Dear Diary

Okay, I admit it. The Vampire Diaries is the best new show this fall. (That I’ve watched. I need to get in touch with Modern Family and Cougar Town, though.)

How do I love The Vampire Diaries? Let me start by saying I did not want to love it. I did not need to watch another show about vampires, feeling it was well-covered territory with Buffy, Angel, True Blood, and Moonlight (plus, yuck). Like zombies, I was sure the vampire Zeitgeist had peaked and jumped the shark, jumped the pufferfish, jumped the minnow, even jumped the plankton.

I was ready to move past vampires. I was ready to move past vampires who go to high school, vampires who have a soul/conscience, vampires who are barely-tamed animals with no soul, vampires who long to be human, and vampires who both love and eat humans. I was over glamours, I was over longing looks through the shadowy afternoon, I was over men who look like they need to eat a cheeseburger instead of a cheerleader.

Plus, there’s a witch! It’s like, hello, did you crib right from Buffy or what??

And then I watched The Vampire Diaries. And I threw all my rules out the window. Isn’t this what love is supposed to do to us? Make us shame ourselves for constructing false expectations and futile boundaries?

Here is my systematic list of why I love this show:

1. It’s a killer. A whole bunch of people have died on the show, unlike a lot of vampire predecessors. Among them have been some pretty important main characters, as well as your typical out-for-a-drive-on-the-wrong-road crowd. And then people have become vampires, and they get killed right away, and cool characters get killed right away, and basically there’s a lot of “animal attacks” in the town and people getting bloody and dying. That’s hot. It means anything can happen on this show.

2. Only the men take their clothes off. This is probably courtesy of Kevin Williamson, who helped create this show, but there’s a lot of PG-13 going on here, and it’s all boys all the time. Also, most of them are really hot. I say that because it seems like no matter what flavor of boy you prefer, there’s a slice of beefcake for you on this show. My favorite is Mike, but Beau prefers that angular looking vampire Sebastian.

3. It’s moody. The lighting on this show is amazing. Although it takes place in Virginia, it’s the darkest version of Virginia you’ve ever seen. The colors are both richly saturated (the greens and brows of the natural environment) and starkly washed out (buildings, faces, interiors). There are also intense, intense shadows on the show, which seems almost as if it’s light by diegetic lighting alone (that would be like using only light from the lamps in a living room shot and not supplementing with traditional film lights off-camera). The characters end up living in this world where their faces and bodies are always partially cloaked in shadows.

Look at how dark & rich & shadowy that shot is!! Yum.

4. It rocks. The soundtrack uses hot music that I love. It’s like they plugged into my iPod and either took bands I’ve liked for a while, or anticipated my tastes as well as or better than Gossip Girl has.

5. It’s actually kind of scary and suspenseful. The writers do a really good job of keeping the surprises real and the plot moving forward into new directions. Unlike Buffy, which always felt as if it were snowballing toward an inevitable, inescapable conclusion, I have no idea what’s going to happen on this show, and I really appreciate that.

6. It’s only a little Dawsony. While the characters have slightly precocious dialogue, it’s not as self-referential as Williamson’s other show. The characters, instead, seem pretty “now,” not too wise beyond their years, but wise enough to speak more eloquently than your average walking gland.

You can catch up with The Vampire Diaries next week on your local CW station when they run a week-long marathon of the season so far. Enjoy!

The Only Thing Worse than Being Talked About

One of the more intriguing facets of Gossip Girl’s narrative structure is its reinforcement of the idea of the panopticon.

The panopticon, originally conceived by architect Jeremy Betham, is a circular prison structure in which prisoners can be watched without them seeing the person watching them. Michel Foucault famously deconstructed the philosophy behind the panopticon in Discipline and Punish, but many people will recognize it in a more literary context—that of George Orwell’s Big Brother.

In Gossip Girl, it’s not Big Brother who’s watching, it’s Big Sister, speaking to us (the audience) in the purring, confidential voice overs provided by Kristen Bell. But there are a few important differences between Big Sister and the panopticon:

1. Gossip Girl doesn’t actually watch anyone herself
2. Gossip Girl doesn’t report what she sees, she reports what she knows.

It’s true. Gossip Girl is the twenty-first century version of Big Brother because she deals in knowledge, which in the reality of the show is the ultimate currency, trumping even the enormous trust funds of its denizens. Gossip Girl’s free influx of information comes from her army of watchers—her loyal readers—who can be anyone.

Although Gossip Girl is the enforcer of what is “good” behavior and what is “bad” (although her definitions tend to be in alignment with contemporary society’s), she isn’t simply an enforcer. She is also a tool, an elegant, sophisticated form of punishment various main characters use to serve their own sense of justice. Blair is the most notable user of Gossip Girl as a tool for retribution, sending her juicy tidbits on her friends to pay them back for their perceived misdeeds. Unlike Big Brother, Gossip Girl doesn’t just enforce societal codes; instead, she enforces justice.

Justice is a malleable ideal. It’s more than simply “wrong” or “right.” As a friend of mine once told me, evil people never conceive themselves as committing acts of evil. The human conscience requires justification—a ha! justice—in order to act. Jacques Lacan referred to this as “passage l’acte” (permission to act); the lack of it is essentially what keeps “good” people from stealing, committing murder, etc.

In Gossip Girl, justice often entails facilitating someone getting their comeuppance for being too upwardly mobile, too downwardly mobile, too self-righteous, or too hypocritical. It’s this last crime, the crime of hypocrisy, that is most widely enforced. In the world of Gossip Girl, there is no greater transgression than to criticize one person’s behavior and then commit it yourself.

And really, what’s so wrong about that?

Why The Hills Is the Most Important Television Show Ever (After Buffy and Veronica)

Last night, I came full circle.

I’d watched The Hills from the first season 1 episode all the way back through to the original three season 3 episodes I first watched last month. And now, looking back and looking forward, I can truly say that The Hills is one of the most important television shows of the decade. Here’s why.

1. Reality TV might not be real, but it partly exists in reality.
One reason reality shows are easy to produce is because their stars are, for all intents and purposes, people in the world. People have lives, go to the grocery store, have dinner out, see movies, take vacations with their friends and families. They’re endlessly different from characters on fictional shows because when, for example, Betty Suarez steps off the set of Ugly Betty, she turns into classy young actress America Ferrera, whose life and foibles are generally the complete opposite of her counterpart.

“Betty” can’t be out in the world grabbing headlines from US Weekly and the like, and for the most part, even America Ferrera can’t either. So the fact that the four very special ladies of The Hills have dominated that particular rag for weeks on end is something to note. Their lives keep happening when the show stops filming. And the “journalism” doesn’t stop either.

2. Wait—is The Hills even real?
A common question, but it doesn’t matter.

Scenario 1: The Hills really is a reality show.
If so, then it’s the most slickly produced, most watchable, most post-written show in the history of reality television. It bests The Real World by leaps and bounds and takes the conventions of traditional narrative television (woman arrives in the big city with big dreams, then sets about achieving them) and does not veer from the show’s primary arc.

Real lives don’t have these arcs or, if they do, they require a master editor and several hours in the cutting room. But The Hills convinces us that Lauren’s life really does surround Teen Vogue (and now People’s Revolution), the Hollywood club scene, her apartment with Audrina, and that feud with Heidi & Spencer. Lauren doesn’t pee, she doesn’t shop for her own groceries, and she doesn’t do laundry. But she is always comfortable, well-fed, and well-dressed.

The show really is worthwhile based on its production value alone, which gives LA a sort of gauzy, dreamy glow. It’s gorgeously filmed and will make you want to move to the West Coast.

Scenario 2: The Hills is one of the most elaborate televised hoaxes in broadcast history.
There are two possibilities here: either the show is completely fictional, or it is highly manipulated by the producers and cast. It’s hard to tell which.

On the one hand, because the events that occur on the show do so closely stick to the primary arc, it would be amazing if the producers were not completely orchestrating the surprise Lauren/Heidi run-ins, or encouraging Heidi to drop in on Audrina, or telling Lo to snub Audrina, or even telling Teen Vogue editor Lisa Love that Lauren has to go to Paris during season 2. Everything is so seamless, so clean, it feels like it must be structured that way.

But I often lead toward this being a fictional show in which the cast play characters named after themselves, who are given specific scene goals (“Heidi, in this scene you have to get Spencer to admit he cheated on you. Ready, action!”) and then ad-lib their dialogue.

In any case, it’s either brilliantly produced or brilliantly constructed. And now, I’m officially obsessed: last night I even watched an old airing of the live after show.

Narratively, I think the show is really good at keeping you sympathetic toward all the characters except Spencer, the Svengali to Heidi Montag and ultimate destroyer of everything nice about her life. Although the press (and Lauren) often villainize Heidi, in the show, she seems ultimately well-intentioned and misunderstood, genuinely confused why her friends won’t speak to her, all while enabling Spencer’s hostile take over of her life. It’s actually a bit heartbreaking to witness, particularly in just a few sittings.

Crimson and Cloverfield

I am posting in spite of my blog’s messy look. Sorry for that; Adam helped a bit, but I can’t get it tweaked quite right yet and I’ve been superbusy (it’s that time of year for us), so I haven’t been able to tinker.

Anyway, I want to tell you about this (danger: spoilers ahead):

Because I’m a fan of Lost and watched Felicity religiously (shut up), I was eager to see the J. J. Abrams-produced feature Cloverfield, the plot of which was shrouded mostly in secrecy lo these many months, although it was made obvious from the teaser trailer that something attacked New York City during an all-out hipster goodbye party, but that was about it.

The film is, at heart, a basic Orpheus/Eurydice retelling in a very contemporary version of Hades with one pissed off (and hungry) hellgod wandering around. Boy secretly loves girl, boy loses girl, boy treks through semi-destroyed metropolis to rescue girl from her burning apartment while large creature systematically kills everyone he knows.

(This is my “oh shit” face.)

What makes Cloverfield strong, in my opinion, is some of the conceit that made it noteworthy to begin with. The first-person camerawork is strong and well done here. The limited perspective does add a lot of tension and suspense, and the audience is encouraged to identify with the likeable and usually nervously humorous character holding it, whose only role is to film the entire thing. We like Hud because he reminds us of ourselves: well-meaning, kind, really into a girl who doesn’t realize he exists, loyal, etc.

(Is it Cloverfield or Flashdance? Or both?)

Even though Cloverfield seems to be about an extraordinary event changing people’s lives forever, it smartly keeps actual danger on the periphery, in the vein of Jaws. For much of the film the characters aren’t in actual danger, but the threat–like the idea of terrorism in our America–is always present, always looming. And when people die, they aren’t forgotten. Witness, for instance, one character’s phone call to the mother of a character who died, having to explain it to her during a brief lull while they hide out in a subway station. The film remembers what it means to be a person, that even under supernatural circumstances, we don’t lose our humanity; we retreat into it.

Much has been written already of the film’s liberal use of shaky handheld camera; narratively, the entire film is shot in near-real time using a characters’ digital video recorder; for the viewer, this means when he runs, you feel dizzy and disoriented. Only in a few scenes did this bother me. The true strength is the way the camera resists omniscience: you want it to move back, to look at the horror dead on, but it can’t, it won’t. It turns the film into what film theorists would call “pure spectacle.” It reduces the viewer to a powerless victim of the film rather than participant in it. There is no power for the viewer here.

The cast of unknowns intensify the sense of reality television that exists here. As an audience, Americans are becoming too comfortable witnessing trauma second-hand through the cameralens, and Cloverfield knows this about us, wants us to both love it and hate it about ourselves. Anyone who watched on television as the second plane hit the World Trade Center understands the powerlessness of watching disaster strike; we understand it in a way real witnesses won’t—-and vice versa.

I left the theater feeling both shaken and shaky–in fact, it took me a few minutes to relax after the film ended. I didn’t feel scared, really. It was a stressful film to watch, but the emotion was legitimate, not constructed. I appreciated that.

And I’m even going to go see it again.