Ask A Writer #10

Hello everyone! I apologize for the rather lengthy absence from this column, but I’ve finally gotten around to another entry. Here’s a pretty cool question from another one of my fellow writer followers on Twitter.

@_carmenadams_: Here’s a question: what is a genre that you don’t normally write in but would like to experiment with one day?

This is very interesting, and tough to answer without writing a whole novel on the subject because I’d ideally want to end up being able to write any genre you could name. That to me would make me a pretty accomplished writer, and I feel like one of my eventual goals in being a creative. But to give a shorter answer, one genre in particular that I’d really like to experiment with, and have thought a lot about, is that of horror.

One of my all-time writing idols is Stephen King, and as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you all, he’s one of the masters of the horror genre. I really admire the skill it takes to create stories like he does that spook and scare people in that way, and that explore such morbidly fascinating topics like death, psychology of a mind falling apart, and the destructive and self-undermining nature of humans and their relationships. In fairness, I also find his books very entertaining in addition to scary, and I’ve never been so frightened that I have to put one of his books down (unlike my parents!). I’m sort of proud of that fact. I’ve tried to adapt that sense of attitude into some of my own works, with mixed but I think mostly positive results.

That said, true full-on horror is something I’m not sure I completely have a handle on. I’ve more recently become somewhat educated in the genre of transgressive fiction thanks to some fellow writer friends, and have learned that the horror genre is substantially more diverse than I had previously believed. But what scares people is much more difficult to determine, I find, than what makes them laugh or have fun, for example. The wild variation in what people find frightening, plus the elements of horror that can violate the norms of most other fiction, is something I find interesting and yet highly challenging. I’m truly intrigued, especially considering that some of my favorite movies of all time–The Shining, Alien, The Thing, and others all fall within the umbrella of horror. A much more recent example would be the film Annihilation, where the point isn’t so much outright scaring people as making them uncomfortable and disturbed. The fright is much more low-key and slow to build rather than blood and guts and random jump scares (which I find somewhat tacky, to be honest), and I’d like to be able to construct something like that.

I actually have had an idea for a horror story in the back of my mind for some time, but just haven’t been able or ready to act on it. I read a medical article at one point speculating about the possibility of a head transplant–that is, taking a living person’s head, brain and all, and transplanting it onto a new body if their current one is dying from a disease or other damage. I was really creeped out by the thought of sticking a head on a new body, a la Frankenstein, and how some thought that was medically advisable when others clearly did not. I’m not sure if I made it up or actually read it n reference to that story, but I remember seeing something where someone said such a transplant could create a madness in the mind the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Just think about it: your brain having to adjust to controlling a new body that has its own systems, sensations, and possible issues, and the extremely unlikely (but fictionally fascinating) possibility of some kind of lingering soul in the body fighting with the new mind attached to it. There’s a lot of ways you could go with this, including just sticking to factual medical problems or some kind of spiritual crisis or psychosis, and I find the whole concept really interesting. But as I said, I haven’t felt confident enough to act on it yet.

In addition, and upcoming work of mine that’s sci-fi based could also have some degree of horror involved in it. As part of the world-building for that novel, I’ve been considering the creation of fictional alien species and trying to make them as antithetical to everything we would consider normal, functional life as possible to make them truly alien and, well, a bit frightening. I suppose some horror techniques could come in handy in writing that story, so I’m open to learning more.

In conclusion, I’d love at some point to attempt to write a horror story, even if it’s just a short story (which I have separate troubles actually making happen), and it’s on my short list for sure! And I continue to be grateful to my awesome writer friends who have shared their thoughts on the techniques involved and further my education in the genre.

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Review of the Week–Ant-Man and the Wasp

Howdy y’all! I’m back!

I don’t know about you, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been kind of getting me down lately. The last couple movies have tackled some pretty heavy stuff, and I’ve been really feeling a desire to lighten things up a bit. So in that spirit, look no further than the latest installment in the MCU, Ant-Man and the Wasp!

In the follow-up to 2015’s Ant-Man and 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang–formerly the shrinking superhero Ant-Man–is under house arrest after going renegade in the events of Civil War. Having hung up the costume for two years and focused on taking care of his daughter, Lang is pulled back into the world of superheroics by a vision of Janet van Dyne–the former superheroine Wasp, long believed to be dead. Joined once again by scientist Hank Pym and his daughter Hope–who now suits up and fights crime as the new Wasp–Lang embarks on a journey into the mysterious Quantum Realm to rescue Janet, but runs into complications in the form of a gang of criminals after Pym’s technology and a new super-powered villain, the Ghost. This time, Lang can’t go it alone, and it’s up to Ant-Man and the Wasp to team up and save the day.

I expected Ant-Man and the Wasp to be some lighter fare than your standard Marvel movie–not that they’re not all fun in their own ways, but still–and be sort of like a goofy buddy-cop superhero movie, much like how the original Ant-Man was a heist movie with superheroes. And for the most part, I pretty much got exactly what I thought it would be. There’s plenty of laughs here for the taking–I guess that’s the benefit of having a bizarre power like shrinking and growing–and it makes for some pretty cool fight scenes, too. I have to say, it’s nice to watch a Marvel movie where for once the fate of the universe isn’t in the balance and we can just enjoy some wholesome, good-old-fashioned fun. This is why I have a respect for the Adam West Batman of the 1960s–they acknowledge that the whole premise of costumed people running around saving the day is inherently ridiculous, and don’t hold back on that account. Basically, if you liked the first Ant-Man, you’ll probably like Ant-Man and the Wasp–but on the flip side, if you didn’t it’s more than likely that you probably won’t see anything here that will change your opinion. I’m still not sure how Ant-Man fits into the Marvel universe as a whole. Sometimes I think it’s just a joke property and a sideshow to lighten things up, which is fine–but then it gets drawn into big, complicated and heavy events like Civil War and Infinity War and I don’t know what to think. That post-credits scene certainly was a sobering one (sorry, not spoiling that part!).

Anyway, one thing that certainly was an improvement over the first movie was the villain–can we really call Ghost a villain? She was just driven by a desire to survive and right the wrongs that were done to her, and she didn’t want to take over the world or anything. She was just willing to do whatever it took, including murder, to ensure that she lived. That’s pretty relatable as far as Marvel bad guys go, so I’m calling that a win. I guess you could lump Foster in there with her too, and he was even more relatable because of his obvious moral scruples about what they were doing and the father-daughter bond they shared.

On the other hand, Sonny Burch and his gang of thugs weren’t nearly as well developed–aside from their greedy, generic motivations, which I guess is pretty realistic as far as that goes, they were just clowns meant to be Ant-Man and the Wasp’s punching bags. Not much to say there. Oh, and of course the side characters were pretty static but entertaining, especially the odd-duck FBI man Jimmy Woo. All in all, who really developed in the film? I can’t say anyone specifically. Even Hank Pym, despite various hints at his misdeeds in the past, kind of gets let off the hook for the most part and avoids serious consequences. So that’s not so great. It doesn’t really detract from the movie, but it doesn’t add to it, either.

The most stand-out character in the cast was easily Evangeline Lilly as Hope, who was a natural sliding into her role as a costumed hero. I’m really glad this happened because as it is, Marvel is short on female heroes, and especially ones with such a genuinely powerful backstory and compelling reasons for doing what they do. I was also happy to see her character expanded on from the previous movie, where she didn’t really do much outside of providing tech support for Scott. And of course I still like Paul Rudd in the lead role–let’s face it, he’s a pretty easy guy to like. Sometimes I’m not entirely sure that I can really see him in the role of a skilled crime fighter (especially without so much as a montage showing him and Hope training together, like, ever), and the focus of this movie on the family-friendly, cutesy side of his character didn’t necessarily help me with that. I mean, in fairness, his daughter is adorable and he’s great with her, but he just sometimes seems too soft to be a superhero. But I digress.

The only thing I truly had a huge problem with in Ant-Man and the Wasp was that the writers, multiple times in the movie, committed one of the cardinal sins of storytelling: the exposition dump. When you introduce a new character, your first approach shouldn’t be to simply have that character give a ten-minute spiel about why they’re so important. Showing, not telling, is key in a well-written story. So instead of having Foster just talk about his work with Pym, or have Scott go on and on about his house arrest or former hero training, why not actually show it? Or just maybe hint at it through dialogue and let the audience figure it out for themselves. Ugh. I’m sorry, it just drove me crazy.

My Rating: 7/10

While not necessarily one of Marvel’s stand-out movies, Ant-Man and the Wasp is perfectly serviceable family-friendly entertainment that will keep viewers engaged and amused throughout. I still think I liked the spunk and edge of the original Ant-Man film better, but this was a pretty good follow-up that plants the characters much more firmly within the Marvel universe. It may be a bit too light-hearted and sappy for some, but it was in the end exactly what Marvel billed it to be: a palate-cleanser between the massive halves of the Infinity War saga, and one that makes you smile nonstop along the way.

Review of the Week–Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Much like last week’s review, some of us have been eagerly awaiting the release of this next movie. Me, not so much. But I figured I might as well go to see how it did anyway. We’re being visited by another blast from the past, and in this case the emphasis is heavily on the “blast” part. Welcome to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom!

Maintaining the time jump from the first film in the series, Jurassic World, the world is three years out from the disaster of the revamped dinosaur park Jurassic World on Isla Nublar, where once again the creatures broke free and caused chaos in the streets. As a volcanic eruption on the island looms and the dinos face extinction, Claire Dearing and Owen Grady are once again roped into returning to the fallen park and evacuating as many animals as possible–including Blue, the last living velociraptor. Rescuing the dinosaurs, it turns out, was the easy part: the so-called “rescue” was actually just a profiteering mission meant to auction off the dinos as living weapons to the highest bidders, including a brand-new genetically engineered monster called the Indoraptor. Claire and Owen therefore have to contain the situation as best they can, and stop things from spinning out of control and leading to a problem that can’t be undone.

First off, let’s recognize something here: just as Jurassic World was basically a remake of Jurassic ParkFallen Kingdom was pretty much a simple redo on the second movie in that original trilogy, The Lost World. I happen to hold the rather unpopular opinion that The Lost World was actually the best of the three because it took what was basically a rather dull and predictable special effects bonanza and turned it into a pretty fun action-adventure. This same sort of thing is what Fallen Kingdom wanted to do with its predecessor, and in some ways it actually succeeded. I wasn’t a huge fan of Jurassic World simply because I’m not a huge fan of its source material: I was much more interested in and sympathetic towards Fallen Kingdom because I was a fan of where it came from, and in fairness it mimicked The Lost World pretty well up to a point. The story was almost beat for beat the same, substituting the San Diego theme park for a secret illicit dinosaur auction–an interesting twist, but not so different as to really raise my eyebrows. Oh, and look–they brought back the genetically-altered weapon dino from Jurassic World! Except it’s, umm, smaller and even more unstable now! Great idea! But seriously, where was the originality in this movie?

I firmly maintain that some of the changes to the script in Fallen Kingdom served no real purpose other than to make it stand out from the previous installments, or to provide red-herring plot twists that may have excited some moviegoers, but when you think about them don’t actually matter to the story at all. In The Lost World, it doesn’t take a volcano blowing up to get mercenaries interested in taking the dinosaurs. It’s all corporate greed, and really that’s all the motivation you truly need. It’s totally believable, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Oh, but you need to obviously one-up what’s come before, so INSERT GIANT VOLCANIC ERUPTION HERE. Brilliant!

Seriously though, it was sort of laughably ridiculous to have Chris Pratt be able to outrun a volcano. Uh-huh. That would totally happen in real life. Oh, and can someone tell me what the point of the little girl to the story was? I thought the twist where it turned out she was a clone was kind of interesting, and it gave Claire and Owen an ally to work with on the inside once they got to the mansion, but really, how was it relevant to the overall story? In my view, the only reason was to give the two main characters a convenient out to say they didn’t have anything to do with dinosaurs being released to roam the Earth again. And that’s disappointing. Wouldn’t it have been much more meaningful and impactful to have, say, Owen release the dinos–if only to save Blue? Or Claire, because she just couldn’t bear to let them all die? And then they have to directly deal with the consequences. Nope, let’s just give that honor to Random Character #1, who probably won’t show up in the next film–conveniently removing any kind of accountability, and therefore interesting character development, from our heroes. Cool.

Look, I know I’m bellyaching a lot here, some of it probably unfairly. Honestly, I liked Fallen Kingdom a lot more than I liked Jurassic World. But that still doesn’t mean it was a great film. However, the acting was a bit better. I liked the fact that Claire, and by extension Bryce Dallas Howard, was given a bit more to work with in this movie by becoming a much more badass sort of environmental activist and showing off her animal smarts than the helpless, high-heel-wearing damsel in distress she was in Jurassic World. So that was nice at least. Chris Pratt was entertaining as always, but still he fell into the same trap that I noticed in the first film where I just didn’t see him letting his authentic acting chops out. He’s best in roles where he can be funny and witty and the lighter side of things, and in these movies it feels like he’s trying to fit into the stone-faced, macho-man action star role that’s just not him at all. Am I typecasting, or being stereotypical? Maybe. But it just doesn’t feel right. In a truly good piece of casting, I should feel like the character could only be portrayed by the person who played them. I feel like Owen Grady could have been just about anyone in Jurassic World and it wouldn’t have mattered, and Fallen Kingdom did little to change my mind. I think Pratt might have been a little more fun to watch in this one, but again, I questioned his casting. The other characters were pretty much unimportant set dressing, easily discarded and easy to forget.

One thing I will say about Fallen Kingdom though is that it finally, FINALLY introduced some actual stakes into the Jurassic Park franchise. One of the things that’s always bothered me about these films is that while it’s certainly a spectacle to see dinosaurs running amok, at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter. The dinos are trapped on an island, they can’t hurt anyone outside of that, and that’s the end of it. There’s no real-world consequences there–unless you count the T-Rex’s brief foray into San Diego in The Lost World. But even that was a feint that was quickly put back in the box by Jeff Goldblum and company. As Ian Malcolm (nice cameo, by the way!) so accurately points out at the end of the film, this time there is no taking things back. The dinosaurs are loose on the world for good and all, and humanity is going to have to learn to coexist with these prehistoric creatures if they want to survive the new age. I suppose the true gravity of the situation remains to be seen in the sequel, but I’d be very interested to see Claire and Owen trying to deal with a world where dinosaurs are destroying human civilization in the next movie. Perhaps that kind of vision is just wishful thinking, though.

My Rating: 6/10

Don’t get me wrong: Fallen Kingdom is an improvement on Jurassic World–but not by much. It tweaks the generic formula of the franchise slightly and adds some interesting, real-world stakes to the conflict between humans and dinosaurs, and is without a doubt engrossing and fun to watch in the moment. But in the end, a sore lack of attention to detail and a plot ridden with red herrings and predictable callbacks to old films makes it unable to escape from the shadow of Jurassic Park’s past. There’s just not enough original thinking in these movies to keep me interested by them, and in the end, I think Fallen Kingdom is doomed to be yet another example of a big-budget blockbuster that played it way too safe and sought to relive past glories, the the detriment of its future.

Review of the Week–Incredibles 2

Well, I know that a lot of you out there–and myself as well–have waited for the release of the movie I’m reviewing this week for 15 years, and I’m happy to say that for the most part, we were well-rewarded for our patience. It’s time to grab your favorite superhero costume (but preferably one without a cape) and take a look at Incredibles 2!

Pretty much ignoring the large gap between films (you can check out my thoughts on the first one here), Incredibles 2 starts off right where the first movie left us, with the Parr family engaged in battle with their latest supervillain threat, the Underminer. When their attempt to apprehend the bad guy goes south, however, it turns into yet another public relations disaster for the government, resulting in the Superhero Relocation Program being shut down and the family out of options. But as luck would have it, they’re approached by a wealthy philanthropist and superhero fan who wants to make heroes legal again–with Helen, a.k.a. Elastigirl, leading the charge. As Bob struggles with adjusting to being a stay-at-home dad and sitting on the sidelines, Helen campaigns for superhero rights until she encounters the Screenslaver–a shadowy figure using hypnosis technology bent on keeping supers illegal for good. Screenslaver’s evil plans end up putting the entire family in jeopardy once again, and once again they only way they’re going to stop him is by joining forces–and making some new friends.

Right off, I have to say that Incredibles 2 does a great job recapturing the fun and spirit of the original movie. The magic is definitely still there, and it even adds a few new quirks by introducing other supers outside the Parr family (other than Frozone, who still remains a major fixture of course), and taking some shots at other elemental tropes of superhero culture. Just like the famous “no capes” speech in the first movie, I thought some of the ideas put forward here–like a cost-benefit analysis of superheroes–was both humorous and made a lot of sense when you think about it. Once again, Incredibles 2 challenges some of our preconceived notions about heroes in a way that DC and Marvel just don’t do. The idea that Elastigirl should be the face of the superhero rights movement because her power set is far less destructive than that of her husband or children was something I’d just never thought about, but is perfectly logical. Hats off once again to director Brad Bird for having the vision to talk about these things.

On that subject, I loved how the female characters took center stage in Incredibles 2 as well. Sure, in The Incredibles all the characters got their moment in the spotlight, but let’s face it, it was a male-dominated film, with Bob and Dash being the primary characters of note. The roles were interestingly reversed in Incredibles 2, with Bob being forced to sit out and hold down the fort at home while Helen got the lion’s share of the action scenes. Given all the controversy and conversation today about the treatment women receive in society, I thought a movie focused on female characters–especially female superheroes, who don’t get as much attention as they should–was quite timely and well-done. It even tackled the sometimes-controversial issue of the stay-at-home dad, too, and I really understood Bob’s struggle with being happy for his wife while also feeling a bit left out and abandoned. But the good news was he really pulled it together in the end. It would have been too easy to just say Bob was a failure of a parent until Helen came back to clean up his mess and save the day, but instead we saw him really put in the extra effort to become just as effective a parent as she was. Nice to see the harmful stereotypes avoided in this case, on both sides.

While Helen was pretty much the central character of the film, Violet also got plenty of time in center stage after only being a truly effectual hero for about half of the first movie. We saw a lot of personal growth in her character in Incredibles 2 and I liked it a lot. She’s more confident with her powers, but still faces the same personal issues after her love interest Tony gets mind-wiped and she’s back to square one with him. The whole incident brought her and Bob closer together, and I thought it was a nice touch too. The first movie built her hero confidence, and this movie built her human confidence. I just thought it was very well handled and another nice touch.

I will admit that I had some issues with the movie, though–one of them having to do with characters. Does anyone know why Dash was in this movie? Like, at all? I don’t think I can name a single truly significant thing he did to move the plot forward, except for maybe steal the Incredibile, which anyone could really have done. With all the growth the other characters got in the film, I was really hoping Dash would get thrown a bone at some point, but he seemed curiously left out of the main storyline, barely got to show off his powers, and appeared to be pretty much an inconvenient afterthought who just got dragged wherever the action was. It was a little disappointing. I mean, come on: the baby got more screen time than him! Although granted, Jack-Jack’s wild powers gave the story the hint of absurdity and levity that it kind of needed.

This was a much darker movie than The Incredibles really, but of course not so dark that you wouldn’t want kids to see it. It’s still a family film, but the themes are a lot headier and the goals set higher than the first movie–and I’m sorry to say that at times Incredibles 2 buckles under the weight of everything it was trying to do because it was just trying to do way, way too much. The one ball I can really target as being dropped here was the villain. Compared to the larger-than-life, gleefully evil fanboy villain Syndrome from the first film, Screenslaver failed to live up to my expectations and just wan’t anywhere close to as compelling or interesting. Part of this was because the bad guy lacked any kind of genuine connection to the main characters–a condition for forming the most meaningful antagonists in my view. Otherwise, why should the audience care about them when they’re just an obstacle and not a person, too? The idea of creating a villain that could be anyone, anywhere, at any time was an interesting one, but as DeVoe from The Flash Season Four could probably tell you, it just doesn’t work out in practice when you don’t have a face for your bad guy. Audiences can’t connect with that.

And can anyone explain the evil plan here to me? I kind of understood the broad strokes, and as the movie’s going on you certainly aren’t compelled to think about it too much, but afterward it made less and less sense the more I picked it apart and the logic crumbles under scrutiny. The reveal of Evelyn Deavor as the true face of Screenslaver wasn’t even a surprise to me–I saw it coming a mile away and I bet everyone else did, too–and she didn’t have enough personality to really make me care anyway. It was just a very meh part of the movie. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a story is only as good as its villain. And compared to Syndrome’s over-the-top but brilliantly simple plan from the first film, Incredibles 2 failed to live up to my lofty expectations.

My Rating: 7/10

Maybe I’m rating it a little harshly here, but the fact is I just wouldn’t want to rewatch Incredibles 2 over and over again like I do the original movie: it’s a little too ambitious and bites off more than it can chew, and a few elements of the story just fall flat on their face upon closer scrutiny. That said, I think the creators of the film were deliberately trying to go all-out and top themselves, and in other aspects (like the strong female leads and discussion of family issues), it succeeded in following its predecessor’s footsteps and improving upon them. I wouldn’t say Incredibles 2 is necessarily incredible, but it’s still pretty good, and if you liked the first one, odds are you’ll think the follow-up is a pretty fun ride worthy of the name.

Review of the Week–Arrested Development

Hi everyone, and welcome to another Review of the Week column! My apologies for skipping last week: it’s a busy time of year for me, and I haven’t been getting out to see new movies or had nearly as much time to check out new TV shows as I’d like. That said, I finally managed to finish something the other day, and I decided I could finally talk about it with all of you. It’s a full review of one of my favorite sitcoms (and overall TV shows) of all time.

NARRATOR VOICE: It’s Arrested Development.

Arrested Development focuses on the Bluths, a wealthy family of California socialites who face a series of scandals on their way to financial ruin, from shady business dealings to political missteps and even “light treason”. The series follows Michael, the middle child of the family and the only one close to a responsible adult in the bunch, as he deals with the various schemes and slip-ups of his mother and father, his two brothers, his sister, his brother-in-law, and his own son and niece as the family careens its way from catastrophe to catastrophe and he struggles to keep them all together.

To look at Arrested Development properly, I think you have to break it down by eras of the show—for those unfamiliar, it ran on Fox for three years before being cancelled in 2006, and was then revived by Netflix in 2013 for a fourth season. Since then, the fourth season has gone through a re-release in 2018, along with the first half of a new fifth season this year as well.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way…

Let’s just get one thing straight right now: Seasons 1 to 3 of Arrested Development are pure comedy gold. I don’t say that very often because comedies are so hard to objectively evaluate. You can talk all you want about what makes them funny and how closely they adhere to the established “rules” of comedy, but someone else may just not find them funny. But in a lot of ways I think this show blazed some new trails in sitcoms that other shows eventually followed and has set trends, but still remained unique on its own. The narrator who regularly points out contradictions to the audience and breaks the fourth wall with his explanations of the conflicting Bluth family schemes are dry, witty, and always hilarious. The characters themselves are wacky, loony, and perversely awful for the most part, but that’s what sets Arrested Development apart from old-school sitcoms like Happy Days: the laughs aren’t based on good people getting into unfortunate situations, they’re based on bad people getting their comeuppance from making poor decisions. And even still, you want them to succeed. You like them, even in spite of yourself, for their flaws—of which there are oh so many—and the fact that they’re just so funny. They don’t care what anyone else thinks, and at the oddest and most random times they’ll show flashes of humanity that prove they’re not just caricatures, but real people after all. There’s some genuinely uplifting moments in the show overall, even if they’re sparingly interspersed with many more cringe-worthy ones.

In addition, this show isn’t just going for cheap laughs. The humor is intelligent, earned, and comes from some impressively complex storytelling. I mean, to have this much stuff going on at the same time, for it all to make sense and allow viewers to keep it straight, and for things to converge at times as humorously and perfectly as they do, requires a genius amount of simplicity mixed with thoughtful writing, and I can really appreciate that. The story plays on simple human qualities like greed, selfishness, and self-esteem, and takes them in complex and wild tangents that usually come together at the last minute with hilarious consequences. Nothing happens by accident. Every event is important and carefully calibrated to matter within the context of the larger story. Arrested Development is very much a thinking person’s comedy, and the beauty of it is that except in a few cases, the characters themselves usually go on their way never realizing anything went wrong or was amiss—but we as viewers know, and their continued obliviousness is one of the most charming features of the show.

I could go on all day talking about how much I love the characters in the show too, because they’re all acted so perfectly and all so indispensable—the performances are pitch-perfect, and no one character could be cut out without the audience feeling their loss. Which was why Season 4, when it was originally released, was such a huge disappointment to me—only one character per episode? What is this? Where are my Bluths? I understand that the showrunners were trying to spice things up by doing something different and focusing on each individual character and their own development alone, but without the other characters it just didn’t work. There was no one to temper their own flaws and rein them in, and no familial interplay or verbal sparring that was the trademark of the original series and brought out most of the humor. It’s like some of the humor was still there, but the heart and soul of the show that I loved was gone.

Personally, I hated it. I told everyone I knew to ignore it. Which is why I was so happy to hear Season 4 had been remixed and rereleased this year so as to feature all the characters together again. And to be fair, despite some choppy editing and a few times where I got a little confused about the story—that narrator really had to work overtime—Fateful Consequences was much better than the original season. And to be fair, the brand-new Season 5 was also an improvement as it brought all the Bluths concretely back together again and took the show back to its roots somewhat as the family members struggled for control of their company and with their own internal power dynamics.

Still, though, I had some issues with it. The new seasons, in my opinion, just haven’t quite recaptured the deep yet harmless fun of the original series. The storyline has gotten so convoluted at this point as the writers keep feeling the need to outdo themselves that every episode now requires a recap at the beginning to explain what’s already happened. The side characters have lost some of their charm—sure, the old ones like Lucille 2 and Barry Zuckercorn are still great, but the new ones like Rebel Alley and Herbert Love distinctly failed to impress as I question their roles and importance to the story, as well as their humor value. They’re just not that funny. The whole show has started to buckle under the pressure of so many narratives and motives clashing that it’s begun to fold into itself and spiral down the drain of self-questioning its own relevance. It’s too in its own head, and I can barely even follow it anymore. The aging of some young characters like George Michael and Maeby also hasn’t helped—they can’t help that they’re getting older, but some of their childlike innocence that made the early years so charming has started to wear off, and they’re acting just like the depraved adults now unfortunately.

I’m also somewhat upset about the treatment Michael’s character has gotten recently—starting in Season 4, it seemed like there was a real effort by the writers to bring down Michael to everyone else’s level because they deemed him “too good” to be a realistic person. Let’s be clear—Michael was far from perfect, but compared to the rest of his family he was the classic comedy straight man, and the long-suffering fundamentally good guy we were all rooting for. As his respectable straight man role sort of evaporated and more of his own bad qualities were brought out—and those of his son as well—I started to feel like the core of the show, which has always been Michael’s attempts to do right by people and his loving relationship with his son, has been put on the rocks, and not in a good way. If you were looking for ways to make the show funnier, I don’t think that trashing the few actually likeable characters is the way to do it. Overall, I guess you couldn’t say there’s a ton of character development either. Arrested Development sees the Bluth family members change in various subtle ways, but they always fundamentally remain the same and usually revert to their old ways in times of crisis. The development part of the equation really comes into the changing power dynamics in the family—who’s on top in this particular episode or season and what they do with the power they’re given. The whole narrator’s breaking of the fourth wall thing isn’t for everyone—even in shows like House of Cards that make extensive use of this gimmick, it tends to get old after a while, and I’m feeling like Arrested Development is no exception. In summary, it feels like the show just isn’t aging well with time, and maybe a definitive ending sooner rather than later might be called for.

My Rating: 

Seasons 1-3: 9/10

Seasons 4-5: 7/10

While it’s stumbled a bit since its 2013 reboot and lost some of the simple brilliance and charm that made it what it is, the fact is that Arrested Development is still a very funny, very influential show, and it continues to be better and funnier than most other things on TV. You have to admire the writing skill that goes into crafting these complex storylines, and creating characters that are so fundamentally unlikeable and yet so human that we love them anyway—or just love to hate them.

Ask a Writer #9

Welcome to another “Ask a Writer” blog post! Today I’ll be addressing a question posed by a certain hot and vivacious redheaded friend of mine from Twitter having to do with character and story creation. She asks:

@J_L_PIPPEN: Do you find that some negative and positive events and experiences in your life have affected or changed the relatability of your writing? For example having something happen to you that changes the way you understand or describe your characters?

The short answer is absolutely, yes. The longer answer is a bit more complicated, and while the fundamentals of my story and characters probably haven’t changed in significant ways due to my own personal experiences–I try to keep reality out of my fiction if at all possible!–there are a couple of characters and plot elements that I have changed based on what’s been happening in my life recently, and not so recently.

Those of you who know me well probably have a sense that I’ve struggled a lot with my self-worth and self-confidence for my entire life, probably to the point where I could be classified as having some form of depression. I’ve never called it that because it feels disingenuous to people who really have crippling depression they suffer with daily, which isn’t what I have. Most of the time I’m fine. But there will be days, sometimes several in a row, where I’ll feel down and hopeless and alone and question why I bother writing or even getting out of bed in the morning. These things usually pass quickly though and I’m back to being all right again. I’ve never felt the need to seek professional help for it–until last year, which let’s just say was a pretty rough one for me personally. I was stressed and depressed to the point where I felt like I just needed someone to talk to–and it did help. Truly. I’d advise anyone who’s feeling that way to do the same.

Anyway, one of the things I’ve always been good at, from a very young age, is that when I’m stressed or angry or sad or depressed or anything like that at all, I tend to mask how I’m feeling with humor. I make jokes, other people laugh, and I feel better about myself. I’ve more than once been compared to fictional characters like Hawkeye Pierce from MASH–who in fairness probably is a lot like me. And from what I’ve learned over the past several years, a lot of people who are professionally funny for a living are some of the most unhappy, tortured souls alive. It’s sad, but true. RIP Robin Williams, for one. So I identify with them in a way.

Those feelings of inadequacy and not belonging and the humor I conjured up to protect myself and hide what I was really thinking served as my initial inspiration for the character of Jack Ferguson–for those of you who don’t know, the hero of Camp Ferguson and more recently the sequel, Jack Ferguson Strikes Back. I embellished a bit because I wanted the contrast to be more stark here. At first glance Jack is everything I wish I could be, as he’s super-smooth, cool, and likable–if somewhat clueless and mischievous–and above all, supremely funny. He dishes out the vast majority of the funny lines in the series and is an expert prankster. Over the course of the story, though, you start to see through the cracks in Jack’s seemingly bulletproof armor–he had an unhappy childhood in and out of numerous foster homes, and never knew his parents save for a traumatizing meeting with a father who didn’t want him (I assure you, IN NO WAY a reflection of my life!). That encounter started him down a spiral of self-loathing and self-destructive depression which he only managed to overcome by entirely reinventing himself as a happy-go-lucky, carefree practical joker with no depth to him at all–the only way he wants other people to see him because he thinks no one would like him anymore if they knew the truth. In a way, he’s still self-destructive, just in ways that seem light-hearted and fun, as he focuses on cracking jokes and making people like him, and cares nothing for academics or traditional measures of success in life. You start to get a sense that he was always an outcast and isn’t quite as popular as you think he is. He reacts to the slightest bit of responsibility with disdain, disgust, and outright rebellion. I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with him, if they could get him to sit still and focus long enough or stop him from accidentally brainwashing them into mindlessly liking him from the mind magic that’s leaking out his ears.

Jack is my occasional struggle with depressive feelings taken to extremes, and a lot of what went into creating him are things that I’ve felt for my entire life. My more recent experiences have certainly helped though, especially in terms of Jack’s rejection of authority in the second book–I’ve never seen myself as a particularly good leader, and am much more content to work as part of a team rather than head it up. Again, looking at extreme reactions, Jack rebels against the notion that he’s special and has some responsibility to bear because deep down, he doesn’t want to be special–he just wants to be accepted and “normal” like everyone else. It’s something I’ve always felt too, but am just starting to get over and accept as part of who I am. Needless to say I’m much happier for it at this point–but Jack still struggles on. It’s kind of the whole point of his character arc, but I don’t want to give too much away right now. So I wouldn’t say those things have changed Jack much, but they’ve definitely deepened my understanding of him as a character and people in general who face these kinds of issues.

I’ll also give you an example of something recent that absolutely did change my story: the whole concept of the “Resistance” movement, especially among women and politicians. I don’t want to make this post about politics, so please don’t make it that. But from the first moment that thousands of women took to streets across the nation to march in the past year or so, I was fascinated by this new drive people seem to have found and the revived language and imagery of things from history like the civil rights crusade or the women’s suffrage movement. My work in progress, Jack Ferguson Strikes Back, was beginning to be outlined at the time, and was going to be all about how the scouts of Camp Prospero deal with a new leader who’s actually a competent, genuinely evil villain with plans that could hurt a lot of people. Compared to their previous boss and bad guy, who was mean, intolerant, and cruel, but in the end a bumbling moron who wasn’t a truly credible threat, the new scoutmaster would require an entirely different approach, and probably wouldn’t stand for the public campaign of undermining and insubordination that the old one had. She’d be much more likely to follow through on her threats and crack down viciously if necessary to keep the scouts in line. With current political discourse focusing a lot on subjects like the violation of societal norms, budding authoritarianism around the world, and resistance to both these things, I conceived of a scout-lead resistance movement against the new scoutmaster–an idea that’s ended up forming the backbone of the story.

As I’m still in the process of writing, I’m not sure how deep into the well of resistance imagery I want to go–I mean, it’s all over the new cover I drew for the book. Do I want to go in all the way and have my characters start an underground Free France-type organization? I sort of did that with the creation of the resistance group the Bunkhouse Boys (which also existed prior to this story in my fictional world). Do I want something less formal, like a bunch of people meeting around a campfire? I’m trying to figure that out in a way that’s organic, but maybe also entertaining and a bit funny while still being tasteful and respectful of the theme. But resistance is definitely going to be a key theme of the book going forward.

On the same subject, the large numbers of women speaking out today about their poor treatment in the workplace and otherwise gave me a push into making my main female character Tessa a bit more of an outspoken feminist. Sure, she’s had those tendencies ever since she was first introduced in Camp Ferguson, but the sequel sees her taking this activism to a whole new level as she becomes the default head of the Camp Prospero resistance–a job which brings out a new kind of social justice warrior side to her character that plays nicely with the no-nonsense, confident, and fair attitude she’s always had. She’s usually the one who offers the contemporary social commentary in the story that keeps its fictional characters and events in touch with what we’re seeing right now in the news, and I think she’s quite a good fit for it. It’s brought new depth to her as well that I think she needed, and I feel really good about being able to bring to an already strong female character.

I hope this has given you a little insight into how more current events may have shaped my characters and writing! I don’t think you should ever be afraid to work the real world into your fiction in general–it just makes it more real to the audience and will make you seem relevant. Go for it!

Review of the Week–Shenanigans at South

It’s been a while since I actually talked about a book for my Review of the Week, mostly because it takes me such a long time to get around to reading or actually finish any book outside of my own writing these days. But for your consideration today I’ve got a pretty quick, fun, and more kid-friendly read that I’m happy to say one of my own friends published!

The big selling point of Shenanigans at South is really that, as the book’s profile on Amazon points out, it was written and developed with extensive input and help from actual young students–something that clearly shows through both with the tone of the piece and choice of subject matter. It draws direct comparisons to compilations of short children’s stories with a slight central theme like Loius Sachar’s immortal Sideways Stories from Wayside School, a book that I loved in my childhood and really influenced my own writing style and tastes in humor. The book follows the adventures of a particular fictional class of youngsters and the zany antics of both their classmates and the so-called “adults” in the room in a somewhat surrealistic school where doors can run away it you don’t watch them, children can switch bodies, and cats want to take over by hypnotizing everyone.

The comparison is a very apt and well-earned one, too. I laughed almost as often reading Shenanigans at South as I did on the old Wayside School series, although maybe a bit less because I’m older now than I was back then. The style is a dead-on match, where the ludicrous and bizarre things that happen are all played with a completely straight faced deadpan approach, aside from the occasional wink to the reader. While it’s tough to step out of the shadow of such an established children’s author as Sachar, this book really does a good job of setting up its own distinct universe and characters, who all have their own quirks and are quite well-formed. It’s one of those stories where the kids clearly have more common sense than the adults, and it’s often humorous how the children are the only ones who seem to question the strange things that happen around them while their teachers just accept them as normal. I guess it’s a pretty good metaphor for growing up, really.

Some of my favorite stories included “The Magic Principal”, in which the title character magically vanishes and reappears somewhere else every time a student says his name–wreaking havoc with his schedule–“Door Monitor”, where the classroom title of door monitor is revealed to be vital as doors can run away if you don’t watch them carefully, and “It’s the Thought That Counts”, where the ambiguous and contradictory nature of the title phrase is on full display. Some are far more kid-focused than others–“The Booger Cycle”, for example, is something I think little children would find hilarious, but did admittedly turn my stomach a bit–and some are more high-concept and lofty, like “Multiplication” and “Two Hour Delay”, which really capture a good deal of the surrealist tendencies of the story, but I think it all combines to strike a pretty good balance.

Again, it really does show that kids had a big hand in helping to write this, although as a consequence at times–either due to inside jokes between the writer and his students or other elements we’re not privy to as an audience–a couple stories like “The Class Swallower” just left me scratching my head because I’m not sure I got it. In addition, a few of the stories stretch out over two and even three chapters in a row. I’m all for making short stories longer, but in this case I worry that the transition could confuse some readers, especially the younger ones. That said, the quality of the stories themselves certainly didn’t suffer for it–the ones that were longer deserved to be so because they probably couldn’t be boiled down into a few pages like the others. All in all, it was a very good mix of styles and stories that made for a light and fun read even as a so-called adult. And I very much admire the efforts of the author to get ideas from students about what they would want to read at their age and include it in as coherent a way as possible. It faltered a couple of times, but more often than not was wildly successful in entertaining me.

My Rating: 9/10

If you’ve got young kids–especially ones who’ve loved the Wayside School books–Shenanigans at South was basically tailor-made for them, and maybe for you as well. If you enjoy surreal humor in the style of Monty Python, Louis Sachar, or cartoons like Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy, you’ll probably love this book. It’s a quick, great, fun read for people of all ages that was developed in a truly unique way I think is deserving of a lot of praise and recognition. A fine job by everyone involved! Is it too much to ask for a graphic novel?