Game of Thrones does denouemonts really well

article-0-1D189DD800000578-933_634x445We’re coming up to the last episode of this season of Game of Thrones, and we know it’ll have some stunning twist or much-talked-about moment. But we also know that it won’t be nearly as intense as this week’s episode. We know that in some ways it’ll mostly be a wrap-up. Loose ends will be tied off. We’ll figure out how Arya is gonna get to Westeros and what she’ll do when she gets there. Maybe we’ll find out whether the Hound is still with the Brotherhood. Maybe Bran will be shown coming into his powers. Possibly Dorne will be featured (not that anybody cares).

This is something Game of Thrones does really well. I remember the episode after the Red Wedding, for instance, which starts with Joffrey dispensing favors to all the lords who supported him. Too many shows ignore this. Or they attempt to start a season by doing the wrap-up to last season’s finale, which is completely backwards, since the beginning of a season is for the beginning of things and not the ends of things.

I honestly think the best part of any long narrative is the wrapping-up. I live for this. I want to know who married who and who ended up where. I want to know if they were happy in the end, or if everything sucked. I can enjoy and respect a finale like The Good Wife, which essentially said, “You’ve watched the story of somebody’s transformation, and what’s happened is that she’s gonna keep being the person she’s become.” But when I write a story I usually give it a finale like Parks and Recreation had, where they jump fifty years in the future and you see everybody’s fate in exhaustive detail.

Game of Thrones is a show that respects loose ends. We see Bronn again. We see Podrick again. We even see Bronn hang out with Podrick. Hell, we see Osha again! We learn why Hodor is Hodor. We meet Samwell’s shitty parents. Everything circles around, if we wait long enough, and I think it’s fucking awesome.

It takes a lot of work to make things simple

bojack-horseman-2Been watching this animated show, BoJack Horseman, on Netflix lately. It’s pretty decent. It’s about a former TV star who’s also a horse (in this world, animals can walk and talk) who is generally depressed and kind of a terrible person. And each season revolves around him trying to be better and then failing. What I find masterful, though, is that at the last moment, Bojack always pulls upwards out of his spiral and managed to reach some sort of homeostasis again. I feel like that’s the show’s main narrative innovation. Just when you think things are as terrible as they can possible be, they’ll get a little bit better. The show does this over and over, in episode after episode, and it never fails to affect me.

Everything in the show is very simple. I admire that. An episode begins with some hijinks. BoJack will try to help someone or try to make someone like him. It will go wrong. But it’ll be funny. Then, in the last three minutes, it’ll cease to be funny, and will become terribly serious. And then the episode will just end. Frequently with no real plot resolution. Many hanging threads. But the character arc always seem satisfying. There’s movement. You’ve got up episodes and down episodes. Episodes where he feels redeemed and episodes where he feels damned.

BoJack’s progression over the course of a season is simple, and almost invisible, since it’s hidden under so many sitcom gags, but it’s very real, and leaves you with a sense, at the end of the season, that something has happened.

I admire this. It takes a lot of work to make thing simple. I don’t know why that is. I often look at the books I love and think, “Oh my god, this book is so simple” and then I look at my own books and think, “Why is this such a mess?”

Lately I’ve been working on revising my novel-for-adults. It’s very slow going. I wonder if I’m going to completely manage it. This book is not simple. It has too many plots and too many character motivations, which gives the protagonist something of a fragmentary feel. I’ve been feeling really depressed about it over the last few days, but just today I had a realization about the book that crystallized a lot of things for me. I’d been trying to figure out who the antagonist of the book is. In the middle of the book, it’s clear. The antagonist is her daughter, since her daughter hates her. But at the beginning and the end, it’s less clear. So I was searching around for some antagonist, some way to make things work. Complicating this is that the protagonist is very stupid, so she’s not capable of intricate plots. She doesn’t have many resources, other than pure willpower, so most antagonists would be able to defeat her with relative ease, probably.

Then I realized something. The antagonist is….her daughter.

Obviously. There was a reason why I chose her daughter in the first place–it’s because her daughter is the one person who she could maybe defeat. And what I need to do is to go back and rewrite the beginning so her daughter is more clearly set up as the antagonist.

But then I thought, wait…why didn’t this occur to me before? It’s so simple?

And I’m still not sure. I think it’s because I’d envisioned the main conflict in the book as being something different: I thought it was the individual versus society–and having the daughter as the antagonist clearly doesn’t work for that. But then I realized it was about belief in yourself. The daughter represents the forces of inertia and conventional opinion–she doesn’t believe in her mother’s dreams…she just wants to do ordinary tween girl stuff. And in overcoming her daughter’s opposition, the mother is fighting against all the forces that tell her that she can never be who she wants.

But, of course, this is is a conflict that’s not particularly clear in the current draft, so now I need to go through the whole thing and revise it with this conflict in mind. And probably that will create a whole bunch of other weak places in the structure of the book, and each time I encounter one, my temptation will be to erect some more scaffolding in order to get us through the book. And you do have to do that sometimes. All books are messy, and sometimes you just need a subplot or a weird setting element in order to bridge things. But it’s also a temptation that should generally be avoided. Except that avoiding it often means going back and doing more thinking. And in order to correct the weak place, you need to then change everything else in the book in order to bring everything into line. It’s exhausting. And it’s a bit thankless, too, since even when you’re done, it’s completely possible that the end result won’t be any good.

Television does a really good job with stories where nothing really happens

The problem with the most recent books in the Game of Thrones series is, more or less, the problem with the most recent season of the show: nothing really happens.

Sure, people move around a lot, but there is very little going on in the way of events. Even large pitched battles and changes in political position aren’t very much in evidence during those books. These books are basically several thousand pages of Brienne trying to find Sansa or Tyrion trying to find Daenerys or Arya trying to do…something or Bran wandering north of the wall. There’s lots of motion, but little resolution.

And this season of the TV series has, as far as I can tell, been exactly the same. With the exception of the developments in King’s Landing (which were also one of the only really dynamic parts of the last two books), we’re not really in a different place right now, in episode six, from where we were in episode one.

But that’s okay, because that’s exactly what we expect from TV.

In television–even in modern television with its season- and series-long arcs–we don’t really expect permanent movement. Take Mad Men for instance. The show could’ve ended at the end of any season. They were all the same. Don falls apart and pulls himself back together. The only uncertainty was in seeing exactly where in the cycle the series would choose to end.

Because that’s what television does. It takes an underlying contradiction in a character, and it extracts every iota of drama (or comedy) from that conflict, until finally the whole thing is so played out that the series either needs to switch focus or it needs to end.

3870982-jorah+mormontAnd in the most recent season of Game of Thrones, we can see there’s still plenty of drama left in these characters. Every one of Daenerys’ plots is the same: is she fickle and mad like her father? Or can she be a powerful and canny ruler?

It’s the same with Tyrion: is he the feckless waste of space that his father thought he was? Or is he a canny schemer?

Does Jaime have a sense of honor? Or is he just a higher-born version of Bronn?

Does Jorah Mormont have any sort of higher calling? Or is he just obsessively fixated on Daenerys?

These are huge, interesting conflicts, and it’s interesting to see them play out. I don’t expect any of them to be resolved in a satisfactory way, because none of them can be resolved satisfactorily. In the end, we know there are only two answers. Either Tony Soprano is a responsible, family man or he’s a sociopath. The pleasure of TV comes from the fact that we know both of these alternatives are unsatisfying and incomplete, and that the show only works so long as both possibilities are held in suspension. We know that for as long as the show continues, Tyrion will sabotage himself. We know that for as long as the show continues, Samwell will sometimes fall prey to cowardice. We know that Jon will sometimes be high-handed and arrogant. In the end, no matter how dynamic the plot of a television show might be, the characterization is (usually) fundamentally fairly static, and that’s why Game of Thrones is satisfying in a way that A Song Of Ice And Fire is not.

This season I’m liking the Game of Thrones TV show ALOT more than I liked the books

Grey_Worm_Profile(light spoilers for the latest episode lie ahead)

I read A Song Of Ice And Fire when I was in high school (i.e. before it hit the mainstream, you posers =) and as such I think I’m allowed to say that I think the TV show is better. In fact, I already did say it, a few years ago. But back then my thinking was that the TV show was slightly better, because, in a few isolated cases, it corrected some errors that the show had made.

Now, though, I have to say that I think it is much better, because it’s started to create new and compelling content. For instance, in the books, Grey Worm is a placeholder character. He just represents someone Daenerys can talk to when she wants to make the Unsullied do something. But in the TV show, he is shockingly compelling (and the view of Unsullied–and, by extension, human–sexuality is much more nuanced and interesting that I would’ve expected from this show).

Similarly Jon’s interactions on the wall in this latest episode, both with Tormund and with his fellow sworn brothers, were pretty engaging. Tormund, for one thing, humanized the wildlings. Up to this point, they’d come off as a bit of a noble savage caricature. But Tormund’s obvious trepidation and angst over Jon’s offer was something new. And whereas in the books the sworn brothers seemed completely unreasonable in their unwilingness to accept the wildlings, here in the show, it feels much more understandable.

The show feels like it has more room to milk all the natural human drama out of what’s occurring. For instance, the scene where Aemon Targaryen talks about Daenerys is a no-brainer, but it’s not something that did (or could’ve) existed in the book, because the book was relentlessly focused on its viewpoint characters at the expense of all the side characters. The show has also settled down into a more relaxed pace. Things aren’t happening as fast. There’s a sense of wheels spinning, in some ways. So more weight is being placed on character interaction. All in all, I’m actually very compelled.

Watched the final episode of Parks and Recreation

Watched the final episode of Parks and Recreation, and it was really fun. The episode is built around a series of flash forwards that allow you to see what the characters get up to in the next few years (spoiler alert, they’re all happy forever). And when the episode was ending, I found myself getting surprisingly emotional. My feels did seem out of place for me. I mean, I liked the show, but I didn’t like it more than I liked, for instance, Scrubs, and yet I feel like I got way more emotional at this series finale than I did at that one. Part of it might have been that I wasn’t sure, until the end, whether this was really the series finale or not, since I thought that the final season had 13 episodes (turned out that this double episode was both ep 12 and 13). Thus, the ending of the show kind of snuck up on me.

Other explanation is that my emotions have been closer to the surface recently. However, I feel like I’ve been saying that exact line–“My emotions are closer to the surface right now”–for so long that I’m starting to think I’m actually just a more emotional person nowadays. A frightening thought. Maybe one of these days I’ll become one of those people who feels actual human sadness when a celebrity dies (as opposed to the purely notional and completely unfeeling sadness that celeb deaths normally evince in me).

Parks and Recreation was a really good show. Wholly optimistic. Not dark at all. And one that loved and respected its characters. In most shows, unsympathetic characters tend to be humanized, so that by the end you love them. However, in comedies especially, sympathetic characters often suffer the opposite fate. They become overwhelmed with so many quirks and idiosyncracies and foibles that you start to hate them. I know that Scrubs and How I Met Your Mother, for instance, kind of suffered this fate. By the end of the show, you’d just seen these characters behave in so many unfeeling ways and act so selfishly and whine at such length that, even though each individual incident was explainable and forgivable, their sum total was such as to make you kinda dislike these people.

Parks and Recreation somehow avoided that. Its characterization of Leslie Knope was masterful. I have no idea how they managed to make her so funny and so competent. That was the case with all the characters. They were funny, but they also knew their shit. That’s amazing. I guess workplace comedies sometimes manage that. For instance, I recall that the lawyers in Ally McBeal were pretty good lawyers. But I think it’s surprising because Parks and Rec was about such a bland office and such a bland town and such a bland profession that it would’ve been so easy to go the other way with things. And, in fact, that’s what they kind of started to do in the first season. But then they switched courses and made something amazing. So, you know, kudos.

Is it actually a good idea to have recovering alcoholics in positions of power?

Leo_McGarryI’ve been rewatching season one of The West Wing, and in that show there’s a plotline where some political opponents of the President try to embarrass his Chief of Staff, Leo, by revealing that Leo spent time, seven years ago, in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. And in the show, this is treated like a completely cynical and absurd move, because we know Leo! He’s so wise and caring and responsible! Obviously no one could ever doubt that the world is a better place with Leo in charge!

However, I’m not sure it is an absurd objection. First of all, before someone goes off all half-cocked on me, please note that I’m a recovering alcoholic myself (with five years of sobriety), and that I’m not proposing that anyone in real life be fired from their job (also, firing someone for their recovery status would be, under the ADA, an illegal act).

But you have to wonder…Leo is in a position of immense responsibility, where he needs to exercise sound judgment every day. He’s also in a position that entails lots of stress and lots of temptation. Most people have an awful day here or there. But when a recovering alcoholic has an awful day, there is a non-zero chance that he will start drinking. And if he starts drinking, then there’s a very good chance that the next few months (or years, or decades) of his life are going to be filled with dropped responsibilities, unsound judgment, poor mental acuity, mood swings, heart problems, criminal behavior, lying, panic, depression, rage, etc.

So I have to say that alcoholism, even when you’re in recovery, seems like a definite downside for a person. In most cases, though, the downside is ameliorated because if a person starts drinking, their performance tends to tail off pretty quickly, and they can be fired relatively easily. In Leo’s case, though, you have to wonder. He’s basically a shadow president (a Dick Cheney figure). How long would it take to fire him? How much damage would he do in the meantime?

I think what’s scary about this thought experiment, though, is that every person runs this sort of risk every single day. I mean, for most people, it’s not alcoholism, but it’s something. Anyone can have a nervous breakdown or a psychotic episode or a period of depression. Anyone can have a stroke or early-onset Alzheimer’s or just a gradual decrease of mental abilities. Anyone can become arrogant and detached and really full of themselves. Anyone can become nervous and withdrawn and fearful. Basically, past performance is never a guarantee. Anyone’s abilities can fail them at any time.

We pretend like there are two states in life: “healthiness” and “disaster”. And we pretend that, barring disasters, we can expect such and such a span of health.

But when we shove disaster aside in that little phrase, ‘barring disaster’, we ignore that…well…disaster will come. It’s unavoidable. It’s like, i remember a conversation I once had with a young Silicon Valley guy. He was talking about how he exercised and didn’t smoke or drink and he ate kale and did everything perfectly and, as such, he could expect to live to be 100.

So (ignoring whether that number is sound on an actuarial level or not), I said, “Yeah, but you could get hit by a bus tomorrow? Or some free radical could shoot through one of your cells and flip it over into a cancer cell.”

And he was like, “Oh yeah, I meant barring all that stuff.”

Which is fine, I guess, and I knew what he meant. But that is the stuff. That’s the stuff that happens. We pretend like death and disease only come to those who ‘deserve’ them. We pretend like only alcoholics suffer breakdowns and terrible mood swings. We pretend that only smokers get cancer. And, more insidiously, the moment someone falls ill, we re-label them. They’re not like us. They’re disabled people. We’re not disabled. We’re healthy. We know, intellectually, that there is no moral difference between us and them, but just being able to think of it in those terms–as two very separate camps–is comforting, because it ignores how easy it is to cross from one into the other.

Been watching hella GOSSIP GIRL

Don’t know where this show has been my entire life. It is fantastic (though I’m only at the second season, and I’m sure it’ll become awful eventually). Like every other person my age, I watched Josh Schwartz’s previous show, The OC, but that was always vaguely unsatisfying, since it went off the rails almost immediately. By the end of the first season, everyone’s plotlines were already getting all twisted up and entire episodes were being wasted on stuff that no one cared about, like a random four-episode arc involving a psycho stalker.

Whereas Gossip Girl, and it feels weird to say this about a show involving out-of-control sybaritic excess in a Manhattan prep school, feels a bit more restrained. Episodes proceed at a slower pace. There are fewer revelations. Any secrets or hanging threads are usually disposed of by the end of the episode or by the beginning of the next one. The characters are allowed to breathe and interact a little more, and aren’t railroaded by the plot quite as much.

I am enjoying it a lot. And not as a guilty pleasure. I’m genuinely liking it. There’s something very warm about the show. Family is important. People are terrible and manipulative, but they struggle against their more terrible impulses. Also, they’re really good-looking. That goes pretty far with me. All I want in life is to see beautiful twentysomethings pretending to be beautiful teenagers who alternate rapidly between falling in love with each other and trying to screw each other over.

There’s something to be said for charm

Started watching a soon-to-be-cancelled ABC sitcom, Selfie, mostly because it’s the first show I can think of that’s had an East Asian male lead (except maybe Heroes, but that was part of a pretty big ensemble cast). It’s a strange show: inspired by My Fair Lady in a way that’s more cute and self-referential than it is interesting. It’s about a saleswoman and social media icon named Eliza Dooley (har har) who asks her coworker, a brand management expert named Henry Higgs, to teach her how to be a more genuine person.

There’s a lot to dislike here. For one thing, the show is relentlessly condescending towards its female lead. The messaging is also pretty off, because Henry comes off as humorless and friendless: he’s a person way more in need of advice on how to manage people. Whereas Eliza seems well-connected and friendly and, frankly (except when the show is making a point of how terrible she is), rather well-liked. So basically every interaction between them undermines the premise of the show. And the show’s understanding of social media is a bit bizarre. It’s as if this show can’t even comprehend that when you talk to people online, you’re actually talking to people. Real people. Talking to people online is not too dissimilar from talking to them off-line. It’s just more distanced. I like the way Abigail Nussbaum put it in her summary of the show’s pilot:

Its heroine, Eliza (Karen Gillan) is a phone-obsessed, hashtag-spouting millennial with hundreds of thousands of twitter followers.  In the real world, we might conclude from this level of success that Eliza is clever, or funny, or at the very least a very canny self-marketer.  In the Selfieuniverse, it means that she is boring, vapid, and completely unfamiliar with normal human interactions and real emotions.

Anyway, on the other hand, I actually like the show. I didn’t see the pilot (which was apparently terrible), but I did watch the latest five episodes. And they were charming. I like Eliza. It’s fun to watch her run around in her ridiculous outfits while she does and says whatever comes to mind (while also being extremely good at her job, the show is careful to note). And Henry is also charmingly befuddled. Despite being a bit grumpy, the show also does him up as an object of desire, which is pretty revolutionary for an East Asian man in American television. I’m actually not sure I’ve ever seen another East Asian man onscreen who wasn’t depicted as utterly sexless. Henry, on the other hand, is always pretty nattily turned out. He’s witty and cultured and lives in a charmingly-appointed apartment. And the friendship between the two leads feels so natural that there’s almost no pushback against it, even when you’d expect that there would be (like in the moments when Henry is extremely condescending to Eliza in a pretty unsavory way).In that, it reminds me of the instantaneous friendship between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock: a strange partnership that became the core of the show.

Anyway, this blog post is just to note that little things like that can make a show. Do these people see warm and genuine? Do they seem like they’re having fun together? If the answer to those two questions is ‘yes’, then a show can push past a lot of negatives.

Been rewatching Season 6 and Season 7 of THE WEST WING

c180a93fccd41f02c4a1209b6e572989This show changed its structure pretty significantly during its run. For the first few seasons, it was mostly problem-of-the-week stories, with a few arcs that might last an episode or three. I think the most major enduring arc was the scandal over the President hiding some health problem that he had. Even the President’s reelection campaign didn’t get nearly as much play as one would expect. But then, during the final two seasons of the West Wing, the story got dominated by the campaign to replace the outgoing President. And it becomes extremely involved and complex. Firstly, the show builds up two entire Demcratic presidential candidates out of nothing and then has the various West Wing staffers pick sides and array themselves against each other. And then, just as that arc is ending, they concocted an extremely likeable and compelling array of Republican characters (all of whom are completely new to the show) to serve as the general election opponents.

The entire thing is a thrill ride. You’re legitimately not sure who’s going to win. Because this was the last season of the show, it was quite possible that the whole thing could end with a Republican win. And, truth be told, the Republican candidate does come off as the more appealing one throughout the show. In fact, that’s probably the major problem with it. The Republican doesn’t believe in God, and he supports abortion. He does believe in cutting spending and taxes, but the show spends zero time on that. As a result, he comes off as very cuddly and honest. Which is a bit disappointing.

But there’s still lots of fascinating things here. Like when they bring one of the long-time West Wing characters, Leo McGarry, in to be the Vice Presidential pick and the Presidential nominee is a bit leery of him. Or when the President goes in there and tries to scold the nominee. You realize, oh, wow, these people don’t really know each other. They haven’t watched the last seven seasons of this show. They don’t know that they’re all the good guys.

And it’s also interesting to see the compromises that they make: the maneuvering and the dealmaking and the horsetrading. It’s on a much lower scale than in real life, of course. But because the characters start out as such shining archetypes, it’s disturbing whenever they do anything dishonest. Whereas if the show was more true to life, we probably wouldn’t look askance at any form of corruption. For instance, in The Wire, the mayor covers up some stuff that, in real life, would be amazingly beyond the pale (even in Baltimore). But because the show portrays all of American public life as being corrupt, we don’t even bat an eye.

Spent the weekend watching two sitcoms that I straight-up loved

brooklyn-nine-nineSo, I am one day from the Bay Area. So many terrible things have happened this week. But I will talk about none of them, and instead talk about the sit-com. I love sitcoms. I even like bad sitcoms. There’s something about the form that’s very comforting. I like them for the same reason that I like romantic comedies. Most media–even most comedy–portrays the world as a dark and friendless place. But sit-coms and rom-coms take place in a different universe. A nicer universe. One where there are no villains and everyone is good-intentioned and even the most utterly annoying people are beloved by all.

Anyway, this week I’ve seen two great sit-coms. The first, unfortunately, is cancelled. It also has a really bad name: Don’t Mess With The B____ In Apartment 23. It sounds like a pretty terrible (and probably sexist) sit-com, but it was surprisingly good. A twentysomething woman from Indiana moves to NYC for a Wall Street job that she loses on day one. And she falls in with a party girl who is, perhaps, a sociopath. And then, obv, they bond. Also, the party girl’s best friend is James Van Der Beek, playing himself. Basically, it’s 2 Broke Girls, but much sharper.

The most genius part of the show is probably James Van Der Beek. They wrote him in perfectly. He’s a self-obsessed washed-up star, but he’s also adorably well-intentioned. I think what makes it work is that his two best friends are these fairly ordinary girls. Most shows about celebrities put their celeb characters into a bubble (think Entourage) where everything is Hollywood and show business. Here, though, you’ve got people gabbing away in a coffeeshop like it’s Friends, but one of them is James Van Der Beek.

How do people even think of this stuff? What do you say at the pitch meeting for this show? I can’t even imagine it. Especially since it might not necessarily have been James Van Der Beek attached, right? Like it could’ve been any number of washed-up celebrities?

Also, James Van Der Beek is surprisingly handsome. I only knew him, up to now, from his guest appearances on How I Met Your Mother, where he was always fat and balding.

Oh, also, the other girl, titular bitch, is amazing. I loved her. She was also a very sharply drawn character. What makes her work is that she’s based on something specific: she’s one of those NYC club kids who’re famous for being outrageous and partying really hard. At one point, James Van Der Beek even talks about how she’s the It girl right now. I liked that a lot. She doesn’t exist in a vacuum: she is enabled by an entire social setting that the show only intermittently delves into. It’s very easy to imagine a version of this show that was much fuzzier, where she was just a girl who drank a lot and went to the bars every night.

 

The other show I’m watching is Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is a sit-com about a Brooklyn detective squad. I’m really fascinated by workplace comedies where people are not terrible at their jobs. In Parks and Recreation, for instance, their main innovation, over the course of the series’ run, was ratcheting up the Amy Poehler character’s competence level and making her more and more effective at her job. But even in that show, most of the characters are pretty incompetent.

In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, they’re not only all superb detectives (even the workaday schmuck who’s the butt of everyone’s jokes is actually a pretty decent crime-solver), but also all appear to like each other? There are no antagonists at all. It’s pretty fascinating. Again, the closest comparison that comes to mind is Parks and Recreation. But in that show, the antagonist was usually the apathy and slovenliness of the city of Pawnee itself. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, even the criminals are pretty genteel and friendly.

I have watched ten episodes of this show and I honestly could not tell you what’s happened in any of them. Basically, each episode is just each character doing their thing. Each episode is Andy Samberg grinning an impossibly wide smile and making a funny face; each episode is Andre Braugher using his dour face to deliver a laugh line; each episode is Stephanie Beatriz being unemotional and terrifying.

I don’t know. Maybe it’d get old after awhile?

But also maybe not. Sometimes I think sit-coms’ primary appeal is their continuity and predictability. They’re how I wish the world would be: wide and colorful and warm.