Wednesday, October 23, 2013


I don’t know why every review I do starts with me bragging about how cheap something was but I got the first two discs of this show for less than two dollars!  I wanted to watch it because I vaguely remembered it was associated with Pushing Daisies.  It turns out that both shows were created by Bryan Fuller (Wonderfalls aired in 2004, Pushing Daisies from 2007 to 2009).  I was also excited to find out that Lee Pace, the star of Pushing Daisies, is a supporting actor in Wonderfalls.

If you’re not familiar with Pushing Daisies, it’s only one of my favorite shows ever.  Ned can bring dead people back to life, so he gets roped into solving murder mysteries.  Ned can only bring people back to life for a minute so he and his friends never get enough information from the murder victim and have to travel through various hyper-quirky settings and meet people with stylized names.  Meanwhile, Ned is very messed up emotionally because of his powers and frustrates everyone who tries to get close to him.

Unlike Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls takes place in a more or less realistic world.  The main character, Jaye, lives in a trailer park and works in a Niagara Falls gift shop even though she is college educated and comes from a wealthy family.  Jaye doesn’t really want to put effort into anything, but toys at the gift shop start talking to her and forcing her to obey their orders, and when she obeys them, her actions help people.  The toys that talk to Jaye give her very vague, confusing instructions so she doesn’t understand what she is supposed to do until the end of the episode.  It feels like a mystery show even though it isn’t one, and the case of the week format ends up resembling that of Pushing Daisies.

I was disappointed by Wonderfalls.  The first episode made me so happy and the next few episodes were about what I was expecting, but there were some pretty dumb ones and it almost never got as good as the first episode.  I think what I liked so much at the beginning of the show was that even though the concept was quirky, the main characters were cynical and negative.  There’s a similar conflict in Jaye’s appearance and mannerisms; she’s played by Caroline Dhavernas, who slightly resembles Zooey Deschanel and plays Jaye very energetically and with lots of crazy facial expressions.  I guess the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl wasn’t around in 2004 but you know what I’m getting at; you would usually expect this character to be happy, impulsive, and full of wonder.  Jaye adamantly isn’t.  A grouchy/slacker female character is already unusual, but making that character so girlish and energetic even while she’s acting negative was just really cool.  When writers and casting directors stick to tropes you don’t get characters that are as interesting as real people are.

Caroline Dhavernas is wonderful, by the way, and the show was worth watching just for her.  All the other actors were almost as good.

Anyway, on to what I didn’t like.  I think the show just didn’t live up to the promise of being quirky but not in a clichéd way; it ended up being clichéd more often than not.  I really got tired of it during an episode where Jaye is being forced to help endangered birds mate and the birds were being used as a metaphor for, like, six human couples in the show.  There were multiple scenes in the episode where a character was talking about the birds and suddenly came to a realization about their own relationship and then ran off to talk to their partner.  Give me a break.

I also just got annoyed in general by the obsession with romantic pairings and I think the more the show focused on romance the more boring and formulaic it got.  I’m not someone who doesn’t like romance or shipping, but the show kept making every pair of unattached characters fall in love with each other and a lot of the time the good deed Jaye accomplished was just getting a pair of random characters to start dating.  There are other good things that can happen to people besides starting a relationship, and there are other ways for supporting characters to relate to each other.

But yeah maybe the show would have gotten better with time.  They only had 13 episodes.  It’s something to watch if only to see how great Caroline Dhavernas is and to enjoy the four or five episodes that are really good.

Side review: I usually read a lot of episode reviews while watching a TV show.  Mostly it’s for emotional regulation and stuff (I read Wikipedia articles on shows I’m watching too) but it’s really nice when the episode reviews are actually good to read!  I usually just do the AV Club but they never notice when things are racist, ableist, etc. so that’s a little annoying.  A lot of the shows I watch are reviewed on a website that will remain nameless which tries to do social-justice-focused reviews of genre shows, but the writers try to be offended by everything and end up being offensive themselves.  (I have too many examples to list, but they do things like saying a show is sexist because it has female characters who are internally affected by sexism.)

Anyway, while watching Wonderfalls I came across Mark Watches.  I was so happy because when I watched a Wonderfalls episode where a fat guy is treated like a freak and a trans woman is mentioned just to be insulted, Mark and his commentariat all had a problem with that!  Towards the end of the season there was another messed up episode and Mark Watches acknowledged that too.  It was so nice to read reviews that I could relate to.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Buddha Boy--Kathe Koja

I bought this because when I was in middle school, I loved a story by Kathe Koja called "Becoming Charise."  It was in an anthology of fairy tale retellings even though it had only the most tenuous connection to a fairy tale, but I liked it because it was about a girl who was super sad and different.  Basically what happened was that the girl really liked science, was bullied, and briefly hoped that she would get to go to a school for gifted kids but, in a scene where orange juice was described as fluorescent, her aunt refused to let her go for no reason except apparently to make her more sad.

I liked the fluorescent orange juice but maybe another thing I liked was that Charise's life didn't get any better during the story.  It was clearly going to be bad for a while, and she was going to have to deal with it.  I don't know what I would think of "Becoming Charise" if I read it now, but I always remembered Kathe Koja and wanted to read her books.  Buddha Boy immediately looked unpromising, but it cost $1 and I figured I could give it to my Buddhist friend as a joke.

The reason Buddha Boy looked so unpromising is that it clearly belongs to the insipid genre "visibly different kid teaches normal/nervous kid about life."*  I say normal/nervous because the protagonist of these books doesn't actually have to be bland; they can be invisibly different but trying really hard to fit in and seem normal.  Then here comes a kid who is so different that everyone is staring at them constantly and they probably get bullied, but they're totally cool about it and always saying wise things.

(Can I just say that this bothers me as someone who was severely bullied?  I wasn't smiling and producing sound bytes during the period I was getting bullied because I was a total wreck.  I got bullied for very intrinsic things like my name and the way I move and talk, so I couldn't move, talk, or hear my name without thinking about getting bullied.  It wasn't until 7 years later that my name started feeling good to me again.  Meanwhile, there were all these books about blissed-out bullied people, with no apparent understanding that even if you start out calm and centered, if you're constantly trapped with people who treat you like garbage then you're not going to be calm and centered after a while.)

My main problem with this type of book is that the required character archetypes are nothing like real people.  Like, let me tell you about this one scene halfway through.  The main boy, Justin, is hanging out with Jinsen, the titular Buddha boy, who shaves his head and goes around begging for change in the cafeteria.

Jinsen announces at all religions are fundamentally the same, and even though this is a fairly common platitude, Justin's mind is blown.  He thinks and thinks about how could this possibly be true and how it's so SHOCKING that Jinsen thinks that--even though Justin doesn't even have any experience with religion himself.  A little bit later, Jinsen blows Justin's mind even more by telling him that "we're all gods inside," including the guy who bullies Jinsen.  (Why did she give the characters such similar names?)  This time, Justin gets angry because he's offended by the idea that bad people could be gods.  He starts yelling at Jinsen for not being angry about being bullied, while Jinsen just sits there beatifically smiling at him.  Justin runs out of Jinsen's house and runs home, slipping and falling down on the way because of how upset he is.

Now, I can think of possible reasons that a person would get angry about Jinsen's belief set.  Justin doesn't have any of those reasons.  He's just enraged by Jinsen's amazingly mind-bendingly peaceful value set because it's so different.  Justin's example of a bad person isn't even Hitler or something; it's the kid who's bullying Jinsen.  If Justin's idea of the depths of human evil is a kid throwing another kid's notebook into a puddle, then I don't buy Justin being so upset by this conversation that he yells, runs out of the house, and falls down.  (This actually isn't the only scene where Justin is overcome by emotion and runs around and falls down.  Do average kids do this?)

Even more silly than Justin's anger is Jinsen's reaction.  Can you imagine saying something that confuses and upsets your friend, and proceeding to just sit there smiling at them when they're clearly upset, and not making a move to stop them when they run out the door in distress?  Jinsen's response make him seem like an emotional abuser, not the saint we're supposed to think he is.

But this scene makes complete sense for this kind of book, because this kind of book makes no sense.  It's supposed to teach kids and make them think, but how can you get educated from a book where the characters don't act like people?

*(PS: I would like to mention a book that could be mistaken for this, but isn't: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.  I mean it's "a classic," we all know about it.  Something I remember about this book is that yes, Leslie is different, she introduces Jesse to ideas and activities he never thought of before.  But also, Leslie has a mean streak and makes fun of people.  She is reckless.  She is an actual kid, not a smug role model.)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The first book in this series, The Magicians, is one of my favorites--I really like fiction that’s about fandom, and I like fiction that addresses flaws in its own genre (like A Song of Ice and Fire; as mentioned it’s extremely boring when people don’t understand that’s what the series is doing).  The Magicians fulfills both those categories.  It’s about a sad, geeky kid, Quentin, who grows up obsessed with fantasy books and wishing magic was real.  As an adult, he finds out it is real and patiently waits to get happy, but as thrilling adventures unfold before him Quentin remains as sad as he’s always been.

From my perspective The Magicians was less about the plot and more about Quentin’s inability to be touched by the plot, so the idea of a sequel seemed silly.  Having read it, of course I had fun but I still don’t get what the point of it was--so now it’s time to criticize at length a book I wholeheartedly enjoyed.

For the entire first 100 pages of The Magician King, there isn’t even any plot--the book just describes Quentin’s effortful attempts to feel a sense of adventure after the “happy ending” of the first book.  I started wondering if Grossman was planning to do some kind of concept art where he wrote a huge series of books about Quentin being bored and doing nothing.  I would respect that.  But then the plot started, such as it was.

Now there’s nothing really wrong with what happens in the book, except that it seems to be just for the purpose of taking up space.  “Maybe that’s the point” okay.  I could buy that with the flashbacks to Julia’s experiences with magic (these are interspersed every few chapters).  In these flashbacks, Julia is always undergoing various trials that lead to her discovering that she has to undergo a bunch of other trials.

In a rare non-magic example, Julia is trying to join this message board for mentally ill geniuses, and in order to join it, she is required to solve super complex mathematical puzzles which reveal a phone number where a weird voice is reciting another complex mathematical puzzle in Latin and then she has to solve that and it tells her to go to a geocache in New Jersey which has another puzzle inside it and then that goes on for like 20 years.  And all the Julia sections of the book are like this.

I’m not necessarily critical of this--it’s repetitive, but maybe Julia always has to be figuring something out even when it’s bad for her.  Maybe it’s about a certain kind of person.  But guess what, I don’t actually believe it was intended that way because of how the rest of the book is.  So much of the book is spent on things that are totally pointless.

Deeper Spoiler Level

100 pages in, after trying to have adventures in a bunch of silly ways, Quentin accidentally transports himself and Julia back to Earth from Fillory (the Narnia stand-in where they’ve been living).  Even though Quentin wasn’t enjoying Fillory that much, he is so upset about being on Earth where he isn’t a king and doesn’t have a giant bedroom.  For the next 100-ish pages he and Julia try a lot of things to get back to Fillory.  Then, after they give up, they get transported back to Fillory when they least expect it.

Why did this even happen?  We just don’t know.  Quentin and Julia accidentally bring two friends back to Fillory with them, but these characters don’t do anything except fulfill one very technical purpose in the last few pages.  Was that the entire reason Quentin and Julia got stuck on Earth and spent so much time there?  No, you were just trying to take up 100 pages, I guess.

Deepest Spoiler Level

Now, Quentin and his friends are on a quest to collect seven magic keys because someone told them to do it or something.  Things happen.  Then, Quentin and his new girlfriend accidentally end up getting sent to another world where they discover that the ability to use magic is going to be taken away from humans and also Fillory is going to collapse because it’s made of magic, and the seven magic keys can stop that from happening.

This leads to some funny parts, like when Quentin fusses about how it’s so unfair for magic to be taken away from humans because don’t the gods understand how much humans love being able to use magic?  Then, Penny says that he’s going to take over the quest from Quentin because he’s more competent, and Quentin is very mad because “it’s my adventure” and that’s apparently more important than the quest actually succeeding.  Then, in a few sentences, Quentin convinces Penny that it’s okay for Quentin to do the quest, even though a second ago Penny was convinced that it wasn’t okay.  After spending five minutes learning about this, Quentin and his girlfriend are transported back to Fillory.  It’s too bad something like this didn’t happen when Quentin and Julia were stuck on Earth.

I guess I don’t need to summarize the entire rest of the book, but it basically is the most forced thing ever.  A bunch of really convenient things all happen out of nowhere just when Quentin needs them to happen.  Ooh, remember at the beginning of the book when Quentin was nice to a little girl, and she made him a “passport?”  Well, it’s good that happened because now a passport drawn with crayons by a 5-year-old is necessary to get Quentin into the underworld.  (This would be okay in a Neil Gaiman book.  It’s stupid in this book.)

Then at the end, after all the convenient things happen and Quentin has saved the world, Quentin gets 10 pieces of disappointing news all at once.  He can’t go on an adventure to the other side of the world.  He can’t be a king anymore.  He can’t stay in Fillory.  His friends from Earth aren’t going back to Earth--they’re staying in Fillory even though they constantly said that they didn’t want to be here and wanted to go back to Earth.  Now, they really want to live in Fillory.  Quentin is sad, but I bet he’s happy that this sad ending is going to distract the reader from how easy and convenient all the events of the book were!

Quentin’s Feelings

For a long time, I thought Lev Grossman was really clever because he always explicitly describes Quentin’s feelings and motivations.  “It’s conventionally bad writing,” I thought, “but it shows how Quentin is always overanalyzing himself and consciously telling himself what he’s feeling and what his motivations are.  I bet he might even be in denial about what he’s really feeling.”

But later rather than sooner, I realized I was wrong.  Grossman just actually writes like that.  I’m not sure why I didn’t catch on sooner with lines like, “Sometimes Quentin couldn't believe that he'd lived through it all when Alice, the girl he loved, had died. It was hard to accept all the good things he had now, when Alice hadn’t lived to see them.”  Ha ha ha.

But seriously, I had fun reading this book.

Best AV Club Comment On the Review of the Book

Does he really need someone else to steal a car for him? Can't he fly?”--rock that uke

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

I see Bob and David in your future!

The only episode reviews I can find of Mr. Show are the AV Club, and I always disagree with them, so I’m writing my own. They’re not going to be in order because I only have seasons 3 and 4 on DVD right now and that’s a lot easier than watching them on YouTube (plus listening to the commentaries makes them even better).

I’m pretty clueless when it comes to sketch comedy; I’ve only watched a few episodes of other sketch shows, except for Portlandia, which I’ve watched every episode of even though I don’t usually like it.  It’s getting better, but it often relies almost completely on references, putting them in the place of actual jokes and expecting people to like the show just because they recognize the references.  One of the things that impresses me most about Mr. Show is that I recognized almost none of the references when I first saw the show and still thought it was funny.

It’s sort of hard to pin down what my idea of comedy is, but in addition to what makes me laugh out loud (which tends to be small details like the way a line is delivered), I also appreciate extreme commitment to bad jokes or non-jokes (I recently enjoyed Catherine, by Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp).  I love the New Yorker Anti-Caption Contest.  I also like surrealism, although I don’t know if it falls into one of the first two categories or is something else altogether. 

One of my favorite things about Mr. Show is the way the sketches are connected by dream logic.  No matter how clever it is sometimes, it’s an experience first.  The sketches can’t just be boiled down to one joke or concept, partly because they’re done with such commitment but also because it’s hard to say when one sketch ends and another starts. The links between the longer scenes are really funny and sometimes one character or idea lends itself to what I would consider several sketches (I’m thinking of “It’s Insane, This Guy’s Taint” or “Camp Monk Academy”).  And the sketches are nonstop funny in a lot of little ways that have nothing to do with the concept.