Books: The Complete Idiot's Guide to U.S. Government and Politics, The Signal and the Noise
TV: Deutschland 83
Broadway Theater: A Doll's House, Part 2, Hamilton, The Infinite Wrench, The Play That Goes Wrong
The Complete Idiot's Guide to U.S. Government and Politics by Franco Scardino
This is a basic primer on the American government. It's part of the popular "Idiot's Guide" tutorial series.
I'll just cut to the chase: this is a bad book. It's a very bad book. It's badly written, boring, and for the most part, it's too basic for any adult who grew up here and who hasn't had a head injury. If, like me, olitical news has made you want to learn the basics about how the government is put together -- questions like "What does the White House Chief of Staff *do*, exactly?" -- then I heartily recommend the Civics 101 podcast from New Hampshire Public Radio.
Civics 101 does everything right -- it picks nice, self-contained topics, and brings in knowledgable, engaging speakers to cover them. The conversations give you both the facts (e.g., "Here's when the Chief of Staff became a government position") and the gut feeling (e.g., "Here's what the Chief of Staff does on an average day") for the American government.
This "Idiot's Guide" book, on the other hand, does almost everything wrong. The writing is just painfully dull -- it's written at a seventh-grade reading level, making the concepts very simple, and there's nothing fun or playful to the prose style, so everything's very simple *and* very bland. I swear to god, even wikipedia articles have more snap than this book. The material is mostly stuff you already know, covered for the sake of completeness -- yes, please define "global warming" for anybody who lives under a rock and doesn't know how adjective-noun pairs work -- such that when it actually *does* present useful information, it's easy for it to slip by, sandwiched between so many attention-deadening commonplaces.
Even the little cartoons they include before each chapter are terrible, terrible, terrible.
On top of all that, the book was written almost ten years ago, so some material is outright out-of-date (say, the sections about same-sex marriage), and nearly everything else feels kind of quaint and chipper.
If you want to learn about government, do not read this book. Instead, listen to Civics 101. You're welcome.
The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver
This is Nate Silver's 2012 nonfiction book about the art and science of prediction. Unfortunately, it's been a week or two since I finished it, so I don't remember a whole lot beyond "it's good."
Every nonfiction writer seems to have their own favorite tools when it comes to writing a book. Jon Ronson spins out riveting stories, like he's not so much providing information as writing great short stories that happen to be true. Michael Lewis is all about re-creating these engaging, outsized personalities on the page, and just seeing what Billy Beane does next is enough to carry you through a lot of exposition.
Nate Silver's home base is math. And in this book about predictions, he leans more on that than anything else. And that serves him very, very well. His explanations of probability, statistics and modeling are very high-level and hand-wavey, but that's by necessity -- he has to skip the formulas themselves to get across the point of the formulas. And it's fascinating, coherent work: he nails overfitting, for example, by showing how one of the most tragic failed predictions of modern times came about by looking at a graph and extrapolating the wrong curve.
And the individual math explanations add up very nicely. He follows a very useful structure: the first half of the book details one aspect of prediction (such as overfitting) after another; the second half addresses onen area of prediction after another, and shows how the principles affect the predictions. By the time he hits his chapter about climate change -- possibly the most sophisticated predictions in the book -- he's built up the intellectual toolbox to discuss it intelligently.
That's not to say he's *bad* at those other aspects of writing nonfiction. He does reliable journeyman work with setting up characters and recounting stories. It's just that, really, you're there for the math.
And I think I did get a few bits of useful information out of this, in addition to just being entertained for a while. I especially liked his section about poker. Among other things, we learn that poker is a field of prediction where you get very good at it very quickly, and then pretty much plateau. And, like any field of endeavor where the graph is shaped like that, poker is filled with experts who are all on the 'plateau' side of the graph, and are all trying to convert being 0.05% better than their opponents into a payoff.
So: it's entertaining and interesting. It won't change your life, but it's well worth a read.
This is the 2015 German spy series about a 1983 East Berlin soldier who goes undercover as a military aide-de-camp in West Germany.
Well, of *course* I would like this show. I like spy stories. I like period pieces from the early 80s -- specifically, I like how my early childhood now feels distant and foreign enough to seem almost like science fiction. And I love seeing a good TV show from a foreign country, just to see that different perspective on things.
A lot of people will instantly compare this to The Americans. This makes sense, since it's literally the same plot: an embedded spy from the Soviet bloc tries to avoid detection. But beyond that, there are key differences.
First off, there is almost no "competence porn" in Deutschland '83. Competence porn is John Rogers's term for when one of the delights of a show or film is just watching a person be good at a thing. Spy stories are replete with competence porn. Hell, most of Burn Notice is just watching Michael Westen being good at his job, patiently voiceover-talking us through the process of locating a bug or breaking into a bank vault.
But Deutschland '83 is the exact opposite of that. The series centers on a character who has never been a spy before, and he's desperately trying to handle each new task that comes his way. We're not watching him smoothly handle putting on a disguise, breaking into a military unit, and (I dunno) disarming a bomb. Instead, it's engaging because he's hanging on by his fingernails and is always getting taxed right to the edge of his abilities and his emotional resilience.
The show also avoids the modern spy-story practice of pulling some sort of Shyamalan -- some moment of "Ooh, now this twist means EVERYTHING YOU KNEW WAS WRONG", owing to well-chosen ellipsis or flat-out unreliable narration. This is not about pulling out the rug from under you. This is more about making it so every character has to keep more and more and more secrets, until every scene has you wondering who's going to trip up first, or just break under the emotional pressure.
Lastly, the show does an amazing job of depicting the *world* of the Cold War. The story starts out focused on Martin Rauch (the young spy), but it quickly spins out from there to other characters: to his girlfriend back home, to protesters, to East German illegal book smugglers, to a rabblerouser professor and military generals and AIDS doctors and diplomats. At first, it feels like a sort of awkward tokenism -- "oh, all the military characters are dudes, so they want a plotline that gives women a voice" -- but no, the "side plots" gain momentum until they're as important as the main spy story. There's almost hints of The Wire to that scope, and it's all drenched with this agonizing tension of knowing, in 1983, that it might be the end of the world. Somebody might make one false move. We all might die. And every character is responding to that in their own way.
I was surprised to learn that this was actually the whole purpose to the show -- the showrunners, Anna and Joerg Winger, were trying to explain to their Berliner children just what it was like before the wall went down. How, say, their commute to school would have gotten them shot dead in 1983. So what better way to depict this world than with a story? And so those numerous non-spy storylines in this world aren't just some perfunctory counterbalance to the spy storyline -- instead, the spy storyline is just a way in to looking at this world.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that, as far as their style of storytelling, Deutschland '83 might be more American than The Americans -- or at least, more in keeping with how current "golden age" dramas operate. The Americans, in some ways, feels like a throwback: two clear protagonists, a very clear mission-of-the-week, and we slowly use those quests to explore more facets of these characters. That's a lovely, solid show structure, but one that hasn't been at the fore, creatively, since Buffy and The X-Files roamed the earth. Instead, Deutschland is much more of a 'massive Dickensian movie cut into chunks', the type of storytelling you'd expect from The Wire or Deadwood or Breaking Bad -- all the White Dudes With Problems standard bearers of the Golden Age of Television.
In any case, it's a riveting, meaningful story, well-acted and beautifully shot, and a fascinating demonstration of how people are taking the tools of modern American television and starting to use it to tell their own stories.
[Since my last post, Lindsey and I went to New York City for a week. I figured I'd write some quick responses to the four shows we saw there.]
A Doll's House, Part 2
This is the 2017 Lucas Hnath play that is exactly what it says on the tin: a sequel to Ibsen's classic drama, one that follows the same charaters fifteen years after the events of the original.
The play is billed as a comedy. One of the poster pull-quotes bills it as a "rollicking comedy," in fact. And the weird thing is, I only found this out after the fact. And it threw me a little. Yes, the show is definitely funny. It definitely has jokes in it. But it feels like, in its guts, it's not really a comedy. It has jokes, but I feel like I've lived on a diet of TV dramas for so long that I well understand, now, that jokes are utterly natural to drama.
What the show is, to me, is a beautiful piece of fan fiction. Yes, it obeys the strict definition of the term -- it's a riff on established material -- but it also does what good fan fiction does. It digs deep into well-known characters that we might only understand in a pat, reductive way. It repurposes old material to engage with new issues, usually issues that are off-limits to the stodgy, established canon. And it provides a feeling that art is not... 'contained'. A story doesn't end on its last page. Instead, it's full of possibilities that go tendrilling off in all directions, and one only has to write them all out.
Yes, A Doll's House, Part 2 continues the story of the Helmers. But it doesn't feel like it's *about* that continuation. Instead, it feels like it's taking the same story and retreading it in a different way. It's aimed a little differently. The original, taken blandly and simplistically, is about a young lady who assuages her ogre-ous husband until she finally wises up, tells him off, and leaves him. (And many bland and simplistic productions are just exactly that.) The moral you take from such a thing is that there are evil, sexist men in the world, and we can triumph by leaving them behind.
The genius of the sequel is that it is much fiercer in its criticism of society. It's not just a bad man keeping a good woman down, it's a messed up patriarchal system ensuring that *everybody* is miserable. It's a bad system that makes good people do bad things. And you can flee from your restrictive home, and you can claw your way to success, and you can get your own independence... but the needle still doesn't move on society. It just keeps doing what it's doing, churning out misery.
And so we see that Nora, after her fateful depature from the Helmer household, is independent, yes, and successful. But she's still in the mire of 19th-century Norway. She still has shell-shocked acquaintances asking her "How could you abandon your children?" She still sees her calls-to-arms for the women of Norway falling on a lot of deaf ears. And she still has to come back to Torvald to settle legal affairs in a system that is still painfully unfair to women.
What fascinated me is how it made Torvald heartbreaking, in his own way. Yes, he's still part of the problem. But he's also sad, and confused. And the plot boxes him in to the point where, arguably, there just isn't any 'right thing' he can do to make everything better. And I feel like the show has this sort of empathy for all four of its characters: *everybody* is sad and confused, and *everybody* is trying to do right in a system where there just aren't any good choices.
And there's also another sort of melancholy to the play. (N.B. this is where I go deep into the weeds.) People -- human beings, like you and me -- are different from characters. People can change. People can have vast hoards of useless memories, and countless idle, slight preferences, and quirks that nobody anywhere would possibly care about. People can be bland, or bored, or ambivalent. They -- we -- can contain multitudes.
But it's not so -- or rarely so -- for characters. Characters are streamlined. Characters are what is required for the play. Their attitudes are the attitudes that spur the action of the story. Their outlook is clear, so it scans for the audience. Their anecdotes are pared down to that which is relevant to the hero's journey. They are, each of them, bright and clear, and also somehow... small.
And I felt this tension in A Doll's House, Part 2. You find yourself wishing that these characters find a way out of the trap. You wish that they could change their minds about things. You wish they could be in a world bigger than a single 19th-century realism one-room set. You wish they could get away, just a little bit, from who they are. But everything they are is defined -- bounded -- by the hundred or so pages of Ibsen's original. That is all they can be.
The production takes measures to detach the audience, at least a little, from this vast sadness. There are jokes. There are small touches -- modern-pop house music, a brightly-lit hanging sign of the title, a 2017 water bottle -- that remind you of who you are, a modern playgoer peeking in on a pretend 19th-century drawing room. The characters curse occasionally, in a way unseen in our familiar and stuffy translations.
And they lean, lightly, on how the sexism that Nora faces still persists today. And I suppose it's a laugh. But that one also reinforces the melancholy. If you've heard someone ask, "How can you abandon your kids?", everything surrounding that line is sapped of its humor. The play takes plenty of time to breathe between sparse, significant events, and it lets the mind wander back to modern times.
So this was the 'rollicking comedy' I saw. I suspect I watched it wrong, taking away from it a different play than the production put on. But it was still, to my considerable surprise, my favorite piece of theater I saw on our trip to New York City.
This is, of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda's Pulitzer- and Tony-Award-winning 2015 hip-hop musical about the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.
To my surprise, I was even more impressed with this show than I expected to be. To my further surprise, I was moved *less* than I expected to be.
Just the construction of it is staggering. I'm amazed that anyone tries to write a biopic or to stage its theatrical equivalent. The bottom line is, 'the story of your life' is not inherently a story. It's just the laundry list of the shit that's happened to you. To make that into a narrative, with a protagonist going after an objective and meeting adversity and finding transformation, requires a mountain of work -- painstaking arrangement, and focus, and elision, until you're beaten and squeezed the chaos of someone's lifetime into something vaguely story-shaped.
And so I was damn impressed by the tension between Mr. Miranda's source material -- the full span of Hamilton's life, as laid out in Ron Chernow's biography -- and a theatrical production. It was neat to see how diligently Mr. Miranda worked at bringing up the same themes over and over, tying together seemingly disparate material. It was amazing to see how he used Hamilton's death-by-dueling -- arguably the only thing most people knew about the man, prior to this cultural juggernaut -- and arranged the musical's whole storyline around it. The rules of dueling are introduced, and you know where it's going. You see side characters get into duels. Aaron Burr introduces himself as the "man who shot him."
So, however scattered the story seems to get, you know where it's going. You know the endpoint.
And yet, for all that, I spent most of the first half of Hamilton just quietly noting the musical's structural integrity -- and not really feeling much. I could often see the emotional beats it was going for, but they never quite connected for me. There were the Les Mis-like revolutionaries, and I never quite shared their excitement about the aborn-ing country. The love story between Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler had pretty songs, but somehow I never quite felt the chemistry. Even the central conflict between Hamilton and Burr -- with Hamilton being the hot-headed, arrogant revolutionary and Burr being the calm, patient politician -- never felt relatable to me in any meaningful way.
A lot of this may be the performance I saw. That night there were a number of understudies -- and it's possible that even on a 'normal' night, the regular cast were stuck doing impersonations, to some degree, of their roles' originators. And the audience seemed staid and unresponsive -- there's nothing like a cast trying to get the audience to go wild, and the audience patiently Sitting Calmly And Watching Art, to convince you that you might be there on the wrong night.
It also may have been a mistake to walk into the show 'blind' -- that is, without having heard any of the songs even once. I envy how exhilirating everything about Hamilton must have been to earlier viewers -- "a musical? with hip-hop? and POC playing the founding fathers?" -- but it's quickly become a cultural institution, and thus less surprising. And as it was, I missed out on some of the callbacks and leitmotifs of the music while I listened with fresh ears.
But even with all those caveats in place, it got its emotional ducks in a row in the second act. Yes, I am an unfeeling monster, but even I was sniffly at Hamilton's son getting shot dead, followed by Hamilton's quiet and mournful middle age, and then telling his wife goodbye on the morning of his own duel.
Anyway. I'll give the soundtrack a lot of listens -- though I'll probably listen more to the 'mix tape', which frankly foregrounds how thin and polite the arrangements are in the original. And I certainly won't begrudge anyone else their love of it -- I'm sure other performances have been better, and other viewers could respond better. And I certainly enjoyed it, myself -- it just wasn't my favorite thing.
The Infinite Wrench
This is the latest version of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, a collection of performance-art pieces by the Neo-Futurists.
The Infinite Wrench aims to perform 30 short plays in 60 minutes. Those plays follow some simple rules: the actors play themselves; the stage is just the stage; the short play ends when the performers say "Curtain!" The structure is designed to move fast and present urgency. There's a countdown timer set for one hour at the top of the show. As soon as the actors shout "Curtain!" the audience shouts the number of the scene they want next.
The result, as Lindsey has pointed out, is sort of like Theater of the Unimpressed in show form: theater that works hard at being immediate and immersive, as far as possible from "performing netflix badly". They usually have audience participation. More than once I've seen a performer put themselves in some kind of distress, and that distress lasts until an audience member, unbidden, comes to rescue them.
So: at its best, it's riveting. At its worst, it's short, and soon followed by something better. I was kind of resistant to its immersive aspects. The excitement of "ooh, will we get through all thirty?" and the intensity of "oh, damn, they just said 'curtain' so I gotta shout the number of this one with an awesome title" were both met with a feeling of "Ugh. I'm old. And I've walked a lot today."
But as you'd expect, some of the short performance-art pieces really landed. And the unpredictable chaos of the show peeked through here and there. They tried a scene -- a 'new play' -- where an audience member helped a performer prepare banana pancakes onstage with a tiny hot plate. It burned so badly you could smell it from the audience, and the cast was bemused for the rest of the show by how haywire it had gone, as the smell of charred banana slowly wafted through the front rows. I had fun, just because that format is always fun, and the performers were really solid comedians, so this was an especially comic spin on the usual tone off the show.
So: a good late-night show on Fridays and Saturdays in NYC, and well worth your valuable time.
The Play That Goes Wrong
You're sitting and waiting for the play to go up. A couple crew members are onstage. One of them closes the set's main exit door. It drifts back open. He closes it. It comes open again. He closes it a third time. It stays shut. It stays shut. Then -- *creeeak* -- back open. He fusses and fusses and fusses and -- there! -- finally gets it stuck shut.
Then the play starts, and actors who are supposed to enter at the top of the first scene find that the door won't open.
And that sets the tone for The Play That Goes Wrong, the 2012 play that's been transplanted here from England, one in a line of "<x> goes wrong" type pieces from the Mischief Theatre Company.
What surprised me was just *how* relentlessly wrong the play went. In the same way that a multi-cam sitcom won't let three lines go by without any kind of joke in the mix, so it is with this play, which has some sort of theatrical mishap with nearly every line. So that has a few implications. First, it draws from the full range of stage-manager nightmare scenarios, from mishandled props to on-set accidents to equipment failures, along with every kind of acting mishap -- missed lines, missed cues, and every brand of cringe-inducing amateur-acting habit you can think of.
Second, it means that the "meta-play" -- that is, the play-going-wrong, not the fake play that the 'actors' are *trying* to perform propery -- has to be as quick and as tightly-constructed as a Warner Brothers cartoon. Everything that happens is either a joke or a setup or both at once. They'll patiently set up running gags -- say, a problem with matches and an errant bottle of paint thinner -- to interact with each other in catastrophic ways (i.e., *FOOM*).
At its best, you're marveling not at what goes wrong, but the way the 'actors' luck into staving off yet another disaster. My favorite such moment has a book getting accidentally kicked into a room that's supposed to be in a completely different part of the house, and then deftly thrown back to the proper actor in the proper room, without skipping a beat. Each actor just "happened" to be perfectly positioned to save the day.
This also means, though, that there's little chance of connecting to the meta-play on any emotional level -- or, deep beneath it, the 'real' play on any level whatsoever. You're just watching this whirling Rube Goldberg go through all its motions, producing amusing mishaps with astounding speed. Honestly, one of my favorite moments had the lead, playing the detective in their country-house mystery, sit on a chaise, where he was supposed to find a ledger under the cushion. Earlier, they set up that another actor absent-mindedly moved it from the cushion to the floor beneath the chaise.
So he sat on the chaise, and said, "What's this? A ledger?" And then realized the ledger wasn't there. And then spent a good three minutes steadily stalking around the chaise, repeatedly saying "... a ledger?" with increasing volume, desperation, and ultimately madness. The actor was channeling John Cleese as hard as he could, and I have no problems with that. But what was most satisfying for me was that it was just this moment where all the chaos stopped, and it was just about sinking into the *emotion* of a play going wrong. It was stretching out that feeling of, "Oh god, can't I just have *one* thing go right?"
The front rows of the audience started trying to help. He argued with them and told them to shut up and let him do his job and this wasn't television and he could see them. It felt very relatable.
And this is getting deep in the weeds, but I was damned impressed with the "bad" play that they were trying to put on. I'm not gonna call it a well-written play by any measure, but as someone who wasted his childhood reading golden-age mystery novels, they did a solid and respectable job at writing a typical country-house mystery. The characters were normal archetypes for the genre. The mysteries actually used the clues in interesting ways. It was even arguably written adhering to 'fair play', which was a big deal for Agatha Christie and her ilk -- if you watched a good production of "The Murder at Haversham Manor", you could actually work out all the twists and turns ahead of time -- it would just be very, very difficult. It does a fine job of feinting towards accusing one party, and then another, before bringing up its conclusion.
So: unexpected competence there.
Still, I don't think I laughed as much as the folks around me. I was often more impressed with its construction than amused. And it's just hard for me to appreciate slapstick. If somebody hits their head on something, even if it's excellently-done stunt work, I still wince more than I laugh.
So, for me, the play was a really fascinating piece of work. I laughed a fair amount, too. And then the play floated away into the ether and I carried on with my life.
For next week: lots to write about! Season one of The Americans! The first two Unbeatable Squirrel Girl trades! Eee!
 Though even then, it was kind of odd to have that story go that way when they had seven (?) other children who just never appeared. Yet again, it's hard to take real-life source material and make it theatrical.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none