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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (6/14/10) 8:32am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Wow -- it's been a full month since I last posted one of these.  Not good.  Settle in for lots of reading....]

Movies:  UHF, The Informant!, Up in the Air
TV:  LOST [6x16] [spoilers], LOST [6x17] [spoilers], Dexter [1x14] [spoilers], Party Down [season one]
Books:  The Four-Hour Work Week, Tube of Plenty, Criminal:  The Deluxe Edition

This is the movie where "Weird Al" Yankovic takes over a local TV station.  They showed it at the Paramount last month, with Weird Al there to do a Q&A afterwards.

I don't have much to say about the movie.  The plot is a simple, effective clothesline for hanging jokes on.  And the sense of humor is pure, unadulterated Weird Al.  In my twenties, I might have dismissed these as jokes aimed at zany twelve-year-olds.  But now, at my advanced age, I see that he who is tired of jokes for zany twelve-year-olds is tired of life.

So instead, I roll with the wheel! of! fish! and I have a good time.

It was fun watching the film with a crowd of fans, though I suspect that the first announced showing must have been *insane*.  (They opened up a 7pm show and it sold out in minutes; after that, they opened up a 3pm show, and I bought a ticket to that.)  The Q&A was not that enlightening, but everyone, crowd and Al alike, seemed to be having fun.

The Informant!
This is the Steven Soderbergh comedy about Mark Whitacre, a whistle-blower in an ADM price-fixing scheme.

Okay, I admit it:  I've been pretty remiss in keeping up with media updates lately.  One result of this is that it's actually been weeks and weeks since I actually *watched* The Informant!, so I don't remember as much about it as I should.

I remember that it felt much more like a character study than a plot-heavy film.  Sure, there was a plot, and it happened, but what held my attention was this slow reveal of who Mark Whitacre was as a person.  In a standard Serious Whistleblower Drama, the surprises would be things like, "Oh no!  He's about to be found out!  Will he dispose of the listening device in time?!"  In this film, the surprises are more of the form, "Who the hell *is* this guy?"

Granted, corporate espionage and counter-espionage can lend any individual scene a certain amount of tension.  But in broad strokes, this movie is just a series of dramatic reveals about Mark Whitacre.  He told his handyman about the listening device.  He's not really adopted.  By the time we find out he faked the virus problem in the first place, the story feels positively Lostian.

I had a lot of fun watching this movie just *because* it was so perversely opposite what a Whistleblower Drama typically is.  Movies like The Insider, even when expertly done, follow a well-worn plot path, and all have the same tone of righteous indignance.  It was great to have this film sit you down, introduce the big, corrupt company, show you the upstanding family man played by the Charistmatic Movie Star, and then absolutely, positively go off the rails.

I wish more genre pictures would do that.

Up in the Air
This is the Jason Reitman film about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate downsizer who revels in his unencumbered, constantly-on-the-go lifestyle.

When I first watched this, my DVD player went a bit nuts and decided to play the film's "chapters" in random order.  Because I am a bit dim, it took me a long time to figure out that this was happening.  The DVD player played the first chapter, then the fifth, then the eighth, and I thought, "Huh, they're just booking it through this storyline.  I guess it'll run right past where we'd expect the movie to end and then go sailing off into unpredictable territory."  Then it doubled back to chapter six, and I thought, "Wow, now it's just confusing.  Did she get fired from... wait, from a company she didn't work for?"

Then I noticed the wonky timecodes and started over.

Now that I was seeing the movie in order, I was mostly tracking the act structure.  Ah yes.  Establish the hero.  Establish his status quo.  Introduce something to set him off-balance.  Then, repeatedly teach him the film's moral lesson in various ways until... yep, he takes dramatic action, and then there's a denouement.

I suppose most movies aren't really *about* their plots.  Perhaps farces, complicated thrillers, and time-travel sci-fi flicks really revel in twists and turns and complex unpredictability.  But blockbusters are really *about* their effects-heavy action set-pieces.  Indie films are really *about* giving us a portrait of the protagonist.  As such, movies only need a simple, serviceable plot that follows all the rules and just works.  So we leave the more novelistic, detailed stories to serialized television.

And so it is with Up in the Air -- we're not on pins and needles about what will happen to Ryan Bingham next.  We mainly just want to see what life is *like* for him.  How does it feel to love this unencumbered life on the road?  What kind of outlook leads a man to live like that?  What could change it?

I admit, storylines that tell you to settle down and marry always have a bit of a "CONFORM, CITIZEN" feel to them to me.  I'm unmarried and have no particular interest in marriage, and American culture keeps reminding me that this makes me a selfish and shallow person.  But that said, it's the right message for this film about this character.  After all, the story really only makes sense if you see it in terms of Ryan slowly changing his mind about never having a home.  If you view it strictly as plot, it's a shaggy-dog story about a guy who mentors this kid and then goes to a wedding and then visits his girlfriend.  But really, it's about that slow erosion of his faith in an 'empty backpack.'

In a way, this film resists further commentary, just because it's very good at being very conventional.  It creates sharp characters with distinct points of view.  They exist in a convincing universe that's different from the one I live in.  The jokes work.  The score works.  Eventually you just shrug, say, "It was good," and move on to the next thing.

(Side note:  this may just be the snarky backlasher in me talking, but the more I see of Jason Reitman's work, and the more I see of Diablo Cody's work, the more I think that Jason Reitman didn't get nearly enough credit for Juno.)

LOST [6x16] [spoilers]
The penultimate episode of LOST was "What They Died For".

It's strange.  I sit down to write this, and my first instinct isn't to talk about how the plots are threading together, or how the old mythology questions got answered, or how the whole crowd cheered for Ben-X's "Don't! You! Dare!"

My first instinct is to write about how funny this episode was.  This is the home stretch of the show, essentially the first hour of a 3.5-hour finale, and there were beats in this episode that had the whole Drafthouse laughing.  What intrigues me about it is that this episode, and this whole show, is funny in a very specific way -- and I suppose this'll my last chance during the run of the show to explore this.

To my mind, the funniest line of the whole show was when Locke said, "I was wrong."  This, right away, tells you something about this show's sense of humor.  My favorite funny line from Sports Night, for example, might be "I'm not so much promoting the economic upside as I am the chance to drink something big and blue."  From Firefly, my favorite funny line might be "Curse your sudden-but-inevitable betrayal!"

Other shows create quotable dialog, dialog that is funny in and of itself, usually with some combination of irony and verbal acrobatics.  But the dialog on LOST tends to be stylized the *other* way:  every line is pared-down, simple, effective.  All the hesitations and circumlocutions and grammatic curlicues of real speech get relentlessly stripped out[1], and you're left with bare bones.  "Don't tell me what I can't do."  "We have to go back."  "See you in another life."

And, of course, "We're takin' the sub."

So the humor has to come from somewhere else.  It can't be cute wordplay or neat punchlines or witty observations on life.  In the case of "I was wrong," the joke isn't in the line, it's in the context:  it's the end of season two, Locke has destroyed the hatch computer.  As a result, the timer has gone to hieroglyphic time, the hatch is getting ready to implode, and metal is, as the kids say, "behaving strangely".  Terry O'Quinn splits the difference perfectly between genuine contrition and blind panic.

There's a joke, in and of itself, to characters that are resolutely themselves even under the most insane circumstances.  Sayid sees a crazy Scotsman announce that he's got a breakout plan -- of course he'll calmly humor him.  We laugh, and I think part of that laugh is just Sayid is being Sayid.  Ben calmly offers Locke a glass of lemonade, and it's funny largely because, yes, that's exactly what Ben would do.

This interests me especially because in improv, it seems like this is the only kind of humor that really works.  You can try to tell jokes in an improv scene -- the sorts of one-liners that you might see on a sitcom -- but those typically die a very painful death.  Meanwhile, audiences can't get enough of watching a character stay resolutely him- or herself, even while the scenario gets more and more surreal and incomprehensible.

Having seen the finale now, "What They Died For" feels very much like getting all the pieces into place for the final, heavily thematic episode.  We're finally gathering all the flash-LOSTies together.  We're finally setting up for an Esau/Jack showdown.  But it feels like it's more about the plot, and less about reflecting what the whole show is about.

LOST [6x17] [spoilers]
LOST concluded with "The End".

I know a lot of people who hated this finale.

Sure, none of the major TV critics hated it.  Sure, none of the regulars I watched it with at the Alamo hated it.  But there were many viewers -- mostly computer programmers -- who mostly viewed LOST as less a story and more a vast puzzle.  Now the series is over, the puzzle is largely unsolved, and these viewers are *pissed*.

I feel bad for them.

But then again, I feel kind of confused by them, too.

See, there was a pattern to LOST:  what answers it provided were never all that great.  There was *never* a simple 'aha!' solution that suddenly made sense of a million bizarre details.  Instead, we got 'answers' that were obviously picked out because they manufactured good stories.

In season four, we knew that the Oceanic Six 'had to go back.'  Why?  Because, according to Eloise, they 'had to recreate the original circumstances' with as many of the original crashers as they could gather.  This makes no sense from a scientific standpoint (for physical phenomena, one bag-of-98%-water is interchangeable with another), but it would lead to all those stories where the Six weighed whether it would be worth joining this mission or not.

As I pointed out in my discussion of "Across the Sea", the only time LOST gave you a clever 'aha!' reveal was when the secret and the reveal were both within one episode.  They could set up a bunch of shots with John Locke seated and finally -- aha! -- reveal that he was in a wheelchair.

Yet still, all these fans thought:  maybe the last season would have *answers*.  One of my coworkers talked longingly about the "time-loop theory" -- a Primer-like explanation that was fairly involved in and of itself, but at least reduced a lot of the byzantine time-travel to a few simple rules.

So:  the show never provided big solutions.

On top of that, the showrunners kept *saying* that they were only going to answer a subset of the mysteries.  They said explicitly:  if a mystery mattered to the characters pursuing the storyline, they'd probably work the answer into those last episodes.  If it didn't, that mystery would certainly fall by the wayside.

But even that didn't dissuade these fans.

You see, maybe the showrunners would break their pattern of underwhelming mystery-solutions.  Maybe they were lying about ignoring most of the lingering questions from earlier seasons.  Maybe, in revolt against all logic and sense, the big questions would get solved.

It was kind of like watching someone in a bad relationship.  ("He told you explicitly that he doesn't even like you!"  "I know, but... maybe I can change his mind!")

Season six went by, episode by episode.  It became more and more obvious that, even if the showrunners wanted to include a bunch of amazing answers, and even if that was something the show tended to do in the first place, there just wouldn't be time.  So these fans, in a last-ditch effort, pushed all their chips over to the double-zero of 'the finale will answer everything.'

I would call this 'delusional optimism' on their part, but the worst of it is, these fans never even got to *feel* optimism.  These people never honestly thought that their "100 Questions LOST Absolutely Must Answer" would be addressed.  At best, they looked forward to being proved right -- aha! no answers! -- so they could say "TOLDJA!" to friends who were, for some perverse reason, still cheerfully enjoying the show.

Instead, they kept watching LOST out of glum obligation, just to verify their growing certainty that the show wouldn't resolve questions, and therefore, it would be worthless.  Even their snide comments were bereft of Statlerian glee.

While I was crying as Sun and Jin drowned to death in the sub, they were thinking, "Great.  Now we'll *never* know which Kwon was the candidate."  While I was sniffling at the quick montage of Juliet's relationship with Sawyer, they were sniffing at wasting time on a *montage*, of all things.

And in that last church scene, I was watching the ultimate resolution to the *important* question:  "What eventually happened to these people?"; they were watching the ultimate cop-out to the *important* question:  "What is the Island?"

Like I said, the showrunners had said repeatedly, "We are not writing a show about mysteries; we are writing a show about characters."  In fact, almost the entire crop of LOST imitators (circa 2005) managed to miss the mark completely by focussing on mysteries to the exclusion of focussing on characters.  Regardless of whether they liked the finale, viewers agree that this was this finale that was about the character journeys coming to an end, rather than about the mysteries getting answered.  It's not about the mysteries.  It's about the characters.

So, the detractors have come back with, "Oh, yeah?!  Well, the characters on LOST sucked!  So centering your story on them was *stupid*!"

Again, this seems to come more from bitterness than from logic.

My favorite yardstick for characterization comes from that 70-minute takedown of The Phantom Menace:  "How would you describe this guy without mentioning his job or his clothes?"[2]  I posit that you can do that for most of the main cast (Ben, Sawyer, Hurley) and even many of the secondary cast (Shannon, Arzt, Miles).

"Well okay," they say, "it's not that there's *no* characterization -- it's that the characters are stupid stereotypes."

I'm amused at how much people on the Internet voice their disgust with character stereotypes.  I recall one person dismissing The Wire because it centers on "ooh, a renegade Irish cop who doesn't play by the rules.  Never seen *that* before."[3]

The bottom line is, yes, LOST employed character stereotypes.  Yes, Sawyer was 'a secretly-vulnerable criminal'.  Yes, Jack was a 'doctor intent on doing good'.  Yes, Alpert was your run-of-the-mill 'enigmatic immortal Latino with permanent man-scara'.  (Hmm.  Okay, that one's less of a stereotype.)

But here's the thing:  just *employing* a stereotype is not a deal-breaker.

If you use a stereotype and then leave it at that, then yes, you've been lazy, and you've created a two-dimensional character that isn't worth our time and attention.  But if your character passes 'the Passover test' -- "How is *this* do-gooder doctor different from all *other* do-gooder doctors?" -- then you can still create an interesting character within the bounds of the stereotype.

And besides, this accusation misses the point of how LOST operates:  it introduces a character type we think we know, and then it uses a steady supply of revelations to *subvert* that stereotype.  We think we know that Jack is a typical doctor-hero-who-saves-the-day, but we learn that hey, maybe the guy who would jump into the burning wreckage to save people is *not* somebody we'd want to put up with in everyday life.  Or maybe the comic-relief guy who says 'dude' all the time is actually the most earnest and generous person there.  Or maybe the 'great white hunter' is compensating for an impotent, paraplegic life at a box factory.

If you write that off as a lazy reliance on stereotypes, you miss what the show is about.

But my point here is actually not to defend the characterization on LOST.  My point is that these detractors think they're talking about the characterization, but they're really not.  They're not offering literary criticism along the lines of "Here's how they could have created more sharply-delineated characters."  Instead, it's a really pissed off, "They didn't do the thing that I wanted them to do!"

There's a strong sense of entitlement among fandom these days, now that we have more interaction with content creators and more interaction within a show's fanbase.  Fans claim they'll boycott Chuck if the showrunners don't hook up the two characters they want together.  Fans routinely write fanfic to correct the egregious problems they see in the shows they watch.[4]

But the bottom line is, if you think LOST should be a show about answering mysteries cleverly, and the showrunners think LOST is a show about character arcs, guess who's going to win?  (Hint:  not you.)

I haven't yet said much about my own reaction to the finale.  Instead, I've spent a lot of words talking about computer programmers who hated it.  But I think I can explain about 90% of my feelings towards the finale by saying "it was the opposite of what I was talking about above."

To be clear:  I like answers as much as the next guy.

But over the course of the series, it became clear that the answers just weren't going to happen.  If anything, "Ab Aeterno" and "Across the Sea" established that, what answers we would get would be (1) fairly vague, (2) mostly focussed on character motivations, and (3) not significantly simpler than the pheonomena they explained.

And more to the point, as the finale approached, I realized I just didn't care about answers.  Going into the finale, I joked to co-workers that a character could, at some point, flip through a book that was just filled with pages and pages of answers, and for me, that would be a lovely compromise.  Vaugely Asperger's-ish fans could Zapruder through it frame-by-frame and fill in the appropriate pages on Lostpedia, and I wouldn't have the answer to "Why was Libby in the mental hospital?" derailing the natural ending of the story.

For me, for LOST to feel like it was over, I just needed to know how things turned out for these people.  I got that.  Hurley and Ben took over the Island, no doubt running it better than Jacob and Alpert ever did.  Lapidus, Kate, Claire, Miles and Sawyer flew back to civilization.  Kate lived a long life afterwards, and I devoutly wish that Miles and Sawyer became cops.  And then they all met in some strange, constructed afterlife.

Ah, yes.  Purgatory.

I never had any kind of religious upbringing.  I'm an atheist who was, effectively, *raised* atheist -- unlike most atheists I know, who rebelled against a religious upbringing at some point -- and I sometimes wonder if that helps me approach story developments like this with relative equanimity.  I'll say, "Oh, okay.  This fictional universe has an afterlife.  Alright then." -- as opposed to "OH NOEZ RELIJUN IT BURRRRNSS!"

I see it for what it is in its context:  everyone gets together at the end of their long, long journeys, and they live happily ever after, for some interpretation of 'live'.  That feels right for how the story should end.  It makes the story feel like it *ended* instead of just stopping.

Granted, I still have quibbles with the finale.  Structurally, it bugs me that, if Lapidus hadn't gotten the plane to fly, that whole crew would have been fine, since Jack saved the Island.  I was a bit annoyed that, in the end, we have to take it on faith that Smokey would have destroyed the world.[5]  And did we really need to out-Freudian the "Magical Glowy Cave" image?

But in the broad strokes, this was the right ending for the show.  They found out why they were there.  The did what they were chosen to do.  They moved on to the next chapters of their lives.  They all met again, at the end of time.

Some people loved it, some people hated it, and some people didn't even understand what they saw.


And hey, they'll pick off a few more answers in the extra material on the Blu-Ray series DVDs.  But y'know what?  You'll probably be disappointed by that, too.

There's a question I've asked a number of people:  "If, in the end, LOST has only one lasting effect on the TV business, what would you want that to be?"  Jeff said that he hoped TV shows would draw from a broader base of knowledge and culture.  Jordan said he hoped TV shows would be bold and fearless the way that good improv is.  IIRC, James Poniewozik talked about hoping future shows would set an end date.

When I think about this question, I just get depressed.  In many ways, the show can't be replicated.  Nobody will ever spend so much money on a TV production ever again.[6]  Nobody will ever be that ballsy with a network's flagship show ever again.  And, after this fan kerfuffle, nobody will ever put so much emphasis on mysteries ever again.

I think, in the end, this show's influence will not be in its details.  We won't see a flurry of Island-based shows.  We won't see a spate of time-travel shows.  Sadly, we won't ever see a solution to Veronica Mars:Party Down::LOST:<x> -- which makes me sad to no end.

Instead, LOST is going to be an example.  If you really go for broke, if you never play it safe, if you risk alienating your audience right up until the end, then you can create something like this.  Even if you hated this show, you have to acknowledge that it wasn't just the next cop-show, or lawyer-show, or doctor-show.  If anything, LOST was "the next Twin Peaks"[7] -- and whatever comes along as "the next LOST" will be just as different, and strange, and startlingly original, and utterly beyond our ability to see it coming.

Now:  let go of this one.  Go and do something different.

Dexter [1x14] [spoilers]
I guess I've been doing Dexter a disservice by mentally filing it in with the dozens of other police procedurals where a quirky forensics guy tracks down the bad guys.  When I watched the penultimate episode of season one, it felt pretty by-the-numbers.  Ah, yes.  The female lead is now a damsel in distress.  The forensics guy has to decode the quirky clues left by the Omnipotent Serial Killer.  Presumably it'll come down to a fistfight of some sort.

I didn't bother watching the finale for some time.  I figured that, in a way, I'd already seen it.

But once I finally got around to watching the episode, it pleasantly surprised me.  Sure, it hit the standard story beats:  Dexter figured out the clues; Dexter saved Deb; Dexter killed the bad guy; and, even if it was just in a dream sequence, everybody cheered for Dexter.

But that plot wasn't what the story was *really* about.  Instead, the finale used the Standard Procedural Finale Plot to explore the thematic elements that had been kicking around the show all year.  The series wasn't about chasing down clues, it was about the conflicts inside Dexter:  does he stick to the Code of Harry or does he succumb to killing indiscriminately?; does he continue to explore his repressed past, or does he let sleeping dogs lie?; will he ever be able to be himself around someone, or will he be alone forever?

On the one hand, it's an eyeroll-inducing coincidence that the Ice Truck Killer turns out to be Dexter's brother.

But on a thematic level, that outcome is almost inevitable.  Of *course* the Big Bad is a guy from Dexter's past.  Of *course* the Big Bad wants Dexter to recall the repressed trauma of his early childhood.  Of *course* the story comes down to setting the things Dexter has always wanted -- to be understood, and to indulge his homicidal urges -- against the things he cares about -- following the Code of Harry, and doing right by his sister.

The story isn't really about catching the bad guy.  It's about how Dexter has to choose what matters to him.

In a way, the whole season is a big loop, with Dexter winding up exactly where he started out.  He still can't reveal who he really is to anybody.  He still kills the bad guys in the background, and nobody has any idea.  The bizarre serial killer who threw his life out of whack is dead.

On the other hand, there are hints hints at the season-two storylines that Colin has alluded to:  Doakes is still 'on to' Dexter; Debra is obviously traumatized; Dexter's reckless decision to take out Paul will have consequences.  So I trust the show will find new territory to explore in future seasons.

Plus, now Dexter knows a little bit more about where he comes from, and a little bit more about what he wants.  It's the classic "hero's journey" spiel where you return to where you started, but you know the place for the first time.

All in all, it was a solid finale.

Party Down [season one]
This is Rob Thomas's post-Veronica Mars show about a team of down-and-out Hollywood caterers.

Okay, first things first:  Casey Klein is probably the most attractive TV character, ever.  Forget that list that Katie somehow tricked me into writing.  For the female lead in Party Down, it's like they secretly brought me in for consultation:

"So, first, we'd like to cast the most attractive actress possible in the role --"
"Right, that would be Lizzy Caplan."
"Uh... she was in Cloverfield, Mean Girls, like, five minutes of Freaks and Geeks --"
"Well, okay, then.  And we're thinking we'll have her play an aspiring comedienne.  Sound good?"
"That sounds just about as attractive as possible."

And then they must have wiped my memory with, like, one of those flashy things from Men in Black, or perhaps a cudgel.  And now here I am, feeling all swoony over a character that appears to be some sort of Wish-Fulfillment for Peter.  Keep in mind that this hormonal haze is probably biasing my perspective on the show.

Another source of bias is this show's relationship to Veronica Mars.

Veronica Mars was a show about a teenage detective in a California town rife with dark secrets and sharp class divisions.  It ran for three seasons on the WB/CW before getting cancelled.  And after that, Rob Thomas and his cohorts went to cable to do Party Down, a half-hour, single-camera comedy about aspiring/failing showbiz types working at a Hollywood catering company.[8]  Perhaps not surprisingly, they wound up using a lot of the same cast and crew from Veronica Mars for the new show.

Side note:  if I were the king of American television, this sort of thing would happen all the time.  Specifically, shows wouldn't run for umpteen seasons until they were completely exhausted creatively -- instead, there would be lots of successful 'repertory companies'.  A show wouldn't run eight seasons and wear out its welcome -- instead, it would run maybe two seasons and then end, having told the story it set out to tell.  Then, the producers would go on to their next series.  Some of the original cast and writers would come along with them as regulars.  Some might show up for just an episode.  Some would depart for greener pastures.  New people would join the group.  And fans of the first show would get to see all the people they enjoyed from that show trying something new and different.

You see this happen to some extent with Judd Apatow (Freaks and Geeks, followed by Undeclared), or the various Mutant Enemy shows, which repeatedly draw on the same cast and crew.

Ryan Hansen and Ken Marino played relatively small, comic-relief roles in Veronica Mars -- Mr. Hansen played party animal Dick Casablancas, while Mr. Marino played skeezy private eye Vinnie Van Lowe.  They move up to central cast in Party Down.  Episode to episode, Party Down smuggles in other actors from the detective show.  Enrico Colantoni (AKA "Keith Mars") shows up in the pilot; Kristin Bell (AKA "Veronica Mars") shows up as a rival caterer; Jason Dohring (AKA "Logan Echolls") shows up as a college politico.

There's just something inherently warm and fuzzy about watching these people work together again -- and it's exciting to see them take on a different show, with a different tone, playing different characters.

The rest of the cast is pretty much a dream team.  Like I said, the female lead is Ms. Caplan (*swoon*).  They've also got Jane Lynch, who was previously hilarious in Arrested Development, and really broke wide in Glee.  Adam Scott plays the lead -- I had no idea who he was -- ironic, since he probably had the biggest career going into this show.[9]

The real shocker to me is that they hired Martin Starr.  Mr. Starr was just flat-out amazing as Bill Haverchuck in Freaks and Geeks -- and then he more or less dropped off the map.  He had some small roles in film and TV -- mostly in Judd Apatow's projects -- but I seem to recall that he was making ends meet as an electrician.

Mr. Starr is one of the few actors I've seen who plays comic roles so convincingly that you just assume that's what he's like.  In Freaks and Geeks, the audience just assumed they'd found some maladroit, space-cadet-ish nerd and put him on the show -- but, no, turns out he was something of a jock at the time, and the directors had trouble arranging shots so that he didn't look really muscle-y. 

I see this chameleon tendency a lot among dramatic character actors, as they disappear into one role and then the next.  But in comedy, I think it's less common:  more often, I see somebody parlay one comic persona into one project, and then the next, and so on.  And also, most comedy roles are obviously heightened, so you can't really believe that, say, Tobias Fünke is walking around in the real world.

So now Martin Starr has shown up again, this time as Roman, the canonical Bad Aspiring Screenwriter, and again, you just assume they found a guy who acts like that.  About ten percent of the time I'm wincing because OMG THAT'S ME.  One thing I like about his character is that he reminds us that oftentimes, geeks are jerks.  So often on TV, the nerdy sci-fi fan is a kind soul who's just misunderstood -- but let's face it, sometimes geeks get picked on in high school because they act like bastards, and they pretty much deserve it.  So it's a relief to finally see a TV character act like a peevish bastard about (say) the distinctions between fantasy and hard-SF.

I'm also biased to like this show because it's about scrappy, bottom-of-the-heap types.  It seems like the most successful TV shows these days are what John Rogers (no relation) calls "competence porn":  people at the top of their game do amazing things in spite of their difficulties.  The CSI crew uses brilliant forensic work to catch the villain.  House and his assistants make that astounding diagnosis just in time.  American Idol, after some comic-relief auditions, narrows down to the competitors who could be world-conquering pop stars.

Then there are the shows about the underdogs, like Firefly, WKRP, Freaks and Geeks.  Critics love them.  They gain cult followings.  They're still beloved long after they end.  But hardly anybody watches them, and they get cancelled fairly quickly.

I don't know why I so often favor the 'underdog' shows, or why my own writing is more likely to fall into that category.  Maybe it has to do with my own self-esteem issues, and I don't identify with the top-of-the-world types.  Maybe it's easier to set a seemingly-impossible task for scrappy third-tier types.  Or maybe you actually believe the underdogs might fail -- whereas if House muffs a string of diagnoses, well, in some way he's no longer House, is he?  Constant success means it's hard to create any real stakes.

I suppose the only thing I don't like is when Party Down falls into standard sitcom tropes.  In the first episode, a series of wacky coincidences make it seem like a character is masturbating, and it just feels like typical, toothless, zany comedy.

But the show has some real weight that counterbalances these pointless antics.  The bottom line is that these are characters dealing with failure.  They're pursuing the big dream, and it just isn't coming through, and they're living in crappy studio apartments while they're making minimum wage.  Occasionally, the jokes recede, and we see into the center of that darkness.

Pursuing a dream that's nigh impossible is not all rainbows and unicorns.  There are a lot of unhappy moments where you ask yourself if you're even any good, or if the dream is even worth the trouble.  And if you're making minimum wage serving hors d'ouevres to irate film executives, you're asking those questions a lot.

I can't imagine this show is for everybody.  It's dark, and it's rude, and its humor is far more character- and plot-based than the usual setup/punchline/implied-rimshot rhythms.  But a lot of people go for exactly this kind of comedy.

And, of course, Veronica Mars fans need to watch at least a few episodes.

The Four-Hour Work Week
This is Tim Ferris's book about how to arrange your lifestyle so that you spend as little time as possible to pay your bills.

So I don't know Tim Ferris.  He may be a great guy.  All I know is what I've read in this book.

Therefore, I feel kind of awful writing this:  in the book, the man comes across as a complete douchebag.  It's like some government lab somewhere started out with a sample population of "arrogant douchebags in sales", and then ran them through some sort of distilling mechanism to get the essence, the purest extract, the platonic ideal of the asswipe who double-parks his sports car in front of the trendy new club, sneeringly tosses a few bills at the doorman, and spends the night tossing back the most expensive drinks on the menu while gladhanding others of his "douchebag in sales" tribe.

So that's the author -- or at least, that's how he comes off in this book.  You read about him casually amassing a fortune in dubious nutritional supplements, and then somehow cheating his way through a martial-arts championship, and... you rather don't want to spend a whole book with the guy.

But that just means the book is persistently annoying -- it might still be useful.  The Prince is a useful book even if you never intend to poison your political enemies, because Machiavelli listed out what is effective.  If you find his methods morally unconscionable, that's fine.  But if you listen to Machiavelli, you get to *consciously* make the trade-off between doing what is right and doing what is effective.

So you put up with Mr. Ferriss's sneering disdain for... well, everyone, really.  You put up with his incomprehension towards people who *don't* act like douchebags.  You wade through his noxious materialism and the self-absorption that seems quite at odds with his feel-good, "make time for yourself so you can make the world a better place" sentiments at the end.  And you look for the useful bits.

There is some interesting information here.  If I am possessed to create my own sales business, this has a lot of useful ways to put that together.  I like what he has to say about test-marketing your product ideas before moving ahead on production, and limiting your sales channels so that they don't compete with each other.  I'm especially intrigued by what he says about outsourcing, and am now pondering whether I could make good use of a service like Your Man In India for personal outsourcing.[10]

But on a basic level, I think my goals are different from Mr. Ferriss's.  He talks about sorting out your finances for a trip around the world, and I just grimace, feeling tired and irritated at just the thought of that much travel.  Really, I just want to hang out in Austin, put on shows, and write stuff.  In Tim-land, I'm supposed to want to, I don't know, snowboard off a jetliner and then paraglide into a five-star restaurant where I get serviced by expert Lithuanian prostitutes, or something.  After fighting a tiger.

It all sounds like it would impress the hell out of the douchebags in sales, without actually contributing anything to the world, or being my concept of 'fun'.

But again, I don't have to completely agree with a book to find it interesting or useful.

Tube of Plenty by Erik Barnouw
This is a history of American television from the earliest days of radio to the rise of cable and satellite television in the late 80s.

I always have trouble reading history.  My main problem is that I know so little about history to start with, that the new facts don't really have a framework to fit into.  I learn that the earliest image-transmission tests were in the 20s, and the dates don't really mean much to me.  ("That was... some time after World War I, right?")  So it's just one more arbitrary fact to add to the pile of soon-forgotten trivia.

I'm sure the writing was good enough.  Sure, the prose was never impressive or engaging, but Mr. Barnouw moves clearly from topic to topic, and relates some interesting stories, and keeps the reader somewhat aware of the big picture.  It's typical second-tier nonfiction:  interesting enough to somebody interested in the field, but there's no reason anybody else should read it.

I have always been curious about television prior to 1990.  I know its history through the last twenty years pretty well, but everything before that is a vague fog to my mind.  I know there was a golden age in the 50s.  I know that there was very little worth watching when I was a little kid (except for DuckTales  , which was awesome).  Beyond that?  Eh, nothing.

So I tracked down this book and read it.  And the whole time, I felt like this information was only going to sit in my head for a day or two before being completely forgotten.  The writing just wasn't engaging enough, and the context of 20th-century history just wasn't there.

I suppose my main takeaway from the book is that very little we've seen in the TV business these past twenty years is new.  The world of expensive dramas and half-hour comedies is almost an anomaly, given that the business has had long stretches where game shows reigned supreme.  Even the current terror that the television business feels towards the Internet and video games -- "Oh no, we're losing all our customers!" -- is analogous to the film world's first response to television itself.

The more I learn about television, the more I feel like we collectively lucked out in the '00s, and we aren't going to get that lucky again.

Criminal:  The Deluxe Edition by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Criminal:  The Deluxe Edition is a hardbound collection of the comic's first three trade paperbacks:  "Coward", "Lawless", and "The Dead and the Dying".

I know there's a long tradition of crime comics.  If I recall correctly, the ultraviolent comics of the 50s led to a government crackdown on the entire art form.  But I've only read a smattering of comics, so I don't know the genre at all.  I suspect there are many interesting things to say about how this series refines or subverts the established genre.

Instead, I can only relate this series to film noir.  (Granted, I don't know *much* more about film noir than I do about crime comics.)  Specifically, Criminal makes me think of noir's sense of impending doom -- all those stories where there's a relatable guy in that underworld that's just a little bit too tough for him.  He's got some weakness that the story chips away at.  He wants to do the right thing, but doing the right thing just gets too difficult.  You never wanted to do a job again, but you've got cancer, and you've got bills, and this one last heist would be so *easy*... that sort of thing.  And once you make that bad choice, it's like the trap snaps shut, and no amount of clever tap-dancing will get you out of it.

That's how the stories felt in Criminal, and that felt right to me.

For next time:  the third season of The Guild, the book Talent is Overrated, and perhaps Adventureland.  And dear god, I hope I don't wait another month to post the next update.

[1] Or at least, I assume they start out overwriting it and then go over it and over it, snatching out words.  That's the only way I can write in that style.  But hey, maybe the writers are talented freaks who can nail it on the first try.

[2] ... when asked this about Qui-Gon Jinn, a whole series of interviewees default to saying, "Beard."

[3] And then these same haters turn around and babble about how much they like Star Wars.  But anyway.

[4] I wonder how many angry letters Gene Roddenberry got about never having Kirk and Spock hook up.  I suspect he would get more of them in today's cultural environment.

[5] ... although on further reflection, I thought that was kind of perfect that a story so concerned with faith leaves room for the possibility that Smokey was just deeply misunderstood by insane and deluded Island folk.  There's probably a good Grendel-like fanfic to be written there.

[6] Hell, it was only a wacky coincidence that such an expensive pilot got green-lit in the first place.  Lloyd Braun was given a pink slip at ABC some time before his actual firing date, so on his way out the door, he gleefully greenlit the most expensive pilot in development.  (It's sort of like stealing office supplies on the way out, only on steroids.)  The show gave him a slight nod in return -- the "Previously on LOST" voice at the start of most episodes is in fact Mr. Braun.

[7] I wish I could remember which critic pointed this out.  Alan Sepinwall, maybe?

[8] They'd been kicking around the idea for this show since before Veronica Mars, actually.

[9] I see from imdb that Adam Scott actually had the Lee Pace role ("Aaron Tyler") in Wonderfalls in their un-aired pilot.  That would have made an interesting shift to that show's dynamic.

[10] Example:  "Sort out a hotel and a car rental for Seattle on such-and-such weekend; figure out the best Indian restaurant in town and make a reservation for Saturday; create a schedule for me to visit this list of locations on Sunday."  A nominal fee later, it's all done.

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