NVTV Special Edition: A to Z "M is for Misogyny" (also, some Bad Judge stuff)

"H is for Hostile Takeover" is the most interesting episode of A to Z so far, but not for a good reason. Early on in the episode, the narrator explains, in detail, the Bechdel Test. For those of you wise enough to skip the episode, the Bechdel Test has been around a while as a media evaluation tool, and it basically boils down to this: do two female characters, who have names, ever have a conversation that does not either include or revolve around men? While it's of course possible to make good work that doesn't pass the test- and pretty easy to do in romantic stories, where the men may similarly only discuss women- in general, it's worth aspiring to. While the concept may be a source of mockery for show runner and head-writer Ben Queen, women do occasionally talk about more than us good 'ol dick-havers. 

Over the course of the episode, the two primary female characters Zelda (Cristin Miloti) and Steph (Lenora Crichlowe) speak to each other only twice. The first time, they discuss whether or not Zelda is too controlling of her boyfriend, Andrew (she is, but Andrew's a cardboard cutout at this point so who gives a shit?). The second- the episode's tag during the credits- has the two of them discussing whether or not two women discussing the Bechdel Test counts as passing the Bechdel Test. They decide that it does, then rapidly change the subject back to men. It's an attempt at a joke, and in a better show that treats its female characters with any measure of respect, it might even be a good one. This is not that show. 

Pointing out that your show explicitly doesn't pass the Bechdel Test as some kind of fuck you to mouthy critics like me- I've been bemoaning the show's treatment of women in almost every episode for months now, and Ben Queen  knows it, having replied sarcastically to one of my tweets on the subject- doesn't help anybody. It's just petulant, and it's making light of something that isn't funny, and isn't even funny in a "ha ha" way. Making light of the idea of that women deserve to exist in film and television as anything more than the objects of male desire isn't edgy or daring; it's outdated and misogynistic.

Look, maybe I'm overreacting. It's one joke, and at least the writers are talking about equality, right? Wrong. Think back over the previous seven episode of A to Z. Can you think of a single moment between two women that didn't revolve around men? I can't. I can think of a bunch of moments between various male characters that do, though. This episode alone has Andrew in two separate conversations with two separate men that are about whether or not anyone would ever say "Who am I?" aloud. He and Stu have talked many times about their childhood, or their work, or any number of other topics. Zelda has never had a conversation in the show that wasn't either with or about Andrew, unless she was talking to Stephie about Steph's man-trouble. Now, I know there are some women (and men) out there who are totally incapable of talking about anything but their significant other, but I hate those people and so should you. 

A to Z doesn't hate those people. It hates women. Over the first eight episodes, Stephie's primary characteristic is that she's boy crazy to the point of letting them control her behavior. This trait is played for laughs. This episode's main plot is about the idea that Andrew allows others to control his behavior, and how that's a big problem. While the show ultimately decides that it's ok that Andrew is littler more than a cipher (unlike the audience, who ignored the dull main character from the jump and sentenced the show to a much-deserved cancellation almost immediately), but that's not the point. The point is that the exact same problem is funny when it happens to woman, and a huge deal when it happens to men. 

This isn't the only idealogical problem in the show, of course. Zelda invariably rewards and encourages Andrew's stalking of her, the otherwise powerful Lydia is routinely to be deeply insecure, the very funny and underused Hong Chau never appears in a scene without her make compatriot Danesh… but Danesh gets several scenes, and even his own plot line, completely separate from Chau. And Zelda? Zelda the high powered lawyer is shown again and again to be a creature totally without conviction, desperate for male guidance and support.

It gets darker for Zelda.One episode's plot revolves around her loving Andrew because he crashes a relative's funeral. As mentioned, she rewards stalking. She enables Stephie's behavior to the point of risking her job (taking a case solely to get her friend laid and violating a bunch of COI polices and laws in the process), ensuring that Stephie will never outgrow the need for Zelda's consoling when her superficial relationships invariably combust. She also more or less orders Stephie to make peace with a guy who tricked her into bed by lying about literally everything about himself; whether or not that's technically rape is an open-question, but it's certainly something that a real human wouldn't ask a close friend to just "get over."  

Zelda is motivated entirely by attention, and feeds on dependence. It is no coincidence that her only two friends- Andrew and Stephie- are both easily dominated pushovers, both impossibly needy and insecure. Zelda needs to feel needed, and she molds the people around her into her dependent slaves, and then brushes off any idea that they should be otherwise with a dismissive hand wave. She's a controlling, manipulative super villain who is happy to casually destroy the lives of those around her to feed her own need for attention and dependence. 

Because that's what Ben Queen thinks women are. 

Let's boil it down a step further. Here are the four recurring female characters on that show: 

Zelda- a controlling, co-dependent wreck who has yet to have a conversation with another woman about anything other than men. 

Stephie- an insecure wreck of a woman completely dependent on male attention for her personality and/or meaning in her life, up to and including abandoning her "friend" Andrew mid-crisis this week to hook up with the roadie for ZZ Top. 

Lydia- a ball-busting super-bitch who is explicitly an enemy of love. She is, despite being the highest ranking on-screen member of her company, completely obsessed and defined by other people's perceptions of her. 

Whatever Hong Chau's Name Is- She only appears as her ex-boyfriend's sidekick. Has not appeared in a scene without him, but has had maybe a quarter as many lines. 

Congratualtions, A to Z. You're the first show- of ten- to convince me to stop watching. I put up with Manhattan Love Story until the day it was pulled off the schedule, but your rampant misogyny is too much even for me. 

Meanwhile, over on Bad Judge (a show that passes the Bechdel Test more weeks than not despite featuring only one female main character), things are much as they've ever been. It's a messy, sloppy, and yet deeply endearing wreck with a heart of gold. It often makes poor decisions, but it makes them in pursuit of laughter, and joy. It is its own main character, and I continue to mourn its passing. I mention this mostly as a point of contrast; Bad Judge is a show about an explicitly "bad" woman, and yet she's warmer, more human, and more likable than anyone on A to Z

Look, I'm nobody special, and I'm one of the least qualified people I know to talk about this kind of thing (at the very least, the 50% of people I know who are women would have me beat). I just write books- granted, books that feature women who occasionally say and do things that don't revolve around men- and I watch basketball. That's about it. I'm no crusader. Whether or not I'm even technically a feminist depends largely on definition- I believe in equal pay and equal rights, and I'm pretty sure women are people (with brains and dreams and flaws and goals and all that other people stuff), but I also cling to the idea of chivalry, and depending on who you ask that keeps me firmly behind the velvet rope of the feminist club. But, regardless of whether I am or whether I'm not, and despite this being my blog, this really isn't about me, and it isn't really even about feminism. It's about a woman-hating jackass getting six and a half hours of primetime airtime to demean fifty percent of the population while shows like Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23 - featuring a mostly female cast and often spending entire episodes without having a single female-to-female conversation about men- rots six feet under in the TV graveyard. 

If you like women, or even if you just like TV, don't watch A to Z. Don't watch anything Ben Queen ever produces, and if you happen to be a network or studio decision maker, don't take his fucking meetings. I said above that Zelda is a super villain, and that's true, but at least she's fictional. Ben Queen is a real live person who apparently hates women- and quality- so much that he's co-opted a major broadcast network to defame them, and he's so goddamn cocky about it that he feels compelled to point out he's doing it and thumb his nose at his victims. He's a bigot with millions of dollars behind him and an insidious plot to harm billions of people. And he- like all cackling, hate-spewing supervillains- must be stopped. 

Somebody call James Bond.

Wait. No. Not Bond.

Somebody call Sydney Bristow.  

NVTV 37: Black-Ish "The Gift of Hunger"

There's something I used to say about Batlestar Galactica, and I think now, with that show long departed, the mantle has been passed to Black-Ish. "I don't know whether this is the best bad show on TV, or the worst good show on TV." 

It's definitely one of the two. The production is slick, the core adult cast (though they were sadly Fishburne-less again this week) is fantastic, and the joke writing it often competent. On the other hand, most of the child actors stink, the joke writing is never stellar, the show's laboriously over-narrated and broad, and the office segments often feel more like a Key and Peele sketch than a part of an actual sitcom. The show is either well made crap or poorly made gold, but either way there's a lot of room for improvement here, but very little momentum in that direction.

There's also been an astonishingly lack of utilization of some very funny supporting actors; we've watched for weeks as Charlie Murphy does the best with minimal material, and now we've got Nicole Sullivan basically back to playing a bougie Mad TV caricature of a rich white woman. These guest stars- and for that matter, the very funny main actors- deserve better, and Black-Ish refuses to give it to them. This is the show I least look forward to each week, as even inferior shows- like the god awful A to Z- are interesting failures;  whether or not Black-Ish is a failure is an open question, but it's only very rarely interesting. 

NVTV 36: Selfie and Benched

At this point in their respective lives, Selfie  and Benched have almost identical strengths as weaknesses; both shows are perfectly cast and unevenly written, and his week was a very good example of that dichotomy for both show. 

On Selfie we got the weakest writing- at both a joke and story level- that we've seen in weeks, but it almost doesn't matter because Karen Gillan, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and Brian Huskey have inhabited their characters to the point that they're funny almost by default. There's an incredibly funny- and yet incredibly stupid- segment late in the episode involving a bored Eliza and a rotary phone, that would have been absolute death with almost any other actress but is flat out spectacular because of Gillan's commitment to the bit. Alison Miller's Julia is terribly written, but Miller- a vet of a much better show costarring Cho in Go On- is good enough to make a very dull character ("She's lady Henry, but without any conflict!" said some asshole in the writer's room) bearable. 

As for the writing? The plotting was poorly paced, the jokes were iffy, and the resolution was mostly saccharine, but that's more or less par for the course at this point. Selfie's only had maybe one or two truly well-written episodes, and it doesn't necessarily need great writing to entertain.  

Sadly, though, Selfie is likely dead. It exists in the same mostly-cancelled limbo as Bad JudgeMulaney, and A to Z, and barring a massive ratings spike it's toast. It was alternately too smart for its target audience, and too dumb for the audience it actually should have been aimed at, and then translated to bad ratings in spite of a big promotional push and a stellar- and by network TV standards, fairly star-studded - cast. Hopefully we at least get to see the rest of the initial thirteen episode order, because for all its warts, Selfie is an extremely fun show to watch. 

Benched on the other hand is much more likely to survive, with a cheaper cast, lower expectations, and a stronger start…. but like Selfie, it's pretty much living off the natural charisma of Coupe and Harrington more than off of any particularly good writing or storytelling. The beats in this week's episode were paint by numbers, and the best joke of the episode felt like an ad-lib. Still, it's early yet, and it's much easier for a show's writing to improve (see Bad Judge) than its cast. 

Perhaps it's unfair to claim both shows are poorly written, as both have a very natural and deep understanding of their respective characters and what makes them interesting; they just don't always know how to make them funny. Luckily for us, Gillan and Coupe and the rest are strong enough to inject comedy into mediocre gags… but unluckily for Selfie, at least, that's not quite enough on its own. 

NVTV 35: Mulaney, "Simpsorama", and Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Strong night of comedy last night. Let’s start with the show I usually cover, then briefly touch on two others I don’t.


Mulaney is growing on me. I’m not sure if it’s actually improving so much as I’m just getting used to its awkward rhythm (and make no mistake, this is still very much a multi-cam show that has no business being a multi-cam show), but the utter darkness lying beneath its generic New York sitcom surface is intoxicating. In the second consecutive episode focusing heavily on death- in this case the death of a priest- the show continues to be utterly remorseless in its quest for laughs, and its characters continue to plumb the-I hate to say it, but the right word is Seinfeldian- depths of human selfishness and desperation. Motif’s overwhelming need to be accepted, played for laughs in a one-off bit about John’s mother’s affection for his real name, is positively Constanza-esque and gives the show’s most problematic lead something to build off. Jane’s rabid co-dependence continues to be one of the show’s strongest notes, played here as she endures the terrifying, Andre-esque side effects of a low-rent birth control pill in pursuit of a man. Lou Cannon’s obsessive need for adulation leads to him kissing John’s mother, and John’s deep-seated Catholic guilt and ever-present hypocrisy combine as he torments himself- and others- over a meaningless white lie. Even Andre and Oscar had strong moments this week, and that’s a refreshing change of pace from their usual role as glorified sitcom furniture.

Bottom line: Mulaney is still very much a work in progress, but if you’re the type amused by a character caught praying late at night by insisting that he was actually just masturbating, it’s a show that caters to your (and my) dark, cynical sense of humor.

Elsewhere, one of my all-time favorite shows, Futurama, sort of returned in a crossover with the faded- but still occasionally very funny- Simpsons. Most reviewers seem to be drowning in the ocean of their own expectations, but for what it was- a Simpsons episode with Futurama characters in it- “Simpsorama” was very funny, and spoke to much of what made those shows great in their respective primes. There were perhaps a few too many in-jokes, but that’s the nature of the beast in a setting like this. Ultimately, this show gave me Moe calling Bender “Blade Rummy,” Homer half-heartedly strangling mutant Bart-monsters to death, and the Professor’s unique brand of casual disrespect, while also giving me a par-or-better episode of both The Simpsons and Futurama, and that’s all I really wanted. It’s not Bender’s Big Score or Jurassic Bark by any stretch of the imagination, but it was foolhardy to expect it to be.

Finally, I don’t normally write about Brooklyn Nine-Nine, as it’s not a new show and it’s so consistent that I rarely would have much to say, but this week’s episode was the strongest of the season so far, and perhaps the first to get full mileage out of the entire cast up to and including Scully and Hitchcock. Alan Sepinwall- a much better critic than I am- correctly noted that the show has hit a point where the plot is almost immaterial because the characters are so well-defined and perfectly portrayed that they can make almost any situation funny just by being a party to it. What he didn’t spend a lot of ink on was the subtle maturation of every member of the cast in this very strong episode; from Terry and Jake being able to look past their distaste for defense attorneys, to Rosa putting her instincts aside and supporting Amy (which, granted, has been Rosa’s arc for a while now), to Boyle standing up for himself, and even to Captain Holt letting his guard down just enough to play along on the “why is Amy late” game or risking his career by instigating a pow-wow/haranguing, all of these characters ended this episode somewhere besides where they started, and with a cast of nine characters (ten counting the guest star), that’s no mean feat. Even Scully is able to evolve past his own sandwich lust to champion the cause of a better union rep, albeit that swing was leftover dependent. Excellent, excellent television and it’s a real shame that none of this fall’s sitcoms seem to have anywhere near enough potential to become a show like this, particularly with Selfie and Bad Judge- the two most promising shows, albeit both still with a lot of growing to do- already more or less cancelled.

Dark days for the network sitcom, but at least we’ve still got the Nine-Nine.