Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Best of the Year 2012 - Der Koosh


Prelude 

My recent "thing / criteria" when it comes to evaluating a show, movie, book, etc involves what isn't on the screen/text, but is a quintessential part of the universe.  By that I mean what you can speculate about that isn't part of the main plot, but may or may not contribute to it.  I don't mean trying to guess a character's motivation for a specific action, or what the director meant by a particular shot angle, or even what might've happened to a character if their arc peters out prematurely.  No, I mean more about thehistory, future, and off-'screen' present of the book/show/movie.  What happened to bring the world to this point, what's going on in the world that's hinted at but not part of the plot (distinguishing it from a loose end which is distinctly brought up, but left unresolved), and where is this universe going after we close the last page / the credits roll.

(Oh dear, I hope this doesn't mark me as a post-modernist.)

A great example of this principle is Babylon 5.  Yes, it was crippled by numerous problems: a borderline schizophrenic approach from the show's backers, bad sweaters (it was the 1990s, even if it was the 2250s-60s), and a ridiculously slow start that didn't really get moving until a quarter of the way through Season 2.  But the universe that existed was so expansive, that you can (and I have) speculate about so much of both a character's past and that of their species without having to actually touch what happened on screen at all.  The characters and their dialogue betrayed so much behind the curtain that wasn't seen, but was brought with the characters, that it creates a universe which you, the viewer, can fully participate.  This is one of the reasons why Doctor Whohas taken a step back for me as of late; everything's explained in such a nice little package that I might as well be consuming the show instead of participating.

Best Book You Read This Year

Hasn't really been an impressive slate this year, I'm afraid.  Too much election reading, not enough fiction reading.  I don't know if this really counts, but Great Paintings, by DK Art and Collectibles would probably be my choice.  They have a fine range of paintings included therein, and very in-depth analysis of each that is extensive without getting too abstract.

Best TV Show You Watched

Disclaimer: This is going to be a long one.  Settle in.

The show that I started watching this year, and the one to which I'm indelibly hooked, is decidedly not what most would expect from a straight, married man in his late-20s.  That being said, when I say that I'm hooked, I mean that I visibly worried for a few weeks when I first heard that the third season was slated for only 13 episodes, when the first two seasons had 26.  As an economist, I first did a rudimentary trend analysis and sent the following distressed email to my wife: "I DON'T LIKE THIS TREND.  WHAT IF THEY'RE GOING TO CANCEL IT?!!!!!"

Thankfully, one of the show's co-creators came out recently and said that there will be many more seasons, and that the season length will vary based on the demands of the plot. That, obviously, was an enormous salve for me, and it's allowed me to assuage my fears that a show that I've only recently discovered would be snuffed out so quickly.  So that bodes well.

When I mentioned in my prelude that what I enjoy about books, shows, movies lately is the ability to perceive the universe outside the main plot, character arcs, etc. without it being crammed into the book/show/movie, it's this element that this show has in spades.  Just the other day, I had a 20-30 minute discussion with a friend of mine (also a friend of the show) about whether one of the characters of the show was a benevolent autocrat in the Judeo-Christian God mold or a savvy Machiavellian operator.  Seriously, we worked out how you can interpret her actions over the course of the episodes, what her real intentions are vis-a-vis the main character (what's her long game?  Is this Janus trying to eliminate a potential rival for power, or manipulate the protagonist into being completely under her thumb so when said character realizes her full potential, she'll be a loyal vassal of this brilliant schemer?

Obviously, the show I'm talking about is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.


This show may be the greatest children's show of all time, which is ironic because it's not really a children's show at all.  It's arguably the best thing on television right now.

No, I don't like Mad Men and I haven't seen Game of Thrones.  Deal with it.  

Why do I think it's the best thing on television right now beyond the fact that I watch very little non-British television nowadays andSherlock is off the air until late 2013?  The philosophy, the characters, the message, the comedy, and the complexity.

1) The philosophy.  As someone who's a huge Plato fan, I've never seen a show with stronger parallels to The Republic (despite the fact that the linked article is from one of my favorite blogs, I noticed the parallels independently).  The three types of ponies in the show obviously reflect Plato's three components of the soul - the telekenetic, studious (with magic obviously subbing in for reason/knowledge, exemplified by the main character Twilight Sparkle) unicorns as "gold" reason, the proud, militant (Fluttershy exempted) Pegasi as "silver" warrior spirit, and the commerce-focused, far more numerous earth ponies as "bronze" desire.

Not only is the philosophy spectacular, but its approach to religion is amazingly humanistic.  In one episode, the main characters play-act the "origin story" of the realm of Equestria, and what it took to get off the ground.  As you can imagine from the title of the show, teamwork was involved, but that's not what I want to point out.  The flag that the ponies raise at the end after they, on their own, come together is the same flag that they raise at the start of the show.  That may not seem like a big deal, but keep this in mind: on the flag are the two quasi-deities of Equestria: Princess Celestia (of the Sun) and Princess Luna (of the moon) - both recurring characters in the show.  The thing is that as far as the origin story is concerned, neither Celestia nor Luna has shown up yet, as the two of them are regularly cited as the reason by which Equestria is held in egalitarian harmony/balance.  What this is saying, in effect, is that the ponies, upon that first instance of working together and founding modern Equestria, created Celestia and Luna as deities to lend a quasi-religious sheen to ensure the success of their society.  This is an incredibly human (some might say cynical, as was brought up about Civilization V's introduction of religion as a cultural force) way to portray religion: that it was developed not out of divine inspiration, but that it evolved out of either conscious or unconscious understandings of society's needs and environmental considerations at large.

How often do you see that in what's nominally a children's show?

2) The characters.  In retrospect, I didn't have many female role models in media growing up.  In this show, there's several, all of whom have a very human realism about them.  Yes, they each have their distinctive, exaggerated character traits, but often entire episodes exist to help them break out of those archetypes, instead of crystallizing them: the bookish Twilight is forced to find a role without magic, the jock Rainbow Dash discovers the joys of reading after repeatedly making fun of "eggheads," etc.  Instead of over-emphasizing what makes the characters different, the show illustrates the complexity that exists within each of them, and challenges the very exaggerations which make the characters memorable in the first place.  In so doing, the show demonstrates just how complex we all are as human beings (but I'm getting ahead of myself).

As you can imagine, the overwhelming majority of characters in this show are female; in fact, there isn't a male non-comic relief character who shows up until the end of Season 2.  That being said, the characters themselves cover the gambit of the emotional spectrum quite well; the militant, competitive, quick-to-anger Rainbow Dash and the tough, hardworking farmhand Applejack exemplify many male characteristics on their own, and the rampant sarcasm that so many of the characters use is as common as any "bro" show would include.

3) The message.  This is absolutely one of the biggest selling points for me.  I knew I was hooked halfway through the second episode, when the characters are on a journey to discover a weapon capable of saving the kingdom.  I won't give too many spoilers, but they encourage an incredibly frightening scenario, and only emerge from it because one character encourages them to laugh in the face of fear.  This lesson really stuck with me, because it's something for so many children to learn.  What makes MLP so unique to me is that, unlike so many children's shows that simply ignore the presence of darkness or evil in the world, MLP fully embraces.  It's as if the show is saying, "Yeah, there are scary things out there, but here's how you can deal with them."  That sort of gritty realism coupled with a fundamentally optimistic look really meshes well.  The whole show is a reflection of that idea; often, the situations that the characters face have very real-world applications, and they don't shy away from showing both sides of a dispute (one episode in particular comes to mind, when the characters have to work through a land-use dispute between what are, essentially, Native Americans and cowboy settlers).  Further, the lessons at the end are not your simple, run-of-the-mill, borderline-useless "be nice to everybody" platitudes.  Through example, the show shows kids how to deal with real-life problems.

As a future father, I fully plan on importing those messages to my kids.

4) The comedy.  Again, growing up, the closest thing I saw to a woman being a victim of physical comedy (in a non-cruel way) was Bugs Bunny in one of his many cross-dressing affairs, or maybe Lucy.  Regardless, they were few and far between.  But with MLP, the fact that there's almost exclusively an all-female cast makes that a virtual necessity.  The fact that it's a necessity doesn't take away from the fact that the show isn't afraid of having its characters, say, get hit by a rapidly-opened door or fall head-first into a giant puddle of mud.  I don't point this out for some sort of schadenfreude, but rather because it shows female characters in a "real," non-dainty way.  The show's characters are confident enough that they won't erupt into tears when having, say, a bowling ball hit them on the head (that episode dealt with the paradoxical nature of time travel, but I digress).  It's a very real, human way to portray women, and one I don't see that often.

5) The complexity.  As if the above hasn't convinced you that this isn't some superficial sparkly girly-girl show, let me make one last point.  While there are far too-few "arc" episodes in a given season in my mind, the ones that exist definitely build on the idea that the characters are really evolving.  In a cartoon, this is tough to show because the characters aren't getting "older" or developing physically.  However, each season premiere and finale brings the characters up against tougher challenges, pushing them further and further away from their comfort zones, dealing with both existential crises and political / military ones, really asking what are, essentially, characters in their late teens / early twenties (Twilight Sparkle, the show's main protagonist, definitely strikes me as a graduate student) to grapple with problems far above what you'd expect their scope to be.  The fact that these characters are called on again and again, not only by the religious/political authority (Celestia) but by the earthly authority (the town's mayor) for important, leadership-dependent responsibilities demonstrates a real trust in "the younger generation" that is far removed from today's sickening Baby Boomer-centric slurping in the nation's politics, op-ed pages, business elite, etc.

In short, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a phenomenal show.  It contains all the symbolism, comedy, drama, undertones, and fundamental optimism that we expect from great art.  That's right, I'm a huge fan.  And I'm not alone

Best Movie You Saw

Midnight in Paris. In fact, it's the best movie I've seen in quite a few years, let alone just this one.  Let's go through the awesomesauce:

1) The casting.  Boy, does Woody Allen know how to put together a dynamite cast.  Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Dali (Adrien Brody) positively steal the show.  And throwing in Carla Bruni as a Museum Guide?  That's just unfair.  If Best Casting was a category at the Academy Awards - and it should be - this movie would've won it by such an overwhelming margin that the Academy wouldn't have even bothered nominating anyone else.  I actually didn't mind Owen Wilson being cast as Owen Wilson Gil Pender because, frankly, his character doesn't have the stature that just oozes out of the Fitzgeralds, Hemmingway, Stein, Dali, Gaugin, Degas, Toulouse-Leutrec, et al.  Therefore, he shouldn't be the one driving the plot, even if he is the protagonist.

2) The setting.  I mean, c'mon.  I'm well aware what our dear blog host thinks about Paris, but the shots they take in that movie - both in the present and the 1920s - are just architecture porn.  As Arnost Lustig might say, "Ohhhhh, Paris, she soooooo beautiful.  Right now, little boys touch themselves thinking about how beautiful she is."

3) The characters.  Not just the ones based on real people (because, again, Hemingway and Dali, WHOA) but even the fictional characters.  I've already gone briefly into Gil's merits, and I like that he grows enough over the course of the film to arrive at the film's main realization organically.  Good writing, for me, demands as a necessary (but not sufficient) condition that the writer leaves a trail of bread crumbs that's small enough not to actively notice, but once the big reveal happens, they shine so brightly that you wonder how you missed them in the first place.  And Woody does a masterful job here with Adrianna as muse / plot device.

4) What Isn't Seen.  See my disclaimer.  There are so many avenues to go here, not the least of which is that the movie is unique as a romantic comedy because the romance is Gil falling in love with Paris, and that the two women with whom we expect him to connect with, he doesn't.  It's only at the end of the movie we see the beginning of a romance.

5) Carla Bruni.  Yes, again.

Best Music You Listened To

Regina Spektor's new album, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats.  I love Regina's voice, quirky non-sequitrs, mood, beat, you name it.  Just a solid, solid album.  I don't really know how to talk about music, and I barely can discern lyrics as-is, so I won't try to push any further than that.

Best Misc.

I'd go with "best political blog," but really couldn't tell you if Ezra Klein's Wonkblog or Nate Silver's Five Thirty Eight makes more sense, as they're both pretty equal in my mind, be it the former's excruciating detail in explaining policy or the latter's excruciating detail in explaining polling.  My inclination is to go with Silver, since Wonkblog pretty much wins every year and Nate Silver had to deal with far more dumb and non-sequitur attacks from the "unskewed" crowd than Klein did, so I'll give it to Five Thirty Eight on Level of Difficulty points.

Worst Social Media Trend

When someone you know on Twitter or Facebook posts some stupidly radical / uninformed / unsourced quote, anecdote, or statistic, captions it "Interesting..." and leaves it at that.  No defense, no criticism or endorsement, no explanation, nothing.  I point this out now because this trend was rife during the primaries and the election season in general.  I can't describe how many times I saw a story pop up on my feed along the lines of "Obama's trying to institute martial law - here's how" or somesuch nonsense.  I'm aware that truth is the first casualty in politics, so I shouldn't be surprised.  I suppose it just feels worse this year because Twitter/Facebook "chain emails / stories" are so much more prevalent nowadays, and it's doubly irritating to see them from people you didn't think were initially political.

I'm not saying that people should go out intentionally picking fights on Facebook.  That being said, what you post is, unless you explicitly criticize it, an endorsement of what you believe.  After all, it's going out under your name.  If you're confused or unsure about what you're posting, either 1) don't post it until you've figured it out, or 2) explain why you're confused or intrigued.  Give some context for people so, if someone comments, they have something to play off of instead of trying to tease out your cowardly non-position.  And if you get upset at people for calling you out on it, then maybe you should think about what you're sharing before you share it.  Maybe those few seconds of thought will make you realize that it's really not your belief...or maybe it is, and you can at least articulate it.  What social media needs aren't thoughtless linking to a million stories - things are already cluttered enough - but thoughtful, reasoned, civil opinions to provide context for the reams of information thrown at us every day.  People follow / subscribe to you because they want your thoughts, not just what you randomly link to without any sort of context

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