Mort, by Terry Pratchett

[part of an on-going re-read of the Discworld novels]

The Colour of Magic was the author having fun and happening to strike gold; The Light Fantastic was an only partly succesful attempt to recapture that winning formula; Equal Rites was a mostly succesful but still flawed attempt to tell a different type of story in a similar setting; Mort is where Discworld is really born.

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Mort takes a lot from Equal Rites, most importantly the central revelation that Discworld out to be a series of books about real people in a pastiche fantasy world, not just a pastiche of fantasy. In this case, the real people don’t live in Bad Ass, but on another side of the Ramtops, in the Octarine Grass Country, but that doesn’t make too much difference. The novel’s central character, Mort, occupies a similar niche to Esk in the previous novel: a strange, overly-intelligent child is born to a rural farming family, and has no place among them, but is called to power and purpose in an entirely different setting. Mort isn’t exactly Esk: he’s gangly and daydreamy and bookish, rather than concentrated and practical – in fact, he’s essentially a non-idiot-savant non-wizard version of Simon, Esk’s counterpart in the preceding novel. And his family isn’t exactly the same as Esk’s – the Octarine Grass Country is more southern, more prosaic, than the wild mountain northernness of Bad Ass. [Both setting and character are perhaps closer to Pratchett’s own background: born in a small market town outside London, complete with an annual fair, he credits his education to the time he spent in the public library reading everything he could find.*] But the contours of the situation are the same.

(If written today, surely both books would be marketed as ‘YA’).

Anyway, rather than becoming a wizard, this time the misfit hero becomes Death, or at least Death’s apprentice. Needless to say, things go wrong.

Continuing and expanding a structural trait of the two preceding novels, the main body of Mort is split into two plots (actually, by the end, three or four). The main plot follows Mort’s attempts to come to terms with the role of Death, while correcting for and covering up the results of a mistake he made (or possibly chose to make), alongside Death’s adopted daughter, Ysabel, and butler, Albert. This section clearly grew out of the ‘Death’s domain’ section of TLF, in which Death and Ysabel are introduced (in the latter case, with little explanation – was Pratchett already planning Mort, or was she a random loose end he later decided to do something with?). The counterplot is a lighter-hearted affair in which Death goes on holiday to find out what’s so great about life, ultimately ending up in Ankh-Morpork. At first glance, this seems like comic relief, although in many ways it’s the real core of the novel: it’s through this establishment of Death, not only Death as a character but what it must mean to be Death (he’s never invited to parties, for a start), that the main storyline gets its depth. Pratchett does a good job of conveying that ‘Death’s apprentice’ is more than a joke, more than having a strange employer – as he often does in his best work, he takes a whimsical concept and fleshes it out into something powerful and dark.

On another level, it may be worth mentioning that Death’s time in Ankh-Morpork is vital for another reason: to continue Discworld’s meditation on the difference between London and the rest of the UK. Well, OK, more universally on the difference between town and country, but as both Pratchett and I have grown up in the shadow of the Smoke, it’s hard for me to see it outside of that context (perpetuating, of course, the traditional British obsession with role and strangeness of London – Equal Rites in particular can be seen in light of the rich literature of bright northerners coming south to seek their fortune). In Mort, Ankh-Morpork is even symbolised by a carbuncle, much as London is known as the Great Wen. In any case, in TCOM, Ankh-Morpork was only one fantastical place among many, but both TLF and ER placed the rural/urban distinction at their hearts (in the former case, through Rincewind’s homesick citydweller; in the latter, through Esk and Granny as naïve country women encountering the city for the first time). In Mort, the contrast is less explicit, as the characters largely do not overlap, but nonetheless the powerful big-city light is being shone on the small and trivial world both of Mort’s home and of the petty politics of the Sto Plains, while the honesty and simplicity of the rural setting is being used to accentuate the decadence of the city.

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Hmm. OK, I’ll admit: I’m finding it hard to right about this one. You’ve probably noticed. There’s a very clear reason why it’s hard to say much about this book: there’s almost nothing wrong with it. It’s not really deep enough to go on about its themes, but it’s just too damn good to explain its flaws at length.

It isn’t perfect exactly. The two plotlines, while working well together, do feel a bit disconnected. The overall plot still feels a bit rushed and not entirely coherent – although it’s considerably better in that respect than any of the previous books. [I think ER hit a higher level in the early sections, but Mort has fewer flaws]. It has considerable pathos; it has excitement (and a duel! and an elephant!); it has a lot of humour. It’s the funniest Discworld so far, with a good mix of jokes, from the broad to the sophisticated. It’s clearly a major milestone in solidifying the nature of the Disc and setting the benchmark for future novels. Some fourth-wall-breaking persists, and I didn’t entirely appreciate it, but it is better handled than before, and not a major problem.

Frankly, the only serious defect of this book is that it’s just too short.

Oh, and I should also add: it’s full of sex. I mean seriously full. In Equal Rites Pratchett quite straightforwardly set out to talk about sex (in both senses of the word) and Mort continues in the same vein. It’s a little awkward really. In many ways, this is a book it would be great to read to, or with, a child – except that you literally cannot go three pages in any direction without a nod, a wink, an innuendo, a risque diversion, or a barefaced “gurgle of passion” off in the bushes. As an adult, it just makes it more fun to read – Pratchett is one of the few authors who can walk the line between seeming prudish and seeming lecherous, and his embrace of sexuality is just one part of his embrace of life in all its glories – and most children wouldn’t notice a lot of it and would shrug past the rest (I know I did when I first read it), but boy would I have a red face trying to read this to someone under the age of majority…

Anyway. Short version. Very good book. Still a bit shallow and a little wobbly around the edges. But not only a good omen for his later books, but also a reminder that early Pratchett wasn’t just there to grow up into later Pratchett. If he’d stopped writing at this point, Mort wouldn’t be a bad magnum opus for an author to have.

But, of course, he didn’t…

mortimages

Scores!

Adrenaline: 4/5. I found this gripping! Could easily have been 5/5, except that honestly the exciting part is only a small portion of the whole.

Emotion: 3/5. Not exactly grabbed by the neck and shaken, but there’s no denying there’s pathos to it. And continues ER’s trend toward deeper characters – nobody here stands out to the same extent as Granny, but there’s a decent ensemble cast.

Thought: 3/5. Not a work of high philosophy, but also not afraid to at least look at some serious questions of life, death, and everything in between.

Beauty: 3/5. May be being harsh, because this is a book with a lot of great lines, and a lot of great images too. On the other hand, it still feels a bit raw and ungainly here and there.

Craft: 4/5. Between a well-structured climax, plot twists, and a lot of great humour, this is definitely a notably well-put-together book. Not perfect yet, but progressing.

Endearingness: 4/5. Again, no one character stands out, and I didn’t fall in love with anyone or anything. However, it was fun, funny, moving and clever, I’ve read it a bunch of times and I’m going to read it a bunch of times more.

Originality: 4/5. It’s a strange book. A lot of the individual elements seem cliché, but they’re handled in surprising and original ways. It’s not particularly predictable, and features a lot of things that would never have occurred to most authors.

Overall: 5/7. Good. The same score as Equal Rites – but ER is down at the more-than-just-not-bad end, and Mort, I think, is up at the almost-very-good-indeed part of the spectrum. It’s the best Discworld so far (and frankly I’m a bit embarrassed about giving it such a brief and incoherent review, so sorry about that…). But on to the next!

[Actually, the next is Sourcery, which to be honest I’m looking forward to mostly as a stepping stone to Wyrd Sisters. Then again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised before when revisiting books I last read a decade and a half ago]

*Fun coincidence: he was born in Beaconsfield, the same town where his stylistic predecessor GK Chesterton is burried.

P.S. Krull!

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Things I’ve Seen on TV (3): Page Eight, Veronica Mars, Angel, Farscape, Boston Legal, Breaking Bad

Hi. Some time has passed, so here’s another roundup of some of the things I’ve seen on TV. [Or, more often, on DVD, but never mind].

I just give them a quick and simple score out of 4: 1 for rubbish, 2 for not-rubbish-but-you-have-to-like-the-premise/genre/cast/etc, 3 for things I would recommend to people even if they didn’t like the genre much because these things are really good, and 4 for things that are flat-out brilliant and everybody ought to watch.

 

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PAGE EIGHT

This one’s slipping from my mind a bit, so I’ll just get something down while I still can.

Page Eight is a one-off (so far, the writer has suggested a possible series, don’t know if that’s happening) conspiracy thriller starring Bill Nighy. Well, ‘conspiracy’ is pushing it, and ‘thriller’ is definitely pushing it, but it certainly does have Bill Nighy in it.

So, a thriller. Only, the most thrilling thing is one character going for a stroll. Not joking. There’s one chase scene, and the person being chased is walking slowly, without any signs of panic or alarm. That’s the peak it hits of adrenaline-bursting thrills.

And yet… it’s actually very good. It’s written and directed by David Hare. Yeah, that’s the one, the guy with a BAFTA, an Olivier, a Golden Bear, two Oscar nominations and a heap of other stuff. Maybe that’s why it’s good.

All through the film (film? episode? whatever), it felt like the writer was setting out to write it properly. There’s nothing I like more than a writer who gives a shit. As a result of this care and attention, it’s – despite the lack of action – genuinely gripping. It’s also a little bit moving, a little bit funny, and keeps the mind happily active trying to work out what’s coming next.

Michael Gambon is here, which is always good, though neither he nor, frankly, Rachel Weisz has much to do, vis a vis the acting stakes. Ralph Fiennes has a slightly tougher, but very brief, role as an intimidating, quite unpleasant-seeming Prime Minister. In fact, the whole cast is great, but my special mention would go to Alice Krige as Gambon’s current, and Nighy’s former, wife. However, the heart and soul of this film is the millimetre-perfect performance of Nighy, who brings a bone-weary but indomitable integrity to the character of Johnny Worricker – once a bad husband, still perhaps a bad father, long-serving MI5 officer, loyal friend, and, hopefully, a good man. Now lumbered with the responsibility of potentially explosive intelligence about what his own side knew and when, and desparately in need of someone he can trust.

I hope he does return for a full series. As with many conspiracy thrillers, the secret here is not really all that exciting, but Hare and Nighy navigate the course so proficiently that it doesn’t really matter. Only the film’s relatively low-key style and its inevitably short length prevent this from being a masterpiece. Give this team the time and space to craft an entire series, rather than just a glorified pilot, and who knows how good it could be.

[Or bad, of course – not every great pilot turns into a great series. Maybe Hare can’t find enough material to keep his characters going. Maybe that quiet patience will fail to rise to a crescendo and instead will turn into a dull, monotonous drone. Maybe. After all, there’s nothing earth-shattering about the plot, or the characters, all of which are perfectly ordinary and familiar. But these characters deserve a chance to plead their case on a bigger canvass. The sheer and unusual competence of both the creator and the actors demands it.]

Verdict: 3/4. Highly promising, if it gets made into a series. Otherwise, a non-essential but nonetheless thoroughly rewarding 99 minutes of class.

 

 

VERONICA MARS

Oh good. An American high school. I’ve not seen one of those on TV before! And what’s this I hear? A socially outcast teenage girl (played by a beautiful woman in her twenties) kicks the ass not only of bullies, but also of all sorts of local hoodlums, scoundrels, philanderers, and even murderers? Through a combination of precocious intelligence, superpowers, and mordant sass? Yup, this is a real original here.

OK, she doesn’t have superpowers, technically. What she has are the con-man skills and investigatory connexions and tech that come with being the precocious daughter of a private investigator (and former local sherriff). Let’s face it, in the context of high school, those may as well be superpowers.

Now, from that intro, you might expect that this isn’t something I like. I might have expected that too; indeed, I did expect that, which is why I never watched it until now, despite so many people saying it was good. I mean, true, I do have an embarrassing weak spot for teenage angst soap stories – but it’s almost always against my better judgement. Yes, I’ve watched almost all of Smallville – but I still thought it was almost entirely shit.

But Veronica Mars is not shit. It’s a very long way from being shit. In fact, and I do know that Buffy fans will disagree and with some cause… I think this is the best show ever made of its genre.

Why should you care about that if you’re not inherently in to American high schools as a setting? Well, actually there are a lot of reasons why people should watch Veronica Mars. [And boy, I’ve looked at the viewing figures, and if you persuade yourself and your dog to watch it you’ll double the audience it originally had. If a minor network showed six straight hours of a drunk man vomiting, it would get better ratings than Veronica Mars. Its viewing figures would have been good, if it had been a complicated, obscure work of high-art auteurism on a subscription channel – way more watched than Luck, Treme, or The Wire – but for a pop culture high school drama on a major network, they were abysmal. So, why should anyone buck those figures and watch it? Well…]

First off: didn’t you hear? It’s a beautiful, intelligent social outcast girl kicking ass. Of course it’s a great show.

Or is that just me?

Second – the darkness. Let’s recap the initial premise: Veronica Mars used to be popular. She’s living in a fabulously wealthy town, and her family has never been rich, but her father was the Sherriff, so that gave her sort of honorary rich-kid status. Her best friend was Lily Kane, daughter of the fabulously wealthy tech-baron Kane family, and her boyfriend was Lily’s brother, the moody-but-likeable Duncan. Then, one day, Duncan completely stops speaking to her, for no obvious reason. Oh dear. More importantly, soon afterward, Lily is brutally murdered. Oh dear oh dear. Veronica’s father becomes convinced Lily’s father is the killer, becomes obsessed with bringing him down – the people of the town don’t buy it, and vote him out of office. He becomes a national disgrace, a laughingstock, with the last of his credibility destroyed when ‘the real killer’ is found. He’s forced to become a private detective to pay the bills. His wife, Veronica’s mother, is hit badly by her husband’s demotion and humiliation; she wants the family to leave town, but he’s too proud; she takes to drink, and eventually runs off, leaving her husband and daughter no idea of where she might be. Veronica becomes outcast from her circle of rich friends – rich boyfriend has left her, rich best friend is dead, powerful father has been thrown down, of course she’s not popular anymore – but tries to force her way back in, gate-crashing a former friend’s party. She ends up drunk, drugged, humiliated, and raped at least once, waking up the next morning with no idea who raped her (or anything about the rest of the evening) but the certainty that it happened. The show starts a while later (it feels like quite a while, although it may only be six months officially, I’m not sure); Veronica has given up on popularity. Instead, she’s working for her father, ignoring the vile things people say behind her back, taking any opportunities she finds for little moments of vengeance against those who have wronged her, and now and then fighting for justice.

But she doesn’t believe the incompetent police have caught the true murderer of her best friend, and she still doesn’t know who raped her.

So, like I say, it’s dark. It has a bubbly, cheerful, exuberant high school side, in which Veronica takes on a case of the week (sometimes to fight on the side of righteousness, more often for cash) and uses her sleuthing skills to right wrongs and expose ill-doing and protect the weak and innocent among her classmates, and this might almost be too chirpy and sweet, if you overlooked the old-before-her-time wisecracking, complete social isolation, and borderline sociopathy (she’s a nice girl, honestly, but her ‘get tough, get even’ approach makes her ruthless and vindictive toward those she dislikes, which seems to be most people). But then there’s the dark side, the season-long arc investigating those two tragic crimes. It’s not a show that wallows in darkness, or that becomes morbid, but it’s not afraid to be unpleasant, or depressing, or creepy. It doesn’t let this fantasy high school world become detached in a bubble away from reality – Veronica may be a child, but she’s got serious, adult concerns. And while, as I say, most of the show is light enough to be a fun watch, it has the confidence to go to the dark places when they’re justified, which makes it a far more powerful experience.

Third – the writing. The writing is fun… more than that, it’s actually funny, with frequent laugh-out-loud moments (particularly in the second season). It’s not the greatest comedy material ever, sure, but it’s witty, it’s smart, it’s fast… but at the same time, it’s able to bring in pathos and depth as well. A good parallel might be The West Wing – this isn’t written in the same style as Sorkin exactly, but it shares that duality of humour and real character. And in terms of the larger scale, the plotting of the cases of the week is as original and unpredictable as can be expected from the constrained format (there aren’t a lot of possible plots with a small cast in a high school), while the arcs are superbly plotted whodunnits which rack up the tension and keep the viewer guessing. The biggest problem is that there is sometimes a lack of emotional continuity – Veronica will make a big discovery one episode, only to put it on the back burner for a bit while the show does a more self-contained episode, and then pick the big plot up again the week after, which doesn’t feel entirely realistic.

Fourth – the acting. Kristen Bell, particularly in the first season, is outstanding. It’s a great role for an actress, because it lets her character act – and it turns out that Bell has the voice, mannerisms, and even face of a chameleon (she’s beautiful, but is able to be beautiful in different ways – there are shots of her in this that strongly remind me of, to the point of sisterhood with, five or six different actresses from other shows who I would never before have said looked remotely alike). There are little vignettes of Veronica, slipping into different accents, personalities, appearances, to fool her mark, that are just a delight to watch in their effortless ease. There are also some strong performances in the background – particularly Jason Dohring managing to make ‘troubled bad boy rich kid’ a genuinely interesting role, and Enrico Colantoni as Veronica’s father, creating an acheingly wonderful (though possibly not healthy) parent-child relationship.

But there are problems – and I don’t just mean the token black sidekick, who manages to evolve out of the role of token black sidekick only by instead becoming a sidekick who is also frankly a git. No, the biggest problem is that the first season is too good, wraps everything up so brilliantly, reaching back throughout the season to bring in things that looked like throwaway moments at the time, culminating in a really great season finale… it leaves the show with nowhere to go but down. With the two big season arcs of the first year resolved – or, at least, as resolved as it appears feasible for them to be – I worried that the second season would either have to retreat to the banality of high school permanently, or else introduce an unrealistic second-season ‘big bad’ plotline. The show worked so well in the first year in part because it was realistic – heightened realism, to be sure, but fundamentally a fantasy version of life in the real world. Bringing in an equally major plotline out of the blue in the second season would strain credulity just too far, and lack the emotional impact of the initial arc.

But that’s what they did, and to their credit they did a good job of it. It was unrealistic both in its existence and in its near-cartoonish excesses, and it strained credulity, and I never cared as much about it as I ‘should’ have done, or as I’d cared about the first season arc… but it wasn’t egregiously awful, and the quality of the show as a whole let me see past it. I didn’t mind so much that the big plot didn’t seem as skillful when the scene-to-scene writing had if anything improved.

The trend continued, however, in the third season. This time, they knew they couldn’t have a third massively epic storyline, so they went for a series of smaller arcs, culminating with a hurried and underwhelming silly little damp squib of a series finale. The succession of quite-major-but-not-that-major plots frankly feels just as incredible, in the bad sense of the word, as a single larger arc would have done, and lacks the emotional investment.

The bigger problem with the third season, however, is the character. Over the course of the three years, the character of Veronica gradually evolves from a sassy outsider with an individual spirit into a teen-by-numbers bitchy robot who isn’t overly likeable and, more importantly, isn’t particularly interesting. It feels as though over time they forgot that the character wasn’t meant to be an identikit blonde cheerleader, and they gradually drifted in that direction throughout the series (albeit without ever quite getting there, to be fair to them). Coupled with the sidelining of some characters and the annoyance of others (including the token sidekick (side-rant: surely not all black teenagers in America have as their only hobbies ‘talking in mock jive for self-effacing humorous effect’, ‘playing basketball’, ‘doing what they’re told by white people’, and ‘being 100% only interested in black girls so that they’re never ever seen as in danger of a relationship with the white heroine and so the question never has to be addressed in even a single line’? Oh, please…)), it makes the third season a lot less enjoyable to watch. A simple metric of Veronica’s shift is her appearance – her hair gets longer and blonder and more hollywoody, and her face becomes more painted over with makeup as the series progresses, epitomising the levelling down of her personality.

Finally, there are a couple of points where the writers didn’t bite the bullet. There’s one point in the first season where they back away from what could have been a really interesting sub-plot implication (which wouldn’t have interfered with their main plot) because it was a bit too radical an idea (though making perfect sense within the show). More importantly there’s another point toward the end of the second season that suggests a brave but exciting direction for the show in the third season, that would really have given the third season some purpose… but they back down from following it up. There are, more minorly, a few other times where they refuse to allow change, probably to keep the same actors in the same roles even when the role has been played out.

These reservations, however, are relatively minor. It’s true that Veronica Mars wasn’t the greatest show on TV, and you need quite a tolerance for teenagers and saccherine silliness to watch it at all. But at heart this was, at least at first, a seriously good TV show. It took a setting that is beyond familiar, that is hard to make work, and it made absolutely the most of it – a show that in other hands would have been terrible and indistinguishable turned out funny, tense, imaginative, well-crafted, dark, gripping, and touching. More people should have watched it.

Verdict:

Season One: 3*/4. I haven’t given a ‘star’ before, but I think it applies here: the final episode (and what it reveals) lifts this up from an ordinary ‘quite good’ show, but it’s still not a brilliant must-watch show. So, 3*.

Season Two: 3/4. Not quite as good, lacks that kick of excellence, but still a better show than most of TV and worth recommending to people.

Season Three: 2/4. If you’ve watched the first two seasons, you may as well watch this. It’s a broadly enjoyable and clever show still – just not what it had been, and maybe not all that great anymore.

 

 

 

FARSCAPE

This could easily have been terrible; it wasn’t. Alternatively, it could have been great; but it wasn’t.

It’s a hard one to assess. Low budget SF with puppets playing heavily on the culture-clash humour inherent in its scenario of a human astronaut lost in alien space trying to get home, not understanding the creatures around him… such a razor-fine edge to walk. It frequently doesn’t manage it. Much of the writing and acting are just far too far over the top into self-parody; the overall narrative direction suffers from the late-nineties time period, as this is a show that wants to have season long arcs but is still anchored to an episodic adventure-of-the-week preconception; character development relies too much on the viewer’s interpolation of the meaning of the general brusqueness and tightlippedness, and seems to sway back and forth without clear purposeful drive. The gimmick, if you will – that these are characters thrown together by convenience who don’t like each other very much – is rarely lived up to. It’s sometimes dull, and often silly, and sometimes there are great big head-slapping plot-holes that you just wish they’d found a way around because as it is they’re just painful to watch.

But.

There are times when you can see what they wanted this to be. Namely: good. I know that sounds stupidly simplistic, but I think I’ve explained before that ‘being good’ seems to be a category that can be applied to almost any concept, simply by really trying and not being lazy. A good example of that here is a monster-of-the-week episode like “Born to be Wild”. Look at a teaser synopsis, it looks familiar. As you’re watching it, you feel it’s familiar. But what in most shows would have been a massively predictable throwaway formula is teased out, made unpredictable, given a grey moral dimension… when it’s good, what Farscape does is apply a non-lazy writing effort to its stories, and back that up with moral uneasiness, and a disconcerting weirdness – a sense that the universe is a strange and possibly unpleasant place, and that the protagonists are very small and helpless. It’s a great antidote to something like Star Trek: Voyager – here, things aren’t clear and obvious, the future isn’t clean and polished, and it’s a lot less clear that the heroes will win in the end.

When it’s good, it’s very good. Sometimes, it’s almost brilliant.

But then sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the characterisation seems off, the personality quirks are just irritating, the plot arcs lack direction, and the plot-of-the-weak episodes are disposable. And, unfortunately, it is still basically some kind-of-OK actors running around some cardboard sets, with a puppet.

If you can maintain your suspension of disbelief, and are willing to go with the rough episodes, and in particular to get into it in the first place, Farscape seems like a rewarding show – it can be fun, funny, disconcerting and dark, and clever too. If you’ve been spoiled by better television (in particular the shows that have come out since Farscape was around that have taken similar paths), or if you’re not certain about SF in the first place, you may not feel like making the investment.

So far, I’ve only watched the first two seasons, and it does seem to be getting better, so I’m sure I’ll get around to finishing it off. And who knows, maybe it’ll turn out a classic in the end. So far, it feels like an entertaining footnote.

Verdict:

Season One: 2/4

Season Two: 2/4

Other Seasons: Not Yet Seen.

 

 

 

ANGEL

I should have written this up months ago, but I didn’t get around to it, so it’ll just be a few notes.

Angel is the even more brooding, even more angsty spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like Buffy, it at first adopts a sort of ‘monster-of-the-week’ formula, before later developing more complicated story arcs. Like Buffy, it is fond of overly-obvious analogous ‘Moral of the Week’ stories too, in which ordinary life things are transparently transliterated into supernatural-monster equivalents. [The ‘be aware of the dangers of date rape’ episode was just groan-inducing]. Like Buffy, it often involves excessive melodrama, and sets that are often not wholly convincing, along with a dodgy mythology and far too many coincidences, not to mention too many plot-by-rote episodes.

But like Buffy, there’s something here that transcends its limitations. The key here, I think, is the ambition of the writers, who are never happy settling with what they’ve got. Each season is different from the last, and there is a real sense of (albeit limited) character progression. The writers aren’t afraid to move characters out of their rut, and they aren’t afraid of one-upping the expectations the audience might form, or of doing something totally unexpected.

Central to this are the two supporting characters of Cordelia and Wesley, both borrowed from Buffy – and possibly the two least promising candidates for character growth in TV history. Both, at first, are played primarily for laughs, yet as the series progresses both show and develop new depths, becoming both more believable and more compelling as characters. Cordelia’s growing groundedness and resignation – her growth from airheaded highschool bitchqueen to (somewhat) wise and sympathetic matriarch of the group – and Wesley’s simultaneously growing competence and darkness, his development from a clumsy public school boy playing at ‘rogue demon hunter’ into a genuine (smart, brave, ruthless, sometimes genuinely frightening) rogue demon hunter, provide the heart and soul of the show. Sometimes, unfortunately, to the detriment of the alleged main character, Angel, who remains mostly static and uninteresting throughout. It doesn’t help that David Boreanaz, while perfectly tolerable in his own right, turns out not to have anything like the acting skill or charisma of Alexis Denisoff or Charisma Carpenter (he’s actually a lot better playing Evil Angel than Angel himself, which I guess is why the writers end up far too happy to find bad excuses to show us Evil Angel).

In some ways, this feels like a more succesful version of Farscape, despite the completely different plots and settings – it feels like it shares that show’s ambitions regarding inter-character conflict, character growth and interesting plot arcs, but does it all significantly better.

As I say above, the different seasons are all very different from one another (and note that I haven’t seen the final fifth season yet, though it’s set up to be the most ‘different’ of them all), so it’s worth commenting on the individual seasons.

Season One is a spinnoff of Buffy: it takes the style and setting and concerns of Buffy, gives us a (mostly) new cast of characters and location, and shows us how these things can work with a more grown-up, urban, noirish approach. It’s mostly monster-of-the-week – some fun, some frightening, but some plain silly. The writers don’t seem to have been certain what they wanted, or else to have changed their minds or had their minds changed, because the first and second halves of the season could almost be different seasons in themselves. Quality is variable – it’s mostly a pretty entertaining, somewhat silly show. Particularly noteworthy is the two-parter late on revolving around the character of Faith: as always, Faith is a paradox, in that in the sitting-around-bantering portions of the show she seems obnoxious, badly written, and frankly badly acted… only to transform once the action and the drama get going. Faith being sincere is brilliant – sympathetic yet frightening, well written, fantastically acted. So every time she appears on screen in Buffy or Angel I start out by groaning, hoping for the episode to be over soon – only to be transfixed by the end. There are two distinct sides to the character, the casual/cool and the intense/broken – and both the writers and the actress are a lot better at one than at the other. Fortunately, the one they’re good at is the one that matters. This two-parter is a direct sequel to the Faith two-parter in the fourth season of Buffy, and like that double feature it’s a lot better than I expected it to be.

Season Two is… angsty. Really, really angsty. The show throws away the monster-of-the-week (well, partly) and concentrates on a season-long arc, albeit a fairly meandering one, that mostly serves to have Angel looking anguished and brooding a lot. There’s no doubt that it’s a big step up from the quality of the first season, and a big step into darkness as well, but I found it hamstrung by its seriousness and its determination to be grimdark. Slaughter, syphillis and suicide – not the most enjoyable viewing, and I didn’t feel it had the gravitas to deserve this darkness (although of course, this being a spin-off of Buffy, there’s always plenty of jet black comedy among the grimness). However, massive kudos must go to the dimension-hopping Pylea arc, in which the writers through the established setting to the winds and take their group of hardened LA demon-hunter detectives and put them into a stereotypical-but-weirder mediaeval fantasy setting. The result is, if the episodes are viewed in one go, arguably one of the best fantasy films ever, and a great mix of pathos and absurdist comedy.

Season Three is where it all works. The content remains dark, but with less brooding and more action; the plot doesn’t meander, but instead rockets along, with multiple significant twists. The supporting characters get most of their development. The antagonists become more interesting. Everything goes completely out of control. In a way I wish it had ended here, because by the ending of season three the show is in an astonishing bleak place – without exaggerating, this could have made the darkest and most depressing season finale in history.

Instead, the show came back for a fourth season, and things almost immediately didn’t seem right – you know you’re in trouble when you have two “amnesia” episodes in a row, and the lampshading “it feels like we’re in a melodramatic supernatural soap opera” comments didn’t really help in that regard. It also doesn’t help when a character from Buffy pops by and casually one-ups the entire show, pointing out how much bigger and more powerful and more important and ‘darker’ Buffy has become (largely because Buffy is more cartoonish and characters can ‘go to the dark side’ with a lot less groundwork being laid, and a lot fewer consequences).

On the other hand, the fourth season does have its virtues – the greatest of which is boldness. My word it’s bold. In terms of stakes and consequences it ends up far bigger than anything else ever on either Angel or Buffy – and that’s before we get halfway through the season. The plot twists and turns like a twisty turny thing, without a moment’s rest – including one particularly fan-baiting revelation. But in the end, the boldness is the undoing of it too. It’s too big, too fast, too loud – it sacrifices a lot of the wit and quiet character of the earlier seasons, and ended up just giving me whiplash. It was a fun ride, but it won’t stay with me as long as the more deliberate pace of Season Three. And with the astonishing plot twist in the final episode, I put down the series, too tired of it to continue… though I’ve no doubt I’ll be back before long to find out just how they try to make the new conditions make some sort of sense.

In the final analysis, then, what we have in Angel is a show full of paradox. It’s a steadfastly genre show, but it also brings a popularist approach, while at the same time daring to go beyond the conventional to try to do something noteworthy and unique. It doesn’t always succeed, and sometimes it’s too grimdark and angsty for its own good. For the most part, however, it’s  a fun show with plenty of action, a whole heap of witty badinage and genuinely funny ironic humour, and a lot of beating people up. And it times, it goes beyond that to be a compelling drama with interesting characters and a challenging plot.

Verdict:

Seasons 1-2: 2/4

Season 3: 3/4

Season 4: 2/4

 

BOSTON LEGAL

A brief update: I’ve now seen Season Two. I don’t have much to say – it’s much the same as Season One, but a bit better.

Season Two: 2/4

 

BREAKING BAD

I’ve now seen the fourth season. I think this is a big step up from the first three: it seems to have more of a sense of direction, and more tension throughout. Cranston’s acting is as superb as ever, but here the surrounding characters are given a lot more to do, and the actors (and actresses) all more than live up to the heavier demands placed on them: although Cranston’s charisma and the centrality of his character still loom over the whole of the show, at the practical level this has become much more of an ensemble work. Dialogue and directing have reached new heights also. On the other hand, it’s still not perfect. The biggest problem is that, while the plot arc seems more solid this season, Walter still doesn’t have the clear character progression he needs. I suppose it’s realistic that his character should waver a little, moving forward one episode only to regress the next, but the bigger problem I have is that I always thought he was capable of what he ends up doing. And indeed he showed himself capable of quite a lot back in the first season. So (except perhaps in the final episode or two) I didn’t get the feeling that Walter had ever stepped up to a new level of bad, but only that he got more brazen about it. He broke bad before the show began, or at least some time in the first season. Then again, perhaps the real problem is our inability to see inside Walter’s skull – he talks so little about what he’s really feeling, or his motivations, and when he does there’s always an ulterior dimension to consider. We rarely get to see what he’s going through, which makes the show considerably less engaging: it lacks an emotional core. It doesn’t have a single really likeable character in it.  And because  we can’t see what Walter’s thinking, it makes it seems like his progressions and regressions – the whole of his behaviour – is governed primarily by the demands of the plot.  Worst of all is his ridiculous stupidity. Walter is clearly an extremely intelligent man, yet from time to time he does really stupid things, and although it’s true that this is to some extent a result of his established traits of vast pride and a short temper it still largely seems as though these lapses are driven by what the writer’s think will make their job easier. And it’s not just Walter. Everyone’s super-smart in Breaking Bad… except for when they’re not. All because of the plot.

Fortunately, it’s a really good plot. And good writing, and great directing, and great acting. So the odd little plot-hole or vagary of character doesn’t sink the ship. It’s still really, really good. It’s just that a couple of little issues prevent it, in my opinion, from being truly brilliant.

[Oh, and sometimes they beat the audience over the head with things, and I still feel that sometimes they don’t quite judge the tone quite right, with the levity undercutting some of the darkness they try to build up, and the more cartoonish elements undermining the gritty realistic bits]

Season Four: 3*/4

A Musical Project

I have a resolution for the year. Well, hopefully less than the year, but you know how bad I am with punctuality.

Some of you may be aware that I have the pop culture awareness of a… some amusingly unaware thing I can’t be bothered to think of right now because it’s a cliched type of punchline anyway. One of those things. I generally ignore everything going on in the world of ‘what’s going on’, except for the occasional film or TV show. [“Wreck-it Ralph” – surprisingly, really good!]

In particular, I have no knowledge of pop music. And I’m using ‘pop music’ in its widest misuse there. All that stuff that people have been listening to since the 1950s – that stuff, I know nothing about it. Sure, friends and family have induced me to listen to this album or that over the years, and some things have come through by pure osmosis, but for the most part I am utterly ignorant.

I’ve decided to do something about this. And because I’m… well, who I am… I’m doing it in an overly organised, logical, ambitious, and failure-prone way. I have made: A List.

This list has several sources. It includes every end-of-year Billboard #1 hit, plus a bunch of their all-time hits where they didn’t make #1 for a year (surprisingly often). It includes every Grammy Award-winning song. It includes the best-selling songs ever, and songs from the best-selling albums ever. And pop chart toppers and all-time sales toppers from the UK, because I’m from the UK and I’d rather learn about our culture than purely about US stuff. And critically-acclaimed songs drawn from lists by Rolling Stone and NME magazines, and Brit Award winners. In fact, in total, The List is drawn from 15 different lists.

What’s the point of that? Well I can’t just go out and pick the songs myself, because I don’t know about them. And I don’t want to ask one person, because then I’d be hostage to that person’s taste and time and place. So I’ve tried to get more of a level of objectivity. Songs are on my list because they were very popular – with the public, or with critics, or with whoever it is gives out awards.

In total, that makes for approximately 574 songs for me to listen to (I say approximately because there might be duplicates I haven’t spotted), from “1999” (Prince, 1982) through to “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” (Johnny Mercer, 1946). Or, seen another way, from “Saint James Infirmary” (Louis Armstrong, 1928), through to… well, depends how you count, but probably “We Are Young” (Fun featuring Janelle Monáe, 2011 but won the 2013 Grammy).

Don’t worry, I’m not going to update you with each one, though I may give a more general progress report now and then. So far, I’ve listened to 86 songs. I’m not ranking them exactly, but I am jotting down some numerical scores that will allow me to review the best and worst later, and so far my favourite has probably been one of “American Pie”, “All Along the Watchtower”, “Bittersweet Symphony” or “Come As You Are”. However, I knew all those before, which is a bit unfair – the best new discovery for me has probably been “Common People”, with “Blue Monday”, “Bat out of Hell”, and “A Day In the Life” also up there.

On the other hand, the competition for the song I’ve hated the most has been very hot indeed. “Born to Run”, “Bad Day”, “Apologize”, and “Careless Whisper” are all lining up behind Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine” and Take That’s “Back for Good”… but something tells me that in the end the title might just go to Willie Nelson’s rendition of “Always on My Mind”, which has to work really hard to overcome the handicap of actually having a pretty good tune, yet somehow, between Nelson’s toneless soulless tempoless and rasping singing and the godawfully cliche backing vocals and over-production, manages to turn that good tune into the vehicle for one of the most repellant musical performances I’ve ever encountered. Rarely have I so earnestly hoped for a song to end… but it doesn’t. And doesn’t. And doesn’t.

And nor does this project! 86 down, 400-and-however-many to go!

Yeah, I’ve not been posting, have I?

And I was doing so well a few months ago! I guess it kind of comes and goes for me.

I’m sorry the Silmarillion project just stopped in its tracks so suddenly. I haven’t abandoned the idea (I’ve got the next post mostly written), but clearly I’m not doing it all at once now.

I should have two new book reviews up fairly soon – one up as soon as I’ve written it, the other one I’ve still got a hundred pages or so to read. I’ll also finally get the next tranche of TV show reviews up in short order.

In other news: the government continues to be insane about house prices. Even insaner, even. Cutting spending for the poor in order to give more money to rich people in a massive subsidy? The criticism that the scheme will just be a way of subsidising second homes seems to be missing the point, which is that if you subsidise 25% of the asking price for every house, the asking price for houses will simply increase – all it accomplishes is a transfer of money from taxpayers to housebuilders. I suppose the theory is that by increasing the profit they make on each house they incentivise housebuilding. That assumes, however, that a) there’s enough demand for more houses, b) planners actually allow more housebuilding, and c) that the suppliers of labour and materials to housebuilders don’t just increase their prices to match the increased demand from the housebuilders (and from the public at large, who will feel wealthier due to the house price inflation). Surely the concept of ‘inflation’ isn’t too hard to understand? Giving everybody in the country more money doesn’t make everyone richer! In fact, it makes poor people poorer in this case, because the subsidy is a percentage of house price, so the rich get more than the poor. In order to do this, cuts in spending elsewhere have to be made, further harming the economy (are world economies now being run by orders of zealous flagellants? It seems that people are so obsessed with saving money and avoiding debt that they’re willing to spend a lot of money and go into a lot of debt to meet these targets. It’s like a man who owes money and decides to pay it back by quitting his job because the rail fares are too high – if he (and we) aren’t making money, we’ll never pay debt back, no matter how much we ‘save’. That’s not to mention that in the case of the UK in particular we have historically high levels of demand for our debt, to the extent that we’re virtually being paid to borrow money. And for long terms! A decade from now, when every penny we borrow costs vastly more than it does today, we’ll be cursing the lunatic strategy of ‘paying off’ debt when interest is low and taking it out again when the interest returns to being high…). Anyway, in the long run, it still supports a schizophrenic policy attitude toward house prices, whereby more houses must be built to drive down prices to allow higher levels of homeownership, while at the same time house prices must be artificially inflated because if ever house prices actually DID decline we’d all go bust because so much of our ‘wealth’ is the number of zeros gradually accumulating on top of our chimneys. Bah humbug.

In other other news: well, Francis seems to be making a lot of good sounds, in style at least. We’ll have to wait and see on substance. A renewed emphasis on poverty can only be good (for the world and for the church). Some people are worried about his hardline stance on liberty issues… but this is missing the point a bit. The Church has been so hijacked by the last two popes that there was never any chance of sanity prevailing in that department. There are no Martinis anymore. But we don’t need there to be. “Victory” for the liberals with this pope needn’t mean the pope reversing existing policy… but simply not putting sex top of his list of priorities. Not coming down hard on anyone who mildly speculates about slightly adjusting emphasis. Not continuing trying to make his opinions ‘infallible’ through fallacious backdoors like the ridiculous wheeze JPII/Benedict pulled over women’s ordination [Short version: “There’s no biblical evidence supporting my position, nor evidence from the history of the church, and lots of people disagree with me. So I can’t declare it infallibly. But I can declare that the church has already been teaching it infallibly! And no, that declaration itself isn’t infallible… but I have sufficient authority to prohibit all discussion or consideration of the topic, even though my opinion isn’t infallible. I’m not infallible, i might be wrong, but you’re not allowed to think that I might be wrong. Absolutely agreeing with all my opinions in all matters regardless of the bible or church teaching or what the theologians say is the only way that you can exercise the primacy of your personal conscience!”]. And, most importantly of all, not blacklisting the more speculative candidates for cardinal. Cardinals decide the next pope. If popes were to select cardinals based on merit – on being holy and godly, or just on being good at administration for that matter – rather than for political-ideological reasons, enough liberals could slip through that they could select a more moderate pope next time, and so on.

(Why do I care? Four reasons. First, the positions of the Catholic Church affect the world greatly. Even just a change in emphasis that suggested that giving a fatal disease to your partner was a comparatively greater sin than putting a bit of plastic around your penis could make the world a better place. Second, despite not being religious myself, I’m not overly enamoured of secular materialist consumerism either – religious voices can be powerful counterbalances to popular nihilism, and I’d rather those voices actually be on my side, rather than it being a choice between nihilism and conservativism. Third, I was raised Catholic, and have a residual feeling of loyalty much as many people have toward the local football club where they grew up – I may not actually care too much about them as an organisation, but it’s still not nice to watch them getting thrashed. And, fourth, Catholic theology is one of humanity’s greatest philosophical edifices, and although I have some big problems with its assumptions, and hence with some of its conclusions (mostly in the areas concerning the significance of the genitals), on a great many issues it makes a lot of sense, and more importantly approaches questions in a very admirable way. [There are a lot of militant atheists whose skill with logic would be greatly enhanced by studying thomistic philosophy!]. So I approve of anything that allows sane people to use that theology for positive ends, and disapprove of it being hijacked by ad hoc rationalisations for evil policies.)

In additional news: I’m excited by the kickstarter campaigns for the new PS:T successor game and for the Veronica Mars reunion film (though I’m also a bit worried about that last one and not expecting too much).