what I have been watching

December 10, 2020

The Great British Baking Show. Yes, I know, I’m late to the party on this one. What I find really soothing about it is the tent is full of a dozen+ plus people who all have different British accents. It reminds me of living in the dorm my college year abroad in York. The one thing I want to bake after watching it is pavlova. Stay tuned.

The Queen’s Gambit. Oh yes. It overturns so many tropes and is ultimately celebratory of community and competence. And visually stylish, which we all know I’m a sucker for.

The Mandalorian. A million yesses. I confess to being a bit lukewarm (no pun intended) about it during season 1 because of my ingrained suspicions of nostalgia and fan service in storytelling, and this show really knows how to push those buttons. Season 2 perhaps even more than season 1, so why am I buying into it more than I did before? Is it just because it’s pushing my specific buttons rather than generic fan buttons? Like, you want to win me over forever, Katee Sackhoff’s live-action Bo-Katan is definitely the way to do it. But also Frog Lady and her beautiful family. (Baby Yoda, stop eating other people’s babies, it’s not cool.) I’ve always loved the aliens in Star Wars and how they clearly have their own cultures and concerns that are fully integrated in the larger galaxy, and I want more, please.

But I think there’s story here, and it’s developing. The relationship between Din Djarin and Baby Yoda (yes, I know he has a name, don’t care) is becoming profound. It’s adding to Star Wars lore, and not just strip mining it. Like, asking if the Empire is still the Empire if there’s no Emperor but just scattered warlords. Asking how communities build themselves back after the war. Giving us insight into alien worlds and lives. It’s doing the thing Star Wars is really good at, which is combining aesthetics from multiple genres and making it work. So many more thoughts, I could ramble on for a long time. I’m re-watching Rebels simultaneously with this and imagining all the ways Mandalorian could just seamlessly turn into a live-action Rebels sequel. I would be totally okay with that.

What else? I feel like I watched something else but now I can’t remember what…



all Star Wars all the time

November 30, 2020

Star Wars is my comfort viewing and I’ve been deep into it the last couple of weeks — basically since season 2 of The Mandalorian started. (Loving it! I thought both Bo-Katan and Ahsoka were perfect.) I’m on my third watch-through of Rebels. And I’ve dug out some of my old comics.

I’m having so many thoughts I could talk about, but here’s the one for today.

This is Nomi Sunrider from Tales of the Jedi, by Tom Veitch, which takes place hundreds of years before the films, basically when the Jedi Order is at the height of its power. (We come to realize that the version of Jedi Order we see in the prequel films is a shadow of its former self and nearly powerless. We can talk about that another time.) She was one of the earliest visualizations of a woman Jedi and I love her to pieces.

I particularly love this cover by Hugh Fleming, and when I first got this issue, back in the mid-90’s, I had a thought that this would make a fabulous costume. And that’s as far as I ever got thinking about that, because I didn’t even know where to start with it. I was intimidated. So I never did it.

Looking at this now? I know exactly how to make this costume. Exactly what fabric to get to make the cloak and tunic — I even have patterns already in my stash. How to do the belt and vambraces, and who to call for help in making her lightsaber hilt.

And that’s what 20 years of costuming experience has earned me. What once seemed too difficult now seems not just simple, but exciting. I’m gonna do it, guys. It may be that no one will know who I’m cosplaying, but it’ll make me happy.

If I could go back in time with one message to my younger self, it might be: have patience. You need to practice a lot to get good at things. You’ll make mistakes but that’s okay. Don’t be afraid. Just keep practicing.



cloying moppets

November 24, 2020

I’ve been thinking about cloying moppets recently. This is my label for the child characters that frequently show up in action-adventure/genre films, usually as an overly-sentimental way to force the audience’s sympathy or make our hard-bitten heroes learn the True Meaning of Family or whatever. The presence of a cloying moppet doesn’t automatically mean the story will become saccharine and intolerable, but often it does. If not handled well, the trope is manipulative — it’s there for the reaction it hopes to evoke in the audience, not because it makes sense for the story.

Two of the most egregious examples I’ve reviewed here are in Elysium and Terminator: Salvation. In those, the moppets possess hilariously unrealistic levels of cuteness and feel shoe-horned in. It’s as if the makers didn’t trust their stories enough and felt there needed to be an extra emotional string to tug on. Newt in Aliens may be the ur-model of cloying moppet, but I think that one works because she’s frequently the smartest one in the room, and Ripley’s bond with her isn’t forced — Ripley immediately goes into mama bear mode with her, which is realistic and understandable, versus the stories where some wide-eyed waif has to win over a muscle-bound brute. I loved what Iron Man 3 did with the trope, which was have the characters deconstruct the trope even as they’re playing it out (and also age up the kid, Harley, so he’s barely a moppet at all). Laura in Logan is definitely a cloying moppet, but there’s a lot of interesting story around her and she isn’t the reason I dislike that film, which I think is two hours of missed opportunities.

Which brings me to this awkward realization: Baby Groot and Baby Yoda are cloying moppets.

They’re designed to be adorable, with their gigantic shiny black eyes. A merchandiser’s dream, really. Part of the adorableness is how incongruous they are against the back drops of their dangerous worlds, alongside characters who in normal circumstances no one would ever trust with a small child. Gah, cloying moppet is one of my least favorite tropes, how can these two versions of it be so amazing! Is it just because they’re not human, so I’m able to think of them more as like, puppies, not actually in need of more developed characterization? Except I don’t think that’s it.

There’s something they have, that Newt has, that the good versions of this trope have and the bad versions don’t, and that’s agency. They make decisions. They impact the story their own actions, and not simply by forcing character development on the protagonist.

That’s what it all keeps coming back to, isn’t it? Make good characters, and then make sure those characters have an impact on the story they’re in.


I’ve finally watched Mr. Robot season 4, which wraps up the show. Streaming on-demand TV means never being on time with my commentary.

I started watching Mr. Robot and Legion around the same time, and was struck by how both of them subvert the genres in which they’re located. Legion, a superhero show, takes the “superheroes are mentally unstable” trope and goes literal with it, with a main character struggling with a diagnosed mental illness, how that intersects with his powers, and how that changes how people interact with him. The series is about that illness and how it doesn’t excuse the terrible things David does.

So it turns out Mr. Robot is kind of the same? One of the things I love about the show is how it subverts the cyberpunk/hacker genre, repurposing it into a form that isn’t actually science fiction at all. I’ve had a few people tell me it isn’t cyberpunk—there’s no robots or jacking in or bio-cybernetics. But it leans so hard on just about every other cyberpunk trope:  punk hackers, ubiquitous mega-corps, mysterious Asian antagonist, and global consequences. (From the start, White Rose struck me as a character straight out of a William Gibson story.) As the show progresses, we learn more and more about Elliot and how much he’s affected by his profound mental illnesses.

Spoilers below.

In the fourth season there’s a bombshell, then another one, and the show goes full scifi – that is, if what White Rose is proposing is actually possible. Parallel worlds, in which the things that have gone wrong in this one haven’t.  (There’s a Season 2 episode of Legion that does this exact thing, showing us all the parallel realities in which David’s life went differently, sometimes much better, sometimes much worse.) But in Mr. Robot, I think that’s. . .not what actually happens. I think White Rose’s plan to hack reality is delusional. I think the show is, ultimately, about Elliot’s mental health and how to repair it, much like Legion is about David’s.

I’m still just absolutely fascinated that both shows tackle their respective genres by, essentially, making those genres metaphors for mental health and healing.

I’m not sure Mr. Robot season 4 was totally successful. Aesthetically, atmospherically, it’s brilliant. I give it points for ambition and I love how Darlene comes out of this as the driving force and center of stability for the story. But I’m not totally sure it gave us the story it was promising us earlier in show, and the systematic way it eliminated characters in order to wrap things up was a bit contrived. The hacker scenes all are nearly perfect examples of the genre, but I started losing patience with the interpersonal drama. And watching a character with debilitating insomnia (Dominique) just makes me tired.

I will say—Mr. Robot gave us a reasonably satisfying end to the story, and I always appreciate that. And any show that gets me thinking on this level is my cup of tea.

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.



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