Welcome to Smugglivus 2012! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2012, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2013.
Please give it up for The Other Ana, everybody!
Imagine that one day circa 1998, a prankster of a friend convinced you that the zombie apocalypse was upon us. You would run to your bunker and spend the next decade and a bit down there, hidden away and surrounded by books and plentiful supplies. After a nice long while, you would wonder if perhaps the coast was clear, so you’d finally resurface and venture outside. Having found out that the whole thing was nothing but a ploy, you would of course start by planning the prank to end all pranks so you could exact revenge on your friend (and also make a vow to pick your friends a bit more carefully in the future). Then someone would inform you that we seem to have entered what some call “a new golden age of television”, so you’d sit comfortably in your favourite armchair and begin the long process of catching up.
Okay, so maybe the scenario above is a tiny little bit far-fetched, but hopefully it will give you an idea of where I was regarding TV series until about a year and a half ago. I don’t know why, really – it wasn’t medium snobbishness that prevented me from watching it; it was just that I’d really never made room for it in my life. But I’ll take a good story wherever I can find one, and the TV series I watched this year have added so much to my life. I love watching TV for all the same reasons why I love books: the memorable characters you love spending time with, the pleasures of dissecting the sometimes contradictory gender/class/race dynamics of a show, the joys of subtext, my interest in what these cultural artefacts tell us about ourselves and the world we live in, etc.
I also like the fact that the canon of contemporary cult TV series is considerably more manageable than any literary canon, which makes it far more likely that I’ll watch and fall in love with the same series my friends have watched and fallen in love with. My online circles are primarily book-based these days, but even then it seems far easier to find people who are watching the same things I’m watching and are more than happy to come share All The Feelings with me than to find people who are reading the exact same books I’m reading. This social aspect of TV is something that brought me a lot of joy this year.
What follows are some brief thoughts on some of the series that stayed with me the most in 2012. I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but sometimes I do have to give a couple of things away in order to make sense. So if there’s anything in here you’re still planning to watch, do proceed with caution.
My So-Called Life: I watched this classic teen series because an anonymous commenter recommended it to me after I expressed an interest in stories where teen girls are the subjects of desire and idealisation and not merely its objects. My So-Called Life hit the mark perfectly, and now I know why it’s on all those lists of series that ended much too soon.
Something I loved: The earnestness, both Angela’s and the series’ as a whole. This is a series that wears its heart on its sleeve in a way I just don’t see in more contemporary shows. Don’t worry, I’m not about to rant and rave about the age of irony or anything of the sort, but it’s interesting to me that shows like, say, Buffy or Veronica Mars, which I absolutely think have real heart, do emotions in a far more oblique and sometimes almost apologetic way. There was an openness and vulnerability to this show that just really spoke to me.
Also, I really love Claire Danes.
Something to think about: In one of the last scenes of the very last episode, Angela’s close friend Rickie actually says the words “I’m gay”, and you can tell that that moment was a very big deal when it comes to TV. Again, it was interesting to me that this dated the show: obviously we have a long way to go when it comes to the representation of lgbtq characters, but an unambiguous admission about a character’s sexuality would probably not be presented with the same degree of gravitas today, and I think this is a good sign.
Favourite Character: Angela herself, of course. She’s smart, thoughtful, passionate, more generous than she gives herself credit for, and a perfect point of view character.
Gilmore Girls: There was no series this year that brought me more joy than this chronicle of a mother and daughter’s lives in the fictional town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut. I raced through its seven seasons over a two month period in early 2012, and it’s no dramatic exaggeration to say that having my daily hour with Lorelai and Rory to look forward to was what made everyday life bearable in a dark winter of unemployment, uncertainty and woe. Gilmore Girls was just immensely fun to watch, and all these months later I still haven’t fully recovered from having had to say goodbye to these characters.
Something I loved: Oh, so much! The unapologetic focus on women’s stories; the way the series contradicts stereotypes about single mothers; the fact that both Rory and Lorelai have several romantic relationships that are allowed to matter even after they’re over; Rory’s portrayal as a smart, intellectually curious teenager (there are no “but teens are just not that smart and well-spoken!” shenanigans in the world of Gilmore Girls); the complexity of Lorelai’s relationship with her family; the awesome conclusion of Rory’s storyline at the end of season seven (possibly not a popular opinion, but I thought it was perfect); Paris and Rory’s friendship; the simple fact of Paris’ existence; and more, so much more.
Something to think about: The missing “a” word. In a series about a character who was a teenage mother, you’d think the subject of abortion would come up more than once in passing over a seven seasons run. Not only that, but we see three characters deal with unexpected pregnancies throughout the series: Lorelai herself (only a scare, but still telling); a character who is exhausted from balancing work, two children, and her crumbling sense of self and isn’t at all sure she can handle a third child; and a character who becomes pregnant at a very young age and has to put life plans on hold accordingly (trying to avoid spoilers here). I’m not saying either of these characters should have gone for abortions, but it was strange that the possibility was never once raised, not even just so they could discuss why they did want to have the babies – in the world of Gilmore Girls, it’s like abortion doesn’t exist. This eerie silence surprised me all the more because this is a show with a feminist sensibility that doesn’t shy away from other possibly contentious topics.
Favourite character: I’ll have to go with Rory, who is almost a TV version of my beloved Frankie Landau-Banks, but her best friend Lane is a close second. I always thought that “Kim Girls” would have been an awesome show in its own right.
Call the Midwife: This BBC mini-series, about midwife Jenny Lee’s experiences in the deprived East End of London in the 1950’s, was an absolute pleasure to watch. The series is based on Jennifer’s Worth memoir, which Amy keeps saying is also great, so one of these days I’ll have to pick it up.
Something I loved: The fact that, as The F-Word put it, the NHS is pretty much the star of the show. Episode after episode, we see the enormous difference that access to free pre- and post-natal care makes in the lives of these women and children. The implications about the importance of allowing women to be fully in charge of their reproductive health are very clear, and 2012 was a year when we needed these reminders more than ever.
Something to think about: Willa Paskin at Salon called the series “the middle-class mirror image of Downton Abbey”; while I don’t necessarily think the show’s approach to class was always oversimplified and patronising, I think Jenny’s privileged background is worth taking into account. I loved Call the Midwife for what it was, but I would also love to see a series that gave us the perspective of one of the young working-class mothers she and her colleagues help.
Favourite character: Chummy! Wonderful, adorable Chummy, who learns how to ride a bike and how to stand up to her family. Did she strike anyone else as pretty much a female Lord Peter Wimsey? No wonder I loved her so.
Angel: I should start by explaining that the only reason why Buffy is absent from this list is that I’ve already blogged about it at length – but rest assured that it was the story of the year for me, independently of medium. I started watching Angel as a way to cope with my severe Buffy withdrawal symptoms, but it didn’t take very long at all for me to come to love it in its own right. By the end of season five, I was head over heels in love with the characters and with the series’ worldbuilding and mythology.
Something I loved: The show’s ethos, as explained in the conversation between Angel and Kate at the end of the episode “Epiphany”:
Well, I guess I kinda worked it out. If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today.
Angel the character has a complicated relationship with this idea, as does the overall narrative of the series, but to me this makes perfect sense, since human beings do generally have a complicated relationship with the idea of building meaning one small action at a time. On a related note, it’s a huge pet peeve of mine to see people call the series finale a cliffhanger – have they not been paying any attention? This is what the whole series is about. Of course, whether the idea of heroism implicit to last stands of this sort is actually useful could and should be the subject of a whole other discussion.
Something to think about: There’s something uncomfortably male gaze-y about the series’ conception of what pulls the audience’s heartstrings. Angel is a dark show where barely anyone is spared, but I couldn’t help but notice that the two main female characters, Cordelia and Fred, met their end early enough that we’re allowed to dwell on the male heroes’ heartbreak over their deaths. It’s like the death of beautiful young women is seen as extra tragic in a way that’s disturbingly reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe.
If there was some sort of award for the show with the most elements that are deeply troubling but that I still loved with all my heart, Angel would win it hands down. I could go on for ages about the way Cordelia is completely robbed of any agency despite all the lip-service that is paid to the idea that she’s a great warrior in her own right, or about the hints of gender and race essentialism that permeate the show – and perhaps at some other time I will. But at the end of the day none of this prevented this series from destroying my emotions. I watched “You’re Welcome” and “A Hole in the World” the same day and, it was a bit like being hit by a bus. I still can’t dwell on those episodes without tearing up.
Favourite character: Cordelia! Lindsay! Fred! Wesley! I honestly can’t pick. I loved the characters and their interactions to bits and pieces, and that’s a huge part of why the show captivated me the way it did.
Firefly: Yep, 2012 was my year of complete Whedonverse immersion. I’ve already blogged about Firefly in some detail, so I’m going to keep this as brief as possible. Allow me to share just one thing: I used to think that perhaps I shouldn’t watch series as short-lived as Firefly, as I’d only end up joining the ranks of people who were immensely frustrated they had been cancelled so prematurely, but now I take it all back. The time I got to spend in this world, brief as it was, made all the heartbreak and frustration at the end worth it.
Something I loved: That the series is one step ahead of Buffy when it comes to respecting its female character’s sexual agency.
Something to think about: The fact that the well of uncomfortable truths is spot on.
Favourite character: Kaylee! Hearts forever.
Veronica Mars: The world had been shouting “Veronica Mars!” at me for a very long time, but it took this post for me to actually listen. As it turns out, everyone was right, and I loved this series with a passion.
Something I loved: Veronica’s intelligence and sense of humour; the fact that, much like classic female sleuths like Miss Marple or Dorothy Sayer’s Misses Murchinson and Climpson, she uses people’s tendency to dismiss and underestimate her to get the better of them and win the day; the show’s willingness to engage with the town’s class and race dynamics; Veronica’s relationship with her awesome father and with her best friend Wallace. Again, I could be here all day.
Something to think about: Whyyyy the straw feminists in season 3? Why?! Still a bit heartbroken over that. For a while there I was honestly afraid that they were going to have the campus rapes be a hoax perpetrated by the feminists to further their agenda, and a series that began as Veronica Mars did should not have me seriously wonder if they were going to do that.
Favourite character: Of course it has to be Veronica, though I’ll admit to a soft spot for Logan. (I’d volunteer to write five thousand words on why I strongly disliked Gilmore Girls Logan1 but loved this Logan, except there would be no real conclusion at the end and you’d all feel I had wasted your time.)
1 Spoiler alert: my head almost exploded during the episode where he plays this Logan’s fake-brother.
Bonus – a brief airing of grievances: Inspired by Ana and Thea’s own airing of grievances (one of my favourite Smugglivus traditions), I’m going to tell you about the one series I watched this year that I just couldn’t stand. Whenever I can find no redeeming features in a piece of media I fully expected to like, I always wonder if the problem is me. Am I being peevish and ungenerous? Would the show perhaps click if I were to try it again one day in the future? I usually like to try and understand other points of view and see what the people who love something I don’t see in it, but GAH, I CAN’T STAND IT, I JUST HATED LOST IN AUSTEN WITH A FIERY PASSION (phew. It felt good to get that off my chest). Absolutely everything about this series – from the ridiculously unhelpful and stereotypical way it draws distinctions between readers and non-readers in the pre-time travel segments, to the aggravating implication that to love Austen is to covet her characters’ lives and to be blind to the social criticism implicit to her novels, to the conception of romance, to the history-as-a-theme-park approach – completely rubbed me the wrong way. At least it was only a mini-series, but I still want those hours of my life back.
Over three thousand words later, I think I’m finally done. My TV plans for 2013 are tentative at this point, but so far they include finishing Borgen (so much love), watching Doctor Who at long last (2005 series onwards), a rewatch of Babylon 5 (which I really liked as a teen), trying Parks & Recreations – and you tell me what else. Based on my likes and dislikes in 2012, what would you say I need in my life?
Thank you, Ana!