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TV’s Reckoning with #MeToo
Many creators are visibly struggling to adjust to the changing landscape, rejecting the “very special episode” path and seeking something more honest and original.
By Emily Nussbaum, New Yorker
- Jun. 3, 2019 Issue
“Tuca and Bertie,” a new animated series on Netflix, was created by Lisa Hanawalt, an illustrator for the dark Hollywood satire “BoJack Horseman.” Like “BoJack,” it’s set in a trippy universe full of visual puns and talking animals—mostly birds, although there are also chain-smoking trees and gossipy cats, not to mention a breast that pops off one character’s chest, puts on a flowered hat, and wanders away in a huff. The heroines of the show, a sweet, loopy friendship sitcom, are a raunchy toucan named Tuca (voiced by Tiffany Haddish) and her best friend, an anxious parakeet named Bertie (Ali Wong). Childlike in style, with adult themes, the series plays out through a scrim of surreal frames, showing ordinary actions—from baking to sex—through odd filters, from retro video games to yarn dolls that illustrate a painful memory. It’s an imperfect show about feeling off-kilter, struggling to comprehend your own life.
It’s also the latest in a deluge of TV series that feel like a direct response to the #MeToo
movement, touching on third-rail themes that are meant not merely to comfort or inspire but to unsettle. In one of “Tuca and Bertie” ’s central story lines (which I’ll spoil here, so bail if you care about that kind of thing), Bertie, who is working as a corporate cog at a magazine company called Condé Nest, gets her dream gig, as an after-hours apprentice to the celebrity baker Pastry Pete, a brilliant penguin who created a cruller/bundt-cake hybrid called the “crunt.” “He’s got the body of a tenure-track professor but the arms of an adjunct,” Bertie tells herself, deep in a confusing crush.
But, from her first day on the job, Bertie is thrown off by her boss’s haughty air, his demands that she say “Yes, Chef” and never question him. Earlier, she’d attended a female-empowerment meeting, after getting sexually harassed at her day job. (That was the day that her breast popped off her body, leaving a black hole in her chest.) But Bertie blindly obeys Pete’s orders. Maybe this is how chefs are supposed to behave? Pete beckons her to the stove, to inspect a banana roux that he’s preparing. Then he pushes Bertie’s head down, so that the steam hits her face as she struggles to free herself. It’s a deeply weird act—hard to describe, let alone to define.
Bertie runs into the bathroom, shoves her hand down her pants, and masturbates. In the aftermath, she has disturbing sexual dreams about her boss, and they make her feel stupid and crazy. Pete is an abusive creep, but he’s also her role model and her route to career success. When Pete hires a new apprentice, a chipper millennial named Dakota (“With a Y—the Y is silent . . . and invisible”), Bertie and the younger songbird bond. Then, one day, Pete does the same thing to Dakota, as Bertie looks on, saying nothing. When Dakota asks Bertie if it ever happened to her, she stutters, making excuses: “You don’t understand—it’s just part of the job and how he teaches. He’s very passionate.”
“Why are you defending him?” Dakota yells. “And you didn’t warn me. You knew what he did was wrong, right?” In some sense, however, it seems as if Bertie didn’t know, until she saw someone else’s reaction to Pete’s behavior. When Dakota quits, it sends Bertie spinning, grappling with childhood memories, and with the blurred lines between authority and abuse, flirtation and exploitation.
It’s a powerful story, precisely because it doesn’t leave out the discomfort. Like much of Hanawalt’s work, in her illustrated cartoon books as well as on “BoJack Horseman,” “Tuca and Bertie” is at its best when it lingers on raw sensations. Sex is confusing; power is, too. Tuca, who is newly sober, can’t figure out how to behave on a date, because her default mode is binge-drinking and blacking out. Even after Bertie quits her apprenticeship, her rage and guilt are never resolved—and, although a bird poops on Pete’s head and Tuca entraps him with a viral video, he suffers no major repercussions. He stays a star chef.
“Tuca and Bertie” is a wave in a sea of such responses. In some cases, older shows have rewritten themselves, reinterpreting stories that once seemed romantic or funny, finding darker undercurrents and new angles. In series ranging from “Fosse/Verdon,” FX’s Broadway-musical-antihero show, to Gen Z soaps like Freeform’s “Good Trouble” and “The Bold Type,” as well as on network sitcoms like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and cable dramedies like “Barry,” creators are visibly adjusting to, and at times struggling with, the changing landscape.
Television has always been a delivery system for morality. In 1977, Edith Bunker fought off an attempted rape (and Archie never called her “dingbat” again); in 1989, on “A Different World,” Dwayne Wayne learned about consent. These stories, which were packaged as “very special episodes,” were regularly treated as big cultural events—maybe because they stood in striking contrast to the way sexual violence was portrayed on crime shows and soaps, which tended to be hardboiled or lurid. Sometimes, as in the wildly popular Luke-and-Laura romance on the soap opera “General Hospital,” rape was more like an act of passionate overkill, a bump on the road to true love.
Meanwhile, workplace harassment was framed as romance or slapstick—the boss chasing his secretary around the desk, a current that ran under even beloved shows like “m*a*s*h” and “Cheers.” The “very special episode” was aggressively well intentioned, a wholesome corrective. But even the best of them were polemical gestures, not artistic ones. As Samuel Goldwyn once put it, about movies and morality, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union”—and television, in the public imagination, was Western Union.
When Dr. Melfi was raped, in a parking-garage stairwell, on “The Sopranos,” in 2001, it marked a turning point. This wasn’t because the scene was particularly graphic but because Melfi was a central character in the show. Most effectively, the plot was about what didn’t happen—Melfi never asked Tony to exact revenge, a quiet ethical choice in a show about moral corruption. The episode, which startled viewers and created enormous buzz, seemed to embolden TV creators. In the two decades that followed, plotlines about sexual violence proliferated, often serving as the backstory for characters. This phenomenon occurred in tandem with an increase in shows created by women: when women’s lives are taken seriously, sexual violence is part of the drama. But there was an ugliness in what became a narrative arms race, with its own clichés; for creators, merely showing violent misogyny, however shoddily, sometimes seemed to double as a signifier of artistic seriousness. On the first season of “True Detective,” a flayed and ravaged female corpse was an object to be gazed at in horror, but there wasn’t much difference between what the camera ogled and what it critiqued.
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These recent shows mark a different kind of progress—an outward sign of inward changes, as if anxious debates within writers’ rooms have flowed into scripts. With few exceptions, these stories aren’t prechewed moral lessons or easy fables about heroism, and they aren’t engaging in “Game of Thrones”-style escalation, either, turning harassment stories into pornographic melodrama. Not every such plot is successful: a few feel tone-deaf or overly cynical. But the sharpest are reshaping television’s boundaries, more often through comedy than through drama.
The two clear standouts pre-dated the movement: the brilliant first season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag,” from 2016, which began with a disastrous bank-loan interview with a sexual harasser and ended with a complex détente with the same man; and the crazily great fifth season of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s “BoJack Horseman,” which was written during the summer of 2017 and was a scathing deconstruction of the making of a cable antihero drama called “Philbert.” Both shows were written into the #MeToo
movement, but, as good art so often does, they mirrored the central anxieties of the age: blinding fury at what men get away with and desperation for some path to forgiveness, along with an ugly awareness of how those two impulses might contradict each other.
The shows that followed vary widely. But, in the aggregate, showrunners have taken odd, rude, and often daring routes into the conversation, upending clichés instead of replicating them, seeking new perspectives on the subject of workplace exploitation. As with Bertie, on “Tuca and Bertie,” women on these shows are enablers as well as victims, and sometimes both. Often, these stories feature characters reëxamining complicated experiences, struggling to see things in a new way. Most significantly, these plots are not so much about individuals as they are about the systems around them, and the troubling sensation of recognizing a bad pattern by seeing that you are part of it.
On the second season of “glow,” the Netflix series about female wrestlers in the nineteen-eighties, Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) is hit on by the head of her show’s network—and, when she refuses to sleep with him, he pulls the show from prime time and her best friend berates her for her naïveté, arguing that it was her job to string him along. (Ruth’s boss takes her side, maybe because he resents authority more than he resents women.) The scabrous satire “Veep,” on HBO, featured #NotMe
, a movement of women publicly declaring that they’d never dated the revolting Presidential candidate Jonah Ryan—and then ended with a plot in which Selina Meyer weaponizes a #MeToo
scandal to undermine an opponent. Several comedies have experimented with parodic gender switches. In an arc on the NBC sitcom “Great News,” the C.E.O. played by Tina Fey pretends to harass her staff, in a vain attempt to get the kind of golden parachute that her male colleagues have received. Others have built cynical comic engines from #MeToo
, like a plot on the sourpuss FX romance “You’re the Worst” in which Gretchen (Aya Cash) accuses a colleague of harassment in order to snag his office—only to find that she’s perceived as heroic, since he actually was a predator.
On the dark marital comedy “Catastrophe,” the persnickety Irish teacher Sharon, in the wake of #MeToo
, is perpetually infuriated: she gripes about misogyny, complains about her husband’s bro-ish new boss, and sees sexism everywhere. But when Rob, the husband, has the chance to stand up for a female colleague who’s being elbowed out, an act that would put a promotion at risk, Sharon insists that he take the promotion. In a moral crunch, she’s not interested in integrity; her stance threatens their marriage and Rob’s wobbly sense that she’s a decent person.
I could go on. It’s difficult to find a recent show that hasn’t reflected questions of abuse and consent. On some of them, #MeToo
’s presence is more about lingering references to the anxiety of the era, as with the sitcom “The Other Two” ’s faux-solemn refrain “In the current climate.” Other series have merely “hung a lamp on it,” the writers’-room term for pointing to a problem instead of fixing it. But, in the past two years, many series—like “Good Trouble,” which built a layered plot around a bubbly engineer, Mariana, joining a sexist dot-com—have found stirring material not in pure go-girl clichés but in the messy drama of a system in flux.
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Some of the most striking adjustments have happened on shows, like “Good Trouble,” with romantic-comedy structures, whose premises rely on workplace sparks. The second season of “Jane the Virgin,” on the CW, which began in 2015—an aeon ago, politically—included a sexy arc in which Jane dated her writing professor, Professor Chavez. In a fourth-season episode, in 2018, the writers revised that story, by having Jane struggle with retrospective unease about that long-ago flirtation. What could easily have been an after-school special dwelled instead in ambiguities. At first, Jane, who approaches Chavez to see if he can help her get a teaching job, sees their involvement as an electric transgression. But when she learns that he’s dating another grad student—that it’s a pattern—it suddenly seems skeevy. She tries to warn the woman, who perceives Jane’s chatter as a come-on. (It doesn’t help that Jane trips and accidentally grabs the woman’s breasts.) In the end, Chavez seems scared of Jane, and she’s left in a melancholy state. “At least I said my piece,” she tells her mother, with a shrug.
“Younger,” a sweet, smart show on TV Land, which premièred in 2015, faced a tougher set of circumstances. By 2017, the show’s entire premise looked like romanticized harassment, centered as it was on the chemistry between Liza, a millennial publishing assistant (who was secretly in her forties, but still), and her company’s rich, powerful, middle-aged C.E.O., Charles. With their power differential suddenly lit up in neon, the show wisely embraced the theme rather than paper over the contradictions. First, the writers took a preëxisting character—a George R. R. Martin-esque fantasy writer—and exposed him as a creep, by taking seriously the horny advances that the show had once sold as jokes. Then it added gravity to the dynamic of its main romance, showing how it affected the rest of the office. By the final moments of the fifth season, the C.E.O. had agreed, strategically, but also as a gesture of love and sacrifice, to step down from his job. The fact that the show was able to accomplish all this without losing any of its frothy appeal was a kind of minor miracle, a way of finding romantic tension in the boundaries of new rules.
It’s notable how many of these stories have seemed to reflect the institutions that produced them. This season of “The Good Fight,” Robert and Michelle King’s spinoff of “The Good Wife,” felt warped, like a fun-house-mirror portrait of the show’s parent network—CBS, in the wake of the resignation of Les Moonves, after allegations of sexual misconduct. In the winkingly titled episode “The One About the Recent Troubles,” the partners at the show’s law firm discover that the late Carl Reddick—a civil-rights hero and the firm’s founder—had sexually harassed and assaulted members of the office staff. Reddick’s daughter, Liz (the fantastic Audra McDonald), who is one of the partners, appears ready, bitterly, to confront his past acts. And yet, together, the partners conspire to cover them up, burying the stories in a fusillade of nondisclosure agreements. Later, they participate in a joke of an investigation that clears the firm of responsibility. Liz Reddick shreds the file containing evidence.
“The Good Fight” is a broadly satirical show, as surreal in its way as “Tuca and Bertie,” and not a gentle romance like “Younger” or “Jane the Virgin.” But, even in a darker series, one obsessed with corruption, the choice to show its central characters as near-villains feels significant. We’re forced to face their hypocrisy and the speed with which they choose financial security over justice. Even Diane Lockhart, the show’s feminist heroine, who has spent the show’s run obsessed with Donald Trump’s sexism, is key to the coverup. “Cynthia, we feel badly about what happened,” she tells Liz Reddick’s secretary, in a hushed voice, strategically placing her hand over the N.D.A. file. “We want to make it right.” She is a corporate lawyer, after all.
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Television isn’t the only medium to face this sort of reconsideration. Several recent Broadway productions—including revivals of “My Fair Lady” and “Kiss Me, Kate” and adaptations of “Pretty Woman” and “Tootsie”—have had “reimaginings.” In a sharp piece in the Times, Amanda Hess cautioned against the shortcut that too many productions have taken: “strengthening” female characters into bland badasses. (Meanwhile, on the musical-theatre TV show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” on the CW, the heroine, Rebecca Bunch, found herself unable to sing the sexist mid-century classics she once adored—she rewrote them, instead, in her own voice.)
Also in the Times, Parul Sehgal praised a run of “#MeToo
novels,” among them “Trust Exercise” and “Milkman,” for their ability to deal in “inconsistencies and incoherence, stories that thicken the mysteries of memory and volition.” Novels, Sehgal argued, are capable of what nonfiction is not, because fiction is free to “occupy the backwaters where the writer need not pander or persuade.” In part, she said, this is because novels are far freer to offend their audience—they are less hobbled by the anxious self-consciousness that she has sensed in so many modern #MeToo
essays, whose writing, Sehgal wrote, feels too aware of the reader, “straining to appease, convince, console.”
TV shows, unlike novels, are never truly unaware of their audience: if they are, they don’t get renewed. Even in the streaming era, television is still a call-and-response medium, absorbing and reflecting viewer reactions. That’s both its strength and its limitation. It also makes it all the more impressive that so many shows have reached for exactly the quality that Sehgal describes—something that is beyond the rush of a righteous manifesto, exploring muddy currents rather than following more reassuring paths. There is a self-consciousness to a few of these shows, but it’s almost the opposite of the kind Sehgal writes about
: it’s a desire to reject the “very special episode” path and seek something more honest and more original.
These are early stages. In the current wave of television, there are things that are missing, approaches that you can imagine coming: modes of sincere drama that go beyond subversive jokes. Stories about men seen through eyes other than those of a tormented antihero. Even fresh genres—horror or science fiction, say. The lens can keep widening.
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Of all the #MeToo
stories this year, my favorite was the one that barely showed, peeking from the corners of “High Maintenance,” on HBO, the dreamy, allusive pot-dealer series set in Brooklyn. The series has, traditionally, been an anthology, with each episode telling its own story. But this year a small story ran through it, as the main character, known as the Guy, dated Lee, a woman who tells him, the night they meet, that she’s in the midst of a messy divorce. Slowly, it becomes clearer: she’s the wife of a famous actor fired for unspecified behavior, a man who has done something so gross that people get shifty-eyed when they mention it. She fends off awkward banter—an awful friend coos, greasily, “We’re always talking about the people who come forward, but we never talk about the ones who get left behind”—but her status is never fully explained. Maybe she’s collateral damage for his crimes, or maybe she’s at fault, for having supported him. It’s hard to tell, and the show never tries to spell out or simplify these questions.
The Guy stands by her, a comforting presence, as the two keep each other company, on and off, throughout the season. In a late episode, he runs into his ex-wife in the Rockaways, at a party where Lee feels exposed and judged. “I think it’s a little weird that she defended him,” his ex complains. “She left him,” he says—and then he adds, flippantly, “The heart wants what the heart wants.” It’s an insoluble problem, in which one person insists on forgiveness and the other on justice and neither is quite willing to budge.
It’s only at the end of the season that we see something else that’s been going on with the Guy, a story that’s been glimmering beneath the surfaces of the season. In a beautiful episode, the first in the series set in Manhattan, he visits two old high-school friends, a couple whose baby is in the hospital. He takes the husband on a bike trip, to distract him during this tragedy.
But he also has a conversation with the wife, Sarah. Outside the hospital, the two perch awkwardly, talking about old times. He looks down and says, “We were good friends.” Later, he asks, cautiously, “Whatever happened to that friendship?” What’s been haunting him, it turns out, is a story from high school: at a talent show, he’d pulled down Sarah’s pants in front of a crowd—she wasn’t wearing underwear. He clearly thought that the action marked him as someone who’d caused a trauma that hasn’t been forgiven.
Sarah laughs, flabbergasted. She doesn’t even remember the incident, she says. She’d pulled away for other reasons—because of politics, but mainly because he did drugs. “I’ve been sweating this for, like, twenty years,” the Guy says, flooded with relief. “Dude, you know, I might have done a lot of drugs, but you have a really ****ty memory.”
It’s a story that doesn’t have a clear moral but is beautifully expressive of a modern moment, revealing the flicker of history inside the core of one relationship. It’s a minor-key note inside a culture-wide chord.