Archive for TV

My Books, TV

Time-Traveling Historians

My latest TV obsession is the series of historical farming documentaries from the BBC. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was watching one set in the 1600s (Tales from the Green Valley). I’d already watched the Tudor Monastery Farm series. Then the YouTube algorithm started serving me more. Last week, I watched the Wartime Farm series about World War II. I’m currently watching Victorian Farm.

The basic format of these is that a group of historians and archaeologists spend a year living as though they’re farmers in a particular era, using technology of the time, to see how it all works and whether they could have survived. They go from planting a crop to harvesting the crop and everything in between, eating the food, wearing the clothes, and living the life, in general. They’ll bring in subject matter experts to learn about a particular task or craft of the time. The cast sometimes varies, but there are some regulars who pop up, and that means my brain starts creating narratives about all this.

It started when I watched the Wartime Farm series right after the one set in the 1620s. The historians were talking about how their experience couldn’t replicate exactly what people of the time experienced, since they knew when and how it would end, and that was uncertain for the people of the time. They were going through all this with high expectations, trying to increase food production since most of their imports had been cut off, and they didn’t know when or if they might be invaded. Although the scholars were spending one year, they kept adjusting conditions based on different years of the war to show how things changed, like the availability of some things. They were talking about having to go back to some of the older ways that had been more or less lost because they were having to make do, and since I’d just watched some of these same people living in the 1620s, I thought they had an unfair advantage over actual 1940s farmers because they’d done things like make medicinal preparations out of foraged herbs, had made their own cheese, had thatched a roof, had worked a field using horses instead of a tractor.

And that’s when it struck me: They’re time travelers! These people are bringing knowledge from the past and from the future. I would say it’s a fun story idea, but Connie Willis has already written the books about the time-traveling historians. I guess this is the next best thing to getting a movie or TV series made from those books. One thing I’m enjoying is that while there is a bit of a story line — will they have a successful harvest? — there’s not a lot of drama. There are no villains or antagonists. It’s just people trying to learn things and make things work. That makes for engaging but relaxing viewing.

I’m also getting really curious about the behind-the-scenes stuff, wondering whether they really are living like this or just when the cameras are on. They tend to do a couple of months in a single episode, so it’s just a day or two that gets shown. Are they wearing these clothes and living in these places all the time with the cameras only on them for a day or two every month, on camera all the time but it gets edited down, or just showing up when they’re doing something the camera will record? They did mention for the 1600s one that they wouldn’t actually be living in the farmhouse for health and safety reasons but would be living nearby, which implies they’re living on-site, even if they are living in trailers or something like that. They also mentioned during the Victorian one that they’re not actually sleeping in the cottage but rather elsewhere on the estate. I’ve read the books by one of the historians, and she mentioned trying the Tudor-era hygiene protocol when they were doing that series and that even the camera crew that wasn’t around all the time didn’t notice any body odor, which also implies that they’re living this way all the time. Do these people have families? Do they get weekend visits?

We had a small farm when I was a teenager, but we mostly just raised a few cows, so I didn’t get the full farm experience, and I don’t romanticize it at all, but these are still fun to watch. I started watching these as research for the Rydding Village books, when I was looking up info on how people were cooking and baking, and this was what the search results brought up. Then I connected them to some books I’d read for research when I realized it was the same historian. The shows are great for being able to visualize what she discussed in the books.

Just staying alive before all the modern conveniences was a lot of work, which was why I came up with the house spirit to help the local healer. I’m not sure how a single woman who needed to keep house would have any time left in the day to earn a living. Laundry would take about as long for a single as for a family, and most people wouldn’t have owned enough clothes to go longer between loads of laundry. That may be why so many people made extra money by taking in laundry. It would free a lot of time to hire someone else to do the wash, and adding a few items to the load of a single person or small family wouldn’t require a lot of extra effort, so it would be monetizing something they had to do anyway. A healer-type person who had to maintain a garden for herbs, prepare medicines, and see patients wouldn’t have much time to also cook, keep the house reasonably clean, and do laundry. And so we have Gladys in my books.


Steampunk Fairies

While I’m on the subject of things that might remind you of some of my books, I’ve been watching Carnival Row on Amazon, and it’s kind of like a mix of my Fairy Tale series and my Rebels series. It’s a steampunk world with the fae in it.

I’m not entirely sure I like it. It’s interesting and I want to see what happens, but I’m not really enjoying watching it. In fact, I have to be doing something else like knitting or working puzzles while I’m watching because it’s a bit unpleasant to just watch. I’d compare it to A Game of Thrones in tone. It’s got that same grim grayness to the look of it, and almost all the characters are pretty awful people. The “good guys” are just less awful than everyone else. In fact, the “hero” has what I guess is meant to be a “save the cat” moment early in the pilot in which he does something reasonably good, and it stands out as unusual in this world although it’s really just basic decency. He’s not totally terrible, yay. There is a character who gets a surprisingly satisfying growth arc and there’s another character I’m hoping will get his act together, though where I am now in the story he’s pretty hate-worthy. I think part of the problem is that the writers focused so much on creating horrible, complex antagonists that they forgot to make the main characters interesting. There’s only so much Orlando Bloom can do with a character who mostly just mopes a lot, and he’s grubby enough that he’s not even that pretty in this.

But the world is pretty fascinating. From what I can tell (I’m still not entirely clear on the backstory, even though I’ve started season 2), there was some kind of war in the world of the fae, and refugees have come to the human world, where they’re treated the way refugees generally are, especially if they’re seen as different (not so well). It’s a kind of Dickensian Victorian world, very steampunky, though the war stuff has a World War I look. There are airships.

The first season is essentially a police procedural set against a lot of political maneuvering. There’s a serial killer, and there doesn’t seem to be a link between the victims—until our hero the police detective finds a surprising link. Meanwhile, there are social issues involving the fae in human society, a politician’s wife scheming for power, and a snobbish sister and brother dealing with a wealthy fae who’s moved into their neighborhood, much to their dismay. In the middle of this is the newly arrived fae woman who thinks her former lover, the police detective, has been dead for years.

I should warn that it’s at about the sex/violence language of Game of Thrones. Very graphic violence, a lot of nudity (especially female), some fairly graphic sex scenes, R-rated language. Not family-friendly entertainment. But if you like stories about the fae and the steampunk aesthetic, give it a shot.

One other link to my books is that one of the writing staff members was going to be the head writer for one of the attempts to make an Enchanted, Inc. TV series. I wish that project had worked out because she really grasped the concept. We had a conference call in which she gave me the pitch they were going to give to networks and production companies, and she nailed it, really capturing the spirit of the books. It’s nice to see that she landed somewhere else when that didn’t work out.

Speaking of stories about the fae, I’m participating in a group promo of books about the fae. You can find a whole collection to browse here. This is my first time to try one of these group promo thingies, and it would really help me if you click on the link because then I get credit for sharing it and have a better chance of getting into future promos where we all share each other’s books. Check it out and see if there’s something that looks interesting.

movies, TV, writing

Redemption Arcs

In the book I’m currently working on, for the first time in my career I have scenes written from the perspective of one of the villains. He’s a henchman, not the big bad, and he’s the one sent out as the errand boy for the offstage villain. I haven’t decided yet if this guy is going to get a redemption arc, if maybe he’ll end up turning against the villain and joining the good guys, but pondering that has had me thinking about redemption arcs. I like them in theory. I belong to a religious tradition that’s all about redemption and believes that no one is beyond salvation, but I’m also picky about fictional redemption. I love the moment when a villain flips and joins the good guys, but I want to really feel the redemption, and I don’t want someone who’s done true evil to get off lightly.

A few years ago in a TV discussion forum, I jokingly came up with the redemption equation:

bad deeds=good deeds+remorse+suffering

The idea is that both sides of the equation have to balance for the redemption arc to be satisfying. If the good deeds, the remorse the character feels for the bad deeds, and the suffering don’t seem equal to the bad deeds the character has done, it doesn’t work. By suffering, I mean the consequences for the bad deeds, like prison time or other people not liking them; karmic payback; or mitigating circumstances (like a street kid taken in by the leader of a criminal gang). It doesn’t count if it’s suffering the characters bring on themselves. If you murder your parents, you don’t get suffering points for being an orphan, for instance. The worse the bad deeds are, the more the other things have to make up for it. It does get to the point where the bad deeds are so bad that you can’t imagine making up for it in a way that would allow an audience to accept a redemption. That doesn’t mean the character can’t ever be redeemed, but it may require the character to die for redemption to work. You can’t imagine that character just going on and hanging out with the other good guys.

Not that people haven’t written that. One of my biggest gripes with the TV series Once Upon a Time was the fact that the big bad from season one, someone who was shown to have casually murdered innocents because she was having a bad day and who cursed an entire civilization, was crowned Queen of the Universe by her former victims in the series finale, after she’d spent most of the series being friends with her former victims — and in spite of her never apologizing or acknowledging the harm she’d done. She just stopped being evil, with no explanation for why she stopped, and she never actually changed her attitude.

And I think that’s key to the redemption arc. There has to be a reason the villain stops villaining, and usually it’s the “are we the baddies?” moment, when the villain realizes that they’ve been wrong. If they don’t realize that killing and torturing people is bad or that they were on the wrong side and their reasons for doing evil weren’t valid, why would they change?

This is my problem with the “redemption” of Darth Vader (you knew this would get around to Star Wars, didn’t you?). I don’t know that we ever really got the moment of him realizing he was in the wrong. His redemption involved him choosing his son over the guy he was already planning to betray. That’s still a somewhat selfish move. He couldn’t stir himself to save entire planets, but when it was his son in danger, then he acted. Now, maybe I could be generous and say that hearing Luke refuse to kill him because he’s a Jedi like his father gave him his, “Whoa, I’ve been doing it wrong,” moment, but it’s still not super satisfying to me. It only really works because he immediately dies. It wouldn’t have worked if he’d lived and had become a good guy, hanging out with his kids. I’m not even that keen on the fact that he got to be a Force ghost. I don’t know if that’s the equivalent of Force heaven, but a last-minute change of heart doesn’t seem like it should allow him to hang around as a Force ghost, and I was especially irked when they re-edited it to be his younger self, when they didn’t also change Obi-Wan (and would Luke even have known who that random young guy who looked nothing like the man under the mask was?).

Image of dying, maskless Darth Vader.
Text: I chose you over the guy I was planning to betray. You were right, there is good in me!

In the Star Wars world, they did a bit better with the redemption of Kylo Ren. It happened before the very end. He had a chance to really think about what he’d done, and he made an active choice to go help Rey — that wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. And, again, he died, giving up his life for someone else’s. He didn’t get to hang around with the good guys and live happily ever after.

As bad as Once Upon a Time was with that one character, they also managed to do it right. Their version of Captain Hook had some good reasons for being the way he was (explanations, not excuses). He had been wronged. He just went over the top in doing something about it. He had a big realization that he’d wasted his life in revenge and that people didn’t like him because he’d done horrible things. He even later counseled other villains about this and helped turn people away from becoming villains by sharing his advice. When he ran into former victims, he tried to atone and set things right with them. He got hit by a lot of karma on his way to redemption. It seemed like every time he did something bad, he’d get hit by a car, kidnapped, etc. And his suffering didn’t end when he turned good. He did some pretty big heroic acts as a good guy, so he had the good deeds to balance the bad. They did another good redemption arc on the Wonderland spinoff, with a character who was a villain for the first half of the series having a huge turnaround, realizing how badly she’d screwed up. She had to face some of her victims and learn how she affected them, and she had to work to earn the trust of the people she’d hurt, even after she turned good.

I do think it works better for the henchmen to be redeemed, the ones who were following orders or who’d been taught evil. It’s less believable when the big bad, the one who came up with and led the evil schemes, changes sides. Though it might make for a fun story if the big bad did change sides but all the henchmen were still on board with the previous goals and ended up fighting against the former big bad.

I think there’s room for my guy to be redeemed. He hasn’t done any large-scale evil. He’s the kind of weasel who stirs other people up to do his dirty work rather than doing it for himself. He’s suffered some, and he comes from a background that somewhat explains why he’s the way he is. He just made some poor choices in response to those circumstances. He’s enough of a jerk that I can’t imagine him joining the found family of team good guys, but he might realize the big bad has been using him and switch sides in the final showdown. We’ll see.


Seeing Ghosts

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a TV promo for a new show, and it caught my attention when it appeared that this show was about a journalist who talked to ghosts. Gee, where have I heard that before?

The show was Not Dead Yet, and it premiered this week, so I watched it. It turns out to have only a few things in common with my mystery series. It’s more of a chick-litty sitcom (though fortunately without the laugh track) rather than a mystery, and it is based on a book, just not mine. The premise is that a woman in her late 30s finds herself having to start her life over again after the boyfriend she dropped her whole life and career for to follow him to London dumps her. Now she’s back, hoping to pick up where she left off, only to find that her friends have married and started families and have moved up to editor positions in the newspaper where she used to work, while the only job she can get there is writing obituaries. Then she finds that she’s haunted by the people she’s assigned to write about. Each episode appears to be about her dealing with some issue in her life and the ghost trying to help by teaching some kind of life lesson. The ghost only goes away when she turns in the obituary, but then the next one arrives when she gets the next assignment.

In the two episodes that were on this week, she didn’t have to solve the murder of any of the ghosts, and she only sees that one ghost while she’s working on the obituary instead of seeing all ghosts, all the time. But since one of her goals is to get out of writing obituaries and become a “real” reporter again, I’m sure there’s bound to be an episode in which there’s a question about the person’s death and she uses the fact that she can interview the ghost to try to solve it so she can write the crime article.

Aside from the reporter who can talk to ghosts, the other similarities to my series are small. She does use pretending to talk on her cell phone as a way to cover up talking to a ghost in public. And there is a character named Lexi, but she’s not the heroine. She’s sort of the antagonist, the daughter of the newspaper owner who’s now running the paper. The heroine and her friends used to hate this woman, but when the heroine comes back to town, she finds that her friends have become friends with her. The heroine is still kind of at odds with her.

I’m honestly not entirely sure how much I like this series and if I want to watch it on an ongoing basis. I like the ghosts a lot more than I like the heroine, who’s a bit offputting. I know that the show is about her being a flawed person who has a lot of life lessons to learn, but she has a few Too Stupid to Live moments. I have a very low cringe tolerance and suffer from secondhand embarrassment, and there’s a lot of that in this show. But I’m still curious about how they handle the ghost stuff, and I’m worried about unintentionally copying something if I write another of my ghost mysteries, so I kind of feel like I have to watch so I know what to avoid.

If you like the idea of a journalist who can talk to ghosts and are okay with her not having to solve their murders, you might want to check this out. It’s on ABC on Wednesdays, and it looks like it streams on Hulu. If you want the journalist to be solving murders, read my Lucky Lexie mystery series.

writing, movies, TV

Epic Overkill

A couple of weekends ago, I rewatched the Hobbit trilogy. It’s weird that it takes longer to watch the movies than to read the book they’re based on. They took a fairly simple book that was written to read to a kid at bedtime and turned it into a bloated epic. It’s pretty obvious the parts in the movies that came directly from the book. They tend to have a warmth and wit and are on a “human” scale (using the term loosely for this story). It made me think about epic vs. intimate in fiction. I think sometimes when writers or filmmakers go overboard in trying to make things exciting by making them epic, it comes back around to being dull. I kept checking the clock while watching these movies, and usually during the biggest, most “epic” scenes.

I think a lot of that comes down to something I’ve heard said about the news, that two lives lost is a tragedy, and two thousand is a statistic. Seeing one character we care about in a reasonable amount of peril against a foe they have a chance of fighting against can be gripping, but seeing thousands of faceless CGI characters we’ve never “met” in a massive battle is boring.

I had a similar problem with the overkill in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There were so many cases when our heroes would be overwhelmed by swarms of orcs, and those scenes got kind of ridiculous. It was hard to believe that they could survive those odds without major plot armor. The scene would end up being the hero fighting about six stuntman orcs while dozens of CGI orcs swarmed around. I guess all the bonus extraneous orcs were meant to make the scene exciting, but it had the opposite effect on me. If they’d kept it to the few stuntman orcs, it would have made for a more engaging scene.

I think one way that the Rings of Power series worked for me was that the fights all had reasonable odds. It wasn’t a mass of CGI characters. It was mostly characters we knew fighting a realistic size opponent. We saw more of the one-on-one fighting in a way that seemed like either side had a chance of winning, without the need for plot armor and with skills that fit what we knew about the characters.

I’m in no danger of going too epic because that kind of mass battle doesn’t really interest me, but looking at things this way made me more aware of what interests me. I’m far more engaged by character interactions than I am by battles, and if you want me really engaged, make me care about the people. A few weeks ago, I had to pace the living room during an episode of Andor (to switch franchises) because I was so anxious about what would happen to the characters in a big heist/fight scene. I cared about those people, and the focus was on the characters we knew instead of them trying to make everything massive (it turned out that they actually had some other plans, but COVID restrictions meant they couldn’t do a big crowd scene, and so they wrote around their limitations in a way that made the story work better).

If you make me care, you don’t need all the epic bells and whistles to engage me. The makers of The Hobbit movies wasted a lot of money on CGI when they had strong enough characters (and actors) to keep us involved with something on a smaller scale.

TV, writing

Sympathy for the Villain

I’ve mentioned more than a few times that I’m not a fan of villains. I don’t pull for the bad guys until/unless they truly turn themselves around in a way that shows they know where they went wrong and sincerely feel bad about what they’ve done. I don’t care how sad their backstory is or how sexy and misunderstood they are. I’ll still be on Team Good Guys. And I resent stories that try to make me feel bad for the villains because they grew up poor and were mistreated, or anything like that. In the real world, the real villains on a big scale tend to be those who grew up with privilege and feel entitled.

But the series Andor is doing some interesting things about building (and removing) sympathy for villain characters, and not by doing the usual “sad childhood” things. I’m going to try to keep it vague to avoid spoilers, but I recommend watching this series. Even if you don’t like Star Wars, this isn’t really “Star Warsy.” It’s more of a spy thriller in a science fiction setting. There are no Jedi, there’s no mention of the Force. It’s a look at life under the rule of the Empire for people at all levels of society.

One thing they do to make you look at the villain characters in a different way is to put the various storylines in silos. There’s a storyline about the Imperial Security Bureau that’s tracking down and eliminating threats to the Empire. There’s no doubt that these are the bad guys, but because everyone in the storyline would be considered villains, the protagonist of this storyline is a villain but is sort of the “good guy” for this story, as long as it’s not intersecting with any of the actual good guys. They do all the sorts of things you do to set up a protagonist. This woman is clearly smart and capable, and yet she’s an underdog because she can’t get people to listen to her. She’s figuring out what’s going on with the rebel movement, but she gets in trouble for crossing jurisdictional boundaries instead of praised for spotting a potential threat. I think just about anyone who’s worked in a business setting can relate to feeling like the smartest person in the room but not being able to get anyone to listen because they’re all stuck in petty bureaucratic fiefdoms. When she finally got recognized for her work, I caught myself cheering for her — and then I remembered that this is a bad thing. We don’t want the Empire figuring out what’s going on with the rebels. It was an interesting way to make us sympathize with her and see her as a human being without playing the “poor, sad backstory” card. It won’t make me hate her less when she comes into actual direct conflict with any of the good guy characters, but it does make me see the threat they face. This incredibly competent person who’s had to struggle to be recognized is scarier than your typical mustache-twirling one-dimensional villain.

There’s another character that’s giving me emotional whiplash. In a way, he’s similar to this woman in not being able to get his superiors to listen to him, but what we see first about him is that he’s focused on appearances. The very first thing we learn is that he’s had his uniform tailored and enhanced to have extra decorative piping. It’s such a silly little detail, but it tells us so much about him and sets up what he ends up doing. I hated this guy more than any of the Star Wars villains because he reminded me of people I’ve had to deal with. I referred to him as the Hall Monitor from Hell. When he got consequences I felt bad for him because his consequences were bad, and we also got a glimpse of where he came from, but then when it was clear that he’d learned nothing, I hated him again. Either way, I care, whether it’s wanting to see him get taken down a peg or four or hoping he learns something and gets better.

I’ve struggled with writing villains and tend to keep them offstage, but I’m going to study this and see if I can use any of it in my work. Can I show things from the villain’s perspective and make readers care, even if what they care about is the villain falling into a volcano?

movies, TV

A Golden Age

I’ve been thinking lately about what my 11-year-old self would think about the times I’m living in now. That was the age when I fell full-on into geekiness and there wasn’t enough of the geeky stuff I wanted to satisfy me.

I’d been obsessed with Star Wars since I first saw it when I was 9, and in the fall of my sixth-grade year we were still a year away from The Empire Strikes Back (I was living on a military base overseas, so we wouldn’t get it until November of the following year after it was released in May in the US). Around that time, I discovered fantasy as a genre. I’d read books with magic and had even read The Hobbit, but that fall I found the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lloyd Alexander Prydain books, and The Lord of the Rings. I’m not sure which of them I found first, but I do know I read them all during that fall (though I stretched out the Narnia books and didn’t finish reading the series for the first time until early the following year).

The problem at that time was that there wasn’t enough of these things. There was one Star Wars movie, and there was no home video, so the only way to see it over and over again was to go to the movie theater, if it was playing anywhere. Which it wasn’t, especially not on military bases in Germany. There wasn’t a lot of related media. There were mostly just iterations of the original movie — the novelization, the comic book version, the audio drama version, the “storybook” version that had photos from the movie to illustrate the novelization. The way I “saw” the movie repeatedly was to read the novelization while listening to the soundtrack album. The only new stuff that wasn’t just the same story as the movie was one non-canon sequel novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which originally was meant to be the sequel if the movie did well enough for a sequel, but then when it was a smash that got scrapped and Lucas planned a whole saga with a bigger mythology. I guess the Han Solo books came out around that time, but I didn’t find them until about a year later. And there was the infamous Holiday Special, which was terrible but which we were excited for because it was something new in the Star Wars universe.

For Lord of the Rings, an animated version of the first half of the saga came out around that time (I’m not sure when it was actually released, but it came to one of the base theaters nearby that fall, right around the time I read the books). I was so excited about that, then was rather disappointed. And even if I’d loved it, there was no home video, so no way to watch it if it wasn’t at the theater.

It would have blown my mind then to imagine there being eleven Star Wars movies, plus multiple TV series. And it’s all streaming, so you can watch it whenever you want to. You could watch Star Wars content every waking hour for weeks before repeating anything. I was watching Andor last week and it struck me that I was watching a Star Wars TV show, and there would be a new episode a week later. In the days when it was three years between Star Wars movies, that would have been an unimaginable luxury.

And then on Friday night, I watched the latest episode of Rings of Power, which also amazed 11-year-old me. Not only do we have full movies of the whole Lord of the Rings saga, but now there’s a TV series with new stuff in that world, so we get to visit that world again without knowing exactly what will happen because we’ve read the books repeatedly.

I’m really enjoying both of these series, and not just because it’s so exciting to have new content in worlds I love. I think I’d enjoy them even if I hadn’t already been a fan. Andor is actually pretty peripheral to the main Star Wars story, though without that character and his actions, the events of the first movie wouldn’t have happened. But in a way, that’s what I like about it. It fleshes out that universe and shows why the Empire was terrible (beyond just the “willing to blow up whole planets to make a point” thing) while telling a new story I haven’t seen or read before. And Rings of Power is just gorgeous. It’s an immersive wallow in that world, getting to see different aspects of it than were in the main saga.

Twice a week right now, I get to indulge my inner 11-year-old and live out some of the biggest dreams I imagined when I was that age. And if I want to watch something related to these universes between episodes, there’s plenty to choose from.


So Much Star Wars

I’ve been gradually working my way through the Star Wars Clone Wars animated series, and am deep enough into it that I’m starting to see characters and situations that have been referenced in some of the live-action works, so the pieces of the puzzle are coming together.

However, I still have a bit of a problem with the animation. There’s something really weird about the way the people look. I mostly listen to this show while doing something else, almost treating it as a radio drama, rather than watching it because the look of it bothers me so much, and I finally figured out what it reminds me of. The people all look like action figures, with their hair and clothes molded out of plastic. It’s like the action figure version of what they do in the Lego animated pieces. Or it’s computer-generated animation that looks like someone made a stop-motion animated movie using their Star Wars action figures.

And that got me started pondering … is this series the Toy Story of Star Wars? Is this what the Star Wars action figures get up to when we’re not looking? Or is it the drama that’s playing out when the kid who owns the action figures is playing with them (like the action sequence at the beginning of one of the Toy Story movies that turned out to be the kid playing with his toys, and this was the scenario he was imagining). Maybe this is some kid filling in all the plot holes of the prequels by playing out stories with his action figures.

It’s a pity that the animation is so weak in this series because the stories are actually pretty good and flesh out the characters rather well. There are occasional moments when it seems like the writers remember that this was originally supposed to be aimed at kids and they throw in a more kid-friendly episode, but most of it is pretty heavy and complex. I kind of wish we could have seen some of these storylines in live action, in at least an hour-long episode, though I think the special effects might have been complicated. Some of these things could only be done in animation. I’m getting used to most of the voice casting that’s different from the movies, and I’m no longer hearing the guy from Timeless when Anakin talks (that was disconcerting at first until this role became more familiar).

It still blows my mind that there’s so much Star Wars content now that at any time I want to watch something Star Wars, I can just turn on the TV and watch it — and I still have a few seasons of this series plus the Bad Batch that I haven’t even seen yet. I remember when I was a kid and the only thing that existed was the first movie. They didn’t do action figures until nearly a year later, so we couldn’t even make up new stories with those. We had to rely on pretending our bicycles were X-Wings or TIE fighters when we rode around the neighborhood. I actually liked the infamous holiday special because it may have been bad and confusing, but it was new Star Wars content while we waited three years for the sequel. Now it would take ages to get through every Star Wars movie or show, even if you watched something every night. Nine-year-old me would have been overwhelmed.

movies, TV, writing

Do We Really Need Villains?

Before Christmas, I wrote a post about low and high tension stories and whether you really need to have edge-of-your-seat tension for a book. Sometimes you just want to go on a fun journey (literal or metaphorical) without having to worry about the hero’s fate. In the same post, I talked about the requirement that the hero be proactive and defeat the villain, while it can sometimes be really satisfying if the villain causes their own downfall, without the hero doing anything to cause that downfall.

Now I’ve been wondering, do we actually need a villain?

My latest bit of joy has been the new version of All Creatures Great and Small that’s been on PBS. I rewatched the first season the week after Christmas and the second season is on now. This is a show that goes beyond cozy to downright cuddly. It’s the story of a young veterinarian from Glasgow who gets a job in the late 1930s working for a practice in Yorkshire, where they treat both pets and farm animals. His boss is gruff and demanding but turns out to be decent at heart (he mostly just likes animals more than he likes people), and he sometimes has to deal with difficult personalities but there isn’t really a villain in the story. The interpersonal conflict generally comes from people who have good intentions but disagree about the right way to deal with a situation or from people who have an emotional involvement that clouds their judgment. Otherwise, there’s a lot of “man vs. nature” conflict in figuring out what’s wrong with an animal and how to fix it — or how to deal with it if it can’t be fixed. There is some personality clashing within the vet practice, especially once the boss’s younger brother joins them, since he has a very different attitude about life (at first, you might expect him to be a bit of a rival to our hero, but they become best friends). The closest thing to a “villain” is a rival vet, but they aren’t trying to hurt each other. They “defeat” the rival by trying to do a better job of diagnosing and curing a farmer’s cow. Nobody’s really mean. There’s no evil at all, and it’s quite refreshing. This is a show I can just sit and watch without doing crosswords or knitting, so it keeps my attention even without all that conflict.

In fact, I find it ironic that the show that’s on before it has felt the need to shoehorn in a villain. That’s Around the World in 80 Days, and you’d think that just trying to deal with all the stuff they’re facing on this great journey would be enough conflict, but they’ve thrown in an enemy who’s trying to sabotage them. And I can’t watch that show without also doing something like crosswords or knitting because it doesn’t entirely hold my interest.

Another no-villain thing I’ve seen lately is Encanto, the Disney movie. It’s about a family in a Columbian village. The family all has magical powers they use to help the village, but one of the daughters has missed out on a magical gift and has realized that things are going wrong (hmm, where have I seen something along those lines before, the person without a magical gift who solves things for the magical people …). There’s conflict within the family, but there’s no villain, no evil person causing the problems. It’s just good people trying to do their best and sometimes going about that the wrong way. There are still a lot of emotional stakes. There’s even tension and action, all without a villain.

I’m reading a fantasy novel right now that may not have an actual villain in it. There are some not so great people, but they’re not what I’d call a villain, not someone that they have to defeat to save the day. I’m only about halfway through, so it could change, but mostly it seems like the force they’re having to fight is nature. So, it can be done (though this is an established author).

The series I’m developing does need a villain, so I can’t play with this concept here, but now I have a mental challenge to see if I can come up with a story with no villain.

TV, movies

The Mini-Break

That break was just what I needed. I didn’t do anything particularly exciting, but it was a nice little reset. I caught up on housework, did some cooking, took care of some shopping and errands, and otherwise I mostly rested. I didn’t set an alarm in the mornings, and although I didn’t sleep that much later than I usually do, it was nice sleeping that fifteen or so minutes later without guilt. I made a fancy “brunch” type breakfast on Saturday morning (though it got interrupted by a phone call). I did a lot of reading, did some knitting, and watched some movies/TV.

I’ve been watching the series Community, which I somehow missed while it was on. I know I was aware of it, but I’m not sure why I chose not to watch it. I think it must have been on at the same time as I had ballet class, and it didn’t sound like the sort of thing I was interested enough in to bother recording. Really, there’s no way to describe what this show is about or like that accurately reflects what it is. It’s sort of about life at a quirky community college, but that’s not really it. The inciting incident is that a hotshot (and kind of sleazy) lawyer gets disbarred when it turns out that he didn’t actually get a bachelor’s degree, so now he’s going back to community college to catch up so he can get his license back. He tries to hit on an attractive classmate, finds out she’s struggling in Spanish class, claims to be fluent, and offers to tutor her. She’s onto his ploy and foils it by inviting other members of the class to join in a study group. Even after his ruse is exposed, they decide to keep studying together. The series is about this study group as they become friends and deal with school.

But even that doesn’t describe what it’s really about. It’s this weird blend of snarky and sweet as this group of deeply flawed people gradually learns to be better, but somehow it never comes across as A Very Special Episode in which they learn A Valuable Lesson. As the series progresses, it becomes rather surreal, with the occasional realistic, relatable episode. There are pop-culture references, fantasy sequences, random musical numbers, epic paintball games that play out like popular movies, animated bits, and other weirdness. The characters who seem to have it all together turn out to be a mess, the characters who are a mess have their moments to save the day, and it’s all utterly addictive.

Traditionally, I celebrate Labor Day weekend with chick flicks. I wasn’t entirely in the mood for that, so I didn’t do any kind of marathon, but I did watch one when I discovered that one of my unsung favorites that was part of how this tradition kicked off was on Amazon Prime: I’m With Lucy. I like this one because it’s got an unconventional structure and is nonlinear. A woman on her way to her wedding is trying to convince her friend to let her introduce her to a guy at the reception. The friend says she doesn’t do setups. The bride says she spent a year accepting all the blind dates and setups she got, and that’s why she’s getting married now. We then see all those blind dates, but we don’t see them in order. We see bits of each and bounce around among them, with no idea which of these guys she’s going to end up with. The dates that start badly end up going well, and vice versa, which keeps you off-balance. Watching it this time around, I found myself surprised that it flew totally under the radar. I didn’t see it until it was on one of the cable channels on a Saturday afternoon. I never even heard of it when it was released (hmm, looks like it played at a film festival then went straight to video in the US), but it’s got a great cast and really good New York settings. It’s not quite on a par with When Harry Met Sally in quality, but it scratches the same itch.

I went back to work on Monday, doing some brainstorming to figure out what I need to revise for the book (but otherwise taking it easy), so I was eager to get going on Tuesday. The changes I’m making seem to be working. I’ve made it through most of the parts that needed to be revised, and now I’m moving forward with the new content.

I’ll have to finish this book before I get another good break. I’m planning to ease off during the fall as I focus on developing a new possible series, and I’ll give myself plenty of time to enjoy doing my favorite fall things.