Series Saturday: VICIOUS

Series Saturday is a series about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.

Vicious DVD covers.png

Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead (Yes, for a sitcom.)

Vicious didn’t last long, but I think it’s possibly in my Top 5 favorite sit-coms. Had it had more episodes per season or lasted longer, my opinion might have changed. But the short, sweet run it had (14 episodes over a three-year span, including the extra-long Finale) was I think just enough to fall in love with these bitter, snarking characters and not grow tired of them.

Created by Gary Janetti and Mark Ravenhill, Vicious originally aired in the UK before making its way to the United States on PBS, which is where I saw the first season and bits of the second. I bought the DVDs to watch the episodes my DVR had somehow failed to record (including the Finale). Because of course I did. The series focuses on Freddie (Sir Ian McKellan) and Stuart (Sir Derek Jacobi), a couple who have been together for forty-eight years at the start of the first season. In short order, they (and we) meet their new, cute-as-a-button, young upstairs neighbor Ash (Iwan Rheon) and the speculation starts as to whether the young man is “family” or not (Spoiler: he’s not.). Freddie and Stuart’s lifelong friend Violet (Frances de la Tour) also takes a shine to Ash, although the couple’s other close friends, absent-minded Penelope (Marcia Warren) and acerbic Mason (Philip Voss) don’t seem quite so enamored of Ash at first.

The first season feels the freshest and most tightly written, perhaps because the writers are so invested in getting us to understand the characters and their relationships that they wrote seven mostly stand-alone episodes. Other than Ash being drawn more completely into the older characters’ circle, there’s no real “season arc” to speak of. Each episode sets up a situation, hits certain expected moments, and resolves by episode’s end. The running joke of Stuart constantly reintroducing Ash to Violet (“You remember our friend Violet,” often delivered as though the two have never met before) is the closest the writers come to a situation that lasts several episodes and then is resolved in the season finale. Season Two’s more structured lead-up to Freddie and Stuart’s wedding after fifty years together, coupled with a change in episode structure (every episode of season one started with Stuart on the phone with his mother and some Freddie-Stuart ribbing; season two’s episodes start with the two conversing as they walk down the street and something about the on-location filming feels out of place to me) makes the season feel less improvised and thus less fresh. There are still wonderful moments of comedy and character development, but there’s a lot of run-of-the-mill dialogue and situational slapstick as well (I’m looking at you, Mason, Penelope and the wedding cake!).

Both leads deliver their quips with just enough of a wink that the viewers understand these are two men who have developed a verbal shorthand where almost everything they say means “I love you and I wouldn’t change you for the world.” Relationship-wise, it’s clear that Freddie is a bit more dominant, Stuart a bit more submissive – and when the writers reverse the relationship (for instance, in the season two opener, when Freddie has to play subservient butler to a “straight, macho” Stuart to help Violet during a visit from her condescending sister), the writing is at its best. It helps that Sir Ian and Sir Derek obviously enjoy feeding off of each other’s energy, and one has to wonder how much of their banter was ad-libbed. (I also think it’s interesting that Sir Ian says they each had crushes on the other during early acting school days, but neither ever confessed to the other. I wonder what having them as the First Gay Couple of British Theater in real life would have been like.)

The characters’ styles are very different as well. In both dress and personality, Freddie is a bit haughty, Stuart more demure. Stuart wants to be liked/loved, while Freddie just assumes he is. They are both capable of delivering a cutting bon-mot towards their friends, however, and sometimes seem gleeful in inflicting pain. I do wish we’d seen more of what brought these five people together and just a hint more of the love they feel for each other; it’s the one true negative about the lead characters. Sure, in the season two wedding episode, they show some affection – but there’s a lot of dismissiveness and derision before that point. One starts to wonder why Violet, Penelope and Mason have hung around for so long. (Frances de la Tour has a great moment of honesty with Ash in the Finale on this very topic, but it reads as a bit too little too late despite how very good she is in the scene.) Every so often, one of the three scores some equally cutting points on the two leads (Penelope in particular).

And while Violet is pretty well developed over the course the two seasons (de la Tour’s boozier and more lascivious line reads and sub-plots made me wish this show had done a crossover with Absolutely Fabulous), Penelope and Mason fare less well. In the second season we get a bit more of a sense of Penelope’s life and the brave face she’s putting on (Marcia Warren is brilliant in those scenes, most particularly in the ballroom dancing episode and the Finale), but the reveal that Mason is actually Freddie’s younger brother is the definition of a throw-away line for shock’s sake, as is the line about Mason also being gay. Philip Voss does the best with what he’s given, but he’s given the least of the series regulars to work with until the Finale when he has a poignant exchange with Penelope about being there for her to the end, and an almost-poignant moment with Freddie over a good memory from their apparently otherwise horrific childhood.

Then there’s Ash, the young innocent thrust into this biting, sarcastic, awkward family unit. I think it’s a credit to Iwan Rheon and the writers that the character never loses than innocence, never really takes on Freddie and Stuart’s way of interacting with others (except in one episode, with disastrous results). Even though Ash is straight, this consistency in his character points up a generational difference: the biting humor of the old queens doesn’t quite work in younger relationships. Unfortunately, there are a few episodes where the writers decide that innocent = goofy/stupid, especially in season two and the early parts of the Finale. It’s a tendency lots of sitcoms fall into, making the innocence or good-nature of a character too broad. In another example the show subverting expected tropes, it’s not the old gay men who slobber over Ash (or, more common, old straight men making lewd suggestive comments to a beautiful young woman), but their friend Violet. The Violet-Ash dynamic is the second most interesting relationship in the show, but the writers show a remarkable restraint in just how far they let it go before resolving the tension.

In the end, for me it really comes down to my enjoyment of watching three great older actors (McKellan, Jacobi, and de la Tour) work their craft, and watch an at the time relative newcomer hold his own with them.

Check out Vicious on DVD or streaming if you like: sitcoms that center gay characters; snarky humor with an undercurrent of love; watching a group of old professionals knock it out of the park; Iwan Rheon not playing a Bastard (yes, that’s a Game of Thrones reference).

Series Saturday: the SPIRITS trilogy

Series Saturday is a series about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.

Spirits Series Banner.png

 

Jordan L. Hawk is a non-binary, queer and very prolific writer of M/M supernatural romance series, including the Whyborne & Griffin books (Lovecraftian in tone, and coming to a conclusion later this year), Hexworld (alternate history NYC where magic, and shape-shifters, abound), SPECTR (modern-day vampires and ghosts), and the Spirits trilogy, which is what I’d like to talk about today.

The Spirits books (Restless Spirits, Dangerous Spirits and Guardian Spirits) take place in a slightly-alternate history America at the turn of the previous century, wherein everyone knows spirits, and thus hauntings, are real. Some spirits are friendly, or at least essentially harmless, but some can and will cause great harm. As can, and do, people who pretend to be talented mediums but who are really just fakers.

Enter Henry Strauss, a scientist who was misled and taken advantage of by a fraudulent medium when he was younger. Henry’s goal is to reduce the odds of people being taken advantage of by using scientific means to locate, attract, and ultimately remove the threat of, ghosts. His Electro-Séance does the trick, if he can get it to work correctly and convince people like the Psychical Society of Baltimore that it’s more reliable and effective than human mediums. Henry, and his assistant/cousin Jo, get their chance when they are invited by a wealthy industrialist to a de-haunt a house in upstate New York – in competition with a renowned medium, Vincent Night, and his partner Lizzie. The industrialist is pitting science against spiritualism, but Henry and Vincent feel an immediate attraction to each other. Complications (and a little bit of hilarity and sexual shenanigans) ensue.

The “science versus spiritualism” competition is really only a part of the plot of the first book, and the rest of the trilogy finds Henry and Vincent working together on cases that appear to be distinct but in fact lead to revelations about Vincent and Lizzie’s pasts and a threat to the whole world.

There are certain things one expects from a Jordan L. Hawk historical series:

·         Two engaging, but quite insecure in different ways, male leads (and chapters that alternate point of view between the two)

·         A slow-burn romance in the first book, but insecurity-driven misunderstandings even once they do get together

·         Steamy sex featuring those male leads, multiple times per book, although the number of scenes per book usually decreases the longer the series goes on

·         A diverse supporting cast

·         A well-developed world with internal logic to how the supernatural element works and consistency in whether the general public knows about/believes in the supernatural or not

·         High stakes (often life-or-death) for the characters, but also for the world or society they live in.

 

 But here’s the thing: Hawk’s books don’t feel formulaic even with all of these consistent elements. And each series, thanks to that intricate world-building and thanks to the variety of lead characters, feels different from the others.

The Spirits trilogy maintains its focus on ghosts/spirits, and eschews any other form of the supernatural. No werewolves, vampires, zombies, witches, or cosmic horrors. Just spirits and the people with the ability/talent to communicate with and affect them. Vincent Night is a medium (he can speak to spirits and spirits can speak/act through him). Lizzie Devereaux is a spirit-writer. Other supporting characters are sensitive in one way or another. And then there’s Henry, who wants to do what Vincent does through science, specifically electromagnetism, instead of spiritualism. But there’s nary a hint of other magic in the books at all, and that’s refreshing. (Even though I’ve joked with the author on social media about a story where Henry and Vincent meet my favorite Hawk characters, Whyborne and Griffin, it’s clear that these series are set in the same time-period but very different versions of “our world.”) This trilogy is an ongoing debate on science versus spirituality (or, if you’d like, science versus religion/belief), but the author at no point allows one to best the other. There’s a trend out there right now in fantasy novels for magic to work the way science does – rigid rules of use and conduct and cause-and-effect – and Hawk refreshingly doesn’t use science to explain the spiritual nor use the spiritual to justify the science.

As with many of Hawk’s romantic pairs, Henry and Vincent are a study in contrasts. Henry is literal in his approach, not prone to expressions of humor, insecure because people just don’t want to believe in his achievements (the reader sees right away that Henry’s device works, although imperfectly) and also because of the way he was taken advantage of as a young man (by a medium claiming to be speaking for his father without really doing so). Vincent is a bit more poetic, swaggering (but not overbearing) to hide his own insecurities which are based in his failure during a séance which led to his mentor’s death and in the fact people don’t want to believe he’s as intelligent as he is because he’s Native American. The attraction between the two is immediate (and acted on fairly quickly, if awkwardly). Their position as rivals for a big cash prize (which each needs to save their own business and keep themselves and their partners with food and shelter) is just the first road-block of many thrown in front of them by the author. But they do persevere and grow towards a happy relationship. (No unhappy endings or “murder your gays” tropes to be had in a Jordan Hawk book!) Although it’s never expressed in quite this way, what the men have in common is a loss of fathers via “possession.” Vincent was possessed by a malevolent spirit which killed his mentor/father-figure while in Vincent’s body, and Henry was “possessed” by the fraudulent medium who took advantage of Henry’s attraction and guilelessness to steal Henry’s inheritance away from him. Both of these possessions haunt the men, and affect not only their relationship with each other but with their friends. Vincent’s fear of being possessed again holds him back from holding the séances needed to keep his and Lizzie’s business open; Henry’s anger at being taken advantage of makes it difficult for him to compromise with the people he needs to make his business a success.

This may be the most diverse main cast of all of Hawk’s historicals, both in terms of ethnicity and gender, and that’s saying something. While Henry is a gay white man, Vincent is Native American, Jo is mixed-race (the child of Henry’s white uncle and a black servant), and Lizzie is transgender. Since the Spirits trilogy is primarily M/M romance, it would be easy to relegate Jo and Lizzie to the status of “secondary characters” but they really aren’t. They have their own character arcs and contribute to the successful resolution of the potentially world-shattering events they are taking part in, and they do get their own romantic sub-plots – they just don’t get any sex scenes.

And if that’s not a perfect segue, nothing is. As mentioned, it wouldn’t be a Hawk book without increasingly hot (even when they’re awkward) sex scenes between the leads. These scenes also tend to be lovingly romantic. But they are certainly not for the prudish. (I think the books read just as well without the explicit sex, but as the sex is part of what Hawk (as well as KJ Charles, Adam Carpenter, and other authors I enjoy) is known for, I can’t complain about their inclusion – and certainly can’t claim that they’re not well-written.

The trilogy tells a complete story, over the course of three interesting hauntings and along with a variety of sub-plots. I’m sure there’s much more that could be explored in this world and with these characters, but for now the author says the story is finished. (Maybe they’ll decide to revisit this world now that the long-running Whyborne & Griffin series is drawing to a close?)

Check out Jordan L. Hawk’s Spirits trilogy if you like: ghost stories, séances, M/M romance, diverse and well-written casts, and subtle, supernatural-based alternate history.

IT GETS BETTER

It’s been decided. On October 20th, 2010, we will wear purple in honor of the 6 gay boys who committed suicide in recent weeks/months due to homophobic abuse in their homes at at their schools. Purple represents Spirit on the LGBTQ flag and that’s exactly what we’d like all of you to have with you: spirit. Please know that times will get better and that you will meet people who will love you and respect you for who you are, no matter your sexuality. Please wear purple on October 20th. Tell your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and schools.

RIP Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh (top)
RIP Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase (middle)
RIP Asher Brown and Billy Lucas. (bottom)

REBLOG to spread a message of love, unity and peace.