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.

Jessica Jones, AKA Intense

No spoilers here, but a trigger warning seems appropriate.  This show deals with abuse and PTSD.  It’s emotionally exhausting.  I haven’t seen the whole series all the way through; that would require far more endurance than I have, and less pursuit of other things that I enjoy.

But I can tell you that from what I’ve seen so far, it’s a really good show.  It’s intense in the kind of way that leaves me with weird twisty knotting feelings in my chest, but without pushing me so far overboard that I can’t watch at all.  It makes me want to keep watching, too.

It’s funny, it’s painful, and I think it has a far better central character and set of central struggles than did Daredevil.  In fact, I think it more or less improves on Daredevil in every way.  It isn’t perfect; there are a few narrative choices so far that I disagree with or which ring false to me but… it’s GOOD.  It’s really good.  I hope you get to watch it soon.

Oh, also, the art for the intro looks a lot like Jeremy Mann’s cityscapes, which are gorgeous.

Would Watch Again: Fury Road

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This movie is awesome.  It is awe-inspiring.  It is, very literally, spectacular.

If you like action movies, or you like the post-apocalyptic aesthetic, this movie is for you.  If you normally turn up your nose at action movies because they are laden with troubling bullshit, you can still try this movie.  Not because there aren’t troubling themes dealing with sex slavery and the subjugation of women, but because these things are dealt with well, with considerable respect and aplomb, in a movie that treats its female characters as real and very impressive people even when some of the movie’s characters do not.  Fury Road may or may not be a feminist movie (more on that later) but I think it’s a movie that you can watch without feeling like someone snuck you a shit sandwich.

Plus, it’s a really well made action movie, period.  I saw it on Saturday and would happily see it again RIGHT NOW.  It isn’t the tightly-plotted / intricately arranged tapestry of Die Hard; it’s like a formidable piece of Brutalist architecture.  It dominates the landscape with its physicality, its constant tension, and the relentless pace of its driving (heh) narrative.  For more of my thoughts on the matter, read on.

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I’m busy, but…

I have a funny pair of videos for you, to tide you over while I finish my school project.  The first video is an excellent example of why I find Rimworld fascinating (you can read my posts about it if you like).  The second one is what happens when the people making Sesame Street love Game of Thrones.

First, bad things happening to desperate space-wreck survivors (hint, it goes poorly):

Second, yes, they really did this:

Gravity Falls: X-Files for kids, Comedy for adults

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I just spent much of Saturday evening blazing my way through Gravity Falls, Alex Hirsch‘s absolutely wonderful cartoon series.  Gravity Falls was first described to me as “like The X-files but with kids in rural Oregon,” which does a decent job of introducing it.  That also puts it dangerously (tantalizingly?) close to Twin Peaks territory, but fails to convey just how damn funny the show is; I was chortling the whole way through, and would happily watch many of the episodes again (a rare experience for me with most TV shows). There’re still many more episodes for me to watch, and I honestly can’t wait.  I might take a break from writing this just to watch the next one.

So yeah, Gravity Falls is what would happen if you mashed Twin Peaks and the X-Files together in a hilarious and intelligent kids show.  It chronicles the summer adventures of Dipper and Mabel, a pair of twins who’ve gone to spend the summer with their great-uncle (Grunkle) Stan.  They live with him in his house / Mystery Shack tourist attraction, and have the dubious pleasure of working for him while they try to enjoy their summer in the bizarre town and its even stranger environs.

They must face boredom:

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Beasts:

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And popcorn-machine math:

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What’s not to like?  And yes, I did just watch another episode.  Honestly, if you’re at all interested in smart animated comedies, you should give Gravity Falls a look.  It’s definitely a kids’ show, but like the best kids’ programming it uses that as a vehicle to go deeper than you’d expect, instead of holding back.  Despite the innately fantastical nature of the show, it still feels like a very real depiction of the emotional lives of its protagonists, and it doesn’t shy away from the realities of social pressure for impressionable youngsters.  Now, if you’ll pardon me, I really want to watch another episode.

Agents of SHIELD = Lazarus?

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If you read my previous posts about Agents of SHIELD, I’ll forgive your surprise at seeing another one.  It would be a bit harsh to say that the show should have been buried after the end of last season, but it certainly feels like the show was killed and resurrected in time for the beginning of this new season.  Though we still see many of the same people on screen, this show feels wonderfully new and different, perhaps even reborn.

Stepping back for a moment: the first two episodes felt considerably better than season one’s, but they were limited by their need to establish the transition away from season one and it wasn’t until episode three that I was really sold.  In this case, “sold” includes me cackling and clasping my hands in glee.  There have been better and worse parts of the episodes since then, but they continue to leave me excited.  It’s almost a shame that season two builds so much on the context created in the first season, because you’ll have to watch the first season if you want to really know what’s going on between the characters.  I mean, maybe you could get by without it, but you also might miss a good deal that is simply referenced in passing.

You know, I feel vaguely prescient.  When the show started up last year, I said this:

Agents of SHIELD doesn’t occupy that category of stellar TV shows which are unassailably good right off the bat, but it seems to me that the foundation is being laid for a much longer story which should gradually grow in complexity and appeal.  To be honest, I think I may prefer it this way, provided it pans out: a carefully designed and cultivated story that grows into an excellent favorite would be much better than something that starts off promising only to go sour.

I didn’t think that I’d nearly abandon it before it improved, but all’s well that seems better at the beginning of season two, right? I’m sure that’s how that quote is supposed to go.

So, there’ll be no spoilers or anything else like that in this post.  I just wanted to say that, in case you dropped it in distaste at the end of last season, you may wish to give SHIELD another chance.  At least for a little while, until I have the chance to change my mind again.

Avatar: The Legend of Korra

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There are lots of things to like about the Avatar series.  I find it hard not to like excellently conceived and delivered all-ages content, especially when it does little to dumb down what it has on offer just because kids will be watching.  Both Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra have ultimately delivered that, and at this point I’m definitely a fan (*careful, that link goes to Nickelodeon’s streaming site, and there’re potential spoilers on the page*).

I’ll admit that for a while I was much happier with the first series than with the second, but Korra has been growing on me.  Most of all, I’m really happy about season three and very excited for season four.  Please be aware that I’m going to spoil bits of seasons one and two for you here.  If you haven’t seen them, I’ll put it like this: they’re not as good as they could have been, but they have their own wonderful moments.  Better yet, they set the stage for excellent things to follow in their footsteps, and I would certainly say that they’re worth watching because of it.  And because, you know, there really are some good moments in there.

Now that I’ve warned you, my thoughts thus far are as follows:

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Orphan Black

Deeply watchable.  That’s what I have to say about Orphan Black.

I should amend that: deeply watchable and a bit confusing.  You could easily argue that those are both understatements.

Please bear in mind that this is strictly from the point of view of having watched the first episode, but I’m very excited to watch the rest of the show now.  Let me tell you more.

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SHIELD takes a turn for the better

First things first: if you haven’t watched The Winter Soldier you should most definitely not watch any more Agents of SHIELD.  Captain America 2 is lots of fun to watch, and is way better than Agents of SHIELD.  It would be a shame to have the less entertaining one spoil the better one for you.

Second, despite how much I’m mentioning it this isn’t a review of Captain America 2.  I did love watching that movie though, and I’ll review it later and probably see it again in theaters.  You should go watch it, and keep in mind that all spoilers in this post will also effect your knowledge of that movie.

So then!  If you’ve been watching Agents of SHIELD you’re probably familiar with many of the problems of the show.  Even ignoring any complaints about the acting, one of the show’s big problems is that SHIELD agents (and especially our heroes) appear to be utterly incapable of acting in a clandestine fashion.  Nor are they very good at keeping secrets in a more general sense.  Their incompetency in the realm of secrecy is a running joke between me and my housemate.  And while I’ve been watching in the hopes that the show would improve and perhaps live up to the potential that I thought I saw at the beginning, it’s been stuck on maybe-not-quite-mediocre for a while now.  Every so often there are flashes of fun, little nuggets of something worthwhile jumbled into the dross, but they’re consistently buried.

This most recent episode helped change that.  Look below the break to learn more.

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