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

Friday (9/5/14) 3:02am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Arrow [1x16-1x23] [spoilers]
Books:  Tapworthy, Your Deceptive Mind [audiocourse]

Arrow [1x16-1x23] [spoilers]
This is the conclusion of the first season of Arrow, a CW comic-book adaptation about a spoiled überrich kid who returns from a shipwreck on a mysterious island to fight criminals in his city as a masked (well, hooded) vigilante.

*sigh*  I really wanted to like this show.  I want the network that everybody dismisses as teen-soap-opera twaddle to somehow, under the radar and on a shoestring budget, cobble together the best superhero story on TV.  I want "quality television" to stop being a lazy shorthand for Troubled Male Antiheros on basic cable.  I want there to be another Firefly or another LOST -- a piece of genre television that is well-made and fun and different.

And mind you, there are a lot of things to like about Arrow, both in this first season and in this batch of episodes in particular.  It's remarkably good at plotting -- when it comes to just moving the pieces around the chessboard, Arrow is as good as anybody.  And that's not a backhanded compliment: structuring the logistics of an action story -- who is where when, and why is this guy coming back to help at the last minute there, and so on -- is brain-meltingly difficult.[1]

And occasionally the show is sharply perceptive about relationships -- specifically, it's willing to forgo the standard "boy meets girl" for something more specific.  I love that they play out "what if Claudius was actually a nice guy?" A marriage between a woman and her late husband's employee is such a rich and particular relationship to explore.  Similarly, Tommy trying to earn Laurel's trust after a lifetime of longing and dissolution promises a fascinating journey for both of them.  Neither of them really have a pat narrative that describes what they're doing, so you see all the uncertainty and all the "so... do we call each other 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend' now?" type conversations.  This is great not only because it sidesteps clichés, but also because that's how real life feels.  Few of our relationships neatly fit what we've seen in the storybooks, and we all feel a little wrong-footed, finding our own way through unfamiliar territory.[2]

And I guess those two good things actually sum up, fairly neatly, what I didn't like about the show: Arrow kept indulging its skill at plot moves, and it kept slighting its characters and their emotions.

Put another way, Arrow always felt like it was terrified that I might get bored.  "Oh, um... then this explodes!  And this one guy betrays Oliver!  And... and... there's a fistfight!  Ooh, and it looks like a friend of Oliver might betray him!  And, and, ohshitohshitohshit gotta do something else" -- and then the show starts hyperventilating and crying.  You want to pat the show on the back and tell it that it's okay to breathe.  It's okay to take some time and let an event "land" emotionally.  If Walter gets kidnapped and held indefinitely, it's okay for his wife and stepchildren to reel from that and come to terms with it.  You can have some confidence that I won't change the channel just because someone is experiencing an emotion.

But instead, the show keeps desperately moving the pieces around the chessboard, and no individual event ever really lands for more than a minute or two.  So in the end, it's just moves, and none of it really matters, and it feels curiously empty.

And that's just weird, because the show has so much emotional fuel to draw on.  If a young man gets shipwrecked, is presumed dead, and then five years later returns home... there's a lot of emotional weight there.  Hell, The Returned is a television series about just that one thing, and by all reports it's brilliant.  And the events that happen over the course of the season are things that would, in the real world (or a show with different priorities), pack a real emotional wallop -- like I said, these writers are great at moving the pieces around the chessboard.

"But Peter, this is an action/thriller show.  It can't just have characters sitting around talking about their feelings."  You make a valid point, mysterious-voice-in-my-head.  But many genre shows have squared that circle.  In Buffy, the monster of the week was a clear metaphor for either hellish aspects of the high-school experience, or for the specific emotional journeys that the Scoobies were going through.  In LOST, the flashback sequences were, on one level, lovely little short stories, but on another, they detailed the baggage that each character brought to the island.  Every good genre show finds a way to make its whizbang adventure plots about something deeper.  That's how you make the show *mean* something.

And Arrow weirdly threw that opportunity away.  The criminals of the week -- who could have been absolutely anybody -- never reflected the emotional arcs of the characters.  A few of them served as dark mirrors of Oliver's righteous vigilante-ism, but even that doesn't connect a viewer to the emotional backbone of the story.  (Instead, it poses philosophical questions about the story, which is different.)

In the final episodes, it felt like both the plot machinations and the slighting-the-emotions hit a peak.  I wound up with the fascinating feeling of "this is an amazingly-constructed conclusion -- and I care so, so little about any of it".

Generally, this batch of episodes had the same good and bad qualities that the rest of the season had.  They still need to scale back the scoring by, say, 50%.  It's always frustrating to see a good actor start to deliver (say) a sad speech, and then five seconds in the soundtrack muscles in with "OHAI HERE IS SAD MUSIC BECAUSE YOU SHOULD FEEL SAD".  Just show some confidence, pull back, let your actor act, and trust that the emotion is there in that speech.  Felicity is still wonderful, and I hope there's a fanfic sitcom about her charming non-Oliver-related life in Starling City.  The show's jokes still fail badly -- it actually has the Beverly Hills, 90210 habit (yeah, there's a vintage for you) where a character "tells a joke" by repeating the previous line with a slight verbal twist.  "Maybe you need to take some time off." / "Hey, maybe you need to take a step back!"  Oh-ho, nice one guys.  Someone call Stephen Fry and tell him we have a new crownéd king of verbal wit.  The destruction of the Glades capped a season of phenomenal action sequences (grounded wonderfully by Felicity's tearful response to the events).  And as always, the Moira storyline feels like Rubicon with dumb people.

And then the season ended.  I've gone on to watch Deadwood, hoping that I can cleanse the palate with a show where the plot matters to its characters.


Tapworthy by Josh Clark
This is a book about how to design interfaces for iPhone apps.

It is in fact a very good book about designing interfaces for iPhone apps, but probably won't interest people outside of the field.  It starts from very simple first principles: people tend to hold the iPhone in one hand; they use apps quickly and while distracted; they understand apps that are simple; they understand apps that work like their other apps.  From there, it builds up a lot of easy-to-understand design principles.

I'm actually in the middle of a mobile-development app right now, and this book was a real eye opener.  Oh yeah -- you should never, never put a giant delete button at the bottom of the screen, because that's the most likely spot for a user to tap by accident.  No, the navigation buttons shouldn't go in the middle of the screen, but at the bottom, because that's where they are on every other iPhone app.  Styling a button so that it resembles a text-entry field is just an awful idea.  And so on.

It's sort of like an Elements of Style for iPhone development, and I'd say it's a must-read for people in the field.  If this isn't your line of work, it might be an intriguing look at how the sausage gets made, but probably you can give it a miss.


Your Deceptive Mind by Steven Novella [audiocourse]
This is a set of audio lectures from The Teaching Company about critical thinking.

So basically, I stumbled on this trove of Teaching-Company courses at audible, and realized that all of my discretionary income was about to disappear.  I started my path towards dissolution with Your Deceptive Mind, an audiocourse about critical thinking from Steven Novella, a neurologist and host of the "Skeptics' Guide to the Universe" podcast.

The course itself is pretty straightforward: it covers a wide range of biases, misperceptions, and memory errors, and then describes how science in general and critical thinking in particular can help to correct for those errors.

It's a fairly depressing first half.  Little of the information was new to me, but it's still kind of dismal to see such a preponderance of studies, presented one after the other, demonstrating how you can see things that aren't there, remember things you didn't see, and draw conclusions from your memories that don't actually match the data.[3]  It's a wonder humanity gets anything done at all, frankly.

And the advice regarding skepticism is pretty much what you'd expect.  Question everything: if you see a buzzfeed article, where did the information come from?  How was it gathered?  Does the data really support the conclusion?  And so on.  It was especially interesting hearing about the miserable state of health journalism, where every preliminary, tentative finding leads to "ERMAGERD ZE CHOCLAT CUREZ CANCUR!!" headlines in USA Today.[4]

It also had interesting things to say about the philosophy of science, and the assumptions that underlie it.  In this course, it's almost like science is a game of "assuming that nature is the same everywhere all the time, what is the simplest explanation for this data?"  It's yet another way of dealing with the irritating, recurring canard of "science is just another religion".

Sadly, my main takeaway from this is that I'm a really crappy auditory learner.  I hear things, the facts rattle around in my head, and most of them head off to a farm where they can play with other facts forever and ever.  I've been reaching even to remember this sketchy description of the course, and I only listened to it last week.  Ah well.  I guess these audiocourses aren't an easy cheat for learning lots of stuff, but they'll be moderately educational and pleasant to listen to.

(Side note: it was depressing to hear an audiocourse about critical thinking perpetuate the myth about the mass panic that occurred after Orson Welles' War of the Worlds podcast.  *sigh*)


For next week: more reform-school movies, as I prepare for the Wayward Girls show, and I'm watching season one of Deadwood.  I've moved on to an audiocourse about Russian history (to prepare for the Chekhov show), and I'm reading Tales from Mos Eisley Cantina on my shiny new Kindle.

_______
[1] If I recall correctly, the Buffy writers' room would use little action figures to sort these things out.
[2] Then again, it wasn't a perfect batting average: when Thea hooked up with a bad boy from the wrong side of town, it was one of those storylines I'd seen so many times that I had trouble even paying attention to this latest iteration of it.
[3] Especially dismal: our complete inability to have any intuitive sense of statistics or probability.
[4] And the study that says, "Um, no, we couldn't replicate those results" is buried in an unmarked grave, far from any mainstream media.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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