TV Review: White Collar

I love White Collar, and what’s not to love? Between the hard rules of Peter Burke and the FBI, the wild mischief of Neal Caffrey, the hilarity of Mozzie, the warm strength of Peter’s wife Elizabeth, and the danger of various criminals, White Collar is never lacking in drama, suspense, and laughter, as well as intricate story lines.

This is another crime show with a quirk, but unlike most, it involves murder only rarely. These aren’t murder mysteries, this is a contest between the law and all manner of law-breaker. Thieves, con artists, forgers, counterfeiters, corrupt agents, these are the usual enemies, which makes the ever present possibility of lethal force that much more menacing. What better way to match such criminals than with one of their own kind, a convict turned criminal informant for the FBI?

Enter Neal Caffrey, lovable rogue and gentleman thief, with looks and charm to make the ladies melt where they stand. Yet, for all that he breaks the law and can use flirting as skillfully as a samurai can use a blade, he is a man with honor, and faithful to his women. He genuinely cares about others, with all his heart, and he is loyal to those who are loyal to him. That duality, of virtue and vice competing within him, make Neal a more compelling character than many other thieves, as he is constantly caught in a struggle between his redemption and his temptations.

Opposite Neal, we have Peter Burke, a man of honor and dignity, devoted to justice and the rule of law. Not that he’s inflexible. He’s wily, clever, and he can adapt as needed, but he has sound moral principles on which to stand and clear rules to follow. Combined with his basic decency, this earns him the respect, admiration, and unswerving loyalty of those around him, including his team, his superiors, Neal, even some of the more harmless criminals, and most of all his wife.

Elizabeth is a perfect complement to her husband, and a guiding light to everyone around her. She might not “kick ass” in the traditional sense, but she is a strong woman, smart, grounded, compassionate, and capable. It’s small wonder Peter fell for her, and they have been very good for each other.

It’s worth noting, as adaptable as Neal is, he has no solid personal foundation like Peter does. That’s why Peter is able to have a long, happy marriage to one remarkable woman, with whom he eventually starts a family, while Neal flits from one beautiful woman to the next, trying to have a real relationship but never quite succeeding.

That’s what really sells White Collar, to me: the people. Neal, Peter, Elizabeth, and all the rest. Mozzie, Jones, Dianah, the rest of the agents, the various women Neal could potentially settle down with, the people they help, the villains they face, they’re all so believable as people, well-rounded characters we actually care about. A number of the protagonists, more often than not, can be put in between a rock and a hard place, where it seems they can’t get by without betraying someone, but they usually find a way to through.

It bears mentioning, when I say the plots are intricate, they’re usually sensible within each episode, but the overarching plot for the first season or two really stretched things, I thought. Some things were obviously done more with the drama in mind, rather than a cohesive story. The first primary villain did some things with motives that never really made sense to me. It also made little sense for Neal to say this guy had made Neal who he is today when he very clearly didn’t.

Then, after we get through the first two seasons that were dominated by one overarching villain and his puppeteer strings, we lost any central quest for the protagonists to pursue. They kept the story interesting and the finales were always gripping, but it felt a little more like an unending series of events that was just happening, rather than having a purpose to drive the characters with. But, then again, things made more sense in the later seasons too.

Narrative problems notwithstanding, there are due props for how authentic the show is in depicting both the criminals and the feds and their methods. That comes from interested, well-informed people who know more about that subject than I do, but even I can tell they didn’t stretch the possibilities too far. It might not have always been so exciting as other, less-realistic crime shows, but it was gripping and amazing to watch these people accomplish what they did within the same set of rules that we have to operate by in real life. They couldn’t just do things, they needed proper planning, good timing, quick wits, and often more than a little charm. (that last especially applies to Neal)

When you get down to it, White Collar was simply a thoroughly entertaining ride, as we watched the cat-and-mouse game between enemies, friends, and even within Neal himself as he sought his freedom. It lasted for six seasons, totaling just over eighty episodes, and it was great fun.

Rating: 9 stars out of 10.

Grade: A-Minus.

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Quick FYI

To my audience, especially my wonderful followers,

I am making some changes to my blog, which involves a number of technical things I don’t fully understand, so I don’t know if it will affect the blog itself as it’s running. On the off-chance that it does – like, say, if it suddenly disappears for a few days or something, I don’t know – I thought I ought to give you a heads up and an explanation beforehand. I assure you, I am not shutting down, and I have no intention of going anywhere. 🙂

Thank you, in advance, for any patience I may need to ask of you.

Have a great day!
Merlin

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TV Review: Grimm

Grimm is easily one of my favorite shows. Running for six seasons (or five and a half, considering the last season was only half as long as the rest) and concluding earlier this year, it delivered stories of men, monsters, mysteries, cultures, quests, and conspiracies, among other things. It was a thrilling ride and I loved it. 🙂

The story mostly centers around Nick Burkhardt as his friends/family. As a homicide detective for the Portland Police Department, Nick solves murder mysteries on a daily basis, bringing killers to justice and protecting the innocent. However, when he discovers that he has an unusual ability, to see something inside people that normal people can’t see, he learns that there is much more to the world than he ever knew. There are people, normal, everyday people, who are something more than just human, as if there’s something of an animal to them. They can change into it at will, and they have strong instincts which influence their behavior, and long cultural traditions. These are the wesen, and Nick is a Grimm, capable of seeing what they are.

“And possibly spoilers!”

Historically, Grimms have been the bogeyman’s bogeyman. Normal humans have encountered wesen all throughout history, and they have inspired many stories about terrifying monsters. Some of that is warranted, as people have most certainly been killed by the wesen, who possess greater strength and ferocity than most humans, and various natural weapons to boot, like teeth, claws, acids, etc. But Grimms have a long record of not differentiating between guilty and innocent wesen, or even between aggressive and peaceful wesen, they’ve just slaughtered them all, entire populations. There aren’t many Grimms around anymore either, as they, too, have been hunted by their enemies, but they still command a terrible reputation which follows their descendants to this day.

Nick, however, is pretty much just a normal guy, albeit a normal guy with skills and the resources of Portland PD behind him, dropped into the middle of an exceedingly weird, and exceptionally dangerous, situation. He is different from the Grimms who have come before, having never been indoctrinated like them. He is a servant of justice, with no interest in killing anyone unless it’s to protect someone else, and he often protects wesen just as willingly as he protects anyone else. Thus, he becomes a force for change, and coexistence, in his corner of this hidden community, bridging the gap between human, wesen, and Grimm.

Alongside Nick are his close friends and allies. At the precinct, he has Hank, Wu, and Sean Renard, his partner, a fellow officer, and his captain, respectively. Within the wesen community, he has Monroe, Rosalee, and Bud, being based on the Big Bad Wolf, a fox, and a beaver, respectively. And at home he has his girlfriend Juliette, a veterinarian with surprising fighting spirit and resourcefulness. There are others who come and go at times, including the oft-adversary witch Adalind, a mercenary named Meisner, Nick’s own mother, and, my personal favorite, Trubel, a young Grimm woman whom Nick takes under his wing. And, in due time, there is Diana, a very young girl of great and formidable power.

As Nick and his friends battle homicidal wesen each week, they also find themselves frequently at odds with other deadly powers, organizations which are not accustomed to being unable to do anything they want and get away with it. There are the Reapers of the Grimms, an order dedicated to wiping the Grimms out early in the series, but they apparently take the hint after Nick destroys two of them simultaneously and they leave him alone after that. There’s the Wesenrein, a wesen hate group devoted to enforcing rigid traditions, including the separation of human, Grimm, and the various kinds of wesen from each other. There is the Verrat, which are an armed organization of wesen enforcers for seven mysterious families who rule the world from the shadows, the Royals. The Royals are the primary recurring antagonists for much of the first several seasons, though they eventually just fade away and aren’t mentioned again with the rise of a later adversary, Black Claw, a worldwide wesen terrorist organization, which is built up as something substantial before apparently just getting annihilated.

The enemies of these groups tend to be more friendly, or at least tolerant, towards Nick and his friends. The Resistance, as the name suggests, is an underground rebellion against the Royals, and contact with Nick is limited but they do influence each other. The Wesen Council stands in charge of their community, and they sometimes clash with Nick and sometimes work with him, though there are intimations that there are connections between them and Wesenrein. And Hadrian’s Wall, or HW, is a secret army within the government that comes to prominence most especially as they combat Black Claw, and they and Nick form a fairly strong alliance as they fight shoulder to shoulder.

So, we have a fairly complex world with a lot of moving parts and a story that shifts from one conflict to another. Secret organizations and an entire unseen community within the human race, the monsters that lurk in the night come to life. The enemies and horrors that Nick and his friends face are numerous, varied, and often terrifying to behold as they touch on basic human fears and desires. Nick is entering an entire new world even as he learns about his family’s legacy, and an ancient quest dating back to the Crusades and beyond, all of it culminating in a final confrontation with an ancient evil.

Yet, despite all of that, the true meat of the show, what I love most about it, is the people. These are human people, with passions and fears and desires, and their own strengths and weaknesses. They laugh, they cry, they fight, they love, they get married, they have kids, they put everything on the line for each other. I loved every minute, watching them develop. Speaking of, Monroe and Rosalee are absolutely one of my favorite couples ever on television.

And can you say, “strong female characters?” Joss Whedon would be proud. 🙂

The story itself, throughout the entire series, definitely needed some refinement, as previous villains and other characters sometimes simply stop appearing, they repeated a few plots more than once, and the finale was all over the place, and could they please have stopped taking Trubel away all the time?! But the characters, and the themes they promoted, of tolerance, understanding, forgiveness, personal redemption, and making a better world starting with ourselves, I loved all of that. And I loved how they delved into so many cultures, languages, and histories from all over the world too, drawing on a multitude of old stories to create their wesen and other supernatural creatures, it made their world feel as rich and lived in as our own. Even the story, overarching flaws notwithstanding, was generally fantastic to watch.

So, yes, Grimm is definitely one of my favorites. 🙂

It is not for the faint of heart, and deals with horrific things. The material can be very dark and there are images most definitely not intended for children. (I’d give it a PG-13-ish rating, personally) If you’ve no problem with any of that, than you’d probably love this show. It’s excellent for marathoning in October, right around Halloween! 😀

Rating: 9 stars out of 10.

Grade: solid A.

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Anime Review: Maria the Virgin Witch

One might as well start off October with an anime about a witch. 🙂

Maria the Virgin Witch is, as the name would suggest, about a witch, named Maria, who happens to be a virgin. It’s a very accurate title.

Maria is a witch in France during the Hundred Years War with England. She cares about people, about their safety and continuing lives, so she often interferes with the battles in progress around her. As one of the most powerful witches of her era, she can be like a godsend when her arrival happens to save one’s life, but to many, her antics are a costly, insurmountable obstacle. She meddles without any clear plan or any understanding of the ramifications of her actions. Mercenaries don’t get paid, lords don’t gain anything to offset the cost of the war, and the local Church brands her a heretic. But most of all, her interference in human events draws the judgment of the Archangel Michael, who forbids her to continue and decrees that she shall lose her magical powers the moment she loses her virginity.

That last is apparently to teach her about choosing between her happiness or the happiness of the world, because if she really feels so strongly about what she’s doing then she should be willing to make the sacrifice for the common good, but, then again, she’s forbidden from interfering anyway, so… yeah, I don’t really get it.

In fact, there’s a great deal about this anime I don’t really get. When we got to the end I was thinking, “…and the point of all that was… what?”

Let me just say, I can appreciate how the show does not shy away from complicated material. There is a lot of texture here to enjoy, including discussions about war, peace, free will, compassion, religion, and more. But exactly how it handles these subjects leaves something to be desired. There was a scene where a particular priestly figure was devolving into mad mumblings as he tried to make sense of various overly-complicated concepts which are utterly incomprehensible, especially when compared with the simplicity of Maria’s convictions, before arriving at another overly-complicated conclusion that defies comprehension, let alone true appreciation. It feels a bit like the whole anime turns out like that, just throwing everything together without really arriving at any coherent conclusion.

And without a proper point, everything that happens is really just stuff that happens.

(Maria is frustrated trying to make sense of her anime)

Not to make it sound as if what happens isn’t an enjoyable ride!

The animation is generally pretty smooth, the music is fantastic, and I love several of the characters.

Maria, of course, takes the lead. She’s a young, adorable, lovable witch with a spirited will and a dream of peace which she wants to make into a reality. But she’s also very naïve, emotional, impulsive, and short-sighted, never thinking things through. Heck, even the emotional depth of her convictions is shallow at first, as she only does what she does because she wants to, with no further thought or even feeling given to her actions. She selfish, and very immature for someone who has as much power as she wields. So, she’s very flawed, but she tries, and she genuinely cares, which earns her some stalwart defenders. It’s not that she’s bad, it’s just that she’s very imbalanced, in the way that any virtue, any virtue, can become a vice if taken too far. And she has some hard lessons to learn from.

I also liked the characters of Maria’s familiars and Ezekiel, the angel Michael leaves with Maria to monitor her. The three of them together with Maria were pretty entertaining to watch, not least because it was like throwing a sheep to the wolves, dropping an angel in their midst. Ezekiel also provided part of the discussion about free will, as he (or she? I can’t really tell) develops such after being made to do things unwillingly.

“What are you doing learning free will, Ezekiel?!”

I liked the little girl from the village and her grandmother, and a couple of the other witches, especially the one that just wants to be left alone.

There were a number of other characters, in fact, much like the themes, it got a bit crowded and it cut between them all so much that only a few were really developed in any meaningful way. There were the monks, who tended towards zealotry, intellectualism, and hypocrisy, a greedy lord, and some ruthless mercenaries, all of whom Maria angers with her actions. There was an ancient pagan god, little more than a mass of shifting shadows now, who was a sort of lurking presence and we didn’t know if he was a friend or a foe, but he ultimately turned out to be pretty irrelevant. The same for most of the other witches, they were pretty much all the same and ultimately didn’t do much. The Valkyries, especially, were just background decorations.

But I think the biggest disappointment was actually Maria’s love interest. It was perfectly obvious they were going to end up together, and the show reaches its culmination when they finally become a couple. Yet, he felt pretty dull and “perfect” to me. Outside of sharing her ideals for peace, they didn’t seem to have anything in common, and it didn’t feel like they had any real chemistry. I didn’t really understand the connection between them.

“We’re together because the writers made it that way. So romantic!”

On a note related to Maria’s romantic life, the significance of her virginal status felt way overdone. I mean, what did anyone else care about it? Oh, she has name like Mary! Like thousands of other women! And she happens to still be a virgin at the moment! Like the Virgin Mary! Big deal! What’s that matter to a monk who can’t even understand what he’s been preaching because it’s a convoluted, and highly inaccurate, mess?

And with her virginal status being so important, of course the show absolutely has to delve into sex and sexuality and sexual behavior, right? They managed to keep what they showed somewhat censored, though they absolutely made fun of that and the censors in the process, but they definitely discussed and alluded to a number of things that are quite definitely not child-friendly! It was sort of equal parts hilarious and obnoxious. Not to mention how they dressed Maria, the other witches, and their familiars in such racy outfits so much. I mean, I know they just wanted them to look physically alluring for the audience, but, still, why would they dress like that back then?

Finally, there’s the plot. It could be funny, and it could be thrilling and gripping, especially when Maria’s actions backfired and threatened her imminent destruction. But it tried to be too intricate and complex, depending on details that came and went without time to really remember them later. The characters and the pacing both suffered for that, I think. The entire story needed some refining.

Though, personal note, I loved Maria’s magical menagerie of monsters! It’s not often I see so many monsters I know, and a even a few I didn’t! 🙂

Maria the Virgin Witch is basically an anime that has some good points, and had some promise, but it tries to do too much at once. I love the magic and some of the characters, but the themes and plot are so convoluted they turn out weak in the end, and the plot is all over the place. It’s a good piece of eye candy to kill a few hours with, and good for a laugh if one doesn’t have any children in the room, but it leaves a few things to be desired.

Rating: 6 stars out of 10.

Grade: C-Minus.

“Our anime sucks, but we’ll keep fighting for peace anyway!”

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Sunday’s Wisdom #150: Family Strength

“The strength we need, that we all need, comes from our family.”
– Kelly Burkhardt, Grimm
Season 6, Episode 13, “The End”

Just a short post this week. 🙂

The exact context of this quote is a little complicated, but it boils down to a moment where the hero of the story has been brought to his lowest, at a critical moment, and his family helps him get back up.

That’s what family does, I think, or what it’s meant to do, and that’s why I like this quote.

Family is there for us when we need them, they carry us when you can’t carry ourselves, and we do the same for them. From family, we learn unselfishness and humility. Nobody can stand alone all the time, forever and always, nobody. Everyone stumbles, everyone gets tired, everyone needs help. And sometimes, even when we are at our strongest, we still need help to overcome an obstacle right in front of us. We are always stronger together than when we are apart.

Not to say they have to coddle us. Far from it, sometimes they deliver a much-needed boot to the head and kick to the rear to get us back in gear. 😉

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This Week on TV, Sept. 30, 2017

Spoiler Alert!

It has begun. 🙂

Gotham delighted this week, not slowing down for a moment after last week’s explosive premiere.

I also wanted to start my commentary on Inhumans this week. But I seem to have routine problems these days with getting to anything that broadcasts between Friday evening and Monday morning. I may need to alter my approach a little, so, for the moment, I am nudging the weekend shows to the next week for commentary.

Gotham

4.02 “The Fear Reaper”

Odd. We’ve had early versions of Penguin, Riddler, Mr. Freeze, the Mad Hatter, even the Joker, and others on the show already, but… I don’t know, I can’t quite describe how, but something feels a little different about the Scarecrow’s first official appearance. For a moment I caught myself thinking, “It’s our first official Batman villain!” before I remembered all the rest we’ve already seen. I don’t know why. Hmmm, maybe it’ll come to me later.

So, hot on the heels of last week’s season premiere, we have the GCPD descending on the old, ramshackle house where the robbers were hiding out and keeping Crane. They arrive to find the house devoid of people, but filled with proof of Crane’s production of the fear gas. The last robber, the one who got away, is tied up like a scarecrow, outfit and all, in the back yard, screaming his head off in terror, “Scarecrow! Scarecrow!”

The Scarecrow in question has already made his way back to Arkham, there to begin what he believes is a visionary undertaking. He sees his father as a good man, a pioneer who fought against fear itself. The younger Crane, not exactly stable in the head, forgets that his lack of fear got his father killed, because he walked straight into gunfire. As terrible as fear is, it can also be quite useful, so getting rid of it completely, and artificially, just leaves you weak and vulnerable.

Even more, the Scarecrow is wrong about how to deal with fear. He met his nightmare by becoming it, but that is a flawed approach. Becoming what you fear is not overcoming it, that’s giving in to it. Overcoming it means moving past it, and acting in spite of it.

But Scarecrow wants to do things the easy way, the bloody way, by bringing everyone’s worst fear to life for them to face. …well, almost everyone. He wants the GCPD, the men who killed his father, to pay with their lives first. To which end, he gases Arkham’s warden and dozens, reportedly a hundred or more, of the inmates, to be his army.

Over at the GCPD, Bruce and Alfred are offering explanations for Bruce’s presence at a crime in progress, which neither Gordon or Fox are buying. Then it seems Penguin has apparently made a speedy recovery after his exposure to the gas, and he’s right back to work trying to put the city under his thumb, starting with James Gordon and the GCPD. He waltzes in, slings insults, makes demands, and preaches about how great he’s making things. The only one it’s great for is him, but the city, especially the cops, are too defeated to stand up right away.

Much like in real life, the badge the officers are currently dishonoring does little for them besides get them spat on and shot at every day. Penguin is promising a greater payday and a chance to live in “peace” for a little while. It’s at the expense of the city’s innocent people and the complete loss of any lingering faith the people might have in them, but they’ve been beaten down so hard, so many times, that they’ve lost faith.

I talked about Scylla and Charybdis last week. While taking the path where fewer die immediately seems like Scylla, the utter darkness of lost faith, and the eventual crumbling of society, which will sweep an untold multitude into the jaws of upheaval, that is Charybdis. To choose Scylla is to choose to put yourself on the line alongside everyone else, and that is what the GCPD, and all of Gotham, is failing to do right now.

When the word comes from Arkham that there’s a riot underway, Gordon finds himself even worse off than he was when he first arrived in Gotham. Not only does no one follow him, or listen to him, they openly ignore and oppose him. He is going to war with Penguin, and, more immediately, going to battle with Scarecrow at Arkham, and he is going alone. Not even Bullock comes with him this time.

Bullock makes a hard call as a leader at that moment. It’s painful, but I think it was the right one this time. Gordon represents the need to stand up and fight, and he needs to continue with that, but if no one else follows him, then neither can Bullock. He’s followed Gordon for so long, and he was the first to do so, but he’s not a follower now, he’s a captain. His role is different, and he’s thinking about the big picture, the ongoing war with Penguin. They need an army to take on Penguin and his assembled crime syndicate, and the GCPD is the only army they have. But an army doesn’t follow you is no army you can rely on.

If Bullock went with Gordon, that, right there, would have been the end of the war, in Penguin’s favor. Gordon doesn’t have the hearts and minds of his comrades right now, and Bullock would have suffered the same. Instead he trusted that Gordon would survive the night on his own, and preserved his connection with the rest of the officers. If he hadn’t, he’d have been ousted as captain soon enough, and one of Penguin’s lackeys would have been appointed in his place. And then it would have been Gordon and Bullock alone against both the cops and the criminals.

Many things they are, but they are not Batman.

Sometimes you have to accept that you’ve lost a battle, and retreat, live to fight another day. That is very different from giving up the whole war. Bullock and Gordon have both made the right call, as one is navigating the immediate crisis and the other is maneuvering with a long-term goal in mind. For the moment, though, this limits their ability to back each other up.

So, on one side, a horde of crazy people hopped up on fear gas, with Scarecrow directing them. And on the other, Gordon. Not excellent odds, but Gordon has a knack for those. He manages to make his way through the belly of the beast, either beating down or scaring away anyone who comes at him, until he makes it to Crane himself, who is army with his gas and a sickle.

Gordon handles the sickle well enough, but the gas brings to life a vision of his beloved Leslie Thompkins, committing suicide to get away from him. His greatest fear made manifest, with the Scarecrow whispering in his ear, urging him to do the same: kill himself, for her.

But, ah… just as Gordon is doing it, pressing the blade against his wrist, drawing blood and coming dangerously close to the appropriate blood vessel… his own voice, the voice of reason, rises, and persists, and breaks the spell.

He stops being afraid. (very Batman-esque of him)

Which Crane can’t handle, he can’t handle the idea that it’s possible to stop being afraid. He is broken and cannot accept the idea of someone who is whole. So he flees and rouses the inmates to attack Gordon. He defends himself, and realizes that water somehow counteracts the effects of the toxin, so he sets off the sprinklers. Crane escapes, but Gordon has saved the day.

Elsewhere on the crime-fighting front, Bruce and Alfred are having a dispute. It seems to be the first time that Alfred is beginning his usual role of keeping the house and preparing the food with Bruce is out. It’s his way of protesting the idea of Bruce going out when he’s clearly not ready yet, making rookie mistakes and challenging people who have guns when he has none. Still, he can’t stop Bruce, and he won’t, because this is giving Bruce something he needs. Which, I’m not so sure about.

Bruce says he feels more alive than ever before when he’s out on the street. But that’s not what Batman is about. Batman goes through great, heaping piles of pain and effort because he cares about others far more than himself. It’s not about feeling alive, it’s about protecting others. Still, he’s only just starting, and the initial euphoria of heroism can take some time to settle down into disciplined direction and focus. It’s not like they haven’t already taken liberties on the show, so we’ll have to wait and see where they take this.

Bruce finds the gang he crashed in on before, but he makes another rookie mistake and walks into a trap. They deliberately drew him in, and he fell for it easily. He’ll be learning from that, I think. First thing’s first, though, he thinks his way out of the situation at hand, escaping the criminals’ lair with his life. Mind you, he landed outside at the mercy of yet another criminal, at which point Alfred hit the man on the head with a tire iron.

Good man, Alfred! Good man!

Bruce is displaying his usual inflexibility, frustrating for Alfred who had hoped that a dose of reality would give him some leverage in their argument, but no such luck. They’re interrupted by Fox, who arrives with a first-generation suit for the fledgling vigilante… er, I mean, for “rock climbing.” LOL! I love that! Especially the little callback to Batman Begins, with Bruce borrowing all that gear for “spelunking” and “base-jumping.” Love it!

So, the suit is lightweight, strong, bulletproof, has a mask and a two-way radio, and even has gloves which adhere to surfaces to enable climbing. Very cool. 🙂

Finally, on the criminal side of things, Selina and Tabitha have received mysterious invitations, with only the words, “Opportunity waits,” written on them. They show up separately, not knowing they were both invited, and enter together. And they are greeted by their hostess, which… my reaction was a bit like:

“Buh-wha-huh?! Barbara’s alive?!

Yes, apparently. She explains her survival simply with advice to check for a pulse next time, especially in a city where dead people seem to come back to life so much, but there’s clearly something else going on. Her look has changed a bit, and her mannerisms as well. She’s calm and collected, even quiet, almost like she’s halfway sane again. She’s more refined and dignified, and more subtle. Interesting. Oh, and she has a plan to deal in weaponry for Gotham’s criminals, which will not only be quite profitable, but give them an ear with which to hear everything the criminal underground is doing, as well as when and where. This is her scheme to get back on top of the city.

Tabitha, understandably, is more inclined to just kill Barbara where she stands than sign up with her. They ended on really bad terms last season, what with Barbara supposedly killing Butch and Tabitha supposedly killing Barbara. Very hard to imagine a worse place for picking up where one left off.

Selina is more inclined to sign up with Barbara. She doesn’t have the baggage Tabitha carries, and, even more, she wants to move up in the world. She wants to get her own back on the guys who have looked down on her, underestimated her, treated her like crap. And she’s clever, she sees the potential of the three girls working together. She can cause mischief, yes. With Barbara, she might be able to do more. With Barbara and Tabitha, all three working together… oh, they can definitely give everyone else a run for their money, especially Penguin.

Tabitha finally agrees, but after she gets something from Barbara: her hand. As she explains it, it makes a certain amount of perverse sense, and it ultimately serves to prove what Barbara will give up to earn Tabitha’s trust back. Selina is shocked and surprised and a bit hesitant about this, like any sane person would be, but Barbara accepts the terms, and offers her hand. Fortunately, Tabitha does not go through with it, bringing the blade down just shy of the fingertips. (whew!) And they’re in business together, starting Monday.

Selina isn’t alone in wanting more and wanting to get back at everyone, as Ivy, who Penguin treats like crap now – and after she pulled him back from imminent demise and got him back on his feet too, last season, but Penguin knows nothing like gratitude – and who we already saw lash out last episode, wants very much the same. She goes to Tabitha and Selina, wanting to sign on with them and Barbara, but Tabitha dismisses her, not trusting her. Selina is more open, and Barbara noticed the rotted relationship as well. If they played that right, they could have a valuable insider right next to Penguin himself. For the moment, though, she’s taking matters into her own hands, invading an oriental shop and stealing mystical potions to drink and make herself strong.

So, it would seem Poison Ivy is due to arrive soon as well. Gotham’s first introduction to another of Batman’s most classic and powerful enemies. That can’t be good!

Though, with what we saw the potions doing to her face, I’m wondering what she’s going to look like when it’s over. Are we changing the actress again or something?

Lastly, Penguin visits Barbara’s new shop, pre-opening day, and lays down the law. They need a license, and they need to pay a tax to him. Not much to ask, it would seem, but he asserts a dominant position, as he can send Zasz to level the place with Barbara’s own merchandise if she does not cooperate.

Oh, and he’s not completely stupid. He knows she had nothing like the finances to start this up, so, the question is… who’s her backer?

I wonder if it’s Falcone. He would be interested in that sort of thing, especially if he wants an advantage against Penguin and is setting up the girls to spy for him and do the dirty work while he watches behind the scenes. He certainly can’t like what Penguin is doing, a fact which Gordon and Bullock recall as they’re having a drink, which gives Gordon the idea of getting an army to go up against Penguin by going to Falcone. Small detail: he kind of killed Falcone’s son last season. It may have been to save Leslie, but, still, Falcone is not the kind to forgive even small slights, let alone the murder of his son.

So, in summary: Gordon is considering making another deal with a devil who wants to kill him, because his own army, the GCPD, is practically impotent; Barbara, Tabitha, and Selina are going into the arms business together with the hopes of taking over Gotham; Scarecrow has arrived and is running loose; Poison Ivy is about to arrive as well; Penguin rules the city; and Bruce is last seen testing out his new suit, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, Alfred in his ear, standing in a mask to behold the city below.

The seed of Batman is planted in rich soil, and growing.

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My “Angry Otaku” Epiphany

I had an interesting experience recently.

First, I read this post over on the Slice of Alfredo Blog. It’s partially a tribute to the work of a seiyuu (an anime voice actor) and idol (musical artist, singing and dancing on stage) named Aya Hirano, but then it uses her experiences as an example to examine a larger issue. Specifically, the demands that otaku (Japanese version of fans, reputedly much more obsessive than their Western counterparts) place on their idols. A rather perplexing and disturbing example is how they demand that these idols, who are full-grown, legal, adult women, remain utterly “pure.” They must not have sex, they must not even have any relationships, they must not be seen in public with a man, heck, they can’t even have some threadbare resemblance to a completely fictional animated character in a hentai (anime pornography) which they had nothing to do with, without facing severe backlash, including threats and potentially ending their career.

From a Western, American perspective, that is a most confusing behavior. Personally, I tend not to care at all about the personal lives of our celebrities, but those few times I have, it has been to appreciate when these people have lasting, happy marriages and build families. In an environment that is ridden with terrible, short-lived relationships and unending drama and heartbreak, it is something sadly rare and to be praised, and that, much more than any fame or fortune, has seemed to me like rising to the top of the world. These people entertain us for a living, but they are still people, and I am happy when I see happiness.

As for the more common, sordid affairs our celebrities engage in, they’ve not really interested me. Oh, look, Taylor Swift is in another feud and has another revenge song. Oh, look, some person is dating some other person. Oh, look, someone else is caught cheating. What else is new?

And yes, we have scandals aplenty in the USA, and we may, if we actually care enough about it, rag on a celebrity, their person, their reputation, their career, etc. but that’s about it.

So, to see a number of people who profess to be fans, even as obsessively as otaku are rumored to be, become so absolutely outraged just because some girl they idolize is dating someone, it baffles me. Not to say Aya Hirano’s behavior, in particular, is something I endorse, but it’s not really my business. It’s her life to do whatever she wants with, with or without my approval.

“This is some seriously messed up ****.”

I readily admit, as I was learning about this, I quickly became judgmental towards “the angry otaku.” Disgusted by their behavior, I quickly crafted, in my head, a possible explanation that probably hits below the belt. I thought perhaps they might want their idols to remain “untouched” so they could fantasize about being the ones to touch them while simultaneously excusing their inability to do so. When someone else touches them instead, the fantasy crumbles, and so does the excuse. All they’re left with, then, is the reality that this is an actual person, but one they never had any chance with. Faced with that, who wouldn’t be upset when their idols prove to be only human?

I know, it was very unkind of me, and I doubtless owe an apology to many an otaku in Japan. While I still suspect some of the hostility may be for exactly that reason, it is unwarranted for me to suggest this is true of the majority of angry otaku.

Still, I had some difficulty grasping why else they would be so angry just because some woman, fully legal, dares to be human, dares to have emotions, dares to have a relationship, dares to be in the company of a man, or happens to have some minute resemblance to an animated pornographic character they had no business in creating.

Then, as this kept turning over in my head, it occurred to me: I’ve already seen this before. In fact, I’ve seen it in anime! How many times have we seen it? You know, the trope of some character being a refined upperclassman, excelling in all subjects and possessing outstanding looks, standing above everyone else as if on a pedestal… and they have a fan-club they don’t or can’t control, devoted to them, and to their “purity,” which becomes rabid when any perceived threat to said purity appears? They use it all the time! It’s commonplace!

This was one of those moments where I went, “Whoa, that’s actually real? I had no idea!” Mind, blown.

“I think my brain just exploded…”

In the anime To Love-Ru, for instance, we have a fan club popping up around the character of Momo. From the moment it forms, Momo’s fan club works to keep her separate from others, always following her around, keeping anyone from getting close to her without their permission, and preventing her from getting close to anyone else. Sound familiar?

And when they lose sight of her, their leader immediately has his own perverted imaginings of what another boy might be doing to her. Which sounds rather reminiscent of my own theory, which is given further weight by how this is a club of high school losers who banded together only to avoid fighting each other while getting closer to Momo. In the end, Momo was only able to resume her normal life after she told her fan club off for their aggressive, isolating behavior.

It’s really bad when they start glowing.

Of course I discounted the possibility of everything about this extended sequence the first time I saw it, but if everything else is apparently real, why not that last as well? Still, if I am to draw on anime to help explain something real, then I need look at other examples as well.

For instance, learning about the reaction otaku have when their idol might become no longer “pure” explained, in anime that follow a idols, why it’s such a huge deal when they find a romantic interest. I never understood why that would be a career-killer, but now it makes sense. …well, ok, it’s still illogical and absurd, but now I understand how it works like that.

I recall a scene from one anime (one I absolutely hate, but I’m drawing on the scene anyway) where a young girl, an idol, thanked her fans for their adoration, but then openly confessed her feelings, then and there, to a young man at the back of the audience. It made no sense to me why she was talking like this was a farewell. Everyone glared at the boy in question, who refused her. She sighed and accepted the refusal and kept singing.

So, she actually felt strongly enough about this boy that she was willing to choose him over her career. She did it openly, in front of her fans, which also makes more sense more sense now. I had thought it was rather terrible of her to do that, put him on the spot in front of an audience, but now I see, it was so she could avoid their anger in response to senseless rumors. And when the boy rejected her, they resumed cheering on their idol, who remained pure.

That scene felt ridiculous to me before, and it’s a little unsettling now to think that it could have actually been fairly realistic.

“How dare you get along with our idol?”

For another example, this one perhaps more domestic, I point to Fruits Basket. One especially handsome character, Yuki, has a fan club. This fan club, like all the rest, puts the object of their fanatical devotion onto a pedestal. And when Tohru, protagonist of the show and potential love interest, enters the scene, they go ballistic. They call her her names, the bully her, they scheme about getting her away from their beloved idol because she’s supposedly taking him away from them, and they’re willing to go to extremes in response, all while considering it nothing more than “their job, to protect him.” He is their celebrity, and they are the creepy obsessive stalkers. Or perhaps that is too tame a comparison: he is their deity, and they are his (heretical) zealots.

And that, right there, is when I began to understand another potential explanation for hostile otaku behavior. They don’t just idolize, they practically worship, and what people worship, they often elevate beyond humanity. How unbelievable is it, then, for one to become violently hostile when their chosen deity suddenly seems more human, and therefore somehow “less” than it was before, and thus supposedly “taken away” from them?

Not to get either religious or blasphemous here, but I am reminded of The DaVinci Code, which is based on this idea that entire secret wars have been fought over the question of whether or not Jesus of Nazareth ever got married and had a child. People want their deity to be inhuman, and one side of this war uses that to maintain a grasp on power, while the other accepts the humanity of the Savior and protects his lineage with their very lives. The protagonist of the story, Robert Langdon, doesn’t see why it has to be either one or the other, why Jesus couldn’t be the Son of God and have a family at the same time, but there are others who are willing to kill to maintain the idea of his inhumanity, and thus his distance from humanity.

Now, that is a rather extreme case, and a sensitive one, and whatever side you’d take in that conflict, my point is: there would be conflict. Even more pointedly, it wouldn’t be because of any perverse, physical desires, it would simply be because some people believe devotion can only be given to those who are of a substantially higher existence. The emperors of China and Japan, the Pope and monarchs of Medieval Europe, the tyrannical regimes of modern day communism, all of these are examples where the ruler is elevated above the common man, ruling by the mandate of some higher power, and all of them commanded absolute devotion from their followers. That was a double-edged sword, though, as supposedly losing such a mandate could easily prove their ruin.

Perhaps, lacking an emperor now, Japanese otaku have simply filled the void with normal people, their idols. Then again, maybe it’s something even deeper than that.

“Whoa… he went there…”

Certainly the Japanese aren’t the only ones to do that, to elevate normal people to greater-than-human heights. We do it all the time, building our personal heroes up in such a manner. We put them on pedestals, rigidly defined by our flawed definition of perfection. And when they step off it, when they dare be only human and make mistakes, then we, too, can be merciless in our judgment of them. Where we once deified them, now we demonize them. It’s happened over and over and over again.

Even if we don’t worship them, we can easily put our own peers above us in our own minds. Like in Gamers, a more recent anime which I gave up watching it after a handful of episodes, partially because I wanted to throttle the main character. You see, there was a gorgeous girl who was clearly into him, but he built her up in his own mind, while also debasing himself. He kept saying he was nothing, and could only be nothing, or even less than nothing, to her. Her every gaze and everything she did with him, he was sure, was out of pity. Why else would a goddess like her pay any attention to someone so low as him?

He was wrong, of course. The girl was just a girl. She didn’t see herself as higher, or him as lower. She really wanted to get closer to him. She really did like him, and he almost missed out entirely.

“I swear, I’m just a girl, not a goddess, and I’m talking to you because I want to.”

As humans, I think we have a need to be devoted to something, or someone, to give us purpose in our lives. But it can’t just be anything. It can’t be “normal,” because how is something normal worth such devotion? It needs to be greater than human, above human, even inhuman. It has to be “perfect,” and we mistakenly, I think, define perfection as something beyond humanity. Thus, when it’s a person we are devoting ourselves to, we can easily fall into the trap of making inhuman demands, and reacting very badly when those expectations are not met.

Just think of a parent making demands of their child, or the other way around, each one wanting the other to be “perfect” according to their definition of such. All such demands do is breed pain and resentment for the demands, and perhaps guilt and grief for failing to live up to them. That is a small, everyday example of devotion gone wrong.

All of which ignores and belittles the value of “the normal.” The joy of laughter is normal, after all. That is something human, something within reach, and something that great men and women have devoted their lives to.

There is nothing wrong with our idols and our heroes being normal people, who do normal things, and make normal mistakes, and have normal relationships. Yet most people have difficulty with this concept. Not only does that result in our placing undue pressure on our heroes, but it limits what we aspire to as well, because we’re somehow not as great as we see them to be.

Even the greatest of us are “only human.”

I do not mean to excuse the atrocious behavior of angry otaku – indeed, such behavior is inexcusable and they really need to get a handle on themselves – but I think I might understand them a little better now, and feel a little less hostile towards them. They’re simply dedicated to them, a bit too strongly.

And when it comes down to it, Japan, the land of harakiri (samurai ritual suicide), is not exactly known for half-ass dedication!

I suppose the lesson here is that we need to remember how we’re all human. In my case, I was hasty to judge the motives of angry otaku, in the worst, most despicable way I could think of. In their case, they really need to take a chill pill and let their idols be people.

I think it appropriate to wrap this up with a quote from Fruits Basket. Spoken to the fan club I mentioned earlier, as they’re trying to justify their actions, saying Yuki “belongs” to all of them, not just one girl, these words are hard for them to hear, but very true and very relevant:

“If he truly belonged to you, would you be here fighting to hold onto him? You say that you love him, but if you did, would you really want to take his friends away from him? Would you try to force your will upon him to make yourselves happy? Without any regard for his feelings? You don’t understand that there are times when true love will be a source of pain, and one that you must accept. Because to truly love someone is to always put their feelings before your own. No matter what. Keep putting yourself first, and you will only succeed in pushing him away.”

That last is not entirely unlike how Aya Hirano responded to angry otaku, with anger of her own.

Food for thought.

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Anime Review: Silver Spoon

What’s this? An anime about farming? Huh? I’ve seen anime about action and adventure, fantasies and science fiction, still-life sitcoms, romantic comedies, dystopian futures, alternate histories, sports, giant robots, zombies, and pretty much everything else under the sun… but farming? That’s a new one, an idea I haven’t seen before. Because, come on, what is there about farming that can possibly entertain us, eh?

Let this anime be a lesson: it’s possible to tell a compelling story without anything exotic whatsoever. It’s not what you have but how you use it. 😉

Silver Spoon is a farming-based comedic drama that tells the stories of regular people within a setting that most people today know very little about, making it unique despite its normality. The story it weaves is tender, poignant, heartfelt, and hilarious. It’s also very informative and educational, it really feels like the creators actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to the production of our food, yet it never bores us. Personally, I loved it.

The story primarily follows a young man named Yuugo Hachiken. He is a city boy who’s left home and enrolled in an agricultural high school. He represents the audience as we learn about farming alongside him, including animal care, food production, and the rural lifestyle, as well as the risks, rewards, and realities of such. Within this world we are learning about, we experience the lives of Hachiken and his friends, many of whom have great dreams they are working towards. Some of them can hope for success, but others must taste the bitterness of broken dreams. Life, simple life, can be a precarious thing indeed for people as well as livestock.

Not to make a farming pun, but Silver Spoon is a very down-to-earth anime. The setting may be novel for today’s audience, but there’s a realistic weight to it. This makes the characters’ various ordeals hit home, and it makes their happiness all the sweeter.

Which, I don’t mean to make it sound as if “weight” is all there is to the story. There really are plenty of good times. There are hilarious misunderstandings, developments of relationships, and intriguing problems that everyone works together to solve. There are questions asked and pondered seriously, most especially by Hachiken as he learns an unfamiliar way of life, but soon, by extension, his classmates must start asking similar questions about the things they take for granted. There’s laughter and learning and the triumph of overcoming obstacles to change your point of view. Most of all, no matter how “bad” it gets, students and adults alike rise to the occasion in dignified, mature ways.

And every bit of the show is so very human. Things might be embellished slightly as only an animated story can afford, but the characters are all fantastic, believable, and easy to relate to. They’re intelligent, kind, decent, and generally responsible. It’s hard not to fall in love with nearly the entire cast. Ultimately, it is through their quirks, their goals, and their approaches to their industry, that Hachiken is able to confront his own issues, his failures, and even identify the root of a dispute which lies between him and his father. But that goes into spoilers, so I’m not going to elaborate here. 😉

Silver Spoon is, at its heart and throughout its entire being, is a hilarious, heart-warming, heart-breaking story about realistic people in realistic situations. It offers a glimpse into a world that is largely unknown and taken for granted today. It’s a simple, beautiful story. The only thing it lacks is a clear resolution, which I dearly wish they would produce.

Rating: 9 stars out of 10.

Grade: solid A.

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A Brief Overview of the NCIS Franchise

One could argue, a truly proper review of the NCIS franchise may need to be divided into three reviews, one for the original NCIS and one for each of the spin-offs, NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans. I might do that someday, but for now, I think we can do some justice to all three at once.

NCIS is, basically, another crime show with a quirk, but it may be the most believable and compelling of quirks. Instead of bringing in some unique character to spice things up, like Castle, The Mentalist, Deception, etc., they change the setting and jurisdiction. The premise of a team of law enforcement officers within the United States Navy automatically sets the show apart from the rest, both in texture and content.

Not only do they have a unique setup for dealing with the usual murder mysteries, but when a case leads to things like conspiracies and terrorism, it’s perfectly natural. They don’t need a character bent on revenge or the accident of stumbling onto it by virtue of a case, it’s already their job to fight terrorism and corruption in defense of the nation. Thus, the range of cases the team faces, from mundane murder to imminent international crises, is perfectly viable. And, of course, they can honor the principles of loyalty and patriotism among the armed forces with the navy itself as a backdrop.

Something I especially appreciate is how, in the entire NCIS universe, almost no two characters are exactly alike. They may have changed the format a little for Los Angeles, but all three shows are basically the same, and have the same setup. New Orleans, especially, is sort of a copy-and-paste of NCIS. Yet, even when characters across the franchise, and across the cast changes that have occurred over the years, are fulfilling extremely similar roles, it is quite rare to find duplicate characters. That is a feet which some shows and their spin-offs – I am thinking especially of the CW’s Arrowverse here – completely fail to achieve.

For that matter, as similar as all three shows are, none of them really feels like the others. They all have their own taste and texture.

Speaking of the characters, I have to say I am impressed with how their development has been handled. Tony DiNozzo, for instance, hailing from the original NCIS. From the first moment, he seemed like a generally good guy, and I love the constant pop culture references, but he was also a jerk at times, and I particularly couldn’t stand how he treated women. He wasn’t abusive, but he certainly could have valued and respected them more. Then, over the course of several seasons, he gradually changed. Day after day, year by year, he became much more respectful towards others and honest about himself. By the end of his thirteen-year tenure on the show, he had become a man I would greatly admire.

There’s something honest about that, as great change doesn’t usually come quickly, but slowly, one day at a time. It happens with most of the characters, their raw edges being smoothed out into mere aspects of their personalities, instead of jarring quirks. There are moments, of course, where things change very quickly, but most of the characters develop slowly, but surely, in their personalities, their relationships, especially those of a romantic nature, and their journey through life.

If there was one thing I’d count against the franchise overall, I’d say it’s how none of the shows usually have an obvious direction to go in. There are ongoing cases, there are old enemies who return, there is fallout from past decisions, but there’s no set goal in mind. The story could end at any time, or go on indefinitely.

This fluid, ambiguous structure makes for some surprising benefits, though. They can always keep trying new things, subjecting the characters to new, unexpected ordeals, developing their triumphs and tragedies however they like. I remember this one season where they seemed dead set on experimenting with pairing Gibbs up with various women, which I personally wasn’t a fan of. They can bring in or forget or develop old and new characters however and whenever they like, sometimes in a good way, and sometimes not. Eventually, though, as one keeps following the show, there are fewer and fewer complaints which can last long term.

That goes a long way to explaining the longevity of the show. They have a basic formula which they follow faithfully, including the thrill of murder mysteries, the suspense of putting characters we like into dangerous situations with very high stakes, and somehow there’s always some personal connection between a member of the cast and the case at hand. On that last, I heard someone complain about that once, but I disagree, I think the characters’ personal connections make for a similar connection between the audience and cast, and thus the show, which I found largely missing in shows like CSI. Outside this basic formula, however, the creators are able to be quite flexible, and they never push it too far. All in all, they’ve crafted an approach that is, if nothing else, unique for how long it can easily last: a center which holds, paired with an adaptability that they generally use with prudence.

And last long it definitely has, with, thus far, fourteen seasons of the original, eight seasons of the first spin-off, and three of the second. It’s easily one of the most popular and longest running franchises in television history. They also tested out another potential spin-off, which I am personally glad they discarded. Which, that’s another benefit of their adaptable approach: they can test out ideas for new shows before producing them. The backdoor pilot for New Orleans has to be among my favorite moments.

If there is one lasting complaint left to be made, it’s how difficult it is, short of the possession of an encyclopedic memory, to pinpoint that single episode, within its vast, increasing library, you’re wanting to watch again. 🙂

I don’t know if I’ll add any of these to my weekly lineup for commentary, ever, because I prefer to binge the seasons, but NCIS is easily among my favorites.

Rating: 10 stars out of 10.

Grade: A-Plus.

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Poll Results

A week ago, I polled you, my audience, for something you would like be to do, in celebration of my little milestone of one hundred followers.

The results are: a four-way tie between a Countdown, a Favorite, a Cineverse, and a Challenge.

First lesson learned: must be certain I have a larger audience interested in casting a vote, LOL. Consider me humbled. 🙂

Second lesson learned: have a clearer idea of something specific I want to do, so my audience can have clearer options, and thus have more fun! 😉

As is, my brain was rolling around ideas, so in lieu of a clear victor, and to thank the people who actually voted, I will do all four: my favorite Halloween-themed title, a Harry Potter Countdown, an analysis of another Cineverse and what it adds to the contest between studios, and the 15-Day (or 15-Week, in my case) Doctor Who Challenge.

I hope you all enjoy it, especially my friends who voted! 🙂

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