Friday, 5 April 2013

Aphrodite Fry

"You’re upset that bloke drained his spuds on you..."
Aphrodite Fry is a muralist living in Brighton. You can’t miss her – she’s the girl whose uniform is a paint-spattered orange boiler suit, whether she’s daubing the side of a building or jiving at night in the clubs. More to the point, notes Scotland on Sunday's Lee Randall, you mustn’t miss her, because this engaging segment of Sky Living’s Love Matters season is written by and features Sarah Solemani, the award-winning star of Him & Her and Bad Education. Solemani spins the brief – "write about love" – in a quirky direction. Ostensibly, it's about a woman who has an unfortunate experience with an ejaculation. She decides to get her own back on an unsuspecting estate agent, Bobby, and it's a story about love, comedy and sex. "The starting point was a friend of mine," Solemani explains. "She’d just broken up with someone and was feeling really shit. We were like, 'Get back on the horse! Go out. Have fun.' She did. And she called me the next day, crying." She faux-sobs: " 'I went out with this guy and he came on me and then he left!' I thought it was the most horrendous story I’d ever heard, and also one of the funniest."

Solemani was doing a play and retold that story [during rehearsals]. "All the actresses said, 'That is hideous. How degrading,'" she says. "And I saw a few of the actors being, like, 'Ahem' and I went, 'Oh my God, you’ve done it!' So it became this gender differentiation, and I wondered if that was because of the physical act of ejaculation." Ah yes. Many years ago, writes Randall, an earnest young man explained to me that sex was "different for girls" because something enters a woman’s body. "I’ve heard that a lot, and don’t like it, because it makes a woman so passive", says Solemani. "A friend writing about maternity told me that the metaphor of the passive woman and the active man, which is carried on in the narrative that the sperm swims and the egg sits still, and the strong sperm penetrates the egg . . . actually, she says, the egg is the selector. It has small suction valves that select the strongest sperm and reject the weaker ones. So we need to rework how we teach women and men these ways of looking at sex."

All this is spoken in a sweetly girlish voice, but Solemani is nothing like the layabout Becky from Him & Her. Instead, she is one smart cookie. The 30-year-old grew up in north London, the eldest daughter of a sociology-teacher mother and mathematician father. When she was 16, her mum Rachel died of ovarian cancer. Solemani was a raucous teenager, heavily invested in Britpop and a regular in the hotel bars, though she told one interviewer she timed her benders so they wouldn’t clash with her school work. That scheduling trick worked a treat: she earned an MA (Hons) in Social and Political Sciences at women's college New Hall, Cambridge, and in 2005 won third place in the New Statesman’s prize for New Political Writing, for her essay "Do women’s rights remain the privilege of the developed world?" As a teen she was also part of the National Youth Theatre. Her first gig was playing Elaine in the West End revival of The Graduate. At university she wrote and performed with The Footlights, where she became vice president and where she was "always, always the only girl" – so was never going to be content to just act in stories written by funny men. In time she came to the Fringe to perform in a double act with her writing partner, Thick Of It actress Olivia Poulet.

Now 30, she has been firing off sparky scripts for a decade. And at last, thanks to the hunt for a Lena Dunham of London, producers are taking notice. "Before Girls being a woman was niche. It was like we were writing about some indigenous peoples in Outer Mongolia", says Solemani. "They'd say, 'Oh, we've already got a female-skewed thing, so…' I got an email once saying 'I know I asked for female but this seems a bit too female.' Lena Dunham was allowed to write what she knew. It proves that once you let the voice breathe, you're in a different territory."

Aphrodite Fry is the first of Solemani's scripts to make it to the screen. She stars as the eponymous heroine, a daydreamer who seeks happiness in one-night stands. It's a modern seaside fairytale with plenty of spunk – in every sense. "I think I'm probably a bit of a smutty person", says Solemani. "But hopefully there's a broader, nicer, more interesting narrative about not aping your oppressors and being true to yourself." There is quite a lot of nudity, too. Does stripping off on screen bother her? "Obviously not", she snorts. Her film debut was playing a nude chorus girl in Mrs Henderson Presents while still at university. She was studying for her finals at the time and spent a term getting up early to remove her body hair and reading feminist tracts between takes. People are fascinated by the nudity, she says. "They always play it at Christmas and I get these texts saying, 'I’m with my entire family watching you completely naked, Merry Christmas!'" she giggles, admitting that it was "weird" to be writing political essays one day, and standing next to Judi Dench on stage – nude – the next.

"So much sexuality that we see is this aggressive, forced, tits and teeth. Why should that own the naked form?" she asks. That said, working with a female director – Vanessa Caswill – on Aphrodite made shedding her clothes easier. "There was no way I could have done that with a man. I didn't want their desire or their objectification of me to be an issue." Unsurprisingly, it is not hard to see the feminist message at the heart of Aphrodite Fry; addressing that, in her flatmate Toe's words, men can "cum and go" much more readily than women. "I think that because I am feminist my work is going to subliminally have that kind of content to it, but it's not an overt feminist piece," she reasons. "It's taking stereotypes about sex: we're told that men are these hunters, and these sexual predators, and we as women have to protect ourselves and not give it up too easily and all that, but what Aphrodite hopefully does is break down those archetypes. So you have the character (Bobby) who can't act like that, and Aphrodite who can't act like the typical female, so hopefully - well, I think feminism is about men and women, not giving them roles to play, but allowing them to be individuals and connect with their human-ness. So yes, I think there is a feminist message of sorts, but I hope it's a lot more subliminal than in your face!"

Things cannot get much more in your face than with a final scene of non-sexual nude bonding between Aphrodite and Bobby. It’s a sweet moment where Aphrodite realises that not all men are sexually selfish. "Yeah, um, because the script is about the perception of sex, I honestly just had my writer hat on, and I wrote: 'She takes off her clothes, not in a sexual way, but as an olive branch. And he takes his clothes off. And they stand, and then they run naked, like John and Yoko, free, into the sea.' Then I came to act it," she hoots, "and was like, 'For fuck’s sake Sarah, what have you done that for?' I could have taken it out and I didn’t, because I feel that it works, and that I was controlling my nudity and making the rules. There’s nothing inherently moral or immoral or degrading or ­uplifting about nudity. It’s a state. But what is vulnerable-making about it is that the context in which nudity is seen is ­often not owned by women. In this situation I owned the context. And the other thing is, like Lena Dunham says, 'If you’ve got great tits, just write them in!'"

The scene in question takes place in a surprisingly public place as Solemani found to her acute cost. "There happened to be a concert that was finishing very near to where I was doing it," she cringes. "As I took my bra off I could hear the sound of a thousand men walking towards me and I just carried on because I didn't want to look unprofessional and look round. Then after I was naked, I looked round and there was a whole football pitch worth of people just walking and heading for the beach and security guards were trying to stop them." After subsequently scampering across the stony Brighton beach barefoot and braving first the crowds and then the frigid sea, Solemani was understandably in need of a stiff drink. "When we came to do it and it was fucking freezing and the director had bottle of brandy for me when I came out - which I definitely needed because it was at night in winter!" she laughs. "But yeah, I think it just works for the piece; because I'm controlling it as the writer and it's my context of nudity, I thought 'I don't mind doing it'."

With such traumas in mind, how peculiar is it writing and acting in a piece that someone else is directing? "It’s pretty specific what you want because you’ve written it," she explains. "For Aphrodite Fry I needed someone I trusted, so it was so wonderful that Ruby Films and Sky Living let me pick my director, Vanessa Caswill, who has made fantastic short films but had never done TV before." So might she ever choose writing over performing? "I am an extrovert who likes time on her own, which is a polite way of saying that I am an anti-social show-off," she replies. "I can do lengthy periods of solitude, but then I love breaking that and being on a set, which is really collaborative. Also, writing is so hard. You’re asking for loads of money and people’s time, and if it’s not good enough you feel like an idiot. Whereas with acting, it’s also very hard but you’re helped a lot by the director, lighting and so on. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re a writer. So I do like both."

Surprisingly, Solemani has only just learned to appreciate her worth. "I used to be so terrified and embarrassed and hate everything I ever made. I would never watch it and never invite anyone to see it. But I am really proud of Aphrodite Fry. Watch it. And let me write some more. I’ve got this energy for making things, and being given the opportunity is such a lucky position. I’m grateful, but I’m also ready." Ultimately, she continues, "people should watch if they enjoy good comedy with a strong story running through and strong female characters who get up to lots of sexual mischief and who are very liberated and want to know what happens next!"

Television Series: Love Matters: Aphrodite Fry
Release Date: April 2013
Actress: Sarah Solemani
Video Clip Credit: Wimsey, Fango
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Thursday, 4 April 2013

Rogue S01E01-02

The creators behind Rogue, DirecTV’s first foray into the original scripted series realm which aired last night on the satellite’s Audience Network, are confident they have a premium offering right up there with HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Netflix’s House of Cards. "There are no more Damages and Friday Night Lights out there," says Chris Long, senior VP of DirecTV, which has a 50% stake in the series. "You can’t live on that the rest of your life, waiting for someone else to stop enjoying a piece of content and then to sell it to you. So here’s an opportunity for us to put our foot in the water, but not too much financially, and share the cost to differentiate (our) content so customers feel like, 'OK, here’s another reason why I should stay on DirecTV.'"

Rogue, is a U.K.- Canadian co-production, which not unlike AMC’s The Killing or FX’s Justified, features a single story arc throughout the 10 episodes of its first season — in this case solving the mystery of who killed the son of an undercover agent named Grace (Thandie Newton). Grace’s single-minded quest causes her to become unlikely allies with the mob chief whose waterfront syndicate she was trying to crack, ensnaring her in a conflicting web of loyalties between the Oakland police, mobster kingpin Jimmy (Marton Csokas) and her family.

Rogue is not only a stretch for Newton, who’s never carried a series on her shoulders, but it also pushes the envelope in terms of adult content. Graphic violence and full-frontal nudity — both male and female — are not uncommon in the series’ first three hour-long episodes. Sex, which seems to come in violent fits, is often transactional, cathartic or manipulative, especially as it applies to Cathy (Leah Gibson), a latter-day Lady Macbeth who has goaded her husband (Joshua Sasse) into standing up to Jimmy, his father. Series creator Matthew Parkhill, who describes the sex as "European," says he "always wanted to explore the dark side of the American dream," and views the U.S. pay-TV landscape as the last outpost for the kind of creative latitude that was once the hallmark of indie cinema.

So how exactly how tough was it for the 40-year-old Newton to negotiate those raw sex scenes? "Well, it serves the story and it was necessary," the London-born actress explained to Hitflix. "In terms of the pragmatic, of how do we deal with it, you cast people who are sensitive, kind and professional." In that regard, Newton says she was incredibly fortunate with the actors she worked with. "The guy who plays my husband is just a really good, up-front person and we've both got families and children," said the mother of two. "When it comes to those scenes it's just about sitting together, talking with the director, being really clear on how it's going to be shot and being really clear about what's necessary." The ultimate goal is to ensure "you don't have to do any more than you need to do" and just to keep everything as clear and as straight forward as you can. "Just try and cover it in as few shots and takes as is necessary," admits Newton, "and so when you do it you give it all you've got and then it's done!"

Newton says it is about "having a really firm hold on the characters" and thus "allowing them to experience whether it is sex, an argument or an intimate loving situation so that it can move the narrative forward and give the audience a stronger sense of what's pinning these people together." All of that stuff, she thinks, is necessary in rooting the characters in their relationships. "It's not gratuitous and I don't not what pleasure an audience could honestly get from seeing two people desperately trying to heal their relationship," admits Newton. "It's not pretty but what they're going through in their lives isn't pretty so I was really proud of our ability to work on explicit material in such a way that really does inform the storyline and allow the characters to be richer and have more dimension to them."

Television Series: Rogue (S01 E01-02)
Release Date: April 2013
Actress: Thandie Newton & Kira Clavell
Video Clip Credit: Recapped, Drazerfta
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Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Best Sex On TV

There are awards for bad erotic writing (the Literary Review's annual gong, for instance) so it seems only fair that we also recognise those rare occasions when the arts provide us with a description of sex as satisfying as the experience it describes, says Paul Jones. Writing in the Radio Times, he transcribes how last night's New Girl on E4 saw the usually hapless Jess (Zooey Deschanel) telling her flatmate Nick about a recent mindblowing hook-up (with someone else's blind date).

Jess: "I had the best sex of my life last night. He brewed me like a fine chamomile."

Nick: "Oh, so that was you. I thought that was a couple bums fighting."

Jess: "It wasn't. It was me, having sex. I left my body, went up to heaven, saw my grandparents, thought it was weird that I saw my grandparents, came back down, I became a werewolf, I scared some teenagers. I came back into my body. Only thing is, he thinks my name is Katie. And that I'm a dancer and/or something involving puppets."

Just like Jess, New Girl is on fire at the moment. A couple of episodes into the new second series, it's one of the funniest things on TV, combining dysfunctional yet loveable central characters, flights of fancy – which avoid becoming too self-consciously "kooky" like so many US comedies – and a whole bunch of brilliant one-liners, delivered with beautiful comic timing by a talented cast (and, hey, if they happen to be easy on the eye too, who's complaining?).

Last night's episode also included the following scene, in which Jess's friend Cece attempts to help the newly empowered Jess conduct a "dirty" text message conversation with a(nother) guy she met in a bar.

Jess: "He says, 'Can't stop thinking about what you're gonna wear tonight.' How do I respond?"

Cece: "With a simple... 'Or not wear.'"

Jess: "Okay."

Cece: "Okay?"

Jess: "'Or not wear because sex happens naked.' Send."

Cece: "Okay, let me help you with that... 'Just kidding. Get ready for a night you will never forget.' Okay?"

Jess: "'Because once you see my body, you will go brain-dead and have memory loss.' Send. Oh no! Autocorrect changed 'body' to 'meat bar'."

Meat bar. Now that's a phrase even a Bad Sex award winner would think twice about using in a sentence...
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Sunday, 31 March 2013

Stones, Bone And Sexual Inequality

Like thousands of Game of Thrones fans across the nation, on Monday night Neela Debnath will be sitting down to watch the third season of the show. She is looking forward to seeing how the story develops, which characters get killed off and who will get a step closer to taking the Iron Throne. What she won’t be looking forward to, she writes in today's Independent, is having a pair of breasts thrust into her face every week for the next two-and-a-half months...

For those who've never seen Game of Thrones, the series is about the power struggle between several families to win the throne and rule over the fictional land of Westeros. The series has been adapted from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, and along with the uncompromising violence the show is characterised by its sexual content. On the whole the sex scenes in Game of Thrones have been taken directly from the books and serve a purpose, compared to shows such as Rome and Spartacus: Blood and Sand where the sex only really adds to the aesthetic.

Indeed I would argue that the majority of the sex scenes are integral to the plot of Game of Thrones and are important because they define the characters. Sex is part of the human condition and by showing the wants and desires of these characters they become more believable and rounded as literary creations. For instance, Theon Greyjoy uses sex to demonstrate his power and nobility to others. Whether it involves sleeping with the daughter of a sea captain or unwittingly fondling his sister (it’s a long story), the overall impression is that he constantly needs to prove himself.

Saying this, I've also found that at times the series has featured sexual scenes that are unnecessary and add very little to the plot. In the first season a brothel owner instructs two prostitutes on the art of making love and orders them to give him a demonstration. The whole sequence played out like a piece of girl-on-girl action for the fan boys and came out of the blue in the overriding scheme of things. Unsurprisingly, this scene was not in the book and in my opinion added very little to the plot, apart from shoehorning in what was essentially some softcore porn. It might not surprise viewers to learn that some of the scenes were so raunchy that a number of actresses turned down parts on the show. Porn stars were even drafted in to play the more risqué roles.

Game of Thrones is a wonderfully rich and complex story with the depth and detail of The Wire, and production values on par with Boardwalk Empire. The makers simply do not need to stray into softcore territory with superfluous sex scenes to hold their audience’s attention. I think it’s safe to say the makers won viewers over the moment Bran Stark was thrown out of a tower in the first episode. Some of the adult content works, but the additional sex scenes feel unnecessary and comes across as the thinking man’s porn of choice – man being the key word.

My main gripe is not with the sex itself but with the disparity between male and female nudity. Nine times out of 10 it is a woman who is seen disrobed while her male counterpart remains clothed. It is something that is inherent across the film and television industry and needs to be rectified starting with Game of Thrones. If there are going to be sex scenes then surely both male and female characters should both bare their flesh rather than just one party? Interestingly, I posed the question of the inequality in nudity in Game of Thrones to several of the show’s stars last year and got a particularly strong response from one actress. Natalia Tena, who played the Osha and filmed a scene involving full frontal nudity said: "I think it’s really unfair, every actor, any actress has had her tits out. Every single actress I know. Blokes it’s like, let’s see some cock. Do you know what I mean? Let’s make it more even."

It shows that something needs to change in the industry. Why shouldn’t the male form be celebrated as much as the female form? After all we are living in an ever more sexualised society where the lines between art and porn in the mainstream are blurring. As a female fan I find myself seeing a lot of women of Game of Thrones in the buff and it feels rather disconcerting. Surely the makers should be catering for female viewers as well as male viewers? Women make up a good chunk of the audience, so perhaps next year they can feature a scene in a brothel where we are shown the rent boys of Westeros or the bed slaves of Essos? Just bring some parity to the nudity for the fan girls. Or, in the words of wildling temptress Ygritte, show us the stones and bone.

Crucially, the argument laid out by Debnath is a direct criticism of the show itself and not of the source material. As Jezebel's Tracie Egan Morrissey points out, despite how boob-y its small screen adaptation has become, those who've read the five books in Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series know that the real meat isn't on the female characters' chests, but in their stories. HBO sex scenes be damned, she writes, the women of Westeros are more than sex objects — they're subjects of their own narratives. And it's something that Martin, as a "feminist at heart," did deliberately.

There's a reason that half of the fantasy series' avid fan base is made up of women. While the realm that he has created isn't exactly woman-friendly, the hardships and limitations it creates for its female inhabitants lends itself well to the rich development of their characters. Women like Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Brienne of Tarth, and even Sansa Stark, are not only multi-layered, but emblematic of the different ways that women respond to being designated as second-class citizens. What makes their stories interesting — certainly more so than someone like Robb Stark — is how they manoeuver in a realm that values power as its highest commodity when they were born with very little of it, strictly by nature of being women.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Martin credits his "humanizing" of his female characters with his feminism, even though he's not sure if he's allowed to be one. It is those richly imagined female characters in particular, thinks The Telegraph's Jessica Salter, that set Martin apart from other fantasy writers, and have won him a legion of female fans; women readers make up slightly more than half of his fanbase, he thinks. "It’s one of the things that please me most, the fact that women love my characters." says Martin. "I’m lucky that I’ve got such a big project; it means I can have lots of different types of female characters and so avoid stereotypes, which is what fantasy writers can end up doing."

Typically fantasy writers paint women either as angels or demons. But Martin’s women are more three dimensional - part of his creative appeal. They include the beautiful and manipulative Cersei Lannister, who would defend her children and family to the death; Lady Catelyn Stark, a strong mother, devoted wife and a shrewd political strategist not afraid of a 300 mile trek on a horse to join her son in battle; Ayra Stark, a nine-year-old tomboy who wants her own sword and Daenerys Targaryen, who wants to cross the narrow sea to win back her father’s throne. Oh and not forgetting the most awesome Brienne of Tarth, a female knight played by the 6’ 3’’ actress Gwendoline Christie.

So how does he get inside the head of, say, his teenage characters? "Yes, you're right I've never been an eight year old girl," he says, "but I've also never been an exiled princess, or a dwarf or bastard. What I have been is human. I just write human characters." He also gets plenty of feedback from his fans. "Some women hate the female characters," he says. "But importantly they hate them as people, because of things that they've done, not because the character is underdeveloped." The pitfalls of lots of other fantasy texts, he says is when writers stray into writing in sterotypes. But because Martin has a sprawling world with thousands of characters (and five books to do it in), he has the luxury of developing each one fully. "Male or female, I believe in painting in shades of grey," he says. "All of the characters should be flawed; they should all have good and bad, because that's what I see. Yes, it’s fantasy, but the characters still need to be real."

Martin should be used to female adoration by now. Although he has only hit mainstream consciousness in the last few years (his books have sold more than 20m worldwide), he has been a minor celebrity on the science fiction circuit for years. His wife’s first words to him, when she met him at a science fiction conference in 1975 were that his first novel, A Song for Lya, 'made her cry'. Now he is mobbed wherever he goes - his trademark fisherman's cap an instant giveaway that he is the man behind the globally successful franchise. His books feature sex pretty heavily (to say the least) but it is something that has been ramped up even further for the television show. Martin simply delights in describing sensory details, particularly sex and food; there is a lot of both. "Sex is an important part of life; it’s something that gives our lives meaning, for good or for ill, so I think it should be there and should be shown," he reasons.

Yet some critics have complained that there are too many sexual descriptions (HBO has, of course, ramped it up further still for television). Often crucial conversations between characters happen while one of them is having sex (not always mentioned in the book) - something that has the American academic Myles McNutt to term them 'sexposition'. "Is it simply because we couldn’t be trusted to pay attention otherwise?" McNutt asked on his blog. "It’s as though they think having a prostitute appear and only talking, without actually having sex, would be some sort of cop-out. In my view, at least, it’s the other way around: it just feels lazy."

Gina Bellafonte in The New York Times went further. Last year she wrote: "all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise." The truth was, she sniffed, "Game of Thrones is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half." Female GOT fans lept to Martin's defence, including Emily Nussbaum from the New Yorker who wrote that the strength of the series was "its insight into what it means to be excluded from power: to be a woman, or a bastard, or a ‘half man’."

But Bellafonte's comments still rankle with Martin a year later because he is, at heart, a feminist, despite being cautious about admitting it. "There was a period in my life when I would have called myself a feminist, back in the seventies, when the feminist movement was really getting going and growing out of the counter culture of the sixties," he says. "But the feminist movement has changed. Sometime in the 80s and 90s I read some pieces by women saying that no man can ever be a feminist and you shouldn't call yourself that because it's hypocritical, so I backed off. I thought if the current crop of feminists believes that no man can be a feminist, then I guess I’m not one." He then chuckles behind his candyfloss beard. "To me being a feminist is about treating men and women the same," he said. "I regard men and women as all human - yes there are differences, but many of those differences are created by the culture that we live in, whether it's the medieval culture of Westeros, or 21st century western culture."
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Thursday, 28 March 2013

Where's The Sausage?

Game of Thrones? That’s the show with the boobies, right? Well, yes; like so many HBO dramas (including True Blood and Boardwalk Empire), Thrones serves up female flesh in situations both dramatically integral and superfluous. Some viewers apparently have a problem with that. Since its 2011 debut, Thrones has been attacked for "gratuitous" nudity and labeled sexist for stripping its women more often than its men. Speaking at a press conference call to preview the HBO fantasy epic's return on Sunday night, frustrated co-showrunner D.B. Weiss insisted the sexposition talk (defined as "the clever technique of jazzing up boring plot exposition by pairing it with sex,") is overblown. Responding to a question about the amount of sex and nudity on the show, and the commentary about it, he said: "We put in the show what we think belongs in the show. There are going to be people who think there's too much of something, or not enough. If you create a show with a committee of a million people, you're not going to make a very good show. We do what's right to us."

Weiss and his partner Benioff don't just have to adapt thousands of pages of George R.R. Martin's novels to translate Game of Thrones to television. They have to film an entire world, one that included seven kingdoms, more than a thousand characters, old gods, new gods, dragons and constant political plotting. Even Martin has said he sometimes loses track of life in Westeros, confessing to The New Yorker that fans once caught him switching the sex of a horse from one book to another. Lost among the accolades for their show -- for the brilliant, multi-tiered dialogue, the sweep of the battle scenes, the complexity of the characters -- is how easily we accept it all. Using storytelling techniques like sexposition, they've placed us deeply in another world without resorting to flashbacks, voiceovers, or long "Star Wars"-like crawls of information.

"The only thing that bothers me," adds Weiss, "is when people say, 'Oh, you've made it so much more sexual than the books,' which is patently untrue. When you're seeing a person's naked body on screen, it's much more in your face than in the page." He went on to describe a scene Martin wrote for book 5, "A Dance with Dragons," involving eight very naked dancers of both genders having sex with each other as part of the performance, which is something they could never show, "And then there are graphic sexual scenes in the books with 14-year-old girls, which would have us all thrown in prison if we showed them that way." Benioff nods agreement. "If we’d shown all of the sex in the book we’d be behind bars right now," he says. In an interview last year, Weiss admitted: "There’s a lot of sexual content in the books. Some of it involves children, and we couldn’t film it for legal and moral reasons. But the sex is one of the things that we like about the books – the characters really think about it." Or has he eloquently explained it to, "I don’t think Bilbo Baggins ever got a boner, but in these books the characters think about sex, and that seems real for us."

Weiss insists their goal has always been to adapt George's whole story, not just this book or that book to the screen. "Sometimes in the service of that adaptation we've found that the best way to present a fully rounded vision of his world is to introduce elements or characters that aren't actually in the books," he explains. "There's things we can't explore the way the book explores them. The book uses exposition or it uses flashbacks or it uses all kinds of things we try to avoid. So far George has proven understanding." Benioff adds: "We don't have the luxury of going into characters' minds since we never have voiceovers. For us to get the backstory it's got to come out through dramatic dialogue, or what we hope is dramatic dialogue."

The Littlefinger sexposition scene from season one that some people objected to was some of the best exposition since the monkey with the date in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' "We enjoyed it," says Weiss. "In the episode following that episode, Khal Drogo rips someone's tongue out through the hole he just made in their throat. And I never really heard any complaints about that scene. It is objectively worse to get your tongue torn out through a hole in your throat than it is to witness or experience what happened in the sexposition scene. If someone had a dramatic issue with it, that's one thing. But if the issue is the content of it I'm just sort of a bit confused by it." In fact the pair once joked they would address the sexposition criticism with 'a 20-minute brothel scene involving a dozen whores, Mord the Jailer, a jackass, and a large honeycomb.' "There will always be those who want to see less sex, and those who want to see more sex, and those who want to see sex in big tubs of pudding," noted Weiss. "You just can’t please everyone. We’re going to focus on the pudding people."

In a discussion with Heyuguys, the pair said they didn't know whether more people be watching or would less people be watching if the sex quotient changed. "We prefer explicit sex to implicit sex," said Weiss. "We do what we feel the story merits, what we feel is necessary and maybe this is naive but I assume that everyone in the world has an internet connection and we’re not showing anything people haven’t seen far more of, far more explicitly than we would ever want to show. I’m, in a way, surprised that the violence doesn’t register more than the sex because violence is objectively worse than sex! HBO have never made us cut a scene, there were a couple of times…in season two when they said ‘Really…?’ and we said ‘Yeah, really! It was something that we thought served a real purpose and we thought belonged in the show. We’re very committed to the physical and mental well-being of the people on the show, not putting them into situations which are going to be psychologically damaging to them. That’s a line we won’t cross. If we psychologically damage the prudes of America then we’re happy!"

In an interview with Collider, Benioff riffed further on the subject. "We didn’t want to have something where it was the equivalent of a shower scene, basically just showing someone naked, for the sake of having a little bit more nudity in the show," he said. "It is a very sexual world. We want to see Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) with a prostitute in a brothel, and not cover it up daintily with sheets, the way you would have to on network television or in a PG-13 movie. It’s equal opportunity nudity. Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) comes in and does what he does, quite brutally with his young wife, and it should feel brutal. It’s supposed to be terrifying for her. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is a young girl. Even though she is not as young in the show as she is in the book, she is still quite young, and she was virginal. We wanted that scene to have the power that felt right for her, and that meant not being coy about it and really seeing what you had to see. Luckily, we had actors who embraced that. I think it was much more terrifying for them than for us because they were the ones doing it. They’re the ones that have to reveal everything."

One of the those set to reveal everything next season is Rose Leslie as flamed-haired temptress Ygritte. The actress will "bare" the responsibility of one of the book's most iconic love scenes and revealed in conversation with George Stroumboulopoulos that she was completely in the dark about her character and what the role might eventually require. "I shouldn't really be saying this, but I kind of went into the first audition unprepared," she said. "I was unaware of the show, I hadn't watched the first season, and I'd kind of just heard from guy friends who'd been watching it that it was amazing. So it was all kind of word of mouth. And I didn't realize the pressure. And had I realized the pressure, I don't think I would have landed the job in the first place." Although the question of nudity was never a consideration for her, Leslie said: "I feel, especially with Game of Thrones, that [nudity] is necessary. There are times that it calls for that to happen, and whether it is gratuitous or not, it works with the scene, and helps push the scene forward."

For what it is worth, Weiss thinks the levels of nudity and sex in season one and two were about the same and there's every reason to expect similar levels going forward. "There’s not a checklist," he explained to Entertainment Weekly. "You just have to do what feels right to you and not worry too much about it. [You don't] start counting how many breasts per episode or how many full‑frontal male nudity shots. There are always going to be people who think there’s too much. There will be some who want to see less. One of the benefits of HBO that we can give a more well‑rounded representation of life. And that sex is a part of it and darkness is a part of it, and so is the humor."

Ultimately, there are two different complaints, though; intertwining them muddies each, thinks Vulture's Matt Zoller Seitz. The first concerns the appropriateness of graphic sex and/or nudity; the second is about the show’s "gaze," which is undeniably heterosexual and male. But it’s possible to enjoy sex and nudity without guilt or bluenosed justifications while simultaneously pointing out that the scales of spectatorship are out of whack. Seitz would like Game of Thrones to enlarge the scope of its fantasy­ — to show more same-sex couplings and male nudity — as Starz’s Spartacus series has done with such panache. For all its tough, complicated women characters, Thrones is perceived as too much of a ­sausagefest. The producers could change that perception, concludes Seitz, by adding more sausage.
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Monday, 25 March 2013

Pints, Burgers And Sex Scenes

Jessica Brown-Findlay, the Downton Abbey actress, has revealed that when shooting nude scenes she drank pints and ate junk food, refusing to bow to the pressure of slimming down and spending hours in the gym. The 23-year-old, who played Lady Sybil in the ITV drama, said it was "awful" that women were criticised for their bodies and insisted that she would never succumb to the Hollywood pressures of being a size zero. "I did find it very odd being naked in front of lots of people and I think it’s awful that women get so criticised about their bodies," she told Radio Times. "Otherwise I’d be starving myself for ever, which I just couldn’t do. The idea that actresses would work out at the gym for a thousand hours beforehand … I was drinking pints and eating burgers. I think if you’re going to do a nude scene, be honest and natural. But actually, it’s not something I would do again."

The actress sheds her clothes in Labyrinth, the forthcoming Channel 4 adaptation of Kate Mosse's bestselling novel. She said she was inspired by strong women and that playing Alaïs, a 13th century healer, had been liberating and had helped her to perform to her best when it came to returning to Downton to film her final scenes. Brown-Findlay, whose character died after giving birth in the last series of Downton, left the hit ITV show because she did not want to fall into her "comfort zone". However, she admitted that she had been "naive" to agree to a topless scene in the 2011 film Albatross and said she had not known at the time that she could say no. The actress, who has just filmed Winter's Tale opposite Will Smith and Russell Crowe, said her ambition was to write while owning 'a little tea and sandwich shop'. "Hollywood is not for me. I love acting, but I also love London," she said.

Joining Brown-Findlay for the two-part adaptation of Kate Mosse's best-selling novel- which is coming to Channel 4 this weekend- are a host of famous faces including acting veteran John Hurt, Merlin's Katie McGrath, The Paradise's Emun Elliott, Harry Potter's Tom Felton, Vanessa Kirby, Sebastian Stan and John Lynch. Set in France during both 1209 and 2005, the tale interweaves the stories of two women, Alais (Brown Findlay) and Alice (Kirby). In the present day, archeologist Alice uncovers two shattered skeltons and a labyrinth-engraved ring in a long-undisturbed cave while 800 years ago in medieval France young herbalist Alais is entrusted with hiding the secrets contained within three sacred books. Labyrinth was adapted by Adrian Hodges, co-creator of ITV's Primeval and the screenwriter for My Week with Marilyn.

 Just as Brown-Findlay shows little patience for the demands of Hollywood, co-star Vanessa Kirby reveals she decided to become an actor after seeing her namesake Vanessa Redgrave on stage. She was 12 when she saw Corin and Redgrave in Trevor Nunn’s production of The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre. And there’s the audition for the Bristol Old Vic when she was 17; she was turned down, mainly for being too young. So then there was the six months in Africa and four months in Asia (she studied conflict resolution at Stellenbosch University) followed by an English degree at Exeter University, where she performed in as many plays as she could. Then there were a couple of chance meetings and some fantastic luck, an award and another couple of nominations, some very good reviews and, well, here we are.

You might have already seen her as Estella, adopted daughter of the icy-hearted Miss Havisham played by Gillian Anderson, in a recent TV adaptation of Great Expectations. Or maybe you clocked her in The Hour with Dominic West and Romola Garai. Prior to that you would have caught her mainly on stage in London or in Bolton, as she cut her teeth on Miller, Ibsen and Shakespeare, picking up awards and fine reviews with every production. But it doesn’t matter if you have never seen her before in your life, as it seems Kirby’s star is on a steep upwards trajectory, and with a slew of projects on the go, it won’t be long before you see her everywhere. There is a Ridley Scott-produced TV adaptation of Kate Mosse’s novel, the impending Labyrinth, and then a small part in The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman alongside Shia LaBeouf and a role in Richard Curtis’s new film, About Time. There are other film projects about which she’s been sworn to secrecy and an already planned return to the stage in Marlowe’s Edward II at the end of the year.

"I sometimes get a bit embarrassed when I tell people I’m an actor," she says. "The perception of the job has changed a lot." She says that she’s been viewing flats and estate agents first ask her if she’s got a guarantor – everyone knows that it’s a tough industry to crack, it seems – and then ask her what she’s been in. When she tells them about some stage roles they commiserate with her – it’s only the commercial stuff that they’re impressed by. For Kirby, though, it’s not nearly so clear cut. "On screen you have to worry about what you look like," she says. "You’ve got ten people doing your hair and make-up right before you go for a take, just to remind you that you’ve got a dodgy eye so they need to make it look a bit bigger. Then when you see it," she shakes her head. "No one sees themselves like that – from that many angles, that close up, wearing different clothes that you wouldn’t usually wear, your hair all weird. You don’t look how you think you look. It’s not the same as looking in a mirror. For a while I cared and I was all tense and nervous but you know what I’m not a model, I’m not ever going to be a model, I don’t look like a model and do you know what I don’t give a fuck."

The irony, of course, is that Kirby is very pretty. And tall. And slim. Still, that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t mean it when she says that she wants to be a character actress. And by that she means "someone who plays real people who at some point in their career tries to move someone in the same way that people have moved me. If that happens then I don’t have to worry about who thinks I’m pretty and who thinks I’m ugly. I’m trying to care less and less. But it is hard." She says she’s philosophical about rejection too, although there can’t have been very much of that in her career so far.

"Well, there are a lot of things that you don’t get," she says. "But now that I’m feeling more relaxed and comfortable I think I can get the jobs that I want. And when I don’t I always lose out to people who have more profile. My mum always tells me about reading an interview with Carey Mulligan who always used to lose out to Emily Blunt.' She smiles. "I’ve only been working for the last three years. It feels like a lifetime to me but in relative terms it’s nothing. I honestly feel like the luckiest person in the world.'

Labyrinth is on Saturday 30 and Sunday 31 March at 9:00pm on Channel 4.
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TV’s Stealthiest Sex Symbol

The Americans is the best new show on TV, says Warming Glow's Josh Kurp. This would be true even if the 2012-2013 season hadn’t produced dud after dud, Animal Practice after Guys with Kids; few series in recent memory have come out of the red-ribboned box as confident and thrilling as The Americans has. Even its FX counterpart Justified took a season to figure out what kind of show it wanted to be. But the saga of everyone’s favorite undercover Russian couple who want to cure the world of the American way of life came instantly packaged for instant entertainment, largely because of the stellar work done by future-Emmy winner Keri Russell, who celebrates her 37th birthday today. So here's how Russell's career went from pink bikinis to black wigs to become TV’s Stealthiest Sex Symbol in a dozen easy moves...

1. Her first film role was in 1992′s Honey, I Blew Up the Kid, where she played Robert Oliveri’s love interest, Mandy. She left little to the imagination, which was the style at the time.

2. A year later, she made her non-Mickey Mouse Club TV debut in the Boy Meets World episode, "Grandma Was a Rolling Stone," as Mr. Feeny’s niece who Eric falls for.

3. It was an unwritten rule, I think, that every Married…with Children guest star had to wear something revealing, so during her one-episode appearance, in season nine’s "Radio Free Trumaine," Keri obliged.

4. Playing the "other woman" in Bon Jovi’s “Always” music video? Not one of her finest moments.

5. In 1995, Disney produced a televised spin-off of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, starring no one from the film and making no mention of Silent Bob. Jim Breuer was cast as Randal, while Keri played a strip mall tanning saloon employee named Sandra. The pilot never aired.

6. In 1996, a starring role in Aaron Spelling’s short-lived Malibu Shores.

7. Despite its Beatles-referencing title, Eight Days a Week is apparently most notable for featuring Dishwalla’s 1996 hit "Counting Blue Cars," at least according to Wikipedia.

8. Then came Felicity, which, yeah. Fun fact: the theme song basically explains the plot of The Americans.

9. After Felicity ended in 2002, Keri went from one forgettable part to another, with the exception of roles in Mission: Impossible III and especially the Sundance-hit Waitress.

10. She made two memorable appearances on Scrubs in 2007, as Elliot’s sorority sister.

11. It would be another three years before her next TV role, in Mitch Hurwitz’s disappointing Running Wilde.

12. And finally, The Americans. According to Keri, “Originally, I didn’t know that I wanted to do it. I always say no to everything. I never want to do anything. But I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I read it…and I kept trying to figure it out, because it’s so not clear.” She’s given a stunning performance so far — it’s gotten to the point where after only eight episodes, I think of her as Elizabeth, not Felicity, a once-unthinkable comment. On the surface, Elizabeth, a part-time mom, full-time bad ass spy who goes through revealing costumes the way Russians do cans of caviar, is a “sex symbol,” but to reduce her to merely that is to let your guard down, at which point she’ll shoot you in the head or, if you’re lucky, just kick your ass. There’s no one quite like her on TV right now, something the Emmys should keep in mind.

Film: Eight Days a Week
Release Date: 1997
Actress: Keri Russell
Video Clip Credit: Scott
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A Game Of History

As epic fantasy Game of Thrones returns to TV, historian Tom Holland explains how it plunders real events from the ancient world to the middle ages to make it more brutally realistic than most historical novels...

Although Hilary Mantel is apparently yet to begin the third volume of her trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell, we can be confident of several plot twists that it will not feature. Cromwell will not precipitate a civil war. He will not betray the husband of his foster-sister, with whom he is in love. He will not escape the executioner's block. His downfall is scripted. The history books cannot be cheated. Mantel's Cromwell is as bound to the inevitability of his doom as any prisoner to a rack.

In the hands of a great writer, of course, the fact that we already know a character's fate can serve to heighten rather than diminish tension. For all that, though, the pleasure to be had in following a narrative and not knowing what will happen is a primal one. Next week sees the return to our television screens of a series that, like Mantel's two Tudor Booker prize winners, charts the pleasures and perils of political ambition. In a trailer for Game of Thrones, the voice of the actor Aiden Gillen can be heard defining chaos as a ladder: "The climb is all there is."

Gillen's character, Petyr Baelish, certainly knows whereof he speaks. The world he inhabits is one that will seem perfectly familiar to readers of Wolf Hall: courtly, treacherous and full of people having their heads chopped off with axes. Politics is portrayed as a game, in which only the most skilful can hope to win. Baelish himself has risen from humble beginnings to a position of understated influence and power. In the first series of Game of Thrones, he is shown serving a warrior king gone to seed and oppressed by serious marital problems. Baelish's talent is for keeping his spendthrift master in cash. "Within three years of coming to court he had been made master of coin and a member of the small council, and today the crown's revenues were 10 times what they had been under his predecessor."

If Baelish sounds more than a little like Thomas Cromwell, then perhaps that is not entirely a coincidence. He may inhabit a world, Westeros, which features dragons, walking corpses and a 700ft wall of ice – yet it is far from wholly fantastical. George RR Martin, whose series of novels inspired the HBO drama, has woven a tapestry of extraordinary size and richness; and most of the threads he has used derive from the history of our own world.

Gillen's look in the TV series, complete with black doublet and pointed beard, serves the viewer as convenient shorthand for the role he is playing in the drama: that of a Tudor Machiavel. Cromwell and Walsingham are not the only models for this. Baelish's character is inspired as well by the traditions of revenge tragedy: he has a taste for poison and nurtures a semi-incestuous passion for his foster-sister. What neither the history nor the literature of the Tudor period can reveal to us, though, is the full depth and nature of Baelish's schemings – nor, because there are still two books of the series to be written, what his fate will be.

Adding to the impossibility of deciding where Martin may be taking the fabulously complex strands of his plot is that the world of Westeros does not draw for its inspiration on a single period of history. Baelish may seem a figure conjured from Tudor mythography, but the king who rules in the first book in fact resembles Henry VIII less than he does his grandfather: the founder of the Yorkist dynasty, Edward IV. The back story of the series certainly derives from the wars of the roses. Just as the house of Lancaster was toppled by the house of York, so, at the beginning of Game of Thrones, has the ruling dynasty of the Targaryens been toppled by a usurper, Robert Baratheon.

Again, though, it would be a mistake to imagine that Martin's purposes can be divined simply by transplanting the history of 15th-century England on to the convulsions that devastate Westeros. He is far too subtle for that. When Robert succumbs to a plot hatched by his beautiful queen, Cersei, who then rules the kingdom on behalf of her son, it is hard not to be reminded of Isabella, the wonderfully nicknamed "she-wolf of France", who similarly dealt with her own husband, Edward II. When a fleet attacks her capital only to be annihilated by liquid explosives, the obvious parallel is with the "Greek fire" deployed by the Byzantines in their defence of Constantinople against the Arabs. Different events – and different periods – elide to consistently potent and surprising effect. In Game of Thrones, episodes from the history of our own world lie in wait for the characters like booby traps.

In this, the obvious contrast is with the only work of fantasy to compare in terms of ambition and achievement to Martin's own: The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's Middle-earth, unlike Westeros, is the creation of a dauntingly learned scholar: his ambition was to fashion from the languages, literature and history of the early middle ages an invented mythology that would nevertheless retain the stamp of the period that had inspired it. Martin's approach is infinitely more slapdash. Just as the characters and plot twists of his novels derive from a whole range of different periods, so too do their settings. The default mode is high medieval, but alongside all the tournaments and castles there are echoes as well of earlier periods. Offshore, a recognisably Viking kingdom boasts a fleet of longships; Westeros itself, like dark ages England, was once a heptarchy, a realm of seven kingdoms; the massive rampart of ice which guards its northernmost frontier is recognisably inspired by Hadrian's wall. Beyond Westeros, in a continent traversed by a Targaryen would-be queen, the echoes of our own world's history are just as clear – if more exotic. An army of horsemen sweeps across endless grasslands, much as Genghis Khan's Mongols did; memories of a vanished empire conflate Rome with the legend of Atlantis.

The result might easily have been a hideous mess. Instead, Game of Thrones is fantasy's equivalent of a perfect cocktail. Elements drawn from the hundred years war and the Italian Renaissance, from Chrétien de Troyes and Icelandic epic, fuse to seamless effect. The measure of how credible – on its own terms – people find Martin's alternative history is precisely the phenomenal scale of its popularity. The appeal of Westeros is less that it is fantastical than that it seems so richly, so vividly, so brutally real. The supernatural has no starring role: it is merely as present in the lives of its characters as a trust in the reality of angels, or a dread of demons, would have been in the minds of medieval men and women. People take their pleasures and endure their sufferings with a plausibility that puts to shame a good deal of self-proclaimed literary fiction.

The result, paradoxically, is that there are sequences where the invented world of Westeros can seem more realistic than the evocations of the past to be found in many a historical novel. No fiction set in the 14th century, for instance, has ever rivalled the portrayal in Game of Thrones of what, for a hapless peasantry, the ambitions of rival kings were liable to mean in practice: the depredations of écorcheurs; rape and torture; the long, slow agonies of famine. The pleasures of historical fiction and of authentic, adrenaline-charged suspense, of not knowing who will triumph and who will perish, have never before been so brilliantly combined. Imagine watching a drama set in the wars of the roses, or at the court of Henry VIII, and having absolutely no idea what is due to happen. No wonder Game of Thrones has been such a success – and that historians can relish it as much as anyone.
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Sunday, 24 March 2013

Sailing Into Scandal

Sultry TV actress and soap queen Louise Barnes will bare all in a new international television series - Black Sails, reveals Sunday World's Bongiwe Sithole. But local men will have to hold back their drooling for a while as the series will only hit our shores next year. About going nude in front of the cameras, Barnes says: "When I auditioned for the series I had to be prepared to be totally naked on screen. I remember thinking to myself, 'Louise, take your clothes off' and there I was shooting a naked scene in front of six people."

Barnes goes nude in some of the scenes - currently being shot in Cape Town - of Black Sails, a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Treasure Island, which tells of the exploits of Captain Flint and his band of pirates in the 18th century. She says her 20 years' experience as an actress helped her handle the challenges of playing "Miranda Barlow", the mysterious character who forms a romantic relationship with Captain Flint. Barnes says the project is a breakthrough for her as an actress. "I have been in international films before but this is a big one for me. The fact that I play a meaty role makes it thrilling. I feel incredibly blessed to be part of it."

Natal-born Barnes landed her first professional role in an SABC mini series, "Where Angels Tread". After graduation she went to on to work in theatre and both local and international television and film. While taking a break from the industry in 2002 she went to the USA to train as an instructor of Bikram yoga and opened a studio in Illovo, Johannesburg on her return. She was lured back to the acting world by a role in a South African/Canadian co-production, "Jozi H", and has continued to land exciting roles most recently in a feature film with Billy Zane, "Surviving Evil", and The Sinking of the Laconia, a BBC miniseries starring, amongst others, Franka Potente and Brian Cox. Now 38, Barnes was last week crowned Best Actress in a TV Soap at the South African Film and Television Awards for her role as Donna Harding in Scandal!, before revealing that she has quit the drama series. Her last episode will be on April 15. In her five years on Scandal!, Barnes played a ruthless and heartless woman who strove for success by stepping on people's toes. "I took a hard decision, considering I had security there. But I have other things such as voice overs to keep me going," she says. "I will absolutely miss the cast. We made friendships I will never forget."

In addition to Barnes, English models-actresses Hannah New, Clara Paget and Laura Higgins will also feature, as well as Canadian Jessica Parker Kennedy and Belgium-born Axelle Carolyn. As befits the channel that shamelessly mined the natural female resources of Australia and New Zealand for Spartacus, casting ads have also gone out for all-natural models/actresses in the Pretoria and Johannesburg region willing to flesh out the nudity in the show. The racy series is produced by Michael Bay, who directed the movie Transformers, and will be flighted on the US channel Starz who will retain all domestic and international rights to the dramatic series – including television, home video, and digital – similar to their hit series Spartacus and Magic City. It will then probably be shipped to one of South Africa's pay TV channels.

So keen was Starz to become the home of Bay's new project, it by-passed the pilot stage to commission eight episodes of the "gritty" pirate adventure series, due to air in 2014, straight off the bat. Black Sails tells the story of Captain Flint- the most brilliant and feared pirate captain of his day- and his crew twenty years before their appearance in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, back when John Silver was younger, leggier, and presumably, less Long. Flint takes on the fast-talking young addition to his crew, Silver, who has stolen a map to a Spanish Treasure galleon that Flint is after. Threatened with extinction on all sides, they fight against the British Royal Navy for the survival of New Providence Island, the most notorious criminal haven of its day – a place defined by both its enlightened ideals and its stunning brutality.

Luke Arnold (McLeod’s Daughters, Rush, Broken Hill) will star as the classic character, "John Silver", in the years before his well-known feats. Toby Stephens will be featured as the rival pirate captain to "Captain Charles Vane", played by Zach McGowan (Shameless). Hannah New (El Tiempo Entre Costuras, Fuga De Cerebros 2, Maleficent) will be stepping into the role of "Eleanor Guthrie", a beautiful and determined young woman who runs the smuggling operation on New Providence. Jessica Parker Kennedy (Max, The Secret Circle, 50/50, In Time) has been cast in the role of "Max," a tortured young prostitute who sees the dark side of her surroundings. Elsewhere, Hakeem Kae Kazim (Strike Back, Hotel Rwanda) will play "Mr. Scott", Toby Schmitz (Crownies, Three Blind Mice) will play "Rackham" and Clara Paget (One Day, Fast Six) will star as a member of Captain Vane's crew,

Said Starz CEO Chris Albrecht, in a press release: "Starz is excited to be working with a visionary like Michael. Along with the high-octane action that is a hallmark of a Michael Bay production, it has the elements that Starz originals are striving to bring to the premium landscape: epic, larger than life, cinematic storytelling. The series is also a property we believe will appeal to the global content marketplace with broadcasters around the world." Bay added: "I’m excited to branch out into television, especially doing a long-form series for STARZ, a network known for supporting cutting-edge programming."

Black Sails will be executive produced by Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) and his Platinum Dunes partners Brad Fuller and Andrew Form (producers on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and Nightmare on Elm Street (2009)). The series is created by showrunner and executive producer Jon Steinberg (creator Jericho, Human Target) and co-executive producer Robert Levine (Touch). Neil Marshall (The Descent, Game of Thrones) is on board to direct the first episode. Filming has just commenced in Cape Town, which is standing in for the Bahamas' New Providence Island, described in the show's bumpf as "a debauched paradise teeming with pirates, prostitutes, thieves and fortune seekers." Explosions and nudity come as standard.
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Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Porning Of Pop Culture

"Vagina's everywhere..."

Discretion used to be the better part of TV sex scenes. Even as portrayals of love and lust got steamier, the anatomical particulars were left to the imagination, off camera or under covers. Hollywood's old visual pun, the camera panning from a couple romancing in the foreground to fireworks exploding in the background, was updated over the years. Now the precise style, duration and heat register of sexual fireworks are enacted onscreen, notes Denver Post's Joanne Ostrow, and in cable and broadcast TV dramas, the sex scenes are gymnastic...

The first evolution in TV's approach to sex involved the quantity of the sex on screen. The next evolution, the one going on now, seems to be in the manner of the sex portrayed. No position is too acrobatic, no amount of skin too graphic to depict on television. The potential awkwardness of the act seems to fascinate TV directors. It's not just television: from the popularity of E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey" to the ubiquity of kink on the Internet, from a recent New York Times story on the proliferation of S&M clubs to the nightly prime-time disclaimers (TV-MA, L, S, V), the porning of pop culture is upon us.

Thank cable for ushering more graphic depictions of sex, violence and sexual violence from the World Wide Web into the living room with a wealth of literate (and award-winning) adult dramas. Depictions of sex and sexuality of every flavor are on view, not least in otherworldly settings ( Battlestar Galactica) and fantastical comedic settings (Sex and the City). True Blood and Mad Men raised the stakes. Increasingly, athleticism is the hallmark of small-screen sexual encounters. A bed is often the last place you'd find a sex scene. The unlimited varieties of the act were explored by cable, where customers pay for the privilege of seeing sadistic sexual acts (Game of Thrones), humiliating sexual encounters (Girls), bodice-ripping sex (Spartacus), paid and disabled sex (Legit), beach-chair sex (Magic City), fee-based sex play (The Client List) and more.

Meanwhile broadcast TV showcased more and younger sex, especially on shows about high schoolers played by older actors. Parenthood, Bunheads and Glee toyed with adolescent sexual exploits. The tragi-sex-com Girls on HBO brings the current state of affairs into cringe-worthy focus. This season's penultimate episode "On All Fours," as graphic as its title, explicitly referenced porn imagery in the interaction of Adam and Natalia. First they had fun sex, then they had quasi-rape sex. The dynamics of the positions, the meaning of the physical relationships, the emotions that result from the encounter are meant to be pondered on this increasingly dark post-post-feminist comedy.

Now that graphic style is edging into mainstream commercial TV. Desperate to win audiences back from cable, the broadcast networks do what they can to mimic, imply and suggest. Even a political drama about the White House sneaks off for a quickie in the computer tech closet (Scandal), as parents in the audience scramble to clear the kids from the room. The raunchiest network comedies talk endlessly about "doing it" but don't show much. Jess (Zooey Deschanel) of New Girl on Fox is not nearly as sexually exhibitionistic or self-sabotaging as Hannah (Lena Dunham) of Girls on HBO. Two and a Half Men amounts to a decade's worth of sexual innuendo but actual sex is only implied.

Here's how we know we've arrived at a newly sexualized time in mainstream America, an awkward age of transition on matters of sex: The waitress Max (Kat Dennings) on the CBS half-hour Two Broke Girls recently complained that the word "vagina" has lost its power to shock. "Vagina's everywhere," she said. Cue the leering short-order cook Oleg: "Where!?!" Clearly, the writers share Max's lament about the difficulty of getting a laugh now that the word is commonplace, but they hope for some residual shock value. Ironically, TV's reality shows are the least graphic when it comes to sexual interactions. Series like Big Brother and Jersey Shore offer bad, obnoxious and unethical behavior on display, but the sex is usually blurred, in the dark or beneath the sheets. The TV genre that purports to be most authentic and uncensored turns out to be the least revealing in sexual situations.

The easy inclusion of graphic sex scenes in TV dramas in particular has challenged writers to play with the nature of intimacy in novel ways. This creative rethinking turns out to be good for dramatic character development. The power dynamic involved in sex is now a focus beyond the physical event.

* The husband and wife power-mongers in House of Cards on NetFlix like to share a cigarette in a window late at night, their version of intimacy. We never see them in a sexual encounter with each other; that's reserved for others, their inferiors in terms of rank and power. The result is subtle: The lack of sex between the leading characters (played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) makes the viewer think harder about their intriguing intimate moments, as they borrow a page from "Macbeth."

* In the superior FX drama The Americans, the very idea of sex is fraught since the couple, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, are actually an arranged covert spy team who have yet to develop a real romantic relationship. Can their work blur into a romance? Will things heat up in the bedroom while they pursue the Cold War? Meanwhile, views of Russell's character enduring demeaning, sadistic sex as a trade for information are intensely graphic. (As a lethal spy, she gets her comeuppance.)

* It's not spoiling anything to note that the only really romantic, loving expression of sex in recent TV memory occurred on ABC's Red Widow, just before the central character was widowed. Now that true love seems to be out of the way, the doors are open to more dramatic, aggressive or conflicted expressions of sex.

* FX's Bates Motel finds its starting point as a contemporary prequel to "Psycho" with a Twin Peaks vibe. The sexual tension here is novel for television: mother and son, played by Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore, are intertwined in unhealthy, incestuous ways. The sexual hints are subtle at first as the audience witnesses the psychological implosion of teenager Norman Bates.

We can only hope the sexual tension in that case remains more subtle than gymnastic.
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Sunday, 17 March 2013

Tales Of The Unexpected

Top of the Lake star Elisabeth Moss says we should savour every nuance of her latest project. The actress, who plays a detective in Jane Campion's drama on Sundance Channel, relishes the detail of a story that reveals itself, much like her character, in very unexpected ways...

It's a sun-soaked afternoon in Los Angeles, but Elisabeth Moss is shivering. Sitting in the back room at the Pikey on Sunset Boulevard, Moss recalls how cold the water was in New Zealand, where she filmed Top of the Lake, the hotly-anticipated miniseries created by Jane Campion that premieres Monday on the Sundance Channel. "The lake is the same temperature all year round: freezing," says Moss, wearing a loose white cotton dress, her short brown hair tucked neatly behind one ear. "My makeup artist had this black plastic bucket and they would fill it with hot water and I would go sit in it fully clothed to warm up."

It's an odd detail, but it's in keeping with the making of the moody crime drama, writes Jessica Gelt in the Los Angeles Times. Filmed over a five-month period against a staggeringly beautiful natural backdrop of soaring mountains, rugged bush and the omnipresent lake, the setting plays a natural foil to the darkness of the plot, driven by the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old named Tui. Moss plays a confused and hardened Sydney, Australia, cop who gets wrapped up in the case during a visit to her cancer-stricken mother.

The mystery reveals itself in unexpected ways during seven hour-long episodes. The length of the series allows delicate subplots to push to the surface, including the story of Paradise, a desolate refugee camp for lost, mostly menopausal women, silently lorded over by an enigmatic visionary named GJ, played by Holly Hunter. Then there's the taut drama surrounding Tui's father, a criminal named Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan) who rules the town and its police through the sheer, rabid force of his violent will. "I think this is Jane's best work. She really thrived in the miniseries genre," says Moss. "It's in the details for Jane. It's all about the secondary characters, the locations and all the weird moments — all the extra things that make Jane a genius. If you cut it down to two hours you'd make an awesome detective story, but you'd lose all that great stuff."

Making a miniseries did, indeed, give her room to play, agrees Campion. "My favorite form is the novel," she says, "which I think adds up to six or seven hours of something beautiful. That's what I was trying to create." Campion recalls how watching the salty HBO drama Deadwood made her realize that modern television was the place for her. "I thought, 'My God, this is so brilliant, I can't believe someone in television is financing this,'" she says. "How wild, what a revelation!"

In contrast, another of the chief draws of the "terrific" Top of the Lake is knowing that it will actually end, thinks Maureen Ryan. Writing in the Huffington Post, she notes that it's not that you're likely to get sick of this atmospheric mystery tale, it's just that it isn't padded in contrived ways to fill out a 10- or 13-episode season. The story dictates the length, not the other way around. "There's a lot of talk these days about the future of television, and that's certainly something we need more of: Creators who figure out what they want to do and then find a format, a venue and a running time that make sense for the specific story they're telling," writes Ryan.

The premise of Top of the Lake is not terribly original, but Campion, who also wrote many of the episodes, puts her distinctive stamp on the miniseries' core ingredients. There's the missing child, a community full of secrets and a driven detective with a fiance she's largely forsaken, but the similarities to AMC's version of The Killing (thank the gods) more or less end there. "Actually, the pilot of the U.S. version of "The Killing" did a fine job of establishing a melancholy tone, an intriguing mystery and pleasingly ambiguous characters," admits Ryan. "The show ran off the rails soon after that, but Top of the Lake, which has a similarly moody start, only becomes more fascinating over time. That's not to say Top of the Lake is free of idiosyncratic digressions and the occasionally odd segue, but it does a critically important thing very well: It draws you into a specific world and it quickly makes that world's textures, relationships and stakes matter."

Moss plays Robin Griffin, who returns temporarily to her hometown, nestled in some of New Zealand's most gorgeous scenery. The workaholic Griffin does some consulting for the local police department between visits to her mother, and you get the impression that Griffin would rather be working a local missing persons case than dealing with family issues or her past. In this beautiful backwater, one clan seems to have cornered the market on thuggery and black-market activities, and as "Lake" unfolds, we learn about Griffin's connections to the rough Mitcham family and about the secrets that have kept her psychologically tethered to the close-knit town. As she gets more involved in a case involving a child, it doesn't take long for Griffin to meet G.J., the American guru who has set up a new commune for women on the edge of the town's lake.

Reactions to G.J. will likely be polarized, thinks Ryan, but Hunter's performance was one of the main draws for her. Her stillness in this role is impressive: G.J. mainly sits in a trailer and drinks coffee, and she occasionally issues blunt advice to her ragged flock in a clipped, distracted manner. Is Campion amused by or affectionate toward G.J. and her gaggle of strange, contradictory women? There's no concrete answer, but the ambiguous treatment of the lakeside encampment - puckishly or accurately called "Paradise" - is one of "Lake's" chief pleasures. Many of the women are fleeing difficult relationships. Griffin, meanwhile, is treated with casual condescension by fellow officers and has her own painful secrets, with a thick skin as a result. As Top of the Lake progresses, however, those barriers start to fall.

Television often tells stories involving oppression and violence, especially violence toward women and children, but it most often uses them to juice up a procedural formula or to launch a melodramatic cliffhanger. "It's rare for a television show to let the consequences of violence and assault play out in complex, nuanced (there's that word again) ways for both male and female characters," states Ryan. "Despite its relatively short running time, Top of the Lake does that. In fact, examining the effects of brutality on those who employ it and those who experience it appears to be one of the reasons for the miniseries' existence."

Campion's feeling that anything goes on the small screen translated to some genuinely brave directorial choices, particularly when it comes to the world of Paradise, the camp by the lake. Here the women live in empty shipping containers and there is a sense of weird, wind-swept desolation that easily conjures Twin Peaks comparisons. "TV is being written, directed and acted for adults," says Holly Hunter, addressing the strange world of the camp. "It's bringing complexity to a lot of different stories, characters and landscapes."

In the case of Paradise, that sense of richness and possibility plays out among women that Campion says are "probably the most unattractive group of women in the world": menopausal and post-menopausal. "But I'm one of them," she says. "And there's a lot of freedom to it. You skip out of all the conventional points of success. You're not hot, you don't have a hot body." Through Paradise we see the vulnerability and power of women, and Tui's disappearance becomes that much more upsetting. The evil embodied in the show, however, is as amorphous as the constantly shifting weather. "Even though there are people who do very bad things in Top of the Lake, those people still get a lot of humanity shined on them through Jane and Gerard Lee, her co-writer," says Hunter. "I think they both love people and they love all their characters."

It had been a long time since Campion had written with Lee, who she says was living on an island off Brisbane in Australia when she called on him to collaborate. His voice was vital because he could awaken the male point of view alongside her female point of view. Sexuality and sex roles are a bit murky, along with just about everything else in Top of the Lake. That's certainly true when it comes to Moss' Robin, who has held onto bleak secrets that have twisted her to hardened extremes. Thanks to her role as Peggy Olson on Mad Men, Moss knows a thing or two about infiltrating male-dominated worlds.

Although Griffin is quite different from Peggy - she's tougher and more physically brave - she shares that character's resilience and intelligence. As is often the case on Mad Men, Moss' role in Top of the Lake frequently requires her to react to others and to experience pain and regret in silence, and we know from five seasons of the AMC show that the actress is a master of those skills. She and the subtle David Wenham, who plays a local detective, are well paired; each actor innately understands the slightly hushed, realistic atmosphere Campion is trying to create. Griffin doesn't particularly want to be liked, but given who's playing her, it's impossible not to care about the toll this case begins to take on the detective.

Campion says Moss wasn't who she had in mind when she was writing the role but that it quickly became apparent during casting that she was the correct choice. "I always want to know more about her," says Campion of Moss. "She's a bit like the Mona Lisa, she shows you something, but there's so much more." For her part, Moss says she was both thrilled and terrified to carry the show. But it wasn't until filming was over that she realized the full scope of what they had made. "They showed this clip they edited together at the end of filming, and by the end tears were just streaming down my face," says Moss. "It was like watching my life for the past five months being played back at me."
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Saturday, 16 March 2013

Lost Treasure Discovered

"I do NOT see anything attractive in the agonies and ecstasies of a pervert, especially in close-up in my sitting room..."
Possibly the earliest surviving British gay television drama, a powerful and compelling tale of intense emotions between soldiers serving in the American Civil War, has just been unearthed, reports the BFI. Broadcast live on 24 November 1959, in ITV’s Play of the Week slot, period drama South centres on exiled Polish officer Lt Jan Wicziewsky (Peter Wyngarde), staying on a wealthy family’s Deep South plantation prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War. As war clouds gather, Wicziewsky’s initial arrogance gives way to emotional disintegration when the arrival of Eric MacClure (Graydon Gould) forces him to face up to his darkest secret: his love for another man.

The lost treasure was directed by Mario Prizek, who died last year. He enjoyed an illustrious career with the CBC in Canada, was openly gay and championed equal rights. He worked on several television plays in the UK, directing Roger Livesey in Governor Wall and Maggie Smith in Penelope for Granada (both 1960); and also produced and directed an entry in the BBC’s Wednesday Play strand, First Love (1964). Large swathes of TV output from the 1950s and early 60s no longer exist, as it was often broadcast live and not recorded for posterity, or was later wiped. Prizek’s British work was among the casualties, but fortunately South is preserved in the BFI National Archive.

Film historian Stephen Bourne identifies South as the earliest surviving gay-themed British television drama. In 1957 the Wolfenden Report recommended that "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence", but the law would not see concrete change for another decade. In 1959 the subject was still all but verboten on the small screen, though British cinema would take a leap of faith with Victim in 1961.

Wyngarde’s performance as the tortured Jan is extraordinary, by turns theatrical and reflective. Though producers were unable to mention homosexuality explicitly, the bravery involved in accepting such a role cannot be overstated. The wonderful supporting cast includes Hollywood veteran Bessie Love as a worldly Southern matriarch, and pioneering black British actor Johnny Sekka (South has much to say on race as well as sexuality).

Writing in 1959, a reporter for the Daily Sketch wrote: "I do NOT see anything attractive in the agonies and ecstasies of a pervert, especially in close-up in my sitting room. This is not prudishness. There are some indecencies in life that are best left covered up."

It will be available in BFI Mediatheques around the UK from April 2013.
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Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Americans S01E07

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If, under the lens of perspective, we suspend the remnants of latent anti-Communism, we come to realize that Philip and Elizabeth may in fact be the worst antiheroes ever written insofar as being antithetical to heroism. That may sound semantic, but the pair is principled, in some respects similar to Vic Mackey. But unlike Mackey, it is absolutely clear that neither relishes in harming others; even if their capacities for love and violence can seem disturbing at times, we also see an underlying desire to do good. In a sense, this show lets us eat our proverbial cake: we get the grime and complex ethical scenarios, but we can root for our heroes the way we might those in classical epics.

As we’ve witnessed over the past fourteen years, television is an incredible medium for portraying slow deterioration. But The Americans reveals that television is equally capable of showing the opposite: the precarious steps we take to build community, how we maintain in the face of obstruction, and how we teach ourselves to love and be made vulnerable in a world that knows exactly how to exploit and destroy us. In the course of Breaking Bad, Walter White becomes the self he is apparently always capable of being, and we watch how his obsessive pursuit of power brings his whole life—and with it, any true sense of fulfillment—crumbling around him. In The Americans, though, Philip and Elizabeth begin from a place of alienation and move toward redemption, just as their world becomes an even more dangerous place.

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

Television Series: The Americans (S01E07)
Release Date: March 2013
Actress: Annet Mahendru
Video Clip Credit: Wimsey
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