First AMERICAN HORROR STORY, Now TRUE DETECTIVE: Why Award Nominations Say More Than You Think

First AMERICAN HORROR STORY, Now TRUE DETECTIVE: Why Award Nominations Say More Than You Think


With any spate of Emmy nominations
come the invariable snubs and the inevitable outcry.
Last year, the hot topic was Tatiana Maslany,
this year it’s True Detective. Why is this show categorized as a traditional drama when the likes of Fargo and American Horror
—which share the same anthology format—reside in the miniseries
category? Why would HBO pit True
, certainly a great program, against the juggernaut final (half-)season
of Breaking Bad (among other notables)?
The explanation involving the wording of the rules
has hardly softened
the speculation
that this is a power play on HBO’s part. FX faced similar criticisms in the
past with American Horror Story,
ultimately settling into the miniseries category, a move that many viewed as a
convenient way to avoid competing with the likes of Homeland and Game of Thrones. This all might seem
superfluous (it’s about the art, not the awards!), but the way True Detective’s
categorization issue has been handled adds new economic value to the genre,
increasing the likelihood that we’ll see an exponential surge of anthologies in
years to come.

Though American Horror Story is hardly the
first of its kind,
it is without question the catalyst for the renewed interest in the form we’re witnessing
now. Its approach—closed seasons that bear no relation to the others save for
recurring cast members—has brought FX a diversified audience
and heaps of award nominations and wins.
Capitalizing on that success, True
and Fargo established
2014 as a breakout year for the televised anthology. In February, Mark Maurer
illustrated some of the benefits
of the form, citing its binge-friendly structure, potential to create
fulfilling storylines, and ability to attract star talent with demanding
schedules. I’d submit that another asset of the form is its ability to
undermine audience expectations. Like the ever-popular novel-in-stories genre
in the literary world, the anthology series allows its viewers’ minds to run
wild on a moment-to-moment basis. Where we pretty much knew that Breaking Bad wouldn’t kill off Walt in
Season 2, for instance, we can’t carry the same certainty for any of the protagonists
in Fargo—a show that is very aware of
this advantage. No matter how TV-literate we may fancy ourselves, the anthology
retains the capacity to surprise us in ways (kind, quality, and frequency) that
a traditional drama can’t match.

And there are other
benefits: self-reference and tie-ins in the form of cameos, recurring cast
members (or repeat characters played by new talent), or whole plotlines (as in
the announcement of Fargo’s setting
in Season 2). Once upon a time, syndication was king: a show needed to reach
the fabled 100-episode mark to earn the right to be bought by other networks
for reruns. Video-on-Demand streaming and rental services have changed the game
entirely. Where syndication regularly depended on the whims of the lowest
common denominator, streaming services have proven that niche consumer
interests can be just as profitable, particularly when involving cult,
award-winning, or critically acclaimed series. The result is that a quality
program—even one that didn’t necessarily wrangle many viewers during its initial
run—can still be sold to VOD services for a handsome price, thus earning its
keep in the eyes of the network, as Mad
whopping $75-$100 million price tag
in 2011 evinces.

As television becomes
increasingly oriented around streaming, the sheer watchability of anthology
shows—which tend to feature fewer episodes with tighter storylines—alongside
the aforementioned advantages, imbues them with major cash-cow potential. One
bad season need not sound a show’s death knell. With American Horror Story, for example, I was taken with the first
season’s jarring visual style and juxtaposition of horror, lightheartedness,
and suburban claustrophobia, but found the second season’s gore-focus tiresome
enough to quit after a few episodes. Because each season is self-contained, I knew
I could check back in for Season 3 without fearing I’d missed vital information—not
the kind of thing one can realistically do in the middle of a serialized,
long-form narrative. As a result, anthologies also, with some exception, renew
their access points on a rolling basis; they can grab new viewers at the start
of each season. If a potential viewer of Fargo
wanted to watch the series in terms of chronology rather than release date, for
example, they could start with next year’s 1979 Sioux Falls setting,
then “backtrack” to Bemidji 2006. I can even imagine future programs toying
with this idea, creating jigsaw puzzles intended to be watched in a variety of

The demand for high-quality
drama, which significantly increases the costs associated with producing new
programs, has steered many channels to invest more heavily in pre-vetted source
texts: offerings that have demonstrated profitability elsewhere, such as
novels, films, comics, and international series. Alongside Fargo, Hannibal, Bates Motel, Constantine, Gotham, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Killing, Homeland, Arrow, The Bridge, and Gracepoint are just some of the adaptations to have been green-lit
for the small screen in recent memory. With any show, the hope is for a long,
lucrative run. Ideally, each season after the first textures and builds on all
that’s been established without retreading old territory, but “topping” previous
work can be tricky without defaulting to far-fetched scenarios in hopes of
recreating the dynamism that attracted viewers in the first place. For this
reason, the anthology provides a nice home for original content. What is lost
in plot continuity is gained in ease of longevity; all things being equal,
networks can trust that each season of an anthology will perform similarly to
the ones before it, and writers/producers can create new, organic work each

And now, the True Detective award kerfuffle has
revealed yet another strength: the ability to hop genres come award season. As
long as the likes of the Emmy committee continues to wash its hands of
responsibility, the precedent will hold. Networks will game the system, placing
their anthologies in whichever category they believe will yield the best
results (imagine the mess when they start dipping their fingers in proper
comedy anthologies). This form is one of the most exciting things in television;
in many ways, it’s the most organic structure for the medium and the habits of its
viewership. Relegating it to the miniseries category doesn’t fit, but it
equally doesn’t belong in the traditional drama category. Until there are
enough additions to the genre, we won’t see a designated anthology category. In
the meantime, the field is wide open for those willing to experiment.

Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American
Experimental Writing (Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison,

What if Time Travel Destroys the Future? The Big Problem with X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

What if Time Travel Destroys the Future? The Big Problem with X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

nullAs a kid, I was obsessed
with the idea of time travel. What started as curiosity became much bigger in
my mind; as with many other children, the realization of my inevitable death overwhelmed
me, and thoughts of time travel helped, in their way, assuage things. Though I
was too young then to know about the existing theories on the subject (they
would have been over my head even if I had been familiar with them), I nitpicked
over the moral and logistical particulars. What happened if you altered history
in ways you couldn’t mediate? What if you got stuck in a time loop? What if
_____? Because I spent so much time fixating on time travel, I scrutinized any narrative
that dealt with it, and, over time, an unspoken knot tightened within me. I
became one of those curmudgeons who demands Primer-levels
of consideration if I’m to enjoy a given piece of media or literature that uses
the trope. After seeing the most recent installment of the X-Men franchise—something that activates in another way the ghost
of childhood—I was able to reflect on what time travel means psychologically,
and realized the potent metaphor it embodies in contemporary American culture.
There’s a beautiful escapism in it: the chance to use hindsight to prevent the
problems of the past from metastasizing into the even more daunting problems of
the present.

As the trailers indicate,
Days of Future Past merges the two X-Men
timelines: the one set in the “present” and the one in the “past.” In the
beginning of the film, we discover that the world of the “present” has gone to
shit. Humans trudge through their dreary slave lives (think Metropolis), enslaved by the sentinels,
android-y killing machines constructed of a virtually indestructible non-metal
polymer that shares Mystique’s ability to morph on a moment’s notice. What’s
worse, they’re programmed to sniff out the “mutant gene,” living with the sole intent
to destroy our heroes in the most grisly imaginable ways.

It’s so bad, it’s
hopeless; so hopeless that the finest of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters would
be long dead if not for Kitty Pryde’s ability to send knowledge back in time.
Reunited as they face a common enemy, Professor X and Magneto decide that the
only option left to them is to send knowledge of this dismal future far enough back
in time to prevent the creation (and the events leading to the creation) of the
sentinels in the first place, through the only vessel capable of sustaining the
resulting physical damage: Wolverine. So off we go to the ‘70s; bell-bottoms
and chest hair abound.

Without spoiling too
much, let’s just say that what we learn is that the sentinels came into
existence because America—motivated by fearmongering, greed, and bad timing in
equal measure—made some pretty bad choices in the face of some exceedingly
reasonable warnings against said choices. If this sounds familiar to you, you
may have been paying attention to the recent publications about the “irreversible

of the Antarctic sheet, which scientists expect will cause a the sea level
to rise by 4 feet over the next two centuries.

nullOr that our inability to
incorporate sustainable energy into our lifestyle will spur further
environmental damage
as evinced in the recent Oklahoma earthquakes.

Or that overfishing and
the swiftly dwindling bee population
(U.S. beekeepers reported 40 to 50 percent losses in the Winter 2012-13
alone) will leave us without major food sources alongside our own

Or that, when the resulting
shortages hit home, likely externalities will be bumps in crime and class violence


Yeah, if you’re paying
attention, it feels pretty bleak. It would be amazing to go back to the year
1973 and try to stop those silly imbeciles from getting us into this mess in
the first place.

But that’s the point: we
can’t. And by perpetuating hopes for a reset button, we only distance ourselves
further from the solutions we need to be generating at present. Focusing on
what could have gone differently, while an entertaining exercise, averts our
eyes from the hard truths about the world we live in now. The world has provided us with incredible resources, and, to
borrow a cliché from another Marvel franchise: with great power comes great

So, here’s my claim:
movies that rely on time travel as a problem-solver are harmful for us right
now. The reasons we turn to narratives for entertainment are numerous and too
difficult to encapsulate, but maybe one of the most important reasons is to see
our ghosts turned into metaphor, to see fictional depictions of our problems
and witness how others opt to handle them. Whether or not our heroes succeed, we
enjoy the experience of seeing them (forced to) try. Last summer, I wrote about
a growing trend I called “apocalypse porn,” showcased in zombie and disaster movies, which, I argued, provided us catharsis
in its offering of a “clean slate.” Time travel films do the same thing, only
with the added gloss of the supposed reclamation of the lives we could have had,
rather than the imposition of messy new ones (a la World War Z). Time travel is hardly new, but there’s
been an inarguable resurgence in mainstream cinema in recent memory, seen in Star Trek, Looper, and most recently, The
Edge of Tomorrow
, among many others. Hindsight, and what we do with it, is
a valuable part of our existence, and there’s certainly something to be said
for the ways this type of narrative helps us see that, but we don’t have time
to focus so much on the past anymore. Except in maybe the broadest, most
metaphorical terms, we’ve never faced anything like the problems we face now.
New challenges demand creative solutions.

It’s likely that by this
century’s close, for instance, my hometown will be underwater, and even if it
wasn’t specifically any one of our faults, it’s still what we’re left to
manage. While developers focus more and more on creating virtual
we’re losing the opportunity to salvage the world we already have—or at least
our ability to continue living on it and enjoying it the way we have for millennia.
And, for all the problems any of us might face, this world is a pretty
miraculous thing, a thing worth fighting to save, even if we lose that battle.

Look, you’re not wrong
for enjoying Days of Future Past. I enjoyed
it too (I especially loved Quicksilver’s bullet-time jaunt to “Time in a
Bottle”). And I’m not implying I have the answers, or that writing this
crotchety ramble absolves me of my complicity in the system. To argue that art
has a moral obligation is a subjective viewpoint not shared by all, but it’s
important not to underestimate how integral media is in shaping our cultural
ideas and mores. Days of Future Past
got a few things right on that score, prizing teamwork over individual triumph and
empathy over revenge. With the kind of budgets afforded these franchise movies,
though, there were any number of plots—whether original or adapted—at the
filmmakers’ disposal. In choosing one that involves a convenient reset, there’s
an implicit hopelessness that, if not downright poisonous, is at least
unconstructive. With its hyperbolic depictions of human prowess and battles of
epic proportions, the superhero genre is perfectly suited to offer useful,
nuanced metaphors for ways we might confront our problems rather than wish them
away. If you ask me, we’re in desperate need of a wake-up call. We’ve been in
desperate need of a wake up call for a long time, but we can’t do anything
about that now. We’ll never get now back.

Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American
Experimental Writing (Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison,

On the Shoulders of Giants: Why Movies Are Shifting from the Undead to Big Monsters

On the Shoulders of Giants: Why Movies Are Shifting from the Undead to Big Monsters


At this year’s New York
Comic Con, hordes
of cosplayers
donned khaki military jackets, white spandex, combat boots,
and hip-level silver boxes—costumes imitating the uniforms of the Survey Corps
in this spring’s breakout anime show, Attack
on Titan
. In the show, the Survey Corps is the group responsible for identifying
and dispatching gigantic humanoids that eat people for fun. Earlier this year, Jack the Giant Slayer blended the Jack
and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer fairy tales into a battle of mythic
proportions between humans and giants, and, in the fall, the Guillermo del
Toro-helmed Pacific Rim combined
global crisis and B-movie kitsch with state-of-the-art mecha-kaiju grudge
matches. That vampires and zombies have surged in popularity over the past
decade is news to none, but it’s becoming clear that, in the new moment, our
interests lie with bigger things.

To discuss the genres
intended to scare—horror, suspense, and thriller, et al.—is to examine the
cultural fears they exploit. They serve as litmus tests for our collective anxieties;
no matter how intelligent a scary movie may be, the underlying purpose is to
frighten—to activate in viewers some amalgam of masochism (the chance to be put
through psychological discomfort), catharsis (the chance to see what scares us
exterminated), and voyeurism (the chance to see others suffer our demons). The spike
in popularity of vampires and zombies in Western entertainment stems back to
the pre-recession decadence of the early aughts. Before the financial collapse,
enough of the American population felt comfortable that their basic needs would
be met, creating an environment that allowed many the space to speculate about
evils lurking in their midst. The embarrassment of riches was obvious enough to
generate the fear that it could be stripped away, making the undead, creatures
that begin their lives as humans, perfect vehicles to play on this anxiety. Hearkening
back to the Biblical fall from Paradise, their immutability only deepens their
evil. They exist as binaries along the spectrum of the idea that overwhelming
power can easily turn monstrous; vampires present the conundrum of willful
immortality, zombies showcase the total relinquishing of agency to beast instinct
without the pesky intrusion of awareness.

But, by 2013, the
illusion of economic security has long since crumbled, and with it, the energy
to interrogate the contours and consequences of the milieu that produced it.
“Big monster” movies and television shows mirror this phenomenon in their frequent
inclusion of global catastrophe. In place of the fear that we’ll lose our
resources is the fear that we’ll even survive long enough to use what resources
we have left. These creatures generally exhibit neither the vampire’s cunning nor
the zombie’s contagion, and, maybe most importantly, are not so obviously us, and when they are—as in the giant
armored robots of Pacific Rim—they showcase
our aptitude for collectively addressing and combatting impending evil of equal

This is the most pivotal psychological
difference between big monsters and the undead: the turn away from the individual
to the group. One person—with enough strength, wit, or courage—can
singlehandedly dispatch zombies or vampires. Giants, though, are enemies so
massive that only a group can vanquish them. Where a zombie can be shot in the
head and a vampire can be exposed to sunlight, the kaiju in Pacific Rim, for instance, have no
obvious Achilles heel. Humanity’s only fighting chance lies in the convergence
of disparate sets of knowledge—some from scientists, some from black market
dealers, some from those who fight the beasts directly. It is only from this
collaboration that Newton Geiszler, the excitable researcher with
nontraditional methods, begins to discover patterns that can be exploited to
save humanity.

Attack on Titan is also an exemplar of this new trend in its degree of remove from
culpability. Big monsters are, at worst, an accidental outgrowth of humanity,
and likely unrelated to us whatsoever. We’re aware that the monsters couldn’t
exist without our involvement (this becomes an important plot point in Attack on Titan), but blaming ourselves
for them doesn’t fit, either. Even if we were implicitly involved in their creation,
our involvement was unknowing and passive. The average person may buy Kraft
macaroni, for instance, but that doesn’t mean the average person intended to
support the parent company, Monsanto, in effectively monopolizing
entire crops

Simultaneously, our social
ills are the outgrowth of groupthink, and, as is the case with mega-conglomerations,
are the fault of no definable enemy. This process is explained in a recent video titled “The Innovation of Loneliness.”

In its immediacy of
exchange, the Internet is unprecedented in its uniting of human knowledge and
experience, revealing on a mass scale our best and our worst. The new
technologies that have sprung up alongside it have created as many conveniences
as they have barriers of separation, ranging from internet-based customer
service lines to video conferencing. No technology is fundamentally bad—neither
are big monsters, in that sense—they’re just doing what they’re compelled to
do. How we respond to them has effects on us, though, some of which can harm us
and others that can help or better us. Much as social networking has altered our
sense of community, it also allows us to organize in record timeframes. With
the growing presence of fundraising apparatuses like Kickstarter and Indiegogo,
grassroots campaigns have never been easier or more effective. As witnessed in
the increasing relevance of viral media, the strength of the individual now
lies in one’s participation in the sharing process. We still need leaders and
innovators, but there are so many voices now that we can—and in fact,
must—exist in more stratified niches than ever before. There will always be the
Eren Jaegers and Raleigh Beckets—those who traditionally exist as heroes of the
stories—but they will have relied more heavily than ever before on the work of
the Armin Arlerts and Mikasa Ackermans, the Newton Geiszlers and Hannibal Chaus.
It’s the agency of an individual hero that’s being held in scrutiny, not the
necessity of their existence.

Where undead
entertainment traffics in pessimism, big monster movies often feature underlying
optimism, typically borne of dire circumstance. The fighting is necessary for
our very survival, imbuing it with undeniable purpose, and, maybe most
importantly: we’re fighting for something we want to save. It’s not about the
monsters; it’s about us, the underdogs. It’s about what we’ll do—who we’ll become—to
fight back. If it was the allowances of the group that allowed these monsters
to exist, it can only be the group that takes them down. Our giants are bigger
than they’ve ever been. We can’t beat them alone.

Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American
Experimental Writing (Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison,

We Are the Disease: Apocalypse Porn, the American Zombie, and WORLD WAR Z

We Are the Disease: Apocalypse Porn, the American Zombie, and WORLD WAR Z

nullIf there’s one
thing World War Z proves, it’s that
the apocalypse can be more than just exhilarating; it can be downright
gorgeous. There’s a certain splendor in chaos, and the film’s creators make
full use of their oft-discussed budget
by sparing not a single moment of grisly stimulation. But if viewers were interested
in aesthetics alone, they’d find no shortage
of outlets elsewhere. Mirroring
and building upon a similar fixation in the 1980s, what World War Z so effectively embodies is the American obsession with
the very idea of apocalypse: the myriad ways we will ruin ourselves, how we
will cope with that ruin, and how we will start over.

In his article,
Pessimism Porn,” Hugo
Lindgren describes our amplified interest in financial collapse following the
economic downturn of the past half-decade, and how this interest manifests in
our daily habits:

“Like real
porn, the economic variety gives you the illusion of control, and similarly it
only leaves you hungry for more. But econo-porn also feeds a powerful sense of
intellectual vanity. You walk the streets feeling superior to all these
heedless knaves who have no clue what’s coming down the pike. By making
yourself miserable about the frightful hell that awaits us, you feel better.
Pessimism can be bliss too.”

Our interest in
the all-out catastrophe witnessed in World
War Z
, though, extends beyond basic entertainment and narcissism; it speaks
to a deep-rooted unrest felt most keenly by Generations X and Y. Where pessimism
porn traffics in the pleasure derived from economic collapse, apocalypse porn
stems from a desire for a cultural refashioning; it’s a reaction to our
implicit involvement in structures we feel powerless
to alter
. We’re aware of the problems we face and that we’re a part of
them, but we don’t necessarily understand where our fault lies, and,
transitively, how we’d begin to right our wrongs. Meanwhile, we feel like we’re
doing better than ever: we’re more socially conscious, less bigoted, less
wasteful. Yet income
and class resentment are on the rise, careless environmental practices lead to
greater damage and catastrophe by the day, and our political system often seems
more invested in protecting
partisan interests
than solution-oriented legislation. These systems are so
deeply entrenched in the framework of modern America that to “undo” them would
take years of dedicated work built around assumptions that could prove to have
been incorrect all along.

Zombies, on the
other hand? You can just kill them.

And it feels
good to see the supposed undead put to bloody rest. They’re the hyperbolic
analog for everything Americans hate about themselves and each other: they
consume blindly and beyond what they need to survive, they’re incapable of
empathy, and they lack the agency to make any decision beyond bloodlust. Their
punishment—if killing them is even to be considered punishment—is purely
functional, inviting the easy, naïve morality of criminal justice into action
pulp, shifting the focus from the more complicated matrix of culpability and hardship
to the catharsis of strategy.

It is an
accepted fact that dehumanization
occurs as a coping mechanism during wartime; in order to sterilize the emotional
toll of killing, we distance ourselves from the humanity of our enemies. Zombies
don’t even require that effort—they’re pre-packaged humanoid monsters. Part of
what makes World War Z such a
quintessential exemplar of apocalypse porn, in fact, is in its portrayal of these
iconic creatures. In keeping with 28 Days
, the zombies in this film are not the slow-moving mutes of bygone
days. They’re powerful, capable of swift damage, best observed in scenes like
the closer to the film’s trailer. But World
War Z
owes as much to pandemic films like Contagion as it does to 28
; the zombies’ real power lies in infestation, not singular scares. Often
depicted from the bird’s eye, in plain sight, they appear more an insect swarm
than individual teeth gnashers. From such a remove, they leave the impression
of scrambling ants
in the moment the anthill is kicked (particularly set against the sandy
backdrop of Jerusalem). This persistence in focusing on the macro—exhibited visually
through the sustained use of aerial cinematography—reveals the film’s interest
in keeping the isolated humanity (or loss thereof) from the viewer’s mind.

Distraction plays
a vital role; World War Z is no
character study. We’re supposed to be too busy rooting for the success of Brad
Pitt’s Gerry Lane amid ballooning crisis-mode, tactical narratives to notice
the millions turned into killing automatons. Most of the plot is spurred by
ticking time bomb scenarios that, if solved, serve to instigate new ones. The
ostensibly research-oriented mission to Camp Humphreys in South Korea, for
instance, devolves almost immediately into a laundry list of action tropes, all
of which disregard the human lives lost in escorting Lane back to a freshly fueled
helicopter. It is not uncommon for action films to care little for its supporting
and peripheral characters, but the gravitas of apocalypse bears greater weight than
the typical action flick—speculating about human behavior in the fallout opens
up, in theory, greater possibilities for psychological exploration in even the
most banal moments. The film’s insistence in defaulting to detached expressions
of violence, if nothing else, marks a yearning for simplistic morality in the
face of complex problems.

The zombie also
functions as a powerful allegory for maturation to adulthood in modern America,
of the recession. Prospective workers have witnessed a drop
in available jobs, worsening
in existing ones, and a rise in office and temp culture, where
purpose and fulfillment often seem like an afterthought. In their place,
notions of money and competition are incentivized above all, leading to general
disconnectedness that induces a zombie-like state of routine drudgery, where the agency to seek
out meaningful work feels stripped away rather than abdicated.

In a larger
sense, we feel monstrous. We feel tampered with. Unchecked government developments
like surveillance
and “killer
” cause us to doubt that our fundamental rights will be honored.
Finding food without genetic modification or carcinogens
has become an increasingly herculean task, not to mention expensive. As social
media and the rat race of Internet journalism merge, reports of crime and
brutality pervade in what were once private spaces. The symbiosis between media
and mass opinion (as depicted in Bowling
for Columbine
over a decade ago) leaves the impression of a sinister
world—a self-fulfilling prophecy when it has become easier than ever for the
individual to wreak mass havoc in the form of shootings and bombings. Widespread
availability of advanced nuclear technologies allows any group to threaten
already precarious international relations on rapid timeframes, compounding
paranoia. Whether justifiably or not, we feel the itchy anxiety of impending
doom, as if we’re slowly clicking up the tracks of a steep roller coaster. In
response, we turn to entertainment to incite the ride’s drop—to rip off the
proverbial scab and “get it over with.” The line between thrill and addiction,
though, is a fine one, and whether this escapism is cathartic or exacerbating
is still up to debate.

Much like the
disparity between America and Europe’s relationship
with green practices, Europe has leapt ahead in its use of apocalyptic material
in media, transcending the pornographic quality exhibited in World War Z. Within the same fatalist
impulse, shows such as In the Flesh
and Les Revenants approach from an
altogether different angle: rehabilitation. They incorporate the disaster, but
the emotional register deals little with the disaster itself. Instead, these
films focus on the intimate, personal struggles faced by characters attempting
to rebuild their lives after unspeakable (or unknown)
trauma. It should be acknowledged here that World
War Z
is and has been
intended to be the first installment of a franchise. The film has moments that seem
to encourage concepts of teamwork and restoration—particularly in the tonally
inconsistent third act—which leaves hope that sequels might incorporate the
humanism of its source
, but only time will tell.

After being
extricated from the zombie infestation of Philadelphia to an aircraft carrier in
the Atlantic Ocean, Gerry Lane is asked by his former U.N. boss to join a
special operations unit charged with locating the source of the outbreak. Lane
is more than a little reluctant to leave his family, but after his initial
refusal, the naval commander standing by says to him, “Take a look around you, Mr. Lane. Each and every one of these
people [is] here because they serve a purpose. There’s no room here for
non-essential personnel. You want to help your family, let’s figure out how we
stop this. It’s your choice, Mr. Lane.” Purpose. Choice. Doesn’t sound
half bad, zombies and all.

Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American
Experimental Writing (Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison,

Tatiana Maslany in ORPHAN BLACK: An Acting Feat Wrapped in a Larger Accomplishment

Tatiana Maslany in ORPHAN BLACK: An Acting Feat Wrapped in a Larger Accomplishment


[Warning: This piece contains what could be considered to be spoilers.]

The recent Emmy
nomination snub of Tatiana Maslany, the star of BBC America’s Orphan Black, has been almost immediately
as one of the most painful in recent memory. In the months since the show’s Season
1 finale, artists
and critics
alike have raved about this 27-year-old surprise breakout. Few actors, established
or otherwise, could have pulled off the feat of acting virtuosity the show’s
star accomplished so powerfully: playing seven different roles in the same show,
characters that often share screen time. Sure, the clone thing may have been
done before, but never in this way or to this extent; on more than one
occasion, her characters—hailing thus far from Canada, the United States,
Ukraine, and Germany—actually impersonate each other, meaning Maslany must often
endeavor with Kirk Lazarushian magnitudes (“I’m the dude playin’ the
dude, disguised as another dude!
”). Comedy aside, Kirk Lazarus is an apt
comparison—Downey Jr., in Tropic Thunder,
is himself parodying Daniel Day-Lewis, whose method acting is mirrored in Maslany’s
. What’s more, it turns out the actress is every bit as tenacious
as her on-screen personae, undertaking an exhaustive regimen of promotional interviews
and panels
on the warpath to awards season. In the wake of her snub, just watch her acceptance
speech from her Critic’s Choice Award win and try to keep your heart from

But amid the award
hullabaloo, it’s easy to overlook the show’s merits, which lie with its
writing, itself a stunt of character differentiation. Without good writers,
Maslany would have no acting feats to pull off in the first place. After
Brit-punk Sarah Manning—the first clone introduced and the show’s core
protagonist—witnesses a woman, who appears to be her identical twin, commit suicide,
she begins to discover that she is one of a series of clones scattered all over
the world, and part of a conspiracy to boot. Despite genetics, the clones have
led different lives. From a writing standpoint, these characters need to be
varied enough to generate interest, but still only as different shades of the
same person. And the writers execute handily; for such a diverse bunch, these
women feel surprisingly consistent. Each is crafty, intelligent, and
tough—willing to fight when the need arises, but tinged nevertheless with a compassionate
center. It’s always refreshing to see strong female characters in the
male-dominated antihero era, but it’s even more refreshing to see them
presented in a way that doesn’t call attention to that strength. In the manner
of politically inclined shows like Borgen
and Homeland, these women aren’t
idealized, and, like their canonical male counterparts, their most endearing
qualities often double as their vices. In some sense, this collection of
characters is the most complex character study in television history. Instead
of speculating, for instance, what Sarah would be like in a different life, we
get to watch it play out firsthand. From a production standpoint, the show
assists its audience in differentiating among its characters via motif. Helena,
a feral, tortured zealot, is often presented with rack focusing tilt-shift,
off-center shot compositions, and recurring minor key scoring. Cosima, a
dread-locked doctoral student, is typically offset with patterned reds and
oranges, visually reminiscent of the DNA double helix, befitting her course of
study (Experimental Evolutionary Developmental Biology). Meanwhile, scenes that
focus on Alison, a suburban housewife, are balanced in composition, featuring
muted pastel tones and still camera.

However hackneyed a
device, it is through the central conspiracy that the show instigates and
explores its deep moral questions—with a broader scope than its conceit may
initially imply. Though it probes the ethics of cloning, it doesn’t outright demonize
it, even while holding its perpetrators accountable. Paying homage to the
growing canon of clone narrative, the show first presents advocates of
“Neolution”—the process of self-directed evolution that functions as the “justification”
for human cloning—as sinister. But that slick veneer of scientific evil has
chinks. Seemingly, some of those involved are conducting what they believe to
be morality-oriented (or at least socially pragmatic) research, even if their
methods may be questionable. The obvious pro-con discussion of cloning’s ethics
is unavoidable. It could benefit the larger population, but at the potential cost
of identity crises or other unforeseen problems among its subjects. The show,
however, is most interested in examining the idea in terms of the human processes
that shape it and result from it. Which personality types are drawn to this
sort of study, and what are their motivations? What is the government’s role in
this process, if any? Should private corporations be given license to conduct
experiments outside of the government’s direct purview? As technology advances
at an ever-quickening pace, old decision-making structures become increasingly
obsolete, and this is as true of cloning as it is for plenty other emerging
capabilities—whether political, economic, or technological—in modern society.

But for all its
conspiracy, Orphan Black is a
character drama, and its creators don’t let these ruminations usurp priority
over the narrative. Through narrative decisions, though, they take implicit
stands on a number of cultural hot topics. Principal among them is nature vs.
nurture, exhibited most notably in Cosima’s sexual orientation. So far, she’s
the only one of the bunch with a pronounced attraction to women (the others
haven’t proven a definite disinterest in women, but appear heterosexual). If
she’s technically the same person as her counterparts, this implies that circumstance,
not nativism, is at work. And if there is observable nativism, it is only insofar
as genetic predisposition. Even if homosexuality were to be considered a “choice,”
why would Cosima choose this lifestyle for herself when her counterparts so
clearly chose heterosexuality—meaning, by this logic, that she could too—amid a
less-than-ideal sociocultural climate? Whatever the rationale, the existence of
this disparity asserts the equal significance of “nurture” in personality
formation alongside “nature.”

These debates don’t end
with era-defining scientific ones; the show’s creators are also interested in
exploring fundamental ideas of identity and family. What exactly are these clones to each other? Do they
count as family? In a sense, they know each other better than anyone else, but
that is only based on what they already know of themselves, and, given the
clear significance of “nurture,” even that is subject to review. So, when Sarah
discovers that Helena is a psychologically troubled flagellant, her horror is
not just theoretical—it’s personal. Unlike normal family dynamics, there’s no
guesswork in the implications of each other’s actions; if one is capable of
something, so are the others. In this way, the show elicits a deeper form of empathy
from its characters and its audience.

Despite a sometimes
action-heavy plot, the show reveals itself in its character moments. There’s an
uncanny delight in watching these women exacerbate each other. Obstinacy and
individuality are core traits to all, and while this knowledge helps guide
attempts at predicting each other’s actions—a process made muddy by a lack of knowledge
as to the others’ life experiences—they also know to suspect ulterior motives
in even the most benign circumstances. Further complicating the landscape of
trust and paranoia, Orphan Black doesn’t
default to easy alliances (even if it gives the impression of doing exactly the
opposite)—a feature that swells in significance when the notion of “monitors”
comes into play, where anybody could be withholding their true identity for as of
yet unknown purposes.

Like its medley of
clones, Orphan Black is an amalgam of
disparate influences. Simultaneously a conspiracy drama, speculative science
fiction, and a quasi-entry into the budding “Slow TV” movement, it
exists at the intersection of The X-Files, Lost, and Six Feet Under. Of course, its first season had some rough edges,
but the same could be said of Seinfeld,
The West Wing, The Simpsons, and Parks and
. Its flaws are forgivable because the show refuses to push light
fare—even in its playful moments, its weighty questions have complicated
implications—and rather than default to plot action to distract, it uses these dilemmas
to push into complex terrain. Tatiana Maslany deserved that Emmy, but maybe the
slight can serve the greater good by incentivizing the show’s fans to broaden
its exposure during the coming year. On that note: go
watch it

Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American
Experimental Writing (Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison,

Why FX’s THE AMERICANS May Feature the Most Compelling Romance on TV

Why FX’s THE AMERICANS May Feature the Most Compelling Romance on TV

nullThe rise of the antihero in American dramatic television has been nearly fifteen years in the making. Since Tony Soprano revealed a gangster as touching as he was menacing in 1999 (those ducks!), television has introduced programming with a level of thematic and ethical complexity at a consistency never before achieved in the medium. A glimpse at the major award circuit in the past half-decade reveals not only a critical interest in this turn, but a popular one, as well. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and most recently, Homeland are just three shows that have achieved widespread recognition for their presentation of morally compromised protagonists.

nullFX, known for its “There is no Box” brand, is no stranger to this breed of conflicted character. Its breakthrough program, The Shield, was a benchmark in the era of the antihero, considered by many to be an answer to HBO’s oft-discussed flagship. But where Tony Soprano was already a ringleader in an entrenched system of corruption, Vic Mackey was a crime-fighter, one of the good guys. Yet, in his Machiavellian lust to thwart baddies, we witness him torture, blackmail, plant evidence, and murder. In that sense, The Shield can be seen to usher in what has become the current antihero paradigm: where moral ambiguity abounds in spaces beyond the expected arenas of gangsters and thugs—among doctors and high school teachers, ordinary people.

It’s fitting, then, that FX is the first network to attempt a redirection of this trend in its newest drama, The Americans. Though it is as flush with moral ambiguity as its predecessors, Joe Weisberg’s creation offers an altogether different breed of protagonist. Some antihero dramas attempt to portray the slow degradation of character (Breaking Bad), others show us how obsession deepens madness (Dexter, Homeland), and others still allow the vicarious experience of power and its consequences (Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire). What separates The Americans is its foregrounding of the simplest device in the history of narrative: love. In effect, The Americans is an extended remarriage plot. Sure, it’s replete with the trappings of espionage, but all the mad chases, brutality, and political intrigue function in service of its romantic core. What leaves viewers clinging to their armrests in these moments of pulpy thrill is the underlying terror that, at any moment, the fledgling relationship between protagonists Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), will suffer a blow—whether physically, emotionally, or both—that it cannot survive.

nullDiscussion of The Americans, thus far, has been largely centered around its relation to Showtime’s Homeland. However, the shows bear little resemblance to each other beyond their basic conversation about what it means to be a double agent, or, in a broader sense, to lead a double life. Homeland is sparked and sustained by a central terrorist plot. The romance that springs up between Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison and Damian Lewis’s Nicholas Brody is, if a bit predictable, a delectable garnish. Specific motives correlate to known and desired effects (how will sniffing out a new piece of information help Carrie & Co. develop more effective counterterrorist responses?), and these propel the show. But neither Elizabeth nor Philip has a specific agenda—in typical Cold War style, there is no clear, overarching object—so the long-form conflict that emerges is largely character-driven, supplemented by action.

In this way, The Americans bears a closer likeness to HBO’s Deadwood, a show more interested in how communities are constructed than in marinating in its own conceits. But where Deadwood’s magic lay in its expansive cast, The Americans’ charm is in its limited focus; there’s something intoxicating about its tight ecosystem of quiet moments, its emphasis on the accumulation of gestures in meaning-making. If anything, a discussion of lineage is important here in a global sense; there’s a certain degree of predictability to any show, but after over a decade’s worth of writers willing to put their darlings through the ringer, we know better than to let ourselves get comfortable when things appear to go well for Mr. and Mrs. Jennings. In the episodes following the emotional high of the pilot’s climax, we see the two confront past and present infidelities (Philip’s sexual manipulation of the assistant to the undersecretary of Defense to ascertain information, Elizabeth dealing with her years-long love affair with a “co-worker”), professional dilemmas that generate disputes that feel more personal than political (the Reagan assassination attempt is used to great effect here in underscoring their differing loyalties), as well as a new boss (played by Margo Martindale) who informs them that work is about to become even more life-threatening than it already was.

nullA romance is only as good as its obstacles, and, as aforementioned, we find no shortage of obstacles in The Americans. If anything, the degree of coincidence incorporated in creating these barriers has been, for some viewers, the show’s primary shortcoming. But when coincidence deepens conflict instead of helping to resolve it—imbuing a certain degree of inevitability rather than deus ex machina—most are quick to forgive. So, when CIA agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich’s savvier analog to Breaking Bad’s Hank) moves down the street from the Jenningses, we’re more interested in the “loaded gun” stress this generates than decrying its improbability. In the end, we don’t want Philip and Elizabeth to have an easy go until they’ve really earned it, and we’re rewarded amply for our masochism.

Repression and the unspoken form the dramatic fulcrum of The Americans. Much in the way that 1960s gender roles cast character conflict in Mad Men, the Jenningses’ employment as spies operates as a sort of de facto silencer. Like all effective period dramas, this speaks both to the ethos of the 1980s—the carefully constructed veneer of safety in spite of deep-rooted anxieties—and to the current post-9/11 zeitgeist. So, when Philip approaches Elizabeth about defecting to America in the pilot, we realize that multiple layers of psychological maneuvering are afoot. Though they’ve duped everyone around them—their children included—they’ve always known that their marriage is just a vehicle for their true marriage to the KGB; it’s their cover in American suburbia. The moment it gets in the way of a mission is the moment it loses efficacy. As such, when Philip pushes for defection, Elizabeth is not only confronted with deciphering his intentions—he could be on a private mission from headquarters intended to test her loyalty—but navigating the undercurrent of his now apparent feelings for her (particularly in light of the emotional distance she’s cultivated with anything related to her American life), how to respond to his eroding patriotism (her training would dictate she report him to headquarters), what this dichotomy will mean for them, and lastly, having been pitted between the two most important things in her life, negotiating her own feelings for Philip.

Moments like this are hardly isolated. In some way or another, paranoia looms behind every action taken, every choice made. Unlike the usual tropes of romance, Philip and Elizabeth already have all the physical manifestations of domestic bliss: the house, the car, the kids. They’re older. They’ve lived past the age of youthful naivety and impulse, and, because of their work, they understand the fragility of life. At the same time, these are also two people who made the decision to dedicate their lives to country as teenagers—not to mention the fact that they’ve spent years kidnapping and murdering—and their emotional self-awareness suffers commensurately. Their silence isn’t just professional. Love necessitates vulnerability, and, particularly for Elizabeth, whose loyalty to “the cause” has been unflinching, this is an unbearable idea.

nullWhich maybe helps explain why the romantic moments we see unfold here are more touching than just about anything else on television. The premium channels seem to have adopted a per-episode sex quota, and meanwhile, The Americans encapsulates passion in handholding, meaningful looks, and veiled apologies. And the moments of spillover, whether pronounced or Victorian, are downright gut-wrenching. We know what’s at risk, what makes it so difficult for them. Once we understand the kind of traumas (emotional, physical, self-inflicted) Elizabeth has suffered, for instance, no amount of nudity, one night stands, or marital harmony elsewhere can better capture our affections than when, in spite of a seeming incapacity for tenderness, she reaches out and puts her hands on Philip’s shoulders. Sometimes, these romantic moments converge with violence, as in the pilot’s climax, and the effect is so powerful that it manages to transform Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” into something anthemic, hard-hitting, and steamy.

If, under the lens of perspective, we suspend the remnants of latent anti-Communism, we come to realize that Philip and Elizabeth may in fact be the worst antiheroes ever written insofar as being antithetical to heroism. That may sound semantic, but the pair is principled, in some respects similar to Vic Mackey. But unlike Mackey, it is absolutely clear that neither relishes in harming others; even if their capacities for love and violence can seem disturbing at times, we also see an underlying desire to do good. In a sense, this show lets us eat our proverbial cake: we get the grime and complex ethical scenarios, but we can root for our heroes the way we might those in classical epics.
As we’ve witnessed over the past fourteen years, television is an incredible medium for portraying slow deterioration. But The Americans reveals that television is equally capable of showing the opposite: the precarious steps we take to build community, how we maintain in the face of obstruction, and how we teach ourselves to love and be made vulnerable in a world that knows exactly how to exploit and destroy us. In the course of Breaking Bad, Walter White becomes the self he is apparently always capable of being, and we watch how his obsessive pursuit of power brings his whole life—and with it, any true sense of fulfillment—crumbling around him. In The Americans, though, Philip and Elizabeth begin from a place of alienation and move toward redemption, just as their world becomes an even more dangerous place.

The best art is that which both imitates life and helps us to escape it. Within exotic, exciting, and fantastical contexts, we still crave reflections of ourselves and the worlds we inhabit. The Americans is a show about dealing with the consequences of the choices made in youth, about trusting intuition and loving in spite of fear, about accepting that what we love most in each other is also what we can come to most hate or fear. Even for those of us not steeped in a paranoid existence, the world can at times feel like a hard, lonely place. With the inescapability of our mortality, the best we can hope for is true human connection while we still have time for it. That kind of redemption, which The Americans seeks to offer, is a rare beacon—something, without realizing it, that we’ve been desperately waiting to see.

Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American
Experimental Writing
(Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison,