Thursday, June 15, 2017

Yo, TV Execs: These Chains On Me Won’t Let Me Be [Guest Poster: Ashvini]

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During late March last year, I had some downtime so I took to catching up on a show that I had previously abandoned: Sleepy Hollow.

It’s a show that I really enjoyed, but couldn’t quite keep up with. The premise, admittedly, is ludicrous, but the show did survive for four seasons. And no matter how silly the show seemed to me, one thing that moved me enough to keep watching was the acting of Nicole Beharie, whom I respect a lot as a person and an actress. There was this pragmatism to her interpretation of Abbie Mills that was enrapturing.

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Within a few weeks of catching up on the show I found out from a Vulture article that Beharie’s character was killed off of the show. I was so angry. Beharie is a darn treasure and I couldn’t understand how the writers and/or producers thought killing her character off of the show was a good idea at all.

This news kind of propelled a gradual string of bad TV-related news for me. The next disappointment hit later on the next year in February. I’m also a fan of Shadowhunters, but only for one reason: Magnus Bane (played by actor Harry Shum Jr., who best known for his long-standing role on Glee). The character, a bisexual warlock, has this immense sincerity that resonates with me on an almost transcendent level. Also it doesn’t hurt that he is just as glitter, make-up, and cat-obsessed as I am.

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I was thrilled, up until February, with the way the showrunners were choosing to depict the character, because it’s not often that an male, Asian (or anyone of Asian heritage for that matter) character gets any real agency on a cable TV show.

As the second season premiered in January, I was still happy with the genuine nature of the character’s growth and development. But one can’t be content about a TV show for too long, I suppose. In the seventh episode of the second season, Magnus’s agency was sidelined to prop up his love interest, a white male Shadowhunter (a half-angel, half-human soldier) named Alec Lightwood.

Basically the premise was this: Alec is a virgin and in a relationship with someone he cares for deeply (Magnus). He wants to lose “it” with him. Yet, instead of talking to his boyfriend about what he wants, Alec seeks help from his sister who essentially tells him to “get it, girl” (I paraphrase). Despite Magnus voicing his hesitation with exploring the more physical side of their relationship, Alec ignores him, essentially shushing him with a passionate kiss which implies more.

The showrunners tried to explain the reasoning behind this story decision. But lacking any sort of well-reasoned gravitas, the explanations fell flat.

Many fans were completely outraged. I was heartbroken. Magnus Bane is a character I have a deep attachment to, and seeing him sidelined in such a blatant manner really upset me. I’m not kidding when I say I got physically nauseous. My trust in the people behind the show, since then, has diminished.

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Then came this month’s decision from Netflix that not one, but two, of its shows would be getting the ax. Which shows, you ask? Oh, just two of my favorite productions ever: The Get Down and Sense8.

When I first watched The Get Down, it was akin to discovering gravity. The whole time I was watching the first episode, I was like, “How has this not revolutionized the entire world yet?” The show is excellent. Taking the history of hip-hop from its origins with Grandmaster Flash in the 70s and setting it in the colorful, electric world of Baz Luhrman’s South Bronx is genius. The music is dope. The outfits are poppin’. The writing is fantastic and perfectly maintains the colloquisms of the era. And the characters? Unforgettable. I can still hear the main character, Ezekiel Figuero’s, narration in my head: Mylene, Mylene, my butterscotch queen, this summer could you be my girl and I could be your king?

Watching Sense8 also changed my entire world. The idea that eight people worldwide could be telepathically connected is a bit ludicrous, but the Wachowskis knew exactly what they were doing. In fact, they had planned out the entire series. There was this dynamic realism to the show that I hadn’t witnessed in any other show and what’s more is, every single one of the characters represented not only a certain ethnicity but an inner struggle. Sympathizing with the characters and their plights came easy. Watching them fight for their lives, with each other, was a fascinating sensory-overload and I’m glad I got to witness two seasons of it.

So reading that these two shows were getting canceled was yet another weird stomach twist of anger and heartbreak. Of the reasons behind their cancellations, ratings being the main one, I couldn’t help but think there was some overarching reason.

Both shows featured diverse casts. The Get Down was unique in the sense that it had an all POC main cast. Sense8 featured actors from all over the world, talented and capable in their own right.

Were the shows less popular and thus canceled because they were diverse? It’s disappointing to think that was a factor. Netflix CEO Reed Hasting said that despite the shows being critical darlings, both were canceled because they didn’t quite have the reach that other successes like Stranger Things or 13 Reasons Why did.

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Baz Luhrmann, despite happily watching his vision come to life, didn’t want to solely steer The Get Down ship. That project was a lot to juggle, and because he couldn’t find someone to take over, he figured it was best to just end it altogether. For Sense8, it was the same configuration: a mix of high production costs, low ratings, and contract problems led to the cancellation decision.

Whatever was Netflix’s exact reason, for me, seeing POC represented on both shows was vital. They were voices I could fathom, voices I’ve heard and seen. They were projections of people, despite age and era, I could relate to. It was empowering to see Mylene Cruz sing “Set Me Free” with such a gratifying fervor; I thought, this young brown girl in the 70s is setting free of the chains society has set on her. Why can’t this young brown girl, i.e. me, do the same? Nothing’s stopping me. Seeing Kala Dandekar, an Indian girl trapped in a web of her own indecision on Sense8 helped me make sense of my own indecision trap. I’m not the only one, I thought. My story is universal.

If these shows had such an impact on me, it’s only logical to think about what kind of impact they had on other POC. After all, seeing ourselves depicted on the big screen isn’t just for kicks and giggles. Television influences us and our behaviors and perceptions of the world. Having the ability to point at a character and say, “Oh my God, he/she/they are just like me!” is life-changing. See, that’s what I was able to do with Abbie Mills, what I’m able to do with Magnus Bane, with Mylene Cruz, and Kala Dandekar. I’m able to see parts of myself — parts that alienate me from the majority — validated.

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And that validation sets me free.

So, the trend of sidelining our stories has to end.

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