"The matter will be forgotten by all of us … and history too, no doubt."

-The line in Reign that’s made me hoot with laughter the most, by handwaving away the entire existence of Mary, Queen of Scots’ purported brief engagement to a murderous, illegitimate Portuguese prince. Though it nearly tied with another line in the same episode, when one character spoke for all of us in the audience and our whiplash about said Portuguese prince’s one-episode switch from romantic hero to villain: “I don’t understand why he changed so quickly … [before] he seemed a whole other person.” Oh, show. I am watching out of some sort of residual childhood loyalty to Megan Follows and a Dorothy Dunnett-inspired interest in the time period, but if you’re going to have your own characters critique your plotlines, you need to get either much better or much more over-the-top campy very quickly.

Re-reading Ender’s Game: Racism, blogging and video games

I loved Ender’s Game the first time I read it, as a pre-Internet pre-teen without any knowledge of Orson Scott Card’s bizarre and homophobic vitriol. I even liked the first sequel, before the second one convinced me that maybe some stories were better off as one-shots. Then I found out about Card’s personal beliefs, and mentally classed the book with early Mel Gibson movies and other entertainment I feel vaguely guilty about liking. But as the new, rather-joyless-looking movie adaptation arrived, I decided to reread Ender’s Game, to see how much of what I liked about it remained and how much I could pick up on Card’s prejudices as an adult reader. The short answers: Not as much as I remembered, and more than I expected! First of all…

1) Surprise N-word: Orson Scott Card, would you like some racism to go along with your homophobia? I read an old copy of the book, an early printing that includes a part where, in some routine trash-talking, Ender calls his friend Alai by the n-word, and then jokes about how his great-great-grandfather would have sold Alai’s grandfather to another slaveowner for not liking that term. Kids these days!

“And Shen.”

“That little slanty-eyed butt-wiggler?”

Ender decided that Alai was joking. “Hey, we can’t all be niggers.”

Alai grinned. “My grandpa would’ve killed you for that.”

“My great great grandpa would have sold him first.”

Card edited that exchange in later editions, but apparently not because he’d regretted using the word or even realized that maybe having your white, super-genius, messiah-like hero use racial epithets and joke about slavery isn’t a great way to develop a sympathetic protagonist. No, according to Orson Scott Card, “prudes” forced his hand.

 “Even as the old obscenities dealing with sex and excrement were unleashed upon the public, new obscenities moved from the realm of the merely indecorous to the sinful. What f* and s* (and worse words) had once been, now n* has become. And, just as there were prudes who screamed in outrage and demanded that any work containing those old bad words must be banned, so we have a new group of prudes making identical demands about works containing the new bad word,” he wrote in 2000, in response to a question about why he had edited that passage. (Card begins that answer by comparing himself to Shakespeare, which gives you an idea of the rest. He also goes onto to assert that truly sophisticated readers would understand that Ender’s racism was really about teaching Alai tolerance and rebuking his friend for being racist about Asian people – an argument which requires a whole separate critical takedown.)

2) The invention of blogging: Forget the Big Twist. The parts I most remembered from the book over the years, and the parts I was most impressed by, were Card’s prescient depiction of political blogging and the influence that Internet writers would have on world events. Okay, maybe Matt Drudge or Nick Denton haven’t become world dictators, as Ender’s blogger/psychopath brother Peter eventually does. But I was very impressed at how Card, in my memory, predicted the rise and the influence of personality-driven online writers, who become famous based largely on their (carefully-calculated) inflammatory rhetoric. When I went back to reread Ender’s Game, I was most looking forward to spending time with Peter and sister Valentine, who make themselves famous by getting into anonymous online debates with each other.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Peter/Valentine/blogging plotline takes up about half a chapter, plus a few lines towards the end for plot resolution and sequel setup. I don’t know what it says that throwaway subplots formed my most enduring memories of the book, but it’s not a great recommendation.

3) Video games are about as interesting to read about as they are to watch other people playing. Ender’s Game is a very readable book, which is a big accomplishment considering its reliance on poorly-described virtual combat. The “battle simulations,” first at Ender’s school and later when he’s tricked into destroying the enemy’s homeworld, were pretty opaque to me during this re-read – I finished those scenes with no real visual of what the children gladiators actually accomplished or physically did during the battles. It was much easier to visualize the arenas in the Hunger Games books, for example, or the Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter books. I think Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling had a bit of an advantage over Card, in that both of them described battles that were more in the physical world than the video games that make up so much of Ender’s Game. But world-building or big-picture description of any sort isn’t a strength of Card’s – there’s a slapdash civil war shoved into the book’s resolution, between superpowers that have never been clearly delineated. And it’s a problem when you do choose to set a book in what is essentially a series of video game championships and then can’t describe them clearly enough for a reader to do much more than skim for dialogue and outcome.

4) The Big Twist makes no sense. When your main character is a tactical genius, the best strategic mind in generations and the savior of the human race, it rather strains credulity that he can’t figure out when he’s fighting actual battles against an actual enemy. Especially when he’s purportedly hoodwinked by a couple of bumbling mid-level military guys and the washed-up war veteran version of Rip Van Winkle.

I could easily describe my excellent Italian vacation in terms of the cathedrals visited, cliffs climbed, wine guzzled or carbs consumed, but wouldn’t you rather hear about the horsemeat and the bizarre sexual harassment? From strange foods and scary fruit vendors to Vatican pin-up photos, here are the souvenirs I did not buy in Italy.

For The Billfold: Souvenirs I Did Not Buy in Italy

The Good Wife’s ambitious drama of the ordinary

Last night, The Good Wife put my heart in my throat with a file download. A file download! Somehow, watching one character watch her computer screen became anything but mundane, and set off one of the most tense half hours I’ve recently watched on television. And that was just the prologue to next week’s episode, which cast members have compared to Game of Thrones' bloody Red Wedding.

Watching that prologue unfurl has been ridiculously satisfying this season. You can hear The Good Wife's writers smacking their lips over their careful setup of several chained implosions, from Diane’s professional betrayal of Will and their once-solid partnership to Alicia’s poorly-concealed plan to follow suit. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the show's slow build to destruction after last season's game-changing final scene; I vaguely expected the first new episode to quickly raze everything and reset the groundwork for the new season's status quo. But there’s been nothing so quick or careless from Robert and Michelle King – they are taking loving, deliberate, unholy glee in how very screwed all of their characters are, and how very much conflict will spring from the choices those characters have made.

One reason I’m enjoying this setup so much, and why I’m looking forward to the next episode’s bloodbath, is that there likely won’t be any literal blood spilled. The Good Wife is one of the only current television dramas that relies on ordinary personal and professional conflicts to drive its story, without spies or zombies or meth dealers or fantasy warriors. Its characters’ stakes are ordinary — professional success and relationships of all types — and so is the fallout of their conflicts. I’m expecting that fallout to be devastating; I’m also expecting it to be one of The Good Wife's most quietly ambitious accomplishments. 

In a way, most current Prestige Dramas have it easy. Shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad and Walking Dead and Homeland are dramas of the extreme; they place their characters in worlds where success or failure does mean life or death. I enjoy some of those shows, and it can be horrifically entertaining to watch their conflicts spill out into blood and death and bombings and torture. But that also seems like a cop-out compared to The Good Wife's elegant drama of the ordinary.

Yes, The Good Wife isn’t entirely realistic, with its high-profile law office and ripped-from-the-headlines cases and the spouse of a prominent politician at the center of the show. But it reflects an ordinary, present-day reality more than any other show I can think of — and it makes that reality compelling. I’m not worried about Alicia or Will or Cary or Diane being put in mortal danger next week. Nobody’s going to get beheaded or eaten by zombies or subjected to electroshock therapy; nobody’s likely to be in any kind of physical danger, not even the run-of-the-mill cop show variety. And yet I’m biting my fingernails over what happens to them all.

Sexual harassment, Italian-style


"To our female customers, if we surprise you touching our fruit we will reciprocate by doing the same to you."

Italy: lovely and charming and overstuffed with excellent food — but wow, the routine sexual harassment. It came in verbal and visual and even some memorable physical variations, but this sign in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori produce market was the strangest. (And appallingly, not the case of one demented vendor — apparently such threatening signs are common in Italian supermarkets.) Ladies, watch out while shopping in the country of Berlusconi.

The historic “Irish Pub” section of Rome

The historic “Irish Pub” section of Rome

"Not because of me. Because of Africa."

This season finale of The Newsroom, like the episodes that preceded it, was not quite as howlingly bad as the first one: there were no Sex and the City buses, no additions to the unrequited Love Polygon of Doom, and even a few (amazingly abrupt and unearned, but whatever) romantic resolutions. I’ll take them, just so that I never have to hear Mac and Will have the same massively unpleasant and uninteresting argument again.

But wow, does this show still have rough edges. “Because of Africa.” Yep, Africa! All of it. The entire continent is almost as important as the actions of one Jim Harper, hapless truth-telling Don Juan of the cable news industry. (More on him in a minute.)

The Instagram-filter flashbacks to all of one season ago were premature and cheesy, an effort to manufacture nostalgia for something that hasn’t aged enough to earn it. (I’m with Alan Sepinwall, this entire episode felt like a valedictory wrapping up of loose ends, and I’ll be surprised if there’s another season.) The debate over Grace Gummer’s “new media” versus Jim’s “old media” was tediously literal and antiquated in the way I just have to ignore with Sorkin and his approach to my profession (for which I blog and Tweet and also write for an actual printed newspaper, so I’m not really sure on which side of that supposedly bright line I’m supposed to fall). And then there was Jim, handily winning his season-long campaign to be The Worst with his blessings for the three women who loved him. Solving the mystery of Maggie’s hair trauma, healing Lisa through on-the-job harassment, and goading his current girlfriend into reassuring him that no, no, he’s not at all patronizing. Sorry, Aaron, but having the loathsome character worry that he’s loathsome doesn’t make him a good guy, or even a very interesting one.

Catching up on The Newsroom: Two solutions to the Jerry Dantana problem

It took me practically all season, but I am now caught up on The Newsroom. And I’ll reserve judgment on the two-part season finale until part two airs (except to say that I am really quite tired of Sorkin’s humorless, righteous heroes protesting how “good” they are to the women who Done Them Wrong), but let’s talk a little bit about Genoa and the season-long clusterfuck of a framing device. Because it was doomed from the beginning, but it was only in the last two episodes that I pinpointed why, exactly, I had more problems with it than just the usual objections to flashforwards and how they undercut dramatic tension.

The season-long Genoa flashforward was a particularly unfortunate choice for The Newsroom, which already struggles to make us care about the stakes of its near-past setting. We already know the outcome of pretty much every story that Will McAvoy & Co. cover, because the real press already got there – but with Genoa Sorkin had the (good) idea to let us see how his fictitious journalists cover a fictitious story, freeing them (in theory) from the boundaries of a pre-determined outcome and giving them an opportunity to be real characters, instead of Real Doll versions of TV journalists. So of course he had to undercut them, and himself, right from the start, by telegraphing the outcome to the viewers and creating the same curious lack of dramatic tension that the show has when it handles Benghazi or the 2012 elections.  

And then there’s Jerry Dantana, the newcomer who was created out of whole cloth to come into our cozy nest of bumbling heroes, to lead them astray out of righteousness before actively doing bad things to them, and then to disappear at the end of this season. I was willing to give him, and Sorkin, the benefit of the doubt – right up until the scene where Sorkin shows him manipulating the tape of the interview. That doesn’t work. There are two other ways it could have, though:

1) Remove that scene and the flashforward framing device, and it works. Dantana as the outside villain is still clumsy but more effective – he shows up, he’s smart, he’s intense, and he’s not less righteous than the characters we know and love to loathe. Maybe he even gets in on the office romantic polygon for kicks and authenticity! We the viewers don’t realize until Mac does that the tape was manipulated, and we the viewers share the heroes’ growing unease after the story airs, and then their eventual horror at having been played into airing a false report of military war crimes. Dantana otherwise isn’t a cackling, sneering villain – he’s an abrasive, savvy newcomer who fits in with the News Night clan.  And when Mac wonders to Don whether or not she should trust his instincts, it’s a genuine dramatic moment and a genuine character moment, instead of an obvious case of the Writer Knowing All and dumping buckets of dramatic irony onto his characters’ heads.

OR – and I think this would have been even more interesting —

2) Jim did it. No Dantana necessary. Give the storyline to an existing and (supposedly) sympathetic character, someone we’re already invested in. Someone Sorkin has portrayed as a hero, as the goodest of good guys. Then the speeches about chemical weapons on civilians and military torture have the ring of conviction, coming from someone we know and are inclined to think of as being on the side of righteousness. Slowly build over the season to show his conviction overtaking his judgment, to the point where, when we see him falsify the interview, it’s inevitable and horrifying and earned, dramatic character development, instead of mechanical plot development. I think Jim would have been an especially good candidate for this storyline given his role as the scolding schoolmarm to Maggie – since their failed flirtation has apparently sent her down the rabbit hole to alcoholism and one-night stands and professional screw-ups and Africa-inspired haircuts (all of which Jim has noted and scolded her for), wouldn’t it have been an interesting parallel to watch him try to recover from the almost-affair by throwing himself into his work (without the Romney bus), and then screwing up to a much greater degree?

Anyway. I have liked some of the set pieces more this season. When Sorkin gets a good round robin of signature fast-paced workplace dialogue going, he’s hard to ignore. The women, though. Did we really need to see not one but two ladies, two episodes in a row, getting so emotional they had to punch the men who wronged them? You can just see Sorkin shaking his head: “Bitches be crazy, amirite? And bad drivers, Mac!” And poor Hope Davis, whose character has gone through about four different personalities in the span of just about that many episodes, got to go from Mary Jane Watson to a painfully on-the-nose “Lady Macbeth” in her last two incarnations. Did Will even break up with her? Because Jeff Daniels delivered that line with all the mild sarcasm of someone joking with his wife that he’d divorce her for finishing the milk and not picking any more up.

Don’t live on your own, and preferably do live with someone who will share the cooking responsibilities if your schedule implodes. Don’t live in a small, non-doorman, un-air-conditioned space. Don’t order the dinner kits during a summer heat wave, when you’ll reject all thoughts of boiling, baking and roasting in favor of ice cream dinners.  Don’t hesitate to freeze any meat or fish you won’t cook within a few days, no matter what Pat LaFrieda tells you about how long his chicken will stay fresh unfrozen. And when all else fails and you’ve taken Pat LaFrieda at his word, do live within a short distance of a grocery store that can replace your spoiled organic chicken thighs at 10 o’clock at night.

-I basically failed at a week of cooking free food. My misadventures with dinner-kit services like Blue Apron and Plated, now up at The Billfold.

The Newsroom, Season 2 Episodes 3-4

Getting caught up on The Newsroom and … ye gods, Will McAvoy is The Worst. So is the Occupy Wall Street straw-woman who needs to be schooled by him. As a financial journalist, I’ve seen a lot of arguments on the presentation and messaging and leadership of OWS, and how they did and didn’t sabotage themselves, and how they were and weren’t covered by the media. I’d like to see those issues covered deftly, subtly, smartly by a sophisticated show about the news media. And Sorkin tried - you could see him straining to be even-handed and to have every character who interacted with OWSSW raise another part of the debate for and against the legacy of Occupy, but he shot himself in the foot with his persistent need to have Will Know Best, even if Will admits to being an ass while Knowing Best. Is this really what people were talking about when they said that Sorkin was getting better at having other characters call Will & Co. on their bullshit this season?

Also the worst: Jim, always. In so many condescending ways. And Grace Gummer’s blogger and her ridiculous regular Vassar mentions and her falling for his condescending ways.  And Maggie and her “Africa” trauma and her symbolic PTSD Cutting of Hair. And I generally like Constance Zimmer, but between this and Grey’s Anatomy last season she’s kind of specializing in playing the clear-eyed-yet-humorless bitch administrator character. (Though in the spot-casting department, it was great to see Julia Cho getting work - hi, Charlotte Lu!)

Credit where it’s due, though: Mac is 50% less incompetent this season, despite the awful recurrence of The Least Interesting Voicemail of All Time. And Olivia Munn continues to make Sloan delightfully watchable, despite some truly atrocious ongoing romantic pratfalls. Can’t wait for the sex tape episode.