Or, Why My Reviews Are An Alternative Truth.

 

I don’t really obsess over my blog stats that much – after all, I don’t have enough visitors to sustain statistical interest. But I do pop in now and then to see what’s been going on, and to pick up now and then perhaps an interesting site that might have linked to me. One passing link in an io9 article two years ago continues to drive hits; in recent weeks it seems I’ve become a case study of some kind, as some small school somewhere seems to be directing students to my blog, although sadly I can’t see which review in particular they might be reading. And now a university, too! And in the last recently, someone’s been going through a couple of posts I made about Nietzsche a few years ago – which perhaps explains, if it does not excuse, the whimsically Nietzscheesque style of the title of this post… [some expressions just beg for a Nietzsche Chapter Title]

But I also happened to spot a more interesting source of visitors: from a Terry Pratchett fanzine. I’m flattered, it goes without saying, that anybody would link to my reviews, particularly fellow Pratchett fans!

Yet the tone of their remarks was not, shall we say, entirely crafted so as to flatter. I’m used to that –I’m an inherently annoying person, I’m aware. On this occasion, however, what struck me was not so much their disdain as their apparent confusion….

…whereas the almost always irritating blogger Vacuous Wastrel first wibbles on for some 2,000 words(!) in pursuit of overly faux-intellectual overthinking, before finally getting to the meat of “hang on, this book rocks!”…

and:

Vacuous Wastrel is back with a review of Wintersmith that’s so at war with itself that it might just be Alternative Truth.

Now first things first: I’ve alway seen my writing style as more dominated by drivelling, and occasional wittering, than by wibbling. And I’m not entire sure why the thought of someone writing 2,000 words about something they’re really interested in deserves an exclamation mark, nor how anyone could look at my middlebrow, clumsy value judgements and consider them “faux-intellectual” or “overthinking”. I’d love to overthink a thing, but so far I think I’ve struggled to even reach the standard of plain “thinking”.

But there is a substantial point there. Why are my reviews Alternative Truth? Why, that is, are they “at war with themselves”? Why do they wibble around being critical about things, and why don’t they just get right down to the real meat of “this book rocks!”?

Because that is a fair criticism. Many of my reviews do list a great many flaws in the books I read – even in books that I love. And I do love Terry Pratchett’s books. He’s probably my favourite author. That’s why I’ve reviewed 41 of his novels so far (and yes, the cumulative word count of the reviews is now longer than several of those novels). It’s why I’ve spent hours encouraging people, online and offline, to read Pratchett, and laying out the pros and cons of different starting points and different routes through the Discworld cycle. It’s why I wrote a 10,000-odd word eulogy trying to explain some of the reasons I, and others, were so upset by his passing. And yet I can’t deny the charges: I have criticised several of his (later, in particular) books for a lack of novelty, for superficiality, for an indulgent flabbiness (seriously people, Unseen Academicals was around 30% longer than novels like Small Gods, Lords and Ladies, Pyramids, or Feet of Clay. Did anybody actually feel it had 30% more goodness in it?). I’ve discussed times when I found Pratchett’s politics irritating (as well as times when I found it encouraging). I’ve noted sadly times when I felt he wasn’t pushing his world and his characters forward enough, and times when he relied too much on parody and on lazy jokes.

So why have I said these things, and allowed my reviews to become “at war with themselves”, rather than delivering only the “meat” of “this book rocks”?

I thought I’d offer a gaggle of wibbling excuses for this Alternative Truth (which perhaps may also explain some of the Alternative Truth in my non-Pratchett reviews at the same time)…

 

  1. Happy families are all alike.

Tolstoy’s proverb is, of course, not true in the slightest, when it comes to people. But when it comes to reviewing, it can be a real problem. It’s hard to say what’s good about a book, particularly if you don’t want to get into spoilers, which I try to avoid. Book after book, Pterry succesfully put words in an order than was grammatically uncontroversial. He told us stories, with characters, and plots that mostly worked, and he was able to conjure up some great turns of phrase. But without giving detailed examples, it’s hard to really write a review about that, or to explain how specifically Pratchett’s good writing differs from the good writing of any other author. In particular, by the time of the specific reviews in question, I had already reviewed some three dozen or more novels by the same author, in the same setting, often with the same characters. What more is there left for me to say, without getting into fullblown spoilerific critique or literary analysis? If you’re not sure why I like Pratchett after nearly four dozen reviews of his novels, I suspect I’m not going to hit on one miraculous expression that will make it all clear in the nearly-four-dozen-and-one-th.

Flaws, on the other hand, can be very specific. If I feel that a particular book doesn’t quite get the pacing right, or ends on a bit of an anticlimax, or doesn’t serve a character well, or bats below the author’s average ratio of dud to brilliant jokes, that’s something I can say quite easily and specifically. Even if I only say that I think he’s written better books than this – well, that’s something I can say without much difficulty.

If it’s hard to say specific, detailed, non-repetitive good things about a book, but relatively easy to outline a catalogue of errors, there will be an inevitable tendency in an impartial review to devote more word count to the enumarable faults than to the ineffable virtues of a work, particularly in reviewing so many works by the same author.

And yet, I acknowledge, I have at time gone further than this, because…

 

  1. We scratch where it itches

Books make us feel things. About the world; about the book. Some of those feelings are good feelings. Some of them are bad. And, often, some of them are just plain… niggling.

My reviews may give the impression that I’m a critical, analytical reader. I’m really not. I try to make a point of not thinking analytically about books while I’m reading them, so as not to break the spell. I try to take novels as they come, and enjoy them for what they are in the moment.

So why do I write reviews? It’s not because – in most cases – I’m thinking these thoughts as I’m reading into the night. Quite the opposite. I review to stretch out the muscles that ache when I wake up the next morning. I review to calm the sensation of mental indigestion. I write these wibbly-whiffly things not in response to what I feel when I’m reading, or not directly – but rather, in response to the lingering feelings that remain within me in the hours, days, or sometimes weeks after I’ve put the book down for the last time. First we read; then we digest.

And if there’s one thing that’s hard to fully dissolve, to fully absorb through our mental stomach lining, it’s the fluttery disquiet of not being quite as happy with a book as you thought that you might have been. Something’s not quite right here, you think. Why don’t I love this?

Sometimes the answer is really obvious, and then it’s quick to state; and, once stated, we can move on. I don’t love this because although it was well told, I hated all the characters. I don’t love that because, as much as I liked spending time with the protagonist, the continual irritation of clunkingly bad dialogue left me too distracted to enjoy the experience fully. But sometimes, it’s not so simple. Sometimes… it’s just not quite right. So we think about why that might be. We think about what we enjoyed, what we enjoyed less, what we felt and how we felt it, why we might have felt it…

…a book that’s not quite right is like an itch, or like indigestion. It often is a small itch, not something that overwhelms the enjoyment of what’s right about it – just as a spot of mild indigestion doesn’t have to ruin a meal. But when you’re up late after a meal, you think more about the indigestion than about the savour of the meal. You want to put an end to the indigestion, so that you can remember the meal more fondly. When you have an itch, you want to scratch it; you want to scratch just the right spot. With a physical itch, of course, scratching rarely helps; but with itches of the mind, scratching can dissolve the distraction. And so I scratch – but sometimes it can take me a while to try to put my finger on exactly where the itch is.

A lot of people say “there was something I didn’t quite love, but I just can’t put my finger on it…”. It’s much rarer for people to say “I really loved it, but I just can’t put my finger on why!”. We don’t have that craving to put our finger on the why of it, when there is no irritation. When everything’s lovely, we say what we can say and we move on. But when there’s something bothering us, we try to express ourselves, and we’ll fight to get the right words out if it’s not easy.

To be sure, sometimes the opposite does happen. There have been a few books where I’ve been in some respect so baffled by not hating something that seems to deserve it – or where I know that anyone reading a shorter review would be baffled by my non-hatred – and I’ve felt the need to try to express exactly why I found myself enjoying it. [my most recent review, of much-maligned seminal space opera The Skylark of Space, spends more time trying to explain the good than the (quite obvious and easily expressed) bad.]

But it’s far more common for me to, as it were, assume that a book will be good, and try to scratch the itch of expressing why exactly I don’t think it’s perfect.

Yet I also have a more specific reason for examining these things in detail…

  1. I want to know how to write.

I’m not a writer, although I sometimes write. I may never actually be a writer – in the sense of actually finishing things, let alone in the sense of actually publishing things. I’ve no great illusions in that regard. But nonetheless, I do like writing, I do want to write better, and I approach books from that perspective, with the hope of learning something, of improving myself somehow.

Unfortunately, the positive side of things – advice like “be a genius” – is pretty hard to get a good, specific grip on, partly for reasons I’ve mentioned above. In any case, if I were to be a writer, I wouldn’t be any other writer. In this hypothetical scenario, we would have to assume I had something of my own to say, and some sort of a style (or styles) of my own in which to say it. That, we must hypothesise, must already have been taken care of somehow – and if it isn’t, I don’t see any way to take care of it by reading other people’s books (beyond perhaps very vague inspirations).

Instead, what I’m interested in more, from this point of view, is how not to write badly. If a book isn’t a complete success… why not? What did the author do wrong? What should I try to avoid if I ever write a book? Of course, these failures are most instructive against a background of success – if a book gets 9 tenths of everything wrong, it’s hard to pin down which of its flaws are serious. But if a book gets 9 tenths of everything right, that puts the 1 tenth it got wrong under the spotlight. So, particularly when I’m reviewing a good book, part of my mind is always thinking: “but what could it have done better?”

How could this book be better? To me, that’s a much more interesting question than just “does this book rock?”

Yet even if it weren’t for that, I think there are still reasons to think about the negative alongside the positive, because…

 

  1. It isn’t wrong to see both sides

A lot of things in the world are great. A lot of things in the world are awful. Quite a few things are both. Many, many things are good. Many, many things are bad. Lots and lots of things are both.

It feels as though we live in a world of increasing polarisation, on almost every issue. You’re with us or against us. You love it or you hate it. Make up your mind; pick a side; know who you are; chose your identity; don’t turn on your own kind. Stay in your lane. It feels as though it’s true at every level, from high politics all the way down to favourite crisp flavours. Suggest that you’re unsure, that you’re divided, even that you respect dissent, and people look at you funny. Pick a side. Don’t be at war against yourself. What is this, Alternative Truth?

But I think it’s important, now more than ever, to try to understand other people. From understanding comes respect. From understanding comes the freedom to choose – the freedom, as it were, to mix and match. From understanding comes independence of thought, the ability to assess a thing on its own merits, by your own lights, rather than accepting your assigned opinions. And when the chips are really down… from understanding comes strategic advantage.

Book reviews may not be important, in the larger scheme of things, but I think that if you want to try to live a certain way – to think a certain way – you have to live, to think, that way even in the unimportant things. That’s why almost all my reviews attempt to see both sides of the matter. Why might people like this book? Why might people not like this book?

Sometimes, of course, the weight of reality presses heavier on one side than another. Sometimes I’m struggling to find excuses for a book; more often, I’m struggling to find flaws. But other people aren’t insane, most of the time. If they don’t like a book, it’s not because they’re mad, usually. So if you want to understand people, here’s a tiny little starting place: why don’t they like the things you like? Why do they like things that you can’t stand?

In the particular case of Pratchett, it’s clear which side of the debate I’m on. I love Pratchett; I’ve said repeatedly that I think he may well prove to be, in the judgement of history, the Dickens of our age.

But plenty of people don’t like Pratchett’s books, and plenty more say they like them well enough, they’re funny they suppose, but nothing all that exciting, nothing to write home about. How can they think like that? It’s not because they’re mad, or stupid. Sometimes it’s big coarse-grained things like “I can’t stand anything with trolls in” or “I hate comedy”. Those sort of go without saying. But sometimes it’s smaller stuff, often stuff that they themselves may not have consciously expressed. But there are still reasons.

So even if I loved every Pratchett novel equally – and I don’t – I would still try to puzzle out the curious question of why some people weren’t enthralled by him. And things like “this bit feels drawn out too far”, “that bit feels like a lazy joke”, “so-and-so isn’t a very well-developed character”, “there isn’t enough feeling of threat”, and so on, are all potential reasons that can go together to explain why many people don’t quite love these books.

And that’s also good to keep in mind for more than purely philosophical reasons, because…

  1. If you want to help people, you need to know what they want

I review mostly for personal reasons. Partly it’s a way of working out for myself what I liked and didn’t like about a book; partly it’s to work out what might or might not work as a writer. A lot of it is just that it seems like a good, disciplined sort of a habit to get into, for somebody as prone to procrastination, and as easily distracted, as myself.

But a review is an inherently interpersonal thing. Even if the audience never actually shows up, is never even hoped for, its possibility is embedded within the format. I am explaining what I think about a book: so who am I explaining to?

Well, nobody really, but also everybody. And just in case anybody happens to drop by, I try to respect that audience, and include them in my thinking. I’m not just saying what I thought about the book: I’m trying to give a sense of what I think that you might think about the book. Whoever you are. I hope, in other words, that some of my reviews might occasionally help out somebody who is debating whether or not to read a book (as well as to help clarify the thoughts of some who already have).

But because I don’t know who you are – because you’re everybody – I can’t really cater to your own personal tastes; and it would hardly make sense to assume that your own tastes were identical to my own. So again, I try to see both sides of the question, so that my review might be relevent to you whichever side you come from. If I think a book is great because of its characters despite the fact that it is very slow-paced, it’s only fair that I mention that I think it’s very slow-paced, because to you that might be more important than the characters. If all I say is “this book rocks!”, that doesn’t tell anybody whether or not they should read it, unless they already know in advance that their own views match mine perfectly. So instead I try to say why the book rocks… and part of that inevitably is giving some examples of the ways in which it does not rock.

Yet even if I thought that shouting “this book rocks!” a lot to everybody would make everybody read it, and even if I didn’t care that they may not enjoy it, I still wouldn’t do so. Because, strategically…

 

  1. Don’t cry ‘bonanza!’ until you’ve actually hit gold.

If I tell you that this is the best book ever, you might rush out and read it. And if you hate it, or if you’re just not utterly impressed… then you may not pay attention next time I want to recommend you something.

So if I tell everybody that, say, The Last Continent just rocks, it’s so hilarious, seriously guys you should all go out and buy it… well maybe somebody will. But if they’re not all that impressed by it, then how do I next week persuade them to go read Small Gods, or Night Watch? When I tell them that the book just rocks, they’ll just reply that, hey, you said that last time, and the whole Rincewind plot was a waste of space, so why should I listen to you now?

A lot of people aren’t going to like everything I like, and as a result they’re going to approach my reviews with some wariness. Fair enough. But I don’t want them to feel like I’m trying to put one over on them; I don’t want them to feel like I’m shilling, or like I’m preaching to the choir. I hope that if somebody reads a book I liked and doesn’t like it, they can still say “OK, he did kind of warn me that might happen”. And then they can, as it were, calibrate their priorities and mine, and carry on reading my reviews, even if they weight it a little bit one way or the other when they’re considering their purchases.

I’ve read a lot of books that I’ve liked. In fact, I’ve read hardly any that I haven’t liked. When I give a book 2 out of 7… well, it’s a bad book in my opinion, but it wasn’t awful. Some people might like it. I may even have enjoyed it myself, in some respects. 3 out of 7? Bad but with redeeming features – when those features align with my interests, a book like that might even be a guilty favourite. 4 out of 7… ‘not bad’. A book that’s not bad is an impressive thing in its own right. It might not be for everybody, but for those its suits it can be a really enjoyable experience. 5 out of 7 I call ‘good’, and at that point I’m starting to go out and tell people they should read it, because it’s really worth it. And 6 out of 7? Everyone should look into it! And then there’s the really brilliant books, the 7 out of 7s, that are practically required reading, in my opinion.

A lot of people want this to just be a 2-tier system: is it bad, or is it good?

But if I tell people that a book like Sourcery, or Daughter of the Empire, or Blue Moon Rising (all books that I enjoyed reading, will probably read again, and would recommend to at least some readers) are unambiguously good books, that they just “rock”, and that everyone should read them… well, a lot of people who take me up on those recommendations are going to be disappointed, because those are all books that have a lot of faults, and that are only going to please you if you’re predisposed to like that sort of thing.

And then, when people have been disappointed by my recommendations, and then how do I try to persuade them to read a novel like Jurgen, or like The Rider, novels that I think are genuine masterpieces that desparately deserve more readers?

Nor is it just numbers. At the moment, of all the books I’ve reviewed on this blog, my #3 highest-rated novel is Fool’s Quest. I’m not ashamed of that: it’s a fantastic book with a great many virtues. It’s possibly the most emotionally engaging novel I’ve ever read, for one thing (for those of us who have followed the protagonist through the 7 previous novels, at least). And yet I’m quite aware that many, many readers will not take to it. Not everybody wants a low-key, glacial doorstopper of an epic fantasy novel. A lot of people who really like The Rider – a terse, tense, semi-autobiographical novella about bicycle racing – are not going to like Fool’s Quest. [although there’s probably more overlap than you might think. Both are intensely psychological stories, for a start.] So if I want people who don’t like the idea of Fool’s Quest to take my recommendation of The Rider seriously (and vice versa!), I think I have to try to make clear not just that both books do indeed “rock”, but how it is that they rock in very different ways – which means exploring not just what they do well but also, at least to some extent, hinting at what they may also do badly. Or, at least, not quite as brilliantly (since actually I don’t think either novel has any outright flaws, except in a comparative and relative sense).

And that means that to some degree my reviews will be at war with themselves.

 

 

 

For all these reasons and for more, I think I’m stuck writing conflicted reviews, in which both good and bad are discussed freely. For these reasons and more, my reviews are stuck being, to use the good critic’s phrase, Alternative Truth.

Now, what you do about that is up to you. If you’re exasperated because I don’t just remind you much your favourite book rocks, that’s quite understandable, I’m sure. Fortunately, fans of writers like Pratchett have a limitless supply of flattering reviews to enjoy.

But I hope that out there somewhere are people who want something a little different from that – something that involves consideration of both pros and cons, and how they might relate to one another, and how books might stand in respect of one another with a little more nuance than just “this rocks” and “that sucks”. If there are such people, I can only hope that they continue to enjoy the fact that my reviews may at times constitute an Alternative Truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice; by James Branch Cabell

It is not easy for the perceptive critic to doubt [the literary permanence of James Branch Cabell, as surely exceeding that of all writers in England save arguably Hardy and Conrad]. One might as sensibly deny a future to Ecclesiastes, The Golden Ass, Gulliver’s Travels, and the works of Rabelais as to predict oblivion for such a thesaurus of ironic wit and fine fantasy, mellow wisdom and strange beauty, as Jurgen.
– Burton Rascoe, Literary Editor at the New York Herald Tribune, 1921

 

Well, I’ve run into a bit of a problem with this review. The thing is… it’s a bit too long.

So I’m going start out instead with a short flow-chart summary, which may save you from having to wade through the full review.

  • Are you interested in the history of the SF&F genre? If so, you should read this book. Cabell may be forgotten today, but he’s one of the truly seminal figures in the genre and this is his most famous novel. Neil Gaiman has called Cabell his favourite author; Robert Heinlein and Jack Vance began their careers by unabashedly trying to emulate him; James Blish, Lin Carter and Poul Anderson contributed articles to a journal devoted to studying him (Roger Zelazny sent in letters). Michael Moorcock and Ursula Le Guin agree, for once, in praising him. Fritz Leiber, Gene Wolfe, John Brunner and Terry Pratchett are just a few other writers believed to have been influenced by him.

 

  • Are you interested in the history of American literature, or the history of 20th century literature? If so, you should read this book. Cabell was routinely considered one of the half dozen or so titans of American literature throughout the 1920s and 1930s (having been a highly acclaimed writer’s writer before that). H.L Mencken called him the greatest living American writer; F. Scott Fitzgerald put him third in his personal canon after Joseph Conrad and Anatole France; his wife Zelda called him her favourite author of all, and one of only two writers (along with Edith Wharton) who had ever made her cry. [Zelda Fitzgerald, Robert Heinlein, and Neil Gaiman all agreeing on their favourite author: how can you not want to read him?] Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis are just two examples of writers who boasted of Cabellian influences, and when Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and mentioned, in his speech, the other American writers of his era who might have been equally deserving, Cabell was the third name to come to his mind. And quality aside, the court case surrounding Jurgen was the literary cause célèbre of its day, making it, and Cabell, icons for a generation. Oh, and Mark Twain said that Cabell was the author he most enjoyed reading.

 

  • Are you looking for a hilarious light read? If so, do you find writers like P.G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett funny? If so, read this book.

 

  • Are you looking for an insightful study of the nature of human existence, or at least human existence as it might appear from a very particular personal perspective? If so, read this book. It wasn’t the icon of a generation for nothing.

 

  • Are you interested in the Mediaeval Romance, or in Victorian Revivalism? In Malory, and Rabelais, and Bunyan, and Scott, and Tennyson, and William Morris, and T.H. White? But you don’t mind them being made fun of a little? If so, read this book.

 

  • Are you interested in cultural and sociological modern history, and would appreciate satire directed at early-20th century American society? If so, read this book.

 

  • Do you like beautiful prose? And do you like the prose of Wilde, and Chesterton? If so… well, it’s not a must-read, but if you have the time I’d certainly recommend it.

 

  • Do you need your books to have a strong driving plot, with no time for diversions and amusing episodes? Well, don’t worry too much, since it’s not a long novel – but it may not be perfect for you.

 

  • Do you need gritty, authentic realism? Must everything be dry and serious? Does everything have to happen next to a kitchen sink, and should more dialogue be conducted through grunts than through speeches? Then this may not be the book you want.

 

  • Do you want your books to have a clear, wholesome sense of moral certitude and respect for upright conventional mores? Then the fact that this novel was banned and the author prosecuted for indecency might be a clue that this one may not be entirely up your alley.

 

  • Are you now strongly tempted to go and read Jurgen? If so, go and read Jurgen. Like I say, it’s not a gigantic book, and this is a very long review, so you’re probably better off just reading the novel right now. You can always come back for my thoughts about it later. If not, but you are considering maybe one day getting around to adding it to your TBR pile, then do, please, feel free to read this review…

Continue reading

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

TV That I’ve Seen 1: Sugar Rush; Homeland; Joan of Arcadia; In Treatment.

(Have those four shows ever been listed in the same sentence before?).

I don’t put up reviews of TV shows generally – I don’t feel competent, and so I don’t usually have much to say. And yet, sometimes I want to say something. So, I though I’d have a compromise here – no full reviews, but a brief digest of some things I’ve watched recently enough to have meaningful thoughts about. And I suppose I may as well include a score – only, as I say, I don’t feel so competent here, so rather than 1-7 I’m going for a broader-stroke 1-4 scale: 1=”apparently OK enough that I watched it all, but not entirely sure why I did”; 2=”there are worse ways to spend time, it’s not that bad really”; 3=”I might recommend this to some people, it’s actually quite good”; 4=”seriously, go watch this, it’s brilliant”.

Sugar Rush

The first season of this show is not a lesbian teen-romcom. It’s actually an Angry Young Men novel disguised to look like a lesbian teen-romcom. The author of the novel the series is based on might not like that description, but then neither did the original Angry Young Men. It’s also important to point out that we’re not talking death-and-depression-and-seriousness AYM, but a comic style more in keeping with Waterhouse or the New University Wits.

Sugar Rush is about a 15-year-old nice middle-class closeted lesbian virgin, Kim, whose family has just arrived in Brighton, from London, and who has developed a sexual obsession with her straight best friend, Sugar – who is a chav, a fatherless highly promiscuous binge-drinking drug-taking drug-dealing petty thief, whose mother is never seen throughout the series. As Kim tries to deal with her obsession, the rest of her family disintegrates around her: in the first episode, she walks in on her mother having sex with their handyman; her father is a self-doubting, diffident, oblivious househusband; her brother wears a fishbowl over his head and appears to, in essence, be insane. The AYM trope of provincialism is seen in petty small-town Brighton, contrasted with the lights and delights of London; the AYM alienation could be no clearer than Kim’s closeted sexuality (a lesbian forced to keep quiet and watch as the girl she loves picks up a succession of worthless men for emotionless sex). Issues of identity and authenticity beset not only Kim but the whole of her family. Class divides are prominent – Kim longs to be with Sugar, but Sugar observes out acutely the completely different worlds the two inhabit, and will always inhabit. Social criticism is pervasive.

None of that means it’s a good show. That depth and interest means it has the possibility of being a good show. It actually IS a good show because these possibilities are brought out by fantastic acting (from a good cast, with special mention for the wonderful Andrew Garfield unexpectedly popping up pre-fame in a minor supporting role as Kim’s stalkerish neighbour), fantastic writing (it’s really funny), and fantastic directing (the absurdist energy of its incongruous cutting heightens both the humour and the tragedy).

That said, it’s not a brilliant show. It’s funny, but not hilarious; it’s moving, but not devastating; it’s compelling, but not gripping; it’s interesting, but not fascinating. It is, however, genuinely, seriously good, despite its subject matter and appearance. [It’s also surprisingly edgy. Highlight – while Kim concocts a plan to drug and rape Sugar, her brother, looked down on by a set of creepy, staring blue-painted dolls in closeup, slowly drowns his hamster in paint. Yeurggghhh.].

Season 2 isn’t. Everything has been said in Season 1, and Season 2 is pointless. It descends into a lesbian teenage romcom – the edginess has gone, the subtlety has gone, the psychological examinations have been replaced by stock-footage plotting in which characters do stuff just to keep on screen and set up gags. It feels like it was written by someone who had only seen a precis of the first season. It’s not terrible – it remains funny now and then, it retains a degree of drama (particularly for those who have invested in the first season), and it has lots of scenes of attractive women kissing each other, so there are worse ways to spend half an hour. If you liked the first season, you may as well watch the second – but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone on the strength of the second season alone, and I can see why it was cancelled. That said, I can’t say it was a bad thing that it was made – while it may not live up to the first season, even I feel the lack of teenage lesbian sex on TV, so I can only imagine that for people who actually are teenage lesbians, having this show around was probably a good thing. Most TV shows will never be more than mediocrely entertaining, and if you’re going to have mildly entertaining mediocrity on TV, it may as well be mediocrity aimed at a minority who probably feel a little left out by a lot of TV’s normal programming.

[By the way, the praise isn’t just my idiosyncratic lesbian-fixated inner teenage boy with a soft spot for romance speaking. It was nominated for the BAFTA for Best Drama Series, alongside The Street, Shameless, and Life on Mars. And it won an International Emmy. Honestly, take it seriously!]

EDIT: forgot to add, the first season is one of the few things I’ve seen on TV where I’ve actually appreciated the pop music soundtrack.

Verdict:

Season One: 3/4. Don’t be fooled by the premise, it’s actually a good TV show.

Season Two: 2/4. Second-rate, and perhaps a bit exploitative, but not actively bad.

 

 

Homeland

What a fantastic premise. A lost soldier returns from war and tries to settle back into life, when those around him have already begun to move on; meanwhile, a CIA agent is convinced that he has been turned by the enemy and is planning a terrorist attack, so decides to put him under 24-hour surveillance. Is he a terrorist, or an innocent victim? The genius is that it’s not easy to tell – depending on what assumptions you make, his actions can all be seen as either suspicious or perfectly innocuous.

Unfortunately, the show disappointingly abandons the brilliant premise far too early, and collapses into a conventional spy thriller. It’s not a bad spy thriller, but I felt keenly the loss of those possibilities – the unique nature of the promised plot, the interesting ideas about society that it could raise.

Claire Danes is superb as the CIA agent – it’s the kind of scenary-chewing over-the-top role that is made for awards, but she lives up to it and deserves the acclaim she’s received. Damian Lewis is also very welcome, as is the wonderfully subdued charisma of Mandy Patinkin as the agent’s mentor. At its best, Homeland reaches the thrilling plot-twistiness of early 24, without that show’s implausible ridiculousness. In fact, hands down, this is a really good show. I just wish it had been the show it originally set out to be.

I also wish there weren’t going to be a second season. As with Sugar Rush, everything has been dealt with in the first season, and there is no need for a second. Then again, perhaps they’ll prove me wrong. I really hope we don’t just retread the same ground.

Verdict

Season One: 3/4. Fails to be brilliant, but being in a position where the audience expects it to be brilliant is itself a great achievement.

 

 

Joan of Arcadia

Oh joy. Another Buffyclone – teenager deals with supernatural powers (in this case, visitations from God) while negotiating the social difficulties of being an outsider in a highschool. I don’t know why I even bother.

But actually, there’s more here than meets the eye. It’s half buffyclone… and half depressing family crisis. Joan’s eldest brother is bitter and angry after a paralysing car-crash; their middle brother, the science geek, is lonely and ignored; their mother clearly has some dark edges that she hasn’t confronted; their father is a new police chief in a town that seemingly rivals Baltimore for corruption and incompetence, and makes dangerous enemies every week. There’s death and murder and suicide – in one episode, a teenage suicide is actually presented as the relatively happy ending. It gets seriously dark in places.

It is, however, still basically shit. It’s a cliche, conventional US teen soap opera… it’s just one where the same cliches and conventions are used to darker and more critical ends. It’s as though the network comissioned a boring show but gave it to writers who really wanted to be writing something more serious and respectable. As a result, it’s an unusual mixture of cheap addictive sugar with some sour and bitter and savory aftertastes, which prevent the sugar from becoming TOO over-sickly (though it’s certainly a close-run thing).

I haven’t seen the second series. Seems a bit pointless to me, since it’s pretty much finished after one season and I wouldn’t want it to keep on repeating itself. I’ll probably watch it eventually, though.

Verdict

Season One: 2/4. You’d think it would be terrible, but actually it isn’t. Some good moments, if you can stomach this sort of thing.

Season Two: As Yet Unseen.

 

 

In Treatment

My word. This is HBO. I mean, this is the apotheosis of HBO. Except that it has no breasts. I don’t mean content-wise, I mean structurally. HBO shows explore the boundaries of plotlessness, basically shout out “watch us, we’ve got great characters”. In Treatment genuinely has no plot – only characters. It’s the story (story? no it isn’t!) of a psychologist, a therapist, who sees a number of patients, one on each day of the week. Each episode is – with occasional exceptions and maybe a minute of intro sometimes – a conversation between a character and their therapist (including the therapists’ own session with HIS therapist, at the end of the week), and lasts 20-30 minutes. There are maybe 20 or 30 or 40 minutes in total that are outside the office of the therapist. In a height of drama, in one episode the lights dim and thunder is heard. Sometimes it’s raining outside. That’s about all that happens.

It is, however, incredibly fantastic. Yes, I was unsure at first – the first week or two (ie the first ten or so episodes), it seemed a bit… American. You know, the American cult of the shrink, in which after half an hour the shrink says “don’t you see! it’s all about your father!” and everyone’s problems are magically cured. But actually, it’s not like that at all. Some of the obvious “it’s he father, you idiot!” guesses the audience makes turn out to be false, while others turn out to be true but surprisingly unimportant – these characters may have key insights, but aren’t unravelled by them. They aren’t just textbook ‘cases’, but each character shows many inter-related complications. As we see the effect Paul has on his patients, or fails to have, and the effects that they have on Paul’s life, we really challenge the myth of therapy. The myth of everything, really. It’s some of the most challenging, uncomfortable, uncompromising viewing I’ve encountered. It’s brilliantly written (by and large, minus one or two bad lines). Difficult questions, and no easy answers.

It’s carried by it incredible acting. Gabriel Byrne is tremendous as the psychologist, whose own personality gradually emerges as the hours go past – the perfect shell of the therapist held up in searing contrast with the man we see inside in his own therapy sessions – but he often takes the back seat to his patients. Worthy of particular mention is the outstanding Mia Wasikowska, whose teenage gymnast (referred by an insurance company who suspect her cycling ‘accident’ may have been attempted suicide and won’t pay out) is one of the most heart-wrenchingly awe-inspiring acting performances I’ve ever seen. I’ve rarely felt so much about any TV character as I have about Sophie – and that in turn makes Paul’s feelings about her so much more powerful.

The second season features a new cast of patients, which in some way is a shame, which feels a little like bereavement. [In particular, I gather that in the Israeli original (what is it about Israeli TV? Homeland was originally Israeli too) the child in the second season is the child of the arguing couple in the first season, which would have been fascinating to see]. That, I suppose, is part of the point though, and a major plot issue of the second season – Paul sees his patients, and then they go away, and he may never hear from them again, indeed is expected never to hear from them again. Paul’s twin roles as a father and a therapist meet, as he is symbolically outgrown by one patient after another – he, and we, invest utterly in his patients, only to have them disappear completely into their own lives. One of so many ways in which this is painful viewing. More prosaically, the second season doesn’t have Wasikowska, and nobody quite replaces her – but I can’t complain too much, because the new cast are also brilliant. [I’m running out of superlatives, sorry]. Alison Pill’s architecture student is the new standout for me, but I imagine tastes will differ – i guess maybe I just find it easier to care about cute young women, and about certain issues.

That’s an important part of why In Treatment is so gripping. Paul sees each patient in turn – which means that at the end of Sophie’s session (to pick my own personal favourite) you have to watch through another four episodes before you get to see what happens next. On TV, this could easily be frustrating, but on TV it translates to hours and hours and hours of continual viewing.

I haven’t seen the third (and almost certainly final) season yet. I certainly will.

There are some issues. Some will dislike some of the characters and find that an obstacle to continuing. Some will be tired of all the talking and the complete lack of action. Some will not be charmed by the fact that it’s basically a series of two-hand stage plays on TV. Some will dislike its ambition, and some will find all the high emotion and deep psychological wounds to be overdone, wishy-washy mumbo-jumbo why can’t they stop talking about their feelings and start shooting people i mean one of them’s a fighter pilot how come there’s not even one flashback to a dogfight with machine guns and BANG BANG EXPLOSIONS YEE HAW. It’s not a show for everybody, no.

What it is is unflinching. Both in content and in form, this is seriously uncompromising TV. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that it had tiny viewing figures and that even HBO backed away from it.

It is, however (and I do repeat – if you’ve some reservations at first, do press on), fucking brilliant.

EDIT: forgot to add: it’s also, I’m told (both first-hand and by people on the internet) remarkably accurate as a portrayal of therapy, albeit of course condensed and sometimes simplified, and focusing on the more ‘interesting’ patients.

Verdict:

Season One: 4/4

Season Two: 4/4

Season Three: As Yet Unseen.

“Hypothetical Sluggy Freelance Megatome 3” – Pete Abrams

“You know the problem with nudist colonies? No quality control” – Torg.

“I don’t want to die yet. I’m too young!… God protect me” – Zoë.

“This looks like a job for emergency pants!” – Torg.

“Don’t go to sleep or the kittens will eat you” – Riff.

 

I haven’t read Megatome 3 because it doesn’t exist. If it did, however, it might well cover Book 7: A Very Big Bang, Book 8: Fire and Rain, and Book 9: Dangerous Days. That’s what I’ve read. It seems to make sense to group them together because the first two Megatomes have three books each, and because Book 9 is the climax to the biggest plot thread from Book 8 and Book 9. It’s not a complete wrap-up – Book 10 and Book 11 both wrap up secondary plots – but it’s a clear stopping-point. In particular, Dangerous Days Ahead (Chapter 30) is clearly a conclusion, and including Book 10 would be an anticlimax (as, indeed, are Chapters 31 and 32, but more on that later).

So, this review will cover Books 7-9, which comprise Chapters 23-32, and which take us from April 2001 to December 2002.

My first impression: if you thought the tone of the first two collections was schizophrenic, this will drive you crazy. As the quotes suggest, there is considerable tonal variation. Curiously, however, it is not quite the same as before: it seems as though the heavy storylines have become heavier, and the lighter storylines have remained light – we are moving away from (though not entirely) tonal clashes within stories and toward tonal clashes between stories (which I tend to feel is less succesful).

There is also more coherence in overall structure here than before. Although little side-stories have not been eliminated, the structure has crystalised, as it were, around certain key storylines: GOFOTRON, the ghosts, Bun-Bun v Santa, and most of all Hereti-Corp (which has two sides: the cloning arc and the assassin arc). GOFOTRON is a single chapter (GOFOTRON: Champion of the Cosmos); the ghosts get two storylines (House Haunting and A Beige Horn Mist); the holiday war gets The Bad Dream Preceding Easter, Snowfinger, and Shadow Boxing; and Hereti-Corp lurk in the background the entire time, but basically have the build-up story Halloween (2002), and the two tentpole chapters, Fire and Rain and Dangerous Days Ahead. The rest of the collection is a series of lines between these fixed stories, with a few diversions here and there, particularly as mental relief before and after the heavy bits.

GOFOTRON did not impress me. It was probably the largest single contiguous story-arc to that point (perhaps The Storm-Breaker Saga is bigger?), and it also has the distinction of being the third DFA adventure, but it didn’t really feel as though it merited its place. A science-fiction parody (far more developed and mature and extensive than the original scifi adventure from the first book), it is mildly amusing in many places, and even has a few great strips (the anime-style space-battle is fantastic, if weird), but by-and-large severely lacks emotional depth, or broader plot significance, and lacks the hilarity that would compensate for this. Although there is darkness here – some elements are really tragic – it’s mistreated, dealt with far too lightly. Chapter 2 could get away with all sorts of throwaway violence and human suffering, but by the time we get to Chapter 24, having made it through The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot, it feels incongruous not to care more about what’s going on.

The genius of the story, however, is the twist post-ending: in Chapter 25, we get to see what’s been going on while the heroes have been away. This climaxes in the superbly creepy, tense, complicated and unpredictable Halloween. Halloween has always been a rather silly time of year for Sluggy, but this time around the demon has an element of mystery, there’s real character-building, and an important plot kicks up from “lurking” to “ominously looming”.

Halloween is the first of the three big Hereti-Corp stories in this period (HC, introduced in the second megatome, dominates this period in the way that K’Z’K, introduced in the first, dominated the second), and to be honest that’s what this period is for. Halloween is a tense and foreboding thriller (with simple but good use of colour, as Abrams, following on from his Bug-style experiments, starts to be more artistically interesting). The short-chapter-length Fire and Rain is flat-out gripping – there’s hardly a joke in the entire thing, there’s the most impressive and interesting artwork and layout so far, and there’s a really slightly scary plot. Of course, this is Sluggy, so even in the most serious part of the comic people can still turn into camels, but that doesn’t stop it being deadly serious. It lacks, it’s true, a real feeling of resolution – it’s over far too quickly and too little happens – but that is part of the point, I suppose. It’s not the denouement, it’s just setting the scene. And it does it with a brevity and efficiency and, frankly, a beauty, that the comic too often lacks.

The denouement is the third story, the chapter-length Dangerous Days Ahead. This one is big. It’s more than twice as long as The Bug, the Witch and the Robot, and the earlier story had the big interlude of Not a Good Idea in it. This one is so big, it has a fight scene that lasts over a month. The plot goes into dark places, there are massive reveals, and there are lasting consequences. Oh, and that massive fight scene (the majority of Convergence) is extremely impressive, as all the pressures that have been building explode in one witty conflagration of violence.

Unfortunately, this bang is so big that it takes a long time to pick up the pieces, beginning with literally weeks of explanatory infodump. It’s mildly amusing, but it badly damages the pacing.

[Bun-Bun’s storyline scrapes along, but is not particularly impressive – the Bond-parody Snowfinger is a lot less effective than Rescue Mission to the North Pole was. The ghostly storyline starts minor, and then has a strong but not fully satisfactory second installment – but don’t worry, there’s more to come]

Pacing is a problem more generally, reflecting the difficulties of a daily strip format. The books are secondary to their chapters (perhaps tertiary, with the storylines reigning), which means that the pacing of the books as a whole is often off. Book 7 has its biggest story in its second chapter, after a chapter of inconsequential stuff, although to be fair, Halloween and Haftermath provide a fair-enough conclusion. Book 8 likewise has its big story in the middle, followed by fluff, and Book 9 has its climax at the beginning, before a big relax (though KITTEN II does manage to end the book nicely).

Of course, Sluggy isn’t all about the big plotlines: it’s also about the fluff between. Overall, I think that this period was more solidly and reliably amusing, but less laugh-out-loud funny than Megatome 2. However, some of the really classic Sluggy jokes come from this period, including the infamous “emergency pants” gags, so it’s hardly a sombre read.

[Two storylines require particular mention. Torg Potter and the Sorceror’s Nuts is a parody of Harry Potter (the first of several), and stands almost completely apart from the rest of the comic, and thus is often used as an introduction to Sluggy. It’s moderately funny here and there, but I confess I don’t really see the point of it – in part, perhaps, because I’ve never read the book its parodying. KITTEN II is the sequel to Bun-Bun’s Theatre of Horrors, and likewise is (albeit not quite so completely) independent of the continuity; like the earlier ‘kitten’ storyline, it’s a horror-film parody, this time with more of an action twist. It’s more ambitious than the original story in terms of plot and drama, and funnier, I think, and has a lot of brilliant parody-action-horror lines in it, and yet it is also a bit more uneven, and flabby, than the original. That said, I still love it. If only he’d do a KITTEN III story. Oh, and the pair of little Farside parodies during KITTEN II are simply beautiful – Farside turned to eleven]

In sum, then, it’s hard to directly compare this period with the earlier collections, because, as before, the comic was continually evolving. This period doesn’t have the frenetic energy of Megatome 2, and probably isn’t as funny either; instead, it’s evolved into a deeper, more character-based, more cinematic action-drama, enlivened by wry and intelligent humour. For my money, this collection is the more ordinary of the two, in that it would probably appeal more widely, but lacks the slightly exclusionary manic edge of Megatome 2.

A final note: at some point here the “meanwhile in the dimension of pain” Saturday comics started (a spin-off by a different writer). I didn’t read them, because I remembered how horrifically, immensely, overwhelming I abhorred them the first time around. I don’t know if they’re included in the paper version, but if so I’d recommend pretending they don’t exist.

Adrenaline: 4/5. This may be charitable, given that there are long lulls. But throughout this period there is a gripping undercurrent of menace, which explodes into adrenaline in a handful of storylines.

Emotion: 3/5. The comic finally (following ‘Bug’) goes into some dark, character-driven areas… but it’s too stylised, and too packed with light relief, to get too worked up about.

Thought: 3/5. It’s not stupid. The plots certainly inspire cogitation, as they take months and years to develop. Some of the jokes are very clever. That said… you won’t need a degree, and there’s nothing particularly challenging.

Beauty: 4/5. Marking this up for, imagine it, the artwork. It remains simple throughout, but Abrams is able to use that simplicity to good effect, playing with style and layout and colouring (both atmospheric and spot-colour, as well as the occasional fully-coloured strip). Some strips are actually physically beautiful. So are some of the well-crafted jokes.

Craft: 4/5. A webcomic needs good plotting, good joke-writing, good character-writing, and good art. Abrams has all four of these in spades by this point. He’s let down by his art (which is good, but not brilliantly good), and by his planning, which leaves him with inelegant transitions, misjudged pace, and a surfeit of post hoc explanatory infodump.

Endearingness: 4/5. I really liked it. I didn’t completely love it, however. It’s a bit too uneven, a little less electric, and a bit more serious.

Originality: 4/5. More original than before. Abrams has broken out of expectations and is now just playing around, doing what he likes.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. My initial response was that this wasn’t as good as Megatome 2, perhaps because I didn’t find it as endearing. On reflection, however, that’s unfair. Abrams has moved in a more challenging direction, and as a result it may not be as immediately fun, but it’s still a very enjoyable read, and the overall level of skill and artistry is probably higher. It’s a more professional body of work, and it’s also a more serious period in the comic – less likely to inspire adoration, perhaps (although Fire and Rain certainly blew a lot away, so I don’t know), but more likely to impress the average reader.

Sluggy Freelance: Little Evils (Megatome 2, sort of), by Pete Abrams.

Now THIS is quality television! – Gwynn

As with Megatome 1, I haven’t actually read Megatome 2, strictly speaking – in that I haven’t read the paper format book and any bonus stories it may include. I have, however, read the online archive versions of Chapters 13-22, which broadly constitute Books 4-6 (Game Called on Account of Naked Chick; Yippy Skippy, the Evil!; and The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot), which broadly constitute Megatome 2: Little Evils.

During these chapters, the general structure of the comic remains heavily episodic – few storylines last more than a month, and some last only one week. However, there is more complexity than this suggests, because these storylines often touch on longer-running threads – and, rather than being a static background element providing character and tone, these threads themselves form arcs that stretch across months and years – a brief storyline here will foreshadow and lay the groundwork for a bigger storyline there. As a result, underlying the superficial chaos of this collection, there is a deeper sense of coherence.

This collection is better than the previous collection, because it is more exciting, more moving, and usually funnier. Abrams clearly decided that the move from slice-of-life and parodic storylines toward more dramatic, race-against-time plots (experimented with in Vampires, and fully fleshed out in K’Z’K) was an improvement, and this collection is dominated by thrillers: The Storm-Breaker Saga; The Isle of Dr Steve; Kiki’s Virus; Love Potion Part 2; Bun-Bun’s Theatre of Horrors! (AKA ‘KITTEN’); On the Run; Rescue Mission to the North Pole; Not a Good Idea; The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot 2. These in turn require peripheral storylines for post-climax recoveries (Loose Ends) and for set-up (The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot 1), which reduce the frenetic pace of the comic and give more time for reflection, and for greater tonal variety.

Saying that the collection is dominated by thillers is not saying that it’s repetitive, as these storylines vary greatly in length and style. On the Run, for instance, lasts for two months, and is very high-adrenaline, but is mostly very light-hearted (barring the seriously creepy villain sub-plot); Not a Good Idea is more serious, but only lasts for three weeks. A story like The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot is extremely, deathly serious; Rescue Mission to the North Pole is creepy, but basicaly highly-silly fluff.

So, this is more exciting; not only are individual storylines high-stakes and fast-paced, they sometimes crash into each other unexpectedly (the first strip of The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot 2) may be one of my favourite for precisely this reason. But although this means making the comic creepier and scarier, and angstier and with deeper characters, it doesn’t mean a reduction in the comedy. Indeed, quite the contrary – the serious storylines are often the funniest. The seriousness of Rescue Mission to the North Pole, for instance, turns it from a collection of very silly jokes (with characters named ‘Slappyhoho’, ‘Skimpymoomoo’ and ‘Squishydodo’) into something very creepy; the jokes in the more serious stories are even funnier for being out of place (Zoe: “Wait, was that supposed to be a joke? This is no time for jokes!” – Riff: “Sorry, my angst-train derailed for a minute there.”) Add in the fact that Abrams has simply become better at being funny (in a whole range of ways, from slapstick through wordplay to wit, via various types of irony), and I was laughing out loud on half a dozen occasions, with great amusement throughout.

Of course, nothing is perfect. The tone and pace remain disjointed, which sometimes gets in the way (though often aids a layer of humour). Some jokes aren’t funny (please, no more PETA jokes, please). Sometimes the irreverant clash of tones goes over the line and becomes crass (Cannibals Anonymous, I’m looking at you!). There’s still not a whole mass of characterisation, if we’re honest, (the characters are clear, but lack depth) and character is often sacrificed for the sake of a cheap gag. [Please, bring back the real Sam!]. Between the big storylines there is still some filler that is mildy entertaining and best and sometimes irritating. And, of course, as with any comedic work, mileage may vary – I can imagine some people would hate every page of it.

These, however, are mere quibbles, so far as I’m concerned. Not a work for everybody, perhaps, but very definitely worth reading for some – in this collection the author finds his feet and turns out fantastic story after fantastic story, combining a distinctive atmosphere with great comedy and powerful (if simplistic) narratives. I’m going to keep on re-reading, but I suspect this may be the best of Sluggy Freelance.

Before moving on to scores, I’ll mention a few highpoints, in chronological order:

–          The Storm-Breaker Saga. Time-travel divides the cast in two (producing two distinct plotlines), in an adventure that touches on two big plot arcs and foreshadows/introduces a third.

–          KITTEN. A real gem of a piece, this is a clever, funny, even somewhat tense slasher horror parody (and shows that Abrams isn’t afraid to kill off minor but established characters in trivial ways). It’s also as close as Sluggy gets to a standalone story, so could serve as an introduction to the comic (though only to certain aspects of it) – particularly when read with its iirc-even-better sequel, KITTEN II, in a later book (unless that spoils anything for the main plot arcs? I don’t think it does. Not major, anyway).

–          Rescue Mission to the North Pole. A group of renegade special-ops Christmas elves (long story) receive a cry for help from Santa’s workshop, in a story heavily reminiscent of The Thing. The contrast of creepy horror with total silliness creates, for me, a unique timbre.

–          The Bug, the Witch, and the Robot (1 and 2). The most serious storyline yet, but also very funny now and then, and featuring an epic fight scene – this is a big comic-book fight-scene done right, for once (though the perils of the format are subtly lampshaded by references before and after to Asian beat-em-up computer games). It’s a fitting climax to the collection.

Adrenaline: 4/5. Pulled down by the (mostly intentional) lacunae, but pushed up by the repeated high-pace thrills.

Emotion: 3/5. Not the most emotive of works – the characters are too hidden, and the perils too hyperbolic – but its serious intent  makes it no worse than average. In particular, the two The Bug, the Witch and the Robot stories really take a left-turn into serious emotional territory, albeit without any earth-shattering acuity.

Thought: 3/5. Meh. Clever jokes, and complicated plots, but it’s not exactly a labyrinth. Not much in the way of issues, either.

Beauty: 3/5. Unexceptional. Some of the colour strips are pretty, and the Bug style is striking. Some beautiful jokes.

Craft: 4/5. Not everything is perfect – he’s still clearly not mastered every dimension his discipline. However, the great (and sometimes very clever) comic writing, the plotting, the ability to employ multiple art styles, all make clear that Abrams is very good at what he’s doing, and that a great deal of thought and work has been put into this. It’s impressive.

Endearingness: 5/5. I love it. I don’t love every strip (part of the downside of Sluggy’s scattershot tonality is that there’ll always be some storylines that don’t feel right – personally, for instance, I can’t stand the Dimenion of Pain stories). But overall, yes, I love it. A big part of that is the humour. It’s just pure fun.

Originality: 3/5. On the large scale, it’s highly original. On the smaller scale, however, most of the narrative elements are not novel (sometimes intentionally – parody remains very important, though more subtly so than in the first collection).

Overall: Very Good. It really is. It seems pretty strange to be saying it, because this is not the sort of literature one is meant to be impressed by. It’s silly, it’s strange, it’s light-hearted – it’s a webcomic, for heaven’s sake! And not even one of those ‘we’re graphics novels really, we’re meaningful and deep’ webcomics, but a flatout ‘we just want to have some fun’ webcomic. In this case, what’s more, it’s a webcomic that I think is a bit unfashionable even by the standards of webcomics – it’s so old, and later storylines have not always lived up to these halcyon strips. But I’m willing to be unpopular: when Sluggy was good, it was very good. As with all humour, tastes will vary, but I’ve hardly ever read anything that (taken as a whole, and barring the odd bad patch (and filler week!)) I’ve enjoyed more. And not in a guilty way, either. This is eccentric entertainment, but it’s also very smart and very capable. If you think I’m a fool for liking it – more fool you!

Sluggy Freelance: Born of Nifty (Megatome 1) (sort of), by Pete Abrams

For those who don’t know, Sluggy Freelance is a webcomic. More specifically, it’s the webcomic. Started in 1997, it’s been updated almost every day since; as one of a handful of popular webcomics in those early years, it was one of the pioneers that drew in a whole generation of new writers, leading to the tens of thousands of (mostly forgettable if not downright rubbish) webcomics we have today.

Fourteen years is a lot of comics. All are available for free at the website (with a nifty week-by-week option for faster archive-trawls), and all the comics up to the end of 2003 are also available in dead-tree format. [Seriously, the books are only half the total comic? I’ve been reading this thing too long…]. Thankfully, the creator, Pete Abrams, is an organised sort of fellow, it seems – strips are collected into sections, which are collected into numbered chapters (of which there are currently 63). Numbered chapters (until the end of 2003) are then collected into numbered books, of which ten are indicated in the somewhat-behind-the-times archive system, with an eleventh recently published and two more being planned. Numbered books are then collected into numbered “Megatomes”, of which there are currently two, covering the first six books.

Right. So. What I am going to be talking about is, in a loose sense of the name, “Megatome 1 – Born of Nifty”, which covers the comics from August 1997 to June 1999, or the first 12 chapters. However, that’s not precisely true, because I’ve just been reading the archive, not the actual printed Megatome. The printed books often have bonus stories, and the megatome itself has a bonus story not found in the individual printed books. I haven’t read any of these bonus stories. But I don’t think they’ll change anything too dramatic in my reading experience. So. Loosely speaking.

I started reading Sluggy in probably late 2002, maybe 2003. It was… maybe the second webcomic I started reading seriously (after 8-Bit Theatre)? I didn’t really know how these things worked, or what they were for. But I found I liked it.

Sluggy Freelance is strange. Very, very strange. Not in the “strange things happen in it” sense, but in the sense that it’s almost unique as a narrative project. That’s because it’s almost impossible to define.

On the one hand, Sluggy is an off-the-wall, ‘zany’ semi-absurdist comedy about two guys [Torg and Riff, who are each half geek, half dude] and their wacky hi-jinks [and their down-to-earth female neighbour, and their psychotic talking rabbit]. On the other hand, it’s often seriously dramatic, and sometimes even moving. In some things, this juxtaposition gives the reader unpleasant slaps to the brain; in Sluggy, these slaps are so constant that it’s kind of the point. It can take anything, no matter how ridiculous, seriously; and it can take anything, no matter how serious, and make fun of it.

Enough intro; down to details.

Book 1 is mostly crap. At the beginning, Abrams has no idea what he’s doing. It’s a straightforward gag-a-day newspaper comic strip, except that none of the jokes are funny. (Wait, that’s normal for a newspaper comic strip, isn’t it?). It’s painfully self-conscious, particularly in its constant breaking of the fourth wall, and because he still thinks he’s writing in a newspaper, every strip has to begin with a panel of recap (the gag-a-days are grouped into little stories of about a week, though there’s not really any plot to them). Since the strips only have three panels, and one’s the recap, and one’s the punchline, there’s not a lot of room to breath. Plus the art is terrible. It’s not “this guy has no idea how to draw!” terrible (cf the early strips of “College Roomies From Hell!!!”, amongst others), it’s just sketchy and ugly and not very clear. Abrams is clearly learning how to draw good comic-strip art at this stage – and at the same time he’s learning (on behalf of everybody else) how to make comics work on the internet. [A note in passing: in early Sluggy, the ‘comic’ part of ‘webcomic’ is clearly newspaper cartoon strips, rather than ‘comic books’/’graphic novels’. This changes somewhat later on.] And be fair to the guy, this was 1997 – as early strips let us know, this was the age in which pornography took the form of photographs, and the internet was devoted to X-Files fanpages.

But: what set Sluggy apart, right from the beginning, was its desire to constantly change itself. Chapter 1 is one thing, a series of ironic one-liners; and then already by Chapter 2, it’s doing something else: a sci-fi parody, bringing in elements of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Alien. It’s still not very good – the odd joke is funny, but it’s all very silly and shallow and predictable – but it’s very different, and it begins to move in the direction of more coherent plots. Chapter 3 isn’t all that great either, though it has some good moments (particularly in the zombie parody). Chapter 4 is mostly an extended parody of the X-Files. It’s got some good lines, but not much else.

So that’s Book 1. That’s what Sluggy Freelance is like. Lots of postmodernism and framing devices and fourth-wall breaking; lots of silly puns, slapstick, pop culture references and basically high-school level parodies sprinkled with the odd genuinely funny line. And a strong whiff of Bill and Ted.

And then it isn’t. Because Book 2 begins with an entirely different sort of storyline: Torg is powerfully attracted to Valerie, who has just married Torg’s neighbour (who was revealed to be missing during the X-Files parody, an indicator that more serious plotting was on the way). This isn’t played for silly laughs – it’s played for laughs, yes, but that recognise the nuances of the situation. From whacky college humour we’ve suddenly moved into semi-dramatic humour about relationships and guilt. Weird. And there’s no resolution! Instead, Torg gets teleported (via Riff’s Dimensional Flux Agitator) into a “Dimension of Pain”, and in the process of getting him back from the incompetant demons that live there, a great many parallel dimensions enter into things, included one in which Torg has purple hair, strange clothes, and only speaks Portuguese. Huh. It’s extremely silly. And then we’re off again, as the gang go on holiday – a holiday that features some touching moments, and also the first serious action scene of the comic, as Our Heroes try to save a small child from being swept underneath a pier and drowned. What? What sort of comic is this?

As if to emphasise how wildly things are changing, Chapter 8 (“Vampires”) actually begins with a section called “It all starts here” – and, since this begins with a helpful chart of who’s whom, this may be the best place for newcomers to start reading. So the decision to put this as the last chapter of the book and not the first of the next was kind of stupid… but anyway. “Vampires” is about vampires. It’s very dramatic, and it’s not clear whether all the characters are going to get out of it alive. It itself lasts three months, and wraps up plot-threads going back six months.

Oh, yes, now the author tells us: the other thing about Sluggy is the plotting. Sometimes it seems he likes making plots just for their own sake. Things are said in passing that end up being major plot points four books later – mysteries seem inexplicable until they become obvious sometime in the following decade.

Book 3 takes it to another level again. “Vampires” suggested a deeper and more complex comic; “K’Z’K” and the surrounding stories introduce a threat that imperils the world and leads to an epic confrontation on the top of the Empire State Building (this being Sluggy, however, terrible puns still play an important part of the climax). By the end of Book 3… well, I don’t want to spoil too much, but the next book begins with a recap of the situations of all the major characters, and it isn’t happy reading. He really brings out the dynamite. In fact, here’s the final-line summaries for some of the main characters from that recap: “screwed” – “screwed” (again) – “all bummed out” – “presumed dead” – “unknown” (and it doesn’t look good), “soulless vegetable”, and “free” (that’s NOT a good thing). And “ooooh!”. Not what you’d expect from what starts out as a silly little gag-a-day storyline.

By the time the final bang goes off, most of the main storylines of the Sluggy universe have been introduced: Riff and his Dimensional Flux Agitator (DFA); the idiotic, silly demons of the Dimension of Pain and their vendetta against Torg; the serious and nasty demon K’Z’K and its campaign to conquer the world and fill it with an army of mindless undead servants; and Torg’s pet rabbit, Bun-Bun, and his bloody and unending feud against Santa Claus. Only Dr Crabtree, and the great narrative behemoth that is Dr Steve remain to be introduced. And, more importantly, by now we understand what Sluggy Freelance is. We may not be able to describe it, but we know.

If I coul summarise it in a sentence it might be: an intentionally incongruous juxtaposition of, on the one hand, ridiculously stupid humour, and on the other hand high emotional stakes and convoluted plotting. Weird.

On to Megatome 2… robots, witches, evil kittens, time-travel… and brainwashed assassins.

And yes, I know this a rubbish review. You try writing about this stuff and sounding coherent.

Adrenaline: 2/5. Most of it is deathly dull. On the other hand, the dramatic storylines ramp up the excitement quite effectively, so I’m giving it a 2.

Emotion: 2/5. Mostly fairly light-hearted. On the other hand, the dramatic storylines and their endings do tug at the heartstrings a little.

Thought: 2/5. Mostly pretty stupid. But some of the storylines get quite clever.

Beauty: 2/5. The art isn’t that great at this stage (though I guess some of the full-colour Sundays are pretty). Some beautiful jokes and moments.

Craft:  3/5. It’s hard to give too many marks to a humerous cartoon that for much of the time is neither well-drawn nor funny. On the other hand, there are honestly hilarious moments here and there, the art gets slowly but consistently better (and is never horribly bad, frankly), and the plotting is clever. Also, he’s better at puns than me. You have to take your hat off to somebody who can pull off five or six puns in a three-panel strip.

Endearingness: 4/5. Its goofy, silly style will be off-putting for some, but I found it endearing (though also a little tiresome now and then – particularly early on, when the silliness was more pronounced) – while I found the darker tones and complexities complementary, rather than a distraction from the silliness. Plus, by the end of the book it’s getting really funny.

Originality: 3/5. In patches, and in concept, stunningly original. However, the high number of cheap parodies and the over-reliance on pop culture references weakens this element somewhat. [The lack of fully-established characters also makes it harder to break away from expectations too much – at this stage the characters are still mostly foils for comedy, rather than being drivers of it in their own right].

Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. It’s a mixed bag, and some of the early chapters are best suited for existing fans – certainly if I wanted somebody to like this, I wouldn’t have them start at the beginning. However, there’s something wonderfully fresh and fun at the heart of this, and it’s easy to see why so many have been influenced by it. There have been many imitators, but none have been able to capture that impossible shoreline between pathos and bathos in the way that Sluggy did. I’m now off to read Megatome 2 (or, at least, the equivalent chapters in the archive), and I do so in the happy remembrance that although the first Megatome is Not Bad, the best is yet to come.