Archive | June, 2015

Roll Up for the Magical Mystery Show

22 Jun


Hey, have you heard about this new mystery podcast? You like mystery podcasts, right? I mean, don’t we all want to know who killed Hae?

This mystery podcast, conveniently titled Mystery Show, probably is not going to tell us what the deal is with Jay and Adnan (though it would be a hell of an episode if it did). Instead, This American Life alum Starlee Kine solves a mystery in each hour of air time. To date, four episodes in, the mysteries aren’t that big. What kind of person would get a vanity license plate that reads ILUV911? How did Britney Spears come to be photographed with a particular author’s second book, which nobody else seemed to read? (Sub-question: Britney, Secret Bookworm?) What’s the story with an engraved belt buckle found in a Phoenix arroyo twenty-five years ago? They’re the kinds of mysteries that don’t warrant a call to the police, can’t be Googled, and make you want to drum up all the unsolved questions of your own life for Kine to chew on.

Mystery Show is essentially a light procedural. Kine’s working the phones and knocking on doors, she’s running license plates, she’s befriending chefs in Phoenix, she’s going to Vegas in hopes of asking Britney about the book thing. (I don’t know how many cases she’s working on at a time, but it sounds like a pretty fun job.) She has contacts who can help, or she doesn’t; lines of questioning work out, or they don’t. It makes you wonder about your own resourcefulness: how far would you go for the answer to somebody else’s minor mystery, and how would you go about it, anyway?

If all this were the best part of Mystery Show, it would still be entertaining. Kine is funny, the stories veer off in unexpected directions, and it’s sometimes affecting without feeling heavy. But in most cases, the solving of the mystery is not even remotely the best part. The best part is when Kine gets people—total strangers—talking, nudging them into conversation and then stepping aside as the recorder runs. And they tell her the most incredible things. These people usually aren’t central to the case; they’re customer service reps and people hanging out at the local bar, and we never hear from them again. But they tell her about their lives, about what they love, about why they are where they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. This is where Kine’s decade-plus of radio experience is the most evident: she knows how to strike up a friendly conversation, how to follow the scent of something interesting even if it’s mostly irrelevant to the case, and the value of letting people talk things out. She’s patient. And it’s these moments that are the real gems of Mystery Show, the parts that make you think, “well, that was amazing.”

And that’s why, though it’s early to make pronouncements, Mystery Show could be one of the greats of its genre. With the exception of This American Life, where “stories about people” is the entire stated goal, storytelling shows are never about what they’re about. (Not everybody can be This American Life; we already have one of those, plus many, many imitators.) They all have structures—murder mysteries or found media or “storytelling with a beat”—and then they have something they’re about: generally, stories the audience might not have heard otherwise. Mystery Show is young, but it’s already got this down: it’s about solving the small mysteries of life, but it’s about radio as a way of life and an excuse to listen to people. It’s about the people Kine meets along the way and the stories they tell her—and she’s really good at getting and curating those stories.

Shows I Would Watch If They Only Had Female Characters

1 Jun


We’re two weeks into the post-Mad Men era, and though it’s constitutionally forbidden to say anything bad about it, I have a confession to make: I liked Mad Men very much, but during the later seasons, there were times where I thought, “I wish this show were about the women.”

I get it. Mad Men is the story of Don Draper and his slow spiral into misery and drunkenness and death as the fifties become the seventies. That’s the show, and it was a great show. But you know who’s really interesting? Peggy Olsen, who started out as the secretary and is just about to rule the world. Joan Holloway-Harris, who was the mistress of one world and is maybe still adjusting to another, is interesting. Sally Draper, who didn’t even have any lines for four seasons because she was a child, and who will spend all of the seventies in therapy because of the events of the sixties? Sally Draper is interesting. Give me a show about those ladies—I guess the men can make occasional cameos, and by “the men” I mean “70s Stan and his beard of majesty”—and I’d watch.

For a period of time, The Good Wife approached this benchmark; things came gloriously close to becoming The Alicia, Diane, and Kalinda Show (With Cameos by Nancy Crozier and Elsbeth Tascioni), which I like to think was foiled only by mysterious production-side issues. To be clear: I don’t mind the men of The Good Wife. I hope Matthew Goode comes back next season! I love Eli Gould! Peter Florrick is the character who kind of makes me get the appeal of Chris Noth! I think Louis Canning is a terrific, complex role for Michael J. Fox! But come on: I don’t need them. Not the way I need The Alicia, Diane, and Kalinda Show.

And then there are shows I don’t already watch, but might if they suddenly turned into shows about women doing interesting things. Take Elementary: It’s convenient that the creators of Elementary already went to the trouble of taking Sherlock Holmes’s name out of the title of their show, so when it’s just Joan Watson hanging around a big house in amazing outfits, being a professional sober companion or maybe solving crimes (slowly and with old-fashioned police work, due to lack of a prodigy partner), they won’t even have to change anything. Since they’ve already begun, I would also accept a full genderswap, where Jonny Lee Miller morphs into Sherlockia Holmes (Tilda Swinton), a lady genius/addict who solves crimes under the reluctant but respectful eye of Captain Thomasina Gregson (Edie Falco). They can keep the turtle, Clytemnestra.

I’d say the same about Game of Thrones, but it poses a few more problems. On one hand, Game of Thrones appears to be full of flawed, three-dimensional female characters with interesting storylines, making it ripe for the Misandrist Plague. Let’s watch a well-funded, well-written, well-produced show about ladies and dragons! On the other hand, I get the feeling that this show is very pointed about women and power—that any woman experiencing any kind of success is some kind of thrilling exception, and any woman who isn’t a thrilling exception is definitely not experiencing any kind of success. So what happens to a casually feminist Game of Thrones, where the women are just characters and not unicorns? Maybe the backstabbings (literal and figurative) continue; I’d be into that. Maybe they don’t, and they talk everything out and decide it doesn’t matter who gets to sit in the sword chair, and form a commune ruled by a High Governess who rotates every year. I’m sure there’s conflict there, too! Either way, I wasn’t kidding about that ladies-and-dragons show, and I’m far more likely to watch either of these options than I am the actual Game of Thrones.

I’m not saying I don’t watch and enjoy TV about men. As I said, I thought Mad Men was terrific as it was, and I tune in weekly, with great affection, to the men of The Good Wife. I like Jonny Lee Miller, and I hear good things about his performance on Elementary. (Game of Thrones is probably not going to happen for me, but everybody else seems excited about it, so we’ll go with that.) But sometimes it feels like people think shows won’t float if they don’t have a man front and center; I’d like to argue otherwise. I like watching shows about women—female humans with thoughts and feelings!—making their way in extraordinary circumstances. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this.

So. While we’re at it, where did we land on Tilda Swinton and Edie Falco?