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

Monday (1/2/17) 1:04am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:   America's Bitter Pill
Movies:  <none>
TV:  Sherlock [season 3], Good Eats [season 9]

America's Bitter Pill by Steven Brill
This is Time magazine journalist Steven Brill's exhaustive history of the creation and passing of the Affordable Care Act, AKA "Obamacare".

On some level, I feel stupid, because that's exactly what the book says on the tin, and that's exactly what it *is*, but somehow it still wasn't what I wanted.

I think most of all, I was hoping for an economic analysis of health care in the United States.  I want to learn everything I can about why this health-care market -- including insurance, medicine, equipment, and care itself -- is failing.[1]  I know bits and pieces of it: it's impossible to get good information about product quality or efficacy; if you have a heart attack, you can't spend a few weeks sorting out the best deal on your health care; and urgent care isn't like a widget: you can't just say 'meh, that ambulance is overpriced' and die.  But I still haven't found the book that synthesizes all the economic research and presents why unregulated capitalism so thoroughly screws the pooch here, or what drawbacks creep in for the single-payer systems in place through the rest of the developed world.

So: America's Bitter Pill is not that.

I thought instead that the book might be a thrilling economics yarn like The Big Short (or, really, any of Michael Lewis's pop-econ books).  I'm always up for watching outsized characters go through the looking glass into the topsy-turvy world of abstruse economics.  Basically, the typical Michael Lewis book seems to feature some brilliant eccentric applying economic principles in a counterintuitive way and taking everyone's money.

But this is not that, either.

Instead, it's (again) what it says on the tin.  It's reportage.  It's relatively straightforward reportage about the absolutely byzantine effort to get Obamacare passed.  It's who did what to whom and when, as reconstructed from painstaking research and countless interviews.  The author's voice peeks through in places, most notably in a framing story about a near-fatal cardiac problem that he himself suffered -- but it leans more towards "extended wikipedia page" than "nonfiction novel."

And as such, I found it pretty dull.  Maybe Mr. Brill lacks Michael Lewis's flair for the dramatic, or maybe the source material doesn't offer any heightened characters, but I couldn't get a bead on any of the 'characters' in this story.  He, again, works like a reporter and not a novelist: we get the person's name, their position, and maybe a paragraph that lists off a few characteristics in a workmanlike way, and that's it.  From that point on, their name is just a marker for a piece that's moving around a chessboard.  Their personality, briefly glimpsed, submerges.[2]

And so there was really only one level I could appreciate this on: its depiction of bare-knuckled DC politics.  It was like watching a detailed description of a Civil War battle, detailing how these Union troops gathered atop that hill, and then the Confederate general led a charge at that pass, and this was the point when it started raining and reducing visibility and mobility for everybody, which is why this general misjudged that cannon placement, and on and on and on.  The interest comes from seeing the lay of the land of all these different interconnected government agencies, and learning the strategies politicians use -- not House of Cards, soap-opera-esque bunkum, but how legislators and staffers and lobbyists actually make policy happen.

And there are bits of excitement here and there.  Once the book focuses on the construction of healthcare.gov -- i.e., once it dives into *my* line of work -- the story picks up, clearly counterpointing the mounting horror of the OCIO debacle against the impressive professionalism behind Kentucky's "Kynect" ACA setup.  But even that feels abstract: you're not watching people screw up, you're watching a system with poor software-development practices steer itself into a ditch.

So I'm glad I read it -- it was good to learn a bit more about how the government works -- but it wasn't entertaining enough to merit the page count.  I may try reading Redefining Health Care to learn more about the economic 'guts' of health care markets.

Sherlock [season 3]
This is the third season of Stephen Moffat's modern-day re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes.

I think this is where I officially step off the Sherlock train, wish it a happy remainder of its run, and try to resume the amazing TV run I've had going with Master of None, Jessica Jones, Stranger Things, and BoJack Horseman.

Sherlock's mystery stories just don't deliver any more.

I'd argue that with the source material -- the Holmes stories themselves -- the mysteries are overrated.  They never had the railroad-timetable interwoven complexity of Agatha Christie's work, or the agonizing emotional impact of, say, Reginald Hill's plots.  Don't get me wrong, there are some Holmes short stories with fun little twists ("The Red-Headed League" being a favorite of mine), but Doyle's work was most important as a staring point for the genre to build on.  Later writers created a clearer sense of 'fair play', putting all their clues clearly in front of you, knowing all the while that you'd have to be obsessively and insanely clever to logic out the solution.  You compete with Poirot to solve his crime.  You only *watch* Holmes solve his.

And then the show Sherlock is one step removed from that, doing only some approximation or translation of those stories.  Yet still, earlier seasons of Sherlock included some clever and fun puzzles to sort out.  The "sportsman dead in the middle of a field" subplot, for example, was a delightful little koan.  This time around, they put less emphasis on crimesolving, shoving that aspect to the side for much of their running time -- and the mysteries themselves often approach Murder, She Wrote levels of phoning-it-in.  It's frustrating as hell to solve the mystery early on in the show when you're not even trying, and then have to watch *Sherlock Holmes* slowly catch up.  That's a sign something in the script has gone wrong.

I mean, hell, the sole mystery in "The Empty Hearse" was a one-word pun.  The main wrinkle in "Sign of Three" is, while medically improbable, kind of staring you in the face after a while.

And then there's the twist with Mary.


And that takes me to my next point of discussion: if they're shoving aside the mysteries in Sherlock, that's presumably so they can make more time for character-centric storylines, right?  Great!  I don't mind that at all.  There are procedurals that do a great job of shirking their 'mystery duties' and focusing on personal stories that matter to them (lookin' at you, Pushing Daisies).  And, in the broader sense, there are many, many shows that abandon their original premise to find something different and truer to what the show needs to be.[3]

So how does Sherlock fare with character-based plot?  Well, consider who's involved.  Moffat has a reputation for writing intricate and twisty little Swiss-watch plots, but not so much for writing character and relationship, and much, much less for making emotional beats land.  But on the other hand, Sherlock has one of the best casts on television.  Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman could make the phone book work as a piece of drama, right?

And the show does indeed become that sort of "unstoppable force/immovable object" combination.  Moffat and his co-writers, to their infinite credit, have created a perfect setup for rich, involving, character-based drama: Sherlock 'returns from the dead' after two years to find that his best/only friend is engaged to be married.  Suddenly, all three of them have to renegotiate the social landscape between them.  There's a great story there.

Moffat can't for the life of him find it.

Or more precisely, Moffat doesn't seem *interested* in finding it.  "People having complex, ambivalent, nuanced feelings" doesn't hold his attention.  Instead, Moffat sets up distractions for himself.  There's a lot of bantering.  There are sitcom-esque scenes, like Mrs. Hudson assuming that of course Dr. Watson must be engaged to a man, right?[4]  And finally, there is a puzzle-box, with the reveal that Mary was a SECRET EX-ASSASSIN ALL ALONG.

As a side note: what woman hurt Steven Moffat?  It's kind of hilarious that he's been tasked with writing a likeable, interesting, female character for Watson to fall in love with, and... it turns out like Frank Miller trying to not write about whores.  He's able to feint towards Mary being a normal, round-earth human who happens to have XX chromosomes, and then it's NO SHE'S AN EVIL BETRAYER OF HER MAN WHO HAS BEEN MURDERING AND LYING AAAAA.  I'm sure that's not how *he* thought of this plot move, but in a season that has (among other things) Sherlock literally clasping his hand shut to magically make a boring woman stop talking, it feels natural to view it like that.

Anyway.  As expected, the cast is doing yeoman's work to find a story there.  Mr. Freeman's (now ex-) partner Amanda Abbington sidesteps a whole raft of sitcom and romcom "new girlfriend" clichés to find a winning, playful Mary Morstan, a character who seems somewhat keyed-in on just how hilarious Martin Freeman is.  Mr. Cumberbatch works mightily to find his consistent, heightened character even when the writing for Sherlock feels like arbitrary plot-vectoring.  Mr. Freeman keeps finding the emotional grounding for wildly far-fetched scenes -- he's one of the best there is with "here's what it would be like if, instead, a real human being wandered into this scenario". 

In the end, it feels like a season of television that *wanted* to do so many good things.  The directors try so, so hard to make the show *look* cool, but the strain is counterproductive -- half an hour in, I was wincing and wishing they could just do a jump cut from scene to scene without Avid-farting all over the place.  The actors are trying so hard to present an emotional and character-driven storyline, but the writing isn't really up to that, so none of it quite connects.  The writers want to spice things up with quirky, surprising mysteries on the periphery, but those sorts of stories are nearly impossible to write, and the reveals kind of fall flat.

In the end, you're left with a great deal of high-production-value good intentions.  I suppose I'll catch up with season 4 someday, but I'll be in no hurry to do so.

Good Eats [season 9]
Season 9 of Alton Brown's cooking show is more of a good thing.  I love that, at this point, they're finding ever-more-obscure topics to cover, though it does make me wish the show had started with more coverage of cooking fundamentals.  The latest addition in season 9 are Monty-Python-esque animations to get across historical exposition -- it's nice that they're still finding little ways to vary things up.

For next week: I'm watching season one of Veep, reading a book about the science of cooking, and listening to 13 Things That Don't Make Sense.  While exercising, I'll be watching season 10 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight.

[1] A market 'clears' when capitalism works as advertised -- the marketplace ensures that sellers are making the best products they can at the lowest cost, and buyers are cannily buying the best deals.  A market 'fails' when something goes wrong, and those incentives are impeded.  So, say a monopolist comes in, prevents anyone else from entering the market, and jacks up prices: that's a failing market.
[2] Even President Obama comes off as fairly anonymous -- a vague, intelligent and cautious presence.
[3] Off the top of my head, Cougar Town, Dollhouse, and LOST come to mind.[1b]
[3b] Good luck ever seeing those three strung together in one sentence again.
[4] An honest question: in 2016, do people really *do* this?  In the big cities, do they blithely assume they know your sexual orientation, and insist on that assumption, blinkered to "you're wrong" social cues?  It feels like the scene time-travelled in from the mid-90s.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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