Issue #24: Wading Through The Mess ☢️
OK, we were a little premature when we said Tuesday was all about "getting through the day;" we always knew it was more about getting through the week. But the week is done and our anxiety is...hopeful? So let's get down to some stuff we've watched recently — it's a TV issue! TA DA!
Entirely by accident, we've both been watching shows that tackle The Current Moment™ head on. Everything is politics, and it seems television has finally gotten the memo. First up we've got Zosha on The Boys and the toxic lightning they captured in a bottle. Then Cate details the unfocused commentary of Lovecraft Country. We understand if you're a little distracted this morning — we are too. But if you need a break, peruse our words and maybe even these shows. Here's to an honest-to-God TGIF coming our way...
Zosha on The Boys
Created by: Eric Kripke
The obvious imagery of the moment would be in “We Gotta Go Now,” the fifth episode of The Boys’s second season: it ends as we watch the psychopathic superhero Homelander (Antony Starr) having superpowered sex with Stormfront (Aya Cash), the newest edition to the Seven (The Boys equivalent of the Avengers) and an out and out white supremacist. Like a lot of the social satire on The Boys, the thinkpiece writes itself: Homelander is still outfitted in most of his super suit, complete with American flag cape. They hover and boink as the walls come crashing down around them. U.S.A. in a nutshell, really.
But the thing I can’t stop thinking about is the memes. We get a glimpse of it a little earlier in the season — Stormfront clicking through the various memes that her army of trolls makes to help sway public opinion around superheroes (which, in the world of The Boys, is the neck of the zeitgeist). They are not good. And I think...I’m glad about that?
Anyone who has followed any of our #WeirdDrumWednesday stuff knows that I have strict standards for even the blippiest digital content as it appears on-screen. I generally think that in this day and age, it doesn’t make sense to not get these things right. While I am sympathetic to the fact that the internet moves a mile a millisecond and many things that seem stale to me — a Very Online Person™ by nature and by trade — might not be universally done, most everyone I know has enough familiarity with digital lifeblood that these are now details that really truly matter.
And memes are decidedly a place that is tricky but vital, if your plot pivots around them. After all, their almost Dadaist sensibilities make them impossibly hard to predict, as anyone who has ever tried to explain a meme to a parent knows. But as the saying goes, I know it when I see it. So of course on first view of The Boys’s internal meme content it seemed dumb. Impact font? Over an image? This is the online fodder of at least seven years ago, if not more!
But then, what should happen except...well, The Boys just moves on. A cop out, maybe, but I think a wise one: As Stormfront notes, these memes aren’t supposed to be that inspiring; they are manipulating a sect of public opinion, just like her, and are just one bit of ammunition in her chamber. It’s a numbers game, and she’s got the numbers.
This could be almost too charitable to a show like The Boys, which revels in the kind of edgy comic satire that is bound to make it a turnoff (rightfully) for anyone who is not impressed by the number of heads you can blow up in a single scene. After all, this is sort of the line we keep being spoon fed, no? That white supremacists are just dumb hicks who are that way because they’re stupid, as opposed to calculating players who act as part of a systemic assault on people of color? I can’t say I’m not biased because with true journalistic integrity I will say that, for one reason or another, I am charmed by The Boys plotting and story enough that I tend to wave away the stuff about it that doesn’t strike me.
But I think that something like the dumb memes that Stormfront approves impressed me more than I thought at that first viewing — certainly more than the comic book in-jokes or the pop culture references or the pot-shots at our Marvel monoculture. What I think The Boys did so well was acknowledge that it is not always a war of actual opinion, or truth, or honor, or anything of the sort. It’s not the smartest meme in the room, and it’s not Aaron Sorkin’s holier than thou schtick. It is dumb shit, unexamined, and thoughtlessly boosted. If you can accept that — and, as I’m writing this while an authoritarian election press conference is being cut away from by mainstream news channels because it is full of baseless, facist lies, I think you should — then the rest of the world clicks into place fairly well.
The Boys can often tip too far into a stranger corner of its genre, but it never feels all that untethered from ours. It’s perceptive enough to know that at our root we want things easy, and nuance can quickly go out the window. That’s true when it comes to taking down a major corporation peddling lies about where and how superheroes are created, and it’s true when you’re trying to remind folks that nothing about where the candidates are really truly matters until all the votes are counted.
With the inclusion of Aya Cash, the corporatization of superheroes finally feels complete and out-and-through American, in a connection that feels stronger than just banging the Nega-Captain America equivalent. Season one too often felt a little scattershot, working too hard to make what should be a relatively easy connection between capitalism, American culture, and superhero culture as sucked up into the vacuum of greed and evil. Through Cash — with her smooth and personable acerbic wit — everything snaps tightly into place. Through her character we get a glimpse of the white supremacy, the cover-ups, and (yes) the memes that make Vought’s operation possible.
What the protagonists of The Boys face over and over again is a wall of understanding. They sneak out a damning report, and the public can only buy half of it. They catch someone in the act, and the Vought corporation spins the hell out of the story until it’s something else completely. Stormfront (as the name unsubtly suggests) is a crucial part of that Hydra operation. You can’t have super Americans without racism. And that effort to spread racism doesn’t have to be the most accurate and it certainly doesn’t have to be clever, it just has to be proliferated beyond what we can do, beyond what we can comprehend.
I dunno, just something I’m turning over in my mind this week.
Cate on Lovecraft Country
Created by: Misha Green
It’s a pity that Lovecraft Country aired so soon after Watchmen. Technically speaking, nearly a year separates the two projects, but in Extremely Online™ time, it may as well have been yesterday. And while the two projects are both ambitious in scope and enjoyable to watch, the former fails miserably when held in comparison to the latter.
HBO’s Watchmen was an aggressive assault on the myths of American progress and exceptionalism. It laid out, in fine detail, the direct connection between policing and anti-blackness, and made an argument for the abolition of policing as we know it. Lovecraft Country similarly tried to make connections between racism, power and white violence, but it never did quite manage to stick the landing.
Conceptualized as a reclamation of H.P. Lovecraft’s racist origins, the story leans hard on the idea that for black people, the monsters are not mythic—they’re white. Of course, this is a science fiction show, so there are also mythic monsters. But over the course of its initial ten-episode first season, Lovecraft Country reveals itself to be too eager to unravel its convoluted story. Entire plots happen in a glance, and there is little effort devoted to making sure that the audience can actually keep up with the wild ride.
Generally, television shows are better served by declining to handhold their audiences through various twists and turns. But Lovecraft moves straight past “trust the audience” and runs right into “the audience can read our minds.” So much is presupposed that it’s easy to get lost, catching up only at the next, most convenient expositional dump.
There’s also the problem of the plot’s economy itself. Watchmen was an intricately plotted story in which everything that appeared onscreen had a purpose. If it was planted in the script, you’d better have been paying attention because it was definitely going to pay off eventually. But Lovecraft often felt like Narcissus, enamoured of its own reflection. Story beats to nowhere ran amok, and entire narrative segues were dropped with no explanation. The show came to feel like a trip with a general destination, but no particular hurry to get there. Why tell the story we’ve come for when there are all these cool storytelling toys to play with? Is there a reason we had an entire episode about a Korean succubus who fell in love with the main character? Well, no… but it was exquisitely acted and beautifully shot so why not!
And all that is before we even get to the substance of the story. It is a genuine moral failing that no one in the show’s production flagged the story’s blatant and progressively worsening issues with colourism and depictions of sexuality. Creator Misha Green has since apologized for the show’s most egregious anti-queer misstep but has not addressed why sexuality is so poorly located within the story. From Montrose Freeman’s (Michael K. Williams) violent denial of his own sexuality to Ruby Baptiste (Wunmi Mosaku) and Christina Braithwhite’s (Abbey Lee) race and gender-bending romance, none of the story’s queer characters feel fully realized. Their actions throughout the series do not adequately contend with their queer identities or grapple with how their queer relationships affect their choices.
The same is true of the show’s frustratingly colourist casting choices. The show’s most violent, repressed and abusive character—Montrose Freeman—is also the character with the darkest skin. And the darkest black woman in the cast is dead by the season’s end, dealt with offscreen with a villain turned lover and back again who now wears her skin. Worse, her death is never mourned, because that energy has been reserved for the dark-skinned protagonist Atticus Freeman (Jonathon Majors) who is also dead. Meanwhile, it is the light-skinned love interest Leticia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) whose well-being has been protected and fussed after all season long, despite having been introduced as a character who is—to be blunt—trifling. It’s even more frustrating to realize that some clever reshuffling of the casting could have meaningfully deepened the story Lovecraft Country was trying to tell.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that mediocre art should be allowed to exist, and for all its faults, I enjoyed the ride of watching Lovecraft Country even if I was wholly baffled by its destination. There’s value in the journey. Not to mention, I truly delight in seeing black creators stretch their muscles bet on big, audacious ideas! You can’t win if you never take the shot after all. There’s nothing I want more than for more diverse creators to get the chance to take their shot. But while I can’t help but commend the show for its ambition, I’m also forced to acknowledge, as a critic, that it’s simply not very good.
And it looks even worse in Watchmen’s shadow.
Assorted Internet Detritus
Zosha: My brain is really and truly went full flan this week, and like everyone else I've mostly been watching the polls. But I did make time for: Revisiting what we know about COVID-19 spread on surfaces, and the data on indoor/outdoor transmission. A primer on why fake blood in old movies looks so weird! This piece on Women on the Edge, which hasn't come out yet so I have few people to talk about it with.
Cate: For the first time in a while my eyes are burning from too much screen time, but here's what I read before I had to take a break: a look at how fall TV is handling the pandemic in their stories, a piece about accent training for black actors and characters, a fun piece on Ariana Grande's horniest album yet and a look at the illustrious career of Whoopi Goldberg.
And with that we're done. We hope to return to more regularly scheduled programming here, but for Issue #25, we're gonna pull a Nevada and bide our time telling you the final results. Either way, see you in your inboxes next week with two new movie takes.
Getting (almost) ready to stop refreshing the page, but still finding ways to yell about movies.
Zosha + Cate <3