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.

Loki (2021)

I’ve now seen the first two episodes. I like it. I rather like it. This show is great so far.

I’m a sucker for this for several reasons: one, it has time travel, which I love; two, the interplay between Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson is a delight; three, the whole Time Variance Authority and its cast is a great vibe, all the way from R. Slayer down to Casey; four, I was upset when Loki died for Thor’s character development at the start of Angry Purple Man #1 because (a) it felt like it cheapened & threw out the deeper relationship they’d built in Ragnarok, and (b) any resulting character growth for Thor was ignored in the underwhelming and too-busy Infinity War series… so watching Loki’s earnest emotional reaction to seeing all of his other self’s suffering and growth was fucking brilliant.

Honestly, giving Tom Hiddleston more of a chance to play a bigger role seems like the right choice to me. I never understood what people saw in him in the first Avengers movie (besides a pretty face with good quips), but the Loki that grew out of the subsequent movies won me over completely. On reflection, I blame Joss Whedon’s writing and the big ensemble movie’s lack of focus for anyone not dead center in the spotlight. Anyway, making this show with more room for Hiddleston (& others) to explore seems like such an obvious good move.

And in case I still had any doubts, Loki’s emotional private moments convince me that this show was a good idea. I don’t think we’ve gotten anything like as personal a view of Loki’s internal world in any previous Marvel movie. As conflicted as I feel about supporting the Mouse, I’m really enjoying watching this show and I’m glad that it’s being made. I’d absolutely go for more.

I do worry that the show will not live up to its first episode. The previous two shows (WandaVision, Falcon & the Winter Soldier) felt a bit like they suffered from being compressed—more towards the end for WandaVision, and at several different points for Falcon & the Winter Soldier. All of which makes me wonder whether Loki is going to go sideways in a few episodes and fail to live up to its promise. The fact that Loki is only supposed to have six episodes exacerbates those fears.

But the truth is, even if all we got was the first episode, I think this would have been a worthwhile jaunt. That’s how much I liked the interplay between Loki and Mobius, that’s how much I liked the emotional development of Loki in that set of interview scenes. It’s really exciting to think that we’ll get more of that.

Having now seen the second episode as well, I still have high hopes. There are more twists and I have more questions, but I’m still excited to see what comes next and don’t feel like they’ve really flubbed anything so far. That said, the six episode limit feels tight. I wonder whether the show will stick the landing.

Lupin, and knowing the course of the arc

I’ve been enjoying Lupin (on Netflix) a great deal. My partner and I have been watching it together. But as we finished episode three, something started bothering me—not really a problem with the show, but instead a disconnect between, on the one hand, the trajectory of the show’s tonal arc and narrative resolution, and on the other, the number of episodes available.

I could see that there were only five episodes so far. I know that Netflix posts all episodes at once, which meant that those five episodes were all that exists (for now). But the change in the show’s tone from the end of episode one to the end of episode three, and the narrative arcs that remain to be wrapped up at the end of episode three, don’t line up with five episodes being the sum total of the show.

Unless the show is a downer, or ends with many elements of the denouement implied rather than being explicitly laid out. But neither of those possibilities match my genre expectations or the precedent the show has already set for itself.

For Lupin, there’s an easy answer: the first five episodes are the first half of the season (thanks internet), and more episodes are supposed to come out sometime in the summer of 2021. Now I know that I’m going to be treated to a cliffhanger when I hit the end of episode five, and I shouldn’t expect everything to wrap up neatly, or even to offer resolution on any front. That’s fine by me, even if I do wish I could have all the story right now.

On the topic of arcs…

I wrote a scene around two months ago, something that came to me while I experimented with some other story beats. But the scene was the emotional turning point of a larger story, without any other material to support it. The scene alone made me cry, but I couldn’t figure out what else I needed to add for the rest of the story.

It was a bit like magically building the middle of a bridge first: I could see it hang there in the air, and it was beautiful, but I wasn’t sure how the hell I was supposed to connect it to anything else. I had this sense that the moment I tied any other scenes into it, tried to support it from earlier or later in the story, the middle would come crashing down… unless the rest of the piece was perfectly aligned. This was not conducive to writing more.

Last Friday, I finally pieced together a first draft outline. This week I’ve churned out some excellent bad first draft material. I know what I need in order to fill out the rest of the story. Except…

As I’ve made progress, I’ve realized: that scene, which feels like the emotional climax of the story, doesn’t need anything after it in the story for it to feel impactful. Everything I write after that scene in some way waters down that climax—unless I can find new ways to build the climax and denouement into each other. Maybe more troublingly, the course I choose for the story’s conclusion after that climax changes the story’s tone and themes completely. There are (at least) two extremely different options before me, and I’m stuck on indecision.

It like I’ve looked at the center span of the bridge that I made, hanging magically in the air, and suddenly discovered that the bridge doesn’t have to come down where I thought. The emotional and narrative arcs could arrive in more than one place (this is normal) but I can’t decide which destination feels more right (this is less normal). I can’t decide which is more honest to the characters, the story, the setting, or the genre. I can’t tell whether my inclinations towards the different possible destinations come from past grief and depression, from my artistic sensibilities, or what.

I’ve mapped out one version, and I’m going to write it. But with the conflict I feel about it, I have to try at least one other ending. And because I’m still making the story, it’s a bit like reaching episode three of a five episode set and having to choose whether that’s it, or whether there are another five episodes coming.

Which story is better?

How can I know?

We’ll find out.

Star Trek, Discovery, Idealism

Star Trek has been a part of my life since I was tiny. I grew up on The Next Generation, watching it curled up on the couch with my older sibs. While I remember the death of Tasha Yar, I don’t remember Riker without a beard (I see the impossibility there, presumably my brain edits out most of the worse stuff).

I was, arguably, too young for the show. I know it wasn’t geared towards toddlers. Some of my earliest nightmares grew out of Star Trek episodes. Those did not stop me from watching.

Of course, the same can be said for watching my sibs play Doom. Maybe toddler-Henry’s judgement just wasn’t that good. Toddler-Henry almost certainly valued spending time with sibs more than not having nightmares. That’s still true.

All of which is to say, Star Trek has a special place in my heart. Moreover, at a formative age Star Trek fed me an underlying idealism that serves as the keystone for good Star Trek stories. If you’ve watched enough older Trek you know what I’m talking about. When it isn’t there, the Star Trek-ness of the story just falls apart.

That idealism isn’t always well-written. But I admire it all the same. With it, generations of Star Trek have tried to do something that much of the rest of its contemporary narrative milieu dismissed as naive, or uninteresting, or hopelessly unrealistic. Unlike those other stories, well-written Star Trek refuels me.

All of which brings me around to Star Trek: Discovery. I’m working my way through it, bit by bit, but as much as I’m having fun seeing science fiction in the Star Trek universe it still doesn’t feel quite like Trek. This won’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with both Discovery and older Trek. Discovery’s first (and second, so far) season are dramatic and often exciting, and they have more character growth and development than I remember from TOS or TNG, but… they don’t hold the Trek idealism that I love. There are glimpses of it, moments when that idealism comes through, but it’s mostly hidden behind their larger threatening story arcs.

The most Star Trek thing I’ve seen in them so far have been Captain Pike and Number One, part of why I’m so excited for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

I have heard good things about Discovery’s third season, however. I’ve heard that it feels more full of the old idealism. I could really use that right now. So I’m still plugging away, doing my best to appreciate the science fiction show wearing Star Trek’s skin, and looking forward to it growing into something more hopeful and idealistic.

The Babysitters Club (Netflix)

Netflix’s version of The Babysitters Club is quite good, and I wonder whether I would have enjoyed the books as a kid as much as I like the show now. I haven’t finished it yet (or gotten very far in) but it’s good. I recall avoiding the books as a kid in part because the branding on the kids’ books was extremely gendered. That makes sense (both for concept and for marketing) but I feel kind of sad about it, because that’s a silly barrier to have between any young reader and some good storytelling. Honestly, the name of the series would probably have been enough to scare me away as a kid even if the covers hadn’t been as gendered, simply because I was raised in a pretty heavily gendered (and gender-policed) time and place.

I don’t mean that boys and girls (because there were only boys and girls in my world there and then) weren’t able to play together or be friends or whatever… but the times and places where that was possible were absolutely constrained. As a boy, I couldn’t be friends with most girls at school, at least not reliably. School was where all the toxic masculinity peer socialization was. And those peers very strongly enforced a social code in which it wasn’t okay for me to play with or enjoy girly things. Dolls, sparkly toys, dresses, colorful clothing, whatever… pink things, or maybe even any bright colors, were not safe to wear or have as an accessory. I remember getting shit from one of my friends in 4th or 5th grade about my yellow rain jacket being a girly color. I avoided bright colors for years afterwards, and was very concerned with maintaining a male gender presentation.

Now, despite this, I did actually play with dolls when I was playing with my friends who were girls. We would make up stories and play out scenes, and I remember delighting one of my friends by some particularly funny interaction between our two dolls (no, I don’t remember what that was). But I, like a fool, stopped playing and spending time with her, because other boys at school teased me about being friends with her. I feel bad about that.

Looking back, I wonder where all that toxic stuff was coming from. There were strong and strange lines drawn, and while I don’t think I questioned them at the time I sure as hell question them now. How was it decided that one girl was okay to hang out with at school, while hanging out with another would get you teased for “having a girlfriend”? Heck, how did “having a girlfriend” become a bad thing? Cooties, gender essentialism, and other reductive nonsense were pervasive.

All of which brings me back to The Babysitters Club. I’m not very far in yet, but I already love it. The first few beats of the first episode don’t bother to wait; they hammer in the unfairness of unequal gendered expectations and permissions, and that first episode’s lingering assignment of an essay on decorum is a perfect example of the struggle writ small *and* large. It’s great.

I admire the way that the characters’ internal perspectives leak into their episodes and tint the world they see through their own concerns. I love the consistency of the characters between episodes, and how we have a chance to see people from both the inside and the outside… it’s magical, having that perspective shifting so readily available. The contrast, from one person’s view to the next, is excellent. It’s written and delivered beautifully. I love seeing work do this, and I’m excited every time I see quality like this in work for kids.

The show doesn’t try to make itself accessible to boys, or try to bury its focus on the lives of young girls, and it doesn’t have to. It’s good just the way it is. I hope that there are young folks of all genders watching and enjoying it, because it’s worth having more people see beyond social boundaries and empathize with people who might be a little different from themselves.

I haven’t finished the season yet, and I understand that it may be a little underwhelming. That’s too bad. But I’d have to be really underwhelmed to be soured on this show.

This is a show worth watching, for a variety of reasons, and I hope there’s more of it. 

The Letter for the King, early thoughts

I’ve only watched a few episodes, a little bit into number four at the time of this post. I don’t know whether I’ll get through the rest of it at this rate. I’ve been enjoying it, for the most part, but I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed it enough for it to hold my attention when I have so many other things to watch.

If you watch this show, you should be ready for YA fantasy tropes to hit you really hard. This is especially true of those classic questing YA fantasy adventure tropes, from stories full of knights and long journeys and all that jazz. These tropes will be all over, and they aren’t too carefully hidden. If you don’t like YA fantasy, I can’t recommend the show. If you do like it, well, keep reading.

What’s good about the show?

First, most obviously when you’re watching the show, it’s friggin’ gorgeous. Lots of pretty scenery and fabulous locations, solid costuming, the works. If you want attractive medieval fantasy vistas, this show will deliver. I think it’s intended to cash in on the present lack of Game of Thrones, and while it hasn’t yet hit any of the bonkers high notes that GoT did with its visuals, I will vouch for this show’s eye candy.

Second, something that I rather appreciate and feel is important: this show has more actors of color than most other medieval fantasies (or TV shows, period) that I’ve seen recently. Now, that isn’t particularly hard to do given the pasty complexion of so many TV shows and movies. It’s an admittedly low bar, and it’s one more shows should clear.

But I’m glad to say that the actors of color here aren’t simply set dressing, and aren’t (all) reduced to stereotypes—a higher proportion of them are main characters than I usually see. Even better, the focal character is a person of color. It’s refreshing! I like having a broader representation present on the screen, and I find it more interesting this way. 

Unfortunately, that brings me to a less-good detail.

The setting for the show still has fantasy racism, clothed in a thin skein of nationalist bluster. Yet that skein is see-through: the folks that most racist people in the show are racist against are still people of color. Mostly black. 

The show’s writing is clearly of the opinion that this racism is bad and/or wrong. The story is written to empathize with the main character, as he deals with other people being racist against him. Unfortunately, I feel like the show could be doing a better job with this, and could be teasing more out of this. The show’s handling of things feels more tame and settled than makes sense.

Certainly there are better examples of recent works interrogating racism and handling surrounding issues of systemic oppression (mostly not TV, I admit). If the show didn’t want to face all of that, I think they could have done a better job of presenting national animosity without tying it to skin tone. Overall, it feels more like a missed opportunity and a curiously unexamined blank spot in the larger whole of the story, like someone left a low-res artifact in the middle of a beautiful landscape photo.

Maybe the clumsy handling of racism comes from the fact that the source material is a Dutch fantasy novel from the 1960s? I haven’t read it. But browsing the novel’s wikipedia page leads me to think the original didn’t even attempt any such handling; the show has obviously already diverged a good deal from the book, and seems likely to diverge further.

That means the clumsy handling is new to the show, perhaps in an attempt to make the show more modern or current. I’m not sure how to feel about that (especially given that I’m simply guessing). On the one hand, it’s good that they are trying (I think)… but on the other, well, I wish they’d done it differently.

Still, I will say that the broader representation and vague attempt to critique racists is an improvement over many previous shows. Having a diverse group of actors is better than a homogeneously pale cast. Critiquing racism, even poorly, seems like a clear advance from not daring to mention it or (worse) simply including it without any comment or critique. So while I think the show could do better, I’m willing to give it a pass here for trying.

Am I the right person to be passing judgment here? No, not really. If you want to do proper diligence, you should probably read some less-pale person’s thoughts on the show. But I do think this show is contributing to shifting the mode of pop culture in a better direction.

Addendum: Alright, just finished the fourth episode after writing the above. I’m still not sure I like the way the show has handled everything I mentioned previously (also, goodness they’re bad at making a believable belowdecks set for a small ship)… but there does seem to be some more interesting side commentary implied in how the story handles magical power, white savior narratives, and attempts at cultural appropriation etc. So as I said before: I’m not sold on the whole thing, but the show is doing a better job of some of this than their predecessors have.