Books: Modern Romance
TV: Fullmetal Alchemist [series], Last Week Tonight [season 2]
Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
This is the stand-up's book-length take on one of his favorite topics: dating today, and how it's sharply different from dating even five or ten years ago.
Comedians often write books, but comedians rarely write books that have a real reason to exist. Typically a comedian stumbles through 150 pages or so, with the rhythms that feel confident and winning onstage coming across as nauseatingly smug in written form -- at best, the reader laughs sporadically and then carry on with their lives, the book forgotten as soon as it's closed. As Mr. Ansari says, though, Modern Romance is a book that didn't exist before. Yes, there are books about dating. Yes, there are books that summarize psychological/economic research about, say, irrational actors or the agony of choice. And I'm sure there are smirking books about the Damn Kids Today What With Their Tinder and Such -- which is pretty much what I expected Modern Romance to be.
But instead, Modern Romance takes a different, and fascinating, tack. Yes, it covers the new technologies for dating -- matchmaking sites and compatibility algorithms (and, yes, Tinder) -- but it's really about the fundamental sea changes in dating that underlie it. What we want has changed. How we pursue it has changed. How we feel about it has changed. Even without the latest and greatest technical gewgaws, romance in these twenty-teens would be a very different beast than it was for our parents or their parents.
So it's mostly just a really interesting book, backed up with a solid overview of psychological and dating research, and drawing on a range of focus groups and interviews of its own. And the material is presented with impressive clarity. Sure, it's peppered with jokes, but it gets the balance right -- this is "a nonfiction book with jokes" rather than "a joke book with occasional nonfiction" -- and the jokes rarely derail the book. Half the time, the jokes are just funny ways of reiterating some point made with dry technical research. The other half, they're pleasant little digressions that don't overstay their welcome.
Fullmetal Alchemist [series]
This is the animé manga adaptation about a pair of brothers in a magical, alternate-universe version of the Weimar Republic who uncover a military conspiracy as they try to undo the damage of childhood magical accident.
So this show changes its closing credits from season to season. In season two, they have a closing theme that's especially odd -- an episode will come to an end with some mind-blowing magical battle, then a quiet, exquisite moment of reflection, and then... a child-like 90s-ish pop ballad plays over slow pans across pin-up art of the female lead. It's a closing sequence that is jarring every single time, *never* matching the mood of *any* episode. And that, to me, kind of represents the show as a whole: massive, perhaps unrivaled strengths mashed up cheek-by-jowl with weaknesses so glaring that you wonder if they're intentional.
Let's start positive, with the strengths.
Fullmetal Alchemist has some of the best world-building I've seen in *any* show, full stop. It's mind-boggling that a manga writer would base his epic story on the Weimar Republic, but there it is -- and not only that, but it's 1920s Germany reflected off the funhouse mirror of Far Eastern interpretation, so it's entirely its own beast. It gives them a starting point that is already sharply distinct from any other fantasy world I've seen. Then on top of that, they've got a rich, thorough depiction of their take on magic, a huge number of characters and locations, and an intricate conspiracy weaving through all the tiers of the military hierarchy. I'm hard-pressed to think of another show that even rivals it. It's also fabulously drawn and well-paced, both in individual episode storylines and in the way it treats its longer story arcs, sometimes driving them along, sometimes just eking them forward, sometimes stepping away from them completely. It's a good show.
Now moving to the negatives.
Believe it or not -- and yes, fans, sharpen your pitchforks -- I think the characterization in this series is pretty damn shallow. The bad guys ('homunculi') are usually just slight variations on the sort of smug, vague villains one always sees in mystery thrillers: "Ah yes -- but he doesn't yet know about... the Incident," says the villain with an arrogant smirk, and the audience is left wondering if the storytellers have *any* clue what they're aiming for yet. And good guys and bad guys alike usually get one or two stock traits, and don't really grow beyond that. The voice acting seems fine (I don't speak Japanese, so I really have no idea), but there just aren't a lot of layers for the actors and artists to work with here.
(OT: did this show have a severely constrained scoring budget? It felt like there were maybe ten music cues in the whole show, endlessly and repetitively recycled.)
"But Peter, it's a kid's show." Well, yes -- and again, it's possible that the shallow, simple, straight-ahead characterization is on-purpose. But compare it to, say, Avatar (yes, the good one), where characters are given more nuance, shading, and internal conflict. Even someone like Azula, who's pretty much 'maximum evil', isn't the *same* kind of evil as the other bad guys.
As a result, I enjoyed FMA, but it was in a more and more detached way as time went on. I wasn't really in it for the characters, or for my empathy with them, but more for watching the mechanics of it, seeing how all the pieces deftly come together, the mysteries getting solved one after another. And this meant that the end of it felt like a bit of a shrug -- I didn't feel there were any real emotional journeys to complete, so instead I calmly watched the final collection of plot moves. Like the alchemists and engineers they depict, they've meticulously constructed something that clicks together very precisely, but I often just couldn't feel the heart of it.
Last Week Tonight [season 2]
Not a lot to say about season two that I didn't already say about season one. I still think the show's at its best when it's investigating something I'd never even thought about. So much political humor these days doesn't seem to require research -- it's just pat, smug, poorly-thought-out potshots at the other side that leave you perhaps reassured about your worldview but certainly no wiser about the world. At its worst, Last Week Tonight descends into that kind of bland cheerleading. But at its best, it's finding things that come across as obvious injustices, government and business catastrophes that only keep happening because of public ignorance and institutional inertia, often even things that both political parties condemn but nobody has taken any measure to fix. Those, to me, are the best parts of Last Week Tonight -- learning about, say, the ghastly corruption in FIFA or the cockamamie sentences dealt out because of federal mandatory minimums.
For next week: I'm watching season 7 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight while exercising, and I may watch The Conqueror of Shamballa to finish off Fullmetal Alchemist.
 This is the original FMA animé, the one that veered off from the manga when it chewed through all the extant source material (à la Game of Thrones), as opposted to Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which went back and faithfully adapted the completed manga later on.
 There are a lot of details in it, like a supervillain based on each of the seven deadly sins, that make you pugtilt and say, "No, wait that's not really how we 'do' Christianity in the West... oh, never mind."
 I'm sure the shout-y, arm-flailing, over-the-top rage that's occasionally deployed for comic effect is deliberate, but all that gets out of me is the vague embarrassment of watching something dull that surely the writers intended to be funny.
 Jon Stewart is fond of referring to "clapter" -- when political comedy gets applause, but only because the audience agrees with it, not because it's actually funny.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none