She-Hulk (2022)

She-Hulk has been both fun and a little odd.

I’m enjoying the acting—Tatiana Maslany is great as usual. I like a lot of the writing choices. They’re often hilarious, and neatly fit the genre I think She-Hulk is aiming for. 

This show is a comedic personal drama about the life and times of Jen Walters, following the everyday trials (heh) and tribulations of her experience as an up-and-coming lawyer. It adds an extra dash of “you just can’t win” via all the ways in which getting super powers doesn’t solve Jen’s personal struggles. That almost feels like an homage to Molly Ostertag & Brennan Lee Mulligan’s Strong Female Protagonist… except this show doesn’t (yet) pay attention to the deeper ethical questions that excellent comic focused on. That’s the bit that feels odd to me.

Only a few episodes are out so far, so maybe it’ll go deeper, but…

She-Hulk is very aware of the fact that it’s commenting on struggles women (or femme-presenting people) face in their day to day lives. It brings those up in frequently hilarious (sometimes painful) ways. I appreciate and enjoy that, and I don’t want the show to stop doing that. But so far She-Hulk seems hyper-focused on those struggles from the perspective of the wealthy and privileged. It hasn’t dug much deeper, it hasn’t (yet) pushed towards deeper potential intersectionality or towards struggles beyond Jen’s. For lack of a better word, the show’s focus so far is both expansive and self-centered.

Insofar as I want to watch a slightly shallow comedic personal drama with superheroes that (thank fucking goodness) isn’t yet another male-centric story—one that does focus on the experiences of female characters—this show is great. I’m here for it. I’m glad that it’s being made. I hope She-Hulk does well, I hope it goes places and does more fun things. This show helps ease the poverty of representation for female superheroes in the MCU, and goodness knows the MCU needs that.

We still need more stories like this though, as well as more different ones. Less personally focused ones, and/or personally focused ones that include other people. This show can’t solve the issue on its own.

And there are other elements that feel like they’re fertile ground for good stories, but which have lain fallow for years (if they were ever included at all). She-Hulk has referenced them in passing so far, but hasn’t focused on them.

Specifically, I really enjoy the ways in which this show has poked at the personal and emotional lives of the various superheroes it’s mentioned. I like how it has pointed out that being a superhero doesn’t pay the bills, and that most of the existing superheroes are otherwise rich. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage and (to lesser extent) Daredevil all gave this some attention, with JJ and LC also including other intersections of gender and race. But those shows were and remain a side show in the larger MCU. Again, we need more.

And I’d really like that “more” to be good! She-Hulk nearly lost me with the fight sequence in its first episode. 

As someone who cares a lot about fight scenes, the first episode’s fight between Bruce and Jen wasn’t interesting to me. I hope the show didn’t spend too much money on it (though they probably did), because it seemed like a fight in search of a reason. There weren’t meaningful stakes or potential consequences, no meaningful discovery was made for either of the characters, it didn’t even feel like there was real character growth for anyone. It was a CGI punchfest for the sake of having a CGI punchfest.

The show has been far better on this front in the episodes since: fights haven’t dragged on, they’ve felt like they had pressing stakes, and they’ve told us new and interesting things about the characters involved and the world around them. All of that is pretty much perfect in my book. I really hope they don’t lose sight of that excellent focus in the remaining episodes. I think lacking that focus has been one of the ways other superhero movies and shows most frequently fall apart, narratively and tonally.

We’ll see.

Stranger Things s4 and breathing room

I enjoyed Stranger Things season 4.

But the last episode felt rough for me. Maybe that’s because it was almost two and a half hours, or maybe that’s because it was interrupted more than once.

I paused the last episode a couple times due to normal life, including once right at the height of the climax when the show had already been drawing out the tension for as long as possible. Turns out that last pause was the hardest on me.

I’ll come back to that.

Stranger Things has previously been pretty good about modulating its narrative and dramatic tension. The show has woven pauses into the bigger action sequences, with each interlude giving the audience time to breathe and notice how tense they are, and giving characters time to express how previous consequences are still effecting them—it’s the moment for characters to reel from the last blow, collect themselves, and push themselves unsteadily to their feet. It’s also the moment when the audience can be reminded what’s at stake in the narrative, why the tension matters. There’s a basic rhythm to these moments. If you are paying attention you can usually guess where and when the pauses will happen, even without paying attention to the background music (though that does help).

A quick aside:

These breathers are an elementary fight-scene choreography technique. In a fight scene they’re vital to giving your performers a chance to rest, check in with each other between bouts of action, and sell the drama of the fight. Almost exactly the same is true of these pauses in any other high tension segment of narrative. While these pauses are less mandatory in written work (written characters aren’t facing physical limitations after all), written action sequences still benefit from them. First, that’s because pauses are believable, and they help build the audience’s sense of a written character as a relatable, exhaustible being. Second, each pause is a chance to reorient your reader to the larger scene, to pull back slightly from the rush of the moment and take stock of the situation (whether that’s an internal emotional experience or an external assessment). Third, pauses allow the audience to unwind a little bit—they don’t release narrative tension so much as let it settle into a more stable state while you ready yourself for the next bit, a resolution-in-miniature.

Many big exciting movies these days forget these pauses, or use them on what feels like the wrong rhythm. This is wild speculation, but… maybe that’s because so much is done with CGI now? Animated figures don’t need time to check where they are in the choreography, they don’t need to take a moment to breathe, they don’t feel how the last four big stunts (done over who knows how many takes) are wearing them down.

But those pauses aren’t actually for the actors. You could easily edit a film to remove all the downtime. I just think the film would be worse for it. That’s because the pauses are there for the narrative and the audience. Missing those breathers also gives the audience no time to breathe. There’s no moment to let recent consequences sink in, there’s no time to see the ways in which the characters are reeling, there’s no time to process the emotional weight of whatever just happened.

The only thing worse, to my mind, than having no downtime is having pauses where characters feel none of the consequences of what just happened to them. Telling stories is about spinning lies so consistently that they all ring true. Ignoring the last lie you told introduces discord and undermines the whole thing (which happened for me in the last episode, when *SPOILERS* Nancy, Robin, & Steve don’t seem to suffer any ill effects from their several scenes of almost-dying *END SPOILERS*).

So, back to my poorly timed pause.

The last episode of season four is a heck of a ride. It’s long, it’s full of action, there’s a ton of build up and payoff. And for better or worse they draw the tension out, and keep ramping everything up, for a long time.

That progressive heightening of tension might have been tolerable if I hadn’t paused right at the peak. But I did. I paused for a little over half an hour to eat dinner, and I did it before the episode gave me any resolution in its dramatic climax.

That pause—without a breather’s usual resolution-in-miniature—gave me time to reflect, when I think I was supposed to just finish the narrative ride. In that pause, I could recognize how much the show had wrung out of its escalating tension, how it had pushed past its previous limits, and how it had pushed me to my limits. I just felt worn out, a side effect of how successfully the show had pulled me in and connected me to these characters and their story.

On further reflection, I think I noticed this so acutely because Stranger Things has previously done a good job of including breathers and not pushing its escalation too far. Or maybe I’m full of it and would have felt just as wrung out in previous seasons if I’d paused at just the wrong time. Either way, I really hope that season five takes a slightly more balanced approach.

It looks like they’re setting themselves up for a big finale, and if they try to maintain peak intensity for as long as they did with the last episode of season four I’ll be too worn out to enjoy it as much as it deserves. Furthermore, if they don’t build in those pauses they’ll fall into the same trap some MCU movies do: lots of big flashy scenes and moments of great import, without the variation in action and tension, or the foundation in narrative consequences, that lend meaning and emotional weight to those big scenes. I think they’ve set a big task for themselves; they’ve got four seasons of previous drama to (mostly) resolve, and bigger stakes than before.

My hope is that season five will take the time it needs, and the slow scenes it needs, to build its drama. I’m down for some big flashy stuff, yes, but it was the small-scale moments of emotional poignancy that grabbed me in the first few seasons: the emotional stakes, the fear and uncertainty, the mystery. That’s way more exciting to me than a big set piece of blockbuster spectacle. I don’t know how they can best deliver those things given what they’ve established so far, but I really hope they do.

After one season of Strange New Worlds

For all my love of Star Trek, I hadn’t thought of myself as a Trekkie per se. There were always other fans more passionate about the setting, the stories, the characters… all the minutiae that are so often obsessed over by a particular class of nerd. Yes, I am a nerd, but I wasn’t hooked on those details in the same way.

It didn’t help that I grew up implicitly believing you could be either a Star Wars super-fan or a Star Trek super-fan, but not both. Ridiculous I know, and confusing for a kid who (re)watched both regularly. I still don’t believe that I’m tied to one fandom over the other. But there’s something special about Star Trek’s focus on seeking to do the right thing that I find uplifting. Watching the first season of Strange New Worlds has reminded me of that, and of how big a part that plays in my love for Star Trek. 

There’s a lot of science fiction that does an excellent job of making dramatic and exciting stories. People struggle against some kind of oppression, or fight villains, or try to make a place for themselves in an uncaring world. Right and wrong are often painted across the story in all-caps, and there’s little question of who or what is good or bad. It’s simplistic. In some ways, that simplicity is soothing; we don’t have to think anything through, we know who needs punching (it’s the nazis).

Yet other science fiction drags us all down into the muck. Everyone is bad, and at best you can be the least bad. And as much as I enjoy those stories at times, they are depressing. They don’t offer any route forward, just a series of grim dead ends. No wins for humanity or people in general, just losses and maybe a draw.

Star Trek, for all that it falls victim to the foibles of its various writers, doesn’t do that. Instead, it has a clear set of ideals and a broad faith that people will rise to the occasion for the sake of others when things are at their worst. Star Trek’s heroes are people who struggle to make moral and ethical decisions in difficult situations, and act to help others. They have ideals, and a model for good and ethical behavior, and they aren’t afraid to question that model and acknowledge when and where it falls short.

Something I hadn’t known while growing up on The Next Generation, but which makes a lot of sense in retrospect: Eugene Roddenberry, the man who first conceived of Star Trek, had first-hand experience with average people acting heroically in terrible circumstances. He survived multiple airplane crashes, during and after World War 2, and served as a crash investigator for a time. In his third crash, while deadheading a Pan-Am flight from Karachi to Istanbul, he repeatedly re-entered the burning wreckage to rescue survivors despite having just broken two ribs during the crash. Regardless of any of his personal failings, that sort of heroism fits with the spirit of the show he created.

And that sort of heroism feels better to me than the heroism of blowing up the Death Star. It feels broader and deeper, even if it may not be as big or flashy. That heroism is within the reach of the average person, not limited to the force-sensitives or the fighter pilots. That’s what comes through for me in so many of Star Trek’s stories.

But for all this talk of heroism and ethics, I’m neglecting the delightfully weird and wacky places that Star Trek goes at the same time. Strange New Worlds has shenanigans. It wanders off in odd directions, and plays with the setting in ways that feel both irreverent and extremely true to the absurd lineage that preceded it. For better or worse, the pressure to create episodes for syndicated TV shows has pushed Star Trek into some bizarre and hilarious places over the years. Rather than looking at the weirdness as something imperfect, something to be surgically removed in this era of TV, Strange New Worlds is willing to purposefully embrace it.

This show is willing to be serious, yes. But it’s also able to laugh at itself. Without being comedy-focused in the same way as The Lower Decks (another excellent show), Strange New Worlds repurposes the weirdness to let off steam while investigating characters’ personal storylines. The combination of deeply personal and emotional story with moments of absurdity feels just right, a moment of lightness that offers poignant relief from the gravitas of Star Fleet.

So yes. Having now finished the first season of Strange New Worlds, I have to say that it lived up to my expectations and then some. Even with a few frustrating spots, it reminded me of what I love about Star Trek. It proved that the good and hopeful feelings that I remembered from watching Star Trek as a child, along with the occasional bizarre comedy, can still be found in Star Trek today. I wrote weeks ago that I was excited for more, and I’m glad to say that—after having watched the whole first season—I still am.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

I’ve only seen the first episode. I loved it. I’m really excited for more.

It’s hard for me to see this show without immediately comparing it to Star Trek: Discovery. Obviously, the two shows are connected by their events and characters. And, very mild but necessary spoilers, if you watch the first episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds you will be spoiled for the end of Discovery’s second season. Given the continuity of experience for several main characters (and especially Captain Pike), that’s inevitable.

Most of the details of Discovery aren’t brought up because they’re classified in-setting and there’s little reason for anyone to actually divulge anything. But the vital bits come out in a few conversations, or are heavily hinted at and shown in characters’ internal struggles. This means that you don’t need to have seen Discovery in order to enjoy this show, and all the plot-relevant emotional strife that grew out of the previous show’s events is made accessible to new viewers.

That’s all for the best. I have mixed feelings about Discovery, and I think Strange New Worlds made the right choice by making itself more accessible to new viewers. Moreover, I think Discovery’s emotional and narrative tone felt more like a grim Star Trek movie… and Strange New Worlds feels like a marvelous return to the tone of Star Trek as a TV show.

I’ve written about this here before. Discovery had piles of narrative tension, and character development, and drama… and it felt like watching a high production-value miniseries set in the Star Trek universe, with all the bubbling idealism stripped out. When I watched it, I did not feel hope. I was engaged by the story, and I appreciated the growth seen throughout each season. But Discovery was fundamentally about season-spanning dramatic narrative arcs. 

Star Trek benefits from dramatic narrative arcs. Yet for all my love of a good narrative, Star Trek has long been more focused on exploration, and on ethical, moral, and intellectual engagement with difficult subjects. Sometimes it does that well, sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes it leavens itself with exciting narrative interludes. But it’s a series anchored in idealism, hope, and a willingness to engage critically with its setting (with varying levels of success).

Strange New Worlds delivers that. Watching Strange New Worlds felt like watching the next iteration of the old Star Trek shows, in the best possible way. I loved it.

I know there are some people who have seen it and don’t like it. I understand that a number of people are upset about the bridge crew being both mostly non-white and/or women. Fuck ‘em. If that’s seriously their gripe with the show, they haven’t paid enough attention to the whole rest of the show’s history—and they’re apparently unsatisfied with the fact that the captain is still a white dude.

I haven’t yet heard other people’s critiques of the show, and I’d be more curious to hear those. This meme applies, to be sure:

But not only does this new Trek feel hopeful, I once again trust that the show will continue in the optimistic and idealistic traditions of older Star Trek shows rather than chase ”serious drama” at the expense of its emotional and philosophical tone. I am so excited for more.

Teen Killers Club, by Lily Sparks

Sometimes books read like TV shows. This is one of those times. Hardly surprising, given that the author has a background writing for TV dramas. She does a good job of it here, too.

Lily SparksTeen Killers Club handled me roughly. I loved it. Riding its ups and downs, I felt emotionally whipsawed and had to set it aside a few times to take breathers and regain equilibrium (something our poor narrator never has a chance to do). By the time I finished, I felt like I’d just gotten off a roller coaster. I wandered around in a daze for an hour or so, still locked in admiration for the ways the story had pulled me back and forth time and again. Because for all that I’d been on a ride, it was an impressive ride. Sparks knew how to grab my heartstrings, and she did it fearlessly. The book had caught me and reeled me in, and pulled me along for the whole thing.

Well, not quite the whole thing: at the start I was partly distracted by needing to finish another book. But it was easy to slip back into it after finishing the other book. Then, of course, it was hard to put it down.

And yes, I’m on board for reading the sequel (which I suspected would exist, but wasn’t certain about until writing this). I’m a little concerned about it, for reasons that are lightly spoiler-y and which I’ll share in more detail below. Blandly put, I’m not sure which genre tropes the story-to-come will follow. There are a variety of options available, after all. But the story’s overall tone could go in several directions, and I won’t know how well it will fit my palate until I read the dang thing—which I will definitely do.

All of which is to say, if you like YA teen drama and serial killers and murder mysteries, this is a great book for you. Be ready for a heck of an emotional ride.

Now.

I can’t go into detail about this without implied spoilers for the book. But this series of observations are eating my brain, so here goes.

*IMPLICIT SPOILERS*

This varies by subgenre, but dramas don’t like to kill characters or let them stay dead. This is especially true of TV dramas, which often suffer from what I’ll call a dramatic conservation of characters.

I say suffer, but in moderation this conservation is a positive thing. Because dramas build up value in their characters, investing them with growth, backgrounds, and relationships that make them richer and more interesting, these dramas are loathe to sacrifice their developed main characters or let them die—even when that death would make sense. This dramatic conservation of characters feeds into the “main character glow” or “plot protection” that shields developed characters from death. But this conservation also provides the audience with reliable narrative focal points, and both encourages and rewards the audience’s emotional investment.

Some stories are more prone to this than others, but I think it’s especially prevalent in character dramas that specialize in arranging (and rearranging) their characters along various social faults of contention. Characters twist or are twisted into new disagreements, the situation is milked for all the drama it can hold, and then some new development arises that prompts another realignment. The longer a story runs, the more realignments happen, and the more strange situations people end up in as the writers try to deliver new and exciting stakes. This is the process that leads to jumping the shark. It’s also the process that results in somebody being caught in a terrible accident or dangerous what-have-you and then miraculously surviving (possibly with some character-altering development, like amnesia).

Usually, dramatic conservation of characters is maintained. Usually the characters don’t actually die, or if they do they aren’t actually gone for all that long. That’s part of the reason that so few character deaths are treated seriously in these stories… or at least, why so few are treated seriously amongst these stories’ audiences. The genre-savvy know from past experience that characters don’t usually die or stay dead.

This, sadly, only makes it harder to actually up the stakes in these genres.

It doesn’t help that these stories sometimes try to up the stakes by killing off people the audience has little attachment to. Instead of demonstrating that the situation is dangerous, this only reinforces the relative safety of the main characters. Scalzi’s Redshirts is all about this trope as it exists in Star Trek. Other stories try to demonstrate how dangerous and gritty they are by killing off characters seemingly at random—sometimes this works, and sometimes it just feels like the author is trying to be edgy.

I think character death in these stories usually works best when it’s given space and weight, or at least makes an impact on other characters (I’ve written a bunch of posts about this). There are a handful of exceptions.

But the thing that’s eating at me, the thing I’m concerned is going to happen in the sequel, is that Sparks won’t let characters die when they really ought to… or will kill more characters just to show that she can. She’s set herself up for a tricky path going forward, and I suspect *EXPLICIT SPOILERS* based on the end of the book that she won’t let characters stay dead when that would actually fit her story well. But I don’t know! Maybe she’s just lulling me into a false sense of security. As I said above, I’ve got to read the sequel to find out. *END SPOILERS*

Still on board for YA drama about teen serial killers, with some murder mystery on the side?

Get thee to the library (or bookstore).

Lupin (Netflix, 2021)

Months ago I wrote about Lupin, and the course of its narrative arc. Having now finished part 2, I’ll just say it’s been a heck of a trip… and a fun one. It’s absolutely true to its genre, absolutely delivers on my expectations, and still manages all the tension and rollercoaster-ride feel that you’d want from a duplicitous and intricate master-thief drama.

I was able to call many of the narrative beats ahead of time as my partner and I neared the end of the show, enough so that I barely felt surprised. This might seem like a failing in a show that’s supposed to be twisty and surprising—but by that point in the show, I wasn’t watching it for a surprise. I’d been won over by the personal drama and the characters. I knew what was expected, I knew the primary twists that would come, but what I wanted most was to see the show land its finish and wrap things up neatly with my preferred resolutions for everyone involved. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t surprised, because the show was satisfying.

It feels good to watch a show so deeply embedded in its genre, to know and appreciate the ways in which it delivers all the required beats… and to fall for the characters in the process. Yes, I recommend it. I doubt that comes as a surprise at this point.

Lupin does an excellent job of showcasing everything you need to know about its story in the first episode. Reminiscent of what Seth Dickinson does in the first chapter of The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Lupin simply holds up its hands and says “I promise you this, and more of it.” And then it gives that. It does, of course, add more emotional depth and greater context in some truly wonderful ways, but it stays true to its promise.

If you watch the first episode and decide you don’t want more, don’t worry about it. If you’re on the fence I suggest a couple more episodes; some of the show’s emotional background is only visible with a little more context. But if you saw that first episode and were hooked, I’m glad to say you’ve got another nine to enjoy (and even more some day soon, given the confirmation of a third season).

Have fun.

Ted Lasso S2, 2 episodes in

It’s… not as good yet.

I’ve been struggling to figure this out. I’m not surprised that it doesn’t feel as incredibly good, because the experience of that first season is hard to replicate. But I’d hoped that it wouldn’t feel like such a come-down. And I couldn’t understand why it did until I’d talked it over with my partner.

Actually, we talked about it, then saw an interview with two of the writers, then talked about it some more. The interview helped things click, talking it over again settled them.

Season two is still more like what I want from television right now than most other shows are. It’s still a show that (mostly) feels pretty good, and I still enjoy it. I still recommend it, to those who liked the first season.

But the rhythm is off.

Season one of Ted Lasso had a spectacular rhythm to its delivery of plot development. It built arcs and finished them neatly in places during an episode that left me feeling secure, which is strange for most TV shows I’ve seen recently. And even when arcs were left hanging between episodes, I didn’t feel like the show was toying with me and my feelings. Nor did I feel like the show was hooking me and dragging me along to the next episode, even as the appeal of the show and its story *absolutely* hooked me and pulled me along. In many ways it felt like Ted Lasso’s first season was confident enough in where it was going with its story, and willing enough to trust that I would want to stay with it, that it didn’t do the “grab the viewer by the hanging plot threads and unresolved emotions, and only offer resolution NEXT TIME” thing. I liked the writers not doing that.

Season two, two episodes in, doesn’t feel as self-assured to me. It doesn’t feel like it really trusts itself in the same way. It’s far more concerned with grabbing and holding on with its unresolved threads, less willing to trust that the audience will want to keep watching.

The way this shows most, for me, is in how unresolved things feel at the end of an episode. What really brought this home for me was the interview with the writers, in which they admitted that they didn’t have the whole season written before they started filming. I don’t envy them going from “we have everything written out beforehand” to “nope now we have to improvise and hope we’re at least one episode ahead.” And I think (just guessing here, wild speculation) that they’re leaving elements unresolved in the way they have so far *because* they need to leave themselves openings for the next step. Without the whole season planned and written already, they feel the (understandable) need to give themselves a clear and easy way forward.

This also means that it feels like they’ve had less time to edit their work. Season two, so far, doesn’t feel quite as slick as season one. It doesn’t feel as clearly like they’re moving from best-possible-scene to best-possible-scene. I’ve even wondered—maybe one or three times—whether there was a better scene they skipped or didn’t think of that they would have included if they’d had more time to think things over.

It doesn’t help that I also want them to do a different thing with a particular character (it’s Nate, folks, I want Nate to be not-an-ass). I fully expect that to be resolved at some point, probably this season, but god it’s grating.

Now, counter-argument: maybe the writers have a good idea of what they’re doing (even if they don’t have things already planned and finished). Maybe they’re leaving these plot threads open because they have plans for them later in the season and they know everything needs to be lined up long beforehand. I can absolutely see this being the case; I actually suspect they *do* know where they’re taking things even if they aren’t quite sure how they’ll get there. And maybe they simply decided to make the second season feel less episodic and more like a binge-show where each episode bleeds into the next, complete with tension and unresolved issues.

Honestly, my trust in these writers being competent is a big reason for why I’m still watching the show. I’m watching because I believe that counter-argument, and because I enjoyed the first season so much and want to see where these characters go. But regardless of how much I believe they know what they’re doing I’m still sad that some of that feel, the tidiness and rhythm of season one, feels like its gone.

Ted Lasso

I’ve been recommending Ted Lasso to friends recently, and now it’s your turn.

Ted Lasso is hard for me to pin down. The closest genre-bucket it fits into is “dramatic comedy,” but that feels misleading; this show doesn’t feel like many other dramatic comedies I’ve seen recently—or maybe ever. It feels absurdly kind, in a wonderful way.

Ted Lasso is most certainly a comedy. And it has dramatic elements, not shying away from the personal struggles facing the characters or the (mostly social) challenges they’re up against. But the only comparable shows I know are… more cruel? They don’t build my trust in them. The other shows I’ve watched in this genre don’t feel like they really honestly love their main characters, or like they’re written with empathy for the characters and their struggles.

In my experience, when most other dramedies explore tough emotional situations, they feel like misery-porn. At best, they’re wry and a little removed from the action. At worst, they draw out the pathos and angst and awkward personal struggles, and then they stew in those feelings until they finally make their audience feel better several (long) episodes later by offering relief… after they’ve created another suffering magnet for another character in the show. But the audience’s resting state is discomfort, leavened by brief flashes of humor at someone’s expense, and the characters rarely feel lovable or leave me cackling in delighted glee.

I guess, when it comes down to it, I usually don’t feel like those other shows care about whether they make me happy. They’d much rather be serious and funny, or just painful and funny. It’s as though they’re fine with being depressing as long as they get a chuckle out of me.

That’s not Ted Lasso.

I trust the writers of Ted Lasso in ways that I don’t trust other show’s writers. They’ve proven to me that they can take an absurd premise (American football coach is hired to coach a British Premier League Football [soccer] team), weigh it down with some serious personal and interpersonal issues for dramatic ballast, and then plot a steady course that leaves me smiling in happy admiration.

They do it in 30 minute chunks. They make fast and robust characterization look effortless. And then they make rewarding character development look easy too. And the editing! Whoever’s behind the way this show skips directly to the important parts, whether that happened in the cutting room or in the writers’ room or wherever, they deserve a prize.

Oh, and the show brings up those painful and serious issues that I mentioned above and then handles them gracefully. Things don’t always turn out perfectly, but they feel good in a way that I’d forgotten was possible in a TV show. It doesn’t feel dishonest, it just feels… hopeful.

And I love that.

Honestly, some people probably won’t like that. Not everyone will be as happy with Ted’s incredible positivity as I am. And perhaps some people might dislike how the show sometimes leans into its goofy bits, or pushes for the happier and healthier resolution. It might not always deliver the feeling of “reality” that those people want.

But I’m sad and scared and anxious more of the time than I’d like. So much TV that I see only embraces that, like a deeply critical cynic insisting that they’re a realist… and then laughing at me and calling me foolish to hope for anything.

Ted Lasso doesn’t do that.  It does the opposite.

In some strange way this show and its hopefulness are reminiscent of what I love about Star Trek. It’s idealistic. Not blindly so, and not in the same way that Star Trek is, but… that uplifting feeling is still there.

Ted Lasso feels refreshing, and brave, and honest in ways that both feel healthy and are damn funny. I don’t know that I want every show to be like this one, but I could really use a few more like it.

Loki, revisited

Well, as far as I can tell, the show stuck the landing.

Loki is now secure as my favorite of the Marvel TV series so far. Sure, I’m excited to see what comes from What If…? but I don’t expect those jaunts to have the same emotional weight, or to be given the same time and focus. I don’t think I’m spoiling too much to say that there’s supposed to be a second season of Loki, and that I’m really looking forward to it.

I’m going to try talking around spoilers as much as possible. But I am going to talk about the show, mostly from a structural perspective. If you’re really worried about spoilers and are able to watch the show, I strongly encourage you to go enjoy the rest of Loki’s first season (when you can) and ignore the rest of this.

I was worried when I started watching Loki that the show would promise too much and give (or resolve) too little. I was also afraid that, like WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier before it, Loki would suffer from compression or similar [writing / directing / editing] runtime and continuity problems. To be clear, I think WV and F&WS worked… but I also think they suffered from narrative cuts and cramming.

So. This show promises a whole lot. I think it delivers more.

In a really wonderful way, this show kept giving me more than I expected. There was one exception—one that kind of disappointed me—but that had been foreshadowed extensively already. Mostly, the show felt free to resolve lots of issues and move things along to a new, messy resting state with new sources of tension that I quite enjoy. Best of all for me, the show leaned into the exploration of Loki’s motivations, hopes, and dreams, and played those through to the hilt.

Honestly, I think the certainty of a second season is critical here. Without it, and without the show’s writers and runners feeling free to resolve issues or create new ones as they saw fit, I think they would have felt pressured to tie things up more neatly for the end of the season (and the show). And I think that would have done a huge disservice to the story. I suspect that pressure (along with budget) is what forced WV and F&WS to compress as they did.

I believe that Loki‘s messiness is actually better than a neatly tied up story, even if we never get more Loki. I’d love to have more stories that feel free to do this sort of thing: creating interesting and exciting and difficult situations and then using them for honest explorations of characters I enjoy… without feeling locked into tidying everything up at the end. I like stories that end with open possibility.

I know other people don’t necessarily feel the same way. I have friends who love a neatly resolved story with all the loose ends tied up and all the resolutions for each character explored on screen. They abhor open-ended conclusions that only imply next steps and leave it up to the viewer to decide, or imagine, what happens next. But for me, a lot of that is boring or uninteresting. Life is full of the unexpected, and it feels more honest to me to close out a story’s arc while leaving open the shapes of arcs to come.

Loki does that. I have my guesses about where things will go, but there are many possibilities, and I look forward to exploring them even if I have to do it in my own mind.

Star Trek: The Lower Decks

I have discovered that The Lower Decks is a fine entry point for new viewers to Trek. I wonder whether that was done by accident, or whether there was some co-aligned intent that made it so. Regardless, my partner really enjoyed it. We’re both looking forward to the next season coming out in a little over a month.

Did it help that I’m overly familiar with Trek? Probably.

I grew up on The Next Generation. I’m pretty sure some half-remembered version of “Remember Me” (Dr. Crusher is caught in a collapsing warp bubble, people disappearing around her while she’s the only one to notice) fused with The Nothing from The NeverEnding Story and a fragment from Bucky O’Hare to fuel a lingering childhood fear. The climactic moments of “Conspiracy” (brain parasites infest Star Fleet) were also etched in my memory.

But my Trek-neophyte partner liked it even without my input. They were laughing before I answered any of their questions.

The Lower Decks excels at being accessible to viewers who aren’t veteran Trekkies for several reasons. Reveling in its Trek-ness, the show wears the setting’s tropes on its sleeve. This earnest obviousness is a huge advantage. The show is so clearly enamored with its setting, it shares an infectious delight even while it pokes fun—and it doesn’t feel like it’s satirizing Trek so much as celebrating it and laughing at the same time. All of that made it easier for my partner to pick up on the setting of Trek without other context, while still having fun with it: several times, they cackled while asking “that’s a thing?” (They were right, it was a thing.)

Similarly, the characters are both varied and endearing while remaining plausibly Trek. They play to their comedic bits and obsessions, but the writers preserve their “humanity.” And I actually think this show does a better job of exploring the characters of its cast than Discovery does, and in far less runtime.

I’ll elaborate: this show feels more Trek than Discovery does to me, because of its unabashed embrace of the ideals of Star Fleet. In that way it feels more like the TNG I grew up with, more hopeful and earnest and less focused on following some larger dramatic arc. The important deliberations of this show are ultimately smaller in scope, and we have more time to watch people being people at people-scale instead of losing the little personal details as they’re dwarfed by the Big and Important Drama of the season.

Right now, I prefer this.

Back on track, part of what makes The Lower Decks accessible—and such an ideal entry point—is its plethora of easy references to other Treks. Normally I’d call that a bad thing. In many cases, those references would impede a new viewer with obvious missed in-jokes that feel like hostile gatekeeping. But this show references other Treks in a way that prepares viewers for the genre as a whole, ties it into the larger setting continuity, and makes those other Treks more fun later. It’s extremely well done.

Now, most times, I wouldn’t say that being a good genre starting point is an accessibility feature for a series itself. But when this show excites someone who’s never watched Trek before, it also makes them more invested in itself. It’s a virtuous cycle. It’s an admirable achievement, too.

So if you like Trek and haven’t watched The Lower Decks yet, I recommend it. If you’re wanting something that comes in manageable bites and is good fun, I recommend it. And if you’re wanting to introduce someone to Trek but you’re not sure where to start, this show is a delight.

Have fun.