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.

Binge-demic 1

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Here’s my COVID lifestyle: I wake at 9am, then stumble out of bed for coffee and breakfast. With any luck, this involves some sort of sandwich. I’m a big fan of sandwiches.

Then it’s chores and writing. I’m currently revising The Iron Gate, and if I hit my daily goal, I reward myself with a little writing on something else, like bluebooking for a tabletop rpg or brainstorming The Flood Circle which is the next Twenty Palaces novel. Then, a little reading.

After dinner, my wife and I settle in and watch a few shows. My wife hates binge-watching anything. Occasionally, she will watch two episodes of a show on one night, but I only rarely. Too much of one show bores the shit out of her.

At 9:30, she goes to bed at 9:30 and I get my alone time. Which I need. At the end of the day, when I’m alone in my darkened living room, I binge-watch shows. 

And I feel an inexplicable urge to talk about them. So, for a couple of blog posts, I’m going to write about them, starting with the most recent and working backwards.

Person of Interest:

I was talking about the characters on Person of Interest with someone on Twitter, and I was admiring the way the show used exaggeration in building its characters. Reese isn’t just hired muscle, he was once the CIA’s most deadly assassin, an American James Bond (on a TV-crime-thriller budget). Finch isn’t just a computer guy, he’s the reclusive genius who spent his whole adult life living under false identities and who created an artificial intelligence capable of monitoring everyone on Earth.

Reese knows very little about computers. Finch suffers from an unhealed injury he won’t discuss, which leaves him unable to fight or sprint. So it’s not just that each is an expert in their respective roles. They’re also incapable of filling each others’ roles. They compliment each other perfectly. 

It’s the same for the two cops on the show: Fusco is a corrupt homicide detective under the thumb of other corrupt cops, and Carter is the honest, empathetic one. One is being blackmailed into helping Reese. The other wants to arrest him. Both are extremes and opposites, and that naturally creates drama.

The person I was talking to called the characters archetypes, which I don’t think is a good description. To me, calling a character an archetype is an insult. It means they’re a copy of another thing, not an individual in their own right. If these were archetypes, I wouldn’t like the show as much as I do.

In its first season, PoI plays out as a well-made CBS procedural with an unusual and intriguing premise: A surveillance AI called, simply, “The Machine” sends Finch the social security number of a person who will be involved in a murder, either as victim or perpetrator. The team has to work out what’s happening and save a life, possibly several. There’s no season-long subplot, but the seeds of upcoming subplots are planted here and there.

In the second season, the extended story arcs begin, and by the third season, the show becomes positively addicting. The procedural elements are slowly, season by season, eclipsed by the underlying story of The Machine itself, the dangerous bureaucracy around it, and the battle with a rival AI. It’s tremendous fun.

Normally, I’d suggest skipping ahead so you could jump to the fun stuff, but I already tried that myself. As the show was airing, people in my timeline were praising the second season so I tried to jump in at the third. It didn’t work. PoI trades on the relationships between the characters formed over the previous two seasons, and without that background, it’s hard to care. If you’re tempted to watch this, don’t skip ahead.

I know that sounds like weak praise. “It gets good after [X] episodes” is the death song of many a Netflix show. But the early episodes are very good. The later seasons are fantastic. 

I just wrote way more about this show than I intended.

On Netflix until 9/22. If you’ve never seen it, it’ll take a mighty binge to finish it before then. Me, I have the last four episodes set aside for tonight. 

Before that: The Legend of Korra

I originally let this show pass by because I heard good and bad things about it. Fans liked/hated the main character. They hated that Aang, as a grownup, made mistakes and was not the greatest father in the world/or they were comfortable with that level of fallibility. They loved/hated the pseudo-steampunk setting. They loved/hated the way the show expanded the magic and world-building. So I wasn’t in any rush to watch this.

Honestly, I don’t understand what people are complaining about. I thought it was genius, and I’m currently re-watching it with my wife (one episode a day, as I mentioned above).

It’s gorgeous. It’s funny. The fight scenes are inventive, which is no small feat over so many episodes. Korra herself is flawed in the best way, making the show inherently more complicated and interesting than the original (even if it isn’t as charming). I loved it. 

Of course, the ending of the series is famous now. I knew the final scene where Korra and Asami head off to start their lives together as a couple was coming, but I didn’t know what to expect. When I saw it, all I could think was, “That was it?” Considering the attention that ending got, overwhelmingly but not exclusively positive, I thought for sure there’d be a kiss or something. Maybe just the two characters leaning toward each other, fade to black before their lips touch. 

Nope. This is the level of representation that LGBQ fans had to be satisfied with back in 2014. Just six years ago, it was considered brave and groundbreaking. 

I probably should have watched this before I watched She-Ra. 

Coming up next time: Burn Notice and Veronica Mars

Also, One Man is currently the Kindle Monthly Deal. If you read ebooks and think you’d enjoy a high fantasy crime thriller, check it out. 

Quarantined

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Like a lot of people, I’m spending more time than usual inside my home. What’s extra weird is that my wife’s workplace has shut its doors until the end of the month so she is stuck here, too. Me, I like being at home. She’s currently on day two and is already a bit stir crazy.

But there are only so many evenings you can while away with board games. To that end, a self-quarantine is an excellent time to binge the TV shows you meant to watch but never got around to. And for this list, I’m only naming shows that cost only the price of a subscription. Lots of us are struggling to find work at the moment, after all.

I have suggestions:

Amazon Prime:
This isn’t the first streaming service I think of when I fire up the TV, but for quality shows of the (recent) past, it has some serious heavy hitters, such as

The Wire
The Sopranos
The Americans
Deadwood
Orphan Black

Not all their offerings are so critically acclaimed, though. Space: 1999 is a seventies cheese fest and a lot of fun. Dead Like Me captures that disaffected 90’s slacker style that is overdue for a come back. And Eerie, Indiana is pure and adorable in its low-budget earnestness. Concentrated comfort food.

Netflix:

Netflix doesn’t lean as heavily on the critical acclaim, but they have some solid gems, like

Original Twilight Zone
Mad Men
Monty Python
Twin Peaks

When people want to know if I prefer Star Trek or Star Wars, I tell them Person of Interest. The first season is fun but not promising. By the midpoint of season three, we were shouting at the screen. Also, all the Star Treks are here, too. For lighter fare, they have Pee Wee’s Playhouse, which is anarchic fun (and also my wife worked on the NYC set, building several of the props, including Conky the Robot and Chairy, which is why I have a soft spot for this weird show). If you’re feeling stir crazy, Ash vs the Evil Dead is bloody and hilarious and over the top. If you need to be soothed, Father Brown is concentrated gentility.

Hulu

If Amazon Prime is home to Big Prestige TV About Terrible Dudes, Hulu offers a wider variety of stories with a wider variety of leads.

Killing Eve
Veronica Mars
Atlanta

They also have Legion, which is BPTATD, but has a non-naturalistic flair that I thought was fascinating, even when it didn’t totally work. Also, I know lots of folks binge Law & Order as a sort of comfort view, but that’s not streaming anywhere at the moment. However, Hulu has Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Finally, if you need something gentler, you can find Steven Universe here.

Disney Plus

Then you have this channel, where you can find… all the Star Wars cartoons? Agent Carter is lots of fun, but they never really let that terrific lead character shine. And… what? The 90’s X-Men cartoon? Gargoyles? If I’d written this post about movies, D+ would have more to offer.

Anyway, I’d originally planned to only list shows that had finished their run, but then I saw Killing Eve and that went out the window. Personally, I’d love to binge a few of these myself, but my wife hates to binge shows, so I’ll have to enjoy them vicariously through you guys.

One a personal note: We’re self-quarantined until the end of the month at least, and we’re taking the time for family and art-making time. One Man was released a few months ago, so we’re expecting that money to come in at the end of the month. So, yeah, this is going to hurt long term, but in the short term we ought to be okay.

But the economy is going to take a big hit. It might be time to rethink your Patreon and Kickstarter pledges. I appreciate the support I get through Patreon, for example, but I want everyone facing hardships of their own to cancel their pledges before they come due at the end of the month.

Take care of yourselves and take care of each other.

Stop Killing the Redeemed Bad Boys: Veronica Mars and The Rise of Skywalker

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Spoilers for Star Wars and of Veronica Mars. FYI.

Before we get into the meat of this post, I want to point out that, four years ago, I made this awful prediction:

Along with a few ten thousand other people, but the important thing to point out is that this was supposed to be a joke. Seriously, I thought making Rey a Palpatine was a ridiculous idea, and it turned out that I was right.

But there’s no idea so ridiculous that someone won’t rub their chin and go “hmm”. Sometimes, on Twitter, there will be huge hashtag pitch sessions where people will tweet out a log line for their screenplays, and I used to make up ludicrous story ideas for it. No matter how outlandish, there was always someone interested in something I made up.

Terrible ideas! They’re everywhere!

Let’s seque back to the new season of Veronica Mars, on Hulu. Personally, I enjoyed it, but many die-hard fans were furious at the way they killed off Logan, Veronica’s true love.

After three full seasons, the show felt unfinished. With the Kickstarter-funded movie, Rob Thomas brought things around to an ending the fans could get behind. Veronica was a PI again. Logan had his shit together. They re-started their romance as adults. Boom. Ending. They even left things open for those awful novels.

But once Hulu came knocking for S4, Thomas didn’t know what to do with Logan. He has this idea that a romantic relationship had to be about the conflict. What would they do with Logan now that his issues with Veronica were resolved? He said he didn’t want to include Logan in the mystery of the season–nevermind that he did exactly that for S4 and it worked out fine. Nevermind that Veronica has plenty of other low-conflict relationships with people she loves. Thomas wanted her to be free for upcoming seasons, which meant Logan had to go.

And when he went, the fans went too, and they weren’t quiet about it. They were furious, vowing that they were never going to watch again.

The fallout? No Current Plans for Season Five at Hulu

There was similar fan interest for sexy villain Kylo Ren/Ben Solo to be redeemed during TRoS and have the romantic relationship with Rey that almost came about in The Last Jedi.

Personally, I thought TLJ settled that plot point. They had an opening for romance. Each thought they were going to turn the other to their way of thinking. They were wrong. Ben Solo chose to be Kylo Ren, and he was not going to give up his giant fascist army. He even declared himself Supreme Leader. Kylo Ren was established as the villain.

But the fans wanted Kylo and Rey to come together, which meant Kylo had to turn into a good guy, which meant they needed a new villain for the third act, which meant they brought brought Palpatine, which is why they decided to connect him to Rey by blood and undo the very best scene of The Last Jedi (“You’re nothing… but not to me.”)

But after fighting on Rey’s side and saving her life, Kylo gets a single kiss from Rey. and then he dies.

The replies to that tweet are a catalog of misery. Fans wanted the poor, abused, handsome young guy to be redeemed and have a happy life. Preferably with Rey. They didn’t get that.

Now, I’m not sure I’ve ever shipped a pair of characters, ever. Not Sam and Diane. Not David and Maddie. It just doesn’t occur to me. But lots of fans engage with shows this way, and they do not endure disappointment quietly. And there’s something–don’t ask me what–about that reformed evil boyfriend trope. People find it wildly compelling. (And yes, a small percentage can be over-the-top about their favorite ships. I’m not interested in using outliers to represent a group as a whole.) There’s nothing wrong with that, but any really vocal segment of an audience can have an outsized effect on the future of a show.

And this new Star Wars movie is making lots of money, but reviews have been dire. The movie is pretty, it’s fast, and it’s filled with peril, but the story is a disaster, and the even the lead actors just seem done with the whole thing.

Remember the energy and excitement in The Force Awakens? Remember Rey and Finn together? How much energy they had?

Well, all that is gone, and they couldn’t even redeem their sensitive bad boy correctly. The ReyLos and the LoVes are not happy.

Mysteries, Ghosts, and Doubled Narratives: Why the New Nancy Drew Series Doesn’t Work

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Every whodunnit mystery has two narratives. The first is the crime at the center of the story. How the murder was planned and carried out. The history between killer and victim. The red herring clues that point to innocent parties, and the backstory that makes those parties credible suspects. And so on. All of that comprises a complex narrative that, at the beginning of the book, is hidden from the reader and the protagonist.

The second narrative is the one the reader reads, in which the protagonist investigates and uncovers the first narrative.

Many ghost stories have a similar structure. There’s a hidden narrative of a terrible crime or crimes that created the ghost(s) and the specific details of the haunting itself. The story of the people who experience the haunting often depends on the revelation of that hidden crime for its resolution.

You might think that similarity in the two structures would mean they’d combine well, but the new CW series NANCY DREW shows how difficult that can be.

A lot of folks think that the main pleasure of a whodunnit (or any kind of mystery, really) is that things are be set right at the end. Something awful happens. Someone uncovers the culprit. They’re arrested or killed. Order is restored.

I dunno. I’ve never experienced them that way. For me, the main pleasures of a mystery are the characters, because you need a lot of contrast to tell all those suspects apart, and the hard work.

Me, I wasn’t much of a Nancy Drew fan until after VERONICA MARS showed me that the whole teen detective thing could have real bite to it. Then Emma Roberts appeared in the 2007 NANCY DREW, and I thought that movie was delightful. Much lighter than VM, but it still portrayed the protagonist as intelligent and hard-working, someone who kept digging for clues long after I would have given up.

But ghosts take all that away. Characters don’t have to act on their own initiative because they are terrorized by the supernatural elements of the story to take action. Ghosts push them toward clues. Visions of the past reveal the hidden narrative.

In other words, what would be revealed through the brilliance and diligence of the main character in a whodunnit is now forced upon them.

For example, in the most recent episode, a ghost keeps breaking screens in Nancy’s house. Only after the third one, on her laptop, does Nancy realize they’re all breaking in the same pattern. Nancy, being brilliant, recognizes her small town in the edges of the pattern, calls up Google Maps, and realizes the breaks are pointing toward a specific place: her high school.

Cut to a scene where she’s breaking into the school, complete with black knit cap and flashlight. A ghostly glow directs her to the trophy case/memorial/(?) where she finds a photo tucked away that proves another character lied to her in Act 2 of the episode.

So, sure, it’s smart to recognize the pattern and it shows initiative to break out the lock picks (by my count, Nancy has done a B&E in three out of four episodes this season and she really ought to be better at it) but it still feels like the mystery is being handed to her. Check out the school. Look in the case. In the first episode, a medium tells her to look in the attic, where she finds a bloody dress locked away in a trunk. It’s just another example of “Go here. Find clue.”

Not only is this sort of plot easier on the main character, it’s easier for the show’s writers. You don’t have to brainstorm a reason for Nancy to hunt for that photo at the school. You just have to brainstorm a way for the ghost to point the way in a spoooooky manner.

See also, the movie ODD THOMAS, which is a reasonably effective thriller as long as you don’t think too hard about the way Odd’s magic powers lead him by the nose from one plot point to the next.

See also, redux, this quote: (Source)

The Force is really The Plot

I don’t object to the way the Force is used in STAR WARS any more than I object to Eleven’s powers in STRANGER THINGS. It keeps things moving and doesn’t take away from the story. But then, the heroes in those stories aren’t detectives. I’m not watching because I’m hoping to see brilliance.

Honestly, I think I’d like NANCY DREW a lot more if the main character wasn’t named Nancy Drew. I wouldn’t have come to it hoping to see a bright, energetic young person doing the work that the older generations couldn’t.

The ghosts are fun, though. Maybe in the back half of this first season or in season two, they’ll have ghosts who mislead or interfere rather than help. I hope so.

If you’ve read this far down, you should hear a few facts: Progress on THE IRON GATE continues, although not as quickly as I’d have hoped. In fact, I was all set to take part in NaNoWriMo this year for the first time ever, but then I took a close look at the actual numbers and chickened out. Still, even if I’m digging a ditch with a shovel instead of a backhoe, that ditch is going to get dug.

ONE MAN continues to be delayed. Maybe I should set a definite release date to stop myself from fussing with this and that and just releasing it.

Some Quick Reviews of S3 Stranger Things, S3 Jessica Jones, and other stuff I guess

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I’ve been meaning to do this for a while so I’m just going to throw these out there:

Stranger Things Season 3

I’ve been a vocal fan of this show (Not as strong a fan as *some*, because I don’t want to be scary, but still) since I first watched it, but season three started off very badly. Characters I’d liked and who should have grown together were now snickering and making fun of each other. Hopper had become a complete mess. He’d gone from real life hero to obnoxious buffoon.

It took me a while to realize what they were doing. Season three had become an homage to romcoms, so we get clips of Sam and Diane, and we get endless bickering between characters who are attracted to each other but can’t admit it. And a show so used to leaning on homages ought to understand that homages of old jokes is just recycling an old joke. It’s not actually funny.

So yeah, that part wasn’t fun.

Everything else about the show? Loved it.

As the kids are getting older, the horror is getting scarier, more action-oriented, and gorier, too. And being Stranger Things, they nail it.

So, yeah. Not my favorite season, except for the parts that very much are.

Jessica Jones Season 3

One of the least interesting story lines a superhero show can tell is the “What does it mean to be a hero?” thing. Usually, it involves getting up off the ground after a round of grueling physical punishment.

I’m looking at you, Spider-Man, into the Spider-verse.

Of course, in superhero stories, the consequences of most fights are to make people feel a lot of pain, and also to make them incredibly tired. That’s why it’s such a struggle to get off the ground. To prove themselves to be heroes, protagonists need to stand up despite the pain and punch-induced exhaustion to return immediately to their pre-fight levels of physical capability, and finally make the bad guy super tired. Through punching.

Jessica Jones (the show, I mean, although the character, too) flips this on its head. When this show asks the question “What does it mean to be a hero?” they don’t mean putting on a mask and beating up “bad people.” It means finding evidence, getting confessions, capturing the criminal, and turning them over to the courts.

Based on her performance in this show, Rachel Taylor really ought to be getting a lot of high profile stuff. If you were annoyed by the way the writers portrayed Queen Whatshername’s descent into murder and darkness, check out the long, slow, tragic journey that Trish Walker makes from Beloved Celebrity Who Pulled Her Live Together into a Villain Who Thinks She’s Doing Right. Trish is all the worst instincts of the superhero genre, and because it all comes from her, and from the depths of her character, it never feels like a cheap commentary.

What I’m saying is, the last season of Jessica Jones might not have been the MCU/Netflix signoff/victory lap/low-budget Endgame remix that people expected, but it’s excellent in its own right.

C.B. Strike Series 1-3

I liked the books (I like private eye novels) and I liked the shows. Things are shortened and simplified, obviously, but these are solid PI stories.

What puts them above (and warrants mention here) is Robin’s subplot throughout. She has always wanted to be an investigator of some kind, and has everything stacked against her. But she is determined.

And I loved it. Everyone who has ever worked really hard for a dream that seemed unreachable ought to feel that pull. It’s a small part of the series, but it’s what put that show over the top.

Tolkien

Two terrific scenes, a bunch of great performances, and an otherwise dull movie.

Doctor Who Season 11

I’d given up on this show years ago, but thought I’d give it another shot with a new show runner and actress in the lead role. Verdict: I liked it. Very little frantic nonsense, a fair amount of actual drama and tension. We’ll be watching more of this.

Us

Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Wow. Loved it. I guessed the twist pretty early, but I loved it.

The Boys Season 1

I didn’t like the comic so I was planning to skip the show, but enough people liked it that I gave it a chance, and I’m glad I did. Like the comic, it was dark but not in a childish way. The characters felt real, and so did their problems. If you don’t mind stories about violence, murder, and sexual assault, The Boys was effective.

Hannah Season 1

Based on the movie, which was decidedly more ruthless and brutal than the show. It’s one of the rare spy shows where the characters did things that were better than what I’d expected. Solid stuff.

Boom.

Done.

The Kickstarter campaign for additional Twenty Palaces novels is still ongoing, but it ends Friday. You have until then to secure two books for a minimum of $4.

New and Definitive Listing of MCU Films (w/ commentary) Don’t @ Me

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With Avengers: Endgame dropping this week, I decided to finally finish this post. Don’t bother trying to argue with me, because I’m 100% correct on all of this. Rotten Tomatoes scores added so you can see how wrong everyone else is.

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (RT: 90%) Still the best of the MCU, with terrific villains, interesting locations, and a plot you give a shit about. Steve Rogers is a man who isn’t sure if he should continue to serve, and discovers that he should be giving orders, not taking them. Plus, the strongest parts of these movies are the relationships between the heroes and the people they love. Excellent movie.

2. The Avengers (RT: 92%) A strong contender for the first spot, with only a couple of glaring flaws holding it back. “I’m always angry” feels like a placeholder line in a moment that needs something stronger, and I suspect Whedon et al underestimated just how much of a sex symbol Tom Hiddleston’s Loki had become. In other words, no one wanted to hear him say “mewling quim.” But the characters bounce off each other and to keep things interesting, and the action scenes (all but two involving Avenger v Avenger conflict) are top notch. Love it.

3. Thor: Ragnarok (RT: 92%) This one is a real surprise, because I would not have expected to place a Thor movie so high on this list. But T:R tears down everything that defined the Thor movies up to now and replaces them with color, humor, production design, and a new way forward for Loki and Thor. So much fun.

4. The Black Panther (RT: 97%) This movie is pretty much tied with the one above, slipping into fourth only because so many of the interesting bits went to the villain and T’Challa was stuck doing the traditional first-MCU dance with an enemy who had his same powers (but was stronger) and daddy issues. Also, both T:R and TBP had ritual combat, but only the fights in Thor made any sense. I refuse to believe that such an advanced society would choose a leader via MMA bout. I know, it’s just a movie, but every moment that I have to forgive is one that disappoints me a little. Still, rhino cavalry! So much joy in this movie. I really did love it.

5. Doctor Strange (RT: 89%) Did I mention villains with the same powers as the hero, but stronger? Well, in a constrained setting like this one, a choice like that becomes invisible. I know people were annoyed by the white-washing of The Ancient One, but it was that or risk losing $110mil from the Chinese market for having a Tibetan character. While the humor on this one fell a little flat, no other MCU film comes close to matching its spectacle, and the journey Stephen Strange takes from arrogant jerk to “It’s not about you” is probably the most meaningful one in the whole series of films. Still, lets see some ranged attacks in the sequel.

6. Spider-man: Homecoming (RT: 92%) Every time I look at how high this places in my list, I think it’s too high. Then I look for something below that I’d rank above it and come up with nothing. It’s funny. S-m:H has become sort of a litmus test for me as I search out a film discussion to take the place of Every Frame a Painting. So many self-proclaimed savvy film theorists turn their attention to the MCU and pick out this film as an example of movies where the main character doesn’t change or grow. Baffling, but I’ve seen it three or four times now from people who ought to be good at this. Anyway, great performances, excellent villain, and the most engaging film version of Peter Parker since… ever.

7. Iron Man (RT: 93%) It’s easy to blah blah about what a massive deal this first film was, the huge effect it had, and the massive risk it represented for pre-Disney Marvel. What can’t be denied is that the first two acts are impeccable. The structure, the performances, everything. If the ending, where Marvel established it’s “Like the hero, but stronger” format, feels a little soft, its all forgiven when Tony Stark blows off the idea of a secret identity. And then Nick Fury? Loved it.

8. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (RT: 84%) The MCU seems to be a playground for jocks with impeccable comic timing. Dave Bautista is the heart of this weird-ass movie, and I’m ready for a Drax trilogy. Maybe it’s time for Peter Quill to grow the fuck up, so GotG3 can score a higher spot on the list. Also, the ending feels a little long. It’s not, probably, but it feels that way. For the future, more Drax and Mantis, less Quill.

9. Iron Man 3 (RT: 79%) The first of these films to score below 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, and while I’ve heard plenty of complaints about this movie, I am there for it. Tony flew a nuke through a wormhole to save the Earth, and now he’s fucked up with anxiety. This is pretty much exactly what I wanted from a superhero movie and I didn’t even know it until I sat down in the theater. Stark gets to be extremely Tony Stark throughout, and the movie makes the wise choice to take away his armor for a big part of the second act. This, maybe, if the first of the movies listed that has a genuinely weak villain, but maybe if they’d stuck with Rebecca Hall instead of switching to Guy Pearce (for “merchandising”) I wouldn’t have had to type all that out.

10. Captain America: Civil War (RT: 91%) I wasn’t terribly keen on the Civil War storyline in the comics, but making it a Captain America movie meant making it about Bucky, and that centers this big, over-stuffed film on that unbreakable friendship between them. As for the central question of the film: In the real world, Tony was right. In the world of the film, Steve was right. Cap didn’t want to sign the accords for two reasons: what if they send the Avengers someplace they shouldn’t go, and what if there’s a problem they need to address but can’t get permission to go. The government that Cap is supposed to be signing on with does both of those things. They send a kill team to assassinate Bucky, who’s been framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and they refuse to let Cap go to Siberia. Thanks, movie, for arranging things so our hero gets to be right.

11. Avengers: Infinity War (RT: 85%) This is another one of those movies that make me think “Eleventh? Surely it should be higher than that” but nope, nothing above feels worthy of being swapped out. I’m not sure why they pulled that whole bit with Hulk losing a fight to Thanos and then hiding away for the rest of the movie (unless they wanted him to keep him from tearing apart the Children of Thanos like cardboard cutouts). I’m also not sure why they wrote Doctor Strange’s dialog the way they did. He’s a neurosurgeon, not a Gandalf from another dimension. “What master do you serve?” sounds bad and is bad. Still, this film did the best job yet of juggling that huge cast of characters, and I’m 100% ready for WandaVision, or whatever they’re calling it.

12. Captain America: The First Avenger (RT: 80%) This is probably the first movie where the main character doesn’t really have a personal journey. He goes from the weakling who wants to do right to the hero who actually can. It’s a solid movie and I just rewatched and enjoyed it a couple weeks back, but without Chris Evans this thing would have gone nowhere.

13. Captain Marvel (RT: 78%) Once again, this seems like a low ranking for a movie I saw in the theater three times (and would have gone a fourth with my niece if family obligations hadn’t interfered). All the Carol and Fury stuff is great, and while I’ve talked already about some of the character moments, it’s also a bummer that Hala and the inside of the Skrull ship look basically like 20 year old TV scifi. Compare the alien tech in this with Thor: Ragnarok and the production design on CM looks like a placeholder that no one swapped out. And then you get to that third act, which is just all-out superhero fun. That first shot of Carol flying gave me goosebumps. Three times. I’m convinced this picture was a billion-dollar earner because, in part, of that bravura ending.

14. Guardians of the Galaxy (RT: 91%) Remember when this was new in theaters and people were talking about it as a herald for the death of grimdark? The movie that opens with a little boy watching his mother die of cancer, then a space man dancing through the ruins of a civilization, kicking the local fauna? I think folks missed that all the humor in this movie was masking a lot of pain, and this wasn’t the bright and upbeat jaunt they’d originally thought. But there was also the space net of space ships, which is not what you’d call the best idea ever, and “Even this green whore—” which was not a winning move. A fun movie on first viewing, I don’t think it really holds up.

15. Ant-Man and the Wasp (RT: 88%) This movie is fine. It’s enjoyable. It hits the right beats, nabs an imaginative sequence from Dave Made A Maze, introduces Black Goliath, gets plenty of genuine belly laughs, and gives fans the Wasp they’ve been waiting for. But it’s time for Walton Goggins to play other characters, because he’s not carrying the “Head Baddie” mantle the way he should. Somebody cast him as the con artist with the heart of gold that we all want him to be, and put someone scary into the roles he’s been getting. Anyway, A-mATW has solid performances, trippy cgi nano-realms, funny jokes, and a solid structure. But I don’t love it and no one can make me love it.

16: Thor (RT: 77%) If you were put a bunch of these movie titles in a list and show them to me in 2007, I would have guessed this one to land at the very bottom. It doesn’t, solely on the strength of the relationship between Thor and Loki. Thor’s love for his brother keeps this thing afloat, even in the face of the Warriors Three and the Odinsleep. Frankly, it was a stroke of genius to establish Mjolnir’s rules about being worthy by having the lead character declared unworthy, then earn it. But it was such a weird movie, and only that brotherly relationship made it work.

17. Ant-Man (RT: 82%) This film is haunted by the Edgar Wright picture it could have been. It’s also haunted by the specter of The Wasp, who should have been part of the plot from the beginning. Honestly, a super-hero heist movie is a no-brainer and ought to be a massive win, but this movie felt like a jumble of fun ideas and weak ones.

18. Avengers: Age of Ultron (RT: 75%) Someone online described Spader’s Ultron voice as a retiree who took a part time job at Home Depot, and yeah, it just doesn’t work. Ultron is one of the scariest of the Avengers’ villains, but this version of him never comes together or feels real. One thing I will say, though, is that it’s funny to remember all the criticisms of this film that said it was overfull with superheroes. Later movies were more crowded, but they made it work. I also question the choice to make Stark the guilty party here. He’s investigating the space spear. It jumps into his computer. Why does that have to be his fault.

19. Iron Man 2 (RT: 73%) The first Iron Man was so wonderful and this was such an amazing misfire. I liked Sam Rockwell quite a bit but they forgot to give Mickey O’Rourke’s character a personality beyond Pissed-Off Guy. And the villains vanish for the middle 45 minutes of the film. Not recommended.

20. Thor: The Dark World (RT: 67%) Oh, look, it’s the movie that drove Natalie Portman out of the MCU. Odin, who spends the whole first movie advocating peace turns into a raging war monger. And the villains, who have great character design, turn out of lack every other aspect of character. Like personalities and motivations. They still hadn’t realized that Chris Hemsworth has excellent comic timing, and this alien invasion of an alien world is ponderous when it could be a sword and planet romp.

21. The Incredible Hulk (RT: 67%) Nobody knows how to make a Hulk movie. He’s a gothic monster. Everyone hates him, including himself, and that loathing sometimes makes him lash out, but he’s good at heart. This film played up his first appearance as though he was a monster, moving in the dark, stalking his victims. It’s the most effective part of the film. Unfortunately, it spins out farther and farther, losing momentum until the big (but unconvincing) fight against “Like The Hulk But Stronger” Abomination in Harlem. Too bad. There’s a gothic monster storyline for the Hulk that could make a gangbusters film

I’ll be seeing Avengers: Endgame this weekend, and I’m curious to see where it will slot in.

For Every Failure, an Opportunity

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If you’re backing my Patreon, you may have noticed that it has been switched back on. That is, it’s back to a monthly basis, charging credit cards at the start of every month. I’d turned it “off” because I’d started a new job. As of this week I’m no longer working there, so it’s on again.

I’ve never been fired for being bad at a job before, but you know what? It was the right thing for them to do. I absolutely should have been let go. And I’m glad for it.

In previous posts I was a little cagey about where I’d been hired because it was a six-month contract at a game company, and I was sure how it would go. I’ll say now that it was the Valve Corporation over in Bellevue. I’ll also say that they asked me not to talk about the games I worked on/heard about/whatever outside of their offices, even to my own family. I haven’t done that and I won’t start now.

How it happened was this: Gabe, the founder of the company, liked my books and invited me to lunch. This was back in, I think, 2012? 2013? Several months before my Kickstarter for The Great Way, at least. I’d heard of Valve’s games but hadn’t played any, and I honestly thought he was going to ask if I would write a novel for the company. But lunch wasn’t just me and Gabe, we were joined by a bunch of writers already working for the company, and I was all What am I doing here? Nobody needs me to write a novel when they already have Marc Laidlaw sitting right there.

It turned out the offer was to work at the company on the actual games, which I had to decline. I didn’t play many video games because a) they were often asking me to do shit that was illegal and immoral, which I hate and b) too many games were boring, making me quit early, and most of all c) if I did like them, I could be obsessive about it. I mean, Freedom Force and its sequel were scads of fun, but playing them, I spent hours with my back to the living room, and every other aspect of my life suffered. I’m not exactly Mr. Moderation. My wife was especially unhappy to be ignored evening after evening while I shot pretend ray guns at cartoon people.

After that lunch meeting, I started playing (and enjoying) games a lot more, and Valve was a big reason for that. I love the Portal and Half-Life games–like, genuinely loved playing them–because they didn’t ask me to run errands, murder innocent people or navigate lots of high places without railings (seriously the worst). As my son got older, he started recommending games that suited me better, and so I felt I understood them a little better. I never became good, but they made sense in a conceptual way

Then we came to the end of 2018. I’d taken a big gamble after The Great Way and Key/Egg came out. I put two years into a fat fantasy with a cool setting, a plot that was a little out of the ordinary, and badass characters. The plan was simple. Write a book that stands out, place it with NY publishers, and let the backlist bump spill some extra coins into our savings accounts.

Except it didn’t work. Publishers passed. The book was too different, or too something, and there was no new contract and therefore no bump.

At that point, we’d been living off the money from The Great Way for too long and our savings was getting low (not to mention rent increases and a possible eviction in the coming months), so my wife asked me to find a day job, and I thought about Valve, and I reached out. Did, maybe, I have something to contribute there?

Nope! But I didn’t know that at the time.

Gabe and his people were nice enough to give me a chance though, working on a multiplayer team-fighting game that was in the very early stages. I was to do worldbuilding for them.

Which meant: Where and Why.

Where are they fighting?

Why are they fighting?

Those were the two questions I was supposed to answer, and over the course of two months, I couldn’t make a suggestion that both matched the criteria they’d given me and also made the rest of the team excited. Two full months! Of course they let me go.

As a writer, I’ve had my share of one-star reviews. And you don’t grow up in a family like mine and get all tender-hearted about what people think of you. But when you’re sitting in a meeting, and everyone looks miserable because of you–because of the mouth-sounds you’re making–well, that suuuuucks.

You guys should have seen some of the body language in the room for that last meeting. Picture, if you will, a person sitting on a bench at a bus stop at night. They’ve forgotten their jacket, and it’s sleeting. That’s exactly some of those guys were sitting: hunched over, head down, waiting for all this to just be over.

And that was my fault.

See, it doesn’t matter if it’s a great company, or that the money was good, or that there was a free salad bar at lunch every day with chick peas you could scoop right into the bowl (seriously, so fucking delicious). None of that shit matters if the work itself is a waste of time to everyone on the team, including the person doing it. That’s demoralizing as hell.

Me, personally, I think the setting I created for that last meeting would be a home run in all sorts of media–books, animation, whatever–but not in computer games and certainly not in the game they’re working so hard to create. It just didn’t fit. And at this point, I don’t care where my proposals came up short or if they went too far or what was actually wrong. All that matters is that it wasn’t successful, and Valve owns it, and I hope they can cherry-pick a few things out of it that they find useful. And if they can’t, sorry, guys.

Where does that leave me? Not unemployed, exactly, since I’m working for myself again.

Those two months helped refill our bank accounts a little, and I have three completed, unreleased novel manuscripts. One is that big gamble. Another is a mystery/thriller with no supernatural elements. Another is the fun fantasy adventure that needs a little bit more tweaking before my agent takes it to NY publishers.

I’m composing this during the time I’m supposed to be writing a novelette for an anthology I’ve been invited to, but I put that off because I feel like I owe you guys an update on where things stand, fiction-wise. I’ve spent the last two months squeezing my own projects into the hour before I went into the office, but now that I’m back on my own time, things will go faster.

My fun fantasy will go out to publishers (“Funpunk”! You heard it here first, folks). My big gamble book and the thriller will be self-published. Kickstarter maybe? We’ll have to see. I also have to write the next Twenty Palaces novella. And at some point soon, we’ll look again at our bank accounts and maybe I’ll grab another day job.

So I wanted you to know that, even though I haven’t published a new novel since 2015(!) I haven’t stopped writing. I haven’t stopped working hard. There’s new stuff on the horizon and, you know, maybe I won’t try those big gambles again.

Thanks for reading.

AQUAMAN

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I bought a ticket to AQUAMAN. Deliberately.

If I’m speaking honestly, Aquaman might be the second superhero I ever really liked as a kid. (after ’67 Spider-man, obviously). This was before I was reading comics, and my sole exposure to the genre was cartoons. I had to look up the name of the show–The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure–but he was my favorite character, with the rings coming out of the bridge of his nose and water blasts/balls/whatever that he threw.

Then came Superfriends and, yeah, lets just drop the whole thing there. Even as a dumb kid I knew Superfriends wasn’t going to fly. I didn’t find a version I liked again until the New 52, which made him just about the only character from that particular reboot that I thought was well served.

Anyway, I almost skipped the film because of that anecdote about Jason Momoa tearing out the end of bookworm Amber Heard’s book because she wasn’t paying attention to him. More here: although it sounds as if he only did it once and she actually likes the dude, annoying prank notwithstanding.

The movie is gorgeous, and dumb, and utterly predictable. There’s a three-stage plot coupon/fetch the macguffin story, with Our Hero as the dumb guy who inexplicably wins over his mentor/super-hot love interest through his ability to… I dunno… withstand a bunch of blows to the head?

Which is a little unfair, because they give Aquaman a bunch of nice heroic moments. Then there’s this:

Character in movie: Atlantis needs something more than a king.

Me, in theater: A democracy.

Character in movie: It needs a hero.

But whatever. the whole pick-your-autocrat-through-trial-by-combat was as stupid in BLACK PANTHER as it is here, but it’s fun to watch. And for once, Ocean Master doesn’t come across as a dink.

Plus, Amber Heard in her fluorescent jelly fish dress, and the drumming octopus. And jousting from the back of a sea horse. And and and. The film is dumb and beautiful and eager to please. Buy some popcorn and have a few laughs, but try not to think about Amber Heard’s book.