Monday, November 20, 2017

Stranger Things 2

One year ago I went into Stranger Things with what I thought were appropriated calibrated expectations. I’d been burned before by critically lauded productions that failed to live up to the hype and there was no way, I thought, that it could possibly be as good as everyone said.


I was pleased to be wrong.

And here we are at the end of series two.

Again, I thought my expectations were adjusted appropriately. The sophomore slump is real. I knew that going in. The Duffer Brothers had a lifetime to create season one and ten months to craft the second.

The first one had been an experience. An event. A phenomenon.

The second season was merely competently-produced TV hobbled by three big problems.

1.) It’s become too cutesy and self-referential. Eleven in particular is merely a catch-phrase spouting caricature of her earlier self. I'm fond of observing that Star Wars (A New Hope) is the only Star Wars movie that doesn't take place in the Star Wars universe. A lot of the tropes that would come to define it were still being codified. It drew on Kurosawa and Flash Gordon serials and managed to combine them into something entirely new. Same with season one of Stranger Things. It's imitating itself for season two and like the ripoffs that followed Star Wars, it is missing a lot of what worked the first time around.

2.) They're trying too hard to please their most vocal critics. #JusticeforBarb does not need a series long arc, we didn't need an entire sitcom family for Lucas because his parents were not conspicuous in the first series. These are both addressed in excruciating detail. It couldn’t have been less subtle if his dad had mugged for the camera at breakfast.

The Star Wars prequels were awful, but there was one thing I respected. After George Lucas got some flak for the note-for-note Tarzan yell in Return of the Jedi, he doubled down with TWO Tarzan yelling Wookiees in the prequels. Likewise, when Classic Doctor Who painted themselves in a corner they simply smashed through a load-bearing wall to get themselves out. Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Not everything has to be wrapped up in a bow.

3.) The storylines are siloed. Much like later seasons of A Game of Thrones, it's essentially a bunch of stories that are happening at the same time rather than a single coherent storyline. They don’t even converge as much as they happen to drop the characters in the same location. I’ve run a lot of role-playing games since I began playing in the Stranger Things era of 1980s small town America. There were often times when I saw that attention at the table was flagging so I would hustle things along with a handwave. Rather than worry about the logistics of travel, I’d just say, “Okay, you all wind up at the castle at the same time.” It was lazy, but we accepted it because it got us closer to the interesting part. I was thinking of that when everyone happens to arrive at the lab at the same time. Ugh. I can get away with it because it’s something I’m doing it on the fly with a small group of friends. I’d like a little bit more effort from my entertainment, especially when I know they’re capable of it.

Picayune complaints/stuff that I didn’t like (as distinct from stuff that I thought was objectively bad) Billy is poorly integrated into the story and it drives me crazy when writers fall back on the “I have a hunch that happens to be correct!” solution to their problems. I don’t know if Kali and her group of weirdos was a back door pilot or a hook for series three, but either way it was boring and awful and should have been cut entirely. Mike is kind of a tool and if he was a real person, he’d be on track to grow up as an Internet Nice Guy.

This probably makes it sound like I hated it, but it had elements that really worked too. Any reference to Aliens is welcome. Sadie Sink was astounding as Max and gives a breakout performance. Only Will is better. He carries the show with his vulnerability. Sean Astin was a wonderful addition to the cast. Hopper and Eleven were great together. Steve is great, as always. Nancy and Jonathan do have great chemistry together (too bad they have so many scenes with Murray, who is just this side of an offensive stereotype).

Bottom line, it wasn’t bad but it wasn't nearly as good as it could have been. Series one set a high bar and series two fails to deliver. The more I think about the first series the more I like it, but the more I think about the second series the clearer its problems become.

Blogger Tricks

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Illinois Nazis

One time, say about fifteen years ago, a mod on a message board I frequented remarked that he hated Nazis. After I determined that he wasn't making a reference to the Blues Brothers,

I said something like, "Dude, it's not like you're taking a courageous stand here. Nazis are like pedophiles. EVERYBODY hates them."

And yet, here we are in 2017, with some of the most powerful Republicans in the country defending Sebastian Gorka, Nazi, and Roy Moore, pedophile.

I never want to hear "Both sides do it!" again.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Alton Brown: Eat Your Science

We caught the show in Easton on Wednesday.

The show was three hours long with a half hour intermission. He was very much like his television persona, which I consider a good thing. Some people expect something qualitatively different out of a live show, and this material was very much in the vein of an episode of Good Eats, with a couple allowances made for medium. He’s got a polished formula and there was no need to tweak it overmuch.

Jen and I liked it; Lily loved it. It was a really nice outing.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Doctor Who:Night of the Jackal

I had planned to run a Doctor Who RPG session at my birthday party last year, but that never came to pass. However, we managed to do it this year and it was a lot of fun.

Our characters were:

Bob Ross: Soft-spoken be-afroed painter of public television fame. In this universe, he has some kind of a Dorian Gray kind of immortality (he keeps meaning to complete that self-portrait, but always gets distracted by all those happy little accidents)

A time-displaced Anne Boleyn: Rescued the day before her execution. She is not sure what to make of the futuristic world of Victorian London, but she is determined to live her life to its fullets.

Coraline Magnus: Apprentice Time Lady working who had heard from her friend Romana that earth was a pretty great place. She’s working at the Red Tavern.

We also had two characters who dropped out of the game after an hour. Both players were kids, and they were expecting something different than what they got.

Chrysanthemum “Chrissie”  Íroas: A gallfreyan Time Tot who was enrolled in Hogwarts and sorted into Ravenclaw. She graduated at fifteen, but was unable to go home, because the Time Lords weren’t scheduled to pick her up for three more years and there were no protocols in place to bring her back early. Her player decided that her parents had sent her to earth because Gallifrey was going to be destroyed, which was news to Coraline.

Reaper from Overwatch: Hilariously violent and inappropriate. The party was attending a funeral as part of their investigation. When asked by the dead man’s sister how he knew the deceased, Reaper(falsely) claimed, “I killed him.”

Also of note was the Terminator trying to pass (unsuccessfully) as Sherlock Holmes. He overshot his mark by about a hundred years and he's just killing time solving mysteries while he waits for Sarah Connor to be born.
I modified a published adventure, Night of the Jackals, from Cthulhu by Gaslight.  My original intent had been to run A Night in the Lonesome October game, but that idea fell by the wayside and the only vestige of it was that the two games happened to share the same Victorian London setting.

Of our three adult players, only one had ever played in a tabletop RPG, but they really took to it extremely well. Most people with whom I played began in adolescence.  They were great for first time role-players. They even came in costume!

We opened with Coraline receiving a message on her space-time telegraph.

Just then, Alan Paice, the owner of the Red Tavern (in this continuity) showed up and apologized to Coraline. He’d have to miss their weekly lunch because he had to attend the funeral of an old army buddy.

The party tagged along to the funeral and began investigating.  The kids disappeared at this point, and we all agreed that their characters were keeping an eye on Alan.

The other characters unraveled the mystery and the whole thing went very smoothly. I’m of the school of thought that players should never miss a vital clue due to a bad roll.  The trick shouldn’t be getting the information; the trick is putting it together correctly to reach the proper conclusion.

I think the biggest failure of the night was on me. I introduced the baddie later than I should have, and the scenario is set up to establish another character as a red herring. I didn’t want to lead them to the wrong conclusion by not giving them enough information. That’s not fair to do to new players and it’s a good way to sour them on the game. Unfortunately, I think I laid it on a little too thick. As soon as he showed up they called a sidebar and basically said, “This guy is obviously the villain.”

(In my defense, we were four hours by that point, and I think hurrying things along was probably the best choice, but it certainly could have been handled with a bit more finesse.)

We had some memorable moments, like the women putting on pants in order to pass as men to sneak into a gentleman’s club and the climax of the adventure came when Anne Boleyn chopped the head off the jackal-headed monster. Everybody was good, but Anne’s character was simply born to play that role.

It was all delightfully silly and everyone had a lot of fun.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


Lily asked me why I wasn't writing about her as much as I used to, and she was afraid that it was because I didn't think she was remarkable anymore, but that's not it at all.  The real reason is that I'm concerned for her privacy. Like a dummy, I'm blogging here under my very distinctive real name and I don't want to write anything that would embarrass her if her friends should find it.

But, because she asked me I'll relate this story.

Lily asked me about the song Believer, by Imagine Dragons. and what I thought the song represented. I wasn't familiar with it, but I listened to it and concluded that the artist had overcome some kind of hardship in his childhood and the act overcoming it shaped the person he became as an adult. Lily said that she had come to the same conclusion and then she added, "I like that I can get you to think about things you wouldn't otherwise consider."

I was overcome by affection for her just then. That's exactly the kind of thing I would say to her.