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The Women Behind TV’s Real Golden Age

In the spring of 2015, Joy Press had an epiphany. As she writes in her extremely engaging new book, Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television, that year saw the premieres of more than a dozen new series, from Marvel’s Jessica Jones to rom-com musical Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, centered on and created by women — “as many as had emerged in the three previous years combined.”

Television, particularly network prime time, has traditionally attracted more female viewers than male. Yet, as Press — a former Village Voice TV critic — recounts, it took decades of female writers, performers, and creators to persuade the mostly male executives who literally ran the show that stories about women were not vegetables; that they could be just as meaty as programs centered on men, if not more so — even as they mixed in some “mind-nourishing feminism,” like shredding carrots into cupcake batter.

Stealing the Show is a wildly entertaining and informative jaunt through the creative upheaval that’s been taking place on TV screens over the past thirty years. Crucially, the book doesn’t treat women’s contributions to this awakening as a sideshow. Rather, Press’s book is something of an alternate history of the modern TV era, a persuasive rebuke to the now-familiar story of the brilliant male showrunners and their brooding male characters who breathed new life into the medium and ushered it to the top of the cultural food chain. (For more on this, see Alan Sepinwall’s 2013 book, The Revolution Was Televised; Brett Martin’s 2014 book, Difficult Men; and Tad Friend’s recent, fascinating profile of Donald Glover.) A savory blend of reporting and criticism, Stealing the Show reorients this conversation, placing women front and center, starting with Murphy Brown’s 1988 premiere and ending with the arrival, in 2014, of Transparent.

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Stealing the Show is a corrective to young viewers who might think the debate about “likable” female characters began with Hannah Horvath. Diane English, who created the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown, remarks that the network was concerned no one would like the title character, a middle-aged, single, career-driven woman played by Candice Bergen: “The word unlikable came up all the time. All…the…time.” While the title character of English’s show was “a human tempest, a ruthless dervish whirling through prime time,” Press writes, English herself “worked smoothly and quietly to get what she needed.” Elsewhere, she points to the similarity between Murphy Brown’s fussy perfectionism and that of Gilmore Girls matriarch Emily Gilmore (Kelly Bishop) — the former cycles through a different secretary every week, while the latter does the same with her housemaids. Both gags, Press suggests, gesture toward the perfectionist impulses of the series’ creators.

There’s a slight irony in writing a book about women’s contributions to television that argues against siloing female creators. But, like so many of the women she profiles — including Shonda Rhimes (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy), Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange Is the New Black), Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project), and Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls) — Press seems to understand that women often have to sneak their ideas into the mainstream in whatever packaging the entertainment industry sees fit, even if those ideas have nothing to do with women’s issues per se. (Or, sometimes, when they do: I’d completely missed the fact that the word vajayjay entered the popular lexicon after a Grey’s Anatomy writer used it in place of vagina — which ABC’s Standards and Practices department initially objected to, even in a medical context. It did not have a problem with the word penis.)

The book is full of vivid illustrations of women who helped push television to the culturally dominant position it’s now in. Tina Fey, Press writes, helped steer Saturday Night Live “back into the zeitgeist” when she was promoted to head writer in 1999 — the first woman to hold the job in the show’s history. Jenji Kohan’s Weeds reframed Showtime “as a creative daredevil…a brash upstart nipping at HBO’s heels.” Press calls Sex and the City “HBO’s first zeitgeist-defining hit” — even though, as former HBO president Sue Naegle tells her, “every time there was a female-lead show that worked, no one wanted to repeat it.”

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Stealing the Show is, essentially, a study in how the television industry suppresses and belittles women’s stories. (“This is the business model: If you get men to watch it, you make money,” New Girl creator Liz Meriwether quips.) Press points out that genres that skew female, like soap operas and melodramas, often come with “a kind of lowbrow stench”; elsewhere, she writes that producer Lisa Vinnecour, who’s worked on United States of Tara, Weeds, and Orange Is the New Black, takes issue with using the word diva to describe fussy female performers: “These are artists,” Vinnecour says. Press describes how Transparent creator Jill Soloway learned to structure an ensemble series from her time writing for Six Feet Under — that show’s creator, Alan Ball, was a fan of General Hospital, and he “elevated the soap structure into a finely woven tapestry of ideas.”

At just under 300 pages, Stealing the Show is such a fun read, it’s almost deceptively informative. Press’s research yields unexpected delights — particularly for readers under thirty, who may not remember some of these details — like the rumor, swirling around the internet after Gilmore Girls premiered, that creator Amy Sherman-Palladino was actually a pseudonym for Aaron Sorkin and two other male writers who’d worked on his shows. (“What’s funny is that the rumor wasn’t even that I was fronting for him,” Sherman-Palladino told a reporter in 2001. “It was, I didn’t even exist.”)

The book shrewdly contextualizes the contemporary reactions to the series it describes — including the backlash from female viewers who took issue with, say, 30 Rock’s casting a privileged, wealthy, white woman as a feminist hero, or the fact that the Brooklyn of Girls is so blindingly white. Usually, the writers “embedded” such critiques in the shows themselves; the entitlement of the women on Girls, Press writes, “was an intentional feature of the show rather than a mistake.” As cultural critic Lili Loofbourow writes in a recent essay in the Virginia Quarterly Review, “We still have not quite learned to see female storytellers as either masterful or intentional.” As admiring as she is, Press does not wax poetic about these storytellers’ inherent brilliance; her emphasis is on the specific ways in which they got their respective visions to air; not on their inscrutable genius, but on their steady work ethic. As Broad City‘s Ilana Glazer says, “We work so hard to create the space within we can just play” — and, as Press adds, “They are also making room for all of us to experiment.”

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Netflix’s Marco Polo Is Everything That’s Wrong With Game of Thrones

Despite its sumptuous displays of feudal opulence — cavalries, silk gowns, all the naked female extras money can buy — Netflix’s Marco Polo feels distinctly like scraps. Turgid, fatuous, and humorless, the streaming site’s newest series is a grave miscalculation of what has made Game of Thrones, its obvious model, such a TV phenomenon. Marco Polo borrows from the HBO institution its most sensationalistic and/or problematic qualities — its unforgiving violence, aggressive male gaze, exoticizing of non-Western cultures — while neglecting the nuts and bolts that make Thrones great: its urgent plotting, vivid characterizations, and meticulous world-building.

On paper, Marco Polo held enormous promise: a reported $90 million budget for its 10-episode debut season (significantly more than the $60 million HBO spent on Game of Thrones‘ first year); an audience already primed for some light homework to keep up with intricate royal intrigue involving faraway lands and unusual names; and well-known historical personages (brand familiarity!) whose stories have rarely been told in mainstream media, thus avoiding remake fatigue.

And even its iffy Last Samurai-esque white-guy-in-Asia premise shouldn’t be an immediate deal-breaker. Netflix’s best series to date, Orange Is the New Black, boasts some of the small screen’s most fully realized characters of color — all of whom owe their existence to the dramedy’s white protagonist and creator Jenji Kohan’s “Trojan horse” strategy.

In some respects, Kohan’s plan worked too well. The blonde, upper-middle-class Piper (Taylor Schilling), our entrée into Litchfield Penitentiary, has been deemed by many fans to be the show’s least interesting character, even an entirely disposable presence. Marco Polo shares with OITNB a white audience-identification character who isn’t exactly setting the world on fire with charisma, wit, or heroism. The problem with the 12th-century Mongolia-set epic, though, is that none of the other characters make up for Marco’s bland hunkiness.

Marco Polo‘s problems start pretty much straightaway. (I’ve seen the first four episodes.) In the pilot, the young Venetian merchant (played by Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy) is offered up to Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong) — “the richest, most powerful king on the face of this earth” — by Papa Polo. Marco is then called a slave, a servant, and a prisoner by the rest of the court, but one who receives lessons in kung fu, calligraphy, horseback riding, and falconry. It’s unclear where the European adventurer stands in the khan’s imperial hierarchy, and the series doesn’t seem all that interested in figuring it out, thus forgoing the necessary pilot storyline of almost every show in which the fish-out-of-water protagonist finds their place in a new world. Marco’s purgatorial statuslessness makes even less sense given that he’s the main character of a court drama, a genre based entirely on jockeying for position and power.

To be sure, creator John Fusco ensures that Marco is only a (station-less) cog in a vast imperial machine. The khan is cosmopolitan enough to recognize that the outsider’s perspective that Marco offers can be valuable, but rarely consults him about the issue foremost on his mind: when and how to invade the failing Song Dynasty, now established in southern China. Led by a boy king after the death of the elderly emperor, the Chinese court is under threat of an internal coup from the ambitious prime minister Sidao (Chin Han), who sends his newly widowed (and apparent sex-genius) sister Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng) to join the khan’s harem and become one of his concubines, or at least his bedside confidante. Mei Lin’s arrival in the khan’s bed arouses the suspicions and jealousies of the khan’s most prized wife, Chabi (Joan Chen). Meanwhile, the khan argues with his resentful adult son Jingim (Remy Hii) about adopting Mongolian versus Chinese culture, but because it’s never explained what those cultures mean, other than that the Mongolians consider themselves slightly more butch than their enemies, none of these conversations actually offer much insight into the characters.

Marco Polo certainly boasts a wide canvas, but it’s actually not much more than a chessboard. The players are frustratingly plastic, with only the next move in mind, and so joyless and fancifully cruel that most of the characters can’t help being read as stereotypes of evil Oriental mustache-twirlers. The khan orders the execution of a horse-robber, shruggingly explaining to Marco that the poor man must give up his life if he doesn’t have any horses or offspring with which to compensate the victim. And in the most gruesome scene in the first four episodes, Sidao breaks the foot bones of his dance-loving young niece with his bare hands, promising her that this ruthless maiming will make her more beautiful, when he’s really just preparing her to be sold off as a royal hostage.

Then there are the out-and-out groan-worthy characters, seen in a thousand-and-one other movies, like the calmly abusive kung fu master Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) and the Mongolian princess, Kokachin (Zhu Zhu), who’s inexplicably making googly eyes at Marco because, well, every captured white explorer is irresistible to ethnic princesses. (It’s science.) Sorely lacking on the show is any semblance of a sense of humor, and it’s hard not to wonder if this is the case because there are no stereotypes about Asians being funny. Even if there were jokes, they might not be heard, for the mostly American, Canadian, and British actors of Asian descent who make up the cast speak in a peculiar and highly varying accent that’s not only distracting but mutilates their enunciation. Not afforded the gift of gab, of course, are the dozens of female bodies in the harem scenes, writhing in perpetual lesbian orgies. (You know you’re fit for the khan when you don’t ever need to take a water break.)

Shot in Italy, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia, Marco Polo offers plenty of landscape porn and splendid production design, from the Empress’s elaborate hair ornaments to the blue-green-gray latticework behind the khan’s throne, which allows him to see his subjects much better than they can see him. The actual people involved, though, aren’t afforded nearly such detailed consideration. Say what you will about Game of Thrones, but at least the show makes you care when it’s casually slaughtering its characters. But nobody bats an eye when you’re just shredding cardboard.

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Orange Is the New Black’s Radical Critique of American Prisons

All manner of spoilers below.

Nearly anyone with a grievance against America’s dysfunctional prison system can find a scene to illustrate their protest in the first season of Orange Is the New Black, Netflix’s women-behind-bars dramedy. Admittedly, the wonkiest or most disheartening issues, like prison privatization or endemic sexual assault, appear to be beyond the show’s purview. But anyone morally uncomfortable with the lockup of nonviolent drug offenders, or the inadequacy of rehab programs for inmates, or the prioritization of cost-cutting over adequate healthcare can find support in Piper and Tricia and Sophia’s stories.

In case you’ve been behind bars since Orange‘s premiere last month, the series is a loose adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir, detailing her year-long stint in a prison for her tangential role in a drug-trafficking ring nearly a decade before her arrest.

Following the book’s structure, show creator Jenji Kohan uses Piper’s plight as a launching pad for delving into the stories of the much less privileged prisoners around her, creating a richly textured mosaic of women from diverse races, classes, and sexualities, whose sole commonality is the bad luck to get caught. But the series veers away from its source material in its central love triangle, with the fictional Piper torn between her nebbish fiancé, Larry, and her mordant ex, Alex, who named Piper in court in exchange for a reduced sentence and dons an orange jumpsuit herself.

In an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Kohan explained why she structured her show around Piper, who certainly doesn’t bear the brunt of the prison system’s cruelties: “In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan horse. You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women, and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.”

In the same way that Kohan smuggled Taystee and Daya and Miss Claudette under Piper’s Etsy-bought petticoats, she’s snuck in plenty of socio-political critiques about our abject prison system, as when Watson snorts that her prison job pays a pitiful 11 cents an hour or Red explains that “a whole meal has to come in at $1.05 a prisoner.” As the show deepens its interest beyond Piper to take a wider view at the cast around her, its critique of the prison deepens as well, evolving from a WASP-centric “Scared Straight” story to a radical denunciation of the concept of incarceration itself.

When it first heads behind bars with Piper, Orange focuses on the “white people problems” of the convict life. Her cancer-patient roommate has a loud respirator. She gets complimented on her breasts by a nosy but friendly voyeur. The food is godawful. In the most demeaning moment in the pilot, a female guard asks her to squat and cough–but the humiliation isn’t sadistic or gratuitous, it’s purposeful: to intercept contraband. In a later episode, Piper’s nitwit bestie, Polly, spouts, “Adventure is just hardship with an inflated sense of self.” The first two episodes suggest how a younger, less uptight version of Piper might delude herself into treating her 15-month sentence as an adventure, a cocktail-party story to impress with, a forced vacation from her normal life with the occasional compulsory juice cleanse, like a downscale fat camp for adults. Piper’s first few days have her living in the “nice blonde lady” version of prison.

But once the show turns away from its protagonist to focus on the less privileged inmates who don’t have top-notch legal counsel, an addiction-free medical history, or a journalist boyfriend who’s more than happy to broadcast her complaints, Orange‘s critique of the prison system becomes more politicized and substantive. Beginning with the Jodie Foster-directed “Lesbian Request Denied,” wherein budget cuts force Litchfield’s pharmacy to go generic and push transgender Sophia into a panic over the decrease in her estrogen medication, the show uses one of its most vulnerable characters to dramatize the frightening unpredictability of prison medical care–a grim truth the series exposes even more forcefully later in the season with Pennsatucky’s Kafkaesque psych stay.

But the most nightmarish aspects of life in Litchfield are the guards and the extraordinary power they hold over the inmates. (Interestingly, Kohan notes that one of Kerman’s chief complaints about the series is “[the guards] are not big enough assholes.”) The correctional officers’ cruel caprices, especially Pornstache’s, are evident from the pilot, but it’s Piper’s steadily deteriorating relationship with the homophobic Healy that highlights the inherent injustice of not just the prison system but of any system of incarceration. Though the inmates aren’t without agency, Orange illustrates how abuses of power, great and small, are the natural response to the kind of authoritative hierarchy incarceration necessitates.

Piper’s first major clash with Healy occurs in “Fucksgiving,” when her sexy grinding with Alex at Taystee’s freedom party gets written up by the prison counselor as “attempted rape.” Piper is dragged away to solitary, where she might have languished into insanity, until Caputo, fearing a lawsuit from Piper’s attorney, intervenes and authorizes her return to gen pop. His rage still unallayed, Healy then refuses to grant Piper permission to get married and later coordinates an attack with Pennsatucky in the season finale, enabling Piper’s shivving by her self-appointed Angel of Death.

But Healy’s far from the only criminal correctional officer. Trading blow for blow jobs, Pornstache is a one-man prison profiteer. Bennett, one of the more sympathetic guards, engages in a sincere but still inappropriate relationship with one of the prisoners–and uses his authority to punish her when their relationship sours. Caputo instructs Fischer, one of his new guards, “You maintain your authority. You remind them who’s in charge…It helps if you don’t use their names. Just say, ‘Inmate,’ like they’re all the same to you. It reminds them they’re not really people.” Kindhearted Fischer is the exception that proves the rule.

With a defunct GED program and a severely curtailed jobs program, Litchfield has no chance at offering its inmates rehabilitation, the objective that 18th-century thinkers like Jeremy Bentham held up in advocating for a system of mass incarceration. (The modern prison system was intended as an improvement over public beheadings.) But as Orange Is the New Black shows, the consequence of incarceration is the flagrant and widespread abuse of power. Prisoners are punished for their crimes with other crimes. As the cases of Healy, Pornstache, Caputo, and prison administrator Natalie Figueroa demonstrate, power needn’t be absolute to corrupt absolutely. Since prisons can’t function without an imbalance of power between the guards and prisoners, Kohan’s series illustrates how incarceration is an invitation to injustice. Orange doesn’t offer any alternatives to incarceration–and its criticisms are easier to make within a minimum-security prison like Litchfield–but the series definitively proves the prison system to be much more unjust than any inmate’s crime.