television

Zombieland

Yeah, it's allergy season--even with the shots, these past few days have been pretty rough. I'm going to go drool in front of the television.

I feel like I should attempt to edit the fantasy novel at least, but not today. Today I'll be lucky if I can follow the plot of Teen Wolf. (Which is not a bad show, by the way. I tried watching Girls but my God, does the main character become just a total Mary Sue in the second season. I felt like I was watching Garth Marenghi's Darkplace.)

At least it's supposed to rain tomorrow--that's helpful.

Some things resolve nicely, others do not

As you can tell, writing has had to go on the back burner again--just a bunch of stuff going kaflooey all at once. The good news is that I have my car again, and it seems to be fine! The bad news is that spring is going to be really busy, so it may be a while before I can finish off the YA novel and start in again on Trials.

Anyway, I've been watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Netflix. (I tried watching it when it was broadcast, but I just couldn't swing it--I've gotten really spoiled. And it was so much better on Netflix.) I finished the first season, and it reminded me of something that I've always really appreciated about Joss Whedon: HE ACTUALLY FINISHES HIS STORIES.

I mean, I'm going to try to not be spoilerly here, but there's this big plot arc and a lot of character arcs and a supervillain, and by the end of the first season, it's all wrapped up. It's done. Sure, they've set up the next season, but it's pretty much just, "Now that this is over, you'll have to go do the next big thing!" not some huge mass of quasi-nonsensical cliffhangers.

I've obviously been having a lot of frustrating story experiences lately because that struck me as damned near a miracle.

I know Whedon's attitude has always been to wrap up each season individually, because you never know when you might get canceled (you can tell he grew up in a television-industry family). It's just so nice to see--so nice to get a proper resolution for once. And honestly, it's a major reason why I seek out his stuff--I trust him to actually end things in a satisfying way. I don't make the same effort for the gazillion writers who try to jerk me around with cliffhanger after cliffhanger after cliffhanger.

Longmired

This has also been a tough week for writing--lot of family crapola. Hopefully things will improve sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, I've been watching the television series Longmire, which I started after reading this article on how it was canceled despite good ratings. (An interesting case of the network's business model not being aligned with ratings per se: Advertisers think the audience skews too old, while the network doesn't own the program and won't get any revenue from streaming or DVDs. ETA: Netflix has decided to ressurect the show.)

It's a very good show. I'm almost through the second season, though, and one decision they made really bothers me.

This is going to get VERY spoilery, so be warned. Again, the show is excellent, so you very well might want to stop reading this and go watch it first.

If you're still reading: Longmire is the title character, and he is the sherrif of a rural county in Wyoming. His wife died the previous year, and he is still very tramautized.

You discover through a gradual series of reveals that he has especially good reason to be tramautized: His wife had cancer, but that's not what killed her--she was murdered while getting treatment in Denver. Longmire kept the fact of her murder a secret from everyone except a particularly close friend of his who owns a restaurant. Longmire traveled down to Denver, found out who his wife's killer was, and murdered him.

Now Longmire is desolate and remorseful--and no one other than the friend knows why, because he's still keeping everything a secret. He talks a lot about how he never realized the horrible things he was capable of, and he throws himself into high-risk suicide missions whenever he can.

Except that, in! a! shocking! twist! it turns out that Longmire didn't murder his wife's killer--his friend did.

UUUUUUUGGGGGGHHHHHH.....

I don't know if this was just a twist-too-far decision or a preserve-the-main-character's-purity one--or maybe the writers wanted Longmire to have yet ANOTHER secret, because he just didn't have enough already--but in any case, I don't like it.

Think about it: Before, Longmire was tortured because he did something very bad. Now's he's tortured because somebody else did something very bad--that's called being an emo drama queen, dude.

Before he was throwing himself into these high-risk suicide missions because he felt despair and remorse. Now he's doing it . . . I guess because of his frustrated homicidal rage, right? That makes me kind of worried for the residents of his county, to be honest.

And before a lawman crossed a line and applied a harsh and inappropriate form of justice because his beloved wife was murdered. Now a guy who serves burgers and mixed drinks committed murder to keep his buddy happy. (Hmm. A lot of homicidal people in this county, apparently.)

I hate it when the integrity of a character (or two) is destroyed because someone just had to tack on another twist. You have to have these things make sense. If it's going to turn out that a person didn't do what everyone thinks they did, then they need behave from the beginning like someone who didn't. Otherwise it's just cheap.

Wow, that got bad quick

(So, yeah, HOUSE has eaten all my time, plus I've been really sick. But at this point, the hazard-abatement stuff is pretty much done, plus I found a general contractor to deal with the flooring/painting/renovating stuff, so there's less of a burden on me to schlep out there every day at the crack of dawn to meet various workers. And I'm starting to feel better, although still tired. So I may get writing again fairly soon. ETA: Yeah, that's not going to happen--as more stuff gets done on the house, more decisions and preparations have to be made for the next steps. Sorry.)

I've mentioned that I like the show Sherlock. My sister really likes it, so she recorded the third season when it aired, and I've been watching it at her house.

And man, was it bad! Like, yelling-at-the-television bad.

It's always painful to watch a show go downhill, but the speed and efficiency with which Sherlock has taken the plunge has only been matched by a few shows (the first season of Enterprise springs, ever-unbidden, to mind).

The main problem as I see it is that Sherlock used to be a mystery show with engaging characters and the occasional vague conspiracy. Now it's a soap opera featuring vague conspiracies and a bunch of whiny dysfunctional characters who yammer on about their feelings and, every now and again, make reference to those mysteries they used to solve back when they did that sort of thing.

Mystery is a very logical genre. And unfortunately it felt like, in deciding to abandon the rigor of mystery, the Sherlock writers decided to abandon all other forms of rigor as well. Sometimes this lost rigor was logical (Why would North Korea want to blow up Parliament? Why would an evil genius reveal to his opponents the only way to stop his evil plans?), but one of the things that really stuck out to me was a bit of lost production rigor: The show stopped showing Sherlock's thought process.

That was one of the more-original and better-done things in the first two seasons of Sherlock. Sherlock would come across a crime scene and examine it. As he was doing so, little words (or sometimes images) would appear ("damp" maybe, or "clean clean clean dirty"). It usually wasn't enough for you to easily put the pieces together, but when Sherlock later did, you could see how he got where he was.

It was a neat trick, and it tied the television series to the original stories quite well, since Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes was always noticing these tiny details and making deductions from them. It also was something that clearly took a lot of work on the part of the writers, the production crew, and the actors--so of course it had to go!

In the third season, the visual element is divorced from Sherlock's thought process: He looks at stuff and words and images appear, but it's like a music video--looks cool, doesn't mean much. Then Sherlock just kind of magically knows things--unless it's more convenient for him to remain completely clueless, even in situations where he is paying close attention. The degeneration of the Sherlock character from puzzle-solver to convenience-clairvoyant reminds me quite a bit of what P.G. Wodehouse did to Jeeves.

In addition, what the third season made me realize was that I found the character of Sherlock engaging specifically because his thought process was entertaining. He was doing good and delighting me to boot, so I cared about the fact that he was a recovering addict and that he couldn't have sex and that he was deeply attached to Watson, even though he tended to treat Watson like crap. Take away the interesting bit of his character, and I'm left with the dysfunctional, soap-opera stuff--I MIGHT TAKE DRUGS! I DON'T HAVE SEX! DON'T GO WATSON, I NEED SOMEONE TO CRAP ON!--and no particular reason for me to care about it.

The telenovela thing, some more

I was just going to respond to Jim Self's comment here, but then the reply just got longer and longer, and I figured I might as well make another post out of it. We were talking about how, now that Netflix lets people watch television shows however they want, they seem to want to watch them pretty much the way you read a novel.

Jim wrote:

What I find interesting about this is that people are now consuming other kinds of media in the way they always read books. When you discover a new series of books and love the first one, you immediately go out and get the next, and next, and so on. Now we do it with TV shows.

You know, come to think of it, that doesn't just apply to TV shows themselves: If I really like a show, I'll look for other shows by the same author. Obviously that's been a thing with movies for a while (and certain television producers, like Norman Lear, have always had name recognition), but Netflix makes it so you can click on a name and get the person's other work, just like you can with Amazon or a library catalog. So I wonder if authorship is going to become more important in branding shows--it seems likely that it would, especially as television becomes less focused on mass-market ratings.

So, at least anecdotally, it seems that people prefer to consume lengthy stories all at once. That can cause people to put off a show they'd otherwise watch weekly, though. I keep meaning to continue Breaking Bad now that it's complete, but I never do.

Yeah, I feel the novel form has been around for some time now, and now that they can people are kind of molding television-watching into a video novel, so maybe the format just appeals to our psyches in a way that episodic media does not.

It's definitely a challenge to the industry. One thing I've noticed as I've shifted to Netflix is that, in the past, I might watch an episode of a show and not like it. And then a year or so later, assuming the show was still on, I'd check it out again, sometimes to find that it had improved considerably. Then I'd start watching it regularly.

With Netflix, though, there's no way--a bad first episode or a weak first few episodes, and I'm gone. If it takes a show a season or two to hit its stride, I'll never know, because not only am I not going to sit through all the bad episodes, I'm also not willing to skip the first 20-odd or 40-odd episodes to get to the good part--which is new. Before I didn't feel a need to start at the beginning and watch every single episode, but now, interestingly enough, I do.

So I think that as television shows are consumed more like novels, first episodes will become extremely important, the way the first chapter of a novel (or really, the first chapter of the first novel in a series) is.

More telenovelas!

Netflix released a bunch of information on how people watch shows when they can choose how many episodes they watch at a time. From the Wall Street Journal:

For one serialized drama, 25% of the viewers finished the entire 13-episode season in two days, while it took 48% of them one week to do so. The pace was pretty much the same for a very different kind of show—a sitcom with a 22-episode season: 16% of viewers finished the season in the equivalent of a weekend, while 47% completed it within one week.

That pattern—especially the apparent sweet spot of polishing off one season in a week—was similar across various styles of shows in the sample, including those with audiences that skew male or female, younger or older.

Another finding: The majority of viewers only immersed themselves in one show at a time, rather than juggle several at once. . . .

[A Netflix spokesperson said,] "We're just now getting to the stage where we can come up with some basic truths about how people behave when they have control over how and when they watch stuff."

I find it fascinating just how much people are treating television shows like novels: They do one show at a time, and they focus on it to get it done within a relatively short period of time. I wouldn't be shocked to discover that it took most people about a week to polish off a longish novel.

It's funny because right now, I'm showing You're Beautiful to my sister. I have Netflix and she does not, so she has to come here, and with her schedule she can only watch an episode or two a week.

(Speaking of her house and my house, I should note that I did indeed find a house near her, and should close in January. But I can't move in right away, because of course I bought a fixer-upper. It's like a disease.)

Anyway, my sister finds it pretty frustrating that she can't binge-watch that show, because it's harder for her to keep track of who knows what about who (which is pretty complicated in that show). She would probably love to be able to watch the entire series in a week. And I've been feeling like I can't start watching another television series until we're done with You're Beautiful, for pretty much the same reason I usually finish one novel before starting another. So even though we're not following the one-season-a-week rule, we're still like little case-studies for Netflix here....

Harry Potter and moral choice

One of the things I've wanted to do for some time was read the Harry Potter books all in one go. I started reading the series when it was about half out, and I just wasn't going to go stand in line at the bookstore at midnight or anything like that (I did actually buy two of the books--both in paperback at airport bookstores--but other than that I used the library), so I wound up waiting a year or two between books, at which point I'd forgotten who half the characters were. So I thought it would be worthwhile to re-read them all at once.

It's interesting how different an experience that can be. One of the things about reading Harry Potter the first time around was that I didn't know whether it was just a bunch of cute kid's stories or if it would turn out to be the plotting wonder it actually was. It's clear re-reading it that it is really just one HUGE book, and knowing that, the ups and downs are far less pronounced. I got a lot more enjoyment out of the first couple of books in the series this time around because I knew what they were setting up. Order of the Phoenix annoyed me much less this time, because although that book doesn't really have much of a plot payoff by itself, it does set up the later books. On the other hand, Goblet of Fire, while enjoyable, wasn't the absolute kick in the pants it was the first time I read it and realized that, as the character of Harry aged, the books were going to get waaaaaay more sophisticated.

I do kind of feel more ambivalent about the ending. (This is going to get VERY spoilery, so if you haven't read the books yet--hey, my sister hasn't--go do that first. Really.)

A number of people argue that Neville Longbottom is the most important character in the Harry Potter books, and I can totally see that--Neville has a great character arc, and as a writer, I think there's a lot to be said for having tertiary characters that have discrete arcs, even if we only see those arcs in glimpses. It's really intriguing to realize that something's going on elsewhere, plus it gives the reader the sense that this is a real world, not one in which all the other characters exist for the sole purpose of serving the main plot and main character. (The fact that Ron and not Harry winds up with Hermione is another example of J.K. Rowling making her world more robust and realistic, and less of a fantasy-fulfillment thing. In lesser hands, Hermione would have been the prize that Harry wins, and Ron would have accepted it because, you know, Harry's the main character.)

But I think Rowling kind of slipped up in the end, because in his final confrontation with Voldemort's snake, Neville is simply more heroic: He withstands torture, breaks a curse, summons a magical object, and without hesitation slays a powerful semi-magical creature.

Harry has also been extremely heroic, of course--he's been tortured and has actually died, on purpose, in order to defeat Voldemort. In addition, he has delved deeply into the world of wand lore and has uncovered vital knowledge that will allow him to overpower Voldemort.

But at the very end, what does he do? Harry uses a disarming charm, and Voldemort's own curse bounces back on him, killing him.

At least it's not explicitly an accident, but that's pretty weak, isn't it? If had been made explicit that this was an effect Harry could expect from a really solid disarming, I'd be OK with it, but it just seems like a bit of a cop-out, especially compared to all the other stuff Harry has both suffered and done. (And he's done quite a bit--Rowling is not shy about having Harry & Co cross lines and do things they once though shockingly immoral, which is something I really like about the book.)

The Harry Potter books are actually better than most: The whole thing where heroes have to kill the evil villain, but of course they can't just murder someone, because they're the good guys!!! is rarely handled well--more often than not, the death of the villain is explicitly accidental. That's supposed to make you think that the good guys are still good (I guess because they are unsullied by sin), but I hate it--it smacks of Pontius Pilate washing his hands to me. Heroic people--hell, just plain old decent people--do not go through life abdicating responsibility and trusting on chance to set everything straight. When the choice is between doing something unpleasant or allowing something genuinely horrible to happen, the person who preserves their precious purity by doing nothing is NOT a hero.

The one time where I saw this handled really well was in another story that is supposedly for kids but actually quite gratifying for adults: The television series (NOT the movie) Avatar: The Last Airbender. In that series the main character, Aang, is so opposed to killing that he is a vegetarian, and yet he's put in a position where he is expected to kill the main villain (who is very, very bad). What I like about it is that Aang's opposition to killing is a real choice with real consequences--the writers don't just have a rock fall out of the sky and solve Aang's problem for him--and Aang has to stand up for his choice and find an alternate solution in an environment where that is very difficult. What makes it heroic is the moral courage--Aang must take action, and he must do what's right, not just for him, but for everyone else, too. And it's a much more realistic take on what being a decent person is actually like: The stars don't magically align for you because you try to do the right thing; you have to do the right thing even when it's difficult.

"I hate Strong Female Characters"

This (via Pam Stucky) is an article I really, really agree with about how unsatisfying Strong Female Characters are.

Now, to clarify, we're not talking about female characters who aren't helpless or female characters who have integrity. We're not really talking about strong female characters at all--at least, not well-written ones.

What we're talking about are Dumb Fantasy Fulfillment Characters, and yes, I happen to find them annoying even when they are carefully crafted to appeal to my demographic.

Why? Because they're 1. Dumb, 2. Violent, and 3. Unrealistic.

My personal nominee for worst Strong Female Character is Dr. Temperance Brennan from the TV show Bones. In the pilot, Dr. Brennan beats the shit out of a TSA agent. Does she get a one-way ticket to Guantánamo? Does she spend the next decade in prison for assaulting a federal law-enforcement official? Does she get into trouble with her employer, the very same federal government that employs the poor slob she just beat the hell out of?

Of course not. Say it with me: She's spunky! 

Oh, violence is so adorable, isn't it? As long as the person who kicked your teeth in to retaliate for you doing your job is female and has big blue eyes, it's just as cute as hugging a widdle baby bunny!

The extra-magical bit about Dr. Brennan is that, although she is anorexic and never, ever exercises, she can easily pound the crap out of people with combat training who are ten times her size. Why? Because she's a martial-arts master! Who never trains! Or exercises! She's just like--and I mean, exactly like--those models who just happen to stay rail-thin without dieting and have shiny hair and perfect skin and it's definitely not because there's a massive team of people working behind the scenes and Photoshopping every picture. She's just perfect, you know? Just Perfect.

The Strong Female Character is a new bottle, but it's the same old wine.

And not for nothing, but the new, seemingly-PC layer of shellac over this particular turd is not really progressive. Basically, it's valorizing violence, with the patronizing and, yes, extremely sexist twist that if a woman is violent, it's OK, because she's just so gosh-darned cute.

Violence is not cute. Where I grew up, everyone, including girls, was expected to fight--and yes, I fought boys, what choice did I have? As an adult I look back and am really shocked (those schools should have been shut down), but at the time, it was just the way of things, and you either fought back or stood there while someone punched you in the mouth.

Unlike the kids who had the misfortune of being small or disabled, I happen to be big enough that I did just fine, but I never liked it. I actually stood there and took the mouth shots on occasion because the other kid wasn't going to be able to cause me serious injury and I really didn't want to mix it up. Even if I won, I lost, so what was the point? I was hugely relieved to leave home and realize that, in other parts of the country, fist fights are not considered an acceptable method of self-expression.

Violence against women is very bad, but what kind of morality goes on to argue that violence by woman is totally cool. (And fun! And spunky! And cute!) But I've seen women just eat up the Strong Female Character thing, claiming that it's "Girl Power." Jesus. If you think power comes from being a thug, I hope you heartily enjoy the empowerment of prison.

Finally, a decent vampire show!

I mentioned being very disappointed in The Vampire Diaries (the first season is OK, but then it goes downhill in a hurry), and I abandoned True Blood after one season. A big part of the problem I had with both shows was how vague and sloppy they got about the supernatural--the only rule that seemed to get followed was, What's convenient for the writer right now?

Since I haven't been good for much lately, I decided to try another vampire show--Vampire Prosecutor. Not a promising title, but hey, it's Korean, so you can't really expect the English to be all that catchy.

Anyway, so far it's been great! Basically, it's a police procedural, and it reminds me a lot of the Lord Darcy stories. As the title suggests, the main character is a prosecutor (and the head of an investigative team) who just so happens to be a vampire (hey, stuff happens sometimes).

Why the show works is that it turns out that being a vampire isn't all that different from being a person, except for the whole pesky blood-lust thing. (And apparently once you start drinking blood out of people, you don't stop, so he has to keep that in check.) The vampire is fast and strong, but he's not unkillable--he takes a knife to the gut at one point and almost dies. He can go out in the sun, enter houses without permission, and cross water; he can't brainwash people, change form, or control animals.

What are his powers? Well, the vampire can smell blood, which is very helpful in his line of work. If he vamps out at the scene of a violent death, he gets flashes of how that death happened. If he drinks the blood of the dead person, he can see what they saw as they died--and then he experiences the pain of dying, which kind of sucks.

The visions can be helpful, or they can be useless (so, he just experienced the pain of dying for no reason--oops), or they can be totally misleading. Even when they're helpful, they cause problems--there's one other person on the investigative team who knows that this guy's a vampire, but everyone else is getting increasingly irritated by these seemingly-random decisions to stop investigating Viable Suspect A and to start investigating Apparent Dead End B. (And sometimes their skepticism is totally warranted, because sometimes the visions are misleading!)

Anyway, it's a great example of the benefits of putting limits and rules on magic. It also helps that, so far, there hasn't been the spread of supernatural beings that afflicted Vampire Diaries and True Blood--there are vampires, and that's it. Everything else is just normal human agency.

When good story elements crop up in real life

Lily White LeFevre just did a fascinating post about a show I absolutely cannot tolerate and have never watched more than a few minutes of: The Bachelor(ette). It sounds very much like a case of the show's producers lucking into a situation that provided the show with actual emotional heft, instead of them having to manufacture it with gauze and roses.

The first season I saw of The Amazing Race was like that: It was season five, which featured a team of extremely hard-charging racers who handily won every single thing they ever did. They completely dominated the race--until the stress got to be too much, and they had a massive melt-down near the end. They came in last on that leg, which usually ensures elimination, but it turned out to be a non-elimination leg (and those two almost had a stroke when they found that out--seriously, I was worried).

The season finale was fantastic: The strongest team was last, and there were three teams in front of them. Because the last team was so good, every single team in front of them was an underdog. It was like watching three pairs of minnows trying to outswim a pair of sharks--as much as you respected the sharks, you couldn't help but root for the minnows. It was one of the most exciting shows I have ever watched, and I watched quite a few more seasons of The Amazing Race before I realized that it probably wasn't ever going to be that good again.

People respond to story points--underdogs, love triangles--whether they happen in real life or in fiction. Why am I so interested in Block B? I like the music, sure, but the characters are funny and likable, and the storyline (injustice!) is compelling. Why were the Browncoats such activists? Well, you create a show about people getting screwed by The Man, and then Firefly...gets screwed by The Man! It really isn't that shocking that the people who found the fictional show compelling found the real-life events surrounding it compelling as well.

(And of course, this is something that someone like Lance Armstrong just doesn't understand. His storyline was the underdog triumphing over adversity. The fact that he cheated to win...oooh, that just ruins everything. You don't come back from that--you can't invalidate your own storyline and expect people to still like you.)

One of the best bits of advice I got in journalism school was, "Just tell a story!" Obviously, nonfiction has to be true, but other than that, it's very much like fiction--it's about story.

And the reverse is true--if something in real life is very compelling to you, it's worth it to take some time and pick apart what it is that you're responding to. After all, it might be something you can use....

Emotional decision making

Lily White LeFevre posted a nice little take-down of Star Trek Into Darkness. I wasn't able to truly enjoy that movie either, but for me the big, glaring problem was the same big, glaring problem that plagues 90% of J.J. Abrams' output: Things happen because they are convenient.

For Abrams, it's always about ginning up some drama, logic be damned. So there's no safety system to prevent space ships from crashing into major population centers, and Khan gets free because Scotty decided--for no reason in particular--to stop paying attention to him.

When LeFevre complains:

[W]hat we’re given [in Abrams' Kirk, who she calls Emo Kirk] is someone who does not think the same way Kirk thinks, rather than someone who weighs his thought process against different life experiences. I didn’t mind his emotion-based decisions in the first movie, because he was so young and untried, but I felt like he learned nothing from that experience. Throughout this film he makes his decisions based on his feelings, NOT on his instincts. Huge difference. Kirk sometimes followed a path that seemed illogical, but was actually highly logical – it just relied on data that Spock did not have at his disposal, and that was Jim’s sense of tactics and knowledge of human nature, which is driven by irrationality, so it sometimes seemed illogical.

I think that she has a totally valid point, but I also think that Emo Kirk is really "Emo" Kirk, whose supposed emotionalism and irrationality is just a convenient excuse to have him go gin up some drama.

I'm seeing that again now because I'm watching The Vampire Diaries, which at this point is rapidly devolving into a soap opera about super-powered bloodsuckers. It turns out that vampires, conveniently enough, are really, REALLY, REALLY emotional and irrational, so they can be relied upon to do all kind of stupid, self-destructive crap for no other reason than to--you guessed it--gin up some drama.

This never works. NEVER. It's obvious string-pulling.

Does this mean that characters should never make impulsive or emotional decisions? Of course not. People make these kinds of decisions all the time. Recently I made an impulsive and emotional decision to pull my books from Barnes & Noble, despite having long claimed that it's important to make your books easy to buy and that it's important to diversify your retail base.

Guess what? One book was never actually pulled, because it's on B&N through Smashwords. And I realized that I could do the same with the other book, so I checked a box and it should be back up on B&N soon.

Even when people are emotional, they tend to be consistent.

Being emotional and impulsive doesn't mean that people just do whatever. Even crazy people have particular triggers and patterns of behavior--what they are doing may not make much sense to you, and they may not understand why they do what they do, but there is a logic to it. Inconsistency is often a highly consistent trait, something The Larry Sanders Show understood very well. Writing emotional and impulsive characters is like writing a book where the characters can use magic: Have rules, and it can be very engaging. Use it as a crutch, and suddenly all interest drains from a story.

Real people have patterns that can be really stubborn. Fictional characters need to have that core as well, otherwise they just aren't believable. If I can't believe, I can't care. And if the only thing I can believe is that the writer is desperately attempting to generate drama, then I really can't care.

How a tinny earlobe!

I've never had a problem watching movies with subtitles (yeah, you have to read a movie. For me, that is not a problem). That means I've watched a lot of foreign films, which means I've read a lot of really crappy translations, which is part of why the translators in the Trang book are so damned clunky--I like to share my pain.

Translation is an interesting process: I once worked as an editor on a series of books that had been translated from French, and the really fascinating bit was how the (native-English-speaking) translator had fallen down on the job in actually making the book English. For example, in French, you say, "It is the dog that is big" when you mean "It's the big dog," and "It is that which we want to do" when you mean "That's what we want to do"--you're not trying to be wordy, that's just the way the language works. But this person was leaving in all the "thats" and "that whiches" that you have in French, even when there was simply no reason for the English version to have them.

My fellow editor thought this meant that the person's French was not very good, but my theory was that once you get into the syntax of another language, it's actually pretty hard to get back into normal English syntax, and this guy just didn't complete the process. I felt like if he had the translation aside for a week and then read it again, he would have realized that you never need to use "that which" in English, ever.

The translation issue came back to me when I watched You're Beautiful a second time with different subtitles. It's not like the first set of subtitles was perfect by any means, but the second set lose anything even vaguely resembling humor in the dialog--I'm guessing because they used auto-translation technology, and algorithms are not exactly known for their wit, timing, or aesthetic sophistication.

The difference is pretty stark: At one point, two characters, Tae Kyung and Go Mi Nam, are discussing what to do on Tae Kyung's birthday. In the first set of subtitles, the interaction went something like this (this is from memory--the original was probably clunkier, but the repetition was there):

TK: You brought me here against my will, so you decide what we're going to do.

GMN: But you never want me to decide what to do. You always decide what we do.

TK: And I've decided: You're going to decide what we do.

In the second set of subtitles, the scene is:

TK: You brought me here against my will, so you tell me.

GMN: You didn't like me to decide for us, do you? You always decide for us when we are together.

TK: I will just follow you today.

"I will just follow you today"? Honestly, that borders on an out-of-character line for the acerbic Tae Kyung.

There's also a priceless scene where Tae Kyung (who is the dour leader of a popular boy band) explains slash fiction to Go Mi Nam (who is a very naive former nun-in-training). The example I'm going to use first is actually from yet another set of subtitles, but they are quite similar to the first set:

TK: Fans write novels with us as the lead characters. There are lots of love stories without a woman involved.

The second set (oh, look how you have to log in as an adult to watch that video. Because it contains The Gay!!!):

TK: Our fans always write novels about us. Women don't even appear in some of their novels.

It's like, come on. I know nothing about Korean, but which approach is funnier in English? It's a comedy! Work with me here, evil translation robot!

In praise of the Hong sisters

I mentioned my recent tragic addiction to k-drama, in particular those written by the Hong sisters. And yes, I've only seen the two (My Girlfriend is a Gumiho and You Are Beautiful), but they are awesome, and I hope that other shows of theirs become available to watch. (And I've just discovered that you can watch You Are Beautiful in it's entirety, with (frankly, fairly minimalistic*) subtitles, on YouTube, which I guess is both good and bad news for me. Hopefully watching it a second time will get it out of my system somewhat.)

Anyway, I mentioned that Gumiho is kind of like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that's not just because it has supernatural elements (a gumiho is a kind of spirit), including a kick-ass goblin hunter, or because it combines drama with humor. Gumiho is also really good at imbuing these supernatural elements with real meaning, which was something Buffy excelled at.

Another thing that I really liked about Buffy was that even the funny or wacky things were meaningful. Joss Whedon is somewhat notorious for turning everything into tragedy, but honestly, I think that helps because nothing is ever genuinely fluffy--even if it seems like vapid fun at the moment, you know that in a flash, it could all turn to ashes.

Everything mattered in Buffy. Take the musical episode "Once More With Feeling." Typically when a show decides, Hey, let's do a musical episode! that's all the show does--people sing and dance, and that's it. What makes "Once More With Feeling" a truly great episode is that the plot moves forward in leaps and bounds--VERY significant things happen in that episode, along with the singing and dancing. It's not just fluff.

And that happens in You Are Beautiful, too.

I don't want to give out spoilers here (because you REALLY should go click on that YouTube link and watch that show), so I'll go with a minor example. The show is about a successful boy band, and there's a very funny scene where the leader of the band, Tae Kyung, goes out into the countryside and gets chased by a pig.

Watch it here--there are no English subtitles, but it's physical comedy so you don't need them. (If you must know, he's thinking about how peaceful and beautiful it is out here in the country, away from the fans and paparazzi, and how country people are so darned friendly that they'll even wave hello to strangers. And the other guy is basically saying, "Run! A pig! Ruuuun!")

Funny-funny, right?

But, believe it or not, that scene is also really meaningful and pivotal to the narrative.

How? Well, Tae Kyung is one of the most tightly-wound people imaginable. He's a neat freak and a control freak, and very aggressive about it. He lives with his bandmates, and his three household rules are:

1. Don't touch me.

2. Don't come into my room.

3. Don't touch my stuff.

This scene is actually the first time we start to see chinks in his armor--his hidden desire to be a happier, more relaxed guy. (He ran off impulsively to go stand in that field, which says volumes about his mental state.) And the pig is just the most comical of the many, many outside threats that make him feel that he can never let his guard down.

Tae Kyung is the male romantic lead in You Are Beautiful, and for me at least, up until this point he was just kind of a self-centered asshole who was being foisted on me as someone who deserves the (very sweet) female lead's love. This scene (and the rest of the country interlude) was really a turning point for me, allowing me to see Tae Kyung as vulnerable and capable of positive change--which made the pairing something I could root for, as opposed to something I thought was a really bad idea.

 

*ETA: And in that pivotal going-to-the-country Episode 7, totally-screwed subtitles. I don't know how this happened, but in the first five-or-so minutes, you see the subtitles for both what is going on AND the last five-or-so minutes of the episode. Rather confusing, and then you hit the last five-or-so minutes, and there are no subtitles at all. Oy vey. Or, you know, Aigoo!

K-drama

So, these past few weeks haven't been a very productive time. Some of it is the kids, some of it is the issue of being bored with a beta task but not with-it enough to write.

And some of it, I must confess, is k-drama.

What is that? Korean telenovelas. This all started after I read this article and decided that, if other people are destroying their lives by watching 28 hour-long episodes of Shining Inheritance in a row, why shouldn't I?

So I popped some Korean dramas into my Netflix queue and got on with life, ignoring the little time bombs I had set for myself.

Well, I never watched more than one episode of Shining Inheritance (it reminded me too much of Dallas and Dynasty). The problem is that I started with a much more dangerous show: My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho.

What's a gumiho? Oh, you can find out about that here. You can also find out what an oppa and a noona are, and the difference between jondaemal and banmal. Oh, and what are mania dramas? What's the live-shoot system? Did you know that the Korean wave now so dominates Asian entertainment that there are dating services in Japan specializing in Korean men?

You see the problem? It's not just a show, it's a research project. Add on the facts that Gumiho is rather like Buffy, that I am apparently a natural fan of the Hong sisters, and that Netflix is pulling a bunch of these shows off streaming March 1st (A DEADLINE! AIIIIGGGGGHHHH!!!), and I've got the perfect storm of time-suckage.

Really, who needs crack?

So, I started with Gumiho, went on to Secret Garden, and then had to make some tough choices because there was no way I'd get more than one series in by March 1st. So I went with another Hong sisters drama, You Are Beautiful, and now I want to watch that one again but there just isn't time! (The DVDs are fricking $110 a set, too. Way to price yourselves out of the market, idiots.)

Instead, I've been thinking about why the shows are compelling, even when they're kind of disappointing. (The live-shoot system basically means that the quality of the show is guaranteed to degrade in the later episodes, which really works against the strength of a telenovela in my opinion. One nice thing about the Hong sisters is that they plot things out in advance--and whether they like it or not, the fact that their shows aren't popular enough to get a few extra episodes tacked on to the end at the last minute is also helpful. I think Secret Garden would have been a much better show if it hadn't done so well in the ratings.)

Certain conventions in Korean dramas seem...odd to me. For example, they use soliloquies, which strikes me as a little unnecessary because the acting is usually quite good. A lot of tears get shed: You get about three-quarters of the way through and everyone's just weeping and weeping and weeping. These are romances, but they can't show a lot of physical intimacy, so guys demonstrate their interest in girls by grabbing their forearms and dragging them around like they were a sack of beans. (Honestly, girls, just do the "wax on" thing, OK? That's an easy hold to break.)

But thinking about why I like these shows (despite not being too crazy about romances), is that they tend to be in the Pride and Prejudice school of romance-as-a-mutually-beneficial-partnership, rather than the Twilight school of romance-as-salvation-for-the-woman.

In other words, in the k-dramas I found compelling (and even in the one I didn't), the guys need work. There's certainly a fantasy element to the men (they're typically rich and/or famous, plus good looking and capable of eventually becoming a worthwhile and stable partner), but at the beginning, they tend to be pretty seriously damaged. They need to learn some life lessons and become better people. Likewise the woman typically needs help and/or work, which she receives from the guy.

It is simply more gratifying to me to see a partnership develop where both parties have something to offer and both are improved. You don't have this useless wad of a gal sitting around feeling sorry for herself until Mr. Wonderful rides in on his white horse and wooshes her away to his magic castle.

I really don't like the notion that it's someone else's job to fix you--in my experience, you either fix yourself, or you stay broken. That's probably the core of my discomfort with romance, because these days the barriers tend to be internal, which usually means that there's a damaged person there who needs to be fixed.

But--and I realize this sounds like a subtle distinction--I don't mind it when a character is motivated to fix themselves in order to obtain a romantic goal (or any other kind of goal).

That's why Knocked Up didn't bother me, even thought the Seth Rogan character was, you know, a Seth Rogan character--a seemingly hopeless man-child. The Katherine Heigl character explicitly surrenders the job of fixing him. She means that in a positive way (she doesn't want him to change), but her leaving the ball in his court essentially forces him to take responsibility for his own life and his own choices for the first time.

And that's what these k-dramas get right. The guys (and the women) grow, and they grow on their own. They do it for the other person of course, but they also do it very much for themselves.

I know damned well there are people who are completely incapable of growth--the notion that people can improve themselves is in its own way something of a fantasy. But many people (sometimes some very surprising people) do grow. And I'm not such a black-hearted cynic that I can't enjoy it in fiction.

The too-neat ending

I enjoyed Star Trek: Deep Space Nine when it came out, but I never actually watched it that regularly until the last season. So recently I decided to watch the whole thing.

The show's series finale is this behemoth of nine or ten linked episodes, and what I remember feeling about all that when it finally came to its conclusion was a vague sense of disappointment, a sense that it was really all too pat. Watching it again, this time with the full weight of seven seasons of the show behind it, I felt exactly the same way.

If you've never watched the show, it takes place on a space station, and the main characters are a mix of humans and aliens. In that great Star Trek/social science-fiction tradition of using aliens as metaphors for human problems, there's a lot in there about issues of identity in a multi-cultural society. (Gee, no, it didn't influence the Trang series at all--why do you ask?)

Well, at the end those issues are largely dropped in favor of basically assigning each alien back to their home planet, whether or not they have actually lived there as adults or can relate to the people there in any kind of meaningful way. There's a big dollop of wish-fulfillment thrown in there, so that no fewer than four of the major characters end up ruling and/or saving "their" people, and another gets hoovered up to live with some mystical aliens (leaving behind both a son and a pregnant wife) because he's kind of related to them in some vague, mystical fashion. The concept that someone might leave a place, move someplace new, and be happier in the new place is totally discounted--the major alien character who stays on the station does so only because his planet is no longer traditional enough for him.

While metaphor can deepen a story, I feel like the finale of Deep Space Nine shows how the sloppy use of metaphor can really weird people out. Part of the problem with the finale for me is that if you have that metaphor (alien identity = ethnic identity) in the back of your mind, you can't help but notice how neatly the conclusion of the series parallels the "solution" certain white supremacists have for the United States--just ship everybody back to where they came from, and we'll all be happier!

The other issue is that, while it's really an ensemble piece, there is a main character, the captain of the station, named Benjamin Sisko. He is pitted against a character named Dukat, who is always kind of an antagonist, but who, as the show progresses, becomes an outright villain.

The problem with Dukat is that, as he becomes a villain, he explicitly and repeatedly identifies himself as the enemy of Sisko. He makes it very clear that there is going to be--in fact, there must be--some big confrontation between him and Sisko, and that only one of the two will survive.

And then, in the series finale, there's a big confrontation between Dukat and Sisko, and only one of the two survives. Take a wild guess which one.

Ugh. You know, that kind of set-up is extremely common: The big hero meets the big villain and defeats him. It's why Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is kind of a waste of paper--870 pages to learn that Harry Potter must defeat Voldemort? I'd figured that out already, thanks.

When you're presenting something that's been done so many times before, to pull it off you either have to do it in a really interesting way (which I think the Potter books do, eventually), or mix things up a bit. One of the joys of the Buffyverse was that, more often than not, the big hero (Buffy or Angel) did not defeat the big villain. Sometimes they did, but more often than not things didn't work that way: A friend might do the dirty work, or maybe the big villain actually wasn't such a big villain and got offed by a bigger villain. If the villain was a serious threat, getting rid of him had to be a group effort, and sometimes the hero wouldn't quite manage it properly and the villain would come back later. In the case of Angel (who becomes a villain at one point), he was only a villain temporarily, so taking him down was an agonizing experience.

The point was: It was unpredictable. Things in the Buffyverse always had the potential to go sideways. As a result, even when there was a straight-up hero-defeats-villain scenario, it was fresh, because there was a very real chance it might not come off. You didn't come out of it feeling like you could have saved a lot of time by checking out on the storyline the moment Big Villain said, "Ha-ha! It's going to be a battle to the death between Big Hero and me!"

Hey, that's a joke!

Recently I watched the "Gangnam Style" video, which has become something of a Internet sensation. Watching it was kind of an odd experience. I have a really hard time laughing at people who aren't trying to be funny. I'll do it--I'm only human--but I feel odd about it, and I don't make a habit of seeking out stuff that's really bad or unintentionally campy when I feel like having a good laugh.

So the first time I watched "Gangnam Style," it really perplexed me. Then I read the Wikipedia entry on it and twigged that, oh, it's supposed to be funny. Psy, the South Korean rapper who created the song, is making fun of people who are trying way too hard to be classy, so he runs around terrorizing the upscale Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam with his silly dance. The odd-looking and -acting men in the video are Korean comedians. They're not trying to look cool--they're trying to look like people who are trying to look cool and failing miserably.

And then I watched the video again, and I laughed and laughed. Because it was OK.

I'm not the only person who responds this way--Mel Brook's The Producers is about two guys trying to create a Broadway show that is sure to fail so they can make off with their investors' money. But they do too good a job, and everyone assumes that their awful show, Springtime for Hilter, is a hilarious parody of the Third Reich. The show becomes OK for the audience, they laugh and laugh, and the hapless producers have a monster hit on their hands.

It's also interesting to see situations where there's a joke (the histrionic "I am NOT drinking any FUCKING Merlot!") and people don't realize that it's not meant to be taken seriously (sales of Merlot fall). One of the funny things about Garth Marenghi's Darkplace is the level of effort they went to in order to ensure that the whole thing looks and sounds like a crappy low-budget '80s TV show--one of the actors even went through and re-dubbed all his lines so that they don't quite match up with the movements of his lips. But the problem, of course, is that some people didn't understand that it wasn't really a crappy '80s TV show. You also see this in some responses to Richard Ayoade's movie Submarine, which is deliberately pretentious, because it's about an adolescent, and adolescent pretension is funny, see?

I think this is where is helps to have a brand (and to also make sure a humor book is actually filed under humor and possibly has "humor" or "comedy" or "parody" or "It's OK, you can laugh at this" on the cover)--when Koreans see Noh Hong-chul doing what Wikipedia calls "his trademark 'lewd dance,'" they're expecting it and find it far less baffling and unsettling (What is that guy DOING!?!) than I did the first time I saw it. If you don't realize that Ayoade is a comedian, and one with a special interest in visual world-building, then the pretentious French New Wave-style cinematography of Submarine just seems like...pretentious French New Wave-style cinematography.

Nobody wants to watch you flagellate yourself

(OK, fine, I lived in NYC, I realize that there are people who DO want to watch you flagellate yourself. But there aren't very many of them, and do you really want to encourage that sort of thing?)

There is a comedic television show I recently discovered, and I liked it so much that I got the DVDs, in no small part because I wanted to watch the commentary and get some insight into how such a delightful show was created. And I thought that the show would likely have decent commentary because it was created, written, and directed all by the same guy, who was also the guy doing the commentary. Sounds promising, right?

But, no. Nooooo. Nonononono. Turns out that this guy is one of these self-flagellating writers, the sort who has decided that the best way to head off any criticism about his work is to hate every last aspect of it with a virulent passion himself. And apparently I am a stupid asshole with absolutely no discernment whatsoever, because if I had any, I would never have liked the show--in fact, the fire of my loathing for that show would have immolated the very Earth itself.

Seriously, do you think that sort of thing is pleasant to listen to? Not only did I come out of it feeling like my taste had been repeatedly insulted, but I felt really horrible for anyone who has to work with this guy. There's one scene containing this priceless bit of physical comedy, and he shuts up to watch it for about a second, and then he screams because (brace yourself) there's a poster on the wall in a funny place.

Given that kind of supportive workplace atmosphere, I'm amazed the entire cast and crew didn't commit suicide.

I've seen this sort of thing before--people being unrelentingly negative about their work--and it's always extremely unpleasant. There's no point to it: If I like the work, it's insulting and depressing, and if I don't like the work, it doesn't help to listen to someone beat themselves up about it. (For example, I didn't care for that fellow's commentary, but when he started whinging on at the end about how awful his commentary was, shockingly enough that didn't change my opinion about it.)

Of course I go through periods of feeling like I can't produce anything good--in fact, that happens reliably whenever I'm about to release a work. But I know what that is, so I don't wallow in it. And I especially don't wallow in it in public.

Why not? Well, for one thing, I obviously don't like reading or listening to that sort of thing, so I'm not going to impose it on others. But the other thing is that I have sense of purpose about this blog--this blog is to help writers.

To my way of thinking, it's helpful to say, "Yes, I made a mistake and am learning from it, or I'm unhappy with this part of the book and have to fix it, or I'm nervous and it's affecting my judgement," because everyone deals with that--and I think it's important for writers to realize that it's normal to do things like make mistakes or suddenly doubt the worth of your entire output. These things happen, you deal with them, and then you move forward.

Acting like it's the end of the world--"This is imperfect!!! AIIIIGGGGGHHHH!!! MY ENTIRE LIFE'S WORK IS RUINED!!!!! RUINED!!!!!!!!! MY DREAMS ARE DESTROYED!!!!!!!!!"--is supremely unhelpful, both to me personally and to anyone reading this blog who might be influenced by it. And you do have to think about how your words will affect others: I never want to do to anyone what William Shawn did to Jospeh Mitchell. Writers are dramatic and perfectionistic enough without my adding fuel to the fire....

And this is just really funny

The IT Crowd has led me to Richard Ayoade's other stuff, in particular Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. It's extremely funny--the idea is that Garth Marenghi is a horror writer who was popular enough in the 1980s that his publisher financed a TV show. A terrible, terrible show, which was "rediscovered" only recently. And Marenghi's a terrible, terrible writer, who, just like Anne Rice, is utterly convinced that he is a genius. Since I find Rice completely hysterical (oh, that works on many levels, doesn't it?), Marenghi was an easy one for me.

The DVD is available only in the UK format (boo! I'd buy it!), but this is from the extras and has a lot of publishing jokes in it. At the 4:02 mark, they even make a joke about returns.

Jane said, Have you seen my wig around?

OK, fine, she didn't--but how awesome would that have been?

The panel with Jane Espenson was about her Web sitcom Husbands (they gave us an early showing of the first episode of the second season, and it was really funny), and a lot of the discussion centered around the digitization of television and how much it has changed things.

In fact, the show wouldn't have existed were it not for YouTube. One of the characters in the show is this young, kind of vapid, kind of ditzy man named Cheeks, who is played by Brad Bell. I didn't know this, but Bell created Cheeks a long time ago and has had a YouTube channel for quite some time. Espenson discovered one of his videos, and that led her to contact him and develop the series. Bell also writes and produces the show, and he is not the least bit vapid or ditzy--it was one of those cases where of course I knew that the character and the person were different, but it was a little surprising to see how very different they are.

Anyway, Espenson paid for the first season out of her own pocket (Battlestar Galactica money--Bell made fun of her, saying, "Here is a hole I can pour all my money into! I could burn it, but this is a faster way!"), and the second season they funded mostly through Kickstarter (although Espenson kicked in some of her own dosh as well). I asked if it was smaller than a normal television production, and the answer is, kind of, but it was still 40 people (many of whom were doing Espenson favors) and two Steadicams. So the barriers to producing a professional-quality Web show are lower than they used to be, but I wouldn't really describe them as low.

What Espenson really liked about going indie was (say it with me) the control (THE CONTROL!!!) and the timeliness of it--she was able to get a show done in a fraction of the time it would have taken a network, which was important to her because the show is about gay marriage, and that's a hot topic right now. "We're not being told what we can and cannot do," she said. "We're figuring out for ourselves what the audience wants, instead of being told what the audience wants." Earlier, she asked who in the audience had contributed to the Kickstarter campaign. Several people raised their hands, and she told them, "You're the network that renewed us."

Once again, the analogy to novels was made, this time specifically regarding digitization--they all think that people love scripted television because it's novelistic, and that they will follow novelistic writing wherever it goes. Espenson pointed out, "Newspapers are dead, novels are not," and Bell agreed, "They just change platforms." (Clearly, these people ignore Scott Turow and don't realize that literature! is! dying! Good for them.)

Espenson also described "a growing hunger for content" with video. Which is interesting, because the podcast people said pretty much the same thing about audio, and it's also true about books--you will never be able to produce content as quickly as the audience can consume it.