Brainwashing Media

Make no mistake: we are being brainwashed by the media that we consume.

(This post isn’t on faith, but it seems appropriate to acknowledge the Bible warns of such: ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!’ (Matthew 6:22-23)).

In the not too-distant past I watched an action movie on Netflix called Wolf Warrior II. It’s an action movie set in Africa. The core difference however is that it is a Chinese action movie. All of the heroes in the story are Chinese. The Chinese are building the infrastructure of Africa; they are boosting the economy and being friendly to the locals. When the bad guys (Westerners, mostly American) show up it’s the Chinese embassy that protects the African civilians.

Of course the Chinese are known for their philanthropic benevolence with minority groups. Well, I guess technically a million Uyghurs aren’t a small minority, so the fact they’re in prison re-education camps doesn’t matter. Nor am I referring to torture or prisoner organ harvesting. Heck, they do look after their own people well… if by ‘look after’ we really mean scrutinise dictatorially.

Wolf Warrior II was a clear and blatant propaganda piece, I suspect directed at helping with the China Belt-and-Road initiative in Africa. Swallow one tablet per day and if the delusions fade, take two.

More recently I was watching Designated Survivor. The first time I watched this show, I stopped early in the first season due to the obvious left-leaning nature of the show. When season 3 was released I thought I’d give it another go – there was an interesting subplot I was curious about. I watched the first two seasons, managing to overlook the political agenda.

Until I hit Season 3. Or should I say, season 3 hit me as subtly-as-a-brick-to-the-face.

On the third episode we find out the President’s deceased wife has a transgender sibling, Sasha (male to female, transition unspecified). I’m all for nuanced social debate and this can occur through TV shows (though I would argue not all shows are appropriate, nor is sport). But nuanced is the important keyword here. Don’t show only one side of an issue. Show all sides fairly and respectfully and let the audience make up their mind. It’s a hard balance to achieve, I admit that, but at least try for balance. Don’t preach at us Hollywood; you are not our moral betters. (Quite the opposite, often).

From a writing perspective the way in which they did it was deeply flawed to. First, the minor issue: Implausibly Sasha had been kept out of the spotlight until now due to privacy. Really? A President’s transgender in-law had been either hidden or all of the press gallery had shown unusual restraint? And Kirkman and his wife have never discussed her brother/sister even when alone? It’s a failure of good screen play writing.

If they wanted a transgender character they could have introduced Sasha in a far better way. If a family member, have Kirkman “discover” a previously unknown family member. Make it a step-family, a niece or nephew or a non-biological ‘extended family’ member. The point is, make them so distant as to not be newsworthy, while still close enough to still warrant an emotional connection. Better yet, in my opinion, have them be non-family, and introduce them in an event which creates an emotional bond. Kirkman’s wife has recently died. Have the transgender character be a teacher who was especially supportive to the daughter. There were so many better ways than a previously unknown close-family member suddenly appearing. Introduce them a few times early season 3 with a few in-scene shots and then late in the season they can plausibly take a larger role in an episode.

The worst part is the context they brought this character into. It is honestly so bad it’s cringe-worthy. It is self-defeating, an own-goal, and I’d argue demonstrates the stupidity of the politically-correct viewpoint of equality and relativism. It almost sends out invitations to be mocked.

The context: Penny Kirkman, the President’s young daughter experiences her first period. Having lost his wife recently to a drunk driver, the President doesn’t know quite how to broach the subject. Kirkman mentions Penny’s period to Sasha and this is how the conversation unfolds:

Sasha: “I’d be happy to speak with her if you like?”
Kirkman: “I don’t know…, I can-”
Sasha: “That’s OK. You’re correct. I didn’t actually go through it myself. It only felt like I did… but that’s the whole point. But don’t you think that she’d be more comfortable discussing it with someone who… looks like me rather than like you.”
Kirkman: “Yeah you’re right. Thank you.”

Okaaaay. So the President doesn’t know how to address the topic with his daughter. He doesn’t turn to her grandmother. He doesn’t turn to his long-term and highly-trusted female former chief-of-Staff. Or any of the other females in his personal or professional life. He thinks it’s a good idea to turn to someone who admits they haven’t experienced it, but feels as though they have.

And feeling like experiencing it ‘is the whole point’? Um, no. If I’m finding something embarrassing or confronting I’d like to talk to someone who has experienced it. I want to hear about their experiences, and the strategies and tips that might help me dealing with it in the future. I might have questions and I want them to be able to answer them from a position of wisdom and experience. Not feeling.

And if that was the most convincing rationale the writer’s could come up with, they really should have let the idea percolate longer.

So Designated Survivor this is where I find something better to watch. You won’t be missed.

Continued Writing Skill

Last year – to the day as it turns out – I wrote about a good and bad example of continuity in TV. If I do say so myself, I enjoyed re-reading my own blog post. The good example was NCIS and how they dealt with Tony DiNozzo leaving the show.

After many seasons I still enjoy NCIS; but that doesn’t mean I am blind to the show’s weaknesses. It is highly formulaic and the plots of the episodes are seldom surprising. That’s not to say there isn’t any suspense or the occasional plot twist which catches me unaware. What keeps me watching are the characters. After so many seasons their quirky natures and chemistry continue to be enjoyable.

Continuing on the same theme as my former post, the way the writers handle characters leaving the show is done well; much better than many other shows handle it. Season 15 of NCIS saw Abby wave farewell to her former colleagues as she left the show. As if to echo my earlier blog post comments about continuity, McGee had a phone call with Tony and DiNozzo senior popped in for a cameo visit.

After the death of MI6 agent Duane Henry, Abby decides to leave NCIS to carry on his community work. Like Tony had, Abby left on good terms, after having “nice moments” with most of the crew. Killing Abby, even if it was dying heroically, would not have been kind to the audience. And its my belief that it wouldn’t fit the tone of the show. While characters do sometimes die – killing a 1-season Kate needs to handled differently than a 15-season Abby. Kate was also a field agent where danger is expected; Abby would have been more of “an innocent”. Killing her off in any manner would have been traumatic and put her long-term fans offside.

Kasie, who would become Abby’s replacement entered the show six episodes before Abby’s departure. She entered the show as Doc Mallard’s editor/writing assistant. (Incidentally, letting Mallard write a book and teach is also setting him up for a transition out of the show. It is a reward for both him and Jimmy who is my favourite “autopsy gremlin”). I’ve heard writing advice that says to create a twist by letting a side-plot become the main plot – and this is largely the same: a minor character transitions into a major character.

Kasie is introduced early, she builds a good rapport (if shallow) with all of the characters, and importantly shows homage to the brilliance which is Abby Scuito.

Also important, she defines herself quickly as both quirkly and different from her predecessor – which will leave many opportunities for interesting interactions with her co-stars. (Ditto that, with the introduction of the troubled Jack Sloane).

In a character-driven show it’s important that we’re seeing character development in both their personal and professional lives. Ellie is stepping up as a potential leader and McGee now has baby twins to deal with. Torres – well I’m not sure about Torres…

The way the writers handle introducing and departing characters is stronger than many others shows.

(In closing, I also want to mention how I wish they’d have a few more multi-episode plots. Take Vance’s capture at the end of the season… I’d like to see that drawn out for at least 3 episodes… it doesn’t need to be tied up in a bow after a single episode or 2. Let the characters work hard to secure his release – give me at least one try-fail cycle first).

Continuity: Examples from TV

My beautiful wife and I have just celebrated 11 years of marriage. Most of those years have been fantastic, even if there were challenges to overcome. Marriage is awesome when you both put in the effort to look after one another and keep the marriage healthy. It pays dividends like no other investment.

One of our traditions that has developed over the years is we like to celebrate our anniversary by completely relaxing. We buy the latest season of Law and Order SVU and NCIS and then binge watch over a weekend.

Today I’m going to blog about the observations I made on continuity watching both seasons. Continuity is important for all series, whether book or TV.

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Big Budget Does Not Mean Good Story

With working some long hours, and over-taxing my body, I’ve spent more hours than normal in front of the TV in the last week. In hindsight, I realise it was time not well spent. Even though it was shows and movies I wanted to watch, I found most of them bland and uninspiring. Even high-cost productions lacked a good story line, leaving my overall impression at “bleh”. I moved from anticipating the new series through to just feeling obligated to finish it.

The one exception to this cacophony of lacklustre entertainment was the Marvel movie Doctor Strange. Spoiler alert: read no further. From a cinematic point of view it was too heavy on CGI for my liking, but in contrast to everything else it had a good story line, even if it was cliché.

Good: Doctor Strange played by Benedict Cumberbatch is a deeply-flawed egomaniac who wants to win at everything. He ends up defeating the bad guy by being willing to fail endlessly.

Bad: I’d have to say I didn’t believe the transformation. I didn’t see him changing over time, it was like someone flicked a switch and all of a sudden he’d changed. Not so much a character arc than a plot-required u-turn.

Good: Being willing to fail is something that most people can relate to, and for the perfectionist it is a hard thing to accept.

Bad: In hindsight, it was kind of a weak ‘fail’. I mean he was willing to loose in another galaxy, population 1.. There were no witnesses. It’s not like he was willing to admit his mistakes on international TV.

Good: There was some good humour to break up the action. (Marvel are good at this). Take for example this where his cloak has ideas of its own.

Bad: And then the super-cheesy, I-so-didn’t-see-that-coming from the monk who never laughs. (Guess what he does?)

There were other problems with it too, which I guess just shows how bad the others were. From now on, I’m reading, not watching TV when it’s the approach of bed time.

On Villains and Heroes

Recently I watched the thriller Hush on Netflix. I’m not normally a thriller watcher, but every now and then the mood is (f)right. I enjoyed the movie and it got me thinking…

Hush is the classic psychopath-stranger meets lone girl in remote location. The victim just happens to be an author which is helpful in piquing my interest.  The twist this time is that the ‘victim’ or protagonist is both deaf and mute.

A protagonist should be placed in a vulnerable position by the villain and I can’t think of a more vulnerable position than being deaf and hunted. Imagine being worried about someone breaking into your house and not being able to hear them at all. Are they breaking down the front door or standing just around the corner? Sound is a pivotal sense when it comes to engaging the flight or fight mentality.

Imagine screaming in pain, and knowing that not a peep was coming out of your mouth. You can’t call for help no matter how hard you try. The twin duo of deaf and mute make you more vulnerable and less able to protect yourself. Kudos to the writers Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel for choosing a protagonist that maximised the suspense.

Then my thoughts turned to villains. An evil villain like a psychopath is a scary proposition. When I consider villains they fit onto a scale something like this (where the higher the number the more scary they are):

  1. At the ‘weak’ end of the scale is the incidental villain. This is just someone who is going along with the flow, perhaps being dragged somewhat unwillingly along by peer pressure. They made a bad decision and its putting them into bad situations.
  2. Doing slightly bad things from necessity not choice is the subsistence villain. They might steal to feed the family, but they’re going to avoid hurting people if they can.
  3. The social villain. The louts and idiots who enjoy committing ‘medium’ level crimes. They normally travel in packs and like to think they are smarter because they  ‘live outside the system’. Normally they started off as incidental or subsistence villains but then graduated up the food chain, so this group covers the boss down to the foot soldiers.
  4. Taking a giant leap in evil-rating is the sociopath villain. These individuals like to commit crime and hurt people. They can’t empathize and will only ‘behave’ if it is personally beneficial.
  5. Give a sociopath a high intellect and/or lots of money and they becomes a genius villain. They are the cream of the criminal crop. They’re not interested in becoming the biggest drug dealer, but running the entire city and/or world.
  6. The architect villain though is even scarier (in some respects). Sure they might be committing crime and hurting people, but their motivation is what makes them truly scary. They are doing it because it will eventually help us. They can see that our temporary pain will be to our eventual good. This villain will never rest because in their mind they are doing what is right.
  7. At the very top of the scale is the child sociopath.

looper

(Take for example the movie Looper … laying aside my general dislike for a 5 year old child playing such an incredibly dark role).

I find a child psychopath more disturbing than an adult and I don’t think I’m alone. Is it because we inherently know that children are supposed to be innocent? Does a criminal act feels even more criminal when committed by a child? Is part of our fear related to their potential to hide their true nature? We know adults can be evil, but what if a child is evil now… how bad will they be in the future?

The mentally-deranged child is by far the worst villain.

Comical Characters

My wife and I have started to enjoy watching The Good Wife on Netflix. I know we’re a bit late to the show, but we got there anyway. 

One of the things which I really appreciate about the writing is the host of comical judges that come through the courtrooms like an assortment of clowns on a pageant float. 

There is the judge who insists on lawyers caveating every statement with “in my opinion”. Or the judge who makes lawyers “excuse themselves” if they try talking over anyone, virtually making them stand in the corner like a naughty child. Or the ancient judge who despite having two hearing aids and looking not-long-for-this-world is incredibly tech-savvy. 

Television has taught us over the years that judges are serious and often pompous individuals. These reoccurring characters break the mould, pleasantly surprising and shocking the audience. Their unique and individual behaviour injects comedy into the stories. And the pattern of always-odd judges means that we anticipate meeting new judges to see how they will be humorous.

There is something in these comical characters that we can apply to writing. Even in a serious book not every character has to be serious. Or perhaps they just have a strange character quirk that makes them interesting. 

Author’s Notes: When Nightmares Wake

This post is my author’s notes to When Nightmares Wake where I describe my thought processes, decisions and mistakes in writing the story. Think of it like the Director’s commentary on a DVD; only better because it won’t be in monotone (unless you read it so).

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