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

Monday (12/20/10) 10:55am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Friday Night Lights [3x08-3x10] [spoilers], Dollhouse [2x12-2x13] [spoilers]
Books:  Hard Times

Friday Night Lights [3x08-3x10] [spoilers]
The penultimate disc of season three includes the episodes "New York, New York", "Game of the Week", and "The Giving Tree".

Again, I'm having the damnedest time remembering what actually happens in these episodes.  It's all competent, but none of it is particularly riveting, because you never feel like you're watching a story that *needs* to happen.  In the show's pilot, when you see Jason Street on top of the world, you feel like you *need* to see the story where he loses everything and then slowly gets his life back together.  By contrast, most of the stories in season three feel more like "Okay, let's try this and see what happens."[1]

Or alternately, we see stories designed to satisfy the show's logistical requirements.  For instance, we finally dispatch Jason Street off to New York City, since he's graduated and we're having a lot of trouble integrating him into the story.

Next up, we have a story where Lyla and Tim are skirmishing about whether he'll go to college.  I had completely forgotten about this until reading the episode summary at TWoP, because it felt like a carbon-copy of all the other "Lyla is a Good Girl; Tim is a Bad Boy" conflicts I'd seen.

The third episode got my attention a bit more.  Eric and Tami finally find out that their daughter is having sex, and that's a storyline I'd been equally looking forward to and dreading for some time.  And J. D. begins skirmishing with his father, this time about a girl.  And... I don't know.  I just don't have much to say about it.  Season three continues to be quietly competent.  Moments with the Taylors, like Tami finally giving Julie The Talk, are memorable.  But generally the season just meanders along, and nothing feels like it really matters.

(That said, it's still fun to spot my friends in small roles on the show.)

Dollhouse [2x12-2x13] [spoilers]
The series finishes up with the episodes "The Hollow Men" and "Epitaph Two:  Return".

Somewhere in season one of Dollhouse I talked about how there are two types of science fiction.  In the first type, one person somewhere has a magic whatsit, and it's about the adventures that person goes on through our normal society.  In the second type, everybody everywhere has the magic whatsit, and it's about how the whole society is changed as a result.

The problem I always have with the first type of science fiction is how improbable it seems.  Technology never stays secret.  If one person has the magic whatsit, why doesn't everybody have it?  And if they don't have it now, won't they all have it shortly?  Doesn't every type-one world inevitably evolve into a type-two world?

So it was deeply satisfying that Dollhouse (or at least the most interesting story in Dollhouse) was about this inflection point:  going from a world in which just a few people have the imprinting technology and use it for little boutique jobs, to the world where everyone is using it on everyone everywhere, and humanity is in ruins.

Yes, Boyd turning out to be in charge of Rossum was kind of stupid.  He spouted a lengthy monolog about how it was his way of getting to know the people he wanted to save with their new vaccine.  To his credit, he never turned to the camera and said, "See?  See?  This ridiculous plot development really does make sense!"  But still, the whole scheme was not the sort of thing that sane characters behaving sanely would do.

That said, it was forgiveable, because it served the story nicely.  It meant that we had all sorts of cute situational irony going on in "The Hollow Men", where we knew things that (say) poor Paul Ballard did not.  (His "What did I miss?" was priceless.)  And it meant that the ultimate Big Bad turned out to be a character we cared about, played by a good actor -- as opposed to a new character we didn't care about, played by whatever day player they could lay hands on for that dwidlingly-budgeted episode.

Similarly, the fact that all along, they wanted Caroline for her spinal fluid felt like a bit of deus-ex-machination.  But it at least made a bit of sense out of Boyd's bizarre plan.  And it led to one of my favorite moments in the series.  Boyd actually describes something that makes sense:  eventually everyone will have the 'imprinting gun', among other things, so it made perfect sense to (1) sort out what the technology was, and (2) figure out how to vaccinate against it.  And likewise, it makes sense to vaccinate a solid team of operators so that they can go on to help save the rest of humanity.

And of *course* our heroes respond with, "You're a madman!"  And of *course* they respond by killing Boyd and destroying the Tucson office.  But our heroes haven't seen ten years into the future like the audience has.  They don't realize that Boyd is right.  They don't realize that they're *hastening* the apocalypse.

This was a perfect moment of situational irony.  Our heroes just didn't know what we knew.  True horror is when smart people do stupid things for reasons that make perfect sense at the time.

What was great about this was that it turned potentially the biggest weakness of the show -- the fact that, given "Epitaph One", we already know how it all turns out -- into a strength, as we have the showdown of a traditional season finale tinged with the knowledge that the 'victory' will have undesired results.

Then, on to "Epitaph Two".

Honestly, this nonchronological gambit -- tell season one in real-ish time, then skip ahead ten years, then tell a season two that's a few months after season one, then skip ahead to right after the first flashforward -- that's LOST-worthy.  And I love that the second "Epitaph" gives them a way to weave everything back together in the end, connecting up our main crew with Felicia Company.  And right up to the end, they're emptying more and more ideas into the show.  They add details about the Butchers we saw in "Epitaph One" and expand that world to include self-sufficient hippie communities, Mad-Max "techheads", and evil Rossum consciousnesses, leaping from body to body.[2]

So this is the world we inevitably get.  This is what happens when *everyone* has the magic whatsit.  Sure, you can blow up one office building with one set of prototypes of the whatsit, but you can't un-invent the technology.

So I found it very satisfying that the *real* end of the show comes *after* the imprinting technology has screwed up the entire world.  Of course the story ends with cancelling the imprinting on the entire world.[3]

Following that up with the Paul imprint was very affecting, but I'm a sucker for any time a story brings a dead character back in some non-literal way at the end.

I suppose I could quibble about "Topher has to blow himself up to create the mind-wiper signal."  Really?  The guy is one of the top neuroscientists in all the works of fiction, and he can't build a remote?  But again, it made sense from a story angle.  Magic should always require a sacrifice.  Topher had to atone for his sins.  And I feel horrible saying this, but "Topher dies in an explosion" is a much more decisive ending than "Topher goes back to the town, miserably insane, to be cared for by Adelle until he dies."

So I just figure, hey, I don't know how global-mind-resetting ray-guns work.  Maybe they just need a manual trigger and a large chunk of C4.

So that was Dollhouse.  It started out as a weak anthology story, became a conspiracy thriller, and then veered off into truly head-trippy science fiction.  When the cancellation axe was hanging over them, they didn't meekly compromise -- they burned through as many stories and ideas as they could cram in.

Well-played, Dollhouse.  Now let's see what kind of comics they set in that universe.

Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Hard Times is the Dickens novel about the family of a Utilitarian headmaster in a north England mill town.  I was reading it to get re-acquainted with Dickens' work for the special holiday edition of improvised Dickens at the Hideout.

Hard Times is one of his later novels, so he's moved away from his tried-and-true story structure of a young orphan having adventures and finally finding a stable position in life.  By this point, Dickens was writing novels more like Bleak House (the book that immediately preceded Hard Times), where multiple storylines interweave and there is no clear single protagonist.  So in this one, we follow the household of Mr. Bounderby, the blustery self-made merchant who lives outside of town; we follow the weaver Stephen Blackpool through the lower classes of the town; we touch on Sissy Jupe and her circus acquaintances; and so on.

The novel is ostensibly structured around the slow collapse of the ill-advised marriage between Louisa Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby, with a theft at the local bank spurring that collapse along.  But honestly it's less like a film, with a single driving plot, and more like a TV series, alternating between individual A-stories and B-stories over the course of a season.  Still, it's only about three hundred pages or so, so it never gets the massive momentum going of (say) Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend.

The usual social criticism is there, but much of it feels difficult to relate to.  Dickens focuses a lot of his artillery on Utilitarianism (one of the little Gradgrinds is even named "Malthus"), but Mr. Gradgrind's insistence on the "elimination of fancy" doesn't seem like a common goal in modern society, even if the severe underfunding of arts programs amounts to the same thing.  So one watches Dickens get worked up about this topic with curious intellectual detachment.

Meanwhile, the characters show an interesting variety of good and evil.  Harthouse has his negligent ignorance of any moral code[4], and Bounderby performs acts of malice according to his whim, and Gradgrind is too bound to his Radical Utilitarianism to do anybody any good.  Meanwhile, the good characters -- like Louisa and Rachel and Blackpool -- show quiet, meek subservience to a system designed to do them no good at all, and rewards them only by grinding them underfoot.  In this book's universe, being good is its own reward, and perhaps its only reward.

The book is set entirely outside of London, which is unusual (perhaps unique?) for Dickens.  It was interesting to see him develop a whole new setting with Coketown, giving it the giant factories, the trade hall, the estates outside of town, and the meager housing for the mill workers.

It was a good little read, and a different sort of Dickens novel, but nothing mind-blowing or anything.

[1] By extension, most of the stories from season two are along the lines of "What would happen in the evil Bizarro universe where Aaron Spelling was somehow given creative input into Friday Night Lights?"

[2] ... and enjoying piles of food and cigars in each of them.  I never thought I'd see a joke from Red Dwarf crop up on Dollhouse.

[3] Granted, I could see a sort of 'arms race' happening after this:  scientists come up with ever-more-effective forms of mind-wipes and vaccinations-against-mind-wipes.

[4] ... would he be "Neutral Evil" on the alignment chart?

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