Why I Do This

November 8, 2013

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In the second season of Scandal, there’s a scene in which the White House Chief of Staff, Cyrus Beene, encounters a political rival moments after having successfully executed a scheme to vanquish her, temporarily, from power.  “Madame Vice President, how are you today?” he sneers as he walks past her into the Oval Office.  Jeff Perry, the actor who plays Beene, delivers this nondescript bit of dialogue in a gleeful, singsong tone.  He places the emphasis on “you” and then again on the final syllable of “to-day.”  He sounds like a cheery, semi-deranged telemarketer.  Then he grabs his crotch, a gesture just barely captured by the camera.

A second later, Beene’s aside to his colleague – “That was small of me. I need to work on that” – underlines the sarcastic intent of his greeting.  I’m sure that the lines were scripted, but Perry’s interpretation of them is so exuberantly eccentric that they feel improvised.  In obscure corners of television I’ve glimpsed a few other brilliant grace notes like that over the years, but they’re exceedingly rare.  The great Miguel Sandoval had a few of them on Medium, and on House Chi McBride did something once that I think probably was his invention.  McBride played a hospital executive who had it in for Dr. House’s unorthodox methods, and at the beginning of their final showdown in an empty conference room McBride scatted a bit on a throwaway line: “D-d-d-d-d-d-doctor House in the house,” he grins with a cockiness that is, of course, soon obliterated.  It was a line reading that was totally out of character for a buttoned-down numbers-cruncher, but that was the point: with a few extra syllables, a stock villain appeared to gain a secret inner life not hinted at on the page.  A few Scandal episodes later, Jeff Perry has another astonishing scene (above), a longer one in which he finally reveals the true scope of his ambitions to his husband (Dan Bucatinsky, also good), as well the seething rage that being unphotogenic and gay has thwarted them.  When Perry utters the words, “I was made to be president of the United States,” there is a big gob of snot drooling out of his nose.

The above may sound like a lead-in to an endorsement of Scandal.  That’s the opposite of what I would want it to be mistaken for.  Like everything else I’ve seen from the pen of Shonda Rhimes (which includes only the first ten or so episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and all of Scandal), Scandal is trash.  I’ve seen it mentioned in the same breath as The Good Wife, which really is one of the smartest show on television at the moment, and that’s not only wrong but alarmingly softheaded.  For Scandal is utterly ignorant not just about how government operates but about the basics of how people feel and think, too. Scandal is the most pernicious kind of bad television because it’s propulsive and superficially competent.  It’s watchable, in other words, unlike most bad television, which is dull or laughable and therefore easily dismissed.  Rhimes’s writing has all the wit and insight of a romance novel – indeed, it is consistently and perhaps deliberately pitched at that level – and yet because its story pieces fit together neatly and its tension mounts from episode to episode at a satisfying pace, too many critics have given its utter absence of substance a pass.

But back to Jeff Perry: He is a lesser-known graduate of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, his midwestern twang still intact, and maybe the best of them.  He’s been around for a couple of decades, doing thankless character work in stuff like Nash Bridges and Prison Break; I first noticed him as a teacher in My So-Called Life, twenty years ago.  Cyrus Beene is a career-defining performance for Perry, one that proves he can hit Shakespearean highs; now he’s on my list of actors I’d love to see as Lear or Richard III (which is, really, who he’s playing here), and he wasn’t before.  Sometimes good actors (or good directors or even good writers) end up doing good work within a canvas that is, on the whole, risible.  That is the case with Perry and a few others (especially Tony Goldwyn and Debra Mooney) in Scandal, but it’s also worth noting that the very stupidity of the show may be the factor that makes Perry’s spine-tingling work possible.  Subtlety is completely unknown in Scandal, and therefore it has room for Perry to scale his work all the way over the top without wrecking the thing and making a fool of himself.  Whereas in shows that have brains, actors have to try to impersonate actual human beings.

Occasionally someone will ask me, because I’m supposed to be an expert, whether or not they should watch a television series or a movie.  My unhelpful answer is always, “Of course you should.”  I realize that most people have not made the conscious decisions to fill all their waking hours with pop culture and that they have to make hard choices about what to opt into and that some sage advice would be useful to them.  But the question remains unanswerable.  You can’t substitute my judgment for yours.  Everyone who ever read a review hoping to find the answer to “should I go see it or not?” was doing it wrong – no matter how understandable that impulse might be.

The corollary to that train of thought is this one: Someone will ask me if I watch a television series and I’ll say yes and they’ll say, “Oh, so it’s a good show then,” and I’ll say, “Oh, fuck no, it’s horrible.  Stay away!”  Such is the case with Scandal.  And when I tell my inquisitor to stay away I am, in essence, saying: “Leave this one to the professionals, dear.”  But the rationalization that I’m sticking with junk like Scandal because it’s my job to keep up with whatever’s in vogue at the moment, whether I like it or not, is only a half-truth.  No, I’m there because I want to be.  But why?  How do I justify surrendering hours to what I know is bad art?  Well, the short answer is Jeff Perry.  The long answer was explained to me by Pauline Kael – at an early point in my life as a media geek, fortunately, or I’d probably have gotten a lot more neurotic about it.  If you’re a movie nerd, too, I’ll bet you already know where I’m taking this: to one of the secondary ideas in Kael’s “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”

…. At best, the movie is totally informed by the kind of pleasure we have been taking from bits and pieces of movies.  But we are so used to reaching out to the few good bits in a movie that we don’t need formal perfection to be dazzled.  There are so many arts and crafts that go into movies and there are so many things that can go wrong that they’re not an art for purists.  We want to experience that elation we feel when a movie (or even a performer in a movie goes farther than we expected and makes the leap successfully.

…. If we go back and think over the movies we’ve enjoyed – even the ones we knew were terrible movies while we enjoyed them – what we enjoyed in them, the little part that was good, had, in some rudimentary way, some freshness, some hint of style, some trace of beauty, some audacity, some craziness.

Kael made those points in the service of a larger argument explaining why movies were good for you in spite (or because) of not being “high art.”  Fifty years later, the distinction between high and low art is meaningless; or, rather, we’ve erased it so much that instead of defending television against the snobs, as one had to do in Kael’s day, I wish there were more snobs around to swat down enticing drivel like Scandal.  But for me, this part of Kael’s essay was an epiphany.  It gave a twenty year-old culture snob the permission to relax and take what the movies and the television shows were giving me on their own terms, instead of judging against pre-conceived notions or ignoring the trees in search of the forest.  That doesn’t mean suspending judgment on the likes of Scandal; it just means remaining open to everything and embracing the parts without demanding they add up to an exceptional whole.  Because, if you don’t, you run afoul of Sturgeon’s Law (ninety percent of everything is crap), and ten percent of television, or anything, is a pretty meager diet.

Kael’s essay framed a question I mulled over for a time in my twenties.  Was I willing to devote a lifetime to sniffing out truffles like Jeff Perry?  (Or Walter Doniger or Norman Katkov or the seventh season of Rawhide or “Turkeys Away” or Jerry Stahl’s scripts for CSI?)  Was it worth my time, was it in fact not wasting a perfectly good life, to sometimes pay attention to things like Scandal, that I knew to be far more flawed than worthwhile?  Would that be enough?  When I realized the answer to all of those was yes was when I had to break it to mom that I probably wouldn’t ever be going to law school or running for office or paying for her elder care.  It may also have been when I started to get sort of good at what I do.

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