Poker Face (Peacock 2023), by Rian Johnson

I feel odd using this promo image: I think they airbrushed Natasha Lyonne’s face, and erased some of Charlie as they did.

Rian Johnson continues to be one of my favorite directors and writers. I was excited about this show as soon as I heard that he was working on it, and I knew the basic premise before I watched the first episode. That didn’t spoil anything. I’ll do my best to not spoil anything here either. Welcome to Poker Face.

Charlie, our protagonist played by Natasha Lyonne, is an itinerant human lie detector consistently ending up around yet another dead body or dastardly mystery. The show is intended to be episodic. While you should definitely watch the first episode first, I understand the later episodes are less reliant on any specific sequencing.

I wasn’t sure how this first episode would establish Charlie’s existence as an itinerant lie detector. Nor did I have any idea how it would establish stakes to give the rest of the show tension. But it’s great! The first episode gives us all the background we need, and doesn’t give us much more than that. We know why Charlie is on the road, and we know who she is: a basically decent human being, a mostly average person with an unusual talent, someone who absolutely has a sense of right and wrong but doesn’t have much power or influence to do anything about it.

She’s a marvelous average Jane.

I especially appreciate what feels like a tonal nod to Columbo: Charlie isn’t a genius, she’s not a detective, she just feels compelled to do the right thing and will catch when people are lying. And, as one might expect when watching a mystery show, she often pays attention to details and inconsistencies. And if you pay attention yourself, you can see her catch those details.

But this show isn’t adversarial.

That’s because Poker Face contines Rian Johnson’s embrace of showing us the story’s (the episode’s) central death. It’s not a question of who, or how, or even necessarily why; though we don’t have all the details, the show’s mystery isn’t a whodunnit. It’s a how’ll-Charlie-catch-it. Or a what’ll-Charlie-do-about-it.

As I said, the show isn’t adversarial. The writers aren’t trying to pull anything over on the audience (in episode one at least, I haven’t seen more yet). It’s even more generous than Knives Out, or Glass Onion: we aren’t kept in the dark, we don’t have to race to solve anything, we know more than our protagonist does. And because our enjoyment isn’t found in solving the case alongside of, or before our protagonist can, Johnson doesn’t have to plant red herrings or mislead us about the death.

I admire this approach! Instead of obsessing over the mystery, we can delight in the way our main character approaches things, the way she lives her life while surrounded by lies and mysteries. And we can enjoy the choices she makes, and see her bear up under the consequences.

Now, because we know more than our protagonist does, I suspect there will be a great many times when Johnson borrows tension from classic horror genre tropes. We in the audience will be yelling “Don’t go in the basement!” or “Stay away from him, he’s the killer!” while Charlie sits and chats and smiles and nods. It’s marvelous.

Of course, this show might not be for you if that sort of tension isn’t your jam. If you aren’t willing to stew like that while Charlie fumbles through life, just trying to be a decent person in the midst of potentially scary people… I don’t know.

Try the first episode. See if it’s for you. You can do that much for free.

Back to the show… I think Charlie’s desire to just live, and her competing desire to do what seems right, is part of what makes her so magnificent. She’s just a normal person (I mean, apart from being able to suss out lies), choosing to do the right thing as best she can. I love it.

Anyway. If you want some good TV, if you crave murder mystery, if you’re looking for something that hasn’t been worn into an axle-breaking rut by the procedural genre… try Poker Face. I’m glad I did. I want to watch more.

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The Recruit, season one (Netflix 2022)

I finished the first season of The Recruit a couple weeks back. Once I started, it was hard for me to look away. I’m a sucker for spy stories. I enjoyed the characters. And the “CIA lawyer” angle is fun.

The show also had a really tight hold on what I’ll call ”the train-wreck factor.” That kept me staring, with the same sort of guilty, morbid curiosity that goes into rubbernecking. Watching someone get in over their head and then desperately claw their way towards whatever safety they can find (while being incapable of acting on the recognition that they might be in too deep) is fascinating.

Yet as I wrote while I was watching it, the protagonist of the show feels like the wrong person. Spy stories ought to feature more leads who aren’t super-agents, and who aren’t young white men. The SOE understood this during WW2, and a different show will give you a taste of that. The Recruit gets partway there: the lead isn’t a super-agent, and the show has many characters who aren’t young white men… but the young white man is still the focus of the show.

Nothing against Noah Centineo, who plays the lead, but if his character Owen and Fivel Stewart’s Hannah had simply swapped roles I think the show would have been more interesting. Yes, there would no doubt have been more other characters and plot points to rewrite after that, but I think the basic bones of the show were solid. I just would have been more interested if the main character weren’t a young straight white man.

I think the writers knew this. They were self-aware enough, had perhaps heard enough critiques before, to call out the social positions some of the characters occupy and how that shapes their worldview or constrains their actions—especially in comparison with the possibilities open to other characters. Because of that, the show felt at times like it was implying that Owen was able to get away with some particularly stupid shit specifically because of his social position.

But while that seems both honest and accurate, the recognition also feels almost like lampshading. Like, the writers decided to justify their choice of protagonist instead of trying a more interesting and possibly more difficult approach. And that only makes their focus on a very Hollywood-normal protagonist more perplexing to me.

Did the writers look at the option of having the lead be someone else, and then back off? Were they planning for the next season?

I have no idea what pushed the writers to make the choice they did. Perhaps they had well thought-out reasons. Maybe they chose to focus on a young straight white man because nearly anyone else would have been less clueless, or would have suffered greater consequences for their mistakes, or because the writers couldn’t imagine anyone else. Maybe they really wanted to play with specific character dynamics or story beats and didn’t believe they could explore those with anyone other than a straight white man. Or maybe they thought there was no way to have their script and their show greenlit if they chose a different protagonist.

Any of those could be true.

Or, maybe, they fell back on writing a young straight white male lead because they were comfortable with that. The show’s creator, Alexi Hawley, certainly has practice with writing for the straight white male lead, having written for Castle and The Rookie. I suspect he also has a decent idea of what he can get approved and what he can’t, so… yeah. Could be either.

Anyway.

Despite what feels like a missed opportunity, I’m still likely to watch the next season when it comes out.

I found the first season to be compulsive fun, despite not being quite what I wanted. I liked that it’s a spy story where the main character isn’t a highly trained badass. I enjoyed the characters involved. And I’m curious about where they’ll take those characters going forward. I can imagine several courses forward that would be a lot of fun, and would resolve many of my complaints. But that’s all speculation.

So, should you watch it?

If you don’t want to watch another show about a young straight white male protagonist who gets in way over his head and desperately flounders along, you should stay away. If you try the first episode and bounce off, or just feel the rising urge to scream because of the lead character… that isn’t likely to change much.

On the other hand, if you yearn for more spy fiction that doesn’t focus on the Bonds or the Bournes, this show and its frequently-punched main character will give you a little bit of what you want. If you don’t mind the lead character being yet another young white guy, and want internecine intra-department conflict and twisty loyalties, this will give you that too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be contemplating the love/hate relationship between fanfic and the original text.

White boys and spy stories

There’s more to be written here than I’ll address today. I’m putting this here because I’m sure I’ll have future posts on the topic. This particular topic came to mind through watching some of The Recruit, and through starting Arabella The Traitor of Mars.

Lots of spy fiction (I haven’t done a survey but I’d bet it’s the majority of it) is obsessed with the perspectives of white men. A revolutionary realization, I’m sure.

The thing is… that obsession is laughable. It’s ridiculous. I’ve known this for some time, but every so often I’m forcibly reminded of it.

Despite the relative position of power held by white men in Western society—no, because of it—white men are a strange choice for your default spies. If you could pick someone to be your spy, you’d be better off picking someone more likely to be overlooked or ignored by the society in which you want to gather intelligence. There are certainly other challenges for agents who aren’t white men, and those agents might struggle to reach every place or position of influence an agency might want access to (honestly, spy agencies should want agents of every shape and flavor), but I think there’s a solid reason the British SOE valued middle-aged and not-quite-elderly women for work in Nazi-occupied Europe.

And yet, so many of our spy stories still dwell on white male protagonists. It’s not surprising. White male protagonists have been the default for many genres for many decades, alas. But I’d love to see some fun spy fiction about a frumpy little elderly woman who is consistently overlooked and underestimated. I’m sure the genre exists, now I just need to go find it.

The Lincoln Lawyer, season one (Netflix 2022)

I didn’t know that “feel-good legal drama” was a genre.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of stuff going on around the edges of The Lincoln Lawyer that is potentially bad for our main characters. The show isn’t afraid of playing with imperiling people or dumping more problems in our characters’ laps. Not everything is fluffy bunnies and cuddles, and the show does open with a murder. 

But our main characters are, by and large, portrayed extremely sympathetically. Their relationships with each other are largely fun and supportive. Unlike more relationship-drama centered shows, there are relatively few moments that hit my emotional-duress cringe reflex. I have to assume that this series isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve really enjoyed it!

I should also note here that there is a movie with the same title, based on the same books, that looks waaay more stressful (judgment based solely on the trailer I watched). I haven’t touched that. Nor have I read any of the books by Michael Connelly that this show is based on. I’m sticking with this show.

I’ve watched through episode eight (of ten). So while I can’t give you an end-of-season perspective, I can say that this has been a fun ride. It’s one of the first shows that I’ve felt comfortable playing in the background while I cook, only occasionally rewinding a bit if I need to catch some visual clue that I missed. The banter, the distinct voices of the different characters, do such a wonderful job conveying so much for me that this nearly feels like watching a very pretty audiobook.

It’s funny… going back to my “emotional-duress cringe reflex“ comment, I think part of my enjoyment of the show is derived from its remarkably non-toxic portrayal of a messy web of relationships. If the show’s drama focused on strife between the different main and supporting characters, I’d be out. Instead, there’s what feels like a mostly-healthy but still complicated web of mutually supportive people. Some of them still have feels for each other despite past breakups, divorces, etc., but at the end they know that they’re each others’ fans where it really counts. And sometimes the exes are platonic friends! It’s sweet, really. It’s wonderful. It’s a show that’s taught me I can trust these characters do their best to support and help each other, even if they fuck it up. That has helped me relax a great deal.

You might have guessed from my watching-while-cooking comment, but I’m also aware that I’m not watching this with a very critical eye. I’m not digging into the ways it engages with other art in the same genres, and I’m not consciously doing deeper media analysis. I’m primarily watching it to relax instead of to engage, like the popcorn-literature of television. It’s been good for that.

Reflecting on what I’ve said above, a big part of my ability to relax while watching The Lincoln Lawyer comes from the ways this show avoids rubbing me the wrong way.

Firstly, the show isn’t another celebration of punishing wrongdoers. I’ve watched enough cop-centric shows. I don’t need another.

The Lincoln Lawyer has cops, and even has some cops who might be sympathetic, but it’s focused on the other side of the coin. The titular lead, Mickey Haller, is a criminal defense attorney and he (and the show) are both ready and willing to point out the ways in which police and the American justice system will grind people down and treat them unfairly every step of the way. I suspect a good deal of this show is legal-fantasy, but watching someone champion the underdog has a lot of that classic Robin Hood / David versus Goliath appeal. In many ways it’s one of those classic trickster stories, firmly on the side of the little person, dedicated to taking the hubristic and power-drunk giant down a peg or three.

Now, I doubt The Lincoln Lawyer will win awards for progressive depictions of gender or sexuality. It feels in many ways like a progressive vision from ‘00s TV, mostly focused on straight white people (hispanic or not) with several gay characters (sometimes gay people of color). But the material this show is based on was written in the ‘00s, so that feels oddly fitting—and in a huge improvement over most ‘00s media, this show doesn’t make queer people’s queerness their central character quirk. Another improvement over bog-standard American media: the two male protagonists (Mickey and his PI Cisco) eschew much of the toxic masculinity that laces so many TV shows, or they are at least comfortable enough with themselves that they don’t reek of that special gendered brand of insecurity.

I’m having fun with this show. I recommend it.

Oh, and I watched the ninth episode before finishing this, and uh… probably don’t cook during that one. It has some twists to deliver while setting up for the tenth and final episode. And it ends in a cliffhanger. Just so you know.

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.