Tagged: TV

Story Pile: Shadow The Hedgehog is Queerness

In music theory there’s this understood idea that brasses sound heroic and powerful, and strings sound gentle and feminine, a theory reinforced by years of musicology in theatre. What happened is when movies were new, and attaching music to characters in a particular way moved out of the Musical and into just telling stories, a sort of language of music got started.

We already had it that brass music sounded powerful and forceful and heroic – something that John Phillip Sousa sort of ran into the ground as a theme. By comparison, strings sounded delicate and Not Like Brass, so the formed an obvious counterpart for the fragile and the frail. Then over several thousand movies and repeated use of these two ideas in movies where boys were strong and girls were objects, we wound up where we are now, where despite never actually being true, horns ‘sound masculine’ and strings ‘sound feminine.’

I mean, think about this: What’s the Superman theme sound like?

Anyway, this means that when we reach back into earlier, pre-movie theatrics, though, we still now see that same coding. The association with the music extends beyond the media it’s in. Now, marches that predate movies are seen as ‘masculine’ because the movie comes with them. This is the power of the archetype, where when you’re seen as relating to a thing, it doesn’t really matter what you are doing, because it’ll all be seen in relationship to the archetype.

What does this have to do with Sonic The Hedgehog?

Shut up I’m getting there.

The point is, movies wound up this way because they were being slowly but steadily built for bigger and bigger markets. The more people you want to get involved, the more you lean on those archetypes, on a frame of reference. Brassy heroic music is, archetypally, masculine, and so, when you want to signal a masculine dude, you use brassy heroic music. This means that lots of this media is full of signals that are more about telling you A Thing Is A Way It Is Because It Is The Way It Is. An archetype is, basically, lots of reinforcing, circular story stuff. It doesn’t have meaning of itself – it’s just a way of signalling a thing should be sort of like these other things.

And now we get to Sonic The Hedgehog, the media franchise. We’re not talking about the game character – Sonic doesn’t really belong to games any more. When you’re talking about cultural impact, Sonic’s been in twenty five years of comics, three manga series, six books, and five television series, with a live-action CGI movie in the works being financed by a man who’s also repsonsible for the XXX and Fast and the Furious franchise. Sonic is a transmedia property, and matters more as being Sonic than he matters as a game entity. And despite all of this, this enormous spread of media representation, when you go looking for an answer to the question who is Sonic the Hedgehog you don’t find anything, really.

You get an archetype.

But that archetype gives us structure – and that gives us a place to look at the Sonic the Hedgeverse.

What then, is Sonic? What archetypally remains around this character? Well, he’s a Cool Hero. He’s edgy, in a very generic, mid-90s kind of way, in that he thumbs his nose at authority, he likes speed and going fast and doens’t like rules, man, but at the same time you know he’ll never blow off something that matters because that plays against being a hero, so what you’re left with is this character who is simultaneously unreliable but also very reliable. This is reflected in Sonic’s writeup on Wikipedia, composed of multiple sources, saying that Sonic is

…”like the wind”: a drifter who lives as he wants, and makes life a series of events and adventures. Sonic hates oppression and staunchly defends freedom. Although he is mostly quick-witted and easygoing, he has a short temper and is often impatient with slower things. Sonic is a habitual daredevil hedgehog who is honest, loyal to friends, keeps his promises, and dislikes tears. In times of crisis, he focuses intensely on the challenge as if his personality had undergone an astonishing change.

If you sit down and cross out those sentences that mean nothing like ‘makes life a series of events,’ you’re left with a loose drifter without any fixed goal who is a staunch defender of freedom who always stands by his friends, easygoing until he doesn’t have to be, patient unless he’s not and is like the wind except he also always keeps his promises. In essence, there’s nothing there, but despite that you can still say you know something of who Sonic is. It’s even there in his visual coding – red, white and blue. Sonic is a Bold Hero Guy.

Once he’s the Bold Hero guy, everything else kinda falls around him. Tails becomes the Sidekick Boy, who has to be smaller and worse at everything than Protagonist Guy by default, so he can be rescued but also so he has some reason to aspire to being like Protagonist Guy. He can be sweet and kind (which aren’t edgy and cool), and he’s probably a tiny bit more femme than Protagonist Guy, in the vein of the nerdy friend. Tails fits this archetype pretty easily – he’s better than Sonic at machines, which builds in that ‘nerdy friend’ slot.

You can play this outwards; Knuckles is the voice of authority, with his stable position and opposition to Sonic because Sonic isn’t following the rules. There’s Amy Rose, the Good Girl who hangs around him and has an interest in him (which shows he’s desireable), but for some reason he never has to commit or dismiss this – Amy will want him regardless of what a doofus he is and she will usually be at fault for any discomfort he experiences. Rouge introduces a sexy other to Amy, again, a reflection of an image of Sonic, and then, finally… we get Shadow.

Note that up until now, none of the other major characters (Sorry, Big) introduced have been like Sonic. They’ve been explicitly unlike him – Shadow is the first opposite to Sonic (unless you count 1994’s Anti-Sonic The Hedgehog, which we don’t, and he didn’t come back as Scourge the hedgehog until 2011, well after Shadow’s appearance so don’t @ me). And when you’re dealing with archetypes, there is an identity that exists for the characters in movies and TV series like this. The place for a character who is the same type but not the same way. He is coded cool, but 00s edgy to 90s edgy, making him seem slicker, more fashionable, more aware, compared to Sonic’s suddenly oblivious-seeming 90s sort-of-surfer coolness. Shadow is angry, he is resentful, and that casts Sonic, for all of his quick temper, as almost a beach bum. What’s more, Sonic is surrounded by friends and is a celebrated hero – he’s the Protagonist Guy.

In a template where the Cool Guy is opposed by someone Equally Cool But More Distressed, we enter the cinematic tradition of The Other. He’s bad, but not that bad, he’s an opponent, but not a villain. That makes him a humanised Other, a character who stands to contrast with the hero (in a way that once, Knuckles did). The thing with The Other is, they take on a LOT of forms in different media, but if you’re queer, chances are your favourite character is a The Other. Camp LOVES them to bits.

In the greater narrative space of Sonic the Hedgehog, these characters are still mostly empty. They’re a description of a handful of traits in relationship to one another. In that space, Shadow the Hedgehog is a camp antagonist, an example of The Other, who can be – and sorta IS – All Queerness. What you see there is what you can pour into him.

Story Pile: Yes Minister

I feel old.

I’ve taken in my efforts to stave off this feeling, but it’s undeniable. I feel old, even though I know full well that ‘millenial’ talk is targeted at me. Part of why is because the things of my youth are not the things of other people’s youth. I was raised on The Goon Show and I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again and obscure Christian media. My media background was ultimately not for me – it was for my father.

Lots of it went over my head. The Goon Show had overtones of sex farce and tons of racy humour that I completely missed. I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again built on a host of tropey fantasy and panto skit comedy that I totally missed, and I only now realise what a slide whistle means.

One series of my father’s loves, which was contemporary to my birth, and therefore, completely beyond me until, well, now, is Yes Minister.

It’s fascinating actually in that it has a lot in common with Seinfeld. While the point of Seinfeld was that it was a show about nothing1., with stories that showed people spending huge amounts of effort on tiny nothings, the thrust of Yes Minister was inverted. Episodes of Yes Minister are spent ranging across spaces of days at a time, with enormous outcomes on the line, in which almost nothing ever gets to happen. But while Seinfeld’s narrative structure is bent to the frantic expenditure of energy achieving nothing, the narrative of Yes Minister is the frantic expenditure of energy achieving nothing.

It’s that kind of word play is throughout the series.

It’s also a show where instantaneous communication as we have it now would totally desolate some plots.

One of the challenges of making a sit-com is that it’s meant to be a situation comedy, a comedy that exists, as it were, in situ, in its own place. The dialogue therefore is trying to serve both comedy, with timing and wordplay, and also be some form of naturalistic. You can look at the comedy of say, Everybody Loves Raymond or Big Bang Theory with gigantic, stratified pauses between people talking to allow for reactions, which well, we’ll pretend that’s actually about the jokes being funny rather than signalling that they are meant to be. Anyway, the point is that it’s very difficult to make dialogue serve both funny and natural.

Yes Minister achieves this by having the comedy in dialogue mostly derive from the three voices in almost every given room be either deliberately obfuscating and smug, well-intentioned and prone to blurting, and wavering between the three the voice of Jim Hacker trying desperately to be funny and score a point of the others as a way to signify his own intelligence. This is a series of people being witty at one another, and in the context of the space they’re in, this is naturalistic dialogue. They want to show they’re smarter and funnier than one another.

The really interesting thing to me, now, about Yes Minister, watching it in hindsight isn’t so much that it’s funny – it is, it’s very funny, if you like a particular kind of playfully cynical word play and manipulation – or even that, it’s about how much of the narrative is things that we are dealing with now.

British Government is a fascinating warren of discretions and traditions and importantly deliberate vaguearies, and Yes Minister is set in a time when the EU is about to come into being and the Cold War was still quite cold. Countries in Africa were escaping colonial power. There’s a recognition that America is both powerful and blisteringly foolish as a global power, and there’s a reasonable expectation that the government is spending much of its time trying to move things around and that a lot of what’s going on is actually in service of nothing.

There is a fascinating intricacy to it all where largely, the sheer scope of British bureaucracy is presented as both a problem and a result. The size of government and the people involved in it, the story tells you, are related. You can’t ask for more work without asking for more people to do them. There’s talk about the UK’s role in the then-nascent EU, which was explicitly framed in terms of the very cultural reasons the UK saw the EU as an opportunity to join – or rather the EEC, at the time.

It’s all so interesting to me because it carries within it some very real but very cynical truths about the way things happened. Things that I like, things I believe in, could almost always be viewed in terms of short-term pettiness and spite. And it serves as a counterpoint to The West Wing, which was as much fanfiction of how America could have been in the late 90s as it shows an England of the early 80s.

What brought me to check this out again?

It was this quote:

Sir Humphrey: The only way to understand the Press is to remember that they pander to their readers’ prejudices.

Jim Hacker: Don’t tell me about the Press. I know *exactly* who reads the papers. The Daily Mirror is read by the people who think they run the country. The Guardian is read by people who think they *ought* to run the country. The Times is read by the people who actually *do* run the country. The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country. The Financial Times is read by people who *own* the country. The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by *another* country. The Daily Telegraph is read by the people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?

Bernard Woolley: Sun readers don’t care *who* runs the country – as long as she’s got big tits.


1. I personally don’t buy this. Seinfeld seems to really be a show about how it’s totally okay to be a self-obssessed prick.

Story Pile: Gargoyles

There are two ways to approach this introduction; there’s the good, virtuous, but also incredibly self-aggrandising way, where I talk about how the root of all humanity and empathy is an ability to connect things to one another through human interfaces that we would not have otherwise thought to do, and that drawing connections others haven’t seen is what we call genius. Then there’s the meanspirited way which is pointing out that being able to point out how two seemingly unrelated pieces of media are connected is basically the academic equivalent of popping a wheelie and demanding people be impressed.

Anyway, nobody made Gargoyles.

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Star Trek Discovery

Courtesy of my weird childhood, I never really was a Star Wars person or a Star Trek person. My sister and mother watched Star Trek on VHS rental when I was older, but there never really was any sense to me that these shows were a thing to watch. They were just a show on the television sometimes. Heck, I didn’t realise there was an actual arc to these shows – they weren’t like my continuity-driven, beloved and intellectual Robotech.

(Give me a break)

Point is, I’ve never been a Star Trek person. It’s not my thing, it’s never been my thing, and aside from being aware of the term ‘trekkie’ I never really got how or why the series actually played into this subculture. It was a show, it happened to other people, they loved it, and they maybe got a bit weird about it, but I got a bit weird about Transformers, so I wasn’t one to judge.

With all that in mind, when I saw people talking about Star Trek: Discovery, and complaining about it on all sorts of levels (it’s being distributed weirdly), and finding out that here, in Australia I can just watch it on Netflix, I popped open Netflix and had a shot.

And,

well.

Hey, wow, Star Trek is pretty cool!!

This series starts with – and some mild spoilers here, just structural ones – with a really interesting premise to me. Our protagonist isn’t a leader or a powerhouse or a figure of authority who makes final calls, but is instead someone in the midsection of hierarchy; she has to make decisions as best she can based on what’s going on around her, but doesn’t have the latitude to make a lot of free-wheeling, cowboy-captain style solutions, or back up her position authoritively in a negotiation of rules. There’s also her history, and the way her upbringing created a really interesting tension that highlights something cool to me about the universe she’s part of.

I don’t rightly know if Discovery is a good or a bad series, but I know I’m enjoying it three episodes in, and it even did something I found weirdly comforting. Episode 3 introduced a ‘science’ thing that I think is going to show up and be important to the rest of the story. It’s also total nonsense, which actually works for me, because it indicates that this isn’t going to be a series about establishing hard science fiction rules, and instead wants to talk about concepts and ideology that are more about where we are now, and use a framing device of a future that we want to get to.

The main character, Michael, is a mess of elements in conflict, and I like the ways I see the storytelling signalling it. First of all, there’s just the very basic conflict of her name. Normally when we go to the future in stories, we tend to treat elements of culture as reasonably static – look at how the original Star Trek didn’t really feature a lot of trans or queer characters; it looked forward to the question of race but that was a conversation that was already happening.

Michael’s name could be seen as queer-signaling but I don’t think it is. I think it’s taking the much simpler route of making us look at her and feel dissonance. We go ‘that’s a boy’s name’ in our culture (which, yes, is silly, but it’s definitely how the name is coded and don’t pretend that that reaction is unusual). That’s one point of contention – a now, versus a then. There’s her backstory of pure logic contrasting with an impetus of emotional perspective. There’s the tension of being a central character in a wide-open space while being beholden to the orders and mandates of the control structure around her. This leads to actions that are,

I find this really interesting!

I’m actually a bit sad hearing now,now the series is underway and going on, to see people around me talking about how it’s not that good or offering a sort of conciliatory well if the third episode is where it started tone or trying to fix a series that’s, what, three episodes long at the time of writing?

It’s a bit sad, to me. It’s weird, too – because to me, this isn’t a series trying to live up to a huge reputation. I don’t have a feel of what Star Trek should be, or how it’s meant to work? I just have, well, no real opinion. This is a pretty interesting science-fiction series, which frames itself as having a long history that we can discover, a huge infrastructure so the stories aren’t about how to get into space, and a canvas that features an enormous potential war on the horizon and a central character whose main story seems to be about an interesting contest between a logical and emotional contest.

That all seems, to me, to be pretty cool.

Vandread

Vandread was an anime that came out in the year 2000 and it’s a bit tricky to introduce because everything it is it’s also not quite. It’s a harem anime, but not quite. It’s a space giant robot anime, but not quite. It’s a science fiction anthology anime, but not quite. It’s about genders, but not quite, about relationships, but not quite, and about identity, but not quite. In a lot of ways, Vandread is a really confused piece, a gem of its time.

The premise of Vandread is – okay, hold on – there are these two planets of entirely gender-segregated populations reproducing through artificial means that been at war with one another for centuries because the men planet thinks the women planet eat liver and it’s all cast as a propoganda war, where our main character such as he is Hibiki is working in an awful factory job that dehumanises him. He stows away on the warship that holds a mecha he helped to build, to try and steal it, because he’s an idiot, and then Lesbian Pirates attack as the warship is about to go show off how great it is. A Space Accident ensues and the warship is swallowed in part by the pirate ship, which then becomes an Extremely Sweet Ship with three male prisoners on board – Hibiki, and two other guys from his own home culture, a doctor and a navigator. The ship is then flung out into the middle of nowhere and our cast have to work out what happened, why their cultures are the way they are, who they are and why some of the mecha and space-ships they have can now combine into a powerful Vandread Unit.

Oh yeah, the shapeshifting robot thing comes up, and there’s also these unidentified attackers who keep trying to kill them.

This is the first episode.

Vandread then follows an almost Star-Trekky kind of plot arc where they move from place to place, and each new episode brings a new problem they handle and learn a bit about the overarcing plot. Sometimes it’s a internal drama on the space-ship, Hibiki learning he’s a doofus, or sometimes it’s going to a new planet and finding out there’s a problem there. The plot on this one kind of unfolds, but it’s also much more of a story about a world as a concept than it is about anything the story wants to say with that.

For all that Vandread is a story about segregated genders, though, there are two really weird points to it – and they get a bit spoilery, so I’ll jump on the far side of a cut for that, so you can avoid it. Continue reading

BraveStarr!

BraveStarr, with its internal capital and double-r, is the story of a lone Native-American lawman from (maybe) the planet of New Texas, with his small coalition of friends, opposing an outlaw gang headed up by Tex Hex, who’s best described as a sort of Zombie Cyborg Cowboy. The fearsome crew of idiots and screwball villains wielding big boxy space-guns spent their time ‘terrorising’ the citizens of Fort Kerium, which is a giant mechanised city (buy all our playsets and toooys) made to protect the Prarie People and their Kerium mines.

I feel that when it came to these 80s Merchandise shows, you’d often have details about the creators seep into the work. Part of what made M*A*S*K so remarkable was that there was so little there there, a story that just sort of farted out. If you looked at shows like GI Joe or Silverhawks, there was always a tiny drop of something going on there, an ideology you could point to and use to inform the work at large. It isn’t just something that a work is trying to say: creative people’s values and ideas become part of their work even subconsciously.

These subconscious biases are to me more interesting than a lot of intended messages: Especially when you’re dealing with media primarily designed for fast, forgettable consumption, the pulp of an era, people often don’t have the time to make media that has A Message. Bravestarr was a series that wanted to be a western, with a cool Native American protagonist who channelled nature spirits, espoused environmental and social consciousness, and protected the poor Prarie People of New Texas. That is to say, this story is about a Native American Cop protecting the Colonial invaders while they exploited the small, hairy subhumans who can’t talk properly.

There’s a historical context here – and like it or not, thirty years ago is actually history. Not that the atrocities against Native Americans or the racism in media isn’t longer lasting than that, but the 80s as a creative period were a time when those symptoms of oppression and marginalisation were being expressed differently to now. Now, you present a Native American character poorly and there’ll be an angry online presence making its feelings known. That’s not to say that this tension gets things fixed, but there’s a reaction. There’s an easily recognised, publically searchable, clear reaction to this kind of thing, the sort of thing that results in a Criticisms And Controversies entry on a Wikipedia page.

For these works of the 1980s, though, we didn’t have that. It took a surprising amount of effort for fans to have a direct impact on shows and that effort was mostly isolated to people with the free time to do it. Even the classic Women In Refrigerators was an early internet list, and the 90s Hal’s Emerald Advancement Team still relied on people sending actual physical letters to comic creators. What’s more those were both very entrenched fans working hard – not the pre-teen Bravestarr ‘fans’ who probably were also equally entrenched in six other franchises that gave them reasonably similar or comparable toys.

There’s your historical context: Complaints about Bravestarr were not widespread, not because they weren’t legitimate or real, but because nobody with media platform space was asking questions and nobody was writing down the answers. This is not the same thing as being uncontroversial. It means that we weren’t listening.

At the same time, the 80s were definitely into that period of Native American presence in media (that some say ended with Disney’s Pocohontas) that treated them as just important enough to be magically otherised and also probably not actually whole people.

BraveStarr is noteworthy because Marshall Bravestarr himself is a Native American, or is ‘meant to be’ a Native American. We see glimpses of his childhood, moments where he was living in a situation best called Cartoon Tribal. We hear the story of Shaman the Shaman, who quotes some very Not-Native-American lessons translated backwards (‘to truly understand someone, one must walk a mile in his moccasins’). There’s a clear desire to have some sort of connection to Native American culture, but either by being too cautious to identify anything (unlikely) or genuinely believing that most Native American culture was airy-fairy and indefinite, it very much comes across as being ‘Native American’ culture, like a big broad sticker you can put on things.

Ultimately, BraveStarr earns itself a very white You Tried sticker from another white person. Someone involved in this production wanted to do something with the idea, wanted their silly space cowboy show informed by westerns they liked and space-faring science fiction they liked and also to include an oddball cast of alien-looking villains that included at least one Australian shape-shifting dingo. It’s fascinating that this series tried to do something, that it tried something, but it tried really stupidly.

It serves as an example of how you made an effort isn’t always a good enough excuse to be satisfied with a result.

 

Korra: The Darkest Shadow

How do you follow up success?

How do you follow up runaway successes?

How do you follow up literally the greatest example of its genre of all time?

Avatar: The Last Airbender is, broadly speaking, the greatest piece of long-form western animated storytelling  that exists. When you take into account its competitors, they’re usually storytelling forms that have different demands, but when viewed in terms of just itself – continuity-driven human drama stories told using animation – there just isn’t anything that touches it. I say that as someone who really dislikes some elements of Avatar and its coding, who thinks there’s waste in that otherwise dense series. I like Avatar less than I recognise its overall quality and its excellence as a story.

It sort of follows sadly then that Korra, a story I like better, is much worse made.

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My Guild Leader Is A Demon

First up, some disclosure: This series, My Guild Leader Is A Demon is made by a friend of mine, 0xabad1dea. While I know I’m in the dedication of one of her books, I don’t think I’ve had any influence or involvement in this project, and I’ve not been paid for this piece.

There is potential that she might implement/reject some ideas I mention here, as the series is ongoing, but as far as I know, no such thing is expected to happen. Basically, if I say something here and it winds up being true in this series, assume 0xabad1dea was going to do it anyway.


My Guild Leader Is A Demon is a web-series/kinetic novel. There’s some consideration on my part as to whether to treat kinetic novels – storytelling which has no major interaction beyond ‘keep going’ – as a series or a videogame. In this case, 0xabad1dea has taken a full play of the game and put it up on Youtube, where you can watch it as a single video. Continue reading

Miraculous: Rescuing Cats

There’s this book, called Invisible Ink, by Brian McDonald, which I haven’t read, but I have heard summarised, and that right there is kind of a punchline in and of itself. The book has a bunch of stuff in it (including gender-coding storytelling tools, so I dunno, nevermind). In that book he outlines the idea that a lot of work is put into characterising and presenting certain characters in movies that fail at making those characters resonant because there’s something wrong or missing there.

The example given is the idea of rescuing a cat from a tree, something Superman does. Anyone unfamiliar with this scene idea or story beat probably doesn’t read this blog, but assuming otherwise, the idea is that a Superman story takes some time early on, before the story has ramped up and tension is high, to show Superman rescuing a cat stuck in a tree and return it to the people who are afraid. It’s a simple, small exchange, and one that most Superman movies have left out.

I think about this moment a lot, and here’s what’s had me thinking about it lately:



In Miraculous, there’s a moment where Marinette, as Ladybug, goes into a room to hide when she transforms. The door is ajar, and she left it that way, so it’s not like looking in the open door requires an action. If you were outside, and the light caught your eye, there’s a deniability to looking. Adrien, as Cat Noir, is outside and is in a position to look.

Now to be clear, there is no actual need for Adrien to be there. The story has been resolved and it’s an established point that Cat Noir often leaves the scene of an incident quickly so he, too, can transform back into Adrien and hide his identity. If the story wanted, he would not even be here.

Adrien approaches the door where Marinette is changing, and closes it.

The story doesn’t need to do this. There’s no unending question of why he was or wasn’t doing something in that room at the same time, no plot hole introduced by his presence or absence there. There’s nothing that needs explaining here. There’s no reason for this scene – except to show you something of who Adrien is, and what he’d do when confronted with an opportunity to learn something about Ladybug she’s not willingly letting him know.

M*A*S*K – A Platonic Ideal

There was this comedy web cartoon called Cheat Commandos, whose tagline was Buy All Our Playsets And Toys! If you’re at all a fan of this era of tv, and I guess somehow I am, you might be inclined to remember this as being connected to the GI Joe cartoons of the time – which Cheat Commandos very clearly connects to. The toy lineup for GI Joe was ubiquitous, too, row upon row of them in the toy stores or the aisles of supermarkets, little toys designed to make kids happy and also extract their pocket money. This was the Reagan Era of media, the period when advertising directly to children was deemed Okay Now.GI Joe wasn’t actually a brand made for this – that’s a toy line that existed since the fifties, a venerable senior of the merchandise wars. When deregulation hit the toy media market, it wasn’t GI Joe that shifted over first. Heck, it wasn’t first out of the gates; the very first media like that was stuff like The Gummi Bears, which happened because Disney could make a TV show that fast to try and sell plush toys (I understand).

We all know, now there’s a sort of template for all these shows from Dino Riders to Inhumanoids to Zoids’ first appearance to the Street Sharks to the X-Men cartoons that they were all more or less the same basic idea to try and sell you a toy lineup. Yet when you go back and look at those series and really consider what they’re doing, what they’re trying to do as the way they fill time selling you a toy, there’s almost always something interesting to talk about. It can be a queer reading or elevating pulp media with surprising value to it or attacks or critique for racism or transphobia or –

There’s almost always something there.

Moviebob recently stated in Really That Good that the Transformers movie being good may have been an accident but its accidental existence doesn’t change the fact the movie is good. Looking back on Silverhawks and Thundercats shows some drop of something that’s there, worth talking about, worth revisiting.

That’s why going back and rewatching M*A*S*K has been astounding. There’s almost nothing in M*A*S*K to talk about! If you want to remark on anything in this series it has to be the naked emptiness of it, the way its enormous cast of characters had three and a half personalities between them. Or maybe the way its racial diversity is somehow more represented by white guys doing accents. You could try and build something out of the way that several of the characters are the same basic person, or the way the series gave its most boring, easiest voices multiple new masks and vehicles.

I think the one thing in M*A*S*K that really stands out to me as interesting, the one thing this series does that’s kind of cool is when the M*A*S*K signal calls, every member of the squad is shown interrupting whatever they’re doing, no matter what, and bailing. This gives a chance to show that the character is a character, who has something going on – like you see Bruce bailing on a meeting with other inventors, or Alex rushing a pet feeding. That’s almost all you get to demonstrate anything about the characters, though because after that point, they are nothing.

M*A*S*K doesn’t have characters, it has the accents Doug Stone can pull off.

What I’m saying is, when people joke about a TV Show, from the 1980s and early 90s with interchangeable, underdeveloped nothing characters who existed to only advertise and encourage the sales of toys to children, they’re almost certainly talking about M*A*S*K.

Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir, Pt 2. – Marinette

Here’s an idea, he says, missing PBS Idea Channel So Much Already, Miraculous is a superhero story of a different type because it is girly.

Don’t get at me on this one. We exist in a world with a culturally-accepted, defined and utilised gender binary, and all the Gender Is Fake, and Girly is Fake comments you can throw out there won’t change the fact that it’s part of how we do exist, and in that existing, there is definitely such a thing as girly stuff. And Miraculous Ladybug is very girly.

Girly is in this case a shorthand aesthetic for the things we already signpost as of or relating to girls. It’s in part an aesthetic, choices full of pinks, bright colours, pastels and broadly emotionally approachable signals. In a lot of media these are things that are also coded as being frivolous, or unimportant, or inherently comical. In Season 1 of Ladybug, Marinette is shown focusing on a fashion show, a school play, a babysitting job, and a literal popularity contest, which are all things I’m fairly sure Spider-Man has made fun of caring about.

They are serious though, and Marinette takes them seriously. Taking these things seriously involves looking – seriously – at why we don’t, about what about them makes them Not Serious. Why is babysitting silly? Why is fashion silly? What makes them somehow less worthy a subject for a teen superhero to care about than, say, a chemistry experiment or a baseball game?

Sexism, yes, but think about the specifics. Why shouldn’t these things matter? Why not? When you start to remember these things are competitions or challenges with their own stakes, and the story takes them seriously, they’re just as rich a vein of fodder for the story as anything else. Since they’re inherently low-stakes problems in universe, though, these aren’t spaces you can have things like Out of Control Lab Accidents that make people into monsters, or introduce gunshot-level threats. The problems in Miraculous have to be superhero-worthy while having roots in these very mundane activities we entrust to children, without the framing of being Eventually Important versions of Important Things that we normally code as for boys.

Know what definitely is a real thing that can feel worthy of a threat in those situations? Human emotions. Distress and sadness and anxiety and all these problems that we struggle with as adults, and maybe don’t even successfully handle. When you look at the problems that come up in the first season you have problems like being ignored by your parents when you were right, not being respected by your peers, being given conflicting information when you’re too young to understand it and being rejected and spurned by someone who you realise was much worse a person than you ever imagined. These emotional states are then, through the narrative tool of Hawkmoth (Papillon in the French, which makes me giggle), transformed into open, obvious metaphors for being stuck on that emotional problem.

There’s also how it informs the tension of the story’s protagonists: Adrien and Marinette are both characters who have Got It for each other, but this tension is not arbitary. Adrien is a good looking boy – both in universe, and also in his design. The story doesn’t present a Very Average looking boy as being handsome, and there are boys around him who are also less pretty, showing the story is actually making him exceptional. The boys are presented as needing to be visually interesting, and they are, rather than being more or less templates of one another.

When the time comes, however, that Marinette takes action – as Ladybug, mind you, since this is clearly part of her contention as a superhero – none of the negative traits we associate with Girly are a problem. Marinette is not shown being paralysed by emotions, or wrapped up in indecision. There is a confidence to her actions that typically would be coded as Not-Girly – but this is  story that is so happily and wholly Girly it serves more to ask the question Why Would This Be Out of Type? Ladybug’s behaviour is unlike Marinette’s, but that’s because Marinette isn’t confident – not because she’s a girl.

Let’s take this one to a point of demonstration. In episode 6, the villain, Mr Pigeon, has a whistle that lets him control flocks of pigeons. Oh and spoilers I guess. Point is, in this episode, there’s a moment where three people lunge for it and their hands hit it in a stack – Cat Noir’s hand, then Mr Pigeon’s hand, then Marinette’s hand. And without thinking about it, without a moment of ‘ahah!’ or looking to the characters’ faces or whatever, bam, she just smashes downwards and breaks the object at the bottom of the stack.

Marinette’s problem-solving, the power of getting one Lucky solution in the right time and place, is really excellent as it shows her being thoughtful and confident, quick-thinking and decisive. The story will present her with Oven Mitts and say fix the problem, hero, and she will come up with the solution in some of the most wonderfully silly point-and-click adventure moments in media.

Miraculous is a girly superhero show. It’s about a girl, it’s about the things a girl cares about, and it wants to talk to girls in the storytelling tools of girls. And it’s absolutely great.

 

Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir, Pt 1. – The Gush

Holy crap oh my goodness this show is so good people. I’d normally like, try and structure this whole thing somewhat and there will be time for that but for now, I’m just going to gush about some things in this series I really hecking like.

Here’s a thing! Ladybugs are a symbol of luck. I didn’t know that going in, and for a little while I was confused as to why they chose the two characters they had – the black cat and the ladybug and I just didn’t quite get why. Then when you find that ladybugs are good luck, the imagery and meme of the black cat as bad luck and – and that’s good use of imagery and concept space! That gives you space to look at the two characters, gives you a nice, simple place to start from! It anchors characters to existing media spaces and it gives them distinct, interesting visual theming!

That means that when they work together in the same space, despite the fact the two characters are basically the same style of fighter, and move more or less the same way you’re never left confused as to which one you’re seeing in a moment of action because one is bright honking red and the other is black, but neither of their costumes seem to be of a different type to the other!

Also if luck is the thing that defines the two characters it means your solutions to problems can be extremely outlandish or one-time! A character who relies on luck as a theme means that if she only gets a thing to work once that’s enough, unlike characters like Batman who rely on being heavily prepared! This means things can be both more thematically interesting and varied while also showing off the character’s quick wits!

Oh and the enemies! All the enemies are empowered by the real villain when they demonstrate a moment of emotional distress that the can’t handle or process properly – which is to say, this is a series where the big conflict point is processing your emotions properly. Nobody’s sadness or anger is shown as being illegitimate, and nobody’s emotions are used to excuse or justify the things they do – because the villain is using magical powers to take control of them, there’s no need to do that.

This is great because it means you can treat emotional duress as important and worth respecting, you can show characters repeatedly resisting it or engaging with it to show their growth as people, and you can even show how some people’s processing can be inhibited or expressed. Then you get the added dimension that both adults and children fall prey to this power set, for a variety of different reasons – some are meanspirited and cruel, but many of them are frustrated or misunderstood! This means there are stories about handling emotions as a child and as an adult and at no point does the story just say ‘well suck it up.’

So you have these characters who are directly expressing rudimentary metaphors about emotional processing in a way that involves actual cool looking fights with some dynamic, interestingly chosen characters who fight and think and are cool at things, and then the aftermath is about watching the protagonists grow in light of the things they now understand about the emotional process their friends went through, and there’s no guilt or rancor about the times they were turned. There is a legitimate recognition that someone else preyed on their emotional state and ‘made’ them into villains, and that those moments of distress or anger or rage don’t represent who they truly are!

This is romantic storytelling at its most primal, not romance-as-interaction, where people are smoochin’ and doin’ smooches and that’s all the stories are moving about, but romance where human emotion are the driving forces of the universe, where the story is always moving in ways to make human emotion run against other human emotion! Coincidence transpires – and it’s fine, because the story isn’t about the realism of events – and then that brings people’s emotions to bear against one another!

Things don’t need explaining, they need understanding.

Plus it’s funny. It’s funny in a way that doesn’t treat its viewers – who are kids – like idiots. It doesn’t pitch its comedy low, and that means it projects a sense of respect for its viewers. They show things only a few moments, and don’t need to over-explain it – basically it’s like an exact, functional opposite to Suicide Squad, which overstates everything and is also grim and dark and grungy for no good reason.

I have more, but I kind of want to save more in-depth conversation about it until I’ve rewatched some of it, but also to do a bit more of an in-depth read on Marinette as a character and what choosing her has done for this series as a superhero story.

God it’s a good time to like superheroes.

Donald Duck, The Dork Deputy Dad

What follows here mentions some themes in the 2017 Ducktales reboot. Not an actual spoiler of details in the series, just a mention of some of the themes that come out in the first two episodes. If you think you need to go in cold to the first episodes of a tv series about talking ducks, well, okay. Just so you know.

Donald Duck’s a dork.

Really, Donald Duck is an older generation of media, the same generational space as Mickey Mouse. I’m sure animation historians will be able to point to the specific gaps in between first appearances, or the evolution of a character over time, but the experience I’ve always had of Donald Duck is that he’s something old. There’s something of an older time, a time when cartoons were about… something else. It wasn’t like he really belonged in Ducktales either, which as a kid, still felt old to me – perhaps because I didn’t see it until it’d already existed for quite a few years, perhaps because it still centered Donald as important. Somewhat. Sort of.

In the new Ducktales reboot, though, they’ve done something magical by leaning in to this dorkiness. Donald Duck is boring, and unimpressive, and not cool. Who else is boring, and unimpressive, and not-cool, to most kids the age of the triplets?

Your parents.

Ducktales touches on a really weird space, a space between the places I’m at: The children are at a point where they don’t like their parent figures, and don’t see them as people. The parents are at a point where they can’t really see the kids as people, either.

Now, Donald isn’t a parent. It’s worse than that. He’s not the kids’ parents: he’s a person those kids have to respect, because their parent told them to, but he doesn’t have the authority despite the hard work he does to provide for and care for the kids. What’s more, Donald has a hard time communicating in the most pure way with the kids. They don’t have to like him – they like each other, they have one another as friends, they can conspire and confide with one another.

I didn’t like Donald Duck. Yet here, as the series seems to set up the idea of these kids discovering that their uncle is a person, a person like themselves, a person who’s done things, tried things, a person who has achieved and adventured and still has plenty of fun left to have in him?

I really am cheering for the guy.

Luke Cage

First of all, I am legitimately not, in any way, an expert on the greater contextual and cultural significance of Luke Cage, the series, as it pertains to blackness in America. I am no expert, nor am I even in a position to be an expert. If you’d like to read a take about blackness in Luke Cage and its first four episodes, check out these pieces on Women Write About Comics: They are better informed and better aware than anything I have to say. They do touch on something that I see in the other Marvel series, but we’ll get onto that when we get there.

I’m not only not black, I’m not only not black but in a culture that has dominated and oppressed black people. I’m not only not black and part of a culture that dominated and oppressed black people, I’m not even in the right culture that’s dominated and oppressed the black people that Luke Cage is all about. I am, simply put, nobody on that topic. Go read those posts, they taught me stuff, and crystallised some realisations. I do not think Luke Cage is a work that should be looked to as an example of How To Write Blackness.

As best I can see, Luke Cage is a work of media that wants its blackness to be palatable to whiteness and is willing to simplify things to do that. I don’t hold it against anyone in the show on that front, I just see that as a byproduct of being made by businesses that ultimately don’t want to piss off white people too much. Yet, that’s not a perspective I’d have come to on my own.

Nonetheless, no work is a single expression; while the greater throughline and message of Luke Cage can ring hollow, while it is a show that has as said, forgotten the face of its father there are still things, I’d say smaller things, in this series that I think are good ideas, good things for storytellers to reach out and learn from. Telling stories is hard, telling great stories is incredibly hard – you take whatever tools you can get from whatever source you can get ’em.

However, that stuff is more… fiddly. So let’s put it after a jump.


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Daredevil — Season 2: This Got Silly

Season 1 of Daredevil was a fairly tight, coherent narrative that had a great big mystery to establish, and a story point it wanted to build to. There was the twin arcs together of Wilson Fisk ascending to his status as the Kingpin, and Matt Murdock becoming the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Good work, rounded well, mesh ’em together and you have a solid structure to fill in with incidents and plans and ideas and stuff.

Season 2 did not have any such singular narrative and instead spent all its energy on world-building and narrative construction that was going to matter later. It wanted you to know about Elektra, about Frank Castle, and about yes, finalising the book-keeping of the ascent of Wilson Fisk. There was also some attempt to make the Hand more prominent, to put Madame Gao in position, and to tie up and resolve the question of Nobu, as a character.

What you get as a result is a TV series that has a lot to get done, but almost nothing to say. Instead, the show tries to give you a whirlwind tour of important things while giving you almost nothing to make them hold together?

As with last time, no plot synopsis; no episode by episode rundown. What I’m going to talk about are things the series tried to do, to give you both a potentially interesting insight into the series, maybe a hit of media analysis, or just a way to continue experiencing something you already like. I guess you could also frame this as is there stuff in this that’s enjoyable, if I bother to think about it?

So, content warning about the violence and child death in the series and also spoilers after this cut.
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Daredevil — Season 1: Arcs In Red

With the Defenders arriving, I wanted to take some time to walk back through the Marvel series that made it up and see what I really felt about these things. I really like having access to some binge media I can have running alongside other tedious tasks like data entry or design management.

The arc of these series to me start with Jessica Jones, then Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. I watched one episode of Jessica Jones and immediately checked out. Maybe I’ll go back to it if Defenders gives me a stronger anchor to the character. What that means is that the first Netflix hero I really watched, and thought about was the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, Matt Murdock himself.

You’re not going to see plot synopsese here, or rundowns episode by episode. That’s for other people to do and do better than me. What we’re doing here is a conversation about what the series tried to do, what the story was about, and things about how the story lingered in my memory after it got made.

I’m personally of the opinion that when you talk about ‘themes’ and ‘concepts’ in a work you might be seeing something the work does that wasn’t necessarily put there by the people making it. That’s fine: That’s its own conversation for later, but the basic gist is that whether or not it was put there, if I can find it and justify it, it is still there enough. We all bring our interpretations to the work, and what we find satisfying or interesting matters to us.

There will be content warning about the violence and child abuse in the series, a brief attempt by a person without autism discussing something of autism, and also spoilers after this cut, so here, we, go! Continue reading

Leverage – Eliot

Eliot is introduced to the viewer in one of my favourite kind of moments; an off-screen demonstration. He walks up to some very dangerous people, challenges them directly, then the camera cuts away to show the signs of violence, but not the violence itself. Then it cuts back, and he is unruffled and successful.

This is a good joke and a great bit of a vibe at first, but it also is something you see directors do to save money and effort. You know, using editing tricks to hide that an actor can’t pull off something intense and active. Yeah, looking at you Iron Fist. Anyway. Just to hammer that point, though, later in the episode, you get to see Eliot pull off just that kind of action scene, almost a sort of nyeh-nyeh, yes, I can do this.

This is – as I keep saying about Leverage, a fast way to get us acquainted with the character, gives us an idea of how he solves problems, and it sets a rule that the series uses for the rest of its lifespan: Eliot doesn’t lose fights. He doesn’t necessarily win all of them (there are a few ambiguous ones), but Eliot, any time he starts to fight someone, is not going to lose.

Does that sound boring?

It’s amazingly, not.

Remember how I say that Leverage is built around short, fast exchanges that let them explain a character quickly and therefore, cram a lot of narrative, with multiple twists and points of tension in a short space? Part of what lets them do those exchanges quickly is sharp contrast: a threat for one character might be meaningless for another, so the tension around one character being in a dangerous space or facing an impassable wall is something you’re going to see another character waltz through.

All four of the other cast members have to treat a bigger opponent who is willing to be threatening seriously. Even Parker, who learns to fight some from Eliot, can’t control a scenario that turns violent. On the other hand, if Eliot commits to fighting people, he will win.

The show handles this really deftly, though: Eliot is often presented with problems he can’t punch his way out without wrecking the plan, or without endangering another member of the team. He still leaps to do it – it takes Nate a few times to tell him that while they can use him to extract, it’s not necessary and he has an alternate solution that will preserve the plan.

Eliot is a great contrast point in the series in that he’s the pessimism to Nate’s optimism. Sophie likes people, while Eliot doesn’t trust them. Hardison embraces new things and loves complexity while Eliot prefers simplicity and provability. Parker doesn’t understand why Eliot is sad about the things he struggles with, and he doesn’t know how to explain them to them.

What this means is that Eliot is a great foil for almost anyone, though he does admittedly have the least overlap with Sophie.

Still, in almost any scene you see him, he’s a perpetually grouchy, always slightly prickly, extremely competent force for violence. His wide range of experiences with military forces and security forces mean that he always has a way to provide information about random Generally Dangerous But Not Actually Interesting things you’ll see in periods of militarisation and violence. Also it means that if Eliot mentions a thing, you know it’s from a military source, and also that there’s no reason to ask more, because it’s not usually actually interesting.

The presence of Eliot in a story means you will get to see a pretty cool fight. He will often dress up in a cool outfit or be sexy and smouldering. And usually, he’ll be frustrated with someone in a super funny way.

 

This contrast carries through to the characters too: Eliot is the person in the group who demonstrates, in a way that none of the other characters do, that his actions have affected him. Oh, sure, he’s basically Batman – literally, the showrunners have said they think of him as like Batman – but unlike the other members of the group, whose criminal enterprise is shown regularly to be somewhat external to themselves, or a response to being already different, his experience changed him.

The others are independent and individualistic; Eliot is the one created by the government. The others function by minimising their direct impact on people; Eliot is the most blunt instrument in the group. The others favour mechanisms that they’re best at; Eliot is shown to give up a very useful, very powerful tool because he’d rather not use it.

You can look at Leverage‘s cast in terms of what about them sets them apart from the others, and I think this is the big thing about Eliot: He is the one changed by his experiences, and working with the rest of the crew is not how he becomes who he wants to be, but is how he claws back to something he once was.

There’s a power fantasy to Eliot, and I don’t know if it’s the same as what the rest of you feel. The thing with Eliot is that Eliot is someone deeply scarred by violence, someone who was impacted by it, and who enacted it, and that scarring gave him both powers and capacities to protect others. That’s a very enticing fantasy, a want I know I can understand. It would be nice if hurting was a superpower that let me spare others from hurting.


There’s one final note, and not one I want to ignore but also don’t put much stock in: According to Christian Kane, he, the actor, is of Cherokee descent, but he cannot prove that beyond family information, and does not seem to be actively involved in his Native community.

On the other hand, if you like, you could interpret the character of Eliot as someone with Native ancestry who has some experience with diaspora.

Leverage – Sophie

We’re first introduced to Sophie, as a character, as a fifth-ranger character, someone who’s introduced because the other characters are known factors. That’s when we’re given her generally defining characteristic: Sophie is someone who wants to be a legitimate actor, but who is terrible at it. Her skill as an actor is only brought out in cons, where she can somehow slip into character – a range of characters, even – excellently. This is a trait that’s only really emphasised in the first season – the recurrent theme of her being dreadful as an actress, despite regular and repeated efforts to be one. It’s usually used as a joke or a continuity nod.

One of my favourite examples is when Sophie is soliciting feedback from the crew, you get to see how they all handle being confronted with a friend they want to lie to: Nate attempts to bluff his way over the line, Hardison and Elliot are both extremely uncomfortable, and Parker, being Parkery, indicates she loved it, in no small part because she had no boundaries for what constituted normal.

That’s our basic tension of Sophie: She’s really, really good at something, and she’s not good at it in the way she wants to be. As the story progresses, it gets worse for her: Her skill at keeping people at a distance has holes in it to start with, and she gets worse and worse at it, with events that shake her feeling of safety and inviolability. By the time someone attempts on her life, she literally runs away from the group in an effort to re-establish some sense of control over her life.

A sense that doesn’t return until she’s back with them, and that was perfectly timed to the actress’ pregnancy, but anyway.

Sophie is typically presented as a mother character in the found-family structure; she’s the one who sides with Nate in public to allow for some comforting structure, then restructures the complaint to him so he has to address it. The suite of tools she brings to the table are also some of those that have – in a broad, general sense – appeal to people like, well, my mum.

Sophie doesn’t punch people, doesn’t force people, she doesn’t even acquire secrets or slide around back doors. Sophie walks up to the front door and uses confidence in its purest form to manipulate the people she’s dealing with. When the time comes to convince people of things, she does it by showing them things that fit the world that they expect to see, and relies on them to make a natural mistake. It’s very compelling, it’s artful; she constructs a fantastic vision of the world and makes people around her feel it is true for long enough.

At the same time, the character of Sophie is one who more than any of the other characters, connects to real things. She’s not nursing some deep trauma, she isn’t dealing with reconciling visions of herself or enormous guilt. She isn’t addicted to power or success, Sophie is a person who most primarily is interested in what money lets her do, and once it becomes possible, who that lets her help. Even in the earliest part of the series, she leaps to using the tools she has to make people’s lives better, taking over from Nate when he’s too black-out-drunk to get involved.

Sophie is, in this way, an everyperson character to connect with. And as an actress, in a piece of media that requires actors and actresses to make, it serves as a meta reminder that she is letting us step into that work and fantasise for a time about being very good at making people believe us and using that power for good. Maybe that’s all Leverage needs to do. It’s a series that teaches us about things – real things – that are bad, and cruel, in our world, and frames them as things that we should want to oppose, things that we should want to deal with.

It’s a small thing, but it means that when things like Wage Theft come up in the news, our response isn’t just ‘oh well,’ but are instead deeply angered because we recognise what those problems are.

And Sophie, for all her sophistication and her fantastic personality, her ridiculous realities that she creates, she is the person we can see like ourselves, helping to push against them.

Or maybe not. Maybe you’re like me. Maybe Sophie doesn’t ring for you like that. But I’m absolutely certain, that for everyone who wants, in a story like this, for there to be someone as The Adult In The Room, feel gratified and relieved every time they hear Sophie step up and assert exactly that.

Leverage – Hardison

One of the lines of Leverage is that there are no new tricks under the sun; the idea that there aren’t really extra cons going around, not new tricks being invented, just different methods for the same four or five basic conventions. This is an old art, an art that’s been in practice now for centuries.

It can be very hard to believe this when you come at the world from Alec Hardison’s perspective, the life of someone who grew up online. Where everyone else in the crew is schooled in old-world practical confidence tricks, what Hardison knows is mostly self-taught rediscovery of these plans: About exploiting information that others don’t necessarily have, or even know that you have.

The other thing is this means that Hardison’s type of manipulative confidence trickstery is always of the same, simple, consistant method of character. When the time comes that he’s on the spot, and needs to come up with a character, or an idea, or some way to keep people from asking too many questions, he has one, extremely rudimentary genre of character traits. Hardison defaults to being a facile, insincere, extremely rude and volatile, and often socially gross character in an attempt to convince people that whatever is going on, they absolutely want him to go away quickly.

Simply put: Alec Hardison is a troll.

It’s not really a nice element of his character. It means that of the two most awkward, homophobic and transphobic moments in a show that almost always strays from actually being hateful or racist, are laid square at the feet of Hardison. This is especially rough when you remember that otherwise, he’s one of the nicest, most human characters in the series. He’s fun! He’s funny!

Shame he’s gotta be the one who goes and does the two Not A Good Look moments.

I guess it wouldn’t be a complete discussion of Leverage without my personal take on this particular problem and a framing that if not excuses it, at least renders it somewhat forgiveable.

Hardison is a character who speaks about his history, his childhood. The foster home that raised him featured a heavily religious mother figure, and her values were the values imprinted on him as the world at large. It’s clear that Hardison never became centrally religious, never really took on values like ‘thou shalt not steal,’ but he still was very shaped by her in the forms of lessons about what he figured most other people considered to be a normal, proper way to live.

Basically, Hardison goes to a gay stereotype for one con, pretends to be a trans man for another, because he’s a troll, and he’s trying to make other people uncomfortable, and he knows those topics do it.

I’m not saying it’s forgiveable; it’d be nice if those moments weren’t in the show. It’d be nicer still if those moments didn’t come from characters who were themselves presented as normally, conventionally, the heroes. At the same time though, Hardison’s tricks are not presented as things he really believes, but rather things he believes would make other people uncomfortable.

Hardison is a character who loves someone neuroatypical; a character who wields indignation about marginalisation and abuse as a weapon in social situations; a character who values learning and information and loves technology and devices, and, when put down to it, wants to make things right and make things okay with his friends.

Hardison is a character with a lot to love. There’s wits, there’s cunning, there’s also a playfulness, a love of nerd culture, an appreciation of indulgence. When asked about his abilities, he is cocky, almost arrogant, but he never writes cheques he can’t cash. And crucially, when the time comes for the group, at large, to express its anger, its sadness, Hardison is the one who expresses that.

When the family is invaded, when they are directly under attack, the moment that sings in the memory, isn’t Elliot’s physical rage, it isn’t Nate’s low-key threats of massive destruction. It’s Hardison, the one who shouts Get Out Of My House.

Leverage – Parker

When you’re introduced to Parker in Leverage it’s with the unfortunate offhanded phrase that she’s ten pounds of crazy in a five pound bag. To be fair she’s also throwing herself off a building.

Parker is a thief, and our introductory shot of her is, in sequence, being shown in an abusive household, having her toys taken away from her, a crying mother, and being told, as a challenge, that she needs to be ‘a better thief.’ Then it ends with her walking out of her foster home, with the toy, blowing up the home.

This is one tiny problem with the earlier parts of Leverage, though really, the first episode. They hadn’t found their stride yet, they hadn’t quite perfectly nailed down the dynamic. The early entries came with a lot more shouting tension between the characters, but the start of Parker’s character was there. She was awkward, she had outbursts at people when they confused her, and crucially, the line, “I don’t like things, I like money.”

Parker liked money, because money made sense. More money was better than less money, and that meant that money was, literally, a way to keep score. She cared about the experiences of theft, but not the value of the things money could do for her. That crucial core of the character, that she doesn’t think the same way the rest of us, was there, and was fleshed out as the series went.

Parker is a character we learn a lot about, mostly because the assumptions about how she is don’t work. You needed to explain why she became, which means there’s rich fodder in showing her stories as connected to greater events, to the inevitable connection to her father figure, to how she learns to care about greater groups of people than just herself, or her family, building relationships within the group.

One of the devices about Parker that I really love, and which reminds me of of all things the Tales of Earthsea books is that because of her neuroatypicality and lack of social context, Parker can be both an eye-level character, who needs things explained to her on a very rudimentary level, and a high-level character who is the one doing the explaining.

Good storytelling in a short amount of time is hard, and Leverage makes it work by doing that storytelling fast. The story doesn’t take breaks to explain to you the large, elaborate history of con artistry that they definitely researched, but instead gives you a short, quick exchange that sounds like characters know what they’re doing (‘Cherry Pie, but with Life Cards’). Parker is responsible for a handful of these – she rattles off details about security systems, about heights and tensile strength and physical athletic limitations of human bodies, and she does so very comfortably.

The other thing Parker does, excellently, is show an emotional vulnerability and obviousness that the other characters resist. Elliot is not going to call the rest of the crew his family: He’s too damaged, too hurt to do that. Hardison can’t bring himself to do it, hepped up on all his personal social values and his ideas of what he can afford to show about himself. And then there’s Sophie and Nate, who are for lack of a better term, the parents of the group, and they don’t show their emotional state so readily.

But Parker: Parker can. Parker doesn’t ‘understand her emotions’ the way the others do, she doesn’t consider that she shouldn’t be so obvious about it.

Parker is a wonderful character, and despite her being neuroatypical, despite the characters early reference to her as being ‘crazy,’ by the story’s development it becomes clear that they trust Parker, and nobody thinks Parker needs to be fixed or solved. Parker’s behaviour is Parkery, and it’s not a sign of the flaw or wrongness in her.

Leverage: The Mastermind

The first character you’re introduced to, the first one who’s fleshed out to any extent in Leverage is Nate Ford. We learn in the opening few minutes of the scene with him that Nate is probably an alcoholic, very good at a particularly obscure kind of job that you may have heard of but also haven’t really got a good handle on, lost his kid to an insurance agency’s decisions and is also a bit of a dick.

This is part of how the series works, of course; it’s very good at dense characterisation, something it can mainly achieve by making characters very broad, tropey archetypes. Good people in Leverage are often glowingly good, bad people are often cartoonishly bad; it’s rarely handled in a way that makes things subtle after either an introduction or a twist. You’ll see a few seconds of a character in which the series very cleanly tells you whether or not you’re dealing with an asshole.

Nate is not an asshole, but Nate is a Troubled Sad Dad. I’ve grown a lot on this archetype in recent years, particularly because I realise how well this speaks to the people to whom it matters: Not the waxing, mawkish perspective of the people who fantasise about it, but the burden of struggling underneath that weight, of the general, permeating sadness – or worse, the fear of ever invoking that sadness. Nate is a guy who has been through a lot, and his work is not the refuge from it he wanted it to be.

I didn’t know Tim Hutton before Leverage, which is funny, really. I’m told he’s one of those enduring character actors, and that’s something you need to get used to when you’re talking about Leverage – it’s a series full of characters who are being played by people normally used to taking second or third string in a series, someone who gets wheeled on, play a stock part, and then exit. In Tim Hutton’s case, the main role he plays when he plays Nate is, in-series, a colossal asshole.

I’m not joking!

Nate, in-universe, is a con artist who needs to be in the middle of a con to keep track of all the parts that are moving. He needs information and access, he needs some form of control, befitting his position in the role of the Mastermind. This means he normally plays a character in the cons the crew run that translates best to… well, the person you want to backstab. The person who offers you opportunity but not affection. The person who, in some way or another, you want out of your life.

He plays a dick.

Look back on the history of Leverage sometime. Literally the only time Nate isn’t being a total asshole in a character is when he’s being oily and unctuous. And then he’s also kind of being an asshole!

The story of Leverage tends to follow a series of beats, where each season is defined by the character of Nate’s personal arc; first his refusal to get close to the team, then the recognition he has, accepting his self-destruction, repairing himself. This means the moments Nate really shines tend to be the episodes that pull some part of his past into focus, and those tend to be at the start and end of each season.

Despite that, my favourite Nate moment is in The Studio Job, episode 34. Nate is isolated from the group, left with two guards who are there to work him over – and when we come back to him, he’s sitting there, in his chair with two unconscious guards. The only explanation we’re left is from Nate –

“These two guys got in a fight.”

 

In Defense of Glee

I quite liked Glee, Season 1.

I understand there’s a certain cultural cringe that comes from it. There’s a lot to dislike, certainly in its place in a greater whole. After all, most everything you’d complain about for any given mass-media capitalist entity still exists here, with slightly more representation and effort put into a few characters but we can also dismiss those as not good enough or sincere enough or whatever.

Still, when you sweep aside the purity tests and also dismiss the cruft of what Glee became, complete with a sad tombstone for one honestly, fairly unremarkable actor who struggled with everything that those former structural problems exacerbated, and just look at Glee season 1 as a complete story, I like it. Specifically, I like how it ended.

There’s a lot going on in Glee, and the framing device is pretty simple: It’s a universe where ridiculous people take unimportant things way too seriously. It’s a high school story that paints high school in terms of melodrama, not in terms of gritty, grungy reality like many other high school stories aim for. This is something I really like, because any high school experience you can imagine was definitely different to mine, so these huge buildings full of hundreds of people, some of whom may never meet, where structural violence is a matter of difficulty of enforcement rather than actively encouraged social punishments, they might as well be Viking Longboats for all they feel real to me.

This creates this scenario full of characters with very minor but very real-seeming problems whose solutions to them are in some way over the top and lacking in communication – you get a sort of Greek Tragedy in the way very simple, structural plot points are put under pressure by people taking silly things way too far. The infidelity and distrust angles in the one ‘adult’ relationship that exists are – well, they’re silly, extremely so, and that silliness propogates outwards in how it gets solved.

The world of Glee is a world in which the character of the adults is melodramatic, nonsensical, and extremely childish, which is sort of how adults look when you’re a high schooler? It makes more sense to imagine them as fussy crybabies or outlandish caricatures than deal with them being people pulled by lots of conflicting, small forces that make everyday emotional labour harder.

And then there’s the ending – spoilers for a seven year old TV show episode follow, so sure, have a fold Continue reading

Leverage – An Introduction

A friend once said Leverage was ‘that show with all the competence porn.’

I have always been a fan of thieves in media. I don’t know why, perhaps it was a childhood love of Robin Hood (and trust me, when you live on Christian Replacement media, there’s a lot of takes on Robin Hood), but thieves, theives have always been cool. They’re a great way to do Cool Bad Things and be impressively skillful, without actually ‘hurting anyone.’ Beating people up was bad, but beating people up who were doing something wrong, that was okay.

Basically, I’ve always loved thief stories, and Leverage is one of the best thief stories. It’s one of the best thief stories over 77 episodes, each an hour long, and almost all of them as tight, self-contained stories told in the ‘dramedy’ vein. Here’s the short pitch so you can decide if you want to watch this show:

Leverage is a story about a group of disparate thieves pulled together by one honest man to try and use their abilities to go after people the system has failed. They start out unfocused, they become a family, and in the end you’re watching cool competent people pulling off sweet heists against people who deserve it.

With me still?

Great!

TV is a complicated business and you sort of have to decide where you’re going to spend your time and money and talent. Shows like Game of Thrones get to stretch their grotesque breadth because of an enormous budget, with sloppy dangling bit of stories which you need to follow up on or infer around or whatever, and soap operas have a smaller budget they stretch by reusing actors and scenes and setpieces. In Leverage’s case, the cast is basically made up of Hey It’s That Person actors from series you’ve seen before, never really given the chance to show themselves off.

The nature of Leverage is a compressed story. Characters have to present themselves quickly and get out to convey the much larger story – usually because most episodes want to show you three or four plot beats of a major story and give you time to move pieces around. So what Leverage spends its time and effort on is making those exchanges fun, personable and punchy. It’s a real treat – there’s very little wasted time, very little one-scene-meaning moments.

As for the things the stories tend to be about? It’s pretty simple. There’s a lot of very real things in the world that suck, legally, and Leverage is about the fantasy, the desperate romantic need, that someone out there is looking out for it. That anyone is there to catch the bad people, and maybe the bad people can suffer in the way they’re supposed to.

I’m gunna talk more about Leverage, and, because the series is fundamentally a series about the interplay between characters, in a dynamic you can enjoy, we’re going to do it character-by-character.

Blacklist’s Twist’s Piss

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I’ve watched all of the Blacklist that’s available on Netflix Australia right now, which is to say up to the end of Season 4, and I did so only, I can assume out of some sense of ridiculous obligation. Blacklist is a TV series that establishes itself with a strong premise, a robust opening, a promising cast of initial characters, and stands back, arms spread, saying watch this unfold.

I have now after all this watching, some information for you which must come after the fold, because somehow someone out there might be fancying No, I want to watch this show, without that knowledge, so it can surprise me. If that’s the case, friend, please, first of all, brace for disappointment, but, for your sake, here is the fold: Continue reading

Gravity Falls

Gravity_Falls_logo

Hey, why not let’s talk about something I really like. And I really like Gravity Falls, which is a cartoon show made by Disney, seemingly under a sort of duress. I mean, it’s a strange little piece of what I guess I can only really call rural urban fantasy, with a modern-day setting, complete with smart-phones and cars and despite that, it successfully manages to weave a multi-series conspiracy theory narrative that pulls together all sorts of wonderful stories from a variety of American folklore sources. I mean we’re talking alien crashes and roadside attractions and just general, all-purpose the weird and unsettling and paranoia-fuelling –

gah!

I have such a hard time talking about how good this show is because there really isn’t anything like it. I’ve called it glibly Tween Peaks, and I’ve invoked The X Files while talking about it but that doesn’t do the show justice because it’s so much smarter and so much better than both Twin Peaks and the X-Files. It’s coherent and it’s layered and its aesthetic is soaked through the whole thing, with this sort of beautiful postcard letters-from-the-road streetside ridiculousness. Rather than ignore the obvious and immediate concerns of the story space, like we do in most conspiracy narratives (why aren’t there any pictures of this), Gravity Falls uses its aesthetic and style – a small American roadside town – and its tone – comedy – to reinforce it. It’s a town full of weirdoes and that weirdness is part of the script. So much of the narrative folds back on itself, it’s just so dense with rewatchable traits…

And it’s also a super-sweet story about a wonky, fractured little family. It’s about a girl going through a boy-crazy phase, about a boy struggling with ideas of masculinity and family. It is also so enthusiastically itself. Even its cringe humour comes from a place of love.

So I guess what I’m saying is I really like Gravity Falls and wish I was better at saying that.

Happy Anniversary, Rokusaburo Michiba

Today, January 3rd, 2016, is the both the 85th birthday of Rokusaburo Michiba, the first Iron Chef Japanese, and the 20th anniversary of his retirement from that show.

michiba

I have loved this show since I was a teenager and it was screened on tv here. I used to sit down in my grandma’s bedroom, at a family gathering every week, and – sometimes with my cousins, sometimes without – I’d watch a dubbed episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and after that, Iron Chef. It was at first just a novelty – what the hell? – and then, slowly, it became something I wholly cared about.

Then I grew a little older and I went back and studied it a little – was that thing I liked really that weird? Well, guess what, it really was that weird. But once I was an adult I realised that no, this series wasn’t weird accidentally. I wasn’t sitting there and staring at the oddness of The Funny Japaneses. I was watching a deliberately performative form of media. It was real and it was fake, it was a competition played with ridiculous pieces. It was a pro-wrestling cooking show.

I fucking love Iron Chef.

And I love Iron Chef’s heightened, ridiculous, excessive love of the weird. Part of the weirdness is further alienated by a layering series of translations. See, on the one hand, you have the actual actions of the chefs and their personalities. Then layered over that, you have the commentary of Yukio Hattori, who’s very educated and aware of what he’s talking about, and then layered over that, you have the commentary of Fukui, who is explicitly trying to make this sound like baseball commentary, and then you have layering on top of that, the translators who are doing their damnedest to try and translate all of this squalling mess of guff, and then you have the dubbers, who, handed that translated script, are doing their best to convey the same emotions and maybe… just maybe at the end of that some of the original comes through.

The weirdness of Iron Chef for me is the juxtaposition of the Rokusaburo Michiba I perceived and the Rokusaburo Michiba I know. Because the guy I saw was a terrifying machine. He had the best record. He was in his sixties and he was cleaning the clocks of other, lesser chefs. He had the time to set aside, before the match started, time to just write a menu, which was like, a really supreme confidence show. What he prepared was often very impressive (in ways I didn’t understand) and he rarely had technical failures because what he was trying to do rarely used the weirder devices like the ice cream maker. He was the iconic terrifying Japanese samurai character – a traditionalist force, an old man who can just own the world around him because he’s been doing this for fifty years and he’s been good at it for forty.

Then I got older and learned that, even at that point in time, Michiba was the Wild and Crazy Kids of Japanese cuisine. That he was using French ingredients in the hypertraditionalist field of sushi preparation. That he was a grandfather and so often when the camera was pointing at him he was laughing and joking. That the cast loved him. That the camerapeople loved him. That when he had a heart attack, there were serious talks about cancelling the position out of respect for him. The he’s the one who picked out his sucessors because he wanted people to try new things, he wanted courage and boldness. That he, for all that he had projected a tower of emotionally reserved traditionalist terror… he was this really lovely, sweet guy.

I really like Iron Chef. And today, I remember this important event, where an old man survived a heart attack and had to set aside something he loved doing, in the name of his health and his family.

Thinking About Amorous Skunks

Ever heard of Tiny Toons? Tiny Toons. It was a cartoon, from the 90s. It was a youth-targeting reboot of the Looney Tunes media franchise, all those Merrie Melodies stories condensed down into a smaller, singular universe. While the original cartoons were targeted at adults, they had become something of a child’s product by the 90s, with this weird affect that jokes went over kids’ heads, and now they were mostly exaggeratedly silly, nonsensical slapstick comics. So, Warner Bros created this spinoff franchise and aimed more directly at kids.

I’m not going to say that Tiny Toons was amazing or anything but it sought to be reminiscent of the earlier generation of cartoons, using familiar characters, but reimagined. Now, one group of internet commentators, Cracked, put forward the idea of Bugs Bunny as some variety of genderqueer and pointed out that when the time came to reimagine Bugs for the 1990s, they needed two characters, one male, one female, to ‘properly’ represent Bugs. The same video then deliberately trips up on Elmira, the descent of Elmer Fudd, because hey, go out on a punchline but whatever.

Thing that’s been kicking around in my head on this is the relationship between another pair of characters in this scape; Fifi Le Fume and Pepe Le Pew.

Now, straight up, googling Fifi Le Fume gets you a host of fascinating pornography because, well, it would, because this is the internet and we have long since eroded the idea of respecting spaces that are important to children when it comes to porn, but what I find interesting is how when the time came to reimagine Pepe Le Pew, the character was changed to a girl. But more than that, Fifi was made to – broadly speaking – be attractive.

Thing is, Pepe Le Pew, straight up, was an asshole. It’s simplified somewhat when people joke about the discomfort in hindsight, but even if you remove the sexual element and suggest that his interest in the victim cat was just all g-rated smooches it’s still gross and invasive and cruel and bad. Like, the comedy was meant to derive from how funny it is that he didn’t realise she wasn’t interested. Like, the show’s intention was that he was an asshole, it just thought his kind of assholery was probably more acceptable than we would consider it today. And he isn’t emphasised as being particularly cute or attractive. Mostly, his face was coded to be expressive; he still had the tubby bean body of ‘cute but not adorable’ that the Looney Tunes favoured for a lot of character designs, the still-animal, but with human elements (unlike Bugs and Daffy, who were straight up meant to be human analogues with how their bodies were shaped). Ultimately, the comedy of Pepe was meant to derive from unwanted advances coupled with his complete indefatigability.

It’s pretty hard to find art of her that isn’t second-hand because the bulk of the internet is just… just a place of boners and strangeness, but, Fifi La Fume was rendered totally differently. First things first, even with the plasticity of face and body, she had rudimentary hips, a chest tuft and vague implications of a feminine chest, hair that fell over one eye, a style that at the time was kinda coded as being ‘sexy’ in cartoon characters. And it seemed to play out in her stories too, where she was represented as being a boy-crazy kinda girl, who was almost interesting, but her smell was an overwhelming dealbreaker. Add into this that Fifi could do stuff? Pepe was never coded as being capable of anything in particular, but Fifi was shown in numerous occasions as being both taller and stronger than many of the people around her.

It’s just an odd little happenstance. In the 90s we could tell that Pepe La Pew was a dickhead, and to try and bring his story forwards, we echoed those themes with a woman – but also in order to make that character funny rather than just tragic we had to add to her a lot.

A footnote: One of the stories about Fifi that really stuck with me is that she and Hamton, the kinda dumpy but goodnatured pig boy, appeared to get along pretty well. I hope that that’s the kind of story that can make some folk happy.

Today’s brief thoughts:

  • Azula and Ty Lee are two of the funniest things in the Avatar universe.
  • The University college literacy exam seemed pretty easy.
  • Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood‘s ending is a load of bullshit and chips.
  • I cannot say how very sick I am of prophecy as a storytelling device.
  • MOAR YAK