Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Braid: Contemptuous, Contemptuous Hair

I won't be writing about video games very much here because, honestly, I have no business writing about video games, since I am, as a general rule, terrible at them. But I've been playing Jonathan Blow's Braid the last couple of days and I was struck by two things:
  1. The gameplay really is as brilliant as everybody says.
  2. The writing is terrible.
When I pointed this out on the Twitter, I received a bit of pushback, so I figured I'd expand a bit on my thoughts here. But first, a pretty serious caveat: Not only have I not finished the game, I've barely begun it. So when I critique the writing, what I'm critiquing is not the story, but rather the style.*

Take, for example, the second passage in the game:
Not just one. He made many mistakes during the time they spent together, all those years ago. Memories of their relationship have become muddled, replaced wholesale, but one remains clear: the princess turning sharply away, her braid lashing at him with contempt.
The final line here is presumably the line from which the title is derived. As such, it would be nice if it weren't so tortured. Braids, as unfortunate as it may be, do not "lash with contempt." Indeed, braids are not prompted to do anything by emotion, given that braids feel no emotion, given that braids are composed of hair, which is emotionless. This is not me being overly literal or rejecting personification as a valid literary tool. The problem is that this is not how personification should be used, and it's hardly clear that the author even intended to use it. On the contrary, what Blow seems to have been trying to say is that the princess was contemptuous. But what he, in fact, said was that her hair was contemptuous. Which is kind of funny, but probably not intentionally so.

Or take this line from the middle of Chapter 3:
But to be fully couched within the comfort of a friend is a mode of existence with severe implications.
Getting too comfortable can be problematic.
Is Blow's version better? If so, why? Because it contains more words? Because it's less clear? Because "is a mode of existence" just sounds so, um, not stilted?

The problem here seems to be one of trying too hard. Blow was clearly trying to create something of artistic worth, and he was adapting the storybook style of the early Mario games, so he took the narrative style of those Mario games and tried to make it literary. Unfortunately, it reads not as great literature, but as a poor imitation of great literature.

Which is too bad because the rest of the game really is an artistic triumph.

*It also means that I reserve the right to change my mind if it turns out that the story justifies the style.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Parks and Recreation: Leslie's House

One of my favorite things about Parks and Recreation this season was the addition of Louis CK as Leslie's new love interest, Dave. Unfortunately, CK's run is up and Dave has left Pawnee for the big city of San Diego. This has left a Dave-shaped hole both in the show and in Leslie's heart, and the writers have decided to fill that hole with Justin Theroux. They definitely could have done worse. Most interestingly, they seem well aware of that.

If there was a problem with Dave as a character, it was that there were very few problems with Dave as a character, as well as with Louis CK's portrayal of him. He was funny largely for the same reasons Hank Hill was funny, but he didn't have much in the way of a character flaw. This resulted, unsurprisingly, in a character that fans (the few of them that exist) really liked. But he wasn't meant to be a permanent character, and when the time came to write him out of the show, the writers had a bit of a problem on their hands: how do you replace a character everybody likes?

The solution they came up with is kind of brilliant: replace the somewhat too perfect character with a parody of a too perfect character, such that his one flaw is actually that he's so perfect that it gets to be kind of humorously obnoxious. How can fans really complain that Leslie's taking a step down with Justin when he's a philanthropic lawyer who travels all over the world and knows everything about everything?

Granted, I may be overstating the problem the writers faced here. CK was on the show for such a short while that fans may not have gotten so attached to the relationship that this was a big deal.* Other shows have faced more pronounced versions of this problem, though. I'm thinking specifically of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which solved the problem of replacing Oz by turning Willow gay and bringing in Tara, who was just as overly perfect in her own way.

Other notes:
  • This is the second episode this season to use the dinner party trope, and we're only halfway through the season. It doesn't really matter as long as they're well-executed, but it seems odd that the writers would use the same trope twice so close together.
  • April and Andy should get married and have lots of weird, funny babies.
  • Deviled eggs are absurdly delicious. As such, I can't really fault Ron for wanting to keep them all for himself.
  • As for Leslie's use/abuse of the rec center instructors, it was the kind of thing that easily could have gone off the rails, but fortunately didn't. It also highlighted yet another way in which Leslie is different than Michael Scott: she takes immediate responsibility for her actions and rectifies them as best she can.
*On the other hand, fans certainly grew attached to Amy Ryan on The Office, and she wasn't in any more episodes than CK was on Parks.

Friday, January 22, 2010

I'm with Coco: The Myth of Conan O'Brien

I used to have a pretty serious case of chronic insomnia, and as a result I became something of an avid viewer of late night television. I watched Conan's show, which was my favorite,* every night for several years, until the insomnia finally subsided, after which I didn't really watch late night anymore. But ever since Conan switched over to The Tonight Show, I have made a point of watching on Hulu every once in a while. So when I say that I have a genuine affection for Conan's work, and indeed Conan himself, I'm not kidding. And I don't think anyone else who's claimed to hold a similar affection over the past couple of weeks is kidding, either. But I do think it goes beyond simple affection, that we aren't responding entirely to Conan himself, but rather to a mythic narrative, in which there are good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, predators and innocent victims.

But before we get into the whole mythic narrative thing, it would probably be useful to discuss where that original affection comes from in the first place. In many ways, it's as much a triumph of narrative as all the swirling rumors are now. The most important quality for a late night host is that of relatability. If we're going to spend five nights a week with some dude in our bedrooms, we need to like him at least a little bit. And so every good late night host develops some sort of persona that endears him to his audience. Letterman's the sarcastic wiseass. Kimmel's the frat boy. John Stewart's the frustrated liberal. Leno's basically a plugger. And Conan is your dorky friend. So when I say that I have “a genuine affection for Conan's work, and indeed Conan himself,” what I'm really saying is that I have an affection for the character of Conan O'Brien that's on my TV screen every night. How real is that? Well, as real as these things get.

The narrative surrounding the recent controversy has built off of these images and taken them in new directions. Two themes that have always been extant in the late night world but that the current situation has brought to the fore are those of generational and cultural conflicts. Letterman has come the closest to making those themes explicit, which is what should be expected given that he's the sarcastic wiseass:

The point of Letterman's clip is that the credibility of Leno's schtick is in peril. Ultimately, I think he'll come out fine because the vast majority of his audience doesn't care as much about all this behind the scenes stuff as the people on Twitter. Speaking of which, judging by Twitter and the rest of the Internets, one would think that Conan were the most popular late night host in the history of the world. So why's NBC getting rid of him? Quite simply, it's because the people on the Internet don't watch a lot of late night television. The people who find Leno and Pluggers amusing do. But of course we still want Conan to succeed and Leno to fail. It's just that most of us aren't going to end up watching The Tonight Show regardless of the outcome. But none of that matters to the narrative.

What matters to the narrative is that Conan, our dorky friend, is our representative in this field. Leno is lazy and boring and conservative and your parents in Kansas love him for reasons you just can't understand. Conan, on the other hand, does odd and interesting things and is willing to take chances and offend people from time to time. When you watch his shows, you get the sense he's at his best when he's at his least constrained, like during the writers' strike or now.** As such, it's not even his show that's the great hope for late night,*** but he himself.

And now the network, the corporation, the powers that be, of which Leno is a tool, wants to take that away from us. Which brings us to the new part of Conan's persona: unfairly fired employee. Such a persona is generally going to play well at any time because everybody loves an underdog, but it resonates especially well now because of the terrible economy. After all, if not even television stars are safe, who is?

Leno has tried to tap into this sentiment too, but has not been very successful.**** O'Brien, though, has reveled in it, thanks in large part to his brilliant press release that by now everybody who cares about the issue has already read. Perhaps the best thing about it is simply the salutation: “People of Earth.” In fitting with his already established persona, it's slightly oddball, but it's also all-encompassing and yet also personal. Who is he talking to? Who does this matter to? You, and everybody, but mostly you. Because he's one of you, a person of Earth. It is, in essence, a call to solidarity. It resonates with us because by this point we all know people who have lost their jobs, who have been wronged by faceless employers who don't seem to care about people at all, like NBC doesn't care about Conan. But we do care. So we rally and make bizarre looking art and join Facebook groups. Why? Because that's what people are supposed to do for each other.

Calling all of this mythic is not to say that the narrative we've built around this series of events is necessarily untrue or a bad thing. On the contrary, it seems to me that there really are relative good guys and bad guys here, winners and losers, predators and largely innocent victims. And it seems to me that it's really kind of nice. But, of course, narratives streamline. They exaggerate. They leave out inconvenient facts.

Like the fact that you're probably not going to watch anyway and that the internal machinations of late night television don't really matter all that much in any concrete sense. This is about a couple of rich white guys arguing over who gets to stay on NBC. Not exactly world-altering stuff. But by mythologizing it, we turn it into something that does matter. So Conan O'Brien, a 46-year-old millionaire who's been on TV for 16 years, becomes the face of youth and change and the disenfranchised. It sounds odd, almost farcical when put that way, but it really is materially true relative to the world of late night. And the narrative allows us to bring the truth from their world into ours.

*Nothing against Craig Kilbourn or anything. Except, of course, for the fact that he's Craig Kilbourn.

**Leno, by contrast, has seemed completely out of his element these past few weeks.

***Which, of course, we're never going to watch, but never mind that.

****At least, it seems that way to me. It could be playing better with his audience.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Human Target: Planes, Trains and Hot Chicks with Guns

Two episodes in and Human Target seems to have already developed the rather compelling formula of combining the charming cast with an attractive guest actress and a fast moving vehicle. In the pilot (or the "Preview Event," as Fox called it), the actress was Tricia Helfer and the vehicle was a high-speed train. In the second episode (or "The Premiere" as Fox called it), the actress was Courtney Ford and the vehicle was an airplane. Presumably, something's going to have to give with the fast-moving vehicle part of this equation,* but the attractive guest actresses of the week should be easier to sustain, and the combination of said actresses with Mark Valley, Chi McBride and Jackie Earle Haley should prove plenty sufficient.

In truth, there are a few other elements at work here, chief among them being a writing staff capable of churning out breezily entertaining one-off plots and amusing dialog, fast-paced direction, and some marvelous action set-pieces. But the best thing about the show is the way it makes all of that stuff seem as easy as casting an attractive actress and letting her interact with Valley while McBride and Haley argue with each other against the backdrop of an upside down airplane. None of it actually is easy, of course. It's a trick, a false identity, like whichever name and job Valley's Christopher Chance will decide to take on next week. And it's a big part of the reason the show works so well.

Human Target premiered (or "previewed," I guess) before the season premiere of 24. I wrote about how I laugh a lot at 24 here, but the show is not intentionally funny. It is, in fact, Deadly Serious. And no matter how many ridiculous things happen, it remains Deadly Serious.** I've laughed plenty while watching the first two episodes of Human Target, too. The difference, though, is that I was supposed to be laughing. Because it's the kind of show that doesn't take itself too seriously, that recognizes when it's doing ridiculous stuff, and that wants you to go along with all that ridiculous stuff just because it's so much fun. It's a light actiony entertainment, and the most important thing a show like this can do is feel easy without being lazy. Which means that all the hard stuff--the plots, the dialog, the pacing and the set-pieces--should go largely unnoticed by the audience so we can focus on how much fun all the more superficial stuff is.

And it does. Which probably means the show won't be winning any Emmys. But what do the Emmys know anyway?

Other notes:
  • I got through the entire pilot without realizing that the attractive guest actress of the week was Tricia Helfer. I often fail to recognize her when I see her. She is a chameleon.
  • I'm glad to see Fox promoting the show so heavily, since I think it should be a big hit, and I find their scheme somewhat fascinating. The theory behind it, I think, is to turn both the first and second episodes into can't miss premiere events. We've seen something similar with the whole midseason finale thing. I guess my only concern would be that if every episode gets promoted as a super-special event, won't that kind of detract from the usefulness of calling something a super-special event?
  • The most ridiculous thing in these first two episodes is probably the skeleton key to the Internet MacGuffin in "Rewind." As with all the other ridiculous stuff, I didn't mind it and in fact kind of liked it. I suppose some people might call it lazy, but I think the absurdity of it fits well with the feel of the show.
  • I should also probably mention the nonlinear structure of "Rewind," though I don't have a whole lot to say about other than that I liked it, it was well done and I hope they don't overuse it.
*An episode on a city bus? On a cruise ship? On Segways?***

This worked for 24 in its early seasons, and now it really doesn't, but it can't really shift tones at this point without becoming an entirely different show.

***Okay, on Segways might be pretty fucking awesome.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why Nobody Watches Better Off Ted (Maybe) Even Though They Should (Definitely)

Better Off Ted is all sharp edges and pointy barbs. Lots of folks have claimed that this is why it's had such a hard time grabbing, well, any audience to speak of. And that may well have something to do with it. It's not meanness, per se--Two and Half Men is far meaner, maybe the meanest sitcom ever--but it is a particular kind of cold and calculating satire. There are relationships there, there are even lessons, but those relationships and lessons are always butting up against and being consumed by a show that is on the whole distant and harsh.

That is intentional, of course. The feel of the show is the feel of the company at the heart of it. The American version of The Office dabbles in satire, but its focus is on the characters, making it a much warmer show. In Ted, the characters are secondary to the absurdity of the system. (It would, in fact, not be outrageous to say that the show's actual main character is, in fact, Veridian Dynamics.) So while in The Office little victories are celebrated, in Ted those same little victories are immediately sucked back into the system and spit back out in perverted (but hilarious!) ways. So, yeah, some people might find that a bit off-putting.

But I kind of think a bigger problem the show has is that now's not really a great time to be mocking office jobs, what with the way lots of people would kill a goat with their bare hands* for just such a job right now. It's not a coincidence that Dilbert, a comic strip that specializes in a similar type of sharp-edged satire, rose to fame during the 90s, when the economy was going swimmingly and everybody had jobs they hated. Now most people are just thankful to have a job, absurdities and all.

The Office has been better able to deal with this shift in attitudes precisely because of its heavy focus on characters. When the show started, most of the characters seemed to despise their jobs. As the show's gone along, however, we've come to see that some of them have a more nuanced outlook on their employment situation, while others have come to appreciate their jobs more. Even Jim takes his job seriously now. (Jim!) There are plenty of times the characters get frustrated, but at the same time, the office in The Office isn't such a bad place to work. And as the real world economy has worsened, the show and the characters have reflected that.

Ted's tunnel focus on office mockery doesn't really allow for that kind character-based nuance or the kind of archy-plot devices necessary to make that kind of transition. That doesn't mean it's necessarily a worse show. It just means it's a different kind of show. Possibly the kind of show that's not well-suited for this particular cultural moment.

Of course, it's also possible that nobody's watching Better Off Ted because, how did my brother put it? Ah, yes. "What the heck's Better Off Ted?"

*This is no doubt part of the Veridian Dynamics application process.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

24: 4:00pm - 5:00pm

It's perhaps telling that I laugh a lot while watching 24. Given that the show contains very little in the way of actual comic relief, it's probably not the reaction the show's seeking to inspire. But I think it explains why I've managed to keep enjoying it even as it has declined over the past few years.

At least people say it's declined over the past few years. And I believe them! I even have faint memories of maybe taking 24 more seriously than I now do. But if I did, in fact, take it more seriously at one point, watching the show now makes me think I probably shouldn't have.

24 is basically pure spectacle. At one point its themes and its sense of urgency had a relevance it no longer really has, underwear bomber or no. It has one great central character in Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer that can sometimes anchor the show in something resembling emotional reality, though that connection too has grown more tenuous. But even when the show has a firmer grip on these elements, its real draw was always the spectacle. And for the most part, that remains intact.

The reason people watch 24, the reason people have always watched 24, is to see Jack Bauer kill a bad guy with an ax. Or scream in their face. Or shoot them in the leg. Because it's awesome and it remains awesome. And I don't use the word cheaply in this instance. It really is awesome.

It used to signify something deeper than that. Back when our anger was rawer, before that moment had passed. But it's mostly the moment that's changed. The pure stupid ridiculous spectacle remains. It used to be cathartic, but now it just plays as dumb entertainment. And as far as the culture is concerned, that's probably a change for the better.

So what is there to say about the premiere? It was sufficiently ridiculous. I like Katee Sackhoff a lot. The plots all seem convoluted enough to be able to wind their way through another 23 episodes. When the helicopter blew up, that was kind of cool. Oh, and Jack killed a guy with an ax. I couldn't help but laugh.