Arthur Fleck and Emmet Brickowski

I saw Joker this week. It’s a movie that’s exceptionally well crafted, and also a movie that’s profoundly disturbed and ill-equipped to handle its subject matter to the point where it enters into the realm of very bad taste. This movie is one that kinda really hates women and also merrily parrots the idea that mentally ill loners are the cause of mass shootings but ultimately doesn’t have anything to say about anything, left me feeling really icky as I left the cinema.

So maybe let’s talk about something else I also did this week that I did really like: putting together a LEGO set while listening to music and drinking a beer. The set, Emmet’s Dream House/Rescue Rocket, is based on The LEGO Movie 2, and is, um, exactly what it sounds like. I built the Dream House (you can choose which one!) because it’s absolutely adorable. Though it ultimately plays a minor role in the film, Emmet’s Dream House is actually pretty dang important to his arc in the film.

The LEGO Movie 2 exchanges Bricksburg of the first movie for Apocalypseburg, a world where everything is dark, bleak, and edgy. Except for Emmet. He builds a house on the edge of town for him and Lucy. This house, by the by, is not dissimilar to a house they crashed through shortly after they first met in the prior movie. Which is a very cute touch because, hey, history. Now Lucy hasn’t got any time for domestic tranquility, because this is not what their life is about (it’s dark and broody!), and so dismisses Emmet out of hand.

When Lucy, Batman, Benny, and several other characters get captured by General Mayhem, it’s up to Emmet to go after them. But he needs a ship. So, using his Master Builder skills, he takes apart his dream house and rebuilds it into a rocket (a rescue rocket) to go save his friends. He’s quite explicitly dismantling his dreams in favor of doing the right thing, since, well, they’re worth it. In space, however, he runs into trouble and is saved by the enigmatic, badass Rex Dangervest. Unlike Emmet, Rex is a Master Breaker — a skill he demonstrates by destroying Emmet’s Rescue Rocket.

Rex is undeniably cool: he’s edgy, he has pet raptors, he’s wise to the world and everything Emmet is not. Emmet wants to be him because, hey, that’s what the world of Apocalypseburg needs now, right? It’s 2019; heroes are anti-heroes, it’s a crappy place, and there’s no space for the happy-go-lucky Emmet. Building stuff’s not cool; breaking stuff is.

Joker is a weird movie in that its protagonist’s fate is to become an iconic villain, not terribly unlike Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels. But once Revenge of The Sith sees Anakin’s (poorly executed) arc reach his fall, the movie neither lionizes him nor wants us to sympathize with him. We’re not cheering him on as he massacres children in the Jedi Temple or slaughters the Separatist leadership, we’re supposed to mourn his fall from grace. Joker, however, has Arthur cross a line quite early on and asks us to stay on board with him even as he (and the film) goes more off the rails.

Using a vague, unnamed mental illness to ask for the audience’s sympathy, the movie almost wants to bill itself as The Portrait of the Mass-Murderer As a Young Man, though with not point to its depravity other than “look what society made him do.” Joker’s murders are portrayed as him lashing out from his patheticness, a hurting man gaining the semblance of control. It sparks a movement of sorts, with others taking up the cause of a killer clown who puts the wealthy in their place. But here too the movie is muddled. There are only two camps the movie will let you, the viewer, fall into: either you are part of the system that tramples downtrodden people like Arthur, or you are a member of the downtrodden for whom Joker is your martyrial icon. The latter an extrapolation; the film’s finale sees Joker’s unconscious body carried by rioters like a perverse Pietá, and the unruly masses watch him in vigil.

The Joker is a fantastic villain. Mark Hamill’s portrayal of him in the Batman cartoons and Arkham Asylum video games offer a twisted, psychopathic maniac with outlandish plots to steal and destroy. The Dark Knight positioned the Joker as chaos personified, a Hobbesian foil to Batman’s belief in justice and order. That film, with its psyche split into the Freudian trio of Batman, Joker, and Harvey Dent, explored the idea of heroism and villainy, and whether goodness can stand in the face of men who just want to watch the world burn. Joker, conversely, has no such ideas, instead choosing to echo the manifestos of white terrorists I see on the news and play it off as some profound observation about life.

Forgive me, then, if I don’t enjoy a nihilistic film that hasn’t much more to say about nihilism than how it means nothing. Forgive me if I’d rather not watch a film that lionizes the lone gunman and reiterates that mental-illness is what causes mass shootings (it’s not). Forgive me if I’m sickened by a film that climaxes in a self-described mentally ill loner in clown makeup shooting in a theatre of people, barely seven years since a man in clown makeup shot up a theater in real life.

It turns out, in The LEGO Movie 2, that Rex is really an Emmet from the future, who grew disillusioned and believes that the only way to deal with anything is by being gruff and edgy, that there is no space for childish things. But Emmet realizes that, no, his hope and joy is valuable even in a terrible world. Dark grittiness only gets you so far, and expecting everything to be antagonistic and malicious only fosters more of the same. Taking stuff apart is cool and all, but where’s its worth without building something too? Amid an apocalyptic wasteland, it is worth building a bright yellow dream house for you and your loved ones.

This isn’t to say that isolating yourself from reality is the right course of action, far from it. The world’s terrible enough as it is, and though there are times when it’s worth it to engage with it thoughtfully. Emmet, and the other characters in The Lego Movie 2, come to realize that everything’s not awesome, but that doesn’t mean things are hopeless, turns out it’s still worth it to try and make things better, you can still choose joy. I do like a bleak and twisted story (Roald Dahl’s “Genesis and Catastrophe” comes to mind, alongside Taxi Driver and Spec Ops: The Line), but I like them to have a point to it all. Darkness can be used to highlight society’s ills and our own relation to them, but grimdark bleakness for its own sake is, ultimately, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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What I’ve Been Reading

I like reading. Always have.

University was both a boon and a hindrance for that love, though. Courtesy of my course of study, I read a lot. There were classes where I was going through a different book every two weeks. I read books that I might not have checked out of my own volition, like Jacques the Fatalist and Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, along with books I’d wanted to read but never got around to, like Romance of Three Kingdoms and Ulysses. And that’s not even getting into the untold number of articles, excerpts, and the like that offered background and different points of view on, well, stuff.

Come graduation I didn’t have a  syllabus anymore and so didn’t really have much of a direction of what to read. So I read stuff I’d had lying around (Interpreter of Maladies) and books I’d wanted to read but hadn’t had time for (Ready Player One). But of course, there’s still that itch to read more, and, y’know, learn too. So I kept my eyes peeled for books on topics I found interesting. Interviews on The Daily Show led me to Ashley’s War and White Rage and a trip to the Museum of Chinese in America put me on course for my informal postgraduate study of the Chinese diaspora within the United States. For a while there I enforced a policy of one ‘serious’ book for every ‘fun’ book, so following up a Star Wars: Rogue Squadron book with a sociology book about tabletop RPGs, then Trevor Noah’s autobiography and then Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between The World and Me. Sure, I was a little generous with my definitions, but hey, it forced me to read more ‘educational’ stuff.

After a while though, I longed to get back to reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy, genres that I love for so many reasons. But there was still the part of me that wouldn’t let me get away with just diving back into old comforts. So I gave myself a simple edict: read more science fiction and fantasy by authors who aren’t white guys. And let me tell you, that has been a wonderful decision.

I remember watching the credits for Arrival and noticing that it was based on a short story by someone with a Chinese last name. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang was added to my reading list. His stories are fantastic. In addition to the titular one which plays with language and time in magnificent ways afforded only by written fiction, there’s also Division By Zero that posits a relationship falling apart alongside the basic laws of mathematics breaking down. Excellent, excellent genre work, but I wanted more.

I found out about Ken Liu with his short story “The Paper Menagerie” and shortly thereafter picked up his short story collection by the same name. Loving how he wives unique East-Asian themes into his stories, I sought out his epic fantasy book The Grace of Kings. The doorstopper sized book scratches the itch of the kid who read The Lord of The Rings over and over again and is always delighted when he opens a book to find a fantastical map. But what the book offered that others didn’t was its clear influence by historical Chinese epics like Romance of Three Kingdoms. Not only that but the books have a dramatic aesthetic that harkens more to the Chinese historical dramas that would play on my grandmother’s tv back in Singapore than whatever period drama is currently fashionable. Because why not base a fantasy series on ancient Chinese history?

One other way I’ve gone about finding new books to read has been by looking at websites’ lists of upcoming genre books, taking note of what interests me. It’s how I came upon S.A. Chakraborty and her book The City of Brass. It’s a fantastical book of magic and djinn — and one that draws on Muslim tradition at that. It’s a neat world and a refreshing approach to fantasy. I dug it, got the second book, and am eagerly awaiting the third once she finishes it.

I’m reading and reading a lot. At the risk of sounding hokey, I’m really enjoying reading new stories by people who aren’t usually the ones in the spotlight. And hey, learning new things is cool.

As I said, I like reading.

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Fight For Your Life!

Borderlands 2 has a nifty mechanic called Fight For Your Life. Basically, when you run out of health, you’re not dead yet; instead, you have a little bit of time where you can crawl around and shoot while waiting for a revive. So far, not particularly different from some other games: Apex Legends lets a downed player move, open doors, and mark enemies until their timer runs out, and I know there’s at least one Call of Duty that lets you fight while bleeding out and waiting for a teammate’s revive. It’s a cool feature of competitive shooters: if you down an enemy do you wait it out and risk them being revived, or do you rush in and get the execution for more points (and bragging rights)? It forces the player to make a quick decision about what’s more tactically sound, and hey, more interesting choices are always welcome in a game.

The spin Borderlands 2 puts on it is that it takes the idea of fighting for your life literally. If you’re able to kill an enemy before your timer runs out, you’re instantly revived and back in the fight. It adds an interesting dimension to single player, where running out of health doesn’t mean a game over or having to return to your last checkpoint. Thus the player is now encouraged to be a little more reckless because of the chance for a self-revive. Combat priorities are also slightly shifted, when faced with a large group of enemies it’s not quite tactically sound to take out all the weaker enemies first before dealing with the more powerful one since you want an easy kill in case you have to fight for your life. But you don’t want to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. It creates more choices and tactical options for the player in a firefight; options beyond shoot all that moves. Of course, end up in Fight For Your Life to often in an encounter and you’ll see that timer get shorter and shorter: don’t be too reckless else you’ll have to respawn anyway.

Multiplayer in Borderlands 2 offers yet another space for the strategic interestingness of Fight For Your Life shine. If a teammate goes down during a raid in Destiny it’s in your best interest to revive them quickly since you need their support and if that timer runs out you run the risk of wiping as a team and having to restart. In Borderlands 2, there’s a strategic boon to not reviving your teammate, since they may be able to revive themselves via Fight For Your Life. Risky strategies that involve splitting up become viable. Snap judgements become required, as a downed player can make the call whether or not they’ll be able to kill an enemy to get back in the fight, or if they need a revive. A player a distance away can soften up a foe to give a downed player an assist, but stealing a kill from a downed player can also rob them of their revive and lead to you reviving them as penance.

As my brother and I make our way through our third playthrough of Borderlands 2 (Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode for the win!), I’m noticing a lot of the little details and features of the game that set it apart from contemporary first-person shooters. Much of it is certainly its tone and integration of RPG features that add a nice dose of zaniness into it all. Fight For Your Life, though, is something I haven’t really seen replicated elsewhere, and it’s certainly a nifty addition that I really do enjoy.

Also, yelling “yoink!” into the mic as I steal my brother’s revive kill and before remorsefully reviving him myself will never not be funny.

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Waiting For The Hurt

Sony did a big showcase of upcoming games this past week and honestly, all I care about is the new trailer for The Last of Us Part II. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Naughty Dog and, naturally, can’t wait for their next game. I’ve also written many times on this blog about The Last of Us and how much I love it, so, obviously, there’s hype here for its release.

I’m also loath to play it, as my unfinished second playthrough can attest. It’s not a bad game, it’s that the experience of playing it is so visceral and painful that it’s hard for me to sit down and jump in. Even though I haven’t booted it up in years, I know where I left off: Pittsburgh. It’s still early in the game, but I know I’m about to meet Sam and Henry, two brothers who come to accompany Joel and Ellie in the desolation. The brothers’ story ends in tragedy; Sam is infected and Henry shoots him to save Ellie, before, overcome by grief, shoots himself. It’s a painful scene: in part because we’d just gotten to know these two and had been offered a semblance of tranquility, and because the game doesn’t skitter around the emotional toll it takes on Henry before his suicide, and on Ellie and Joel in the aftermath. It’s not a particularly fun sequence of events. 

Maybe part of me is dreading that scene, for the simple reason that, well, it’s a lot. The Last of Us is not one to pull its emotional punches. Gameplay makes you feel vulnerable. Swathes of silent exploration are punctuated by bouts of violence, and in that violence, you never have the upper hand. Ammunition is desperately scarce, improvised weapons break with use. There’s no power fantasy here, as you run from a Clicker just trying to stay alive. Some of the Infected haven’t yet been totally overrun by the Cordyceps parasites and retain some semblance of humanity, and while you’re sneaking around them you’ll hear them weeping. Down a human enemy and you’ll hear them begging for their life as you go in for the kill, not in a way that makes you feel like a badass, but with a patheticness that’s gut-wrenching. 

Video games are immersive, that’s part of the appeal. You get to be the hero who takes up a sword and saves Hyrule, you get to be a jerkwad goose and wreak havoc on a tiny town. The Last of Us leverages this visceral immersion to drive its brutality home. It’s not just Joel carrying out these terrible actions, it’s you. Unlike in a movie or a book, video games require you to take an active part in what goes down on screen. I’ve done it, and I’m not too keen to do it again.

But I’m getting The Last of Us Part II on day one, because, well, how can I not? I want to go through the experience — one that Naughty Dog has promised to be even more brutal — and I want to find out what’s next for Ellie. Oh, I know it’ll be painful, but I know there’s a catharsis at the end.

Aristotle had a lot to say about stories (his Poetics are renowned for a reason). Catharsis, he figured, was one of the most important parts of a story. You must bring your audience through heightened emotions, make them feel joy, wrath, wonder, and sadness, and then at the end of it all, deliver an ending that allows the audience to purge it all out. For all the horror and pain The Last of Us put me through, its resolution allowed me that purge, that release. It was worth it.

I bought the remastered The Last of Us for the PS4, fully intending to knuckle down and play it. I still haven’t, but with the second one coming out soon it’s probably time to revisit the first. It’s gonna hurt, but the beauty and the catharsis will be worth it. Hopefully, the sequel will deliver just as well.

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Horse Music

Breath of The Wild, like most 3D games in the Legend of Zelda series, gives you a horse. It’s absolutely vital in this open-world game, as walking through much of the massive map would just take too long. It’d be really easy for the horse to just be a tool, a vehicle, a perfunctory mechanic that lets you move faster and mixes up gameplay a little.

And mechanically, the horses of Breath of The Wild works just fine. On horseback, you move faster, and it facilitates hit and run attacks. Different games do horses differently. Wild lets you talk to people on horseback, but you’ve gotta dismount if you wanna pick up that random acorn rolling on the ground. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey does the inverse; you can loot on horseback but not y’all to folks. The horse in Metal Gear Solid V operates essential like a vehicle, albeit a quiet one that’s less likely to draw the attention of patrolling soldiers. Gameplay-wise, as in when it comes to you, the player, interacting with the game, your horse does all the horsey things it needs to horse-do. 

Cool.

Breath of The Wild is also a quiet game. There’s not much in the way of music when you’re out exploring the wilds. Combat, villages, and stables have their themes, but you won’t hear much while roaming the hills of Necluda.

Unless you’re on a horse.

As you ride your horse, scattered piano starts to play. Over time, that piano coalescences into a slow, mournful rendered of a familiar tune.

For someone like me who’s played his share of The Legend of Zelda games, the theme music is something loaded with meaning and memory. It heralds a title screen and announces the start of a new adventure. It’s a musical cue that’s oddly absent in Breath of The Wild, not showing up in the title screen and there only being echoes of it when a traveling bard gives you a history lesson. 

So hearing the theme is made special by its scarcity. It’s a particular moment getting to hear it, especially in the mournful orchestral rendition it takes in the game. When the song plays, it plays. Chalk it up as another way that Wild makes established conventions feel fresh and new again. 

But why does the theme play here, in this exact moment? Why now? Why not have it play when you’re doing Something Awesome or, as with most other Zelda games, over the main menu?

Saving the iconic theme music for this is a deliberate choice by the developers, one that I think speaks to the central ethos of Breath of The Wild. The music only kicks in if you’ve been riding for a bit of time, it doesn’t strum up instantly, so you’re unlikely to hear it if you ride only in short bursts. It also won’t play if you’re in battle, as that’s when the battle theme kicks in instead. You’ll only hear it if you’re on a long ride at a steady gallop through the wilds. 

In this way, Breath of The Wild shows how it values long ride on horseback and the peaceful exploration and it entails. By making the circumstances for the music playing so singular, the game encourages you to fulfill those requirements. If you’re roaming Faron on horseback, the allure of the music subtlety discourages you from engaging in wanton combat or stopping to pick apples. The focus right here is on your ride, your exploration. That the horse automatically veers along a path allows you to focus your attention on looking around and really taking in Hyrule. Exploration and bothering camps of Bokoblins have their place, but right here is a moment to stop and enjoy the scenery. For all its wonderful innovations, Breath of The Wild knows that a key part of The Legend of Zelda is the expanse of its world, and it’s that conceit at its purest when the theme finally plays.

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Ahistoricity

As I’ve said before, there are two reasons I picked up Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey; the first being that I got to control a ship again (seriously, after Black Flag gave me a pirate ship there was no going back). The other was that you could finally play as a woman for the whole game. It only took, what, eleven games to finally feature a female protagonist, albeit an optional one.

Anyway, naturally, I’m playing the game as Kassandra (instead of Blandy McWhiteGuy #38 that is Alexios), because I am here for badass women in my video games. It’s a lotta fun, but it’s also patently untrue. See, Kassandra’s a woman, and when it came to women, Ancient Greece wasn’t so great about it. Well, neither were most eras, really. Or right now. But that’s beside the point.

The Assassin’s Creed games are historical fiction, as played out through genetic memories in a fancy device called the Animus. Given that most all of the assassinating takes place in the past, whichever character the player inhabits must thus belong to the era and be fitting enough to be able to pass inconspicuously as needed. Naturally, the games want to focus on Big Cool Bits of History; unfortunately, due to a westernized view of history, Big Cool Bits tend to focus on that as seen by the West: the Crusades, the Renaissance, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Victorian Era, Ancient Egypt. They’re the eras and events we learnt about in our (westernized) history books and what we’ve learnt to associate as those Big Cool Bits. The Ming Dynasty, various Caliphates, and pre-colonial India are relegated to footnotes.

Because of this, the problem inherent to Assassin’s Creed is that most of (western) history isn’t great for women or people of color, thus necessitating that most of the game’s protagonists must be caucasian or white-passing. It was game number ten, Assassin’s Creed Origins, that introduced Bayek as the main character. He’s Egyptian, and, unlike a lot of depictions of Egyptians in popular culture, not white. Which is cool! And honestly, I’m keen to check out Origins sometime, to see how it is in comparison with Odyssey

Having Bayek be a person of color makes sense, because, well Egypt. It’d be far more strange to have him be some white dude. Were Ubisoft to ever make an Assassin’s Creed set in the Ming Dynasty or some other non-western historical period, the protagonist would probably have to be a person of color, because, hey, we’re finally telling stories that aren’t about white dudes. But history being history, if we wanted to give an accurate portrayal of the era and its culture, the protagonist would have to be male to be able to go about society doing things (like assassinating people).

Now, back to Odyssey, where I’m playing the entire game as Kassandra, a female character. Due to the game allowing you to pick between characters, gameplay and plot are essentially the same if you’re Alexios or Kassandra (since making things different would require more coding and work). There’s no difference in your ability to captain a ship, fight in a war, or sneak your way into a symposium based on whom you pick — or based on your gender. This means that Kassandra can do everything Alexios can; she can rub elbows with the Herodotus and Aristophanes all the same, she can be a respected and feared general, she can romance the exact same cast. In essence, Kassandra is equal.

Which is bullshit. Gender roles were established in classical Greek culture; you weren’t gonna have some woman running around as a mercenary fighting other mercenaries (some of which are women!). It’s plain unrealistic.

And so what? The game takes place two-and-a-half millennia ago, in an era that’s almost as much myth and legend as it is recorded history. Where’s the harm in taking some big liberties? Yeah, yeah; I get it, it’s ‘unrealistic’ to have a female mercenary roaming the Greek World and jumping around Big History Bits, but this is also a game where I merrily and repeatedly destabilize nation-states without plunging each society into ruin, so really, there’s a lot of ahistoricity going on there. 

But Josh, you say, that’s just gameplay mechanics built around the whole idea of reducing a nation’s power by killing its leader. And to that I say: So what? We’re okay with small breaks from realism for the sake of fun, why not for the sake of narrative? Video games, like so much of other fiction, has an overabundance of white dudes and needs a hefty splash of diversity. I am happy for Odyssey to take a break from reality and let me play as a female mercenary for the whole game. It’s cool, and, c’mon, we already know how history went; let’s have a little fun with it.

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Nine-Nine

I finally got back into Brooklyn Nine-Nine a month or so ago, having finished The Good Place and looking for something with similar energy. Given that it was co-created by Mike Schur, the man guy behind Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, two shoes I adore for their warmth and big heart, I figured I’d return to Brooklyn.

Yeah, return. I started watching some of it when it first premiered and eventually got around to watching most of the first two seasons. The problem was that this was during the Fall of 2014, and the NYPD was showing up in the news a lot, and not for particularly wonderful things. I was certainly enjoying the show, but a show about cops wasn’t something I really wanted to seek out for fun after class.

It’s a bit of an odd excuse, I’ll give it that. But slapstick and silly cops became a lot less funny when police were in the news for getting away with during terrible things to people. I understand the difference between fiction and reality (believe me, I do), but at the time it was more than I really wanted to deal with. I go to stories for escapism, and at the time, that show wasn’t scratching that itch. 

So five years later I’m jumping back in with two feet. What’s changed? Not the American policing system, sadly. And I’d hope I’m not more resigned to things being how they are being the way they have to be in real life. 

Maybe part of it is me giving Brooklyn Nine-Nine another chance; it was easy to stop watching at the end of a season and not jump in again — or at least be hesitant to continue. Years later, I’ve jumped back in and am really enjoying it. All this makes me wonder, why do I enjoy it so, and if I do now, why I didn’t then?

Upon getting back into the show, I’m struck by how much of the plotlines revolve primarily around character rather than incidents. Sure, there’s often a crime of the week, but the show, particularly in later seasons, concerns itself less with ‘those dastardly criminals’ than it does with the actual people. The show gets a lot more mileage about seeing how Jake and Charles handle the situation and their dynamic rather than having much to do with the crime itself. Arresting the bad guys doesn’t really become a plot point as much as other hijinks.

For what it’s worth, the show does, at the very least, offer a measure of lip service to some of the more problematic aspects of policing. There’s an episode that sees the squad’s sergeant Terry being profiled in his own neighborhood on account of his being black, and discussions around the nature of racist profiling ensue. A storyline sees Jake tossed in jail (for a crime he didn’t commit, natch) and the show does address some of the many issues with the American penal system. At the end of it all, though, Nine-Nine is set in the ‘real’ world and for all its fantastical and silly elements, ultimately this isn’t a show that’s going to go about fixing the system as a whole. Furthermore, it’s a comedy, and really diving into policing issues would very quickly quash much of the show’s fun. The show is certainly aware of the real-world issues that exist, but those aren’t really the point.

I like Brooklyn Nine-Nine a lot for its characters and their dynamics. Everyone’s so well sketched that it’s such fun watching them play off of each other. I find the show to be at its best less when it’s dealing with outlandish cases and odd office hijinks, more so than ‘typical’ police work. 

Or maybe this whole blog post is me trying to think through why a show I didn’t want to watch a few years ago I really enjoy now. Maybe it’s the show coming into its own and my being able to see that, or maybe I’m just trying to justify some cognitive dissonance. Whatever the case, I like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and all its fantasy. Perhaps that’s enough.

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