Sweep the Nostalgia, Or Why Cobra Kai Does and Does Not Suck

80’s Nostalgia has been going on so long that the teenagers who were doing it 15 years ago are now grown up and have kids of their own. Do they nostalgize their nostalgia? Is there anything else? Are we permanently stuck? Does this whining help? No to all, and the questions have become boring. The culture is stuck, but something that can’t go on forever, won’t. So let’s at least observe and honor a show that connects the past to the present, as opposed to Stranger Things, which could have been set in any time, and is set in the 80’s because of course it is. Cobra Kai is better than that. Better than it needs to be, really, even with it’s flaws.

I wasn’t going to watch Season 3. Season 2 disappointed me so much that I declared myself done with it. I relented, and I’m glad I did, but the exercise of watching it has kicked loose a need to express what I have observed. So grab your gis and give me 20; this is gonna be a long one.

Daniel-San, Show Me Save the Franchise

The algorithims, it is said, dictate our content. That’s the entertainment consequence of the digital age. You can make whatever you want, but if you want it to be seen, you gotta keyword it, and the audience better already exist. And given that everything new that’s come into existence this century has to fight through the noise to find it’s audience, it’s a much safer bet to regurgitate something that people already know and like. That’s why Ridley Scott is farting around with new ways to re-tell Alien. That’s why the most ambitious sci-fi work of this year is going to be the second attempt at a film adaptation of a novel from 1965, because we haven’t had enough space-opera epics Ludovico’d into our drying eyeballs just yet.

And that’s why Cobra Kai exists. I don’t think they spent a lot of time at the pitch meeting. If the whole thing took longer to green light than the words “Dude, they made a Jem and the Holograms movie. Karate Kid is bound to have more legs” took to say, I’d be very surprised. Maybe they had coffee first.

But, and there is a but, the mama birds behind this particular regurgitation actually took the time to stir up a fresh take on the property. Which, they were bound to do, as the creative team behind Karate Kid had already spread the premise thin. There had already been a sequel, and a third movie that was basically the first movie, but dumber, and a protagonist gender-swapping, practically non-canon fourth movie, and a crappy reboot. The well was dryer than the radiator in Mr. Miagi’s Yellow Ford. If the team wanted to get in on the Algorithim’s Munificence, they needed something new.

Which is to say, something new and something old. Cobra Kai is a delicate balancing act between two impulses: a full-on fan-service smorgasboard, which bows to the need of hyperfans to have every part of the Canon Respected, and a partial inversion of the original film’s premise. That’s right, we’re going to Reference All The Things, and tell it from the point of view of the Bad Guy.

As it turns out, Karate Kid worked best when Daniel LaRusso had an antagonist on his level. That’s why Karate Kid Part II, for all it’s charms, ultimately feels odd. There’s no real reason for Daniel to be invested in anything that’s happening on Okinawa; he’s just there. Daniel doesn’t really understand why these people are like this, or how he’s supposed to Not piss off the angry Okinawan Guy. He doesn’t get it; neither do we. It’s Okinawans in the Mist. Good Score, though.

And that’s why Part III is tired. Ponytail Guy (No, I don’t remember his name. Yes, I know the younger version of him appeared in Season 3. I know he’ll be back. I do not care. He’s Ponytail Guy) is a cartoon on a level beyond John Kreese, who always came across, apart form his obvious PTSD, as a very grounded guy. Grunts who came home from ‘Nam nihilistic and anti-social was a trope that was already becoming overdone by 1984, and the number of them was definitely overstated, but they existed. Hence the first movie had plausibility. The third had none. The idea that a successful Mr. Business caricature would concoct some twisted Machiavellian scheme to … win a karate tournament in the Valley, never made any sense, and the movie itself can’t resist laughing at its absurd antagonist (“Waaa…. WAAAAaaaaaAAAA….”). The franchise never laughed at Kreese (and it still hasn’t, to its credit).

Ultimately, Karate Kid is a basic movie about literally fighting back against bullying, with some Zen meditation on the downside of violence sprinkled on top. You can only repeat that riff so many times before it loses its impact, so the only thing to do is play it backwards. Thus, we take a cue from the YouTube Protagonist Inversion Culture (“Why The Rebels Are Really the Bad Guys in Star Wars”), and we dust off Johnny Lawrence, who’s been MIA since the beginning of Part II. The Classic 80’s Movie Bully gets to be the Protagonist, and as soon as it was announced, even people who moan like crucified martyrs about Reboots of Endless Trash admitted that they kind of liked the idea.

The Counter-Culture Rug-Pull

Johnny Laurence is what Generation X wants to remember itself as: free, swaggering, indifferent to trends, making his own way in the wild world, utterly true to himself, a bit down on his luck at times, because he’s just too badass for the world to handle. We were too real, too cool, too beyond this petty world.

Daniel LaRusso is what Generation X actually is: conventional, out of his depth most of the time, and entirely content to sell cars and make dorky commercials in exchange for the big house with a zen garden. Making money and small acts of aesthetic whimsy are the only things we’ve ever understood.

The pattern of the show followed this rug-pull. First Season gives us the promise of a reconfigured Cobra Kai, an upturned middle finger to a softened, puritanical culture. And it largely delivered on that promise. We not only observed a dojo return to existence, we saw the ethos behind it raise its hooded head. Strike First – because if you’re gonna be in a fight, that’s the smart way to do it. Strike Hard – because otherwise, you might as well not bother. No Mercy – because the wicked world has none for you. In Sensei Lawrence’s hands, this mantra is not malice born of revenge on the world, but an honest assessment of what he’s seen and lived. It’s a way to go forward, not merely nostalgize his past.

The whole point is to bring back from the past what was good and useful, and leave what was destructive and unecessary. The Cobra Kai ethos is a warrior ethos, and while it doesnt’ want to admit it, Current Year Culture sees something there it misses. Violence doesn’t go away by disavowing it, and the show puts this point in Miguel’s mouth in Season 3. The implicit challenge to Current-Year “toxic masculinity” fretting is practically counter-cultural, and what made it worth checking out.

But Second Season turned that upside-down, and I hated it. On the one hand, it’s good to not utterly invert the original Karate Kid. It’s become a bit of a meme to sneer at Ralph Macchio, and a “Why Daniel LaRusso is really the Bad Guy” is a YourTube Hot Take that pre-exists Cobra Kai. But it’s garbage (and Macchio is an executive producer on the show, so thank the man, nerds). Daniel LaRusso is many things, not all of them good, but one thing he isn’t is a coward. He earned that victory in the first movie. At the moment of agony, when even his sensei is telling him he can throw in the towel with honor, he refuses. This isn’t about some trophy, Miagi-San. This is about proving to these roided-up clowns and their cult master that I’m as good as them. I will not accept an Honorable Mention. So pull out your Zen Magic and fix my leg, sensei. Victory or Death.

That’s the essence of heroism, as all good 80’s action movies knew. So yes, let’s not flip the script all the way and make him villainous. The back-and-forth between LaRusso and Lawrence is an essential part of Cobra Kai, and interesting precisely because neither of them are utterly in the wrong, but they’re driven by their past to mistrust and antagonism. There’s an element of Faulknerian tragedy to it: two men unable to escape the past. I appreciate not having to despise LaRusso, and appreciate the fact that he’s just a decent guy trying to do the right thing, as best he sees it.

That doesn’t make Miagi-Do’s rise to counter Cobra Kai in Season 2 any more interesting. The Miagi-Do kids are sparkless, frankly, and other than being against Cobra Kai have no reason to be there. The Cobra Kai kids, right or wrong, are scrappers, who join their dojo not to learn Zen mantras but to become strong in a world that has no use for them. This isn’t an educational exercise to them, it’s struggle. No such energy or need is found in Daniel’s boring daughter and the handful of other kids who are only there to fill the card out. Even Robbie Lawrence, the intense wild card of Season 1, angry and quiet in equal measures, becomes a drone under LaRusso’s tutelage.

We have a Structure problem as well. If Daniel’s not the bad guy, then against whom do we struggle? Here the logic of Fan Service imposes itself. You can’t not have Kreese return, so you build him up to be exactly the same character he was 35 years ago, saying and doing the exact same things. This way, you can have both Johnny and Daniel fight against him, and by the end of Season 3, that’s exactly where we are. Cobra Kai becomes what it always was, and the premise of the show cannot be but undercut by this. What’s the point of it all, if in the end, we’re just fighting the same fight we’ve already won? Is Daniel gonna honk Kreese’s nose at the end of Season 4, while Johnny makes fun of Ponytail Guy (“Waaaa… WAAAAAAAA….”)?

{No, probably it’s gonna be Johnny vs. Kreese, on the karate stuff, and Daniel vs. Ponytail Guy on the business stuff. Because we spent all that really interesting time on the business struggles of LaRusso automotive. Or something.}

When you start watching something intriqued with possibilities, only to discover that, some shifts and jumps aside, new ideas don’t really exist, it kills the pleasure. So, watching the Boring Kids fight the Not-Boring Kids, largely because of Who’s Dating Who, and knowing full well that the Not-Boring Kids have to lose, because they’re being made into cartoon villains and/or the pawns of a cartoon villain, left me in absolute indifference. Miguel getting his back messed up was the only thing I didn’t see coming, and I liked it not at all. Miguel is clearly the new Daniel LaRusso, i.e. the mildly ethnic kid living on the wrong side of the tracks who’s new in town and has no dad and needs a Teacher to show him The Way. Miguel and Johnny is the most significant relationship in Cobra Kai, as Daniel and Miagi were in the movies. Miguel’s ability to apply what his sensei teaches him defines his character arc, just as it did for Daniel back in the day. Seeing him broken on the school steps is a blow to the Cobra Kai ethos, and one that, again, seemed like an undermining of the show’s very premise.

In retrospect, I can be accused of throwing the towel in before the third act. TV shows have cliffhangers for a reason. Much as I didn’t like it, the ending of Season 2 effectively created low points for Johnny and Miguel. Watching the both bounce back from those low points, struggle to reconstruct themselves, wasn’t boring to watch (not like the Okninawa Fan Service of Daniels’ arc. I started washing dishes to avoid having to listen to Mr. Miagi Letters. Is there nothing else you can do with this guy than have him pine for his dead teacher?), and both end up stronger for it. So in the end, if the actual Cobra Kai is monstrous again, the functional Cobra Kai (the new Eagle Fang dojo) becomes at the end more or less what it should be, the hungry scrappers we know and love. The hatchet between Laurence and LaRusso seems finally buried, and we can build something new, so that the younger generation doesn’t have to get caught in the wars of their elders.

A Tale of Two Nerds

The struggle to move beyond the past is best exemplified in a set of side characters who’s relationship serves as a leitmotif for the series. Eli and Demetri, two dweebs who befriend Miguel early on, get drawn into the ancestral war of Cobra Kai and Miagi-Do without either of them having any understanding of it. Eli, flinchy and timid, with a scar on his lip from cleft-palate surgery, prefers to hide in negative space, avoiding even being seen. Demetri comments on the social maelstrom around him with that affectation of urbanity that nerds put on to appear above their surroundings. Both are strategies for dealing with their low social status and regular bullying by other boys. Theirs is a long friendship, born of necessity. Miguel, by administering a whooping on the bullies in the school cafeteria, brings these two into the world of Valley Karate.

Neither of them are suited for it, at first. Eli joins Cobra Kai, recieves the nickname of Lip from Sensei Lawrence, and, practically catatonic from humiliation, is told to “flip the script” if he doesn’t like it. This isn’t mere bullying, but Hard Truth, and it works: Eli gets a mowhawk to draw attention away from his lip. Johnny approves, and henceforth, Eli is known as Hawk.

He takes the opportunity to build an entirely new identity to heart. He trains hard, gets a huge hawk-wing tatoo across his back, cheers at the All-Valley Under 18 tournament, and attention from girls for the first time in his life. The script is flipped. Cobra Kai has made a weakling into a warrior.

Of course it goes to his head. Why wouldn’t it? What 16-year-old boy has the wisdom to become suddenly powerful without at least the temptation to embrace the dark side of Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy? But other than some very mild hazing of newbies, all of Hawk’s negative actions are at least partially driven by an intense loyalty to his new clan. Cobra Kai becomes everything to him, the locus of the good. All who cross it must be made to pay, by any means necessary.

This includes Demetri, whose pseudo-intellectualized distancing is revealed as a cover for his almost unbreakable learned helplessness and social ineptitude. He’s the Kid Who Won’t Shut Up. The only time I’ve perhaps ever sympathized with John Kreese is when Demetri, wandering into Cobra Kai after hours, runs into Kreese and takes it upon himself to start critiquing the man’s war tatoos. Book Smarts has a habit of dismissing the value of Street Smarts, often in direct proportionality to the degree of intelligence, and so closes the mind off from social awareness. This is Demetri’s problem. He refuses to value anything he cannot learn in school. This makes him the most difficult of the Miagi-Do students, as he won’t stop whining about the difficulty of learning to train his body. Only by infinite patience and extreme methods does LaRusso get through to him.

The parallax of their character arcs wrecks their frienship. Hawk wants nothing to do with anything of his old life, Demetri has nothing but scorn for the new. They fight, they humiliate each other in public, they fight again. Demetri knocks Hawk into the Trophy Case during the Season 2 Finale fight. Hawk breaks Demetri’s arm in the middle of season 3. The lifelong friends are enemies, and barely better off from where they started. Hawk becomes a cartoon villain, Demetri, Miagi-Do’s mildly competent mascot. It was painful to watch.

But again, low points. The show builds both of them back up. Demetri manges to dial back on the helplessness, becomes a good soldier, even slightly cool. Eli spends the third season starting to question what he’s become, as Kreese brings in the very bullies and top-dogs that harassed him into Cobra Kai. He finds himself forced to make a choice about loyalty, and to whom he ought to give it. He makes the right choice, and solves the problem for both him and Demetri.

This relationship, removed a step from the soap-opera spasms of the ongoing LaRusso-Laurence feud (they’re not children or child-substitutes for either man, nor are they romantically involved with any such child), is one of the best things on the show, to my mind, and captures the themes of it. Hawk and Dimtry’s diverging arcs become a meditation on the subject of friendship and enmity. By what criteria do you put someone in either category? How far can you go in defining things like “in-group” and “out-group”, and how much does either matter? We might wish, like violence itself, to watsh these concepts away in a sea of Good Intentions. But that’s unlikely to succeed, because the past has its way of calling to the present. Cobra Kai works in bringing these truths to light, so whatever clownery comes in Season 4, I’ll wait for the last act.

Your Side, My Side, and the Truth

Making predictions is a good way to make a fool of yourself, and if there’s one thing Game of Thrones and How I Met Your Mother has taught me, it’s that I can’t expect to have an ending that fits what I like. But you can’t not wonder what happens next, and every now and again I’m right. So herewith, what I Think Happens Next:

  • Johnny and Daniel Become Friends. Not only has the show been pushing them together and ripping them apart over and over again, which can really only end one way, both of them need it. Daniel doesn’t seem to have many friends, and Johnny’s old Cobra Kai buddies are all distant from him in a way. They’ll head-fake us, and maybe low-key it, but it’ll happen.
  • Robby and Tory Get Redemptions. The kids, they’re kids. They’ve screwed up, but a show that makes the effort Cobra Kai does to show everybody’s side is not going to abandon them to the teachings of Kreese’s Dark Side. I have no idea how it happens, but they’ll find a way.
  • Ponytail Guy Will Cook Up Something Nefarious. Something schemey and stupid, which will involve Amanda LaRusso in some way. It will be the B Plot of the season, to be resolved concurrently with the All-Valley Tournament.
  • Samantha LaRusso Wins the All-Valley. We’ve never had a girl champ before. Miguel already won, so him winning again would be repetitive. Instinct tells me Miagi-Do gets the win this time, although Eagle Fang will do respectably well. No other Miagi-Do kid is important enough (except Demetri, who I don’t see winning), and this completes the Passing of the Torch.
  • Johnny Gets his Dojo Back. Eagle Fang takes over the strip-mall location, completing the arc. The only alternative I foresee is Johnny and Daniel combining their dojos into Eagle Tree Karate or some such. Which could happen, but I don’t know if I want to bet on it.

Who knows, though? We’ll find out at some point. Anyone who has better predictions, drop them in the box below.

Shallow & Pedantic 8 – Comic Books and Other Shenanigans

There’s probably a thousand podcasts meeting that description, but whatever. This one is ours. And we run through a host of topics, some silly, some deeply silly. And we go on for the length of a Bible on them.

I’m using the YouTube embed because WordPress is being every more exponentially garbage at embedding what Spreaker gives me. WordPress’ Podcast Player block refuses to embed my RSS url, and for some reason known only to God the episode permalink, a hack which worked just fine last month, will not embed now. The lengths to which WordPress is willing to go to hobble embeds for paying customers feels like emotional abuse. I’m not going to pay another $300 for your Business Plan so I can have plugins just so things that aren’t YouTube embed normally, WordPress. You can go pound sand.

Merry Christmas.

Movies are Short Stories, TV Shows are Novels

This is going to seem counterintuitive, but it’s true.

A “Feature Length” film is one 60 minutes or longer, according to the Screen Actor’s Guild. Most movies are somewhere between 80-120 minutes, although some popular films, such as nearly all the Star Wars movies, are longer (The Last Jedi, the longest one, is 152 minutes, or 2 hours and 32 minutes).

So to watch a movie is to take 1-3 hourse out of your day. And that’s usually done in one sitting. Very rarely do you watch a movie, stop halfway through, and then finish the rest later. Halfway through a movie, you’re usually invested in the story, and want to watch the rest. Movies are dense, quick-structured, A-B-C storytelling. They have to be to get you to sit through them.

Short stories, are stories less than 7,500 words. That is a quick read, giving an author not very much time to:

  • Establish setting
  • Establish character
  • Establish conflict
  • Build conflict
  • Resolve Conflict

Hence, short stories are dense, leaving as much unsaid as said, and stripping everything down to the meat. There is no more description, dialogue, or anything else, than their needs to be. Raymond Carver is the exemplar of the form for this reason.

Hence, these are the forms of efficiency. You strap in and you take the ride. You expect the story to reward your attention with immediate payoff. Movies are short stories.

TV Shows, on the other hand, are episodic. An Episode is a self-contained story that takes place within a larger context. Each successive episode reveals more about the characters, because the pressure of writing demands it. Even a TV show that intends to repeat a situation ad infinitum – a “situation comedy”, for example – finds that in cannot. Each episode adds to the character.

In times past, this growth was largely incidental, a process of creating new scenarios for the characters each week. This had more in common with the old penny dreadfuls, in which new chapters were published each week, and writers paid by the word, increasing the incentive to drag out the story and add new characters. TV Shows are kept on the air until their audience starts to leave, then they are given a hurried ending that most people find unsatisfying. See everything I’ve written about How I Met Your Mother for further elucidation.

So the production of TV shows still leads to dragging plots out, but the rise of “prestige” dramas and “concept” comedies yields the concept of an overall arc over a show or a season. The whole of a TV program can now tell one long story, and the episodes are mere chapters. The advent of streaming, and therefore binge-watching, a show, correlates to this phenomenon.

The best way to think of something like Breaking Bad or Maniac is as a visual novel. The problem with this metaphor is that, unlike modern novels produced and sold as a discreet unit, TV shows are ordered by-season. This is a function of cost. A book publisher is willing to take the risk on a print run, because that’s peanuts compared to funding the batallion necessary to produce a TV show. Hence, while a novel is always finished, a TV show will only continue so long as it maintains an audience. There’s a tension between immediacy and narrative built right into the structure.

This explains the aforementioned habit of TV Shows to screw up their finales. Most of the time, as with Seinfeld, a show has nothing particular to say, and so a finale is simply a process of saying good-bye. But when there’s a concept, an overall narrative and arc, the need to give an ending reflecting an audience’s emotional commitment becomes paramount. But it’s impossible to give proper attention to everything, and the longer a show goes on, the more true this becomes. This is why the last season of Game of Thrones felt so rushed, why fans left it so unsatisfied (The tendency to gloss over realities from the published world of the books did not help). There were so many threads left hanging, so many interesting things that they could have done, but which were not.

Thus, my current mood with regard to TV shows. I’m more in a movie mood, so I can enjoy narratives properly built and executed, rather than meandering their way and then getting cut off like a sausage. I’ve born disappointments enough from the attempts to transcend the structure.

I’m Not the Only One Who Didn’t Like Mindhunter Season 2

“Mindhunter” is going on ice at Netflix. Variety has confirmed that the show’s cast members have been released from their contracts. The streamer is not ruling out a third season of the series, however, depending on executive producer David Fincher’s schedule. Fincher is currently working on directing the Netflix film “Mank” as well as executive…

via ‘Mindhunter’ Cast Released From Contracts, Season 3 Put on Hold — Variety

Womp womp.

A link to my Quick Review.

Quick Review: El Camino

breaking-bad-llega-a-la-pelicula-el-camino-en-octubre-en-netflix

On paper, this is the sort of thing I should hate: an unnecessary exploitation of an excellent TV show several years after the fact, by a streaming service that just happens to still have the original on its platform. And far from being a movie, it’s really just a feature-length epilogue of the show. You can’t just watch El Camino unless you’re familiar with Breaking Bad, and as that show finished a while ago, you’d be better off rewatching at least the final season, and probably the whole damn thing. It’s almost shameless, really.

However, I don’t hate it, because:

  • Jesse’s Epilogue is a Bit of A Loose End. Last we see of him, he’s free of the prison the Okies had him in, and he’s free of Walter White. And while Breaking Bad was always primarily Walt’s story, as the seasons went on Jesse’s place in it as the Suffering Son of Heisenberg became the true balance to that. Seeing that closure is a good thing.
  • It has all the charms of the show. The visual style and pacing, the storytelling, they’re all here, and they’re nicely focused on the character we most want to see make out well.
  • It Gives us the Balance we need. Walter White’s story was always going to end a certain way, and it did, which is why Breaking Bad is the only “prestige” show of this century to retain its status as time goes on. Unlike it’s network-mate Mad Men, it finished with a climax, rather than a dull slinking away, and unlike Game of Thrones, its final season and episode gave the audience a capstone on the whole arc of the story. But it was a dark story, told darkly. Jesse’s escape from that darkness into a chance at redemption and grace is a needed counterpoint.
  • It’s Fun. The story is as I said, focused, and it moves with nice bits of action and intrigue. It’s the world Jesse knows, the dog-eat-dog of betrayal and gamesmanship, so there isn’t much of the moral degradation that Walt’s story entailed. Rather, it’s him fighting the world that has almost devoured him, and having a bit of revenge along the way.

So while it’s not the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen on Netflix, it served its Hail and Farewell admirably. It was worth the series rewatch.

Of Snobbery and Boredom

A thought about my most recent review:

I don’t tend to like things unless they stand out from the herd. Call that elitism, call it snobbery; I don’t care. I can’t pretend to like things I don’t like.

One thing I feel obligated to point out is that I detest snobbery. Snobbery is close-minded, passive bullying. Snobbery is adopting a categorical rule that X kind of story, told by Y kind of people, cannot possibly be good. It is a sweeping (possibly hasty) generalization, a fallacy of relevance.

That line about not liking things unless they stand out from the herd sounds snobby as hell, but I dont’ really mean it like that. I’m not holding myself above the Great Unwashed and their low-brow tastes. I’m fine with common tastes and basic stuff. They can be a positive tonic.

What I mean by that is I get bored of seeing the same kind of stories over and over. Everyone likes to dump on Hallmark movies this time of year for their cookie-cutter plots, but the truth is almost every genre has tropes that it regularly employs. This is true of so-called “Prestige Television” as well. No one who sat through the Game of Thrones finale could have escaped how obligatory that ending felt.

Certain kinds of stories appeal to me more than others. That’s personal taste. What snobs do is conflate their personal taste with universal aesthetic truths. A story may not interest me, but it would be wrong to say that a story is bad because I’m not interested in it.

So you should never take my grumbles about Nothing to See at the Theater as serious aesthetic judgements. That’s just me being bored, and venting spleen accordingly. 80% of all my prejudices are “Good Lord, this again…” That doesn’t prevent me from overcoming it.

Quick Review: Stranger Things 3

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Stranger Things is starting not to get the 80’s right.

Probably it never did. Nostalgia coasts on dusting off old images, making people say “Hey, remember this!” and that’s only fun if it’s in the brightest possible colors. So much of the charm of Stranger Things lay in seeing boys riding around on bicycles, unattended, just like they used to (What about Elle? She didn’t ride a bike. Max doesn’t either; she’s a sk8er grrl).

But one of the things that occured to me with this new season was how *clean* everything looked. And the fact that I noticed it is suggestive.

Folks, the 80’s were dirty. People didn’t care that much about littering, nor about drunk driving. A street that didn’t have broken beer bottles on the side of it was a street that hadn’t been built.

Also, nobody in the 80’s talked about Soviets as being “enemies of the state”, especially not radical journalists. The 80’s weren’t the 50’s. Yeah, the Cold War was an ongoing thing, but we’d all gotten used to it. We were tired of it and wanted it to be over. Not that we suddenly liked the Soviets or disliked Reagan (whose landslide 1984 re-election took place within the timeline of Season 2), we just settled into it as being normal. If anyone found a nerdy Russian in Indiana who wanted to go to a County Fair, we would have bought him all the cherry slurpees he wanted. The 80’s were the great age of Yakoff Smirnoff. That said, I’m glad the show didn’t make the Russians the secret good guys, which I kind of expected during the first episode.

As for the plot: I liked it better than Season 2, which really felt like Season 1.5. Granted, the bad guy was the same, but the approach of it was different. And creepily so: a monster dissolving it’s mind-controlled victims into puddles of flesh that it then draws into itself. The merely Lovecraft-derived Demogorgons and Demodogs from the previous seasons look almost adorable by comparison. Elle finally became an actual character rather than a victim/plot device, and they nerfed her at the climax to underscore this. And they did something useful with Billy other than make him the new Steve Harrington. On the whole, I’m fine with it.

Let’s hope they stop after Season 4.

HBO’s Chernobyl is Misery Porn, and Therefore Largely Inaccurate

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Entrance to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. By Slawojar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

In retrospect, both of the statements in this headline invite a “duh” response. HBO’s current stock-in-trade is prestige TV series, and it’s been apparent since the second season of True Detective that prestige television is an exercise in miserabilism. Nothing good can happen and everyone of value has to die or lose what they love unless they’ve tacked up enough suffering points (looking at you, Sansa Stark) to trade in for a happy ending. It has become its own set of tropes.
And of course, when real life gets shoved into a TV script, the exercise of creating a narrative for audiences to follow will simplify a lot of the messiness of actual truth. That’s completely understandable and not worth commenting on. But when a show deliberately ramps up the misery, and evades truth to do so, that deserves notice.

There is no good evidence that Chernobyl radiation killed a baby nor that it caused any increase in birth defects.

“We’ve now had a chance to observe all the children that have been born close to Chernobyl,” reported UCLA physician Robert Gale in 1987, and “none of them, at birth, at least, has had any detectable abnormalities.”

Indeed, the only public health impact beyond the deaths of the first responders was 20,000 documented cases of thyroid cancer in those aged under 18 at the time of the accident.

The United Nations in 2017 concluded that only 25%, 5,000, can be attributed to Chernobyl radiation (paragraphs A-C). In earlier studies, the UN estimated there could be up to 16,000 cases attributable to Chernobyl radiation.

Since thyroid cancer has a mortality rate of just one percent, that means the expected deaths from thyroid cancers caused by Chernobyl will be 50 to 160 over an 80-year lifespan.

It’s worse than that. Did you know that 80% of the Chernobyl first-responders who suffered from Acute Radiation Syndrome survived? That seems like a really high number, so the link goes to the official report where the numbers are from. You can see for yourself.

Better yet, read this interview with the Soviet general in charge of the containment operation for his take on the show. He’s kind of okay with it, but finds a lot of it baffling, particularly the image of teenage conscripts shooting pets in suburban areas.

Tarakanov: There’s this episode [in the HBO series], it’s is an ugly one. They show this boy, a conscript arriving at the military compound. What comes next is just ridiculous. They give him a uniform and moments later they are teaching him how to shoot animals. I mean, that’s just silly. Nothing even close to that ever happened. This is one serious mistake.

RTD: Are you saying they never executed animals, like they show in the episode?

Tarakanov: No, they did, but never in the residential area. In the residential parts, there were no cows, no dogs – not a single one. The shooting did take place, but it was in the forests, where wild animals still roamed, including deer, as well as cattle that wandered off after the evacuation. But to show this young boy, recently drafted, being given all this equipment straight away [is just absurd].

The way it actually happened was pretty simple. The government issued a decree announcing general mobilization. They were supposed to call in 20,000 reservists, as they were called, from, say, Moscow and elsewhere… Those were all men of conscription age, between 30 and 40, mostly.

To ask the question of why this change was made is to answer it. The emotional impact of seeing a young boy being ordered to shoot animals next to what was a family home is much greater than a 30-year-old man shooting a deer in the forest. We need that emotional impact. We need that gut-punch. That’s why people watch something like Chernobyl, and that’s why HBO makes it.

It’s a high-brow soap-opera, aspiring to be Aeschylus. In the process, actual humans are turned into props, puppets, and beasts. There’s a segment of society that feels its worldview pandered to thereby.

What Came to me Watching Last Week’s Game of Thrones

Anger be now your song, immortal one

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous

that caused the Akaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men– carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

-The Iliad

Below the fold, the climactic scene in the episode, with Black Sabbath in the background. Obviously, *SPOILERS*. This has also been done with AC/DC, and Metallica, but I like this way better. And seriously, this stuff is R-Rated; it’s incredibly violent.

And Now, Idiots Write Stupid Things About Game of Thrones

This post, which is full of SPOILERS, has been inspired by Ace dumping all over the doubleplus goodthinker who’s mad about the ethnicities of the fictional characters who took it in the shorts in the recent battle with the hordes of undead zombies in front of Winterfell.

It’s literally: “Zombie Apocalypse, Immigrants Hardest Hit”

I guess all those pasty wildlings who died at Hardhome don’t count. Whatever.

{Also, if you want to tout the virtues of immigrants, maybe DON’T connect them in people’s minds a violent horde of pseudo-Mongol cavalrymen who love murder and rape.}

Also, I’m thinking of the brainiac who had to mount the soapbox because no one gave Melisandre the “redemption” that Theon Greyjoy got (and of course takes the opportunity to shoehorn in something about Brett Kavanaugh, because he’s the Villain of the Year). This sort of nonsense is largely self-refuting, because in no way has Melisandre been as central to the story as Theon has. His entire arc of fall, punishment, escape, and redemption has been connected to the main plot and a massive fan favorite. Melisandre has always been a character half-off screen, representing forces larger than herself. It was those forces that gave her the power to do dark and terrible things, and those forces that made her the enemy of the Night. Davos watching her collapse into nothing, her race run, her battle won, was not the obvious Stark-forgives-Theon redemption, but it was something deeper. It was a kind of grace.

Not that I’d expect a dim ideologue to understand that, or if she did, acknowledge it. Her purpose is not to consider such nuance, but to blurp out screaming clickbait and turn everything into a reflection of her religion ideology by ham and by fist. So really, these first two aren’t that bad. They’re obvious and predictable and so far off-base from the show they’re ostensibly critiquing that they aren’t even wrong.

No, I’m talking about the rest of you.

The fans.

The ones who, 8 seasons in, are still SURPRISED when this show doesn’t do what you think it will do.

The ones who are mad at the way the Battle of Winterfell turned out, because in your head it was going to go a completely different way. Because in your head, you had it all figured out. Just like you totally saw the execution of Ned Stark, the rebirth of dragons, the Red and Purple Weddings, Tyrion’s Trial, and everything else coming. Yup. So transparent, this show is.

The Game of Thrones subreddit is full of whining salty tears because the WHOLE SEASON IS RUINED NOW. That whole plot was The Plot. That Villain was T*H*E Villain. It was *SO* obvious, you guys.

And yet, it isn’t. And yet, something else is happening.

When the story is over, you can critique structure, methods, character and purpose. But the story is the story. The Night King is dead because that’s the story in the hands of the showrunners. And it’s folly to complain about what happens in the books because a) the show has been deviating from the books for several seasons, and b) the books are unfinished, and likely to remain so for some time. So any expectations built off of the books are doubly irrelevant. The show is speedrunning to its own conclusion.

And of course, reserve the right to be disappointed by that ending when it does come. Reserve the right to critique everything once we have a complete saga. That’s legitimate. What’s not legitimate is confusing the show as it exists with the one you’re imagining in your head.