Despite today’s abundance of “quality television” programming, TV has yet to fully shed its reputation as a degraded medium. Why else would the binge have taken hold as a (if not the) prime metaphor for contemporary television viewing? Where the representative of televisual excess was previously the couch potato, a human-turned-tuber upon cathode-ray immersion, today’s TV-watching subject is phobically likened to an overeater or unrestrained drinker, one who compulsively consumes too much of a good (or a bad) thing. If binge-watching still connotes shameful indulgence, though, the expression has also come to intimate something more: the perverse pleasures, attendant pains, and other uncharted feels that might accompany devoted, immersive television viewing.
Each installment of The Bingewatch, my new column for Public Books, will focus on a particular TV show I’ve been bingeing. But this column will also seek to monitor and challenge the evolving cultural conversation about television. Operating from the conviction that the discourse of “quality TV” doesn’t bring much to the table—since this label usually serves as masculine shorthand for shows that bros, academics, and other self-described intellectuals love to love—The Bingewatch will not ask what the television being considered here is (good or bad? quality or trash?), but rather what it does. Addressing this question will mean examining how TV both mirrors and influences the cultural and political climate at-large. It will also require asking how television works on us—viscerally, emotionally, intellectually, and often in contradictory ways.
This is not an objective endeavor, since each binge is a quite personal voyage. My chosen binges will of course reflect my (conscious and unconscious) proclivities. Some, like Love, will be relatively new series; others will be a few seasons in; and yet others will have finished their respective runs years ago, and now sit growing stale in the queues of Netflix, waiting for someone stoned, desperate, or nostalgic enough to give them another—or even a first—viewing. I hope you’ll join me as I plumb the depths of Hulu, trek through the Amazon wilds, and try to stay afloat in the never-ending stream.
We often hear that it’s particularly difficult to find love in Los Angeles, a city whose sprawling geography and much-derided car culture have been said to foster alienation, hostility, and aggression (remember Falling Down?). Mickey (Gillian Jacobs), the female co-protagonist of Judd Apatow’s new Los Angeles–based Netflix series, Love, puts it as follows: “Some people have a really hard time dealing with it, sitting in traffic all the time, feeling lonely and lost, your car becomes your best friend.” For Mickey, however, the problem isn’t really spatial—it’s emotional. As a rather difficult young woman, to use Emily Nussbaum’s phrase, Mickey doesn’t have trouble meeting people; she has trouble keeping them around. Indeed, the LA stereotype invoked above, which she deploys in conversation at a condo party, doesn’t represent how she truly feels about her adopted city. Rather, her disingenuous LA-bashing is meant to scare a more recent transplant—a blonde, busty, bubbly Canadian actress (Briga Heelan)—away from the City of Angels, and specifically from the bed of Mickey’s new love interest, Gus (Paul Rust).
A control freak masquerading as a “nice guy,” the anemic Gus is plainly undeserving of the attentions of either woman, an irony the show acknowledges but doesn’t quite manage to critique. Of course, Mickey is no better: she is prone to fits of rage arising from her self-acknowledged, yet poorly treated, alcohol, drug, love, and sex addictions. Part and parcel of her frail white femininity, her damage makes her both “hot” and “cool”—until she inevitably loses the heterosexual power struggle and ceases to be either, transforming instead into a bottomless well of need, crying out for a man-child’s feeble embrace. Characteristically, Love is less kind to the female half of its annoying duo. IMHO, this gender inequality at the level of representation only enhances the show’s already depressingly accurate portrayal of the realities of dating-while-straight. Following this familiar line of inquiry, most of the commentary on Love has preoccupied itself with arguing the finer points of the show’s depiction of heterosexual coupledom. Fewer responses have grappled with the Love’s particular treatment of Los Angeles as the mise-en-scène for its hetero-trauma-drama.
Fittingly, the pivotal site of Gus and Mickey’s awkward first encounter is a gas station convenience store. This metaphorically rich setting fuels their tortured relationship to come, but also halts, if only for a moment, their urban transience. The movements of cars gliding through Los Angeles, proverbial ships passing in the night, are temporarily suspended here, where vehicles and drivers come to top off and grab midnight snacks before going gently into that good night. In Love’s heavily edited world, the gas station is within walking distance (!) of both Gus’s rundown apartment complex and Mickey’s too-cute bungalow. In reality, of course, the station is an Angeleno’s drive from either location, but the show’s pedestrian-friendly portrayal helps to anchor the geographical heart of Love’s abject love story in the notoriously walkable neighborhood of Echo Park, Los Angeles.
Where HBO’s lately discontinued Duplass Brothers joint Togetherness explores the trials and tribulations of white LA late 30-somethings ensconced in an Eagle Rock craftsman (will they finally be able to get that progressive charter school off the ground?), Love, co-created by Apatow, Rust, and Rust’s wife, Lesley Arfin, limns the presumed province of young white LA creatives in the throes of their collective Saturn’s return: Echo Park, naturally! Ignoring the growing unaffordability, even by bloated Bay Area and NYC standards, of local rental properties, the show uses targeted location shoots and ample B-roll footage of area landmarks to cast Echo Park as an accessible and amenable neighborhood for (well, mostly) white semi-professionals in their early 30s. After all, it’s Gus’s nerdy-hip friend Cori, played by LA’s own Charlyne Yi, who encourages him to go east, young man, after he splits with his uptight girlfriend in Episode 1. “You can live anywhere in LA!” she tells him, as they brunch within the orange-hued environs of the Brite Spot Diner, a mere block away from the iconic geysers of Echo Park Lake. “You could move near me, like, the Eastside?” Replies Gus, “I dunno, it’s just a little too cool and ‘now.’” He goes on to whine, “Where do guys like me live? Where do the, like, repressed, hostile nerds whose girlfriends accuse them of being ‘fake nice’ live?” Counters Cori, “Santa Monica?”
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or not Cori’s version of the “Eastside” actually includes Echo Park (which is
officially located in Central Los Angeles), the neighborhood’s stated “coolness”
and currency attracts the likes of Mickey, who works as a satellite radio
production manager. It also entices her quirky Australian roommate, Bertie
(Claudia O’Doherty), a focus group coordinator. And while aspiring screenwriter
Gus elects to live out his singledom in the drab purgatory of the Springwood
Apartments—from whose opaque location he commutes to an unglamorous day job as
an on-set tutor at Mar Vista Studios—Echo Park is where he meets, fucks, and
possibly falls in love with Mickey. On Love,
the neighborhood, already fully gentrified, becomes a backdrop for the gendered
contortions of straight white love.
Yet in reality, Echo Park is far from being completely overrun by the likes of Love’s protagonists. The neighborhood is, to use the real estate developer’s code for gentrification, gradually getting “flipped,” but it continues to resist utter co-optation even in the face of soaring property values. Most Echo Park residents are Latino—though this historical majority continues to erode—and Asian residents have long constituted a sizeable percentage of the local population. Median household incomes are low in this part of town, rendering the stark economic inequalities (not to mention cultural differences) between “old” and “new” neighborhood residents especially visible. But Love averts its gaze from these demographic and socioeconomic realities, depicting Echo Park as a white, creative-class haven for the emotionally disenfranchised.
Perhaps the show’s unwitting, yet no less urgent, message is that straight white love, which in this case means the ceaseless negotiation of the Gus-Mickey partnership—which has actually bored some viewers I know to sleep—both ignores and consumes its surroundings, leaving little room for relations of other kinds. If the interpersonal dynamics of LA’s gentrification are visible on Love, they are so only peripherally and, one suspects, unintentionally: through the parade of micro- and macroaggressions toward local people of color primarily carried out by Mickey, and usually filmed from the joint perspective of the show’s central couple. Mickey’s rage, racism, and xenophobia toward these individuals—nearly all of whom are cast in service roles—is meant to illustrate her emotional stuntedness, while Gus’s guilty apologetics for her outbursts cement his character as the rational man (and controlling dick). Ultimately, you see, it’s all about them.
But Gus and Mickey technically owe their bad romance to a nameless cashier at United Oil, the recently “flipped” Echo Park gas station and mini-mart where they first meet in Episode 1, and where they have another big moment (no spoilers) at the close of Episode 10. This overworked and underpaid employee, played by Japanese-born actor Takato Yonemoto, stalwartly refuses to give free coffee to a bedraggled and hung-over Mickey, who has unthinkingly left her wallet at home. “Dude, I fucking need this coffee right now,” whines Mickey, before giving him the finger and threatening to just take the beverage, at which point the cashier snaps and picks up the phone to call the cops. After Gus chivalrously steps in to foot the bill, Mickey grabs her loot and goes ballistic on the worker. “You know what, fuck you!” she shouts. “You’re a mean, nasty little motherfucker!” (Yonemoto is in fact a rather large man.) “You know me, I come in here every fuckin’ week. I know your whole fuckin’ family. I know your mother, she’s mean; I know your brother, he looks weirdly old; and your creepy uncle that says dumb shit to me, but I don’t ever complain about that! You’re just a lonely, sad, evil motherfucker!” After mounting this full-scale verbal assault on a local immigrant family over a single cup of coffee, Mickey storms out, and Gus smiles awkwardly at the cashier to dissociate himself from that crazy entitled bitch’s rage-fest. Once outside, however, he’s reeled in by Mickey, who explains, “I’m not crazy, that dude’s a fucking asshole.” After a moment’s hesitation Gus is willing to excuse her illogic, for Mickey’s toxic combo of helplessness and vitriol proves too powerful for this flaccid “nice guy” to resist.
With the stated purpose of retrieving Mickey’s wallet so that she can repay Gus for his gallantry (forget about apologizing to the cashier, who simply evaporates), the young white couple-in-formation embarks on a circuitous journey through “Echo Park.” Shot in both Echo Park and nearby Silver Lake, this sequence cuts together a neighborhood whose “local color” literally and figuratively provides a vibrant backdrop for the pair’s budding romance. Shortly after flirting over the lameness of stroller-pushing gentrifiers unlike themselves while promenading before the brown bodies featured in Ricardo Mendoza’s vivid mural “Sculpting Another Destiny” (2002), Gus and Mickey decide to spend the whole day together. And the rest, as they say, is the history of white heteropatriarchy (which, needless to say, is not the “destiny” Mendoza had in mind). In Episode 6, for example, Mickey’s relapse into alcoholism and pill popping threatens to compromise her budding relationship with Gus. After she laughingly watches her new drug friend Andy (Andy Dick) harass a local taquero (Pedro Lopez), the two end up going the wrong way on the LA Metro, where they torment a non-English-speaking Latina woman (Gloria Sandoval) with their tweaky antics until sobriety kicks in and Mickey tearfully admits how much substance abuse has ruined everything good in her own life. When she finally confesses her addiction to Gus in Episode 10, back at the gas station, he gets an insta-boner and they make out.
If Love’s inadvertent effect is to confirm that white heterosexual love chews up a lot of (local) scenery, flattening non-straight white bodies and relations in the process, the one place this show fantasizes another reality is the fictional writer’s room at Mar Vista Studios. While Gus’s only job at Mar Vista is to serve as an ineffectual academic tutor to the cranky child star (Iris Apatow) of the campy supernatural TV drama Witchita, his aspiration is to be promoted to the writer’s room. This writer’s room unrealistically comprises mostly women of color. And these women, particularly Witchita’s African American showrunner Susan Cheryl (played by a wonderfully withering Tracie Thoms), have nothing but eye-rolls and shutdowns for Gus when he’s finally allowed to sit in on a meeting. When he pompously suggests that Witchita should aspire to “art,” like The Sopranos, Susan Cheryl fires him, effective immediately. If this scene, written by the all-white team of Apatow, Arfin, and Rust, were a harbinger of industry changes to come, we might have something to look forward to.