Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements

Avoid Lady Puzzles

One of the double-edged aspects of streaming services like Netflix is the fact that, in a sense, you’ve pre-paid for all the content it offers. That often means that when you stumble on some piece of obvious trash—like, say, The Cloverfield Paradox—at 1AM, the bar for pressing select is pretty low. After all, you’ve already paid for it, and you’re obviously looking to waste some of your life. And hey, every bad movie or TV show you watch actually amortizes the amount of money you spent on each bit of media. You have a duty to watch moar.

Now, I’ll pretty much watch anything with time travel in it, which is my thin excuse for having fired up When We First Met on Netflix the other night. I was aware of the film from a few scabrous reviews that took the film to task for its rapey-rapey premise (guy meets girl of his dreams, screws up and becomes her best friend [obviously, gross] while she meets and marries a perfect guy, then stumbles into a mystical time travel photo booth and gets the chance to relive the fateful night so they end up bangin’, which of course he pursues with stalkerish glee despite the fact that his crush is, you know, happy with her dude) which is basically Groundhog Day if it was all about nailing someone who thinks you care about them as a person.

Still, I watched it, which means I am partially responsible for the rapey romcoms to come. Sorry about that.

Let’s put aside the odious premise and the fact that When We First Met is just simply not that good (to be fair, the story does try to bury a less-rapey twist as the main character learns and grows; it’s just unfortunate that guys in bad SFF movies have to use the awesome power of space/time manipulation to try and score a lot before they can grow as people). I want to focus in on one particularly terrible aspect of the story that could be a lesson for guy writers everywhere: The Lady Puzzle.

The Lady Puzzle

Interestingly, Groundhog Day is itself guilty of Lady Puzzle Plotting, but it’s saved by it’s brilliance and a few other things we’ll get to. First, what is Lady Puzzling? In essence, it’s that story where a guy thinks that women are essentially Encrypted Sex Robots. If you want to sex a lady, you need the encryption code, which is generally imagined to be secret intimate knowledge of their likes, dislikes, and opinions. None of which is ever treated as, you know, the sacred inner life of a living being, but rather as bullshit you have to memorize like you’re passing a sophomore year bio exam.

In When We First Met, when our Hero figures out he’s traveled back in time to the day he first met the object of his totally-normal obsession, he weaponizes the years of intimate knowledge he’s gained about her by being her friend [again: gross] to anticipate her every desire. So you get idiot ball stuff like him asking her what her favorite cocktail is only to interrupt her before she can answer so he can parrot her favorite drink at her as if it’s his own.

The idea is, time travel or no, the secret to getting into a lady’s panties is figuring out the Secret Code that will uncross her legs. Like, claim to like the same music or politics that she does! Learn her odd and obscure hobbies and pretend to like them!

You could call this the Taylor Swift Gambit: “Find out what you want / Be that girl for a month.”

Worse, in the film this works. Sort of. In the first iteration, his creepy knowledge of everything about her does indeed get him back to her apartment, but he’s ruined by an earlier interaction which convinces the girl that he’s a creepy stalker instead of a magical male version of herself. Ha ha, subversion of tropes! Except, it was working. Now, ask yourself: If a stranger came up to you and started claiming all of your personal tastes as their own, would you be charmed, or alarmed? In a Lady Puzzle plot, they’re charmed, because ladies must follow programming if you’re giving them the correct input.

Groundhog Day For the Win

I am fond of saying that there are no bad ideas, only bad execution of ideas. So, why then does the Lady Puzzle aspect of Groundhog Day not get a razzie award? For one, the aforementioned brilliance of the movie; it’s sharp and insightful, unlike When We First Met. Second, the character of Phil Connors is presented as pretty much an asshole at the beginning of the story, so the fact that he would use his time loop powers in order to gather information on a lady and use it to crack her encrypted code isn’t surprisingand his evolution away from such behavior is thus affecting and emotionally powerful. In When We First Met we’re supposed to take the main character’s “niceness” at face valuehe’s really in love, yo, and so his antics as he tries to speak the magic words that will get him into her pants is just a manifestation of his desperation to build a life with her. That this is kind of the fundamentals of “Nice Guyism” is completely lost on the folks making this movie.

Finally, in Groundhog Day, the Time Loop Pickup Artist technique is shown to be only intermittently successful. Yes, Phil does manage to seduce one woman using the trick, but it fails spectacularly with the woman he really wantsover and over again. She reacts with increasing alarm and suspicion as he tries to construct the perfect evening that will lead to sexy time, culminating in an epic supercut of face slaps. It’s not until Phil leaves off and becomes his true self that he escapes his time loop and winds up with the girl.

To be fair, as alluded to earlier When We First Met does ultimately concede that the Lady Puzzle approach is a bad idea (spoilers, in the unlikely event you watch this movie, follow). After several failures, our hero realizes that his crush will never truly love him no matter how he manipulates reality, and slowly begins to realize that his crush’s roommate is actually the woman who has always been there for him, and with whom he’s had a true connection. It’s meant to subvert the whole Friend-zoney, Red-pilly vibe of the premise, but I’m not sure it’s entirely successful. You’ll have to judge for yourself … though I wouldn’t recommend it.

When writing stories, something else I don’t recommend? A Lady Puzzle plot. Somers out.

The Clicks

My wife, The Duchess, often gets irritated with me due to my reaction to celebrity sightings. We live near New York City, and are frequently there, so there’s a non-zero chance we’ll run across a famous person. When we do, invariably The Duchess doesn’t notice but I do, and my reaction is to wait about three blocks and then whisper to her that someone famous was hailing a cab or being raptured or something back there. The Duchess curses my name, turns, and races back to see if she can still see them.

I do this for three reasons: One, my wife’s rage and antics are amusing to me. Two, I think people are The Worst and thus cannot think of anything worse than strangers intruding on my life. And three, I don’t give a shit about celebrities, and there’s an unreasonable, ornery part of my personality that doesn’t want to feed their famewhore machines with my attention unless they’re performing for me like some sort of court jester or pet monkey.

The Clicks

I carry this attitude to the Internet, where the famewhoriest of famewhores all live. This translates to a truculent refusal to click on things that are very clearly designed to make me click on them—and this goes triple for things that are Outrage Machines, the sort of video or blogger presences that are there to be controversial and upsetting solely so middle aged idiots like me will rush to click on them and see what’s so terrible. So that we can then rush back to our own Internet backwater and write up breathless condemnations, defenses, hot takes, or other reactions. In an attempt to scoop up e second- and third-hand clicks in the wake of the flagship controversy.

The problem with my obstinate refusal to give these folks clicks is that it means I can’t actually see what’s casuing all the fuss.

In the past, if you watched some controversial thing or gave in and listened to something, you could often do so without rewarding the jackass that created it. These days, however, if I click on something just to find out why everyone’s so pissed off, I am in fact rewarding that jackass with a Click. But if I refuse to bestow that Click, then I can’t really judge for myself. It’s a very strange place to be, especially since I myself am out there with my virtual tin cup, begging for Clicks just like everyone else.

Does this mean we’re all living in an episode of Black Mirror? Probably. But as long as I don’t have to fuck any pigs, I’m okay with that.

The Last Mile

Pierre le Chat, 2003-2017

My cat died two weeks ago. I know that not everyone understands the curiously powerful emotional bond some folks forge with a pet, but I’ve always looked at it this way: These animals don’t choose to live with us, we do that for them for our own selfish reasons. In exchange, we owe them a good life. We owe them the basics, plus affection. I’ve always thought my role was to ensure they were never afraid, or unhappy.

And for 14 years, we managed that for Pierre. For 14 years that cat wanted for nothing, never doubted that he was loved, and knew nothing but security and the curious joys of a routine observed obsessively. And then we hit the Last Mile problem.

####

Pierre wasn’t my first cat to die. When I was a kid, my brother and I rescued a gray and white cat from a neighbor’s house; she was headed to euthanasia because their son had moved out and left the cat behind and they didn’t want her. So my brother and I took her in. We named her Missy, and Missy spent every night in my bed, purring away as if she knew she’d been saved. Ten years later, I was in college and Missy’s kidneys failed her, and I selfishly let my mother take care of her and when the time came to put her down I visited her at the Vet, scratched her ears, and left, and I look back now and feel like 19-year old Jeff was a coward.

20 years later, another cat had a stroke and literally died right there in the room. It was a terrible shock and we cried, but at least we thought he simply died. No suffering.

A few years later another cat hurt his paw, and had to have a claw amputated. He died on the operating table. Just never came out of the anesthesia. While I was bothered that his last memories were filled with fear and confusion being in a place he hated with people he didn’t know, at least I thought he died while unconscious.

####

Pierre had heart disease. Heart disease in cats is tough, because they often show zero symptoms. Pierre had lost weight, but he’d been fat and I’d spent years trying to find a diet approach to get him slimmed down a little, so for a long time I thought I’d simply finally hit on the right dietary approach. He wasn’t diagnosed until 2 months before he died, and throughout those 2 months he still seemed more or less normal. He was hungry, affectionate, and occasionally playful. We thought maybe the medicine would make him feel stronger and he might gain back some weight. We thought it was reasonable, based on his behavior, that he might go another few years on the meds.

Then one night he couldn’t go to the bathroom, and started breathing very heavily, and wandering the house restlessly. Twelve hours later we made the painful decision to put him down. His last few hours were awful; this roly-poly, delightful cat just lay on the floor, gasping, foaming, staring. And that’s the Last Mile problem: We gave Pierre 14 great years. But his last 12 hours were awful. He didn’t die in peace, in a warm bed surrounded by those who loved him. He died in a exam room, with an IV line in him, afraid and in much discomfort. We were there petting him, but I’m not sure how much that helped.

####

As you get older, and enough people and pets die on you, you start to realize that this is true for most of us. We have control over our lives and can make ourselves happy and comfortable until the Last Mile, when it all goes to shit. When the end comes, it often comes suddenly, surprisingly, and with a violence and pain that is shocking to all involved. As a kid I was taught by TV and movies that people tended to die in ways that allowed for catharsis—for final speeches, for confessions, for closure.

Maybe this happens sometimes; I mean, apparently people also sometimes spontaneously combust, so anything is possible. My experience is that this doesn’t happen. Death comes and it’s chaos and confusion and before you know it you’re getting a call from the hospital or the palliative care place and you’re rushing to get there before the end. Or you’re being told by a veterinarian that you should seriously consider putting your cat out of its misery. At that point, you have choices, but no control: Every choice leads to more suffering, except one.

You can control an animal’s existence for optimal comfort, health, and affection, until you can’t. The Last Mile will always defeat you. Someday the Last Mile will kick in for me, too. I’ll be able to compensate for life’s little tricks with medicines, therapies, and lifestyle changes, until I can’t. And the Last Mile will be as terrible for me as it for every other creature.

####

Life goes on. We adopted a new kitten in honor of our departed buddy, as we’ve done before, seeking to convert grief into a small, good thing. This kitten has a Last Mile waiting for it as well, but hopefully not any time soon. In the mean time, I will write novels and take trips and eat great dinners, I’ll kiss my wife and shake hands and hug friends, I’ll watch great movies and laugh at great jokes. Life goes on. Until it doesn’t.

Pierre, February 2004

“American Vandal” and the Art of Parody

Look at all the dicks indeed.

Netflix’s American Vandal is a good show, a pitch-perfect parody of both true-crime documentaries in the vein of Serial and Making a Murderer and mysteries in general. It’s also kind of hilarious. This is a show, after all, that concerns itself with an act of vandalism that sees bright red penises painted on 27 cars. This is a show that uses WHO DREW THE DICKS as a catchphrase, hashtag, and secret handshake.

Here’s what American Vandal does 100% right: It comes from a place of affection for the very things it’s making fun of.

The Right Way

A lot of parody gets this part wrong. A lot. People tend to parody stuff they despise, because they need to channel that rage somewhere, but that sort of parody is rarely funny. It tends to go for the jugular with a viciousness and blackly humorless violence that simply doesn’t translate into anything entertaining. Look at all the Trump-centric parodies out there; you might agree with the sentiment, but they are rarely actually funny.

That’s because the authors of such parodies don’t actually like what they’re trying to mock. But American Vandal does. You can tell from the fantastic attention to detail; not only do they get the rhythms of these documentaries exactly right, they also get the rhythms and tone of high school life, the varied look and feel of different Internet services, and the way a mystery works right.

And that’s the key to it’s success, really; it offers a well-constructed mystery, populated by interesting characters, and it takes its universe seriously. When characters are funny, they are funny because of their personality traits and quirks, not because the creators are just mercilessly mocking them and making them into strawmen and caricatures. The fact that every charcter in the Vandal universe takes the mystery and its surrounding subplots seriously is why the show clicks. This is best demonstrated by the simple fact that they demonstrate real stakes: The accused dick-drawer, Dylan, faces being held accountable for $100,000 in damages, likely felony criminal charges, and the ruination of his college ambitions. Dylan is bit of a dick, it’s true, and in the early episodes he’s played for laughs as this dumb, self-absorbed prankster (we all knew a Dylan in high school, seriously). But as the show goes on his predicament is shown to be really terrible. Being accused of drawing the dicks could ruin his life (and kinda does, anyway).

Those stakes are key. It shows that everyone in the show is taking it all very seriously, and so the mystery works, and so the parody works. Coming at a humorous subject with disdain isn’t a recipe for hilarity. You have to come at it from a place of affection.

“Halt and Catch Fire”: The Beauty in Failure

Spoilers, because fuck spoilers. You been warned.

The fourth and final season of Halt and Catch Fire, the show least likely to make four seasons in the history of all shows, has gotten a fair bit of attention for sheer simple quality. Of course, part of the reason there have been so many love letters to the show this month is the unlikely nature of that quality; the first season of HAFC wasn’t exactly terrible, but it was decidedly meh, to use a technical term. And so a million Think Pieces were born this year when the unlikely fourth season turned out to be a pretty fantastic story about characters that fans have come to enjoy, against all odds.

Other people have written persuasively about how this show, so mediocre in its beginning, came to be so highly regarded among the very, very small audience it managed to build. For me, though, what I came to really appreciate about HACF is simpler: Everyone on this show was a failure, and the show decided to find the beauty in that.

Beautiful Failures

The fake-out of HACF is that it presented its characters as brilliant, and we as the audience were well-trained to accept that even if we didn’t quite buy it. After all, most characters in prestige dramas are presented as special, and the audience is supposed to go along with it (see Don Draper, Walter White, literally everyone else).

The main characters as presented in season 1 were all primed to be secret geniuses: Joe MacMillan, the tortured mystery man modeled so obviously on Don Draper, who has an audacious plan to manipulate two companies into building a market-defining personal computer; Cameron Howe, brilliant but socially-screwed young programmer; Gordon Clark, brilliant engineer simmering with rage at the compromises of his life and where they’d landed him; Donna Clark, brilliant engineer frustrated by the limitations of being a woman in a tech world dominated by assholes.

It should have been the story of these eclectic geniuses as they conquered the world. Instead, it’s the story of people failing upward and ultimately letting go of their dreams. And that’s the genius of the show.

They don’t build that incredible computer; instead they build an adequate machine that sells well enough to make some money, and destroy the company they work for in the process. They go on, in subsequent seasons, to be smart enough to anticipate the Internet, social media, and the World Wide Web, but they’re never able to move quickly enough or be brilliant enough to actually invent the amazing things. Someone else comes out with the Macintosh. Someone else builds AOL. Someone else builds Netscape. Our lovable losers are always a day late and a dollar short.

And the beauty of the final season is that they all accept this, to a point. Now, none of these people are failures in a conventional sense; they all participate in enough startups and product launches to be relatively rich and well-known by the end of the show’s run. Donna is a very successful partner at a venture capital firm. Joe has had a piece of several lucrative businesses that were bought out by bigger, better competitors. Cameron had a career as a game designer and is more or less widely regarded as something of a genius in the field.

Gordon, of course, is dead, but he was head of a successful if not world-changing company and had a fair amount of money.

But none of them had accomplished what they most wanted: Change the world, come up with “the thing” that changed everything. Their ideas always curdled into semi-success. Money, sure. Some sales. The sort of resume most people would love. But not the thing. As the show ended, Joe becomes an educator, finally realizing that this is what he’s wanted all along, to shape and mold the future. Gordon, as I mentioned, is dead, but before his death he’d achieved a quiet dignity in realizing his own limitations as a person, growing less angry and more giving as he gave up trying to assert himself as a genius. Donna and Cameron are about to embark on a new venture, it’s strongly implied, but they’re doing so out of a sense of excited connection, not because they think they’re going to change the world. They know they probably won’t, but they’re excited to work together again, a small-scale ambition.

That‘s what this show got right: Most of us, we don’t invent, or write, or compose the thing. We might have success, and we might do all right financially, but we don’t get the thing. Almost no one does. And HACF is one of the few shows to ever understand that a story about people not getting the thing could be great.

Because that story is almost universal.

Be Prepared

You have no idea what men of power can do.

After Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed the bottom half of my house and cost a bazillion dollars to recover from, I went on a small-scale preparation tear. You always prepare for the last war, or in this case the last natural disaster, so no doubt all my efforts are in vain, but I figured the only thing worse than not being prepared for an unknowable disaster was not being prepared for a disaster you knew full well was possible.

So, my disaster prep was more or less dictated by our experience during Sandy. We bought RTE food because the grocery stores and restaurants were closed for a week. We bought battery-operated water alarms in case the flood came while we were asleep. We bought flashlights that double as lanterns. We bought jugs of water. We bought a huge 7,000 RPM generator because the power was off for a week. I got a propane model with an electric starter because pulling that fucking ripcord is for people who have some level of physical fitness, and I don’t need to be out in the rain crying because I’ve been pulling that fucking cord for three hours and my hands are bleeding.

I realize that other folks suffered much worse—and other folks are suffering much worse right now in some areas. We were lucky, even if it didn’t feel that way at the time.

Of course, I’m generally speaking an incompetent man. Despite being an Eagle Scout, I am not very good at the whole be prepared schtick. Or I should say I’m very good at being physically prepared in the sense of having the tools and materials you’re supposed to have, but not very good at making those things work in an emergency. It’s like when I was in the Boy Scouts: I technically knew how to build a shelter out of leaves and branches, how to make a fire. But any time I had to actually attempt those things under pressure, it was what scientists call a shitshow. Much like my entire Boy Scout career, ha ha! (bursts into PTSD tears).

And so when the power went out at the Somers Compound in Hoboken recently, I began to sweat. Because I was going to have to use the generator.

The Leviathan

I live in an attached rowhouse with 0 ground-level outdoor space. That’s right, 0. No yard. We do have a second-floor deck that is quite nice, but the house is 100% lot coverage as a result of 1970s/1980s-era Hoboken wheeling and dealing; this town used to be the Wild Fucking West when it came to zoning and work permits. So when I ordered our generator I figured we’d put it on the deck, NBD. Except the generator weighed like 5,000 pounds and appeared to be made of solid pig iron, or possibly be merely a habitat for several dozen incredibly dense beings of pure energy. A friend of mine helped me carry it up to the deck, but I was already sweating the Judgment of The Duchess.

My wife, The Duchess, is a sweet and lovely woman who long ago accepted my incompetence as part of the Price of Loving Jeff. My cheerful inability to manage simple tasks just amuses her, these days (there was a brief period of trying to shame me into competence, but it was a long time ago and I emerged as cheerfully useless as ever). A side effect of this, of course, is that anything I claim will work she immediately assumes will not. It’s that simple. And so she took one look at the generator and assumed it would either a) never be needed, making it a waste of money or b) never actually work, making it a waste of money.

Years go by. The generator sits there. I fire it up every now and then and let it run a few minutes. But I’m haunted by all those fires I couldn’t start as History’s Worst Eagle Scout (aka the Eagle Scout who Smoked and Drank a Lot and Faked His Way Through at Least 50% of His Merit Badges), and I knew someday the lights would go out and The Duchess would suggest that it might be time to run the generator … and I worried I wouldn’t be able to get it going.

And then the lights went out when The Duchess had a huge project to finish that required the Internet.

Dead Squirrels

The lights went out due to two adventurous but doomed squirrels who blew up two transformers on the block within a few days of each other. The poor things were splattered everywhere, and the lights went out for about four hours. The Duchess began to freak about her project, and so I went to fire up the generator just to get the Internet back up. Every step made me nervous, because this was the pattern of my life: A decently reasonable idea about how to stay alive during a non-emergency like a few inconvenient hours without Netflix magically transformed into humiliation. I opened up the gas line, adjusted the choke, and hit the starter button.

And nothing happened. I knew then I would have to simply climb down from the deck in my bare feet and start walking, starting a new life wherever I happened to find myself. My new name would be Derek, I thought, and I would live a simple life without any sort of electricity as a sort of penance for this. I would certainly never be able to face The Duchess again. She would force me to carry the generator down the stairs by myself while she taunted me with cruel insults.

I adjusted the connections to the battery and tried again, and the generator fired up. Five minutes later we were the only house on the block with electricity, and I felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway when he makes fire for the first time.

What does this prove? Nothing. I didn’t engineer the generator, extract and process the propane, or do anything except press a button. But believe me, pressing a button is so often beyond my capabilities it was still a momentous occasion, and I wondered, briefly, if maybe I did, after all, deserve this Eagle badge.

Probably not, but a man can dream.

SKIP INTRO is Why I Live in the Future

If you have a Netflix subscription (or are borrowing someone else’s), you’ve likely noticed the new “Ship Intro” option whcih allows you to, say, not watch the goddamn credits sequence for Friends for the 5,000th time. There have been some think pieces about this new feature that lament the loss of credit sequences, noting that a few such sequences (Bojack Horseman is mentioned as an example) actually make watching the intro worthwhile.

Hogwash. The SHIP INTRO feature is the greatest thing invented this week.

I grew up in the era of Awful TV. I had four channels as a kid, didn’t get cable until I was 14, and our primitive VCR was a top-loader. If you don’t know what a top-loader is, or what a VCR is, or what cable is, you are one of the blessed, move along. My point is, when I was younger I not only had to watch the fucking credits, I had very little control at all over what I watched. It was pretty terrible.

The people who think SKIP INTRO is a bad thing are the same people who wish Times Square in New York City was still filled to the brim with prostitutes, drug dealers, porno theaters, and garbage. I remember taking a bus into New York while in high school and being propositioned by male prostitutes, so people who have affection for the old-school Times Square are idiots. I don’t care how awful the modern version is (and it is awful) I still wouldn’t go back.

SKIP INTRO of course still allows you to watch the damn intro if you have a reason to. It’s just that now you have a choice. You don’t have to watch the same scenes repeated over and over again, endlessly. It’s a glorious time to be alive, and I for one am very happy that the world’s greatest technical minds aren’t wasting time on cancer cures but rather finding ways to make my streaming video experience slightly more pleasant. More of that, please.

Room 104 and Bad Writing Decisions

Psychotic Breaks for Everyone!

I’m okay with the Duplass Brothers. I don’t love everything they do, but they’re interesting, usually surprising, and always kind of smart about their projects. Even when they slum in crappy movies or TV shows, they’re interesting. So, okay.

Room 104 is an anthology series created and largely written by the Duplass bros. Anthologies with conceits like this—every story takes place in the same nondescript motel room, at different times and eras—usually wind up being quite a mixed bag, but since it’s the Duplasses I figured, let’s check out the first episode, Ralphie.

SPOILERS. Oh, so many spoilers. I’m gonna, like, completely discuss the entire plot. So if you care about spoilers (you shouldn’t though) and want to watch this, stop reading … now.

The Story

These episodes are only 30 minutes, so the stories are going to be short and sweet. In Ralphie, a single dad calls a babysitter to Room 104 to watch his son, Ralph, while he goes on a date. The babysitter makes awkward small talk with the Dad while he gets ready to leave, Ralph won’t come out of the bathroom, the babysitter offers to show the Dad her references but he’s like, no need, babe, you look totally sane and cool.

After Dad leaves, the babysitter coaxes Ralph out of the bathroom. He’s a sleepy kid with a flat affect, and he warns her that Ralphie is in the bathroom and will come out and mess everyone up if they’re not careful. The kid is creepy, and when he claims she “woke” Ralphie, he runs into the bathroom. A moment later a kid who looks just like him emerges from the bathroom, shirtless, wearing a yellow cape, and screams I’m gonna get you! as he goes apeshit on the babysitter, who runs in shock and terror. Then Ralphie goes back into the bathroom and Ralph comes back out, all innocent and asking if she’s okay—did Ralphie “get” her?

Things calm down, and babysitter tries to coax the kid to go to sleep. Ralph wants to tell her about the time his mother committed suicide, which freaks her out, and then Ralph says that was a joke—actually, Ralphie totally killed his mom, and now he’s terrified Ralphie will kill him. Babysitter is totally freaked, then Ralph claims Ralphie woke up again, goes back into the barthroom, and then … two kids emerge. Ralph, and Ralphie. Ralphie proceeds to go apeshit and strangles Ralph to death, then comes for the babysitter, exhibiting superhuman strength and nearly killing her before she gets the upper hand and strangles him.

Then Dad comes home, and there’s only one kid, and the babysitter totally murdered him. Except, the bathroom door suddenly slams on its own.

The Problem(s)

Stories are hard. And half an hour of screen time isn’t much. And sometimes you have a great idea for an ending or a premise and you lose sight of good storytelling to get there.

Based solely on the quick mention of her “references” that the Dad’s too horny to bother looking at, I think we’re supposed to assume that Babysitter is delusional, imagines Ralphie, and kills the kid for her own reasons. The problem? The show does no work to get us there. Babysitter is presented as nice enough, concerned, responsible, and timid—after all, when a small boy in a yellow cape attacks her, she doesn’t throw him across the room. She cowers behind the curtains.

Or perhaps there’s a supernatural element, but again there’s no work done to show how it affects Babysitter—she goes from kind of freaked out and unhappy to choking out a little boy in no time flat.

There are practical concerns, too. Ralphie apparently sleeps in the bathroom when he’s not murdering folks, which, okay; I can see a crazy kid coming up with that sort of “Superman” solution to his secret second identity. But didn’t Babysitter have to go to the bathroom at some point? Was there a kid in there or not? Or did she not hydrate at all that day and so sat for three hours without once needing to pee?

Nice Touches

This isn’t to say the story wasn’t entertaining. The tone and mood were creepy AF, and there were some nice grace notes—like the aforementioned references, the way the episode opened on the Dad sitting on the bed of the room with his head in his hands like he knows he’s living a nightmare, the mileage gotten from a closed bathroom door. This isn’t terrible, but it’s sloppy. It’s all sizzle and no steak.

Luckily, anthologies offer something new every week, so let’s keep watching and see what happens.

On Strike Against Blackouts

The time has come to make a stand. There are many possible stands I could take. I could decide that flavored whiskies must be destroyed in the marketplace. Or that haircuts are a form of oppression. But the stand I have chosen to make is to protest against the Blackout Ending.

What’s a Blackout Ending? It is often referred to as The Sopranos Ending. You know, where everyone was on the edge of their seat waiting to see if Tony was going to get shot in the head while eating onion rings with his family, and then the screen cut to black and David Chase basically stuck his thumb into your eye? Here’s a screenshot:

I especially love the blocking in this shot.

This should also forever be known as the only time anyone will ever be allowed to do this in the age of Prestige Television, by dint of being the first to do it. And also because I believe Chase did the heavy lifting in the editing and construction of that final sequence to earn his Blackout Ending. You can sift through the cuts and actually make a case for what happened, so I am inclined to give him a Mulligan on this and allow it.

Everyone else who’s done it since? Fuck you, you lazy writers.

The Lady? Or the Tiger?

The ending that isn’t an ending, or the Anti-Ending, isn’t new. The most famous example is probably The Lady, or The Tiger? by Frank Stockton, published in 1882. Anyone who attended at least one decent school probably read this story at some point. If you didn’t, it’s time to reflect on the terribleness of your education. But, that said, it’s not a good story. It’s well-written, but its fame comes from its non-ending, when Stockton basically asks the reader what they think just happened. It cuts to black. It’s bullshit. It was ever bullshit, and it ever remains thus.

Since The Sopranos, other shows have tried this trick, most recently Fargo on FX, which ended with the villain and the hero sitting in an interrogation room, arguing over what was going to happen next. Cut to credits, and we never found out. There are a lot of arguments that this is a perfectly acceptable way to end a story. That it encourages people to come up with their own endings, to study the episodes before and decide what happened.

This is what Literary Scientists call bullshit.

Yes, those arguments are valid enough. And some people like these sorts of endings, arguing that anything the writers came up with would be disappointing. And certainly a lot of endings are disappointing—most notably endings that just cut to black like that. But

  1. The Sopranos gets a pass because it was the first TV show in the modern era to pull this trick. Points for surprise.
  2. The Sopranos gets a pass because, as mentioned, Chase put the work in to seed that sequence with clues that, taken together, point towards a reasonably certain conclusion

Every other show since then is just giving up and saying ¯\_(?)_/¯ as an ending. Listen, I have approximately 5,001 unfinished novels on my hard drive. If this is what we’re doing, I can publish about 5,000 of them immediately. I’ll just cut off the last chapter mid-sentence and let you all bastards figure out what happened.