Why Spoilers Matter: Do Spoilers Matter?

So Breaking Bad starts up again tonight. Don’t worry; I have something else planned tomorrow by way of celebration. But for now, with the inescapable commercials, and online advertisements, and interviews and so on, it’s got me thinking about spoilers.

My girlfriend and I are at the end of season two. Tonight, season five begins. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, and we’re getting there…but we’re enjoying the ride and don’t feel too much of a need to rush. Yet whenever we see some kind of promotional material for the show, we want to look away, stop listening, change the channel…all for fear of spoilers.

And I’m not really sure why. I’ve always maintained — and still maintain — that spoilers shouldn’t matter. If the quality of the piece of art in question is high enough (and for Breaking Bad I’d absolutely say it is) then it shouldn’t matter if you know what’s coming. The pleasure shouldn’t be found in an endless succession of surprises. The pleasure should come from the journey. From the many components that come together to create an engrossing experience.

Anyone can shock us. Anyone can jump up and yell boo. That can be a type of pleasure, but it’s not the only type of pleasure. Perhaps if we’re speaking about a summer blockbuster that has no ambition beyond thrilling us with pyrotechnics, spoilers could pull the rug out from under that film’s only trick. But if the acting is good, if the writing is solid, and if the directing is pulling everything together in the right way, then why shouldn’t that be enough?

Recently I was on a forum, and somebody made a comment about something and said, “It’s like the end of Psycho,” by way of humorous comparison. (It wasn’t actually very humorous, but there you go.) A second poster replied, “I haven’t seen Psycho, what happens?” And then the first told him to sign off immediately and go watch it.

Nothing wrong with that, but he justified this by saying something to the effect of, “Go watch it before you get spoiled. You’re very lucky if you don’t know the ending, so go watch it so you can experience it the right way.”

That’s troublesome to me on several levels. First, and less importantly, the ending was already spoiled in the thread by making that comparison in the first place. Shouting out “Go watch it now before you have the twist spoiled for you!” will keep him on guard for that twist, and that’s just as bad as — if not worse than — knowing what’s coming.

But secondly, it suggests that Psycho isn’t worth watching — or isn’t as worth watching — if you know what’s coming.

And, I’m sorry, but that’s bunk.

I knew the ending of Psycho well before I ever saw it. It may have even been the first thing I knew about it. Yet when I finally sat down to watch the film, I was absolutely ensnared by Hitchcock’s chilling masterpiece. It had nothing to do with not knowing what was coming next…it had to do with the film being a genuine masterwork by a man who knew what he was doing.

By now, most people know the dark secret of Norman Bates. I truly doubt, however, that it interferes with their ability to enjoy that film. If it does, then I can only concede that they must be watching films the wrong way. There’s really no other way to argue it.

When Kate and I were standing in line to see Moonrise Kingdom recently, a man walked by and shouted to everybody, “At the end of the new Wes Anderson movie, they all die.” That didn’t turn out to be true (Oops! Was that a spoiler too?), but if it had been true, so what? Does that make the journey Anderson has planned for us less magical? We may know where we end up. Does that matter? Should that matter? The film isn’t about its own final scene or scenes. If it were, it’d be around three minutes long. No, instead Anderson had more to say. We weren’t there to be shocked by an ending…we were there to be led by the wrist by a man we wished to spend time with. Is that an experience that can even be spoiled by advance knowledge?

What’s more, I knew that Rosebud was a sled. I knew that everybody rallied around George Bailey. And I know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. So do a lot of people. And yet I doubt that it’s interfering with their enjoyment of those films.

And why should it? Certainly the revelation of Vader’s paternity earned a few gasps in theaters, but was it what resonated most with the people in the audience? Probably not…or, at least, the shock was not what resonated most. If it had been, there wouldn’t be much of a reason to rewatch it now that that coin has been spent. And yet — and please correct me if I’m wrong — I’m under the impression that people do still rewatch the Star Wars films.

So there must be something else. People know there must be something else. After all, how many people can say that their favorite book, film, song, or anything else is something that they’ve only experienced once? No, more likely it’s something they’ve returned to — and continue to return to — many times over, despite the fact that they “know what happens.” They’re already self-spoiled. And it doesn’t detract from their enjoyment. If anything it may enhance it, as knowing what’s to come can give them a stronger appreciation for the steps the artist must take in order to arrive there.

That’s fair. That’s good. I agree with me.

And yet…I still don’t want to know what happens on Breaking Bad.

I know spoilers are a ghost we shouldn’t be afraid of…but when I see it coming, I run in the other direction.

Even though I know better.

Why? What’s so scary about knowing what’s to come? Isn’t it one of mankind’s most clearly recurring wishes to know, in some way, what the future brings? We can prepare ourselves for it. We can steel ourselves against it. We can look forward to it.

So why, given the opportunity to know the future in micro, are we so compelled to shut it out?

I don’t have an answer. I don’t know why. You can rationalize it all you like, but, in the end, we don’t want to know what comes next. At least, not until we get there.

That’s fascinating to me. Because I really, genuinely, honestly, don’t know why.

Story: Cold and Despondent in an Empty Room

NOTE: This is a story that I wrote last year for Machine of Death. Don’t bother looking for it; they rejected it. Regardless, I thought it made for a pretty worthwhile writing exercise, and since it’s going nowhere else it might as well go here. There were certain guidelines, such as: the story must include a machine of death, the title of that story must be the prediction that your protagonist receives from that machine, and the prediction must come true. Enjoy. Or don’t. It’s up to you.

Cold and Despondent in an Empty Room
–Philip J Reed

The man didn’t know what he expected, really, when he showed up to have the exact circumstances of his death predicted, printed, stamped and certified. But one thing he never, in a thousand years, would have expected was that it would turn out to be a very good career move.

Of course he knew he was going to die. Everybody was going to die. That was the point of being alive…at least as far as he could tell. But knowing it so conclusively, so specifically…it was different. It made everything feel different.

“Snoopy or Cookie Monster?” the technician asked him blandly, digging through a crate at his feet.

“Snoopy,” answered the man, rubbing his arm where the needle had been. The technician handed him the bandage, and he applied it himself. The bandage seemed like a formality. Given the circumstances, it only could be.

* * *

His wife climbed into bed beside him. She had come home early. It wasn’t even dark yet. He pulled the shades and got into bed.

“Well?” she asked him softly, nuzzling his shoulder.

He pretended to be asleep.

* * *

The slip of paper read COLD AND DESPONDENT IN AN EMPTY ROOM. He didn’t ask for clarification, but the technician must have been asked for clarification a lot because he immediately offered, helpfully, “Suicide.”

“Suicide?” the man asked.

“It doesn’t say suicide,” the technician said. “But I think it’s pretty clear.”

“You think?”

The technician shrugged. “There’s counseling in the next room,” he said. “You get fifteen minutes, and then I think they charge for any more. But get there now because there’s always a line.”

“I’m not suicidal,” the man said. “It doesn’t even say suicide.”

The technician was preparing the machine for the next client. It was a fairly involved process that involved not only the replacement of syringes (for superfluous hygiene reasons) but also a complete systems check and a full baseline recalibration with a wide range of standards (from “LONG AND FRUITFUL LIFE WITH ULTIMATE TERMINATION IN THE SOFT ARMS OF WINTER” all the way down to “DOG ATTACK IN PARKING LOT”), and then a confirmation of the accuracy of that recalibration by a second, higher-ranking technician.

This higher-ranking technician was already approaching. The man still clutched the short piece of paper that he still needed to have certified by the clerk in the lobby as though he had pulled it from the world’s cruelest fortune cookie.

“Larry,” the first technician said without looking up. “Suicide?”

The higher-ranking technician pulled the paper from the man’s hand, glanced over it briefly, and handed it back. “Who knows.”

“Probably suicide though?”

“Does it matter?” the higher ranking technician asked. “Let’s go with this; we’ve got a tight schedule.”

The man was guided by a woman in white into the lobby, where the clerk recorded and made official the known circumstances of his eventual death.

* * *

These death tests were mandatory, but, for now, they were confined to a relatively small test group. It wasn’t that the machine’s reliability was in question; that had already been established beyond the shadow of any doubt when the inventor of the machine tested it on himself, learned he would die in under an hour’s time in a collapsing laboratory, and relocated in a panic to a much sturdier lab than his own which was then demolished by a wrecking crew who showed up to the wrong address.

The man had been chosen randomly, the letter said.

Very few people were chosen, the letter said.

Very few people were chosen, the letter said, not because the machine was being tested, but because civilization’s ability to cope with the foreknowledge of its own demise was being tested.

The man was a test subject. He was neither willing nor unwilling to be a test subject. He was going to die, he knew, whether he was a test subject or not.

The only question was how.

And it was a question the higher-ranking technician answered without even realizing it.

“Does it matter?”

The man thought about that. Instead of sleeping, he thought about that.

* * *

The man left the next morning before his wife woke up, and took the bus to work. The digital readout on the machine told him he had 59 days left to live, and while he knew that going to work should have felt to him like a poor use of what little time remained, there wasn’t really anything that felt to him like a much better use.

Did it matter? A few days ago, maybe. But not now. Of course it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if he skipped breakfast. It didn’t matter if he never listened to another record in his life. It didn’t matter because in 59 days, it couldn’t matter.

He was a telemarketer. He was paid a salary too small to support even himself and his wife, let alone the family they had occasionally wanted, to call strangers on the telephone and try to make them buy insurance that he wasn’t even sure existed. He never met any of his customers and his phone did not accept incoming calls. He spoke to everybody once, and then never again. He either made the sale, or he didn’t.

You had one shot at things, and then you crossed the name off your list — whatever the answer — and moved on to the next. One of his coworkers, who was also named Larry, referred to this technique as “slash and burn.”

Larry was not there when the man arrived to work. Nobody was there, except for the cleaning woman, who shuffled from cubicle to cubicle looking for something to clean, hoping both that she’d find something, and that she wouldn’t. She did not try to make eye contact with the man, which he appreciated.

He sat down at his desk, put on his headset, buried his face in his hands, and spoke, one by one, to the strangers his computers called for him.

His coworkers showed up two hours later, and he did not lift his head.

* * *

“Hey,” his wife said.

“I’m too tired,” the man told her.

“Can we talk for a little bit before bed?”

“I’m too tired to talk.”

“Can you just tell me what the machine said?”

“I’m too tired to talk about what the machine said.”

Besides, the man knew, it didn’t matter what the machine said.

It didn’t matter what the machine didn’t say either.

It didn’t matter.

* * *

In the morning he showed up to the office even earlier. It allowed him to make another 20 phone calls than he had the day before. He was supposed to read to his customers from a script, but he started deviating from the text without realizing it.

His mind was nowhere. There was nothing he could think about. He couldn’t think about providing for his wife, because now he never could. He had taken this low-paying job because it was offered to him, and he assumed he would eventually move up. Now that could not happen.

He thought he would make friends who had connections somewhere. Now that could not happen.

He thought he would impress somebody eventually, and that sometime, somewhere, a door would swing open, and he could walk through it and find for himself and for his wife and for the family they now could never have a richer and brighter and better future in which he was — if not somebody — at least not nobody.

He thought he might find something. He thought there might be something to find. He thought that maybe, if he tried, if he lived his life and loved his wife and cared and worked and saved, that he might actually accomplish something.

Now that could not happen. And what was worse, it didn’t matter how he lived. It was too late. He might as well have been a criminal. The machine did not only confirm that his life would be short; it confirmed that whatever time he spent alive had to be meaningless.

He deviated from the script without realizing it. His eyes still glossed over the laminated page before him, but he was saying something different than he had said to customers before. He was saying things that they were listening to.

They were agreeing to sales. When they agreed to sales, the computer transferred them to somebody who would take down their billing information, and then they were gone.

Or, to them, he was gone.

* * *

By the end of the week, his wife resorted to physically cornering him. “You have to deal with this,” she told him.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.

“Tell me what it said.”

“I’m too tired to talk.”

“Have you been eating?” she asked him. “You haven’t been eating.”

“No,” the man said. “I haven’t been eating.”

At least, he did not think he’d been eating. Why would he have been eating? What difference would that have made?

“You’re not going through this alone,” she said to him.

He held his eyes closed. He left when she was asleep.

* * *

“I’m not suicidal,” the man said. “It doesn’t even say suicide.”

“It gets flowery sometimes,” the technician told him, readying the machine for its next victim. “Me and my brother were in the second batch, last year. It came right out and told me I’ve got nothing to worry about until my trip to Greece, which, the way they pay me, isn’t going to happen for a hell of a long time. But it told my brother that ‘the sullen clap of Heaven’s malaise would steal his hair and life.’ Two weeks later, bam, lightning strike.”

The man stood silent. Whatever the answer was, he knew already that it was irrelevant. The machine either meant that he would commit suicide, or it didn’t. Either way, it didn’t matter.

“I don’t know,” the technician continued, at least partially to himself. “Some of them, it’s just, okay, here’s how. And other’s it’s like it’s channeling Shakespeare or some shit.”

It was either channeling Shakespeare, or some shit.

Either way, it didn’t matter.

* * *

Larry, the man’s coworker, stood beside him while he was on the phone. When the call was finished, Larry pulled the headset off the man and said, “Are you coming out tonight?”

“No,” the man said. And then, “I need to make another phone call.”

Larry said, “Don’t you ever go home?”

“Yes,” the man said sadly, realizing at once that, maybe, he didn’t actually have to.

“What happened?” Larry asked him. “You don’t come out anymore. It’s just a quick drink. You can’t turn into a hermit.”

The man was spared from having to account for his demeanor, however, by his boss, who also appeared in his cubicle and said that he wanted to speak with him for a moment. Larry, whose idea of job security was to evade the manager as often as possible, disappeared for the night.

His boss wanted to speak to him because the man’s sales numbers were extraordinarily high that week.

He said things like, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep doing it,” and “What we really need is a whole lot more men like you.”

The man wasn’t sure exactly what he said, because he wasn’t exactly listening. The man stopped exactly listening when he realized that it could no longer have possibly mattered if he listened at all.

* * *

When his wife left him he watched her go, but he felt very little. He didn’t regret her leaving, because he couldn’t blame her for leaving. He didn’t regret consulting the machine, because it hadn’t been his decision to regret, and also because it wasn’t the machine’s fault that nothing he said or did could possibly matter.

He knew that he could keep her — for about a month and a half anyway — if he could only tell her what the machine had said. He knew that she would help him try to make sense of it. He knew that she would stay with him, and comfort him, and help him come to terms with what he knew he could never come to terms with alone. He knew that he could spend every one of his remaining nights in bed with her, feeling her close to him, holding her, being loved by her, and needing her, if only he would speak up and tell her what it was that was pulling the man away from himself.

But he also knew that none of that mattered.

And so she left, and he watched her go, and at some point he either fell asleep or passed out, and before the night was even half over he returned to work, plugged in his headset, and let the computer find another sleepless soul, somewhere, alone and cold in their own empty rooms, the ghosts of optimisms past lining their walls or garage floors, in homes with sputtering heaters and understocked cupboards, their pets blind with cataracts and bathroom sinks adorned with hairbrushes they couldn’t bring themselves to throw away, with yellowed newspapers from better days and a drawer full of loose photographs, a hole in the wall that would never be repaired or a broken window half-heartedly concealed with wet cardboard, a painting never hung or a Christmas gift never delivered, and an overnight bag, empty, still with its original price tag, and dull knives and a broken stove, carpeting leading upstairs to a series of rooms gone unused for years, a Ping-Pong table in the back yard sagging from the rain, the musky smell of thick dust and expired store-bought tomato sauce, and unheard echoes of years-old conversation between people who would not — could not — exist anymore, the imagined phantoms of haunting that would never come, yes, just another of these many sleepless souls who just needed to hear from somebody so young, and already worse off than they could ever be.

* * *

By the end of the month, the man’s sales figures caught the attention of the regional office, and then the national headquarters. Not only had the man outperformed himself; he had outperformed any of the other sales people in any of the offices scattered across the country, tucked, as they were, into strip malls or conference rooms in larger business complexes.

Larry stopped trying to get his attention, and so did the rest of the man’s friends. He stopped calling them, and they disappeared. His wife was the only other one who knew about his appointment with the machine, and she was content to leave messages that were never returned.

It didn’t matter, the man thought to himself, whether or not he returned them. In another month it would matter even less.

“I know you’re putting in more hours now,” his boss told him, “but it’s more than that. Are you using the script?”

The man didn’t answer.

“Of course you’re not. The script is shit. What are you using?”

“I don’t know,” the man said.

His boss waited for something more.

“I just talk,” the man said eventually.

“Whatever you’re saying, it’s working. Your sales pitch. Whatever it is, and I don’t even care what it is, it’s brilliant. In some businesses you can let the product sell itself. We don’t sell anything here. We sell a waste of somebody’s time and money, and you’re selling it like it’s piping hot porno.”

His boss sat on his desk for a moment, thinking.

“Next Thursday,” his boss said finally, “I’m going to the emergency conference in Phoenix. You probably heard about all the lawsuits. Anyway, they wanted me to give a talk and I was going to bullshit my way through 45 minutes of variations on ‘we’re in the people business’ for the fourth year running. But I want you to come.”

For the first time that the man could remember, his boss said his name.

“I want you to come, and just kind of pep people up. Give them a good talk. Tell them how to sell this shit because I am telling you that you’re the only one who’s actually selling any of it.”

The man shrugged, which was as good as any other answer he could have given.

His boss asked him if he had to check with his wife first.

The man shook his head and said that she was dead for all he knew, which he knew was true, even though she had left him seven messages that day, the most recent of which was only an hour ago. The following Wednesday they flew out to Phoenix, and the man pretended to sleep for the entire flight.

* * *

His instincts were slow to change, and when the man checked into his room at the Sharpe Tower Hotel he wondered, as he couldn’t help but wonder, if this room qualified as empty enough to be the room. But then he realized, before the thought was even complete, that it didn’t, wouldn’t, and couldn’t matter. Even if he didn’t know that he still had two weeks remaining, it couldn’t have mattered.

Suicide, homicide, death…three sides of the same coin. It happened, and it comforted no-one to know that it was — or would be — one and not either of the others. The end result was the same. He sat quietly in the armchair and stared vaguely at a blank television screen. It wasn’t to be this room, but it didn’t matter if it was. He blinked enough times that the sun came up, and he shuffled into the conference room on the fourth floor to deliver his speech.

* * *

The man had no notes and hadn’t discussed with anybody beforehand what he was going to say, so there is no way to confirm that what follows is at all accurate. Unfortunately, this record, incomplete or erroneous as it might theoretically be proven to be by an outsider who cannot exist, is all that we have. It is scrawled in only periodic legibility in the margins of a room service menu that one of the conference attendees, a Martin Klein of the Owlstack, PA office, happened to have in his pocket, and it is reproduced here, in its arguable entirety, for the betterment and edification of generations to come:

There is no meaning and we all share an inevitable worthlessness. Nobody will be saved. It is over before it begins. I think I am supposed to make you feel excited about selling insurance. And I think you might as well be as excited about selling insurance as you would be about starting a family, or finding a dead child on your doorstep. It is all equally meaningless and you cannot keep whatever small amount of happiness you may manage to find in a world that does not care that you were ever born. You may disagree, but you’ll never prove me wrong.

You cannot be excited. You cannot be happy. You cannot even be remotely satisfied with anything you’ve ever done or had done to you. Because all of that gives you hope, and what we sell can only really make sense to the hopeless.

When you speak to your customers, remember that you are going to die, and remember only that you are going to die. Wherever it happens, whenever it happens, you will have nothing to show for it, and nobody will miss you. You are not even a human being. You are a voice on the telephone. You could be hit by a bus a few minutes after you leave work and nobody you talked to that day would even know or care.

That is my message to you. We are already dead, even when we aren’t. We stand here or sit here or lie here in our own graves, and nothing will change for anybody else when go quiet for the last time. I have been asked by the hotel to remind you that the breakfast buffet continues until eleven o’clock, and that today’s signature dish is Belgian waffles.

Why it Matters to Me That Green Lantern is Gay


…or perhaps that should be Why it Matters to Me That Green Lantern “is Gay.”

Without any question, you’ve heard about this already. Green Lantern is gay. That “is” is a present tense verb there, folks, and that’s why I have something to say about this. It is a fact that Green Lantern is gay. It is not a fact that he was gay, or always has been gay. And that’s a problem, because as progressive as this narrative decision might intend to be, it’s actually quite reductive, ignorant, and insulting.

The problem isn’t that there’s a major gay superhero now, no matter what the Parents Against Whateverthefuck groups would have you believe…in fact, they should be cheering this decision, because it makes it seem as though homosexuality is something that people can add and remove from their lives like an accessory or a piece of clothing…something to be picked up and worn when it suits them, and not at all until then.

That’s just downright wrong, not to mention preposterous. Homosexuality is not like facial hair…you don’t grow it out because you’re going through a phase or because you decided you’d look better that way. It’s an integral part of who people are…it’s what makes them human…and it’s always been there. It’s not a choice, any more than skin color, height, or voice is a choice. It’s part of who you are from birth, and while it might take a while for somebody to realize — or understand, or accept — that they are gay, that’s a gradual process of internal discovery…not an external feature plugged into us wholesale by some cosmic decider.

This reminds me in many ways of the hubbub over J.K. Rowling “revealing” that Dumbledore was gay, however many years ago that was. My concern then was similar, but it was overridden by my disgust for what she did to writing more than what she did to homosexuals.

In that case, it was a clear authorial trespass. As the author of her books, she was able to reveal anything she liked at any point. Until — and this is important — she finished writing them. After that, it’s hands off. She doesn’t get to reveal additional data elsewhere that isn’t sustained within the novels. I’ll admit openly that I haven’t read them…but I’ve known many people who have, and they’ve shared the same concern: there doesn’t seem to be anything in the novels that sustains such a reading. Certainly one could make it fit, just as we could make fit anything we’d like to imagine while we’re reading a book, chalking it up to it being one of the hundreds of trillions of things an author doesn’t tell us along the way but which we would like to believe is true anyway, but this isn’t a case of imagination…this is a case of after the fact authorial insistence.

Whatever else it may be, that’s bad writing. Either Dumbledore was gay all along and Rowling didn’t know how to handle that as an author and so she just stored it away for later blurting at a press conference, or he wasn’t gay until the moment she said he was, at which point she demonstrated an enormous disrespect to the world she created, and the imaginations of her readers that have taken them in other directions. Readers are supposed to meet books halfway…whatever they get out of it, whatever they hear, wherever their magical journey takes them, then that’s what they get from the experience. Rowling of all people should have known better about magical journeys. The author doesn’t get to inject details via syringe long after the fact.

In this case, though, it’s a comic book. Comic books have multiple authors, they span multiple generations, and there’s not just one author. What one might use as the groundwork for his character might be manipulated, discarded, or inverted by his successor. We can argue about the merits of that as well, but, for now, it’s a fact we have to take as read.

The problem, though, is that it’s still the same character. It’s a character that’s had a wealth of experiences and left an enormous imprint on his fans…fans who know every detail about what he’s actually said, done, and accomplished.

And now he’s gay. Just like that.

He wasn’t gay in the background. He wasn’t coming to grips with his sexuality for years. And he wasn’t just waiting for the perfect moment to reveal to those who care about him that he harbors a secret. He was just one thing yesterday, and another today. He donned his homosexuality like a wristwatch. Maybe he’ll like this wristwatch, or maybe he’ll take it off again once everybody gets annoyed by its loud ticking.

That’s unfair. That’s not how homosexuality works…scratch that. That’s not how humanity works. That’s not how people work.

It’s not a decision, it’s not an immediate restructuring. This is something people learn over the course of a lifetime. For Green Lantern and Dumbledore, apparently, they just become gay because someone said so. That’s terrible writing, and even worse humanity.

Regarding this radical change in which one person we’ve been learning about for so many years is killed off and replaced by a person similar in all ways but also gay, writer James Robinson said this: “It’s a realistic depiction of society. You have to move with the times.”

You’re not moving with the times at all. You’re reducing homosexuality to a character trait that can be picked up or discarded at will…that’s emphatically behind the times. That’s the mentality that keeps gays from marrying, or being recognized as functional human beings. If someone can just snap into gayness, well, just don’t snap that way and you can marry and be respected and do all the things us normal folks so love to do. That’s wrong, Robinson.

That’s wrong.

Think of it as though this weren’t a question of sexuality. Think of it as though this were a question of race. Batman, in an issue to debut next month, is revealed to be black.

Not a new Batman. Not somebody else who becomes Batman because Bruce Wayne dies. But the Batman we know. The same guy. The dead parents, the wise butler, the wonderful toys. The one we’ve seen in countless movies and comics and on television.

He’s black. And he always was. That’s the grand reveal.

Could that possibly make any sense whatsoever? It’d be absurd. It wouldn’t get people up in arms about reductivism, because it’d so clearly be impossible.

That’s what we’re dealing with now. Only the impossibility is being ignored. Not debated…just ignored.

I can’t think of a worse way to treat homosexuals than by demeaning the fact that their sexuality has shaped them, affected their lives, and helped them grow into the individuals they are today.

Green Lantern is gay, Batman is black, Wonder Woman actually contains a misplaced space and she’s really Wonderwo Man, and Poochie died on the way back to his home planet.

“It makes sense because we said it makes sense. It goes this way because we say it goes this way.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of anything worse than that to say to a homosexual man, woman, or child today.

Four Great Ongoing Critiques

As they say, everybody’s a critic. As they should say immediately afterward, “Not everybody’s good at it, but there you go.”

Criticism is difficult to perform intelligently. I should know; I’m a particularly shitty critic myself. But every so often some anonymous stranger on the internet says something that — against all odds — turns out to be extremely insightful. From there, a great series of ongoing criticism can be born, and I wanted to take some time to share with you four of my absolute favorites.

This is not just a list of links…these are sincerely fantastic critical explorations that I endorse wholeheartedly.

1) Fred Clark’s Dissections of the Left Behind series.

For the past nine years (incredible but true) Fred Clark of Slacktivist has been analyzing page by agonizing page the entirety of the Left Behind series. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, here it is in a nutshell: God loves me, but not you. Fred, being a religious man himself, is appalled by the many levels of spiritual, literary and humanitarian stupidity on display in these pages, and he pulls them apart gorgeously. It’s a discussion about bad writing, yes, but it’s also a learning experience. I challenge any writer to come away from this series without being significantly more aware of the mistakes he or she is already making. You can check out his archive starting here, but many of the posts have annoyingly gone missing thanks to a change in URL. Regardless, he’s only recently begun the third book in the series, Nicolae, Rise of the Antichrist, and you can read these posts as they go up…which is the best way to enjoy them. First post here.

2) Dead Homer Society’s Discussions of Modern Simpsons.
We can argue all day about when The Simpsons officially became a shadow of its former self, but there’s really no arguing against the fact that it is a shadow of its former self. Dead Homer Society offers a shockingly sharp look at the current state of the show, with every new episode handled over at least four posts: a preview, a next-day recap, a feature that compares and contrasts it with an episode from the show’s golden years, and a transcript of a live chat discussing all aspects of the episode. It’s a surprisingly respectful way of conversing about a show that so clearly disappoints them in every way, and it makes for fascinating reading. Or, at least, it did. Yes, for Season 24 Dead Homer Society will be scaling back coverage, which is disappointing…but they will still be in operation, and — likely — just as worthy of your and my time. They’ve also released a fantastic new ebook called Zombie Simpsons: How the Best Show Ever Became the Broadcasting Undead that you can buy from Amazon or read for free here.

3) ProtonJon’s “Let’s Play Superman 64.”
The Let’s Play is a strange beast. I’ve recorded some myself, but even so I can’t say that I’m sure why people want to watch as somebody else plays video games for them. ProtonJon’s brilliantly exhaustive trek through Superman 64, however, is a glorious exception to a tedious norm. Two years into the project and with only 6 stages under his belt, it’s clear that ProtonJon has a lot to say. He spotlights glitches from the games, discusses characters both inside and outside of their roles in this adventure, and generally goes out of his way to provide fascinating — and sometimes exclusive — information along the way. Superman 64 is widely reviled as one of the worst video games of all time…and rightly so. ProtonJon can’t — and won’t — defend the game on its merits…but he sure does have a lot of fun pulling it apart to learn everything he can about the many, many ways in which it went wrong. From interviewing the developers to playing it alongside other Superman games to comparing it to unreleased beta footage, ProtonJon has taken an effortless YouTube staple and elevated it to the status of genuine — and remarkable — documentary. Tune in.

4) The Annotated Sonichu.
From the moment I started this site, I wanted to do a Noiseless Chatter Spotlight on Sonichu, the addictively weird creation of Christian Weston Chandler…also known as Chris-Chan. Sonichu himself is an unabashed hybrid of Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, and Chandler’s comic is meant to follow him along on his exciting adventures. Instead, though, the comic sidelines Sonichu in favor of Chandler himself, who appears on the page — as he does in real life — as a man searching for love, and unable to grasp why he hasn’t found it already. Its childish art style and bizarre narrative flow make for an easy mockery, but The Annotated Sonichu takes its source material seriously, and discusses page by page the many direct carryovers from Chandler’s personal life that shape and enrich CWCville, the town in which Sonichu takes place. Family members, friends, his dead dog and strangers online who pretend to be females interested in him all make their way into the comic at some point, where Chandler uses his narrative authority to cope with them in the only way he knows how: with Crayola markers. Truly fascinating, and an unexpectedly respectful deconstruction.

Kid Icarus: Irony Uprising

I picked up Kid Icarus: Uprising this Friday, its day of release. I’ve pre-ordered games before so there’s nothing special about my immediate purchase, but I do think it’s worth pointing out just how promising the game looked. For starters, it’s the first entry in a long-dead — but classic — franchise in twenty years or so. That’s enough to at least get me interested. Then the advertising materials started to surface, followed eventually by reviews, and everything seemed…well, everything seemed pretty perfect. It looked like a strong title and a safe bet, so I pre-ordered it…and I love it. It’s great. It exceeded more or less every expectation I had, and my expectations were pretty high.

But there’s one issue I do have with the game. Not a problem, but an issue.

See, the game is self-aware. And while this is not an issue exclusive to Kid Icarus: Uprising, the fact that even tried and true Nintendo franchises are becoming self-aware is really making me think that this self-awareness thing has gone too far.

By self-aware, I mean that the characters know they are in a video game. They keep referring to not having been around for twenty-odd years, they crack jokes about how — in previous installments — the gorgeous environments and characters we see now were much more pixilated, and they josh around regarding video gaming tropes, commenting ironically on characters who have titles like “Dark Lord” and writing off Pitt’s flight limitations as being a result of “poor fuel efficiency.”

Whether you find these jokes funny or not is beside the point. I haven’t found many of them funny, but that’s okay. Unlike Skyward Sword, you don’t have to stop and sit quietly while a group of moronic NPCs crack wise around you; this all happens in the background, as you play, and it’s easy to tune out if you’re not interested. Also unlike Skyward Sword the tutorial is skippable and doesn’t eat up the first six fucking hours of the God damned game but okay, okay, that’s a rant for another time, so back to the issue at hand.

My issue is that we, as a culture, have gotten to the point that this sort of ironic self-awareness, this postmodern acknowledgment of a product’s own shortcomings, this sidelong smirking at the audience to make us feel like we’re all part of one big in-joke, is kind of destroying entertainment.

It’s everywhere. My girlfriend and I discussed this recently when I was describing some Adult Swim show to her. (The fact that I can’t remember which one says something in itself.) I was talking about how it’s sort of an ironic undercutting of some genre or other, and she asked, “Aren’t they all like that?” And she’s right, more or less. An enormous portion of Adult Swim’s original programs are ironic undercuttings of established genres, which tap into our expectations and then — humorously — stopping short of their fulfillment. I’m happy enough, though, that Adult Swim does that. I’m not upset that so much of their original material trods the same ground. (Or, at least, approaches an audience with the same intent.) We need an Adult Swim that we can turn to, somewhere. What I’m upset about is that this self-aware game of pulling the audience’s expectations apart like taffy is infiltrating the mainstream. That’s destructive.

It’s destructive because it consumes itself. In order for expectations to be undercut, we need to have expectations. In order for us to have expectations, there need to be certain reliable tropes and facets of genre and type. Without that, the ironic commenting can’t exist. Or, at least, it can’t have any impact. When everything’s ironic, can there be any more irony? We need sincerity, too. We can’t have every piece of entertainment commenting humorously about its limitations. We can’t have otherwise straight dramatic films mentioning that their villains can’t shoot straight, or saying things like “Of course we’ll be okay; we’re the main characters.” We can’t have every commercial joking about how it wants to sell us something. And we can’t have video games making fun of what makes them video games.

At least, we can’t have that stuff all the time. And I honestly don’t think I’ve seen much, lately, whether comic or dramatic, that didn’t feel obligated to toss some broad wink at the audience. It’s not funny anymore. It’s not interesting anymore. Or, at least, you aren’t doing anything interesting with it. We don’t want you to be part of our in-joke…that defeats the purpose of it being an in-joke. When we watch a terrible movie and we laugh at it, that bonds us as an audience. When we watch a terrible movie and the movie laughs at itself for being terrible, it’s over. There is no bond…it’s just out of place and annoying, like a seventh grade teacher quoting Beavis and Butt-Head to try to find common ground with his students. It doesn’t bridge any gaps…if anything, it just encourages us to push things further away.

I like you, Kid Icarus: Uprising. I think you’re a great game. You’re a lot of fun, you look beautiful, and you’re already enticing me to replay earlier levels with a more difficult setting. You’re everything a game needs to be. You don’t need to be my ironic, smirking friend. That’s not what I want from you. That’s not the kind of bond I’d hoped we’d achieve.

You don’t need to tell me how silly and contrived things are about the story you’re telling. Because you know what, Kid Icarus: Uprising? If you really feel your story is contrived, then maybe you should have told a different one. Hanging a lampshade on these shortcomings is a way of humorously drawing attention to them, but it’s not an excuse. If I have some problem with the story, I get to laugh at it. That’s my right as an audience member. If you have a problem with the story, you need to fix it. It’s the only respectable thing to do.

I know your story is about an angel fighting mythical Greek monsters. I know that. I know it’s stupid. I know it’s absurd. But it’s a video game. By commenting on yourself ironically, you’re not endearing yourself to me; you’re only robbing me of the opportunity to enjoy the story in my own way. You may not guide the gameplay as much as Skyward Sword, but you sure are leading my interpretation by the neck.

Let us enjoy whatever story it is you have to offer. Video game, television show, film, novel, commercial, song…anything. Write a few sincere pieces. Reinforce some genre conventions. Stop tearing away at what’s established; that is not constructive. Build upon it. Learn from it. Grow stronger.

Because until you start doing that again, there won’t be anything sincere left to comment upon. The ironic outlook is self-defeating the moment it becomes universal. In fact, at this rate, it won’t be long before a genuinely sincere work of art would look like an ironic undercutting, simply because it adheres to conventions without wanting to make us laugh at them.

And that, my friends, is irony.

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