Posts Tagged ‘idealism’

[Author’s Note]: This article was written a while ago and has been edited for the purposes of keeping up-to-date on the current political climate.

 

I’ve been watching a lot of The West Wing lately. You can probably guess the reason. It’s a comforting show to me, a balm for my anxiety and the ever present empty pit of rage in my stomach. Sadly, the show angers me as well upon rewatch, just not for the reasons you’d think. I miss the fast-paced environment of a White House that never existed. I miss the friendly camaraderie of men and women brought to life beautifully by talented actors. I miss the lofty ideals and passion of a staff dedicated to a United States with a relatively informed populace. If you haven’t guessed, the agitation comes from the fact that The West Wing isn’t real. It’s the product of one man’s imagination that tapped into a need for a governing body to display equal amounts of dedication, determination, and selflessness. It’s an alternate reality that’s painful to watch at times, but I continue to watch because it’s that idealized vision of politics that prevents me from completely succumbing to absolute depression. The kernels of hope and emulation are there as the next generation discovers the show and ponders whether President Bartlet’s America could actually exist.Sorkin on set of West Wing

While there are many and varied critiques of Aaron Sorkin’s work, regardless of how you feel about him, it’s very easy to spot an Aaron Sorkin-created television show. The man has so many ticks and quirks associated with his various projects that there are a multitude of parodies easily found on YouTube. Hell, the man’s even parodied himself on his own shows and on others. Your most basic sign that it’s a Sorkin-joint is that the “action” all takes place behind the scenes. Sports Night, The West Wing, The American President, Moneyball, The Social Network, Studio 60, and The Newsroom are all about the moments leading up to or following an event. Usually it’s something important. One of the easier quirks to spot in this behind-the-scenes world is the “walk-and-talk,” which is fairly self-explanatory. Though walk-and-talks are not an exclusive quirk of Sorkin’s (it’s movie-making 101 to have your character exposit dialogue while moving), he’s definitely become the writer most associated with the trope since every movie or television show since Sports Night has included it.

Coupled with the walk-and-talk is a rhythmic banter between characters often dubbed “Sorkinese” since actors who’ve worked on a Sorkin project have stated that the dialogue is so precise that any changes practically have to be run by him so he can hear how it sounds. And within the banter, whilst doing the walk-and-talk, is an encyclopedic knowledge – by virtually every character – of literature, politics, pop culture (to a degree), and history. If a stanza from Emily Dickinson can hammer a point home, you bet your ass there’s going to be a character who either has an English Lit degree or reads Dickinson for fun so they can throw a line in there and create a profound moment. Pretty much all of The Newsroom’s first season was about quoting or referencing Don Quixote.

West Wing CastWhat this all adds up to, and tends to be the reason people don’t particularly care for Sorkin, is a pretentiously idealized world where every profession is a noble one and all those involved have more passion in their little finger than you’ve ever displayed over the most important event in your life! Unless they’re the “villain” and then they’re just the worst type of person. The easiest example of this is The West Wing. During Sorkin’s four years writing the show, it wasn’t uncommon for a character – any character – to make a passionate speech or a profound statement about the importance of their work in government, the necessity of doing right by the American people, or the almost divine calling that is the office of the President and serving under him.

There was also the occasional history lesson or the quoting of scripture that cemented the show as one of the smartest hours of television during its early seasons. The later seasons were okay after Sorkin left, Season 7 was definitely good television, but Season 5 and half of 6 are hard to get through if you’re a fan of Sorkin’s style and the characters, which I am. The point, though, is that the world of The West Wing was populated by people with passion for their job, who saw what they did as a call to serve their country. Even their “enemies,” both Republican and Democrat, where never entirely vilified, but shown to have just as much passion and a need to do what they thought was best for their constituents. Sorkin essentially elevated government and its employees to a degree that’s nearly laughable when we compare it to how our perception of government has changed within the last decade. Most especially within the last two months.studio60cast

The same attempt was made, less successfully, with Studio 60 on The Sunset Strip where Sorkin attempted to elevate comedy and it’s purpose in American culture. There’s a scene where Tom Jeter (Nate Corddry) is showing his blue collar parents around the theater where Studio 60 is filmed while giving them the history of the theater and its entertainment pedigree. All of this is done in service to highlighting the “culture wars” through Tom’s conservative parents, specifically his father who doesn’t care much for his son’s cushy, “elitist” job of playing in front of a camera while his other son is fighting in Afghanistan. Because…comedy!

As much as I do adore this show, it got really heavy-handed with it’s agenda, more so than most Sorkin shows, which alienated a lot of its audience. It also didn’t help that 30 Rock came out at the same time, on the same network, and was genuinely funny. Sorkin’s writing can be funny, but his humor often comes out of dramatic situations. He’s not exactly a joke writer. But what Sorkin was getting at, I think, is that there is a need for smart television, that the audience doesn’t have to have things dumbed down for them in order for a program to succeed. And comedy, even a variety show, can facilitate ideas or effectively satirize the world we live in. The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Key & Peele, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver prove that comedy can steer the political and social conversation through the medium of comedy.

The Newsroom, like Studio 60, like The West Wing, is what Sorkin envisions journalism should be; that journalists and news anchors should strive for something more than puff pieces and partisan politics. The opening theme of The Newsroom is a montage of photographs showcasing the history of broadcast journalism from Edward R. Morrow to Walter Cronkite to Dan Rather. Respected and trusted anchors that people turned to for their nightly news. The entire crux of the first episode is MacKenzie Hale’s (played by Emily Mortimer) plea that they can do better, that they are better.

The-NewsroomAnd while some critics may decry Sorkin’s idealistic portrayal of politics, comedy, or journalism, I think what’s important about these worlds he creates is that the characters are imperfect. You’d be hard-pressed to find a character in any of these shows or movies who isn’t fundamentally flawed in some way. Granted, many of these flaws are gendered since a lot of the women seem to have relationship issues and the men are cursed with arrogance and an overabundance or lack of machismo, but they’re still flawed. And yet they yearn for something more. The characters are the ones who create their idealized worlds because they want it to be that way, but it remains unattainable. The West Wing showed it time and time again. No matter how good their intentions, no matter how noble the cause, someone always gets left out, someone always feels betrayed. The Newsroom follows the same model. You can want to be better, you can want to change the world because of some call to destiny, but the world around you won’t shift overnight because you deem it so. You have to change it little by little and fight because you know you have to and it’s the right thing to do.

The Don Quixote metaphor is appropriate because many of Sorkin’s characters could be described as quixotic. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I’d argue that Sorkin’s idealism is necessary for viewing audiences. If we see ourselves in the characters on television and in movies, if we find common ground, why can’t we also find what we’re missing? It’s not hard toHouse Bartlett identify with a character who desires an idyllic President because, deep down, we probably want the same thing. The same is true of our news anchors. We gravitate towards like-minded reporters, but don’t we wish for someone capable of delivering the news without the nagging suspicion that they’re leading us towards their politics? Shouldn’t we instead want someone with the desire to make us a more informed population?

The downside, and there’s always a downside, is disappointment when something or someone doesn’t live up to your standards. We definitely see that happening a lot these days, but Sorkin still leaves us with the tools capable of weathering such disappointments. Yes, you’re going to get kicked down a lot and you may not get exactly what you want, but hoping and striving for something better, even if it seems unobtainable, is just as noble. We may bend, we may even break, but we eventually shake it off, put ourselves together and start over. Maybe we’re a little wiser, a bit more cynical, but even an iota of idealism is enough to keep us moving forward and asking, “What’s next?”

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It should come as no surprise that I, like many other devoted nerds, spent the weekend binge-watching Marvel’s latest Netflix series, Jessica Jones. Thirteen hours of my life gone, but they were still thirteen hours well spent on what I feel is Marvel’s most fully realized character to date. And yet I’ve come away from Jessica Jones with a sense of unease. Maybe it’s the aftereffects of nearly two days spent diving back into the world of Hell’s Kitchen, but unlikeJessica-Jones-1-1200x674 the mostly triumphant victory of Matt Murdock by the end of Daredevil, Jessica Jones maintains a bittersweet tone from the opening theme right up to the closing shot of the series.

If you need a brief plot synopsis: Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is hired by the Schlottmans to find their daughter Hope (Erin Moriarty) after a dramatic change in behavior and disappearance. While investigating Hope’s case, Jessica learns that Kilgrave (David Tennant), the man responsible for her abduction, trauma, and PTSD, is still alive and using Hope as a pawn in a horrific plot to reunite with the one plaything that got away. Though her first instinct is to flee, Jessica is convinced by her foster-sister, Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), to save Hope and fight back.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil this one for you. This article isn’t really a review so much as it’s me needing an outlet to process how I feel about the series. I’ve seen a lot of people commenting on how “dark” the series is, which isn’t untrue, though the dry wit and sarcasm shouldn’t be overlooked. But what struck me after the first few episodes, what continues to linger in my thoughts days after viewing the show, is how real it felt. This series doesn’t have the flashiness of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, nor does it have the action-heavy prowess of Daredevil. What Jessica Jones has is authenticity. It’s raw and it doesn’t shy away from showing you the ugly side of the little corner of the Marvel Universe Jessica inhabits. By the end, you feel like you’ve been raked over the coals of Jessica’s complicated, messed-up life, but in seeing her for who she is, warts and all, and what she’s overcome, you have a better appreciation of what showrunner Melissa Rosenberg and the Jessica Jones cast and crew have accomplished. The series is unapologetic in its depiction of a flawed female character who just happens to have superpowers, but it uses the genre and the series format to talk Schermata-2015-10-23-alle-21.00.36about the far more relevant topics of rape, abuse, and recovery.

Part and parcel to this character portrait is the story from which it was adapted. Based on Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’s comic book series Alias, Jessica Jones is a former superhero turned private investigator after her enslavement under the thrall of Kilgrave (aka The Purple Man) – a powerful mind controller – leaves her traumatized and suffering from PTSD. In putting her life back together, she finds herself uniquely qualified to handle cases involving Marvel’s mightiest heroes though she still seeks her peace at the bottom of a bottle. The Netflix series, however, takes the Purple Man story and removes the greater Marvel Universe in order to frame Jessica within the reality of a post-Avengers world. Gone are her first forays into the superhero game as Jewel, though the series does a clever nod to her comic book past, and what we’re left with is a woman struggling to pay the bills and keep the demons at bay only to find that the Devil has come back into her life.

I can’t say enough how impressed I am at the show’s very deft handling of rape and abuse as part of the narrative. Jessica’s arc throughout the series is that of a woman in recovery. She’s been violated in both mind and body because of Kilgrave and the series treats his mind control abilities as just that, a violation. In trying to track down Kilgrave, Jessica inadvertently creates a support group for other people he’s controlled, including her neighbor Malcolm (Eka Darville). The way the group share their experiences, the language they use, reads exactly like a support group for people who have experienced sexual assault or abuse. Jessica and Kilgrave both act as metaphorical representations of silent victims and rape culture, respectively. Because of her abilities Jessica continues to blame purple manherself for not being stronger, for not fighting back. What’s the point of having these abilities, being able to punch a guy through a brick wall or leap from the sidewalk to the rooftops in seconds, if you can’t stop someone as psychotic as Kilgrave from harming you? It’s why Kilgrave’s power, and the consistent disbelief in that power, is essential to the story.

In the Marvel Cinematic and television universes thus far most, if not all, of the “gifts” displayed by heroes and villains have been clearly visual. Everything they do has some element of spectacle to it, but Kilgrave’s power isn’t easily observable. It’s a suggestion or an order that you’re compelled to carry out and it doesn’t matter to him how you feel afterwards. He’s an infection and his presence lingers long after he’s done with you. The fear that Jessica shows at the idea of Kilgrave still being alive is the same fear people experience after being attacked and the assailant isn’t caught or gets released. Every street corner becomes a potential point of attack, every person a possible threat. Your trust in the world, in people, has completely crumbled because, even if you survive, the person that did this to you is still out there and they still have power over you. Unfortunately, prosecuting something that has to be experienced to believe is rather difficult and that’s only if you can get someone to believe that it actually happened. It isn’t until Jessica fights back (literally, in the show’s case) that she understands Kilgrave has no power over her. That’s not to say that everything ends up being sunshine and lollipops, because it doesn’t, but there is a valiant effort being made on the part of the Jessica Jones team to treat this type of story with the respect it deserves. Also a huge round of applause goes to Rosenberg and company for taking the Mad Max: Fury Road route and not showing Jessica being raped by Kilgrave. It would have been exploitative and unnecessary had they gone through with it. The writing in the series, however, is so strong and the character of Kilgrave set up so well that all we need is to hear Jessica give voice to her pain for us to believe her.

luke cageIf you feel as though I’m focusing too much on one aspect of the series, then guess what, you’re in my head. What a lovely place, right? But, yes, there’s so much more to Jessica Jones worth exploring. Like I said, Jessica is the most fleshed out, multi-dimensional character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From the get-go we understand that Jessica is a hard-drinking, shit-talking, hot-headed asshole of a person (she fully admits to it!) and the series never shies away from showing those aspects of her personality. She’s also tempered by her fierce loyalty and the love she has not just for her friends and family, but for people in general. And in keeping with the show’s unapologetic nature, she’s a sexually active woman who likes having sex and isn’t looked down on by other characters for it. Probably because the supporting cast features characters of varying personalities who have their own hangups to deal with instead of getting all up in Jessica’s business. Well, some of them at least. Looking at you, Robyn!

This is also a gender balanced cast, which gives the creative team ample room to explore their characters, specifically the women in the cast. With four female leads and several more supporting members, Jessica Jones manages to shine a much needed spotlight on women as complex people capable of doing right, wrong, and everything else in between. Carrie-Anne Moss, in my opinion, gives the second greatest performance in the show as Jeri Hogarth, a lawyer with a moral compass practically smashed to hell. There are very few redeeming qualities about Jeri, but Moss finds a way to make this manipulative, stuck-up, shark of a human being somewhat sympathetic. It’s an understated performance, to say the least, but my God does Moss get a lot of mileage out of an icy stare. The confidence the show has in its audience to invest in some awful characters is tremendous. None of these people are pure of heart and mind – but, then again, who is really?

Another piece of the show’s excellent writing and storytelling is in the ethical dilemmas it places Jessica in as she decides how to confront and bring Kilgrave to justice. The eighth episode, “AKA WWJD”, addresses the issue head on, taking its time to really put Jessica in a moral quandary about Kilgrave and his abilities. If someone can control minds, is there a way to harness that power for good? What if considering morality and justice didn’t occur to this person? Would you sacrifice your personal happiness and devote the rest of your days to keeping a sociopath on the straight and narrow? Even if that sociopath is the source of your greatest pain? Are you obligated to at least try? It’s a brilliant way of exploring what it means to be a hero and the entire series is peppered with these decisions that actually have consequences for Jessica and the people around her. It also helps to set the show apart not just from the other Marvel movies but also from its predecessor, Daredevil.

For obvious reasons, Jessica Jones isn’t Matt Murdock, but what’s really fascinating is where the two differ on a philosophical level. Despite his vigilante leanings, Matt still believes in the necessity of justice even if one needs to go outside the law to achieve one’s goal. His personal struggle throughout Daredevil surrounds whether or not he can fight the monsters of Hell’s Kitchen and still remain the good guy. The show rewards Matt for his efforts, finding an optimistic outlook in the emergence of Daredevil. Jessica, however, doesn’t share Matt’s idealism. Her world is, more than anything, about survival. There are no grand visions of saving the world, or Hell’s Kitchen, as far as she’s concerned. Instead, her primary focus is on getting paid so she can pay her bills and use the leftover cash on a cheap bottle of whiskey. Her job makes her a voyeur into the sordid lives of others, which doesn’t leave you with the rosiest outlook on humanity even on the best days.

daredevil-season-2-news-jessica-jones-crossovers-the-defenders-release-more-netflix-545795And yet, for all of Jessica’s cynicism, she still aspires to be heroic. When we first meet Jessica, she’s a broken person struggling to get through the day without suffering another panic attack or flashback. She certainly doesn’t see herself as a hero. But when she chooses not to run and commits to saving Hope from Kilgrave that’s when we get our first real look at the Jessica who almost donned a spandex jumpsuit and called herself Jewel in order to help others. Unfortunately, she never got the chance to prove herself before Kilgrave showed up, but in taking back control of her life, Jessica finally starts to believe in her own ability to be the hero. It’s another element of her character that separates her from other heroes in the MCU. Most of the Avengers emerged fully formed in who they wanted to be and how they would apply their abilities with little hesitation. Jessica questions herself constantly, but the voice of opposition comes from people like Trish and Malcolm, people who see her for the hero that she is and do their best to foster that confidence in Jessica as well.

Jessica Jones is definitely worth your time. Don’t worry about binge-watching it either because I’m certain the conversation surrounding the show is in no danger of dying off any time soon. While I didn’t really touch on the humor of the series, trust me when I say that there are some choice comedic moments that keep the show from completely going down the grimdark path. I especially love Jessica and Trish commenting on Kilgrave’s choice of name for himself. “I mean, Kilgrave? Was Murder Corpse too subtle?” And even though David Tennant is playing a character who is just the worst, he still manages to bring his quippy charm to Kilgrave, which does its job of making you question your own moral compass.

So, go! Go watch Jessica Jones and get excited for the Luke Cage series! And Daredevil season two! And Iron Fist! And the Defenders! Just be excited!