Someone Else’s Writing

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.

“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.

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.

“Fargo” and The Relativity of Evil

One of the best tricks I get asked about when I talk to aspiring writers is how to make a despicable, perhaps even an evil character likable. This is usually in reference to Avery Cates, who is an assassin and a guy who uses casual violence, even against his friends, to assert himself. Cates is sometimes charming, or funny, or sympathetic, but he’s also always an asshole, so it can be challenging to make readers like him.

There are two main ways to accomplish this. One is to punish the character. Avery is a Bad Actor, but he gets tortured, imprisoned, beaten, and screwed over so often his violence never actually gets him anything aside from short-lived triumph. This makes him a little more sympathetic.

The other way is a slower burn, and it’s something that Noah Hawley is doing in the third season of Fargo on FX: Make everyone else worse. Spoilers be comin’.

The Relativity of Evil

In Fargo, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Nikki Swango, a hard-edged ex-con who takes a practical approach to getting by. Nikki has genuine love for her Parole Officer, Ray Stussy (Ewan MacGregor), and she isn’t such a terrible person. But she does encourage Ray to commit several crimes in pursuit of some stake money, setting in motion some awful events—and when one of Ray’s plots brings a dimwitted, violent man into their lives, she doesn’t hesitate for even a second to murder him via air conditioner.

You read that right.

Death by Air Conditioner is No Way to Go.

Nikki’s not a nice person. She’s a schemer and a murderer and a bit of a grifter. But by episode 7 of the season, Nikki is a character you feel sympathy for. She’s been brutally beaten. Her fiancé is (SPOILERS) dead. She’s been falsely accused of the murder and an attempt was made to assassinate her. All of this helps you to put aside the fact that she dropped a fucking air conditioner on someone.

But what really works to put Nikki’s crimes into perspective are the other villains on the show. Mr. Varga and his henchmen are truly evil, terrifying people who have very little empathy or value for human life. Compared to them, Nikki Vango is not so bad. Her violence is only unleashed to protect herself or her lover, and while I would not, say, want to be in business with Nikki (or living next door to her) she’s not an inhuman monster (or a force of nature, a concept Fargo likes to play with) like the others.

So, air conditioner or not, Nikki has become one of the people you wish survive the story—a feat any writer ought to be able to pull off.

Why I Haven’t Watched the New “Twin Peaks”

It’s 1989 all over again.

I can only assume you all spend about 104% of your time watching entertainments, because otherwise I have no idea how you’ve all already watched everything. I mean, seriously: These TV shows require hours and hours of your time. Are people really bingeing through 10 hours of a show and then shuffling to work at the Emergency Room, where they sew a few sponges into my abdomen and nod off during lunch?

When I was a kid, I was a huge Twin Peaks fan. Yuuuugggggee. I can still remember the moment Dale Cooper had his first dream vision, and I was god-damned mesmerized. I can also remember watching the Season Two finale with some friends in a rented house at college; there was a storm raging outside and I was white knuckled terrified during that ending sequence. Twin Peaks was ridiculous and overwrought and deeply silly, but damn it was good stuff.

I haven’t watched the new version on Showtime. Because life is short.

Down to My Final Trillion Seconds

As far as I know, I’m going to die someday. And based on my functional alcoholism, that time is likely much closer than I might like to think. Which means I have to use my time wisely, which means, put simply, that I no longer make time to watch things live. I DVR them, I order them on-demand, I download them from the Internet. And I only do that if the reviews and think-pieces make it seem worthwhile.

So, maybe the new Twin Peaks is great. Maybe it’s terrible. Time will tell, and I’ll be waiting until it does, because I only have so much time to spend on fictions and entertainments. And considering that we have this power—to vet our entertainment before we spend/waste time on it—why don’t we? Just seems foolish to commit 2 hours to Twin Peaks Mark 2 before I even know if it’s any good.

I could be spending that time drinking, is what I’m saying.

Celebrating “Mad Men”‘s Least-Celebrated Character

Paul Kinsey’s Very Bad, Super No-Good Life

Since this blog has become a receptacle for posts about Mad Men and other so-called “peak TV” shows plus a smattering of self-promotion posts about my own writing … let’s lean into it.

There’s often a sense that old TV shows should be buried and forgotten, as if there’s shame in discussing a show like Mad Men a certain time after it’s ended. Hell, we still discuss novels written centuries ago, so why not a TV show that’s less than a few years gone? But when we talk about Mad Men—and, remarkably, we still do, an awful lot—there’s a tendency to focus on the flashy main characters, naturally enough. But we have enough essays about Don Draper, I think. As writers, we tend to focus on Don, because he’s so obviously like us: Creative, tortured, stymied by the very instruments of his success.

Forget Don, though, and let’s contemplate a character that doesn’t get much attention in any serious way: Paul Kinsey. Because, writers, in many ways Paul Kinsey is us.

The Failed Writer

Kinsey doesn’t get a ton of screen time on the show, and what he does get is used mainly for comic relief, but as usual Weiner and company shade the character with plenty of good writing. We know, for example, that Paul is from New Jersey and attended Princeton on a scholarship, where he lost his joisoy accent and learned how to dress and talk and fondle a pipe like his richer classmates. At the beginning of the series, he’s one of a group of young men at the firm, all of whom are more or less equal despite being in different departments. He’s a copy writer, though, while his peers are in accounts.

And Paul is not talented. What he’s good at is superficial mimicry, which is why he does well enough at first when his immediate boss is the alcoholic and incompetent Freddie Rumsen. But Paul is weak and likes to think of himself as smarter than everyone else, so he dabbles. He dabbles in the Beatnik movement, the Hippie movement, the Civil Rights movement. He feigns an appreciation of the finer things, but he uses this appreciation as an excuse to let everyone know how worldly he is.

Paul is increasingly aware that something is off. Late in Season 1, a play he wrote is discovered in his desk and his co-workers stage it as a drunken, cruel prank. Paul eventually leans into it, directing the play with enthusiasm, but it’s clear the play is terrible. Meanwhile, Ken Cosgrove actually publishes short stories in real magazines, and slowly Paul sees his peers outpacing him. Pete and Ken and even despicable, harebrained Harry Crane move up the food chain, making more money and gaining status. Paul remains a Copy Writer, and not a very good one.

And then, in the middle of Season Three of the show, Paul Kinsey has an epiphany and realizes he is not a good writer. Because Peggy Olson is a good writer, and you can almost pinpoint the moment he realizes he’s not one to episode 10, The Color Blue. In that episode Peggy and Paul compete to come up with the best idea for a telegram advertisement. Peggy does the work studiously, and doesn’t come up with much of any value. Paul drinks, masturbates, and has a flash of inspiration–which he forgets to write down. We’ll never know if that idea was actually any good, because Paul shambles into the meeting later with nothing—and watches, stunned, as Peggy takes a throwaway line he used to explain his problem and runs with it, producing a decent if not world-changing concept on the spot.

At that moment, Paul knows he’s mediocre. In episode 13, when Don and the rest of the executives steal all the accounts and form a new company, Don personally recruits Peggy. No one recruits Paul. When Paul realizes this, its confirmed: He’s not good at his job.

The Downward Spiral

We don’t see Paul again until Season 5, when he appears as a member of the Hare Krishna’s, looking ridiculous and pathetic and lost with a shaved head. Like most failed writers, he hasn’t given up on his dream. Like anyone who has ever been voted off a talent competition show, he has decided that we haven’t heard the last of him, so he’s still writing.

Paul’s spec script for Star Trek is the sort of awful SFF idea that still gets written every few weeks by flailing writers, the sort of terrible idea that will always be written by flailing writers. Worst of all, Paul seems to know that he doesn’t have talent, as he has pinned his hopes on Harry’s TV connections to get the script considered. Paul has descended to a low point: No longer in the ad business, he’s not even getting paid for his second-rate creativity. He’s got nothing, and yet he’s still plodding away at terrible stories.

That could be any one of us. Even if you’ve published, and published widely, you can’t be certain it’s not just luck, that history will slowly rub your face out of the picture until no one is quite sure who you are, and no one remembers the stories you told. In just 40 episodes and probably a collective hour’s worth of screen time, the writers of Mad Men made Paul Kinsey into a well-shaded, sad individual, and he ought to be the patron saint of anyone who joined their high school literary magazine and thought they were special because they wrote stories.

WestWorld May Be Too Clever for Its Own Good

Marsden is Either Bored or Constipated

Marsden is Either Bored or Constipated

So, I’ve been watching WestWorld on HBO. This enrages my brother, Yan, who more or less believes that all remakes, reboots, and reinterpretations are bullshit. The moment he learns that a remake is looming, he goes off on a rant about how no one writes new stories any more.

He’s not wrong, but he’s not right, either. HBO’s version of WestWorld is entirely different from the original film. Everyone has a lot of affection for the original, mainly because of Yul Brynner’s classic performance as the Gunslinger and because every young man who watched that film in the 1970s and 1980s immediately began thinking about Sex Robots.

There are plenty of Sex Robots in HBO’s WestWorld. There’s also a lot of video game stuff, because some clever bastard obviously thought that a place like WestWorld would basically be an IRL video game. So when a guest arrives in town it’s like being in a sandbox-style video game, where you have a main storyline, but there are endless side-quests you can get sucked into that add content and depth (and playing time) to the game. That’s all well and good. That’s interesting and quite clever for a modern reboot of the concept.

The downside? The god-damn Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and the god-damn cutscenes.

(more…)

“You’re the Worst” & Subtle Unreliability

It's Not Funny

It’s Not Funny

Used to be, things like unreliable narrators or breaking the Fourth Wall on television was a bold and uncanny thing to do. It shocked viewers who had been trained to rely on the narratives and narrators TV offered up. But as TV shows have gotten more and more novelistic in their approach, the Fourth Wall is getting demolished. And unreliable narration is almost assumed.

Novels, after all, don’t have a Fourth Wall. When you read a book the narrator’s voice is in your head, addressing you. You’re basically there, following everyone around. So when a TV show like Mr. Robot or Fleabag deletes the Fourth Wall, it edges closer to being a novel in visual form. When those narrators prove to be unreliable, it can still pack a punch, but often it’s easy to see. Who, after all, was at all surprised when Fleabag or Elliot turned out to be unreliable? No one who was paying attention. It still worked, it just wasn’t a surprise. Which is neither a good thing or a bad thing.

Another show that transcends typical TV comedy work is You’re the Worst, which could be a dumb show about trying to disgust the audience as much as possible with how truly terrible the characters are, but is just smart enough to back up off that level of depravity. The characters on You’re the Worst are in fact terrible people, but there’s just enough decency sprinkled in to keep your attention.

It’s also a show playing with unreliableness, which might come as a surprise, as it isn’t a show with a fixed POV or narrator, and always seems to be presenting these awful people more or less as they are. But the show has been revealed to be subtly unreliable because of S03EP05, “Twenty Two.”

Shitty Jimmy & Company

So, You’re the Worst, like most TV comedies, has a core cast who play specific roles. The main characters are Jimmy and Gretchen, two awful assholes living and striving in L.A. In their orbit are some friends: Shallow, monstrous Lindsey, her milquetoasty husband Paul, and Jimmy’s odd roommate Edgar. Other characters orbit at increasing distances from these. This is a pretty standard comedy setup: Main folks, second-tier characters, and a diaspora of decreasingly important characters.

What’s interesting about comedies is that there are funny folks and straight people. Straight people are often used to bring context—and in the case of You’re the Worst, the straight person is usually Edgar. Edgar has PTSD after his service in Iraq, and lives with Jimmy in exchange for acting as a cook, housekeeper, and general servant. In the past he regards Jimmy as his friend, but he is always somewhat disturbed by the callous and terrible nature of the people around him. His character serves as an important contrast, because he’s fundamentally decent, always means well, and registers his hurt when Jimmy and the others treat him awfully, which they always do. Without Edgar the show would be 100% assholes, and as anyone can tell you, a show that’s 100% assholes is Seinfeld, or Veep, and that only happens once a century or so.

So, Edgar’s usually not the funniest person on the show. He reacts, and sometimes he’s in funny situations, but he’s not actually all that funny. In fact, the show puts a button on this by having Edgar become involved with Improv Comedy, and be more or less terrible at it. He’s not funny, because he’s not the main character of the show.

Which becomes very interesting in “Twenty Two,” which is the first episode of the series from Edgar’s point of view. And it’s not really a funny episode. It barely has any jokes. Because suddenly we’re seeing it fro Edgar’s point of view, and the people around him aren’t hilariously callous—they aren’t hilarious at all. They’re just terrible people.

What If You’re Just a Character in My Sitcom?

This is interesting because it forcibly reminds the audience that in the previous episodes of the series, they’ve been seeing everything from the main characters’ POV. From Jimmy and Gretchen and Lindsey’s POV, everything is hilarious, because they’re the center of the show. Their POV dominates everything. Yes, they can sometimes see the pain and suffering of others, but it’s marginalized, distant, and easily ignored.

The audience of course always identifies with the main characters; we can’t help it. Even the Walter Whites of the world, we want them to succeed. To survive. It’s human nature.

So “Twenty Two” shifts away and offers us Edgar’s POV, and suddenly the people we’ve been laughing at and with, the people who we unconsciously regard as the protagonists of this story, are revealed to be braying, not-particularly-funny assholes. And Poor Edgar, rather than being a supporting player in a comedy, is the lead actor in a tragedy, and we’ve been watching him for dozens of episodes without a thought, and that makes us complicit assholes as well.

It’s a sobering, exciting moment. While Fleabag‘s cheeky glances and funny asides and Mr. Robot‘s paranoid lectures might be flashier and more obvious breakings of the Fourth Wall and reliability, You’re the Worst‘s is more powerful, because even as you watch it some time goes by before you realize you’ve just seen a complete shift not just of POV but of tone, inviting you to realize that your impression of the show has been carefully managed all along, and you’re part of it.

You’re always part of it.