Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Black Mirror" Episodes Ranked

In honor of my new favorite show Black Mirror, I have decided to write a review of the show so far but to keep it short and sweet (relatively, of course, as I have a tendency to write lengthy, rambling blog posts and I don't want to nor do I feel like I should this time).

I have obviously been doing a great terrible job of sticking to my "Wait Three Seasons Before You Watch It" rule and I have made resolutions to fix this, which I'm actually pretty good at sticking to, but I needed to watch this show first. I just needed to. I felt it in my marrow. My rule is harder to apply with strikingly short British shows that only have three episodes a season. Fewer episodes generally mean more time to devote to creating each episode which often can lead to better quality.

So how do I describe Black Mirror? It's essentially The Twilight Zone with a different set of actors in a different verse every episode but with each episode being a commentary on society and its relationship with technology. And it is AWESOME. Seriously, it's one of the best shows I've ever seen. I pretty much decided it was my new favorite show after one episode. However, while I would usually say "Everyone go watch it", I actually don't here because some of this show is actually kind of intense or disturbing and there are some people (my mother) who might have some issues with that. Prepare to be freaked out and/or have your mind blow before you decide to watch it.

And now, a ranking of the seven episodes so far. It's pretty free of spoilers unless you want to be entirely surprised in which case just watch the show.

7. Season One, Episode Three: "The Entire History Of You"
For the reference, the least exciting episode of Black Mirror is still amazing and well worth watching over most other shows you could cram into your brain thing. This episode has probably the most straight forward and conventional plot of any episode: a man is suspicious on his wife's friendship with another man. The technological aspect is that in this future most people have things in their brains called grains that enable them to replay any memory. The episode begs the question of whether this tech is a good thing or not, leaving the answer kind of up to you even if the characters do come to their own conclusions.

6. Season Two, Christmas Special: "White Christmas"
To me this episode was a bit of a mess. It had three mini stories within an overarching story and the technology of it was revealed far more slowly than in previous episodes. Personally, I thought that having so many stories kind of weakened the overall themes especially when the stories themselves were kind of obvious. This episode was kept from the last spot because the last 10 minutes actually had some interesting twists and redeeming aspects and because if you look past the smaller tech themes, you have a story that focuses on mortality and judgment in a pretty clever way. Also, Jon Hamm is valiantly still attempting to guest star in everything ever. Good luck, Jon!

5. Season Two, Episode Three: "The Waldo Moment"
Funny how the two most political episodes take place in the modern day instead of 20 minutes into the future. This episode focuses on the mockery of politics when a cartoon bear jokingly runs for office as part of a marketing tool. There are a lot of themes in this one surrounding how politics is viewed by both politicians and the people and their ineffectiveness. There's also a debate about idea ownership, a personal story of a broken comedian, and the idea of how meaningless images can be assigned meaning (I read academic texts on this topic for my Japanese minor; true story). My only real complaints about this episode are that there was something a bit off about the pacing and that I can't believe anyone would find that bear funny (although I completely believe people would vote for it).

4. Season Two, Episode One: "Be Right Back"
Think "Her" but with a dead guy. A new service is provided that creates the illusion of talking to a deceased loved one using their public online presence as a basis to create them. The result is pretty much what you would expect but it's still a wonderful journey to watch with an ending that you probably won't expect. Aside from showing the fallacies in thinking you know someone from their online persona and how those are cultivated, it also meditates on mourning and how the internet and it's relative permanence creates virtual graveyards.

3. Season Two, Episode Two: "White Bear"
A woman wakes up with amnesia to see a world where mostly everyone has been turned into voyeuristic bystanders constantly filming others while the few people that haven't are embracing their murderous tendencies or running from those who are. The episode shows a fantastic result of the bystander effect and, even more so, the way phone cameras have allowed us to detach ourselves from experience. There's also another layer of questioning whether people are inherently evil and what exactly is an appropriate punishment.

2. Season One, Episode One: "The National Anthem"
The first one really stuck with me and I think that was the point. This episode manages to go from a bit humorous to completely horrifying and I think you can use when that point is for each individual person as a guide to who they are. The episode takes place in the present, which might make it even scarier, and talks about traditional media vs social media (a topic that is already all over the place and has been for years), how opinions shift in this instant world and the effect they have, and the power one can have if they know how to utilize technology.

1. Season One, Episode Two: "Fifteen Million Merits"
I could write a master's thesis on this episode. Probably two. While some people might say the first episode is more disturbing, personally, this was the one I could not stop thinking about. In a dystropia where everyone uses exercise bikes to power the world and can only amuse themselves with bad games and reality shows, nothing feels real anymore. The attempt to find and spread genuine human emotion has terrifying results. There are two many themes in this episode to even try to explain them. This episode has such an impact that it was referred in the Christmas Special. It will ruin your day. And it is one of the best episodes of television I have ever watched in my life.

So, in conclusion, I love this show and anyone who knows what love is will understand.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Good Recent Horror Movies For Your Halloween Needs.

Oh, Halloween! How I love thee. Since I have managed to write an entry every year for the last two years with a tie-in to my favorite holiday (last year was a list of my favorite Satans and the year before that was a personal account of why Halloween is so important to me), I've decided to give you some suggestions of good horror movies to celebrate the season with that came out after the year 2000.

A lot of people seem to be under the impression that making decent horror movies has become something of a dead art. The 20s and 30s saw the first film incarnations of gothic novels like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Phantom of the Opera. Hitchcock popularized (or some would say perfected) the art in the 50s and early 60s alongside films like House on Haunted Hill, The Haunting, and later in the 60s, Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary's Baby. The 1970s and 1980s are full of classic horror films like Carrie, Nightmare On Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Wicker Man, Halloween, The Exorcist, The Shining, and many more. So what do we have now?

Good horror movies are not extinct but they do seem to be harder to notice nowadays. In the current world of short attention spans and producers determined to make money over quality, it often feels like the horror films that you hear about are either remakes, endless sequels (I'm looking at you Saw franchise), or driven entirely by jump scares and a sense of schadenfreude at seeing stupid teenagers die horrible deaths.

Being someone who just enjoys watching horror even if it's not good (especially if it's not good), I have managed to come across plenty of actual decent films that can scare you while still managing to tell a real story with well-written characters.

Just as few notes:
* I intend to be strict with my year 2000 cut off so there are some good 90s films that will not make the cut. The 90s were almost 15 years ago. They are not modern.
* No remakes or sequels. I'm trying to point out good original movies.
* Horror-comedies will not be gracing this list. I love horror-comedies and highly recommend Scream, Cabin in the Woods, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, and Inhuman Resources if a film deconstructing horror movies or joking around while scaring is more your thing.
* The "Scare Factor" is a zero to ten scale based on how much I personally was freaked out by the movie. Not how often I jumped (I can be very jumpy) or how much I screamed (I don't) but just how much it really got to me in a general uneasiness, can't-quite-sleep-right kind of way. Whether or not a horror movie should be judged based on how scary it is would be a debate for another time (alongside whether you can judge a comedy by how much you laughed) but for now I'm listing quality films but including this scale just for those who want an idea of how scary a film might be (in my own radically biased opinion).

And with that, the films listed from oldest to newest:

Final Destination (2000)
I will admit that I do not have the same affection for this movie that a lot of people seem to have but I understand why people like it so much. Although it does fall under the blanket trope of dead teenager movies, the teenagers in this movie feel a lot more real and likeable than the usual sort who you are supposed to want dead for the unforgivable crime of foolish choices. The movie also has a fairly interesting villain: death itself. Death is an inescapable bad guy. The movie also ties in common fears of bad dreams being prophetic and of airplanes. The sequels vary in quality (my personal preference goes 1, 3, 2, 5, and 4, which should never have happened) and have a tendency to add new rules to the franchise but the first will always be something of a classic.
Scare Factor: 2 (Only scary in that death is the only thing I truly fear.)

The Others (2001)
This movie is full of things I love. It's a period film that takes place right after World War II in a remote country house where the lady of the house, whose husband has gone missing in the war, hires some new creepy servants to take care of the place and her children who can't go out in the sunlight. Most of the horror of the movie comes from the atmosphere and the suggestion that there is something more going on than what you are seeing and that no one seems trustworthy. That uneasy feeling persists even as more details are revealed until you reach an interesting ending. 
Scare Factor: 1 (Eerie but the kind of eerie I would like to live among.)

Pulse (2001)
There are a lot of 90s Japanese horror films like Audition and Ringu that I couldn't put on this list so I will make do with this one. What makes good Japanese horror different from good horror in other countries is that it is often tinged with an element of social commentary. This movie in particular uses horror and ghosts as a way to tell a story about how technology is driving people to be more lonely and removed from the world through two different main plots and many people's intertwining experiences. Also very atmospheric with its heavy shadows and occasional post-apocalyptic feeling, sometimes it can feel like a physical representation of depression which can be a lot scarier than a boogeyman.
Scare Factor: 4 (Too real, man.)

Suicide Club (2002)
Another Japanese horror film worth mentioning that I have seen quite a lot of times considering how disturbing I find it. A series of mass suicides start happening in Japan, especially among seemingly happy teenagers, which leads detectives to believe suicide clubs are forming. A commentary on pop music obsession and the cult of wanting to fit in or a reflection of cultural attitudes towards suicide in a country that's famous for it? Maybe both. Draw your own conclusions. Also, although this movie is peppered with some comedy, there are so many terrifying or gross things that even the comedy in hindsight becomes sad. I have never seen the prequel, Noriko's Dinner Table, but that also exists.
Scare Factor: 5 (Everything about the bowling alley is nope nope nope.)

28 Days Later (2002)
A zombie movie for you. A man wakes up from a coma to find that the island of Great Britain has been overrun with a virus that has turned people into zombies. What makes this zombie movie different from a lot of zombie movies is the fact that it starts in a world that has already been crippled by the attacks but you are following a clueless protagonist who has to learn how to survive in an undead world. The real meat of the movie comes from the introduction of the soldiers where you see a disturbingly realistic portrayal of how humans can treat each other in times of crisis.
Scare Factor: 2 (Humans are way scarier than the zombies.)

A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)
A Korean psychological horror film that plays out like a family drama. A girl returns from a mental hospital to live with her sister, father, and evil stepmother where everything seems to be a bit odd. The stepmother appears to be abusing the girl's sister but at the same time the sister seems like she might also be doing some really messed up things. The movie manages to keep the viewer consistently unnerved and curious in all elements of the film right down to the startling but beautiful set designs and an ending that twists at least twice before you finally get the full story.
Scare Factor: 1 (Pretty but harmless.)

Saw (2004)
I know I dissed the franchise earlier in this post but I only do that because I love the first movie so much and everything else made after the second film, which is okay, is an insult to the original. The film surrounds a serial killer named Jigsaw who puts people who he thinks are taking advantage of their lives in puzzle-like situations that they must escape to live, thereby, in his mind, proving that they value their lives. While one plot is following a search for Jigsaw, the main plot is about two men who are trapped in a Jigsaw-set-up room who get to know each other and try to find ways to escape. While the films now have a reputation for gore, this film was mostly a character study that's almost Hitchcockian in intention.
Scare Factor: 3 (At least partially because of the time my brother closed the door in the garage on me while shouting "game over", leaving me in the pitch black. Much angry yelling ensured.)

Funny Games (2007)
I'm kind of cheating on my own rules with this one because it is a remake but it's a shot-for-shot remake done by the same director with the same music, script, and set except that it's in English instead of German and uses different actors. This movie is the same as the 1997 movie as far as I or anyone else is concerned. The film is about a happy family getting tortured by two random guys but according to the director was meant to be a commentary on violence in the media and not a horror film. Well, Death of the Author because this is a really scary film that may leave you walking away thinking about reality versus fiction or about how you should never let strangers borrow eggs. 
Scare Factor: 7 (Don't talk to anyone ever.)

Let The Right One In (2008)
After three movies where regular, albeit messed-up, people are the antagonists, how about a cuddly vampire film? This Swedish film is definitely a horror film but it would be wrong to call it that without also noting that it's kind of a romance and definitely a coming-of-age film. It's about a boy who is bullied by his classmates making friends who a girl who is a vampire. Love ensures. Also, a lot of violent murders in the snowy woods and locker rooms.
Scare Factor: 1 (Too happy to be scary in spite of the gore.)

The Loved Ones (2009)
This Australian film is sometimes referred to as a horror comedy but I really must not be getting the joke. A great example of how horror movies benefit from well developed characters, a teen who had been dealing with depression since the death of his father is kidnapped by the father of a girl whose invitation to a high school dance he turned down. From there his girlfriend and family search for him while he is made to endure various tortures from the slightly incestuous family before the plot is turned up to eleven. Maybe there's a little humor is the casual behavior of the family as they do these ridiculous things but mostly I think the sane response is wide-eyed terror.
Scare Factor: 6 ("AM I NOT PRETTY ENOUGH?")

The House Of The Devil (2009)
There is something magical about how this movie was made only a few years ago and yet, manages to replicate the feeling of an 80s horror movie down to every last detail of the score and the font the opening credits were in. The plot surrounds a college student taking a babysitting job in order to pay her rent and is another film that plays into the "people are really messed up" theme that can often be scarier than monsters that you can believe aren't real. It's a slow-burning film that really builds to its terror and the payoff is completely worth it.
Scare Factor: 9 (I have multiple Satans in my room and yet, ritualistic sacrifice to demonic things still manages to be a trigger point for me when it's outside of an episode of Buffy or Angel.)

In Fear (2013)
I'm going to be road-tripping through Ireland in a few months and you can be that this movie will be on my mind the whole time. A guy and a girl who know each other through mutual friends decide to go to a music festival in Ireland and the guy has booked a hotel room for the night. However, as they try to get to their hotel, they find themselves going in circles as weirder and weirder things start to happen. Interesting enough, all the reactions in the film are real and the actors didn't even know the whole script with a lot of in made up based on how they responded in different situations. It's one of those movies that makes you wonder how you would react under the same circumstances.
Scare Factor: 7 (Still checking my backseat for attractive, Irish psychopaths.)

The Conjuring (2013)
Some of the films above have ghosts but this one is the only really story of a haunting. Based on a true story, the film follows Ed and Lorraine Warren, exorcists by trade, as they true to cleanse the house of the Perron family. While many movies have been based on the Warren's work (The Amityville Horror, The Haunting In Connecticut, and most recently Annabelle), this was the first one that featured them as the primary characters with the family rounding out the cast. There are plenty of scary things going on in the house, sometimes even in broad daylight, but a lot of the film is focused on telling a story just as much as scaring.
Scare Factor: 2 (I want to believe in ghosts far more than I actually believe in ghosts.)

Sorority Row (2009)
Just kidding. This movie is kind of dumb. And yet I love it in a way that is unfortunate but true.
Scare Factor: 0 (Carrie Fischer has a shotgun though!)

Happy Haunting!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

How “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” Should End

[Originally posted on 3/13/14]

Dennis decides to go into politics, thinking that it will be an easy way to gain money and power just using his looks and charisma. As his campaign gains notice, sexual assault charges come pouring in and he is convicted and sent to jail. The confinement causes him to alternately think he is either a God, insisting that the other inmates yield to him, or that he is sharing a cell and being tortured by Sinbad and Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20.

Mac starts to realize that he’s gay (or bi) and has a total meltdown. He tries to hook up with his trans ex-girlfriend, thinking it will fix him, and it obviously ends poorly. Then he stumbles into the Philly gay pride parade where he ends up getting pulled onto a float. The positive reaction to his karate moves leads to his acceptance of his new lifestyle and he ends up becoming a LGBT+ activist, particularly outside of Catholic churches where he holds signs that say things like, “Homosexuality’s not a sin. Hate is!”

Charlie ends up dating the waitress after she suddenly remembers what happened at the Jersey Shore and decides to give him a chance. They get married and he subsequently becomes a millionaire after the success of Kitten Mittens which expands into also manufacturing little hats and sweaters for cats. He builds the biggest house in Philadelphia because he is still afraid to leave the city.

Sweet Dee ends up scoring a reoccurring role as an annoying side character on a sitcom and moves to LA. She only gains a small amount of fame and money before the show is cancelled after the third season. In shame, she moves back to Philly and hits rock bottom, living on the street, getting re-addicted to crack, and having Rickety Cricket’s child. Then her manager lands her a role on “Celebrity Rehab” and she puts the kid up for adoption and begs Charlie for plane fare, deciding to make a career out of being.a reality show contestant.

Frank continues to run Paddy’s Pub which becomes the most popular bar in Philadelphia now that none of the others are involved in it. Except Charlie who comes in to clean the toilets every once in a while because Frank makes him.

Reasons For Blocked Websites That I've Accidentally Encountered

Listed in order from most sensible to most ridiculous.

Parked Domain:
This was the official reason but it went on to explain that it had a higher potential for viruses and such that could harm the computer so it seemed perfectly reasonable and necessary.

Explicit Content:
Thanks for warning me that something was not safe for work. Funny thing is though, the computer cannot recognize things that have NSFW in the title which would probably be something worth looking into.

I definitely get it but I'm pretty sure I got this message when the nudity was of an artistic nature and completely asexual. I guess either way it should be blocked in a work context.

We were girls looking at swimsuits. I wonder if men's underwear and swimsuits gives you the same message? Strangely enough, this is the easiest block to get around as people have proven to me.

Social Networking:
You're at work, you shouldn't be socializing. However, it's a bit odd that LinkedIn is taboo but any specific Tumblr page isn't.

Just as distracting as Social Networking. Really the big problem with this one is that it doesn't let you read gaming news either so stuff like thoughtful essays on the misogyny and racism involved in Gamergate is also off limits.

Yes, you're at work and this is a personal matter but there could be a legitimate reason for needing access to a personal e-mail at work.

Gay/Bisexual Interest:
Since when is something homosexual inherently sexual or wrong? I was just trying to read an article on hate crimes.

Non-traditional Religions:
Computer, I thought you were being homophobic with that last one but now I'm positive you don't like people different from yourself. The best thing about this one is that it came up when I was trying to look at a Celtic clothing website. Aside from being discriminatory, the site only had a witches datebook and a pentacle necklace alongside over twenty cross necklaces. Also, Wicca comes from paganism which is older than Christianity so your argument is invalid.

Apparently taste isn't subjective and is unacceptable.

I will update this if I encounter any new ones.

Friday, September 19, 2014

On Hate Watching, Television Writing, and My Dwindling Love Of "Downton Abbey"

With season eight of "Doctor Who" already a few episodes deep and interviews and images featuring season five of "Downton Abbey" popping up all over my Tumblr dashboard, I've been thinking a lot about what happens when a show you used to love becomes the thing you hate watch.

Now I'm a very picky television watcher for many reasons: I don't like watching things on a television because I don't know how to work the cable in my house and prefer to be on my laptop, I can't adhere to television schedules and I don't know how to DVR, and I will often watch multiple episodes in a sitting like the millenial that I am.

Hence, I have made a rule for deciding to watch a show: Only bother with a show if you have heard from at least three trustworthy sources (friends and family with similar taste as you, reviews) that it's good and it has made it through at least three seasons without the quality decreasing.

The note about the quality remaining consistent is crucial. Shows that are canceled after only one or two seasons are either shows that are simply too good for television ("Firefly", "Pushing Daisies") or are not worth it but either way you usually won't know about them until after they're already off the air. Then you can just let history decide for you as you continue to hear about the good shows and the bad ones disappear to the television graveyard. On the contrary and in regards to shows the rule was created for, there are plenty of shows that go on for years and years with their quality gradually decreasing while their viewership remains consistent because of loyal watchers who are hoping for the quality to return, some sort of payoff, or are so attached to the characters they don't want to stop. I can't tell you how many people insisted that I watch "Lost" or "Heroes" while it was in its first season only to recant their statements over the preceding years. It was probably because of seeing how irate people got about these shows that I invented the rule.

Sometimes I even go so far as to wait until a show is almost over to start watching. With "Breaking Bad" I watched the whole show during the break between the two halves of the final season and watched the last six episodes with the rest of the world. But often if a show really seems good enough and people are really into it, I won't be able to wait the 5-7 seasons for it to be over and will start sometime around season 3 or 4 which worked out great for "Mad Men", "Dexter", and "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" which I feel remain fairly consistent in quality throughout (ignoring "Dexter"'s silly finale).

But on some rare occasions, the rule doesn't work and longevity can be the death of a good show so keep that in mind if you think a show will be longer than 7 seasons. I used the rule for "How I Met Your Mother" and by season 6 my interest had started to wan and by 8 I was completely sick of the show and stopped watching for a while, only managing to get through to season 9 on the desire to finish the show in its entirety. I actually liked season 9 a lot, more than a lot of the previous seasons, and got to be outraged with the rest of the world at the terrible ending so I guess it was ultimately worth it but there was some real pain there.

So even with the rule I've done some hate watching and I wanted to talk about three different shows that have lead me to this and what can be learned from them: "Glee", "Doctor Who", and "Downton Abbey."

Before I get into the examples, I think there are really three factors that go into how long I can feasibly hate watch something before I give it up entirely:
1.) How much did I like the show at its peak?
2.) Was the decrease in quality gradual or abrupt?
3.) In what ways did it get worse?

These are all pretty obvious but I think I may be different from other people in that I am more forgiving of an abrupt quality decrease than a gradual one. A gradual one is often more likely to be permanent and I usually won't notice that it has become the new normal until long after I wanted to quit watching from bad episodes. When I finally do, I'm angry with all the time I've wasted. On the contrary, an abrupt change is usually the result of a new story line or something happening in the show that changes it immediately and it takes a while for the writers to realize what works and doesn't work within this change. With skill, the problems can be fixed. I just like my pain acute, not chronic.

So "Glee." Perhaps it's unfair to talk about "Glee" because I didn't use the rule with it but making this mistake reminded me why I follow this rule in the first place. I watched my first episode of "Glee" on a random day in college because it was on after something else I had been watching. The show already had a ton of hype and it was only the fifth episode. The jokes were dark and peppered with musical references, the songs were fun and varied, and I enjoyed it enough to make a point to go back and watch the previous episodes.

As I continued watching however, I started to see big problems with the writing. Continuity was nonexistent and the show had no idea what type of show it wanted to be: black comedy, drama, or just something quirky. Each episode had a different writer and each of them had a different goal. Every episode seemed to wash away the previous one and the target demographic shifted from a more universal appeal to teenagers with cliche hot topic episodes and nothing but Top 40 songs. By the time season three came around with a few solid episodes followed by some mediocre ones, I decided I was done. I didn't even stop watching after a bad episode; just an average one. It just occurred to me that even the good episodes were a chore to watch. The show was never quite a favorite of mine so it didn't feel like a great loss but I ended my relationship with the show on a bitter note. Only years later did one of my friends who still watches the show tell me that it's easier to watch the show once you view it as epic theater that isn't supposed to be reality. While I love the theory, even viewing the show through that lens I'm sure I still would have stopped watching.

"Doctor Who" is a show that is more analogous to my experience with "How I Met Your Mother" but still a unique situation to most shows out there. I started watching "Doctor Who" after season 4 of the new series and really liked it. I wouldn't say that I got as into it as some people but it was still definitely important to me and I felt much more strongly about it than "Glee." Like everyone else, I was anxious to see what would come from another change in doctors and a change in management.

The thing with "Doctor Who" that makes it different from other shows is that it isn't even really a show anymore so much as it is an entity. It has permeated so much of culture around the world that it has essentially transcended the television show itself. The same could be said of things like "Star Wars", "Harry Potter", and "Pokemon." "Pokemon" is the only one of these though that is a television show and while I haven't watched it since I was about 10, I can imagine that over the years the handling of the show has changed a lot for better or for worse. This is what happens with "Doctor Who." 

I actually quite liked season 5, the first season with Matt Smith as the Doctor and Steven Moffat as the showrunner but my interest waned from there. Moffat was a very competent writer for the show in the earlier seasons and I fully understand why he was expected to be a good showrunner but it's almost as if the title made him determined to go bigger and beyond in a while that would be the show's detriment. His season length plots are nonsensical and full of holes and he does not care for consistency or canon in the slightest. This made watching the show at times exhausting. Then they ended up getting rid of Amy and Rory, who were rather interesting companions who we have followed for 2 and a half seasons, and replaced them with Clara, who has yet to prove herself to be at all engaging.

Now in season 8 we have another Doctor, Peter Capaldi, but Steven Moffat is still in charge. I watched the first episode of the season with little care for anything but Capaldi's interpretation of the character. Will I keep watching? I'll try for sure but unless they give Moffat the boot and find a new companion, it seems unlikely that I will see watching as anything other than a chore I'm performing in honor of a show that was once fun. Because of the flexible nature of the show, it always has the potential to bounce back but for now, here we are.

And then there's "Downton Abbey." I actually just let out a heavy sigh. This was one of my favorites and would still rank in my top ten favorite shows of all time if you only count the first three seasons. So what happened? 

It would be really easy to blame the entire thing on Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley, deciding to leave the show but it's actually not as simplistic as that. Matthew Crawley was definitely one of the most important characters in the show and most vital to the original premise but I maintain that while the episode of his death did effectively kill the show, it was not exactly because of him.

Julian Fellowes, the showrunner, is a good writer but over the course of "Downton Abbey" it has been proven that he is not a good "television writer." Writing for television requires a different set of skills than writing a movie (as he has done many times to great success). When you write a movie there is a planned beginning and end, very little about the plot is changeable once the end goal has been met, and while actors do occasionally drop out or there are problems with production companies, a lot of things can be guaranteed throughout the making of the film. This is not at all true with television. Not planning a show many years in advance almost always ends up leading to a decline in writing usually from characters acting inconsistent and changing in odd ways or from plots becoming forced. Also, actors can and do leave (sometimes with plenty of warning sometimes with little warning) and whether or not the show can continue is heavily based on ratings and who you're working for. These are conditions that Julian Fellowes is clearly not apt to handle.

As a means of comparison, look at a television writer like Joss Whedon. He has had actors leave, get fired, get pregnant (this was the one time he failed hugely), take vacations, suffer peculiar medical problems, and die when he had other plans for them. He's also had his shows cancelled, his shows threatened to be cancelled and then not, his shows cancelled and then revived on a different network, and his shows cancelled and then continued on later in a movie or a comic book. While I wouldn't say he handled every situation perfectly, he handed so many of them so much better than other writers that he should be studied by every potential television writer for this quality. 

Fellowes does not have this quality and it's actually evident before season three, a season when three of the actors decided to leave. His original premise centers on the Crawley family's title and fortune going to a distant middle class relative they don't know. The premise then becomes more about how the world changes after the Great War. The pacing between these two ideas however is atrocious. Season 1 starts with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and ends with the start of World War I. When season 2 opens, time has sped up to 1916 and the season ends at 1919. This means that by the end of season 2, the idea that the world is changing is already in place and yet at the start of season 5, set in 1924, there are still characters who believe it's 10 years ago. The whole war is breezed through when it could have been drawn out through two full seasons and now, he's clearly trying to slow time as the show moves brusquely past his theme, making it obsolete. It's all written rather like someone who thinks their show is going to be cancelled and they are afraid they won't get to write everything they wanted to write. The end result is three great seasons that purposefully represent the pre-war era, the war era, and the post-war era and now mediocre fumbling ones that need a direction.

The other factor is that he didn't know how to handle the show's characters after season 3. I honestly thought I would stop watching after Sybil died in season 3, episode 5 but the fact was, even with my favorite female character gone, the writing was still good and I was still interested. The end came with the season 3 Christmas special, the last episode of the season. It was honestly one of the worst episodes of something I've ever sat through. What didn't make me bored made me angry and Matthew's emotionless death at the end was the cherry on top of that crap sundae. Without Matthew, Fellowes didn't seem to know what to do with Mary. Without Sybil, Fellowes quickly forgot about what was great about Tom. Without O'Brien, Fellowes didn't know how to make Thomas a solo act. Add in unnecessary Anna/Bates drama, a downstairs love square no one cares about, and making Edith more awesome only to continue to make her life hell and you've got season 4 in summation. 

Is the show unable to be saved? No, but it doesn't seem like Fellowes knows how to save it or even that it's in trouble in the first place or even what makes it great. A better writer could easily save this show by simply giving the people what they want. As for me, I'll keep watching mostly for Tom, Anna, and Edith and the hope that they all end up okay because I now am one of those people still watching because I want pay off and care about the characters. Really the most comforting thing is that Fellowes really doesn't seem to want the show to last more than 5 seasons so perhaps he is more self aware than I give him credit for. 

I think I'd be most happy with a Tom Branson spin off where he and his daughter move to America and he gets involved in politics again. Maybe it could talk about all the discrimination Irish immigrants had to face and what those communities were like. "Branson in Boston." Think about it, Fellowes.

And so I hate watch on as so many of us do and I try to tread more carefully next time. I only waited until season 2 of "Orange Is The New Black" so my fingers are crossed for the next few years.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Comparing American And British Words With My British Boyfriend

I think the title says it all. We decided to look at different British and American words that mean the same thing and try to objectively decide which one was better. I, the American, am "K" and he, the Brit, is "Z."

Soccer or Football?
K: I will concede that football is the better word. It more accurately describes what you're doing.
Z: With American football you're mostly running with a ball in your hands. Where does soccer come from? *looks it up* It apparently is a shortened word for "association football".
K: But what is "association football"?
Z: FIFA and organizations like that.
K: So what is it if you do it in your backyard?
Z: Black market football.

Cart or Trolley?
Z: I don't have particular feelings one way or the other. I think of a horse drawn cart when I hear cart.
K: Is that not what the thing is? It's the no-horse-needed version. What's a trolley then?
Z: I don't know. Rhymes with brolley. I don't know. I don't have strong feelings.
K: I do because a cart is a word with a clear origin. Whereas for me, a trolley means something different.
Z: I bet it's fucking French. *looks it up* It's English and it comes from TROLL?
K: How does it come from troll?
Z: It's a Suffolk dialect of "to roll".
K: Oh. Cart's still better. Trolley is just a word born of a specific dialect's contraction.

Trolley or Tram?
K: For me, it kind of goes both ways.
Z: I see them as two distinct methods of transport. The tram is what we used in Dublin and the trolley is what you get in San Francisco. The trolley has a distinct old timey feel even though trolley apparently only comes from the early 19th century.
K: Yeah, I live near a trolley museum and for me a trolley is an older and usually open air thing on a rail and a tram is a more modern, closed thing on a rail usually with connecting carts.
Z: What about the Boston trolley?
K: I guess it's a trolley based on age? When did tram start being used?
Z: *looks it up* A tram is from the early 19th century in German and Dutch coming from "trame" which was a beam in a mine on which public street cars were modeled.
K: I guess tram is definitely the right word in Amsterdam. It seems like we really can't nail down a difference.
Z: I'll call it a draw and say whatever the company names it is right in that context. Maybe trolleys are a subset of trams. I don't know.
K: There's an added complication that in America we call those golf cart trains trams as well. These words are impossible.

Elevator or Lift?
Z: They both mean the exact same fucking thing.
K: I conquer. Both words 100% valid.
Z: Roald Dahl is very British and he called it "Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator", not lift.
K: Well, he was Welsh. 
Z: That's no excuse. Wales is mountains and valleys anyway; there's no place for lifts. However I do think lift might imply more goods and elevator might imply more people. I think it only depends on what country you're in. But then again what do you call a lift that carries food?
K: A dumbwaiter. Wait, did you mean food in a restaurant or warehouse items?
Z: Warehouse items.
K: Then, elevator.
Z: A goods elevator.
K: Just an elevator. Maybe some people get specific about it but not typically.

Apartment or Flat?
K: Here's the thing: Apartment is technically wrong because they're connected but they are apart from freestanding houses. On the flip side, what the heck is a flat? That could mean anything.
Z: It's something that happens when one of your tires gets punctured.
K: Exactly!
Z: It's a not commonly known fact that flats in the UK are made of tire.
K: Really?
Z: *long pause* Remember that time you asked me what a prefect was and I just read you the description on a Harry Potter Wiki?
K: I'm an idiot. Sorry.
Z: *looks it up* It comes from the Scottish for a floor of a house and Old English "flet" for a dwelling, floor, or ground.
K: So it could be anywhere that you chose to live?
Z: Pretty much so long as it is flat, the adjective.
K: So both words are problematic. Is there one that seems better?
Z: Not particularly. I think some things are more appropriate for either word.
K: Such as?
Z: If you lived in council accommodation, a high raise concrete block, then it's a flat.
K: But it's called that because that's what you use in England.
Z: Yeah.
K: So that doesn't mean anything to this argument.
Z: Well, I think flat is more associated with lower quality housing. If I was getting a place in the Shard I would say it was an apartment.
K: I guess that makes sense actually. A flat does sound cheaper. It's kind of like how there's a difference between a tenement and an apartment building.
Z: Yeah.

Truck or Lorry?
Z: In the UK, truck, lorry, and van are all different methods of conveyance. A van is what you would think of. A truck has to be flatbed in some way.
K: Here a truck can be a pick-up truck or a tractor trailer truck which are vastly different. 
Z: *sends picture* This is a truck.
K: So a farming truck? It's a bigger version of a pick-up.
Z: The front needs to still look like a car. It has to have a bonnet. *sends picture* This is a lorry. 
K: That's a tractor trailer truck. So essentially you use different words and we call everything a truck. Where does lorry come from?
Z: *looks up* Origin obscure. Meaning "to lug" or "pull around". Possibly comes from words meaning cow dung or heavy.
K: I think Americans just went the simple route. So which is better: tractor trailer truck or lorry?
Z: I'm not sure. There's not a big difference either way.
K: I would say that tractor trailer truck is a better word because it clearly describes what it is but that it's convenient to have a different word to distinguish a tractor trailer truck from a regular truck.
Z: I guess if you needed a shorter word for tractor trailer.
K: We'd say truck. Context always seems to clear things up without any more words needed.
Z: I don't really have an opinion.

Waiting in Line or Queuing?
K: In America we use "queue" but mainly to mean something like a "Netflix queue". Something more inanimate, I guess? Waiting in line makes sense as a phrase but then I don't know the origin of queuing.
Z: *looks it up* Originally used for "tail" in French then became "line of dancers" in middle English and then extended sense to "line of people" by 1837. Queuing is actually different from waiting in line here. You queue for services like at the supermarket but for a bathroom you wait in line.
K: Is the bathroom not a service? I've had to pay to use a bathroom in England.
Z: I think it's contextually sensitive. You wouldn't say, "I queued for tickets", you wait in line for tickets. Queuing implicitly implies shopping while you could wait in line for anything.
K: So then why is queuing even a thing? Why keep the word around as verb? As a noun I can understand its practicality because "line" is a vague word and at least in the way Americans use "queue" there isn't really a better word for it. You could call it a "Netflix list" for instance but queue implies priority that list doesn't necessarily.
Z: Queue is shorter than waiting in line. It's superior in that sense.
K: But is it better when it has such limited uses?
Z: Maybe I'm overestimating the times when you can't use it. Queuing is better.
K: I maintain that waiting in line makes more sense in construction and is more practical since it can always be used but that queue as a noun is useful,

Chips or Crisps?
Z: Crisps.
K: Why?
Z: It's an onomatopoeia. It IS crispy. Crisps aren't chipped potatoes; they're shaved. It more effectively describes what they actually are.
K: I would like to point out that when we first met and got into a chips v. crisps v. fries debate I said that would should agree to never say chips because it was a vague word in all senses and that we should both only use crisps and fries and you declined. With that in mind, the next one . . .

Fries or Chips?
K: Fries. Fries is a better word because they are fried and chips is vague.
Z: No. Chips are chipped potatoes like wood chips or cement chips. Chips are a subset of fries. They are steak fries but it's a better word.
K: But a chip can also be something small, like a chip in a teacup. A chip from a potato would be more like the indent left behind when you dig an eye out of it.
Z: I think they're both acceptable terms.
K: Well, I think the fact that chip can be applied to two entirely different things that just happen to be made of the same vegetable says something. Chip doesn't denote a size. It is a flawed word. Crisps and fries are far more specific. Both countries should throw out "chip" as a word.
Z: Fish and Fries.
K: It's got nice alliteration.

Eggplant or Aubergine?
Z: Aubergine.
K: I agree. There's no egg in eggplant. The word makes no sense.
Z: It doesn't even look like an egg.
K: I am curious where the word aubergine comes from though just for my own interest.
Z: *looks it up* It comes from the French which comes from the Catalan from the Arabic from the Persian from the Sanskrit.
K: Oh sure.

Zucchini or Courgette?
K: They're both vastly different words for the same thing so I guess it's a question of where they come from or what they imply. I just find it weird that the British use the French instead of the Italian when they should have decided to get rid of it out of spite by now.
Z: Nice point. I actually found a whole website for this one. Apparently they are different because they refer to different stages of development even though they are in the same vegetable family. If they are harvested before they grow to 15-20cm they are courgettes and if they get bigger they are zucchini.
K: That's stupid.
Z: Yeah. There's an even split across the English speaking world in whether they use zucchini or courgette. Except in Scandinavia they use squash because what the fuck do they know. (N.B.: He's half Swedish.)
K: My conclusion: whatever.
Z: It's a matter of when in Rome or when in Paris.

Sink or Wash Basin?
Z: I would say basin because sink doesn't refer to what happens in a basin. It doesn't sink, it drains.
K: I inclined to agree but if you take "wash" out of the equation, sink and basin are equally vague from a visual standpoint. And it's not called a sink because the water sinks; it's a sink because it is sunken in. 
Z: *looks it up* Basin comes from water vessel in vulgar Latin.
K: Well, when have you ever used sink when not referring to water in some way. What does one usually sink in?
Z: Self doubt?
K: I think they're both good words. To me sink conjures the image of a kitchen sink because it is a sunken portion of the counter while a basin is more what you have in a bathroom.
Z: They both work but I don't think sink is quite as good.
K: I understand that. I might even agree.

Cell or Mobile?
K: Mobile is an easier word to grasp. They both are capitalizing on different aspects of the phone and it's mobility is probably more obvious than its cellular nature.
Z: Yeah.
K: Nothing else?
Z: I don't really care. Everyone says phone anyway. In German, it's "mein handy."
K: So the Germans win.

Uburger or Gourmet Burger Kitchen?
Z: Oh fuck you.
K: Because you know Uburger in Boston is better than the UK's beloved GBK.
Z: I refer you to my previous "Oh fuck you."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

An American In London (Or, My Experience With British Ideas On Americans)

This is a topic I have been trying to avoid writing about, insisting that it doesn't bother me as much as it really truly does but after reading an article today in a British publication, I really feel provoked to do some sharing.

The article in question was about the show Downton Abbey and it asked a question that has been repetitively asked of the show's creators, actors, and, apparently, random newspaper staff who fancy themselves culturally savvy individuals: "Why do Americans love Downton Abbey?" Now, I should specify that there have been many wonderful answers to this question, in particular I remember a smart answer from Robert James-Collier, who plays Thomas Barrow, where he pointed out both that English imperialism has lead to most countries of the world being able to claims ties to English/British culture and that America, being a new and idealistically modern country at the time of its creation, would likely take an interest in traditions that are older than the nation itself and of the sort that the country deliberately separated itself from.

So what answer did this publication give? That Americans like to be proven right about their ideas that the British are uptight and intensely hierarchical and have poor dentistry. It then goes on to say that this is actually satisfying to the British because it feeds their own perceptions that Americans like overly dramatic period dramas. You see, it's funny because stereotypes are true! 

I don't think many Americans quite realize what the perception of them is in England unless they have actually experienced this firsthand. Many Americans have a tendency to somewhat idealize the United Kingdom and British culture both for the reasons Mr. James-Collier gives and because of the idea that British culture is classier by way of its more dignified reservation (I guess as opposed to Americans who are in your face and uncensored) and its impression of being more intellectual than American culture (which only serves to prove that they've never heard of Georgie Shore, Cher Lloyd, or chavs). One could argue until they're blue in the face about the accuracies of these ideas but one thing does seem to be apparent the more time I spend around British culture: the construct of the ugly American is alive and well.

I guess now it's story time. The first time I went to England in 2012 I had a particularly positive experience in regards to the locals which in hindsight I can now attribute to the fact that I pretty much spent all my time talking to either my British boyfriend, his parents who both immigrated to the United Kingdom in their late teens, and various waiters at London restaurants who had a wide variety of accents, almost none of them British. I really didn't spend any time talking to actual British nationals aside from the one who already thought I was good enough to date. The only exception was a friend of his parents who mostly spent her time asking me hilarious country-comparing questions that seem to ignore globalization like, "Do you have Cheerios in America?" and "Have you heard of Jimmy Page?"

It was on my second trip to London last year that I started to realize that the so-called "special relationship" between America and the United Kingdom is dwindling more than people realize.

On my first day there I went to a pub in Richmond for lunch with my boyfriend and one of his closest high school friends. It was a normal outing: good conversation with greasy and curious British food. We parted ways on amiable terms and "it was really nice to meet you" and I didn't really think any more of it. It wasn't until a week after my vacation had ended that the day came up again while talking to my boyfriend. He mentioned that he had talked to his friend and that he really liked me and that he had said, "we were worried when we heard you were dating an American but now that I've met her, she's cool." Naturally I assumed what he meant by this was that because we had met on the internet, he thought I might turn out to be a middle aged man or something; what friend wouldn't be wary in that situation? My boyfriend replied, "Well, yes. That. But also, you know, because how Americans are." "No, I don't know" I replied with a sense that I should be angry, "How exactly are Americans?" I asked if it was a question of weight because while I am certainly larger than the average British girl, I know I'm not the morbidly obese person that even Americans sometimes think of as characteristic of their own country. He assured me that I wasn't fat (which wasn't my concern) and said that I was partially on the right track. I asked if it was because I was educated and he agreed that was more so what he was getting at but that it was somewhat education and somewhat awareness of the world.

Suddenly I was flashing back to all the other times on my trip that I had seemed to surprise someone with small facts like that I could back up with historical accounts how the laws in America that foreigners find most objectionable to be the ones that are completely misinterpreted from the founding fathers' intentions or that I happened to know the names of the current and previous president of France (even if I couldn't pronounce it with a proper accent). The fact that I knew what I considered to be fairly basic ideas about domestic and foreign politics shocked both diverse British college students of my own generation and the upper class circles my boyfriend's family roams in.

There is a pervading idea in the present day United Kingdom that Americans are, aside from the usual fat and lazy, also ignorant about foreign affairs and culture, overly complacent in their global position, and are just overall too patriotic for critical self analysis. From newspapers to movies, a good portion of the media put out by the British in the last decade or so has fed into this idea and played it up to the point where it can be seen as an accepted fact. Steven Moffet who runs some of the most internationally popular British shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock (he's essentially the British Ryan Murphy) only ever seems to feature American characters who are either violent, ignorant, or prejudiced and are always an antagonistic force in the main plot. And this is an idea that is so ingrained in current British culture that my boyfriend didn't even think he would need to explain it to me.

So, of course, this begs the question of why? How did this come to be our overseas reputation in a country that we once (and possibly still do) consider to be our greatest ally?

I asked my boyfriend this very question and he thought about it, thinking back to his youth compared to his present and realized that it really was a change that happened, or was at least elevated, in his lifetime. And the reason started with the Iraq War. I was only 14 when it officially started and my boyfriend and his friends were even younger but even then I knew that I didn't support the war and didn't support the president who started it. And yet, this War and the accompanying way that the United Kingdom got involved in it with Tony Blair's support of George Bush was the cause of a foreign relations shift that still hasn't been recovered in the minds of the people. We are all George Bush.

Well, I for one am not. I have lived my entire life in New England which is often seen as the most liberal part of the country (we had gay marriage long before the UK did). I have a general American accent which is often seen by Americans as no accent. I come from a poor family but I went to a good college and I try to keep up with the news which isn't too hard when you live on the internet. I also was never old enough to vote for Bush and wouldn't have if I was. He doesn't represent me any more than Tony Blair represented British adults of around my age.

So UK, I'm asking you to throw us a bone here. Not all Americans are Tea Partying, gun-toting, religious, homophobic rednecks and while a lot of Americans don't know about your more embarrassing contributions to pop culture, most are well aware that you aren't all tea-drinking, stiff aristocrats and manic football fans. Can you please stop portraying us as such? Can you try not to continue this stereotype that is years out of date and doesn't even relate to current young adults? Maybe have a likable, open-minded American character on an internationally popular show that doesn't take place 100 years ago? We don't need the media driving apart our international relationship any more. Politicians can do a fine job of that on their own.