Dear Showrunners, It’s Okay to Improvise

Everyone wants a showrunner with a plan. When LOST started, the most important thing was that JJ Abrams knew what the island was. When Battlestar Galactica ended, people were angry that it seemed like they were just making it up as they went along.

Well, the creators of How I Met Your Mother had a plan. They knew where they were going to end their series, and that’s where they ended it. Naturally, everyone is outraged, because by the time the nine-season show got to its predestined ending, things had changed. Barney and Robin’s relationship was supposed to be a roadblock to Ted, but people got invested in it on its own. And they spent the entire last season explicitly building up to a wedding and a meeting that were immediately thrown out the window.

Look, I have nothing against the idea of a plan. It’s useful to know where you’re going. But it’s also useful to know what you have. Sometimes a character isn’t working out, and you have to write them off the show. Sometimes a character is phenomenally successful, so you promote them from being a one-off to being an essential part of the show. Look at Ben Linus from LOST. Heck, look at Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recreation. Leslie Knope was supposed to have a string of guest-star love interests, but Amy Poehler’s chemistry with Adam Scott was terrific, so the writers just had the characters get married.

When you’re doing a television show, you have to know when a character isn’t working, so you can, let’s say, write Mark Brendanawicz off the show. And you have to know when something’s working really well. A lot of shows introduce a potential love interest in a later season, and it almost never works. Remember that cameraman that Pam was talking to on The Office? Complete failure.

And that’s where I think the writers of How I Met Your Mother went wrong. Against all odds, they called their shot nine years in advance, and when they introduced the Mother, everyone could have hated her. But everyone liked her! She fit the show, and she seemed like she’d fit Ted. Suddenly, everyone wanted Ted to end up with this character they’d never met before the final season. And the Barney/Robin relationship was working a lot better than would have seemed possible with the Barney from the early seasons. Their plan for the finale was still possible, but it no longer flowed smoothly from the show as it existed in the moment.

What I’m saying is that it’s okay to live in the moment. Sometimes the characters don’t want to go where you wanted them to go. Especially if you wrote up your plan ten years ago.

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1939 Retro-Hugos

You’ve heard about the Hugo Awards, right? They’re given out at each year’s Worldcon in a variety of categories that reward excellence in science fiction. They’re not a perfect gauge of excellence, because the people that go to Worldcon are not an exact representation of science fiction fandom, but they’re still fairly prestigious.

The Hugos started in 1953, which left a number of important works unrewarded. So there have been three rounds of Retro Hugos to try to fix that. For 2014, the Hugos are stretching back 75 years to award the works that would have received awards in 1939. So that means we’re looking at the work done in 1938. Which I think is a lot of fun, because that’s an era of science fiction I happen to know a lot about! So I’m going to do a quick overview of the potential nominees, using the official articles as reference.

Best Novel

I think the runaway obvious winner is T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. There are also twelve Doc Savage books and one Fu Manchu. I haven’t read any of Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Oz books, but The Silver Princess of Oz is also eligible. I realize these are more fantasy than science fiction, so the E.E. “Doc” Smith “Lensman” novel Galactic Patrol might sneak in there.

That’s how long ago we’re talking about. Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov wouldn’t publish their first stories until 1939.

Best Comic

Well, there’s Action Comics #1, which introduced Superman to the world in April 1938 and invented superheroes as we know them. That’s a pretty good choice, right? It’s also basically the only choice, because nothing else in 1938 comes even close to it.

Best Dramatic Presentation

There’s hardly any television to speak of. Movies are huge, but there aren’t any science fiction movies being made. Buster Crabbe stars in the serial Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, and it’s…okay. But the dominant form of entertainment in the United States is radio. And in October, 1938, Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air did its version of The War of the Worlds that became instantly legendary.

Fan Activities

Okay! This is the category I’m excited about, because I’ve read a lot about early fandom activities. I recommend Damon Knight’s The Futurians and Sam Moskowitz’s The Immortal Storm, although both give the impression that fandom in 1938 was solely based around people in New York having ridiculous feuds with each other. Zines had basically just started, and there were a million of them. The Futurians turned out a great many, but they had a tendency to change names all the time.  Forrest J. Ackerman was upholding the honor of the west coast, but, again, his zines didn’t really outshine his own fame as a fan. Also, his lingo is practically unreadable.

It’s pretty cool that the first issue of Bob Tucker’s Le Zombie is available online. Robert “Doc” Lowndes’s Le Vombiteur is also up, so the Futurians are represented. I’m going to read a bunch of old-timey zines before I settle on an opinion in this category. It will also help me tune in on people’s opinions on the short stories and novellas available to them, although mostly people tended to write about their club politics and why other clubs were full of dummies.

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My Dice

It’s the fortieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons today! That’s pretty cool. So let’s talk about dice! Like any long-time tabletop gamer, I’ve got some dice with special meaning to me.

Basic D&D Dice

Those are three of the first polyhedral dice I ever owned, straight out of the Basic D&D box set. Back then, you had to color in the numbers yourself, using a crayon. I haven’t reapplied the crayon since I originally did it back in the early 1980s sometime.

Crystal Die

This is the first die I bought on its own for a roleplaying game. I don’t know why I started with a six-sided die, because I already had a few of those (stolen from boardgames around the house), but I did.

Dice3These are my favorite dice for rolling percentages. The ten-sided die is the “10″ and the twenty-sided die is the “1″. I think I started using them somewhere around 1986, so the habit is fairly well ingrained at this point. And they’re so glittery!

Irregular DiceThese dice are just silly, and I never use them for anything. The two on the left are lead, supposedly made from civil war bullets. The one on the right is clay, and I made it in art class in eleventh grade. None of them roll very well, and I don’t even keep them in the dice bag for fear of damage to other dice (in the case of the lead dice) or to themselves (that clay die is quite brittle).

Readable Dice

This is the kind of die I prefer these days. Very readable, but with an interesting texture. There are some very fancy dice out there that look great but are just about impossible to read quickly. What good is that?

Metal Dice

These are metal and look great! They’re really tiny, though, so I don’t use them regularly. It’s fun to have special dice to break out when there’s an important roll, you know? It lends a sense of importance.

Dice7This is my standard dice bag. It’s a lens case, which means that it snaps shut.

Now, having shown you what my actual dice are, let me explain how you should have dice:

Dice Bag

At first glance, this is just a bunch of dice. But check this out:

Vertical Dice

See? Normally people buy a sleeve of dice that contains one of each kind, so you get a blue d4, a blue d6, a blue d8, and so on. And then when you need a twelve-sided die, they’re hard to find. Instead of doing that, I got six of each die, with each size being the same color. So even when the dice are all mixed together, I can grab a d8 immediately. I can save valuable seconds!

Except I only do that as the DM, because it’s not nearly as much fun as rolling a die that I’ve had for 25 years.

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How to Correct People

I was watching Best Ink tonight, and there was a moment that showed a great example of how to correct people.

The customer (called a “Skin” on this show, although it’s a “Human Canvas” on Ink Master) had spent four years in the Marine Corps and wanted a tattoo that related to his helicopter. In the brief conference about the direction of the tattoo, the tattoo artist said, “So you were part a helicopter crew.”

Now, it turns out that it is not actually called a helicopter “crew.” And some people get really persnickety if you use the wrong word by accident. But this guy answered by nodding. And he said, “A helicopter squadron, yeah.”

I’m just really impressed by this move, where he managed to squeeze in a correction while agreeing twice. And it worked! Later in the episode, the tattoo artist tells someone that his skin was on a helicopter squadron. The correction passed almost unnoticed by the recipient’s conscious mind, but it worked perfectly. Neat!

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2014 Golden Globe Predix

Am I using that right? “Predix”? That’s how industry insiders talk. Well, it’s how people talk when they wish to create the impression that they know as much as industry insiders.

I don’t normally get into the Golden Globe prediction game. Every set of awards has its own secret set of criteria, as you can see from the baseball Hall of Fame results. It’s not about knowing what the best thing is; it’s about knowing how the electorate of this particular award tends to lean. And I’ve always found it to be more fun to look at the Oscars and the Emmys. I’ve gotten pretty good on the Oscars, as you will learn in a month or two. The Golden Globes have always been more of a leading indicator toward the thing I prefer to predict.

But you can’t get better if you don’t practice, so I’m going to get into some Golden Globe predictions. Or “predix,” if that will make me sound cool. My suspicion is that it will not.

Best Motion Picture, Drama: 12 Years a Slave

This seems like an easy choice. It’s the kind of movie that wins this kind of award.

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama: Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Because I think people are kind of wishing they could vote for Gravity to be Best Picture, but it’s not as important and powerful as 12 Years a Slave. And if you liked Gravity, it’s because Sandra Bullock did an incredible job.

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama: Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips

Same argument as Sandra Bullock, kind of. There’s a lot of Tom Hanks going on in Captain Phillips, so rewarding him is like rewarding the movie.

Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy: American Hustle

Based solely on my impression of which movie has gotten the most talk. There was a brief burst of The Wolf of Wall Street chatter, and there have been a few posts about Siri mentioning Her, but neither have gotten any traction the way American Hustle has. I still don’t think it’s an entirely satisfactory movie, but it’s interesting enough to hold people’s attention well after they finish watching it.

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy: Amy Adams, American Hustle

On the grounds that she was the most impressive part of the movie. Eventually, I will stop being surprised at what a good actress Amy Adams is.

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy: Joaquin Phoenix, Her

A blind guess.

Best Animated Feature Film: Frozen

Obviously.

Best Foreign Language Film: Blue Is the Warmest Color

Always pick the one foreign film people have talked about. Although The Hunt has Mads Mikkelsen, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it were pretty good.

Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture: Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

Julia Roberts can have a Golden Globe award if she wants. Jennifer Lawrence was possibly a little divisive in American Hustle, by which I mean that not everyone enjoyed her antics. I did, but not everyone.

Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

Another blind guess. I think everyone would be happy for him, right?

Best Director, Motion Picture: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Because it was the Best Picture. Alfonso Cuaron can win “Most” Director.

Best Screenplay, Motion Picture: Spike Jonze, Her

It’s clever!

Best Original Score, Motion Picture: Hans Zimmer, 12 Years a Slave

Beats me. I’m just going to guess Hans Zimmer.

Best Original Song, Motion Picture: “Let It Go,” Frozen

Frozen is currently on the top of the Billboard albums chart.

Best TV Series, Drama: The Good Wife

Listen, if I were voting, it would be Breaking Bad. But the Golden Globes have a history of rewarding shows I don’t watch, and The Good Wife seems like this year’s Homeland.

Best Actress in a TV Series, Drama: Juliana Margulies, The Good Wife

See, because Homeland won Best Drama the last two years, and Claire Danes won the Best Actress in a Drama award. So, logically…

Best Actor in a TV Series, Drama: Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad

This is pure optimism on my part, but maybe they’ll reward him for his performance toward the end of the series.

Best TV Series, Musical or Comedy: Girls

Strictly because it won last year.

Best Actress in a TV Series, Musical or Comedy: Lena Dunham, Girls

She also won last year. I like this lineup, by the way: Lena Dunham, Zooey Deschanel, Edie Falco, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Amy Poehler. I’d watch a show starring those five people!

Best Actor in a TV Series, Musical or Comedy: Don Cheadle, House of Lies

My theory is that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association wants to reward the Most Serious Comedy, and that means shows on HBO or Showtime. Also, Don Cheadle won last year.

Best TV Movie or Miniseries: Behind the Candelabra

Because it was. Also, American Horror Story: Coven is not a miniseries and nobody thinks it is.

Best Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie: Jessica Lange, American Horror Story: Coven

Okay, I realize I just said that American Horror Story doesn’t count, but Jessica Lange is having a lot more fun than any of the other candidates. Behind the Candelabra didn’t have a lot of women in it, and even though Helen Mirren is very important, that Phil Spector thing doesn’t deserve awards.

Best Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie: Michael Douglas, Behind the Candelabra

He was good! And this is another really packed category: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofer, Idris Elba, and Al Pacino. Let’s make a heist movie with this guys!

Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries, or TV Movie: Hayden Panettiere, Nashville

Oh, I don’t know. Everyone likes her, right?

Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Miniseries, or TV Movie: Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad

These categories are a weird mush of different things, but Aaron Paul was really good at what he did. Even though I have trouble comparing it to Rob Lowe in Behind the Candelabra.

 

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2013 Movie Roundup

The deal here is that I watch a lot of movies. And every year, I try to catalog the movies I saw that came out that year. I saw some of these in theaters and some at home, but the point is that they’re movies from 2013 that I saw in 2013.

I’ve also tried to rank them from “the movie I most enjoyed” through “the movie I least enjoyed.” This doesn’t necessarily match up with what I think is the best movie. Let’s just do the list and then I’ll break it down a little.

  1. The World’s End
  2. The Conjuring
  3. Frozen
  4. The Heat
  5. Pacific Rim
  6. Gravity
  7. The Bitter Buddha
  8. Fast & Furious 6
  9. The Lone Ranger
  10. Room 237
  11. I Am Divine
  12. A Band Called Death
  13. American Hustle
  14. G.I. Joe Retaliation
  15. Star Trek Into Darkness
  16. This Is the End
  17. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
  18. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  19. Hell Baby
  20. Thor: The Dark World
  21. The Hobbit 2: The Desolation of Smaug
  22. Iron Man 3
  23. World War Z
  24. The To Do List
  25. Now You See Me
  26. The Way, Way Back
  27. Oz: The Great and Powerful
  28. Spring Breakers
  29. The Wolverine
  30. Battle of the Year
  31. Evil Dead

I’ll start with the bottom, because it’s the closest to this paragraph. The bottom three are the only ones I really, really hated. Evil Dead was a complete waste of time, but I might have been angrier at Battle of the Year, which was a dance-battle movie that somehow neglected to include any decent dance scenes. All the dancing consisted of someone starting a backflip, then cutting to someone else starting to do a backflip, then a third person finishing a backflip. None of it was synced to the music and it all had this digital strobing effect where half the frames have been removed so the motions are all stuttered.

I think the top twelve movies are the ones I liked a lot. I’d actively recommend any of them to people. And I’m not too hung up on which one I definitely liked the most. And if you want to argue about The Lone Ranger being up there, I’d be delighted to get into that with you, because I thought it was a very enjoyable action movie.

The middle section is where I put in the least effort in the rankings. Don’t sue me.

That’s a total of 31 movies, which I think is pretty good. Last year, I saw 51, but that was unusual for me.

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American Hustle: Kind of Unsatisfying

I’m going to say some nice things about American Hustle, but then I’m going to explain why I didn’t like the movie.

Many of the individual performances were very appealing. Amy Adams has turned out to be a really good actress, to the point where it’s fun to go back and remember her early role in Cruel Intentions 2, where she was filling in the role Sarah Michelle Gellar played in the first one. Actually, I think all the Cruel Intentions movies are pretty entertaining. I don’t see why you can’t take Dangerous Liaisons and transplant it to high school. I mean, aside from it being extremely silly.

And Christian Bale continues to be a really good actor. I hope he took some time to talk to Jennifer Lawrence about how they’re both managing to balance giant blockbusters (The Hunger Games for her; Batman and Terminator movies for him) with worthwhile movies. I wasn’t 100% in love with Ms. Lawrence in this movie, but I didn’t hate her either. I think there were a couple of scenes where she deliberately had her lipstick poorly applied, which is pretty great.

Everyone used to say that David O. Russell is an awful person to work with. On Three Kings, he and George Clooney got into a giant fight. What kind of jerk can’t get along with Clooney, right? But I guess he’s gotten better, because American Hustle took many of its main actors from Russell’s last two movies. You’d think that Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and Christian Bale wouldn’t have to work with someone if they hated him.

A lot of individual scenes were very enjoyable for me. I thought it was funny that Amy Adams was using a fake British accent to talk to Christian Bale, who was using an American accent. Louis CK was properly cast as a depressed guy who tells a story.

I liked Christian Bale’s look. He’s always been willing to look ridiculous if it serves the character. Although I also thought he looked a lot like Tom Cruise’s cameo from Tropic Thunder, which was a little distracting.

Now, having said all that…I didn’t really like the movie as a whole. It didn’t cohere for me. It felt like just a series of scenes that didn’t have a lot of narrative momentum. You could cut almost any scene in the movie and I wouldn’t mind. I don’t know quite was was missing for me, but although I liked a lot of individual parts, it wasn’t an entirely satisfying movie-going experience for me.

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Henry Darger Is My 2014 Inspiration

Henry Dargers novel: "The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion"

Henry Dargers novel: “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion”

You might not have heard of Henry Darger. He was a crazy person who lived alone and interacted with nobody, and when he died, his apartment was full of this completely crazy stuff he’d created.

Since then, he’s become kind of famous as an Outsider Artist, because he made these enormous paintings (on huge rolls of butcher paper) that are a weird combination of vivid imagination and tracing. And I’m not going to go into too many details here (you should see the movie In the Realms of the Unreal to see more), but they’re pretty crazy and when people talk about Darger, they’re what gets all the press.

One of Henry Darger's illustrations

One of Henry Darger’s illustrations. Many of the figures were made by photocopying images from coloring books, blowing them up to the right size, and tracing them

But he also wrote books. Sort of. The main book he wrote was (deep breath) The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, and it’s 15,000 pages long. Even though Darger’s been the focus of scholarly attention for decades, no one’s read the whole thing. It’s a mess; it starts with the six Vivian Girls, and then there’s a war that gets crazy.

And I find the whole thing kind of inspiring. Darger wrote a truly ridiculous amount, and he never showed it to anyone. He wasn’t in it for reward or recognition or…anything, really. He was just following the strange dictates of his soul. I wanted to call them the “mysterious exhortations” of his soul, but I realized just in time that I already used that phrase when I named this site.

So my goal for 2014 is to tap into my inner Henry Darger. Not the crazy parts. But the parts that drove someone to spend his life creating and not caring what anyone else thought. Because I like the sound of that a lot.

Also, I think those books look cool. He bound a lot of them himself, using cardboard and wallpaper. Good for him!

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Why I’m Flying to New York

First things first: I’m flying to New York. And after spending three days there, I’m flying home. In some ways, it’s a goofy waste of time and money, which naturally means that I intend to enjoy myself enormously. I may not, in the words of P.G. Wodehouse, “step high, wide, and plentiful,” but I shall certainly be stepping less low, narrow, and stingy than I do at home.

My agenda is almost entirely open. I will probably do some shopping and eat some pizza. The only thing I have scheduled right now is…well, do you promise not to laugh? I’m going to see The Hit List.

I don’t blame you if you don’t know what that is. Do you remember the show Smash? It was about people putting on a big-budget musical about Marilyn Monroe, and it was very flawed. But I enjoyed the heck out of it anyway. In the second season, there was another musical being staged, an Off-Broadway thing called “The Hit List.”

It was never too clear what it was about. There was a Diva and an Aspiring Actress and a lead actor who played the piano. One song involved aerial silks and another had a gun pointed at the audience. At the time, it seemed clear that all the songs were just there to reflect the problems of the characters in the television show while also demonstrating that Katherine McPhee had a pretty voice when she wasn’t being asked to be a Broadway belter.

After Smash went off the air, Marc Shaiman wrote a great blog post explaining all the songs he contributed to the show, and some people (me) were surprised to learn that The Hit List had an actual plot. And now it’s being staged as an actual musical for one night, which is such a crazy idea that I’m flying across the country so I can see it happen.

If I’m very lucky, someone will stage the ridiculous Dangerous Liaisons musical we saw two songs from.

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The Set-Up

I have come up with a new theory: nothing’s more film noir than a boxing-themed film noir. It’s not perfectly phrased. But my point is that I watched The Set-Up, a classic film noir about a boxer. His manager takes fifty bucks to throw a fight, but he doesn’t tell the boxer, who ends up winning. So he gets his hands broken. That’s pretty much the whole plot. The second half of the movie is the fight, and it’s ugly. Everyone in the movie is shiny with sweat and their clothes all fail to fit just right.

Anyway, here are some stills. It’s a good-looking movie! Well, not “good” exactly, but…evocative.

The Set-UpThe Set-UpThe Set-UpThe Set-UpThe Set-UpThe Set-UpThe Set-UpThe Set-UpThe Set-UpThe Set-UpThe Set-UpThe Set-Up

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