A book & a movie: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

It’s the classic tug-of-war: Book or Movie?

In the case of To All the Boys I’ve Love Before, why not enjoy both? That’s what I did this past week!

I watched the Netflix movie last weekend. Here’s the synopsis (via IMDb):

When her secret love letters somehow get mailed to each of her five crushes, Lara Jean finds her quiet high school existence turned upside down.

Okay, that doesn’t really tell us all that much.

The movie is super adorable. 16-year-old Lara Jean, a high school junior, lives at home with her widowed dad and her two sisters — but older sister Margot’s departure for college in Scotland throws the normal family routines out of whack. Lara Jean is missing Margot… and then somehow, her old love letters to five different crushes from her past end up in the boys’ hands, and things get rom-com cute and chaotic.

But what about the book? After watching the movie, I decided I needed to read the book — ya know, just for comparison’s sake. The book, by Jenny Han, is sweet and quirky (kind of like Lara Jean!). Here’s the book synopsis, from Goodreads:

What if all the crushes you ever had found out how you felt about them… all at once?

Sixteen-year-old Lara Jean Song keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her; these are ones she’s written. One for every boy she’s ever loved—five in all. When she writes, she pours out her heart and soul and says all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only. Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly, Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control.

In both versions, the main boys on Lara Jean’s very confused mind are Josh, the boy next door and Margot’s ex-boyfriend, and Peter Kavinsky, the super popular guy who once kissed Lara Jean back in middle school. Josh is blown away by Lara Jean’s letter confessing feelings for him, and Peter is trying to deal with a break-up from his long-term girlfriend, so Lara Jean and Peter end up as fake boyfriend and girlfriend, just to get everyone off their backs. Yes, the fake relationship plot has been around for a while, but To All the Boys manages to keep it fresh and fun.

The movie version is a great way to enjoy the full story without a whole lot of time invested, and the cast is pretty terrific. I have a definite weakness for John Corbett, who plays the dad (which gives you a good idea of my demographic, btw), but I appreciated the young’uns who make up the teen characters’ part of the cast.

I was a little confused, watching the movie, by the ethnicity of the sisters. According to the book, Lara Jean and her sisters are biracial, with a Korean mom and a white dad. The TV sisters appear to be from different ethnic backgrounds, which I kept thinking the movie might explain (are they adopted? I hadn’t read the book yet when I watched it). To complicate matters further, according to IMDb, the actress playing Lara Jean is of Vietnamese descent, and the actress playing Margot is of Chinese descent. No info on the younger sister (who, based just on looks, doesn’t appear to be Asian), but I thought it was odd casting to pick three girls who look nothing alike and then just ignore their diverse backgrounds. Sorry, I’m not trying to be offensive here, but not being familiar with the story beforehand, I was distracted by how distinctly un-related the sisters looked, and it took me a while to realize that the movie was just going to leave it all unacknowledged. Weird to get hung up on that, I know, but there it is.

The movie advances the plot a bit further than the book — the book leaves the ending on an open note. We know (and Lara Jean finally knows) how she feels, but not what the outcome will be. The movie has a suitably romantic and adorable ending… but since the book is the first in a trilogy, I assume we’ll get there in book #2.

Of course, I’m now a little worried about how there can be two more books’ worth of story left to tell, because the movie ending was pretty perfect and swoony. Now I’m anxious about what comes after that happy ending, and what direction books 2 and 3 might take the characters in.

So, which did I like more — book or movie? Hard to say! I’m glad I watched the movie first (which is definitely unusual for me). It strikes all the right notes, condensing teen worry, flirtation, hard family issues, mean girls, fitting in, first crushes, and the rush of first love, into a (less than) two hour experience that feels fun, fresh, and totally satisfying. If you need a quick mood boost, this is perfect (maybe with a mug of hot cocoa and some delicious cookies to go with). I liked the book a lot, especially the deeper look into the relationships between Margot, Lara Jean, and younger sister Kitty, and I’m glad I read it — but even if I hadn’t, the movie hits all the right beats and feels complete in and of itself.

So yeah, I say do both! Watch the movie, read the book… and as for me, I’m already moving on to book #2, PS I Still Love You… hoping there’s plenty more quirky romance and sisterly shenanigans in store!

The delights of summer TV: Sparkling nails, warring brothels, and a severed leg

It’s summer! Whatcha watching?

I’m having oodles of fun binge-watching TV… and I’m totally in love with three shows that are ridiculously fun.

First up: Claws on TNT

You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the glory of Desna, the nail salon owner turned money launderer turned Dixie Mafia kingpin (queenpin)… who always looks completely fabulous, whether sitting poolside or driving her Maserati or breaking into a drug-smuggling warehouse. The show’s true heart is the nail salon and the friendship of the women who work there with Desna. They’re hilarious, ridiculous, outrageous, over the top, and also, surprisingly moving.

Desna got into a life of crime reluctantly, needing a way to support her autistic brother and working toward her dream of establishing a more upscale salon. Pill-pushing clinics, gun-toting criminals, and plain bad luck have gotten in her way, but I keep rooting for Desna to free herself from all the crazy criminal shenanigans and get back to that amazing nail art.

I absolutely did not expect that this would be a show for me, but after much prodding from a couple of co-workers, I gave it a try, and I was hooked. You can’t take it seriously, but if you want escapist summer fun, Claws is top of the list.

 

And then there’s my more recent discovery: Harlots on Hulu

Yes, it’s about harlots. 18th century London prostitutes, two competing madams bitterly at war with one another, the “culls” (customers) who frequent the brothels, and the overall rotten condition of being a woman at a time when women had no power over their own lives. The show is written, directed, and produced by women, and it shows: The emphasis is not on bodies and sex, but on the women characters’ minds, desires, frustrations, and yearnings. It shows the limited options women had to control their own lives, and paints a pretty grim picture of what sex workers experience each day.

And yet, it’s a remarkably fun and entertaining show! Visually, Harlots is a treat. We alternate between seeing the mucky streets and filthy dress hems with ogling the gowns and wigs of the upper class (and the brothels that cater to the rich and noble). Oh, those wigs! Can we talk about the wigs for a minute? Powdered, sky-high, utterly glorious… between the wigs and the costumes, this show is just a feast for the eyes. Add in a compelling plot and terrific acting, and you’ve got some idea of why I’m obsessing over this show right now.

 

Finally, I’m loving the hell out of C B Strike on Cinemax:

And this is where the severed leg comes in.

C B Strike is a TV show that crept in while I wasn’t looking! I’d heard that a TV adaptation of the J. K. Rowling (Robert Galbraith) detective series was in the works, but had no idea it had been completed and released already! Three seasons are all available on Cinemax, each season covering the plot of one of the three books in the series. Season 1 is The Cuckoo’s Calling (murdered model), shown in 3 episodes. Seasons 2 and 3 are two episodes each, covering The Silkworm (murdered writer) and Career of Evil (body parts by special delivery). All are excellent, in large part because of the two excellent actors in the lead roles of Cormoran and Robin. They have great chemistry, and Cormoran especially is just what I imagined from the books.

The plots of the books are really dense and packed with detail, so the pacing of the TV series took a bit of getting used to. They manage to squeeze in enough to make the storie make sense without getting bogged down. It actually amazes me that they were able to condense the plot threads and clues enough to work in so few episodes — but the show is definitely a success.

Added bonus: It has been a while since I read Career of Evil, but now I’m back up to speed and completely ready to continue reading about Cormoran and Robin when book #4, Lethal White, comes out this fall!

 

Those are my top three… but I’m also really excited about the new season of Killjoys, and plan to dive into Castle Rock this week too.

What are you watching this summer?

A weekend pick-me-up, courtesy of CXG

How much depressing, horrifying, loathsome news can we take in one week? My morning routine has now become “read the paper to see what terrible new things our so-called-leader has said since yesterday”.

Don’t we all need a break? Don’t we all need a reason to smile, laugh, be a little gleeful?

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of my favorite TV goodies, and while the show actually takes on serious issues, its musical numbers never leave me less than delighted. Just in time to disrupt my down mood last night, along came another new episode with TWO terrific songs that made me LOL. For realz.

For your viewing and listening please, just in case you need a mood boost too:

Without Love, You Can Save the World:

 

Fit Hot Guys Have Problems Too:

 

You’re welcome!

TV Time: What’s Lisa watching? Some random thoughts on a season of Survivor.

And that’s a wrap on another season of Survivor!

I first watched Survivor way back when, season 1, when it was something new and really different. I stuck with it for a season or two, then moved on to other things. A few years ago, it occurred to me that it might be a fun show to watch with my preteen boy — I figured he’d like the challenges, the physical hardship around food and shelter, and the strategizing among players to — as the saying goes — outwit, outplay, and outlast.

We first tuned in together for Survivor: One World back in 2012, which was season 24 of the show. And here we are, five years later, and we’re still watching! Season 35 just aired its finale this week, and while we thought the season had a pretty lackluster start, by the end we were glued to the TV. There may have been some jumping up and down at  certain points. Maybe even a hug or two. The kiddo and I will never tell

I’m not going to write a recap of the season — you can find plenty of those out there all over the internet. I just thought I’d share some thoughts and reactions… which probably won’t mean much to people who don’t watch the show, but here goes anyway.

I’m not into the “themed” seasons very much. The Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers gimmick is just that — a gimmick. It’s a way to divide people into tribes, but had no real bearing on people’s game play or strategies. So the Heroes included a marine vet and a firefighter, the healers had a urologist (whom everyone refered to as the Sex Doctor) and… well, I honestly couldn’t tell you. There was a lifeguard or two — were they healers? heroes? hustlers? No clue. The team distinctions are pretty blurry, and later in the game when the players talk about needing to take out the remaining members of the Healer tribe, my mind was blank — who are they talking about again? Unless the show constantly shows subtitles identifying people by tribe, it’s just confusing.

The cast of season 35

Personalities matter. For the first half of the season or so, my son and I consistently felt that there weren’t enough stand-out personalities to make things interesting. The interactions among tribe members were rather bland, and no one seemed to really have a great grasp on strategy or gameplay. It wasn’t until mid-season that some players started really coming out of their shells and becoming people to cheer for. I feel like Survivor tries too hard to fit “types” — we need a nerdy guy, so insert Ryan. We need an assertive, brainy woman — insert Chrissy. We need a surfer bro — insert Devon. We need an unpredictable tough guy — insert Joe. I’m not saying that’s all there is to these people, but just that casting likes to play up certain stories, and based on the edited show, that tends to be what we get.

My favorites tend not to last. Two big blows for me in terms of enjoyment watching the game were the eliminations of Lauren and Joe. Lauren, a fisherman according to the show, is a tough, laconic woman who isn’t flashy, but who slowly started showing more and more smarts and ability. I liked her gameplay approach, her practicality, and her down-to earth-ness. Joe is just a hoot, a parole officer whose gameplay seems modeled on winner Tony from a few seasons back. Joe is funny and out there and not afraid to be a little crazy. He sure was fun to watch, and when he got voted off, the show lost a lot of its entertainment value.

There are too many puzzle challenges. The puzzles have bugged me for a while now. No matter the challenge’s physical components — swimming, running, balancing, shoving big heavy objects through small spaces — too many of these end with a puzzle, and it’s always the puzzle that decides the outcome. It doesn’t end up mattering how far behind someone is on the physical part — they can always catch up on the puzzle. The problem here is that by the back half of the season when the competitions are individual rather than team-based, one person skilled at puzzle-solving can dominate every challenge. That certainly happened this season. Chrissy was the only one left in the final 8 or so who had an eye for puzzles, and there was just no real shot for anyone else. It becomes a foregone conclusion before the challenge even starts: There’s a puzzle at the end, so Chrissy will win. And she did.

Here’s a suggestion for the Survivor powers-that-be: Only include puzzles in challenges prior to the merge, when the challenges are all team efforts. That way, it’s up to the team to assign puzzle solvers, and the win is more dependent on teamwork and strategy that on one person’s particular talents. I mean, come on — for this one, not a single person other than Chrissy had the slightest clue, and it was ridiculous.

People who don’t look for idols have only themselves to blame. Ben was on the bottom for the last several weeks of episodes. His alliance was gone. He was seen as a huge threat by everyone else left in the game. He was the #1 target for elimination, and no one wanted to work with him. So Ben did what he needed to do to save himself — he hunted for hidden immunity idols night and day, and he found them. And everyone else kept saying, well, there’s no way he’ll find another one. But he did. And they all just sat around camp and talked about needing to get Ben out, or else just had a good night’s sleep. Meanwhile, Ben found an idol every time he needed to. That, to me, is excellent Survivor. He had no shot at an alliance or talking people into saving him, so he saved himself, time and time again. Kudos to Ben. For the others, it’s your own damned fault for not following him around or finding idols yourselves!

It’s a game; it’s not personal. I get sick of hearing about “bitter jury syndrome”, and I have no respect for players who make decisions based on emotion. And this is why I wasn’t rooting for Chrissy to win. Too many times, she pushed a play on her team because she felt personally betrayed by someone, rather than for strategic reasons. I have news for y’all — the game is about betrayal. People who don’t ever go against their alliances or switch sides don’t win. Blindsides are what move people ahead in the game, and to pull off a blindside, there’s betrayal involved. Alliances are crucial to keeping yourself safe, but knowing when to break from the crowd and make your own moves is what wins the million dollars. People who base their votes on personal likes or dislikes are not the best players. I hate hearing players saying that they need to get rid of so-and-so next because they’re too annoying or they can’t stand having them around camp anymore. That’s not strategy, and it often leads to illogical moves. And as for the bitter jury thing — people who are voted out should be able to leave their grudges at Tribal, and cast their votes based on good game play, even if that game play is what led to their own ousters.

Now THIS is a challenge. Watching people cling to poles just never gets old.

Personal history is important, but shouldn’t affect the votes. This is a tough one. When someone waits until Tribal to pull out the sob story, as touching as it may be, it always feels like a cheap play for sympathy votes to me. And sympathy votes should have nothing to do with determining the winner of Survivor. It’s a fine line, though. If someone is truly dealing with something emotional or difficult back home, and it affects their game play, then yes, it is relevant to an extent. I guess I just don’t like it when a player keeps the big news a secret all season and then drops a truth-bomb at Tribal for maximum impact. And this is yet another reason why I support Ben as this season’s winner. All along, he was upfront about his PTSD stemming from his combat service. He clearly was carrying an emotional burden with him that affected him day in and day out, including during all his days playing Survivor. Ben’s PTSD had a real impact on how he played the game and his ability to connect with his teammates. He was criticized for his social game, but I think he did a great job of overcoming his own obstacles. So in this case, the “sob story” at Tribal was real and relevant, and should (and probably did) have an impact on how the jury assessed his overall game play.

Social game is kind of a myth. Look, some people are smooth talkers, and some aren’t. What does a social game mean? Is it about forming real friendships? Is it about getting others to trust you? Is it about being able to talk people into doing what you want? Chrissy was praised for having a good social game, and maybe that’s true. But let’s pause for a moment and remember that she works in the corporate world as a financial analyst. She has to be able to think on her feet, to give presentations, to be persuasive. How does that compare to people who don’t work in that environment? Yes, she was much more articulate and polished in her speech at the final Tribal, but I don’t necessarily give her points for that. Ben is coming from a really different set of circumstances, and I think he did great… just differently.

The final 5.

Okay, by now it’s clear that I was rooting for Ben, so it’ll come as no surprise that I loved the final twist. Instead of having the person from the final four who wins the last immunity challenge have all the power in determining who makes the final three, the producers threw in a twist: The immunity winner picks one person to go to final three, and the remaining two have a fire-making challenge, with the winner moving on to the final three. Awesome. It gets frustrating as a viewer to see great players eliminated right before the finals because the other players know they’d never beat them. I like the element of chance, and that the determination of the final three doesn’t rest in one person’s hands. This is causing a lot of controversy, and I’m seeing a lot of complaints out there that the producers “rigged” the game so Ben would make it to the finals… but they announced the twist in advance, and Devon had just as much of a shot as Ben. It kept things exciting, and ultimately, I do believe that the best player won the game. So there!

Other random thoughts:

  • I think the players’ facial expressions whenever Jeff tells them about food rewards is hilarious. Are they coached? Do they all really get that ecstatic over the idea of chicken or pizza or cookies? I know they’re hungry, but it’s always so over the top. We crack up every time.
  • There’s a lot of talk about people getting a “winner’s edit”, and it’s really true. The production team films 24/7, and I know they need to craft the footage into one-hour episodes, but it gets so obvious after a while from the edits who the likely winner and contenders are going to be. Maybe vague it up a bit going forward?
  • Also, it makes us laugh every time a contestant says “I’m in control of the game” or “There’s no way I’m going home today”. Sure sign that that person is going home!
  • Why do all the women wear bikinis? Are they required to? Why do guys walk around in their underwear? No one wants to see that!
  • In earlier seasons, they used to talk about luxury items. Do players still get luxury items? Are there set grooming items they’re allowed to have? Inquiring minds want to know.
  • What was up with the bandage on Ben’s shoulder all season? Was it to cover up a tattoo? Was it an injury? See above re inquiring minds.
  • Why don’t all players know how to make fire? Should be basic preparation before going on the show, right? Practice making fire, using a machete, making sure you can swim… maybe do puzzles every day?

That’s it for my random Survivor thoughts! Despite my initial doubts about this season, by the end, it was really a good time. An added bonus for me is the time spent with my 15-year-old watching the show and discussing strategy the day after each episode. Entertainment and family bonding all in one!

For anyone who watches, what did you think of this season? Did you think the right person won? Hit me up in the comments!

TV Time: What’s Lisa watching?

It’s fall TV season! So much goodness. So much to watch. So few hours in the day.

I thought I’d do a quick round-up of what I’m loving right now:

Outlander. Obviously. In case you couldn’t guess from my approximately 5 billion previous mentions, I’m a fan, and I’m in heaven now that we’re “in season”. Except for the fact that there’s no new episode this week, but that will make next week’s super-sized episode even sweeter, right?

 

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is back! Season 3 started this past Friday night. If you ever need something to make you giggle in all sorts of slightly inappropriate ways, here’s a show for you. Here’s one of the two new musical numbers from this week’s episode:

 

In sadder news, one of the hidden gems of cable TV is saying good-bye this weekend after four hilarious, touching, and on-point seasons. Farewell, Survivor’s Remorse! A show that’s been consistently funny, often uncomfortable, with a mix of humor and food for thought that’s never lazy, and certainly never fails to entertain.

 

And then we have a show all about people riding horses fast along seaside cliffs. Kidding, kind of. Poldark! It’s season 3, and the story is still totally engrossing, and the scenery and people are as gorgeous as ever.

 

Can’t forget about my most recent obsession, the show that has me counting the days until season 8 premieres on October 22nd. The Walking Dead returns… and it’s time for All Out War.

 

And finally, there’s The Good Place, which is just consistently funny and surprising and utterly enjoyable. The 2nd season is off to a great start!

 

Yes, there are a bunch of other shows I have a more casual relationship with — I watch, I enjoy, but they don’t rule my waking thoughts the way my favorites do. Other stuff I’m enjoying right now:

  • Speechless
  • Will & Grace (kind of — fun so far, but verging on feeling a little tired)
  • Adam Ruins Everything — something to enjoy with my son (I wrote about it last year, here)
  • Blackish — I haven’t watched consistently from the beginning, so I’m working on catching up
  • Grace & Frankie — in my free moments, I’ve been trying to pick up episodes here and there. I like! Just haven’t had time to truly binge.

**Updated to add: As soon as I hit “publish”, I realized that I left out This Is Us, which I love and which continues to be excellent. My bad.**

What are you watching this fall? What are you most excited for?

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Dramatic plot vs. happily-ever-after: The perils of emotional investment

Fear. Anxiety. Dread.

And it’s all the fault of fictional characters.

I have a tendency to binge when I get into something new, TV or books, and then — oh my stars — it’s so hard to separate. Because what happens when you fall in love with characters, but then have to witness them going through hell? All I want to do is scoop them up and keep them safe, but that’s not the way good stories work.

Clearly, I have a problem.

Take my newest obsession, The Walking Dead. Yes, I am super late to the party, but thanks to finally getting Netflix (again, super late to the party), I’ve been indulging. I started The Walking Dead, season 1 episode 1, in mid-May, and apart from a couple of weeks while I was out of town, have been watching the series straight through. So here I am, a month and a half later, slightly past the middle of season 6, and while I can’t wait to see what happens next, part of me wants to just walk away.

[SPOILERS AHEAD! FOR EPISODES THAT AIRED OVER A YEAR AGO, BUT STILL — SPOILERS!]

I’m at a place in the story where, as usual, the characters’ lives were hanging by a thread. Their supposedly safe haven, where they can finally build a life for themselves and plan for the future, has been overrun by hordes of the undead. All seems doomed, but finally, there’s this totally awesome battle scene (truly, a thing of beauty), and the good guys win! What follows is one of the most chill episodes ever, taking place a few weeks later, where everyone is safe again, rebuilding, relaxing, and starting to make things better.

Guys, they’re smiling! Rick and Daryl are out on a supply run and it’s actually funny! There’s even a sexy, romantic scene! (No, not Rick and Daryl.)

Man, I’m loving this show. I adore Rick Grimes. I want to cuddle Daryl Dixon (after a good bath, maybe). Carl is the cutest. Michonne is a total bad-ass with a heart of gold. And this is where my over-investment comes into play.

Because part of me wants to turn off the TV, pretend that’s the last episode, and walk away. Because then THEY’D ALL LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER. And I wouldn’t have to watch all these people I love get tortured again and again. No going hungry. No machete-ing walkers through the brain. No fighting off evil human attackers.

Imagine the possibilities, though, if everyone got to stay happy. The Walking Dead could become a sitcom, with charming little conflicts — uh oh! Craziness ensues when Carol’s favorite knife goes missing! Little Judith’s first word is “walker”, and it’s adorable! Abraham runs a fitness class, and Eugene is his best student! And don’t get me started on Rick Grimes and all the possibilities for him as the cool dad whose teenage son has an attitude.

Anyway…

This can’t be, obviously. Dramatic tension is necessary for good storytelling. If everyone on The Walking Dead remained safe in Alexandria behind secure walls, with enough food and medical equipment to lead healthy, safe lives, the story would be over. It’s wonderful for the characters, of course, but there would be nothing further to keep the show going.

Likewise in books. Let’s take my favorite series, Outlander (duh). These characters never get a break. Yes, there are plenty of happy moments, and plenty of swoonworthy scenes of Claire and Jamie basking in each others’ arms after a blissful night of lovemaking… but things just never go well for long. These folks are in the middle of a war, always. There’s always some bad guy or another lurking around the corner, ready to kidnap, shoot at, plot against, or otherwise cause harm to our beloved characters.

[SPOILER AHEAD — MILD — FOR OUTLANDER SERIES]

Book #7 in the series, An Echo in the Bone, ends with not just one, but 4 or 5 major cliffhangers. The agony of waiting years for the next book while pretty much everyone is in jeopardy! Flash forward a few years to Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (book #8), and after 145 chapters, everyone we care about ends up in a pretty good place. Yes, there are some small questions left unanswered but (spoiler) Jamie and Claire and Brianna and Roger and Ian and Rachel and, well, everyone, are safe and happy and together!

Part of me wanted to just say to Diana Gabaldon — okay, great! Stop now! Let these people live out the rest of their days in the peace and comfort and love they all deserve!

But no. I need and want and crave more of the story, and book #9 is in the works… and what would an Outlander book be if everyone was safe and happy all the time? So while I can’t wait for a publication date to finally be announced, I’m also dreading diving back in and finding out what hideous new dangers await my beloved Claire and Jamie and the rest of their family up on Fraser’s Ridge.

So, am I crazy for wanting my favorite characters — TV or books — to just get a chance to be happy?

We all love happily-ever-afters, right? But they just don’t make for great storytelling. There’s a reason most fairy tales don’t continue past the HEA. We can be happy for people who find happiness, but stories are driven by tension, suspense, conflict, and crisis. If there’s no obstacle to overcome and everybody just enjoys mundane daily lives, what more do we need to know?

Sigh.

I know that great drama demands all of the above. As for The Walking Dead — well, hell yes, I’m going to keep going. And I’ve stumbled across enough spoilers before I started watching the show to know that VERY BAD things are coming soon for characters I care about, and I’m going to end up heartbroken once again.

In the choice between walking away at a happy moment or continuing with a story I love despite the unhappiness to come, there’s no question — I’ll always choose to continue.

But isn’t it nice to daydream about a life in which Carl Grimes’s greatest worry is about impressing a girl, and not fighting for survival while covered in zombie guts?

TV Reaction: TURN, season 3 — random thoughts on the season & its finale

I’m a little behind the times, but I finally managed to watch the 3rd season of AMC’s TURN, the historical drama that tells the story of the spy ring that helped Washington win the Revolutionary War. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the show itself (check out my other TURN post, here), but I thought I’d go ahead and share some random thoughts I had after watching the season finale.

Probably needless to say, but THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.

01 – First of all, I’m glad I watched the season late. This way, I’d already heard that there’s a confirmed 4th and final season on the way. I’d hate to be left wondering.

02 – The core cast of characters seems to have run out of steam. Their storylines were all kind of scattered in the 3rd season. I never could make sense of what Abe was up to from episode to episode, or for that matter, where his romantic interest really was.

03 – The big bads this season were clearly Simcoe and Robert Rogers, both of whom are historical figures. Now, I assume the show is being more or less true to history by keeping them alive, but I feel like these two have morphed into some sort of superhuman boogeymen. They simply can’t be killed. It started to feel ridiculous that the countless ambushes set up to kill them inevitably fail. I mean, why even bother? It’s like watching a Marvel movie — you know they’re not going to kill Hulk or Iron Man or Captain America, so automatically there’s no actual tension. Simcoe and Rogers ended up being cartoon-like figures of evil intent, and overall I think this weakened the storytelling.

Simcoe is seemingly bullet-proof.

 

Rogers too.

04 – What’s always been phenomenal is the show’s handling of the grand historical figures like George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and John Andre. Season 3’s climax centered on Arnold’s treason, and was exciting, captivating television. Sadly, with this piece of the storytelling over and done with, I’m a little worried about how the show is going to keep season 4 as interesting.

John Andre – you’ll be missed!

05 – The hard thing about a show that’s about historical figures is when you know what history says about their fate. John Andre was truly the best character in every season of TURN. And as we know from history, the real John Andre was captured by the Americans and hanged as a spy. So there’s really no way that the show could claim to be sticking closely to historical events and not hang him, but man, what a loss in terms of character! Not to mention the fact that Peggy Shippen is also likely to be removed from the story or at most a peripheral character in season 4. Good-bye to my favorite parts of the story!

Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold

06 – I can’t help but feel concerned that the spy ring itself — Abe, Caleb, Ben, and Anna — end up being the murkiest part of the overall story. Their plots and motivations can be hard to track, and this season especially, none of them really stood out in any significant way. Sorry, but I just wasn’t that interested in the push/pull between Abe and his father, or Ben’s professional frustration, or Anna’s weird non-romance with Major Hewlett. And Caleb has never had much of an independent story to play out — he’s fun to watch, but I really don’t know much more than that.

07 – Oh dear, does this make it sound like I didn’t enjoy season 3? I did! But the show is supposedly first and foremost about the spy ring, and that’s not the part that truly held my attention. Give me more Washington, Arnold, Shippen, and Andre per episode, and I’d be a happy camper.

08 – Ha, did I mention my geek-out/freak-out in the final episodes, when Washington arrives at West Point accompanied by Alexander Hamilton? Not this version:

But I still found myself breaking into song when he showed up!

Alexander Hamilton. My name is Alexander Hamilton.

09 – Overall, I still consider TURN to be excellent television. It’s exciting, with a talented cast, amazing costumes and set designs, and a real eye toward making history come alive. I can’t help it that I get a little thrill whenever George Washington is in a scene (which is yet another testament to the strong casting). I wish the storyline this season had a more cohesive feel to it in regard to the Culper ring, but the Andre/Arnold/Shippen intrigue was more than enough to keep me glued to the TV for episode after episode.

The father of our country.

 

Season 4 — the final season — of TURN premieres June 17, 2017. It’s not too late to catch up on the first 3 seasons before then!

Will you be watching?

TV Reaction: Thirteen Reasons Why

Whew. What an intense experience. I just finished binge-watching Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix, and I’m still seeing certain scenes on repeat in my head.

Kudos to Netflix and the show’s producers for bringing the YA novel to the screen with such thoughtfulness and sensitivity.

Warning: This post will include plot spoilers for both the TV series and the book.

I read the book Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher years ago, at the urging of my then-high school-aged daughter. I remember being really moved and upset by it, but really didn’t remember a whole lot more than the basic plot outline:

Teen girl commits suicide, and leaves behind a series of cassettes on which she narrates all the reasons for her decision to end her life. Each cassette and each reason corresponds with a person who contributed to her suicide, in ways big or small — and her instructions are that each person must listen to the tapes, then pass them on to the next person mentioned, or face consequences.

I honestly didn’t remember much more than that, except some rosy-eyed, not willing to face reality portion of my brain managed to half-convince myself that at the end of the book, we’d discover it was all a ruse — that the girl was really alive and well somewhere, and that the tapes and suicide were a big con to get revenge on her tormentors. Maybe it was the mommy portion of my brain driving me to this wishful thinking — I just recoiled so instinctively from the idea of a teen girl, similar in age to my own daughter, making such a horrific choice.

Needless to say, I was very wrong. Yes, the girl is dead. She really did kill herself, and there’s no magical fix for that.

So… the TV series.

I was able to start viewing it without a whole lot of preconceptions about the plot or characters, since (as mentioned) I was quite fuzzy on the details of the books after so many years. I watched the show with my 14-year-old son, a high school freshman, and that in and of itself was a remarkable experience.

Wow. This isn’t an actual review or anything. For starters, I don’t really review TV. Beyond that, I wouldn’t really know where to start, so I’m just sharing my thoughts and reactions instead.

Let me kick this off by saying that the casting for Thirteen Reasons Why is fantastic. The show really rests on the shoulders of its young cast. Yes, there are adults — parents, school administrators, etc — and they were great too, but it’s largely the teen characters who evoke the emotions and carry the burden of the storyline’s heaviest moments.

Hannah Baker is dead, clearly and absolutely (lest any of my previous fantasies still linger). Clay Jensen is the nice boy who always liked Hannah, and wanted more, but never really made it out of the friend zone and never understood why. When Clay finds the box of tapes on his front porch about two weeks after Hannah’s death, he’s stunned by what he hears. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s #11 on the tapes, so as he listens, he’s also in horrible suspense. He doesn’t think he ever mistreated Hannah, yet she’s included him in her list of “reasons why”. Clay listens to the recordings in enormous pain, as he learns all that Hannah suffered, and even more, comes to understand all the ways he and everybody else let her down or betrayed her trust or weren’t there at the crucial moment.

It’s truly heartbreaking to watch. As told through flashbacks, Hannah is a vivacious, lovely, bright girl when she starts at her new school at the beginning of her sophomore year. And bit by bit, moment by moment, her soul is crushed, by malicious rumors, whispers about being “easy” or a “slut”, abandonment by friends, and moments of physical and cyber bullying — and much more. Any one of those elements on their own would be difficult; as an accumulation, it becomes unbearable.

We also see Hannah’s parents in the aftermath, utterly broken and suffering horribly, searching for any sorts of explanation that might help them understand why their beautiful girl should take her own life. Watching them is almost too much. As a parent, it took my breath away.

I should mention too that there are a few moments that are brutally graphic, but I think necessary. There are two different rape scenes, which are not done in any way gratuitously, but do show unflinchingly just how horrible those assaults are. The final episode does show Hannah’s suicide, and does not pull back at all from showing her take a razor blade to her arms and bleed out in the bathtub. It’s excruciating.

That said, I applaud the producers for not softening those moments. There’s nothing glamorous here. It’s painful and real. The show does a very good job of showing us how the teen brain doesn’t function the way a fully developed adult brain does. For Hannah, there’s no seeing past her present. She can’t even begin to envision a world that’s better than where she is. She internalizes everything and sees herself as worthless, so that even when something good is happening, she can’t feel worthy — and can’t see herself as being able to ask for or get help.

Now, I did have some quibbles with certain elements of the show. In the book, as I recall (and please correct me if I’m wrong), we only see the story through Hannah’s tapes and Clay’s experience listening to them, which he does all in one night. In the show, Clay takes much longer to get through them all, and meanwhile the ten people who come earlier in the tapes all know that he’s listening. There’s a lot of whispering and plotting among these characters who are scrambling to protect themselves and their secrets, and even contemplate finding a way to stop Clay before he can expose them.

That’s all well and good, but there are varying degrees of guilt and responsibility here, and some of the reactions don’t exactly make sense, especially as each tape gets its own full hour episode to explore. Yes, there are some heinous acts described — but some of the reasons are much smaller, pettier things. While I can’t deny that they hurt Hannah, I can’t understand why some of these characters become so desperate to hide the truth, especially as they’ve all listened to all the tapes and know that they’re being lumped together with others who’ve actually committed crimes.

Again, spoilers here:

There’s a top athlete, Bryce, who rapes both Hannah and another girl. There’s Bryce’s friend who stands by while Bryce rapes his girlfriend. With less bad intention but still a terrible outcome, there’s a girl who doesn’t report when she drunkenly knocks down a stop-sign, which leads to a car accident that kills another student. These are all terrible, awful, outrageous deeds.

But then again, there’s Courtney, a popular, perfect girl who abandons her friendship with Hannah when a peeping Tom catches Courtney and Hannah sharing a drunken kiss on a dare. And there’s a boy who publishes a very personal poem of Hannah’s without her permission — and even though it’s anonymous, everyone realizes it’s Hannah’s. Another boy creates and passes around a list of who’s hot and who’s not, which leads to some gross objectification of Hannah and adds to her reputation as the class slut. On and on. Again, I’m not making light of any of this from Hannah’s perspective — but for the other characters, I had a hard time believing that some of them could be so crippled by their own shame over careless or insensitive — but not criminal — behaviors that they wouldn’t turn in the rapist or come together to share the truth with Hannah’s parents.

There’s also a moment of Hannah’s own shameful behavior that’s really hard to forgive. Hannah is IN THE ROOM when her former best friend is raped, and she’s too stunned and frightened to intervene or scream or call for help — and as a viewer, that’s hard to get past. I totally understand that this adds to Hannah’s sense of shame and failure, but it was hard to believe that this happened and that she acted that way.

After the final episode, Netflix had available another 30-minute behind-the-scenes piece that’s quite compelling as well, which aims at its teen viewers directly. Through comments and interviews with the cast, writers, and health care professionals, there’s important information shared about resources, getting help, speaking out, and the finality of suicide, as well as insights into teen psychology and the impact of abuse and bullying. It’s meant to be direct, helpful, and non-preachy, and I thought it was an important wrap-up (which I hope the show’s teen viewers stuck around for). Interestingly, this piece included advice about how to get help, but the episodes themselves didn’t. It would have been better, I think, to also include suicide hotline information at the end of each episode.

Watching the show with my son was really interesting and important. He had no patience for my clueless-parent questions (“does anyone act this way at your school?” or “do you ever feel bullied”), but he did frequently tell me to hit the pause button so he could comment or ask a question. He didn’t always have sympathy for Hannah (“God! Why does she make everything about her? She’s so dramatic!”), but this gave us a chance to talk about depression and victimization and how someone can internalize things to such a degree. We talked about how if Hannah had just had one or two of these experiences, maybe she could have gotten past it, but how it all piled on top of one another until she was drowning.

We talked about whose misdeeds were the worst. Well, clearly, the rapist, but after him, where does the culpability lie, and are there shades of gray? He initially felt really sorry for the school counselor who failed to help Hannah when she came to him on her last day. My son didn’t feel that it was fair of Hannah and Clay to blame him so much for not doing enough. This gave me a good opportunity to talk with him about adult responsibility and the role the school officials are supposed to play. Earlier, we see that this is a man with a stressful home life, but the show doesn’t let him off the hook. Maybe he was distracted, and maybe Hannah wasn’t entirely forthcoming, but this was clearly a girl in distress who communicated that she’d been the victim of a sexual assault and felt that she wanted everything to stop — and he let her walk out of his office.

There’s so much more, but I’ve really rambled on quite a lot already. Obviously, this show really affected me, and has left me with so much still to process and think about. Thirteen Reasons Why is just so well done, and so important. It’s not a sensationalized show aimed at teens. I saw one review describe it (paraphrasing here) as an adult show about teens, and I think that’s right. It’s important viewing, and I can’t stress enough how glad I am that I watched it with my son.

In terms of other pop culture moments, it would be a shame if people assumed that Thirteen Reasons Why is a teen drama (like Pretty Little Liars or many of the CW’s shows). The two TV shows that I was most reminded of, in weird ways, are Veronica Mars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer — two of my all-time favorites. Like Veronica Mars, Thirteen Reasons Why spins a complicated web of causes and effects, showing the seemingly infinite connections between the various characters, and how each decision and casual action or cruelty can lead to unexpected and even devastating effects. (Unlike Veronica Mars, there’s little to no humor to lighten the moments. While Veronica Mars dealt with life and death issues, destroyed reputations, rape, and abuse, its quippy dialogue and characters kept it floating along with a slightly sunnier tone.) I was reminded of the Buffy episode, Out of Mind, Out of Sight, in which a high school student literally becomes invisible after being unseen and unnoticed by her classmates for too long. Obviously, no supernatural elements in Thirteen Reasons Why, but there is a similar seriousness paid to high school power dynamics that resonates as true and important to note.

Clearly, I consider Thirteen Reasons Why to be important viewing! And if you have a high school student in your life, consider watching the series with him or her, and see where your conversations lead you.

So, thanks for sticking with me for my rambles! I’d love to hear other people’s reactions. Did you watch Thirteen Reasons Why? What did you think?

TV Reaction: An outing on Survivor

Pardon me while I amble away from books (shocking!) for a moment while I ponder one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen on TV.

If you follow TV news at all, then you’ve probably seen the headlines all over social media last night and this morning. In a nutshell, on last night’s episode of Survivor, one contestant outed another as transgender at tribal council, in a desperate and despicable attempt to show to their tribe mates how “deceptive” the other player was.

It’s been over 12 hours since I watched the episode and I still can’t stop thinking about it. This was truly stunning TV.

The stupidity of Jeff Varner, and his lame attempt to link the other contestant’s personal history to somehow being an untrustworthy alliance member, is astonishing. And I think he realized it within minutes of it all coming out of his mouth — but again, perhaps he was simply unprepared for the outrage he’d stirred up and was operating in CYA mode.

On the positive side, it was uplifting and gratifying to see the other players’ uniformly harsh reaction to Varner. Zeke, who was outed, was absolutely supported, and all the others basically tore Varner apart. Host Jeff Probst did a great job of letting the drama play out, giving Zeke time to compose himself, and refusing to let Varner off the hook by accepting his ridiculous excuse of being desperate to stay in the game.

In the end, in what really seemed like an unprecedented situation, Varner was shown the door and kicked out without the usual ritual of a vote. As Probst noted, a vote was unnecessary. They all wanted Varner gone.

There are some astute and well-written pieces out there already about what happened and what it meant. I have nothing but admiration for Zeke, who managed to show grace toward Varner, who didn’t deserve Zeke’s kindness.

It should be noted that this round of Survivor was filmed last summer, so that all involved had time to prepare for last night’s episode. Zeke wrote a thoughtful and moving piece about his life and his determination to compete on Survivor, and I recommend checking it out, here.

I do wonder, though, why the producers didn’t either a) cut the outing from the episode or b) explain why it was included. I can envision a few different scenarios. Did this tribal have a huge impact on game play going forward? I’d imagine that Zeke’s teammates’ loyalty and support of him was magnified by Varner’s behavior, and might be an important part of the storytelling going forward. If future episodes have the outing and the impact on Zeke as a storyline, then the tribal is highly relevant. Likewise, if Zeke makes the finals (as I’m now really hoping he does), surely the events from last night will be a big piece of his Survivor story — the narrative that finalists pitch to the jury in a bid for the $1 million prize. Further, Zeke and the producers may have discussed the tribal together and reached an agreement, with Zeke’s full cooperation, in terms of what they chose to air.

I’m not pointing fingers at the producers at this point, but I do feel they do their viewers a disservice by simply airing the episode without including any explanation of why those chose to do so and whether Zeke had a say in the decision. Yes, Varner is the one who outed Zeke — but the Survivor production team decided to put it on the air. I’d just like to know why, and I hope with all my heart that Zeke will confirm that he was a part of the decision-making process and gave it his blessing.

In any case, that was a shocking moment, unlike anything I’d seen previously on TV. For my household, it was also a great catalyst for discussion. I watch Survivor each week with my 14-year-old son, and we have fun speculating on strategy, mocking ridiculousness, and cheering for our favorites. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that an episode of a reality competition show would spark a discussion of transgender rights and identity, but it did. The kiddo and I talked about Zeke, what his life must have been like, his courage, and why the outing was such a travesty and betrayal. And the kiddo really gets it, which was gratifying for me to see.

As the day progresses and I read more pieces about this Survivor episode and the fallout, it does seem as though Zeke was deeply involved in the process of bringing this episode to the air, with the Survivor production giving him support and agency in determining how his story was told. I certainly hope that’s the case, and I applaud Survivor overall for its sensitivity to key social issues and flashpoints. (I can’t help but wish that this had been made clearer during the episode itself — even via a text screen at the end — rather than leaving viewers hanging until more statements dribbled out.)

More than anything, I’m filled with awe and admiration for Zeke’s humanity and decency in a moment of shock and betrayal, and for his bravery in sharing his feelings over a matter he had the right to choose to keep private. Prior to watching yesterday’s episode, I was kind of “meh” about Zeke — he’s a fun player to watch, but I wasn’t necessarily rooting for him to win. But now? Team Zeke, all the way! And I suspect I’m far from alone.

For more on the events on yesterday’s Survivor, here are a few thoughtful pieces:

New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/12/opinion/outed-as-transgender-on-survivor-and-in-real-life.html
New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/13/arts/television/survivor-contestant-transgender.html?_r=0
Vulture: http://www.vulture.com/2017/04/cbs-defends-airing-survivor-trans-outing-episode-zeke-smith.html
E Online: http://www.eonline.com/news/843440/survivor-s-handling-of-zeke-smith-s-outing-proves-it-just-might-be-the-most-lowkey-progressive-reality-tv-series-around

 

Leviathan Wakes and The Expanse: Book, TV… amazing science fiction!

I just finished this massive book today, and I swear I’ve been reading it for EONS. (Okay, it’s been 10 days, but that seems like forever relative to my normal reading pace).

leviathan-wakesLeviathan Wakes is book #1 in the ongoing series The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey (which is actually a pen name for two co-authors, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). The paperback I’ve been lugging around with me is HUGE – 560 pages, about the size of a doorstop, and must weigh close to a ton. (It’s true! My arms are aching.)

The book series has also been adapted into a TV series on Syfy, season 2 of which just premiered this past week. No, I haven’t seen the beginning of season 2 yet. I wanted to finish book #1 first.

The world of The Expanse — TV and book — is set far enough into the future that human life has spread throughout the solar system. Earth and Mars are the inner planets, two independent political forces, and then there’s the Belt — the asteroid belt that’s become a source of mining and resources in service to the inner planets. Belters are an underclass, dependent on Earth and Mars, filled with a discontented people who are agitating for freedom. Earth and Mars have wealth and military might. The Belt is cramped, dirty, underfed, crime-ridden, and downtrodden. There’s a class war ready to explode, and it doesn’t take much to set it off.

Our hero is James Holden, who finds himself captain of a small rogue vessel after an untraceable attack on his home ship leaves him and his crew stranded in space. The anti-hero, of sorts, is Detective Miller, a Belter whose missing-persons case takes on intergalactic significance and brings him in league with Holden and his crew on board the Rocinante.

I really shouldn’t go into a whole lot more detail than that, although if you want a recap of season 1 of the TV show, there’s this brilliant video to check out:

I loved reading the book. I originally started it after watching the first season of the TV show, which has so many political factions and plots and military escapades that I thought the book might help me untangle it all. And it did. The book has a narrower scope in some ways than the TV production. Much of the politics, in particular all of the scenes set on Earth, are not in the book. Sadly, I missed one of the show’s stand-out characters, Avasarala, although I understand that she enters the book series world in the 2nd book.

THE EXPANSE -- Season:1 -- Pictured: Shohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala -- (Photo by: Amanda Demme/Syfy)

THE EXPANSE — Season:1 — Pictured: Shohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala — (Photo by: Amanda Demme/Syfy)

Another difference between book 1 and season 1 — season 1 ends at about the midpoint of the book’s plot… which makes me even more excited to dive into season 2, now that I know what’s still to come.

All in all, I’d say the creators of the show have done a remarkable job of capturing the universe of the books, combining elements of the first couple of books (or so I’ve been told) in order to achieve a visual and narrative trajectory that makes sense. The drama never lets up; we get some amazing space battles; there are truly stand-out personalities introduced, and the cast does a great job of bringing to life the complexities of the individuals who make up the whole.

I know I’m jumping around a lot here, because that’s just how my brain is processing all the data at the moment. I turned the final page of the book literally an hour ago, and my mind is whirring.

I suppose Leviathan Wakes would be considered “hard” science fiction. You know, space ships and technology and lasers and all that. But the human element elevates the whole into just really great storytelling, with exciting action and people who seem real enough to make us care.

the-expanse-crew

The crew of the Rocinante

I think anyone who enjoyed Battlestar Galactica will love The Expanse. Likewise, fans of the Killjoys series will find some common themes in the class struggles and solar system dynamics portrayed here.

As for the book, I am thrilled that I finally took the time to read Leviathan Wakes, despite feeling at times like I would never reach the end. From the midpoint onward, the momentum never stops, and I think I must have read the final third just within the past 24 hours. I swore that I would read just one for now… but now that I’ve finished Leviathan Wakes, I have to know what happens next!

Fortunately, it’ll probably take me a couple of weeks to get my hands on a copy of book 2, Caliban’s War… but once I do, I don’t think I’ll be able to keep myself from diving back into this incredible series.

For more info on season 2 of The Expanse, check out this great piece on the politics of the series.

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