Claire-Dee Lim, creator-writer-director of The Power Object, and her stars-- from left, Glenda, Hannah and Jessie
Over the course of six seasons (lots of Emmys) and two movies (lots of money, um, no awards to speak of), Sex and the City tapped the zeitgeist by following the exploits of a quartet of post-feminist, moneyed, Manhattan-based, me-first ladies, and not just the female audience found the raucous comedy, not to mention the self-indulgent fantasy, extremely appealing. But by the time the movies rolled around—and for some of us even earlier than that— many began to wonder at what point Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda had jumped the shark from recognizable social types to cartoon representations of that indulgent fantasy, to the exclusion of almost everything else that had once grounded the show’s appeal. Of course, by the time the second movie arrived the real world had left this gang and their materialistic agenda of entitlement in its rearview mirror, not that anyone who had a hand in creating the movie seemed to notice. What was left behind was a grotesque spectacle where once resided at least a kernel of potent social observation regarding how these women viewed sex and relationships, and an awareness of the gulf between that worldview and that of its viewers.
The wit of Claire-Dee Lim’s The Power Object, a nine-episode Web series based on an original screenplay of the same name (written in collaboration with Mike Werb and Mike Colleary-- the three of them scripted the underrated family comedy Firehouse Dog), is that it makes that jump into fantastical representation and accesses a similar kind of satiric spirit regarding the bonds of female friendship while roasting the beating heart of the Sex and the City archetype like a holiday chestnut. But no one is likely to mistake The Power Object as mere homage, and that’s because Lim has recognized the essential fantasy at the heart of SATC-- girls dressing up and acting out—and realized it in its most potent distillation: it’s a comedy acted out in front of absurdly out-of-scale cut-out backdrops of varying detail by a charming cast of character-customized Barbie dolls. (The wildly creative work on the dolls is credited to art director Jean Kang.) The Power Object has been described as SATC crossed with Team America: World Police, and that’s apt as far as the allusion to puppetry is concerned—Parker and Stone’s absurdist political fantasia was grounded in a similarly spectacular low-tech mise-en-scene, but its thematic ambitions have little to do with what Lim is up to here. A more apt nutshell description of The Power Object might be Sex and the City meets “The Monkey’s Paw” as seen through the darker prism of something like Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.
Haynes’ use of Barbie dolls was a politically pointed way of accessing the disturbing reality of the way Karen Carpenter was forced to look at the world. It made us realize that rich and honest character could be accessed through such a stylized and detached approach, but though his efforts were sincere Haynes was mistaken in some circles for being callous and coldly ironic. Lim’s intent is far breezier and more irreverent than was Haynes’, but the point is still made that using dolls to represent an essential truth about characters—in this case, all things being on the surface, their shallowness, duplicity and skewed self-images—can be an effective way of dealing with the subject of the way young urban professional women move about in the world, dodging one absurd crisis after another while dodging one absurd advance by the male population after another as well.
The Power Object tells the serialized story (each episode runs about six minutes) of three women—Glenda, age 30, who aspires to become an investigative journalist for one of the major TV networks but who is currently mired in a low-level research job for a crass local morning show; Jessie, an A&R music executive whose dream of producing albums is constantly stunted by the reality of her role as baby-sitter for an ongoing series of spoiled, reckless rock stars; and Hannah, a sculptress who specializes in dildoes and vibrators for a social set far wilder than the one in which she travels. Each woman has secret longings, and those longings are soon exposed when the trio stumbles upon a super vibrator with magical powers-- the totem of modern female sexual independence imbued with wish-granting capabilities which Glenda, acting on behalf of them all, takes advantage of, with predictably unexpected results.
What is unpredictable about The Power Object (the title makes a keen play on the traditional way these women might be viewed, as well as their real desires) is how addicting it becomes over the course of its run, and how frequently hilarious it is. Lim has posted seven of the nine episodes so far, and each one has successfully built on the series’ recurring stable of characters—my favorites include Jessie’s psychotically possessive hockey player boyfriend Rollo, who by episode six is attempting to shift his status from stalker to full-fledged groom, with no encouragement from his ostensible girlfriend, and Glenda’s ineffectual boss Mr. Hamel, who is, riotously, about two-thirds the size of his staff of employees. Even the pop culture references are a bit sharper than one might expect—the girls share a bong they have dubbed Mudshark, which ought to give you a clue as to Lim’s taste in music as well as her sense of humor. But perhaps my favorite element of The Power Object is its sense of the absurd in the prop department. Full-sized cell phones are often seen glued to the heads of the characters as they speak; Jessie massages the shoulders of one of her hopelessly inebriated clients, whose head is stuck inside a full-sized martini glass; a vanity mirror in which Glenda stares at herself is a ladies’ compact flipped open , mirror up, make-up pad fully exposed. The way Lim surrounds these women (after seven episodes it seems rude and reductionist to think of them simply as dolls) with the objects of their daily lives inspires lots of comedic mileage, but the juxtaposition has a second function. It serves to skewer how the material world tends to overwhelm, by volume and here by sheer size, the thinking, the movement and even the passions of professional ladder climbers like Glenda, Jessie and Hannah, and of course, by extension, Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda.
The Power Object is pure proof that social satire and good comedy need not come packaged in multimillion-dollar budgets or long-term cable TV contracts. Episode #7, titled “This Chick’s a Psycho,” is online now-- episode 8 will be unveiled next Monday, July 25, with the finale scheduled for August 1. There’s plenty of time for you to strap on The Power Object and get up to speed. The lead-up has been tingling good; no reason not to expect a shattering, and hilarious, climax.
Next: An interview with The Power Object’s creator, Claire-Dee Lim.