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

Thursday (10/16/14) 12:59am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Getting Things Done
Movies:  <none>
TV:  Deadwood [1x05-1x09], Sleepy Hollow [1x01-1x06]

Getting Things Done by David Allen
This is the classic productivity text that focuses on helping people stay on top of multiple projects at once.

I got about a quarter of the way through this when I realized that I had read this book before, years and years ago.  So it became a fascinating game of seeing just how this text influenced how I keep things organized.

It's a book aimed at businessmen, the dying breed of MBA middle-managers that still walked the earth back in 2002, and that means it's written at around an eighth-grade level, and has content that can be boiled down to very simple principles:

1. Don't keep information in your head.  Instead, dump everything -- research materials, meeting notes, task lists -- into something external, like an inbox or a computer directory.
2. Sift all that stuff into categories.  Put research material into storage.  Put appointments on your calendar.  Put tasks in a giant to-do list.  Put projects (tasks that take more than one step) into a list of projects.
3.  Every week, check over your projects.  Figure out what the next step is on each of those.  Put those in your to-do list.

Ta-da!  You are now organized.  In order to get things done, you just pick off the most auspicious item from your to-do list and repeat 'til you're tired of being productive.  As new material arrives, you run it through the same sifting in step 2, and everything stays current.

That's more or less the system I have in place these days.  I use remember the milk for short tasks (and grocery lists).  This book inspired me to take my larger projects and organize them a bit, as subdirectories in a "projects" folder on my dropbox account.  And I have Google Calendar keeping my appointments straight.  It all works pretty well.  Unfortunately, I haven't followed the book's advice to regularly check on the big picture and make sure that all your tasks and projects actually match your goals, so occasionally I find myself feeling a bit adrift and wondering if I'm working on the right things.  But generally I've been able to do a lot without getting overwhelmed.

The book itself is kind of hilarious, in that it exists in some mid-90s world where everybody's using fax machines and writing their notes on loose sheets of paper.  I was surprised to find out it was written in as 2002, but I suppose its target audience was a bit behind the times on technology.  And again, it targets this middle-management class that has just been annihilated by disruptive technologies.

All that said, it's a book with useful ideas.  If you'd like to learn more, a quick summary like this 15-minute guide should be fine.

Deadwood [1x05-1x09]
I continue to watch David Milch's classic show about a small mining community in the Old West.

I'm a little more at peace with the show through these episodes.  Yes, it's still depressing -- this batch of episodes opens with a smallpox outbreak, fercrissakes -- and yes, it's still really violent towards women and worshipful of Al Swearengen's swagger.  Again, this is the problem with watching Deadwood after seeing umptyzillion shows about Troubled Male Antiheroes -- it's easy to watch the earlier template, roll your eyes, and say, "This... again?"

But it's starting to lean more on the storyline of "civilization is coming to Deadwood", and I'm liking that.  I'm preferring it to "ooh, who will get Alma's gold claim?"  I've seen people backstab and connive over money before.  Figuring out how to deal with the oncoming U. S. Government?  That, I haven't seen before.

Beyond that, the show is as well-crafted as it's always been.  Yes, this is a dirty, grimy world where I'd die in a heartbeat, but it's a consistent and convincing dirty, grimy world where I'd die in a heartbeat.  Nine episodes in, they have a deeper bench of sharply-drawn characters than most shows have over their whole running time.  They weave between all the different plotlines masterfully, and each story puts its characters through well-paced ups and downs.

So I'm good for the long haul at this point.  I can stomach the things I find tacky and savor the things it's doing well.

Sleepy Hollow [1x01-1x06]
This is the FOX show that re-imagines Ichabod Crane as a soldier from the Revolutionary War who is revived in modern-day Sleepy Hollow, where he teams up with a police officer to fight demons, supernatural threats, and the oncoming apocalypse.

This might be the best Joss Whedon show I've seen in a decade.

I'm joking, of course -- Sleepy Hollow isn't a Mutant Enemy show, and I'd put season two of Dollhouse up against anything in the Whedon canon -- but the statement gets at what I'm really liking about Sleepy Hollow.  The show takes the sort of template set up in Buffy and Angel and runs with it.  Every week features a supernatural monster of the week.  Ideally, the monster serves as a metaphor for some internal or character conflict on the show.  As we go, we weave a backstory of a heightened, superatural world hidden in plain sight.  Over time, we learn that our heroes, while witty and clever, are also hurt and flawed -- and yet still, they somehow fend off the apocalypse.

It's not rocket science, as far as show structure goes.  Its strengths are obvious -- you develop three-dimensional heroes over time, you can put them through exciting, life-and-death scenarios, and the universe gets more detailed and fascinating over time.  But you need only look at how many shows have tried this setup and failed (*glares at Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.*) to get a sense of how difficult it is to do well.

One thing Sleepy Hollow has going for it: these showrunners are giant history nerds.  They clearly love, love, love American history.  And, since they weave their supernatural backstory through the major events of the Revolutionary War, they are instantly engaged with that world-building on a level that your average "oh, I don't know, it's an ancient monster of some sort" world-building can't match.  It's not just "Crane has to torture somebody", it's "Crane has to torture a freed slave who is suspected of writing anti-royalist pamphlets under the pseudonym 'Cicero'."  It makes their choices instantly more specific, and it adds the fun of teaching you odd tidbits about 18th-century America as it goes.

And it gives them such a strong point of view for Ichabod Crane.  What would Crane think about <x>?  Well, what might a soldier from the Revolutionary War think about <x>?  Odds are, that's going to be something distinct from what an average, modern person thinks about <x>.

Beyond that, there's just good, solid TV writing here.  They hit just the right level of complexity for the leads' backstory.  I could probably sum up the basic backstory for Abbie Mills and Ichabod Crane with one succinct paragraph for each.  But each choice they make for those backstories provides a lot of story fuel.  Abbie and her sister saw a demon in the woods, but Abbie pretended she hadn't seen it.  Crane's wife saved him from certain death, but somehow condemned herself to be trapped in a sort of purgatory.  These are heavy, serious things to have in your past.  These are things the characters can work through -- or just contend with -- in the present.

They pace the show well, alternating action scenes, character confrontations,  supernatural exposition, and little moments where the characters can just *be*.  "The Sin Eater" opens with Abbie and Ichabod watching baseball, and I wanted to cheer, I was so happy to see a genre show take its foot off the gas pedal for a bit and let us just spend time with these people.

And there are little things it does that make a liberal-hearted type like me happy.  At this point in the show, Ichabod and his trapped-in-limbo wife are the only  series regulars who are white.  And that gives me an unexpected feeling of relief -- it makes me realize that, with whitewash-cast shows, I have to actively suspend my disbelief: "Okay, America doesn't actually *look* 90% Caucasian, but let's just roll with it." -- but here the racial diversity looks calmingly normal.  (Which is ironic, because small towns in New England weren't exactly bastions of racial diversity when I lived up there.)

And I love how they handle the female protagonist.  She's a strong female character, but they don't hang a lantern on that.  They don't have Abbie insisting to some sexist boss that she's a strong woman and she's not gonna take that.  Instead, they just have her... be a strong female character.  And everybody around her is cool with that -- it's just a part of the world.  The normalcy of it reveals an irritating sexism in other shows, with their subtext of "She's a lady but she's not obsessed with sitting quietly in the corner and arranging flowers for the menfolk -- WHUUH?! *record scratch*"  And the show is *not* obsessed with OMG WHAT BOYS DOES ABBIE LIEK?!  She's just not in a romantic place right now, and that, too, is okay.  She's dealing with some personal stuff, and also the apocalypse.  Give her some space.

I don't want to oversell this show.  It doesn't have, say, the exquisite dialog and heady philosophical questions of Deadwood.  But it is one of the most solid three-star shows I've seen in a long time.

For next week: I'm still watching Deadwood.  I'm still watching Sleepy Hollow as my "watch while exercising" show.  I'm now reading the John Le Carré classic The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and have started reading Dataclysm, which is sort of the book form of the okcupid blog.

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