Sunday, March 30, 2008

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Having fought more than my fair share of battles against owners who believe that stealing front of house employees' tips in order to subsidize low management and kitchen salaries is a reasonable practice, I'm more than happy to see this ruling against Starbucks. One more reason not to support that chain. That and the horrific coffee.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Here's a review of a really great book about anxiety.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Our Sociopaths, Ourselves

I used to think the recipe for the successful series like The Sopranos, Weeds and Big Love was simple. Take a family representing the “cultural other,” (drug dealers, mobsters and polygamists) and give it the same mundane problems as any suburban family.

Tony might be capo but he still struggles with whether or not to cut off his daughter’s Discover card after a house party gone wild. Nancy Botwin may be the town drug dealer but her biggest problem is actually a free-loading brother-in-law. And, while we might expect the Henrickson women to blow up every night in a jealous rage over their sister wives, the truth is they’re more likely to fight over whose turn it is to pick up the lamb chops.

All unhappy TV families, it seems, are all alike after all. Add a snappy soundtrack to the freak show and you’re good as gold.
While this is undoubtedly a component of the success of the new genre of high-end, “thinking man’s” soap operas, watching the latest offerings – Mad Men and Dexter – has forced me to re-evaluate my thinking. The moment of epiphany was striking – there are at least two (and I will argue there are more) extremely popular, critically acclaimed, multi-million dollar budgeted shows revolving around a main character who is a sociopath.

Dexter Morgan and Tony Soprano are explicitly labelled “sociopaths.” To the best of my understanding, this is a lay term and is unused by mental health professionals. Sociopaths are actually people with antisocial personality disorder – folks ruled by impulsive behaviour who have no regard for the feelings of others.

Don Draper may seem like a borderline case but I would argue he’s a textbook case – and more about that later. For now, I want to address the obvious, namely, that almost all of these shows are about men behaving badly. Really badly. What’s more, the much-loved ambiguity of all of these new shows means that the men resist any form of reform. Their bad behaviour will remain unchecked and, in an odd way, almost sanctioned by the directorial choices to resist a narrative of straight conventional redemption or death.

Don’t get me wrong, the ambiguity is why I watch, too. That, and the lifestyle pornography of watching folks drink, swear, gamble and smoke gratuitously.

The Wire is a show about dysfunctional cops, some of whom terrorize innocent people living in subsidized housing in order to smoke out the murderous drug dealing Avon Barksdale. When they manage to arrest and imprison sociopath Barksdale, another, younger sociopath steps from the wings onto centre stage proving, of course, the futility of the whole exercise.

Californication has a much less interesting message. It’s about a quirky writer named Hank Moody who, by virtue of the fact that he took the love of his life for granted for a decade and was finally dumped, has decided he has a license to be abusively rude to friends and family, an atrocious parent, steal private property and to spite-fuck every woman in Southern California. And because he does it all with an occasional clever turn of phrase and a knowing wink, the audience is apparently supposed to take it all as the amusing eccentricities of the artist.

But it’s not amusing. It’s not nearly well-written enough to be amusing. And so, from the fact that Showtime has ordered another season, I can only gather that it has determined there’s an audience for watching grown men behave with less class or grace than the average frat boy with an on-line prescription for rophypnol on frosh week.

Speaking of bad behaviour, I’ve never really understood the fascination with Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David’s antics and the ensuing reactions and misunderstandings have always stretched the limits of disbelief suspension. Turns out, according to new studies, I may not be insane enough to get it.

David Roberts, a clinical psychology student at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill showed episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm to an unresponsive group of schizophrenics, according to a recent article in the New Yorker. They, apparently, immediately opened up and began talking about their identification with the main character. Turns out he’s not just a vain, rude, impatient asshole; Larry David’s character is actually pathological.

The sheriff on Deadwood is the guy everyone claims to love. Bu the real star of the show is ruthless Al Swearengen, a bullying pimp whose propensity for brutality would have made him a real star during Spanish inquisition days.

Lest we be accused of neglecting network shows, my friend Dorothy Cummings points out that Gregory House is consistently downright cruel to patients, loved ones and colleagues. But he’s considered a hero ‘cause he’s so very smart and tells it like it is – regardless of people’s feelings. Similarly, the big stars of reality TV are mostly arrogant and insulting men (usually Brits) who insult singing, dancing and cheffing hopefuls who are sworn at, belittled and sent back into the obscurity from which they came.

A new entry into the reality TV hall of fame is Scott Baio is 46…and Pregnant. I’ve watched this show only twice and it happened both times to be the exact same episode but, from what I can tell, when Baio is just acting like an adolescent moron he is at his most charming. The rest of the time he is pretty close to an abusive asshole to his pregnant girlfriend.

Big Love, with its tender “God Only Knows” intro, promised to be something really quite different. I was fascinated with the show for its first season, when it promised to be a sophisticated and nuanced argument for gay marriage.

But then something went horribly awry. Whoever is in charge of the storyline might actually be responsible for sending progressives in Rick Santorum’s direction, since every man involved in plural marriage but one (Bill Henrickson’s right-hand man) is repugnant. Bill is a power-hungry, emotionally abusive, violent, manipulative, vengeful, lying, absentee father.

Dexter is the only self-actualized sociopath and, perhaps as a result, the best of the lot. Even though he’s a horribly damaged serial killer with no power for empathy, I’d still rather have him around than Hank Moody. I mean, at least he wouldn’t do anything gross with his bodily fluids on my couch. But, main character aside, the show is another voyeuristic odyssey into betrayal, spousal abuse and systematic butchering.

Next up is Don Draper. He cheats on his wife. He goes out to get ice cream (well, cake, actually) during his kid’s birthday party and doesn’t return. He rejects his desperate brother’s friendly overtures for no clear reason and his devastated sibling goes on to kill himself. He callously steps into his good friend Roger Sterling’s job and office while the latter recovers from a heart attack.

Oh, and, then there’s that whole fake-your-own-death-and-adopt-the-identity-of-a-dead-soldier thing.

If the guy’s not what Dr. Melfi would call a sociopath, he’s at least exhibiting tendencies.

Ah, yes, back to Tony. By the time we got a few seasons in, we started to realize that Tony wasn’t a charming, misunderstood guy trying to heal. Tony was, instead, an unrepentant, foul-mouthed, smoking, lying, childish, drinking, coke-taking, gambling, philandering, compulsive, sexist, abusive, gluttonous, murdering, ill-tempered, pimp-extortionist-drug dealer. And his personal hygiene may not even be above reproach.

But despite his sins, we watched him obsessively. It’s porn. We love watching people do all the things we’ve decided we shouldn’t do: smoking and drinking; smoking and drinking while pregnant; snorting coke with hookers; driving without seatbelts; having unprotected sex; marrying more than one spouse; dealing drugs and (presumably more for men than most women) spite-fucking supermodels.

Other than being poorly behaved men, the common bond these fictional men share is their ability to act completely according to their own desires and impulses. And while they frequently have to deal with the consequences of their behaviour, none of them ever seems to have a moment’s qualm about how the other person feels.

Tony barely hesitates when he suffocates his nephew. When Hank Moody figures out he has slept with a teenager (and really, folks, be honest: is it that hard to tell the difference between a teenager and a grown person?) he isn’t vaguely concerned about her mental health and well being. He is only worried he will get caught. And Bill Henrickson pursues a relationship with a fourth wife despite the fact that he knows it will deeply wound his first.

What all of these characters lack is empathy. And we, apparently, are fascinated with this peculiar omission. Why? Is it something we wish we didn’t have so we could act more recklessly? Is empathy beginning to feel like our kryptonite, a characteristic we wish we didn’t have, so we could leap tall buildings and snort coke with hookers?

Maybe. Or, maybe it’s just a projection of who we already are. Patricia Pearson, in her new book on anxiety, A Brief History of Anxiety: Yours and Mine, suggests that we’ve surpassed the culture of narcissism Christopher Lasch described in 1979 and entered a full on age of “pure, self-interested fearlessness that approximates…sociopathy.” She argues that self-promotion, shamelessness and behaving badly have replaced craft, talent and skill.

It’s an interesting argument. And one which, after a few years of watching sociopaths on TV, I’m ready to listen to.

Just as soon, that is, after I write the script for my new idea for a pilot. It’s a laugh riot series about an incestuous cannibal guy who runs a comedy club. He’s really a good guy – deep down inside. He just happens to sleep with his sister and can’t stand corny jokes.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

From today's Star, a review of Elizabeth Abbott's Sugar: A Bittersweet History.