Wow, I’m still doing this. After two whole months. Take that 2021. I am showing you what’s what.
Although because I haven’t shown 2021 what’s what that much this month’s edition is pretty TV focused on account of lockdown.
The Complete Fucking Audacity of Season 2 of Bonding
The single best review I have ever read of any cultural product ever is a review of the Netflix BDSM themed sitcom Bonding which described it as “the perfect show to watch when you don’t want a show to watch.”
This is exactly what Bonding is like. Each episode is twenty minutes of an attractive woman in an outfit designed by costume designers who clearly knew nothing about BDSM and her ginger twink assistant having whacky adventures in the BDSM subculture written by writers who also seem to have known nothing about BDSM.
It’s weirdly watchable because it’s about 10% “maybe this could be brilliant” and 90% “oh wait no, it definitely isn’t.” There’s the core of a really interesting, um, something here because the relationship between the central characters—they were friends in highschool, she was damaged, he was gay, they had sex once and never spoke again until now—is actually fascinating and often well explored. There’s this whole interesting thing where they’re both shaped by a profound sense of alienation that at once draws them together and drives them apart. And it’s always good to see relationships on screen that have the complexity of a romantic relationship without any expectation of their being or becoming romantic.
But I watched basically the whole of season one screaming “why do you have shag carpeting in this room people release fluids in” and “why are you wearing a collar, you’re meant to be a domme” and “that’s terrible ropework” and “what do you mean, you didn’t vet him, also you’ve never vetted anyone” and “how are you getting any work, you are clearly dreadful at this and don’t respect the desires of any of your clients.” Basically the whole first season has this really difficult thing where it simultaneously fetishises and mocks BDSM, like the main character’s status as a domme is consistently presented as this massive, empowering feminist statement but the actual practice of doing BDSM stuff is consistently presented as a punchline. All her clients are comedy weirdos with—and I’m trying to think of a good way to phrase this—the kind of kinks that have clearly been chosen to read as funny or shocking to a vanilla audience.
Then Season 2 opens with the main characters being hauled up in front of an older, more experienced dominatrix who basically says “what the fuck, guys, what have you been doing, you’re giving us all a bad name. What we do is not a joke, we are very careful about safety and consent, you’ll notice there’s no carpet on the floor, and also what’s with the collar? That’s specifically a sub thing.” And a tiny, tiny part of me wants to believe that this was a deliberate bait and switch all along. But, um, no. Was it fuck. They clearly put the out first season, realised that they’d not only massively stereotyped but represented in the worst possible light an actual community and backpedalled like they were trying to change the muscle group they were working on on their cross-trainer.
And although, I said above that this was fucking audacity, I do think it comes from a good place. I sincerely believe that the first season attempted to portray BDSM in a positive light—it just seems to have done it in a way that, well, didn’t speak to people who were actually from that community. And so the second season feels kind of like an apology, which is more than a lot of shows would do. I think it comes across particularly intensely in Bonding because, in light of its “perfect show to watch when you don’t want a show to watch” status, it has a very to-the-point writing style. Which is, um, a polite way of saying that it relies heavily on exposition. So the way it communicates the ways in which its first season misrepresented the BDSM community is by having a character in a position of authority just say it aloud really explicitly in the first episode of Season 2.
The one thing I think is a little bit difficult about the Season 2 course correction is that I feel show sacrificed the character of Pete/Carter (the ginger twink). Pete’s deal is that he wants to be a stand-up comedian but he lacks confidence and his arc in the first series is that by getting involved in BDSM he develops a new persona as “Master Carter” and this gives him the courage to perform and also provides him with material for his act. And in that series this is presented as empowering and positive: he becomes successful and he also builds a large audience that is (within the world of the show) drawn from a wide selection of queer people, members of the BDSM community who feel genuinely represented by his act, and for want a less dismissive term curious outsiders. This parallels Tiffany/Mistress May’s first season arc where she’s training to be a psychologist and sort of also standing up to her misogynistic lecturer using her domme powers (this arc is way less successful because I don’t see how turning up to class dressed as a dominatrix would actually make you a better psychologist).
Anyway as part of the season 2 adjustment they seem to have realised presenting being a professional dom/me as a thing you would only do to as a stepping stone to a more “legitimate” career is kind of problematic. And they responded to that by having Tiffany give up college and go all-in on the “sex work is empowering” narrative (which has its own problems, but is arguably better than “sex work is lol”) and by having Pete, um, go full evil? Basically in the second season, Pete stops taking BDSM work remotely seriously, is constantly presented as a liability and a tourist, even though Tiffany was the one who got him into BDSM in the first place, and his use of BDSM culture in his act is retroactively re-framed as a kind of cultural appropriation. Which is … complex?
My limited understanding from Googling around the subject is that the lead writer actually had been a bodyguard for a domme for a while and that had been the inspiration for the series. And I have no insight whatsoever into what this guy’s internal reasoning was but it feels a lot like he seriously reconsidered the extent to which he had standing to see himself as an insider and therefore for it to be okay for him to oversee a show that presents BDSM culture primarily as something for people outside that culture to laugh at. The thing is, that’s not how Pete’s arc was presented. The authenticity of his participation in BDSM culture isn’t questioned in the first series and his act is portrayed as genuinely speaking to members of the BDSM community. So it feels like the second series almost turns Pete into a scapegoat for the show’s own early mistakes.
There’s a slightly heavy-handed (pretty much the whole show is slightly heavy-handed) bit at the end of Season 2 where Pete discovers that, after he and Tiffany had sex one time, she got pregnant and had an abortion without telling him (oh yes, there’s also that) and he’s really angry and channels that anger into a stand-up routine about a BDSM baby. After that routine, a talent scout comes up to him and tells him how great he thought the act was and specifically uses the line “a hilarious take on a culture I know nothing about.” And, by itself, that’s an excellent line. It’s basically how I suspect every member of a niche community reads every positive review of a bad fictional portrayal of their community. But the problem is that, within the world of the show, Pete’s portrayal of BDSM as a comedy world full of weirdos and spankings is accurate, speaks to the experiences of the actual BDSM community as it exists in that universe, and reflects his own lived experiences. Because he’s not doing a stand-up routine about something he did once a long time ago having since become, say, the head writer of a Netflix original series. He’s doing a stand-up routine about the actual life the show gave him. Hell, his warm-up act is still one of the whacky season one clients, who goes and does deliberately bad stand-up because he gets off on the humiliation of being booed.
So it really feels like the show is trying to have its cake and eat it.
Also (and I’m going on about this a lot now) there’s this whole thing where Pete does the BDSM baby routine because he’s angry at Tiffany for not telling him that she had an abortion and so the whole bit starts with “it turns out that I got the dominatrix I used to work with pregnant when I was sixteen but she had an abortion and thank God for that because can you imagine what a baby raised by two dom/mes would look like?” And before he goes on stage he talks to one of the other comics about taboos in comedy and lines you don’t cross and things that are too personal to do jokes about (she, for example, never does jokes about her wife). And when Pete is performing the routine, we see that Tiffany has shown up to support him and is shocked and horrified by the material he’s doing. Then when she confronts him about it, it turns out her only point of complaint is this very heavy-handed and highly abstract thing about him not having standing to do jokes about the BDSM community.
Seriously? What the fuck?
Again, I can completely see why members of the BDSM community would be angry at a comedian doing the kind of material that Pete does but, dude. He also stood up and just told jokes to a room full of strangers about an abortion that Tiffany personally had when she was basically a child. And she completely blanks this. And I totally get (and, honestly, respect) the show wanting to apologise or course correct but this does it at the cost of both characters. It reduces both of them to sock puppets whose only purpose is to deliver a Socratic dialogue about why it’s not okay to do what the show did in its first season. One of the things that the show really tried to address in season two was the faintly de-humanising way it had portrayed BDSM culture in season one. But there’s nothing humanising about making your central dominatrix character more concerned with the abstract politics of BDSM than her own body and experiences.
All of which said, I’m quite looking forward to season three (for the next time I don’t want a show to watch) because now they’ve had their apologising-for-the-first-season season I’m hoping we can get a show that’s actually about the characters.
I’ve not got a lot less to say about this because, while as I understand it, Hamilton discourse is a lot more complicated now than it was in 2015, this isn’t really about the musical, it’s about a fanvid of the musical made in Animal Crossing.
So far only the first act is up but it’s got Alexander Hamilton as a bespectacled cat, Peggy as a fox for no reason (her sisters are human, but it makes some kind of sense to me that the plot-irrelevant Schuyler sister would be a fox for no reason) and, of course, King George as a white guy.
The Crystal Maze
You know you’re getting old when arseholes in suits decide that your generation is the one with the disposable income and they will shamelessly attempt to relieve you of that by reviving things from your childhood.
So The Crystal Maze.
I suspect this didn’t make it to America? Because it’s absolutely bobbins. It’s (in its original incarnation) a team of strangers competing in pointless themed games in pointless themed zones to win crystals that represent time inside a big crystal dome in which you have to grab tokens that—if you’re lucky—you can trade in for a shit prize. Like, it is hard to express how shit these prizes were. We’re talking “one skydiving lesson” or “tickets to a mediocre theme park” level shit.
Anyway, it’s back (and has been back for a while I think?) and I love it. It’s now presented by Richard Ayoade who, I think, Americans might recognise from The IT Crowd or, maybe, from Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place? He does a lot of panel shows over here. The show is basically the same except the teams come in as a group now (so they have an internal dynamic that makes it all a bit more watchable) and the presenter is a different kind of mercurial Englishman (it used to Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror fame and was briefly Ed Tudor Pole of Ten Pole Tudor fame—but nobody liked the seasons with Ed Tudor Pole).
I honestly cannot say if I like The Crystal Maze revival because it’s good or just because of nostalgia. I suspect it might be a bit of both—but there’s something quintessential English about a gameshow with no stakes, no real prizes, and in which grown-arse adults have to play giant dominos or squirt canons at shoddily constructed targets. I will say, it has lost a little of its magic now that I’m not a child. I can remember watching the early series with genuinely bated breath, never knowing what was going to happen next. Whereas now I’m like “oh, I bet it’s going to be the one with the totem pole” or “this is the one where they have to do arbitrary maths puzzles.”
The whole thing is just unbearably naff in a brilliant way. And Richard Ayoade is perfect as the maze master, which has always been what holds the show together.
The Total War Warhammer III Trailer
OMG, you guys, Cathay is in.
I’ve always been a huge Warhammer fan and the Total War Warhammer trilogy has always been this bizarrely ambitious attempt to realise, as fully as possible, the world of an okay miniatures wargame from the 80s. So, um, chalk another one up to nostalgia I suppose?
I have played so much of these games and I am incredibly shit at them.
By which I mean, the recent TV series, rather than the terrible movie, or the comic from the … oh … the 80s. I’m sensing a theme.
Alan Moore famously said of Watchmen that the whole comics industry was still suffering the after-effects of a bad mood he was in during the 80s. And there was a lot of truth to that. And it genuinely does make looking at the Watchmen comic really difficult because, like Hitchcock and Tolkein, a lot about it feels cliché but only because everything’s been imitating it ever since. And updated Watchmen stuff has almost always fallen into the trap of thoughtlessly trying to recreate the comics rather than trying to do something that is today like the thing the comics were doing when they came out. A lot of people, for example, really liked the Watchmen movie because it’s needlessly faithful to the source material and the world is full of people who (wrongly – this is not an opinion, this is an objective fact) believe that fidelity to the source material is the only standard by which an adaptation should be judged. But I really disliked it. Because if I wanted to see a panel-by-panel recreation of the original comic I’d read the fucking comic.
The Watchmen TV show, however, is a really interesting take on the Watchmen universe that I absolutely loved for the first 80% and then still quite liked, but thought kind of fell apart. Broadly speaking, if I had to summarise the major difference and similarity between the original Watchmen comic and the new TV series it’s that racial anxiety is to the TV show what nuclear anxiety was to the comic. Which is interesting and relevant but does make it slightly awkward when the final conflict of the show is, um, depending on how you frame it three white people trying very hard to stop a Vietnamese woman getting power on the grounds that they have decided for themselves that she can’t be trusted with it.
And I think the true villain of the series is meant to be white supremacy except, well, white supremacy doesn’t get a clock dropped on it. Individual white supremacists are killed but the fate of Lady Trieu feels personal in a way the fates of the various slightly random racists kinda doesn’t.
Oh, I’m already spoiling the shit out of this, by the way. And there’ll be more spoilers coming.
I think what I found frustrating about the show was that it did a huge number of very clever things and subverted a lot of the core assumptions you might have about the comics but the note on which it ended was actually way more conventional, either than the show was setting up to be, or than the original Watchmen was or, indeed, still is. So, for example, it follows through on the traumatic consequences of Ozymandias’ fake alien invasion really well and it shows the complexities of its having sort of worked (in so far as the world has not been annihilated in nuclear fire) but then, of course, we know the real world wasn’t annihilated in nuclear fire either so … maybe he just killed three million people, and traumatised a bunch more, for no reason. And Ozymandias himself is shown throughout the series basically living in exile somewhere strange and totally disconnected from the rest of the world which is an oddly humbling—but kind of appropriate—future to imagine for the world’s smartest man.
One of the show’s most interesting arcs is its take on the previously backstory-only character of Hooded Justice. He was the costumed vigilante who started it all and who never took off his mask and, in original canon, had … um … slightly KKK-ey imagery? Like, he wore a hood that was a little bit pointed, he had a noose around his neck. There are anecdotal references in Under The Hood to his having said positive things about Hitler. The thing is, the comics only ever presented that in a kind of nudge-nudge-wink-wink oh do you see, he might have been a Nazi way. It feels decontextualised edginess points rather than an attempt to really address the (very real) connection between vigilantism, militia culture, aggressive masculinity and the (as we are all now acutely aware) strong authoritarian streak in American culture and politics.
The show re-contextualises this character as a black man whose costume came not from his membership in the KKK but from his literally having survived a lynching. He wears makeup under the hood so that people assume he’s white (and also because the one time you see Hooded Justice in the comic he very clearly has white skin through his eyeholes) and that works incredibly well as a metaphor for / reflection of the way in which black people have often found, and often find themselves, excluded (often violently) from things that they actually created, be that vast chunks of modern music or, y’know, the #metoo movement. Similarly, the story we get about Hooded Justice is about his personal crusade to take down a gang of mind-controlling, white supremacist supervillains that the rest of the Minutemen do not give a shit about because their crimes only affect black people. I’m not even sure this counts as a metaphor. That’s just kind of … how it still is in a lot of places.
I also loved how they handled the show’s main protagonist, they way they portrayed Dr Manhattan, the future they imagined for Laurie, and even—although I know a lot of people were really angry with this—liked the fact that they had Rorschach become a rallying point for white supremacists. Because, I mean, yeah? Like, I know all nerdboys deep down want to be Rorschach because the idea that someone could be mean to you and you could turn round and say “I’m not trapped in here with you, you’re trapped in here with me” and then hit them in the face with a deep fat fryer full of boiling oil is very appealing. But … he’s not a good person. His diary is fully of really of really right wing rhetoric about, you know, whores and filth and scum being washed away in the flood. And setting the shower in Tulsa against the backdrop of a real race massacre that (and maybe the US education system does better on this) I for one had genuinely never heard about was a really strong choice, and tied in with all the rest of its themes about history and trauma and power and violence and race.
But. At the very end, it kind of feels like they decided that they had to have a villain who was doing something naughty and had to be stopped, ideally by characters we already recognise. Which … I mean? Up until that point the show had done such a job of walking the line between subversion and fanboyism but, I don’t know, to me having the Vietnamese woman who was trying to build on Ozymandias’ legacy but to do so in a way that would essentially eclipse him (and also, for what it’s worth, not kill three million people) stopped and, indeed, directly killed by Ozymandias and for this to be presented as basically a good thing was a blistering let down. Like, the whole of point of the original Watchmen is that a) Ozymandias kind of wins and b) he kind of isn’t wrong but also is kind of totally wrong.
Because obviously Watchmen wasn’t perfect but if there was one comic book trap it definitely didn’t fall into it was status quo bias.
One of my least favourite tropes, and you see this time and time and time again, from Marvel to Pixar to Star Wars, is the idea that the only people who can be trusted with power are people who are either born with or acquire it accidentally. And the thing is, I understand where this trope comes from. Because superficially being power-hungry is bad. But actually being power-hungry is a lot like being, well, hungry. In that it’s a state of being one experiences if one lacks something. By and large, people who want more power aren’t, in fact, megalomaniac arseholes. Often megalomaniac arseholes don’t usually need to want more power because they’ve already had power handed to them and it’s usually that sense of entitlement that makes them a megalomaniac arsehole.
I don’t normally talk about US politics on this blog but, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants power because she has a specific progressive agenda that she thinks will make people’s lives better and she needs power to implement it. Donald Trump, on the other hand, never especially wanted power (he’s practically on record as having said he didn’t want to be president) because he’d always had power because he was a white man who was born rich. He threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way but that’s because he was always used to getting his way and so he accepted it as the natural state of the universe.
Although Sister Night (the African American policewoman / masked vigilante who turns out to be the granddaughter of Hooded Justice) is very much the central character of the new Watchmen, the central conflict is really between Ozymandias and his illegitimate daughter Lady Trieu. Her plan is basically to trick a bunch of white supremacists into capturing Dr Manhattan for her and trying to suck out his power so that she can suck out his power instead and—let’s be very clear—use it, much liked Ozymandias used his power, for the good of humanity. And, obviously, one of the questions that both the original Watchmen and the TV show interrogates through the character is Ozymandias is the very issue of who gets to decide what is good for humanity.
But I think the thing is that the original comic presents that question as open. Ozymandias’s decision to drop a psychic squid nuke on New York in order to prevent a nuclear war is horrific but, on some level, you are invited to admire the commitment of it. Similarly, when Dr Manhattan decides to just fuck off to Mars instead of using his powers to help people that’s presented as another take on the responsible use of power and the text doesn’t necessarily say which is right and which is wrong. I mean, I don’t want to overly valorise Alan Moore here because, at the end of the day, the core moral question of Watchmen is just a trolley problem on a massive scale. Is it okay to kill three million people to prevent nuclear annihilation or is it better to stand by and let things unfold as they naturally will, irrespective of the harm that leads to?
By comparison, stopping Lady Trieu is just seen as, well, the thing that’s got to be done. And, worryingly, (especially for a show that’s got such undercurrent of interrogating racial injustice) it genuinely seems to draw an equivalence between the white supremacist who wants to be Dr Manhattan to, I assume, kind of destroy all black people and the Vietnamese woman who wants to become Dr Manhattan to destroy all nukes. Ozymandias has one throwaway line where he says that Lady Trieu is a megalomaniac because “it takes one to know one” but … why do we believe this prick? And maybe I’m doing the show a disservice and maybe we’re genuinely supposed to be asking that question but it doesn’t feel to me like there’s space in the text to ask it. The framing of the climax of the series is so much about the love story between Dr Manhattan and Sister Night which means what we are invited to care about is whether Dr Manhattan dies (obviously there’s also the fact that he’s an iconic character who you don’t want to be written out of the setting). And so the abstract question of who actually deserves to have Dr Manhattan-level power and who can be trusted with it is never really addressed.
Or, rather, it’s sort of addressed but only in the comic books status quo bias sense that it is assumed that the person who already has the power (who also, despite his having used his Dr Manhattan powers to look like a Black guy for this series, has spent most of his life as a white man) is the only one who should ever have it. And, yes, because he’s foreseen his own death, he does pass on his power (or a portion of his power) to Sister Night in essentially the closing shot of the series. But, again, that’s got some really problematic implications because all it does it flip from “the person in power is the only person who should have power” to “the person that the person in power wants to have power after them is the only person who should have power.”
Which is still not good. Especially when it’s set against the race angle. Because, on the one hand, yes it’s nice that this was a version of Watchmen where Dr Manhattan was black and gave his power to a black woman. But it’s also a version of Watchmen where a woman of colour (and, in this universe, a woman of colour from a country that is directly occupied by the US military) tried to take power herself instead of waiting for it to be given to her by somebody who already had it and this was presented as objectively wrong.
So that’s complicated. And I should stress that there is a lot to love about this show. And I should also stress that, as a white guy, my opinions on race issues ultimately don’t mean shit. But I do think that the broader status quo bias of superhero and to a large extent fantasy media is something I’m sensitive to (if nothing else because I’m from a working class background) and the more I’ve come to notice it, the more it’s annoyed me, and the more I’ve come to see it in so many things.
Anyway, this is nearly 5000 words. What have you been enjoying this month? Tell me in the comments or, as ever, don’t.