I just want Michael Schur to executive-produce my life

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It’s a dark world we live in. Every day there’s some new horror of race-based police brutality, of political corruption and bureaucratic despair, of a generation of young Americans lost in a sea of toxic social media, college loans, and borderline nihilism. We are a country divided, unified by only one thing: the negativity we feel about all that surrounds us.

And yet, in the face of all of that, there is one man, one bright light in this dark smog of a cultural landscape, reaching out to me like an angelic teddy bear, waiting to fold me in his arms and tell me it’s all going to be okay.

His name is Michael Schur, and I want him to be the executive producer of my life.

Michael—in my head, we’re on first-name terms—was a writer on SNL and then The Office before going on to create Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place. I would like to take this opportunity to invite him to come into my life and figure out how to make me happy. Because there’s nothing happier than the world in which Parks and Recreation exists, a world in which politicians are passionate administrators of the public good and every single main character ends up successful and happily married.

Such an optimistic picture seems almost laughable in the hellscape of cynicism we live in just three years after that show’s end, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine has done well to keep it positive. Michael tells me that the police are a kind-hearted, passionate bunch dedicated to the preservation justice through a stable, accountable system and it feels so good to believe him. Is it any wonder the Internet reacted with such fury after Fox announced the show’s cancellation? Let me tell you, there is little to get me out of bed on Monday mornings than the promise of a shiny new episode of Nine-Nine glistening on the Hulu account that I mooch off my roommate.

And then there’s The Good Place, where Michael switches from reassuring me about public employees to reassuring me about humanity as a whole. Some people are bad, but the beautiful thing about humans—so Michael tells me—is that they can change. They can improve themselves. Everyone, at their core, has the capacity for good.

Michael, I just graduated college and am about to start my life as an adult—please tell me what to do. Find me a career that will bring me financial and social success. Find me a soulmate. Tell me what the meaning of life is. The adult world is scary and cold, and without weekly bouts of your gentle reassurance I don’t know what I’d do.

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I just want Michael Schur to executive-produce my life

Narrative Problematic and “The Office”

the-office-nbcEveryone’s got a different opinion on when and why The Office went bad. For many people, it’s when Steve Carrell left.  Some say it happened in the last season or the second to last. For others, the show peaked as early as Season 4. It’s a tale as old as television: all shows have an expiration date, and not all of them know when to call it quits.

Most of us can name at least one show we’ve soured on after one too many seasons of continually declining quality. As examples we’ll name Community, or The Simpsons, or The West Wing. And we’ll attribute all sorts of different reasons for this decline: the departure from the show by a lead actor or key producer, or being bumped from network to network and forced into unfortunate time slots, or maybe just a general drying up of creativity on the part of the writers.

I’m going to offer up a different theory here on what can turn a television show from good to bad. It concerns what in fancy TV-theory terms is called the “narrative problematic,” and The Office is perhaps one of the most perfect examples of narrative problematic gone wrong.

Jeremy Butler, a professor at the University of Alabama, defined the narrative problematic as the “narrative kernel that recurs every week…the program must ask the same question again and again to maintain consistency and viewer interest” (Television: Critical Methods and Applications, 37). In essence: it’s what the show is really about, what’s happening throughout the most overarching storyline. The show Parks and Recreation—in many ways the offspring of The Office—was about the wacky band of misfits populating the Parks and Recreation department of a small Midwestern town, yes. But I would argue that what it was really about was an ambitious and passionate woman who fights to make a name for herself and her town, struggling against political rivals, economic crises, and her own work/life balance. And we can view this as the overarching plot of the show, steadily developing throughout the seasons: she moves from achieving small-scale bureaucratic goals, like building a park or organizing a successful Harvest Festival, to running for office, to considering what would happen if she left all of it behind for a high-powered job in federal government. The end of the show answers the basic narrative problematic of “will Leslie achieve her career goals?” with a “most of them, but not all.” And that’s it—there’s no more story to tell. It’s finished, and the show ended after a satisfying seven seasons.

So, back to The Office: why, and when, did it go bad? First, I think we should ask what its narrative problematic was.

I don’t think it was Jim and Pam’s relationship, although that’s obviously one the show’s more prevalent arcs. The “will they or won’t they” arc can last ages (see Friends) but it simply isn’t interesting enough to be the single problematic the show is based on. The Jim/Pam storyline comes up a lot throughout the first four seasons (before they officially get together, and then it mostly leaves the series’ focus) but it’s not the blood that pumps through the veins of The Office. 

No, I think what The Office was “really about” has to do with the fact that it takes place in a paper company.

It’s not just that Dunder Mifflin is a supremely boring place to work, although that it is. If they just wanted to go for boring, they could have made it a company that sells desk chairs or microwaves or what have you. But Dunder Mifflin is a company—and not exactly an industry giant—that sells a product that with each passing year the world needs less and less of.

So, there you have it: The Office is about a company whose employees know that their jobs are in constant jeopardy. Each day they balance complete apathy for the work they do with a lingering fear that they may be terminated at any point.

Now, to say that that’s a question that popped up in every episode would be a stretch. Mostly, it’s about a moronic boss and the drama that ensues from the frequent coupling and uncoupling of his subordinates.

But is it, really? Certainly for the first few seasons it is—and this I would argue is a result of the influence of its British parent, the Ricky Gervais-led show of the same name. But as the seasons pass Michael becomes steadily more mature and less antagonistic, increasingly loved and respected by his employees. What remains, however, is that same lingering question: will the company survive?

In the first two seasons, rumors of downsizing lead to alliances and infighting within the employees. The third season is permeated by competition between branches and one eventually closing down. In the fourth season, Ryan attempts to revamp the company’s image in order to bring it into the digital age and fails horribly. In Season Five, Michael starts his own paper business and experiences the pitfalls of starting a new company in a declining market, while news of more branches closing continues to circulate. In Season Six, the company goes bankrupt and is bought out by Sabre, a printer company.

And there’s the answer to our narrative problematic. Will the company survive? No, it won’t. Like so many others it runs out of money and… well,

And that’s it. That’s where, I think, the story should end: Season Six, when the company is bought by Sabre. That was the end of the story. The subsequent seasons have always felt sort of empty to me: it’s still funny for a good season or so before Carrell’s departure, but there’s nothing really driving it anymore. The jobs of the Dunder Mifflin employees are safe, and there’s no reason, really, to keep following this group of people. Even Jim and Pam’s storyline, the other most prominent arc, is basically over: they got together, now they have a kid yay.

Sure, they found directions for the story to go: Jim and Pam eventually start to have relationship issues, and Angela and Dwight have their whole thing, and Michael finally gets back with Holly. But if the showrunners planned to end the show with Season Six they could very well have concluded those storylines—especially Dwight/Angela, because man did that one start to drag—without much trouble.

Without a narrative problematic, The Office got lost, confused. It suddenly had nothing to rely on except its quirky characters, which is why Andy suddenly gets a lot more to do, and why after Michael leaves a rotation of increasingly crazy and unfunny bosses (Will Ferrell, James Spader, Catherine Tate) come in and do increasingly crazy and unfunny things.

Most people dislike what the show became after Carrell left, but let’s be honest with ourselves: it was already changing. The seventh season feels somehow stale. It’s not like the writing was any worse—though that did happen eventually—it’s just that it shouldn’t exist. And I think it kind of knows it.

Narrative Problematic and “The Office”

“Last Flag Flying:” Yet another reminder that Steve Carrell is more than Michael Scott (though he’ll always be that to me)

Who wouldn’t want to go on a road trip with Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell, and Bryan Cranston? Last Flag Flying, the latest film from director Richard Linklater, is a decent enough movie on its own, but its three lead actors, whose resonant performances offer an understated balance of drama and levity, make it a great one.

Last Flag Flying is the “unofficial sequel” to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail, which just means that Last Flag Flying is based on the sequel to the book that The Last Detail was based on. There’s no actual continuity, film to film. In The Last Detail, two navy men (Jack Nicholson, Otis Young) are tasked with escorting a young seaman (Randy Quaid) to a naval prison where he’ll serve out an eight-year sentence for attempting to steal forty dollars from a polio fund. Along the way, Nicholson’s character insists on giving the young man the good time he won’t experience for the next eight years.

Last Flag Flying, the book, follows the same three men thirty years later, but the movie adapts the characters with new (if similar­) names and backstories. (No surprise a film like this one would come from Linklater, who has previously played with telling stories over a long period of time in projects like Boyhood and the Before trilogy.) Steve Carrell plays Larry “Doc” Shephard, a mousy ex-Marine who did sit out the last years of the Vietnam War in naval prison, but not for trying to steal forty dollars. When he finds out that his son, Larry Jr., has been killed while serving in Iraq with the Marines, he asks his old war buddies Sal (Bryan Cranston, as Nicholson’s spiritual successor) and Richard (Laurence Fishburne) to go with him to get the body.

And so Last Flag Flying plays out as a road movie: the three men first drive to the military hanger in Delaware where Larry Jr.’s body has been sent, and then take the train back home after Doc refuses to give his son a military burial at Arlington. This is all to the frustration of the stiff-necked Colonel Willits (Yul Vasquez), who sees Larry Jr. as one of their own.

Where most movies tend to go high, Last Flag Flying goes low. It’s a very quiet movie; most of its scenes are set in places you’d want to use your inside voice, like church or on a train. The choice moments where someone yells are thus pleasantly — or unpleasantly — startling. The moment where the quiet and reserved Richard unleashes a string of shouted expletives at a delighted Sal, for instance. Or when Willits barks at the young Marine (J. Quinton Johnson) tasked with accompanying Sal, Doc, and Richard that he should kill the three men before letting them take Larry Jr.’s body back home for burial (which he’s only sort of kidding about).

Certainly deserving of recognition are the cinematography (Shane Kelly) and the production design (Bruce Curtis). The film is simply shot, but there’s a kind of intimacy to the camerawork that pulls you in. There’s one scene on the train in which Sal and Doc sit next to each other. A good few minutes pass where of the two of them only Sal speaks, but the camera lingers on a medium shot of both men, rather than cutting the silent Doc out of the frame. The camera takes on the perspective of someone sitting in the seat across from them. You’re not just another moviegoer eavesdropping on characters though the barrier of a screen; you’re there on the trip with them. Likewise, Curtis’ design constructs the settings with the kind of meticulous detail that human eyes can zero in on, but cameras usually can’t or won’t: the snarky signage covering the dive bar that Sal runs, for example, or the dirty fingerprints on the train window Doc stares out of while Sal rambles on.

But it’s the performances of Carell, Cranston, and Fishburne that stay with you as you leave the theater. Talented actors can always bring out the best in each other, and the interactions of these three on-screen offer a little something extra: they feel real. Realism isn’t something we always look for in our movies; sometimes they’re going for poetry or comedy or melodrama. Done right, though, realism can strike a deeper chord than any of them. Carell, Cranston, and Fishburne play out an honest interaction between three people who were once brought together by circumstance, formed a bond out of their ghastly situation, and then parted ways expecting to never see each other again. In a different sense, it’s the same kind of feeling you get when you run into somebody who you knew in high school. You never wanted to see them again because that part of your life is over and done, but it’s also the only thing you two have to talk about so that’s where the conversation keeps returning to.

That’s what Last Flag Flying is built on: conversation, rather than action. Carell’s character is generally too preoccupied with his son’s death to talk much, which leaves most of the talking up to Sal and Richard, who may have been friends once but thirty years later don’t have much left in common. Richard views the war as a shameful era in his life, one he’s making up for now by working as a pastor and abstaining from drink. By contrast Sal — rude, alcoholic, cracking inappropriate jokes left and right – misses it, because there he had a sense of belonging. It was there that he had purpose, in contrast to his lonely life back home. Through their conversations, the long train and car rides become brief meditations on war, life, morality: how Richard can believe in God when there are so many horrible things that happen out there; whether Saddam is grieving for his lost children as Doc is grieving for his; on how the United States somehow expects the countries it invades to welcome the occupation with open arms.

If Doc is responsible for moving the plot along, it’s Sal who really seems framed as the main character — in part because that’s how Nicholson’s character was framed in The Last Detail, but mainly because he talks the most. My god, does he not stop talking. Cranston does his job very well, playing a man who always needs to be at the center of attention, and who grows churlish if people ignore him for too long. He’s also primarily the comic relief, though Linklater’s script walks a very fine line between funny and annoying that occasionally trips and falls onto the latter side. A succession of mildly racist comments directed towards Richard grows increasingly tiresome as the film goes on, as when Sal asks Richard why he married a black woman, or whether hip-hop music makes him ashamed to be black.  Still, Cranston — long admired for both his comedic and dramatic abilities — is generally able to pull it off, varying the boorish humor with genuine caring for Doc and stubborn defiance against Richard’s prim new persona.

The movie’s ending undoes it somewhat; it’s almost tangibly saccharine and leaves you searching for reasons why it might have ended that way other than that Linklater couldn’t come up with a better one. It’s unfortunate that the ending has to be the weakest part of it, because that’s what’s freshest in your mind when you leave the theater. But Last Flag Flying is a road movie, after all; it’s really more about the journey than the destination. The plot isn’t so much the point as it is a vehicle for character development. The questions raised aren’t really meant to be answered; they’re just meant to make you think a little. And if the destination ends up being kind of a letdown, at least you made the journey in some pretty great company.

“Last Flag Flying:” Yet another reminder that Steve Carrell is more than Michael Scott (though he’ll always be that to me)

On Jon Snow, and why he’s the weakest part of Game of Thrones

Spoilers through Season 6.

A year ago, I watched the Season 6 Finale of Game of Thrones with a friend of mine. That’s the episode, you may remember, that officially confirms “R + L = J”— or, in slightly less nerdy terms, the theory that Jon Snow’s real parents are Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. For most of us, this revelation was more a foregone conclusion than anything else. I, like many, had figured this was coming for years, but in the moment, watching that episode, I was still shocked to see it finally happening. This friend of mine had no idea that “R + L = J” was a thing at all, and I was pretty excited to see his reaction. But as the episode came to a close and the credits rolled, all he had to say was, “really? Did they really have to do that?”

I was surprised, because this theory had become so grounded in my mind that I couldn’t imagine someone disliking, or being surprised by, its existence. Don’t get me wrong— I don’t like it either— but I had accepted it years ago, and besides, no one else had ever joined in my distaste for it. And so I asked him why he didn’t like it. He explained that one of the things he like best about Game of Thrones was how, despite the dragons and the ice zombies, the show had always kept on the grayer, more realistic side of storytelling. There are prophecies, to be sure, but there’s also a sense that nothing is stable, that we can never tell what’s going to happen. There’s a constant reassurance of the existence of the Red God and his Azor Ahai, but you don’t really feel like there’s anyone watching over these characters— and that includes the author. They’re on their own.

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More hair than personality.

Ned Stark’s death, so early on in the show, proved that no human is above the harsh reality of this world. The ostensible protagonist isn’t safe, not even in his own story. Most television shows don’t hesitate to get their central characters out of supposedly impossible situations with a deus ex machina, but Game of Thrones reminds us that that’s not really true to life. Even as the sword is being raised over Ned Stark’s head, we refuse to believe it’s really going to happen until we see it. Just as we think Oberyn Martell has defeated the Mountain, he’s undone by his own rage and arrogance. It’s painful and gruesome, bold and unapologetic. Most series show us what we want to see. Game of Thrones doesn’t like to make it so easy.

Jon Snow undoes all of that. While Ned and Robb and the various direwolves can’t escape the cruelty of this world, Jon has somehow risen above it, clad in apparently indestructible “plot armor”— what we call a particular character’s ability to escape seemingly inescapable situations, because the plot depends on their continued existence. Fighting a losing battle against the Wildling army, Jon is suddenly saved by the arrival of Stannis and his men. Betrayed and murdered by those he trusted (the number-one cause of death in Westeros), Melisandre resurrects him after keeping us in suspense for all of one episode. Surrounded by Ramsay’s forces at Winterfell, he is rescued by the knights of the Vale mere seconds before agonizing defeat.

This does not happen with any other character in the show. Compare the other two characters who are most likely not going to die any time soon: Daenerys and Tyrion. They, too, have found themselves in difficult situations, but when they’ve gotten out of them it’s due to their own savvy and skill. When Tyrion faced terrible odds at the Battle of Blackwater, it was his own plan to use Wildfire that saved the day. When Daenerys was captured by the Dothraki horde and brought to Vaes Dothrak to stand trial, she used her powers to kill the khals and convince the Dothraki to join her. These aren’t deus ex machinas— they’re people using impressive skills wisely. Jon, by contrast, isn’t getting himself out of these situations; rather, he’s gotten very good at being in the right place at the right time, surrounded by the right people. And now, he’s got the ultimate parentage. He isn’t a mere mortal; he is the Song of Ice and Fire. This last development cements Jon’s place in the world of Game of Thrones as separate, superior, special.

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Even Kit Harington doesn’t really like him.

One of the things that makes Game of Thrones such a special show— and one of the reasons so many people who aren’t fantasy fans watch it— is that it avoids the clichés commonly found in fantasy writing. Its characters are almost never outright good or bad, black or white. The show thrives in that ambiguity. There are a few characters who are completely good or bad— Ned and Joffrey come to mind, respectively— but mostly they come in shades of gray. Jaime pushed a kid out of a tower once, but we still kind of like him. Margaery Tyrell was smug and conniving, but she would probably would have been a good ruler if she’d ever gotten any real power. Robb Stark was honorable and well-intentioned, but also a gigantic fuckup. You get the gist.

But Jon isn’t really like that. He’s unfailingly selfless, brave, intelligent, and honorable. He doesn’t make mistakes. His flaws are job-interview flaws, like trusting too much and being too forgiving. When things go wrong, it’s because nobody listened to his wise words, because other people were the Bad Guys. When he has to hurt people, like Ygritte, it’s because of his commitment to a higher cause. When Melisandre tries to seduce him, he resists because of his devotion to the long-dead Ygritte. When he executes Thorne and the other mutineers, he insists on doing it himself because that’s the most honorable way to do it. When he reluctantly rises in power, first as Lord Commander and then as King in the North, it’s not because he wants prestige but rather because everyone else knows just how good a leader he’d be.

This is not how real humans operate— we mortals have flaws, which is why I prefer Daenerys. Because all Daenerys wants to do is make the world a better place, and she, like the rest of us, fucks up. Severely, and often. She has had to fight tooth and nail to get where she is, facing down asshole after asshole who come after her power, her dragons, and her body. Moreover, the issues Daenerys deals with are much, much less cut-and-dry than the ones Jon faces. Example: the question of “should we help the Wildlings move south of the Wall so they’re not overrun by the evil and scary White Walkers” is a much easier one to answer than that of “how do we best abolish slavery in an entire region and set up a new economic system that doesn’t leave the place in ruins but also makes life better for the former slaves, but that can also be implemented fairly quickly because we kind of have other places to be and we honestly didn’t mean to start a whole thing with this, we just didn’t think slavery should be a thing anymore.”

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With great power comes great responsibility. Unless you’re Jon.

Long story short: I don’t like Jon Snow because his storyline bores me. It is without a doubt the most clichéd storyline of the show and the most removed from reality. It’s the one that most emphasizes traditional manly heroism. It’s the one that most egregiously reduces its few female characters to the status of Love Interest. It’s safe, formulaic, and archetypal.

Maybe you like Jon Snow, maybe even for the very reasons I’ve laid out for not liking him. That’s fine — we all have different tastes. But you’ve got to admit that in a show so renowned for it complexity, unpredictability, and realism, Jon is fairly lacking in all of those things. I like Hero’s Journey storylines as much as the next person — if I didn’t, I couldn’t love Star Wars and Harry Potter as much as I do. But it’s just not what I want from Game of Thrones. I want to be challenged, surprised, and Jon Snow just doesn’t do it for me. I’m not saying I don’t want a Christ figure; that was going to happen one way or another on a show like this. I just want him (or her— I’m still really hoping it’s Daenerys) to be interesting, to be held to the same standard that the rest of Game of Thrones is. 

Maybe Game of Thrones has a few tricks up its sleeve yet that will make me love Jon as much as I do the other characters on this show, and to be honest I believe they do. I really do trust that Game of Thrones won’t take the easy route, and will lead Jon down the interesting path that characters on this show deserve. But I’m also starting to get a little nervous.

On Jon Snow, and why he’s the weakest part of Game of Thrones

T2 Trainspotting can’t make its own spotlight

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 9.27.09 AM.pngSo, I just watched T2: Trainspotting.

(Side note: what’s with that title?)

Was it good? Yes. Was it as good as the original Trainspotting? No, of course not. But do we really have to compare the two? Yes, because this is exactly the kind of movie that invites that comparison.

T2 is the most sequelly sequel that ever sequelled. It is not really a movie in its own right, but rather something of an afterword to the original. The first act begins quite independent of its predecessor, and gets progressively more nostalgic as time goes on. And let me be the first to say that I love Trainspotting. If it’s not my absolute favorite movie it’s at least in my top five. So while I was excited to see T2, a movie I’ve been anticipating for years, I also knew not to expect too much lest I be let down. So I will first say that, despite my doubts, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It’s well-written, well-acted, with nice cinematography and editing in the way that makes Danny Boyle’s films distinctive and strong. Where the movie goes wrong is depending too much on its parent.

Everything in the world is different, but nothing much has changed for these men. Twenty years after the events of the first Trainspotting, Mark Renton returns to Edinburgh to visit his father and the old friends he once screwed over. Begbie, Sick Boy (though he goes by Simon now), and Spud have all let their lives stagnate in various ways, and each look to Mark’s act of betrayal at the end of the first movie as the main reason why their lives have gone to shit. This is unfair, of course; what Mark did was an absolute dick move but it can’t really be to blame for everything. Begbie was always going to end up in jail whether or not Mark made him that much angrier; Simon would never have used that money well even if Mark hadn’t stolen it; Spud would have stayed an addict even if he didn’t have the extra money Mark left him. Nevertheless, all three men have refused to move on from an event that took place twenty years ago. Mark, meanwhile, made a valiant attempt at a normal life— moving to Amsterdam, kicking heroin, marrying, getting a real job— but recently all of that’s been falling apart so he moves back to Edinburgh to remember all the good times he spent there. Simon and Mark concoct hair-brained scheme to make money and we’re off to the races.

The strongest moments of the film were the moments that didn’t rely too much on reminding us of what a great movie the first one was.

T2 is all about nostalgia, and in some moments that’s done very well. In others it’s not. There’s a point, late in the film, that leaned so heavily on it I can’t not bring it up. It’s a scene where Mark reminisces about going into the first day of kindergarten and sitting down next to an “older” boy who had been held back a few years, who would turn out to be Begbie and his lifelong friend.

This is a completely ridiculous thing to say on multiple levels. First, Robert Carlyle (Begbie’s actor) is a good ten years older than Ewan McGregor (Mark) so that would make him a fifteen-year-old still in kindergarten. Even if you’re generous and say that the character Carlyle is playing is only five years older than Renton, that still makes him a ten-year-old somehow still in kindergarten which is still an upsettingly stupid idea. I’d be more comfortable if Mark had just said that he and Begbie were the same age.

Second, Mark clearly hated Begbie in the first movie, remaining his friend only out of a fear of what Begbie might do otherwise. An attempt such as this to inject emotional depth into a situation is transparent and painful. True, everyone looks at the past through rosy lenses— a lot of this movie is about that— but it’s hard to imagine either man being able to look back fondly on their relationship. That, my friends, is what we call a retcon and it’s a sure sign of a weak story. The reason I’m talking so much about this part is that in a way it’s representative of the whole movie: sweet and well-filmed but excessively nostalgic, and in some ways just not quite right.

But hey, it was fun. If you’ve seen Danny Boyle’s other movies, he’s got this very characteristic fast and rhythmic style  that I think is just really fun to watch— though sometimes with some of the especially wacky shots you get the feeling that if someone were to ask him, “hey Danny Boyle, why did you make the shot this way?” He’d just be like, “I dunno, I thought it was cool.” But they are fun to watch so whatever, right?

You can tell that it was meant to be made 10 years after the original movie, and not 20. Because I can excuse this group of guys not being able to move on from a thing that happened 10 years ago. But 20? that’s kind of unbelievable. That’s like a whole my lifetime. A whole me has happened and they still can’t move on?

It’s hard to reinvigorate excitement for something that a whole generation of people have now grown up not having seen or talked about, at least in the US. I don’t know what the case is for the UK. It doesn’t help that, except for Ewen McGregor, none of these guys have gone on to have wildly successful careers. It feels like T2 is subconsciously  telling the story of its own cast and crew rather, which just feels kind of sad.

Here’s an example: If you haven’t seen the original Trainspotting, the opening scene is really iconic; it’s got Renton and Spud running down a street, pursued by police, with Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life playing” in the background and there’s this famous monologue that Ewen McGregor gives in voiceover. Unless my memory fails me, T2 made at least four references to that one scene in some way or other, and this feels like too much. It’s time to move one, Danny, and make some new iconic scenes.

T2 Trainspotting rides on the coattails of its predecessor, but there are diminishing returns to that; at some point Boyle and everyone else need to take their own movie’s advice and face the music.

T2 Trainspotting can’t make its own spotlight

What’s iZombie going to do next?

*Note: I actually wrote this several months ago, before the third season of iZombie started. Some of the questions raised in this post have now been answered, but I think there are still things here that are worth discussing.

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With the entrance of early spring comes the moment we wait for all year, that other little thing besides the warmth that keeps us hanging on until the summer: teaser trailers.

Teaser trailers are the absolute worst because they remind us of all the shows we’ve been waiting months and months for, but reveal absolutely nothing. I just watched the teasers for the next seasons of Game of Thrones and iZombie, and came away, as everyone always does, feeling extremely unsatisfied. But the iZombie one did get me thinking about something, and that’s what I’m here to talk about.

iZombie is entering its third season, a milestone which could either  mean the show is still in its nascent stage—as with Buffy the Vampire Slayer— or that it’s showing signs of having run its course— as with Buffy’s lesser-watched spin-off, Angel. This raises a very interesting question about how, exactly, a show is supposed to plan its storyline. There’s a lot to consider there beyond plot, and it’s an especially important question with genre shows like iZombie. So with this discussion, I want to look at two successful series, both made by iZombie’s parent network, the CW—Buffy and Supernatural—in thinking about where iZombie might go next.

Buffy and Supernatural lie on different parts of a spectrum. There’s the “series” end, which Buffy occupies. That’s the type of show that focuses more on episode-to-episode action, rather than longer-ranging arcs. It’s where you find most sitcoms and police procedurals. Then there’s the “serial” end, which focuses more on the longer story arcs, and individual episodes are less differentiated. Game of Thrones and Marvel’s Daredevil lie at the extreme on this end. This is the end that Supernatural lives in.

Now, in truth both series are closer to the center on this issue. They both follow a general “monster of the week” format that belongs at the “series” end while also maintaining larger, more important storylines. In fact, in many ways Buffy more closely resembles a serial in many ways than does Supernatural, since as the show progressed it dropped the “monster of the week” formula in favor of seasonal arc. No, what makes me say that Supernatural belongs on the “serial” end is because for at least the first five seasons the show had a definite plan, a multi-season story arc with a single, focused direction. Buffy always had an open-and-closed, single-season Big Bad with nothing of the previous season’s arc carrying over into the next one.

The reasoning behind each choice is clear. Supernatural was confident that it could last five seasons, so it committed to a complex plot line that could only be resolved in five years. Buffy was constantly afraid of being cancelled, so every year it created an arc that could be resolved in a single season. There are pros and cons to each way. The Buffy way allows for infinite seasons: you can keep on creating open-and-shut season arcs as long as you can keep thinking of them, and you can use this to develop your characters however you want. But it also makes those seasonal arcs a bit shallow, less interesting. It really doesn’t allow for much complexity. By contrast, the Supernatural way allows for infinite complexity (as long as you tie it all up at the end), but with two dangers: first, the danger of being cancelled before the arc is fully completed; second, the danger of being forced to continue on after the arc is completed.

Imagine Game of Thrones being forced to keep putting out seasons after the story had come to a conclusion. Imagine if Danaerys had finally come to Westeros, if the Iron Throne had a new ruler, if the White Walkers were defeated by an as yet-unidentified hero. Imagine an entirely new plotline, haphazardly compiled together, a year after you and everyone else thought it had drawn to a satisfying close. That’s what happened, to a lesser extent, to Supernatural. An arc which had been created in season one, and then identified and drawn out in season two, had reached its climax in season 5 and there came to a close. I am nowhere near Supernatural’s biggest fan, but I will admit that the first five seasons had, at least, a fairly gracefully laid out story arc. And then there was season 6. And just like that, Supernatural, much like one of its main characters, was dragged from the depths of the afterlife to carry on a confused and soulless existence for the rest of time. The show had absolutely nothing to do after the completion of Season 5, nowhere to go. It couldn’t pick up a Buffy-like format and just do monster-of-the-season plotlines: its viewers had become accustomed to longer, more elaborate story arcs, and to do anything else would feel like a letdown. They had to create a new one, unplanned and unwanted, out of thin air. And it shows— the series has become lost and meandering, agreed by all to be worse than its first five years, without a focus or a destination.

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That’s the magic of Buffy— it doesn’t need a destination. A very similar thing happened after Buffy, season 5. The endings of Buffy, season 5 and Supernatural, season 5 were so similar that I can’t tell if the Supernatural one was a ripoff or an homage. Anyways, Buffy was pretty sure it was going to be cancelled after season 5 so they decided to end it with a bang. And then it came back. Unlike Supernatural, though, they could just start back up again with a single-season story arc because it didn’t have the precedent of something more complicated. The downside is that this format can start to feel stale after a while, and the show’s writers may feel the need to keep raising the stakes after each season to ridiculous levels just to keep it feeling fresh. Look at Teen Wolf: in season 1, the villain was a werewolf who was slightly more powerful than the protagonist. In season 5, we’re now at horse-riding ghosts who kidnap and murder entire towns, working towards their goal of destroying the entire world.

On the flip side, the other danger of the Supernatural format is being cancelled before that multi-season storyline is fully completed. Angel is a good example of such a show. The mysteries that had been promised in season 1 were still unfolding during season 5 when Joss Whedon found out the show wouldn’t be renewed. That meant he had to suddenly try and wrap up the series—with all of its promised conclusions– in the half-season that remained. And, in my opinion at least, it shows. The fifth season of Angel is not good television, and the last few episodes are the worst of it.

Now I’m aware this feeling is not shared by everybody. I know several people who prefer the ending of Angel to the ending of Buffy, as the ending of Buffy wraps everything up, for the most part, and with most of its main characters still alive; Angel does the exact opposite. People who like Angel’s conclusion better prefer its “the fight never ends” mentality to Buffy’s “saved the day” mentality. I would respond that the fight will probably end when all the main characters die, which is what happens in Angel. However, I’m writing based on my opinion, which is that season 5 of Angel was crap for the primary reason that it was cancelled before its time. The various seasonal arcs— the prophecy of the vampire with a soul who could become human, whatever Wolfram and Hart actually is— were wrapped up hastily and in a very unsatisfying manner. I’m not saying Angel needed to become a human again for me to be satisfied, but I’d have preferred something a little less sudden and random than what actually happened. For me the ending of Angel was like the ending of The Sopranos: I genuinely thought something had gone wrong with my television when the episode cut to black and the final credits rolled. Surely I must have missed something. I’m all for people trying to experiment with the format of television, but you can’t end a show like Angel, with five years’ worth of mysteries promised to be solved, without some sort of solid conclusion. This isn’t The Lobster or some other indie movie that relishes in not bothering to come up with an ending. This is a television show on the CW and I expect different things.

Bottom line, the Supernatural format is riskier but often has a better payoff than the Buffy format. That’s not to say I think Supernatural is in any way a better show than Buffy; quite the opposite, in fact. But most shows, if they have the time but know when to end, will flourish using the Supernatural format while many shows languish using the Buffy format. It takes quite a lot of skill to make the Buffy format work as a sophisticated show.

So where does iZombie come in? Well, iZombie is about to start its third season, which means it is entering a precarious adolescence that can either mark the beginning of newfound quality, as with Buffy, or hit its peak and commence a downward slide, as with Angel. In the end, it will either be considered one of the earlier seasons or one of the later ones. In both Buffy and Supernatural, which both carried on far beyond their third seasons, it’s considered the earlier part of the show. Buffy is still in high school. Spike isn’t even a main character. Sam and Dean are still hunting Demons-of-the-Week. In Angel, which only made it to Season Five, Season Three saw a bunch of shit go down that drastically altered the rest of the show. Season Three often begins or ends with a noticeable cast turnover, as with Teen Wolf, MisFits, and Glee.

iZombie has put itself in an interesting, I daresay difficult, position: the position of where to go after Season Three. The entire show, up until this point, has been following the Supernatural format: the time in each episode is split between a Murder-of-the-Week and the gradual progression of a very complex, multi-season arc plot: the mystery of how the zombie drug came to be, who is really pulling the strings, and what the final endgame is.

So what happens when that mystery is solved? Conspiracies can only go so deep. In Season One, Liv and the rest of the gang were flying more or less blind, focused on answering the most basic questions that come with zombieism (how many are there? how can they live? etc) and fighting against Blaine, who is a very small-time sort of villain and therefore a good jumping-off point for more impressive villains. Season Two brought us to Max Rager and its sinister lab, and showed us hints at government ties to the zombie epidemic. The final cliff-hanger revealed a cult of zombies apparently intent on transforming Seattle—and then the rest of the world— into a zombie utopia, with brains aplenty.

So the logical next step, as we reach Season Three, would be to further develop the mysteries introduced in Season Two— but can iZombie do that while at the same time neatly setting up for future seasons? In a show that has flourished on deepening the conspiracy with each season it’s unclear what they’re going to do after those depths have been thoroughly plumbed. They’ll have to find a new direction to go with— maybe the zombie wars really will break out. But that’s going to require an immense overhaul of the series, including at some point scrapping the Murder-of-the-Week format iZombie will only let go of when we prie it from its cold, undead hands. Does the show— and The CW— have the capacity to completely change up a series for the sake of continuing a good story? I guess we’ll see.

What’s iZombie going to do next?

Riverdale’s “La Grande Illusion” and the show’s central flaws

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 8.21.14 AMWhat happened in this episode of Riverdale? Well, Archie befriended Cheryl in exchange for certain favors from her parents, then realized the Blossom family is evil (a truth already acknowledged about 500 times before) and pulled away, leaving Cheryl angry and out for revenge; Polly, who has been living at Thorn Hill, reveals to Archie that she believes the Blossoms are responsible for Jason’s death, which is the real reason why she’s still there. That’s the main story. In other news, Archie’s dad discovers the identity of his benefactor and Veronica sees firsthand the effects of her father’s misdeeds.

Look. I will be the first to say that something doesn’t have to be Citizen Kane- level quality for you to be able to watch and enjoy it. Something can still pose interesting questions even if it’s not the most sophisticated work of art or doesn’t project some auteurist philosophy. Thus far I have hand-waved those who criticize Riverdale for its somewhat shallow characterizations and aversion to realistic characters and dialogue. Where I draw the watch/don’t watch line, rather, is the point where such shallowness stops being fun and interesting and becomes boring and annoying.

Let’s compare Riverdale to its contemporary, the Netflix original A Series of Unfortunate Events. In many ways, the two shows are similar. Like Riverdale, the Netflix series prioritizes aesthetic over reality, a complex and multi-layered mystery over character development. But A Series of Unfortunate Events embraces its weird and wholly unrealistic characters with a twinkle in its eye, while Riverdale refuses to admit its characters are anything less than real teenagers. I’ve given the show a pass up till this point because, again, the entertainment value has so far overpowered the shallowness. But for me, last week’s episode crossed that line into boring/annoying territory, and I am thoroughly irritated. I am talking, first and foremost, about Archie, who is both the show’s ostensible main character and its weakest link.

 At best, from the point we’re at now, Archie functions as an object of female desire, yet as we have seen he appears to be a failure even at that. I’m just saying, if Val and Archie had to break up, couldn’t it at least have been a little more interesting than that? Val and Archie have so far been nothing if not absurdly functional, yet now it seems as though Val is going to leave the show and our lives as abruptly and randomly as she entered them. Val accuses Archie of “ignoring her” the whole time they have been together, which I haven’t seen any direct evidence of other than the fact that the show itself periodically forgets she exists.

Riverdale has no sense of object permanence; its writing team seems to have the same problem as Guy Pearce in Memento. Things that happened in one episode are forgotten or unquestionably resolved by the following one. The pedophile cellist, despite being set up as hugely important in the first half of the season, is now gone: out of sight, out of mind. The boorish jock Moose has made a sudden reappearance with no mention of his past relationship with Kevin the Gay Best Friend. Jughead is apparently now such a committed boyfriend as to be compelled to attend Betty’s awkward family gatherings, without any buildup to that whatsoever. And where the hell is Josie? No, the show can’t be expected to write all its recurring characters into every episode, but it’s not just that; it genuinely seems to forget about them when they’re not on screen. It is clear that Riverdale’s biggest weakness is the relationships it forces between its characters, and in no case is this clearer than with Archie.

Archie is the Good Guy, the infallible male protagonist who inevitably becomes the least interesting person in the room. But he lacks Harry Potter’s hero complex, Percy Jackson’s irreverence, Luke Skywalker’s temptations. In short, he lacks anything that could make him a watchable character. When confronted with a problem, he figures out the most moral decision within twenty minutes. The Ms. Grundy storyline, though terrible, at the very least introduced Archie as a slightly interesting personality. Now that that’s over, there’s apparently no moral dilemma that he can’t resolve.

The Archie plotline of this episode had potential, as Archie finds himself in the position of being offered riches and success in exchange for friend-pimping himself out to the Blossoms. As his friends remind him several times, the Blossoms are the enemy and Cheryl has never been a friend to them (in so doing disregarding her development of the last several episodes in which she seemed to be growing, but we’ll come back to that later). Archie responds by pointing out that he has nothing against Cheryl and that she says she just wants an ally there (which literally everyone else recognizes as bullshit), and besides, the Blossoms are offering him the chance of a lifetime. What’s the downside? Archie’s stupidity, though intense, is something we’ve all become accustomed to, and so we know that he’ll figure it out by the end of the episode.

In what way have the experiences of this episode affected Archie? In no way whatsoever, even though in its course we saw him ignoring his friend’s warnings and abandoning his values in pursuit of personal gain, letting Cheryl kiss him a surprisingly long time before pulling away, and losing his girlfriend because he was too wrapped up in everything else. Yet he has been given no time to reflect on his moral compromising, or even to mourn his breakup. Doubtless, he will soon forget about Val just as he forgot he ever liked Veronica and Grundy. Archie is actually dumb enough to let himself get pulled into Cheryl’s life, to let her walk up to him and talk to him with their faces mere inches apart, to stand there while she waxes eloquent about how he’s the only person who really knows her, without figuring out that she’s gearing up for a kiss. And then when it does happen, it takes him a moment to figure it out, letting her kiss him for a few seconds before breaking away and asking, surprised, “Cheryl, what are you doing?” as if nobody could have seen this coming. This is because Archie is simply too good to be tempted, or to even understand what temptation is.

What’s even more irritating than all this is the show’s treatment, or mistreatment, of Cheryl, who is shaping up to be that one character who alternates between good and bad from episode to episode without any actual development. It’s fine for her to feel conflicted about her allegiance to her terrible family who continually rejects her, and I’ll accept her going back and forth on this dilemma for a while. But the way she acts towards Archie’s gang plays out like an insufferable game of ping-pong: at one moment she’s inviting Veronica to a slumber party and laying bare her emotional insecurities; at another she’s back to bullying them all with her Vixens. Again, this kind of inconsistency goes from acceptable when the show is still getting off the ground, to unbearable nearing the end of the season. The final scene of this episode shows her furiously scratching out Archie’s face (and Polly’s too, for some reason) on the photo they all took together, crying and vowing revenge. This is an irritating direction for the character, given the fact that she seemed, in general, to be growing closer with Archie’s group. Can the writers please just pick an end point for Cheryl, and then set her on that path? Her constant vacillation is, like Archie’s kiddie-pool character development, starting to get unwatchable for me.

As usual, the show does a better job with the rest of its characters. We have started to see the horrible Alice Cooper turn over a new leaf, which is some nice development even if it’s presented with Riverdale’s customary lack of buildup. The weekly revelations about the Cooper family are always interesting, though with reveal on top of reveal it’s starting to feel like the show has no idea where it’s going with this and is kind of just making this all up as it goes along. Meanwhile, Veronica is brought face-to-face with a family that has been destroyed through her father’s corruption, suggesting, not for the first time, that she is the only character the writers really put effort into. Veronica, Ethel, and Kevin win the prize for strongest and most consistent storyline this week.

Look, I still have faith in Riverdale. I’m still interested in the story, I still like the characters, I still want to know how it turns out. For the most part, the storyline about the abuse Cheryl receives from her parents and extended family is a good one. It’s when Archie is tasked with carrying a storyline himself that the show’s weakest points become noticeable. And this is a real problem: Riverdale is not an ensemble show. It has a small core of important characters, at the center of which a single person lives, and this stems not only from the show’s treatment of that character but also from the place that he has in our culture. And for the central character of a show to be its weakest link is simply unsustainable. Archie should be able to be the main character while still having an interesting personality, while still encountering struggles and temptations and chances or growth. And just because this is a problem that befalls plenty of other stories (Scott McCall in Teen Wolf, Frodo in Lord of the Rings), that doesn’t excuse Riverdale’s laziness. 

Riverdale’s “La Grande Illusion” and the show’s central flaws