Stranger In Fiction

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We tried. I really tried, I did.

While I’m sure the Netflix series The OA appeals to some, a weird mixture of science fiction, fantasy, and some kind of semi-spiritual journey, after three episodes, I have to admit I lost interest. It’s spacey, it’s sparse, it’s highly-reliant on mood and atmosphere and what I’m guessing is supposed to me dramatic pauses and dramatic interludes in general that just draws a lot of it out.

I don’t really like it, and I feel that not liking it (or feeling particularly interested in the vast majority of “Netflix Originals” or “Amazon Prime Original Series”) has a lot to do with some kind of TV burnout.

Overall, TV these days feels burdensome, to be honest, though when we finished watching WESTWORLD, I’d felt like I’d been exposed to something really amazing. That was a great show, an interesting ride I went on, just letting the story happen and seeing some great acting and great visuals. I really enjoyed WESTWORLD a lot more than I thought I would, in an inversely-proportional way that I didn’t care for The OA as much as I thought I might.

I remember when Netflix first launched. It was such a weird idea, an online version of Blockbuster’s, where I spent a lot of time as a teenager. At first, they had almost nothing, lots of shitty movies, Japanese anime, no real TV shows. It was early on in releasing TV for home media at the rate that it comes out these days. Because no one knew who the hell Netflix was, or what it was, no one gave them the time of day. The stuff they had the rights to rent was insanely bad, b-movies, foreign stuff, things like that. It coincided with an uptick in my taste in film, right as the local video store that sold the good stuff was closing down. The idea of a movie rental service being some kind of place for critically-acclaimed TV shows to exist on (or the great potential that I don’t think Netflix is capitalizing on as much as Hulu does in my experience, having troves of B-movies), was ridiculous and non-existent.

I loved the access, suddenly, to this trove of weird stuff, stuff that I’d never been able to find, much less conceive. It was early on in my exposure to regular cable TV (which meant I mostly just watched horror movies and scifi shows), so the idea of stuff like obscure channels and corners of public access on basic cable for old movies, weirdo documentaries and special, or bad cult stuff to watch for kicks wasn’t fully fermented in my head just yet.

We talk a lot about the “golden age of TV” (hell, even I have) in a post-BREAKING BAD, post-THE SOPRANOS world, where television is getting treated like somehow it’s this magic new and strangely-legitimate venue for artistic work. Which isn’t to say that it used to not be, but it was also very much a thing that for a long time wasn’t respected as good (even when it was very, very good). A huge part of this “golden age of TV” too is the ability for TV shows that want to be serious, dramatic, and “deep” now to have a wide range of possible outlets to be seen on. Regular TV, cable TV, HBO, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, not to mention web-based TV channels that are on the far-left (edge of the dial) end of the cable channel options, popping up available on specific providers or through devices like a Roku or Amazon Fire or whatever Google decides to do to get in the game, which you know they will. Semi-related, I’m a little surprised that there’s no Apple TV network of shows, though Apple’s desire to stay in the hardware game is a much better cash flow, so…yeah, that probably answers my own question.

The issue here though is that, in the same way that you can’t pre-emptively create a true “cult” hit (which defeats the purpose of it being cult), you can’t expect something to be considered “serious” and dramatic if you try to aim for those as targets to hit rather than as after-effects of something that’s simply good.

And that’s the thing. Not a lot of what’s out there, what’s pushed at us, is actually good. But the desire to try to get the next actually-good thing kills what made me initially like and actively use a service like Hulu or Netflix (weirdly enough, I also remember when Hulu initially sold itself as a place JUST to watch broadcast TV online to catch up).

I’d rather watch movies, to be honest. I’d rather be able to watch a couple of movies a week instead of “marathoning” a TV series (being one of those young modern households that watches TV through the Internet rather than broadcast or cable), one of the dozens that seem to pop up weekly ,half of which are just knock-offs of other shows, or just suck, or are just repackaged British and Norwegian or whatever TV, not an original new show just for that outlet as they claim half the time. It can be an overwhelming selection, and getting burned over and over again looking for good storytelling fucking sucks. Movies are, to me, a better option for trying this out because even thought you might fall into something shitty, the investment of time, something I find myself much more conservative with wasting these days, is less. Sure, I can lose two hours or so, but better that compared to eight to twelve hours that I have to slug through over two to three nights to get to the goddamn point.

The TV I like to consistently watch (on repeat, in the background) is so far from what would actually be considered popular or modern (science cooking shows and old true-life mystery and crime stuff like old episodes of Mythbusters or Forensic Files, or the latest season of Top Chef and episodes of Chopped), stuff I can watch and not pay too much attention to, something that doesn’t present itself as a puzzle to be solved, just entertainment to be enjoyed. TV shouldn’t be a fight, it shouldn’t be a chore (no entertainment should, ultimately, be a chore, but that’s a broader thing). It should be some dumb mindless downtime to unwind you at the end of the day, it should be some background noise while you putter around the house and can’t find something good on the radio or in your music collection.

Maybe I’m just hard to please, but less and less, I don’t care about TV. I don’t care about TV we all claim to love, or adaptations of other medium, or TV on some new interesting platform. I just want something actually good and interesting that speaks to me, that entertains me, not something that demands respect or fucking homework.

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Old Fears, New Frontiers

Airport novel(s) represent a literary genre that is not so much defined by its plot or cast of stock characters, as much as it is by the social function it serves. An airport novel is typically a fairly long but fast-paced novel of intrigue or adventure that is stereotypically found in the reading fare offered by airport newsstands for travellers to read in the rounds of sitting and waiting that constitute air travel.

Considering the marketing of fiction as a trade, airport novels occupy a niche similar to the one that once was occupied by pulp magazine fiction and other reading materials typically sold at newsstands and kiosks to travellers.

I know I’ve talked about it before, but I have a weird nostalgic soft spot for things that seemingly don’t seem that nostalgia-ready, or nostalgia-inclined, to be more specific. Nerd culture is so geared in the past few years to take advantage of that roughly 20-year cycle that captures and re-packages work for a new younger generation (either rebranding it as something new or revitalizing it in its original entirety) that

I finished up watching the Netflix original series Stranger Things last week. My girlfriend and I broke up watching it over a period of three days, this story of middle-school kids in a 1980s suburb getting caught up in the disappearance of their friend Will, and the sci-fi/supernatural elements of the whole incident as it spreads through the whole town.

The Stephen King homages are all over the place, rom fthe story elements, a variety of little King homages in the background of the story and dialogue, to the similarities to King’s Firestarter (I love whenever anyone mentions MK-ULTRA). It’s capturing a lot of elements that had started to build up in the 1970’s and were fully coming into fruition in the 1980’s about the remnants of military experiments, the height of the Cold War (which is floating in the background of this whole thing), and the beginning of suburban malaise creeping into the perfect middle-class facade being built here, in the shadow of military industry and of degrading lives.

It’s obvious tells, and one that I’m good with, because I really enjoyed Stranger Things. It’s fun and doesn’t allow itself to be overcome with in-jokes or references to the 1980’s, but rather, simply uses it as a background for telling a story. Most of the interesting bits about the story are little things that hint at so much more going on, or have had gone on, that the show doesn’t feel compelled to touch on. It can be easy to be distracted with offshoots and flashbacks, instead of allowing multiple elements like that to enhance a singular narrative.

~

So much of modern nostalgia is heavily drawing on what is seen as relatable to popular imagery and consumerism nowadays, so nerd stuff is popular now, hence why nerd stuff from 20 to 30 years ago is also popular again. This issue here though, is that whether or not that’s genuinely nostalgia is interesting, because then we get down to the definition of the word itself;

pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again

My girlfriend really likes Dean Koontz novels. For some reason, they’re something from her childhood, something that sticks out as a standard of the library, of the 99-cent shelf at the bookstore. I read Koontz too as a kid, with King, with Grisham, with McBane and who knows how many I’ve forgotten.

I’ve forgotten a lot of them.

However, I’ve never forgotten how they made me feel, and more importantly, why they made me feel the way that they did. They have heavy ties to memories of being a lonely kid obsessed with books, of being an English-speaking kid in another country, and of summers even more isolated from friends and TV, reliant on almost any kind of English-language books I could get my hands on, including cheap “airport paperbacks” from

So much of nostalgia is mischaracterized as some sort of rosy-tinted view of the past, though in fact, a lot of that comes from the commercialization of that concept to be able to present flawed (“problematic,” ugh, I hate that word, but that’s another story) artifacts as aspirational objects and concepts to once again reach for, now fully armed with the resources to “appreciate” them. In fact though, nostalgia should be not finally being able to get that cool NES poster or vocalizing for a so-called simpler time in your childhood, because that’s not actually nostalgia. That’s fantasy.

The Merriam-Webster definition not only states that sadness, as well as pleasure, fall under the auspices of nostalgia, but it also specifies the element of experience, and of wanting to maintain or relive that experience.

That point exactly about the reliving of an experience is, at the heart of it, what worked when it came to STRANGER THINGS.

~

 A lot of the nostalgia surrounding this show, I think, has to do not necessarily with the era per se or with the elements of the story that are sci-fi and horror related, although they are very much a part of it as well. What I connect to here, and what makes it work, is the idea of young kids participating in an adventure that’s so much bigger than them, but they want to be a part of it so badly.

Overall, the nostalgic effect of STRANGER THINGS isn’t necessarily the setting or the story itself, but rather then sense of the story that we connect to, as kids who were for the most part left alone to our own devices. In that freedom, however limited it was in hindsight (age, experience, range of travel within our communities, etc) we were heroes of our own stories, and we tried to involve ourselves a seriously as we could in them.

The D&D the main characters all play, opening and closing the show, is more than just a set of thematic bookends here. It’s an experience, and ultimately, that experience of heroism brought to life is the heart of STRANGER THINGS. It’s what truly makes people really love this show, because we feel a level of nostalgia for a time not of walkie-talkies and D&D, but of the experiences of youth that are tied into our own personal journeys of becoming the heroes we wanted to to so desperately be. I know I did, a dorky kid into comics and fantasy novels who so badly wanted to be a part of those worlds at times, because I knew that I had the fortitude and demeanor for black-and-white hyper-simplified conflicts that were waved away when the going got too tough for a 12-year old in glasses and a dorky haircut who got picked on.

What I loved about this show was that I felt like that could have been me, thinking that as a kid I could engage in this grand adventure, an adventure that felt so intensely serious and that only I knew the truth of. While mine never got beyond exploring old empty houses and creating a “hidden cave” in a space in my backyard between some trees, the back of a garage, and the shrubbery (which ended up being fucking infested with spiders), Mike, El, Lucas, and Dustin really did have that adventure. Fuck, in some tiny way, I’m jealous of these fiction characters for that, and that is why this show worked.

~

Being nostalgic for things and overall larger cultural movements and items sort of defeats the purpose of any kind of positive nostalgia, honestly. Be nostalgic for feelings, for personal moments and memories, instead. Be aware of what it is you’re trying to recapture, because if it isn’t in something with an actual connection and backing of context, more often than not it won’t work.

Dirty walls, dirty roles, dirty worlds (on noir and “Jessica Jones”)

(Warning, this is fairly spoiler-heavy for the Netflix series JESSICA JONES, based on the Marvel Comics series)

I had this theory once, one I planned to do an in-depth academic work on about private eyes in the post-war tradition. The theory was that they were the literary birth of the middle class, bridging rich and poor, a motif of carving out a place for yourself in the old world.

There’s also this idea I wanted to connect to (not mine) about how PIs are, in a literary sense, representations of people without causes or goals or roles. They are literal and metaphorical go-betweens, unable to function in assigned roles because of a weird Chandler-esque mixture of severe character flaws and righteous too-good-for-this-world goodness that, even if it functions nowhere near tier best interests, keeps them moving forward to do te right thing…for a price. After all, Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” (my go-to source for the root of detective fiction) discusses characters like Marlowe as being both “good enough” and “the best”, not perfect, but far too good for the worlds they live in.

In that model, I went into watching JESSICA JONES, the new Netflix series based on a critically acclaimed Marvel comics character, and in the same world and vein as their last hit, DAREDEVIL. Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos created ALIAS (the comic book) as a sort of “The Wire”/private-eye look at the dirty underbelly of the Marvel superhero universe in 2001, where it ran until 2004. Their character, the new creation Jessica Jones, was a retconned connection to various characters in the Marvel  world, a minor superheroine now working as a private eye. It was probably best known for Gaydos’ unique art as well as some intensely “mature” subject material way out of the mold of conventional superhero stuff. It is, like a lot of Bendis’ work, very dialogue-driven, and everyone (in the book) has a pretty distinct singular voice (my major complaint about his writing).

Regardless, as a comic it’s interesting because it embraces a lot of the lesser-known aspects of detective fiction, which are reflected a lot in the Netflix TV adaptation, which was retitled JESSICA JONES and stars Krysten Ritter in the eponymous role of the PTSD-affected, borderline-alcoholic, generally-awful-but-ultimately-efficient superhero-ed private eye.

Characters like Jones in this show, as well as other fictional detectives set in literature and film and TV post-WW1 and WW2 are interesting because they primarily sprung up (especially after WW2) as we started to see a new economy form, molding and shaping a new social class, the middle class. The middle class of modern America bridged the gap between the ultra-rich and the powerless and poor, as seen by the growth of suburbs, dining establishments like diners, etc. They’re all about the in-between previous older and limited options.

Now, you have new options. The private eye was the option for romanticized (but also low-priority and practical) justice when suddenly it became financially available. They’re not fixers for the ultra-wealthy (another character trope of the genre that tend to be mirror opposites of PI’s), they clash directly against them. At the same time though, you also have the PI who works for the ultra-wealthy as their avatar of will and action in social circles they can’t reach or have any real influence in, finding lost wives and sons and daughters, murderers of friends, wayward fathers.

You kind of have to wonder what kind of character, though, would want this position. JESSICA JONES ends with our protagonist not really feeling that good about herself, still relatively alone, still boozed up, still in pain, still unsure about her role in this world and the limits of her social responsibility. It’s a fascinating way to end a work of fiction that’s entirely about someone grappling with an archnemesis whose entire existence is a stain on their lives.

However, it’s not a unique ending. Noir is (and I’m paraphrasing 100 BULLETS crime comic writer Brian Azzarello here) about even the winners losing, because the story isn’t what matters, it’s the characters.

Private eye characters that emerged after WW2 (and WW1 to an extent) established what we now consider a bit of a motif in the character; they’re constantly surly, they’re survivors of something (as PTSD has come into the literary consciousness as a thing it’s been integrated into the narrative), and most importantly, these characters really can’t do anything else. Anti-authoritarianism and a background in some level of violence and practical problem-solving (which Jessica Jones somehow all has to a T) are a combination that creates people who just don’t work well with others. Furthermore, it’s proven in the literature to be a

The beauty of this all, though? The beauty of the writing and directing and production teams of JESSICA JONES applying all these is that they perfectly capture what makes private eye fiction so good;

Private eyes are, at their root, incredibly self-loathing over how they work. It’s a constant game of betrayal, of one-upmanship, of desperate plays, of making yourself unlikeable to get something out of someone. Jessica is, thoroughly, not a good person. At all. She pushes people away, engages in a borderline abusive friendship with the next-door-neighbor (of course it’s all OK because it’s discovered he’s a spy for Killgrave), and assumes the worst in people, all in the name of protecting herself.

Most of this behavior is, of course, justified, and comparing her to other private eyes in fiction you get similar behavior. The isolation is a defense mechanism, as much armor as her jacket and gloves and boots, the hat and trench coat of the male noir PI cliche. A part of the behavior I assume is also a symptom of untreated and self-destructive PTSD, brought on by her extremely scarring past with Killgrave.

There’s an aspect to it though that gets touched on a bit with JESSICA JONES a bit more in-depth than old film and prose gumshoes. Even though this job makes her such an unlikeable person, a person who (as the character says) some people blame for the problems they ask her to find out, it’s what she’s good at, in complete odds with everything else. Jessica can’t help but get sucked into doing the right thing, and doing it well. The bit of flashback we see indicates she doesn’t really have any other marketable skills besides figuring things out, and she has no real desire to do much besides get into people’s business and drink. Why not be a detective?

Of course, it’s not perfect. I think writing-wise the bit the show gets “wrong” the most is in one of the major flaws TV shows and films tend to have, which is the desire to have everyone in a scene have to say something that sounds relevant to the conversation, rather than simply let a conversation play out. The “everyone talks” model is meant to be expository in what seems natural, because it breaks up information into bits from multiple people rather than one long dump. However, combining it with what I think can be an interesting narrative tool (the voiceover, which is somewhat uneven in this show) creates a bit of a crowded dialogue/narrative problem, where too much is being said and told, sometimes repetitively. A lot of criticism of the show comes from the way it seemingly “restarts” a few times throughout the episodes, going back to square one, though I’d consider that to be more a symptom of the realism of solving a crime by constantly coming up against dead ends or failed attempts to get at your suspect, but that’s just me.

Overall (I’m trying to remember if when I started this piece a few days ago I was going for a review or an analysis) I liked JESSICA JONES a lot. I liked the shitty ending (not shitty as in bad, but shitty as in it’s almost another reset with “Alias Investigations, how can we help?” creating the nonstop loop of temporary satisfaction in helping others because you can’t fix yourself), and I liked the characters quite a bit, they were probably the best part of it. The sneaking in of semi-obscure Daredevil character Nuke was really cool, done really well, as well as finally making Patsy Walker interesting for the first time ever.

I think that as the latest in the line of messed-up assholes-solving-crimes genre, it fits well, trimming a lot of the fat out of a comic and tightening it up in places where it needed, something that the film and TV Marvel stuff is really good at doing. It’s not perfect, but honestly crime fiction never is, it’s a messy weird world where dumb and dangerous stuff has to get done to either going down swinging our float to the top and hope you’re not too beat up to survive after “winning.”

I think Jessica Jones floated to the top. I guess we’ll see if they ever do a second season.