Category Archives: television

We need space…

In the romantic comedy television shows, movies, and even the romance novels I admit to occasionally reading in my youth, one common thread united that now-cliché of institutions: the unspoken love. Also known as couples with “UST,” sometimes unrequited love, or (more wordily) “will they/won’t they” pairings, these include such hallmark couples as Sam and Diane from Cheers, Maddie and Dave from Moonlighting, and Mulder and Scully from The X-Files. On the page, couples were allowed to stare longingly at each other, the point-of-view character’s thoughts drifting over the object of desire and telling the reader what was so great about this person. On the screen, lips quivered, eyes locked, souls kissed. Actors got to bust out all their fun acting skills to convey longing, desire, words left unsaid with just a single glance.

In my overly romanticized memories of ‘80s and ‘90s TV, we had lots of these moments–the accidental declaration of love under anesthesia, the forced sharing of a sleeping bag on a stakeout, the soft play of careful lighting across Cybill Shepherd’s perfect face as she gazes at Bruce Willis. We got string sections. We got rainstorms and being trapped underground together and Angel turning evil from a moment of perfect happiness with Buffy. We got moments. And we got the pacing to pause and drink them in.

Now, though? We don’t.

Sure, you’re saying, we have romcoms and favorite OTPs and all that good stuff. We ship like nobody’s business. We ship people who don’t even appear in the same book together. We ship people from storylines that never intersect, we ship people who never appear in a scene together, we ship people based on a single funny look that passes between them. But the sad thing is, a single funny look is sometimes all that gets to pass between even the show’s golden couple, the canonical pairing, the pairing we’re meant to root for. I barely even remember Pam and Jim having more than one good romantic moment in nearly ten years of The Office.

Some folks still do it right. There was a kiss between Leslie and Ben on Parks and Recreation that was immediately .gif-worthy and amazing. Mostly, I think, because of its rarity. The scene was allowed to linger, to expand, to play itself out. We got time, as viewers, to let this big change in their relationship sink in and register it.

On Brooklyn Nine Nine, we’re meant to root for Jake and Amy, but while the actors are intensely appealing and banter well, there’s no “there” there. No moments of chemistry allowed space and breathing room and slightly-darkened sets and a pause from the rapid-fire comedic moments. We aren’t even allowed those things in films, which should be all about beautiful shots and Moments with a capital M but too often just aren’t anymore. The most romantic conversation I’ve seen in a recent film is in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, not in an actually romantic comedy. In books, unless it’s a full-on romance novel rather than a novel-of-another-genre with romantic elements, we have to keep the A plot moving, moving, moving at such a breakneck pace that sometimes we lose those pages of silence and stares and longing for the brush of a knuckle on a cheek or someone smelling a letter, eyes closed, in memory and rapture. If romance isn’t the main thing your book is about, you’re too often asked to cut for pacing.

So, authors, showrunners, directors, listen up. Even if it’s an action movie, even if it’s a science fiction novel, in those romantic subplots?

Give me space.

Give me space to see and feel and soak up as many senses as the medium will allow. Just for a moment, let these two crazy kids calm down from the hectic pace of Modern Hurried Plot long enough to really see each other, and let us in long enough to recognize the moment their feelings awaken.

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Time Travel Media March

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All this month, I’ll be blogging about time travel media (TV, film, and literature). For the past two years, I’ve been working steadily on a time travel novel, The Curiosity Killers, as my thesis project for Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. As I inch closer and closer to graduation this June, I want to celebrate some things that inspired the writing of that book.

For today, I offer my favorite time travel TV series. What are yours? What have I missed? A few I like that didn’t make the final cut include Fringe (which, while great, is really more about parallel universes than time travel as its central SF trope), Alcatraz (a very cool series but cut so short we never found out much about the time travel mechanism), and Sapphire and Steel (super fun and creepy, but limited appeal today based on its glacial pacing and relative obscurity).

1. Doctor Who, BBC, 1963-1989, 1996, 2005-present)

The quintessential time travel show. Long-running, cheesy, and ever-changing, Doctor Who is the love story of a man and his time machine/spaceship. There are essentially three kinds of Doctor Who storylines: time travel, space travel, and aliens rampaging modern-day London. Give me a dozen gimmicky time travel stories over the others any day. The best always include a historical figure (e.g. “Vincent and the Doctor,” “Tooth and Claw,” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “The Shakespeare Code”) battling robots, aliens, or both.

2. Quantum Leap, NBC, 1989-1993

Instead of a visible time machine/spacecraft or a time traveler observing the events of the past or future, Quantum Leap rewrote time travel rules for the twentieth century. Our time traveler, Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula, later of Star Trek: Enterprise) can only travel within his own lifetime (roughly the early 1950s up through a near future in the late 1990s). Furthermore, when he “leaps,” he appears as someone else in the past, their “physical aura” replacing his own. A convoluted concept, but the series executed it much like a historical anthology series, full of period-appropriate music and fashion.

3. Lost, ABC, 2004-2010

Lost didn’t start out as a time travel show. In the beginning, it was almost a cross between Survivor and Gilligan’s Island: how will a group of plane crash survivors make a new life for themselves on a desert island? But then the smoke monster showed up, and there was a hatch, and suddenly in season 5 a group of the survivors are marooned in the 1970s for reasons that—much to the show’s rabid audience’s chagrin—are never adequately explained. If you view Lost as an allegory, with the survivors being “lost” as people even before and after their island adventures (in much the same way The Walking Dead refers a bit more to the survivors than the zombies), then this series still holds up as an interesting study into the dark spots of the soul. The video above is a set of fan-made opening credits, as the series famously had only a title card to start each episode.

4. Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, BBC One, 2006-2007 and 2008-2010


First of all, ignore the American remake, at least until you’ve finished with the original. The first series, Life on Mars, deals with twenty-first century police detective Sam Tyler being inexplicably sent back in time to the 1970s. Those around him think he’s a newly-transferred detective, but they don’t know he’s from the future. Throughout the series, Sam picks up clues that he may be hallucinating while in a coma from injuries sustained in a car accident. The spin-off series, Ashes to Ashes, features a new detective character, Alex Drake, being sent from the present back to the early 1980s and once again being stationed in the same precinct as Sam Tyler with many of his former colleagues. Like Sam, Alex thinks she might be languishing in a hospital after being shot. This sort of time travel device is more fantasy than science fiction, and the David Bowie-inspired titles, music, and imagery give both shows a trippy, post-psychedelic patina. LoM has a recurring Wizard of Oz motif threaded throughout as well, and AtA makes constant Alice in Wonderland references. In both cases, the series also serve as a kind of homage to the cop dramas of their respective eras.

5. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Fox, 2008-2009

It’s easy to forget if you’re not a hardcore fan that the Terminator franchise of films and TV series is technically based on a time travel premise: in order to save humanity from what is essentially a sentient internet, freedom fighters are sent back in time to ensure the birth of humanity’s savior, John Connor. Flesh-covered AI robots called Terminators are also sent back in time, to ensure John Connor (and his mother) are instead killed, preventing the human uprising. The Sarah Connor Chronicles focuses on John’s mother and her quest to keep her son safe at any cost. They’re aided by a female Terminator model who is actually on their side. The time travel in both SCC and other Terminator properties is unique in its focus on future travelers coming back to what the audience thinks of as present day. We may not see the effects of the time travelers’ efforts as much, at least not until 2009’s Terminator Salvation film, set in the year 2018.

6. Being Erica, CBC, 2009-2011

What if you could have a second chance at all the pivotal moments of your life? That’s what happens to aptly-named Toronto book editor Erica Strange, who finds herself receiving therapy from a mysterious man named Dr. Tom. During Erica’s sessions with Dr. Tom, whenever he pinpoints something from her past that is indirectly affecting her present, she goes back in time to relive the original moment—in her previous body but with all her present memories and experiences and knowledge intact. The fun of this series comes from reliving the ‘80s and ‘90s, but at times it gets pretty deep. The underlying theme is, at its heart, understanding that even our most painful of experiences shape who we are.

7. Tru Calling, Fox, 2003-2005

From the Groundhog Day school of time travel: what if you could relive a day over again to intervene in a tragedy? To stop a crime? To save someone’s life? That’s what happens to medical student Tru Davies (Eliza Dushku) when she starts working in a city morgue. This series is notable for its premise as well as the presence of pre-Hangover Zach Galifianakis as Tru’s boss.

8. Journeyman, NBC, 2007

Journeyman was a victim of the Writers Guild of America strike of 2007; not enough episodes were produced before TV series experienced schedule-crippling hiatuses, and as no new episodes were available past the original 13-episode order, it was cancelled. This is a shame, because what started as a Time Traveler’s Wife-inspired fantasy romance gradually turned into a complex SF system of multiple time travelers from multiple eras working together to solve a large-scale problem in time.

9. Voyagers!, NBC, 1982-1983

To watch this series now is to see something almost proto-steampunk at work. Time traveler Phineas Bogg and his teen sidekick are part historical tourists, part solvers of time errors. Whenever history doesn’t unfold the way it’s supposed to, it’s up to them to correct it. Episodes usually featured famous historical figures. Bogg’s time travel device and vaguely pirate-like costume lent the series a quasi-Victorian sensibility.

10. The Time Tunnel, ABC, 1966-1967

The series that really started time travel on American TV. We see the starts of various themes that later spring up in Voyagers! (encounters with historical figures) and Quantum Leap (mysterious government program in danger of losing its funding). Though reboots were attempted in the 2000s, they have thus far been unsuccessful, perhaps because we now live in an era where time travel on TV isn’t quite so rare. A full-length pilot for a 2002 reboot attempt is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mETHT5npqOI and while it was aiming for gritty and dark, it comes off weirdly more dated than the original series at this point.

Watch this space for my top ten time travel movies and books, coming later this month!

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What’s up with needing characters to be likable?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about novelists—particularly female authors—feeling the need to make characters “likable,” and that perhaps one difference between literary and popular or genre fiction is that in the former, readers don’t necessarily expect to like/relate to/want to hang out with a character, whereas in the latter readers react badly if they don’t find a character (particularly a protagonist) likable. Furthermore, for a female author of a female main character, the pressure to create a likable protagonist seems greater.

So what’s wrong with women writing unlikable, complicated fictional people? And why as readers must we be so bent on this intangible, positive quality? I would point to a great many wonderful characters who aren’t so likable but who have achieved a hallowed status in fiction, both classic and contemporary: Holden Caulfield, Don Draper, Sherlock Holmes, Severus Snape, Walter White, every character in Gone Girl, every character in The Great Gatsby…and a great many figures of tragedy in Shakespeare are, at their heart, ridiculously unlikable. In fact, tragic flaws stem from personality failings, many of which are significant enough to make a reader or viewer seriously question the character’s worth. Furthermore, some characters we associate with “breakout” status—the Fonzies, the Michael Kelsos, et al—may elicit comic relief and fan adoration, but think about whether those characters would actually work front and center. Half the reason we love Daryl and Michonne on The Walking Dead is how sparingly and effectively they’re used. Would we really want to see them as the sole protagonist? Main character status for someone flawed, funny, and dangerous is bound to suddenly show their flaws more fully, which will then render them less likable. If Samantha were the lead in Sex and the City, she would be seen in a very negative light by viewers looking to castigate her freewheeling attitude. As one of an ensemble, however, she is funny and permitted her perceived flaws, so long as she doesn’t sully the slightly more sympathetic Carrie too much.

If we commit the literary sin of putting a complicated person front and center in a piece of genre fiction, we are asking audiences to read for character as well as plot, and this is where the discomfort happens. The supposition is that readers of genre fiction read for the story—the plot, the worldbuilding—but that only readers of literary fiction read for character, to explore the nuances of the human condition in all its real, raw agony. But why must it be all or nothing, one or the other? What’s wrong with writing about a social misfit but injecting that character into a piece of genre fiction? If readers are comfortable with a speculative fiction setting, for example, they’re already able to suspend enough disbelief to buy vampires, space exploration, or alternate histories. Why is it then a leap to also wade through an unreliable narrator, a series of extreme personal failings, or other forms of imperfection? Is this supposed preference for relatable characters a new phenomenon? Culturally, we’re eating up stories about zombie apocalypses, dystopian societies, wars between monster-beings, and worlds being brought to their ends by technology and invasion. We seem comfortable with exploring complete destruction of the very world we inhabit. And yet it is apparently too much to bear to explore that landscape alongside an alcoholic, a narcissist, a whiner, a jerk, a cheater, liar, bigot, criminal, or sociopath.

Really?

To me, characters who are perfect or only barely flawed are unrealistic. And because I write speculative fiction, where reality is absent in the elements that drive the story, I feel I must retain a shred of reality in those things unrelated to the fantastical components. Thus, in an urban fantasy novel where telekinesis and witchcraft exist, I create characters who have realistic day jobs, failed relationships, and quirks and failings that flesh them out and make them seem real. I might also add things that make them partially or wholly appealing, but I don’t expect audiences to focus on one or the other of those attributes but instead to take them as a whole. Just like with real life individuals, I suppose I assume some members of the audience will find that person appealing and some won’t, but it won’t necessarily hinder their collective ability to go along for the storytelling ride. I wouldn’t want to hang out with Jesse Pinkman, for example, but I rooted for him to stay alive at the end of Breaking Bad. I would loathe Sherlock Holmes as a real person, but I want him to solve every case. Wanting a fictional character to succeed in overcoming adversity does not mean we advocate their behavior, identity, or the approach they take in solving their problems. It means we are engaged in the storytelling give-and-take between author and reader and allowing ourselves an experience. To be unwilling to participate in that process if we don’t think we’d want to meet the character outside the pages of the book or the confines of the screen or stage is to limit our worldview to only the ideas that confirm our present state of mind. I would argue that fiction is better than that—it doesn’t always give us what we want, but sometimes it gives us what we need.

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Orange is the New Black: What makes a story fiction?

Orange is the New Black, the new Netflix series, has garnered critical acclaim this summer for its feminism, diversity, compelling storylines, and winning combination of raw and shocking comedy and drama. But this series began life as a memoir, and in comparing the true story to the screen story, it’s interesting to see just how much is different.

In Piper Kerman’s account of her time in a women’s federal prison, she already had to take dramatic license to protect those involved. When dealing with such a sensitive subject as a term of incarceration, you would certainly need to change identifying details and names. Thus, we’re already at one step removed from reality, not to mention that a memoir is seldom a verbatim account of every conversation and moment, unless these events were recorded for verification. A memoir captures the spirit of reality—events should be accurate, even if the words spoken by those involved are not precise.

Adapting a memoir for the screen is trickier. Film has the ability to merely condense events, as in Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, for example. But to sustain an ongoing television series, unless you’re making a documentary in real time, you have a much more difficult task. Thus, the television adaptation of Orange is the New Black is definitely fiction. Characters already slightly changed are changed even further, to the point where Kerman’s real-life ex Nora bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to fictional Piper Chapman’s ex Alex. Where Kerman’s fiancé Larry visited every weekend and was a constant and positive presence in her prison life, Chapman’s fiancé Larry is real-life Larry in name only. Not only is he not a constant, but he flails about cluelessly, undermining Piper’s rehabilitation efforts and driving her back into Alex’s eager arms.

But this isn’t to just enumerate the differences. What I’m really getting at here is to question at what point things stop being real and what is it about memoir that we expect to be sacrosanct. James Frey’s Million Little Pieces debacle made the literary world suspicious, and rightly so. However, if Frey had released his book as a novel, no one would have batted an eye, and any resemblance to real life would have simply lent the book an air of verisimilitude. The problem is that we live in an age where reality sells. Reality is cheap, and it’s what we’re used to from endless reams of bad cable programming (Kardashian et al). When a book purports to be real, we have been trained in the last few decades to invest more, feel more because it happened to real people.

And yet the craft of designing stories that feel true but are not, stories about characters we care about—even if they only began life as ink on a page—is definitely more difficult. As I read Kerman’s memoir, I enjoyed it because of the points she made about the failings of the American prison system, but it’s not the same enjoyment I felt at the TV flashbacks to Sophia or Red or Alex’s life before they became criminals. These people were absent from the memoir, and yet it’s the show’s inmates I cared about more. Kerman’s book is all Piper (a much more likable and regular girl than Piper Chapman, who is Flawed with a capital F); other players in her life are mere shadows seen only through her eyes. The TV series allows for the POV shifts impossible in memoir, which is always first person. This is how we’re able to care not just about our protagonist but the supporting characters as well.

I definitely recommend both versions of this title, but I hesitate to call it two versions of the same story. They’re two vastly different ways of telling a similar story at two different points on the fact/fiction spectrum.

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Steampunk October: Is Doctor Who Steampunk?

Doctor Who is not entirely a steampunk show, nor has it ever been. Still, the element of time travel is one that steampunk often employs, and what television program is more time travel oriented than Doctor Who? To that end, Doctor Who winds up having steampunk elements in it as the aesthetic of time travel media and fiction have changed and grown more steampunk-oriented. There are artists devoted to creating steampunk-esque Who costumes and props. The TARDIS itself in its Eighth and Eleventh Doctor years has sported more of a gears-and-machinery look and a more Victoriana-influenced look (sandwiching a rather living-organic spaceship style used by the Ninth and Tenth Doctors that was more Farscape than steampunk). In the era of “new” Who (2005 and beyond), there have been clockwork robots, steamships, and absinthe-soaked romps through 1890s Europe. The Eighth Doctor looked quite like Lord Byron and even had his own Frankenstein’s monster-style regeneration (though it’s a bit early in the Victorian era, there is definitely an affinity amongst some steampunk afficianados for the Byron/Shelley literary group). And even in its older eras, Doctor Who has employed an aesthetic full of clocks and levers, hourglasses and flowing frock coats. If we one day found out that the TARDIS itself somehow ran on water vapor, I doubt any fans would be terribly surprised.

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