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.

F451

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

 

Aliens For the Defense!

The first novel-length project I finished (which shall molder in box in my close forevermore) grew out of the fact that criminal defense attorneys routinely have their clients try and tell them whopper stories about “what really happened.” My personal favorite is a colleague’s client who explained that he tested positive for cocaine because he was helping a buddy move a couch and when he picked it up a cloud of white powder erupted and flew up his nose. My book took that phenomenon and aliened it up a bit (it involves the Flatwoods Monster).

Now, in my wife’s home state of Wyoming, somebody is trying to sell something similar, but I doubt any court (or defense attorney) is going to be buying. The defendant was arrested for being drunk in public, but he had a good reason:

Police say a central Wyoming man they arrested for public intoxication claimed he had traveled back in time to warn of an alien invasion.

* * *

The man told police he was only able to time travel because aliens filled his body with alcohol. He noted that he was supposed to be transported to the year 2018, not this year.

I suppose time travel isn’t an exact science, even for aliens But don’t worry, the invasion isn’t until 2048, so we’ve got time to prepare.

In the meantime, might I suggest an expert witness should this gentleman decide to go to trial?

Aliens

Even Fantasy Has to Make Sense

One of the repeated comments about this shortened season of Game of Thrones (which wraps up Sunday) is that show runners have really cranked up the pace, running from big event to big event instead of letting things play out over time. Part of that’s due to the nature of the season (it’s only seven episodes long) and part of it’s due to where we are in the story. Once we have the scope of this world in our heads it’s not a problem to handwave away some of the timing issues in order to barrel ahead toward the show’s conclusion.

But there are limits, and the limit seems to have been breached by this past week’s episode, “Beyond the Wall.” A quick, spoilerly, recap of the relevant bits:

Jon and company go north of The Wall to capture a zombie ice walker to take back to King’s Landing to prove to everybody this shit is real. After walking for a bit they come across the army of the undead and, for some reason, pick a fight. Jon sends Gendry running back to Eastwatch for help, which provokes a raven to be sent to Dragonstone, which leads Daenerys to fly up to save the day with all three dragons. All the while, Jon and crew are surrounded by the undead army (until it’s dramatically appropriate for it to attack, of course).

Putting to one side the sheer stupidity of Jon’s “strategy,” there’s a big whopping problem with the timing of all this. We only see the army of the undead hold off overnight before attacking, but surely it takes several days (at least) for the Gendry/raven/dragon transport system to deliver fiery death to them, right? It’s at least something that has kicked some people out of the story, pulling them past their flying snowman moment. Even the director of that episode admits the timeline is “getting a little hazy.”

But that’s not really what I’m interested in (although I’m one of those people). I’m more interested in some of the defensive comments made in response to complaints. There are several in the comments to this write-up over at io9 – they’re fairly typical:

While you’re focused on a believable timeline, does it ever cross your mind that you’re watching a show about fucking dragons.

***

I’m sure it would have been fun to watch seven guys stranded on a rock for another episode while they waited for the raven and the dragon’s trip back because the audience wanted a show about magical ice zombies to keep things realistic.

Someone even posted an image of the gold standard for this kind of thing, MST3K’s admonition that “it’s just a show, I should really just relax.”

People are free to accept any explanation (or none) for why something seems off in a show, movie, or book, but I have to take issue with the argument that because something is fantasy anything goes.

One of the cool things about writing fantasy is that you can, generally speaking, make up anything you want. People who can wield the power of the elements? No problem. Mythical talking beasts who aid intrepid adventurers in their quests? Bring it on. Nonetheless, there are still a couple of limits.

Primary is that to the extent the characters are human beings, they should behave like them. Maybe a guy can fly or perhaps he can summon huge storms with his mind, but he probably still gets hungry, tired, or would be pissed off if he found his girlfriend in bed with another guy. Unless there’s an in-world reason to the contrary, characters should behave like real people.

That leads into the second restriction – any fantasy story should follow the rules that it sets up for itself. Let’s say you have a world that includes a pegasus (or pegasi) and we’re told early on that, despite the wings, they can’t actually fly (they’re mystical ostriches). A pegasus cannot, sometime later, save the day by flying to the rescue. Not because it’s a known fact that a pegasus can fly, but because we’ve learned that in this world they can’t. Once your own rules go out the window the story isn’t grounded in anything.

That’s the problem Game of Thrones got into this past week. We’ve spent years getting used to the scope of its world, the sheer size of it. Characters stationed in different sections of the map were truly separated. It felt like a big place. Until the writers needed it not to be and pulled a dragon ex machina out of the hat (followed closely by a Benjen ex machina – ugh). Look, I get it – rapid transmission of information in a pre-modern fantasy world is a pain in the ass. Why do you think I had mind walkers (telepaths) in The Water Road? But if that’s the world you’re playing in, you’re stuck with it.

Saying “this is fantasy” gets you out of a lot of boxes as a writer, but it isn’t carte blanche to do whatever you want. Even in a world of dragons, frozen armies of the dead, and faceless men, stuff still has to make a basic kind of sense.

None of which is to say I’m not hella pleased with where things ended up after this episode. After all . . .

IceDragons

Weekly Read: Lovecraft Country

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is less a novel than it is a collection of linked short stories built around a brilliant conceit. That is, the main characters in the stories are all from an extended African-American family (family and friends) living in Chicago in the 1950s. That is to say, the stories are shot through with everyday racism that will make your toes curl. But they’re also shot through with magic, nasty creatures, and mysterious rites. Who better to deal with such supernatural horrors than people who have to deal with horrific treatment on a daily basis just based on the color of their skin?

I should say, at this point, that I’m not particularly familiar with Lovecraft’s work (I’ve got a book of his on in my ever expanding “to read” pile, though). I have a vague sense of what it’s about, but it’s only a surface understanding. That’s to say that I’ve read some criticism from people about Lovecraft Country that isn’t, well, sufficiently Lovecraftian. That wasn’t a concern for me going in and it certainly isn’t a concern now that I’ve read the book.

In this “Big Idea” piece over at John Scalzi’s blog, Ruff explains that Lovecraft Country started as a TV pitch (and, indeed, it’s been picked up by HBO with Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams involved) and knowing that now I can see it. Each story serves like an episode, telling a tale that stands alone but pushes forward an overall plot that comes to fruition in the season finale (aka, the final story). It’s a bit frustrating initially because the first story (the title track, if you will) winds up really quickly, especially when you’re expecting it to be just the beginning of a much longer story.

So that first story does what a good pilot does – introduces the main characters and explores some of the world they’re walking around in. The closest thing to a “main” character the book has is Atticus Turner, a veteran returning to Chicago to a collection of family and friends that will, one by one, be drawn into this weird world. Atticus is the link between the African-American characters and the main white character, Caleb Braithwhite. Braithwhite is the latest in a long line of secret-society sorcerers who are trying to control the world. He and Atticus are distant relations – Braithwaite’s ancestor owned one of Atticus’s ancestors, whom he also raped. That makes Atticus a critical part of Braithwaite’s scheme to control the society and its secrets.

That being said, this isn’t Braithwaite’s story. He lurks above the main characters, pulling strings and trying to use them to his advantage. In that way, the book makes a powerful point about the lives African-Americans lead in a racist society. As bright, clever, and determined as they are, they’re really not in control of their own destinies. That they’re able to turn those tables, somewhat, makes the point land even harder.

This being, essentially, a short story collection, it rises and falls from tale to tale. All of them have some kind of interesting creepy thing going on – a haunted house, a “devil doll,” a comatose woman providing a “change” for one of the characters – but they don’t all work as well. The cream of the crop for me is “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe.”

Hippolyta is one of a pair of sisters close to Atticus’s family and someone who, had she not been a black woman in 1950s American, would have become an astronomer. As it is, Hippolyta retains her fascination with the stars and occasionally shows up at observatories just to help out. That leads her to one particular observatory in Wisconsin that’s tied into the history of the secret society. As a result, she discovers a portal to another world and, briefly, takes us there. What she finds on the other side is another sad commentary on how people of privilege treat those who have none. It’s both a serviceable monster story and an interesting commentary.

It will be interesting to see how Lovecraft Country translates to the small screen. On the one hand, it’s built for it, given its episodic nature. On the other hand, since each story has a different main character it might be hard to keep such a dispersed focus (a “star” playing Atticus would, presumably, not want to spend as much time on the sidelines as he does). It will also be interesting to see if some issues of appropriation come up as the book gets a wider audience. Ruff certainly appears to be a white guy telling an inherently African-American story. He did it well from my perspective – but I’m another white guy. Particularly the fate of Hippolyta’s sister might raise some eyebrows.

Regardless, this was an enjoyable trip into Lovecraft Country. I’ll gladly go again.

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The Simple Power of “What If?”

Every work of fiction, or damned near every one, can been seen as an answer to a “what if?” question. What if a family has to uproot their entire existence because of climate change? What if most of a small town’s children are killed in a tragic accident? What if a young attorney’s cushy law firm is a front for the mob? On and on it goes.

The power of “what if?” is given particularly free reign in speculative fiction, since the question doesn’t have to conform itself to the real world. Stepping outside reality to ask the question can still lead to powerful insights into the real world, however.

Last week while putting laundry away I stumbled into a Twilight Zone marathon on TV. The episode I landed on, “I Am the Night – Color Me Black”, that takes a preposterously simple “what if?” question and uses it to drill down about the human condition. The opening narration lays it out:

Sheriff Charlie Koch on the morning of an execution. As a matter of fact, it’s seven-thirty in the morning. Logic and natural laws dictate that at this hour there should be daylight. It is a simple rule of physical science that the sun should rise at a certain moment and supersede the darkness. But at this given moment, Sheriff Charlie Koch, a deputy named Pierce, a condemned man named Jagger, and a small, inconsequential village will shortly find out that there are causes and effects that have no precedent. Such is usually the case—in the Twilight Zone.

In typical Twilight Zone fashion the supernatural event isn’t really the important part of the story. It’s how it throws everyone in the episode out of equilibrium and allows the filters of euphemism and manners to slip enough to see peoples’ true selves. Thus, not only do we have the deputy who’s certain (against the evidence) that Jagger is guilty, but we get the realization that Jagger is pretty much a douche, anyway. He may have been wronged, but that doesn’t make him right.

So the darkness lingers, until after the execution when we learn that it’s appearing all over the world, at locations like the Berlin Wall, Budapest, and a street in Dallas (keep in mind, the episode first aired four months after the Kennedy assassination). So, in less than half an hour, a simple question – “what if one morning the sun didn’t rise?” – leads us to, on the micro and macro scale, sober observations on human nature.

That’s the simple power of “what if?” when it comes to storytelling. It’s the prime mover, the thing that gets the ball rolling. It can upend the real world and give us a way to reflect on it all at the same time.

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What Vinyl Can Learn From The Americans

Almost every piece of fiction is, in fact, about creating an alternate reality. No matter the verisimilitude of a story, not matter how “real” the characters feel, the simple truth is they aren’t. They’re creations of a writer who controls their every movement and word. Our world is not their world for the basic reason that they don’t exist in our world.

Alternate histories, of course, take this premise and run with it. What if the Allies lost World War II? What if the American Revolution never happened? Stories that ask such questions are all about messing with history. The only limits on the changes you make are whether they make some sense in relation to the big change.

Things are a little trickier when you’re telling a story set in the past that doesn’t have quite the same ambition. If you’re not really changing the past, how much of “history” as we know it can you play with? And how? Two current TV shows deal with this issue, one much more successfully.

Vinyl, on HBO, has a hell of a pedigree. The show, about the head of a struggling record company in the early-to-mid 1970s, boasts Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terrence Winter (of The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire fame) among its creative forces. The company is on the brink, the main character is a coked-up killer, and, well, there are other complications. It’s gotten a fairly cool reception from critics, but has already been renewed for a second season. I’m not sure I’ll be on board for it.

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Although I have several issues with the show, the one that really drives me nuts (and prompted this post) involves how the fictional record label interacts with real world stars. Already this season we’ve seen our heroes interact with Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and Elvis. While there’s a chance to play that for fun, or verisimilitude boosting background, the show doesn’t go that route. Instead, we’re shown multiple instances of the fictional record label trying to do business with these luminaries that we know won’t because we’re still in the “real” world. Whatever conversations you might dream up for Alice Cooper to say in your version of 1973, you’re not going so far as to have him sign with a fictional record label. It drains these incidents of any tension or drama, regardless of how well they’re executed.

Compare that approach with the one taken by FX’s The Americans. It’s got considerably higher fictional stakes – telling the story of a pair of Soviet spies posing as a suburban American family during height of the Cold War 1980s. They should bump into historical biggies every week, yet they don’t. In fact, the only major historical fact in play in the series is the one that hangs over the whole thing like a specter – we know that these folks play for the losing team.

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Yet, the drama of the series still works because our “heroes” aren’t interacting with bigger specific historical events that have happened around them. They never try to assassinate Reagan, for example (although I suppose you could conspiracy theory that one into real history), or engage in some epic act of sabotage that didn’t happen in the real world. As a result, we’re more caught up in the tension of their existence because we’re unsure how their small part of the larger story is going to play out.

Vinyl lacks that. Whatever the fate of American Century Records will turn out to be it has fuck all to do with hitching its star to David Bowie or Elvis. It’s a much better show when it’s playing with its fictional artists, people in whom viewers can invest some real emotion.

It’s fun to play around with history. But I think you have to have a solid idea of why you’re doing it and how your fictional characters are going to fit into that history. Are they swept along with the tide we all know or are they changing it into something entirely different? It’s a fine line and easy to wind up on the wrong side of it.