The Shadow King Vs. Lemon Meringue

The television series Legion has been celebrated for its adventurous visuals and its fragmented approach to plot and storytelling. David Haller (Dan Stevens), the series lead, is maybe schizophrenic/maybe a mutant possessed of vast psychic powers/maybe a monster parasite. Showrunner Noah Hawley orchestrates the visuals as a kind of symphony of edits; images are repeated, shuffled, and repeated again. Mundane moments are turned into terrifying spasms with a high volume spooky soundtrack. Other characters may exist or may be part of Haller's delusion. It's a tour de force of style as substance; a meditation on the indeterminacy and insubstantiality of narrative. The dog is really Benny is really Lenny; a beat poet in a diving suit lives in an ice crystal.  It's a story; anything is possible. The evil Shadow King is Hawley himself, in the shadows, twisting the limits of the possible.

Or at least, that seems to be the idea. The limits of the possible, though, turn out to be awfully limited in some respects. For all the weirdness and wildness and shifting perspectives, the treatment of non-white characters is remarkably staid. Indeed, it seems in some ways to be staid specifically because of the formal trickery.  

Part of the problem is that the story is so much about David and David alone. David, a white guy, is the most powerful mutant in the world—both because he's got superpowers, and because, in this world, he's the center of the narrative and the almost exclusive center of attention. Even moreso than in more conventional white guy hero narratives like Harry Potter, everyone in the story becomes an appendage of the main character. At points it seems like everyone else might even be aspects of his personality, or figments of his imagination. 

The complexity of the narrative is predicated on the complexity of David, which means there isn't room for anyone else to be complex. David's girlfriend Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) is almost self-parodically devoted; her only motivation in the whole series is to protect and love "her man." For the most part, that's everybody else's motive too. At one point, Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), another mutant, and a black man, comments, angrily, that he too has a family and loved ones and feelings and goals. Why should David matter so much? he demands. But the moment of insight goes nowhere; David is the most important because he's powerful and the show is about him. Ptonomy just has to live with it.

The most shocking example of the show's instrumentalization of people of color is the character of Kerry (Amber Midthunder). Kerry is a Native American woman who is a kick-ass fighter—supposedly. We get to see her beat up a bunch of bad guys in one scene…but immediately afterwards the bad guys get reinforcements, and kick her almost to death. She spends another episode running and cowering in fear from a potential rapist. She really seems to be there almost entirely to be repeatedly semi-fridged; the series can threaten her, and add a little suspense and danger to David's story.

Somewhat shockingly, the series openly acknowledges that Kerry is just there to add color to the white guy. She is a mutant symbiot; she shares a body with scientist Cary (Bill Irwin) an older white man. Cary was born to Native American parents, who were (unpleasantly) surprised to have a white child. Kerry appeared later; she lives in Cary's body. White people often appropriate Native American symbols, whether that's sports teams using caricature mascots or people like Elizabeth Warren claiming native ancestry. Legion goes this one better, and gives its white character a Native American woman as a soul. It's a fine, albeit inadvertent, metaphor for the way in which the series' weirdness and complexity derives not from creating interesting, diverse characters, but from presenting flat, uninteresting diverse characters as a part of the fascinating collage of white guy complexity. Thus, David is not just David; he is also a parasite monster played by Hispanic actor Aubrey Plaza. Inside white guy Cary, inside white guy David, there is a woman of color, sacrificing her self to the cause of white guy nuance and depth.

Formal daring and innovative complexity in Legion require subsuming all diversity within totalizing white male psychodrama. So, as an alternative, if you abandon "innovation" and "complexity", can you have more space for difference? The answer, if you watch The Great British Baking Show, appears to be, yes.

The Great British Bake Off is not innovative or complex. In fact, it is resolutely, and aggressively, the opposite of those things. The extremely successful series is deliberately gentle reality television. Each season, twelve amateur bakers are chosen to participate. There are no prizes, and the shooting schedule is leisurely; contestants participate each weekend, and have a chance to practice their recipes over the course of the week. In contrast to even relatively low drama reality television like Project Runway, the Baking Show provides little backstory for the participants, and there is no effort to craft arcs about health scares, dying relatives, or overcoming stigma. Rather than deep dives into the fascinatingly fragmented psychology of some supermutant, The Great British Bake Off presents its contestants as mostly unidimensional. The amateur bakers show up to bake. Then they bake. Then they do it again the next week.

The low-key lack of pressure, and the general disinterest in drama, creates an easy egalitarianism. Legion is desperately about the white guy, because it wants to be important, and white guys are important. The Bake Off is cheerfully trivial—which means that there's no need to focus on white guys, and other people's stories can have equal weight. In fact, in Season 4 (the one full one I've seen so far) the last five contestants were all women, and the two runner-ups—Kimberley and Ruby—were both black. 

This isn't to say that racism or sexism have somehow been repealed by baking; Kimberley took a lot of crap from fans because she was supposedly not sufficiently anxious. A black woman confident in her own abilities caused many viewers severe cognitive dissonance. 

But the fact that Kimberley's attitude and approach freaked people out is itself a sign of how unusual the Bake Off is. The editors don't really pick favorites; you have a chance to sympathize with any of the bakers, or with all of them. Kimberley is the center of her own story; Ruby—who has gone on post-show, to be a successful and acerbic food writer—is the center of hers. Everybody has his or her own bake; the bakers aren't all toiling to make a super complicated mutant pie for someone else.

Baking is a domestic undertaking, and domesticity is seen as, by nature, feminine, staid and unadventurous. But is Kimberley's pecan, rosemary, caramel and apple pie really less infused with genius than a storyline about a native woman superhero getting beaten to death? Is Legion really inventive and daring? Or are we just trained to see stories about tortured white guys as inventive and daring?

Genre determines what is considered to be genius. And genre and genius are both tied to preconceptions about gender and race. Legion's seriousness is part and parcel of its focus on certain kinds of people. And the show's stereotypical, lazy treatment of people of color is part and parcel of its claim to be high quality television. Noah Hawley is brilliant, supposedly, because his show is about a white guy. The Bake Off is inoffensive fluff, supposedly, because it's dominated by women and treats people of color with respect rather than contempt.  Through a kind of mental trick, telekinesis becomes more serious, and even more real, than cupcakes. Part of the power of racism and sexism is that in art racism and sexism are often seen, not as flaws, but as marks of quality.