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

Thursday (2/19/15) 8:12pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Cocktail Time
Movies:  <none>
TV:  Black Mirror [series 1], Bob and Margaret [season 1], Galavant [1x01-1x04]

Cocktail Time by P. G. Wodehouse
This is one of Wodehouse's "Blandings" novels.  Its protagonist is Lord Ickenham, a Jeeves-like "fixer", and the story is an aristocratic farce about a respectable barrister who has secretly written a salacious bestseller.

I needed a book that wasn't about death.

Not about death, or dying, or the merciless decay of extreme old age.  After Being Mortal, I badly needed a break.  So what could be better than an old, light-comic P. G. Wodehouse novel?  It was nice to explore beyond the Jeeves and Wooster universe, though Wodehouse always writes the same sorts of plots with the same sorts of characters.

In spite of a twisty plot, the book is pretty straightforward.  It feels like the inverse of a classic country-house murder mystery: Wodehouse sets up a dozen or so eccentrics, sets up a handwritten letter that everyone wants to get hold of, and then sets them all loose on a country estate to outwit each other, outmaneuver each other, and lay hands on the damning document while Ickenham patiently tries to set everything to rights.

Look: it's Wodehouse.  You know what you're getting.  It's silly and breezy and fun, and there are happy endings for the good guys and comeuppances for the villains.  The writing style is mannered and breezy and clever.  It's pleasant escapism, where the grounds are immaculate, the characters are fun, and the problems are never really so dire.  He was well-practiced at constructing plots by this point (1958), so he's almost effortless as he sets one character after another on some oddball mission, all of them at cross-purposes with each other, and pulls the usual magic trick of making a dozen insoluble problems resolve neatly at the end.

It's a good book for anybody who wants to see what the non-Jeeves Wodehouse novels are like.

Black Mirror [series 1]
This is Charlie Brooker's science-fiction anthology about the dangers of modern technology.

I was underwhelmed by this show.  And I *hate* that I was underwhelmed by it.  I love science fiction.  I love dystopian science fiction.  I love science fiction that engages with where we are as a society.  I love British dramas.  I have heard nothing but great things about Charlie Brooker's career thus far.  And many, many friends, whose tastes I respect tremendously, absolutely love this show.

So what didn't work for me?

Let me put it like this: science fiction, at its best, takes a 'what if?', explores its consequences, and in so doing, tells us something about humanity.  What if we never saw the night sky?  What if we discovered time travel?  What if we encountered an ancient intelligence that had tweaked human evolution?  And so on.

And like all good fiction, it isn't there to give you a message.  It's there to tell a story.  You may take a message away from the story, and that's fine, but the writers have their priorities straight: story first.  If you want to send a message, use Western Union.

Black Mirror is, instead, message-first.  And the message is always "staring at screens is bad".  Its episodes set up characters that are plot vectors, with just enough personality to make the plot go, and to get us to the point where the hero is appropriately punished for staring at screens instead of leading the halcyon, virtuous, thoughtful life that we all had before the Internet.

So right off the bat, the storytelling is a bit iffy.  It broadly telegraphs where it's going -- you know that technology is going to make something awful happen, it's just a question of how, and that doesn't leave a lot of guesswork as to how the story ends.  When a terrorist tells Peter Callow (subtle, there, guys) that he (Peter) has to fuck a pig on live television, well, they're not telling the story of how a guy *didn't* fuck a pig, right?  And it's not really *about* getting to know characters with any depth or nuance.  The stories don't pause, or breathe, or think -- it's just plot, plot, plot, until we get to the protagonist's comeuppance.

And I don't think the show has anything interesting to say about modern technology.  That's the real letdown for me, because I *love* intelligent critiques of modern technology.  Yes, full disclosure, I like the Internet.  But I'm not a Pollyanna about it, and I recognize that social networks and concomitant technologies are hurting our lives and our happiness in novel and agonizing ways.  (Hell, The Shallows was a really good book along those lines.)

To put it glibly, I don't feel like this show knows much about modern changes in media and technology.  Instead, it picks easy, low-hanging fruit.  Hell, "Fifteen Million Credits" ends with a tirade against reality competition shows, for god's sake.  First, that's a facile target that's better suited for a late-90s observational comic opening at The Chuckle Hut.  And second, Extras did the same thing, only brilliantly, where it was actually linked to well-drawn characters with real emotions.

And then there's how the show treats women.  I hate to be so not-fun about this, but I find it unsettling that all three episodes hinge on abusing women.  In episode one, it's about the 'artist' kidnapping, tying up, and torturing a princess.  In episode two, it's about the slave-cyclist being cajoled and drugged into being fucked on-camera for a porn channel.  In episode three, it's about a guy going into a jealous rage and coming within a hair's breadth of beating the shit out of his wife.

Two things about this.  First, it undercuts the show's intended message.  It wants to tell us that "awful things happen because we embrace this new DEVIL TECHNOLOGY."  But instead, you start to take away the message "awful things happen because the men in this universe are abusive misogynists."

Second: every work of science fiction has some aspect of it that's "out there" that's counterfactual, that's contrary to our experience.  For example, in the third episode, we don't *have* little embedded grains that record all our vision and hearing.  And thus it falls to the *rest* of the science fiction universe to *ground* that weirdness -- to be normal and relatable, so that we can buy into the weird sci-fi thing.  So in this case, abusing women is supposed to be the realistic part -- the part that makes this boffo universe seem normal and reasonable.

Honestly, I don't know if that makes me feel angry or just sad.  A little of both, perhaps.

So basically, I watch Black Mirror, and it feels like a long screed from an old man complaining about the kids all iphoning on the facebook instead of getting outside and playing stickball, and muttering about how women used to know their place.

Even in spite of all that, there were aspects of this that I liked.  Again, it's great to see *any* work of fiction try, however ham-handedly, to engage with the perils of modern technology.  And obviously this is better and more considered than any number of CBS crime procedurals where some unfortunate soul gets "OMG KILLED BY THE INTERTUBEZ" -- basically alarmist fare for old people.

And the show is incredibly well-produced.  It's well-directed.  The shots look beautiful.  It's incredibly well-acted -- it's amazing to watch such great actors do battle with these thinly-scripted characters and try to invest them with personality and meaning.  And on some level, it's just great user-interface porn, as we see a variety of neatly-designed, gesture-based interfaces doing their thing.  And it definitely does a fine job of designing these creepy, shiny, unsettling worlds.

I just don't feel like there's much *there*, though.

Bob and Margaret [season 1]
This is the animated TV series based on "Bob's Birthday", one of my favorite animated shorts of all time.  Both the series and the short are about Bob and Margaret, a 40-ish English couple.

It's not a great show.  It's an animated sitcom about a slightly peevish English couple approaching middle age, and reflects that sensibility.  It's great in a "travelog" sort of way -- the little background details of, say, what a residential street looks like or what's playing on the radio feel refreshing and different.  The stories don't really add up to much emotionally -- it's standard sitcom fare: problem introduced, problem solved, maybe one or two forced warm-fuzzy moments, show over.

The jokes are hit-and-miss.  It does well when it plays a sort of Seinfeld-like misanthropy, where Bob is genuinely a bad human being, but in little, relatable ways -- like when he grudgingly goes to the funeral of a university acquaintance, and tries to avoid talking to any of his old, unpleasant classmates.  The show also does some nice world-building, with the local ineffectual police officers and the local petty-criminal gay couple making frequent appearances.  But sometimes it missteps, like when the Canadian couple comes to visit, and they're played in the broadest possible caricature.  (Then they play a nearly identical story when an American couple moves to the neighborhood.)

But Bob and Margaret is at its best when it sort of wanders off and forgets that it's a sitcom.  It gets distracted sometimes, say with its neighborhood thieves arguing about pasta, or with a supermarket's 'crisis negotiator' taking care of confrontations in the candy aisle.  Then the wheezy, predictable sitcom plot gets set aside and we just hang out for a pleasantly-weird bit of sketch comedy.

In any case, I'm glad I watched it -- again, "Bob's Birthday" is absolutely great -- but I don't think I need to come back to it any time soon.  There are four seasons total; I'm good, I think, with just watching the first.

Galavant [1x01-1x04]
This is the sword-and-sorcery musical comedy that somehow aired up on ABC last month.

Television musicals are not a common thing.  Glee is the real standout, I suppose, though I'm more likely to call that "karaoke porn" than a proper musical.  The Singing Detective is the only television musical that I'd call an artistic success.  So when a show like Galavant comes along, it's... well, first off, it's baffling that it exists -- who the hell greenlit this? -- but secondly, there's no real blueprint for how to do it.  There are no known "best practices".  It's strange, uncharted territory: has *anyone* done a half-hour musical comedy on television before?

And so it's not totally surprising that Galavant feels like, deep down, it's confused and scared.  Also not surprising: it makes a lot of bad choices, *because* it's confused and scared.  The *surprise* here is that, just as often, it stumbles into a kind of charmed, by-no-means-deserved success.  Some things just *work* on Galavant, and when they do, it's bizarre, like watching a brick floating midair.

Curiously, after the show's opening overture, it immediately splits its cast into (1) the three adventurers making their way to Valencia and (2) the Valencian court.  And the two halves work very differently.  In the 'adventurers' half, the pilot works desperately hard to set up plot, plot, plot, plot, plot.  Okay, Galavant was a great knight, he got rejected by Madalena, fell into depression and dissolution, and is now going to fight King Richard and win her back because of... reasons.  And Isabella is hiring Galavant but it's actually a conspiracy because she's connived with Richard to turn over Galavant to get her parents back.  And also, Sidney is there, but he's actually secretly a hero back in his village.

That is a fair amount of twisty plot.  One wonders why they eschew the straight-up 'princess hires knight / they go on a quest together'.  Nobody comes to a sword-and-sorcery musical so they can *not* watch a knight and princess going on a quest.

And one wonders why they're going so plot-heavy.  A sidebar: there are certain formats that are heavy on spectacle.  Musicals are one.  Kung fu films are another.  Porn is a third.  What they all have in common is that nobody watches them for the plot.  In fact, all three are persistently interrupted by non-dialog bits (songs or fights or sexytimes), and that cuts way down on the amount of plot that can even happen.  The best you can do is set up simple, clear characters and follow them from point A to point B.

The other problem here is that the writers are spending all the "adventure" half's screentime on plot and very little of it on characterization.  If the characters are primarily plot vectors, then it's tough to focus on what kind of people they are.  Their main job isn't "do the next thing that this particular character would do" -- it's "do whatever next thing will make this complicated plot-machine work".  So as it stands, Galavant and Isabella and Sidney are all written kind of vague.  Galavant can be an ass, or he can be kind of vaguely nice.  Sidney is a reluctant hero or a happy servant.  Isabella is genial or captious or inept or hypercompetent as the plot requires.  And unfortunately the actors can't quite home in on something specific and consistent *within* that vague writing, and so their characters stay underdefined.

Meanwhile, the "court" half of the story goes the other route, to better effect.  At the Valencian castle, we have *no* real plot to speak of.  Instead, we just have really strong characters.  The cook is a beleaguered and confused servant.  Gareth is a vicious, hyper-masculine thug.  Madalena is a conniving seductress.[1]  And King Richard is hands-down the best character on the show.  He's not a complicated character -- he's both relentlessly evil and hilariously blinkered to how evil he is -- but they just play the hell out of that note, with Richard spending most of the show regarding his own broken moral compass with a baffled shrug.

You have no feeling that the 'court' half of the show is going to *go* anywhere.  It's just a bunch of characters.  They haven't pre-loaded anything like, "Ooh, when will Galavant realize that Isabella has betrayed him?"  And yet, the 'court' half works out just fine.  They're liberated from the wheezy plot mechancis of the 'adventure' half, so they can do whatever they like.  An episode where Richard tries to learn to be funny?  Sure!  And it pays off really well, not because it has any plot significance (it doesn't), but we know exactly who these people are, and it's just fun to watch strong characters hit an interesting situation.

Meanwhile, in the 'adventure' half, you can see a sort of flop-sweat -- okay, okay, um, maybe if the characters *encounter* something interesting or engaging enough, then we'll get a good story.  Jousting!  Pirates!  See?  Pirates are cool, right?!  And then you get unfortunate things like the broadly stereotyped Jewish village, which was the nadir of the show so far.  ("You see?  They've found a place that's *funny*!"  Nope, just anti-Semitic.)

And the show is badly guilty of never committing to what it sets up.

A brief digression:  a few years ago, I was in a show called Live Nude Improv.  We'd start each performance by talking about what sort of story we were going to improvise.  Often, we'd hit on what genre we were playing.  Someone would say, "It's a murder mystery!" and great, everyone would be on board with that.  But then, we'd inevitably backtrack away from the genre: "I love how it's a murder mystery, but nobody gets killed, and there isn't a detective, and there are no suspects."  Apparently there was so strong a curse on "playing a genre in a straightforward way" that we would knock out all the underpinnings of the genre, desperate to be original or subversive or witty.

For a while, we were baffled that this sort of setup did not result in theatrical gold.  But in retrospect, the problems are obvious.  First, storytelling is really hard when you set up what you're *not* going to do rather than what you *are* going to do.  If I know my story doesn't have a victim or detective or suspects, that doesn't narrow things down much -- it could still be almost anything.  And second, the audience doesn't buy into a genre -- they don't delight in seeing their expectations paid off, or draw conclusions about how the show might turn out -- if you've removed all the familiar aspects of the genre.

This isn't just a thing with that one provocatively-named improv show, either.  Writers, comedians, actors -- everyone balks like a shying horse from playing a typical story element in an obvious way.  And the thing is, nine times out of ten, the obvious way is what you *want*.  You want to be very judicious with what you subvert, so you don't just end up with random, unpredictable mush.

Okay.  Back to Galavant, which has this problem in spades.  It brings in a jousting contest! but... the competitors never joust, they just inch closer to each other on horseback and fall over.  They bring in pirates! but... no, they're landlocked pirates. 

Nobody comes to the pirate episode to see pirates not-on-a-boat.  Nobody comes to the jousting episode to see not-jousting.  Yes, you can tweak expectations, but the default gear is to play the story straight, so that the subversive elements stand out.  For example, you can make the *situation* conventional, and be subversive with your tone or your characterization.[2]

As it is, the show kind of falls between two stools.  On the one hand, it's not a straight-up, po-faced adventure musical à la Camelot.  It's not just a knight fighting bad guys and being honorable.  On the other hand, the show doesn't really have the courage of its anarchic convictions.  It absolutely could not pull the Holy Grail move of having a vicious flying rabbit kill off half the extras, or (spoiler) ending the show with modern policemen arresting everyone.  Galavant can be a *little* snarky -- basically on the level of knowing pop-reference jokes (see also: Dreamworks animation) -- and it can be a *little* subversive -- basically by playing that 'but this isn't a *normal* <x> because *this* one is...' trick -- but the show can't embrace chaos.  It has to have tidy little sitcom plots that teach everyone a lesson at the end.  It has to fail the Bechdel test utterly.  It has to, on some fundamental level, be 'normal' and familiar and reassuring and not at all like (say) Adventure Time or Python.

I was watching the awful anti-Semitic episode and I realized that, if they wanted to, they could end the episode with Sidney tripping on mushrooms and running through a field.  It didn't have to neatly end on Galavant learning about friendship.  It could have gone anywhere.  *Anywhere*.  They had given themselves license, with this mischievous and knowing tone, to do *anything*.

Ah well.

All that said, when the show works, it's wonderful, and it's providing a style that television is absolutely starved for.  *Fun* genre television has been thin on the ground, chased away by the relentless grimdark of Game of Thrones, Gotham, and a zillion other shows about how Being A Hero Is Hard.  When we get a Sleepy Hollow or The Flash, we rally around it.  And while Galavant isn't as good as those shows, it's in that category, and I *love* that category.  And let's face it, Alan Menken does some good work here -- not consistently, but when they set up a song from a strong, emotional place and give it to one of the stronger singers in the cast, it works great.

I hope this Galavant succeeds.  I hope it gets a second season, and it can take a perceptive look at what's worked and what hasn't, and it can regroup.[3]  And I hope other musicals can get on the air and improve on what Galavant is doing.  Wouldn't it be great to reach a point where TV musicals happen, and they *aren't* clumsy and confused?

For next week: I'm watching season two of Adventure Time while exercising.  I'm between books at the moment, both on my Kindle and on audio, while I deal with a whirlwind of job-hunting.  Lindsey and I are still listening to Welcome to Night Vale.  We're watching season two of Community (which is still amazing) and continuing to watch Galavant (which is still very, very silly).

[1] Not the most female-positive role, but hey, it's *something*.
[2] See also The Princess Bride, whose shadow looms long over this show.
[3] I'm sure it's had a compressed and complicated production schedule, to the point that it's obvious the show doesn't 'listen to itself.'  If something promising happens on the show, the show can't seize on to it and explore it, because all the remaining episodes have all been written already, and they're all probably being shot piecemeal at the same time.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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