Return to Leverage

Leverage has arrived on TNT, and we’ve now had four episodes (the pilot which I discussed earlier and three more).

As the show settles into its digs, we can see what the series is likely to look and feel like in an ongoing fashion.  Leverage is clearly over-the-top, trading mimetic realism for the joyous fun of heist and con-man action where Awesomeness is a clear and present aesthetic agenda.

In “The Two-Horse Job” and in “The Miracle Job,” the characters’ backstory is central both to the reason for the team taking each case and also plays out in the interpersonal drama between the leads and the guest-star clients.   Other characters’ investment in the individual jobs waxes and wanes based on their personal beliefs regarding the lines which the team has to cross along the way, which keeps the procedural formula from growing stale.

Leverage plays like a 21st century A-team, but instead of being a group of ex-special forces soldiers, the show draws more upon the caper, heist, and do-gooder fixer traditions of series including Mission: Impossible, Burn Notice and films like Ocean’s Eleven, among many others. The characters are a WASP-y ex-insurance claims investigator, a black geek-chic computer hacker, an Autism-spectrum super-thief, an actress who is abysmal in productions but inspired in confidence games, and a wise-cracking thug.  The actors bring enthusiasm and oddity to their characters, making sure that each character is just a couple degrees off-center for their archetype.

We’ve also been introduced to an ongoing antagonist for the characters in Jim Sterling, played by Mark “Badger” Sheppard.  Sterling is a worthy opponent for our team, having taken over in the job formerly held by Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton), the team’s leader.

One of the main reasons the show is compelling is that for all the heroes’ schemes and plotting, things keep going wrong.  They have a good idea which goes much further than intended, and then they need to come up with a new scam to un-do the earlier scam.  This scrambling and reversal forces the characters to go out of their comfort zones, improvise, and get into more trouble.

Table Talk and The Joy of Planning

The show also plays like a tabletop RPG game, unsurprising since the show and certain traditions of tabletop play draw influence from the same sources.  Each character is an expert in their niche, they have diverse and intriguing backgrounds, and most of all, they bicker and banter over planning in a way that is highly reminiscent of any number of gaming sessions where characters spend more time thinking of the plan than actually executing those plans.

And here’s the thing — in a caper/confidence game situation, the planning is one of the most fun/exciting things.  The architecture of a scam, the construction and unfolding of a human Rube Goldberg machine provides one of the main aesthetic thrills of the narrative mode which Leverage makes its home territory.

Where shows like LOST have used extended flashbacks to provide B-plots for episodes, portraying characters at different stages of their life to show character growth or lack therof, Leverage often goes for quick flashbacks to provide punchlines to jokes our to counter-point/undermine what a character is saying in the present.  Leverage‘s flashbacks are more mad-cap, and provide a fair amount of the sjow’s Over-The-Topness.

Leverage is a show to watch, and has the benefit of Prime-time cable-drama ratings expectations rather than Network Prime-Time expectations.  I doubt Leverage will ever be a big hit, but it may be able to achieve a strong following based on its quirky and compelling over-the-top caper action.

Legend of the Seeker

Disclaimer — I have not read any of the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind.  I have heard a variety of opinions from friends and colleagues about the series, and have not put them on my reading list as of yet.  My reactions are almost entirely to the TV series independent of the books on which it is based.

There’s not much new action-adventure fantasy on TV right now, and even less of it syndicated.  This is a lack which Sam Raimi and fellow Executive Producers Robert Tapert, Joshua Donen, Ned Nalle and Kenneth Biller realized and decided to capitalize upon.  In adapting Terry Goodkind’s best-selling Sword of Truth series, Raimi and Co. have sought to re-capture Raimi’s cult success of Hercules: The Legendary Journies and Xena: Warrior Princess (among others like Cleopatra 2525 and Jack of All Trades).

First-run syndication has not been in the spotlight of late, such that Legend of the Seeker was notable to media critics as the series approached for the syndication as well as its media-tie-in nature.  The series broadcasts on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, outside of the Weekday Primetime paradigm, but with TiVo and DVR, the specific broadcast time of weekly television is far less relevant to technologically empowered viewers.  Ratings expectations are lower for syndicated shows, allowing for shows that might not survive in the current TV world.

And now to the show itself:

As mentioned above, I’ve not read Goodkind’s books.  The TV series is very familiar from the beginning.  A prophesied hero is found by a beautiful female magic-user, who join with a powerful but cranky old wizard to overthrow an evil tyrant.  There’s not really anything fresh being done from the perspective of the fantasy genre as a dialogue.  The show thusfar seems mostly bereft of the BDSM and Objectivist elements identified in the novel series.  This goes a long way towards making The Legend of the Seeker more palatable to a mainstream audience, but perhaps also removes most of the originality and freshness which the novels had to offer as source material.

Now well into the first season, the show centers around Richard Cypher (played by Craig Horner), who has been identified as a True Seeker (the first in a thousand years), and his travels with Kahlan Amnell (Bridget Regan), a Confessor (capable of making people fall in love with her so as to do her bidding — there’s some BDSM, so it’s not all gone), and wizard Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander (Bruce Spence).  They face evil-of-the-week in villages and towns across the Midlands, and Richard grows into his role as the Seeker, while developing a forbidden love for Confessor Kahlan.  Slow-motion beats in combat are prominent in the series, as the fighting slows down for notable choreagraphies, then returns to normal pace, then slows again.

The series could be spoken of as pursuing the aesthetic of awesome over others, but it is also clearly trying to return to the well of The Lord of the Rings and other popular adventure fantasies over the history of the genre.  Individual episodes like “Elixer” and “Identity” have provided interesting narrative hooks, like a town where people have become addicted to using magic to solve their problems, and the ever-present body-swap episode.

Legend of the Seeker is far from the level of Most Repeatable Programming along the lines of shows such as Lost or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but if you’re feeling a lack of fantasy adventure in your TV life, then Legend of the Seeker may be worth your time.  Bring popcorn, and leave your high standards somewhere else.

Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

This novel is Scott Lynch’s second, the follow-up to the popular and celebrated The Lies of Locke Lamora. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lies_of_Locke_Lamora) Red Seas Under Red Skies takes the Gentleman Bastards and shows them moving on to another city, where they are in the midst of a long con trying to steal from the Sinspire, a tower of gambling in all its odd implementations, including a card game where the loser of each hand spins a wheel and is forced to drink a shot of liqour — the game is played until one of the players cannot functionally play the game anymore.  Our leads are expert confidence artists and thieves of the first order, who would be at home running scams with the crew of Oceans’ Eleven or Robin Hood’s band of merry men.

The leads are first-class thieves, but the drama of the story comes from the fact that the universe has it in for them.  For all their plans, bad things keep happening, one on top of another.  This helps push the novel forward, which is good, because otherwise it would have been a sturctural mess.

It already has a problem — it’s basically one novel inside of another novel.   The title and cover suggest Pirates!, understandable considering The Pirates of the Carribean series and its re-popularization of the figure of the pirate.  And once the novel gets our heroes onto a ship and sends them off for nautical adventures, the book takes on a certain tone and we are introduced to a rich cast that strikes this reader as being designed in response to criticisms of Lynch’s first book — namely that there were hardly any women in the novel.  In Red Seas Under Red Skies, the famous pirate captain is a woman, as is her tiny-but-badass Leiutenant.  These two along with other characters balance out the gender disparity that Lynch suffered from in Lies, but it doesn’t account for the fact that the early part of the novel in the Sinspire and dealing with The Archon (think a shogun) don’t really have enough to do with the pirate bits and the fun thematics in putting Locke, a priest of the god of thieves, in with a society of pirates.

Lynch would probably have been better served in writing two novels, one about the Sinspire and the Archon, and then saving the next one for the pirates, or jumping straight to the pirates and filling in the Sinspire game.  As is, the novel is uneven, though enjoyable throughout.  The best characters aren’t introduced until more than halfway through the novel, and the dramatic climax of the novel is derived mostly from the pirate story, such that the Sinspire/Archon resolution is almost an afterthought, though it does lead to a strong cliffhanger/hook ending.

It’s a fun ride, and if you enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora, go ahead and pick up Red Seas Under Red Skies.  There are to be a total of seven books in the series (forget trilogies — septologies are the new hotness)  It’s a little less focused and polished than Lynch’s first, but that’s inevitable considering that Lynch spent the better part of a decade working on his first novel, and then had a breakout success demanding sequels as soon as possible.  The conclusion of Red Seas.. has me excited for the next novel, and I hope that it takes the initial hook and then attaches it to the rest of the novel’s plot in a way that is substantive and consistent.

Review — Portal

The Cake is a Lie.

Underneath a clever physics game is gleeful homicidal glee with a cute voice.  Valve’s Portal, originally packaged in with Half-Life: The Orange Box, is a gem of a game that earned countless accolades last year.

Portal takes the simple idea of a two-way portal gun and makes a whole (if short) game around it, showing off their physics engine and their dark sense of humor.

In Portal, the closest thing you get to a weapon is the portal gun, which can shoot at a plane and create a portal on that plane, which connects to the other end of the portal, which you also deploy.  This lets you get up high to push buttons, or to send plasma balls around corners to activate switches, or to jump through the portal so you can jump through the portal again and use the accumulated velocity to jump up to new platforms.  The game is a clear test of the user’s physics knowledge and critical/spatial problem solving skills.

I also think it should be used in Physics classes world-wide, as possible.  The idea of vectors, conservation of momentum, and many other principles of physics are at work in Portal.

But if Portal were just a physics tutorial in game form, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun.  Along the way, your guide/host/jailkeeper is GlaDOS, an erratic computer that talks you through the early puzzles, unraveling to reveal its sadistic streak and its nature as the architect of countless attempts on your character’s life.  Physics experiments to test the portal gun and human ingenuity give way to the increasingly dangerous tests, where the player is prompted to design complex plans of layered portal use, planning several steps ahead.

Portal is the exact kind of video game that Steven Johnson (of Everything Bad is Good For You) declares as laudable — not only does the player have to explore and probe the world of the game, they are forced to think critically, implement their spatial awareness/intelligence, and are rewarded for their cleverness but also their curiosity, as occasional glimpses behind the curtains reveal previous test-subjects desperate scrawlings on the walls between the test areas, writings that indicate GlaDOS’s hidden agenda, the virtues of the companion cube (a weighted cube that is used as the only other tool at the character’s disposal), and most of all, that

The Cake is a Lie.

“Still Alive,” the game’s theme song, has become a geek music classic, makings its way through the livejournal/blogosphere shortly after the game’s release, and helping to catapult Geek Rocker Jonathan Coulton (who wrote the song) into the limelight within the subculture.  Another indicator of “Still Alive”‘s fan appeal can be seen in the fact that it was released as a free downloadable track for the game Rock Band.

The game is now available for download on XBox Live arcade, which is how I played it.  It is more than a mere tech demo wrapped in a thin game shell, and that elevation is thanks to tone and style– if GlaDOS had been unironic and uninflected, she/it would have been just another stereotypical computer-gone-evil.  Instead, she has earned a place as an iconic computer-gone-evil, appearing beside favorites such as HAL9000

Everything interesting about Portal adds up to a charmingly demented game that will make you laugh while you’re running around trying not to get blown up and figuring out how to arrange portals so you can get to the next room.

The Baxter and Romantic Comedies

Written and directed by Michael Showalter, The Baxter is a romantic comedy about romantic comedies, where Showalter plays CPA Elliot Sherman, a decent but boring man who is doomed to be a “Baxter.”

Baxter n. “A good but dull man who is not the right partner for the female lead of a romantic comedy.  The Baxter is left at the alter when the leading man makes the dramatic return to win over the leading lady.”

Elliot has been stuck as a Baxter several times over the course of his life, and spends the film trying to shake the Baxter curse. Showalter displays great familiarity with the genre conventions of the romantic comedy, employing several classic motifs with Elliot and company being more conscious of the narrative structure that they’re fitting into.

Elizabeth Banks plays Caroline Swan, Elliot’s latest romantic interest, whom he meets the same day as Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams), who is hired as his temporary secretary.  Justin Theroux rounds out the cast as Caroline’s old flame, Bradley Lake.

The plot is as predictable as any romantic comedy, and it’s this predictability which the film siezes on to set itself apart from the majority of the instances of the genre.  The humor in the film is often understated, doesn’t go as far into slapstick as films like The Wedding Crashers or There’s Something About Mary, instead falling more into the Indy aesthetic of small moments with awkward but charming people.

The moral of the story is that the reason the Baxters get left behind for the romantic leads is bravery, the bravery/bravado/foolishness to do those big stupid romantic things like standing outside her house with a boom box, flying to Portugal to propose to her at work, doing a rain dance to make it rain, ask her to dance during the last song of the night, etc.

The Baxter urges us to take a chance, to put ourselves out there, to make the big romantic gesture.  not necessarily because the gesture works on its own, but that spontenaity and the willingness to be vulnerable will be what puts you in the situations to fall in love and win someone’s heart.

But even a romantic comedy about romantic comedies is still fitting into a formula, as do other meta-romantic comedies like Hitch The Baxter says that we can change our archetype within the romantic comedy structure, we cannot escape it completely.  Sherman only gets his happy ending when he realizes that he’d been living the wrong role opposite the wrong leading lady — which is only enabled by having the ‘right’ leading lady in his life to be able to make that realization. Without the ‘meet cute,’ the story cannot get moving, the real romantic comedy cannot begin.

For the people still looking for the person who stars opposite them in the romantic comedy of their life, these stories serve as consolation.  They are a cultural promise that says “Do not despair.  The right person is out there, and when you meet the right person, whackiness may ensue but if you put yourself out there, the two of you will have your happily ever after.”

Is this ultimately a healthy message that these films send?  Stories can be many things to many people — and for some they are consolation, for others passing entertainment, but they feed into a larger cultural mythology about how romance and relationships work.

We’re seeing more women in the protagonist romantic lead role of the genre, as the person who has to make the romantic gesture and put themselves out to get hurt or get what they want.  Gender equity in whose responsibility it is to initiate a relationship goes part and parcel with third-wave feminism, but cultural forces haven’t just dropped away to allow this gender parity to take place — everyone has expectations influencing their decisions.  Lingering double-standards position a sexually-agent male as a ‘go-getter, a virile man,’ while a sexually-passive male is ‘effeminite.’  But on the other hand, a sexually-agent female is a ‘loose woman’ while a sexually-passive female is ‘in her place,’ is being ‘proper.’

It’s good to have meta-narratives critiquing the assumptions of narrative genres, but when you engage a genre, you are often stuck feeding into the expectations of that genre or reacting against them.  Finding the middle ground more akin to Jose Esteban Munoz’s notion of disidentification, where a critique can be made and self-definition be made manifest, that is much harder, but it’s the path that each of us live day by day, taking the narrative tropes and stories that make up the fabric of our cultural canon and working them in and out of our lives.

This application and analysis of narrative is a necessary part of being a functioning being in society, but like any crafts-person, the better the raw material we have to work with, the more effective tools we can make for understanding and confidently and successfully moving through life.  What if more romantic comedies had strong elements of how-to videos, teaching body language, conversational techniques, and real-life appropriate methods for putting yourself in situations where you are more likely to meet people with whom to make a connection?  All of this would of course have to be done under the aegis of entertainment so as to be more widely distributed and more appealing to people who want to find love but are for one or another reason unlikely to purchase or investigate ‘how to’ manuals for dating.  This brings us back to aesthetics and the reasons why people seek out romantic comedies.  Not everyone is looking for advice from them, but perhaps a few people could find it, given the right film/show/narrative to provide it.

Now I’m not saying that all romantic comedies should be didactic dating how-tos with a thin plot, but it’s important for creators to be aware of the cultural/psychological effect their narratives have on the way people experience and understand life.  The stories available to us inform what we imagine as the range of possibilities in what has (and therefore can) be done.  It’s the approach I try to take with my own work, and in my research, I plan to investigate that part of the creative process as well, setting aside ‘the author is dead’ in favor of ‘the author is very much alive’ — there’s a maxim in writing that says ‘write the novel that you want to read’ — we write for many reasons, and exorcising our demons or exploring psychological possibilties are among them.

Ethnography can go in a lot of directions, and one of the things I want to do with my career is to see how working with people at all levels and stages of the culture-making business in addition to audiences and those who take narratives and transform them to their own ends (fan-fiction, vidding, etc.) can lead to a greater overal understanding of the cultural process of making meaning and understanding the world.

Supernatural 4×05 “Monster Movie”

This week’s Supernatural was a loving homage to the classic Universal Studios monster movies, complete with a bombastic soundtrack in the place of Supernatural’s classic rock and a full black-and-white episode.

A full unpacking of the expert genre and medium emulation on the part of the episode “Monster Movie” would fill an entire journal-length essay, which I intend to write, but not here.

The episode “Monster Movie” was written by Ben The Tick and Angel‘s “Smile Time” Edlund, a devotee of classic horror and expert in loving parody. The entire episode had its medium and genre conventions filtered through the Universal Studios Monster Movie paradigm.

But the genre elements were explicitly diegetic (internal) as well as influencing the credits, the color (as in none), and even including an intermission card in the middle of the episode before a commerical break. Sam and Dead listen to and comment on the horror-movie ‘radio’ which gives the soundtrack.

Throughout the episode, Sam and Dean are confused, then bemused by the fact that the popular, media versions of classic monsters such as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Mummy pop up to commit murders across a Pennsylvania town during Oktoberfest (having the whole town dressed up Oktoberfest-style means that various locals can all be dressed up in a way that invokes the original Dracula, including Dean’s romantic interest of the week, a bartender aka “bar wench” named Jaime.

The reason for this genre emulation goes into the plot of the episode itself, rather than being just mapped on to an otherwise ‘normal’ Supernatural case. In a move consistent with Universal monster movies, the villain is made sympathetic in its monologue about being feared and reviled, then finding solace in the noble solitude of the “classic monsters” of film.

The shapeshifter villain is trapped in the genre conventions of the monsters he emulates, down to oh-so-slowly reaching for the switch that would electrocute Dean, explicitly casting our heroes and others into the Dracula story (Dean as Jonathan Harker, Sam as Abraham Van Helsing, with Dean’s romantic interest Jaime as Mina Murray).

In a genre-inverting turn, it is our damsel in distress who vanquishes the monster (with silver, which does not normally kill vampires in Supernatural‘s mythology) working both as an inversion of genre expectations as well as the expectation for Supernatural itself, which has been criticized for its treatment of women.

This level of genre emulation and careful parody happens from time to time in television and film, and “Monster Movie” provides more evidence that the best parodies come from a deep understanding and appreciation for the genre being parodied. One of the best examples of this mode of parody can be seen in the ABC Family show The Middleman, adapted from a graphic novel series into a tv superhero parody tour-de-force of Generation X/Y (mostly geek) cultural references.