Advertising poster for the Chinese television series, “The Legend of Fuyao”
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
The many layers of a Japanese mille feuille (by Miya, via Wikimedia Commons)
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
Okay, The Good Place is in season two so it’s not technically a new show, but I just started watching, so it’s new to me. My TV viewing is generally limited to political news and sports these days (when I’m not writing, of course), but when The Good Place was recommended to me recently, I gave it a try.
An excellent decision.
The show starts out when Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Kristen Bell) finds herself in the afterlife. Though not surprised to be dead, she is a little surprised to find out that she’s ended up in the Good Place since she’s pretty sure she wasn’t a very good person in life. It’s not long before she realizes that there’s been some kind of bureaucratic mistake, but since she has no interest in spending the hereafter being eternally tortured in the Bad Place, she does her best to hide in plain sight from the Good Place’s architect Michael (played by Ted Danson) as well as the other obviously-in-the-right-place residents. Continue reading
Have you ever seen the columns in entertainment magazines where they show two celebrities caught at different events wearing (gasp!) the same outfit? The column writer typically opines about who wore it better and why. A quick google search showed that these columns do, in fact, exist in the digital world, opening up the floor for everyone with a keyboard and an opinion to weigh in on the matter.
We humans love our comparisons. Remember compare and contrast writing exercises in elementary school? Comparative Literature? Ever been given the advice to pitch your book by comparing it others already out in the marketplace?
Recently, I recalled a high school lit project that required us to pick a topic from a list of maybe 10, develop a thesis around it, and use the books we’d read by that point in the course to support it. I chose to write about whether classic books or movies made from classic books were better. (Spoiler alert: It was a literature class. This one came with a built-in answer, especially if you liked getting A’s as much as I did.) So, yes, using two classics, A Tale of Two Cities and Wuthering Heights – both books I loved in high school, by the way – I came to the astonishing conclusion that the books did a better job of presenting themes, metaphors, and character studies. Continue reading