Fuuuuuck it’s fucking Julyyyy.
Here are some things I liked in the month that comes before July.
A Bunch Of TV Shows That I Haven’t Finished Yet
I’m in a bit of weird space TV-wise at the moment because, what with the rise of streaming, I’ve got really out of the habit of watching TV weekly, but there are a couple of things running at the moment that I am actually watching as they drop. And on the one hand part of me really resents this because the whole thing is almost certainly already made and there aren’t schedules to fill because these things are broadcast on streaming services but, on the other hand, I do see why production companies feel that there is a value in artificially spacing out the time in which a new series of something is “on TV”. A weird reality of the way modern media distribution works it that things come along and are the biggest thing in the universe while they’re being released and then they sink without a trace.
Like, check out this snapshot of Google trending data for Bridgerton. As always data is open to multiple interpretations but to me this very clearly shows that people only give a shit about a show when it’s the new hotness. After which shits cease to be given at what I think is genuinely an exponential rate of decline.
Just for curiosity—because a spike on it could mean anything—I did actually run a comparison to check interest in Bridgerton versus interest in The Bible. And, yes, it does turn out that around the window where it was released we were, worldwide, about as interested in whether Kate and Anthony were going to get it on as we were in, y’know, the foundational text of a major world religion.
Anyway, point is: I get what you’re doing here, Amazon. You want to spread out the “bigger than Jesus” moment for as long as you can because the most you release the last episode of a thing, people lose interest in the thing, because someone else is trying to get them interested in the next thing.
So what this means is I’ve watched some episodes of Season 3 of The Boys, some episodes of Season 2 of P-Valley, some of episodes of The Great Season 2 and half of Heartstopper.
I enjoyed what I watched of Heartstopper but felt I’d seen most of what it doing around the time my Netflix subscription expire and I also get an increasingly skeevy feeling watching LGBTQ+ content on Netflix given their “transphobia is an important part of diversity” policy. Like, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that there is positive trans rep in Heartstopper but that needs to be a norm not a controversial viewpoint that you feel the need to balance with a Ricky Gervais special.
I’m really enjoying The Great S2. As anyone who’s read Something Fabulous might have realised I’m not one of those people who thinks “historical accuracy” is the only metric on which to judge fiction in a historical setting. I’m pretty sure that S1 of The Great was a thing I Liked and S2 of The Great is basically more of the same—although I do give it credit for the plot moving on quite swiftly. Often with this kind of TV you either have the status quo being spun out endlessly (in this case a “will they won’t they” but with usurpation) or else you get the last two episodes of Season n being devoted to introducing a completely new conflict for Season n+1. The Great has, so far, managed to avoid both of these because, in S1, it’s all “ooh, what if Catherine deposes Peter” and then, at the end, the actual coup starts and she’s Empress by episode 2 of S2 (because Peter got hungry).
One of the things I find odd but enjoyable about the show is that I kind of can’t tell whether the relationship between Catherine and Peter is intended to come across as a romance or not. And, unusually, I weirdly think it works better if it is. Normally, despite being a romance writer, I wouldn’t be super in favour of a show that is ultimately about the rise to power of an enlightened despot feeling the need to throw in a love story because this one’s a girl. And Peter, let’s be very clear, is an awful person but … Catherine is kind of an awful person too? And that means you kind of root for them to make each other better and/or worse.
And I feel uncomfortable about this because, particularly in the early season, Catherine and Peter’s relationship is straight up abusive. There’s a line that I’m going to have to paraphrase where he says something to her along the lines of “You’re upset, aren’t you? Is it because I shot your bear and punched you in the face?” And, honestly, it’s kind of a funny beat (especially because of the delivery and the tone of the series in general) but the same time, well, killing your wife’s pet and then punching her is neither lol move nor a cute foible. I think the reason it lands okay for me (and people’s mileage is going to vary here, as for that matter will people’s interpretation of the actual text) is a combination of the surreality of the series (it bills itself as “an occasionally true story” and includes a lot of casual murder and people inventing rollercoasters) and, weirdly, the fact that at the end of the day it is about a historical dictator.
The loltastic framing is kind of its own can of worms but, as someone’s who works within genre romance, I think it’s valid to say that things which wouldn’t be okay in real life can be explored safely in an obviously hyper-real medium. A lot of paranormal romance, for example, includes heroes who are genuinely intensely physically dangerous, often to the extent of randomly murdering people but, because they’re … y’know, vampires or werewolves or (what with monstercock being a thing now) other, stranger things it’s understood that this is part of the narrative stylisation and nobody is actually saying “hey, girl, you know who make good boyfriends? Murderers.”
On the other side of the coin, the fact that Catherine the Great is a real person who really did do, well, great and terrible things makes it (and this is hard to articulate) ironically easier to step back from the “but in real life” way of looking at that kind of “two awful people” relationship. Like, sure if I knew someone who was in a relationship with guy like Peter in real life I’d be telling them to get out now, but then again I also don’t know anyone who’s, well, Empress of Russia?
Speaking of hyper-reality (which I know was a few paragraphs back now): The Boys. I think if I had to boil what I like about The Boys down to a single glib soundbite it’s that it proudly proclaims that you can have fairly progressive sensibilities while also being as edgelord as fuck. Like, this is a show that genuinely explores issues surrounding the commercialisation of marginalised identities, treats sexual abuse really seriously, and is increasingly unsubtle about its metaphors for the alt right but which also, in its first episode of this season, includes a scene in which a coked-up superhero shrinks himself, crawls inside a guy’s urethra for sexual purposes and accidentally expands to full size, blowing him to bloody chunks. And I’m sure there are people for whom that’s not okay or not funny or not the kind of thing you want to watch but I think it’s really important for there be shows (and a general cultural understanding) which acknowledge that believing marginalised people should have rights isn’t the same as being the kind of pearl clutching stereotype that progressives are often framed as.
The thing about The Boys is that it is gleefully and imaginatively transgressive (the reason there’s an exploding dick scene was that it was originally going to be exploding arse scene but they’d already done an exploding arse scene) and I do think it’s really necessary to have a content out there that shows that you can do that kind of transgressive humour without falling back on tired old bigotries that you pretend are somehow bold or original.
Turns out it’s as lot harder to segue from exploding dicks than from hyper-reality. So, um, P-Valley then? For what it’s worth, I think I might have also talked about P-Valley before (I try to do one of these every month, it’s been a few years, and honestly I’m kind of relieved that things I used to like I still like) and a lot of what I either said or would have said if I’d said it still applies to the second season. It’s still kind of the archetypical Starz show in that all of the packaging around it highlights “this has got tits in” but once you start watching you’re like “oh, this is actually a fascinating exploration of some quite complex social issues, damn you tits, you got me again.”
Like with a lot of prestige TV shows, I was a bit dubious about P-Valley going past one season because, like with a lot of prestige TV shows, its first series told a very clear, complete story that revealed its mysteries, brought its plotlines together, and took its characters on a journey that ended somewhere. Which means S2 is just kind of … and then. I do think this approach works better with P-Valley that it did with, say, Game of Thrones or Six Feet Under, because it was always more of a theatrical themes and characters piece. Like, I would be perfectly happy to watch these characters interacting in whatever the hell context they wind up interacting in more or less indefinitely. I also, at least at this point, have slightly more faith than I have with some other series that it is genuinely going somewhere. At time of writing, things seem to be starting to gravitate around the mayoral election in which multiple characters are now running and it seems likely that will give the season a bit more focus.
The other thing I find interesting about P-Valley is that it’s the first thing I’ve watched since the pandemic that is straight up set in the pandemic (not saying, it’s the first thing to do that, just the first one of those things I happen to have come across). And, as a first, “actually set in the pandemic” thing to watch, it’s been remarkably interesting, albeit kind of harrowing. Because the show is constantly exploring intersecting marginalised identities it means that the narrative of the pandemic you get is from, well, from a range of perspectives but primarily from a range of people who are marginalised along multiple axes. I don’t like over-emphasise the inherently polarised nature of modern discourse because it’s a take so cold that it would be mildly pleasant in the current weather but I do think it’s interesting that the broad perception of the pandemic was very much that was “liberals” who were in favour doing all the safety stuff and shutting everything down because it was The Right Thing To Do and “the right” who wanted to leave businesses open and pretend it wasn’t happening and so on because They Care More About Money Than People. When the reality, as always, was kind of more complex. The characters in P-Valley are overwhelmingly not merely economically marginalised but economically marginalised while working in the entertainment industry so, for these people, being asked to stop doing their jobs because of a pandemic is actually kind of unsustainable.
Anyway, it’s really good. One of my favourite things on TV at the moment and I’m thrilled it got a second season.
Tesco Finest Crinkle Cut and Roast Beef and Horseradish Crisps
I have a precarious relationship with meat-flavoured crisps. They need to taste enough like the meat that they’re supposed to taste like that you aren’t left asking how in the hell this chicken-and-garlic crisp is supposed to remind you either of chicken or of garlic, but not so much like the meat that they’re supposed to taste like that it feels incongruous to get that flavour coming from something that’s fundamentally dry and crispy rather than soft and meaty.
Tesco Finest Crinkle Cut Roast Beef and Horseradish Crisps cheat. But they cheat perfectly. The perfect method by which they cheat is to taste a whole hell of a lot like horseradish and really not much at all like roast beef. This is exactly the right way around. Honestly even actual roast beef, as far as I’m concerned, is little more than a horseradish delivery system. So Tesco Finest Crinkle Cut Roast Beef and Horseradish Crisps capture all of the good bits of roast beef, and none of the tedious, sometimes unwelcome beefiness that often translates weirdly to a crisp format anyway.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Coteries of New York & Vampire: The Masquerade –Shadows of New York
Tabletop RPGs are kind of a tiny marketplace but the market leader, even in the dark days of 4th edition has always been Dungeons and Dragons. And it’s not close, and it’s never been close. D&D is to tabletop roleplaying what Google is to search engines.
Things get a bit closer when you move down the card and start looking at the competition for second place. The title of “the Bing of RPGs” has swapped around a lot over the years—these days it probably goes either to Pathfinder or to the loose collection of indie games that fall under the banner of “Powered by the Apocalypse” (don’t ask)—but back in the heady days of the 1990s the undisputed winner of the great race to eat D&D’s dust was White Wolf Publishing’s World of Darkness series of games and, most specifically, its flagship title Vampire: the Masquerade.
Vampire: the Masquerade has a weird, patchy IP history. It was so tied to the millennial angst of its time that when the early 2000s rolled around the publishers literally blew up the setting (often with nukes), replaced it with a new World of Darkness that was massively less popular, then fell apart, got into weird negotiations involving an MMORPG because everybody was in weird negotiations involving an MMORPG in 2004, fell apart again and finally got bought up by—of all people—Paradox Interactive, a video game publisher primarily known for its historical grand strategy titles like Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings and Victoria.
This … well it was rocky but it did sort of eventually lead to something of a renaissance for the franchise, netting it a shiny (if mixedly-received) new edition back in 2018 and the kind of multimedia push that our modern digitised age is made for. In the sphere of video games this push was most clearly represented by the announcement of Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines II (yes, I will be typing out the names of all Vampire: the Masquerade video games in full with both the colon and the hyphen every time, thank you for asking), a sequel to the now-defunct Troika games’ cult classic Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines. Unfortunately video games being video games, Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines II vanished immediately into development hell and hasn’t been seen since. Instead, the banner of colon-and-hyphen-bearing vampire titles was taken up by a much less ambitious graphic- novel-style project from Draw Distance games. That title was Vampire: the Masquerade – Coteries of New York. Which is the actual game I’m going to be talking about, sorry it took so long to get around to it.
(Also, yes, I’ve been playing a lot of vampire themed games really, I like vampires).
(Also also, this will contain spoilers for the plot of Vampire: the Masquerade – Coteries of New York and Vampire: the Masquerade – Shadows of New York).
In Vampire: the Masquerade – Coteries of New York you play a newly-turned vampire (either a “neonate” or a “fledgeling” in the in-game terminology although which depends on how much of a picky nerd you feel like being) who has been dropped into the middle of the cutthroat politics of New York’s population of spooky sexy bloodsuckers. You’re supposed to be executed because you were created without permission but instead a sexy redhead named Sophie Langley decides to speak up for you because Something Something Politics Something.
Incidentally if you check out the entry for this game on one of the many dedicated fan wikis that chronicle Vampire: the Masquerade’s vast and bewildering canon, you’ll find that Sophie Langley is basically the only character in the game apart from the blank-slate-PC who isn’t a significant lore figure who appears in other game material. You may, if you wish, use this information to make predictions about how successful her plan to Something Something Politics Something will wind up being.
Once you survive your initial encounter with vampire society, Sophie sets about teaching you the basics of How To Vampire, which in practice means teaching you a lot of vocabulary very quickly (Clan! Camarilla! Embrace ! Vitae!) and then telling you that you should go out and form a Coterie. “Coterie” is Vampire: the Masquerade’s in-setting term for “group of player characters” and honestly it’s always felt like a bit of a fudge to me. Like they’d written this game about solitary predators who all hate and mistrust each other (and the game makes a really big deal about how vampires all hate and mistrust each other) but then belatedly realised that PCs need a reason to hang out together, so they came up with an IC term for “group of vampires who all hang out together” and hoped people wouldn’t notice that it doesn’t actually fit the setting very well.
What follows is a series of loosely-interconnected quests where people who you don’t know tell you to do things you don’t understand for reasons they won’t explain. Sometimes you’re doing this for Sophie herself—she’s using you to broker a deal between herself and a prominent Anarch (vampires who don’t like the current political system and want to replace it with a basically identical political system only with them in charge, some elements of Vampire’s ‘90s satire have actually aged pretty well)—and sometimes you’re doing sidequests for other vampires who you’re trying to entice to join your new Coterie.
On the one hand, this is deeply frustrating. It all feels kind of directionless, it’s often confusing and when you get to the end it becomes abundantly clear that nothing you did mattered and none of your choices changed anything. Plus there’s a scene where a character you’ve met, like, twice, comes in at the last minute and explains how he was secretly behind everything and it’s all his master plan and he’s been manipulating you and Sophie both, and neither of you can do anything about it.
What made me love the game anyway was that while my first thought when I got to the end was “well that sucks, all I was really doing was watching quietly while NPCs did Very Important Secret Plans at each other” my second thought was “and isn’t that exactly how my 1990s Vampire: the Masquerade games played out.”
At the very least, I liked it enough that I went straight on to the sequel.
Vampire: the Masquerade – Shadows of New York is better than the original in pretty much every respect. Unlike the first game, you don’t get a choice of Clan, but that actually winds up playing in the game’s favour because it means it has a fixed protagonist rather than the more blank slate personality you get in Vampire: the Masquerade – Coteries of New York (am I getting tired of the always-type-out-the-full-name bit? Yes, slightly). You play a young way-gothier-than-you’d-expect-for-somebody-born-in-the-1990s journalist named Julia Sowinski whose life is systematically destroyed by vampires trying to decide if she has the strength of will to make a good recruit. Assuming you make the right (or wrong) choice when given the option to shoot a mysterious stranger (spoilers, you should shoot them) they decide you in fact would, and you join the Camarilla as the newest member of clan Lasombra.
That last sentence will have divided the audience into three groups: the ones who say “joined the what as the newest member of clan who?” the ones who say “hang on, why the hell are the Lasombra in the Camarilla” and the ones who say “oh, cool, so the game is set after the Sabbat retreated from its Crusades against the Camarilla to instead fight the Gehenna War against the Antediluvians, causing the Lasombra—one of the two founding Clans of the Sabbat alongside the Tzimisce—to abandon the Sect and defect to the Camarilla (taking the spot recently vacated by the Brujah who had themselves defected to the Anarchs) after a series of tense negotiations between the Amici Noctis and the various representatives of the Ivory Tower, as outlined in Chicago by Night”.
For some reason, Vampire: the Masquerade used to have a reputation for being overcomplicated.
Anyway Julia becomes a vampire and is given a job which is technically very important (she’s the most prominent Lasombra in NYC) but is actually kind of a joke-slash-insult and is then immediately tasked with investigating the murder of one of the prominent characters from the previous game. Whereas that game was very focused on side content as you went around meeting various more-interesting-than-you characters in an effort to earn their favour by doing the vampire equivalent of taking in their laundry, Vampire: the Masquerade – Shadows of New York keeps its focus more tightly on the murder investigation. You go to the crime scene, you interview suspects, you have occasional weird shadow visions (the Lasombra have ties to a mysterious shadow power and, in 5th edition, can also talk to ghosts) and generally run around being a plucky girl reporter only, y’know, dead.
In a lot of ways, Vampire: the Masquerade – Shadows of New York is every bit as linear and disempowering as Vampire: the Masquerade – Coteries of New York. While you can investigate the murder, and you technically are an investigative journalist, you’re completely out of your depth, dealing with a crime committed both against and by beings with supernatural powers whose parameters you don’t understand, pretty much all of whom are strongly invested in you failing to find the killer. And indeed in true Vampire: the Masquerade style you ultimately don’t so much solve the murder as eventually find the one Nosferatu who already knows who did the murder (Nosferatu are the information-broker clan and it’s basically setting canon that there’s always a Nosferatu who knows who did the murder) and intimidating him into telling you who did it.
Vampire: the Masquerade – Shadows of New York has one hundred percent more different endings than its predecessor. Which is to say, it has two. But the difference between one and two is actually kind of huge. The original game’s linearity, for me at least, didn’t so much capture the helplessness of being a young vampire constrained by the cruelties of vampiric society so much as it captured the helplessness of being a player in a tabletop game with a really railroady GM (which to be fair I appreciated on a meta level). The problem with its single ending isn’t so much that you can’t affect it but that in a lot of ways it doesn’t much affect you—you’ve spent the whole game doing random stuff because people told you to and the game ends with the implication that you’re now going to get told to do random stuff by somebody else.
At the end of Vampire: the Masquerade – Shadows of New York you know who did the murder but you can’t actually tell anybody and, weirdly, that works great. At the end of the game you’re summoned to give your report to the head vampires and they make very clear that the narrative they want is that the murdered dude actually just got tired of unlife and let himself get burned up by the sun. And you do get the option to challenge that narrative, just not with the truth. Depending on the choices you’ve made for Julia throughout the game, she either goes along with what the other vampires want, in which case she decides that she’s through playing vampire politics and bails on the city with her girlfriend, hoping that they can reach the Anarch Free States before the Camarilla or Clan Lasombra have them both murdered, or else she proposes a different but equally false narrative that lets her take down one of the city’s power players and step into his shoes, advancing herself politically at the cost of any remaining shred of integrity she might have had. Cutely (is that a word) these endings are labelled “Bad Ending” and “Good Ending” respectively but, well, these are vampires and there’s a very strong implication you shouldn’t take those labels at face value.
Gosh that was a lot about Vampire games.
tl;dr I really liked both of these games because they reminded me very strongly of actually playing Vampire: the Masquerade. It’s just that the first one reminded me of playing with quite a bad GM.
And those are the things I liked this month. As ever, tell me what you liked this month in the comments. Or, y’know, don’t.