02 April 2013

Cultural notes, and the collapse of the bracket

1) Indiana losing (and Louisville sticking around) really put my bracket into a funk. Having said that, I noticed the biggest trend in the tournament was that good coaching trumped average to mediocre coaches (at least, tournament coaches). Tom Crean is/was a pretty mediocre to average NCAA tournament coach, aside from the final year of Wade at Marquette. Picking Indiana was predicated on the high value of Oladiapo (one of the highest rated NCAA players in the past few years, both on offence and defence), and Zeller, one of the highest rated post scorers, but had to overlook Crean's middling record. Going up against Boeheim and Syracuse, they faced a tough defensive team and a better NCAA coach. It was, probably, the only challenge they would have faced in that entire region (the next best two teams, Miami and Marquette, were not so daunting but do have decent to good coaches). I'm rather annoyed they failed, but not ultimately that surprised.

I would say I did well to identify Kansas as weaker (and picked Michigan over them), and Duke over Michigan St. Florida did surprisingly poorly against Michigan. Almost no one saw Wichita State coming, so focusing on the Arizona-OSU matchup as the final four entry seemed logical. In any case, I still have a couple of brackets on ESPN in the 90-95 range (mostly because I did fairly well at the Elite Eight level on them, with 5 correct), but if/as Louisville continues to advance, staying there may be at issue. That's better than the 2011 mayhem year (the UConn vs Butler year), where I did the worst I've ever done in a pool, but it's not what I'm used to pulling down (98-99 percentile from picking the champ and 3+ final four teams).

2) The return of Game of Thrones reminds me why there are some shows I really like, and compares easily to a couple of semi-popular or well-critically acclaimed shows that I don't. My favourite television show has been the Wire. That show focused on the dynamics of policing drug gangs in a major city (Baltimore), the evolution of those gangs and the rules that they played by, and so on, along with a lot of other subplots. But here's the show's two secrets.
a) Basically anybody important who was a "street" character was not safe. Either from police or from each other. Many important or well-developed characters died, often to the displeasure of fans. To some extent even the police characters were not safe either, being less prominent or self-destructive.
b) Basically anybody who we meet is a human being. They are developed. We see they have motivations. Those motivations clash and merge with the others. Each character develops a separate following, complete with rival fan bases for Stringer Bell versus Omar or Avon Barksdale, or Bunk versus Lester or McNulty.

The secret of the show is that it's about dealing with the changing world of everyday life, and how that can dynamically conflict with what we might want to happen, that sometimes it means happy endings, and sometimes even the ending may seem happy but is in fact, bitter or hollow. And other times, it just ends up as a horrible footnote. It has other attributes (it's really well written, there's a fair amount of sex and violence, etc), but at its base, it's a character driven show with the same procedural plots repeated endlessly, and those plots are not necessarily glamorous and successful but we see how the players will play their roles and if those roles will turn out to be useful or hazardous this time around.

This is more or less why Game of Thrones succeeds for me (besides having read the books). No character is safe. Nobody of any significance is just an empty shell for other characters to interact with (and the one character who is, Sansa Stark, is made so by events well beyond her scope to control and influence). This is also more or less why Homeland failed to hold my attention after some promising writing and characters its first season, and why Walking Dead is so inconsistent and gives off an odd vibe that makes it hard to follow.

Homeland essentially is only a story about two people, Carrie and Brody, two lovers beset by the "mere" fact that one of them is a terrorist or at least appears to be, and the other is supposed to be chasing him or controlling him as an agent. Every episode contorts itself to protect these two from death, every episode contorts itself to project drama instead by upping the ridiculous quality of events surrounding them beyond plausibility. Every character besides these two is rarely exposed as a person with their own motivations, but instead as motivations that intersect in some crucial way with the main characters. Only a handful of regularly appearing cast members seem like actual people (Saul, Brody's daughter, and occasionally Brody's wife). That makes for rather transparently boring plots and decreases the plausibility under which the universe of the show must exist in. We as consumers of fiction can buy a superhero story like Batman as long as it retains a level of plausibility. We can't do this with terrorism and the CIA when it abandons all sense of proportionality and likelihood even within its own mandates, much less from the reality of terrorism that we actually face within the CIA or as Americans (and how it is dealt with). For a show that deals with the complex (and important) social problems of dealing with surveillance state powers and drone strikes and the roots of international terrorism, it does so rather clumsily too often. I've decided to give up on this show already.

Walking Dead should be a more acceptable show as well. A zombie apocalypse would inherently lead to the stories of bands of crafty and resilient survivors, seeking out supply and shelter, and occasionally cooperating or fighting with other bands. Sometimes this show does this very well, by focusing on a few key characters and giving them something human (this is why Daryl is so popular, why Merle isn't/wasn't, and why a few episodes focused on Carl or Michonne or even Andrea have been very solid). Most of the time it just dishes out zombie brain matter and doesn't seem to have a clear idea what to do with some of the characters. They feel like added extras to be shoved into the approaching horde or shot by rival survivor bands, rather than people who we might become attached and conflicted over should they become overwhelmed and consumed, and their motivations are not well explored or hinted at, as people are shunted into somewhat arbitrary roles, or given additional staying power because the writers want something out of them later, but don't seem to know what it will be (as in the case of Andrea's demise this season). The arcs don't feel connected, don't feel like they are going anywhere, and they don't develop the people in these stories such that they're any different from the shambling wrecks they must kill or evade. Probably the reason the best zombie films to me have been Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland is that the people have retained humor and wits to distinguish themselves from the reanimated dead. Walking Dead does well when it focuses on this (our humanity) alongside the necessary carnage and danger and does poorly when it does not. I've seen some more promising elements in character and development, but they're tied in with some strange narrative choices that aren't very promising for the future of the show.
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