It’s the members of her family who have the kinkiest secrets, who run people down with cars and see prostitutes and are prostitutes, and it’s also the VanDeKamps who know how to cover these things up and present a flawless public appearance. It’s Bree who unwittingly dates her husband’s murderer — though, to be fair, it’s also Bree who stands by while Rex is dying of a heart attack.
Gabrielle and Carlos are shallow and selfish and Susan is a ditz, and they’re all primarily comic relief. Lynette and Tom represent normality and a healthy marriage. But it’s the creepy, bodies-in-the-begonias, Faulkneresque intrigue that makes us want comedy or normality in the first place, and none of the other, more humane stories would work without that twisting thread of bitter strangeness.
Unfortunately, by the third season, all this compulsive plot neatness makes things a little predictable. Of course there’s someone new on the block (in this case Bree’s new husband Orson), and of course he’s got a mysterious and possibly skulduggerous past, and of course he’s not as bad as he seems, though the ghosts skulking around in his closet really are dangerous. So until Orson, the Mike Delfino of season 3, proves himself, I’m stuck only halfway interested. It’s okay — I have internet — but still. Even Cherry seems to tire of the formula, and not only does the mystery end early, but Bree’s whole family disappears for more than a month’s worth of episodes.
Nonetheless, it’s always a pleasure to watch Kyle McLachlan exuding the perfect weirdness of being completely ordinary, and I admit the Scavos are a little home-life fantasy for me. And surprisingly the third season gives Ricardo Chavira and Nicolette Sheridan, whose roles were previously limited to light comedy, a chance to do something a little more interesting; Chavira is particularly charming as a more mature, chastened Carlos Solis.
And effortless, witty plotting is not to be taken lightly. Nor is the ability to write convincing family interactions . A few weeks after getting Desperate Housewives, I decided to take a chance on Brothers & Sisters, a large-family drama I had never heard of. (I work a season behind, here.) I bought it largely because Rob Lowe, Ron Rifkin, Sally Field, and the amazing Rachel Griffiths were on the cover. Since hearing his audiobook of Stephen King’s “Dolan’s Cadillac” I’m pretty sure I’d watch Rob Lowe reciting the tax code, and I’ve always thought that Alias wouldn’t have been a quarter as interesting without Rifkin’s icy, zealous Arvin Sloane.
I feel strangely rewarded and betrayed by my trust in these actors. They mostly do good work, so I can’t really complain. Rifkin, in particular, gets to do a variation on his Sloane act by being crafty and impenetrable for the sake of good, which is nice. On the other hand, this show is awful.
I wrote a month ago that TV needed more great, risk-taking experiments. Inevitably that would involve some colossal, catastrophic failures. I’d be fascinated to see them, even if I hated them. The Titté Bros. sketches on The Upright Citizens’ Brigade were agonizing, but worth it, because so many other sketches on the show were brilliant and unsettling.
But watching Brothers & Sisters is like hitting yourself in the face with a brick, and not because it’s ambitious and fails monumentally. It’s so unbelievably bad because it’s full of lies, and because it tries nothing new. It lies about its characters because its writers clearly don’t really know the people in this family, and I submit that they don’t know the characters because they were afraid to create characters from scratch. Instead what we have are grab-bags of personality quirks we’ve seen before — the gay guy who’s super-competent but can’t get it together with relationships, the dizzy blonde who’s actually a very bright conservative political analyst, the seemingly perfect father and husband who’s got another family on the side — I’m not giving away any surprises here, because there are no surprises.
And Sally Field… oh, Sally! How can you give it away like that to any movie or show that comes calling? The problem with Sally Field is not that she can’t sell what she’s doing — the problem is that you get the feeling she could sell you on Nazism, as long as there were a script about a plucky, good-hearted Nazi mom. She’s so good at wringing the emotions out of us that I think she owes it to us to make sure that she does it for a worthwhile cause. (And she stands here for all the amazing actors who are contributing to this fraud of a program.)
The show suffers from a crushing vagueness that makes it impossible to invest in. It gets little details wrong, like saying that someone who’s been called up from the Individual Ready Reserve has been “stop-lossed.” (The “stop-loss” program applies to soldiers who haven’t yet left the Army.) But it also get big things wrong: conservative politics, supposedly a cornerstone of Kitty’s character and her relationship with her father, are absolutely not understood here. For a brief moment, Rob Lowe brings some of his West Wing magic to the faux political banter; he really knows how to polish phrases like “communications staff” and “federal research dollars” until they shine. But despite Jon Robin Baitz having actually written a West Wingscript, the politics are superficial, and the light soon fades. If she is a conservative, Kitty is a weak-kneed one. I’m fairly liberal, but there’s really nothing fun about watching anyone fumble around, unable to state the rational bases of their own beliefs — unless, I suppose, you’re one of those liberals who believes that people on other parts of the political spectrum are by definition irrational. But, again, the writers don’t seem to really know Kitty, and they seem to forget her politics until it’s time for a punchline or for her to do her job, at which point they put a patch over the hole and drive on.
The show also has a hard time dealing with children. It is probably more difficult to write children than any other kind of character — it’s not easy to get right the mixture of clarity and ignorance, and it’s very, very difficult to write lines for them without putting Shirley Temple in their mouths. In this respect, Desperate Housewives far outshines Brothers & Sisters — the Scavo children have occasional bouts of treacle, but most of the time, thank God, they’re impulsive and inarticulate and full of id, and they rarely ask fully formed religious questions with no prior guidance. Yet in the Christmas episode of B&S, little Paige, who has diabetes, not only figures out independently that her family is Jewish, but also that if she were more Jewish, God might cure her diabetes. And she does it all in a series of questions that are calculated to make the adults around her fall on their knees, comfort her and explain the mysteries of the universe to her.
There are ways to do this, writing about kids. Kids do ask the hard questions. I was in a grocery store with my sister and her son when he was about 6 or 7. We swung into the candy aisle and she told him to pick out something to take into the movie theater. “But we’re not supposed to take candy into the theater,” he said. We assured him it was perfectly all right. “But then why do we have to sneak it in?” We looked at him, then looked at each other. We didn’t get any candy.
But this show is just as full of cheese about religion and faith as it is about family and politics, so it’s no surprise that Paige’s Jewish uncle turns Chanukkah into a self-empowerment ritual, or that no one ever really helps the child grapple with the fact that God’s not going to rid her of diabetes. Makes you almost miss the misanthropic nastiness of House, M.D.
Grudgingly, I admit that the show gets better as it goes on. The first episode is pretty much disastrous, but by mid-season the average episode is tolerably mediocre. The actors are increasingly relaxed and on their game, and the scripts give them more comic moments and fewer reasons to make grandiose speeches full of exposition of family history. The dialogue, in the moments when the writers forget about larger themes, gets sharper, and the directors keep it moving along at a decent clip. It’s still only half the show it wants to be, and what it wants to be isn’t that ambitious to begin with. But all right. Fine. I give up.