Posts Tagged reviews
I LOVE LUCY
A pioneering television show, one might say foundational for any number of reasons. It was the flagship of a new independent production studio, Desilu, founded by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. Both possessed talent and smarts as well as snorting-bull, titanic egos, and their creative marriage and on-air marriage were far more successful than their real-life one. I Love Lucy, their greatest offspring, survives in full health, immortal and young to this day, because of Desi Arnaz’s far-sightedness and shrewd business acumen. Having grown up in early 20th Century Cuba and made his way up in show business the hard way, he had met a few dangerous characters along the way, and probably didn’t find Hollywood bosses all that tough to deal with. He could throw his personality and great, stormy intellect around, with all the showmanship of a professional entertainer. He could see the worth in independence, in retaining ownership of one’s creative property, in using the highest quality film stock and hiring one of cinematography’s legends, Karl Freund A.S.C., to capture the action. To show off Lucy.
More can be said about what Desi Arnaz brought to the series as a supporting character, his musicianship giving him impeccable comic timing. In a way, he could conduct a scene while playing in it, giving Bill Frawley and Viv Vance and Lucy a rhythm to play to and play off of. Lucy, a trained showgirl dancer and, undiscovered by Hollywood, the last great screen comedian to come out of the tradition dating to Chaplin and Mack Sennett and Laurel & Hardy. The show had three main writers, who cranked out high quality half-hour plays week after unstinting week. As sometimes happens, the intensity of the creative effort expanded their imaginations, and they began to move the series along mini story-arcs. As a child, watching reruns four and five times, I learned to see how the show developed and evolved. Ricky and Lucy Ricardo start out in a modest apartment (the Mertzes are their best friends and landlords), then move to a much better one. They have a baby, who gets to meet Superman at his first big birthday party with his little friends. The four of them go on an extended trip to Europe while Ricky is on tour, and Lucy has a whole new set of obstacles to play with for six episodes: border crossings, roulette wheels, unflappable Royal Guards, and a famous, famous vat of grapes. Ricky’s career goes into high gear and he’s cast in a Hollywood movie, and the Ricardos and the Mertzes pack off to Beverly (Hills, that is). Lucy makes John Wayne have to redo his Grauman’s Chinese Theater cement prints over and over and over again. Lucy re-creates the famous mirror scene from Duck Soup with Harpo Marx himself. There is romantic intrigue with Charles Boyer.
And then, the magic stops. There is a final season, one that feels very tired, and bored of doing it. The Ricardos and the Mertzes move out to a luxury house in the country, away from city life. When this change in the series happens, you can feel that it’s about to retire. They’re putting this show out to pasture, literally. The marriage strain between Arnaz and Ball shows up in the writing, where their characters rarely have scenes together. Many of the episodes look like pilot versions for the later series, The Lucy Show, a 1960’s sitcom reuniting Ball and Vance as divorced (implied) single women, getting up to slapstick antics because they once again followed Lucy’s nutty ideas to their conclusion.
Then, after all these unhappy episodes, if you’re watching in syndication, ta-da! The series starts over, back in that tiny little windowless apartment, and the marriage is happy again, and Little Ricky is still a sparkle in Desi Arnaz’s seductive eyes, and all of Lucy’s misadventures lie ahead, to be enjoyed all over anew.
It’ll be a shame when there’s no more syndicated television and it’s all order-on-demand because I Love Lucy should always be a living document.
Replaying Alan Wake from the beginning so I can write about it. I only just started it over the weekend, but I had a headful of things to say about it. Yeah, I’m gonna kind of dump on it and nit-pick it.
On my first playthrough, I had the language set to Francais, so I was primarily reacting to the visuals (because I could not understand everything that was narrated or spoken). I gave the writing a lot of benefit of the doubt, but now I’m playing in English, and I was sort of taken aback by how reliant on redundancy it was. “Suddenly, the body was gone!” or whatever he says, after the body suddenly disappears, which we just saw happen. This is basic stuff. If this were the work handed in by one of my students* I would draw a big red line through it and make him write 25 different lines that are better than that. And he’d thank me for it.
The main problem of the opening cutscene (I have the game paused now just at the point when controller-enabled play begins) is that it is a cutscene. Let me explain. I have to make this same complaint every year that I judge the IF Competition games: A lot of the material in your intro tells us about a bunch of stuff happening, instead of letting us get to play it. Start the game earlier and let us play the intro. For Alan Wake, player-controlled play should begin right after the opening title, as soon as he describes having a dream where he’s driving at night. The players should be driving the car, even as the narration continues to play. Then when Alan Wake suddenly hits a guy who pops up in the middle of the road — BANG! It’s a scare for us, because we’re driving, and we just hit that guy! Then we could get out of the car, inspect the guy, hear more narration, react to the headlights in the car going out, react to not seeing the body there any more…
I mean, the only reason to make us watch that instead of getting to play that — like it never even occurred to the people making the game to make it interactive, it was always supposed to be this movie — is that they want to play at being filmmakers. So they do these swooping helicopter shots that I guess are supposed to be like the beginning of The Shining or something, and this particularly bugs me when it goes past the point where I said the game should start — that as far as the storytelling goes, Alan Wake is now telling us his dream as he recalls it. Why is he recalling swooping aerial view shots of his car instead of a first-or-second person viewpoint?
If you want to make movies, go and make movies. If you want to make videogames, make videogames.
At the checkpoint where I stopped last time. Alan and his girlfriend, whose name escapes me, because it hasn’t been properly taught to me I suppose, have just arrived at a remote cabin. She is apparently afraid of the dark — “She has a phobia, a fear of darkness…” as Alan tells us — which seems like a strange place to take someone like that. It also is reminding me of that Lars von Trier movie with Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, come to think of it.
There is some nice character animation done on the girlfriend’s face, but the effect still comes across of either puppets or blind actors. That second one is an uncanny valley effect, but the eyes of all these digital actors are greatly harming their impression of lifelikeness.
In an earlier draft of this, I was going to talk about how I could tell them exactly what is wrong with the eye positions, and how to set them correctly so that even if they don’t move they look more convincingly alive and alert more of the time on average. Then I realized, this could be a great specialized thing to say that one does, and to charge lots of money for doing it for about a year, until everyone catches on how to do it and stops hiring a special expensive guy who does it. Then I realized, hey, I can’t even prove I actually do know how to do this, I’m just extrapolating from what I know I can do to assume that this is the sort of thing I’d be able to do. How embarrassing it’d be to find out that I actually couldn’t do it, I just thought I could.
Anyway, back to Alan Wake. It’s not bad. I’m having a harder time this go-round thinking of things to really be critical about how they’re being done. I need to look back at my notes, which I left in my jacket, which is hanging in the closet. But if I go to get my jacket and put it on, I will start the habit-mechanism that will propel me out of the house to go get a cup of coffee, because that’s always what I do immediately after I put on the jacket. So before I read my notes, I have to ask myself: Well, do you? DO you want another cup of coffee right now?
—-One cup of coffee later… —-
When I left off the first time, I let Alan Wake just stand there outside his little cabin, so that I could watch his idle animation cycle. And it does, it cycles, but people put thought and effort into these things. It’s one of those things I like to do in a game, just to see what they did — not input any commands for a minute, and watch the character shift their weight and glance around. It doesn’t seem to have any randomized or weighted choice variety to it, it’s just a cycle of different things, about 15 seconds long or something. Here, all the casual-yet-concerned body language acting the mocap people did is once again undercut to a degree by the frozen eyes. Except, wait, they’re not frozen — in the idle cycle, Wake shifts his eyes to the side and then back again. So, it is possible to animate them at least that much. It helps, but it’s still not quite right.
I’m thinking of an algorithm, a method, for having eyeballs focus on the right things in an animation. Can you guess how I’m thinking of doing it? I don’t know how hard it would be to do, really. Surely someone would have done it by now if it were that easy.
Make that check out to JRW Digital Media, and I’ll get right on solving that for you.
I liked the scene where you run to safety over a rickety wooden bridge that blows away when you get across it; it worked dramatically while letting me steer myself. I also liked the Ferry scene, a contemplative, unhurried ride with a couple of conversational elements that play out automatically as you wander around. You get to watch the bridge go by overhead, and can find a couple of places to walk to, like up a set of steps, while Alan takes a phone call. It’s a very natural thing to do, wander around a bit while you’re gabbing on the phone, and I really enjoyed that they let me do that. This is what I mean — they could have decided to make this another cutscene, but why do that when you can at least offer a tiny bit of interactive exploration?
Alan starts to slow down and wheeze after a fairly short sprint. Well, he’s a writer, he’s not in good shape. However, that only happens when he’s in an action scene. If you’re just wandering around — and again, I like the fact that the game sometimes just opens its borders a little bit and lets you wander off. Before you go to the cabin, a cutscene leaves you on one side of a bridge, but you can go the other way, up the hill, back to where your car is parked, and walk back down again. This all happens with the sunset glowing its lovely “golden hour” glow, so it’s pleasant to take a walk around.
I do walk, in these games. I know a lot of people go through games full-tilt, but I like to sometimes role-play my movements, and when I’d walk if that character were me, I try to make the character walk. Some games are much walk-friendlier than others, both in how sensitive the control is to gentle direction input, and in whether they’ve even put a good slow-walk animation cycle in there. Sometimes it’s either you’re standing still or you’re going a funny staggered jump-walk where it’s vacillating between two digital states that don’t have an inbetween.
Someday we’ll need to invent digital-analog, so everything degrades smoothly. Patent application pending.
In other games, I’ve noticed that the bigger animation problem with walking very slowly is with follower NPCs. They are tailored to keep up with a PC who is going at a full run, and do a terrible marionette dance when forced to walk. So basically nobody has testers who like to walk slowly instead of running, is what I’m gathering. Oh well.
The Alan Wake game tries very hard to limit the amount of interactivity it allows in whichever mode (explore vs action) it happens to be in, so a lot of the buttons are “numb” — they don’t do anything at all when you press them. You kind of want them to, and they don’t, and that always makes me feel restricted or kind of off balance. I think I’d even prefer it if it made a little feedback sound that meant “this does not do anything” when I heard it, than nothing at all. Numbness. Don’t like.
There are small errors, little details. A vehicle drives by, making an engine and tire sound from a completely different type of vehicle. Yes, it makes a difference. Oh, speaking of audio — this is another general problem I have with many videogames, the ones that do spatialization of audio sources within the game. I’m not sure what physics they’re using to make the audio modifications — maybe they’re exactly supposed to be how they work in the real world, with an inverse-proportionate dB drop-off of sound compared to the distance from the source, but it’s wrong to use that. It has to be tweaked, padded, stretched, into audio that’s “unrealistic” in how it’s calculated, but is more realistic to hear. People’s voices don’t disappear into the distance when I turn my back or even if I walk 15 feet away from them. They can sound a lot more present than that. Our brains and ears do a lot of cool stuff to make sounds work better in our heads than microphones do when they pick up point sources of audio, which is basically what you’re simulating when you run the absolute math on the localized audio. Everybody, stop doing that.
Well! That’s as far as I’ve gotten with Alan Wake, about 15 minutes of it, twice. Plus the hour it took to write up my thoughts. Non-billable hours, of course.
* I don’t actually have any students. Perhaps this is why.
Thoughts on “Coupling”
Well, it started with Doctor Who, and Steven Moffat. He’s the writer who, following the submission of a script a year for each of the four new seasons to date, all of them quite well received, is taking over executive producer and show-runner duties from Russell T. Davies from now on.
Having watched some of those Moffat episodes again recently, I decided to also look at “The Curse of Fatal Death”, another script of his, and then look up what else he’d done before all this Doctor Who business. In one of the Dr. Who dvd commentaries, someone tells him, “Well, Steven, you come from sitcoms, so…”
Sitcoms, eh? Well, that explains “Curse”, I guess. Which sitcoms? Oh, “Coupling.” I’ve heard of that, but never seen it. I’m led to believe it has a bit of a following, or else I wouldn’t have heard of it. I did a little pre-briefing research. Moffat had first written a series called “Joking Apart,” a semi-autobiographical spin on the break-up of a relationship he’d had. This was followed by “Coupling,” a semi-autobiographical spin on the new and lasting relationship he subsequently found.
I was more interested at first in the former than the latter, for various reasons that are completely obvious. Alas, though the two seasons of that series were released on DVD (by some fan of the show who bought the video release rights to the series from the BBC, when the BBC weren’t doing anything with them — kind of interesting), they weren’t available at my favorite local video shop.
They did have “Coupling,” though. There were four seasons (or four series, to use the proper term for a BBC program; or programme, to use the proper term for that as well), and my local video shop had all four of them. Right, let’s give them a whirl.
The show is about this group of 30-something friends: three ragingly heterosexual men, and three women, also ragingly heterosexual with one exception. They don’t do much except go to their mostly off-screen jobs and then hang out after work. The women drink wine and talk about sex and guys and relationships. The men drink beer and talk about sex and women and breasts and bottoms and panic attacks and how freakish women are about everything.
At the core there’s Steve and Susan, named after Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue, the show’s writer and producer, respectively, who are also the real-life couple whose relationship some of the material is drawn from. Moffat describes them as being the most ordinary and normal of the characters, with the other four exemplifying extremes of (male and female) anxiety and (male and female) self-confidence. Sally is a tight pill of worries about looks and age and weight and the inexorable slide that takes place; of course she worries about ending up a tragic spinster. Jeff is a manic nervous wreck, a freak with an overactive libido who has experienced nothing but humiliating shame because of it, a paranoid who keeps numbered lists of the different types of fear and embarrassment that can befall someone, and who never fails to say the worst possible thing at the worst possible time, especially when trying to chat up a good looking woman. At the other end is Jane, a kind of flaky nymphomaniac whose wacky thoughts seem to come from some other planet entirely, making her a reliable source of absurd non-sequiturs; she also claims to be bisexual. And then there’s Patrick, a serial womanizer who breezes through life and sexual encounters with a relaxed self confidence and a lack of self-examination or reflection that sometimes comes across as dim-wittedness, but which is mainly just an inexperience at ever having to actually consider anything deeply.
Series 1. I didn’t like it at first. I kind of folded my arms and waited to laugh, but no laughter came until five minutes before the end of the third episode. Jeff finally said something so screwy and outrageous that I couldn’t hold it in, and made a “Bweh-heh!” noise. Then I laughed once during the 4th episode, again at something Jeff said. The fifth and sixth had intermittent but more easily won chuckles.
For something that I could have sworn I wasn’t enjoying, I was eager to start watching series 2 as soon as I finished series 1. Hmmm.
Moffat, the sole writer for all four series, takes these characters and, having established them and the show’s basic format, begins to have a lot of fun with them in the second and third series. There’s the rearrangement and swapping around of them to find new frictions and bounces in different pairings, notably the discovery of sparks between Sally and Patrick, and the dedication of episodes to exploring each of the characters a little more probingly to find new insights into their back-stories and facets to their already-defined personalities.
That’s pretty standard. Then there’s the continual effort to make the show work as a modern farce. The best of the farce episodes hurl these characters into mad situations at breakneck speed, culminating in a final scene where all the different threads that have been spinning in parallel all dovetail into a single shimmering explosion of comedy. Writer, cast, and director all know their jobs, and it’s terrific to see done properly, of course.
There’s another experiment going on, which is a playing with the format itself, and of place, time, and perspective. In retrospect, it makes Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes — and their intriguing exploration of what traveling around in time can look like if you take a step sideways from it and watch it going on from a different perspective — seem obviously a product of the same mind. (Though actually, it’s more proto-spect, since he wrote those later, but I saw them first; See also: Time, Ball of, Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.) In the first series, there’s an episode where Jeff tries to ask out a woman who speaks only Hebrew. He has an entire conversation where they each speak different languages and don’t understand each other at all, but seem to be making some kind of connection. Then the videotape literally rewinds, and we watch the scene again, this time with the woman speaking English and Jeff (and everyone else) speaking Hebrew. Moffat says in an interview that he meant to write a conventional series, but this experiment was so well-received that he allowed himself the license to get more creative about his storytelling.
So, in the second and third series, these formal experiments continue. There’s an episode where we watch the same events two or more times from differing perspectives, a split-screen episode where we watch the two sets of characters simultaneously in different places, and an episode where we see a past event as remembered differently by people; an episode where the screen flashes and announces that an auto-translation will now show us what the characters are really saying to each other as they purport to discuss something mundane; and of course the usual assortment of flashbacks, fantasies, and dream sequences.
The best episodes are where the formal experiment and the farce are both flying at the same time and working with each other to make something that feels original and fresh, and is genuinely funny. Probably the height of this is the end of series 2, which ends with everyone (the main six, plus an extra seventh) loudly declaiming that they’re either an Australian named Dick Darlington or a French woman named Giselle, a situation we the audience understand only because we’ve seen everything leading up to it from all the different points of view.
In fact, it’s clear that the show peaked in series 2, although series 3 is quite good and has some favorite moments in it. It goes a little deeper into the characters, which sometimes tames down the comedy, but keeps you interested. The show had the standard six episodes in the first series, an incredible nine in the second, seven in the third, and then six again at the fourth, which makes you feel the waning interest and energy of everyone involved.
In fact, the fourth series is a little disappointing. Probably famously so, though I haven’t researched it, but I can intuit this just from watching it. Most importantly, it lost one of the main cast members — Richard Coyle, who played Jeff.
This actually didn’t surprise me. Somewhere on the first series disc, there’s an incredibly brief interview snippet with Coyle, who was the only one in the cast who seemed 1) completely unlike their character, and 2) completely reticent to talk about the show or their work in it. Unlike manic Jeff, Coyle was reserved and sober and I immediately recognized the fact that this person was first and foremost a serious actor, and this role was just a job he got, and that this is all it is. I was not the least surprised to then read that he was classically trained as an actor, and probably equally capable of playing Hamlet as he was this insane breast-obsessed Welsh bloke. Further, everyone in the cast contributed to recording commentary tracks to episodes that centered on their characters — except for Coyle.
As soon as I looked at the fourth series dvd cover and did not see Coyle on it, I easily imagined that he had grown tired of playing this character and wanted to move on with his career. Three years is a lot, and the character (while growing a little) wasn’t that deep; the challenge of it had probably waned, and there was the danger of casting directors not taking him seriously because they assume he’s going to be like this character he’s famous for playing. I haven’t looked it up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he next went on to play a steely, cold-eyed killer or some other type of villainous sod after he declined to reappear in the fourth season.
So, the whole fourth season is thrown off by having one of its linch-pins knocked out. I can sense the scramble. Some of the episodes bear the marks of having originally been plotted out with Jeff being there, only to be re-tooled to remove him (or to insert a replacement character called Oliver, who is as disastrous as Jeff when talking to women, but not quite the same nervous wreck otherwise). It puts me in mind of negotiations going on, trying to convince Coyle to stay on and give it another go, and him finally putting his foot down and saying, sorry, can’t do it — even while preparations are underway for the fourth series. The removal of Jeff also removes a fair amount of random comedy, as the character was known for launching into a bizarre monologue full of weird stuff from his brain, usually winding up with a memory of his chastising, castrating mother expressing her shamed disappointment with him. Sometimes these monologues were tied into a conversation the guys were having, and sometimes they interrupted these conversations as non-sequiturs, which Moffat admits at one point as being a little lazy: there hadn’t been enough jokes on this page, so it was time for Jeff to spout off about whatever. Still, they were funny, and now there was no Jeff.
He was also trying to explore the insecurities hidden within the crazy exterior of Jane, that her strange self-confidence was masking a frightened loneliness, but this made Jane considerably less funny as well. In some scenes in the fourth series, she’s the straight man, where she had been the equivalent of Jeff for the women: the one who could be relied on to say mad things when the scene hadn’t been funny for 30 seconds. So with neither Jeff nor Jane saying random mad things, the whole series feels a little off-balance and empty. Moffat feels like he’s running low on inspiration, and there’s a general sense that, while everyone seems to enjoy doing the show, and that doing another go-round made sense because of the show’s popularity, that they might all have rather been brave about it and stopped after the third series.
It’s the sort of reasoning that kept John Cleese from doing a third round of Fawlty Towers, I suppose. And he was right.
So, after watching all that, I went back and looked at the Moffat episodes of Doctor Who again. Now they very obviously sounded like the work of the same writer. It’s the same sense of humor, especially when the characters engage in light-hearted banter or act slightly crazy. It’s funny, because I had been associating the Moffat episodes with fright and horror, since they had that unnerving, make-the-kids-hide-behind-the-sofa quality to them. But it’s also true that they are playful, and crack jokes. It’s kind of like how after watching a ton of Buffy and Firefly that you easily recognize a line as being Whedonesque; there’s dialogue in “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink” that’s obviously Moffatesque. (Side note: there was a line of dialogue in Dr. Horrible that I laughed at and tagged as being particularly Whedonesque, only to learn in the commentary tracks that Joss Whedon’s brother had written that particular line — although, since he’s also named Whedon, it can still be called Whedonesque, I suppose.)
In general, though, a series with justifiable fan following. Good characters, funny jokes, well-executed farce, and enjoyable formal experiments in storytelling. Moffat is clearly a prolific writer who writes top-quality stuff; it’s not easy to single-handedly write a series, and he’s done it three times now. But secretly, he’s always been what he calls a “tragic” Doctor Who fan, and has now been given the keys to the Tardis, as it were. As his first act, he cast the youngest actor ever to play the Doctor, and I hope that works out. But it does make me look forward to the upcoming fifth series of the reincarnated Doctor Who.
Coupling: Series 2 and 3 recommended; series 1 probably a good idea to watch to get into the swing of things; series 4 a disappointment, but an interesting one and Oliver’s not that bad a character really, plus there’s a documentary on the bonus disc about how the series is produced from script to screen that I found quite interesting.