Why Mad Men Represents the Best of TV

Don and Sally

Don and Sally in an early season (L) and in last Sunday’s episode (R).

 

On last Sunday’s Mad Men, Sally catches Don in a lie—she visits SCDPCDPCHCHJ (I can’t remember the agency name anymore) and finds that he’s not there, but doesn’t confront him about it when he later claims he was at the office. Once Don finds out Sally knew the truth, he asks why she withheld as well. “It’s more embarrassing to catch you in a lie than to ignore it,” Sally says, no doubt recalling the events of last season, when she walked in on Don mid-hookup with a woman who was not his wife. Don sneers at Sally’s response, accusing her of lying in wait, then trapping him in a fib, “just like your mother.”

Mad Men rarely patronizes its viewers, so the show doesn’t spell out that Don is referencing the events of season three. In episode 3×11, Betty confronts Don about his identity theft after opening the Pandora’s box in his desk, chock-full of family photos and references to Dick Whitman’s life. As soon as Don spits that insult at Sally—just like your mother—we flash back to Betty standing righteously in Don’s office; to his mistress, the long forgotten schoolteacher, hunched in Don’s car parked outside. Don’s entire journey—really, his descent—is present as we flash from the moments after Betty’s confrontation in season three to the Don Draper of season seven. In the former season it was odd to watch Don, always suave and composed, shaking so forcefully in the face of Betty’s discovery that he couldn’t light his cigarette. Now Don is often that unmoored; he traipses around his house in pajamas, marking the levels of his quickly depleting liquor bottle. “I can explain,” Don sputtered to Betty in season three, the box of photos between them. “I know you can,” Betty replied. “You’re a very, very gifted storyteller.” It was true then; it’s not so true now.

At the moment that Don knew his wife had found him out, he must have thought it was the lowest point in his life. Looking back, he knows it was not, as do we. The depths of his misery have only deepened, and today he is essentially an unemployed alcoholic in an unhappy marriage. In a four-word phrase—just like your mother—Mad Men reminds us of Don’s relationship with Sally, his relationship with Betty, his relationship with the truth, his relationship with himself. We become conscious of the years and years we have spent with this character. Television is unique in this way; a movie, a book, a painting, are contained experiences, stretching over hours or days. Television stretches over years. This is changing through shows like True Detective or the new Fargo, one-and-dones that in future seasons will perhaps be united by an aesthetic sensibility, if not by character. But the best television takes advantage of our extended relationships with its characters and uses that intimacy to move us. “Just like your mother” reminds us how broken Don is, and how fraught he and Sally’s relationship is. Which is why the episode’s ending scene is such a gut punch. Don drops Sally off. They have had dinner, have mended at least a post on the fence. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” she tosses off through the car window. “I love you.” Don is stunned, and touched, as are we. It’s so hopeful, the capacity for love after all that. And therein, the power of television: that we are able to experience all that. 

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The Good Feminist

The Good Wife officially transitioned into its post-Will state on Sunday, and followed through on the showrunners’ promise that the next few episodes would not be “all tears—there’s comedy too.” The show is adept at balancing drama and comedy in the same episode, and though it continues to deal with Alicia, Kalinda and Diane’s grief in the aftermath of Will’s murder, “A Material World” has some humorous scenes. Alicia and Diane’s drunken get-together was funny, but the most chuckle-worthy part of the episode comes during Alicia’s lowest moment. Bedridden and in mourning, Alicia watches a detective show that seems awfully familiar.

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Alicia drowns her sorrows in TV.

In it, a couple of detectives run their flashlights over a dead body, while one of the detectives goes on a philosophical rant. “People just think there are black hats and white hats,” the detective drawls. “But there are black hats with white lining, and white hats with black lining. There are hats that change back and forth between white and black.”

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A deep-thinking detective on The Good Wife.

The pontificating detective is a great parody of myriad talky TV investigators, whether it be CSI Miami’s Horatio Caine (never without a pun) or True Detective’s Rust Cohle. The parody further mirrors True Detective through its imagery, the sadly familiar portrait of a brutalized woman strung up to a tree or a fence, on display for the male detectives—or saviors. Image

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Dead bodies on The Good Wife (top) and True Detective (bottom).

Much was made of True Detective’s women, whose frequently naked bodies—dead and alive—were ogled by the camera. The women of True Detective were there to illuminate the male leads: Marty’s mistress was valuable because she proved that Marty was out of control; Dora Lange (above) mattered to the audience not because she was a human being, but because her death offered a doorway into the way Rust Cohle’s mind worked. The Good Wife’s parody is comic relief, sure, but it also places the show’s complex female leads in contrast to True Detective’s flat women. Later in the episode, Alicia Florrick, who throughout the last two seasons has become more and more commanding, finally takes a long-awaited step toward her liberation from the shackles of the Tammy Wynette role: she breaks up with Peter, the husband who forced her to play the titular good wife.

No matter what you think of Alicia lately—the show certainly hasn’t privileged her likability—the character is not stagnant. The recent episode “A Few Words” reminded us of Alicia’s earlier iteration, all bad hair, dowdy suits, pursed lips and wide, nervous eyes. She has turned into a power player, at times a ruthless one. (“Don’t worry, I’m not going to divorce you,” she assures her jilted husband. “You’re too valuable to me professionally, just like I am to you.”)

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Alicia just after the Peter cheating scandal (L) and Alicia in season 5, now a name partner and founder of Florrick/Agos (R).

True Detective rankled some critics, but it was also one of the buzziest television events of recent years. Divergent schools of thought helped drive that buzz—some saw the show as simply a well-executed detective series, using all of the tropes associated with the genre but with snazzier directing and acting. Others praised True Detective for subverting the trappings of genre and offering something deeper. For all that talk, though, The Good Wife is doing something even more revolutionary: working within the confines of a network series, twenty-two episodes and all, and managing to tell a woman’s story subtly and artfully. True Detective created something television viewers love to indulge in: fervor. But The Good Wife creates something much more important: feminist television.

Why I Think “The Good Wife” Made the Right Call

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“I want to be with you and only you. Forever.”

The Kings have always said in interviews that Will and Alicia’s doomed romance was about bad timing. Alicia’s responsibilities at home got in the way. Her relationship with Peter got in the way. Voicemails were deleted. True feelings were suppressed. Will once likened the relationship to a merry-go-round, but on the show its symbol was an elevator. There are myriad examples: Alicia’s hurried escape into the Lockhart/Gardner elevator after their first kiss; their rekindled flame on the way up to the hotel suite in the season two finale; Will’s longing question, after the romance had ended: “Do you think it was a mistake?”; perhaps most definitively in hindsight, Will’s hand blocking the closing elevator doors in “A Few Words”—an almost-miss. Continue reading

About That True Detective Sex Scene

Early in True Detective’s run, some were rankled by the sex scene in episode two between Hart and his mistress, in which the camera luxuriated in and leered at actress Alexandra Daddario’s naked body. I wasn’t bothered by the scene because, indulgent as the focus on Ms. Daddario’s assets might have seemed, it effectively replicated Marty Hart’s gaze and thus felt understandable. But it’s true, as Emily Nussbaum wrote in The New Yorker after last Sunday’s episode, that as the show has gone on, its women have not been shaded in much. True Detective’s world is populated by, per Nussbaum, “slack-jawed teen prostitutes,” “strippers gyrating in the background of police work,” “the designated put-upon wifely character” and “the occasional cameo hussy.” These women seem to exist in the show’s world simply to deepen our understanding of the two main characters, which is what made the most recent episode so strange for me.

SPOILERS. In episode six, Maggie Hart (Michelle Monaghan) finds out her husband is, once again, cheating on her. In an effort to enrage Marty and send him out of the house, Maggie seduces his partner, Rust, then tells Rust what her plan was and later tells Marty what she has done, effectively blowing up both their home life and Marty and Rust’s professional relationship.

Due to the show’s framing device, viewers knew that Rust and Hart would split as partners in 2002, and to the observant viewer the reason for the impending split was easy to predict (the show’s first five episodes were peppered with Maggie/Rust scenes that crackled with chemistry), so I was not the least bit surprised when Maggie knocked on Rust’s door in the last episode.

The plot wasn’t what threw me; it was the perspective. The sex scene, as Willa Paskin notes in her Slate piece, positions Maggie as the one with agency. “Rust and Marty both became, however briefly, pawns in her story,” Paskin writes. Indeed, just before Maggie arrives Rust is in his desolate apartment trying to puzzle together the Yellow King mystery. He hears a knock at the door, and rather than track Rust as he finds out who it is, the camera cuts outside so that the viewer sees Maggie looking distressed in front of Rust’s apartment.

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By cutting to Maggie before Rust opens the door, the show is placing us outside of his point of view and sending us a message: Rust is not the protagonist in this scene. Next, Maggie initiates contact.
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And then we get a unique shot of the couple framed through the cabinets and counter in Rust’s kitchen. Rust is still hesitant, and in this shot we can only see Maggie’s face as she tries to get him to capitulate. The shot further emphasizes Maggie’s place in the scene’s power dynamic.

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After Rust is finished, the camera lingers on Maggie’s face, asking the viewer to contemplate these events from her point of view.

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And in a particularly great shot, we cut to a close-up of Maggie’s hand delicately pushing Rust away so that she can put her panties back on.

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From start to finish, Maggie is in control. The scene’s writing and direction emphasize her experience of the event at hand, an extreme change of perspective since until now the entire show has been filtered through Rust and Hart’s points of view. The change doesn’t last long, though. A beat later, we fully shift to Rust’s reaction to Maggie’s betrayal. The scene ends with a shot of Rust alone in his apartment, stricken and solitary.

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Suddenly, the scene seems meant to illuminate Rust for the audience. His reaction to Maggie’s behavior—it is presented as Maggie’s behavior—shows him to be a “good man,” a principled man who has had a lapse in judgement because he is incredibly lonely and vulnerable. Similarly, the next 2002 scene is Maggie’s confession. She tells Hart what she has done, and the moment is meant to further clarify that Hart is a hothead with anger and control issues.

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In the end, Hart and Rust brawl in the police station parking lot and ultimately break up. The story is emphatically not of Maggie’s liberation from her marriage, and I don’t think it should be. But why frame the sex scene from Maggie’s perspective instead of Rust’s, when True Detective hasn’t made any other attempts to consider its female characters’ inner lives?

Rust has increasingly been positioned as the hero of True Detective. He may be deeply flawed, but he is also the only character who seems to really want to solve the Yellow King mystery and save the women and children the killer is terrorizing. The show asks us to root for Rust, particularly in the last episode, which featured Rust in multiple face-offs—with our presumed Bad Guy, the hot mess that is Marty Hart, and The Man in the form of his lazy or willfully ignorant superiors at the police station—in which he was in the right. So is it a coincidence that we switch perspectives right when Rust could, by sleeping with his partner’s wife, become the bad guy? By placing Maggie as agent, the viewer is allowed to let Rust off the hook and blame Maggie, who is once again reduced to a stereotype: the sexually manipulative woman.

House of Cards Questions (No Spoilers)

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On kind of a theoretical level, not a plot level.

First, please take this survey:

1. Is one of the following shows the best drama of all time? 

The Wire

The Sopranos

Breaking Bad

Mad Men

a. Yes

b. No

2. Totally love…

a. Hannibal

b. The Following

3. Currently watching True Detective (or waiting to binge it)?

a. Yes

b. No

4. “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

a. Can’t lose…what? I don’t get it.

b. GO PANTHERS (OR LIONS)!

If your results were a, a, a, and b, we, as television viewers, are on the same page (i.e. we are both probably kind of TV elitists), and so you may be more inclined to agree with me (and many of the critics we probably both read) on some of the things I’m going to basically state as objective truths regarding House of Cards. Like:

  • House of Cards looks great. It does not look “inexpensive” (said in Nina Garcia clipped tone).
  • House of Cards is extremely campy.
  • Many of House of Cards’ happenings defy all logic or reason.
  • Character motivations on House of Cards are often hard to pin down.
  • House of Cards writers do generally frowned upon things like inform the audience that a heretofore major character has been fired in a throwaway line, or baby us through upcoming plot twists through early-episode anecdotes from Freddy the grillmaster that basically scream “PAY ATTENTION THIS IS A METAPHOR PAY ATTENTION VIEWER.”
  • House of Cards is very fun and easy to binge watch.

So, could House of Cards possibly succeed if it were aired week to week? This is a show that pulls you in with a distinct, sleek visual palette, a fun, hammy main character and the promise of plot twists and political machinations. It’s a foregone conclusion that Frank will own everyone (and an all-powerful main character would usually be a problem for a show), so the fun is in watching how he owns everyone and who his casualties are. Sometimes the show is patently ridiculous in a vaguely self-aware way (Frank’s outfit when he SPOILERS SPOILER; the computer hacker with the guinea pig; the shenanigans with the Secret Service agent). Other times, it becomes suddenly self-serious, or maybe self-reflective is a better word (that one Claire scene toward the end of this season).

But these tone inconsistencies never seem like a problem if you digest the whole show in one bite, like an amuse-bouche in television form. When you are clicking through from chapter to chapter, you don’t have the time, or in my case the inclination, to sit down and let the show and its various nonsensical plot mechanics and thin characterizations marinate. It’s an interesting viewing experience in comparison to True Detective, a show that begs to be parsed and re-watched.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the House of Cards brand of entertainment. If anything, I think it’s kind of genius. Here is a show that fuses method of consumption with content, and has gotten awards and buzz out of it. But will this become a trend? As television shows become available via diverse platforms, will the way those shows are constructed change accordingly? Nothing seems to indicate that a Netflix show has to follow the House of Cards mode (I have not watched Orange Is the New Black, but from what I have heard it is better written than HoC), but given its success, I wonder if Netflix will be inclined to greenlight shows that lend themselves to the binging model, even if they aren’t prestige dramas that are going to launch Netflix into the pantheon of greatness alongside HBO and AMC.

And again, it’s kind of fun to imagine how HoC would be different if it were airing weekly. Would it be better? Less addictive? It’s a moot point, I suppose. Frank Underwood once said, “I hate being kept in the dark. Waiting. Speculating.” No such problem for House of Cards fans.

The Double in True Detective

Dr. Jekyll famously posited that “man is not truly one, but two,” a reference to one of the tenets of Gothic fiction: the double. Page through the genre’s staples, and the sets of doubles are as ubiquitous as stormy weather or labyrinthine abodes. Often, Gothic twinning is representative of the duality within man, or simply put, good versus evil, as with the aforementioned Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Other Gothic pairs include Matilda and Isabella in The Castle of Otranto, Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason, and Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature.

The double was passed down to the Gothic novel’s descendant, horror film. Buffy the Vampire Slayer memorably used the double in the episode “Doppelgangland,” wherein Willow’s vampire doppelganger from another dimension takes a trip to Sunnydale and thoroughly confounds the Scooby Gang, who understandably assume that their good friend has been killed.

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Willow encounters her vampy double.

In Buffy, the double is used for comedic effect, allowing for some great mistaken identity gags. But laughs aside, the episode nicely typifies the double’s place in Gothic fiction. In the episode, Willow is questioning her reputation as a reliable, maybe predictable person. She meets her double just as she’s in the process of reevaluating herself. Horror films and novels are often about subverting our constructions of normalcy (that’s why Michael Myers terrorizes an idyllic suburban neighborhood), and what’s more disturbing than being confronted with your own construction of self? In meeting our doubles, we must reflect on the permeability of our identities.

Fitting, then, that HBO’s True Detective, a show that spends a lot of time considering the nature of selfhood, is littered with doubles. The most obvious pairing is Matthew McConaughey’s Detective Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Detective Marty Hart, a couple of Louisiana cops tasked with solving a gruesome murder. At first the men seem quite different; Cohle lives alone, and is fairly antisocial and prone to philosophizing, while Hart is a family man who seems to enjoy beers with the fellas and a good dirty joke. As the show continues, though, the characters become more and more complex, and more and more similar. “You’re obsessive,” Hart says to his partner in the most recent episode. “You’re obsessive too,” Cohle replies. “Just not about work.” Even without verbalizing their similarities, the show frames the two men as doubles, dressing them in the same palette or shooting them in parallel, as if they’re two sides of the same coin.

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Doubling can also be found in the form of Hart’s daughters, cherubic blondes who are often dressed almost identically and, in a recent scene, were blocked to move in unison.

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See also: the double date between Hart, his wife, Cohle and his setup. Notice that Hart’s wife, played by Michelle Monaghan, also physically resembles Cohle’s date, creating another visual double. During the date, a thematic doubling of sorts arises during the characters’ conversation about synesthesia. Cohle explains his condition as “a type of hypersensitivity. One sense triggers another sense. Like, sometimes I’ll see a color and it’ll put a taste in my mouth; a touch, a texture, a scent may put a note in my head.” Replies his date, “So when something feels good, does that mean it feels twice as good? Like, say, two different ways?”

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Lastly, Cohle and Hart, while doubling each other, are further doubled by the detectives who interview them in the show’s framing device.

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Even the show’s title, True Detective, can connect back to doubling, for in not pluralizing the noun it’s as if the two protagonists we see on-screen are in some ways one and the same. Toward the close of the most recent episode, Hart, somewhat uncharacteristically, asks Cohle a question about selfhood. “Do you wonder, ever, if you’re a bad man?” he asks. “The world needs bad men,” Cohle replies. “We keep the other bad men from the door.” At episode’s end, the bad man is revealed: a naked figure holding a machete and wearing a gas mask stalks across the frame, ostensibly the killer we and the detectives have been searching for. But earlier Cohle and Hart were established as bad men themselves, and so is this not another metaphorical, monstrous double? Already the lines between “good” and “bad” have been muddied in True Detective‘s universe, but often in Gothic fiction one double subsumes the other. In the end, this may be a story of death, but the mutilated bodies we’ve already encountered may not be the only victims.

The Good Wife Problems

So, The Good Wife. We got off to a great start with Cary and Alicia splitting from Lockhart/Gardner to create their own firm. Things have gone decidedly downhill from there—both for our characters and for the viewers. Not everything is bad, but I, for one, am getting tired of Will vs. Alicia. I loved it at first, but it’s becoming super petty and their rivalry takes away screentime that could be devoted to interesting in-house Florrick/Agos developments (cough cough, MORE CARY TIME). Besides wonky Will and Alicia, the Marilyn pregnancy bit was weird, and Kalinda is being wasted (although I loved that Kalinda/Cary fun in this episode; much better than previous use of Matt and Archie).

All that being said, I am enjoying the overarching storyline about Peter’s ethics violations, and the murky ethical/emotional ground everyone is on at this point. I knew when we saw Melissa George that the Ethics Commissioner would play an integral role this season, and her purpose has come to the forefront with the reemergence of the stuffed ballot box.

Here’s the problem: Who to root for? Continue reading

Gender and The Good Wife

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I want to kind of unpack my reaction to this week’s The Good Wife because I’ve noticed sort of a disturbing trend. Those of us who love TV have heard a lot about the era of “difficult men” that The Sopranos ushered in—that is, the largely white, male antiheroes that anchor television’s most acclaimed dramas (Walter White, Don Draper, etc.). I love those characters, particularly Don Draper, which is what led me to question my response to Alicia Florrick’s defection from Lockhart/Gardner on The Good Wife tonight.

By all accounts and purposes, this is a feminist move from Alicia. Even though it wasn’t really acknowledged in this episode, the viewers were led to believe that Alicia was leaving L/G in part because she wanted to get out from under Will (figuratively and kind of literally). She wants to strike out on her own and really fight for the ideals she believes in as a lawyer, because we know that Alicia has often felt ethically compromised at L/G. And her strength as a woman was on display not only through the savvy business moves she made throughout the night’s episode, but also through her sexuality. Sure, she was forced into leaving once Will found out about the new firm, but she was still taking a lot of ownership in tonight’s episode on multiple fronts.

So why, as a regular viewer and as a feminist, did my sympathies lie so squarely with Will? To the point that I was really getting mad at Alicia as I watched, and actively rooting against her and the new firm? I don’t think the show was pushing me that way. This is The Good Wife, after all—it’s her story, so by virtue of that alone, we as viewers should be predisposed to siding with Alicia (which I often do). I don’t think the show was pushing us to take Alicia’s side, but I do think the Kings expect the viewers to celebrate her show of independence.

On the other hand, we also were not pushed to side against Will in this episode. Interestingly, we begin squarely in his head. First we got that long beat where the camera settled on Josh Charles as he let Will absorb the news from Diane, which was a moment that clearly engendered sympathy for the betrayed Will. Then we went right into his head; we literally saw things through Will’s eyes through the point-of-view shot as he approached Alicia. That was an interesting choice, because it put us squarely in Will’s frame of reference. And a great direction note; the POV shot gets the audience right up in a character’s mindset, but it’s also used very effectively in some horror movies, like “Halloween”, to unsettle the audience by placing them in the serial killer’s head as he or she stalks or watches the victim. So in that beginning scene of the episode, we were recognizing Will as a threatening presence to Alicia, but we were also sharing a very intimate moment with him.

Beginning aside, Will and Alicia very much operated in grey areas tonight, so it’s hard to argue that the show took sides. Will’s darkest moment was also literally the darkest moment in the episode, when, barely lit and shrouded in black, he told Kalinda that he would essentially stop at nothing to take the competition down. That was an ominous shot that put him in some shifty territory. But he also had the beats related to Grace’s phone call, which humanized him and gave us a respite from his anger. Alicia also went to some dark places, but she had the wrenching elevator moment. Overall, I thought the show was quite objective, which leaves me questioning my anger toward Alicia. Sure, she did some ethically questionable things while maneuvering out of L/G, but Will has been shady through the show’s entire run. Furthermore, how can I as a viewer not just tolerate but actively root for Don Draper—who is frequently a misogynist pig—and yet actively root against Alicia Florrick as soon as she makes one ethical transgression?

I have to wonder if even I, an avowed feminist, am uncomfortable with the depiction of female power, or of a woman in a morally grey area, a woman willing to make moves for her own benefit. That woman kind of already exists on The Good Wife in the form of Kalinda, but for me I think it’s easy to not react to Kalinda very strongly because 1) she’s such a heightened, over-the-top character anyway and 2) she’s so emotionally opaque that I rarely react to her with any strong emotion, unless it’s related to Alicia or some other character on the show. But Kalinda also doesn’t toggle identities the way Alicia does. Alicia is mother, wife, lawyer, lover, and so on. And maybe part of the discomfort comes in watching a woman really wear all of those different masks; maybe we don’t want to think that a woman has those masks at all. We want to imagine that she is some pure presence—St. Alicia. We can celebrate Will Gardner and Don Draper because despite their transgressions, aren’t these the archetypical American males? Aren’t they—in their well-cut suits, surrounded by  the signifiers of power—filling idealized male roles? And yet when we watch a woman adopt their strategies in order to seize power for herself, there’s a certain discomfort, for me at least. I don’t know exactly what it says about my biases or societal norms, but I am happy there’s a show that’s even challenging me to consider it.