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This is the longer version of the post up at The New Republic:
My favorite thing about this season of Mad Men has been watching Don Draper go slack. Many fans of the show have—understandably—lamented that Don’s inability to change is boring. One senses a hunger for Don’s redemption, and simmering under the restive essays on Don’s issues and how poorly they’ve aged is the question of what fiction is supposed to do. It’s true that people don’t change in real life, these critics write, but. The implication is that Don’s patterns are identical to the show’s and that Don’s progress is identical to the show’s progress: he hasn’t changed, therefore the show hasn’t changed.
We haven’t been among these critics. For me, it’s only at this point when, startled, we start to really experience what it’s like to be a Betty living with a Don—when we start occupying the subject position of wife (fan) instead of would-be mistress (potential viewer)—that the show becomes truly interesting. This is one of the few thought-provoking experiments American television, with its sprawling multi-year seasons that more often than not end in accidental burnout, can intentionally conduct, and it’s not an experiment in entertainment: rather, it’s a study of boredom and the perils of long-term arrangements that began with choice and ossified. Like addiction, like work, like marriage. The answer to creating a damaged, chronically depressed character whose tragic relation to his past consigns him to sameness isn’t to fix him or guide him to a happy ending (if Mad Men has taught us anything it’s that nothing ends); the answer is to chronicle the awful boredom of the compulsive.
In that sense it’s a show about our own time, no more about the past than Star Trek was about the future. We (the “we” whose peculiarly white American history Mad Men presumes to tell, anyway) Gatsby-ed our way to an expensive, sexy, monstrous prosperity and we’re more depressed than we’ve ever been. Our current crop of self-help is less about happiness than it is about “lifehacks,” the willpower to curb our compulsions, and the Mad Men Phenomenon unifies a cluster of especially ornate tics we anxiously pretend to control: sex, work, television, and the internet. The complaint that Don has become repetitive after SIX YEARS of cheating and self-delusion (in some televisual variant on the seven-year itch) both overlooks that the tyranny of habit constitutes a legitimate and indeed urgent subject and mistakes the source of our creeping disinvestment in the show. Especially since the show has changed precisely by highlighting that Don hasn’t; it has changed dramatically this season by decoupling itself from Don and peeling its progress away from his stasis.
Not that the charge was believable anyway; the apparently bottomless market for superhero movies proves that we tolerate repetition well enough. But that appetite was what made much of this season good: Don’s affliction, his stumble into anesthetic self-destructive sameness is ours. Our stupid yearning for happy endings, even for characters who don’t want them, even when we can see for ourselves how any such ending would compromise the integrity of the story we’ve been following so slavishly for so long, is just another kind of death-wish. All season I’ve been chuckling at the idea of Don having a come-to-Jesus moment. More compelling than a documentary portrait of 1960s white America is Mad Men’s true protagonist, the awful boredom that turns people into monsters.
For too long (and for too many) Mad Men’s appeal has been linked to Don’s. It’s nobody’s fault; this peculiar age of Serious TV Dramas Featuring White Male Antiheroes caught us unprepared. Blindsided by feelings before we can parse them, we’ve come to a wrongheaded consensus that a show’s interest and complexity is identical to (or interchangeable with) its protagonist. Somehow—and predictably, since we have a thousand years of tragedy as precedent—we’ve taken the (super)hero story’s sly cousin, this genre whose subversive project is forcing us to identify with a subjectivity we know to be evil, or wrong, or mistaken, and responded to this complicated narrative experiment by being, for the most part, stunningly sincere. Our reactions and loyalties are more or less the same as it would be if the antihero were a hero. Yes, there’s a veneer of knowingness; everyone understands intellectually that Don’s an asshole. But he’s awesome at his job, and look at the women he gets! There is (or was) a plague of men who want to be Donald Draper and women who want to sleep with him. This shiny-haired salesman from the late fifties is the cool kid everyone wants to be, not Back Then but now, still.
That’s weird, and it’s a symptom of just how oddly our sympathies have skewed. It’s been happening for awhile—I’m struck every time someone describes an insufferable and pushy woman as a Tracy Flick because it so clearly illustrates this affective loophole. Matthew Broderick’s character in Election was a psychopath intent on stopping a girl from a “broken home” (to use Betty Draper’s phrase) and a victim of statutory rape to boot—at the hands of a teacher, no less, and for this McAllister blames her—from being class president. Everyone knew it was satire when they watched the film but Tracy Flick remains the monster in our memory, not McAllister. We’re in an age when “it’s satire!” has become a facile defense of narrative strategies that so sincerely engage our sentiments that they (or we) forget their satirical goals.
Though not a satire, Mad Men suffers from this affliction. When watching any particular scene the experience splits pretty neatly into two basic categories. The first category is so context-rich and unpredictable that we forget we’re obsessed decoders and relish the odd dialogue. These are the Bob Benson conversations, the Roger Sterling-and-Jane-Divorcing sequences. The second category boils down to a naked quasi-schematic shorthand that informs us so loudly of the Scene’s Function that we never sink into the scene at all. Back in Mad Men’s early days, if Betty and the kids were onscreen, the point was to show us that Betty was an unfeeling and selfish mother. If Don and the kids were onscreen, in contrast, that scene’s work was to portray a complex person who, despite his faults, saw his children as feeling creatures and tried in his limited way to tend to their small frightened subjectivities. This was a tiresome double-standard and it became progressively more constricting and narratively unkind. Now that the narrator has reconciled Don and Bets, the scenes between Betty and Sally are newly rich; they breathe.
The Don and Sylvia scenes were of the second type, as were the scenes between Don and Ted which registered Competition! Not so the telephone conversations between Peggy and Stan or any storyline involving Pete’s mother. Those had the virtuosic quality of seeming like weird things that happened—they lacked the thudding expository quality that sometimes flattens Mad Men into a series of symbolic flash cards. Scene with Ginsberg were almost always the former whereas the conversation between Dawn and her friend in the diner was definitely the latter. But even those flash cards served the show well so long as they registered its growing narrative distance from Don.
The finale was sensational and absorbing but I was stunned to see Don actually get the come-to-Jesus moment I’d chuckled at because the possibility seemed absurd. I never would have guessed that the season-long corrective to our five-year habit of accidentally falling for Don would devolve into the clichés of hitting bottom and redemption. Don’s not the only recidivist; Matthew Weiner has reverted to Don-centrism. How good it was to see the show acknowledge that Don couldn’t anchor the show anymore—much better than seeing Don Confess to His Past or Punished For His Excesses was seeing him deglamorized and sometimes shuffled aside. To the extent that one can hope for the demise of a charming character, I had hoped Roger’s death would justify the references to death sprinkled throughout the season—Roger’s many allusions, the Inferno-reading, Vietnam, the assassinations, near-shootings, etc. He seemed like the logical candidate for reasons I explained there, and for Don’s midlife crisis not to culminate in any death related to Don would have so beautifully cemented the show’s defection and its new commitment to other characters and plots.
But the season concluded with the symbolic “death” of Don the liar and a full throated return to Dick-centric catharsis. It seems we have a resurrection to look forward to. Don’t get me wrong: it’s nice to see him come clean to Sally, but Don isn’t a tragic hero nor should he be saved—those traditions belongs to another time. Ours is smaller, sharper, and full of clicks. Don’s office isn’t where everything is. Where’s Ginsberg’s dad? What happened to Peggy’s secretary? Oh Joan and your bid for Avon, where did you go?
Cross-posted at Los Angeles Review of Books
The title of Girls Season 2 Episode 1 was “It’s About Time” — referring, exactly, to what? What is it we’ve been waiting for? Hannah’s (kind of, sort of) split from Adam? Marnie’s (kind of, sort of) return to Charlie? The return of the show itself? Probably mostly the latter: “It’s About Time” was a pretty conventional season premiere in that it mostly just eased us back into the milieu the last season had already established, concerning itself more with tone than with plot, character development, or theme.
Still, time was a theme, of sorts. Dunham has opted for the now-commonplace narrative gambit of skipping over an unspecified period of time (seemingly a couple of months) between seasons, so that a number of important events have occurred in the interim. (How is there not a TV Tropes entry for this practice?) Hannah is now having sex with Sandy (Donald Glover), unbeknownst (presumably) to Adam, who she is (reluctantly) nursing back to health after his accident; her gay ex-boyfriend Elijah has moved into her apartment, and is (platonically) sharing her bed; Shoshanna and Ray made some attempt at a relationship which fizzled out, due in part to her profligacy with emoji; Jessa and Thomas-John have been on a long honeymoon in Mexico (frankly, it would have been fine with me if they’d stayed there). Time marches on!
What I noticed most in this episode, though, were not the principals but the disaffected older characters, like Marnie’s embittered, narcissistic mom (Rita Wilson, playing against cutesy-pie type), or Elijah’s older boyfriend George, who has a karaoke-induced meltdown and then chastises the kids at Hannah and Elijah’s housewarming party for not having the right kind of fun (“When I was your age, I was snorting cocaine on twinks and dancing with my tits out!”). It’s interesting that the older people in Girls are frequently either attempting to re-enter the magic circle of twentysomething culture (like Jessa’s boss Jeff from last season) or passing angry judgment on it — or, in George’s case, both.
This intensifies a device Girls was already using intermittently last season: introducing older people at the story’s margins (most often parents, teachers, and bosses) in order to admit a corrective self-consciousness — or the possibility of self-consciousness — into the show’s mostly hermetic post-collegiate universe. Sometimes these older characters have some wisdom to dispense, but what we mostly see in them is a longing to return to youth, coupled with a scorn for how the young people of today are wasting it or doing it wrong. (“You look — can I be honest? — 30 years old,” Marnie’s mother tells her; translation: you don’t appreciate what you have, and you’re about to lose it.) It’s to Dunham’s credit that she can write convincingly for people over 30, but it must be said that she also takes a kind of sadistic pleasure in humiliating these characters, or emphasizing their most pathetic aspects: the scene where Hannah locks George out of the party (while still insisting, over his protests, that she’s “a sweet girl”) is both a case in point and a good allegory for the show’s general strategy vis-à-vis grown ups.
I wonder if, to some extent, the marginal presence of these voyeuristic, disapproving adults is Dunham’s way of working through the staggering amount of attention she’s received since the first season’s premiere. Much has been made of how popular Girls is with the generation it depicts, but it’s also, clearly, a source of continual fascination for older people as well, many of whom are vaguely (or not so vaguely) perplexed and disapproving. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the course of the season. If the last season (or the episodes Dunham directed, anyway) had a preternatural confidence, this one came closer to swagger: the final shot of Dunham stripping felt like a real manifesto moment, since nudity — and particularly Dunham’s nudity — has been the catalyst for so much of the aforementioned perplexity and disapproval. It emphasized something that’s too easily missed: that Dunham shooting herself naked isn’t just an exhibitionistic compulsion, or a sign of millennial shamelessness, or (pace Howard Stern) a “little fat chick trying to get something going,” but a directorial signature.
On a shamelessly exhibitionistic note, glad to be back in the fold here at Dear Television! Looking forward to hearing what the rest of you have to say.
I talk to my friends way worse than this,
The first thing Dear TV ever covered was the first season of Girls, to which we shall return this coming week over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. To receive updates on posts, like our Facebook page! In the meantime, enjoy a stroll down memory lane with this index of our own first season. At the beginning, we only roughly tied our posts to episodes, so, be forewarned:
“Testing, Testing” / Evan
“American Nervousness, 2012″ / Phil
“How are things in Ohio?” / Evan
“Call Me, Maybe” / Jane
“A Theory of Crackuracy” / Phil
“Bushwick Bildungsroman” / Evan
“Turn On, Drop In, Drop Out” / Jane
“The Economy of Friendship” / Jane
“Risky Business” / Evan
“The Eyes of Kathryn Hahn” / Phil
“Killing Carrie Bradshaw” / Lili
“The Marriage Plot” / Jane
“Bottoms Up” / Phil
This week, your friends at Dear Television covered episodes of New Girl and The Mindy Project, both of which were helpfully titled, “Halloween.” We also began a new tradition for our syndication at The Los Angeles Review of Books: death matches! From now on, we will not only be writing about issues of gender, class, and adorkability, we’ll also be judging these shows as a Battle of the Thirtysomething Lady Sitcoms. Check us out at the LARB to see who took the crown this week…
NEW GIRL, THE MINDY PROJECT, and the HALLOWEEN SPECIAL
Jane Hu: Shiny Red Lame Special On how The Mindy Project‘s in-costume episode was a gamble that ended up revealing the new show’s strength and depth:
While New Girl waited an entire season before taking on the Halloween special, Mindy Project aired their first last night, with only three episodes preceding it. The fact that it worked — that it was, at least for me, the best episode yet — speaks to Mindy Project’s success in setting out (and setting up) its characters so that they still speak to us even when dressed up as other characters.
And, furthermore, how Halloween Specials show us the profound joys of being recognized:
Given television’s theatrical and metavisual qualities, Halloween seems more suited to the medium than Christmas. Halloween specials remind us that characters are always already remodeled after prior characters — that they are always already in costume. Last week, Leslie Knope dressed up Rosie the Riveter in Parks and Recreation.
If one missed the reference, the costume and its attendant allusions would fall flat. Given that Parks & Rec jokes frequently rely on cultural references, however, one would suspect that its dedicated viewers would have easily recognized Rosie… New Girl and Mindy Project did the same. Jokes about Woody Allen! Jokes about Woody Allen’s tribute to the Marx Brothers! Diane from Cheers! Josh dresses up as Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, since it’s Mindy’s favorite film. But when Mindy quotes from the film, Josh doesn’t recognize it — and Josh is, like, really white.
Lili Loofbourow: Peanuts and the Perils of the Perfect Costume On how The Mindy Project locked it down this week:
Romantic comedies are like ice-skating (or, you know, any other sport): you know what you’re going to get, but the pleasure lives in the virtuosic disruptions of the format. QUADRUPLE-LUTZ! NO-HITTER! Kaling’s pulling this off, delivering solid formula along with some genuinely impressive moves. The show’s pleasure is as much in its grace notes as in the overfamiliar melody (“the brown Bridget Jones,” as Subashini Navaratnam put it). Scenes that should be throwaways do a little extra work.
And on how one of those throwaway exchanges helped crystallize Mindy Lahiri as a character:
When Mindy puts a jabbering kid on the phone, we all know what the next move is and what this scene is meant to tell us. Mindy will be good or bad with kids and that will show us A) how selfish she is and B) how much she wants kids (and therefore a man). That’s the point of kids in sitcoms about thirty-something women. That is the only way we’ve ever seen these chess pieces move with respect to each other. But no — Mindy actually sees this kid…Mindy’s childishness, her selfishness, her self-centeredness, all have the interesting side effect of letting her be a better friend because she’s not performing goodness. She’s refusing the Goodness Scoreboard. That’s an interesting brand of unlikeability.
Phil Maciak: Good Grief On how New Girl is strong on character/weak on plot, and Mindy Project is the opposite:
How on earth is it possible that a 30-year-old woman, growing up in America with an encyclopedic knowledge of romantic comedies and a television addiction — Mindy Kaling, in other words, who just executive produced an episode of television based around the message of It’s a Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown — has never heard of Peanuts? Who is Mindy Lahiri? Who are any of these people?
And on how hard it is for these two shows to create original characters from the set of archetypes and stale formats given to them by television and rom-com history:
The hot doctor. The spinster with no prospects. The man who goes where he wants, when he wants. The cool witty girl who kind of kills it in bed. The douche. The psycho. The dork. In their least interesting moments, the characters on these shows exist as either embodiments or comical inverses of these types. At their best, these characters mama-bird their types — ingesting them and regurgitating them in new forms. (Sorry.)
Get up in the comments section at LARB as we track more quadruple-lutzes, possible no-hitters, and missed Peanuts references this week!
Dear Phil, Jane, Evan,
I was out of the country for the last three episodes, and I’ve only just caught up with Louie. Three episodes at a gulp. It felt like a dram of intensely, specifically non-eerie surrealism. If there was ever a question as to whether Louie was moving toward the short story as a form, there isn’t one any longer. Parker Posey. Robin Williams. Sarah Silverman. Marc Maron. And now, F. Murray Abraham. The show is starting to feel like a comedian’s dreamscape—a way of living inside Louis CK’s subconscious. Comedy is becoming the claustrophobic ether in which the show swims—more so than New York, than fatherhood, than solitude, than sex.
In “IKEA / Piano Lesson,” comedians see each other’s younger avatars on TV and call each other in real time to watch the people they were and the result isn’t exactly (or only) friendship. It’s a weird meta-meditation on celebrity and career arcs and the strange fact that despite the intense ambient loneliness, they all belong to a “cohort”. It’s a small clutch of people, a tiny tight incestuous knot of folks who’ve made it, sort of, and who grok the journey they’ve all been on without being able to discuss it or just a grab a coffee. They give each other crabs and crap and call to say “fuck you, or sorry.” Everything that’s wrong is everyone’s fault, probably, but the point is something else. It’s appearing together on the Retro Comedy Hour. Deeper than friendship, that is.
I loved that scene for its raw autobiographical frankness. Louis CK is never not generous when it comes to narrating his own experience: he’s talked openly about what it was like to watch the money come in from his Live at the Beacon Theater experiment. He’s described the high, and talked about what amount of money struck him as enough, and about how he knows this victory streak he’s on is going to end. This scene speaks to what it must be like to feel simultaneously like you’ve made it, but you’re also always already all washed up. You’ve left some important things behind. And even as you experience this epiphany, this life-changing revelation of loss and malfeasance, it turns out that you’ve already done it all. You’ve remembered that very loss, and your role in it, and apologized, but the pace of your own success has erased the entire human arc of anger and reconciliation from your memory, that’s how fucked up success has made you. And now you owe another apology that’s impossible to offer, just as Dolores “owes” you a blow job that it’s impossible to collect.
We’ve talked here about the ways in which Louie isn’t Louis CK, but I feel like one of the main pleasures Louie offers is indistinguishable from the pleasure of reading creative nonfiction. Yes, I find myself thinking, that’s exactly what it would be like.
So, let’s talk about Dad.
We start with two incidents, both equally uncanny. The first is the spectacle of tiny, headstrong, demanding, firecracker Jane playing a violin with real skill and unsuspected depths of feeling. The second is Louie’s first moment as a less-than-ideal dad, in which he shuts down this moving performance (from a character we’ve rarely seen so open, so engaged) with an anger that’s barely controlled. “This is bullshit,” he mutters after sending her to her room.
It’s bizarre. It’s as weird for us as viewers as it is for Louie when his car window spontaneously shatters in front of his father’s house. Louie as an angry, hurtful dad? We’re unmoored, we’re in the uncanny valley. There’s no standup afterwards to lighten the mood or explain (via a joke about how parents sometimes just lose it and treat their kids like crap and how that’s when you realize what a shithead you are and always have been and take steps: apologize, or buy your kid a pony, or sit in your room and picture dying alone, wondering what in the world to do to make any of it better) what that scene was all about. Like Louie’s dad-rash, this is an episode in which nothing gets narrated or processed. It’s Never in the tub: a huge flood of diarrhea while the person inside says, “Talk about what?”
So it’s an episode about bad fatherhood. It’s also an episode in which Louie is actually—but actually—going slightly insane. It’s as if, in addition to the crabs he caught from Maria Bamford, he also caught a case of the crazies from Parker Posey.
What did you guys make of the uncanny elements? Are they all registers of Louie’s loosening grip on reality when faced with the prospect of seeing his father? There’s the guy on the security tape who wasn’t Louie but who the manager and security guard insisted was, and they were right. That’s the first case of something odd happening in Louie’s own perception (which we share), and it’s no coincidence that it happens after he gets off the phone with Uncle Excalibur (!!!). I enjoyed the escalating sequence of surrealism. The airplane pilot’s voice was standard Louie fare. The fight with the GPS system was another half-step up, but it was acceptable. Louie often generates Jiminy Crickets on the show; externalized figures that voice his conscience. But the car window shattering spontaneously was a full octave higher. I loved that moment, but it felt like it committed us to a reading of Louie where he’s no longer in control of his daydreams. He’s actually starting hallucinate.
I hated the runaway scene. I don’t know what do with the amount of weirdness in the last three episodes. What I’m wondering is whether Louie’s insanity within this episode is specific to “Dad,” or whether it’s the climax of a larger arc that we might be missing. Why do all the moms at the school—who all seem to be deeply damaged—only trust and confide in him? Why do all women ask him to do completely bizarre things? Is this just his experience of the moms in Pamela’s absence? Is he perceiving them as weirder than they are because they’re so profoundly not-Pamela?
The real question, I guess, is how is it possible that everything that happens to Louie is deeply, deeply odd? At some point we have to wonder whether it’s the world or him, whether he might be a lunatic protagonist whose lunacy we’ve been missing.
That’s an unlikely reading, and I know it, but it’s one of the few I can think of that totally absolves Louie from the “and then he woke up” cliche of bad workshop fiction. There’s a fine line to walk when charting a dreamlike subjectivity that isn’t actually a dream, and up until that last sequence in “Dad”, I think Louis CK was pulling it off. But that end—the run, the motorcycle theft, stealing a boat, leaving the rental car—it all struck me as a bridge too far. It seemed too dreamlike, too broad.
Another corollary of the “Louie’s losing it” reading is that the show actually has some narrative continuity in spite of us all. It’s showing us a man’s gradual breakdown, and that’s interesting. Again: I’m not persuaded that this reading is 100% right, but I’m curious to hear what you all made of the last few episodes.
On the subject of continuity, we’ve talked a fair amount here at Dear Television about how Louie’s fatherhood is never in question, and it’s worth noting in that connection that the daughters are split in the last few episodes. (This is Jane’s episode alone with Dad, just as Lily’s was “Barney/Never.”) Recall that in the previous episode, both girls rejected piano lessons. I mention this not to point out a failure in continuity but rather to highlight a targeted discontinuity: highlighting her musicianship seems to me to specifically contradict (but in a dream-like way, swapping violin for piano) the world his daughters inhabited in the previous episode. The ungrateful child who didn’t take advantage of the opportunity afforded her becomes, in this episode, the child who does nothing but.
I don’t know what to make of that, but it’s definitely the case that we’re losing the show’s anchors: the opening sequence vanishes in “Barney/Never,” Jane and Lily are showing up apart instead of together, the explanatory standup has fallen by the wayside, and Louie’s sitting alone on a stolen boat. What’s going on?
Cover up so as not to catch my wretchedness,
Dear Lili, Jane, and Phil,
“I’ve been doing comedy for 25 years. I know every joke,” Louis C.K. proclaims at the start of Episode 2 of the third season of Louie. “Even if I haven’t heard it, you start telling me a joke, I know how it’s going to work.” If you’ve ever spent any time with professional comedians, you’ll have noted how infrequently they laugh or smile: prolonged exposure to the mechanics and the business of joke-telling, and the experience of hundreds if not thousands of easy, lazy, or overfamiliar jokes have taken their toll. This joyless, jaded, seen-it-all affect is something that Louie has captured perfectly from its very first episode: not just Louie, but pretty much all his comedian friends (all of them, naturally, played by real-life comedians) display it.
This episode gives us an idea of what it takes to make Louie laugh. In “Telling Jokes/Set-Up” — a title that both follows the utilitarian naming formula previous episodes of Louie have established and performs a telling (ahem) play on words — we first see Louie eating dinner with his daughters, telling knock-knock jokes. The jokes start out relatively simple (“Who’s there?” “Moo.” “Moo who?” “I didn’t know you were crying, cow”) and quickly, as often with small kids, get very convoluted and silly (“The painter who painted both of you as mermaids, but instead of being underwater, it’s pee pee”). The pleasure of the scene is less in the girls’ performances than in Louis’ utterly convincing delight in their innocent amateur attempts at something he does for a living. (In case we didn’t get it, the stand-up segment immediately following this scene underlines the point.)
In the second, much longer story, which stretches across three segments, we follow Louie as he is set up by his comedian friend Allan Havey with a woman named Laurie (played by the Oscar-winning Melissa Leo). At first Louie and Laurie display little interest in one another, but they bond over their mutual distaste for their married friends. (“Married people. They just love spreading their shit on everyone.”) The two go off to a bar together, get drunk, and end up in the front of Laurie’s truck negotiating an awkward sexual encounter. (Is there any other kind, in Louie-world?) Laurie gladly fellates Louie, but when she requests reciprocation, he refuses, claiming that the act is too intimate for him. (There may be some truth to this assertion, but I think we’re supposed to think, as Laurie does, that he’s just lazy.) Finally, through a combination of humiliation and physical violence (she punches him in the face, knocking his head into the passenger-side window and cracking the glass), Laurie
persuades forces Louie to go down on her. She also wins $1,000, having bet him a few minutes ago that he would end the night by “licking her pussy and asshole.” He doesn’t have the money on him, but they both agree that he can pay her next time they see each other; it’s obvious to both of them that they’re going to be going out again. This final twist has the feeling of a punchline to a long, sick shaggy-dog story like “The Aristocrats”: what impresses isn’t where we finally arrive but the unlikely, explicit, disturbing elements touched on along the way.
Plenty of previous episodes have contrasted scenes of Louie and his children — scenes which, as Lili points out, function as a guarantee of his essential decency — with something darker and more sordid. (Very occasionally, the two worlds overlap, as in last season’s “Halloween/Ellie.”) Here, though, the two worlds are linked by something more than ironic juxtaposition. They offer two opposed ways of crafting a surprising comic situation, one that can arouse the attention of even the ultra-jaded Louie. The juvenile surprise offered by the total innocence of Jane’s joke — which surprises via its combination of absurdity and prosaic, logical development — and the grown-up depravity of the Louie/Laurie story have something in common: it’s a story to jolt awake the sensibilities of professional comics deadened by decades of predictable set-ups and punchlines. (Note, again, that the Leo segment is titled “Set-Up.”)
This brings us back to the extended comparisons between Louie and Girls that both Lili and Jane have been pursuing: for me, it’s less that Hannah Horvath is (secretly) horrible and Louie is (secretly) good than that Hannah is too young to realize that her mistakes will count against her, while Louie is too old to believe that even his good deeds will amount to enough to redeem him. The difference between them lies not in their ethical behavior — both have their good and bad moments — or their degrees of privilege — which are comparably high (Hannah might get some points by virtue of being female, but Louie seems to come from a working-class background; I’d call it a stalemate). It’s in their degrees of experience and knowledge, including self-knowledge. One of the reasons Louie has to be so extreme — and, at the same time, so subtle — is that it’s meant to register on the cognitive radar screens of people who have burned themselves out on the usual forms of humor, who don’t just roll their eyes at a corny, overused joke (a “clam,” in comedy writer parlance) but almost physically can’t experience it anymore. The apparently off-handed, casual nature of the show, with no two episodes following exactly the same formal structure, is in fact very highly calculated to stimulate the brains of people who are inured to certain kinds of formal structure. (If you want to see what real off-handed casualness looks like, leave the TV on after Louie and watch Russell Brand’s new, bizarrely under-produced BrandX.)
Hannah may seem self-conscious — and she is — but she’s still innocent enough to expect that her life will take the form of a story, whereas Louie seems to be as disgusted with narrative continuity as he is with traditional humor. Just as Louie (the character) knows that even his moments of grace or good luck are flashes in the pan — after all, life is “shitty 90% of the time,” as he and Laurie agree — so Louie the show knows that surprise is the only formal structure it can trust. And this means that, paradoxically. Louie is a harder character for the audience to know than Hannah, precisely because he knows himself better than she does, and can steer any given situation away from what Louie would usually do. (Another, shorter way to put all this, of course, would just be to say he’s going through a mid-life crisis.)
I think it’s about time to bring this post to a close, but, before I sign off, one final question:
Who didn’t let the gorilla into the ballet?
Hi, hi Dear TV!
Happy to be back. Lili, your opening post to our discussion on Season 3 of Louie was both expansive and specific—and entirely on point. It was, ahem, the smartest thing I had read on the Louis-C.K.-brand of white maleness, and not at all lazy. Not surprisingly, it spurred a discussion both on Twitter and in our comments section not seen in our prior conversation about Girls. Louie resonantes with an audience that didn’t (or couldn’t) watch Girls, despite, well, the obvious resonances between Dunham’s and C.K.’s projects. Hopefully readers will continue to weigh in. Weigh in! Please!
When so many women said how Girls did not speak to them, men were all the more exempted from expectations to identify with or even watch Dunham’s show. Willa Paskin’s oft-quoted statement that Girls was “FUBU: for us by us” felt integral to female audiences’ initial obsession over it. The argument runs the other way too, as expressed in Emily Nussbaum’s riff on Louie: “I’ve met guys who love this show, and I’ll bet it speaks to a certain audience—maybe if I identified with Louie more, it would feel cathartic.” Louie might not be “for us” ladies, and it certainly isn’t “by us.” (Though I think C.K. deals with food fixations and emotional eating far more realistically than Dunham—it is far less parodic, far more honest.)
I mean, I can’t even.
So, there’s that: the sex difference thing. And, as you noted, the age-difference thing, as well as the narrative -style and -pacing difference thing. Aside from a few marked similarities of setting and authorship, Louie and Girls come at semi-autobiographical representation in fairly different ways. They are, after all, fairly different people. What did strike me as threading Louie to Hannah was their shared passivity, both seemingly driven by an impulse not to be the guilty party at all costs. Regardless of whether Louie is, as you posit, a more good person than Hannah, his refusal to take responsibility for his desires seems just as selfish as all the moments when Hannah forces her interlocutor to become aggressive, to ask her “is this what you want?!” In episode 1, Louie sits dumbfounded—moving his mouth without vocalizing a word—as his exasperated girlfriend cries: “You’re gonna make me break up with myself!” Mmhmm.
Louie has a blurry penis. Or Louie thinks he has a blurry penis. Either way, he doesn’t know what his dick wants sometimes, or his dick just won’t see eye to eye with, well, his eyes. April (played brilliantly by Gaby Hoffman) is attractive—as attractive as many of Louie’s prior dates (many of whom he directly told were too beautiful to be with a sad sack like him). Nonetheless, it’s clear from the moment the diner waiter sets the ice cream before Louie, that he’s no longer content with April. Unlike Hannah, Louie is old enough to know what he doesn’t want. While he gawks at April, unable to articulate the words “I’m breaking up with you,” there’s another Louis on stage that has a story about “y’know how it’s really difficult to break up with someone? . . .” Hannah doesn’t have this sideline figure yet, though she does have Lena on Twitter, very, very, very obliquely playing out story B.
Lili, your analysis of narrative continuity was right on. Not only does Louie eschew all conventions of televisual seriality, Louie as a character does as well. Like you say, his only commitment is to his daughters. Girlfriends, siblings, mothers, wives–those come and go. Fatherhood does not. In terms of viewer’s brushing off the Janet’s (which I do presume is meant to be interpreted as: wife is white, actress is black), C.K. has suggested that his audiences will suspend their disbelief (as he has prompted them to time and time before):
To me, the racial thing is like — when people probably first see her, their brains do a little bit of DNA map and go “I’m not sure I get how that would happen,” and then I think with my show most people, they go “Oh, all right, just go ahead.” And then they watch the scene. The thing that’s important is what’s getting said.
Indeed! “What’s getting said” has always been important, but this–unlike radio, unlike improvisional stand-up comedy–is television. On a television show, visual inconsistencies and shifts must be taken into consideration, even if finally to be discarded or ignored. C.K.’s call for viewers to just let go—to move on to the next clip or next story—is itself a fascinating comment on television’s propensity to forget, even its urge for its dedicated viewers to forgive. Whether one watches Friends or Mad Men, one is often surprised at how quickly characters move past trauma. “It will shock you how much it never happened.”
C.K., again on Louie:
I also like that when people are watching the show, they don’t know how long they’re going to be told a story for. I think that makes it exciting. . . I think one reason TV always done well is because there is something comforting where you kind of know what you’re going to be taken through. But a different—and probably a smaller—group of people would rather watch a show where they don’t know how long this is going to go on for. They don’t know if they’re going to see this character’s face ever again. This character might be in the rest of the season, or who knows? I think it’s more organic that way. Life is built that way. You stick with things that are compelling, and you drift away from things that aren’t.
Television as immersion. Television as escape. Which brings me to one of the last points—and my favourite—of Lili’s post:
Transportation as spectacle—transportation as punchline, transportation as a means of annihilating sympathy—these all date back to the pilot, and it’s interesting to see that theme revived in Episode 1.
It had not occurred to me until this how much Louie is a show about transportation—a story about navigating New York (something that Girls hasn’t done very much of yet). Cars, taxis, trucks, buses, ambulances, pedestrians, and sometimes helicopters or limousines, litter C.K.’s scenes. The opening credit, as Lili mentioned, so very consistently lets us know that Louis, as well as Louie, is rooted in and by the subway system.
To rank transportation by its costs, then, is crucial not just to the character Louie’s life, but also to director Louis’s process of filming. Vehicles, and vehicular crashes especially, are expensive. Louie notes in this episode to the storekeeper after learning that a bike costs only $7,500: “So it’s actually smart to buy a motorcycle!” For a father? Maybe not. For a television show? Sure!
To see the Infiniti get crushed (yes Lili, it’s the Infiniti!) in this episode no doubt meant a financial cost to the show–a choice that hopefully reaps compound comedic and symbolic gains. The camera certainly lingers on the scene, forcing Louie and viewers to face the agony of watching one’s car be totalled. It also harkens back to an earlier episode where Louie gets high with his neighbour, who then throws a water gallon from his apartment window down to a car below. The car’s roof and back windows are smashed. (The shock of witnessing this is part of what makes Louie so excellent–and also what makes the costs of losing a car, I suspect, worthwhile to the show’s producers.) Any subsequent consequences for the act aren’t mentioned—all that happens is a replaying of the scene in reverse during the final credits—an aesthetic relishing that, again, capitalizes on the real costs of losing a real car. “Transportation as spectacle—transportation as punchline.” If you can run that punchline multiple times and still have it be effective, why not?
Destroyed cars, like the motorcycle crash, smacks of a boys-will-be-boys logic, and Janet’s unamused “good luck with that” speaks as little sympathy as I suspect C.K. believes his character should get. “You could just be a man,” April tells Louie as she leaves his apartment, in which she means, Louie and Louis could for once meet half-way and do the good thing, instead of the one that feels nice or easiest at the moment. Even before Louie asks April to stay, he understands it’s a bad idea. She knows it’s a bad idea, yet he just can’t quite move on past his guilt to say it outright. Don’t worry though, he’ll soon get over it. By the next episode, it’ll show just how much this never happened. We’ll get over it too.
Have a good one.
See ya sometime,
Dear Dear TV,
We left Hannah Horvath eating cake out of tinfoil on a beach in the season finale of Girls just in time to catch Louis CK eating, then gobbling pizza off a paper plate in the opening title sequence of Louie. Season 3: you’re here.
I’m glad we’re talking about these shows back to back because they share so much despite their obvious differences. Both characters are writers, both writers are characters, and both Louis CK and Lena Dunham are interested in exposing their fictional personae at their ugliest and most appetitive.
I want to flag two important differences, however. The first is structural: Louis CK tends to stitch two different and apparently unrelated stories together through bits of stand-up. It’s not quite right to call them A and B stories (although I’m going to anyway); they’re more like separate vignettes. In the pilot, for example, A is Louie’s field trip with his daughters. The field trip, which is set almost entirely on a school bus, goes wrong and culminates in Louie sending each child home in his or her own limousine. The B story is a disastrous date that begins with Louie knocking too frequently on his date’s door while her neighbor angrily flashes him. It ends with his date literally jumping onto a passing helicopter in order to get away.
The pilot opens with expository stand-up: “I’m 41 and I’m single, uh, not really single, just alone? But I have two children, and that’s the only thing I’m comfortable with in life anymore. I know how to take care of a couple of kids.”
In the A story, Louie talks too much. Whether he takes the initiative or it’s thrust upon him is debatable, but the fact is that he gives the bus driver directions, reproaches him for being irresponsible when they get a flat tire, overrides the teacher when she decides they’re going to walk the kids through Harlem to a subway stop, and sends each kid home in a limousine. In the A story, Louie never stops talking. “Do you realize what you’re teaching them?” the teacher says as he greets the long line of limos.
He does. And we know he does thanks to the stand-up that follows this set piece: “I’m white, my kids are white, which means they can’t screw up too badly, because they get a million chances. My life is really evil. There are people starving in the world, and I drive an Infiniti.”
This is Louis CK’s method: showing his character in action, then obliquely commenting on it, like a sort of Greek chorus to and on himself. The A story is a monstrous version of the stand-up: Louis CK drives an Infiniti and is white like his daughters, but “Louie” rebukes a black man, then hires two dozen limousines to individually escort his daughter’s classmates home rather than have them walk together through a poor black neighborhood to the subway.
The B story knocks the stuffing out of poor Louie. All the initiative he showed in A in his capacity as a parent vanishes when it comes to B, his romantic life. Here, in a theme that gets picked up again in the first episode of Season 3, he can’t communicate. Unspeakable misunderstandings pile up—her crazy neighbor, his desperate lie that he’s wearing a suit because it’s the anniversary of his father’s funeral—all of which contribute to his date’s incredulity when he claims it wasn’t him knocking on the bathroom door shouting that he has to take a dump. In the dead intervals, he smiles at her in a sickening kind of way, and admits, when she asks him to, that he can’t stop.
These, roughly speaking, are Louie’s three dimensions on the show: overreaching Louie, defined by spurts of arrogance and self-righteousness, mute and self-loathing Louie, most often seen in scenes with women (the season premiere shines a withering spotlight on mute Louie, in case we missed him earlier), and charismatic Louie, usually in stand-up mode, whose habit of commenting on his own flaws has the effect of attenuating them.
We’ve talked a lot here about the extent to which people’s reactions to Girls seemed to depend on their perception of the show’s self-awareness. It became clear by the end of the season that the show is extremely self-aware, and that self-awareness goes a long way towards mitigating the characters’ apparent monstrosity, their blind spots and their privilege. We can accept those things provisionally if we know they’re being judged by the universe’s God.
Seen from this point of view, Dunham takes bigger risks than Louis CK. She’s young enough that she can (and is) mistaken for her callow character, and she doesn’t have a stand-up version of herself to comment on the action from the sidelines. I was telling Aaron Bady about the sexual harassment encounter in Girls (by which he was horrified), and he made the point, which hadn’t occurred to me, that unlike Hannah, who is frequently a terrible person on Girls, Louie, in Louie, is essentially good. Sure, there’s a sort of sad-sack pathos to the character, sure, he makes some mistakes, but he’s wracked with guilt over everything. He’s also by definition obsessed with being a good father which, in this day and age, is the fast-track to sainthood. There’s never a trace of irony when it comes to Louie as dad: the show starts by announcing fatherhood as Louie’s defining character trait in terms I’m going to repeat here again, because it’s amazing how absolutely they drip with emotional appeal: “I’m 41 and I’m single, uh, not really single, just alone? But I have two children, and that’s the only thing I’m comfortable with in life anymore.” Hannah Horvath admits that being a good friend to Marnie isn’t high on her list of priorities. Louie will never, ever, ever, be anything but a dedicated dad. Parenting will partially redeem him from the charges of human selfishness.
I would add, parenthetically, that Louis CK as stand-up also redeems the sad-sack Louie we see in the show. It’s easy to buy into Louie’s account of himself as pathetic, cringing, weak, passive, repulsive, and awkward. It’s astonishing, when you stop think about it, that he pulls this off while telling us about it onstage as a stand-up whose onstage presence is unfailingly assertive, self-assured, charismatic and appealing. We’ve asked whether Hannah Horvath is any good as a writer and talked about the pitfalls of showing artistic characters doing their art; Louie sidesteps this by making Louie a successful comedian whose personality onstage differs substantially from his personality off it. The one exception to this I can think of offhand is Episode 6 of Season 1, “Heckler/Cop Movie,” when Louie tells off an attractive heckler.
The other important structural difference between Louie and Girls are Louis CK’s experiments with sporadic continuity. He often has the same apartment, for example, but in some episodes he has a brother, in another two sisters. His mother, a lesbian in one storyline, is played by the same actress who played his date in another. Young Louie is played by a wide range of redheads. Even his daughters are sometimes played by different actresses. It’s a fascinating choice, and it produces a surreal quality that nevertheless feels anchored by the opening credits, which unfailingly show Louie eating pizza and descending into the underworld of the comedy club. The comedy club is exempt from this constant shuffling of characters: Louie’s stand-up is consistent, his daughters are the only family members ever mentioned in it, and he never stops being exactly what he says he is: the white father of two white girls.
Which brings us to Season 3, which for the first time violates Louie-the-stand-up’s version of things. We see Louie’s ex-wife for the first time, and she gets a name and a race. Janet is black. That means Louie’s children are mixed race. That’s not a trivial change that contributes to the overall surrealism of the show. It’s a big deal, even if his ex-wife is white or Asian in the next episode. It’s the first time I can think of in which the show explicitly contradicts “stand-up Louie,” whose anchoring function as narrator and truth-teller is important. It means the terms he set in the pilot I’ve quoted above, terms to which he frequently returns—the problem of being a white father raising two white daughters in a way that won’t make them assholes, the problem of privilege, in fact—are suddenly inapplicable.
This matters because Louie’s fatherhood, its loneliness and its obstacles, constitutes the show’s backbone. In Season 2 there’s an episode in which Louie takes his daughters to visit an elderly relative who turns out to be incredibly racist. That scene would scan very differently if his daughters are mixed race. This is less a matter of doing race badly than it is a matter of violating the rules of the show’s universe. In general, Louis CK is pretty adept at taking on sensitive topics and doing them raunchy justice. Still, I don’t think the show, as it’s existed up to this point, can get away with this. (Nor, strictly speaking, did it try—that his ex-wife is black is a detail, not mentioned in the episode. There is, however, a longish bit of stand-up on replacing or adding on to a used-up dick by getting a transplant, preferably from a brown athlete.)
It’s possible that Louis CK as writer might be trying to create some distance between himself and Louie the stand-up, who has been drifting closer and closer to Louis CK since the show began. What better way to break up with his narrator than by smashing his stupid car with a bulldozer? (Was it the Infiniti? I hope so, but I couldn’t tell.) Louis CK is big on this kind of spectacle. He’s said in interviews that his biggest expenses, when shooting the pilot, were the limousine scene and the helicopter scene. He talked about the difficulty of even finding that many limousines in New York, and bartering with the helicopter pilot for a rate he could actually afford. Transportation as spectacle—transportation as punchline, transportation as a means of annihilating sympathy—these all date back to the pilot, and it’s interesting to see that theme revived in Episode 1.
I haven’t said anything about the break-up scene and its follow-up scene in Louie’s apartment. Both were astoundingly good. April could have deciphered those cryptic parking signs in a second, that’s how good she is at reading conflicting messages that add up to No. It was so good that I, like Louie, find myself assenting, and with nothing to say.
Before and after midnight,
Dear Lili, Jane, and Evan,
Jane’s analysis of the Girls marriage plot is spot on, I think. But I want to think about another related structure Girls is adapting here. One of the things we’ve isolated often in our correspondences has been the way that Girls, in its stylistic hodge-podginess, often positions to offer revisions of familiar modes. This was true of the horror film aesthetic that has popped up on a number of occasions, it’s true of the numerous bizarro SATC moments, and it was true this episode of, not just the marriage plot, but the wedding set-piece.
If you’ve read anything on the internet or anything available in a magazine at the airport over the past year, you’ve been reading about Women in Comedy. Kristen Wiig, Whitney Cummings, Zooey Deschanel—Lena Dunham showed up late to this parade, but if her show had debuted in February as initially scheduled, we would see her as part and parcel of this glut, and very possibly, she’d have been photographed reclining in a silk chemise with Kerry Washington and Juliana Marguiles on the cover of Vanity Fair.
The reason I bring this up is not because I’m pitching an eight-month-old think-piece, but because the final episode of Girls was set at a wacky wedding, just like the pilot episode of Whitney, the third episode of New Girl, and the entirety of Bridesmaids. This too is a genre convention, and it’s one that Dunham is predictably excited to make grotesque. On Whitney, the title character attends the wedding of a friend, and after a series of bungles—she wears the same dress as the bridesmaids or something, and she eats a cupcake not realizing that the cupcakes are part of a wedding cake because she’s never seen Pinterest or been in the checkout line at a Whole Foods, apparently—she realizes that she and her boyfriend need to spice up their relationship. Like everything else on that show, it’s the most boring possible iteration of a familiar scenario, and thus instructive about the conventions of said scenario.
Girls makes reference to this kind of structure with Shoshanna’s mortification that she’s wearing white. The joke, though, is not that it’s a hilarious faux pas, but that Shoshanna, who knows her Sex and the City chapter and verse, is so immersed in rom-com logic, that the faux pas throws her into an existential crisis. I hope that Shosh grows as a character next season and that Dunham gives her a little bit more to do, if only because Zosia Mamet is such an appealingly versatile actress, but, at the same time, it’s been valuable to have her as a kind of psychotic, warped, rom-com Greek Chorus, reminding us at every turn of how Girls is diverging from and playing with those tropes. In Shoshanna’s mind, Girls IS Sex and the City or Bride Wars or He’s Just Not That Into You. (I’m imagining a Shoshanna POV dream sequence in which Jessa is played by Katherine Heigl.)
New Girl and Bridesmaids use the scenario as well, though with predictably greater aplomb. What they share with each other, and with Girls, for that matter, is an interest in the emotional violence of the wedding for other people. Their take is less about missed protocols than it is about psychic breakdown. The wedding is the test of relationships other than that of the bride and groom, and thus, it is full of explosive potential. As we’ve discussed earlier, the possibility and anticipation of disaster is one of Dunham’s favorite things to play with. If last week was the blow-up we expected—between Marnie and Hannah—this week is the return of a blow-up we thought already happened.
I won’t go too far into the nature of Adam and Hannah’s relationship, except to say this: there’s a lot of yelling. Specifically, there’s a lot of Adam yelling. At Hannah, at cars, at his co-stars, at Hannah again. In this, Adam is twinned with Thomas-John—who really laid into Jessa and Marnie once he realized he wasn’t going to get laid into, so to speak—and Charlie, whose rather mild voice-raising and table-slamming Hannah took as a foreshadowing of domestic violence. I guess I’m still not 100% sure why Dunham keeps setting her ladies up to be bawled out by men. If the racial and class dynamics on this show are suspect—and I think they’re a lot more complicated than they get credit for being—I think the gender dynamics at least are right on the nose. Except in this.
Why are the Girls so frequently dominated and shamed by men, even when they are in the right? And what is the function of constantly returning to the site of that domination: Jessa marrying Thomas-John or Hannah coming back to Adam or Hannah’s desire to move back in with her Marnie-slapping ex or even Marnie’s half-hearted quest to reproduce the feeling of Lonely Island spitting game at her. “I may scare you…” Yes please!
It’s one of the more vexing questions about Girls, I think. And one of the messier elements of Dunham’s version of the Marriage Plot. Critics who felt that Girls was a celebration of blithe irresponsibility, privilege, and pretension might feel a little differently today. This season has been as harrowing as it has been hilarious. And as Jane’s Graduate analogue makes plain, even the moments of triumph are undercut by ambivalence or even outright trauma. These are anti-heroines, monsters, as Adam repeats. But this is a beginning. It is a genesis story. Jessa will not stay married to Thomas-John, Marnie will not feel unmoored forever, Shoshanna will claim her sexuality, and Hannah will make it back to Brooklyn. But that doesn’t mean it feels like any of this will happen. There was a deep feeling, in this episode, of distance. These women have realized, over the course of the season, not that they are in the process of becoming “who they are,” but how far away they are from that. Hannah’s beach might as well be a desert.
And it is in that mode that I can’t resist one last visual echo:
At the end of the Coen Brothers’ great Barton Fink, Barton—the radical playwright who comes to Hollywood only to be sucked into a maelstrom of madness and failure—travels to the beach. He holds with him an unidentified box. What’s in it is never explained—it could be a human head, it could be money, it could be somebody’s soul, it could be a telltale heart—but, even after his escape from the immediate danger of the plot, he carries it with him still. The beach is a space of freedom, beauty, possibility. The majestic ocean represents the only space in the film that is not claustrophobic, not tainted by evil, not compromised. The box is representative of the anonymous, gaping maw of horror that has nearly destroyed Barton. And so, as Barton sits with his box and a bird dives out of the sky, we are asked to feel hope in the midst of sinister markers. For Barton sees a beautiful woman sitting in front of him. She sits, miraculously, in the exact pose of a painting from Barton’s room, his only source of comfort throughout the film. There is terror, but there is also this.
Hannah on the beach is not so on the nose. Her mystery box is a foil of cake, and we don’t know what she sees. She has been stripped of everything, as naked as she ever is on the show, and she looks with trepidation but clarity of purpose. The cake, which represents Jessa’s awful wedding and Hannah’s catastrophic argument with Adam, is with her. But she eats it, rather than letting it eat her. This violence, that waywardness, these bad decisions, they feed and sustain her. Hannah is far away from everything she could even think to want. And she has no idea how to get where she’s going, let alone how to get home. But the dirty water can wash away her sins, and all the heartbreak and stupidity will make her strong if anything will. This is a beginning, and what a beginning it is. When Barton first comes to Hollywood, the head of the movie studio, Jack Lipnick, shouts at him:
We’re only interested in one thing, Bart. Can you tell a story? Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? Okay!