Friday, March 25, 2011

Parks and Rec: Why Leslie Knope is (or should be) a feminist icon

Leslie Knope is not Buffy, or Sydney Bristow, or Veronica Mars. She doesn't kick evil's ass on a daily basis, or uncover vast conspiracies and take them down. She is the deputy director of the Parks department of a small city. And, yet, a total badass. 

For me, Leslie defines what it is to be a real-life feminist. One of my most startling college memories is sitting in a large lecture hall, hearing the professor ask anyone who considered themselves a feminist to raise their hand, and being one of only about 3 or 4 people (in a room of over 100) to actually do so. This was a class about the 1960s, where we were discussing the way that people thought, way back when, that if you were a feminist obviously you were a lesbian, or there was something wrong with you. But this was 2002, I thought at the time - certainly people understand now that being a feminist just means women should be considered equal to men. Shouldn't that be a pretty standard way of thinking in the 21st century?

It wasn't, and it's not. "Feminism" is still a dirty word to many people, who seem to envision feminists as angry women who want to destroy all males and take over the world. As a feminist, I do not believe that women are better than men. I just believe that we should be equals. And the optimist in me would like to believe that most people, whether they consider themselves feminists or not, generally feel the same way.  

But back to Leslie Knope. "Parks and Recreation" started out as a companion sitcom to "The Office," with Amy Poehler as lovable but goofy Leslie, who cared deeply about her job but seemed just a bit ditzy. As the show progressed, Leslie began to really shine, becoming the still occasionally goofy but overall lovable and competent character she is now, in the show's third season. 

Leslie has always been shown to be be a feminist. Her office is plastered with pictures of notable women. She celebrates "Galentine's Day," where she spreads love to all her female friends. She was deeply offended when a feminist award was given to her undeserving male boss as an attention-grabbing gimmick. 

But what really makes Leslie the image of a modern feminist is her confidence and attitude. She is upbeat and strong, believably great at her job, and always self-assured. Unlike Liz Lemon, whose feminism often verges on parody on "30 Rock", and so many lesser female TV characters, Leslie Knope is not constantly obsessed with her appearance or love life. Yes, she dates, but she has a life outside of it. She doesn't drop everything for a boy. Even more importantly, she has female friends that she cares about and supports. She is never catty or backstabbing. Her friendship with Ann is ridiculously healthy for a TV show.  

These are simple things, but they matter. So often female friendships on TV are more like competitions. To many TV women, being single is like a death sentence. Their lives revolve around their romantic relationships, instead of their careers or friends. And while there is nothing wrong with caring about finding love, I certainly prefer Leslie's way of looking at the world, which is more concerned with making other people happy and doing her job well than with finding the perfect mate. She finds satisfaction in living life in a positive and productive way.

So, no, Leslie is not an ass-kicking spy, or a quippy and clever teen detective, or a superhero. But in many ways she has the power to do more for feminism than any of them. Her life is attainable. Young girls could potentially look at Leslie, at her successes and her optimism, and strive to be like her, and the world would be a better place for it. A character like Buffy may be a little flashier, but, no matter how hard we wish it, most of us don't get to be awesome vampire slayers (I should know). Deputy director of a Parks department, with aspirations to keep moving up the political ladder? Much more doable. 

One of my favorite moments of the entire series is in the episode "Hunting Trip," when Leslie tries to cover for a coworker by saying she was the one who accidently shot their boss, and encounters a sexist park ranger in the process:

Basically, Amy Poehler and the writers of "Parks and Rec" have created a character who is really just a regular woman in a lot of ways, but in her lack of drama and upbeat confidence she is unique. I find it refreshing to not hear a woman on TV constantly criticizing herself or others. To me, Leslie's awesome attitude, strong work ethic, and empathy for others are markers of a true and relatable feminist. It doesn't hurt that she's smart and hilarious. 

Screw Buffy, I want to be Leslie Knope when I grow up. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Finale Review: Pretty Little Liars

OK, confession time: I love "Pretty Little Liars."

Yes, it is cheesy, and melodramatic, and on occasion there is some very bad acting happening. It is also probably intended for teenage girls. But as a guilty pleasure show, it hits all the right marks - twisty, ridiculous plots, angsty characters, forbidden romances... and on top of that, it is occasionally even funny and clever. Really.

It certainly is not a show for everyone. But it is a lot of fun.

Last night's first season finale followed in the grand tradition of shows like "Lost" by supposedly answering one mystery while actually opening up about five more. In theory we learned the identity of Allison's killer. But his story didn't quite match up, and I'm not convinced that he wasn't covering for someone else. And who showed up to kill him? On top of that, it became even more obvious than before that the mysterious "A", who has been harassing the Liars via text message, email and lipsticked mirror all season, is most likely not the same person as Allie's killer.

Everyone on this show seems sinister. Even the Liars themselves, on occasion. And there is a whole lot of older male/teenage female hooking up on this show, which just lends to the general air of ickiness. How can you not feel suspicious of a 20-something male who feels the need to sex up 15 and 16 year old girls? Really, anyone on this show could potentially be the all-knowing A, or Allison's killer. No one would be that surprising at this point.

One of the things I love about "Pretty Little Liars" is that solving Allison's murder is complicated by the fact that almost everyone hated her. The girl was a psycho, blackmailing people left and right, toying with the emotions of both friends and enemies and even notably blinding someone. So even the Liars are easy suspects in her murder. And every time they try to go to the police with some new piece of evidence, they end up somehow implicating themselves. As a viewer it's not hard to see why: there is almost a "Crucible" vibe to these four pretty, popular girls crying "Murderer!" at every turn. If we weren't seeing it from their point of view, it would seem pretty suspicious.

I will say, this show has treated some characters better than others, and the finale was successful in showing all of the Liars to their strengths. Aria is always less interesting when she is mooning over her inappropriate boyfriend (and high school English teacher) Ezra, so watching her call him out for being a jerk and then spend the rest of the episode actually be a good friend was refreshing. Spencer is always awesome, but she had plenty of opportunities to run the spectrum from cute and romantic to terrified but still badass. (Although, really, Spencer, you never run UP the stairs when trying to escape a madman. Horror 101.) Hannah and Emily had less to do, but did enough in the time they were given, and since they have both had quite a bit of screentime lately due to Hannah's up-and-down relationship with bad-boy Caleb and Emily's attempt at starting a relationship with closeted Paige, their storylines still felt like plenty.

Where they go from here is anyone's guess. One of the reasons I actually enjoy this show is that I never know what is going to happen next. There are a few characters who you just know are bad, but who is behind each threat, and what crazy twist will happen next, is definitely still a juicy mystery.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Finale Review: Detroit 1-8-7

We're already nearing that time of year when shows start wrapping up for the season. For some of them, it's the end of the line entirely. "Detroit 1-8-7," easily one of the best new shows of the season and one of the most criminally underlooked, will very likely be one of those shows.

It's really a shame. This is not just another cop show. It's a portrait of a troubled city, painted through the eyes of a diverse group of homicide detectives. These characters are much more than broadly painted cops intended as vehicles for exploring the drama of murder investigations, like some other shows I won't mention. Yes, many of the cases they explore are outrageous, but they certainly feel real, and the reactions of the leads always feel authentic.

The cast is led by Michael Imperioli, who plays Detective Fitch. Fitch is not a man who makes friends easily. He is closed off in many, many ways. In the show's pilot, we see him slowly start to open up to his new partner, Washington, a new dad who starts out a rookie when it comes to homicide. By the time the show reached this weekend's season, and quite possibly series, finale, Fitch had been won over enough by his new partner to trust him with his son's safety. And the audience was rewarded by finding out what made Fitch so closed to human interaction, and by seeing him slowly start to open up to the beautiful Detective Sanchez, who he'd been awkwardly and quietly mooning over all season.

Fitch is the star, but the show wouldn't be nearly as wonderful without a great supporting cast, and this show definitely has that. The city of Detroit is one of the most important characters - in any other city, this might be just another (albeit pretty good) cop show. But the setting plays a major role here. In addition, there is the tough Lieutenant Mason (one of the only female police lieutenants I can remember ever seeing on TV), sweet and old-fashioned Longford and his funny, womanizing partner Mahajan, quiet and hard-working Sanchez and pretty boy Stone.

Sadly, this show didn't do particularly well in the way of ratings. Even for a die-hard fan, it was sometimes hard to find - more than once it was pre-empted for something "more important" (like a Charlie Sheen interview, duh). If I hadn't checked Hulu this morning I wouldn't have known they aired the finale over the weekend - the show's usual time slot was Tuesday nights. With seemingly little promotion and erratic airings, it's little wonder the show didn't get more love than it did.

The finale was a bittersweet but near-perfect end to the season, and could easily serve as a series finale as well. It painted Fitch in very unclear shades of gray, showing what great lengths he would go to in order to protect the people he loved, and just how far his colleagues would go to protect him. This episode was a masterful ending that left me with chills. It's a shame that, unless ABC pulls out a last-minute renewal shocker, it will probably be the show's last hurrah.

(Warning: This clip is kinda spoilery for the finale. But it is also awesome, which is why I chose it.)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Show You Should Have Watched: "The Middleman"

"I'm as serious as a hefty bag full of rottweilers!"

One of the flaws of my TV addiction is that I tend to fall head-over-heels for doomed shows. Shows that are just a little too quirky for the general viewing public, or are mismatched with their network or time slot, or for some unknown reason just never pick up the audience they deserve. So I want to use a little of this blog space to highlight shows that are no longer on, but still deserve a view.

"The Middleman" probably fell mostly into the "too quirky for the general public" column. It wasn't particularly well-matched with ABC Family or the timeslot they stuck it in. To be far, ABC Family did a pretty great job of promoting it ahead of time, airing a series of cute, hilarious and slightly disturbing commercials that perfectly captured the show's tone. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to keep the show alive beyond a short first season.

Like many other favorites, "The Middleman" is largely great because of its characters, but this show also entertains an abundance of brilliant writing. The plot centers around Wendy Watson, a slacker artist working as a temp who stumbles into a job as Middleman-in-Training. The Middleman is a superhero, in a way, although he doesn't really have any special powers. He is, simply, an all-American, straight-laced kind of guy, who fights evil in his own wholesome way. He has the help of a snarky robot, Ida, and a host of gadgets and gizmos. And, of course, Wendy, who proves to be feisty and hero-ready, even while protesting she's a pacifist.

You could say that "The Middleman" is a scifi show. You could also say it's a comedy. Both would be true. Through the course of the series the Middleman and Wendy (lovingly referred to as "Dubbie") fight   a super-intelligent ape, a boy band who are actually fugitive alien dictators, vampire ventriloquist dummies and, of course, trout-eating zombies. The cast is solid and lovable, and the writing is rapid-fire and ridiculously clever.

Maybe "The Middleman" would have done better on a different network, at a different time, but I can't really think of any network it would have fit. Probably there just wasn't a big enough audience for a show this unique in style and tone. It's a shame, because "The Middleman" is smart, joyful, funny and a brilliant homage to the superhero and scifi genres. Personally, I plan to watch my DVDs of this show over and over again, until they wear out and I have to buy a new set. Join me. I don't think you'll regret it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Glee: Hurrah for Regionals

Maybe I'm just still in a post-episode happy fog, but I just caught up on this week's episode of "Glee," and it's been awhile since I've loved an episode of this show quite so much.

I've been a fan of "Glee" since the beginning, but the truth is, it is often wildly uneven. When it's good, it's great. When it's bad, it can be pretty damn horrid. But as long as I get a couple of catchy songs to buy on iTunes and a few laugh-out-loud zingers, I'm usually set. This week's outing offered all that and more.

This year's Regionals episode made me nervous. I wasn't sure about the original songs idea, particularly after hearing Rachel's previous attempt (although "My Headband" was pretty epic, it was not exactly what you might call a good song). But the original songs the kids came up with were actually a lot of fun. The first ones offered were, again, not exactly good music, but they were hilarious and catchy. The actual Regionals songs they offered up, while somewhat generic pop, were, again, catchy, and pretty fun. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to see New Directions was going to Nationals this year, so their win was pretty obvious, but it was still a thrill to see them come out on top for once. And the glitter slushies were a perfect touch.

While I'm usually not the world's largest Rachel fan, I thought she was used to perfection here. We saw her diva side, but we also saw her vulnerable. Which made it that much sweeter when she ended up triumphant. But I was also surprisingly moved by Quinn, who came off like a mega-bitch for a lot of the episode but showed her own vulnerable side in revealing that she expected to end up in Lima raising a family while Rachel ran off to be a star.

Finally, I can't overlook the completely adorable romance blossoming between Kurt and Blaine. I am only a little ashamed to admit that I squeed like a 13-year-old fangirl when they kissed. Between that, the surprising vulnerability shown in the Rachel/Finn/Quinn triangle and last week's heartbreaking scene between Santana and Brittany, my faith in the writer's ability to set up actual relationships on this show is somewhat restored.

On that note, I have to say, Santana is quickly becoming my favorite character. "Trouty Mouth" was the perfect note for an original song from her to Sam, who seemed just flummoxed and a little insulted by the whole thing. After her devastating confession of love to Brittany last episode, her hardened bitchiness this week was even more compelling. She was awesome as a mean girl. She's even more awesome as a mean girl with real layers.

Of course this wasn't a perfect episode. There were moments that felt messy or rushed, or like they were trying to cram way too many threads into one 40-min slot. But I came away feeling happy. Almost giddy. And isn't that how television should make us feel?

The New Directions' original song:

Rachel and Quinn:

Santana being brilliant, per usual:

And, finally, Kurt and Blaine, making millions of fangirls and fanboys swoon:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Show You Should Be Watching: "Raising Hope"

I never planned on watching "Raising Hope." The previews certainly showed promise, but I already had a packed TV viewing schedule and felt no need for yet one more sitcom about a messed-up family. I mostly watched it because it happened to be on in a slot where nothing else I wanted to watch was on. Now I can't imagine my viewing schedule without it. 

The great thing about "Raising Hope" is that it is not only funny, often hysterically so, but it also has a lot of heart. As dim-witted and dysfunctional as the characters can be, they genuinely care about each other. They may fight, and say offensive things, and they may not be the most traditionally great caregivers for baby Hope, but they almost always have good intentions, and they are hard not to love. 

The premise behind "Raising Hope" is that the lead character is a slacker 20-something who has a one-night stand with a woman who turns out to be a serial killer. After she is executed, the baby that resulted from their fling is handed over to Jimmy, who lives with his young parents (Jimmy himself was the result of a high school pregnancy) and his great-grandmother, Maw-Maw, who is only occasionally lucid and always inappropriate. Together they take on the task of raising Hope (originally named Princess Beyonce by her murderous mother). 

Jimmy is sweet but a bit dull-witted, and he falls quickly for a checkout girl at the grocery store, Sabrina, who is clever, cute and (of course) taken. On any other show Jimmy's crush would be a constant and major focus. On "Raising Hope," while it does come up and often provides interesting storylines, Jimmy's family is really the center of the show, and Sabrina is just a bemused bystander who quickly becomes a friend and frequent visitor. 

Jimmy's parents are an especially integral and hilarious part of the show. His mother, Virginia, is tough and opinionated, and often makes up or misuses words when she tries to make a point. His father, Burt, is not very bright but makes up for it by trying really, really hard. Usually with disastrous results. 

This is a group that obviously cares about each other, but they're not the type to get sappy. The actors have great timing and play perfectly off of each other. They are charming and imperfect. But it certainly also helps that the writing is sharp, irreverent and hilarious.

A few examples:

Sabrina (on Jimmy meeting Hope's other grandparents): Lucy never introduced you during your storybook romantic courtship? Oh, right, you did it in the back of your van and then she was executed. 
Jimmy: You know it cheapens it when you say it like that. 

Virginia: Make sure you keep your distance so you don't let them reel you in like you did with that cult that worships Josh Groban.
Jimmy: I wasn't that caught up in that. I swear to Josh. I mean, God. 

Sabrina: My cousin's an ultra-gay conservative. He's a member of the Herbal Tea Party. 

Jimmy: I have her picture here. I keep it in my wallet next to the condom I always carry now. Fool me once, right? 

Jimmy: Listen, I have a question about this food and it might be a stupid question, but I I feel I should ask.
Sabrina: I'm sure it's not stupid.
Jimmy: Okay. Well, um, the book I have says I should feed her vegetables and I want to do that, but the only vegetable jars I found have pictures of either black babies or Asian babies on them, and I don't know if the pictures are random, you know, or if there's a reason Asian babies instead of white ones should eat these particular string beans?
Sabrina: That is a really good question. The colors of the babies on the jars don't matter, however it's really important that you do not feed her anything with a picture of a boy on it or else she will grow a penis. And a mustache.
Jimmy: I said it might be a stupid question.
Sabrina: Yeah you did. I just... really wasn't prepared for that. 

Add some quirky, often brilliant comedic acting to this writing and you get a show that is not only gut-bustingly funny but simultaneously charming and often even heartwarming, without ever crossing the line to sappy or cliche. Luckily I'm not the only one who recognizes this - "Raising Hope" has already been renewed for a second season. So if you're not watching already, get on that. You'll be glad you did. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Love Letter to Opening Credits

I adore opening credits. There's something about the familiar strum of a theme song beginning, and familiar images zooming by, that gives me the warm fuzzies and puts me in just the right mood for the show I'm about to watch. I'm sure that's the intention with most credits. But there has been a trend toward skipping credits in recent years, and although it may fit best with the mood of some shows ("Lost" is one example) I always miss that minute of singing along and getting geared up for watching a favorite show.

My favorite credits are ones that really set the mood for what's coming in the show. "Dexter" by far has one of the best credit sequences, turning what should be a normal morning routine into something threatening and sinister. A perfect match for a show about a likeable serial killer. In similar fashion, "True Blood"'s opening sequence sets a mood that is sexy, dark and very Southern, a perfect intro into the often campy and graphic supernatural show.

A more recent favorite are the opening titles for one of my guilty pleasures, "Pretty Little Liars." This is a brilliant opening, a spooky tone over what initially appears to be a girl getting made up. For a show about secrets surrounding the murder of a teenage girl, this sequence is perfect.

There are so many more I could name. "Firefly," with the original song and beautiful imagery that capture it so beautifully; the catchy beat of "Justified"'s opening theme song, set over flashes of mood-setting pictures; the original opening to "Grey's Anatomy," sadly no longer used, transitioning seamlessly between the sexy and the medical.

We often overlook these opening sequences, using them as an excuse to get a drink or take a bathroom break, or even fast-forwarding through them if possible. But they are one of my favorite parts of many of my favorite shows, and I always look forward to dancing and singing along to the familiar songs. Well-made credits enhance a show and set the tone for the viewer's entire experience. I hope that more and more shows follow the trend of those who pay particular attention to their opening sequences, and offer up more brilliant, show-enhancing credits.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Farewell to "Greek"

Next Monday is the series finale of "Greek," ABC Family's charming and quirky look at fraternity and sorority life in college. When this show first started, I didn't expect to enjoy it, but I am so glad I gave it a shot. While I was never in a sorority (and never had any desire to be in one), "Greek" has done a fantastic job of capturing the feelings and experiences that go along with being in college, whether that experience included Greek life or not.

"Greek" has not always been perfect. There have been episodes, even stretches of episodes, where the plots were silly or cheesy. But when it came down it it, the characters were pretty typical of true college experience, forming friendships in unexpected places, learning to accept their own oddities, finding love and lust (but never easily), going to epic parties and occasionally even to class. The final season has especially rung true to me, as the older group of characters try to move in a post-college world - finding and losing jobs, making their way through post-graduate schools and lying to their former friends about how successful they are.

While the major characters have evolved significantly over the course of the show, they are really only a minor part of "Greek"'s appeal. From snark queen Rebecca Logan to uptight Katherine, and from judgmental Dale to ditzy Beaver, the show has developed even it's minor characters into people we love to root for and love to hate. I know I'll miss them.

A moment of cheesiness, courtesy of the ZBZ girls, making a comeback after another sorority steals their dance routine:

And something a little more sentimental:

Finally, some funny scenes from a recent episode focusing on fan favorite Beaver: