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Friday Night Fumble: When Mediocre TV Masquerades as High Art

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For six days in the fall of 1996, I was an excellent tight end for the Warriors of William H. Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut. I ran the post route and the flag route and once in practice nearly caught a very long pass. I was only a second-stringer for the freshman team, but I had the underdog’s irrepressible optimism: here comes JV, Varsity, a scholarship to Ohio State, the NFL draft, the first celebration in the end zone at the Meadowlands while thousands upon thousands cheered.

It never quite panned out. There was an inauspicious 76 on a geometry test: I had been too busy studying quarterback signals to learn the defining characteristics of an isosceles triangle. This is a woeful mishap for the son of a mathematics teacher. The day before a game against either Windsor Locks or Enfield, I was pulled by my father from the team. Later, I participated in the far less demanding sport of volleyball, my infrequent spikes resounding in a gymnasium that had never known much glory.

That’s all just to say that I wanted very badly to fall in love with Friday Night Lights, the football drama that recently concluded a five-season run on NBC. I was primed for its cavalcade of disappointments, because I had known those disappointments myself.

In addition, both my wife and I came of age in that golden age of the artistic television drama. We are both in our thirties, and remember when TV was impossibly crude (Married…with Children), low-brow (Walker, Texas Ranger), and utterly untroubled by reality (Saved by the Bell).

With the advent of NYPD: Blue in 1993, that started to change. TV, all of a sudden, could be serious and real. You didn’t need Don Johnson anymore, and you didn’t need a laugh track. And with The Sopranos and later The Wire, even with Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm, TV could be something even greater than that. “Television had always been a pleasure, a mass entertainment…But in the aughts, the best TV-makers displayed the entitlement of the artist,” wrote Emily Nussbaum in a 2009 New York magazine article entitled “When TV Became Art.”

And we had arrived with it. Freshly minted graduates of liberal arts institutions, we were primed to treat the new TV drama like an object worthy of our Catholic, overripe intellects. We could do a Derridian reading of Breaking Bad. We could watch Mad Men with Foucault.

For many people, Friday Night Lights, which first appeared in 2006, represents the pinnacle of the new TV drama. It is less polished than Mad Men and less dour than The Wire, and somehow more relatable than both, as far as its numberless fans are concerned.

I am not one of those fans, despite having watched all five seasons. In fact, my distaste for Friday Night Lights only increased as the seasons went on, so that I was taken with launching lengthy diatribes at the television. I am fortunate to still be married.

Now, there is still plenty of bad television around, and I am content to render Dancing With the Stars unto those who want to watch it. But Friday Night Lights has somehow became a cause célèbre among the sort of crowd that would much rather spend its Sunday afternoons brunching in Brooklyn than watching a Houston Texans game. They have elevated the show to high art, with appreciations of resident hunk Tim Riggins in the same Paris Review where Norman Mailer once roamed and, on ever-so-sober NPR, “A Late-Blooming Love Letter to NBC’s ‘Friday Night Lights.‘”

“Heartbreakingly good,” says Entertainment Weekly; “an exquisite bit of anthropology,” opines the New York Times. Bullshit, I say to all of them.  Friday Night Lights is bad television. And if it is art, then it is art that is purposefully misleading, which is art of the worst kind.

Forget the amateurish acting, which vacillates between maudlin enthusiasm and shrill discord. Forget, too, the recycled plotlines that always have the hometown fans of Dillon pinning their hopes on fourth and long. Something is truly rotten in the state of Texas.

It begins with the whole “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” mantra, which coach Eric Taylor, the show’s protagonist, delivers with all the growling gusto of Churchill before the Battle of Britain. Now, every sports team – and every sports show – is entitled to its inspirational bromides. But on Friday Night Lights, “clear eyes, full hearts” is elevated to a central tenet to which the characters subscribe as if it were religious truth.

There’s nothing wrong with optimism, not even with optimism that crosses over into delusion – that’s the kernel of nearly every Raymond Carver story. That unmoored optimism we reference when we call something “Ahabic” or “Quixotic.” But in a Carver story, the careful use of irony allows the reader to make an independent judgment of the characters. Each one of Carver’s down-and-outers thinks his break is right around the corner, even though the narrator subtly broadcasts to us that it isn’t. This is the situational irony that Aristotle found in Oedipus – the arrogant king is looking for the transgressor who has cursed Thebes, unaware that it is himself.

Mad Men has its Oedipus in Don Draper, an outwardly successful man living a life as transparent as tissue paper. Baltimore is the Oedipus of The Wire, a sick city that nobody is capable of healing. In watching Don sink deeper into alcoholism and drift farther from his family, in witnessing the failure of every institution in “Body More” except for the drug trade, we feel pity and fear – the two emotions that, for Aristotle, give great art its pathos. Three thousand years after he wrote the Poetics, all is as should be.

But Friday Night Lights has no Oedipus of its own, no fallen king – and it has no irony, either. Nobody here is ever in danger of ever really losing. Characters do not so much overcome their troubles as they are saved from them providentially – every pass in FNL is a Hail Mary caught by a diving, flailing wide receiver for a last-second, game-winning touchdown. As such, all that overcoming is superficial and rushed.

Tyra Collette, a rebel with no interest in her studies, suddenly becomes inspired and crams for the SAT. Presto, she’s into the University of Texas’s flagship Austin campus. Matt Saracen, a middling athlete if there ever was one (and I should know), becomes a Manning brother overnight and wins the state championship. His friend Landry Clarke walks onto the Varsity squad of a championship team, though he appears to have minimal knowledge of and enthusiasm for football. More troublingly, he kills his girlfriend’s assailant, but they get over the body-dumping in the span of a couple of episodes. Because what’s the law when love is on your side?

Then there’s queen bee Lyla Garrity, who leaves paralyzed quarterback Jason Street for the aforementioned Riggins. Then she leaves Riggins for Jesus and ends up having a dalliance with a youth leader at her megachurch. Then she comes back to Riggins. Then she leaves Riggins and goes to Vanderbilt.

I don’t dislike Lyla nearly as much as I dislike what Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg and his writers did to her – or failed to do with her, rather. Is she tortured like Anna Karenina? Is she yearning for freedom like Emma Bovary? She can’t just smile through every scene in her cheerleading outfit. It can’t always be all-good, all the time. If it could be, I would have long ago moved to East Texas.

The Season 2 case of Santiago is especially infuriating. He is a young criminal with apparently boundless athletic potential, and Buddy Garrity takes him into his own home so that he can qualify to play for the Dillon Panthers. He does, but just as he starts to excel on the field, and just as his old criminal friends start to intrude on his new life, he is gone from the show without even the most peremptory explanation. This isn’t Stalinist Russia; you don’t just disappear a character like that.

And the treatment of race is just absurd. Is this not the same Texas where James Byrd was killed in 1998 by three white men who dragged him behind their truck until his head came off? Apparently not, since every social event is a Rainbow Coalition of well-dressed, happy families. There is no color line, no class divide, only the love of football.

This robs Friday Night Lights of any pathos and makes it instead an unwitting champion of the bathetic, which Alexander Pope called a work of art’s fall “from the sublime to the ridiculous.” You can be sure that if Oedipus were on Friday Night Lights, he would soothe the pain of his sin by joining the football team. His mother Jocasta would cheer from the stands, and he would wear a patch on his jersey with his dead father’s image.

I don’t care if art is realistic, but I want it to be true. This is what Aristotle demanded in the Poetics and it is what we should demand today, whether from our novelists or our television producers.

To be realistic, art has only to have fidelity to material reality, which is easy enough and not that important anyway. Beowulf and The Odyssey are not real, but that doesn’t diminish them in the slightest. It doesn’t diminish Harry Potter, either.

Truth is much harder. What Keats said about beauty and truth hasn’t changed in the 127 years since he wrote “Ode on a Grecian Urn” – the two are still one and the same.

This is where Friday Night Lights fails – there is nothing true about it. It ignores hard battles in favor of superficial ones. I know enough about the world, and you surely do as well, to know that Vince Howard’s mother could not turn, in the span of two episodes, from a drug addict to a spry middle-aged mother. It would be pretty to think so, as Hemingway once wrote, but all experiential evidence is against it. This kind of ease with fate may be uplifting in the space of forty-five minutes, but it makes for a hollow show. It’s not that I want Matt Saracen to fail; I just want him to struggle the way real people do, the way that Oedipus struggled against his fate. That will make his victory more meaningful in the end.

There is one great scene in Friday Night Lights. Julie Taylor, the coach’s daughter, does not want to return to college in the middle of Season 5 because she has had a disastrous affair with a teaching assistant. Her father is furious and insists that she go back to school and face the consequences of her romance, but when he tries to drag her out of the house, she resists in a paroxysm of tears. The scene is unexpected but inevitable, as Aristotle said great drama should be. It is real, it is true, and you don’t know where it’s heading. The show needed more of that – much, much more.

What bothered me most, though, was Tim Riggins’s hair. It is always unfairly perfect, a surfer’s locks falling over his face. It is perfect when he is playing football, it is perfect when he is drinking beer in the afternoon, it is perfect when he drops out of college, it is perfect when he goes to jail, and it is perfect when he schemes to buy an enormous plot of land without, seemingly, enough in his bank account to pay for a round of drinks.

My wife told me to stop screaming at the television, but I couldn’t. Nobody has hair that perfect. It isn’t real, it isn’t true, and it certainly isn’t art. You don’t need Aristotle to tell you that.

The Second Life of Irmgard Keun

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 Irmgard Keun was born in Berlin in 1905. Her life was the stuff of fiction: she was a best-selling debut novelist at twenty-six, published a second bestseller a year later, was blacklisted by the Nazi regime and in exile by the spring of 1936. She drifted through Europe in the company of various other anti-Nazi intellectuals, stateless, driven from country to country by financial and immigration difficulties. A shadow existence that took her across the continent and briefly to the United States, where she traveled in 1938 and left, Geoff Wilkes reports in his excellent afterward to the new English-language edition of her novel After Midnight (more on that later), because she was unable to secure anything more permanent than a tourist visa. She published several more novels in exile and was in the Netherlands when the war broke out.

She could find no exit out of Europe, and when the Netherlands fell, she took a remarkable step: she somehow managed to convince a German officer to issue her a passport in the name of Charlotte Tralow (her middle name and her married name, although she had divorced Johannes Tralow in 1937), either initiated the story that she’d committed suicide or allowed the rumor to spread unchecked or had someone falsely report her death — the precise details of the pseudocide are unknown — and slipped back into Nazi Germany. In August 1940, the British Daily Telegraph reported that she’d killed herself in Amsterdam. She lived out the war with her parents in Cologne.

Until recently, Keun’s work has been difficult to find in English. (Having encountered the story of her fascinating life only in essays, I’m tempted to learn German just to read her biography.) But then, this year, a wonderful development: two independent publishers have just released English editions of two of her books. The Artificial Silk Girl just came out from Other Press, while Melville House has released After Midnight. (A third Keun novel, Child of all Nations, was published by Overlook Press in 2009.)

“She’s an immensely important writer,” Melville House Publisher founder and publisher Dennis Loy Johnson said in a recent statement, “and it’s a crime that she was forgotten for decades and had to be rediscovered.”

Irmgard Keun was possessed of a spectacular talent. She managed to convey the political horrors she lived through with the lightest possible touch, even flashes of humor. The Artificial Silk Girl and After Midnight make for an interesting pair. The former was her bestselling second novel, published in 1932. The Los Angeles Times called it “a truly charming window into a young woman’s life in the early 1930’s,” which is somewhat startling to me; the young woman in question is vastly appealing and, yes, charming as a narrator, but the book’s only truly charming if you like your charm dark.

Doris, a beautiful and somewhat dim nineteen-year-old who aspires to a life of luxury and film stardom, embarks on a tour of the bedrooms of the Weimar Republic in pursuit of a level of glamour that she cannot possibly obtain on her own. The Artificial Silk Girl chronicles her long slow drift from reasonably respectable secretary in Cologne to homeless waif in Berlin, and the drift is harrowing. She’s a slightly unhinged figure, a girl who will literally starve before she’ll sell the expensive fur that she stole from a coat check at the beginning of her descent. (Although, in all fairness, the fur seems to be her only friend. She gives it a Christmas present.) The fur represents the life she longs for. She’ll never let it go.

She is frighteningly blind to the political storms that surround her. An industrialist she was dating has recently dropped her, for instance, “all because of politics.” Doris hates politics. She’s willing to be almost anything a man requires her to be, but in this particular conversation, she misunderstood his intent: “So he asks me if I’m Jewish too. My God, I’m not — but I’m thinking: if that’s what he likes, I’ll do him the favor — and I say: ‘Of course — my father just sprained his ankle at the synagogue last week.’”

The novel is presented as her diary. Doris struggles to write her own script, which she expects will chronicle a fast rise into film stardom and unfathomable glamour, but she can’t grasp hold of the narrative arc and flounders in a life lived out in episodes. Recent comparisons have been made to Sex and the City, but Doris reminds me of no one so much as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s leading couple in The Beautiful and Damned; she will endure any number of humiliations in order to avoid the indignity of working for a living. She’s convinced of her own specialness — “And I think it will be a good thing if I write everything down, because I’m an unusual person” — and her understanding of the world is that all she needs to do is remain beautiful and available, and the right man will sweep her up into an extraordinary life. It’s an exhausting pursuit — “I want to bury my face in my hands to make it less sad. It has to work so hard, because I’m trying to become a star. And there are women all over the place, whose faces are also working hard.”

The book has an oddly timeless quality, with sharp-edged and still-relevant observations about the impossibility of societal standards of beauty and success, and about certain hypocrisies surrounding sex and money:
If a young woman from money married an old man because of money and nothing else and makes love to him for hours and has this pious look on her face, she’s called a German mother and a decent woman. If a young woman without money sleeps with a man with no money because he has smooth skin and she likes him, she’s a whore and a bitch.
Paragraphs like that one helped The Artificial Silk Girl and its author run afoul of the more conservative elements of the German literary establishment. Geoff Wilkes cites Kurt Herwarth Ball’s 1932 review of the novel, “which castigated Doris’s unconventional morality, and concluded by adjuring Keun to ‘write in a German spirit, speak in a German spirit, think in a German spirit, and refrain from her sometimes almost vulgar aspersions against German womanhood.’”

Write, speak, and think in a German spirit? My God. Which spirit? Whose Germany? It’s hard to conceive of a less tolerable demand for an artist as ferociously independent and intellectually able as Keun seems to have been. Speaking as a novelist, I’m not sure I want to think about the fury I would feel if a critic had the nerve to tell me how to think.

There are surface similarities between The Artificial Silk Girl and After Midnight. Both works are narrated by very young women attempting to navigate the fraught landscape of Germany in the years preceding the Second World War. But these are wildly different books: The Artificial Silk Girl was published in 1932, After Midnight in 1937, and that span of years was not trivial. After Midnight, published in exile after Keun fled the Nazis, is a darker, more driving, and to my eye more accomplished work.

After Midnight ostensibly takes place over the course of a single evening leading up to a catastrophic and climactic party, but easily integrated flashbacks and digressions flesh out the characters’ pasts. By 1937 a fictional character who was entirely oblivious to politics was less plausible, and Sanna, the narrator, is anything but indifferent. She is intelligent and observant, she is watching the country go mad around her, and she lives a life of quiet, unbearable strain. Her friend Gerti struggles as much as Sanna does, but she’s less able to contain herself; she’s prone to fury and coming a little undone, reckless to the point of insulting SS officers in bars. Gerti is in love with a half-Jewish boy. Sanna accompanies the couple sometimes in public:
…so that the impression they make in the bar won’t be quite so dangerous. I don’t like doing this, and I always feel very foolish. I could weep with the worry of it. They’re both so pretty and so nice, and they may be hauled off to jail tomorrow. Why are they so crazy? I can’t understand it. Other people dance, but they can’t. The radio is playing string music, soft as a feather bed. Bright light shimmers in the wine. The wine is sour, but they are drinking hot, bright radiance.
The prose is gorgeous. Life continues, in all its beauty and complexity and love and friendship, but the cage doors of the police state have closed over it and the world has ceased to make any sense, the world is unspeakably dangerous; saying the wrong thing, expressing the wrong thought, being seen with the wrong person can mean death. Sanna lives in Frankfurt with her brother and sister-in-law, because she had to flee Cologne after her horrendous future mother-in-law reported her to the Gestapo. She did this ostensibly because Sanna mentioned her distaste for Nazi radio addresses, but also, Sanna can’t help but realize, because it’s in the woman’s best financial interests for Sanna not to marry her son. Reporting on one’s fellow citizens is often a matter of convenience. A shopkeeper effectively shuts down a competitor by reporting imaginary subversive activity to the police.

The screams of the tortured spill out of a prison on a certain trolley route. The tension is unspeakable: “I feel tired. Today was so eventful, and such a strain. Life generally is, these days. I don’t want to do any more thinking. In fact I can’t do any more thinking. My brain’s all full of spots of light and darkness, circling in confusion.”

It’s tempting, although perhaps too easy, to project Sanna’s desperation on another young woman. Irmgard Keun writes movingly and convincingly of the unbearable stress of life in the Third Reich, and she knew of what she spoke. Keun survived the Nazis, but the cost was steep. In her years drifting through Europe in the late thirties, Wilkes reports, she confided in letters that she was cutting herself.

“This dictatorship has made Germany a perfect country,” one despairing writer tells another in the final third of After Midnight,
“and a perfect country doesn’t need writers. There’s no literature in Paradise. Can’t have writers without imperfection around them, can’t have poets. The purest of lyric poets needs to yearn for perfection. Once you’ve got perfection, poetry stops. Once criticism’s no longer possible, you have to keep quiet.”
But Keun never did. She railed all her life against authors who deferred to the Nazi regime, and had the audacity to sue the Gestapo for loss of earnings after her work was confiscated in 1933. (Unsurprisingly, this went nowhere.) She continued to write and publish after the war, although never quite with the success or the dizzying prolificacy of her early years. She enjoyed a second wave of literary fame when her novels were reissued in the late 1970s, and died in 1982. Her work stands as a brilliant record of the era she survived.

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