Green Wing will take you somewhere else…

An ungodly amalgam of basically the two most disparate genres one could think of—sketch comedy and hospital soap—Green Wing was basically conceived on a dare. Everything about this show is weird, from its structure, to its tone, to its episode lengths. A full hour long in length, each episode of Green Wing is like a little oasis of strange, with comedic scenes of interpersonal drama and intrigue scattered among delightful sketch-like nonsense. The cast is expansive, including people working in many parts of the hospital, from administration to surgery to teaching. However, you’re unlikely to get much insight into any of these jobs, as there are few to no plots actually involving medicine. Instead, the hospital largely serves as a serious backdrop to silly shenanigans and soapy relationship drama, highlighting the degree to which basically every character on the show is a massive child.

Although much of the humour is strongly character-based, it is also consistently surreal, with the characters existing on a spectrum that runs from “fairly out of touch with reality” to “completely bonkers and probably dangerous”. Although all take part in bizarre games and unhinged one-upmanship on a regular basis, some are definitely more out of touch than others: not everyone would try to take out their romantic rivals with a crossbow (the incomparable Sue White) or engage in sapling-and-Puccini fetish play (the always almost-too-much Alan Statham and Joanna Clore). While some surreal shows’ weirdness comes at the cost of characterisation, Green Wing's long episodes mean that there is always space for character development as well, and characters' odd behaviour in the more sketch-like scenes can be understood to be an extension of the posturing and uncertainty that underlies their personal interactions.

If the show has subtext (and I’m not 100% sure it does), it’s that no matter who you are, social life is a performance, and a pretty ridiculous one at that. The seemingly-effortless cool of surgeon Mac is contrasted with the try-hard, casual misogyny of anaesthetist Guy, who in turn is mimicked by anxious doctor-in-training Martin. Each of these men’s self-image exists in relation to that of the people around them, all in constant competition for the respect and affection of each other and the rest of the hospital staff. Similarly, new hire Caroline is intimidated by, and lets herself be walked all over by confident blonde doctor Angela; and administrator Joanna, who is having a serious age and femininity crisis, often finds herself trying to gain the acceptance and respect of the indifferent young women who work under her in the office. The only person who exists largely above the interpersonal posturing is the puckish head of human resources Sue White, whose odd behaviour is frustrating and incomprehensible to the other staff, and hilarious to the audience.

Green Wing is a gem. Each episode is stuffed with moments that run the full range from delightful to distressing, and populated by a cast of indelible characters. First and foremost it’s a really fun show, but the way that so many of its characters are horrendously insecure while interacting with everyone around them as if they’re the king of cool means that it has some interesting things to say about the fact that, no matter your station, there are going to be people you desperately want to impress, and people you desperately want to leave you alone. 

The Leftovers: My Thoughts On The Season As A Whole

I wrote kind of a full-season review for Critic a few weeks ago, so here it is. It’s better than the previous thing I wrote about the show, cause now I’ve seen more of it.

2% of the world’s population disappears in the blink of an eye. Those who disappeared don’t really seem to have anything in common, morally or otherwise, being taken equally and at random from all across the globe, and the world is left grasping around in the dark for answers. HBO’s The Leftovers is set three years after the mass disappearance, in a world that has failed to reach any kind of consensus about the nature of the event, nor about how to proceed. Government programs set up to investigate the “sudden departure” have come up with nothing, leaving the world’s population with a dangerous vacuum at the center of its understanding of the world. The Leftovers focuses on the remaining residents of small US town, Mapleton, and their efforts to get by in a world that fundamentally doesn’t make sense any more. The show is loosely focused on Mapleton Police Chief Kevin Garvey, but regularly shifts focus to peripheral characters, such as members of the many cults/spiritual groups that have sprung up in the wake of the event, and other town residents, each of whom has been affected by the disappearance—and responded to it—in unique and deeply personal ways.

With it’s shifting perspectives and its bleak subject matter, watching The Leftovers can be a disorientating and mildly alienating experience. But the show is easier to understand, and will endear itself to you more if, rather than approaching it as a mystery to be solved, you see it more as a meditation on loss and depression. The world in the show has come to be defined by an unexplainable void, a niggling sense that when it comes down to it the world can’t really be understood in the communal, hopeful ways that society-at-large seems to want us to. The process of grappling with cosmic powerlessness is so different for everyone that, rather than uniting people, it creates rifts between them. It’s these tensions that The Leftovers trades in; one person’s optimism offends another’s more pessimistic attempts to come to terms with the new reality, and vice versa.

One big way that the show looks at these tensions is by diving into the inner workings of one of the many “cults” that has sprung up since the event, the Guilty Remnant. The Guilty Remnant wear all white, don’t speak, chain smoke, and hang around watching particular people going about their daily lives, in an effort to prevent people from forgetting what happened. Naturally, this pisses off people who attempting to do exactly the opposite of that and move on with their lives, and when the Guilty Remnant stage a demonstration of sorts, tensions in Mapleton quickly boil over. The tensions aren’t just between cult-members and non-members though, they hang over every interaction and relationship on the show, from Kevin and his daughter, to the town pastor and the people he’s trying to help.

At a basic level, people are having trouble relating to one another because there is no longer a commonly accepted world-view. We have cultural narratives to explain most things in our lives, from affection, to death, to heartache. Usually we make sense of trauma by adapting narratives provided for us by the dominant culture. Sometimes, however, we don’t have anything to draw on; from the loss of a child to a loss of faith, there are things that can’t be satisfactorily explained for us. In the world of The Leftovers, like for many people in times of crisis, the world-views we have in common have vanished, and individuals have been left to fend for themselves, suddenly responsible for making new narratives, and for defending those narratives against any that conflict. At times, it can make for bleak and confronting viewing, but ultimately The Leftovers tackles loss and a depressive world-view head-on in an admirable and compelling way.

What is “TV” really, anyway…?

image

With the rise of home video, streaming, and widespread torrenting of TV shows, it’s become clear in recent years that the lines between television and online video content are artificial. TV was once defined by its limits (one new episode of your favourite show a week, lasting half an hour or an hour, including frequent ad breaks), limits which give the audience a very particular experience, one in which everyone watching has seen the same thing, maximising “water-cooler” talk, and keeping them wanting more. Ever since home recording onto VHS became common, however, that centralised entertainment model has been losing its iron grip on the public consciousness. The last ten years there have seen an explosion in the number of quality shows (many brought about by smaller, previously largely unnoticed cable channels), as well as new ways to watch them, and this means that TV isn’t quite TV in the same way any more.

Now, there is certainly a value in the centralised model, as anyone who got as giddy as I did watching and discussing Lost week-to-week as it came out will tell you, but things have fundamentally changed. There is so much good stuff to watch, and so many easy ways to binge-watch whole seasons at a time, that television is necessarily a less communal medium now than it ever was before. There is no longer the expectation that when something new comes out, millions of people are going to see it all at once. Where being a television viewer once meant being ruled by the schedule, it now means being ruled by the never-ending list of things to binge on.

Because TV’s temporal limits are now largely a non-issue, online video content that resembles traditional television is increasingly viable; where webseries once felt foreign, if you watch all of your TV shows streaming in a browser, there is no leap to make to watch a web-originating series on YouTube. Further, Netflix has decisively proved that web-originals can be as popular and widely-hyped as many TV shows, that means that we’re likely to see some real money, not to mention some serious talent, coming into the online video content sphere.

If you need any proof that a low-budget webseries can offer as much beauty and humour as any “real” TV show, look no further than High Maintenance, a webseries on Vimeo. Each episode tells the story of a different customer of an affable, unnamed marijuana delivery guy who bikes around New York City, with each episode between five and fifteen minutes in length. Ben Sinclair (who also co-created, writes, directs, and edits) recurs as the Guy, the common thread in these varied, but consistently very funny and insightful short stories about a broad range of people living in and around Brooklyn.

Provided you have the skills necessary to do a lot of the work yourself, and talented people willing to help out, the stakes when funding a webseries are significantly lower than in television (unless you’re Louis C.K.), and it is clear that the freedom of the format has allowed the creators of High Maintenance to tell exactly the stories they want to. High Maintenance has an extraordinary sense of place and of truth, and this is directly attributable to its webseries status. Free of market testing, advertisers’ concerns about content, and questions about how to market it, High Maintenance gets to be a lot of unusual things: a non-stoner show based around pot; a show with a regular cast of one; a show whose tone varies wildly from episode to episode. Most impressive of all, it gets to be a webseries that, without qualification, can sit comfortably alongside the best and most beautiful TV shows.

You can watch High Maintenance for free at  http://vimeo.com/channels/highmaintenance and it doesn’t really matter what order you watch them in.

A chilling show from one of the few authors who has written more books than they’ve read…

image

Thing of the Day #26: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace  (2004)

It’s the 1980’s, and prolific (if not actually talented) horror author Garth Marenghi is at the height of his fame. Naturally, he makes the move to the small screen. But his envelope-pushing scares are, for whatever reason, pulled from the schedule before airing. Until now. The network has uncovered these lost episodes of the hospital-set, occult-themed horror/drama series, intercut them with modern-day interviews with the main cast members (except for the mysteriously-unaccounted-for female lead), and is now beaming them into your home.

If any of the above yarn was true, it would be right up my alley. The fact that it’s actually a metafictional creation of comedian Matthew Holness (who writes and stars, just like his character Garth Marenghi) and director Richard Ayoade (who you may know from The IT Crowd, and who wrote and directed the excellent Submarine) somehow makes it even better.

Presented as if it really were a shoddy 80’s television series, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace builds a mythos around the cut-rate horror author and the character he plays on television, who is transparently based on how the author sees himself. By alternating between interview segments and the show itself, Garth Marenghi is quickly revealed to be a self-serious egomaniac. He seems to believe that his writing has the same level of cosmic importance as his show’s protagonists’ combination doctoring/hospital-administration/demon-slaying. As we learn from the excerpts at the beginning of each episode and from his television scripts, however, he’s a hack. An excerpt from one of his many novels reads: “Something was pouring from his mouth. Blood? Blood. Crimson, copper-smelling blood, his blood. Blood. Blood. Blood. And bits of sick.” His writing’s clumsiness extends to his characters; every other character exists to reinforce the awesomeness of the troubled-but-brilliant Rick Dagless, M.D., or to stand in his way before reluctantly acknowledging his genius once he solves this week’s nonsense supernatural drama.

Where the show-within-a-show is a hodgepodge of “scary” tropes, however, the real Darkplace constructs an elaborate mythology around the fictional series’ actors, and sells it all through its note-perfect direction and visual style. The fictional Darkplace is a mess, with boom mics straying into shot, cruddy visual effects, and atrocious line-readings. Every one of those production mistakes builds up the sense that what you’re watching really is some delusional artist’s labour of love. In one memorable segment, a character explains in an interview that the episodes were running as much as eight minutes short, and that although they tried to keep it away from the dialog as much as possible, “anything without dialog was considered for slow-motion”. The metafictional gags run just about as deep as you care to follow them; for instance, you may notice that the model of the hospital, used in establishing shots between scenes, is surrounded by a barren wasteland, while the rooftop scenes show the hospital to be surrounded by a bustling city. These touches function as jokes, but also help sell the idea that there really was a half-assed “visionary” in the 80’s who went to the trouble of creating a TV show simply as a temple to his own genius.

Over the course of its six episodes, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace builds entrancing stories at three levels of fiction. At the bottom is a dingy, ramshackle 80’s curio, with an obvious author avatar at its centre. Above lies that show’s egomaniac author, and a group of actors who wouldn’t dream of saying no to him (except for the one who did, and is likely buried somewhere in the eastern bloc because of it…). Finally, at the real-world level, we have the group of skilled comics/film-makers who created it all, slavishly recreating the trash of yesterday to make it all plausible and most importantly funny. With all that going on, Darkplace's six episodes pack a hell of a punch.

"Life. It’s literally all we have. But is it any good?" Forrest MacNeil finds out…

Thing of the Day #25: Review, Season 1 (2014)

Review stars Andy Daly as Forrest MacNeil, a man whose job it is to review life experiences. The context of this job is uncertain. We know that he has a production team around him, and that what we are watching is the finished product, but his family and friends from outside of work don’t seem to know what the show is about. This becomes a problem when viewers write in asking him to review experiences like Being Addicted to Drugs, or Making A Sex Tape, each of which he dutifully does for the good of the show, but to the detriment of his personal relationships.

What speaks to me most about Review is the way that Forrest gives everything he has to a task of uncertain value. The space-age studio set and classy graphics have a comforting air of authority, a far cry from the chaotic, indifferent world Forrest meets when he leaves the studio through the back door (helpfully held open by the same production assistant each time). Although the reviews are suggested by strangers on the internet, and regularly involve legal and moral transgressions, with an unwavering sense of journalistic duty Forrest sets out to undertake and assign a rating (from one to five stars) to any experience the audience demands, aware of the ethical implications, but resolute in his commitment to the audience’s edification. More than just getting at the simplified world of cultural judgement, Review is a portrait of a man with a purpose, with certainty, and due to those, eventually, with nothing.

What pushes Review from just being a funny show into being a terrific, dark, hilarious character study is that Forrest MacNeil is not static. The ramifications of each review he undertakes stick with him, and his job affects who he is at a deep level. And as Forrest changes, Review changes, getting dark, getting ecstatic, getting nihilistic, getting surreal, getting hopeful in turn, always while being searingly funny. Forrest MacNeil is a man of certainty, and Review shows how resolutely we can do the unthinkable if we find sufficient self-justification, and how much we can regret that once we lose it. Over the course of its first season’s nine episodes, Review takes a hilarious, and unexpectedly serialised journey through heartbreak, self-realisation, and a disgusting amount of pancakes. At around three hours all up, watching it in as few sittings as possible is an experience that I’d give the full five stars to.

Get In On This: Television gets bleak and quiet in a way usually reserved for the big screen

Thing of the Day #24: The Leftovers, Season 1, ongoing(2014)

Coming from one of the showrunners of Lost, it’s unsurprising that The Leftovers has such a keen interest in the different ways that people respond to an incomprehensibly life-changing event. What’s more surprising, however, is just how disorientating and still the resulting story is willing to be. The event here is a sudden mass disappearance; 2% of the world’s population vanishes at the same time. Those gone don’t seem to have much in common, being of all ages, dispositions, and descent. The show has a fairly sprawling cast, but the often geographically-distant characters are sufficiently connected that the show can smartly avoid the common problem of having to contrive ways to keep certain characters involved with the plot at large.

On paper, some of the story set-up seems pulpy (the show features two distinct cults, in largely separate storylines), but the handheld shooting style and character-driven stories go a long way to convincing the viewer that more than just a cheap vehicle for mystery, these kinds of shenanigans exist in service of a greater inquiry into the ways people process loss. Some people are driven together by grief, and others are driven apart. Where Lost ultimately argued that “if we don’t live together, we’re gonna die alone”, The Leftovers—at least in its first few episodes—finds the the experience of loss as baffling as its characters do.

That lack of obvious hopefulness makes The Leftovers unusual on the television landscape. While there are shows all over the place that see the world through a violent, cynical lens, The Leftovers is rare for the way it totally resides in the grief and confusion of its characters. Where many non-optimistic shows have a kind of action hero attitude of resolve about what it’s like to get by in a grim and brutish world, the first few episodes of The Leftovers channel that numbing combination of realness and surrealness that so often accompanies loss. The first episode centres around the anniversary of the event, and depicts a world in a paradoxical stasis; life continues, but the lack of a convincing explanation makes catharsis hard to come by.

It remains to be seen whether this is a place that a show can inhabit in the long-run, but The Leftovers' first few episodes make for a compelling, aching portrait of a world undergone trauma, and denied explanation. Unless some sci-fi nonsense gets in the way, I expect that over the next 8 weeks, The Leftovers is going to use the unique television format to take us through the deeply personal painful process towards healing and acceptance, writ large.

Platforming, brawling, and lucha libre culture come together in perfect harmony

image

Thing of the Day #23: Guacamelee! (Most platforms, 2013)

Platforming and combo-based fighting are two things I’d really like to be good at, but which I usually don’t have the constitution to really master. Often I get the feeling that, because there are people who devote much of their time to perfecting these skills, games which are designed to be hard are geared towards those people, and as such, I don’t stand a chance. Through some careful pacing and teaching, however, Guacamelee! manages to combine those two domains into something satisfying, while remaining challenging. In other words, Guacamelee! made me care about two whole types of games which I had felt left behind by.

Set in a world of Mexican folklore and cosmic lucha libre shenanigans, Guacamelee! sets new luchadore Juan on a typical quest to save El Presidente’s daughter from horrible supernatural demon guy Calaca, a quest so generic that the game seems almost embarrassed about it. That said, the main story is little more than a way of getting you to go from place to place. What really drives the player forward is exploration; Guacamelee!’s world is beautiful, and tightly constructed, closing off sections of each area until you have the requisite special powers. This never feels withholding or frustrating though as there is plenty to discover at an given moment. While getting around can feel a little obscure at first, this pays off as you unlock new fighting moves, all of which double as important aspects of the game’s platforming mechanics.

It’s this integration between platforming and brawling which makes Guacamelee! such a delight. In the vein of games like Half-Life 2, Guacamelee! is constantly teaching you how to play it, but rarely in ways which feel laborious or restrictive. By the time you reach the final stretches of the game, you will feel like you have such a command of the mechanics that the challenges, for the most part, feel fair and surmountable, even if (as in my case) you’ve been attempting the same part for several hours. For the first time ever, I felt like I had enough insight into the intricacies of the timing and other aspects of a fighting/platforming system to take on even the hardest (optional) sections of the game, but that insight was gained through regular gameplay, and not hours of repetitive, grinding practice.

All in all, the careful integration of the mechanics of fighting and getting around, wonderfully taut level design, and the rarely-explored Mexican setting, rendered in a graceful style make Guacamelee! an uncommon treat, albeit uncommon because it actually makes me feel good at something I’m usually terrible at.

Decency and urban legend logic present an alternative to morally-grey antihero shows and clockwork universes

image

Thing of the Day #22: Fargo, Season 1  (2014)

Note for the Uninitiated: Idiosyncratic shows have to train their viewers how to watch them. But with the increasingly common format of short, self-contained seasons, there is limited time in which to do this training, and I think that fact goes some way to explaining the lukewarm reactions to hotly anticipated finales like we saw with True Detective earlier in the year. I don’t intend to spoil anyone for the excellent season of television Fargo has given us, but I do think there are things that I can say to new viewers, having seen it in its entirety, that will ensure you and the show are really on the same page.

Todd VanDerWerff wrote an article late in Breaking Bad's run about television and the clockwork universe (spoilers be at the link, but not here). Basically, the idea is that some stories aim to present us with a complex array of moving parts, all of which serve a particular function within the story as a whole. Part of the thrill of Breaking Bad across the seasons is the controlled sense of possibility imparted by the story’s tautness; things are set up early in the show’s run that pay off multiple seasons later. When everything feels like it matters, it’s a lot easier to get invested.

Part of the appeal of this kind of story on television is that it’s just never really been possible to tell stories like this in a live-action visual medium before. Films are too short in length and too long and uncertain in production to really set things up this way, and until the last 15 years or so, television production was similarly at the whims of viewership numbers and network notes. But in the last decade and a half, largely thanks to the rise of cable, we have increasingly seen showrunners (that is, head writers, sometimes also directors) become publicly acknowledged creative figures. Showrunners like David Chase, David Simon, and Matthew Weiner (The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men, respectively) are increasingly treated as auteurs, a position previously reserved for film directors. And as television has increasingly become the domain of creative figureheads, expectations have increased for television series to add up to one grand, coherent statement. Accordingly, short-season cable television has become uniquely suited to the format of the clockwork universe; elements can be introduced within one 45 minute chunk, and paid off 10 or 20 hours later, and that promise helps keep the audience watching for that long.

That’s where Fargo comes in. Like the 1996 Coen Brothers film from which the series is loosely adapted, the opening titles of each episode claim that it is based on a true story. Accordingly, what unfolds across the 10 episodes is the kind of lumpy, believable but unbelievable story you might read a Wikipedia article about 20 years after the fact. Mundane Minnesotan life is suddenly injected with an uncontainable chaos, and the result is explosive and bizarre. Fargo, the series, is full of loose ends and unexplained oddities. Where some shows take place in a clockwork universe, in which every element pushes the story forward, Fargo takes place in a universe full of conflicting stories. Some are routine (a man goes to work early on a cold Minnestoa morning to open his car yard), some are odd (a woman undresses in full view of her bemused neighbour’s window) and some are horrible (a man stabs another man in the head for basically no reason). These different kinds of stories sit uncomfortably together, often cutting one another off midway through, and this is a challenge to the way we make sense of how events fit together.

For some, Fargo will be unsatisfying. Clockwork universe shows have trained us to think that everything that happens which we don’t understand is a mystery waiting to be solved. Fargo, however, is more interested in what we do when our stories start to fall apart. After all, narratives are mind-dependent: we humans project them onto series of events in order to make sense of them. And given that the universe is a chaotic place, the narratives we use to navigate everyday life are deceptively fragile. Fargo's characters are each making sense of their existence in one way or another, by telling themselves certain stories, and the show asks us to pay attention to the ways these people behave when confronted with something that doesn't fit into their world-view. Some double down, some switch sides, and if they're lucky, they adapt, while holding onto their moral ideals.

Fargo presents everyday life like a collection of rumours and urban legends; often unexciting, until it becomes unbelievably coincidental, and occasionally horrifying. The show subscribes to the same kind of ‘urban legend logic’, in order to test how its characters react when presented with truths that don’t fit into their current ways of understanding the world around them. We can’t really know if the stories we tell ourselves are true; we can’t know how much weight to give to the unknown, the unconscionable, and the unthinkable. But by observing how people grapple with those questions, Fargo says, we can learn about them, and ourselves. And in the end, Fargo would like us to consider that perhaps, amid all that confusion and upheaval, if you can reconcile the worst of the world with the value of common kindness and decency, for the most part you’re going to be ok.

Systematic lies frustrate authentic relationships in a 80’s-set spy/marriage thriller

image

Thing of the Day #21: The Americans, Season 1 (2013)

As a child of the 90’s, I have no idea what it was like to live with the simmering uncertainty of the Cold War. Where more recent international fears have focused on extremist splinter groups—a kind of generalised unthinkable other—in terms of international relations in the US, the 80’s was marked by a fear of a specific, ideological enemy. The perceived insidiousness of this enemy gives The Americans its true-life premise: Russian spies are living in the US, trained to be indistinguishable from real Americans, having children and running businesses as cover, while carrying out secret ops for Moscow.

While the premise has plenty of opportunity for intrigue for its own sake, The Americans is primarily interested in these large-scale nationalistic beliefs and fears as metaphor for everyday relationships. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, both excellent) are Russians living as Americans. In many important senses, they have no one but each other; their relationships with their superiors are fastidiously professional, while their relationships with their co-workers and neighbours—not to mention with their unaware, definitively American children—are warped by a fundamental distance.

Thanks to their 20th century US settings and uses of political climate as a mirror for personal psychology, an obvious point of comparison is Mad Men. But whereas that show is often interested in the performativity of gender and class (and general American-ness), The Americans uses a similar strategy to get at the performativity involved in relationships, both within them, and in terms of the façades presented to the rest of the world. Philip and Elizabeth are always acting, whether together, in the interest of appearing to be the ideal nuclear family, or individually, being whoever they need to be to complete a mission.

Of course, it can be difficult to reconcile an array of scattered selves, and this will inevitably impact those around you. For deep-cover spies, this is a matter of life and death, possibly at a national scale. The Americans’ value lies in the cathartic way itsspy-story twists and turns give world-shaking stakes to personal trials that can often be hard to articulate.

A poignant story, and a pretty excellent way to get used to the intricacies of first-person gaming

Thing of the Day #20: Dear Esther (PC/Mac/Linux, 2012)

People who have been playing video games since a young age often don’t realise just how difficult it can be for a neophyte to get to grips with the basics of moving and looking around a 3-dimensional game world. Dear Esther's absence of murderous baddies has made some question its status as a video game (silly, if you ask me), but that also makes it an excellent introduction to a control scheme that so often a big barrier to entry to the massive world of video games for the uninitiated.

In Dear Esther, the player navigates their way around an island, taking in the scenery, listening to cryptic snippets of voice-over, and trying to figure out just what they’re doing there. The voice-over sections tell a story, but a non-linear, and (by design) at times self-contradictory one. The snippets are presented out of order, and are selected randomly. This means that each time you play through, you’ll get a different account of the events discussed, and potentially come out with a very different view of the characters involved. Dear Esther is a story-telling experiment, and the way it’s presented, through the story snippets, and the stunning, detailed locations you visit, comes together for a surprisingly powerful finale.

Dear Esther is an excellent introduction to first-person games not just because it gives the player the comfort and space to get to grips with the de facto standard control system for PC gaming, but also because it demonstrates the kind of story-telling techniques that are possible only within this particular medium. Although only about the length of a feature film, by letting the player choose where to go, they are able to create a sense of connection with the environment not necessarily possible by just showing it to them. This intimate connection is backed up further by the uniqueness of each play through. It is the nature of video games that the freedom afforded by even the most linear games means each person is going to have a subtly different experience, and in Dear Esther that personalised experience is amplified and celebrated, while remaining accessible to even the least experienced players.

How Do I Get My Filthy Mitts On It, Sam? Dear Esther is available for PC and Mac on Steam here, and is regularly on sale for less than $5. If you’re going to pay full price for it, though, I recommend buying straight from the developers here ($10, DRM-free), where it is also available for Linux. It’s not too stressful on your computer, so it should work on even a crappy laptop or Macbook or whatever you have. Seriously, I want more people to consider that they might actually like games, so if you’re remotely interested in, check it out, it’s the price of like 3 coffees…

A pair of films for people who believe something can have imperfect politics and still be awesome

image

Thing of the Day #19: Crank/Crank: High Voltage(2006/2009)

There are a lot of reasons one might reject the Crank films on sight: in particular, boorishness, bloodlust, and most queasily, threats of sexual assault as tough-guy shit-talking. To avoid the films on these grounds is totally justified. If those things aren’t absolute dealbreakers for you though, there is a good chance that each of these movies might be a crazy-fun way to spend ninety minutes.

The films center on Jason Statham’s Chev Chelios, a generic bad-ass hardman ganster type. In each of the films, he has some impediment which means that he was to do a bunch of macho stuff in order to stay alive. In the first he is injected with a poison that will kill him if his heart rate drops, and in the second his heart is stolen and replaced with a mechanical heart which can only be recharged by such stunts as hooking himself up to a car battery, or gaining static electricity by rubbing on strangers. In each case, he’s fighting against bodily impairments, hoping to find the bad guys soon enough to be able to save his own life. Obviously, with a description like that, you don’t want to think about the details too much, or the whole thing will start to fall apart. But the filmmakers know this, and deal with it by never giving you the chance. The films each have a cracking pace, interspersed with enough small character moments to give the audience a chance to catch their breaths.

The Cranks' strength lies in what they do with that hyped-up pace. Pushing everything to the limit, in terms of action-hero bad-assery and visual presentation, the filmmakers pull out all the stops, shooting fucked-up stunts on a tiny budget, and in crazy-innovative ways; Neveldine/Taylor, the creators of these monstrosities are known for their 'roller dolly' technique, which involves the camera operator zooming alongside Jason Statham at ungodly speeds. Neveldine/Taylor put every idea they have into these films, and a lot of them a lot of fun.

Crank is an exercise in excess, with a carefree attitude to carnage. If you like these films, that’ll be why you like them, and if you hate them, it’s sure to be the reason too. Macho bullshit is pushed absolutely to its limit, and there’s definitely an element of satire there, aimed at action movies generally, and other male wish fulfilment fantasies like Grand Theft Auto. But a satirical edge doesn’t make that macho bullshit any less alienating for the people implicitly diminished by those fantasies, in particular, women. Crank is more progressive than some of its peers in other ways: the cast is almost entirely non-white (Statham being the most obvious exception), and a close supporting character has some interesting sexuality and gender stuff going on, which is basically taken as read. So sure, in ways, Crank opens up action movie fantasies slightly beyond the standard straight white male sector, but that isn’t going to be enough for a lot of people, and that’s totally understandable.

These movies are a lot of fun, and that fun comes from their satirical heightening of a bunch of macho shit. But heightening that doesn’t make it any less exclusionary of, for instance, women, and anyone uncomfortable with casual mention of sexual assault as action movie shit-talking. Basically, The Crank films are inherently tied up with a bunch of wish fulfilment that simply isn’t available to large swaths of the population, but if you’re not put-off by that focus, these films can be a dizzying, if occasionally regressive, thrill.

The trashy 80’s/90’s horror trilogy that grew perhaps an insane amount of ambition…

image

Thing of the Day #18: Basket Case/Basket Case 2/Basket Case 3: The Progeny(1982/1990/1992)

The first Basket Case is a classic dingy, schlocky 80s monster movie. These films often have sequels, but few have sequels as ambitious as the two that round out the Basket Case trilogy. Centering on a man who checks into an inner-city hotel with a strangely noisy basket with unknown contents, the original is a lot of fun, with its grimy New York setting and homemade visual effects playing against its stage-y acting and silly—if fairly psychologically intense—plot. Released quite a while after the first one, Basket Case 2 and have a wider scope, attempting to build a lively world of mutants, a kind of bizarro X-Men, facing off against those that would seek to lock them away, or worse.

Basket Case 1 is a low-budget exploitation film, with a scrappy spirit; about five actors, including wide-eyed but furtive hero, Duane; and a pretty bleak ending, which Basket Case 2 immediately retcons, Crank: High Voltage-style. All this makes the original well worth a look on its own, if you’re a fan of dodgily-acted/stop-motioned 80’s horror trash (and I say trash in the most reverent sense possible). As most horror franchises did coming into the 90’s (here’s looking at you, Nightmare on Elm Street), the Basket Case sequels trade in the original’s low-budget charm and monster design for the Buffy-esque molded prosthetics and puppets. It’s an ugly style, and it hasn’t aged very well, but its biggest problem is that it just doesn’t allow the actors underneath the masses of latex to emote at all. While they might look threatening in a photograph, a monster that can’t move its neck is not so convincing.

Despite these limitations, the Basket Case sequels are interesting for their embracing of the ‘freaks’ as the franchise’s heroes. Although at least initially supposed to be frightening, the cast of mutants the second outing introduces are (to some extent) given distinct personalities, and although zealous and potentially unhinged, the non-mutant characters  fighting for their rights are the closest thing the audience has to a side to cheer for. Rather than trying to trying to have him maintain his ominousness across sequels, Belial (the titular basket-dweller) is given a mate and children by the time the third movie rolls around (a rare case of a non-human female character being fridged).

I will refrain from drawing lines too neatly from such cruddy genre fare to meaningful real-world causes for fear of undermining the series’ charms by pointing out where they fail; after all, any parallel one draws between the monsters of a film like this to any real-life group of humans is going to be unflattering, if not outright offensive. But the Basket Case films take a somewhat uncommon, anti-essentialist position, even if it is just out of exploitation-genre inventiveness. To bastardise Janice Lee, in the Basket Case trilogy, a monster is drawn, and then the audience is asked what makes it a monster. Even though the visuals may not have aged well, in trashy, goofy ways the Basket Case films poke holes in the notions of normality—mental and bodily—not to mention the notion of good taste.

A Hilarious TV Rom-Com That Takes No Short-Cuts When It Comes To Identity
Thing of the Day #17: Happy Endings (2011-2013)
Happy Endings' premise—when six friends try to navigate the complicated world of relationships, hijinks ensue—is not unique, but its tone is. Beginning with the breaking up of Alex and Dave's wedding, Happy Endings follows them and their group of friends, as they try to figure what comes next when life isn’t going to plan. The cast includes Alex’s sister Jane and her husband Brad, serial dater Penny, and Max, the least stereotypical gay character to ever appear on a sitcom. As shows like this tend to do, Happy Endings took most of the first season to really find its voice, but once it did, it became one of the most consistently funny shows on TV.
Although it has all the trappings of a post-Friends dating sitcom, Happy Endings uses subversive details to carve out a niche for itself. For instance, characters are allowed to make poor decisions that aren’t righted by episode’s end. In particular, Alex and Dave, in the wake of their aborted engagement, do things which look like personal progress, but which are not really in their best interests. They make decisions which follow the same cultural narratives that led them to the pickle they’re now finding themselves in, because they don’t know what else to do. This is a daring enough place to take the characters of a breezy, laugh-a-minute sitcom, but it is especially notable for being something of an indictment of (or a least a corrective for) exactly the shows that Happy Endings is descended from.
Rather than just going all-out bleak though, the show also consciously uses the privilege of breezy comedy for social good, subtly subverting expectations about gender, race, and sexuality through representation rather than preachiness; positively rather than negatively. For instance, Alex runs a fairly successful business, while Dave struggles to find the business acumen and motivation to get his food business going. Brad does white-collar financial work, while his wife Jane eventually becomes a car salesperson. Any outdated idea that their relationships is somehow inherently tense due to race, class, or expected gender dynamics is totally left behind, and their happy marriage is instead notable mostly for the amount and quality of the sex they have.
The same cheery acceptance of nuanced identity is applied to Max and his ‘love life’. Although Max is gay, he’s not ‘sitcom gay’. Instead, he’s an open, if somewhat schlubby weirdo. Where many shows struggle to find an identity for their gay characters (if they have any) beyond (at least a few) stereotypes, Happy Endings' Max is more akin to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia'sCharlie.
Happy Endings is resolutely a comedy, and it treats Max with the same sitcom glow as everyone else; his problems aren’t gay problems, they’re Max problems, regular old sitcom problems. He has less trouble finding a date than George Costanza, and it’s heartening to finally see sitcom dating rules applied across the spectrum. Part of the appeal of sitcoms has always been the warm glow of acceptance and familiarity that comes from spending time with characters week in and week out, and seeing how they react in silly situations. But so often the stories characters from marginalised groups are involved with are somehow related to the particular challenges faced by that group, and while I believe that iffy representation is better than no representation at all in the long run, I can only imagine that constantly seeing the characters you most easily (superficially) identify with dealing with problems related to their identity is kind of alienating. On that score, Happy Endings is a welcome break.
What is generally impressive about Happy Endings is that although it’s style is very much the kind of anything-for-a-gag sitcommery of something like 30 Rock, there are few short-cuts taken to characterisation, in both the short-term and the long-term. Characters aren’t defined by their superficial identities, and their development is shaped by the kinds of expectations that come from shows that look just like this one. Happy Endings knows which expectations of the dating sitcom form to shake up, and where to redistribute the glossiness in the name of progressive representation, and doesn’t end up sacrificing any of its comic edge in the process.

A Hilarious TV Rom-Com That Takes No Short-Cuts When It Comes To Identity

Thing of the Day #17: Happy Endings (2011-2013)

Happy Endings' premise—when six friends try to navigate the complicated world of relationships, hijinks ensue—is not unique, but its tone is. Beginning with the breaking up of Alex and Dave's wedding, Happy Endings follows them and their group of friends, as they try to figure what comes next when life isn’t going to plan. The cast includes Alex’s sister Jane and her husband Brad, serial dater Penny, and Max, the least stereotypical gay character to ever appear on a sitcom. As shows like this tend to do, Happy Endings took most of the first season to really find its voice, but once it did, it became one of the most consistently funny shows on TV.

Although it has all the trappings of a post-Friends dating sitcom, Happy Endings uses subversive details to carve out a niche for itself. For instance, characters are allowed to make poor decisions that aren’t righted by episode’s end. In particular, Alex and Dave, in the wake of their aborted engagement, do things which look like personal progress, but which are not really in their best interests. They make decisions which follow the same cultural narratives that led them to the pickle they’re now finding themselves in, because they don’t know what else to do. This is a daring enough place to take the characters of a breezy, laugh-a-minute sitcom, but it is especially notable for being something of an indictment of (or a least a corrective for) exactly the shows that Happy Endings is descended from.

Rather than just going all-out bleak though, the show also consciously uses the privilege of breezy comedy for social good, subtly subverting expectations about gender, race, and sexuality through representation rather than preachiness; positively rather than negatively. For instance, Alex runs a fairly successful business, while Dave struggles to find the business acumen and motivation to get his food business going. Brad does white-collar financial work, while his wife Jane eventually becomes a car salesperson. Any outdated idea that their relationships is somehow inherently tense due to race, class, or expected gender dynamics is totally left behind, and their happy marriage is instead notable mostly for the amount and quality of the sex they have.

The same cheery acceptance of nuanced identity is applied to Max and his ‘love life’. Although Max is gay, he’s not ‘sitcom gay’. Instead, he’s an open, if somewhat schlubby weirdo. Where many shows struggle to find an identity for their gay characters (if they have any) beyond (at least a few) stereotypes, Happy Endings' Max is more akin to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia'sCharlie.

Happy Endings is resolutely a comedy, and it treats Max with the same sitcom glow as everyone else; his problems aren’t gay problems, they’re Max problems, regular old sitcom problems. He has less trouble finding a date than George Costanza, and it’s heartening to finally see sitcom dating rules applied across the spectrum. Part of the appeal of sitcoms has always been the warm glow of acceptance and familiarity that comes from spending time with characters week in and week out, and seeing how they react in silly situations. But so often the stories characters from marginalised groups are involved with are somehow related to the particular challenges faced by that group, and while I believe that iffy representation is better than no representation at all in the long run, I can only imagine that constantly seeing the characters you most easily (superficially) identify with dealing with problems related to their identity is kind of alienating. On that score, Happy Endings is a welcome break.

What is generally impressive about Happy Endings is that although it’s style is very much the kind of anything-for-a-gag sitcommery of something like 30 Rock, there are few short-cuts taken to characterisation, in both the short-term and the long-term. Characters aren’t defined by their superficial identities, and their development is shaped by the kinds of expectations that come from shows that look just like this one. Happy Endings knows which expectations of the dating sitcom form to shake up, and where to redistribute the glossiness in the name of progressive representation, and doesn’t end up sacrificing any of its comic edge in the process.

Thing of the Day #16: Not-At-All-Timely Game Review:Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs(PC/Mac/Linux, 2013)
I hated Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It was florid, ugly, had boring puzzles, messy mechanics, and moving through the world felt like wading through waist-high mud. On the other hand, I really liked Dear Esther, because it was uncommon, and beautiful, and natural, and foreboding, and surprisingly cathartic. So when I found out that Dear Esther developers The Chinese Room were in charge of the follow-up to Amnesia rather than original developers Frictional, well, honestly, I still didn’t really care much, but a few days ago A Machine For Pigs was cheap on Steam, so I decided to check it out.
This Amnesia is a lot better than the first one: the mechanics have been stripped right to the bone, making for a less-frustrating, hence more immersive experience. The environments are still a little bland—cramped and repetitive compared to Dear Esther's vast island landscape—but they definitely get more interesting and threatening as the game progresses. Most importantly, there are none of The Dark Descent's obtuse puzzles, and no significant backtracking, a major annoyance when it's so slow to get around. The sound design is largely excellent, adding a lot of variety and tension where the visual design sometimes falls short, although it can sometimes be over-obvious in its attempts to frighten.
Really, that’s the major annoyance of the game: the developer’s overwhelming insistence on all-caps ATMOSPHERE, all the time. Right from the beginning (much like the opening of the first game) everything is set to “scary mode”; the music that plays over the main menu is extremely dramatic, given that the screen just displays the usual options and a picture of some pipes. When the game itself begins, immediately you are bombarded with unseen things going bump in the night. Where it might have utilised a full range of tension, the drama level always sits somewhere between 7 and 10. There is no build-up, and few lulls, and this means that the the game’s techniques for establishing tension can be transparent, and difficult to take seriously at first. There’s a reason most horror films have a stretch at the beginning in which everything is roughly normal, but A Machine For Pigs largely forgoes this, and it has the result that there can be a ceiling to the player’s terror. We need to be lulled into a false sense of security for the scare to really land, but the game relies on the player psyching herself out to do that work. People who go in sceptical (like I did with the first one) will likely get fatigued, and fast. When it came to building ambiance from the ground up, The Chinese Room’s previous game, Dear Esther, was a pretty subtle affair, but A Machine For Pigs displayed little of that patience.
Although I was kind of numbed by the whole thing for the first hour or so, thanks to the dull environmental aesthetics, and the creepy noises I knew were inconsequential, the game eventually got me on-side with it’s delightful level design, and thematically rich story. The Chinese Room’s house writing style is an obtuse one, sometimes bordering on purple, but, just as that was justified by the dream-like experience of Dear Esther, in the case of A Machine For Pigs, the setting (1899 London) and the general nightmarishness validate that decision, for the most part.
I have my problems with Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, as I’m sure you can tell, but it’s virtues shine through for two reasons: it’s pretty short, and it gets better as it progresses. 4-6 hours is long enough for the game to develop a surprisingly rich world and an ambitious story, have it go somewhere interesting, and end satisfyingly before outstaying its welcome. If you can get over the initial hump—an hour or so in which it feels like it’s throwing everything it can at you to make you feel something that can’t be sustained by the visual design—then Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs can make for a tense, genuinely thought-provoking experience.
Where Can I Get It, Sam? On Steam (PC, Mac, Linux), or GOG.com (PC, Mac). Probably wait until there’s a sale though. I got it for $6.67 the other day, and that’s right around the right price to pay, if your indifference curves are anything like mine.

Thing of the Day #16: Not-At-All-Timely Game Review:
Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs(PC/Mac/Linux, 2013)

I hated Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It was florid, ugly, had boring puzzles, messy mechanics, and moving through the world felt like wading through waist-high mud. On the other hand, I really liked Dear Esther, because it was uncommon, and beautiful, and natural, and foreboding, and surprisingly cathartic. So when I found out that Dear Esther developers The Chinese Room were in charge of the follow-up to Amnesia rather than original developers Frictional, well, honestly, I still didn’t really care much, but a few days ago A Machine For Pigs was cheap on Steam, so I decided to check it out.

This Amnesia is a lot better than the first one: the mechanics have been stripped right to the bone, making for a less-frustrating, hence more immersive experience. The environments are still a little bland—cramped and repetitive compared to Dear Esther's vast island landscape—but they definitely get more interesting and threatening as the game progresses. Most importantly, there are none of The Dark Descent's obtuse puzzles, and no significant backtracking, a major annoyance when it's so slow to get around. The sound design is largely excellent, adding a lot of variety and tension where the visual design sometimes falls short, although it can sometimes be over-obvious in its attempts to frighten.

Really, that’s the major annoyance of the game: the developer’s overwhelming insistence on all-caps ATMOSPHERE, all the time. Right from the beginning (much like the opening of the first game) everything is set to “scary mode”; the music that plays over the main menu is extremely dramatic, given that the screen just displays the usual options and a picture of some pipes. When the game itself begins, immediately you are bombarded with unseen things going bump in the night. Where it might have utilised a full range of tension, the drama level always sits somewhere between 7 and 10. There is no build-up, and few lulls, and this means that the the game’s techniques for establishing tension can be transparent, and difficult to take seriously at first. There’s a reason most horror films have a stretch at the beginning in which everything is roughly normal, but A Machine For Pigs largely forgoes this, and it has the result that there can be a ceiling to the player’s terror. We need to be lulled into a false sense of security for the scare to really land, but the game relies on the player psyching herself out to do that work. People who go in sceptical (like I did with the first one) will likely get fatigued, and fast. When it came to building ambiance from the ground up, The Chinese Room’s previous game, Dear Esther, was a pretty subtle affair, but A Machine For Pigs displayed little of that patience.

Although I was kind of numbed by the whole thing for the first hour or so, thanks to the dull environmental aesthetics, and the creepy noises I knew were inconsequential, the game eventually got me on-side with it’s delightful level design, and thematically rich story. The Chinese Room’s house writing style is an obtuse one, sometimes bordering on purple, but, just as that was justified by the dream-like experience of Dear Esther, in the case of A Machine For Pigs, the setting (1899 London) and the general nightmarishness validate that decision, for the most part.

I have my problems with Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, as I’m sure you can tell, but it’s virtues shine through for two reasons: it’s pretty short, and it gets better as it progresses. 4-6 hours is long enough for the game to develop a surprisingly rich world and an ambitious story, have it go somewhere interesting, and end satisfyingly before outstaying its welcome. If you can get over the initial hump—an hour or so in which it feels like it’s throwing everything it can at you to make you feel something that can’t be sustained by the visual design—then Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs can make for a tense, genuinely thought-provoking experience.

Where Can I Get It, Sam? On Steam (PC, Mac, Linux), or GOG.com (PC, Mac). Probably wait until there’s a sale though. I got it for $6.67 the other day, and that’s right around the right price to pay, if your indifference curves are anything like mine.