Tag Archives: television

Knights of Sidonia Season 2 Review – Don’t Mecha Around

Knights of Sidonia

While the first season of Knights of Sidonia managed to blend realism with robots and aliens into a decent drama, the second season stumbles just as much as it flies off into the great beyond. It often fails to deliver its narrative with any appreciable pacing and occasionally dips into unfortunate cliché territory, but it still crafts a worthwhile, character-driven story.

Picking up right where the first season left off as a streaming Netflix Original, we find Nagate Tanikaze in the throws of fame following the spectacular battle with the Crimson Hawk Moth. But of course, the Gauna once again are at the doorstep of Sidonia, but with an interesting twist: they’ve developed countermeasures to the previous silver bullet armaments of core-piercing rounds.

This is where we’re introduced to the big impetus for the season in Tsumugi Shiraui, a Gauna/human hybrid “piloted” by “Norio Kunato.” Now let me explain the scare quotes. First off, as a hybrid, Tsumugi doesn’t actually need a pilot. Instead, she is a fully conscious being that can simply be directed how to act in battle. Second, Kunato isn’t actually Kunato. He’s been taken over by a parasite and now is under Ochiai’s control.

On her own, Tsumugi is a pretty interesting creation. Standing at the same height as a mechanical Garde with a Gauna-like complexion, she is as unsettling as the things that have been ravaging what remains of humanity for the past millennium. However, she only bears the awareness of a newborn, though her intelligence seems to be fully developed.

Tsumugi, much like everyone aboard Sidonia, doesn’t quite understand what she is. Her first formal introduction to the Garde pilots is disastrous as she causes what is basically an earthquake with her gentle swaying, rekindling the fears of those present for the previous hybrid debacle a hundred years prior.

It’s fascinating to watch her meander around the trust and admiration of those aboard Sidonia, just as she delves more personally into the lives of Tanikaze and Izana Shinatose. Despite being part Gauna and bearing the voice of his mostly dead girlfriend Shizuka Hoshijiro, Tanikaze is immediately engrossed by Tsugumi’s existence. This happens simultaneously while Izana, a middlesex friend and fellow pilot, nurtures feelings for Tanikaze that emerged last season.

Knights of Sidonia – Season 2

This makes for a strange but entirely interesting love triangle that informs a great deal of the drama in the season. It makes for each character’s arcs and resolutions and actions all the more weighty and believable. (Well, as believable as a space opera about mechs and aliens can get.) You mix in Tanikaze’s lingering memories of Hoshijiro and Tsugumi’s rapid and tumultuous integration into human society and you have a delectable story.

It would be a lot more digestible, however, if the pacing was simply better. It’s incredible how much of each episode is incredibly pointless in both the overall plot as well as character development. If you wanted, you could get away with just watching the little recaps at the beginning of each episode and nothing else.

The show seems to mire itself in frivolity while giving the viewer an incredibly compressed retelling of major events. It’s not that all of the side dishes are fluff, but they seem to come up at the immense sacrifice of providing any meat. For example, the aforementioned Ochiai parasite controlling Kunato? It played like an everyday event. So did the sudden acceptance of Tsugumi with the vast majority of Sidonia. Weren’t these people angry at her existence just, like, five minutes ago?

Knights of Sidonia – Season 2

There seems to be some additional transformation into a stereotypical anime as well. While the first season seemed to relish the idea of only wearing an anime’s skin and steeping itself in the rigors of a Battlestar Galactica, this go-round falls for far too many traps of the genre.

The drama of going into a Garde seems to have all but evaporated as the constant worry over space logistics has disappeared and the suits have reached Gundam-levels of durability. Tsumugi starts out and never leaves the realm of a deus ex machina with a voice, basically bending previously established rules to her will.

And then there’s the thick smattering of anime-style sexuality and the jokes that derive therefrom. The number of times Tanikaze stumbles across a set of barely covered breasts or visually vulnerable upskirt even in the first few episodes is laughable, eye roll-inducing, and generally off-putting. Then the predictable recourse manifests: punched in the face, kicked into a wall, girly scream while cutting to an exterior shot.

Knights of Sidonia – Season 2

Perhaps it won’t bother many other viewers (if you are part of a genre, sometimes you just have to embrace it), but it came across mostly as childish in terms of both craft and content. And when you throw in the talking penis with tentacles that is the extremely mobile, expressive, and handsy appendage of Tsumugi’s, it only serves to remove you from the previously compelling and well-developed world of the show.

There are so many problems with the second season of Knights of Sidonia, but with a quality story involving a handful of complex characters, it’s hard to see them as much more than quibbles. Once it’s all over, though, you can’t help but look back and see them all piled up in the corner and wonder how it is you managed to look past it all. It’s still a good show, but not as good as you’d like it to be.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

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Marvel’s Daredevil Season 1 Review: Hellishly Good

Marvel's Daredevil

How can anything good happen in a place called Hell’s Kitchen? It’s a real location, named after the brutality that seems to overflow from its residents and onto its dirty streets. It’s also where Marvel’s Daredevil takes place, Netflix’s latest original series and the next entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and it’s one hell of a trip.

This first season covers he origins of lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) as well as the origins of his alter superhero ego Daredevil. It actually follows the serial format for comic television: we track the present day hero as he develops his chops for taking down bad guys while visiting the past through flashbacks for the foundational backstory.

In Murdock’s case, he saved a man from being hit by a truck back when he was a child, but some of the dangerous substances on the truck burned away his ability to see with his eyes. But through some ways the show explains, he further develops the ability to see a different way—to see a “world on fire”—and uses his remaining heightened senses to fight crime.

The first thing that’s interesting is that this world is canonical to the MCU, taking place roughly 18 months after the events of 2012’s The Avengers. Most of New York is still recovering from “the event,” a softer colloquialism for a mass alien invasion from a floating portal in the sky. In fact, this is how we believably eschew the modern upscale aesthetics of Hell’s Kitchen to the crime-ridden one of the show. The Avengers left a hole in New York, and the filth of drugs and human trafficking have flowed forth to fill it.

It’s fascinating, though, that outside of a few oblique references and Easter Eggs to the films and some potential future developments, Murdock’s escapades are almost wholly self-contained, and for good reason. For all the grandiose explosions and world-ending consequences of the theatrical entries into the canon, Daredevil is infinitely more personal. This is the hearty, intimate endeavor of one man to save his city.

Truthfully, it’s two men trying to save their city. Opposite Cox’s Daredevil is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, better known as The Kingpin, and he is going about a different tack for redeeming his hometown. Working hand in hand with Russian mobsters, Yukuza, and Chinese gangsters, he is trying to do good through the warped filter of his past.

Marvel's Daredevil

This is one of the highlights of the show. D’Onofrio is an extremely potent Kingpin. Fisk, as a child, was terribly troubled by his father and further his relationship with his mother, and whenever his actions come to a head as an adult, you can see his history in his eyes. You can see his regret and his conflict constantly percolating just behind those big doughy peepers.

That is until he loses it. And boy does he lose it, and it feels dangerous. Some of his vocal gurglings are questionable, but his explosions of emotion—be it rage or sadness or whatever—are the perfect foil to Cox as Murdock. While Murdock struggles inwardly with his desires to fix the city and his desires to remain a good man, Fisk exposes his inner turmoil rather outwardly.

This makes Cox’s performance as important to the tone and direction of the show as D’Onofrio’s, which you would expect since it’s a series named after his character. And he handles the responsibility with aplomb. Besides capably executing on the physicality of the role (fighting and blindness included), Cox holds a necessary tenderness behind his steely demeanor as both an attorney and a crime fighter.

Marvel's Daredevil

Most of the supporting cast does just as well including Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich, each one with considerable depth and pesonality. And whether you count James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), Fisk’s righthand man, as a supporting role or the primary villain for nearly the first third of the season, he is a commensurate intimidator with Fisk. It’s a solid one-two of villainy, especially when you throw in Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer) emergent psychosis.

Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) is fairly problematic, though. The childhood friend and lawfully employed partner to Murdock, he is right there alongside Daredevil and Kingpin all the way through the season, blissfully unaware of his friend’s nighttime activities. But Henson’s acting is more like constant overacting and the character itself tends to flipflop between being moral and being money-hungry without any consideration. Most of the time he’s annoying and confusing. Other times he’s just taking up space.

There is, however, an admirable and impressive amount of grit to the show. It’s a stark contrast to the rest of Marvel’s offerings, where things only ever get as dark as classic apocalyptic scenarios, but this is about taking the dirt off the streets and rubbing it in your face.

Marvel's Daredevil

This is exemplified through the excellent production and meaningful directing of the season. There’s a lot to the visual impact of each episode. It’s not just about showing you one talking head after another (though it does indulge in that inevitable trap often) but it’s about filling your head with the idea and suggestions of what is important and what isn’t but showing you some things and simply implying others.

There’s one particular scene early on that features a five-minute, one-take fight scene where Daredevil is trying to rescue a kidnapped child. It is a tiring battle for both him and the audience. This isn’t where Captain American punches a bad guy and proceeds; this is a true slugfest. You can see the methodical nature of Murdock’s combat, assessing and reassessing the tight confines of the hallway while utilizing his abilities to monitor the things beyond sight.

But towards the end, he is worn and exhausted. It’s not even fighting after that long. It’s just desire, and his desire is outmatching the several men he’s dismantling. This culminates in a shot that excludes us from the payoff of the crucible, forcing us to realize this is indeed Murdock’s journey and not ours.

Marvel's Daredevil

Speaking of the fighting, though, there is a lot of it, and it’s pretty fantastic. Very rarely do you see Daredevil get through encounters as if they were mere scuffles. These are full-on battles, each and every time. Sure, he manages to accomplish some superhuman things, but you feel like he earns each and every victory. And that’s not to mention the moves he does are pretty cool.

The story, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as consistent. The personal threads hold tight and intimate throughout, but the intrigue of the procedural elements involving a menagerie of crime organizations, lessons on the dangers of truth-seeking/journalism, and incontrovertible good Samaritanism waver in and out and all over impotent romances. It’s too many dishes stacked up and almost all tip over and break across the singular goal of taking down Fisk.

Despite that, this is still a good show. Whether you’ve watched the other bits and pieces of the MCU or you’ve read every Marvel comic under the sun, Marel’s Daredevil is a compact, forceful, and dramatic season of television. It is well worth your time.

Marvel's Daredevil

+ Intimate and personal foils between Fisk and Murdock
+ Plenty of great performances that fit this darker facet of the MCU
+ Directing that has meaning
+ Fighting that feels real and has consequences
– Wavering and confused threads in the last third of the season

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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The Binge

The Binge

It’s the new paradigm. That’s what they say, anyways. The pundits and critics that talk about the success of Netflix’s original programming, that is. They praise Arrested Development‘s comeback season built around the idea of binge-watching, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Each episode was never made to be consumed on its own and left to stand apart. No individual slice of the online-only season was structured to be something you would watch on its own on a weekly basis, talked about around a water cooler, and then mulled over in the hours leading up to the next piece.

Instead, they were always made to be slammed down the throat all at once, or at least as rapidly and mercilessly as possible. It needed a pace where the complex layers would be retained all at once so the jokes were set up and capitalized across episodes. It’s a format that could only exist and succeed in this future of online streaming.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

It’s something that is also worth considering as Netflix’s original programming only picks up. Just two weeks ago we saw the much hyped premiere of the third season of House of Cards and last week was the series premiere of the Tina Fey-led, Ellie Kemper-starring Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

This includes five other wholly original series, a handful of continuations, and a nigh deluge of comedy specials, though that’s necessarily material to this particular discussion. And that’s not including the 34 upcoming series (among which are Daredevil, The Legend of Zelda, and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp).

And you can absolutely bet that all of those shows are going to buy into the flowing narrative and comedic and dramatic styles of the binge-watch. While not necessarily easier to write out such things in a protracted fashion, it is much more attractive to the writer. The idea of encapsulating self-contained stories in bottles while stacking them against other cohesive tales is, at times, restricting.

House of Cards

But the why is quite so important right now, if not just because the reasons can take many forms for many different creators and writers. (House of Cards creator Beau Willimon even advises against it for season three.) It’s far more interesting to look at what it does to both the show and the viewer, the most obvious of which is ditch a universal timetable for everyone that actively working on the program.

When you were “caught up” with a show on TV like The Office or Parks and Recreation, you could guarantee that no one except Amy Poehler and Miss Cleo knew more about it than you. And if you weren’t quite there, you could exist on a very obvious gradient. One week back? Two weeks back? Now, there is only done and not done.

The dichotomy is tricky because you don’t make temporal associations with plot lines. Instead, now it’s a singular flow, a dripping tap of story and characters that you can’t turn off until it’s over. You don’t make ongoing analyses of individual episodes or confer with others about theories and speculation but instead you wrap up at the end to talk big picture.

Arrested Development

Nuance is lost in criticism. It’s an odd turn because nuance is much more manageable in this binge structure, but only from one end of the road. The small details and big swings go into your brain but come out only as a compacted, abstracted representation of the overall arc.

This also means that one of the bigger contributions an entirely connected culture has made is thrown out the window. Instead of writers responding to rising and falling ratings and maybe some fans willing to send letters and emails, they would get immediate feedback on a weekly basis of each episode through Twitter and Facebook and whatnot.

They can integrate this massively distributed and normalized system of show notes quickly. This can be dangerous, but it’s also nice to know feedback is valued. But this very obviously isn’t how Netflix operates when it throws up an entire season’s order up on a single day. (It’s even interesting that we still call them seasons when it’s more like a switch being flipped.) Its showrunners don’t even get a midseason break to reassess the current state of the show.

Orange is the New Black

Filmmakers might find this structure more familiar than their television counterparts. They create their movies in a vacuum, betting against their own and their trusted circle’s opinions on their product before letting it fly free. And whether it keeps flying or crashes into the ground is mostly a singularly celebratory or catastrophic event: opening weekend.

If you remember, a whopping two percent binged all 649 minutes of season two of House of Cards last year in the first 72 hours of its release. That would have been 668,000 people back then at 33.4 millions subscribers. Then, five months later, they hit 50 million and topped off at 57.4 million by the end of the year.

Assuming that two percent figure merely held strong and didn’t increase (which it most likely did), that would mean 1,148,000 people binge-watched House of Cards this season. There is only a growing contingent of people who buy into the binge-watching strategy. It’s a discussion held many times before with even compelling and psychological arguments for it, but it’s something still worth thinking about. Are the things we lose worth the things we gain?

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Late to the Party: Black Mirror

Black Mirror

One slick trend that I approve of in modern television is smartly integrating technology into their narratives. BBC’s Sherlock, for instance, does a stellar job of showing how phones can be used to tell parallel stories and implicate heavier parts of them for drama. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. even kicks off the whole series with some timely references to how it disseminates information to the masses.

Those shows, though, rarely go beyond simply mirroring the functions of the real world. People text nowadays instead of sending emails and making calls, so that’s how it works in television. Granted, writers have learned to start using that sort of thing better and better (which Casey Johnston breaks down splendidly), but that’s very often where it stops. They just use it.

That’s where Black Mirror picks up, a British television series that dives into the minutiae of what makes technology’s twisted, symbiotic grasp on our lives so terrifying. Or at least what should make it terrifying if we ever stopped to think about it. And it’s very obvious creator Charlie Brooker, who also made Dead Set, has thought about it as he presents these self-contained short stories.

Black Mirror

As a satirist, Brooker takes our dependency and irrational love for technology to its horrifying logical conclusion. It’s not just that we use our phones at dinner or get our news from Twitter instead of actual news programs but that it has begun to infiltrate previously cordoned parts of our brain. It shows so spectacularly our collectively addled minds in the opening episode The National Anthem.

Spoiler Alert: from here on out, it’s very likely what I say will contain spoilers, major or not. The first two seasons of the show have just been added to Netflix, so if you have an account (and you are a human being, so I’m assuming you do), you should go watch it and then come back to finish reading so you can tell me how big of an idiot I am or whatever.

We have the “Facebook princess,” named so because she accepted a marriage proposal over Facebook, something that already happened way too many times to count as even news anymore. She’s also just a peach of a person, being a humanitarian and whatnot. But she’s been kidnapped, held ransom at the price of a Prime Minister’s dignity: he has to fuck a pig on live television.

Black Mirror

This introduction to Black Mirror is so intensely complex. There’s the whole idea that we, as a people, would be so perverse as to actually enjoy watching another person being forced to have sex with an animal to save another person’s life. But we also have an intimate look at the crumbling of a marriage as the Prime Minister’s wife simply can’t stand to look at him anymore, a tragedy that further encompasses a facade of happiness post-bestiality and the psychological trauma of the very act that did it.

And then there’s the bit about the journalistic hunt to pick up any news on the event in any way possible, which leads to a nearly botched rescue operation and a view at the withering integrity of both government and media. Brooker somehow turns an absolutely absurd and nearly comical situation into an incredibly sobering and realistic depiction of how we think and how we operate under the various guises of humanity being humane.

The second episode, Fifteen Million Merits, is perhaps the best of the first two seasons, and definitely bears a grotesque resemblance to our lives. (It bears mentioning that each episode has a completely different cast and setting with no overt sign that anything is connected.) In it, we find that nearly everyone in the world has been relegated to riding bikes to generate power to the world, an activity that also earns them the currency of Merits.

Black Mirror

Everything costs something. Toothpaste costs Merits. Food costs Merits. Skipping ads during a video game costs Merits. And boy are there ads. There are ads everywhere, and they are “tailored” to your habits. Our protagonist Bing Madsen, in fact, has a proclivity to watch a pornographic stream called “Wraith Babes,” so ads of women kissing each other will often plague his tiny, screen-covered square dorm room.

It is, actually, just screens. On every wall, you can see what they want you to see. Correction: you have to see what they want you to see, cutting off and warning and annoying you if you obstruct your view of the ads, a move eerily similar to how Spotify will pause ads if you mute or lower the sound.

Not everyone has this life, though. Some people escape by making it big on the talent show “Hot Shot,” an American Idol-type show where people try to make it onto a stream (read: channel) to escape the bike. It’s always either you take what they offer or you go back to the bike, a depressing existence of dark walls and petri dish food.

Black Mirror

Here, we have an exceptionally and disgustingly precise view of the world as we know it. The entire biking workforce has been subjected to gamification, earning Merits in nickels and dimes while walking past a giant leaderboard every morning. And then you spend it all back in nickels and dimes on digital hats and pants for you “Dopple,” a digital avatar not unlike the one on your Xbox Live account.

It is so striking because, as a person in the modern world, how likely is it that you will pick up your phone while you watch this show because it dings? And how often will it be an email asking you to sign up for a service? Or reminding you to log back in to something? Or just telling you that you can save %15 if you buy now?

It comments on something that is actively happening to you while you watch. Even the entirety of the arena for “Hot Shot” is formatted like that of 1 vs. 100 on Xbox 360, a memory hard to ignore as your Xbox One and Xbox 360 stare at you from your shelves and those Dopples wave back from your TV. The ad-driven economy of the workers, the inescapable necessity of grinding marketing, and a listless existence of snidely poking at everyone else’s decision to exist as well. It’s painful to accept that it’s all true.

Black Mirror

Even more piercing is the ending. The enumerating complaints that you nod along with as the episode goes on eventually gets spilled out in the way you’d hope: in the face of those most visible in the plight against those bikers. Yelling at the judges with a shard of glass at his neck, Bing erupts in articulate anger detailing how fucked up the framework of their lives is. And then, of course, he joins the corruption, choosing to host a weekly debasement of his fundamental beliefs so as to both not die and not go back to the bike.

That whole episode feels like a punch to the gut. It is poignant and twisted in a rare combination that I can’t say I’ve seen in years. The third episode lacks that same effect, mostly resigning itself to a superficial parable on living in the past and accepting people for who they are. But even then, it’s packed with such masterful storytelling and potent acting (not to mention a delicious premise of wholly accurate, controllable, and sharable memory) that it’s hard not to find it a compelling anyways.

The same goes for the rest of the second season. (I know they’re called series, but just let it go, okay?) The acting is just superb and the settings for the episodes are unbelievably well realized bits of science fiction and horror. Be Right Back, the first of the season, is emotionally impactful and has delectable notes of Her while White Bear, the second of the season, packs a devilish twist and skews close to parts of The Purge.

Black Mirror

The Waldo Moment, the season closer, is the weakest, bringing about somewhat misaligned attempts at jabbing at our half-assed political engagement. It has, once again, an interesting premise but fails to follow through on anything more than where we can see it heading in the first third of the episode. The best it provides is an aching sensation as we witness something one man creates being misappropriated for another man’s greed. Significant in its existence but not substantially explored in the story.

As a series, Black Mirror definitely stumbles every so often. Its quality wavers here and there and even dips into some mediocre territory at the end of season two, but it starts of with two absolutely unbelievable entries and continues to provide engrossing propositions of what-if. With stellar acting and topnotch production value shacking up with Brooker’s precise and pessimistic satirical mind, you have no reason not to watch.

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The Obvious Gotham

Gotham

Television pilots are terrible. They’re rarely indicative of the future of the show. Either through drastic shifts in showrunners, celebrity guest director, or hard swings in characterizations, the ensuing series often pivots in some not insignificant way. For instance, the first episode of New Girl was terrible and the show turned out to be quite fun.

The prominent mutation can usually be attributed, however, to the fact that the pilot has so much to do. It has to set up characters, motivations, and conflicts that will blossom over the course of the season and entire series. It’s full of so much stuff that is doesn’t have room to breathe and luxuriate in personality or subtlety. It’s rare you get a pilot like Boardwalk Empire or Breaking Bad and are afforded nearly feature length time.

That’s why it seemed like a rash idea to pass judgment on Gotham after it’s first go at broadcast. It had a terrible habit of treating the audience like drooling buffoons. Or it had no idea how to play coy, opting to spit on your face instead of throwing you a wink and a smile. It basically hit you on the head with its foreshadowing. (Penny Arcade’s expert skewering is dead-on.)

Gotham continues to do that, opting for an Independence Day-sized foreshadowing rather than a deft silhouette passing by the doorframe. It makes up for it by capitalizing on a rather talented cast (especially with Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock and Jada Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney) and two hefty scoops of dark and moody, but Gotham has a larger problem that looms tall—even bigger than the signs it puts up pointing to Edward Nygma as the Riddler.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s go over quickly what Gotham is: James Gordon is still a detective at the Gotham City Police Department; Bruce Wayne’s parents pretty much just got murdered; and neither Batman nor any of his nemeses exist yet in the mature forms with which we’re far more familiar. It centers around Gordon as he attempts to fight back against the rampant and thorough corruption of the city while parading around big name villains like the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman.

Do you see the problem? There are so few ways to make this work and so many ways to make this fail, and unfortunately, it seems as if Gotham is going the way of the latter. As it currently stands, it appears as if the show is structured to shape up around Gordon’s vigilance and tenacity against the endless, crushing waves of dirty crime and dirtier politics. And there’s no compelling way that works out in the context of the greater Batman mythos.

Gotham

You see, all of those stories begin and end with Batman. Not that they only ever existed or need to exist while Bruce Wayne is capable of being Batman but that their impact on the city tightly orbits around the caped crusader. Even when we find out the backstory of the Joker or Mr. Freeze, it’s because we know what becomes of them that we care where they started, and what becomes of them is inextricably tied to the Batman’s existence.

Tying the bad guys solely to Gordon’s career at Gotham PD is severely problematic because then it impacts the both the necessity and impetus of Batman’s involvement. Consider that if Gordon is successful, he wholly negates the need for Batman. Even if he doesn’t entirely take down the villains, he can build massive cases that can bring about legal victory through the courts, also nullifying Batman’s utility. What need is there to don the cowl and cape when all of the baddies are already behind bars?

Further consider that if none of these incognito personas à la Edward Nygma or Oswald Cobblepot fully develop into their demented alter egos until Batman arrives in Gotham, then their dastardly deeds weigh fully on the Dark Knight’s shoulders. His coming into being actually symbiotically brought into existence the Riddler and the Penguin instead of leaving them to be a coroner and a garden-variety mobster.

Gotham

Any amount of driving narrative success from Gordon can only serve to inject doubt into our minds regarding Batman’s future guard of the city. Consider instead that the far meatier story would be Gordon’s golden resolve versus the temptation to fall to underhanded policing. We would, in effect, watch him fall.

We see him at a stalemate and lose butting heads with the seedy underbelly of Gotham. His victories are tantamount to saving lives but rarely thwarting crimes—and don’t even bother integrating the likes of Selina Kyle or Carmine Falcone. It’s demoralizing to him and it beats him down into the ground. Eventually we see the cracks in his formerly solid and taut gaze towards justice.

He stumbles. He’s clearly and understandably tempted to fight dirty. Each season he falls deeper into the delectable bargain of being and corrupt as his foes, spitting and clawing in the name of a safer city. The end state is for him to reach his breaking point just as Wayne returns to Gotham and takes up the mantle of Batman. That cape and that cowl are not only Gotham’s salvation but—more importantly—Gordon’s as well. He shows that Gordon’s faith and Gordon’s actions were not misplaced.

Gotham

Gotham is an obvious show. It’s not just about it’s on-the-nose references and painful elbows in the ribs about future villains and the like but it’s about the show’s core problem: even without Batman, it still fails to not be about Batman.

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On Fandom, Breaking Bad, and Grand Theft Auto

On Fandom, Breaking Bad, and Grand Theft Auto

So the Breaking Bad finale happened last night. Don’t worry; I’m not going to talk about it. In fact, I haven’t even seen it yet since I’m still three—now four—episodes behind. However, cursory glances at Twitter and Facebook have highlighted a growing, general problem with pop culture.

It’s actually been a lingering issue for quite some time. For the most part, it seems, people speak solely in superlatives. Or at least when it comes to things that they have opinions about that they want to speak to. Of course this is a massive generalization, but it is no less than a response in kind.

By and large, my social networks (at least those that aren’t also professional critics) have reaffirmed the overall opinion that Breaking Bad is the best show on television at any point in history. It actually might be the best piece of entertainment ever created! The drama crafted by high production values and a singularly amazing performance are all it takes to overtake other series like Pushing Daisies and Six Feet Under.

Breaking Bad

Let’s take a look at Grand Theft Auto V. It is, without a doubt, a stellar achievement in interactive entertainment. The amount of the details—the verisimilitude—laid out in this fictionalized representation of Los Angeles is simply stunning. Not only that, but the drama contained within the narrative and gameplay by way of the three-character switching mechanic is a revelation. Rockstar has finally managed to tell a 30-hour story where I was interested in all 30 hours of it.

To call it the best game ever made, however, seems a bit excessive. Or at least a bit premature. There are still a lot of problems I and many others can find with the game, problems that aren’t subjective, so perfection is out of the question, and yet many people hold it in such light. And once you consider that labeling something as “the best” can only be quantified in an objective way, there’s not much more to say about that.

To say it is your favorite game, however, is perfectly valid. I can’t argue whether your opinion is valid or not unless you base it on incorrect facts. Your opinion is, obviously, your opinion, a thought of your own that can’t and shouldn’t be controlled.

The Last of Us

It should, however, be tempered when you apply labels like “best” to it. Many people just a little while ago had called Saints Row IV the best game ever. And before that it was The Last of Us, which had usurped BioShock Infinite. I’m all for revising and changing the status quo, but saying something is the best as a knee-jerk reaction seems rather ill-advised. This superlative label was applied to each one within weeks of release, a handful of days to objectively critique and analyze impossibly huge games in terms of scope, ambition, themes, and content.

Breaking Bad is, of course, a good show. It might even be a great show, a claim I might be inclined to agree with once I see the series finale, but for now I genuinely believe that years down the road, it will be remembered as an affirmation of AMC’s track record that basic cable can produce premium-quality content and that Bryan Cranston is an incredible actor. Production value can make up for a lack of characterization in the wings of the show and for the fact that what should have been a character-driven show was propelled by plot points, things that happen for the sake of happening.

This rampant declaration of “best ever” is perhaps indicative of a larger problem in modern society, where the now is always the best because it is at our fingertips and no further than a click or channel flip away. Historical comparison is left to those that do it professionally, to those that are paid to compare the new with the old through an encyclopedic knowledge of the medium. It goes beyond recognizing callbacks and homages and has to include thematic resonance over years, maybe even decades of television and film.

Breaking Bad

So when the majority of the people you talk with only ever articulate opinions on shows and movies in terms of being the best or worst thing they’ve ever seen and never in middling words of considered and calculated criticism, it’s easy to fall into the same trap. When I don’t talk to other game journo friends, I find it less than ideal to ever go beyond saying something along the lines of “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” They don’t ever respond with any other meaningful elaboration either, so when I start off on my mental review and see their eyes wander, I remember that I’m not talking to another critic.

It’s mimetic. Not just my actions but everyone else’s as well. If you surround yourself with people that, by habit and through career choice, have dedicated large portions of their brains to remember the specifics of the good and bad of their experiences, then you tend to do the same. The opposite is also true. So when no one else is interested in discussing the purpose of a glance to a watch in a single scene of a video game or a movie, it becomes hard to maintain the desire to do so.

Now I challenge you to do this: articulate why you love or hate Breaking Bad. Put it into words what you like about Jesse Pinkman or why you didn’t like Walt’s turn in the middle of season two or three or whatever. It’s easy to apply a broad stroke of a feeling about liking or disliking something. Skipping out on the process of filtering purely reactionary emotions into discrete words and sentences guts the entire middle of a huge spectrum of opinions. It’s what turns your “best ever” into a thoughtful study of why you like what you like and an unearthing of what makes you, well, you.

Breaking Bad

And while you’re at it, watch some shitty shows and play some bad games. You can’t appreciate how high you are on the ladder if you’ve never seen the bottom.

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Lengthy Merit

Lengthy Merit

Size matters, or something like that. In this particular case, we’re talking about things of the entertainment industry: video games, movies, books, etc. But we don’t necessarily tie merit directly to length because, as we’ve learned over the years, duration has nothing to do with quality. A Pixar short film like Paperman has the ability to impact a viewer just as hard as Gone with the Wind. That’s because they both attempt to play to their strengths. Paperman goes along to the tune of brevity so much better; it tells a short, concise tale of a man finding and losing and desperately looking for again a fleeting love. Gone with the Wind takes its time to span over a decade, something it can afford to do with such a long running time.

It’s to the point where constructing narratives for either kind of film completely detaches from conventional film making, mainly to the conclusion that there is no such thing as conventional film making. Only in medium are short films and long, three-hour epics similar, but spinning up a proper story takes time to account for the strengths and weaknesses of their particular delivery methods. Ambiguity, for instance, can be found in heavy quantities in a lot more short films than in long-winded historical dramas.

With such a disparity in ability in a single facet of multimedia entertainment, it becomes increasingly strange that folks would want to directly correlate video games to films (or books or television). Interactivity and ludic engagement separate our industry from the others by a wide, incomparable chasm, so the unending search for a Citizen Kane or Roger Ebert of video games seems already ridiculous. I get why those questions and comparisons exist; these are tent-pole figures in film that represent the successful traversal of a rocky path to legitimacy, so it would make sense to want to pave a similar road for and with video games.

Citizen Kane

But that is disregarding much of what makes our industry so special. You can read about much more from much more insightful folk than myself by checking out what Nathan Grayson over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun and John Teti of Gameological have to say on the matter (both of which I point to in the last Things to Read), but there’s one specific aspect they fail to mention: the length of games.

Outmatched perhaps only by novels and particularly lengthy jazz odyssey albums, video games have the greatest potential to hold your attention for the greatest amount of time. RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim can top out at over 100 hours while more linear action-adventure games like Tomb Raider or BioShock Infinite can go on for 15 or so hours, orders of magnitude longer than the average film or episode of Gilmore Girls.

That’s because between the bits of storytelling, we often have discrete chunks of gameplay. These are moments where the narrative doesn’t even really have to develop other than getting you from one place to another. All those times where a movie would fade to black or a book would start a new chapter, we play through those parts. We are actually engage in the act of chasing a car or walking from room to room in a haunted mansion. Interactivity weaves in with non-interactivity and, in effect, pushes the duration of a game well beyond static narratives.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

This has the additional consequence of making slow-to-develop stories much more bearable. With proper pacing, you can really milk moments of little to no consequence simply because they need to be there. In movies, almost every line and action written into a screenplay has the express purpose of moving the story along. They operate on a much slimmer, tighter economy of time and words.

Video games have the privilege of being played at leisure and their quality merits continued play (unlike films, which you must go through all in one sitting if you’re in a movie theater). Because of this, they much more freely allow things to be missed for the sake of what feels like spontaneity despite the fact that almost everything is already predetermined. Take, for example, BioShock Infinite. Wandering around with Elizabeth in tow allows her to comment on things around you and for Booker to interact with her. In these moments, pieces of those characters begin to fill in, but they’re pieces that don’t necessarily contribute directly to the overall story. They simply flesh out these two people for the player, and because doing so was your choice, make their growth wholly more personal.

And they happen on such a small scale. With a story stretched and fortified from two hours in a theater to 15 hours on your couch, you can fit in a lot more of these tiny details. In the early moments of The Last of Us when Joel, Ellie, and Tess are making their way to the Capitol Building, the trio has to cross across some rooftops. As they move forward, Joel lingers slightly and checks his watch as the two climb across a spanning ladder.

The Last of Us

It’s a tiny, infinitesimal thing that would not have been communicated as subtly or effortlessly in any other medium. A book would have to mention specifically that Joel did that, hitting too hard on the nose that he views this as just another job. A movie wouldn’t have had time to linger for such a deep puddle of seconds to give that moment the time it needed. Joel needs to acknowledge Tess and Ellie, then push it out of his head, then check his watch, and finally move across the rooftop. There’s one too many actions for something with a time limit.

The entire ending to Red Dead Redemption is an excellent example of this. The average playtime is about 30+ hours while the minimum, critical path is something like 20 hours. The ending, after John is back on the farm, is over an hour of some of the most incredibly mundane, mind-numbing stuff you’ll ever play. You look for a drunk, you rope some horses, you herd some cattle, and you shoot some crows. I guess things get kind of fun with Jack since you get to kill some more deadly animals, but those are little drips of excitement in an IV full of tedium.

There is, however, a point. That was the life John had been seeking all along. He was back with his family, and instead of defending wagons from land pirates or planting bombs on a bridge or getting involved in a war in Mexico, all he has to worry about is his family and his farm. We visit MacFarlane Ranch and have a conversation with Bonnie that puts the nail in the coffin of his old life. It’s simple, just as John’s new life.

Red Dead Redemption

And then everything goes to shit when those government dicks come back to clean up loose ends. It’s made all the more poignant because we’d just spent the past couple of hours doing absolutely nothing but being the down-to-earth, not-exciting farmer John and his wife wanted him to be. The contrast is so shocking, that it’s almost hard to believe that it’s happening. But the inevitable, sacrificial conclusion is one that slowly dawns on us as we play it out, and its emotional impact is made all the more severe because of the monotony we’d just gone through.

That wouldn’t have been possible in pretty much any other medium. A film can’t break its denouement into three more acts with its own climax and resolution (Red Dead Redemption‘s epilogue was a mighty fine resolution) because it simply can’t afford the time. The time on the farm was its own opener and inciting action for the events that followed, showing off how much time it had to play with, almost rubbing it in our faces. The incredible amount of time we’ve afforded the game to take and shape and mold for our pleasure allowed Rockstar the ability to craft moments like that and payoffs like that.

Movies and books don’t really get multiple chances to reinvigorate a story in the middle of telling its ending. Can you imagine if Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone‘s final chapters just before he went down the trapdoor were nothing more than Harry sleeping and studying and eating? We got through that in the beginning because it was all new and meeting people and learning things were exciting. But reading words about a boy—even a wizard boy—sitting through hours of class doesn’t fly. We don’t come to appreciate the tedium; we come to hate the author. And movies simply don’t get the time to even try that unless the entire film was about said tedium. They have to pick and choose while video games can try it all.

Red Dead Redemption

That’s part of being a video game. The format allows for earning time with the player. Whereas long and short films play to strengths determined by their length, video games are in a constant state of give and take with the player in terms of controlling the story and giving control to the gamer. That allows for making time for watching Elizabeth look through a rack of posters or having Joel glance at his watch or catching horses as John. We have time for those little, boring, exciting, gigantic, strange things. We just have to earn it.

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The Walking Dead’s Problem With Episodic Content

It blew my mind the first time I saw the words “To Be Continued” on a TV. I just couldn’t believe it. For years, I had been trained to believe that within the span of thirty minutes, problems could crop up, break down, and be resolved. Just thirty minutes and people could change. It was a fascinating notion to me as a child since the greatest change I could muster in half an hour would be a feeling of eating too much candy. And then tummy aches. And then I would be fine again, but I digress.

That moment when I discovered stories didn’t always wrap up neatly within the confines of a previously established structure was with Full House. Yeah, it was cheesy and super 90s, but when Comet ran away, my heart sank. And when they couldn’t find him, it wept. It was an oddly moving moment for a kid that never had a dog.

Television has changed since then, though. I don’t just mean the lack of camp and adorable twins but that multi-episode plots usually happen during finales. Television now hinges on major events and marketable moments rather than a likable cast or relatable premise (still important stuff, though). Season and series finales usually happen in two or more parts and they usually happen back-to-back so a half-hour show becomes an hour long and a one-hour show takes up the entire prime time slot. It’s easy to make an inevitable cliffhanger sound extra exciting when you can say it takes twice as long to show.

The problem lies within that break. When (or if, I guess) that show makes it to syndication, the chances of those broken-up bits being aired properly are slim. This week may be part one. Next week might be the pilot. It’s a mess. But the separation of the gestalt also breaks up the story as originally envisioned, and it happens in the worst way.

Commercials work as act breaks because they offer very brief respites that build tension and anticipation over a manageable period of time. It is perfect for the medium, so naturally breaks between episodes offer an even better delineation since we apply a meta anxiety to knowing this is how this particular chunk ends.

Think about this in the context of The Walking Dead, the adventure game series from Telltale Games. It is currently on its fourth and penultimate episode and has thus far garnered almost exclusively giant handfuls of praise. Not only will I include this on my shortlist of Game of the Year contenders but also proselytize it to everyone with ears and a bank account containing at least $24.99.

But the problem is that these five episodes operate on a television seasonal or miniseries framework. The first three episodes are standalone and yet fold so well within each other. They might as well be three big ol’ beanbags that are absolutely wonderful on their own, but when placed adjacent to one another, it becomes a god damn party. A dark, twisted, and mildly depressing party full of evil people, good intentions, and mindless zombies, but still a party.

And two weeks ago (one week ago for Europeans), episode four—entitled Around Every Corner—was released and guess what: it’s still dark, twisted, and mildly depressing. Lead by Book of Eli scribe Gary Whitta, Around Every Corner contains probably the darkest moment of the series thus far, and given what I’ve seen and done in the first three episodes, that’s saying quite a lot. But it’s also the weakest episode, and that’s because it’s the first of a two-part finale.

The general shape of a story is something like a roller coaster. You’re building and building for what seems like forever to the peak of the story (the climax) only to ride it out to the end after a very large, Skrillex-shaped drop (the dénouement). But little humps happen along the way. Up to the top, you jolt and rattle around. On the way down, you’ll encounter turns and loops and things. The dramatic implications of these incidental movements correspond pretty well to how jarring they are when reflected in a narrative plot.

And as we’ve previously discussed, those little bumps make for perfect breaks. Between episodes, you can take a snapshot of the track and it could work as another, much more boring roller coaster in microcosm, each one complete with its own set of humps and drops. But naturally, the biggest, overarching climax invites for the best break since it usually represents the transition into the third and final act. That is why it’s called a cliffhanger; you make it all the way to the edge of the climax and then you’re left hanging. It’s effective.

But it also breaks the entire preceding sequence of events. Roller coasters don’t end with you on top of the hill for a good reason; there’s no catharsis. Well that and how the hell are you supposed to get a dozen people down from the top of a roller coaster, but whatever. You don’t get that sweet release. You’ve chopped down the tree, decorated it with tinsel and lights, wrapped all the presents, and then Christmas is canceled. It’s unsatisfying, frustrating, and a bit cheap-feeling. You can’t take that dramatic structure and just break it in half. Then you don’t have a drama; you have an angry audience.

It’s a subtle difference between that and a teaser ending. With a teaser ending, you still get resolution at the end along with the falling action of the story. It’s satisfying but still manages to toy with that part of you that wishes it had kept on going. The modern Marvel superhero movies were great at this. Each movie was its own self-contained story, but the stinger after the credits showed what it’s like to keep the audience on the hook without putting them at the edge of a cliff, staring off into nothing. Teasers are what we got with the first three episodes. A sheer cliff face is what we got with episode four.

But that isn’t the fault of Telltale or the series or even Gary Whitta. At some point, you have to play into the traditional narrative structure and that means breaking it off somewhere that works. You can’t do it too early or people lose interest as then they don’t get the cliff or the drop. If you do it too late, the resolution diminishes in importance as their minds begin to fill in the blanks as they see fit. The weakness of Around Every Corner is just natural to the structure. Done anywhere else, and episodes three and five would have been weaker for it.

The penultimate step to the finish is always a necessary step down. You have to rear back and rev up for the finish. Around Every Corner does what it can and does it well (this is by no means a bad episode, just the weakest when compared to the other three absolutely spectacular entries into the series), but instead of ending on a sense of foreboding mixed with reserved, extremely cautious optimism (how long does that last in a zombie apocalypse?), you are left with frustration not knowing or understanding what is going on.

But that hopefully means that the last episode, No Time Left, is all the better for it. Hopefully that means it’s one incredible ride down a blood-soaked mountainside. Hopefully we finally get that sweet, sweet drop.

BANGARANG

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