“The Queen’s Gambit” is a Different Kind of Sports Story

One of the classic sports movies scenes is from Rudy, where all of Rudy’s teammates put their jersey on fun-hating coach Dan Devine’s desk and refuse to play unless he lets the undersized go-getter dress for their game against Georgia Tech. The film is allegedly based on a true story, but this scene is fiction; in reality, Devine was perfectly fine with letting Rudy play, and he later called the scene “unforgivable” and “untrue.” I probably think about poor Dan Devine more than the average adult: the man did nothing wrong, but because of this hokey movie, tons of people think he was an ass who got in the way of Rudy chasing his dreams, and when he died in 2002, I’m sure many Americans cheered for the demise of Sean Astin’s antagonist.

The scene in Rudy is indicative of the tension between entertainment about sports and the way sports actually work. When I was a young sportswriter a few years ago, one of my internal struggles was how to make games seem interesting without inventing drama where there wasn’t any. Often, narratives about “rivalries” and teams “hating each other” are just that — they’re ways to make a basketball or football game seem like a story, when really they’re just athletes competing at a high level and focusing primarily on their own performance and execution. Of course, there is still some human drama and sometimes players and teams really do despise one another, but I rarely think games are won or lost based on those emotions. But on film and TV, sports often demand a more “compelling” story, which is how people like Dan Devine end up getting portrayed as contemptuous monsters.

So when I decided to watch Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, knowing it was about a young woman chess prodigy, I expected a similarly heavy-handed approach, with a lot of scenes of evil men sneering at her before losing and various characters yelling “WOMEN DON’T PLAY CHESS” at her. Instead, I was blown away by just how darn nice every character was. As Beth Harmon rises the ladder, going from a young kid playing with a janitor in the basement of her orphanage to world champion, every opponent she topples takes their loss graciously, sometimes to a surreal extent. Her initial foes, state champion Harry Beltik and U.S. champion Benny Watts, are defeated and become something between mentors and lovers to her. In her final showdown with the Russians, I would have expected a lesser show about sports to portray her opponents as cruel; instead, one compliments her as the best player he’s ever seen, and her final “nemesis,” Borgov, raises her hand at the end and says she deserves her ultimate victory.

Leaving aside the debate of whether chess is a sport, The Queen’s Gambit shows an unusually deep understanding of how high-level competition really works. Beth’s real opponent isn’t any of these chess masters, but herself: she battles addiction throughout the series, which at times derails her life as she loses her motivation and goes into self-destructive spirals. For viewers, it’s always apparent that Beth is good enough to win as long as she can keep her composure and play her game. Sports is full of stories like this that aren’t based on imaginary conflict, but on plain unsexy hard work, of players grinding every day and trying to fix their flaws or find the next technique that can take them to the next level. Putting in this work often requires a single-minded, bordering on deranged obsession with the game, and The Queen’s Gambit shows Beth’s fixation on chess from the very beginning, with her love for the game dominating all aspects of her life. She struggles to relate to “normal” people, preferring to devour a chess strategy book, and her mental state often hinges on her satisfaction with her in-game performance.

I’m sure the conventional thought with these sports narratives is that they make the otherwise boring games interesting — that, without the conflict, there is nothing to hook viewers in or make them care. But some of the best scenes in The Queen’s Gambit still are able to tap into the primal joy of watching sports. Her early games as an underestimated orphan who topples unsuspecting men in her path are like watching a perceived underdog you believe in dominate a game you knew they could win; later games that show her at the height of her career are more like when you watch an amazing athlete like Lebron James do the impossible. It’s clear a lot of thought went into how to make chess scenes fun to watch, and the show uses music, montages, and visuals of chess pieces on the ceiling to add intrigue to Beth’s games. A lot of this also lies on the performance of Anya Taylor-Joy, who is able to let viewers understand the character’s thought process through her expressions and movements. She helps make viewers root for Beth, who risks being a little too perfect of a protagonist. Greatness and being hated often go hand-in-hand — just ask Tom Brady — but the show is still able to make Beth’s wins worthy of a fist-pump without portraying her rivals as dickheads.

And in portraying her opponents as so respectful, The Queen’s Gambit ends up making a feminist point in its own sly way. At a certain point, the lack of abuse or suspicion Beth faces for her gender starts to feel utopian, and I think that’s the idea: the show is subtly asking what our culture would be like if women like Beth were respected for their abilities and treated equally in a male-dominated world like chess. A New York Times article called “I Want to Live in the Reality of The Queen’s Gambit hit this nail on the head, describing the fantasy of the show — how Beth gets to achieve greatness in part because she is allowed to focus entirely on her skills instead of on being a woman, dealing with harassment, etc. The thrill in The Queen’s Gambit is watching Beth accomplish greatness in the same way that men are able to in real life.

The Last Lena Dunham Defense

More than any other celebrity, Lena Dunham has the ability to make people angry without even doing anything. This time, an old tweet from 2017 by The Hollywood Reporter was making the rounds yesterday, describing the story of how Dunham sold the pilot of Girls when she was 23 with a one-and-a-half page pitch that wasn’t particularly detailed. This is held as an example of the “white privilege” that critics constantly say allowed Dunham to have a career making work that is considered by these people to be “white mediocrity.” Of course, the tweet ignores a lot of the context around said pitch — namely, that Dunham had already made the film Tiny Furniture which showcased her talent and got her noticed by Judd Apatow, who sold her to the executives at HBO. The same critics will argue that Dunham had the resources available to make that film, so she still is just an undeserving product of white privilege.

This argument — and in general, anything involving Lena Dunham for some reason — typifies the corrosive, zero-sum nature of our current discourse surrounding art, privilege, and race. I watched every episode of Girls and can say with high certainty that Dunham is a gifted writer and actress. Yet people constantly rip on the show because of their perception that Dunham is a privileged mediocre white woman, a reading that seems more influenced by her sometimes embarrassing public persona than her work. In some respect, the proof of the quality of the show is in the pudding: Girls was a lightning-rod of debate and discussion when it was on the air and a clear success for HBO. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to love it, but to act like the creator and star of it is a talentless hack is ridiculous.

It would be easier to accept the constant trashing of the show if it seemed like any of its detractors understood what it was about. A lot of the “white mediocrity” argument comes from the fact that the show was centered around four white women who were different degrees of obnoxious, self-centered, and privileged. What is missed in the ungenerous readings of the show is that it was fully aware of that, and it effectively turned a mirror to white, entitled NYC brats by allowing the characters to be flawed and to show relatively little growth through the series. Dunham’s talents lied in her ability to create these characters you would gawk at and hope weren’t too much like yourself. One of the reasons I kept watching, even as someone clearly not in the target audience, is that it was fascinating to watch a show built around such an unlikable group of protagonists, and I got caught up in their stupid petty dramas (in general, I also just enjoy shows about assholes). This is a credit to Dunham’s writing as she really knew her characters, probably because they reflected parts of her personality that have since become public and caused her to be despised.

Girls also was one of the first shows I remember really being ripped for its lack of diversity due to its all-white main cast in the NYC setting. This criticism always bothered me, and it ties into my general skepticism of how the concept of “diversity” is used by people who critique media. While lack of diversity has been and continues to be an issue, the solution isn’t just jamming people of color into every show and having a perfectly harmonious racial cast in everything. Girls was a show about well-off white people and their selfish, shallow lifestyles, and so it made perfect sense that the characters didn’t interface with many minorities. The depiction of these people should not be mistaken as an endorsement of them, but this is now a common mistake being made by everyone across all mediums.

Given the success of the show, its critical acclaim, and the fact that I (one of the most knowledgeable arts critics of our times) like it, I can only laugh at claims of Dunham having no talent, because they have no credibility and show profound ignorance. The more justifiable argument against Dunham is that she never would have gotten a chance to make Girls if she wasn’t a white woman with Hollywood connections. That’s not a point I’ll even really argue against. But because everything has to lack nuance and be one extreme or the other, many are mistaking Dunham’s luck and privilege with the complete absence of skill. Here’s a wild idea (really, bear with me on this, because it will blow your mind): maybe people can have connections, and succeed through good fortune, and still be worthwhile artists whose voices are worth listening to.

That intersection of luck, privilege, and talent describes how pretty much every successful artist “makes it” in this world. So why does it seem like Dunham is disproportionately singled out for benefiting from the same circumstances that practically all other artists do? This is where I may humbly suggest that it’s due to her being an outspoken woman, one who maybe doesn’t have the most “correct” politics and who doesn’t look like other celebrities. Throughout her career, I’ve witnessed her be held to a totally different standard from everyone else and viewed with constant undeserved skepticism, and now, years after Girls has left the air, she is still a constant punchline for white mediocrity. For most, I suspect the reason they hate her is jealousy, and it’s easy for people to tell themselves that they could have been Lena Dunham with the right breaks rather than accept the reality of their own lack of specialness and talent. Similarly, it’s easier to think of Dunham as a bad, privileged person instead of considering the possibility that you would have made all of the same decisions if put in her circumstances.

All of this is the problem when art starts being viewed through this extremely polarized political lens. Dunham doesn’t even have particularly problematic politics (as far as I can tell, she is like a normal democrat), but because Girls wasn’t this perfect, racially diverse show and studied the lives of oblivious white people, it’s now considered to be garbage. Increasingly, I see people interpreting art this way, analyzing everything through their own solipsistic bad-faith political readings of the material and scoffing if it doesn’t align with their ideal world view. This is intellectually lazy, idiotic behavior, and it causes worthwhile shows like Girls to be misunderstood and mocked, probably by people who never watched it. What we should strive for is recognizing the wealth and opportunity advantages artists like Dunham have while still appreciating the value of their art on its own merit.

“Fleabag” Might Be a Perfect TV Show

The only bad part of the second season of Fleabag, the comedy written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is how inept it made me feel as a writer. I try my best not to compare myself to others and at this point I don’t even have grand artistic ambitions, especially in the realm of fiction. But when the screen went black on this season, which I devoured in a couple of days, I just sat on my couch and let it sink in for a few minutes, keenly aware of how impossible it would be for me to ever come close to producing something this good. Fleabag might be the best comedy I’ve ever seen.

What makes it so great? I guess it makes sense to start with Waller-Bridge herself, who is intimidatingly talented, not just as a writer of dialogue and characters, but as an actress with precise comedic timing who can make you laugh just with a quick look at the camera. Her titular character (real name unknown) breaks the fourth wall constantly, which is Fleabag‘s most distinctive narrative device, but it’s used differently than a show like The Office. Rather than purporting to be a documentary, this feels more like the character perceiving the audience as her friend that she can always confide in. Without giving away too much, her looks and quips at the camera end up tying into the season two plot in a piece of writing that is almost impossibly smart and perceptive.

The character of Fleabag is a great tragicomic creation; she uses jokes and sex as a way to mask her inner pain that comes from feeling responsible for the death of her best friend and the loss of her mother. She is essentially the black sheep of her family, who all mostly treat her like crap, particularly her insufferable godmother played by Oscar winner Olivia Colman. Her sister, Claire, is a fascinating character in her own right. She’s tightly wound, passive-aggressive and a workaholic, which is in direct contrast to Fleabag’s impulsive lifestyle that avoids responsibility. What the two characters share is that each has built up these different kinds of walls to avoid letting others see their true feelings, and their sisterhood is one of the more unique relationships on TV.

Fleabag faces a conflict with Claire’s husband this season, but her biggest turmoil comes when she becomes attracted to the young, cool priest who is working on her father’s wedding. This leads to an obvious clash of belief systems between the optimistic, religious priest and the atheist Fleabag, who has been through enough that the whole God thing is a tough sell. Again, without giving away too much, the relationship that forms here is fascinating and feels real despite its comedic origins, and the will-they-or-won’t-they tension had me about as nervous as I was at the end of Game of Thrones.

I’m always a fan of comedies that come with a healthy dose of sadness and bitterness, and this show might walk that line better than any other. It has all kinds of jokes: raunchy sex jokes, quiet observational jokes, character-based jokes — there’s even a pretty good fart joke. But its best moments are when the characters let their guards down and reveal their true feelings, and the show has moments that rival the pathos of any drama. Like the main character herself, the humor in Fleabag is what draws you in, but the impression it leaves is ultimately much more impactful than just a laugh.