Tag Archives: television

Television: His Dark Materials, “Lyra’s Jordan”

Yeah, yeah, I’m a week behind because I hadn’t realized the show had already begun airing. Lovely think about television these days is that if you miss an episode, you no longer have to wait for a rerun. I’m old enough to remember a time before that, a time when if you wanted to record a show you had to have a blank tape and VCR. Yeah, I’m old.

First things first: I did read The Golden Compass once many years ago and it left very little impression on me. I never even bothered with the subsequent books. I don’t know what it was about that book that failed to grab me; I remember almost nothing about it except the big bear and a vague sense of not liking any of the characters, which is probably why I didn’t want to spend any more time with them. So I won’t be comparing this to the books because I remember so little of the one I read, which is actually kind of nice because I’m coming at this relatively fresh and unbiased.

This episode, which is the first of the series, begins with a lot of title card reading. Stuff like that always gives me pause because if the screenwriter and director couldn’t accurately convey the world in the, you know, actual film part, maybe they shouldn’t be adapting this material? Any movie, or even book, that requires that much information before it even gets started… needs to be rethought. Viewers (and readers) aren’t entirely stupid. They can figure things out without you having to bury them in pre-info.

That aside, I did find this a relatively engaging series premiere. James McAvoy plays Lord Asriel, an explorer who leaves a baby named Lyra in the care of Jordan College in Oxford. (Note that this is an alternative dimension to our world, meaning some things are familiar and some things aren’t. For instance, everyone has a “daemon,” which is basically their soul, but in the form of an animal outside their body.) There seems to be a prophecy around Lyra, because of course there is. She grows up none the wiser and at around age 12 is selected to become the assistant to Ms. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). Meanwhile, children have been disappearing, including Lyra’s friend Roger. Ms. Coulter promises Lyra that once they reach London she will help find Roger (and, possibly by extension, other missing children as well).

Before Lyra leaves with Ms. Coulter, the Master of Jordan College gives her an alethiometer, a device that—once Lyra can figure out how to work it—will tell her the truth. It’s something she must keep hidden because it’s illegal to possess without permission from the Magisterium. Of course, the first time that Lyra tries to use it, it doesn’t work. Why the Master couldn’t tell Lyra how to use it is unclear. Probably because he wanted to be sure there was more tension in the plot.

There is also a plot involving Lord Asriel’s explorations into something called “dust,” and the fact that the Master of Jordan College tried to poison him… This seems fundamentally to be a disagreement between the Magisterium and science/academia. Which is to say, a fight between religion/faith and hard facts.

Bottom line is that Lyra is a chosen one and the fate of the world as everyone knows it seems to depend on her choices. *yawn* I’m so over these kinds of stories, AND YET… I did really enjoy this, surprisingly so. It’s nicely done, and while I don’t love any of the characters, I don’t dislike them as much as I did when reading them. If that makes any sense? There is a real sense of dread around the kidnappings, and the central mysteries are set up well, designed to draw the viewer along. I’ll definitely watch the next episode at least.

Television: The Politician, “Pilot”

I read a description of this show somewhere that said something like: “Ryan Murphy Ryan Murphys harder than he ever has before,” and that feels like an accurate description. Thing is, I only sorta like Ryan Murphy’s work. Couldn’t get into Glee, only enjoyed a couple seasons of American Horror Story. Did enjoy the first season of Scream Queens but dropped the second pretty quickly. Liked the OJ Simpson thing, couldn’t invest in Gianni Versace. So my history with Murphy is patchwork. I’m waiting to see which way this show will go for me.

So far I’ve only watched the first episode. In the first few minutes I felt like I probably wasn’t going to like it, but it grew on me as things progressed. However, I really can’t buy these actors as high schoolers. They are so clearly much older.

In a nutshell, The Politician is about Payton Hobart, an adopted child whose singular desire in life is to become president. He’s done huge analysis on it, has decided he must get into Harvard because Harvard has produced the most presidents. And he’s gunning to become class president to help pad his college applications and lay the groundwork for his plans. But his friend (and sometimes lover) River is running against him. And when [SPOILER FOLLOWS] River commits suicide, his girlfriend blames Payton and takes up the reins of River’s campaign. [END SPOILER]

Payton has a group of “advisors” and a would-be “first lady” helping him. Murphy favorite Jessica Lange is on hand as the grasping mama of a cancer-stricken girl Payton chooses as his running mate (for selfish reasons, natch). Gwyneth Paltrow is Payton’s adoptive mother. The cast here is solid, though the advisors are thus far without individuality. Maybe they get character arcs later in the series.

I was most interested in River, but per the above spoiler, that seems misplaced and futile.

In short, I’m intrigued. But seeing as I’ve only watched the pilot, and considering my checkered history with Murphy’s work, I’m reserving full judgement.

On Decoding

Monty Python had a skit in which Graham Chapman was a guest on a talk show, and when he was introduced as “Raymond Luxury Yacht,” Chapman gently corrected, “It’s spelt ‘Luxury Yacht’ but it’s pronounced ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove’.” It’s a funny punchline not only because the names are so ridiculous but because it’s seemingly out of nowhere; who reads ‘Luxury Yacht’ as ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove’? Those letters don’t make those sounds, not even in a liberal interpretation. Right?

I promise I’m not changing subjects when I mention that, in getting a degree in cultural media studies, we talked a lot about encoding and decoding texts (“texts” being our word for any film or television, whether a scene, an episode, or an entire series). It’s simple, if narrow-minded, to say there’s only one correct way to interpret something. It’s facile, however, to say there’s no wrong way to do so. You can’t [reasonably] look at ‘Luxury Yacht’ and decide it really means ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove.’

Almost anyone who went to school has a story of a lit teacher who had very fixed ideas about the symbolism or imagery in a book or poem. Something they’d been taught, or something they especially felt invested in for whatever reason… Maybe they’d read a biography of the author and had drawn a conclusion based on information about the writer’s life. Whatever. Film and television fans can be just as aggressively rigid about how they see and interpret what they watch. And the more they love a show or movie, the more they dig in. At least in my experience. If and when another viewer, or even a writer or actor or producer on the show or movie, contradicts them, these fans double down. They insist that their reading of the text is valid. (Sometimes they insist that theirs is the only valid interpretation.)

The wonderful thing about books and films and television programs is that they are open to a variety of insights, and once they leave the authors’ hands, the writers (and actors, and directors, and producers) no longer truly own them. What’s encoded is one thing, but what’s decoded is truly personal and therefore necessarily biased. This is why fans fight so hard—because validation of their reading is a kind of validation of self.

BUT. As with Luxury Yacht vs. Throatwobbler Mangrove, not all interpretations are reasonable. In this day and age, when people readily consider their personal opinions to be as valid as hard facts, this statement can be difficult to swallow. Yes, you are allowed to see whatever patterns you like in the wallpaper, but sometimes the patterns really aren’t there, no matter how much you insist they are. You’re desperate for the wallpaper to be yellow stripes—you love yellow stripes—but if it’s pink flowers… Trying to convince others it’s really yellow stripes is a waste of time and energy. You’re only going to end up frustrated and angry because you’re trying to turn what’s there into something that it isn’t.

This is, one supposes, where the joy of fan fiction comes in. When writing fanfic, one can change the wallpaper and make it whatever one wants it to be because there really are no rules. If you want to pronounce Luxury Yacht as Throatwobbler Mangrove, in fanfic you can. You might even find other fans who will nod and say, “That’s a neat way to read it.”

As for the primary text, the source text, whatever you want to call it… There are rules. They’re pretty flexible, but they do have limits. In sketch comedy, you can turn Luxury Yacht into Throatwobbler Mangrove. But if you were watching an actual news program and someone said that? It wouldn’t fly.

Television: Good Omens

Good Omens is fairly high on my list of favorite books; my cat Crowley bears the name of one of the main characters. (Most people assume the name is from Supernatural, but I haven’t seen that show.) How delighted was I, then, when David Tennant was cast as Crowley? Off the charts, really, and he does a spectacular job opposite Michael Sheen as Aziraphale.

I’m not sure I can adequately encapsulate the story for those unfamiliar with it, but basically Crowley is a demon and Aziraphale is an angel, and yet they’re friends. So when the end of the world is on the horizon, the two of them team up to stop it because, honestly, they rather like the world. I suppose it’s just the right blend of bad and good to make them both comfortable without being bored.

There’s a lot more to it than that, such as witches and witchfinders and prophecies and the antichrist and his pet dog (and a character named Pepper!), but it’s all more complex than I can describe, and you might as well read or watch it anyway.

I usually hesitate over adaptations of my favorite books because (a) I worry it’ll ruin my mental picture by replacing my imagination with a “sanctioned” version, and (b) often they’re just terrible. But there’s no reason to be concerned in this case. Good Omens is a faithful adaptation, and in the places where it’s been changed, all the changes work. It’s well cast and just incredibly entertaining. And at six episodes, easy to binge.

I’d say I want more, and I do… except I don’t, if that makes any sense. By which I mean, it’s like a really good meal: so wonderful, you want to keep eating, yet you know that the food will only begin to lose its flavor eventually, and you’ll only end up uncomfortably stuffed, maybe even ill. Better to eat and walk away with the memory of a nice dinner than make yourself sick and come to feel averse to something you used to enjoy. Or, in short form: quit while you’re ahead. So many shows try to press their popularity by eking out season after season, all for the money, until they’re only remembered for not being as good as when they began. Better to tell your story well and end it (Babylon 5) than keep chasing the audience until they turn on you.

Long story short, the Good Omens miniseries is fantastic, assuming you like that sort of thing. I do highly recommend it.

Television: Game of Thrones, “The Iron Throne”

I’m not really going to focus on this episode specifically so much as discuss… Well, anyway, let’s look at why some people were angry with Daenerys’ arc, etc. At least as much as I understand it, though I’d be happy if others would weigh in via the comments. (So long as you remain polite and respectful.)

Dany spent the first few seasons struggling, gathering, strategizing. She became a powerful woman, and she became what many considered a possible savior to free the Seven Kingdoms from Lannister evil. Certainly she felt that way, that it was her destiny to rule, and she persuaded enough people to back her. So when she skewed toward becoming a tyrant herself, many people felt this was out of character for her. Many were upset that this strong female character was being eclipsed by Jon Snow, the “rightful heir.” Jon being painted as a completely good, decidedly uncomplicated guy who “always does what’s right.”

But, truly, Dany showed tyrannical tendencies early on. She’s always been ruthless and focused on her singular goal. So I didn’t find it out of character at all, really. And I can understand the irritation about the way women are portrayed in GoT. The ruling women were invariably autocratic, though their motivations were always different. Cersei wanted power for power’s sake; Dany truly believed she would remake the world as a better place.

What about Sansa and Arya then? The bone of contention there is that both became strong female characters through a certain amount of personal trauma. My understanding of the backlash is that women in GoT are never just strong in their own right. They’ve been beaten into swords by enduring the heat of the fire and the blows of the hammer against the anvil. The underlying messages of: “A woman who wants power is bad” and “a woman cannot be powerful unless she’s been traumatized or disowns her gender” are problematic. The narrative of “this nice [white] boy will save us” is also not great.

Still. I have no real problems with the way the story played out except that it felt rushed in the final couple seasons. A bit more character development could have saved everyone a lot of vexation, so that things like Jamie’s departure from Winterfell wouldn’t have felt so abrupt. The past couple season have barreled through plot points, which I feel is part of what has left some viewers unsatisfied.

I am not one of those viewers. While I can wish differently for some of the characters, realistically this feels fair. (To me, anyway.) It feels true to the nature of the show and to the world as it has been built. This was never a fairy tale. It’s always been a story about how people who want power probably shouldn’t have it, and what happens when they get it and are greedy for more. It’s a story of how any one person (or family) holding that power creates ever more problems. And yet… despite much upheaval, the system remains largely the same. People live and die, wars are fought, and the world goes on. For better or worse. It balances itself.

The wheel doesn’t break. It just turns.

As for petitions to rewrite things, well… I think in the day and age of social media, where there is more contact than ever before between fans and (sometimes) content creators, fans feel entitled to dictate the direction of the shows they enjoy. And that, to me, is unmerited. Fans aren’t in the writers’ room, they don’t get to pitch the story lines they’d like to see. That’s what fan fiction is for. And I’m sure there’s about to be scads of GoT fics.

Unpopular Opinion: Game of Thrones, “The Long Night”

Last night the much awaited Battle of Winterfell occurred on HBO’s Game of Thrones. It was 90 minutes of, well, battle. By all accounts it took a long time to film, too, and as someone who has worked in film, I’m often impressed by the production values of this series. I watch and think, Someone had to time that just right…

But while all my friends and all the people on Facebook and Twitter seem to be in love with this episode, I just… Didn’t find it all that interesting. For one thing, a lot of it was hard to see, so it was difficult to tell what was going on. And the episode felt so long, so interminable. I get the sense that this was done on purpose, to make viewers feel the uncertainty and endlessness of being on the battlefield, but I guess I’m not invested enough in the show overall to have been so absorbed.

Also, I don’t like zombie movies. And this really amounted to a zombie movie.

Were there great moments? Absolutely. I’m not saying the entire episode was a washout, and there was some definite emotional impact. I just don’t seem to be as enthralled as so many other viewers. I liked “Battle of the Bastards” waaaaay more and found it far more impressive. Maybe GoT has made me jaded and given me unreasonable expectations that even it can’t always meet. ::shrug::

It’s Not Yours

Yesterday I read this article in which Martin Freeman, who played John Watson in Sherlock, rants a bit about alternate readings of the text. Namely, he insists that there’s nothing gay in Sherlock and Watson’s relationship, it was never played that way.

My initial gut reaction was, “Wow, that’s a really strong and seemingly homophobic reaction.” But what I think really bothered me about it was the suggestion that the however many viewers who read the text differently had somehow done it wrong.

The moment a book or film or television series meets the public, it no longer belongs to the creator(s). Not the writer, not the actors, not the director, etc. It becomes the property of those who engage with the text. They get to read it and interpret it however they want. It may not be what you intended, and some interpretations may be a stretch, but there is no right and wrong.

One of the first things they taught us in Radio-Television-Film courses at uni was “encoding” and “decoding.” This is the fundamental of all communication, from speaking to writing to filming. You say something, or write something, or perform an action, and the listener/reader/viewer takes that information and decodes its meaning. Some messages are fairly simple. There are only so many ways my son can interpret, “Clean your room.” But if I want to be really clear, I might break it down into: “Put all the clothes on the floor in the laundry basket and make your bed.” Otherwise, his idea of “clean” and mine might not be the same.

When dealing with books or film or television, however, the author of the text is not there to explain the work as the reader or viewer engages with it. Nor would we want them to be. There’s nothing worse than watching a movie with someone explaining everything as things happen. Part of the joy of reading and watching shows is extrapolating information for ourselves. Our brains like having to work.

Look at all the fan theories for various shows, the online communities. People love taking things apart, breaking things down. And the choices they make for that process—the lines along which they break things, the metrics they use—are going to be wide ranging and, at the same time, very personal.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that a queer reading of Sherlock is par for the course. There is a grand history of queer readings of all kinds of things, and to stomp your foot and say, “No!” is childish and naïve.

When I’ve been asked about—or sometimes told—things that appear in my books and stories, I don’t say, “You’re wrong.” (Well, maybe if they have a detail or fact incorrect.) I say something like, “That’s interesting. I never thought of it that way.” Or, “Well, that’s not what I had in mind at the time, but I see where you might read it that way.” There’s room for everyone and their ideas, after all, and I’m just flattered they’ve taken the time to think that much about it.

Thing is, I know I can’t control how people will receive my work. I know that, once they’re holding that book, it’s no longer mine. It’s theirs, and they will interpret it however they want, in whatever ways work for them. To throw a little tantrum over it would be unprofessional to say the least and smacks of dictatorship at the worst.

The only way to make sure people read your text the way you want them to is to never write or film it at all.

Groovy!

click here for video

I started my online life as Yukitouya. By which I mean, that was one of my first ever email addresses back in the late 90s. The name is a combination of Yukito + Touya (often also Romanized at Toya, but I used the “u”). Yukito and Touya are characters in Cardcaptor Sakura by CLAMP and probably remain one of my favorite all-time couples. In fact, it only just now occurred to me that their love triangle may have subconsciously influenced the Cee/Marcus/Diodoric triangle in Changers.

I don’t still have the Yukitouya email address; the site it was on folded ages ago. And honestly, I hadn’t thought about Yukito and Touya in years either. But when Cardcaptor Sakura recently returned, well, I began to fall in love all over again. I’ve been showing the first series to my kids and eagerly watching Clear Card each week on Crunchyroll. And now I’ve had “Groovy” (as heard in the video above) stuck in my head for days. But it IS a catchy little number, and one can’t help but be a little buoyed by it, so I won’t complain.

Presented Without Commentary

  1. Irene – a “strong” woman with a shady past who ultimately needs to be rescued by the hero
  2. Mary – a “strong” woman with a shady past who ultimately needs to be rescued by the hero (but isn’t)
  3. Eurus – a “strong” woman with a shady past who ultimately needs to be rescued by the hero
  4. Molly – a weak woman whose attempts to assert herself are unconvincing and unsuccessful, and who pines for the hero and allows him to manipulate her repeatedly
  5. Mrs. Hudson – a strong [older] woman played for comic relief

Best of 2016

I’ve started to see the lists popping up online. Even though there is still one month left in 2016, people are ready to call their favorites, from books to movies to television shows. So I thought about what I read and watched this year, and here are a few notables:

Books

The Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young. This pseudo-paranormal mystery set in the bayous of Louisiana is both atmospheric and fast-moving. I raced through it and enjoyed it quite a bit.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Not a 2016 release, but I finally got around to this one and, though long and deep, it’s so well written. Was perfect for the long flights to and from New York.

Dark Dawning by Christine Rains. A novella, first in a series, and it sets up just a very interesting world full of shape-shifters and Inuit mythology.

Lorelei’s Lyric by D.B. Sieders. A twist on mermaids/sirens.

Movies

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. A new window into the world of Harry Potter… pre-Potter.

Sing Street. Just really cute, even if it is mostly a bunch of music videos hung on a very sparse plot frame.

Snowden. An interesting perspective on how and why Edward Snowden did what he did.

The Imposter. A documentary about how a French con artist convinced a family in Texas he was their missing son/brother.

Kubo and the Two Strings. More gorgeous work from Laika.

The Nice Guys. Typical Shane Black, so if you like his stuff…

Zootopia. Above and beyond as far as children’s animated features go.

Love & Friendship. A delightful Jane Austen adaptation.

I know there’s a lot I have yet to see (I do have tickets to Rogue One!), but of the things I watched this past year, the above stand out.

Television

The Crown. I was sucked right into this drama about the start of Elizabeth II’s reign and can’t wait for more.

Westworld. I resisted, and do continue to resist on some levels, but I can’t deny that this is a well-written, well-acted, well-produced program. (I feel similarly about Game of Thrones and The Leftovers. Must be an HBO drama thing.)

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Everything Doctor Who should be, used to be, and no longer is. In short, a whole lot of absurd fun.

Documentary Now! Fun, though the second season was not as good as the first IMHO.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Probably the single thing I most look forward to each week. (And now on break. *sob*)

I also watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine and am just dabbling in Superstore. Started Designated Survivor and AHS: Roanoke and Timeless and need to get back to those… Television is getting harder to keep up with because there is so much and it’s all dumped in one go instead of airing weekly. But hey, even the weekly stuff piles up on my DVR, sort of like all the books I mean to read that pile up on my nightstand or in my Kindle. The above, then, are just shows that definitely had me hooked over the year.

So what about you? Any favorites this past year? Recommendations? Anything to look forward to in 2017? Let me know in the comments!