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TV musings: Bones - Swan Tower

Jun. 28th, 2010

11:57 am - TV musings: Bones

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This show is a good example of the Netflix Effect: there are other things I'm more interested in watching, but they're not available as streaming video, and Bones is. Laziness being a mighty thing, I end up watching the one that is more easily available. (This has its limits; I've streamed things where I've watched an episode or two -- or in one case, five minutes -- and promptly given up. But if a show is decent, and also immediately available, it wins.)

Anyway, I wanted to talk a bit about the show, because it's a story and I can't not think about stories when they're in front of me. So far, I've watched two seasons, and the first few eps of S3.

As with most ensemble shows, the big appeal is the supporting cast: I am totally there for Hodgins and Zack and Angela, and Goodman (in S1) and Camille (in S2). I am absurdly fond of characters who combine geekiness + gruesomeness, so all the banter about dead bodies and such? I'm there. Given the kerfuffle I saw a little while ago over the plans to axe 2/3 of the female cast from Criminal Minds, I should also give props to the people behind Bones for bringing Camille in at the start of S2, making for a 50/50 balance in the core cast -- only it's more than that, really, because the lab scenes are often dominated by Brennan, Camille, and Angela, with Zack and Hodgins more playing support, and man, it's nice after all these shows with their one token female character.

Of the two protagonists, Brennan* may be the more important one, but Booth is the one I enjoy. David Boreanaz is capable of less wooden performances than his stint as Angel led me to believe, and I like the way they handle his backstory angst: the scripts rarely wallow in it (at least in the two seasons I've seen), but it's there, and gets brought up when it should be. (My favorite instance probably being an ep where Brennan said of a character, "I wish I had killed him." Booth's response: a very curt, "no, you don't," and then he got up from the table and left.) Their interactions are reasonably entertaining, and if I have one macro complaint on that front, it's that I'd like a little more drama to leaven the comedy. But halfway through S2 they had a nice little run of eps that gave me exactly that, so maybe I'll get more in the future.

My real macro complaint, though -- and my real problem with Brennan -- has to do with the way the show handles anthropology.

Forensic stuff first, because my comments here are fairly brief. I don't know much about this field beyond some very basic elements of osteology, but it looks reasonably solid to my eye. The only thing that makes me roll my eyes is when they glance at a skeleton and instantly rattle off its sex, age, and race; that requires measurements, and even then the answer is often a matter of statistical probability, not certainty. But it would get old really fast if every episode showed the characters checking for fusion of the epiphyses and measuring the angle of the greater sciatic notch, and besides, the basic demographic facts of a the corpse du jour are usually not the interesting part of the story. So I'm fine with the scripts eliding that part and getting on to the more complicated questions.

What does bug me is the cultural anthropology. Oh, good lord, the cultural anthropology.

Quick primer for those with different majors: traditionally the discipline of anthropology is divided into four fields, those being biological (aka physical), cultural (aka social), linguistic, and archaeology. Of the four, the only one less likely to produce a forensic specialist than cultural is linguistic anthropology. Most forensic anthropologists, so far as I'm aware, come out of bio anth, which covers things like human evolution, primatology, and the physical aspects of modern human populations -- nutrition, genetics, osteology, etc. Some probably come out of archaeology, which again might mean a background in osteology, and definitely some experience with excavating human remains and other kinds of evidence. The remainder of the field's practitioners probably come from a medical background instead.

Your average anthro department will require its undergrads to have basic familiarity with all four fields, but most students end up focusing on one or another. Sometimes two, but that usually happens because the student has something particular they're interested in, that sits squarely on the intersection of two fields. (E.g., archaeology and cultural anth, because the student in question is interested in the way the past gets mobilized for current purposes, like tourism or national identity.) The writers, however, insist that Brennan is a forensic anthropologist with enough of a background in cultural anth that she's done actual fieldwork for it, and they insist this while a) giving no sensible reason why she did both and b) making her an atrocious cultural anthropologist.

How is she atrocious? Let me count the ways, starting with her lack of people skills. Fieldwork is a fundamental part of cultural anthropology, and the primary component of fieldwork is talking to people. Building a rapport with them. Being a student of what they have to say (rather than lecturing them on what you think), and trying to learn to see things as they do (rather than explaining how their ways of seeing don't make sense). You have to have patience, and respect for alternate points of view, and a knack for making friends.

None of which sounds like Temperance Brennan. When they show her "understanding" cultural practices, it's always in an incredibly didactic, hard-science way that comes across as patronizing at best, contemptuous at worst. And that understanding comes and goes based on the writers' desire for conflict, so that she condescendingly "understands" say, the behavior of pony-play fetishists, while insulting Booth's religion to his face. Which is compounded by the recurrent insistence that she doesn't like psychology -- a non-trivial component of cultural anthropology. How can you understand the behavior of people in groups if you have no idea what makes them tick as individuals? Not that the writers are any more consistent on that point; she can and does bad-mouth psychology as waffly pseudo-science, then turn around and (in the same episode) tell FBI investigators to photograph a killer's apartment before they move anything, because there might be significance to how he's arranged the objects on his shelves. Hello? Is that not psychological analysis?

I have no problem with Brennan when she's being an uber-rational woman of science, concerned solely with bones and chemicals and other things that lend themselves to statistical measurement. I have no problem with her lack of people skills and her contempt for the social sciences. What I do have a problem with is the show's writers then trying to claim she's also very good at the things they just told me she was bad at.

Fortunately, I've found a workaround, a way for me to justify her behavior so I don't beat myself to death with the remote every time she starts spouting off on cultural matters: I pretend her only background is in biological anthropology. Forget what the scripts have said about her doing cultural fieldwork; I tell myself she's only ever worked with dead bodies and non-human primates. Then I have a simple explanation for why she boils every. freaking. thing. down to issues of dominance and aggression. (Which is probably bad primatology, too -- but at least then it's outside my own area of expertise, so it doesn't make my brain hurt.)

moonandserpent has referred to Bones as "the show about Angel and the woman with no personality," To me, it's not so much that she has no personality, more that the writers don't have a good grip on her, so her personality comes across as inconsistent. She's bad at relating to people, but Sully (who was not a fellow uber-geek) wanted to run away with her forever after like four episodes. (Yes, I know he was set up as impulsive. Still.) She has a hard time communicating forensics to the layperson without drowning them in technical detail, but she writes novels about a forensic anthropologist that sell so insanely well her publisher does things like buying her a car. (Pardon me while I laugh hysterically over that one.) Some of it feels like the writers flinching back from making their female protagonist break certain bits of the mold; okay, we can say she's socially awkward and all, but we have to tone back on that when it comes to her dating people, because we have to show that she's desirable. Some of it just feels sloppy.

Not so sloppy that I give up on watching the show entirely. They have too much fun dialogue, especially among the secondary characters, for me to walk away. (Hodgins meets a hot woman from another lab. Angela walks up to introduce herself. "Hi, I'm Angela. I do facial reconstructions. Also Hodgins.") But I do wish they would they would lay off things they don't understand.




*It's a bit odd, writing about Brennan doing this, Brennan doing that. For the first time, I have a sense of what it's like to be someone with a moderately common name.

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From:beccastareyes
Date:June 28th, 2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
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That's a shame, since having more interesting fictional scientists on TV (especially female ones) is a good thing, but having well-written versions of same is a better thing.

(Also, technical consultants are your friend. Sure, sometimes you fudge so the plot doesn't get bogged down*, but you want to keep it to fudging, rather than 'making shit up'. Consultants can also give you what being an X is like. Just today, someone over in the classics department was talking about the politics involved in who was picked to teach summer classes, which is totally different than in astronomy**.)

* Speed up the process, reduce uncertainty, etc.

** Mostly because of funding differences between fields.
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From:swan_tower
Date:June 28th, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC)
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I've heard that the more informed attitude toward the forensics in Bones is, "most of what they do is possible, but not that quickly and not within the budget any real institution is likely to have." Which puts it within the realm of fudgeability for fiction, at least by my own standards. So I suspect they do have consultants for that.

The problem is, I get the impression they don't think they really need technical consultants for the cultural anthropology digressions. And they do; oh, they do.
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From:jsbangs.wordpress.com
Date:June 28th, 2010 07:26 pm (UTC)
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My wife and I watched every episode of Bones that's available on Netflix a few months ago, in the miserable period right before and right after our second baby was born. You've hit most of my reactions to it: Booth is the reason that I kept watching, being much more relatable and interesting than Brennan, and the secondary cast is just fantastic. (BTW, they eliminate my favorite supporting character at the end of S3, in a particularly gut-wrenching way. Enjoy guessing who! Oh, and then they back-pedal on the most horrible aspects of it in S4, which I thought was completely cheesy--if you're going to put me through that, writers, don't try to take it back later.)

But remember that thing you blogged about a few weeks ago, about TV doing a horrible hatchet job on geeky subcultures? Have you gotten to the episode about the comic book geeks? Because OMFG was that painful. There's another one in S4 (IIRC) that does the same thing for death metal, getting even fundamental things wrong like the fact that metalheads usually do not wear white facepaint and black makeup. (Those are goths, which is a very different subculture from death metal.) It made me retroactively sympathetic to those horse-fetishists, who I'm sure felt very misrepresented by their episode.

Likewise with her bizarre treatment of religion, psychology, and anything else that's vaguely immaterial. She acts as the apologist for Voudoun and Shintoism in some episodes, and but as you said she's completely contemptuous of Booth's religion every time it comes up.

It was mostly enjoyable popcorn fare, but I don't feel compelled to watch any more episodes as they come out.
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From:swan_tower
Date:June 28th, 2010 07:31 pm (UTC)
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I've actually come across mild spoilers for the series, so I know who's going away. I like my gut being wrenched; it's disappointing to hear they flinch back from it later.

The comic book geeks were the ones who sparked that rant, actually. As with your metalheads, the writers really crossed their wires; the geeks were part comic book fan, part LARPer, and neithe part got done right. So yeah, by the time the horse-fetishists showed up, I was already sympathetic to them, because I can only assume their habits got misrepresented to a similar degree.

I haven't seen the Shinto-related episode yet, but yeah, the contrast between her treatments of Voudoun and Catholicism is just wildly inconsistent. There are people who could hold exactly that kind of inconsistency in their heads -- but Brennan shouldn't be one of them, not the way they've represented her. And if I ascribe that mode of thinking to her in order to justify the discrepancy, my opinion of her as a person goes downhill, fast.
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From:metagnat
Date:June 28th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC)
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I like a lot of things about the show, and I think it's remarkably un-fail-ey on the front of feminism/sexual politics. But that just makes it stand out so much more when they fail, usually with identity-based groups.

The pony play episode was full of fail to me. Other episodes that stand out as full of fail were about gaming & comics nerds (particularly grating, since that's a heavy part of my self-identity) and about fat people.

I, too, really like the background characters a lot. Angela and Hodgins delight me.

It's funny to me that, in some ways, the lack of day-to-day fail on the show makes it easier to watch (in that I watch it at all), but it also causes me to develop expectations and standards which often fail to be fulfilled by the show's writing.

I spent a lot of time screaming to my roommate about what was wrong with the show, till he was like "why do you even watch it"?

There still just aren't that many shows with so many interesting, intelligent, independent female characters. Or, indeed, interesting and intelligent characters of any and all genders.
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From:swan_tower
Date:June 28th, 2010 07:40 pm (UTC)
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As moonandserpent said when I was ranting about the comic-book ep, these kinds of "murder of the week" shows tend to cater to the assumed values of the mainstream white middle-class audience, so the format tends to be "encounter weird Other group, explore weirdness of weird Other group, generate conflict from said weirdnesses, end by affirming core values in contrast with those weirdos." Because god forbid you instead structure the episode around discovering what kind of benefit the values of the Other group have to offer.

It gets additionally annoying the case of Bones because the anthropology angle means they feel free/obliged to "justify" or "explain" the Other, in the voice of their (mostly) mainstream protagonist.
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From:pentane
Date:June 28th, 2010 07:40 pm (UTC)
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I've always looked at it as being spawned from the same mindset that gives us characters with the same numbers of skill points.

Gerard usually ends up as some kind of underestimated man of powers since he has the same points as Corwin and Benedict (erm, in Amber DRPG).

In the same way, they give Bones all these neat powers (smart, good looking, martial artist) and then get kind of stuck for disads, so they wing it and come up with a character sheet that doesn't hang together.

I think Booth is probably the best realized character (character sheet hangs together best), in fact, though Zack runs a close second for me.
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From:swan_tower
Date:June 28th, 2010 07:42 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, if this were an RPG, Brennan's player would be the min-maxing twink who takes a random salad of disadvantages to buy all the crazy leet skills, then conveniently forgets to roleplay those disadvantages when they get in the way.

I think Brennan's player is dating the GM, and that's why he lets her get away with it. :-)
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From:diatryma
Date:June 28th, 2010 07:46 pm (UTC)
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I saw a bit of an episode while I was home with my family-- my sister really likes it-- and it happened to be... atheist and religion? I don't know the backstory hugely, but it came in the same week as a House gratuitous-God-talk episode and it just annoyed me. I try not to be an ass about religion. I expect other adults who live in the adult world to be at least as nonassish as I am.
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From:swan_tower
Date:June 28th, 2010 07:50 pm (UTC)
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Their assishness about it varies wildly depending on the episode. (Which, in a way, makes it worse -- because they're not even operating from a position of genuine, if abrasive, conviction.)
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From:j_cheney
Date:June 28th, 2010 07:48 pm (UTC)
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And that understanding comes and goes based on the writers' desire for conflict, so that she condescendingly "understands" say, the behavior of pony-play fetishists, while insulting Booth's religion to his face.

I recall there was an episode in perhpas the first season where she is all compassion about allowing a muslim family to observe the rites associated with burial...it was horribly out of character. Written for political correctness, I assume, rather than for consistency.
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From:swan_tower
Date:June 28th, 2010 07:57 pm (UTC)
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It was excellently in-character for a cultural anthropologist. But for Brennan? Yeah, no. Had it been a Catholic family, her dialogue would probably have boiled down to, "I'm doing my investigation, and that takes priority; you can have the remains for your meaningless rituals once I'm done." (In fact, I think that's happened in some eps, though maybe not in a specifically Catholic context.) I don't object to them writing a more sensitive response for a Muslim family; I object to the fact that they only feel obliged to do so when there's external political tension in the mix.

In my head, there's an alternate version of the show where Brennan acts like a decent cultural anthropologist, and the tension arises, not between her and that week's walk-on representatives of non-mainstream culture, but between her and the Powers That Be of the FBI, where she's constantly having to advocate for consideration and flexibility in their approach to the cases. I would be all over that.
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From:celestineangel
Date:June 28th, 2010 07:55 pm (UTC)
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And that understanding comes and goes based on the writers' desire for conflict, so that she condescendingly "understands" say, the behavior of pony-play fetishists, while insulting Booth's religion to his face.

THANK YOU. I've always had big issues with her being able to rationalize practices that are taboo to us, while being so insulting toward religion, being as religion is always a big part of any culture. If she doesn't believe herself, she should at least respect that other people do, and it's important to them.
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From:swan_tower
Date:June 28th, 2010 08:00 pm (UTC)
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As it's been pointed out elsewhere in the comments, she's not even insulting toward religion when the religious group in question is non-white minority (Voudoun, Islam, etc). That doesn't make either her or the writers look good.
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From:querldox
Date:June 28th, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC)
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Theoretically, Zack in particular, and Brennan to a somewhat lesser extent, are being written as having Asperger's Syndrome, but, similar to Sheldon on Big Bang Theory, the writers don't want to state this for fear of either being called on getting it wrong and/or limiting what they can do with the characters. Although I've also heard that Brennan may undergo some introspection next season about whether she does have Asperger's.

Also, although I missed the ep and it hasn't come around in reruns yet, a late season ep is supposed to provide some rationale for how Brennan could possibly write novels with any significant characterization.
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From:swan_tower
Date:June 28th, 2010 09:39 pm (UTC)
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I don't know enough about the syndrome to know if they're appropriately-written examples of it or not.

a late season ep is supposed to provide some rationale for how Brennan could possibly write novels with any significant characterization.

She has a ghostwriter?
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From:yuuo
Date:June 28th, 2010 09:45 pm (UTC)
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THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU.

I have argued that point about psychology and her bad social skills with my mother because I damn well know what anthropology is, I had an interest in it back in school, and she still insists it's a-okay. My mother is an idiot. I'm glad to hear someone out there agrees with me.
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From:swan_tower
Date:June 28th, 2010 09:52 pm (UTC)
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It isn't a huge part of anthropology, but it's there; you've got to have some sense of it in order to be able to deal intelligently with the people you're talking to. (E.g. "this person is being so helpful to me because they have low status in this group, and being associated with me gives them higher status," or "what I've just been told may be warped by the fact that the woman who said it has a grudge against that other woman," or whatever.)
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From:miintikwa
Date:June 28th, 2010 09:51 pm (UTC)
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From a writing perspective, the show is interesting because they were originally supposed to be based on books by Kathy Reichts, but she wouldn't turn over enough control, so the writers brought in someone else and completely changed the story. I've always rather wondered how the show would have turned out if she'd kept a hand in.

As to the show itself, the storyline in season 3/season 4, which was basically the shower scene from Dallas, made me so mad I stopped watching. (Well, that and the Ang/Hodges on-again, off-again romance, and the way the writers continually jerked us around about Booth & Brennan getting together. I just got sick of it. At least with House they finally went ahead and got House and Cuddy together.)
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From:swan_tower
Date:June 28th, 2010 09:53 pm (UTC)
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Heh. With House, I still feel jerked around, because everything in this last season telegraphed a House/Wilson romance, and I wanted to see them go through with it.

I'm told the Kathy Reichs books are rather different. I may pick one up eventually, just to see what it's like.
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From:akirlu
Date:June 28th, 2010 09:55 pm (UTC)
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I've watched a couple of episodes because, as you say, it's available on streaming video on Netflix. I don't think I can abide the writing long enough to watch much more. The geekishness of the supporting characters is written as if the writers think they remember being at the same party as a geek once, and have seen a lot of geek characters on other shows. It's a copy of a forgery of a simulacrum. I had a brief hope in the opening episode when Angela is running late to pick up Brennan at the airport and I thought at first that they were a lesbian couple. Alas, no. And then, when you get the juxtaposition of Brennan having just broken up with a domineering guy, and then Booth has her harassed and detained at the airport, and for one shining moment I thought that the set-up would be that Booth is Brennan's ex- and now they have to figure out ways to work with each other despite his ongoing need to run her life...but again, no.

I find the emotional lives of the characters very one-note-y and implausible. Booth is Cranky and Brennan Doesn't Get People. As character notes, this doesn't get me past the first five minutes, let alone a full show.

And yeah, the Anthropology. Because a Ph.D. in anthropology is going to blithely carry a human skull home in her carry on luggage, expecting no problems and seeing none. Aiiiiiiiieeee.
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From:swan_tower
Date:June 28th, 2010 10:02 pm (UTC)
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It sounds like you started at the beginning, yes? It takes a little while for the show to hit its stride, I will admit. I found the pilot very off-putting, especially with how hugely (and pointlessly) abrasive Brennan was, but I warmed to it after a few more episodes. They tone down some of the worst bits, and while the characters don't exactly develop a lot of depths, they're at least more entertaining in their one-note-ness.
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From:wadam
Date:June 29th, 2010 02:31 am (UTC)
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Excellent discussion. You've captured everything that I like, and everything that I hate about this show. I think that I might have more enthusiasm for the show than you do in the end. But then I think that I have more enthusiasm for bad TV of a certain type than most people I know.
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From:swan_tower
Date:June 29th, 2010 04:19 am (UTC)
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To get really enthusiastic, I need to invest in the characters. There isn't enough depth to the ones on Bones for that really to happen, especially not with Brennan failing to pull her share of the weight.

I still wouldn't call it bad TV, though. Decent TV with some flaws, yes.
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From:batgirl_raff
Date:June 29th, 2010 02:54 pm (UTC)
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THANK YOU! I am a biological anthropologist (*waves to fellow IU Anthro alumn*), and I absolutely can't stand this show. I tried, honestly. But trust me, they get the bio stuff just as wrong as they get the cultural stuff.
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From:swan_tower
Date:June 29th, 2010 05:28 pm (UTC)
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Aw, that's a shame. I was hoping they actually went to the trouble of getting their main focus right, at least. :-/
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From:kleenestar
Date:June 29th, 2010 07:55 pm (UTC)
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Did we talk about this when you were in NYC? Chris and I have just started watching this for much the same reasons as you; it's consistently entertaining, if not great, and available on streaming Netflix. Also, once I realized it had THREE strong female characters, I wasn't gonna stop!

As for Brennan, I have a theory: she's a not-so-closet sociobiologist. Brennan may be a terrible cultural anthropologist, but a lot of the things she says are pretty much sociobiology - which is, for the record, full of shit, but I know plenty of real-life people sans social skills who latch onto it. When someone really can't follow the complexities of cultural nuance or personal psychology, it becomes easier to attribute everything to biological or evolutionary factors. Sociobiology also loves to coopt other fields (see: evolutionary psychology) so I can totally see them getting their intellectually dishonest little hands on her. That would explain why she calls her sociobiology "cultural anthropology" despite her total lack of competence in evaluating culture. After all, what do you really need to know about how people behave in groups except what their basic biological drives are?

(I also like the primatology theory, for the record. But since I know not just one but several people who are EXACTLY like Brennan - socially incompetent but endlessly willing to hold forth about how evolution just so happens to explain our modern cultural structures - my sociobiology theory makes me hate her a little, but also understand her more.)

(Did I mention I really hate sociobiology and evolutionary psychology? Hate, hate, hate. Hatehatehate.)
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From:swan_tower
Date:June 29th, 2010 08:00 pm (UTC)
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Tell me how you really feel about it. <g>

No, we didn't talk about it; I'm amused to know we're more or less in the same boat. I like your sociobiology theory, and I don't think it's incompatible with the primatology explanation: I could really see her, as a bio anth major, getting indoctrinated with that way of thinking before she ever studied cultural anth, and it's all downhill from there. Especially if you add in the side theory I developed yesterday, which is that Brennan was sent to one or more bad therapists when she got put into foster care, and that gave her an irrational hatred of psychology as a field, which then in turn spills over to any social science that depends at least in part on understanding how people tick.
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From:penrynsdreams
Date:July 1st, 2010 03:02 am (UTC)
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You've articulated a lot of what I feel about the show. I really do love it, but the general!fail and particularly the cultural anth!fail get the heck on my nerves. It's not even that I mind that Brennan is so *wrong* on certain fronts, it's that the show doesn't acknowledge it! I have a similar theory to yours - she took a couple of cultural anthropology classes in college b/c her major required it, but she related more to the anthropology of the past than modern anthropology. She didn't take any more classes, but read the field studies that appealed to her (a.k.a. nothing written after 1960). Maybe she did a summer field study or two as an undergraduate. Nothing that lasted more than two or three months, that's for sure.

I really enjoy her arc over the seasons and can accept some of her inconsistencies as her trying to be someone she's not, trying to figure out who she wants to be. I don't *like* her, and for fuck's sake the cultural anth stuff pisses me off, but I think she's an interesting character.

There are things I can't excuse the show for but I doubt I'll stop watching it. There were a couple of things I wanted to say in response to others', but I can only remember one: Her "ability" to write the emotional side of her books is explained in one of the last couple of seasons.
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From:swan_tower
Date:July 1st, 2010 08:42 pm (UTC)
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If she were an archaeologist, I'd say she got trapped by processual theory and never escaped. As you say, nothing more recent than 1960.
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