August 4, 2015

2015 Oscar Preview

A really muddled year.  But let’s give it a shot anyway, shall we?

Best Cinematography

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ida
Mr. Turner
Unbroken

Will Win: Birdman

Should Win: Birdman

It has won all of the things, including the American Society of Cinematographers award. Oddsmakers like it, and so do I.

And it should have, right? It’s funny, last year I was talking about how, based on Gravity, it was clear to me that Alfonso Cuarón was going to make the next great film that was all one long tracking shot. Then his buddy Iñárritu did it instead.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

American Sniper
The Imitation Game
Inherent Vice
The Theory of Everything
Whiplash

Will Win: The Imitation Game

Should Win: The Imitation Game

This one is anyone’s guess. If Gone Girl had been nominated, it would have been the obvious choice, at least according to Critics Circle awards, of which it nabbed up 13 plus a Critics Choice. Then the BAFTA’s went with Theory of Everything then, just to add more confusion, the WGA didn’t nominate Theory of Everything but did nominate Gone Girl but gave it to The Imitation Game instead. Now oddsmakers like Imitation Game. Why not?

Minus a perhaps-once-too-often-repeated phrase here or there, Game is a snappy, clever script that manages to tackle a lot of issues without losing sight of plot or character along the way.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Boyhood
Foxcatcher
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Nightcrawler

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Should Win: Nightcrawler

A ton of critics circles, a BAFTA, and a WGA win later, Hotel emerges as the clear frontrunner, and nicely fills the little-indie-that-could slot that the Academy likes to use this award for from time to time, the irony being that this is one of the most nominated films of the year.

I like me some Wes Anderson and all, but the real standout here is Nightcrawler. An incredibly tight, acerbic screenplay that’s somewhere between Taxi Driver and Network in terms of character study/eviscerating satire.

Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette—Boyhood
Laura Dern—Wild
Keira Knightley—The Imitation Game
Emma StoneBirdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Meryl Streep—Into the Woods 

Will Win: Patricia Arquette

Should Win: Patricia Arquette

This is a lock. All of the big and little guns, including BAFTA, Globe, Critics Choice, SAG and countless critics circles went this way.

And with good reason. It is a subtle, nuanced performance that gets at the complexities of a character who is so good at and grows in so many ways about some things, and makes exactly the same mistakes over and over again about others over the course of twelve years. It rings painfully true. That having been said, Dern kills it in her (not entirely dissimilar) role.

Best Supporting Actor

Robert Duvall—The Judge
Ethan Hawke—Boyhood
Edward NortonBirdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Mark Ruffalo—Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons—Whiplash

Will Win: J.K. Simmons

Should Win: J.K. Simmons

Even more of a lock than Arquette, if that were possible. Basically all of the things she won, plus a shitload more critics circle wins.

I haven’t actually seen Whiplash, but I have every confidence that J.K. Simmons deserves and Oscar for this or almost any other role in film or television. Yes, he should get an Oscar for his television work. It’s just that good.

Best Actress

Marion Cotillard—Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones—The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore—Still Alice
Rosamund PikeGone Girl 
Reese Witherspoon—Wild  

Will Win: Julianne Moore

Should Win: Julianne Moore

As the award season began, it seemed like a three way tie between Moore, Pike, and Cotillard. As things progressed and BAFTA, Critics Choice, and the Globes weighed in, the field converged around Moore, with a SAG win sealing the deal.

As with Simmons, I have not seen the nominated performance, but I’m willing to take it on faith given her track record. If I had to stick with what I’ve seen (all but Moore and Cotillard), I’d go with Pike.

Best Actor

Steve Carell—Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper—American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch—The Imitation Game
Michael KeatonBirdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Eddie Redmayne—The Theory of Everything 

Will Win: Michael Keaton

Should Win: Eddie Redmayne

This is a tough one. Earlier in the season, the smart money was on Keaton. Even as we got into the Globes and saw him give an excellent speech it seemed like the speech he would be giving soon at the Oscars. And here’s the thing, it’s a very actor-friendly speech for a very actor-friendly film. It’s a film about the trials and tribulations of being an actor. It’s about the trials and tribulations of being a career actor trying to be taken seriously, trying to find acceptance, trying to get past self-loathing. This is a performance the Academy can relate to.

However, as awards season played out the other Globe winner, Eddie Redmayne, suddenly found himself taking home the BAFTA and the SAG, which seem a little more significant than Keaton’s far bigger market share of critics circle awards, critics choice award, and the non-serious half of the Globes actor pie. The oddsmakers, naturally, favor Redmayne. I still think Keaton’s too good a story for the Academy to pass up.

I actually prefer Redmayne’s performance. It is, in a way, the more typical choice. A very actorly, disappear in the role, complete transformation performance, but it’s a really, really, really good one. It’s a painfully obvious he should win kind of performance. So I guess the odds are in favor of me being happy either way.

Best Director

Alejandro G. Iñárritu—Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater—Boyhood
Bennett Miller—Foxcatcher
Wes AndersonThe Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum—The Imitation Game

Will Win: Richard Linklater

Should Win: Ava DuVernay

This is another close one. Probably closer. Linklater has a lot of momentum here. Tons and tons of critics circles. The BAFTA, Globe, and Critic Choice win. The only thing he’s missing is the DGA win. But here’s the thing. The DGA win is like 90% predictive. It’s about the most predictive award there is. And it went to Inarritu. So the smart money now is on him. But here’s the other thing. 90% means that one time in ten the DGA gets it wrong. I believe this will be that one.

As much as I would love to see Linklater (or Inarritu, for that matter) take home the gold, the real moment here should be for DuVernay, not just because she’d be the first black woman to do so, the first black person to do so, and one of the very few women to do so, but because she did an amazing job directing what should have been a mediocre film (because most biopics of icons end up being mediocre because they have no voice refuse to take a point of view, and DuVernay has a voice and takes a point of view). I usually complain about at least one unnominated person at these things, so here you go.

Best Picture

American Sniper
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Boyhood
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Selma
The Theory of Everything
Whiplash 

Will Win: Boyhood

Should Win: Selma

This is another close one. As with director, until recently, the momentum has been behind Boyhood. Tons of critics circles. Critics Choice, Golden Globe, BAFTA. But again, that pesky guild award, in this case the PGA, went to Birdman, signaling a shift in the momentum. Where I think that shift will go is to Best Actor for Keaton, not necessarily Picture or Director. Still, it’s gonna be close.

Boyhood, to be fair, is my second favorite film of the year. An incredible achievement from one of my favorite directors. However, I think an even stronger achievement comes in the form of the first film about Martin Luther King (really? really?) not sucking, but in fact, being great. Yes, this is tainted by all the shit that happened in 2014. And the fact that moments in the film, without intending to (since the logistics of filmmaking make that kind of impossible) echoed those things very directly, gives the film resonance. And sometimes that’s a good thing. You have your Best Pictures which are timeless (yer Artists, yer 12 Years a Slave), but then you have your Best Pictures which are of their moment (even if they are set over 50 years earlier). This is one of those movies.

Top Ten Movies of 2014

10. The Raid 2

“They’re not cops anymore. They’re in my world now.”

This is the sequel as contrast, not continuation. The Raid 2 is epic where The Raid is contained, gorgeous where The Raid is gritty, grotesque where The Raid is (comparatively) subdued, and complex where The Raid is simple. That both are amazing action films speaks to the incredible visual and narrative range of writer/director Gareth Evans. The last two set pieces in particular give us one of the best car chases and fight scenes in recent memory.

9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

“People will fight for their freedom if people try to take it from them. But if you cause enough trouble, people will willingly give up their freedom for a more secure world.”

Cap should have been the least interesting Avenger. And the first movie almost proved that right. But what’s made Cap interesting in the comics has always been bringing him into conflict with the modern day. And Winter Soldier delivers on that promise. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Anthony and Joe Russo infuse enough Patriot Act paranoia into this tale to mash-up the traditional comic book movie with Three Days of the Condor and its 70′s conspiracy-prone ilk, a combination well-suited to throw someone like Cap off-balance. The audacity of the film, from a franchise perspective, is to introduce a mid-film twist that reverberates (brilliantly) throughout the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe (see the amazing tie-in with Agents of Shield), fulfilling the potential of what can happen when you decide to tie so many properties together into one mega-narrative. And not for nothing, but some riveting hand-to-hand combat as well.

8. Dear White People

“Dear White People, the minimum requirement of black friends needed not to seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.”

Satire at its finest, Dear White People takes a look at “post-racial” America as a microcosm at an elite liberal arts college. Solid jokes bolster a keenly observed portrait of attitudes that pervade when the most powerful man in the country looks a lot like its least powerful citizens. Career-making turn by Tyler James Williams (other than the one he already had on Everybody Hates Chris).

7. Locke

“You make one mistake, Donal, one little fucking mistake, and the whole world comes crashing down around you.”

File under “Movies That Should Not Work.” It’s hard enough to contain your hero to one location for an entire film when the stakes are life or death (see the very problematic Phone Booth), but when we’re really just seeing some (admittedly life altering) decisions unfold as a series of phone calls in a car for 85 minutes we should be bored, right? Instead Locke is more gripping than any of its straight up thriller antecedents mostly due to the unflinchingly truthful performance of its lead, a shoulda-been-a-Best-Actor-contender Tom Hardy not to mention some great voice work from I-totally-didn’t-realize-that-was Andrew Scott, Ruth Wilson, and Olivia Colman.

6. Snowpiercer

“My friend, you suffer from the misplaced optimism of the doomed.”

Unique sci-fi actioner from the brilliant Bong Joon Ho (The Host, Mother), Snowpiercer takes a wacky-ass, dying-to-be-precious premise (all of humanity lives on a segmented-by-class train after global collapse) and turns it into a tense, dark-humored, and, yes, still kind of wacky thrill ride/examination of privilege, bolstered by a sardonic turn by the always great Tilda Swinton. Also contains one of the best fridge horror endings of the year.

5. The LEGO Movie

“I only work in black and sometimes very, very dark grey.”

I can think of only one movie that is so of its moment when discussing issues of creativity and design. The LEGO Movie is, at its heart, a remix manifesto, cultivating notions of mass empowerment while also debating the distribution of that power when actually building something. It also happens to be relentlessly funny, with a Best Supporting Actor-worthy nod from Will Arnett as Batman, and on top of all that emerges as the best action film of the year. Also, in a call back to those very notions of rights management, it combines certain franchises that will probably never share screen time again.

4. The Imitation Game

“When people talk to each other, they never say what they mean. They say something else and you’re expected to just know what they mean.”

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an unforgettable performance in the tragic biography of the brilliant computer-scientist-before-there-were-really-computers Alan Turing. The film manages to tackle homophobia, combat ethics, misogyny, and higher math without ever losing sight of character, plot, or pace. A crackerjack script by Graham Moore (based on Andrew Hodges book) keeps all the plates spinning gracefully.

3. Nightcrawler

“That’s my job, that’s what I do, I’d like to think if you’re seeing me you’re having the worst day of your life.”

This is the kind of movie they made in the 70′s. A biting send up of corporate culture and entrepreneurial double-speak wrapped in a bigger critique of local news leveraging racial fear, Nightcrawler uncovers the dark heart of ambition in the modern equivalent of the American Dream as seen through the eyes of petty crook turned crime scene videographer Lou Bloom (a brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal). Subtle touches, like a soundtrack that satirizes local news themes, help fill out the picture. And the photography is the best sodium-imbued vision of after-hours L.A. we’ve seen since Collateral. Powerful supporting performances by Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed, who get caught up in Bloom’s gravity, show us the full scope of his carnage. An absolute must-see.

2. Boyhood

“You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.”

What’s remarkable about this movie (besides the fact that writer/director Richard Linklater convinced any number of people to revisit the same project continuously for 12 years) is that Linklater is able to create a coherent experience while largely eschewing depicting major milestones in the main character’s lives. He focuses on the scenes around the scenes. But that, as Linklater keenly observes, is where life really happens: in the day-to-day interactions that reflect those milestones.

Also, don’t let the title fool you. While the eponymous boy Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is the window through which we visit these lives, we see the evolution of his father (a perfectly cast Ethan Hawke), mother (a well-deserving likely Oscar winner Patricia Arquette) and sister (Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei) with equal clarity.

The film also has a perfect sense of setting. This is a very Texas movie, perhaps no moreso when we see the gifts Mason gets for his 16th birthday.

And the phenomenon of seeing someone evolve in the blink-and-now-they’re-suddenly-older way, which as a parent I’ve now observed first hand, is perfectly captured here, making those three hours feel earned.

1. Selma

“Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson? Every white lawman who abuses the law to terrorize. Every white politician who feeds on prejudice and hatred. Every white preacher who preaches the bible and stays silent before his white congregation. Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson? Every Negro man and woman who stands by without joining this fight as their brothers and sisters are brutalized, humiliated, and ripped from this Earth.”

Just making a feature film about Martin Luther King is (unfortunately) historic. But director Ava DuVernay’s real triumph here is to not settle for that. Instead she makes a film that, MLK or no, has some of the best writing, direction, cinematography and performances of the year. That it happens to be relevant in the year of Michael Brown and Eric Garner puts it top of mind, but it doesn’t coast on that to have impact.

To wit, the movie is called Selma, and not Martin. DuVernay focuses as much attention on getting us to understand – and feel – the frustration and horror of the residents and what it was like to live under that sort of tyranny. She never lets us forget the stakes.

Or the strategy. Not unlike Lincoln, part of what makes the film fascinating is the intricacies of legal, political, and media wrangling involved in what seems like a purely moral cause.

David Oyelowo’s MLK is radiant, and buttressed by sharp performances from a slew of other actors, most notably Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. And that DuVernay manages to supply the words for his speeches herself with comparable eloquence to the real thing is nothing short of astonishing.

Honorable Mentions

Jodorwosky’s Dune

An amazing documentary about what could have been an incredible film.

Bad Words

Auspicious, hilarious debut from director Jason Bateman.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

A stunning return to form from Bryan Singer.

Edge of Tomorrow

One of the most under-seen (and poorly re-titled) films of the year, sums up nicely what a video game movie should be, without being based on a video game.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Of course.

Gone Girl

Fincher doing what Fincher does. And well.

Interstellar

Nolan doing what Nolan does. Not to everyone’s taste, but I buy what he’s selling. And McConaughey kills it where it matters.

Big Hero 6

One of the best animated films of the year.

American Sniper

One of the best war films. And some of Eastwood’s most powerful direction to date.

Citizenfour

All of the stuff we already knew about the Snowden leaks suddenly becomes fresh and new with a perspective on the dangers of big data and the ambiguities of a war waged, intentionally or not, on just about everyone.

Top Ten TV Shows of 2014

As usual, plenty of stuff I didn’t catch up on in 2014 (I’m only just now getting into Orange Is the New Black). But from what I did see, here’s what stood out…

10. Teen Wolf

Yes. Teen Wolf. That movie with Michael J. Fox. Turned into an amazing TV show by Jeff Davis. Yes. Amazing. Well, by Season Three anyway. Season Four, which aired in 2014, wasn’t quite as amazing, but still delivered the goods, including an outstanding cast (especially Maze Runner breakout star Dylan O’Brien), clever writing, and moody direction by Duran Duran music video vet Russell Mulcahy (whom I celebrate here, he really did some wacky/astounding shit back in the day).

9. Sherlock

While not as solid as Season Two – due to a very problematic season opener – the most recent season of Sherlock provided much of the same great writing and performances and, to boot, a worthy successor to Moriarty in Lars Mikkelsen’s deliciously evil Charles Augustus Magnussen.

8. Silicon Valley

In what could have easily been a one-note nerdfest or, worse yet, a completely inaccessible inside baseball wormhole, Silicon Valley instead remembered to deliver jokes. Jokes that were funny because they were funny, not because you did or didn’t know one thing or another about the startup universe. That having been said, it was eerily accurate in its portrayal of the characters and rituals that populate that world, and skewered them appropriately. Mike Judge has still got it.

7. Boardwalk Empire

Sometimes, not often, but sometimes a show knows exactly when and how to end. With a season-long arc that flashed back to our anti-hero’s origins in Atlantic City (with an uncannily Buscemi-esque turn by Marc Pickering) Empire managed to take us out by showing us things we already knew in a way that made them fresh and relevant, while still surprising us in the end. Also gave us one of the most succinct dissections of male privilege when one character says to her male business partner, “Imagine all of the things you want in life. Now imagine yourself in a dress.”

6. True Detective

Though it certainly drew on genre tropes from serial killer narratives and film noir, Detective still managed to create a unique tone, feel, and structure and introduce a singularly fascinating nihilist protagonist to tie it all onto. Not to mention directorial style to spare (witness the incredibly long, action packed tracking shot from “Who Goes There”).

5. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

It could have just been Neil DeGrasse Tyson standing there spouting science and it would’ve been interesting (trust me, I’ve seen him stand there and spout science). But they went and put on a show with an Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future) score and Bill Pope (The Matrix) cinematography and excellent animation and location shoots all to hammer home the value (and diversity) of science.

4. Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Brooklyn Nine-Nine suffered no sophomore slump as it launched into its second year. If anything it picked up momentum with established characters and relationships upon which to build and experiment and emerged as the most consistently funny show on television.

3. Makers

A long overdue exploration of the history of feminism and its struggles and gains in contemporary America. Smartly broken up into an overall look at the struggle and a vertical-specific, if you will, episodic look at women in the military, government, business, Hollywood, etc. Even the episode I was personally the least invested in actually ended up being one of the best. It’s all available on the Makers site which has plenty more to offer in addition to the series itself.

2. Game of Thrones

I should be sick now of dragons and swords and Grand-Guignol levels of douchebaggery, but I’m really not. Part of the reason is that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss keep finding interesting ways to use those tropes to comment on power, mortality, family, obligation, and more. Part of the reason is withering speeches (link is spoilery) like the one Peter Dinklage delivers in “The Laws of Gods and Men.” Part of the reason is just Peter Dinklage, period. Part of the reason is clever-ass foreshadowing that you don’t even realize is foreshadowing (link is even spoiler-ier). But it all comes together into one of the most entertaining, if occasionally harrowing, hours of television currently on-air.

1. Last Week Tonight

There was a lot of skepticism when John Oliver launched his weekly mock-news show on HBO. How could he possibly improve upon his alma mater? How could he stay current when he only aired once a week? Wasn’t this a step backwards?

I was actually psyched to see what would happen when a comedy news organization had a full week to digest what had happened the week before. And while Oliver delivered on that psyched-ness, he brought something to the table that I didn’t expect. Investigative journalism. He also baked in a prankster/activist element that made good use of the web, a rarity in television. What results is the must-watch (or must catch up Monday morning on YouTube – another platform of which they made excellent use) show of the season, if only to be smarter and to laugh, two things we desperately needed in 2014.

Honorable Mentions: Outlander, Fargo, Orphan Black, Agents of Shield, Doctor Who, Bob’s Burgers, The Walking Dead, Parks and Recreation

A Brief History of Real Video Game Movies

In the latest episode of Hotcha Zimzam, I look at the evolution of movies that represent the true video game narrative (I explain what that is in the video) over time.

Any movies that you think fit the bill?

The Master, Moriarty, and the Rise of the Brah Villain

Back in the day, villains like Moriarty or The Master looked like this:

Moriarty

The Master

These days, they look like this:

Moriarty

The Master

Is the replacement of the dignified British gentleman with the snarky, smart-ass young British brah a commentary on current young, white male society, or just a coincidence of appealing to a younger demo with the heroes of said franchises?

Old Sherlock

New Sherlock

Old Doctor

New Doctor

Although if we look at a show like Luther, especially in its second season, we see a lot of the young, white, privileged male as sociopath.

So are young, white males the new, hip villains (at least on the BBC)? The same way Russians were in the 80′s and serial killers in the 90′s? And if so, what does that have to say about our own insecurities?

What I’ll Miss Most About Almost Human

We’ll never get to see how the plot threads Almost Human was developing will come together, and that’s too bad because on top of great chemistry between the leads and what seemed to be an interesting mythology the series was revealing, what I think I’ll miss most of all is how it was revealing that mythology.

There’s a fair amount of traditional exposition throughout the show, world-building on the order of understanding the Blade Runner-esque relationship between humans and their robot servants. But the larger society was always hinted at more than explained (hell, we don’t even find out what city we’re in until the finale). And no better example of this arose than The Wall.

Somewhere toward the end of the show’s brief run, there’s mention of a wall. It’s not brought up in a briefing. No one asks, “Hey, what’s that?”, followed by a lengthy explanation. It is simply a given of this world. Context lets us know that the world on the other side of this wall is a place to be feared. But who or what is on the other side of that wall is not explained. Or why or when it was built. It just is. And it’s been there the whole time the show has been going. And the only reason we didn’t know about it until now that it hasn’t been relevant.

One of the shows final aired episodes involves an inventor seminal to the creation of the robots that drive the show, and it is [spoiler alert - does that even apply to a canceled show?] only at the end of this episode that we even see the wall. And even then we’re only left to guess at why the show’s heroes are shocked to learn that a particularly pernicious piece of code originated on the other side of the wall, or why they think it’s impossible that the criminal they’re chasing would even consider going to the other side of that wall, which is exactly how he evades them.

We’ll never find out where all that was going, but that it was going there without a clear sit down and explain the world session is rare. If it was happening that way because no one in the world of the show knew what the wall was or how it got there or what was on the other side, that would be one thing (essentially, that’s almost all of Lost). But that we were left to the task of discovery on our own, with no character to ask “Hey, what do you mean ‘The Wall’?” was refreshing, and displayed a certain level of faith in the audience, and assumed return of that faith that all would be answered organically, not by Basil Exposition.

I hope other shows take that risk. Of course, given that Almost Human got canceled, I don’t think that’s likely.

I Know I Shouldn’t Like This, But…

In the latest Talking Pictures podcast (subscribe), Kevin Smokler, special guest Justin Sondak, and myself discuss movies that defy our genre expectations. For example, I love me some action and plot, but some of my favorite movies are Lost in Translation, Once, and the Before trilogy, which lack those things in a big, bad way.

What movies do you like in spite of your genre preferences?

Let Us Now Praise Hyper-Specific Toys

Latest Hotcha Zimzam video covers my recent trip to Philadelphia Comic-Con and the extremely specific collectibles therein:

Here’s the other “The Homer” memorabilia in question.

Sherlock vs. Elementary: A Feminist Reading

This discussion gets pretty spoilery, so if you haven’t watched either Elementary or Sherlock, proceed with caution.

When Season Three of Sherlock (now available on Netflix streaming) first aired, Dr. Wife and I had a pretty big discussion on the portrayal of women on the show. While showrunner Steven Moffat has been taken to task before over his portrayals of women, I’d always found Sherlock, given the caveat that everyone on the show is defined in relation to the main character, male or female, to be fairly balanced. But upon further discussion, and comparison to its ugly stepsister in the states, it became a little more complicated.

Let’s take both shows’ approaches to its female characters. Although a relatively minor character in canon, Irene Adler is basically the go-to main female character for most adaptations cos, well, sausage-fest. She’s the Princess Leia of this universe. In Moffat’s interpretation, Adler is a brilliant criminal who, although a lesbian, is brought low by her attraction to a very male Sherlock. Her sense of agency is undercut by her obligations to both him and Moriarty, and the need to be rescued by Sherlock after being thwarted by him.

Rob Doherty‘s Adler has a history with Sherlock established long before we encounter him as an ex-pat living in New York. They had a relationship in which they were mutually attracted to each other’s genius before she was ruthlessly murdered by a serial killer whom Sherlock eventually learns was an assassin working for a mysterious new foe known as Moriarty. When Adler turns up alive and threatened once again by Moriarty he seeks to rescue her only to find…wait for it…[MAJOR MAJOR SPOILER NOW]…she is Moriarty. Adler was simply a persona she adopted to manipulate him.

In its second major gender shift in characterization (the first of which we’ll get to shortly) Elementary re-genders Sherlock’s perennial foe. This is a Moriarty with no less agency than any male interpretation and no less a match for our protagonist intellectually. While in subsequent episodes it becomes clear that Moriarty’s exposure to Sherlock (mostly through correspondence) is “reforming” her, it’s still a reformation that is very much on her own terms. Her decision to break out of jail is very much a decision. It becomes clear she could have broken out at any time. She chooses to be imprisoned. Her agency remains intact, even in jail. This is still an Adler somewhat defined in her relationship to Holmes, but with many more levels of complexity.

Sherlock‘s Mrs. Hudson is probably the most well defined and complex female character the show has to offer, although even she appears to be there to literally serve Sherlock. This is not to say she lacks a rich backstory, and it’s clear that she performs her actions out of a deep debt and devotion she has consciously chosen. So while it’s a stereotypical female role, it’s embodied by a very real person.

Elementary‘s Mrs. Hudson is still largely an offscreen presence.

Molly Hooper exists only in the Sherlock universe and has no real equivalent in the Elementary universe. While an accomplished scientist, much of her screen time is devoted to show how insensitive Sherlock is to her swooning, although she begins to slightly outgrow that role in Season Three.

Sherlock‘s Mary Morstan is also a character of considerable agency, embodying however, the Untrustworthy Woman. For what it’s worth, her deceptions are revealed to be at least in part committed out of a sincere devotion to John Watson. Although even here her most defining characteristics seem to be there to highlight John’s own addiction to danger. Still, she seems to be an equal partner in the emerging team that is herself, John, and Sherlock. We’ll see if/how this plays out in Season Four.

There is, as of yet, no Mary Morstan on Elementary for reasons that will become immediately apparent.

The key differentiator in terms of portrayals of women on Elementary is the fact that Watson has been recast as a woman. (Which is not to say that there could not still be a Mary Morstan, but so far her character has been defined as strictly heterosexual.) But the story of Elementary has been as much about her initial obligation and progressive liberation from Sherlock. She exists first as his sober companion (in this interpretation, his chemical addictions are something he’s recovering from), a position of considerable influence as opposed to his lapdog though she is, as with canon, his intellectual inferior.

Over time, though, she becomes his apprentice, sharpening her skills as a detective and choosing a new life path on her own, granted with considerable influence from her time with Holmes. This most recent season in particular, though, has seen her growth and her agency evolve, as major plot points have included a dalliance with Holmes’ brother Mycroft, against Sherlock’s wishes, and her own agency around choosing to move out explicitly because she needs to be her own person, apart from Holmes, while still assisting him with cases. It is, in fact, Holmes ultimate reaction to this that frames the season finale cliffhanger.

Watson’s growing, evolving sense of agency as a function of self-discovery makes her not only one of the most evolved female characters in the history of Holmes interpretations, but one of the most evolved female characters in modern pop culture.

None of this is to say that Sherlock is a poorly constructed show. Quite the opposite. From a writing perspective, it is actually the far superior show. To most shows on television, actually. Moffat is a master of dialogue and his version, on the whole, is vastly more entertaining. At the same time, his female characters are less nuanced and display less agency and complexity than Doherty’s. Doherty’s vision is serviceable as a show, basically on a level with any of a myriad of CBS procedurals, but attaining levels of feminist portrayal unmatched by Moffat.

So the bind is how to evaluate a show that is scoring on all of the things I usually look for in a show, at least technically and artistically. Which is not to say I don’t look for good representations of women, but I don’t usually consider that an evaluation of artistic merit so much as a social merit. But maybe I should start.

The Wharton Web Conference

I’ll be speaking at the Wharton Web Conference on July 15th. I’ll be giving a talk called Links as Language, which you may know from these parts.

Here’s how it looked in 2011.

I’ll be updating it a bit to encompass some new developments.

This is a big deal for me as it is my first truly professional gig as a speaker at a major conference. More than that, it’s a conference I’ve come to know and respect over the years. Former keynoters have included Steve Wozniak and Felicia Day (whom I actually got to meet!). And last year, Anil Dash gave one of my favorite talks of all time.

This year’s keynote comes from danah boyd. I first heard about her after missing her talk at SX and regretting it for the rest of the week as that’s all anyone could talk about. Glad I’ll finally get to hear her speak.

If you live in or near Philly (or just feel like flying out) and have the means, I highly recommend attending. There are a lot of great speakers, including some who are in my time slot (I’m up against Jessica Ivins and NASA, so I won’t complain if you skip).

Hope to see you there!