Entertainment | The Atlantic
Lady Gaga's Illness Is Not a Metaphor
September 21st, 2017, 12:35 PM

“Pain without a cause is pain we can’t trust,” the author Leslie Jamison wrote in 2014. “We assume it’s been chosen or fabricated.”

Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” unpacked the suffering-woman archetype, which encompasses literature’s broken hearts (Anna Karenina, Miss Havisham) and society’s sad girls—the depressed, the anorexic, and in the 19th century, the tubercular. Wariness about being defined by suffering, she argued, had led many modern women to adopt a new pose. She wrote, “The post-​wounded woman conducts herself as if preempting certain accusations: Don’t cry too loud; don’t play victim.” Jamison questioned whether this was an overcorrection. “The possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it,” she wrote. “Pain that gets performed is still pain.”

Jamison’s work might come to mind when watching Lady Gaga’s new documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two, or when reading about the singer postponing her European tour. The pop star this month informed the world that she suffers from fibromyalgia, which causes chronic muscle pain. In the documentary, she visits the doctor, she curls up on a couch, she cries in agony. On Instagram, she prays while holding a rosary. The caption is a lengthy apology to her fans for having to postpone upcoming performances due to her condition.

While forthright, Gaga’s statements about her struggle have been somewhat couched in embarrassment—and the public has responded with both sympathy and skepticism. “I use the word ‘suffer’ not for pity, or attention, and have been disappointed to see people online suggest that I’m being dramatic, making this up, or playing the victim to get out of touring,” she wrote. It’s not the first time she’s been doubted or criticized about something that her body has gone through. When hip surgery made her cancel her 2013 tour, some folks accused her of faking her injury because of underwhelming ticket sales.

In many ways, this skepticism is deeply familiar. It is a documented fact that women tend to report more pain than men—but also that their pain is seen as less credible, with women less likely to be given strong pain relievers, facing inordinately long wait times to be treated, and likely to be told that their problems are mental or emotional rather than physical. It’s not hard to draw a line from the presumptions underlying that inequality to the gendered way that literature and music about suffering is often classified. It’s also easy to see how such attitudes give rise to the “post-wounded” affect Jamison writes about.

This bias is, in fact, so familiar that there are scripts that a plugged-in, empathetic person might use to respond to Gaga. “Believe women,” goes the mantra of campaigns to curb sexual assault. “Believe the patient,” counsels medical literature on the topic of pain. But Gaga’s situation presents another test of compassion and trust. Believe the pop star? Who’d be so gullible as to do that?

* * *

Of all the celebrities to face a medical trial in public, Gaga would seem a particularly complex one. She rose to stardom for celebrating the artifice of fame: for leaning into the fabulous possibilities of forgetting the self, for bypassing “realness” in glimmering studio pastiches. Authenticity, fixed identity, and even the limitations of the human body were, explicitly, jokes in her universe. You needed not know Gaga the person.

But Gaga has spent the past three years deconstructing her previous project, which is its own kind of performance. Elaborate dance pop ceded ground to jazz standards, showtunes, and country rock. Tentacle gowns went into the closet; jeans and a pink cowboy hat came out. The director Chris Moukarbel shot Five Foot Two largely on handheld—maybe even smartphone—cameras. You see her cooking, recording, planning, crying, bonding. In one scene, she’s topless as she chats with her team by the poolside. The implication: This is Gaga, au naturel. Yet she never seems to forget the camera.

Five Foot Two documents last year’s release of her album Joanne, and makes clear how much Gaga’s public reboot relied on demonstrating that she, like everyone else, suffers. Gaga has increasingly mined the traumas of her own life, with songs and philanthropic efforts growing out of her rape at age 19. The dissolution of her engagement to the actor Taylor Kinney, mournfully referenced a few times in the documentary, seemed to inform the breakup-themed Joanne singles “Perfect Illusion” and Million Reasons.”

But there was a deeper source of anguish on Joanne, too. The album is named for her aunt, an aspiring artist who died of lupus at age 19 in 1974. “Seeing what that did to [my father] and my family was the most powerful thing I experienced growing up,” Gaga tells the journalist Darryl Pinckney in the film. “I am Joanne. I am my father’s daughter. That is what this record is about.”

The most memorable scene of the documentary comes when she first plays the album’s delicate, acoustic title track for her grandmother, Joanne’s mom. The moment verges on uncomfortable, and not only because Gaga’s father, Joanne’s brother, gets up and leaves the room in apparent distress midway through. Gaga herself seems hungry to have her telling of an ordeal she did not personally experience validated by those who did. “Did I get it right?” she asks her grandmother, mid-hug. “Yes you did,” her grandmother responds. But she has a warning for Gaga, too: “Don’t become maudlin over all this.”

It’s never explicitly stated, but Gaga seems to connect to Joanne’s story in part because of her own medical situation. Iconography about hospitals and crutches and wheelchairs over the years hinted that the seemingly bionic pop star faced problems of the flesh off-stage. In 2010, she told Larry King she tested “borderline positive” for lupus. She’s still feeling the effects of the injury she sustained in 2013, as seen in a Five Foot Two moment when she pauses rehearsals for her Super Bowl halftime show because of hip tightness. Fibromyalgia appears to make that problem worse, and being a pop star in chronic pain certainly doesn’t seem easy. One scene shows her having her makeup done for a performance while sitting in a doctor’s examination room.

Gaga’s particular ailment is an almost-literal rendering of Jamison’s “pain without a cause”—which is, as she notes, “pain which can’t be trusted.” A poorly understood but widespread disorder that seems to inordinately affect women, fibromyalgia is sometimes assumed to be psychosomatic. “Drug Approved. Is Disease Real?” read a 2008 New York Times headline about the first FDA-sanctioned drug to treat it. Gaga has said that she wants to help raise awareness and research dollars. During one excruciating flare-up shown in Five Foot Two, she sympathizes with less-privileged sufferers of the disorder: “Like, I don’t know what I’d fuckin’ do if I didn’t have everybody here to help me.”

A few moments later, she’s looking straight into the camera. “Do I look pathetic?” she asks, tear-streaked, lying on a couch, a therapist massaging her. “I’m so embarrassed.” It’s a powerful moment because the stigma of pain is clearly part of the pain itself. But it’s also aesthetically striking. To answer Gaga’s question, she actually looks like she did in parts of the “Bad Romance” video—crying, stripped down, and oddly luminous. It’s a sign of fame’s power on the viewer: Whatever lengths she might go to put person over persona, the persona remains.

* * *

Pop music has firmly moved on from the phase of gleeful, Technicolor artifice that Gaga stood for at her peak. Contemporaries in wildness like Kesha and Miley Cyrus have done much what Gaga has done and traded Alexander McQueen creations for cowboy boots. They have also made a diaristic turn, harmonizing their music with their angsty, tabloid sagas.

Usually this means trading on the spectacle of suffering to sell pop’s ultimate commodity—inspiration. Beyoncé’s Lemonade is the signal example, taking the sting of infidelity to spin a tale of hurt and overcoming. Kesha’s alleged abuse by her mentor and producer Dr. Luke was addressed and transcended on this year’s Rainbow. Katy Perry marketed her latest album with an on-camera therapy session in which she cried about her “real” self wanting to be known. Taylor Swift seems on the verge of unveiling a more acidic survival story.

“Victim to victory” songs are always in fashion, but the latest boom relies, more than pop usually does, on the feeling of authenticity. Adult listeners of drive-time radio typically know they’re in the realm of fantasy and commerce, yet fully enjoying the confessional-pop performance means buying into the non-musical narratives surrounding them. Beyoncé rolled her own child and husband into the Lemonade visual experience. “I write this shit, baby,” Kesha insisted on a recent single. You’re explicitly asked to believe that the gap between performer and person is negligible.

Joanne already fit into this triumphant-confessional class, with Gaga singing about family members and friends by name and roaring, “I might not be flawless but you know I’ve got a diamond heart.” The meta-text, all along, was Gaga’s own career arc—a sense that she’d come down from the heights she’d reached from 2008 to 2013, stumbled with her third album, and might never recover. Glimmers of past traumas and family tragedy added to the pathos. Her medical troubles would seem to retroactively add in a new layer, though it’s unclear when she received her fibromyalgia diagnosis, and little on the album can be heard as an explicit reference to illness. Certainly the lyrics about healing through love on her post-Joanne single, “The Cure,” now seem a lot less generic.

Susan Sontag’s 1976 essay “Illness as Metaphor” warned against real physical sickness becoming reduced, in the cultural consciousness, to symbols of strength and weakness, nobility and sin. “My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking,” the critic wrote. Yet pop musicians, by trade, render the entire world in metaphor. One love story is everyone’s; the smallest triumph stands in for the largest and vice versa.

Thus far, though, Gaga has mostly communicated about her illness in straightforward terms: footage showing her in pain and statements saying she simply, practically, cannot perform. It’s left up to the public to connect Gaga’s Joanne-era theme of vulnerability with her real-life medical saga. But perhaps that connection is better off undrawn: Gaga’s current struggle is just a struggle, not a statement about the human condition or about the singer’s own career. Inevitably, some will question her suffering—because she’s a woman, because of the nature of her sickness, and because of her job as a performer. But pain performed, as Jamison wrote, is still pain. And for now, Gaga is asking not for applause but understanding.

Battle of the Sexes Is a Breezy Crowd-Pleaser
September 21st, 2017, 12:35 PM

The most significant conflict in Battle of the Sexes isn’t the much hyped exhibition tennis game between the legendary athletes Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone)—the real-life 1973 match that’s the ostensible subject of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s new film. More gripping is the struggle that plays out in the background of the famous match, one that built the foundation of the modern sport. In the first half of the movie, King organizes a boycott of a major tennis tournament over the disparity in prize money between men and women, and helps found the Virginia Slims Circuit, a series of tennis tournaments that eventually became the Women’s Tennis Association, a principal organizing body of the sport.

As played by Stone, King is somewhat mousy and shy in private, and even-handed and friendly in public. So, of course, she’s tarred as a radical by old boys of the sport like Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the organizer of the tournament she pulls out of. King’s supposed extremism amounted to arguing for equal prize money for female players and a union to help support their profession. The outsized reaction her effort received is the most fascinating part of Battle of the Sexes, a crowd-pleasing, middle-of-the-road piece of cinema that’s nonetheless frighteningly relevant today.

Battle of the Sexes is directed with all the verve of a TV movie. It depicts tennis as little more than a job for King and a lark for Riggs, a retired legend of the sport who is now touring the oldies circuit to try and cover his gambling debts. That’s perfectly fitting, however, for a film covering a sporting event that was about much more than pure athleticism. Riggs vs. King was a sideshow blown up to national proportions by Riggs’s skill for advertising his own brand of chauvinism, which he inflated to cartoonish proportions to get himself back in the news and eventually lure King onto the court.

As King notes before their showdown, Riggs is largely just putting on a show for the cameras—but his public supporters, including Kramer, bought into his argument that men were inherently superior athletes and deserving of more prize money. Battle of the Sexes might be about a seemingly innocuous publicity stunt, but it was a stunt that became symbolic of a generational war over gender roles. King was no longer one athlete, but a standard-bearer for the very concept of feminism, and the battle she had to fight was not the one she was trying to draw attention to.

It’s not hard to connect the dots to the present day, especially when considering Riggs’s particular Trumpian brand of showmanship. But there’s little malevolence to Carell, who plays Riggs as a mostly harmless buffoon, a lovable cad spouting canned lines about women belonging in the kitchen. His half of the movie, as a result, feels pretty airless and slow—there aren’t many compelling stakes to his publicity ploy outside of his gambling addiction, which is presented with the same easy-breezy tone as everything else. Riggs shouldn’t be someone viewers take super-seriously, but as a competitive foil, he isn’t much to root against either.

King’s half is much more interesting, and Stone’s performance is surprisingly thoughtful and internal—less of a broad impression than Carell’s. The early chunk of the film, which follows King’s organization of the pioneering Virginia Slims Tour alongside the famed publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), is engaging, as is the material focusing on her burgeoning relationship with her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Dayton and Faris handle King’s first lesbian relationship with far more nuance and care than the main storyline, which often feels like little more than a loose summary leading up to an inevitable conclusion—the big ’73 match at the Houston Astrodome.

Riseborough is extremely winning as Barnett, a freer spirit than the relatively buttoned-down King, and her chemistry with Stone is effortlessly tender, even as their relationship threatens to spill into the public eye and endanger King’s marriage. Much like the story of the Virginia Slims Tour, King and Barnett’s romance almost feels like it could carry its own movie; and as a subplot, it’s far more enthralling than scenes of Carell palling around with his tennis buddies and causing a ruckus at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting.

But even though the subplots about King’s life generate the best drama, the film is ploddingly building to a much simpler (and less interesting) showdown: the “battle of the sexes” itself. Dayton and Faris first depict Riggs’s May 1973 match against King’s rival Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), a thorough victory for Riggs that prompts King to finally accept his challenge to try and shut him up. I won’t spoil the outcome of the Riggs-King match (though a quick Google search would certainly do that for you), but there isn’t much suspense to the script, written by the Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire). The battle’s been waged throughout the movie, on many fronts, and it’s clear what side the storytellers are rooting for.

How This Year's Oscar Contenders Are Tackling Trump
September 20th, 2017, 12:35 PM

When introducing his new movie The Shape of Water at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, the director Guillermo del Toro was clear about the message he wanted to convey. The Shape of Water is a romantic, grown-up fairytale, where a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) working at a secret government facility in 1962 falls in love with a sea creature (Doug Jones) that’s being held there against its will. It’s a story of empathy triumphing over prejudice, one where the facility’s villainous supervisor (Michael Shannon) is largely driven by hatred of what he doesn’t understand.

“It’s super easy to sound smart when you’re a cynic,” del Toro said of the movie. “And I just thought, can we listen to The Beatles and Jesus, and sound smart when we talk about love?” Such a statement might sound trite, but it’s the bedrock of the film’s storytelling. When discussing The Shape of Water, del Toro (who is Mexican) has been equally upfront about how its sea creature is a stand-in for “the other,” or the outsider, in any kind of political situation. As this year’s Oscar race kicks off, del Toro’s movie is resonating—it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It’s also part of a larger trend in political and allegorical mainstream filmmaking, where directors are plainly and loudly tackling the Trump administration, some with more grace than others.

The Toronto International Film Festival, which ended Sunday, has long been a proving ground for Oscar buzz, a preview of the next few months in cinema where movies either begin to build critical momentum for a major awards campaign or wither on the vine. This year, a sizable chunk of the festival’s biggest hits have a few key things in common—they’re coming out in the first full year of the Trump administration, they’re deeply topical despite many of them being period pieces covering unfortunate historical events, and they have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

The Shape of Water is an excellent film because it functions as both a parable and a delightful genre work that’s by turns rollicking fun and soaringly emotional. Del Toro has taken this storytelling approach in the past, particularly with his Spanish-language movies set in the shadow of the Spanish Civil War (The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth). But The Shape of Water is more directly applicable to the current debate raging over the White House’s hardline immigration policies and the emergence of the alt-right.

Del Toro hasn’t shied away from that interpretation, saying of Shannon’s villain, “He doesn’t see anyone because his arrogance is so big. ... It speaks about the issue we have today that choosing fear over love is a disaster.” When asked about the current political climate, he said, “It’s like a cancer. We have a tumor now. That doesn’t mean the cancer started with that tumor. It was gestating for so long.” In dramatizing America’s idealized past in The Shape of Water, del Toro tries to get at the root of problems in the present. The film takes place in the ’60s, when the country is a forward-looking superpower, but the story is set largely within a darker underbelly. “If you were white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, it was a great time to be alive,” del Toro said of that decade. “If you were not, if you were anything else, it was not.”

The allegory of American rot in The Shape of Water is mythic, but other Toronto hits were more obvious in their political parallels. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Battle of the Sexes, a recounting of the famous 1973 exhibition tennis game between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), all but invites viewers to map it onto the 2016 election. Riggs is a loudmouthed, if brazenly charismatic, performer who gets TV publicity by barking misogynistic opinions about women. King is unfairly burdened by the mantle of her sex, as her showdown with Riggs is billed as a winner-take-all war between Riggs’s outmoded values and the feminist movement. Dayton and Faris’s film is a gentle crowd-pleaser, but it would have seemed broader and more dated if it were released just a couple years earlier, before the Trump-Clinton race.

Darkest Hour (Focus Features)

Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, a biopic of Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman, assured of an Oscar win next year) first month in office as prime minister amid the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, would have felt similarly passé not long ago. The film centers on Churchill’s boisterous resistance to the invading German armies, and the disquiet that provokes within his party, which still has a substantial contingent hoping to sue for peace. Wright and the screenwriter Anthony McCarten turn that ideological fight into a swooning parable of courage in one’s convictions and the necessity of standing up to extremism rather than trying to meet it halfway—a seemingly simple message that’s delivered with old-fashioned, stiff-upper-lip panache.

Other TIFF films focused on times in American politics that were similarly fraught, even if their contemporary resonance is less clear. Peter Landesman’s Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is a biopic about the FBI lifer who became “Deep Throat,” the journalist Bob Woodward’s source on the Watergate scandal. As written and directed by Landesman (a former journalist who has written for The Atlantic), the movie has the same blunt competence of his last film, Concussion, and sees Liam Neeson playing Felt as a warrior for political sanity in an age of back-stabbing chaos. Unfortunately, the movie misses some of the deeper complexity of the internecine wars between various government agencies at the time.

There’s also Chappaquiddick, a retelling of the 1969 car accident that almost ended the political career of Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) and resulted in the death of his brother’s former campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). That film, directed by John Curran, is much more narrowly invested in the double-edged mythos of the Kennedy family and is impressive mostly for how bitterly it portrays its subject, considering his eventual bounce-back. But given the many current scandals and distrust in government, any story touching on relevant tales from the past should find purchase with studios seeking Oscar gold.

There are films looking to take on the harder task of examining American race relations in more specific ways than The Shape of Water’s depiction of “the other.” Dee Rees’s terrific Mudbound, which has been acquired by Netflix, follows a white family and a black family in post–Civil War Mississippi, digging into the ways their dynamics have and haven’t changed since the conflict. But that movie (based on a novel by Hillary Jordan) succeeds because it’s character-driven, spending time on the backstories of each member of its ensemble and building slowly, and carefully, to its tragic outcome.

Suburbicon (Paramount)

George Clooney’s Suburbicon, which had a rocky debut at TIFF, tries a more forthright approach, marrying a script about suburban crime shenanigans written by the Coen brothers in the 1980s with a real-life story. Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov took the Coens’ script and added a subplot based on the case of the African American Myers family, who moved into the Pennsylvania suburb of Levittown and were subjected to months of racially motivated torment by their white neighbors who wanted to drive them out. In joining the two ideas, Clooney seems to be trying to make a point about the ignorance and sublimated evil of the white couple (played by Matt Damon and Julianne Moore) at the center of the darkly comedic main plot. But since the two storylines never interact, and the actors playing the Myers family aren’t given much screen time, the juxtaposition feels bizarre, as does the uplifting note Clooney decides to end things on.

In talking about the movie, Clooney admitted he made story changes after Trump was elected (in the middle of Suburbicon’s production). “It changed the temperature on the film a little bit. ...  The goofy seemed too goofy,” he told me. “It was really written as a piece to talk about the idea that there’s a group of white Americans who are terrified that they’re losing their place in society and are blaming minorities for it.” Clooney’s intentions might have been noble, but Suburbicon was poorly received—it’ll be best remembered as an early reaction to a political moment that’s far from over. But when I spoke with him, Clooney did hit upon something that’s true about every wildly topical era in Hollywood: Movies succeed not when they’re didactic, but when they manage to reflect or capture a larger national mood.

“I don’t think films can tell people what to think, and I don’t think films can lead anything [politically] because it just takes too long to make them,” Clooney said. “What films can do is they can point to a moment in time in your history and tell you what you were thinking.” In the ’60s, Hollywood made films about nuclear paranoia and the end of the world; in the ’70s, it churned out cynical dramas about the nation’s growing distrust in government and rejection of societal norms. Now, viewers are seeing a wave of mainstream cinema that’s trying to find the right language for empathy and political resistance. As Clooney noted, movies can tell the country what it’s thinking, and this year’s Oscar crop is just the start of that effort.

The Anger of Jimmy Kimmel
September 20th, 2017, 12:35 PM

“By the way, before you post a nasty Facebook message saying I’m politicizing my son’s health problems, I want you to know: I am politicizing my son’s health problems.”   

That was Jimmy Kimmel on Tuesday evening, in a monologue reacting to the introduction of Graham-Cassidy, the (latest) bill that seeks to replace the Affordable Care Act. Kimmel had talked about health care on his show before, in May—when, after his newborn son had undergone open-heart surgery to repair the damage of a congenital heart defect, he delivered a tearfully personal monologue sharing the experience of going through that—and acknowledging that he and his family were lucky: They could afford the surgery, whatever it might cost. Kimmel concluded his speech by, yes, politicizing his son’s health problems: He emphasized how important it is for lower- and middle-class families to have comprehensive insurance coverage, with protections for people with preexisting conditions. “No parent,” he said, speaking through tears, “should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life. It shouldn’t happen.”

The monologue went viral—it was a speech that “will surely be a big part of his late-night legacy,” my colleague David Sims noted at the time—and one of the people who saw it was Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. The politician, a physician by trade, soon began talking about the need for an Obamacare replacement that would pass the “Jimmy Kimmel test.” Cassidy appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, sound-biting the same message. Cassidy assured Kimmel—and, per the transitive property of late-night television, the American public—that he would work to create a new health-care bill that would pass that test.

The bill Cassidy ended up co-authoring with Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, which the two introduced earlier this month—a bill that, in the frenzied fashion becoming so common with such things, may be voted on next week—does not pass the test.

And so, on Tuesday, Jimmy Kimmel yet again politicized his son’s health problems. This time not with tears, but with anger.

“I don’t know what happened to Bill Cassidy,” Kimmel told his audience. “But when he was on this publicity tour, he listed his demands for a health-care bill very clearly. These were his words. He said he wants coverage for all, no discrimination based on preexisting conditions, lower premiums for middle-class families, and no lifetime caps.”

Kimmel paused. “Guess what? The new bill does none of those things.”

The bill does pass Cassidy’s “Jimmy Kimmel test,” the host allowed—but a different Kimmel test. “With this one, your child with a preexisting condition will get the care he needs—if, and only if, his father is Jimmy Kimmel. Otherwise, you might be screwed.”

It was a notable shift. The power of Kimmel’s earlier speech on health care was not just the pathos of its story, but also its ability to make the political personal: to drive home the idea that, while “health care” might seem academic and theoretical, it can, in an instant, become intensely personal, with stakes no less than life or death. Kimmel, this time around, took that same logic—the political, made personal—but applied it to a single person: Bill Cassidy.

“This is not my area of expertise,” Kimmel said. “My area of expertise is eating pizza, and that’s really about it. But we can’t let him do this to our children, and our senior citizens, and our veterans, or to any of us,” Kimmel told his audience.

We can’t let him. We can’t let him.

And then Kimmel zoomed out, extending his anger to Cassidy’s colleagues. “Health care is complicated,” Kimmel noted. “It’s boring. I don’t want to talk about it. The details are confusing. And that’s what these guys are relying on. They’re counting on you to be so overwhelmed with all the information, you just trust them to take care of you. But they’re not taking care of you. They’re taking care of the people who give them money. Like insurance companies.”

They. They. They.

Kimmel is a host who once boasted that an episode of his show would be “Trump-free”—and who once announced that “if anyone says the name of the orange-colored man with the Russian boyfriend, they will have to put $100 in that jar that Guillermo is holding right there.” Now, though, the politics have knocked on his own door, at his own home, for his own son. And he is rising to meet them—another late-night host who is embracing the idea that politics and entertainment are, at this moment in America, tightly tangled together. On Tuesday, at the end of his monologue, Kimmel listed the medical interest groups that have opposed Graham-Cassidy. He shared a number that viewers can call to tell their representatives that they oppose the bill. He took for granted that anger can be its own political force.

“There’s a new Jimmy Kimmel test for you,” Kimmel told Cassidy: “It’s called the lie detector test. You’re welcome to stop by the studio and take it anytime.”

The Good Place Is Still TV Heaven
September 20th, 2017, 12:35 PM

This story contains spoilers through the whole first season of The Good Place.

The moment The Good Place transformed from genially quirky sitcom to malevolently brilliant work of art came at the end of the first season, when Eleanor (Kristen Bell) finally twigged that something was extremely wrong with heaven. After dying in the first episode and being welcomed by an angel named Michael (Ted Danson) to a sterilized, fro-yo friendly paradise, Eleanor spent the series trying to earn her spot in The Good Place, since a clerical error seemed to have sent her there by accident. But observing how efficiently the afterlife emotionally tortured Eleanor and her three new friends, she concluded that it was actually The Bad Place, a.k.a. hell. With that, Michael’s gentle expression twisted into a diabolical grin, revealing the monster he’d been all along.

Not since a journalist morphed into Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate has a metamorphosis been so jarring. Of course, there were clues: Michael kicked a puppy in the very second episode, and no self-respecting Elysium so closely resembles a chichi outdoor mall in Pasadena. But Eleanor wasn’t the only target. We, the audience, had been fooled into thinking The Good Place was just a zany comedy about a drunken pharmaceutical rep who lucks her way into heaven, but really it was a much craftier and more complex beast, using food puns and toilet humor to disguise a show that was deeply interested in the moral philosophy of existence. When Eleanor scribbled a note to herself to “find Chidi,” her “soulmate” (William Jackson Harper) who actually ended up being her soulmate, she wrote it on a page ripped from T.M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other, a 1998 treatise that considers the duty humans have to be good to one another.

The brilliance of the twist was that it upended everything viewers thought they knew about the show while also making perfect sense. Where could a second season go from there? Judging by the first four episodes, two of which air on Wednesday night before the show returns to a normal Thursday schedule, The Good Place’s showrunner, Michael Schur, has it all figured out. To reveal too much would be to spoil the surprise, but the second series picks up where the first left off, with Eleanor in The Good Place 2.0, her memory wiped, trying to decipher the note she wrote for herself while acclimating to an afterlife that’s just as strange as ever, though tinged with a more palpable darkness.

The most obvious advantage of The Good Place post-reveal is that it allows Danson to play up his devilish side. His fiendish giggle from the finale, rapidly immortalized in GIF form, offered a glimpse of Michael’s potential as a baddie, but he’s not just evil in the new episodes—he’s in trouble. Understandably so, since the (dubious) conceit of The Good Place is that it’s a worthwhile investment to recruit hundreds of demons as actors and construct a huge paradise just to torture four souls who weren’t even that terrible during their time on Earth. (In addition to Eleanor, Michael’s carefully crafted hell-alternative was designed to plague Chidi, a Senegalese ethics professor who can’t make decisions; Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a self-absorbed and shallow philanthropist; and Jason (Manny Jacinto), a moronic DJ and wannabe dancer from Jacksonville.)

The Good Place has always had elements of a workplace comedy, but with Michael intent on finding ways to make his elaborate idea work, the show is now more explicitly akin to The Office and Parks and Recreation (both of which Schur also worked on). Michael gives himself comforting pep talks about confidence before Skype meetings with his boss, a demonic higher-up (Marc Evan Jackson). And he has to negotiate with his disgruntled underlings, most of whom want to go back to their old jobs pulling out fingernails, tossing people into acid pits, and working the old (self-explanatory) penis flattener. There’s a meta element, too, with the demon who played Real Eleanor last season (Tiya Sircar) now unhappy with her new, diminished role (“There’s a great arc coming for Denise the Pizza Lady,” Michael tells her, placatingly.)

Watching the first few episodes, I was concerned that it all seemed too scattered, with Groundhog Day–like repetition that could quickly become wearing. But I wasn’t giving Schur enough credit. There’s a distinct plan in place, one that opens up all kinds of new narrative ground for the show to explore. Along the way, it gets to pursue the most fascinating questions it set up last season. What does moral growth really mean? What if The Good/Bad Place ended up redeeming the four souls it was designed to torture? What if Michael, in trying to devise a hell for others, created a world that ended up tormenting him just as much? And, most intriguingly, what does the real Good Place look like?

These are complex existential questions for a show obsessed with terrible puns (“Knish From a Rose,” “Biscotti Pippen,” and “Beignet and the Jets” are a few of the bakeries in the new, improved Good/Bad Place), one that has space in its universe for something called “butthole spiders.” But that’s the magic of The Good Place: The bad stuff is really what makes it special.

An Emmy Win for The Handmaid's Tale Paints a Dystopian Future for Traditional TV
September 19th, 2017, 12:35 PM

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale won the Emmy award for Best Drama Series on Sunday night, the first time that a streaming service has snagged the show’s top award.

In many ways, this is a surprising news peg (Hulu?!) for an unsurprising story (the rise of streaming television). Hulu is a distant third behind Netflix and Amazon in the streaming wars, which makes last night’s underdog achievement impressive. But it was only a matter of time before a streaming company took home an award for best series. Netflix has been nominated for top drama or comedy several times—for House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Master of None, and Amazon has earned several nods for Transparent.

Meanwhile, the growth of prestige television on streaming services is part of the long term decline of critical darlings on broadcast television (NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox). The last broadcast production to win the Emmy for top drama was 24, on Fox, in 2006. While comedies like 30 Rock (NBC) and Modern Family (ABC) have thrived at the Emmy’s in the last decade, HBO's Veep has won the last three awards for best comedy series. Critically acclaimed shows aren’t the only thing in decline on broadcast television. Everything else is, too. Out of 78 prime-time broadcast series that aired in both 2016 and 2017, only one—ABC’s The Bachelor—increased its viewership among people under 50.

So, what exactly is the larger significance of Hulu’s win?

As a first-order effect, one should expect Hulu to spend more money on prestige dramas and other expensive shows. Hulu senior vice president Craig Erwich told New York Magazine that he wanted to use The Handmaid’s Tale—“the most-viewed launch of a show in [Hulu’s] history”—to build the network’s roster of dramas. “If you look at the history of entertainment, often there can be a show that defines a service, but it does not itself make the service,” he said. “Because you have to continue to follow up.”

Hulu’s redoubled attempts to pad their roster will create even more competition in the crowded market for prestige drama, adding to what is already a glut of cinematic television. A superabundance of expensive television shows is good news for streaming networks that are supported by subscriptions, since each new show offers another reason for unconvinced viewers to sign up for the service. But it’s bad news for networks that are supported by advertising, since more shows divided by a stable population means fewer viewers per show. Prestigious awards alone might not cause viewers to cut the cord. But if they contribute to a growing sense that most must-see television is on streaming services, it weakens the pay-TV product and encourages future cord-cutters.

There’s also a notable demographic split: Americans over 65, who broke for Trump by an 8 point margin, are watching more traditional television than ever. Americans under 30, who voted for Clinton by an 18-point margin, have reduced their traditional television viewing time by 50 percent since the Great Recession. And the divide showed at Sunday’s Emmy’s. The show wasn’t just a historic moment for these streaming services. It was also an extended roasting of President Trump, from Stephen Colbert’s monologue, to Sean Spicer’s appearance, to many, many presentations and thank-you speeches that skewered the president. In an age of hyper-polarization, Americans can’t even share television anymore.

What Is the Meaning of Mother!?
September 19th, 2017, 12:35 PM

This story contains spoilers throughout for the plot of mother!

Since it was announced, the prime selling point of Darren Aronofsky’s new film mother! has been two-fold: that it stars one of the most famous actresses working today, Jennifer Lawrence, and that the particulars of its plot are an utter mystery. Well, after months of secrecy, the movie hit theaters in wide release last weekend, and audiences are finally getting the chance to puzzle over this bizarre, chaotic work of horror.

Aronofsky’s tale is blunt, fantastical, and obviously laden with symbolism, but for me, the biggest delight about mother! is how many people have shared with me their different takes on the film’s message. My colleague Christopher Orr discussed the movie’s openness to multiple interpretations in his review, noting both the story’s Biblical allusions and its apparent self-referential tone about the difficulty of life as an artist, and how monstrous creators can become. Now that mother! is out, it’s worth dig more deeply into the great debate that’s already emerged over the film’s meaning.

The plot of mother! is very simple—at least until it starts getting more unhinged. It begins on a shot of a woman’s crying face in the middle of a vast inferno, after which a man (Javier Bardem) inserts a crystal into a pedestal and magically repairs the burnt home around him. Cut to: an unnamed woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who lives in this gorgeous house in the middle of nowhere with her husband (Bardem). He’s a poet of some renown, busy toiling on his next great work (although he appears to be suffering from writer’s block). She’s devotedly renovating their home, painting the walls and such, and seems to have some mystical power to “feel” the heart of the house, by touching the walls and visualizing a giant, pumping organ.

Soon enough, another man (Ed Harris) shows up, identifying himself as a doctor looking for a place to stay. Bardem (the characters have no names, so it’s easier to identify them by their performers) invites him in and the two rapidly bond, to Lawrence’s discomfort. Harris quickly gets sick, with some unspecified ailment creating a bruise on his side. Then his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up, unafraid to snipe at Lawrence over the large age gap between her and her husband. Harris, encouraged by Pfeiffer, accidentally breaks Bardem’s crystal, inspiring his rage. The visiting couple’s grown-up kids (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) then show up and immediately get in a fight, with the elder killing the younger and receiving a scar on his forehead in the struggle. As the family holds a funeral in the house (while Lawrence’s agita only increases), there’s a deluge of water prompted by a guest breaking a fancy sink fixture, which finally drives everyone out for good.

This covers the first half of the film, which, as Orr noted, you could cheekily call a “testament”: one where Bardem is a stand-in for God, Harris and Pfeiffer are Adam (down to his rib injury) and Eve (as much of a temptress as ever), and their kids are Cain and Abel, with the former killing the latter and being “marked” for this primal sin. Bardem’s magic crystal is a violated forbidden fruit, and the burst sink pipes are the flood punishing God’s early followers and wiping the world clean.

When the film’s second act begins, Bardem’s new poetry is complete and Lawrence’s character is pregnant. By the end, her baby (likely some sort of stand-in for Christ’s body) has been eaten alive by a crazed mob of Bardem’s followers. They initially burst into the house as fans of his work but devolve into violence and surreal scenes of warfare, ravaging the house before Lawrence burns it down in a fit of grief at the loss of her child. As she dies cursing her husband, Bardem asks for her love, and she assents. It comes in the form of her heart, which he pulls out of her chest and turns into a crystal that he then uses to rebuild the house again, creating a new bride, played by a new actress.

It’s wild stuff—but the Bible allegory only goes so far, even if Aronofsky himself hinted at it when introducing mother! at the Toronto International Film Festival (he referred to Harris’s character as “the man,” then added, “that’s a clue”). Lawrence’s character has no obvious counterpart in either testament; instead, she’s some sort of analogue for Mother Earth, or Gaia, an embodiment of nature and creation, with the house (which slowly gets destroyed by its callous houseguests) a stand-in for the planet itself. Or you could see her as the warmer, welcoming half of the Godhead, with Bardem representing the aloof, unknowable half. There are vague concepts of reincarnation and renewal in the film’s ending, too, more reflective of Hinduism or Buddhism than anything Judeo-Christian.

The joy of mother!, to me, lies beyond the religious metaphor of God and Adam and Eve and so on; judge it just on that level, and it feels bludgeoning from a storytelling perspective. There’s a lot more to dig into, some of it probably conscious on Aronofsky’s part, some of it not so much. He’s spoken in interviews of the environmental message he’s trying to get across, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I think [the planet’s] being undone by humanity. I don’t blame one gender over the other gender. I think it is about how people are insatiable, how there’s this endless consumption.”

But, like so many films (especially one with such obvious personal investment on Aronofsky’s part), mother! is clearly also a movie about art and the creative process, one with a rather negative view of the great creator at its center. The brooding Bardem can’t help but hold Lawrence at arm’s length, sometimes storming off to write, other times brushing off her concerns about the invading houseguests (from whom he draws inspiration). Though she loves him, Lawrence can’t help but fixate on the major age difference between them, and after their relationship eventually falls apart, Bardem uses her heart—her inspiration—to build a grand new work and, with it, a new female partner.

Aronofsky is, ironically, now romantically involved with Lawrence, though they met during the filming of mother!, well after he’d written the movie. But of course, such industry romances are hardly unusual, and neither is the idea of artists writing about their own relationships; it’s just fascinating how Aronofsky has turned that dynamic into something grand, destructive, and ultimately horrifying. Lawrence’s character, at times, seems like a parody of the “barefoot and pregnant” stereotype, always padding around the house without any footwear. The actress called this a conscious choice, saying, “It never would have been right for my character to wear shoes. Nature is her creation.”

Whether you loved it or not (I was mixed on its overall quality), mother! is the kind of film that just doesn’t get a wide release in Hollywood—it’s violent, it’s weird, and it’s genuinely trying to baffle viewers and spark debate. It’s exciting to see a big star like Lawrence use her clout to get it made, and even more exciting for a major studio to release it around the country. Though the movie’s opening weekend was pretty weak—an estimated $7.5 million with an “F” CinemaScore (which measures audience satisfaction to try and gauge word-of-mouth), Paramount has stuck up for the film, saying in a statement, “This movie is very audacious and brave ... we don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s okay if some people don’t like it.”

The studio, essentially, deserves to be lauded for putting out a film so polarizing. Whether viewers love or hate it, they always seem to exit mother! with a strong opinion, which is more than can be said for most Hollywood blockbusters. For a movie that seems deeply unsubtle in its storytelling, mother! is still as mysterious as the misshapen, oblong crystal that Bardem creates his paradise from—different from every angle.

Veep's Showrunner on Clinton, Trump, and Insulting Jonah
September 18th, 2017, 12:35 PM

This post contains light spoilers through Season 6 of Veep.

“I’m out of a job,” David Mandel joked from the Emmy Awards stage on Sunday evening, as he accepted the statue for Best Comedy Series on behalf of Veep. “I guess we all are,” the HBO comedy’s showrunner added, motioning to the cast and crew assembled behind him—“so if anyone hears anything, I’m looking for movie work, but I’ll do television.”

Mandel was overstating the case just a little: While Veep, the political satire for which he serves as a writer as well as an executive producer, announced that its upcoming season, the show’s seventh, will be its last, he and his team are still very much employed: They’re currently planning that final season, set to air in 2018, and with it the fate of Selina Meyer, that perpetually powerful underdog, and the powerful underdogs in her orbit. Just before the Emmys, Megan Garber spoke with Mandel about how that work is going—about the show’s sixth season, just out on DVD, and about what it’s like to make a show about the American presidency during a time when, as so many people joked during the Emmys telecast, the White House can seem like its own Comedy Series/Drama Series/Reality Competition Program. The conversation below has been edited and condensed.


Megan Garber: You’ve said before that any similarities between Veep and the politics of the real world are usually coincidental—that you’ve made an effort to maintain the integrity of the alternate world you’ve helped to create. Will you keep to that separation in the final season, focusing on thematic overlaps rather than specific ones?

David Mandel: It’s always going to be thematic. And it’s always going to be its own world. For all I know, in Veepworld, at the 1980 convention, Reagan and Ford figured things out, and Ford was the vice president in ’80, and everything was different. Maybe that’s where the time-streams split. Either way, there will continue to be no Donald Trump character in the show, no appearances by any real politicians or real media people. But if there’s anybody on the show who seems like somebody … there are probably reasons for that.

And while you can’t ignore the changes of the last election, I also think that if you go back to 2008, you can already see the way campaigns, campaigning, and elections have changed. So I think there’s an opportunity now for us to dig into all of that.

MG: What in particular changed then, do you think? The rise of social media, that kind of thing?

DM: Social media. All the voter anger. A lot of these “What is an insider? What is an outsider?” questions. And also the idea that people can have just multiple interpretations of the same person. And the hate that has been bubbling up since 2008. I think that’s all interesting.

MG: Are there particular places you look to for inspiration when you’re thinking about how to consider those ideas as comedy?

DM: We do a lot of just looking at history. There’s so much, dare I say, real stuff that has happened. And we have wonderful advisors from both sides of the aisle who have worked on campaigns and for campaigns. In some cases, we’ve met with actual candidates. So we really run the gamut with our research, and in some ways our stories are amalgamations and slightly different versions of things that have happened in reality. I’m a fan of nonfiction. I’m a fan of history. I find that, by looking to the past, we can see some really interesting things.

MG: Have you read What Happened?

DM: I haven’t read it yet. I’ve read the excerpts. But let’s just say I’m well-versed in Shattered, so.

MG: I realize this is not a major coincidence, as coincidences go, but: In the introduction to What Happened, Clinton mentions that she wrote much of the book at her dining-room table, at her house in New York. And in the acknowledgements, she talks about the staffers who worked with her to write it, and she describes them sitting in her living room, writing and editing. Reading that, I couldn’t help but think of Selina, writing her own memoir at … her dining-room table. In New York. Surrounded by her trusty staffers.

DM: You know, especially when it comes to Hillary, it’s this funny thing. Sometimes I think it’s very exciting, when real life sort of hews to what we’ve done on the show—but then sometimes I think it blurs a lot of things for people. They go, “Oh, Hillary did this,” and “Selina did this”—and, “therefore, Selina equals Hillary.” And that’s the part that drives me crazy. Clinton lost, and everyone goes, “Oh, they’re doing that story now.” And it’s like, “No, we did that years ahead!” The show was created in a vacuum that had nothing to do with Hillary Clinton, and it continues to have nothing to do with Hillary Clinton.

MG: I actually hadn’t realized until recently how early the Selina-out-of-office idea had solidified for you, and how long you’d been planning for the show to explore what it means not just to have power, but to lose it. And you’ve also mentioned that there have been jokes you’ve cut specifically because they might appear to be overly derivative of real-world events—even though you wrote them before the event happened in reality. I’m thinking of Trump jokes, in particular.

DM: Right—but also, there have been only one or two of those in a season of 10 episodes jam-packed with jokes. And then someone writes an article, and the headline emphasizes the changed joke. I mean, the notion that we had to change a joke because it was too close to Donald Trump is true. But think about the number of jokes we do in an episode—percentage-wise, you’re talking less than 1 percent of content. I understand why that’s very exciting to reporters, but it’s not particularly exciting to us.

MG: Very fair! But to be a little meta about that, one of the things that interests me about this moment is the new fluidity that can exist between creators and audiences, and the way shows function not just as art, but as ideas—which can often mean fodder for thinkpieces, that kind of thing. Do you read the pieces written about Veep, and do you respond to that audience analysis of the show? Or do you try to keep the show contained to your own creativity and your own desires for it?

DM: I don’t particularly respond. I mean, sometimes I read the reviews, and go, “Great, they see what I want them to see.” And sometimes I read them and go, “Nope, that’s wrong.” But, you know, what are you going to do about it? I am surprised sometimes—or not necessarily surprised, but there are things that I think to myself, like, “Oh, I wonder if someone will do something about this fact or this story”—little bits and pieces of things that are taken from real life. And people rarely do, which I’m always surprised by. And then I wonder why not. I’m not saying we made such a wonderfully obscure reference, but I do wonder, “Maybe people don’t know that story.” I get curious about that kind of thing.

MG: Are you thinking of anything in particular?

DM: I thought, last year, Sherman Tanz was a little bit of a quasi-Mercers-meet-Sheldon Adelson—I thought someone might have discussed it. But it’s more a curiosity than anything else. Just like, “What are people getting, or not getting?” And at the same time, while I’m curious, it doesn’t change anything. The notion of changing what you’re doing or rewriting because of what people say or think—it’s like how you get those Star Wars prequels, I guess. All of the sudden there’s a lot of Boba Fett clones.

MG: Something we’ve been interested in at The Atlantic is the broad question of what art can do at this moment, the political role that art can play in a time of turmoil. Do you have anything like that in the back of your mind as you’re going about the writing process?

DM: Maybe a little. But at some point or another, it’s a comedy. You’re not trying to change the world. But I do think the show has a lot of interesting things to say about political power. That’s what the show, to me, is really about: power. Who has it, who wants it, what they’ll do to get it—all of those things. That’s Selina in a nutshell. And obviously, because of what it has to say about power, the show talks a lot about hypocrisy, both in the government and beyond. And, with all that, I guess some part of me hopes that someone’s eyes will be opened to something through the show. But we’re trying not to be on a high horse.

And we enjoy pointing out the hypocrisy on both sides. So it’s not about Trump, and it’s not-not about Trump, if that makes any sense. Technically Trump is on one side, yes, but he’s not really on a side. And on the more liberal, Democratic side there can certainly be a lot of self-aggrandizement, and it’s very fun to take our shots at that, as well. I pride myself on the show really being about the both-sides abuses of power—both sides not really being about anything.

MG: Can I take that as confirmation that Selina’s party will never be revealed on the show?

DM: Never. Even in the episodes that are not written, you’re never going to know. It’s part of the show. Another thing the show prides itself on is that people from both sides enjoy it. The show has many a Republican fan, and I hope that means something to people who maybe have their own conceptual notion of what a Hollywood show about politics might be. We’re not that.

MG: Speaking of negative spaces, I have to ask you about Jonah. I love that you and the other writers keep a running list of insults for him. And it’s a small tragedy to think that the ones that don’t air will be lost to history. But, meanwhile: What’s your current favorite of the Jonah-insults that have aired so far?

DM: I was quite fond, last season, of an insult that didn’t even have a curse in it. It was when Furlong told Jonah to—I can’t remember the exact line, but told him to stop biting James Bond’s cable-car wire. Which really made me laugh. I was a big fan of the Roger Moore James Bond movies. I didn’t write the joke, but the allusion to Richard Kiel’s Jaws character made me laugh. And I think in its own very strange way, it bothered Tim [Simons, the actor who plays Jonah] a lot. Which made it doubly funny.

The State: A Provocative New Drama Considers ISIS
September 18th, 2017, 12:35 PM

When it premiered in the U.K. in August, Peter Kosminsky’s four-part miniseries The State capped a summer that had seen two of the worst terrorist events in recent British history: a bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester that killed 22 people and wounded 250, and an attack near London Bridge in which eight died and 48 were injured. Both acts were claimed by the Islamic State, the militant group in Iraq and Syria that an estimated 850 British nationals have left home to join. So Kosminsky, the writer and director behind the period piece Wolf Hall and the factual drama The Government Inspector, was wary about how viewers might receive The State, which dramatizes the experience of life inside ISIS for the new British recruits. On the one hand, he’s humanizing people who sign up to commit horrific acts in the name of Islam. On the other, he’s contributing to a media culture that tends to disproportionately portray Muslims as terrorists.

The balancing act required of The State was near-impossible—to create a deeper understanding of the lives of the men and women who join ISIS without either lionizing them or demonizing a whole religion. But the series, which airs in the U.S. on the National Geographic Channel over two nights on Monday and Tuesday, has somehow pulled it off. Kosminsky’s drama is a cautionary tale first and foremost, but one that probes the alienation and nihilism that, he feels, define the majority of extremists. “These are groups of people with a very absolutist attitude to society who want to tear it down and replace it,” he told me recently. “But they’re also looking for a place where they feel they can belong.”

The State follows four primary characters, all amalgams based loosely on real people who joined ISIS. Jalal (Sam Otto) and Ziyaad (Ryan McKen) are schoolfriends from London who decide to travel to Syria after Jalal’s older brother is killed fighting there. Shakira (Ony Uhiara) is a young doctor and single mother who hopes to help save the lives of ISIS soldiers, and who brings her 9-year-old, Isaac (Nana Agyeman-Bediako), to the caliphate. Ushna (Shavani Cameron) is a doe-eyed teenager who dreams of being a “lioness” wife to ISIS fighters she mythologizes like boy-banders. At the beginning of the first episode, which sees all four embark on their respective journeys to Syria, Ushna comically navigates her bright pink suitcase through wire fences and over fields to enter ISIS territory.

Kosminsky’s goal in creating the series wasn’t explicitly uncovering how fundamentalism takes root—he explored that subject in 2007’s Britz, which starred Riz Ahmed and Manjinder Virk as British Muslims who end up on different ends of the political spectrum. With The State, he wanted a more thorough sense of what happens once people cross the border, and their conviction runs up against reality. So it’s there that his story really starts, as Shakira and Ushna are taken to one house for female members, and Jalal and Ziyaad to another for men. Kosminsky and his research team spent months poring through public records and interviewing people who’d returned home after traveling to Syria, although he declines to talk about the latter, since they were interviewed on background and occupy precarious legal territory. The characters might be composites, chosen to represent the kinds of people he kept encountering in his research, but the events in the show are all real.

What’s notable in the first episode is that even though there are early signs the four new recruits are headed for disaster, all of them seem delighted by their new home, and by the sense of inclusion they feel. The closing scene, which depicts the male recruits cheering and hugging each other, and the female recruits sitting down together to eat dinner, smiling and laughing, is accompanied by rousing string music. It’s the most provocative moment in the series, simply for how momentarily rosy a portrait it paints of a group Kosminsky describes as a “death cult.” But he felt it was necessary to emphasize the appeal of ISIS to disaffected citizens, most of whom only have a tenuous relationship with Islam. “People contemplating going to Syria are people with no sense of investment in our society,” he said. “They feel very apart from it, and more importantly, they feel a sense of disgust at our society … And they’re looking for a band of brothers or sisters, or a place where they will be welcomed, [where they] don’t feel like they have to hide or make excuses for their faith.”

At a private screening of The State in July, Kosminsky was asked whether he was concerned about humanizing ISIS in the wake of two horrific attacks carried out in its name. “It doesn’t do any service to people who’ve suffered at the hands of ISIS to pretend that all the people who go over there are clinically insane,” he said. His characters are delusional to different extents, but they’re not sadists. And Jalal and Shakira even become audience surrogates as they’re exposed to some of the more horrific practices ISIS engages in: the rape and torture of Yazidi sex slaves and their pre-pubescent daughters, beheadings, the harvesting of organs from captured enemy fighters. Shakira, in one scene, finds her newly indoctrinated son playing football with a human head.

One of the hardest things to comprehend watching The State is what a strong-minded female doctor could see in ISIS that would compel her to endanger both her own and her son’s lives. Uhiara’s performance as Shakira is phenomenal, even more so given she’s often limited to using her eyes, since her character is veiled. But Shakira’s sense of medical ethics, and her commitment to saving lives, seem directly opposed to both the tenets and the practices of ISIS. “What I was trying to do was show a kind of battle between the head and the heart,” Kosminsky said. “In her head, she’s rationalized this. She believes in the concept of the caliphate, a perfect place for Muslims that she can help build. But her heart is protesting in the most violent way imaginable.”

By the end of the fourth and final episode, any illusions have been dispelled. The atrocities portrayed in The State are well documented by now, and hard to ignore even for the four recruits themselves. What is surprising about the series, though is the insight it seems to offer into extremist groups all over the world: Scenes where women brutally discipline each other while veiled from head to foot have echoes of the recent Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, itself based on history; the sense of raging nihilism that Jalal and Ziyaad feel at the beginning of the series brings to mind the alt-right. The State, while a meticulously researched and reportorial series about life inside ISIS, ends up being a parable about isolation and disaffection. It’s not a cheerful ending, but redemption for these characters isn’t the point. It’s trying to understand them, Kosminsky would argue, that matters.

How the Emmy Awards Put Hulu on the Map
September 18th, 2017, 12:35 PM

The Emmy Awards have always been a solid arbiter of when trends in the TV industry are here to stay. When HBO got a Best Comedy Series nomination for its fledgling spoof of a talk show, The Larry Sanders Show, in 1993, it was a sign that the network’s move into scripted programming was destined for success. When Michael Chiklis was named Best Actor in a Drama for FX’s The Shield in 2002, it signaled a breakthrough for original shows on basic cable, which had been largely derided as also-rans. With streaming television, the latest and largest revolution, the Emmys have been quick to respond, showering shows like House of Cards and Transparent with attention. But none had ever won a Best Series trophy until Sunday night, when Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale made history.

For Netflix, its rival’s victory has to sting a little. When the company, just a few years removed from solely operating as a DVD mail-rental service, announced its first original series House of Cards in 2011, it was seen as little more than a gimmick. Before the show launched, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos wasn’t even sure if streaming series would be eligible for the Emmys, since they never aired on broadcast television. But House of Cards was an instant success with the TV awards body, garnering a slew of nominations (it’s been shortlisted for Best Drama for each of its five seasons), and more importantly, providing instant prestige to a tricky new format.

It was the triumph of House of Cards at the 2013 Emmys (and, the year after, Orange Is the New Black) that drew impressive creators to streaming networks, and convinced big actors to sign on for shows that would only be available to paying subscribers online and would never even generate ratings data. Since breaking through in 2013, Netflix has netted 14 nominations in the Drama and Comedy Series categories in total—for House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Stranger Things, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Master of None, and The Crown. The last of those was hotly tipped to do well at the Emmys this year because of its broad appeal to voters—a period piece in the style of Masterpiece Theatre about the British monarchy.

But in the end, the more searing and topical Handmaid’s Tale ran the board Sunday, collecting trophies for Directing, Writing, Lead Actress (Elisabeth Moss), Supporting Actress (Ann Dowd), and Guest Actress (Alexis Bledel). Though Netflix got some solid wins, like a Best Supporting Actor award for John Lithgow in The Crown and Best Writing for Master of None, it ended up losing the top prize to a show that it turned down a few years ago (though Sarandos said The Handmaid’s Tale “wasn’t in the creative form that it is today,” likely referring to an earlier draft of the pilot script).

The Best Drama win is a huge victory for Hulu, which has struggled to define itself with the same brand of quality Netflix established right out of the gate. Its original series, like The Path, Difficult People, and Casual, remain mostly niche hits. The network’s early approach was to greenlight low-budget comedies like Deadbeat or The Wrong Mans, often as co-productions with Europeans networks, but almost all of those shows have been canceled. With The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel and featuring a talented cast including Moss, Dowd, and Samira Wiley, Hulu finally has a critical and award-winning hit that can draw in subscribers.

It’s a necessary approach in the streaming era, one Netflix leapt on quickly after recognizing that its back catalog of licensed programming couldn’t last forever (indeed, shows like 30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother are expiring and will leave the platform next month). To retain subscribers, the companies have to offer viewers something they can’t get anywhere else—and The Handmaid’s Tale is exactly that. Hulu had been lagging behind Netflix and Amazon in the original-series department, but just one hit (like Amazon had with Transparent) is enough to change that.

Until this year, streaming TV had remained an interloper at the Emmys, usually netting just one or two nominations in the Original Series categories. This year, a majority of nominated dramas (three from Netflix, one from Hulu) were streaming shows. Within a few years, that’ll likely become the norm, especially since HBO has already become a quasi-streaming network of its own, offering its shows to subscribers in online-only form for $15 a month. The Handmaid’s Tale breakthrough might have been expected, but it’s still significant—and it’s only the beginning of a major television revolution.

Sean Spicer and the Self-Contradicting Politics of the Emmys
September 18th, 2017, 12:35 PM

When opponents of the president talk about “normalizing” an abnormal administration, they are talking about the sort of thing that took place onstage Sunday night at the Emmys: Sean Spicer, Donald Trump’s first White House press secretary, showed up and made a joke about one of his false claims.

The night otherwise had been a showcase of Hollywood’s liberal leanings as applied to 2017. Stephen Colbert’s intro song and monologue sounded the alarm about global warming, Russian meddling in American politics, and police violence in cute but cutting fashion. “I’d like to vote for Selina Meyer, she’s pretty foxy,” he sang, referencing Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Veep character. “Imagine if your president was not beloved by Nazis.”

But soon after, Colbert posed the question of how many people were watching the Emmys. The answer came in the form of Spicer’s cameo. The Republican operative wheeled out a podium like the one Melissa McCarthy used in her SNL impression of him. In a mock-stern voice, he announced: “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period, both in person and around the world!”

There were two ways to read the joke. Charitably: This was a mea culpa, with Spicer tacitly admitting to the whopper he told about Inauguration Day crowds by telling what seemed like a whopper about the Emmys. It was Spicer amplifying the critique that McCarthy’s impression already made of him as a bullheaded, unrepentant fibber.

Less charitably: This was a neutral pop-culture reference, evincing as much of a point of view as someone coming out and quoting Daenerys Targaryen would have had. The Hollywood establishment, in overwhelming part, likes to present itself as in opposition to the Trump administration. But turning the PR guy for that administration into just another character in the entertainment landscape, a lovable provider of quips and shticks, flattens the moral dimensions of the national debate. It says that, deep down, politics is just sport, just drama. Which then undercuts the anti-Trump stands made on the Emmys stage.

Many viewers were quick to air discomfort with the Spicer bit. “There’s nothing funny about the damage [Spicer] assisted in planning, defended, & celebrated when he worked in The White House,” tweeted the activist DeRay McKesson. The actor and former Obama adviser Kal Penn wrote, that Spicer “can normalize himself in good fun, but he still passionately advocated against human rights, health care, & American values.” Yet the stigma was apparently not so serious that Spicer couldn’t hold court at the post-Emmys parties. “He could barely eat at the Governor’s Ball, he was so popular,” a CNN source said.

CNN’s reporting also noted that the Spicer cameo was Colbert’s idea: “He and his producers knew there would be blowback. … But Colbert thought it would be funny and surprising, and that’s what mattered most.” The tension between the desire for the shocking laugh and the desire to maintain a real critique will only mount in the coming months and years. Last week, Spicer appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, leading my colleague David Frum to write, “As former Trump staff seek to integrate themselves into American civic and business life, it will be important to evaluate which of them can be rehabilitated—and which have compromised themselves in ways that cannot be redeemed.” Already, the short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci has landed gigs co-hosting The View and TMZ on TV, where he, no doubt, can be let in on the jokes about him.

Backstage after the Emmys, Alec Baldwin was asked about the propriety of Spicer’s appearance. “Spicer obviously was compelled to do certain things that we might not have respected, that we might not have admired, that we might have been super-critical of, in order to do his job,” Baldwin replied. “But I’ve done some jobs that are things that you shouldn’t admire or respect me for either. So he and I have that in common, I suppose.” The obvious truth about that comparison is that Baldwin is an entertainer and Spicer was a public servant, held to a different standard and capable of more significant lapses. Or maybe not, as it turns out.

How My First Novel Became a Movie
September 18th, 2017, 12:35 PM

Five years ago, I got an email from two Hollywood producers who wanted to turn my first novel, Carrie Pilby, into a movie. I was thrilled, but reminded myself not to expect much. After all, in the years since the book’s publication in 2003, two other production companies had paid me a few thousand dollars each to option the rights for a year, and nothing had come of it. Should I really fantasize about my characters living and breathing on the big screen?

The novel tells the story of the nerdy 19-year-old Carrie, who graduated from Harvard three years early and has no idea how to date or make friends in New York. It was published in the middle of the “chick lit” craze, when offbeat single-gal books like Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing were taking over the publishing industry. Luckily, reviewers said mine was one of the more original novels in the genre, and it went on to sell 74,000 copies worldwide. But nearly a decade later, I was struggling with revisions to a new book, still living in a tiny apartment in the town I’d moved to after college, and about to turn 40. I really wanted my writing to reach a new audience. Actually, I really wanted to be able to afford furniture.

Every other author I knew who’d dealt with Tinseltown had emerged disappointed. One novelist friend whose single-girl book came out around the same time as mine saw the rights quickly gobbled up by producers, who then nabbed Lindsay Lohan to star. My friend waited for the movie to happen for more than a decade—then wound up writing a novel about an author who waits for her book to become a movie. Another colleague, a best-selling novelist, saw her project green-lit and script completed, but the project fell apart when, supposedly, two of the main producers became romantically involved and ran off together. Neither story was a complete tragedy; the authors got a little extra publicity for their books and some option money, usually $500 to $5,000 for each year the producers held the rights. But these stories had taught me to manage my expectations.

Fortunately for me, things worked out the third time: The film adaptation of Carrie Pilby finally came out this month on Netflix after a limited theatrical run in April. The movie stars the British actress Bel Powley (who had won raves for her lead performance in the 2015 indie favorite The Diary of a Teenage Girl), alongside Nathan Lane, Gabriel Byrne, Vanessa Bayer, Jason Ritter, William Moseley, and Colin O’Donoghue. As I (still) work to finish my new teen novel, I’ve been answering a lot of questions: Why did it take so long to make the movie? Am I happy with how it all turned out? And most of all, why aren’t I rich? The truth is, so much has to align when adapting a book for the screen that it’s practically a miracle when it works out. And even though this strange process hasn’t left me wealthy, it’s been fascinating and rewarding to watch it unfold from start to finish.

* * *

I wrote Carrie Pilby when I was a frustrated, single 20-something living in Hoboken, New Jersey. I had finished several young-adult novels that agents rejected as “too slow,” so one Friday night I penned a funny rant that eventually turned into a book. I sent a few chapters to literary agencies in New York, ultimately drawing the interest of Cheryl Pientka, a relatively new agent. When she submitted the novel to publishers, she also passed it along to a film agent in L.A. who had worked with a lot of adaptations, and that agent mailed the manuscript out to various producers.

Then came my first two (failed) encounters with Hollywood. Early on, a film company optioned the book to adapt it into a TV series, paying me $5,000 to hold onto the rights for a year. The project never came to fruition (though I still think Carrie Pilby would make a great show). A few years later, I struck a similar deal with Disney, but again, nothing emerged. Still, my experience seemed like the norm, considering the vast majority of properties that get optioned for TV or film never actually get made.

My third chance came in 2012, when I got an email from Suzanne Farwell, who had produced It’s Complicated and The Holiday. She told me she had partnered with the independent film producer Susan Johnson (Mean Creek), who was ready to direct her first feature. So I signed a contract to give them the rights for a year, and then went back to work at my full-time community newspaper job in Hoboken, editing a story about pooper-scooper laws.

Only this time, things started happening after I signed the contract—albeit slowly. Even making an independent film for less than $5 million takes a lot of meetings with investors. There are six major studios in Hollywood, meaning only a few companies have the budget to produce, distribute, and publicize films themselves: These studios raked in 84 percent of the box-office gross in 2016. With more than 700 films released domestically in theaters last year, and more heading to other platforms and festivals, that’s a lot of competition for a limited pool of resources. But Johnson and Farwell had new technology in their favor. In 2013, they jumpstarted the project by doing what Johnson had done with prior indie films: launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise seed money.

The month-long effort exceeded its original $50,000 goal, raising more than enough to land a screenwriter—in this case, Kara Holden (Meant to Be). It was unusual and exciting to have both a female director and female screenwriter: In its first report on the subject in 2015, the Directors Guild of America found women make up just 6.4 percent of feature-film directors, while 13 percent of writers on the 250 top grossing domestic films last year were women. My contract didn’t award me any creative control over the script; most book authors don’t get much leverage unless you’re as successful as E.L. James or Stephen King. But in this case, the director and producers were enthusiastic about the book and had done great work, so I had to have a little faith.

Johnson was kind enough to send me drafts of the script for feedback anyway. Holden kept most of the main storylines intact, while enriching and fleshing out others. I found it satisfying, in one case, to see a manipulative male character get his just deserts, since the book had left the outcome unresolved.

Once the filmmakers had a finished script in hand, they could attract talent. From 2013 to 2015, a slew of respected actors came on board, including the leads Powley and Lane. But there still were months when it seemed like nothing would happen. As with any creative project, one change could scuttle the whole thing at the last second—an actor’s scheduling conflict, funds drying up, a similar project coming out at the same time. Then came news that gave the movie the push it needed: Powley had a long line of projects set up for 2016, so production needed to start by the end of 2015. Finally, we had our deadline.

* * *

On an afternoon before Thanksgiving, I left work, took a bus across the Hudson River, and stepped into an alternate universe: a production office that the filmmakers set up on the 23rd floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. A costume designer, set designers, producers, and accountants ran through a hallway wielding outfits, props, schedules, and scripts. It was humbling to meet them and surreal to spy receipts on a desk billed to Carrie Pilby. The office was bare-bones, with storyboards taped to the walls. Someone had strung Christmas lights across a Macintosh computer. They were handcrafting a movie.

After five years of raising money (including a climactic last-minute phone call to secure the last few thousand dollars), holding auditions, revising scripts, and cobbling together wardrobe and sets, the actual filming took only 20 days. Once a week for a month, I left my office to visit the set for a few hours. On the first day, cameras were crammed into a small building that was to be Carrie’s apartment; most of the crew had to watch the action on a monitor in a different room. To my surprise, everyone seemed relaxed, confident, and upbeat. “We’re happy,” Johnson explained.

Like the crew, the actors were very kind when I met them. When I was introduced to Lane, the Broadway legend showed me his copy of the book, marked up, and said dramatically, “It’s a beautiful book, and I think it’s going to be a beautiful movie.” I thanked him and said I was sure it would be. Filming was followed by six months of editing, including adding sound effects and the score, which was composed, to my delight, by Michael Penn of Boogie Nights.

While millions of dollars are spent on a film’s production and post-production, there’s another, crucial step—getting the finished product to viewers. The industry has changed drastically in the last few years, with some films going straight to Netflix and other digital platforms. The fate of indie movies in particular is often determined at festivals. There, distributors see a trailer or the finished product and decide how much money to invest and where to release it; they can speak with filmmakers and gauge audience and critic interest.

Almost exactly a year ago, Carrie Pilby debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, a launchpad for several Oscar-winning projects including Silver Linings Playbook and American Beauty. I made the trip to see the film screened before 1,500 people. It had been apparent to me during the process that the filmmakers really “got” the book, turning my 400 pages into a heartfelt 90-minute movie. Sitting in the audience, listening to the crowd laugh and applaud, it was clear to me that the audience “got” the film. And the next day, I was pleased to read a four-star review in The Guardian calling Carrie Pilby an “ambitious, upbeat, and surprising comedy.”

The film had a weeklong theatrical run in April, thanks to the Sony distributor The Orchard, and it went to digital platforms soon after. I was surprised: I’d hoped Carrie Pilby would be in theaters longer, but large-scale openings are relatively rare for indie films. While many people still love the cinema experience, and 18 to 24 year olds went to the movies an average of 6.5 times last year, up slightly from 2015—29 percent of adults and children spent 2016 without making a theater trip. In the last few years, Netflix has inked deals with film-industry bigwigs like Adam Sandler, Martin Scorsese, and the Coen brothers to release their projects on the streaming service. I’ve been hearing from a whole new audience now that the film is on Netflix.

Following the premiere of Carrie Pilby, it seems most people I talk to are still curious about the whole money aspect. The fact is, book authors rarely become wealthy from movie deals. When the screen rights are sold (or when the option is “exercised”), the writer often gets a sum equal to about 2.5 percent of the budget. Keep in mind indie films are only made for a few million dollars. There are sometimes monetary bonuses if a big studio signs on, but after 10 to 15 percent agent fees and then taxes, the resulting sum is often less than six figures. However, I am now quite rich in inspiration, which helps as I put the last touches on that teen novel and a funny memoir.

In the years before I sold Carrie Pilby, when I was struggling through my 20s, I used to read about people my age making it big quickly and seethe with jealousy. But most artistic and entrepreneurial folks I know have been forging on for two or three decades, project by project, small victory after small victory. Even two of the actors in the film told me they still feel like they have to fight to get roles. It’s the slow, steady steps that lead to realizing a creative dream. As it turns out, occasionally there are happy endings in Hollywood. With dedication, passion, an ability to withstand rejection, and a little luck, it’s possible to be an overnight success in just under 20 years.

Women Won Big at the 2017 Emmys
September 18th, 2017, 12:35 PM

Women were the big winners at the Emmys Sunday night—with major trophies in every category going to shows centered on female characters, from established hits like Veep to critically acclaimed new series like The Handmaid’s Tale. In many categories, the Television Academy largely ignored old favorites and didn’t play it safe, mostly snubbing HBO’s prestige dramas (like Westworld) and Netflix’s period piece The Crown, considered a solid frontrunner for Outstanding Drama Series.

Instead, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale ran the table, winning for Drama Series, Lead Actress (Elisabeth Moss), Supporting Actress (Ann Dowd), Writing, and Directing (along with a previously won Guest Actress trophy for Alexis Bledel). A dystopian drama set in a totalitarian society that brutally subjugates women, the series resonated with critics and voters in this politically charged moment, jumping ahead of works from more established networks. Sterling K. Brown was named Best Actor for This Is Us, a rare network-TV hit airing on NBC, while Best Supporting Actor went to John Lithgow for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in The Crown.

On the comedy side, HBO’s old favorite Veep won its third consecutive award for Comedy Series, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus winning her sixth Lead Actress trophy for the show. But other than that, the Emmys spread the love around, with Donald Glover’s acclaimed new FX series Atlanta winning Best Actor and Best Writing (both going to Glover), the Supporting Actor awards going to Saturday Night Live (Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon), and Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe taking Best Writing for their outstanding “Thanksgiving” episode of Master of None.

The miniseries categories, more star-studded than ever, were completely dominated by HBO’s Big Little Lies, which won Best Miniseries, Best Director, Best Actress (for Nicole Kidman), Best Supporting Actor (Alexander Skarsgard) and Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern). Best Actor was Riz Ahmed for The Night Of, while the Best Made for TV Movie and Best Writing trophies went to Charlie Brooker for his Black Mirror opus “San Junipero.”

In taking the stage for their final award of the night, Big Little Lies stars Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon said they had moved into TV because of the lackluster parts being offered in the cinema world, and urged the industry to keep writing more dynamic roles for women. The host Stephen Colbert championed the increased diversity of the nominees, and with this 2017 slate of winners (where, among other things, every Lead Actor award went to a man of color), the Emmys remain far ahead of the Academy Awards on the issue, reflecting encouraging progress in the ever-changing medium.

Read On »

'What More Do You Need?'
September 16th, 2017, 12:35 PM

There’s an anecdote Hillary Clinton tells about the frenzied run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. She was in Scranton, Pennsylvania, campaigning with Joe Biden in his swing-state-set hometown. She noticed a woman staring at her—with more intensity than even Hillary Clinton is used to being stared at by members of the public. The woman finally approached her. She’d been gazing at Clinton, she explained, out of confusion. “I’d read you’d gained 130 pounds!”

It was a Kinsley gaffe whose truth was revealed not by the politician, but about her: Many people will believe pretty much anything about the former first lady/senator/secretary of state/presidential candidate. In her, the demands of American celebrity and the dynamics of American politics have mingled in an extremely targeted form of magical thinking. Whatever Hillary Clinton might do, a hefty chunk of people will assume its nefariousness. Whatever she might say, a significant portion of the populace will simply assume she is lying: Lady Macbeth, in the age of alternative facts. Is her marriage a sham? Is she sick with a chronic disease? Did she kill Vince Foster? Is she, just under those perfectly pressed pantsuits, hiding the scales of a reptile?

“I’m a Rorschach test,” Clinton said of herself, during the 2008 presidential primaries, and she was correct. The trouble, for all involved, is that she is also a human, with the moral and emotional freight the designation implies. Clinton may be a vessel for this moment’s internet-fueled iteration of the paranoid style; she feels them, though, those accusations flung in her direction. Once, when Clinton was the first lady, a staffer read aloud from a magazine story that repeated one of the moment’s trendy rumors: that Hillary had had sex with a colleague. Hearing it, the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher reported—or, rather, mishearing it—“Clinton’s eyes filled with tears.” She asked the staffer, “It really says I had sex with a collie?”

Every politician’s story will fuse the mundane and the mythic. Each will involve a strategic blend of fact and fiction. Each will rely on performances that a dubious and tenacious public will attempt to decode. Clinton’s story, however, has involved such things in decidedly disproportionate amounts. This is one of the themes of What Happened, the new book Clinton released on Tuesday.

Set in the negative space of a presidency that wasn’t, the book is a political memoir in the tritest traditions of the genre. Its chapters include titles like “Perseverance,” “Grit and Gratitude,” and “Making History.” It offers inspirational quotes from Rilke, various Roosevelts, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Hamilton. But What Happened—its blunt title belies its tone—is also casually conversational. It is personal. It is a book fit for a time in which celebrity demands intimacy, and in which even one of politics’ most common works of poetry—the memoir—will revel in the idle revelations of prose. It marks a transition for Clinton; it also suggests much broader transformations at play in American politics and American life. “In the past,” Clinton writes, “for reasons I try to explain, I’ve often felt I had to be careful in public, like I was up on a wire without a net. Now I’m letting my guard down.”

* * *

“There are times when all I want to do is scream into a pillow.”

“I knew the proper and respectful thing to do was to keep quiet and take it all with grace, but inside I was fuming.”

“I answered a ton of emails; I returned phone calls. It hurt. There’s a reason people isolate themselves when they’re suffering.”

Suffering is not a word one would likely expect to read in a campaign memoir, particularly one written by one of America’s foremost practitioners of classic Clintonian pragmatism. There it is, though, along with “pain” and “anger” and “with my heart still aching,” in What Happened. There is the country’s almost-president, talking not just of her dreams for the American future, but also of the anger she bears toward it. There she is, confiding to her readers about her fears. And her frustrations. And her love of Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers (a generous serving of which, she notes, has “only 150 calories—not bad!”).

What Happened, whose title of course requires no further predicate, occasionally engages in blame, what-happened-wise: of Clinton herself, of Donald Trump, of Bernie Sanders, of James Comey, of Vladimir Putin, of the American media, of many more. It is occasionally dishy, as per the commercial demands of most such post-campaign books (at one point, Clinton refers to Jason Chaffetz as “the then-Utah Congressman and wannabe Javert”). It also, however, takes the performative authenticity so common in those works—the focus-group-approved anecdotes, the personality-by-committee—and attempts to subvert it. “Reading the news every morning was like ripping off a scab,” Clinton writes, and this is probably another thing you would not be expecting to read in a campaign memoir.

One of the ideas that has solidified around Clinton in recent years—an outgrowth of a media environment that once allowed her to believe that a magazine had accused her of bestiality—is that there are essentially two of her, contradicting each other: the persona versus the person, the public figure (controlled, cautious, calculating) versus the private one (warm, witty, capable of holding strong opinions about snack foods). “What’s remarkable,” Henry Louis Gates wrote of the then-first lady, in 1996, “isn’t that she can be funny, spontaneous, and mischievous, and has a loud, throaty laugh; what’s remarkable is the extent to which she has sequestered her personality from the media.” It’s a narrative that grew as Clinton twice sought, and twice lost, the American presidency. In 2016, the writer Rebecca Traister diagnosed the matter as “Hillary Clinton versus Herself.” The journalist Ezra Klein noted that “the Clinton America sees isn’t the Clinton colleagues know.” He named the disconnect “the gap.”

You could read What Happened as a post-facto attempt to bridge that distance: Here are 494 pages of concessional humanity, full of the kind of confessional revelations most commonly associated with the first-person industrial complex. Clinton’s earlier memoirs, Living History and Hard Choices, often embraced the prosaic prose of the big tent (“In this world and the world of tomorrow, we must go forward together or not at all,” “One thing that has never been a hard choice for me is serving our country. It has been the greatest honor of my life”); What Happened, which rehashes some of the former works’ aphorisms and insights, does, too. More often, though, it relies on simpler, and more intimate, exposition. It is written in the first person, but often slides into the second. It is cautiously diaristic.

In the book, Clinton discusses the wounds not just of November 2016, but of insults accumulated within a system so often baffled by women who seek power. (“For the record, it hurts to be torn apart,” she writes. “It may seem like it doesn’t bother me to be called terrible names or have my looks mocked viciously, but it does”). She discusses the partially unexpected joy Chelsea’s arrival brought her when she was born in 1980, noting that “getting pregnant was not easy for me.” The woman so often denigrated as “shrill” shares how she once enlisted the help of a linguistics expert to help her make her speeches more appealing to audiences. And how once, in college, she went on a blind date with a man “who wouldn’t take repeated nos for an answer,” and whom, finally, she had to slap to rebuff. (“But he did back off,” she notes, “and I went to bed that night shaken but not traumatized.”)

There is a certain circularity to such revelations: In early 2009, just before the New Hampshire primary, Clinton won awkward plaudits from media outlets when, answering a question about how she kept going during the grueling campaign—“I mean, as a woman, I know how hard it is to get out of the house and get ready,” the voter had said, going on to ask, “Who does your hair?”—the candidate teared up. Just a little. But still. While Clinton’s response had mostly elided the woman’s question (she had joked about how she “has help,” hair-wise, and then explained that she did the work of campaigning because the issues are both “personal” for her and “about all of us together”), it was the tears, to the press, that were the salient point. They were evidence of “the gap” in action, answers to the unsolicited advice pundits had been offering Hillary for decades—thoughts on how she might more effectively accomplish the task of her own self-humanization. “Clinton Finds Emotion on the Trail,” CBS put it. “Question draws out a usually guarded Clinton,” the Los Angeles Times had it. The Washington Post announced that it had detected “A Chink in the Steely Façade of Hillary Clinton.”

Others saw something else. “There was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up,” The New York Times’s Maureen Dowd wrote, in an op-ed asking, “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?” The columnist shared her theory that “what was moving her so deeply was her recognition that the country was failing to grasp how much it needs her”—and that “in a weirdly narcissistic way, she was crying for us.”

Eight years later, in What Happened, Clinton gets the last say, by way of a decidedly different answer to the “who does your hair?” question. She talks in detail about her “glam squad.” She name-checks her (two) hairstylists and her makeup artist (“recommended to me by Vogue’s Anna Wintour after she saw me at an event and knew I needed help”). As before, though, she puts the routine into a political context. “I’ve never gotten used to how much effort it takes just to be a woman in the public eye,” Clinton notes, adding, “I once calculated how many hours I spent having my hair and makeup done during the campaign. It came to about 600 hours, or 25 days! I was so shocked, I checked the math twice.”

There are several exclamation marks in What Happened. There is also much evidence of the wry humor those who know her—those on the “person” side of the gap—tend to emphasize: “I doubt that many people reading this will ever lose a presidential election,” she acknowledges, adding, “(Although maybe some have: Hi Al, hi John, hi Mitt, hope you’re well).” She refers to the period after November 8 as “that horrible, no good, very bad time.” She talks about eating over-refrigerated Quest bars on the campaign plane—and about the fact that warming them up enough to make them edible often required sitting on them, “with as much dignity as one can muster at such a moment.” Clinton begins the chapter titled “Showing Up” with an epigraphic observation: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” She attributes the line to “Friedrich Nietzsche (and Kelly Clarkson).”

Mostly, though, Clinton shares. She emphasizes the relatable smallness of her post-election life, the mundanity of it, the casual humanity of it. After she delivered her concession speech on November 9, she writes, she went home to Chappaqua and put on yoga pants and a fleece. She hiked in the woods, with Bill and their dogs. She drank lots of Chardonnay. She organized her closets and FaceTimed with her grandkids and watched Blue Bloods and Downton Abbey (she likes the latter show because it reminds her of a night she spent in Buckingham Palace, when she was the secretary of state). She finished Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. She prayed. (“I can almost see the cynics rolling their eyes,” she notes of that last one.)

And also: She got really sad. She got really angry. “I didn’t go public with my feelings,” she notes; “I let them out in private. When I heard that Donald Trump settled a fraud suit against his Trump University for $25 million, I yelled at the television. When I read the news that he filled his team with Wall Street bankers after relentlessly accusing me of being their stooge, I nearly threw the remote control at the wall.”

She didn’t go public then; she is going public, of course, now. And in some ways that’s its own kind of concession. Hillary Clinton is at this point pretty much a metonym for gendered double standards, and one of the paradoxes of her long career in politics has mirrored one of the paradoxes of sexism itself: It can be unclear whether something is happening because of gender or because of something else. The media coverage of Clinton often carries this whiff of uncertainty: Is she treated the way she is because she is a politician—a performer, a celebrity, a body that seeks to rise above the body politic—or because she is a woman?

What is clear is that the media’s ongoing obsession with her emotions is tinged with sexism. (Remember when, the morning of her concession speech, CNN pundits offered a thorough analysis of the feels she must surely have been experiencing as she delivered her address?) And with What Happened, Clinton is cannily feeding the beast. Much of the coverage of the book, in the run-up to its release, took delight in dismissing it as an “anguished, angry memoir,” as Clinton reveling in the “woe is me.” Many assumed that Clinton would use the book as a way to engage in our well-established rituals of public apology, the stuff of rehabilitation and reconciliation and agreements to appear on Dancing With the Stars. But Clinton, ultimately, is doing in the book what the American media have for so long done to her, ostensibly on her behalf: She is commercializing her humanity. She is selling her emotions, for what will likely be a tidy profit. As the book’s jacket promises, “This is her most personal memoir yet.”

In all that, What Happened is doing the thing so many women politicians and women citizens have done, recently, in response to a world that refuses to make space for them: It reclaims. It takes the logic of “nasty woman” and “nevertheless, she persisted” and “reclaiming my time” and makes it literary. In the book, the woman who has for decades contended with a media system that demands ever more of her—more emotion, more authenticity, more humanity—is giving that system what it asked for. But she’s doing that on her own terms. For the purposes of selling her own stuff. “I’ll bet you know more about my private life than you do about some of your closest friends,” Clinton points out, in her most personal memoir yet. “You’ve read my emails, for heaven’s sake. What more do you need? What could I do to be ‘more real’? Dance on a table? Swear a blue streak? Break down sobbing? That’s not me.”

And yet now, just a little bit, it is. Here is yet one more “me” Clinton is displaying, a self that will be embraced by some and reflexively disbelieved by others. A self that emerged, likely, from some heady fusion of Clinton’s leaked emails and political strategizing and Kim Kardashian and social media and a culture that sees information that confides and confesses as the most honest information of all. What Happened arrives in the year 2017, and also takes its measure: It assumes a new and newly emotional style of political engagement. It acquiesces to a moment in which an author, before explaining how we might move Onward Together, loses her patience with the public meant to do the moving: What more, she asks, not bothering to mask her frustration, do you need?

Clinton’s memoir almost—almost—takes a cue from Donald Trump, whose victory in November emphasized, among so much else, the political power of the unfiltered id. What Happened is in that way one more concession that Hillary Clinton, who ached but who healed, has offered up to the American republic. The book is cannily revelatory. It is savvily emotional. It is a series of controlled explosions. “When I feel wronged,” Clinton confesses, “I get mad.” She adds: “And then I think about how to fight back.”

Colin Kaepernick and Blade Runner: The Week in Pop-Culture Writing
September 16th, 2017, 12:35 PM

Colin Kaepernick Has a Job
Rembert Browne | Bleacher Report
“As a black man with a black biological father and a white biological mother, adopted by loving white parents who raised him in a majority white town to become a star three-sport athlete, a God-fearing Christian, and a model citizen, this went well beyond the experience of a privileged American jock. This was a unique finesse, somewhere between Orenthal and Obama.”

The Battle for Blade Runner
Michael Schulman | Vanity Fair
“How did a movie marked by infighting, artistic compromise, and commercial failure manage to burrow its way into pop-culture immortality? Much of the answer lies with Ridley Scott, whose hyper-detailed imaginative vision was matched only by his Draconian means of realizing it. It would be wrong, though, to call Blade Runner an auteurist masterpiece—it’s also a mess.”

Michael Keaton: ‘There Was a Lot of Bad Taste in the ’90s and I Contributed to That’
Hadley Freeman | The Guardian
“He looks strikingly different from the man I have spent four decades watching on screen: He has the trim, spry build of a wiry woodsman rather than a 66-year-old actor, thanks to half a lifetime spent in rural Montana, fishing and hunting. His walk is reminiscent of a rooster’s strut, with his chest puffed out and a bounce on his toes; that swagger we saw in 2014’s Birdman ... was not a put on, it turns out.”

The Art of Space Art
Kastalia Medrano | The Paris Review
“Most objects in space are either so faint or so distant that even the newest generation of telescopes can’t return images that do them aesthetic justice. Hence the value of artists, who can extrapolate scientific findings into fantastical craters and overlarge moons, their colors dark with science-fiction vibrancy.”

On Set With This Is Us: TV’s Feel-Good Megahit Ups the Stakes in Season 2
Lacey Rose | The Hollywood Reporter
“The development pipeline already is being clogged with self-consciously soulful imitations as rivals looks to reverse-engineer its success, but replicating This Is Us won't come easy. Some credit the show's evocative tone for helping it to cut through, others its pitch-perfect casting. The only piece everyone, including [the creator Dan] Fogelman, seems to agree on is its significance as a cultural antidote.”

Tears of a Crazy Clown
Judy Berman | The Baffler
“Human nature, and carving real human beings out of Twin Peaks’s caricatures, turned out to be one of The Return’s central concerns. As the season progressed, it shattered any lingering impression of [David] Lynch as a detached, self-consciously quirky sadist, chuckling mirthlessly over the rottenness at the core of American life and the ignorance of any person who fails to see it.”

The Inevitability of Taylor Swift. Ready For It?
Kelsey McKinney | The Village Voice
“Unlike with the release of 1989 in 2014 ... Swift is no longer perceived as a sweet pop darling. In place of the critical and popular thrill over her new album, there has been a soft collective groan. The world, for many, feels so polarized, so dire, that cute and clever doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Asking Questions Louis C.K. Doesn’t Want to Answer
Cara Buckley | The New York Times
“‘There are these people in the world that we all talk about, and we want to know that they’re all good or they’re all bad,’ Louis C.K. said. ... ‘The uncomfortable truth is, you never really know. You don’t know anybody.’ ... It’s an observation that raises the question of how well do audiences know Louis C.K., a man who has built his career out of relentlessly, albeit thoughtfully, mining collective discomforts and taboos.”

The Atlantic's Week in Culture
September 15th, 2017, 12:35 PM

Don’t Miss

‘What More Do You Need’Megan Garber reads What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s latest memoir, in which the politician has become cautiously diaristic.


Katie Posner

The Business of Creativity

Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After 10 YearsAnjali Enjeti explains her dedication to becoming a published author and how her approach has changed over the last decade.

Marjorie Liu on the Road to Making MonstressLenika Cruz interviews the writer about working for Marvel, the loneliness of novel-writing, and why her epic-fantasy comic series is mostly populated by women and characters of color.


A24

Film

Yorgos Lanthimos on His New Film The Killing of a Sacred DeerDavid Sims chats with the director of The Lobster about the dark premise of his follow-up, working with stars like Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman, and his unique sensibility.

Mother! Is a Stunning, Ferocious Head TripChristopher Orr watches the writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s metaphor-rich horror movie, a work of amazing ambition that’s definitely not for everybody.

Hollywood Moguls Are the New AuteursDavid Sims unpacks the news that Star Wars: Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow lost his job after clashing with the real power behind the franchise: the producer Kathleen Kennedy.

First They Killed My Father Is a Surprising, Devastating TriumphDavid Sims praises Angelina Jolie’s new film, which follows the Cambodian Civil War and the brutal Khmer Rouge regime through the eyes of a young girl.


Justina Mintz / HBO

TV

Insecure and the Fiction of PossibilityMegan Garber reviews the HBO show’s Season 2 finale, which takes a Sliding Doors approach to its characters’ lives to masterful effect.

The Strange Confusion of Top of the Lake: China GirlSophie Gilbert thinks Elisabeth Moss, Nicole Kidman, and Gwendoline Christie star in a recurring series gone very wrong.

Darkness on the Edge of Broad CitySpencer Kornhaber says the manic-pixie yas kweens squirm under Trump in Season 4.

Better Things Is Almost Perfect TelevisionSophie Gilbert calls the FX comedy-drama by Pamela Adlon one of the sharpest and most poignant shows in recent memory.

The Apolitical Politics of the Celebrity Hurricane TelethonSpencer Kornhaber writes that amid raising $44 million, Stevie Wonder and Beyoncé blew past the question of whether it’d be divisive to talk about climate change.

Will Netflix or HBO Dominate the 2017 Emmy Awards?Sophie Gilbert takes a look at what to expect from the 69th ceremony honoring the best of television.


Colin Young-Wolff / AP

Music

Princess Nokia’s Brash, Oddball RapSpencer Kornhaber listens to the young artist’s 1992 Deluxe, a super-fun, smart celebration of how identity is tied to culture.

The False Prophets of Protest MusicSpencer Kornhaber dismisses the political rock of members of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, and Cypress Hill as seeming immediately obsolete.


Doug McLean

Books

Jenny Zhang: ‘Tiny Stories’ Are Vital to LiteratureJoe Fassler talks to the Sour Heart author about Roberto Bolaño’s “Dance Card,” humanizing minor characters through irreverence, and homing in on history’s footnotes.

A Novel That Imagines a World Without BeesTori Latham analyzes Maja Lunde’s climate-fiction debut, which uses species extinction to ask its human characters: What’s more important, self-interest or sacrifice?

Eka Kurniawan’s Darkly Comic Tale of BoyhoodJane Yong Kim believes Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is a surreal, poignant account of a teen attempting to become a man.

First They Killed My Father Is a Surprising, Devastating Triumph
September 15th, 2017, 12:35 PM

There’s only one scene in First They Killed My Father that isn’t told through the eyes of Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch), the young daughter of a high-ranking Cambodian government official who was swept up in the terror of the Khmer Rouge’s campaign of genocide in 1975. It’s the opening montage, one cutting between footage of Richard Nixon insisting on American neutrality in the country and newsreels of the violence and bombing that spilled over into Cambodia’s borders during the Vietnam War. “This is not an invasion of Cambodia,” Nixon intones over images of burning jungles and burnt bodies on the streets of Phnom Penh, as the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil” roars on the soundtrack.

Perhaps it’s a little on the nose, but it’s also the one freewheeling, stylish flourish director Angelina Jolie allows in her sober new film, an adaptation of Ung’s 2000 memoir of her childhood during the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia in the late 1970s that resulted in the deaths of close to 2 million people (a conservative estimate). First They Killed My Father, subtitled A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, is a Khmer-language film focused on the atrocities Ung personally witnessed as she was torn from her childhood in Phnom Penh during the Cambodian Civil War, and its villains are mostly the unnamed soldiers and revolutionaries that torment her family. But before she delves into this individual story, Jolie takes great strain to make clear how this chaos was sewn, and that responsibility for Cambodia’s descent into violence lies far beyond its borders.

To this day, very few films have been made about the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, a legacy the country is still only beginning to come to grips with. The most memorable is certainly Roland Joffé’s Oscar-winning 1984 epic The Killing Fields, but that was a film centered on the American journalist Sydney Schanberg (played by Sam Waterston) and his reporting. Jolie could be accused of bringing a similar Western perspective, though she is the adoptive mother of a Cambodian son and has done extensive charity work in the country. But the triumph of First They Killed My Father is that she avoids any white-savior pitfalls, presenting Ung’s story clearly and candidly, and wisely keeping her camera trained on Srey Moch, an astonishing young first-time actor who proves a perfect conduit for the story Jolie wants to tell.

Ung is one of seven children living in relative comfort in Phnom Penh; her father (played with extraordinary grace by Phoeung Kompheak) is a government official, and when the Khmer Rouge rebels sweep into the capital, he knows he’ll be marked as a target and spirits his family into the countryside. Jolie, who co-wrote the film with Ung, does not try to over-explain every political detail of the civil war or Pol Pot’s resulting regime (a purportedly Communist government that immediately descended into dictatorial terror). First They Killed My Father is told from a child’s-eye view, with the camera frequently focusing on Ung’s open, sweet face and then cutting to whatever nightmare she’s seeing.

At two hours and 16 minutes long, the film might sound like a slog, but Jolie has no interest in drawn-out depictions of torture or execution, holding off on the sort of relentless, graphic violence she could deploy to easily drive the horror home. That’s not to say First They Killed My Father lacks gruesome imagery, but it’s usually brief and chaotic, glimpsed by Ung as she tries to flee or ignore the terror going on around her. At first, she’s living in secret with her family, who try to pose as ordinary, working-class folk to avoid the wrath of the Khmer Rouge (whose targets, aside from ethnic minorities, included anyone connected with the prior government). Later, she’s separated from them and trained as a child soldier for the ongoing civil war; Ung’s story follows her long, slow quest to reunite with her siblings.

Jolie’s masterstroke is that she never departs from the gaze of her young protagonist. There’s little sense of time passing—it could be months or years, given Ung’s inability to find any grounding in the destroyed farmland, labor camps, and military bases she’s swept through. It’s easy to understand every decision she makes to survive, even her terrifying recruitment as a soldier who lays mines in Cambodia’s dense jungle. The loss of her father (hardly a spoiler, considering the film’s title) is the film’s most profoundly restrained moment, all the more devastating for how cryptically it happens, as he does his best to hide the details of his impending fate from his children.

First They Killed My Father, which debuts on Netflix and in limited theatrical release Friday, is Jolie’s fourth film as a director and her first unambiguous triumph. Though she showed extensive visual flair in her last two movies, the war epic Unbroken and the dark, romantic drama By the Sea (a seemingly autobiographical tale that co-starred her then-husband Brad Pitt), this film matches that with a simpler, more powerful story, largely free of cliché and delivered with incredible restraint. Jolie’s clearly trying to use her brand as a Hollywood megastar to make projects with limited commercial potential and get them to the widest possible audience. But as altruistic as that effort may be, the films still have to be good to really make an impact—and First They Killed My Father is very, very good.

The False Prophets of Protest Music
September 15th, 2017, 12:35 PM

Protest music is thriving, if you want to hear it. A top-of-my-head assortment: Kendrick Lamar’s post-election self-interrogations, Sheer Mag’s resistance-minded retrofitting of Thin Lizzy, Vince Staples’s dizzying F.U. to the White House, and Lana Del Rey’s knowingly naïve pleas for world peace. Even the slick, chart-courting likes of Fifth Harmony have anthems about building bridges and not walls. Yet if your genre tastes or tribal affiliations or overpowering nostalgia for the WTO protests disqualify the above from being taken seriously—well, today you have the thudding debut by Prophets of Rage.

A super-group formed during the 2016 election because “dangerous times demand dangerous songs,” Prophets of Rage includes members of Rage Against the Machine (among them the effects-pedals activist Tom Morello), Public Enemy (including Chuck D, the stern embodiment of rap’s political potential), and Cypress Hill (B-Real, the squeaky stoner of “Insane in the Brain”). Their protest-artists pedigree is mostly impeccable, and their initial outings saw them reworking old hits for today’s rallies. Outside the Republican National Convention, for example, Chuck D and B-Real aimed Zack de la Rocha’s lyrics in “Killing in the Name” at newly explicit targets. Now, it was “some of those up in Congresswho were “the same that burn crosses.”

Eight months into the Trump administration, any temptation to call such an effort overly ham-handed has been squelched. The chorus of Prophets of Rage’s “Unfuck the World” says “no hatred / fuck racists,” and the president’s response to the Charlottesville violence has made clear that the band is not simply stating the obvious. Yet over the 12 tracks of their self-titled debut, the Prophets seem stuck in an aesthetic bunker of nostalgia and self-satisfaction—an unfortunate place from which to launch a revolution.

On the opener, “Radical Eyes,” Chuck D booms that he’s feeling “rage-ified,” and that’s a handy term for the mode the album is in. It’s a lot like Rage Against the Machine, but it’s not the real thing. Rage’s Morello, drummer Brad Wilk, and bassist Tim Commerford dutifully rebuild the sound that shook ’90s radio: sludgy low end, drums marrying James Brown and “When the Levee Breaks,” and fluorescent guitars that might make you think of a video-poker machine announcing a jackpot. But in place of de la Rocha’s agitation there’s Chuck D’s steady preaching and—a big part of the problem—B-Real’s simplistic sneer. Their forgettable verses make way for choruses that loop-the-loop over mounting squall from Morello and Public Enemy’s DJ Lord. It’s as if mere repetition and noise might alchemize words into deeds.

Such rap-rock is not, exactly, the music of these times. Are the messages current, at least? “You fell asleep and when you woke up / 45 for the win,” Chuck D says on the opener, and it’s worth noting that the line would have technically worked regardless of who prevailed last November. “By George, he’s the new Wallace,” he raps on “Hail to the Chief,” a song that doesn’t aspire to much other than further bumming out those already bummed by Trump’s election. On “Smashit,” B-Real seems annoyed at Democrats: “They forgot about Michigan / like all is magnificent.” Otherwise, the album mostly passes in a blur of vague condemnations of liars and PSA-mild calls for action: “Give a damn, evil can’t stand / When the people take a stand.”

Even the more specific songs are fangless. It might take a few listens to “Strength in Numbers” to notice the Standing Rock references amid its bumper-sticker word salad, and the flirtations with nonviolent resistance in “Fired a Shot” just come off as controversy-adverse metaphors. “Legalize Me” takes some of the faux-militant vibe of Edwin Starr’s “War” to rumble about decriminalizing pot, with B-Real mostly just listing the places where dispensaries already do business. You’re left thinking weed should be legalized so guys in Che Guevara T-shirts might more easily get high, rather than to help break the schools-to-prison pipeline. “Living on the 110,” which draws attention to the homelessness under a major Los Angeles freeway, is a highlight simply because it commits to one concrete cause.

Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy didn’t always talk in terms of specific policies or people either. But they did have a knack for rendering society’s longstanding injustices in vivid, even shocking terms. Zack de la Rocha, a true radical, could shake the listener’s soul with images like the one in “Down Rodeo”: “I’m rollin’ down Rodeo with a shotgun / These people ain’t seen a brown-skinned man since their grandparents bought one.” Chuck D once described black alienation with brilliant candor, calling Elvis and John Wayne “straight-up racist.” He recycled that famous verse last year for Prophets of Rage’s “No Sleep Til Cleveland,” itself a rewrite of a Beastie Boys song. The fact that the results made for the best track in the Prophets of Rage catalogue suggests that these past giants of political music are just that: the past. If revolution comes by song, it will come from elsewhere.

Eka Kurniawan's Darkly Comic Tale of Boyhood
September 15th, 2017, 12:35 PM

The novel Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash opens simply, by stating its premise: The teenager Ajo Kawir has a bit of a hardware problem. His bird, as he puts it, “won’t stand up.” His friend Gecko knows what’s going on; it’s why he never invites Ajo Kawir to watch porn together or to “loiter in front of the post office and catcall the girls passing by.” Gecko’s father does, too; it’s why he takes his son’s friend to see a sex worker, and why he says things like, “Only guys who can’t get hard can fight with no fear of death.”

From the get-go in this story, the ups and downs of burgeoning teenage identity tangle with the warmhearted, if sometimes misguided, efforts of family and friends to solve deeply personal issues. Also from the get-go, the lens turns both inward, to Ajo Kawir’s thoughts, and outward, to a world too often preoccupied with the virility of its men. This latter focus makes sense, given that Vengeance is the work of Eka Kurniawan, the talented Indonesian author who was longlisted for the Man Booker International prize in 2016 and whose previous novels, Beauty Is a Wound and Man Tiger, have examined the deeply embedded effects of societal sexism.

With his new protagonist, Kurniawan wryly homes in on the young man’s insecurities and fixations. Ajo Kawir initially bemoans his fate. He tries all manner of wake-up remedies, from rubbing chili pepper on his penis to letting it get stung by bees. He begins to talk to it, cajoling and scolding by turns. Simultaneously, he is blossoming into a brawler ready to take on anyone with his fists, or a knife: “Even when cornered, he was the kind of fighter who’d let his opponent break his arm if it gave him the opportunity to break the other guy’s leg.” That inclination ends up getting the 19-year-old tasked with killing a gangster named Tiger.

The semi-comic, pulp-y framing lures readers into what becomes a poignant exploration of an adolescent mind lurching toward maturity. Because if the reactions to Ajo Kawir’s predicament are fairly sweet, the reason for it—seemingly, the horrific rape of a vulnerable woman by local police officers that the teen witnesses—is anything but. Ajo Kawir’s terror and guilt at watching, and at first feeling aroused by, tremendous sexual violence are matched in intensity only by his resulting anger toward influential men who see women as disposable. (His growing ability to exact physical revenge complicates the power dynamic as well.)

There’s no mistaking the moral stakes Kurniawan sets up, from the complicity of the bystander to the surrounding community’s internalization of individual violence. If the fable-esque set-up seems a bit heavy-handed, Kurniawan avoids that pitfall by wrapping his tale in warmth and candor. He captures the tender rationale of teens in the swell of adolescent transformation, showing (through the character of Gecko, who gladly loans his father to his friend) how intuitively empathetic young people can be toward each other. Ajo Kawir himself is a complicated mix of soul and physicality: He doubts his ability to satisfy a woman, even as he comes to a strange sort of peace with his body. He’s by turns forlorn, frustrated, and wise—and slowly his life unfurls in fascinating, rich ways.

Kurniawan’s unhurried, magical-realist style, which the author last used in Man Tiger—to tell the story of a man who has a female white tiger dwelling inside him—is a snug fit for the world of Vengeance. The early chapters are particularly electric, full of the sort of specialness that’s only possible through the whole assumption of kids’ perspectives, with their internal logic and low-to-the-ground vantage. And while characters aren’t fleshed out descriptively, they aren’t stick figures either. The sparseness means the occasional detail lands brightly: Readers learn in passing that Ajo Kawir devoured martial arts comics while growing up, as, apparently, did his crush Iteung, a fellow fighter he notices mimicking the language of the comics.

Vengeance is interesting formally, too: Its brief, cinematic scenes, not always chronologically ordered, build like stacked, occasionally off-kilter blocks, a visual Jenga. Kurniawan confidently drops in details without explaining them, sets readers down in medias res, and presents dream sequences as though they’re real, always shifting gears with ease. It’s to his credit (and to Annie Tucker’s simple but vibrant translation) that his experiments don’t create reader whiplash.

Such flash imagery helps bring to life the many, many fights Ajo Kawir lands in. If fists go up frequently in Vengeance, they also, it’s worth noting, belong to both enemies and lovers. A physical confrontation with Iteung leaves Ajo Kawir feeling “shattered to pieces,” while his foes get some poetic treatment as well. “Then a punch struck him squarely on the jaw,” Ajo Kawir dreams, of dueling with Tiger. “He felt himself flying, floating, and then landing on the surface of the water.”

Vengeance isn’t trying to show the fights’ beauty for beauty’s sake, but to illustrate how a boy might find them beautiful—freeing, wild, their own form of political identity and coalesced power, a way to not have control and be okay with that. That tension is, of course, part of the author’s broader point, tracing back to the rape Ajo Kawir witnesses: His yen for violence both proves and indicts the long reach of unchecked brutality. There is, Kurniawan suggests, a wisp of a line between selfish cruelty and righteous violence, between voyeurism and action, between a passionate embrace and a death grip.

In Man Tiger, Kurniawan masterfully played with time to tell a complicated family story from multiple sides. The point of that novel, as with Vengeance, is to show the insidious, trickle-down effects of men who wreak havoc with little consideration for those around them. Both works illustrate these knots of community, where propriety and rage and survival coexist, with a surprising amount of compassion—and illuminate the pain and learning of the next generation with tremendous grace.

Will Netflix or HBO Dominate the 2017 Emmy Awards?
September 15th, 2017, 12:35 PM

In 2013, Netflix became the first streaming service to win a Primetime Emmy Award. That was just four years ago, but feels considerably longer in TV years—at the time, individual chapters of the show House of Cards were still commonly referred to as “webisodes,” and Netflix had a relatively paltry 30 million subscribers instead of the roughly 104 million it has today.

Today, the television landscape is completely different. Almost half of the shows nominated for best comedy or drama at the Emmys this year come from streaming services: Netflix’s Stranger Things, The Crown, House of Cards, Master of None, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Netflix isn’t quite the biggest player at this Sunday’s ceremony; HBO received 111 nominations, even without Game of Thrones, its flagship production, being eligible. But the streaming service almost doubled the number of nominations it received compared to last year (91 to 54). And with Netflix intent on releasing an even bigger slate of new shows in 2018, its influence will only increase.

For viewers, Netflix’s vast infusion of cash has contributed to a spate of exceptional television—both from the streaming service itself and from the traditional networks struggling to keep up. The trend to watch for this year is whether voters reward less conventional recent releases (FX’s Atlanta, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Netflix’s Stranger Things, HBO’s Big Little Lies) or more traditional Emmys-friendly fare (Netflix’s The Crown, ABC’s Modern Family, Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan). That’s to say nothing of the shows and actors that didn’t get their due: HBO’s The Leftovers and Insecure, Amazon’s Fleabag, Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience, Oprah Winfrey’s performance in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

FX’s Atlanta is one of the shows it would be gratifying to see honored on Sunday, given the ingenuity of its storytelling and the surreal but compassionate humor of its creator and star, Donald Glover. The same goes for ABC’s Black-ish, which responded to the election with a thoughtful and nuanced dissection of racism in America. But it’s entirely likely that the award for best comedy series will go to HBO’s Veep, which has been nominated for all of its six seasons, and won the last two years in a row.

The best drama category has been upended by the ineligibility of Game of Thrones (due to its later schedule in 2017), which also won the award for the last two years. It’s possible that NBC’s hit family drama This Is Us could pull off a surprise win, or that HBO’s Westworld or Netflix’s The Crown could score. But it seems most likely that either Netflix’s Stranger Things or Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale will ultimately triumph. This would be a significant victory for streaming TV, which hasn’t yet claimed one of the two big prizes at the Emmys.

Then there are the acting awards. Jeffrey Tambor’s performance as Maura Pfefferman on Amazon’s Transparent won him Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 2015 and 2016. In the Lead Actress category for comedy, it’s most likely Julia Louis-Dreyfus will win for the sixth successive year for HBO’s Veep, but if voters decide to go rogue, Jane Fonda or Lily Tomlin could triumph for Netflix’s Grace and Frankie. For Lead Actress in a Drama Series, the biggest contenders look to be Elisabeth Moss for The Handmaid’s Tale and Claire Foy for her role as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown. Lead Actor in a Drama is anyone’s guess, with Anthony Hopkins (Westworld) and Milo Ventimiglia and Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us) seeming like strong candidates.

The limited-series acting categories seem to be where HBO still dominates. Nicole Kidman should claim the lead-actress award for her extraordinary performance as an abused wife in Big Little Lies, but Reese Witherspoon is also nominated for the same show. Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are also both nominated for Feud, as are Carrie Coon for Fargo and Felicity Huffman for American Crime. All six actresses have done remarkable work this year. In the lead-actor category, Riz Ahmed and John Turturro face off for HBO’s The Night Of, with Robert De Niro another contender for his role as Bernie Madoff in The Wizard of Lies. HBO could also clean up in the supporting categories, with Bill Camp and Michael K. Williams nominated for The Night Of, Alexander Skarsgard, Laura Dern, and Shailene Woodley for Big Little Lies, and Michelle Pfeiffer for The Wizard of Lies. But Stanley Tucci and Alfred Molina deserve praise, too, for their supporting roles in Feud.

The supporting categories for comedy and drama look promising for streaming services: Ann Dowd deserves to win Supporting Actress in a Drama for her role as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, with Samira Wiley nominated for the same show, Uzo Aduba for Orange Is the New Black, and Millie Bobby Brown for Stranger Things (Thandie Newton has a good chance for Westworld, and This Is Us’s Chrissy Metz is a fan favorite). For comedy, Judith Light and Kathryn Hahn are both nominated for Transparent, but the award seems destined for Kate McKinnon for her work on Saturday Night Live. Alec Baldwin will also presumably win for playing Donald Trump on the same show, but in the Supporting Actor in a Drama category, John Lithgow seems to be the favorite for his role as Winston Churchill on The Crown.

Beyond that, the biggest questions are who will win for Outstanding Limited Series (likely Big Little Lies), Outstanding Television Movie (potentially The Wizard of Lies, although Netflix’s Black Mirror could win its first Emmy for “San Junipero”), and Outstanding Variety Talk Series (the Emmys’ host this year, Stephen Colbert, should rightfully win for his reenergized post-election work on The Late Show). HBO may ultimately end up the biggest winner of the night—it took 19 awards at last weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys, to Netflix’s 16 and NBC’s 9. But the real race, for Netflix, seems to be just beginning.

Mother! Is a Stunning, Ferocious Head Trip
September 15th, 2017, 12:35 PM

Darren Aronofsky’s heady horror film mother! begins with a large and beautifully octagonal Victorian country house, encircled on all sides by tall grass and, beyond, by trees. There is no driveway or other obvious means of access—no evidence, really, of a world apart from this house. A young woman lives there with her older husband, a poet. She is played by Jennifer Lawrence and identified only as “mother,” though she does not yet have any children; he is played by Javier Bardem and identified as “him.” She spends her days cooking, cleaning, and meticulously restoring the house, which, we learn, had previously burned in a fire. (She is literally a “home-maker.”) He, meanwhile, spends his days brooding, fountain pen in hand, over a blank page. He was once a famous writer, but his words have abandoned him.

One night, a stranger (Ed Harris) shows up on their doorstep. He says he’s a doctor, and that he’d been told the house was a bed and breakfast. It isn’t, but Bardem’s character nonetheless invites him to stay the night.  (“This house is too big for the two of us,” he declares.) To the consternation of Lawrence’s character, the two men spend the night drinking and smoking. It turns out that the stranger is a huge fan of the poet’s old work, and the latter is delighted and energized by this revelation.

The next day, a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) knocks on the door, and explains that she is the doctor’s wife. The poet invites her, too, to stay in the house indefinitely, over his own wife’s strenuous objections. This latest newcomer, after getting high on spiked lemonade, pries unpleasantly: That’s quite an age difference between you and your husband. Why aren’t you pregnant? Are you doing your part in the bedroom? If this all seems a bit rude, trust me when I say that these impositions are nothing compared to the ones yet to come. (The door chime in this home is certainly the most ominous since Tony Soprano caught a bullet at Holsten’s ice cream parlor.) Yet the poet seems to thrive on this accumulating attention, despite the escalating shock and dismay of his devoted wife.

It would be wrong to say more about the plot of mother! except to note that what begins as a quietly bucolic fable—albeit one in which menace looms—gradually spins out into a phantasmagoric horror show, stuffed to the seams with allegory. Why do the walls of the house beat like a heart when Lawrence’s character lays her hands on them? What’s in the golden elixir that she takes for her dizzy spells? Did something shriek and flee down the drain when she plunged that clogged toilet bowl? Why is her husband so obsessed with the mysterious crystal he keeps locked away in his study?

For its first half or more, I expected mother! to be a gothic nightmare in the manner of Poe or Chambers or Lovecraft, with healthy dollops of Kafka and Rosemary’s Baby thrown in for good measure. (I was hoping for the kind of movie that Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak aimed for but ultimately missed.) But Aronofsky’s ambitions are far larger and stranger, even by the standards of such previous head trips as Black Swan and Noah. This is a film of fierce and idiosyncratic intensity, a metaphor for subjects both vast and banal: on the one hand, gender roles, creativity, birth, and (as Aronofsky himself has attested) global warming; on the other, the symbiotic interplay between fandom and celebrity. Biblical allusions are woven throughout—Cain and Abel, a flood that resets the world, the birth of Christ—and the story is essentially told in two separate chapters that might as well be called testaments.

There’s a strong sense, too, of winking self-critique on Aronofsky’s part. Bardem’s emphatically male artist heaps indignity after indignity upon his wife in his craving for more fame, more love, more attention. It is, at a fictive remove, pretty much what Aronofsky does to his lead actress.

And if not for another bravura performance by that lead actress, the film might easily have collapsed under the weight of its own pretensions. Bardem and the rest of the cast are strong, but it is Lawrence’s groundedness and humanity that tether her director’s wilder fancies. It helps, too, that Aronofsky (who also wrote the screenplay) injects frequent doses of black humor into the proceedings. He never loses sight of the fact that, philosophical trappings aside, this is at its core a movie about the Worst House Guests Ever.

In the end, mother! is a film certain to be revered by some and reviled by others. And while I’d place myself mostly in the former camp, plenty of reasonable people will find themselves in the latter. This is a demanding film, and there is one grisly (though in no way gratuitous) twist near the end that will test the endurance even of those who appreciated what came before. So be forewarned: Aronofsky has made precisely the movie he set out to make. But it may very well not be the movie for you.

Marjorie Liu on the Road to Making Monstress
September 14th, 2017, 12:35 PM

When the comic-book series Monstress introduces its haunted heroine, she has the look of someone just barely surviving. Maika Halfwolf is naked, missing part of an arm, wearing a metal collar, and being sold at a slave auction—a casualty in a bloody conflict between humans and Arcanics, a race of magical creatures. Of course, Maika is more than she seems. An Arcanic who looks human, she’s enraged by her mother’s death, her missing memories, and the atrocities she’s suffered. There’s also a strange, deadly power taking root in her body and mind—one she can neither understand nor control.

Written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda for Image Comics, Monstress is a sprawling epic fantasy that drops readers into the middle of a magic-filled alternate history. Described as a kind of “matriarchal Asia,” Maika’s universe is wracked by a race war and inhabited by violent witch-nuns, vicious deities, and innocent civilians—all of which is brought to life by Takeda’s exquisite manga-style, Art Deco–inspired art. Liu doesn’t ease her audience’s arrival into this intricately designed world by defining new terms or supplying a linear history of Maika’s life (the scale and complexity of the worldbuilding has earned Monstress comparisons to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books). Still, Liu and Takeda’s series differs from most genre fare, comics or otherwise, in at least one key way: There are almost no men or white characters.

The Eisner Award-nominated series is the high point thus far of Liu’s own rather unusual career path. In her mid-20s, Liu had graduated from law school and was working at a firm when the sale of her first book convinced her to switch careers. She churned out romance and fantasy novels for years before getting her first gig to write a comic for Marvel, somewhat to her surprise. “It was crazy enough to desire being a novelist,” Liu told me. “I enjoyed reading comics, but it never occurred to me to actually write them until years later.”

After a stint at Marvel working on series such as NYX, X-23, and Astonishing X-Men, Liu took a serious break before reuniting with a former colleague, Takeda, to start their own ambitious series together. Hailed when its first issue came out in 2015, Monstress saw its second volume published this summer. (While the next issue, #13, was originally slated for a fall release, it’s now being pushed until January because of how big the new story arc is.) For The Atlantic’s series on the business of creativity, I spoke with Liu about giving up a law career, working for Marvel, why she quit writing novels, and the decision to make women the stars of Monstress. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Cruz: Since you got your start writing novels, what was the learning curve like when you did your first comic?

Liu: I realized I was thinking about fiction two-dimensionally. When I’m writing comics, I’m also visualizing how the story will look on the page—not even always art-wise, but panel-wise, like how a moment will be enhanced dramatically by simply turning a page and getting a reveal. It requires thinking about story in a way I never had to consider when I was writing prose.

I didn’t have any teachers. I got into comics because I wrote an X-Men novel for Pocket Books, and I introduced myself to the head of recruitment at Marvel. I’d heard through the grapevine they liked the book, so that gave me the courage to go up to them and be like, “Hey, if you ever need a writer, here I am.” But I learned how to write comics through Googling scripts, having read a ton of comics, and getting guidance from my editor at the time, John Barber.

Cruz: What was the editing process like at first?

Liu: One of the most significant notes I recall is from when I was writing NYX, which was a Marvel book about these teenage mutants who are living on the streets of New York. And [the character] Kiden, one of her powers is that she can stop time. I remember the editor writing, “This is not a film. So how do you guide an artist when it comes to describing stopped time? Because literally everything is already stopped on the page.” That was a real eye-opener to how this was a very deep medium I was working in.

Ultimately, a comic writer is writing for the artist, and a script will not be read by anyone except whoever is behind the scenes. In the best moments, I think of my scripts as love letters to artists. I want to give them the best story possible so that they will have the best time possible drawing these things. It’s not just their livelihoods; they also invest in your work creatively and emotionally. I love writing novels, but there is something deeply invigorating about the comic-book medium. It’s not just the kinds of stories we’re able to tell, but it’s also the relationships that are built and the collaborative force that generates between you and your whole team when things are going right.

Cruz: What has your partnership with Sana Takeda been like?

Liu: Early on in X-23, we needed a fill-in artist for a couple of pages. Sana came on and only drew two or three pages, but they really stuck with me. Later when we needed a new artist, I specifically requested her. It was a wonderful process; it felt like she was reading my mind. Eventually, as it happens with all books at Marvel, the series ended, but I never forgot what a great experience it was to work with her. So two or three years later, I was in Japan [where Takeda lives], I looked her up and we had lunch, and I said, “Hey would you ever want to work together again?,” and she was like, “Sure, sounds great!”

Working on Monstress has been a very, very different experience than when we were working on X-23, and not only because that was a work-for-hire book. Both of us, in those years apart, went through our own journeys of growth, and when we came back together, we were in very different places.

Cruz: What do you mean by that?

Liu: How do I put this ... while I was working on X-23, I was dealing with a lot of depression. I was feeling really burned out as an artist, as a novelist specifically. I was really unhappy, and I felt really guilty for being unhappy. I was writing for a living, I was living a dream. So why in the world was I so unhappy?

Writing is very isolating, and I didn’t have a lot of balance in my life. There was always a reason for me not to be out in the world, because I could just say, “I have a deadline.” For someone who is already sort of shy and occasionally socially phobic, that was a very deadly trap to fall into. So I woke up one day and realized, “If I’m not careful, this is going to be my life forever until I die, and I’m going to be profoundly alone.” I told myself, “I can’t do this anymore. My writing does not matter more than my life.”

I had to make certain decisions. I mostly stopped writing novels, but I kept writing comics because A) I needed money, but also B) I still enjoyed it. Writing comics wasn’t draining me. Between X-23 and Monstress, I underwent this huge life change where I moved, I quit writing novels, and I focused on what I wanted for my art and from life. Now, when I look back on who I was then and who I am now—it’s not that I’m unrecognizable. But there are days when it feels close to that.

Sana had gone through a similar journey, but in the opposite direction. After X-23, she couldn’t get work at Marvel or DC. They basically told her that her style was “too manga.” There was no room for her. So she started doing other things: designing, working for a gaming company, teaching. She thought, maybe, she wouldn’t ever do comics again.

Without those years of growth, Monstress would not be the book it is today. If you look at Sana’s art in X-23 versus the art in Monstress, chances are good you’d think they were done by two different people. Sana wanted to push herself. I don’t know many artists who could change so radically even in just a couple of years. It wasn’t like a leap forward, it was more like a leap sideways, going from one incredible style to another.

Cruz: What is the process of making the newest issue of Monstress like?

Liu: I wrote an outline for this arc, and I broke that down into six issues. I sent the outline to our editor, Jennifer Smith, who sent the outline to Sana, and everyone made notes and sent them back to me. Then I started writing scripts. And it’s a long script: Issue #13 won’t be coming out now until January. This is an oversized issue, and we wanted to build enough time to have more oversized issues in this next arc because it’s a lot of story. The script goes through my editor, who makes her notes, then I send it to Sana, who gets it translated [into Japanese]. She’ll send me character designs, layouts, and background scenery art, just to see if our vision is matching up for how the world looks. But I leave her alone once she starts drawing.

Cruz: What was it like going from writing big comics based on famous properties to creating something that’s entirely your own?

Liu: Oh, it’s scary! Writing for Marvel was a tremendous amount of fun, but it could be frustrating. Because you’re still working for a corporation, and at the end of the day, you don’t own anything you write. I would invest myself in these characters and sometimes, without much warning, be told the book is ending. Going into these books, you always tell yourself, “Don’t get too attached.” But sometimes the only way to write these characters is to get really attached.

Now, writing for Monstress on the other hand. It was funny, because I thought I knew how to write comics; I’d been writing at Marvel for so many years. It was so much harder than I expected, because I’d spent the previous years playing in someone else’s sandbox. I was writing someone else’s characters, writing in a world that was much like our own. Monstress is so much bigger and complex. So when I started writing it, and I was like, “Oh shit, I’m in trouble.” I had to step back and teach myself all over again how to write comics. Because writing a huge epic fantasy requires way more organization, worldbuilding, and character.

There’s a reason why the first issue of Monstress was triple-sized. Everything that needed to go into that first issue couldn’t be done in 20 pages; it had to be done in 70. You can get a sense of the difficulty I was facing, telling this huge story when technically you’re limited to a very small amount of space. Every panel has to count. It took me a really long time to get it right—about seven to eight months of constant hard work. But once I got the first arc and that first issue hammered out, it was like, “I can breathe now.”

Cruz: How has the way you think about money changed over the course of your career?

Liu: Money is always a concern. Part of the reason why my folks—why any immigrant family—wants their kids to go into law or medicine is because there’s the promise of reliable work. That’s a powerful idea that got hammered into my head growing up: Be this thing or else you’ll starve.

So to walk away from practicing law after I sold my first novel, that was tough. My family was happy for me, but there was also pressure because of the uncertainty. I had to do a lot of soul-searching, though at the end of the day, there was no way I was not going to write novels after selling that first one. The choice I had to make was whether to write full-time or write part-time and practice law. The catch is that I got a four-book contract with that first novel. I made a gamble and told myself that if I write two to three novels a year, then I can hopefully build my career faster than if I’m writing part-time and practicing law.

But I was super poor for those first few years. I lived on the family farm [in Indiana] so I wouldn’t have to pay rent, and I made barely anything at first. Ninety-nine percent of writers can’t live off their earnings alone; they need a day job or a spouse or family who’s willing to support them. Part of why writing comics was so attractive was that it was a regular paycheck. I wrote one to two comic-book issues a month, which meant being paid every month as opposed to just two or three times a year for novels.

But back to your original question: The way I think about money hasn’t really changed at all, in the sense that being an artist of any kind is a perilous endeavor financially. There will be months or years when everything is going great, and just as quickly that can dry up without much rhyme or reason. But I tell myself the same is true for any career. How many lawyers do I know who can’t get work practicing law? A lot. So I’d rather take my chances with a pen in my hand telling stories.

Cruz: When writing Monstress, how did you decide to make anger Maika’s defining emotion?

Liu: Female rage is not really permitted in real life. Angry women are called bitches, too emotional, hysterical, whereas male rage is often portrayed as heroic, righteous, intelligent. In Monstress, Arcanics wear collars around their necks to keep them from exercising their full selves. And I think one of the collars around the necks of women is society’s views about female rage. Which isn’t to say anger is necessarily a force for good. Rage can be energizing and sustaining, but it’s ultimately problematic if it doesn’t lead you to a deeper exploration of the source.

I’d argue the other defining emotion for Maika is grief. There’s a tremendous amount of injustice in her mind that needs to be answered for, and anger sustains her. Put another way, her anger is revolutionary. But like most revolutionary impulses, the consequences on the individual tend to be terrible. Women need rage to survive in society, but female rage without a project of emancipation in the long run might not be as rewarding as we want it to be.

Cruz: When I first read Monstress I was struck by how overwhelmingly female it was, and with so many characters of color. It reminded me of how little people have come to expect on the diversity front in mainstream art, where movies and shows get praise for even the smallest instances of representation.

Liu: Monstress is my response to and a product of my frustration with being bombarded by stories I’m told I should be grateful for. Like when we see TV shows where there are like a million white people and one Chinese woman, if we’re lucky. It’s a lie of white supremacy—the visual lie that tells us our heroes, our stories, our love lives, and everything that we aspire to, everything that is heroic and romantic, is white. Being surrounded by that, I think, really deforms the imagination, and it deforms the heart as well.

I grew up loving epic fantasies, and almost all of them were written by white men. With white, mostly male, casts. When you’re a kid, you don’t always think about what that means, but you do as you get older. I was deeply immersed in Chinese culture in my community and my family growing up, so how come when I was writing fiction as a kid, all my stories were about white people? Even though my personal life was incredibly diverse, my imaginary life was very white.

Monstress was my response to that. When it comes to diversity, people act like, “Oh, we can’t do this.” Bullshit! The easiest thing in the world is to say, “Every single person in this book is going to be a person of color.”

When I look at Hollywood, I don’t think it even occurs to the people in charge that they can make these choices. I talk a lot about the importance of structural diversity over the optics of diversity. Optics are fine. But without real structural diversity behind the scenes, ultimately the optics either won’t last or they’ll replicate the same system they’re coming out of. When I mentor young writers of color, I say we need more creators of color, more writers of color, and more women in order to see lasting change.

A Novel That Imagines a World Without Bees
September 14th, 2017, 12:35 PM

The category of literature known as climate fiction—“cli-fi,” as it’s known—has gotten quite crowded in recent years. Even just in the past six months, there’s been Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast, which remains hopeful about impending disaster; Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,” which tackles both ecological concerns and the refugee crisis; and Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station, which takes on climate-change denial. Into this busy field enters Maja Lunde’s novel The History of Bees. Lunde, a writer of children’s and young-adult books, pieces together a tale that makes the long-term effects of climate change the backdrop for a set of stories about familial relationships, love, and loss.

Following a simple premise—what would happen if bees disappeared?—Lunde’s novel, originally released in Norwegian in 2015, jumps back and forth, across time, between the stories of three beekeepers. The term, it should be noted, is used loosely: There’s William, a British biologist in the mid-1800s; George, a farmer in the contemporary Midwest; and Tao, a young Chinese mother in a bee-less 2098 who spends hours performing manual labor in the fields to make up for the lack of apiformes. All three are dealing with personal problems brought about by the existence—or lack—of bees in their life. But the novel smartly relies limitedly on its ecological-disaster framework and instead gains its best footing in the quiet and intimate relationships it depicts between its characters. At times, it’s easy to forget you’re reading a novel exploring the consequences of a species extinction—instead, you’ve become invested in the lives of the people whose stories it follows.

This family-drama quality stems from the fact that much of the book takes place before the Collapse, an ambiguous event that occurred over several decades, led to the obliteration of bees, and has greatly depleted the resources they help produce (crops, animal feed, and, in turn, a number of animals). Tao’s plotline is the only one that occurs completely in the post-Collapse world, one in which China’s citizens are forced to hand-pollinate trees, due to the country’s early use of pesticides. “It had paid off to be the ones who polluted the most,” Tao thinks to herself. “We were a pioneer nation in pollution and so we became a pioneer nation in pollination. A paradox had saved us.”

Tao’s story, which opens the novel, is easily the most captivating. It’s also the most urgent, because it takes place after, not before, global disaster. In addition to the stress and exhaustion brought about by her grueling work outdoors, Tao struggles to create a life for her 3-year-old son Wei-Wen, and her constant attempts to provide him the best possible education exasperate her husband Kuan, straining their relationship. When Wei-Wen mysteriously disappears, it pushes Tao and Kuan further apart. Lunde places you in Tao’s head and forces you to feel the emptiness around her:

This thing that was between us had grown to be insurmountably large. It became almost unbearable to be in the same room. He stirred up the same thoughts again and again. The same two words. My fault, my fault, my fault.

Tao becomes so caught up in blaming herself for her son’s disappearance that she withdraws from those around her. Initially provoked by the ecological disaster, the void she feels deepens because of her lack of connectedness to those around her, and because of her belief that she alone can solve all of the problems—whether minute and personal or huge and systemic—that exist in her world.

If most of Tao’s storyline follows her attempts to discover her missing son, George’s and William’s more closely trace their irascible connections with their children. The difficulty with which the two men attempt to relate to their kids and their kids’ developing hobbies mirrors the trouble they have grasping the realities of a changing world. George, living during the beginning days of the Collapse in the United States, struggles to maintain his bees as he rejects new farming techniques meant to streamline the process of beekeeping. He’s disappointed in his son Tom, who’s recently gone off to college and seems wholly disinterested in his father’s profession, and much more drawn to pursuing a Ph.D. in writing.

George’s decided unlikability—he’s oblivious to his son’s desires and puts himself above everyone else—is clearly intentional. With his rigid self-centeredness, he serves as a foil for the bees, which are both the novel’s primary symbol and its binding narrative force. In addition to being an integral part of keeping the environment in order, “each tiny insect was subordinate to the greater whole,” as William points out early in the novel, sacrificing an individual identity for collective wellbeing. George is the complete opposite. If his verve for beekeeping drives his life, it also results in the downfall of his relationships. Lunde, in creating this unbearably stubborn character, suggests the tricky balancing act between human self-interest and sacrifice, and shows how parents can sometimes be the ones who struggle with this tension most of all.

The third storyline, William’s, works as a combination of the other two, mingling the sympathy readers may feel for Tao with the contempt they might feel for George. When first introduced, William is immobilized in bed by an overwhelming depression brought about by his lack of scientific achievement. A renewed sense of passion—both for his family and his work—becomes the driving force behind the scientist’s return to life. But, his fixations come at a cost: Determined to make new strides in the world of mid-19th century beekeeping, he becomes blind to those around him. His egocentrism and need for recognition don’t allow him to realize that “a single person’s life, … thoughts, fears, and dreams meant nothing” if they don’t “apply to us all.”

William’s inability to comprehend the communal nature of life, a quality each character shares in some way, is central to the novel’s broader point—that self-interest alone can result in both personal destruction and larger catastrophes that affect those outside of one’s immediate orbit. The book does, however, leave open the possibility of a way of life that values the collective over the individual, as bees do from the day they are born to the day they die.  

At times, the moralizing about the environment and humans’ role in global warming can come across a bit heavy-handedly. But increasing awareness of the earth’s fraught future, in the end, is not the main thing the novel is trying to do. Instead, it wants you to consider what it is you feel deeply about—whether that’s achieving fame, standing by traditions, or protecting your family—and then consider whether you would sacrifice those things for the greater good.

Better Things Is Almost Perfect Television
September 14th, 2017, 12:35 PM

The finale of the first season of Pamela Adlon’s FX dramedy Better Things ended with Sam (Adlon) and her daughters driving around in the family minivan, the girls gazing out the window while Duke (Olivia Edward), the youngest, squeezed her mother’s hand. The track playing in the car was Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed,” and all three of Sam’s kids sang along. It was a fitting ending for a debut series that had concerned itself singly with what women and girls go through, filtered through Adlon’s own experiences as a single mother and an actress. Sometimes it was funny (Sam memorably threw a teenage co-star out of her car after he tried to show her his penis, adding as a mom-like afterthought, “You can keep the jacket!”). Sometimes it was sad. But the show, dedicated to Adlon’s three daughters in real life, ended with acceptance. As Sam put it while addressing a female empowerment seminar at her daughter’s school, women have one thing in common: “We all bleed and we all suffer.”

If Better Things were just a comedy loosely based on Adlon’s life in Hollywood after 40, like a welcome heir to the highly underrated ’90s sitcom Cybill, it would still be spectacular, simply because Adlon is so sharp and so funny. But its ability to take a more wrenching look at womanhood made it one of the best and most distinctive shows of 2016. The second season, which debuts on FX Thursday, is somehow even better, directed in its entirety by Adlon, and written with Louis C.K., who co-created it. Dreamier and more wistful in style but with the same caustic sense of humor, the show takes more risks with structure and technique. Despite the fact that the writing in Better Things is a real gift—“Will you girls stop stealing candles for crying in the tub?” Sam pleads during an electrical outage—some of the most potent scenes are wordless altogether, as if to emphasize how many different things the show can master.

Season 1 introduced Sam Fox, her eccentric British mother, Phil (Celia Imrie), and her daughters: Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and Duke (Olivia Edward). (That all five characters have male names seems intentional.) Sam, like Adlon, is a former child actress who’s found reliable work later in her career as a voiceover artist (Adlon voiced the character of Bobby on King of the Hill for 13 seasons). Her ex-husband pops up sporadically but is mostly out the picture; Sam has an off/on thing with a married ex (Mather Zickel) that involves self-loathing and sexts that she dashes off between plunging the toilet and giving the dog eye drops. Max, the eldest, is more open with her mother about sex and drugs than Sam would like (“These things are normal but you should be ashamed of them,” Sam explains). Duke, the baby, is doted on by everyone. Frankie, the funniest one, got sent home from school in the season finale for using the boy’s bathroom; she assured her mother it wasn’t because she was identifying as one, but Sam seemed to accept at the end that her daughter was probably transgender.

In the seven episodes of Season 2 that have been released to critics, this storyline has been largely left alone, with Adlon telling a panel that she and her daughter went through similar phases, implying Frankie will figure things out at her own pace. The first two episodes feature Sam trying to manage not just her own sex life but her daughter’s, after 16-year-old Max starts dating Arturo, a louche, swaggering 36-year-old Spaniard. Adlon plays Sam’s response to this development as a kind of paralysis—she’s intuitive enough to know that freaking out will only drive Max away, but she’s also viscerally pained by seeing her eldest child already vulnerable to the worst schools of male bullshit artistry.

A recurring theme in the second season is this constant tension between weakness and strength, and assessing which one is more important at any given time. Teaching an acting class, Sam critiques two comedians performing a scene for exuding too much confidence. “You’re playing a person in this scene,” she explains. “People are weak. They’re not cool and fast.” The defining characteristic of her approach to relationships, though, is a desire for power—she dates a terrible Jeremy Corbyn-lookalike in the second episode so she doesn’t have to feel anything, and then is deeply unnerved when she meets someone who seems perfect for her. “I don’t know how to do this,” she says. “I don’t know where this goes. I’ve got no place to put it.”

Unlike the first season, which employed a roster of guest stars including Lenny Kravitz, David Duchovny, Julie Bowen, and Bradley Whitford, the second focuses on its primary cast members. A more prominent role is given to music, which never fails to convey both mood and a sense of humor (the closing track to the Arturo episode includes the lyrics, “Daughter, leave those boys alone”). Adlon’s direction is deft, especially considering she’s in virtually every scene. After a climactic conversation with Max, Sam briefly lets her hand linger on Max’s closed bedroom door—a gesture that conveys all the maternal love that Sam knows better than to try and vocalize. In one episode, after she meets a man in a bar, she falls into a kind of reverie remembering the moment, where his words are muted to a quiet hum. In another, she experiences a blissful beach day with her daughters but whether the scene is real or imagined is left ambiguous.

The series gets into more poignant emotional territory with a storyline involving the increasing physical and mental fragility of Phil, Sam’s mother. Imrie, a brilliant English comic actress, gets to convey Phil’s poisonous rage at sensing her own decline, as well as rare moments of connection with her daughter, whom she’s passive-aggressively sniped at for years. It’s to the credit of Louis C.K., who wrote the fifth episode, “Phil,” that the subject is so honestly handled. “You get used to things being hard where you can work to make them better,” Sam’s friend Tressa (Rebecca Metz) tells her about her own father’s deterioriation. “But this isn’t that. There’s no good end to this. It doesn’t get better. Your mother is gonna get worse and worse and then she’ll be gone.”

After this storyline, though, comes “Eulogy,” one of the most spectacular TV episodes in recent memory. The first half of it deals with Sam’s career—how tedious and stupid acting can be, and what it means to love it and try and be good at it anyway. The second tracks her attempts to get her daughters to recognize that her job is important. For once, Sam gets what she wants, in a funny, dark, and fiercely moving conclusion that captures the weird genius of her parenting style and the infrequent joy of single motherhood. The episode distills all the things that make Better Things so good: the acknowledgment that life, for women, is hard and baffling and humiliating and painful, and that it can also—fleetingly—be perfect.

The Apolitical Politics of the Celebrity Hurricane Telethon
September 13th, 2017, 12:35 PM

The most famous moment of pop-culture political protest in recent memory happened at a post-hurricane telethon, with Kanye West using his spot in a 2005 Katrina-victim fundraising effort to tell the nation, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

There was no such memorably inflammatory moment at Tuesday night’s “Hand in Hand” telethon for those affected by hurricanes Harvey and Irma. As is the case with these sorts of affairs, the hour was largely a showcase for supergroup performances (check out George Strait, Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, Lyle Lovett, and Robert Earl Keen closing the show with “Texas”). There was also the surreal sight of dozens of superstars smilingly answering phones: George Clooney and Julia Roberts switching handsets, Nicki Minaj making fans squeal, Justin Bieber mugging in the guise of an ’80s Miami drug-cartel accountant. So far, the event has raised $44 million to be distributed by Comic Relief USA to charities including the Rebuild Texas Fund, Habitat for Humanity, and Save the Children.

But sprinkled in were a few statements that were remarkable in what they show about our divided times. Many viewers may have heard them as anodyne; others likely reacted a bit like Mike Myers did standing next to Kanye West 12 years ago.

The broadcast began with Stevie Wonder offering an invocation that gradually moved from unifying to confrontational. “We’ve come together today to love on the people who have been devastated by the hurricanes,” Wonder said, warming up for a rendition of “Lean on Me.” “When love goes into action, it preferences no color of skin, no ethnicity, no religious beliefs, no sexual preferences, and no political persuasions. It just loves.”

So far, fairly inarguable. But then: “And anyone who believes that there’s no such thing as global warming must be blind or unintelligent. Lord, save us all.”

In the wide swaths of America where climate change is taken for granted and the latest back-to-back catastrophes that have killed dozens and displaced millions seem more than a spooky coincidence, Wonder’s is not a particularly provocative statement. Other swaths—those who’d just been called blind or unintelligent—obviously felt differently. Write-ups on conservative news sites were almost immediate, with The Daily Caller reporting that the telethon was “getting political” from the start.

(In the clip of the full telethon MTV posted on YouTube, Wonder’s opening comments aren’t included; a representative said the omission is from a glitch that may be repaired soon.)

A pre-taped segment from the Houston native Beyoncé was also notably pointed. Many of her celebrity colleagues used their spotlight moments to call out specific instances of bravery (Selena Gomez was movingly choked up discussing the swept-away Saldivar family) or particular needs (the plight of pets, in Eric McCormack’s case). Beyoncé gave a more big-picture view, connecting Harvey and Irma with other recent distressing developments in the headlines.

“During a time where it’s impossible to watch the news without seeing violence or racism in this country, just when you think it couldn’t possibly get worse, natural disasters take precious life, do massive damage and forever change lives, leaving behind contaminated water, flooded hospitals, schools, and nursing homes,” she said. “Natural disasters don’t discriminate. They don’t see if you’re an immigrant, black or white, Hispanic or Asian, Jewish or Muslim, wealthy or poor. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Third Ward or River Oaks, we’re all in this together. Seeing everyone of different racial, social, and religious backgrounds put their own lives at risk to help each other survive restored my faith in humanity.”

She was dressed in radiant white—which, naturally, was the focus of certain coverage more than her words were—but her rhetoric was that of someone feeling drained by current events. Then she picked up on Wonder’s theme of speaking out for the scientific consensus, saying, “The effects of climate change are playing out around the world every day. Just this past week, we’ve seen devastation from the monsoon in India, an 8.1 earthquake in Mexico, and multiple catastrophic hurricanes.” (If the list seems to contain a non sequitur, note that there is evidence seismic activities and climate change may be linked, though it’s hard to claim a connection in the case of this latest quake.)

Messages like Beyoncé’s, whatever their political implications, seemed first intended to strike against complacency by talking about the specific circumstances of this era. Another pop giant with Houston connections, Drake, sent a message more explicitly seeking to interrupt apathy. “These days it seems as one issue is ending, another is beginning” he said. “I know it can be extremely overwhelming. But your attention and your assistance is of extreme importance.”