Monday, 27 January 2014

Jim Froydon’s Lines

Jim Froydon’s Lines, with uncompromising force of vision, has delivered a shot in the arm to the American sitcom; a genre that to many has become stale, predictable and ubiquitous. Froydon’s excellent show, premiering tonight on British television, takes the basic form of the sitcom genre and flips it on its head.

We are all used to seeing the interiors of flats, cafes, restaurants, offices. These are where the scenes of shows happen, the places that the characters meet to joke, argue, fall in love. Yet what Lines does, and what has already built a definite buzz across the Atlantic, is deny us entry to these scenes, to limit us to the places between those locations. We follow the characters from the moment they leave the door of one location, walking to the coffee house, catching the bus to the office, and we leave the moment they arrive at their destination. There are few words, maybe the occasional conversation with a stranger, an enquiry about the price of a return ticket. Sometimes the characters have tears in their eyes, sometimes they can’t stop themselves from laughing.

Was that her voice? I heard it coming from the room.
What? I can’t hear a thing.
I thought I heard her. Something she said, I could swear it was her.
Your hands are sweating. It’s making me nervous.
You can tell they’re sweating?
They’re sweating. I can see the sweat from here.
You should be nervous as well.
I’m trying not to be.
I’d be nervous if I were you.  
There’s every reason to believe it’s a baby.
Wait. Is she groaning now? Are they covering her mouth?
We have to believe it. The equipment isn’t infallible.
And tumours don’t kick.
And tumours don’t kick.

Much of the episodes take place on public transport. The camera pays equal attention to the parts of the characters’ bodies as it does to seat-cushions and handrails. The heavy eyelids of a character come into the frame for a few moments before cutting to the pale blue tessellated pattern on the floor of the train. What might sound like a tedious experience is surprisingly easy to watch and, with complete honesty, I found the gentle rocking of the carriage in these drawn-out sequences to be incredibly soothing. I’ll admit that as the character drifted into a short sleep so did I, and when my head jolted back to consciousness it was just in time to see the same action performed by the character on the screen.

Tell me the details.
They pulled it out…the shape of an egg. She was so tired afterwards. It stank, apparently.
She almost passed out but the stink of it kept her awake. There was a glistening film. Glistening was the word they used. It was coated in a wet film that dripped over the midwife’s hands. She gagged and had to pass our baby to the doctor. And his face gave it all away. The look he gave to that thing in his hands must’ve been much the same as the one he later offered me when I sat with him in his office. I’d say horror, confusion, futility. In the end all he could do was shrug. It has a heartbeat, he said. It has a heartbeat but it doesn’t have a heart.   

The nervousness about the trip is often palpable, as if the characters are on the way to an imminent breakup or a family death at the hospital. In the first two episodes given to reviewers I followed several different characters that reappeared throughout. There was a twenty-something lady with bleached blonde hair, a bald middle-aged father, a pregnant woman, a handsome man with a neatly trimmed beard. These people, although never given names, quickly become familiar to you. When the pregnant woman stared out of bus window I wanted to know the reason for her bottom lip to quiver. When she sighed and her breath momentarily clouded the cold glass I wanted to know the reason for her to sigh so deeply.

It’s about a foot, a foot and a half. It’s egg-shaped. It has a round base and it tapers up towards the top. It’s smooth. It was smooth. Yesterday it was smoother. Now there’s a kind of roughness around the base. If I touch it… it’s hard. Metal. A hard plastic. When we first brought it home it seemed a lot softer. It’s gotten harder. It must’ve gotten harder. There are ridges now, around the base. If I touch the ridges they…
How does she…
You know…
No. I don’t know.
Breastfeed. How does she breastfeed?
Jesus. Why do you have to ask that?
It’s an honest question. Does she do it the same way you normally would? Does she do it at all?
I don’t know. Ask her.
People want to know.
People? What people?
Does she put her nipple in the opening? People say there’s an opening.
What people?
Puckered. A puckered hole. It’s reported that there’s a puckered hole. Can you confirm or deny the presence of a hole?
I think there’s a hole.
Is it puckered?
I don’t know what you mean.
Something like this.
Oh, right. It’s a little like that.
Are you writing this down?

Froydon’s genius comes from preventing the audience from having any clear insight into the characters. It seems like it would be all too easy to continue following the character once they pass through the front-door of their home. There were times while watching the first episode that I shouted violently at the screen. I screamed at the moment a bleached-hair young lady turned the key into what can only be assumed to be her flat, just as I thought a glimpse of her actual life might slip from its hiding place behind the door. My body shivered close to the edge of the seat, I looked for clues to her life, and suddenly the camera cut to the swollen paunch of a man waiting patiently in the snow for his bus to arrive. I threw a pillow at the screen. If I had a stone I would’ve thrown that too. I turned my computer off for a few moments, stood outside in the garden. I looked at sun, at one thousand colours of blue sky. I would have stayed there but, as if the programme had wrapped an invisible cable around my neck, I eventually drifted back inside to continue to the end.  

I have to plug her in every day.
Plug it in. Will you listen to yourself?
It’s what the doctor said I should call it.
And what if you don’t plug it in? What then?
She wilts. And don’t even think about convincing me to stop breastfeeding, because I can’t stand to see her wilt. I won’t do that, don’t ask me to do that. 
I’m worried about you. What if it makes you sick, what if it hurts you somehow?
She won’t hurt me.
You don’t know that. For all you know it could bite. Maybe there’s a needle. It could stick you with a needle and fill you with…I don’t know…with poison or something.
You’re being grotesque.
I’m just saying there’s a lot we don’t understand here, you have to remember that.
You don’t understand. She came from our bodies. There isn’t anything that would hurt us, there aren’t secrets. She needs to be plugged in and then she rests.
You can feed it from a bottle, what’s wrong with that?
We tried, remember? She spat it up.
Well what did the doctor say about the keys? I’ve tried to type on them, I’ve tried again and again, but nothing happens. I’ve typed out whole paragraphs but nothing comes up on the screen.
Do you know many babies that can speak after two weeks? She has to learn. She’ll learn from us. 

Janet Malory from The New Yorker, who in her already famous interview with Jim Froydon ended her questioning with a swift left-hook to the show-runner’s jaw, has said that Lines offers an antidote. An antidote to modern life? To a sickness? What exactly it offers an antidote to has been picked apart and argued by nearly every American with access to a keyboard and, if you haven’t already done so, after tonight’s premiere you’ll be able to join that debate. What is clear is that there is a cure somewhere in this programme. After getting through the second episode, after coming to terms with the fact that I was never going to see the interior lives of these characters, I felt a definite weight lift from my shoulders. I felt as if I was floating up to the ceiling.      

The operating system isn’t one I know. I tried to enter the console commands that I found online for all the versions of Windows. I called Apple. I booked a slot in the genius-bar. They were useless. No help at all. I asked a friend who knew Linux but he didn’t know where to start. Whatever the case, there’s definitely an input now, there are keys and ports and...
Are you worried about whether you wife cheated on you?
What? No.
Maybe she got bored one of the weekends you were away and well…
Well it doesn’t exactly look like you, does it?
Don’t say that. I’m in no mind-set to hear that.
There’ve been some developments. She’s grown. She’s the size of a table and she’s lost a lot of weight, she’s flatter than she’s ever been. Her keys work now. I’ve registered my details. God knows how I managed it but I’ve registered them on her screen. The doctor said we should call it a screen. Still seems strange.
Wait. It wanted your details?
There isn’t a normal keyboard, I wasn’t sure what I was doing...
Is it fine just to put your details in like that? Did you put your wife’s details in as well?
Of course I did. That was the first thing I did. What child doesn’t know the name of its mother?
And bank details?
It’s not a scam. The bank details were just one of the sections. I put in my shoe size, eye colour, favourite film. There were pages of things I put in. Every time I wrote one thing it asked me to write another.

For a specific example of Froydon’s technique, I want to talk about a moment in the first episode which has lingered in my thoughts. Somewhere near the middle of the hour run-time there is a short sequence where a woman rides in an ambulance. I took her to be roughly in her thirties. We do not see much of her. There are glimpses of her arms, her hands. Her body is covered with a blanket.  Mostly we focus on her face. There are no windows in the ambulance. There are no sights outside to look at. There is a man sat beside the woman, a paramedic. The woman seems to be a patient, a victim, for some reason needing to be rushed to casualty. She is pale, sweating. The make-up around her eyes has slightly run. On the other side of the woman, his hand resting on her shoulder, is another man. Perhaps this man is her husband, or lover. Perhaps he is her brother. We never see more than his hand but the tightness of the grip is noticeable. The noise of the siren is loud. The woman shakes, her eyes focus on something in the distance. It is a moment of high drama or, perhaps more specifically, it is a moment teetering at the threshold of high drama, but after about a minute, once they have arrived at the hospital and the doors open, once the reasons and consequences for this woman to be in the ambulance are about to be exposed, we are unceremoniously taken away.

Someone is knocking at the door.
Go back to sleep.
Someone is there. I heard it. What if they come to take her?
No-one is coming.
I wrote in her today. I wrote some horrible things in her.
You know the doctor said we shouldn’t do that anymore. Not until they’re sure where it all goes.
I tried my hardest to get through them all but my hands felt so tired. What if they come to take her away? After the things I’ve said to her. After the things I wrote.

Yet we do see the woman from the ambulance again, later in the same episode. There are no signs of an accident. She is sat alone in a back of a taxi and she reads the newspaper. There is a look of concentration on her face but not to an uncomfortable level. What story she is reading in the newspaper we cannot see. The lines of her brow furrow and the corners of her mouth tighten. There is no hint of fear. Her face is immaculate. There are no tears in her eyes. No smudged make-up. She wears an elegant blue dress, as if she is returning from a party, and yet daylight streams in through the windows. Perhaps she is going to work. There is no sign of the man who so tightly gripped her shoulder, there is no hint of whatever illness she may have suffered from. Whatever problem caused the ambulance to take her to the hospital has been resolved without our knowledge. Froydon doesn’t give us the answers. He doesn’t let us know.

I…I wrote in her for hours. I sat there and I answered all of the questions she had. I let my hands touch her ridges, her soft keys. I felt the body which we both made. And…and there’s so much love behind her screen, I know it’s there. If I could open her up and see it.
We both know it’s there.
If I could only hear her speak back I’d be sure of it. We’ve given her so much of us. Do you understand me?

I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to know what went on when the characters reached their destinations; these places they have no clear reason to reach. But their thoughts were inaccessible to me. If there was a reason for the characters to go to the office or to go to the bar, a reason to ride to the hospital or to get a taxi home, then it is given offstage, away from the camera. No matter how hard I pleaded at my screen there was no definite reason for the characters to travel from A to B. Lines forced me to accept that. It forces us to accept that. What happens before and after these moments is not for us to be certain of.

She’s crying.
No-one is crying.
She’s humming through the wall. Can’t you hear it? There’s a low hum. Listen. There. She’s crying. It’s all because of me.
What did you do?
After all the information we’ve given to her. All she wanted to know about us. We’ve been so honest. I felt so exposed…
My love, what did you do?
Her screen shines in the light. Her base is squat but the edges above are so sharp that I’m worried I’ll cut myself. Her mouth opens and closes, waiting for milk. She’s so hungry. Her heart beats through the casing and when I place my fingers on her keys I feel it surge beneath. She’s so hungry. It wears me out. She needed more of me… The sight of that mouth…I couldn’t look at it any longer. A tissue, cotton, a towel. I pushed my fingers until her mouth couldn’t close.

I was locked out. I accepted that.
And yet when I fell asleep that night, when I closed my eyes and lay in the dark the woman was there in my dreams. The taxi I’d seen before had taken her to my home and when she arrived she’d climbed the stairs, entered my room. In the dim light of the evening she’d undressed, unzipping the outfit she wore to let it slip down the skin of her shoulders.
I watched it fall past her hips, down her legs and onto the floor. She lay in my bed and she reached out for me to join her.

Sleep, my love. Stay with me. Close your eyes and try to dream.
I’m trying.
Rest your head.
I’m trying. I’m trying but someone is knocking at the door.
You’re hearing things.
Someone is knocking at the door.

It’s going to be talked about. It will make Froydon a household name. Because by the end of the programme you will feel drained, as if you have spilled part of yourself onto the screen. You will feel drained and yet you will feel lighter.

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