Friday, May 29, 2020

Audrey Horne & the City: Katy Keene's Alright

Most of the time, I watch Riverdale when I catch a particularly bad cold. Knowing that I'll be laid up in bed for a couple days I will queue up whatever I haven't yet seen (whether that's Riverdale or The Good Place or Pretty Little Liars or Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated or...) and spend a day or two just plowing through it. Strangely, I actually followed Riverdale's fourth season week-to-week for the first eight or so episodes, and then fell off. A few days ago I wrapped it up, and the day after I spent in a strange haze of the first seasons of its first spinoff.

I doubt I'll ever write much about the fourth season in particular so I'll say here: I think it's my favorite season since the first. Season one of Riverdale is one of the best examples of A Group Of Friends I've watched on television. It's a masterclass in pacing out how to propel viewers through watching four people care about each other. Season two is the one that took off, where Archie turns into a near-fascist vigilante and there is a massive riot outside of a prison. Season three is anchored by a Dungeons & Dragons analog called Griffins & Gargoyles and continues the second season's plot/mystery-heavy structure. Season four scales that back, structuring itself by flash forwards to the death of Jughead.

Those flash forwards allow for way more quiet moments. The season doesn't have to fill blank spaces with side plots; it can focus on what is important to the characters at any moment (whether that's a big mystery or a small character moment) since there is a promise of excitement in the future. That lead to at least one of my favorite character moments in recent history: that second, emphatic yes is so clutch. It's a little riot of excitement in a snowstorm, an expression of the tiny joy of trusting someone deeply and having that trust rewarded, an act of selfless self-deception that rewrites the self. I fucking love it. Season four peppers these moments throughout in a way that seasons two and three often missed, and then it gets to the big reveal and that part's kind of boring but who cares, the joy was the framing, not the execution.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about. Between watching seasons two and three of Riverdale, I took a break to watch the entire run of Pretty Little Liars, a show that I had heard good things about and was clearly an antecedent. Even that managed to pay off* in season four, when Lucy Hale (who plays Aria in Pretty Little Liars) showed up as Katy Keene. I expected that was the whole of it and was satisfied. I then found out that it was actually a crossover episode for Katy Keene, Riverdale's first spinoff series, starring Hale as well as Ashleigh Murray (Josie McCoy of Josie and the Pussycats).

Katy Keene keeps some core elements of the Riverdale formula but ends up being more Sex & the City than Twin Peaks. Katy Keene is an aspiring fashion desire in New York City who lives in an apartment with Jorge, a drag queen and aspiring Broadway star, the aforementioned aspiring singer Josie, and frequent guest Pepper, an aspiring Andy Warhol, I guess? She's rich (but is she really??) and maybe a con artist and maybe just needs a little help from her friends. Their incompatible sexual preferences remove most of the possibilities that they will hook up or couple off within the foursome (so no Betty/Jughead Archie/Veronica equivalent, as it were), but otherwise the dynamics are broadly similar. One of the characters even gets to do voice over to narrate the episodes! Except that's actually one of the biggest differences.

Riverdale is, decidedly, not called Jughead. It is also not called Archie per the comics that spawned it. Katy Keene being called Katy Keene strikes, at first, like an imagined 90s spinoff of Twin Peaks called Donna Hayward. Or, perhaps more accurately, a Twin Peaks spinoff called Lana Budding Milford. Although if you wanted to argue that Donna was never a central character in Twin Peaks I don't know that I'd have strong enough feelings to push back particularly hard. The influence of Twin Peaks on Riverdale isn't just that it took the idea of "dead girl rocks town; secrets revealed" and replaced the girl with a boy. It's the primacy of the town itself, the way it chews through people and yet those people stay and destroy themselves and each other. Which is not untrod territory for shows set in New York City (...probably? obligatory mention that I'm certainly no TV expert &, in fact, am barely a viewer). But.

So: Katy Keene imports some of the structure of Riverdale, but guides our focus to the individual rather than the environment via the name. This is not a neutral action, but it's also not a determining one; only a frame. And it's a frame the first season clearly struggles with, given how much time it clearly wants to spend with Katy Keene and how much time it wants to spend with Josie McCoy. The editing feels choppy not in individual moments so much as in pacing, like the showrunners couldn't decide who or if there was a strict point of view character. Ultimately I think this ends up benefiting the show, but we'll get there. Because it's sometimes a bit of a rough watch.

One influential aspect of Twin Peaks I haven't yet mentioned on Riverdale shows up in the latter more as suggestion than actual fact. Riverdale, especially in the first season, often gestures toward the languid pace punctuated by extreme action characteristic of Lynch's filmography - including Twin Peaks. The way shots holding a beat too long leads to plot beats lingering two beats too long leads to mysteries dissolving into an aether of Lore in Twin Peaks is gestured at, as well as the way sometimes those extra beats are suddenly interrupted by an eruption of violence or bliss (Amanda Seyfried high on cocaine in a convertible in season 3, for instance) or inexplicable. In Riverdale those techniques of alienation are just subsumed back into the soap opera structure out of which they were born, but the mark of that alienating use still lingers.

And that mark remains in Katy Keene, at least as far as the show is self-consciously of a piece with (or a piece of) Riverdale. Which is fascinating because, as the show grows into its own, the clear reference points that it enjoys playing with are much more similar to sitcoms and Sex & the City. To that point: Katy Keene really doesn't find itself until episode 5.

"Song for a Winter's Night" becomes sort of prototypical for the rest of the season; it takes place during a polar vortex, so after some setup the main cast is trapped inside with a series of escalating tensions rapidly unveiling themselves. Katy has 24 hours to make a dress for her boss and fashion-industry gatekeeper Gloria; Jorge has a run-in with his mother while in drag and needs a new dress; Josie's boyfriend/manager has been outed in the tabloids as having been intimate with his stepsister, and suspects Pepper is to blame; and Pepper's cons are slowly coming unraveled as Josie does some digging. Between a musical number, some serious accusations of selfishness, the reveal of $60,000 of debt, a broken radiator, a couple ruined dresses, a broken sewing machine and a reconciliation, the episode pushes the group dynamic into "madcap hijinks" territory - editing and all - and comes out the other side with genuinely new dynamics.

That's the show at its best. Hale brings an interpersonal emotional bigness that she was capable of on Pretty Little Liars but rarely got to exhibit (because she ended up tied up with her teacher boyfriend way, way too fucking often) that puts a point on the stakes. Murray keeps the Riverdale energy alive and palpable and can genuinely sing. The show leans into the (cinematic) glamour of New York City's "struggling" artists and does so in a particularly millennial(ly coded, at least**) way. Up to and including weird valorizations of the Chelsea Hotel and Warhol's Factory while meeting billionaires in Washington Square Park (...and having a cable bill be a point of contention, which I guess shows just how far television has fallen given that it has to thematize its own existence to remind the viewer). This is the best stuff not because it enraptures but because it manages to pull off the highwire act of something like a screwball comedy while synthesizing its influences into its own thing.

The Sex & the City influence isn't all bad, but it's most prominent when the show is at its worst. There are moments where it drags its feet and can only get its message across by having Hale do a bad Carrie Bradshaw-style voiceover to explain how she's feeling (even though half the time Hale's acting and the scripting and shooting are strong enough to make the voiceover extraordinarily redundant) about a particular pickle. Or when a subplot extends way beyond its lifespan because the sex is (allegedly) hot, like how much of Josie's screentime is eaten up by the on-again off-again relationship with her manager, aforementioned billionaire Alexander Cabot, or Pepper's with her assistant/lover/former doorperson(?) Didi.

If I highlighted "that second, emphatic yes" of Betty's during Riverdale's snow day episode from season 4, it's because I like it as metonym as much as anything else. The power in these shows - for me, specifically, at this point in my life, specifically - is, in large part, in their modeling of friendship. You may have noticed that's a bit of a theme around here. It's a theme I've been actively thinking through at least since I watched I Know What You Did Last Summer and was kind of blown away by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jennifer Love Hewitt's performances, having not long before taken a class on John Carpenter that focused at least partially on the way he portrayed homosocial relationships after the style of John Ford. So, you know. A good chunk of a decade before I realized that I might be interested in the modeling of femme*** friendships for very personal reasons. Like that I myself might occupy that space, for instance, and might have been denied the possibility of actualizing it in early life.

By that very personal, historically-specific metric, for instance, Pretty Little Liars is another important text that, like seasons 2 and 3 of Riverdale, is far too often too interested in the Mystery to allow itself time to stretch out into who these people are and why they react to and interact with each other in the ways that they do. Katy Keene, from its first season, seems like its something that might hit a sweet spot at some point in the future. A season two and three would be nice, I guess is what I'm saying. Even just the one, though, is alright.

*I mean, it paid itself off, obviously. Pretty Little Liars is also excellent for a shockingly high percent of its run, spinoffs... excluded. Ravenswood is such a bummer.

** The other way to say this is "woke" I guess, but I think I'm trying to get that word out of my regular use since it seems less and less demonstrative of anything aside from, maybe, performatively progressive on social issues. Millennial, on the other hand...

***This is an awkward use of femme; "female friendships" doesn't exactly include me even if it's probably more accurate in describing the actual media, and at least at this point "friendships between women" wouldn't either as I continue to develop my own understanding of myself as an enby femme who is trans, &c &c.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Linkout: Melissa Caruso Interview for Spectology's Digital Book Tour

My third interview for Spectology is with Melissa Caruso, author of the forthcoming fantasy novel The Obsidian Tower. It, like Veronica Roth's book, has a very early twist that made having a more detailed discussion... kind of a pain. That, coupled with my less-than-cooperative brain, lead to a bit of a (lets call it) meandering conversation (on my part).

We did get some good conversations about craft - how drafting can help, recycling old characters to good effect, overwriting conversations to develop characters - and tabletop/live action roleplaying, so I'd count it as a win. Plus the book was a pretty fascinating look at obligation (did I say obedience in the episode when I meant obligation? i did!) through the lens of fantasy, which in my book makes it well worth a read.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Linkout: Spectology Digital Book Tour with Veronica Roth

My second interview for the Quarantine Digital Book Tour is with Veronica Roth, who wrote the Divergent books. I've interviewed two authors and one of them has sold 30+ million copies of one book. It was intimidating!

A little behind the scenes: Roth's team reached out to the Spectology folks (which includes me I guess!), and I agreed to take on the interview. We talked with at least a half dozen people to set up the interview, and at no point until the call started was I in contact with Roth. Luckily I found enough in the book that I really enjoyed, and have spent a lifetime learning how to overcome social anxiety. And, luckily, Roth was genuinely engaged in the conversation and happy to answer my "questions." 

I think we hit on some interesting questions about her new book, Chosen Ones, and what it's like to write a visually-oriented novel that tackles mental health questions around "chosen one" narratives. I'd love it if folks who listened would give feedback (up to and including that I talked way too much, which I'm incredibly aware of).

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