As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a fan of mysteries, both to read and to watch on TV. Now that I subscribe to the Acorn channel, which showcases television primarily from the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but also from other EU countries, as well, I’m just about as happy as a pig in mud. There’s always something good on!
One of the things we’re taught as studious craft writers is that the stakes are important. Stakes, well-defined at the outset and referred to as needed during the course of story, can keep the reader reading, eager to see if (or more likely, in the romance genre, how) our characters get their hearts’ desires.
But this week, I binge-watched season one of BBC’s Ghosts, and now I’m wondering if high stakes are actually a distraction from a cozy story.Continue reading
I wanted to get 2021 off to a good start, so I binge watched Bridgerton over New Year’s Eve and Day. I had been so excited to learn that Shonda Rhimes would be producing this mini-series that I subscribed to Netflix streaming several months ago just so I could see it.
[Spoilers start now] I had high hopes for this production, and in many ways I wasn’t disappointed. The costumes! The settings! The characters! Those dance sequences! When a development company hurls money at a production like this, it really pays off. The series is spectacular to look at, a visual treat of the highest order.
However, Bridgerton isn’t flawless. I was unenthusiastic about some of the things the producers added to the source material—the angsty overtone, and interpreting Anthony as a jerk, which was a huge mistake in my view. And they left out Julia Quinn’s original witty dialogue, which was a sad loss. However, overall I was thrilled that the story really was a romance—a story in which the principal plot is the courtship between Hastings and Daphne, which I thought was fizzy and delightful. And they didn’t back off from the menstrual blood. Continue reading
Lately I’ve been mostly unable to read or watch new fiction. I’m not sure why this is happening now, although lots of people have mentioned that between the U.S. elections and the pandemic, all they can read is books they know the ending to and all they can watch is reruns of The Great British Baking Show.
One of the TV programs I’ve been catching up on is Columbo, starring Peter Falk. It’s showing up at my house on a rerun channel on antenna TV, although I’m sure it’s available from fine streaming platforms everywhere. Even though every episode is constructed exactly the same way (the murder is shown on screen at the beginning of the show, so it’s more of an affable “police procedural” than a “mystery”), so far, I haven’t tired of it. I never thought to wonder why until I read this wonderful cartoon in The New Yorker.
For those of you who don’t want to click the link, the cartoon’s author, Joe Dator, says he’s been thinking about why he’s watching Columbo reruns. His analysis is pretty good, I think. He points to how Columbo is a relaxing kind of hero: he’s not a fancy dresser—far from it!—and his partner is a rescue beagle. He doesn’t carry a gun, much less shoot one. There are no car chases or foot races. Columbo’s success is due to his work ethic, and he’s not cowed or awed by the wealthy and privileged suspects he interviews, who live in exclusive enclaves and consider themselves untouchable by law enforcement.
“Let’s just say,” Dator, the author, concludes, “that there’s a bit of comfort and wish fulfillment in seeing this humble public servant walk into sumptuous mansions and make arrogant jerks who think they’re above the law finally face the consequences of their crimes.”
The final frame is the back of a head sitting at a desk in the Oval Office of the White House. “Oh, if only,” Dator writes.
Isn’t that the truth? Where’s a Columbo when you really need him?
Well, right now he’s on COZI TV, and, yes, I’ll be tuning in.
Despite my best efforts (well, my tired, six-months-of-this-shit efforts), I caught a stomach bug. If a stomach bug can sneak past the defenses we’ve got against infectious disease, I’m a bit worried about COVID-19 sneaking past. But maybe it was just a bad batch of homemade kimchi.
Anyway, I was feeling very under the weather this week, and I decided to travel back to my childhood, when a sick day was about toast and applesauce and watching all the bad daytime TV until I drifted off to sleep. Although, with modern streaming services, I had a better choice for TV; after some thought (but not too much – one side effect of this stomach bug was not wanting to think too much), I decided to watch Tig Notaro in One Mississippi, an Amazon Prime Original.
I’d seen Tig give interviews, and thought she was kind and funny; what I didn’t expect to find was a comedy-drama overflowing with love and heart.
The comedy was laced with a deep, deep love of people and place; it felt a bit like the Lake Woebegone stories in that sense. The characters weren’t perfect, but there was a deep love for them, and their Louisiana small town setting.
The drama? Well, the drama is certainly there. Southern Gothic? A white family full of secrets, and the story during the six episodes of season one slowly reveal them, and brings about a certain kind of healing by the end of the season two. I would give trigger warnings for mother’s death and child molestation by a family member . . . but the triggers are not played for tears and tragedy alone. They are important drivers to the plot, and I found their treatment to be very wise and healing.
Based on events in Tig Notaro’s life, Tig is brought back to Louisiana in time to witness her mother’s death in a hospital after a head injury. She stays with her stepfather, Bill, a man who seems to deal with his grief by sticking to his strict schedule, and her brother, Remy, a high school athletic star who is now an overweight history teacher with no lovelife.
However, everyone finds love in 12 episodes, and they are satisfying romances, with trouble and stakes and everything.
Now, let me get into SPOILER territory (but not too far – look for the SPOILERS OVER in bold to resume reading if you are sensitive). My favorite romance was between Bill and Felicia. They lived parallel lives in their office building for years, when Bill collapsed in the elevator, and Felicia stayed to get him help. From the first exchange, we knew they were a nerd match made in heaven.
Bill’s actor, John Rothman, said in a 2017 interview with Awards Daily TV, “Bill is very compulsive and orderly. He wants all of his ducks in a row, and he’s up against a world that won’t cooperate.” We see a few characters like that on TV – Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon comes to mind, although Bill is even more rigid in his ways . . . however, unlike Sheldon, he’s able to express love to an extent from the beginning (and we know he can feel love deeply – the episode where his cat got out of the house was heartbreaking).
Felicia shares that love of orderliness, but as a Black woman who has made it up the corporate ladder, she can give Bill new perspectives and things to think about. Both of them come with disorderly families that they love dearly (although they find it easier to express annoyance with them). It is so charming to see these very, very reserved “nerds” who don’t like change make very big changes in order to be with each other.
If you need a sweet September binge or rewatch, let me recommend One Mississippi. Great story telling with multiple happy endings, and at 12 episodes of about 25 minutes each, you can binge it in a long Saturday afternoon and still have time to read a book on Sunday.
In my childhood, Saturday morning meant cartoons. No sleeping in for me! I was glued to the screen watching even crappy cartoons from six or seven a.m. until lunch. One of my favorites were the Looney Tunes cartoon hour. I enjoyed the tales of the Singing Frog from 1892 (One Froggy Evening, 1955), Marvin the Martian, and Speedy Gonzales, but my favorite stories were about Bugs Bunny.
I’m not sure how they got these cartoons on the air in the late 70s and early 80s. Parents were already wary of gratuitous violence – Wile E. Coyote and his plans to permanently rid his life of the cheerful Roadrunner, Elmer Fudd wandering around woods, forests and opera houses with his hunting rifle, Marvin the Martian ready to eradicate the earth and any loose Earthlings.
And then there’s the sensibility – many of these cartoons were first made in the 1950s, a whole generation before X. A lot of their humor was rooted in even earlier times – 1930s gangster movies, slapstick comedy and snappy banter. I didn’t know who Liberace was, or what a teen idol Frank Sinatra was, or a single thing about Sally Rand and her amazing fans . . . but it didn’t matter. The jokes worked anyway for pre-teen me.
Looking back, it does make sense. Violence was very much a part of our world back then – we worried about the Soviet Union nuking us, and gun violence was in the news daily. Also, those re-runs had to have been a lot cheaper than making new cartoons. What I liked best about them, though, is that even though they were accessible to an eight-year-old, they weren’t meant for an eight-year-old. I felt they gave me a peephole into a sophisticated universe. (Note, as an eight-year-old, many of my notions of sophistication were actually shaped by Warner Brothers. It was a cycle that fed itself.)
One powerful lesson that the Looney Tunes taught was the power of the underdog – a quick-talking rabbit who was clever could Continue reading
I read a lot, but I also like to watch TV. However, finding something engaging is hard. There’s a lot out there, but most of it seems not to be written for me. The dramas are too grim (“ripped from the headlines,” thank you, no), and the comedies often don’t hit my funny bone. I dislike a lot of the casting and story structure: almost everybody is white, and men get all/most of the good parts. Women are often sexualized, or they’re plot points. (I know: there’s always Shonda Rhimes. Too much soap opera.) To further limit my choices, I’m in the 10 percent of the U.S. population that doesn’t subscribe to “paid television services.” No cable or dish for me: I stick to “antenna TV.”
But I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I have more choice here—including programming in foreign languages—than if I lived in a rural area. A while back, as I channel surfed past the Chinese station, I saw that the broadcast, a scripted drama, had subtitles in English and another Asian language I didn’t recognize. Curious, I stayed to watch for a bit.
And got hooked.
The Legend of Fuyao, starring Yang Mi and Ethan Juan, is a 2018 Chinese television series based on the novel Empress Fuyao by Tianxia Guiyuan. The first year has 66 episodes, putting American TV production schedules to shame, and it moves at a dizzying pace. Here, roughly speaking, is the plot:
Last week, a friend of mine, who happens to be a writer (quelle surprise!) posted in her Facebook group about being obsessed with beginnings and endings as she starts a new writing project. I’m in the same headspace right now for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’m about to embark on my own new writing project. The second is that my husband and I finally got to watch a proper ending for an HBO series we loved that died an unexpected death thirteen years ago.
We were Johnny-come-latelies to the prestige TV phenomenon of the series Deadwood. But after years of having the story recommended to us by trusted friends, we eventually watched the first episode. And we were hooked.
The very first scene* had a twist I saw coming but couldn’t quite believe would really happen. The first season introduced a community of characters who were sometimes repulsive but always magnetic, storylines that focused on character minutia but were simultaneously sweeping, dialogue that was vulgar while also Shakespearean. And as we watched the last episode of the third and final season, we realized with dismay what the show’s early fans had experienced in 2006–this amazing story, unexpectedly canceled after the third season had wrapped, never got a proper ending. Continue reading
Over the holidays, I binge-watched Riverdale, which is a live action reboot of the 75-plus-years-old Archie comics, and I loved it. I always love a good soap opera, because they are layered like a mille feuille, but Riverdale? Riverdale has layers in five dimensions.
First, artistically speaking, I was struck by the Twin Peaks vibe from the first shot. We open on the tragic drowning death of campus hero, Jason Blossom. In some ways, it feels like a prologue, but it is exactly where the season’s story starts. We’re given a gorgeous backdrop of river and mountains, somewhere near the Canadian border, and the stunning contrasts of all that summer green, and the Blossom twins’ pale skin and red hair. (Tone alert: Riverdale has Twin Peaks’ striking look, but there’s 50 percent less mumbo jumbo. The story references Twin Peaks as an influence, but it’s got better pacing, in my opinion.)
When I headed back to the DVD menu to click for my next hit, the episode names reminded me of old movies and short stories. Stuff like “Heart of Darkness” and “Faster, Pussycats! Kill! Kill!” I bet a reading/watching program of these references would provide quite an education in how to set up murderous fictional situations. But even if you’ve never read or seen most of these classics (and I haven’t), you’ve heard of them. They are in a million pop references, and you get it. It’s a little touch that re-inforces what you know about this series: it’s a pop rendition of some of the best of the twentieth century. That cult-hit vibe makes it even more cool and mysterious.
The next thing you notice is the stars. I’ll circle back to the younger stars in a paragraph or two, but the older stars? If you are a woman of a certain age, Archie’s dad (played by Luke Perry ((!))) and his mom (Molly Fucking Ringwold! THE red-headed sweetheart of my generation!) will provide all sorts of other feelings and memories. They don’t particularly Continue reading
#MeToo is an awesome thing, the zeitgeist of our times. It’s put everyone on notice: the old ways/jokes/behaviors/assumptions are over! Including how you approach fiction, especially (maybe) romantic comedy, which is more or less what I usually write.
Two days ago the Washington Post published an article that revisited some old rom-coms, analyzing how male rom-com behaviors that 10 or 20 years ago seemed cute and fun now look stalker-ish in light of #MeToo. And yesterday Jenny Crusie wrote a blog about that article and how her books appear in the glare of 20/20 #MeToo hindsight. (Spoiler alert: She thinks mostly her books hold up okay, in part because her heroes aren’t alpha males out to conquer. There’s a lot more to the discussion, so check it out.) Continue reading