TV: Brooklyn Nine Nine (season 1), Mr. Robot (season 1)
Games: Thaumistry: In Charm's Way
Brooklyn Nine Nine (season 1)
This is the first season of Brooklyn Nine Nine, the 2013 workplace comedy about a scrappy police precinct that's taken over by a stern new commanding officer.
They just threatened to cancel this show, and the outpouring of fan devotion was so loud, I figured I'd check it out. I did this with some reservations — I feel like there are so many worrying stories about law enforcement these days, from civil forfeiture for magarita machines to serving as customer service for threatened, racist white people that seeing a sitcom set at a police station might feel a bit icky.
But I gave it a shot.
First of: it's a sitcom. And honestly, unless a sitcom is going way, way off the reservation (like BoJack Horseman or The Good Place), I may just not be down for it. The simple, self-contained episodic storylines, the one-liner jokes, the broad characters — it's hard to get me in the door for these. I find myself feeling like I've got better stuff to do. And Brooklyn Nine Nine is definitely going very, very conventional — ragtag bunch of wacky characters, A-story of some police case, B-story of some personal arc, everybody learns a valuable lesson at the end, everything resets at the start of the next episode, "will they or won't they" central relationship. Even if you haven't seen Brooklyn Nine Nine before, you *have* seen Brooklyn Nine Nine before.
That said, it's doing a by-the-numbers sitcom about as well as you can do it. Even when the jokes feel a little limp, the cast is stellar across the board. Using Andre Braugher's gravitas from Homicide: Life on Street in a comedy is a genius move, and every character is sharply delineated, with a whole bunch of clear character relationships right there in the pilot. And a sitcom episode is a very difficult structure to get right, and they hit all their marks — it's especially funny when the story structure requires them to tell an entire police-procedural story into (approximately) four one-minute scenes of B-story.
And somehow I don't hate Andy Samberg in this show. I don't naturally hate Andy Samberg, but his character is introduced as a cocky, smarmy police officer, and so I pretty much immediately wanted to smack him. But it gets very clear very fast that the *show* thinks Jake Peralta has problems, too. This is wonderful. A sitcom will typically set up some self-satisfied prick and have him win all the time, to the grudging adoration of everybody around him. But, as has been pointed out by wiser writers than me, the show is about Jake learning to grow up. It's about him being wrong, a lot.
And that's part of a larger picture where this cop show is, deep in its DNA, actively and forcibly rejecting cop-show masculinity. All its male characters are exceptions to the "tough, grizzled cop" cliché in some way. Hitchcock and Scully are comically incompetent. Holt is gay, and has had to deal with the homophobic bullshit implicit in the cop clichés his whole career. Boyle is a milquetoast foodie. Terry is, first and foremost, a devoted family man, fighting with crippling anxiety about being in the field. And again, there's Peralta, who's mostly an object lesson in what's wrong with this whole outlook. Hell, in "Old School", they brought in Stacy Keach as a representative of "old-school" cop masculinity just to demonstrate what a crock it was. And of course, their one unquestionable badass is Rosa Diaz, and even then, you clearly see the flaws in that emotionally closed-off persona.
It feels weirdly subversive for a Fox sitcom. It's maybe the only take on a cop sitcom that I could stomach these days.
It's a silly show. It's remarkably good for the first season of a sitcom. It's a whole pile of fun, funny, short episodes. It feels reassuring. And after watching Lady Bird and The People v. OJ Simpson, it was exactly what I needed.
Mr. Robot (season 1)
This is the 2015 USA drama about a hacker who finds himself embroiled in a clandestine effort to destroy the world's largest multinational business conglomerate.
Okay, let's get this out of the way from the start: the hacking in this show is great. It's like the opposite of the floaty-3D "Unix interface" from Jurassic Park: they did their homework, and they did a ton of it. Where a lesser show would just insert gobbledygook into their script, Mr. Robot has people actually talk about how you would compromise a secure computer system. Where a network show would just depict random floaty user interfaces, Mr. Robot actually shows you the bash terminal, with all the relevant commands showing up in the right order.
To a great extent, this show is just "competence porn" — the fun is in watching people who are very good at something do something very difficult very well. Their solutions for breaking into the data-storage facility are just beautiful, in a terrible, blackhat-nightmare sort of way.
If I'm honest with myself, this show for me is a lot of fun, tense, computer heists, with some other aspects serving as icing.
For instance, the shooting style is wonderful icing. They deliberately botch their framing, so that things seem off-balance and unsettling. The face you're supposed to attend to is isolated in the bottom left corner of the screen. A conversation gets split into isolating close-ups for a long, long time. The camera doesn't feel like it's where it's supposed to be. From a film student, this would be endearing incompetence, but here, it feels meticulous, carefully building the tension of an untrustworthy world, the sort of vibe you'd expect from a 70s conspiracy thriller.
And I do love where that deliberately-wrong-footed feeling creeps into the narrative. I love that an entire episode veers into dream sequences — it's probably a sign that I've watched too many things and now I'm jaded, but when I watch narrative completely fall apart into abstraction, it just feels refreshing to me now. (Yes, I need to watch Twin Peaks.) I love that the voiceover is directed to the audience as if we're his imaginary friend, and my favorite moment of the season has him angrily turning on us in the middle of a subway train, shouting at the camera itself and throwing it to the ground.
So this story is a good time. And it's ably told, building tension effectively, and handling all its complicated plotlines with aplomb.
I don't know if it's a very *meaningful* story.
And this is where things get awkward. Because it *presents* as a meaningful story: i.e., "this is not just a fun heist drama with crazy brain-frying narrative breaks, no, this is Serious Commentary On Our Times". I just don't think it's that good at that commentary.
A quick sidebar. There is a rule of thumb for answering the question "should I remove this voiceover line from my script?" And the rule is this: "if you can remove the line, and the scene still makes sense, *leave the line in.*" That's counterintuitive, but it makes sense if you think about it: if your story can't 'story' properly without the voiceover, then it's a crutch — you're not presenting your story via what's happening onscreen. And that's not good, because "what happens onscreen" is what the audience really connects with.
Okay, back to Mr. Robot. This show breaks that rule of thumb all over the place. There are minutes-long stretches of voiceover that would, if omitted, leave us with long, long shots of Elliot staring into space. Now, with a lesser writer I'd say that they're screwing up, and making VO do the work that the dialog and action is supposed to do. But here, I think Mr. Esmail is taking a bold chance, gambling that making his show partly just a manifesto, a screed against digital-age capitalism, is worth the long speeches.
And I think if the show were more perceptive, or had more interesting things to say, that would've paid off. As it is, I just don't think it's telling me anything new or interesting about modern life. It feels like the half-hour of your life that follows somebody who's gotten a little high telling you, "You ever feel like, shit, the companies are, like, *controlling* us?" And then you get a speech of things that you more-or-less agree with, but the points aren't as mind-blowing as your conversational-monopolist thinks they are.
So set your expectations accordingly. It's the best show out there about computer security. It is a goddamn adventure of formalist cinematography. But it is not more than a thrilling romp.
Thaumistry: In Charm's Way
This is the 2017 interactive-fiction game about a newbie magician who goes undercover at an engineering festival. It was a kickstarter-funded game from Bob Bates, one of the original text-game designers for Infocom.
Like Obduction and Thimbleweed Park, Thaumistry is proudly a throwback game. It's a text game, designed to play like Zork or Enchanter, with only a few nods to modern technology like an in-game map or a few links to wikipedia. And here's the weird part: it's kind of a throwback within the medium of interactive fiction. It was a small field in the 1990s, but it was incredibly fertile creatively, with games like Jigsaw showing a staggering scale heretofore unseen in the medium, or puzzle-light games like Photopia pushing the limits of what even counts as a game, or delightfully recondite games like Christminster and Varicella stretching what sort of world you can set an adventure game in. (Those were "the novels of Anthony Trollope" and "Machiavelli's The Prince", respectively.)
It does do a fine job of using modern advancements in the TADS ecosystem for making the gameplay experience smooth and pleasant. There's a top-of-the-line hints system (that I broke down and used three times, IIRC). Its parser is much more forgiving than, say, Zork. They use a nice itemized scoring system. And it's pretty clear that TADS is flexible and powerful enough to implement whatever puzzles the writer imagine, with NPC conversations, nested objects and locations, timed events, and so on.
But everything about the storytelling hearkens back to the earliest days of the form. This is just a fun and silly romp. You're an inventor who just learned he can do magic. You've been tasked with disabling a magic-detecting machine at an inventors' fair. And you have to do a lot of silly things to get to that point, including but not limited to: distracting a llama; breaking into a diner; beating a very challenging dunking booth; and on and on and on. The story doesn't *mean* anything, the storytelling doesn't break any new ground, and the puzzles are the sort of random-but-ultimately-sensible "combine x with y" challenges that you associate with the form. There are sneering villains. There are hilariously-useless spells. There are puns.
It's all so resolutely throwback, so "early text-based adventure", that when the modern world creeps into the game, it feels fun and anachronistic. It's just weird seeing Occupy Wall Street, or a Tony Robbins type, or venture capitalists, show up in this old, *old*-school text game. And sometimes it's even touching. The game makes no secret of its frustration with sexism in programming and engineering, which is just kind of mind-bending, because it comes from a gaming medium that predates the whole "computer games are for boys" bullshit. And there is a "recover old memories" spell in the game that leads to some really heartwarming moments that just wouldn't have happened in that 1980s milieu where the game seems to belong.
In any case, I had a pleasant time playing through this on my flight home, and I'd like to see it do well enough to encourage Mr. Bates to produce sequels, and other writers to have a go at kickstarting new projects. If you want to try text games, you might give this a go because you can install it straight from Steam. If you want to try text games and you're willing to install Frotz, I'd make other recommendations. But this one was fun.
For next week: I still have more plays to write about — reading I've done to prep for The Well-Made Play. I also still have to write about The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. I'm currently reading The Final Days, the Woodward and Bernstein book about the end/collapse of the Nixon presidency, and watching the last season of TableTop as "comfort food".
 Even Community couldn't nail that out of the gate, spending maybe half a season to figure out how to characterize Britta.
 Now, granted, it's a sitcom, so this means that Perralta is stuck in a Sartre-esque nightmare where he learns the same sort of life lesson over and over and over, week after week after week, but that's... not entirely unrealistic, come to think of it.
 Gah. I remember watching the start of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., when they first introduced their "hacker" character, and wishing they could do stories like that with her. Ah well.