Review: Better Call Saul Season 1

When Better Call Saul, a spinoff of Breaking bad, starring Bob Odenkirk’s character, Saul Goodman was announced. The general reaction was confusion. Breaking Bad was a self contained story and we already knew what happened to Saul, so what’s the point? On the other hand, when you have access to great resources and just made one of the cornerstones of the modern Golden Age of Television then you can probably do whatever you want. And Vince Gilligan’s next show was going to be compared to Breaking Bad anyway. Not only that, but when you’re reengaging the themes of Breaking Bad, you might as well set it in the same universe. Let’s not waste any time and jump right in.

BEWARE OF SPOILERS FOR YE WHO ENTER FOR BREAKING BAD AND BETTER CALL SAUL

Breaking Bad could have just as easily been called: Toxic Masculinity the Show. The show is about Walter White’s descent into criminality and evil. While Better Call Saul isn’t as focused, it’s still concerned with morality, its relation to criminality and our obligations to others. Walter White isn’t a good person, but he’s ostensibly doing everything for his family. Saul Goodman, or rather Jimmy McGill, is a petty con artist turned lawyer who is trying to do right by his brother. The key difference is that Walter does what he does out of a sense of resentment with a veneer of family responsibility; Jimmy is driven by family obligation and the angels of his better nature. These two characters are markedly different, and their shows are markedly different but their framework isn’t.

Breaking Bad is by and large a rather tight show. This tightness manifests as an exploration of toxic masculinity. Better Call Saul is not as tight, at least not yet, and while it doesn’t deal with something as tight as toxic masculinity, there’s a similar emotional range. It’s hard to separate Jimmy from the Saul we know, the narrative opens with Saul ads after all, but this is clearly a character that has undergone enormous change. Contrast the first few scenes we see in Breaking Bad: Saul casually suggests killing Badger whereas he’s a public defender in Better Call Saul. Saul might be a scumbag, but Jimmy is conflicted at worst. So we’re immediately presented with the question of what caused the change?

Family is important in Better Call Saul, Jimmy and Chuck, Tuco and his abuelita, Mike and his family. In all of these cases, family can be a positive force: Jimmy doesn’t want to let Chuck down, Tuco is protective of his abuelita and Mike wants to ensure financial security for his daughter-in-law and granddaughter. At the same time, family isn’t a universal good. Chuck is a manipulator, contemptuous of Jimmy; we can assume that Tuco was abused by his uncle Hector Salamanca, Mike takes up less than legal work to support his family. What makes this interesting is the why. They’re all doing this because they think it’s the right thing.

This brings us to the other point. Not all cops are good, not all criminals are bad. It’s an idea that got played around on Breaking Bad: Walt’s thin justification and Jessie’s impressionable innocence. Here’s it weaved throughout the show in a more subdued way, which happens when you don’t have meth or cartel wars. The law isn’t inherently morally, but helping others and keeping your word is.

These ideas are played with throughout the show, but it’s the season’s climax that carries weight with the revelation of Chuck’s utter contempt and everything that follows. Helping others and our obligations to people are important, but these are obligations built upon reciprocity. Help those who cannot help themselves but repay that kindness with what help you can. Jimmy’s moral failing isn’t telling Chuck to go to hell; it’s in being blunt when you should be precise. Over the season we see Jimmy go from being a lawyer who will resort to scams to get ahead to someone who returns 1.6 million dollars and starts a class-action suit to stop elder abuse. Yet Chuck being revealed to be an asshole and Marco dying are enough for Jimmy to write it all off and embrace Slippin Jimmy. It’s a failure of Jimmy placing too much in a relationship and how he grounds his morality, how he relates to others in the world.

Better Call Saul isn’t as good as Breaking Bad, at least not yet. But Jimmy is a far more compelling character than Walter, as the former’s descent into darkness is more than a step. I look forward in seeing the full descent and if the show does anything meaningful after the events of Breaking Bad. Till next time.

 

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AKA Review: Marvel’s Jessica Jones

I am not the biggest fan of the MCU, and in fact had planned on skipping their latest offering from Netflix, Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Yet I kept seeing people talk about it on Twitter, a lot more people than Daredevil and whose opinions on media I value. So I started watching it, and it is indeed good. What makes it good is rather simple: it’s so unlike anything else that the MCU has produced so far. It’s not just a matter of the show being different, but by and large what it does, it does well. Let’s jump into it.

Trigger Warnings: Check out this list

Beware of Spoilers ye who enter

 

Jessica Jones isn’t a shiny superhero story like the films or a retread of Nolanverse Batman like Daredevil was, in fact it doesn’t feel like any sort of superhero story. Nor is it an origin story in the way that other things are. Instead, it reminds me of something out of the World of Darkness, gritty street –level action and dark subject matter. All of these things are so different than what we’ve come to expect that they’re all worth talking about individually.

In terms of genre this show is a noir, plain and simple. It draws upon that genre’s conventions far more than anything else. The idea of being a hero is far more mundane with thing such as Jessica stopping a mugging or Malcolm organizing a support group. A traditional caped crusader costume is the butt of a joke and any references to the MCU films feel more forced than anything. Not only that, but the idea of being a hero isn’t so clear cut. It’s something that Jessica struggles with throughout the show, and even at the season end it’s not clear where she falls.

There is another departure from the superhero stories we’ve come to see from the MCU: the violence. Action scenes are relatively rare here; this isn’t the slugfest of Daredevil. When the show calls for violence, the scenes are short enough to keep the viewer engaged and choreographed well enough that the viewer can follow along.

In the abstract, this is an origin story. This is how Jessica Jones becomes a hero, of some fashion, and outlines major things going forward (IPG, Luke Cage, Daredevil via Claire). In practice, this doesn’t feel like an origin story. Jessica is a character with history and established relationships with other characters. We’re being dropped en medias res with a natural beginning of Kilgrave coming back, but we get the sense that these characters have lives that extend beyond the story. This is in part due to the fact that of those plotlines I listed above: the first is a footnote by the time we learn of it compared to the immediate threat of Kilgrave, is only a major plot because he’s getting his own series next and this connection was only introduced in the season finale respectively.

This is as personal and street-level as a story can get. Kilgrave has harmed people, many people. But in the grand scheme of things has he harmed as many people as Fisk or any of his associates such as the Russians or Madam Gao? Probably not. He’s a piece of garbage, a mundane, too familiar piece of garbage with a superpower. There’s no talk of saving Hell’s Kitchen or anything as big.

Jessica Jones is a dark show. It’s not dark in the way that say The 100 or Daredevil or Bojack Horseman are dark. It’s dark in ways that make Netflix negligent for not having trigger warnings in the show description. It’s dark in that the show revolves around abuse, consent and rape. It’s dark in handling these subjects in a human way that drives the point home, too close for sadly too many people. The allegory of Kilgrave being the patriarchy is essentially text. There are a lot of situations and characters that are easily relatable. Kilgrave being called out explicitly as a rapist is shocking because of how rare that is in media. Hearing the word out loud, even when you know that’s what’s happening is jarring. It doesn’t take any mealy mouthed vagaries, or even outright reactionary ideas; it is open, direct and challenging to the status quo.

Not only that, but it has explicitly MOGAI characters with no special comment made about their orientation. Granted, these characters aren’t exactly the best people, which is its own issue in regards to tokenism, but actual representation is better than headcanons.

Of course, nothing is perfect and Jessica Jones fails when it comes to race. I would recommend reading this article to get a better idea.

Going forward, my main worry is that this season ends up being an aberration. That its departures from what we’ve come to know as pieces of the MCU formula will be seen as mistakes, not to be repeated. I want this to be the start of something new as other shows take the general ideas and innovations seen here as a baseline to improve upon, not run away from.

Next week, I’ll be talking about diversity of disability in media. Till then.

 

Review: The 100 Season 2

            The 100 on the surface sounds like little more than a focus group tested, demographic pleasing triumph of mediocrity. It’s based off of a YA dystopia series with a female lead and it airs on the CW. But despite a rocky start, the first season developed a compelling cast of characters who shone through a less than fully developed setting. While it had its bad moments, the first word I always thought of to describe the show was ‘competent’. It was the moments that rose above that competence and were able to evoke some emotional response that had me stay through the rocky start and look forward to the second season. Now that I’ve been able to watch it a second time, as it’s available via Netflix streaming, it seemed like a good time for me to gather my thoughts and share.

While season two retained the core of season’s one appeal, it also seemed to gather a lot more crud around it. This is partly because of the longer season and partly due to the tonal shift that the show takes. Season two is 16 episodes, three more than season one, and it does not use them well. Plots meander to a conclusion and there are a lot of B plots that don’t really go anywhere. (This also makes the show pretty poor when binge watching it compared to spacing out episodes) These plots are entertaining enough, but they don’t connect well together in a cohesive whole. It’s a testament to the characters, the acting and writing carries them above the incomplete world they operate in. What matters is that you are entertained in this scene, in this episode, not that the whole season makes sense, because it doesn’t.

In terms of tone, the show was never cheerful, but the characters were never cavalier about the terrible things they did. There was always a moral voice of dissension; but those protestations wear thin over repeated use and become less frequent. The territory that show goes into by the end has me calling the show downright nihilistic. A post apocalyptic set up where all factions find they have no choice in doing horrible things, repeating the sins of the past.

On a technical level, the show has either improved or maintained its competence. The scenery is what you’d expect, well-made indoor sets and the woods of Vancouver. The actors have grown into their characters and the new characters are unremarkable at the very worst. The special effects and fight cinematography are fairly impressive, considering that this is a TV show. The music is the only downside, as the usage of whatever flavor of pop is in vogue is gratuitous and annoying.

Despite these flaws, it’s worth repeating that the characters still work and that there are still moments when something shines through. It’s flawed, but it’s still entertaining enough that if you liked the first season and don’t mind the problems I outlined then you should at least give it a shot.

Trigger Warning: Alcohol, Guns, Medical experimentation, Death, Mass Murder

Beware of spoilers ye who enter

 

When talking about season two, it’s important to start with the show’s structure. There are 16 episodes, that aired as two half seasons. The first half is concerned with the fallout from the season one finale. Fallout in this case means several things: getting everyone who isn’t in Mount Weather back together, hashing out the leadership of the Sky People, ending the conflict with the Grounders and setting up the Mountain Men as the new antagonists. A lot of these plotlines involve Finn, so it makes sense to focus in on him compared to a more thorough but less substantive checklist view.

Finn was the one who saw history repeating itself and did everything he could to stop it from passing. His was the dissenting moral voice that often got drowned out by forces beyond his control but he served as a physical manifestation of moral boundaries. In the second season, this is discarded as he becomes obsessed with finding Clarke. He has no problems in ambushing Grounders, executing prisoners, leaving someone to die, or massacring a village. The ideas that Finn would go to great lengths to find Clarke and that all the shit he’s seen have finally started to get to him aren’t bad, but it’s a note that the writers keep hitting so the impact is dulled with each subsequent use. But those sequences, however good they may be in their own right, aren’t taken as a whole; they cease to exist once the episode is over. Hitting that note over and over again is a poor writing technique, but it’s one that works on some level. Furthermore, it’s just a buildup to what Finn’s purpose in the season: the village massacre.

Finn’s credibility as the moral dissenter is wiped away, his crime largely ignored by the rest of the Sky People and used to reinforce the conflict with the Grounders. It’s incredibly tacky and distasteful. The build up to the massacre itself strains credibility and the response from the other Sky People is disturbingly muted. What should be a major event is quickly brushed over by everyone until the Grounders force them to deal with it.

The Mount Weather plotline, for the entire season, works with exception. The fact that it is entirely predicated upon poor communication is sloppy. Dante never reaches out to Abby or Kane or gives a reason for just banking on the 47 to fix the radiation problem. While one can argue that it’s a part of the season’s theme of how humans are doomed to poor communication and war, it’s executed in a poor manner.

One of the conceits of YA fiction is that adults are useless, and The 100 follows on that trope, at least with the Skye People. It goes out of its way to make Abby, Kane and Jaha useless. The first two rehash their conflict from the first season, which is annoying, moreso because the show points that out. All of three of them are focused on the whole and are willing to sacrifice the people inside Mount Weather in order to keep everyone else alive(or just act contrary) in order to engender conflict with Clarke. Our heroes, through crafty planning and circumstances outside their control, end up calling the shots. It works well enough, but the circumstances involved aren’t terribly engaging once you move out of the target demographic.

So the half season ends with Finn killed to cement and the Mountain Men moving onto bone marrow to fix their problems. (There’s some spectacularly bad science this season) Which sets the stage for waging a war on Mount Weather….that somehow lasts for eight episodes. The show can now engage in retreading history and engaging in the worst accepts of human nature largely unstopped. A lot of these plotlines are actually good and it’s a not the worst attempt at being an ensemble, but there are two worth talking about: Clarke and Jaha.

Clarke shows that she’s from the Ark as she becomes hardened, with encouragement from Lexa and only stops after committing genocide. While she does at least recoil at the end of the season, I’m really not interested in watching grimdark shows where the Heroes are Hard People making Hard Decisions. While Lexa being the exact opposite of Finn and pushing Clarke to be harder is something I’m not on board with, I am happy for more diversity with Clarke being Bi (the show not saying the word is a different matter though) I’m also not really keen on shows being self aware of things and thinking that their self awareness means recycling tropes is good; but Kane’s exchange with Abby in the ruins of Tondic really sold me this time, even if it is short of payoff.

                        Kane: Clarke escaped? She knew it was coming?

Abby: Yes. How could she do something like this?

Kane: Because she grew up on the Ark. Because she learned things from us.

Abby: She let this happen. She could’ve stopped it.

Kane: She made a choice. Like executing people for stealing….medicine…and food. Like the    sucking the air from the lungs of 300 parents so they could save their children.

Abby: Like floating the man you love to save your people.

Kane: Yes, we have to answer for our sins Abby.

Abby: After everything we done, do we even deserve to survive?

Jaha is a man who has lived his life making impossible decisions and feeling sorry about it. He’s a finished character, while Kane and Abby have some degree of self-awareness and want to move beyond that, Jaha can’t. He’s sorry that he made those decisions, but he’s not sorry that he carried them out. Not only that, but he needs to believe that his story isn’t over, that everything means something, and he won’t tolerate anyone getting in his way. He’ll sacrifice anyone to further his own story. Jaha isn’t exactly a good guy and his whole arc this season was set up for next season.

Which brings us to the other problem that the season has with a lot of build up and not a lot of payoff. Clarke needs to answer for what she did, not just self imposed exile. Jaha needs to be guided to burn the world again for starters. But the status quo being shaken up by the Grouder-Sky People alliance dissolving is somewhat nonsensical in and of itself, but it throws a lot of stuff sideways. The ending is fine, but there’s no real denouement so it’s just leaves the feeling of now what? And not in a good way. Sadly, we have to wait till next year for season three.

The 100 isn’t the best show on the air right now, but it is an entertaining and interesting show. I just hope that season three can move past the flaws of the first two seasons. I don’t know what I’ll be talking about next week. Till next time.

 

 

 

Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Clines is not a good book. It is not a particularly fun or interesting book either. It is a rather bad book. Whatever novelty or creativity the book has is overshadowed by dull, grating and in some cases offensive, execution. The book would be forgettable except that is a different spin on some ideas and its widespread praise. Those two things mean that it’s worthwhile to discuss it at the very least.

Trigger Warning: Violence, transphobia, homophobia, suicide

Beware of spoilers ye who enter

 

           

            In the interest of fairness, the best thing that this book does is painting a plausible version of the future. The world of 2045 sucks and it sucks in ways that are very plausible; in a lot of ways it’s the new version of what cyberpunk should look like. This degree of proficient world-building does not hold true for much else. It is impossible to discuss the shortcomings of his world building in other spaces without talking about one of the key parts of the premise though.

A major part of the setting is that the 80s have come back in vogue because they were an obsession of the world’s richest man and creator of the OASIS, James Halliday. This is in and of itself is hard to believe. The notion that an eccentric rich dude could cause a massive resurgence in this stuff is unlikely for two big reasons. First, it requires people to collectively stop caring about stuff (the most recent thing referenced is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) which isn’t going to happen, there is more recent stuff that people are attached to. For every triumph that has aged well there are a dozen duds that are best forgotten. Second, because 80s pop culture, embodied by things such as Revenge of the Nerds (a noted favorite of Halliday) have been deconstructed as problematic and we are collectively making some measure of progress towards being more diverse and inclusive. It requires people to collectively stop caring about any of that. Of course, when 80s pop culture is a roadmap to becoming the richest person on Earth; you have a pretty good motive to not care.

This Easter Egg hunt, to claim Halliday’s treasure, has spawned an entire subculture and is the focus of the book. Our protagonist, Wade, has made finding the egg his own quest for the Holy Grail, and he is profoundly unlikeable. Now, some of this is because he’s a teenager with basically no support network, but those parts of him aren’t what I dislike. Wade is a walking encyclopedia of Halliday trivia who just cites stuff and identifies stuff. He doesn’t have any substantive opinions on this stuff, the most we get is that he dislikes a certain song. He, nor does the text for that matter, play with this stuff in interesting stuff. It’s all slavishly recreated so the reader can nod and go, ‘Oh, I get that reference’. Which is strange, a lot of these references are just straight up recreations, so you’re expected to know what’s going on, but nothing fun happens.

Now, you could just make an argument that since I didn’t experience the 80s first hand, there’s stuff I just missed. Which is partly true, but event the stuff I did get was dull. The climax involved a mecha fight, and as someone who will put up with a fair amount for giant robots, found the sequence to be dull. The problem is even worse when it involves videogames, reading someone play through a videogame is incredibly boring, fan service padding before we can get back to things actually happening again. It’s dull and uninspired, fan service that the reader should appreciate because it’s there, not because of what it does.

Wade lacking substantive opinions isn’t the only reason I dislike him though. He’s also the perfect example of my issues with 80s pop culture being problematic, as the trigger warnings should have indicated. Early in the book Wade uses a homophobic slur to verbally spar with someone. The point of hate speech is to be hurtful and the use of slurs to hurt. So, in 2045 homophobia is still a thing, no doubt because culture has regressed to the 1980s. The fact that it’s teenagers doesn’t excuse this as typical high school drama either, kids learn bigotry from somewhere and social mores change.

Now in order to discuss the transphobia I need to digress to how the book discuss cyberspace. This book has a sophomoric view of what constitutes real vis a vis cyberspace and virtual reality. The idea that everything that happens in the OASIS isn’t real, that it has to take place face to face in the real world is complete nonsense. It ignores how the OASIS is used in every aspect of life in setting. Outside the setting, it’s the view of the privileged super-user, it’s the view of someone whose never had a meaningful talk over Facebook, never had friends they’ve never seen in real life, never had to worry about who they were around people they knew in real life and didn’t need an alternative.

This brings us to Art3mis and Aech, two characters who take advantage of the OASIS to look as they want, not as they are. In the case of Art3mis, it’s to not have a wine-stain birthmark. In the case of Aech, it’s to be appear as a white male instead of a heavyset black woman. Art3mis, a badass and charming gunter, is the love interest who creates tension by proscribing the aforementioned view of reality. This “tension” also comes from Wade, who is insistent upon knowing the “real her. Setting aside the issue of not being happy with how someone chooses to present themselves and that being just as real as the body they’re born with, there are other issues at hand. First, there are the incessant jokes about how Art3mis might be a guy named Chuck who lives in his mother’s basement, which aren’t funny on either a societal or personal level. Wade is poor and the Great Recession never ended, that you have to live in your parents’ basement isn’t something to laugh about; it’s something to rage about because your generation, the generation before yours, were screwed into such a situation. On a personal level it’s not funny either, so what if Art3mis is biologically male? She chooses to present herself as a woman and that should be good enough. Wade’s transphobia and nonsensical fixation on the real world comes to a head for me with the following question “Are you a woman? And by that I mean are you a human female who has never had a sex change operation?” It’s incredibly offensive and it’s what you’d expect…out of a 1980s movie.

The reason I mentioned Aech is that her* identity is meant to be a shock, that someone wouldn’t present themselves as they actually were on OASIS. This is silly, a ton of people wouldn’t present themselves the same way; a ton of people would not be the same as they are in the real world for any number of reasons. Any hesitation that Wade has is swept away once he spends time her, because Aech is still Aech and this wasn’t some long con borne out of bad faith. But no issues are raised, because Aech isn’t the love interest and there doesn’t need to be “tension” in their relationship.

Speaking of romance, the relationships in this book are pretty bad. Wade and Art3mis is fairly groan inducing, partly cause Wade is a teenager whose idea of relationships comes from 1980s teen movies and partly cause Art3mis is made to be contrary. It takes up a not insignificant word count and it’s a lot of telling, not showing. Art3mis gets a few scenes where she’s allowed to be herself and not an appendage to something greater, and in those scenes she’s a wonderful character, a badass gunter with an endearing side. If the book had her as the main character, it would be infinitely better. The only other relationship is the love triangle between Og, Halliday and Lauren, which is a case of socially awkward people are bad at expressing themselves and end up making questionable life decisions because of it. Also there’s some grating parallels between that and Wade’s situation that are a cause for further groan. A healthy relationship where both people are alive is too much to ask for. These relationships aren’t charming, they’re forced.

Ready Player One is a bad book, it so very badly wants to be one of the 80s movies it has sycophantic reverence for, but it’s not. It’s a book that could have existed in 2011 because many of the issues I talked about weren’t as mainstream, but even then its problems were clear. In 2015 it’s a laughable work that oscillates between boring and offensive. In no way can I actually recommend that you read this book. Next week, I’ll be reviewing the 100 season two. Till next time.

 

*Another issue is that Wade doesn’t know the significance of pronouns and misgenders her once we know the truth, but all indications are that Aech identifies as a woman.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Last Colony

John Scalzi’s The Last Colony is many things. It’s what one has come to expect from the OMW series and all that entails*. It is also two stories crammed together, one of them is about establishing a human colony on a new planet and the other is following up on the geopolitics set up in the previous book. While these stories fall under the greater narrative of the book and involve the same characters, the two stories are left truncated. This leaves the weight of the story to fall upon the characters, which are able to do so with mixed results. Let’s not waste any time and jump in.

The viewpoint character for this book is the same as Old Man’s War, John Perry. This is a double-edged sword. While Perry is likeable enough and reads well enough, he’s also boring and largely ignorant of the greater situation. This problem is highlighted by the fact that he is surrounded by characters that are much more interesting. It could have been Jane, as someone who is trying to understand what it means to be human and knows something about the Conclave, or Zoe, the teenager with Obin bodyguards and is considered a living god. While the story is structured in such a way to make Perry important, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s dull.

Speaking of the story, I mentioned how it’s really two stories smashed together. The first one, is about establishing the colony of Roanoke and the politics surrounding the mission. This plot is essentially ended halfway through, after a dramatic climax with fallout never resolved in the story. The story than shifts to one of galactic politics where the Colonial Union is reaffirmed as a terrible government and Scalzi takes practically every measure to make it unambiguous. This isn’t terribly interesting as it makes the characters less relatable. While there is established motivation, it just feels distant. All of this is further compounded by Saviriti repeatedly calling out the CU, albeit with vague language. Not only that, but it leaves the characters feeling disempowered, they’re closer to disaster movie protagonists trying to survive instead of action heroes trying to win.

Both of these problems culminate in the book’s actual finale. Perry is able to emerge victorious through the off-screen help of his daughter in a matter that smacks of deus ex machine in a fight that has a token causality, who was an asshole anyway**. The book then ends on a happy ending as galaxy altering actions have happened with no pay off. It’s a rather dichotomous approach. On one hand, the characters are too engaged with the politics for them to be a backdrop for their own personal struggle. On the other hand, they don’t have the agency to actually do much about it. I would have vastly preferred it if was harder in one direction.

The book is fine and fun like its predecessors, but there are bigger problems than is predecessors on technical, structural level. Next week I”ll be reviewing Ernest Clines’ Ready Player One. Till next time.

 

*Although a minor character is a lesbian, so at least it’s not as heteronormative.

**One of the things I liked about Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades is how death was a fairy common occurrence for the protagonists. I agree with David Weber who has said, “War which is always heroic, in which only bad guys (who obviously had it coming, anyway) get killed, in which people hit by high-powered weapons either die instantly and painlessly or receive “only a flesh wound,” in which there are no mental or moral or spiritual casualties, is splatter porn. It trivializes and all too often it desensitizes, allows us to walk away from the hard questions and the moral wrestling with conscience, threats, and costs which should always be part of our understanding of what war really is.”

Review: Pokemon X & Y

Pokemon X and Y (Gen 6) aren’t good games. I don’t mean they’re bad games in the way that all Pokemon games.* I mean they’re bad games in ways that aren’t specific to the franchise as the game relies upon the 3DS’s features to push it over the top. Those feature being the graphics, which are admittedly gorgeous and the online functionality. Games are more than their mechanics though, they’re about creating experiences. This is what these games excel at; it’s what they’ve always excelled at. Let’s not waste any more time and jump into it.

Gen 6 isn’t hard, it’s mind numbingly easy. While the games have never been hard, there are certain things in this game that exacerbate the problem. First, there’s the issue of the game just throws powerful stuff at you. While your starter has traditionally been very good, you also get a Kanto (Gen 1) starter, a Lapras, a Lucario that can mega-evovle, and that’s just off the top of my head. Sure you could not use them, but in the case of the starters that’s boring. It’s a problem accentuated by the ease of which you find powerful mons in the wild. This in and of itself isn’t a problem, being given powerful options is fun. This does lead into the second problem.

The opposition is playing at a serious handicap. Their pokemon aren’t of the same caliber in the abstract. It’s not until the Elite Four that the designers even deign to give the opposition a full roster. Compounding this, the AI seems to have regressed** to the point of selecting moves at random. The least egregious part of this is that the levels of opposing trainers are off. While the change to the XP share in which it gives all of your pokemon xp instead of just one, requires less grinding to keep your party on even levels. It shouldn’t, least on an instinctual level, result in your team being on average five levels higher, but that’s what happens. I played the game with little foreknowledge (the most I knew was that one of the Gym Leaders was Fairy) and was never seriously challenged until I did the super rounds at the Battle Maison, but that’s post game.

While the game is easy, it’s also incredibly small. Kalos as a region has you going from point A to point B in a straight line with little deviation. There’s little exploration, the HMs are used almost exclusively to get items laying around in the field. And since the game is so easy, a feeling that bothering to collect these is a waste of time. The dungeons and Gyms are equally straight lines without the barest pretense of puzzles; getting some of the better TMs is the most interesting thing you’ll do.

This sense of being in a small world doesn’t just stop at the limited exploration, there’s just not a lot to do. There are a few to interact with, most of them being in the obnoxious to navigate Lumiose City, but that’s not much. The Friend Safari, this version’s equivalent of the Safari Zone, isn’t unlocked till post game. If there are Contests, I missed them completely. The Battle Chateau is a neat concept, but in practice it’s a money piñata.

All that being said, it’s still Pokemon and the basic formula still works. The fact that the game isn’t challenging means it’s relaxing to play. I like the group dynamic in this generation with multiple rivals and acknowledging that people would be interested in different things. I like Team Flare in concept; they’re James Bond villains with Malthusian motives. I wasn’t keen on how shallow the Gym Leaders and Champion were; but I’m comparing that the torrent of material from Gen 1 that makes me feel this way.

The game really relies upon its online features though, to make it an experience. Wonder Trading is fun, and a good way to stack the lottery in your favor. The GTS is super useful. O Powers make you want to play with your friends. If you can do that, then the game is a memorable experience. If you can’t do that for whatever reason, then the game is just ok. The result is that the game is only two years old and it hasn’t aged well and by the time Gen VII comes out its main value will be in grinding legendaries or some such if you can’t get a group together.

Pokemon X & Y show that a game is more than a mechanics. It’s how it uses those mechanics to create an experience for the player. It creates memories for its players but means that the game has a short shelf life. Next time, I’ll be reviewing John Scalzi’s The Last Colony. Till next time.

 

*In short a series of design decisions such as having ‘all pokemon being good in game’ the way the type chart works and other factors means that by and the large the games have never been the most challenging or well balanced.

**I skipped Gen V but Gen IV had the AI actually be a challenge in terms of move selection

Review: the Ghost Brigades

John Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades, the sequel to Old Man’s War, is a fine book. Scalzi is easy to read and technically proficient in the craft. The book is fun, military scifi in the vein of Henlien’s Starship Troopers. But it’s hard to say that this is a good book.

Part of the problem is in expectations. While it is set in the Old Man’s War universe and has some of the same characters, the book is ultimately telling a rather different story than its predecessor. Some of this is a matter of different themes. OMW was focused on world-building, technology and presenting an unambiguous picture from people in the trenches. TGB on the other hand, uses the set up of the previous book to question ‘what is a human?” as well expand the scope out of the trenches. It does the former a lot better than the latter.

The attempt at widening the scale of perspective doesn’t go over as well. It uses new information that is revealed awkwardly and ends up deflating the characters’ actions. It also creates a feeling of ‘middle installment do nothing’ where there’s all set up and no pay off. Given that this is a sequel and many of the fundamentals such as Scalzi’s writing style and the setting, are unchanged; this isn’t the worst. Finally, the new perspective changes the entire reading of the setting, which may or may not be to your liking, but given the aforementioned problem of all set up, is hard to judge this book on by itself.

Trigger warnings: Sex, Violence, Death

 

That’s my nonspoiler review of the book. But having reading the book, I have spoiler filled thoughts and commentary. So let’s not waste any time and jump into it.

Beware of Spoilers ye who enter

 

One of the things that made Old Man’s War easily readable was how relatable its initial set up. Earth, and the people on it, hadn’t radically changed in between now and the future of the book. In actuality this means that the book is positively relatable by a certain subsection; many of society’s evils are still present. While misogyny seems to be a thing of the past, structural inequality is still present, ableism is erased and heteronormativity is alive and well. Now you could argue that these problems started in OMW, but I read that years ago while watching a game of Diplomacy in college and didn’t have the same priorities as I do now. Also I’m talking about TGB, in which some of these problems are looked at a bit more.

The structural inequality is explained by the Colonial Union keeping Earth in stasis in order to farm it for a constant stream of soldiers and colonists. Soldiers come from developed countries and colonists from everywhere else. Perry’s first person, newcomer perspective coupled with the possibility of Scalzi fleshing out the world means that this didn’t come up in OMW. This demarcation plays out further as the more developed colonies were settled by Western countries along with the CDF being run by Westerners who are fine with this arrangement. A pointed emphasized by Boutin mocking the naming conventions of Special Forces. This is a terrifying, yet plausible future, in which current structures of inequality are perpetuated into space.

I’m of two minds with this revelation. On one hand, it makes enough sense, both in and out of universe, that’s certainly buyable. On the other hand, having these problems and then just chalking them up to a government conspiracy feels cheap. Any problem can just be explained away by society being locked in a state of arrested development. It does show a level of self awareness that the current state of affairs is bad but is still a relatable framework. Also it stretches my suspension of disbelief given the timescale.

Now an interstellar government engaging in a shadowy conspiracy in order to essentially grow people so they can engage in a go wide strategy in a game of Galactic Civilization is one thing. Said interstellar government being set on stopping another Civ from getting a diplomatic victory and being a pariah state is another. This is essentially the extent of any reasoning that we receive. All of this information is revealed in the book’s climax by an unreliable source, and then confirmed in the resolution; which doesn’t really make for a good twist.

This isn’t a problem for our protagonists though. As the text points out, they’re brainwashed child slave soldiers. They find out about this and reject the information out of hand as they continue on their mission. Jared as a blank slate to contrast Special Forces with regular CDF is fine; Jared as a somewhat more confrontational blank slate is less fine. The plot contrives to make their rejection to Charles automatic.

Of course, Boutin has a point, but his plan would involve killing millions of people. This is a trope that I’m so tired of, and I’m aware that this book came out before other examples that I can think of, where the villain has a point about the systemic injustice that our heroes represent and defend, but the villain is gonna kill lots of people so the injust system stays as is. At this point I’m left wondering why should I care? The setting worked as a Hobbesian nightmare of everyone against everyone else and you can write off the evil stuff that the CU does as realpolitik, it’s a lot less interesting when the nuance makes one side a lot worse.

I mentioned ableism above not because of anything specific, but because the CU has such a strange fixation on baseline humans, except when it comes to the CDF and the long term plan of turning everyone into a Gameran. There are so many questions about the technology that go beyond consciousness transfer that don’t belong in this book; it’s not the story that Scalzi wants to tell. But they are questions that indicate disabled erasure.

Heteronormativity on the other hand, is in full prominent force. All we see are hetero relationships; all we see is hetero sex. Special Forces apparently celebrate missions by having an orgy, which is totally voluntary but the only Jane skips out on. Not because she’s asexual, but because of some sort of relationship with Perry or Captain Not Appearing in this Book. There isn’t anything else to say, it’s just patently absurd nonsense that throttles the diversity of actual human experience. Or it’s a case of the CU altering the genome of Special Forces to wire them all this way; which isn’t substantiated anywhere in the text but headcanons exist by and large to subvert.

     TGB is a fine book, it has problems but they’re universally insurmountable to make the book unreadable. Next week I’ll be reviewing Pokemon X &Y. Till then.

Review: Narcos

Netflix’s latest original series Narcos is about the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar as well as the DEA agents who hunted him. It’s not my favorite show, but it is interesting enough and does enough stuff right that it’s worth reviewing. Let’s not waste any time and jump right in. Trigger Warning: Sex, Drugs, Violence, Blood, Guns, Language

Narcos has all the technical expertise that one has come to expect from a Netflix series. There just isn’t anything else to say. So, that leaves the narrative, which is worth talking about.

Beware of spoilers ye who enter

 

This is a period piece that uses actual people from history, so its relation to factual history is important. Each episode opens with a disclaimer “This television series is inspired by true events. Some of the characters, names, businesses, incidents and certain locations and events have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes. Any similarity to the name, character or history of any person is entirely coincidental and unintentional.” At first, I assumed this was primarily a way to protect themselves from lawsuits. A cursory Google search revealed that the show was taking somewhat major liberties in the chronology of events.

Fidelity to the source material is a virtue, not the only virtue. This is true for any adaption, but there are major differences between say Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien and Gone with the Wind. While the former has politics involved on some level, as all works are political; the latter has politics in the forefront. Now, I don’t really know much about the era in question, just what I gleamed from Wikipedia so it’s hard to pinpoint what political message it’s actually arguing for.

There are several reasons for this confusion. First, there’s the issue of how the show handles narration. It has Agent Murphy, one of the main characters reminiscing about the era. While most of the narration is fairly neutral, there are just enough instances of him being jaded and not as jingoistic compared to his modern day counterpart that the message becomes muddled. In general though I’d say the show leans towards a somewhat critical view of the U.S.. While the people who are hunting Escobar engage in a fair amount of torture, I never really got the sense that the show wanted me to support it outside of comparison. While the Search Bloc might beat people to death and shot up clubs, at least it wasn’t blowing up civilian airliners. The biggest reason that I don’t want to comment on the show’s politics is because I just don’t’ know that much about Colombian history. The show should be treated like all historical fiction, not inherently true. Although this show has gotten me interested in the time period, which is a success in its own right.

What sets Narcos apart is how it relies upon actual news footage to contextualize events. This is fine; the show is based off of historical events after all. It did accentuate one of my key problems with the show though. The narrative felt timeless, not in the sense of the story is universal, but in the sense of when things were happening. Things happened, but it was hard to appreciate the gravity of decisions and the arcs of characters. Characters responded to one another’s actions, but there was no telling how long these things lasted in the grand scheme of things. The result is that the storytelling feels more episodic; things that happened early on just stop mattering as the viewer is invited to focus on the current thing. This doesn’t really work on Netflix, where most shows are available all at once and binge watching is common.

Perhaps the biggest example of this is how the show starts out in medias res with the La Dispenseria massacre and Poison’s death. The event is set up as being a major turning point and gives the viewer something to work off of as a reference point timeline wise. In actuality, it’s a relatively minor event and any attempt at using it as a chronological anchor is useless.

This timeless sense seems to be intentional though. The show opens with an explanation of magical realism and the show draws heavily on it in an early episode. The idea of dreams and reality mixing together is interesting, but it’s not a rock solid reading as the idea isn’t substantiated throughout the entire season. Also, it seems like an idea that would work in narrative’s resolution, something that we’re not close to. Given that the show has already been renewed for a second season, this will be the most interesting thing going forward.

Narcos isn’t the best show, and you have to add several qualifiers before I’d call it the best in any given category. It’s still an interesting show and is worth giving a shot if the subject matter is interesting. Till next time.

Orange is the New Black Season Three: the Banality of Misery

Orange is the New Black was one of the Netflix’s first attempts at truly original programming and despite its flaws it gave an idea what could be done on the platform. We’re talking about shows whose subject matter wouldn’t actually air on TV. Season 3 is more of a structural departure from the first two, and in many ways it doesn’t pay off. While it still has its moments, those moments are farther away than they were in previous seasons. Let’s not waste any time and jump into it.

Trigger warnings: sex, alcohol, sexual assault, rape, language, emotional abuse

 

Beware of spoilers ye who enter

Season 3 can be best described as going wide instead of deep; by which I mean it doesn’t focus on a select few characters but instead uses the pre-existing characters to tell a wide range of stories. This approach has its merits. It’s a natural path to take the show, especially if they don’t want to repeat season 2 by having a character act as a sort of warping force on the entire setting. Not only that, but it falls in line with what the intended goals of the show, using Piper’s story as bait essentially, to create a space to talk about women in an intersectional framework. Not only that, but in a way it’s exactly what myself and others were hoping for in that the show would move away from Piper. Not to mention that all of these moving parts make Litchfield a much fuller place. This approach isn’t foolproof however; the basic idea is that you have such a density of characters and plots that some of them being duds is fine. In actuality, we have a cast of characters who are pitiable at best and contemptible at worst.

My problem with season 3, at the root, is that the characters aren’t as appealing they once were. The new gleam has worn off on some of them and others have histories that the show would rather we forget. It’s possible to have bad people be interesting characters, in a lot of ways that’s a good description of the TV renaissance with the exception of Parks and Rec, but these characters aren’t interesting. Nor can you call it misery porn, the notion that these characters deserve what they’re dealing with is antithetical to the show’s thesis and again, isn’t particularly interesting. In fact, this banality does reinforce the show’s thesis of prison being a horrible and dehumanizing place; it just doesn’t make for good television. Now, since it’s not that easy, there’s merit in discussing the individual characters and their arcs; I’m not going to discuss every character, just the ones that I have something to say on.

First, it’s worth mentioning that Larry was written out of the show, the only character from Piper’s life that shows up in more than one scene is her brother. This is an unambiguously good thing. Larry was both terrible and extraneous to the plot; a feeling that was only exacerbated by Jason Biggs being vocally offensive off the screen.

Piper is the closest thing to a main character, so it makes as much sense as anything else to start with her. She’s a terrible person and there’s nothing endearing. Her major moments can be summarized as following: being honest to Alex about getting her back in Litchfield, hate-sex with Alex, emotionally tormenting Alex, starting up and running a prison business, union-busting, cheating on Alex because of Alex’s tattered emotional condition, and getting revenge on Stella. The problem is that most of these actions are varying degrees of awful, the amount of space given the plot is disproportionate to how entertaining it is. Now while I’m not saying axiomatically that horrible things should be punished accordingly, there’s no consequence at all. Granted, Red finding out the truth and being robbed are both consequences but they’re comparatively small and abstract;  Red not interacting with Piper for half a season doesn’t stand out in this format and the money is a completely abstract issue. A lack of consequences is bad storytelling.

            Alex is completely superfluous. If she had completely disappeared after the season two opener, there would be questions but it would make sense. Instead Alex gets her own story that is by and large separate from the rest of the cast sans Piper. Most of the season is spent focusing on someone who turns out to be paranoid as a red herring and then we’re given a cliffhanger of a real assassin. While there is an attempt at integration by having Lolls be the person to introduce the kosher meal plot, that could have easily been given to Stella. The use of the red herring deflates the tension and actual assassin just comes out left field at the last possible moment. If nothing else, Alex did have one of the best lines this season, which you can find here.

Nicky is actually surprising. Her being written off via being sent to max was an unexpected development. The loss of her character is definitely a blow to the show although the fact that it happens gives more weight to such a fate compared to Miss Claudette, which again ties into the show’s thesis. The use of flashbacks in her final episode felt forced as it tried to gently rewrite her backstory and characterization to fit the narrative they were going for.

Healy, on the other hand, is a character that the show keeps trying to humanizing and I’m not interested in engaging with it on that premise. This is a man who has enabled the attempted murder of one woman, pushed another one into attempting suicide, and set out to get a female coworker fired in the course of less than a year. He is not a good person and whatever relationship he may have with Red or whatever nice thing he does is for his wife doesn’t make up his sins and how he is unrepentant.

Boo and Doggett intertwine enough and don’t have enough on their own to warrant separate discussion. Their relationship strangely works. Boo’s one plot in the spotlight is enjoyable, attempting to fleece fundamentalists and asserting yourself is good. Doggett is a lot more complicated though. First, the fact that Doggett tried to murder Piper and was a militant druggie fundamentalist is never really brought up again. This is certainly dissonant and there’s no answer as to why I’m okay with this. There is a certain amount of deprogramming going on and not addressing attempted murder, cause how do you do that?’ has a certain logic to it. Doggett’s main story is her relationship with Coates. The best reason for having this plot is a retread of the Daya/Bennett/Pornstache plot except shorn off the tone-deaf romantic subtext. Showing that prison rape is a horrible thing certainly makes sense in a show about prison. What makes less sense is showing the rape on screen, what makes even less sense is needing to juxtapose this next to a flashback of Doggett being raped. It’s the flashback that is truly gratuitous. Whatever point the show is trying to make is irrelevant; it’s doing so in a grossly shocking manner.

The biggest causalities of this storytelling method were the black clique. After Vee there was a large amount of emotional fallout that was more human and interesting than just about anything else. The lack of depth and constant moving away from them to other characters made it hard to buy in. Which is somewhat ironic, the de-emphasis on these characters to move onto other characters was somewhat expected, it’s just a matter of flawed execution.

Speaking of characters who had been de-emphasized, Sophia re-entering into the spotlight was good. That’s all.

Lolls and Stella aren’t really characters, or at least anything that approaches well rounded characters. They’re given so little attention yet the investment that the show asks us to make in them is far higher. Lolls is little more than a red herring hailing from the show’s brief Chicago trip, a weird attempt at mirroring the book’s events to begin with, but is at least characterized. Stella on the other hand is an intentionally mysterious entity that ends up hooking up with Piper, none of that is actual characterization but it’s basically all we’re given.

Caputo and by extension the prison privatization plot is essentially the season’s main plot. On a personal level, Caputo was being shaped up to be what passes for a good person on this show. The fact that his climax involves him selling out is a perfect encapsulation of how everyone on this show is varying degrees of bad, not good. The privatization plot in and of itself isn’t unexpected, it’s topical and relevant to the show’s overall themes. That being said, the show’s limited perspective really hurts the message. Obfuscating how the prison-industrial complex works, obscuring the profit motive for MCC to take over Litchfield creates an imperfect image of the system of oppression that the show is denouncing is a disservice. It muddies the waters and ends up being a weak-willed argument against the system at best.

Orange is the New Black may not be the best show, but it is a different enough show, and still has its moments that even if it’s not always entertaining, it still has value. Season 3 has been the worst of the lot, but there’s always room for improvement. Next week I’m not sure what I’ll be talking about, till next time.

 

 

 

The Diversity Boundaries of Sense8

 

Sense8, pronounced ‘sensate’, is Netflix’s new original series about a group of eight people across the world who begin to share their consciousness with one another brought to us by the Wachowskis and JMS. The show has been flying under the radar a bit, Netflix hasn’t done much advertising on its site and the only reason I even knew about this was from an ad on Youtube. In spite of its shortcomings, it’s still a very strong show with the Wachowskis bringing their cinematography and creativity with JMS bringing his writing. That being said you should be aware of the following triggers: Suicide, Drugs, Violence, Guns, Forced Institutialization, Sex, Alcohol, Misgendering

Now I said I would be reviewing the show, but upon watching the show I realized two things. One, there was a lot stuff to say but it was hard to organize into any coherent form. Two, this is something that deserves its own post. That being said, let’s jump into it.

 

Beware of spoilers ye who enter

Sense8 is a show that is literally about diversity and the interconnectivity of humanity. 7/8 of the main characters belong to at least one marginalized group yet they all have one thing in common. They’re all abled. In fact, there isn’t a single disabled character in the entire show. Within the show’s framework for diversity: people of color are accepted, LGT people are accepted, the poor are accepted, but the disabled aren’t. Sadly, this sort of exclusion isn’t new, but it never stops being disappointing at the very least.

The closest that the show ever gets to the sphere of disability is in the development of the sensates. These are people who see and hear people that aren’t there, be in places that aren’t their physical surroundings, can act radically out of character as another sensate steps into their shoes, and at least for some part of the show have intense migraines. While all of these things fall under the gamut of what neuratypical people experience, it’s a poor substitute for having actually disabled characters. In a show that is set in the modern-day, real world, a degree of realism is required for the show to work. What this means in terms of oppression and marginalization is that being a member of an oppressed group has consequences in the form of discrimination and microaggressions. This never happens when it comes to the characters functioning as sensates; the most we get is Diego warning Will that his “crazy Exorcist routine” has some people spooked. Compare this to Lito’s plot, which revolves around him being a closeted gay man being blackmailed for that fact. Compare this to Sun’s plot, which hinges upon the fact that as a woman she isn’t as valued as much as her brother. Compare this to Capheus’ plot, which hinges upon him being poor. Compare this to Nomi’s plot, whose identity and life experiences have been shaped by her being trans who grew up in a transphobic household. There’s no equivalent for being disabled. This is not say that those stories should have been replaced by disabled characters, but should have been in addition to.

The first response to this might be to ask about Nomi’s institutionalization and attempted lobotomy. This doesn’t count for a number of reasons. Disabled people aren’t the only ones who have been victims of malicious medical practices. More importantly however, being sensate isn’t the same as having an actual disability. Sensates are superheroes, or at the very least analogous to mutants from X-Men. They’re fantastical, the entire conversation around them is different. They might be metaphors for marginalized groups, but they aren’t the marginalized. A general metaphor means that at some point it breaks down and runs into the laws of the fictional universe that it is operating in. Again, this is egregious in a show that about diversity and has no qualms in having actual members of other oppressed groups be present, and not just as metaphors.

Speaking of other oppressed groups, disability isn’t the only issue I wanted to bring up. Earlier, I used the acronym LGT, this wasn’t a typo. It’s commentary on the MOGAI representation in the show. Where are the bi/pan characters? Where are the asexual characters? Where are the aromantic characters? Where are the characters who don’t fit into the gender binary?

All of these exclusions are disappointing and telling. Creators make choices, conscious and unconscious, about what they include in their stories. The most charitable interpretation is that due to systemic erasure and their own life experiences, they honestly didn’t think about these things. Which should not be interpreted to be a good thing, but it’s at the very least an understandable thing not rooted in malice. A less charitable interpretation is that this was more of an active decision, which is actively hurtful.

Sense8 is a good show, it’s the most fun I’ve had watching a show in a year. But that fun came at the cost of having to turn off part of my brain and part of my identity in order to enjoy it. It’s because of its quality and its focus on inclusiveness that means criticizing its shortcomings on that axis is of the utmost importance. If it was bad, I wouldn’t care as much, but it’s good and those are the things worth engaging. Next week, I’ll be talking about Orange is the New Black Season 3. Till next time.