i hate you, trueblood–never leave me

TrueBlood is one of the worst shows on television. It has a horrendous cast and implausibly ridiculous storylines. I mean, it’s about vampires so implausible, of course, but even for a show about imaginary monsters, it stretches our patience.

However, TrueBlood is also the show I can’t stop watching. I love it. I hate it, but mostly I love it. I love it for its awfulness but also just because it’s so over the top that it makes me need to see what happens next. It’s a sad addiction, this televised affliction.

Sookie is the worst heroine of all time. She’s obnoxious and in your face and naive and selfish and kind of just an asshole. Her selfishness truly knows no bounds and her accent sucks, too. For some reason, everyone in the TrueBlood universe is in love with her. It’s one of those annoying television things where everyone in the cast has to tell us how awesome she is and how beautiful as if we, the audience, can’t see her or watch all the shitty things she does. And worse yet, she spends the first couple seasons with Bill Compton, the worst vampire to ever be a vampire with the worst southern accent ever.

The first two seasons of TrueBlood are actually not so bad for Bill. We hate Bill and Sookie together, if only because of the way Bill says Sookie. But Bill appears, for a while, to have some real depth of character, though this is largely shown through flashbacks. But Bill is basically Brad Pitt in Interview with a Vampire with all his brooding immortality. However, this all quickly falls apart because Bill sucks all the time.

In fact, most of the cast is just unwatchable. Especially Tara. When will she just die and be gone forever? Anyrate, the best characters on the show are Lafayette, Eric, and Jason. Lafayette is hilarious and sassy and everything we always hoped our flamboyant gay black friend would be. Jason is a labrador retriever [and, oddly enough, the only character able to do a southern accent properly, despite him being from New Zealand] and Eric is a viking sexgod who’s also all kinds of sassy and manipulative, which is certainly a character flaw but at least he’s interesting. Terry’s pretty great, too, as a PTSD Iraqi veteran.

But, yes, the show is just full of the most unwatchable characters to ever be on television. And there are hundreds of them! The first two season keep things more or less contained, but season three just kicks the budget wide open and every other episode introduces ten new character, most of whom will be dead by the finale. The proliferation of characters is absolutely mindblowing at times, especially because the writers won’t let any of the survivors go. If you’re alive longer than three episodes in a row, you are now central to the show, no matter how stupid or tangential your plotline becomes to the seemingly central conflict.

It does keep us from being bored, the way the show is constantly jumping around from werewolves to shifters to vampires to fairies to greek deities to islamic demons to witches to humans and back to vampires. And that’s where the ridiculousness of the writing comes in. They just can’t let anything go and when they come to a roadblock, they just dip their hands in the mythical pool.

‘Why does everyone love Sookie so much? I mean, we’ve made her such a selfish asshole.’

‘…because…she’s a, um…fairy!’

‘That’s brilliant! Yeah, and, uh uh uh uhm, this season we’ll add…uhhhhhhhh werewolves!’

‘Except they’re panther werewolves!’

‘ZOMG WRITE THAT SHIT DOWN!’

I’ve never sat in on one of their meetings but I can’t imagine it’s too different from that.

But part of why we keep watching TrueBlood is because, occasionally, they’ll give us something we can’t live without.

I mean, could you stop watching after that moment? Could you not tune in next week? Even watching it two years later, I want to go back and watch season three. And season three was a mess. Not as bad as season four or five, but that’s where the show just started unleashing its own insanity in terrible freeverse. But, man, Russell Edgington was just about too good for television. He was wicked and adorable and acerbic and delightful. An ancient vampire, a southern gentleman, a sparkling dandy, a member in two evilly adorable homosexual couples.

And then TrueBlood decided to be overtly political to humorous results. When the show began Alan Ball said the vampires were a metaphor for homosexuals. They’re the minority, living in secret, in the shadows. The show begins after they announce their existence to humanity. The show still had some terror in it at the beginning, an ability to actually scare you a bit. The vampires were alien and powerful and there was a whole secret world of vampires doing vampire things in vampire clubs and governments and whatever else. As the vampire and other supernatural creatures became normalised, the show sort of forgot what it was about. Season five has the vampires representing fundamentalist christians, even though season two was all about human evangelical christians killing vampires because they’re unnatural and so on [using, essentially, the same rhetoric they use in real life about homosexuals]. But now the vampires are the evangelicals and the humans are…also evangelicals? Both have become more extreme in that vampires now believe humans are livestock and humans believe all supernatural creatures, from werewolves to vampires, are unholy, ungodly, and unnatural. So now it’s a war between fundamentalists about imaginary things.

Like, I don’t even know.

But, even despite its confused and confusing message[s], TrueBlood keeps pushing onwards, deeper and deeper into its own unsustainable absurdity. We have gods killing the ghosts of loved ones and fairies who are kind of transdimensional humans who live in secret cabarets that seem the right kind of burlesque for every dragshow I’ve ever heard of. In fact, if Rupaul’s not in season six, I just don’t know what TrueBlood’s about anymore.

If you haven’t seen TrueBlood yet, don’t watch it. Please. Just stay away. But if you have, if you’ve been watching since day one like I accidentally have, celebrate it.

It’s a show that works on The Producers principle. If you’ve never seen this glorious movie, it’s about a man who tries to make the worst broadway musical in history so he can bank in on all the money he raised but didn’t use on the show. It only works, however, if the musical is a disaster and instant flop. So he finds the worst script imaginable, called Springtime for Hitler, and then gets the worst cast possible to perform it. Unfortunately, this combination of terrible script and terrible cast leads to the musical being a comedic hit. It’s when two wrongs make a right.

And TrueBlood demonstrates this almost perfectly. While TrueBlood isn’t awesome because it’s hilariously bad, it somehow manages to be awesome because of its badness.

This show is like no other show. It cares nothing for consistency or reason and logic. Everything is in a constant state of flux pushed to its limits. Everything is its opposite even as it is the thing itself. If I thought that any moment of TrueBlood was planned before the moment was typed out, I’d congratulate the writers on making one of the most indecipherable pop culture critiques of modern society ever constructed. It’s a show made for the internet age, for people who can’t seem to focus longer than a Rihanna music video, who needs seven tabs open on wikipedia just to begin to think about writing their midterm sociology paper, who are so steeped in irony that what is ironic and sincere have become indistinguishable to a point that hurts my brain and heart. It’s a show that doesn’t understand itself or its viewers, yet, almost for that very reason, it’s everything we’ve ever wanted television to be.

And I, for one, will never stop watching.

how to be a mad man

Mad Men is a show about wealthy white men in the sixties. They work on Madison Avenue, drink bourbon and sexually harass women all day. It’s a show full of completely unlikeable men, but they’re men we can’t stop watching. We don’t want to be like them. Or, at least, I hope you don’t. But they’re all we can seem to care about.

Don Draper, the main character, is brought to life by Jon Hamm, and this show would be lost without him, I’m convinced. His Don Draper is a silent brooding man, haunted by his past, which he cannot shake or let go of. But what we discover as the show progresses is that it is not only the past that haunts him, but his very present. He drowns himself in alcohol and women because, though he traded a life he didn’t want for one he could make, he finds that the life he has made for himself is extremely empty.

Mad Men is a brilliantly crafted show. Stylistically, it hits every mark. Everything is so elegant and sharp and perfect. The production is in such sharp contrast to its characters that their troubled lives jump through the screen and shock us. This is a show where every moving part is as good as it gets. The writing, the acting, the production: all of it just washes over you until you’re falling into the story, into their world.

It’s a difficult show because of its seductiveness. It’s so easy to only see the aesthetics, to get caught up in the characters’ lives that you forget to see it all objectively, as a viewer. We find ourselves trusting Don, hoping for him, believing in him, wanting him to succeed. What we often forget is that Don is not the good guy here, assuming there’s a good guy somewhere in all of this. He seduces women just as he seduces the audience. His magnetism draws us in and we believe all his lies, want him to be real, want him to just keep looking at us, breathing for us. And it is a bitter pill when we remember that our hero is a misogynist, racist, alcoholic, emotional child.

A lot of this is excused because of the time period. Women and minorities were overlooked, their importance deemed negligent. This is a man’s world and these are powerful, wealthy men. They do not care about women as people or black people as voters and employees. The show, as you’ll notice, has essentially no black actors. While some may see this as an oversight, it is somewhat appropriate. Millionaires like these guys, executives to companies that have their names welded to the side of their building probably didn’t care much for the ribble rabble of the commoner’s politics.

In a show like this where you find yourself rooting for reprehensible assholes, it’s important to understand why that is. For Roger Sterling, who is maybe the most exemplary asshole on the show, the reason we like him is because, well, he’s just so damn likeable. That’s his job. He takes clients out and shows the a good time. He makes the client really like him and then he has their business. That charm and charisma is why we, the viewer, love him, even though, rationally, we know we shouldn’t. We know he’s a womanising, alcoholic asshole.

And then Don. The mysterious man the show’s all about. It’s not that we like him, but he fascinates us. He carries the weight of his life on his shoulders and between his eyes. He is so pained, so hurt, and all of that is kept seven layers deep. What we see is a confident affable man who seduces us the same way he seduces women and his clients. The power of his speech. His unshakable confidence and belief in himself.

The show is a tightrope of emotions. Sometimes the writing is less than stellar in this way. Women come and go quite whimsically through Don’s life. He uses them and tosses them aside. The mystery of his past is a spectre he constantly deals with. Balancing his womanising with being a good dad and husband drives a lot of the early conflict. And while Don is a cheating alcoholic husband, he is a devoted and loving father. It’s this kind of nuance of character that brings Mad Men to life. Even though Don’s life is falling apart inside him, he still manages to be good to his children and do well at his job.

He is a real person.

Betty Draper, however, is sometimes treated less civilly by the writers. She begins very naive and sympathetic but becomes very vindictive and extremely hard to like. This, of course, is symptomatic of her position in life. She never grew up, is still the child of a doting, wealthy father. Her mother was atrocious to her but died young so Betty holds onto her example in order to be closer to the woman who was never pleased with her. So Betty treats her daughter the way she was treated. She lashes out and can’t make sense of her emotions. A lot of this is Don’s fault, and that’s easy to miss. Don was not traditionally abusive, but his abuse was quite a bit deeper. His silence, his secrets, his other women, his disdain, it bottled up in Betty and turned her into the vindictive child she becomes.

Peggy is the real hero of this show. While each character has a pretty thorough and complete and distinct storyline, hers is one of the more interesting. The first postwar woman to rise so high in her company. She fights for everything. She has to. Every moment with her on screen is a fight, whether it be for equality or normalcy, she is fighting. There are troubling aspects of her storyline, such as her pregnancy and child being lost to the show’s past, even though her child is apparently cared for by her sister. It’d be interesting to see interactions between the mother and child, where their relationship is obscured and lied about.

Even the characters we find hard to like have pretty intriguing lives. Joan, who has grown on me a lot, steps out of her downplayed position as office sexpot into a managerial position that really gives her the power she always needed. Even Peter, the wretch that he is, captures us. Our hate and disdain for him seems to grow with each season, but the simultaneity of his downfall and rise is captivating.

The show, which was always moody and brooding, gets extremely dark for season four as we finally get the consequences of these choices made. Season five is sort of a resurrection of sorts. While being very dark at times, there are movements towards light, and it leaves us with more hope than dread.

Mad Men can best be described as seductive. The lifestyle, the men, the women, they’re all seductive. The brilliant aesthetic makes it very easy to miss or ignore the darkness so deeply built into the show. When I hear about Mad Men from a lot of people, the message they take away from it seems to be that they wish life was still that way. They’ve bought into the seduction, and isn’t that what their job is? They sell a product, even a lethal one, in the most seductive way possible. The show is its own product, sold by the same ad men who are its main characters.

To buy into the lifestyle is to put blinders up to the incredibly economic inequality, the racism, the misogyny, the complete conservatism and corporatism of the characters. It’s an easy seduction to fall into, and that’s part of its brilliance, but to be seduced is to miss just how great this show is, to not see just how many things are going on.

It is a very layered show with great depth and darkness sold with a glossy sheen and satisfaction guaranteed. It’s a show I avoided for a long time but ended up consuming completely in about two weeks. It pulls you in and simply does not let go.

The Trial of Ted Mosby

Prosecution: Ted Mosby, you are the worst. The worst in every conceivable way. You’re the worst part of How I Met Your Mother, a show that is completely about you.

Defense: Go on.

Prosecution: It’s not even because you started a story about a decade before what you say you’re going to tell is even relevant. It’s not because of your stupid hair or the fact that, when older, you sound like Bob Saget.

Defense: Objection!

Judge: . . .

Defense: He is Bob Saget.

Prosecution: To put it simply, you make How I Met Your Mother harder to watch.

Defense: But what about how awesome Barney and Marshall and Lily and Robin are?

Prosecution: This is my point! How I Met Your Mother without Ted would be one of the best shows on television.

Defense: But comedy needs a straightman!

Prosecution: Ted Mosby is the worst.

How I Met Your Mother has been on forever and we still have yet to see more than even a glimpse of the children’s mother so let’s start there. And, yes, I realise this is a structural bookending problem and not necessarily a problem with Ted Mosby, but the inherent flaw in this stupid structure is placed solely on Ted’s shoulders because he’s the one telling the story as Bob Saget. Anycase, to put this into perspective, it’s as if I were to tell you about the story of how I went to college by beginning in middle school.

Also, season one: Ted Mosby begins the story of how he met his children’s mother by telling them how he fell in love with and eventually dated a woman he refers to as their aunt Robin. Why? What is that all about? Who tells their kids about any of the sexual exploits of their life before they met their mother?

But here I must digress to talk about another show–one that I love–Scrubs. Scrubs was one of the first lauhgtrackless shows on television. Before Arrested Development or The Office, Scrubs really kicked off that whole aesthetic of singlecamera sitcoms. I mention Scrubs because Ted Mosby is essentially JD, except the worst. JD is a hopeless romantic who’s kind of a jerk sometimes, but ultimately a very nice guy always hoping for the best. He’s human is what I mean. He’s also incredibly silly. That was a big thing about Scrubs and the source of its awesomeness. It began in a sort of limbo between comedy and drama and the first two seasons really weren’t sure if they were a serious comedy or a funny drama. Season three and beyond is where the show really comes into its own and just goes with its own absurdity. The show becomes extremely silly but still manages to tug just right on the heartstrings. And JD is what keeps the show together. He’s always in love but he’s also so comically absurd that we can handle all the melodrama following him around. But most importantly is his ability to deliver the seriousness that a show about doctors kind of demands from time to time.

So that’s JD. And Ted Mosby is a JD where everything went wrong.

A lot of these are all structural problems. Part of what sitcoms like this rely on is an under-romance. That being a romance that begins early, ends in the middle, and comes together at the end. I mean, almost every relationship sitcom has this. What the structure does to How I Met Your Mother is force the audience to never meet the mother and so it has to end with Ted running away with someone we, the audience, don’t know or connect with. The way the writers handle this is by throwing in a lot of pretty actresses into the mix who usually get an episode or three to deal with Ted’s shit. Oddly, they’ve sort of solved this problem by giving the under-romance to Barney and Robin, who are both immensely better equipped to be on screen.

[Sidebar: another structural problem is that season six through eight appear to be stopped on the same day–Barney’s wedding. The narration jumps ahead to it and then jumps way back to tell us how we got there, which sounds familiar.]

Let’s look at the other characters. Marshall is a giant from Minnesota who believes in aliens and bigfoot and wants to make a positive contribution to the world through his work as an environmental lawyer. He’s in love with Lily who’s been his other half since the first week of college. What makes Marshall interesting is that he needs to make real choices. He gives up on his dream to save the planet by working as a lawyer for giant corporations that he morally opposes, which, I imagine, is all too common to most americans. Him and Lily are the only ones who seem to struggle with money, which also makes them the most relatable. Though really, the show gives very few indications of Marshall or Lily struggling. But what really makes Marshall is the actor who plays him. Jason Segel is so funny and likeable that Marshall just dominates the scenes he’s in. Even though he’s a mildmannered, humble, and kind midwesterner, he manages to always be the best part of every scene he’s in.

Barney is an asshole who works some anonymous job at a giant corporation. He’s a womaniser who loves scotch and lazertag and suits. His favorite words are awesome and legendary, and though, on paper, he should be unlikeable, he’s sort of the shining star of How I Met Your Mother, giving every scene a boost through pure enthusiasm. There’s very little to say about Barney except that he is awesome. Also, the show acknowledges his failings while condoning them, which is maybe politically or socially problematic, but this isn’t a show about that and Barney is a caricature that becomes human through the brilliance of Neil Patrick Harris. He’s basically the opposite of Ted. I probably actually connect with him more than the other characters. Not because he’s an asshole, but because he’s a man constantly searching but never finding. Searching for something he can’t even begin to define. He’s a wanderer as I am but he’s built his walls and his boat of different material and his map leads him through different rivers. He also happens to be the kindest character in the show, though the show almost never references this. He gets Ted, Marshall, and Robin all jobs in their desired fields.

Lily, Marshall’s other half, is tiny and fiery and inappropriate and devious and hilarious. She brings big laughs and big emotions to the show. She’s insanely petty but also levelheaded and kind of the group’s mastermind. Alyson Hannigan breaks from her previous roles as a witch/bandcamper and becomes this awesomeness that bubbles about. Also, hers and Marshall’s breakup hits about a thousand times better than any Ted breakup even though we’ve only known them for a season by the time it happens. The reason for that is that Ted is the worst.

Robin is Ted’s initial and ongoing love interest that can’t be his love interest because we know right away she’s not the children’s mother. A former canadian popstar turned american news anchor, Robin is cynical and kind of frustrating but also the character who calls people on their shit the most. Her and Lily are all about hardtruths and are sort of opposites. Lily’s deceptive but also bubbly in personality whereas Robin’s emotionally closed and straightforward. She likes manliness and scotch and cigars and hates children. It took me a while to get on board with Robin, but she’s pretty great once you get to know her. Also, the whole time she’s dating Ted we’re constantly wondering what it is about him that she likes. Probably his enthusiasm and optimism, but it’s very clear she never saw a future with him. I think she knew he was the worst.

That leaves us Ted. But who is Ted? On paper, he’s the titular character of most sitcoms. He’s optimistic and full of love. He wants the best for everyone and believes in everyone. He’s earnest and generous. So why do we hate him so much?

It’s hard to explain. There’s something about every single second he’s on screen that’s almost unbearable. Usually a show like this demands a straightman so we can get a realistic look at the world. But Ted isn’t it. If anyone’s playing a role straight, it’s Robin. I think, too, the shenanigans of the rest of the group are to counteract the awfulness that is Ted Mosby. Ted doesn’t ground us. He pushes us away.

I blame Josh Radnor, the actor. His stupid hair and stupid face. But just as much as this is the worst casting for a leading man I can think of in a show so successful, it’s probably also a problem of writing. Ted is given very little to work with. Too much of his time is spent drifting from woman to woman. He’s what holds the group together but he doesn’t add anything beyond the glue. The show only needs Ted to justify how these other characters know one another, which is all the more tenuous since Barney just kind of dropped himself into their lives. Like Barney, Ted is a wanderer but his goal is too focused and narrow. Barney wants to live an awesome life while Ted wants to live the stereotypical american life that’s meant to resemble success. He wants a whirlwind romance without the work. He wants a family and doesn’t seem to care who he makes it with. Every choice and action of his is made by another. His jobs are found by other characters and his romances are defined by his friends, who always try to bring him back to reality from the stars he wanders through with closedeyes.

Ted Mosby, despite all the things he should maybe be, is only one thing: the worst.

Somehow, though, How I Met Your Mother isn’t really hampered by this. It may even be the adversity that makes it successful. The four other leads need to be that much better to keep Ted from pulling them all down. Barney, Lily, Robin, and Marshall are on a sinking ship called Ted floating across the atlantic that just keeps going because they row so effortlessly and perfectly.