Jul 20, 2015

TV Round-Up: All My Favourite Ladies

TV ladies: Krystal Goderitch, Poussey Washington, Phryne Fisher and Rae Earl
TV Round-Up: All My Favourite Ladies
I like stories about women. You’ve probably heard me say before that I agree that making women central to a narrative is an essential feminist act, yet this goes hand in hand with my belief that “But is it feminist?” isn’t necessarily the most useful question to ask about a piece of media. These two statements may appear contradictory, but I don’t actually see them as such. I like stories where I know my full humanity isn’t going to be questioned at every turn; where I can go in trusting that the experiences of a wide range of women will be considered in their own terms and not only in relation to how they affect the men in the narrative. At the same time, I know that these stories will be on dialogue with the real world in a variety of ways, and will often be filled with gaps and contradictions when it comes to how they represent the experiences of different people. To me, digging into these is one of the greatest challenges and pleasures of thinking in detail about the stories I encounter.

I know it’s only July, but I feel I can safely say that The Wire is going to be the major event of my TV year, much in the same ways Friday Night Lights was last year’s. I loved it to bits, even if its blind spots when it comes to how it treated its female characters were impossible for me to miss. When I finished it I was worried I was going to have a TV hang-over for a while — that I’d try series after series, but nothing else would measure up. My rescue ended up coming in the form of a return of four of my favourite TV series from recent years (all in their third season, as it turns out), every one of which is centred on girls or women. Since I’ve written about all of these in detail before and the things I like about them remain pretty much the same, I thought I’d so a quick round-up post with brief thoughts about the new seasons. I’ll try to avoid any major spoilers, but be warned that I’ll likely end up giving away a few plot points. Here goes:

Orphan Black S3:

Orphan Black: Helena in S3
I continue to believe that Orphan Black kind of lost the plot after season one, and I’ll admit I found this especially noticeable during the first half of this season. However, I have long since realised that I watch it for the characters and for the possibilities the premise puts forward rather than for the specifics of how the plot is executed, and as a result I enjoyed Orphan Black’s latest season as much as always.

Two things I especially liked: first of all, Orphan Black is good at reconciling women in ways that feel genuine but are not simplistic, and that was particularly noticeable here. Gracie and Helena, Helena and Siobhan, Sarah and Rachel in a sense: this series has a tendency to turn conflict around and display alliances between women that seem unlikely at first but then become the most natural thing in the world. This has the effect of normalising the ups and downs of human relationships in a primarily female universe, and I find that a powerful thing.

The other thing I liked was Crystal’s introduction, particularly the fact that the series acknowledges that she’s smart and scared and human even though she’s a woman a lot of people would be inclined to patronise. I was moved by the scene where Felix tells Sarah that of course Crystal suspects her life is not quite like other people’s, of course she’s more than capable of putting two and two together. I hope we’ll see plenty more of Crystal in the fourth season.

Orange is the New Black S3:

Orange is the New Black S3: Tiffany and Boo
This was a difficult season to watch, especially with (spoilers ahoy) Tiffany’s sexual assault and the transphobic violence against Sophia. Sophia’s storyline made me particularly sad. I didn’t find it poorly written or exploitative (though other viewers may of course feel differently), but it was hard after the first two seasons, where the fact that Sophia was never misgendered was a standout. Trans women do often have a especially difficult time in prison, and it’s important to acknowledge this and to show how even when someone is accepted transphobia might still emerge when there’s a conflict — it’s prevalent and insidious and people default to it when they want to cause hurt. But at the same time, there are so few prominent trans woman characters on TV that I really wanted to see a story that showed that a character like Sophia could be okay (in a limited sense, of course, considering this has always been a series about being in prison).

What really fails Sophia, though, is Litchfield Prison as an institution, and I really appreciated that we got to dig into the reasons why. This season was actually a great follow-up to The Wire: even if I found some of the individual characters’ narratives less compelling than in the previous seasons, I thought that the overall themes were stronger than ever. We see a major private corporation take over the prison, and then we watch how prioritising strategies whose aim is to maximize short-term profit (“What matters”, the big boss says, “is this quarter and the next”) affects the lives of the characters we love in concrete, tangible ways. Unsurprisingly, this hits the most vulnerable especially hard: there’s Sophia, of course, but also Soso, who is suffering from depression and whose access to quality care is made far more difficult than it needs to be.

With privatisation come labour rights struggles, and continued measures that decrease the inmates’ quality of life as the bottom line is chased — all leading to a horrifying ending with the prison’s population about to be doubled. The denouncement of prisons being run for profit is as smart as it is loud and clear, and I look forward to seeing where the next season will take us.

Lastly, I loved some of the new relationships we got to see develop this season. Two gift sets that hit me right in the heart: Soso and Poussey (YES, please) and Tiffany and Boo (best friendship).

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries S3:

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries season 3: Phryne Fisher and Dot
...or: why Jack and Phryne continue to own my heart. This series was more of the same, but that’s not by any means a bad thing when what I mean by “the same” is “an amazing story about a woman solving mysteries in the 1920s, living her life in her own terms, and not caring even a little bit what society might think”.

As I said last year, I really appreciate how Pryne’s relationships with other women, namely Dot and Mac, are part of this show’s emotional core. At the same time, I’m 100% into Phryne and Jack as crime-solving partners. Another thing I wrote about last year was how as much as it would have been satisfying to watch Phryne constantly thwart a Police Inspector who expected her to be incompetent, the dynamics she and Jack end up developing are much better: Jack trusts Phryne, he acknowledges her expertise, and he comes to rely on collaborating with her to solve cases successfully. It only takes about two episodes for nearly everyone in the universe of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries to start taking Phryne’s excellence as a detective seriously, and that was just so restful to watch.

There’s a wonderful scene in this season where Jack receives a phone call from a superior officer commanding him to stop letting civilians (aka Phryne) get involved in police investigations. His response? “You’re now a Special Constable of the Victoria Police Force”. When traditional male authority directly orders him to exclude Phryne Fisher, he forces this authority to recognise her instead.

Also! (Spoiler:) At the end of this season we get the long awaited Phryne and Jack kiss, but I can’t tell you how much I love that it’s immediately followed by Phryne getting on an aeroplane and flying away as she’d planned. These, this scene tells us, will be the terms of whatever relationship they might develop: a passion that coexists with freedom and respect. Phryne Fisher is and will always be an independent person with a life of her own. Jack may be invited to share this life, but that doesn’t mean she’ll be put in a position where she’s expected to cast it aside.

Oh, this series. I love it so.

My Mad Fat Diary S3:

My Mad Fat Diary season 3: Rae
I confess I had some mixed feelings when I heard there was going to be a third season of My Mad Fat Diary: the ending of season two was so perfect that I wasn’t sure I wanted more. It only took about two minutes of the first episode for all my ambiguity to disappear, though: this series has so much heart and humour that all I was left with was gratitude that there was more of it for me to watch.

(Spoilers from here on) As before, I loved Rae and Chloe’s friendship. I teared up when Chloe woke up in hospital, saw Rae sitting next to her, and the first thing she asked was, “You okay, babe?” There’s so much care between the two of them, so hard-won and so genuine, and so openly and unapologetically expressed. We watched them get to this glorious, delicate place of trust and non-stop support over the course of the previous two seasons, and it was a triumph to now watch them stay there.

On a less positive note, I could really have done without the Katie-the-false-friend-who-is-actually-out-to-steal-your-boyfriend storyline. It felt like a step backwards in a series that had thus far done such a wonderful job of subverting clich├ęs about how girls interact with one another. Likewise for Kester and Rae’s relationship: it had moved away from the questionable crossing of professional boundaries of the earlier episodes, only to revert back with added red flags. I desperately wish we had more stories that show that adults can (and obviously should) act professionally around the teenagers in their care and still genuinely help them.

Still, all in all I thought that the three episodes that form this short final season made for a thoughtful and bittersweet coda to Rae Earl’s story. And as much as I loved the perfect happiness of the season two finale, there was something powerful and subversive about watching Rae on a train, moving towards the rest of her life and all the unimagined possibilities it offers her, single but by no means alone, and with a newfound sense of her own resilience all around her like armour. The season was also a reminder that progress towards mental health is not a straight line: relapses are not a sign that everything has been lost, and the key thing is to develop coping mechanisms that work and get you through the rough patches.


  1. You know what else I'm so loving about the third season of Miss Fisher? I love seeing Hugh and Dot negotiate what their marriage is going to look like, where Hugh is still very much inside the traditional idea of marriage, and Dot has decided she's going to do like Miss Fisher and reinvent institutions that don't please her. It's the best. DOT.

  2. I always enjoy your writing about TV; you've added lots of great viewing to my list. The last you've mentioned is new-to-me, but I'll suss it out and give it a try. Thanks!

    1. Aww, thanks, that's really nice to hear. My Mad Fat Diary is so great - one of my favourites of last year. It also has an amazing 90s music (when the story is set) soundtrack and does a fabulous job of finding music with the right emotional tone for each scene. Happy viewing!

  3. I need to see Orange is the New Black (as I appear to be the only queer woman in THE UNIVERSE who hasn't seen it yet). Lea DeLaria was at the New York Pride March; charisma for DAYS.

  4. I just finished watching season 2 of Ms. Fisher and I loved, loved, loved it. I've only read the first book in the series and also want to read the others too. It's such a brilliant series and I particularly love Phryne's fashion and her relationship with the people she loves. Can't wait to watch season 3!


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