Thursday, May 27, 2010

Glee Provides One of Best Scenes Ever

If anyone was in any doubt that Glee is one of the best shows on television these days, it's because they haven't been paying attention. I got into the show right before their hiatus, and have been impressed (by and large) with the steps they've taken since coming back. It's hard to believe that the show is this huge in such a short period of time.

But what continues to impress me with Glee the most isn't the songs (though they're phenomenal, and averaging about 4 or 5 full-on musical numbers an episode is no easy feat), but the way they handle the characterization. And one of the best character dynamics in the show is between the flamboyantly gay singer Kurt and his ruggedly bewildered father, Burt.

This dynamic has had a lot of back-and-forth, with the father trying to support Kurt's choices of his lifestyle, and Kurt being profoundly hurt that it even takes an effort. Mike O'Malley, who plays Burt Hummel, definitely deserves a Best Supporting Actor Award from somewhere - Emmy's, Golden Globes, People's Choice Awards ... something! Every scene with Burt and Kurt (a rhyme that I only just now realized as I typed it into the computer) makes it clear that they love each other deeply, but just do not know how to really connect with each other.

To make it worse, Burt has been connecting just fine to football-loving Finn, whose mother he has recently begun dating. This has only deepened the tensions between father and son. Kurt, who has a mild crush on Finn, has been conflicted over the whole situation, and its implications for his own relationship with his father.

This week's episode started with the announcement that Finn and his mother were moving in with Burt and Kurt. Kurt offered to redecorate the room that the two of them would be sharing. It culminates in this, one of the best scenes I've ever witnessed on television:

What's so great about this?

On the DVD commentary for Dollhouse: Season One, series creator Joss Whedon (who also directed last week's episode of Glee, featuring Neil Patrick Harris, so this isn't a complete non sequitor) said that he loved having a scene where there are two people, both of whom you agree with, who disagree with each other. That's good television. (This is in episode 6 "Man on the Street," for those who are interested.)

And that's exactly what happened in this scene. There are three characters, and you are in utter sympathy with all three of them, even though the three of them are not in agreement about the outcome they want to see from the situation. It literally had Amber and me holding our breaths.

This is good storytelling at its finest, as opposed to my issue with most shows, such as Avatar, which fail to understand one of the fundamental tenets of storytelling:
Villains are not nearly as interesting as people who you kind of agree with
On Glee, even the vile Sue Silvester (who is a bit like Ann Coulter with a personality disorder) has redeemable qualities, and there are times when her opposition to the existence of the glee club actually seems to be founded on something resembling a valid moral principle. Even as a clear caricature of a wretch of a human being, she has far more depth than Avatar's Sergeant character.

This was one of the ways in which Lost really got things right, because no one - not even the Smoke Monster, really - was completely evil. The bad guys made the occasional moral choice, and the good guys made the occasional immoral one. In fact, there were no "good guys" and "bad guys," really, but just people with different goals, some of which required occasionally shooting a person or having them beaten. In the first season, characters who were portrayed as being "bad" - Sawyer and Jin, for example - were shown to be much more complex than was at first believed. Similarly, characters who seemed fairly moral on the island - Charlie, Kate, & Sayid - were shown to have been the sort of people who cavalierly ruined the lives of others in their pre-island life.

In fact, as I look at the shows that I like these days, I find that this tendency away from clear definitions of good and evil is one of the things that draws me most strongly. In our world there are no boxes of good and evil for people to step into, just individual choices that we have to make time and time again.

In this scene, Finn makes a bad (but understandable) choice out of frustration at a situation he does not want to be in. Burt's reaction is to stand up for his son, and to do so with brazen honesty that adds to the severity of the scene. Burt isn't condemning someone else's sins. He is condemning his own. He's condemning the very flaws that he is trying to work out of himself, which is why he can be so harsh on Finn without seeming unjust.

The episode is worth watching for a number of reasons, and the resolution of the storyline is great, with Finn making a similar moral stand on Kurt's behalf. In a world where there aren't boxes for good and evil, it's great to see a television series making the point - in such a bold fashion - that making moral stands when the time comes is all we can do.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The "Lost" Series Finale and the Chain of Promises

Having watched 6 years of Lost, I've come to expect that their finales pose more questions than they answer ... but I'm hoping that isn't the case for the series finale. Sure, there will be some questions left open, but the big ones need answered. In this respect, Lost has always suffered from the best and worst in storytelling, because it continually offers promises/questions to the reader (as any good story should) but it has fallen far short of fulfilling them.

What's odd is that, throughout the series, the "big questions" have been moving targets. Most of the earliest questions have, at this point, been answered, but others still dangle before us to varying degrees. Some of the dangling questions matter and some do not. 

Consider the big questions established in the 2-hour series premiere, was the hook that got many people onto the show. The premiere had three big questions:

  1. What was the monster in the jungle?
  2. Why were there polar bears on the island?
  3. What's up with the French woman who's been transmitting a distress signal for 16 years?
Question 3 was basically answered within the first season (though more detailes of Rousseau's story have been fleshed out with time), and question 1 has finally been (mostly) answered, even if there's still some mystique behind the exact nature of the "Man in Black."

But question 2 still bugs me. Six years ago, I was promised an answer about why there were polar bears on a tropical island, and by God I want that answer come Sunday night or I will be upset.

To be honest, I don't expect one. They have a lot to do on Sunday, in just two-and-a-half hours, and I don't think they'll squeeze the polar bear explanation into it. To some degree it's already explained, because we know that the Dharma people kept the polar bears in cages for some sort of purpose, probably related to their zoological experimentation. But that's not good enough for me, because that doesn't really explain anything.

An interesting explanation proposed at is that they were being trained to turn the time-travel winch, so that the island could be moved without teleporting a person off the island. This would explain the related mystery of why there was a polar bear in the Tunisian desert. However, so far as I can tell, this explanation is not at all explicitly stated in the show. I want to know this answer for sure.

Telling a story is about a chain of promises, and when you present a mystery there's an implicit promise being made that the mystery will be solved by the end of the story. Lost has always been better at setting up the mysteries than at providing satisfactory resolutions, and this cost the show a lot of credibility throughout season 3 until they switched to the flashforward (not to be confused with FlashForward, a show that has sadly been cancelled by ABC, while they keep the mind-numbing V) format of the show. There were still mysteries, of course, and questions that never quite got resolved, but ... well, that's life.

It's a tough balancing act, because not everything in a story has to be explained. But enough has to be explained that the reader, or viewer, doesn't feel cheated. If the polar bears are not explained, I will feel cheated.

However, the show is good enough that other major mysteries do not need to be explained, and I'll be fine with it.

For example, I no longer need to know what's up with Walt. Season One established that there was a lot of mystery surrounding Walt. The Others kidnapped him, and at the end of Season Two it was established that it was, in part, because he had some ability to appear other places, like astral projection or something. What the heck was up with Walt?

I thought, at the end of Season Five, that Walt would return to the island with Jack and the others. I was really surprised that didn't happen, because it seemed like a natural course for the storyline, and would have allowed the show creators to resolve Walt's mysteries. But he didn't, and I have no expectation that Walt's role in things will be explained.

And, oddly enough, I'm fine with that. I'm fine with Walt being explained as just some random psychic who  happened to be among the candidates chosen by Jacob. That's a sufficient, if not entirely satisfying, explanation.

At this point, I think the finale will definitely focus (as it should) on resolving the more recent mysteries of this season - the strange situation with the alternate timeline/island timeline, and explain what's going on with Desmond, and how the cross-time memories are working in the alternate reality. There's a lot to do, and minor plot issues that haven't come up for three seasons are not likely to be high on the list.

Still, there continue to be a handful of other dangling mysteries that I would like to have explained:
  • Why did Benjamin have Michael kidnap Jack, Sawyer, Kate, and Hurley at the end of Season Two? How did he get that list of names? Is it a coincidence that these are the same four people who made it to stand against the Man in Black in the series finale?
  • What did Charles Widmore do to get banished from the island?
  • Why did Jacob & Richard make a deal with Ben, and kill off all of the Dharma people?
  • When Jack saw Christian & Kate saw Claire on the mainland, was that a hallucination or Jacob? (Presumably it wasn't the Man in Black, since he can't leave.)
  • Why was Libby in the mental institution with Hurley? What was she doing on the plane?
  • How did Ben get detailed files on everyone? They clearly go beyond what you can get in a normal background check, including the information that Locke's father was the con man who ruined Sawyer's life.
  • Was that really Locke's father who Sawyer killed? How did Ben get him there?
  • If the Smoke Monster cannot kill candidates, why has he been able to kill people on the island before, like Mr. Eko? Did Mr. Eko cease to be a candidate, and became fair game?
  • What's up with Bernard & Rose? They're still on the island, after all, living in Jacob's abandoned cabin.
There are, of course, many more questions ... but these are the main ones that come to mind. Any other ideas?

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Money From Virtually Nothin' at All

From college into my mid-twenties, I spent most of my spare time as a staffer on various text-based multi-user online games, most of them set in the World of Darkness roleplaying setting. My emphasis was on the Mage: the Ascension game, though I did have some overlap with Vampire: the Masquerade and Changeling: the Dreaming. My focus was then (as now) on telling a good story, and I was told by many that I was one of the best "storytellers" (as those who "run" these games are called) that they'd dealt with. The games that I was involved with were what were called MUSHes (multi-user shared hallucinations) or MUXes (not really sure what this ever stood for).

In 2003, though, I finally got drawn into the graphics-laden world of Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG), which include the better known games like Everquest, Ultima Online, Dark Ages of Camelot, World of Warcraft, and the like. The game that finally got its hooks in me was Star Wars: Galaxies, in which you were able to play a character in the Star Wars universe. Starting in the last few weeks of their beta test release, and continuing into the full version of the game, I played for nearly a year and a half as a Mon Calamari character, loyal to the Empire. (As a boy during the Clone Wars, my family's transport had been rescued from destruction by rebels thanks to a young Darth Vader, and Lord Vader forever after had my allegiance. Remember - it's all about telling a good story!)

My character - Evrab Akicky was his name, if I recall correctly - was an artisan (crafter) and merchant. In the course of the game, he obtained the profession titles of Master Artisan, Master Droid Engineer, Master Architect, Master Chef, Master Merchant, and possibly a few other master professions. (They have since, I'm told, revised the Profession system a bit.) Mostly my emphasis was on being a Chef and Merchant, the two Master-level rankings (along with Master Artisan) that I kept throughout my tenure in the game.

I built top-notch mining equipment, with which to extract the needed raw materials for my creations. I would go to a website that featured a list of all of the minerals available on all of the planets, along with their various statistics, then analyze the requirements for my recipes to figure out which places I needed to mine to get the most valuable resources. Then, in game, I would go to that location and try to find the highest concentration of the choicest resources. These resource deposits shifted regularly, so the process required careful attention or the mining machines would be sitting idle, costing me valuable credits and time.

As a Chef, I also needed materials like hide, bone, and meat from animals, which means I needed to commission Rangers to hunt for me (for resources, again, whose quality I obtained from the same website). Eventually, I created another character - a Master Ranger, Master Marksman, Master Rifleman - who could help me obtain these things without having to go through others exclusively. I was known throughout my guild as having some of the best resources around, and I honestly made more off of the trade of raw resources than off of selling my Chef concoctions (although in SWG at the time such food and drink provided powerful "buffs," playing the role that magical potions provide in fantasy-based games, so they were valuable in their own right and I made a pretty penny off of them).

As a Master Merchant, I was specifically designed to get the highest return, able to have many mechanized, customized vendors placed throughout the universe, on various planets. My trade only increased with the "Jump to Lightspeed" expansion, in which I gained the ability to craft customized spaceships.

This all sounds like I never actually played on the game, and that is certainly not true. I helped my guild found an in-game city, crafting many of the municipal buildings myself. In probably one of my proudest gaming moments at Star Wars: Galaxies, I officiated at the online wedding of our two guild leaders, wherein I told a touching homily about two ancient Sith Lords, whose love was torn apart by a deceitful Jedi who sowed distrust between. (Remember, I was an Imperial character.) The moral: be ever mindful of the importance of love, and mutual trust, in holding a relationship together.

My point in all of this is that for nearly a year, I spent about as much time "working" in Star Wars: Galaxies as I did in my day job. (I was single through most of this time, for reasons which should now be obvious.) And it was only toward the end of this time that I became aware that there were markets for selling in-game credits for real-world money. I never got involved in these sorts of transactions, but it did occur to me that it would be possible ... at around the same time I began dating again, and slowly got out of the gaming life, so never personally profited from it.

So when I saw the book Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot by Julian Dibbell, I was instantly intrigued. At the same time I was playing Star Wars: Galaxies, Dibbell was diving head-long into the Ultima Online loot trade in an effort to make a living at it in real-world dollars. There but for the grace of God go I, and all that. I ended up getting Play Money on audiobook from my local library, and it was excellent!

For those who have familiarity with these worlds - who have once, as I have, been addicted to them - I would really recommend reading Play Money and seeing it through Dibbell's eyes. It's part nostalgia, part reality check, and part economic philosophy lesson. Here's a quote from my review of the book: 
The most intriguing aspect of the book is Dibbell's analysis of what it means to be "real" in an economic sense. Why do things have value? If people work for hours to establish a virtual economy, and that virtual economy has an exchange rate to the real-world economy, then is the virtual economy any less real than the real-world economies? In light of the recent financial crisis, caused in large part by the trading of insubstantial "derivatives" far removed from the tangible home assets that they purport to represent, in some obscure fashion (they actually represent the trust placed in a person to pay the mortgage on a home, not the value of the home itself, after all), Dibbell's questions become even more relevant.  Are the virtual economic decisions made by virtual game designers at a gaming company, in regards to how much money to introduce into the economy for example, substantially different from those made by the Federal Reserve? Isn't the only difference one of scale? There are more people affected by the U.S. economy than by the Ultima Online economy, and that's the only sense in which it is "real."