Thursday, December 31, 2015

Miss JJ Tackles the "Read Harder" Challenge

A friend of mine has been blogging throughout the year about the Book Riot's 2015 Read Harder Challenge. I found the challenge intriguing (although I maintain that its name could use something more accurate, as it is a challenge about reading more broadly, not necessarily "harder," whatever that vague nomenclature means), so I've been checking in throughout the year to see how I'm doing on it meeting all its criteria.

That being said, I also have to admit I didn't go too far out of my way much to pick up books that fit into 24 categories laid out by Book Riot, somewhat defeating the purpose of the challenge. Still, I'm glad to find that my usual reading habits - fueled by personal and automatic recommendations, various review sources, advanced reader copies, and book club choices - actually make for a pretty well-rounded reading experience.

As you can see, out of the 24, I was able to tackle 23 - nearly all, which I'm chalking up as a win, even if some titles were a bit of a stretch. I ended up using some picture books to fill a couple of categories but, hey, don't knock children's literature if you want to be friends with me! :)  Of those tasks that I didn't get to this year or stretched to meet, I have read those types of works in the past, so I feel okay about not hitting those marks in 2015 specifically.

Below is a list of the 24 categories from Book Riot's challenge, followed by the books (with links to my personal reviews) I read this year that fit into that particular category. Throughout the year, I ended up reading more than one book from certain categories; however, if a book fit into more than one category, I kept it within just the "best fit" category. So an audiobook by an author from Africa went under the latter category (which would otherwise be empty) rather than going in the former category that already had a few contributions.

My hope with this post is that you might find some books of interest to you and/or find some titles from any of these 24 tasks that you weren't able to complete - or did complete and are now hungry for more books from the same category! But please note that I'm not necessarily recommending all of these books whole-heartedly; in fact, some were very bad reads in my opinion. So buyer beware - read the reviews before you make a decision on a title that catches your fancy.

1) A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25
2) A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65
(These first two tasks were the most difficult because books don't generally list an author's age at the time of the writing. It's possible I read more books that fit these categories but was unaware of it. In some cases, it's very difficult to learn the age of an author at all unless they are very famous author ... which usually doesn't happen under the age of 25!)

3) A collection of short stories (either by one person or an anthology by many people)
4) A book published by an indie press
(Like with #1 and #2, this was a rather difficult one because it's not really something I'm consciously aware of when picking a book. It's possible I read other books that fit this category during the year, but I didn't quite realize it at the time.)

5) A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ
6) A book by a person whose gender is different from your own
(NOT reading a book written by a man would be the greater challenge. There were many others that fit this category, but I didn't feel inclined to list them all. I chose these two because with the time period they were written in, 1940 and 1929, respectively, they are more male centric than others simply written by a man. Suffice to say, this task "challenge" was met several times over. And over again. Many of those books are listed here elsewhere.)
7) A book that takes place in Asia
(Note: None of these take place fully in Asia, but they do have numerous scenes set in Japan and Malaysia amongst the three of them.)
8) A book by an author from Africa
9) A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans, Aboriginals, etc.)
10) A microhistory
11) A YA novel
12) A sci-fi novel
13) A romance novel
14) A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade
15) A book that is a retelling of a classic story (fairytale, Shakespearian play, classic novel, etc.)
  • Emma by Alexander McCall Smith (modernization of Emma by Jane Austen)
  • Jack Maggs by Peter Carey (parallel novel to Great Expectations by Charles Dickens) *
16) An audiobook
17) A collection of poetry
18) A book that someone else has recommended to you
19) A book that was originally published in another language
20) A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind
21) A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure (Read, and then realize that good entertainment is nothing to feel guilty over)
22) A book published before 1850
(Okay, yeah, you got me - This was a re-read. But it's been around a decade since I read it last, plus this time I went with an audio version rather than a printed copy. So, kind of like new?)

23) A book published this year
24) A self-improvement book (can be traditionally or non-traditionally considered “self-improvement”)

* These were books that I started this year but did not finish by the end of it. Hence why there is no link to a review. [This post was updated February 2016 to add a linked review for Jack Maggs. And again ... finally ... in July 2016 to add a linked review for Salt: A World History.]

As the year comes to a close tonight, I'm glad that I worked on this challenge during 2015 and am looking forward to trying out the 2016 challenge! Happy new year and new reading to all. :)

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Misallying Love Interests & Etc.

Hello, my beloved readers, if any of you are still here! I know that once again I've been neglectful in keeping up to date here, although I have so many things I'd like to share. One day...

In the spirit of trying to write about things when they're fresh in my mind, I'd like to talk briefly about a play I saw this evening. Tonight I was in the audience for the play Misalliance at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. Misalliance is a drawing room comedy written by George Bernard Shaw in the first decade of the 20th century. Unlike other Shaw plays, this one isn't particularly well known and apparently doesn't see the stage often these days. Reviews for this particular production were rather mixed, and I think I get why that is.

Misalliance is a play that seems to take a while to get started, but even after it did take off some, I still found myself a little puzzled as to what exactly the plot was. There just simply isn't much of a plot. The entire play takes place in one evening in one setting - the pavilion room of a wealthy businessman in the English countryside. The characters consist of a family of four as well as the daughter's fiancée and his father, and a few unexpected guests. Some of the themes explored include the parent-child relationship, education, the class system, speech versus action, politics, and feminism. While this is all well and good, there times here and there where the play was very speech-y and it was unclear what this all was leading to -- sometimes, it would loop back around to the general themes and flow of the play while other times it would just be there to be there. It also seemed like the characters were sometimes a bit contradictory in all their long-windedness.

On the plus side, there were definitely a lot of humorous parts to the play, which is what I was hoping for and expecting. Shaw makes more than a few meta-references to plays and all their trappings that had good tongue-in-cheek quality to them. The father's penchant for pushing books at everyone was a hilarious refrain in particular. After a plane crashes in the garden outside, things got a bit farcical, but that was in a good way. The introduction of Lina, the Polish acrobat, was refreshingly funny and added some physical comedy to the play. She also elicited a lot of laughs either through her own person or through the minor plot points she put into action. In addition, Lina brought home more of the feminist theme, with a rousing speech that was the only one to elicit applause from the audience mid-scene:

Oh, your Johnny! with his marriage.  He will do the straight thing by me.  He will give me a home, a position.  He tells me I must know that my present position is not one for a nice woman.  This to me, Lina Szczepanowska!  I am an honest woman.  I earn my living.  I am a free woman.  I live in my own house.  I am a woman of the world.  I have thousands of friends. Every night crowds of people applaud me, delight in me, buy my picture, pay hard-earned money to see me.  I am strong.  I am skillful. I am brave.  I am independent.  I am unbought.  I am all that a woman ought to be; and in my family there has not been a single drunkard for four generations. And this Englishman! this linendraper! he dares to ask me to come and live with him in this rrrrrrrabbit hutch, and take my bread from his hand, and ask him for pocket money, and wear soft clothes, and be his woman! his wife!  Sooner than that, I would stoop to the lowest depths of my profession.  I would stuff lions with food and pretend to tame them.  I would deceive honest people's eyes with conjuring tricks instead of real feats of strength and skill.  I would be a clown and set bad examples of conduct to little children.  I would sink yet lower and be an actress or an opera singer, imperiling my soul by the wicked lie of pretending to be somebody else. All this I would do sooner than take my bread from the hand of a man and make him the master of my body and soul. And so you may tell your Johnny to buy an Englishwoman: he shall not buy Lina Szczepanowska; and I will not stay in the house where such dishonor is offered me.

Similar sentiments are expressed by the 20-something daughter of the family, Hypatia, who feels trapped in her upper middle-class life:
  • "I don't want to be good; and I don't want to be bad. I just don't want to be bothered about either good or bad. I want to be an active verb."
  • "I want to be; I want to do; and I'm game to suffer if it costs that.  But stick here doing nothing but being good and nice and ladylike I simply won't."
  • "Men like conventions because men made them. I didn't make them. I don't like them. I won't keep them."

Of course, the feminist in me identified with a lot of this (but not necessarily with the way Hypatia went about her search for adventure ... although given the time period and her social situation, she really didn't have a ton of options available to her). So that specific theme as well as the humor really appealed to me. This particular production also had an absolutely beautiful and elaborately detailed set (see pictures above), excellent actors who were well cast, attractive costumes, and a lovely intimate setting in the relatively small theater. While there were some speeches that did drag and seemed a little pointless, overall I'm glad to have seen this play. Tomorrow is the last two showings of this production, so run - don't walk - to the box office to grab your tickets!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Detective Jackson Brodie Investigates in Case Histories

Recently, I've gotten into author Kate Atkinson's works and have been making my way through two of her book series. The first of these is her Jackson Brodie series, which contains the following four books to date:

- Case Histories;
- One Good Turn;
- When Will There Be Good News?; and
- Started Early, Took My Dog.

So far I've read the first three and have enjoyed the high-brow mystery novels that Atkinson presents. Somewhere along in this reading process, I heard that a TV miniseries had been created based on the books, but I wasn't much interested. That is, until I wandered over to Atkinson's website and saw that Jason Isaacs plays the lead role in the series. After loving his portrayal of Detective Michael Britten on Awake, I just knew Isaacs would be perfect as Brodie.

Isaacs as Brodie in Case Histories
The TV series is a product of BBC Scotland, is simply named Case Histories after the first book, and has two seasons to date (or "series" as they say in the U.K.). The first season covers the events of the first three books and consists of six episodes of roughly one hour in length each, with two episodes dedicated per book. The second season follows the fourth book and is made up of three episodes. Since I've only read the first three books so far, I've only watched the first season, but I'm pleased with what I've seen.

In the essence of time, Case Histories the TV show truncates the books a great deal. We have far less musing about random things and fewer direct insights into character's thought processes. Backstories are significantly shortened. The time between the cases goes from years to months, and basically everything takes place in Edinburgh rather than having Brodie moving about Europe frequently. And Brodie never leaves his private investigating career for greener pastures (before ultimately being sucked back into mysterious circumstance after mysterious circumstance). While purists may object to these liberties, they make sense to me given the medium change.

Other big changes in the transition from book to television come in the way of the characters. Some characters - like Deborah Arnold - are given bigger roles to play, while others - like Joanna Hunter - are given far less screen time. Meanwhile, some characters - like David Lastingham - don't make it into the show at all. Julia becomes a far more sympathetic character while Marcus is made less likable. Several characters end up with happier - or at least more optimistic - conclusions than they did in the books, particularly Martin Canning and Amelia Land.

As I surmised, Isaacs makes a wonderful Jackson Brodie. In an interview, Kate Atkinson admitted that her readers seemed more enamored with Jackson than she was, and while I enjoyed the books, I can't say it was because I was in love with Jackson. However, Isaacs gives Brodie a charm that isn't there in the books while tamping down his overprotectiveness a bit so that it comes off more endearing and less machismo. Also, without giving away any spoilers, TV's Brodie doesn't do the something in book two that is inexcusable and unforgivable to me, so that's a big plus.

Likewise, Amanda Abbington was amazing as Louise Munroe. Even though Munroe was easily one of my favorite characters in the novels, her rough exterior could come off abrasive without the benefit of her inner dialogue that we get in the text. But Abbington was able to keep Munroe snappy on the job and antagonistic toward Jackson while maintaining a je ne sais quoi that allows viewers to realize she's not entirely serious about her tough talk and there's a marshmallow soul beneath that all.

Other castings that I found just perfect are:
- Gwyneth Keyworth as Reggie - wonderfully fitting the part of a teenaged girl who looks much longer, while also bringing forth so much of Reggie's pathos, even with the reduced screen time to explore Reggie's past and present woes; and
- Fenella Woolgar as Amelia - such lovely casting, as I enjoyed Woolgar's bit role in BBC's production of He Knew He Was Right and I'm currently being very impressed with Woolgar's reading of the audiobook version of Atkinson's Life After Life.

The remaining characters are mostly well cast, although I can't help but be befuddled by the choice for Theo Wyre. He's a fine enough actor for getting the characterization of a kind but obsessively grieving father across, but the book makes such a fuss of repeatedly noting how obese he is - to the point of his doctor and his daughter worrying over his health, of his having his groceries delivered to his home because he doesn't want others to judge his food choices; of his being winded after walking up a flight of stairs; of his constantly being concerned about others' perception of him because of his weight. Philip Davis as Theo barely has a "spare tire" physique, yet alone a largeness that's going to turn heads in astonishment. I don't know why that small detail bugged me so much, but it did. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to see that casting had managed to add in a few minority characters so that the show would be a little diverse. (It could still use more, but I guess there's only so much you can do with the source material... )

As I mentioned earlier, the events of the novels are greatly truncated and fused, resulting in a faster pacing, fewer tangents, and more of Brodie tying up loose ends all on his own genius (rather than the sometimes happenstance way that the readers find out the conclusion of a mystery in the books). The show seems sometimes to take a more light-hearted approach to the grimness of Brodie's world, with elements like the more flirty banter between Jackson and Louise and the oddly upbeat musical interludes that often scatter throughout scenes (when of course we're not being "treated" to Brodie's favorite country Western songs). Again, this is one of the issues that arises with converting a book to the screen - the book found its humor in little funny random thoughts in characters' minds or in Atkinson's literary references, neither of which really can find their way into a television script.

All in all, this TV series is a solid attempt at translating the text into film. While there's nothing particularly spectacular about it, I also don't think there's much to offend fans of those books in the changes that were made. And for those who don't have the time or inclination to tackle the book series, this is a perfectly adequate substitution for some entertainment with considerably less gore than many other crime dramas and with interesting characters and plotlines. On that note, despite knowing how the mysteries resolved in the book, there was still a bit of suspense in how they would be solved or end in the TV series, given the revisions. Although this show isn't an instant favorite of mine by any stretch, it's appealing enough that I'll probably try to track down Season 2 once I finish reading the fourth book.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Morven Museum's Schoolgirl Needlework Exhibit

Today I joined the Central New Jersey region of the Jane Austen Society of North America to tour the "Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlework, 1726-1860" temporary exhibit at the Morven Museum in Princeton, NJ. Luckily one of the region's members read The New York Times review of the exhibit and suggested we visit or I would have completely missed out on this gem. To be entirely truthful, I wasn't sure exactly how much interest this exhibit would hold for me, but happily I ended up absolutely loving it. The exhibit displays embroideries in silk and wool that were completed by young, relatively wealthy girls as part of their formal education during the 18th and 19th centuries. All of the pieces reflect the work of girls from New Jersey, although in some cases the girls were sent to nearby Pennsylvania and Delaware to be taught at a prestigious girls' schools. These needlework samplers were generally meant to be displays of how privileged and talented these girls were.
“It is amazing to me, how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are. ... They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses.” - Charles Bingley in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. 
As we had a relatively large group and made plans some time in advance, we were able to secure a special PowerPoint presentation by two of the exhibit's co-curators as well as a semi-guided tour of the exhibit with them. The presentation helped a great deal in putting the exhibit into context. The co-curators described how there were regional differences evident in the needlework. Some counties had heavy influences from their Quaker founders, for instance. They also noted how even though there were distinct variations that could be largely attributed to one area or county, there was definitely cross-over as teachers moved from one school to another and brought their knowledge to a new set of schoolgirls. Another neat fact I learned from the presentation that I might not have gleaned readily from the exhibit was that not only did the exhibit cover more than 100 years of works, it also reflected needlework pieces from girls as young as 5 and as old as 29. Seeing the impressive needlework of 5- and 7-year-old girls was kind of mind blowing!

The needlework pieces themselves are astounding. Some show their wear while others have stood the test of time pretty well, still showing off bright colors and clearly legible text. Designs vary but are often of a similar nature: animals (particularly birds and deer), simple buildings, landscapes with a person or two, and alphabets and verses abound. Some pieces were used as a way to delineated a family tree/family historical record. Other more complicated works presented maps of the state or country. One sample contains the poem whose first line inspired the exhibit's title:
“Hail specimen of female art / The needle’s magic power to show / To canvas various hues impart / And make a mimic world to grow / A sampler then with care peruse / An emblem sage you may find there / The canvas takes what forms you choose / So education forms the mind.” - Anne Rickey
A few of the exhibit pieces also mixed media by having the needlework sent out for painting by an artist. Usually this done with silk-embroidered pieces rather than wool. After the schoolgirl completed her embroidering of the piece, then a painter would add in details or a landscape background to complete the piece. Finally, the piece would be framed, which was unusual for many of these samplers. The effect was stunning, and one of my favorite pieces in the whole exhibit was one of these samplers.

The talent and patience that went in to stitching these elaborate pieces are clearly evident. One thing I really appreciated about this exhibit is how it's elevated to the level of art something that was essentially homework and hung up only in the way that a proud parent posts an A-plus paper on the family fridge in our time. Nowadays, needlework is generally considered more in the line of a hobby than anything else. Viewing these works reminded me of all the embroideries my grandmother so lovingly made as something 'to keep her hands busy' when she had some down time, so this exhibit gave me a happy feeling of nostalgia as well as history lesson. At any rate, these pieces were certainly not items that were planned to be part of a museum exhibit originally! While museums by and large highlight the history of men (for better or worse), this exhibit gives a voice (metaphorically speaking) to a population that is traditionally in the background of history.

A companion catalog book available at the museum's gift shop provides more details about the exhibit and its historical background for those interested in learning even more. As it is, the exhibit's plaques contain more information than I could completely absorb in one relatively short visit, so this is a gallery worth re-visiting.

Speaking of re-visiting, I'd love to return to the Morven again some other time to spend additional time with the permanent collection and participate in one of their usual hourly guided tours to learn more about the history of the place. I did learn in my brief walkthrough on my own that the museum was originally a mansion whose celebrated residents include the president of the Continental Congress from 1782-1783. The building later became the state Governor's Mansion and was home to five governors. It is now a National Historic Landmark. And to think that I've driven past this place numerous, numerous times before and never once even gave it a second glance.

Another trip to the Morven Museum is definitely in my future and I hope in yours as well. The "Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlework, 1726-1860" is only on display for roughly another month, closing on March 29, so don't delay in checking it out!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Killing's Intensely Focused, Dark Drama

Some time ago, a member of my book club recommended the show The Killing to me, guessing that I would like it given its slower pace and psychological focus after I talked about how much I enjoyed the first season of BBC's The Fall. On her suggestion, I began watching the show and was immediately absorbed in its world.

Rather than the usual procedural TV show wherein a new case is tackled each week, The Killing's first two seasons are focused on a single mystery: the murder of 17-year-old Rosie Larsen. The daughter of a working-class family, Rosie's drowning death doesn't seem like a high-profile case but various leads soon (possibly) connect her murder to terrorism, city politics, and organized crime. As the investigation delves deeper, Rosie's death incites family tension, hate-based racial violence, and political corruption. This one case certainly has more than enough to grip the viewer for week after week with a total of 26 episodes devoted to the Larsen files.

While the case itself is plenty interesting, it's not the only thing holding the viewer's attention: that task falls on our leads. The Larsen case first appears on the desk of Sarah Linden, a veteran homicide detective who is about to retire when some of Rosie's effects show up in an empty field, and the police force must begin looking for a missing girl. Linden is joined by Stephen Holder, her soon-to-be replacement, who has just been promoted from County Narcotics to City Homicide. Holder, a former undercover cop who ended up getting hooked on meth, is willing to play hard and fast a little with the regular police rules and protocols, having no problem with roughing up a suspect or witness some or using rather indelicate language (to put it lightly) during interrogations. Detective Holder also seems to be channeling Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman to some degree, slumming about in hoodies and jeans, employing colorful ghettoized speech patterns, and in general belying his intelligence behind the charade of a stereotypical junkie.

Linden herself is another minefield of emotional and psychological depth. She's a single mother who is willing to do anything for her 13-year-old son Jack ... except put his well-being above her relentless pursuit of solving her latest case. In general, Linden seems to be hellbent on getting in the way of her own happiness. When the show opens, it is her last day of work before she heads down to Sonoma, where she and Jack will meet up with her fiance and presumably have a "happily ever after" life in sunny California. Rosie Larsen's murder changes her plans a little bit when her boss asks her to stay on an extra 24 hours to help Holder jump start the case. But soon it is Linden who is repeatedly missing her flights to California and choosing to stay for just a few more hours or days so that she can wrap up the case, despite her fiance's repeated protestations that there will always be another case, so she needs to learn to let go already. There are repeated hints from the fiance and others that a past case slammed Linden hard, and she suffered a huge emotional toll as a result. The unraveling of that mystery is another piece that keeps the viewer entirely absorbed in the show and wondering if Linden will get too involved in this case as well.

While Linden isn't the feminist icon that many see in The Fall's Stella Gibson, I found her to be an exceptional female lead in a crime drama. Linden's presence is so unlike characters in some TV shows where it feels like the female detective there is only to be a looker or simply to fill a quota (even though she does appear to be the only woman in the Seattle police force, though luckily not the only woman of substance on the show). She doesn't fall into traditional depictions of she's a good detective because she uses her female intuition and/or because she's more in tune with the emotions of the victims. Nor do the creators/writers swing to the other extreme and make her such a badass, almost despite her femininity (e.g., Ziva David on CBS's NCIS). Linden's characterization does fall a little bit into the stereotypical trap of she's a career woman so she doesn't have any other life, but to be honest this seems to be largely true of Holder as well. At any rate, Linden is not in any way one-dimensional nor does anything about her seem to be a reflection of her gender, any more than anything about Holder is a reflection of his gender. They come across as complex characters with complicated backstories and motivations trying to do their best in a troubling world.

Holder and Linden are both interesting characters in their own right but adding them together makes for an infinitely more compelling show. The pair in many ways seem like opposites to being with - beyond obvious physicalities (e.g., female v. male, short v. tall), Sarah is quiet and withdrawn while Holder is nonstop with the verbal diarrhea and seems to open up pretty quickly; Linden seems to initially have her life in order while Holder is a little more in flux; and so on. But these somewhat superficial details hide what the two do have in common: painful secrets in their past, abandonment issues, and feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. It's these deeper selves that allow Linden and Holder to find kindred spirits in each other, even if they butt heads often and occasionally lose sight of the trust they have in each other. In many respects, the two have a Scully and Mulder-type relationship that is endearing, with the way they look out for one another and each puts their trust fully in the other when no one else can be trusted. To go back to physicalities for a moment, they even look a little like Scully and Mulder with a short, red-headed female officer paired with a lanky male officer. And, of course, there's enough tension around the main characters to give plenty of fodder for shippers, who just can't have a man and a woman both be in a show without wanting something romantic to come out of it.

Besides the two leads, the show spends a lot of time focusing in on Rosie's family as they deal with the painful reality of losing a daughter/sister/niece. In your typical crime procedural, there's a maybe a minute or two where you get to see the family react to hearing the news of their loss. They cry, they wonder who would want to hurt their wife/child/aunt/brother/father/etc., and they provide one useful clue that the fearless crime fighters use to track down the killer. With The Killing, the Larsens are fully developed characters in their own right, who are layered with complex backstories and emotional epiphanies. While the Larsens aren't perfect, I really enjoyed getting to know all the family members and seeing how each chose to deal with their grief. This could change alternately from person to person (and day to day) from abandoning everything, expressing rage and violence, bargaining, revenge-seeking, questioning, and overcompensating trying to make everything wonderful for Rosie's younger brothers. Seeing the Larsens and how they tried to move forward with their lives from the day the teenaged Rosie disappeared was a huge part of what made The Killing's first two seasons such a success for me.

In addition to the police and the family, The Killing also spends a lot of time with the first good suspect that the police have. Rosie's body is found in the trunk of a car belonging to the mayoral campaign of Seattle City Council's president Darren Richmond. Even though it's quickly ascertained that the car was previously reported stolen, from this point on, we become intimately involved with Richmond and close members of his campaign staff. The politics of the race for Seattle's next mayor become inextricably interwoven into the fabric of the show and become one more reason to be invested in the series. These campaign characters are also given involved back stories and complex motivations, which are constantly causing the viewers to re-evaluate their opinions about them.

Although many were unhappy that the murder of Rosie Lawson was not solved by the end of the first season, I for one thought it was appropriate to extend that mystery and let the writers fully delve the deep of all those characters and the various plotlines that were presented throughout the course of the case. When the mystery was finally solved, I have to admit to being entirely shocked at finding out the identity of Rosie's killer. It was such an emotional rollercoaster all along and the ultimate reveal was like a gut punch on top of that all. A few loose ends are tied up with the remaining characters as we see everyone move forward after this traumatic murder. The show could have ended there on a high note and been a short-lived but fantastic drama.

But unfortunately, it didn't do that. Sometimes quitting while you're ahead is not understood by TV creators/writers/execs. The Killing went on for another two seasons, with each worse than the previous one. Season 3 starts out reasonably enough, with a year having past between Rosie's murder and the current events, giving Linden and Holder enough time to get a handle on their lives. Holder is in a serious relationship and doing well in the homicide department paired with a new partner. Linden has left the force and settled into a quiet job, has a new home, and is in a romantic relationship of her own. This all changes when a series of murders start occurring with links to a past homicide investigated by Linden. Of course, she has to get involved and once again becomes completely absorbed in her work to the point of losing everything she gained in the last year.

Season 3 lost a lot of the charm of the previous two seasons. The Larsens are gone as are all the members of the Richmond campaign. While this makes sense, I had been so invested in these characters and come to enjoy their part of the show so much that it was disappointing to hear nothing of them again. (We do have one brief cameo of Richmond eventually, but it would have been nice to have been given a few more Easter eggs, like a Larsen moving van in the background on the street somewhere at the very least.) This season presented new characters, but I didn't find them as compelling, complex, or interesting. For starters, there's the significant others of Linden and Holder, although Linden's would-be lover is hardly even given the time of day in terms of characterization. Holder's girlfriend is a little more involved in terms of characterization, although it's hard to see the attraction between the two of them without fully exploring her past. On the police home front, we meet Holder's new partner, the seemingly chump-like Carl Reddick who has manages to have quite the nose for investigations once his suspicions are aroused, as well as a new boss in James Skinner, who Linden apparently had an affair with years ago, although it's somewhat hard to buy the supposed chemistry between them.

Meanwhile, the original similar case that Linden had worked on had resulted in a conviction with a death row sentence, which seems a rather unlikely result to a case of spousal murder. The show spends a long time lingering on the wrongly convicted man's time in jail on the death row watch, including spiraling off to learn more about the prison wardens and their personal lives. It was interesting to see how the show could go off on these divergent storylines again and still keep the viewer gripped. However, it once again didn't work as well. While well played by Peter Sarsgaard, the character of Ray Seward, the man accused of brutally murdering his wife, was such an arrogant bastard in jail that you could only rarely sympathize with him. This may have been an effort to keep the viewer guessing as to whether his wife's death was truly part of the serial murders occurring now or not, but the end result was spending a lot of time with a character that just wasn't as compelling as those we had seen in the first two seasons. In addition, some je ne sais quoi about these long prison sequences often felt like they belonged to an entirely different show.

The serial murders are largely of young teenagers living on the streets, so we start to meet a number of homeless youth in this season, including characters with names like Bullet, Lyric, and Twitch. While it would seem like this would be a fertile ground for creating characters even more complex than those we saw in the first two seasons, this turned out not to be the case. Lyric and Twitch were largely one-note characters caught up in their personal teenaged angst dramas and occasionally remembering to be afraid of the serial killer prowling in their area. Bullet was more developed than the others and yet still somehow lacking. For myself, I think it would have been more interesting to learn more about how and why these kids ended up in the streets to begin with than in, say, needlessly having Bullet raped and seeing her react to that only briefly before acting like nothing happened.

By following the lives of these teens, the show took on an even darker underbelly of the city than that seen in the first season, introducing us to abusive/neglectful parents, drug dens, and child pornographers/rapists. While it was certainly disconcerting, there was nothing surprising about this. Youth with no support systems are taken advantage of in horrible ways; we see this play out across the globe in the real world every day. It's doesn't have the unexpected twists that the Rosie Larsen case took and it's just a reminder of how awful the world can be toward those that are considered easy prey. When the murderer was revealed for this mystery, not only was I not surprised, but I had pretty much predicted it early on in the season.

Season 4 picks up with the fallout of Linden shooting the unarmed murderer of the homeless teenagers and Holder deciding to help her cover it up. This was probably the weakest of the storylines as I just couldn't buy it. It seemed to me like they could have explained away the shooting (i.e., claimed that the murderer was in fact armed at the time) and moved on without it becoming a huge thing they needed to hide. The cover-up resulted in the two characters becoming so paranoid that they started mistrusting one another and turning their backs on each other. As the relationship between the two of them was such a vital part of the show previously, this development was incredibly frustrating. At this point, the show was becoming like the proverbial train wreck - horrible to see but somehow you just had to keep looking at it to see how it all plays out.

Even with all this going on, the creators/writers decided to also introduce yet another mystery - that of the murder of a wealthy family in which only the teenaged son survives. This story was so half-baked that it really was not only uninteresting, but it was also entirely bizarre, and yet the conclusion was so obvious that it was hardly worth calling it a mystery. This would not be a bad thing if the characters were interesting, but all of the new characters introduced were so lacking in any depth that they're wasn't anything worth noting about them. Add in that Holder and Linden were a mess, and there really wasn't anything redeemable about this season.

And, now that the show moved off of cable and on to a streaming format solely, the creators/writers decided to let lose with the language. As I've said before, I'm not a fan of when shows decide that the best way to push the envelope is to throw in a bunch of choice four-letter words. I'm not a prude, I'm not a saint, and I certainly don't have any beef with the occasional foul language. The Killing presents a dark world that is constantly full of abandonment and brutality, so it's reasonable that Linden, Holder, and others would spew out invectives some of the time. But when your finely tuned writing turns into scenes in which literally the two main characters just hurl "f--- you"s at each other, it's hard to argue that the quality of the show has improved by the lack of inhibition.

After everything shakes out with the season four cases, we get a flash forward to five years in the future, and the show ends with a tacked-on happy ending, which is so out of touch with the rest of the series that it's almost comical. Sure, it's nice to have the characters you've come to care about have a ending has some uplifting potential. But that would have been appropriate at the end of season 2 when there was more hope to spread around amongst the various characters. But by this time, so much more has gone on and happened between the lead characters that it doesn't seem in the least bit realistic, a damning charge for a show that was built on being tough, gritty, and no holds barred. It's almost like an element of magical realism being added in at the last minute.

In conclusion, watch the first two seasons of The Killing if you're interested in a tightly wound mystery packed into divergent storylines, replete with complicated, compelling, and deeply human characters. Then do yourself a favor and leave well enough alone but not wasting your time with the latter two seasons. You'll thank me later.

A Look at the Darkest Side of Humanity with BBC's The Fall

The Fall is a powerful, intense, challenging, and disturbing show that is most definitely worth the watch. In a world where there seems to be a police procedural and/or crime drama on every night on every station, it may seem redundant to have yet another show about a serial killer and the police search to capture him. And while boiled down this is exactly what The Fall is about, the show is far more artistic and serious than the many more sensationalist cookie cutter criminal-based programs out there already.

To step back a moment, The Fall is a BBC-produced drama taking place in recent years in Belfast, Northern Ireland. When the daughter of a prominent (and wealthy) businessman is brutally murdered, the local police launch a ramped-up investigation to catch her killer. To head up this task force, they bring in Stella Gibson, a detective inspector from London with a stellar (couldn't resist the pun!) track record for understanding and thus bringing in criminals. Gibson almost immediately sees a link between this murder and those of other women in Belfast who share similar characteristics (although, alas, the rest don't have the moneyed fame so their deaths weren't originally given the same high status treatment). Behavioral profiling of the murderer, painstakingly intensive forensic studies, and round-the-clock monitoring of tip lines and potential suspects' movements consume the task force's time as they pursue the serial killings.

Meanwhile, the viewers are given the position of knowing far more than the police as we soon enter into the world of the killer himself. A grief counselor with a wife and two young children, Paul Spector is mundane enough for most people to not notice him or suspect him of being guilty of anything more egregious than perhaps a speeding ticket. But underneath this calm demeanor lies a troubled psyche that finds fulfillment in others' misery and feels powerful only by destroying lives. Besides his unrepentant need to stalk and murder pretty women, Spector has a host of various other problems to deal with in his life, ranging from fairly typical parenting issues to a teenaged babysitter who is infatuated with him to a client case in which an extremely violent man is abusing his wife.

This last issue brings up an important part about what makes The Fall such a fascinating show. The cat-and-mouse between the police and the killer makes for plot-driven suspense and, as always for me, well-developed characters finish the job of sucking the viewer into the drama. But The Fall goes a step further by looking into a major cultural issue of times - and one that is sadly, often rather divisive - that of gender roles and gender equality/inequality. The issue of violence against women in particular is a large part of The Fall, and the show explores it in a number of ways, while also examining women's implicit and explicit roles in combating both crime and cultural stereotypes about their gender.

The Fall starts with presenting a female main character that is a wonderful example of a feminist hero. Stella Gibson is certainly not perfect and she's not necessarily "kick ass" in a superhero sort of way (although you wouldn't want to get on her wrong side either), but she's tough, smart, and confident. Her personality at first appears a bit cold because she isn't passionate in terms of raising up a fuss or otherwise getting bowled over by her emotions. But it's soon obvious that Gibson does indeed feel strongly at appropriate moments and while she is guided mainly by her intellect and sense of morality, her emotions also play a role in why she does what she does. She feels deep empathy for the victims and their families and is remorseful when she fears she's made a mistake that comprises a woman's safety.

Just like she is not devoid of emotion, she is also not a nun despite not being in a traditional relationship. Gibson has no problem clearly and plainly putting out her intentions when she finds someone of sexual interest - and when she does not. No part of Gibson's personality is tied up in any particular man or even in proving herself in a workplace historically populated by men. The show thankfully does not fall into the trap of turning Gibson into a "bitch" because she is a woman in a supervisory capacity or of making strong assertions about how Gibson has chosen being a career woman rather than a wife or mother, as thought it always needs to be an either/or choice. Clearly, the creators/writers here were not interested in presenting a stereotypical "women's intuition" type of female police detective who will inevitably end up in a long-term romantic relationship with her male partner. Gibson is simply living her life - sometimes making mistakes, sometimes shining (again, can't resist the puns based on her first name!) with insights not picked up by anyone else.

While The Fall certainly isn't alone in presenting a female lead - or even a strong female lead at that, the show doesn't just stop there. Gibson isn't a lone voice in the wilderness; the Belfast police and their attendant associates have a fairly equal amount of male and female employees. Even though she has a previous relationship with Assistant Chief Constable Jim Burns, on reaching Belfast, Gibson quickly aligns herself with two other women in particular - Dani Ferrington, a beat cop who becomes the right-hand woman to Gibson, and Professor Reed Smith, a pathologist who reports various insights to Gibson. In the world outside of the police force, we also get to know an array of female characters of various importance (and ensuing screen time) from Spector's wife to his victims to victims' family members and so on. The Fall presents women of all kinds: from the fiercely tough and professional detective constable Gail McNally to the busy and rather clueless (and thus, in a way, very sympathetic) Sally-Ann Spector to the clearly emotionally needy/disturbed young babysitter for the Spectors. With the exception of the babysitter Katie, who is a little one-note in terms of her motivations, all of the women - and indeed, all of the characters - are believable, well-rounded characters who have their individuals highs and lows.

But The Fall does more than simply present strong and believable female characters (not to say that isn't an accomplishment enough in a world where plenty of other shows and films struggle to have even a fair number of women in prominent roles). It also delves deep into a variety of issues surrounding women and how our culture treats women. It touches on how women are objectified, thus dehumanizing them to predators, specifically stating this through Gibson's words, but also showing it in other ways (i.e., using the visual medium of TV well to make the point). At one point when Spector tapes the torture of a victim, he ends his homemade video by asking why it's being watched. It's an uncomfortable moment of pointing out the viewer's own voyeurism and implicit role in this cultural problem of allowing women's rapes and murders to become lazy plot points to propel forward male heroes.

Nevertheless, the show is not without its detractors who criticize it for being misogynistic because of the female murder victims and for seeing from the killer's point of view. While I see their point about how displaying the corpses of dead women is troubling (it's something I felt with other crime shows), I don't find that to be the case here. Even though we see from the killer's eyes frequently, at no point are his actions condoned or held up as something to model/mimic. Meanwhile, there is so much empathy put out for the victims, the families, and even the community at large, that I don't feel like the dead women are simply props held up for their shocking entertainment value.

(Speaking of sensationalist shock value entertainment, I could not help thinking about the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey movie, which stars Jamie Dornan as the BDSM-loving protagonist Christian Grey. I'm not sure how anyone could watch Jamie Dornan as Paul Spector subjecting a teenaged girl to bondage and other "grooming" acts, stalking women in his neighborhood, holding a woman hostage, violently murdering women, etc. and still come away thinking that a book series/movie about a dominant wealthy businessman introducing a young, naïve college student to sadomasochism is romantic.)

The Fall also has gained some critics because of its pacing; the show is certainly slow moving and lingers where other shows rush full speed ahead. Unlike the myriad of procedural shows on the air that fill up 20-plus episodes a year with largely one-off mysteries with sometimes poorly explained motivations, The Fall has chosen to focus the first two seasons (a total of 11 episodes) to this one case. Viewers come to intimately know all the characters and see the continuing effects of the crime on the police members tracking the killer, the killer's family, the surviving victims, and the victims' families. While there are still some motivations that could be more fully explored (e.g., the babysitter), it's a good change of pace to be reminded of the humanity (and lack of it in the killer's case) behind crimes rather than just the next thrilling plot move. For me (and many other viewers), the slower pace was not an impairment to appreciating in the show; in fact, it in many ways made it a more suspenseful watch. As a viewer, you care much more about the fate of a character once you've become invested in that person's life.

The breadcrumbs thrown out about whether nature or nurture created the psychopathic killer is another interesting component to the show. As the story develops and we learn more about Spector's troubled past, there are plenty of opportunities to reflect on how and why this man became a narcissistic sociopath turned violent offender, even if the script doesn't always explicitly state his motivations. And while there are certainly many references to Spector and his deeds as monstrous, the show through Gibson often reminds viewers how life exists on a continuum and everyone has elements of good and bad in them. In one scene I found particularly poignant in this regard, Gibson takes Burns to task for trying to weasel his way into her bed after she repeatedly says no. While she does make certain to maintain a distinction between him and the killer, she still manages to remind Burns (and the audience) that the treatment of women as mere sex objects is an easy trap to fall into that quickly becomes a slippery slope.

Like any TV show or other artistic expression, The Fall is of course not perfect. There is a secondary plot about police corruption that almost entirely fades in the background of the serial killing storyline. At times, there are scenes that feel unnecessary or not fully explained. On occasion, the police seem woefully behind the serial killer despite the tremendous amount of money and effort being spent on this case, including some scenes that just seemed ridiculous in how slow the police were responding, which hurt some of the credibility of the show. But overall, I found the first two seasons of the show to be fully engaging and thought-provoking in terms of plot and themes. They were also all extremely well acted, with an array of interesting, complex characters being presented and explored. The end of the season two finale was a bit bizarre in my opinion (and I am not alone), but I'm hoping that the third season slated for release in fall 2015 will help to smooth over those ragged edges and provide a satisfying conclusion to this thoroughly captivating show.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Way Behind the Curve: Partying with the Folks from Party Down

This post comes to you rather belatedly so I apologize in advanced for any mistakes in my memory. If I get my act together more in 2015, you'll be seeing some posts that really should be written sometime over the past two years or so instead of now. I'm hoping that it's, as the saying goes, "better late than never." With that said, let's proceed in to this post proper.

Some of you may know that I was a huge fan of the cult classic TV show Veronica Mars; it remains one of my go-to shows for when I've had a bad day and/or want something familiar. So when I heard that Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas also had a short-lived Starz TV show titled Party Down, I knew I would sooner or later need to watch this show as well. Sooner arrived when I scored an incredible Black Friday steal on both seasons of the show on DVD and proceeded to watch the show (note: this was several years ago now and hence where memory issues may arise).

Party Down focuses on a catering business that employs a number of wannabe actors and, in one case, a burned out actor. Steering the helm - or more, accurately trying to steer the helm, is Ron, who desperately wants to do well in the food service industry after his recovery from drugs and alcohol. In addition to Rob Thomas, Party Down reunites Veronica Mars writers/producers John Enbom and Dan Etheridge on the creative team along with Paul Rudd, who once guest starred on Veronica Mars. The cast (encompassing for this purpose series regular, recurring guests, and one-time guests) also includes a veritable who's who of Veronica Mars alum: Ryan Hansen, Adam Scott, Jane Lynch, Ken Marino, Jason Dohring, Steve Guttenberg, Enrico Colantoni, Ed Begley, Ryan Devlin, and Kristen Bell herself. 

All this seems to be pointing in the direction of Party Down plus me really hitting it off, right? Wrong. Despite soldiering through both full seasons (albeit only 20 episodes in total between the two of them), I found I could not really get into Party Down. For starters, it's essentially a sitcom. Strike one. Sitcoms and I rarely do well together, as I ranted about in length in a previous post. Granted, Party Down is a somewhat atypical sitcom going to places that most network sitcoms wouldn't touch. But still, you can't really change a leopard's spots and Party Down is what it is: a sitcom. And unfortunately, Party Down's very absurdity was sometimes its downfall for me. The more ridiculous and, frankly, downright slapstick the situations became, the less invested I became. The show could occasionally make me chuckle, but more often it left me shaking my head in wonderment - and not the good kind.

The second strike against the show was its characters. In my opinion, characters make or break a show. They don't necessarily have to be identifiable and/or likable characters, but they definitely have to be interesting. The characters in Party Down were quirky, but not necessarily that interesting considering that most of them were fairly one note. And they certainly weren't likable - self-absorbed, narcissistic, downright nasty, immature, and irresponsible are more fitting adjectives to describe the majority of them. Sure, I could feel moments of sympathy certainly for Ron who is hampered down by such reckless team members. Henry, the faded out actor who is still occasionally getting recognized for his past fame as the speaker of a catchphrase in a beer ad, also could have times where he was relatable and sympathetic, although as the series progressed he seemed to be further sucked into the dysfunction of his co-workers. The rest of the characters were really a pretty dismal lot and it was difficult to root for them - or even care about them - for much of the action. And, sadly, there was little growth or change for these characters. Yes, specific events - whether big or small - did make an impact on their lives in terms of things like getting a new job or ending a relationship. But in terms of their character traits, they showed little difference from the pilot to the final episode for the most part and even less in terms of positive moves. While the characters were generally unpleasant, lots of kudos go to the actors who were all magnificent at being awful characters, totally embodying these people for the duration.

Strike three was what seems to be my usual complaint for premium cable TV shows: just because you don't have censors and can do whatever doesn't always mean you should do whatever. While Veronica Mars was smart, witty, and frequently said more with less, Party Down was foul, crude, and often gratuitous. Characters curse at the drop of a pin, nudity for no particular reason abounds, and situations occur that probably wouldn't show up on network TV (like the group catering an orgy party on one occasion and an adult entertainment party on another). I certainly don't mind shows that manage to escape from unnecessary sanitation, but I also think that the rules of good writing still apply. Simply throwing in a dick joke when you could have been clever, relevant, and funny isn't going to suffice. And I hoped for more from the creators of something so genuinely brilliant as Veronica Mars, which succeeded at being clever, relevant, and funny as well as engaging and populated with interesting, layered characters and compelling story lines. Meanwhile, Party Down had the barest of story lines, with it often feeling like there was little carryover from one seemingly self-contained episode to another. 

One thing that the writers did do an excellent job at, however, was creating a show where we looked at only one aspect of the characters' lives - their time at work - and yet managing to covering a lot of ground despite the self handicap. Granted, they did have two things going in their favor:
1) Most of us do spend a great deal of our time at work so it is something that focuses a lot of our energy as well as the place where we do end up talking about everything else going on in our lives. For better or worse, our co-workers become our de facto family members. 
2) While we don't see the cast outside of their workplace, given the nature of their catering job, we aren't stuck with the same physical set over and over again. The characters travel to different parties in a variety of locales where we get to meet new (albeit, equally dislikable) characters all the time. Still, that's not a compelling enough reason to make this show great.

In case the point wasn't obvious yet, this is not a show I would recommend, which is sad because I do really believe that this team of writers/producers/creators can do fabulous work. But this show just didn't do it for me. Part of that was undoubtedly the disappointment created by hoping for another Veronica Mars and getting something so remarkably different from it. But part of it is also because this show was never going to be my "thing." My limited research on the show found that it received some positive critical praise but had low ratings, leading to it be cancelled after two seasons. Let me know hear your thoughts about the show below. Did you watch all 20 episodes? What were your thoughts on the crew at Party Down?