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Genre Bending

Altered Carbon is an oddball of a show. It’s got a science fiction setting, but primarily draws on noir for a lot of its narrative structure. Beyond that, though, it draws on a whole host of other science fiction media for inspiration, to varying effect.

The show is science fiction noir in the stylings of Blade Runner. And it’s really, really heavily cribbing from the Blade Runner stylebook. You’ve got flying cars that don’t look a hair out of place flying around a dingy, multicultural metropolis that’s pretty often rain soaked. There’s also a pervasive existential theme, owing to Altered Carbon’s conceit that human consciousness is held in a chip and thus the relationship between body and identity is a lot more tenuous than normal. A lot of this can be chalked up to the noir genre, what with gumshoes hired to take on a case and all that. The atmosphere, for the most part, is appropriately heavy and somber for the most part. It’s a crappy future, the rich get away with all sorts of (futuristic!) crime and the police are powerless. Like I said, very noir. Altered Carbon, however, goes in some very different places over its ten episodes.

For all its noir trappings, Altered Carbon is really loathe to give up the gunfight. In lieu of tense shootouts that are the hallmark of noir films (and Blade Runner, which, this cannot be overstated, is a massive influence on Altered Carbon), we get a lotta gun play straight out of your big action movie of choice. Heck, there’s a sequence where two characters are surrounded by Yakuza and soldiers out to kill them and, what do they do? They go back-to-back to shoot the attackers in a sequence ripped straight out of the video game Army of Two. Now, I’m all for Big Action Scenes and I strongly support borrowing from video games for inspiration, but it all feels so incongruous set against what’s supposedly a very noir story. Altered Carbon tries to move around genres, but its noir trappings end up feeling like concrete shoes when it adds these odd things to the mix.

Genre bending is totally possible, and it can be done well. I’m not just talking about mashing two together, like Spider-Man: Homecoming taking a John Hughesian teen movie and smooshing it with a superhero story, but rather a story that jumps around its genres. Consider Community: ostensibly it’s a sitcom set in a community college about a ragtag group of friends. In actuality, it’s a show that contains within its six seasons pastiches of gangster films, Apollo 13, Die Hard, zombie movies, Law and Order, and a Ken Burns documentary — amongst much more. It works, in no small part because Community sets itself up as being perfectly aware of what genre it exists in and by playing every genre/narrative to the hilt. It bends its genres to tell the story it wants to tell; how better to explore a rift between best friends Troy and Abed than by a Civil War-style documentary? The show also sets itself up as a very silly world, so spending a half hour in a spy movie is hardly out of the ordinary — especially as it does it with aplomb.

Similarly, Cowboy Bebop (which I will not shut up about) refuses to be confined to any specific genre. Right off the bat, it sets itself firmly at the intersection of the western, gangster, and noir genres (in space!), leaning more into each of the three when necessary. Digging into Spike’s story lends itself well to taking on the hallmarks of a gangster movie, but following Jet means we’re in for a much more noir narrative. Throughout it all, though, Bebop keeps its other inspirations close at hand, it’s noir episodes have hints of Westerns sprinkled throughout. And, because Bebop positions itself at an intersection of genre, it’s perfectly in keeping with its stylings when it borrows from other genres, be they cyberpunk or horror. Bebop is a show so sure of itself that it can play around with its makeup and never lose its DNA. Conversely, Altered Carbon sets itself up so strongly in the noir genre that whenever it strays outside (ninjas! anti-establishment rebellion!) it feels like we’ve lost the plot. Genre bending is a lotta fun, but the trick is to do it within what you’ve set as the boundaries. The more flexible those boundaries, the more wild the story can go.

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Space Cowboys

I’m honestly surprised I didn’t stumble upon Cowboy Bebop earlier. It’s got a lotta my favorite things (cool ships, genre blending, a ragtag crew) and it is a maddeningly good show.

It also bears more than a few resemblances to another show about space cowboys that I love: Firefly. Or more Firefly resembles Cowboy Bebop, given that the former show came a few years after Bebop. Now, there’s a wealth of writing to be had about the similarities between the shows. For one, and not just the idea of a crew on a ramshackle ship trying to make ends meet. There’s their setting on, for the most part, the edges of civilization. The civilization present is a mismatch of contemporary cultures; Firefly is a mix of American and Chinese, Bebop a jazzy blend with a little of everything. Aesthetically, both draw on the Western, telling stories about what are inarguably cowboys. Characters too bear more than a passing resemblance to each other; Spike Spiegel and Malcolm Reynolds are both cool gunslingers who give off an aura of being disaffected loners but really have hearts of gold beneath. These may sound like broad strokes individually, but the gestalt of these elements is more than a little suspect (that the makers of Firefly have stayed mum on the topic of Bebop doesn’t help). Again, there’s a lot to unpack here, but it’s not what we’re gonna talk about today.

Rather, let’s focus on how both these shows have one season and a movie, but do totally different things.

This similarity is, at least, wholly coincidental. Firefly was, sadly, canceled early in its run and was clearly intended to last for a few seasons. Bebop tells the story it wants to tell in its 26 episodes and resolves itself. As such, their movies do different things.

Let’s talk about Serenity first, Firefly’s movie. Given the show’s abrupt ending, the film does a lot of work to create a proper resolution and give some closure to the narrative. Serenity succeeds, it brings back these characters for a final hurrah and gives ‘em a big quest. Would it have been better suited to play out over a couple years of television? Certainly. As it is, the film takes elements of the show (River’s past, the mysterious Reavers, Simon and Kaylee) and develops them further. We find out what made River the way she is and the sexual tension between Simon and Kaylee is finally resolved. Serenity provides Firefly with the ending it never got.

Cowboy Bebop, however, decidedly ends. The major plot threads scattered around the show, particularly Spike’s history with the Syndicate, Julia, and Vicious, and Faye’s mysterious past, are wrapped up by the end of the show. Or a lease as wrapped up as they mean to be. Bebop thrives off suggestion rather than explanation and there are a lot of unanswered questions at the end of the final episode, but it is a complete resolution. The show has told the story it wants to tell and it’s done. If you watch the movie looking to to see if Spike and Faye get together or to see the triumphant reunion of Ed and Ein with the rest of the crew, then, well, tough. The movie is essentially a really long episode, which is a lotta fun because, well, extra long episode. But it doesn’t add to the overarching narrative of the show in the way Serenity does. That’s in no small part because Cowboy Bebop doesn’t need any more resolution than it has. To add more to it, to explain away some of what was left hanging, would diminish the show as a complete work.

Every now and then people talk about making a movie based on a tv show. Community had the refrain of Six Seasons and A Movie and everyone and then there’s some fan buzz about making a Chuck movie. But there’s never much question of what those movies would entail. Community wrapped up nicely, do we need to add another chunk of plot? Conversely, bringing the bang back together for one last mission in Chuck would be a lot of fun, but it would by nature have to remove all ambiguity from the show’s ending. And though Firefly and Cowboy Bebop have a lot in common, their different narratives necessitated different sorts of movies. There’s no one-size-fit-all trick to stories, and really, that’s part of the fun.

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Performing Truth

Twelve years ago I went to the Grand Canyon. While in a town nearby, a couple of guys dressed as cowboys did a shootout. Blank firing guns and all; twelve year old me thought it was real cool. This past Thursday, part of my school trip here in South Africa had us watch a group doing a collection of traditional dances. Also cool. Were they authentic? A cowboy shootout isn’t particularly typical of modern Arizona and Tribal dances celebrating a good hunt aren’t exactly common in South Africa anymore. But it’s what we expect of these places,


There’s this concept of performance, which, put simply, is when we do something we are performing what it should be. We perform politeness, which looks different in the United States compared to China. And we perform culture, which is part who we are and part what’s expected of us. So those cowboys in Arizona and the dancers in South Africa were both, in some way, performing culture. The dance the other night, for example, had a piece of choreography ripped right from Marty McFly’s concert at the end of Back To The Future. Air guitars were probably not a thing when these dances were first done, but contextually it makes plenty of celebratory sense. Authentic or not, it’s true.

Which brings me to Hamilton, the broadway musical about the titular American Founding Father. It’s biographical, but unlike many other biographies it chooses to dispense wholesale with any concerns of historical accuracy. Not to say that the play  takes egregious liberties with Alexander Hamilton’s life, but rather decides to play fast and loose with exact way of presenting this truth. For starters, Hamilton himself is played by a Latino actor. And Aaron Burr is black. And not only is there singing, but there’s rapping; these showtunes are hiphop anthems. Even if we can forgive the presence of songs — which all musicals do —, the racelift and music genre is a fairly egregious bastardization of ‘authenticity’ that essentially throws out any semblance of an accepted interpretation of reality. But it makes the story of Hamilton’s life surprisingly accessible and relatable. The spirit is preserved. Like a man dressed as a Zulu warrior strumming an air guitar, Alexander Hamilton rapping about not throwing away his shot mayn’t be accurate, but it’s true. Hamilton performs a subversive version of the truth that allows it to better capture the youthful energy of revolution.

Fiction is inherently a lie. There’s no such thing as hobbits, magic rings, or Mount Doom. We don’t have superheroes, and we don’t have spaceships. But a show like Firefly [is able to better capture the feeling of life on a ship than anything else. The Lord of The Rings speaks beautifully about the indomitable nature of hope. Sex Criminals contains the best discussion of depression and intimacy I’ve ever seen. A good storyteller is full of crap; anyone who says otherwise is wrong (or writing a different essay). In story, as Tim O’Brien puts it in The Things They Carried: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” We don’t need things to be accurate — Hamilton being a white dude or an African not strumming an air guitar — but we need things to be true. When Hamilton raps we don’t think about the factual inaccuracies, instead we get lost in the feeling of excitement and energy of it all. The truth of a strong story lies not in it perfectly matching reality, but rather in it moving the audience. The truth of a story lies in its emotional core; we’ll willingly swallow the most boldfaced lie about the world so long as deeper within the lie is a truth of being.

There was a thrill to watching those guys dance the other day. An excitement[?] that overruled any care about the question of authenticity. They may not have performed a reflection of reality, but they performed the truth. We don’t need a factual blow by blow for a story to bury itself into our heart, we just need it to be true.

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The Right Hook

So I’m using this blog to spitball ideas for a paper. And no, it’s not on boxing.

What gets us hooked on a tv show? As in, what is it that makes you keep coming back? What was it about the shows we’re discussing in class — Sherlock, Mr. Robot, Firefly, and Daredevil — that made them stick (or not?).

Sherlock is an interesting case. Each episode nears the length of a feature length film, making it an odd hybrid of film and television. But the show hooks you early in the first episode. Partly because of the familiarity we as a culture have with the mythos of Sherlock Holmes and thus there’s the inherent intrigue in seeing in reinterpreted in a more modern setting. That alone wouldn’t necessarily be enough; fortunately it’s augmented by the incredibly interesting characters of both Sherlock and John. John’s characterized quickly as a war vet looking for a way to make life livable; Sherlock’s an insufferable genius. Because the characters are so darn interesting, you can’t help but to be interested in finding out what will happen next to them. Really well defined protagonists, plus plots that keep pushing them makes it irresistible. 

Which Mr. Robot tried valiantly. You’ve got a character who’s somewhat Holmes-ian: freakishly good at something, socially un-adapted, something of a drug habit, insufferably, etc. But where Sherlock of Sherlock has various normal characters to balance him out, everyone in Mr. Robot is off their rocker to one degree or another, making protagonist Elliot seem, well, negligible. That and the fact that the show relies on really lazy storytelling techniques (creepy Scandinavians, diabolical Chinese, killing women for manpain, killing/threatening women because edgy) and mistakes shock value for actually value makes it much harder to get into, or to invest in to the extent that you can in Sherlock.

Investment then, like in banking, is key. It’s not so much as being hooked by a show as getting invested in it. Get invested enough and the sunk cost fallacy will keep you yearning to find out who the mother is even if the quality deteriorates. A lot of the time, this comes down to one of two things: Character and Premise.

Daredevil’s premise trumps its characters. Not to say that Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk aren’t developed characters: they’re incredibly rich and compelling. Understanding them and who they are is a great part of the show. But the set up, that of a vigilante fighting to defend his slice of New York against crime, is what gets you. That and the whole superhero aspect of it all. You wanna see how this battle of good versus evil is going to play out and what twists are gonna happen as it goes along. In a sense, it’s a lot like Mr. Robot, only with better defined characters and the ability to actually tell a good story. Now, without its excellent characterization, Daredevil wouldn’t be as exceptional as it is; but it’s the premise that hooks us.

For Firefly, however, it’s all about the characters. Having nine well defined characters means you have someone to latch onto off the bat. Could be Mal ‘cause he’s hot, or Zoë ‘cause she kicks ass, or any of the others for a myriad of other reasons. It’s the characters that anchor you through the bizarre space western setting that’s interesting and all, but primarily serves as a backing for the inter-personal drama that develops. It’s set on a ship (which is a great place to set stories, by the way), forcing each nine to interact no matter what. Every plot is done to facilitate either character growth or conflict: let’s see how Wash responds in an action capacity! Showrunner Joss Whedon himself describes it as  “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.” We get hooked on the characters and want to see what will happen next.

So what, then? Good television is a balance between premise and characters. You can’t have one without the other and shows that do it really well (Daredevil, Sherlock, and Firefly) have great staying power. There’s a hook, and you’re stuck on it.

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On Finales

So Parks and Recreation ended a few weeks ago bringing an end to a particularly great show that I got into far too late. The finale was especially wonderful, elegantly tying a bow on seven years of stories.

Rather than having some big hoorah, though, the episode has the former Parks Department take on an utterly inconsequential task (getting a swing in a park fixed) before going their separate ways. With the whole season serving as an effective wrap up to the current proceedings, there was no need for there to be a big artificially succinct Final Big Moment. Instead, Parks makes fixing the dumb swing matter by flashing forward with each character to see where they are in the future.

Parks is far from the first; How I Met Your Mother did it in their finale first year. I’ve talked about my many qualms with it narratively, but it was a structurally solid technique. We got some closure on characters and know what Ted ended up doing, even if it went against everything that’d been built up thus far. But Parks goes further and arguably does it better by going to several different spots in the future for each main character (and even some lesser ones). We find out many of the key points events happens to them in the years afterwards. Some of their bigger decisions are prefaced with vignettes showing off key character moments and their growth. At the end of it all there’s this strong sense of resolution.

If anything, Parks errs on telling us almost too much. It seems nearly as if we know everything that happens to these characters in the future. Little is left to the imagination, we know Andy and April have kids, we know Ron ends up happily in charge of a National Park, and we know that either Leslie or Ben became president. By the time the finale ends we’re left knowing that we’ve heard just about all the stories there is to tell about these people.

Which makes me wonder what we want out of a finale to a show. There’s something fun about an ending that implies the adventure continues: look at Serenity (effectively the finale to Firefly) which has since spawned a couple comics, or even Chuck which remains open-ended enough for more to happen. But an ending like Lost’s which firmly closes the door on anything else isn’t bad either. So what makes an ending satisfying?

I think closure is what really matters. The ending of Serenity left a few balls up in the air while still resolving some subplots, like Simon and Kaylee’s romance and what happened to River. But even though we knew Mal wasn’t quite out of the woods and that the crew as a whole were a little worse for the wear, we’ve got this sense of finality. This adventure is over; even if there’s more to come, for now the major issues are resolved.

What’s important is that the ending fits the story. Firefly’s works so well because the show has always been bittersweet. Lost is fundamentally mythic and Chuck was always about a romance and family. Parks’ fits because the show’s format has always been a little meta, so showing what happens ten to forty years down the line isn’t out of place. Lost couldn’t have Parks’ ending and it couldn’t be the other way round either.

It’s hard to get endings right. Don Quixote’s ending allowed for some guy to write a sequel, so when Cervantes wrote an actual sequel he had Don Quixote die at the end so no one would write another allowing him to have the final word on his knight errant. How I Met Your Mother undid (at least) a season’s worth of character development with its finale so even though we knew what happened to the characters we felt a little cheated out of our investment. Parks and Recreation had its cake and ate it too; we know that things work out for everyone in their own way, and we’re okay with that. We’re invited to fill in the blanks (is Leslie or Ben president?), but we’re told things are alright. And that’s good enough.

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But What Is A Strong Female Protagonist?

I write a lot about strong female characters here, heck, it was my first post. It’s still something I really care about, seeing how often it pops up in my blog posts here. I’ve got a small list of characters I bring up often: Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Chloe Frazer, Katniss Everdeen, Zoë Washburne, etc.

Thing is, it’s easy to conflate the idea of a strong female characters with that of a woman who kicks ass. When we compare Katniss from The Hunger Games to Bella Swan from Twilight the former is clearly the stronger character. When asked why the easy answer is that she does stuff, herein taking charge and fighting. So does Captain Marvel. And Arya Stark.

We see this particularly in areas which already have a history of relegating women to the back burner, like video games or the action adventure genre. Damsels meant to be saved by strong men, the voice of reason, or to be relegated to being a person of support. Thus being promoted to action hero seems like quite the step up.

So comes the masculinization of women, where women are placed in male roles and can do everything a man can. The new question that comes with this is whether they’re losing depth because they’re becoming less of a woman. After all, they’re pushing for violence, a ‘masculine’ way of problem solving, instead of finding non-violent means of conflict-resolution, like manipulation. But assuming a strong female character must be good in combat is a flawed idea. Women – people – don’t have to go around kicking ass to be a strong character.

Take Zoë and Inara from Firefly, both arguably strong female characters. The former, Serenity’s tough-as-nails first mate, is badass in the more masculine way. Inara, however, wielding diplomacy, is as strong without being masculinized. She’s strong on her own terms, kicking proverbial ass without having to carry a weapon.

So which portrayal is more feministic? Both masculinizing women and confining them to feminine traits run contrary to feminism since it genders a set of actions and traits. Is Zoë stronger since she’s nearly indistinguishable from a man? Or is it Inara, who fights in a more ‘feminine’ sphere.

So now what? Women are, surprise, people; people are, also surprise, different. And people do different things. To say that a man can succeed as a character in both action and drama genres but a woman only truly succeeds if she’s placed in a drama is a terrifyingly narrow view. If we want to advance the role of women in fiction, we can’t limit them to certain roles. We need women doing everything.

This is one of the reasons I love Game of Thrones. There’s a great deal of variety to the roles women play, and a lot of them are wonderfully well written. Ygritte the Wildling archer and Margaery the politicking queen-to-be are very different women and both great characters. Yet neither would work in the other’s roles; they’re strong on their own terms and in their own ways. You can’t discredit Margaery because she’s worming her way to the top of the political sphere because she’s not running around with a sword, likewise with Ygritte for being an archer rather than a politician. This show, known for the HBO-iness of its content, displays a great deal of nuance and variety with its women. Sure, some are problematic and shallow, but there remains the potential for a woman to be strong and badass, no matter her position.

To return to the comparison of Zoë and Inara in Firefly, we need to accept both as strong women because choosing one over the other would confine the ways in which a female character could be strong. Kaylee, the mechanic, though she’s neither forceful nor a fighter, can hold her own and adds necessary element to the crew. Even River, who more often than not seems to fulfill the role of damsel, is fully realized and not just a shadowy archetype.

There is a danger in making all female characters masculine, but the same could be said of making all female characters the same kind of anything; we need women portrayed in every field. Soldiers, spies, engineers, doctors, and so on. A truly inclusive media should be just that: inclusive.

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Yet To Do It Again

I’ve only played The Last of Us once. Well, only played it through all the way once. I started a New Game+ about a year ago, but still haven’t finished it. It’s odd, I know, considering how much I write about it (plus two final papers and counting). Oh, I play the multiplayer every now and then and I do look up cutscenes for reference, I just haven’t played it through again.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to; it’s just a big commitment. Not time-wise (though there is that), but emotionally. The Last of Us hit me to my core. It was a game that really affected me, one of those experiences that stick with you. Every time I went back to the story I knew what I was in for and, well, I guess I wasn’t sure if I was ready.

Not everything’s like this. I wanna give BioShock: Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line (both plenty dark and intense games) another playthrough if/when I have the time. Halo: Reach I’ve played the story a bunch of times, as with the Uncharted games and several others. So why not The Last of Us? I guess it’s similar to how I feel about Fruitvale Station. Again, loved the movie, not sure if I could watch it again for a good long time. It really stuck with me. Maybe I can’t easily go back to The Last of Us or Fruitvale because of the emotional commitment.

But what about something that’s not gut-wrenchingly sad? I’ve only watched Firefly all the way through three times. I’ve seen some episodes more, watching with friends and such, but only sat down to watch the whole series three times. Which I weird, because I love the show. Firefly, I think, is because it can be deeply personal. It’s the sort of thing that’s treasured and loved.

Which, again, doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’ll watch The Avengers or The Princess Bride on a whim, both movies I love. So why is Firefly this exception? I think this makes Firefly like The Last of Us here. I love both, and I enjoy both (I wouldn’t say watching Fruitvale was enjoyable, but it was still great). The thing is, I’m incredibly attached to both, and very much invested. I guess it’s not something I can take lightly.

So is this good? As you may have noticed, The Last of Us has had incredibly staying power woth me, and I keep up with any news concerning it. Firefly remains one of my favorite shows and I will quote it incessantly in conversation. So yes. They’re incredibly important and special stories to me. In that sense then, they succeed. I don’t have to watch them a lot, but they’re still there.

Apologies for the short and rambley post this week. Been swamped with a lot of pre-production stuff this week. And I’m still trying to find time to play Destiny.

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