The Sandbox

Over on his blog, John Rogers is schooling us in story mechanics:

If you want to know what the creators intended a show to be “about”, you can usually go back and watch the last scene of the pilot.  In E.R., it’s Noah Wylie sitting on the sidewalk, exhausted but changed.  It’s going to be a show about how people survive this tumultuous, draining situation, and how it changes them.  I won’t spoil the last scene of the Breaking Bad pilot, but it’s stunning in its prescience right down to the final line of dialogue.  (Seriously, it makes me want to kiss Vince Gilligan on the mouth.)  The last scene of Leverage is Nate explaining the physics of Crime World, and how he and his crew are going to fuck up The Man.  This show is about those people punching rich guys in the neck.  Because they have Sinned, and Deserve It.

What’s really kind of interesting is to go back and watch the Lost pilot. (Remember, the end of the pilot is the end of Ep 2*.)  It ends with Charlie asking “Guys … where ARE we?”  That sets up the mystery of the show.  But is that really, eventually, what the show’s about?

I’d argue that’s what so infuriated many people about Lost by the end of it. (Full disclosure: I really dug the show, and am show-business friends with a fair chunk of the ex-writers).  Was Lost “about” the people on the island (emotion), or “about” the mystery of the island (the system)?   I’d guess for the writers it was about unravelling those castaways’ stories every week.  And sure, for a big chunk of the audience, that’s what got them emotionally invested.  But mysteries demand solving, and as soon as the system of the island was set up as a mystery it became part of the contract with the audience. “Oh, there are mysteries!  Puzzles!  I’ll pay attention over here, too!”  But if you don’t then satisfy the puzzle-solving part of the relationship — God help you.  Audiences are hella-smart.  Even if they’re not conscious puzzle-solvers, the lizard brain knows it isn’t getting what it wants.  That frustration feeds back into the character side, and before you know it fans are frustrated with both parts of the equation, because they’re feeling that …

… ahh … you know the best thing I ever heard, the thing I wish someone had told me when I was 20?

“Every criticism is the tragic result of an unmet need.”

He goes on to talk about how what his show, Leverage is about differs between him, co-creator Chris Downey, and Executive Producer Dean Devlin. And that the show works not in spite of this, but because of it.

The thing that makes Leverage work, is despite the differing views as to what the show is “about”, Rogers, Downey and Mr. Devlin have enough of a common ground in agreement. That common ground becomes the sandbox of the Leverage verse, in which there’s enough elbow room for them each to explore their own version of he show and have it still be Leverage. This is because they each agree on what the show is not as much as they agree on what it is.

I don’t think that was true for Lost. I think at some fundamental level, no two people running that show were able to create a common ground. The sandbox of that world had no boundaries and so the story got muddled because it could be whatever who was writing this week’s episode wanted it to be. So we got labyrinthine mysteries without satisfying answers, layer upon layer of character moments that ended up going nowhere and because no one had ever said Lost is A, B and C but not X, Y and Z, the overall story wallowed in its own potential to be anything and so was nothing. *

Tangentially, I just watched The Man With the Golden Gun the other night, which is one of my favorite Bond movies. And it occurred to me that The Man With the Golden Gun is one deeply weird movie, in a lot of ways that no other Bond movie is. But however silly and strange it got, it never became a parody of a Bond film, in the way that Casino Royal (1967) was. It stayed within the sandbox of Bond Films, it just unearthed a strange corner on the fringe full of psychadelic tropes and weirdness that most other Bond films ignore.


* On the up side, there’s enough material in the six seasons of Lost that, with some judicious editing, someone could probably turn it into a dense, weird, little miniseries that could be satisfying. All it would take is someone deciding what the island is and is not.

The Word For Human In Any Language

Embassytown, By China Mieville

This was a strange one. Not quite what you’d expect, either form a space opera or from China Mieville, and both in a good way. I don’t even know if you’d want to call it Space opera, Or even planetary Romance, though it has elements of both adventure on alien worlds and galactic politics but they aren’t the driving forces of the story.

That driving force is language and where it comes form and what it means to communicate. Here we have a story that for once looks at humans meeting aliens and deals with the profound differences in psychology that creates a gulf in communication, the lengths we’ll go to just to say hello to something other, and what the ramifications of trying to communicate in our own fashion with something so unlike us and how it changes both us and the aliens culture.

China Mieville’s best quality as an author is in his ruthless abandonment of the genre scaffolding and willingness to just plunge the reader into an alien world and let them sink or swim. Most of the exotic words and neologisms are never defined. You just pick them up as you go along and figure it out, like the characters do. This can be disorienting and off-putting if you aren’t expecting it. But the joy of discovery and sorting out the world for yourself is part of the fun of this book.

Merkin Muffley for President

It seems GOP voters have grown tired of yet another sure-thing front-runner for the Republican Candidacy, and Newt Gingrich’s poll numbers are now in free fall. I could have told you this, without the polling data. Even ignoring his crypto-fascist platform, try saying “President Newt Gingrich” with a straight face. He sounds like a Terry Southern character.

Most of the GOP contenders have already ridden this roller coaster ride, but no one really expected Cain, Palin, Trump, Perry and the Bachmann to stay on top as serious contenders. They’re clearly just milking it for the publicity and shill for their more lucrative careers as pundits. I mean, actually being President is hard work. But they could make twice as much just sitting around talking shit about the president for the next four years on FoxNews. So it’s just savvy business to ride that whore train right now.

Newt, Paul and Huntsman are the the only Not-Romney candidates left and they aren’t treating the GOP primary like a game show, but each in turn will get their close up. Though it seems Ron Paul, everyone’s favorite anti-semetic pot smoking uncle, is up next and the GOP desperately want to keep him out of the limelight, since he shows them up as the racist brain dead nincompoops they really are. But then these re the idiots who talked themselves into thinking Newt was a good idea just last week. So round and round we’ll go until the only ones left on this tragic carousel of cretinism is Romney, the empty suit no one likes. At which point, the GOP will decide that since they don’t actually want to run the government anywhere but into the ground, they’ll toss Mitt out as election bait so he can be squashed by Obama and spend the next four years griping and sabotaging the governing process form the senate and house. I mean, why not? It seems to be working for them now.

Links for 12/19/11

A few odds and ends making their way from the internet to my brain in the last week:

>A list of defunct auto manufactures and the cool cars they used to make, mostly from the nineteen-teens. Bless Wikipedia editors and their exhaustive interests.

>A transcript of Terrence McKenna talking about the DMT cave and intelligences from outside of time. You know, the usual.

>In the Arabian Nights, there’s the story of the City of Brass, which

[…] features a group of travellers on an archaeological expedition across the Sahara to find an ancient lost city and attempt to recover a brass vessel that Solomon once used to trap a jinn, and, along the way, encounter a mummified queen, petrified inhabitants, life-like humanoid robots and automata, seductive marionettes dancing without strings, and a brass horseman robot who directs the party towards the ancient city, which has now become a ghost town.”

There’s definitely a novel in there, but it’ll have to wait until I finish the three or four other novels already taking up space in my head. So look for it sometime around 2020.

>Here’s last year’s Krampuslauf Graz parade in Austria. Why can’t we have a demonic monster parade during Christmas in this country? Oh right, fluffy Jesus people. Weirdos.

>And ever since I saw the new trailer for GI Joe: Retaliation, this pretty badass dubstep version of Seven Nation Army has been stuck in my head.

The Next Republican Nominee for President

The  Republican National Committee announced today that they’ve decided to skip the middle man and nominate as their candidate for the 2012 Presidential election noted Somali Pirate, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse. “We’re tired of the small time grifters, the closeted sanctimonious hypocrits and backwoods cretins,” said RNC chair, Reince Priebus. “For this election, we needed a fresh face. Someone with leadership skills and a twenty first century idea of entrepreneurship. That he also knows how to handle an assault weapon is just a bonus!”

Mr. Muse came to prominence back in 2009 when he and his crew of desperate pirates took control of the Maersk Alabama, initiating a five-day hostage standoff that ultimately resulted in the death of three pirates and the freeing of Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama. Since then, Mr. Muse has been keeping a low profile, but the republicans feel that he has the qualities that are necessary to fulfill their plan for America.

“He’s already seen the future that the Republican party has in store for America,” said Newt Gingrich at a fundraiser for Mr. Muse this past Saturday. “Somalia is it. A land of complete lawlessness, a government so hobbled by corruption as to be practically nonexistent. They have no messy regulations whosoever. It’s a free market dream come true!”

“I grew up in extreme poverty,” said Mr. Muse of his humble beginnings. “I got my hands into something that was more powerful than me.”

Rush Limbaugh addressed Mr. Muse’s lack of US citizenship on his radio show,”At least we know where Mr. Muse came form. We still haven’t seen Obama’s real birth certificate!”

Sarah Palin elaborated, saying that,”Mr. Muse at least believes in the American dream and is willing to do what it takes to pioneer a small business and make it grow through hard work and dedication and that’s all the qualifications you need.”

Scooby-Doo as Secular Kids Show

Over at Comics Alliance, an intriguing theory regarding Scooby-Doo:

Michael Ryan recently wrote a really interesting article that suggested the decision to keep real monsters off of Scooby-Doo was originally done in order to appease parents who wanted something that was just scary enough to keep a kid’s attention without being so scary that they wouldn’t actually get “excited.” They wanted to have the fun of monsters without the consequences of having to deal with nightmares like the parents of those kids who saw Simon Belmont hoisting up Dracula’s severed head on the cover of Nintendo Power. It was all meant to be like the televised equivalent of a Nerf Dracula, taking something that was supposed to be scary and blunting it down until the the big reveal at the end of every episode, which would show kids that the monsters they were scared of were just normal dudes.

It’s certainly possible to look at the show like that — as Ryan points out, there were critics when the show premiered back in 1969 that saw that as a selling point — but whether or not it was the intent of the creators, what they ended up with was something that went far beyond that idea.

Because that’s the thing about Scooby-Doo: The bad guys in every episode aren’t monsters, they’re liars.

I can’t imagine how scandalized those critics who were relieved to have something that was mild enough to not excite their kids would’ve been if they’d stopped for a second and realized what was actually going on. The very first rule of Scooby-Doo, the single premise that sits at the heart of their adventures, is that the world is full of grown-ups who lie to kids, and that it’s up to those kids to figure out what those lies are and call them on it, even if there are other adults who believe those lies with every fiber of their being. And the way that you win isn’t through supernatural powers, or even through fighting. The way that you win is by doing the most dangerous thing that any person being lied to by someone in power can do: You think.

But it’s not just that the crooks in Scooby-Doo are liars; nobody ever shows up to bilk someone out of their life savings by pretending to be a Nigerian prince or something. It’s always phantasms and Frankensteins, and there’s a very good reason for that. The bad guys in Scooby-Doo prey on superstition, because that’s the one thing that an otherwise rational person doesn’t really think through. It’s based on belief, not evidence, which is a crucial element for the show. If, for example, someone knocks on your door and claims to be a police officer, you’re going to want to see a badge because that’s the tangible evidence that you’ve come to expect to prove their claim. If, however, you hold the belief that the old run-down theater has a phantom in the basement, then the existence of that phantom himself — or at least a reasonably convincing costume — is all the evidence that you need to believe that you were right all along. The bad guys are just reinforcing a belief that the other characters already have, and that they don’t need any evidence before because it’s based in superstition, not reason.

Link via Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing.