Comcast blows

24 06 2015

We dropped our cable TV. The savings will be negligible since we’re keeping our high speed internet. Comcast is the only game in town as far as that goes. We dumped the tv out frustration with their service. 

We’ve had to keep a close eye on our cable bill, because apparently Comcast policy is to gradually raise it and hope we don’t notice. We’ve had technical problems with our cable box, and had to fight through layers of bureaucracy to get to an ultimately simple solution. Then, for the last couple of weeks, our picture has been flickering every few seconds. The idea of wrestling with Comcast’s technical support seemed no better than developing type 2 epilepsy*, so we switched to internet only.

With an antenna and digital converter we get dozens of channels. Aside from the local stuff it’s mostly vintage movies and shows, but those are fine for a little mindless distraction, which is what we mostly used cable for. Netflix and Hulu stream plenty of stuff to watch, on the increasingly rare occasion we can actually pay attention for an hour or two. If we were sports fans it might be a different story. But we’re not. I don’t think we’ll miss cable at all.

Rumor has it than in a year or two, Century Link or the city of Minneapolis will offer high speed internet in our neighborhood. The second that happens we’ll ditch Comcast for good.

*I know there’s no such thing, just making a poor joke.





Mad Men: Bridge to History

19 06 2015

(Spoilers. Why would I do that?)

[This would have been way more relevant back when I started writing it, when the series actually ended. But I’m not bothered if you’re not.]

I always enjoyed Mad Men most as a history lesson. A dramatic, unpredictable, emotionally turbulent history lesson. Surely that’s the wrong way to watch it. The show was never a mere nostalgia fest, but was driven by vibrant, three dimensional characters, as any story should be. Still, I’ve gotten more interested in history in the last ten years or so, trying to form a coherent mental picture of the decades and centuries flowing one into the next. TV dramas have been my primary tool, and probably what sparked my interest in the first place.

I knew some things about the 60s, and didn’t know a lot of things. Of course I’ve always heard about how it was a dynamic time of sweeping social change, but you always hear that in a way that emphasizes the goals and outcomes of the counterculture. Mad Men focused more on the entrenched old guard, and seeing them struggle really brought home the psychological violence of all that upheaval. Even as it happened gradually, almost in real time over seven seasons. The key to the whole series is Don’s reaction to Kennedy being shot: “We’re not who we thought we were.”

The last half of the final season takes place in 1970, the year before I was born. That makes the show a bridge from history to my lifetime. For the kid I was, the 70s was all fun and games. I was too young to understand the cultural vein of deep cynicism brought on by Vietnam, Watergate, economic recession and the failure of the Age of Aquarius to materialize. That understanding I gleaned later on from Philip K. Dick, Network, The Ice Storm, and so on. In Mad Men’s final episodes, we see the seeds being sown.

Out of a dissatisfaction he could never understand or articulate, Don has finally walked away from his whole life; his job, his home, his assets, his identity that was never fully his anyway. His family too, although I had the sense that he maintains a tenuous connection to Sally. He’s gone as far west as there is to go, and fetched up in a new age hippie commune. He attends workshops designed to plumb the emotions and access the truth. And it works, to a certain extent. The efforts of the gurus and the pilgrims are genuine, and the methods make sense in a time when so many longstanding, reliable traditions have been turned inside out. But we know where it all leads. It leads nowhere. The communes all failed, the gurus gave way to crooks, self-actualization degenerated into petty self-interest. (Is my Gen-X mistrust showing?)

The final shot is a cut from a meditating, ohm-chanting Don, with a smile spreading across his face, to the famous “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad. The prevailing wisdom among viewers said that Don conceived the ad in that peacenik love den, and brought it back to McCann Erickson (a real ad firm by the way, which really did make that ad), having learned just enough from the Aquarians to exploit their optimism and change the face of advertising forever.

I didn’t see it that way. Because I couldn’t imaging Don going back to the company after disappearing without a word for so long, I saw that cut as Don breaking away from the cynical world of advertising. He had stepped out of his fog at last, learned to see himself objectively, lost all interest in corporate achievement and could maybe start his life over for real. Meanwhile the company, absent Don’s sensitivity, ushered in a new era of advertising with a piece that was highly successful despite having none of the emotional truth of, say, the Carousel campaign.

Except the more I think about it, the more that outcome seems impossible. If Don is our window into history, it’s only fitting that he would design the Coke ad. It’s only fitting that he would transform the promises of the 60s into a cash cow. The Coke ad is the perfect summation of a cultural failure to awaken, and Don is the perfect vehicle to bring it to life.

Maybe it comes down to whether the show is about history, or about its characters.





The Best Opening Sequence

28 04 2015

The Best Opening Sequence For a TV Series Ever, in my expert opinion, belongs to Mad Men.

It perfectly captures the slow but inevitable disintegration of white male privilege, experienced through a cushioning haze of alcohol. With only a couple episodes left to go, it seems Don Draper’s whole life may disintegrate in similar fashion.
Am I wrong? Got a better opening sequence contender? I bet you don’t.





Daredevil

28 04 2015

NFddThe post without spoilers…is not this post

I feel I should say something about about the Daredevil series on Netflix.

And that is, it’s excellent. (Okay, we done here?)

(Not quite.) Blogger Sean T. Collins is recapping all the episodes and extolling their glories better than I could, so I will just mention some of my favorite things about the series.

1. Universes. I know, just one post ago I was whining about having to keep up with interconnected stories all happening in one universe. But Daredevil and The Avengers enrich each other. The Avengers gets grounded in the fallout seen in Daredevil; New York is still recovering from the repelled alien invasion, and the lucrative rebuilding contracts fuel a burgeoning criminal empire in Hell’s Kitchen. And Matt Murdock’s decision to put on a mask and beat up criminals makes a lot more sense in a world where Iron Man and Captain America have already made headlines. Also; The Avengers and all the movies leading up to it (together making a series just a bit longer than Daredevil’s 13 hours) tell a sprawling, colorful epic of repulsor rays and flying demigods. Daredevil is a close, intimate, bloody tale, involving two only slightly superhuman people, both struggling to determine right from wrong. The contrast fills out the setting of both series. Together they are greater than the sum of their parts. That’s how to make a universe.

2. The Kingpin. Another thing I’ve sort of been meaning to whine about is a tendency toward non-bad-guy-bad-guys. Maybe I’ll get into that in another post. Suffice to say, I’ve been annoyed by cheaply sympathetic antagonists and essentially toothless conflicts. But as with universes, Daredevil does it right. The show gives us plenty of material to sympathize with Wilson Fisk, but doesn’t neglect his repulsive, monstrous side. Vanessa is complex enough to make their romance convincing, humanizing but not sanitizing. Most of all, while Fisk is the antagonist to Murdock, they are also interdependent; defining each other, constantly creating each other, locked in an eternal struggle that is about much more than one guy winning and one losing. That kind of narrative is the best thing about the superhero genre.

3. Violence Has Consequences. Matt Murdock’s mission as Daredevil is difficult. It would make most of the Avengers give up and run away to the Bahamas. He gets severely injured over and over. During the riveting corridor fight scene in episode 2, he repeatedly collapses in between thug attacks. HIs friends get hurt, or hurt others and face an even greater psychological toll. Murdock is a catholic, and a lawyer, and from both of those perspectives his actions as Daredevil are at best highly problematic. He knows he’s giving in to rage, and he struggles to reconcile his good intentions with his base actions. HIs priest offers him a wonderfully Manichaean solution; even the devil can serve the greater good.

4. The Costume. My one complaint about the show (and it is small) is the shying away from costumes and superhero names. Arguably the colorful costumes and names are the most childish aspects of the superhero genre, and people who want to tell sophisticated superhero stories try to avoid them. I think this is a big mistake. The name and the iconic look are integral parts of the superhero, offering a window into the character as expressed by their powers and/or tactics. No one in Daredevil ever calls Fisk “Kingpin,” which is just a missed opportunity given that he doesn’t want his name spoken aloud. Neither the name “Daredevil” nor the signature red costume appear until the final episode, in effect making the whole series an origin story, something I wish we could spend less screen time on in general. However, when Matt finally does appear in red horned body armor, it’s worth the wait. Because he looks batshit crazy. I don’t know if that was the intention, but seeing him in that mask made me feel that a line had been crossed, that whatever separates Daredevil and the Kingpin is more tenuous than anyone imagined.

Daredevil is reportedly the first of four series coming to Netflix, which will culminate in The Defenders. I’m on board, Marvel and Netflix. Don’t blow it!





Universe Fatigue

8 04 2015

Mere days after my last post about the upcoming shake-up at Marvel Comics, DC has announced that they will make another round of big changes this summer. The plan is to bring more diversity to creators and characters, and de-emphasize universal continuity in favor of letting stories and characters breathe. Hooray DC!

As for Marvel…I keep searching the internet for some indication that they’re not really moving everything to a patchwork planet where everyone will just duke it out all the time, but I have not found any such indication. Of course, nothing is really permanent in superhero comics, and when everyone gets sick of Battleworld in a few years they will surely return to Earth. Battleworld would make a fun miniseries, but as a master plan, it’s just so aggressively dumb. I guess one way to maintain universal continuity is to throw out those pesky plot points altogether.

I’ve read comics pretty much my whole life. I’ve never tried too hard to get to know the whole universes of either Marvel or DC, until the recent reboots gave me a chance to follow along from the beginning. Marvel’s Ultimate Universe was great for several years, but a pile-up of crossover events and mini-relaunches eventually made it impossible to follow.

(At least, impossible to follow in the trade paperbacks, which are published a year or more after the comic magazines and are generally not shelved in any sensible order in the stores. But I’m sorry, I’m not paying $3-$4 for a 22 page pamphlet that is only a fragment of a story.)

DC’s New 52 was more uneven, and much more short lived than the Ultimate Universe. (For an excellent breakdown of the New 52 launch, and the market forces driving both Marvel and DC, read this.) But over the next couple of years, I’m guessing DC will put the smack down on Marvel. At least in their paper publications.

Marvel Studios still seems to have the lock on the movies and tv series, with several popular, interlocking franchises, and DC/Warner Brothers struggling to get a decent movie out since The Dark Knight. I should be thrilled at the mess of Marvel movies coming out over the next 4 years. (I am super excited about Daredevil hitting Netflix on Friday, despite all my complaining.) But part of me is just tired. It’s great that all these characters live in the same universe, it’s great when they interact with each other, but does every movie, episode, and comic have to be true to a universal canon? Can’t we all just relax a little bit, and accept that different authors will tell different, sometimes contradictory stories?

I read an article recently– and my apologies, the article and it’s author are lost to the mists of the internet– that talked about the difference between keeping an archive and telling a story. I think actually it was a review of The Battle of Five Armies. And the critic felt that instead of telling a story, Jackson was obsessively archiving Middle Earth. And that there is this impulse among nerds to archive all the background and history of fictional worlds, which can be a fine hobby, or (and here I may be mixing the article with my own opinions) an unhealthy variety of escapism that deadens the story by reducing it to a set of statistics.

All that energy spent archiving would be better spent seeking out new authors and new stories, or better yet, creating one’s own. In a worst case scenario, the marketplace gets flooded with remakes, reboots, and tweaks, by people who are better researchers than creators.

Is that where we are? It kinda looks like it. Between the lack of originality and the clear cash-grabbiness of multiple interlocking properties, I wish I could turn my back on the whole thing.

But I can’t. Not yet. Daredevil on Friday!!





OK, but…”Battleworld??”

22 01 2015

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Followers of this blog may remember that back in 2011, when DC comics rebooted their whole publication line, I took the opportunity to dive in. The success of the New 52, by every measure, is mixed. DC got a bump in sales, but it hasn’t held up. All the reader commentary I’ve seen skews negative. Personally I’ve enjoyed a handful of titles by my favorite writers, and found the rest to be dumb (this has been my experience of superhero comics since 1986.)

Now Marvel is planning something very similar; starting in May, the Marvel universe is ending. They’re being a little coy about what that means exactly. They probably don’t want it to sound like the New 52, but that’s what it sounds like. Is Marvel about to blow it? Or will this be a savvy move that energizes and streamlines the myriad storylines of Marvel characters?

To be precise (bear with me here), both Marvel Universes are ending: the Marvel Universe, and the Ultimate Marvel Universe. The Marvel Universe is where all the characters started, and it essentially maintains their histories going back to the 1961 debut issues. The Ultimate Universe was launched in 2000, and re-told the origins and classics storylines of the core characters, set in the present day and updated for a contemporary audience. I have more to say about this dual universe dynamic, but I’ll save it for another post.

Now the two universes are going to “smash together” due to events in the upcoming Secret Wars miniseries. Parts of each universe will survive, in something called Battleworld.

What the heck is Battleworld? Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso and Senior Vice President of Publishing and Executive Editor Tom Brevoort broke the news, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. “Once we hit Secret Wars #1, there is no Marvel Universe, Ultimate Universe, or any other. It’s all Battleworld,” said Brevoort. And from Newsarama, “by the time Secret Wars #1 hits the stands in May, every world in Marvel’s multiverse will be destroyed, with pieces of each forming Battleworld, the staging ground for the Secret Wars storyline.”

So is Battleworld a planet? Made of pieces of other planets? Where all the characters engage in an endless fight tournament? Is Marvel Comics becoming Battleworld Comics, dedicated soully to answering the age old question of “who would win in a fight between” in all possible permutations?*

That sounds idiotic. And its more a reflection of poor spokesman-ship than actual plans for the universe, I’m guessing.

What this really sounds like is Disney Studios looking for a way to bring the comics, movies, and tv shows into closer alignment, in a way that is largely ignorant of what makes comic books tick.

I have to say I would welcome a New 52 style reboot. Especially one that had learned from the New 52’s missteps, that took a holistic view of the Marvel Universe(s), that was carefully crafted to be accessible, entertaining, and relevant.

Will that happen? Don’t bet your foil-embossed variant covers on it.

*A universe-wide fight tournament was basically the scenario for the original Secret Wars miniseries in the 80s. Not a good sign if you ask me.





There Is No “We”

17 12 2014

The report is out: the CIA tortured prisoners (and lied about the nature, extent, and effectiveness of it.) One phrase I hear in a lot of outraged responses is “That’s not who we are.” But clearly it is who we are, because we did it.
Plenty of us are disgusted, ashamed, horrified, but there is also a segment of the population for whom torture is not a problem. How can we call ourselves one society with two viewpoints so wildly opposed? I’m starting to think we can’t.
This is the only way I can live with the torture report– to consider those in favor of torture as another country, a foreign subculture. I know it’s a cop-out to just say the divide can never be crossed. The enormity of the crime of torture demands (besides prosecution of all responsible) an effort to convince the other side that it’s wrong. Maybe I’m just tired, but honestly, does anyone see that working out?
The gridlock in congress is just a symptom. Gun rights, cop shootings, gay marriage, income tax, even women making video games; issues have become fault lines that no amount of argument or entreaty will entice people to cross. We are not a society, because we’re not interested in being one. We’re not interested in unity. We’re only interested in scoring points against the other side. I’m as guilty of it as anyone.
I don’t see any way out of it.
Well, okay, that’s not exactly true. I do believe that on many of these issues, the opposing viewpoint is a small minority that is disproportionately represented in the media and the government. If we had accurate representation, things would be different. But that’s a whole other topic.
I guess my point is, if we’re going to advocate for a national conversation about anything, we need to start from the premise that we really aren’t one people. We are a lot of seriously aggrieved subsets demanding satisfaction. We need to either be granted satisfaction, or convinced to give up on it.
How is that ever going to happen?
What it will take is leadership. Courageous, undaunted leadership in the face of deeply entrenched powers that profit from the status quo. That, or the caveman minority gives up on all their backwards bullshit. One seems about as likely as the other.








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