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Erin Watches: Scandal, the final season, through the finale April 24, 2018

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So…that happened.

I didn’t binge-watch the back half of the season, just kept up every week or two, so no liveblogging this time. Instead you get a long stream of final thoughts.

Plus, a rec for The West Wing Weekly. It’s a WW recap podcast with Joshua Malina (Will Graham in TWW, David Rosen here in Scandal) as co-host, and tons of high-profile guests (like, up to “sitting US senator” level) and in-depth conversations. Episode 4.18 dovetails with the Scandal finale, and features some sweet behind-the-scenes stories.

I really miss the days when Olivia Pope and Associates were actually taking cases.

Only one guy showed up at the office asking for help this season. And his problem turned out to be that he was being framed by Olivia, to take the heat off herself and/or Mellie. Quinn and the others did absolutely nothing to help — their only advice at the end was “even though you did literally nothing wrong, all you can do is flee the country and start a new life. Somewhere without extradition.”

And that was basically the whole season. Our core cast arranging itself into shifting alliances and going after each other, helping no one, leaving a lot of innocent people as collateral damage along the way.

The show always had a theme of characters making Dramatic Speeches that weren’t backed up by the rest of the writing. Sometimes they were working on bad information; other times they had obvious reasons to lie; other times they had a motive and were running with whatever line of BS backed it up.

That last one came up during the How To Get Away With Murder crossover event, where Olivia made some stuff up to cover for whatever illegal thing she was in on. Never followed HTGAWM, so I don’t know how much eyerolling that protagonist deserves, but it was a relief when she actually managed to catch it and call Olivia out.

(My favorite example is that election-season episode when a bomb went off, and one of Still President Fitz’s primary opponents was on-site pulling people out of the rubble. Which of course is terrible publicity for your opponent to get…so Olivia was on the phone with TV stations, yelling things like “Your President is making a speech! That should be your top priority!” It’s the perfect combination of self-serving BS, protagonist-centered morality, and total lack of compassion for innocent victims.)

Anyway, I bring this all up because as of this season, they’ve overplayed the trick so hard that it’s lost all its power.

“He was my friend!” yells Dad Pope in anguish, over a guy he long-conned, manipulated, and just murdered. “Tell the truth — the truth will be your armor,” declares Olivia to Mellie with total conviction, before they discuss how she definitely can’t tell the truth about the election they all conspired to steal. It’s absurdist. It’s nonsense. All you can do is groan and roll your eyes and wait for them to get on with it, already.

As we roll into the last few episodes, the setup on the chessboard looks like this:

–Olivia, during her stint as Command of extra-evil-secret-CIA B-613, had a visiting head-of-state assassinated (on plausibly-deniable non-orders from President Mellie). She’s been covering it up ever since.

–Vice President Cyrus staged a cyber-hijacking of Air Force Two, which got him lots of attention and let him make a heroic “let us go to our deaths with bravery” speech that got filmed by the press on-board. He’s following that up by trying to frame Mellie for the hijacking and get her impeached.

–The firm-formerly-known-as-OPA ducklings are trying to expose Olivia. No, wait, they’re friends with Olivia again, they’re trying to expose Cyrus. All without exposing the fact that most of them have B-613 murders on their hands themselves.

–Dad Pope is officially retired from Command, but (as mentioned) still murdering people on his own time. Also, complaining a lot about white people.

–Jake has been shuffled around a variety of high-ranking positions based on whatever’s most convenient for keeping him in White House proximity. I think he’s officially Command now? And he’s siding with VP Cyrus in terms of who he’s murdering these days.

–Also, remember Jake’s wife, and how he seriously considered choking her to death in her sleep last season? Yeah, she’s dead now. Didn’t even get some kind of “intrepid investigator on the verge of exposing all his other crimes” storyline leading up to it. I feel like he just got tired of not murdering her.

We should also note that, at this point, B-613…does not appear to have any actual agents left. Frankly, I’m not sure they ever had more than 6 at a time in the first place.

Which you would think would kinda hamper their job as a super-competent ominous secret death squad.

So with all those pieces in place, Congress is holding special pre-impeachment hearings, trying to figure out exactly who to prosecute on what charges. (Everyone for everything? Wouldn’t be too far off.)

And…they actually get correct information! While investigating Mellie for the fake hijacking, they come across the real assassination, so that’s when Olivia decides to take full responsibility and out the existence of B-613 to the world. The rest of the ducklings follow along and testify about their own roles.

The person in charge of the actual prosecuting is Attorney General Josh Malina. So there’s this dramatic overnight when nobody knows what the committee is going to recommend to him, but the smart money is on:

–Throw out VP Cyrus for staged terrorism
–Put Olivia, Huck, Quinn, Quinn’s baby-daddy, and Jake in jail for the B-613-related subset of their crimes
–Nothing for Mellie, she’s cool.

This is when Cyrus calls the Attorney General and claims he wants to make a deal. So, naturally, the AG goes to his house and has a drink alone with him.

I cannot tell who in this situation is more wall-bangingly stupid — the AG, who thought this was safe, or Cyrus, who apparently thought “if the guy whose job is to prosecute me abruptly dies in my house with no witnesses, that won’t be at all suspicious!”

Except that…somehow…it…works??

Like…one of the last scenes is Olivia handing Cyrus a letter of resignation and saying “even though you’re not being prosecuted, you’re going to sign this now.” Why not?? He very obviously just murdered the AG on top of everything else! The Deputy AG could be dumb as a box of rocks and still get a conviction! I would put Cyrus away for life on that evidence even if the prosecutor was literally a box of rocks!

Also: Dad Pope makes a surprise last-minute appearance in front of the committee. Confirms the existence of B-613. Makes a grand speech about how it controlled who got the presidency, it set the value of the dollar, it secretly had all the real power in the US government. All handled by this cabal of as many as six (6) assassins at one time. Sure, Jan.

But…for some reason…that means…no jail time for anyone at all???

Dad Pope confesses to running the operation, and therefore none of the operatives are accountable for anything? Dad Pope was retired when Olivia committed her war crimes, but his presence means nobody’s mad about that anymore either??

How.

It’s not even…I mean, it’s the last episode. They know it’s the last episode. There’s no need to force the characters back to the status quo in preparation for next season! They could do a flash-forward, slip in a bit of exposition about how everyone’s served their time for crimes committed, and end on a reunion! A few hugs, a few tears, a profound sense of relief that they’ve finally taken responsibility for all their bad deeds and can start fresh, pan out on a nice sunny DC landscape, curtain.

And instead, absolutely everything fizzles.

Don’t get me wrong, Quinn finally getting a wedding (with Huck officiating! and her baby-daddy finally revealing his non-alias name!) was cute. But it didn’t make up for the otherwise-total dramatic kerflop.

During the time this season was running, I found out that Grey’s Anatomy was on Netflix, and managed to binge the entire back catalog. Didn’t actually realize it was a Shonda Rhimes show until a few seasons in.

You can see a bit of shared DNA — the same style of Dramatic Important Speeches, the engaging high-stakes drama, the mostly-underwhelming romances, the occasional physically-abusive man who’s supposed to be a sad woobie. But I would not have guessed they were connected without prompting, because most of the Grey’s characters…are decent human beings. They’re kind. Honorable. Genuinely trying to do good in the world.

Some of them are ridiculous, too. And I’m not deeply invested in most of the characters as people (except Christina — I would’ve been so mad if they killed off Christina — and Bailey — listen, writers, y’all better not do wrong by Bailey). But you know what, it is enjoyable and fulfilling to watch.

(Also: lesbian and bi characters! Who are described in those words! And have long-term romantic dramas like anyone else! And who are mostly still alive!)

Anyway, the point of this detour is that the later episodes of Scandal started coming with ads for her new show, Station 19. Which, as far as I’m concerned, was not a compelling advertising strategy.

But then someone on FFA said it was in the same mode as Grey’s, i.e. “noble melodramatic people” rather than “aggressively terrible people”, so I gave it a try. Turns out it’s straight-up a shared universe with Grey’s, crossover characters and everything.

(Also: gay man on the team! Who’s been comfortably out of the closet since long before the pilot episode, and nobody thinks twice about the fact that he had a husband!)

So, yeah. Scandal was a mess, but if you admire Shonda’s talent and would like to experience it in a less soul-crushing format, I recommend both of the above.

…and she’s also debuting a new legal drama, so if anyone wants to tip me off about whether We The People is written by Scandal!Shonda or Grey’s!Shonda, it’ll be much appreciated.

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Erin Watches: Adventures with Tip and Oh season 3, part 2 March 5, 2018

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Just finished the back half of season 3! And I think this was the first time we had a real multi-episode arc plot. I didn’t even realize it was happening until we got to the full-length finale, and it started following up on elements that were established in earlier episodes. Even the solution was foreshadowed. (Maybe a little too obviously, especially since it’s not on a week-to-week release schedule where viewers might forget a plot from three episodes ago. But props for trying.)

Movie continuity shoutouts: Episode 11a involves Tip and Oh re-enacting the “interrupting cow” scene. Using sock puppets. It’s adorable. Episode 12a has Tip replace her mom’s profile pic on a dating app — a cropped screencap of the movie — on the grounds that “it doesn’t even look like her!” And the finale involves what I assume is a reference to the IRL controversy where they designed a cover for the DVD with no sign of Tip on it. (Someone releases a comic about the story, with a giant Oh dominating the cover and a tiny stick-figure Tip on the side, telling the story of “Oh And Some Human.” Tip is…not pleased.)

Gender stuff: Episode 9b has Tip and Oh start a spacegoing pseudo-Girl-Scouts group, open to all. Oh starts listing off identities that are welcome, including genders, including “boy, girl, boyboy, boygirl, boyboygirlgirl…” That last one isn’t a canonical Boov gender. Does that mean…growing awareness of non-septenary Boov? Or nonbinary humans coming up with their own variations on Boov gender? Or both?

And episode 12b really doubles down on Oh being a canon boyboy, huh. “Tip will be so proud when I tell her that I am being a brave boyboy now.”

Miscellaneous notes:

A few more episodes with repetitive themes. Tip makes a new alien friend and Oh gets jealous! Encountering a new group of Boov who haven’t interacted with humans, and treat us like exotic/scary animals (complete with “safari” through Chicago), until they make friends! At least one of them paid off in the finale.

I did like the running gag of “hot dogs are full of try-not-to-think-about-it.”

Episode 10b starts with Oh drawing AU fanart of Tip’s diary. And ends with Tip inventing a terrifyingly dramatic story in order to scare Oh away from messing with her diary in the future. It involves Sharzod and a team of Boov having a dramatic mall battle against Tip and a team of DieAnne-and-biker-friends.

Episode 12a reveals that Tip is a fan of something called Volcano Biker Cops 12. (In which “true love” is revealed to be “two misfit cops overcoming their differences before riding their motorbikes over a volcano.”) I’m so happy that there are 12 of them.

At some point in episode 13 we have this fabulous exchange: “Sharzod’s house is a spaceship!” “How did this never come up??” “I has told you many times.” Cue a sequence of strategically-modified flashbacks to earlier episodes. Much as I enjoyed the bits of the finale that were thoughtfully foreshadowed, that was a great gag.

Final thoughts: [spoiler] and Kyuubey need to make friends. [Spoiler]: “I wasn’t hiding anything! I would have told you [evil plot] if you’d simply asked!” Tip: “Who asks that.”

…Now I have to remember to draw Puella Magi Tip some time.

Erin Watches: Adventures with Tip & Oh, season 3 (part 1) January 31, 2018

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This has been out on Netflix for, like, months now, but I was holding off until I had the time to properly enjoy it.

I feel like we’re repeating a lot of the same themes and morals from earlier seasons. Tip hides something from her mother, and learns a valuable lesson about honesty! Oh takes some human concept to an extreme, and learns a valuable lesson about moderation! Tip gets wrapped up in social media, and learns a valuable lesson about online validation! Oh gets tempted by a prestigious role in Boov society, and learns a valuable lesson about how he’s happiest with his family! And so on.

Notes about episodes 1-7 (okay, mostly about Boov gender in episodes 1-7):

Episode 1b: DieAnne is back! And revealed to be a teenager of her species. (They’re called Roidians.) Tip and Oh show up at Roidian Prom, where it appears that adolescent female Roidians are about 1.5x as big as the males. And adult female Roidians, or at least DieAnne’s mother, are…giant flaming pit-monsters?

Episode 2a: Krunkle’s back! And is referred to as “she” now, even though that was “misgendering” when Tip said it earlier. Probably the writers just forgot, but I’ll be over here working on headcanons about concept drift/universal translator inconsistency/Krunkle coming out as trans.

Episode 2b: Tip and Oh celebrate their Friendiversary, including flashbacks to their first meeting. They redrew scenes from the movie in the show’s style. Very cute.

Episode 3a: A one-off reference to an individual Boov as “they.” (“There’s another Boov I hang out with, and they do nice things for me, and I look out for their well-being…”) Guessing that’s a boygirl or a girlboy.

Episode 3b: The whole plot hinges on “Oh learning to tell lies,” which, uh, is harder to headcanon away. He knows what lies are! One of the first things he said to Tip was “I will shoot forth the lasers from my eyes”! And the show hasn’t been doing the Boov emotional color-changing to begin with, but it’s especially notable here, where suddenly Oh isn’t turning green and it’s not a thing.

Episode 4a features a Boov singer named Chercophanie…who I assumed was doing a Cher impression, but nope, she was actually voiced by Cher. Who even did a song for them. Nice get, Netflix.

Episode 5a: Sharzod manipulates Oh into a date (they remember the continuity of the number-one date that ends with a bell-ring, at least), and at one point comments “I like a boyboy with a sense of humor.” I totally thought Oh was confirmed as a boy, not a boyboy. (Of course, Sharzod is always referring to Tip as a boy, so maybe she’s just bad with gender.)

Tip in this episode refers to Sharzod as “heheshe”, which is definitely a first. Right? (Lucy called her a boyboygirl earlier, but everyone’s used “she” pronouns.)

Episode 7a gives us talking cat-aliens. I’m surprised it took them this long, frankly.

Oh, and: there’s a standalone Christmas special! Which is…a very thin plot full of mildly-entertaining songs. Including a Jewish character who raps about Hanukkah. I appreciate what they’re trying to do, but combined with the way it handled Christmas as a generic secular celebration of giving and togetherness, it did give off an odd vibe of “all religions and their winter holidays are basically the same, right?”

Not actively off-putting overall, just very skippable. Watch it if you’re a completist, but it’s no A Colbert Christmas, is what I’m saying.

Erin Watches: Scandal’s final season, episodes 1-7 January 7, 2018

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I got caught up on the currently-airing Season 7 of Scandal while working on comics. (Previous reaction posts: on Dreamwidth, on WordPress.)

Everyone is still terrible. With the possible exception of…uh…I guess Marcus. (President Mellie’s ex-affair, currently Ex-President Fitz’s minder.)

High points of terribleness:

  • Cyrus is Mellie’s VP, because heaven forbid we have new characters be important on this show.
  • In the first episode, B613!Olivia is told she’ll need to have someone (a captured spy) murdered for the sake of national security, and her reaction is “hOW could you think I would DO such a thing??!?” At the start of the episode, we recap how she murdered Luna Vargas. Over the course of it, she sends a sniper to threaten a foreign leader’s elementary-age children. Yes, Olivia, how can we suggest murder to you, that’s such an insult to your stainless honor.
  • A couple episodes later, she firebombs a plane carrying a Muslim foreign leader and his teenage lesbian niece. That’s our Olivia!
  • Republicans are championing a free-college-for-all bill. Democrats are secretly scheming to block it, even though they like the idea, because they wouldn’t be able to claim the win. Because Scandal takes place in Bizarro America.
  • When an obnoxious billionaire businessman says he might “drop a couple mill” and run for President, Cyrus gives him an impassioned speech about how the office is sacred and belongs to the people. This is the same Cyrus who got the last POTUS into office by voter fraud, and the current POTUS (and himself) into office by double-murder. Much sacred, very respect.
  • Olivia keeps giving Mellie these intense, passionate speeches about “you are not alone, I always have your back, I am the only one who’s with you, I will make you a monument.” Why it doesn’t immediately segue into them making out, I do not know.
  • Quinn puts together the pieces about Olivia’s secret firebombing, then goes missing on her wedding day. Olivia assumes Quinn went into hiding to plot her downfall…and pretends to lead the team on a fast-paced search, while secretly waging an even faster-paced campaign to plant false leads and erase evidence before they get to it. Turns out Quinn was kidnapped! All Olivia’s machinations only slowed them down from rescuing her! Our hero.
  • One of those false leads prompts Quinn’s not-yet-husband to kidnap and torture an innocent man. Goody.
  • Jake (who is now B16’s #2, remember) insists that the only villains here are the kidnappers, and urges Olivia not to blame herself. Really? Because I will totally blame Olivia.
  • Oh, almost forgot to mention — Ex-President Fitz is moping around his mansion in Vermont (Marcus describes both the state and the guy as “Cold. White.”), wallowing in how lonely and powerless he is. Go join Habitat for Humanity and build some houses, you whiny moron.

Review: The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage December 18, 2017

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Finally got to La Belle Sauvage!

(Not to be confused with La Belle Sauvage, or a Progress Through the Beau-Monde, a pair of books published in 1803. Coincidence or inspiration?)

For people who liked HDM: would recommend.

It might or might not be a good jumping-in point for people who haven’t read any of the other books. Even though it’s the first in a series, it has a really hard case of “middle installment in the trilogy” syndrome — sets a bunch of things up, then abruptly stops. As a standalone work I’m sure the end would be pretty unsatisfying.

On the other hand…it does a lot of over-explaining. Every time there’s a new plot point (e.g. “the witches have some kind of prophecy about Lyra”), we get multiple scenes of it being repeated, in full, to characters who didn’t know it already. For me that was annoying, but now that I think about it, it’s a sharp contrast to the way The Golden Compass is pretty impenetrable on first go-through, and might make this book an easier way in.

So that’s the complaining out of the way. On to…

The Good Bits (spoiler-free summary)

The new characters are well-rounded and likeable. Mal in particular is a good combination of “impressive competence” and “eleven-year-old fancies.”

Hannah Relf is amazing in all ways and I would have read an entire book about just her.

Baby Lyra is precious and perfect. She and Pan are a nonverbal infant for the entire book, but she’s written with so much personality, and is so clearly the tiny version of the character we know and love in later books.

The prose in general is great. Not in the sense of Terry Pratchett, where you actively notice the cleverness, but great in the sense that it’s clear and fluid and gets everything across without getting in the way. (I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t read so many badly-written books lately.)

La Belle Sauvage is the name of Mal’s canoe. One of his friends pranked him by painting an “s” over the “v”.

New information about daemons!

New Daemon Lore (vaguely spoilery)

Unsettled daemons can take combination forms. When Mal is hanging out in a swamp, his Asta turns into an owl with duck feathers, so she can keep a distant lookout but still be waterproof.

Alice doesn’t seem stressed that her daemon Ben is unsettled at age 16, though she’s actively curious what he’ll settle as.

Daemons can be physically injured — there’s one that has a missing leg. (It’s implied that the injury was caused by its physically-abusive human, and that they are collectively pretty unhinged.)

Daemons can urinate. (It’s not described as a physical need, just an expression of contempt.)

There’s an ambiguously-magical woman whose daemon is a flock of butterflies. (!!)

Before they learn language, babies and their daemons will babble to each other. It’s suggested that this can turn into a rudimentary language of its own if you don’t teach them English (or whatever), similar to the way our-world infants will come up with proto-language if a group are neglected together.

At one point baby!Pan turns into a kitten and kneads Mal’s bare hand. He interprets it as “the taboo on daemon/human touching is learned,” but I think it’s more “Lyra really likes this kid.” Either way, it’s adorable.

A Proper Summary (here be spoilers)

Malcolm Polstead is a 10-11-year-old boy who works at his parents’ tavern/inn, where he hears all the local gossip. (One of his co-workers is 16-year-old Alice Parslow, a cousin of Roger.) He also helps out at the priory across the river. When the nuns take in baby Lyra, he gets completely starry-eyed.

Mal gets recruited by Hannah Relf as a junior informant, for a government anti-Magisterium spy organization code-named Oakley Street. (Coram van Texel, aka Farder Coram, is another of their informants.) They’re passing around secret messages about Lyra and alethiometers and the mysterious “Rusakov field.”

When they’re first introduced, Oakley Street is fascinating. The last trilogy was mostly through a kid’s POV — now here are the adults of the Resistance that had her back! Subterfuge, secret codes, undercover research, spying!

Hannah is doing research with the Oxford alethiometer, which means she gets short limited sessions with it, and uses some of that time for spy research. Later there’s a sequence where a branch of the Magisterium steals a different alethiometer, killing someone in the process, and Oakley Street retrieves it…but instead of returning it to its owners, they sneak it off and deliver it to Hannah, asking her to use it on their behalf full-time.

Did I mention I would read a whole book about her? Because I would.

But the group gets really worn-down by the book’s problem with over-explanation. For one thing, Mal gets let in on way more detail than he needs to know. (Seriously, why would you tell the kid you have a stolen alethiometer? His loyalty is still untested, not to mention, he’s a child.) On top of that, any time Oakley Street leaves top-secret information at dead-drops, that same info is also getting happily gossiped about at the tavern, and at the priory, and by random people in town.

We r serious spy team, this iz super sekrit.

The book’s recurring villain isn’t a Magisterium agent anyway. It’s Gerard Bonneville, a creepy disgraced physicist with a hyena daemon who thinks kidnapping Lyra will give him leverage to get the Church to fund his research again.

Partway through the book (I want to say halfway?), everything gets derailed by a massive flood. Buildings are flooded to the second story, that level of massive. Mal has a canoe, which got souped-up earlier by Coram to be extra-seaworthy, so he, Lyra, and Alice end up using it to escape.

At first their vague plan is to get to Jordan College. When the racing water takes them well past it, Mal decides they’ll deliver Lyra to Lord Asriel in London. They know he’s her father, and they also happen to know Mrs. Coulter is her mother, because literally nothing is secret in this book.

Up to this point everything has been well-grounded in reality. The canoe repair and navigation is expertly described, the locations around Oxford are developed in rich detail, the characters talk about practical issues of supplies and weather.

Three-quarters of the way through the book, we do a sudden genre shift, and now it’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Our heroes have a stopover on an enchanted island, where we meet Diannia, the possibly-faerie and definitely-unstable woman whose daemon is a whole flock of butterflies. Then another with a grand mansion in the distance, surrounded by an Alice-in-Wonderland garden that won’t let them get any closer to it. The place is full of partygoers who can’t see the children, but whose food they can get away with stealing — and then eating, because that sure sounds like a safe idea. They sail through an enchanted river-gate after Mal bluffs its guardian with news that Lyra is a princess, and they’re delivering her on the orders of the King of Albion.

Bonneville chases them the whole time. He murders at least one person along the way, so they end up killing him in self-defense, but then on one of the enchanted islands he’s back? And it’s not like they sailed into the afterlife, because we know what the afterlife looks like in the HDM multiverse. Lyra hasn’t even fixed it yet.

This whole arc had a lot of cool imagery, but felt really disjointed from the rest of the book. It would’ve made more sense if the fairytale elements had been integrated earlier, maybe foreshadowed by Hannah’s research.

Or if it didn’t get so fantastical at all. When Diannia was introduced, with her creepy demeanor and impression of being older than her youthful appearance, my first assumption was that she was a witch, who had taken off from her clan in grief after losing a daughter and was now fixating on Lyra for the same reason. That would’ve made more sense than “by the way, in Lyra’s world, faeries are suddenly a thing maybe.”

Finally the kids make it back to reality, re-kill Bonneville, and manage to rendezvous with Lord Asriel. He takes them to Jordan College, where he leaves Lyra for safekeeping.

This is the sudden cutoff point. Asriel takes off to do research in the North, though it’s not clear why thinks Lyra is safer at Jordan than she was at the priory in the first place. We don’t see Mal and Alice return home. It’s not like Mal’s parents were much of a presence, but it would’ve been nice to see them find out their kid was okay.

And we don’t hear anything at all from the Oakley Street crew. They were mentioned a couple of times in the back half of the book — Hannah tries to help the others work out where Mal would be taking Lyra — but got no resolution. The book really needed a bonding/reconnecting/debriefing scene with Mal and Hannah, and we didn’t get it.

(We do get Asriel warning Mal and Alice to keep the whole thing hush-hush, for the sake of protecting Lyra. Which, okay, but Mal should be able to trust Hannah with at least as much top-secret information as she entrusted to him. And both kids deserve an adult to help them decompress.)

Hopefully some of that will get retroactively dealt with in books 2 and 3. We know Mal grows up to be a scholar, and he and Hannah both tutor Lyra at points, so they’re still going to be connected.

And I’m looking forward to the next books in general. This one could be exasperating, but it wasn’t actively upsetting, and there were more than enough good and fun parts to make up the difference. If the rest of the trilogy is at least this good, it’ll be a satisfying read.

Erin Watches (and likes!): Madame Secretary, Rizzoli & Isles, Angie Tribeca, Lucifer November 5, 2017

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Feels like it’s been a long time since I posted about some TV that was actually good, instead of so-bad-it’s-fun (looking at you, Scandal). Which is weird, since I’ve watched a bunch of it.

Have some recs.


Madame Secretary

Adventures in diplomacy with a Secretary of State and her artist/CIA husband.

If any current show is the spiritual successor to The West Wing, it’s this one. Elizabeth McCord is devastatingly smart and has vast depths of experience, all of which shines through in the writing. The political situations are complex and layered; it doesn’t get too fluffy about ethics and principles being easy, but it also doesn’t get too grimdark about good people being inevitably destroyed by Harsh Reality.

Her husband’s great too — also smart with a background in a lot of fields. My favorite parts are when his knowledge of art history is legitimately what saves the day.

And it’s a textbook example of how you don’t have to shoehorn dishonesty or unsupportiveness or bad communication into a relationship to make it interesting.  These characters’ lives are so full of international conflict, the choices they make every day at work so consequential, that they need a healthy and well-adjusted marriage to get through it all. They lean on each other in these complicated and substantive ways that are great to watch.

The show does pull the wishy-washy cheat of “the president is a Republican, but a ‘moderate’ Republican, which means we don’t actually see him take any positions in common with the current Republican party.” On the plus side, it uses real countries in its diplomatic intrigue plots, China and the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan (all with their own fictional diplomats and heads of state) instead of Qumar and San Lorenzo.

I’m in the middle of season 3 right now (so if anything terrible happens later on, don’t tell me).


Rizzoli and Isles

Cop drama, starring a detective and her BFF medical examiner. The one thing I knew going in was that they’re very shippable.

Good solid background TV, like Bones or Law & Order. The plots were fun to watch, if forgettable in the aftermath. It takes place in Boston, so I got a lot of “hey, I know that place/route/reference!” moments.

There’s a bit of ship-teasing in early seasons — contrived “we must pretend to be lesbians” moments, that sort of thing. It mostly fades away later. The canon romantic tension is all focused on unconvincing m/f — I don’t even remember any background same-sex couples — although I’m sure there were one or two involved in the case-of-the-week. At least it doesn’t eat the show.

And the series finale does end with our heroines going to Paris together for a month. As fanservice goes, they could’ve done a lot worse.


Angie Tribeca

Parody cop show. Created by Steve and Nancy Carell, and the series is saturated with their kind of humor. New joke every other line. It’s great.

The directing and staging and camera work and everything, parody-wise, is spot-on. I was alternating episodes of this with Rizzoli and Isles for a while, and sometimes I would be in the middle of a scene waiting for the next joke and realize, oh wait, this is the serious one.

I think most of the humor would still translate even if you’d never watched a police procedural. But if you do watch them, it’s a total must-see.


Lucifer

Also technically a cop show. The Devil got sick of working in Hell, so he did the logical thing and moved to LA, where he ends up using his evil-punishing skills to solve crimes. As you do.

Okay, you know the character type of the guy who’s really self-centered and socially clueless, often to the point of being mean or careless? And you’re supposed to think it’s forgivable — justified, even — because of how brilliant and talented he is, but mostly it’s annoying?

Lucifer takes that archetype and exaggerates it so far over-the-top that now it’s just funny. “It makes perfect sense now! This was all about me! Thank you, detective!” “Lucifer, wait, that’s not what I–” There are scenes where he gets run emotional circles around by eight-year-olds. It’s lovely.

He has a therapist, which is an inherently entertaining idea just to start with. For a while she was going along with the “metaphor” of his family drama being about angels and demons…then she complained she couldn’t keep track of it anymore, so Lucifer busted out some demonic proof, and she had this extremely understandable BSOD. (She got better.)

There’s romantic tension between him and his detective partner, which is not the unconvincing type of m/f, although Lucifer still hasn’t shown her the literal-Devil-proof, and at this point the reasons why are starting to get strained and contrived. As a character in her own right, she’s great. She has a daughter who’s also great, a perfect kid mix of oblivious and savvy. One of Lucifer’s friends is a demon who makes a delightfully weird bond with the kid — they go trick-or-treating together!

And all the mythology is very cool. Obviously the foundation is pop-culture Christianity with a touch of Paradise Lost, and it adds other layers, like the season-long arc with Lucifer’s mom: a creation-goddess and God’s ex-wife.

I’m mostly caught-up with currently-aired episodes, and looking forward to seeing where it goes next. (I haven’t read any of the comics it was based on. So, again — no spoilers.)

Erin Listens: The World in Words, Magic Tavern, Chronicles of Oz October 30, 2017

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I’ve been well caught up with the brief archives of the Lingthusiasm podcast for a while, so when one episode mentioned The World In Words, I went to check out the archive.

It’s ridiculous. There are hundreds of episodes. This podcast has been running since the Bush administration.

Basically they just culled all the language-related material from their overall supply of public-radio stories. Great international perspective — they’ll go to France to talk to the translator of a novel, China to interview people from regions whose dialects are being subsumed by Mandarin, Mexico to report on the state of bilingual education for kids deported from the US, anywhere and everywhere.

Early episodes are 30-minute compilations of segments; later they start releasing individual segments, so you’ll get a “podcast” that is 6 minutes, 5 minutes, even 3 minutes long. So it’s not quite as intimidating a backlog as it appears.

Still, it’s filling a lot of time. I haven’t gotten past 2013.

Hello From The Magic Tavern is getting good, y’all.

A recent live episode included an improv guy who hadn’t actually listened to any episodes, so he was going on a 5-minute summary of the premise. “Don’t worry, it’s not that serious,” they said. “You won’t break the show,” they said.

Two minutes in, he almost breaks the show. The scramble to fix it is adorable.

A while earlier, don’t remember which specific episode it was, but they get into a recurring gag of soda-based puns, expanded to general drink-based puns. One poor guest gets totally stuck until the end. (I spent a bunch of it figuring out how to work in a reference to “high seas.”)

The Chronicles of Oz is a dramatized rewrite of the book series — so far they’ve only gotten The Wonderful Wizard — but the authors are gleefully throwing in references to Baum’s entire oeuvre. Along with foreshadowing about Ozma, they’ve namechecked the political situations in Ev, Oogaboo, and Jinxland.

It takes things more seriously than the books. The death of the Wicked Witch of the East leads to riots, as the underground revolutionaries abruptly stop being underground, and clash with the established loyalists. Glinda reveals early on that she has a long-term plan to depose the Wizard. Continuity!

But it doesn’t throw out the spirit of the books for the sake of joyless grimdark. It’s fun. There are cute nods to the movies, too. (When Oz asks why Dorothy expects help from him, she stammers, “Because…of the wonderful things you…?”)

Dorothy here is a snarky, sarcastic teenager, who has very little in common with book!Dorothy, but she’s fun in her own right. I’m really loving their take on the Scarecrow — he sounds like Arthur Shappey from Cabin Pressure.

Halfway through the posted episodes, I’m already looking forward to Book 2.

Review – Every Heart A Doorway September 6, 2017

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There was a ton of buzz going around about this book not long ago, and understandably, given the amazing premise. A boarding school to accommodate all those kids who have wandered off into magical fairylands for a while, and help re-acclimatize them to reality? So much possibility.

Guys, it…it really squandered the premise.

After a promising setup, Every Heart A Doorway turns into “a fairly gruesome murder mystery at a school for kids with weird/magic abilities.”

They don’t actually have any scenes of the kids in classes, much less any “here’s how to deal with reality” sequences. It’s insular, almost claustrophobic — the characters never leave the school. There’s no mention of phones, Internet, pop culture, anything connected to the Real World they’re supposed to be reintegrating with. Early on one of the characters mentions looking something up on Google Images before she arrived, but if it wasn’t for that reference, this could’ve taken place any time in the past hundred years.

When the gruesome murders start, there’s no police investigation, no real-world forensics, no “here’s how crimes are solved in a world without magic.” Even the adult authorities at the school, who are In On The Secret, don’t manage the situation at all. It’s just…left to the teenagers to solve on their own, with the residual supernatural talents they have from their fantasylands.

(How great would it have been to have the cops show up with all their mundane nonmagical expectations, and the teachers run interference, and it takes their combined efforts to make progress? Better yet, what if the investigative team included a former student, who could handle both aspects of the case at once?)

Without spoiling any specifics, by the end of the book, it doesn’t support the idea that “learning to be part of the world you’re in” is a worthwhile goal in the first place.

This in spite of the fact that some of the kids’ fairyland-developed coping mechanisms…do not seem healthy. I don’t mean “sensible by fairyland rules but maladapted to our-world rules,” I mean generally unhealthy.

You know what series handles this really well? Star Versus The Forces Of Evil. The heroine in this case is native to magicland, studying abroad on Earth, and the show does a lovely job of exploring the nuances from “Star learns that this behavior isn’t culturally appropriate for Earth” to “Star learns that this behavior is uncool anywhere.”

And I’ve loved fanfic that explores post-magic-journey culture shock. The Pevensies struggling to balance “solving problems by breaking out our mad skills as former-adult Kings and Queens of Narnia” with “not freaking out everyone around us.” Lyra and Pan having to remember to stay close together. Dorothy getting so much cross-cultural experience so young that, after a certain point, she can drop into pretty much any world and have no trouble going with the flow.

The students in Every Heart A Doorway don’t get any “here’s how to codeswitch to Earth-appropriate behaviors” or “wow, you’re interacting with regular Earth culture really well already” or “this isn’t good at all, let’s learn and grow and develop as characters.” They stay in their insulated setting with all the patterns they learned in other worlds going pretty much unexamined.

So much potential material here! So painfully unexplored!

~*~

People were also talking a lot, when the initial buzz was going around, about book’s the asexual protagonist.

Again: cool in theory! In practice, all it seems to mean is that her narration keeps doing unnecessary and shoehorned-in detours about how totally uninterested in sex she is.

The first time it came up was fine. Awkward, but forgivable. The rest, not so much. There’s a scene where she’s having a friendly conversation, and suddenly goes into an internal monologue about how she’s flirting, and this is fun, but she’s totally uninterested in having sex with the people she flirts with. It’s like she’s jumping in to correct an assumption that the reader isn’t making — I hadn’t even realized she was supposed to be flirting in the first place.

The scene that struck me the most is: she’s admiring the beauty of a male classmate, and thinks all the other girls around her must feel the same, “although she was sure she was the only one whose attraction was aesthetic, not romantic.”

First point: the character is not aromantic. (She says so. In those words.) It’s possible to feel romantic attraction in general, and not specifically feel it toward this guy. For her. But…not for literally anyone else?

Second point: why does she think there are no lesbians at this school? Why doesn’t it occur to her that some people are aromantic? Why does she show zero awareness that even straight girls (and bi/pan girls, although I’m not sure she realizes those exist either) don’t have to feel attracted to every boy in existence?

Is she just supposed to be really blinkered and self-centered, as a character flaw? Maybe, but I never felt like the narrative saw her that way.

Is it a “the lady doth protest too much” situation, where she is falling in love with the guy, and is aggressively denying/projecting to avoid facing the idea? Also possible, but has Unfortunate Implications for the way her asexuality is established by repeating “and she totally wasn’t sexually attracted to people, nope, not at all.”

~*~

The book is really weird about gender. Most of the students are girls (a couple hundred of them, to a grand total of 5 boys), and this is explained as a result of socialization and sexism and boys not wandering off as easily without getting noticed.

Which…doesn’t track with the genre it’s supposed to be commenting on. At all.

For every Lucy and Susan, there’s a Peter and Edmund. For every Alice through the looking-glass, there’s a Milo in a phantom tollbooth. Wendy Darling disappeared with both of her brothers in tow, and that’s not even counting Peter and the Lost Boys. Dorothy, Betsy Bobbin, and Trot are balanced out by Button-Bright and Zeb. Lyra had her Will. I could go on.

On top of that, this main group of characters ends up including 2 of the boys (along with maybe 4 girls).

Why establish a mostly-female setting if you’re then going to overrepresent the male characters that dramatically? Why not just have a roughly-gender-balanced school in the first place?

And it manages to wring a heck of a lot of heterosexuality out of this casting. Every major female character mentions having a male love interest in whatever fantasy world she wandered into. One of the boys basically wandered into Halloweentown and had a romance with a skeleton…very specifically a girl skeleton. I already mentioned the ace girl’s weird obliviousness to the possibility of gay people. And the only flirting we see between students is m/f.

The aforementioned super-beautiful boy is trans. Which is nice! And the subject is handled more naturally than the asexuality. Doubly nice.

But in some ways that only makes the broader context weirder. If there’s a setting where nobody is explicitly LGBT, it’s easy to read that as “underneath the veneer of everyone politely ignoring the topic, people are still LGBT at the average rate.”

Here, the author wants to have explicit representation! But it’s like…she made one of her boys trans, and one of her girls ace, and then just…stopped. Without considering the idea of LGBT people existing generally. In background characters. In sidelong references. In the concept of female characters other than the heroine who aren’t into a hot guy.

~*~

At least it was short? I blew through the whole audiobook in a single work day, so the disappointing aspects weren’t dragged out for long.

But seriously, there were a lot of disappointments. And now I’m worried there are people writing better versions of the premise but getting shot down as ripoffs, or getting publishing deals but no hype because all the “what a cool, unusual premise!” posts have been done.

…Does anyone have recs? I’ll also take recs for your favorite culture-shock fics of existing portal-fantasy series. Anything that takes this books’ premise and actually, wholeheartedly, runs with it.

Erin Watches: the end of Scandal s6 July 9, 2017

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When last we left our heroes, democracy had been subverted on almost every level, including the level where the writers don’t understand how American democracy works. But a shockingly-decent human being was pulled out of left field and appointed Vice President. It sets up the prospect of a happier ending than I would have thought possible.

Will the new VPEOTUS turn out to have been an evil mastermind all along? Let’s find out!

Episode 13 opens with a fleet of mystery drones over the US. Our election-rigging not-Russian Someones have borrowed the tactic that the “good guys” used earlier. Awkward.

Villain uses the phrase “your loved ones…as you call them.” That’s how you know he’s a villain, he doesn’t believe in foolish things like ‘love’.

They have his co-villain in custody in a bunker under the White House, and obviously the prospect of torture comes up, because these people still haven’t figured out that it doesn’t get accurate intel. Still President Fitz says that if they torture her, “we spit on the Constitution,” and they’ll be no better than the villains…if they do it on WH grounds. In foreign secret prisons? That, he would’ve been totally fine with.

Anyway, they decide to bluff her instead, and she cracks in like a minute. Which should’ve been a hint that she was counter-bluffing, but nope, they go along with it. Even agree to send David Rosen — the guy she was dating, the guy who found out who she was but had to keep sleeping with her so she wouldn’t catch on, the easiest possible person for her to psych out — to deliver the immunity agreement.

Villain: “Can we start over? You know my real name now….”

Rosen, disbelievingly: “You murdered Elizabeth North!”

Villain, wheedling: “I know…!”

(He ends up punching her in the face. I’m okay with that.)

They get her with a more complicated bluff in the end. Olivia’s dad pretends to talk his way into the bunker and bust her out — with a gun, which, you know, maybe was supposed to be a clue that this was a scheme. But given how terrible these people have been about security before, I was totally willing to believe that nobody frisked him.

(He gets her back to the museum, then stabs her with a dinosaur tooth. I, uh, would’ve liked her alive to testify, but if you ignore that bit it’s a cool scene.)

The bad guys were sending Olivia’s dad random packages, which turned out to be full of bricks, but calculated to make up the approximate weight of a human head. Which is apparently terrifying and intimidating, that they can afford to waste that much on postage.

So this episode opens with David Rosen bringing Abby an actual head. (The woman Dad Pope just killed. Abby calls her “ponytail bitch,” which is as good a name as any.)

Third-to-last episode and we kinda have a case-of-the-week! Olivia Pope and Associates are trying to convince Fitz to do a last-minute pardon (for a black guy convicted of killing a white guy acquitted of killing a black guy). Huck and Quinn face down a bar full of heavily-armed racists and walk out untouched (and carrying a few extra guns), which is the kind of content I like to see.

David and Abby bond over their mutual angst about being manipulated. It’s kinda cute. I would like them to have a happy ending, if only because they were broken up in such an awful way.

I was reeeeally worried the Shocking Twist would be that our victim-of-the-week is guilty after all, but never fear! We’re 26 minutes into the episode and Olivia hates the idea: “You want me to take your racially-sensitive tinderbox of a closed case to an outgoing President with a legacy to protect because you have a feeling?”

Five minutes from the end, and some of our heroes have a shocking revelation that the Mystery Villains were working for someone! This is a twist? Y’all thought you were chatting directly with the top brass of the superconspiracy this whole time?

On the plus side, it turns out Olivia was testing Quinn — “Running this firm will mean going up against the White House sometimes, I needed to know that you could handle it.” Would’ve had more impact if the viewers didn’t know from experience she would be wrong, but you take what you can get.

The evil mastermind is Olivia’s mom! On Luna Vargas’ behalf, I am delighted.

Mellie: “It’s official, everyone in your family has wanted me dead at some point or another.” She’s not wrong.

Mom Pope gets a long monologue about how she’s been secretly working in the name of good all along, and this just one more example of black women’s work not being appreciated. On Luna Vargas’ behalf, I’m worried again.

Olivia tries to bluff out her mom (“I’m totally on your side, but you need to give them something”), and overplays it horribly. So it doesn’t work, and she tries strangling instead. Who on this writing team has a thing for choking?

Oh, and Quinn’s pregnant. I guess at this point someone had to be.

IT WAS LUNA.

Dammit, show. I didn’t want to be right about this. For this narrative, the really shocking twist would be someone turning out to be a genuinely decent human being.

…or at least, it was sort-of Luna. She “paid someone”, presumably Mom Pope, to kill Frankie. Mom Pope passed the orders to Team Rocket, who passed them on via blackmail to half the main cast.

That still doesn’t answer the question of where Team Rocket came from in the first place. Luna didn’t create them, and I don’t think Mom Pope did either. Their identities were almost perfectly scrubbed, they had millions to throw around and the financial infrastructure to cover their tracks, they were playing next-level blackmail chess. They had tracking chips in their necks, and were able to pull out a dozen covert drones at a moment’s notice.

This only makes sense if they’re agents of a serious organization — and if they have motives other than money. I’m not even sure where Luna was supposed to have whipped up secret presidential-assassination levels of payment in the first place, but the effort these people went to, they would’ve needed power or ideology or both. Russian agents: makes sense! Random assassins: terrible narrative Plan B.

(It’s also implied Cyrus gave her the idea, which, again…nobody’s motives line up with the idea of killing Vargas before the EC vote.)

Abby to Quinn: “You wanted to have a baby? Let’s have a baby.” Uh…you two aren’t the canon ship here…are you?

After a successful inauguration where nobody got shot, Olivia and Jake talk Luna into killing herself. Because hey, let’s wrap up that loose end before any viewers start asking awkward questions. At least it got us this little gem:

Olivia: “Raise your hand if you’ve killed a Vice President before.” [raises hand, looks meaningfully at Jake]

Jake: “Mine was Argentine.”

Olivia: “That counts.”

After all that, it’s looking like the next season is going to have all the same people in power in Washington, just shuffled around a bit. Like, we might even have Cyrus installed as Mellie’s VP after all.

I was going to say “still better than Trump,” but, you know what? The last scene we get of President Mellie is her signing an executive order that Olivia puts in front of her, without reading it. (She accepts Olivia’s summary, that it’s setting aside a bit of cash for the military. It is, in fact, setting aside a bit of cash for Olivia.)

Sorry, America. The votes from the state of Shondaland are in, and it turns out you lost.

Erin Watches: The Doctor Falls July 3, 2017

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Watched the last episode of this season live when it aired, had so many thoughts that I had to go back and rewatch/liveblog, just to make sure I got them all in order.

Spoilers ahoy!

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