August 31, 2016
I’m that one person who’s going to be a curmudgeon about Stranger Things.
I think the thing runs about three episodes too long. There’s maybe 7 pounds of story poured into a 10 pound bag. There’s some good stuff, for sure (Winona Ryder acting circles around just about everyone else, for one). But there’s a lot of repetition, a lot of dragging, a lot of places where I laughed instead of being scared (seriously, you hook a tow-cable up to a guy we’ve never seen before and then send him into the dimensional rift, that tow cable’s gonna be coming back with nothing attached to it in just a couple minutes), and a lot of me being just plain frustrated by characters acting according to a checklist and not like believable characters. I confess my expectations were likely unduly raised by the enthusiastic online reaction to the show. And just didn’t feel that.
Some background. I learned RPG gaming at the University of York with a very talented group that did things like entirely make up their own games and play without systems, using only percentage dice and common sense and good storytelling. One of the first games I played there was part of a one-off intro day of gaming. The game was original, we were allowed to pick our own characters (I believe from a list of choices), with the stipulation that the game was going to be fun and goofy. I was a North Pole Elf, for example. High points in construction, engineering, and speed.
One of the other players chose Stephen King Child Protagonist. This was oh-so-clever, because it pretty much assured he would live to the end of the game, and he could reasonably argue to acquire any number of arcane abilities over the course of events. I don’t actually remember very much of what happened except that it was fast-paced and hilarious and skewered a bunch of the tropes we had all grown up with.
We played this game in 1993. That the phrase “Stephen King Child Protagonist” could be uttered twenty three years ago and everyone knew exactly what that entailed means that the territory Stranger Things is covering is not only not new, it’s entirely familiar. In fact, the show depends on it.
I question if the enormously positive response is not necessarily to the quality of the story but to the recognition of the familiar. The validation of speaking and understanding a specific language — of past genre tropes and accoutrements, in this case. So much of the point of allusion and referencing in pop culture is about that marvelous moment of recognition, of feeling part of the culture described by the piece.
It’s very nice to feel part of the club. But is the show good? I mean, what is Stranger Things about? Is it maybe actually about “let’s make a perfect replica of a 1980’s Stephen King/Spielberg/kid-centric adventure story using modern production values?” That’s not a story, that’s historical re-enactment.
Because by god that Trapper Keeper in the locker was front and center on that one shot, to make sure we didn’t miss it. (Yes, I once owned a Trapper Keeper. It was gray with kittens on it.) An actual thought I had during Ep. 7: “I swear to god if those bicycles start flying I am rage quitting this right here.” The bikes did not fly, which maybe means the creators knew exactly how far they could push their conceit before crossing too far into pastiche.
And why doesn’t the show seem to care much about Barb? Well, because she’s a trope. She’s meant to be an inversion of that 80’s slasher movie thing where the girl who has sex gets killed by the monster/slasher/whatever. But in this case, the girl who has sex, Nancy, lives; and the plain-Jane good-girl friend is violently killed.
And then the show forgets about her because she’s already served her purpose. The show’s creators are apparently startled that people really like Barb and are really upset that no one in town, not the chief of police, not Barb’s mother — and Nancy only tangentially, as an aside, like “Oh yeah I guess I need to be sad about that” — seems to care that Barb is gone. Meanwhile, the school is having assemblies and funerals and Feelings Galore for Will. It’s a failure of realism. It’s a failure of common sense. (There are quite a few of these throughout.) You know what would have fixed that arc for me? A thirty second scene: Joyce brings back Barb’s glasses or a scrap of her shirt, presses them into Nancy’s hand and says a sincere, heartfelt, “I’m sorry.” That’s it.
(If I were going to be uncharitable and paranoid, I would say Barb gets forgotten because she has no connection to any of the men in the story. Because as strong and interesting as the women characters are, they are all of them defined by their relationships to the men around them. Barb just has Nancy, and Nancy doesn’t have enough agency to do much about Barb, because her arc is all about what boy she likes, amirite? Seriously, the scene where Nancy actually does go looking for Barb is mainly about her spending time with Jonathan, and then setting up the scene where Steve thinks she’s cheating on him. But thinking that would be uncharitable and paranoid, wouldn’t it?)
So is Stranger Things good, or is it familiar? Your mileage may vary. But thank god those damned bicycles didn’t fly.
July 20, 2016
I caught up on a couple of classics recently.
Movie: The African Queen. That was not what I was expecting. I think all I really knew about this was the clips that always get shown of Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart motoring down the river and being curmudgeonly. (And that the actual boiler from the boat is on display in the lobby of the place I stay at when I go diving in Key Largo. I can’t explain it.) I guess I expected ninety minutes or so of banter and curmudgeonly-ness. Turns out, this is a straight-up romance. The two characters fall madly in love pretty early on and spend the rest of the film cooing at each other like teenagers. Which was a little weird, with those two particular gruff craggy actors. And then the last fifteen minutes of the film is blowing up Germans. Which I was also not expecting. This is the first time I’ve ever watched a classic film and sort of wished someone would remake it with modern sensibilities and without the rather drippy conventions of 1950’s romance movies.
Book: On the Beach by Nevil Shute. I’ve known about this post-apocalyptic classic forever, and finally just now read it. It’s great, and it hit me hard. Once again, mostly because of my own weird history. So, when my dad was flying B-52’s in the early 80’s, I really worried about him. If the bombs fell I knew I was just dead, that wasn’t an issue. But if Dad was out flying on a mission when the bombs fell — which was pretty much exactly what his job was, to get his plane in the air before the base got hit — what would happen to him? Where would he go? I know they had protocols, they had emergency bases and mid-air refueling and theoretically he would go there and do whatever. But his home would be gone. Everything would be gone, and I thought up these horrifying images of him just flying around above a blasted nuclear wasteland until his fuel ran out. (I’m still coming to understand that those years were maybe a little more stressful than I realized at the time.)
So, anyway, one of the main characters in On the Beach is an American military officer whose submarine is deployed when the bombs drop, and he’s caught away from home. He ends up in Australia, waiting for the radiation fallout to kill everyone, and he knows his family back home (wife, son and daughter, just like our family!) is dead but he just keeps functioning because he has to. It wasn’t until the second to the last chapter that I thought, “That’s my dad.” But boy, when I did, I had to take a break from the book for a few minutes. It happens every now and then, that I’ll be reading or watching something about war or the military, going along just fine, and then suddenly think “That’s my dad,” and it kicks me in the head just about every time. I love my dad and it’s just really hard thinking of him in those difficult situations, even if they never happened. Imagination is a funny thing. I’m really glad I didn’t read this as a teenager.
The rest of the book, I loved the Australian perspective on the Cold War, that Australia wasn’t going to be dropping nukes itself but would absolutely suffer from radiation and fallout from any kind of nuclear exchange. It strikes me that this is a big part of the backdrop of the Mad Max movies as well — dealing with a situation they had no part in making.
July 15, 2016
Saw Ghostbusters and loved it. Had so much fun. Now I’m skimming other peoples’ reviews and I’m a little sad that some people seem determined to hate it, and some can’t talk about it without talking about gender. But enough about that, I have a long review to write and will discuss more there.
Previews for The Expanse season 2 are hitting the web, including pictures of Bobbie Draper. BOBBIE DRAPER!!! Fan favorite indeed.
I’ve started Lucifer and quite like it. It’s got that thing that Castle did, of the flippant guy annoying the serious woman detective, and murder mysteries that are fairly straightforward because they aren’t actually the most interesting thing about the show. And the thing that Sleepy Hollow had with the squirrely guy with the British accent and a completely different outlook, and the straightforward woman detective. HOLLYWOOD, HAVE YOU HIT ON A FORMULA HERE, HMMMM????
In other news, I overslept this morning, and it felt great.
July 4, 2016
Happy Independence Day, USA-ians! The home fireworks thing has been a little out of hand this year, it feels like. Last night was so bad Lily spent it under the bed. At least she’s not a runner. Me — I just have sparklers. Tonight, we’ll be grilling, which is really enough excitement around here.
A few more things:
1. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. I sometimes feel like Western culture still hasn’t really processed World War I, the first industrialized war, the war that set off everything else that happened in the 20th century, like a row of dominoes. In Britain, this astonishing living memorial made amazing use of costuming and live-action roleplaying to remember the battle. This is the real power of theater/costuming.
2. I finished season 2 of Star Wars: Rebels. Well, that was a little abrupt. I’m still a Kanan fangirl but I really want to see what happens next.
3. Shark Week on the Discovery Channel is getting better about not being all sensationalist shark attack coverage all the time. In fact, this year it was mostly enthusiastic scientists leaning dangerously off the sides of boats while trying to stick tags, cameras, and whatnot onto shark fins. Kind of endearing. And I really liked that they had shows dedicated to other species than great whites: makos, oceanic white-tips, tigers. In fact, in what may be a first, they even had segments on sharks I’ve seen while diving: various species of reef sharks, and my beloved nurse sharks. These species tend to be smaller and not aggressive, so I guess they don’t make good TV, but I really like them. They’re very chill when you spot them underwater. What I really want? I’d love for Shark Week to do a segment on whale sharks, which are just really amazing and a holy grail for many divers. I have not seen a whale shark in the wild. Yet.
4. This is the stage I’m at on the revision of Bannerless:
Spoiler: I figured out how to fix it. I helpfully cropped that bit out to not give it away. I should be done with this thing in just a couple more days.
July 1, 2016
The latest binge-watch has been Star Wars: Rebels. I confess to being super out of date on all the animated Star Wars offerings. I watched and very much enjoyed Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars, which I thought delved into Anakin’s darkness and ambivalence in a way the movies didn’t capture. But then later Clone Wars series seemed to explode and expand in ways I couldn’t keep up with. And I’ll confess I’ve never been a fan of that style of computer animation, which always seems stiff and expressionless to me.
That’s what kept me away from Rebels, until friends urged me to watch. (Which hasn’t really happened with Clone Wars, which is telling.) Still not a fan of that animation style. But. . .Rebels has that same dynamic that hearkens back to my old role-playing campaigns, the same ethos that means I can’t watch the Rogue One trailer without bursting into tears. A diverse group of people on the fringes, overcoming dark pasts, trying to do good.
It took me a few episodes, but I’m into it now. And surprisingly, my favorite part may be how the show handles the Jedi. (The episode that won me over is the one where Ezra visits the hidden Jedi temple and gets a message from Yoda. Just lovely.) The Jedi and Force users were never my favorite part of the game — I think because a lot of gamers I played with seemed to treat those characters more like D&D mages and wizards than their own thing. Jedi in the games seemed to lack gravitas. Rebels, on the other hand, really seems clued into the theme of these lost, scattered followers of a broken faith trying to hold on to the good parts of what they learned while overcoming what the old Jedi Order did wrong.
And that may be why Kanan is probably my favorite character. (An aside: I know I’m getting older because these days I relate more to the parent figures in shows than I do to the kids, and that’s a switch. (And I think it’s really smart for a show like this to have characters kids can relate to, and ones their parents can relate to.)) If I’ve got my timing right, Kanan was a teenager when Order 66 went out. A newly-minted Jedi Knight — or maybe not even officially a knight. And then he lost everything, and he’s got a bad case of survivor’s guilt, and he’s trying to be a good Jedi and now he’s got this kid whom he feels obligated to train while not being at all confident of his own abilities. . . Really good story meat here.
I’ve got about half of season 2 left to go. So no spoilers, please! I hear it gets kind of dark. Hmm….
Other notes: I love that their R2 unit is actually kind of chaotic neutral. No charming little cute droid here. Sheesh.
That baby Ithorian in that one episode is about the most ridiculously adorable thing I’ve ever seen.
I’m really enjoying being a Star Wars fan again.
June 8, 2016
I’ve FINALLY caught up on the season finales of my two favorite shows. What I still love about them both: the over-the-top absurdity and risk-taking of the stories. No holds barred. The “Yeah, we’re just going to launch all the nukes and introduce the multiverse and keep throwing stuff against the wall and we don’t actually care if it sticks because the crazy-ball bouncing is pretty damn cool” nature of it all. I can’t predict it and it’s just great and I’m constantly surprised and delighted. Even when I think the story decisions are bone-headed, they’re usually brave, and I appreciate that.
SO MANY SPOILERS BELOW
First, Arrow: It’s starting to feel a bit tired, which I think is totally normal for a TV show entering its fifth season. This is where it gets really hard to try new things while still maintaining the dynamic that drew your fans in in the first place. I do love where we ended up: Ollie as mayor by default, the team in shambles. Felicity still being awesome. What I’m looking forward to next season: the Cobra Island flashbacks ought to catch up to the beginning of the show. It’s five years on the island, yeah? Ideally, we should end up with scruffy hobo Ollie on the island by the end of next season, and I think that’s great.
What I loved about this past season: Neal McDonough as Damien Darhk. I’ve loved McDonough ever since White Dwarf, I loved him in Tin Man, I loved him as the baddie in Justified. He moves effortlessly between good guy and bad guy roles. He’s one of those actors no one really notices but that everyone knows about. And I think if anyone else had played Darhk, the character would have been ridiculous. But McDonough added menacing to the maniacal, and chewed the scenery with actual skill. He took it right to the edge of absurd without turning into a clown. And I fully expect Darhk’s daughter to come back for revenge at some point.
What I didn’t love: Felicity’s recovery from her life-changing injury was way, way too easy. Hollywood, this is why disability advocates hate you.
And The Flash. Oh. My. God. I love it. I had to avoid spoilers because it took me a couple of weeks to catch up, but I did notice some really baffled responses on FB the night the finale aired. I know not everyone is happy, but the more I think about it, the more I’m just absolutely in awe of where they went. Basically: They’ve undone the entire show. They’ve erased two seasons of events. That’s. . . .wow. And normally this kind of thing is rage making, but let’s look at this a different way: Aren’t you super curious about what would have happened if Barry had actually saved his mother at the end of last season? Isn’t part of you still asking that question?
Well. Now we’re going to get an answer. Barry’s screwing with the timeline isn’t erasing everything that happened before. It’s taking the story in a loop — because the story of the Flash has always been a loop. Just like him racing Zoom on the generator. That moment, his mother’s death, has always been the defining moment of the story and we’ve gone back to it over and over again for two seasons now. And now it’s. . . different. Time isn’t linear, it’s a circle, and as Harrison Wells said, the number of worlds is INFINITE. (That word right there is going to be important later, kids! Seriously, my comics friend and I fell out of our chairs when Wells said that word with such breathy import.) I felt like I did when I was a kid sticking my fingers in various sections of my Choose Your Own Adventure books because I didn’t want to commit to one ending. It’s genius. (We also had to immediately watch the Invader Zim episode “Bad Bad Rubber Piggy,” but never mind that.)
What I loved about this past season:
Earth 2. I love that they just did that storyline full speed ahead. I love that this show could pull off the “alternate versions of main characters in alternate world” trope just halfway through its second season.
Barry’s journey to the underworld/Speed Force. The journey to the underworld to gain power and knowledge is a deeply literary trope, and the show handled it in a deeply literary way. Love it.
Jay Garrick. The whole damn storyline. I’m still so freaking confused. (Wait, that guy on the park bench isn’t actually important? Are you sure?) And I still love it.
What I didn’t love:
How whoever is regularly kissing Barry can’t know he’s the Flash for some reason. It’s weird.
April 27, 2016
Not for real. I would never set Barry and Kara against each other because they are total BFFs. But I want to compare the season 1 finales of each show, because I think they offer a really a great lesson in tension, suspense, and how to maintain those things in fiction.
The lesson: A great way to increase tension in the story is to make sure the main character and the audience are on the same page, pointed in the same direction. A great way to destroy tension is to put the character and audience at odds.
I’ve talked before about the first season finale of The Flash: how an episode that is basically people talking the whole time had me at the edge of my seat, emotionally engaged, and brought enough tension to be nerve-wracking. I think part of how it accomplished this is by keeping Barry and the audience on the same page, asking the same question: Should he travel back in time to save his mother or not? Barry spends the whole episode on that question, and we’re right there with him until he finally pulls the trigger on the action and it all comes to a head and we all learn the answer at the same time.
Now let’s talk about that Supergirl season finale. The big action scene in the last half of the episode had an actual ticking clock, so the tension should have been thick, right? Time’s counting down, only a few minutes left to save the world, yikes! So why were my friends and I yelling at the TV and bored and frustrated? I think it’s because we weren’t on the same page as the characters. We weren’t asking the same questions, we weren’t pointed in the same direction.
The episode: Kara and Alex fight, but Love Conquers All, and Kara goes on TV to tell everyone that Hope saves the day, and Myriad is defeated, except it isn’t because Non and Co. have now set it to destroy the brains of everyone on planet Earth and Kara must dump Non’s HQ into space, which is likely a suicide mission and everyone knows it. So she goes around to tell everyone how much she loves them because she thinks she isn’t coming back, then she fights and kills Non, dumps the thing into space, Alex saves her (yay!), the end, cliffhanger.
Just like The Flash finale, this episode features a whole lot of the main character going around having heartfelt conversations with the most important people in her life. How interesting, I thought, that both these episodes are mostly the main character talking to people. Especially because I think The Flash episode succeeds massively, and the Supergirl episode, well, doesn’t.
The problem? The doomsday clock is already ticking when Supergirl goes around having her heartfelt conversations. This means all I could think about was “Holy shit why are you wasting all this time talking to people, the clock is ticking, Earth is doomed, stop stop stop go fight Non ARGH WHY ARE YOU STILL TALKING.” And then she lies to James about how she really feels again, which is a whole other issue. Then she gets to crashed Fort Roz and it’s the same thing. “Don’t fight Non why are you stopping you have like three minutes left just drop him in a hole and come back for him later ARGH.” This scene that’s supposed to be super tense and exciting was just completely frustrating. Because the character’s goals did not seem to line up with where I thought her goals really should logically have been lined up. She’s wasting time, running down the clock so we can have a nail-biting finish because the plot says she’s supposed to, not because it makes sense.
Why did the Flash episode get away with all the talking? There was no ticking clock. Barry had control of the action, which wouldn’t start until he said so. Him going ahead with the action was the answer to the question we’d been pondering that whole episode, and he could talk as much as he wanted before pulling that trigger and we’d go along with him.
I find it fascinating that the episode with the literal ticking doomsday clock was dull, while the one where the characters spend the whole time talking about whether they should do the thing was so gripping.
I’ve talked about this before, regarding a book I read where the viewpoint character had a Deep Dark Secret that the reader didn’t know about. I believe this was done to increase the tension, to make the reader keep reading in order to find out what the secret is. But this doesn’t actually work, because what really happens is the reader gets so damned frustrated not knowing something that’s a key part of the viewpoint character, that instead of being drawn in, the reader is pushed away. The character has their story — keeping the secret, pursuing goals, doing their thing. And the reader is on a different vector entirely: what’s the secret? The character and reader are at odds. But if the reader just knew what the secret was, then the reader becomes invested in the character’s goal: keeping the secret. Whom can the character trust? Whom will she tell? What will happen if anyone finds out? Those questions will keep us reading much more happily than wondering what the secret is.
I would have been much happier, much more engaged with the story, if Kara had behaved at all logically, and didn’t spend pretty much half of her ticking clock scenario talking while Earth is in danger.
How to fix the pacing on that Supergirl episode: After stopping Myriad (she thinks), she can have those talks with people. “When I thought I’d lost you I felt all these things and want to tell you how much you mean to me,” etc. etc. As these conversations progress, a problem becomes apparent: they all have raging headaches, and they’re getting worse. Kara runs back to HQ, “Something’s very wrong!” Yes, and here’s what it is, we’re all about to explode unless we can get the giant ship into space or something. We have 20 minutes, but our solution might kill you. Doesn’t matter, Kara zooms out to the thing because she only has 18 minutes now. Non and Indigo are there to stop her. She doesn’t immediately confront them — all she has to do is get the thing, right? But they insist on fighting her. So it’s a two-pronged battle, of her trying to get away from them while also trying to get the thing, until she finally stops to kill Non. Clock’s still ticking. Climax and finale ensue. Ta da!
And by the way how is it that Superman is always going into space with no ill effects and for some reason it’s a really big deal whether or not Kara can go into space?