On Knowing What Victory Looks Like

Just as some infinities are larger than others, victories are not one-size fits all.

Earlier this week I was reading this hilarious and bittersweet account of the history of the television show Freaks and Geeks, published by Vanity Fair in a special one-off comedy issue. For the uninitiated, Freaks and Geeks was a high-school “dramedy” that aired from 1999-2000, which put it in competition with melodramatic pretty-people teen fare like Dawson’s Creek. The show had HBO-quality writing, with painfully real characters and long-term arcs.

They looked like real public school kids, too.

They looked like real public school kids, too.

That was its downfall.

I only watched two episodes of Freaks and Geeks when it originally aired, for the same reason my husband still won’t watch Roseanne: it was too real. I was a sophomore in high school at the time and the episodes I watched (“Tricks and Treats” and “We’ve Got Spirit”) made me laugh out loud but also felt all too familiar. Plus, it aired on Saturday night. Even I, a sort of amalgam between Anthony Michael Hall and Ally Sheedy’s Breakfast Club characters (or Bill Haverchuck and Ken Miller), had things to do on Saturday night. Like attending Star Trek parties.

In the Vanity Fair article, creator Paul Feig and Producer Judd Apatow recall their horror when their network head went from an on-board public school attendee to a clueless product of prep school and the ivy league. Someone experientially incapable of “getting” the show, arriving just before it launched. They also recall a push from the network to give the kids “more victories”, a sentiment that grew among the execs as the season progressed.

There were victories, it’s just that a non-nerd or a non-freak might have a harder time recognizing them.

  • When Bill Haverchuck caught a fly ball after maneuvering his way to the infield of a P.E.-class baseball game, that was a victory. It didn’t matter that jocks-on-base were tagging home while he celebrated with his team of disenfranchised nerds. He got to play shortstop. He caught the ball. Victory.
  • When ne’er-do-well Freak Daniel Desario allowed himself to be uncool and finished his first Dungeons and Dragons campaign as Carlos the dwarf, stumping his dungeon master, it was a victory. Not just for him, but for each of the self-doubting geeks at the table who felt just a little more accepted for having the wannabe-James-Dean on their team.
  • When Ken Miller was brave enough to drop the sarcasm and got to make out with Tuba Girl at the laser light show, victory.
  • When the Freaks showed up to cheer on Lindsay Weir at her Mathletes competition. Victory.
  • When Millie and Lindsay reconnected as friends during a night of babysitting, when Bill explained the convoluted plot of Dallas to his gym-teacher/mom’s boyfriend, when bully Alan admitted to a hospitalized Bill that he’d always envied Bill’s self-acceptance and social-life: victory, victory, victory.

There are more possible victories than winning Prom Queen, kissing the hottie of your dreams, or being carried off the football field to thunderous applause. Freaks and Geeks understood that: its victories were personal, unique to each of its characters, and more meaningful for it. The writers even had the guts to show that sometimes the things we have been conditioned to believe are victories do not actually feel all that victorious (Sam discovering that dream-girl Cindy Sanders was not much fun as a girlfriend, Neal’s experience as a guest at the popular crowd’s makeout party). As an adult I have watched the entire series multiple times, cringing and cheering for its characters and remembering how it all felt from the safety of adulthood. It was a triumph of writing ahead of its time, a fact noted by creators who can point to present-day programs of similar craftsmanship like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Do you know what victory looks like for your characters?

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Is that all there is?

Brace yourselves. You've all been very bad.

I began this during one of the lucid periods between staring at the ceiling with glazed eyes and sleeping twelve hours straight (thanks, influenza!). As requested, the following are the reasons I hate How I Met Your Mother:

1. References are not jokes. Just because you drop a piece of cultural trivia, and a viewer catches the reference, does not make it funny. Other shows, like The Big Bang Theory, rely heavily on cultural references but always as part of a larger joke or gag. HIMYM seems to rely on the “in with the in-crowd” feeling to carry its episodes.Worse still, in later seasons it seems like many of the references are to the show’s own events (the slap bet, Robin Sparkles) which some might call continuity, but I just find kind of gross. Like laughing hysterically at your own jokes, or the memory of that one time you told a good joke.

"I can't believe we're still on the air!"

2. I don’t care how Ted met their mother. Ted is an idiot, arguably the worst part of the show. The Ross. I never cared about Ross and Rachel, and I triple don’t care about Ted. In a show of lame jokes, his are the lamest. He is simultaneously sanctimonious and a womanizing douche. I’m pretty sure by this point his kids are wishing  he hadn’t met their mother so that they would never have been subjected to this interminable story. Right there with ya, kids.

3. That bar set looks cheap. I was going to write about how any show in which the characters’ social life revolves around the place where they consume alcohol always loses a bit of my interest. Not being a drinker, or seeing the hilarious possibilities in consuming expensive brain poison, is a personal bias. However, I loved both Cheers and My Boys so it’s really just HIMYM and that crappy bar set. Every time I watch all I can see is a cheap set, which keeps me from connecting with any of the characters as real people. I have the same issue with the diner set on Two Broke Girls.

4. It ruins people I like. I am generally a fan of Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel, and I have loved Neil Patrick Harris since the tender age of  five.  I suspect I might even like Cobie Smulders under other circumstances (Avengers, anyone?). They all suck on this show. The timing and chemistry is non-existent, it’s like watching a high school drama club’s first improv show. Pajiba wrote a great article mentioning how Lily’s jokes basically come down to contrasting her inherent cuteness with saying something disgusting or cruel, and Dustin Rowles had the cojones to point out that her cuteness has a rapidly-approaching expiration date (and he loves the show).

5. They want me to believe Barney is a ladies man. I have already spoken of my love for NPH here. Doogie Howser was my first crush, and though the actor turned out to prefer dudes, my fondness

Robin knows it's just not true.

remains. Neil Patrick Harris is a wonderful, talented, and engaging actor who looks fantastic in a suit. Much like his role in Harold and Kumar Go to Whitecastle, I just can’t buy into NPH as Barney: Serial SexXxer. He’s too nice. Too good. Too obviously not into the ladies. His best chemistry, as weak as it is, is with the men in the cast.

One last thing: The Pineapple Incident sucked out loud. Didn’t. Laugh. Once.

Moon Tiara Magic and the Mockingjay

***Note: in this post I use “femininity” as shorthand for qualities that have been designated feminine in the United States for the last century or so. I do this to keep the sentences from becoming an unreadable length due to Politically Correct phrasing. Men can and should possess these qualities as well.***

 

I will warn you right now, here there be spoilers. If you have yet to read The Hunger Games, hie thee away!

There’s a lot of “Won’t somebody please think of the children!”-type talk around the internet about women in the media and the lack of strong female characters in entertainment. At least in the parts of the internet that I frequent. I disagree about this lack, I believe that these hand-wringers are simply looking in the wrong places, and when they look in the right ones they misinterpret what they are seeing. Ready for some shock and awe?

Katniss Everdeen is not a good role model (or a strong female character).

When it comes to the heroine of The Hunger Games, I am of the same opinion as Maggie Stiefvater. Is Katniss a capable woman? Absolutely. Is she a nuanced and well-written character? Without a doubt. Would I want my daughter to grow up to be just like Katniss? Not on your life.

Katniss can run, jump, bow-hunt, and strategize with the best of them (literally, in Catching Fire). She is the ultimate survivor, she’ll do whatever is necessary. Including pretending to love, which is what’s so sad about her. Katniss experienced first the loss of her father followed by the (emotional) loss of her mother, with the result that she trusts absolutely no one. Trust is essential to love. I would argue that Katniss doesn’t even truly love Prim, she is merely co-dependent. She has made herself responsible for Prim’s happiness, and Prim’s survival is her reason for living. Her sister is her charge.

Beyond being able to love, Katniss has fully rejected her femininity. Her mother is feminine and her mother is weak, and so Katniss rejects any of this weakness in herself. She is crippled: denying her nature and suffering a debilitating injury to one of her most fundamental abilities (and needs). Katniss takes no interest or pride in her appearance, she holds herself apart from her community in mind and deed, she discounts her artistic abilities such as singing. Why is it that when called upon by the Capitol to display a cultivated interest, she has to make one up with Cinna? She has no interests. She has no spirituality, only the physical world of survival.  Even Bella Swan liked to read.

This is why I would not wish Katniss as a role model for my child, male or female. Hers is a barren and blasted emotional landscape. I would hope more for the future than the barest survival. I would hope for joy, love, trust, a rich and varied experience, to find everything interesting and delightful. To nurture and be nurtured. Community. Aspiration. Ambition.

…but Sailor Moon is.

I can hear the shocked squawks already. Let me explain:

Sometime in the summer before seventh grade I was staying with my grandmother in Port Angeles, Washington. In between Doris Day movies and running around in the forest behind her house, I would catch a new and interesting program on the television, beamed in from Canada. One day I saw a cartoon, with magical girls who ice-skated and wore cute outfits and talked about boys before being attacked by a supernatural monster. Then they transformed into snappily dressed warrior women and kicked its ass.

I. Was. Hooked. The only problem was, I lived in California, which is not a Canada-adjacent state. I searched in vain for this wondrous program for more than a year before it appeared on mainstream American TV. Sailor Moon. The opening sequence was pop-rock mishmash of falling roses and twinkling stars juxtaposed with fanged monsters. Every episode featured the Sailor Soldiers (senshi if you’re a hard-core fan) in typical teenage situations: auditioning for a play, making a new friend, arguing over a cute boy; but by the end they would be battling it out with a monster sent to eliminate something precious from the world. Someone with a passionate heart, or a great artist. The show came on while I was at school, so I set my Dad’s TV to record the episodes on tape and watched them when I came home every day. My brother became hooked too, those girls were just as badass as anyone on Dragonball Z.

Usagi AKA Serena is a total ditz. She’s an absentminded klutz who can only seem to focus when stalking a cute boy. She is also fourteen. For all of these reasons she finds it hard to believe that she is destined to protect the Earth from a cosmic threat, she is Sailor Moon. Over the course of the series she connects with girls who represent all of the planets (even Pluto, which was still a planet then), and the guy who  represents Earth. So what makes Sailor Moon, all of the Sailor Senshi really, a better role model than Katniss Everdeen?

These girls are as powerful and courageous as Katniss, while fully embracing both their femininity and their ability to love. Each one has her own strengths, hobbies, and skills: Mercury is a computer whiz with the best grades in school, Mars is a priestess with the ability to prophesy, Jupiter is an amazing cook. They are an interdependent community, almost always fighting as a team and supporting each other despite petty arguments and competition. They wear awesome clothes, they giggle over boys (or girls, in the case of Neptune and Uranus). Over the course of the series they all mature together as they face ever greater challenges.

That is what I would wish for in a strong female character and a role model. A woman who presents herself well, is confident, powerful, and loving. Who does not see her femininity as a weakness. A women who can rely on those around her and support them in turn (not go cry in a duct). Who survives the crisis with more than just her physical being intact.

Katniss is a great character, but not a great woman. The Sailor Scouts are both.

Go Stuff Your Stocking, We Want Stephen King

Other than leaving the 24 hour marathon of A Christmas Story running all day Christmas Eve, flipping to a midnight showing of Gremlins while I wrap the presents, and watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special with my brothers at least once, I am not a huge consumer of Christmas specials and made-for-TV movies. In fact, I find it pretty annoying that they are all but dominating the TV landscape as early as three weeks out (I have a brother with an early December birthday and we never even decorate until after it).

This morning with great glee I read an io9 article  promising a brand-new Stephen King miniseries, airing at 9 pm Sunday on A&E.  The miniseries is based on King’s 2008 novel Bag of Bones. In light of the upcoming “A&E move event” I have decided to review it.

Bag of Bones, Stephen King, Published 2008

At 560 pages, Bag of Bones clocks in on the shorter side for a King novel. It is all the better for its relative brevity. The pacing is tight and the plot gripping, without missing out on any of the horror or spookiness one would expect from a King novel. The book centers around a widowed writer, Mike Noonan, who is suffering from grief-induced writer’s block four years after his wife’s death. Noonan had a habit of stockpiling extra manuscripts in the good times, but his store is running dry so he retreats to the vacation home he shared with his wife in hopes of finding inspiration.

 His Maine vacation home, Sarah Laughs, brings more than inspiration. It brings several new women into his life (one big, one small, one spectral) and interlinking mysteries that are more personal than he realizes. King weaves several plotlines together throughout the narrative, spitting the reader out fully-informed and thoroughly frightened on the shores of one of his most thrilling endings. There is something for everyone here: mystery, gore, revenge, mythos, love, and even adorable children (though sometimes, as in any King novel) bad things happen to them). King is in fine form combining the horror of the supernatural with the inescapable intimacy of small towns and the smallness of people.

King has been known to struggle with endings and with female characters, but no such struggle is evident here. The conclusion is a barn-burner that grabs you a full hundred pages before the last, and keeps you turning them no matter the horror they contain. Mattie and Kyla Devore are engaging and fully realized female characters, as is the spectral female. Max Devore makes a sublime villain, engaged in both plots as he tries to take Kyla from Mattie but can’t escape his past.     

The true horror of this book is that it is so deeply sad. There is gore, there are terrifying moments and heart-pounding fights for survival, but the book is suffused with love denied. Love used as a weapon, even. This is one that will stay with you long after you finish.

Incidentally, Bag of Bones also includes my favortie description of a writer ever. Mike Noonan often refers to himself as “V.C. Andrews with a prick”.

Sound off: Have you read the book? Will you read it, or watch the miniseries?