Review: House of Cards, Season 2

There's a growing sentiment, among those who write and talk about TV, that the age of the great antihero dramas might be coming to an end. According to this school of thought, the likes of shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Shield, and even Dexter (when that show was *really* on its game) have said everything interesting there is to say about protagonists who lie, cheat, steal, and often kill their way to the top of whatever mountain they're trying to get to the top of. 

I don't generally agree with this line of thinking - I don't see the antihero drama as a genre unto itself, per se, so much as a realization of the fact that the main character of a TV show doesn't necessarily have to be a cop, a doctor, a lawyer, or a superhero. Main characters can be flawed, they can be complex, they can even be downright evil, as long as its in the service of good drama.

When I watch House of Cards, however, I can almost see where some of the naysayers might be coming from. Don't get me wrong - Cards is an entertaining, engrossing, and at times downright addictive show, and I enjoyed watching the second season about as much as I enjoyed the first; which is to say, a lot. This is a show built largely around the charisma of its lead, and there's no denying that Kevin Spacey is ridiculously fun to watch, as most liars, manipulators, and schemers usually are.

The thing is... Frank Underwood would make a great villain, but does he really have what it takes to be the lead character of a TV show?

The "heroes" of those other shows did more than just lie, cheat, scheme, and occasionally show a glint of humanity while doing so (as Vice President Underwood does when he learns that his wife was sexually assaulted by a business associate decades earlier, or that the proprietor of his favorite rib shack is losing his business as an indirect result of Frank's lying and scheming). Walter White didn't start out as a bad guy - we actually saw the transformation, and that was the point. Tony Soprano may have been a gangster, a thug, and a murderer from the beginning - but his panic attacks and therapy-room confessions let us in on the fact that at least a part of Tony longed to be a good man. Dexter Morgan spent the majority of his time chafing against the ways that his psychopathic nature prevented him from establishing lasting human connections.

These are all relatable, human motivations. We all want to provide for our families. We all want to be good, at least on some level. We all want to be loved.

Frank Underwood's motivation seems to be nothing more complex than pure, unadulterated, unbridled ambition. He manipulates and back-stabs his way from one rung of the political ladder to the next, seemingly for the sake of doing so. Maybe he truly believes, on some level, in the progressive ideals of his party, and wants to take the reigns of his country so he can lead it in the direction he's convinced it needs to go. Maybe he was bullied as a kid, and craves power because he never had it earlier in life, when it really counted. Maybe he's secretly a neo-Nazi, and wants to use his ever-increasing power to usher in a new Reich. I have no idea, and that's the point.

I'm not sure what I'm supposed to feel while watching this show. Am I supposed to be aghast at Frank's actions? Am I supposed to root for his downfall? There can't be any pathos in watching his fall into further depravity, because he was already well and thoroughly depraved when we first laid eyes on him. Frank is corrupt through and through; and to the extent our occasional glimpses of his humanity seem to conflict with this, 'tis all for naught, because neither the show nor Frank himself seem to acknowledge the contradiction. There's no conflict within Frank, no inner turmoil; he's more a collection of character traits, at times haphazardly thrown together, than an actual character.

I think House of Cards might be the ultimate vindication of the idea that the villain of your story can't also be the hero. The Sopranos and Breaking Bad worked because they kept pitting their (decidedly villainous) heroes against guys bigger and badder, or at least notably more despicable, than they were. Walter White, Tony Soprano, and their myriad adversaries were rarely less than evenly matched. Frank Underwood has no hero, or even a slightly less shady antihero, to match him. He's a Goliath with no David, leaving House of Cards little to be but a monument to his cleverness, and to Kevin Spacey's expertly oily charm.

Why do TV show fandoms hate pretty girls so much?

This is something I've been noticing in online message boards and comment threads for a while now, most recently in relation to the characters of Megan on the AMC show Mad Men and Bradley on the A&E series Bates Motel. In particular, the preoccupation with Megan on the Mad Men boards at Television Without Pity seems a bit cloying, not to mention more than a little obsessive. This is a character who was barely there in seasons 4 or 6 of that show, after all - she was only a driving force for the show's narrative in season 5, and even then only as a reflection of the character development - or lack thereof - of the show's male lead, Don Draper. Yet to hear the ladies on TWoP tell it, Jessica Pare is almost single-handedly responsible for the show's perceived decline.

I've been treading the treacherous seas of online TV fandom for quite a few years now - more than I care to remember, much less admit - and the simple fact is that, with nearly every TV show whose fanbase I've cared to interact with, there's come a point, approximately midway through the length of an average show's run (say, after 3-4 seasons or so), where the tide starts to turn and a backlash starts to develop. Maybe it's because that seems to be around the time when a show starts experimenting and changing up its format.  

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance, lost two or three main characters, added a couple more, and shifted the show's focus away from the relationship between the three (original) main cast members in its fourth season. Mad Men started a new firm, moved its cast to a sleek, modern-looking new set, and sidelined the main character's home life in its fourth season, along with arguably shifting focus away from characters like Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson to accommodate newcomers like Jared Harris' caustic Brit Lane Pryce. Many fans didn't like this, and so, inevitably, the backlash started cropping up.

The tendency to focus this discontent on one or two specific characters, however, is something I've never quite understood. This is something that even crops up in the early seasons of some shows - Lana Lang on Smallville, for instance, or Laurel Lance on the current CW show Arrow, or Laurie (or Andrea) on The Walking Dead, or Bradley on the aforementioned Bates Motel - and, conspicuously or not, in nearly all these cases, the scapegoated character also happens to be played by the most conventionally attractive female actor on the show.

This is also something quite distinct from, say, the "Skylar's a b*tch" backlash among certain segments of the Breaking Bad fanbase - it's not a misogynist thing, men complaining about a strong female character "mistreating" their show's male hero. Female posters seem to be the predominant offenders here. I feel like there's a Pop Culture Studies thesis here somewhere - why do TV fans hate pretty girls so much?

Why Is America so Robo-phobic?

It occurs to me, as I sit down to write this review, that it's probably going to sound as though I'm savaging the new RoboCop. And the fact is, I actually quite enjoyed it. I found it perfectly entertaining, perfectly... adequate. If a friend wanted to see it, I'd happily sit through it again.

My problems with the film, I think, lie at least partly in its very, very strange relationship to its predecessor. You see, there's more than one kind of remake: there are films, like the new Carrie or Gus Van Sant's 1998 reboot of Psycho, that aim to be almost scene for scene (or, in the latter case, nearly shot for shot) re-imaginings of the original source material; there are movies like John Carpenter's The Thing or David Cronenberg's version of The Fly that take the core concept of a film, the very basic premise, and then go in a completely new direction with it; and then you have the majority of remakes, which follow the broad strokes of the parent film's plot, changing certain elements along the way and leaving others intact. 

Jose Padilha's RoboCop is almost an example of the Carpenter/Cronenberg type of approach, but not quite. It contains almost no specific scenes and very few direct character analogs to connect it to the previous film, yet it also doesn't break enough new ground to truly set itself apart. The first forty minutes or so are promising, as they set up a nice counterpoint to the first film: where the original Robo is about a machine slowly realizing that he was once (and to some extent still is) a man, Padilha's version gives us - at least initially - an Alex Murphy with his memories, personality, and family intact: in other words, a man trying to cope with the fact that he's now mostly machine. 

That's a potentially compelling emotional hook to hang the movie on, but for it to work, the film would have to stick with it all the way through: we would have needed a lot less corporate intrigue and a lot more of Murphy (agonizingly) trying to reconnect with his family and his old life. Think Murphy trying to be "intimate" - to the extent possible - with his wife, or trying to pal around with his coworkers in the locker room when they're all wearing towels and wifebeaters and he's stomping around like a tank.

It's all moot, however, because the film abandons this pretense halfway through, by [[SPOILER ALERT]] having the conflicted scientist responsible for resurrecting Murphy (played by Gary Oldman, in a typically great Oldman performance) chemically dampen the emotional centers of Murphy's brain, turning him into an automaton more in line with the classic Robo of the first film. Then Murphy has an emotional confrontation with his wife, which seems to more or less turn him back to normal; then he sets about trying to solve his own murder, which takes all of fifteen minutes, allowing the final twenty minutes or so to hinge on the efforts of Murphy's corrupt corporate handlers to take him offline for good.[[END SPOILERS]]

Essentially, the film doesn't stick with any one conflict long enough for it to gather any weight. It's also woefully lacking in the villain department: Michael Keaton tries hard, and Jackie Earle Haley is always nice to have around, but Raymond Sellars and [insert name of Jackie Earle Haley's character, which I can't remember at the moment and don't care to take the time to look up] are just no Dick Jones and Clarence Bodicker... or even Bob Morton, for that matter. It's like The Dark Knight without the Joker, or Darkman without Robert G. Durant

Perhaps surprisingly, given current events, the film is still set in Detroit; even more surprisingly, however, it fails to do absolutely anything substantive with its setting. In a country where crime has been falling steadily since the 90's, a real-life urban wasteland like the Motor City is one of the few locales that might realistically need a bunch of robot soldiers to help clean up its streets. Huge missed opportunity there, politically correct or no.

Finally, a word on Robo's new Basic Black suit design: I didn't mind it. The black suit plays a lot better on screen than it does in still shots, I think, and more crucially, the more "traditional" design featured during the early part of the film actually doesn't play all that well. I love the classic RoboCop look, and think it worked beautifully in the original (if not so well in some of the sequels), but there's something about the clunky nature of Classic Robo that doesn't mesh well with CGI. I think the filmmakers realized this, and acted accordingly.

Ya feel lucky?

"I know what you're thinkin'... did he fire six shots, or only five? Well to tell ya the truth, in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But bein' that this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well... do ya, punk?"

Thought I'd try my hand at a sort of miniaturized version of Josh Miller's Franchise Me column over at CHUD. This, apparently, is what *finally* purchasing a new Blu-Ray player has wrought.

1. Dirty Harry (1971)
Director: Don Siegel
Cast: An insanely young-looking Clint Eastwood, Andrew Robinson without his Garak make-up (that's strike one), Poppie from Seinfeld (when he was a baby).
Badass Dirty Harry catchphrase: see above.

Found a four-pack of these sitting in the bargain bin at Walmart the other day (sadly, the final entry in the series, The Dead Pool, was not included). Hadn't seen any of them in a while, so I thought I'd give it a go.

The first thing that surprised me, as noted in the cast breakdown, is just how damn young and smiley Eastwood looked back in '71. I never quite realized how accustomed I'd grown to the gaunt, grizzled version of Clint who's been haunting our screens since the mid-to-late 80's or so. It was downright surreal seeing him look so baby-faced.

The second thing was Harry's characterization; he's not nearly the humorless, no-nonsense, neo-fascist, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later sort of automaton I remembered from my younger days, watching these flicks with my dad in rural Ohio. This guy smiles; he's friendly with his coworkers, and not just in a grudging way; he doesn't storm out after the Mayor (a typical glad-handing movie politician, more concerned about avoiding bad PR than stopping criminals) warns him about shooting too many people; hell, he even banters with the bad guys on occasion - the signature monologue quoted above is delivered in about the most amiable tone you can imagine, and he leaves the guy with a smile and a figurative tip of the hat at the end. Like most long-running pop culture figures, Harry would devolve into a caricature as the series proceeded, but in this one both the character, and Eastwood's portrayal of him, have some real nuance.

Andy Robinson (of later Star Trek and Hellraiser fame) is underused and underdeveloped as the villain, a sniper who threatens to kill someone every day until the city meets his ransom demands; his performance is essentially campy and ridiculous, but there's a manic energy to it that actually made me wonder if Heath Ledger might not have been partially inspired by Scorpio in his portrayal of the Joker. I'd love to find out if he ever saw the film.

I couldn't help finding the movie's San Francisco setting a bit jarring; most stories like this since the 80's tend to be set in New York or L.A., with occasional trips to Boston, Miami, or Chicago. I have no idea what the city was like 40 years ago, of course, but these days I associate San Fran with the gay rights movement, progressive politics, and street cars, not tough-as-nails cops and rampant street-level crime.

Finally, the film's fascist reputation is, I think, largely unearned; with the exception of one scene, Harry stays entirely within his rights (and within the law) in his treatment of Scorpio and the various other antagonists. In fact, in these post-9/11 days, when even Harry Potter probably got around to torturing someone - or at least considering doing so - in his morally murky quest for the greater good, it's hard to imagine why the aforementioned scene caused as much controversy as it apparently did. The 70's really were a more innocent time, I guess.

2. Magnum Force (1973)
Director: Ted Post
Cast: Clint, Hal Holbrook (you'll know him when you see him), David Soul, The Old Man's Smithers-esque sidekick from the RoboCop movies, and a pre-Buried Alive Tim Matheson.
Badass Dirty Harry catchphrase: "A man's got to know his limitations."

First off, let's just get this out of the way: what this second entry in the franchise sorely, sorely lacks in the badass signature catchphrase department, it more than makes up for in the area of (intentionally?) hilarious, over the top, faux-James Bond-style opening titles. I mean, that had to be some kind of nascent, way-ahead-of-its-time form of meta commentary, am I right? If you can watch that video and not laugh, you don't truly love movies.

So it's been a year or two since the events of Dirty Harry, Det. Callahan is mysteriously still on the force (his presumed resignation at the end of the first film, in a scene that Chris Nolan would rip off decades later for The Dark Knight Rises, isn't so much as mentioned), and Clint still looks like he just rolled off the Hero Cop assembly line, windblown hair and all. When a group of heavily armed vigilantes dressed as highway patrolmen start machine-gunning mobsters, pimps, and anyone else who happens to be in the general vicinity of same - seriously, these guys have less concern for collateral damage than George Bush - Harry and his new partner are on the case.

As you can see, that strain of meta commentary introduced in the opening sequence continues throughout the entire film; after the first Dirty Harry took flack for its portrayal of a "renegade," arguably trigger-happy cop willing to shoot first and ask questions later, this one pits Harry against a group of rogue cops who really are taking the law into their own hands, not just having the temerity to shoot folks who were already shooting at them.

This one also marks the first time one of Harry's on-screen partners bites the bullet - there was already a running joke about the shelf-life of Harry's partners in the first film, but Poppie and his predecessor both retired and took up teaching after being shot on Harry's watch; neither one wound up taking a dirt nap - and the first time we see Harry get any action, romantically speaking; at least two women throw themselves at Harry in this film, one in the scene where he first meets her and the other while her possibly suicidal ex-husband, who also happens to be Harry's friend and co-worker, practically stands off to the side with a gun to his head. (Harry, to his credit, good-naturedly declines her advance). On second thought, maybe they really were trying to turn Harry into a James Bond-style action hero.

It probably sounds like I'm making fun, but I ultimately liked Magnum about as well as the first one. Harry hasn't yet become a scowling caricature, the villains are more well-developed and better utilized here, and I appreciate the film's effort to engage with the criticisms of its predecessor.

3. The Enforcer (1976)
Director: James Fargo
Cast: Clint, either Cagney or Lacey (I'm not sure which), Bradford Dillman as the prototypical asshole boss, and I think the guy who played Swamp Thing is in there somewhere.
Badass Dirty Harry catchphrase: "Swell."

Okay, seriously; they really need to get the guy who wrote the first one to come back. Harry is sorely in need of a new, iconic signature monologue.

More than any other film in the franchise, I think this one is responsible for creating, or at least cementing, the character of Dirty Harry as he exists in the popular imagination. The Harry of previous films smiled, bantered with crooks (see the clip and quote at the head of this post), and came up with clever ways of defeating them (for instance, his pilot ruse at the beginning of Magnum). In the opening minutes of The Enforcer, a punk smarts off to Harry, and he responds by driving a car through the front of the building the bad guys - and their hostages - are cowering in.

This is a big turn for the character; the previous entries featured Harry being harassed by his (largely spineless, politically motivated) superiors essentially for doing his job, and for not hesitating to shoot people who were mowing down everyone around him in a hail of bullets. What Harry does at the beginning of this film is over the top and ridiculous, and could easily have gotten some or all of the hostages killed. But the film doesn't treat it any differently than Harry's actions in the previous ones; the folks who wrote this movie honestly don't see a difference between shooting a couple of armed, trigger-happy bank robbers who were actively firing into a public street, and plowing a muscle car through the facade of a convenience store with innocent people inside.

Moreover, this is the first entry in the series that essentially portrays Harry as an asshole, the SFPD homicide division's equivalent of Greg House. Though he softens a bit over the course of the film, his characterization here is much harder and more one-note than it was in the previous two. Gone is the bantering hero with the cocksure grin of Dirty Harry and Magnum Force. Harry Callahan was never the sort of character Ryan Reynolds or Bradley Cooper could have played, don't get me wrong; but he wasn't always this brooding, either.

And, of course, he's also sexist, something that was never hinted at in any of the other films; Enforcer pairs him with an inexperienced, green new homicide recruit played by Tyne Daly,who proceeds to mince about in high heels, get sick while observing autopsies, and whack bad guys with her purse, generally taking the opportunity to annoy Harry at every turn. (For his part, Harry refers to her inclusion in the department's roster as "very stylish"). 

Each of the films so far has dealt with some of the pressing social concerns of the time in which they were made: the first dealt with the perceived "liberalization" of the criminal justice system (Miranda warnings, probable cause and all that), and how some felt those restrictions stymied the ability of the police to deal with criminals; the second turned that idea on its head and looked at the other side of the coin, pitting Harry against a group of cops who really had morphed into a Gestapo-esque death squad; and this one examines the role of women acting as equals within the police department. This is the first one that doesn't do a terribly good job of examining its core issue, however.

4. Sudden Impact (1983)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Eleanor from The Practice before she was semi-famous, Commissioner Gordon from the Tim Burton-era Batman flicks, and the cast of Last House on the Left (or at least their stunt doubles).
Badass Dirty Harry catchphrase: "Go ahead... make my day."

And the world of action hero catchphrases was never, ever the same.

If the Harry Callahan of The Enforcer could (very, very generously) be called a sort of midway point between the character as he existed in the first two films and the image of Dirty Harry as he exists in popular culture, then Sudden Impact is the film that completes that transformation. If the Dirty Harry series were being made today, a shift in characterization like this would have needed to be accompanied by a metric ****ton of explanation and backstory; seriously, they would have had to do a prologue that showed Harry's wife getting killed in the interim, or something.

The Harry of this film wears a perpetual scowl, nearly comes to blows with his stuffed-shirt boss (contrast this with the way he breezily, and half-jokingly, dismisses the Mayor's criticisms of his tactics in the first movie), and delivers whole soliloquies about the seedy underbelly of San Francisco and the general state of urban America's moral decay. If nothing else, this is probably the most artfully written installment since the first one.

The problem with all this is that we don't actually witness any kind of transformation in Harry over the course of the series. The first film pushes him to the boundaries of where he's willing to go in pursuit of a violent madman; the second forces him to re-evaluate those boundaries, by pitting him against foes who are willing to go a hell of a lot farther than he is; and the third prompts him to examine his views on gender politics. But all of these are intra-film arcs, begun and completed over the course of a single film; if anything, the general thrust of the character's development, at least post-Dirty Harry, has been toward a kinder, gentler, more touchy-feely Harry (his off-key characterization toward the beginning of the third one notwithstanding).

Sudden Impact, on the other hand, almost plays like a direct spiritual and political successor to the original film. While the first film told the story of a "normal" cop being pushed toward a more conservative, "ends justify the means" kind of mentality, the second served to mitigate that (by exploring the limitations of that sort of philosophy - pushing toward a more moderate view, if you will), and the third swung all the way over to liberal, with its female sidekick and fairly pat post-feminist leanings. This one, on the other hand, swings all the way back the other way, to a more hardline conservative  viewpoint (possibly to fall more in line with Eastwood's own fairly well-publicized political leanings). The result is a little jarring when you line them up like this.

So that's it for now, folks. If I can get my hands on a copy of The Dead Pool I'll do an addendum to this later on. In the meantime, I've been thinking of watching through the Matrix films again...

Something I wrote last night, while freezing my cojones off.

It's amazing how much not driving (not to mention living in a very small, and/or very well heated, living space) insulates you, so to speak, from a lot of the aggravations associated with extremely cold weather. Right now my very spacious bedroom is an ice box, my little Sunbeam heater isn't so much as putting a dent in it, and my car doors are frozen shut, so I can't strike out for warmer pastures. No doubt the damn thing wouldn't start even if I COULD pry my way into it. I'm stuck.

Riding the bus for 3 years, my biggest worry was whether it got a little chilly waiting at the stop for 5 minutes. Now I'm looking at shivering myself to sleep tonight, to say nothing of the fact that, if I'd had to work today, I wouldn't have been able to go to work. After a few minutes outside my fingers were red and swollen and snot was dripping out my nose. (Yeah, it's gross - deal with it). This sh*t is for the birds, people.

I guess the point of all this is to say that I've reached my limit. I'm done. I'm making a belated New Year's resolution, right now, that this is my last winter in Ohio. After I finish up my bachelor's at Kent State in August, I'm relocating to warmer climes.

Unfortunately, the 3 grad programs I applied to for next year are all in even more Godforsakenly cold parts of the country than this one (upstate New York, Michigan, Wisconsin), and if I get admitted to any one of them, I guess I'll probably renege. I've scrapped all other cold-weather venues from my list, however. From now on, all future endeavors will be aimed at getting me west, south, or southeast.

I hear Texas, California, Arizona, and Florida are nice this time of year...

My thoughts on Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

In lieu of a traditional review, I've decided to structure my thoughts on this one as a series of observations.
  1. In Paranormal Activity-land, apparently, Spanish teenagers drink, hook up, and smoke pot, while white teens are too virtuous for such behavior. (See PA 2 & 4).
  2. Also some gratuitous nudity in this one; another first for the series, if I recall. Who got their Friday the 13th all up in my Paranormal Activity, yo?
  3. Man, at this point the cult - or coven, or whatever the heck the old ladies who worship the demon like to call themselves - has gotta be wondering why the @#$% people keep crashing their rituals with video cameras. I'm anticipating an in-joke along these lines in PA 5.
  4. Of the last four entries in the franchise, I have to say this feels least like a rehash of elements established in previous installments. (In particular, PA 2 feels like a riff on the original, while PA 4 plays like a mash-up of 2 & 3).
  5. That being said, I detected "homages" to the likes of Chronicle, [REC], and even The Blair Witch Project sprinkled throughout.
  6. Lots of cute Spanish chicas in this. In particular, I'll be watching the careers of Gabrielle Walsh, Noemi Gonzalez, and Catherine Toribio with interest.
  7. Speaking of careers... Christopher B. Landon (son of Micheal Landon, of Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven fame) directed this. Hmm.
  8. It's tough living in West L.A. - our characters have nearly as many scary encounters with drug dealers and hood rats as they do paranormal... well, you know. Kind of thought-provoking, seeing as how non-witchcraft-related crime is all but nonexistent in the series' previous entries. It does help give TMO a different texture than the others, though.
  9. This one isn't nearly as dependent on jump scares as its predecessors, but the ones it has are probably the weakest the series has indulged in to date. Way too telegraphed.
  10. The scene where Moms drinks the teenagers under the table is priceless.
Overall, watching The Marked Ones was a lot like watching the fifth season of Lost - I'm still enjoying myself, but starting to feel like a bit of a sucker for doing so. Also, they both involve magic babies. And time travel.

On twist endings...

     So I've recently been doing a little "research" on some of the faculty at the various grad schools I plan on applying to in the coming weeks. In particular, I read A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein, head of the Creative Writing MFA program at Rutgers University-Camden, and watched the film The Life Before Her Eyes, which is based on a novel by University of Michigan faculty member Laura Kasischke. I've just finished watching Kasischke's film as I write this, in fact, and the marked similarities between the two stories are part of what's prompted me to do this post.

     Friend is about a doctor living in a well-to-do suburb of New York who tries to prevent his troublesome teenage son from running off to Europe with the daughter of his best friend, a Bohemian type who brought scandal down on the community years earlier by murdering her newborn baby and leaving the body in a dumpster. Life, meanwhile, is (purportedly) about a middle-aged wife and mother played by Uma Thurman, who finds herself experiencing painful memories, and eventually (maybe?) hallucinations, centered around a school shooting she survived when she was a teenager. Both stories utilize a narrative structure that plays with time, "flashing" back and forth between different periods and moments in the characters' lives, and each employs a different variant of the particular narrative device mentioned in the title of this post: the twist ending.

     At this point, I feel I need to warn any readers who might actually be interested in watching/reading either of these tales that there are big, fat, possibly story-ruining SPOILERS ahead, as obviously I can't discuss the authors' usage of twist endings without spoiling the particular details of those endings, and what they reveal about the rest of the story. 

Twist #1: The Ending You Can't Quite Guess
     Now then: it's revealed near the beginning of Grodstein's book that her main character, Pete Dizinoff, is on the outs with his friends and family because of something tragic or scandalous that took place involving the titular family friend. As a fan of genre stories and murder mysteries, my mind immediately leaped to the conclusion that he might have killed her, or that she might have died (or disappeared) under mysterious circumstances following some sort of public confrontation with him, which would obviously make him the prime suspect. There's nothing in the story that explicitly indicates this - the author doesn't seed any "false clues" or misleading foreshadowing throughout the story, at least not that I was aware of. That's just the way my mind works. 

     We do learn, via strategic storytelling and essentially by his own admission, that Pete has been nursing a long-simmering infatuation with his best friend's wife - the mother of the aforementioned family friend - since the three of them met in college, one she seems to be aware of and doesn't do a whole lot to discourage. We also learn that her daughter's physical appearance reminds him of her when she was younger, which may or may not be playing into his discomfort at watching his son pursue a relationship with her. This is what formed the basis for my primary theory going into the back stretch of the book: that he would be caught in some kind of compromising situation with the girl, and would have zero credibility with his loved ones when trying to deny or cover up what happened because of his past behavior toward her mom.

     This is essentially what happens, although not quite in the way that I was expecting. Pete goes to his family friend's apartment, has an angry confrontation with her, slaps her (hard enough to leave her with a broken nose, apparently), and she then disappears, leaving Pete's son behind and telling her roommate - who then goes on to tell her parents and Pete's family - that he sexually assaulted her. There's no real evidence, and Pete of course proclaims his innocence, but there's enough doubt in everyone's minds to destroy Pete's standing in the community, get him fired from his job, and nearly cost him his marriage. His relationship with his son appears to have been completely destroyed.

     So here we have, in a way, the most innocent form of twist, the kind that concludes nearly every mystery: there's a question we don't know the answer to, at some point we think we've figured out what the answer is going to be (or at least narrowed it down to a small handful of possibilities), and in the end the answer turns out to be not quite what we thought. The only question left, as far as whether this particular twist ending "plays fair," is if it can possibly be deduced from the portrayal of the events that preceded it: is it possible to read the story right up to the point just prior to that climactic revelation, and arrive at the real answer via anything other than random guesswork?

     In this case, I'd argue that it's not, although that's not such a terribly big deal. A Friend of the Family is not primarily trying to be a mystery, I don't think - it's more of a character study; a sad, meandering tale that tries to get to the bottom of who this man is, and what his real motivations are. 

     Is he really trying to do what's best for his son, or do pent-up infatuation and misplaced jealousy play more of a role in the proceedings than he's willing to admit to himself? Are his actions justified, even assuming his intentions are more or less pure? Hitting his son's girlfriend is certainly not justified, but that's not the crime that Pete ultimately ends up being punished for (in the court of public opinion, if nowhere else); and that kind of physical rage seems to come out of left field, anyway - there's nothing elsewhere in the story that implies that Pete has a temper, or that he might be capable of violence, and certainly not that he might be capable of committing sexual assault. As a result, I'm left feeling not entirely sure what Pete is being punished for - or what he's being forgiven for, if his wife's actions at the end can be said to constitute a kind of redemption.
Twist #2: The Rug-Pull
     The Life Before Her Eyes employs a much more drastic form of twist: the kind that undermines the fundamental reality of everything that we've been watching unfold, and forces us to look at what we've previously been shown in a completely different way, in light of this new information.

     We learn in the closing minutes that the lead character, Diane, died during the school shooting that opens the film, and everything else - the husband who may or may not be cheating on her, the young daughter who's showing signs of following in her mom's rebellious teenage footsteps - has been an elaborate fantasy; the life she might have had "flashing before her eyes," as it were. There are clues to this leading up to the climactic reveal: there are no attempts to place the flashbacks in time - period music, old cars and the like - Diane at one point places flowers near the death scene of a man we were led to believe survived, despite grievous injury, earlier in the film, and the older professor teenage Diane will eventually marry doesn't look a whole lot younger when we finally meet him in the flashbacks.

     The climactic moments of Life change it, in effect, into a completely different type of story: if someone were to ask you what the movie is "about," based on the first 90 minutes or so you'd say something along the lines of, "It's about a middle-aged woman trying to overcome traumatic memories of a tragic experience from her youth." But that's not really what it's about, is it? Rather, it's about a teenage girl learning the true meaning of friendship, or something to that effect. But that's not at all evident going in, and in fact you couldn't really tell someone that without, essentially, spoiling the ending. This is the essence of the Rug-Pull.

     And it doesn't have to happen at the end of the story, either: for instance, I had a similar experience recently watching the film Side Effects. Roughly the first half of the film is a somber exploration of the effects of living with depression, and how mood-altering drugs like Paxil or Zoloft can be as much a curse as a blessing. In fact, the film's (presumptive) heroine, a young woman played by Rooney Mara, ends up stabbing her husband to death while (allegedly) in the midst of a fugue-like state triggered by the medication. You'd be lying if that's how you described the film to someone, however, because the story takes a turn at the midpoint and becomes a thriller about a disgraced psychiatrist, played by Jude Law, trying to save his career and reputation by proving that Mara, in fact, was faking symptoms of depression all along, in order to get off the hook for the premeditated murder of her husband. 

     Wheels within wheels, hence all the parentheses in the above description.

     Is it ultimately even possible for a twist that big to play fair? I'd argue not, for such a story almost has to either be written from the twist back, in which case the whole thing becomes a fairly cynical exercise in trying to fool the audience; or, even worse, the twist must be an "inspiration" that comes into play only late in the creative process, which necessitates a lot of narrative shoving and twisting in order to make the two parts of the story fit together smoothly. It's entirely possible the novel on which Life is based was stronger in this respect; the film only starts laying on the really serious foreshadowing toward the end, which makes the climactic twist feel more like it comes out of left field, rather than less.

     So what's the point of all this, you might ask? Have we come to any serious conclusions about the validity of the twist ending? Probably not - these are just some of the musings that were bouncing around inside my head as I consumed these three very similar stories. All were ultimately strong stories that I enjoyed and would recommend, and though I took varying degrees of issue with the twists that each employed, that's not meant so much as a criticism of these particular stories or authors, but as a consideration of the twist as a narrative device in general.


So grad school application season is upon us...

    As some of my long-term readers know, I'm hoping to be accepted into a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in creative writing this coming fall, after I've finished my bachelor's degree. This winter - December, January, and early February - is application season, and I've spent much of the last several months trying to decide which programs to apply to. Of course, before you can do that you have to decide what your criteria are going to be; what constitutes a "good" program, what makes a school attractive to you, and so on.

    At first, I was determined to get into a program that was extremely genre-friendly (science fiction, fantasy, horror and the like), but the only schools I could find that had a genre or "popular" fiction emphasis were low-residency programs. These are mostly online, with one-to-two-week residencies every six months or so. [For those still interested, the MFA programs at University of Southern Maine, Western State Colorado University, and Seton Hill University near Pittsburgh offer degrees in popular fiction, while I have it on good authority that the low-res program at Goddard College in Seattle and the Red Earth program at Oklahoma City University are genre-friendly. In terms of full-res (i.e., traditional classroom-based) programs, Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey and Rosemont College in Philadelphia are contenders, and North Carolina State and the University of Kansas have a good reputation as well].

    I ultimately decided that getting into a genre-friendly program wasn't the most important consideration for me. Low-res programs tend to be poorly funded, offering comparatively little in the way of scholarships, graduate assistantships and the like. I came to realize that the most important thing in my mind was to get a "free ride" at a program that would allow me to earn my degree, get valuable teaching experience - as most graduate programs are funded primarily through teaching assistantships - and focus on my writing, without having to go further into debt OR (hopefully) having to work extensively outside the institution. Writing requires time, and I couldn't see myself getting a whole lot of work done while simultaneously juggling classwork, a two- or three-course teaching load, and some crummy customer service job on the side.

    To that end, I started researching "fully funded" programs, which typically offer teaching assistantships to all students admitted, as well as a salary or living stipend that varies drastically from school to school. I've applied to two programs already, and I have two or three more on the docket that I plan to apply to before the year is out. It wasn't easy narrowing things down - there are plenty of great schools with good-to-great funding schemes out there, and at times my list averaged anywhere from ten to twenty or twenty-five schools - but these are the handful of choices I ultimately decided on.

Cornell University
    Who wouldn't jump at the chance to get a free ride to an Ivy League school? Cornell's MFA is a two-year program that offers a $24k/year teaching stipend, as well as a rumored two-year teaching fellowship following the degree that gives grads wide latitude in designing their own courses. So not only are you getting paid solely to teach, but you get to design the syllabus as well! For someone who's thought about teaching as a primary career for a long time, that's a dream come true.

University of Wisconsin - Madison
    UW: Madison offers three years of full funding, a $20k/year stipend, and the chance to live in a decent-sized, politically progressive city with an unusually vibrant publishing scene. (Guess paper isn't dead after all). Among other factoids of note, Madison is home to the frequently hilarious satirical newspaper The Onion, as well as its online incarnation and various spinoffs.

University of Michigan
    One of the most respected creative writing programs around, $22k/year, and a third-year fellowship for all graduates. Ann Arbor is a bit on the small side, but it's only half an hour from the Detroit metro area, which is one of the largest in the country, and a stone's throw from Canada as well. It's also only a three-hour drive from my current stomping grounds, which will come in handy should I ever get homesick!

University of Iowa
    I'm kinda shooting for the moon with this one: relatively lean funding package aside ($17k/year), The Iowa Writers' Workshop is the most prestigious creative writing program in the country, hands-down. One of my favorite writers, Justin Cronin (author of the great post-apocalyptic fantasy novels The Passage and The Twelve, which you should read if you haven't done so), graduated from there, and Iowa City is pretty rural, so that $17k should be a lot more livable than it would be even in greater Dayton or Cincy. And hey, just by the by, Chicago is only three and a half hours away - a great stopover destination for those regular trips home for the holidays and such.  

    So that's where I'm at so far - two down, two to go. Still mulling a few more options for January, as well, but I'll burn that bridge when I get to it. And, of course, I'll be sure to keep you all posted!   


Fall TV Scorecard

The Walking Dead: Well, this recent half-season was certainly a lot more compelling than anything Season 3 managed to serve up (at least beyond the first handful of episodes). Rick was a lot less annoying, Carol became the focal point of a fairly interesting plotline, the zombie action was nicely balanced with character drama and the sort of moral debates that made the first two seasons so interesting (at least to me), and most impressively, The Governor was rehabilitated, becoming a truly menacing - and nuanced - adversary for the first time. It's hard not to think that Season 4a was a bit of a do-over on the writers' part: maybe even the Season 3b that Kirkman and Co. wished they'd done, after the lackluster fan response to the final run of episodes last year. Most of the extra bodies absorbed from Woodbury have been killed off, The Gov appears to be out of the picture for good, the prison is in ruins, and the main cast has been split up into half a dozen or more little groups. Am I wrong to think there may be some good stuff awaiting us next year? Time will tell, as always.

Arrow: After a first season that got off to a rocky start, kept the present-day and island-based plotlines only thematically connected to each other, featured exactly zero characters with legitimate superpowers, and had its "hero" fatally impaling low-level thugs left and right, Year 2 has started to more closely resemble traditional superhero fare, with Stephen Amell's Oliver Queen officially adopting the standard No Kill Rule of most other fictitious costumed vigilantes (though it's questionable how consistent he's been so far, as far as that's concerned). Add superpowered bad guys, a couple of set-up episodes for a proposed Flash spin-off, a complicated backstory involving mad scientists, super soldiers, the League of Assassins, and WWII-era Japanese medical experiments, and Nanu Bennett's Slade Wilson (aka Deathstroke, mask pictured above) finally starting to grow into his supervillain identity, and suddenly I'm even more hooked on this show than I was last year. Arrow does a steadily-expanding, TV-sized but still appropriately epic take on the D.C.U. better than Smallville ever thought about doing. Count me in.

Dracula: Probably not quite fair of me to weigh in on this one as of yet, since I haven't actually watched the last episode. I'm planning on doing another watchthrough over the next couple of days, in fact, to see if my feelings are more charitable the second time around. As it stands, however, Drac just hasn't managed to grab me. It has a very strange visual aesthetic, as well as a handful of baffling and anachronistic supporting characters (including an African American, non-crazy Renfield who doesn't raise an eyebrow in Victorian England, a Jonathan Harker who's gone from Dracula's [eventually heroic] whipping boy to a cuckolded journalist, and a Mina who's been retrofitted as a thoroughly modern, Steampunk career woman). Drac is portrayed as a brooding, morally ambiguous figure who's got a bone to pick with the Order Dracul, the Freemason-like secret society that turned him into a vampire. And, of course, he believes Mina is the reincarnation of his long-lost love, a trope introduced in Boris Karloff's The Mummy back in 1932, re-appropriated by Francis Ford Coppola for Bram Stoker's Dracula 60 years later, and... well, let's just say it doesn't look like it's going anywhere.

I haven't caught up with Revolution, I've already explored my thoughts on the final season of Dexter (just click down a little ways), and I'm saving the final season of Breaking Bad for a more substantive post somewhere down the road. In the meantime, stay tuned for some updates on my grad school applications and so on! Exciting times ahead...