Revisiting Old Favorites

Lately, all I've wanted to do is go back and revisit old favorites. I have no idea how or why this started--actually, no, I take that back! I know exactly when: November 9, 2016, when I sat down in front of the TV and started rewatching The West Wing from the beginning, because I literally needed to delude myself into thinking that the world was still sane, and everything would be fine. And, really, what I've discovered is this: old favorites are pop culture comfort food, and I have basically not stopped snacking since last fall. 

It's not even just TV (though I'll get back to that in a second)--I've been in the worst reading funk, too. This is embarrassing to admit, but I've only been able to finish a few of the books I've started since January. I keep skipping between them, reading a few chapters of each at a time. I think it's partly because of a toxic combination of generalized stress and deadline angst (and therefore guilt about reading and not working on my own stuff). For whatever reason, I can't get hooked. 

So, in an attempt to try to keep my creative well filled with some kind of fiction, I've gone back to reading old favorites, exploring some manga I left behind when I graduated college, I've been listening to CDs I haven't touched since high school, and I've started taking on marathon TV projects.

Not to brag, but... I am a sloth QUEEN. My mom and I marathoned TV shows and movies before that was a Netflix phenomenon (and, you know, socially acceptable) during summer breaks when i was home from college. This came in the form of rented DVD sets or, if we were desperate and Hollywood Video didn't have a series or season (RIP Hollywood Video), actually going out and buying them from Best Buy (RIP Best Buy's formerly amazing DVD selection). I like to think of it as determination and drive to see a job done and done well... but I really just like sitting still for twelve hours sipping tea and eating a feast of pizza.

My latest veg-out project has been...


ALIAS! (This disguise is ICONIC, right?)

Oh man, this show. I have so many random memories attached to it. My intense crush on Agent Vaughn, for one thing. But this was the show that convinced me I could potentially work for the CIA one day (as an analyst, because let's be real, my exercise-induced asthma and low tolerance for high stakes situations would take me out of the field). One of the reasons I ended up going to college on the east coast/in the DC region was because I asked my dad where CIA agents went to college and he gamely guessed Georgetown. In this same conversation he also told me I could never do drugs if I wanted to work for the CIA because they'd ask me about it in a lie detector test, and I still, to this day, have never done drugs. (His drug-free strategy was a long game. Props to you, Dad.)

I'll be the first to admit the show really went off the rails in the later seasons. It's actually a really good storytelling lesson: the deeper you get into the mythology no one really understands or cares about, the more confusing it becomes and the harder it is to connect to the characters (aka the reason most people are watching). The first three seasons are so grounded in universal themes of wanting to gain control of your life, family, struggling for balance and love; you still get degrees of that later, to a lesser extent. I love the human story of ALIAS more than anything.

The first thing that really struck me during this rewatch is how confident and competent Sydney is. If you don't know a thing about ALIAS, here are the basics: Sydney is a grad student who works for a covert branch of what she thinks is the CIA, called SD-6. As you could probably guess from my set-up, it is not, in fact, affiliated with the CIA, and she's unwittingly been working for the bad guys all along. When she confesses what she does to her finance, SD-6 has him killed and sets her on a path of revenge: she begins working as a double agent for the real CIA to take down SD-6 and the rest of the shadowy Alliance. Oh, and her dad (played by the fabulous Victor Garber!) is also a double agent. And her mom is... well, you'll have to watch. ;) 

Back to Syd, though, it's amazing to me how much nuance I missed when I first watched the show. Back then, I was focused on the literal asskicking that was happening every episode (and holy smokes does Jennifer Garner SO MUCH ASS), I missed the subtler notes: that she's extremely good at her job, is valued by her shady af spy organization for her skills, and Sydney knows it. In fact, in the pilot, she calls Vaughn (her CIA handler and Spy Cutie (TM)) out for wasting her time. She goes through a horrible time with, you know, the dead fiancee and discovering her dad has been a spy this whole time, and also the whole part where SD-6 tried to assassinate her, too, when it seemed like she was trying to get out. But Sydney never loses that sense of self-possession. It's even visible in how she walks:

Spy strut!

Another thing I noticed on this rewatch was how hard Syd worked to keep the balance between her "real" life and her covert life, and how much she struggled with the fact she was lying to her friends. Actually, on a whole, I was significantly less invested in her love life this time around--maybe because knowing how it ends robbed a lot of that unresolved tension? The family and friendship dynamics were so much more compelling to me, likely because they provided much more storytelling tension and because, well, Sydney very clearly doesn't need a dude to feel fulfilled, even a Spy Cutie (TM). 

Her friendship with Francie is so wonderful and genuine--I actually forgot how much I loved it and how supportive they are of each other. But, um, here's why I think I forgot: that Francie twist in season 2. Super problematic on the rewatch and robs the series of one of its only true female friendships (arrrghhh). Maybe the best thing you can say about it is that it gave Allison Doren, Francie's actress, another interesting role to play...?

You know what's even worse, though? They really missed the mark with how they represent some of the non-Western cultures. And, worse than that? They have Sydney in brownface and yellowface a few times while in disguise. Y-I-K-E-S. That never sat well with me, even when I was younger, and I STILL don't know why they felt like they had to do it, other than FOR SPY DISGUISE REASONS which... find another way, people. It was bad then, but in today's world, it was somehow even more jarring.

I don't think we should forgive our old favorites for flaws, especially big ones like these. I certainly have messed up out of ignorance in my own work. But I think it's become more important than ever to call them out and learn from them so as not to repeat them moving forward. The last decade of my life has taught me a lot--and I mean A LOT--about privilege and these deeply ingrained storytelling tendencies to default on white, and how some storytelling decisions can come at the expense of non-white characters. 

Anyway, I could go on and on. Life experience really becomes a lens through which we view all of this pop culture, so I'm curious to see what other shows will or won't hold up on rewatch, or how differently I'll interpret them. Have you guys revisited any of your old favorites recently?

On that note, I'll leave with with another recently rediscovered favorite I can't stop listening to: