Underrated TV: NBC’s Mercy

August 3, 2010 at 7:57 pm (Review) (, , )

It’s a bold statement, but I’ll make it: NBC’s hospital drama Mercy was one of the best shows on television last season.

This isn’t, apparently, a very popular opinion. The show, which chronicled the lives of three friends working as nurses in a Jersey City hospital, had consistently low ratings and failed to be renewed for a second season — an especially disappointing state of affairs, since season one ended on a major cliffhanger. But the DVD boxset of the first season comes out this week, and I’d like to provide a handful of compelling reasons for picking it up, if you’ve got cash to spare.

1.) The cast. I decided to watch Mercy before I knew anything about the premise, simply because of the cast. Michelle Trachtenberg, best known as Dawn on Buffy, plays Chloe, the newest nurse in the hospital, and I’ve always been fond of her. Those who were annoyed by Dawn would be smart to give Trachtenberg a second chance, especially here, in her first truly mature role. (Where “mature” means “playing a responsible adult with a job,” not the few sex comedy roles she took to prove she wasn’t a little girl anymore.) Jamie Lee Kirchner, meanwhile, is an actress I was extremely impressed by when I saw her in Broadway’s RENT (as Mimi), and she’s fabulous here as Sonia, the protagonist’s best friend. I hadn’t previously heard of Taylor Schilling, the actress who plays the show’s main protagonist, Iraq veteran Veronica, but she turned out to be fantastic, and her mom is played by the always-amazing Kate Mulgrew. The ensemble is great, too — Guillermo Diaz as another nurse/friend of the protagonists, Diego Klattenhoff as Veronica’s husband, James Tupper as Veronica’s wartime fling, and James LeGros as an arrogant doctor. If you can stand James Van Der Beek’s role as an antagonist in the later episodes of the series, the cast is pretty much perfect.

2.) The feminism. What impressed me most about Mercy, from day one, was the way it was structured around three women who were actually believable friends, rather than catty, backstabbing rivals. The show always passed the Bechdel Test as the women talked to each other about work, about their families, about their hobbies, and, yes, about the men in their lives. And while romantic plots existed (and were hit-or-miss), they were never the focus of the show. Unlike the characters on Grey’s Anatomy, these characters never seemed to be spending time talking about their sex lives when they could have been treating patients — they saved that for the bar after work. Mercy is a show about nurses doing their jobs, and while I can’t comment on the accuracy of the medicine, I always appreciated that the show never implied that nurses were in any way “lesser” than doctors. In fact, the show reminds us, they’re the ones who really do the hard work.

3.) The protagonist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a protagonist like Veronica Callahan. First and foremost, she’s a female war veteran with very obvious, and acknowledged, post-traumatic stress disorder. She may have been primarily on the medical side of the war, but the show acknowledges that even those in the “safer” jobs in the military are under enormous amounts of stress and danger in such unpredictable battlefields. Veronica is a mess — she has flashbacks and fears, she has a temper that gets her in trouble, and she’s an alcoholic on top of everything else — but she’s also strong-willed, stubborn, and determined to do her job. Her love triangle plot, while handled better than it would be on most shows, is almost a disappointment, simply because it’s the least interesting part of her character. The much more interesting narrative is that of a young woman trying to make a place for herself in the world after trauma, and luckily that’s the narrative the show focuses on.

4.) The sense of place. Mercy is set in Jersey City, a major city in my own home state, so I feel qualified to say that the way in which the show uses its location is more akin to shows like Homicide: Life on the Street or New York cop shows than to medical dramas like last season’s abysmal Pittsburgh-set Three Rivers or House (which exists in a Princeton, New Jersey I don’t recognize at all, as a 4-year resident of the town). The Jersey City of Mercy feels absolutely real and absolutely integral to the plot, from the race and class tensions to Veronica’s Irish-American cultural identity to the bars they hang out at after work. While others might not have the same feeling of identification with the setting, anyone can appreciate the show’s strong sense of place, which only serves to make the universe richer and more believable.

5.) The stories. While Mercy does have a tendency to dip into melodrama, its stories are, on the whole, tight and compelling. While Veronica is clearly the protagonist, Chloe and Sonia both get clear arcs over the course of the season and important stories to themselves, and the ensemble is always well-used. (And diverse — Guillermo Diaz has great scenes as a gay, Hispanic male nurse, and Malaysian actress K.K. Moggie does an excellent job as an initially unsympathetic doctor whose layers emerge as she interacts with the other characters.) The medical plots are, I’m sure, as inaccurate as any TV medicine, but the emotional moments with the patients always feel earned, rather than hokey or a little too conveniently related to the characters’ personal dramas. Because the focus is placed so much on the fact that the characters are nurses, those stories serve as character moments in and of themselves, instead of as manipulative parallels.

If anything I’ve talked about piques your interest, I highly suggest checking out the first season on DVD. You can find it here on Amazon or in any local retailer. I doubt DVD sales will rescusitate the show, but if just a few more people got to experience the joy that is season one, I’ll consider my advertisement a success.

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The Problem with American Idiot

July 18, 2010 at 7:01 pm (Review) (, , , )

Broadway’s American Idiot, based on the Green Day album of the same name, is the best Green Day cover band concert you could ever imagine. The performers belt the record’s songs with theatrical ease, backed by an expert on-stage band. They transform solo tunes into duets and group numbers, adding new layers to the familiar music. Behind the performers, a magnificent set rises into the rafters, full of staircases and ladders and swings and wires constructed for the elaborate dance sequences that accompany the songs. Dozens of television sets mounted on the walls add an extra touch, displaying appropriate (or purposely discordant) images and mingling with the stage lights to dazzle the audience. It is, by all rights, an audio-visual spectacular of epic proportions.

Unfortunately, American Idiot purports to be more than a concert, and its successes on the musical front are met by equally great failures in the arenas of plot and character.

I’ve never been a fan of so-called “jukebox musicals,” musicals that construct a story around non-theatrical music from a particular popular artist or artists. Mamma Mia is perhaps the most famous example, mixing as it does a wholly original story with pop hits by ABBA. The story is actually lovely, but the music is so ill-fitting, and so antithetical to the needs of musical theater, that the play falls apart. The lyrics don’t move the plot along, and the musical sequences feel like jarring interruptions of the story rather than natural outcroppings from it. When music is not written for the theater, it rarely works in the context of a play.

Given this history, I was wary of American Idiot at first. But a number of factors differentiate it from the garden-variety jukebox musical. For one thing, it’s based on a concept album that always had some amount of narrative structure to it. For another, the play was conceived, and co-written, by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. This isn’t the case of a nebulous outsider trying to squeeze an artist’s oeuvre into a play; instead, it’s more like The Who’s Tommy, a rock musical created by those who wrote the music to begin with. With these factors in mind – and with an explosive Tony Awards performance in my recent memory – I decided to give the show a shot.

(Spoilers for the play abound from this point on.)

But some of my initial reservations proved accurate. While American Idiot, as an album, does have a narrative structure, the songs are not inherently theatrical. The lyrics are both too repetitive and too complicated – and too abstract, in many cases – to really move a story along, because only viewers who have memorized the songs before attending the show can follow every word. I knew several of the songs in the production going into the play, but not well enough to figure out all the metaphoric intricacies of the lyrics in the moment. Musical lyrics can certainly be complex – just ask Stephen Sondheim – but Green Day’s songs lack a directness and strong narrative quality that songs written for plays need.

This problem was compounded by the fact that, unlike Mamma Mia, there are very few moments in American Idiot that are not musical. Characters say a few words between songs – largely in letters written to each other – but for the most part the play is the music, and that makes it very hard to truly grasp the narrative of the story. I’m sure that fans who have seen the play many times were able to get more out of the story than I did, but repeated viewings shouldn’t be necessary to understand a piece of entertainment that costs $40 or more each time.

And then there was the story itself, and the characters. While American Idiot, as an album, serves as a fascinating, complex indictment of the Bush administration and the problems of life in early 21st century America, the play is basically a story about how very hard it is to be a white, straight, middle class, able-bodied 20-something guy living in the suburbs. And while I’m not opposed to stories about people with that amount of privilege (if I were, I would have to discount about 80% of all Western media), the story told here only serves to highlight how ludicrously selfish and stupid its characters are.

The three protagonists – Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.), Will (Michael Esper), and Tunny (Stark Sands) – are long-time friends still living at home, spending all their time drinking and smoking pot and playing video games. Suddenly seized by the need to leave their “empty” suburban lives, the friends decide to move to the big city and see the “real world.” Unfortunately, Will’s girlfriend, Heather (Mary Faber) reveals she’s pregnant, and he decides to stay home to take care of the baby. Johnny and Tunny still follow through with their plan, but Tunny, depressed and aimless, winds up joining the army and going to Iraq, leaving Johnny alone to sink into a life of drug abuse. After the death of Johnny’s (possibly metaphorical) drug dealer, the loss of Tunny’s leg in the war, and the separation of Will from his wife, the three friends reunite in their hometown to close out the play.

The fact that I was able to describe the entire plot in that tiny paragraph says something about how thin the story is. It’s also impossible for me to give a fuller description of the characters’ personalities, because, since they’re only expressed through non-theatrical, poorly-functioning songs, they essentially have none, no matter how hard the (very competent) actors tried. The only character I felt anything for was Tunny, since his wartime trials and tribulations are much more serious and sympathetic than the completely self-inflicted, selfish misery his friends go through. But he still lacked any real personality, and I realized partway through the play that I only felt anything for him because I was mentally inserting details of Stark Sands’ military character from HBO’s Generation Kill.

Then there’s the play’s women problem. While the leads are all white, Johnny’s love interest, Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Tunny’s war nurse/love interest, The Extraordinary Girl (Christina Sajous) are women of color. Neither has any more personality than the leads, which I wouldn’t have expected, but unlike the leads, they don’t get the opportunity to express anything from their own point of view – they don’t even have actual names — and thus become little more than fetish objects for the men. This is especially problematic in one scene, in which Tunny hallucinates his nurse dressed in a burqa, which she sexily strips off to reveal a stereotypical midriff-baring harem costume. Not only is she a fetish object, but she’s a fetish object representing a stereotypical image of the very real women of the Middle East.

I’m a huge fan of RENT, and American Idiot, with its rock score, disaffected young characters, and drug-filled urban setting, has been called RENT’s spiritual descendent. But whatever RENT’s flaws – and I’m not blind enough to claim it has none – its cast features characters across the spectrums of gender, sexuality, race, and socio-economic background, and they all possess agency and express themselves through their own point of view. American Idiot has none of that, and the abundant privilege of its protagonists makes it extraordinarily difficult to relate to them, or believe their protests. The American government and culture they’re lambasting is harming them least of all the people that populate the country, and they’re completely unaware of the irony. They sing, “maybe I’m the faggot America,” symbolic of their inability to fit in, but it only highlights the fact that they do fit in – unlike the gay (or non-white, lower class, etc. etc.) Americans who are completely absent from the play. What works in Green Day’s album – which is, understandably, from the perspective of only one singer – comes off as blind and borderline offensive on the stage.

I hesitate to completely lambast the show, since, as I noted, the staging and technical elements, performances, and music are all spectacular. But without a strong story or characters to hang those elements on, American Idiot is little more than a sparkling, charismatic failure.

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Thoughts on Avatar from a Future Media Studies Scholar

February 1, 2010 at 3:57 pm (Review) (, , , )

As those of you who read my twitter already know, last week I got a phone call accepting me to the media and cultural studies PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is, well, pretty damn exciting, and I’ve been a little bouncy about it ever since. I haven’t heard from my other potential schools yet, so I haven’t made any final decisions, but the program at Madison looks nothing short of amazing and perfectly in line with my interests – that is, academically analyzing comics, children’s media, and the representation of race, gender, and sexuality in film and TV.

So this weekend, with those future plans in mind, I decided to finally bite the bullet and go to see James Cameron’s Avatar. Epic sci-fi doesn’t tend to be my thing at the best of times, and I’d heard enough about the racial implications of the story, and the general poor quality of the script, that I didn’t think Avatar was something I particularly needed to see. But, I figured, if I’m going to be a media studies scholar, it would be silly not to see the newly-minted highest-grossing film of all time. And so I went.

I’ll say this up front: the movie exceeded my expectations. Granted, my expectations were exceptionally low. But I was impressed with a lot of features of the movie: the realism of the CGI, the effectiveness of the 3D, the beauty of the set pieces. The artistic design was simply gorgeous, and though my knowledge of the technical processes of filmmaking is close to nonexistent, I can see why some are heralding this film as a giant step forward in technological innovation. I hope the technology developed and perfected for Avatar will be used effectively in many future (and, hopefully, better) films.

The length didn’t bother me, either; I didn’t find myself looking at my watch. The movie was well-paced and visually engaging even when the script left me cold. And I was generally impressed, with some caveats, with the representation of women in the film, one of Cameron’s acknowledged strengths. But the racial problems were, ultimately, too massive to ignore.

I’ll cut here, for the sake of the 2.5 people in the world who plan to see this movie but have yet to do so.

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Whip It Good

October 21, 2009 at 9:30 am (Review) (, )

Whip It

I saw Whip It yesterday. I didn’t know if I was going to get to see it in theaters; my personal life has been a bit of a mess lately, with family emergencies piling on top of each other, and a lot of my friends had already seen it by the time I was available to be social again. But a few of us managed to go last night, and I am so, so glad I did.

Was it a perfect movie? No. The plot was on the side of predictable, and subplots involving the protagonist’s opponents in a beauty pageant and enemies at school were never developed quite enough. But the cast was universally excellent, and the way the film handled family, love, and especially female friendship was absolutely fantastic. And in at least one way, the movie was, despite its predictability, wonderfully subversive.

Spoilers for Whip It follow.

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