Stress, TTRPGs, and Me Getting Evicted

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I’m one of those people who doesn’t recognize his own stress until it erupts at the wrong moment. I feel fine (I’m fine! Really!) for a whole day or week or whatever, no really, I’m okay. Then suddenly a stressful moment hits and I realize I have no reserves left and something inappropriate escapes me.

For example, this past weekend I was playing in my usual every-other-week tabletop role playing game, and one of the other players–who’s been a friend of mine for more than 35 years–made a role-playing choice that was super super annoying.

Normally, we’d handle this in-game, where the characters play out the scene, or I’d meta-game it for a moment first to let the other player know where this was going, to make sure they wanted to play this out. (In fact, if he’d continued to play out the scene that way, it would have meant the end of the party, in a “they go or I do” situation.)

But I didn’t do either of those things. Thoughts swirled around in my head and I had no way to put them into a coherent structure. I looked at my friend’s face in the Zoom window and could not imagine what I should do next. Does it make sense to say I’d gone blank when I had dozens of half-thoughts appearing and vanishing in my head before I could even examine them? I hope so, because that’s what happened.

So, I said I needed to take a break (not in a particularly calm way), hung up my headset and walked away from my computer. It was sort of close to our usual break time anyway, and I refilled my water bottle, had a slice of bread with a fancy Lebanese red pepper spread, and washed my face. And I thought it might be a good idea to step away from the game for a few weeks, when this feeling would (should) have passed.

When I returned to the Zoom meeting, I was embarrassed. I was supposed to be role-playing and I’d fucked up.

The other players understood, because I’d already told them at the start of the session that I was being evicted.

You can tell I never went to Journalism school by the way I bury the lede. Maybe I’ll drop this part in the subject header, so no one misses it.

I moved into my current apartment with my then-girlfriend in Oct 1994. We’ve had our whole relationship here, and in 2019, I bought her a silver necklace to celebrate the 25th anniversary of living together. We raised our son in these rooms, cooked every meal, celebrated every holiday. It’s not, you know, a great apartment by any standard, but it’s where our memories were made.

But I don’t own this space, so when my new (as of the fall of 2019) landlord dropped me a note saying they were going to remodel this whole building–and everyone needed to vacate–it did not come as a shock. It was more of a “Winter is coming” moment. We knew it was possible–maybe even inevitable–and when it finally happened it was like death. I had hoped for more time.

For the record, our landlord has given us a lot of time to find a new place and has offered to pay for a moving company, which is very generous of him.

Me, I’d like a new place in this same neighborhood. I’m about to leave to look at an apartment one block over from my current place, and I’m still put out that the place three doors down from us, which was laid out in the same format as the place we have–our furniture could have gone into the same layout there as here–was snapped up a day before I got that email.

Just got back from the place up the street. This was our third apartment tour, and the first we actually liked. There’s no basement storage, but it’s bright and clean, at least. Also, this was the first landlord/realtor who bothered to wear a face mask. (All we had to hear to cross off one place we looked at was “I think they do more harm that good”.)

To get back to the point: All of my novels have been written, in part, at my local library branch and at the Starbucks down the street from it. I’d hate to spend a whole pandemic year working in an inadequate space at home, checking every other day for news of when the libraries will reopen, only to be forced to work someplace new.

And yeah, it’s stressful. And I’m carrying that stress just under the surface of my day to day, having pleasant conversations with my wife about what we should have for dinner, or what books/clothes we’re going to donate instead of pack, or what we’re going to do with the board games we played when our son was ten but haven’t touched in years.

Until something is suddenly Too Much, and I’m welling up with tears because the Shang-Chi trailer looks so fucking good. Or maybe it’s Harold Finch, injured and stumbling into his library, to ask the machine if it knew his only friend in the world was about to be murdered, but already knowing the answer and also knowing everything is his own fault.

In fact, during the same gaming session, we were chatting about Person of Interest, and I was trying to explain to two of the players why I loved it, and that it started off as a very good show in a specific genre that becomes a great sci fi show as it goes forward, and they kept asking me when it became “good” so they could skip the early stuff. Normally, I would have pushed against that sort of framing, but my thoughts were swirling around and I couldn’t respond. Not the way I wanted to.

Now, a mental state like this might sound like it would mess with my writing and writing progress, but writing is a kind of safe space for me. I’m still making progress. I have less time than I used to, but I’m still hitting my goals.

And this, too, shall pass.

Last thing: When I first received that email, I tweeted about it, then deleted the tweet because I thought people might assume I was asking for financial help. I’m not. This isn’t a financial emergency for us. It’s just going to eat up time that could be better spent and it’s going to add a bunch of bullshit stress. Which is not to say that folks should drop out of my Patreon or whatever. I’m grateful for your support and it definitely helps, but I don’t want folks to think this is a call to action. My family and I are okay for now.

Until someone posts a cute kitten video on Twitter and I just lose it.

Take care of yourselves, get vaccinated when you can, and stay safe.

Terrific Fantasy Novels, Cheap

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A few years back, I entered The Way into Chaos into SPFBO, the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off, a reviewer-based competition for self-published novels only. My book made it into the finals but didn’t win, due mainly to readers liking the other entries more. Still, I was hoping that a respectable finish would provide a short-term boost in sales and bring in new readers long term.

It didn’t.

I think that last link is pretty interesting, if I do say so myself, and I recommend you check it out if you’re at all interested in book sales and promo.

Still, I don’t regret entering the contest. As I mentioned in the “It didn’t” linked post, some authors got real value from it, mainly by the social groups they formed.

And, there’s an opportunity for cross promotion, like this:

SPFBO graphic

Only some of the books in the sale

Maybe I’m burying the lede here, but what the hell. All the 30+ books in this list are either winners for finalists for SPFBO, and all are only $0.99 for one week. They’re all fantasy, but subgenres include:

humor
military
dark
epic
YA
urban
historical
apocalyptic epic

And so many more. (Guess who that last one belongs to.)

We’ve got a pandemic. We’ve got civil unrest in the US. We’ve got economic turmoil and widespread unemployment. Isn’t now the time to find some fun, affordable fantasy novels for yourself. Even better, wouldn’t they make great gifts for your friends and loved ones? The answer is clearly YES.

Click through and check them out. You’re sure to find a few things you like.

Somebody Has to be the Outsider: Spoilerish thoughts on WW84 and WONDER WOMAN

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“I have thoughts about the new Wonder Woman movie. I should blog about them!”

::one week later::

Let me try to get this all down:

First thing: Patty Jenkins keeps making superhero movies with plots that can’t be resolved with punching and that’s sort of a problem.

In the first movie, Diana (since the words “Wonder Woman” are never spoken in either movie, it feels weird to call her that) is determined to fight and kill Ares, because she believes that will end all war. Obviously, this is nuts but, for his own purposes, Steve Trevor (and his pals) basically go along with her.

Steve spends much of the movie trying to convince Diana that she doesn’t understand the new world she’s entered. Diana, meanwhile, believes that she sees it very clearly, and that she has the moral agency to change it. Diana changes the world just by being in it. It’s true that she can’t stop all wars and remake the world of men into a paradise through the act of killing her half-brother, but her insistence that she can drives the movie and keeps in in-genre.

And I have more to say about that, but it doesn’t fit here.

In the second film, it’s Steve who becomes the outsider, learning about the new and wondrous world of 1984. Except there’s no dramatic tension there. When Diana enters WWI-era London, she’s expecting to see another paradise and to meet warrior generals like the ones she left behind in Themyscira. She very much doesn’t. When Steve jumps 70 years into the future, he’s simply wide-eyed and delighted. There’s no dramatic conflict between his expectations and his environment.

Personally, I really liked the joy in those scenes. My wife was bored as hell.

Steve also gets a complimentary outfit montage that Diana got in the first movie, but again, the scene doesn’t really convey anything about the relationship between his character and the world he’s found himself in. It’s just played for laughs.

The first movie spent a lot of time talking about what people deserved. Did the world of men deserve an army of Amazons riding out to save them? Did it deserve Diana herself? Do people deserve to be saved? Does “Dr. Poison”? And let’s not forget “May we get what we want. May we get what we need. May we never get what we deserve.”

Diana herself starts off the film believing that people would be good if Ares were killed, and finds herself reluctantly allied with thieves, smugglers, liars, etc. They’re good people doing bad things for good ends, and she’s convinced that she can save them.

The second movie centers itself on capital tee Truth, and I’ve seen a lot of viewers confused about why having a wish come true is equivalent to a lie. I want to try to break down the argument the film is making:

* Want: Baby Diana wants to win the race
* Truth: Baby Diana misses one of the markers by taking a short cut
* Outcome: Baby Diana is not allowed to win because, in truth, she did not run the full race.

* Want: Barbara wants to be confident and popular
* Truth: Barbara is not those things.
* Outcome: Barbara becomes confident and popular without doing the honest work of changing herself

* Want: Adult Diana wants Steve back
* Truth: Steve is dead
* Outcome: Bringing Steve back via wish is a denial of the truth that he is gone.

Which, according to the logic of the movie (as I understand it) a wish makes untrue things true. Which is dishonest. And being dishonest means you told a lie.

Although if you want something you don’t have and work hard to get it, that’s a truthful way to make an untrue thing true, I guess?

Note: I’m explaining the reasoning here, not justifying it. It’s a weak driver for the story–so weak, in fact, that they had to add in the Monkey’s Paw aspect, which wasn’t even established as part of the wish-making until way too late in the story. When Max Lord was granting wishes and telling people what he’d take in return, I was playing catch up, wondering what the hell he was talking about.

Poor “Wish I had a coffee” guy. The stone took his most valued possession in exchange for a cup of joe.

Anyway, I wouldn’t be nit-picking all of this if WW84 were a better movie, and I suspect it would be a better movie if all this was simplified and integrated better. I would say I wish it had been, but there’s literally nothing of value I would sacrifice for that wish to be true.

Plus, there’s that awful shit about Steve taking over someone else’s body, fucking someone with it, and putting it in mortal danger. Did Hallmark Movie Guy consent to all that? I’m sure he didn’t.

Not to mention the ending, which gives Diana someone to punch (poor Barbara) for the penultimate conflict, but used empathetic pleading to win the final conflict.

And honestly, it’s more believable that the daughter of Zeus could show up with a magic lasso than that every human being could see nuclear missiles rocketing skyward and not one of them would choose to let the world burn. Have these people never opened Facebook?

Part of me was convinced that the plot would be resolved when Diana killed Max (like in the comics) but the Patty Jenkins version isn’t like that. Her Max is another mislead mortal who needs to be loved, and to put his love for his son above everything else.

The movie would have been better served by a plot problem she could punch. Even if she ended up battling Max, because he’s the dreamstone now and has to be destroyed, and Max is wildly empowered with the strength and life force of half the world. And they’re smashing around the room before finally coming into contact with the golden particle tube. Then Max sees his son and wants to save him with a wish, or with the power he has stolen. But Diana, who is losing this fight, holds him in place. The whole world is going to die, and it’s Max’s fault.

Which is when Max renounces his wish, effectively destroying the dreamstone and saving the world.

I’m sure someone working on the film thought of that ending but discarded it. I’m also pretty positive they ditched it because they wanted the emotional uplift of an ending where everyone in the world is moved by Diana’s words and comes together for the greater good. Sadly, they sent a movie about that world into the one I live in, where large percentages of the population are narcissists and psychopaths.

I can look past unrealistic fantasy worldbuilding for the sake of a fun story (see: Lucifer) but WW84 hadn’t won me over and couldn’t reach me with this ending.

Before I wrote and posted this, I wanted to watch it with my wife. I’m pretty sure she’s never read a Wonder Woman comic and I’m definitely sure she didn’t know who Cheetah was, let alone Max Lord.

Her take: It was awful. Too long. Not visually interesting enough. No exciting fight scenes. Too much Max Lord and not enough Barbara Minerva.

I liked it more than she did, in part because it wasn’t nihilistic like the early DCEU films, in part because I enjoyed the joyful parts of the performances, in part because I just like superhero movies.

Anyway, I’m glad Jenkins is making a third WW movie, even if the sophmore slump was painful. Sorry to say I can’t see myself watching this one again.

Five Things Make a Pre-Giftmas Post

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I’ve tried to cut back on my Twitter time so I have an actual life, but I’ve also been neglecting my own spaces. So here goes. As you can guess from what’s below, these have been building up for a while now.

  1. Long ago in the misty dawn of time, my friends would get together on the day before Thanksgiving for the Turkey Bowl, which was a game of “touch” football, (with sarcastic quotes around the word touch, obviously). Then I moved to Seattle and slowly fell out of contact with most of my circle of high school friends. 

Well, last month, on the day before Thanksgiving, I got a call from the high school/college buddy that I still game with. He invited me to a Turkey Bowl zoom call, where I got to say hello to some people I hadn’t seen in many years.

Honestly, it was great. I got to see their grownup homes in the background, and they got to see our dinky apartment with the oil painting of a naked man’s back and backside on the wall behind me. We’ve led different lives, but it felt incredibly comfortable to hang out again. Hope to do it again before  another 10-15 years passes.

Oh, and I was the fattest of the group, but we all knew it would be that way.

2. One of my friends on that zoom call admitted that, until the previous day or two, he’d been planning to travel to his parents’ house to have a big Thanksgiving meal with the whole family.

Online, I’ve seen people like him portrayed as braying, deluded conspiracy theorists, openly mocking scientific conclusions and common sense. But it wasn’t like that for my friend. He had people he loved pleading with him to visit, and he felt himself being pressured to take a risk in the hopes that everything would turn out okay.

Luckily, one of his sons talked him out of it, but it took someone else who loved him to break that spell. Just something to think about when we see people behaving recklessly during the pandemic.

3. As I mentioned in the first note, I’m still in touch with one of my friends from high school–through ttrpgs–and this past weekend we finished up an eight month Liminal campaign.

First, it’s a terrific game. The system is simple and quite effective. Not as open as a PbtA system, which we play a lot of, but still terrific. Even better is the setting, which is contemporary fantasy in London (with the option to move the action elsewhere, if you have to.) There’s lots of interesting factions and NPCs, plenty of plot hooks, the whole deal.

The game book also physically beautiful. Seriously.

One problem we had was that the game is designed to be episodic. The characters form a crew, they get “cases” and they take on small dangers. If there’s a longer plot line, it’s meant to surface as a subplot each case, building to a climax, like Person of Interest or Veronica Mars.

Our group doesn’t play that way. Our campaigns are like movies, with constantly escalating stakes and a big conflict at the end.

That meant we couldn’t access one of the ways to gain experience, which was to solve a case, and we had a hard time healing up, because starting a new case erases the damage you’ve suffered. Without that latter rule, it was hard to recover from fights.

(We can argue about whether or not that’s realism and also whether it’s the sort of realism that’s welcome in a ttrpg–actually, you can have that argument if you like, because this isn’t the sort of realism that interests me. In this context, anyway.)

But the game was a lot of fun and the system let us make characters that we could really dig into. I wanted to add a romance subplot but it didn’t really work, mainly because I didn’t work hard enough to integrate it.

Anyway, fun game. Check it out.

4.

Arrogant Bastard Ale again

For The Iron Gate

5. The Iron Gate is almost complete. I have to do another polish before I arrange to have it copy edited, and I’m letting it rest right now while I brainstorm The Flood Circle.

It’s weird. I have a little tickle at the back of my brain telling me there’s something about TIG that doesn’t match the overall 20P mythology. What’s wrong there? What is that tickle trying to tell me? 

No clue. That’s why I let my work rest for a bit. 

The Twenty Palaces novels have always been the most difficult of my projects, although I’m not sure why. One Man was more complex. Key/Egg had a voice and a tone that was challenging for me. But writing anything 20P just eats up time, as I work through character moments and plot twists, jumping around in the story because I realized I missed something here. And there. And also there.

Plus, I gotta say this is a weird book, and I’m not sure how well it’s going to go over with… anyone, really. Sorta nervous about it, actually, in a way I haven’t been nervous in many years. Not that these worries will stop me.

Okay. I need to do a bit of Christmas food prep, and figure out how to create a new evil rich person for The Flood Circle.

Enjoy your holidays, stay safe, and find joy where you can.

Binge-demic 4

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Let’s keep working backwards through the shows I’ve binged during the pandemic: 

SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER

Confession time: I knew nothing about She-Ra before watching this show. The original show came out when I was too old (and too young) for cartoons and all I knew was that The Usual Creeps were upset by the new character design because this version of She-Ra didn’t have big boobs.

Nothing about the show tempted me, either. It looked like sword & planet for little kids, and really, life is too short. 

But again, I kept seeing a lot of enthusiasm for the show as the fifth and final season came up, and once I realized Noelle Stevenson was the showrunner, I decided to give it a try.

Turns out that it’s fun and funny. It’s full of strong characterization (which is not the same as strong characters, obvs) and is just as charming as Nimona and Lumberjanes.

LEVERAGE

This is the rare show that starts strong right from the first scene. There’s no stumbling around, as they try to hone the characters and concept. They hit the ground running, and it’s fantastic.

The first time I watched this show, it was with my family, and we lost momentum somewhere in the fourth season. Not sure why, except that the show seemed to want to mix up the formula, and we really liked that formula. This time, watching by myself, I kept going through the episodes where the actors played other characters and/or the con was a backdrop for some other drama (and yeah, it seems a shame to cast Danny Glover on your show and *not* make him into some sort of criminal genius).

But still, this show puts everything together in exactly the right way. The characters are great, starting off as exaggerated one-note personality types–grumpy, wacky, sad, sensible, etc–and gradually becoming more complex as they form strong relationships. The plots are clever, the villains are awful, and jokes actually made me laugh. 

And like I said, I really liked the plot engine of the show, where a group of crooks ruin the corrupt and powerful. That never got old.

STRANGER THINGS

I don’t have to talk at length about this show again, do I? I like it. It’s good. 

THE KIRLIAN FREQUENCY

An anthology of odd, animated horror shorts out of Argentina that does its best to make a virtue of an extremely low budget. It’s only five episodes, each between 8-10 minutes long. Does it count as a binge if the whole season is less than an hour long? I say sure, why not. 

The stories center around a radio DJ who broadcasts only at night. Each episode introduces a premise, then delivers the twist, and there’s not much more to it than that. 

THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY

I really feel that I should like this show more than I do. My wife loves it, though.

—–

FYI: if you haven’t taken advantage of the Kindle Monthly Deal for One Man, a City of Fallen Gods Novel, this is the last day. If you want to check out a creepy high fantasy crime thriller set in a city built within the skeletons of two dead gods, act now.

Upcoming: Avatar, and The Letter for the King, I Am Not Okay With This

Circle of Enemies Audiobook Available Today

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Cover art for Circle of Enemies audiobook

Fiery!

If I had any brains, I would have posted this much earlier, and started sending the announcement newsletter at midnight last night. Unfortunately, today is Blursday, and yesterday was Blursday, too, so I lost track of the date.

Note to self: write rent check.

So, yes, the audiobook for Circle of Enemies is available today, for the first time ever. You can grab a copy from online vendors:

Audiobook.com
Audible
iBooks

Or wherever you prefer to get your audiobooks.

There will be more Twenty Palaces audiobooks, but not until I finish The Iron Gate. Once this book is fully revised and edited, it’ll be combined with The Twisted Path and released as a set. Until then, I’m not going to have much to release.

Also, remember that the Kindle Monthly Deal for One Man expires at the end of the month. Until then, you can pick up an ebook for yourself or a friend for only $1.99.

Binge-demic 3

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Continuing my Binge-demic posts, let me move backwards to the show I watched before Veronica Mars.

STRANGE LUCK

It’s weird that this show has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Not that it’s bad. It’s not. You could even call it pretty good. Still, a hundred percent? If I had to guess, it’s a distortion created by the fact that the show predates the site, but a number like that promises more than Strange Luck can deliver.

Simply put: It’s the 90’s, and every place anyone goes to is actually Canada, where they hose down the streets at night so the puddles reflect the multi-colored lights. Chance Harper is a freelance photojournalist who drives all over the city in his beater, snapping pictures of the stories he stumbles across. And he tries to help people.

As the sole survivor of a plane crash–in fact, he had no injuries at all–Chanse has been cursed by powerful luck. Not good or bad, but powerful. Where ever he goes, weird and/or dangerous shit happens, and he does whatever he can to help (and get a shot he can sell). To quote main character: “If I go to a restaurant, somebody chokes. If I walk into a bank, it gets robbed.”

I’ve said one thing over and over in in these posts: one of the most important aspects of these shows is the relationships between the series regulars. Strange Luck has only two regular supporting characters: his ex, the hot newspaper editor who buys Chance’s photos and the hot owner/operator of his favorite cafe who has a crush on him. And they’re both fine, although the cafe owner gets more interesting story lines.

Anyway, there are a lot of pitfalls for a show built on a premise of coincidences, but Strange Luck avoids all of them. It’s too bad it only lasted one season. With a larger, crunchier supporting cast, I think it would have done well. Past time for a remake, I think, with shorter seasons and the obligatory modern mythology.

Finally, at least one person has asked me how I watched the show, since it’s not available anywhere to stream. Sadly, I had to go to YouTube. It wouldn’t be my first–or my fifth–choice, but it wasn’t available elsewhere.

KIPO AND THE WONDERBEASTS

I knew what I was hoping for when I put on this show (based on online recommendations–all the new shows that I watch, esp the cartoons, drop into the schedule because people rave about them). I expected what I got. But I didn’t expect I would get so much, or that it would be as fun and charming as it was.

Let me clarify: I expected a kid-friendly apocalypse, unusual “monsters”, and a heroine who makes the world better by doing what everyone around her thinks is impossible: finding common ground with her enemies. What I got was exactly that, but in a charming, inventive, and enjoyable way.

BREAKING: Cartoons are so much better now than they were when I was a kid. Maybe it’s because modern shows have to compete with video games, so they can’t half-ass it the way they used to? Or maybe the half-assed cartoons are still out there, invisible to an old like me because they’re aimed at very young viewers, but modern creators trust older kids with more complex story lines?

But there’s no way that kid-me would have been offered a show with astronomy-loving wolves lead by a wolf named Billions (voiced by John Hodgman) and a second wolf named Billions (voiced by GZA). Nor would I have gotten a surprisingly good song listing everything the wolves have learned about the stars.

The visuals are solid. The circle of regulars have great relationships. The music is a goddam delight. If you have any stomach at all for kids animation, check this out. The third and final season comes out in less than a month.

BLACK LIGHTNING S3

I was going to keep this to two shows per post, but what the hell.

I also binged the latest Black Lightning season once it hit Netflix. Here’s the thing about this show. The actors are great. The premise of a family with several members having/struggling with superpowers is absolutely solid, and the series regulars have that powerful web of relationships I keep talking about.

Also, the overall plot of the season, involving a government crackdown on the small city of Freeland, where the show is set, is just right for this particular political and cultural moment.

I’ll admit that I’ve mostly given up on the DC superhero shows. At least, the 20+ season, one-a-week broadcast shows like Arrow, Supergirl, or The Flash. Those shows started off with a touch of joy to them. Even Arrow, which was grim from the start, had moments where Oliver used his skills in a way that gave the audience a little thrill. After all, part of the appeal of the superhero genre is power fantasy.

New shows like Stargirl brim with that sort of joy. Doom Patrol subvert the power fantasy expectation in funny and interesting ways. Black Lightning has always done a good job managing the precarious balance between enjoyable power fantasy and credible threat to the main characters.

This third season, with its government occupation, illegal experimentation, and foreign superpowered commandos, leans heavily toward the latter.

Still solid, though. I’m waiting for season four.

Also, in case you didn’t know it, there are only a few days left to pick up ONE MAN, my dark fantasy crime thriller, as a $1.99 Kindle Monthly Deal. If you like books about desperation, magic, intrigue, expeditions to mysterious islands, giant skeletons, people living inside giant skeletons, creatures made of burning iron, vampire hobbits, and also the fear of failing the one person in the whole world who relies on you, take advantage of that deal right away.

Also, redux, the audiobook for Circle of Enemies drops on the 29th. More on that, including links, when I have them.

Binge-demic 2

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Continuing my Binge-demic posts, let me move backwards to the show I watched before Korra.

BURN NOTICE

There was every reason for this show to be a forgettable one-and-done gunfight and bikini action series. It was on the USA network, it’s set in Miami, fills scene transitions with shots of beautiful young girls in swimsuits walking near water, and follows all the Action TV Show Gunfight Rules. 

Some of those rules:

  • Concealment = Cover, except those times when Concealment =/= Cover is cooler.
  • Everyone has terrible aim, except highly trained badasses (and their pals).
  • It’s pretty much impossible to shoot someone while they’re running, even with automatic weapons.
  • Every gunman, no matter how angry, sadistic or psychotic, will give their enemy time to say one more thing before pulling the trigger.

Person of Interest, mentioned in the previous post, had some of this too, but even that show didn’t compare to the number of bullets and bombs unleashed on Burn Notice. 

What makes Burn Notice a great show is, first of all, Jeffrey Donovan. He’s electric in the lead, and to this day I don’t understand how he didn’t immediately pivot to a starring role in something else. Maybe the dude was tired and needed a break. Maybe he found greater creative fulfillment as a character actor in supporting roles, and in a Hulu series that I’ve never had the chance to see. [Added later: he was exhausted when Burn Notice ended. He was in most of the scenes, did a lot of his own fights and stunts, and was utterly worn out by the time the series wrapped.]

The premise is straight forward: Michael Weston was a spy until the CIA burned him, freezing his bank accounts and cutting off all contact. He has lost the work that defined his whole life. The subplot of each season concerns Michael’s efforts to clear his name and get himself reinstated. For the main plot In each episode, Michael uses his skills as a spy to help some ordinary person in trouble. 

That makes it a heroic con artist show with car chases. 

Plus, at a time when Jack Bauer was still running around interrogating people under threat of torture, the makers of Burn Notice put a little more effort into it than that. They made it clear that these weren’t bad guys being bad for good ends. When Michael and his friends were forced to do something terrible, the show never portrayed that as heroic, and the characters always paid a price.

I love the second-person voice over, the split screen sequences, the humor, the whole deal. Gabrielle Anwar is great, once she drops the accent they asked her to do in the pilot. Sharon Gless is great as Michael’s chain-smoking mother. Bruce Campbell is great and also, on occasion, subtle (if you can believe it). 

So great. Love this show.

VERONICA MARS

But not as much as this show. 

I have all of Veronica Mars–original series, film, revival series–on disc, (rare for me–I was never a collector of dvds) and I used to own the two terrible novels. (I donated them to the library, which is how I throw away books.) One of the benefits of watching the discs is that the pilot episode is slightly extended, starting at the no-tell motel (first line is Veronica in voice-over saying I am never getting married.) instead of the school parking lot, and for once the extra scenes don’t feel like a waste of my precious time.

And yeah, that first season is iconic. The pilot has a little too much backstory to set up, and the second episode is marred by a bit of stunt casting, but both are still great. After that, it takes off running and doesn’t look back. 

It was renewed for two more (excellent) seasons, despite being near the bottom of the ratings every year. I sort of hated the way the third season ended, but this was a show that put its characters through the ringer. If the last thing it made me feel was Veronica’s regret at a harm she’d caused that could never be made right, that was perfect for the overall tone of the show.

Then came the Kickstarted movie. The show had been a critical darling and retained a dedicated fanbase, so the fundraising campaign was a rousing success. And sure, people complained that the movie that came out of it had too much fan service, but it would have made a fitting (and happier) ending to Veronica Mars’s story. 

But I guess the success of the crowdfunding campaign convinced someone there was an audience to be micro-marketed to, so we got two terrible novels that did not seem to understand the appeal of Veronica Mars as a character, then a new series on Hulu featuring Veronica as an adult.

Unfortunately, by the end of the Hulu series, every aspect of the original show had been brushed aside except for Veronica’s profession and her relationship with her father. Gone was Neptune High as a place where the young rich collide with the young poor. Gone was unincorporated Neptune, the place without a middle class. Gone was Wallace, Veronica’s first healthy peer relationship on the show, who is left behind in Neptune when she drives up the coast to a new case. Gone was Logan, the OTP that obsessed the most dedicated fans of the show. 

Killing off Logan seems to have squelched any hopes of a fifth season. The fans were furious, and I can’t really blame them. Thomas seemed to think that the romance elements were supposed to be a C-plot, bringing a modicum of soap opera conflict to contrast with the mystery plots. No one seemed to believe Logan could function as a support character like Keith, so out he went. 

Which is a shame. The setting and network of relationships are a big part of what we love about a show. You can’t just strip away that context and expect the character to thrive. If you want a brilliant, tough female private investigator in a new context, create a new one.

But still, Veronica herself is a wildly appealing character. In those first three seasons, she’s not just brilliant and funny, she’s fearless, too. Not, I mean, physically fearless. Threats of violence still terrify her, as they should. No, she’s been socially ostracized and come through it with exactly zero fucks left to give. Even when mortifying things happen to her, she refuses to be made ashamed or to back down.

That’s a powerful thing, especially for people of high school age (and near-high school age). I remain convinced that’s the secret sauce of Veronica’s appeal.

Anyway, I recommend the show, obviously. The first three seasons are genius, and the movie makes a nice little bow tie at the end. And, if you still want more of Veronica and Keith and Logan and Leo and so on, season four is only eight episodes long and has all the brilliance and wit of the previous incarnations, even if it does fundamentally break the old show and create a new one in the last twenty minutes or so. 

Up next: Strange Luck and Kipo and the Wonderbeasts

Also, in case you didn’t know it, there are fewer than ten days left to pick up ONE MAN, my dark fantasy crime thriller, as a $1.99 Kindle Monthly Deal. If you like books about desperation, magic, intrigue, expeditions to mysterious islands, giant skeletons, people living inside giant skeletons, creatures made of burning iron, vampire hobbits, and also the fear of failing the one person in the whole world who relies on you, take advantage of that deal right away.