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License to Shrill

When The Closer appeared last June, critics compared it to Prime Suspect. Not a bad thing to aspire to—a very, very good thing, in fact, considering that drama’s gritty scripts and the devastating, luminous presence of Helen Mirren as Detective Jane Tennison—but it’s the kind of comparison that could mean instant ratings death in American prime time. Yet The Closer became the cable TV hit of last summer. Kyra Sedgwick now returns for another season as Brenda Johnson, deputy chief of the LAPD’s Priority Homicide Division. Like Mirren’s character, she’s a sharp-witted detective, and sexy in a non-glamour-puss, wrong-side-of-40 way. Both women must operate on aggressive overdrive to win the grudging respect of crusty, old-guard male cops.

Brenda arrived from Atlanta, a CIA-trained expert at interrogation and “closing” cases. Promoted above veteran colleagues, she instantly rubbed everyone the wrong way with her grating Southern accent (as broad as her enormous smile) and her sarcastic, bullshit-free style. “In this department that’s just not the way I play ball,” one gray-haired crank lectures her in the first episode of the new season. “Well, Captain, if you don’t like the way I’m doing things you’re free to take your balls and go straight home,” she trills with a straight face, as steely and poised as a modern-day Scarlett O’Hara.

Sedgwick bears the weight of this uneven show on her tiny shoulders—or, more accurately, in her twitchy, birdlike face. Her role pivots around composure, the maintenance of a kind of public armor that is both authoritative and disarming. “I have to get dressed,” she tells her CIA hunk of a boyfriend one morning, “and I want to look a little stern.” Sedgwick doesn’t overplay the toughness, though. She inhabits the role with such confidence and subtlety that I learned to overlook her gimmicky quirks. The writers have loaded her down with so many, it’s a wonder the character doesn’t collapse. The main one is an unhealthy obsession with junk food. Rarely did we spy Brenda last season without some kind of crinkly wrapper or sticky sugarcoated substance in her paws; she was locked in a flamboyant struggle with her own overwhelming desires.

Was Brenda’s food lust intended as a cheap way to indicate emotional depth, a blast of humor, or a buzz-generating trademark, like House’s gimpy leg and Monk’s OCD? Probably all of the above, but the show seems to be backing off this motif a bit, judging by the first episode of this season, which finds Brenda gamely trying out a junk-free diet. When she catches old Lieutenant Provenza gnawing on a chocolate bar mid-briefing, she looks stricken. “I thought we agreed to keep snacks with processed sugar out of the murder room,” she chides, causing him to regurgitate the brown goo into his hand like a chastened little boy caught snacking between meals.

Brenda’s manner is more shrill and abrasive than ever. Like Barbara Walters, she likes to make her interviewees cry. Maybe that’s why the writers, worried she’ll lose our sympathy, work so hard to highlight their heroine’s feminine vulnerability, sometimes wandering into clichéd territory. Brenda’s poor sense of direction often leaves her lost in the streets of L.A., and her crappy parallel-parking skills frequently make her late to crime scenes. She won’t commit to her boyfriend, and to make things worse, she can’t resist dallying with her ex-boyfriend (played by Oz alum J.K. Simmons), who also happens to be her boss. The more she aims to be in control, the more speedily flustered she grows. Where Monk uses his neuroses to directly solve cases, Brenda’s quirks are more ornamental, used to distract and disarm her foes. Her brittle nerves do turn her into a kind of emotional tuning fork, though, a highly sensitized creature attuned to out-of-whack frequencies.

At its best, the show’s witty repartee brings to mind classic film noir. “Do you smoke after sex?” someone asks Brenda, to which she retorts with the old blue joke, “I don’t know, I never looked.” And when a combative colleague accuses her of being a bitch, she snaps, “If I liked being called a bitch to my face, I’d still be married.” In the end, the appeal of The Closer lies more in Brenda’s character than in plot suspense. It’s often pretty obvious who the killer is, but the point isn’t whodunit, it’s howdshedoit? This heroine’s speciality, after all, is “the close”: The thrill comes from watching Brenda coax the killer into confessing his deepest secrets, and watching Brenda quietly and kookily betray her own.

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Journos Gone Wild

What is it about local news that attracts comedians like B-list celebs to reality shows? Is it the breathtaking collision of pathos and pomposity? Or the hilariously minor human interest stories reported by anchors in tacky suits and sad, oversprayed hairdos? WKRP, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Anchorman—it’s quite a lineage. And now add to that list Dog Bites Man, a mockumentary series about the staff of American Lives, a lackluster news show broadcast on Spokane’s KHBX.

The show’s creator is Dan Mazer, the man responsible (along with comedian Sacha Baron Cohen) for Da Ali G Show, a pioneering Brit comedy that centered around fake interviews with real politicians who weren’t in on the joke. But the atmosphere of Dog is closer to The Office than Ali G—there’s no laugh track, the single handheld camera lends a docu-vérité feel, and the humor mines that now familiar seam of excruciating humor based around workplace humiliations and petty disputes. And it works the cringe comedy formula reasonably well, thanks to an improv-schooled cast that includes Upright Citizens Brigade star Matt Walsh as anchorman Kevin Beekin. A smarmy, unselfaware boss in the David Brent mold, Kevin tries to impress sexy new producer Tillie (Andrea Savage) by popping a tape of yesterday’s Jeopardy in his VCR and shouting out all the correct questions. Just like Brent, Kevin has a mealy-mouthed lackey who scrambles to do his boss’s bidding, which in the debut episode includes procuring a corner table at the Olive Garden for Kevin’s date with Tillie, as well as making high-pitched sex noises through the wall to convince Tillie that Kevin’s having sex with someone else.

The actors step on each others’ lines with awkward grace. It’s hard to say who’s the most clod-like; although Tillie initially appears to be the straight woman, she turns out to be as bad as Kevin, constantly interrupting his interviews to suggest more penetrating questions (“How big are your testicles?” Tillie asks a bodybuilder they’re profiling) and engaging in one-upsmanship. “She loves to bark orders, even in the bedroom,” he tells one interview subject as their bickering quickly overshadows their work. But when things go wrong, the band of screwups pull together. “Remember when we did the World’s Fattest Pets segment and Glen lost all the tapes? We made that work,” Kevin comforts Tillie. “You mean when we got those two rabbits and tied them together to look like a big fat one?” she says, a glimmer of hope in her eyes. Eventually, a cell phone call cheers her up. “Seven people died, so we’re off the hook!” she rejoices, and you can just about imagine someone in a shabby little newsroom somewhere right now saying the very same thing.

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Future, Unscripted

More than a year ago, the overheated art world got even more frenzied for a few days as the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery held cattle-call auditions for Artstar, an art world counterpart to American Idol. No one was quite sure if it was a reality show or some kind of performance-art prank. Nevertheless, it sucked hundreds of freaks and artistes out of their garrets (some precincts of Williamsburg were completely emptied that winter day) and back to Soho, where critics like David Rimanelli and Carlo McCormick helped Deitch pick a slate of eight hopefuls to collaborate on a project for the cameras. As it turns out, this wasn’t just a giant conceptual performance piece on the nature of reality TV; Artstar actually is a reality TV series, though many New Yorkers won’t see it when it launches on June 1, since it airs on Gallery HD, a high-definition channel on the Dish satellite network.

Now that artists have joined models, musicians, designers, chefs, filmmakers, and would-be apprentices as fodder for reality TV, why not broaden the concept further? Some pilot ideas for the fall season:

America’s Next Literary Novelist: Judges are currently scouring the country’s MFA programs looking for the next Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem, and any other applicable Jonathans. Unfortunately, several semifinalists have already been disqualified for plagiarizing their entries.

Top Lobbyist: Some of the nation’s most gifted schmoozehounds vie for this prestigious title and a chance to spend a weekend with Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. Weekly challenges will root out the most honest contenders.

Ultimate Realtor: Contestants compete to rebrand derelict, impoverished urban zones as the next hot neighborhood. The first to lure a Starbucks branch to their hipster ‘hood wins.

American Butcher: Currently two productions are in litigation over the use of this name: One is a competition to find the nation’s finest cleaver wielder, while the other features plastic surgeons in a battle for silicone supremacy.

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A Quest Called Tribe

Virtually nothing is taboo on TV these days. Full-frontal vomiting, penises, the C-word, and masturbation are almost de rigueur in highbrow quality drama. This has made the advisory labels attached to nighttime programming— warnings of “mature content” unsuitable for minors or those of nervous disposition—seem quaint. But the caution at the start of Going Tribal caught my eye: “This program . . . contains indigenous nudity,” it reads, flashing you back to the days when desperate teenagers sought out their parents’ National Geographic, ogling the saggy boobs of loin-clothed natives from exotic corners of the globe.

Now entering its second season on the Discovery Channel, Going Tribal fuses the spiritual questing of a Terence McKenna with the hardcore thrill-seeking of MTV’s Wild Boys. Call it ecstatic tourism or extreme ethnography: Each hour-long episode sends the show’s star, Bruce Parry, to live with a different indigenous people for an entire month, during which he gradually becomes accepted into the tribe, a process that usually culminates with an initiation ritual of some sort. Parry is neither a hippie nor a macho Jackass type, though. He’s an expedition leader and former lieutenant in the British Marines, with a jovial, self-deprecating manner that vaguely recalls that other likable English globe-trotter, Michael Palin. Parry’s doe- eyed, gentle aura clearly helps him win the trust of his aboriginal hosts. The tribes- folk aren’t threatened—in fact, they often treat him as an endearing half-wit who needs to be schooled in basic skills. In one episode, the village elders marvel at the clumsy way Parry spits cow’s blood in their faces (spattering your peers being a ceremonial gesture of respect). “Wow, he spits like a child,” one old man mutters with genuine bemusement. “It’s his first time,” another allows, in a rare moment of cultural relativism.

Parry has another trait necessary for this kind of travelogue: an openness to unfamiliar experiences that goes well beyond
Fear Factor territory. He’s willing—though not always eager—to try anything, whether it’s chowing down on maggots, slaughtering an animal, or sucking hallucinogenic tree bark to commune with the spirit world. After gulping a serving of clotted cow’s blood with pained politeness, he confesses to the camera that the blood smoothie reminded him of “the hairs and goo you find at the bottom of the bath plug.” I’ve seen him truly flinch only once, when a tribe introduced him to the local custom of shoving one’s penis back inside the body. Parry gamely had a go, immediately fainted, and then stumbled off-camera with an apologetic “no, no, that’s not happening” as his warrior pals looked on in puzzlement.

Going Tribal is partly about demysti-fiying these unutterably alien-seeming cultures, revealing not just the common humanity underneath foreign behavior and beliefs, but also the economic struggles for resources and territory. The show suggests that, yes, we are all brothers under the skin, while wringing drama out of extreme cultural differences. The editing and the low-key docudrama feel of the production help avoid a sense of sensationalistic voyeurism, a remarkable feat given some of the things these tribes do. Take the cannibalistic Kombai tribe of West Papua, Indonesia. Parry listens gravely as his new friends explain that they consume the stomach and brains of dead enemies as a way to banish evil spirits. “I can see no reason why they would lie to me,” he remarks. “And I find that I am not shocked.”

Parry’s diary-style narration envelopes you in the experience of being there, but he does try to widen the frame by sketching in some political and geographical context. On his way to meet the Babongo tribe of Gabon, Parry notes how the logging industry is swiftly transforming the region, turning these traditional forest folk into roadside people. Then there is the Suri clan of Ethiopia, whose region has been rocked by constant civil war in nearby Sudan. After bonding with the Suris last season, he decides to meet their sworn enemies, the legendarily vicious Nyagatom tribe, “to find out what they have done to deserve such a terrible reputation.” Leaving the Suri’s lush green landscape, Parry discovers that the Nyagatom subsist in a parched desert wasteland where they scrabble to survive. All the natural assets border on Suri land; this is a battle for dwindling resources, made more tragic and bloody by the AK-47s that have replaced traditional spears. Belying their fearsome image, the Nyagatom are incredibly merry for people who are half starving. The children sing and dance with Parry, the women mischievously tease him, and the guys teach him to guard the goats and eventually initiate him into the tribe.

These ceremonies are central to most episodes, partly because Parry’s focus is almost always on the menfolk (a female-centric version of the show would be much more daring, if unimaginable). In southwest Ethopia, Parry must perform a cattle-jumping stunt to be considered a tribesman. During his month in Gabon, he goes through an amazingly protracted and strenuous ordeal featuring the psychedelic iboga plant. After puking all day, Parry sees visions of his past misdeeds from the perspective of the people he harmed— a fascinating experiment in empathy that inadvertently parallels the show’s aim to glimpse the world through others’ eyes.

Deftly blending entertainment and edification, Going Tribal is also an exercise in serial enchantment, for Parry and for us. The most disorienting thing about the show is not that he gets so immersed in these cultures but that he is able to leave. Over and over, Parry bonds with the families he meets and has his worldview shaken. Often he leaves with tears in his eyes—yet leave he must, on to the next life-altering epiphany.

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Girls vs. Boys

With the demise of the metrosexual bible Cargo and the eroded clout of most other women’s and men’s magazines, media gender niches now seem like a quaint Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus hangover from the waning years of the 20th century. None of my female friends would be caught dead watching the manipulative mush that passes for women’s programming on Lifetime or the self-realizing uplift of Oxygen, and no penis-bearing individual of my acquaintance has much time for the Grizzly Adams–damaged Outdoor Life Network or swaggering Spike TV. Instead of veering toward the middle ground, though, Oxygen and Spike have opted to up their respective doses of estrogen and testosterone, hoping to revitalize their ailing brands via strategic extremism.

Spike debuted three years ago, mutating from the little-known TNN into a supposedly macho channel—just check the heavy-handed way the name layers phallic symbolism, violence, and edge. In reality, Spike was the clichéd male equivalent of Lifetime, a place for loser guys who dreamed of watching Star Trek all day and WWE all night. This spring, Spike decided it needed bigger balls. Network honchos announced another rebranding, complete with a manly block-letter logo to replace the wimpy old cursive lettering and a new slogan, “Get More Action.” In a press release, general manager Kevin Kay elaborated on the theme: “Be it action in its conventional meaning, to action on the tables in Las Vegas, to action in the Octagon for a mixed martial arts fight, guys can expect a constant stream of action programming on Spike TV.”

Forget those poor, jilted Cargo subscribers—Spike is gunning for the Maxim crowd. It’s all about extreme pleasure, extreme carnage, and extreme hijinks. A few series recall old-school men’s mags: The Playbook, described as “the guy’s guide to being a man,” provides helpful hints on everything from barbecuing like a pro to buying a car (as in: Don’t bring your girlfriend car shopping or she will screw with your bargaining mojo). But this suave, Hefner-esque vibe has become the exception on Spike, whose spotlight shows revel in macho thrills, like the demolition derby mash-ups of Carpocalypse. Their newest series, Pros vs. Joes, pits would-be sportsmen against aging champions like Herschel Walker. However, it is Spike’s dedication to Ultimate Fighting—a vicious, grimly strenuous blend of martial arts, wrestling, and boxing—that has amped up the network’s cred. Even I found myself gripped by The Ultimate Fighter III, a reality competition entering its third season. Thick-necked wannabe pugilists train with two rival champions turned coaches. One looks for fighters with heart. The other’s self-professed style is “beating guys down” so that only the strongest survive. It’s like a roid-ragin’ version of America’s Next Top Model: The contestants bludgeon each other by day and bond by night in their communal house, each nursing the dream of becoming the next Ultimate Fighting Champion.

Spike calls itself “the first network for men,” while Oxygen similarly boasts that it’s “the only cable network owned and operated by women.” I had high hopes for the channel when it launched back in 1998. Co-founder Geraldine Laybourne promised to treat her female viewers with intelligence, giving stars such as Candace Bergen, Tracey Ullman, and Carrie Fisher their own shows. But the cheery feminism-lite belly flopped, and Oxygen became barely distinguishable from Lifetime, an endless swamp of girlish goo. Only the repeats of once groundbreaking shows like Roseanne and Absolutely Fabulous reminded us of the station’s lost potential. Over the last year, however, Oxygen has been struggling to redefine itself as the naughty women’s network—not the scantily clad sort of naughty, though; more like rebellious and mischievous. It started with Girls Behaving Badly, the network’s successful hidden-camera series in which an all-woman cast plays pranks on the public, often tweaking female foibles and taboo subjects (e.g., convincing a male mark to pick up a tampon). Soon a trickle of oddball comedies followed, like the short-lived Good Girls Don’t (originally titled My Best Friend Is a Big Fat Slut) and the partly improvised current series Campus Ladies. Co-executive-produced by Curb Your Enthusiasm star Cheryl Hines, Campus Ladies runs loopy circles around two middle-aged gals who enroll in college to experience the party-animal youth they missed out on, wielding their newly found sexual freedom like awkward, overenthusiastic adolescents.

The new watchword at Oxygen this spring is bitch. Picking up where AbFab left off, the network has just launched an evening featuring two twisted British series—Suburban Shootout and Nighty Night —packaged under the slogan “Wednesdays Are a Bitch.” One of the best and blackest comedies of last year, Nighty Night enters its second season with sociopathic hairdresser Jill Tyrell (Julia Davis) still torturing the hapless souls who cross her path, leaving one and all speechless with her virtuoso mixture of brazen cruelty and manipulative guilt-tripping. Having offed her husband at the end of last season, Jill goes on the road in lustful pursuit of Don, an almost cosmically uncharismatic doctor who is reluctantly undergoing couples therapy at a New Age retreat, ostensibly to salvage his marriage to the painfully prim and mousy Cath (Jill’s favorite victim). The resulting comedy is almost too excruciating to watch, like Curb Your Enthusiasm stripped of every last scruple.

Nighty Night finds an ideal companion in Suburban Shootout, another English series that wrings laughter out of women behaving in radically unexpected ways. The English village of Little Stempington has the lowest crime levels in the country, leaving local policemen starved for action. But beneath the town’s placid surface seethes an underworld of warring female gangsters. One housewife syndicate is knee-deep in extortion and illegal hormone peddling; the other tries to stop them while also keeping the village tidy. This is the kind of show that should run out of steam as soon as you’ve grasped the premise, but Suburban Shootout keeps on sparkling thanks to the flawless acting and clever scripts, squeezing endless laughs out of these women’s double lives. One mom turned mobster is late for a stakeout because she has to pump milk for her baby; another uses a tea tray as an impromptu shield against gunfire. And when a DJ makes the mistake of picking Little Stempington as the site for his next sound-system party, he is ambushed, robbed, and scared shitless by three faceless furies disguised beneath colorful, hand-knit wool masks. “If we hear so much as a sound of a disco rave within the parish boundary, you and your kinsfolk will be executed,” warns one of the ladies in her upper-class accent. Oxygen’s wickedly daring programming makes me think there might be some televisual life in vive la différence after all.

If you’re searching for another kind of masculinity on TV, look no further than Ed vs. Spencer (Thursdays at 11 on BBC America). Machismo is stretched to hilarious extremes in this British semi-reality show, a remake of the equally funny Canadian cult series Kenny vs. Spenny (which airs here at various times on the Game Show Network). Ed vs. Spencer features two pals fully aware of their own patheticness, forever locked in humiliating, absurd pissing wars: Two ex-snowboarders, sweet Spencer Claridge and his more piggish pal Ed Leigh, compete each week to prove who can get fattest or most famous. The two take opposite approaches: In the grueling “who can get sickest” challenge, Spencer methodically attempts to destroy his body—wearing rubber pants to encourage crotch rot, for instance—while Ed exudes a much more free-spirited, Jackass-ian attitude, hurling himselfstyle=”mso-spacerun: yes”>  down stairs.

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The Further Adventures of Artbabe

Jessica Abel’s Brooklyn brownstone looks pretty much like I imagined it would, with its original wood moldings and heavy old cabinets full of books and records—the home of thirtysomething former indie-hipsters who’ve traded in bar-hopping for gardening and nesting.

Abel looks the way I’d pictured her, too, those oversize reddish glasses and short brown hair familiar from drawings in her popular comic Artbabe and from her self-portrait at the back of her latest graphic novel, La Perdida (Pantheon).

Abel started Artbabe on a lark in 1992 when she pulled some strips together to show the publishers of Fantagraphics at the Comic-Con in her native Chicago. Fantagraphics didn’t immediately bite, so Abel self-published whenever she could find time between day jobs. Influenced by the likes of Love and Rockets and dominated by clever glam-rock chicks wrangling with angsty romantic entanglements or hanging out with girlfriends in grungy bars, Artbabe became a hot underground comic at a moment when few other women were drawing them. Most female cartoonists of the time exuded a confessional vibe, so readers figured Artbabe was autobiographical too, instinctive outpourings rather than well-crafted stories. “I assume that happened partly because I’m female,” she shrugs as she darts into the kitchen to check something simmering on the stove. “I’ve always been seen to have a talent for developing characters and if they feel real, people think they must be real,” she says. “When La Perdida was first serialized [in 2001], everyone assumed it was autobiographical, but as it went along people figured out Carla wasn’t me—or hoped it wasn’t me, given what happens in the book.”

An American naïf adrift in Mexico City, Carla gets in trouble while ostensibly searching for her Latina roots. A self-described “crunchy ethnic wannabe” with a serious Frida Kahlo complex, she earnestly sets out to differentiate herself from her expat friends, including her rich ex-boyfriend Harry who doesn’t know any locals (except “the guy at the liquor store”). Carla, on the other hand, befriends a gang of Mexican Marxists who constantly tease her about American imperialism and her desire to go native. “I’m not a conquistadora!” she wails at one point, shredding her beloved Frida poster and smashing one of her folkloric pots. Its shards take up a whole white page, a visual emblem of Carla’s confusion.

Abel herself ended up in Mexico in 1998 on a romantic whim. She’d been turned down for a grant and so decided to accompany then boyfriend and fellow cartoonist Matt Madden (now her husband) on his move to Mexico. A year later she started work on a comic about expats that morphed into La Perdida. “I wanted to create a portrait of Mexico City—and then I set terrible crimes there!” she says with a rueful laugh. “It is rough and magical, and if you’re an idiot or really unlucky, you can get in really big trouble there, a lot bigger and a lot more easily than in New York.” Carla does get caught up in some serious peril, but Abel doesn’t make excuses for her clueless heroine. “Carla acts dumb, and I love characters who are blind in one way or another. I never write characters who have it all together—why bother?”

Carla’s a recognizable type, the pious American trekker in search of something authentic. But she’s not a stand-in for all Americans, as becomes clear when her brother Rod shows up for a visit. A laid-back skateboarder, Rod seems to know way more interesting people and places in Mexico City than Carla. He takes her to raves and introduces her to Mexican hipsters—the equivalent of the characters who populated Artbabe, and more like the kind of people Abel says she hung out with during her stint abroad. But Carla veers away from this cosmopolitan milieu because, as Abel explains, “She doesn’t feel different or interesting enough at home and when she goes with Rod to parties, she feels like as much of a dork as she did [back in Chicago]. She wants to become somebody new when she goes away.” But Carla’s too wrapped up in her romanticized images of Mexico to see danger approaching, even as a stark noir edge creeps into the book’s later panels.

Abel spent years doing comic journalism for alt-weeklies like Chicago’s New City, sketching entertaining reports on Godzilla conventions and Camille Paglia lectures. Although she’s not interested in doing serious reportage, Abel wouldn’t mind if the fictional La Perdida got roped into the successful subgenre of graphic novels that deal in foreign affairs and war zones. “In mainstream society, sitting around reading [Joe Sacco’s] Safe Area Gorazde, nobody’s going to look at you like a goofball. It’s obviously serious stuff.” She mentions a recent afternoon on which she settled down for a solo lunch at a chic Manhattan restaurant with a glass of wine and . . . the latest issue of Superman. “People were walking by and just looking at me,” she says with a chuckle, whereas “if you were sitting there reading something like [Marjane Satrapi’s] Persepolis, people would be like, ‘Hmmm, interesting, I read about that in The New York Times.’ ”

A teacher at the School of Visual Arts, Abel is now working on a comics textbook with Madden (whose most recent book,
99 Ways to Tell a Story, was a VLS favorite last year). “He thinks a lot about formal structure and relating to poetic forms,” she says, “and I think about narrative structure, novelistic ideas like narrative arcs. That’s always been a concern, but without an education, I wasn’t able to formulate it, and it was so frustrating.”

The red parlor grows dark all of a sudden as a delicate wave of rain hits the bay windows. A female SVA student has arrived for a critique session—Abel estimates the gender ratio in her class is now 30 to 40 percent female. “My age and above, I could count the active female cartoonists on one hand. But there are a ton of young women starting now,” she says exuberantly, chalking it up to the popularity of manga and the independent comics boom of the ’80s and ’90s. (She leaves unspoken her influence on newcomers.)

Abel is also exultant about the New York comics scene, which she dove into six years ago. “A large part of my brain is devoted to organizational activity,” she quips, and during their first year in New York, she and Madden launched a popular discussion series called Comics Decode. Days after 9-11, the duo also kick-started an impromptu event called SP-Xiles: “We sent out e-mails to everybody and made flyers and said anybody who had comics could come for free and put down a blanket and sell them, and we raised money for disaster relief.” It was “a love-in”—one that partly inspired the creation of the annual Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MOCCA) Festival, now a local staple.

Even as a fairly successful cartoonist, Abel’s not sure she can make a good adult living from it. (It took almost five years between starting the first of five issues of La Perdida and Pantheon publishing the graphic novel.) And she’s also not certain what direction to take. “The Artbabe characters mostly tracked my age—they were all in a transitional stage where life hadn’t come together for them yet.” With La Perdida, she returned to that fluxed-up twentysomething mind-set. “I do want to write about people my age, but the problem with my life is I’m happy. I’m married, I have a house. I’m in pretty good balance. That’s what I need to imagine: What would it take to knock me off?”

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Mistress of Her Domain

Let me say it right up front: Julia Louis-Dreyfus has finally slain the Seinfeld curse. She and former co-stars Jason Alexander and Michael Richards have been drifting through the TV-pilot hinterland for almost a decade now, with only the occasionally brilliant cameo appearance (Alexander as himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm or Louis-Dreyfus as an unethical blind lawyer on Arrested Development) to remind us that their original success was not just derived from proximity to Larry David.

But pity the poor little rich girl no more. The New Adventures of Old Christine may or may not be a mid-season hit, but it should be. Louis-Dreyfus takes instant, manic possession of her character, a single L.A. mom named Christine Campbell. She’s neurotic, sharp-tongued, and likable in equal doses—a lot like Seinfeld‘s Elaine Benes—though the thought of Jerry’s pal raising a child (or even touching one) boggles the mind, whereas Christine seems like a devoted mom, albeit one with all of her anxieties and nerve endings on glorious view.

Like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The New Adventures feeds on the familiar mortifications and indignities of daily life. Christine’s ex-husband has replaced her with a younger girlfriend who shares the same name (hence Louis-Dreyfus’s character being nicknamed “Old Christine”). She has recently enrolled her son in a snobby private school she can’t afford, where the hydra-headed mombots excel at competitive humiliation. When the stay-at-home mothers find out Christine owns a chain of 30-minute-workout gyms, one of them snipes, “Who would want a 30-minute workout? What would I do with the rest of my day?” Even the most mundane encounters lend themselves to shame. In one funny scene, Christine tries to jiggle the doorknob of a restaurant bathroom twice, only to have the occupant scream nastily, “I’m still in here!” Instead of triggering a Larry David–style plotline steeped in bitterness and resentment, the encounter sends Christine into apologetic overcompensation. “Sorry, I didn’t know if I turned the knob the whole way and I didn’t want to be standing out here waiting for an empty bathroom,” she babbles, oozing embarrassment. “Because I have to tell you, I’ve done that before . . . ”

Of course, the genius innovation of Curb was that it took this kind of confrontation so far past the point of social acceptability, creating a whole new excruciating genre. The New Adventures, on the ever conservative CBS, stays within the conventions of television sitcom. It has a laugh track and often strays into well-worn territory with episodes about, say, blind dates or looking for love in the supermarket. Still, it steers clear of corniness and undercuts the occasional sentimental note with screwball humor or unexpectedly serrated dialogue. “Where are all the black kids?” Christine’s son Richie asks innocently on his first day at the new school. “Shhhh!” she hisses, aghast. “There was one in the brochure. He must be around here somewhere.” Even Richie is not what you’d expect: Sure, he’s cute and precocious, but much sweeter than your typical sitcom smartass. He doesn’t roll his eyes for comic effect when Christine smothers him with kisses at morning drop-off, and he seems to have inadvertently absorbed some of her female tics. Trying to cover for his inability to swim, Richie tells kids at pool parties that he has his period. When Christine gently tries to convince him it’s not a viable excuse, he says sincerely, “But that’s what you always say.”

None of the characters in this ensemble cast seem throwaway, from her earthy ex-husband (Clark Gregg, a character actor you will undoubtedly recognize even though you won’t be able to nail where you’ve seen him) and friend Barb (Wanda Sykes, the perfect, not-too-sarcastic foil) to the loopy slacker who works at one of Christine’s gyms. But it’s Louis-Dreyfus who keeps me riveted. A master of goofball physical comedy, she also has one of the most agile, transparent faces on television. We watch her smiles wither into grimaces as she attempts to maintain composure, bluffing and blundering through everything, never thinking quite fast enough to hide her awkwardness. After finding out that her ex-husband is seeing a younger woman, Christine tries to make him jealous in return, blurting out that she’s dating . . . a lumberjack. But then she almost instantly crumples into confession: “I haven’t even considered dating yet. I’m still wearing my maternity underwear,” she admits, her expression a complex tangle of emotions that is more than just funny. Horrified by the prospect of “the small talk and the nudity” involved in dating, Christine deadpans, “I have to stand on my head to make my boobs look good.”

The New Adventures of Old Christine doesn’t break the mold like Curb Your Enthusiasm (or Seinfeld, back in the day), and it doesn’t define a moment as Roseanne did. It doesn’t even showcase a brand-new Julia Louis-Dreyfus—just a superbly evolved version of the old one who embodies the full range of craziness and complexity in middle-class single momdom.

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Back to the Future, With Better FX: A New Doctor Is In

In the U.K., this series about a time-traveling sleuth is as much of a stone-cold classic as The Twilight Zone is here. It’s also equally period-bound, bringing to mind the black-and-white series of the late ’60s and early ’70s, with those fakey sets and sinister electronic background music. The famous futuristic theme tune—an invitation to a generation of children to prepare themselves for a weekly dose of palpitating terror—has survived, but it’s been gussied up with unnecessary orchestration, setting the tone for this attempt to update Doctor Who in the age of CGI.

Arriving in contemporary London in the Tardis (a timeship disguised as a police call box), the Doctor saves the city from a zombie army of store mannequins (don’t ask), along the way recruiting a young female accomplice named Rose. The Doctor is played with gusto by Christopher Eccleston, the ninth actor to take on the role, while Rose (former U.K. pop star Billie Piper) exudes the perfect post-postfeminist mix of tomboy pluck and girlie cuteness. The second episode of the series hurtles the duo 5 billion years into the future, where a gaggle of mixed-species tourists arrive to watch Earth explode. Cue plenty of cool alien costumes: a giant head in a vat and the Last Human, a flat surface of facial skin that turns out to be the end product of millennia’s worth of cosmetic surgery. “Moisturize me!” the Last Human constantly orders her minions. There are plenty of other good gags to prove this entertaining series doesn’t take itself too seriously. When Rose goes into culture shock, she ruefully notes, “They’re just so alien . . . the aliens.”

The Doctor has generally been played as a relentlessly cheery type, with a Peter Pan quality of prepubescent sexlessness—a geek whose brain beats brawn in every corner of the universe. Although this remake attempts to add tragic depth to the Doctor, it lacks true darkness. The early series overcame skimpy budgets to conjure the uncanny; this was cosmic horror as H.P. Lovecraft would have understood it. The real disappointment of the new Who isn’t its use of (slightly) slick special effects, though. It’s a structural problem: Instead of stretching a storyline across a whole season, each adventure is resolved within a single episode, making this closer to your average detective series. The thrill-filled cliffhangers of yore are gone, taking with them with the child’s urge to watch TV from behind the sofa, breath bated.

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Remote Patrol

8th & Ocean
Tuesdays at 8:30 on MTV

If you missed the boat on the whole Laguna Beach phenomenon, never mind: You can still catch this new reality series produced by the same team. Way more cutthroat than America’s Next Top Model, it follows the machinations of 10 fledgling models in Miami apartments and the agents who yearn to exploit them.


Top Chef
Wednesdays at 10 on Bravo

As we learned from last year’s Hell’s Kitchen, cooking and cruel elimination ceremonies go together like rice and beans. But it looks like there’s some genuine talent in Top Chef‘s would-be food stars, who perform weekly tasks in hopes of impressing judges like Gramercy Tavern’s Tom Colicchio.


Suburban Shootout
Wednesdays at 9 on Oxygen starting March 22

Oxygen has been going out on a limb recently, positioning itself as the women’s network with a dark side. Joining edgy comedies like Campus Ladies and Nighty Night (back for a second, grotesque season on March 22) is
Suburban Shootout, a bizarre, deliciously dark humorous series about Mafia-style turf wars between bored, power-crazed housewives in a charming English village. Who says drive-by shootings aren’t an appropriate response to menopause?

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All In The Family

Tolstoy famously declared that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Big Love, HBO’s new domestic drama, triples the potential misery. The story of a polygamous household in Utah, it has a basic premise—one husband, three wives, seven children— that promises a feast of emotional friction rarely seen on TV, apart from HBO series like Deadwood and Six Feet Under. It took me a while to fall in love with those shows, to take in their formidable array of major and minor characters. Same with Big Love, which is in no hurry to unfurl its plotlines or push its charms. Give it a couple of episodes, though, and you’ll be snared.

Big Love‘s sharpest move? Making the viewer sympathize with husband Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), who comes across not as an exploitative patriarch but as a decent man stretched to the limit by his attempts to “do the right thing.” That includes polygamy, according to the cultish Juniper Creek compound where Bill grew up, even though orthodox Mormons distanced themselves from the practice more than a hundred years ago. Not only does Bill financially support three separate but conjoined households (a row of colonials on a swanky suburban street), he’s also got a grueling schedule of conjugal duties that requires a nightly dose of Viagra. Even worse, he has to contend with numerous in-laws, including Roman (played by the ever creepy Harry Dean Stanton), the devious prophet of the Juniper Creek sect.

Bill’s wives don’t exactly fit the polygamous ideal of sisterly love and doe-like obedience. The three women battle their own jealousy as they jostle for the family’s most limited resource: Bill. It’s an entertaining, never ending power struggle with a distinct pecking order. Heading the homemaker hierarchy is first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the most mature, educated, and “modern” of the three women; she works outside the home as a substitute teacher and accompanies Bill to public events. Second wife Nicki (Chlo Sevigny) resents her in-between status, constantly sniping at Barb (or “Boss Lady,” as Nicki dubs her) while pulling rank on third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). Barely legal, Margene still acts like a kid and seems most herself when rassling with Barb’s boner-prone teenage son. The claustrophobic aura of self-containment and secrecy only adds to this pressure cooker of tension and rivalry. Since polygamy is illegal and any hint of perversity might sink Bill’s business, the family has to pass for normal. From the street, each house looks separate, but their backyards join to create an alternate moral reality.

In some ways Big Love belongs to the recent TV trend of suburban dramedies like Desperate Housewives and the short-lived Book of Daniel—themselves a partial return to the ’80s kitsch noir Americana of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. But in other respects it resembles a totally different series set in the suburban hinterland, The Sopranos, which serves as HBO’s Sunday-night lead-in for Big Love. Like our favorite mob drama, Big Love spikes garden-variety family tensions with skulduggery, corruption, and menace. Owner of a chain of home improvement stores, Bill is desperate to sever ties with Roman, the original investor, who is now demanding a tithe on all future franchises. With his bolo tie, parchment skin, and beady eyes, Harry Dean Stanton has never looked more sepulchral and sinister, as he declares, “There’s man’s law and there’s God’s law, and I think you know which side I’m on.”

Bill longs to escape the prophet’s tentacles, a situation further complicated by the fact that Nicki is Roman’s daughter. Maybe the marriage was part of Bill and Roman’s business transaction, the blood tie that sealed the deal. It’s hard to sympathize with Nicki as a pawn of the menfolk, though; Sevigny plays her as a sullen, manipulative creature with a vicious shopaholic streak that leads to terrifying credit card debt. But then she’s only taking after Roman, who dabbles in Glengarry Glen Ross–style real estate scams that target local retirees. The titanic clash between honest Bill and slimy Roman could easily play out across several seasons.

Big Love‘s menagerie of repellent characters risks turning off the viewer: Bill’s mom and dad, played by veteran freaks Bruce Dern and Grace Zabriskie, are wildly cantankerous, and Roman’s child bride seems spooky verging on psychotic. But through it all shines the decency of Bill and Barb, constantly in the process of making moral calculations. Intriguingly, the series intimates that Bill took up polygamy out of principle rather than active desire, and you sometimes sense that he’d be happier riding off into the sunset with Barb, leaving the younger wives in the dust. But instead he’s chosen to raise his kids (and the other wives) on this weird cusp—one foot in the polygamous, out-of-time society of Juniper Creek and one foot in the mainstream Mormon Utah of fast-food joints and iPods. Bill looks to religion for guidelines and clarity; instead he finds only fuzziness and confusion rising like groundwater.