One of the very few upsides to being sick…

I might have watched the first episodes of Silver Spoon, Eccentric Family, and Breaking Bad last night.

I may have then watched the next nine episodes of Breaking Bad.

All three are good, but that’s definitely the one that’s mastered the “one more episode” effect. It also occasionally does these really weird cold openings, which are simultaneously surreal, funny, and creepy, a combination I’ve not seen pulled off well outside of David Lynch’s movies before.

What should I be watching?

So, I’m currently stuck in a bit of a media rut, rewatching old things but not really watching anything currently airing except The Legend of Korra. Which is… okay but not great so far?

So, I’m turning to all of you. This is your chance! Recommend something! Sell me on it! What are you watching at the moment, and why do you like it? Could be Western animation, anime, live action, anything from any country as long as it’s new and it’s available in English in some form (whether because it originated in English or has subtitles).

What am I not watching that you think I should be?

The Wall in the North

Sorry about lateness, I just straight up forgot that I hadn’t already made and queued this post.

This is a post about one of the most awesome characters in all of animation, Major General Olivier Mira Armstrong from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

 
 

If Major General Armstrong commanded the North Wall of Westeros instead of Briggs, Game of Thrones would be a standalone book. Of about 200 pages.

Just saying.

Reading Too Much Into Adventure Time! with Finn and Jake, Part One

Once again, lacking anything else to post for a Wednesday Whatever I go to the well of hastily adapted panel notes. This time, have my panel on Adventure Time! from Connecticon 2013. As always, this is built around discrete chunks tied to slides, so please forgive the lack of flow. This is the first half of the panel; I will hold the second half, dealing with character relationships and postmodern elements, for another Wednesday.

Adventure Time! as nonsense literature: Literary nonsense is a genre with roots in two sources: First, traditional nursery rhymes, which employed made-up rhymes, little games (such as paddycake and ring-around-the-rosie) and lots of animal and food themes to entertain children. Second, in the middle ages scholars, intellectuals, and poets employed intellectual absurdities and paradoxes for humor in political satire, parodies, and comedies. Edward Lear popularized combining the two with his limericks, stories, and songs (most famously “The Owl and the Pussycat,” which combines animal themes and made-up words like “runcible spoon” familiar from nursery rhymes with a parody of courtly love). Lewis Carroll then codified the genre with the Alice books, the Sylvie and Bruno books, and poems like “The Hunting of the Snark.”

Nonsense literature is generally rigorously logical, but with skewed premises—characters have very simple, straightforward emotions, and their behavior is instead logically driven from a weird basis. For example, Bubblegum Princess is uninterested in romance, and instead all her actions follow as a logical consequence of the absurd premise of being a ruler who is also a mad scientist who is also living candy. Nonsense literature tends to play with things that have a lot of arbitrary rules in real life, such as games, food (which is always surrounded by complex etiquette and rules about what you can eat at different times of day or what foods go together (ice cream and asparagus for breakfast, for example, is arbitrarily not acceptable even though either food on its own is acceptable at other times of day)), and laws, stripped of their normal context and emotional content. That’s all over the place in Adventure Time—early elements have things like the bizarre trials for breaking a Royal Promise, people made of candy, hot dogs, berries, and so on, and lots of references to video games and D&D. There are also entire episodes devoted to games being taken bizarrely seriously, such as the game of Let’s Pretend during the knife storm or the complex holographic Magic-the-Gathering-type game Finn and Jake play that Jake takes far too seriously.

The Nostalgia Factor: There’s a moderately well-known video about this from the PBS Idea Channel on YouTube. As it points out, a lot of the cartoons popular among adults evoke a sense of nostalgia—a fuzzy notion that childhood is nicer and simpler and happier, a wish to return to it. MLP, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, and Gumball are all examples. Adventure Time evokes this nostalgia in a lot of ways: the heroic adventures, post-apocalyptic setting, and sword-wielding blend of fantasy and science fiction were common in products of the 1980s and early 1990s such as Thundercats, He-Man, and Krull. Nonsense literature is often usually children’s literature, so that element evokes memories of childhood, too. And the music frequently employs chiptunes, which are based on the sounds of video game consoles of the 1980s and 1990s. Many individual episodes work for this—for example, in Season One’s “Dungeon” they split up to explore a dungeon, and encounter challenges which would be perfect for the other one, parodying shows like Superfriends where the characters would always face challenges perfectly suited for their particular skills (for example, there was always a water-based problem for Aquaman). However, this video misses the mark by suggesting that its appeal is because the characters are nostalgic themselves, with things like the wreckage of human civilization everywhere and the hints at past relationships and “better days” between Marcelline and other characters like Ice King and Bubblegum Princess. That’s unlikely as a source of the show’s popularity because it was already hugely popular long before those elements became clear in late first/early second season. The bigger factor is that unlike most shows nostalgic for childhood, it doesn’t shy away from showing how much being a kid can suck. Finn frequently is ordered to do things without knowing why, has information hidden from him by adults, gets confused over relationships and life questions and his identity—his life is not all happiness and silliness! It is thus far more accurate to childhood than most such shows, and thereby evokes nostalgia all the more strongly.

Meme depot into cult show: As long-time readers of this blog know, I have argued before that there are basically two kinds of shows popular among geeks right now. Meme depots are shows that have a lot of absurd gags that are easily repeatable out of context, so we can easily spread them as memes on Facebook and Tumblr. Most of these are cartoons—Family Guy was probably the original cartoon to actively do this, but it’s been done better by shows like Regular Show. A cult show, on the other hand, has a plan (or pretends to have a plan) and much of the fun comes from the audience learning about the world and gathering clues to try to figure out the plan. This is old hat in anime and limited-run British series like The Prisoner, but in American television didn’t catch on until shows like X-Files and Babylon 5 in the 1990s, before it took off massively with Lost. As mentioned, it’s always been everywhere in anime, but entered Western animation in the 2000s with shows like Justice League and Avatar the Last Airbender. What’s interesting about Adventure Time is that it started as a meme depot—it was all about silly gags and gif-able memes—but has been steadily becoming more of a cult show, slowly revealing that there is a backstory worth caring about with things like Marceline and Ice King’s relationship, dropping recurring hints at future developments with things like the snail that became the snail-lich, and so on.

Worldbuilding: This brings us to worldbuilding. The Simon and Marcy episodes are a good source for this. We know there was a Great Mushroom War, referring to the mushroom cloud from nukes, and that the current planet has a huge chunk taken out of it. We don’t know what caused the Mushroom War, but it’s not that relevant to the present of the show–whatever cultures’ differences created the conflict are long gone. The “Finn the Human/Jake the Dog” two-parter shows us an alternate history that implies that these weapons weren’t all straightforward nukes, since the one bomb is implied to have necromantic elements that probably created the Lich in the normal continuity.

How did humans get a necromantic bomb? The fact that both Marceline and the Ice King’s crown predate the Mushroom War means that magic has always been around in this world, although maybe it wasn’t as out in the open prior to the war. Things like Hell, vampires, and magical artifacts existed, so why not necromantic nukes? “Simon and Marcy” even gives hints to the origins of the candy people: The zombie-like mutated humans in the abandoned city resemble the candy people faintly, and the friendly blob creature is pretty obviously Princess Bubblegum or an ancestor. The episode as a whole is actually something of a reference to the novel “I Am Legend,” with Simon as the main character and Marcy as the dog. As in that book, the apparent monsters are actually humanity’s successors that will be founding a new civilization in the future, and the apparent hero is going to be their legendary monster.

Predictions: Korra and Fire Emblem

Just want to call a couple of predictions, so there’s a record of it.

First, Legend of Korra: Tarloq’s ability to control spirits isn’t limited to calming them; he’s causing the spirit attacks in order to create the panic he needs to seize power. Unlike Amon, however, he genuinely believes in his cause–he really does think the people of the world need his spiritual guidance or they will come to ruin. This is why he thinks he can become a world conqueror despite the relatively small population of the Water Tribe–he is using Korra to give him access to a spirit army. The creation of what amounts to a teleport link between the Northern and Southern tribes also gives him a huge military advantage.

Second, Fire Emblem: Awakening: I know some of you have doubtless already beaten it, so DO NOT TELL ME IF I’M RIGHT, but I’m pretty sure Marth’s a time traveler from the future, and the reason other people keep telling me how important it is to build relationships between my characters is because eventually I’m going to either team up with, or have to play as, my current party’s children.

Even if you simply have to fudge it/Make sure it stays within our budget (The Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000)

Who knew so many ponies were angry drunks?

When I was a kid, the one cartoon that stood out above all others was Ducktales. If you know the history of American TV cartoons, or you’ve read my book, then you know there’s a reason for this; to make a long story short, Ducktales was a strong contender for best (English-language) cartoon of the 1980s, the beginning of the end of the “Wasteland” period of children’s television, and the proof that syndication (soon to be succeeded by cable) made it possible for a cartoon to make a profit without sacrificing production values, paving the way for the Silver Age of Animation that runs from the 1990s through today.

But Ducktales itself was very much a creature of the 1980s. Scrooge McDuck is, in many ways, the ultimate capitalist, conservative hero. He is “self-made,” rising from poverty-stricken immigrant to richest duck in the world entirely through his own efforts (or so, thanks to the utter invisibility of all but a few of his employees, we are led to believe). In the present, we see him already colossally wealthy, his business empire functioning apparently with little input from him while he gallivants about the globe having adventures and hunting for treasure, creating the impression that his wealth still comes from his own efforts; in flashbacks he is depicted young and poor, working hard and alone to earn his original fortune. Glossed over in between are the long years (almost a century!) between the Klondike Gold Rush and the present of the series, during which he must have grown his business empire in the usual way–hiring workers to produce products or provide services, charging customers more for those products and services than it costs to provide them, paying the workers less than the customers are paying, and using the resulting profits to expand into new areas, promote the business, and so forth. This is undoubtedly what Scrooge means when he (repeatedly) insists that he made his money “square”: He kept his promises, abided by his contracts, and did not overtly lie to his customers and employees, which is to say he followed the ethical standards of business.

McDuck is depicted as strict, judgmental, quick to anger, slow to pity, convinced he has attained his fortune by being “smarter than the smarties and tougher than the toughies.” In other words, he sees his wealth as proof of innate superiority, and Ducktales is by and large happy to support this view of himself; Scrooge McDuck is simply stronger and harder, a duck above and apart from the rest of the world’s people, and his lack of compassion and charitable impulse is depicted as a quirk, a comedic flaw that doesn’t actually impede him or make him less likeable.

Ducktales‘ success caused Warner Bros. to create its own syndicated cartoons in co-production with Amblin, which in turn caused Ted Turner’s fledgling Cartoon Network (founded basically to give him something to do with the large libraries of classic cartoons he’d just bought) to start pursuing original programming, which in turn begat the career of Lauren Faust and, ultimately, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

And now it’s January 28, 2012. The top movie is Liam Neeson vehicle The Grey, and the top song is still “We Found Love” by Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris. In the news, the Syrian civil war continues to rage, the national state of emergency in Egypt is dropped just shy of a year after the revolution began, and the city of Oakland arrests 200 Occupy protestors.

On TV, we have yet another Applejack episode, M.A. Larson’s “The Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000,” directed by James Wootton. The episode quickly became very popular, primarily because of its very fun, catchy, complex song (also called “The Super-Speedy cider Squeezy 6000,”), modeled heavily on The Music Man, though commenting fans more often recognized it as reminiscent of “Monorail” from The Simpsons. Both of those possible homages are songs that start as a con man giving his pitch, and evolve into crowd songs as the assembled townsfolk fall for it, and the song in this episode is no different, though it adds the twist of having two con men, brothers, whose different vocal ranges and tendency to finish each other’s lines make the song more complex and possibly even catchier.

The Flim-Flam Brothers are most definitely liars, cheats, and frauds, that much is clear from their facial expressions during the songs, their names (flim-flam is a term meaning “deception, trickery, nonsense,”) and the fact that they switch identities: at about the 5:30 mark of the episode, the brother with the lower voice and mustache says “He’s Flim,” and the higher-pitched, clean-shaven brother says “He’s Flam”; after they’ve got the town mostly convinced, at about the 8:30 mark, the clean-shaven pony says “He’s Flim” and the other says “He’s Flam.” But what’s deeply odd about this episode is that their actual plan involves them telling the truth and keeping their promises–at no point do they engage in anything Scrooge wouldn’t consider “square.”

Their initial offer seems to be completely legitimate: they have a machine that can produce cider much more quickly and efficiently than the Apples can, and offer to make the cider for the Apples in exchange for three-quarters of the takings. Applejack rejects this offer, because she’s afraid the Apples will no longer be able to make enough money from cider sales to keep their farm going. The next day, Flim and Flam show up with the cider they made in their demonstration the previous day and start selling it to the ponies who didn’t get any Apple family cider. An argument ensues over whether the Flim-Flam Brothers should be allowed to sell it, since it’s made from Apple family apples, and ultimately they hold a competition for sole rights to sell apple cider in Ponyville.

To this point, from a modern, Western, capitalist perspective, Applejack appears to be entirely in the wrong and a terrible businesswoman to boot. She has failed to provide enough cider, and rather than try to make more by hiring temporary workers, or reduce demand by raising prices, she is artificially attempting to suppress competition and block the introduction of new, more efficient techology for cider-making. The story shifts from The Music Man to John Henry, and we know how that ends, with technology triumphant and our hero crushed by the grinding gears that drive the inevitable march of progress.

But Applejack brings in her friends. She begins making cider faster and faster, and the Flim-Flam Brothers abandon their quality controls to win the contest. This is the key moment of the episode, when Rainbow Dash (as always our voice of modernity and cynicism) suggests that the Apples do likewise, and Applejack refuses. The Flim-Flam Brothers win the contest, but after the townsfolk taste their cider, they’re driven out of town, and thanks to the contest there’s enough Apple family cider for everyone.

At no point do the Flim-Flam Brothers lie. At no point do they cheat or steal or break a promise. Under the rules of business ethics they have done nothing wrong. And yet as I said their introductory musical number depicts them as con men, and the episode as a whole is clearly structured with them as villains. This moment is the reason why: Because unlike Applejack, they are good at business, and as such they are completely willing to sacrifice quality (or anything else) at a moment’s notice. They are rational in the economic sense, willing to do what it takes to get what they want, and what they want is to make money and to win.

Put another way: Applejack is a farmer who uses money as a means to maintain her farm, to the end of producing products such as cider. The Flim-Flam Brothers are businessmen who use cider as a means to make money. They are alienated from the product of their work (and yes, I am aware of the irony that this is not only despite but because they own the means of production), caring neither about its quality nor the happiness of their customers so long as they can get money out of it. Remember again Scrooge’s invisible army of employees, the fact that he never seems to engage with the actual work his businesses do, but rather goes off to microscopically increase his wealth with treasure hunts that take weeks and probably do not involve more than a couple of million in profit per trip, a fraction of a percent of what a single large-scale contract could earn him, and contrast to this Applejack, who gets her hands dirty, who values her creation not for what it can get her, not so that she can swim in a big bin of money, but because it is, in itself, a thing of value and worth.

The villainy of the Flim-Flam Brothers is that they value nothing for itself, only for what it can get them. They are the essence of capitalism, the price of setting a price for everything–a core assumption of capitalism is that everything has a monetary value and can be substituted for something else of equal monetary value, so there exists some quantity of potatoes worth giving up all your dreams for. So of course, in the end, we cannot have the moral spelled out for us. We must have Applejack simply declare that she learned nothing, because she really did know it all along, as we all do: business ethics aren’t ethical. Honesty alone is not enough to be good; it must bring in its friends, such as kindness and generosity and loyalty and laughter–it must involve compassion, caring about what you’re doing–to balance itself.

The fundamental difference between Equestria and our world is not magic, it’s not the talking animals, it’s not even the filter of self-censorship necessary in making a show for children. It is simply that in our world, the Flim-Flam Brothers are in charge.

Next Week: A less depressing episode, as Rainbow Dash is temporarily crippled in an accident and utterly cut off from everything she loves.