The Real Here or Somewhere Else?

A great thing about writing fantasy and science fiction is that you can set a story wherever you like, be it a far flung future or a galaxy far, far away. It can be a place that never existed or that exists but not in the form it does for your story. The possibilities are endless. But sometimes you want to tell a story in what, for better or worse, we’ll call the “real” world – the one that exists when you’re writing your story (or sometime before). If that’s the case, should you set it in a real place or make one up?

I grappled with this when I wrote Moore Hollow. It’s set in the “real” world, to the extent that zombies exist in the real world. The main character, Ben Potter, lives in London and visits family in Leeds before and after he travels to West Virginia. He rents a car at Yeager Airport in Charleston! All real places.

But when it came time to set the main part of the book, I was caught. I originally intended to set the story in one of the real counties deep in coal country – Mingo, McDowell. I thought that would help the story by giving a real sense of place, to ground the more fantastical elements.

The problem with using real places, of course, is that it limits your story somewhat. I needed some specific locales for Moore Hollow, places that, it turned out, didn’t really match the lay of the land any particular place in southern West Virginia. Thus, Vandalia County and its county seat, Jenkinsville, were born. All of a sudden I had unlimited freedom to fit the landscape to the story I wanted to tell.

We tend to see that kind of thing a lot in TV shows, as they cobble up settings as the show goes on. The best example, probably, is The Simpsons, which has for years given Springfield all the things it needs for the stories they tell, whether they really make sense or are found in a single location in the real world. Need a nuclear power plant? No problem. An ever burning tire fire? Have one of those, too. A city with a minor league baseball team but big enough to host a thriving entertainment industry (you think all those Krusty shows beam in from Hollywood?)? It’s got everything you need!

You get the point – when you’re making up the location as you go along, you can give it whatever the story needs.

There’s a price to pay for that kind of flexibility, though. The story you’re telling might feel more divorced from reality than you’d like.

By comparison, I just finished reading another of the Dresden Files novels. In no way is that series set in the real world – unless there are wizards, spirits trapped in skulls, and all manner of fantastical beasties out there that manage to stay off social media in 2021. That said, it is set in the very real place of Chicago and benefits for it. It adds a gritty reality to the stories that helps the “he’s a PI, but a wizard” concept really take off. If they’d been set in a fictional city that was, for all intents and purposes, Chicago, I don’t think it would be the same. Not that everything is scrupulously “real,” but then, neither is the setting of any literary novel that takes place in the real world.

Ultimately, I decided to create Vandalia County in Moore Hollow because no real place had all the things I wanted the place to have for the story. For future stories in that universe (a sequel novel and sequel-to-that novella have been drafts), I’m leaning toward trying to set them in real places, whenever possible. I might not be able to hold myself to that, but I want to try. One thing’s for certain – the decision about where to set your story has consequences. Think them through and do what’s right for your story.

Weekly Watch: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

It’s unfair to judge a film by what you want it to be, particularly documentaries. Filmmakers are trying to do something specific and to say “I would have done it that way” doesn’t mean much as criticism. Taking the project at face value, however, and concluding that it doesn’t really work is more fair game. Those who made The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, to their credit, tried to do something other than the usual whodunit true-crime story. Unfortunately, that winds up pulling the series in so many different directions that it doesn’t really work as a whole.

The titular vanishing is that of Elisa Lam, a young Canadian woman who was on a solo vacation of the California coast. She checked into the infamous Hotel Cecil in Los Angeles – reputed to be haunted and the inspiration for the hotel in American Horror Story: Hotel and probably the Hotel Hyperion in Angel – and never left. A few days after she disappeared, her naked body was found in a water tank on the hotel’s roof (her clothes were in the tank, too). There was no sign of foul play.

That mystery would make a neat single episode, but to stretch it out to four, the filmmakers try to weave in a couple of other threads. The first is a survey of the Hotel Cecil itself and its place in the ecosystem of its Los Angeles neighborhood, the defining feature of which is Skid Row. Thousands of homeless people live on Skid Row, semi-permanently (one guy interviewed lived there for six years, IIRC), and the challenges of those who live there and how they might be helped could make an interesting documentary. It’s mostly used here for atmosphere, the home of the outcast existing next to the haunted hotel, so it doesn’t really amount to much. To their credit, there’s never any hint (from the filmmakers or police) that any of these homeless folks were the cause of Lam’s disappearance – there doesn’t appear to be a “round up the usual suspects” moment – so that’s something.

The other thread aside from the whodunit/what happened is the one that I thought would be the most interesting. Lam’s disappearance attracted a host of amateur sleuths, most working on YouTube and other social medial sites, who tried to figure out what happened to her. Perhaps not surprisingly, they lapse into baseless conspiracy theories and even publicly accuse a death metal singer of murdering Lam because, well, he writes songs about death and water (better round up the Marillion guys, too!) and stayed at the hotel. However, easy research shows that his stay at the hotel was a year before Lam’s disappearance and at the time she went missing he was in a Mexican recording studio working on an album.

All of that could have been teased out more, with an eye toward why these people all over the world felt compelled to investigate the case and then, as answers started to emerge, disregard them in favor of their already considered pet theory. It’s almost a paradigmatic case of apophenia, but the filmmakers aren’t really interested in going down that road. Whether that’s because the internet sleuths are the ones who take up most of the talking head time in the doc – and thus they’re not going to be probed to harshly – I can’t say. They still come off as, at best, people with too much time on their hands and, at worst, unhinged, so it’s hardly a flattering portrait.

So, ultimately, Vanishing isn’t a disappointment because of what it doesn’t do, but because of what it fails to do on its own terms. It’s a worth attempt at something a bit different – which should always be encouraged, even if the end result doesn’t live up to its promise.

Weekly Watch:Star Trek: Discovery (Season One)

I am not a religious man. Nevertheless, I am beginning to develop an abiding faith about something that might happen in the near future. I call it the “streaming singularity,” which is one of two things I hope will happen in the future. The first is that some of the new, myriad streaming services will go belly up and their content, or their brands, will get absorbed by a few, larger services. The second is that, after a while, content will migrate from service to service, so that things that are initially exclusive to, say Disney +, eventually wind up on Netflix, the way TV shows used to migrate to syndication.

Long story short – I’m really hesitant to sign up for new streaming services at this point, unless there’s something so compelling that I can’t pass it up. Which is why, last spring, I signed up for CBS All Access (soon to be Paramount +) for a free month so I could watch the end of the Champions League campaign. While I was at it, I dabbled in a few of their original series, blitzing through The Twilight Zone (not bad – uneven, as  you’d expect from an anthology series). As for the Star Trek universe, I watched the first episode of Lower Decks (not my thing) and the first two of Discovery, which, honestly, didn’t do much for me. I shut down the account before I had to pay for anything, then went on with my life.

Then, desperate for programming in a COVID world, CBS decided to show the first season of Discovery on real TV! Armed with my TiVo, I decided to give it a go again, to see how it all played out. In the end, I’m glad I didn’t actually pay for it, but it was entertaining enough to keep watching.

My big beef with Discovery – as with many modern properties that take place within established universes – is that I don’t really see why this story had to be told as a Trek story. I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of the JJ Abrams Trek reboot. To me they feel like more generic sci-fi action movies rather than “Trek” (in the same way that, to me, the Daniel Craig version of James Bond seems like a generic action hero, not 007 – your mileage may vary, of course). Discovery feels the same way. Aside from some of the labels used – Klingon, Federation, Vulcans, etc. – the story itself could be told just as well in a new universe built for its own purposes.

That story is solid, but not particularly Trekky. For one thing, for a show called Discovery, set largely on a ship of the same name, it’s disappointing that the overall plot is about a war. I mean, there’s not a whole lot of “boldly going where no one has gone before” in Discovery. Maybe that’s why my favorite episode was “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” in which a small away team goes to a strange planet, gets in trouble, and has to get themselves out of it. It services the overall war plot, but works perfectly well as a standalone episode and actually seems like Star Trek!

Most of the rest of the time, the show is so beholden to trying to fit into the Trek universe that it’s hamstrung (I understand that in season three the show catapults so far into the future it doesn’t have to worry about such things). Original series scoundrel Harvey Mudd shows up – twice! – for no other reason than to allow fans to point and say “that’s Harvey Mudd!” Really, what’s gained by making it that particular character instead a of a new, fresh, different one that could get fleshed out in different and interesting ways? Likewise, the Klingons are old school Trek, and while I didn’t mind the new look like some folks do, there’s an awful lot of assuming people know what Klingons are and what they do from other Trek products that they’re not really developed. An extended jaunt in the “mirror universe” (in which Spock has a beard!) is kind of fun but, again, feels like fan service.

Where the series strikes out differently is where it works best. The spore drive that allows instantaneous travel across the universe is pretty neat, but it’s doomed to failure (somehow) since it’s not in use in any other Trek product. The Kelpians, in particular Saru, are pretty interesting, too, and a nice addition to the Trek universe. But they could have been part of any universe, right?

I wanted to say one thing about the serial nature of modern streaming TV, too, because I think there, too, Discovery is kind of neither here nor there. The show is definitely of a piece with the modern streaming/cable predilection for serial storytelling. Nothing wrong with that, but at 15 episodes, it has more time and space to do some other things (most shows get 10 episodes per season, at most). I wish they had taken that time to throw in a couple of standalone episodes. Even in a tightly serialized show, a standalone ep or two can help change the pace a bit and provide a place for real character development to take place. Given how heavy most of the first season is, a couple of breaks would have been good.

I guess what I’m saying is that Discovery, at least in its first season, works best when it’s not trying to be what it is – a prequel to the original Star Trek that is trying to worm its way into that universe’s history and continuity. Unfortunately, that’s is reason for being, so there’s only so much of it the show can do, which is a shame. If Discovery had been a brand new show, in a brand new universe, telling its own story, I think I would have liked it better. As is, it’s not quite Trek enough for its own good, no matter how hard it tries.

Let’s Talk Spoilers

It’s been a long time since I wrote something specifically about spoilers. After coming across this article at Tor by Sarah Kozloff about “spoilerphobia” I got to thinking about them some more. I still maintain that any story that can really be “spoiled” by knowing what happens probably isn’t that great, anyway.

A good point that Kozloff makes is that spoilers are more than just what happens in a particular story. They can be signifiers of social standing:

Knowing about the hot new book or movie can embody a certain cultural “one-upmanship” and indicate class privilege. Those with the money, time, freedom, and motivation to stay on top of current releases or buy new hardcovers may obtain an experience denied to those who have to wait for library copies or cheaper venues. So, the power to “spoil” lies disproportionately in the hands of those with elite access—like the critic—while anxiety about being deprived of an “untainted” experience affects people with less access.

I think my attitude toward spoilers is what it is because I first experienced them in the context of sports.

That said, I tend to agree with Kozloff’s ultimate conclusion:

I understand that revelations and endings do matter. I just don’t think they matter as much as people think they do or for every story. What I object to most about admonitions never to reveal plot is the implicit evaluation that surprise is everything, vastly more important than every other element of the work.

I think it’s important to think of spoilers as being linked to good manners. There’s a comment to the Tor piece about someone reading an Agatha Christie book on a plane:

Imagine reading an Agatha Christie novel on a plane and the guy next to you saying ‘That’s an awesome novel – I never would have guessed that she faked her death and burned her maid in her stead.’ (example made up, of course!). I don’t know how you would feel but I would be livid.

I’d be livid, too! Now, from a technical standpoint, whatever book that person’s reading has been out for decades and, really, they can’t expect it to be unspoiled. On the other, more relevant, hand, however, this person is obviously reading it, probably for the first time (people reread books, of course, but one has to think that of all the “book reading” going on in the world right now an overwhelmingly high percentage is people reading something for the first time) and there’s no reason to spoil it for them right now! That’s just assholery.

But the opposite situation is a different kind of assholery. Over the Xmas break my wife and I watched a couple of older movies – not ancient, but old enough to drive. As I often do, I went over to MovieChat to see what people were saying about it. On one of the forums, someone was complaining about the discussion spoiling the movie – a movie that had been out for 15 or so years. This person had come to a place where people talk about movies they’ve seen and bitched about spoilers. That’s assholery, too.

Thus, I think worrying about spoilers should be more about policing your own behavior rather than demanding what others do. I recently wrote a post inspired by watching Wonder Woman 1984 that, uncharacteristically, I put a spoiler warning on. Not because I think spoilers should be off limits, but because I knew the movie had just come out and people were still flocking to see it in the first rush. Six months later I might not have done the same thing, but who knows?

“Don’t be a jerk” is solid life advice. It applies to spoilers just as well.

Why Do I Love Bad (Fictional!) Lawyers?

Popular culture is full of lawyers. As both a lawyer and a writer, I apologize for that, but the legal profession is a pretty rich vein of drama (and even comedy) for writers. There’s crime and deceit, business dealings and family squabbles. The law touches every area of life (for good or for ill), so it’s a great way to examine life itself.

There are plenty of heroic lawyers in pop culture. Perry Mason’s having a kind of resurgence with the new, gritty, noir-flavored HBO series. Atticus Finch is a popular choice for crusader who launched a thousand earnest legal careers.* There are countless others, of course, lawyers who fight for the little guy (or gal) or justice or law in the abstract. They’re fine, of course, but when you always win, things can get kind of stale.

Which is why some of us – or maybe just speaking for myself here – have more of an affinity with the legal bad boys, the ones who work on the edges of professional ethics, for whatever reason. There’s a quite a rogue’s gallery and I pretty much love every one of them. They’re the patron saints of the legal profession, in my eyes.

Front of mind at this point can be none other than Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman, of Breaking Bad and his own prequel spinoff, Better Call Saul (which is better than the original, I think):

Saul2

The “patron saint” thing is kind of a joke, but the fact that Saul is about a struggling criminal defense lawyer makes it instantly more relatable to me, even if I never find myself nearly dead in the desert hauling two duffle bags full of drug cartel money (let’s hope). He is a sleaze, no doubt, and it eventually gets him into serious trouble, but at least early on he’s willing to use that sleaze to help the underdog and generally fuck with “law and order.” While I can’t say I approve of Jimmy’s methods, I appreciate the attitude. It’s one that sustains long-time public defenders like me.

Of more long standing in the pantheon is the one, the only “law talking guy,” Lionel Hutz:

Hutz2

Voiced by the wonderful Phil Hartman on The Simpson, Hutz is just a master class in legal incompetence. He marvels at how useful law books can be. He changes the terms of his retainer by marking up his own business cards. He shudders at the otherwise happy thought of a world without lawyers. He requests “bad court thingies.” And, most notably, he’s always looking out for himself:

Deep in the heart of every lawyer lurks the certainty that, if nothing else, they’re better than Hutz.

He’s not the only cartoon lawyer with a hold on my heart. How can I not love Harvey Birdman?

Harvey

Harvey’s less an idol for his legal acumen that he is for his ability to keep a calm head on his . . . wings, while everything else falls apart around him. It’s an important skill for an attorney, especially a criminal defense lawyer. Besides, who wouldn’t want to have an eagle for an assistant?

But if we’re going old school, there’s one sleazy lawyer that was lodged in my brain long before I was anywhere near a law school – Steve Dallas:

SteveDallas

Looking back I’m a little appalled at my love for Bloom County’s legal scholar. He’s a loud mouthed, rude, misogynistic, frat boy – precisely the kind of person I’d loathe if I met him (or saw him online) today. I mean, he did have cool cars, so that counts for something. And he was, come to think of it, the only professional in Bloom County (among the regular cast, at least). He had credentials and never let anybody else forget it. Like Harvey, he also recognized the value of good help:

SteveOpus2SteveOpus1

When it comes to all these guys (and they are all guys – I’ve noticed) I’m reminded of that idea, from Tolstoy, that all happy families are the same, but dysfunctional ones are unique in their dysfunction. I think that’s true for fictional lawyers, too. Good-hearted crusaders are important and uplifting, but they’re not always much fun. Bring on the bad boys!

* Years ago I went to a legal writing seminar where, for the session on issue spotting, we used the facts of To Kill a Mockingbird. A mere 45 minutes later he was facing a lengthy ineffective assistance of counsel charge.

Decade – Favorite TV Shows

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

It’s not an original thought to say that there’s a lot of TV shows out there these days. Not just that – a lot of very good TV shows (along with a lot of dreck, of course – Sturgeon was onto something). With every streaming service and cable network producing original content, it’s impossible for anybody to keep track of it all. These selections are ones I was lucky enough to cross paths with (in some instances years after their original run) over the past ten years. Some other things to keep in mind:

1. These are just what I say they are – favorites. I don’t make any claims that these are the “best,” whatever that may mean.

2. I only considered shows that began in 2010 or later (but see below).

3. I didn’t limit consideration to only multi-season series, but the list wound up not including any limited run stuff (although, again, see below).

With that said, away we go . . .

Justified (2010-2015)

Justified

I’m a federal criminal defense lawyer. US Marshals are not my friends. So it says something that one of my favorite characters of the past decade is a Deputy US Marshal. That Raylan Givens is the creation of Elmore Leonard doesn’t hurt, but the way he was developed (and played by Timothy Oliphant) through the run of the show really brought him to life. That Leonard vibe extends all the way though the show, particularly in the very unusual for TV setting (hello, federal district next door to mine!) and the astounding bevy of supporting characters, all of whom are unique characters without being “colorful” (if that makes sense). I mean, Boyd Crowder (and Dewey Crow), come on!

Bob’s Burgers (2011-present)

Bob

This is one of those shows I knew nothing about until the wife and I started watching reruns on Cartoon Network (I think) several years into its run. It didn’t take us long to make first-run episodes part of our regular rotation, to the extent that Fox’s football programming makes regularity an option. It’s a funny show with just enough heart to make you care about the weirdoes on screen. And what weirdoes. I’ll just say that I think Gene Belcher is my spirit animal and leave it at that.

Game of Thrones (2011-2019)

GoT

I know, I know, they didn’t really stick the landing (it wasn’t as bad as lots of loud people thought), but as a fan of Martin’s books before the series began I was super pleased by the show. It’s also a fascinating case study in adaptation, since the show runners ran past the point where Martin had written fairly quickly. I’d also be lying if I didn’t appreciate how the show helped shove fantasy stuff to the cultural forefront. Plus, I got to discuss it in court!

The Americans (2013-2018)

Americans

If someone had told me, before this show premiered, that it was really more of a family drama than a high-stake spy thriller, I might have given it a pass. That would have been a big mistake because while that’s an accurate description of what transpired over six seasons, it also doesn’t do justice to the atmosphere the show generated with all the spy stuff (and excellent soundtrack choices). Once you’ve seen mom and dad stuff a dead body in a suitcase it tends to stick with you, you know? If Stranger Things (which just missed the cut for this list) is all about 1980s nostalgia, this series was all about the paranoia of the same age.

Fun fact – the children of the Soviet spies who were the inspiration for the show recently had their Canadian citizenship confirmed.

Bojack Horseman (2014-present)

Bojack

Comedy is tricky. As I noted above, you have to care about characters for a show to have legs, not matter how good the jokes. But in asking us to care, it invites the writers to go into more serious, less funny places. Bojack Horseman really straddles that line nicely, digging deeply into the title characters depression and substance abuse but never quite losing site of the fact that we’re watching a cartoon about half-human animal people in a place called Hollywoo. You could probably do “Death of a Salesman” in front of the backdrop and still die laughing. This is, after all, a show where an entire episode’s punch line is that the horse guy is bombing at his own mother’s funeral.

Oh, and it’s got my favorite theme song from any TV show in a very long time.

The Knick (2014-2015)

Knick

This is my overlooked/neglected pick for this list, which is a surprise given the pedigree involved – a period piece created/directed by Stephen Soderbergh starring Clive Owen (and a host of excellent character actors) promising a different spin on that venerable TV institution, the hospital drama. Maybe it was because the show sidestepped the usual focus on medical heroics to dwell in the underbelly of a hospital struggling to stay open in 19th century New York. Maybe Owen didn’t pull off the addicted genius asshole like Hugh Laurie did on House. Maybe the excellent, anachronistic electronic score by Cliff Martinez turned some off. Regardless, I loved both seasons and wanted more. Alas.

The Leftovers (2014-2017)

Leftovers

Tom Perotta’s novel The Leftovers is very good, a darkly humorous meditation on a world where a small percentage of the population just disappear one day. The TV series upon which it’s based, which covered the events of the book in the first of its three seasons, is completely brilliant. The vibe’s not quite the same as the book, but it doubles down on the sheer weirdness that a world like that would produce. I didn’t know what was going on for a lot of the show’s run and I still loved it. It’s one of those shows that you either loved or it left you cold. Count me firmly in the first group.

Better Call Saul (2015-present)

Saul

You’re probably wondering why this made the list and not Breaking Bad. Did you overlook the part above where I said I was a defense attorney? Saul Goodman is one of the TV patron saints of my profession (along with Lionel Hutz). More to the point, I think the slow transformation of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman is a more compelling arc than what happened with Walter White. Walter was driven to do horrible things by circumstance, but he embraced those acts pretty easily. Jimmy has always tried to be better, to seek the approval of the establishment (in the form of his lawyer brother Chuck), and generally do right. That he continually fails and is drawn deeper and deeper into criminality is more tragic.

The Magicians (2015-present)

Magicians

Full confession – I was not a huge fan of the Lev Grosman books upon which this series is based. I read the first two and simply couldn’t come to grips with the main character, Quentin. There was just too much of him. Imagine my surprise when the show runners here apparently came to the same conclusion and made Quentin one of many lead characters on the show, almost all of whom are more interesting and compelling. Add to that some great batshit “yes, this is fantasy!” elements and a willingness to do just about anything (singing – I’m talking about singing) and this series is one of my most pleasant surprises.

Mr. Robot (2015-2019)

MrRobot

A show about which I once said this:

MrRobotJoke

I never really loved this show until its last season. Up to that point I had been impressed by it, but something hadn’t fully clicked about it. I think what finally did it was realizing how amazingly Sam Esmail and crew used the visual language of the show, the odd camera angles and such, to give it a distinct look that could throw you off your feet. That made me reflect on the writing itself and I realized it did the same thing and that, at the end of the show, I was profoundly digging it. Slow burns are a wonderful thing.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

I had to have a pair of honorable mentions, just because they don’t quite fit the parameters I set when I started this project.

Archer (2009-present)

Archer

Archer would have been a shoo-in for this list, but for one fact – it premiered in 2009. In spite of that, I had to give it some love since it’s amazingly funny and still running into the next decade. I love the show’s willingness to take the characters and throw them into completely different settings from season to season (from the original spy spoof setup to drug runners, noir figures, and space farers), even if every attempt didn’t work out that well.

Watchmen (2019)

Watchmen

Watchmen isn’t on the list proper for a couple of reasons. First, it’s Damon Lindelhoff’s baby and he’s already represented with The Leftovers. Second – just what is Watchmen, anyway? If it’s really just a one-season-and-done situation, it may still deserve a spot, but since future seasons are a possibility I wasn’t comfortable putting it on. Regardless of how brilliant this season was, it could go completely downhill in the future. Maybe after another ten years I’ll come back and promote it to the big leagues.

NOTE: I put this list together before it was confirmed that Watchmen was going to be one and done. Rather than mess with the list, I’ll keep it here in its special place. Seems right.

Weekly Watch: Deadwood

So, somehow, I completely missed Deadwood during its run on HBO. By the time the wife and I decided we should check it out – largely on the strength of all the people in it who went on to other great shows – we couldn’t find it streaming anywhere. Luckily, when HBO premiered the follow-up film (creatively called Deadwood: The Movie) a little while back they ran the entire series on one of the subsidiary channels. We loaded up the TiVo and, over the last few weeks, worked through all 36 episodes and the movie.

My general impression? Expectation is a hell of a drug.

I’ve seen Deadwood called one of the greatest TV shows of all time and a singular achievement. I’ve seen fans still in thrall to it on the Internet for years after the show ended prematurely (the plan, as I understand, was for it to be a four-season run). All that led me to expect, to want, a really profound viewing experience, something to stick away in my pantheon of all time greats. It’s probably not surprising that, to my mind, it doesn’t measure up.

To be sure, there are a lot of great things about Deadwood. The main characters – and the actors who play them – are great. Al Swearengen is one of the best “evil motherfuckers with a heart of gold” ever conceived. The arcs of reforming prostitute Trixie and (multiple) widow Alma are excellent. Law man Bullock is kind of a killjoy, but at least he’s consistent about it and struggles with it.

A large part of what makes them great are the words creator David Milch and the writers put in their mouths. Deadwood is downright Shakespearian at times, if Shakespeare had grown up listening to George Carlin records. The show is famous for its cursing, even though its particular verbiage might be a bit anachronistic. The show also got a jump on Game of Thrones’s famous “sexposition,” with several scenes where Swearengen waxes poetic about his back story while getting an unsatisfactory blowjob.

If not precisely accurate, the language is part of the overall feel of the show that makes it seem a lot more realistic that your typical western. People piss in buckets (or the street) and cough up lungs. The murdered die slow, bloody deaths. Pigs are used as waste disposal tools Tony Soprano would envy (fun fact – my wife and I also discovered this while simultaneously watching Gentleman Jack, set a few decades earlier). Everything’s small, dirty, and cramped. Deadwood starts in a kind of state of nature, so it’s only natural that life there is often (to borrow a phrase) violent, nasty, and short.

But here’s the thing – most of what happens in that milieu and most of what’s propelled by those awesome words isn’t really that compelling. In reviewing the movie the AC Club said that the “cowardly murder that follows forms the spine of the movie’s second act, but any narrative is just gravy.” That’s in an otherwise positive review, but it seems true to me of the entire series. The show doesn’t seem so much interested in where it’s going, so much as how we get there. I can appreciate that, but it doesn’t thrill me. And it leads to times where the narrative jumps for no good reason other than it has do (I still don’t understand how the big elections in town first don’t happen, then become county-wide later in the third season). Beyond that, the plotting and scheming that everybody gets up to gets a little tedious, particularly since there’s very few people involved to actually root for.

And when those schemes involve those outside main characters, things get rough. For some reasons, many of the minor characters (like the “mayor,” E.B. Farnum and any of Swearengen’s goons – and why they hell did Garret Dillahunt show up three times playing three different characters?) begin as a kind of comic relief, a release valve from the swaggering fuckery of the main characters. But as the series goes along they move from pleasant respite to broad cartoons that don’t really resemble human beings anymore. This is where the very stylized language hurts, because coming from the mouths of those characters it multiplies the cartoonishness.

Which all ends up with Deadwood being a series that I admire for large swaths but didn’t really love. The movie, for what it’s worth, is basically more of the same and while I can see why fans were happy to have it back, if only for a little bit (I love Serenity, after all), reviews I’ve seen saying that it provides “closure” must have a different meaning of the word than I do. I’m glad to have caught up with it and seen what all the fuss was about. If nothing else, it’s added “hooplehead” to my vocabulary, so for that I fucking thank it.

Deadwood

Guilty Pleasures

This, floated recently in the New York Times, I can fully get behind:

We know them when we see them: The TV shows and movies we love, even though we just know they’re bad. The trashy books we simply can’t put down. The awful earworms we hate to love.

Yes, these are our guilty pleasures — what some people consider the junk food in our media diets. But if we enjoy them, why should we feel guilty? We should be free to enjoy whatever we like! And as it turns out, these so-called ‘guilty’ pleasures can actually be good for us, so long as they’re enjoyed in moderation.

I really loathe the term “guilty pleasure,” since it makes a value judgment about the kind of art or entertainment that grabs you. As I’ve said over and over, reaction to art is personal and what thrills one person will bore another. Think of the most popular thing on the planet (say, Avengers: Endgame) and consider that as popular as it is it hasn’t been seen, much less liked, by a majority of the population.

Don’t get me wrong – I have what others might deem guilty pleasures, I just refuse to feel bad about it. In particular I seem to have a particular fondness for “bad” movies with Max von Sydow in them – Flash Gordon, David Lynch’s Dune, Strange Brew, Victory. None of them were critically praised and at least two of them are loathed by portions of the fandom of the originals upon which they’re based. Those folks are entitled to their opinion, but they’re not entitled to feel superior to me because I enjoy that stuff (while recognizing I’m in the minority).

I think part of why we like to label things as “guilty pleasures” is that it allows us to like what we do without actually copping to it, so we can still think we’re cool. That’s why we come up with ideas like reading something ironically or hatewatching to cover the truth – we just enjoy what we’re reading/watching/listening to. I mean how stupid is “hatewatching”? If you watch something that you hate so often you’re just in denial – you’re enjoying it, even if in a different way than the creators intended.

After all, it’s not like a bad movie or book is the same thing as an artery-clogging meal:

Guilt can be a healthy motivator to push us to change behaviors we don’t like, while shame — the painful feeling that our behavior makes us horrible people — is never productive. But when we disparage our reality TV viewing habits, for example, we typically aren’t describing a behavior we hope to change, nor are we saying we’re terrible people.

‘When you feel guilty, but haven’t harmed anyone, then you’re just in the realm of perfectionism or criticism,’ said Dr. Neff, the associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

So throw down your chains of shame, brothers and sisters! Give not a single fuck about what other people think about your entertainment preferences! We all need brain candy sometimes – might as well admit it and move on with our lives. I’m with Loki:

GuiltyPleasure

On American Dystopia and the Great White North

Dystopian fiction can be tricky. Assuming you’re setting it on Earth, you either need to have the whole world go to hell, which isn’t all that probable, or the shit show is more localized, in which case you have to address how the rest of the world interacts with the place where the story is set. I’ve been set to thinking about this a bit thanks to two recent bits of television.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is as localized as dystopia can get. It’s told entirely from the point of view of the titular handmaid, June, and doesn’t concern itself at all with the outside world. Gilead is what she experiences; nothing more.

The TV adaptation probably couldn’t have worked if it maintained that rigorous POV, so it wisely broadened its world from the get go. In the first season, therefore, we learned that June’s husband and her best friend managed to escape to Canada, where there’s a growing population of expats from the area that used to be New England. But we don’t really know what that means in a global socio-political sense.

HandmaidS2

That was evident in the recent episode “Smart Power,” where Commander Fred and his wife, Serena, take a diplomatic trip to the Great White North. They’re received professionally, if coolly, in the manner you’d expect for delegates from a nation with which the Canadians have at least some normal relations. But do they? We don’t really know. Things are complicated when an American agents of some kind offers Serena a new life in Hawaii, one where she actually gets to control her destiny.

All this is a bit confused because we don’t really know how Gilead relates to the rest of the world – or what the rest of the world thinks of Gilead (once some info leaks out during the Commander’s visit, we quickly find out, at least partly). How big is Gilead? We know it’s centered in New England, but what of the rest of the United States? Does Canada recognize it as an independent nation? If so, why? What does the United States look like?

None of these were really important in the book, since it was June’s story above all else. But by broadening the focus (something that had to happen for the TV series to continue), these questions become relevant and I’m not certain the show’s brain trust really has the answers.

The recent HBO adaptation of Farhernheit 451 suffered even more acutely from this problem. It makes explicit the story’s setting (Cleveland) and, via an implausible update that involves the works of humanity encoded into DNA, sets up an endgame where Montag has to help someone escape to Canada to rendezvous with some scientists. We’re never told if that’s just because that’s where they are or because Canada is the safe area we always assume it to be.

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This is particularly important to Farhernheit 451 given its semi-hopeful ending of an underground group dedicated to actually memorizing great works of literature to ensure they don’t disappear.* That still happens, but it’s now supplemented with the DNA thing. But if Canada is a safe haven, if it exists outside of the dystopia the United States has become – then why the need to preserve all knowledge? Isn’t it safe elsewhere in the world?

To a certain extent this is an issue with any speculative fiction worldbuilding. Writers need to have some idea what happens beyond the bounds of their stories, since those things should influence those stories in some ways. But it’s compounded dystopian fiction set in the “real” world because readers and viewers presume the world is as it is in real life, unless we’re told otherwise. That can lead to confusion, or at least some disappointments.

* Kudos to the writers for updating the preserved works to include writers who are women and people of color (and even some women of color!). However, the impact is a bit muted since only the minority characters are memorizing the work of minority authors.

Homeland Is Through the 49-State Looking Glass, People!

For its first couple of seasons, Homeland was among the best TV on the planet. Tense and twisty as any good thriller, it had the overlay of asking interesting questions about what drives people (in this case the lily-white costar) to terrorism? Things have slipped considerably since then, but it’s still an entertaining, and occasionally thrilling, show.

The further it’s gone, however, the further Homeland has moved into its own alternate universe. That’s only natural – any fiction is building its own world, after all. But after six plus seasons, Homeland’s America doesn’t look quite like ours does, and not just because President Trump was too wild a plot twist for a show like that.

In its current season, Homeland is charting the fall out of a presidential election that ended with an attempted assassination. One of the newer characters, O’Keefe, is an Alex Jones style radio/internet personality who starts the season on the run from the new president’s henchpersons. He hides out with numerous sympathizers and broadcasts screeds of resistance.

Which brings us to West Virginia.

In the second episode of this season O’Keefe makes his way to a farm in a rural area that becomes his final safe house. When the family who lives there (and some of their neighbors) welcome him, it’s with a story about a site nearby where the first battle of the Civil War was fought. It’s made clear that the site is Philippi, which places the action in West Virginia.

At the risk of sounding like Grandpa Simpson, I am not making this up. See this write up of the fourth episode:

With the FBI surrounding his West Virginia hideout, O’Keefe and his loyal listeners settle in for a long siege with power generators, jugs of water — and lots and lots of guns.

Or this article from a Virginia newspaper about the actual location where those scenes were shot:

Landon Graham said he was approached in September 2017 about using his rural property to serve as the location for the hideout, which in the show is supposed to be somewhere in West Virginia.

‘They wanted something that looked like West Virginia because that is where the scene was supposed to be. But getting to West Virginia is a nightmare so it’s better to be near Richmond,’ he said.

And still, in this week’s episode, which takes place in the aftermath of a deadly raid on at the safe house, O’Keefe is taken into custody and taken to . . . Richmond, Virginia. This shift of location is odd for a couple of reasons.

First, assuming O’Keefe is being charged with a federal crime (which he surely is), he’d need to be taken to a court in the district in which he was arrested – that being the Northern District of West Virginia (I chuckled imagining my colleagues dealing with the guy). Clarksburg is surely closer to the fictional Lucasville than Richmond, which is in the wrong district, anyway.

Second, there’s later a memorial service organized for those who died in the shootout, which is also organized in Richmond. Again, why have such an event several hours away from where the event occurred? It would be like having a memorial for the Parkland shooting students in Georgia. It took place in a church, not a huge stadium or something. Let me assure you, there’s no shortage of churches in north central West Virginia.

So what’s up? Is this just sloppy storytelling on the part of Homeland? Did they suddenly forget that West Virginia is, in fact, its own state and has been for 155 years? Surely the writers of a critically praised, major network TV series wouldn’t so cavalierly wipe an entire state off the map by sheer negligence.

No, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Instead, I’ll choose to believe that in the land of Homeland, West Virginia never actually existed. All those references earlier this season were really to “west Virginia.” Yeah, yeah, that’s it! It has to be. What other explanation is there? They’re playing with the very fabric of existence, people! Millhouse was right!

Milhouse