Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘fiction

Better or more familiar? / Thoughts on works for children and their translations

leave a comment »

As I have recently repeatedly noted, there is a difference between being worse and being new/unfamiliar/whatnot (cf. [1], [2]). This brings a backlog item to the surface:

Over the years, I have encountered various works in different language versions, as with e.g. some English children’s books (in Swedish as a kid; in English for a nostalgia reading as an adult) and various older Disney movies (especially specific scenes through a Swedish Christmas tradition). Some comic franchises I have read in all of Swedish, English, German, and French (but not necessarily the same works within the franchise), especially when making early steps in the non-Swedish languages.

Normally, I find that translations are inferior (often, highly inferior) to the originals, as with some absolutely ridiculous German mistranslations of the works of Terry Pratchett or utterly absurd mistranslations of film titles and dialogue (English movies are usually dubbed in Germany)—up to and including the replacement of the original English title with another English title. However, with many of these early encounters, it is the other way around.

A particularly interesting case is the title “Alice in Wonderland”, with the implication of “Alice in the Land of Wonders”, vs. the Swedish “Alice i Underlandet”, which can be interpreted either as “Alice in the Land of Wonders” or as “Alice in the Land Below”*.** As a young child, seeing that both match the contents of the story well, I was fascinated by the question of which of the two was correct, to the point that it transcended the story as such. My memory is a little vague, but I suspect that I tendentially came down on the side of “Below” as the more natural interpretation. (As I grew older, I learned of the original title and straightened this out. I do not know whether the Swedish ambiguity was deliberate or fortuitous, but it was certainly fortunate.)

*Or “[…] Land Under” to be etymologically closer at the cost of a less natural English formulation. A variation with “Land Down Under” is tempting, especially in light of weird animals, but the Australians might complain. (“Alice in the Netherlands” would just be confusing.)

**Both are a little odd idiomatically. I would probably have expected “Alice i Undrens Land” in the former case and, maybe, a formulation with “Under Jorden” in the latter, to match some other tales. (This with reservations for changing idioms and that this is a spur-of-the-moment thought that might not hold up on closer inspection.)

Above, we had an objective advantage for the Swedish name, but in other cases I suspect that my preference is rooted in “more familiar”. Is e.g. “Kalle Anka”* a better name than “Donald Duck”? There is no obvious reason, but the former still sticks with me. (And imagine my reaction when I first heard of Paul Anka…)

*“Anka” is “Duck”; “Kalle” is the usual nickname for “Karl”, a common Swedish name. Cf. “Charles” and “Charlie”. (The overall name likely predates Carl Barks involvement with the Ducks and is unlikely to be a nod. However, with an eye at funny names, I have to ask: Carl Barks at whom?)

As a side-effect, such a name change can give a different set of associations. Consider “Scrooge McDuck” (Scottish* miser of a Dickensian level; maybe clan related; well suited for tartans, kilts, and whatnots) vs. “Joakim von Anka” (nobility; possibly German*; sophisticated and well suited for fancy jackets, canes, and spats). Or consider book titles, e.g. “The Wind in the Willows” vs. “Det Susar i Säven”** (also note “Alice in Wonderland” above): Here, the Swedish translation was likely chosen to preserve the alliteration; and in terms of charm, for want of a better word, it works as well or better (at least in my pre-conditioned ears). However, there is a shift in meaning and associations, as a willow is a tree and, while often associated with water, is not married to it. The Swedish “säv” appears to be the lakeshore bulrush or common club-rush, which needs a watery environment and certainly is not a tree. Looking at the contents of the book, much of it, especially early on, is river-centric, but much of it is not—which makes a willow a much better image than säv.

*Of course, I originally took all the Disney characters to be Swedish, as the opposite simply never occurred to me. (Excepting some who might have been explicitly presented as foreign resp. until such a time as their foreignness was mentioned.)

**Combined with the Latin name mentioned in the given link, a back-translation could amount to the wonderful “A Susurration in the Schoenoplectus Lacustris”—an unbeatable name for a book.

Songs, and often acting, from the old Disney movies also often strike me as better in the Swedish version, as with e.g. the “Silly Song” in “Snow White” or “Bella Notte” in “Lady and the Tramp”. (With reservations for the exact titles.) This in particular with regard to the lyrics, which often seem better chosen in Swedish.* Here we truly have a question of “better” vs. “more familiar”: On the one hand, there definitely is a “familiarity effect”; on the other, the early Disney (full-length) movies were extremely centered on animation and might well have prioritized other aspects of the movie (e.g. story, casting, music**) too low, which opened a window of opportunity for a local version to up the original a little.*** An additional possibility is that a translator who takes liberties with meanings and implications (as with e.g. “Det Susar i Säven” above) can gain an edge in some regard at the cost of less precision and less adherence to the actual intent. Note, as a related example, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, which is a nonsense version of “In the Garden of Eden”, but which gains an edge through fitting the melody in a smoother manner and which might well have been more successful with the nonsense lyrics/title than it would have been with a “proper” version.

*I will refrain from an analysis, as I would have to explain the Swedish lyrics with considerable effort and might still not bring the perceived difference across. I add the reservation that some Disney movies might have seen multiple Swedish dubs and that I refer to the older versions known to me.

**Notwithstanding that there are some truly genius melodies and/or musical performances here-and-there that stand in stark contrast to many lesser numbers. In terms of music, animation, and integration of the two, the “Silly Song”, above all, is a masterpiece. (“Fantasia”, of course, has strong music throughout, but it is not original music.)

***Which is not to say that such opportunities are automatically taken. German dubbing (also see above), which is unfortunately not restricted to children’s movies, typically moves between “awful” and “so awful that it should be banned by law”.

Excursion on multiple local versions and impressions:
An interesting effect is that children in different countries can watch the same movies and come away with different impressions, learn different lyrics, remember different voices, etc. Ditto, m.m., books, comics, etc. To stick with the Ducks, we have a good example of an odd effect in that “Uncle Donald” and “Uncle Scrooge” are turned into “Farbror Kalle” resp. “Farbror Joakim” in Swedish, implying a relationship of “father’s brother”, while the true relationship is “mother’s brother” (“morbror”).* There might even be a distorting effect on memory: with “The Wind in the Willows” my memory was of a much more river-centric book than proved to be the case during an adult nostalgia reading. (Some children’s books are reasonably enjoyable even for adults. Unfortunately, this was not the case here.) Sadly, the same can apply to adults in countries like Germany, e.g. through lines from Hollywood movies that are considered iconic in their German translation.

*To my recollection, the need for a translation manifested before the exact relationship had been established.

Excursion on German Disney names:
The Germans have often stuck closer to the English originals for various ducks, mice, and whatnot. However, when they do deviate, the result is often quite poor. Compare the English and Swedish femme fatale Magica de [Spell/Hex] with the (namewise) boring Gundel Gaukeley—a name suitable for a pullover-wearing school teacher. Scrooge keeps a part of his English name through a “Duck”, but loses the “Mc” and the Scottish connection.* His given name is replaced with “Dagobert”, which loses the Dickens connection, but this might be forgivable, as Dickens is much less read in Germany. On the downside, there might now be an injected French (!) connection and there is no obvious relation to money. Something like “Fugger McDuck”** or “Jakob McDuck” (note Jakob Fugger) would have seemed a more natural solution. (To make matters more complicated, “Dagobert” is also the Swedish name for Dagwood of “Blondie”, and he is likely what most Swedes imagine when they encounter this quite rare name.)

*Of course, “Mc” is sufficiently well known as Scottish even in Germany that this is a loss.

**But would have been hilarious/inappropriate if brought back to an English context.


Written by michaeleriksson

January 26, 2023 at 1:03 am

Thoughts on Aubrey–Maturin

with one comment

After a very positive re-reading of the Hornblower books a few years ago, I am currently having a first go at Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. While these books are reasonably good (very good at times), they fall well short of the Hornblower standard, and Forester appears to be not just a better writer but one of greater insight into human nature. The extreme amount of time spent on land and on non-naval matters is a particular weakness—to the point that the series’ reputation as naval books in the mold of Hornblower might be questioned.* The long stretches of intrigues with women, will-they-won’t-they, adultery, and whatnot, are particularly weak and/or pointless. Generally, there is too much that does not bring the story forward, does not result in better characterization, does not bring character development, or otherwise adds actual value.

*But here we have another instance of how expectations can influence impressions (more on this in an upcoming text); and I do not deny that part of my disappointment is the relative lack of ships doing real or metaphorical battle. However, these land-based areas are weaker in terms of value and writing than the more naval—O’Brian is not playing to his and/or the series’ strengths. Moreover, he misses a niche opportunity: there is an endless amount of other books that play on land, even high quality books; far fewer that play at sea, even fewer doing naval warfare, and fewer still doing so in a quality suitable for an adult reader.

“The Far Side of the World” was, despite some name recognition and great potential in terms of concept, particularly weak. Problems include a completely pointless and fairly imbecilic detour, during which Aubrey and Maturin, having gone overboard, went through odd adventures with Polynesians and were marooned on an island—which I got through by alternating between skimming and skipping.* Worse was that the entire book seemed to lead up to a showdown with a particular U.S. ship, where the reader would finally see some compensation for the near complete lack of naval battle—but where this confrontation petered out into the sand of an island where the adversary had already been ship wrecked. (The ensuing on-island co-existence and diplomacy had some value, but would have worked better as an addition rather than an “instead”. Moreover, the resolution of the on-island situation was also anti-climatic and featured a deus ex machina.)

*While this might be the longest skimmed/skipped stretch so far, it is by no means the only. The first might have been during some portion of the heroes involuntary stay in the U.S. in an earlier book (“The Fortune of War”?). A recurring issue is stretches of, mostly, very bad poetry that I have come to skip in a blanket manner.

My current reading, “The Reverse of the Medal”, is almost entirely land-based, deals mostly with the legal issues of Aubrey and internal intrigues between British factions, and seems contorted and almost absurd in its developments.* I am close to the end and uncertain whether I should go on with the book and the series. If I do, it will be in the hope that things turn better again.

*With reservations for exactly where the one book ended and the other began: I have been reading one a day for the last eleven days, and the books are blurring together.

The incongruent treatment of the two main characters is often disturbing. In the case of Aubrey, this might be tolerable by seeing him as someone with a highly specific set of skills and some naivety of the “civilian” world, but Maturin? A skilled duelist but unable to climb onto a ship without falling into the water—even after spending years at sea?!?* A man with an encyclopedic knowledge of parts of natural history but unable to tell larboard from starboard—again, even after spending years at sea?!? A master spy but unable to (on land!) get from point A to point B without getting lost, unless assisted by others?!? Etc. The whole thing does not make sense. In the one moment, he borders on James Bond, in the next on Mr. Bean.** “My name is Bean. Mister Bean.”

*Indeed, for a long time, maybe until the aforementioned overboard incident in “The Far Side of the World”, I contemplated the possibility that he was deliberately playing a clumsy fool in order to appear more harmless, disarm suspicion, or similar.

**Splitting the diff and suggesting Johnny English does not work, as he is half Irish, half Spanish.

The various incidents with Maturin do bring some welcome humor, but the cost in terms of character consistency and sympathy is too large. Moreover, the end result is that we have two heroes, neither of which comes across as all too bright in the balance of all factors, which makes it hard to take them seriously, to identify, to sympathize, whatnot. Hornblower, in contrast, was someone of consistent characterization and genuine greatness, who was humanized and made more relatable by some more specific and more understandable weaknesses, be it sea-sickness, self-doubt, or problems with understanding other humans—a brilliant human, not a brilliant clown.

Another weakness is the increasing appearance of retellings of earlier events, which is the mark of a poor author. If the need arises, give a short one-off introduction (the literary equivalent of a “previously on”), add an index of various persons, or similar—but do not pollute the actual main text with retellings. A few words or an individual sentence, discreetly integrated in the overall is acceptable, to give the reader a bearing, but to repeatedly spend several paragraphs on such matters is amateur hour.

As an aside, the typical “Aubrey–Maturin” label, let alone just “Aubrey” or “Jack Aubrey”, appears misleading in as far as Maturin probably is more in focus, at least after the first few books. “Maturin–Aubrey” might be closer to the mark. (But note that this is a subjective impression, not the result of a detailed page and word count.)

Excursion on Fascism, etc.:
As is often the case with historical fiction, I am struck by the often totalitarian and arbitrary societies, and how little progress there has been since “yore”. Strongly warfaring societies, as with the British Empire during the Napoleonic Wars (maybe, in general), also seem to have a strong tendency towards the stereotypically Fascist in terms of how society works, imposition of order, etc., which makes the current association of such factors with Fascism even more misleading than through just a negligence of very similar trends in e.g. some Communist countries. Chances are that Fascism or “Fascism” is not the problem, but that strong government, power-hungry politicians, putting the collective over the individual, and similar, are. Among many relevant older texts, note e.g. [1] and [2].

Written by michaeleriksson

January 24, 2023 at 5:33 pm

The Winchesters and yet another TV fiasco

leave a comment »

I am currently three-quarters through the second episode of the Supernatural (SN) spin-off/prequel The Winchesters (TW)—and it is time to give up again.

Now, I was not optimistic to begin with, in light of the often low quality of current TV and how even the last few seasons of SN did not hold up that well. However, TW is almost scarily bad quality-wise. For instance, three of the five* main actors do not even have a Wikipedia page at the moment and the quality of the cast in terms of ability is very disputable. (Ditto script writing and whatnot.) In contrast, SN started off with two well-established, if young, actors, one of which (Jensen Ackles) was extremely talented, and further characters added were usually very well cast. Moreover, in terms of concept, I strongly suspect that a continuation of two-against-the-world would have worked better, just replacing the brothers (Sam and Dean) with their parents (John and Mary). Even two-against-the-world aside, the new series does not feel like it belongs in the same universe, being more of a random series dealing with supernatural events.

*Wikipedia mentions six, including John’s mother/the grand-mother of Sam and Dean, but the actual “Scooby gang” consists of five youngsters. (With reservations, here and elsewhere, for what might happen during the rest of the series.)

Going by just quality, I see a cancellation of TW after the first season looming—while SN ran for 15 (!) seasons. (And going by episode count, the difference would likely be even larger, as SN belonged to the 2x-episodes-per-season era, while most current series range between 6 and 12.)

As if this is not enough, there is a massive issue with woke casting and characterization:

Of the five main characters, one is a heterosexual White male and one a heterosexual White woman—the parents, John and Mary, who are hard to avoid. However, John has a suspiciously borderline Hispanic (or Mediterranean?) look and is, of course, a complete newbie to fighting evil, who has to be lead by the hand by Mary.

The remaining three? Respectively, a flamingly and ridiculously stereotyped gay Hispanic, a Black woman, and an Indian (Hindu) woman. So, two Whites to three non-Whites, and one straight man to four women or gays. (Also note that the series is set in the 1970s, with a radically different demographic situation than today.)

TW, on the other hand, was one of the few shows to still keep a reasonably apolitical casting, with a clear target group of male viewers* and where old-school male heroes were still allowed. Through the early theme of the two brothers driving around in a car fighting evil, it was arguably the ultimate in “male buddies” series. Sadly, it often seems that exactly such series and movies are targeted for after-the-fact destruction through inferior and woke reboots, spin-offs, etc. Consider e.g. “Ghost Busters”, “Star Trek”, “Star Wars”, and the development of the various Marvel movies.

*Something not to be underestimated. One of the problems with current TV shows is that they lean towards female viewers in a very disproportionate manner.

Excursion on gay portrayals:
The portrayal of gays is often, as here, very “in the face” in a destructive manner—and one unlikely to do real-life gays any favors. (Contrast this with Cam and Mitchell on “Modern Family” for a better way—still gay, but not flaming, provocative, or generally idiotic. Cam and Mitchell are humans first, gay second.) A particular problem with gay portrayals, many drag queens, and whatnot, is a complete lack of understanding of aesthetics. Just throwing some female mannerisms or female clothes, let alone make-up, onto a man does not make for the same result. Firstly, it is not a given that what is aesthetic in combination with one person is so with another. Secondly, there must be a reasonable consistency. Combining, as here, female/gayish mannerisms with a borderline uni-brow and an almost cave-man face is not a good idea. Thirdly, in terms of reaching a certain look, men and women have different strengths and weaknesses, and (if a similar look is at all attempted), this must be taken into consideration, e.g. by taking care to counter the typically coarser features of the male face. Failure to do so can not only lead to a lack of aesthetics but to an outright ugly, off-putting, and/or clownish result—as, on all three counts, here. (Contrast this, again, with Cam and Mitchell, while excepting Cam’s actual circus clowning. It might even be argued that circus clowns deliberately go for clashes and exaggerations that do not work in order to achieve a humorous purpose.)

(Similar remarks apply more widely, e.g. in that a dress that works for a woman with one type of body-shape need not work for a woman with another type, in that a certain hairstyle might work with one face but not another, in that Black women typically need a different color palette for make-up than White women, and in that color of clothes must be sufficiently compatible. Ditto, for a more manly example, combinations of design elements for cars that might seem “cool”, when taken individually, but simply do not work well when thrown together on the same car.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 3, 2022 at 10:05 pm

In Bruges and a predictable plot twist

leave a comment »

A while back ([1]), I mentioned the predictable shooting of a hart on “Dexter: New Blood”—just one example of many plot twists that were too obvious and/or absurd to work. Today, I encountered a somewhat similar example in the shape of In Bruges:

The film deals with three bad guys, with a dwarf in a minor supporting part. One of them has accidentally killed a child, which is why the head bad guy wants him dead—going as far as saying that he would, himself, have promptly committed suicide after making the same mistake. I immediately jokingly suggested to myself that the movie would end with the head bad guy accidentally and fatally shooting the dwarf, mistake him for a child, and then commit suicide to remain consistent with his claims. Absurdly, this is exactly what happened…

(Apart from this, and apart from a spurious high-on-cocaine rant about a race war, the movie was quite good and contained several plot twists that did work. The acting was especially strong: the three were played by Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes. In a (non-plot) twist, my previous main impression of Bruges was Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt, while the movie deals extensively with deaths, dying, and killing.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 3, 2022 at 4:02 pm

Problems with TV / Some thoughts on “Dexter”

with one comment

Revisiting old TV series, most recently “Dexter”, I often find that there is much more dead weight and annoyances than I remembered. (Also see e.g. [1], [2].) More generally, dead weight and annoyances are a very major problem with modern TV and other media, and it tendentially grows worse the newer the work.

Consider “Dexter”:

The core of the series is a serial killer trying to fit into a society filled with humans so different from him that he has to wear a metaphorical mask, while researching bad guys* to be his victims and implementing their deaths without getting caught. This is complemented with a prolonged (metaphorical) chess game against and/or a personal relationship with the “bad guy[s] of the season”. Additional depth is found by the effects of his activities on those near-and-dear to him and his parallel lives as serial killer and forensics expert, often dealing with the same crimes and criminals in both lives.

*A key point is that he lives according to a code that does not allow the killing of innocents and those whose severe guilt is not proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Based on these aspects great television can be made, and when, in my impressions during this latest watching, the series focused on them it was great.

However, often these aspects seemed to make up less than half the episode, the rest being filler, dead weight, annoyances, or just bad TV. This included so many sex scenes and lengthy and shallow relationship talks that it sometimes felt like a soap opera (and I found myself repeatedly skipping ahead), there were unnecessary holier-than-thou speeches, issues with child-rearing, and various other nonsense—often involving secondary characters with whom the viewer had no real investment. What I wanted to see was, e.g., the next few moves in the aforementioned chess game; what I did see* was, e.g., Dexter’s nanny spending two minutes kissing one of Dexter’s co-workers.

*Well, except for my tendency to skip forward.

Some degree of non-core aspects is not a problem. In fact, it can enrich and give color and variation, but it must be kept to a sufficiently small proportion of the screen time, not dominate the episode. By analogy, a chef might add pepper to a certain dish with great success, but he would keep the quantity of pepper significantly smaller than of the main components, be they meat, rice, potatoes, whatnot.

Moreover, there are things that might work when done with sufficient skill—but where that skill is usually lacking. For instance, many series contain long sequences of suspense, which bring nothing to the respective episode but suspense—the story is not moved forward, there is no opportunity of insight, there is no character building, … Now, suspense worked for Hitchcock—but he was the acclaimed “master of suspense”. The typical TV director is simply too far short of Hitchcock for him to succeed where Hitchcock might have. Moreover, the point of saturation for suspense is, at least for me, far shorter than for something that requires me to think or which actually develops the series/movie. Similarly, long dialogues between two lovers might* work if they are sufficiently well written, but they virtually never are—and often they are not even attempting to be deep, instead focusing on “dialogue” like “Morning, honey. [kiss] And you, honey. [kiss] Can you do X today? [kiss] Yeah, sure. [kiss] [and so on for another minute]”. My point of saturation for such nonsense? Well, even the above example would have left me over-saturated.

*Or not. I know of no “master of relationship talks”, and I strongly suspect that the key to good dialogue is to be as brief as the message allows. For more intellectual works, what is not said is often more interesting.

In many cases, I have the suspicion that these scenes serve less to achieve something and more to ensure a certain run-time, that the actual story might allow for twenty minutes and another twenty minutes of filler have to be found.

In the case of specifically various sex/romance/relationship scenes, there is a definite possibility that the show makers are merely catering to the female viewers, but this does not change or excuse the typically low quality, with scenes that are neither sexy, nor romantic, nor intimate, nor insightful, nor whatever else might have been intended.* Moreover, this type of catering could easily be reduced to series that actually are intended primarily for women, which “Dexter” is not.

*In fact, some of them are more off-putting than anything. That artificial and disgusting smacking sound that accommodates every kiss is particularly disturbing.

It is notable that many low-budget/independent/whatnot movies tend to have a low tempo and contain much filler, often in the form of showing someone walking for thirty seconds from point A to point B, where a more proficient director might have spent three seconds by using a suitable cut. The long silent car ride at the beginning of the movie is outright hackneyed—so often does it occur. (Despite being pointless* and boring.) A “poignant silence” in the middle of a dialogue sometimes works; more often, it does not, and a silence is not automatically poignant.**

*Here and elsewhere, note the difference between, on the one hand, doing something in order to achieve a specific purpose and being successful at this purpose, and, on the other, either doing something for no valid reason or failing to achieve what was intended.

**Disclaimer: I consider “poignant” to be simultaneously pretentious and almost nonsensical, and these uses might be the first of my life. However, the pretentiousness does match a certain type of “artiste”, and seems apt in context.

Excursion on “Dexter: New Blood”:
I watched the first episode of “Dexter: New Blood” shortly after its release, but the series struck me as both pointless and poorly made, so I did not watch the remainder. A particular issue was the white hart (or whatnot): As soon as both the hart and the bad guy had been introduced,* I immediately predicted, with an inner sigh over poor TV, that the bad guy would kill the hart, which Dexter had so deliberately spared. I went through most of the episode waiting for the event. Then, towards the end, there was a prolonged scene of failed suspense involving Dexter, the hart, and the bad guy. I was distracted for most of the scene, as I expected the killing to follow at any second—but it did not. Finally, I concluded that I had been wrong, that the script writer was not a complete hack, not set on doing the blindingly obvious and then trying to pass it off as a great surprise. At that moment, the bad guy … killed the hart.

*There are many details that I do not remember, like the order of introduction and the name of the bad guy.

Excursion on multiple value-bringing areas:
The discussion of “Dexter” should not be taken to imply that a series must restrict itself to a single area of activities or a single “high concept”. Even “Dexter” gained from the combination of serial killing and police procedural. To continue an earlier metaphor, meat and rice together might be better than either alone, and the one might be added to the other in a far greater quantity than is recommendable with pepper.

A particularly good example is “Chuck”, an action/spy comedy series, where there are two “high concepts” (the spy world and the retail-store), either of which could have been made into a good TV series of its own. Together, they made a great series.* Yes, “Chuck” had its share of relationship talks and kisses, but these played in much better with the overall than for, say, “Dexter”, were more limited in scope, were often successfully used for comedic purposes,** and the Chuck–Sarah romance works in a manner that is rarely seen in other TV series. Dexter–Rita? Left me cold; Dexter–Hannah***? Ditto. (However, the comparison between the two series must be taken with a grain of salt, as the one is likely intended virtually exclusively as entertainment, the other as a mixture of entertainment and food for thought.)

*In combination with a sufficiently high-quality execution. The same with worse actors, writers, whatnot, might still not have been anything special.

**Not an option with a non-comedy, but the bigger point of playing to the strengths of a series, instead of just adding filler or catering to female viewers, holds.

***Coincidentally played by the same actress, Yvonne Strahovski, as Sarah.

Excursion on more general low tempo, low thinking:
As I have grown older (potentially a partial defense for various TV series), I have found my interest in other activities with a low amount of required thinking dwindling over the years. I am, for instance, less likely to spend time watching art* than when I was younger, I often find myself viewing particularly low-tempo TV/movies at an increased speed, my patience with (non-fiction) texts that do not get to the point is short, etc.

*Which is not to say that all art would be for unthinking watching, nor to deny that an inquisitive mind, especially one asking “why” and “how”, can find something to think about. However, the thinking for a typical painting tends to overlap very strongly with the thinking for most other paintings and/or involve too much speculation for my taste. It is not as bad as “once you have seen one X, you have seen all X”, but when the paintings already intently and intensely seen go into the hundreds, there is not much value in adding yet another.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 22, 2022 at 12:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Ending my readings on Ender before the ending

leave a comment »

As I noted recently ([1]), I was in the process of reading Orson Scott Card’s “Ender” saga. Half-way through the third book, I have given up on it, in the wake of the big family fight. There are simply too many too self-righteous characters, too much pontificating, too large swaths of that annoying attempted analytical inner monologue that plague many poor writers. At the same time, the limits of the author’s thoughts appear, as he tries to write the thoughts of great geniuses.

*As when character A internally analyses the exact motivations of character B or the exact implications of situation C, in a detail which borders on the laughable, because it takes one set of possibilities and turns them into (misperceived) certainties—and often a set of possibilities that is not even the single most likely set.

Looking at the first book (“Ender’s Game”) as a standalone effort, it had an interesting, original, and well-executed main storyline, excepting the limited plausibility of young children being the best choices for the task at hand. However, the Locke/Peter and Demosthenes/Valentine storyline did more to detract than to enrich, the discovery of a surviving queen-to-be-saved was cheesy and detracted further, and the level of character-genius involved might simply have been too high. Even the six-year old version of Ender might have moved at or above the level of the average adult in terms of intelligence, which might then have implied an (age-peer) I.Q. approaching 300. His siblings certainly reached the genius standard for adults even at ten and twelve (or thereabouts), which, again, likely brings us to an (age-peer) I.Q. above 200, maybe in the direction of 300. Such creatures would ultimately be so beyond comprehension by even regular geniuses that fiction about them borders on the pointless. (Indeed, writing about alien species makes much more sense, as the author can create these freely, without the restrictions of reality that writing about humans pose. There might even be room to discuss how well Card writes non-genius characters.)

The second (“Speaker for the Dead”) is very different, taking off thousands of years later, but also quite interesting in some aspects, especially relating to how different various life-forms and cultures can be.* Both Demosthenes/Valentine and the queen-to-be-saved play a larger part, and do add more value than in book one, raising the question of how much the author might have planned in advance. (Locke/Peter was long dead.) The supposed great revelations** about the “murders” and the piggie-to-tree transition fall flat, however. I contemplated similar ideas at a comparatively early stage, and it strikes me as ridiculous that several highly intelligent scientists, who spent years or decades living with these events, would have failed to even consider the possibility throughout that time. (See [1] for some minor additional information on the book.)

*However, I do not necessarily consider these parts biologically realistic.

**I am often annoyed by authors putting in supposedly great revelations that are far from it. In some cases, if not here, this includes things that are obvious to the thinking reader, at least as a possibility. This is particularly annoying when a character supposedly of great mental powers fails to see something over a prolonged period of time. (Another possible case in this book series is the “not a simulation” revelation from the first book. Unfortunately, I already knew this from the movie and cannot judge the book fairly, but I do know that I caught on faster than Ender did in the movie.)

The first half of the third (“Xenocide”) had some points of interest in the “godspoken”, OCD sufferers construed as influenced by the gods, but otherwise was lacking in something worthwhile and new relative the second book. (A standalone book focusing on the world of Path and the godspoken might have been a better investment of both the author’s and the readers’ time.) Meanwhile, the flaws discussed in the first paragraph grew out of hand.

Excursion on plausibilities:
In a work of science fiction, some suspension of disbelief is natural, e.g. in that it is accepted as “within the rules” that someone can go from point A to point B faster than a light beam could.* However, this suspension should be limited to areas where it makes sense, not extended to any and all aspects, and there must be some degree of consistency. Here, Card repeatedly strikes me as weak. Consider the idea** of ansibles, which allow instantaneous communication—even between ansibles in radically different co-moving frames. These, however, will not agree on what events are simultaneous, making the idea of instantaneous communication nonsensical and/or a source of paradox (within an even approximately Einsteinian universe). It does not help that the attempted explanation for how they work makes quantum entanglement seem like a triviality.

*Assuming that a sufficiently consistent and plausible solution is available (cf. the rest of the excursion). For instance, some type of wormhole-based portal might achieve this without exceeding the speed of light, thereby avoiding the complications predicted by current physics. Creating such a portal might put a heavy stress on the “fiction” part of “science fiction” and might even be a source of causality complications, but it is not something that is obviously and manifestly out of bounds. (In comparison with ansibles above, note that “instantaneous” and “ridiculously fast” are not the same thing.)

**Not his idea originally, but he makes very ample use of it, and the ansibles are crucial to several important aspects of and developments in the books.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 20, 2022 at 7:14 pm

Some common problems in fiction

leave a comment »

Watching the recent TV series The Old Man,* I have two major, but overlapping, complaints that severely diminish an otherwise potentially worthwhile experience—and complaints that apply to a great many works.

*I have gone through roughly one episode a day for the last week, ending, today, with what I thought was the last episode of a mini-series. With the cliffhanger and a check of Wikipedia, it is clear that a second season will follow. I will not bother with this second season and would not have watched the first season to an end, had I not expected a concluded work. The first one or two episodes were great, but the series grew worse with every episode from there on.

Firstly, failing to find and to follow the true story, what is of true interest, what is the true value. A good example of this error is Stephen King’s short-story “Mile 81”:* It begins with a young boy going off on various entirely non-supernatural adventures straddling the border between boyhood and adulthood. Here we have some of his best writing, a great (if superficially trivial-seeming) story, and what he could have turned into a true literary accomplishment. He had me hooked. This early part was the true story. But this was a work by Stephen King and, true to form, he introduces an evil entity, in the guise of a car, which proceeds to eat humans, and we end up in “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” territory.

*I read it a handful of years ago and might be off in the details.

Secondly, to keep a clear focus. A certain degree of ornamentation and detours might well make a work better, but there has to be a limit. There is the story, there are the strengths of the work and/or the author at hand, and there is what brings us forward—that is where the focus should be.* By analogy, an action movie might well have a romantic subplot, but it should remain a subplot. Vice versa, a romantic movie might have an action scene, but must not descend into endless swash-bucklery while the audience waits for the evolution of the romantic relationship. Very, very few authors (directors, whatnot) have the skill to make several different things main components and still pull off something that actually works.** As a special case, gratuitous sex scenes, or even most scenes involving mere kissing, almost invariably waste time with nothing to show for it.***

*Yes, I know that my own (non-fiction) texts can be quite poor at keeping the focus, what with all the footnotes and excursions. I cannot clear 7 feet in the high jump either, but I still expect a (male) Olympic high-jump finalist to do so with ease.

**Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a great example of a success; “The Old Man” is not.

***This is not just a matter of a certain pointlessness, of not sticking to the story, etc., but also of incompetent execution, in as far as these scenes are hardly ever sexy, romantic, intimate, whatnot. More often, they are off-putting and unnatural.

As to “The Old Man”, the story is reasonably clear, but it is drowned in endless detours, secondary characters of dubious value, and pointless and excessive dialogue*. The actual strengths of the series were in the early action scenes and early tensions and whatnot; most of the non-action and most of the later series simply did not work, even with actors like Jeff Bridges and John Lithgow. The entire romantic/side-kick subplot with “Zoe” brings far too little value relative the space taken; it and the character should have been cut or reduced to one episode of contrast, which could have been used to deepen Jeff Bridges’ character or to illustrate his situation better.** Something similar applies to hitman “Carson”. Half the dialogue, in general, should also have been cut. Indeed, by episode 5 (out of 7), I began to fast-forward over some dialogue, especially dialogue involving “Zoe”.*** “Angela”/“Emily” being the daughter of “Hamzad”, as the giant plot-twist at the end of the season? Saw that one coming from miles away.**** By and large, a two-hour movie, with all the dead-weight cut and an actual ending, would have been a better solution than this seven-episode first season.

*Which is not to say that dialogue is a problem per se, nor necessarily any quantity of dialogue, but the author has to be good enough at it and it has to fit the overall, which was not the case here. Nor is it by any means to say that all the dialogue was pointless, just large portions of it. (However, even the “pointful” dialogue often erred by trying to be too clever, like two stereotypical psychoanalysts trying to analyze each other, or like two rhetoricians pontificating at each other. Hardly any of the dialogue felt natural.)

**Again, not to say that this character or subplot would not have worked in another series or, maybe, with another set of writers/actors/directors/whatnot. However, for this series, and for this set of “creatives”, it did not work.

***Some of the movies of Richard Linklater are a good source of examples of similar-but-worse issues: long stretches of endless shallow and uninteresting dialogue between shallow and uninteresting characters. (I can only suspect that Linklater intended them to be deep and meaningful, but, if so, he often misses the mark by miles.)

****But that “Angela” and “Emily” were identical, I admit, was a surprise. Then again, shoving a second “she is not who you think she is” onto the same character borders on the silly.

Excursion on does-not-work-here-but-might-work-elsewhere:
A good illustration of this idea is the Hitchcock movie “Torn Curtain”, where Julie Andrews’ character seems an unnecessary burden and complication, with little value, through most* of the movie. However, in my understanding, the original idea was to tell the story through the eyes of this character, including keeping the exact nature of Newman’s character’s defection secret. This might have worked quite well. However, once the point-of-view shifted away from her, the character no longer worked. (I do not remember why this change took place.) It is also possible that the part would have worked better with another actress—I have, frankly, never understood the enormous hype, even for non-singing parts, around Julie Andrews.

*A few scenes in the flight to the West towards the end are an exception.

Excursion on Stephen King:
Stephen King has a deservedly poor literary reputation in that he has chosen to write a lot of sensationalist, supernatural, whatnot bullshit for the broad masses, including a much younger version of me. (In my late pre-teens and early teens, I read and re-read anything by King that I could find.) Beneath that, however, he has genuine talent and he could have been a “serious” author of note, if he had so wanted. He is a better writer of short-stories than of novels and his non-supernatural writing (e.g. most or all of the “Bachman books”) tend to be better than his supernatural. Above all, maybe, he is great at characters. (In an interesting reversal of “The Old Man”, which was good at action but not at characters, interactions between characters, whatnot.) In some ways, “Mile 81” reflects his overall career and career choices.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 8, 2022 at 6:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Thoughts on “How I Met Your Mother”

leave a comment »

Next on my list of diversions from construction noise (cf. [1], [2]) is “How I Met Your Mother”. (Unfortunately, very incompletely and often in the wrong season order, because I have trouble finding the various DVDs.)

I have only seen the last season once—and this will remain so (irrespective of what DVDs I do find). Why? It was one of the most ill-conceived in TV history, breaking with the original format, bringing little new value in return, failing to truly let the viewers get to know the “mother”,* and, ultimately, shitting on the eight preceding seasons. These, from a romantic point of view, dealt with three main constellations: the long-standing Marshall–Lily relationship, the long and twisted road of the Barney–Robin relationship, and Ted’s search for the “mother”. What happens in the last season, where we should see the completion and happily-ever-after** of the two*** latter? Barney and Robin fall apart and “mother” dies, in order to bring the horrible constellation of Ted and Robin together …

*Which might otherwise have been a saving grace. Note that she has no true presence in the previous seasons, as more or less mandated by the idea of the show.

**Something typically assumable of a work of fiction, no matter how much tougher real life is.

***The first constellation already being at that stage.

Here, I strongly suspect a radically different problem than with most other TV series (but I possess no insider knowledge): The show makers began with a certain idea for how the show should end and stubbornly stuck with that idea, even after better developments presented themselves and/or that end proved ill-advised.

Ted and Robin simply did not have any chemistry, did not work well together, and seemed to crash and burn every time that they were in a relationship. In many ways, Robin might have been a mere fix and bad idea of Ted’s (in universe; a fix and bad idea of the makers in the real world), and a realistic (!) continuation of the series past the last season would likely just have shown them crash and burn for the umpteenth time. Compare this with his long-standing search for “the one” or his obsession with the “slutty pumpkin”, who turned out to be an even worse fit than Robin, once he found her again—and, yes, this involved another (see below) extremely premature “I love you”.

As much as I dislike Rachel (of “Friends”), her long romance with Ross was a case of two persons with a genuine long-term love and attraction, where I had the impression that they naturally were drawn together, while the makers continually intervened to push them apart in order to keep the “will they/won’t they” going.* Ditto Robin and Barney, who seemed right for each other, even when they screwed up. With Robin and Ted, I always had the opposite impression, that the characters were naturally repelling each other, but that the makers kept pushing them back together, no matter how bad a match they were.

*Wisely: most series tend to lose when this type of tension between main characters is removed, e.g. because they marry half-way through the series.

Look at the first season alone: Robin is immediately introduced as a romantic interest for Ted (indeed, with a mislead that she was the “mother”), there is an elaborate story with e.g. the stealing of a blue horn and an extremely premature “I love you”, but no actual sparks. In contrast, Ted and Victoria showed more sparks within their first episode than Ted and Robin did over the entire series. Similarly, there is one episode, of a mostly unromantic nature, where Robin plays the wingman to Barney—and the two just click in such a manner that I wanted more of them together and saw them as a great romantic match. (Probably, several seasons before their romance actually began, but the writing, in a positive sense, was already on the wall.)

Indeed, if the road of mother-is-dead-and-Ted-goes-for-some-old-crush is taken, Robin would not make the top-3, maybe* not even top-5, of my candidates.

*This will depend a little on seasons that I have not yet re-watched.

From another perspective, I have some troubles seeing any of Ted’s romances as the truly true thing, because, looking at the series as a whole, he seems to be more in love with the idea of love and romance than with the respective other party. (In this, he parallels a younger me, but I grew out of it in my twenties—Ted appears never to have done so, not even in the future of 2030, when he must be above 50.)

The fact that Ted and his actor (Josh Radnor) come across as extremely fake and “douchy”, especially in the first season, does not help—a constant and obviously fake smile, and arms spread out as were he about to wrestle the person in front of him. Barney might have been a scumbag in some ways, even criminal ways, but he somehow managed to be sympathetic* (not to mention entertaining). Ted? Not so much. In this, he is one of the few cases where I look back at a series and am open to another casting choice leading to a better series.** With many other series, I do not just have trouble seeing a better choice, but am left with the feeling that any other choice would not have been, say, Ross, Rachel, Joey, …—or, indeed, Barney***.**** Ted? Again, not so much.

*At least, from the perspective of a TV viewer. I do not guarantee that I would have the same sympathy if I met him in real life. (Similarly, it is often possible to sympathize even with some Mafia members in a movie, even in light of behavior that would be intolerable in real life.)

**Other examples include “JD” on “Scrubs” and both the main characters on “Psych”. Indeed, that I stopped watching “Psych” is largely rooted in the main characters. Series like that are often carried by high-quality secondary characters, e.g. Dr. Cox, Dr. Kelso, and the (unnamed) janitor on “Scrubs”—those cast with actors too old or unattractive to play the hip youngsters or young hipsters, but who have greater acting skills.

***My feelings for the other three main characters is half-way between these positions. I would be against a time-travel-and-recast scenario, but I am not so set on these specific actors that I would see another (quality) casting choice as a major blow.

****This phenomenon likely largely results from a mixture of exposure (I am simply used to seeing X played by Y) and the natural influence of the actor on the character (others might have done an equally good job, but the character would have been someone different, just like, say, two brothers are not carbon copies). However, series that are highly successful (and, therefore, more likely to have been seen by me) are typically of highly over-average casting, with the implication that replacing an important actor with a semi-random choice would, on average, lead to an objective quality drop.

Excursion on mental health of characters:
It is often the case that sitcom characters (to a lesser degree, TV characters in general) are of dubious mental health, ranging from minor “issues” to actual visits to the loony bin.* Consider e.g. “Friends”, where Ross went through a period where I would consider him so severely disturbed that he needed professional help (manifesting in e.g. his “secret marriage” to Rachel), both Chandler and Monica carry scars from a troubled childhood, and Phoebe straddles the border between kooky and crazy. After “Friends”, “How I Met Your Mother” might be the second placer on the mental-health scale (of the sitcoms that I am familiar with), with four out of five characters clearly not being where they should be, headwise. (I am uncertain about Marshall, who might or might not be.) Pick a season of “Friends” where Ross is in better shape and “How I Met Your Mother” might even be the number one. Within the group, Ted competes with Barney for the first place among the five, through his unhealthy romantic obsessions.**

*I stress that this is not necessarily a point of criticism: characters who are off-kilter open up new roads for both humor and stories, and if mental-health issues can achieve this, I have no problems with it. (Similar effects can be achieved through e.g. great originality, as with the Addams and Munster families, or great stupidity, as with various characters from “My Name is Earl” or, of course, Joey.) Neither is it, when kept within limits, necessarily unrealistic, as some level of problems is quite common in (at least) the modern Western populations.

**Which contribute to my skepticism towards the Ted–Robin romance(s). And, no, obsessing with love or finding a partner, or with any given specific partner (especially not, when it happens with several partners), is neither healthy nor a sign of true love.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 25, 2021 at 11:29 am

Buffy vs. Smallville / Follow-up: Thoughts on Smallville

with 2 comments

After “Smallville” proved bad enough to justify an earlier text, I have turned to (among other things) “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (BTVS) to survive the construction noise.

As BTVS is one of my all-time favorite series, possibly the favorite outright, I am surprised to find my latest viewing disturbed by exactly the type of long one-on-one talks that I complain about in “Smallville”. Now, those on BTVS tend to be much better made, with far fewer of the “almost always shallow, uninsightful, repetitive, poorly written, and often consisting of more cliches than true content” problems that plagued “Smallville”, and with absolutely no Lana Lang—but, unlike on earlier watchings, I am still often annoyed and I still find myself fast-forwarding a little here-and-there.

One possible explanation for this is that “Smallville” left me hyper-sensitized and reacting more negatively than I would have done otherwise—it is often the case that something grows annoying only after a certain threshold has been exceeded and that this annoyance can remain for a long time even after this something falls back below the threshold again.* Maybe, BTVS tends to stay below that threshold, while “Smallville” was (well) above it, and the true villain is “Smallville”.

*Construction noise and disturbances between neighbors is a good example. In normal circumstances, there is a wide range of noise that simply does not register with me, or which registers but is not annoying, for instance a single slamming of a door. However, the same noise during or within several weeks of construction-noise periods or the periods of stomping orgies (cf. older texts) can make me jump out of my skin.

Then again, it could be e.g. that my taste has changed/matured over the years or that my tolerance for a low tempo, a low information density, a low whatnot has diminished over the years—that my personal threshold has changed. (My last watching of BTVS is a long while back.) Indeed, it is not unusual for me to watch something (or a slow part of it) with the speed increased by 10, 21, or more percent.*

*I use mplayer, which has convenient keyboard shortcuts for increasing (and decreasing) the speed by a factor of 1.1 (or 10 percent). Doing so twice gives 21 percent, as 1.1 x 1.1 = 1.21. Going higher than 21 is usually possible without losing understanding, but leads to severe distortions of voices and music, can diminish the “mood” of a scene, and can lead to problems if something unusually fast happens. Of course, with completely boring scenes, using far higher speeds in combination with subtitles is an easy way out.

From an entirely different point of view: Is it possible that I have been disturbed by some of these in the past, but not truly been aware of it? Excepting Spike, I have found virtually all of Buffy’s romantic interests annoying. (Including Angel, who worked much better on the spin-off “Angel”, where Buffy rarely showed.) A partial explanation for this could be all the time spent in almost Lana–Clark talks. More generally, scenes on TV/in the movies that are intended to be romantic/sexual/intimate/whatnot rarely actually are, often leaving me put off. (I might go as far as suggesting a rule of thumb: if a scene depicts two persons who are not fully dressed, the scene is empirically unlikely to contain anything worthwhile and should be cut.)

While BTVS is far superior to “Smallville”,* it is by no means perfect. For instance, I have already complained about an undue amount of story arcs**/***, and a few unfortunate developments can be added, including the overall character arc for Willow, some disputable main antagonists (the Initiative, Adam, Glory, the Trio; although the Trio might have worked, if kept as a rare comedic-relief opponent) in the later seasons, and the utterly idiotic idea to make all “potentials” into slayers in season 7—anyone with common sense would have realized that the side-effects might be a greater evil than the invasion they were intended to stop, and would have found another/better manner to resolve the situation.****

*I would go as far as claiming that “Smallville” was to some degree made in the image of BTVS. Apart from early parallels like a high-school superhero with “regular” friends fighting a monster of the week, I note the strong involvement of Rob Des Hotel & Dean Batali with both “Smallville” and the early seasons of BTVS. As is usually the case, the copy fell short of the original.

**Previously, I have used “arch[es]”. While I would still consider this the more plausible word, the standard term appears to be “arc[s]”.

***Interestingly, the first few seasons shows a use of “good” arcs that are not very intrusive and that allow a “monster of the season” to co-exist with the various “monsters of the week”. This changes for the worse as time goes on.

****This decision might ultimately be a side-effect of show-runner Joss Whedon being one of those politically naive who believe that Feminism is about showing strong women, and have swallowed the lie that “men are abusive and women must be empowered” (or similar). In this, he is similar to the naive vampire fans of the episode “Lie to me”—and just like they, he got into trouble when he encountered the real thing. This naive worldview might well have influenced other decisions during the run of the series.

Correction on “Dallas”:

In my earlier text, I spoke of “Bobby was dreaming an entire season”. This was, of course, not the case. Someone else had the dream and Bobby died in the dream. (I was never a “Dallas” viewer, and I misassociated in the information gleaned from indirect sources over the years.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 12, 2021 at 1:58 pm

Thoughts on Smallville / Follow-up: When a TV series turns into a zombie of its old self

with 3 comments

Caught in construction noise again (cf. [1], [2]), I have spent some time watching “Smallville”—a series where I managed to buy a complete set of DVDs, but only managed one prior watching. After enjoying the first few seasons reasonably, I have found myself increasingly frustrated with developments (or lack thereof), begun to actively skip ahead more and more, and finally reached the point (early season 6) that I just terminated an episode halfway through, with no intent on watching the remainder of the series.*

*During my first watching, possibly some ten years ago, I powered through, but my impression was very similar: a few good seasons and then worse and worse, season by season.

Here I have found a supreme example of a TV series turning into a zombie of its old self, losing it, making mistake after mistake, keeping what does not work and throwing out what did work. General problems include a switch from X-of-the-week to too many arches, constantly missing the difference between drama and soap (see excursion), having a swing-and-a-miss approach to characters, repeated attempts at jumping the shark, and too long stretches of virtually every episode that feels like filler—indeed, some episodes feel like more filler than true story.*

*To this can be added the move away from high school, which in my observations seems to be an extremely strong environment for good stories, and where series who move away from high school tend to drop in quality. However, with a tempo of one season per (in universe) year, this move can be very hard to avoid—and the price for doing so might be even worse. As a counterpoint, the series is called “Smallville”, and it might have been prudent to terminate it after high school, with an optional new series (“Metropolis”?) to follow the characters as the focus switched from Smallville to Metropolis.

To look at a few more specific issues, including some that should-have-changed-but-did-not:

  1. The character Lana Lang and the pretty but less-than-stellar and constantly overacting Kristin Kreuk (portraying her).* If everything warrants a hyper-intense emotion, then emotions have no value. The “soap” portions of the series tended to be in connection with her disproportionately often, and her scenes per the next item were the first where I began to skip forward. As to her character development, it was disastrous, increasingly turning a sweet-seeming girl into a coldhearted manipulative bitch. (Which is quite contrary to the down-to-earth woman of my vague recollections from long-ago comics and the Christopher-Reeve movies.)

    *Generally, many of the younger actors seemed to have been cast more for looks than acting ability.

  2. Endless one-on-one discussions between various characters, in particular Clark and Lana, that I suspect were intended to be deep and meaningful—but which were almost always shallow, uninsightful, repetitive, poorly written, and often consisting of more cliches than true content. Most of the later episodes of my re-watching seems to have the actual story end somewhere between minutes 30 and 35—and then to be padded with several such discussions to reach 40 minutes. Of course, these discussions were by no means limited to the end of the episodes.

    There are only so many times that I can hear claims like “I am so lucky to have you as a friend!”, “I would never hurt you!”, and so on, before I become nauseated. (Lionel vs. Lex, and some other more hostile constellations, were rarely nauseating, but still highly repetitive, predictable, cliched, etc.)

  3. Partially as a special case, we have the odd relationship developments between Lex and Clark, who seem to oddly drift apart when they would be likely to move in a more friendly direction in real life, and towards each other when they should have drifted apart. Here, I have the impression that the writers could not make up their minds as to whether the two should be friends or enemies. (A similar point might apply to Lex and Lionel, and/or some other constellations, e.g. whether X loves Y.)
  4. Not long before I stopped watching, there was a chain of bad decisions around the Kents:

    Having Jonathan run for state senate—an unnecessary complication of the story with very little potential. (To boot, it is disputable whether he, or Martha, had anywhere near the right set of skills. I do not think highly of politicians, but to go from running a failing farm to be a successful senator is a stretch.)

    Having Jonathan win—ditto.

    Killing off Jonathan—one of the stronger and more sympathetic characters is gone for no obvious* reason, while his less-value-bringing wife (Martha) is kept.

    *Watching the following episodes, the hidden reason seems to be the abysmally bad idea, pure soap, to open the doors for a Lionel–Martha romance.

    Having Martha take over his seat—again, an unnecessary complication with very little potential.

    Ruining the already weak Martha character through a major transformation.

    (To this might be added the Lionel–Martha romance, should it actually manifest, which was not yet clear at the point where I stopped watching.)

  5. Many other character changes were disputable. On the positive side, we have the removal of Pete, who simply did not bring any value, and the addition of Lois Lane, who brought in a new dynamic and reduced the screen time available for Lana. On the negative, we have the entirely unnecessary and mostly annoying Oliver Queen/Green Arrow (who, I would argue, was an attempt to jump the shark; and whose appearance strongly contributed to my bowing out), several replacements of Lionel-of-one-personality with Lionel-of-another-personality, and the odd Teague family*.

    *Jensen Ackles did a good job as the son, but it did not feel like there was enough room for him, and his character development was odd. However, Jane Seymour as his mother was the caricature of a 1980s female soap-opera character—and note how there seems to be a drift towards this type of character with e.g. Lana and Martha too. Add in the Luthors and Oliver Queen, and the question arises whether this is a superhero show or a “Dynasty” spin-off.

    To this, I am tempted to add Brainiac, who appears to have recently been written out, with a lot of potential still to be explored; however, I have a vague recollection that he came back in the later seasons. His status as an example “depends”.

    (To go through all the characters of non-trivial importance would take far too long.)

  6. There are great continuity and compatibility problems with other portions of the franchise. This is, of course, not the least unexpected, but a better job could have been done without compromises to the story lines.
  7. The (non-score) music is unusually weak. The (pop/rock song) theme music, in particular, barely survived the first episode, and I almost consistently skipped ahead rather than listening to this earsore. (Mark Snow, who was with the show, could have written a better theme blindfolded.)

Straining my memory concerning the remaining seasons, it seemed to go further downhill, including a highly pre-mature and anti-canon death of Lex Luthor, much too much Green Arrow, and no saving graces. However, these memories might be faulty.

As an interesting aside, it appeared to me that the episodes featuring “traditional” DC heroes, even apart from Green Arrow, were usually sub-average, as with e.g. Aquaman and the Flash.

Excursion on soap vs. drama:
Apart from the typical difference in quality, what makes a drama into a soap? I am hard pressed to give a better answer than “I know it, when I see it”. However, some pointers for when it is soap include shallower characters, over-acting and/or overly emotional acting, weaker character-consistency, plausibility bending events*, large amounts of gratuitous sex (does not apply to “Smallville”), constant switches in romantic/sexual partners, and extreme changes in emotions. Lana staring into the eyes of Clark with a quivering lip for five minutes per episode, taken alone, might be enough to pollute the show. Then add in all the rest …

*Relative the baseline of the show’s alleged reality (and making some allowance for typical TV naivete and exaggeration): That Clark Kent can lift a truck is compatible with the reality of “Smallville”, through the premise that he has superpowers, and not indicative of a soap. If JR would have done the same through a sudden adrenaline rush as he tried to save whomever, it would not just be soap—it would be daily soap. The most famous incident is likely the whole “Bobby was dreaming an entire season” issue. (Someone in real-life might conceivably, maybe, dream a TV season, but it is bound to be extraordinarily rare, and it is obvious that this ploy was just an attempt to retcon at all costs and against all plausibility.)

To this, adding “disproportionately many rich and/or disproportionately rich characters”, “corporate intrigue”, whatnot, is tempting. However, this could depend strongly on the sub-genre of soap and they can have legitimate uses in non-soap dramas.

Excursion on franchises:
Another complaint of mine has been over-extended franchises. “Smallville” is arguably a good example of a series better not made, at least after the first few seasons. Then again, it is unlikely to be the worst example around Superman, let alone DC or superheroes in general.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 29, 2021 at 5:44 pm