Camp Grizzly

At KublaCon this weekend, I got to play through a demo and then a full game of Camp Grizzly by Ameritrash Games. I wanted to spread the word about it here, partly because the designer Jason Topolski is a former co-worker and a super-nice guy, but mostly because I really love the game.

The premise sells itself: it’s a semi-cooperative game in which you’re playing a camp counselor (in 1979, easily the most dangerous era for camp counselors) being stalked by a homicidal maniac named “Otis,” who wears a bear mask and wields a bloody gardening claw. You and the other players are trying to evade Otis while gathering the items you need to trigger one of the game’s four finales. As you play, you encounter campers, side characters in “cameo” roles, and special events that cover just about every single trope from early 80s slasher movies.

I’ve been wanting to try it for at least a year, but not without a little bit of trepidation. No matter how solid the idea, and no matter how talented the people involved, what if it ends up feeling flat in the execution? As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s already become my favorite cooperative game.



The Kickstarter for Camp Grizzly was hugely successful, tripling the amount of money they were asking for and spawning all kinds of expansions for stretch goals. If you missed the Kickstarter like I did, and you don’t see it at a convention, you can get a copy directly from their site. I picked up a copy right after the demo, and I immediately sprung for the miniatures. I never do that. Now all I have to do is wait for the expansions.

The art by Austin Madison (and others) is phenomenal, as you can see here used completely without permission. Not surprising considering the pedigrees of the people involved, but each card looks like polished storyboard/character concept/pitch art for a project from The Studio That Makes the Best 3D Animated Movies. And even better — and more difficult — it nails the tone exactly right between horror and black comedy, from a time when slasher movies were as interested in being exhilarating and fun as they were in going for the biggest gross-out.

Choosing “Ameritrash Games” as their name wasn’t just a self-deprecating gag, either; Camp Grizzly nails that part, too. The board is designed — from the fairly simple layout to the big red “Camp Grizzly” logo just above the “Body Count” tracker — to remind players of board games of the 70s and 80s. Without any context, you could assume it was a marketing tie-in game to some obscure 80s slasher movie.

Once you get into the game, though, it quickly becomes apparent that it could only exist in the “post-BoardGameGeek” era. It includes a lot of familiar elements from games like Betrayal at House on the Hill, Pandemic, and the dungeon-crawl Dungeons and Dragons-themed board games. Then it streamlines them and combines them with fantastic artwork to throw all the emphasis back on storytelling.


“Let’s Split Up”

I’m a fan of “pure” cooperative games like Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and Forbidden Desert, even though I always take it as a given from the start that I’m probably not going to win. (I still have never won a game of Forbidden Desert). But they tend to suffer from the same three problems:

  • One or two players can take over, becoming so fixated on a particular strategy that everyone else is basically squeezed out and left just moving pieces around a board.
  • Getting the right balance means making it feel like you’re always on the brink of disaster, which can result in spending two hours on a game and then everyone loses.
  • No matter how strong the theme is, or how well the theme is integrated into the mechanics, it usually ends up feeling like a purely mechanical abstraction.

Cooperative games have been popular enough for long enough that there’s already a sub-genre dedicated to fixing those problems: games with a traitor mechanic, like Battlestar Galactica and now Dead of Winter. The traitor mechanic not only guarantees a winner, but builds in an incentive to keep any one player from running away with the game: you’re never exactly sure if she’s just being bossy, or if she’s deliberately working against everyone else. (From what I’ve read, one of the expansions for Camp Grizzly introduces a traitor mechanic, too, with the intriguingly-named card “So It Was You All Along!”).

As it turns out, there’s another way to fix those problems: go all in on theme.

The tone of a slasher movie is a perfect fit for a modern cooperative game: it’s supposed to feel like the odds are overwhelmingly against you, and there is a “force of nature” appearing completely unexpectedly out of nowhere to make things worse.

One of the many decisions in Camp Grizzly that seems straightforward on the surface, but is actually an elegantly perfect solution to a ton of problems: making the antagonist a character. A forum post on the BoardGameGeek page for Camp Grizzly points out that Otis has a lot more personality than some generic slasher movie villain. He’s obviously a pastiche of Jason Voorhies and Michael Meyers, but he’s still a distinct creation. And it doesn’t just help the theme; it helps the game. You’re not fighting some abstraction like “disease” or “time” or “flood waters” or “zombies” or even “Sauron,” but another character.

The Tabletop episode of Forbidden Desert, for instance, demonstrates one of the aspects of “pure” cooperative games that I hate: the inevitable point when players start counting cards to figure out what’s left in the deck. It breaks whatever minimal theme has been established and makes it completely obvious your antagonist is a deck of cards. When you draw an “Otis Attacks!” card in Camp Grizzly, it feels more like a story moment than the result of a card draw.


“Foolin’ Around”

One of the reasons I’ve been over-thinking Camp Grizzly is that I think slasher movies are fascinating to pick apart. They started becoming self-referential while they were still popular, and they somehow continue to work even when you’re completely aware of all their tricks. When Scream came out and explicitly made a list of all the standard slasher movie tropes, it wasn’t a last death rattle of irony; it actually revitalized the entire genre.

When you have a genre of movie that comes with a built-in set of rules, it obviously lends itself to adapting that to a game. Camp Grizzly isn’t the first to do it; one of the most popular is Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game. It’s very similar in structure and theme to Camp Grizzly: you move characters around a board to fight zombies, drawing event and character cards based on the familiar cinematic cliches.

I like the ideas behind Last Night on Earth a lot, but I just didn’t enjoy the game. It felt self-aware about its theme, but didn’t really do anything with that self-awareness. To make a tortured analogy: if Last Night on Earth is like Shaun of the Dead, then Camp Grizzly is like The Cabin in the Woods.

In Scream and Shaun of the Dead, the central gag is that they telegraph what they’re going to do, and then do it anyway. And it still works: they have great moments, even though you know exactly what’s going to happen. In some cases, because you know what’s going to happen. (And a big part of why they work, when so many other attempts at self-aware horror movies just collapse into an insufferable mess, is because they’re self-aware out of affection. It’s not just we all know how these things work by now, but also …and that’s why we love them).

Not to pick on TableTop, but their playthrough of Last Night on Earth demonstrates why the game never really worked for me. For one thing, having some players as zombies introduces a disconnect before the game even starts. Zombies with agency is just weird. Only some of the players are controlling characters, while the rest are controlling game mechanics whose entire purpose in fiction is to be without any agenda except killing and eating. And obviously those episodes are exaggerated for the sake of making an entertaining video, but you can see the problem with Felicia Day’s repeated attempts to create a backstory for one of her zombies. It’s a struggle to impose a story onto the game mechanics.

One of the clever ideas that first attracted me to Last Night on Earth was a card called “This Could Be Our Last Night on Earth.” Two hero characters (they have to male and female, which I’ve got to point out is a minor disappointment) in the same space lose a turn. On the surface, it seems like a really clever way to incorporate theme into the game. In practice, though, it’s just a “lose turn” card with a picture and text.

A bunch of other mechanics subtly throw off the balance as well. Combat isn’t hugely complex, but it’s still more complicated than it needs to be. Certain locations have specific benefits, which seems like it’d reinforce the storytelling but in practice just becomes another mechanic to remember. All the elements combine to keep the focus on the game and leave the story lurking in the background.

It’s not “about” zombie movies and B-movies. It’s ultimately a game “about” fighting zombies — and a solid one, by most accounts! — that’s aware that zombie movies and B-movies exist.



If the gag in Scream and Shaun of the Dead was to acknowledge the cliches and then execute on them, the gag in The Cabin in the Woods is to come up with imaginative ways to explain why the cliches exist. (And then in the third act, why they need to exist).

I’m not saying that Camp Grizzly is some arch or cerebral deconstruction of the slasher genre — all the stuff I’m over-explaining here, it says with artwork, a few lines of text, and some game mechanics. But I do think it works the same way. The reason you need characters opening doors that are clearly hiding a monster, or sneaking into the woods to have sex when there’s obviously a killer on the loose, is because smart characters making good decisions makes for lousy storytelling.

Camp Grizzly isn’t a game about careful coordination and planning four moves ahead. Whether it was intentional or not, it feels as if they took a “pure” co-op game mechanic and streamlined or removed outright anything that made for a bad story.

One example: Otis. I already said that he’s a more interesting character than some abstraction. Even more important, though, is the fact that no player controls him. He’s got a simple agenda: stalk everyone and kill them, one by one. If he ever goes off the board, he reappears unexpectedly on a random wooded path. And after every player has taken a turn, Otis moves according to a simple set of rules:

  1. Go after whoever’s closest.
  2. If there’s a tie, go after the solitary characters, the ones who have nobody else in the same cabin.
  3. If there’s a tie, go after the character who’s most horrified.
  4. If there’s a tie, go after the one with the most wounds.
  5. If there’s still a tie, choose randomly.

All the standard slasher movie rules are covered except for “go after the black characters first.”

That impresses me as much as a movie nerd as a board game nerd: it’s not just an elegant deconstruction of slasher movie “rules,” it’s an elegant incorporation of them into an easily-understandable game mechanic.

All the other rules surrounding Otis are just complicated enough to make the decisions interesting. As the body count goes up, Otis gets stronger. “Combat” is a simple dice roll, with stronger weapons getting better dice. Characters can even “panic” thoughtfully: if you’re attacked, you can panic and run away from Otis a set number of spaces.

Another example: the cabin cards. Players start the game with a clear and simple objective: find a set of items. In a lot of similar games, you’d have to spend an action to “search” a location for something useful. In Camp Grizzly, you just move your character, and then do one of two things:

  1. Turn over a visible item token in your space, to see if it’s one of the things necessary to start the finale; or
  2. Draw a card from the cabin deck.

It splits the difference between all the move-and-explore games I’ve ever played, where you have a clear goal in mind and are deliberately looking for something; and all the cooperative games I’ve ever played, where at the end of every turn there’s the chance of something unexpected horrible happening. But what’s key for a story is that something interesting happens every turn. What’s key for a story game is that it’s not the player’s fault.

In the full game I played, we’d found all the necessary items, and we were all limping injured towards the barn to trigger the game finale. On his way there, one of the characters turned up the “Skinny Dipping” card shown above. He had to choose another character to take to the boat house and “tempt fate.”

This was a very stupid thing for him to do. Not only did it take two characters completely out of the way of our agreed-upon meeting place, but it invited Otis to attack and kill both of them. It’s exactly the kind of thing that has movie audiences shouting at the screen, “What are you doing? Don’t do that! Don’t open that door! Get out of the water! Put your clothes back on!” These moments are necessary to drive the story forward, but they’d be frustrating if they invalidated or supplanted the player’s decisions. Players still make decisions in Camp Grizzly, but they’re almost always reactionary.

There’s a lot of value in forcing the player’s hand. Another game we played this weekend was Cosmic Encounter. After years of seeing it top lists of “best board game ever made,” I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. My conclusion was that it’s apparent how well-designed it is, and it may very well be the best possible implementation of a bluffing/negotiation/character interaction game. I just don’t enjoy that type of game.

But as a game that is striving for negotiation, bluffing, and interaction above all else, it’s crucial that Cosmic Encounter forces an interaction every turn. Encounters aren’t optional, you often don’t get to choose which player you attack, and you often don’t get to choose whether you’re going to be hostile or try to negotiate. It doesn’t just guarantee that something is going to happen every turn, but it ensures that there’s a very good chance it won’t be what you expect. It may violate every carefully-planned strategy and intensely-negotiated alliance up to that point.

In Camp Grizzly, “Tempt fate” is a simple mechanic that encompasses 90% of the plot development of a slasher movie: those moments when a supposedly sympathetic character does something unforgivably stupid. You follow the setup on the card, and then draw some number of cards from the top of the cabin deck. If any of the cards is a red “Otis Attacks!” card, then surprise: Otis attacks. It’s an annoyingly elegant distillation of the cliche. You get the complication, the suspense, and then either the “Whew! It must’ve just been the cat” resolution, or another slasher movie moment.

And most importantly: you can’t avoid it. (Unless you happen to have a card like “Don’t,” pictured above). Camp Grizzly has the appearance of a standard co-op game, but it will happily throw out all of your careful planning and coordination for the sake of making a better slasher movie.



That’s exactly the kind of thing that infuriates some players. There are players who love the type of game where they can plan for three moves in advance, carefully counting up points and considering available moves and calculating card frequency to figure out which of their options will result in 5 victory points as opposed to 4.

For me, the only thing that sounds less fun is doing my taxes while having dental work done. I tend to be on the more “reactionary” end of the spectrum, where I can just try stuff out and see what happens. Even with that mindset, though, it took me a while to wrap my head around the interesting disconnect that’s inherent to Camp Grizzly.

Even as someone who hates having to plan too far ahead, and as someone who’s gotten so comfortable with losing games that I barely even consider it an objective anymore, I still approached Camp Grizzly as if it were a standard co-op game with a horror movie theme baked into it. Our objective was to pick up three items, go to this location, and then win the finale.

But after a few turns, I started to realize that I’d made the wrong assumption. The objective of the game isn’t to find three items and have my character survive the final showdown. The objective of the game is to make a slasher movie.

That’s when I realized we’d spent the bulk of the last hour doing exactly that. Because the art is so vivid, I could picture every scene as if it’d been animated. And because the mechanics themselves are relatively simple, I was remembering them as scenes instead of turns. It had the opposite effect of the flavor text in most board games: I wasn’t thinking “cancel an attack card” and then trying to impose some kind of story moment on top of that. Instead, I remembered lighting a flare in the middle of a dark cabin, or Mike’s character escaping into a crawlspace, and I couldn’t remember exactly what the description of the rule was.

And then I realized that a larger “plot” had pieced itself together. A couple, one of them badly wounded, had snuck into the barn to set a trap for Otis. But she slipped out to the boat house with another guy, and they were both punished for it when Otis attacked! After they narrowly escaped, the other counselors changed plans and decided to regroup at the boat house, with a last-minute and completely unhelpful appearance from Donald Pleasance’s character from Halloween. All the teenagers were panicking on the dock, screaming for the art teacher Karen to hurry up and make it to the boat.

Then we all got on the boat and things got wacky.

As soon as I saw what the setup for the finale was, I laughed out loud. I still think it’s brilliant, even though the character I was controlling was one of the first to die. The finale we got was unapologetically goofy way to end the game and the story. And it seemed like the game was finally explicitly asserting itself as a storytelling engine instead of a co-op game. (I’ve looked through most of the game cards by this point, but I’m carefully avoiding seeing any of the finale cards until they come up in game. I want to be surprised each time).

It seemed to present the same question that The Cabin in the Woods did, although in a less accusatory way: why are you pretending to be so emotionally invested in this cartoon teenager? I finally had to come to terms with the fact that I’m not actually a sexually promiscuous teenage girl, any more than I’m a pirate or a merchant or a Lord of Waterdeep or a kaiju attacking Manhattan. My goal isn’t to gather a bunch of items and escape a homicidal maniac; my goal is to take an interesting situation and see what happens as a result.

After getting burned out on euro games, it was nice to be reminded of a game that’s not super light but still just wants to be fun. And after spending so much time thinking about agency and the various ways that interactive media tell stories, it was nice to see a successful example of favoring storytelling over control that didn’t feel too abstract or too passive.

So much of the talk about player agency, especially in video game storytelling, makes the implicit assumption that the ideal is a “perfect avatar.” The player’s goals and the character’s goals are perfectly aligned. Story moments only happen as a direct result of the player’s actions. But again, horror and suspense movies have been chugging along for decades with the obvious “dissonance” of an audience aware of a monster lurking around every corner, and a bunch of characters doing frustratingly stupid things because of their own obliviousness. Why can’t a game do the same thing? Acknowledge that the player isn’t her character, and it’s not as important to control the experience as it is to enjoy it?

If you spend an hour playing a game and then “lose” at the end, what’s more important? That you didn’t win, or that you spent an hour having fun?

Everyone Has Their Shows

One of the many great things about Mad Max: Fury Road is that it defies attempts to explain it. So this is less of my usual “here’s a report to tell the internet how well I understood that thing I just saw,” and more just, “Did you guys just see that?!”

I happened to see it on the same night the series finale of Mad Men aired, and the juxtaposition is kind of interesting. A few years ago, I watched the pilot of Mad Men and dismissed it as an overly simplistic, almost Disney-fied codification of a period piece. Now, I realize that was unfair. (And if it’s any consolation to fans of the series: I’ve spent the last 5 years consistently seeing the search terms for this blog come up as “Mad Men sucks” or “Mad Men is overrated,” and every time I want to reply with a, “No wait I didn’t mean that I just meant…” that will forever fall on deaf ears). I’m still not that interested in it, but I’m no longer arrogant enough to dismiss it. I’ll just acknowledge it was a social phenomenon that completely passed me by, and that’s fine.

But seeing all the analyses of and thinkpieces about Mad Men, like this one from The A.V. Club, is downright jarring the morning after seeing Fury Road. While watching the movie, I felt like it had been beamed in fully-formed from another planet, one that was colonized by Cirque du Soleil, Smash-Up Derby promoters, and Burning Man organizers, who were left to interbreed and develop their own culture over thousands of years. It may be more accurate to say that it’s like a product from another time, bounced off a satellite from a time long ago, back before all the people had their own shows, and all the shows had their own recap blogs.

Turning Your Brain Off

Fury Road is completely, unapologetically, visual. Every time my brain tried to take over and ask: What does that mean? Who is that child? Is she from the first movie? Did I even see the first movie? What does this represent?, the movie would respond with, Shut up and look at this tractor trailer with a wall of amplifiers and a union suit-wearing bandit on bungee cords with an electric guitar that shoots flames. Also, there are drummers on the back. Also, the truck will explode.

(Like just about everything on Badass Digest/Birth.Movies.Death., I agree 100% with the premise of that post, then frustratingly disagree with where it goes from there. It’s not just that an origin story for this guy is unnecessary; explaining why it’s unnecessary with belabored analogies to Boba Fett is unnecessary. I shouldn’t even be writing this post).

I’ve already seen complaints about the movie that say it’s nothing more than an extended car chase sequence. Which is accurate, but I believe it also completely misses the point. It takes two hours of footage packed impossibly dense with unforgettable images, and then dismisses it because those images aren’t a vehicle (no pun intended) for something else.

I feel like we’ve been trained over the past couple of decades to believe that the opposite of cerebral is stupid. It’s the Transformers mentality: the people who enjoy those movies tend to justify it by saying that “you turn your brain off.” My response has always been that you shouldn’t need to turn your brain off; a well-made action sequence can still deliver symbolism and meaning and convey all sorts of “higher” concepts.

Fury Road felt like George Miller scoffing at me and saying, “Screw that, poindexter.” That whole attitude of “thinking man’s action movies” feels like a relic of the era of The Matrix: where you can’t just have tentacle ships and bullet time effects and thousands of suit-wearing agents engaged in kung fu battles and a badass slicing a semi truck with a samurai sword. It’s got to have a layer of simple-minded “philosophy” and Alice in Wonderland allusions slathered all over it for it to be worthwhile. So that a bunch of guys on the internet can say that they understood the deeper meaning and then make references to red pills and blue pills.

After ravaging the cinematic environment with that, an ecological disaster like Sucker Punch seems depressingly inevitable. I can’t really fault the basic intention: it recognizes that there’s some visual language of What 12 Year Old Boys Think is Rad that we all need to see. But it tries to stretch shallow ideas into epic spectacle that just shows how derivative all the imagery is, and worse, it tries to couch it in a completely bullshit travesty of gender commentary that’s so clumsily handled it’s offensive.

Not All War Boys

Fury Road appreciates the inherent value of a moving image. And it appreciates that because it invented so many of them. If anyone says the phrase “post-apocalyptic wasteland,” the image that pops into your head is, undoubtedly, from Mad Max or The Road Warrior.

I mentioned wasting time at the beginning of the movie trying to figure everything out. Because the “story” begins in media res, I was wondering whether I needed to have seen the other movies for context. I honestly can’t say whether I’ve seen the other three movies in their entirety; I know I’ve seen parts of them, but couldn’t tell you more than the basics.

Lone guy in a leather jacket driving through the desert in a modified sports car. Bandits killed his wife and child. Hot-rod and motorcycle-driving bandits chasing a tanker truck. Skulls. Communities of outlaws and warlords built with rusted metal and old car parts. Explosions. A guy totally getting his fingers cut off by a spinning boomerang blade thing.

A few minutes in, Fury Road reassured me: yeah, you got it. That’s all you need to know, because those unforgettable images are the whole point. Now watch, as we add dozens more, like an impossibly apocalyptic sandstorm. A “blood bag” strapped to the front of a car, chained to its driver. Four beautiful women appearing like a mirage in the desert, washing themselves with a hose. A white-haired warlord with a death mask, staring intently from behind the wheel of a car in pursuit.

The movie refuses to explain or give context for much of anything, not just because it’s unnecessary, but because it’d undermine their power as raw images. In fact, some of the most unforgettable images are only given a glimpse, a few seconds of screen time and a reaction shot from Max.

With all of that going on, this article in Vice describing the movie as “the feminist action flick we’ve been waiting for” seems misguided. Not that any of it is wrong. Just that pointing it out seems as facile as, for example, being able to identify what a tree is.

Early reports made me expect an action movie with an undercurrent of feminism. Fury Road doesn’t have undercurrents. It’s explicitly written on the wall: “Who killed the world?” and it’s not at all ambiguous. All these men did, and it’s only the women who have any chance of rebuilding it. And actually, by treating it as so explicit, the message is a lot more powerful than it would’ve been as a coded manifesto. There’s nothing to decipher, no nuance, no gray area that leaves room for differences in opinion: this is what happens when you treat people as commodities. Stop acting like it’s at all complicated.

THIS. All the things.

My favorite character in the movie — and with so much vivid imagery it’s kind of tough to choose — is The People Eater: an old white guy standing out of the sunroof of a car looking over a ledger, wearing a three-piece suit that has holes cut out for his nipple clamps. This is not a movie that aspires to subtlety.

So I ended up not analyzing it, but experiencing it. Cringing, covering my eyes, getting excited, staring in wonder, or laughing out loud. It’s a throwback to a time when I just enjoyed movies, instead of feeling like I had to understand them, because there was going to be a quiz later.

When everybody’s social media first exploded with reactions to the movie, most of them were of the format “Max Max: Fury Road is a thing that exists.” I’d thought it was just the standard internet cliche, like “Well, that happened.” After seeing it, I think it’s really just the best response. The novelty of a movie that’s not a mashup or reboot or reimagining, just 100% its own thing that exists in a pure and almost entirely unadulterated state, free of context and inspiration from anything other than itself. A platonic state of Mad Maxism.

From the right-out-of-the-early-80s title screen forward, it asserts itself as a product of another time. A time when someone could ask me what I thought of a movie, and I could just respond with, “It’s got a grotesque old white man in the sunroof of a car looking over a ledger, wearing a three-piece suit that has holes cut out for his nipple clamps.”

One Month With the Apple Watch (Order Status Page Edition)

As a well-known “early adopter,” I feel I’ve got an obligation to share my experiences with bleeding-edge advancements in SoaC-powered wealth redistribution with users who are more on the fence, baffled by the increasing number of options in wearable technology.

A lot of you have lots of money but no time to wade through all the industry jargon; you just have simple questions that you need answered: “What is the Apple Watch?” “Why haven’t I read or heard anything about it?” And most importantly: “Does Chuck have one yet?”

I can go ahead and conclusively answer the last question: No.

If you were hoping that the Apple Watch would finally be the game-changer that makes me satisfied with the number of gadgets I own, you’re probably better off waiting a month or two. Version 1.0 of Apple products are known for being a hint of the advancements and refinements yet to come, more than complete, functional, devices. It’s as if with the Apple Watch, Jony Ive and his team of designers at Apple are giving us a roadmap for the future, announcing to the world: This is what the smart watch will be like, some time in early July when Chuck is actually able to have one.

So the question remains: is it really that insufferable to be waiting for the delivery of an expensive, inessential device, while surrounded by other people who already have theirs? Let’s find out.

How The Other Half Lives

Marketing Apple’s Most Personal Device Ever

Apple had to take a different approach with their first foray into the world of wearable technology. That meant making sure that before the product even hit stores, watch models were made available to the leading tastemakers: the technology and gadget bloggers who’d complain that Pharell and were posting Instagram pictures of their watches before any of the reviewers could get one.

By now, you’ve no doubt seen the “Big Guys” offer up their opinions about the Apple Watch (48mm Steel with the Milanese Loop band, universally), and their experiences with glances, taptic feedback, the Activity tracker, re-charging it every day, and the importance of selectively disabling notifications. By virtue of the mathematical study of combinatorics and the number of words in the English language, each reviewer’s take is, strictly speaking, unique.

You’ve seen a quirky first person attempt to free the device from Jony Ive’s perfectly-controlled environment and present it in a more realistic day-to-day setting: a tech blogger in New York City with a head-mounted camera. You’ve doubtless savored the definitive review from a suave globetrotting secret agent tech blog editor figuring out how this new innovation fits into a busy day packed with meetings and treadmill-running, including an up-close look at how hard it is to execute cross-site web content scheduling in a New York City bar with the double distractions of a watch constantly tapping your wrist, and a full camera and lighting crew having to run multiple takes of video while in a New York City bar. You’ve seen a stop-motion animated version with paper cutouts, for some reason. By now, you’ve even seen the Tech Reviewer Old Guard offer another look back at the watch after using it for a month.

What none of those so-called “professional” reviews will tell you is what life is like for real people who don’t have the product being reviewed. Sure, you occasionally get somebody like Apple insider and sarcasm enthusiast Neven Mrgan making a feeble attempt to relate to The Rest of Us outside Apple’s walled garden clique, but how much can you really say about an experience after only a week or two? How does that experience change after an entire month? [Full disclosure: Mr. Mrgan graciously offered a royalty-free license for me to completely rip off the premise of this blog post, presumably by effortlessly dictating said license into the always-on AI assistant of his futurewatch].

It’s Finally Here

Just Not For You

One thing that none of the reviews mention is how much of the Apple Watch experience is dependent on having not just an iPhone, but an actual physical Apple Watch. The site, for example, offers a list of what the Apple Watch can do without an iPhone, but makes no mention of what can be done without the watch itself.

Granted, one site can’t possibly cover every single aspect of the watch (although not for lack of trying), but this seems like an oversight. How do I keep time without an Apple Watch? How is not having the watch changing my health for the better? When will I get one? They’re all questions strangely left unanswered by the “All [sic] your questions answered!” Apple Watch FAQ.

That’s a perfect example of how blog developers are adjusting to the new paradigms introduced by the Apple Watch: They’re not as content-focused as more traditional devices like the iPhone’s reviews. Instead, they’re best consumed as “glances,” not meant to be “read” so much as absorbed in quick seconds-long bursts throughout the day, every day, for months.

The truth is that there’s no amount of parallax scrolling and full-screen looping background video that will provide a truly definitive review of life without Apple’s latest must-have. For that, you need to go to Apple itself.

That trademark Apple design is evident from first glance: the photographs of other people with their watches bleed right up to the bezel of the laptop screen, putting a subtle but unmistakable emphasis on the object that you don’t have. It’s a perfect example of how Apple makes cold hardware more personal, by telling a personal story: This woman has a watch and you don’t. She is a ballerina. What does she need a smartwatch for? She can’t possibly have her iPhone in range; her pockets are too small. Also the screen is likely to come on frequently as she moves her arms, causing a distraction to the other dancers. Did she not think this through? I wonder if she ordered her watch at midnight instead of waiting. A good night’s rest is very important for dancers, so it seems foolish to forsake that just to get a new watch that can’t even give incoming message notifications. Not to mention that dancers aren’t usually paid well enough to be spending hundreds of dollars on a watch. I bet she didn’t even wait in line for a new iPhone every other year since the first model, like I did. Who does she think she is, anyway?

This is also likely to be your first bit of frustration when dealing with the lack of an Apple Watch: because the title photograph has to do a full round-trip circuit from designer to marketing team to photographer and model to graphic designer to web publisher, it can get hopelessly out of sync with reality. I still find myself reading the notification “The Watch is Here,” and then glancing down at my wrist only to confirm that it’s most assuredly not here. I hope this is fixed in a future update.

The Best Part of Waking Up

Getting Into the Groove of a Daily Routine Without Your Apple Watch

Apple’s attention to detail and design carry through the rest of the experience. There’s no garish “Order Status” menu, for example, instead offering a simple “Store” menu that reveals more beautifully photographed images of the product you don’t have.

It’s only there that you find a friendly drop-down menu takes you to “Order Status.” That will ask you for your password every time you open or refresh the page throughout the day — you’ll be doing this a lot, so I recommend using a password manager like 1Password.

In the month since I ordered an Apple Watch, I’ve really started to notice how I use technology differently throughout the day and in different locations. On the laptop, for instance, I hardly ever use the Delivery Status widget to track the status of my shipment, both because of the decreasing relevance of the OS X Dashboard, and because after 5 weeks the order is still in “Processing” status without a tracking number. Instead, I prefer to go to the Apple Store page, bring up the order status, enter my password, refresh the page, wait a few seconds, and refresh the page again, sigh, then refresh it one more time. I would’ve thought that this would feel like an intrusion, but it’s become such an integral part of my morning routine that I hardly even notice it anymore.

While out around town, not going to bars or important meetings, it’d be a lot more convenient to bring up the Apple Store app on my phone. In practice, though, the app requires me to type my password again every time I want to check the order status, so I end up not bothering. Maybe they’ll fix this sometime within the next 5-6 weeks. In a perfect world, I could have some type of device on my wrist that could give me order updates with just a “glance.”

On the Order Status page, you’ll see the time period in an elegant but still-readable font. Apple still knows how to make the most of the user experience, giving a moment of delight as you see the estimate change from “June” to “5-6 weeks.” These displays are made possible by “complications,” a term Apple is borrowing from the hardware industry to describe things like doing a huge marketing push for a product release that depends on faulty haptic feedback engines from overseas manufacturers.

Apple makes it really easy to go back to the main store page from the Order Status page, so you can get a beautiful, detailed look at all the various models and colors of watches you don’t have. It’s fun for running “what if?” type experiments, such as “Could I cancel my order and instead get one of the dainty models with a pink band? Would that ship any faster?”

There’s also support for Apple’s new “Force Touch” technology, in which you give a long, exasperated sigh followed by a sharp slamming gesture on all of the keyboard’s keys simultaneously, or pressing a closed fist firmly and repeatedly on the laptop’s trackpad. This gives helpful feedback in the form of Safari crashing. It definitely takes some practice, but in my experience, it became second nature the more often I saw my colleagues unwrapping their just-delivered Apple Watches near my desk.

I Regret Reading a Gadget Blog Post (and I knew I would)

The Cold, Hard Sting That Can Only Happen When You Physically Open Your Wallet

Even though the watch is only available online and who the hell writes for a technology blog but still has to physically open his wallet when he buys stuff online?

He Should Try Apple Pay
Unless Maybe He Also Bought a Really Expensive Wallet, And He Just Likes the Way It Feels

As a mobile software developer in San Francisco, I’ve already seen how the release of the Apple Watch has changed my routine. During my morning workout (two reps climbing up BART station stairs, followed by an intensive 1.5 block walk), I enjoy listening to podcasts that keep me on the bleeding edge of the most disruptive of apps and innovators. (ICYMI: My essential travel gear). (I recommend Overcast for podcast-listening, even if you’re going truly old-school and changing podcast tracks on your Bluetooth headphones by manipulating actual buttons on your touchscreen-enabled wireless mobile computer).

The gang at has been active on various podcasts, letting me know about their experiences after initial unboxing, two days, four days, a week, and several weeks later, while traveling, writing, and recording podcasts. In addition to the roundtable discussions where groups of people discuss how the watch I don’t have yet has changed their lives, I’ve gotten answers to the questions you don’t usually think about with some cursory product review. For instance: what if you have two watches, and you can’t decide which of them you want to keep? And: now that we’ve all had the opportunity to get used to our new watches, what would we most like to see in the new version?

Another highlight: an account of the podcaster whose significant other isn’t much of a technology devotee and wasn’t that interested in the watch, became interested after seeing the podcaster use his for a few days, ordered one, received it, and is giving her first impressions. It’s a magical time, as if entire generations of wearable technology are happening all around me as I watch the Order Status page. Whole waves of Gawker Media-led backlashes are whooshing by with the lasting permanence of burrito farts, the only constants being me, a web site, and a refresh button.

After five weeks, I find I have a lot in common with Mat Smith, who wrote for Engadget a confessional thinkpiece entitled “I regret buying an Apple Watch (and I knew I would).”

Like Smith, I was initially unmoved by the announcement of a new device from Apple. I, too, had bought a Pebble watch but quickly got out of the habit of wearing it. I’ve gotten the first versions of other Apple products and often been surprised by how dramatically and how quickly they’re made obsolete by the next release. I, too, write rambling stuff on the internet that frequently makes me come across as an insufferable asshole. And I also find myself reluctantly falling back into the role of “early adopter” for the sake of completely irrational impulses — in my case, an animated Mickey Mouse watch face that taps his foot every second; in his case, enjoying buying unnecessarily expensive stuff that makes him look cool.

It was important to him to have the sapphire face and stainless steel body, whereas I have large wrists, so it really stands out when I roll my eyes and make a wanking gesture while reading the rest of his post.

We ordered different models of the watch, because we have different needs. He tried on the gold version and was invited to look at himself in a mirror, while I managed to get 10 minutes bending over a bench in an Apple store by scheduling an appointment a couple of days in advance. He fell in love with the Milanese band, while I could only justify getting the cheapest model by telling myself it was a birthday present for myself. He doodles tiny pictures of cocks to colleagues and concludes it’s not a life-changing device; I see colleagues with watches and go back to reading blog posts written by, apparently, sentient, literate cocks.

One More Thing

Adding a Semi-Pithy Coda About Consumerism to What Should Have Been a Short and Silly Blog Post to Make it Unclear How Much of Any of This Is Intended to be Sarcastic

This Is Why People Don’t Read Your Blog

For decades there’s been a tendency to be dismissive of Apple devotees as being cultish and image-obsessed, with more money than common sense. As Macs and iPhones got more ubiquitous (and cheaper), enough people caught on to the fact that good design actually has real value. There are, no doubt, plenty of people who put “shiny” and “has visible glowing Apple logo” high on their list of priorities, but I think they’re finally outnumbered by those of us who just want something that’s really well made. (And who’ve bought enough cheap computers for the sake of saving a few bucks to realize that it ends up costing more in the long run when it needs to be replaced). Now it’s only the cranks in forums and blog comments that insist on complaining about the “Apple Tax.”

When Apple announced a gold edition of its new watch, that was rumored to cost over ten thousand bucks, there were fears that it’d bring all the old class warfare back to consumer technology: the company was now explicitly targeting status-obsessed rich people.

As I look at photos of models tying up their toe shoes, or draping their watch-bedecked arms over other models to make out with them, or stopping mid-jog-through-the-Hollywood Hills, and I see the three clearly-delineated castes of watch available, and I commit a few hundred bucks to the “lowest” caste of thing that I didn’t even want a few months ago, and I get increasingly resentful of the people who already have their inessential thing, and even more annoyed when they have the more expensive version of the thing I don’t yet have (even though I wouldn’t even want the more expensive version), I’m just glad those fears turned out to be completely unfounded.

Dogpile on that thing you like

Andrew Dice Clay
Considering that Grand Theft Auto, Family Guy, and The Big Bang Theory have all received their public nerd backlashes, I’m a little surprised that I haven’t seen one against the game Cards Against Humanity yet. It’s super popular, it sells itself on being transgressive and breaking barriers of good taste; what’s the hold up?

In fact, the only indication of whether it was safe for me to say publicly how much I hate Cards Against Humanity came at the end of a Shut Up & Sit Down video review of something else a while back (which is impossible for me to find a link to at the moment, so just take my word for it). They were talking about gateway games and introducing people to the hobby, and in regards to CAH, just gave the diplomatic and tactful “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

That’s the healthiest and most mature response. Usually, whenever something I hate becomes popular, my natural tendency is to combine the endings of both Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies, running through the streets screaming about a world gone mad, pointing in accusatory horror at anyone who would dare enjoy something that I don’t. But that simple acknowledgement in a review video was enough to calm me down and pull me back into the land of the well-adjusted. It’s a filler game that doesn’t affect me in the slightest. What’s the problem?

The problem is that it does affect me, because I keep finding myself in situations where I’m in a group that wants to play Cards Against Humanity, and I end up having to grit my teeth and play along, or decline and end up looking like an over-sensitive wet blanket, or even worse, looking like I’m casting judgment on the people who want to play. I can’t think of any other game — at least one that doesn’t involve drinking or stripping — that has so much defensive social awkwardness baked in.

So I was relieved when Shut Up and Sit Down posted a three-part review of Cards Against Humanity, finally lifting the embargo and giving me permission to announce how much I hate the game and never want to play it.

For the record, I agree 99% with Matt Lees’s take, especially this:

I despise the implication that those who complain about the tone of Cards Against Humanity are approaching the topic with the mindset of a prude… I don’t need a card game to grant me permission, but I also don’t need one to absolve me from guilt.

It’s a system designed to reliably dose players with an intoxicating sense of naughtiness. Breaking social rules gives people a buzz, but frankly there are better rules to be breaking. One of the great pleasures of games is allowing yourself to briefly play a role that’s different to your own, but I can’t help but cringe when faced with the glee of people using a deck of cards to pretend they’re the square root of Jeremy Clarkson.

But there’s more to it than that, as there always is whenever something that’s frankly lazy tries to pass itself off as transgressive satire. It pulls in all these layers of defensiveness and offensiveness which isn’t actual depth, but just the typical Hipster Spiral of Irony. So here’s my attempt to unpack everything wrong with it, in convenient list form:

The makers of the game actually seem kind of cool.
For as long as I’ve been aware, the game was released in the Creative Commons, which includes an option to print your own copy. And they still have managed to make millions and millions of dollars from it. On top of that, they seem to be genuinely interested in supporting and promoting board and card games as a hobby and a “community,” instead of just swooping in for a sudden cash grab.

There shouldn’t be any resentment over how much money the game has made.
Although I’ve never watched an actual episode, I’m especially impressed with the premise of Tabletop Deathmatch, which borrows the reality show format for a series that supports and promotes aspiring game designers. Of course, it promotes Cards Against Humanity as well, which is a perfect example of the combination of marketing and “giving back” that is understood by the kind of people who make lots and lots of money.

A ton of the backlash against Penny Arcade, for instance, was obviously motivated not just by anything they were actually saying, but because they’d become wealthy enough that they became a safe target. It’s a stupid and self-destructive tendency that we (meaning nerd fans) have to try and tear down anyone who becomes successful doing something they love. We should cut it out.

That said, the game still sucks.
When they released Cards Against Humanity, they chose the tagline “A Party Game for Horrible People” as opposed to the more accurate “We Took Apples to Apples and Added AIDS Jokes.” But really, by adding cards about the Holocaust and sharts, they removed the only element of Apples to Apples that’s at all interesting. Opportunities to make any kind of interesting connection or observation in CAH is an accident at best; 99% of the game is just picking whichever card is going to result in the biggest shock value. It’s pretty much entirely passive.

A couple of times I’ve been lucky enough to play, we included my friend’s toddler as one of the players. Each round, she’d randomly pick a card to get added into the mix. She “scored” as well as anyone else did. That’s a clear sign of a terrible non-game.

I think the game sucks, not the people who play it.
A surprising number of my friends still like using it as a filler game or a time-waster, and in fact a couple of them are some of the funniest and most clever people I’ve ever met. But because of the tagline and the premise, there’s an element of defensiveness baked in: you’re saying I should feel bad for enjoying this. Or even worse: I’m playing this with a level of ironic detachment that you clearly don’t understand because you have a simplistic sense of humor.

Believe me: we get it. There are certainly people who play Cards Against Humanity the same way my friends and I tittered over a copy of Truly Tasteless Jokes when we were in middle school. You don’t sell millions of dollars worth of something without catering to everyone. But I’m fortunate enough never to have to play with those people. The groups I’ve ever had to play with are all approaching it as SF Bay Area Liberals: it’s a kind of meta-commentary on the type of asshole who thinks jokes about AIDS, child abuse, and Michael Jackson are genuinely funny.

It’s not a subtle game; the premise is right there on the box. It presents a kind of “safe space” where you can say stuff you’d never say otherwise.

I might still be silently judging you, but that’s okay.
Again, though, if you can charitably describe it as a role-playing game, the role you’re choosing to play is Jeremy Clarkson or Andrew Dice Clay. I’m the guy who’s saying things that other people can’t. It’s all juvenile stuff that just depends on trying to shock the easily offended and then passing it off as transgressive humor.

What annoys me the most when playing it isn’t when someone picks a card that hits one of my hot-button topics. It’s when somebody, before revealing their cards, gives that half-groan and says something like, “Oh, this is sooo bad,” or “Sorry about this!” with a nervous giggle. It takes all of my willpower not to just shout out Yes that’s the entire point of the game we all get that you score points by being offensive you don’t need to qualify it every single turn!

Which ends up making me feel bad, and it’s the kind of hassle I’d rather not have to deal with. I don’t have to feel bad whenever I say I don’t want to play Notre Dame or Smash Up or various other games that I don’t enjoy, so why’s there all this extra baggage around a stupid card game?

I’ve got a juvenile, “there’s no such thing as too lowbrow” sense of humor, and I still giggle when I hear the word “duty.” There have been billions of times I’ve made a joke and gotten a reaction from friends as if I’d just farted directly onto their face. I don’t take it personally, so nobody should take it personally when I announce that their game is stupid and I hate it.

It’s not about genuine offense, or political correctness.
Part of the reason I think my objection to a simple filler card game warrants a blog post is because there are so many different interpretations of why it sucks. There are three in that Shut Up & Sit Down review, all of which I agree (and disagree) with to some degree. There’s also this brief write-up on Offworld, which I don’t agree with.

I’m not particularly concerned with the type of player who’d start talking about political correctness or free speech or being “edgy” with this game, because as I said, I’m lucky enough never to have to play with that type of person. The problem isn’t that it’s offensive, the problem is that it’s lazy. There’s nothing there.

It’s not about “punching down.”
I’ve already seen plenty of condemnations of the game and apologia for the game that both talk about “punching up” and “punching down.” I’ve got zero patience for this; I think it’s some of the worst fallout from the modern trend towards pop-progressivism on the Internet. Simply because if you’re talking about treating people well and fairly, it shouldn’t involve any talk of “punching.” If you’re truly interested in equality, diversity, and all the other things that progressives are supposed to concern about, then acceptable treatment of people should have nothing to do with their race, gender, sexuality, or wealth.

Removing cards is kind of gross.
The only thing that I do find genuinely offensive about Cards Against Humanity is when I hear about people who remove certain cards before they play. To each his own, of course, but I think this is just downright horrible.

It introduces a kind of ghoulish Calculus of Appropriate Speech. It defies the whole premise of the game (flimsy as it is), which insists that everything is fair game because none of this is real. As soon as you start removing cards because they hit on taboo subjects, then you’re saying that some of it is real. That you are actually making jokes at someone’s expense, instead of mocking the horribleness of the whole concept. Which raises the question of where these players are drawing the line. How can it be unacceptable to make light of child abuse and sexual assault, but acceptable to keep cracks about AIDS or the Holocaust?

I do understand the concept of triggers and post-traumatic stress, and how something that seems perfectly innocuous to me can cause an actual physiological reaction in people who’ve had to go through with it. And believe it or not, I’m sympathetic to that. But I insist that it’s not at all crass or insensitive to suggest that if someone is harmed by the content of a card game that’s designed to be offensive, you’d be better off playing Dixit. Otherwise, you’re suggesting that some of the content is to be taken seriously, and you really are engaged in the activity of making fun of other people’s horror or misfortune for fun.

Stop trying to define what’s acceptable in stuff that’s intended to be offensive.
It goes back, yet again, to one of the worst things I’ve read on the internet, the Jezebel article that tried to delineate exactly how and when it’s acceptable to make light of sexual assault, using discussions of positions of power, CDC statistics, and a counter-example of being horribly mangled by an industrial thresher. It’s a clumsy (no matter how well-intentioned) attempt to codify something for which there’s a simple, straightforward answer: it’s never okay to make light of sexual assault. The reason comedians like Louis CK and Sarah Silverman seem to get away with it isn’t complicated; it’s simply because they’re not making light of it.

And the reason it’s worth pointing out over and over again is because I honestly believe it’s lowering the level of discourse. We keep having cyclical flare-ups when people just fail to get how not to be awful, and the response doesn’t help, but instead perpetuates it. Simple-minded people already talk as if there’s some rulebook somewhere of Arbitrary Rules That The Liberals Have Imposed On Our Society, and they’re not sharing it with the conservatives. Whenever someone suggests that it’s okay for somebody to make offensive jokes because of some arbitrary social status, you’re just perpetuating the idea that it really is arbitrary.

If you think it’s arbitrary, you don’t get it. There’s no simple rulebook or actuarial table of how age or economic background factor into what you’re allowed to say. You’ve got to think about what’s actually being said, not just the words that are being used, or who’s talking. And if you don’t get that, then please, for the love of Pete, stop trying to explain it.

Cards Against Humanity isn’t representative of board and card games.
If I’m being honest: of all the objections raised in that Shut Up & Sit Down review, I think Paul’s are the weakest. CAH has been embraced by the “post-Catan wave” of board and card game enthusiasts, but it remains its own thing. Even the aforementioned Dixit or Apples to Apples are more likely to be “gateway” games for new players, simply because they’re actually games. (However simple they might be). I don’t believe Cards Against Humanity has any real aspirations to “game-ness,” because of all its built-in ironic disclaimers and presenting itself as more of a social activity than an actual game.

Frankly, I think that claiming to be concerned about the impression it gives to new gamers is just a crutch to make it “okay” to say how much you hate it. (And I mention it because I’ve been tempted to do exactly that). I can justify hating on Grand Theft Auto because each release of the series is such a huge event that it becomes shorthand for “This Is What Video Games Are.” Even the people who love Cards Against Humanity would acknowledge that it’s a filler, and that it doesn’t represent the game industry any more than Family Guy represents animation.

And I really do think it’s worth repeating that the makers of Cards Against Humanity are frequently sponsoring gaming events and evangelizing the hobby. I do wish they were doing it with an actual game, but that just brings us back full circle to the “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy.

For my part, I’m just happy that now that I’ll never again have to explain to anyone why I don’t want to play it.

Avengers: Age of Um, Not So Much

I’ve been avoiding reading reviews of Avengers: Age of Ultron, to avoid spoilers. I recommend you do the same, since I’m not going to make any effort to avoid spoiling everything here.

My short review: it’s very good, and I liked it a lot. It’s also 100% a Joss Whedon movie, for better and for worse.

While I didn’t read the reviews themselves, I was reading the headlines and summations. There seemed to be one bit of consensus in particular: it was supposedly more franchise than fun, a case of all the joyous excess of The Avengers finally starting to collapse under the weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I don’t agree. I didn’t love it as much as The Avengers, or Iron Man, or even Captain America, and it was largely because it had to strain under the weight of decades of movies, television series, and comic book. But not Marvel’s. The ghosts of franchises and formulas past were from Firefly, Serenity, Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

If you were to have described to me all the stuff that appears in Age of Ultron, the part I would’ve expected to be the most insufferable would be “Ultron is an advanced artificial intelligence that talks like Xander Harris.”

In practice, though: yeah, not so much. It’s not particularly overdone, and in the end comes across not as “Self-aware supervillain as the writer’s self-effacing defense mechanism” but “this was an AI created by Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Tony Stark.” Sure, he does a comment about revealing his super-villainous plan — itself a bit of self-awareness at least as old as Watchmen, to the point that that’s become even more of a cliche. But it’s incidental to its scene, and ends up feeling more like another reminder of Tony Stark’s responsibility in the whole thing.

It’s also a constant reminder that Joss Whedon is speaking through all of these characters. And it was kind of hard to “turn him off.” Related: I either never knew that James Spader was the voice of Ultron, or I forgot. I thought it sounded like Ty Burrell, so I spent the entire movie picturing him whenever Ultron came on screen.

But I like Joss Whedon, a lot, so what’s the problem? The problem is when all the tics and mannerisms are so familiar that they threaten to overpower everything else.

Towards the climax (reminder that this is a pretty big spoiler, in case “towards the climax” wasn’t enough of a clue), there’s a “ha we have masterfully played off of your expectations” moment. Hawkeye has spent the entire movie with the Grim Reaper looming over his shoulder: he’s injured early on, he questions his value to the team, he has an idyllic visit with his family and a heart-to-heart with his wife, he says both that he’s made his final addition to his peaceful farmhouse and makes plans for one more as soon as this mission is over. He even says out loud that he doesn’t know who’ll be coming back alive.

But then no! It’s Quicksilver who heroically sacrifices himself, much like, say, a leaf on the wind. And he calls back to his rival Hawkeye’s earlier dialogue with the line “Bet you didn’t see that one coming.”

Except those of us who’ve spent the last couple of decades watching Joss Whedon’s stuff respond with a Whedon-esque “Actually, yeah, we kinda did.” It’s not even just a precedent from Serenity (and Dr. Horrible, and Buffy, and Angel); it was in the first Avengers movie! Agent Coulson is still practically standing right there, and they’re trying to act like Killing Someone In Act 3 still has any element of surprise or weight to it.

Even more frustrating is when it’s not just all the old familiar tics and mannerisms and favorite cliches, but the entire sensibility that threatens to overwhelm everything else.

One of the reasons the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” has been so successful is that they’ve been unafraid to let directors bring their own sensibilities to each character. So Iron Man feels like a romantic comedy with robot suits, Thor feels a little bit like a modern take on a Shakespearean tragedy, and Captain America feels like The Rocketeer with a bigger budget and better CG. (I guess DC has done the same, more or less, but it requires you to like Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s sensibilities). It was a great fit for Avengers, as well: it had to be epic and packed full of stuff, so it was important to get somebody who could have huge, effects- and action-heavy sequences and keep it character-focused and have lots of good-looking people being flippant and charming to keep the whole thing from collapsing under its own weight.

Age of Ultron is also packed full of stuff, but somehow, none of it feels all that important. Which is a drag, because I think it made the right decisions going in:

  • It doesn’t pretend that the Avengers are anything other than a superhero team. All the “can these misfits work together?” drama was covered in the last movie, so this one starts right away with a big, complicated fight sequence in which it was clear to everyone that the Avengers were going to win. There’s even dialogue to that effect: one of the bad guys asks whether they can withstand the attack, and a henchman simply replies, “It’s the Avengers.”
  • Knowing that “will they win?” isn’t a valid question, the story puts all of the weight onto character conflict. The reason Scarlet Witch is a threat isn’t because she can overpower them, but that she could cause them all to collapse under their own personal baggage.
  • Even with that, the story knows exactly how far it can take the question of whether they’ll all turn on each other — because we know that even if they do, they’ll work around it by the end — and uses it as an impediment instead of a major crisis. The major crisis instead becomes completely character-driven: they have to deal with the left-over “psychic residue” of the Scarlet Witch’s attacks.
  • And that doesn’t take the form of self-doubt (because again: we’ve already seen them effortlessly taking down bad guys), but questioning what they want. Much more interesting than the question “can I win this fight?” is the question “do I really want to keep fighting?”
  • That cleverly side-steps the whole question of “why is Hawkeye even on this team?” The movie still asks that question outright, and answers it, but the implied answer is even stronger: Hawkeye’s the only one of them who has a “normal” life available to him, which is ostensibly what they’re all fighting for.
  • And that most obviously drives the whole romantic subplot between Black Widow and Bruce Banner, which is handled surprisingly maturely for a “comic book movie.” But it also drives the main plot, which is justifying the creation of Ultron: it states outright that the whole reason for the Avengers to exist is to create a world in which the Avengers don’t need to exist.
  • There’s a party scene that’s presented as if it’s meant to be aspirational: a bunch of clever, beautiful people having fun in a penthouse overlooking Manhattan. The recurring theme — from Rhodey Rhodes’s story about tossing a tank to the various attempt to pick up Thor’s hammer — is how much better these guys have it than “normal people.” The entire rest of the story seems to be questioning that scene: what are they doing, exactly, and why are they doing it? I liked the detail of ending the movie with Avengers Headquarters in a more nondescript, ground-level building outside of Manhattan.
  • “Who would win in a fight?” is a staple of superhero comic books, so we get the huge, destructive showdown between Hulk and Iron Man punching each other through buildings. But it’s framed to be both gratuitous and important to the theme: when the heroes are flying around smashing things, they’re making things worse for the civilians they’re trying to protect.
  • Which ties in yet again with Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver’s story, and puts almost all the emphasis of the climactic fight scene on their efforts to save people, instead of just beating the bad guy. (Which is itself kind of an interesting flip on the fight scene in the first Avengers; the destructive fall-out from that was the basis of a lot of follow-up stories, Daredevil in particular. Here they seem to have actually learned something from the experience). The question isn’t presented as “will they win?” but instead, “how many people will be hurt or killed when they win?”

In theory, it all fits together elegantly, giving the entire movie a nice solid through-line. It’s packed full of characters and sub-plots and franchise set-ups, and nothing feels out of place.

In practice, though, it just kind of drains the urgency out of the whole thing. I kept feeling as if the movie was making assumptions about what I should consider important. Ultron’s plan was never quite clear to me — extinction events and meteors kept getting mentioned, but they just seemed like metaphors — so I could never gauge how dangerous I was supposed to believe he was. I started to wonder whether my lack of a Marvel upbringing was working against me. Would I just “get” how he’s the baddest and most unstoppable of bad guys if I’d read the comics? After all, the Avengers seem to have no problem defeating infinite numbers of robots, vibranium/adamantium enhanced or not.

(I’ve read The Infinity Gauntlet but I still can’t for the life of me understand why people are so excited about even the smallest reference to it. “Is it like their equivalent to Crisis on Infinite Earths?“)

Normally, I’ve got a love/hate relationship with self-awareness in movies and books: it’s not just that I appreciate it when a writer respects my intelligence; I really do believe that it can trigger a kind of connection between the artist and the audience that’s impossible to get from something that’s completely earnest, no matter how honest it is. It’s an acknowledgement of the artificiality of fiction, and an implicit understanding that both the artist and the audience have at least one thing in common: we all know how this works.

But I started to wonder if the self-awareness in Age of Ultron had gone a bit too far into the realm of over-thinking it. It wasn’t arch, or really any other flavor of ironic detachment that you get when an artist feels that he’s better than the material he’s working with. Instead, it just felt kind of weary. The ending felt almost confessional, as if everyone involved would be happier just riding off with Tony Stark and getting out of the Gigantic Multi-feature Franchise business.

Maybe the over-inflated threats, villainous monologues, and crises of self-doubt that get resolved just in time for act 3 are in comic book stories because they need to be there. Maybe they’re not just lazy fallbacks that we’ve seen too many times already; maybe their familiarity is part of the appeal, why we keep going back for superhero stories in the first place.

I’ve said before that I was always more a DC guy than a Marvel guy. What’s been great about all the (good) Marvel adaptations is that you get a real sense of how excited people are about these characters. It’s as if they’re sharing their childhoods with us. That enthusiasm was in the first Avengers movie. Age of Ultron is still good, but it feels like they got all that enthusiasm out of their system. Which is a bizarre thing to say about a movie in which the Hulk and a witch fight legions of robots on a floating city, but there you have it.

The Tone Without Fear

What a strange time to be alive! The coolest superheroes are Iron Man, Black Widow, and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of the best TV series are skipping the broadcast networks and being produced by streaming services! One of the most fun and entertaining translations of comics to television is a woman-focused period piece miniseries spinoff of Captain America! A movie featuring Batman and Superman together is finally coming out, and the trailer makes it look like a dire, boring, outdated and uninspired mess. And people are getting really excited about Star Wars again!

Every time Marvel comes out with another solid movie or TV show, I go through the same process of gee-whiz-that’s-a-surprise, even though they’ve been so consistently strong — with enough missteps to prove that they’re far from infallible — that it shouldn’t be surprising anymore. But to somebody who read comics in the 1990s, it still feels like DC and Marvel did a Freaky Friday-style switch in mindset: DC’s spent the past decade and a half trying to make itself dark and gritty and realistic, while Marvel’s been focused on storytelling, world-building, and characters.

For Mature Audiences

I was one of the few people defending Man of Steel when it came out, but any remaining good will I had towards that movie’s decision to play up the “Superman as alien” angle dried up as soon as I saw Guardians of the Galaxy and how it made the combination of superheroes + science fiction seem effortless. And actually managed to have fun doing it, instead of wallowing in self-important meditations on What It Means to be an American in cloying montages straight out of a commercial for Ford Trucks.

But still. Netflix’s Daredevil series is a tough sell to me. Make Iron Man a romantic comedy with fight scenes, and I’m sold. Play up the X-Men angle of non-conformity and prejudice, and I’ll even think Wolverine is interesting. Give Joe Johnston the budget to make Captain America as a romanticized The Rocketeer-style period piece, or Kenneth Branagh the chance to present Thor in much the same spirit as a modernized Shakespeare tragedy, and those characters actually feel relevant for once. Take a license I’d never heard of and make it a sci-fi comedy adventure, and I’m in the theater even before you’re even finished with your elevator pitch (showing Chris Pratt in the trailer with his shirt off is pretty much overkill at that point).

But Daredevil has always been the one Marvel character that doesn’t just not interest me, but actively repels me. (Okay, sure, Cable and the Sub-Mariner, too, but get back to me once they get their own movies). I like Batman, so I always assumed I’d like Marvel’s version of Batman. And one of my favorite comic books of all time was Batman: Year One, which I’d long heard was influenced heavily (if not entirely) by Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil. So I’ve tried reading what have always been recommended as the standout Daredevil stories, and they just don’t do it for me.

The reason is that they take the basic premise — Marvel’s version of Batman — entirely literally. It drains almost all of the fantasy out of the Batman universe, distilling it almost entirely to what I think is the least interesting part, the “lone vigilante against crime” angle. All the dark gothic history of Gotham City is subbed out with Hell’s Kitchen in 1970s New York. The larger-than-life supervillains are replaced with mafiosos. Interpretations of Batman have always had a hard time getting the balance right between camp and seriousness, but Daredevil always struck me as being so afraid of camp and so eager to be taken seriously that it’s perpetually stuck in the mindset of an adolescent boy in 1981. (In case that seems too harsh, keep in mind that the replacement for Catwoman is a Greek female ninja assassin with “low-level mind control and telepathic communication”). I’ve re-read Batman: Year One in recent years, and it doesn’t really appeal to me anymore, for much the same reason.

Martha Wayne’s Pearl Necklace

Which is all background for why I’m not in the target audience for a Daredevil TV series, and why it’s so surprising that I’m enjoying the hell out of it. Granted, I’m still only two episodes in so far, so it could all fall apart. But it would take something pretty catastrophic to unravel everything built up by those first two hours. (Apparently Drew Goddard stepped down as show runner after the second episode, so maybe I should watch more before I go on gushing about how great the series is).

The thing that sold me in the first episode was the cleverness of the premise and the confidence in which everything was established. It checks off all the boxes of a comic book adaptation — the origin scene, the scenes with his father, the gym and the boxing matches, the glasses, the confessional, and even a scene standing watch over Hell’s Kitchen on a rooftop at night — but seems to understand exactly how and why they’re important to the story. It’s too early (for me) to tell, but this might be the first real case of a live-action graphic novel: feature films are always trying to cram decades of continuity into an hour and a half, and weekly episodic series are always conscious of having to state and re-state their premise with each episode. Daredevil seems designed with Netflix and binge-watching in mind: the episodes are more like chapters instead of installments, and it’s developing its own rhythm of introduction, repetition, and reinforcement that seems to be telling the story at its own pace, without fear of losing the audience.

The confessional is a solid example. Every Daredevil story I’ve read is pretty ham-fisted with the religious allegory, as if we might forget the “devil” part of the name, or forget that we’re supposed to be conflicted about a hero using violence to do good. But the series takes what could be a stock scene and uses it for character exposition. The last line, where he asks “forgiveness for what I’m about to do,” actually works, and it doesn’t just feel like the kind of line a writer high-fives himself for squeezing into a scene.

The “origin story” is an even better example. Even though it’s been 15 years since X-Men made comic book movies cool again, and we’ve seen so many comic book adaptations that they’ve gone through at least two rounds of backlash, and the last person to do anything novel or interesting with an origin story was Tim Burton in Batman Returns, we still get the origin story every single time. Because everybody assumes that’s just what comic book adaptations do. And, I assume, everybody wants to be the one who makes the definitive version, to come up with the thing that becomes as indelible and iconic as Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace.

Daredevil splits the difference: it doesn’t act as if it’s showing us something we’ve never seen before, but neither does it assume we’re so familiar with the story that it can use shorthand like Grant Morrison did for Superman. We’ve all been around the block enough times to know that if you save somebody’s life but get blinded by hazardous chemicals in the process, you’re going to get super powers. Daredevil isn’t even all that subtle about it:
but in terms of comic book adaptations, it’s a paragon (I was about to say marvel) of restraint.

I saw two tweets today with criticisms of the show that I completely disagree with. One complained that the cool thing about Daredevil is that he’s blind, but the show ignores that. Another complained that “there’s no clear taxonomy [of sound], helping the audience understand what he does“. I think these are both examples of the same thing: we’re so used to comic book adaptations behaving a certain way, that it’s surprising to see any attempt at deviating from that with any kind of subtlety.

When I saw the opening credit sequence, with all the iconography of Daredevil and New York City taking shape as it’s slowly covered with red wax, I thought I knew exactly what we were going to get: lots of fancy CGI sequences of outlines taking shape out of the darkness, to illustrate Matt Murdock’s echolocation. (My brain has mercifully blocked out all memory of the Ben Affleck movie, but if I remember correctly, they did exactly that). If the VFX team got ambitious, a crucial fight would take place in the rain, being the defining element that either saves the day or almost causes Daredevil to lose the fight, depending on however the writer decided rainfall would affect somebody with superhuman senses.

Instead, so far at least, there are frequent reminders that Murdock is actually blind, gradually more explicit indications that his other senses are becoming more sensitive (like young Matt reacting to a boxing ring bell or hearing a conversation on the other side of the room), Rosario Dawson’s character repeatedly asking how a blind man can smell someone through walls a couple of floors down or accurately drop a fire extinguisher several stories down a stairwell to hit someone at exactly the right moment, and generally, an implicit assumption that the audience can understand that super powers are happening without the aid of a visual effects crew.

Powers Beyond Those Of Mortal Men

And the reason I think it’s enough of a big deal to drag out is because the second episode, “Cut Man,” is just masterfully constructed. I’d say it’s as strong as Battlestar Galactica’s “33” in that both are seamlessly orchestrated self-contained episodes that also confidently and definitively establish the tone of the rest of the series.

Throughout the episode, what impresses me the most is the decision what to show and what to leave implicit. It’s the first episode where we really see the extent of Daredevil’s powers as something super-human, but it’s almost entirely conveyed via Claire Temple asking him how he’s doing all this. It took the setup from the end of the pilot — a child is kidnapped by a human trafficking ring — and immediately advance past his super-heroics to a shot of him lying in a dumpster near death. The bulk of the episode is his recovering from his near-fatal injuries while Claire recounts the standard “birth of a super hero” adventures that we’d normally get in a montage sequence.

And of course the final sequence really is a masterpiece; I’ll be very surprised if anything else in the series is able to top it. Again, it’s because of the restraint. The previous episode ended with a montage of all the horrible atrocities the bad guys were committing, to make it clear that Daredevil was hopelessly outnumbered against an insurmountable evil. The bulk of the second episode is spent making it clear that he’s broken and beaten, and that there’s a very real chance he won’t survive the night.

But then the final climactic battle is slow and almost quiet. It just trucks slowly — even self-consciously — up and down a long dark hallway, and we see the fight spill out from side rooms into the hall. We still get to see all the bad-ass highlights of a standard cinematic superhero fight, but the events of the fight itself aren’t presented as if they were part of the story. And neither is showing explicitly how he’s predicting his enemies’ movements or fending two or three of them off at a time. The story doesn’t deem it important to show how he fights crime; what’s important is simply to show that he does it.

That’s huge. In terms of just plain good storytelling, it’s what keeps the action from devolving into “movie musical number” territory that fight scenes and car chase scenes almost invariably end up being. It’s a super-hero story, so the ending is a foregone conclusion: he’s going to win. So there’s always a disconnect to see extended sequences of stunt people punching and kicking each other, presented as if it were advancing the story, when it’s actually just stopped the story to show you something cool.

The “story” here is that Daredevil is at one end of the hall, and he’s going to go to the other end of the hall and rescue this kid, or he’s going to die trying. The fight spills out into the hall not just so we can see some cool martial arts choreography, but to show that he’s beaten and he’s impossibly weary, but he’s not going to give up.

There’s no indication that he can’t see any of what’s going on, and no indication of how he’s hearing movements or heartbeats, because that would be worse than irrelevant. It would turn the story into one about a guy who fights crime because he has super powers, instead of a guy whose super powers make it possible for him to fight crime.

That’s a distinction that Superman and Batman stories have been wrestling with for decades. Superman’s only interesting when you play up the idea that he’d be a good guy even without his powers (which is why putting him against General Zod and other Kryptonians right off the bat was one of the few good decisions Man of Steel made). And most of the “serious” Batman stories put all the focus on how the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents drove him to make himself a hero. Everything in “Cut Man” — including what would seem like an unrelated “B-plot” about Foggy keeping Karen company through the night — establishes Matt Murdock as a hero driven to help people solely because it’s something that needs to be done.

Marvel Universe

My other favorite aspect of the series is something I’ve never seen mentioned in reviews or comments: the central conflict that sparks the series is all a result of crime bosses fighting to take over Hell’s Kitchen after the destruction caused by the climactic battle in The Avengers. It’s just an ingenious way to modernize it while still making it feel like a timeless premise, and a perfect way to tie it in with the rest of Marvel live-action continuity without a Special Guest Appearance or cross-over. I’ve been watching The Flash on CW and enjoying it a lot, but its frequent cross-overs with Arrow just bring to mind the most negative connotations of “comic book adaptation.”

But really, that’s just one part of what makes The Flash seem like perfectly enjoyable (seriously!) but by-the-numbers episodic television comic book adaptation. There’s something about the entire series that just feels safe. You get the impression that when the idea came to develop a Flash series, their two main questions were how to do the running VFX, and how to work some racial diversity into the main cast. The rest writes itself: season-long intrigue, monster-of-the-week format, opening and closing voice-over that put the events of the episode into “larger” perspective, etc.

Which goes back to my old shorthand of “DC = fantastic, larger-than-life, fun storytelling; Marvel = adolescent obsession with ‘realism’ and ‘maturity,'” which probably hasn’t been true in at least 20 years. And seems to fall apart as a valid metric anyway, considering that the reasons I’m enjoying Daredevil so much seem to go directly against all my assumptions: it’s a more mature, realistic, and understated take on a super-hero comic book setup.

I think it comes down to tone, and walking the tightrope between wallowing in grim self-importance and floating off into irrelevance. “For Mature Audiences” in comic books has traditionally meant anything but maturity: it’s been dominated by reactionary, adolescent, and defensive attempts to make comic books more than “kids stuff” by slathering everything in violence, sex, profanity, and “adult content.” And Daredevil‘s standout creators in comics have been some of the worst offenders. Sure, Sin City, for example, is a self-conscious attempt to build on lurid pulp comics and novels, but it’s also so enamored of the pulp that it stops making any kind of commentary on it. It becomes indistinguishable from the real thing.

I’m definitely not going to suggest that Daredevil the TV series is “light:” the first episode’s montage of all the evil going on in the city includes a sweatshop full of silent slave workers measuring out drugs for distribution, and they’ve all been visibly, violently blinded. Not to mention all the human trafficking, or the blood, or the pervasive paranoia, or the murders and murders made to look like suicides.

The Seduction of the Innocent

But still, there’s very much a sense of “comic book mentality” that carries throughout. Part of it is just the presentation: Murdock’s apartment and its intrusively bright LCD sign, the boxing gym where the bulk of the flashbacks take place, and the water tower on top of Claire’s apartment building, all have a very simple, iconic, and graphic feel to them. You watch a scene and can immediately imagine how the panels would be laid out on the page.

More significantly, it’s a comic book adaptation in that there is a very clear delineation of good guys and bad guys. There are crooked prison guards and corruptible or arrogant people, but there also exist characters who are Good and characters who are Evil. That’s the comic book aspect; the maturity comes from the way the first two episodes don’t attempt to milk any kind of artificial conflict out of the delineation. Claire advises Daredevil with little hesitation exactly how to jam a knife into a guy’s eye socket to inflict the most pain. And Daredevil uses should-be-lethal force so often that it makes Superman and Batman’s “no killing, no guns” philosophies seem almost as juvenile as Frank Castle’s.

That’s another way that the series benefits from being on Netflix instead of broadcast television, or even HBO. It doesn’t have to dance around questions of violence or profanity that make it seem even more artificial. A lot of “for mature audiences” material (see: True Blood, most FX series) seems as if it were written by people who found out they can use the f-word and then freak the fuck out. Daredevil has characters saying “shit” when a real adult in 2015 would say “shit.” And fight scenes that cause believable bodily harm with blood and broken bones.

Oddly enough, while watching the Daredevil series, the comic book that keeps coming to mind is Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer. (And I better not get started on what an enormous disappointed the Constantine TV series turned out to be, or I’ll go on for another 3000 words). There was a real sense that its first motivation was to be a good, compelling story, and everything else was a product of that. It showed an innate understanding of its medium: it wasn’t attempting to tell a story that begrudgingly used the comic book format, or make a masterpiece that would elevate comics to some “higher” level of relevance, but used all the strengths and weaknesses of the format to tell its story. It understood that “mature” often means subtlety, but it didn’t shy away from being graphic. It understood that “adult” meant weighty questions of ethics and morality that couldn’t be summed up with some clumsy allegory, but also that a huge part of what makes comic book storytelling so appealing is its simplicity and abstraction.

Ultimately, it feels like something made by people who love comics and love television (and love martial arts choreography), instead of being made with some preconceived notion of what people who love comics are supposed to like. However they did it, if they can take my least favorite Marvel character and turn it into such a compelling show, I can’t wait to see what they do with Gambit, Jubilee, or Dazzler.

They Alive, Dammit. It’s a Miracle!

The best thing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the way its premise is set up with an uplifting viral video theme song that’s abruptly cut short. Or how one of the “mole women” calls Matt Lauer “Bryant” and it’s never commented on. Or how Matt Lauer remarks that in 15 years, Donna Maria never learned English, and her caption says “These bitches never bothered to learn Spanish.” Or how the Today show producers shove the women out into New York City with gift bags, cheerily saying “Thank you, victims!” before slamming the big metal doors shut behind them. Or how Kimmy says “nukular” during her Today show interview, and then during her big Act 3 inspirational speech says she got “tooken” by a cult leader. Or how that inspirational speech is prompted by a rat in a New York trash can. Or how Jane Krakowski’s character has a refrigerator specifically for bottled water, and she casually tosses an unused bottle in the garbage after it’s been offered. Or how Kimmy dresses in the bright clothes of a middle-school-aged girl and it’s contrasted against every single other resident of New York, or how she runs wide-eyed into Saks Fifth Avenue and the only thing she’s chosen to buy is a pair of light-up sneakers.

What I’m saying here is that it’s got the best first episode of anything that I’ve seen in years. It’s like Lost pilot strong in terms of setting the tone of the series and getting me hooked. In fact, its ultimately uplifting message of indomitable spirit in the face of adversity was kind of lost on me, since I just went away thinking that I’ll probably never write a script that good.

I threatened to write a Slate-style think piece about how the opening theme of the show works on multiple levels to perfectly encapsulate the combination of satire and celebration that runs throughout the series. Then the show stole my thunder by making it all explicit over the course of the next few episodes. (Netflix means going from hyped-up first episode excitement to post-season-finale depression in less than two days).

For starters, it’s catchy as hell. I’d thought that it was just a reference to the Gregory Brothers’ viral videos, but was glad to find out that they were essentially referencing themselves. It gives a Gilligan’s Island setup of the premise of the series — four women released into 2014 after being kidnapped and held underground by a post-apocalyptic cult leader — but does it in the way that we hear about horrible stuff in 2014, through viral YouTube remixes of news reports. (“Also, look at these sunglasses I found. Unbreakable.”)

It’s a satire of how we take people’s personal stories of horror and tragedy, and then repackage and commodify them as concern-tainment. Like Titus says later on in the series, it gives people the chance to see all the lurid details of a story, but also lets them feel good about themselves for being concerned and having an opinion. And it requires no effort apart from paying attention just long enough for the media to get fixated on the next story. It’s Ace in the Hole condensed to about 60 seconds.

But it’s not presented as cynical, inert satire; nor as a j’accuse! condemnation. It’s an auto-tuned pop gospel song, a celebration. Of freedom and children getting to enjoy their childhood and dancing dogs in suits and scenes from the musical Daddy’s Boy. And I like how the theme song just says “girls” and “females” and not “women,” not just as a shallow “take back the language of MRAs,” but as an affirmation that the idea of strength is much more powerful than any PC name-wrangling.

And all that stuff is in there because the series has the same sensibility as 30 Rock — smart and confident enough in its own intelligence to be unabashedly absurd without spinning off into irrelevance, and able to combine dark and silly without losing either. Plus, you need to watch with subtitles on to get all the jokes.

Apparently, the series was first pitched to NBC, and they liked it but didn’t know where or when to air it, so it went to Netflix. Even though I would’ve liked to enjoy a full season of hype, running on Netflix was likely the best choice as there’s no feeling of self-censoring going on here. 30 Rock was at its best when it kept the sitcom format as just the barest skeleton for a bizarre storyline or stunt-casting guest appearance, like Paul Reubens as a horribly inbred prince. The equivalents here are Martin Short as a mad plastic surgeon and Nick Kroll as a cultish exercise leader, and they’re still batshit insane but grounded in a theme: the ways women fall into the trap of feeling worthless or unsure of themselves.

Ellie Kemper is amazing as Kimmy Schmidt; she deserves an Emmy for her reaction shots alone. It would’ve been easy for the performance, like the show itself, to settle into a rut of “wide-eyed teenager” or “fish out of water” or “unsinkable Molly Brown,” but she encompasses all of it. Constantly. Her entire first-time-in-New-York sequence is limited to the first five minutes of the first episode, and then afterwards she’s a real character. (Whose entire frame of reference is 1999 teen girl culture and a post-apocalyptic death cult). The 30 Rock style of delivering side jokes is so established now that it can seem formulaic, but when Kimmy answers an unrelated question with “yes, there was weird sex stuff” it’s a jolt that reminds you of the darkness that’s behind every joke.

And speaking of 30 Rock, Jane Krakowski is essentially doing a variation of Jenna Mulroney, but there’s more depth to her character (Mrs. Voorhees, because this series is brilliant) than there was on a network sitcom. The series doesn’t have any interest in bringing Strong Female Characters, but includes women of various states of intelligence, self-destructiveness, and general competence. Carol Kane’s character may be the closest to a stock character that the series has, but her delivery sells it. Tina Fey’s guest appearance as a permed incompetent lawyer is the exact opposite of Liz Lemon. And really, Jane Krakowski never got nearly enough credit for mastering the 30 Rock delivery, which she effortlessly does here without the benefit of Jackie Jorp-Jomp or The Rural Juror.

(The only reason I don’t have more to say about Titus Burgess is that the role seems to have been made specifically for him. It’s impressive to be able to take a character that insufferably self-absorbed and make him sympathetic).

It may be corny to say so, but I think that airing on Netflix instead of broadcast TV was the best thing for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, because it feels like it belongs in a new medium. It’s something that could only exist in 2015, a time that Kimmy insists on calling “the future.”

No wait, I got it: the absolute best thing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the flashback to the bunker when Cyndee was overcome with Hulkamania and Kimmy had to talk her down by pretending to by Macho Man Randy Savage. Oh yeah, brother!


There’s a phenomenon both charming and insufferable (depending on how inspired or intimidated you happen to be feeling at the time) in which people who are really good at what they do start to take it for granted. (I think a term more sophisticated than “the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect” has been floated out there, but I don’t need to do any research to find it because I am awesome at psychology). So they tend to downplay the results, assuming that everyone is starting from the same baseline level of competence and that anyone could achieve the same results by putting in the same amount of effort.

Which can result in Campo Santo, a small-ish start-up studio of absurdly talented people, fairly quietly making Firewatch, which may be the best-looking game I’ve ever seen from any studio of any size.

Granted, it’s kind of a no-brainer, since they managed to assemble the closest you’re probably ever going to see to a “supergroup” in something as ego-driven as video games. By the time they’d assembled the guys who’d brought the first real innovation to narrative-driven adventure games in years; a ridiculously talented graphic designer; and artists and programmers quietly talented enough to turn graphic design into a real place you could walk around in; the best sound designers, composers, and voice directors; then adding backing from Panic — a company with its own reputation for combining solid software with outstanding design and its own sensibility for making weird, innovative stuff — it all just seemed like overkill.

But even knowing that, the game looks better than I’d anticipated. I’ve been deliberately avoiding seeing too much of it apart from the screenshots and promotional material, but seeing it in motion is even better. It’s as if they took Olly Moss’s prints (which I really wish I’d bought when I had the chance, now) and turned them into 3D spaces. It’s graphic design sensibility and all the obsessive detail that goes into a static image, now spread across an entire section of wilderness.

When The Orange Box came out, I said that with Half-Life 2 and especially Team Fortress 2, Valve was working harder on visuals than they really needed to. They could get away with a lot less effort. There’s doubtless going to be plenty of comparisons of the look of Firewatch to Team Fortress 2 — which I believe is high praise — but I think it’s a good lesson to all of us non-artists about how much thought goes into art direction and world creation. TF2 had to emphasize playability, which means readability of the characters and environment and maneuverability around the space. Firewatch is no doubt concerned with much of that, but also focused on mood, narrative, and time. The brief bit I saw had the main character finding a group of unruly teens, then heading towards a cave as a storm was approaching. Even in that short segment, you could see all kinds of subtle storytelling going on. While TF2 is going for slapstick, bombastic action, and fast pace, Firewatch seems like a slow burn (sorry) towards an emotional climax: the tension between tedium and danger, a beautiful natural environment taken for granted, isolation vs. human connection.

Which leads to something I hope doesn’t get lost while everyone is talking about the confident art direction: the level of engagement you get from the premise of a first-person narrator having a running conversation with an unseen voice on the radio. It’s a brilliant case of an entire narrative being built on a single, easily-definable character relationship. (Like, for instance, that of a convicted murderer having to become surrogate parent to a little girl). At the risk of hyperbole: it reveals an innate understanding of how interactive entertainment works and how it’s unique, more than any number of hypothetical discussions about “ludonarrative dissonance” and the tension between “developer’s story” and “player’s story.”

The reason is that it understands that engagement is more necessary than any bullshit goal of “player empowerment.” The conversational options in Firewatch aren’t just joke dispenser voice menus, nor are they Critical Action Time Choice Junctures® in which you’re arbitrarily deciding what role you’re going to play for the next 1-5 minutes of developer-provided content. Instead, my friend Jared articulated it a lot better than I could: more often than not, you get to a moment in Firewatch, and you think, “I want to say this thing,” and then that thing pops up on the screen as a dialogue option. Get that balance right, and all the years spent thinking of how to fix the problem of “players wanting to break the game” just vanish. It’s not about empowering the player to do what she wants, because that keeps the player at a level of role-playing or gaming the system instead of genuine engagement and inhabiting the character.

It seems like a subtle, almost indefinable skill. But then, there are a lot of aspects of The Walking Dead that I’d thought would have a subtle impact, but instead ended up pushing forward the experience in ways that years of emulating traditional SCUMM games weren’t able to.

So yeah, I admit that I’m biased when I say I really want Campo Santo and Firewatch to get the success they deserve. But I also sincerely think they’re doing something capital-I Important (even if they’d never describe it as such). If there’s one thing that game developers are good at (including myself), it’s aping other games. If we get enough people pointing at a beautiful, engaging, and mature experience and saying, “This. We want to make more of this,” then the entire medium will be better off.

Red Room Resolutions

I spent a few thousand words figuring the whole Twin Peaks problem, and that’s without even mentioning the Red Room. I was more interested in the more plot-driven, primetime-soap-opera aspects of it. That was the stuff that I’ve spent years being dismissive of, because I first watched the series in 1990 and could never make sense of it.

Re-watching the series now, in order, including the essential (and long unavailable) pilot episode, has helped me make sense of the series. Or at least, re-evaluate my memory of the series and my assumptions of what it was trying to do. All the bizarre, awkward, and disturbing stuff isn’t just a bunch of stylistic flourishes or weirdness for its own sake, but is there for a reason.

As I’m watching the series with a newfound understanding and appreciation of it, I get to the end of the third episode (helpfully named “Episode 2”). It’s Agent Cooper’s first dream sequence in the Red Room. It’s the most iconic image of Twin Peaks, the first thing that people think of when they hear “Twin Peaks,” even more than the title card, “damn good coffee,” and solitary traffic lights. It’s been parodied and referenced and “re-interpreted” dozens of times over the past 24 years. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve quoted from it, while of course doing The Man From Another Place’s little dance. It’s revisited multiple times throughout the series, and all of its content is explained over the course of the following episodes as we learn more about Laura Palmer’s murder.

So I revisited this old, familiar scene, and it completely blew my mind. Enough to challenge some of the most basic assumptions I’ve let build up for years. And enough to inspire me to change how I think about creative works, both as an audience member and as an aspiring creator. Here are the two main ones, in Buzzfeed-style list format:

1. Stop being reductive.

Everything that dream sequence establishes for the narrative could’ve been accomplished a lot more quickly and easily without having to hire a designer or teaching a bunch of actors to speak backwards.

And doing it efficiently would’ve robbed pop culture in general — and television in particular — of some of its most indelible images.

In fact, the series did more efficiently deliver all the information from its dream sequence. It was serialized network television in the Dark Times before DVRs, so even something as bizarre as Twin Peaks was obligated to get the audience back up to speed each episode. It’s not as if the series was so enamored of its artistic vision that it ignored its own format.

And I’m not suggesting that there was ever actually the proposal: “Let’s ditch this whole thing and just have Cooper saying, ‘Diane I just had the weirdest dream.'” I think the problem of being reductive is more pervasive and more subtle than that. It happens gradually, often without our even realizing that that’s what we’re doing.

I’ve already got a tendency to treat narrative works as if they were puzzle boxes, or math problems. Break everything down to its basic components, then you’ve figured out what the artist was trying to say. Ax + By + Cz = Fargo. (Or, for that matter, “Twin Peaks is about nostalgia for something that never existed” or “Twin Peaks is Blue Velvet meets Peyton Place.”)

To make matters worse, when Twin Peaks first aired, I was coming off a brief (and mostly unsuccessful) stint as a film and TV major, which just enabled all the worst pick-it-apart tendencies. Sparse sets with ornate furnishings and the shadow of a piece of fabric blowing in the wind? I’ve seen Spellbound, thank you, and I know how movies and TV represent dream interpretation. Here’s what the scene is trying to accomplish artistically.

Plus, the scene seems to beg for interpretation. This is the climactic scene in the episode, and the breakthrough point of a murder investigation. Here’s what all the clues mean to the case. Here’s what the scene is doing narratively, which of course is the whole point of a murder mystery.

But the scene is stunning even to those of us who already know the solution to the mystery, and to those of us who’ve seen some of the works that inspired it. Not everything can or should be boiled down to a plot point or a visual reference. To suggest that there’s a “right answer” is, essentially, reducing artistic communication to telecommunications: the artist assembles a packet of “Important Meaning,” I process it and then acknowledge by blogging, “I get it!”

It’s not all or nothing, and it’s not a sudden insistence that everything be straightforward, non-challenging, and explainable. It’s a gradual process where our obsession with understanding art slowly takes dominance over our ability to just appreciate it. And in my case, at least, it was made worse by several years working to literally reduce stories down to a series of puzzles.

Screw the culture that turned “respect for the reader’s time” into “tl,dr.” Or “accessibility” into “complete lack of challenge.” Interpretation is fine, and even useful, but not if it’s presented as if it’s the single correct solution. And definitely not to the point where it reduces all media into Wikipedia summaries and, even worse, TV Tropes pages. It’s insidious, because it can feel productive, disguising itself as deeper engagement with and appreciation for media. But left unchallenged, it turns simply into the old problem of Cliffs Notes trying to substitute for the real thing.

2. Set a limit for compromises.

One of the best aspects of the Twin Peaks Rewatch podcast is that it’s a reminder of how popular Twin Peaks was. I’ve always mis-remembered the show as some obscure cult classic, when in fact “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” was as big a pop culture obsession in 1990 as “Who Shot J.R.?” was in 1980. [Ed Note: I’m 43 years old.]

To somebody who’s spent years insisting on a rigid division between “good” and “popular”, it’s a bizarre cognitive dissonance. Not just this shit actually aired on primetime network television in the early 90s?! but here’s a weird dwarf in a red suit dancing and talking backwards, and not only was it not immediately canceled, but it became a hit?!

For Twin Peaks, it goes back to that notion of accessibility and awareness of its own format. Murder mysteries are inherently compelling. So are soap operas, and in fact all serialized narratives. It would’ve been easy for successful filmmakers to dismiss a TV soap opera as slumming, just because the standouts up to that point were Dynasty, Dallas, and a bunch of other competent series that never strived for much more than “entertainment.”

Instead, Lynch and Frost made something that didn’t just use its format to make a commentary on its format and its audience, but used the format to make all their bizarre fever dreams accessible to their audience. It’s a brilliant way to take what most people would consider a limitation, and instead turn it into a strength. (Two of my favorite examples in video games: Grim Fandango‘s use of low-poly skeletons against pre-rendered backgrounds, which was a concession to the technical limitations of 3D at the time but has aged better than most contemporary fully 3D games. And the low-poly characters in Gravity Bone and 30 Flights of Loving are an essential part of its artistic design; having “higher fidelity” just wouldn’t be nearly as cool or memorable).

So bizarre stuff can be hugely popular. And accessibility and artistic vision aren’t mutually exclusive. Got it.

On top of that, I’ve got a deep-seated revulsion to auteur theory that’s so strong, I have a knee-jerk reaction to even innocuous interviews with “creative leads” as being repulsively fetishistic. I’ve experienced what it’s like to work on a project where egos are allowed to run unchecked, a couple of them where my ego was allowed to run unchecked. Plenty of “masterworks” are actually the work of dozens if not hundreds of people, and the people who most vocally defend the notion of the auteur are either the ones who are getting the credit, or aspiring to get all the credit.

Or the ones who are so far removed from the process that it’s a complete mystery to them. I have next to no understanding of how major film production works, so I’m often giving the Coen Brothers credit for Roger Deakins’s or Barry Sonnenfeld’s work (and sometimes, even Roderick Jaynes’s work). It’s pervasive, and it’s dismissive of the value of creative collaboration.

As a result of all of that, I’ve turned accessibility, collaboration, and compromise into a mantra.

And then I get a reminder: no wait, David Lynch and Mark Frost really are geniuses.

It’s not the work of any one person, it didn’t happen in a vacuum, it didn’t spring fully-formed from one person’s mind, and it didn’t even happen without precedent. But still, it had to take a singular artistic vision to convince so many people that this was going to turn out to be a good idea.

Of course, it’s not all or nothing. No doubt they had to make a ton of compromises and concessions, both technical and artistic. And it’s still entirely possible to be so confident in your own vision that you’re completely insufferable. But the first part of knowing where to draw the line is acknowledging that there’s so much leeway that a line even needs to be drawn. That there’s no one right way to do it. That there’s plenty of middle ground between egomania and complete self-censorship.

Even if we’ve never had to deal with it directly, I think most of us are familiar with the idea of horrible feedback. The clueless network executive, the crass and venal marketing team, the vocal critic, the insipid client: it’s so common that it’s become a stereotype.

But I’ve started to believe that the stereotype has backfired, and it’s far more dangerous to set the bar as low as the worst possible example. To believe that anything other than useless feedback is constructive feedback, or that anything less than completely abandoning your “vision” is acceptable compromise. It’s dangerous because it’s a slow decline, a gradual chipping away at integrity — with the constant reassurance that it’s not “that bad” — enough so that what you once would’ve considered unacceptable is now taken as a matter of course, and the demands get more and more absurd.

Eventually, you get to take a step back, and it’s almost as if you’ve become a different person. A long series of gradual, “harmless” compromises have resulted in something that can no longer be called even a collaboration, because there’s no trace left of you. Everything you valued in the first place — the entire reason you decided to do what you do — has been de-emphasized if not outright lost. You’re just left with the question “why am I doing this at all?”

(Purely a hypothetical, of course).

Seeing the Red Room in 2014 was a reminder of the version of me that saw the Red Room in 1990. And inspiration to start un-learning all the stuff I’ve taught myself since then. To get away from the person who’d say what does this mean? or how could you possibly broadcast this on TV today? and get back to the one who just said this is awesome I want to make a living making stuff like this.

That Gum I Liked Has Gone Out of Style

Laura Palmer Black Lodge
Recently I started watching Twin Peaks again, both because of the announcement of the new Showtime series, and because a couple of my friends have started a Twin Peaks Rewatch podcast. I’ve been realizing that it’s the first time I’ve seen full episodes, in order, since the show originally aired. (And I was a college sophomore).

What hit me first during the rewatch is how wrong I’ve been about the series, for years. I remembered it as being wildly uneven: some of the hands-down best scenes in the history of television, mixed in with a lot of painfully clumsy attempts at comic relief, long stretches of weirdness simply for the sake of weirdness, and a central plot that completely derails once its instigating mystery procedural is solved.

I’ve always thought of it as one my favorite television series, but it wasn’t until now that I appreciated just how good it is. (It probably helps that this is likely the first time I’ve seen it in order, without missing any scenes or episodes, something that was impossible in my distracted-college-student, pre-DVR days). It’s deeper than I thought, with the most obvious themes of the series being echoed and reinforced at every level. And it’s more cohesive than I ever realized: individual scenes and even entire storylines that once seemed superfluous now seem to fit in perfectly with those themes.

It’s not just that I didn’t understand it when I first watched it; I don’t think I could possibly have understood it. Not without seeing everything that came after.

Blue Velvet Meets Peyton Place

Both David Lynch and Mark Frost are quoted (in the same newspaper!) as describing Twin Peaks as Blue Velvet meets Peyton Place. Instead of doing any deeper Google detective work to find out which one of them actually said it, I’m going to leave it a mystery to myself. It’s a good reminder that the series was driven by two people, and not just the “typical David Lynch weirdness” that I’d always remembered.

(Incidentally: if you haven’t read Frost’s novels The List of Seven and The Six Messiahs, I highly recommend them. Not only are they two of my favorite books, they’re essentially Mark Frost doing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen six years before Alan Moore).

The reference to Peyton Place was lost on me at the time, and it still is, since I’ve never seen the series. I’m assuming that it’s mainly just a reference to the format, since Peyton Place was (at least according to Wikipedia) the first primetime soap opera.

But the first thing that jumped out at me, watching the series in 2014, is just how much of Twin Peaks shows that self-awareness of the format. It’s most obvious with Invitation to Love, of course, the soap opera within a soap opera. But that just makes it explicit. It’s an acknowledgement to the audience that they’re perfectly aware that it’s over the top, and they’re doing it that way for a reason. It’s a television series that’s extremely aware that it’s a television series.

Even when it first aired, I got some of the callbacks to earlier television series. I may be too young to get references to Peyton Place, but I did have access to Nick at Nite. So I assumed that Laura Palmer’s identical cousin wasn’t just a reference to soap operas’ fondness for identical twins, but the specifically implausible only-on-TV premise of The Patty Duke Show. And I understood that the fixation on a one-armed man as key witness in a murder investigation was a reference to The Fugitive.

With the casting, I assumed that Peggy Lipton from The Mod Squad, Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn from West Side Story, and Piper Laurie from tons of stuff, were all meant to evoke the 60s. Basically, they were doing Quentin Tarantino’s schtick of establishing a time period via referential casting, before Tarantino did it.

Now that I’m a step removed from trying to follow the plot and just make sense of everything in general, I can see the “classic soap opera” influences in every scene. The score isn’t just the constant, ominous synthesizer drone I remembered (I spent basically an entire year of college with the tape of the Twin Peaks soundtrack playing on constant loop in my car) but segues into the flowery, melodramatic piano prevalent in soap operas. But in Twin Peaks, it’s not just “prevalent” but “omnipresent”; Donna Hayward and Sarah Palmer in particular are perpetually caught in the throes of melodrama. (Speaking of: I don’t know how much I buy Angelo Badalamenti’s account of composing Laura Palmer’s theme, but that clip is still delightful).

But as a survivor (mostly) of the 1990s, what surprises me the most is that this self-awareness no longer comes across as affected or distancing. Instead, it grounds the series and makes it seem all the more earnest.

Jose Chung’s From Outer Space

My formative TV-watching years coincided with the 1980s transitioning into the 1990s. This was the age when entire series were re-purposed at the last minute to be dreams taking place in an earlier TV series or the imagination of an autistic child. So I’m blaming that as the reason I started to value “postmodernism” more than anything else. Being aware of the conventions and limitations of your medium meant you were smarter than the medium; you were actually making a commentary about art instead of just delivering commercial entertainment.

I admit that at the time, I absolutely loved all the winking at the fourth wall in Moonlighting. Now, it’s just insufferable.

The X-Files is often listed as a spiritual successor to Twin Peaks, or at least a series that wouldn’t have been possible on network television without Twin Peaks. I was a huge fan of X-Files, and to be clear: I still think that the first three or four seasons are outstanding. But it is absolutely a product of the 1990s. And while it’s aged much better than Moonlighting, for instance, it’s still ultimately a victim of its own self-awareness.

Almost all of my favorite episodes of the series were by Darin Morgan, and they became my favorites mostly because they showed a willingness to break out of the limitations of the format and comment on the format itself. My absolute favorite — and still one of my favorite episodes of any television series — is Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.

The episode still works now, but it’s even clearer what the episode was doing when you consider the context in which it was broadcast. At the time, Fox was aggressively promoting — and even “aggressive” is understating it — a special television event showing actual footage of a genuine alien autopsy! Ads for the special ran constantly during X-Files because, hey, perfect audience for it!

What the executives at Fox didn’t realize (or worse, assumed everyone else was too stupid to realize) is that The X-Files was aimed — at least ideally — at an audience most likely to believe a “real” alien autopsy was bullshit. Jose Chung was largely a response to that. There’s live-TV style video footage of Scully performing an autopsy on the alien, before finding the obvious zipper. There’s an absurd appearance by Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek as Men In Black. At the end, excerpts from From Outer Space are read, recasting Scully and Mulder as essentially fan fiction characters of themselves.

The episode does such a good job of playing the comedy straight-faced that it’d be fine simply as satire or parody. But what makes Jose Chung a classic is that it takes the ludicrous deconstruction and spins it into a mission statement for the entire series. It’s an earnest re-assertion of the main themes of the series: skepticism and faith.

For all of its strengths, the series was by no means subtle about its themes: it wasn’t as interested in conspiracy theories, aliens, or monsters-of-the-week, as in the idea that belief in those things had become a new religion. It was stated explicitly, over and over again: Scully’s crisis of faith as a Catholic vs Mulder’s dogmatic “I Want to Believe.” “The Truth is Out There” as a double entendre for the series as both a showcase of the weird and an analysis of the human need for definitive answers to the unanswerable.

The X-Files would go on for several more years, and it would often make another attempt at striking that balance between earnestness and self-awareness. But the 90s won out, and sincerity lost. Later episodes would fail to stand up as anything more than self-parody.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Which isn’t just a long digression about an unrelated TV series; it’s support for my Grand Unified Theory about Pop Culture in the 1990s. Namely, that it was a blight on the entirety of western culture, one that we’re still only just recovering from. It made ironic detachment something that wasn’t just inevitable, but prized and sought after, a sign that we get it. And sincerity became either mawkish and maudlin or insufferably pompous.

It’s the product of a generation that grew up completely saturated with popular media, which meant loving it but also being acutely aware of its cliches and its limitations. We wanted to talk about universal truths and issues of significance like faith, or the trials of coming of age, but didn’t want to get so close to it that we’d come across as too high-minded and pretentious about it.

It seems clear now that Twin Peaks pre-dated that (or at least avoided it). It’s still very much aware that it’s a television series, and spends a lot of time acknowledging its own format. But it doesn’t use it as an ironic defense mechanism or descend into self-parody. In fact, it goes in the opposite direction. Twin Peaks required absolute commitment from everybody involved to go all-in, without fear of looking silly, weird, or incompetent.

There’s not much in the series that’s muted or understated: everything is turned up to full volume. It’s an environment where the bizarre and unsettling are so commonplace that anything becomes possible. Even its most blatant winks at the camera — with Invitation to Love — don’t seem like mockery, but genuine affection. “We found soap operas so fascinating that we decided to make one.” Twin Peaks isn’t numb to any of the things it’s depicting. It feels everything.

(Wild at Heart is basically a feature-length exercise in this. Painfully sincere melodrama stretched as far as it can possibly go without breaking, and then a step farther. It’s an entire movie that goes to 11 and stays there. It’s possibly my favorite David Lynch movie, and I haven’t seen it well over a decade. I’m afraid to watch it again, in case I don’t like it as much as I remember).

One great example from Twin Peaks is a scene in which Leland Palmer, still going through a breakdown after Laura’s murder, shows up at an event at the Great Northern. He hears big band music start playing, which as we’ve already seen, triggers his memories of dancing with Laura as a child. He starts dancing by himself. Catherine Martell joins him, not out of any genuine compassion but to try and keep him from making a scene. When Leland finally breaks down and begins wailing, holding his head in abject misery, Catherine starts imitating him, as if it were part of the dance. Soon all the guests are taking part and laughing. The only one who recognizes the scene as a tragedy is Audrey Horne, who’s watching from a corner. She starts crying and the show cuts to a commercial break.

The dancing would be a corny gag, even if Airplane! hadn’t already done it. But what Twin Peaks does so brilliantly in its best moments is smashing together and subverting tonal opposites.

Since everything is turned up to full volume, it ends up creating something like feedback loops in tone: drama pushed so far that it becomes comedic, or comedy stretched out so far that it becomes tragic or unsettling. It’s kind of funny, in retrospect, to see Roger Ebert get so angry about the similar technique in Blue Velvet. Especially when you consider that Blue Velvet was a feature film marketed as provocative and disturbing, and just a few years later, the same tonal dissonance in Twin Peaks became a surprisingly popular primetime network television series.

It was insightful for Gene Siskel, in that same review of Blue Velvet, to compare it to Hitchcock. It is indeed manipulation, taking advantage of the audience’s preconceived notions of how cinematic storytelling works, and then using those preconceptions “against” them. In The Birds and Psycho, scenes go on longer than they should, the shots cut more quickly than they should, the camera gets closer to the actress than it should. It subconsciously contributes to that feeling of being trapped along with the protagonist. This isn’t right. It’s not just watching something horrible happen to someone else, it’s actually affecting you.

For years, I thought that was the end of it. It’s a clever directorial trick, a stylistic flourish that’s as arch and distancing as anything in a Stanley Kubrick movie. Rewatching Twin Peaks, though, I’ve started to believe it’s still self-aware and manipulative, but anything but arch and distant. It’s so surreal that it becomes “hyper-real.” And when David Lynch shows you these bizarre scenes, it’s the opposite of distancing; he’s actually inviting you to take a peek into the most personal and private thing of all: his dreams.

Just You and I

The genius of it is that it’s a way to elicit extremes of emotion in media that no longer allow for extremes of emotion. We’ve become so accustomed to the way that media works that we seldom feel genuine emotion from it. I’m a sucker for any TV show or movie; when it wants me to cry, I’ll bawl, and when it wants to me be scared, I’ll jump. But there’s always a sense that I’m crying because I’m supposed to be sad here, or I’m scared because the movie is giving me cues that I should be scared now. By breaking down and denying our most basic expectations about how scary scenes or funny scenes are supposed to “work,” Twin Peaks starts to elicit genuine responses instead of conditioned ones.

There’s the genuine pathos of that scene with Leland Palmer, where it turns farce into actual tragedy. As opposed to, for example, Laura Palmer’s funeral: that’s such an indelibly memorable scene from the series, but it’s more iconic than emotional. It’s so weird that it becomes farce.

Or the scene showing Killer Bob’s second murder. I’ve seen the series before, so of course I knew it was going to happen. And by that point in the series, we’ve seen pretty much all of the characters having extreme reactions to the most horrific sights they can imagine. And still, the scene is intensely horrific. Largely because everything in it is wrong. Why is there suddenly a spotlight there? Why does it switch to slow motion seemingly at random? Why is this happening now, when it seems like such a waste of a character? Why haven’t they cut to a commercial yet? How can they show this on network television in 1990? It’s all brutal and reinforces the feeling this shouldn’t be happening.

Or a brilliant scene when Donna meets Maddy in the diner. They formulate a plan to get Laura’s diary. Donna has started experimenting with the idea of being a “bad girl,” so she’s smoking and wearing sunglasses. Maddy’s decided she hates her glasses and breaks them, vowing never to wear them again. What’s brilliant about it is that I remember being frustrated by it in 1990 — I want to hear the plan; why is this scene so slow and stilted and awkward? Watching it now, though, it’s clear that the scene doesn’t care about its murder mystery nearly as much as it cares about its characters. They’ve both been affected by Laura’s murder — Donna tempted by the fact that Laura was more “experienced” than her, Maddy feeling frustrated at living in Laura’s shadow. But they’re so vividly teenagers. (Even though Maddy is supposed to be older, she’s established as kind of a sheltered nerd, a teenager in transition). They’re mired in affectations and insecurities. Almost childishly curious and fascinated by the bizarre: in a non-sequitur, Maddy tells Donna that Leland’s hair turned shock white overnight, and Donna responds simply with a fascinated “Weird.” They’re eager to start having adventures and more interesting, more adult lives.

At least that’s my interpretation. And I think the thing that so frustrated Roger Ebert with Blue Velvet is that when the usual cues are deliberately removed, it can be hard to tell what the actual intent of a scene is.

A great example of that is the scene in which James, Donna, and Maddy are suddenly together in Donna’s house, with microphones, recording a song for some reason. It’s so bewildering that it’s hilarious. Why are they doing this? Why are we seeing it? Why is his voice so high-pitched and weird? And then it’s interrupted when Donna has a fit of jealousy. Is this going to be yet another of Donna and James’s insufferably trite and maudlin romance scenes? Are we supposed to care? Or is it supposed to be funny?

Watching it now, I think the answer to all those questions is “yes.” In retrospect, what they’re doing in that scene isn’t even all that weird; when I was a teenager, I occasionally got together with a friend and recorded stupid videos or songs, and we were every bit as sincere and awkward. And the song — once you get over the weirdness of James’s voice and start to appreciate it as “Roy Orbison-like,” — is actually kind of pretty. And the teen love triangle jealousy thing is “real” because when you’re a teenager, everything you feel is real and extreme and the most important thing in the world.

I think the scene is indeed intended to be funny. But it’s not mocking the characters; it’s showing genuine affection for them. It’s funny because it’s charming. They’re so earnest and so sincere about everything that being awkward is an unavoidable side effect.

And it suggests to me that getting hung up on what was the intent is missing the entire point. Your reaction shouldn’t be based on how this scene is supposed to make you feel, but how you genuinely feel. Which in my case, is nostalgic for the time when I was a corny, goofy, awkward teenager.

His Faithful Indian Companion

I mentioned the Twin Peaks Rewatch podcast earlier, and I recommend it. It’s a great way to catch some details you might have missed, find out some background details you might not’ve known otherwise, or just participate in that scene was so cool style fandom. But the one topic on which I find myself frequently disagreeing with Jake and Chris is in that whole question of intent.

There’ve been a few cases where they called out a misstep, or an accident, or a quirk of David Lynch’s corny sense of humor, or a product of its being a network television series in 1990. My take is usually that it’s a choice that fits in so well with everything else that it has to be deliberate.

I’m absolutely not saying that Lynch & Frost were flawless, to the degree that Stanley Kubrick obsessives believe every single detail has meaning. (One counter to that is the fact that the series kind of falls apart once the murder is resolved. I’ve seen frequent accounts that Lynch & Frost’s hands were forced by the network, but that ignores the obvious: of course people are going to be impatient at interminable subplots with Andy & Lucy or Ed & Nadine when the question that’s driving the entire series has yet to be answered. How could creators who get audiences to such an uncanny degree still underestimate how much people would be invested in a murder mystery?) But I believe that while they’re not flawless, there’s a ton of stuff in Twin Peaks that was intentional, but I never gave them credit for it.

One example is the character of Deputy Hawk. In 2014, the character seems like a cringe-worthy stereotype from a more ignorant time. But it’s important to remember that in 1990, the character already seemed like a cringe-worthy stereotype, but from a more innocent time.

I think it’s another case of the series being self-aware without self-mockery. The wise but taciturn Native American, second in command to a white hero, with a deep connection to nature that makes him an excellent tracker, is absolutely, unquestionably, a cliched stereotype. Even older than The Magical Black Man. But, I’d point out, so are the beautiful and popular blonde white homecoming queen. The detective with preternatural skills of observation and deduction. The sleazy, cigar-chomping businessman. The ruthless Iron Lady. The kindly and practical country doctor. The ditzy blonde secretary. The donut-loving cop. The buffoonish deputy. The spoiled rich girl and the teenage sexpot. The beautiful, duplicitous Asian temptress. The arrogant young quarterback. The biker bad boy with a sensitive side. The suburban housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The charming psychopath ex-con. The good girl from the perfect American suburban family, and plus she solves mysteries. The widow with a telepathic connection to the prophetic visions of her log.

Okay, not the last one. But the rest are all stock characters.

And when combined with the search for the one-armed man, the identical cousin, Invitation to Love, the various affairs and love triangles, the score’s tendency to veer into The Young and the Restlessness, and the cliffhanger filled season ending, it seems like I’ve got this whole thing completely figured out.

It’s a series of references. A Kill Bill-style pastiche of A Bunch of Stuff From Past Decades That We Love. Then stretched out, twisted, and subverted to be grotesque versions of the elements we recognize. Because it’s supernatural horror. It’s two seasons’ worth of the same theme as the opening scene of Blue Velvet: the horror that lurks beneath pristine, perfect suburban America.

Like I’ve said since 1990: Twin Peaks is a surreal murder mystery told in the format of a primetime soap opera.

Not What They Seem

Except it’s not.

Watching it now, I see that none of my assumptions about the series quite fit. There are too many earnest moments for it to be an ironic deconstruction. There’s too much affection for its characters for it to be a grotesque subversion. There are too many genuinely funny moments for the stilted hijinks of Andy and Lucy to be just comic relief. And the traffic light shows up too often for it to just be some pretentious art school thing.

Instead, I’ve started to believe Twin Peaks was a prime time soap opera that used a murder mystery as its instigating event. The callbacks to television cliches aren’t just self-aware references, but actual nostalgia. And all the stuff that I’d thought was superfluous — the “filler” material between the iconic scenes and the investigation into the murder — now seem to fit perfectly.

The theme of Blue Velvet, of darkness lurking under the facade of normality, definitely runs throughout Twin Peaks. It’s baked right into the premise of murder in a small town. It’s reinforced by all the soap opera subplots of affairs and scandals and love triangles. The show makes it explicit after Laura Palmer’s murder is solved, when a bunch of the investigators meet in the woods to discuss “the evil that men do.” The series then repeats it with its various symbols of duality and “doppelgangers.” Laura had a dark side that ran counter to her public persona. Killer Bob is the Mr. Hyde to the murderer’s Dr. Jekyll. The owls are not what they seem.

And it’s an idea that’s fine, but it feels a little too easy. It’s an idea that’s been repeated so many times that it feels like photocopies of photocopies getting less and less insightful or challenging with each version. Apart from Blue Velvet, I can think of The Stepford Wives, Pleasantville, and American Beauty just off the top of my head. (In order of descending quality). Each of those comes across as a challenge. And frankly, a fairly adolescent, just-got-out-of-film-school challenge. Everything you think you know about perfect, small-town, white America is a lie, and I, the artist, am here to expose it!

That sentiment doesn’t quite fit with Twin Peaks, though, since it’s got a sense of morality that is clear cut and — weird to say in reference to anything about Twin Peaks — even old-fashioned.

This is a universe where pure evil not only exists, it exists in a specific place, out there in the woods. And the Bookhouse Boys believe that they’re honor-bound to keep it at bay, as they have for generations. There’s an element of Tolkien-esque morality to that: good and evil aren’t abstract concepts, evil has an absolute embodiment, and there are men (only men, but still) honor-bound to defeat it.

But there’s as an element of Lovecraft that’s just as powerful, if not more so: the evil is out there, dark and unknowable. It’s right on the outskirts of what we can see, forever threatening to encroach on our feeble attempts at civilization.

I believe that that’s what the stop light represents. Before Twin Peaks, I’d never put any thought into the fact that stop lights cycle constantly, even when there are no cars around. Framing it by itself, in the darkness, on a (presumably) desolate road, makes it seem feeble and impotent. It’s a symbol of civilization, law, and order, but it doesn’t have any real power. We think of it as something that can keep us safe, but that’s just an illusion. It can’t stop anything that doesn’t agree to be stopped. So the light turns red out there in the dark, with no one there to see it, but evil still makes its way into the town.

Mystery-Solving Teens

Which finally leads to my interpretation of the entire series: it’s about our inevitable corruption and loss of innocence, and our nostalgia for a more innocent time that never actually existed.

The most iconic parts of Twin Peaks that I’d remembered over the past two decades turns out to have little to do with that theme. I’d remembered Audrey Horne as the impossibly sexy young woman who dressed like a femme fatale from a noir movie and could tie a knot in a cherry stem with her tongue. I didn’t remember the scenes of her crying over Leland’s grief, or lying in bed praying for her Special Agent to come rescue her. I’d remembered Leland throwing himself onto Laura’s coffin; I didn’t remember his dancing with her to big band music. I’d remembered Donna’s attempts to be Nancy Drew; I didn’t remember her confession to Harold about skinny dipping with a bunch of older boys, or her attempts to be a bad girl. I’d remembered Catherine double-and-triple-crossing everyone; I didn’t remember her begging Pete to help her in memory of the way their relationship used to be. And I could never figure out how Nadine and Big Ed’s story fit in with the murder investigation at all.

It doesn’t. But it’s the most explicit version of that story of regret and nostalgia. It’s a bizarrely tragic story of popular teenagers who each settled and grew into adulthood regretting it. And then after the soap-opera double-whammy of an attempted suicide and a coma, Nadine regresses to her high school years. (And has super strength, because Twin Peaks).

That’s repeated over and over: with Catherine’s plea to Pete, Leland and his Big Band music, Ben and Jerry Horne remembering sitting on a bunk bed as kids and leering at a girl dancing with a flashlight. Dr. Jacoby’s obsessed with Hawaii, with his fake backdrop and fake sounds of surf on a PA system. It’s in Cooper’s fascination with Twin Peaks and its damn good coffee, to the point of telling Diane he plans to buy some property there. And Norma has Shelley as a constant, living reminder of what she used to be: a beautiful girl who got married too young (and to a total asshole).

Which leads to the teenagers. I’d always assumed that Donna and Audrey represented the good girl and bad girl aspects of Laura Palmer, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think that Donna, Audrey, and Maddy were all fascinated by Laura’s dark side, not as tragic but as a sign of experience and maturity. Audrey acted out to get attention and simply because she could, but she wasn’t a bad girl. She was a romantic, who still believed she could handle anything that Laura could. Maddy was literally a wide-eyed innocent, but as she became a replacement Laura, she got to experience all the attention and devotion that Laura had. And Donna came from an aggressively perfect family (her sisters recite poetry at dinner parties and play piano like a prodigy), but always lived in Laura’s shadow.

Even Andy and Lucy’s story fits into this interpretation: they’re the most naive and “pure” of any of the show’s adults, to the point of being comical (and annoying). But Lucy gets bored with Andy’s pure-hearted goodness and invents reasons to get annoyed with him, going for an adventurous one-night stand instead.

And Bobby’s an almost entirely unredeemable asshole, but the show still portrays him as a stupid kid way in over his head as opposed to purely evil. He’s playing grown up, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he doesn’t appreciate how serious it is. His father categorizes it as normal teenage rebellion, and can still bring Bobby to tears by describing a dream in which they get along and respect each other.

It’s presented as a tragedy: while the adults are pining for something perfect that they feel like they used to have, all the teenagers are desperate to grow up. For most of the murder investigation (until we find out the horror of what actually happened), the story keeps reminding us that Laura Palmer wasn’t an “innocent.” To some degree, she went looking for trouble. The other kids knew that she was on drugs, but none of them seemed particularly scandalized by it. They treat it more like it was just a natural thing, the kind of experiences people have when they grow up.

It’s not just that there’s an evil presence in the woods, threatening to seep into the town and corrupt the children. The children are practically flinging themselves at it. And as illustrated by Shelley making the same bad choices that Norma did, it’s inevitable, and it’s cyclical.

The Man From Another Place

And, ultimately, it’s not real. That’s where the self-awareness of the television format comes back in, along with what I believe is David Lynch’s “earnest surreality.” The series is constantly reminding us that none of this is real. It’s bizarre, dreamlike, imaginary. Twin Peaks isn’t some magical village in the woods, untouched by time and uncorrupted by the outside world. It simply can’t exist.

Real cops don’t actually eat that many doughnuts or have dozens upon dozens of them perfectly spread out every morning. Real biker bars (I’m assuming) don’t have all the bikers sitting politely at tables or demurely dancing to slow, breathy Julee Cruise songs. Real towns don’t have so many secret passages and compartments. Real life doesn’t perfectly echo a televised soap opera. The podcast brought up a great example of how the show constantly blurs the line between diegetic music and background music. It often seems to use the standard conventions of television and then use them to draw attention to its own artificiality.

Very few of the performances — maybe Doctor Hayward? — are anything resembling “naturalistic.” Some of them are understated but still not “real.” Sheriff Truman is 100% the Old West Lawman, and Norma is the long-suffering soap opera heroine, a constant monotone of regret and perseverance.

And then, obviously, there’s the “everything else” of Twin Peaks, the relentless weirdness the series is known for. (It was popular enough at the time to generate several parodies, but it was clear at the time that people didn’t understand it enough to even parody it. I remember one in particular that ended with the town sign, and a gorilla standing in front of it holding a bouquet of balloons. As if that would even register on the Twin Peaks weirdness scale). Even when Lynch wasn’t aggressively Lynching it up, the show was developing its own language of oddly-paced scenes and non-sequitur insert shots. Why show the waterfall in slow motion? What does the traffic light mean? What are the owls supposed to be, anyway? Is this important? Are these clues? What does any of this mean?

I already said that I don’t believe that this artificiality is some exercise in postmodern deconstruction, or some distancing attempt to make it clear they’re not taking any of this seriously. And I don’t believe that it’s mocking its own characters or the viewer. And I also don’t believe that it’s some kind of satire or indictment, an accusation that everything we value is built on a lie, or that humans are all invariably duplicitous, or that television is nothing more than vacuous entertainment, or any of the other Statements on the Human Condition that Angry Film Students make by subverting traditional entertainment. So what’s left?

I say that it’s ultimately optimistic. Or, if optimistic is too strong, then at least non-judgmental. It’s saying that Twin Peaks isn’t a real place, but not in the sense that it’s fake, but in the sense that it’s an unattainable ideal. It’s like the place that Major Briggs describes to Bobby when he’s talking about his vision: it’s not foolish to describe it, but it would be foolish to believe that you could actually go there.

So Twin Peaks as an idyllic small town (“where a yellow light still means slow down”) untouched by the outside world can’t exist. Invitation to Love as a world of intrigue and drama we can safely watch from behind the safety of a TV screen can’t exist. The perfect, beautiful, generous prom queen universally loved by everyone can’t exist. And teenagers as pure, innocent creatures with limitless potential can’t exist. At least, not for long.

That in itself isn’t a tragedy. But we still treat it as if it were a tragedy, even though it’s inevitable. We tend to assume that innocence and purity are the same thing as “good,” but they’re not. Becoming experienced doesn’t make us evil or corrupt. We still have limitless potential for good, even after we’re no longer innocent. And it’s not just that it’s foolish to strive for something we can never have; it can be harmful. Laura Palmer was held up by so many people as a symbol of perfection that nobody tried to intervene and help her.

To bring the “golden age of television” references back in: for at least as long as I’ve been alive, there’s been a persistent conservative sentiment of “pernicious nostalgia.” It says that everything was better back in the days of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best all the way up to The Brady Bunch. The problem with that is two-fold: it’s not just foolish to pine for things that were never actually real, but things demonstrably weren’t better back then. I think that there’s some element of commentary on that, however subtle, in Twin Peaks‘s format as a melodramatic soap opera with callbacks to classic TV.

Incidentally: it’s probably too much of a retroactive re-interpretation to claim that it was completely intentional, but this also explains and helps exonerate the show’s shaky handling of race. In Twin Peaks, as well as Twin Peaks, the only non-whites are Deputy Hawk, a sexy but naive Chinese femme fatale and her cohorts, and then the bizarre inclusion of Mr. Tojamura. As the Psych parody/homage pointed out: there are absolutely no black people. Even the “exotic” foreigners who are so significant to the Ghostwood subplot are all Scandavian, as white as can be. The show was definitely aware of it, since Lucy’s sister mentions to Hawk her guilt over white people’s treatment of Native Americans (to which Hawk responds “some of my best friends are white people.”) So maybe it was a constant unspoken reminder that the “good old days” of television were in reality only good to a select few, and that this perfect little small town was never really perfect; it was whitewashed.

The character of Albert Rosenfield is brought into Twin Peaks (and Twin Peaks) as The Outsider, and we in the audience hate him for it. He’s abrasive, insulting, and abusive. He’s dismissive of this podunk town that Agent Cooper has inexplicably fallen in love with. He insensitively complains that the yokels’ insistence on tradition is getting in the way of finding a murderer. He says they’re insular and backwards. He gets punched, and we cheer it, because we hate him.

Several episodes later, Truman calls him on it again, threatening to punch him again for insulting the town and the people in it. Albert gives a surprising response, saying “while I’ll admit to a certain cynicism,” that “my concerns are global.” He explains his commitment to non-violence and non-aggression, and he says that it comes from a place of love. “I love you, Sheriff Truman.”

When I saw this scene at first, I assumed that it was just another bizarre one-off gag. Now, I’m wondering if it was something of a mission statement for the entire series.