Cobra Kai

September 21, 2020

I have watched the first two seasons of Cobra Kai, the thirty -years after the fact sequel to the iconic 80’s movie The Karate Kid.

I loved it. This surprised me, given my vocal suspicion of movies and TV shows that rely on nostalgia to generate audience interest, and this show is all nostalgia, to the point where if you haven’t seen The Karate Kid, there’s really no point to it. So what’s the difference? I think Cobra Kai takes that nostalgia a step further and actually deconstructs it, forcing a reassessment of the original thing. It’s a neat trick.

Remember that Trapper Keeper cameo that annoyed me in Stranger Things? There’s a Trapper Keeper reference in the last episode of the second season of Cobra Kai, and the teenager in the scene says, “I don’t know what that is.” Yes, the show is saying, we remember the 80’s. We even remember them fondly. But that was thirty years ago and your worldview needs to move on. Johnny has not moved on, and it makes him ridiculous. It’s aware of its references in a way that I didn’t think Stranger Things accomplished.

Within a couple of episodes it becomes clear:  Johnny is dumb, and Daniel is shallow. Johnny decided at some point that intelligence was the same as weakness and so avoided it. Daniel is focused on his image and all his reactions are based on how something will make him look. “Car salesman” is usually Hollywood shorthand for, if not the outright villain, then vanity and greed. What a bold move, making the previous hero of the franchise a car salesman. Now, it’s a little more complicated than that, of course. But still, this is one of those decisions I really admired in the show.

Necessarily, Cobra Kai asks you to go back to the original movie with this assessment. And it holds. Johnny is dumb, Daniel is shallow. (And yes, I’ve seen the YouTube analysis that claims that Daniel is the true bully of The Karate Kid. In fact, I know the guy who made it. I played accordion on a music track he used in a film school project. I sure hope he’s racking in the $ from all these new views. And holy cow Ralph Macchio and William Zabka look like freaking babies. I’m old.) These are two men who learned entirely the wrong lessons from their defining high school moment, and it’s kind of sad watching them flail. But also, they very much bring this on themselves.  The show is a judgment of cheesy 80’s ideals of heroism and depictions of villainy, and also teen movies in general. How often were 80’s heroes actually vain and selfish? And how often were the villains just dumb?

This show makes you go back and reassess every 80’s movie trope you thought you loved. It’s pure soap opera and very self aware. I laughed in every episode. There’s this knife edge between earnest and cheesiness, and the show frequently falls off on one side or the other. But I think that every moment is the result of intentional decisions. It’s really smart and really dumb at the same time, but since every dumb moment is so well thought out it swings back around into smart.

There’s a sequel to Top Gun in the works, I’m to understand. Yet another 80’s paean to action where the hero is actually vain and selfish rather than heroic (to be fair, the original film did a good job of pointing this out). I’m now very curious what direction it’s going to take. Will it be in earnest or will it make us reassess the original? One can hope for the latter, because Top Gun is also chock-full of those earnest 80’s tropes, and I’m not sure pure nostalgia will carry a sequel.

I remember when Cobra Kai first aired, hearing an interview with Ralph Macchio. He said people have been pitching Karate Kid sequels for decades, and he always turned them down. They didn’t offer a good reason to go back and revisit those characters. But this one, he said yes to, and at least for me, it’s pretty clear why:  This had something new to say about 1) the original movie, 2) these characters, 3) the very idea of relying on nostalgia in storytelling.

 

 

Avatar: The Legend of Korra

September 10, 2020

I have to be honest:  I had a rough time with The Legend of Korra.

It’s just so dark.

The world of Avatar is really wonderful. It’s rich in worldbuilding, a fascinating magic system adaptable to all kinds of stories, and the arcs of all these young characters developing their powers and learning to work together is just great. I was interested in some of the extrapolation of Korra, envisioning a stylish steampunk world.

But it’s also a world filled with megalomaniacal psychopaths. Like, Aang ended the Hundred Year War and brought peace and all that. . . and the subsequent generation apparently spawned, like, all the psychopaths. (Particularly the Northern Water Tribe, what is up with them?) And not just the big bad(s) of each season, but a whole slew of minor psychopaths as well, like Varrick and the Earth Queen.

Sure, I’m fully aware stories need antagonists. But in Korra the antagonists seem particularly bent on destroying the entire fabric of the reality they live in. It takes some Spirit-world ex machina to keep things from completely unraveling. It’s the escalation problem:  the next obstacle has to be even more horrifying and more difficult than the one before. By the end, there’s almost nothing left to save.

This has all led me to question the philosophical underpinnings of the entire Avatar world:
  • Only the Avatar can master all four elements and bring balance to the world.
  • The Avatar is always reborn after death.
  • There is never not an Avatar. The Avatar must always work to bring balance to the world.
  • Therefore, the world is never in balance. Or whatever balance it achieves does not survive the Avatar’s death and rebirth.
  • The Avatar’s rebirth, by definition, puts the world out of balance.
  • The quest can never truly be achieved.
  • That is the true balance.

Yes, I’m really late to the party on The Last Airbender and I’m one of those dilettantes who’s only now watching it because it landed on Netflix. But we live in an age when it’s never too late to join the party. I’m old enough to remember when if you missed a show or an episode — poof, they were just gone into the ether, never to be recovered. (I still think about a one-season TV show from the 80’s called Probe, that was co-created by Isaac Asimov, and had a lovely pair of characters solving science fiction crimes, and one of them was an abrasive antisocial genius before that was ever cool… I wonder if it’s streaming anywhere? Hmm…)

Anyway, I love being able to catch up with shows like Black Sails and The Last Airbender, and revisit old faves like Robin of Sherwood and Babylon 5. TV on demand is one of the great inventions of the twenty-first century.

The Last Airbender seems light at first. A show about kids who are acting like kids. I was treating it as background entertainment for awhile. But there’s a moment where I realized I was having trouble stopping. The story had developed hooks, had gotten intense and ongoing. I think when Zuko and Iroh go on the run is the moment the show’s momentum took off for me. By season 3, it’s super-charged. The story has become global and the stakes, both personal and political, are huge. From a writer standpoint, I’m so interested in how the show is managing a couple of levels of tone and plot at the same time.

It came as no surprise when I saw Dave Filoni’s name all over the credits. He’s one of the creators of Star Wars: Rebels, which is probably my favorite animated show of the last decade, and it does that same thing where it features some younger characters operating on both personal and epic storylines.

I’m not finished yet, so no spoilers. I’m liking this enough I will probably try The Legend of Korra at some point as well.

 

update + latest TV

June 22, 2020

I had a really busy couple of weeks there — because of course the ten-day stretch during which I have a book release and two online workshops is also the week I get a set of copyedits and a set of page proofs to review. Because of course. I also sold a car in there. No wonder I had a bit of a meltdown at the end of it. I’m tired.

I’m hoping to get away for 4th of July weekend, both to avoid the local amateur fireworks brigade which has already started in earnest, and to just… rest.

Oh, I also finished writing a short story this week. That felt good.

Meanwhile, TV watching continues apace.

Upload on Amazon Prime is really really good. Really good science fiction, interesting story with interesting characters. A cyberpunk romantic comedy which are two great tastes I would not have thought of putting together but it totally works.

The Great on Hulu. A lush costume drama about the early days of Catherine the Great. It’s by the writer of The Favourite, so it’s got the same irreverent sensibilities, weird post-modern touches and surrealness, and raunchy sexuality. And Nicholas Hoult.  It’s beautiful and well written and phenomenally well acted and very very sad in a lot of places. At least it made me sad.

What We Do in the Shadows. I have now finished season 2 so people can stop asking. My friends and I call this The Guillermo Show, because he’s basically the reason to keep watching. Best last line in a season finale.

 

TV watching update

May 25, 2020

The Ghosts of Sherwood is out in about two weeks. Well, that snuck up on me. Watch this space for more info! (And yes, there will be an audio edition!) For now, here’s a video of me reading the start of the story.

Pandemic TV viewing continues. I finished The Last Kingdom season 4, and it continues to deliver what it’s always delivered. The first couple of episodes don’t seem to match up with the end of the previous season, but the story sucked me in soon enough. I had a delightful moment I need to tell you about:  Since last year I’ve been listening to The History of England podcast, which is narrated in a comforting British accent, told with humor and insight, and really digs into the historiography — what historians have said about the history over time. I started so I could get more background about the reigns of King John and King Henry III for my Robin Hood stories. And then I just kept going, jumping back to the Norman conquest for another story I want to write, and then even further back… which led me listening to all about how King Edward (heir to Alfred the Great) and his sister Aethelflaed, the Lady of Mercia, consolidated power. And that’s exactly what The Last Kingdom season 4 is all about, and it confirmed what I’ve suspected all along, that the story — the show and Bernard Cornwall’s books — are something of a sideways history. If historians don’t know exactly how something happened. . .it’s Uhtred! Uhtred did it! So it is here. The podcast tells me that historians aren’t exactly sure how Edward and Aethelflaed convinced the ealdorman of Mercia to put Aethelflaed in charge of an exclusively male position. Well — it’s Uhtred! So that’s fun.

On another level the show is a catalog of early medieval combat and battle strategy, and it’s kind of brilliant. I think it should be required viewing for SCA fighters. This season, we got a siege of a walled town. Gah….

I watched Picard. Much like ST: Discovery, it has some moments of brilliance — and some of the dumbest, most bone-headed plotting I’ve ever seen, along with (what I think is) unnecessary grimdark. The Romulan baddies were laughable cliches. I was so interested in Hugh and the Borg rehabilitation project — and the show just flushed it. I dunno. I keep saying I’m going to stop watching and then Trek keeps pulling me back in…

I’ve been watching and enjoying the National Theatre productions on YouTube. Right now it’s Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster in A Streecar Named Desire. Both fantastic actors in a very well written play about people being horrible to each other.  In a couple of weeks they’re posting Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, which I’m really looking forward to.

Onward…

 

Black Sails

May 18, 2020

I’ve finished all four seasons of Black Sails, and I think it’s one of the best written, best plotted TV shows of the last ten years.

Also, this show did something extraordinary:  It gave me the exact scenes I imagined in my mind — and it did this twice.

Shows and series never do this. My idea for the third Alien movie — Newt, all grown up, facing her trauma and drawing on her resilience. Nope, not gonna happen. The future history of Terminator, with a kind and sensible John Connor? Nope, not gonna do that either.  I would have written a scene showing Steve Rogers at Peggy Carter’s grave — the MCU didn’t give me that, and that’s okay, but it still demonstrates that what I write and what others write just isn’t the same. (This is a good thing.) By their nature, series drop clues, establish foreshadowing, and we spin out those potential stories in our minds. This is how storytelling works, by raising expectations and then meeting or upending — or sometimes, disappointing them. This is why fanfiction exists, so we can have the stories we imagined rather than what we got. Though I will argue that not getting what we expect all the time is absolutely essential. This is why we look outside, for the stories we couldn’t possibly tell ourselves.

But there’s always those what ifs. . .

Needless to say. . .*SPOILERS*!!!!

Black Sails opens season 4 with a huge gun on the mantel, a hint that a character we thought was dead — whose death has been driving one of our protagonist’s rage for the entire show — is not actually dead. And oh boy does that start the story wheels spinning. What would it look like for these two characters who meant so much to each other to meet again after ten years? I played that scene out in my mind, hoping desperately that the show would give it to me. I worried so much — the show couldn’t possibly not give me that scene, after dropping such elephant sized hints. But there were a million ways that plot thread could have gone. . .not the way I wanted it to.

Dear Reader, I got my scene. I stopped the episode and played it back twice. I don’t think I’ve ever had a show match so closely what I had imagined for such an important moment. Which means the show skillfully manipulated me, much to my delight. There’s just something marvelous when other writers push my buttons this hard.

And then the show did it again. Perfectly.

So, I spoiled myself when I looked on IMDB for the list of characters, because Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny are important characters through the whole show. . .but there’s no Mary Read. At least not yet. But I had to know, so I looked. . .and found “Mark Read,” played by a woman actor, for exactly one episode. Oh. . .yes! I thought.  This is going to be excellent. This means they’re going to end the series with Read walking onto the ship and meeting Anne for the first time. And she’s going to be passing as a man, which Mary Read really actually historically did for most of her life.

And that’s exactly what happened. It was so beautiful.

As I said, this is one of the best plotted shows of the last ten, maybe twenty, years. Maybe ever. I’m talking Babylon 5 levels of plotting — four seasons all laid out, the dominoes set up and knocked down. A dozen characters with really good, satisfying arcs. An end that actually ends, instead of scrambles for some kind of tangled tying-up of loose threads.

What a wonderful thing to watch during the pandemic stress of the last couple of months.

And now I’m on to the fourth season of The Last Kingdom

 

current TV

April 13, 2020

Here are the recent TV binge watches.

The Letter for the King. This is on Netflix, and it’s one of my favorite genres:  YA fantasy, which when it’s done well can be so very good — earnest, full of wonder, a clear-cut story not weighed down by the cynicism of things like Game of Thrones. I really enjoyed this for the most part — the main characters are teens who face a series of pretty straightforward moral quandaries. Like, the authority figure who controls your future is probably lying, and he’s told you to go after someone you don’t actually like very much — but that person is probably in the right. What do you do? There’s a couple of very nice plot twists, some great magic effects. But… the story flubbed something big in the last episode that’s keeping me from recommending it wholeheartedly. BIG SPOILER HERE********  Near the end, a romance is sparked between two of the boys in the group. It’s incredibly sweet and well done and I cheered and…. immediately thought, “One of them is going to die in the big boss battle coming up, isn’t he?” And I was right. Sometimes I really hate being right. I hated that they introduced the romance to just yank the rug out, for no real reason. Especially when the potential for magic healing existed right there? I just…sigh.

Black Sails.  I really should have gotten to this one sooner, shouldn’t I?  Anyway, I’m watching it now, almost done with season one, and I love it. The show appears to be working from the same list of “things that absolutely must be in a historical pirate story” that I worked from when I wrote Steel.  Rough-and-tumble Nassau full of famous pirates? Check. Careening the ship? Check. Confronting the slave trade? Check. The show’s done its homework and it’s great.

It’s also a prequel to Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which I didn’t know, and which I’m enjoying. John Silver, Captain Flint, Billy Bones are all here, interacting with the actual history, and it strikes me that the show is dealing with similar issues of merging fact and fiction that I was grappling with when writing The Ghosts of Sherwood and The Heirs of Locksley — inserting a well-known fictional story into well-known history and trying to make it seamless.

However, I’m not keen on the sheer amount of gratuitous, sexualized, nudity, that’s been so normalized in premium cable drama over the last ten years. Like, full frontal nudity of women — and it’s always women — having sex:  when do we cross the line into actual porn? Is it where the focus of story lies? Is it the quality of the camera being used? Is it the presence of an erect penis? Because that appears to be the line these shows won’t cross, the one thing that would make it “porn” instead of “edgy drama.” Which means that, once again, women’s nudity is almost always sexualized and men’s nudity hardly ever is. It’s obvious, and it’s not equitable.

Black Sails is very good, and it has lots of great women characters who aren’t primarily there to be sexual, and almost all the characters have strong motivations and the conflict of those motivations is really driving the story. But gawd there’s a lot of naked women.

On a completely different note, I’m not sure why my hindbrain decided to watch a show that takes place in Nassau, the week before I was actually supposed to be in Nassau on a dive trip. This is the week I am not actually scuba diving like I was supposed to be, and I’m really sad about it.

 

comfort viewing

April 1, 2020

I’m back to watching Babylon 5 because it turns out Captain Sheridan is very soothing. Part of why he’s very soothing is that most of the time he’s this “Gosh, gee, well, that’s really great!” kind of guy, like the nice principal archetype. But then he gets pushed, and then he goes straight to taking no shit and he will hurt you. If he does, you definitely deserved it.

A good guy to have in your corner, you know?

But Marcus gets all the best lines, and here’s the one from last night’s episode:

“You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So, now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.”

 

So, I should be watching a lot of TV right about now? Not so much. Although I did catch the Markab plague episode of Babylon 5 just a couple of days ago and that was actually traumatic.  Babylon 5 in 1999:  Well, this is great but kind of heavy handed.  Babylon 5 in 2019/2020: Oh god. Oh…god.

I think I mentioned I loved Russian Doll. What We Do in the Shadows: pretty good, I’ll keep watching to see what happens to Guillermo.

I watched Self Made, the Netflix series about Madame C.J. Walker starring Octavia Spencer. The credits say “inspired by” rather than “based on” so I imagine it’s not as historically accurate as one might wish. Spencer is wonderful, the music is sharp. The dialog sometimes sounds like it comes from a textbook on race and gender relations, but if someone has never really encountered some of these issues, it makes it all clear. I adored the scene when Walker meets W.E.B. Du Bois. I like how it deals with body image and Walker’s approach to it. This may be the first time I wished a Netflix series was an episode or two longer — I wanted a lot more with Harlem and the early years of the Harlem Renaissance. But still, glad I watched it.

Legion season 3, and that’s a wrap I think. Love love love this show, and loved the ending. I see a lot of people grappling with not really being able to talk about what this show is about. It’s surreal, it’s weird, — each season has a really distinct feel and focus. But I think the whole thing has a core ethos that holds it together. Here we go.

It’s about superpowers and mental illness. Specifically, it’s pushing back against the line we’ve been fed for thirty years about how “people who dress up in masks to fight crime must be crazy.” Except that line never went any deeper and was an excuse to go dark rather than actually grapple with mental illness in any kind of honest fashion. So, here’s a superpower show that starts out in an institution with a protagonist who has an actual, diagnosed mental illness. Several of the characters have real, diagnosed mental illnesses. And it’s just part of who they are. For the entire first season David is told, “You’re not schizophrenic, you have superpowers!” and David finally resolves this with the correct response, which is, “Why not both?”  His illness doesn’t excuse anything he does. His powers don’t excuse his illness.

Second season is all about trust. Division 3 decides they can’t trust David. He’s too powerful, too unstable. But as these things always go, their lack of trust in him exacerbates the problem they were most afraid of:  that he would go rogue.  Again, I think the issue of trust goes back to David’s mental state:  Should he be trusted, or should he be controlled? Should he be allowed agency? If not, is it because of his powers or his illness? There are no good answers.

Season three. Well. I love that this doesn’t start with David but with Switch, another ultra-powerful character with her own set of hangups. The big question here is, Can David be redeemed? He’s done terrible, terrible things. He’s killed a lot of people by this point, and very nearly destroyed the world. And I love that the show’s answer is, No, David can’t be redeemed. This subverts the usual narrative direction these things go. Through the whole season David keeps saying, “I’m a good person, I’m a good person.” He has to say it because he knows he isn’t. Him wanting to be good doesn’t excuse what he’s done. But here’s the kicker… David can be saved.  That is, there are two Davids: adult David and child David. Syd’s own journey is realizing where she needs to put her energy:  saving the child. At the same time, and unexpectedly, the villain Farouk has his own similar journey:  living in David’s head for thirty years has given him empathy he didn’t have before, so he also needs to go back in time and save his younger self. It’s a  wonderful climactic moment involving hugging and empathy and saving babies rather than killing.

The third season is a profound argument in favor of childhood interventions. (It also gets a bit facile — all David really wants is his father’s love. But I will forgive it for the fantastic image of David’s mental space with all those doors and all those Davids coming out of them.)

So that’s what I think Legion is about.

Bonus comments:  The time eaters are about the scariest thing I’ve seen on TV in ages. And ********BIG FAT SPOILER ALERT******** are Switch’s people the Watchers? Is that what I’m getting there at the end, that she becomes a Watcher?  Oh, please, I hope so….

 

Russian Doll and The Good Place:  These are TV shows about women whose lives are trash fires having to confront that fact upon the occasions of their deaths. And in the chaotic, inexplicable, weird afterlives they find themselves in, they have to develop senses of personal morality, and also realize that their actions do make a difference. Moreover, they have a responsibility to take actions that will help other people. Life, the afterlife, all of it, isn’t a goal but a process.

Above all, these shows tell us that we have to help people.  Not for the promise of reward, not to try to game the system, but because it’s the right thing to do.

I do not think it is an accident that two TV shows with these particular themes and ethos, overwhelmingly critically acclaimed, are out at the same time at this particular moment in history.