GIRLS on Film: Secrets, Seduction and Reclaiming the Body on Camera

GIRLS on Film: Secrets, Seduction and Reclaiming the Body on Camera


Hannah Horvath’s constant nudity in Girls has been a point of discussion since the start of the first season; one of the reasons Girls has been successful has to do with the way it tackles our own attitudes regarding female overexposure. Recently, Howard Stern caused a minor stir when he called Dunham “a little fat chick” and likened her sex scenes to “rape.” Throughout the media, Lena Dunham is both heralded and criticized for filming her own naked body, in all its soft, unphotoshopped glory. In many ways, despite how ubiquitous it has become, female nudity on screen is directly linked to shame. It doesn’t matter what we look like. The most beautiful women in the world are subjected to criticism of their bodies, as well as their sexuality, when they take off their clothes.

The female body in photographs and film is still, at some level, considered to be public property, something that is intended to provoke, entertain, inspire or arouse the audience. We don’t often see women having agency over their own bodies and, indeed, much of the focus surrounding Dunham’s nudity has been on her insistence on placing her characters in a range of strange, unfulfilling, and sometimes humiliating sexual situations. But the scene I love most in Girls is the one of Hannah naked and happy, eating cupcakes in a bathtub. This simple image is strangely radical: a private moment where we see a woman enjoying her body just as it is, a naked woman who exists for no one else.

In many ways, 2012 has been the year of the female confession; great media attention has been given to women who are willing to tell all, unequivocally, all the time. We see this in the rise of female reality TV stars who share everything, ranging from their diet tips to their sex lives. We see this, also, in the burst of female success that has come from baring all, confessing painful past histories that include incest, eating disorders, drug use, depression, sexual liaisons, and all sorts and staples of traditionally “bad” female behavior. Perhaps there is nothing new about our constant and unwavering fascination with good girls gone bad, with hearing female sexual confessions, especially those that bear the marks of humiliation or risk. What is new is the attitude that confession, in all its messy and strange incarnations, will give women a true voice by highlighting the person behind the feminine façade, the creature who can see the outer objectified self with painful precision.

In many ways, talking about the sex on Girls leaves us in a double bind. On the one hand it makes sense to praise Dunham’s tenacity, her willingness to be nude on camera despite her “imperfections,” her determination to put her own experiences on public view for the sake of her art. On the other, it is arguable that the attention surrounding Girls is born from a kind of sensationalism that male artists, writers, and directors never have to struggle with. No one looks at Boogie Nights and considers the extent to which Paul Thomas Anderson’s own sense of sexuality helped influence his film. We assume that male auteurs are able to separate themselves from their projects in the same way that we assume the deep male voiceover, which is a mainstay in so many feature films, is the voice of “God,” omnipotent and all-knowing. Kanye West and any number of male recording artists can describe their sexual preferences and predilections, while artists like Rihanna are consistently stigmatized for doing the same.

Sometimes, as in the case of Rihanna, we conceptualize our tongue clucking as if it were borne out of concern, but the reality is a bit more sinister than that. Film, in particular, has a legacy of overt objectification of women; it is impossible to watch the camera linger on Hannah Horvath’s body, in any number of scenes in Girls, without considering the extent to which female bodies are looked at and the extent to which we still imbue the female body with meaning. The literary female confessor is still in some ways hidden—there is a separation between page and person. In her book, How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti can describe sexual situations and fantasies without provoking the same exact combination of excitement and ire that erupts when a female artist produces nude photographs to go alongside an artistic project. When Miranda July and Lena Dunham get naked on camera, the audience is often more obsessed with what this propensity for nudity says about them as individuals than with its contribution to their art.

While self-exposure is often intended to expose the male gaze, to illustrate how there is no blank slate that we can cast desire onto, that there is something unique and fundamentally human about being a woman and being a girl, exposure is not, in reality, always an empowered act. Nakedness, of course, can be freeing, but only if we are fully in charge of when, where, and how we are taking off our clothes. We are used to seeing young girls coerced into taking their clothes off for other people, whether in the fashion industry or in any number of films and music videos. Indeed, for many women in literature, film, and the arts, nakedness is the price we pay for attention and acclaim; for many, nakedness is the only pale shadow of acclaim we may ever really get. The female artist or writer who chooses to get naked is always seen as a naked woman first and as an artist second. The image of the naked woman, regardless of how SHE is using that image, is read into the fabric of our culture as an object we can pick apart, distribute, decimate, worship, or destroy.

The dialogue surrounding Lena Dunham’s naked body illustrates the ways that disentangling one’s self from one’s own history is still a struggle for the female artist, one for which there isn’t a single answer. The obsession with female confession is about the shapes and shades of female sadness, the ways the female body has betrayed us, the fear that our still strangely misogynistic culture has broken our collective hearts. Fifty Shades of Grey is marketable because the text ruptures nothing sacred in our culture; women are allowed to be sexual as long as they are an empty vessel waiting to be filled. We still view the connection between female sexuality and individual agency as incredibly tenuous.

Perhaps this is why, in many ways, I yearn for the partial exposure of the femme fatale to the overexposure of the ingénue. While the camera lingers on the body of vamps and vixens, their façade still seems one of power, rather than powerlessness. The femme fatale, unlike other kinds of sex bombs, is dangerous not because she is desirable, but because she has secrets. Her desires are wild and untamed, and her motives are private and unclear. The femme fatale is threatening because she is a free agent who operates according to her own moral code. Not giggly and coy like a Marilyn, not bouncy and bold like a Britney, not regal or refined like Grace Kelly, the femme fatale is blood and ice and grit. She is a hot throb of sex, naked but never exposed. Her drive is insatiable. She gives away nothing. She takes and takes and takes.

I have felt drawn to these types of female characters since I was a little girl. The minute I saw Jessica Rabbit walk onstage in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", all slinky red dress and deep-throated whisper, I thought, “This is what it means to be a woman.” Since then I’ve loved every femme fatale I’ve seen on screen. Marlene Dietrich. Greta Garbo. Barbara Stanwyck. Rita Hayworth. Lauren Bacall. Sharon Stone. Angelina Jolie. Dangerous, powerful, sexual women.  

In contrast, scenes of women exposed horrify and sadden me. I can’t watch Hannah Horvath lean over the couch and get told to “play the quiet game” while her obnoxious boyfriend may or may not be unwrapping a condom in preparation for anal sex without getting incredibly upset. The modern woman on film has been presented as a warrior (Katniss from The Hunger Games, The Bride from Kill Bill) or an ingénue (Bella from Twilight, any number of romantic comedies which fail the Bechdel test time and time again). Neither of these presentations of femininity gets us any closer to true personhood. Perhaps this is why my love for the femme fatale figure remains: if my only choice is to be a symbol then let me keep my secrets rather than confess them all away. Let me be fire and ice and blood.

The qualities I admire most about Lena Dunham are the ways in which she is pure steel. I love how she refuses to capitulate to the criticisms leveraged against her body, even though I feel this focus detracts from other important aspects of the show. Our fixation on female bodies highlights just how much we still need to be shocked into paying attention to young women’s wants and needs. Many times the bodies we are presented with are static—photo spreads, billboards, scenes of women posing, rather than actually doing anything purposeful at all. Images that illustrate the female body in motion, whether it's Jessica Rabbit sauntering on stage, or Hannah Horvath dancing around her room, are empowering precisely because they are about claiming ownership over one’s own body, about not being a metaphor or symbol or fantasy for anyone else.  They are about being a person in the world.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at George Washington University and American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, and South Loop Review, and she has twice been listed as a finalist in Glimmertrain's Family Matters Short Story Contests. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.



This episode of The Newsroom was the closest the show's ever come for me to doing what I think it wants to be doing: effectively interweaving accounts of principled reporting and the ethical dilemmas of journalism with snappy explorations of its characters' personal lives. Unfortunately, it founders on the same shoals it always does: MacKenzie's and idiot, and Will thinks it's all about him. This week, the reasons we know that Atlantis, the company that owns News Night, is a Fictional News Paradise of Legend are that its gossipy morning show makes a real effort to teach its viewers about a substantive media conflict of interest, and that it took almost a year for one of more than 100,000 people who received a hugely embarrassing email about major figures in the organization to figure out that it might be of interest to media reporters. Not to mention that it’s truly hilarious to think that anyone wouldn’t have known Will and MacKenzie dated when they were together because journalists are notorious gossips, a quality you’d think would be catnip to Sorkin.

nullBut no, the real problem here is the rift between the rest of the episode and Will’s defense of MacKenzie to Nina, a reporter, when he has been tipped off by Gary, the Smart Black Guy Who Isn’t Afraid to Criticize Obama, Validates Jim’s Seduction Techniques, and Also Has a Sideline in Bribery, that TMI takes payoff money from celebrities. “I hired the best EP in broadcasting in spite of her being my ex-girlfriend,” Will tells Nina, who he believes is going after him for sexually slighting her at New Year’s (never mind insulting her job), in angrily warning her to step away from his staff. But nothing in the show indicates that. In fact, everything we see indicates that MacKenzie is a disastrously ill-informed and naive woman.

She misses that her boyfriend Wade is using her to prep for a Congressional run, which would be a heartbreaking tale about a skeptical journalist letting down her guard and being disappointed if she didn’t know so little about everything else. She confesses to Sloan that her economics knowledge only extends as far as thinking “a lot of what’s going on in the world has to do with the economy,” and that her oversight of the economics statements she’s producing consists of the following: “I pretend to read what you give me, then I nod.” Her response to the news that the Army is filling the power void in Egypt? “The army’s not the good guys?” All of this might have been cute for Mary Richards back in the days when she was still ordering Brandy Alexanders during job interviews, but there’s something distasteful about Sorkin’s asking us to buy incompetence in the guise of dizzy adorability. Nina would be justified in investigating MacKenzie’s utter lack of qualifications even if there weren’t ethical lapses in her current performance or errors of judgment in her past.

This glaring contradiction is doubly unpleasant because it sullies the best job The Newsroom’s done so far at actually showing the challenges and pains of directing correspondents on the ground from a cable control room. The reason the coverage of Tahrir Square works is that Will and his team don’t magically discover a major scoop simply because they care about it more than anyone else, or avoid a major error because they’re so much more ethical than their competitors. The episode is, instead, largely about process and the dangers of reporting in a war zone.

First, Elliot and Don’s frustrations, which have been boiling since election night when Don urged Elliot to jump into the scrum of commentary, end up having real consequences. Elliot, who’s been confined to his hotel room giving useless broadcasts that add nothing to the network’s coverage of Egypt, hits the streets after Don’s pestering, and is badly beaten by the crowd. On his return, Don wants to put him on the air for reasons related both to public interest and his own interest. “We show what’s going on. Journalists are getting beaten up,” he urges Charlie, Will, and MacKenzie. “I know that we’re not the story. But Jesus, goddamnit, nobody else is going to know . . . In the media, we’re all effete, elitist assholes.” In a show that’s all about trying to paint a journalist as hero, this is the first moment that’s effectively captured the anxieties of reporters about their standing in the wider world, and the risk and guilt that accompany those times when journalists are recognized by the broader public for their personal accomplishments.

And the show navigates a more difficult set of emotions skillfully, too. “I sent him down there. I bullied him into going out into the street and they beat him up with a rock,” Don confesses to Will. “I know. Everybody knows,” Will tells him, before getting at the petty kind of thinking that can plague journalistic accomplishment. “We’re all jealous it isn’t us with the bruises on our face. You didn’t give him an order. You gave him permission.” That kind of emotion, or the self-congratulatory sequence after the show when the News Night team managed not to disastrously screw up their reporting on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting, are interesting, ambiguous places to be, the actual baseline people like Will and his staff are trying to rise above. It’s not really gossip columnists and media reporters who make up the Pit from which decent newsmen must rise. Instead, it’s their own venality.

But The Newsroom, sadly, can’t linger there, in that rich and ambiguous place. No, it has to end with a recreation of Rudy. After an Egyptian stringer is taken prisoner, so upsetting the News Night staff that they repeatedly injure themselves and corporate refuses to ransom the young man, Will insists on paying for his rescue. Because the self-injuries have to be seen to be believed, watch below:

This all might have been more effective had Will not already tried to bribe Evil Nina, and in a prior episode, privately paid for the cab rides of an undocumented immigrant so the man could get to his job. And it might have worked even better if it was a subsequent attempt to create a complicity between Neal and Will, who ridicules Neal’s internet abilities and obsessions much of the time, but who does seem to respect the younger man’s skills and passion. But no, it has to be about how the whole staff does their bit to pay Will, who makes $3 million a year, for his act of generosity, and then celebrates him publicly.

It’s amazing that a man, and the show that celebrates him, can recognize any news when they spot it, given how much time Will and The Newsroom spend in a self-regarding set of funhouse mirrors that seem to reflect only the most flattering version of Will back to him.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for She is a correspondent for and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a BA in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.



Tonight’s meh True Blood was proof double-O positive of the Law of Fives. Seriously, if physicists applied themselves, I trust they’d find the Law of Fives almost as immutable as the Law of Gravity, and not nearly as funny.

nullAs much as tonight’s episode sort of amused us it was also reminding us that it was, in this final Alan Ball-written episode of this final Ball-supervised season, one over-repeated riff, theme or trope away from self parody, accidental camp or worse.

What I mean: a troop of rednecks in Obama masks yelling, “Yes we can!” as they blow up a vampire . . . . Well, can’t speak for you, but that’s pretty much what “trying too hard” looks like in True Blood terms.

But back to the Law of Fives: from The Wire to Alias to that other great vamp show, Angel, five seasons is just the perfect amount. Under, say, four seasons, is cruel undernourishment (Deadwood, Firefly, Terriers) and over five seasons, just wears a show down, out or beyond its strengths, even for titans (much of Lost and Buffy’s respective six and seventh seasons, sadly.)

The issues of time and termination are raised right off after Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) and Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård) lead the forces of the Authority to the insane asylum where the batty nihilist Russell Edgington (Denis O'Hare) is getting ready to wreck havoc on everything he can find.

“Maybe you’re just bored after one thousand years but you not not make that decision for me,” says Bill to Eric, for not playing along/kissing ass with the Authority.

Eric, alas, is being pulled under by some deep seas of ennui now that he’s separated from Pam, the social context of Fangtasia, the love of Sookie (Anna Paquin and hey, remember her?), and now he learns that his sister Nora (Lucy Griffiths) is a crazed member of the blood cult fundamentalist Sanguinista movement. Skarsgård is such a terrific actor—who knew there were so many colorations of “disinterested because of multi-centennial pain”?

Jason, meanwhile, is pulled in the direction of ultimate discovery: a dream brings the vision of his lost father and a possible truth of his death.

Terry (Todd Lowe) is, as psych professionals might say, totally fucked.

He confronts Arlene with getting wasted in Iraq and his unit killing a family and his killing an old woman after she cursed him. “Now I’m being hunted by an evil smoke monster,” he complains, which when we saw them in a flashback looked just like the fire god from Wrath of the Titans but way smaller.  We’ll see what redemption looks like; I’m leery.

The show’s other problematic male, Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), did poorly this week as well. He visited his crazy mom at the convalescent home where Jesus used to work, which meant lots of zany sentences where the name “Jesus” was inappropriately placed in sentences.  Please.

At one point in this very randomly structured episode—I find myself writing about it out of sequence to try and enforce a shape on it which the writers didn't supply—Eric and Bill must glamor Sookie—hey, remember her?—lest The Authority have them killed for seeing something they shouldn’t have seen.

Bill goes gallant. He tells her that not only will she not remember this night, she will not recall ever knowing him and furthermore, she will only love those who live in the sun. Oh, Bill.

Eric, meanwhile, tells Alcide (Joe Manganiello and his freakishly well-defined upper body) to forget as well, and to take care of Sookie—and to develop a deep loathing of any physical contact with her forever.

But ten minutes later, Sookie reads Alcide’s mind and undoes all of this glamoring. Back in the day (last season) not remembering important things could power an entire season.

Now, I guess that the only reason the glamor scenes existed was to remind newer viewers what separates Bill (romantic!) from Eric (scamp!).

By the time Russell makes his appearance—"silvered" and bound—for an execution in the Council’s chambers, there’s an electric friction between the forced civil behavior of the council and Russell’s Southern gentleman nihilist nutjob. The performances come alive, but director Daniel Attias’s staging is clumsy.

Russell finds Roman’s notions of “mainstreaming,” of humans living with vampires in peace, to be nonsense. “Peace is for pussies!” he quips, a born politician yelling his first campaign button catch phrase.

Roman pushes the button on his killer I-Stake app but Russell doesn’t die—treachery!—and the episode flames out with Russell stabbing Roman in the chest: cue scratchy old blues record (a favorite, but tired True Blood trick).

Look, this is a not prime rub Blood. Or rather, the show Ball’s presided over for five years is getting some more parts together for the grand finales.

It’s just that Attias, an extremely experienced TV and film director, doesn’t display the needed élan or post-Hammer sleaze panache that Michael Lehmann or Romeo Tirone bring to knottier scripts.

And I worry this problem will leak into next week’s episode. Until then, we have the relationship between newly turned vamp Tara (Rutina Wesley) and maker Pam (Kristin Bauer) continue to complicate. And Hoyt continuing to debase himself to impress Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) or because he really is a skeezy perv in the making while Jessica continues to solidify as the show’s most essentially decent person—whoddathunk?—and poor Sam the shifter (Sam Trammell) finally gets a family together for reals (if the Obama-faced crew doesn’t kill him.)

And Sookie (remember her?) goes with Jason to the fairy nightclub to learn more about their family/vampire issues. Sookie is actually kind of awesome in this episode: she’s discovered the rich world of grown-up self-loathing and Paquin's having hell’s own time not fluttering around that butter-colored set being all distressed and girly. She’s not angry, or sad either, she’s just over this vampire and fairy shit and her part in it. We forget, sometimes, that Paquin is a superlative, not just good, actor.

And that True Blood is, at heart, an incredibly lively, romantic, old school production. The queer hatred it poked fun at way back in 2008 feels way different now after the real Obama’s monumental legal changes, the elegance of Cooper and the acid of Savage changing the lenses but not the disease.

But the times are right, unfortunately, for the desperate, knowing self-gay-hate and pitiful monsters of desperate abjection and real fear of the terribly beautiful Teen Wolf. Even when it’s working, even when it’s delightful, True Blood already has the feel of a relic. I’m just not sure yet of what.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times,, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.



One of the reasons I wish The Newsroom spent more time following its characters as they report stories is that there’s a thesis floating through the show about what happens when people apply the methods they use in journalism to their personal lives. Jim is honest and straight-forward but doesn’t promote himself enough, Maggie is passionate when she has an idea but not always very clear about what he wants, MacKenzie is constantly on the brink of hysteria, and Neal is enthusiastic about everything, be it Bigfoot or his dishy girlfriend. The one person we see doing both a lot of dating and a lot of news work is Will. And as he starts dating with intentions other than irritating MacKenzie in this week’s episode, he can’t shake his on-air persona, and the results prove, if not disastrous, the waste of some delicious-looking drinks.

nullIt turns out that a mission to civilize may work for long-term viewers who only have to deal with you for an hour a night—as you’d think any of the women in his office could have warned Will (even though Sloan tells us herself that she’s a social incompetent). But it’s much less effective when it sounds like you’re patronizing to a woman you don’t even know. First, Will tells a gossip columnist in the middle of a New Year’s Eve party, “You can be part of the change! You don’t have to go back to writing gossip!”—which underscores the fact that, as she’s clearly explained to him, she’s happy with her job and has no particular moral qualms about doing it.

Later, he gets his picture on the cover of a gossip magazine, bumping Jennifer Aniston, because he can’t stop himself from lecturing another date—Kathryn Hahn, who HBO should consider making the star of her own show rather than a vehicle for lessons taught to characters like Will and Girls’ Jessa—on what would happen to her if she pulled a gun on an attacker. Will ends up pointing her own unloaded pistol at her, looking like a jerk in the moment, and in the papers.

Finally, he tells another date that she’s a bad person for enjoying the reality shows the gossip columnist covers, because the “chocolate souffle on this menu is a guilty pleasure. The Archies singing ‘Sugar, Sugar’ is a guilty pleasure. Human cockfighting makes us mean and desensitizes us.” When she asks if he thinks she’s a mean person, he tells her, “Yes, but thank goodness you met me in time!” Throwing drinks in people’s faces seems to be the way powerful women express their displeasure on television these days in shows from The Newsroom to Smash, but Will’s dates are among the most justified libation-flingers anywhere on the small screen.

That’s not to say there isn’t some real pathos here. It’s sad to watch Will joust with Wade and MacKenzie in his office only to go quiet outside it. “Do people really just walk up to people?” Will asks Sloan. “I’ve seen it on TV,” she tells him. Later, when Charlie lectures him on his emotional life, Will lashes out at his boss as a peddler of fantasy. “It doesn’t work like in the movies,” he says, wounded. “It doesn’t work at all.”

The Newsroom might have less gender trouble if it directly and consistently explored the ways in which traits and behaviors that help men succeed in business end up limiting their abilities to have successful, reciprocal relationships with women. But doesn’t go there this time, portraying Will’s dates as a series of shallow shrews and crazy broads, acting as tools of the devious and mostly off-screen Leona, who retaliate unfairly when they toss cocktails at him or land him in the gossip column. The show may think Will is bad at expressing himself, but it doesn’t really bother to question the arrogance of his mission to civilize. This episode is, after all, called “I’ll Try to Fix You.”

But the show does one smart thing: it makes Will’s inability to get over the end of his relationship with MacKenzie look foolish, and it has him suffer real consequences for clinging to his resentment. It turns out that when he renegotiated his contract so he could fire MacKenzie at will, he took a non-compete clause in trade. “How much do you hate me?” MacKenzie asks him, shocked at Will’s stupidity and pettiness, the fact that he’s willing to risk ending his own career in order to retain the ability to threaten and intimidate her. It was one of the first moments when I felt like The Newsroom and I see Will the same way, as an angry man whose superiority complex carries with it the power to harm himself and other people.

And it’s a relief that unlike in the pilot, where Will and MacKenzie argue about their relationship and philosophies of news, oblivious to the fact that their employees are reporting the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the two of them stop this argument (even though I hope they revisit it) to start covering the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. Once again, though, it’s a story about how Will and the News Night team get the story right.

But in a slight improvement from the show’s dominant newsgathering tactic, they don’t score because they have secret knowledge from being related to sources, or living with them, or hiding under their beds, or as is the case at the beginning of the episode (when MacKenzie’s boyfriend Wade tips Will to a hot story about the underfunding of the fight against financial fraud), because they’re dating. The show clearly hasn’t abandoned the idea that that’s how reporters get information: when Will complains that “I’ve got a staff of paid professionals” doing reporting so he doesn’t have to talk to MacKenzie’s squeeze, she tells him that his employees are “mostly using inside sources like Wade.”

This incident is one of the few times we’ve actually seen the process of deciding what to put on air dramatized and given more than a few seconds of screen time, as is clear in Reese's confrontation with Will during a commercial break:

And at least the team makes the right judgment call because of the principles guiding their work. And as the World’s Biggest Don Fan, it’s gratifying that the show’s writers, after spending so much time beating up on him as a weak-willed sellout, let him be the one to tell Will, “It’s a person. A doctor pronounces her dead, not the news.”

The celebration that follows is a little over the top—not making an error isn’t the same thing as advancing a story or getting an exclusive. But it’s the loosest we’ve seen these characters, given that they’re normally composed to the point of rigidity. And I was totally with Will when he declared, “You’re a fucking newsman, Don. I ever tell you otherwise, you punch me in the face,” both because it recognized Don’s integrity, and because it made Will feel like a real journalist. One of the stranger things about the show is that its self-congratulation is so pure: there’s no trash talk, no visceral distaste for News Night’s rivals, none of the slightly creepy but inevitable celebration of scoops in a way that reduces human experience to a victory or defeat. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but I appreciated the venality of the moment. Will and the team are so wrapped up in their own sense of righteousness that they forget the Congresswoman who may be dying, the civilians who are already dead. The Newsroom would be more fun as a show that actually weighs Will’s flaws and virtues without tipping the scales in his favor, that questions whether what the news needs to stand against the suits is not saints, but jerks.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for She is a correspondent for and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a BA in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.



So what’s wrong with this picture: Bill (Stephen Moyer) and Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) and Alcide (Joe Mangianello), Alcide the werewolf for god’s sakes, somehow manage to band together with Sookie (Anna Paquin), in the search for the psychotic Russell Edgington (Denis O'Hare), ex-Vampire King of Mississippi.

nullAnd newbie vamp Tara (Rutina Wesley) not only owning a surrogate mom in her maker Pam but a new BFF in Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) courtesy an adorable scene—which you can watch above—where the latter waxes irresistable about sex, blood, morality, and how tough it is being a vamp, alone. Yes, there's a tiff over rights to Hoyt's neck, but for reals, these girls are made for each other: we just wonder how much . . .
And, after a visit to a fairy nightclub, Jason (Ryan Kwanten) and Captain Andy (Chris Bauer) bromance their journeys of personal growth. But Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis)? Bah! Lafayette turns into a demon, looks at the heavens, cries “I just need some fuckin’ help,” and is answered with a vision of his dead lover Jesus (Kevin Alejandro) with his lips sewn up. Which I guess is an improvement over last week, when his grief caused Jesus’ demon-head to cause Sookie’s car to ram into a tree.
In short, it sucks to be Lafayette. It always sucks to be Lafayette. And lately, Ellis’s acting has been suffering as he tries to carry this impossible weight. I think Alan Ball has been over-trying so much to atone for very early Lafayette sins that he’s been forcing poor Ellis into repeated hair shirt moments when all he has to do is one simple thing:  Grieve over the death of Jesus.

But Lafayette has been denied that, just like Lafayette always seems to be denied normal things, from the very dubious beginning, when he started the show as a literal slave to the very, very, very white Eric Northman, a black guy laboring in chains.

This was . . . what’s the phrase? Wait. Got it. This was fucked up. This was Black Snake Moan, but backwards. The idea, I think, was to push an envelope so far the envelope shredded. But instead I feel like maybe it messed Alan Ball up in some way he hasn’t quite worked out.

Whatever the deal, True Blood has had a very skittish way with black characters. Jesus? A Latino? No problem. But black people? It’s just weird. This is, after all, a show that gave Tara a black lover named Eggs who became possessed by a demonic white MILF. Then Tara had to get her brains blown out to become interesting.

Mind—I’m not yelling racist. I’m yelling confuse-ist. Or rather, there’s so much subtext bubbling under any given episode of True Blood that if you started talking about race in this show that takes place in the Deep South, it would just be too much. That the show would be about nothing but race.  And that would just be miserable, and life-like.

Anyway—back to Lafayette and Ellis and fantasy misery. Ellis is such a lovable presence, and the True Blood writing room so dependably comes up with ways for him to suffer so horribly, they could at least allow him some down time to suffer his true love’s death.

I mean, sure. Tonight Sam (Sam Trammell) not only had to deal with his two shifter friends’ mysterious death, he also had to watch impotently as a bunch of apparent Slipknot fans blew away Luna. But Sam has Merlotte’s and friends aplenty.

And sure, Hoyt (Jim Parrack) has taken to dressing like he’s in Love and Rockets and hanging at Fangtasia, but that’s so he can get bitten (make contact.)

But Lafayette? How is it that someone this adorable has not discovered Grindr, or the local gay bar? More to the point, why does he still live in a shit hole like Bon Temps?

This is the weird thing about the Law of Fives, or the concept that shows tend to work for about five seasons and then the internal gravity that makes them cohere starts to fall apart. Which is why I believe Ball is leaving the show before the deadly Season Six rears its woeful head.

Before Ball blows, I hope he does all right by the beleaguered Lafayette; on the flip side, I don’t know what the moral calculus is for Terry (Todd Lowe), because what we learned tonight was unforgivable.

We knew from a previous episode that Terry and Patrick dropped acid and boozed it up in Iraq and accidentally obliterated a couple of innocent Iraqi families. Well, tonight they found another guy from their unit who’s living in an underground room surrounded by paintings of a fire demon.

Reason: At Patrick’s urging, the unit killed a surviving woman who let loose a fire demon on them all, after which the three Marines burned all the innocents. Kee-rist.

So Terry’s a mass murderer who burns women and children. Totally fucks with his adorable goofy PTSD profile. It’ll be interesting seeing where this goes. And it’s fascinating that we’re OK with Eric and Bill and Pam and the rest killing like crazy, but that’s sexy supernatural (TM Maureen Ryan) stuff: this is real Iraq War murder.

Meanwhile, Eric, Bill, Sookie and Alcide are looking for Russell in an old building. This is like Waiting for Godot at this point.

But they do find him—along with a clutch of humans he’s mesmerized for future meals. He looks a bit under the weather, but he does have his skin back. There’s a commotion and they cut to a goth classic tune. Kind of a letdown ending, considering that Bill and Eric are wearing I-Stakes (electronic stakes that can kill them from afar.) All in all, the weakest episode this season, the kind that exists to fill in the holes that’ll make the next episode really, really good by comparison.

But even weak Blood can give us Captain Andy, asking with a straight face, “I fucked a fairy?” and Ryan Kwanten swinging his full buttocks for no reason whatsoever except that this is True Blood.  So a fail? Nah, not close. But please, Mr. Ball, cut Lafayette a break, ‘k? We’ll all feel better in the morning.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times,, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.



As much as I believe Aaron Sorkin is, to some extent, correct about the brokenness of our news system, as I’ve watched The Newsroom, I’m finding myself increasingly sympathetic with the people he’s angry at, the ones who knuckle under to commercial pressure and the terms of their contracts as Will McAvoy and the News Night team rise above them. I absolutely agree that established stars like McAvoy should use their power and influence to emphasize facts and to elevate worthy stories. But it turns out to have been pretty easy for MacKenzie and Jim to convince Will that he should be a different kind of newsman and to give him the words to help him do it. The person who’s going through an internal struggle that turns out to be compelling here, the one who doesn’t have Charlie standing as a barrier between him and pressure from Leona and Reese, and the one Sorkin wants me to hate, is Don, my new favorite character.

nullAfter Will’s epic on-air apology for falling down on the job, Don sits down to have a heart-to-heart with Jim, who has effectively replaced him. “I would have loved to be part of that. I could have done the show you guys want to do. I’m equipped for that,” he confesses. “You’ve got a mandate. Bring viewers to ten o’clock. I don’t . . . I have to cover Natalee Holloway. And you guys set me up to look like an asshole before I even got started.” Don is like Will, to a certain extent, a talented man who succumbed to the pressure to put on a show that was likable rather than substantive. But unlike Will, he’s relatively anonymous. He could be fired and Elliot’s show would keep ticking on without him. If Don is going to live in hopes of being able to make the kind of show that Jim and MacKenzie are making for Will, he has to keep his job. And that means kowtowing to a lot of unattractive people’s unattractive senses of what counts as news.

Jim doesn’t seem to understand that his mandate to do good news is a luxury, rather than something he just woke up and decided to do. He begins telling Don that he can just do a good show if he wants before they’re interrupted. Then, he mocks Don later, telling him “You guys did a good show tonight. I wasn’t aware of what was going on with the McRib sandwich.” I kind of don’t blame Don for telling Jim, “Yeah, go fuck yourself.”

And I’m not even sure Jim gets the message later when Maggie, in one of the few moments in The Newsroom where a woman gets to explain something to a man, tells Jim that Don’s failure has more complex roots than Jim acknowledges. “Don’s hands are tied,” Maggie says. “He got marching orders to get the ratings up at ten. And he’s driving a different car than McAvoy. Elliot’s smart, but he can’t do what McAvoy does. Plus, his salary’s tied to ratings.” That, not a studied, cowardly commitment to blandness for its own sake, is the reality of cable news—and the actual source of journalism’s problems.

Will can pontificate all he wants about the fact that the federal government didn’t insist that the networks provide several hours of ad-free news programming every night. But the reality is that it “failed to include in its deal the one requirement that would have changed our national discourse for the better.” And as gratifying as it would be to watch anchors and their producers get mad as hell and refuse to take it anymore, The Newsroom is a more interesting show when it actually explores what happens to people who buck their mandates and see what they can do within the limits of their contracts than it is when it focuses on Will’s ridicule of Tea Party activists and beauty queens.

We almost see an example of that kind of struggle during election night coverage, when Don tries to fire up Elliot, who’s doing his best not to influence the network’s analysis. “I am in there doing everything I can to get Mac to get him to go to you, and he is doing it,” Don grumbles to his boss. “He is inviting you to become a star. Would you stop being so fucking enthralled with the act of punching a ballot?” Instead of acknowledging that Don has a point, though, Elliot pulls rank on him. And instead of having the two men talk about Elliot’s brand, or Elliot’s desire to occupy the space Will left open with his conversion, the closest the writers give us is Elliot’s telling Don “Let me also say, I’m not the one who wants to be a star, Mama Rose.”— Sorkin has Elliot blame Don’s frustrations not on the quality of the news they’re putting out, but on Don’s romantic troubles. It’s a weird punt of what could have been a fascinating journalistic moment.

We do get some sense later that Will’s new approach may be in trouble, in the form of Atlantis CEO Leona (the allusion to Leona Helmsley cannot possibly be unintentional). “What happened to human interest stories?” she grouses at a meeting with Charlie, who thus far has protected Will from her wrath, and Reese, who we learn is her son. “Obesity, breast cancer, hurricanes, older women having babies, iPhones. He was great at that shit.” I don’t think Sorkin intended it this way, but her reminder to Charlie that “You don’t make money for stockholders, which I have a fiduciary responsibility to do” is a sharp puncturing of MacKenzie’s disdain for ratings, something Will warned Charlie about and that Charlie embraced.

Sorkin, and by extension MacKenzie, Charlie, and Will, may not like that news is a business, particularly not part of a large international conglomorate with interests that require Congressional approval and working relationships with major industrialists. But in the absence of an alternative model to pay Will’s staff and get him access to the airwaves, this is the environment he has to work in. Being obsessed with ratings, as Will was before MacKenzie got to him, may have been unattractive. But pretending that they don’t exist, or that Atlantis is a business rather than a non-profit, is to ignore that Leona’s interests and the show’s overlap. Leona has a duty to the shareholders to keep bringing in revenue, but she also needs her business to make money so she can keep paying out Will’s fat contract and the decidedly more meager salaries of his employees. And as we see in this clip, she’s thought through the business end of this proposition more thoroughly than Will, Charlie, and MacKenzie have:

In pursuing a new approach to news, Will’s been pretending the rules of the business don’t really apply to him. Neither he nor the show acknowledges that their revolution can’t possibly last if they don’t find a way for it to be financially sustainable. Now, in Leona’s parlance, he’s going to have to start playing golf, and find a way to make the machinery of the system work for him, and for the people who depend on him for their jobs.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for She is a correspondent for and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a BA in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.




There is a hunger out there that cannot be fed by smirks, poses, and irony. In art, in film, hell, in anything. That hunger is why The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” drew Madison Square Garden-sized crowds in 2011 for four months straight. And it’s why believers from around the globe came to New York to mourn the early death and celebrate in a hush the incandescent genius of McQueen, a fashion legend already on his way to art stardom and now definitely a star post mortem.

The tens of thousands lining up on Fifth Avenue revealed an indefinable demographic. Elementary school kids who’d gasped over impossible McQueen women in dresses made of blood red laboratory slides from used library copies of Vogue, Wall Streeters who pored over McQueen videos while their wives and children slept. The Lady Gaga fans who saw his Alien/aqua-woman fusions in “Bad Romance”. As Robert Palmer sang, every kinda people. (The same need explains last year’s Tree of Life mania).

The McQueen phenomena was a stark relief from the last time someone tried to mint a new art star: the Guggenheim’s up-trading of Matthew Barney from Film Forum ur-hipster with “The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2003)” show, way back in 2003.

A collection of semen-toned sculptures surrounding five pop-tchotchke-glutted films that J. Hoberman brilliantly summed up as “narcotized self-satisfaction,” the root of the appeal of Barney’s was their cold, smooth, ironic hipster deadness—the idea of emotional response their anathema.

And so, the McQueen show solidified an appetite for a new art star. Someone personifying a natural disinclination to buy into an exhausted and drained self-cannibalizing post-modernism, for artists with the nerve to make indescribable emotional engagement their goal.

If McQueen was going to hand-apply tens of thousands of feathers to a dress that evoked the madness of Edgar Allan Poe (and not the stories), whoever came next would have to be literally or figuratively dirty. Or both.

If you tuned into HBO Monday, you know who she is: Marina Abramović. While stylistically McQueen’s utter opposite, she feeds the same need for an extreme in inexplicable emotional experience, and Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present feeds the need in spades. (And sure, she’s been around for decades, and yeah, the actual show took place in 2010, but the film, which is how most people will get to know of Abramović, hits us now, and so this modified timeline.)

Directors Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre have given us a sharp-eyed film with the affect of ambient music and the feel of a myth progressing in real time that hinges on and riffs off images of The Artist is Present’s endlessly fascinating main event:

It’s Abramović in a brightly lit space in at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, stock still in a series of structured/shapeless robes, sitting in a light-colored wooden chair, confronting one of what will come to be 1,565 strangers in a matching chair, saying nothing so long as those strangers need to say nothing back to her. Each trapped in the other’s gaze.

People of every age, race, creed, and yes, James Franco, take the chair (Lady Gaga came but just watched). Abramović sat motionless for 736 hours and 30 minutes over a period of three months, with no days off.

The people who come to see her—they’re actually called “sitters”—often smile, frown, try to out-stare her (forget it) but just as often, they break into helpless tears. Sometimes, Abramović weeps with them.  

Even as the body-breaking pain of the project—although she eerily looks half that age, Abramović was 63 at the time of this piece—becomes alarming, her dedication grows more heroic. No wonder young people in the audience want to be like her.

Structurally, Akers and Dupre’s film works as a constant interweaving of multiple stories and themes building up to the show itself.

nullThere’s the prepping of the MoMA space: the endless daily maddening minutiae of putting together a show that included approximately fifty works spanning over four decades of video works, installations, photographs, and collaborative performances made with ex-lover Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen).

There’s Abramović decamping to her Hudson Valley home with a troop of young people who will re-enact her pieces within the show.

She puckishly treats them to a Spartan Zen/Marines regime of shock troop performance art training during which they learn how to not move, eat or do anything but exist in the moment for days on end, motionless. (For people still unclear on what performance art is, one talking head brusquely explains that it’s just like painting, except with living bodies.)

I had the sense that Abramović was using the film to re-write her biography, to make a better myth.

The daughter of World War II Serbian partisan heroes, Abramović speaks of being under the influence of her fiercely militaristic mother and paints a life defined by The Work and one Great Love: Ulay, the German performance artist with whom she lived and crafted performance art’s basic syntax.  This love story’s arc packs an incredible emotional gut punch one isn’t prepared for in a film on art. Which, one assumes, is the reason it’s here.

We see and hear of pieces where Abramović invited people to use any of the 72 implements surrounding her body—a whip, scissors, scalpel, gun, etc—on her, and came out of it with thorns in her flesh, death barely averted.

nullOther works involved cutting her flesh, whipping herself, walking the Great Wall of China, and pushing her body to extreme limits of pain and suffocation. The Artist Is Present is eventually about the limits of human giving. If they exist.

She says she recalls each person, communicates with each sitter. And yet the filmmakers never address the 800-pound Christ subtext in the room. Would simple boredom with excess Christian yada-yada explain this aversion? Probably. I wonder what the crying sitters think.

The film does suffer from a couple of crises of courage. It gets jittery at Abramović’s embrace of high-end couture in the 80s. As her art becomes more rapturously theatrical, the film quick-cuts away, as if anxious that more surface-pleasing pieces might somehow be less artful.

Lady Gaga, the artist who most obviously mirrors Abramović in terms of absolute dedication, political engagement/fashion-passion, and near-crazy work ethic (think two full CDs, five videos and hundreds of live performances in one and a half years) is alluded to, but only in a dippy Fox News clip that feels like a way to deny the connection, in case Artforum is off Gaga this season.

But that’s small beans. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present is one of the film events of the year, carrying forward the needed romance of the artist as a creature owned by a mission which is carried out by an incomprehensible extreme work ethic that would literally kill anyone less devoted than she is. Abramović helps us remember that anything less should simply not be acceptable.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times,, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.




For Aaron Sorkin’s characters, doing your job and falling in love are often inseparable processes: Natalie schooled Jeremy on television producing and love on Sports Night, Josh Lyman and Donna Moss bantered over bills on The West Wing, and Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes worked out their issues on the set of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The staff of Will McAvoy’s show, from the big dog himself down to his most junior producers, is no exception to this rule. The staffers all have romance troubles they’re working out on set, this week in the form of bizarrely histrionic public displays of angst. And while it’s grating enough to see competent women reduced to workplace fits at the behest of men, there’s a particularly weird contrast between MacKenzie’s extended meltdowns and her antiseptic approach to what she puts on the  air. She’s supposed to be the strongest female character on The Newsroom, but increasingly, it seems like she exists to mouth Aaron Sorkin’s platitudes and to debase herself before Will.

null“We don’t do good television,” she explains towards the beginning of the episode. “We do the news.” It’s the kind of Sorkinism on the journalism business that sounds good at first but doesn’t actually make sense after any careful consideration: good television and the news aren’t actually mutually exclusive. In the pilot, the staff of Will’s show congratulated themselves on covering Deepwater Horizon as a corporate cover-up instead of as a rescue story. The death or survival of a dozen people apparently doesn’t count as news in this schema, unless there’s a demonstrable government cover-up. It left me wondering how News Night might cover the tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri. Would the victims of that natural disaster be deemed unduly heart-tugging if Halliburton wasn’t somehow culpable.

Tonight, MacKenzie deems a source blogger Neal tracked down as unworthy, a man whose parents brought him to the U.S. as a child and who learned in adult life that he was an undocumented immigrant, a chain of events that led to the loss of his driver’s license and potentially his job. “I’ve got to budget 42 minutes. I’ve already spent 18 minutes on Jan Brewer and La Raza,” MacKenzie insists. “Even if we did have the time, it would be emotionally manipulative. We’d be putting him there to feel sorry for him.” Neal protests, “We should feel sorry for him. He’s getting screwed.” MacKenzie crisply tells him, “I don’t want to feel sorry for anyone. I want the facts.”

Again, this sounds good, but it represents a sterile approach to the news. Sometimes, facts are incomprehensible without faces and stories about how they function attached to them. If Will’s supposed to play lawyer, presenting the best form of each side’s arguments, then he needs to have the best possible clients representing those views of the world. In MacKenzie’s view of things, that’s apparently a talking head from the National Council of La Raza rather than someone whose life has directly been impacted by immigration policy—she never considers the possibility that she could bring both men on the air. Maybe that’s a tiny thing to quibble over, but it furthers a sense that The Newsroom is disengaged both from the realities of reporting, and from the kinds of personal stories that often further social change.

For most of the episode, we see MacKenzie as a hectoring, sometimes condescending, but always stringent idealist when it comes to her vision of how the news should be reported. She’s a schoolmarm, telling the audience what to think more than she’s actually teaching her staff how to do their jobs. Given this characterization, you’d think The Newsroom would want to give her a rich, complex personal life, and maybe a sense of humor, so the audience could engage with her as something other than as a scold. But instead, she comes across as an immature, hystrionic brat who demands that everyone else be riveted by her weirdly mundane problems. When she finds out that economics anchor Sloan (Olivia Munn)—who MacKenzie has asked to anchor segments because “If I’m going to get people to listen to an economics lesson I need someone who doesn’t look like George Bernard Shaw”—thinks that Will cheated on MacKenzie and that’s why they broke up, she goes ballistic. “You need to do this. You need to go from person to person and tell them that Will is an extraordinary man with a heart the size of a range rover,” MacKenzie demands. To her credit, she backs off almost immediately, realizing she’s asked for something bonkers. But I’ve still never loved Olivia Munn more than the moment when Sloan informs MacKenzie briskly that she has no intention of re-arranging her day to rectify what MacKenzie views as a massive injustice, because she has facts to report. We don’t learn much about Munn in this episode, but she comes across as brisk and perceptive, a slightly more realistic Avery Jessup from 30 Rock, and at this point, she’s the only character I’m looking forward to getting know better.

That meltdown alone might have had me wondering whether MacKenzie has a split personality, or is just the victim of being Sorkin’s vessel rather than an actual person. But it’s not as if Sloan’s chat with MacKenzie has righted her ship. “Are people here under the impression that Will is an ass?” she asks her staff in a fit of panic, later. “You’re wrong. It’s wrong. And it’s an injustice.” Then, in a plotline that more likely originates in Sorkin’s well-publicized antipathy towards technology than from any actually plausible experience of a war correspondent who’s been filing stories from overseas for years, she sends an email meant for Will that goes to the entire office, then responds by destroying a staffer’s BlackBerry, demanding that she wants “everyone to delete the email you just received. Honor system,” and begging someone to destroy Will’s computer with a baseball bat in an increasingly hysterical tone.

I don’t particularly blame Will for being upset that MacKenzie broke his trust—he’s a vulnerable, vain, prickly man, and I can buy that he wouldn’t want anyone to know he was cheated on even though it was MacKenzie who transgressed. But when he screams at her “You know how something happens in an instant that is so astonishing you completely shut down? That doesn’t fucking happen to me,” he loses me. “The women who are here exist, quite simply, on the theory that nothing is more dramatically important than a man becoming great, and men cannot become great without women to inspire, provoke, and drive them,” NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote in her terrific review of The Newsroom before its release. Like Linda, I find that worldview inherently unattractive, and there’s additionally distasteful in the idea that we’re supposed to care so much about the fact that Will’s composure has been rattled.

When the lives of undocumented immigrants are at stake, emotion is a pointless distraction. But when MacKenzie’s upset or Will’s been wronged, we’re supposed to believe that their feelings are the most critical thing in the world. I know that The Newsroom wants me to feel more attached to its characters than to their subjects. But after two hours in their company I’d rather be hanging out with an undocumented immigrant in Spokane, Washington, than the supposedly-brilliant, self-absorbed people who snidely dismiss him as less than newsworthy.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for She is a correspondent for and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a BA in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.



Alan Ball’s a believer. Now on his last season as True Blood’s major domo, he continues to see no reason at all why Big Themes and literary stuff can’t coexist with camp, bodice ripper romance, Hammer gore camp and a Ken Russell-esque free-for-all approach to fantastic filmmaking. This week’s episode added family as a major element and ended up a sweetly, amusingly, and painfully memorable piece of work. 

nullIn genre dress, it playfully explored the pleasures of successful parenting while going very dark on the adjoined subjects of letting go badly, ultimate loss, and the persistent survivor’s guilt.

Pretty heady stuff. Not to worry—there are also state of the art splatter gore and broiling flesh effects. Still, the name of the season’s first episode—“Turn! Turn! Turn!”—continues to define everyone.

Even the non-familial characters were in extreme motion. We finally see the mix of LSD and mass murder in Iraq that caused Terry (Todd Lowe) to lose it. And somehow grief is making Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) a target for Jesus’ demon. And Jason (Ryan Kwanten) is still trying to sever himself from the childhood sexual abuse that’s sentenced him to a life of empty zipless fucks.

Lately the entire show seemed to be bent on deconstructing its hero, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), to the point where the show seemed to have nothing to do with her.

I was missing the point.  With the memory of her grandmother fading, and so many people dying for her or at her hands, what she’s really about is survivor’s guilt. 

Yeah, yeah, yeah, she hooks up with Alcide (Joe Manganiello, currently bouncing his wolfie goodness on-screen in Magic Mike). But that bit of oo-la-la is poisoned by Sook’s self-hatred. However, a single sentence at episode’s end changes everything. We’ll talk about that IN a bit.

What rules this episode is family, starting with Pam (Kristin Bauer) mothering Tara, three words I’ll enjoy typing for quite a while, it’s so beyond slash fiction fun.

As you recall, Tara (Rutina Wesley) tried to tanning-bed herself to death. Pam stopped it before Tara totally fried.

"Mothering" pace Pam is still bitchy and, well, Pam-ish, but still, she’s taking care of Tara. The question is, Why?

Easy answer: Eric said it was the right thing to do. And Pam worships Eric. And Eric made it clear last week that when you make someone a vamp, it’s akin to having a child, with all the same responsibilities. 

Interestingly, Pam’s bitchiness fades fast. She may quip of Tara’s reluctance to sink her teeth into a human, “three days and she already has an eating disorder”, but Pam really wants to help. When she finds a willing vamp fetishist at Fangtasia and orders Tara to feed, Pam wraps her arm around her young vampire and whispers encouragement. “This is who you are now . . . the top of the chain.”

Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) is also feeling good about his progeny, Jessica, who’s gone from whiny adolescent to very determined young woman over the span of just four episodes. And unlike your usual overpraised cable TV show where a female character’s “complexity” is defined by her ability to become as cynical and nihilistic as the males she’s secondary to, Jessica, who’s very aware of all the horribleness life (and un-life) has to offer, makes a conscious choice to become more morally centered, supportive, and empathic than the males around her. She’s a born leader as well.

Bill, who always failed at all these things, enjoys a rare happy moment as he regards her and says, “I think I did well.”

And sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do, or how hard you work. Because Pam is going to lose Eric and vice versa.

When Eric and Bill first return from their meeting with the vampire Authority—how about we call it the “VA”?—Pam tries a squirt of playful snark regarding Tara: “Congratulations, you’re a grandfather.”

But Eric is not amused. Instead, he grills her about Russell Edgington (Denis O'Hare), the 3,000 year-old psycho-vamp who, having somehow broken out of the cement prison Eric and Bill created for him, will not only try to kill Eric, but destroy the VA and its goal of mainstreaming vampires into normal human life, for the sheer hell of it.

Eric tells her that whether it’s because of Russell Edgington or the VA, he’s going to die. And so he sets her free, officially, of all and any bonds to him. “I need you to live when I’m gone…you are my child as I was the child of Godric . . . and you’re a maker now . . . our blood will thrive.”

And then it’s done. He sets her free, ending a century-old relationship, but leaving her with child—Tara.

Trust me, True Blood is not my go-to destination for deep emotional experiences but, yeah, I got choked up. But this wasn’t TV-melodrama choked up. This was stranger, more like I felt when seeing, say, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast when I was 15. Is Ball mining similar subconscious monster archetype energies? Without going full-out Jungian on you, I do think that we don’t care about beauties, and beasts, and bitchy vampires named Pam, and their sudden ‘familial’ feelings towards African American girls who’ve suddenly turned vampire just because. I think there’s always something they represent in a grand passion play happening beneath every surface—and if you’re a grand fantasy master, as Ball has proved himself to be (with the help of with his writer’s room), you know how to work the under-surface stuff.

But onward.

You’d think the cold, 007-ish underground world of the VA would be the last place for anything domestic, but the show’s on a family roll, so here we go.

When VA head Roman and his . . . whatever she is, Salome (Valentina Cervi), are unable to torture ex-chancellor Nora into spilling info on who else is up to anti-mainstreaming, fundamentalist no good, she only cracks because it will save the life of her brother Eric, with whom she’s sleeping. (Ah, incest, what would cable TV dramas do without it?) And after Salome reminds her that for centuries she’s been like a sister to her.  

Meanwhile, out in a grassy field somewhere, Andy (Chris Bauer) and Jason are in a limousine with the obsequious Judge Clemmons (Conor O'Farrell).  The Judge is taking them somewhere really deluxe for serving Bon Temps so damned well. And with a flash of light they’re magically teleported to a Moulin Rouge-y fairy nightclub because in True Blood,a fairy nightclub is always a light-flash away. And frankly, that sort of gleeful disinterest in how the show “logically” gets characters from point A to B is one of its many charms.

Captain Andy runs into Maurella (Kristina Anapau), the spacy girl he had fairy sex with at the end of last season. Jason runs into a girl he knows from some time ago who says he and Sookie are in great danger from the vampires—worse, she tells him that vampires killed Sookie and Jason’s family and will soon kill them all!

Before he can find out anything more, some guards throw Andy and Jason out the cosmic portal—big burst of light!—and they’re on their asses in that grassy field. Run credits to a cover version of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.”

So there it is. A smoking gun, why Sook’s been almost predestined to be involved with vamps from the git-go. Or—Ball’s just screwing around with us until something else entirely happens. This is one of the joys of tuning in. But what I’m mostly taking from this is Pam and Eric, the look on both their faces when they realize there’s nothing they can do no matter what they want. Such beautiful flowers are sprouting up in True Blood to soil this fine fifth season.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times,, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.



HBO’s been trying to sell The Newsroom to audiences on the strength of its opening scene, when Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a bland and personable cable news anchor trapped in his own private hell somewhere between a shout-y liberal and a conservative, snaps and delivers a rant about American greatness—which he immediately blames on vertigo medication. This isn’t the first Sorkin show to have its action kicked off by a rant—Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip began with a sketch show executive producer having a public breakdown—but what most people see as temporary YouTube phenomena, Sorkin sees as an opportunity for a national conversation.

nullThe subject of that conversation, and key to that lost American greatness, we are told in the first episode of The Newsroom, is helping Americans overcome their fear of intellect, and some responsibility for their improvement lies in cable news. I know Aaron Sorkin can write a barn-burner of a monologue, but going into The Newsroom, I was curious to see what comes after McAvoy’s meltdown. If Aaron Sorkin is going to argue that the key to America’s salvation is in fact better, invigorated cable news programming, and a return to commonly accepted facts, it seems like he’d place great value on news reporting.

But in this first hour of the The Newsroom, Sorkin’s view of what it takes to do great reporting is . . . puzzling. The staff of Will’s show figures out earlier than anyone else that Deepwater Horizon will be a major environmental catastrophe because Neal (Dev Patel), whom Will has earlier identified as “the Indian stereotype of an IT guy” proves to have exceedingly useful insights into the workings of offshore drilling rigs. He gained this knowledge, possessed by no one else on any staff of any publication in all the land, because, my hand to God, he “built a volcano in primary school.” Executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), at one extreme on her regular pendulum swings between tough, smart producer and flaky, romance-obsessed girl, declares she didn’t know you were actually supposed to learn anything from mucking about with paper-mache and baking soda.

I wish I were joking, but the rest of the staff’s reporting proceeds with similarly magical ease. Jim, possessed of the world’s most coincidental personal connections, turns out to have a college schoolmate working at BP (who makes time to give Jim a ring in the midst of a massive disaster) and a sister who works at Halliburton. “She’s got a PhD in mechanical engineering and she voted for McCain,” Jim explains, in one of the show’s strained attempts to prove that moderate Republicans are something other than unicorns. Will is disbelieving that Jim’s luck could be so good, not just in knowing these people, but in convincing them to flip on their employers and possibly end their careers.

But instead of validating that suspicion, or showing Jim working to convince his sources to go public, The Newsroom cuts away as soon as anyone on staff has a source on the phone. The show is supremely uninterested in the actual and lengthy processes of source development and research. Maybe it’s a tactic to keep the focus on Sorkin’s fast-talking, fact-spewing sock puppets, or to make sure the show whips through a story from the near-past each week, but it lends an airless quality to the proceedings. Everything we need to know, apparently, is already here in this glass and chrome box. This weirdly antiseptic view of journalism turns reporters into brisk bureaucrats, rather than endlessly curious people reaching outside their own experience. It’s not like this process can’t be made fascinating—the BBC miniseries State of Play made the reporting of a single story a thrilling six hours of television. But it’s not a vision that The Newsroom shares.

If there’s a naivete to The Newsroom in its pilot, it’s not coming from the belief that the news would be better if the staffs of cable news shows cared to make it so. It’s coming from the idea that caring is enough to make people admit their misdeeds and tear down walls of government secrecy. In one of the episode’s most credulous sequences, the Minerals Management Service, which was responsible for inspecting rigs like Deepwater Horizon, immediately agrees to have a representative be interviewed on-air by McAvoy just hours after the disaster, and at the request of Maggie, McAvoy’s newly-promoted assistant.

In 2010, the people who broke the news that MMS had failed to inspect Deepwater Horizon as often and as rigorously as their internal standards required were reporters for the Associated Press. In the story in which they broke that disturbing news, the AP writers noted “In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by AP, the agency has released copies of only three inspection reports, from Feb. 17, March 3 and April 1. According to the documents, inspectors spent two hours or less each time they visited the massive rig. Some information appeared to be ‘whited out,’ without explanation.” The challenge in reporting the truth of Deepwater Horizon wasn’t that no one cared or no one asked how a reckless pursuit of profit and lax oversight caused a disaster. It’s that powerful interests in both the government and the private sector were uninterested in releasing information critical to understanding the disaster and had tools at their disposal to delay providing it to reporters. The Newsroom is plucking the lowest-hanging, juiciest fruit on the vine in sequences like these, oddly unaware that there are bigger targets.

That misdiagnosis of the problem continues when Will gets the Minerals Management Service representative on the phone. Will executes a merciless, snarky pummeling on the guy, full of suggestions for the drastically underfunded agency like, “Would an easy solution be to have oil companies pay for the inspections, like car owners do?” But when it turns out the guy is a trainee four months into his training (something it seems Maggie might have asked about, or at least Googled), Will doesn’t try to draw out what it’s like to be doing inspections you’re unprepared for, or focus attention on a Congressional budget that’s bled dry what turned out to be a critical agency. No, he’s pleased to have delivered a drubbing, no matter that he’s thumped the whipping boy rather the people with actual responsibility and power.

These may sound like quibbles. But Sorkin told New York Magazine recently that having his characters revisit events we’ve already experienced “gives me the chance to have the characters be smarter than we were.” The fact that they face essentially no challenges, that they do by magic and luck what in real life took hard work, sacrifices the potential drama of the episode. It would be much more fun to see this young team of reporters face actual obstacles to getting the information they need, to feel doubt about whether they’ll wrest it from agencies and corporations, and to see them both succeed and fail. Sorkin’s essential uninterest in this process shows how limited his ambition is: he thinks it’s the style in which information is delivered that’s the problem, not the difficulties in tracking it down and the available manpower to do it.

The Newsroom doesn’t have a sense of how journalism works, and its characters aren’t exactly consistent in their approaches, either. The Newsroom tells us that Don (Thomas Sadoski), Will’s old executive producer, previously had a vicious blowout with Will after Don pushed him to be more aggressive in an interview with Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But when Deepwater Horizon starts burning, suddenly Don’s a coward. “You’re going to do an environmental story and you don’t want to at least wait until there’s a picture of an oil-covered pelican?” he asks.

On Will’s first day back, when presumably he’d like to present a respectable night of programming, he and MacKenzie, who apparently love the news, quote Cervantes and speechify at each other while their younger colleagues do the work the bickering senior reporters will later get credit for. Perhaps the most telling thing about the pilot of The Newsroom is how long it takes for Will and MacKenzie’s colleagues take to let them know that a major story is breaking—and the fact that the two journalists are too infatuated with each other to be curious about what’s going on outside Will’s office. Maybe now that MacKenzie and Will have worked out a fragile truce, they’ll start breaking stories themselves.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for She is a correspondent for and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a BA in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.