How to Make (or Not Make) “Timely” TV

TV Features Queen of the South
How to Make (or Not Make) “Timely” TV

The original title I pitched for this piece was “In the Summer of the Big Bad Woman, Dietland and Queen of the South Are Here to Blow Your House Down.”

Even if all you did was glance at the promotional material for each series—the former premiered on AMC earlier this month; the latter returns for a third season tonight on USA—this would seem, if not as clever as I’m convinced that it is, then at least reasonable. Both summer series center on a pantheon of fed-up women storming into their own power. Both glory in their utter lack of patience for patriarchy’s hurt feelings.

Both have even featured their Head Bitch In Charge coming to the same galvanizing conclusion about the intractable state of gender relations:

“Men would rather destroy the world than let us rule it,” Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies) tells her news anchor BFF, Cheryl (Rowena King), by way of justifying the pair’s continued patriarchal complicity, in the third episode of Dietland. “He’d rather destroy it all than lose it to you,” right-hand man James (Peter Gadiot) observes to queenpin Camila Vargas (Veronica Falcón) at the end of Queen of the South’s first season, as she witnesses her ex-husband/competing cartel boss laying gory waste to all their mutual suppliers.

The series are agreed: Powerfully weak men fear quietly powerful women. And Dietland and Queen of the South each want to tell their version of that story in the most entertaining and engaging way they can manage.

Within their own creative spheres, each show absolutely succeeds at this objective. Highly stylized, vividly shot, well cast, they are both eminently compelling summer TV. Joy Nash steals the show as Dietland’s pre-woke fat heroine, Plum Kettle, while Alice Braga’s steely, laconic confidence as Theresa Mendoza on Queen of the South is a weekly revelation.

If all I wanted to do was point out how much these two shows have in common, I might end my essay here, and my editor might get to knock off work early. But for all the two series have in common on the surface—and despite the fact that they were developed a mere two years apart—they don’t actually belong to the same cultural moment. In fact, they are barely even participating in the same conversation. And in that disconnect, the promise and peril of tying your television series to the sharpest point of the zeitgeist is laid bare.

Here is what I mean: Dietland, responding to the feminine rage that has been boiling over since the 2016 election, the 2017 Weinstein takedown and the subsequent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, belongs entirely to 2018. Adapted by feminist-TV powerhouse Marti Noxon (Buffy, UnReal, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce), it is staffed behind the camera by a plurality of women. Its first five episodes have seen directing duties split between Noxon and a male director (Michael Trim), with the balance in favor of Noxon. Five of its six writers are women. It has the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in its veins, and Frances McDormand’s viral call for inclusion riders in its bones. It is entirely aware that who tells its stories behind the camera matters as much as it matters who plays out those stories on screen.

As for how it chooses to engage with its audience, each new episode is paired with a socio-politically charged aftershow hosted by Aisha Tyler and featuring cultural heavy-hitters like Lindy West, Gloria Allred, and Yvette Nicole Brown.

Queen of the South, meanwhile, belongs to kind of feminist-leaning creativity that was alive and well in the final Obama-era summer of 2016—the bullish the-world-is-our-canvas kind that considered the establishment of the amoral antiheroine archetype as one of the next great cultural leaps forward. Queen of the South, though it does treat its female leads with a respect that borders on awe and features three male co-stars who are dreamily secure in their masculinity, was still created by two men, and is staffed behind the camera by an all-too-familiar gender imbalance: Only three out of the series’ 18 writers are women. And only six episodes out of 33 have been directed by a woman (compared to eight that have been directed by men named David).

As for how Queen of the South chooses to engage its audience, the closest thing it has had to an aftershow is this Queens on Queen fizzy, drama-forward recap of Seasons One and Two that dropped last week:

Subject-wise, there are similarly untraversable chasms between the two shows. Dietland, tied firmly to one of one of the zeitgeistier points of an already densely zeitgeisty year, makes women’s revenge fantasies about the ongoing bullshit patriarchy not just its explicit subject, but its whole world. It limits its action to the sphere of women’s media, and the toxic beauty standards that same media colludes, wittingly or not, with a capitalist patriarchy to propagate. That may sound more all-encompassing than limiting, but what it ultimately means is that the show’s dramatic beats are necessarily contained within the character growth of individual women. Those individual arcs of growth might lead to a revolution that topples the patriarchy, sure, but that kind of revolution is nevertheless the kind that can—and, in fact, has to—start on the smallest of scales. In a cultural moment in which the hourly onslaught of individually unfixable nightmares threatens to overwhelm us all, that kind of storytelling makes a show like Dietland rise above the fray.

Queen of the South, for its part, takes as its explicit subject the internecine war for power and survival between its female leads, for which it cheerfully uses the stereotype-reinforcing violence of Mexican drug cartels—which provides ample opportunity for visually exciting action and gunfights and double-crosses—as dramatic scaffolding. If it has any interest in fomenting revolution, it is in fomenting the personal revolution of individual women toppling the specific patriarch (or enemy matriarch) keeping them from achieving their own unique power.

In 2016, this was enough, and the Mexican drug cartel world made for interesting narrative fodder. But also in 2016, children weren’t being caged at the U.S.-Mexico border as a direct result of the Trump team’s campaign to use the spectre of Mexican gang and drug violence to foment white nationalism and bigotry against immigrants and refugees from Mexico and Central America. In 2018, I, at least, am less willing to keep the wool pulled over my own eyes about how that kind of story affects and reflects the real world, and am less patient for stories in which a grab for individual power, no matter how thrilling, no matter if it’s a woman making the grab, supersedes my desire for stories that at least make a pass at providing a blueprint to a world that sucks less.

To its credit, Queen of the South does wave a disgusted hand at trafficking, anti-feminists, and white nationalist citizen border “militias” in its first two seasons, and adds more and angrier hand-waving to Sheriff Arpaio-style policing as Theresa moves her operation to Arizona in an upcoming episode in Season Three (the final episode made available for review). But surface-level anger is really as deep as it goes—more than that, it’s really as deep as it can go. Queen of the South is an action-based soap opera that has spent two seasons littering both sides of its own U.S.-Mexico border with the bodies of innumerable Mexican redshirts, and has made it clear that it finds greater dramatic potential in populating Mexico uniquely with participants in or victims of cartel violence, and no potential in examining how either that violence destabilizes global peace, or how more robust cocaine trade ruins the lives of individual human beings. It couldn’t adjust to be more direct in addressing its role in the cultural and political zeitgeist without completely changing the kind of show it is.

For many people, this kind of detachment between escapist television and real world might be fine—it might, in fact, be some people’s preference to pretend for an hour or two that the world is as simple as it used to be easy to believe it was. But for a show that was so evidently developed to respond with a feminine ferocity to the cultural moment of 2016—a show that has the bad luck of being good, but in its very nature is unable to catch up with the cultural conversation as it stands today—I can’t help but be disappointed. Disappointed, and anxious for what might become of Dietland if the current cultural movement races forward faster than the show itself can keep up. (A recent profile in The Atlantic noted that Noxon “says she looks at Dietland sometimes and thinks, Will this be too tame by the time it airs?” Which, spoiler! Doesn’t help!)

But that’s the future. Right now, the delicious Dietland has 2018’s number. And Queen of the South, well—maybe it will take that Arpaio-esque storyline and expand it into something surprisingly transgressive. I hope so. I have really grown to love watching Theresa Mendoza save herself again and again, and would love to get to do that without my heart in my throat about the horrors her successes perpetuate.

Dietland airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on AMC. Season Three of Queen of the South premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on USA Network.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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