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Fargo and the Power of Community

Brilliant performance by Thornton

My wife and I just finished watching the first season of Fargo (the TV series). I enjoyed it immensely, especially the spine-chilling portrayal of assassin Lorne Malvo by Billy Bob Thornton. Much like in the Coen brothers’ film of the same name, the show juxtaposes the wide-eyed provincial innocence and “folksiness” of the people of North Dakota and Minnesota with the absolute horrors humanity is capable of. One thing I enjoyed about the show, though, was how much more thoroughly the series was able to explore this theme. (Spoilers below, obviously)

The central antagonist of the plot is the aforementioned Malvo, who moves through the small cities and towns of the frozen north with terrifying impunity. He can kill who he likes, he can do as he likes, and nobody is able to stop him. These back-country yokels are wildly unprepared to combat a menace of his dimensions. They can’t even imagine him in any real way – he is the boogey man, Lucifer, and Death astride the Pale Horse. Malvo’s every utterance is filled with malice and threat, to the point where everyone in Bemidji instinctually recoils from him.

This appears to give Malvo power. Likewise, those who Malvo corrupts also are afforded a measure of perceived power. Herein lies the tale of Lester Nygaard, hen-pecked loser turned murderer and alpha-male. Lester’s chance meeting with Malvo in the hospital changes him; Malvo demonstrates how the world as we know it – the world of rules and morals and laws – is an illusion. You can have what you want, Malvo implies, by just reaching out and taking it. Malvo even demonstrates how this is done by going out and killing Lester’s high school bully. Lester, taking these lessons to heart, kills his wife, covers it up, frames his own brother, and goes on to find himself a better wife, professional success, a bigger house, and his own name on a salesman of the year award. By leaving the rules of society behind, Lester achieves everything he ever wanted.

Molly Solverson – the only competent officer on the Bemidji police force – knows what Lester has done and even has almost enough evidence to convict him, but the bull-headed, dull, and plain old sexist police chief will not listen. His world is the traditional one, based upon commonly accepted values. He cannot accept Lester’s guilt because the crime exceeds his own limited imagination and won’t listen to Molly because of her status as a woman and as his inferior. This is all against “the rules;” things like this don’t happen in Bemidji.

Doomed

One of the brilliant aspects of this show is that it makes you yell at the screen a lot. You are howling for Molly to press her case. You are terrified at the threat Malvo represents and so, so anxious that these people – these poor, good, stupid, guileless people – are totally, completely at his mercy. When Molly backs down and walks away from her poster board of evidence, it feels like a defeat. But then the show pulls another turnaround on us: it isn’t a defeat. It’s a victory. Molly made the right choice.

Fargo is playing upon our expectations as people living in an increasingly individualistic world. We see Malvo’s skill and Lester’s cunning and we think we have identified the true power in the story. But we’re wrong! This becomes clear when Malvo follows Gus Grimley home from his aimless investigation and sits in his car outside Gus’s apartment building, where he and his adolescent daughter sleep. They are in grave, grave danger, yes? Then there’s a knock on Malvo’s window – it’s the neighborhood watch. No one of great authority, no one of any actual power – just a concerned neighbor. He sees Malvo. He knows he’s up to no good. I half expected Malvo to kill him right through the door of the car, but he doesn’t. He growls something antisemitic, but he leaves and never comes back, warded away as surely as Dracula from a church.

And that is the true power in Fargo. Community, family, society – these things are juggernaut like powers in this film. Those who remain within the safe confines of a caring community are safe, immune from Malvo’s power. Those who choose to step outside the bounds of the “normal” are doomed. When the Supermarket King digs that money up and uses it to build his business, he is in metaphysical trouble. This trouble, however, grows exponentially worse as he gets further and further from the caring bosom of family and small town life. Isolated and wealthy, he is cosmically punished for his hubris and greed. As for Lester, his end – riding a snowmobile across cracking winter ice – is preordained the moment he refuses to accept responsibility for his actions. Indeed, when he denies the existence of any such responsibility. There is no one to save him not because those people don’t exist (Hell, the cops chasing him are yelling for him regarding his safety! “Come back,” they yell, “it’s not safe!”), but because Lester has left the fold and will not return.

Malvo, then, for all his pretensions, is not the powerful one in the story. It’s Molly, and always has been Molly. It’s Molly because she recognizes that going it alone leads nowhere good. No matter how stupid the chief is, he’s the chief. She gets married, has a family, moves on. When she tells Lester the story about the man running for the train and losing one glove and then dropping the second, in that metaphor she is the passenger and Lester is the gloves. She is saying “I cannot save you; you have killed yourself.” The arc of justice in Fargo is long, but it is inexorable. Those lone wolves? Those dashing villains and dramatic scoundrels? They die, are destroyed, and are forgotten. And Molly?

She gets to be chief.

 

Where Have All the Good Guys Gone?

I was watching CNN’s documentary on the 1960s last night (which is interesting viewing, incidentally, if you want a quick overview of the decade), and in this particular episode it discussed how television (to paraphrase) was an escape from the darkness, fear, and unease that permeated the society at large. It was an age of zany sitcoms and upbeat variety shows while, on the evening news, the lists of American’s injured or killed in Vietnam was top news, college campuses were rioting, and black people were getting shot, bombed, sprayed with hoses, and assaulted with attack dogs all because they wanted basic human rights.

Ah, yes…that old “feel good” escapist series about the good guy serial killer…

Now, everything in the latter half there should sound awfully familiar in our current era – the dead soldiers, the riots and demonstrations among the youth, and the mistreatment of African Americans marching for basic equality. What doesn’t sound familiar (at least to me) is the characterization of television as “zany.” Sure, there’s a docket of late night variety shows (though how much “variety” is present is debatable), but few of them are “zany” (with the possible exception of Jimmy Fallon). We’ve got sitcoms, too, but they have a lot less in common with The Dick VanDyke Show and Gilligan’s Island – with their “wholesome” and harmless optimism – and rely, instead, on cynicism, sarcasm, and insult comedy (look at any Chuck Lorre sitcom and despair).

As for dramas…yeesh. You know, when Dexter is one of the more optimistic offerings out there, you’ve got to step back and wonder what on Earth is wrong with us. Game of ThronesBreaking Bad, The ExpanseThe Magicians, The Walking Dead, The Blacklist, Man in the High Castle – we’re looking at a veritable who’s-who of dark, depressing, morally ambiguous, and emotionally wrenching stories that catch our collective attention. How many millions of people tuned in to watch Negan swing a baseball bat into somebody’s head, anyway?

What exactly does this say about us?

Now, mind you, I enjoy a lot of these shows. I like moral ambiguity and complex stories without clear resolutions. I do wonder, however, if all this misery, pain, and negativity saturating our entertainment is good for us on an emotional level. As the world gets darker and more disturbing around us with each passing year, wouldn’t it be more natural for us to go all-in with shows like The Good Place, which aspire to a generally positive tone and outlook? It seems this is what Supergirl and The Flash are trying to do, anyway, but (at least personally) something about those shows leaves me flat. They just lack a certain…darkness that I’ve come to expect.

And that last there is what vaguely worries me. Granted, it isn’t like I’ve performed an in-depth survey here and my sense is only that – a sense – but one wonders if we’ve become inured to the horrors of the world. That we don’t have the heady optimism of the post-war boom to ride on to remind us that life doesn’t have to suck and that America can, indeed, be a good place again. When was the last great era of American optimism in our collective lives? The 1990s, right? That’s twenty years gone, folks. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a barely remembered dream. Now it’s all zombie apocalypses and post-modern deconstructions of old sitcom tropes. It’s beheadings and ritualized cruelty. Our “escape” isn ‘t so much an escape as it is a funhouse mirror reflection of our real lives.

Then again, you could make the argument that this is actually healthy. That we aren’t sticking our heads in the sand; that we’re going to face our problems head-on for once. It could go either way, I suppose: either we will face down the dangers of our era with greater passion than before, or instead we will merely shrug and say “that’s life” and let the machine grind us up.

I got in one little fight and my mom got scared.
She said, “You’re movin’ with your auntie and uncle in Bel-Air.

OR maybe I’m just hand-wringing over nothing. I am sure of one thing though: nobody wants or needs a Suicide Squad sequel. Nobody.

I’m Gonna Be On TV – TONIGHT, 8pm EST!

Watch it live! Or taped! Or whenever!

Hey, gang! I’m going to be interviewed on the Steve Katsos Show tonight at 8pm EST. Short notice, I know, but very exciting! If you’ve ever wanted to hear me talk or watch me be a real, live person, tonight is your chance!

I’ll be talking about my books (current and upcoming), my journey as a writer, and other things of (hopefully) popular interest.

It should be a fun time! Tune in!

The Power and Challenge of Dramatic Irony: The People Vs OJ Simpson

I did not watch FX’s The People Vs OJ Simpson willingly. It isn’t a show that I’d ever really want to watch. I don’t particularly enjoy true crime dramas or courtroom dramas, and I certainly didn’t enjoy watching the Simpson trial in real, actual life. My wife, though, was very excited about it and so on the television it went, and I watched.

At first I was overcome with a feeling of nostalgia – seeing the mid 1990s again, rendered in full detail. Seeing dramatizations of things I remembered seeing on the evening news, seeing car styles I hadn’t seen in decades (Kardashian’s BMW! Ah! I remember seeing those all over!), and so on. That was fun. I didn’t think I’d actually come to be interested in the story, though. I mean, hey, I already know what’s going to happen, right? In a sense, it reminded me of watching another thing I experienced in the 90s – the first two seasons of Game of Thrones in the form of the first two books. The primary difference there was that I greatly enjoyed GRRM’s work and I was not enamored of the ins and outs of a trail I remembered as being annoying, omnipresent, and ultimately disheartening.

And yet I watched anyway. When we got to the last episode, I found myself breathlessly engaged. Even knowing what would happen, I was on the edge of my seat awaiting that verdict. Not because I didn’t know, but because I actually knew and the characters didn’t.

This is called “dramatic irony” and The People Vs OJ Simpson is a masterclass in this particular storytelling technique.

You see a lot of books, movies, and TV shows try to pull this off. Among the speculative fiction, thriller, or adventure genres, it most commonly takes the form of a “flash forward” to begin the story – some moment of great dramatic import we do not yet understand – and then cuts back with the whole “5 Days Earlier” thing. We then watch as the characters go through those five days, getting closer and closer to the climax we know is coming. Ideally, the plan is for that flash forward to serve as a catalyst for tension and suspense – the audience fears the coming explosion, yet knows it is inevitable.

And yet, so very often, it does not work. The trope itself seems somewhat tedious. We roll our eyes and refuse to allow the prologue affect us, knowing, perhaps cynically, that the author has some nasty trick up their sleeve and we refuse to fall victim to it. This is the peril of dramatic irony – it can backfire, and badly. Honestly, that was exactly what I was expecting from The People Vs OJ Simpson – another take on a tired old story, already beaten well to death by literally everybody who was involved in it (except Judge Ito). I was enormously pleased to find that I was wrong.

Because seriously, this was bull shit.

Because, seriously, this was such bullshit.

We all know what is going to happen at the very end of this series. Everybody should know – it’s arguably the most sensational court case in history. Why watch it again? Granted, there is a substantial population under the age of 30 for whom this might be a new tale, but even they probably know the climax. What’s more, since this is a “true” story, it would more-or-less have to adhere to what really happened, so no cheats, no Tarantino-esque rewrites of history.

And yet it all worked. It worked perfectly. The dramatic irony set up by the creators of this show was simply masterful.

But How Did They Do It?

The answer to this isn’t terribly mystical or even complex. The thing that The People Vs OJ Simpson nailed – that it nailed from the very first episode and in ever episode following – was character. The show took a heartbreaking, arduous, and tragic story and told it as a human tale, not some mythic warning or didactic screed. It was true to the people on the screen, it portrayed them with sympathy, and the actors embodied the characters with conviction. We cared about everybody in that show, even the people we disliked. We wanted to see how the permutations of inexorable fate would affect them personally. Part of this is because, though we all knew the plot, not all of us understood the characters – the people – involved in it. As we came to admire Marcia Clark or sympathize with Judge Ito or understand Johnny Cochran, we wanted to know how what we already knew would affect them. We understood what was coming and what this might mean for them, but we were unsure how they would react to it and, even more, we cared about them.

This was their secret weapon all along.

This was their secret weapon all along.

This, then, I would argue is the central trick to effectively utilizing dramatic irony – you have to build sympathy for your characters, you need to keep the audience invested in their struggles, and the rest will take care of itself. The People Vs OJ Simpson did this better than any other based-on-a-true-story drama I can think of, and much credit must be given to the actors, directors, and writers of that show. It might sound easy to do, but it is certainly not.

Colony and the Idiot Ball

First off, let me just say that I really like the show Colony. It has good action, a great dynamic between the main characters, an interesting mystery, and neato aliens and stuff. I am, however, getting a bit frustrated with the secondary characters. Resistance, red-hat, whatever – they are bugging me.

Why?

They’re all a bunch of idiots and shouldn’t be.

Holloway: "Wait...seriously? *That* was their plan?"

Holloway: “Wait…seriously? *That* was their plan?”

I mean, I’m fine with Will (Josh Holloway) being better at his job than everyone (given the premise of the show, he could very easily be the only FBI agent in the block), but that doesn’t mean everybody else needs to be such a moron. This phenomenon – called “the idiot ball” – is when a character acts stupider than they should probably be in order for the good guys to win. Ordinarily this behavior is restricted exclusively to the villains in a show, but since Colony isn’t terribly clear on who is ultimately good or bad, the idiot ball gets passed around a lot. Granted, I’m a couple episodes behind at this point (I just watched Episode 6), but it is clearly a trend. Let’s take each side one at a time, here. (Spoilers ahead, BTW)

The Transitional Authority

Okay, so we’ve got a brutal pseudo-fascist militocracy running things for the aliens and keeping people in line. Seems pretty bad and, honestly, it usually is. What I like about the show is that it doesn’t just pigeonhole the Authority as being moustache-twirling bad guys. They have a legitimate reason for maintaining order (dudes: the aliens will just kill us all!) and, while they may go about it in a brutal and uncompromising way, their motives make sense.

Their plans, on the other hand…well…

First question: How goddamned hard is it to find a guy wandering around the streets with radio equipment tucked under his jacket? How is Will the only person in the Authority to figure out when the transmissions are coming. Literally everyone else seems to know.

Second question: So, your esteemed leader has just executed a famous rebel and then you’re going to drive him across town with…two cars. And then you fall for the whole “the road is closed!” ploy? COME ON, PEOPLE – they’ve been doing that shit since Adam West was Batman. Nobody checks up on these things? They don’t plot out a route? You can’t give him a better escort?

Third question: Why is it Will who has to suggest watching rebels instead of just arresting them. Like, seriously, in every cop movie ever made, they do this thing called a STAKEOUT. Do they not have police procedurals in this world? The cops don’t cruise around and beat the crap out of random people until they stumble upon the guy they’re looking for by accident. Well, at least not cops who are actively good at their job.

Fourth Question: You’ve got a very, very talented asset on your side – a woman with actual CIA experience, a real killer. Your security measures for her home? Freaking ADT. Seriously, just just slaps her ID on a thing and she’s inside. No bodyguard. No advanced security. No live-in aide for her bedridden husband – nothing. Hasn’t it occurred to anyone that she might be a target? It’s a little hard to swallow that an assassin masquerading as a low-rent goon could just be sitting in her dining room.

The Resistance

While the Red-hats are a bit dim, they are nothing compared the sheer audacious stupidity of the Resistance. Just about every plan that they try is a complete failure and they are, for some reason, flabbergasted as to why. Except it’s super, super obvious that their plans are stupid. Consider the following:

First: So, you plan on timing drone response time, but it doesn’t occur to you that hitting a food truck in a populated area might draw looters? Hmmm…

Second: You blow up a gateway to another block and you are surprised that they track down the guy responsible? Even when that guy is just hiding at his girlfriend’s house? Really?

Third: So you hit a convoy carrying the enemy leader. How are you perplexed at their possession of firearms? Why aren’t you shooting them with bullets instead of paintballs? Why is the deal you made with some lady more important than killing your enemy?

Fourth: You guys kept more than half your guns in the same damned place? Really? Really? No, seriously…really? And people just hang out there and practice shooting all the time? And nobody notices?

Fifth: Even supposing you overthrow the Authority, what the hell do you actually think you can do against the drones? Seriously, what? You guys can’t knock over a Chevy SUV, and you want to take on super alien technology?

Sixth: “Hey, our avowed enemy is in that building!” “But sir, the door is locked and there’s a girl in there we kinda like!” “Okay, I’ll need four guys only. We will go in one at a time, at intervals. I’m sure he won’t shoot at us. Our smoke grenades? Oh, they just create ambiance.”

Seventh: “We have you captured!” “Okay, I surrender!” “Where is Snyder?” “In the back.” (they go to the back, and Snyder has apparently escaped through the rear door. “Wait…there was another door? D’oh!”

You’ve got to be goddamned kidding me.

Now, honestly the idiot ball usage doesn’t really bother me that much in this show, since the rest of it is pretty good. Hell, the idiot ball is deployed way less often than it is in Doctor Who, so it hardly qualifies as a TV death knell. Still, it would be nice if somebody besides Will seemed to be using their whole brain in this show. Maybe the aliens will.

The Muppets: ‘Twas Ever Thus

I watched the pilot of the new Muppet Show the other day. I like it – a number of the gags were hilarious, I liked seeing all the gang again, and I thought the trope/show structure was fun and has a lot of potential. Yeah, it wasn’t the greatest thing I ever saw (a lot of the jokes fell flat), but I liked it and will watch again. I went to sleep that night thinking that it was a pretty solid rebooting of the franchise and that it should do well.

Then, the next day, I saw all the rage. All kinds of backlash from all kinds of places (this one on i09 is a good example) talking about how they “ruined the Muppets” and made them unlikeable and cynical and dark and so on.

And I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. Really.

Maybe it’s because I, myself, am a fairly cynical and dark human being. Maybe it’s because, as I have small children, I’ve watched almost all the Muppet movies not only recently but many, many times over, but I don’t think this show has changed the Muppets as characters all that much. Sure, sure – the format has changed. The vaudeville acts and the musical numbers have been sidelined (temporarily, perhaps), but the Muppets themselves? Not buying it. Here, I hope to rebut the claims made using evidence from pre-existing Muppet properties.

Claim #1: This Show Has Made the Muppets Cynical and Mean

First off, I would ask somebody to please point out where the cynicism in the pilot is in the first place. Is it from Kermit’s sarcastic remarks? Please! He’s been making those since forever. Point in case, in The Muppet Movie (going all the way back to 1979), Dr. Teeth and the band paint Fozzie’s Studebaker to make it less conspicuous – by covering it with rainbows and star patterns. The following exchange occurs:

DR TEETH: Doc Hopper will never recognize you now!

FOZZIE: I don’t know how to thank you guys!

KERMIT: I don’t know why to thank you guys.

Not enough evidence? Consider how often Kermit facepalms in front of the crowd. Consider how many times he chews out Gonzo for doing something crazy. Consider the number of times he has had it and freaks out on his friends (happens in Muppets Take ManhattanIt’s a Very Muppet Christmas Movie, and even The Muppet Movie). It happened on the original show all the damned time. It was a recurring subplot.

Or maybe you felt the sarcasm was a result of how Fozzie was treated. Except of course you are forgetting that he has always and forever been treated this way. He had a dressing room in an alley in Reno in The Muppets, he was shot at and had things thrown at him in The Muppet Movie, he’s been fired, he’s been beaten, thrown from a moving vehicle, and so on. Just because.

As for cynicism, the Muppets have always had their cynical moments–usually at their lowest point, usually just before the pivot into the third act or even as part of the first act: they just lost the theatre, they just got fired, they just got thrown out of their home. Hell, at the start of It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Movie, Kermit is contemplating suicide, just like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. The “cynicism” people are pointing to in this new television series seems to me evidence of the fact that the show is just starting and the Muppets are stuck in a rut. A rut they can break out of or recover from. It’s only the pilot guys.

Claim #2: This Show Has Muppets + Sex! OUTRAGE!

Yeah, I guess you guys have never paid much attention to this show. There has always (ALWAYS) been sexual humor in the Muppets; you were just too young to get it, because it went over your head. Much like this sexual humor would go over any kid’s head. Seriously, where was the actual raunchy sex talk? Fozzie made a “bear” reference, but what little kid is going to get that? Do they ever discuss sex? Fozzie is just dating a girl and they talk about having children. Animal mentions “too many women.” That’s it.

But beyond that, have we forgotten about Animal’s track record? Here, let me remind you:

Ah, yes--subtle. I can see how you missed it.

Ah, yes–subtle. I can see how you missed it.

That scene involved Animal chasing a blonde out of a theatre at the start of The Muppets Take Manhattan. What did you think was on his mind?

Not enough for you? What about Gonzo’s weird thing with chickens (obviously NOT Platonic–he gives her mouth-to-mouth later on in Muppets Take Manhattan and it is played for all it’s worth). Oh, and – Dear God! – did you forget all about the It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Special in which Kermit, like George Bailey, is experiencing an alternate universe in which he never existed. In that alternate universe, he encounters this image:

Yes. That is what you think it is.

Yes. That is what you think it is.

That is Scooter, dressed in tight pants and leather dog collar, gyrating in a steel cage inside a seedy nightclub. Yes. Scooter.

Oh, and is it the Muppet/Human love affair that creeps you out? Have we forgotten that such love affairs have occurred consistently and forever since the Muppets’ inception. How many of the male guest stars on the original Muppet Show did Piggy lust after? Did we forget her fantasy involving Charles Grodin serenading her while she swam about in a silver swimsuit in a synchronized swimming routine during The Great Muppet Caper? Did we forget Kermit’s budding romance with Juliana Donald’s waitress character in Muppets Take Mahattan?

Yeah. Yeah, I guess we did.

Claim #3: They Threw Piggy Under the Bus

Pictured: Not a sane pig.

Pictured: Not a sane pig.

Okay, yeah – Piggy is a narcissistic, delusional, fame-addled lunatic in the new show. She is the target of fat jokes and played up as crazy.

Except that she’s always been a narcissistic, delusional, fame-addled lunatic who has been the target of fat jokes and played up as crazy.

Piggy has never bothered to remember Gonzo’s name (not since The Muppet Movie), she has never bothered to care about Kermit’s feelings, and she has always, always, always been portrayed as a character with less talent than aggressive self-interest. She is the quintessential diva and has always been thus.

Now, you can say that this is an unfair depiction of a strong woman, and I would certainly agree with you, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is her portrayal. Piggy ditches Kermit as soon as she gets a phone call from her agent in The Muppet Movie (in the middle of a date). She lies about her identity in The Great Muppet Caper to impress Kermit and to indulge in her own delusions of grandeur. She lies to Kermit again in Muppets Take Manhattan when she claims to leave town but, instead, sticks around and stalks Kermit out of jealousy. In the original show, she is constantly locking herself in her dressing room, making unreasonable demands, screaming at people, and Kermit is there nodding and trying to calm her down and taking the heat. In The Muppets, they have Piggy playing a corpse on a gurney in a mock episode of Scrubs and she refuses to play dead and inserts herself in the scene to the frustration of the rest of the cast. She is that person.

I will readily agree that Piggy has good qualities. She is tough, smart, willing to take risks, assertive, and has a mean karate chop. She saves the frog’s bacon (pardon the pun) on several occasions, granted. Ultimately, when push comes to shove, Piggy is a good person and does the right thing. Which, of course, is actively demonstrated in the pilot episode when she and Kermit apologize to one another and promise to be honest.

As for the fat jokes, well, they are artifacts from a previous era and should go. Mocking Piggy for her weight and size was a giggle in the 1970s, but not anymore. If I have a critique of the show, that’s the primary one – that joke landed as crass and mildly offensive.

Conclusion

This is the first episode of a series that, presumably, will build upon the emotional relationships and allow characters to evolve. To claim they “ruined the Muppets” is both inaccurate and premature. If you think this Muppet Show was dark and sarcastic, you just haven’t been paying attention to the Muppets overall for the past 40-some-odd years.

Now, what is missing from this pilot is the feel-good, hopeful songs – things like “Rainbow Connection” and “Somebody’s Getting Married” – as well as the zany vaudevillian stuff. If that was your primary draw for the Muppets, I’m sorry about that. Let’s not pretend, though, that these Muppets aren’t the Muppets we’ve always known and loved. They’re just doing a slightly different act.

 

 

I’m Going To ITVFest! So Should You!

Firstly, let me give you a souped-up version of something I doodled in a meeting the other day:

Primary Bad Guys in Scifi Properties

I admit it isn’t perfect. Commentary welcome.

I know, I know–I shouldn’t have been doodling. They were talking about bathrooms for about fifteen minutes, though, so I don’t think I missed much.

Anyway, my spiffy Venn Diagram isn’t why I’m here today. The diagram is a lure – a trap, if you will – to draw your attention to something much more awesome.

This September 24th to the 27th in Dover, Vermont is the 2015 ITVFest (Independent Television and Film Festival). It is a film festival dedicated to the independent film maker, the independent television producers, webseries makers, and so on. To quote from their website:

ITVFest (the Independent Television and Film Festival) is the original public festival and network of the world’s best independent television pilots, webseries and short films.

Every September, we bring together over 1,000 filmmakers, actors, writers, directors, producers, financiers, Hollywood executives and general public fans to relax and connect in the Vermont mountains.

Our beautiful Vermont location makes ITVFest the most unique (and useful) destination TV/web festival throughout the world. Hollywood is a relationship based business and professional producers and studios often look to hire people that they already know and trust when creating a new project. Unlike big city festivals where it can be difficult to interact with the right people, ITVFest in Vermont offers a unique opportunity to meet fellow professionals and make these lasting connections that can lead to prosperous careers.

Studios trust that what they see at ITVFest is the best of what is out there in the expansive digital universe. Quality and talent shine at ITVFest, giving the world’s best filmmakers direct front door access to Hollywood’s best studios and networks.

Technologically savvy and forward thinking, ITVFest prides itself on being for and about the creators of quality content – regardless of industry status. Our content creators range from new filmmakers to Emmy winners.

In short, this is a great opportunity for anybody interested in filmmaking or its associated industries. And you know what makes it even cooler?

I’m presenting there this year!

Yup – Yours Truly will be giving a little talk and presentation on world building in science fiction and fantasy stories at 11:00am on Sunday Saturday, and I could not be more excited! This festival sounds like it will be tons of fun and I’ve heard good things about previous years. If you have half a mind and are anywhere close to Vermont, you really should come check it out!

Star Trek TNG, Season 3: The Best and Worst

It took me a very long time to make my way through Season 3 of TNG again, but what can I say, I’ve been busy.

Anywho, I finished it a few weeks ago and finally find myself with a little time to give you my picks for the best and worst episodes of the season. Part of the reason I’ve put it off is that the decision on either end is a very tough one. Honestly, none of the episodes were truly abysmal and a great many of them were very, very good. How does one pick from among the episodes “Sarek”, “The Most Toys,” “The Enemy,” “Who Watches the Watchers,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” and, of course, part one of “The Best of Both Worlds?” Man.

Well, here’s what I decided. Your commentary and personal preferences welcome:

The Worst: “Menage a Troi”

M-nage-Troi-star-trek-the-next-generation-22011832-694-530

Yep, it’s *that* kind of episode.

First of all, just look at that title. Look at it, I say!

Just a little skeevy, isn’t it?

Well, that about sums up the episode in general: a little bit skeevy. Now, it doesn’t quite go to the lengths of actively offensive, but it flirts with idea.

Synopsis: A Ferengi, Daimon Tog, falls in love with Lwaxana Troi for no particularly good reason, even though she violently and publicly rejects him. No matter – he decides to kidnap her and also manages to kidnap Deanna and Riker, too. Then they fly off. There’s a Ferengi doctor that wants to study Betazed physiology to try and make mind probes or something. You know what? It hardly matters. This is an episode about a Ferengi forcibly abducting and then sexually harassing and assaulting a woman.

Now, the Ferengi are depicted as hopelessly incompetent and goofy and Lwaxana is basically in control most of the time. She tolerates his attentions in order to give Deanna and Riker time to figure out how to escape and signal the Enterprise – they do. At the end, Picard has to pretend to be Lwaxana’s jilted lover in order to force her return. We all chuckle. The end.

The thing wrong with this episode is twofold: (1) The Ferengi are unpardonably stupid at every single juncture and (2) the whole schtick with this episode is a bit creepy. Almost everybody is forced into unwanted romantic and/or sexual situations and they are played off as a laugh. Granted, the Picard bit is funny, but everybody else seems to be cutting the Ferengi a bit too much slack here. This is the episode (I think – it may have been mentioned in an earlier episode) where it is revealed that the Ferengi don’t believe women deserve clothes and, while our heroines are appropriately displeased, it seems like, in the end, everybody’s going to treat this like some kind of ridiculously funny anecdote instead of something that is really, really upsetting. Given how cartoonishly stupid the Ferengi are here, I guess that makes a degree of sense – they are absurd – but still, I feel like this kind of thing should be really bone-chilling.

On a darker note, the episode does make me wonder what the kidnapping/rape situation is in the 24th century. I mean, if you’re a psycho bent on sexual assault, can’t you just beam your victims up from anywhere? That seems to be really, really worrisome – terrifying even. Did Star Trek ever accelerate the creep-factor on this to its rational conclusion? I’m not sure – I don’t think so. Still, it is something that chills the blood.

Except not here because, you know, funny.

The Best: “Who Watches the Watchers”

First of all, an explanation is in order: I did not pick “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” for two reasons. Firstly, it would be a bit obvious and, secondly, the first part is really just the set-up – the good stuff doesn’t happen until the next episode in Season 4. Perhaps I’ll talk more about it then.

Pretty much what the whole show is about, right?

Pretty much what the whole show is about, right?

Synopsis: The crew accidentally reveal themselves to a primitive culture while observing them for study, leading the primitive people to being believing in a god figure they now call “Picard.” Riker and Troi infiltrate the society to try and undo the damage, but bad things happen. People are accused of heresy. The poor guy on the planet starts begging Picard to bring his dead wife back to life. Crazy pants nonsense ensues. The only way Picard can stop it is by having the prime believer shoot him with an arrow to demonstrate his mortality. Finally, then, they are able to convince the primitive people that they are not gods, but just mortals with advanced knowledge.

I picked this episode from among many other fine episodes this season because I feel it exemplifies what Star Trek is (and should) be all about: the triumph of reason over superstition, fear, and violence. The frustrating Picard feels at being equated with a god is palpable – he is angry and upset over how such a misunderstanding will likely set these people back. They will abandon what they can learn with their eyes and ears and minds for the subjective “truth” of an unknowable god who dictates to them through prophets more likely to be chasing their own personal demons than being in touch with the Almighty.

Aspects of the episode are silly, but the performances are very compelling and the drama very real. It is the embodiment of Clarke’s insistence that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and it shows the lengths one must go to dispel that illusion. I think this episode is right at the heart of what this show was basically about – intelligent beings trying to be the best they can be without needing to fall back on mysticism or hogwash to make them great. I love it.

Anyway, those are my picks. What are yours from Season 3?

The Wages of Villainy

If you're waiting for catharsis, keep waiting.

If you’re waiting for catharsis, keep waiting.

Possible Game of Thrones spoilers ahead. Be ye forewarned!

 

I’ve been watching Game of Thrones recently. I’m significantly behind, but never fear – I read the books years ago, and I know everything that happens. More than many of you, probably. It has, however, been a while since I’ve read the first three books. I just finished watching the second season, which puts me somewhere in Book 2 (though where book two ended and book three began is unclear to me, since I read them back-to-back). One of the things I’m remembering as I watch is just how many awful people there are in Westeros – Cercei, Tywin, Joffrey, the Boltons, the Freys, the Greyjoys, the Mountain, and on and on. So very often, the end of each episode leaves me feeling sad or depressed. So very rarely do the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

This is, essentially, what we want, right? We want the bad guys to get what’s coming to them. Oh, sure, we’ll wait for it. We’ll wait for a long damned time. Hell, I read all five books waiting for it, always hoping and praying that the payoff, when it comes, will be oh so sweet. I want Arya to shiv Cercei. I want Sansa to push Littlefinger out the Moon Door. I want Danerys to cross the goddamned Narrow Sea and bathe Westeros in cleansing fire.

Do I get any of these things?

Well, put simply, no, I do not. In fact, I’m beginning to lose faith that I will. Oh, sure, bad things happen to the bad guys sometimes. Joffrey’s death was especially satisfying, truly, but for every bad guy that gets his, there’s a dozen good guys who unjustly meet their end. If I’m honest, I’m getting a little tired of it.

There’s something very Anglo-Saxon going on in Game of Thrones. Those old barbarians – the guys who brought us Beowulf – were all about death and loss. Beowulf itself is basically a love-story to the idea of death. They knew we all had it coming to us, so for them what was important was how you faced it. Everything good in your life – all you had built, all you had done – was just one asshole with a sword away from being ruined. It happened all the time, and the Anglo Saxon skops wouldn’t let you forget it. See this passage from Beowulf:

…and soon it stood there, /finished and ready, in full view, / the hall of halls. Heorot was the name /[Hrothgar] had settled on it, whose utterance was law. / Nor did he renege, but doled out rings / and torques at the table. The hall towered, / its gables wide and high and awaiting/ a barbarous burning. That doom abided, / but in time it would come…

Lines 76-84, Heaney translation

You can’t even get one line past the description of the beauty of Hrothgar’s hall before we are told how it all was going to burn down. Dark stuff, guys. You can’t have nice things, because the world is full of awful people. All you can do is learn to roll with the punches and find a way to survive, just like Sansa has.

For me, this frustrates me. I’m reading fantasy fiction, and so I want my cathartic victory to come along. I want somebody to ride in and kick some ass in the name of decency, if not righteousness. Maybe this is overly simplistic of me, and I by no means am taking away from the emotional power of Martin’s story – he knows how to kick a reader in the guts better than anybody I’ve ever read. It’s just that sometimes, as much as the pain and the pathos is fun, I also want to get up and cheer. I don’t do that enough in Westeros, and I’m beginning to wonder if I ever will.

In the end, if the villains get away with it for long enough, the audience at some point will become inured to their faults and crimes. They will become not monsters, but the norm. We will stop caring about the arrival of justice or even vengeance. This is what happened to me by the end of A Dance With Dragons – acceptance of the world Martin has created, in all its warty glory. I don’t expect much out of it; I won’t get attached. He’s lost me. There’s only so many times you can be abused before you move on, right?

 

 

The Big Bang Theory: A Critique

Fan favorite and perennial Emmy nominee, The Big Bang Theory, was recently renewed by CBS for an additional three seasons. This is hardly surprising, given the show’s ratings, but I do confess I reacted to the news with a degree of regret. Whatever merit the show once had (and that was modest to begin with), it has long since departed and I would prefer to see it gone. If I’m being honest, though, I fail to see what CBS would replace it with that would be substantially better (the sitcom landscape is a dry and desolate wasteland), so whatever. Let it persist.

My issue with The Big Bang Theory is not really related to its portrayal of geek culture. Yes, it’s an unfair caricature of nerds and gamers (and often inaccurate for the purpose of deriving plot), but I would honestly challenge you to find anything in sitcom-land that isn’t a caricature of somebody. Caricatures are easy to mock and easy to write jokes for, and therefore they populate the television at its lowest echelons with all the same density that phytoplankton populates the oceans. Do I find it occasionally insulting? Yes, of course. Does it actively bother me? No, not for that reason. What bothers me about the show is its overriding cynicism. It is a show that thinks the worst of its characters, its audience, and the world in general.

Pictured: sadness in my heart

Pictured: sadness in my heart

Let’s begin with the title, shall we? It is a crass pun and little more. It’s the kind of joke told by seventh grade boys in damp locker rooms whilst they speculate about female genitalia. Indeed, much of the entire theme of the show is oriented around such sophomoric, insulting puns, often at the expense of the female characters on the show. If anybody should be offended by The Big Bang Theory, it should be women. The basic premise of the show is that a woman can be attractive or she can be smart, but she cannot really be both. Penny, the most attractive, is also consistently displayed as an airhead with a poor memory, a disinterest in learning, and a history of poor life choices. Amy, the least attractive, is the only one able to match intellects with Sheldon Cooper. In the middle is Bernadette, who is not as attractive as Penny, but more attractive than Amy and is, therefore, somewhere between the two in terms of raw IQ. She is displayed as socially awkward and ditsy on the one hand, but also competent and rational on the other. This binary idea of women is beyond insulting; it’s a willfully ignorant display meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

This demographic, by the way, is no more friendly to ‘nerds’ than it is to women. Geeks are likewise displayed on a similar binary scale – intellect is also governed in inverse proportion to social grace and physical prowess. Because the nerds are smart, they are also weak. Sheldon, the smartest, is also the weakest. Howard, the one whose intelligence is most often ridiculed, is the only one in the end to actually achieve the presumed goal of all involved: marriage to a beautiful woman (though not as beautiful as Penny, as though the show is saying “let’s be realistic, here, nerds”). He also becomes an astronaut.

As if this weren’t enough, the show’s humor is exclusively hostile to its characters. We are never laughing with these people – we are laughing at them. Sheldon is the constant butt of jokes that demonstrate him as weak, unwise, and improbably clueless about the social world not because Sheldon is in any way realistic, but rather because the audience prefers to see the so-called genius put in his place. We are watching a crew of highly educated, presumably intelligent men involved in important fields get torn down and mocked for the purpose of appeasing an audience that doesn’t like eggheads and finds it implausible that attractive women would find scientists interesting or that scientists could at all manage to attract women on their own merits. To this end, characters in this show do not give each other compliments, relying instead on a litany of insults that are typically too juvenile to be funny beyond their simple shock value.

Towards the beginning of the series there was a point where the show was cynical but also novel – I watched it, laughed at some of the jokes, and identified with a couple of the plotlines, etc.. That point, however, has been smothered by the incessant recycling of the same five jokes over and over again. Leonard is ashamed of his geekery, Sheldon is clueless, Raj is awkward, Howard is skeevy, Penny is dumb and, right there, I’ve covered ~85% of the show’s humor. On a basic level, the show isn’t substantially different from Chuck Lorre’s other cash cow, Two and a Half Men, which is every bit as cynical and miserable. There is no joy in the lives of Charlie and Alan and there certainly isn’t any joy to be had amongst Sheldon, Raj, Howard, and Leonard. They are hamsters in wheels, running in their stereotype-dictated tracks, never to escape or to really grow.

The Big Bang Theory is like a poorly run zoo – go a few times and find the lions and the elephants interesting. Go every day, and soon you start to wonder why the lions look so sad and why the elephant never plays with that big rubber ball. You feel like you and the animals are rehearsing some kind of perverse play, wherein you watch and they exist and nothing changes or improves, and yet for some reason everybody still expects you to applaud.