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The Punk-Rock Makeover Will, and Why It Sort of Works

Michelle

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Warning: this (lengthy) season review contains major spoilers for the TNT Drama Will, and references torture, rape and the exploitation of children.

Full disclaimer: I’m an early modernist. By which I mean, I have spent over ten years of my academic, professional and personal life studying early modern literature—including but not limited to Shakespeare and Marlowe—and bolstering my readings with in-depth research about early modern women’s life and work, gender presentation/representation, and socioeconomic realities and power dynamics. I bring a hefty amount of baggage, then, to TNT’s drama Will. Baggage I did my best to stow away, out of sight out of mind, but that will still, inevitably, influence my response to this period drama.

That said, TNT’s adaptation of Shakespeare—and I call it an adaptation because there is much to be said for how the writers, producers, directors, costumers and actors bring some of the best—and worst—of Shakespeare’s drama into this show—is a surprisingly entertaining look at “how it could have happened” that, for all its faults, continues the work academics, scholars, teachers and the Bard’s many lovers have been doing for years.

Making Shakespeare accessible.

What is Past is Prologue: the Plot of Will

If you would like to skip a detailed summary of the season, please scroll down to the next heading.

Will takes place in 1589, smack dab in the middle of Shakespeare’s “lost years”: a period where William Shakespeare dropped entirely from public record. A determined but naïve young man, William Shakespeare (Laurie Davidson) leaves his wife Anne (Deidre Mullins) and three children to pursue a writing/acting career in London—partly to support his family, but mostly to spare himself the tedious destiny of a married tradesman.

London is a tumultuous place. While Will secures himself a place in James Burbage’s the Theatre as writer and actor, Protestant court torturer Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner) scours London’s streets for Father Robert Southwell (Max Bennett): an upstart Catholic priest inspiring downtrodden and secreted English Catholics to open resistance. Their war of propaganda and religious fervor touch every social circle, from the Queen’s advisers to a pick-pocket struggling to rescue his sister from sexual slavery.

It is a war Will tries, and fails, to avoid. A secret Catholic, Will is pressured by his parents to deliver a letter to Southwell—a letter the pick-pocket Presto (Lukas Rolfo) discovers and takes it to Topcliffe. Will is spared an early death by Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower), London’s most popular playwright and current Topcliffe informant, who sets up the middling playwright Baxter in Will’s place.

Will’s religion doesn’t remain a secret for very long. Marlowe knows it full well and dangles the life he saved over Will’s head, while Alice Burbage (Olivia DeJonge), James’ daughter and theatre scribe, is subjected to Will’s confession of his belief. Even knowing the danger he brings to the theatre and her family, and his married state, Alice enters into an affair with Will. They try to remain discreet, even as Alice’s parents arrange for her to marry Lord Keenan: a wealthy beer merchant whose financial backing will keep the theatre open and James out of debtor’s prison.

Will’s star rises in the theatre with the successful production of plays Edward III, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Henry VI Parts 1 and 2, all improved with Alice’s intelligence and fine handwriting. But as it does, other stars dim. Marlowe, struck with debilitating writer’s block as he is forced to deal with the impending death of his lover, undergoes a self-destructive spiral. He investigates all aspects of religion, divination and damnation to try and understand the nature of death, salvation and the soul. With no answers, he returns to his lover’s side. Barrett’s pleas that Marlowe look to his soul provide him no peace, and after his passing, Marlowe descends into a violent self-harming despair, driving him to seek out Father Southwell in one last effort for understanding and solace.

Meanwhile, Presto continues stealing to buy his sister Apelina’s (Kristy Phillips) freedom from the brothel, going so far as to sneak a dress from the theatre and use it to steal purses. Although the dress is eventually ruined and finally returned to the theatre troupe—who then take Presto in as a new boy apprentice—the brothel matron provides him a new one. But not to thieve in. She forces Presto to prostitute himself to men with a proclivity for boys in dresses. For the sake of Apelina, he does, but when confronted with Topcliffe, Presto stabs him. In a mad dash, Presto and Apelina flee the brothel and Topcliffe’s guards, taking to the muddy streets. Apelina, however, doesn’t escape their pursuers. Shot from behind, she urges Presto to leave before dying in the mud.

Presto takes refuge in the theatre, where in a fit of grief and rage, he sets fire to the costumes and the building.

Although Will is able to save the theatre, the Burbages and Presto, his star careens off course. Horrified her daughter sabotages her engagement, Ellen Burbage (Nancy Carroll) forces Will to break off their relationship in the cruelest possible terms. Alice is devastated, and in her grief and loneliness she gravitates to Father Southwell. At the same time, Topcliffe entangles Will in the Protestant/Catholic struggle, forcing him to write a play discrediting Father Southwell.

Everything comes to a head when as Will strikes upon an idea and Alice immerses herself in the Catholic cause. While Will writes Richard III, painting Topcliffe’s monstrous personality and atrocities in the historic English king, Alice secrets messages from the Vatican to Father Southwell and even secures passage for his manifesto to the Queen. When their safe house is discovered, Alice tries to rescue Father Southwell’s work, leading to her capture and torture at Topcliffe’s hands. Although Will rescues her, Alice is permanently changed because her ordeal. Together, though, they convince the Theatre to perform Richard III and tear the Queen’s torturer down.

All converges onstage as Topcliffe and influential members of court watch Richard III. Richard Burbage (Mattias Inwood) achieves independence and fame as Richard III, and the entire theatre turns on Topcliffe as his villainy is paraded before them. Topcliffe further undermines himself by causing a scene when all the Theatre joins in Richard’s in-character/out-of-character call of “guilty.” Topcliffe leaves in disgrace, thoroughly ruined by the unity Will has created through his work.

There is nothing for Will to celebrate, though. Alice leaves him a letter bidding him farewell. She must set her own course, with Father Southwell in the Americas, and she asks Will not to look for his “once bright angel.”

There is a History in All Men’s Lives: The Use of History

Setting Will in 1589 was clever. Most of Shakespeare’s life is known through public record (birth and baptismal records, marriage certificates, business transactions, wills and death records) and secondary accounts. Moreover, there is a seven-year gap where no records about him exist at all, and the figure who emerges at the end of that gap is wholly different from the one who enters it. A nobody in Stratford in 1585, by 1594, when Shakespeare reappears in the record, he is a popular populist playwright, earning the respect of crowds and the ire of writers. Particularly Robert Greene, who calls him “an upstart crow.”

Placing Will’s action in the middle of the lost years allows the show to play with the possibilities of Shakespeare’s early years in London. The writers have done their homework on the popular theories and controversies: Shakespeare’s Catholic leanings, Marlowe’s secret service to the Queen, Shakespeare and Marlowe’s possible homosexuality or bisexuality. They’ve also done their research about social issues affecting London, although they play fast and loose with many of those facts.

Characters like Topcliffe and Southwell have their lives compressed in the historical drama. Topcliffe and Southwell didn’t cross paths until 1592, when Topcliffe captured Southwell and tortured him until Southwell was transferred to the Tower of London. Southwell also never published or disseminated a manifesto. Topcliffe didn’t fall from power, seek to become spymaster, or (as far as we know) commit any of the atrocities shown in Will. Minus the torture. He was a torturer.

Inaccurate as they are, their adapted histories work for Will. The centrality of the Protestant/Catholic struggle necessitates powerful figures standing as leaders and figureheads. Moreover, the characters remain true to their historical counterparts, expanded only for story and entertainment. Such expansion affects other characters, like Alice and Richard Burbage. Richard’s growth as not only an actor but also an individual is given greater prominence through the changes to his history, while Alice—a mere footnote to her father and brother’s existence—is given an entire life.

One aspect of early modern history Will gets almost entirely right—and the aspect that gives me the greatest pleasure—is the theatre and theatre-going itself. It’s high time everyone, not just die-hard fans and academics, know that Shakespeare was not and is not Laurence-Olivier-upper-class-accent “Shakespeare.” Shakespeare was populist; play-going was a rock concert. And Will portrays that beautiful. The groundlings—playgoers of the lower classes who would stand in the pit in front of the stage—are perfectly depicted as loud and obnoxious, cheering riotously for what they loved and jeering cruelly what they hated. The actors played to them, encouraging their participation, while the writers catered to them, knowing that an angry sea of groundlings could ruin their career. The action of the play is punctuated with dance and song, showcasing how theatres capitalized on popular performing arts even centuries past.

The groundlings highlight the fact that in Shakespeare’s time, plays weren’t high art—that was poetry—but low-brow entertainment. Puns. Sex jokes. Dick jokes and dick waving. Staged death and dismemberment. Copious amounts of fake blood and body parts. The nobility would go to see them, and occasionally host popular or talented troupes in their homes, but the theatre was a lower-class entity, nestled among muddy markets, bear-baiting rings and brothels. At the same time, though, Will shows why plays, and Shakespeare’s plays in particular, would become art because of their ability to pull the social circles together to a common cause in a common place. The powerful insights playwrights provided and actors portrayed were available to men and women, regardless of status. Will, from beginning to end, showcases that reality and potentiality expertly.

I Have Had a Most Rare Vision: Setting and Costume

Will is a vibrant show: bright and colorful, dark and filthy. The impoverished area where the theatres exist is full of open markets and muddy streets, and the bottoms of skirts, pants and boots are appropriately dirtied by the life and activity there. There are animals and open stalls, caught fish and cut meat packed in with fabric and materials. Open fires and narrowed alley ways. Hay everywhere.

The estates and courts of the noblemen and women are packed full with brocade and silk, full of art and furniture and all the trappings of extravagant spending that would lead many gentlemen to bankruptcy, while the cells of Topcliffe’s craft are dark and foreboding, with the shadows of his implements and one or two ray of lights filtering in to raise and diminish the prisoner’s hopes.

Of course, everyone is a little too clean for the early modern period. There are a few notable exceptions. Until he steps out onto stage as a prince, Presto is almost always smudged with dirt, reflecting the rough life he leads. The ripped bandages he keeps on his arms hide the scars on his arms of self-harm, which somehow never become infected (which I’m thankful for). When he’s homeless or descends into depression, Will is unkempt and unwashed, reflecting the fracturing of his life and self. And when he exits the plague house, Richard Burbage is realistically-uncomfortably-grievingly unshaved, tousled and dirty; he burns his clothes immediately.

The clothing itself is bright and colorful, and anachronistic in a way that fits. A mix of late-80s punk and New-Romanticism goth (my wife is a punk and goth expert, and I thank her for her brilliance), the lower class—especially the groundlings—are packed full with mohawks, face paint, chains and leather. Especially the women.

Men, on the other hand, regardless of their rank, tend to be in more period appropriate clothing. We still get Richard Burbage’s leopard-print lined and glass-embroidered coat, and the entirety of Marlowe’s closet, but from shopkeep to lord, the men are often in leggings, trousers, tunics, shirts and coats. With historic colors and patterns. Funny how that works.

Even the higher-class women, in which I’ll include Alice Burbage for the moment, have more anachronistic clothing. Emilia Bassano, Lord Hunsdon’s newest mistress and a key supporter of the Theatre, often has her shoulders and arms bared, while Alice is usually walking around the Theatre, and the streets, in spaghetti-strapped dresses prominently displaying cleavage.

And that’s not even including the brothel workers.

To be fair, Richard Burbage sometimes walks around on stage with a golden cup encasing and enhancing his “better” part, but that’s only in performance.

The dress, or rather lack of dress, is an uncomfortable comment on women in this world. Women are property, at once sexually available and sexually constrained depending on the men they’re attached to. Emilia Bassano is a mistress to her lord. Alice Burbage is a young woman participating in an affair. And the other bared women are generally tavern or brothel workers. Only Catholic women and Topcliffe’s wife are historically accurate, and they appear infrequently. It’s also worth noting that when Alice converts to Catholicism and later leaves London, she too is finally dressed in a full top, all her skin covered minus hands, neck and face. It’s a noticeable comment on the effect religion has had on stripping Alice of an identity and agency deemed inappropriate and troubling.

The Greatest Scandal Waits on Greatest Strength: Strengths and Flaws

It’s hard to talk about what makes Will great because what is a strength in one scene is a serious flaw in another. The consistency of the Theatre and theatre goers is, perhaps, its greatest strength, but there is so much else that could make Will a phenomenal show, if it was done consistently or wasn’t undercut with uncomfortable overtones.

As a show about Shakespeare, Will capitalizes on music and wordplay. The score is a mix of original symphonic pieces sprinkled with twentieth and twenty-first century punk and rock music. James Brown, Radiohead and The Clash are just some of the soundtracks included and, for the most part, they work. Most of the modern music is attached to the theatre, either playing during performances or performed by the theatre troupe as they celebrate or spend their time together as close family and friends. Sometimes, though, the transition from original score to modern soundtrack is jarring. One such instance is in episode 6, when Catholic criers are attacked in the open market. As a brawl breaks out and the law arrives, the music shifts into heavy rock, which downplays the horror of the Catholics being assaulted and murder and Hamnet’s terror as he is nearly run over by a horse.

Will’s wordplay is also fantastic, when it works. An homage to the language Shakespeare is known and celebrated for, many of the dialogue switches into iambic pentameter occur in or around the theatre. From his coinages (“‘bedazzled’ is not a word, it’s ‘dazzled’, fix it!” Oh, shut up, Baxter) to word battles to powerful moments of intimacy, the breaks from blank verse/modern dialogue showcase talented writing and acting and bring a sense of drama working its way into life, rather than the other way around. Occasionally though, wordplay escapes the theatre and it often leads to jolting surprise. Will often speaks to Father Southwell in iambic pentameter, and more than once Presto and his sister engage it in.

Especially with Presto and Apelina, the shift to iambic pentameter should highlight the importance of the speakers to the plot and the gravity of conversation they’re having. Iambic pentameter should emphasize, regardless of status, the seriousness of their situation. But it doesn’t because it’s not done often enough. When Will argues with Southwell in iambic pentameter, and when Presto speaks with Apelina, the importance of the wordplay is lost in the confusion that comes with the sudden linguistic shift. These characters aren’t immersed in the theatre world, where the majority of the wordplay exists. Nor do they, or other characters, speak it enough to let it be a common linguistic model. So when it is used, it becomes a momentary spectacle and little else.

Will tackles some difficult questions, including ones about sexuality, faith, and exploitation. Its treatment of sexuality is at once refreshing and disappointing. It’s fantastic that Marlowe is portrayed consistently, and in the end proudly, as a gay man although he would never call himself such (and thankfully doesn’t). Homosexuality isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination, but “gay” as a term for a homosexual man is a twentieth-century invention, inappropriate for that time. But Marlowe is a man who prefers the company of other men and is wholly devoted to two lovers: Thomas, his new younger lover, and his long-time lover Barrett.

In many ways, Marlowe’s arc is heartbreaking as his depression and grief rob him of his ability to write, and his fear and inability to understand or process Barrett’s death pushes him further and further to a physical, mental and spiritual collapse. This doesn’t excuse his atrocious behavior, but his pain becomes more understandable. The desperate lengths he goes to are the frantic reaching of a man who has lost everything that gave him meaning, without having any system to navigate that loss. The fact that Marlowe pulls himself out of that grief and offers an authentic apology and explanation to Thomas—the fact that he can both love and write again—is also unbelievably refreshing considering current media trends.

Unfortunately, Christopher Marlowe is the only openly homosexual main character, and he’s kind of an awful human being. Hedonistic, selfish and needlessly cruel, Marlowe does a host of questionable things, and you’re never entirely sure where his loyalties lie. In the end, there is some redemption. He accuses Father Southwell of hypocrisy and sin when he allows Alice to be captured, and then uses his influence to free her; when that fails, he tells Will what happened. But these instances aren’t enough. This is a man who willingly sacrifices a second-rate playwright because Will is more talented, a man who dismisses his lover with cruel and angry words when he is in the middle of a satanic ritual that scares his lover, a man that goes up and punches another man to prove how little he can feel. He is, as Marlowe later admits, “a great stupid child with a broadsword, slashing and swiping at everyone and everything.”

Moreover, Marlowe’s comfort with himself and his lovers comes at the cost of faith. As he dies, Barrett is terrified about the state of his and Marlowe’s souls. He knows he will be damned for their love and implores Marlowe to look to his own. It is this terror that spurs Marlowe’s descent; he has to know if hell and heaven, God and Satan, are real and if Barrett truly has been damned for love. The lack of answers and insight both terrify and inspire Marlowe. They drive him to the worst places, but also allow him to write Doctor Faustus, his ultimate performative expression of damnation. Marlowe finds peace only after he finishes, when he decides “belief is a state of mind.” In addition to bringing uncomfortable parallels to the fundamentalist trauma LGBTQ+ individuals face every day, Marlowe’s forced atheism eliminates the fact that faith is still important for many LGBTQ+ people, and that faith and existence shouldn’t be at odds.

Marlowe as LGBTQ+ representation, then, is extremely discomforting. Which is unfortunate because he is a fantastic character. Just…bad representation. Does this mean I would have liked to see Marlowe and Shakespeare as lovers? Not necessarily, although I think it would have been a better storyline. At least, it would have made Will cheating on Anne Hathaway a bit more stomachable.

Will’s treatment of women—especially Anne and Alice—is something I could (and probably will) discuss at length, but it highlights another important aspect of the show that I wish was more of a strength: No one in this show is good.

Except Presto, because he is an abused, exploited child and cannot be held as accountable for what he does for the sake of Apelina and his own health and safety.

In some cases, the lack of goodness and morals works; it highlights the many ways people with power exploit those without it. Father Southwell and Topcliffe, for example—on opposite sides and employing opposite means—are shown to be equally evil. Religious zealots, they are wholly committed to their respective causes and no amount of begging or bodies will deter them. Southwell is just as culpable in the deaths of the Catholic martyrs as Topcliffe. He doesn’t torture them, but Southwell makes no effort to rescue them and assures his followers their deaths are for the greater good. God’s good. Even when confronted with a man who wants his son to live, Southwell has only platitudes about the boy’s place at God’s side and how he will be saved because if he dies, God will welcome him.

Southwell also displays the same frustration and fury as Topcliffe. He rarely takes it out on others—except in one scene where he pushes Will—but he routinely hits furniture and walls when things don’t go his way. He is also manipulative and cruel, using their relationship to control Will and Alice. One minute, he calls Alice a whore; in the next, he offers her comfort as she grieves Will’s abusive words toward her. All to get them to join his cause. Southwell, then, for all his talk of religious freedom, equality and peace is an arrogant, harsh leader whose hands and conscious are no cleaner than Topcliffe’s.

Topcliffe is still the primary antagonist, cemented in the role through his cruelty, depravity and sexual predation, but Southwell is by no means depicted as a hero.

For other characters, the lack of morals is not as successful. Flaunting all social expectation of her, Alice returns her parents’ concerns with sarcasm and a total inability to understand the financial straits of the family and the theatre. This is not to say we’re not sympathetic, nor to say that those societal expectations are good, but her total disavowal with them come with serious consequences Alice just doesn’t seem to care about. Nothing—not her family, not her reputation, not others—is as important as being more than she was born to be.

Her behavior during the affair is also cruel and selfish. When Alice meets Anne and his children, she dissolves into tears about how his relationship with Anne is real while theirs isn’t. It’s a manipulative tactic, unintentional as it may be, because as much as she says to the contrary, Alice does want Will to pick between her and his family—and does so without being able to reciprocate. They agree to live out their married lives, enjoying an emotional affair, but Alice can’t, and won’t, go through with it.

And when Will ends things with her, cruelly and suddenly, Alice turns to Father Southwell. Her anger and hatred toward Will are genuine and justified—and I am so happy they don’t get back together—but her stubbornness when it comes to supporting the cause is foolhardy and clearly a way of both getting Will’s attention and getting back at Will’s cruelty. No matter how authentic her new faith is, there is no denying that Alice helps Father Southwell partly because Will will not. The deeper she gets in, the more Will clings to her and the more attention she earns from both him and Southwell. Even when confronted with the truth about Southwell’s loyalty to his followers, Alice persists with a determined singlemindedness that throws everything aside.

The worst offender, though, is Will. In some cases, his inability to stand his ground, pick sides, or be honest is understandable. He is a Catholic in a hostile Protestant city, connected to the most wanted Catholic in England. He has people he needs to, and wants to, to protect. In others instances, though, the inabilities leave Will spineless. There is, for example, nothing good about how Will starts or continues the affair with Alice (although to his credit, he’s at least up front with Alice about being married). Knowing what it will cost her, and knowing how little it will cost him, it’s incorrigible that Will continues the affair.

Should they be discovered, Will’s life wouldn’t be permanently damaged. He would probably be kicked out of the company; the Burbages would certainly be furious. He would probably be fined, ostracized for a time, and he would suffer consequences from the hidden Catholic population. Alice, however, would be ruined. Her marriage prospects decimated, her social standing destroyed, she would have nearly no future left to her. She would be an outcast. The fact that Will pursues her knowing this—and pursues her knowing this even after Alice tells him, in no uncertain terms, to leave her alone—is wrong. When Alice throws his desire to remain friends in his face—or when she hisses “you dare say that to me” when Will tells her not to be used by Southwell—he seems genuinely, stupidly, surprised. As if the fact that it wasn’t true and he said he was sorry should be enough to bring her back to him.

Moreover, Will never gives Alice the credit she deserves for launching his career: things like co-writing, creating clean copies, introducing him to standard performance practice, getting him out of the corners he boxed himself into. Will routinely tells her she’s brilliant. A genius. But he doesn’t do much else. Rather, he seems to expect this behavior from her as his creative and intellectual “equal.” And Alice obliges. To be fair, Alice could never be published or publicized; the fact that she is as close to the stage as she is, during a time when women did not perform on stage and associations with the stage and printing often quickly turned to accusations of prostitution, is unusual. But the theatre troupe knows her and her dedication to the theatre. They know she writes their copies. They know she works with Will, but Will never gives her credit around them. He never gives her, or anyone else, the proof they need to see that Alice could be more than she was born to be.

If This Shadow Has Offended, Think on This and All is Mended: Final Thoughts 

It’s a shame that most of the characters are unlikable in such drastic ways, except that it works for what Will is. Will isn’t a feel-good romcom; it’s a dark drama about exploitation and the consequences of selfishly pursing your dreams. Which is not to damn dream pursuit. But Will, like many of William Shakespeare’s dramatic works, takes what is on the surface a simple and uncomplicated “good” and reveals its messiness, its complications, its destructive tendencies.

Will gets his dream; the playgoers of London shout his name. But he pursues it selfishly, with little thought to his wife, his friends, his lover. In the end, he is left alone with a gilded reputation and little else.

That is perhaps the final saving grace for Will; it mimics what William Shakespeare’s plays are. A little anachronistic (there is no coast in Bohemia, a major geographic problem in the late romance The Winter’s Tale). A little overblown. A punk-show with depth and meaning applicable and accessible to all—when done right. Will combines humor and tension, lighthearted fun and terrible far-reaching consequences in, if not the best ways, at least ways Shakespeare probably would have inclined his head pleasantly toward.

It’s not fantastic, but it’s pretty good. Entertaining and thought-provoking. I turned the TV off unhappy but mostly satisfied, and with a great deal to talk about.

Deadline has come out saying there will be no second season, and honestly, I’m neither surprised nor upset. There’s not much they could do—they packed a lot in—that could span another ten-episode season. More importantly, though, a second season would just be unsatisfying. There’s not enough here to make a second season good, especially if it’s only going to continue with the consequences of Will’s selfishly pursed dream.

These aren’t the laurels one should rest upon.


Images provided courtesy of TNT Productions.

Trekker, Ravenclaw/Gryffindor cusp, gamer, cosplayer. Michelle is a writer out of North Carolina who enjoys playing video games and cosplaying with her wife, petting her cats, and waxing poetic about Shakespeare, Star Trek, and everything in between. With a Masters in English Literature, she brings a unique lens to modern media and its cultural relevancy and work.

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Queer Eye Isn’t Just for the Straight Guy Anymore

Meg

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So have y’all heard? I’m finally back after my months’ long hiatus—and so is Queer Eye for the Straight Guy! Sort of…

Netflix’s reboot of Bravo’s cultural juggernaut is now simply Queer Eye, and, as the catchphrase says, it’s about more than just a makeover. With a new cast and new trails to blaze, the new Fab 5 tour the Atlanta metro area offering makeovers and life advice for more than just poor schlubs with bad beards.

For those needing a history lesson, the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (QEftSG) premiered on Bravo in 2003 and ran for 5 seasons. Though the cast changed a little, the original “Fab 5” are generally cited as Ted Allen, Carson Kressley, Thom Filicia, Kyan Douglas, and Jai Rodriguez. Basically a straight guy was nominated (usually by his desperate girlfriend or wife) to get a “queer eye” makeover: the Gays know food, fashion, decorating, grooming, and culture, right?? Let’s bring it to the Straights!

The original boys: Carson, Thom, Kyan, Ted, and Jai. That is a LOOK, Carson.

While the show was immensely popular almost overnight, it did of course earn some criticism, especially from the LGBT community. First of all, without setting off any debates, the word queer is deeply controversial. Some people consider it a slur that should be put to rest, while others proudly use it as a reclaimed term. Whatever your POV on that subject, many believe it iffy to give everyone and their brother the idea that they can throw a word like that around willy nilly. It’s a sensitive topic.

Also, of course, there are a lot of stereotypes the original (and the reboot) reinforce. Oh you’re gay! Of course you know how to dress and decorate your apartment! Again, not to start something, but stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. Whatever else it did, the original Queer Eye reinforced the GOOD stereotypes, not the bad ones, and it helped put to rest (for some people, anyway) the idea of the “predatory gay.”

Meet the New Boys…

The reboot follows the same formula as the original, with 5 bright and chirpy (Ted Allen, chirpy??) gay men, each representing a “category” that needs a makeover: food, fashion, interior design, grooming, and culture.

From l-r: Tan France (walk walk fashion baby), Karamo Brown (culture and Serving Looks), Bobby Berk (design and making me cry), Jonathan Van Ness (grooming, henny), and Antoni Porowski (avocados).

In the original, the culture category always reminded me of “Heart” from Captain Planet. How is “Heart” an element? How do you make over someone’s “culture?” The main thing I remember from QEftSG is that Billy Joel is lame and it’s important to make eye contact when shaking hands.

Sorry, I digress. We’ll get to Karamo later.

If you compare the pic of the original group to this new one, I think you’ll notice something. The first Fab 5 were a great group of guys, but only one of them is brown. It’s not exactly a diverse selection. The new cast includes a Black man and a Muslim (who’s married to a Mormon), and it’s refreshing to see more than just the cookie cutter cute white boy.

I’m not going to get into some sort of ranking thing here, because that annoys the beejeezus outta me. I love them all, okay!? Each episode focuses on some aspect of one of the guys’ stories: Bobby and his religious upbringing, Karamo’s struggle as a gay Black man, Jonathan’s small town upbringing, Antoni’s love of avocados, or Tan’s need to bring the French tuck to the wider world; and as such they’ve all earned a solid place in my heart.

Obviously those last two are tongue-in-cheek, but I don’t want to get too heavily into it since this is just a general overview. Look for season 2 episode breakdowns starting next week.

More Like a Glow Up

A glow up and a makeover are basically the same thing, aren’t they? And a makeover is a makeover is a makeover, right? I mean, someone’s nominated, they get swept up into a whirlwind of “I can’t believe you WEAR this!” and after some fighting about it, they emerge at the end with a whole new look, right?

Right??

Tom, the “victim” from Episode 1, “You Can’t Fix Ugly.”

Except Tom up there doesn’t look that different. Sure, his beard’s shorter, but overall he looks like himself…just polished a bit.

That, to me, is what sets Queer Eye apart from other makeover shows—even its gay dad, the original QEftSG. The boys don’t try to make the contestants (or “Heroes,” as they call them) into someone else. They accept each person’s style as his (or her) own and just give them a nice glow up. Queer Eye is never about tearing down, only about building up.

One thing you’ll notice in the two promo images above: the “straight guy” looks pretty terrified to be surrounded by the Fab 5 in the first one, but in the second one he’s clearly engaged in the process and much more comfortable. Yeah, this group has to deal with some bullshit (Tan was asked by at least two Heroes if he’s a terrorist), but it’s a different culture now, and the idea of wearing pink or patterns doesn’t seem to be as terrifying to the average Joe as it was in 2003.

More than a Makeover

I don’t want y’all to think I have something against the term “makeover,” because this headline is lifted directly from the show’s tagline. And it is much more than a makeover show. Episode 1 has a man who basically thinks he’s too old to be attractive anymore, and he starts off telling the boys “you can’t fix ugly.” Over the course of 45 minutes you see him blossom again (not to sound cheesy) and realize that life ain’t over till you’re dead, and ugly is pretty much just a state of mind.

“I’m startin’ to look like a president!” (source)

Episode 3’s Hero is a Trump-supporting cop (!!) who ends up connecting with Karamo over the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. Episode 4 is about a gay Black man who’s struggling to come out to his stepmother. While every episode has made me cry a little bit over something, hearing the boys’ coming out stories and seeing AJ read a letter to his dead father in front of his stepmother as his coming out had me bawling.

Plus this happened, so really it was a win/win. (source)

Some episodes are better than others, obviously. None in season 1 really dragged me down, though as I flip through the episode list on Netflix I don’t remember much about episode 5. Except that’s where we first learned about Bobby’s religious upbringing, and how hard it was on him to be rejected by the church he loved for being gay.

Hang on sorry I need a tissue…

Where Have You BEEN??

But none of this is news to y’all, because you’ve all devoured both seasons of Queer Eye like starving lions on the savanna. Or, I mean, if you haven’t, it’s in your queue. Just waiting for a quiet weekend when you can mainline all 16 episodes.

Otherwise what are we even DOING here?! In a world where grimdark rules the day and every new headline makes you want to rip out your hair, why are you letting a gem like Queer Eye go unwatched?! Why are you letting all that beautiful positivity pass you by??

In case I’m not expressing myself clearly enough, Queer Eye is a show you NEED to watch. Ration it, despite what I said above. Sure it’s re-watchable, but nothing beats the feeling of the first time you hear a Karamo Pep Talk or seeing the Hero’s face light up from something as simple as a pair of pants that fits.

This show, like I said before, is about telling people it’s okay to take care of yourself. It’s okay to be confident and do traditionally “feminine” things (like moisturize). Also the focus on “dress up for your woman; make her proud that you’re with her” is so great because how often do we hear that we have a to dress for a man? Men rarely put in any effort toward that on their wife/girlfriend’s behalf, and the message that hey!! Women want that too!! And it’s a good thing to do!! Is so important.

Antoni shows them it’s okay to cook. Bobby reminds them that they deserve nice surroundings. Karamo helps give them confidence to take on their challenges. Tan helps them merge their individual style with an updated, modern look. Jonathan teaches them how to make their outsides match their insides.

Basically…

Gay Jesus speaks! (source)

Watch Queer Eye, y’all. Warm your heart. Cry a lot. Refresh your soul.

You won’t regret it.


Images curtesy of Netflix and Bravo

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Film

‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ Comes up Short

Jeremiah

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is stupid with two “o’s” and in all caps. It’s schlock. J. A. Bayona, the director, knows it’s schlock and leans so far into it, it almost topples over. The first Jurassic World was an exercise in enduring tedium. Fallen Kingdom is better, technically, but it’s still not worth two hours of your time.

The characters of Fallen Kingdom are caught in a Cold War of idiocy. Each side threatening to out-dumb the other. If you remember how dumb the characters were in the first Jurassic World you’ll understand how astounding a feat Fallen Kingdom is. Although it’s not the characters’ fault, not really. They’re just written that way.

Fallen Kingdom can be divided into two parts. Quite frankly you can divide the film up into more parts than two, and scatter its ashes across the ocean. The first part is getting the dinosaurs off Isla Nublar. Dear reader, you might be asking yourself, why would they be trying to get the dinosaurs off the island?

The answer, while not in the wind, still blows. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the former head of the Jurassic World theme park, is now the head of a PETA-like organization for the dinosaurs. The volcano on the island where the man-eating dinosaurs live is about to explode and cause an extinction level event. The sane reaction is, “Oh goody.” Claire’s reaction and those of her fellow organizers is to rally to the dinosaurs’ cause. To be fair, she is also the same person who thought the Indominus Rex was a good idea. Her history of good decisions is bordering on nil.

A dying billionaire called Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) offers Claire a chance to save the dinosaurs. Because welcome to 2018 where we want to go to the island with the active volcano and rescue the untamed genetically engineered murderous beasts. Lockwood has an island, presumably one he bought on Craigslist where all shady secretive billionaires sell their islands.  

He needs Claire because the tracking devices embedded in the dinosaurs are connected to a system which needs Claire’s handprint to be turned on. If you think that’s convoluted, brother, wait until the movie gets going. Lockwood and his right-hand man Eli (Rafe Spall) also want Blue, the intelligent ‘good’ raptor from the previous film. Of course, there’s only one man who can find her, trap her, and get her on board the transport vessel safely.

But Sam Neil’s Dr. Alan Grant hasn’t gone near the franchise since the third Jurassic Park movie so we’re left with Owen (Chris Pratt). The Jurassic World franchise is developing an annoying talent for being the one cinematic universe in which Chris Pratt is dull, obnoxious, and insipid. Pratt’s Owen is a self-involved jerk who has mistaken arrogance and cluelessness for charming.

Which brings us to the curious case of Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire. Not since the Lara Croft films has a franchise come so close to fetishizing its heroine quite like the Jurassic Worlds. Much was made about Claire’s heels in the first movie. Her introduction in Fallen Kingdom is a sort of sly nod to the previous installments backwards thinking. Still, Claire’s current outfit isn’t much better. A tight bodice showcasing sweater and a pencil skirt all but drawn on. She trades this outfit quickly for fatigues and comfortable hiking boots. Which would be ideal if not for the myriad of ways Fallen Kingdom seems to find to put Claire in humiliating or painful situations.

Bayona seems to delight in putting Claire in situations where she has to screech, cry, squeal, or bleed. It would be one thing but the rest of the heroes seem to get along fine. Claire’s friend and colleague, Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) the feisty punk rock paleo-veterinarian and ex-marine is captured but somehow never is made to squirm. Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) is the hapless IT guy along for the ride who stumbles from time to time but is allowed to escape with his dignity intact.

On the island, they meet the head of the excavation operation Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine). Levine plays Ken with such a manic glee you’d swear he’s a long-lost cousin of Snidely Whiplash. When you see Levine in a movie your mind instantly jumps to assuming he’s a bad guy. Fallen Kingdom has Levine exploring new heights of skullduggery mixed with bouts of boneheadedness. Ken has a habit of stealing dinosaur teeth from the gaping maw of the beast itself. It’s shocking Ken lives as long as he does.

Owen, Claire, Franklin, and Zia make it off the island in the nick of time. Only to discover the shady secretive billionaire’s right-hand man had a nefarious plan all along. Eli is going to sell the dinosaurs on the black market. Thankfully he has Gunnar (Toby Jones) the premiere black market auctioneer.   

As absurd as all this may seem I assure you it’s even more ludicrous if you happen to watch it. Bayona, however, packs Fallen Kingdom with the best. While Pratt may disappoint, Cromwell, Jones, Levine, and Howard do not. Toby Jones plays a southern fried dandy; a toothy smile with a malevolent twinkle in his eye.

More than that though Bayona and his cameraman, Oscar Furara, lend Fallen Kingdom a striking visual sense.  Idiotic though it may be, Fallen Kingdom is jammed with evocative imagery well above its source material. As they leave the island, the volcano exploding, we see a brontosaurus stranded on the dock bellowing mournfully to the passing ship as clouds of earth erupt around it.

With each passing installment of the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World movies, we begin to truly understand how masterful and unique the first Jurassic Park really is. It’s technical and storytelling mastery remains untouched by any other movie in its franchise. The Jurassic World movies especially seem to have forgotten the core of what the other movies are about.

Jurassic Park is a monster movie. I’m old enough to remember being terrified of Velociraptors because they could open doors. As children, we tend to believe such wild things can be stopped by mundane things such as light and doors. The thought of a monster that could open a door was the stuff of nightmares.

Odd then that Jurassic World should ask us to sympathize with the dinosaurs. Jurassic Park was about people trying to get away from the island and the dinosaurs. Every subsequent movie since then has been about rushing back to the island and bringing the dinosaurs to the mainland.

It’s telling of Bayona’s sensibilities as an artist that the monsters should be deserving of our sympathies. In Bayona’s defense, he sees the dinosaurs as children do. Terrifying but fascinating things that seem lost and out of place.

Bayona’s earlier film When A Monster Calls was a startling ellagic beautiful tale of loss and mourning. I found myself left largely cold by the scenes rooted in reality. Here Bayona has fled reality totally. While he has made not a good film he has made a markedly better film than the previous one.

Every bit of this nonsense is from Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. Their script is one part morality tale in which only the bad people die. The other part being a shrieking folktale in which nothing makes sense because it’s being translated by people who don’t speak the native language. Trevorrow wrote and directed the previous Jurassic World and I all but fell asleep. He also directed last years bonkers fable-esque Book of Henry. Having seen Fallen Kingdom I can now say Trevorrow is the foremost practitioner of unhinged melodrama. Had he been the sole writer I imagine his heedlessness and Bayona’s unique evocative eye may have made something truly spectacular.

As it is we’re stuck with a genetically mutated Indominus Rex crossed with a raptor which gives us the Indominus Raptor. A name so uniformly silly even the great and charismatic B.D. Wong can’t say it with a straight face. Paradoxically, the dumbest part of the movie is also the best. For about ten minutes Fallen Kingdom does become a monster movie as the Indominus Raptor hunts a little girl through a gothic mansion. For that brief period of time Fallen Kingdom begins to unequivocally work as Bayona captures the Gothic and tense mood of the surroundings.

It doesn’t last long and before you know it we’re back to the humdrum lunacy. Though we do have a hint of a story involving clones sadly that storyline goes nowhere. It only leads to a little girl pressing a button that opens a door and allows all the captured dinosaurs to escape into the world. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I hate kids.

Fallen Kingdom has bouts of fun but too often the fun is trampled by its lugubrious stupidity. Pratt’s Owen at one point is passed out on the ground, drugged, and wakes to an encroaching pool of lava. What follows is a protracted physical comedic scene more at home in a Jerry Lewis movie than Fallen Kingdom.

Bayona ladens Fallen Kingdom with visual callbacks to Jurassic Park. He does so in such a way that never detracts from the movie itself. If you catch it fine if you don’t it still holds a shot unto itself.

Fallen Kingdom isn’t awful but it isn’t good either. I laughed when one of the secret organizations at the black market dino auction made the highest bid of the night, twenty-five million dollars. It seems there is no end to the havoc caused by the Great Recession. I can’t recommend actively going to see Fallen Kingdom. But if you happen to find yourself with some friends and they offer to pay and you have nothing else to do, you could do worse.

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Honest Conversations and Unfortunate Insensitivity on Cloak and Dagger

Bo

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Content Warning: This review discusses suicidal ideation and attempted suicide, as depicted on the show. 

Last week’s episode of Cloak and Dagger ended with Tyrone and Tandy together and finally ready to discuss why exactly they have new superpowers insistent on bringing the two of them together.  Both their lives have been tossed upside down, and the only consistent thing in the tragedies of both their lives is each other. Maybe it’s time to sit down and talk about it? That’s exactly what “Call/Response” did this week. Unfortunately, to mixed results.

cloak and dagger church

Time to Talk

“Call/Response” continued Cloak and Dagger’s attempts at interesting episode structure by weaving together forward plot momentum in and out of the previously mentioned conversation between its heroes. This conversation lasted through the entire episode as Tandy and Tyrone hashed out what their powers are, what they do, how they experience them, and what their dreams from last week meant for each of them. These two had a lot to talk about.

For a good 90% of this conversation, I liked the direction of it. The honest and open-ended nature was refreshing. For the first time since they acquired their new powers, they held nothing back regarding what had changed, what they were going through, and how it affected them.

It moved both characters appreciatively forward. Even better, you could see how the conversation positively affected both in the scenes from the next day, when both acted on everything they discussed. Cloak and Dagger thus did a good job timing subjects of conversation with next-day action. Like you’d expect, these scenes were not exactly subtle about it, but so long as the point is made what does that matter?

Through their conversation, Tyrone and Tandy finally started acting against their instincts. They challenged their perceptions of the world. Tandy made an honest effort to learn about her mother’s boyfriend Greg and found out he was genuinely interested in her mother and trying to help. She made an effort to embrace the hope she always rejected before. Her experiences have shaped her towards cynicism in everything. Life is a giant scam where everyone uses everyone else to get ahead, and you see this in her own method of making money. For her to open her mind to the possibility of Greg proving her wrong was a significant step forward.

Tyrone faced his own challenged perceptions, naturally based around his brother’s murder and murderer. He considered Tandy’s argument about his place in the world and where his privilege truly stands, as well as the destructive path his actions led him down. The failed trip to the police station was one important step, but the truly important moment was his field trip with his father to Otis’s old Mardi Gras Indians stomping ground.

(By the way, add another cool twist on New Orleans culture to Cloak and Dagger’s credit.)

Through this trip, Tyrone found new perspective on his father and brother, as well as his own anger. His father stressed the importance of finding a channel for his anger. And he might have found his way via the suits the Mardi Gras Indians create, and the taking on of his brother’s unfinished suit. Tyrone needs this outlet and focus for his anger. He struggled with it throughout the first three episodes, even to the point of trying to shoot Detective Connors.

Even better, all this character development provided the biggest plot movement yet.  Tandy’s determination to get along with Greg led to direct involvement in the Roxxon lawsuit he represented her mother in. It also led to Roxxon killing Greg for presumably getting too close. There should be no escaping the consequences of Greg’s death. Tandy’s mother will suffer. Who knows whether her determination to take the corporation down will wax or wane. Tandy herself visited the burned office to retrieve documents from Greg’s safe, so she certainly won’t let this go.

Tyrone’s plot movement was not so direct, but still meant something. He learned of his brother’s training to be a “Spy Boy” for the Redhawks, a role in Mardi Gras parades involving moving ahead of the Big Chief but was described in this episode as someone responsible for scouting the unknown to seek oncoming trouble. The unfinished suit Tyrone adopted also largely resembles the signature look of Cloak in the comics.

And of course now you also have to wonder if Roxxon will involve themselves with the Redhawks.

There was definitely a lot of good content in this episode. At this point Cloak and Dagger is close to establishing a base quality that this episode certainly matched. Unfortunately, the end of the episode left a real sour taste in my mouth. One reason due to plot, and another for some poor handling of a very sensitive subject.

Insensitivity and Stalling

You saw the content warning, so let’s dive right in. The episode-long conversation between Tandy and Tyrone breaks down at the very end, when conversations about privilege turn into insults and eventually lead to Tandy admitting to suicidal thoughts. In his anger, Tyrone tells her that if she wants to die so badly, she should just do it.

The next day, in the aftermath of Greg’s murder, Tandy restrains her hands and feet and jumps into the ocean, clearly planning on killing herself. She eventually resurfaces when her powers trigger and she cuts the ropes binding her hands.

I will say this: my final judgment will depend on how this is handled moving forward. Right now it feels like a really cheap use of suicide. There are some things you must always take care to portray responsibly when telling your story, and this did not feel like a particularly responsible way to handle Tandy’s thoughts of ending her life. I worry this was nothing more than an attempt to end the episode with high drama, and that the distasteful implications are unrecognized.

Now, we do need to see where it goes from here. If Tyrone recognizes the terribleness of what he said and apologizes for it, and there’s a genuine effort to understand the mistake he made, this can pass by without issue. And it’s not like the idea that Tandy might have suicidal thoughts came from nowhere. Considering her immense survivor’s guilt and lack of connection, I can certainly understand how thoughts of suicide enter her mind. Thing is, I don’t think you can just throw it out there, have a main character yell at her to just go ahead and kill herself, have said character try, and then move on from it. It all happened so quick and dirty that I can’t help but feel like it may have just been there for drama.

I hope it’s needless to say that using suicide just for drama is an awful idea.

Cloak and Dagger needs to follow up respectfully on Tandy’s attempt. Suicidal tendencies are a serious concern that must be handled delicately and with a purpose. And unfortunately, this is an easy fallback too many shows rely on without the proper care needed. I hope Cloak and Dagger doesn’t.

My second, lesser, and plot-related concern is the argument that led to Tyrone’s insensitive words. Namely that, to me, it came completely out of nowhere. The two of them spent the entire episode having  a calm, respectful discussion. Even sensitive subjects between the two caused little drama. Then all of a sudden a piece of genuine advice blows it all up and leads to an unnatural argument over privilege. Which leads to Tandy mentioning her suicidal thoughts and Tyrone’s comment.

This development renewed my worry from last week over these two being kept apart too long. It seems clear that the real, ground-shaking forward movement on Cloak and Dagger won’t take place until Tandy and Tyrone unite. “Call/Response” spent 90% of its runtime heading in this direction. Then it all fell apart.

I certainly understand how a conversation over privilege could lead to heated tensions, especially with backgrounds like Tandy and Tyrone have. Still, this felt so artificial. It almost felt like Cloak and Dagger attempting a superficial, ham-fisted discussion of privilege without any real meat. The main goal seems to be keeping the two main characters apart. It’s the absolute worst attempt the show has made regarding the privilege debate. Scenes like Tyrone walking into the police station and looking around, only to find a sea of white faces, speak volumes more than this conversation did.

While we’re certainly not back where we were at the end of the second episode, we’re a little too close for comfort. Both characters seem like they will tackle the plot alone. And you know they will tackle it ineffectively. The whole idea (at least to me) is that they won’t truly make progress until they team up. I’m also reaching a point where I will start to distrust the moments where they appear ready to team up if this goes on for too long.

In one moment, they undid a great deal of the work the 40 minutes before hand strove hard for.

I’m all for character development, but here’s hoping Cloak and Dagger avoids this mistake in the future. And here’s hoping Tandy’s suicide ends up as more than a way to create drama feeding this mistake.

Other Thoughts:

  • I was delighted when Greg turned out to be a good guy. Damn shame they killed him in the same episode he turned out as such.
  • Tandy’s mother is seriously tragic. I worry we’re heading in a self-harm direction with her as well.
  • I also loved learning more about Tyrone’s father, Otis. He seems to harbor a lot of the same barely repressed anger that his son does. I hope we get more of him and his history with the Redhawks.
  • Roxxon is still paying for the rights to the plot of ocean with the collapsed rig. This suggests to me that whatever gave Tyrone and Tandy powers still slumbers beneath the water.
  • Sometimes Tandy and Tyrone have some really good banter…and then sometimes I wonder how it can be so off.

Images Courtesy of Freeform

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