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.
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.
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:
- Nobody On The Planet Remembers Beastly (well, apparently I do and Jenny Nicholson does but that’s all – see above)
- 15 Very Dumb Things In Fantastic Beasts 2: there are loads on hot takes on this film because nobody liked it, but hers is definitely my favourite
- The Grim Dystopia of a Christmas Prince: without a doubt, the best analysis of the A Christmas Prince Expanded Universe anyone has ever done
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?