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

Monday (3/22/10) 11:05am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Hairspray
TV:  LOST [6x07-6x08] [spoilers], Glee [1x09-1x11]
Books:  <none>

This is the 2007 film musical, which is based on the 2002 stage musical, which is based on a 1988 John Waters film.  Welcome to the modern media landscape, where you can't something made unless it's been made already.

I don't suppose I have much to say about Hairspray.  I liked it.  It has a distinctive setting.  The dance numbers are fun.  The cast is solid.  The lead has a clear objective and the story makes sense.  The songs are not all that memorable, but they're competent riffs on pre-Beatles pop.

It probably helped that (a) I hadn't watched a lot of other musicals lately,[1] so I wasn't bored by how closely it hewed to all the classic musical conventions, and (b) I watched it a little bit at a time, so the relentlessly chipper tone didn't start grating on me.

But generally, this musical knew what it was about.  It put all the right numbers in all the right places.  It gave us likeable characters with simple goals.  It had lots of love stories.  It had an eminently-hateable villain.  It was absolutely by the book, but the book is there because it works, no?

It only stalled a little bit towards the third act, when it got tied up in the logistics of how they were going to keep Tracy away from the cops and smuggle her into the Miss Teenage Hairspray Contest.  We've had it drilled into our heads repeatedly in improv-singing class that musicals are not about convoluted plots, and it was neat to see that in action:  "Oh.  Wait.  There are no big emotional moments here.  It's just a bunch of plotty stuff.  *yawn*  Okay, wake me when we're back to giving characters something to sing about."

All in all, though, it's a solid, three-star flick.  And it features a dancing Christopher Walken, which is always a good thing, yes?

LOST [6x07-6x08] [spoilers]
The last couple of episodes of LOST were "Dr. Linus" and "Recon".

As I've said before, one of the best things about writing these "Media Update" blogposts is that sometimes you make a recommendation about how a show should proceed, and it somehow time-travels into the past, arrives in the writers' room circa three weeks ago, and you wind up with an episode custom-written to your specifications.

That's what happened with "Dr. Linus".  When I talked about "The Substitute", I talked about how I'd happily watch a spinoff of Dr. Linus, History Teacher, and lo and behold, here's an episode focussed on just that.  Ben would seem ideally-suited to a gig where you not only have to put up with Machiavellian office politics, but also have to trick/coax/cajole students into doing what they're supposed to be doing.  And from a purely sketch-comedy point of view, watching an evil mastermind operate in a mundane situation is just plain funny.  (See also:  Dr. Evil.)

But what's more important here is that it looked like the penny finally dropped about how to make the flash-sideways stories work.  And I'm not talking mythology here.  Yes, some people will never never be satisfied until they see exactly how this "LA X" storyline fits into the overall narrative, and I respect that.  But for me, all I really need from the flash-sideways is an engaging story that feels relevant thematically to the island story.

All the way back in season one, they had a solid system for this:  we'd see the main character hit some sort of failure in their pre-island life (say, Sun is trapped in a miserable marriage), but they find a way to address that failure on the island (Sun goes off and by god she stands on the beach in a bikini).  That tension works.  You're watching characters deal with problems that have troubled them for years.  You're watching them find some way, in this new environment, to start all over again.

It's inspiring.

I think in this episode, they've finally hit on a flash-sideways setup that works just as well as that flash-back structure from season one.

But first, let's talk about Infocom games.

Infocom was a company that made text adventures like Zork back in the 1980s.  The company folded, and some ten years later, Infocom enthusiasts started writing text adventures on their own.  Over time, as they hashed out their game designs in online forums, they developed their own jargon for types of puzzles, and various story elements, and certain common flaws in game designs.  One such flaw is called the "Chinese wall problem."

Say you're playing an Infocom game.  It's about a character who wakes up with amnesia in a well-appointed room.[2]  And in that room is a "Chinese wall", that is, a translucent wall made of paper.  And your character can get out of the room by walking through that wall, tearing it apart.

So you do that.

A thousand turns elapse.  You sort out all sorts of puzzles.  You meet fascinating NPCs[3], you see exciting new places, and you spend a rather alarming amount of time trying to unlock locked doors.  Then you get to the end:  the very last puzzle.  And the first thing that happens is, an NPC says, "Bring me that Chinese wall!  And it has to be *intact*!"

[Trust me, I'm getting there.  Bear with me.]

But the Chinese wall is *not* intact, remember?  You tore through that Chinese wall on the very first turn.  And the last puzzle is now unsolvable, because you lost something that you desperately needed, a long time ago.  And you didn't even know it.

So that's a 'Chinese-wall problem'.  Don't design text adventures with a Chinese-wall problem.

Okay.  Back to LOST.

At this point, a hundred-odd episodes in, LOST is lousy with characters who have Chinese-wall problems.  They've all screwed up badly.  Maybe they didn't even realize what they were losing at the time, but now there's no way to go back and fix it.  Ben chose the Island over his own daughter.  He chose power over his connections to other people.

He chose wrong.

In this episode, the flash-sideways isn't just an irrelevant "what if?" scenario (like "What Kate Does").  It isn't just a happy ending for a beleaguered character (like "The Substitute").  Instead it's focusing our attention on what Ben did wrong by showing us a story where he chooses right.  Sure, the scales are almost comically mundane:  will Ben burn Alex's future at Yale in order to gain the principalship?  But the situation is the same:  will he choose power over Alex?  And he chooses right.  The one thing he can never fix in the main timeline, he fixes in the flash-sideways.

And that lends a certain emotional focus to the Island storyline.  Now it's not just about tromping through the jungle -- it's about how you move on after you've bollocksed up your life that thoroughly.  It's about switching off the autopilot.  It's about stepping back, recognizing how bad you feel, and admitting it, if only to yourself.  And then... then, well, you figure out how you'll make do with what you've got left.  Maybe you're still screwed, but at least you can move forward.

That is a story that counts.  That is the proper 'flip side' of the flashback gimmick in season one.  And yes, I wish they'd been doing this all along for season six, but that's neither here nor there.

And sure, I noticed the bit of stupid in the final flash-sideways scene:  "Why couldn't Ben just blackmail the principal into both resigning *and* giving Alex a letter of recommendation?"  But I'm very forgiving towards a bit of stupid when it leads to a sound story.  At that point, the story *needed* a scene where Ben had to make that same choice -- power or Alex -- and this allowed for that.  Sure, I didn't know why exactly Ben couldn't do both, but the characters averred that it was so, and I was content to go along with it.[4]

Okay, let's move on to "Recon".

Patton Oswalt has a nice quote about the movies:  "A movie title should let you see a free movie in your head when you hear the title."

Here's the analogous statement about the flash-sideways storylines:  "A flash-sideways should let you see a free spinoff series in your head when you see the opening scene."  Again, we can go on and on about how the flash-sideways plots function as a part of the overarching mythology.  I could repeat what I said above about how the flash-sideways storyline can support the Island storyline thematically.  But really, all that matters is this:  does the flash-sideways story stand on its own?  Because, hell, if it's a good, engaging story, we'll *invent* reasons for it to 'matter'.

These two episodes have been perfect examples of flash-sideways-as-backdoor-pilots.  As I've said earlier, I knew instantly at the end of "The Substitute" that I would happily watch an entire season of Dr. Linus, History Teacher.  Similarly, I knew instantly at the end of the "Recon" teaser that I would happily watch an entire season of Jim & Straume, LAPD.  Seriously, just show me Miles and Sawyer taking down a bad guy every week, "Sabotage"-style, and I'm a happy duck.

So "Recon" had that going for it.  Granted, the LOST writers know about as much about law enforcement as they do about the teaching or legal professions (that is:  not much), but when Miles-X and Sawyer-X trade quips in the precinct break room, that's just plain fun.  We know this relationship from season five, we care about it regardless of which continuum it's in, and the banter is to die for.  Somebody call the folks at USA and tell them we’ve got a new lead-in for Burn Notice.

And for the second time running, I found the Island storyline to be the weaker of the two.  In that old Tim Minear video, he talked about Joss Whedon walking into a writers' room, looking at the beats listed on a board, and dismissing it with, "Eh, it's just a bunch of moves."  By this, he meant that you had a lot of events that happened that would effectively move the plot where it needed to go, but those events weren't grounded in known objectives or emotions.  You just moved the characters around like gamepieces.

This Island storyline feels like a bunch of moves.  We move the Lockies to the far coast of the main island.  We move Widmore to the Hydra island.  We shuttle Sawyer back and forth a bit.  Granted, there were some great character moments in there.  The tension between Claire and Kate is still brutal, and if Sayid gets any creepier, he will turn into Peter Lorre.  But generally, the plot feels a bit like a Disney ride.  Everything just sort of coasts along from place to place.

I can still say "It looks like they're setting up a really good endgame for the series," but at this point we're halfway through season 6.  At some point we have to get a known objective that characters can actively pursue.  And frankly, I really hope Sawyer is signposting the way this story will go.  Maybe it won't be about "Ooh, will the LOSTies choose Team Jacob or Team Esau?"  Maybe the LOSTies will look out for themselves and walk away from the game completely.

One can hope.

Glee [1x09-1x11]
The latest disc of Glee contains the episodes "Wheels", "Ballad", and "Hairography".

In the latest batch of episodes, Glee has been the same as it ever was, only more so.

It's still astoundingly clumsy.  Here's a quick example:  "Wheels" opens with a scenario:  unless the club raises $600, they can't hire out a handicap-accessible bus, and Artie will have to ride with his dad to sectionals.  At this point, I winced.  Don't get me wrong, it could be worse.  At least it's a clear objective for the character to work towards.  The problem is, where are the stakes?

When you're telling a story, you want stakes.  In a perfect world, somebody pursues an objective where something good happens if they succeed, and something *bad* happens if they fail.  In The Princess Bride, Westley will either rescue Buttercup if he wins (yay!), or his entire crew will get captured and killed in the process if he loses (boo.).  Failing that, you at least have a situation where one of the two -- either the positive or the negative incentive -- is in play.  In Die Hard, the best John McClane can hope for is that the innocent bystanders in Nakatomi Plaza will survive.

What you *don't* want is a scenario where it doesn't really matter if you win or lose.  "In this movie, one man will drink a cup of water.  If he succeeds, he'll be slightly hydrated.  If he loses, he'll be somewhat thirsty."  First off, it's a scenario where the audience is yawning because they don't care about the outcome.

But it also causes a problem with story structure.  You see, stories often function by heightening.  First a small thing happens.  Then a larger thing happens.  Then an even larger thing happens.  Then you finish the story, 'cos, hey, there's nowhere bigger to go from there.  We're excited when a story tops itself like that.

One thing that gets heightened in stories is how hard the hero works, or how much s/he sacrifices, to achieve the objective.  First there's a minor sacrifice ("okay, I'll investigate this case"), then a larger one ("okay, I'll start putting in more time to find this bad guy"), and then finally *everything* is on the line ("I'll chase down this bad guy, even though he might *kill* me!").  Now, if the objective doesn't matter to the hero, then you can't build that storyline.  It just doesn't make sense that s/he'd bother giving up much of anything to achieve the yawnworthy goal.

So when I saw the setup involving the handi-capable bus, klaxons started going off in my head.  They had established an objective with nothing at stake.  This is like if you started preparing a sandwich, and first thing, somebody shot you in the shoulder.  It wouldn't make it *impossible* to finish the sandwich, but you suddenly had a very serious problem that you needed to address, and fast.  Similarly, it wasn't *impossible* for "Wheels" to be a good episode, but they had to give that storyline some stakes, and fast.

And then?... then they sort of didn't.  They established that Artie seemed slightly bummed out about having to ride separately.  The club seemed mildly irked.  And then they just kept going.  So, it was like they were quietly preparing a sandwich while they were bleeding to death from a gunshot wound.  Bewildering.

You see, this is why Glee feels like fanfic.  It finds ways to be fundamentally busted in ways that professional writers rarely let past the pitch stage.

In other ways, it continues to be the same delightfully-incompetent show I've been watching for the last eight episodes.  Most of the secondary characters are still one-note or zero-note characters.  Artie got a whole episode devoted to him, and I still don't feel like I could describe him beyond "he's a geeky kid in a wheelchair".  I don't know anything about Brittany beyond "she's the sitcom-dumb one."  And so on.

And I have to micro-nitpick one bit from "Wheels", only because it seems indicative of the whole show.  Towards the end, Tina and Artie are alone, both in wheelchairs.
Tina:  I want to stand up now.
Artie:  Why?
Tina:  So I can do this.
[She kisses him.]
I swear up and down, you need to cut the line "So I can do this" out of the script.  Why?  Because with the line in there, the beat plays out as "we watch Tina say her line".  But what if that part of the scene -- Tina approaches Artie to kiss him for the first time -- what if that's silent?  What if it's just an exchange of looks?  What if we see all these different expressions -- giddiness, anxiety, concern, reassurance -- pass over their faces as they navigate over to each other?  What if we the audience get to really *feel* that moment?

You just can't do that if there's a big line in the way, explain-a-log-ing what everyone in the audience already knows.  And that's the problem with a script that's never oblique and never elliptical -- even if they had a cast that was much better at acting, they'll never really get a chance to act around the lines they've got.  There's no silence.  There's no subtext.  You just go from one broadly-telegraphed, thuddingly-obvious beat to the next, so the characters can only really come to life through the songs.  (Q:  is this true of all musicals?)  And since the songs are just standard modern-day pop songs, it's kind of hit-and-miss, whether the song really gives the character a chance to express something.

That said, they do occasionally have some killer monologs.  I loved Kurt's speech to his dad that ends with "I love you more than I love being a star."  And I enjoy how sometimes there are little bits of improv that poke through the artifice.  Sometimes you see a couple of characters in the edge of a group scene who have apparently forgotten that they are supposed to limit their actions to gestures and lines that advance the latest idiot plot, and they are, against all expectations, acting like actual people.

For next time:  still reading Sick Puppy by Carl Hiassen (which, to my surprise, is pronounced something like "hyacinth").  I'm catching up on EscapePod instead of listening to an audiobook.  And this week I'm watching the recent Monty Python documentary Monty Python:  Almost the Truth, which is pleasant enough.

[1] I wouldn't say I "watched" Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, so much as I "stared at the screen while weird things happened".

[2] Oh, lord, that was an overused trope in early amateur text adventures.  But I digress.

[3] "Non-player characters," generated by the game's AI.

[4] Compare this to Glee, where characters are just thuddingly stupid for no reason.  It's far less forgiveable when the stupid doesn't lead to anything useful.[4b]

[4b] But I may just be full of it here, since I couldn't get over the idiotic Xanatos Gambits in Dollhouse.  Maybe I like it when the stupid leads to interesting emotional conflicts, but get irked when the stupid leads mainly to manufactured surprise or to neat action sequences.

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Date:Monday (3/22/10) 10:15am
Totally agree re LOST. I would watch either of those flashsideways as a real show.

I'm a little disappointed that the Island storyline is kinda, well, flat - things are happening and they are (slowly) revealing answers and things seem important, but I'm only interested because it's the end to the story, not because the scenes/plot is super interesting of its own accord. The flash sideways are almost opposite - they're fun and interesting by themselves but of course aren't relevant to the main plot as of yet.
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