Shady is the New Black
Bambi Haggins / Arizona State University

The Shady Protagonists

The “Shady” Protagonists

In the Urban Dictionary, there are multiple definitions of the word “shady”— “sly,” “corrupt,” “sketchy,” and “underhanded.” Yet, despite the negative tenor of this popular parlance, in terms of protagonists in quality drama on television, shady is the new black—literally and figuratively.

Given that the televisual preeminence of the Super Negro—and, later, African American—has waned over the years, how does the new televisual visibility of Black women change the idealization paradigm, which used to assuage the misgivings of mainstream audiences? By reflecting on notions of taste and quality in television in relation to Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) in Scandal (ABC 2012-present), Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) in How To Get Away With Murder (ABC 2014-present) and Cookie Lyon (Taranji P. Henson) in Empire (Fox 2015-present), this brief rumination offers thoughts on how and why those who would formerly have been Supers have become progressively more shady.

Pierre Bourdieu states, “[Taste] functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one’s place,’ guiding the occupants of a given…social space… towards the practices or goods which befit occupants of [their] position.”[ ((Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984) 20.))] Thus, for Bourdieu, taste, the ability to make discriminating judgments about the aesthetic and the artistic, is inextricably tied to class. However, race and/or ethnicity and/or gender surely play a role as well. When thinking intersectionally about the ways in which a “sense of one’s place” is constructed and enforced, the word “discriminating” takes on a dual meaning. While Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood state that “Goods are neutral, their uses are social; they can be used as fences or bridges,” I can’t help wondering whether aesthetic and artistic “goods” (read: television) can ever be seen as neutral or separated from the social.[ ((Mary Douglas, Baron Isherwood. The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption. (New York: Basic Books: 1979) 12.))] In actuality, television—especially shows lauded as “quality”—are always both “fences and bridges.”

Quality and taste are highly subjective. However, what is considered quality is determined by taste, which, in turn, depends upon myriad elements. This brings me to an astute observation from Noah Berlatsky of The Guardian regarding #OscarSoWhite: “Prejudice is solidified, and enforced, through institutions. But it starts out as an aesthetic preference– a dream about who is good and who is bad, who matters and who doesn’t.”[ ((Noah Bertlansky, “#OscarsSoWhite: how questions of diversity are inextricably linked to taste.” The Guardian. 3 February 2016. Accessed 9 February 2016.))] In quality television, more traditional heroes have been replaced by decidedly darker fare, antiheroes such as the neurotic mobster and family man, Tony (James Gandolfini) on The Sopranos (HBO 1999-2007) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the science teacher turned meth kingpin on Breaking Bad (A&E 2008-2013). Clearly, Tony and Walter are shady but their reprehensible acts do prevent the audience from having moments of identification and even genuine empathy for them—a sort of narrative white male privilege. Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating and Cookie Lyon are in more precarious positions which require that something, besides the vestiges of Black exemplarism and questionable archetypes of Black womanhood, cut the shadiness: suffering seems to be required in order for them to be redeemable.

Three Shades of Shady

Three Shades of Shady

The powerful women leads of Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Empire represent three shades of shady with a healthy side of suffering. Olivia Pope maintains the closest connection to the Supers of the past and is “elegantly shady.” Kerry Washington’s Olivia exudes exemplarism: the Prada-clad “gladiator in a suit” “handles” crises, wields power for the benefit of the elite and the underdog and embodies privilege as a product of her 1% upbringing. Yet, her “white hat” status is problematic: she stole a presidential election, covered up crimes, condoned torture (for a “good” cause), and had an affair with the President of the United States (Tony Goldwyn), which went legit before going wrong. Olivia’s elegantly shady is inflected by Sally Hemmings/Jezebel tropes even though, in the Shondaland spirit of colorblindness, her Blackness is served up more as narrative garnish than a culturally specific entrée. Yet, Olivia’s suffering is personal and public: from her “troubled” parental relations (her mom, believed dead, is actually a terrorist; her distant father leads a secret Black Ops organization and is her constant foe) to her relationship with Fitz, which leads to her being held hostage and in danger of being sold to the highest bidder on her way to becoming the de facto First Lady, a constricting role she is ultimately compelled to reject.

Viola Davis portrays the badass version of elegantly shady as Annalise Keating, a brilliant law professor and defense attorney, who inspires both fear and awe. Ethically-challenged and fiercely independent, the designer-clad and coiffed Annalise teaches a class on “How To Get Away With Murder.” She is driven to clear her clients, manipulate the legal system, and control her personal relationships, whether with her husband, Sam (Tom Verica), her cop lover, Nate (Billy Brown), or her elite student corps, particularly, Wes (Alfred Enoch), of whom she is uncharacteristically protective. Despite the colorblind ethos that informs the series (also a Shondaland product), Annalise, formerly Anna Mae, and her litany of traumas (including sexual abuse, the loss of a child and the violent and complicated death of a husband) resonates with painful aspects of Black womanhood. HTGAWM survives its outlandish narrative twists more because of what Davis brings to the screen than what is written on the page—as illustrated in the scene that set Black Twitter aflame, when Davis made the choice to remove her wig in a particularly dramatic moment of frustration and vulnerability.

Then, there is Cookie Lyon, played by Taranji P. Henson, the breakout star of Empire. From her first scene, clad in a skintight leopard dress and a fur, when released from a 17-year stint in prison for drug trafficking, Cookie is clearly a force of nature. While arguably, Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s series is essentially Dynasty meets Love and Hip Hop, Cookie is a noble diva: a Black woman who is down with those she loves no matter what, through it all, the good and the bad, she is “ride or die” shady. Cookie is a fierce matriarch, who, having been separated from her children, seeks to win back their love and to protect them from any threat—including their father, and the love of her life, hip hop mogul, Lucious Lyon (Terence Howard), her charming and deadly ex who used her drug money to fund his music career before divorcing her. While Cookie’s sassy, sexualized and street construction can be seen as problematic in that it plays into various stereotypes of urban Black femininity, her suffering is taken as matter of fact—it is what it is, which is disheartening for other reasons. Empire’s Cookie is not as complex or conflicted as either Scandal’s Olivia or HTWAWM’s Annalise. Yet, of the three, she is the least damaged and damaging to those around her despite the trauma she has endured (poverty, incarceration, abandonment), and because of her unwavering sense of self. She is also unapologetically Black.

Viola Davis' Emmy Acceptance Speech

Viola Davis’ Emmy Acceptance, 2015

Olivia, Annalise and Cookie may signal more expansiveness in televisual representations of Black women. The passionate assertion about opportunity made by Viola Davis after her historic Emmy win (above) speaks to the continued need for more roles for Black actors and varied representations of Blackness. Nevertheless, these three shades of shady are still in uncomfortable conversation with the always contingent space occupied by Black womanhood on American television.

Image Credits:
1. The Shady Protagonists
2. Three Shades of Shady
3. Viola Davis’ Emmy Acceptance Speech

Please feel free to comment.

Not Your Grandmother’s “Super”: Julia, Olivia and Waning Black Exceptionalism
Bambi Haggins / Arizona State University

Two Generations of

Two Generations of “Supers”

When Diahann Carroll and Kerry Washington appeared together onstage at the 65th annual Emmys, the nature of the pairing seemed historic: Carroll was the first African-American woman nominated for an Emmy for her role as the original Super Negro in the situation comedy, Julia (NBC 1968-1971), and Washington’s performance as “Olivia Pope” in Scandal (ABC 2012-present), arguably, the Super African American 2.0, had earned her the first nomination for Best Actress in a Dramatic Series. In terms of optics, the appearance of these two Black actors being showcased for their exemplary roles would seem to signify how far we have come in terms of Black female representation but, of course, it’s not that clear cut.

Putting aside the ways in which these characters play into stereotypes associated with Black femininity, I intended for this brief discussion of Julia and Olivia, the female Super Negro and Super African American 2.0, respectively, to question how and whether Black exemplarism informs the televisual construction of Black women. After all, both roles have exemplar status in terms of their character construction, their style, and their ability to assimilate (and excel) in the societal mainstream. Separated by decades, Julia and Scandal are very different in terms of genre and the popular mores they reflect. However, to some extent, both conform to idealized notions of race relations in their given era. Just as significantly, the construction of these Black female leads establishes them as “credits to their race” in response to era-appropriate notions of respectability politics. However, I wonder whether the new exemplars actually are “the best and the brightest constructed so as not to challenge or threaten the American mainstream.” [ ((Aniko Bodroghkozy. “Television and the Civil Rights Era.” African Americans and Popular Culture: Theater, Film, and Television (2008): 221.))]

The Politics of Respectability

The Politics of Respectability

As the distant ideological cousin to the “City Upon the Hill” ethos of American exceptionalism, this notion of Black exemplarism is tied to a pragmatic imperative which, for many American Blacks, is driven by the old familial tenet, “You have to be twice as good to get half as far.” On some level, exemplarism has traditionally informed the aspirational desires of Blacks in America—from DuBois’ Talented 10th to the neat, almost formal appearance of civil rights protestors, from the de facto prohibition against President Obama looking too “angry black man” to the continued investment in the need for “positive” representations of Blackness. Efforts to control the image are ongoing —from the NAACP boycott of Blatz Beer that forced Amos ‘n’ Andy off the air in the 1950s to the late 1990s threatened “brownout” against network television regarding the dearth of quality representations of people of color. Nevertheless, because the medium of television has the greatest ability to impact “the hearts and minds” of mainstream America, the struggle over televisual representations of Blackness, in general, and Black femininity, specifically, continues. While Julia Baker and Olivia Pope each signify that a certain amount of overcoming has taken place, they are reflections and refractions of the Black American condition through the lens of industrial conventional wisdom.

As the designer clad, Mrs. Miniver of color (when not in her beautifully tailored nurse whites), Carroll’s Julia was the kind of ideal Negro that (at least theoretically) much of middle America wouldn’t mind moving in next door. In 1968, former Beulah writer, Hal Kanter, created Julia in response to Ralph Bunche’s call for more “positive” representations of Negroes on television. By the time the series premiered, MLK and RFK had been assassinated and the visions for social justice and peace associated with the sixties were fading. Into this milieu, this series about a widowed mother and her son living happily in a fundamentally white Los Angeles, may have marked a historic moment, but it seemed to speak to a different and more optimistic time in the decade. Indeed, there was blowback from Black and white audiences: the former because Julia was fundamentally cut off from a larger Black community and the latter, particularly in Southern markets, because of the naturalized depiction of integration.

In 2012, Shonda Rhimes, the Black show runner extraordinaire, had already gained acclaim for the success of Grey’s Anatomy and its use of colorblind casting when she created Scandal. [ ((For an excellent analysis of colorblind casting, see Kristen J. Warner, “The Racial Logic of Grey’s Anatomy Shonda Rhimes and Her ‘Post-Civil Rights, Post-Feminist’ Series.” Television & New Media (2014): 1-17.))] Inspired by the crisis management expert, Judy Smith, who worked with the George H.W. Bush administration, Rhimes gave us Olivia Pope, whose “…life is full of contradictions and innumerable complexities, the likes of which we haven’t seen in black women’s lives as represented in mainstream culture.” Yet, as Mia Mask asserts, “Even in communities of color, folks are not certain whether Rhimes’ Scandal is a progressive step in an anti-essentialist direction or a regressive move backward toward a reconstituted Jezebel-in-bed-with-Massa stereotype.”[ ((Mia Mask. “A Roundtable Conversation on Scandal” The Black Scholar (2015 )Vol. 45, No. 1: 3–9.))]

Indeed, 2012 was a year of contradictions. The first Black President had been re-elected. Anti-Black racism was being exhibited with greater impunity (including overtly racist anti-Obama propaganda [ ((Bumper stickers stated “Don’t Re-Nig” and chairs were lynched. The latter was inspired by Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Convention, in which he spoke to an empty chair (President Obama, in absentia).))]). The killing of an unarmed Black teen in a hoodie by a neighborhood watch volunteer acted as the catalyst for a hashtag, a moment and a movement: #BlackLivesMatter (BLM).

Black Lives Matter Protest

Black Lives Matter Protest

As Alicia Garza, one of the movement’s co-founders, explained the movement was “a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed. It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society.” [ ((Alicia Garza, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.” The Feminist Wire October 7,2014 Accessed December 23, 2015.))] BLM, started by three Black queer women, challenges tenets of Black exemplarism in terms of its leadership and by rejecting assimilationist impulses to succeed and survive: this is not your grandfather’s civil rights movement.

Thus, the construction of the Super African-American 2.0 is complicated in terms of socio-historical context and industrial imperatives. As I mulled over how one might characterize this new iteration, it occurred to me that the Super’s mixture of exemplary qualities had to be cut by moral ambiguity. After all, in the new millennial quality television, some moral ambiguity is required: the anti-hero is the new hero. You don’t get to Olivia by simply creating a character with greater agency than Julia, and less perfection personified than the Super African American 1.0, Clair Huxtable. Arguably, this conflicted, new exemplar is not your 20th century Super Negro. Olivia Pope, the best political “fixer” in Washington D.C., “wears the white hat” as she “handles” crises (usually for elite clientele) while also wielding power and claiming privilege. On a personal level, Olivia functions best amidst emotional turbulence and perpetual dysfunction.[ ((The unreasonable loyalty of her “the gladiators in suits, ”and the love of powerful white men, including the married President (Tony Goldwyn), defy reason as does her relationship with father (Joe Morton), who seeks to control (and protect) her, while running an all powerful secret government organization.))]

Olivia Pope

Olivia Pope

Is Olivia Super African American 2.0? Maybe. However, as the idealized and messy, the best and beautifully broken, and the privileged champion of the elite and the underdog, she is also, to use the vernacular, kind of “shady”—and there is something genuinely compelling about that. I will expand upon this in my next essay, “Olivia, Annalise and Cookie: Three Shades of Shady.”

Image Credits:
1. Two Generations of “Supers”
2. The Politics of Respectability
3. Black Lives Matter Protest
4. Olivia Pope (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Losing Cosby
Bambi Haggins / Arizona State University

Cosby faces allegations

Bill Cosby, the Fallen Comedy Icon

This began as an article on the fall of a Black comedy icon. After watching the Dateline interview with 27 of the 55 women who have accused Bill Cosby of being a sexual predator, on the same day that the 78-year-old comedian was forced to answer questions about an alleged 2008 attack at the Playboy Mansion, I had to question why I feel so personally angered and injured by this history of despicable actions.

As a Black Post-Boomer, Pre-Xer, eight-track tapes of Bill Cosby’s comedy provided my nap soundtracks. I grew up on The Electric Company and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and, later, on The Cosby Show. As a working class kid, I was weaned on the uplift-tinged stories of “you can’t be as good, you have to be better to get half as far.” In other words, although my folks were not in the same socio-economic zip code as the Huxtables, they were in the same ideological region.

As a middle-aged media scholar, I see 20th-century televisual iterations of Cosby as the poster boys of (Black) American exemplarism—whether as the integrationist Super Negro spy, Alexander Scott in I-Spy, or the patriarch of the Super African American Huxtable clan in The Cosby Show. The new millennial Cosby has positioned himself as the self-appointed cultural and moral arbiter for Black America and, most recently, has been called a serial predator.

In truth, losing Cosby—the desire for and belief in the illusive and impossible zeitgeist of his comic and socio-political discourse—started happening a long time ago. In Cosby’s infamous “Pound Cake” speech at the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education in 2004, his words seemed rooted in a deep personal disappointment about how younger generations and the Black underclass had let him down. Indeed, Cosby’s turn towards activism and his “call-out” dates across the country in the late 2000s centered on the need to produce a brand of Blackness informed by self determination-fueled, socially and politically conservative tenets, which required that the less than talented 90% pay heed when he calls them out for behaviors that keep them “aspirationally challenged.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates stated in his 2008 article in The Atlantic,

As Cosby sees it, the antidote to racism is not rallies, protests, or pleas, but strong families and communities. Instead of focusing on some abstract notion of equality, he argues, blacks need to cleanse their culture, embrace personal responsibility, and reclaim the traditions that fortified them in the past. [ (( Ta-Nahesi Coates, ‘This Is How We Lost to the White Man’ The audacity of Bill Cosby’s black conservatism. The Atlantic, May 2008 accessed 9/1/15))]

While Cosby was not alone in this ideological directive, decades of his not “acting right” and not being the exemplar that he purported himself to be, undermined what Michael Eric Dyson referred to as his “Afristocrat in Winter” [ (( This is the title of the first chapter in Michael Eric Dyson’s 2006 book, Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?. Afristocracy speaks to what Dyson, and other cultural critics see as the classism and elitism in the Black Middle and Upper Middle Class.))] pronouncements as well as his legacy. It is both fitting—and profoundly disturbing—that the catalyst for his downfall came from another Black comic. When the video of Hannibal Buress’ 2014 Philadelphia show went viral, everything changed.

[Cosby] gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up, black people … I can talk down to you because I was on TV in the 80s.’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches … When you leave here, Google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ That shit has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.’

Needless to say, Buress’ rant did not cause over thirty-five women to tell their stories about Cosby’s predatory ways in New York Magazine [ (( Ella Ceron and Lainna Fader, “35 Women and the empty chair.” New York Magazine, July 28, 2015 Accessed July 30, 2015.))] nor did it necessarily raise questions about why, when some of these women came forward a decade before, it was their motivations and not Cosby’s actions that were called into question. As the title of Barbara Bowman’s Washington Post article stated bluntly, “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story? Only when a male comedian called Cosby a rapist did the accusation take hold.” [ (( Barbara Bowman, Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story? Only when a male comedian called Cosby a rapist did the accusation take hold.” The Washington Post Nov. 13, 2015 accessed 2/13/15))] Well… denial is a powerful thing—particularly when it threatens mythologies with which we have become comfortable. Who wanted to believe that “America’s Dad,” a Black comedy icon, was a sexual predator?

Cosby and Larry King

Cosby’s Previous Jokes Carry New Meanings

Yet, cracks in the idealized veneer of Cosby could be seen in years past. On a 1969 comedy album, Cosby has a long bit regaling the merits of the mythological aphrodisiac, Spanish Fly. While one might excuse this as a sign of more regressive times, Cosby reiterated this bit with some nostalgia on his 1991 appearance on Larry King Live: “Spanish Fly was the thing that all boys from age 11 on up to death…will still be searching for Spanish Fly.” The romanticizing exchange went on with Cosby stating, “…you put it in a drink,” and King replying, “That’s right. Drop it in her Coca-Cola – It don’t matter.” Then a chuckling Cosby responds “It doesn’t make any difference. And the girl would drink it,” and an equally delighted King finishes with “And she’s yours.” [ (( “Creepy Bill Cosby interview resurfaces, describes dropping ‘Spanish Fly’ in women’s drinks” The Griot, accessed 3/15/15))] In hindsight, the casualness and flippancy of Cosby’s words seems downright chilling. The image of the women on Dateline comes to mind: hands raised when asked if Cosby had drugged them. Cosby’s directives, offered from upon high, and his “public moralist” position empowered Judge Eduardo Robreno to release the 2004 deposition transcripts detailing how the comic utilized Quaaludes.

Cosby's accusers

Cosby’s Accusers Speak up on Dateline

The rapidity of Cosby’s downward spiral has shaken folks throughout the Black community, although, the impact may have some generational buffering. Black millennials, who saw The Cosby Show on Nick at Nite, have no real experience with him other than as a sitcom star or a pitchman. They may know about his accolades but they came of age with Black America’s scolding senior not the universalist funny man. When my student, Raymond Reid, a Black male born after The Cosby Show’s heyday, ranted unendingly about how much he hated Cosby’s pomposity, it made me wonder whether Cosby’s object lessons for Black success rang as hollow for Buress as they did for my student.

Cosby has lost his perch on the hierarchy of respectability and, along with the revoked honorary doctorates and severed ties with universities, the NBC series, and the Netflix special, he may be losing more—if the October 9 deposition reveals as much as the last did. Yet, what still remains both angering and painful for folks in the Black community is that Cosby was “our” icon and now he has become “our” shame. Brittney Cooper gave voice to what I feel:

The thing that I am most angry about besides Cosby’s violent, predatory acts toward his female victims is the collective sense of shame and disappointment that rests on the sagging shoulders of black folks in this moment. … Cosby now legitimates every awful thing that white people have been conditioned to think is true about Black men. If the innocuous, lovable, jello-pudding-pop man can’t be trusted, then no Black man can. [ (( Brittney Cooper, “Black America’s Bill Cosby Nightmare,” Salon July 9, 2015, accessed 8/10/15))]

In the end, this is about more than the fall of an icon—at least for us it is.

A controversial cover

A Shattered Image

Image Credits:
1. Bill Cosby, the Fallen Comedy Icon (author’s screen grab)
2. Cosby’s Previous Jokes Carry New Meanings (author’s screen grab)
3. Cosby’s Accusers Speak up on Dateline (author’s screen grab)
4. A Shattered Image

Please feel free to comment.

Requiem for a “King”: Something about Bernie
Bambi Haggins / University of Michigan

Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley, and Steve Harvey in The Original Kings of Comedy

Bernie Mac was at the center of my favorite sequence in The Original Kings of Comedy, which, strangely enough, did not actually depict the standup acts of the aforementioned “Kings.” The scene, one of the many offstage passages where Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac—all together, in pairs or individually—gave us a glimpse into the camaraderie between the band of comic brothers who had toured the country for two years on what might be referred to as the new Chitlin’ Circuit. The “Kings” were noticeably not playing on a basketball court in a park in Charlotte, North Carolina with the gray of both the asphalt and the sky framed by less than bright-and-shiny high-rise apartments. Dressed in a dark shirt, suspenders and dress slacks (both conservative and formal than his brethren), a bespectacled Mac made his case to the viewing public (as the other “Kings” chuckled and heckled him). “I’ve been with my wife for 25 yrs. I ain’t got no outside kids …but do I have a television show? No!” The comic removed his glasses with feigned intensity: “I ain’t got no television show. Heh!” Flashing a look of mock disdain, he declared, “[It’s] ‘cause you’re scared of me. Scared I’m gonna say something.” After a deliciously timed pause punctuated with a sly little smile, Mac admitted, “You’re motherfuckin right. Heh! Think I won’t say something. …You’ve been fucking with me for a long time …You told me to say what I wanted to say.” Mac then transformed into the penitent nice negro and implored, “White folks, I’m just playing…if you all just give me a chance…I’ll take WB, I’ll take UPN, I’ll take USA. Gimme a chance to show you—I’ll take TNT.” Bernie Mac was the only “King” without a kingdom (not even one on a netlet).

In May of 2001, as a media literacy outreach project for the Society of Cinema and Media Studies, a group of scholars including Beretta Smith-Shomade, Henry Jenkins and myself, worked with a predominantly African American group of students at Wilson Humanities, Arts and Media Academy in Washington D.C. The session culminated with group work, one scholar and 4-5 students had to “pitch” a television series—outlining the premise, the target audience, possible advertisers and network. The group pitching the series with the greatest merit was awarded a prize – gift certificates, if I recall correctly. The students I worked with quickly found consensus: they wanted to pitch a family comedy with Bernie Mac. Our group’s pitch was not given the green light by the faux network head, however, I hoped that they felt vindicated when The Bernie Mac Show premiered on Fox, several months later. I’ve often wondered whether they suspected that someone had stolen their brainchild. Nevertheless, there was something about Bernie that spoke to these kids, to actual network executives and to audience members who were Def Comedy Jam faithful and those for whom the Kings was an introduction to Black standup (beyond Cosby, Pryor and Murphy). ((I have chosen not to focus on Mac’s film career because I believe that his artistic legacy can be most easily discerned in those moments when he talked to directly to us—whether from behind a microphone or when he spoke, comfortably ensconced in the chair in his television den, talking to America.))

The Late Great Bernie Mac

Bernie Mac is happy.
Bernie Mac don’t sugarcoat.
Bernie Mac just says what you think but are afraid to say.

As Alan Sepinwall notes, the comic had three fairly distinct personae: “There’s Bernie Mac, the angry, hard-edged comic made famous to black audiences as part of the Original Kings of Comedy revue. There’s Bernie Mac, the cantankerous suburban dad at the center of Fox’s popular new sitcom of the same name. And there’s Bernie Mac, born Bernard McCullough, the 44-year-old Chicago son who has spent his entire life preparing for the popularity of his two alter egos.” ((Sepinwall, Alan. “Bernie Mac: In his own words.” The Star-Ledger. Saturday August 09, 2008, 12:18 PM accessed Sept. 10, 2007.
)) Whether on stage or on the small screen, Bernie Mac was the purveyor of simultaneously ferocious and disarmingly honest form of what I like to call “candor comedy.” The aforementioned triplet, quoted in the comic’s act, series and numerous interviews, outline the tenets of Mac. You see them when watching the Bernie Mac who made his television debut on Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam (in black-rimmed glasses, quasi-fade haircut, stone washed blue jeans stenciled with graffiti, a white shirt with primary colored squares on one side and multicolored colored circular designs on the other). In fact, from the very first line of his 8 minute set, you are convinced Bernie Mac was pretty much always Bernie Mac: “I ain’t scared of you motherfuckers. You don’t understand…” You see it, with a bit more polish but no less edge, when Mac is the headliner, dressed in the kind of silk-suited regalia befitting a “King” in the 2000 Spike Lee joint. The coda to his King’s set foreshadows his ability to explain things to “America” without falling into the trap of attempting to translate his actions, ethos or words for mainstream comfort; such is the case in his brief treatise on the word “motherfucker” as a person, place or thing as he models as possible conversation:

I’m gonna break it down to ya… If you’re out there this afternoon and you see like 3 or 4 brothers talkin’, you might hear a conversation and it goes like this: You seen that motherfuckin’ Bobby? That motherfucker owes me 35 motherfuckin’ dollars! He told me he gone pay my motherfuckin money last motherfuckin’ week. I aint seen this motherfucker yet! I’m not gonna chase this motherfucker for my 35 motherfuckin’ dollars. I called the motherfucker four motherfuckin’ times… but the motherfucker won’t call me back. I called his momma the other motherfuckin’ day… she gonna play like the motherfucker wasn’t in. I started to cuss her motherfuckin’ ass out, but I don’t want no motherfuckin’ trouble. But I’ll tell ya one motherfuckin’ thing… the next motherfuckin time I see this motherfucker… and he don’t have my motherfuckin’ money… I’m gonna bust – his – motherfuckin’ head! I’m OUT this motherfucker.

Often the comic’s persona is an id-infused condensation of the actual human being behind the mic; in other words, it was Mac2. “When I put that mike in that hole, I’m done with that guy. That guy that you’re talking to now is not the guy on stage. It takes me 15, 20 minutes to get into that guy. It takes me 30 minutes to let go. He’s so abrupt. He’s so nonstop. Bernie Mac is relentless. And that’s one thing I like about him. He doesn’t care what you say, he’s going out there to entertain that audience. And the people who come to see Bernie Mac, that’s what they want from him. And if I do anything different, I’ll be lying to myself.” ((Gray, Ellen. “Mac attack: Bernie talks (and talks, and talks) about himself.” Knight Ridder Tribune News Service. Washington: Mar 1, 2002: 1))

Bernie Mac in Universal City, California in 2004

The other alter ego existed in a semi-autobiographical televisual space that afforded a construction of Bernie Mac as man at leisure and comic-as-domcom-dad that cut the intensity of the standup persona with the lived experiences of Bernard McCullough. The premise for the series was a product of Mac’s most recent stand up act. The Kings version of the setup was made ready for primetime and established the practice of his direct addresses to the audience, ”America, let’s talk. Yeah, my sister’s on drugs, that’s okay. Some of your family members messed up too.” Thus, began the domcom version of the actual lived experience chronicled in his act. Nessa (Camille Winbush), the teenager, Jordan (Jeremy Suarez), a bookish ten-year-old and Brianna AKA Baby Girl (Dee Dee Davis), the sitcom kids, were older and acted as foils to Mac (rather than the two, four and six years old sociopaths bent on his destruction as fictionalized in his Kings’ version). The battles are generational and regional as well as cultural: parents vs. children, wealthy Angelenos vs. poor/ working class Chicagoans, Civil Rights era, old school blackness vs. post-soul constructions of race. While successful comic Mac and his gorgeous business executive wife, Wanda (Kellita Smith), had attained their hard won piece of the American Dream, their new brood had only experienced the dream deferred, as it were.

As series creator, Larry Wilmore noted:

The word that we used a lot was authentic…We wanted something to feel authentic, look authentic, and for me and Bernie, it was really important that he be in a loving relationship with his wife. That’s what I really wanted to see on TV, you know, these two people who were there for each other, and that the conflict was with these children, who he considered terrorists. …every single scene on that show is about negotiating with terrorists… The difference being that he loved those kids to death, you know, that they were really like his kids. ((Sepinwall.))

In keeping, some of the funniest material in Mac’s act as in the sitcom was rooted in the abrasive and often hostile parenting style (“If you’re old enough to talk back, then you’re old enough to get knocked the fuck out,” or “Bust your head until the white meat shows.” Yet amidst these amusing quips, the Peabody award winning series, revised and revisited notions of extended family both in their quasi-nuclear clan or the Macs from all over the country (in the hilarious family reunion episode). Depicting the black family dealing with nuances of class, region, religious practice and gender norms, not in very special episodes but as a part of the series’ life, separated The Bernie Mac Show from other Black domcoms and domcoms in general.

The Family Mac

Upon hearing about the passing of Bernie Mac, my good friend, Raj Mahal, declared, “Bernie wasn’t just a black comic—he was BLACK inside and out.” I understood what Raj was saying—and it was not a statement about color politics. As fellow “King,” D.L. Hughley stated after Mac’s passing, “[Bernie] was a touchstone between the old way of comedy and the new way of comedy. … I think the hardest thing to be, as a black man, is an individual.” ((King, Larry. “A Tribute to Bernie Mac.” Larry King Live. CNN. August 12, 2008.)) Bernie Mac spoke for Bernie Mac and in so doing his comedy—abrasive, sometimes blue, sometimes sentimental—gave voice to a Black experience that refused to be seen as monolithic while inviting identification.

Not long before his death, Mac decided to forego standup to concentrate on his film career. ((Malcolm Lee’s music-infused, buddy road movie, Soul Men, co-starring Mac, Samuel L. Jackson and the late Isaac Hayes, will be released in summer 2009.)). Mac did, however, leave his fans with his last comic hurrah, captured in the documentary, The Whole Truth, Nothing But the Truth, So Help Me Mac. I will always regret missing out on watching Mac perform live in the same way that I regret never having seen Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley or Redd Foxx. As student of comedy, who is also a fan, you come to appreciate the rare comic who can play to and with an audience, who can shock while endearing himself to you, who is fearless, sometimes offensive, and always original—and that was the “something” that made Bernie Mac Bernie Mac.

Image Credits:
1) Bernie Mac…The Original Kings of Comedy
2) The Late Great Bernie Mac
3) Bernie Mac in Universal City

4) The Family Mac

Please feel free to comment.

George Carlin, the Last of the Trinity
Bambi Haggins / University of Michigan

Carlin during his squeaky clean early years. (1965)

Carlin during his squeaky clean early years (1965)

It was well after midnight on June 24th when I read that George Carlin had died. It seemed oddly appropriate that I would hear about the legendary comic’s demise in the early AM—that had been, after all, when I had first gotten to know him. Although I remember watching him during prime time with the family on The Ed Sullivan Show doing an early version of the “hippie dippy” mailman and, later, on The Flip Wilson Show, the Carlin to which I was uninitiated had been inaccessible to me. Late at night in the summer of ’75, my curiosity having been piqued by a lively “discussion” between parent and sibling, I sneaked my sister’s Class Clown out of her room. Curled up in the den with the then futuristic white space helmet shaped eight-track player, I listened (very carefully) to the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” for the first time. ((I was a senior in high school before i realized that i had listened to the wrong cut. It was “Filthy Words” from Occupation: Foole (1977) that began the judicial odyssey. See the “70s” timeline at Carlin’s official website)) The sound, the timbre, the timing and the semi-salaciousness of the routine were hilarious and intoxicating in a way that was quite different from our nap time audio treats of Bill Cosby’s Wonderfulness:

“There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad Intentions. …you know the seven don’t you? Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, and Tits, huh? … Those are the ones that will infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.”

Using language-in all of its vernacular glory, Carlin and his revolutionary comic brethren—Richard Pryor and predecessor Lenny Bruce—reflected the zeitgeist of an era from different social quadrants and personalized comic pedagogies.

“I changed with the country then, and I got back in touch with my outlaw rebel self. I was 30 years old in 1967, the Summer of Love, and the people I was entertaining in these mainstream nightclubs were 40 years old and hated their 20-year-old kids, who were burning down their schools,” said Carlin. “I gravitated toward the 20-year-olds, and that’s when my comedy changed.” ((Sarko, Anita. “George Carlin,” Interview, November 2007: 37.)) In 1970, he traded his clean-cut image and material for the uniform of the counterculture (beard, long hair, jeans) and an act that reflected the times, which did not go over well on the Vegas strip. After being released from a three year contract at the Frontier Hotel, Carlin created an act, unencumbered by the prohibitions of the “main room,” that presented conventional wisdom for youth culture (anti-establishment, anti-war, pro-drug and pro-sexual freedom).

By 1975, Carlin had found the voice and the persona that would make him a comic icon for decades to come. Carlin’s material fell within three broad categories, two of which the comic would later refer to as “the big world” (disagreements on politics, religion, race, consumerism, war) and “the little world” (universal experiences that we all know, physical as well as emotional: the prototype for observational humor). The final category was, of course, language—not just by challenging the notion of “bad” words, but also by continuing to make audiences think about the power and preposterousness encompassed in our ongoing struggle with making meaning through words. As Mel Watkins and Bruce Webber note, “By the mid-’70s, like his comic predecessor Lenny Bruce and the fast-rising Richard Pryor, Mr. Carlin had emerged as a cultural renegade.” ((Watkins, Mel And Weber, Bruce. “George Carlin, Comic Who Chafed At Society And Its Constraints, Dies At 71,” New York Times. New York, N.Y.: 24 June 2008: C.12.))

When I watched the first episode of Saturday Night Live in the fall of 1975 at the house of a fellow staffer on our high school newspaper (in the basement, of course), it marked the second of my many late night encounters with Carlin. The fact that Carlin was hosting supplied coolness cred for the show for this (moderately geeky) pubescent crowd (and especially for the dorky frosh that I was). The peals of over-determined laughter at Carlin’s hippie dippy weatherman, Al Sleet’s “faded” forecast (“Tonight: Dark. Continued mostly dark tonight, turning to widely scattered light in the morning”) proved his countercultural cred.


Carlin, the comic with countercultural cred, taped to the host for the series premiere of Saturday Night Live (October 1975)

While the cultural and linguistic referencing seemed hipper and more clever at the time, it, nevertheless, solidified my belief that the “best” comedy is more than simply joke, setup, joke. ((I recount the process of watching the “word association” sketch on Saturday Night Live in December of 1975 in that same basement and the kinds of laughter generated by the same of teens upon seeing the now famous Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase exchange at the beginning of the first chapter of Laughing Mad (Rutgers University Press, 2007).)) Due in no small part to HBO Comedy—my greatest joy as a premium cable premium cable adult for the past 15 years—I have watched hours of stand-up in the pre-dawn hours: Carlin, Pryor, and Robert Klein, as well as their comic progeny: Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Margaret Cho, Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes and Lewis Black.

My most recent viewing date with Carlin was a two-night stand; HBO aired 11 of comic’s 14 specials-beginning with On Location: George Carlin at USC (1977), and ending with George Carlin: It’s For Ya (2008). Arguably, all of Carlin’s routines can be read as treatises on hypocrisy and absurdity of changing cultural and social winds as well as reflections on the human condition, for better and for worse. However, from the disclaimer of journalist Shana Alexander, which lauded Carlin as “one of the generation’s philosophers of comedy” and the sensibilities of individual viewers for understanding their power to choose, I was reminded of how cutting edge his 1977 special was both in terms of style and content. In this iteration, the comic was still in the process of crafting an act that made audiences laugh and think without catering to them (learning to deal with “the silences”). ((This Was Also Underscored By The Freeze Frame Intertext Warning Viewers That The Real “Blue” Material (“Filthy Words”) Was Coming Next.)) By the time I watched It’s Bad For Ya, in the wee hours of the next morning, I marveled at how the comic seemed different and, yet, unchanged. In his New York Times piece the day after Carlin’s death, Charles McGrath aptly described the sense and sensibility of the comic:

“…[Carlin] had a gift for saying-and thinking-things that other people wouldn’t or couldn’t. He wasn’t as threatening as Bruce or Pryor. [In his later years]… his persona was warmer, cranky rather than angry. But his humor was always a little subversive and aimed at puncturing hypocrisy and feel-goodism. …Though he delivered it with a smile, his forecast was the same as Al Sleet’s: dark and getting darker.” ((McGrath, Charles, “A Master Of Words, Including Some You Can’t Use In A Headline,” New York Times, June 24, 2008: E1))

In a different context, I could analyze in detail the power of Carlin’s comic social discourse, further contrast it with Pryor and detail how it reflects and refracts American popular consciousness over the past four decades. Instead, I have chosen to offer the reflections of a fan of Carlin and standup comedy, in general.


Announced in early June, Carlin will be awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor posthumously in November at the Kennedy Center gala

What I most revere about Carlin is his ability to make you laugh at (and consider) things with which you might disagree. I believe in some iteration of what Carlin refers to as an “invisible guy in the sky” (AKA God), but I still appreciate his scathing critique of organized religion (the institutions that tell folks that the “all powerful, all-knowing” being “needs your money”). My closest sister, whose eight-track I borrowed, could fit Carlin’s definition of the “child worshipping,” “professional parent,” who endeavors to schedule meaningful activities for her kids; I don’t quite see how soccer and science camp is cheating them out of a childhood. And, finally, despite my wholehearted agreement that there are questionable subjects of adoration and inspiration (based on, among other things, success in sports), I am not ready to concur with the “Fuck Lance Armstrong” sentiment that began Carlin’s final special. It did, however, make me laugh my head off.

If indeed we are given a “ticket to the freak show” when we’re born (“a front row seat if you’re born in America”), having someone as gifted as Carlin to give both the color and the play by play for the pageant is both a gift and a necessity. His loss will be felt on both sides of the footlights. Jon Stewart referred to Carlin, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor as the “holy trinity of comedy.” ((Stewart coined this phrase in Carlin’s introduction at George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy, taped and aired from Wheeler Theater, Aspen, Colorado, as part of Aspen Comedy Arts Festival in February 1997. It aired on HBO as Carlin’s tenth HBO special.)) Now the last of the trinity is gone. Who will become the new philosophers of comedy, and who, with candor, irreverence and wit, use comic discourse to make us ask, “WTF?”

Image Credits:

1. Carlin during his squeaky clean early years (1965).

2. Carlin, the comic with countercultural cred, taped to the host for the series premiere of Saturday Night Live (October 1975).

3. Announced in early June, Carlin will be awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor posthumously in November at the Kennedy Center gala.

4. Front Page George Carlin

Please feel free to comment.

Darkly Dreaming of Dexter, Part 2: Sympathy for the Devil

Harry and Young Dexter

Harry & Young Dexter: Early Lesson in the Code of Harry.

After having recently watched both seasons of Dexter on a four-day viewing binge (inspired by freezing temperatures and the Writers strike), it seemed to me that the only way to understand the fandom and fascination that the series inspires was to try to locate—and dissect—the “heart” of the series. Clearly, Dexter’s fans aren’t exalting his actions (behaviors that, in real life, would be vilified), however, the pleasures of this particular text stem from the all-access pass behind the curtain given to the audience: the insider’s guide to the sociopath.

“Man, he can rationalize anything,” my friend, Paul said with an almost admiring chuckle, as we had our ritual midnight viewing of Dexter. Paul’s induction into this fandom was a first season marathon (thank you, TiVo) during which six folks ensconced in my living room collectively begged for “just one more episode” until the wee hours of the morning and the season finale. The aforementioned rationalization—Dexter’s revelation that maintaining his freedom was absolutely necessary for the sake of those who care for him (even if the price was the life of his innocent adversary—elicited a reaction that might be interpreted as qualified approval from Paul, one of the kindest humans I know. Having indulged in admiring chuckles myself (and I am not nearly as nice as Paul), this essay forced me to interrogate both the ease of my passage into Dexter’s subjectivity and the ways that my identification with the character grew, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the “principled” nature of his amoral actions.

Is the attraction of a televisual trek to the shady corner of human nature where myriad pathologies collide tied to, what Carly Kocurek referred to as “the creation of serial killer as celebrity in the 1970s and ’80s” fueled by “…full collection[s] of Serial Killer Trading Cards and VHS copies of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Stephen King movies?” Is it tapping into the zeitgeist of a historical moment when, as Afsheen Nomai asserted, “[the] country… widely approves of the death penalty, and seems completely ambivalent about the erosion of our civil rights?” Or is audience reaction to these heroes/antiheroes indicative of what Grace Moore states is an ongoing love affair with “characters who take control, who come to our rescue, who have been formed by circumstances outside of themselves” such as “Wolverine… Bruce Wayne as ‘the Dark Knight,’ …revenge films with Charles Bronson [Death Wish 1-4], Antonio Banderas in the Desperado movies…[even] Jack in The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Clearly, these conflicting assertions ring true: the constructions of serial killer as rock star (exemplified by the continued fascination with Charles Manson) and the embodiment of a desire for a definitive (or at least swift) metering out of “justice” (read: punishment) still hold sway over some segments of popular consciousness. Nevertheless, something separates the construction of Dexter from the aforementioned groups of actual serial killers, cinematic vigilantes and his televisual murderer brethren: his adherence to and internalization of lessons his father taught him—which is, arguably, both his sentence and his salvation.

Training Day

Training Day: Harry & Teen Dexter bond while shooting.

Rationalization allows one to justify unacceptable feelings and/or inexcusable actions in a logical manner that avoids the true explanation for the behavior. The “Code of Harry” provided rationalizations that were as vital to Dexter as the physical and psychological training from his father. From the moment that Harry Morgan carried the young Dexter, crying and soaked in blood, away from the heinous scene of his mother’s murder, the boy became his responsibility. When it comes to light (in Season 2) that Harry’s desire to care for the boy may have been inspired more by guilt than altruism—Laura Moser’s status as his informant (and his lover) put Dexter’s mother on the wrong end of a chainsaw— it is still difficult, if not impossible, to cast him as a bad guy because the code he constructed for Dexter probably saved the boy from a worse fate. One could hypothesize that Dexter’s pathologies—the incapacity to love or to feel other than shallow emotions (feigned for a deliberate effect), the lack of empathy, guilt, remorse or shame—could only doom him to a life as a monster. But Harry helped Dexter to become a monster with a purpose: an avenger, if you will. The code was simple: the killing must be “just,” the guilt of the person must be certain (take time to gather the evidence, make sure you have the right person), prepare meticulously and act with extreme care and the killing of innocents is NEVER allowed.
In so doing, Harry gave purpose to Dexter’s pathology:

    Harry: “Son, there are people out there who do really bad things. Terrible people. And the police can’t catch them all. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
    Teenage Dex: “You’re saying… they deserve it.”

Furthermore, the tenets in Harry’s instruction gave Dexter social survival skills on blending in (performing normalcy to keep the monster invisible), a rule-driven way to channel his homicidal urges and keep them under control and, perhaps the most important directive, don’t get caught. Despite its cold pragmatism, there is certain resonance of virtue to the code of Harry –more akin to obsessive need to bring a killer to justice driving Alan Moore’s Rorschach (from the graphic novel, The Watchmen) than the omerta and honor code depicted in cinematic and televisual mob tales from The Sopranos to The Godfather. “It’s not about vengeance,” Harry said, “not about retaliation, or balancing the books –it’s about something deep inside.” For Dexter, that something deep inside was the compulsion to kill, the monster kept in check by the unwavering adherence to a particular familial ideology passed from father to son out of necessity but also out of the desire for evil to do good.

Harry and Teen Dexter

Harry & Teen Dexter: Feeling the fear.

Some might contend that Michael C. Hall’s assertion that “Dexter, in spite of everything, is an eminently relatable guy” seems either disturbing or ludicrous. However, his insight into the character taps into questions that we have “about our authenticity and…[the] secrets that we keep that are potent in terms of our interior landscape” and Hall’s assertion that, “We all have a shadow side, maybe not as formidable on paper as Dexter’s” by extension can be applied to the rationalization processes that is part of our daily lives. While most of us don’t fit the DSM-IV definition of either “psychopath” or a “sociopath,” I would contend that we can relate to Dexter for myriad reasons connected to his feelings of alienation, confusion over emotions, divided loyalties, the casting of ourselves as (figurative) predator or prey, minegar curmudgeon or silent martyr, independent free thinker not impacted by the lessons our parents told us and the good son or daughter eager to emulate and please without question.

The series’ second season ends with another privileged glimpse into Dexter’s interior life and the challenges posed by declaring who and what you believe you are.

    Dexter: Not long ago I had a dream that people could see me for what I am. And for a brief instant in time, the world actually saw my bodies of work. Some even cheered. But as it turns out, nobody mourns the wicked. … That’s why he gave me a code. It cost him his life, but it kept me alive through incredible trials. The code is mine now, and mine alone. … I’m no longer his disciple. I’m a master now. An idea transcended into life.

Dexter grown up

Dexter All Grown Up & Acting Out on His Own.

This closing passage speaks directly to a sense of self and direction. Our senses of self are inflected, for better and for worse, by the stories our parents told us and by particular familial ideologies, whether we accept or reject them. Like Dexter, we have the ability—and, sometimes, the inclination—to dip into rationalization to avoid some essential truth that we cannot or will not process. We deal the best we can with the tools we are given, we identify instead of compare and we do something akin to acknowledging and moving on—whether you are a harried scholar in search of inspiration or a Dark Defender looking for the next deserving quarry. This makes sense to me but I’m not sure how much comfort I find in that.

Image Credits:

1. Harry and Young Dexter.

2. Training Day.

3. Harry and Teen Dexter.

4. Dexter grown up.

Please feel free to comment.

Darkly Dreaming of Dexter: If Loving Him Is Wrong I Don’t Want To Be Right

“[Dexter will] charm fellow officers with a doughnut, while away a Sunday with his girlfriend, Rita, or chop up a victim and package their body parts in plastic bags. Hiding beneath the mundane exterior and contrived façade of Dexter, a charming blood-spatter expert for the Miami Police Department, is an obsession with meting out his own twisted brand of justice: stalking and murdering the guilty.”


“Dexter” on Showtime.

According to this description, Dexter is both ubermensch and avenging angel. The question is, can he really be both? The character construction of the central protagonist on the Showtime series of the same name raises questions about our “heroes” (or “antiheroes”), truth, power, justice and what means not to be human within a narrative that manages to deal with things that are deathly serious (pardon the pun) with out losing its cool and wry sense of humor. I have watched Dexter since it first premiered on Showtime in October 2006 and, having been a huge fan of Michael C. Hall’s turn as David Fisher, the extremely repressed “good” son (the underappreciated brother) on HBO’s Six Feet Under, I felt both optimistic and protective towards the series before seeing a single episode. I was not disappointed by Hall’s Dexter, which was, with the exception of conveying some elements of carefully controlling impulses and the death tinged milieu, is entirely unlike David. As Hall noted, “David and Dexter are surrounded by dead bodies. Dexter’s a bit more on the supply side of things.” The comment from Dexter’s star as well as those from the creative team and the series’ online fan community made clear something I had suspected even before reading too much about either the series (or about Jeff Lindsay’s books upon which it is based): Dexter is a black comedy…a very black comedy. How could it not be…for real? Its generic sampling includes horror, the thriller, cop shows and domestic melodramedy, integrated in self consciously referential ways that the savvy viewer/ media baby can readily discern. It’s smart, it’s funny and it’s dark: I love Dexter and, if loving him is wrong, I don’t want to right. Nevertheless, I wonder where this strong sense of allegiance comes from and why, as with my previous rabid fandoms (The X-Files, Homicide, Buffy, Firefly, Oz), I sought not to expose friends to the series rather to convert them. In my experience, it takes a certain kind of quality television to inspire proselytizing of this kind—Dexter is simultaneously quite different from the aforementioned fan texts: with the exception of Oz, the murderer is usually the bad guy. Dexter possesses a key element common to a lion’s share of the series that critics, fans and scholars laud as contemporary quality television: a central character that is, at best, morally ambiguous and, at worst, either so pathologically self-centered or self-contained that his/her actions stretch our common lexicon for one who has “emotional baggage” that often ends with blood (and lots of it); in other words, “amoral” or “immoral” don’t seem quite fit the discursive bill.


Micheal C. Hall in “Dexter”

These ruminations on Dexter are part of a larger project that interrogates how audience expectations of “quality television” began to change with the emergence of the flawed but fundamentally “good men” of network television drama in the eighties and nineties (i.e. Frank Furillo, Hill Street Blues and Michael Kuzak, LA Law; Doug Ross, ER; Andy Sipowitz and all of his partners [with the exception of Bobby Simone], NYPD Blue; Frank Pembleton, Tim Bayliss and the rest of the “murder police,” Homicide ) to characters whose morally ambiguous (or morally relative) actions, drive the narrative and, arguably, the series’ fandom. The Sopranos had Tony, Deadwood had Sweringen, The Shield had Vic Mackey and Battlestar Galactica has Gaius Baltar—then there is Dexter. In her review, “Is it so Sick to Love this Sicko?” Kathryn Flett, after confessing that she had avoided the critical buzz on Dexter, hypothesizes about their content: “Half will be muttering something along the lines of: ‘Omigod, this is a disgusting piece of television made by sickos for sickos that tells us everything we probably didn’t need to know about the moral vacuum In Which We Live Now’, while the other lot will probably be declaring Dexter ‘a uniquely skewed work of darkly comic genius that tells us everything we probably didn’t need to know about the moral vacuum in Which We Live Now’.”While Flett’s take on the critical camps seem accurate, her assumption that the series only “inadvertent[ly]” shines “a bright light on your own heart of darkness” gives neither those creating the series nor those watching it enough credit. Dexter Morgan is an intriguing character—careful, courteous, and methodical and, dare I say it, kind of endearing. As unsettling as I find the last adjective, it is part of the series’ appeal: as stated in “A Thinking Woman’s Killer,” by one Toronto based professional “if you’re being stalked by evil, it’s going to disappear. You’re not going to ask any questions. And then he’s going to show up with lattes. How great is that?” In this series of columns, I want to interrogate how Dexter speaks to contemporary notions of quality television and its appeal—whether through its active play with audience identification in terms of both visual and narrative style, its neo-noir inversion of light and darkness or the extremely strong supporting cast surrounding Hall’s Dexter. Dexter is not the solitary player in the new “quality”—there are others who dabble in ambiguity and, perhaps even relativism, morally speaking.Who is driving this “new” quality? Is it simply that we have become bored with characters who we can understand? Is there some comfort in struggling with the “why” for Dexter’s pathologies—to make the sense of the fact that the horror does not, in fact, make sense? Is this part of larger shifts in taste culture in Post 9/11 America: after large doses of dramatic earnestness, has irony been resuscitated? In “Post CSI-TV: The Ecstasies of Dexter,” Michelle Byers’ discussion of the CSI franchise having “an often humorless belief in science as a route to a truth that will set us free” while Dexter “problematizes the binary structures of good and evil and truth and lies that we are pushed to accept by CSI. … Casting earnestness aside and opening the door to irony, the series highlights its own implication …in the production and maintenance of particular neo-liberal power structures.” Accordingly, the space created for the viewer is not “entirely comfortable (but not entirely unpleasant either)”—a space from which we can muse upon truth, justice, violence and death without necessarily creating a fixed notion of right and wrong. If that seems disconcerting to you, then this might not be the show for you—or it might be exactly the one that you should see.


The cast

There is a surprising amount of public discourse circulating around Dexter, whether on NPR or CNN, in The New York Times or innumerable Florida dailies and weekly papers, or in coffee houses, classrooms and living rooms: lots of people are crazy about Dexter—whether it speaks to the infatuation with the character’s inherent duplicitousness experience by some or the disgust at the valorizing of a vigilante killer. So this column ends at the beginning, as it were, with further examination of Dexter, I hope to tease out how his particular performances of identity are in conversation with his “anti-hero” (for lack of a better word) protagonist brethren. I hope these columns will begin a re-examination of quality television—perhaps defining a new concept of contemporary quality television. Although I know that I am in the earliest stages of this study, I truly hope to come to terms with a guiding question has aesthetic, creative and ideological implications in terms of televisual storytelling and, arguably, American popular consciousness. The question: What’s so good about being bad?

Image Credits:

1. “Dexter” on Showtime.
2. Micheal C. Hall as Dexter
3. The cast of “Dexter”
4. Thumbnail

Please feel free to comment.