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September 21, 2013

Breaking Bad’s growth, followed by some VERY WELL-MARKED speculative SPOILERS

NO SPOILERS until the big red notice.

Actually, I take it back: BROAD THEMATIC SPOILERS AHEAD. No plot points, however.

Breaking Bad has become one of my favorite shows ever. Yours too, probably. But it didn’t start that way for me.

The first season was driven by its premise: what would happen if a kindly chemistry teacher had to cook meth to cover his medical bills? (Ok, so that spoiled the first episode for you. Really?) That season was a series of set pieces, the sort of things you’d imagine if you took that as your premise.

The next two seasons were driven (it seemed to me) by the escalating plot and by letting Walter grow into a role, as if the writers said, “What would happen if Walt became a Tony Montana, or a Tony Soprano, except really really smart?”

But in the last two seasons, the show became a living thing, driven not by premise, role, or plot. It has become emergent. And this is enabling it to explore themes — e.g., What is the nature of evil? Is there justice? Can we know ourselves? — without severing those themes from the people who are living through them.

[Still no spoilers] This is how the great dramas have worked. I’m reluctant to make the comparison, but there is no separating the character of King Lear, Macbeth, or Huckleberry Finn from the themes their works explore. Because the themes are worked through by highly specific people, it becomes impossible to decide exactly what the general lessons of the text are, which tells us something about the nature of morality.[1] I like what Emma Smith says in her wonderful podcast lectures on Shakespeare: His plays unsettle questions.

Breaking Bad has become truly unsettling, and not just because of the violence or even because we can see ourselves in all of the characters. It is unsettling because it is pursuing themes through fully realized people in a world with no simple rules.


[1] I am here echoing a line of thought pursued variously by Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, Iris Murdoch, and others, often focusing on Jane Austen. E.g., Philosopher’s Beard, Rose Woodhouse responds, Gilbert Ryle pdf


How Breaking Bad won’t end [SPOILERS about the story so far!!!]

SPOILERS about the story so far!!!

SPOILERS about the story so far!!!

So, here’s how I think the show will end, where “I think” should be read as “I know I’m wrong.”

The most recent episode, Ozymandias, was one of the best hours of TV ever. But one thing bothered me about it: Gomie. We see his body in the dirt, but not his face. The episode didn’t spend a second on the death of the only (almost) unsullied Good Guy in the series.

Now, maybe that’s the point. But it felt wrong. So here’s certainly how the next two episodes won’t go (a.k.a, proof that I am not Vince Gilligan).

I do think Walt has bottomed out and has begun the turn. He’s done the thing that even he has defined as the worst possible: turning Jesse over for a slow death, after tormenting him with how easily Walt could have saved the love of Jesse’s life. (I will accept the argument that ever since Walt poisoned the kid, he’s been running in circles at the bottom of the moral barrel.) But Holly’s “Ma ma ma” (wow, that kid can act!) has made him see that he doesn’t have a family and doesn’t deserve a family. So, he begins to do the best thing he can for his family, which is to pretend to be as evil as he actually is by lying about it having been all his fault, which of course it was. (Genius scene.)

In the final two episodes, I think Walt continues to try to turn things around as best he can. I expect no more rank evil from him. But this show is better than most about showing the consequences of our actions. So, how about this:

This Sunday’s episode begins with Gomez’s family coming to grips with his death. The DEA tells them Walter White was the killer. They’re heartbroken.

Walt comes back from the Bad Guy Protection Service in order to try to set some things right with his family. But just as he is about to take the ricin himself, Ms. Gomez shows up with a gun, fires … misses … and kills Skyler. (Maybe Walt Jr. instead, but I’m not made of stone.) Fade out to twangy Breaking Bad music.

If anything like this happens, you all owe me ONE MILLION DOLLARS.

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March 23, 2013

The pleasure of minor illness

I am a delicate little flower. If my body temperature goes up 1%, I lose the ability to understand anything more complex than the Spartacus* series on Starz. I enter a recovery state that can only properly be called “wallowing.”

I have something a bit flu-like. It hit full force on Thursday afternoon. (To the person next to me on the plane: I am truly sorry.) I hope to be sort of back at work on Monday, and to be non-contagious enough to attend the family Seder that night. But in the interim, I’m on my back wondering just how much of my incapacity is due to my privilege. I can take days off. I can sleep in a warm spot. I can watch truly awful cable TV. I can let myself feel miserable.

And in fact, I’m not wondering at all. I know that self-indulgence is 90% of my illness. In fact, like many Americans, I have fond memories of sick days as a child, being brought cocoa and noodle soup by a loving mother, not only certain that I would be well soon, but also dreading the return to normalcy.

It must be a weird, modern, and isolated thing that a class of people can look on some types of illness as a respite, a luxury. When else in history have we had the confidence that a small disease would turn out well and the means to be so pampered while ill?


The new season of Spartacus is bad. In the first season (which I’m not proud of having watched), because the show was willing to kill off characters, there was something at risk in the fights. It was a bit like Project Runway with swords. This new season is all hackity hackity, constantly surly characters, gratuitous nudity, and low growling voices I can’t understand but don’t need to. It’s spurring me to get well so I won’t have to watch it.

If I could give the show three things, my gifts would be:

  1. Definite articles

  2. Indefinite articles

  3. Some nice trousers. Maybe gaberdine.

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September 26, 2012

Hollywood’s most over-used exit line

Huffpo has a compilation of “Check please!” being used as an exit line in Hollywood movies. It then makes the completely unsubtantiated claim that it’s the most over-used exit line.

Tish tosh! I proffer my own two unsubstantiated claimants to that title:

The first is “I think that went well” after some plan has gone disastrously wrong.,

But the most over-used exit line in Hollywood films is, by a landslide: Not saying goodbye when hanging up the phone.

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July 8, 2012

Louis C.K. and the Decent Net, or How Louis won the Internet

(This is the lead article in the new issue of my free and highly intermittent newsletter, JOHO. Also in it, a Higgs-Bogus Contest on particles that would explain mysteries of the Internet.)

 

Louis C.K. now famously sold his latest comedy album over the Internet direct to his audience for $5, with no DRM to get in the way of our ability to play it on any device we want, and even to share it. After making over a million dollars in a few days (and after giving most of his profits to his staff and to charity) Louis went to great pains to schedule his upcoming comedy tour in venues not beholden to their TicketMasters, so that he could sell tickets straight to his audience for a flat $45, free of scalpers. So far he’s made over $6 million in ticket sales.

But Louis C.K. also thereby — in the vocabulary of Reddit — won the Internet.

There are lots of reasons to be heartened by Louis’ actions and by his success: He is validating new business models that could spread. He is demonstrating his trust in his audience. He is protecting his audience while making the relationship more direct. He is not being greedy. But it seems to me that Louis is demonstrating one more point that is especially important. Louis C.K. won the Internet by reminding us that the Internet offers us a chance for a moral do-over.

 


Way back in the early days of all of this Internet madness, many of us thought that the Internet was a new beginning, an opportunity to get things right. That’s why we looked at all The Hullabaloo about the Net as missing The Point. The Hullabaloo saw the Net as a way to drive out some of the inefficiencies of the physical world of business. The Point was that the Net would let us build new ways of treating one another that would be fairer, more fully supportive of human flourishing, and thus more representative of the best of what it means to be human together.

We optimists were not entirely wrong, but not as right as we had hoped. Even as late as the turn of the century, the early blogging community thought it was forging not only a new community, but a new type of community, one with social ties made visible as blue underlined text. That original community has maintained itself rather well, and the amount of generosity and collaboration the Net has occasioned continues to confound the predictions of the pessimists. But clearly the online world did not become one big blogosphere of love.

It’s difficult, and ultimately rather silly, to try to quantify the unfathomable depth of depravity, skullduggery and plain old greed exhibited on the Net, and compare it to a cumulative calculus of the Net’s loveliness. For example, most email is spam that treats its recipients as means, not ends, but the bulk of it is sent by a tiny percentage of email users. Should we compare the number of bits or of bastards? How do we weigh phishing against the time people put in answering the questions of strangers? How do we measure the casual hatred exhibited in long streams of YouTube comments against the purposeful altruism and caring exhibited at the best of Reddit? How do we total up the casual generosity of every link that leads a reader away from the linker’s site to some other spot? Fortunately, we do not have to resolve these questions. We can instead acknowledge that the Net provides yet another place in which we play out our moral natures.

But its accessibility, its immediacy, its malleability, and its weird physics provide a place where we can invent new ways of doing old things like buying music and concert tickets — new ways in which we can state what we think counts, new ways in which we can assert our better or worse moral natures.

 


I am of course not suggesting that Louis C.K. is a moral messiah or that he “won the Internet” is anything except playful overstatement. I’m instead suggesting a way of interpreting the very positive response to his relatively modest actions on the Net: we responded so positively because we saw in those actions the Net as a moral opportunity.

We responded this way, I’d suggest, in part because Louis C.K. is not of the Internet. His Web site made that very clear when Louis charmingly claimed, “Look, I don’t really get the whole ‘torrent’ thing. I don’t know enough about it to judge either way.” He goes on to urge us to live up to the trust he’s placed in us. He’s thus not behaving by some Internet moral code. Rather, he’s applying Old World morality to the Net. It is not a morality of principles, but of common decency.

And herewith begins a totally unnecessary digression…

This is coherent with Louis’ comedy. His series fits within the line that began with Seinfeld and continued into Curb Your Enthusiasm, but not just because all three make us squirm.

Seinfeld was a comedy of norms: people following arbitrary rules as if they were divine commandments. Sometimes the joke was the observation of rules that we all follow blindly: No double dipping! Sometimes the joke was the arbitrariness of rules the show made up: No soup for you! (Yes, I realize the Soup Nazi was based on a real soup guy, but the success of the script didn’t depend on us knowing that.) Seinfeld characters’s are too self-centered to live by anything more than norms. And, in a finale that most people liked less than I did, they are at last confronted with their lack of moral substance.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is a comedy of principles, albeit with a whole lot of norms thrown in. Larry and his world are made unlivable by people (including Larry) who try to live by moral rules. Hum a bit of Wagner while passing by a Jew, and you’re likely to touch off some righteous indignation as if you were siding with the Nazis. Larry won’t give kids without a costume any Halloween candy, and then can’t resist telling a cop with a shaven head that the cop isn’t actually bald according to Larry’s principled definition. In a parody of rule-based life, Larry takes advantage of the rule governing handicapped toilet stalls. (See also.) In Curb the duties of friendship are carefully laid out, and are to be followed even when they make no sense. Larry’s life is pretty much ruined by the adherence to principles.

Louis is less about norms and principles than about doing the right thing in a world unguided by norms and principles, and in which human weakness is assumed. When a male southern cop who has saved his life asks to be thanked by being kissed on the lips, Louis reasons outloud that he can’t think of any reason not to. So he does. Norms are there to be broken when they get in the way of a human need, such as to feel appreciated. Nor do principles much matter, except the principle “Thou shalt not be a dick.” So, Louis watches bemused as an airline passenger becomes righteously indignant because his reservation wasn’t honored. The passenger had principle on his side, but is cast as the transgressor because he’s acting like a d-bag. In his Live at Beacon show, Louis contrasts the norm against using the word “fag” with nondiscriminatory behavior and attitude. (I’d like to hear what Lisa Nakamura has to say about this.)

And because Louis is a comedian, the humor is in the human failure to live up to even this simple ideal of not being a total a-hole. In his $5 comedy album, Louis relates how he thought about giving up his first class airplane seat to a soldier in uniform. Not only doesn’t Louis give up his seat, he then congratulates himself for being the sort of person who would think of such a thing. Giving up your seat is neither a norm nor a principle. It is what people who rise above dickhood do.

So, here’s why I think this is relevant.

The Internet is a calamity of norms. Too many cultures, too many localities, too many communities, each with its own norms. And there’s no global agreement on principles that will sort things out for us. In fact, people who disagree based on principles often feel entitled to demonize their opponents because they differ on principles. The only hope for living together morally on the Net is to try not to be dicks to one another. I’m not saying it’s obvious how to apply that rule. And I’m certainly not saying that we’ll succeed at it. But now that we’ve been thrown together without any prior agreement on norms or principles, what else can we do except try to treat each other with trust and a touch of sympathy?

That’s what Louis C.K.’s gestures embody. Many of us have responded warmly to them because they are moral in the most basic way: Let’s try to treat one another well, or at least not be total dicks, ok? Louis C.K.’s gestures were possible because the Net lets us try out new relationships and practices. Those gestures therefore remind us of our larger hope for the Net and for ourselves — not that the Net will drive out all rotten behavior, but that we can replace some corrupt practices with better ones. We can choose to dwell together more decently.

Nothing more than that. But also nothing less.

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May 18, 2012

[eim] The actual order of the Top Ten

Rob Burnett, executive producer of Late Night with David Letterman is finishing up five hours of IAMA at Reddit, and 27 seconds ago posted a response to the question “Why is number 5 always the funniest out of the top 10?” What a dumb question! It’s always been obvious to me that #2 is the funniest.

And, well, I don’t mean to brag, but I’m right and gregorkafka (if that’s his real name) is wrong. Here’s Rob’s response to the question:

Don’t get me started. Every headwriter has their own approach to the Top 10. Here was mine:

10 Funny, but also straight forward. Reinforce the topic.

9 Medium strength. Start with two laughs. Get a tailwind.

8 Can be a little experimental. Maybe not everyone gets it, but ok.

7 Back on track. Something medium.

6 Crowd pleaser. One that will get applause. Will help bridge the first panel to the second.

5 Coming off #6, time to take a chance.

4 Starting to land the plane. Gotta be solid.

3 For me always the second funniest one you got.

2 Funniest one you have.

1 Funniest one that is short so the band doesn’t play over it.

I always tried to never give Dave two in a row that didn’t get a laugh. Of course you want all 10 to be killer, but you don’t always have that going in.

Number 2! We’re Number 2!

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April 29, 2012

You score this movie

An indie movie launching in September is holding a contest to find four songs for four scenes that need musical backing.

The movie is We Made This Movie from Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman (creators of the TV show Ed; Rob is the Late Night with David Letterman producer). Because of the theme of the movie, they had the trailer produced by a high school student.

(Disclosure: I am an informal (= unpaid) marketing advisor to the project. I am also a Rob Burnett fanboy.)

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April 21, 2012

The semi-transparent Prisoner’s Dilemma

A British game show that I never heard offers a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. As the host explains at the beginning, if both contestants agree to split the pot, they split it. If one chooses to split and the other to steal, the stealer gets the whole thing. If they both choose to steal, they get nothing. So, here’s the clip in which one of the players injects a new variable. [SPOILERS IN THE REST OF THIS POST]

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Why does the guy on the right (Mr. Right) finally choose the way he does?

If Mr. Left believes that Mr. Right will Steal, then Mr. Left will Split, so Mr Right might as well Split. If Mr. Left thinks that Mr. Right will Split, then Mr. Left will Steal, so Mr. Right can either Split (so Mr. Left gets the pot) or Steal (so neither gets anything); might as well Split. If Mr. Left believes that Mr. Right will steal and will break his promise to split the pot afterwards, then Mr. Left might Steal just to screw Mr. Right, in which case Mr. Left might as well let Mr. Left get the money rather than foregoing it for both of them, so Mr. Right should Split. No matter how you slice it, Mr. Left should Split.

If that’s right, and if Mr. Left were given time to work it through, then Mr. Left should have Stolen (assuming his aim is to maximize his share). But I’m pretty sure that I’m wrong about that.

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January 17, 2012

Elmore Leonard and Morgan Freeman

Meredith Sue Willis, novelist and teacher (and my sister-in-law), has a hunch about a “newish” Elmore Leonard novel:

I have a theory that Elmore Leonard came up with the idea for DJIBOUTI from a combination of headlines (piracy off the coast of east Africa) and a interview in which movie actor Morgan Freeman complained that he gets lots of work, but never gets to have sex in his movies. He has played Nelson Mandela, the corner man in MILLION DOLLAR BABY, not to mention God a couple of times- -all pretty much asexual. So my little scenario is that Leonard, who always has his eye on the movies, wrote the character of seventy-ish Xavier in DJIBOUTI for Freeman. Just a thought.

Nice!

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January 8, 2012

Megan Ganz meeting notes

Megan Ganz is a writer for the TV show Community that I started out not much liking until I had seen a few episodes and now sort of love. Except that it’s on “hiatus,” never a happy word in TV land. Megan is undergoing community interrogation over at Reddit, and one of the comments linked to her “meeting notes.” You should take a look.

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July 14, 2011

Predicting SYTYCD: Reading the judges

I have a prediction about who is going home tonight on So You Think You Can Dance.

I am more certain about the boy who’s leaving: Jess. I believe the judges are setting us up for this. It seemed to me that he danced fantastically last night. His second dance in particular elicited “mehs” instead of what seemed to me to be the more obvious and more fair course: His movement is so precise. His rhythm is amazing. He stayed in character and exhibited joy. He excelled in a style not his own. But not a word about his “growth,” much less having “taken us on a journey.” Instead the judges praised the slightly less strong performance by Clarice. (Note that I know I am not a dance expert.) And Nigel gave away the game when he said that Jess is unsteady in his lifts. I.e., Jess is short. Very short.

So, I think the judges (= the producers) have decided that Jess can’t make it into the Top Ten because they will not be able to keep him from getting paired with a tall girl. So, he has to go. Thus, they’re setting it up so that tonight when he dances for his life, sending him home won’t be out of the blue. (The fact that a couple of weeks ago the judges told Ryan that her dance for her life wasn’t up to their standards but they kept her anyway pretty much confirmed that the decisions about who to cut are made before and regardless of the “dance for your life” segments.)

I’m pretty sure they’re also setting us up to send Ryan home. I personally think she’s the weakest of the girls, so I’m not as bothered. They even gave her a dance last night that featured what are supposed to be her “Hollywood” good looks and didn’t use that to boost her to us viewers. I believe her goose is finally cooked. The story will be that they gave her a chance when they rescued her a couple of weeks ago and she just hasn’t come through, although they’ll put it in more new agey language about being true to herself and being in the moment.

Overall, I think this season’s Top Twenty has been amazingly strong and even. But I’m not finding the same peaks as in many other years. (For me, Brandon and Will were two mighty peaks.) If I had to pick a favorite, it’d be Sasha Mallory.

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