Books: How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately
TV: Fleabag (season 1), The Tick (2016, season 1)
How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately by Boris Shekhtman
This is a fascinating little 100-page book by a man who runs a language-training center in Virginia, one that mostly caters to government and military types. It's about how to get the most mileage out of your knowledge of a foreign language. It also might be the most Slytherin book about language I've ever read.
I can explain this with an example. Here is one of the book's techniques, kind of inexpertly used:
Native speaker: "What kind of trees do you have around your house?"
You: "Eh, different kinds. How about you? Do you have any trees by your place? I forget, do you have a house or an apartment?"
This is a silly bit of chitchat. But it is also a very deft way to respond, if in this foreign language you are suddenly blanking... on the names for trees. It (1) deflects the initial question, (2) introduces a new topic [the NS's living arrangements], and (3) prompts the NS to rattle off some names of trees on their own, which may prod your memory. All of this without having to stall out the conversation to say, "Er I am sorry I do not know the words for trees but yay trees."
And so it goes for 100 pages, with lots of cunning techniques that could be read as "tricking someone into thinking you know their language", but are more like "survival skills if you want to successfully converse using minimal linguistic tools". They talk about building up little "islands" of memorized speeches, which, yes, make you seem briefly like you're fluent, but more importantly give you a sort of breather — hit "play" on your little speech, and you don't have to think too hard for a minute or two.
The book also lists exercises for each technique. I doubt I'll use those exercises, but I may wind up leaning on these techniques. Or more precisely, I'm taking away the overall *perspective* that this book has — that language acquisition isn't about just words or grammar or pronunciation, but there's a meta level: being deliberate about what you're using a language for in a given situation; being aware of your weaknesses, and perhaps choosing to "cheat" around them; and knowing your strengths, and how to put them to good use.
Fleabag (season one)
This is the first season of the 2016 Phoebe Waller-Bridge comedy about a sardonic Londoner navigating family and relationships while making frequent fourth-wall breaks to the audience.
Of course, that's not what it's really about. (These one-line summaries I like to start with can be hard.)
Apparently this is an adaptation of a stage play — this doesn't surprise me, and I mean that in a good way. One of the strongest things you can show on a stage is "one character revealing a secret to another, with consequences." Someone sits on their secret, and the consequences for not saying it mount, and finally they say it, and, well, things either turn out okay or they don't.
What fascinates me about Fleabag is how it puts a spin on this basic technique. There is a secret in play: Fleabag fucked up and indirectly caused her best friend's death. But it's not really a *secret* per se — Fleabag obviously knows this already. And honestly, the audience susses this out very quickly too, by design. So it's not a question of Fleabag telling *another person* this secret.
In my opinion, it's more like "will she ever let herself acknowledge what's happened?" Over the course of six episodes, you see her desperately running from it — putting on forced, fragile smiles; having a wide catalog of terrible sex; twitching her brain away from flashbacks to relevant moments — anything to claw her way out of this gravity well of pain and self-loathing.
No one around her is capable of providing emotional support. Many of the people closest to her outright hate her. And even in her fourth-wall breaks, she can't open up to you, her audience confidant, about what happened.
And so the show becomes a balancing act. It gives you this tour of bleakness — a sort of "worst hits" of relationships from your twenties, coupled with hopeless, toxic family ties, and lots of the unending shit you have to put up with just by being a woman and breathing in 2018.
But also, Phoebe Waller-Bridge is wickedly funny. The English have forgotten more about acerbic sarcasm than we Americans will ever know, and the knives in Fleabag are out and sharp and relentless. And Ms. Waller-Bridge, for her part, can convey more in a silent fraction-of-a-second glance at the camera than a lesser comedy can do with a whole ponderous speech.
So you laugh through the nightmare, always feeling the undertow of the deaths that nobody will talk about.
It's a short season that goes by quickly, but it's really an amazing piece of work. Well worth your time.
The Tick (2016, season 1)
This is the second live-action adaptation of The Tick, a superhero parody which features a big, nigh-invulnerable, rather empty-headed superhero and his beleaguered accountant sidekick.
This was a fascinating watch. I've now experienced The Tick as a comic book from the late 80s, a children's cartoon in the mid-90s, a live-action sitcom in the early 2000s, and now this 2017 streaming comedy.
The children's cartoon was the best format for this property. The parody elements felt more subversive as part of the "Fox Kids" Saturday-morning lineup, in a property theoretically aimed at children but really geared towards comics obsessives who live for surreal humor. And structurally, the cartoon gave them a lot of freedom — each episode could parody some new superhero trope, with a whole new world of locations and characters to explore, and no real concerns about an overarching plot. But at the same time, they could steadily accumulate the weird things that happened in each episode into a kind of Mad Libs of world-building. A villain etched "CHA" into the mood in episode one — and so, the graffito stayed for the entire series. This property is best used as a gun aimed at the superhero genre, and the cartoon let them lead with that.
But now the landscape has changed. And it's fascinating to see this old property shift yet again to fit its new container. Now, we have a very clear season arc, with one Big Bad, and obvious cliffhangers at the end of each episode. Each episode gets its chunk of the plot, but no episode is really self-contained. And the comedy is shot through with elements of genuine drama.
To be clear, I love this 'modern' take on The Tick, even if it doesn't feel as appropriate as the 90s-cartoon format. What's fascinating here is, since the x-treme 90s, Ben Edlund (the creator of The Tick) has had a phenomenal career as a TV writer. </i>He wrote the "Jaynestown" episode of Firefly; he wrote the "Smile Time" episode of Angel; he had a great run on The Clone Wars, Supernatural, Gotham, and Powers. So he has mastered this "modern" TV-show format. And he dove into his rolodex for this latest series — I recognized half the credited writers, which is not normal.
So when we see The Tick twisted around to a modern-streaming-comedy format, they're doing it about as well as it could be done. Like with The Dragon Prince, they are remarkably solid with the simple meat and potatoes of storytelling. They pick one of their best villains (The Terror) to be the Big Bad. They make Arthur our viewpoint character, which makes perfect sense, and give Arthur a history with the supervillain. They connect Dot to the mob early on, which makes it easier to weave her into the story later. It's just one good decision after another.
Best of all, they pull off that rare trick of creating human, emotional moments in a heightened world. The early episodes, for instance, that feature Dot dealing with Arthur as he is (apparently) backsliding into mental illness are... honest. It feels like lived experience. It's heartfelt. And this is great, both because it keeps you emotionally invested in the story... and because it keeps you emotionally invested in a story that's steadily going to crazytown.
Ah yes — because another thing they pull off is that steady, surreal world-building that the children's cartoon did. They introduce a new bestseller in some obvious key art. Next episode, they mention that it was written by a dog. Next episode, we see an interview with the dog. Next episode, the talking-dog-author is a character in our current hijinks, and we're just, "yes, this dog is a normal part of our story now," without really batting an eye.
And they do this over and over again, weaving in many surreal elements over time, until trying to recount any plot point to a stranger will sound like you're actively having a stroke.
So this is an odd little show. I had a great time watching it. I was fascinated by how they managed to make this whacked-out surreal parody fit into the frame of a modern TV show. And that act itself is so unusual that they've created something unique — there's definitely nothing else out there like this iteration of The Tick. I can still grumble about some things — I wish they had more of a budget, I wish the show weren't so wall-to-wall white, and I wish they'd dropped the "is the Tick real?" feint in the first two episodes — but this show is definitely worth your while.
For next week: I'm watching season one of One Day at a Time and, once Netflix delivers the DVD, the 1979 Tarkovsky Stalker. I'm reading some Spanish-language Marvel comics and listening to an audiocourse about linguistics. Oh, and I still need to write about Endgame and Mission: Impossible — Fallout
 The protagonist is never named in the show, but is named "Fleabag" in the credits. Hardly anyone is named in the show, presumably to irritate reviewers.
 It's yet another moment of "thank god we are getting a greater diversity of voices in television". Part of the joy, for me, is just getting to ride along with this perspective. God, could you imagine the male-gaze version of her character?
 It was just canceled after its second season, though they're trying to re-home it.
 Voiced by Townsend Coleman, the original voice of The Tick, in a nice touch.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none