Pacific Rim (During an Apocalypse)

Today is a good day to rewatch Pacific Rim. But then, honestly, aren’t most days?

For the past few months, I’ve been ruminating on the apocalypse in the back of my mind, owing to the whole, y’know, everything going on around us. While replaying The Last of Us, part of the game rung hollow, as the pandemic around me saw people banding together, rather than turning against each other. Though, then again, maybe that’s the difference between an airborne virus and a fungal parasite that takes over your brain.

Death Stranding was an eerie delight. Wandering around a post-apocalyptic America (that looked like Iceland) and making deliveries from isolated hubs of humanity while helping them form connections felt like a very apt thing to do in the time of COVID-19. It’s notable that, for as bleak as the imagined world is, Hideo Kojima’s game is quite optimistic, envisioning a world where connection between people is still possible, no matter how isolated they might be. Again, oddly prescient given that it came out last November, and very apt (that this is without getting into the whole meditation on the line between life and death that gives the game its name).

Pacific Rim is another movie about an apocalypse or at least an impending one. Giant kaiju have invaded the planet and are wreaking destruction along coastal cities. Given that conventional weapons don’t do great against Kaiju and that they have toxic blood, the natural solution is to build giant mecha and beat the crap outta them. The Jaegers offer a way for humanity to stand against the Kaiju invasion.

Now, Pacific Rim checks all my boxes. Ragtag multinational teams. Badass women. A story that unironically wears its heart on its sleeve. Giant robots. I’m not saying this movie’s perfect, but if there’s a Maslowian hierarchy for what makes for a perfect comfort movie, this one comes pretty darn close to actualization.

As we find ourselves in the throes of mild societal collapse (within the US, anyway), it’s really easy to wanna revisit post-apocalyptic fiction for glimpses of alternatives or an eerie comfort (see ruminating on the apocalypse, above). Death Stranding is about the importance of connection; The Day of The Triffids sees survivors making do despite the failings of humanity that led to the end of the world.

And Pacific Rim? The heroes of the movie are those who choose to stand against impending doom; they don’t hide behind walls but instead do whatever they can to stop the Kaiju from destroying the world. Pentecost, the leader of them all, outright says that “we are cancelling the apocalypse,” because in the world of Pacific Rim, apocalypses can be canceled. The world ending doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world

I think part of the beauty of Pacific Rim is that it’s not just about giant robots fighting giant monsters, although, sure, that’s part of the appeal. In this world these giant robots can’t be piloted by one person alone, the technobabble explanation being that the neural load is too much for one person. What this means is that to pilot a Jaeger, you need to do so alongside someone else, the process of which requires emotional openness and trust. You can’t cancel the apocalypse by yourself in Pacific Rim, you need someone else. It’s not one man saving the world, it’s about a team doing it together.

Quarantine has us isolated. It’s been months since I’ve seen many of my friends in person. There’s a comforting fantasy in Pacific Rim, where connections are what matters in the end, and by doing what we’re doing together — even if it’s isolating at home and not piloting a Jaeger — we’ll be able to make things better. Or maybe there’s just never a wrong time to watch Pacific Rim.

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One More Turn

The first time I played Civilization V on my computer I ended up pulling an all-nighter. While in college. When I didn’t have homework. It was not the best of life choices.

But it was a lot of fun.

I dug into Civilization VI last night, not heeding the various other games I’ve been meaning to play, and very nearly stayed up all night again, but, as I have grown as a person, I did not. Game’s a lotta fun though.

Through it all, though, I kept telling myself “just one more turn,” which is the mantra of all who have fallen prey to Civilization’s siren song. Naturally, I found myself asking why.

The central tenet of Civilization is this: You have a civilization (based on real ones in history, like the Kongo, Sumerians, and French), and, starting from the Ancient Era, you slowly build it into a magnificent empire. You can befriend or betray rival factions, build up your cities, and try for one of a few different forms of victory (domination, cultural, science, or religious). Naturally, your plans will have plans if you want to be able to succeed; ensuring a science victory may require some mild warmongering along the way.

All of this takes time. It takes turns to produce builders or soldiers, turns to produce wonders of the world, and turns to improve your cities. More likely than not, you’re gonna have several balls in the air, with ships being built at Uruk while the Colossus is under construction at Bergen; all while you wait for your missionaries to start exerting some influence on the city-state of Valetta. What this means in practice, is that one turn you’ll finish a project, start a new one, and two turns later the next one will come to fruition.

Just gotta hang on for one more turn.

The particular genius of this is that your plan keeps changing, depending on how things work, and you want to keep that Plan going. Interrupting it would be such a shame.

Unlike many other games, there’s not much in the way of natural stopping points. There are no big boss fights or chapter ends, just a long steady slog towards victory, which in this game can easily take hundreds upon hundreds of turns. Stopping the game means interrupting, more so than in The Sims where the lack of goal allows for a more freeform style. In Civ there is a goal to all that you do, and you’re working towards it at all times. You don’t want to lose track of where you are on in your machinations. There’s also the sunk-cost fallacy, where I’ve already spent as long as I have working towards my goal, might as well stick it out to see where it goes.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. Civilization is a great game that’s hard to put down because of how all its mechanics all come together into a unified whole. And I really want to win this game, so, less time blog posting, more time civilizing.

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Immersion

Reading the Wikipedia summary of a book or tv show is not the same as reading or watching it. A movie’s script is an inherently unfinished product until it is produced and brought to its fullest form. It makes a certain amount of sense; you want the full experience of Ulysses? Read the book itself, not the CliffNotes. Inception is a trip, but it’s a trip that works best when you’re watching it in full. The reasoning behind this seems quite obvious: for something written, there’s a particularity given to the prose that the writer uses to evoke whatever it is they’re going for; visual media like television and film use the camera to draw the viewer’s attention to certain places, with every aspect of the story tailored to the audience’s experience.

Things get weird when media gets more interactive.

In a book, things are written to be read a certain way, and unless you’re reading it, uh, backwards, you’re experiencing it the way it was extended. Sitting in a theater, you’re watching a movie as it’s meant to be, from start to finish, no distractions, and with the audio and the visuals just right.

But what about when you’re watching a play? Sure, you’re supposed to be watching the stage, but where on the stage? If it’s in the round you’re seeing a completely different point of view as someone on the other side! And what if they decide to interact with the audience? Furthermore, there are elements of stagecraft that draw the audience in, things that are designed to be seen, and experienced, in person. There’s no way a description of the furniture disappearing into the stage in Fun Home can compare to watching it happen in front of you. It’s arguable that the audience’s own ability to view the stage through their own eyes (and not that of the director’s camera or writer’s prose) is part of the narrative work of a stage performance. The liminal space occupied by the actors and the audience becomes a magic circle during the performance.

Being there, having to turn your head to follow the action, is a part of watching a play that a recording doesn’t quite capture, filtered as it is through a camera crew. It’s a small thing, but not having to physically turn your head to see what’s going on removes a small part of the interaction that’s part of the medium.

Kinda like not playing a video game.

In the same way that a well-made play uses that stage to its fullest, so too does a video game. Video games with a focus on narrative tell stories not just through non-interactive cutscenes, but by making players actually play the story. The effect of this, when well executed, isn’t found in other media. The Last of Us and BioShock both take place in the aftermath of cataclysmic disasters, and you, the player explore the spaces left behind. There you’ll find notes and audio recordings that slowly paint a narrative of the people who lived in the place you’re exploring, leaving you to piece together a story about what happened. It’s completely optional, you don’t have to pick up any of the notes and can quite easily go through the whole game without collecting any if you choose. But by interacting with you’re given some background that sits in the back of your mind.

Then, of course, there is making you play through the story. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has you building a team of mercenaries and staffing them at your base. You might not remember them all by name, but you, the player, recruit them all and put them where they go. They’re your staff. When a late plot development has a number of your soldiers turn against you, you, the player, must kill them before they can do more damage. It is an… unpleasant experience. Not all of them are hostile, many of them are accepting, and you are tasked with shooting them in cold blood. The player is not allowed a passive position in the development, they have to take part in the carnage. The guilt that weighs on Venom Snake weighs too on the player. Sure, you can watch a play-through of the game, or even read a rundown on the plot, but not actively taking part in the action removes a level of immersion intended by the designers. Like watching a play on screen, passively watching a video game doesn’t confer the experience in full.

At the end of the day, something that’s created to exist in a specific medium ought to be experienced in that medium. But in doing so, it does become something else, doesn’t it (compare a stage production to a movie adaptation)? Different stories work different ways, but to experience them at all is a joy.

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Theater On A Screen

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to see Hamilton back in 2015 when it first made the move to Broadway. This was well before the soundtrack was released, but after its run at the Public. I was a TA for a summer film program and part of the thing was for the students to go see shows. They needed volunteers and, as someone trained since childhood to never turn down an opportunity to get some culture, I volunteered to go see this history musical called Hamilton (a friend of mine was also very insistent on me volunteering when he’d heard which play it was).

The play was dope. Yes, it plays fast and loose with history and, yes, glosses over historical issues of racism and slavery (like basically every other recounting of the founding of the US), but, arguably, that’s not the point. The genius of Hamilton is how it reinterprets a very familiar story: rather than the tried-and-true story of white dudes in fancy outfits, we’ve a cast almost entirely consisting of people-of-color telling the story with songs that borrow more from hip-hop and rap than Sondheim. The result is a story that feels incredibly fresh and fun, while also making a biography of Alexander Hamilton accessible and, somehow, badass. In addition, it’s an ode to the idea of America, more so than the actuality, an idealism that there was room for in 2015.

Naturally, I wanted to watch it again, and wanted to be able to watch it with some friends so I could talk to them about it and dig into it, but Hamilton tickets cost money and need to be purchased well in advanced, stuff that, as a college student, wasn’t really on the table. It’s frustrating, because Hamilton, a musical about being young, scrappy, and hungry, is effectively out of reach for the young, scrappy, and hungry. Even now, it’s hard for me to set aside $100 for an event months away.

So of course I’m super excited that the recording of Hamilton from 2016 is finally available to watch online. It means I can finally recommend it to people without the financial subtext. It means my parents and friends all over can watch it and we can all talk about it and get into it. Finally.

Perhaps the bigger issue is that the majority of plays and musical is out of reach unless you’re moneyed and living in New York. Most all of the theatre I’ve been to has been through rushing for discount tickets or having a friend with connections. Fun Home is a terrific show, but one I was only able to see because a friend won the ticket lottery and gave me his spot. The only reason I saw Vietgone is because they offered discount tickets for those under thirty. Both of these shows are fantastic and ones I wish I could share with friends the same way I do a good book or movie. Sure, I have the script for Vietgone, but letting a friend read it isn’t quite the same as getting to watch it.

I will admit that some is lost in the transfer from stage to screen; much of what makes theater work is the shared liminal space that contributes to the effect of the story (my experience watching Fun Home wouldn’t quite work on screen), in the same way that a video play-through of a video game lacks the experiential quality a good game has.

There’s a larger point to be made about the experiential nature of stories (once again, theater and video games are, oddly, very alike in this), but that’s for another day. At the moment, though, a little piece of pop-culture just got a whole lot more accessible. And that’s a good thing.

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One Hundred and Ten

Hey, how’s it going? Today is, by my count, day one hundred and ten of quarantine here in New York. At least since the day that I went into lockdown, stopped going into work, and have been in relative isolation within my apartment.

For those of y’all keeping track at home, that’s almost four months now.

Haven’t left my neighborhood in near on four months, haven’t gone on the subway in the same amount of time. Still going outside, though, but probably not getting near enough sunlight as I ought (but then again, sunlight is awful and hot). COVID-19 shows no real signs of abating — if anything, it’s gotten worse Stateside. Though the hotspots have since moved away from New York towards other parts of the US, I’ve little doubt things are gonna flare up again here in s short time.

There’s a lot of frustration with all this, of course. I’ve done my part, sure would be nice if everyone else did theirs too and life could go back to ‘normal’ at some point, but, here we are.

I suppose thinking too much about that would lead to this post being far more morose than I’d like; it’s not pessimism, just a wary eye on the potential future. Perhaps one tinged with the tiredness that’s resulted from the relative monotony of quarantine.

But hey, it’s better than getting sick. So, there’s that.

Anyway. Been playing a lot of Destiny 2 finally. There’s actual plot in this one, which is remarkable, while still being a lotta fun (seriously, the core gameplay loop of Destiny is so gratifying). I’m savoring the last season of She Ra and The Princesses of Power because it’s wonderful and I wanna make it last. The Last of Us Part Two was terrific; beautiful and heart-wrenching. I’ve on a post on it somewhere in me, but I might need another play-through and certainly need more time for that game to digest.

Here’s to another week. Maybe it’s time to re-watch Pacific Rim.

Maybe it’s always time to watch Pacific Rim.

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Intensive Purposes

This post is not about The Last of Us Part Two, which I have been enjoying immensely. It’s also not about She-Ra and The Princesses Of Power, which I have been joyfully devouring. Nope, this one is about a turn of phrase.

Particularly “for all intents and purposes.”

Apparently, the phrase is one of those that people regularly get confused for “all intensive purposes.” I didn’t know this was a malapropism, perhaps because I’d never heard the phrase “intensive purposes,” but more likely because, an avid reader, I undoubtedly came across “for all intents and purposes” in writing before hearing it said, and so it became one of those things that just clicked (“ah, yes, that’s that thing I’ve heard”).

But when I, a few years ago, learnt about the malapropism, I’ve found myself checking every time I write the phrase, making sure that I didn’t slip and write “intensive.” Even though I never have, and tend to doubt I will unless I find a purpose that’s truly intense. Nonetheless, it’s something I do just in case.

Is this mixup something I’ve personally had to deal with? No, not at all. But is it something I should be aware of? Oh yes, certainly. It’s a thing that exists, and given that I’m aware of it, it’s something I have to watch out for.

Sometimes it’s easy to get really caught up in our own experiences and our own views of the world. Just because I’d never heard of “intensive purposes” prior to finding out about the malapropism doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. A lot of things are that way.

Take women in refrigerators. This is a term coined by Gail Simone to describe the trope in comics (and really a lot of media) of having a female character killed or maimed (usually quite brutally) in order to provide a male character with angst and motivation. It’s so-named because of a Green Lantern comic wherein the hero returns to find his girlfriend killed and, uh, stuffed in a fridge. It’s a tired trope because it reduces female characters (and it’s almost always women) to little more than plot devices, one that is predicated on violence against women and withholding of agency. That’s not to say it can’t be done well, just to say that it’s often done poorly.

I first learnt of this trope maybe a decade or so ago, during a deep dive into TV Tropes. I remember my first response being a defensive one; it’s a cool plot device, and it’s cause for plot progression and difficult backstories. What’s the problem? A lot of learning later, and I came to reckon with its problematic nature and how, sure, it’s fine here and there, but we’re well past that point and the onus of storytellers is to find better ways to make their plots happen without ‘fridging a woman.

These days it’s something I’m acutely aware of, and something I also get very annoyed by (my main takeaway from Deadpool 2 is they took an awesome female character from the first one and ‘fridged her in the first act and I’m still mad about it). This doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist prior to my knowing about it, just that it’s something I was unaware of and now have no excuse to not perpetuate it. If I kill off a female character in one of my stories for manpain, I’m a part of the problem.

Not to belabor the point, but the important thing is to be open and learn. There’s stuff that mayn’t concern you personally but are still existent in society. It can be misunderstanding “intents and purposes,” it can be a crappy narrative trope, it can be far more important issues out there that we are fortunate enough to be ignorant of. So shut up, listen, be wrong, and learn to be better. It can be a lot to deal with, but there’s a real reason for it; it’s something that’s gotta be done with intensive purpose.

Remember: Black Lives Matter. Even if you’re fortunate enough to not be affected by systemic racism, it’s something to be aware of and fight against. Please take a minute and help.

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Are We Having Fun Yet?

This week, I finally replayed The Last of Us in full or the first time since it came out seven years ago. It’s not an easy game to play, and one I’ve put off for a long time. But The Last of Us Part Two came out on Friday and I figured I oughta finally replay the first one that I love so much (and cited on my university rationale, so, y’know). I’ve started Part Two and, man, it’s striking how far video games have come in seven years.

But this post isn’t about that.

This one’s about fun.

Fun is weird. Play is odd. There are people who try and figure out how to describe it, people like John Huizinga and Bernard Suits and many others. It’s elusive, something I’ve discussed on this blog before, and much of that is due to how we use language to describe ‘fun.’ Something being fun can be described as entertaining, and you could also see it as being joyful. This would rule out a lot of heavy non-fiction and ‘serious’ movies; we aren’t really ‘playing’ when we’re watching Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man, are we? For the sake of simplifying a complex argument, maybe let’s just focus on games, since those necessitate an active role by the participant — and are also things that one stops if they aren’t having fun.

While talking about The Last of Us Part Two with a friend of mine, and he said a review had described it as a ‘misery simulator.’ Please understand that this is amidst a conversation about how we’re looking forward to the game, and in this context ‘misery simulator’ is a good thing.

So, uh, why?

I’d argue that one reason why games are fun is because they are mechanically satisfying, that is there is pleasure to be had from using the rules of the game well. Board games like Scythe or Game of Thrones are fun because, even though they’re really hardcore with interlaced systems and require thinking several turns in advance, throughout all that strategic stress there is that satisfaction that comes from things working out. You’ve been given a puzzle consisting of the game’s rules and the other people and your job is to solve it. The better your solutions, the better the game.

Schoolyard tag is fun not just because you get to run around, but you’re running with a purpose. Figuring out how to avoid who’s It so you that become It yourself, the mechanics of the game is a very simple puzzle played out by reflex.

Expounding on that, a video game is ‘fun’ in some ways because of the mechanics. Borderlands has a really satisfying gameplay loop of shooting bad guys and getting loop and it’s fun to do. The Sims’ sandbox for you to play out lives is designed in such a way for gameplay to be smooth and rewarding. The Last of Us, even as gutwrenching as the story is, is still ‘fun’ in that there’s a delight to be had when you manage to sneak past a group of Infected or getting out of a particularly hairy encounter. Even if it’s thematically crushing at times, it’s still gratifying to play because the game lets you be good at it.

I’m only a few hours in The Last of Us Part Two, I’ve been taking my time and making sure to really enjoy it. Thus far, it’s terrific, and exploration has been a lot of, yes, fun. I know the game is going to take a dark turn (but I don’t know when, where, or how), but I know I’ll probably keep playing because, well, I wanna know what happens, but also because, yeah, the game’s fun to play. In that even if things get really rough, it’s still immensely gratifying to play.


So yeah, I guess I am having fun.

 

Remember: Black Lives Matter. Please take a minute and help.

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Lightsabers

Hi. I’m twenty-nine years old, and when my mind wanders, it starts to think about lightsabers.

One of the many many things that make Star Wars so cool is the lightsaber: in a world with laser guns and space ships, there are a select group of people who forego all of that in favor of laser swords. When we first see it in A New Hope, Obi-Wan introduces it as the “weapon of a Jedi Knight, not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” Cool bit of world-building that sets up the Jedi Knights and the importance of the weapon.

But that’s not the part of lightsabers I’m thinking about.

Each Jedi has their own saber, one that’s theirs, and this weapon, as Obi-Wan admonishes Anakin in Attack of The Clones, “is your life.” Lightsabers are made by the individual Jedi and so is specific to them. Even the Sith lightsabers require an artificial (in the old Expanded Universe) or a tainted (as in the new canon) crystal. These weapons are almost an extension of their owner. Far more than Han’s DL-44 blaster, the lightsabers are far more personal and representative of those who wield them.

And Rey doesn’t get her own lightsaber in the Sequel Trilogy. I mean, yeah, she does, sure: In literally the final minute of The Rise of Skywalker, she stands in Tatooine and turns on her brand new yellow-bladed saber and then watches the sunset.

Which.

Okay.

Fine.

But when the mythos of the world puts so much import on a saber, it feels like a very weak culmination of a character arc for that to be it.

Consider Luke Skywalker. He is given Anakin’s saber in A New Hope, which he then uses throughout Empire Strikes Back. It’s his father’s weapon, by using it he is inheriting a legacy. It’s the Skywalker lightsaber, and it’s his, as it was his father’s before him.

Then in Empire’s climax, he loses it (along with his hand) and finds out that Darth Vader is his father. The villain is Luke’s father, that lightsaber he had been using belonged to the man who became Darth Vader. Turns out Luke’s inheritance is that one tainted by the Dark Side.

That’s rough.

Come Return of The Jedi, Luke has built his own lightsaber. He’s still gonna be a Jedi, but this time he’s creating his own legacy. While Anakin’s lightsaber bears a strong resemblance to Vader’s, Luke’s lightsaber takes more after Obi-Wan’s than Anakin’s. It’s a declaration of sorts that Luke’s following the path of Obi-Wan, rather than the failings of Anakin. Later on, during the final duel on the Death Star II, he tosses that lightsaber aside — that new definition of himself — to state that he is a Jedi, like his father before him. Obi-Wan didn’t think that Vader could be saved, but Luke did and he was proven right. Looking at a lightsaber as an extension of its wielder’s psyche, this is the culmination of Luke wrestling with his inheritance. He’s a Skywalker.

In The Force Awakens the Skywalker Lightsaber reemerges as an icon of legacy once again, this time to be taken up by Rey — who initially rejects it but in the climax claims it in one of my favorite Star Wars moments.

Fittingly, The Last Jedi is all about legacies and what to do with them. Luke rejects the lightsaber and the importance it has to being a Jedi. At the onset of the story, he is done with that past. Rey wields it in the duel aboard the Supremacy (since she’s gonna be a Jedi) and later vies against Kylo Ren for it. Both want control of it, but for different reasons. Kylo sees it as his birthright, his chance to wield Darth Vader’s legacy for his own. Rey sees it as the other part of Anakin’s legacy; that of a fallen hero redeemed — as she hopes to enact towards Kylo. In the end, the lightsaber is sundered and Rey collects the broken fragments. The past is broken.

But the lightsaber shows up one last time in The Last Jedi, in the hand of Luke’s Force Projection when he duels Kylo. Its purpose here is twofold: he taunts Kylo Ren with what he wants, yes, but Luke is also taking back up that legacy he had thrown away in the beginning. This is a Force Projection, Luke could have shown himself holding any lightsaber, and even from a cinematic standpoint, we’d just seen that lightsaber broken, how could Luke have it? The incongruity not only hints at the Projection’s nature but shows us that this is a Luke Skywalker who has agreed to his symbolism, who will be the hero the Resistance needs.

Such a wonderful culmination.

So now Rey is set up to craft her own lightsaber for The Rise of Skywalker. It’s part of the Jedi path and all that, plus she has all the books from Ahch-To to teach her. The lightsaber we see her is an extension of her — its design bears a similarity to the staff she wielded in The Force Awakens and the yellow blade suggests a new path. Except this comes at the end. It’s a coda to the story rather than a final act. Rey spends the movie still with the Skywalker saber, except rather than being willing to throw away the past and start fresh, she’s put it back together so it could still be in use. Which, fine, but by the end of The Last Jedi, Rey has the chance to start something new… and instead, she retreads a path.

As a fan, I’m someone who’s wanted Rey to kick ass with a double-sided lightsaber since the credits rolled on The Force Awakens. That The Last Jedi featured no such instance was an initial disappointment, but the missed chance in Rise is frustrating. Here was a chance for the new hero to make a statement, but instead, well, we got what we got. Rey’s yellow lightsaber is super cool, not just aesthetically but as a statement of identity. That it gets relegated to the very end is nothing less than a missed opportunity.

Remember: Black Lives Matter. Please take a minute and help.

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Learn

There’s a lot going on out there. The pandemic is still very much a thing and frustration at systemic racism has finally boiled over. Earlier this week I started thinking out a blog post about it all, about my own experiences with race and learning to be better.

That said, it’s difficult for me to really sit down and write something concrete. Mostly because there’s a lot of things I’m still thinking through, a lot of stuff that I feel like I don’t know enough to pontificate here on my blog.

There are things that I believe are true. Black lives matter. There is systemic racism within the US and abroad that has its tendrils sunk into every institution. For too long the police have been allowed to run roughshod over society’s most vulnerable. But things don’t have to be this way. Things can change. We can change.

Herein is the most important thing: learning. Please, be willing to learn. Be willing to realize when you’ve made a mistake, realize when you were wrong. It’s how you become a better person, isn’t it?

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Mean

With it being on Netflix, I’ve been rewatching Community, a tv show I really love (and have been writing about on this blog for basically as long as it’s been a blog). Watching it again, for the first time since it aired, is a fun process. There’s a lot that I’ve forgotten, there’s a lot of jokes I missed, and I’m struck by how normal the show starts off. Seriously, its hook in the beginning is that its a sitcom that’s very aware of the tropes and pop-culture that’s influenced it and pays homage to them all, and then by season three it’s become an ode to storytelling in all its ways that plays fast and loose with the format. It’s wild just how much the show loves story, and how it finds a variety of ways to tell different sorts of stories (action, romance, mystery, fantasy, documentary) within its central conceit of taking place at a community college. Honestly, it’s brilliant.

It’s also a very mean show.

Okay, stay with me. Some sitcoms are mean, some are kind. The Office leans towards mean-ness, where a lot of the conflict is the cast being set against each other. Parks and Recreation is a super kind show, there’s little comedy/conflict that has characters antagonistic towards each other. How I Met Your Mother tends towards mean, The Good Place towards kind. There’s nothing inherently bad about one or the other, different sorts of comedy. Bob’s Burgers and Brooklyn 99 come down on different sides depending on the episode. And Community is a very mean show.

Characters are pitted against each other, though often not just for the sake of it but as an extrapolation of their flaws. Circumstances aren’t particularly easy for them either, and characters are often put in places that force them to make tough choices or confront harsh truths about themselves. It’s not gentle by any means, and often it seems like the world is out to get them.

Let’s look at the first episode of Season 5, “Repilot.” At the start, we’re reintroduced to Jeff Winger, a lawyer once more but transformed by Greendale Community College into trying to be a decent human being (and lawyer). Unfortunately, he sees his office being cleared out and himself out of a firm. A prospective case sends him back to his alma mater, where he finds his former study group in dire straits. After convincing them to sue the school, a come-to-Jesus moment has him change his mind. To save Greendale, he ends up taking a teaching position at the school where he was once ashamed to be a student.

This is not a good thing for Jeff. His goal throughout the show has been to get his degree and go back to being a lawyer. Greendale forced him to become a better person, one who won’t go back to his scummy, old firm. In a gentler world, he would be rewarded for this change; the story’s protagonist has come out through his ordeals a better person, should he not now be rewarded for his work?

Nah. That would be too easy. The circumstances of the show force him back to Greendale ready to sue the school, but incidents in the episode force him to reconsider his actions and realize he needs to save the school. It’s not what he wants, and his final decision to go through with the new course of action is a difficult one that he wishes he didn’t have to do.

In this way, it seems the universe of Community is out to get its characters; as if the world (and writers) is almost a malevolent force that pushes people into uncomfortable positions. And it’s funny, oh, it’s very funny to watch ’em squirm. But, notably, Community’s meanness isn’t just for the sake of the comedy. By forcing characters into tight spots, Community forces its characters to grow.

People don’t wanna change. It’s why one of the steps in Campbell’s Monomyth is the Refusal of The Call. It’s Luke Skywalker telling Obi-Wan he needs to stay for one more harvest, it’s Bilbo not wanting to join the party of dwarves. But force a character into a position where they have no choice but to change and change happens. Slowly, but it happens. Community excels at forcing its characters to change by forcing them into situations where their current status quo will no longer serve them.

Community is far, far meaner to its characters than a lot of shows I usually watch. But iron sharpens iron, and Community gets away with its meanness because that’s how the characters develop. There’s a real and genuine progression to characters and their relationships in the show, which is pretty remarkable for a sitcom that revels in postmodern narratives. Perhaps that’s part of why the fourth season fell flat; it lacked that bite.

So yeah.

Community is a fantastic show. Because it’s mean. With a purpose.

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