Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Merry Christmas, everyone!!!

Okay, okay, it’s a week late. I would have loved for this to run on Christmas week, but there wasn’t much I could do apart from either a) review the show out of order or b) review two episodes in a week so that this could run sooner.

In regards to A, I didn’t feel that would really be fair. I know continuity isn’t one of ALF‘s strongest points, but if I decided to jump all around and resequence the episodes, I couldn’t be sure that I wasn’t missing information that would have helped me to understand something better. ALF is a lousy show, but I want to make sure I’m appraising its actual lousiness, and not confusing myself into finding new issues that aren’t really there.

In regards to B no fucking way am I reviewing two episodes in a week.

What I decided to do, for those that missed it, is host a live stream of this episode the week of Christmas. I’m writing this review in advance of that, because I don’t want to accidentally include anything you guys might have said, or have my opinions colored by the immense outpouring of love and affection that I expect happened when we all watched this together. So, yeah. That was the best I could really do. If you don’t like it, go start your own ALF review project. And if you do, let me know, so I can stop mine.

Anyway it’s Christmas Eve in the Tanner house! Willie and Kate are laying in bed reading old Christmas cards, which shows just how desperate they are for any excuse to avoid having sex with each other. ALF comes in wearing his stocking on his head and waving a noise-maker around, announcing that he hid all the eggs.

Yes, it’s stupid. But, you know what? I’m always going on about how ALF should be getting Earth things wrong, and that’s what’s happening here. So, God help me, I actually like this. Granted, he should be misunderstanding much more than this…but while you could conceivably base an episode around ALF misunderstanding the concept of a museum, or how the bus lines work or something, Christmas is truly a goldmine.

It’s a more or less global event, after all. No matter where you are, within any culture that chooses to celebrate it, you’ll find it tangled up with all sorts of traditions and and connotations and iconography that make perfect sense to you, because you’ve lived with it all your life. To an interplanetary interloper, however, it would be absolutely baffling. And it would lead to literally countless ways for the creature to misunderstand what’s happening around him.

Birthdays, for instance, might seem a bit silly to an alien, but you could at least explain them pretty easily. “So-and-so was born on this day, however many years ago. Every time another year passes, we celebrate and give him presents.” That might sound silly to the alien, but there wouldn’t be too much room for confusion.

Think of everything attached to Christmas, though. The birth of Christ. Who wasn’t actually born anywhere near Christmas. The co-opting of a Pagan holiday so that Christians could avoid detection. Christmas lists. Carols. TV specials. A tree that you bring inside and decorate. Stockings hanging over a fireplace. Presents sneakily dropped off in the middle of the night. Eggnog. Santa Claus. The North Pole. Flying reindeer, elfin toymakers, milk and cookies…

The list goes on. And I’m just describing the stuff that would come to mind for me. An Englishman would probably add Christmas crackers to that list. A German would shout a lot. You get the picture.

So, yeah. This is the right thing to do. Especially since the fact that during the course of the conversation ALF confuses it with Easter, New Year’s and Halloween proves that he’s trying. He’s not being a dick, for once. He’s just lost. We Earthlings have an awful lot of holidays and they each come with their attendant traditions and mores and preparations. He’s mixing them up not because he wants to ruin things, but because there’s too much for an outsider to keep straight.

This is good. This is the right way to do it. Even ALF’s inevitable fit of destruction is well-intentioned:
ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

He chopped up the Christmas tree for firewood. For once, though, I’m on ALF’s side. Did Willie and Kate really wait until Christmas Eve to explain to him what the tree was for? It obviously wasn’t decorated yet, so unless somebody told him differently — and we see here that they did not — how would he know that this particular tree at this particular time of year is just supposed to sit inside covered in tinsel and baubles? He doesn’t know this shit. ALF is right and Willie and Kate are in the wrong here. If that’s not a Christmas miracle I don’t know what is.

It’s also justified by a funny exchange. (This early in the episode? Is this actually going to be a good one?)* ALF tells Willie that he has a surprise, and then Kate shouts from the next room for Willie to come quick, because ALF did something horrible to the tree. Willie asks ALF what he did, and ALF says, “I don’t want to spoil the surprise.”

See? This isn’t ground-breaking stuff, but it’s fully competent comedy. It’s really not that hard!

And look at that lighting through the window! They actually went through the trouble of making it look like that sort of dull, hazy, early-morning sunshine, and it’s even shining from a lower angle onto the set than it is normally. That’s some impressive detail for this show right there.

We’re off to a good start. Heck, by ALF standards it’s a great start. There’s enough potential absurdity in the idea of an alien celebrating his first Christmas that there really should be no problem filling out 21 minutes. Right?

…right?

…fuck you. You know that’s not right.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

The credits are just the normal sequence…no superimposed snowflakes or sleigh-bells or anything. Once they end we see everyone dressed up for Christmas, I guess. I don’t know what ALF is wearing. It looks like red suspenders, but then later he gets up and I can’t tell if it’s really a ribbon draped over his shoulders for some reason, or if the suspenders they made for the puppet are just horribly tailored.

Also Lynn is wearing what I assume is a Christmas sweater, but it’s hard to tell because it always looks like she dressed herself right after hitting her head in a car accident. I’m not even sure if it’s supposed to be an ugly sweater. I mean, it is, but it’s no worse than anything else she wears any other day of the year so who knows.

Damn, I’m catty. I’m like Joan Rivers, but with all of my original skin.

Lynn is sitting on the couch, disentangling Christmas lights. That’s absolutely something that folks do around the holidays, and it’s a nice touch. I’m actually pretty impressed that they would bother to give her something appropriate to do rather than sit her motionless on the couch, waiting in awkward silence until it’s her turn to talk.

At the table, though, ALF and Brian seem to be sorting branches into piles. I assume they’re the branches from the tree ALF chopped up, but what are they doing? Organizing them by size for later storage? Why not throw them out? I honestly have no idea what they’re meant to be doing there.

Willie is out getting a new tree, and ALF says that he hopes he makes it home before it starts snowing. Kate explains that it doesn’t snow in their part of the state, but ALF explains that it has to snow, because it’s Christmas; that’s what he learned from all the Christmas stuff he’s been seeing on TV.

Again, this is good. I like that ALF has no actual experience of Christmas, and so needs to piece things together from what he’s told and what he sees. Again, this is evidence that he’s trying, which is a lot funnier than having him be a dick all the time. Good intentions with unfortunate outcomes fuel great comedy. Rampaging dickitude is just tiring.

It might seem a little silly that ALF would believe weather patterns were dictated by a holiday, but compared to everything else we are expected to believe around Christmas — whether it’s that the Son of God showed up and saved us all from Hell or that an old man in a flying sleigh is watching our every move — isn’t “snow is guaranteed to fall” a relatively small absurdity? It works. It’s not a stretch. It’s organic.

ALF outlines all of the things that he learned from Christmas specials, and he concludes by folding in some imagery from that old commercial where Santa Claus rides a Norelco razor through the snow. Guys, this is getting dangerously close to funny. Was the writing staff visited by three spirits in the night or something?

While they decorate Lynn and Kate find some of the eggs that ALF hid, making for one of those very rare moments in this show where something that happens has anything to do with something else that happened.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie comes home with a fake tree in a box, and the episode is still being good. I honestly don’t know what happened, but Willie gets a nice little speech here with actual character work as its punchline. He explains that he drove all over town to find another tree, but everybody was sold out. At one lot he found a tree, but it was being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Willie says he left when the bidding reached $100, because he has his pride.

That’s funny. Not almost funny, but actually funny and it got an actual laugh out of me. He then says that the tree came with a can of simulated snow, and ALF says he should have gotten a second can so that they could build a simulated snowman.

IT IS REALLY NOT THAT HARD TO WRITE COMEDY THIS IS NOT BAD

Anyway, ALF is disappointed that this is the replacement, because he wants a real tree. This might be the first sign of real weakness in the episode — why exactly does he care when he doesn’t have any experience with either type of tree yet? — but it’s certainly not the last.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

The family hears some carolers outside and they go to the window to watch them. I shouldn’t have been so quick to compliment the lighting crew earlier, because now for some reason it looks like they’re staring into the fiery ball of ultimate carnage that’s six seconds away from colliding with the Earth.

Kate, Lynn and Brian decide to go with the carolers, because they can see the writing on the wall and don’t want to be around when this episode inevitably falls apart.

There is one more good joke after they leave, though, when ALF says that on Melmac you would never let children go caroling. Willie asks him why, but ALF says he can’t explain, because “you’d have to know Carol.” Yeah, that’s Fozzie Bear level stuff, but there’s a reason we like Fozzie Bear. It’s not the quality of his material…it’s the charm behind it. For the first time since the Jodie episode, ALF has some charm behind it.

I know you guys don’t like it when I enjoy things, but I’ve got give credit where it’s due. Don’t worry; I start cursing later, so you can skip down to that if you want to.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

We jump ahead a little bit in time, and we can’t see the tree until Willie steps aside to reveal it. I don’t know if this bit of blocking was done on purpose, since there’s no laughter that wells up on the soundtrack, but it is pretty funny. It’s an effectively shitty prop, and a nice example of the show’s low budget actually working in its favor and strengthening the reality.

Willie hates the tree, and he and ALF decide to go chop down a real one from the same place he and Kate used to chop down trees years ago. It’s certainly a contrived premise, but it’s at least playing out in a reasonable, rational way: it’s a holiday, something went wrong, Willie wants to fix it before the family gets back.

Again, not groundbreaking, but it’s better than, say, having it be Willie’s birthday, and so he finds out his wife slept with Joe Namath, then he decides to jump out of a plane.

Seriously dudes, that one sucked.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie and ALF sit in a fake car and pretend to drive while some stock footage of a forest plays behind them. They explain for our benefit that they can’t find the place Willie used to go to cut down trees, which I definitely buy if it’s been a long time and it’s dark out, but it is a little bit silly that he doesn’t just pull over and chop down one of the tens of millions of trees we’re watching him drive by right now.

ALF is navigating. He tells Willie to make a turn onto a road that’s not actually there, and they end up in a ditch. You know, there was a scene in the American version of The Office where Michael drove into a lake because his GPS told him to turn there.

I never had a problem with that because I thought it was a nice — though admittedly absurd — joke about the way we rely on instructions rather than trusting our common sense, but apparently a lot of people felt that that was “too stupid” for the show and were turned off by it. Maybe I just didn’t think that way because the show was already pretty fuckin’ stupid, but what do I know.

Either way, I bring that up because while it might be pretty dumb to drive into a lake because you’re used to trusting your GPS, what happens here is infinitely more moronic. Willie doesn’t see a road, but he takes ALF’s word for it that it exists…despite the fact that he can see there is not a road there and he is driving into a ditch. What’s more, ALF is an alien. He doesn’t know this area. How could he? How could he even know how to read a map properly?

Obeying a GPS makes some kind of sense because you’re deferring to what you assume is an authority on the subject. Here Willie is actively disregarding what he actually sees happening in order to defer to somebody who unquestionably knows nothing about what’s going on.

In a word, it’s bullshit.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Anyway the family comes home from a night of caroling, and they find the tree unfinished. They read a note that Willie left, and start to worry because he left it a while ago and he’s still not home.

Then they hear somebody else singing outside, and their door opens to reveal…

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Mr. Ochmonek! Holy shit! We haven’t seen this guy in…ten episodes! Jesus.

I was excited because I thought this meant we’d find out what happened to his wife, but…nope. We don’t even find out why he came over. It’s really bizarre.

He kisses Kate under the mistletoe, and there’s a funny enough moment when he passively demands some eggnog, but what, exactly, is the point of this scene?

When I first watched the episode I thought the payoff would be that he goes out to find Willie or something, but instead he just shows up for about a minute and we never see him again. What’s he doing on Christmas Eve without his wife? Why is he here? Nobody invited his ass.

It’s like ALF thought it would be nice for us to see a beloved character again, but that doesn’t work when we’ve only seen the guy once before, ten weeks ago, and didn’t even care about him then. “Hey, everybody! Remember your old pal Mr. Ochmonek?! No? Well, here he is! Merry Christmas!”

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

By this point the episode is almost totally off the rails. (In a very short time, it will be totally off the rails.) They sure did squander all the good-will the first act managed to build up.

ALF and Willie are still stuck in the car, which should be a promising enough situation. Especially as Willie starts to tell ALF about the Christmases he had as a kid, and the fact that they always had a real tree and so forth.

This should be nice. Maybe a bit maudlin, but so what? It’s Christmas Eve. Willie can reminisce and wish he was with his family. In fact, this moment would ideally tie right back into the first scene, with he and Kate reading the old Christmas cards. This speech should end with him realizing that somewhere along the way he lost sight of what made Christmas really great, or something, and got hung up on how things looked.

I don’t know. I’m not saying that would be good. But it would be sort of neutrally lame in a well-established way. Instead it’s Willie and ALF in a car and a story that literally gets abandoned because the writers don’t want to figure out a way to turn it into anything.

Stuff like this is why I feel as though we’re watching these characters act out the first draft of the script; they write the story up to a certain point, realize they’re no longer interested in doing what they planned to do, and then just skip over things or abandon them.

That’s okay. I’m a writer, too. Not only is it a given that you’ll end up following a different narrative path than you might have expected, but it’s a good thing as well. Your job, then, is to write this better story as it revealed itself to you, and then go back and fix things (if not completely rewrite them) so that this new story makes sense. What you don’t do is what this show does weekly: leave everything exactly as it is and hope to shit your audience isn’t paying attention.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

As if on cue, hey look, a dream sequence. Lucky us.

Willie drifts off and dreams about his family in the living room. Nothing is different except for their clothes, which, to be honest, change every day anyway and so this is no evidence of Willie having any creativity whatsoever.

Everything is pretty much as it really is back home, except that Mr. Ochmonek isn’t drunkenly fumbling around with Kate’s tits. Willie comes home, in the dream, with the same fake tree he had before, only this time the family loves it.

He says something about how glad he is that an alien doesn’t live here, which implies that things are happier in this fantasy without ALF. I’m glad that Willie’s awareness of the fact that ALF bends his life over and fucks it every chance he gets is manifesting itself in some way…but I do wish it was manifesting itself as a brutal screwdriver attack on the alien instead.

Kate says that she thinks the tree is leaning too far to the left, so she calls the tree repairman. When he shows up, it turns out to be ALF.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

I think it’s funny that in both of Willie’s unnecessary dream sequences so far, ALF shows up for even less necessary reasons. Did Fusco insist on being in every scene, even if his character had jack-shit to do with anything?

Willie panics because ALF is an alien or something. I don’t know. Neither do the writers; they’re just running out the clock. “Oh, Tannerbaum” started out just fine, but then nobody on the staff knew where to go from there and so we’re getting silly dream sequences with just a few minutes left in the episode because that’s easier than actually wrapping up anything that happened earlier.

Anyway ALF the tree repairman has to take the tree back to the shop to fix it, and Willie gets upset and tries to keep the tree. He and ALF tug on it for a while. I half expected the credits to come up at this point and make it abundantly clear that the people making this show literally stopped giving a shit at this precise moment.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie wakes up only to find that there is a real tree in the car with them, because ALF went out and chopped it down while he was sleeping. Willie feels bad, and there you go. That’s your Christmas moral: don’t ever dream mean things about an alien, because while you are dreaming them that same alien might be doing nice things for you.

Amen.

It starts to snow, a park ranger comes up and gets mad at Willie for cutting down the tree without a permit, ALF hides under a blanket, and he and Willie whisper “Merry Christmas” to each other. Sweet holy barf did that episode fall apart.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Fortunately it’s Christmas Eve, and as per tradition every adult male is allowed to commit one crime of their choice without there being any consequence, so the Tanners get to keep the tree.

Nah, I’m being wry. Willie does say that he had to pay a fine, but honestly I’m not sure why he still gets to keep the tree. If you caught me stealing the Scales of Justice from in front of the courthouse, I’d expect to be hit with a fine or something, sure. I wouldn’t expect that after I paid the fine I’d get to keep them, though.

It’s bizarre. I don’t know. Who cares. ALF gets a ViewMaster and the episode is over.

Merry Christmas you fucks.

——
* No.

The Lost Worlds of Power

Calling all writers / humorists / parodists / gamers / whatever else you are. This is an official announcement of a one-off fiction anthology that I will be assembling, and I need your submissions!

The anthology is called The Lost Worlds of Power, and I would love to get as many submissions as possible, so please pass this on to any writers you know who might be interested in being published in a collection!

THE LOST WORLDS OF POWER

The Concept: Worlds of Power was a series of notoriously awful and totally inaccurate novels based on popular video games. What we’re doing is writing more of them! I want you to choose a video game (see the rules below) and novelize it. If you aren’t familiar with Worlds of Power, you can read a bit about the series here. You can also read my reviews of two of the books (with excerpts) here and here.

The Final Product: The Lost Worlds of Power will be an electronic, one-off fiction anthology. I will not sell it, and will make no profit off of it. In fact, I will pay out of pocket to have it professionally designed and formatted…and hopefully illustrated. I will host it here for free download, and I’d encourage anyone interested to host it and distribute it themselves as well. It should be something a lot of people can enjoy, and your submission should see a wide and appreciative audience!

The Style: You’ll be writing a “lost” installment in the Worlds of Power series! The obvious route here would be to write something intentionally bad, but that’s not the route you have to take. All styles, lengths and degrees of artistic merit are wanted. If you want to be outlandish and silly, that’s perfect. If you want to write a heart-stopping work of emotional brilliance based on T&C Surf Designs, that’s equally perfect!

The Length: There’s no hard and fast length requirement. Use as much or as little space as you like. The original Worlds of Power books were only around 100 pages long, with large type, so probably around 40 or 45 pages of traditional text. You can shoot for that, or you can let the spirit move you. Personally, I’d encourage you to do the latter.

The Rules: Read carefully, and make sure you adhere to the following rules when submitting:

– Your “novel” must be based on a game that was released on the NES. It doesn’t have to be a game exclusive to the NES, there just needs to be a version of it that existed for the NES (or Famicom). If it was something that was originally an arcade game or was later ported to the SNES or Genesis, that’s fine!

– Games that were actually adapted into Worlds of Power books are not eligible. (Remember, the idea is to write a “lost” installment in the series.) Therefore Blaster Master, Metal Gear, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania II, Wizards and Warriors, Bionic Commando, Infiltrator, Shadowgate, Mega Man 2 and Bases Loaded 2 are all off limits. You can, however, base your submission on a different game from those series.

– Only one adaptation of any given game will be selected for inclusion. In essence, if I get five submissions based on Super Mario Bros., I will only choose one of them, even if they’re all very good. For this reason it’s probably best to either choose something relatively less popular, or make sure you’re confident that the adaptation you’re writing will be the absolute best I receive!

– Be creative! Don’t just write out the events of the game…have fun with them! Get things wrong. Grossly misunderstand your protagonist’s motives. Skip over the best fights and spend time on mundane interactions with townsfolk! The Worlds of Power books are legendarily off the mark, so warp your filter a little bit! Do your Goombas look like carrots instead of mushrooms? Is Link’s traveling companion a rapping leprechaun? Does the dog from Duck Hunt travel through time and solve mysteries? Are your ideas better than these? I hope so, and I can’t wait to find out!

– You retain the rights to your submission (barring, obviously, any trademarked characters or titles you incorporate). I will only have the rights to collect and distribute it if you are selected for inclusion.

– Multiple submissions from the same author are allowed.

– We reserve the right to edit submissions for spelling, punctuation and formatting reasons.

What if I Don’t Know Anything About Video Games? The original Worlds of Power authors didn’t either! Just use the characters, settings, and / or plots as a springboard. From there, this is your story to tell!

The Prize: There is no financial or physical prize…just inclusion in the one-off Lost Worlds of Power collection. Still, it’ll be fun, and being published in a fiction anthology, no matter how small, is something that will be a great credit toward getting your future work published elsewhere! You’ll also be eligible for the title of First Person to Ever Brag About Writing a Worlds of Power Book.

The Deadline: Januaray 31, 2014. I know. That’s soon. Believe me, that’s a good thing. The Worlds of Power books aren’t known for being particularly well thought-out.

All submissions and questions should be sent to reed.philipj at gmail.com. I’m not picky about the format of your submission, as long as it’s a common file type (.doc, .rtf, .txt, etc.) and you’ve taken the time to proofread before sending it in.

Please let me know if you are interested in submitting. If enough folks are I’ll be more flexible with the deadline. The more the merrier, and I look forward to seeing your submissions!

Credit to James Lawless, die-hard Worlds of Power fan, for the idea!

On Noise to Signal

October 3rd, 2013 | Posted by Philip J Reed in Meta | personal | writing - (2 Comments)

Noise to Signal

Over on his own excellent blog, John Hoare recently wrote up this piece about Noise to Signal.

I’ve alluded to Noise to Signal before, but never really spoke about it directly. There’s a reason for that, and that reason is I’m still not sure what to say.

There are things about it that I loved. Adored even. And there are things about it that frustrate me to this day. (That probably says more about me than the site, I admit, but there you go.) And so it’s difficult to just come out and say “Here’s what went down…” because…well…I’m not even sure I know.

But John’s belated farewell sort of inspired me to do one of my own. It’s not an airing of dirty laundry or anything like that…but rather a chance to look back at a site that I helped shape in some way, and that I wrote for over the course of several years, and that still feels to me like a brilliant experiment that didn’t go anywhere near where it could have gone.

It was a pop-culture website, but it was one — by design — without a particular focus. It covered music, movies, books, television, video games…is any of this sounding familiar? The fact that I carry an echo of the site in the title of my current blog wasn’t deliberate, but it might still be less than coincidental.

It was good. We had an extraordinarily talented staff. But, as John says, “the remit was just too wide, and the tone inconsistent. By trying to cover everything, we ended up covering nothing well.” (I’m excerpting there; I do encourage you to read the entire thing in context.)

And he’s right. Absolutely correct. If I take issue with anything there it’s that the remit was too wide, because I really don’t think that was the problem…it was more in how we handled (or failed to handle) that freedom. But otherwise he’s right. There was a variance in tone, simply because there were so many writers and no consistent style for which to strive. Everybody brought their own talents to the table, but there was no attempt made to join them together. I had A and John had B, and instead of figuring out how to maximize each of our skills we just stuck some A over here and some B over there. We could have done better.

And in terms of covering nothing well, he’s right about that too. Apart from my day-after reviews of The Venture Bros. season three, I don’t think I ever finished a series that I started. And while it would be bad form to mention anything another writer did or didn’t do, I’m sure you’d find that they could name plenty of big plans they never saw through as well.

That seems to be a lot of what John pulled from the experience. What I pulled from the experience, though, is the importance of having an editor.

I blame nobody for that. I was at the point in my career (ha ha!) that I would have bristled at somebody telling me I needed to be clearer, or halve my word count, or — heaven forbid — choose a subject somebody might actually want to read about.

But that was the younger me. I knew everything. And because I knew everything, and because I had a website to which I could publish everything, I ended up spinning mountains of bullshit. Well-intentioned bullshit, sure…but that’s still bullshit.

I got the job at Nintendo Life due to two articles that I wrote for Noise to Signal. I reviewed some WiiWare games and the Nintendo Life editors liked what I did, so off I went. What I found was an entirely different experience; this was a site that knew exactly what kind of content it was looking for, and it wanted writers that could produce content within those guidelines.

They hired me because they liked my writing…but I still had to play by the rules. They had certain points they wanted each review to hit. There was a format that needed to be respected. If I wanted to stick around, it was up to me to find a way that I could mix my A with their B. It took me probably a full year to finally adapt to that, and I’m amazed they stuck with me and my well-intentioned bullshit that long. But the fact was that it was a hard lesson to learn.

Having said that, it was also a tremendously valuable lesson to learn.

You don’t become a great writer by pounding out ream after ream of nonsense. That gets you nowhere. You become a great writer by pounding out a ream of nonsense, having intelligent people look it over and reveal to you how far you ended up from your intentions, and then pounding out another ream of slightly better nonsense. And you repeat that. If you really care about writing, you repeat it forever.

There were behind-the-scenes issues at play as well (which John alludes to), and the kind of drama you’d expect from getting 10 or so strong personalities together without rules and saying “Publish anything!” But, ultimately, that was my takeaway. The value of editing. If you think the stuff I post here is vague and meandering…baby, you ain’t seen nothin’.

I tried hard at Noise to Signal. We all did. And we had a great group of readers and commenters that it was really difficult to say goodbye to. (Of course some of them are here now, so…thank you.)

Ultimately, though, its formlessness meant it either had to adapt into something more solid, or dissolve totally.

It dissolved totally.

But I learned one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned as a writer: that fact that I wrote it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good.

There’s a reason Detective Fiction is working its way through the hands of so many proofreaders / editors / critics before I’ll post even an except here. And that reason is that I finally know better.

Still though…it was a hell of a ride. RIP, NTS.

Business Secrets of the Pharaohs

So! Did you all know that I like the show Breaking Bad? Well, I like other things too! And I’ve been writing about them.

Not here of course. That would be silly.

So I wanted to draw your attention to a couple of things that I wrote for other sites. Both of which I quite like and I kind of wish they were here instead but OH WELL.

The big one is The Dangerous Allure of Self-Publishing: 5 Real Lessons from a Fictional Character. It’s a piece for the excellent Emily Suess, and though her blog goes through periods of inactivity (I’m absolutely one to judge…) it’s worth bookmarking. She posts some great stuff. Anyway, this is a piece about self-publishing…filtered through the “Business Secrets of the Pharaohs” episode of Peep Show. Why that episode? Because it reminded me so much of my own stupidity in the past with self-publishing that I couldn’t help but write this up.

Seriously. Self-publishing is garbage. Don’t do it. Read the piece. It’s pretty much as honest as I’ve ever been about what a fool I was. It’s not something I like to talk about often, but if it helps anyone understand just what a racket that business is, and consequently avoid the embarrassment that I was unable to, it’s worth it.

The other has actually been up for a while, but I think I forgot to link to it: 5 Classic Children’s Movies That Won’t Drive Parents Crazy. This was written for a blogger who at the time was taking pregnancy leave. I forgot to tell you about it. I think the kid is like 16 now. But this is a fun post about movies and I put jokes in it and you like those so go read it, too.

And as long as I’m posting external links, this arrived in my inbox today. It’s an infographic put together by a storage unit company. Yay?

Well…yeah, yay, because it’s actually pretty cool. Seriously, I wouldn’t have posted it, except it’s an extremely nerdy look at the contents of Walt’s storage locker, with an eye for lapses in continuity and some absolutely pointless consideration of the size of the unit and its location. And I mean that in a good way; this was a fun read. I’d actually like to see the prices of certain pieces of background dressing more often…and though I mean that sincerely I know it’s bound to come off as sarcastic so I’ll just stop.

Anyway! Three things to read. Quiz on Friday. Then Sunday night I’ll review the episode where Badger and Skinny Pete RESCUE JESSE IMMEDIATELY BECAUSE I CANNOT BEAR TO SEE HIM LIKE THAT AGAIN SERIOUSLY GUYS

To'hajiilee, Breaking Bad

One of the things I loved about the British version of The Office was its willingness to admit that however realistic it would have liked to appear — and however “actually real” it was within the show’s own universe — every episode was, necessarily, a fabrication. It’s all summed up in a great speech by Tim, in which he invites the camera crew to come back in a few years and check on him then. An ending isn’t an ending unless you choose to see it that way. The cameras stop rolling, the credits come up…but these people still go on with their lives.

That was Tim’s point. Maybe it looks tragic now, but come back later and things might look great. Sure enough, the cameras came back later and things looked great…but that wasn’t an ending either.

An “ending” is just a dividing line. A boundary. It’s a structural necessity because nothing can go on forever. We can drop it at a moment of triumph, or we can drop it at a moment of sadness. But whatever we do, wherever we put it, it’s a choice. And it’s a choice that informs our reading of everything that came before.

When we end on a downbeat, we feel as though everything we’ve just seen was the prelude to a fall. When we end on an upbeat, we know we’ve been building toward a crowning moment of glory.

The ending is important. Not to the characters, who will continue with their fictional lives long after we’ve stopped paying attention, but to us, as an audience. Because we want what we’ve experienced to have meaning. And, for better or for worse, we turn to the ending to help us find it. We also, unfortunately, end up oversimplifying the work as a whole. The ending matters…but it shouldn’t be all that matters.

I’ve always been fascinated by this. Hypothetically, if we had a story that followed, say 50 years of prosperity in a man’s life followed by a shorter time frame, a final two years or so, in which he was broke, unloved, and homeless…if he went from riding high to dying in the streets…we’d read that as a tragedy. On the other hand, if we had a story that followed 50 years of a man living as a bum, without a penny to his name, and he suddenly found himself flush with cash and living a life of luxury for the final couple of years of his life, we’d see that as triumph.

Why? Because of the ending.

In neither case does the bulk of the story matter*…it’s the ending. It doesn’t matter that 50 years were spent high on the hog and only two in the gutter…we focus on the gutter, because that’s where it ended. We view stories in terms of trajectory, rather than in terms of “time spent in any given situation.” We don’t measure…we follow. We want the characters we like to end high and the characters we dislike to fall low. How much time, energy or effort it takes to get them there is secondary; we want to know where they end up.

Endings have always been a strong point of Breaking Bad, with just about every one of them falling perfectly to serve as dividing lines on both sides: as an endcap to one chapter, and as an equally effective starting point for the next. When handled correctly — as this show almost unfailingly has handled them — they illustrate Tim’s point: you can break this off whenever you like, but things keep going. Things keep happening. Maybe you’ll tune in next week and maybe there won’t be a next week…but an ending isn’t really an ending.

At least twice during “To’hajiilee,” the idea of endings weighed heavily on my mind…and that’s not counting the episode’s actual ending, which is unquestionably seductive enough to attract all of our focus away from whatever machinations and manipulations it took to get us there. If I were to ask you right now to tell me the first thing that comes to mind about this episode, would you have any answer other than the gunfight?

I doubt it. Even though “Rabid Dog” left us smacking our lips for a week wondering what Jesse’s plan was, that’s not what we remember most when we finally see it fulfilled. Because suddenly that ending, which was so important to us, means a lot less when compared against a newer ending.

Jesse’s plan? Who gives a shit. This is where we are now.

Throughout “To’hajiilee” I kept expecting those credits to hit like a gunshot. Back of the head. No pain. But, as Uncle Jack knows, and Winston Smith before him, it doesn’t work if you’re expecting it. The time has to be right. And that’s why the episode didn’t end with Walt speeding away to save his money.

And that’s why the episode didn’t end with Walt cowering behind a boulder.

And that’s why the episode didn’t end with Walt in handcuffs.

And that’s why the episode didn’t end with Walt frantically trying to call off a hit.

That’s why the episode ended with a gunfight. A gunfight that at this very moment — this moment, frozen in time — can go either way. But the next episode’s in the can…it already has gone one way. It’s already happened. We’re behind. There’s an answer, but for another week we’re left only with a question.

And it’s a question that informs everything that came before it. Will we re-watch “To’hajiilee” through the filter of Jesse’s plan, or through the filter of screaming gunfire? Will we hear Hank’s phone conversation with Marie as the relief that his investigation is over, or as the last thing he says to her before an undoubtedly fatal shootout?

There’s a kind of cheapness involved when you break an episode at the peak of its action. It feels unfair…but I’m not sure “To’hajiilee” is unfair. I’m sure it feels that way…but it does seem also like the best possible ending; it says a lot about what came before, and it gives us a hell of a starting point for the next chapter.

What does it say about the episode? Well, I’d love to hear what you think…but for me, the way the entire hour unfolded felt a lot like what Kurt Vonnegut described in Walter Jr.’s favorite book, Breakfast of Champions. There Vonnegut discusses what it’s like to control characters as you write for them…you don’t just force them to do things; you guide their movements. You can “control” them in the sense that you are pulling their strings…but they’re long strings, elastic, with a lot of slack, and while you can ultimately get them wherever they need to be, there’s a lot that they can do on their own along the way…and they might be things you don’t expect.

That’s what “To’hajiilee” was about. Both Walt and Hank are at odds, but they’re not at direct odds. They’re both acting through intermediaries. Jessie, Andrea, Brock, Gomez, Huell, Uncle Jack…to some extent Skyler and Marie. Saul. These are people trapped in a game much larger than them, being played by two opponents who don’t care how many pawns they lose if it can inch them closer to victory.

But it’s not quite that direct. They can only guide their pieces. They can only suggest courses of action, and hope that they follow. Because when Walt tugs on that string, something happens. And there might be too much slack to get it to stop. The same thing happened to poor Hank when he pulled his own string by having Gomez cuff Walter.

Uncle Jack to the rescue.

I think Breaking Bad earned this ending, as much as I’d actually like to say that it didn’t. I’d like to say that it was a cheap way to get us to tune in next week. I’d like to say that it was manipulative and artificial.

But in reality, it wasn’t. The ending is earned, because the story could actually end here.

It doesn’t, and we know that, but it could.

We wouldn’t have to know who wins. It wouldn’t matter. What would matter is how it informed the story that came before. And it would have to be a story of long-term manipulation and the impossibility of total control, of how innocent lives are used in the greater service of a reward that ends up unclaimed and under ground, of how the smallest decisions add up to the largest, most devastating consequence.

In short, it’d have to be the story that Breaking Bad has already been telling for five seasons.

It works. And we’re going to focus on the ending, as we should.

But we shouldn’t focus on it as the question of who wins…we should focus on it as the answer: it doesn’t actually matter.

—–
* At least, not unless the artist makes it matter. I’m discussing writing here in a very general sense, and certainly you (and I) would be able to provide countless counter-examples. But I think it’s still worth thinking about. When we reach the end of The Great Gatsby, do we think “Well, the guy at least got to have those awesome parties for so long”? When we reach the end of Of Mice and Men, do we think “At least for all those years, they had each other”? Or, in the context of this show…what do we remember about Old Yeller? Just about everything we read or watch or listen to gets filtered through its own ending. We award the final moments with a sense of paramount importance by default…and I’ve always found that interesting.

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