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

Monday (2/23/09) 10:16pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Battlestar Galactica [4x12-4x13] [spoilers], Battlestar Galactica [4x14-4x15] [spoilers], LOST [5x06-5x07] [spoilers], Burn Notice [1x11-1x12]
Books:  Othello [Arden, 3rd ed.]

Battlestar Galactica [4x12-4x13] [spoilers]
Ah, another round of the happiest show on earth.

First off, I watched "The Oath" and "Blood on the Scales" off of BitTorrent.[1][2]

This was an interesting pair of episodes, because (to me) it felt like I was temporarily watching a different show.  Battlestar Galactica has often felt like "The West Wing in space" -- a vast, patient political drama where people ponder unsolvable moral dilemmas.  And now, suddenly, it's a straight-ahead, balls-to-the-wall action drama.  Oh, sure, we explore the moral dilemmas where Gaeta tries to do right by his beliefs even though Zarek has an unfortunate habit of killing everyone in their way.  Sure.

But really, this is suddenly a show about Lee and Starbuck cocking big, loud guns, kissing like mad, and then striding down a hallway to kick ass.  And then it was about T_gh and Adama doing the same (minus the kissing).

Honestly, I found the change in tone a hell of a lot of fun.  It was like they'd temporarily switched the channel to some vaguely-A*Team-like spinoffs of Battlestar Galactica, and we were watching those for a couple of weeks instead of the real show.  Yes, the episodes had the regular allotment of misery (see:  Anders getting shot), but it was just great to see everyone being badasses for a while.  (Even Badger got to kill a guy! a marine! with a pen! while handcuffed!)

That said, this short jaunt into mutiny-land felt detached from their main storyline.  Okay, we're looking for Earth.  Okay, we found Earth and it's a radioactive cinder.  Okay, we've picked up a ton of mysterious facts about its destruction.

It feels like the next steps after that are (1) investigate those mysteries and (2) go on looking for a planet that'll do for living on.  But instead, we've gotten sidetracked.  Yes, the mutiny is a natural result of everyone's displeasure with the Cylon collaboration.  I get that, and I acknowledge that it's a *realistic* plot development -- I'm just saying it's not the plot development I was keen to see next.

Even though lots and lots of stuff happened, none of it felt like the next thing in the story.

Battlestar Galactica [4x14-4x15] [spoilers]
Then it was off to the Drafthouse to catch the two most recent episodes, "No Exit" and "Deadlock".

And lo, we resume the real story.

I'd like to kick off this discussion by reprinting part of the last LOST discussion:
Let's say you and I are in a scene.  We're sitting at a table.  On the table sits a closed wooden "mystery box".  As befitting a mystery box, it has a big question mark carved into the top.  And our story has hit a point where the big important question, the thing that's been vexing us and vexing the audience since the start, the thing we *gotta know the answer to*, is this:  "What is in the box?"

So.  How do we end our scene so that we answer that question?

Take your time.

No, quit hemming and hawing and looking nervously around the room.

Come on, it's not a trick question.

That's right, the correct answer is, "We open the box."

Why is this a good solution?  (I know, this sounds like a stupid question; bear with me.)  It gives us a definitive answer:  we see what's in the box.  It's dramatic, and in the moment:  we continue the same scene with the same characters, so our momentum keeps going and the audience knows exactly what's happening.  And it's cinematic:  that is, it's something the audience can see and hear.  They hear the box creak open.  They see what's inside.

Okay, that's part one of the thought experiment.

Part two:  what if the question isn't "What is in the box?"

What if the question is "What *was* in the box ten years ago?"

So we can't just open the box this time.  What are you and I to do?

There are a number of solutions, they all kind of suck.  We can ask somebody what was in the box, and they can tell us.  Unfortunately, that isn't cinematic and, compared to actually seeing the ex-contents, it's kind of sketchy on details.  We can open the box and find evidence of what was in the box at some previous time, and then puzzle out what must have been there.  Again:  not cinematic.  We could cut to a flashback scene where other people find something in the box -- it's cinematic, but it kills the momentum.  We stop the current story in its tracks so that the audience has to switch gears and watch these other people do other stuff.

Answering questions that pertain to right *now*?  That's easy.  Answering questions that pertain to the *past*?  That's a royal pain.
LOST has had this problem out the wazoo -- lots of "mystery boxes in the past" -- and they've spent season five finding clever ways of solving it.  Battlestar Galactica has had fewer "mystery boxes in the past", and it has utterly failed to find clever ways to address the problem.

Instead, BSG has turned to the old reliable:  the info dump.  One character tells another a big pile of exposition about what happened back in the day.  And, as I hinted at in my LOST review, that sort of thing kills the narrative dead. 

One thing I hadn't realized at the time is that it's also confusing.  The characters on-screen seemed to get the gist of the history -- the final five travelled to the twelve colonies, provided resurrection technology, and -- wait, what?  Who's doing what? when?  I spent most of "explanation time" feeling disoriented, like I was eighty and somebody was telling me how to install Ubuntu -- I was sure it all made some kind of sense, but I wished people would talk slower and employ pictures.  I've had to go back to the episodes' wikipedia pages since then, and I'm still not 100% sure what kind of backstory they've jury-rigged together.

That said, it has been nice to see them return to their main story arc after the little jaunt into mutinyland, even if it's been heavy on hazy expositions and scenes where people stare at cracks in the walls.  After this, they have only four more episodes to sort everything out, so it makes sense that they should get a move on.

Side note:  I'm going to just assume Paulla Schaffer annoyed the hell out of everybody.  Why?  Because I found her distractingly attractive, and the general rule of BSG is that characters I'm attracted to, fandom hates.

Additional side note:  hooray for John Hodgman getting a cameo!  I now demand to see an "I'm a Mac / I'm a Cylon" ad.

Additional additional side note:  sometimes I wonder what life would have been like if I'd been born ten to twenty years later, and I'd always had the Internet around.  (My guess:  the first twenty years of my life would have been less isolated and more creative.)  I sense that if I'd discovered Bear McCreary's blog as a child, I would have decided on the spot that I wanted to be a TV composer.  Whether this would have been a net gain or loss, I know not.

Side note to the additional additional side note:  can we take up a collection to entice Michael Giacchino into keeping a blog?  Please?

LOST [5x06-5x07] [spoilers]
Over the last couple of weeks, I saw the two most recent episodes:  "This Place Is Death" and "316".  With that, LOST has resumed its habit of pairing good episodes with bad ones:  I liked the first one, I hated the second.

Perhaps that's a bit harsh.  I didn't hate *everything* about "316".  For instance, I was glad they went ahead and got the O6 (or some of them) back *on* the island.  Since LOST sorted out an end date, they've done a great job of breezing past the endpoint that the audience looks forward to.  Maybe we thought the show would be over when they got rescued -- nope.  Maybe we thought season five would be over when the O6 returned -- apparently not.

I love shows that do this.  It takes a lot of courage to "cash in" whatever big question the audience has focussed on, but the reward is that you take the show into new territory -- territory that the audience hasn't even thought to speculate about.

But then there was the *way* that they did it.

They started with a ten-minute speech from Mrs. Hawking that explains (kind of) how the latest Dharma station was built, how Craphole Island was first located, and how the O6 are going to get back there.  Ten. goddam. minutes.  And it was nothing but an info-dump.

Look, there are ways to make an info-dump work dramatically.  Say we want to get <x>, <y>, and <z> across to the audience, and we've decided to do this by having me tell you about <x>, <y>, and <z>.  There are several strategies to make that scene work.  (1) We can make the information very important -- we let the audience know that if you don't learn about <x>, <y>, and <z>, you will *die*.  (2) Then add complications to the process:  I'm trying to tell you about <x>, <y>, and <z> but something's making the task especially difficult.  (3) The exposition can have an emotional impact on the listener -- i.e., when you hear about <x>, <y>, and <z>, it changes your emotional state.  And naturally, (4) the exposition can have an emotional impace on the *speaker* -- i.e., as I tell you about <x>, <y>, and <z>, it changes *my* emotional state.  Maybe it makes me realize something about myself that never occurred to me before -- and maybe that makes me happy, or sad, or angry.  Side note:  I *love* expository scenes that accomplish (4).

This ten-minute monster, however, accomplished none of those things.  It just sat there like a dead fish, and stank about as badly.

What was worse, the information Mrs. Hawking was exposition-ing about hurt my intelligence.

There seems to be a trade-off with LOST's mysteries:  either a mystery can have a sensible resolution, *or* it can lead to a lot of juicy character drama on the way to its resolution.  Not both.  Take Christian Shephard's shoes, for example.  The fact that the old man wore tennis shoes didn't lead to any soul-searing character objectives, but it *did* have a perfectly sensible explanation:  Jack had figured he'd bury the guy in cheap shoes.

On the other end are the mysteries that lead to character moments.  For example:  the "big lie" from season four.  It led to beautiful character arcs, like Hurley feeling wracked by guilt and finally coming clean to his mother in season five.  But the eventual reveal of why they lied?  That *still* makes no damn sense to me.

This seems to be the same sort of thing:  "The O6 have to return to the island" is great plot fodder.  It forces the O6 to address deep, thorny questions.  Do they really have anything worth sticking around for in the outside world?  Do they feel beholden to the Islanders?  Who do they trust -- the people who tell them to stay or the people who tell them to go?

But the fans couldn't think of any possible explanation for *why* the O6 had to go back.  The vague hints throughout season five that they have to somehow "make things right" didn't sound too auspicious.  And, lo and behold, the explanation we get is just complete bunkum.  They have to "reproduce the original circumstances?"  Wha?  Oh, thank you, Darlton, for making my scientist brain vomit on that chunk of makes-no-damn-sense.

Not even a hot Ajira flight attendant can atone for that.

I sense, though, that "316" is an episode that's "taking one for the team," as it were.  Maybe they knew they didn't have a good explanation for *why* the O6 had to return or *how* the O6 would return, and so they (wisely) chose to blaze through that as quickly as possible.

Or maybe Mrs. Hawking was lying in that big long speech of hers.  (A guy can hope.)

There was also some cheesiness to the mysteries they set up in this episode.  Why did Hurley change his mind and get on the plane?  How did Sayid get arrested?  How did Ben get covered in jam?  Somehow, these questions -- generated by focusing on Jack throughout "316", as opposed to any of the characters who were dealing with conflicts -- felt a little too manufactured.

However, this may be a side effect of the episode ordering.  The showrunners original planned to run 5x07, "The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham", before "316".  So maybe these aren't cheesy little arbitrary mysteries, but rather the ordinary results of what happens in "Bentham".  (Again, a guy can hope.)

So what did "This Place Is Death" do right, then?

First and most obviously, it focussed on the Islanders instead of the O6.  Not only that, it used Jin's time-skipping to fill in the Rousseau storyline.  Sure, we didn't learn much new abou that plot, but we learned that Rousseau wasn't lying.  And it was very sad to see aw-sweet-kid Rousseau set off on her inevitable journey towards being crazy-scary Rousseau.

And after Jin rejoins the rest of the Islanders, it's just one wrenching thing after another.  I've never been a fan of Charlotte (Why in god's name did Kristen Bell go for Heroes instead of taking that rôle?!  WHY?!), but her death scene was just hell.  Jeremy Davies acted the crap out of that.  And yes, having her die while lost in her own childhood memories was one last twist of the knife.

As one Alamo LOSTie said after Charlie's death, "These guys are bastards."

Come to think of it, I think the big difference between "This Place is Death" and "316" is that "316" had people talking *about* science fiction, while "This Place is Death" had people *living* with it.  Come to think of it, that may be the essential difference between the O6 and Islander storylines, and that may be why the Islander storylines tend to work better.

All the blah-dee-blah in the world is nothing compared to Locke turning a big wheel.

Burn Notice [1x11-1x12]
The last disc of season one of Burn Notice contains the two-part episode "Loose Ends".

Before discussing this any further, I have an announcement to make:  John Dickson actually made a decent music cue!  This is a first for this series.  It happened about thirty-seven minutes into this two-part finale, during a tense race to a meeting-location.  The music is just two alternating gritty synth notes.  No cheeseball 'sensitive' acoustic-guitar melody.  No by-the-numbers club pop.  Just two synth notes.

On the commentary for this scene, Gabrielle Anwar points out, "This music is pretty good" with what I have to assume is surprise.  It's like all of a sudden, you're hearing an excerpt from the soundtrack this show is *supposed* to have -- not some gauzey Casio-ish music from a mid-80s Lifetime movie-of-the-week, but something propulsive and gritty and hard-edged.

I feel like most of the soundtrack should be like that -- it should connote doing a mean, tough job using whatever technology you can scavenge.  Then, the moments of emotional vulnerability -- which are relatively few -- should be scored appropriately, and really *stand out* from the less-warm-and-fuzzy surroundings.

For a minute or so, the soundtrack was perfect.  Then a cheesy electric-guitar riff came in, and I loudly cursed Mr. Dickson's name.  (Side note:  I really can't watch TV with my family any more.  I spend too much time shouting at the screen.)

Apparently minimalrobot tried watching a bit of Burn Notice while stranded in the wilds of Florida.  I mentioned that I was a big fan of the show; he said he found it "by-the-numbers and ordinary".  That got me thinking about that spectrum between formula and experimentation.

It's something of a blessing that we *have* such a spectrum these days.  The desperate business has as much room for Burn Notice as it does for Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

Some shows move across that spectrum.  The best example of this I can think of is Buffy.  It started out with a clear monster-of-the-week formula (with longer arcs of 'taking on the big bad' in the background), but it became more and more serialized as the seasons went on.  By season seven, you didn't have "epsiodes" so much as an eighteen-hour movie that happened to be cut into 42-minute chunks.

Some shows like Mad Men deliberately eschew formula.  Matthew Weiner discusses in commentaries that he *could* center each episode around coming up with a pitch for a difficult client, but he wants to do something else -- something that's less about narrative motion and more about characters with simmering internal conflicts that are usually restrained from doing much of anything.

So, what do we make of the formulaic show?  On the one hand, you don't want to reject a show outright *because* it's formulaic -- that makes as much sense as hating on sonnets because of that so-last-century rhyme scheme, or dismissing nightclub music with "These two notes are great!  I hope they play them for *another* hour!"[3]  On the other hand, relying on formula can be a sign of laziness.  People that don't come up with an original structure perhaps can't be bothered to come up with an original anything-else.

And it also ties into personal preferences:  some people can't abide watching *another* Pixar movie with a lovable-outsider hero who learns a valuable lesson, and some people find twelve-tone music to be unlistenable bilge.[4]  And both groups ceasely belittle each other.

Most people I know compromise by describing something simple and formulaic as a 'guilty pleasure'.  (Similarly, majcher described it as "like candy!")  Honestly, I've never really cottoned to that.  Either you like something, or you don't, and if you like something that other people don't respect, you man up and say, "I like something y'all don't respect," sans apologies.

But in television it's a little more complicated.  With television, I know how bloody difficult it *is* to write to a formula.  At any point in the story, there are a billion different, perfectly-realistic things that could happen next.  Almost all of them will suck.  Getting a storyline to fit some procrustean five-act structure can be absolute hell, and seeing a show set the stakes properly, hit the act breaks right, and find the twist at the end -- that offers its own sort of meta-narrative.  Sometimes I feel like we're all watching a tightrope walker, and everyone else is saying, "Oh.  He walked forward.  Again.  This is so *predictable*."  Me, I'm trying not to sputter into a rant about how amazing it is he's not falling to his death.

In the end, though, I think none of us are off the hook.  If we just declare our allegiance with formula or experiment, we deny ourselves half of what is out there.  If we don't, then we're duty-bound to judge each work on its own terms.  In that case, "this show is formulaic" becomes a statement of fact -- like "this show is an hourlong" -- rather than a judgment call.

Othello [Arden, 3rd ed.]
So continueth my slow, slow progress through the works of Shakespeare.  After As You Like It, I needed to remind myself that I actually like Shakespeare's plays.  Coriolanus seemed a bit risky, so I went ahead and queued up Othello, one that I remember liking.

It did not disappoint.

The introduction for this edition was one of the best I've read in the Arden series.  Mr. Honigmann takes his discussions of (say) the exact plot of Shakespeare's source material, or the research surrounding the date of composition, and he wisely bins them into dusty appendices.

Instead, he uses the introduction to prepare us for the play.  For instance, he goes over aspects of the play that the casual reader might miss.  I had forgotten that Venice had such a reputation for lechery.  I didn't know that adjectives like "honest" and "good" often had a faint patronizing air, especially their most common use:  aristocrats describing their servants.

Mr. Honigmann even includes some technical, this-is-how-plays-are-built sections (and does a respectable job of it, for an academician).  He talks about how the play has two simultaneous and irreconcileable timelines, and points out how Iago has an off-the-charts string of luck through the first two thirds of the play.  And what's better, he gives us a few hints as to how Shakespeare gets away with this.

His coverage of literary criticism of the play is brisk and broad.  He perhaps pays short shrift to feminist critiques of the play, but then again he pays short shrift to everybody.  He quickly bounces from topic to topic, trying to cram some four hundred years of lit-crit into a hundred-odd pages.

And he does all of this in a personable tone.  He makes himself readily understandable without sacrificing much in the way of precision or detail.  Highly recommended.

As for the play itself, it is largely as I remember it.  As with all of the Big Four (Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello), the main thing I notice as a reader is my own sense of mounting dread.  You know how it ends.  You know how awful it is.  You see the brief feints away from the act-five carnage, but the play always resumes course.  By the end of it, you almost *want* everything to fall to pieces, just to get the tension over with.

I guess what I noticed this time was how foreign jealousy seems to me -- or more accurately, how my milquetoast personality and my quiet, sheltered life has mostly shielded me from the green-eyed whatsit.  When I see Othello's affection turn to rage, I understand intellectually what's going on, but... that's about it.

I'm far more engaged by Iago -- or more specifically, by his improvisations.  Modern narratives are plagued by villains with huge, convoluted master plans.  They set everything in motion at the very beginning, they account for every possible action, they arrange to double-double-double cross the hero, and you sense that the writer is heavily thumbing the scales in the villain's favor.

In Othello, sure Iago gets lucky.  Yeah, he nabs the handkerchief at just the right time.  But the story still feels sensible to me.  The feeling I get is, if it weren't the handkerchief, it would have been *something*.  Iago would have found some other opportunity for mischief, and he would have made the best of it.  It's not so much 'coincidence works in his favor' as 'he avails himself of this particular coincidence'.  And sure, Iago would have eventually been undone by underestimating the people around him (e.g. his wife).

And that brings us back to the 'mounting dread' thing.  It's not just that things go badly -- it's that they *have* to go badly.

For next time:  oh dear, not nearly as much.  I may finish up The Rest Is Noise.  I've just started The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  I'll probably finish In Bruges, get started on A Very Long Engagement, and catch another episode of LOST.

Music-wise, I'm still listening to Chopin.  (Nocturnes now.)

Podcast-wise, I'm still treading water:  "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!", "Sound Opinions", "Podictionary Weekly", and so forth.  I tried out the Creative Screenwriting podcast (it's alright) and was intrigued by ptevis's review of the Battlestar Galactica board game.

[1] Technical note:  the new upscaling DVD player has a USB port.  It works just fine for playing .avi files off of a jump drive, but the DVD player doesn't know how to resume playback of an .avi file after you turn the player off and on again.

That's just frakkin' stupid.

[2] "The Oath" happened to have Swedish subtitles.  In case anyone is curious, they translated "frakking" as "jävla".

[3] I actually said this to minimalrobot once.  He was unamused.

[4] "COOK:  Here, try this sauce I just made.  It's got exactly 1/2 teaspoon of every single ingredient in my pantry.
VICTIM:  Aaargghh!!! That tastes awful!
COOK:  Yeah, but... it's got exactly 1/2 teaspoon of every single ingred--
VICTIM:  Shut up and make me a burger."
        -- 'Jim of Seattle,' on 12-tone music, at http://songfight.net

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (2/23/09) 11:52pm
I like candy!

And, Badger! I knew I knew that dude from somewhere...
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (2/24/09) 12:03am
I do too, sir.  *raises, clinks glass*
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (2/24/09) 5:48pm
Can you explain the use of strikethrough on people's names? I'm just not sure how I should read it - normally I would read strikethrough with some sort of sarcasm behind it. As in "that improv show was total crap daring and imaginative." But I have a feeling you don't mean that, and you do it quite a lot...
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (2/24/09) 5:51pm
You're on the right track -- generally I use strikethrough to mean "the thing that it occurs to me to say, but that I keep to myself."  Example:  "I'd love to come to your 8:00am meeting, but I'm afraid I'm going to be hung over a bit tired."

In this specific case, though, strikethroughs just indicate a defunct LJ account.  minimalrobot closed down his LJ account, so that name shows up in strikethroughs.
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (2/24/09) 8:55pm
Ah! Cool - thanks for the explanation!
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (2/24/09) 9:21pm
As in "that improv show was total crap daring and imaginative."

Improvisors on my friendslist:  I just want to point out that I'm pretty sure this is not an actual quote from me. :)
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[User Picture]
Date:Thursday (2/26/09) 5:53pm
Funny thing, I agree with your criticisms of 316, but I'm not bothered by them at all. It's only the lame, boring episodes where nothing happens (like season 2's One of Them) that get to me. I thought 316 had a lot of nice touches (incl. opening like the pilot episode), and those sketchy plot points just couldn't hinder my overall enjoyment of the episode.
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[User Picture]
Date:Friday (2/27/09) 9:12am
Ha!  Yup, I've been on the other end of this before:  "I agree with your criticisms, and I like it anyway."

You make a good point that the callback to the start of the pilot.  I would add that the line about Guam is perhaps one of my favorite lines of the show.  (LOST mines a lot humor out out of 'characters stating simple facts', IMHO.)
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