By Phillip MaciakNovember 17, 2014
1. The Death of the Self(ie)
WHEN JANE AND I wrote about the spate of new network sitcoms a couple weeks ago, I wouldn't have guessed that I’d be returning this soon to ABC’s Selfie. It was certainly among the freshest fruits of the new crop, but, like any apple, it had the usual bruises of a long delivery process from farm to table — a waxy over-emphasis on premise, a mushy blotch of gay panic, and a couple preposterous plot contrivances poking around like wiggly worms. In any case, we bit in, and while it may have been a bit mealy, it tasted better than usual. (This extended metaphor is now beyond my control.) Good enough to keep watching; not necessarily a show we were going to sign on to recap weekly.
But now it’s canceled, and all of a sudden I’m way more interested. Last week, ABC announced that — presumably due to declining ratings and the intense, generation-specific referentiality of the show’s sense of humor — it would not be requesting more episodes past the initial 13. It’s unclear whether all of those episodes will be seen (sometimes a network will dump them all at once), but the show aired this week as scheduled, and we now find ourselves in the weird, suspended position of being able to watch a show that doesn’t know it’s dead yet. Can we glean something from the final firing synapses? What can we understand about our own viewing practices by reveling in the gods-eye-view of a crashing train? What can we learn from necro-streaming Selfie?
2. Gillan Me Softly
Perhaps we should start by talking about why we should keep talking about, or even keep watching, an admittedly silly cultural product that the plurality of viewers — critics included — decided to reject. For those of us who liked Selfie, what did we like?
To begin with: Karen Gillan.
I have to admit that I am not now nor have I ever been a Whovian, so Karen Gillan just fell out of the stars for me, but, wow is she good on this show. The clunky media critique that Selfie started out with — and still falls back on — would be unsustainable without a performer at its center who could satirize what this show wants to satirize. As Eliza Dooley, Karen Gillan is building on the rickety frame she’s got. In other words, Gillan — and John Cho, as I’ll get to below — is adding quality that the show simply would not have without her. In baseball terms, she’s got a very high Wins Above Replacement value. Selfie is a considerably better show for having her as its protagonist than it would be if a network-average actor were in the role. Say, whoever the Alex Rios of television actresses is.
The bony, angular physicality, the low-range mumbling of hip-hop references, the cartoon-zany eyes above a mouth clamped like a Panini press — Karen Gillan is over-performing an under-thought role, and the structural imbalance that has resulted gives weird life to Eliza Dooley that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. The unique thing about Dooley is that she’s not exactly a caricature of a recognizable thing. The series pitched itself as a crumb-bum mockery of a particular stereotype of millennial women, and that was a pandering mistake. But it’s a mistake that has been corrected by Gillan’s refusal to directly or even accurately portray that stereotype. Eliza Dooley is much weirder than she needs to be. She’s a funhouse mirror of a funhouse mirror, a much funnier version of Jeff Goldblum at the end of The Fly.
So what does all of that mean now that it’s over? Does a wildly gestural slapstick marionette like Karen Gillan seem more like a bird triumphantly flapping her wings to escape the disaster, or does she seem more like what we think a drowning person looks like, flailing wildly in the surf? It’s all contextual. Take the bizarre — bizarrely under-GIF’d, as yet — dance sequence that begins the fifth episode, for instance.
After a so-wrong-it’s-maybe-right exchange in which Eliza aggressively claims Laura Mulveyish sexual objecthood for herself (“When I exit a room, it is impossible not to look.”), she begins to dance. But this dance is less Emma Watson at the club in The Bling Ring than it is Brigitte Helm in Metropolis. For some reason this social media obsessed millennial dances like a crazed Vaudevillea.
On a show with time on the clock, even a show on the bubble, this bonkers choice feels like a Sign of Life. Like the early first episodes of New Girl, rife with dead-ends and failed experiments, this dance sequence in this episode looks a lot like a show taking risks to find its footing. It’s anchored in the show’s received-wisdom critique of social media, but it’s also a little smarter, a little more awkward, a little more promising than that. The sequence is longer than it should be, it’s not actually terribly funny, but it sure is unusual. Selfie, we might have thought, is a show with some gas left in the tank. This is a show that, like other successful shows before it, is willing to try out some wacky business.
But watching this scene with the knowledge of its cancellation in mind, it’s a death rattle. It’s an almost literal desperate plea for recognition. And Eliza’s panicked grab for to-be-looked-at-ness is a brutally ironic joke. Nobody’s looking at you, Eliza Dooley. Even if they should be.
3. The Sacred Mystery of the Virgin Birth
It’s worth thinking here for a minute about a similarly — if more assuredly — risky show with a similarly explosive female lead. Only this one isn’t about to die. For why must we gaze upon the visages of the damned when we can gaze upon the bright eyes of pure living souls? Let’s talk about Jane the Virgin!
CW’s meta-telenovela has got everything: zippy optimism, po-mo narrative tics, killer jokes, a huge appealing cast, devout Catholics, recovering alcoholic lesbian fertility doctors, cancer-surviving sperm-donating hoteliers, and, most importantly, Gina Rodriguez. As the titular Jane, Rodriguez is just stupendous. The show is the kind of wackadoodle high-wire act that needs a strong center, and Rodriguez more than gets the job done. She’s as good at delivering crisp one-liners as she is mugging for the camera, she’s great at physical comedy, she believably vacillates from aspiring chastity to barely repressed desire, and she’s got this elastic face that totally commands the screen. If Karen Gillan throws her whole body into being more than her show asks for, Gina Rodriguez throws herself into being exactly what is required.
This one-to-one match-up between the ambition of the series — as a sexy show about abstinence and a winky post-modern series about traditional narratives of family and love — and the talent of its star makes Jane the Virgin a pretty objectively better show than Selfie. But, thinking about the experience of watching the two together, it’s easy to imagine how all of this would take on a different cast if we knew Jane the Virgin were canceled. Granted, my faith in Selfie is based more in a feeling of promise than my faith in Jane the Virgin, a show that already has more of a sense of its own identity. There’s no escaping the difference in maturity between these two shows, but, that said, if Jane the Virgin was on the chopping block, things might read a little differently. The bubbling plot might start to feel more chaotic and unsustainable, the pratfalls might start to feel like stumbles, and the brilliance of the central performance might start to feel like not-enough rather than just-right. If the tables were turned, would we be looking for signs of the end in a show we now believe to be hitting its stride?
4. Other Shades in the Underworld
It’s entirely possible that’s not the case. What about Freaks and Geeks? Even now, I remember watching those final, post-cancellation episodes. And, while some of the final plot twists and wrap-ups felt contrived, I certainly didn’t launch into an immediate vivisection. And that’s because the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks didn’t seem premature, it seemed fundamentally unjust. We were not mad because NBC hadn’t given the show a chance. Rather, we were mad because NBC had given the show a chance, and the network still didn’t see what was so great about it. Jane the Virgin is not quite at the level of Freaks and Geeks — though let’s check back in at the end of the season — but I suspect if it were canceled today, it’d have a similar fan reaction. Perhaps a FREE JANE campaign, perhaps a lot of angry think-pieces, but, for most viewers, a feeling of fleeting disappointment and an attendant gathering of rosebuds. You were too good for this world, Jane the Virgin. My So-Called Life, Terriers, and Rubicon welcome you to the pantheon of one-season wonders!
But Selfie is not that. Even the show’s fans fully understand the network’s logic in canceling it. We wish there had been more patience, we wish it had been left to develop without the extremely visible network notes it seems to have attracted, we wish there was a little more time. But we also could see how this would end from the get-go.
5. Asian Dudes Getting Some on TV
When the news broke that Selfie was canceled, Salon’s great TV critic Sonia Saraiya wrote a wonderful post-mortem that began with the line, “Damn, John Cho just got cockblocked again.” This is in reference to the Vulture piece that recently pointed out the readily observable fact that, not only do Asian American men rarely appear as leads on television, they are almost never positioned as viable romantic leads. For Saraiya, the cancellation of Selfie is most significant as a “a blow for the movement of Getting John Cho Laid On-Screen — the superficial arm of the larger organization titled "Hey TV, Not Everyone Is White, In Case You Hadn’t Noticed.”
Selfie did not have the most diverse cast on television, but by posing Cho as a legitimate, even inevitable, sexual foil for the super-sexualized Eliza Dooley, it was doing something that almost never happens on our screens. Shutting off Selfie before their romance could fully emerge — Saraiya notes, rightly, that it had gotten downright sultry in the last few episodes — didn’t mean just short-circuiting another will-they-won’t-they. It meant closing off a regrettably unexplored frontier on network comedy.
And, for that matter, Cho was great, too! His performance, by definition, had to be more buttoned-down than Gillan’s, and he fell a little too hard into the expected tics and tocks of the tight-wad business guy character that had been written for him, but, even and especially in the romantic scenes, he really demonstrated his depth as a leading man. This wasn’t a politically progressive science experiment, in other words — Gillan and Cho had actual chemistry. And one of the oddities of watching the show now is that the cancellation begins to feel, inadvertently, like censorship. Driver, roll down the partition, please.
Yes, Karen Gillan’s a star. Yes, John Cho deserves to anchor a romantic comedy. Yes, we can now see problems that we might not have otherwise identified solely as problems. But, let’s be honest, the show had actual real problems, too, not just phantom ones. Jane and I talked a lot about the gay/smartphone panic that was drizzled lightly over the first few episodes, but Selfie had some unique issues that were either not going away or getting considerably worse over time.
The larger ensemble, for instance, was a trainwreck. The more we met the surrounding cast, the less we wanted to know. Brian Huskey’s Larry was written more as a character in a quirky Kia commercial than a character in a sitcom; I don’t have the foggiest idea what Samm Levine was supposed to be doing other than cursing the show to early cancellation; of course, there was an almost pathologically sassy black receptionist played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph; and then there was David Harewood, late of Homeland. Harewood’s Sam Saperstein appears, in almost every episode, as though the writers forgot to write lines for him, and just asked him in the room to think of the zaniest possible thing he could say with no regard for continuity or character development. What the hell is a Sam Saperstein, and why does he sing everybody’s name, and why only in one episode?
It’s tempting to say we should have let the show develop, but, outside the romantic pair at the center, everything else it had time to develop it botched. There are famous examples of shows that just needed to burn off some episodes. Parks and Recreation and the U.S. Office both have first seasons that function, in retrospect, like juvenilia. They set up the structure of the show, but, after the break between the first and second seasons, they made big changes in character and tone and essentially reset for season two. But that’s a luxury, and it’s not a luxury every show is in a position to actually use. One of the pleasures of necro-streaming, I think, is imagining what might have improved or developed, even and especially if it likely wouldn’t have.
7. A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
Then, well, you forget about it. Karen Gillan is here now and will certainly be back, John Cho will rise again, and, in the meantime, there are still new episodes of Jane the Virgin to look forward to and old episodes of Freaks and Geeks to re-watch and probably several more years worth of pilots about Youngs and their gadgets to bemoan. But there is something lovable about a piece of culture whose life was so awkward and brief. Something worth pausing over about a show that stands up briefly only to be toppled. This is a nasty business, this pilot season — everything I’ve just said above totally erases what I’m sure is the total agony of being a writer or performer on one of these shows — but there’s something precious about the feeling of loyalty that begins to catch in your throat only to be swallowed back down. Watching television — or re-watching films — is about the relationship (material, emotional, psychological) you develop over time with the thing you’re watching. My relationship with Selfie — this slight, of-course-it’s-going-to-be-canceled network sitcom — is already over six weeks old. That’s a pretty substantial amount of time for an admittedly insubstantial piece of art. And if the analysis of TV is about the analysis of narrative and the way that narrative toys with those relationships — how Ned Stark getting his head cut off is about you — then the canceled show is a particular type or genre of TV show. One less possible future, but one more possible way of looking at a thing.
Try not to look,
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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