First of all, a thing I didn’t Like: it’s fucking 2022. When did that happen? Anyway, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these but I thought I’d try to get back into it now things are, y’know, crawling back to normal. I mean, apart from Omicron and Brexit and certain parts of the UK government doubling down on “breaking the stringent rules we enforced on the whole country in order to stop people fucking dying is no big deal.”
Anyway. Despite the shitshow that continues to be the 2020s, here are some Things I Liked.
So I have this thing where I keeping why everything from New Zealand these days seems to be a dry mockumentary about supernatural beings in mundane situations and then I realise it’s because the only things from New Zealand that seem to pop up on streaming services are by Jemaine Clement (of What We Do in the Shadows fame and Flight of the Conchords some-people-having-heard-of-ness).
Wellington Paranormal is, therefore, a dry mockumentary about supernatural beings in mundane situations. Unlike, WWDITS it follows regular humans (members of Wellington police force) investigating paranormal mysteries. But because it focuses on the kind of policing that uniformed police officers in New Zealand do most of the time, rather than the kind of policing that American supercops do on TV shows, it’s all really lowkey. So you get things like they’re called out to a noise complaint but its ghosts or a body-hopping demon is trying to open a portal to hell underneath the Bucket Fountain and they deal with it in a measured, community-policing kind of way. This is, of course, hilarious because it’s ordinary people having understated reactions to ludicrous situations coupled with people clearly being uncomfortable talking to camera, which is my favourite mockumentary thing.
Something I’ve found interesting/difficult about the meta discussion around Wellington Paranormal is that Minogue and O’Leary (the two cops who do most of the investigating) are often described as terrible cops. And the thing is, I don’t think they are—I mean, they’ve got that comedy mockumentary thing where they make slightly silly fuck-ups slightly more often than is perhaps normal (although if my job required me to carry a taser, I’m pretty sure I’d have shot myself with it at least once)—but mostly I think what makes them come across as “bad cops” to people who are used to watching more mainstream cop shows is that they’re actually good cops but a) they’re beat officers, not detectives and b) they’re doing community policing not, well, action movie shit.
It’s really noticeable that almost invariably the first thing that Minogue and O’Leary do in any threatening situation is try to de-escalate. And they’re not movie-level brilliant at this, they don’t have that Hollywood hostage negotiator thing where they make steely eye contact and say something insightful and revelatory, but they stay calm, keep their voices low, and prioritise the well-being of everybody in the situation including the suspect. And, obviously, this is really funny when the situation is a body-hopping demon that calls itself Bazu’aal of the Unholy Realm and has openly declared its plan to drown the world in blood and fire, and what you’ve got is two cops in high visibility jackets looking at a possessed bloke and saying, “Can you, err, please come down off the ceiling there, sir?”
And I don’t know how to make this point without it getting into political territory I don’t particularly want to go into on a light-hearted post about stuff I enjoyed but, well, the fact that our perception of what a “good cop” behaves like is so focused on running, shouting and pointing guns at things, and not remaining calm and being polite is perhaps an issue we should reflect on?
Agatha Christie – Hercule Poirot: The First Cases
That is a videogame title, if ever I saw one. Like, it’s got a hyphen and a colon in it. I haven’t seen that since Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.
Anyway, this is another one of those Things I Liked entries where there’s kind of quotation marks around the Liked. Which is to say, I honestly did enjoy playing Agatha Christie Hyphen Hercule Poirot Colon The First Cases (and incidentally it’s just occurred to me that because the hyphen in the title comes between the names Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot, it sounds like it’s a team up story where Agatha Christie solves murders alongside her own fictional detective) but it was also bobbins. Of course, people who have followed my Star Trek reviews know how much I love things that are bobbins.
Agatha Christie Hyphen Hercule Poirot Colon The First Cases isn’t exactly a hidden object game but it also isn’t not a hidden object game. Like, at one point I got stuck for a really long time, and Hercule Poirot wouldn’t go into his room, because he was convinced there was more to discover and the more to discover was that I hadn’t clicked on one completely irrelevant table.
In this game, you control the great detective slightly before he becomes a great detective. Indeed, in the prologue you’re essentially a uniformed officer and are relatively junior in your field, even when the main story kicks in a few years later. The core mechanic is that you wander around, clicking on completely irrelevant tables, and eventually one of the tables you click on will be a clue and then you’ll be taken to his screen called a mind map where all the clues will be laid out. And inevitably what will happen is that you’ll look at the clues, immediately come to a mostly correct conclusion about what the clues are telling you but the game won’t progress until you’ve worked out which of the often very similar clues connect to which other of the often very similar clues in order to allow the game to recognise that Poirot has reached the conclusions that you yourself reached about twenty minutes ago.
The mind map system is great in theory because it makes you feel like a proper detective, because you can be like “aha! The staff have not been paid and many of the pieces of art has been sold. From this, Poirot concludes that the family are having financial difficulties”. Except, because of the aforesaid fiddlyness, it often won’t let you do that until you’ve jumped through about three other connective hoops, and about halfway through the game I started realising that I was connecting clues less on what made logical sense in context than on my having noticed that connections were very often directly horizontal or directly vertical.
The thing is, the game is clearly a labour of love (and you hope it would be because it seems to have the backing of the Christie estate) and it makes a lot of sensible decisions, like setting it in Poirot’s early career means it’s not too immersion breaking that, thanks to player error and interface issues, Poirot isn’t often super great at solving crimes. It also means that you’re in a bit of the canon with no real, well, canon so you aren’t constantly evaluating Poirot in the game against what he’s like in the books—although I will add that he’s completely insufferable which is very much on brand. I think, in general, the fairest thing I can say is that it was clearly created with a lot of passion, and a lot of care, and not a lot of money.
Mystery-wise it mostly comes together, although—and there’s some spoilers here so skip if you want to play the game yourself—quite a large chunk of the main plot involves you trying to work out why your chief suspects all have watertight alibis for the time of the murder (which, don’t get me wrong, feels very Agatha Christie-ey). And then it turns out that both the murder didn’t happen at the time you thought it did, meaning the chief suspects’ alibis are all useless and also that the murder, and the deliberate obfuscation of the time of death, were carried out by two completely different groups of people. So when you look back at it, you’re presented with a situation where the real killer and their allies killed somebody at a time when they mostly had alibis, and the other suspects didn’t but deliberately obfuscated the time of death so it appeared that the victim had been murdered at a time when they didn’t have alibis and the rest of the suspects did. I mean, I get these people weren’t trained murderers but that seems like a rookie error.
In any case, it’s fun and a bit bobbins, and worth checking out if you want to have some fun with some bobbins.
I described these on Twitter as feeling “like a firm hug from someone you didn’t know had respected you all along but you were too insecure to notice – except for your feet.” I stand by that, and also fear I will never write anything that profound or moving again.
PS – I am not affiliated in any way with Nordic socks. They’re just really good socks, y’know?
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft
This is a bit niche, but a bit niche is kind of my brand. For some reason, winter makes me incredibly nostalgic for D&D. There’s something about the cold that makes me want to wrap up on a sofa, get out a big pad of paper and start drawing maps of imaginary places my players will never bother to visit, and filling them with complex, unique characters my players will never bother to talk to, and designing challenging, strategically deep encounters that my players will immediately circumvent using the one damn spell I forgot they had.
Ravenloft has an interesting history in that it’s D&D’s “horror” setting (although what counts as horror in a game where players can get as powerful as D&D characters is a bit of an open question). It started out as the 1983 module Ravenloft by Tracy and Laura Hickman (Tracy Hickman you might recognise if you’ve ever read any of the Dragonlance books) which was very clearly D&D Does Dracula. Like the players are drawn through spooky mists to the spooky land of Barovia where they are spooked by the spooky vampire Strahd von Zarovich who they must defeat before they can leave.
Obviously, like all good campy fictional vampires, Strahd von Zarovich absolutely point blank completely fucking refused to stay dead and returned in multiple modules and adventures throughout all editions of D&D, and the tiny fake Transylvania world he was originally created for was expanded into “Ravenloft, the Demiplane of Dread”, a major part of D&D cosmology bizarrely named after one bloke’s castle, in which all the worst villains of the multiverse were drawn into the spooky mists of the original module and given their own unique horror setting to dick with players in.
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is the 5e update of this classic setting aaaand …I really like it. It has some really nice suggestions for how to run D&D in a more horror-ey way and, to its credit, it includes both some very sensible modern RPG advice about respecting people’s boundaries and remembering the point of a horror game is to make people feel scared but not actually uncomfortable in real life. It also gets massive points from me for including a sidebar that freely admits that a lot of the time the “horror” in Ravenloft is much more likely to be Halloween costume campy B-movie horror rather than the kind of “no, we are actually going to confront our actual fears” horror that some less elves-and-wizard-focused horror games lean into.
Because Ravenloft is a forty year old setting (and in some ways this is the scariest thing about it for people who played the original) inspired by fictional sources that are even older, there are some elements of it that haven’t aged super well. Most notably a major factor in the original setting were the Vistani, who were very clearly inspired by the, umm, various people who work for Dracula whose ethnicities Stoker gets quite specific and Victorian about. Wizards of the Coast have put a lot of work making them much more nuanced and sympathetic since but their origin as a quite stereotypical amalgam of various traveller cultures is still very much there if you know the history. As a writer of LGBTQ+ fiction I do appreciate that the often-super-gothic-and-melodramatic backstories of the various Darklords (rulers-slash-prisoners of Ravenloft’s many Domains of Dread) often include same-sex relationships or the option for same-sex relationships (Strahd’s whole deal is that he’s obsessively pursuing the reincarnated soul of his dead love Tatyana and two of the people on the who-has-she-reincarnated-as-this-time table are men).
So yeah. Ravenloft. I appreciate that my audience isn’t necessarily super-D&D-playing but what can I say. I like vampires and I like fighting monsters.
The Righteous Gemstones
This was billed to me as “Sucession but religious” and it sort of starts off that way but, by the end, it’s much much softer. For me, in Succession the characters just become increasingly who they are as the series progresses, whereas in The Righteous Gemstones they do seem to learn, change and grow. Of course, a massive caveat here is that I’ve only watched one season of The Righteous Gemstones and my perception of this kind of TV is that you’ll very often have a central conflict established in season 1, a lot of character growth related to that central conflict, and then all of that will need to get undone in season 2 because … you can’t let the central conflict go away. Season 1, though, is a nice self-contained arc about family that ended up being a lot gentler than I expected it to in a way I’m genuinely not sure how to parse.
In the first couple of episodes, The Righteous Gemstones steers hard into the idea that the Gemstones are a bunch of superficial hypocrites who pay lip service to religion in order to fleece gullible people out of money.
Cinematographically there’s a whole bunch of shots of them flying in private jets and walking around like rockstars and detailed footage of their intricate backroom machine that sweeps poor people’s collection plate donations into enormous, enormous piles of pure cash. They live on a ludicrously lavish estate with an actual theme park called, I believe Jesusland and everything is presented as a layer of piety spread thinly over a layer of luxury over a still deeper layer of rot.
The plot of the first couple of episodes hinges on the eldest Gemstone son (Jesse) being blackmailed over a video that definitely shows him snorting cocaine with prostitutes at a prayer convention, while the family patriarch, Eli, is really explicitly trying to take over small independent churches like they’re business. And, when one of the small pastors Eli is trying to take over, points out to him that their town has four churches and that therefore the people there are clearly having their spiritual needs met, while there’s a town a little way over that has one church and lots of people in need of salvation, Eli basically states outright that his goal is to suck up other people’s congregations, not to actually redeem anybody from Satan.
Plus all the men spend the first couple of episodes slapping their kids in the face, like, a lot.
Basically in the first two episodes the Gemstones seem to be really consciously framed as the Sopranos but with megachurches
As the series unfolds however…well…it’s difficult. One way of looking at it is that as we learn more about these characters, we grow to sympathise with them and understand more about why they are they way they are. In particular we learn about the important role the family matriarch Amy-Leigh played in their lives, and how badly they’ve all taken her recent death. And that makes some of the family’s (to use a loaded but kind of unavoidable term) unchristian behaviour make a lot more sense—Eli has become harder without his wife to leaven him, Jesse is a genuinely pious family man who made one mistake in a moment of grief that looks worse on camera than it actually was. So in a way, it feels like the show is, y’know, nuanced.
But also…I can’t quite shake the feeling that it just plain changed its mind about what it wanted to be doing. Jesse in particular, in the early episodes is straightforwardly extremely violent. He threatens people with flick-knives, he gets a gang of his cronies together to go and beat up one of the pastors who is opposing their church expansion (he does this because he thinks the pastor is blackmailing him but it’s still an objectively terrible thing to do), his children all genuinely hate, fear and resent him, and when he’s given the opportunity to straight-up murder the people he thinks are blackmailing him, he takes it. He doesn’t succeed, but that’s not really an excuse.
Then by the end of the series we’re kind of left feeling that, shucks he’s really trying and maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
Throughout my time with The Righteous Gemstones I kept asking myself who it was for. And obviously this is a bit of an oversimplification: it’s a good comedy-drama about relatable people and it’s for anybody who wants a good comedy-drama about relatable people. But the thing is, it’s not like conservative evangelical Christianity, and especially the highly profit-and-mass-media focused end of Conservative Evangelical Christianity is a minor or unimportant or uncontroversial element of modern American political discourse.
And so I do wonder what the show thought it was saying about that culture, and who it thought it was saying it to. Like I think if I was a Conservative Evangelical, I’d be really put off by the way it portrayed my religion as infested with cocaine-snorting, church-window-smashing, pastor assaulting profit-obsessed venal narcissists. On the other hand if I was somebody who (as many Americans do) felt harmed by that kind of Conservative Christianity, I think I’d probably be quite put off by the way it glosses over some of the elements of that culture that are in fact harmful in ways that, when you get right down to it, doing cocaine with a prostitute once isn’t.
I think the best example of this (and again, spoilers) is that it is soon revealed that the blackmailer who sent Jesse the video of him snorting cocaine with prostitutes is Jesse’s estranged son Gideon who ran away to Hollywood to be stuntman. When the blackmail plan goes wrong, Gideon comes back home in a (partly coerced) effort to steal from the Gemstones in a more directly heisty way, but the story soon becomes about him reconnecting with his family and being part of a wider process of the Gemstones confronting their grief and getting over their shit.
Later in the series, there’s an admittedly funny but also quite jarring scene where Gideon tries to confess what he’s doing to Jesse (with whom he is now partially reconciled) and Jesse falls into Obligatory Comedy Plot number #273 and misinterprets Gideon’s faltering confession that he needs to talk to his father about something important as an attempt to come out as gay. And Jesse is totally fine with it. Like not necessarily completely up on all the nuances, there’s an, again, amusing but jarring sequence where he’s all like “are you the main guy or the guy who gets it, wait I don’t wanna know I shouldn’t have asked that” but this is still a fairly stock sitcom dad reaction.
And, well, the thing is…this isn’t my personal cultural background but my strong understanding is that even in 2019 (when the first episode of The Righteous Gemstones aired) that is very much not the experience that most people who come out as gay in highly religious conservative families have. Like one of the major reasons that a lot of people on the left have a problem with that brand of Conservative Christianity is the fact that vehement opposition to LGBTQ+ rights is kind of a huge part of it.
Plus remember this is a family where it’s established early on that slapping your children in the actual face is considered a completely normal form of discipline. And yes those are different issues, but it means that Gideon’s story changes radically between the start and end of the series. It’s initially framed as his having run away from an environment that is genuinely oppressive and violent but then by the end of the series it feels more like he was just pissed at his dad for being a bit emotionally distant in the wake of Amy-Leigh’s death.
And I’m not saying that every portrayal of Conservative Christianity on screen has to treat everybody as two-dimensional stereotypes. But the feeling I got from The Righteous Gemstones was that it wasn’t so much three-dimensional as that it was simultaneously demonising the culture it was writing about while also eliding some of its most difficult elements.
Which is why I keep coming back to being uncertain who the target audience is. And I suppose in that sense, I’m overthinking it. If you don’t go into the show looking for it to be saying something about quite a specific and complicated aspect of contemporary American culture and just enjoy it as a comedy drama about flawed but ultimately sympathetic people, then it’s great.
Anyway, that’s what I liked in January 2022. Tell me what you liked in the comments or, as always, don’t.