One of the things I’m doing in the first weeks of my MFA program is a top ten list of TV shows, based pretty much on whatever criteria I want, with notes on what makes them interesting. Here’s what I came up with.
W1A –This comedy about the bureaucratic workings of the BBC is something I return to again and again because the dialog has so much verisimilitude and I kept seeing new things within the characters until maybe the 5th or 6th viewing.
Shetland—the vast majority of my current TV viewing originates in the UK and this show, based on a series of Anne Cleeves novels, is my front-running fave. This is the one that would change as soon as I developed a new obsession, but right now Doug Henshall’s Inspector Jimmy Perez and the Shetland Islands settings loom large. The construction of the second season was brilliant.
Quantum Leap—I love time travel. Loooooove it! I came to this years after it aired, when it was in rerun on the Space Channel. Many things about it do not hold up, but Scott Bakula’s performance as Sam Beckett and the compassion he brought to every leap still get me. What’s more, I’ve seen shows that try to copy this format time and time again, only to, in my opinion, fail: Tru Calling and Journeyman are two examples that come to mind.
Farscape–What fascinates me most about Farscape (Boomtown has this too) is that even from the second episode, the characters and situations were established with a confidence and depth that made it seem like they were already in their third season.
Hannibal—There was a time when this would have been too gory and graphic for me, and I realized afterward that my bar had shifted. I like the dark humor in this, the fact that the first season in particular is a meditation on the nature of art and art criticism, as mediated through serial killers creating installations using murdered human bodies. Grim, yes, but effective. Also, as others will no doubt note, Hannibal is slashy AF.
Parks and Recreation– I am not much for sitcoms, but numerous people insisted that if I held on through S1, I’d love this, and they were right. Brilliant casting, good ensemble storytelling, and what I liked most was the attempt to create romantic relationships that lasted rather than building unresolved sexual tension indefinitely, paying off with sex, and then staging a spurious break-up.
Battlestar Galactica—the original. Cheesy and dumb, and doesn’t hold up, but I cannot pretend this was not formative for me: I still write a lot of fiction about genocide and fleets of ships on the move.
Veronica Mars– witty, good mystery construction, compelling characters, and I liked the Nancy Drew + noir mash-up. Most high school based shows falter when their MC goes to college but some interesting things happened in Veronica’s freshman year on this series.
Boomtown– non-linear storytelling, reasonably diverse cast, play with POV, great s1 arc.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer —I caught up with this a few seasons after it initially started airing, and rewatched it all again for Tor.com a couple years ago. It was one of the first shows that had online discussion groups breaking down every episode as soon as it aired, and I had to quit one such group to avoid spoilers. Because I did my rewatch in a fairly public way, it spawned after-the-fact discussion and analysis from many fans. As a side show to the actual show, there’s the ever-fascinating and still current public discussion of Joss Whedon himself. Is he a great writer or a hack? Is he a feminist or not? It’s all interesting.
Happy Halloween, everyone!!
This week in my Creating Universes, Building Worlds class at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, one of my students said, in passing, that they thought James Cameron’s Xenomorph Queen, from Aliens, was a great villain, and that they thought Cameron was generally particularly good at creating villains. So I asked if they thought the Queen was a true villain, or–to split a semantic hair–an antagonist? She’s acting, after all, to avenge her offspring, and to survive.
What I was wondering, in that moment, was this: does villainy require premeditation, evil intent, or cleverness?
We batted that around a bit, talking about whether a baddie with simple motivations, like the Queen or the original Terminator (who does presumably know that what he’s doing is illegal within the time period he’s visiting, and who does a few pretty clever things to find Sarah Connor) is truly villainous. Here’s a snip from one of my posts in that discussion:
One definition of villainy is “wicked or criminal behavior.” If we were to contrast the Xenomorph Queen and the first Terminator, there’s an interesting question of intention. The former certainly isn’t setting out to be criminal. She’s essentially a big space-wasp. Wasps are parasites and what they do to their prey species is thoroughly horrible. And, to add in another wrinkle, she is smarter and more thoughtful than her soldier-spawn, who are orders of magnitude smarter than the face huggers. It is common in action movies to work your way up from dumb thugs to smart villains.
The Terminator is after one kill and causes a lot of collateral damage as he pursues it… in some ways, what he does is less horrible than space wasp parasitism. And, as you note, it behaves in ways that are consciously criminal and much more premeditated.
Anyone else have some thoughts? Is villain a value judgment? A level, like boss monster?
I want to give you all a spoiler-free version of the Midamericon description of the panel I moderated:
We Deserve Better: Lesbians and Bi Women for Change
In March 2016 some show killed spoilery spoiler of an spoilery spoiler spoilers. Fans launched a Twitter campaign that became mainstream news. They objected to the “Bury Your Gays” trope, referring to the disproportionately high number of lesbians and bisexual women killed on TV. Two weeks later, one of some other show‘s only lesbian couple was killed. We discuss this disturbing pattern and ask how audiences can help prevent it.
My partners in crime were Jaylee James, Nina Niskanen, and Jay Wolf.
I’m not much for freewheeling moderation. I always show up intending to listen and direct discussion, rather than talking myself, and with questions in hand. What’s more, the four of us did a certain amount of predigesting of the topic, checking out things like this (also-spoilery) list of 162 dead TV lesbians and talking about related topics like queerbaiting and fridging.
Like all good panels, we worked up more material than we actually got to discuss, circled ’round it in an order other than what follows, and we also didn’t get into one of my personal bugbears, the idea that the word “deserve” is actually quite a cruel concept. It’s an important and necessary word, but it has thorns: “You deserve this,” can be honestly intended or victim-blaming. “I deserve this” can be simple truth or blatant entitlement.
But I’m home now, and I’ve noticed that the list of questions I prepared for my panelists is interesting in its own right, a good orientation to the topic if anyone wants it. And so I decided I would post that here.
- Focusing first on TV, which lesbian deaths were most memorable and meaningful to you personally, both going way back and recently?
- Then there are deaths that aren’t necessarily canonical but that have lesbian freight around them. The fate of Ellen Ripley in the third Aliens movie comes after she’s been, to a great extent, masculinized–she’s not gay, but when she dies she has been made to look and act very butch.
- If a show queerbaits us and then kills one of the alleged lesbians involved, is that better or worse than if they hadn’t solicited queer viewers in the first place?
- Looking at the list of 150+ dead TV lesbians, I wondered: were any of those surprises, or did they trigger any Aha! or Uhoh! moments?
- How gender-skewed is this phenomenon? I mean, we all remember how Brokeback Mountain ends. Is it just a woman-on-woman version of fridging?
- I’ve mentioned fridging because it’s another common story development that we, as more sophisticated and politically savvy audiences, have become aware and critical of. All of these tropes have been the subject of discussion and debate within fandom and the writing community. What do you think of this?
- Now, since I’ve glided on to cinema, what about this phenom in comics and prose? In the past, there were the 1950’s bad girl lesbian dies books… does anyone know how this is playing out now?
- As writers, how do you balance the need to occasionally kill off characters with an awareness that every queer character is precious?
- If we add in characters with implied deaths, including incidental victims or even crazy killer lesbians who aren’t part of the main cast (guest star deaths, in other words) then I wonder if the question shouldn’t be: Who’s done it right? Who has survived? Who do we love who hasn’t been killed off?
Monday night: I am parked on the bed, tip-tapping away, with both cats lounging beside me as Kelly writes in the next room. It was a cool and sometimes blustery day, but now the sky has cleared and the evening light is pleasantly mellow. Our birch trees are putting out teeny tiny leaves. I love the spotted crepe-y look of birch trunks; I missed them when we moved away from Northern Alberta when I was eleven or so. I associate the look of them, somehow, with contentment.
We were at Ad Astra all weekend, seeing people and talking books, so today I mostly worked through a logjam of teaching tasks, as well as figuring out out the plotty heart of one of the three novel concepts I’m incubating. I am calling these concepts the stork babies, since some species of stork hatch multiple offspring, who then duke it out in a rather grisly game of survivor, the stronger voting the weaker out of the nest, kersplat, until only one remains. If I ever wrote a book called Things I learned from David Attenborough, there would definitely be a bird chapter entitled “Nature’s Most Beautiful Assholes.”
The storks’ current working titles, in birth order, are Tom the Liar, Glory Days, and Magic Fairy Sparkle Princess. I expect all of these titles to change no matter who outwits, outlasts and outwrites.
I am also pleased because I’ve realized the Poldark series is finally available via my preferred media vendor. We’ve been waiting for this to happen for months! Now if only iTunes Canada would unlock Grantchester S2…
In the normal course of things it might have taken Kelly and I upward of a couple of months to watch Daredevil S2, but: i) we came back from England and promptly caught colds; ii) the first eight or so episodes, with their unflinching look at the ethics of vigilante action, were especially well-crafted and intriguing; iii) every little thing Foggy and Karen did was pure, unadulterated magic. Except maybe the gist of her think piece at the end. And hey, it’s her first feature, so I’m willing to forgive.
The end, though I enjoyed it, was fuzzy in a lot of ways. It felt crammed, with far too much shoehorned into it and a few missteps.
Where Daredevil excels, in my writerly opinion, is primarily in the non-supernatural drama, in the relationships between its three principals. It does other things very well too, of course: fight choreography, stunning graphic novel visuals, chewy moral quandaries, systemic corruption, and beating the crap out of Matt himself.
Where it falls down? In making Hell’s Kitchen seem less like 2016 New York, post Chitauri disaster or no, and more of a relic from the crimey, hard-nosed Eighties. It’ll reference Matt’s Catholic damage–Claire’s lecture about same was tiresomely on the nose–but it doesn’t drill down to give any kind of real sense of what that’s like. Most of all, the villain plans are thready. At the point in the story where we move from character exploration to OMG, gotta usher everyone to the bigtime battle scenes, the baddies’ machinations unravel. And not in an Oh, I see what you were trying to pull off there, Boyd Crowder, sucks to be you kind of way.
Fisk’s scheme, in S1, made a lot of sense… for a time. Raze the Kitchen, build towers for the well-heeled, divide up the inevitable neighborhood crime rackets and make billions on both the legal and illegal ends of the transaction. Okay! We understood who stood to gain and who would be hurt.
Still, his plan fell apart when he turned on his own syndicate.
The S2 baddie is on a quest, for religious reasons. They need their plot coupon-y spoiler spoiler plot thing, for their Holy War. A war with whom, really, besides Scott Glenn? And afterward they’re going to… do what, exactly, with Hell’s Kitchen? With Matt’s “My City,” out of which they should posthaste get? Are they gonna have that city? Slaughter whoever shows up? Forbid any sneaking around on the rooftops and in the cellars by non-ninja-individuals? I can’t think of a single Nelson & Murdock Avocados at Law client who’d truly be affected by total ninja domination of the Kitchen’s dark corners. None of the Hand stuff meshes particularly well with Frank’s story, which is about a failure of law enforcement and the system. Frank’s mess is at the heart of what Nelson Page Murdoch are struggling with.
I get that Matt needed a distraction so he could let down the team, I do. I get that the whole story couldn’t be Frank. But Frank works so well that Nobu & Co. feel grafted on.
As for Frank’s Boss Monster, that whole thing collapsed into a huge and disappointing coincidence.
Still, 90% of what I saw I loved. I liked where the characters ended up, I think Matt’s final choice was the right one, I’m super-curious about what Karen will do now, and I may well rewatch the whole shebang quite soon. And I’m hoping that S3 takes us into the vigilante piece they missed examining: Matt is an altruist vigilante, while Pun (as Wolverine always called him) is an agent of vengeance acting, at least in the beginning, on his own behalf.
What did you think?