So I’m behind on everything – and I’m aware I haven’t done a Things I Liked post for a while. Because, while I have continued to Like things, despite the pandemic, it’s been hard to keep track of time and that’s made maintaining a monthly schedule a little bit awkward.

What I have done, however, is suddenly get addicted to shark movies. I think it started as a Moby Dick (for those who aren’t on Twitter, I’m currently a chapter a day of Moby Dick and then vaguely Tweeting about it under the hashtag #quarantinemeishmael) inspired fixation with the sea colliding with a nostalgia-inspired desire to watch Jurassic Park and, from there, anything else that involved big things with teeth eating people.

Therefore, I present in ascending order of badness of, if you prefer, descending order of goodness the almost half-dozen shark movies I watched over about a weekend at some point in the recent past. Like I say, time has gone wobbly.

The Shallows

I was not expecting much from this because it seemed like its main selling point was Blake Lively in a bikini (although, to be fair, that is quite a selling point). But this was just … genuinely quite a good film. Possibly even by the standards of films, rather than by the somewhat distorted standards of films about sharks.

I think what I liked about it, apart from Blake Lively getting to do that range thing that actors are into, was that it was all really small scale. And, for a shark movie, mostly quite plausible. The basic premise is that Blake Lively has lost her way a bit after her mother died of cancer and has decided that she’s going to drop out of medical school and go surfing on an emotionally significant beach in Mexico. Despite the beach being basically normal and perfectly safe, a whale carcass washes up in it, which attracts a shark, and Blake Lively becomes trapped on a tiny rock within sight of land.

What makes The Shallows different from the many other shark movies I watched is the really intense focus on basic survival stuff. The core structural challenge of a shark movie is much like the core structural challenge of a haunted house story. You’ve got a central deadly threat that is very specifically restricted to a location that you have no particular reason to go into and can often leave at any point. In The Shallows, however, Blake is specifically stuck on a rock, the shark is specifically between her and the beach, and she’s already been bitten once. So although it does ultimately devolve into a fairly standard “kill the evil fish” scene the core conflict of the film isn’t so much “how do you destroy the bad killer shark” it’s “how do you get back to the beach before you dehydrate or the tide comes in.”

It’s also just really nice to see Blake Lively doing some quite hardcore survival shit, often in interestingly feminine-coded ways. She sutures her own wounds with her earrings and things, and there’s always something satisfying about seeing that “primordial will to survive” trope manifest through a female character (especially one who isn’t protecting a child). And there’s just enough context with Blake’s family and background to give the film a bit of heart as well as, y’know, shark.

I give this film four and a half out of five casual dismemberments.

The Meg

Once again, I was not expecting much from The Meg. But I unironically really liked it. It’s a solid action movie but, and perhaps this is because I happened to be re-watching Community at the time, what it kept weirdly reminding me of was that the episode where the gang’s all telling ghost stories and Abed’s story ends with the guy and the girl standing back-to-back in the middle of the cabin holding knives.

Basically, what I really liked about The Meg was that at no point did anyone do anything monumentally incompetent purely to advance the plot. And this was so consistent that it was almost jarring because you kept waiting for the moment when someone would refuse to take advice or pointlessly poke a mega-shark or say something like “well, let’s capture the shark and sell it to the army instead of trying to kill it.” There was even a bit about halfway through where I felt myself thinking, hey what happened to the woman on the original sub who got injured or the biologist lady’s daughter and then was I was like, oh yeah, they were removed to a safe distance at the first opportunity.

What’s interesting about this is that it does make the cadence of deaths in The Meg very different from what you normally get in this kind of movie. In your standard big toothy creature feature you get people picked off fairly regularly as they needlessly split up, take unnecessary risks or, occasionally, just seem to honestly forget that the monster exists. In The Meg, however, everyone just acts really sensibly but they occasionally get blindsided by changes of circumstances or things they legitimately had no way of knowing about.

I think what sums up The Meg as an action flick that seriously respects its characters is the point early on when the deep trench exploration sub has gone missing and the biologist lady gets into her own single person vessel thing to try and rescue them. And then the more qualified rescue guy shows up and is like “hey, you can’t do this, you’ve got to leave it to me” and she’s like, “well, actually I’m an expert in this field so I think I can be useful” and then her sub gets slightly damaged (again, purely because they don’t know there’s a mega-shark down there) so she pulls out immediately because trying to carry on would just get someone killed.

There’s also surprisingly sweet but not at all foregrounded lovestory between biologist lady and rescue guy that doesn’t diminish either of them or stop either of them from being competent.

So, yeah, if you want to watch a movie about a giant killer monster shark that is way better than it needs to be you could do a lot worse than The Meg.

I give this film four and a half out of five ominous fins.

In The Heart of the Sea

This one isn’t about a shark, but it was the first sea-themed movie I watched because it was specifically supposed to be about the secret true story behind Moby Dick. Although it could probably have been more accurately described as the sort of true story that was quite well known at the time Moby Dick was written and is explicitly referenced in Chapter 45 (The Affidavit). The content of this story, essentially being “there was a whale and it hit a ship and the survivors had to do cannibalism (spoiler)”.

Basically, my problem with this film was “not enough whale and too much cannibalism”. It’s a perfectly decent, well-constructed, well-acted movie but I think the desire to play up the Moby Dick connection really harms it. There’s this whole framing device where Ben Whishaw, playing Herman Melville, is being told the whole story by Mad Eye Moody (who is married to Catelyn Stark) and Mad Eye is reluctant to tell him everything that happened because he’s so deeply ashamed of the cannibalism thing and it ends with Melville promising to tell the story but it’ll be a fictionalised version where the cannibalism is left out. Whereas the character Mad Eye Moody is playing in real life wrote his own memoir of the events, with the cannibalism stuff  definitely left in, which was published long before Melville wrote Moby Dick.

And an awful lot of the film feels like it suffers because of this desire to fit a Hollywood framework with twists, emotional beats, a tie to a literary classic, and an evil whaling conspiracy into a historical context that had none of these things. Even the bit where they eat each other wasn’t as much of a big deal as the film makes it out to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it wasn’t considered nice, but part of the reason the crew were so up for drawing lots to see who gets eaten is that it was kind of an established naval convention.

Then there’s the, well, the whale thing? As far as I understand it, it is true that the wreck of the Essex was one of the stories that inspired Moby Dick (again, it’s literally mentioned in the book) but the film seems to want to make it a more direct inspiration than it actually was. From my limited, and largely Wikipedia-based research, the Essex was stove by a whale (which sometimes happens because whales are big and strong and don’t massively like having spikes stuck in them) and sunk, but the whale didn’t spookily follow anyone around and no-one developed a lifelong obsession with hunting it, so it’s really a story about a shipwreck in which a whale happens to feature. Which means having the whale constantly show up and do this weird nemesis thing with one of the Hemsworths is … just very odd. Especially since in the movie it’s entirely his fault that the whale sinks in the ship in the first place.

The thing is, it’s probably … an okay movie? It’s just I really wanted more whale and less sad men with beards eating crabs and/or each other.

I give this film three out of five suspiciously gnawed bones.

Deep Blue Sea

Okay, so you know how I started the first two of these saying “I unironically like this film”. Well, we’ve come to the end of that. Deep Blue Sea is famously so bad it’s good. And … mostly I agree. Although it sometimes dips into so bad it’s okay.

The whole premise of genetically engineering super-intelligent sharks to cure Alzheimer’s is the kind of crap I’m usually really into, and the film sort of owns its nonsense in a way that is sometimes fabulous. I think my favourite sequence is the bit where they’ve tranquilised the super-shark and successfully extracted protein from its brain, and Obviously Doomed Scientist Guy is leaning down next to it in exactly the kind of way that I was really pleased that people in The Meg didn’t, and then it bites his arm off, and then they have to take him to, like, the hospital deck but he gets … like … grabbed by the shark in transit, and then later on, they’re on an observation platform underwater and the shark throws him at their glass viewing window and he’s kind of just there, with a shark behind him, and the grass cracking. And it’s like, fair play, shark, fair play. Also there’s a really famous bit where Samuel L Jackson gets nommed halfway through making a really inspirational speech which is kind of great.

But I think, weirdly, I’d have liked this film more if I hadn’t Googled it and discovered that they made a lot of changes following test screenings, some of which were probably good (like not killing off LL Cool J) but which also includes randomly having the lady scientist pointlessly feed herself to the shark for no reason in the final scene, just because test audiences wanted her to die. And, oh my God, so much to unpack here.

To go off on a tangent, because I love going on off on tangents, I was recently listening to a podcast about The Phantom of the Opera, in which the podcasters were talking about a production they went to recently which had a black Carlotta and how that massively changes the optics of the show. Because, suddenly, your secondary antagonist is a black lady who you need to make shut up so you can replace her with a skinny white woman. And I think the audience reaction to scientist lady in Deep Blue Sea has a similar issue because what you have is a fairly well-established trope that is usually applied to non-marginalised Group A that gets incredibly problematic when you apply it to marginalised Group B.

Because, the thing is, I do see that being destroyed by your own creation is very much the deal in this kind of monster movie. John Hammond gets away with it in Jurassic Park but a) not in the book and b) I don’t think you could kill Richard Attenborough and c) pretty much everybody else who is directly involved in creating the park does get killed. But the scientist lady in Deep Blue Sea just comes across, to me at least, as profoundly sympathetic. And maybe it’s just because I find Alzheimer’s profoundly terrifying, but I think “wants to cure Alzheimer’s” is such an understandable motivation that I don’t feel “accidentally breeding hyper-intelligent super sharks” is the kind of hubristic act that deserves a karmic punishment. It’s not like she’s doing it for money, or the lulz, or (like in about 90% of monster movies) for a very poorly defined military application. And, obviously, when you’re applying karmic hubris punishment to female characters it’s really hard to look at that without seeing it through the lens of a society that just kind of likes to punish successful women in general.

It doesn’t help that it’s so obviously crowbarred in. Karmic deaths should ideally be one of two things. Either they are something you pointedly bring upon yourself by demonstrating the kind of personality flaw you’re being punished for (like when the guy who created the monster confidently insists that he’s definitely able to control—argghhh) or else it’s a redemptive self-sacrifice–an “I made this thing, therefore I must take responsibility for dealing with it.” But what happens at the end of Deep Blue Sea is they’re trying to blow up the super shark but it’s too far away so scientist lady cuts herself and jumps into the water to lure the shark back, so that Action Dude can shoot it. Except then Action Dude basically refuses to shoot it because, essentially, he didn’t like her plan and, therefore, won’t follow through with it, even though it’s now kind of irreversible. So you wind with his difficult thing where not only  was this change to made to satisfy test audiences who specifically wanted the smart woman to die horribly, but it’s implemented in a way that makes it even clearer that she’s being arbitrarily punished for trying to do things her own way.

The thing is, I can cope with a story element supporting ideas I think are shitty and I can cope it with being forced. What I cannot cope with is it being forced in order to support ideas I think are shitty.

I give this film two out of five unnecessary fridgings.

Jurassic Shark

Oh dear. So, you probably know what mockbusters are. Just in case you don’t (they’re a popular beat combo, m’lud) there’s this thing when a big blockbuster movie comes out where smaller studios will put out incredibly cheap knock-offs as a way of riding the hype train or, possibly, trying to actively trick people who are looking for the bigger budget and better film.

Jurassic Shark seems to be that for The Meg.

I’m sort of glad I watched it. I’m very glad I didn’t pay for it. I’m not even sure it’s so bad it’s funny. It might just be so bad it’s … nothing?

For what it’s worth, according to its Wikipedia page, it was once the 11th worst rated movie on IMDB. And I think it earned that distinction.

So this is clearly filmed by a lake somewhere in Canada, but everyone keeps loudly insisting it’s a beach in the hope that if they say the word beach enough we’ll somehow forget we’re looking at overgrown mud next to brown water. The basic premise is that illegal drilling unleashes a megalodon into the lake and a journalism student and her friends are going to investigate the illegal drilling and get trapped on the lake by the megalodon. Also some art thieves are hiding out at the lake and they’ve dropped the art they stole in the lake and they want to force the students to get the art back from the lake for them.

It is really noticeable how little of this shark movie involves actually interacting with the shark. The first couple of times it eats people it very clearly exists only in mime. When we finally see it, it’s very clearly stock footage. And when there’s no way to avoid having the actors and the shark on the screen at the same time it has apparently been CGI-ed in with MS Paint.

There is basically nothing good about this movie, yet I will still talk about it at great length. We learn about the illegal drilling thing from exposition between two vaguely scientist-ey characters that takes place on a staircase that looks like it was probably shot in the director’s flat. When the one surviving scientist goes to sacrifice himself to the shark for not reason, he takes off his lab coat to reveal a T-shirt advertising a specific brand of beer. The shark flies at one point. There’s a really long sequence of people just walking. Not talking or doing anything. Just walking. Like the writers had one of those 3am drunken conversations where they were like, hey, isn’t unrealistic how, like, in movies people go a bunch of places but you never see them, like, actually going there. All the dialogue has that thing where there’s a noticeable pause between the end of one character’s line and the start of next character’s line, even if the second character is supposed to be interrupting the first character. Honestly, I’ve seen better production values in FMV games.

Oh, also, the main plot ends with the two supervising students deciding that they have to kill the shark in case it gets out and kills someone else. I will remind you, that it is in. A. Lake.

And, finally, the shit cherry on the poo cake, is that the movie ends with two guys sitting by a fishing hole with one of them giving a long speech about how weird it is that the other guy’s daughter (who is right in front of them) is moderately attractive, given that his wife is, like, really fat and ugly, I mean really fat and ugly, like Oh my God, you wouldn’t believe how fat and ugly this guy’s wife is. And then the guy with the fat ugly wife is like, “Well, you know what they say, even big ugly monsters can have offspring”. At which point an awful CGI shark leaps out the water and swallows them.

And, like, I get that you’re doing the trad monster movie “the end question mark” thing. But you basically had a really jarring, more than slightly misogynistic rant about some guy’s wife just to set up an incredibly forced feed line that doesn’t even quite fit either of the contexts it’s supposed to come in.

And finally, finally finally, in this scene they’re really obviously drinking the same brand of beer that’s on the scientist’s T-shirt.

I give this film zero out of five—you know what, I can’t even be bothered.

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So this was originally going to be the last entry on my recent “things I liked” post but the more I thought about it the less comfortable I was describing the show as something I actually liked. Which is to say it’s watchable as fuck, but I felt a little bit bad for watching it. And the thing is, I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures. I’ll sometimes get asked the “what’s your guilty pleasure” question in interviews, and I really won’t know how to answer it because what I understand people tend to mean when they say “guilty pleasure” is “thing I like but am embarrassed about liking”. And maybe I’m just way too British about these things but that’s not what guilty means to me. I don’t feel guilty about liking cheesy music or lowbrow humour or terrible movies. I like what I like and I don’t see the sense in feeling bad about the fact that given the choice, most evenings I’d rather stay home on the sofa and watch Avengers Endgame on Amazon than get dressed up, hoi into London and watch Samuel Beckett’s Endgame at the Old Vic.

Having said all of which, what I do consider “guilty pleasures” are things that I enjoy but suspect might actually be harmful to people. And some (but not all) reality TV slips into that category for me. Some of it I think is broadly fine—like whatever you think of the Got Talent series, these days it’s mostly professional performers who go into it with their eyes wide open as a way of advertising their shows—but some of it, well, some of it seems to genuinely mislead and exploit people. And obviously one of the things that makes reality TV harmful and exploitative in the first place is that it’s so easy for TV audiences to forget that the people on it are real human beings, and to take it on myself to decide whether the contestants on Love is Blind were misled or exploited would be to commit the same error. So … yeah. Take all of this with a giant flashing “this is just my personal reaction” over the top.

Let’s start with the least important but most annoying thing. When the fuck did we decide that we were going to start pretending reality TV shows were “social experiments” again? Like, you could get away with it in 1997 when it was all Big Brother and supposedly serious documentaries about airports. But it’s a genre now, a well-established entertainment genre, and we know that it’s just fucking made-up. If you sincerely wanted to test the hypothesis “is love blind” you’d need to define your fucking terms, set up a randomised controlled fucking trial, and most importantly not do it on national fucking television. Love is Blind is not a social experiment. It’s a reality TV show about a bunch of conventionally attractive people dating. It’s like a more conservative Love Island.

I think what makes the show watchable (and also arguably what makes it utter bollocks as an “experiment”) is that it switches up its format very very quickly. It’s much like The Voice, which is sold entirely on the premise that contestants are judged only by what they sound like and not what they look like, but then for most of the series the judges can see them and the audience always can. Love Is Blind has about two episodes where its contestants are in pods and are supposed to be forming “deep emotional connections” sight unseen, and then a further … I want to say six-to-eight episodes where they’re just hanging out like normal with a wedding at the end of it. And, yes, technically you only get to progress to the bit where you have a cool holiday or the bit where you meet the family if you’ve already proposed marriage in the pods but, like, it’s a reality TV show? The contestants know how it works. Saying will you marry me in the context of the show really is just code for will you go through to the next stage of this totally artificial process with me, on the understanding that we can both pull out at any time, right up to the moment of the actual wedding. It’s no more meaningful than “coupling up” on Love Island. Hell, sometimes the contestants even call each other out on this very fact (one contestant explicitly accuses her “fiancé” of only being in it for the holiday). And the show presents the question of whether the couples will go through with the weddings at the end of the series as a big will-they-won’t-they moment which surely, surely highlights what bullshit the “proposals” in the pods are. When was the last time you went to a wedding in real life and there was any actual tension about whether either of them would say “I do” when the time came? If your wedding vows are an actual cliffhanger, you’re doing relationships wrong.

Of the many, many things that bugged me about Love Is Blind, I think the largest sub-category is unexamined assumptions about relationships. We’ll gloss over for now the fact that all the couples are opposite-sex because, fair enough, there are arguably logistical issues in that, if you had a mixture of sexualities you’d have to keep your exclusively gay people sort of segregated from your exclusively heterosexual people with your bi and pan people ping-ponging in-between both groups in a way that would not exactly avoid reinforcing stereotypes about bi and pan people. And we’ll almost completely gloss over the fact it was taken so much for granted that the men would be doing the proposals that when one woman wanted to do the proposal she had to wait for the guy to do the proposal first so she could tell him to stop in order that she could do it and then they called back to it in the reunion episode like the entirety of society had been shaken to its core by the notion that a woman could technically sort of ask a man to marry her as long as he got to do it first. I mean, for fuck’s sake, it is 2020. We live in the fucking future. I own multiple devices that are like things from Star Trek and we are presenting a slight deviation from gender norms circa 1957 as this massive watercooler moment. Actually what the actual fuck actually. I’m even going to gloss over the way the show in no way challenges (and, if my suspicions about how these things work behind the scenes are correct, somewhat reinforces) the idea that one of the contestants having a history of dating both sexes is a gigantic terrible relationship-wrecking secret. I mean, yes, he should probably have mentioned it before he proposed because he clearly knew it was going to be an issue for the woman he’d chosen. But also if you offered to bet me fifty dollars that nobody working behind the scenes had encouraged him to play it the way he played it I would take that bet. If you wanted to bet met a thousand dollars that they hadn’t known about his dating history in casting and consciously chosen to put him on the show because they knew it would introduce drama I’d take that bet in a fucking heartbeat.

Okay that’s a lot of glossing and I’m not even onto the thing I actually want to talk about. And, for what it’s worth, part of the reason I’ve glossed over the things I’ve glossed over, is that I suspect other people have talked about them in much more detail. The thing I do want to talk about and which maybe hasn’t been quite as beaten to death is the assumption the show makes about the relative value of emotional and physical connections. Because yes, it is broadly true  (although overwhelming less true than it was twenty years ago) that most people start a relationship with a physical attraction and build an emotional bond from there. But people talk about this like it’s some great revelation about a deep flaw in society when, to me, it’s more just sort of … a biological quirk. And I don’t me that in a bio-truther way, I mean it in a … okay it’s time for an AJH patented spurious analogy. One of my favourite linguistic observations is that “smelly” means “smells bad” and “tasty” means “tastes good.” And I have no proof of this but my strong suspicion is that the reason for that particular language quirk is that you have far more control over what you taste than what you smell. The majority of notable scents are unpleasant because it’s easier to make a bad smell than a good smell and you don’t get to control which ones go up your nose. Of course, it’s easier to make a bad taste than a good taste too, but you do get to control what goes in your mouth. So notable smells are things you can’t help smelling, notable tastes are things you choose to taste. Hence smelly is bad, tasty is good.

To me, that’s the kind of biological quirk that I think the physical/emotional thing comes down to. We absorb data from images by looking at them far more easily than we absorb data from words by reading or listening to them (for what it’s worth, this is also why learner styles are bullshit – everybody’s a visual learner). If you’re looking for someone to marry, or date, or fuck then that person should ideally (and, obviously, values vary here) be someone to whom you have both an emotional and a physical connection. And obviously if you’re just looking for a hook-up in a nightclub toilet you can pay far less attention to the emotional stuff and if it’s 1802 and your family’s estate is entailed away from the female line you could pay no attention to either and just look for someone with five thousand a year. But the point is, for most people looking for relationship, you want both and the physical stuff is a lot easier to work out quickly as a first filter. There is no point trying to build a deep emotional connection with someone who you just don’t fancy. And yes, this is slightly more complicated than I’m making out, because although I have, ironically, fallen into much the same emotional/physical reductionist binary that the show talks about, this stuff is actually incredibly messy and subjective and you absolutely can develop a physical attraction based on more abstract concepts. And you can fancy people because they’re kind of cool or charismatic in a way that doesn’t necessarily come across just from looking at them (I mean, Boris Johnson apparently gets laid, like, all the time). But the point is that the show takes as axiomatic that doing the emotional connection first is somehow better or purer or more laudable. And it, well, isn’t. It’s just the other way round from the way it’s usually easiest to do it (and, increasingly, not so much—like loads of people meet online through entirely text-based media, this is a thing, I’ve written a fucking romance novel about it).

To draw another spurious analogy because I do love them. If I want to decide where to eat then I will usually make that decision in the following way: I will decide what kind of food I want, I will check what places are near me, and then I will look at reviews. Which is to say, I will deal with the simple, instinctive, intuitive factors first and then move on to the more complicated questions that require me to pay attention to things. The way people chose their partners on Love Is Blind was basically the equivalent of me choosing a restaurant to have dinner at by reading reviews first without knowing what kind of food is being served or where the restaurant is. And, sure, maybe that means that I’ve developed a deeper insight into a wider a range of restaurants, and I might even be encouraged to try a restaurant that I might have otherwise overlooked. But it could also mean that I’ve wasted a tonne of time learning a bunch of information about restaurants in Scotland. Or that I’m going to turn up to eat, and find they only serve food I don’t like or am allergic to.

And to some extent this wouldn’t bother me (that’s a lie, it would totally bother me, I’m very easily bothered) except for how it actually played out on the show. Because, as you might expect (given that plenty of people fall in love sight unseen—like the internet is a thing, people falling in love with people they haven’t seen in person is only marginally more shocking than, well, a woman proposing to a man or pansexuals existing) for some couples it worked fine. Because some people hit the jackpot and it turned out the person they’d been forming a deep emotional bond with was also objectively a smoking hottie. And some people got the runner up prize of developing a physical attraction to someone with whom they’d already formed an emotional bond. But some people just legit seemed not to fancy the person they were suddenly engaged to. And even that that would be fine, if the whole premise of the show didn’t revolve around telling those people that they were shallow and wrong.

In a sense this comes back to my earliest complaint about the show constantly billing itself as an “experiment”. One of the absolute rules of an experiment (albeit one that real scientists break with problematic regularity) is that your goal should be to test a hypothesis not to prove a conclusion. The reunion show ends with the hosts asking the contestants if they think that “love is blind” and they unanimously say yes even though the actual results of the alleged experiment prove otherwise. From what I saw (again, I’ll point you to that big flashing sign) there were at least two contestants on the show who just plain did not find their fiancé physically attractive and that was in fact a dealbreaker. But the show consistently framed those contestant’s unwillingness to lie back and think of England for the sake of the “experiment” and their “deep emotional connection” as a flaw in those contestant’s thinking, not a flaw in the premise of the show.

I should say I’m going to stray out my lane here, which is not exactly an unusual position for me, because the people I felt bore the brunt of the “it’s not okay to not fancy this person” issue the strongest were Jessica and Kelly—both of whom, as the names suggest, were women. And I do think there was a difficult gendered aspect to the framing of their stories. As a side note I find it interesting that there’s this taken-for-granted assumption that women are more attracted to words and ideas and emotions, while men are more attracted to bodies, but the show’s two clearest examples of being put off your partner because you just didn’t fancy them when you saw them in real life came from female contestants. Of course, I do also wonder if that was partly because (and I should stress these things are subjective, and I’m not trying to be judgemental) the women did seem to have been chosen with more of an eye to their hotness than the men were. Like, I could not imagine anybody being disappointed to come out of the pods and see basically any of the women, including many of the women who nobody connected with. I couldn’t really say the same about a lot of the blokes—I mean some of them were genuinely hot but there were still (and this is problematic language that I am falling back on for the sake of a brevity I have since sacrificed with this parenthetical) a lot of 6s and 7s on the boys’ side, versus a lot of 8s and 9s on the girls’.

Anyway, I digress. Jessica and Kelly both, to me, (and I should stress that I am neither of these people, I live in neither of their heads, I’m aware they’re real human beings, and that all I know about them was presented to me through the inherently distorting medium of reality television) seemed to straight up not fancy the guys they were engaged to. And they also seemed to have got the idea from somewhere (spoiler: that somewhere was the entire fucking premise of the show) that not fancying this person was very much a flaw in their characters. And that … honestly creeps me out. There’s an episode about midway through where Jessica gets very very drunk and tells another contestant how into her (that is, the other contestant’s) fiancé she still is. This makes A+ TV but it also feels like incredibly irresponsible TV. One of the things I like to do on reality TV shows is to spot little things that give away the behind-the-scenes secrets that you know have to be there. Like, on The Apprentice I enjoy spotting the bits that show the candidates are picking ideas off lists and having to pretend they’ve come up with them themselves. More darkly, whenever alcohol appears on a reality show I always take a moment to remind myself that it came from somewhere and that behind the scenes there’s a whole chain of command in which somebody decided they’d get better footage if the contestants were drunk. So when on the reunion of Love is Blind, Jessica refers to that night where she got very, very drunk and made kind of a fool of herself, and she specifically uses the phrase “I was served whiskey” I immediately find myself asking “oh really, by whom exactly?”.

And … I mean … maybe the production company absolutely didn’t deliberately get her drunk, knowing she was desperately unhappy because she was kind of being pressured to have sex with a man who, however nice he was and however much he adored her, she wasn’t attracted to. Maybe it never occurred to anybody that it would be pretty cool if she had an excruciating conversation with the woman who was now engaged to the guy she was almost engaged to and clearly found more attractive than her own fiancé. Maybe it was just a complete coincidence that the set of circumstances that produced the most dramatic televisual moment, irrespective of how good they might be for the contestant’s mental health, just unfolded naturally. Maybe.

(Side note, from what I’ve picked up from reading around the show, it seems that Jessica did have sex with her fiancé at least once despite not wanting to and … that’s very much something that should never happen to anybody in any circumstances but especially not for the sake of a “social experiment” on a reality show).

Point is, she shouldn’t have been in that situation. Because, in any sensible world, you shouldn’t feel any pressure to marry and/or fuck a guy you don’t fancy just because you both have a golden retriever. Again, I’m going to stray outside my lane here, but one of the things just really troubled me about the show was that it seemed very inclined to judge the ways in which women go about choosing partners. And, obviously, half the contestants were men but they all wound up with people who looked like fucking models. There were guys who were uncertain about their choice, there were guys who didn’t feel compelled to propose to anybody, there was one guy who didn’t go through with the wedding at the end. But the men were never presented as failing to live up to a standard in a way that I personally felt Jessica and Kelly were. Notably, of the three couples who made it to the altar but didn’t go through with the wedding, Jessica and Kelly both strongly took responsibility on themselves for not being “ready” while Damien (the one man to call it off) put the blame squarely on his fiancée.

I should also mention that I’ve said a whole lot about Jessica here and not much about Kelly. This is partly, I think, because Kelly seems to have been largely edited out of the show. And I suspect (again, just suspicion, again speculation, and again outside my lane) that there was something more going on with Kelly that the producers really hoped would come out in a Big Dramatic Moment but it never did. There’s a bit about halfway through the series where she has a talk with her fiancé Kenny (yes it was Kenny and Kelly you can’t make this stuff up) about how she’s held off on having sex with him because in previous relationships she’s … then it gets a bit unclear … something about having always had trouble building a physical connection? And not wanting that to happen here? Looking at it through the LGBTQ+ filter it sounded a lot to me like she was basically saying she was ace or demi but that she didn’t have the language to articulate that. Then again, what we saw on TV was quite truncated so she could also have been describing a whole bunch of other things. She was also, interestingly, pretty much the only contestant whose friends seemed actively enthusiastic about the idea of her marrying a person that she’d met less than six weeks earlier on a television show. And I’m not sure what precisely I read into that, but I certainly read something.

All of which is to say, I sort of enjoyed watching Love is Blind in spite of myself, but the more I look back at it the more bothered I am by how much it reinforced ideas that I rather naively thought had gone out of fashion in the 1950s. Taking a step back, everybody on the show is an adult, and I’m sure they can take care of themselves (Kenny in particular seems to have gone on to be fine, although I was mostly just pleased that in the reunion show he attributed the success of his new relationship to “not doing it on television”), but the assumptions in which it is based are so jarringly alien to me that I couldn’t help feeling deeply uncomfortable by the end of the series.

And most importantly: it wasn’t a fucking experiment.

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Yikes. Somehow it’s February. Well, technically March because I write these posts at the end of the month. Either way, time has happened.

Anyway, here are some things I Liked.

Next in Fashion

It’s a Netflix Tan France vehicle: how was I not going to Like this? As far as I can tell, this is sort of like Project Runway, except presented by two British people, and with a much more international cast. And, also, like Masterchef the Professionals or The Great British Menu, the people they have on it are already quite well established in the industry. Just not as well-known as, well, anybody who hasn’t been on TV.

I think the thing about this kind of show is that it has to go one way or the other, professionalism-wise. Bake Off is cute because it’s so adorably amateurish—it’s all people who cook at home in their kitchens, cooking the kind of thing they could cook at home in the kitchens (at least it’s supposed to be, despite the occasional over-reaching challenge). And The Great British Menu is sort of fascinating because it’s (adjusting for the usual TV-hype and lies) chefs who are genuinely at the top of their game (like, a lot of them have actual Michelin stars) doing weird stuff with edible ash that symbolises the post-industrial landscape of the north east. And as much as I love reality TV, I do sometimes worry about the effect it has on people who aren’t industry professionals who are used that level of scrutiny. I mean, Bake Off is about as gentle as you can make this kind of thing and even it has its causalities: John from, I think, Season 3 has spoken quite publicly about the depression he went through after the series ended (although he seems in a good place) and I think both Ruby and Candice have discussed the difficulties of being an attractive woman in a competitive environment where people will assume you’re getting by on your looks.

ANYWAY! Next In Fashion is in my sweetspot for level of professionalism and also makes the surprisingly simple but surprisingly genius call of having the designers compete in pairs for the first half of the show, which means instead of having to keep track of twenty different people, you’re having to keep track of ten different teams. And because most of the teams, especially the ones that tended to be successful, are people with an existing relationship it’s a genuinely fascinating insight into how people work together, albeit in a totally artificial environment.

For example, one of my favourite teams was Charles and Angelo, and you can sort of tell everything about them just from their names. Basically, Angelo was this adorable ball of creative floof and Charles was the guy who actually made the clothes—and every time the camera cut to them, Charles was busy sewing or cutting something like eighty gazillion miles of fabric, and Angelo would be flying a kite or staring at a balloon. Well, not literally. But the sartorial equivalent. And the moment the teams split up they went out in consecutive episodes, Angelo because he lacked the technical skills and time management, and Charles because he lacked that creative, kite-flying, floofy edge.

Conversely, you sometimes had teams who’d got together just for the sake of the show and who would quickly discover that this did not work at all. Like Hayley and Julian, Hayley being this very straightforward, down-to-earth Glaswegian woman who favoured muted colours and austere designs, and Julian being extra as fuck. Sometimes their entirely incompatible visions came together by some kind of accidental alchemy into something genuinely quite good (there’s an episode where Julian sort of forces Hayley to make a dress out of fabric she hates, and the result is actually completely amazing because it’s this very tailored style in an outrageous print) but mostly that … is not what happens. Like, pretty much my favourite moment in the entire show is when Hayley runs out the pale blue fabric she is using to line a jacket and Julian runs over with a roll of gold sequins.

This has also, at least in Casa de Hall, led a new vocabulary for talking about relationships because we now completely understand what somebody means if they say “Are you being the Angelo in this situation” or “Stop Julianing me.”

So yes: highly recommended if you like that sort of thing.

Lindt Raspberry Intense

So I’m not the biggest fan of, well, chocolate. Which I appreciate is one of the few #unpopularopinions that is genuinely unpopular. And, obviously, preferring dark chocolate just makes me a giant fucking hipster pseud.

Except … I do kind of prefer dark chocolate?

And I prefer it even more when it’s got intense raspberry in it.

So. Yeah. Lindt Raspberry Intense does exactly what it says on the tin.

(I also recommend the sea salt from the same range for other giant fucking hipster pseuds who don’t like milk chocolate).

Melodicka Brothers

This was a random YouTube recommendation that I probably received because the algorithm realised that I love listening to self-consciously quirky covers of things. And, having run out of bits of Post Modern Jukebox, and people who used to be on Post Modern Jukebox, and Google Translate Sings (now rather tragically re-named Translator Fails, which is a much worse name), it finally threw me these guys.

They are two nerdy Italians who do tonally inappropriate covers of popular songs. Examples include: Creep (But Way Too Happy), Barbie Girl (But Way Too Sad), and Somewhere Over the Rainbow (But Way Too Angry).

Did I mention I’m a giant fucking hipster pseud? But, anyway, these charm the hell out of me.

Tubbz Cosplaying Ducks

Ducky made me put this one in. They’re ducks, right, who are cosplaying. Examples include, Sauron Duck, Joker Duck, Chun Li Duck, Egon Spengler Duck, and Fallout T-51 Power Armour Duck.

Needless to say, these are adorable and probably slightly too expensive.

Highly recommended for the demanding duckchild in your life.

Diablo 3

So this is an old game and a game that nobody liked for and that most people still don’t like. But, guess what, I kinda like it.

Partly, I think I like Diablo 3 as a reaction against people who complain that it’s not as “dark” or “mature” as Diablo 2. Which, dudes, it was an early 2000s game with pixel graphics and red pointy demons. Yes, there were pentagrams in some places but that’s only “mature” in the sense that it would have pissed off some conservative groups in the 1980s.

And I will admit that Diablo 3 at launch, well, it wasn’t a hot mess. But it also wasn’t not a hot mess. The big issue with Diablo 3 at launch was that the story was bleh (although, it’s a fucking action-RPG, their stories are always bleh, the story of original Diablo was bleh) and it had this thing called the real money auction house. The real money auction was a way you could sell in-game items to other players for mostly negligibly small sums of real cash, the idea being that this would provide Blizzard with a way to continue monetising the game after launch. The problem is, this created a massive perverse incentive for the designers. The core gameplay loop of an action RPG is that you kill shit to get loot to get stronger to kill nastier shit to get better loot to get stronger to get nastier shit. The moment the designers given themselves a revenue stream that depends on it being more convenient to buy loot for real money from other players instead of generating it yourself naturally in-game they will a) do that and b) wreck their game in the process.

When Diablo 3 first launched, most stuff that dropped for your character wouldn’t be stuff your character could use, the expectation being that you would sell it on the RMAH. So suddenly instead of playing a game for fun you’re doing unskilled sub-minimum wage work for a multi-national corporation. In your leisure time.

This was fixed around the time the game’s first, and only, full expansion released. They upgraded to the so-called “loot 2.0” system which introduced such revolutionary concepts as “giving you more stuff” and “giving stuff that was actually useful to your character”. This makes the game a lot more fun.

There was still the problem, though, that the only real gameplay you had was doing the campaign over and over again on harder difficulties (and, somewhat unfairly, people complained about this, despite it being how Diablo always fucking worked). They fixed this by adding end-game progression content in the form of “rifts” (random dungeons that you go into and kill increasingly tough monsters) and by introducing the concept of seasonal play. A seasonal character has to start from level 1, along with everybody else that season, and all their stuff is kept separate from your other characters until the season ends. This, on its own, was a little bit refreshing. Then they hit on the idea of giving each season a powerful thematic buff that makes you feel awesome in a way you’ve never felt awesome in the game before (“gold falls out the sky when you kill monsters” “you need 1 less item to complete your gear sets” “those goblin things that drop all the cool loot? There’s hundreds of them now!”) and this just makes it incredibly compelling.

A season of Diablo 3 is just … a dopamine delivery system. It’s drugs for people who don’t want to take drugs. You do a thing, you get a reward, you do the same thing again, you get a slightly different reward. Literally forever.

And I was going to add Love is Blind to the end of this—but the more I thought about it, and the more I wrote, the longer it was making this post, and the more I realised it didn’t quite belong in a list of things I “Liked” (though I won’t deny, it’s compelling viewing).

So I’m going to wrap this up here. Look out for my long rambling thoughts on LIB. And tell me what you’re enjoying this month. Or don’t. It’s a free world.

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Oh my God I can’t believe it’s 2020. Like, I’m old enough to remember when politicians used ‘by 2020’ as a conveniently distant future date against which to set themselves targets they could never be held accountable for.

I Liked a reasonable number of things this month and over the holiday, but I’m going to talk about two things which I Liked, but which also made me very, very sad. Those things being The Good Place and BoJack Horseman, both of which finished this month. They have a sort of nutrimatic machine relationship in that they’re almost but not quite totally unlike each other but, perhaps because I watched their finales on the same day, I can’t help comparing the two of them.

They’re both what you might call products of late-stage golden age of television—though I’m honestly not sure the golden stage of television means very much—in that they’re both shows which almost certainly couldn’t have been made 5 years earlier and probably couldn’t be made today. I admit I might be talking completely out my arse here but my feeling is that modern-day Netflix would have cancelled BoJack at the end of it first season (because it was far from an instant hit) and I’m honestly not sure how The Good Place ever got made in the first place. I mean, who the hell gives a 13-episode order to a show whose pitch is, “a sitcom about moral philosophy set in the afterlife.”

I’m sort of still debating with myself about whether I want to talk about these shows separately or in parallel because doing it separately will probably let me talk about them both more coherently and in more detail, but talking about them in parallel is very much where my head is at right now. Oh, also: spoilers for both The Good Place and for BoJack Horseman more or less at random, and throughout.

Let’s start at the beginning. If I wanted to be mega glib, and let’s face it, I always want to be mega glib, I’d say that, at its heart, The Good Place is about a terrible person who gets better and BoJack Horseman is about a terrible person who doesn’t. They’re both set against a self-consciously surreal backdrop, be it the anthropomorphic Hollywoo (although I suppose it’s  technically Hollywoob now) excess of BoJack, or the absurdist cosmological plasticity of The Good Place. They both balance coherent, self-contained seasons against a stronger through-line. And they’re both about things that TV shows normally aren’t about.

Actually, check that. Because, in some ways, BoJack is about the same thing that TV has been about for the last twenty years. It’s about a middle-aged man being a dick and asking us to sympathise with him (cf Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men). But I think what makes BoJack different is that it seems, at some point early enough in its run that it matters but not so early that you can’t see the transition if you squint, to realise that it could, and probably should, be about something else. Most of the first season of BoJack is basically arsehole porn which, now I see it written down, looks like it means something very different. But, in this context, I’m using it to mean that it’s a show where you watch a character who you know is an arsehole acting like an arsehole but you’ve got permission to enjoy it because you know he’s supposed to be an arsehole. And this is … fine? And it’s certainly better than the type of the TV show where you watch an arsehole acting like an arsehole and you’re mostly enjoying it except every twenty minutes the show stops and goes “ahhh, but aren’t you complicit now” sometimes in exactly those words.

A really good example of this is the second episode, ‘BoJack Hates The Troops’, where we see BoJack just being a total jerk to everyone for no reason, but also see him making a coherent but culturally taboo argument that the social pressure to unthinkingly valorise war veterans leads to an institutional complacency which justifies protracted involvement in unnecessary conflicts and, paradoxically, risks the lives of the very people we’re praising. And don’t get me wrong, the episode is okay, but looking at with a certain detachment it’s uncomfortably close to the kind of comedy that I have real problems with when it’s from a right wing political perspective: it’s basically about a cantankerous misanthropic figure who’s willing to tell it like it is no matter what the, y’know, man / hidebound conservative society / the politically correct liberal elite (delete as applicable) thinks. It has an element of South Park to it without the mitigating circumstance of having been created in the 90s.  And this is true, to some extent, for most of the first season of BoJack Horseman. Now hold that thought because I’m about to talk about a completely different TV show.

While the first season of BoJack, like its protagonist, staggers somewhat drunkenly from topic to topic, gradually developing a sense of self-awareness, The Good Place hits the ground with a  clear, sharply defined sense of what it’s going to do. It even has that thing that I normally hate (and which BoJack will ironically satirise in season five with Philbert) where it labels all of its episodes as ‘chapters’ like it’s a novel, and for once I think it’s almost warranted. In a certain superficial way, the appeal of Eleanor’s escapades in the early episodes of The Good Place resemble the appeal of watching BoJack’s escapades in the early episodes of BoJack Horseman. There’s a strong element of ‘what outrageous thing is this character going to do next’ – although the outrageous thing in Eleanor’s case is usually something like “eat a lot of shrimp” or “problematically objectify Tahani” whereas the outrageous things in BoJack tend to be more along the lines of “take a tonne of drugs and then have sex with somebody who you first met when she was six and she was playing your daughter on a TV show”. But The Good Place commits to its high concept very very quickly, addressing its central ethical themes so directly that the main character specifically starts taking lessons in moral philosophy and the the entire meta-narrative (arguably at least) is framed against the distinction between consequentialist and deontological ethics. While the first season of BoJack Horseman is flirting with the question “why is BoJack such a shitheel?”, The Good Place is asking “if Eleanor tries to become a better person from fear of extrinsic punishment rather than intrinsic motivation does it still count?”

And, so yeah, let’s get back to BoJack. In S1E8, ‘The Telescope’, we finally meet BoJack’s former-friend-who-he-totally-screwed-over Herb Kazzaz. Herb, it turns out, was the creator of “very famous TVs show” in which BoJack starred “back in the 90s” (I’m putting these in quotation marks because the theme song opens with the line, “back in the 90s, I was in a very famous TVs show”). He and BoJack had met when they’d both been (slightly failing) stand-up comedians together on what I assume is the LA club circuit except I have no idea how stand-up works in America. But when he got his big break, he’d made certain to bring his best friend, BoJack, with him. Spoilers: this ends badly. At some point, a few seasons into Horsin’ Around, Herb is outed as gay and as it’s a family show the network wants to get rid of him and BoJack entirely fails to stand up for him. Herb goes on to do other things, and have a very rich and fulfilling life, but in ‘The Telescope’ we discover he’s also dying of cancer, and that he never forgave BoJack not for letting him be fired but for not being there for him afterwards. The advice I usually give people about BoJack Horseman is that if you’re not sure whether you’ll be into the show or not, give it until ‘The Telescope’ and see how you feel after that. Because this is the episode where it becomes clear the show is doing slightly more than just arsehole porn (although it hasn’t quite shaken its South Parkisms – Herb is specifically dying of rectal cancer and, obviously, that’s a real caner but they still went with the butt one for cheap laughs). Herb’s relationship with BoJack feels real and you get a strong sense that BoJack has irreparably harmed him but not defined him. And that’s a more nuanced approach to that kind of character than you usually get and one that the series will steer more heavily into over time. It’s also the first example of willing the show is to, well, go there (and, having made several South Park comparisons the thing I respect about BoJack and respect less about that subgenre of shock, gross-out TV is that most of those shows will happily ‘go there’ when it’s safe shock value like Saddam Hussein holding a severed penis but not so much when involves genuine emotion and actually thinking about things that matter). At the end of the episode (I did say there were going to be spoilers) BoJack—who, it becomes evident, has been carrying a huge weight of guilt and shame about this for decades—returns to Herb’s house to apologise or having abandoned him all those years ago. At which point Herb, in no uncertain terms, says it’s not okay and he’ll never forgive him.

The next time we hear about Herb Kazzaz, he’s dead (although, ironically, not from cancer).

And this is … devastating. Because you can completely understand why BoJack did what he did and sympathise with him because he obviously he hates himself for it. But what BoJack Horseman does that I feel shows other shows don’t do is confront you with the fact that no matter how understandable and relatable BoJack’s actions might be, and no matter how much he suffers for him, Herb doesn’t owe him shit.

On the subject of what we know owe to each other, pretty much the entire arc of The Good Place is framed around Thomas M. Scanlon’s book: What We Owe To Each Other. And it’s sort of fascinating that The Good Place and BoJack both wind up addressing quite complicated moral questions, but from completely opposite perspectives. BoJack approaches its questions of personal morality from the inside out—we start out with BoJack and who BoJack is, and in a way, particularly in the early series, that focus is almost an impediment to the show analysing his actions clearly. For example, and I’ll come back to this, it takes them a little bit longer than it perhaps should have to treat Sarah Lynn as a real person, rather than a slightly mean-spirited Lindsay Lohan / Britney Spears parody. Whereas The Good Place is grounded in incredibly abstract philosophical questions. Scanlon himself was interviewed about the show in 2019 and one of the things he mentioned was that while he had no formal connection to it one of his students was a consultant on the show and she’d been specifically hired because she was a lecturer in philosophy and had written a paper on whether you could become a good person by trying to be a good person. Hell, in the bluntest possible sense, it’s not an accident that The Good Place is named after a numinous cosmological concept that the characters in the show are striving towards but can only reach after first realising that they haven’t already. And BoJack Horseman is named after, well, BoJack Horseman.

As both series progress, they shake up their formulae to different degrees. In the case of The Good Place this feels like the execution of an intentional plan. I’m not totally sold on the premise of season 3 where the protagonists get sent back to earth but, having now seen the whole thing, I can understand how it fits together, and I suspect on a re-watch I’d appreciate it more than I did at the time. This a trite comparison but there’s a sort of Divine Comedy vibe to it where the characters start off in a hell-they-think-is-heaven then gradually work their way out through the actual hell to a sort of purgatory, back to earth, and finally to the real good place and beyond. BoJack, however, handles its escalation rather differently. Because its aforementioned willingness to go there, BoJack naturally builds up an enormous back catalogue of shitty things he has done that come back and bite him in the arse—although never hard enough that it quite inspires him to make any meaningful changes in his life (at least not any that stick). The seasons feel thematically distinct (although, if I’m honest, 3 and 4 blur into each other a bit) but because the premise of the show is BoJack trying to change and failing there’s always a little bit of a soft reset, at least in terms of his personality. In a strange way, BoJack feels like it has more of a through-line than it does. While we learn more about BoJack, or his world, or the supporting cast in most episodes because the series is, at least in part, a character study and in part a satire a lot of episodes (even good ones) are either reaffirming things we already know about a character we understand quite well or else satirising something topical. ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ (the episode in which one of Princess Carolyn’s movies has to cut a large number of its scenes because of a mass shooting: “you hear about it happening to other people’s movies, you never think it’ll happen to yours”) and ‘Fish Out of Water’ (definitely just a parody of Lost in Translation, albeit a really excellent, utterly heartbreaking one) are good examples of this: they’re two of my favourite episodes but you could cut them both without really losing anything from the overall narrative. Whereas removing any of The Good Place’s 52 episodes would make it collapse it like, appropriately enough, a house of cards (I mean, appropriately because there’s 52 episodes and 52 cards in a deck, not because of anything to do with the cancelled Netflix show, House of Cards).

I think what gives BoJack it’s sense of growth despite BoJack’s consistent failure to, well, grow is that it often feels (and I may well be projecting here although I’ve seen interviews which at least semi-reinforce this interpretation) as though the show itself is developing the self-awareness that BoJack never does. At the beginning, you get the impression that you are kind of supposed to think BoJack is a bit cool and to, if not give him a pass for his shittier actions, at least sympathise with the fact that whatever he does it’s explained by his crappy, crappy life. But as the show goes on, it becomes increasingly interested in its supporting cast and seems to become more and more aware of how problematic it is to ask your audience to sympathise with a protagonist who consistently worsens the lives of other characters you are also asking them to sympathise with—and with whom they might, in fact, have more in common, either for reasons of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or, y’know, not being a famous, millionaire TV star.

Sarah Lynn is kind of the poster-child for this. When she’s first introduced in S1E3, ‘Prickly Muffin’, she’s played almost entirely for laughs. And this one of those really difficult satire things. Because the machinery of fame does, in fact, chew up and spit out vulnerable young people, especially vulnerable young women, simultaneously over-sexualising them and holding them to ridiculous standards of moral purity, while getting them hooked on hard drugs and stealing all their money. And this, as an exploitative system, is worth critiquing. But that critique needs to be more sophisticated than “it’s funny because she used to be a kid and now she’s on drugs” and it probably shouldn’t end with the protagonist banging her, even if one character does point out that he’s kind of taking advantage (especially if that character is sometimes framed as having a tendency to over-react to minor things). And to give the writers their due, they do seem to have realised that they did Sarah Lynn dirty—that they treated what was clearly her very real cycle of despair and self-destruction as a comedy beat in the otherwise very serious cycle of despair and self-destruction of their male protagonist. They acknowledge in later series that BoJack had at least some moral responsibility towards to her that he failed to live up to, and do a better job addressing the question of what being Sarah Lynn was like for Sarah Lynn.

You can see a similar process happening with the rest of the supporting cast. BoJack’s agent, Princes Carolyn, is also kind of a joke character at the start. Partly a satire on the greed and superficiality of Hollywoo’s culture, the show doesn’t give much thought to the fact that she’s dedicated to her whole life to the career of this ungrateful arsehole who will inevitably fuck up every opportunity she finds for him. It reminds me a bit of Parks and Rec where, in the first season, the idea that Lesley Knope cares about and is good at her job is seen as both comic and a little bit contemptible. Which, by series two, the writers seem to have realised was not quite the position they wanted to be taking on women in public service.  Similarly, by about midway through the second series of BoJack Horseman, while Princess Carolyn continues to be a sharkish Hollywoo type, they’re really engaging with what it means to be that committed to your career and to be constantly undermined by one jerk. Increasingly, the focus of the series changes and it seems to become a lot less interested in the question of why BoJack Horseman is the way he is and if there’s anything he can do about it, and a lot more in the question of how his behaviour affects the people around him.

In its final season, for all its commitment to the ephemeral questions of philosophy, The Good Place ultimately affirms a position that could be summarised as “heaven is other people”. The four plucky humans from the original neighbourhood finally fix the universe, design a more just afterlife, overcome their personal failings and finally arrive at the good place of the title. As its last twist (I did say there would be spoilers) our heroes discover that everybody in the good place is, well not exactly miserable, but worn down from an excess of contentment because eternal joy is simply not sustainable. Their solution to this is to create a door within the good place through which, at a time of your choosing, you can leave it to an unknowable but peaceful future. After fifty two episodes of questioning, the show defines a good place as one filled with people you care about, who try their best to be good to each other, and who can, in the end, move on when they want to.

Moving on is also the theme of BoJack’s final episodes (although I should say the internet at large somewhat disagrees with me about this) but it takes a far darker turn. Because, speaking wholly personally, the message I take away from the final season of BoJack Horseman is that there are some people you need out of your life. Or, to put it less less bleakly, there are some people you grow beyond. In the last couple of episodes of the season, I found myself trying to predict whether BoJack was going to die at the end because I couldn’t work out how they’d get an ending to the show otherwise. The problem is that, in some ways, every season has had a similar formula: BoJack is awful, he is presented with the opportunity to get better, he almost does, but then he fails. And especially for a show that is, at least in part, about addiction it would be a little disingenuous for BoJack Horseman to end in a way that signals that BoJack is definitely fixed now. Because that’s just not how it works. Having him drown in a pool, as the title sequence has always vaguely hinted he might, is the only real way to resolve his narrative with any sense of finality.

What the show does instead is more interesting: it resolves BoJack’s story by resolving everyone else’s. Diane moves away to Chicago and then Houston, ultimately going on anti-depressants, marrying a nice bison, and writing teen adventure stories about a girl detective. Princess Carolyn adopts a baby porcupine, marries her devoted assistant, Judah, and formally ditches BoJack as a client. Todd gets an asexual girlfriend who seems to get his quirky style and they move into together. Hollyhock cuts BoJack completely out her life in a letter whose contents we, devastatingly, never get to see. Even character actress Margot Martindale finally breaks free of her life of crime, going back to her career as a successful character actress. Only Mr Peanutbutter is still where he started the series but he’s a Labrador.

And a lot of people do interpret the ending, where BoJack and Diane sit on a roof as they did in the first episode, and have a heartfelt conversation about where they are and where they’re going, as signalling hope for BoJack, because the possibility of change is always there. And I don’t totally disagree—after all, The Good Place has just spent four seasons telling me that even the worst people can change, and all you have to do is try (and possibly also spend a subjective eternity trapped in an endlessly looping series of moral thought experiments)—but, for me, what’s crucial is that BoJack at the end of series 6 really has no more hope than BoJack at the end of series 1. His shitty behaviour has caught up with him more comprehensively but it’s caught up with him before and it hasn’t stopped him behaving shittily (moreover the moment Princess Carolyn suggests Hollywoob is ready to take him back, he starts immediately trying to re-secure her services as his manager). I suppose people that take the “hope” reading interpret the bit where BoJack says to Diane “wouldn’t it be funny if this was the last time we ever spoke to each other” and she clearly knows it will be as him tacitly admitting he knows it will be too. Whereas I see it as him still not quite getting it—because, like the show when it first started, he has never quite believed in the reality of anyone who is not named BoJack Horseman.

There’s also a bit where, attempting to evoke a friendship that was always based in mutual cynicism, BoJack reminds Diane of the old joke that life’s a bitch and then you die. Diane responds by telling him that sometimes, life’s a bitch and then you go on living. Again, some people seem to see this as her encouraging him to keep going and perhaps one day find a measure of peace. To me, it’s an acknowledgement that, like the inhabitants of the good place before it falls under new management, BoJack is a stuck in a world that will deny him nothing, but will never satisfy him, and even if he can change he probably won’t.

A final weirdly fascinating parallel between the series is that they both ultimately portray death (and obviously everyone’s been dead from the beginning in The Good Place but bear with me here) as a doorway on the other side of which there is nothing, or at least nothing knowable. But while, in BoJack Horseman, this is a terrifying statement of existential nihilism—in the penultimate episode as BoJack lies drowning, Herb Kabazzaz tells him that beyond the door there is nothing, and that this is all there is—in The Good Place it’s seen as a necessary component to a meaningful life or afterlife. BoJack, from fear of the empty door, has spent the last twenty years trying to be something, anything, always before it’s too late. For the characters of The Good Place knowing the door is there is what makes everything else matter.

And, in a way, it’s a bit weird that the most life-affirming show is the one where the main characters all start off dead and, in the last episode, walk one-at-time willingly into oblivion.

So. Um. What’s been making you sad this month? Let me know in the comments. Or don’t.

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So I finally got around to watching You having heard the usual controversies about how it glamorises / fearlessly confronts toxic masculinity / incel culture / abusive relationships / whatever the reviewer wanted to read into it. I think my big takeaway, which is my takeaway from most prestige TV series, is that it could have been half the length and stopped at one season.

I should probably say, I quite enjoyed Season 1. It’s definitely binge-worthy in a not unproblematic “well, I’m interested to see how he ends up murdering this woman” way. Season 2 sort of lost me at two episodes because it felt like it was re-treading old ground with an undertone “oh help we have to escalate” and there was clearly only one way it could possibly go and Dexter already went there eighty million years ago.

But I think what bothers me about You—and let’s be clear, there a lot of things that bother people about You and they are all things it is legitimate to be bothered by—is that the show, and a reasonable number of critics, seem to feel that it’s deconstructing the harmful tropes of genre romance and romantic comedy in particular. There’s even a quote from the showrunner in a article, the title of which explicitly states that these how ‘exposes and subverts romcom misogyny’ that reads like this:

We re-watched all the great romantic comedies when we were making this show; the most famous TV episodes, and then certainly all of the great ’80s and ’90s movies. I grew up watching those and they are deep, deep in my psyche. Generally speaking, the men in those stories cross lines that would be considered unhealthy – if not illegal – in real life, and [viewers] romanticise that. Part of what makes a romantic hero in our kinda collective watcher mind is that he’s persistent; he sees beyond what [the female character] says, into what she feels. He doesn’t necessarily take no for an answer, and he might slay the beast for her. I don’t have a problem with people having a fantasy life, it just seems that this is such a promiscuous archetype for us that it does actually confuse us in real life.

And, obviously, I’m on shaky ground here because this is very much out of my lane but I kind of really, really want to know what these films they watched were in which the hero “cross lines that would be considered unhealthy – if not illegal – in real life” because I honestly can’t thing of a single example, at least not within the genre I would consider to be “romantic comedy.” I should probably also say before I go on that I’m going to be using some deeply gendered language here, which is a bit messed up for someone who writes LGBTQ+ romance. But because You is a series that takes a very gendered approach to a very gendered narrative it’s hard not to. So when I’m talking about heroines and heroes, and women and men, what I’m mostly talking about You’s perception of those archetypes in the context of its response to what it thinks the romance genre is. I’m not making broad generalisation about women and men in real life, and I’m not reducing the romance genre to books about heterosexual relationships. And finally I should probably add that, as an author of kissing books, I have a non-zero number of horses in this race, and tend to get slightly peeved when people rag on the genre for traits its assumed to have but often doesn’t.

The thing is, I just don’t think the elements You thinks its critiquing are elements of the things it think they’re elements of. I suspect part of the problem here is that I understand (and by ‘understand’ I mean ‘read on Wikipedia’) that the original book was intended as a critique on social media, which is spectacularly not worth doing in a post Black Mirror world. So the showrunners clearly felt they had to find something else to critique and they seem to have made the (and I’m going to be saying not unproblematic a lot in this article) not unproblematic decision to turn the series into a critique of a genre that everyone assumes they know everything about but few people actually pay much attention to.

So anyway (spoilers ho) the central premise here is that Lonely Boy from Gossip Girl has grown up to be a bookseller in New York City. While bookselling he meets Guinevere Beck (Beck to her friends) who he fancies and immediately starts stalking. Stalking that is facilitated, by the way, not so much by social media as by the fact, like a lot of people on this kind of TV show, she never closes her curtains, turns around or locks her doors. Via stalking, he quickly leans she’s an aspiring writer with bad taste in men and similarly poor taste in friends, and sets about inserting himself into her life by any means possible, many of them murderous.

I think the single biggest gap to me between the narrative presented in You and the narrative presented in the genres it seems to think it’s deconstructing is that, by and large, the heroine of a romance or a romantic comedy is attracted to the hero from the start. Even if it’s an enemies-to-lovers or friends-to-lovers situation there’s always an undertone of mutual desire: it’s just been subsumed into the enmity or friendship, delete as applicable. The dynamic in You isn’t as much from genre romance (in dead tree or moving celluloid format) as it is from 80s teen comedies pitched at a primarily male audience or 90s skater-punk songs about how unjust it is that hot girls don’t like alternative guys. And, in a sense, that’s kind of a pissy nitpick because it’s not like those things don’t really exist and aren’t worth deconstructing but I find it, well, telling is a loaded word, but at least interesting that those aren’t the comparisons everyone goes to, even though they’re (I would argue) the most applicable ones.

I mean, hell you can make a reasonable case that Lonely Boy’s worldview, if it’s grounded in any cinematic genre, is grounded in action movies. The way the events of the series are presented, the idea that he and Beck have a “meet-cute” when he manages to save her from falling onto a subway track while he’s stalking her and then he does a number of “romantic gestures” in order to construct a “love story” certainly superficially resemble genre romance.  But, from another point of view (and I would not totally objectively argue a more accurate one) you can frame it as him saving her life, killing a bunch of people, and then getting the girl. That’s not a Hugh Grant movie, that’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

To put it another way, and I’m conscious I’m yet further out of my lane here, the thing that most bothered me about You is that it often felt like it was blaming toxic male behaviour on female-centric narratives. And, obviously, romance has its share of problems but they’re not the problems that You identifies. You works really, really well as a deconstruction of Nice Guy Syndrome: the belief held deeply by a lot of shy men that women are innately attracted to people who treat them badly and need to be shown the error of their ways. This is probably best summed up in the Bill Hicks song, Chicks Dig Jerks (if you haven’t heard it, it’s, spoiler, about how chicks dig jerks, and it’s kind of an anthem for a certain kind of guy who likes to blame women for his failure to get laid).

The thing is, Nice Guy Syndrome (and its regular drinking buddy, The Friend Zone) aren’t things that romance as a genre is especially interested in for the simple (although I will admit reductive) reason that romances and romcoms tend to be written from a female perspective, while chicks digging jerks and the friend zone are very much male preoccupations. The whole point of a genre romance, even if you make mistakes along the way, is that you end up with the person you want to be with. Not with someone who decided for himself that you were going out with the wrong sort of people and set out to change that. Of course, romance heroines will sometimes start a book bemoaning the fact that they seem to always date jerks who treat them badly, but that’s generally a problem they fix themselves by finding someone who is willing to treat them well, no questions asked, on their own terms. And even when romance heroines wind up with guys whose behaviours code as abusive to some people (and we’ve all got our examples here, I’m not going to go into specifics) that’s still generally something she has chosen, and a reflection of the book’s values (which is, I suspect, why books that code in that way provoke such strong reactions in people).

Okay, I said I wasn’t going to go into specifics but I should give at least one example. The central relationship in Twilight codes as somewhere between “get out now girl” and “toxic as balls” to many people, but you can’t deny that, for all its problems, Bella’s relationship with Edward is what Bella wants from day one. And that’s very different to a situation where a guy who a girl isn’t initially particularly interested in wears her down with a combination of persistence and big dramatic gestures until she agrees to go out with him.

And to be fair to the showrunners of You, in the actual quote I cite above they do talk about having watching romantic-type stuff more broadly and the tropes they’re talking about do exist, especially in sitcoms that have to get a certain amount of mileage out of a will-they-won’t-they and can play “he’s really into her, and she’s not really into him” for cheap laughs, knowing they’ll always be able to pop the audience with a kiss when that story’s finally got old. My objection is the unthinking way that these sort of ideas keep getting blamed on genre romance and romcoms, rather than on a much wider set of social trends. And, obviously, some of them do exist in some elements of romance as well (“not to taking no for an answer” is a thing in some types of romance, although a lot less so than people believe) but the way they’re used is profoundly different.

Take for example the big dramatic gesture which the showrunner seems to conflate with ‘slaying the beast’ which, again, is as much an action movie trope as a romcom one. From the perspective of the hero of the kind of story I think You is drawing on, the big dramatic gesture is a thing the man does to demonstrate almost in a vacuum that he is better than other men and, therefore, more worthy of sex. This can just mean “shooting a bunch of terrorists” or, to take an example from You, staging a re-enactment of the heroine’s failed first kiss. But in genre romance, or romantic comedy, a big romantic gesture doesn’t function like that at all. It’s usually something that happens late in the narrative and is a means by which the hero signals to the heroine his specific understanding of her as a person and—if it’s also an apology, which it often is—as a way a demonstrating that he gets what he did wrong.

In Notting Hill, when Hugh Grant stands in front of a room full of press photographers and tells Julia Roberts he’s been a total prick he partly just apologising for, well, having been a total prick  but his romantic gesture is essentially a mirror of hers. She comes to his bookshop to try and make him understand that she’s “just a girl standing in front of a boy”, and thus has a place in his world which, in a moment of panic, he rejects. And then he exposes himself to public rejection as a way showing her that he’s no longer afraid of her celebrity, accepting her thesis that they are, in fact, both just people who love each other. Even the bleacher scene in Ten Things I Hate About You which is, arguably, itself a deconstruction of the big romantic gesture (in that it occurs during the phase of Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles’ relationship where he’s still at least ostensibly only dating her for the money) is very centred around her needs and her value system: it’s playful, it’s silly, it’s ironic because she’d see through anything that wasn’t, and it’s got a real no-fucks-given daring to it. It’s exactly what she wants, and will enjoy it. Not what he think she should want. He’s proving he gets her not that he’s worthy of her.

In a sense, part of the problem with You as a deconstruction of romance or romantic comedy is that they’re genres that can’t really exist only from the perspective of the hero. Obviously, Notting Hill is told primarily from the perspective of Hugh Grant, but you could also make a case that Hugh Grant is the heroine of that story (in the sense that he fulfils he the role that a heroine normally fills in a genre romance, not in the sense that there’s anything emasculating in earning less than Julia Roberts). Perhaps the most obvious indication of this is that when a genre romance or romantic comedy is seen as abusive to some readers, the red flags its seen as raising are generally things that the heroine observes and is fine with or into. In paranormal romance in particular, it’s fairly common for the hero to represent a real physical danger to the heroine and for this to be waived off as something that’s just a bit cool and sexy. And, obviously, some people don’t think that’s okay. But others are willing to accept it as part of a fantasy. And that’s fine on both sides. But in You, from Beck’s point of view, her relationship with Lonely Boy falls somewhere between “fine” and “extremely healthy.” When they first meet, he literally saves her life and, yes, he’s only able to save her life because he was stalking her but she doesn’t know about the stalking part. Yes, he murders her ex-boyfriend and her best friend, but, again, she doesn’t find out about that until the end and, also, both of them are genuinely harming her in quite direct ways.  Obviously, he does a lot behind the scenes because he’s cloning her phone and manipulating her, but because it’s invisible to her it’s hard to tell what, as a romance reader or romcom fan, you can take away from that. Or what tropes it think it’s deconstructing.

For example, the “he only saves her life because he was stalking her” thing seems to be intended as a deconstruction of meet-cutes but, while you can argue that the meet-cute trope has issues (notably that how interesting or quirky your first meeting with someone is clearly bears no relationship to how romantically compatible you are), there’s nothing inherently stalkery about them.You could write an effective deconstruction of a meet-cute but you’d wind up with something like Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch where these two characters have a significant initial encounter that, spoiler, it turns out at the end only one of them can remember or cares about. To put it another way, there are reasonable concerns you could raise about the core tropes of romance, but the “guy who’s doing these romantic things might, completely independently of his doing these romantic things, turn out to be a serial killer” isn’t one of them.

The other problem with You’s only occasionally broken focus on Lonely Boy’s POV (apart from the fact that it makes the story of a woman’s murder primarily about the guy who murdered her, an issue that gets much as we move onto series 2 and forget about Beck entirely) is that if there is a case to be made that romantic comedies give people unrealistic expectations about romance I really think it’s stretching a point to suggest that the people it gives those unrealistic expectations to are men. I should stress, I’m not saying male entitlement isn’t a problem. I’m certainly not suggesting, in a post metoo world, that men don’t think they have right to control of women’s rights and bodies because they clearly do (see reams of evidence passim ad nauseam). What I am saying is that if a guy like Lonely Boy was going to have the kind of fucked up attitude to romance he has he wouldn’t have got it from watching romcoms (and he certainly wouldn’t have got it from reading romance novels). He might have picked it up from adventures stories, fantasy novels, video games, or for that matter from a PUA manual, but, assuming we’re talking about a relatively ordinarily socialised heterosexual man who has imbibed the “promiscuous archetypes” of his culture his attitude to romantic comedy is far more likely to be a patronising tolerance than an inability to distinguish them for reality.

I can just about see (though do not necessarily agree with) the argument that the presentation of problematic behaviour patterns and their portrayal as romantic in fiction primarily aimed at women might encourage women to be attracted to relationships that are harmful to them. Although I think even that argument skirts the edge of being a little bit victim-blamey in places. It should be perfectly possible to enjoy bodice rippers, but fully understand that you should be able to control what happens to your own bodice.  Where I really have to get off the bus is where you start (or, rather, when You starts)  making the case that the presentation of problematic behaviour patterns and their portrayal as romantic in fiction primarily aimed at women is responsible for problematic behaviours by men. That, to me, goes from a little bit victim-blamey round the edges to really, really victim-blamey. I personally am not a huge fan of alpha heroes, but I don’t think the fact that some women are is a proximal cause of murders committed by men.

I think the final thing I would say about You, and especially about the quote I’ve been looping back to throughout this post, is that perhaps the most telling part of it is the bit about how for research they watched “the most famous TV episodes, and then certainly all of the great ’80s and ’90s movies”. Because, the thing is, the 90s ended twenty years ago and the 80s started forty years ago, and that is a long arse time. And this happens a lot when people try to deconstruct stuff–because most people don’t pay attention to most genres and they forget that what they remember from their childhood in a previous century isn’t necessarily the current state of the art.

Because, yes, when you go back and watch 80s or 90s movies there’s a bunch of stuff in there that you couldn’t really get away with today. I briefly tried to re-watch Ally McBeal before Christmas and, at first, it was really good fun in a VHS and shoulderpads kind of way, but then there were two episodes in a  row in which Ally represents a client (one of them her best friend) who has been the victim of a sexual assault and responds by getting angry at the client for reacting to being sexually assaulted in an insufficiently romantic way. So it stopped being fun and I stopped watching it. And, obviously, problematic things continue to be made, but they’re usually problematic in different ways than they were nearly half a century ago. TV still doesn’t handle LGBTQ+ issues brilliantly but we’re well past the days where you could have an entire episode of Friends in which the only joke is people pretending Chandler is gay.

So I do have to question the value in making a TV show in 2019 with the primary aim of taking a valiant stand again tropes that had their heyday in sitcoms three decades ago. I think I find it particularly weird because it’s hard for me to look at a modern show about a socially marginalised nerdy white man whose actions are, on some level, driven by a deep and abiding misogyny without thinking about GamerGate and the incel movement. Those are real social problems that exist right now, and which this show could have confronted. But it decided instead that what we, as a culture, really needed to challenge were meet-cutes and running through the rain to tell someone you love them.

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Belated happy holidays and happy new year. This’ll be a fairly short one because I’ve been quite busy writing and therefore haven’t had much time to Like things.

But I enjoy this series and didn’t want to lose the habit.

The Witcher 

Err, the Netflix series rather than the game or the book in this instance. 

tl;dr Henry Cavill cosplays has a video game character he likes and has a great time doing it. 

I’m sure there are things that are problematic about The Witcher—we timed it and we got boobs ten minutes into the first episode. I suspect its disability politics are probably messy as is the fact that nearly all the women are obsessed with their wombs. 

But it’s kind of awesome in a simultaneously intensely high concept and intensely campy way. On the one hand the dialogue is ropey, the plots of individual episodes often border on the silly, and someone has already done a supercut of nothing but Geralt saying fuck and mm. On the other hand, the first series at least has decided that what a casual Netflix watching audience really want is three interwoven stories told non-chronologically in different timelines. You have to admire that kind of commitment to doing … whatever it was it was trying to do.

For them who have missed this thing, Netflix’s The Witcher is TV adaption of a video game adaption of a series of extremely well-regarded Polish fantasy novels that began the life in the 1980s. The titular witcher, Geralt of Rivia, is albino mutant wandering the lands of the opaquely named “Continent” fighting monsters, boning down on ladies, and trying—often unsuccessfully—not to get involved in politics. The politics in question are a mixture of grimdark fantasy cynicism (there’s elf terrorists for God’s sake) and straight up folklore. For example, there’s this really important concept in the setting called the Law of the Surprise that means that if you save someone’s life then you can do that thing from fairytales where you say “all I ask is [non-specific thing that is blatantly going to turn out to be your daughter]” and people do this often enough and it works out often enough that a child of surprise is … like … a recognised thing in the world. This works remarkably well—and strikes me as an interesting contrast to Game of Thrones, which is sort of lauded for its intrigue, man, intrigue but never quite paid off for me. The kings and queens of the Continent are clearly shitty, shitty people but they do actually believe in (and die for) the things they say they believe in. 

The other thing I really like about The Witcher was, um, all the sex. Not because—ten minute tits aside—there’s actually a huge amount of it, but because the show uses its sex scenes to explore and drive character in a way I’m quite familiar with from reading romance novels but not used to seeing on TV. Like every time two characters banged I genuinely felt I understood them both better afterwards—even if it seems kind of fleeting. Like in the first episode Geralt gets with Renfri in the woods (clearly grinding for an achi) and it’s mainly a kiss and a fade to black, but the kiss itself is this slow, hesitant, almost-not-happpening-thing that reveals just how unused to vulnerability both of them are. And, with a few exceptions, the camera is at least as interested if, not moreso, in showing us bits of Henry Cavill than it is whoever he’s getting with.

The fight scenes are also pretty impressive.

So. Yeah. The Witcher is on Netflix. Check it out if you fancy it. It really helps to know going in that it’s taking place across three timelines.

Also. A song. There is a song.

Ravine

Ravine is Don’t Starve the board game. For those who aren’t particular familiar with indie games you can buy for about three quid on Steam and then get an absurd amount of play out of, Don’t Starve is a game, where, well, I mean, like the goal of the game, right, and tell me if I’m going too fast for you, is to not starve. 

Back to Ravine, it’s a cooperative game where you play the survivors of an air crash on a generically unpopulated island where you need to survive for a number of days until you are rescued. This involves foraging for stuff (which might kill you) in order that you can use the stuff to overcome night time events (which otherwise will kill you). It has an interesting mechanic where you have a limited pool of health (I know, not exactly revolutionary so far) and going foraging requires you to spend that health and it might allow you to find food that replenishes your health or items that you can use to stop yourself losing health in other ways. Or you might wind up with three rocks and a bone, none of which you need. 

It’s short, pacy and surprisingly fun for a game where you feel basically doomed from the outset. We did actually manage to win although, I think, more by good luck than good judgement. And, at the point of rescue, one of us had died and been resurrected, another had stopped talking (you get madness cards—your tolerance for slightly whimsical portrayals of mental illness may vary—which modify your behaviour outside the game) and the third would respond only if addressed as Captain Cranberries. Needless to say, this had let to some tension mid-game because one party member was dead, and the two remaining couldn’t talk to each other.

The Shapeshifting Detective

So ages ago now I reviewed two FMV games. The better written one was called The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker and the more … what’s the word … unintentionally entertaining one was called Contradiction. I was, therefore, overjoyed to discover that the writers of the The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker had released a new game featuring the actor from Contradiction.

You know, the guy who did this.

In The Shapeshifting Detective you play and, again, stop me I’m going too fast for you, a shape-shifting detective. It’s never really specified what you are or where you come from or even really who you’re working for but you have the ability to shapeshift into anybody you’ve met. So the idea is, you do a round of suspect interviews, then you go back to your room, shapeshift into one of the suspects and see what the other suspects would say if they thought you were that suspect. It’s a really cute little mechanic and it mostly works although, like most adventure game inventory puzzles, you sometimes find yourself just combining everything with everything (or everyone with everyone in this case).

The game has a couple of odd quirks. The most annoying one is that there is an hourly in-world radio broadcast that plays unskippably every time you unlock a new chapter and then plays again every time when you advance to that chapter. So you wind up listening to all of them at least twice. And, as with The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker the killer (there’s a killer, obviously, you’re investigating the murder of a professional cellist) is randomised—although unlike Dekker it’s not randomised from the entire suspect pool, but from a subset of three. This means that the thing you got in Dekker where there’ll be clues that are basically left-overs from alternative versions of the game where someone else is the killer is less of a problem but still a problem. And, if I’m being completely fair, I’ll say that it’s fine for there to be red herrings in an investigative game (there would be in a novel after all) but I think the slight difference here is that in a linear narrative (interactive or otherwise) with one solution most red herrings would have an explanation of why they were herring-ing. Whereas in these randomised killer mysteries some clues just dead end because if the variables had been set up differently at the start of the game they’d turn out to be crucial.

For example, one of the things you find out fairly early on The Shapeshifting Detective is that the first victim kept her grandmother’s wedding dress in her wardrobe and the police chief (the guy from Contradiction – I love this guy) quite specifically tells you that the only way someone would know about that would be if they’d looked in her wardrobe, which is something only her boyfriend or the killer would be able to do. And, in some play-throughs, that’s how you’d know who the killer is, but not in the one I did. So basically there’s just this weird wedding dress thing that goes nowhere.

Another peculiar quirk of The Shapeshifting Detective and I don’t think this is game-breaking but I do find it very very odd is that you actually get more information about the story if you identify the killer incorrectly. At the end of the game, you’re given an opportunity to have a suspect arrested and if you guess right that’s it and they confess and you’ve won. But if you don’t, they come and try to kill you, which means you get to have a conversation with them in which they explain their motive. And, usually, also don’t kill you anyway because you have shapeshifting powers. 

And I just don’t think the more satisfying ending should be the one you get if you mess up. Particularly because it means you only find out whether you reasoning was correct if you reasoned incorrectly. To be honest, we (I always these things with my partner) only got it right on our play-through because we sort of thought the person who did it was sort of creepy. And as detective work goes “he’s clearly a wrong ‘un m’lud” isn’t actually rigorous.

Having said that, it’s like a tenner on Steam and it’s fun. So check it out if you want to check it out.

Fireplace For Your Home

I don’t normally do two Netflix shows in the same post, but Fireplace For Your Home is so genre-defining and groundbreaking that I really had to talk about it. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but it really rewards re-watching, and a new series just dropped—Fireplace For Your Home: Birchwood. Interestingly, this doesn’t contain any of the same characters as the original and has a kind of darker, grittier tone but I do think I prefer it it overall. 

If you want to get into this show, I’d personally advise skipping the first episode of the first series, which is sort of a Christmas special and I don’t think makes sense out of context. And they do make the bizarre creative choice of having two musical episodes in first season but, despite these early flaws, it gets really good and I’ve been watching it on an almost continual loop for most of Christmas.

Being on holiday

Wow, being on holiday is nice. Curling up on sofa under a duvet with a cup of tea is probably the best thing. 

I hope you’ve all had a lovely holiday season. Tell me you’ve been enjoying in the comments. Or, you know, don’t.

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Wow, I haven’t done one of these in a while. I have been quite busy writing-wise, some of which I hope to have news on in the near future.

So, without any further ado, here are things I’ve liked in the last two-and-a-bit months.

Perfect Sound Whatever

I listened to this on audiobook really quite a long time ago now and—actually, back up. I should probably explain what the fuck this thing is. So, Perfect Sound Whatever is an autobiographical book by a British comedian named James Acaster. In 2016 he, according to the book, it’s not like I’m spilling hot tea here, broke up with his girlfriend and his agent, and generally went through a lot of shit, life and career-wise. He then spent most of 2017 trying to get his act together which he did, somewhat bizarrely, by deciding to listen to as many albums from 2016 as he could. Leading him to conclude that 2016 was the greatest year for music there had ever been.

It’s a very strange listen, because it’s a combination of personal anecdotes, stories about the albums themselves, and discursive meditations on life, music and mental health. It’s also just really nice because I’m so sick of people whining about music (and everything else) being shit these days—and it’s great to have someone sit down and explain to you, passionately and at length, that there are remarkable relevant artists doing remarkable relevant work right now if we’d stop banging on about how entitled millennials are and pay attention for five minutes.

Now I think about it, it’s a slightly odd text to recommend on audiobook because what will happen is he’ll discuss an album and you’ll think “oh that’s cool, I should look that up” but because you’re already listening to something—that thing being James Acaster talking to you about albums—you can’t really stop and source the album he’s talking to you about. On the other hand, James Acaster is a professional performer and he writes like a stand-up comedian so the text itself works, I think, so much better when it’s read out loud by James Acaster.

I should probably also mention that listening to Perfect Sound Whatever makes it a lot harder to go back and watch, for example, the quartet of Netflix shows that James Acaster made over the period he describes as being really difficult in the book. Because you suddenly become very aware of quite how not-joking he is about the many dark themes he touches on. Like, he does a routine about growing up as a “little Christian boy” in a show that ends with him turning the lights out and eating a Christingle and that whole gag feels a lot stranger when you’ve heard him talk quite honestly about his struggles with religious faith.

So I suppose my recommendation is to watch Repertoire on Netflix, then listen to Perfect Sound Whatever, and then watch Repertoire again and feel way sadder about it.

Disco Elysium

This is the nuts. It’s a … I’m honestly not sure if it’s originally French, it feels like it might be, and it’s got quite a lot of slightly Frenchified language… anyway … it’s a game in the fairly standard isometric RPG mould. Obligatory note: for those of my audience who know shit all about videogames, an isometric RPG is a computer game where you play the role of a character (hence role playing game, hence RPG) and the graphics are two dimensional, shot from an isometric angle, rather than being fully rendered in 3D. If I want to be really pedantic about it, I’d suggest that isometric RPG is a good example of a retronym in that, back when 2D graphics were the only graphics, we just called them RPGs.

Where was I? The role that you play in this particular roleplaying game is of a washed up, probably divorced (?) completely awful, or possibly a genius (?) detective who wakes up, drunk and amnesiac in a hotel room, discovering that he has a murder to solve in a richly realised but subtly bizarre world. Also his tie keeps talking to him.

I’ve not got that far into the game, partly because it’s quite slow paced and complex, and partly because I’ve actually started a second play-through. The reason I’ve started a second play-through is because during my first play-through I accidentally let my morale score dip too low, got drunk, making it even lower, then had a conversation with myself that went so badly I gave up on being a cop. And, technically, I could have re-loaded the game and made slightly self-destructive decisions but it just seemed like such a perfect end to that frankly surreal story that I couldn’t quite bear to.

And, actually, my second play-through is really my third play-through because on my second play-through I tried playing a custom character, accidentally gave myself a health score of 1, and died of a heart attack trying to turn the lights on in my hotel room.

It’s that sort of game. It’s completely bananas.

Play it if that sounds at all appealing.

The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula

I feel like a bit of a national traitor for putting the Boulet Brothers’ Dragula as my dragshow entry for this list rather than Drag Race UK. But, the thing is, although I really liked Drag Race UK, it was still basically Drag Race, and I’ve seen a lot of Drag Race over the years.

The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula seems very much designed for people who’ve seen a lot of Drag Race over the years. Obviously, I don’t want to speculate too much about intent but it feels to me like it almost deliberately positions itself as an anti-Drag Race. One of the quite fair criticisms that’s been made of RPDR is that it can present quite a narrow view of what drag is and while it is getting better at this (to some extent) and, in a way, Dragula is no less narrow I think there’s quite a big difference between a narrow portrayal of an art form that sells itself as the entire art form and one that doesn’t.

Hell, by the third series the Boulet Brothers have taken to saying really explicitly in every judging “we are not here to judge your drag. Drag is art and art is subjective. We are here to judge your drag as it relates to this competition” which is basically the opposite of the way the judging is presented on Drag Race. Like, they never ever do the “we need to see you do something different” thing. People who have one shtick don’t necessarily go far in the competition but, if you always wear a mask, generally they don’t read you for always wearing a mask.

For what is essentially horror drag (with all the full-on sideshow grossness and freakery that entails), Dragula has a strange sincerity to it. And, obviously, there’s that old saying about sincerity being the most important thing and if you can fake that you can fake anything, but the show really does feel less produced than most reality television. Partly, I think, because it has such a narrow focus that it can be honest about what its looking for. I mean, yes “next drag supermonster” is, in a sense, no less vague than “next drag superstar” or “Alan Sugar’s next business partner” but, in the context of the show, you get a very, very good idea of what the brand actually is. It’s someone who can turn a fabulous lewk, but also eat live spiders, and staple dollar bills to themselves.

Dragula is super not everyone but you kind of have to respect how hardcore it is. Also, it’s very noticeable that it only took them to season three to start including drag kings and bio queens in the competition.

Biscuits

One of the great things about the “holiday season” (which is to say the period of 3-6 months between the schools going back and shops finally running out of excuses for flash sales) is that you can buy family boxes of biscuits. I fucking love biscuits.

The Vampire Diaries

So I did actually watch this when it first came out on TV but I drifted away from it about the time it forked off into The Originals, and there was that whole weird thing where Klaus went to New Orleans and suddenly the racial dynamics got really uncomfortable. On the discovering that the whole thing was on Neflix, I finally decided to do a re-watch and, you know, this is definitely my favourite girls & vampires series, and I love girls & vampires series. It’s just so balls-to-the-wall everything, like their vampires just straight up murder people all the fucking time, their werewolves also just straight up murder people, although slightly less so, and the only thing better than a broody vampire boyfriend is his a broody vampire boyfriend with a cooler, sexier, less broody brother. Also, I know pretending to be different people is, like, an actor’s whole job but I’m always secretly really impressed by the way Nina Dobrev comes across so differently when she’s playing Elena (the heroine) and Katherine (the heroine’s evil doppelganger vampire murder villain).

And I do get that the show has its issues. I mean, there’s no getting away from the fact that Damon murders a lot of basically innocent women and yet still comes across as a surprisingly plausible alternative boyfriend for a teenager. And the racial dynamics that are non-ideal in The Originals are also non-ideal in, um, the original, not least because it’s set really specifically in Virginia so you do have the slightly hand-waved fact that both the romantic interests really explicitly fought for the Confederacy. Okay, now I say it out loud, there’s a lot that I could see would be a deal breaker for a lot of people with this show.

But, hot damn, is it watchable. I have very much the opposite feeling watching a season of The Vampire Diaries that I have watching a season of Game of Thrones. Like, I get to the end of a season of GoT and find myself thinking “well, that was really compelling, but I’m pretty sure nothing actually happened.” Whereas when I get to the end of a season of The Vampire Diaries I have forgotten what the plot was at the beginning because there have been six different plots since. I have watched this show before and I completely failed to remember that there’s a crypt with 26 vampires in it that gets opened up about halfway through the first season because so much other crap happens afterwards.

I’ve been sitting here for about ten minutes trying to sum up what it is I like about this show in spite of its obvious problems and I just can’t do it in sentences so here’s some bullet points:

  • Elena has a tonne of agency, and genuine chemistry with both guys, even the one she’s supposed to going out with, which never happens
  • The heroine’s friends get to be genuinely interesting and do their own shit—although I feel consistently sorry for Caroline
  • The nice normal guy in it is genuinely nice and not a creepy douche bag, despite having previously gone out with the heroine
  • Everyone keeps a diary. I know it’s the title of the show but dude
  • Little brother Jeremy is weirdly not awful
  • Even the token jock character actually gets quite a good arc
  • Every so often they’ll just wheel in a new hot guy in case you don’t like any of the current selection of hot guys
  • The escalation is off the charts
  • People just kill each other all the time, and it’s fine
  • Like, seriously, look up half the characters on the Wiki and they’ll have an entry for ‘death’ and it’ll usually have more than four entries

The Netflix Cinematic Christmas Universe

So I love Netflix Christmas movies. I don’t know why because they’re all the same, and they’re all terrible. Maybe it’s just as bloody minded reaction against that one tosser who sent the “who hurt you” tweet when it turned out that some people were, for some reason, watching Christmas movies at Christmas.

The most recent entry to the Netflix Christmas stable is called The Knight Before Christmas and, frankly, that is already amazing because not only is the title a weak pun based on a famous Christmas story, but, also .. knight? Like actual knight. With a sword and armour and stuff. Oh my God, it’s the best. By which I mean, quite bad, but in a brilliant way.

To talk very briefly about the actual film (spoiler, that is not the topic I’m most interested in) it’s about a knight who travels in time due to the intervention of an “Old Crone” who appears to be, maybe, thirty five but prematurely grey, and does dashing, knightly things in the 21st century, trying to work out what his “quest” is that he must perform in order to become a “true knight.”

Spoiler: it is to make out with a hot chick.

Very, very briefly I was bothered by the fact that they seemed to forget what century he was from, like, all the time: the splash screen says he’s from 1334, they keep referring to him as being from the 13th century (when, of course, 1334 is in the fourteenth century) and he is, and to be fair this is a problem that all fictional knight have, wearing a type of armour that would not have existed until the 15th or even 16th century. I am, frankly, shocked at the lack of historical detail in this time-travelling Christmas movie.

But that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that there is a reference in the movie to someone having had a message from Aldovia.

Which means that this film, which canonically includes real magic and time travel, takes place in the same universe as A Christmas Prince, its sequel A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding, and its upcoming threequel A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby.

So much about those movies makes sense when you realise that they take place in a world where magic and time travel are real. Like, why is it always Christmas in Aldovia? Time travel magic. Why was the King of Aldovia required to hide the proclamation declaring that his adoptive son is also his real heir inside a hand-carved Christmas decoration? I still, don’t know. But probably something something Old Crone magic swirly blue portals.

To make things even cooler, in the film The Princess Switch, Vanessa Hudgens’ character watches A Christmas Prince, meaning that A Christmas Prince exists as a movie in the world of The Princess Switch. But, therefore, also presumably The Knight Before Christmas, which exists in the same world as A Christmas Prince, must also exist as a movie in the world of The Princess Switch. But The Knight Before Christmas ALSO STARS Vanessa Hudgens.

Which means not only does Vanessa Hudgens in the world of The Princess Switch have an identical double in the form of either the princess or of the lady who undergoes the titular princess switch but she must also exist in that world either as the actress Vanessa Hudgens (who in that universe looks identical to a princess who exists in that universe) or, as I am increasingly thinking more likely, she doesn’t exist in that universe as an actress and the films that are watched in Netflix Christmas Universe B, rather than having been made in Netflix Christmas Universe B, are actually windows into Netflix Christmas Universe A (The Knight Before Christmas / Christmas Prince universe) through which Universe B characters can observe the actions of their Universe A alter-egos.

How did a universe full of Christmas-themed characters wind up being separated out from their alternative reality selves and imprisoned in a hermetically sealed space-time bubble of eternal Christmas? TIME TRAVEL MAGIC.

I haven’t gone as deep into this rabbit hole as I’d like to yet (partly because I’m worried I’ll get trapped in an alternative Christmas universe). For example, I’m not yet certain whether A Christmas Inheritance takes place in Universe A or Universe B. It could, of course, take place in its own Universe C but William of Occam enjoined us that elements should not be multiplied needlessly, and therefore I will, for the moment, posit the existence of only two Christmas Universes.

Anyway. movie isn’t out yet. But the  moment it drops I’m watching the shit out of it.

Aaand, as ever, tell me what you’re into at the moment in the comments. Or don’t.

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Hello, and welcome to another edition of Things I Liked in or around the month that I liked them. I always try to do a witty preamble for these and then realise I should just get on with talking about things I liked, that being what I’m here for.

So, uh, here’s some things I liked.

Mind Hunter (Season 2)

Occasionally people will ask me what my guilty pleasure is, and I’ll go off on a long rant about how I find the concept of a guilty pleasure really annoying because it tends to get used “a thing that you like but feel you shouldn’t like for somewhat abstract reasons of social censure.” Basically, it’s how people describe things they enjoy but think are too lowbrow for them (sidebar: it gets used about romance novels a lot and I’m not mad keen on this) and I very strongly believe you shouldn’t feel guilty about enjoying something just because it’s not Proust.

Having said which, there are some things which I do feel genuinely feel guilty about enjoying because I am concerned that they are on some level actually harmful to actual harmful people. Professional wrestling is my go-to example here. Love Island has gone through guilty pleasure and out the other side in that I decided not to watch this year, and probably won’t until they can prove they can at least one season without killing any cast members. And another thing that I think might need to go on the list is true crime.

And the true crime thing is complicated. You’ve got things like Serial which seem to be legitimately concerned with a potential miscarriage of justice, but even then they blur the lines between storytelling and journalism, and often get presented in a very victim-erasing way (although I’ll admit this is kind of damned if you do / damned if you don’t in that, on the other hand, it squicks me out that I can easily remember the name of Adnan Syed but can’t remember the name of the girl he might have murdered, but the other hand, I’m sure her family would rather not be household names). Even further down the “ethics-o-meter” are what you might call the sexy serial killer shows. There was quite a well-publicised one on Netflix recently about Ted Bundy that got thoroughly lampooned by how much it emphasised Bundy’s essential hotness. And those I flat-out avoid because, yeah.

Mind Hunter, for me, skates just close enough to the line that I’m okay with it—although every so often I’ll Google the person they’re talking about and realise that the serial killer in question is still alive, and that makes me feel really odd. I think  one of the factors that lets me enjoy Mind Hunter as a cool “inspired by a true story” crime thing that pushes all the buttons that other stuff that serial killers does is that it’s set just long enough ago that it feels like a period piece. And so the realisation that actually no, this is still within living memory throws me. But there’s enough architecture around it that carries me through. Having said which, I am on some level aware that I’m sort of having my cake and eating it in that most of the time I can tell myself that I’m watching the show for the fascinating insights into the origins of the FBI Behavioural Science Unit, even though deep down I, like everybody else, am mostly just waiting to see which big name serial killer they interview this week.

And to give the show its due, it’s actually quite conscious of that approach to serial killers, and engages with it in a way that doesn’t come across (at least to me) as condescending. The main character obviously has tendencies in that slightly sensational direction – there’s quite a nicely set up sequence where he’s desperately hankering after an interview with Manson even though interviewing Charles Manson will in no way help with the case they’re working on, and when the interview finally happens it’s weirdly anticlimactic because Charles Manson ultimately is just a guy. In fact, “just a guy” is sort of the way it portrays most of the serial killers it presents. From years of crime dramas we’re a very used to the idea that a serial killer is some kind of real world supervillain capable of inhuman feats both physical and mental (Red John in The Mentalist is the poster child for this kind of character). But most of the people they interview are just shit and broken, and yes they’ve done terrible things, but that’s because people sometimes do terrible things, and the really frightening things about terrible things is that they’re not that hard to do.

But none of that is why Mind Hunter season 2 was one of my favourite things on TV in August. In season 2, the Deputy Director of the FBI stands down, due to events of the previous series, and is replaced by a character called Ted Gunn who we have been trained, once again by years of police procedurals and, for that matter, any other kind of institutional procedurals, to assume will be evil, incompetence and dick with the protagonists for no reason or benefits for himself. We’re told he’s a suit, or a pen pusher from city hall, who’s more interested in politics than cracking cases and whenever he interacts with the team he sits there in sinister lightning, with ominous music playing, and you keep expecting him to say “you’ve got to fire the genius guy and make the woman a secretary, and wrap up this impossible in case in six seconds or I’m closing the unit.”

Except, um. He doesn’t do any of that. He’s really supportive and gives them the resources they need and works the politics so that they do what they need to do. And this is fucking weird. But then you remember that Mind Hunter is based on an actual autobiography and is about the establishment of a department within the FBI that exists today, and is well-respected and well-funded. So the story is basically about how representatives of the establishment recognised that what these people were doing is worthwhile and helped them do it better.

I think there should be more of this. I mean, I know conflict is important for drama but popular culture should not be training us to believe that it’s impossible for state institutions to do anything right.

Naturally Tan

I kind of love Tan France. I mean, all the Fab Five are, and the clue is very much in the name, fabulous but Tan is the British one so he is my guy forever. The thing about Tan France’s autobiography and, no offence to Tan, is that he hasn’t had an especially interesting life—sort of his whole deal is that he’s just this kid from South Yorkshire who ran a bunch of business, married a Mormon rancher, and, as far as I can tell, accidentally got cast on a major Netflix show. But everything about this I find really charming.

To be fair, his autobiography feels deliberately, well, British in that there’s clearly quite a lot of things that he doesn’t think are anyone’s business but his own and so he’s going to ignore all that stuff, and instead go on for quite a really long time about why you should never wear a functional belt. It’s basically the opposite of a tell-all autobiography. It’s a polite-chat autobiography, but he’s very open about what you’re getting into, and what he’s willing to talk about, so it’s hard to feel cheated.

In short, it’s an endearing portrait of the Tan France that Tan France is willing to share with the public—it has its carefully chosen intimacies, like his husband’s refusal to believe him about the sizing of his wedding ring, and some experiences with being south Asian in Britain and America (spoiler: they are not always pleasant). But mostly it’s just … nice?

I will say, I picked up in the Audible edition, which is narrated by Tan himself—because I have a particular fondness for people reading their own autobiographies—and I think a lot of its appeal comes from his presentation because you can stick it on in the background as you wash the dishes or make the dinner and it’s like Tan France has come round to your house for a natter.

Obviously your mileage with this will very much vary depending on how much you like the idea of Tan France coming round your house for a natter.

Slay the Spire

Okay, I’m a year late on this one. And for the vast majority of my readership who have no idea what the terms “roguelike” and “deckbuilder” mean this game is a roguelike deckbuilder. What fun. A roguelike is a game that takes place in a randomly generated dungeon and a deckbuilder is a game that is played using a small deck of cards that you add to over the course of that game. Confusingly, deckbuilders as a genre are different from customisable card games in which you have a larger deck of cards that you design for yourself at the start of the game.

The thing I most admire about Slay the Spire is that it contains nothing that it does need to contain. It started out without two playable characters, has since added a third and will be adding a fourth sometime next week. The dungeon has three and a half floors, each with a very small number of possible bosses. But all of these limited sets of interacting pieces work together to create something with a surprising amount of depth.

If I have one criticism of the game, and this isn’t really a criticism of the game, it’s a criticism of myself, it’s that the set of skills you need to be good at the game are non-obvious and don’t necessarily relate to the things you instinctively want to be doing. You want to be saying “ooh, I’ve got a lot poison cards this run, I’ll take more poison stuff and make a poison deck that does things with poisons.” What you need to be saying is “ooh, I’ve got a lot of poison cards this run, I need more front-loaded damage to have a good chance of dealing with Gremlin Nob.”

And actually there’s a weird if deeply nerdy satisfaction in gradually building your mastery of the game, even if it’s a skill that is of absolutely zero practical value in the outside world.

Jenny Nicholson

I watch a lot of YouTube channels, usually of the “I am a person having an opinion” variety. And at the moment I’m super into Jenny Nicholson because her opinions are … kind of delightful? She somehow manages to be snarky without being smug or diminishing the thing she’s talking about, even when the thing she’s talking about is blatantly terrible.

One of the issues with discussing YouTubers is that because these sorts of channels are usually just someone sitting on their bed talking into a camera it’s hard to separate the content from the person. Or at least your perception of the person. So it’s hard to discuss them or recommend them without feeling like you’re projecting way too much onto a stranger on the internet or offering a random human being up for judgement.

Which is to say, I like the YouTube persona that Jenny Nicholson presents, because she seems cool. And I think what I find cool about her (that is, her YouTube persona) is that she doesn’t seem to give a shit if you think she’s cool. I mean she’s done an entire video in which she talks about how much she loves Beastly. Once you’ve done that you can never be cool again. Which is, y’know, cool.

Anyway, here are some of my favourite Jenny Nicholsons to get you started:

She Used To Be Mine

One of my favourite things as someone who knows shit all about either music or theatre is that thing you sometimes get in instances of musical theatre where you’ll have a song that’s structured as if it’s the show’s main love theme, but is actually about something completely different. Sondheim does this all the damned time, see My Friends in Sweeny Todd or I Am Unworthy of Your Love in Assassins.

Back in the mid-to-late-2000s there was a musical version of the indie movie Waitress. Full disclosure, I have seen neither the musical nor the film it is based on, but one of its big numbers is called She Used to be Mine, and it does that thing that I’ve just said I like. So I like it.

SYtbM is a love song that the main character sings to herself in the past. Which is awesome. Also it’s Sara Bareilles, who is also awesome, although I confess I mostly know her because Gravity was used as the backing for a well-known Community fanvid.

And those are the things I liked. As ever tell me about the things you liked in the comments. Or don’t.

Also, I’ve got a book out. Like, tomorrow. Yay. Maybe you could buy it?

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So I’ve been really torn about whether I should weigh in on the Dreamspinner thing because I do absolutely see both sides here. And, at the very least, I hope we can all agree that for some people not to be getting paid money they are owed by a company that owes them money is a non-ideal situation. I think a lot of acrimony that surrounds this discussion, though, comes down to whether you feel the specific circumstances that have led to some people not getting paid money they’re owed are understandable and forgivable, or utterly unethical. And the reason I decided to get involved in this is because, as far I can tell, where you stand on that spectrum depends partly, obviously, on your personal feelings about the publisher, but it also depends on your instinctive response to a deeply abstract question about economics. And if there’s one thing that I think is on-brand for this blog it’s over-analysing deeply abstract questions.

Analogy the first: you work for a mom and pop hardware shop, owned by Ma and Pa Nailerman. One day Ma Nailerman comes up to you and says, “Sorry kid, it’s been a bad month for hardware because people are being really careful and not breaking stuff at the moment so we’re going to have to put off paying you this month.” Now probably you wouldn’t be overjoyed because, well, you’re unlikely to be selling rivets for the love of it and you expect to get paid for it at some point. But you might also understand where Ma and Pa Nailerman are coming from. It’s tough being an independent hardware retailer these days, what with all the competition from Big Screw, and they’re good people, and they let you take an extra day off that one time for your cat’s birthday so you might suck it up. Besides, you know they’re good for it and if there ever comes a point when they’re not good for it they’ll have bigger problems than you will.

Of course, if it happened again, and if it kept happening, you might eventually decide that you have to move out of your minimum wage shop floor job and start looking for slightly more stable employment. But you wouldn’t think anything bad about the Nailermans. You’d know they did their best. You’d probably blame the economy. You might even blame whichever political party you didn’t vote for.

Analogy the second: you wait tables at Ma and Ma Cookerson’s Non-Heteronormative Family Diner. One day, Ma Cookerson takes you aside and says, “Sorry kid, it’s been a bad week in the family dining business so we can’t afford to pay you but we’ll make it up to you next time.” And, again, you’d probably roll with it, for all the same reasons you did last time, since the Cookersons are just as nice as the Nailermans. But suppose then she was to add, “Also, we’re keeping your tips.” And she’d quickly go on to explain that they’d write down how much you made in tips and they would add that to what they paid you back when they could afford to but you’d no longer be working with the assumption that whatever money a customer gave you was yours.

You might feel a little bit worse about that. What’s weird is, you might feel worse about that even if the next reduction in your income was the same as you had when you working for the Nailermans (after all, my understanding is that, in the US at least, minimum wage laws don’t apply to wait staff precisely because tips are factored into their income). What makes the difference here isn’t the amount of money that’s being withheld. It’s the understanding you’d previously had about how money was to be divided. When you get a job waiting tables (and, actually, this varies a lot, and the way tips are distributed is very different in different places but this is an analogy so stick with me) the deal is: what the customer pays for the food goes to the restaurant, and what they leave as a tip goes to you, and there is a meaningful difference between your employer withholding your wages because they can’t afford to release those funds and them taking away money that, by your understanding of the terms of your employment, should already be yours.

Analogy the third: after your understandable but financially detrimental experiences in various ends of the customer service industry you decide to start growing lemons. Why you decide to do this, I’m not sure. Just go with it. You make a deal with the aptly named Mr Lemonseller. He offers you the following bargain: you will grow the lemons, and he will sell the lemons, and you will split the proceeds from the sale of the lemons 30/70. And this works fine for a while. But then one day Mr Lemonseller comes back and tells you that he has sold all of the lemons but his transport and accommodation costs were much higher than expected due to fluctuating oil prices and an unforeseen Ariana Grande concert. Thus, he informs you, that although he did sell the lemons, he had to spend some of your half of the lemon money to cover his expenses.

This you might reasonably be much more pissed off about. Because you had a very specific deal with this man. You do your bit of your job (growing and producing the lemons), he does his bit of the job (transporting and selling the lemons), and it’s up to each of you individually to make your bits of that process worth it. You don’t, after all, get to ask Mr Lemonseller to give you more money just because the price of fertiliser went up or the state has introduced a new tax on the colour yellow. Effectively Mr Lemonseller has exploited the fact that, because he is the one who handles the money, it is much easier for him to pass his costs onto you than it is for you to pass your costs onto him. Now it’s possible that you’ll still be okay with this deal. You might really like Mr Lemonseller. You might even find that you make more money working with Mr Lemonseller, despite the fact that he occasionally dips into your cut of the lemon money, than you would with somebody else. Because maybe Mr Lemonseller is fantastically good at selling lemons. But if that’s the case, you’d probably be more comfortable re-negotiating your deal so that Mr Lemonseller is upfront about what percentage of the lemon money he actually takes rather than just accepting a situation where sometimes you don’t get money that definitely exists and you are definitely owed.

Now I appreciate that the way I’ve structured this rhetorical device deliberately leads the reader to see the situation under discussion as more like the last example then the first. And I do happen to believe that the Mr Lemonseller model is a better way to think about the relationship between an author and a publisher than the hardware store or the hybrid-model of wait staff salary plus tips. But I also understand that there are people for whom the first analogy is the most apposite one. There are people for whom working for Dreamspinner is like working for Ma and Pa Nailerman who are currently having trouble because Amazon suddenly starting offering customers unlimited hammers. I do get that. I really do.

But having thought about this, as I usually do way too much, the thing that keeps coming back to me about the Lemons Analogy is the fertiliser / travel costs thing. If you work a job for a salary there is an understanding that you are strongly insulated from the uncertainties inherent in the business you work for. And, perhaps paradoxically, that makes it easier to accept the rare occasions on which the uncertainties inherent in the business impact you – because you know for it to have got to that point things must have gone very, very badly. But if someone is selling your lemons (or, obviously, in this case your books) then you are already assuming much more of the risk of their doing business. You’re effectively more of an investor than an employee. If Mr Lemonseller breaks his ankle and can’t sell lemons for three months, that’s your income gone. And so if Mr Lemonseller also then asks you to help cover his medical fees you’ve effectively been double impacted by his misfortune. And, maybe, you are better off paying those medical fees in order to keep Mr Lemonseller in the lemon-selling business because otherwise you’ve got no way to sell your lemons but is it fair for Mr Lemonseller to be asking you to do that in the first place?

And, again, I should stress that for some people the answer is yes. Some people will be profoundly grateful to Mr Lemonseller for getting them started in lemon-selling. But from a strict standpoint of business ethics your deal with Mr Lemonseller is very clear: you get 30% of the money, and he gets 70% the money, and he does not get to decide what’s done with your 30% of the money. Even if the thing he’s doing is going to make him better at selling lemons in the long run. Because if Mr Lemonseller is allowed to take some of your lemon money and re-invest it in his lemon business he’s effectively asking you to assume risks your never signed up to assume for rewards that will benefit you substantially less than they’ll benefit him. If he takes your lemon money and uses it to buy cantaloupes, sells the cantaloupes at a profit, then uses the cantaloupe money to invest in a better fruit stall that might long-term lead to your selling more lemons, and therefore getting a larger lemon-based income, but short-term you had to subsidise his capital investment. And you, after all, do not own the fruit stall.

On top of which, once again, you have no means to treat him equivalently. If you break your ankle, and therefore cannot produce any lemons, he has to get his lemons from somewhere else but you can’t make him give you some of the money he makes from selling someone else’s lemons to cover your medical expenses. If you want to buy a deluxe lemon-harvesting machine you can’t unilaterally do that with his percentage of the lemon money because you never have possession of it. So he can make investments with your money, but you can’t make investments with his money. And, to a lot of people, the only ethical way for this relationship to be managed that doesn’t create genuine moral hazards for the Mr Lemonsellers of the world—who could be very easily tempted to re-invest your lemon money in the reasonable certainty that they’ll make it back before you notice it’s gone—is to have a rigorous system in place to make sure that cannot happen.

The thing is, I completely see why some people view their relationship with a publisher differently. Especially if you’re used to working a more conventional job (and, frankly, virtually everybody is more familiar with conventional jobs than they are with weird, rights-based industries unless you’ve always been a novelist, and you’re married to a novelist, and your parents are novelists) it’s natural to think of the company who sends you money every few months as your employer and yourself as effectively their employee. But that isn’t actually an author’s relationship with their publisher. You have a deal with them, in which you make stuff, and they sell it, giving you a share of the profits. And, by my very limited understanding of contractual law, those profits become yours at the point of sale.

For some people, this doesn’t matter. Some people are perfectly comfortable seeing their royalties as a sort of variable salary that the company pays from an undifferentiated pot of money, and they accept that if the pot is running low, not everybody is going to get to take money out of it every month. But for other people the existence of the pot of money system highlights a structural flaw in the way the company has hitherto set up its finances. Just as I would expect Mr Lemonseller on selling my lemons to set aside my part of the money lemon, and not touch it because it’s not actually his, just as I would expect the Cookerson’s to let me keep my tips even if they couldn’t afford to pay me my salary, I would, on reflection, expect a publisher to do the same with my royalties. Because the deal we have is not that I get given a variable amount of money depending on how well the publisher is doing at the moment, the deal is that I get a certain percentage of the revenue generated from the sales of a product that I have produced.

I’m in kind of an odd position in that I find myself having quite a strong opinion about a contentious current issue based entirely on my opinions about a completely abstract issue that I didn’t even consider until the contentious issue cropped up. The truth is, that payments, of any kind, are rather like, I mean pick whatever example leaps out to you because there are hundreds, many of them biological, in that you don’t really notice until it stops working. I think what I’m groping towards here is that I now hold quite firmly to the position that it is correct practice for publishers to earmark royalties and not touch them (see above: re Mr Lemonseller and his moral hazards) and that a publisher not doing this would be a problem even if it was still managing to pay its authors. And I suspect part of the problem here is that if you don’t agree with that principle, then the current state of affairs looks very different because there is a huge and important distinction between an unfortunate situation that ultimately couldn’t have been avoided, and an unfortunate situation that should never have been possible.

Before I wrap up and sign off, there’s one more way of articulating this that might help people see where those of us who have a problem with the structures that have led to all these difficulties are coming from. Because, on reflection, you can make a case that the deal an author has with their publisher is essentially the same as the deal an author has with their agent. Which is to say, you sell my shit, and we split the money. Now, of course, in the case of an author-agent relationship the split is very much more in the author’s favour, but if my agent turned round to me and told me that they’d kept my share of the royalties this time round for any reason I would, meaning no disrespect, lose my motherfucking shit. And I don’t think single person would have a problem with that because it makes intuitive sense that the money I receive from my agent is definitely my money and not only does my agent not have the right to withhold a penny of it they have a professional obligation to set it aside to give it to me within the timeframe we’ve agreed upon.

But, or some reason, when it’s the same situation with a publisher it all feels … wobblier somehow, probably because it’s no longer an individual lemon seller you’re dealing with, so much as a distributed lemon-selling network.  From my perspective, though, the principle is the same. You may, of course, feel differently about your lemons and that’s fine, this is a complex situation and there are no easy answers, especially when you get into questions of how people’s responses to the practices of a business impact people whose livelihoods depend on that business. I mean, ultimately we all care about lemons, and are just trying to make lemonade as best we can.

romancelandia

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Welcome back to another edition of Things I Liked. First of all, thing I’m not liking: the heat. Seriously, the Arctic is on fire. That is not okay.

Angel Season 5

This was a surprise. I think I said, in the last one of these that I liked Season 6 of Buffy much more than I was expecting to, while also thinking it was basically terrible. For what it’s worth, I liked the first five episodes of Season 7 of Buffy more than I was expecting to, and was halfway through planning a passionate defence of why Buffy Season 7 is way better than you remember, when holy shit, what happened? I mean, I think basically having a villain who is intangible was a major strategic misstep, let’s not even mention Captain Tightpants playing a misogynistic southern preacher, and turning your central female empowerment metaphor into also sort a rape metaphor (having previously turned your secondary female empowerment metaphor into a drugs metaphor) maybe not the best call? I did, however, find Willow/Kennedy less awful on second watching. It’s still not amazing, and it has a slight sense of “oops, maybe I shouldn’t have killed half my only queer couple” but it perhaps unintentionally does quite a job of representing a different type of relationship. I think my charitable reason of Willow/Kennedy is that they’re not supposed to be the love of each other’s lives, but that it’s all right for Willow to move on, and embrace being gay as part of her identity. Given that Tara and Willow’s relationship, though lovely, is very filtered through metaphor and largely revolves around doing heroin…sorry I mean magic…together, it’s actually quite important to have both characters talking openly about being gay. Having said which, Ambiguously Gay Andrew is still very much played for laughs. So, steps forward, steps back.

Anyway, this is about Angel. And, at the time, I remember Angel Season 5 being seen as an even bigger car crash than Buffy Season 7. I seem to recall there being a lot of rumours back in the day that the network had interfered quite heavily, insisting on Spike being in it, and banning any kind of overarching season-long plot (my, how times have changed). And maybe it’s me projecting but you can almost feel the bitterness at those restrictions seeping into the early episodes—to say nothing of the season’s whole premise of the simultaneous futility and nobility of attempting to hold to your vision and ideals within the soulless framework of corporate America. But, actually, I kind of enjoyed it, and if it was the studio that made them put Spike in, and focus more on short arcs and episode plots then … the studio did a really good job? I mean, some of the episodes are completely bonkers—there’s the one with luchadores, and the one where Angel becomes a muppet—but they were kind of fun in their own right?  And while I do enjoy arc-based TV, I feel that episodic TV has been given short shrift over the last decade or so. Being able to remember individual episodes of a show is something I no longer take for granted, and it’s actually quite nice to be able to say “oh I liked the episode where [x] happened” as opposed to just having nebulously positive feelings about a series in general.

Of course, by the end of Season 5 you do get the creeping realisation that they’ve killed of literally every significant female character in the show. Darla stakes herself in Season 3, Lilah dies in Season 4 and Cordy winds up in a coma, before finally dying off-screen in Season 5, and then Fred gets consumed from within by an ancient demon goddess from beyond the dawn of time. Also: even creepier now I come to think of it, of those four characters, 50% of them die in ways that are specifically pregnancy related, and an overlapping 50% of them suffer fates that explicitly involve them losing control of their bodies. So not great optics there however you cut it. And what’s especially annoying about this is that, in a vacuum, I actually really like the Ilyria arc. Much like Season 6 Tara, the fact she’s going to kick it means Fred gets better characterisation in Season 5 than she has in all the other seasons put together, and getting to see Amy Acker do something other than the non-threatening nerdgirl everybody fancies is incredibly refreshing. She seems to be having a really good time as Ilyria, and she does it really fucking well. Also, dead women existing primarily to facilitate men’s character development is super not okay but Wesley’s whole arc of growth and dissolution across five seasons of Angel is irritatingly effective. Although it makes Gunn’s arc look problematically shallow by comparison.

In fact, I’m even going to go out on a limb and defend the final scene where there’s the surviving Angelites in an alley making a clearly doomed stand against an actual endless army of demons. I think this felt emotionally unsatisfying at the time because after Season 7 Buffy had been such a let-down people really wanted Season 5 of Angel to send things off in a way that meant something, and it kind of did the exact opposite of that. And it’s hard to tell, even in retrospect, how much of that was just the showrunners throwing their toys out of the pram because they were annoyed at the network and how much of it was a coherent philosophical statement. But with my ‘death of the author’ hat on, I think you can make a plausible case that the simultaneous value and meaninglessness of individual good acts has been a fairly consistent theme of Angel. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Anne (the charity-worker who first appears as a Sister Chanterelle in the second season of Buffy) appears in the final episode of Angel. Because, in a sense, it’s her arc that best typifies the point of the series in that, for all its prophecies and epic tales of redemption, it repeatedly underlines that the most important thing is individual people looking out for each other.

So yeah. Season 5 Angel: surprisingly non-terrible on re-watch.

Crunchy Caramel M&Ms

So these have apparently been in the country for a year, and I’m sure they’ve had them on the other side of the pond forever, but oh my god, they are the best thing. Normally I’m both a tremendous sucker for and deeply sceptical of gimmicky variants of generally nice confectionary. Like I only ever buy Skittles when they’re doing something weird with the colours, and I will jump at the opportunity to buy a white chocolate version of something that’s ordinarily made of milk chocolate, even though I know it will always taste provably worse than the original. Strawberry Jaffa Cakes can go fuck themselves, but also I will buy them whenever they are reduced in Tescos.

But crunchy caramel M&Ms are legitimately great. They, like, crunchy. And also caramel, but not in that shit chewy way that caramel usually is. On top of which they’re wrapped in that crispy M&M shell so it’s this delicious texture party in your mouth.

And I just got through an entire packet of the things while writing this section.

Also, interesting cultural  note: I’m pretty sure it was always M&Ms that had the “melts in your mouth not in your hand” tagline, which never made any sense to me because, by and large, chocolate does not melt in your hand in this country, on account of how it’s always cold and rainy. But the last couple of weeks I’ve not been able to buy ordinary chocolate because it’s melted everywhere. Seriously, fuck you climate change.

Invisible Inc.

 I’ve actually had this game for ages, but because it’s on a timer and has perma-death the first time I tried to play it I got really freaked out. I’ve finally come back to it and … it’s just really good. It’s this cyberpunk infiltration stealth strategy game where you play members of a vaguely rebellious, possibly a bit anarchist organisation called Invisible Inc that has just had its HQ wiped out by megacorporations and has three days to steal enough money and technology to hit them back. It’s from the same people who made Mark of the Ninja, so you feel simultaneously incredibly tense and incredibly awesome pretty much all the time. And it’s got that thing I really like in stealth games where you’ve near-perfect information so you absolutely know that if things go wrong and  you’ve fucked up it is definitely entirely your fault.

Abortive Romances in Computer Games

 So I’m also replaying the Mass Effect trilogy, partly because I think my Xbox 360 is going to die, and partly because my theme for this year appears to be revisiting things with disappointing endings. And something that struck me for perhaps the first time is how much potential there is those games for romances that … don’t quite work out. And that’s incredibly rare to see implemented.

Romance in computer games is, well, difficult. Because it’s really important to some people and other people really resent the people to whom it’s really important. Most famously the romance options in Neverwinter Nights 2 were almost offensively shit because the designers seem to have felt that they had to put them in for the people who wanted them but also had no interest in doing them (something that arguably remains true for that particular developer, since I’ve never seen them write a successful romance plot). Being, y’know, a romance writer I obviously take my romance options quite seriously: I think I’ve said before that who your character falls in love with is often one of the better ways to articulate who that character is. Someone who goes for the Iron Bull is very different to someone who winds up with Josephine.

But even in games that take this stuff seriously, and put thought into it, what you very seldom see is a romance that ends tragically or just doesn’t quite happen (and not in a “whoops I clicked the wrong line of dialogue” way). And this becomes difficult because romances that don’t work out can often unintentionally disregard player consent: you kind of need to know you’re signing up for a tragic love story before you get on board because otherwise you’ve just wasted 50 hours actively progressing a narrative that will ultimately disappoint you. And this is bad enough in linear fiction but when you’re encouraged to identify with the protagonist quite as literally as you are in a video game and you have to drive the story by your actions and choices it can feel like kind of a slap in the face. I have an on-going Twitter joke about my bad Bioware boyfriends: it was pure luck that I made the choices I did in Dragon Age Inquisition because otherwise I would have been three for three on romantic disasters. My first boyfriend ran off and became a drunk because I wouldn’t make him King, my second involved me in an act terrorism and forced me to execute him, and my third could have brutally betrayed me to his people based on decisions made about seventy hours earlier.

Retrospectively, I have a lot of time for all these romantic, shall we say, missteps. And going back to Mass Effect—so that I could finally get around to romancing Liara for all three games—I find myself weirdly appreciating all the other stories I could be telling, or have told, with my Shepard and her partners. Notably, I think more than any other RPG series I’ve played, these games have a lot of time for the possibility of romance just not working out. At one point, I did deliberately set up a Sad Shepard run where everyone she loved died: I romanced Kaiden in Mass Effect 1, specifically so I could send him to die on Virmire, and Thane in Mass Effect 2, who—unlike Kaiden—is not a tit. But, of course, he is terminally ill and dies in Mass Effect 3 no matter what you do. There’s something kind of ballsy to me about a game that lets you play out a romance arc with a terminally ill character and then turns round and says “yep, that terminally ill character you romanced died of their terminal illness.” But the game puts enough narrative weight behind this that it feels genuinely meaningful.

On top of which, you can sort of semi-romance Samara in ME2 and ME3, but she’s an Asari justicar (sort of like a samurai/knight errant) who is four hundred years old who’s been forced to murder all three of her daughters so … she’s not really feelin’ it. Or rather, you can have a real connection with her, and a kiss or two, but the over-riding theme of the relationship is no matter how strongly you feel for each other, and no matter how much potential your relationship could have had, you kind of just missed each other. Because life is like that. Although, now I think about it, you can also boink her daughter, which will promptly fry your brain because that’s how she rolls and you should have known that going in, what were you thinking.

And there’s Tali, your perky space-technologist who can lovingly romance for two and a half games, and then watch throw herself into a chasm if you pick the wrong side in the conflict between the Quarians and the Geth. Which, now I write that down, makes me feel I missed a trick with my Sad Shepard run, although I’m not totally sure I could bring myself to do it. I had enough time killing Mission in the original Knights of the Old Republic, and she was really annoying.

So basically, this month I’ve been feeling very appreciative of story outcomes I know exist in a game, even though I’m not following them.  Which probably sounds a tenuous. But, hey, my blog, my rules, I can appreciate weird stuff if I want to.

A Song I Found By Accident

 I occasionally click on things randomly on Spotify. And I found a song from, like, three years ago which charmed the crap out of me. Here it is.

Hope you’ve all been having a fun July.  Tell me what you’ve been enjoying. Or, well, don’t.

silliness

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