Romance on Television: Friday Night Lights

There’s a long-running truism about romance on TV: writers shouldn’t have the will-they-or-won’t-they couple get together because doing so ruins shows. It’s known as the Moonlighting Rule, and many smart critics have dismantled it (see here). But in my opinion, the best evidence that contravenes the Moonlighting Rule is the show with the most effective and most intimate portrait of an American marriage: Friday Night Lights.

Of the series I’ve talked about so far, Mozart in the Jungle and Grey’s Anatomy, this is no doubt the hardest sell because it’s all about football and small-town Texas.

Okay, yes, I could hear the record scratch noise there. For years, I refused to watch Friday Night Lights too, but when I finally gave in, immediately before the fifth and final season aired, what I found was a sprawling and novelistic portrait of a community and the violent sport that serves as its organizing principle.

It’s fundamentally an optimistic show, though it also believes that to understand someone, you have to know where they come from. For romance fans, it not only has many compelling stories of young love, but the main draw is the mature and complex marriage between the coach and his wife.

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Romance on Television: Grey’s Anatomy

I didn’t intend for this to be a series, but after writing about Mozart in the Jungle, I have more things to say about the long-form romances that play out on TV. This fascinating profile of Ellen Pompeo from The Hollywood Reporter gave me thinky thoughts about Grey’s Anatomy.

In the piece, Pompeo makes an unapologetic case for why she’s the highest-paid actress in primetime–and of course it’s the kind of argument I’ve never heard an actor have to make. She’s remarkably clear eyed about her career and thoughtful about what it means to make art long-term and still keep your work exciting and meaningful.

The profile reminded me of my rewatch of the first three seasons of Grey’s Anatomy a few months ago. I continue to find it odd that Grey’s is often omitted from conversations about peak TV. It’s not included in Alan Sepinwall’s (admittedly still interesting) The Revolution Was Televised, for example. While Shonda Rhimes herself often gets shout outs as a powerful showrunner (see here), it’s often as if she’s interesting in spite of the television she makes not because of it.

My own history with Grey’s is complicated. I started watching during the second season, quit a few episodes into the fourth, and then got reeled in again during season six/early season seven.

I’m not watching it right now, and I definitely don’t think it’s a perfect show. But when it’s good, Grey’s can be so good. It can also fail and falter and be preachy and reductive and go to some wacky bad places. The romantic drama in the first 2.5 seasons, however, was top notch, and I want to talk about what I think the show does well.

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Romance on Television: Mozart in the Jungle

I want to recommend you consider watching a thing, a thing that I think has one of the most interesting romances on the small screen. Plus if you take me up on this, you’ll get to listen great classical music and consider artistic union-management politics. I have a lot of caveats as you’ll see below, but here’s the trailer for the forthcoming season.

Yes, I’m recommending Mozart in the Jungle, which is available on Amazon Prime. It’s a strange, quirky, and sometimes uneven comedy. As I’m certain my husband would want to interject, it’s not really funny, it gets some of the details wrong, and it traffics in some tropes and stereotypes that grate, but it’s still worth your time because it takes the clash between art and commerce seriously and it builds lovely human moments in along the way.

When it’s good, Mozart in the Jungle is different from everything else on television. And when it’s bad, at least it’s short. (Seriously, the episodes are less than half an hour each. You can pretty easily blow through a season in two nights and the extant three seasons in less than a week.)

Mozart in the Jungle tells the story of a fictional New York City orchestra. In the pilot episode, the board brings in a hot new conductor, roughly modeled on Gustavo Dudamel, to shake things up and in the process, deep schisms in the orchestra grow wider and the characters are forced to clarify their relationships to the institution and to music itself.

To be more granular, more romancelandia folks should take a look because of the show’s central relationship: a slow-burn romance between the new conductor, Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal), and a struggling oboist named Hailey (Lola Kirk).

On paper, Hailey sounds a bit like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s much younger than the rest of the ensemble, she’s pretty, and she drives Rodrigo’s emotional development/arc. But the character is specifically written and sympathetically portrayed. She has an inner life and her own desires, and so, for me, she transcends the trope.

Most interestingly, at least from my perspective, Hailey struggles with the question of whether she’s talented enough to achieve her dreams and as a result, as the show marches on, she tries to reimagine her life and eventually takes up conducting.

I don’t know what will happen with this storyline, but if anything, I find the show the compelling because of the female characters: Hailey; her roommate, Lizzie; her friend the cellist/union rep, Cynthia; Hailey’s rival, the first chair oboist Betty; and the president of the orchestra board, Gloria. I like the men, but they aren’t as central for me.

Since Hailey’s story is basically the one I keep writing over and over and over again, I’m smitten with the show, and I can’t wait to finally, finally see Hailey and Rodrigo together as a couple. I couldn’t be more excited for the show’s upcoming fourth season, so you should catch up so we can squee together.

That’s my spoiler-free pitch, but I’ll make a longer and more complicated one after the break.

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For the Love of…Work

I haven’t written a rambling, pretentious blog post in a while, and I have about 850 other things I should be doing, so…yeah.

I’ve been thinking about why I seem to have written so many romances that intimately describe the work of the characters, whether it’s how they negotiate the federal budget in Special Interests, how Anne-Marie made airline reservation in 1962 in Star Dust, or how Lydia prepares her boss for a presidential debate in Party Lines. (And if you like this sort of thing, don’t worry, there’s gobs of work stuff in Earth Bound.)

My initial thought is it might be related to the American notion of identity, which I’ve written about a bit before. For a modern USian, who we are is intimately tied to how we–or our family members–generate income. (I’m just southern enough to have heard young women say to each other at cocktail parties, “What does your daddy do?”)

But it isn’t a “modern” American thing, is it? This one goes back to Jamestown and the “work to eat” rule and the Puritans and their beliefs about idle hands being the Devil’s workshop. The contrasts and rejections we still see some people make between American and European economies are related to stereotypes about hard work and reward–and of course they are stereotypes. I don’t actually think people in the United States work any harder than anyone else, we just tie our mythos to our work in a way others don’t always, leading to great national tragedies such as Death of a Salesman.

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What makes good criticism?

Sorry it’s been so long! I was trying to write a lot of words, which was I doing until about two weeks ago. Then we went on vacation and we moved into a new house. We’re still very much in unpacking mode and at the end of every day I fall into bed exhausted. I haven’t been reading or writing–and this somehow makes me more tired.

Also, while I’ve been happy with the words I’m writing, I’ve been experiencing professional disappointment that has me thinking about my voice and the market. I don’t have conclusions about this yet, but I’ll let you know.

Anyhow, the real point of this point: what is good criticism? Natalie of Pretty Terrible posted this question on Twitter. For reasons related to my academic training and my area of study, it is something I have very strong opinions about. I was going to respond there, but it would be too long. I’ll keep the abbreviated bullet point format of Twitter, though:

  • Good criticism is an intellectual, and not primarily emotional, response to a text. I’m not saying there’s no emotion in criticism—indeed, really good criticism often comes from explaining one’s emotions—but isn’t primarily about “the text made me feel X.” Criticism is what comes after that stage.
  • Good criticism is not primarily evaluative. It’s NOT about saying whether the text is good or bad. When I teach this idea, I often show students a Siskel and Ebert film review (say this one). Then I show them Matthias Stork’s amazing series on Chaos Cinema (here’s part one). What’s the difference? Siskel and Ebert are trying to tell you whether you should go to a movie—is it worth the price of admission? Stork is trying to tell you what this new style of film is. He has an opinion about whether it’s a good or bad development, but he’s mostly trying to define it and tell us how it works. Stork is critical; Siskel and Ebert evaluative.
  • Good criticism has a clear idea about what it’s doing. So any individual entrant is joining a larger conversation. This conversation (or method) can be formal. For example, there’s a set of writing that lays out Marxist critical discourse, or formalism, or New Historicism. But the critical approach can be more squidgy. Either way, people over time develop critical schools of thought and any given critical gesture is in the style of (or in response to) one or more of these.
  • For example, in romance (and I’m sure this is true in other fan communities), popular feminist discourse is important. We talk about whether heroes are alpha or beta (or caretaking alpha or alphaholes), which is another way of talking about how the texts construct masculinity. Also important: genre studies. What tropes does the text use? And does it just replicate the trope, does it make it fresh, or does it subvert it?
  • Good criticism, then, tells me how the text works (and to do this, it must substantively engage with the text) and then puts this into a genre context and a large critical conversation.
  • Here are a couple of critical responses that I think are good: Olivia Waite on Jenn Bennett’s Bitter Spirits and Natalie Jo Storey in the Los Angeles Review of Books on sheikh romance. These make good comparisons because they both use gender studies to talk about how the texts “do” gender and post or neo-colonialism to talk about how the texts “do” race. They do make some evaluative judgements, but mostly they’re talking how the texts work. They’re explicit about the critical moves their making (good criteria) and they engage substantively with specific works. Waite focuses on one text while Storey takes in an entire genre–but she’s still citing lots of specific examples.

I’ve used academic language for this definition, but I have serious concerns about how this goes down in the academy. I don’t think academics are always good at explaining their critical criteria and group-think leads them to only ask certain questions and only of certain texts. Part of what I love about romance is that there are really cool critical conversations happening that I never heard in the academy.

Finally, to be clear, I don’t think criticism is the only valid approach to texts. GIF/squee reviews do important work, I read things all the time that I never move past the “digestion” stage with, etc. Criticism isn’t higher or more valid or anything. It is its own flavor and pursuit and sometimes it’s what you want and sometimes it’s not.

So, what do I have wrong?

Seven Underrated Romantic Comedies

For at least ten years, I’ve been reading about the demise of the romantic comedy (aka the rom-com). I even blogged about how there don’t seem to be many rom-coms in theaters and how many recent attempts are, well, not very good. Katherine Heigl made a living for a while playing up-tight career women who could only find love once they’d been humbled in films like The Ugly Truth and 27 Dresses (and even Amy Adams and Jennifer Lopez got in on the act in Leap Year and The Back-Up Plan, respectively).

The past 20 years of film have seen rom-coms that are pretty but in which the romance isn’t compelling (Letters to Juliet), comedic movies in which the romance is compelling but not the focus (Pitch Perfect, Easy A, Bridesmaids, Monsoon Wedding), dramatic films with happy ending romances (The Young Victoria and a host of other biopics), and romance-focused flicks without happy endings (Bright Star, Once, (500) Days of Summer, In the Mood for Love, Moulin Rouge). I started my Fine Romance Friday posts in response to the trend, but not all of the movies I’ve written about are rom-coms and many are older films made before the mid 1990s.

So in that spirit, I want to provide a list of what I see as the most underrated rom-coms of the last 20 years or so. I wouldn’t argue that these are very best rom-coms made in that period, but everyone knows about Amelie and The American President (right?). I’m not going to do full write ups, but I’ll drop in the trailer, link to IMDB, and write a paragraph about why you should check it out. I organized these chronologically. Let me know what I’ve missed in the comments!

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Both Alike in Dignity

Over the weekend my friend and critique partner Gen Turner started a Twitter imbroglio when she confessed that she doesn’t really connect with the novels of Jane Austen. I was traveling so I didn’t get to follow all the nuances of the ensuing discussion, but several of us posited that there seems to be a schism in romancelandia (and probably the broader culture) between folks who love the novels of Jane Austen and those who prefer those by the Bronte sisters. Elisabeth Lane compared it to the Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate.

If so, it makes sense. While Austen died in 1817 when the Bronte sisters were infants, Charlotte Bronte famously disliked Austen’s novels, saying Pride and Prejudice was “An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face” or, in other words, realistic but boring. In another letter Charlotte Bronte wrote, “The Passions are perfectly unknown to [Austen].”

There’s a lot I could say here about how Austen is more properly grouped with the 18th century novelists than the 19th century ones. Austen has a more Enlightenment view of human nature and love, not to mention that she wrote novels with strong romantic elements not genre romances per se. In contrast the Brontes–who are hardly a united front as my favorite Kate Beaton cartoon spoofs–were more influenced by Romanticism and Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” They also wrote for a vastly different audience.

But that’s not my area of expertise and so I’ll refrain.

Instead I want to suggest that Austen/Bronte debate is unnecessarily adversarial. Genre romance descends from both, as Pamela Regis explicates nicely in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, but I’m going to argue that genre romance uses Austen and Bronte for different things. To my mind, Austen provides a set of plots for romance and Charlotte Bronte provides an aesthetic for romance prose.

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Social Justice Romance Fiction

Someone found my blog through the search phrase “social justice romance fiction,” which is indeed what The Easy Part series is. But the query got me thinking about other romances featuring characters interested in social justice, which might include activists, volunteers, revolutionaries, political aides, community organizers, and so on. I asked on Twitter for suggestions and then started a list on Goodreads. I feel like a goober adding my own books…but I did it anyway. If you’re a Goodreads user, please add, edit, vote, etc.

It does raise a few interesting questions for me: is every police officer or fireman romance a social justice one? What about teachers? Or doctors? I guess the list-makers at Goodreads will decide.

Come a Little Closer

(Warning: I was up with a sick child all night. When I’m not sleeping, I’m thinking. And I have to write this idea out. It isn’t fully-formed, but tell me where I’m wrong so I can finish working this out.)

In The Melodramatic Imagination, literary scholar Peter Brooks defines melodrama not as something aesthetic–not in other words as a genre defined by mustache-twirling villains, perfect heroes, and damsels in distress–but as a narrative structure and a moral imperative. He writes of a scene in Balzac’s novel The Magic Skin,

The narrative voice is not content to describe or record gestures, to see it simply as a figure in the interplay of persons one with another. Rather, the narrator applies pressure to the gesture, pressure through interrogation, through the evocation of more and more fantastic possibilities, to make it yield meaning to make it give up to consciousness its full potential as “parable.” (1)

Brooks is saying that Balzac pushes closer to his subjects in order “to catch this essential drama, to go beyond the surface of the real to the truer, hidden reality” underneath (2). Brooks argues that in melodrama “nothing is left unsaid” (4), which helps to reveal the “operative spiritual values” (5) that are present but hidden in other works. He applies this schema to Henry James, in whose work he sees this “melodramatic imagination” operating when “things and gestures are necessarily metaphoric because they must refer to something else” (Brooks 10).

As far as I can tell, no one has applied Peter Brooks to genre romance–but we should because romance seems to work in much the same way. Romance is closely cropped onto a few key pieces that carry metaphorical significance and its narrative resolutions (e.g., the creation of a stable couple) are moral ones.

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10 Romantic Books to Read…Because Romance is Awesome

Today, Book Riot published a piece entitled “5 Romantic Books to Read in February (even if you hate romance).”

I could rant about this (see me respond to romance trolls here and here), but I don’t want to–not because the assumptions and commentary in the Book Riot list aren’t frustrating but because I’d rather celebrate the wonderful writing that I see in genre romance.

Every book here I’ve recommended to friends and family. Many I’ve forced onto people when they insist to me, “No, I don’t like romance.” I can’t say that every one of these conversion attempts has succeeded–but these books all have sharp writing, smart plots, and fascinating characters. These are perfect for February or July or anytime; they aren’t organized in any particular order.

1.) The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley, novel with strong romantic elements

Kearsley’s prose is lovely. Anyone who thinks the writing in romance is substandard should pick her books up. From the opening page of The Winter Sea, they’ll find a strong sense of history and place and not one but two compelling romances. Once I’d started it, I could not put it down. I’ve given easily half a dozen copies as gifts, and almost everyone I’ve gifted it to has gone on to read everything Kearsley has published.

2.) The Iron Duke, Meljean Brook, steampunk
Brook writes my favorite steampunk world in the Iron Sea series and any of the books or novellas in it would be good for those individuals who think they don’t like romance. (It’s worth saying that the titular Iron Duke does something almost unforgivable in this book.) Brook’s prose is crisp and compelling, the characterizations interesting, and the world, well, riveting. If this series isn’t adapted into a film, I’ll be pissed.
3.) Welcome to Temptation, Jennifer Crusie, contemporary
As far as I’m concerned, Crusie is the queen of smart, hilarious contemporary romances. This dance between grifter-adjacent Sophie Dempsey and small town mayor Phin Tucker is my favorite. The dialogue is delightful and the chemistry sizzling.

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