Church is cheaper than…

September 28, 2014

You’d think, here in the South, churches would not have to resort to sad and desperate messages to bring in the flock. But I recently saw this pronouncement on a church sign while traveling between Houston and Austin:

“Church is cheaper than NFL tickets.”

Never mind that this particular church was nowhere near a football stadium, or really any professional sports team… You would think the two Texas religions would have found a way to share Sundays by now. Perhaps the church is nervous as the NFL encroaches on the rest of the week – Monday, Thursday, Saturday … really the only things stopping football from total week dominance are cops and concussions.

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Breaking Bad did NOT Oiler it

October 1, 2013

And it wasn’t just the perfect musical choice at the end (and throughout) of the episode. The highlight for me, beyond “Baby Blue,” was Walt’s parting admission to Skyler, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.”

This statement was something the audience already knew, but it was Walt’s final journey to that realization that made the end of the series so potent. And, as with the arc of the classic tragic figure, it came to Walt far too late for him to reverse the course of his downward trajectory.

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Breaking Bad, please, just don’t Oiler it…

July 25, 2013

We are nearing the end of Breaking Bad, and it is coming to an end at the perfect point in overall story arc. I admit, I am bubbling with excitement at the prospect of an ultimate finale, but I must temper my emotions for fear of crushing disappointment. In short, I hope they don’t Oiler it.

You might ask, “How could they Oiler it?” Or, more likely, you are asking, “What does it mean to Oiler something?”

The term might be clear – or at least intuitive – to anyone who lived in or near Houston in the early 1990s, specifically January 3, 1993, when the Houston Oilers were leading the Buffalo Bills in the 1993 AFC Divisional Playoffs 35-3 in the second half, only to lose 41-38.

From them on, “to Oiler” something is to snatch defeat from the jaws of a victory, an assured victory, to perform to near perfection up until the end, only to collapse and suffer a crushing defeat. We Houstonians imagined gamblers in Kansas City, after a particularly disappointing game of pool, saying, “Gawd dang, I sure did Oiler that game.”

Now, Breaking Bad is the best show ever. They could have an average finale and still be completely awesome. So how could Breaking Bad Oiler it? How could they end the show so badly that it would besmirch the entire series? Five words … “it was all a dream.” Or Walt could board the spaceship buried beneath his pool and fly back to his home planet in the Xemaphone Constellation.

Trust me, there are innumerable ways it could end horribly. And they wouldn’t have to work that hard to do so.

For example, the 2004 re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (BSG) was well on its way to being the best science-fiction TV series of all time until the show did a dramatic face plant at the finish line. Instead of staying in the nuanced, thoughtful, gray areas that made the show so superb for three and a half seasons, where it dealt in depth with character, religion, human survival, politics, and modern morality, they tried to wrap it all up in an absurdly neat package, with a spineless, by-the-numbers (and wholly unsatisfying) action climax. The actual battle seemed rushed but only because they needed to get to a meandering and prosaic conclusion that gave the illusion of profundity…

Yeah, BSG Oilered it. The episode “33” is about the best TV can get, yet I can’t watch that or any other episode without a slight distaste, for I know the suckitude to come.

I hope Breaking Bad does not share the same fate.

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Don’t lose your PC badge in the Apocalypse

April 18, 2013

It was an interesting coincidence that The Simpsons aired their “survivalist” episode “Homer Goes to Prep School” the same night The Walking Dead was wrapping up its third season. I’m not sure that actual preppers watch The Walking Dead (only in the sense that fictions feed many of their beliefs), but I think the show serves as a good guide to that mindset, since both preppers and TV writers seem to share the same Incredibles complex, namely that there are but a few worthy people on this planet and the rest of us are sheep.

(Don’t worry too much about your standing. You are mostly likely one of the sheep. And I am using the term “preppers” to refer to the very stereotypical notion of survivalists driven by right-wing conspiracy theories.)

Take Lost. There were more survivors and more people on that Island than the opening credits would suggest. Where else did they get all those people to run in front of bullets? Random people would pop up whenever the writers needed to display the Island’s hostility to humanity without losing a main player or when someone needed to stand behind Jack’s shoulder and nod during emotional “group” face-offs.

These people experience the same suffering, the same losses, and the same struggles as our main characters, but for some reason, they are not exceptional. They are functional, what gamers would call NPCs (non-player characters).

Back to The Walking Dead. Woodbury was a town full of NPCs. They support their sociopathic leader (the Governor) without question, right up until they don’t. The Governor has this vast network of spies, soldiers, and commandos, watching the prison, capturing walkers, etc. – but only about three men get names, lines of dialogue, and close ups. The rest are sheep, even though they stop bullets as good as anyone.

So if you want to survive a zombie apocalypse, you need to keep a tight grip on your PC badge, which is not as easy as it sounds. Andrea, she was a PC, and look what happened to her. She had many “emotional moments” that would seem to grant her a permanent “PC” tattoo – but The Walking Dead is essentially an unending sequence of emotional moments, one after the other, so much that they have lost their impact. Many characters have noted, “Everyone’s lost someone.” That’s the universe they live in – but the show’s writers seem to be unable to move on from that…

While there is no guarantee of permanent PC status, one way to guarantee loss of status is to become the moral foil to either the protagonist or the antagonist. Andrea was both. That’s a definite fail on her saving throw.

As I understand it, fans complained about her obtuse inability to see the Governor’s true nature. But characters are only as smart as the writing allows. And the writers twisted and turned and contorted to keep her as dumb as a post. There was plenty of information floating around that should have swayed her opinion of the Governor – e.g., he had Glenn tortured, he sexually assaulted Maggie, he gunned down a group of soldiers and took their weapons.

Any one of these tidbits, had they been communicated to her, would have swayed her to one side and altered her character arc. But we never see this information passed to her. No one tells her. Why? Because doing so would spoil her function. She needs to get us from Point A to Point B. Andrea didn’t kill the Governor because the script told her not to. She lost her PC badge.

Like The Walking Dead writers, preppers see NPCs everywhere. Except we are their canvas – and they are painting their own narrative on reality. They look at me and see a radiation canary. I will be the sheep gunned down by jackbooted government soldiers, the one who dies from the formaldehyde in a flu shot, the pile of dust after a fifth-column drone attack on American soil. No matter how hard I believe I have a PC badge, they will never regard me as anything but zombie food.

So both preppers and TV writers both are willing to sacrifice NPCs to realize their narratives. I guess the big difference is that TV writers are trying to make fiction look more like reality. For preppers, it is just the opposite. They might, for example, edit a popular animated show so that it appears to foretell actual events.

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October 14, 2012

Creating a sense of ambivalence within a show is generally a quality of a good show, with good writing, good acting, etc.

But what about meta-ambivalence? In “The Walking Dead,” I feel a growing sense of contempt for Rick’s wife and son, Lori and Carl. She is constantly making terrible decisions and reacting poorly to every new challenge, and Carl is a whiny little idiot. Seriously, if they weren’t Rick’s family, they would have already been killed several times over.

But I don’t want them to die solely because that would necessitate several episodes of Rick pining for his lost family while the current zombie-fighting frat struggles (again) with its identity. And that would get pretty dull…

So the only course of action I see is to kill every living person in the show and start over with a fresh, new group of humans. What’s the chance of that happening in Season 3?

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Thank you, Mr. Abercrombie

March 11, 2012

It is a late notice, I know, but I wanted to mention my sadness at the passing of Ian Abercrombie, who died on January 26, 2012.

Ian Abercrombie - Army of Darkness

He was sublime as Seinfeld’s Mr. Pitt, but I will always remember him as “spinach chin.” I will miss his talents and the true class he brought to all his projects.

Ian Abercrombie - Army of Darkness

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The Living Structure Meme

September 3, 2011

If you want to prepare for a new and illustrious career for future, I would recommend bioengineering, since future ships and buildings will be living things.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s “A Pocketful for Dharma,” despite its flaws, strikes an interesting balance between a landscape of living building and a computer disk that can carry a copy of a human soul. Farscape put the concept of bioengineered ships upfront with the whole “I am on a living ship” line in the intro – a ship that later gave birth to a baby gunship. And, of course, the classic aliens, the xenomorphs,  have a penchant for organic architecture when they set up shop in a ship, on a new planet, or among a group of ill-fated human colonists. Welcome to a future where, as Marge Simpson would say, “Everything is something.” At least until the nanobots take over… then everything will be very, very tiny.

We are all Morton Downey Jr.

November 14, 2010

Remember that girl, during the 2008 presidential election, who faked an attack from an ardent Obama supporter? She scratched a backward B on her cheek, as one might do if one were looking into a mirror. Of course she later had to admit to fabricating the story.

If this event sounds familiar, and it should to Gen Xers, it recalls the downfall of Morton Downey, Jr., who claimed neo-Nazi skinheads had attacked him in an airport bathroom and etched a Swastika onto his forehead (a la Inglourious Basterds but with the opposite intent). Again, he made the error of drawing a mirror image of the symbol on his forehead.

The ploy did work in that he got attention for it, but that was back in a time when we could distinguish between good attention and bad attention. (My memory of the time is a little fuzzy, but I believe we could also distinguish between fact and opinion – life as a pundit was much harder back then…) Morton was scandalized and lost a considerable amount of social capital on the deal (and he was already overdrawn).

I thought of this incident while recently watching Predator 2, which has a pretty good cast for what it is. Morton has a minor part where he essentially plays himself – and I have to say, it demonstrates how, as a media figure, he was quite ahead of his time.

Of course we have smaller cameras now (where did he hide that behemoth to sneak it into a federally restricted crime scene?), but aside from that, he’s the perfect mold for a media icon today – he’s loud and values sensationalism over rational examination of the facts – or any examination of the facts.

We are all Morton Downey, Jr.

Morton knew where we were going – he just got there a bit earlier than the rest of us. Unfortunately he lived in a time when having a swastika on your forehead was still considered an impediment to your career as well as to your overall ability to interact with other humans. Nowadays, he and Colonel Hans Landa would be a tag-team show on Fox News.

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Welcome to the New Apocalypse – Same as the Old Apocalypse

November 13, 2010

Would anyone be surprised to wake up in the midst of a zombie apocalypse? Or are our minds conditioned to expect any deep sleep, any extended hospital stay, carries at least a 50/50 chance that the undead will be walking before your discharge? It struck me, when watching The Walking Dead, how no one asked how or why the Earth became overrun with zombies. There would have been more exposition if a tsunami or an earthquake or global warming had destroyed the world.

Of course that’s a recognition of today’s audience – we no longer need an explanation for zombies – but have we reached the point where we don’t expect our characters to question the existence of the walking dead either? If so, then the creator of Zombie Nice spent way too much time searching for the right cause for zombification…

Breaking Bad is our Greek Tragedy

September 25, 2010

It is natural and inevitable that a contemporary audience deems all those that preceded it to be unsophisticated.

Therefore, I can say with some degree of certainty that future human societies, whatever is left as the ice melts and oceans rise, will look back at our media libraries (and there will be a lot of them) with contempt. Case in point, I recently finished watching Season Three of Breaking Bad. [Fair warning that I am about to discuss incidents that occurred in the final episodes of Breaking Bad: Season Three. Suffice it to say, if you don’t want to know happens, stop reading now.]

A hundred years from now, people of the future will watch the end of Season Three of Breaking Bad on whatever internal visual implant they use to beam videos into their brains, and they will scoff at our sweet tooth for over-the-top melodrama. I can almost hear their groans echoing back through time when Walt’s Minivan of Death zooms in at the last possible second and plows over the two drug dealers, tightening the bond between him and Jesse and setting up a highly dramatic confrontation with Gus. Walt has completed his unlikely transformation from meek chemistry teacher to ruthless drug-dealing avenger.

They will think us childlike in our sensibilities, but what they won’t know about us, and what we don’t know about our antecessors, is we feel that same sense of disbelief – and quash it. It isn’t naiveté that allows us to enjoy these shows. We are simply willing to make certain concessions to reality in order to live in this world, if only for an hour.

I mean, what are the odds an orphan is one day going to return to the city of his birth, murder his father, marry his mother, and reclaim his birthright as king, all without knowing about it? About as good as a broke chemistry teacher with a DEA brother-in-law becoming a drug kingpin and outlasting (by a mix of wits and dumb luck) several Mexican cartels. So yes, future selves, we know how unlikely, even absurd, these events are. And we don’t care.

Why do we do it? Because in the end, we are suckers for tragedy – and I mean tragedy in the classical sense, at least as defined by Karl Jaspers, where tragedy is at the point where awareness of a need exceeds one’s ability to satisfy that need. In short, it is an awareness of our limitations. We don’t have kings any more, at least not those with that far to fall, not like Oedipus or Lear. Instead we have an exceptional scientist with slightly above-average problems (at least initially). His partner is a small-time drug dealer with a sensitive, no-bug-killing core. And Walt and Jesse have fallen so far, they have become irredeemable. Walt knows it – that awareness was what gave him the motivation to leave his family. And Jesse should know it by the start of the next season, if he doesn’t already. It is all great stuff – and an exploration into the tragedy of the human condition.

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