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

Monday (9/19/16) 2:40pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Earth's Changing Climate
Movies:  <none>
TV:  Jessica Jones [season 1]

Earth's Changing Climate by Richard Wolfson [audiocourse]
This is an audiocourse from the Teaching Company about climate change. And, as you can infer from the fact that it doesn't have some frothing-clickbait title like "What LIE-berals Won't Tell You About Climate Change", it's about the evidence for anthropogenic climate change, and how that may accelerate in the future.

Honestly, I don't keep close track of the 'controversy' surrounding climate change. I figure nearly everyone in the world agrees that it's real and caused by emissions. There are folks who disagree, but most of them are Americans with vague suspicions that the earth is 6,000 years old -- folks who never really boarded the "science" train. But previous Teaching Company courses, including the Meteorology one I watched and the energy-policy one I listened to, touched on the edges of the climate change. The exhaustive meteorology course explained the greenhouse effect in detail. The energy-policy one talked about the science and politics of fossil-fuel consumption.

So it seemed like a good time to circle back and see where the scientific consensus is about this. And this course covers the material well -- the instructor is a bit manic, but his rapid speech is clear and follow-able enough. He patiently presents mountains of data, and addresses each of the basic, basic objections that have been political talking points for the last thirty years. In the later sections, he wisely holds back from policy recommendations, simply projecting the numbers on how climate might change for various levels of projected emissions.

Side note: I do love how those who criticize widely-accepted scientific consensus will usually raise a point that's, like, day *one* of the "Science 101" course on the topic. "If man evolved from apes, then why are there still apes?" "If vaccines don't cause autism, why has autism gone up?" Or the usual one for climate change: "If the earth has been hot before, why is this such a big deal?" Jesus, do people not google anything? (And for the record, the quick answer is "good christ it's moving fast and it matches CO2 emissions". Anyway.)

One problem I had was that the course was very graph-heavy. It was still possible to follow the material on audio, but it was much harder to get an intuitive feel for the data without it sitting in front of you as a pretty picture. In the end, I was entertained by the course, but I don't think I retained much of the material. And it was simultaneously reassuring and very, very worrying that all the objections to the theory of anthropogenic climate change had such thorough answers.

Additional side note: here's one fascinating fact that I *will* retain. Say you have a value that follows a normal distribution -- let's use 'the sum of two dice' as our example. Consider an extreme event, like 'rolling a twelve or higher'. Normally you have a 1/36 chance of that. Now let's say we nudge that curve a little bit -- we just add one to whatever total we roll. Now, your chances of 'rolling twelve or higher' are 1/12. So by barely nudging the average (7 → 8), we made the extreme event (12+) *three times* more likely. There are analogous situations in climatology models: nudging the mean temperature by 1° makes all sorts of catastrophic scenarios much, much more likely.

Jessica Jones [season 1]
This is the netflix/Marvel show about an ex-superhero private eye who takes on a mind-controlling psychopath from her past.

As I sit down to write about this, the first thing that pops into my head is Alan Yang's award-acceptance speech for Master of None, where he thanks "all of the straight white guys who dominated movies and TV so hard, for so long, that stories about anyone else seem kind of fresh and original. Because you guys crushed it for so long, anything else seems kind of different."

Jessica Jones tackles a lot of things head-on -- or as head-on as you can, via the lens of a superhero story. This is what it's like to get gaslighted. This is what it's like to have a controlling, narcisstic boyfriend. This is what it's like to be romantically interested in somebody who might also be a deadly physical threat.[1] And so on. It's so much of the terrifying shit that women have to deal with, and it's perfect fodder for drama, but prior to Jessica Jones, who was doing this? Lifetime women-in-peril movies? They get close, but as I understand it, those went more for delicious melodrama than psychological terror. You could make a case for season three of Buffy, but most of the issues that Jessica Jones tackles were more unnamed and unrecognized in pop culture back then.

It's kinda like TV left a gap, and so this Marvel series can take it in for an easy layup.[2] If we lived in a world where superhero movies *weren't* mostly "which dude can punch the other dude harder?", some of the show's moves might've felt cliché. But we're in this world, where most stories in this territory are "yeah, but what if the woman was making it all up? hurr hurr hurr" (spoiler link for the book you know I'm thinking of), so here we are.

And honestly, that simplicity makes the show scarier. There are plenty of stories about things like, I don't know, a hundred-foot-tall capybara that (adorably) destroys a Brazilian city.[3] But then you turn off the show, and you're back in the world where "rodent Godzilla" doesn't exist, and so, even though some part of your lizard-brain is still in a twitchy, fight-or-flight mode, you know that you're *safe*. So you turn off the TV and move on. But it's different when the scares so clearly crib from the real world. Watch a story about, say, a badly botched attempt to contain an epidemic, and that one stays scarier, in a way that lingers, as you think of ways that could actually happen, and try to optimistically invent scenarios where the government is competent enough to contain the threat, or the people closest to you are adept enough to deal with it. So it is with Jessica Jones: hey, at least we aren't in a world where narcissistic sociopaths put women through nightmares of... ah. Right. And the way Tenant runs with the material is perfect -- there is no fiendish villain laugh here, just self-absorbed petulance and a terrifying emptiness where Kilgrave's moral compass should be.

This is also the first of the netflix/Marvel series I've watched, and I'm loving how the larger scope and smaller scale (compared to the films) lets them pursue more of the natural consequences of these action-packed superhero stories.[3] In a film, you have your massive, city-block-destroying fight in the middle of act 2, and then the story just moves on to the B-plot, trundling along so it can set up yet another action sequence exactly 20 minutes later. Here in the TV-verse, when shit goes down, it has an impact. It's a lot less like CGI imitations of action figures banging against each other, and much more visceral and engaging.

It also gives the title character a venue where she can be good at her job. On this small, New York scale, we don't have a whole roomful of experts with computers trying to track down the bad guy. Instead, we have Jessica, working with a hopelessly thin set of clues, trying to outmaneuver a guy with brutal advantages. And it's great fun watching her scope out a room, or pull off an effortless social hack, or even just know the right stuff to look up on MCU's version of google. Even on detective shows, I rarely get to see detectives do what detectives do (because that material is brain-breakingly hard to write). This was a great exception.

As that pursuit got going -- say, about a third of the way into the series -- the show became weirdly familiar. A few months ago finished directing Fiasco, an improv show based on the storytelling game of the same name. And Jessica Jones started feeling a lot like that game: you had a chain of characters, one knowing the next knowing the next.[5] Setting up a large cast of characters this way, where not everybody knows (and communicates with) everybody, ensures that (1) the story will get complicated, and (2) each individual character will have very incomplete information about it. (Compare this to a show like Firefly, which regularly comes back to scenes with most or all of the principals in a room, allowing everybody to get up speed.) Jessica Jones does a flawless job of giving each character just enough information to make terrible, terrible decisions. The middle of that series was hard to watch, just because it puts you in a constant state of "I know everything is about to fall apart and people are going to die". So kudos to them for that.

The show has some minor flaws. The main annoyance for me was that many scenes were predictable. You saw the start of the scene, and you knew how the entire scene was going to go. Jessica's first confrontation with Detective Clemons, for example, feels like it could've come out of a Microsoft Word wizard for "standard noir detective scene." The actors elevate the material, but the material doesn't help the actors. It's like the writers know how to surprise us in the scenes where superhero powers are involved, but they get stymied on a more straight-ahead scene about, say, an arguing divorcing couple. Again, the actors do good work, but the writing just feels like it's imitating similar scenes from other dramas.

There were also a few issues of credibility -- and yes, this gives you some idea of the high standard I'm holding the show to, if I'm looking for credibility issues in a story about magical superheroes. For instance, I totally understood, for technical reasons, why Jessica had to want to bring Kilgrave in alive -- if it's "kill that guy," then your story is over after two episodes -- but in the context of the show it felt like a stupid choice. I'm sure with a little more finesse, they could have convinced me that this is the decision Jessica would make, even in spite of the unconscionable risks. And I admit, I kept thinking, "Wouldn't things go wrong for Kilgrave at some point?" Wouldn't some deaf person kick his ass eventually? Wouldn't some security footage catch him doing his thing?

But yeah, at this point I'm splitting hairs, and probably trying not to acknowledge how much power predators have in real society. The bottom line is that this is one of the best shows I've seen all year, and it's well worth your valuable time.

For next week: I'm watching season 8 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight while exercising, and also checking out Master of None and reading Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. I also have to catch up with writing about Howl's Moving Castle and Words on the Move

[1] The first-date conversation with the gun under the table was one of the sharpest metaphors I'd seen in a TV show in ages.
[2] I wonder if the upcoming Luke Cage series will speak to African-Americans in a similar way, though I suspect that Black Panther will hit those themes harder.
[3] As I age, I find it harder and harder to ignore this. Oh, there was a shootout? I'm betting that now all of you have tinnitus, and some of you have PTSD. Someone got knocked out? Strong odds it caused brain damage. You got shot non-fatally? Get ready for a year of agonizing physical therapy! And so on.
[4] Title suggestions are welcome. "Nibbler of Doom"? "Death with a Twitchy Nose"?
[5] Though perhaps more accurately, *several* chains of characters, with all chains intersecting at Jessica.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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