‘Burnt,’ ‘Whiplash,’ and the Myth of the Lonely Triumph

‘Burnt,’ ‘Whiplash,’ and the Myth of the Lonely Triumph

nullIt’s easy to imagine how life as a writer or director in Hollywood—which on a good day promises meddling producers, scripts-by-committee, and fealty to test audiences—might seriously distort how you think about the relationship between art and commerce. Given these obstacles, just getting a film to the screen might feel like a victory, though that victory can quickly turn pyrrhic. Just watch any actor or director on a late-night talk show, trying to put a shine on a film that’s DOA.  It probably shouldn’t surprise us, then, if a film stumbles a bit when it addresses artistic life. I was thinking about this recently while watching Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash for the first time. I was four hours into a flight home from Amsterdam, tucked away in a cozy business class pod I’d poached at a bargain at a Schipol kiosk, and I was already on my second film—I’d started Whiplash almost immediately after finishing Burnt, the Bradley Cooper vehicle from last year, about a bad-boy chef’s scheme to bully his way back into the culinary thermosphere. Even the airline’s precision-tuned hospitality couldn’t stop me from feeling slightly dispirited. By any popular accounting, these were very different films (a heralded debut, a failed vanity project) and yet, in certain fundamental ways, they seemed disappointingly indistinguishable.


In Bradley Cooper’s hands, intelligence is a protean thing—charming, willful, defensive, and destabilizing, at once or in waves, at times touched by mania (Silver Linings Playbook), overcompensation (American Hustle), or even fraud (LimitlessThe Words). In Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell gave Cooper’s self-doubt room to breathe and leveraged Cooper’s stubborn enthusiasm against the intractability of our idea of mental illness. In American Sniper, Clint Eastwood pushed Cooper’s charm inward, allowing it to bubble to the surface only occasionally, while simultaneously projecting the anxiety and insecurity out into the world, reconfiguring T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative as political gesture. If American Sniper is, as Richard Brody has written, a story about “genius in crisis,” it’s also a story about genius in the making and, ultimately, a story about the self-bargaining and self-deception with which we justify the sacrifices genius demands. That Kyle’s particular “genius” is lethal is a sly touch, though it doesn’t change the calculus. Eastwood’s film, far from being glib, elevates an abiding sympathy and righteous anger into a form of patriotism. As the Manichean architecture of Kyle’s moral universe crumbles, and his notions of duty, honor, good, and evil are undone by the complexity and carnage of war, Kyle crumbles along with it.  Eastwood makes the heroic seem inherently fragile.

In John Wells’ Burnt, Cooper is, once again, a genius, though this time culinary. It’s a shame the film doesn’t take better advantage of Cooper’s comedic gifts and its own diminished stakes to inject the levity its premise demands: 

Adam Jones had it all – and lost it. A two-star Michelin rockstar with the bad habits to match, the former enfant terrible of the Paris restaurant scene did everything different every time out, and only ever cared about the thrill of creating explosions of taste. To land his own kitchen and that third elusive Michelin star, though, he’ll need the best of the best on his side, including the beautiful Helene.

Wells is an accomplished writer and producer, though Burnt is just the third feature film he’s directed.  Perhaps the pitch-meeting heuristic of “Top Gun meets Top Chef” appealed to John Wells, Producer even as the script’s reliance on exhausted signifiers doomed John Wells, Director, to failure. I’m saying it’s bad. But there are a lot of bad movies.  So why did critics carve into this one with such cruel high-spirits? (This review, for instance, does yeoman’s work.) The answer, I think, resides in the film’s mistaken belief that it has something to say about something (“Art”) critics care about; that it proceeded to say it in such a hackneyed way only made the offense worse. Take an early scene in which Jones solicits a favor from a powerful restaurant critic, played by Uma Thurman, who not only goes along with his unethical plan but also says, to no one in particular:

“You know, when I lie awake at night and list my regrets, you’re one of them.  I say to myself, ‘Simone, you’re a lesbian. Why did you sleep with Adam Jones?’”

This is the stuff of failed rewrites. Worse, however, this dialogue shows up just moments before the film’s protagonist screams at his staff that perfection takes priority over convenience (“Throw it away if it’s not perfect!”). That’s brazen.

The answer to Thurman’s question, if you’re wondering, is that everyone sleeps with Adam Jones. Or wants to. The film works diligently to ensure we understand Jones’ asceticism as a choice—men and women fawn all over him—tied to his heroic focus on craft.  He’s more smug than seductive, however, and we’re left to infer his appeal from the fact that people around him react to him as if charmed. This is a perfectly fine method for detecting black holes from 8000 light years away (until recently, the only way), but it feels a tad lazy as a screenwriting technique. And yet, if the metaphor fits: Jones’ efforts at brand-rebuilding are driven by a pragmatic calculus that thinks nothing of blackmail and theft, and he’s no less of an asshole in the kitchen. In one particularly egregious series of events, Jones wheedles a fellow restaurateur to fire his head chef, Heléne (Sienna Miller), a single mother, so that she’s forced to work in Jones’ kitchen in spite of her clearly-stated preference otherwise.  In due turn, he screams at her, assaults her, and fires her. They reconcile, of course, and yet even then he refuses to grant her a half-day off for her daughter’s birthday. Naturally, she develops into a love interest.  Why?

No matter. Burnt makes masochists of all of us.  The chefs are petulant, if talented, children who take a kind of survivor’s pride in their cruelty. Abuse is mistaken for competition, and competition is mistaken for education; it’s a marketplace of culinary idealism animated by a petty animus and creative destruction, regulated only by the invisible hand(s) of loyalty and respect.  That’s not a complaint, mind you—I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so I get it—or at least it wouldn’t be if the movie took the idea seriously. But the film refuses to entertain the possibility that Jones isn’t the best (Jones never doubts himself and his peers never doubt him, and thus we’re never permitted to question it). As a result, Burnt isn’t the story it thinks it is, that of a persevering, battle-tested genius; it’s a story of peerage, more Russian oligopoly (or kleptocracy) than Adam Smith.

In spite of the focus on greatness, the film shows little interest in exploring the nature of Jones’ talents. We learn nothing about his origins (he had the standard “difficult” childhood, someone mentions), or his skills, or even, and this is most remarkable, his tastes.  It’s fair to ask if the movie cares about food at all. Instead of taking a deep dive and showing us what culinary inspiration means, the film leaves us to watch him fret and fuss while he chases a form of perfection designed to please a Michelin reviewer. A third star is an accomplishment, but it’s one that completely ignores the relationship between a chef and his audience (whether it be his diners or those of us watching at home). Perhaps it’s a necessary narrative crutch. How do you show culinary inspiration, after all? But even so, it’s a MacGuffin that swallows the entire film. We’re left listening to Jones wax psychological about the kitchen being the “only place he’s every felt like he belonged” and his attraction to its “heat, pressure, and violence.” Save for a turn toward graciousness at the end—the equivalent of a tyrannical director dutifully checking off names from the Oscar stage—Jones behaves a bit like a sociopath. If only the film had the courage of its convictions and let Jones be the cipher or black hole it insinuates he might be… There’s a formalist and utilitarian appeal to the idea that art (culinary or otherwise) can channel our most unruly and dangerous impulses into another person’s pleasure. To recognize this appeal, however, you also have to recognize that art is larger, more interesting, and longer-lasting than its practitioners. Wells, caught somewhere between test audience expectations and serious inquiry, gets it precisely backwards. Burnt devotes too little attention to real emotions or real cooking to teach us anything about either. 


nullWhiplash, a year older, might have provided Burnt some tips on how to dramatize the obsessive pursuit of artistic perfection. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), the protagonist of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, truly comes alive at his drum kit. But that’s just a charitable way of saying he’s a bit of a snooze everywhere else. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, Neiman, a freshman at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York, shuffles from frame-to-frame, an amiable if blurry presence.  There’s a hint of something edgier, though. It’s in the quickness with which he tells people that Shaffer is the best program in the country, and his semi-endearing, slightly-annoying transparency about his ambitions. Everything changes once Neiman falls under the tutelage of Terrance Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the director of Shaffer’s top jazz orchestra, however. The movie turns abruptly away from its minor key realism and toward the allegorical, and what follows is a showy psychodrama that pits a father’s unconditional support against a legendary teacher’s arbitrary rules and impossible demands, making for crackling drama but shoddy psychology.  As a theory of art, it’s worse. Fletcher, for whom “tough love” is too long by half, elevates withholding to an art form. And yet, for all of his splenetic, rhetorical force, Fletcher’s doctrine is incoherent. If he’s such a purist, and if validation is such an enemy, why does he rely so heavily on professional validation to motivate his orchestra? Ironically, Fletcher’s band is built for competition, and it’s safe to ask, as one cousin does at a Neiman family dinner, only to be met by Neiman’s contempt, how one decides who “wins” when aesthetic response is subjective or when genius is supposed to be its own reward.  For Neiman, “the best” requires a belief that greatness can be measured and recognition meted out accordingly. Nothing Fletcher says challenges this conception. For all of his railing against the dangers of validation, he’s telling himself “good job” every time he polishes his trophies.

Fletcher is less a teacher than a cult leader, and his jazz-based religion (sadly, not this one) demands not discipline but monomania. Neiman is disappointingly quick to adopt Fletcher’s disdainful view of everything not-jazz, however, and almost immediately his successes and failures at Shaffer exert a Sims-like control over his outside life: when he earns praise, he asks the lovely cashier at the local art house theater on a date; later, when he’s castigated by Fletcher, he meets her for coffee and breaks up with her. She is dead weight, he says, and he’s on a path to glory that requires him to travel light. Worse, perhaps, at least professionally, he treats his fellow musicians with contempt. We watch him practice alone until his hands bleed, and this tortured solitude carries over even when he’s playing with the orchestra.  Even if we accept that the life of a musician can be a bleak one, jazz itself has never felt so lonely. 

In the final scene, an ambitious, tightly-choreographed set-piece, Neiman launches an epic drum performance, dragging the orchestra into a stirring rendition of Juan Tizol’s and Duke Ellington’s standard “Caravan.” As the camera circles, Neiman is framed in sharp focus as the rest of the orchestra blurs at the edges of the frame. The camera picks up even the smallest details of Neiman’s solo, the sweat bouncing on a cymbal, tiny specks of blood on his kit, before swiveling to Fletcher, now reduced to being a cheerleader, and then to Neiman’s father, looking on in disbelief from behind the small glass window of a door. Watching Neiman leave everything behind—Fletcher, his father, his fellow orchestra members, and seemingly physics itself—I thought, of all things, of Kubrick’s star-child and 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Dialectical, allegorical, virtuosic, and fetishistic, Whiplash seems to be talking less about artistic genius than it is about something both more grand and more abstract, a transcendent individuality based on technical proficiency, at once accomplished and utterly masturbatory. Sure, as Neiman drums deeper and deeper into solipsism, he gets an approving nod from Fletcher, but at what price to his friends and family, his bandmates, and, finally, his audience? To Chazelle, like Kubrick, audience members are like taxpayers, expected to foot the bill for an exploration that was designed to leave them behind all along.


nullGround control to Major Tom? The risk inherent in thinking of artistic ascendance as a dialectic is an almost pathological linearity. The narrative necessitates that everything feed into the development and arrival of the artist and thus that everything be consumed or discarded along the way. It’s fundamentally solitary.  And through it, even the past is converted to fuel: Jones is drawn to flash of fire and the knife’s-edge, and his derogation of sous-vide cooking as poaching fish in a “condom” is intended, I can only imagine, to posit him as a bareback kind of guy in a world of culinary safe-sex. Neiman draws inspiration from the mid-century virtuoso Buddy Rich, identifies with the jazz of the 1930s (he tries to impress his date by noting some swing from 1932 on the pizza parlor stereo) and, as far as I can tell, ignores anything after 1960. The films fetishize tradition but can’t be bothered to get that tradition right. Through this kind of utilitarian alchemy, the rich, complicated history of jazz—quintessentially American, born of slavery-era African American culture—becomes the story of a white private school student’s struggle to play drums in front of Lincoln Center millionaires (right next to Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theatre). Is this kind of white-washing a symptom or side-effect of this process or is it the point?  Does it matter? The method by which Fletcher “teaches” Neiman is a caustic winnowing in which he attacks everything—Neiman’s sexuality, his ethnicity, his socioeconomic background, his birthright—that’s not straightwhite, male.  Burnt doesn’t fare much better, braced and bracketed by its own rigidly hierarchical notions of masculinity. It’s not just that lesbians stop being lesbians around Jones, it’s the almost-vampiric unilaterality of Jones’ relationship with Tony, an old friend who funds Jones’ restaurant, cleans up his messes, and pines for him from across the kitchen. There’s a risk inherent in confusing competition for natural order.  The films’ faith in competition as a kind of meritocratic clearinghouse is essentially neoliberal, and like neoliberalism the films are frustratingly blind to their own narrow demographic sensibility. The films rise out of, and give in to, the same narrative Hollywood has been telling itself for years and, as a result, serve to justify and reify Hollywood’s entrenched successes, excesses, and biases.

This world-view is called into question by the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis, which dares to suggest, in an almost Rawlsian way, that the distribution of talent and success might each be inequitable or even arbitrary. Set at the turn of the 1960s in New York’s Greenwich Village, it follows a few days in the life of its titular antihero, a folk singer trying (and failing) to carve out a career. Davis isn’t so different from Jones or Neiman. He sings beautifully, and he’s darkly charismatic, self-absorbed, ambitious, and self-sacrificing. He is, in other words, a character of thorny complexity, and thus perfectly at home within the Coens’ cosmology. But there’s an uncomfortable neutrality toInside that’s a far cry from the hero-worship of Whiplash and Burnt. The film is decidedly agnostic about Davis’ talent.  He’s not bad, mind you, but he’s not great, and the way this plays against narrative expectations creates a fog of uncertainty that rolls in early and never clears. Davis, on the other hand, is convinced that he’s special, and his sense of his own specialness drives him onward, over and through everything that might stand in his way. Although he’s not without conscience, his loyalty to his own ambition is blinding and, as a result, even his attempts at accountability tend to exacerbate his mistakes—he’s like “King Midas’s idiot brother,” he’s told, because “everything he touches turns to shit.” Like Jones and Neiman, Davis looks for validation everywhere. He’s hungry for commercial success, and he’s hungry for artistic recognition (even from people he doesn’t respect) and, in their absence, he’s prone to a petty nihilism that expresses itself through bullish destruction, whether by angrily heckling a performer onstage or sleeping with married friends. For much of the film, we’re inclined to question Davis’ behavior, but not his ambition. By the end, it’s impossible to tell the two apart.

The film blurs these lines by up-ending the myth of artistic ascent and instead tracking what might be Davis’ last days as an artist.  Davis is broke, dead-eyed from his day-to-day hustle, exhausted from couch-surfing. He’s no longer young. His solo debut album isn’t selling. As a result of all of this, his search for validation takes on an almost manic intensity that inspires Davis to tag along on a drive to Chicago in a last-ditch attempt to catch a promoter’s eye. Davis fails, of course—the promoter doesn’t “see a lot of money” in Davis’ songs. But even the successes don’t feel much like successes—the film is stacked high with remaindered albums (by Davis and others) that drive home the point that what feels like artistic arrival often ends up disappointingly anticlimactic.  Here, validation seems less a coronation than a kind of payday loan, a usurious line of credit fueling a bad bet. Artistic neediness becomes indistinguishable from blind self-bargaining.  If this sounds dispiriting, that’s because it is. One evening, after dinner with the Gorfeins, a sweet, middle-aged bourgeois couple who now-and-again provides Davis with a meal and a bed, Mrs. Gorfein asks Davis to sing for them. The wife struggles to comprehend his hesitation, noting that music issupposed to be “a joyous expression of the soul.” It’s clear, however, that Davis doesn’t even understand what that means anymore. Like Jones and Neiman, Davis mistakes his lack of generosity for purity and purpose, and defines himself through what he rejects. The difference, of course, is that the Coens recognize this as a character flaw. They don’t elevate it to an ethos. 


I was Andrew Neiman. I was built for my MFA program, a natural fit for an environment where the fight for funding (and by extension status) was very public. Those times I managed to come out on top, I imagined it to be not only fair but just. Like Jones and Neiman, I was an outsider, or felt like one—small-town, middle class, a middling student who graduated from a mid-sized state university—and I viewed my time in graduate school as a kind of class struggle, relying upon fellowships, awards, and praise to prop me up and propel me onward. By the time I left Iowa, I’d won a national prize and my first book of poetry was on the verge of being released by a giant New York publishing house. Which is why it would be hard for me to say that the MFA system as I knew it doesn’t “work.”  It just depends on how we define “work.”  I improved dramatically, others around me improved dramatically, and something akin to literature was created almost daily. That’s no small thing. But the system­—an illusory gift economy that also yields at a nudge to reveal a neoliberal faith in competition—could hardly be called fair or just. In retrospect, I’m not even sure what “winning” meant, other than that I was the right person, in the right place, at the right time.  It’s probably not coincidence, then, that the “winners” of the Workshop sweepstakes (and, honestly, the program itself) looked an awful lot like the monolithic casts of Burnt and Whiplash

Further, as much as the structure and validation—the constant reassurance that I was, in fact, talented—provided me with a temporary fix-it or release from lacerating self-doubt, it wasn’t the source or catalyst of my improvement. Not really. Inside Llewyn Davis seems to grasp this. For all the struggle and internal competition within his Greenwich Village community, Davis is cared for by those around him, both artists and patrons, who provide him with meals and shelter, find him jobs, line up his performances. The artists struggle with one another, but they struggle together. As such, the Coens construct a Village that is truly a village and it’s hard not to feel some longing for their shared purpose and experiences. If the film allows for any redemption at all (and if does, it merly flickers), it rests in the possibility that Davis might come to appreciate those around him just a little more by the end. Art isn’t forged in the fire of competition. Not really. And, although artists may live for moments of Neiman-like transcendence, they still need to figure out how to live every other minute of the day. Two years after I left Iowa, I’d stopped writing altogether.

If we’re at the end of the MFA’s reign as a gatekeeper and tastemaker, I’m not going to mourn. I benefited from it, without question. I not only ended up publishing a book but managed to parlay my experience there and a decent LSAT score into a legal education.  But the fact that I so desperately craved admission and approval, that I blindly accepted both as a measure of actual value, explains a lot about the trajectory of my writing career after. When I walked away from academia and writing, it was in large part because I realized that I’d gotten the math all wrong. And Mrs. Gorfein, it turns out, was right. As the credits to Whiplash began to roll, and I tilted back into the dark quiet of the cabin, high above the Atlantic, I thought of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”  It was the first short story I ever loved, and I used to teach it in my writing and literature classes.  Like Whiplash, it’s the story of a young jazz musician. Narrated by the title character’s brother (like Neiman’s father, a high school teacher), who has been at odds with Sonny over his lifestyle, Baldwin’s short story concludes with Sonny’s return to the stage after his release from prison on drug charges. Baldwin’s depiction of the performance shares little with Whiplash’s celebration of willpower and technique, invoking instead the idea of art as an act of generosity and community:

And as though he commanded, Sonny began to play.  Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins.  The dry, low black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horns insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old.  They all came together again and, and Sonny was part of the family again.  I could tell this from his face.

In the ebb-and-flow of the on-stage collaboration, Baldwin provides a compelling argument for the pain (collateral and otherwise) that we must accept as the price for art. Genius, he suggests, resides in performance, not the individual, and as such it is a fleeting thing, existing “only for a moment” before releasing us back into the world, where “trouble stretches above us, longer than the sky.” For Baldwin, the quintessential outsider, this is far from a lonely act:

Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever.

Spencer Short is an attorney and author. His collection of poetry, Tremolo (Harper 2001), was awarded a 2000 National Poetry Series Prize. His poetry and non-fiction have been published in The Boston Review, Coldfront, theColumbia Review, Hyperallergic, Men’s Digest, Slate, and Verse. He lives in Philadelphia.

HAPPY VALLEY, PRIME SUSPECT, and the Growth of the Everywoman in Crime Dramas

HAPPY VALLEY, PRIME SUSPECT, and the Growth of the Everywoman in Crime Dramas

nullWhen we first meet Catherine Cawood
(Sarah Lancashire), a uniformed police sergeant patrolling West Yorkshire in
Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley,
she’s dashing into a convenience store to grab a fire extinguisher and a pair
of cheap sunglasses.  She’s on her way to
a local playground where one of the town’s many unemployed, heroin-addicted
youth has doused himself in petrol and is threatening to set himself on
fire.  "He can send himself to paradise,
that’s his choice,” she explains to a subordinate as they walk briskly toward the
scene, “but he’s not taking my eyebrows with him." In these first moments, Wainwright tells us a
lot about the middle-aged Cawood as Cawood tells us a lot about herself, using her
own story, sketched out in broadly downbeat strokes, to build a bridge to the
suicidal young man:

Catherine: I’m Catherine, by the way. I’m 47, I’m
divorced, I live with my sister who’s a recovering heroin addict. I have two
grown-up children. One dead, one who doesn’t speak to me, and a grandson.

Man: So why? Why doesn’t he speak to you?

Catherine: It’s complicated.

Catherine: Let’s talk about you.

It’s an introduction that’s both sharp and endearing, which simultaneously
hints at one of the show’s central, if somewhat buried, themes: Carwood’s
sublimation of her lingering grief at the suicide of her daughter and her
attempt to channel it into selfless service to her family and her community.  Over the course of Happy Valley‘s six episodes, the Cawood we meet in the series’
opening moments—coolly competent, pragmatic, holding on to a touch of vanity—will be pushed to, and past, her breaking point. 

is one of three series from Wainwright currently on-air in the U.K. (the
others are Last Tango in Halifax and Scott 
& Bailey
).  It’s
ostensibly the story of a failed kidnapping—there’s a touch of the Coens’ Fargo in the set-up, in which a
seemingly put-upon accountant arranges a kidnapping of his boss’s daughter—and
it’s not until about half-way through that it becomes clear that it’s as much a
case-study of grief and loss as it is a police procedural.  Like its protagonist, however, Happy Valley acknowledges that the world
doesn’t pause for our personal drama—there are teacher conferences, family
crises, and jobs that continue to demand our attention—and so it dutifully
trudges on with its narrative.  As a
result, although the first season (of six one-hour episodes) is available in
its entirety on Netflix, it’s not a show that necessarily invites binge-watching.  It digs too deeply into messy emotions,
placing as much emphasis on its characters’ reactions to events as it does on the
events themselves.  In keeping with this,
actual violence is rare—though when it occurs, it is almost vulgar in its

Although it is not without its dark
humor, day-to-day suffering permeates this series—there’s terminal cancer and multiple
sclerosis, alcoholism and drug abuse, high unemployment and abundant squalor. The
focus nevertheless remains on Cawood herself. 
Her daughter killed herself after giving birth to her rapist’s son—a
difficult boy named Ryan who Cawood is
raising without any help from the rest of the family, save her sister.  It’s the release of that rapist, Tommy Lee Royce
(James Norton), from prison—she’s been warned about it by her ex-husband but
it’s not until she sees Royce on the street that it hits her—that triggers
the return of long-suppressed turmoil.  But the stressors that feed that turmoil are
everywhere, and often self-imposed.  Cawood
is raising her grandson, the product of that rape, and his volatility makes her
fear that he’s inherited Royce’s violent streak; she is sheltering her sister, who
is recovering from a long-term heroin addiction; and her position on the police
force thrusts her into competing, contradictory, and occasionally impossible
roles—uniformed police officer and investigator, maternal figure and authority
figure, all at once.  That she serves as
a de facto mother to everyone but her children functions as a cruel,
cosmic irony.

The mini-series form suits Happy Valley.  It’s easy to imagine it collapsing under the
weight of its bleakness and interiority at a longer length.  And it could just as easily get lost in its granular
focus on Cawood.  At roughly six hours, Happy Valley is the same length as Top of the Lake and a few hours shy of Fargo, True Detective, and American
Horror Story
, and yet its ambitions couldn’t be more different—it doesn’t
play to the crowd (or a critical culture built around recaps) with the attention-grabbing
virtuosity of Cary Fukanaga’s direction in True
(a six-minute-tracking-shot!). Nor does it approach Steven
Soderbergh’s nuanced direction of The
(which just this week Matt Zoller Seitz called “the greatest
sustained display of directorial virtuosity in the history of American TV”).  Happy
, on the other hand,is no-frills. 
Because of this, perhaps, the West Yorkshire of Happy Valley is almost indistinguishable from the British police
procedurals I fell in love with in the early-to-mid nineties—Prime Suspect, Cracker (and later, I confess, even lesser series like Blood on the Wire and Rebus) – when I studied and worked in
London. Grey skies. Drab public housing. That general sense of physical and
spiritual fatigue.  What surprised me,
however, is how pleasing I find its drabness. 
Part of this is likely nostalgia. 
But part of it is the knowledge that—having tossed aside pyrotechnics
– the show must succeed or fail on its writing and performances.  In succeeding on those narrow terms, Happy Valley feels like an antidote to the
high-art pretense, elaborate composition, and under-cooked philosophy of so
many of its brethren.

I spent a lot of time thinking
about Prime Suspect while watching Happy Valley. Revisiting Prime Suspect now (something I
recommend), the sexism that Helen Mirren’s DCI Jane Tennison faces at every step—both viciously personal and blithely institutional—can feel a little heavy handed.  It’s easy to forget just how radical Tennison
was when Prime Suspect debuted in
1991. [1] It wasn’t Tennison’s intelligence that made Prime Suspect so different (though it
was uncommon enough) but rather her appetites—for alcohol, for sex, and, especially,
for recognition and promotion.  They
dwarfed those of the men around her, including her superiors (no small
feat).  Unlike Prime Suspect’s wildly popular contemporary, Cracker, which coated its main character’s (Robbie Coltrane) bad
habits in a Romantic gloss, all part of his larger-than-life genius, Tennison’s
appetites are more thorny.  She pays the
price for them just as often as they drive her forward.  By staying neutral, Prime Suspect ushered in an era in which women were not only viable
protagonists in a police procedural, but were finally permitted (if not yet
entitled) to make bad decisions, and even to be occasionally unlikeable. (It
helped, of course, that Tennison’s abundant flaws were dramatized by Helen
Mirren.) The best shows that followed in its wake—like Happy Valley—have found a way not only to acknowledge their
protagonists’ flaws, but to capture the richness and complexity gained from
living with bad habits and decisions.  Wainright
smartly capitalizes on Lancashire’s ability to carry Cawood through endless
registers, from the coolly competent officer we meet in Episode 1 through
periods of grief, depression, anger, and—yes—“unlikeability.”  In doing so, she creates a believable, and
complicated, Everywoman.

To be clear, Cawood does not share
Tennison’s appetites, or her bad habits: 
she’s far more likely to have a cup of tea than a whiskey at the end of
a long day. And yet she engages in an ill-advised affair with her married
ex-husband.  And there’s a fleeting awkwardness
in some of her conversations with superiors and former colleagues that suggests
the kind of personal history neither party wants to revisit.  That these plot points are not central to the
drama—and are often no more than implied—could be interpreted as a sign of
progress, though Wainwright has taken some pains to distance Cawood from Tennison,
explaining that "Prime Suspect was 20 years ago," and that, in talking to current police
officers, "None of
them seemed to think it was a big deal they were women. The police have gone
through a lot of reforms. There might be some hidden sexism, but now it’s
really not that unusual for a woman to be the head of an investigation. To try
and make an issue out of that would have felt rather old fashioned."

Perhaps she’s right. 
Times change.  The recent attempt to
adapt Prime Suspect to US television never
quite figured out how to translate the original’s tension into the 21st
century. But how distant is it, really?  I
got the sense watching Happy Valley that
the changes Wainwright cites aren’t, in spite of her optimism, necessarily all for the better.  At least Tennison was generally left to do
her investigative work.  Cawood’s
responsibilities, on the other hand, are endless—part Sherlock, part social
worker, both manager and mother.  And it’s
not as if sexism has disappeared, either in or out of the station-house.  It’s embodied by her superiors, who at times display
a boys-club disregard for her concerns (though, as with Tennison, they’re quick
to trot her out for public relations value.) 
And it’s on display in one of the show’s best—and funniest—scenes,
when Cawood’s ex-husband, a reporter who Cawood has repeatedly pushed to write
about the Yorkshire drug trade, calls her to say that he’s followed her
advice.  As he goes on and on, explaining
the workings of a local supply and demand that she deals with on a daily basis,
Cawood feigns interest in what he’s telling her—to preserve his enthusiasm,
or his pride, or just out of learned deference – as her expression simultaneously
reveals a bemused frustration that he doesn’t realize she already knows all it with
a level of detail he’ll never even comprehend.  This isn’t the misogyny and sabotage that
Tennison faced—her ex-husband loves and respects her—but it’s also clear that
we’re a long way from out-growing our conditioned biases (including,
apparently, mansplaining).

It’s true,
however, that these issues aren’t the focus of Happy Valley—even if the series benefits from the heavy lifting
of those that came before, it’s content to swap the personal for the
political.  But it’s not all Cawood, all the time.  Underlying the kidnapping narrative is a
somewhat half-formed argument regarding evil and its origins.  As the focus narrows on Cawood, however, the
peripheral stories and characters grow a little threadbare, including the
kidnapping narrative (though both George Costigan, as the father of the
kidnapped young woman, and Siobhan Finneran, as Cawood’s sister, are excellent
in their roles).  Problematically, the
motives of the criminals are never entirely clear—not even their greed explains
why they take on the risk of a kidnap and ransom—though they share a few
traits:  hubris, myopia, and selfishness,
to start, but also an abject refusal to take responsibility for their actions
and the damage they’ve caused. 

The philosophical argument, on the other
hand, begins and ends with Tommy Lee Royce, whose violent sadism over the
course of the series confirms Cawood’s worst fears.   At her
low-point, exhausted, depressed, and likely suffering from PTSD after a beating
at Royce’s hand, Cawood confesses to her ex-husband her fear that Ryan is
destined to be like his father.  In answering
the age-old question of nature or nurture, however, Happy Valley comes down emphatically on the side of nurture and
against the idea of ineluctable evil.  As
her ex-husband explains, Royce isn’t a sociopath, he’s a "little twisted
thing[s] who grew up unloved . . . more than unloved, despised probably,
treated like dirt on a daily basis in squalor and chaos.”  And he’s right, at least to some extent—we’ve met the mother and she is, in technical terms, a nightmare.  These abstract themes would be empty
exposition if it weren’t for Wainwright’s and Lancashire’s work.  In numerous scenes, when Cawood’s carefully
cultivated patience and selflessness are peeled back to reveal a very real
rage, she is legitimately frightening in her isolation and her instinct to lash
out at those nearest to her.  In those
scenes, Happy Valley comes closest to
making a political pitch, though it is fittingly rooted in psychology.  The "little twisted thing" inside
Tommy that drives him to violence exists in each of us, it suggests, and what
holds it at bay is family, stability, and structure.  And martyrs like Catherine Cawood.  But given the unrelenting chaos and squalor that
threatens Happy Valley, and the
punishment Cawood endures (she half-jokes at one point that she should have “punching-bag”
written on her forehead), it’s unclear if this is any reason for optimism.

Spencer Short is an attorney and author. His collection of
Tremolo (Harper 2001), was
awarded a 2000 National Poetry Series Prize. His poetry and non-fiction have
been published in
The Boston Review, Coldfront, the Columbia Review, Hyperallergic,
Men’s Digest, Slate, and Verse. He lives in Brooklyn.

[1] Prime Suspect
debuted in the U.K. just three years after the demise of Cagney & Lacey here in the U.S.– a show canceled early in its
run over concerns the characters were too tough (and thus likely to be mistaken
for lesbians) before being revamped, softened, and returned to the
line-up.  Wainwright’s Scott & Bailey bears more than a
passing resemblance to Cagney & Lacey.

FARGO, TRUE DETECTIVE, JUSTIFIED, RECTIFY and the Construction of the American Small Town, Part II

FARGO, TRUE DETECTIVE, JUSTIFIED, RECTIFY and the Construction of the American Small Town, Part II

In Part One of this essay, I was
pretty tough on Fargo and True Detective, accusing them of an
absence of imagination, and generosity, in their approach to small-town and
rural life. Perhaps I should heed my
own call for generosity, however. Both Fargo
and True Detective are, in the grand
scheme of things (or, at least, relative to so much television that’s come
before), ambitious, stylish, well-made shows. In certain ways, they are
perfectly wedded to their truncated mini-series form; small towns and miniseries
provide and require just enough life to flesh out a narrative but not so much that
they necessarily overflow with life,
with randomness, imposing their messiness on an auteur’s message. Rejecting for
the most part Frederic Jameson’s "thickening continuum" of geographical
indistinguishability, both Fargo and True Detective rely on their locales to
convey an iconoclasm and remoteness that makes possible the tragic events that
transpire. This isolation is reinforced by the general absence of pop cultural
signifiers—the television, film, or musical touchstones that have become so
ubiquitous in contemporary television and film that they often go unnoticed. [1] Modern
technology plays a diminished role, as well (even taking account of the fact
that shows aren’t precisely contemporary). Fargo‘s
disgraced FBI agents Pepper and Budge work in an old-school, analog file room;
the relevant "files" that True
Hart and Cohle seek are said to be lost in post-hurricane
flooding. Instead of GPS tracking there
are French Connection-style
stakeouts. In an age of cell phones, Fargo’s
Gus Grimly nonetheless communicates with his daughter on a walkie-talkie. The
"murder board" at the Bemidji police station is a string figure of
red yarn and local vernacular (one suspect is identified as the "deaf

It’s hard to tell if the shows
ignore the march of culture and technology as an homage to the by-gone genres they
recall (noir, pulp fiction) or whether those genres provide Hawley and
Pizzolatto an opportunity to slip out of our networked and interconnected world
for a moment, providing a bit of space and quiet to map out their ideas. Either
way, it’s hard not to identify a flattening at work. Still, it’s not as if Fargo or True Detective
are the first shows to reduce small-town and rural life to one-dimensionality
or to a trope. Indeed, twenty-five years before Frederic Jameson wrote his
essay on the false, flat history of small towns and nostalgia films, the Andy
Griffith Show
was providing America with a weekly window into a "time gone
by" via Mayberry, North Carolina. Though it was filmed in, and ostensibly took
place in, the 1960s, Griffith himself has explained that the show consciously
catered to a nostalgia for times past, cultivating an 1930s-ish atmosphere. This is the endless reservoir of our
nostalgia. The Andy Griffith Show has
been on the air (in some form) since it debuted on CBS in 1961, and audiences continue
to watch it today out of nostalgia for a time that the show itself sought to
escape via an even deeper nostalgia. 

The Andy Griffith Show was among the first of its kind. By 1971, CBS
had seven rural-themed shows in its line-up, a glut of bumpkin-escapist fare so
pervasive, so identified with cultural complacency, that Gil Scott Heron
indicted it in his seminal spoken-word piece "The Revolution Will Not Be
Televised" ("Green Acres, The
Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction
will no longer be so Goddamn relevant"
). That year, as part of
an attempt to appeal to a younger, more contemporary demographic, CBS initiated
what became known as "the rural purge"—cancelling its entire line-up of rural
shows, including Mayberry RFC, Green Acres, and (the year before) Petticoat Junction. As one actor joked, "It
was the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it." [2] And just like that, the "noble rubes" and
barnyard hijinks were gone. But only briefly. A popular (and political) uproar led to CBS’
attempt to placate critics a year later with The Waltons, which followed a decidedly noble family’s travails in
a hardscrabble 1930s Virginia.  Initially
expected to fail—for both demographic and scheduling reasons—The Waltons stayed on the air for nearly a decade (a run extended by several television movies), and it peaked
at Number 2 in the Nielsen ratings in 1973-74. Although it may have been intended to placate the fans of CBS’s canceled
shows, The Waltons also marked a departure
from its predecessors, in part by being more overtly historical (it took place
forty years before its air date) if still folksy, but also by foregoing broad
characterizations and humor. (NBC would try to tap into a similar audience via
the even more historical, more folksy themes of Little House on the Prairie in 1974.) That
said, pre-Waltons cartoonishness
would make a brief return with the Dukes
of Hazzard
in the late 1970s. And the comic conflict between rural unreason
and urban sophistication (and exasperation) seen in Green Acres would be revisited, and revised, by Newhart (1982-1990). In other words, The Waltons didn’t really supplant the
shows it replaced. It simply added another trope to the mix. 

these 1960s and 70s series have provided, and continue to provide, a template
for the numerous rural and small-town shows that followed. For main characters
and audiences alike, television’s version of small-town America have frequently
served as something more than a source of easy laughs. They suggest an escape
from, or a corrective to, the misguided ambitions and increasing complexity of American
life. There are variations within the tropes, of course, whether it involves shaking
off the corrupting influence of New York corporate law (Ed), or a Manhattan transplant at the liminal edge of Alaska’s vast
wilderness (Northern Exposure), or
the Lake Wobegon-esque hermeticism of a town where everyone is strong,
good-looking, and above-average (Gilmore
, Everwood, Dawson’s Creek). Northern Exposure debuted a short six months after Twin Peaks and though the two shows are
marked by thematic similarities—an outsider arrives from out of town and is introduced
to a cast of eccentric characters in a rustic Northwestern setting—Northern Exposure incorporated and
civilized Twin Peaks’ rough edges,
retrofitting its strangeness to familiar frameworks. [3] 
Structurally, Northern Exposure was closer
to Newhart, even if it seemed a
little artier around the edges. [4]
Despite their differences, the majority of these more modern rural and
small-town series attack the fundamental premise of a show like Peyton Place—Jameson’s "claustrophobia
and anxiety," or the assumption that small towns are prisons one must
escape—with aggressive eccentricity (Northern
), geniality (Ed), and/or
wit (Gilmore Girls). As enjoyable as
these shows were, watching them again, all of the effort nonetheless suggests a
touch of over-compensation.

*          *          *          *

there’s no question that the charm of the more contemporary shows discussed
above is revved up high, it’s also true that they are, in many ways, more
self-aware and sophisticated than their 1960s and 1970s predecessors. Take Ed, which ran on NBC from 2000-2004.  On one level, it’s a traditional nostalgia
show. Ed Stevens (Tom Cavanagh), a local son of Stuckeyville, Ohio who left to
become a New York attorney,  "loses
his job and his wife on the same day" (she sleeps with the mailman—which
is the first notice that we’re entering the region of television tropes as much
as we’re entering small-town America)—and takes off to regroup in his
hometown of Stuckeyville, Ohio. There, inspired by a brief but genuine romantic
moment with his high school crush, Carol Vessey (Modern Family’s Julie Bowen), Ed buys the local bowling alley and opens
up his law practice inside. He quickly slips back into a slightly revised
version of his teenage life. His social circle is made up of high school acquaintances;
two of them actually teach at Stuckeyville High. The main characters, thirty-ish, mostly
single, prone to juvenile pranks, remain caught between childhood and adulthood.
Ed, in particular, is boyish in all respects, baby-faced, impulsive, stubborn,
and, most tellingly, endlessly impressed with his own cleverness. The stakes in
Ed are so low, the threat of conflict
so attenuated, that Ed aggressively pursues Carol for seasons-on-end without any
indications from the show’s creators that his behavior might be inappropriate. [5]
If anything, the show posits Carol’s resistance to Ed’s advances as a violation
of the narrative contract, punishing her with a series of terrible boyfriends.
Her fiancé, Dennis Martino (John Slattery), was so despised by Ed‘s audience that fans devoted a
website to the myriad ways they might kill him off. Meanwhile, the show unfolds a high
school sub-narrative, the story of current high school student Warren Cheswick (Justin
Long) who (surprise!) has a crush not only on Carol (his teacher at
Stuckeyville High) but also on Stuckeyville High’s prom queen (and thus Carol’s
teenage analog). In other words, Warren acts as both a bridge and an avatar for
Ed, a perfect vehicle for Ed to relive his youth in its actual and its
alternative forms. [6] Ed’s
second chance also extends to his work. His Stuckeyville legal practice has little
to do with his prior life as a lawyer; instead, he becomes a champion of
community values—his low-stakes, high-principle, long-shot cases rarely end
in a positive judgment, but even so, they often trigger heartfelt confessions
or settlements. His clients (aging pastors and doddering party magicians, good Samaritans,
a variety of sad sacks), and his causes (turning his bowling alley into a
historical landmark, for instance) consistently thrust Ed into the role of
quixotic resistance fighter against bottom-line tendencies. In other words, Ed’s
legal battles are antithetical to, and a kind of redemption for, his prior work
on behalf of faceless multinational corporations—a job Ed was fired from for
"missing a single comma in a 3,000 page document." I mean, is there anything
worse than craven capitalism that’s also
prissy about punctuation?

Ed is flush with self-awareness, as
well. When Stuckeyville High decides to start a student-run television station,
Warren’s vision of the station’s programming sounds a lot like an original
pitch for Ed: "Americans
these days are looking to television for something comforting, something warm,
gentle and reassuring." The show
not only acknowledges its genealogy (name-dropping Northern Exposure early in Season One), and its peers (via a
guest-starring role for Picket Fences’ Adam
Wylie), it’s also steeped in television history. In addition to the shows
mentioned above, the first season alludes to, among others, Archie Bunker, Happy Days, M.A.S.H., One Day at a Time, and The Rockford Files. This might be viewed
as yet another embodiment of the loss of small-town autonomy (and identity) at
the hands of "identical products and standardized spaces" that
Jameson laments. And perhaps it is. But Ed
relies on pop cultural memories as a source of stability, using that shared
heritage to link the characters in the show to each other and, of course, to
the audience. With its foregrounding of familiar tropes and its web of cultural
allusions, you can almost feel the nostalgia of Ed the show, pulling against the nostalgia of Ed the character, in
its suggestion that what we long for isn’t the idyll of the small town itself
but rather the television shows that have taken its place. And so, although a
large crowd shows up to see the cast of Happy
at a Stuckeybowl promotion, Ed’s attempt to preserve Stuckeybowl
itself as a cultural landmark is met with far less fanfare. In its way, this pop cultural nostalgia signals
a kind of irreversible cultural shift from a childhood of local exploration to
the latch-key childhood of television (or video game) as geographically-indistinct
babysitter. [7] Ed embraces
cultural signification but dispels with the chaotic surrealism of, say, Twin Peaks by stabilizing that
signification. It becomes a kind of

*          *          *          *

persistence of these tropes makes one appreciate all the more those shows that
manage to accrue complexity and ambiguity. Justified,
for instance, which tracks the life and work of a U.S. Marshal banished to his
backwater birthplace, completed its fifth season on FX this year. That
birthplace, Harlan County, Kentucky, is vibrant, and the show takes its time
establishing not just the region’s class hierarchies but also sub-strata, the
teeming and disparate socioeconomic microhabitats that exist even within social
classes. Justified plays out against
a very real backdrop of failed farms and a changing mining industry (Season Two
revolves around the attempts of a mining company to secure land rights) that no
longer supplies the jobs and money it once did. [8]
Not surprisingly, the citizens of Harlan County view both foreign (i.e.,
out-of-state) corporations and the federal government with wariness. And Justified makes clear that the rise of
crime (and drug abuse) in the region is tied to, but not dictated by, economic
conditions. Although the show is genre television—it doesn’t pretend to be
much more than serialized crime fiction—its creators and writers have learned
something fundamental from Elmore Leonard, the genre-master who wrote the novels
and short-story from which Justified
draws its main character, Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). [9]
Justified’s stories
are full of family and regional history, nature and nurture, issues of class,
race, and even gender. These forces work their way through most episodes, and
the result is a cast of characters who make life-and-death decisions in ways
that are frequently unpredictable but rarely incomprehensible. There is a local logic to the Justified universe. As a result, its strongest seasons—two and
four—are those that are most grounded in Harlan County’s history, culture,
and economics. 

the end of Season Four, as the violence escalates and the stakes are continuously
raised, it’s a shared, local memory (of an Apollo astronaut’s helicopter
landing at their high school twenty years before) that proves life-saving for both
Raylan and his nemesis, Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins), Raylan’s childhood
friend and, at times, his uneasy ally. Boyd is a brilliant character—most
fans of the show are aware that its creators intended to kill him off in Season
One but couldn’t because Goggins was so good—but he may not be the show’s best.
It will be a while before anyone comes up with an antagonist as fascinating,
terrifying, and ultimately tragic, as the criminal matriarch Mags Bennett from
Season Two. Powered by a smart, steely performance by Margo Martindale, Mags is
all the more compelling because the character’s power and dangerousness is
terrestrial and local—she is inseparable from the Harlan County that she
loves and that she sells out, torn between tradition and opportunity, loyalty
and fairness, family and community. It comes as no surprise, then, that Justified’s weakest season—this most
recent one—was the first to take events far away from Kentucky (even if it
eventually circled back to familiar soil). And it’s probably not a coincidence
that this was the first season in which neither of the two main characters had
a father figure; Boyd’s father Bo died in Season One, and Arlo, Raylan’s father
and Boyd’s surrogate father, died in Season Four. The show’s first steps
outside of the well-developed regional and familial history result in a loss of
gravity that renders the jokes tinny and more mocking and the violence more arbitrary
and gratuitous than in prior seasons. The show has never lacked for the
stereotypes audiences expect of shows in a rural setting (there are "dumb
rednecks" to spare), but when it’s on its game, it shares Leonard’s genuine
affection for characters, including the dimwitted outcasts. Even better, it
plays with those same stereotypes. Outsiders who underestimate the locals do so
at their own peril. In the end, Justified
pays respect to its characters by constructing a complex moral universe; one
worthy of the characters’ life-changing decisions.

*          *          *          *

Unlike Fargo, True Detective, and Justified, the violence in Ray McKinnon’s slow-building but (for
me, at least) transcendently powerful Rectify
(The Sundance Channel) remains, for the most part, in the distant past or the
uncertain future. Season One follows the first free week in the adult life of
Daniel Holden (Aden Young), once convicted of killing his high school
girlfriend and now released back into the wild (in this case, his hometown of
Paulie, Georgia) after twenty years on death row. [10]
The show doubles its narrative, frequently flashing back to Daniel’s last
year(s) on death row, chronicling his relationship with his fellow inmates,
including his closest friend, Kerwin (Johnny Ray Gill), with whom he has a
running dialogue through a vent connecting their cells.  Like True
Cohle, Daniel is an autodidact who leans heavily on
intellectual structure to measure and mediate a universe that has treated him
with cruel arbitrariness. Unlike Cohle, however, Holden acknowledges early on that
the approach has severe limits—that a "world view" that does not allow for "optimism"
is a "kind of fantasy itself."  The first
six episodes are primarily the story of Daniel’s attempt to escape the limits
of a compulsive pessimism that, while necessary in prison, proves altogether
more destructive outside its walls. The show does not shake this pessimism
easily. There’s a lingering acknowledgment in the show’s slow-boiling threat of
malice and violence of the possibility that, as Daniel’s dying former defense
attorney, Rutherford Gaines (Hal Holbrook) puts it to Daniel’s current defense
attorney, Jon Stern (Luke Kirby), we’re nothing more than "monkeys going to
nowhere." Lorne Malvo would no doubt agree. [11]

is, like Fargo, concerned with the lessons
in scale and seclusion that attend small-town experience. Over the course of its
first season, Rectify complicates,
but does not fully reject, the Peyton
cliché that small towns are prisons. For Daniel, fresh off of decades
of  Spartan solitude, Paulie’s banality is
almost too much, a source of wonder and confusion he can’t understand let alone
control. [12] But
the show also makes clear that Paulie is painfully restrictive for Daniel’s
family members and has been for years. Notions of freedom, confinement, and
privacy are interrogated from the very first scene, where we watch (in profile,
through a dark room and a window) the intake of a newly-arrived prisoner,
complete with cavity search. In the
background, watching through another window and a closed door, is Daniel, waiting
to be processed and released. For the first time in twenty years, Daniel is on
the other side of a window, the surveillor, not the surveilled. In keeping with
this, a guard turns his back to allow Daniel to change into civilian clothes
and even offers him a drink while he waits. 
These first minutes of the first season are typical of Rectify’s approach throughout: a carefully
arranged scene that lets the camera linger when other shows would move it along.
Here, the camera watches Daniel closely, using the muted bewilderment washing
over him to measure the significance of the changes at work.

changes do not last long, and the panopticon of prison life gives way to a
different surveillance state. Because Daniel has not been exonerated—he is
released on the basis of DNA evidence that has called his conviction into
question, pending retrial—there is nowhere he, or his family, can go that is
not noted, watched, catalogued, and commented upon by the citizens of Paulie.
("Remember," his attorney tells the family, before they’ve even been reunited
with him, "everything we do is being watched and judged.") Paulie’s citizens
may not agree about Daniel but they do not lack for opinions and, twenty years
after his conviction, the shockwaves still continue to cause damage. In one
flashback, Kerwin, his friend from the adjacent cell on death row, attempts to
cut through Daniel’s pessimism, asking Daniel to "just imagine . . . a world
full of windows." But we come to understand that windows constitute both a
freedom and a threat; as if on cue, we’re brought into Daniel’s present, with television
cameras crowding around his mother’s car as the two of them attempt to leave
the parking lot of a large box store.

yet Rectify never construes Paulie
narrowly. Save for one or two characters, it refuses to simplify even the town’s
most unlikeable citizens. A gossipy waitress (Kim Wall), for instance, who
spreads the rumor that Daniel’s sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer) is sleeping
with Stern, also sends Daniel home with fried chicken from the diner, without
charge. [13]
Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford), Daniel’s step-brother, is a familiar brand of
jackass, all bluster and baseless self-confidence, who struggles to be
understanding and supportive on Daniel’s return when, in truth, he feels both
threatened and slightly undone by the events. Nonetheless, Ted Jr.’s love for
his wife, Tawny (he passes up the opportunity to cheat without a thought when
he’s on the road for work) and his step-mother appear unconditional. Oft-maligned
institutions are treated with similar ambiguity.  Rectify’s
portrayal of big tent religious revivalism is in marked contrast to that of True Detective, where the church’s
collection of misfits (resembling a circus sideshow) mostly serves to give
Cohle the opportunity to lob insults (Cohle derides their "collective IQ,"
noting that it’s "safe to say no one [t]here is gonna be splitting the atom"). Daniel,
on the other hand, rushes into a baptism at the urging of Tawny, with whom he
has a not-completely-innocent connection. In keeping with Rectify’s
painstaking narrative process, Daniel’s baptism resolves nothing, registering
as a moment of catharsis that nonetheless leaves Daniel confused and raw.  Transcendence might not be in the offing, but
the show nonetheless refuses to judge those with faith, like Tawny, who dare to
suggest that "miracles" might be possible "in this town, right now." [14]

Rectify is slow-paced, and its long silences hang heavily. The
deliberate pace is also a destabilizing force; Rectify packs abundant weirdness into its vast, languid spaces. A
lot of this weirdness stems from Daniel, who remains as much of an enigma to us
as he does to his family and fellow citizens. We come to learn a little about
the child who was sent to prison twenty years before—smart, strange—and he
retains no small amount of teenage goofiness. Early in the first season there’s
a scene where Daniel dances in the family’s attic, wearing his father’s hunting
gear and spinning a duck call while listening to Cracker’s "Low" on his old Walkman,
that is absurd, touching and very funny all at once. Still, his anger and his urges are quite
real, and very powerful. Just how lost Daniel is becomes clear in the fifth
episode of Season One, when, wandering the streets sleepless, Daniel is picked
up by a grizzled (and, yes, mysterious)
stranger [15]
in a beater of a truck (W. Earl Brown) who asks Daniel to help him with some
errands. To go into too much detail would be to destroy a delightfully strange
hour of television. Nonetheless, at one point Daniel and his new friend wrestle
in a field in the early morning and, as the violence becomes increasingly
pronounced, the scenes suggest the real possibility that Daniel could, in that
moment, kill or be killed. More than this danger, and dangerousness, however,
the scenes reveal a loneliness so deep that Daniel is willing to throw himself
into the fight’s visceral, brutal tenderness as a (lousy) surrogate for
intimacy and touch. Watching the episode—in addition to being strange, one of
the finest hours of television I’ve watched in a long time—I was reminded of
the dark, funny surrealism of Denis Johnson’s classic Jesus’ Son, which navigates similar territory, blurring the lines
between reality and dream and between violence, failure, and transcendence.

Gaines tells Stern, a lawyer for a death penalty public interest group, that Stern
will never understand Paulie’s treatment of Daniel because he wasn’t there to experience
the terror and anger that gripped the town at the time of the murder and trial.
But if collective memory is the engine of the town’s anger, it also suggests inherent
limits. There are characters—not just Tawny, but a hair stylist, an
acquaintance or two, a few random individuals—who suggest the possibility that
Paulie will be able to move on from the events, that the specter of Daniel will
not always linger. Of course, it’s
not as simple as forgetting. A town’s collective memory can be persistent and
self-perpetuating, and legend and folklore frequently step in when actual
memories start to fade. This persistence is driven home in Rectify’s second season, when Stern and Amantha are confronted by a
Paulie resident outside of the town’s roller-skating rink for nothing more than
the mindless enjoyment each other’s company. Stern challenges her indignation:

Jon: How old were you then?
Five? Eight?

Woman: I was old enough.

Jon: Old enough…for what? To listen to what your parents told you and
believe it because they told you it was the truth? Afraid to think for
yourself? Scared to look at all the facts?

Perhaps word-of-mouth and local legend also have their
limits, however. More than any other characters, it’s those, like Daniel’s
half-brother, Jared (Jake Austin Walker), who weren’t born when the events
transpired (and thus, like Stern, weren’t there to experience that collective
pain) that provide the most substantial indication that Daniel could reclaim possession
of his life. This promise is evident even in the obnoxious teens who snap
photos of themselves with Daniel. They’re drawn to Daniel out of a morbid curiosity,
a horror-attraction that’s familiar to many of us who grew up in small towns. At
a certain age, darkness has an appeal simply because it’s different. And who needs Black Sabbath when you have a convicted
killer next door? But that attraction is abstract, the opposite of experiential—indeed, it is based on the foreignness of
the horror—and thus a passing phase. Even Daniel seems to understand this,
explaining to Jared, somewhat ominously, that Jared’s curiosity about him (or,
as Daniel phrases it, his curiosity about the "taboo") is natural,
but demands caution.

Rust Cohle is True Detective’s philosopher-king,
it’s Harrelson’s Martin Hart who provides us with the show’s core philosophical
observation: "infidelity is one kind of sin but my
true failure was inattention."
This inattention abounds in the True
universe – whether it’s the intrinsic inattention of the state
police force, families, and schools that ignore the disappearances of their
daughters or the extrinsic inattention of the world at large, the failure of anyone
to notice what is going on in southern Louisiana allows evil to fester and
grow. [16]
This is what makes Rectify’s rejection
of traditional narrative demands so remarkable. The town’s vigilance is, in
many ways, pernicious; and yet it’s the show’s refusal to look away for the
convenience of narrative, its willingness to let moments hang in the air, and
its patience in following side characters through seemingly digressive
plotlines, that grants it a rare, and powerful, moral authority. 

*          *          *          *

suppose I shouldn’t find it surprising that each of shows on which I’ve focused
centers around the law, whether it be
lawmen, lawyers, or alleged law-breakers. After all, the law is our foremost nexus
and repository of social and cultural currents. And if criminality is an
expression of frustrated ambition, what better specimen than a small-town
crook? Even Cecil County, where I grew up, has its version, straight out of Justified’s playbook. In the late 1970s,
the area in-and-around the county, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, was
the stalking ground of the infamous "Johnston Family Gang," who made
a small fortune stealing farm equipment, cars, drugs, money, and antiques they
fenced through friends and neighbors they’d charmed or intimidated into silence.
Although the Johnstons "worked" out of Chester County, Pennsylvania, Bruce
Johnston, Sr., the ring-leader, was living in Elkton with a girlfriend at the
time of his eventual arrest, and the gang’s crimes routinely crossed state
lines into Maryland and Delaware. From a distance, the Johnston Gang seems in
keeping with television’s tradition of hillbilly rebels—the kind whose crimes
are more ornery than malicious.  But the
Johnstons were ruthless. In 1981, Bruce Sr. and his brothers Norman and David
were convicted of murdering six people (among them three teenagers, including Bruce
Jr.’s fifteen-year old girlfriend, Robin), and attempting to murder Bruce, Jr.,
in order to silence potential testimony against them. Papers around the country
covered the trials, and in the end each brother received multiple life
sentences. Just five years later, in 1986, the Johnston Gang served as the
lightly-fictionalized basis for James Foley’s At Close Range (starring Christopher Walken and Sean Penn), providing
fifteen fleeting minutes of fame for our pocket of the mid-Atlantic. 

Johnston legend did not end with those convictions, however. In 1999, Norman hatched
a daring, if old-school, plan of escape, managing to break out of Huntington
State Prison by "stuff[ing] a dummy trimmed with
human hair into his cell bed, then bust[ing] through window bars and
." He avoided custody
for 19 days. And for those 19 days he was a constant presence in the papers and
the constant source of sightings—on a porch, in a park, at a fruit stand,
along railroad tracks—and speculation in Cecil County, particularly that he
was returning "for revenge or to get money." Johnston’s escape provided ample opportunity for city papers to reinforce small-town
and rural clichés, proving that hackneyed depictions of small towns are not the
exclusive province of the television writers’ room and translating the county’s
“cornstalk lined neighborhood yards” into hoary tropes:

None of this is comforting
to residents of Cecil County, many of whom are used to leaving doors unlocked.
Now, many of them report staying home, with their windows locked and front door
bolted. Streets that last week were filled with the noise of children on
bicycles have fallen silent.

There’s no question that Johnston’s presence
was unsettling for locals. But the above is the stuff of folklore, not news. Instead
of terror, the evidence suggests that, like the curious teens of Rectify, the people who lived along the
Mason-Dixon line enjoyed their brief flirtation with the lawlessness (or taboo)
that Johnston symbolized. That, not
fear, goes a long way toward explaining why copies of At Close Range flew off the shelves of local video stores during Johnston’s
time on the run
. Buried under the bullshit in those 1999 newspaper
articles, as well, is a sense of pride, a belief among locals that Johnston’s knowledge
of the land and homegrown resilience would be enough to evade the massive
manhunt dedicated to his capture:

"He knows the area.
… The man was a hunter. The
man was a farmer," said Tim Bickling, who has been following reports about the
manhunt. "If he wants to hide, he can hide," said Bickling, standing
outside his white clapboard home in nearby Cherry Hill.

The combination of memory, fear, morbid
fascination, and regional pride is potent, and the area buzzed for the duration
of Johnston’s flight. In the end, however, his capture proved both
anticlimactic and a little comic:

But for days on end, he was on the run from state troopers,
crouching in the cornfields, his heart pounding with each pass of the state
police chopper. He was frustrated by his inability to steal new cars with
tricky alarms and to operate self-serve gas pumps. After 20 years in prison,
even his old Chester County stomping grounds didn’t seem the same. "He was
dazed by all the change," said his brother, Joe Rivera, who spoke to
Johnston once during his time on the run.

For all his ingenuity, Johnston
couldn’t anticipate or adapt to the changes in landscape and technology that
took place during his twenty years away. There were new housing developments
and factories where once there were open fields. His old networks had dried up and disappeared.  And so, after all of that work to get free,
he escaped into a world that was not just unwelcoming but foreign to him. Which makes me think of Daniel Holden’s attempts to
navigate a once-familiar world that similarly moved on, inexorably, during his
twenty years in prison. The irony, of course, is that these disorienting forces
of change are also those that might, eventually, set Daniel free.  Even then, however, it can’t help but be a long,
dark journey. 

Spencer Short is an attorney and author. His collection of
Tremolo (Harper 2001), was
awarded a 2000 National Poetry Series Prize. His poetry and non-fiction have
been published in
The Boston Review, Coldfront, the Columbia Review, Hyperallergic,
Men’s Digest, Slate, and Verse. He lives in Brooklyn.

[1] It’s easy to point to shows like Buffy
the Vampire Slayer
, Versonica Mars,
and even light comedy-dramas like USA’s Psych,
all of which rely on popular culture in a variety of ways.  But even a show as by-the-book as CBS’s NCIS includes a character (Tony DiNozo)
who provides film-based metacommentary on the narrative.

[3] Some
shows, like David E. Kelley’s Picket
tried to triangulate Twin
and Northern Exposure,
keeping a touch of the menace but losing the strangeness.  Picket
also stands out for its embrace of hot button public/social issues.
It struggled with ratings for most of its relatively short life, however.

[4] The
shows share not only a conceptual framework but also a flair for the surreal
with their forebearer, Green Acres.

[5] Although I tend to disagree with her
examples, and even (to some extent) her thesis, it’s hard not to apply
Genevieve Valentine’s take on the nice
stalker to Ed Stevens. See http://www.avclub.com/article/full-boyle-guys-who-dont-hear-no-just-arent-funny–202474

[6] Like Ed, Warren has an unpopular classmate
(Ginnifer Goodwin) who pines for him. Ed never truly considers Molly (Lesley
Boone), his funny, charismatic, loyal friend, an option. Unlike Ed, Warren eventually
reciprocates the attention. 

[7] Its purest form can be found on VH1’s contemporaneous (and successful) pop
culture/nostalgia-fetishizing shows like I
Remember the 90s
and Pop-Up Video.

[8] The
latter is the result of a variety of factors, including depletion from a
century of mining and  the advent of mechanized
surface mining that has cut down on the need for manpower (while devastating
the landscape). See http://www.maced.org/coal/mining-employ.htm

Givens is, himself, an anachronism, a throw-back to the shoot-first lawmen of
Westerns (the genre that gave Leonard his start).

Although Season Two recently began,
I’ve limited my analysis (for the most part) to Season One because I’ve had
time to watch and re-watch the shows. While I’ve enjoyed Season Two a great
deal, the show really demands more time and attention than I’ve been able to
devote to it.

[11] For
Malvo, animal is our true nature, and he believes (and
Lester Nygaard seems to prove) that embracing our inner-predator constitutes a
liberating return to form. For
Gaines, however, our primal origins constitute (literally) a form of original
sin. As a result, Rectify inverts Fargo’s frustrated race-to-the-bottom
into the story of our failed transcendence.

[12] If
I have one complaint about the show, it’s that it leans a little heavy on this
wonder, with its barrage of lens flares, its high blue skies, and its endless

Bigger surprises lurk in Season Two.

[14] It shares this sensibility with Justified, whose.  Its traveling evangelists in Season 4 aren’t
saints, but they aren’t wholly insincere, either. And there’s no questioning at
least some positive influence on at
least some portions the community
(I’m looking at you, Ellen May).

[15] Erik Adams, at the AV Club, reads these
scenes as a straightforward Christian allegory (and Brown’s character as,
essentially, "the Devil"). I don’t read it quite so narrowly, if only
because the "temptation" offered by Brown’s character is so slight,
so temporary, and, in the end, oddly
.  It may have set Daniel
on the path to his baptism, but not because of any latent evil. Rather the
experience lets him know just how lost he is (and remains).  See http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/rectify-drip-drip-97543

[16] Cohle
is, perhaps, most guilty of inattention – neglecting the moment, community, his
own needs and hiding behind work and nihilistic cosmology.

FARGO, TRUE DETECTIVE, JUSTIFIED, RECTIFY and the Construction of the American Small Town (Part I)

FARGO, TRUE DETECTIVE, JUSTIFIED, RECTIFY and the Construction of the American Small Town (Part I)



At some point in the second half of the twentieth
century, the way in which we think about the American small town, its
particular brand of community and stability, began to shift. "What
happened," according to Frederic Jameson, as he wrote in an essay in his seminal 1991
collection The Cultural Logic of Late
, “is that the autonomy of
the small town (in the provincial period a source of claustrophobia and
anxiety; in the fifties the ground for a certain comfort and even a certain
reassurance) has vanished.”  Thus, for
Jameson, “[w]hat was once a separate point on the map has become an
imperceptible thickening in a continuum of identical products and standardized
spaces from coast to coast.” This "thickening
continuum," a byproduct of our appetite for cable television, franchising
and box stores, and other modern amenities, posed a radical threat to small
town identity. As Jameson describes it, the American small town was once (but
no longer) "contented
with itself, secure in the sense of its radical difference from other
populations and cultures, insulated from their vicissitudes and from the flaws
in human nature so palpably acted out in their violent and alien histories." Of course, Jameson’s proper subject is actually the popular conception of small-town self-identity and, to the extent his commentary attempts to
speak for small towns, themselves, he’s guilty of a bit of simplification. In
other words, what Jameson describes is not necessarily your experience of small-town America. And it certainly wasn’t mine. 

I grew up, and spent my childhood,
living in the same neighborhood, in a small town in the northeast corner of
Maryland, tucked up against the Pennsylvania and Delaware borders. Elkton, named for its position at the
headwaters of the Elk River, which itself curled off of the tip of the
Chesapeake Bay, had a population of just over 9,000 residents when I left for
college in 1990. Elkton is the largest town in Cecil County. Like so many (but certainly
not all) rural American counties, ours was predominately white and conservative—in 1990, in fact, it was 95% white with 90% of its population living in
neighborhoods that were, themselves, more than 90% white. People
today are most likely to be familiar with Elkton from a few road signs that
clip by as they bisect the county heading north or south on U.S. I-95. In a
different era, it was known as an American Gretna Green, the marriage capital
of the United States—the result of liberal marriage laws so well known that,
when Ben Walton ran off to marry seventeen-year-old Cindy Brunson on Season
Seven of The Waltons, the couple
headed for Elkton. Those days are mostly gone, though wedding chapels still
dot Main Street.

Not all public awareness of us has
been so benign. The Elkton Walmart has,
in recent years, been the site of no small amount of cruel cultural absurdity, including
xBox-related near-riots, customers
superglued to toilet seats, and dead
bodies in Chrysler Sebrings.
Digging deeper, there’s also the county’s occasional flirtation with the Ku
Klux Klan, from rallies on local farms in the 1960s and -70s to
Klan-run anti-Obama meetings held in Elkton municipal buildings as recently as
last year. It
doesn’t matter that these rallies generally packed more bluster than bite, with
gawkers and protestors outnumbering participants. For many residents of neighboring
counties the area remains "Ceciltucky": defiantly redneck,
anachronistic. That view isn’t wholly misguided.
To some extent, it’s even a source of pride: my fifth grade gun safety class at
Gilpin Manor Elementary culminated (to my enormous delight) in a teacher-chaperoned
field trip to a local state park where we were given bolt-action rifles to fire
on paper targets.

My memory is both more complicated
and more sentimental than these data points might suggest. Yes, there’s the
recollection of perfectly-seasoned blue crabs piled high on newspaper-covered
picnic tables (with buttered and salted silver queen corn nearby).
The .99 movie theater in downtown Elkton where I saw Rick Springfield in Hard to Hold in 1984, the first movie I
ever attended without parental supervision. And, although there was ample bluegrass
music and square dancing, there was also the all-black-but-me Parks & Rec
basketball team on which I played (a cherry-picking) point guard and the
mostly-Catholic-but me CYO basketball team on which I played (a less-effectively
cherry-picking) point guard (and that once lost a game against a Wilmington,
Del. team 99-27). There’s also no question that I spent a large portion of my
teenage years dreaming of escape—into what, I had no idea. When I go back, however,
(and I do, when I can) it’s these memories that I’m revisiting. But it’s also
true that (contra Prof. Jameson) many of us welcomed the intrusion of
outlet malls, the internet, cable television, that whole thickening continuum
thing. Because, in an essential paradox, the extrinsic, pan-American
homogeneity that Jameson maligns resulted in diversity within our small towns, an increase in both the variety and quality
of services and products.  Improvements in
the quality of our day-to-day lives that helped narrow the sprawling distances
between how we saw ourselves and how we imagined everyone else in the free world
lived.  In other words, the isolation and
radical difference that Jameson places at the crux of small-town self-identify
may be nothing more than a symptom of perspective. In the end, I suppose, my struggle
to define my own experience keeps frustrating and coloring the way I watch a
variety of well-received television shows, including Fargo, True Detective, Justified, and Rectify, that have aired over the last few years. Each of these
shows has significant strengths—strong, charismatic performances, sharp
direction. But it’s no accident that the complexity of the moral universe at
issue in each show is dictated by location and perspective—by just how much
the writers confuse traditional representations of small towns or rural life
for the real thing. 

*          *          *          *

nullNoah Hawley’s miniseries Fargo is, ostensibly, the story of four
characters, the insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), the deputy
Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), the Duluth policeman Gus Grimly (Colin
Hanks), and a killer, Lorne Malvo (Billy 
Bob Thornton), whose paths cross in and around the (very real) small
town of Bemidji, Minnesota (pop. 13,000). Although faithful in certain ways to
the Coen brothers’ film from which it derives its name and, at least loosely, setting,
Hawley’s Fargo is different, darker. In
large part this is due to the importance given to the character of Lorne Malvo—a contract killer and confidence man who is not from Bemidji. Or anywhere, really, which is probably the
first sign that he’s up to no good. Hawley,
who drafted each script himself but collaborated on the overall story with a
group of writers, has expressed a fascinated, forgiving relationship with Malvo,
describing him as “really interesting" and “a very fun character.”
Indeed, although Malvo slaughters dozens, Hawley has stated his belief that “the
violence [Malvo] does to the social contract is almost as bad as the real
violence that he does.” To Hawley, the philosophical purity of the Malvo
character sets him apart, and free: “When you see a shark swimming in the ocean,
you’re not judging the shark. We don’t judge Malvo because he’s not pretending
to be anything else.”
But Hawley can’t be serious—Malvo pretends to be “something else” at each
turn. It’s how he gains access to his marks and how he avoids capture. He veils
his threats against women and children in small-talk and friendly advice. In
other words, if we can’t judge Malvo, who can
we judge?  The answer, it appears, is
pretty much everyone else.

Malvo, shape-shifter,
has a Mephistophelean swagger, and it’s the Mephistophelean that places Malvo, and Fargo, squarely within a tradition of
Faustian American literature—what Hawley
has called the “stranger comes to town story”—a lineage  that includes (but isn’t
limited to) Mark Twain’s Mysterious
and Ray Bradbury’s Something
Wicked This Way Comes
. Both novels use a (yes) mysterious stranger who visits
a small town to examine, to different conclusions, the way our desires lead us to betray ourselves,
our communities, and our values. [1]  Not surprisingly, perhaps, the books arrive
at different conclusions. Twain forwards a near-Nietzschean nihilism, leaving
no doubt that he views “civilization” as a leash burning at our necks, if not a
wholesale fiction. Bradbury’s Mr. Dark, on the other hand, is eventually
defeated by joy, familial love, and friendship. Provided with a choice between
the path of Twain and the path of Bradbury, Hawley goes dark, choosing Twain’s
model. Although the show ostensibly reinforces Fargo (the movie) in its appreciation of small-town common sense
(“decency trumps all,” is how one critic characterized the series’ conclusion),
given the show’s body count, it’s hard to view the triumph of small town values
as anything but pyrrhic. Where it counts, in its characterizations, the
day-to-day life of its citizens, Fargo
shares the cynicism and nihilism of Twain’s unrepentingly dark novel. But to
what end? Twain’s nihilism seeks to liberate man by stripping away the very
things the fundamentally conservative Fargo
ends up celebrating.

But perhaps the mixed messages are
to be expected. One takeaway from Hawley’s countless press interviews on behalf
of the show is that his Bemidji isn’t much more than a blank canvas onto which he
can project his ideas about good and evil—or, as he phrases it, about what
happens when a “civilized man meets an uncivilized man,” or
an “anarchic force enters polite society.” Our
enjoyment of the show hinges on how much stock we put in Hawley’s experiments
in human behavior, but this isn’t fatal to the show’s success. Nonetheless, it’s
hard to see Hawley’s “polite society” as much more than a petri dish in a spotless
laboratory. Although he describes his show as a battle between “the best and
worst of America
,” what
he’s really done is introduce a foreign agent into a static environment. (And
then reintroduced it, for that matter. Malvo returns to eliminate Nygaard for
unknown reasons and, absent that return, the story has no discernible momentum
or end.) It’s not the gauzy layers of snow and ice, the tense, beautiful
blizzard shootout, or the frozen lake into which Lester plummets at the series’
end that constitute the show’s blankness. It’s the lack of any perceptible
response from the town of Bemidji as the deaths mount—the series somehow manages
to squeeze thirty-four deaths into 10 episodes.
In spite of the carnage, Hawley clings to a "romantic idea
that you go off and you face evil and you come back and your reward is to lead
a simple life," that what these characters have faced is not, in the end,
a "dark journey." Of
the series’ four main characters, one has been shot and wounded, two have been
turned into killers (one already was
a killer, of course), and two are dead. The town, itself, is piled high with the
bodies of people who, if Grimly does his job in Episode One, would have been spared.
By my measure, the only people who might come out on the other side events like
these without being “haunted” are people who never really felt anything in the
first place.

The cost of Hawley’s
“romantic idea” is that it necessarily strips Bemidji of collective or
institutional knowledge. The town is never granted a life of its own, even at
the baseline, fight-or-flight level of self-preservation. [2]  As a result, we don’t
think twice when Malvo sits across a diner counter from Deputy
Solverson’s father Lou (Keith Carradine), an ex-state trooper, and Lou doesn’t
recognize him.  At this point in the
series, of course, Malvo has been caught on camera kidnapping a murder victim,
arrested, and even interrogated by Lou’s now-son-in-law.  And yet, even after Malvo creepily inquires
about Lester, the man at the center of
his daughter’s investigation
, he is permitted to drive off without anyone
in pursuit. All of this is of a piece with Hawley’s failure to allow Bemidji an
existence greater than the sum of its parts. And
those parts are inherently limited: so many of the citizens of  Bemidji are self-interested and venal,
bullies and predators. The women, in particular, fail to generate sympathy—whether it’s Gina Hess (Kate Walsh), an ex-dancer who laughs off her husband’s murder
and chases the insurance payment, Kitty Nygaard (Rachel Blanchard), Lester’s
sister-in-law, a vain ex-beauty queen, or the needling wives of Lester and
Milos (both are relentless and shrill). Although the characters are sharply, if
superficially, drawn, an air of entitlement emanates from each. Even Linda
(Susan Park), Lester’s sweet, boring, second wife, admits to Lester just before
she’s shot that she coveted Lester while he was still married and fantasized
about “getting his wife out of the picture”—she envisioned herself as a
“Cinderella,” clinging tightly to the belief that Lester “would come along and
take her away from all this.” It’s not just
the women, of course. Sam Hess (Kevin O’Grady), Chaz Nygaard (Joshua Close), and
Milos Stavros (Oliver Platt) are each the asshole father of daft, cruel, and/or
damaged children.  In the end, it’s hard
not to feel that the grisly or abject ends greeting so many of these characters
constitute karmic punishment. 

For all of Hawley’s talk about the
“stoicism” of Midwesterners, the motives of Fargo’s
characters are never far from this surface. 
Maybe this is meant to suggest a regionally-specific anti-mystery or maybe
it’s just a convenience. In either case, it’s a far cry from the Coens’ vision
of small-town Midwestern life, where the conventions of “Minnesota nice” create
inscrutability. Hawley has stated that his “job was not to portray
Minnesota as it is in real life. It was to portray the Minnesota that Joel and
Ethan portrayed in the movie.” In keeping with this, perhaps, he doesn’t pay
much attention to Bemidji as it
actually is (it’s a hub of Native American culture, though there’s not a single
Native American character on the show). [3]
But how true is he to the Coens’ vision? If there’s a takeaway from Fargo the movie, it might be that the
inherent inscrutability of human behavior is not a reason for nihilism or
solipsism. Marge Gunderson’s (Frances McDormand) short soliloquy, as the movie
wraps up, distills this to a point:

"So that was Mrs.
Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the
wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little
bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know
that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand

Of course, for Peter Stormare’s Gaear Grimsrud, it
isn’t about money at all. In the end, Marge’s incomprehension of his motives
proves no bar to her pursuit—though she is aided by a brief encounter with an
old classmate, Mike Yanagita, that spurs her to push deeper. In one of the
film’s more remarkable scenes, Marge figures out, over dinner at the Radisson during
a work-trip to Minneapolis, that the emotionally disturbed Yanagita has lied to
her about his life (inventing both successes and tragedies) in order to make a desperate,
loneliness-driven pass at her. In the course of ten minutes, the Coens show us
two sides of “Minnesota nice.” 

Although Marge’s trusting nature temporarily blinds her to Yanagita’s motives,
she nonetheless uses Yanagita’s desire to conform to “Midwestern” conventions
(modesty, a desire not to cause a scene, the fear of imposing on another) to
reject him gently but firmly, defusing the situation. Beyond this, however,
Yanagita provides Marge with a glimpse at the obscure alchemy that transforms human-scale
desire into elaborately irrational action, a realization that sends her back to
re-interview Jerry Lundegaard. If there is a single scene in Fargo (or any Coens’ movie) that defines
the Coens’ vision, it’s this one.  And
yet Hawley’s comments in interviews suggest that he never completely grasped its
a fact I can’t be alone in finding troubling.

*          *          *          *

nullHawley’s exposure of the
barely-concealed venality underlying the placid surface of Bemidji suggests
less the Coens of Fargo (venality and
greed have their place, but the characters rarely fall prey to
one-dimensionality) than the David Lynch of Blue
and Twin Peaks. This is,
perhaps, a natural or even obvious parallel, given that both Fargo and Twin Peaks are thematic continuations of revered films. An overt
debt is suggested by Lorne Malvo’s discourse on pie in Fargo’s penultimate episode, as well as the presence of  Bemidji Deputy Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) who,
like Twin Peaks’ crime-scene weeper
Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz), can’t handle the sight of a dead body. Both shows,
as well, provide sly, structural acknowledgements that they take up where their
predecessors left off. In Fargo, it’s
the bag of ransom cash left behind by the film’s ill-fated Carl Showalter and
found by the show’s ill-fated Milos Stavros. In Twin Peaks, there’s the way the opening credits move from an image
of a Varied Thrush to the town’s churning mill machinery, a casual
deconstruction of the mechanical robin that sits on the windowsill, a beetle in
its mouth, at the end of Blue Velvet.
In each case, we are assured the stories, although different, are nonetheless

Of course, it’s not exactly novel
to acknowledge that Fargo owes a
great deal to Twin Peaks (the list of
shows with a similar debt is long and distinguished).  Still, something seems to get lost in
translation. Whereas Fargo (the
series) adopts the naturalism and
realism of its forbearer —not just the pretty snowscapes, but the grubby
reality of ice-laced sidewalks, parkas, mukluks, and bulky sweaters—Twin Peaks eschews naturalism for Peyton Place-like melodrama. Lynch’s
performers, pushed toward soap operatics, enact a kind of repeated denaturalization.  Twin
’ distance from realism (and the
) is established from the opening credits of the first (and each) episode,
which inform us that Twin Peaks is far from
a small town (pop. 51,201).  As a result,
the sense that it’s a place where everyone knows everyone else (Laura Palmer’s
corpse is recognized by everyone at the crime scene) isn’t based on geography, demographics,
or any other extrinsic ordering principle. In other words, the world Lynch is
exploring is, and is not, ours. It remains unbounded by logic even as it mimics
the narrative logic of other genres.

In the end, the Lynch of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks is less concerned with human nature than he is in the
ways we simplify it—and thus betray it—through representation. Indeed, the
“wholesomeness” of Twin Peaks is really the construct of Agent Cooper (Kyle
McLachlan)—who eventually takes up whittling because it’s “what you do in a town where a yellow light still means
slow down, not speed up”—and not the town itself, which is full of secrets. The image
of Blue Velvet’s fop-ish Jeffrey
Beaumont wandering the streets of a very 1950s-appearing Lumberton (in what
Jameson would describe as a “synthesis of nostalgia-deco and punk,” but what
non-academics might identify as an art-house cousin of Back to the Future’s Marty McFly) swaps historical linearity for an
eternal feedback loop in which artists merely adjust the dials. At its best,
however, Lynch’s fusion of “aw-shucks sincerity” with a non-programmatic pastiche
hints at genuine mystery within the “depthlessness." Indeed, in a period
when small towns could be elevated to the level of fetish through the violent,
nationalistic jingoism of movies like Red
(1984), attacking these representations at the root is admirable. In a
sense, Jameson mistakenly identifies depthlessness where there is simultaneity.
And he fails to give enough credit to Lynch’s attention to the animal drives
underlying the placid, constructed surface of wholesome Americana. Sure, we
push through the lush grass at the outset of Blue Velvet to find the terrifying, chittering beetles churning
beneath. But what separates those beetles from the robin that devours them? In
other words, in the Lynchian universe, "civilized" and "uncivilized"
may be nothing more than a matter of perspective.

Although Hawley’s Fargo foregoes Lynchian pastiche, it doesn’t
avoid pastiche altogether. Instead, his series is a collage and pastiche of the
Coens’ films as a whole, with the heaviest cribbing coming from No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man.
And, indeed, the nihilistic outsider has a long-standing place in the Coens’
cosmology, spanning from Tex Cobb’s bounty hunter in Raising Arizona to Anton Chigurh in No Country. But this “mash-up” of radically different source
material leads to problems. Even the Coens, masters of tonal manipulation,
struggle at times to keep their competing tonalities in balance. When they
fail, they slip into belittling condescension (Burn After Reading, A Serious
). Fargo (the movie) took some
heat from critics for this on release, but in watching it now, its balance and
control seem exceptional, a highpoint in the Coens’ filmography.  The laughs are real, but its swift, graphic
violence is unsettling. For the Coens, there is no “good America” or “bad
America,” only America in endless variety. 
Thus, the cultural conventions that amount to “Minnesota niceness” are
nuanced and, like all conventions, neutral. In other words,

niceness can be deceptive—a form of fiction, or a means of avoiding the
unpleasantness that constitutes so much of the world. If the Coens only
highlighted the pleasant parts of the Midwestern disposition, that would be
condescending in its own right. Smartasses they might be, but they respect the Midwest enough to chronicle it in all its niceness and its

But Hawley lacks the Coens’ mastery, and his Fargo provides little evidence of the
generosity—the grant of personality, intelligence, agency —that a sense of
the “tragic” requires. The reliance on stupidity and venality to drive the
series’ plot has significant psychic costs. In particular, I’m thinking of the
death of Glen Howerton’s Don Chumph, whose dimness and small-scale ambitions
(he wants to extort just enough money to open a Turkish bath) are seized upon
by Malvo, who belittles his dream and orchestrates his death. That death, duct
taped with a shotgun to a chair, in a hail of bullets that would make Peckinpah
proud, is given an operatic treatment so much larger than Chumph’s life that it
can only be seen as a last joke at his expense. It’s one thing to play the
dimness of your characters for laughs; to then dispatch them violently,
mercilessly, or worse, humiliatingly, is nothing more than cruelty.

*          *          *          *


isn’t the only major
miniseries of the past year that centered on a mysterious outsider spinning
webs of Philosophy 101-level nihilism, of course. There’s a moment early in Nick
Pizzolatto’s True Detective, the
camera tracking Detectives Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew
McConaughey) from high above their Chevy Caprice as they glide through the
Louisiana countryside, where Cohle offers his opinion of the people he’s sworn
to protect and serve: “People around here,” he says, “it’s like they don’t even
know the outside world exists. Might as well be living on the fucking moon.”
Like the clockwork universe of Hawley’s Fargo,
True Detective’s Louisiana also takes
issue with individual ambition. Down on Louisiana’s southernmost edge, in
Pelican Bay, the grandfather of murder victim Rianne Olivier restates the
sentiment as an ethical imperative, suggesting that her disappearance is the
result of fatal immodesty: “Everybody
think they gonna be something they not. Everybody, they got this big plan.”

True Detective doesn’t
share Fargo’s single, coherent
community, of course. As enamored with Louisiana’s landscape as True Detective is – the camera lingers
over not only its idiosyncratic natural landscape but also its “jigsaw” of
pipelines and the refineries – it’s far more interested in that landscape as a site
of cosmic horror than in socioeconomics. As a result, the show traffics in clichés
of Bayou exoticism: the Cajun, the Creole, corruption and conservative
politics, “Santeria and Voudon all mashed together,” Mardi Gras, evangelism, a
swampy apocalypticism. [4] As
Detectives Cohle and Hart move among the kith and kin of the murder victims, the
thread tying the various characters together seems to be a feeling of persistent
degradation: the headaches and corroded hands of Dora Lange’s Mother (Tess
Harper), the neurologically-damaged former baseball player Danny Fontenot
(Christopher Berry), Burt (Douglas M. Griffin), the castrated and
mentally-handicapped member of a local church, and even Tiger Thomas (John
Eyez), the drug dealer kidnapped and tortured by Ginger and his crew of Iron

These witnesses and leads never
amount to much more than a gothic menagerie (a touch of Flannery O’Connor, a
bit of Night of the Hunter). They
provide True Detective with rich
atmospherics, and an occasional red herring, but Pizzolatto doesn’t ask his
audience to imagine the day-to-day (let alone the internal) lives of the characters.
Instead, they’re emblematic of the forces of entropy (both natural and
cultural) that continue to work on the landscape and its inhabitants, the
zombie population of Cohle’s “fading memory of a town.” This persistent
degradation—of memory, culture, and landscape—presents a staging ground for
cosmic terror.  Our brief experiences
with the residents of southern Louisiana makes it abundantly clear that they’re
incapable of resisting whatever forces are at work. And Errol Childress (Glenn
Fleshler), in the grotesque grandeur of his ruined family and his ruined home,
is the embodiment of that terror. Perversely, and fittingly, it is in the
chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction that this evil is
permitted to "have a real good time."

Of course, True Detective was, from the jump, more interested in what was
going on inside that Chevy Caprice than in how people live outside it, in the
dialectic between the flinty Cohle and the good-old-boy Hart (with its easy
reduction into “cold” and “hot” and “coal” and “heart”): the former shunning
community while secretly craving it, the latter arguing on its behalf while
constantly betraying it. Hart invites Cohle to dinner, but doesn’t really want
him to stay; Cohle doesn’t even want to show up and yet lingers in conversation
long past (Hart’s) welcome. When we finally arrive at the story’s end, after the
climax has finally, definitively divorced the story from reality, it’s pretty
clear that the narrative and emotional drive of the series is fundamentally
that of a Romantic Comedy (by way of its homosocial cousin, the “buddy cop”
story) that happens to have a Southern-fried supernatural thriller grafted onto
it.  Because of this, the show’s
preoccupation with the relationship of its main characters means that we hear a
lot about what the characters think
about community rather than experiencing that community for ourselves. And yet
there are moments that reveal the region’s social and cultural transformation
as, over the years, the pastoral background gives way (enacting Jameson’s
“imperceptible thickening,” perhaps) to an anodyne wasteland of strip malls and
storage units. When the detectives visit a dilapidated bunny ranch tucked off
of the secondary roads near Spanish Lake, we glimpse the myriad ways in which
cultural and/or economic entropy can lead to new social arrangements.  It’s also one of the show’s sole assertions
of female autonomy. Even if that autonomy is colored by sexual commerce, it
stands out from the other scenes in which Cohle and Hart talk with witnesses by
being something more than a simple reification of narrative hierarchies.

*          *          *          *

What is it
about these small towns and rural spaces that inspired Hawley and Pizzolatto to
animate them with their cosmic and/or philosophical stories of good and evil?
Their reasons are different on a number of counts, I’m sure.  But I can’t help but think they share at
least two. The first is a reliance on their settings as “separate points on a
map,” a separateness that allows them to control their experiments in good and
evil but only at the expense of nuance and complexity. The second is diminished
expectations. Whether it’s the novelty of Hawley’s surprisingly cruel
Minnesotans, or the passive acceptance of the evil in the midst of Pizzolatto’s
Louisianans, stereotypes and assumptions about the people who inhabit the shows’
locales allow Hawley and Pizzolatto free reign to wax exegetic on so-called
forces of light and dark. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone accepting their
manipulations anywhere but the "moonscape" of small town or rural
life.  As with Jameson’s essay, however, this
tells us more about how we imagine small towns than it does about those who
live in them.  Of course, our own
collective imagination has been influenced by a long, pervasive history of
representation. Shows that manage to step outside or beyond the level of
stereotype or trope are rare.  The second
part of this essay will discuss some of that history and two recent examples of
shows that complicate it.

Spencer Short is an attorney and author. His collection of
Tremolo (Harper 2001), was
awarded a 2000 National Poetry Series Prize. His poetry and non-fiction have
been published in
The Boston Review, Coldfront, the Columbia Review, Hyperallergic,
Men’s Digest, Slate, and Verse. He lives in Brooklyn.

[1] Thornton
has described his character in interviews as “this mysterious stranger who
comes to town.”  See http://www.vulture.com/2014/04/billy-bob-thornton-fargo-interview.html

[2] The graphic nature of the violence in the
Coens’ Fargo leaves one with the mistaken impression that there are far more
casualties than there actually are. Further, the Coens’ directly reference the
impact violence has on community in Blood
, a phrase taken from Dashiell Hammett that acknowledges its
collective psychic toll.

[3] In this sense, “small town” fictions,
particularly in the Midwest, provide an opportunity to avoid pesky diversity
issues.  In Fargo, the cast is overwhelmingly white, and the few minorities
written into the script are the object of ridicule, violence or both.

[4] As others
have noted, the Louisiana landscape is a perfect fit for Pizzolatto’s purposes
– which is probably why it’s also the setting for HBO’s other series about the small-town supernatural, True Blood. 

Fatal Riddles: HANNIBAL and the Figure of the Serial Killer in Contemporary Television

Fatal Riddles: HANNIBAL and the Figure of the Serial Killer in Contemporary Television


season premiere of Law & Order‘s
fourteenth season, Bodies, constituted
a departure from prior episodes.  Cryptic
markings on a dead body are matched to similar markings found on a victim in
Brooklyn five years before, and then to more bodies, all of which leads
Detectives Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Green (Jesse L. Martin) to conclude there
is a serial killer at work in New York City. The killer—a psychopathic taxi
driver named Mark Bruner (played by guest star Ritchie Coster)—is apprehended
relatively quickly. Briscoe and Green take no actions in pursuit of the killer
that fans of the show haven’t seen a thousand times before: they canvass,
retrace the steps of the victim, happen upon a nightclub waitress with a keen
eye for creepy patrons, and finally follow a hunch that leads them to Bruner’s apartment.
It’s not the pursuit and capture that provide the climax of the episode,
however, but the legal predicament that follows: Bruner’s attorney, an idealistic
public defender, must either break attorney-client privilege—and tell the
prosecutors (and the court) where Bruner has hidden additional bodies—or be
charged as an accessory to Bruner’s crimes.

Wolf’s Law & Order debuted in the
fall of 1990, at the peak of New York’s violent crime wave—that year, there
were over 2,000 murders (compared to 333 in 2013).  Law
& Order
embraced the fear of social disintegration and addressed it
with a severe formalism that married esperanto liberalism with a faith in traditional
institutions of justice.  The formula fit
the times.  The show debuted four years
after Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created mandatory
minimum sentences and helped inaugurate our current prison crisis, and four
years before Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act (1994),
which flooded the streets with policemen and extended the death penalty to
forty new offenses.  Nonetheless, by the
late 1990s, as the economy rode a wave of irrational exuberance, and NYC transitioned
from a dystopia to a destination for hipsters and financiers alike, the kinds
of crimes that captured the public imagination changed as well. Events like the
Columbine High School shootings of 1999 and the September 11, 2001 terrorist
attacks spiked fear of hidden threats from within.  Over time, Wolf adapted to this changing landscape
by bringing different versions of Law
& Order
to television, shifting the focus to tawdrier crimes (SVU), or quirkier detectives, (Criminal Intent).[1]
On the flagship show, however, the  basic
format prevailed, with few exceptions, for the duration of its twenty-year run.
It was plug-and-play television, and its reliance on formula guaranteed the
show was almost always competent if rarely great.


Bodies, however, Bruner’s lack of traditional
motive—he doesn’t kill out of greed, or revenge, or jealousy—renders him
less a typical Law & Order criminal
than a force of deconstruction and illogic. When Bruner bestows knowledge of
his victims’ whereabouts on his public defender and then relies on legal rules
and ethics to preclude the attorney from sharing that information, he reveals the
fundamental contradictions between our abstract notions of justice and the
institutional rules which make the judicial system work. By using Bruner this
way, Bodies takes a cue from the modern
archetype of the fictional intelligent psychopath: the creature in Mary
Shelley’s Frankenstein.  In a fit of rage, Shelley’s creature – powerful,
brilliant, and a wounded social reject all at once – frames the Frankenstein
family’s adopted daughter Justine Moritz for the murder of an infant family
member.  Torn between confessing to a
crime she didn’t commit and ex-communication, Justine admits guilt and is
hanged. Although her death may be characterized as innocence lost, it’s not the
senseless destruction of innocence that drives the creature. Rather, having
been judged and excluded by society because of his appearance, the creature seeks
revenge by turning the Frankenstein family against itself and exposing the internal
contradictions and inherent arbitrariness of the justice system and, by
extension, society.

Law & Order premiered on NBC in
the autumn of 1990, it did so over the protests of some executives who thought
it was too intense for weekly network television. Just under twenty-five years
later, on June 6, 2013, on the same network, roughly 2.5 million viewers
watched as Hannibal‘s Dr. Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard)
graphically disemboweled psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Chilton (Raul Esparza) while
a still-conscious Chilton looked on. Gideon is but one of fourteen serial
killers introduced in the first twenty-two episodes of Hannibal.  Although notably
graphic in its violence, Hannibal is
not the first network show to focus on serial killers.[2]  A non-exhaustive list includes NBC’s Profiler and Fox’s Millenium, both of which premiered in 1996.  It also includes CSI, which premiered on CBS in 2000 (to be followed in 2002 by CSI: Miami and in 2004 by CSI: NY) and which, although not solely devoted
to serial killers, relied on a serial killer in its pilot and has depended on
serial killers for a number of its multi-episode narrative arcs. Criminal Minds, also on CBS and just
renewed for its tenth season, follows the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit (the
“BAU” also featured on Hannibal)
as they track a new serial killer every week. Within months of Hannibal’s premiere in April, 2013, The
debuted on Fox, The Bridge
on FX, and The Killing’s third (but
first serial killer-based) season began on AMC. 
And, although they are not network shows, the past year saw both the
successful initial run of HBO’s True
and the disappointing conclusion of Showtime’s Dexter.

the fascination with “intelligent psychopaths” and serial killers? It’s
certainly true that there’s an audience for gratuitous and/or sadistic violence.
The killers are almost invariably white men directing violence (frequently
sexual) against “helpless” victims, typically women.  But there must be some further appeal, given
the fact that these shows (and novels and movies) command a large, diverse
audience of both sexes.  At a minimum,
serial killer plotlines are so culturally-determined at this point that they
seem to provide a kind of generic gravity, atmosphere, and stability to any
But Daniel Tiffany, in Infidel Poetics,
identifies something atavistic in our morbid fascination that dates back to the
legend of the Sphinx, the mythical creature who terrorized Thebes with a fatal
As a “liminal” creature – part human, part
lion, part eagle but not actually human, lion, or eagle – the Sphinx is both an
antecedent and ancestor to Frankenstein’s creature, whose parts also fail to
add up, leaving him at once both human and less-than-human. Both figures presage
the “intelligent psychopath” of contemporary television, whose inscrutability
is the product of his fundamental lack of that something that we believe makes us “human.”
In this way,
the “riddling serial killers and
cryptographers of modernity” supply us with a “vernacular strain of
‘poetry'” and join the Sphinx (and Shelley’s creature) as authors of a
vertiginous, “apocalyptic” narrative. 
These figures embody a riddle that suspends us between a “promise
of revelation” and “the threat of annihilation.”[4]
By internalizing the superficial grotesqueness of Shelley’s creature, the
serial killer is all the more beguiling because – unlike the Sphinx or the
creature – he terrorizes us from within. 
If it seems a stretch to call the work of these killers poems, we need only consider how we
distinguish a killer’s “style” by what we call his signature.


not a stretch to say that our
construction and re-construction of these narratives – and the means we devise
to solve their riddles – can tell us something about a given cultural moment.  Shelley’s Frankenstein,
for instance, provides a strong critique of Romantic hubris, depicting the
destructive results of our attempt to “play God” through science.  Centuries later, CSI flipped Frankenstein‘s
script by suggesting a solution in science.
CSI kept in place many of the familiar
markers of the police procedural, but it also instituted a few significant
changes.  Most importantly, it focused on
the analytical methods of forensic scientists who preferred to stay far away
from the action. (“I don’t chase criminals,” explains lead-scientist
Gil Grissom, “I analyze evidence.”)[5]  These scientists function not only as a team,
but also as a kind of marketplace of ideas
– the laboratory is collaborative but also competitive,
with the scientists vying for Grissom’s favor and sourcing solutions from a
diversity of character stereotypes including an ex-stripper, an All-American
good-old-boy, a strong-but-silently-troubled bad-ass, and geeks galore. For the
bulk of its run, the CSI method was explicitly anti-theoretical; speculation
earned a quick rebuke from Grissom. It’s not difficult to identify in early CSI a pragmatism, a belief in markets
(at least of the intellectual variety), and a fetish for technology that reflect
the Clinton era that gave birth to it. When Criminal
first aired five years later, it adopted this pragmatism, down to its
team/market of diverse stereotypes, but swapped out the gleaming machinery of
the lab for behavioral models (and a dash of Big Data analysis). Criminal Minds‘ BAU also operates
collaboratively and competitively, dramatically prioritizing an internal trust
and transparency that stands in stark contradiction to the inscrutability of
the criminals they track. Both CSI and
Criminal Minds are notable for the
integral, authoritative roles they give to women. Their “marketplace”
is an inclusive one, a fact that, to a limited degree, helps off-set the
recurrent victimhood of women. Although both CSI and Criminal Minds
traffic in pop-philosophy (Criminal Minds
actually brackets its episodes with de-contextualized quotes from literature
and philosophy), neither treat serial killers as a kind of existential or philosophical
threat. Instead, the killer is merely one more problem to be solved, that can be solved, through a combination of
reason, diligence, technology, and cooperation.[6]

what do we make of Hannibal? It’s sui generis.  It adapts characters from, but pre-dates,
Thomas Harris’s well-known novels.  This means
that, to the extent it plans to follow those novels (with some, but not total,
fidelity thus far), the audience already knows a great deal about where the
narrative is going.  The show centers on
Will Graham, played by Hugh Dancey, a “pure empath” who experiences crimes from
the criminal’s perspective, and Hannibal Lecter, played by Mads Mikkelsen, a
psychiatrist who has been brought in by the FBI to help Graham handle the
psychic burden of his job (and, eventually, to aid in tracking down killers). There
is no mystery for the audience to Lecter’s identity, or the fact that he is a
psychopath, a killer, and a cannibal. 
Instead, the two characters face-off in a kind of dialectical opposition
as Lecter attempts to maneuver Graham into becoming a killer himself. The other
characters orbit them, occasionally changing polarities for the convenience of
the plot.  Dancy’s Graham is slightly-built,
boyish, soulful, all frayed ends. Although he “teaches” criminal
profiling at the FBI training center at Quantico, the show is exceedingly light
on the analytical. You could be forgiven for wondering about the substance of
his lectures, given the fact that his “talents” are the apparent
byproduct of cognitive and psychological abnormalities. Mikkelsen’s Lecter
manages to be droll, aloof, creepy, charming, and – it must be said – a hell of
a clotheshorse. (His plaid suits and large-knotted paisley ties are a costume
designer’s dream.) He is also an unparalleled chef, a visual artist (he studied
drawing at Johns Hopkins on a fellowship), a musician and composer (harpsichord
and Theremin), a one-time neurosurgeon, and, now, a psychologist.[7]  He is so refined, and his composure so total,
that it would be nice, just once, for the show to sneak up on him as he watches
television and eats cereal in sweatpants. 

be clear, Hannibal is beautiful. And
it bears all the hallmarks of prestige television – not just the high quality
of the visuals, but also its accomplished cast and casual erudition. That said,
the show’s compositions are clearly its calling card. They are meticulous,
often daring, and Hannibal consistently
fills the screen with striking images drawn from a super-saturated palette.  The most striking images are, of course, the
dead bodies themselves, and the show’s attentiveness to the
“expressive” quality of the murdered body suggests an affinity with
David Fincher’s Seven (1995).[8]  No matter the killer, the dead bodies of the “victims”
are nearly always arranged and presented by the murderer in ways that blur the line
between the beautiful and the grotesque. Of the fourteen serial killers thus
far, not one has stooped to the banal depths of, say, strangling a prostitute
in a dark alley. Although the crime scenes
are elaborate, the majority of the actual murders in Hannibal occur off-screen. 
Thus we “meet” most victims for the first time when they are already
dead, already posed. Only belatedly (and even then only occasionally), through
Graham’s experience of the crimes, does the audience witness any of the
brutality behind the “art.” As a result, Hannibal‘s disinterest in the victims’ interior life parallels the
disinterest of the killers themselves. Deprived of a backstory, the victims never
exist as subjects, only as the
eventual objects of the killer’s art.
That it is art that we’re seeing is reinforced again and again as the
characters “admire” the monumental design, and, yes, the “poetry”
of the “death tableaux.”

show is equally meticulous thematically. It maps out a symbolic universe of
mirrors and reflections, parlor rooms and libraries, sublime landscapes and
dream imagery that, in combination with the violence done to the human body, suggests
what might result if Eli Roth plucked his writers from a graduate seminar on
Lacan. That half the main characters are psychologists permits Hannibal to lay it on thick – for a show
about chasing serial killers, it spends a great deal of time listening in on
characters in book-lined rooms as they earnestly discuss psychic
“borders,” dream interpretation, and “identity.” In this
way, Hannibal shares an intellectual
ambition with both The Following and True Detective.[9]  It is a credit to the creators that Hannibal manages to avoid The Following‘s too-obvious literary
aspirations. Like True Detective, it
succeeds largely in spite of itself, relying on strong visuals, charismatic
performances, and self-awareness to hide an intellectual and narrative preposterousness
that grows increasingly hard to ignore.


Hannibal  incorporates the components of a modern
criminal procedural – FBI agents, gunplay, high-tech labs and the quirky
squints who occupy them – but it displays none of the other shows’ faith in (or
fetish for) methodology.  On the
contrary, in the universe of Hannibal,
science is inert, ineffective, and easily manipulated. These manipulations
rarely serve as a surprise to the audience; instead, as Lecter uses forensic
evidence to frame others, send messages, or toy with the FBI, the audience is allowed
in on the joke.  The wholesale
institutional haplessness of the FBI is driven home by the fact that Jack
Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), the Director of the BAU, spends most of Season
One sharing meals with Lecter in which they eat
the very victims of the crimes he’s investigating
.  The medical and psychology professions fare
no better. Lecter “gives” Graham encephalitis then corrupts (and then
kills) the neurologist to keep it quiet. The psychiatrist Chilton, who manages
to survive his encounter with Gideon only to be killed soon after by means of one
of Hannibal’s more elaborate strategems, is a blowhard and fraud.  In the course of a couple of episodes, Lecter
manipulates both the FBI and Graham’s love interest (a psychologist consultant
to the FBI) into believing that Graham is a serial killer.  Naturally, it’s also Lecter who later gets
him freed. Lecter’s ability to manipulate and escape detection is explained in Mephistopholean
and metaphysical terms by the few who recognize his dangerousness – he’s Satan,
he’s smoke, he can’t be seen. As Lecter’s psychiatrist (an excellent Gillian
Anderson) explains to him, severing their relationship before fleeing town in
fear, “
I’ve had to draw a
conclusion based on what I glimpsed through the stitching of the person suit
that you wear.” That the stitching holds up as long as it does may be Hannibal‘s sole mystery.

espouses a superficially stringent code of etiquette and ethics, and a breach
of these codes can have fatal consequences. 
Like all things Hannibal,
however, this code frequently bends to his will.  Although it may be Lecter’s world we’re
living in, fortune doesn’t only favor
Lecter; it favors all the killers, who always seem to finish their
“monuments,” no matter how ambitious, without any wires snapping,
without the whole Rube Goldbergian apparatus tumbling down, and without
interruption.[10]  From time-to-time, Hannibal slyly concedes a universe in which psychopaths are not an
exception but rather a kind of cabal, fixing and amending its rules. “Look
at us,” the journalist Freddie Lounds (
Jean Chorostecki) observes to Graham and Lecter, “a bunch of psychopaths
helping one another out.”

Lecter’s ability to manipulate the actions of others, even from remote
distances (of space and/or time) suggests not so much that he’s playing chess
while the FBI plays checkers, but rather that all of us are merely pawns in a
match he plays against himself for idle amusement. Stripped of a Sphinx-like
“fatal riddle,” the drama of Hannibal
is reduced to Lecter’s attempt to corrupt Graham. Its focus on the
“borders” that separate “us” from psychopaths suggests that
its closest relative is Showtime’s Dexter.  But it lacks a central paradox like the one
that animated the first few seasons of Dexter.
There, the audience was encouraged to root for Dexter’s happiness, his
normalization. But any relationship with Dexter posed, by its very nature, a
mortal risk. As those who cared for him were endangered or killed, Dexter forced its audience to examine
its own complicity in the violence.  Hannibal, on the other hand, solicits
admiration at the risk of leaving complicity unexamined. The shows share an
additional thematic similarity, however. And it’s a significant one. The
bumbling nature of the Miami police in Dexter
mirrors Hannibal’s hapless FBI;
both shows mask an inherent pessimism with a kind of “flawed hero”-worship,
suggesting a need to delegate the fight against “evil” to someone different,
and better, than us. This is not a
new trope. The transformation of Sherlock Holmes into a “high-functioning
sociopath” on Sherlock and the
emotional and intellectual volatility of Criminal
’s Detective Goren are just two recent examples that suggest that the
battle against psychopaths can only be won by psychopaths. We’re watching Titans
and Olympians battle it out across the mountaintops. Or, more aptly, it’s a
comic book universe as seen through the lens of the DSM.

Hannibal can be commended for its
even-handed approach to victimhood – it has avoided the kind of unrelenting
victimization of women (victimhood is distributed across gender and race) that
plagues Criminal Minds, and that famously
drove Mandy Patinkin from the cast. It also largely avoids that show’s
uncomfortable voyeurism.  But does that
discomfort have a kind of value? By hiding so much of its actual violence from
us, Hannibal often leaves the
audience with nothing but passive admiration of its technical accomplishment.  Having pre-emptively emptied both science and
the law of value, it cannot offer comment or critique. Having tilted the
universe so fully in favor of its killers, Hannibal
self-limits what it can tell us about the nature of evil – banal or
otherwise – in the world off-screen.[11]
Because of this, Hannibal struggles
to justify either its graphic violence or its body count.  Does it need justification? None of my
criticism detracts from the show’s direction and acting – which are excellent,
and significantly better than its kin, save perhaps for True Detective. It’s possible the wealth of surface pleasures is
enough. At one point, Graham criticizes Crawford for “mythologiz[ing]
banal and cruel men who didn’t deserve
to be thought of as supervillains.” 
That the show itself goes on to do exactly that suggests a winking,
Lecter-like self-awareness. In these moments
the show is most fully a reflection of the title character himself – clever,
facile, worldly, stylish, vicious, and hollow. 
As the audience, we are in on the joke but denied the riddle.

Spencer Short is an attorney and author. His collection of
Tremolo (Harper 2001), was
awarded a 2000 National Poetry Series Prize. His poetry and non-fiction have
been published in
The Boston Review, Coldfront, the Columbia Review, Hyperallergic,
Men’s Digest, Slate, and Verse. He lives in Brooklyn.

[1] An informal count tallied more
than three times as many serial killers in the combined twenty-five years of SVU and Criminal Intent than in the twenty years of the original Law & Order.

[2] As far back as 1988, NBC
broadcast the short-lived and before-its-time Unsub, starring Starsky &
David Soul as the leader of a team of FBI forensic scientists
tracking the same kinds of “unknown subjects” at issue in Criminal Minds.

[3] The
dramatic improvement in the third season of The
suggests that a serial killer plotline can serve to stabilize an
ambitious, but troubled, show. In other cases, serial killers have been used to
lend “lightweight” shows a sense of substane; hence the serial killer plotlines
in lighter fare such as NCIS, Bones, and even the soap operas Loving and One Life to Live.

[4] Tiffany, Infidel Poetics (2009), p. 72.

[5] Grissom was played by William
Petersen who, coincidentally, played Will Graham in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) the first  adaptation from Thomas Harris’s Lecter novels.
It was remade as Red Dragon in 2002.

[6] Fox’s Bones is another example of the “empirical” procedural and is
strongly indebted to CSI.

[7] Lecter also has an exceptionally
keen sense of smell – at one point he claims to have “smelled” Graham’s encephalitis
– a trait he shares with Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the serial killer anti-hero
of Patrick Susskind’s novel Perfume.
In Susskind’s novel, the hyperosmia is actually what drives Grenouille to kill.

[8] Twelve years later, Fincher
would again direct a film about a serial killer – this time the Zodiac – but
would focus less on the overtly apocalyptic and the graphically violent and
focus instead on the destructive internal toll that the Zodiac’s “fatal
riddle” imposed on those investigating him.

[9] It also shares significant
structural similarities to The Following
but that is beyond the scope of this piece, mostly because it would have
required watching more of The Following.

[10] Contrast all of this with the
one victim we see who manages to escape from a killer: he leaps from a bluff to
the river below only to bounce awkwardly against the rocks and plunge, already
dead, into the water.

[11] The fantastic British crime
drama The Fall (also, coincidentally,
starring Gillian Anderson) provides a welcome antidote to this self-regard. It
shares a number of structural similarities to Hannibal, but manages to capture a tension between menace and
banality that is wholly absent from Hannibal.