Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Summer Viewing: Wynona Earp

During the schoolyear, I watch maybe an hour of television a week, but in summertime (when the living's easy: and I'm not teaching), I sometimes watch two or even three hours of television in a single day. It feels like I'm flying through TV shows getting to watch them at that rate!

So, here's another peek into my summer viewing: Wynona Earp, season 3. "I told that devil to take you back!"

So, this is a show you have to approach with the right attitude.

If you're a viewer who wants accuracy (or even plausibility) and insists on consistent and well explained world building…watch something else. This one isn't for you.

But if you, like me, have a taste for pulpy badass fun? Then strap in. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Your basic premise: There's a curse of the Earp clan, begun during Wyatt Earp's time which ties the fate of each generation's Earp heir to the endless battle of Revenants, demon versions of old west baddies who keep coming back every generation to fight the next heir afresh.

Wynonna is the latest heir and she's a hot mess, as in: she's hot, and she's a mess. She drinks too much, is a sexual adventurer, and is a shoot first and ask questions later fighter, all of which leads to high drama.

As played by Melanie Scrofano, I find her charmingly unconcerned with what anyone might think of her choices, comfortable in her skin even when she disapproves of herself, and steadfastly loyal to those she loves. She fights from the heart, relying on gut instinct and impulsive risks to save the day.

But my favorite character isn't Wynonna: it's Doc Holliday (yep: *that* Doc Holliday) conveniently immortal and recently rescued from imprisonment in time to wreak havoc on Wynonna's heart. Tim Rozon must be a man out of his own time, he plays the old fashioned Southern doctor turned gunslinger so perfectly for tone. He's as hot-headed as Wynonna herself and prone to epically bad decisions when his heart is wounded that only up the dramatic ante.

This is the kind of show where everything is blown out of proportion and the dial is turned up to eleven. I often have to pause to laugh out loud when the dialogue or situations take me by surprise. To my mind, this is perfect escapist summer viewing, satisfying and entertaining, always leaving me feeling distracted by very unrealistic troubles. Just what the Doc (Holliday) ordered.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Summer Viewing: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

My college-aged daughter has an eye for programs that don't seem like they're for me that totally turn out to be for me. It was she who got me hooked on Jane the Virgin, for example, which I never would have guessed I'd enjoy so much. So, when she suggested The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I knew it was likely to be right up my alley. I watched season 1 this spring, and season 2 this summer.

For fans of shows like Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, Mad Men, or Downton Abbey, you'll get that same feeling of having been transported in time. Miss Maisel's wardrobe alone is worth watching the show for. Her worlds, among rich Jews of the Upper West Side in the 1950s and on the comedy stages of the same era alongside Lenny Bruce, are not worlds I know much about, so I love the windows into something new. 

But characters are always what keep me or lose me in a show (or a story of any kind). Like Miss Fisher (a show you should also watch if you haven't yet), Midge Maisel is a striking personality who doesn't quite fit into societal expectations for a person in her roles in that time and place. She's charismatic and I found myself rooting for her right away.

Mrs. Maisel truly is marvelous, just as the title claims. She's witty, on and off the stage. She's strong and independent, despite having been raised with expectations that she would never need to be either of those things and therefore having obtained very few practical skills. Relentlessly optimistic in the face of every setback and confident in herself at superheroic levels, but still empathetic to the plights of others. Strong female character in that true sense of personality rather than literal physical strength.

The juxtaposition of Mrs. Maisel's two worlds is the heart of the charm of this show--who would have thought that a woman of her background could make a success on the comedy stage? The culture clash between the woman whose hat collection wouldn't fit in my house and her much harder-luck manager is rife with thoughtful life lessons that don't feel like lectures. (The stage routines are hilarious as well). 

Her relationships with the other comics and the relationship arcs for herself and her husband as well as that between her parents will resonate with a lot of viewers, even if your life experience involves a lot fewer matching shoes and handbags. Recommended viewing.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Wording Wednesday: Mornings with Helene

The new season of Wording Wednesday has begun. Fellow author Andy Brokaw collects a set of prompts and puts them out there for the world to use for inspiration. This season, the theme is weather and we begin with the impressionist artwork Sunlight Effect Under the Poplars by Claude Monet. Check out the links and play along if you'd like, or just enjoy reading.

I'm a fan of prompt writing. It helps me keep the fun and play in my writing life. Sometimes it leads to something I can expand upon and publish and sometimes it doesn't, but I love the freedom to play in a story I have no expectations for. Let's see where this one takes me, shall we?

These mornings with Helene were heaven on earth. Away from everyone else, if only for an hour or two, Giselle and Helene could pretend they were still just girls, free to wander open fields expecting nothing but beauty and receiving it openly. The light on the tall grasses and flowers bloomed in Giselle's chest like hope, buoying her despite her troubled mind. Helene's skin glowed, as it had when she was young and would let down her hair so the wind could ripple through it. She used to say it felt like flying.

Their lives had gone in very different directions since childhood. Always the beauty among their group of friends, Helene had married a wealthy man despite her lowly station. He had swept her away, taking her to Paris, Rome, and Ithaca, all the places they had read and dreamed about over their schoolbooks. Her letters praised the scenery and said little of the man himself, which was commentary enough for Giselle to understand.

Life had not been a fairy tale for Giselle. Her father died suddenly when she was twelve, leaving her family in desperate straights. She'd gone into service, which allowed her to earn a little money and help keep her mother and younger siblings in food and shelter. That had been the end of her schooling and any dreams she'd fostered of a better life. On bad days, she resented it bitterly. On good ones, she was thankful that she'd at least had an option to help. 

After her fifth child in as many years, Helene's health failed her. She'd never been strong, not in body, though her spirit remained robust. The doctors hoped that fresh air and exercise would enable her to recover, but anyone could see she was fading. Helene, ever a loyal friend, had taken the opportunity to bring Giselle with her as her companion, to get away from the drudgery of the city and into the light of nature again. They both knew it wouldn't last.

It wasn't right, getting her friend back just so that she could help her die. But for an hour or two, whenever the light shone, they could be girls again, pretending the future stretched bright before them. It would have to be enough.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Summer Viewing: Black Lightning

Black Lightning has been on my TBW (to be watched) list for a while now and summer finally brought me a little time for TV.

I'm an easy sell: it's a superhero story about a character I didn't already know well, and he's not twelve--he's a full adult with experience, responsibilities, and something to lose. Three for three, with a bonus point for diversity. Right up my alley.

I'll be mildly spoilery at worst in this review. I wouldn't want to ruin your enjoyment by giving too much away. I've watched two seasons as I write this.

Can I just say how much I love Jefferson Pierce as portrayed by Cress Williams? I think I actually love him more when he's being Jefferson Pierce than I do when he's being Black Lightning. This is a show about Jefferson Pierce who is also a superhero rather than the other way around.

Such a beautifully complicated character. A community leader (high school principal with a high profile), who still gets pulled over for "driving while black" and has to manage racial politics with the Freeland school board (an awfully white organization considering the racial makeup of the community it's in).

It's all about control, of the situation, and of himself. Even when he's not being superheroic, he crackles with suppressed energy and channeled righteous anger. He's working within the system in one suit, and as a vigilante going around the system in another.

He's an involved parent, who still falls back on "because I said so" and "not under my roof" in frustration when his strong willed daughters reveal that they are definitely his children. It plays all too real to this mother of stubborn and amazing daughters.

He's not perfect (despite those abs and that smile), but he's working hard to make the world better, and not just when he's wearing the suit (either the coat and tie or the lightning). I can see why people call him "Black Jesus."

He loves his (ex)wife enough to have given up his superheroic pursuits at her insistence, and they have a push and pull magnetism on screen: still clearly in love and attracted to one another, united in their desire to raise their daughters well, but cracking under the pressure of heroism. That inner conflict about using your gifts when they hurt you personally adds serious tension.

It's hard to love someone who is constantly in danger and on call, to see them hurt and suffering because of the sacrifices they've made for strangers. Ask any spouse of a cop or firefighter or soldier or schoolteacher or other front-lines job.

Lynn Pierce, as played by Christine Adams is amazing. She knows her limits, and even when they hurt, she sticks by them. She's a brilliant doctor and scientist (and we later find out quite a fighter herself), fierce and dignified, but loving. No wonder her children are so much trouble. They're just like her.

It's rare in a television show to see a family with teenaged and newly adult children who have a good
relationship (or any relationship at all), but the Pierces are close, despite the secret of Dad's former superheroic life having been kept from the children until the crisis that begins the television series brings him back into his lightning crested suit. (When the show begins, no one has seen Black Lightning for nine years--his daughters don't know about dad's side gig).

The first time I saw the Black Lightning suit, I wasn't sure what to think. It's pretty darn cheesy, with a bright chest panel. It made me laugh, I'll admit. The effects used for his lightning powers are on the cheesy side, too, which contrasts pretty starkly with the look and tone of the alter ego parts of the show.

Whenever Jefferson dons the costume and goes out to fight, the music shifts towards the seventies, too, with full-on swagger. I wasn't sure I liked that at first, but it's grown on me. It's a subtle way to show his origins, though if he's only been on hiatus nine years, he stopped fighting in the earlier 2000s, not the seventies. Still it resonates with shades of characters like Shaft and Luke Cage, which is probably what the designers were after.

When younger heroes (Thunder and Lightning) come onto the scene, the generational contrast is interesting: in terms of where the moral lines are as well as what to wear. I like how that contrast is used to show that younger people and older people both have things to learn from one another.

"Uncle Gambi," Jefferson's adoptive stepfather, has had quite an evolution across the two seasons as well. He's definitely more than he seems when we meet him, and he keeps getting more interesting. His relationship with the Pierces and his role in the history and the superheroics helps heal plot holes as needed.

The villains in this one are big and broad and stylized, though their overall motivations can be a bit fuzzy. Tobias Whale is a great gangster with an extra secret, though I find him a little one-note overall. He seems like a plotter with a huge overarching plan, but then those plans turn out to be kind of loose and not fully thought out when we get there. Still, the personal nature of the grudge between Tobias and Black Lightning is powerful.

Dr. Helga Jace is horrifyingly cold about any human (or metahuman) costs in her mad science work. She's a great contrast to Lynn Pierce. I'm looking forward to learning more about the mysterious and dangerous Agent Percy Odell. The secondary cast with Khalil, Grace, and police ally Bill Henderson have a lot of potential for future drama and intrigue, too.

If you're looking for a new superhero show to watch, this one has a lot to recommend it!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Orville Might Be the Best Star Trek Yet

I recently finished watching the second season of The Orville. For those unfamiliar with the show, it's a Star Trek-esque space-based episodic story with some longer arcs in which the crew of a starship encounter adventures as they explore the universe.

Similar to Star Trek in all its iterations, the crew are part of a an interstellar alliance with military rankings and rules. Their mission is both political and scientific. It's a show that gets really mixed reviews. Even people who love it don't seem to love it without criticism. I think I'm the same: I like it, but I can't quite love it.

While I have enjoyed several Star Trek series in my life (the original series, The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager, the old movies, the newer movies), I've never considered myself a deep fan. Watching Orville helped me realize that this is because I don't connect strongly with most of the characters.

They tend to be static--arriving on the scene fully realized and ending the series no significant changes to the core of who they are. The tension on your average Star Trek show is all external.

That's one way The Orville is different. Interpersonal drama is often as important or more important than external conflict in any given episode.  Throughout seasons one and two, we've watched a once-married captain and first officer figure out the parameters of their new relationship. We've watched a married couple become parents and discover deep-seated philosophical differences and cultural dissonances. We've watched several other characters foray into romance with varying results.

Fans might argue that these sorts of character arcs are seen on Star Trek as well, but for me, any such storytelling is solidly in the back seat in those shows. I like this more character-driven exploration of similar themes. These characters grow and change within the series more than I've ever seen on a Star Trek show. For me, that's the major selling point of The Orville: it's Star Trek, with more fully realized people in the roles.

I also enjoy the "ordinary Joe" feel of the characters. Among the people in my life, I can find people who are similar to Lt. Gordon Molloy, pilot and longtime friend of Captain Ed Mercer or Dr. Claire Finn, the ship's doctor who is also a single mother.

Competent and effective, but quirky, too. That's very different than giant icons like Jean-Luc Picard, who while wonderful, was too much a paragon to make stupid choices in love or leadership.

From the early days watching reruns of the original series with my mother, I've always loved the allegorical storytelling bent of Star Trek--exploring human issues with non-human characters offers contrast and comparison that an all-human cast has to work harder to achieve.

The Orville does this, too. There's emotion vs. logic in Isaac, the Kaylon emissary and science officer. There's exploration of the line between cultural respect and individual rights in the gender issues of Moclan, home world of Bortus, the second officer.

The discussion might be a little more subtle than it was when the black and white faced people of Ariannus refused to see each other's values (star bellied sneeches, anyone?), but the tactic is the same. And it's still a good one.

An aspect of The Orville I'm less fond of is the mixing of tones. Traditionally, Star Trek has had lighter toned and heavier toned episodes, but a single episode of The Orville may offer comedy and drama side by side, an effect I sometimes find jarring.

Individual episodes also suffer from inconsistencies and writer convenience sometimes (example: the fabulous warrior women who escaped Moclan to live life on their own terms and were skilled enough to do this suddenly lose all fighting and observation skills and need to be rescued by the crew of The Orville when the attack they've always anticipated finally comes).

All in all, The Orville captures much of what I love about Star Trek while shedding the baggage I didn't love as much. It's a love letter to the place the Star Trek universe holds in our hearts while also being its own creation. Worth watching.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Going Home

Some of the new I liked: a bit of whimsy down an alleyway
As I write this, I'm just returned from a trip to visit my parents who still live in my childhood home of Bellevue, Kentucky, located four blocks from Ohio. It's a small town still, but with easy access to the big city. We used to walk to Reds games and other downtown events rather than pay for parking. In fact, lots of what people think of as "Cincinnati" places are actually not in Ohio, but in Kentucky (like the airport and the Ohio River for starters).

I've been trailing the nostalgia fairy. I imagine her as a mermaid, beautiful on top and a stinky old salmon on the bottom, who will delight you with a beautiful memory one moment, then turn around and swat you in the face with the smelly fish tail of the ugly side of change.

Fairfield Mrkt where Mom used to bank.
Like a lot of small towns, Bellevue has seen a lot of change in recent years, some for the good, and some that make my stomach churn.

Bellevue's avenue seems to be flourishing with independent restaurants and small businesses and that makes me happy. I like seeing Fessler's hoagies and pizza (I knew it as Pasquales, but the food is the same as always) and Schneider's Sweet Shop still serving the delights they've served my whole life from the same locations and that any changes have been expansions and improvements.

It's kind of fun that the storefront that used to house my childhood used bookstore is now a Thai restaurant, the first apartment we lived in is now a pretzel restaurant, and my mom and dad's old bank is now a chi-chi dining place (chi-chi here is defined as too "fancy" to take my blue collar Dad to), still with the bank vault (now a wine cellar). I spent my week's visit eating lunch in childhood haunts that weren't restaurants then.

We've got art galleries, coffee shops, restaurants, craft shops, and funky gift shops in all the old buildings along the avenue and most seem to be doing strong business. That's good to see. Good for the life of a town.

At the same time, swaths of old houses along the riverfront are simply gone, wiped off the map and replaced by tall, expensive, and horrendously ugly condos and apartments that are completely out of character with the look of the town. More are being built as we speak, and they look even uglier and suck up the skyline so us plebeians who have always lived here can no longer see the river. My dad's childhood home was nothing special, but it's just completely gone now, along with all the neighboring houses that used to offer something lower rent for those who needed it.

With them we got a bunch of chain restaurants and a lot more traffic and parking problems.

I don't like rich people generally (in my admittedly limited experience with wealth, rich people do not become rich by being kind, generous, or noble) and I don't really want them to move to Bellevue…but I do want the town to continue to exist and be a safe place for my parents and old friends to live. "And so it goes." Here's hoping Bellevue can keep the heart of what it has always been while staying afloat in the 21st century.

Bellevue houses: lots of brick, with charming details. From the tiny to the giant. I used to dream about owning that top one when I was a kid. 

The first apartment I lived in with Mom and Dad, now a pretzel sandwich place.

Cincy views from around Bellevue

My childhood movie theater.

Van Voast bridge still scares the heck out of me. Worse when a train is running beneath.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

IWSG: Am I my Characters?

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

This month's wonderful co-hosts are Erika Beebe, Natalie Aguirre, Jennifer Lane, MJ Fifield, Lisa Buie-Collard, and Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor!

Be sure to check out their blogs (and others on this great blog hop) when you're finished here! This month's (optional) question: What personal traits have you written into your character(s)?

I try not to just write characters that are analogues for myself--I'm rather dull, really: reliable, steady, not-that-dramatic. If I took "write what you know" to mean "write characters just like you" no one would want to read my work. Heck, *I* wouldn't even want to read my work.

I like my real life nice and boring and regular, but not my fiction, thanks. How many quiet and reliable schoolteachers who love the man they are married to and do what they say they're going to do on time would you read about?

Yeah, me either.

But I do find that fiction is accidentally confessional from time to time, revealing biases, prejudices, and preferences that I may not even really be aware I have until after I see them reflected in a character. Things that bother me in real life may end up bothering one of my characters, too. It can be a good way to take myself down a peg, too--my favorite person to poke fun at is myself.

Patricia, of the Menopausal Superhero series, is impatient with newbs. She's got her own way of doing things and doesn't like to be slowed down by having to explain herself to others.

There's a bit of me in there, always tempted to look away when they're looking for volunteers, hoping that maybe I can just do the work and not have to help someone else do it at the same time. Impatient with youth and inexperience when it slows me down.

(This is mostly in my teaching life; in my writing life: mentoring and being mentored has been a lot more natural, organic, and useful. The uselessness of most teacher training and evaluation programs could be a whole ranty blog post by itself).

Of course, Patricia isn't nearly as polite as me.

From Going Through the Change, the first in the series:

"Patricia rubbed at her forehead as if she could reach the headache forming somewhere deep behind her right eye. She had worked for this man for how long now, twenty years? A good ten years before that for his predecessor. He knew damn well she preferred to work alone and absolutely detested any kind of group project or partnership. Yet, this was the third time he had assigned her an intern to mentor. Always women, too. Or really, girls. Skinny little milksops with no real backbone. he actually used the word nurturing, like she was a freaking wet nurse. Didn't he remember that she had sent the last one home in tears?"

I also remember that when I got to the end of the first book I ever finished (unpublished, women's issues fiction: His Other Mother), I was surprised to discover that I'd written something very much like a gender-switched relationship dynamic from my first marriage. Oops. I didn't know I was doing it at the time.

Of course, there are small things, like a character who likes a food you like, or prefers the same kind
of pillow, or drives a similar car. Those slip in on me all the time because I need a small detail to add some life to a moment and I understand my own preferences from the inside, so they're easy to use.

But, I don't usually intentionally give my characters my own characteristics. I'm not using my fiction as disguised memoir. My imaginary friends are much more interesting than I am--and I like it that way!