Sunday, October 31, 2010

Recent Reading Roundup 28

October was a good reading month for me, and November may continue in that fashion, if Richard Hughes's The Fox in the Attic turns out to be as good as its first third promises.  In the meantime, however, here are the books I've read this month.
  1. Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada - It seems that every few years the English-speaking world discovers a European author whose works on the Holocaust--preferably published posthumously, after their death at the hands of the Nazis--it can celebrate as the latest, most authentic, and most heart-rending exploration of What It Was Really Like.  I skipped Irene Nemirovsky, and felt rather good about that choice when the ecstatic praise for her novel Suite Francaise gave way to foot-shuffling at the internalized anti-semitism of her earlier novels, and later revelations of her own affinity towards fascism.  I was all set to give Hans Fallada the same treatment when Bookslut's Jessa Crispin began raving about his novels Every Man Dies Alone (also published as Alone in Berlin) and Wolf Among Wolves.  For the first hundred pages of Every Man, it seemed that I had made a mistake, as Fallada, whose altercations with the Nazis during their rise to power and WWII eventually led to his commitment to an insane asylum, seemed to be writing German apologia.  His characters are either innocents who are just trying to get through the war without losing anyone they love, or greedy, lascivious villains, and it just so happens that the former are apolitical, and, if they are members of the Nazi party, have only joined it in order to get by, while the latter are devout Nazis.  As the novel opens, working class couple Otto and Anna Quangel receive the news that their son was killed on the front, while postwoman Eva Kluge learns from her ex-husband just what their son's work for the SS storm troopers entails.  They vow to rebel, in their own small ways.  The Quangels begin distributing anonymous postcards critical of Hitler, the Nazis, and the war, while Eva resigns from the party and leaves Berlin for the countryside.  Meanwhile, the Quangels' neighbors, the Persickes, plot to rob an elderly Jewish neighbor, and an acquaintance of Otto's, Emil Borkhausen, blackmails Eva's ex-husband Enno, who has come under the attention of the Gestapo.

    The further I got into Every Man Dies Alone, however, the more complicated and thought-provoking the novel became.  The middle parts of the novel are mostly concerned with the battle of wits between Borkhausen, Enno, Gestapo Inspector Escherich, who, under pressure to discover the distributor of the Quangels' postcards, uses Enno as a patsy, and Frau Haberle, a woman whom Enno cons into protecting him by playing on her antipathy for the Gestapo.  It's a dance driven by fear and selfishness--Esherich knows that Enno is innocent but is terrified of his superiors, Frau Haberle tries to get Borkhausen off Enno's back but is undone by his stupidity and short-sightedness, Enno himself tries to play the noble rebel, but quickly reveals himself to be greedy and cowardly.  These chapters read like a grimmer version of the middle segments of The Master and Margarita, in which characters struggle in vain to discover just the right sort of lies with which to placate a vast bureaucratic machine that devours and guilty and innocent alike, only to realize that there is no right way to behave, that the only way to survive is through luck or power.  It's a take on Nazi Germany--as a very, very, very dark farce--that is unlike anything I've ever read before, and it achieves what the earlier chapters of the novel put my off by attempting, making the German characters, guilty and innocent alike, seem pitiable without sweeping their complicity in their current predicament under the rug.  In its final third, the novel returns to the Quangels, whose luck finally runs out and who find themselves imprisoned, tortured, and subjected to a trial whose outcome is a foregone conclusion.  At the same time, the war turns against Germany, and incursions into its territory, including bombings of Berlin itself, occur with increasing frequency.  That the Nazi regime is crumbling, however, makes no difference to the Quangels (who aren't even aware of this fact, entombed as they are in Gestapo prisons), nor is it their resistance that brings the war to an end, as the novel stresses when it reveals how few people the seditious postcards reached and affected.  That the Quangels are both doomed and ineffective injects a measure of realism to their principled resistance in the last days of their lives, and tempers the righteousness of the novel's final chapters.

    It's a bit of a shame, therefore, that Every Man Dies Alone ends with an epilogue that returns to Eva Kluge, who has disowned her son and adopted Borkhausen's, a runaway whom she is teaching good values and who represents the bright future of Germany after the defeat of the Nazis.  It's a return to the stark division between Good and Bad Germans of the novel's early chapters, which the intervening segments had worked so hard to complicate, and a reminder that Every Man Dies Alone was written not for foreign readers but for Germans in the immediate wake of WWII, and is thus a little more consoling than a reader in 2010 would like.  That said, the novel was written in only 24 days, and Fallada died soon after completing it, so it can certainly be forgiven a few rough patches, especially in light of the power of much of its narrative.

  2. The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant - This is the third collection of Gallant's stories that NYRB Classics has published, containing previously uncollected work spanning twenty years in the career of the Canadian-born writer, whose affinity for France eventually led her to relocate to Paris.  Some of the stories in the collection are set there, and focus on the difficulty of immigrants trying to adapt to the city, and on life in the outer reaches of its bohemian society, but others follow characters in Canada, the US, and elsewhere in the world.  Early stories feel very typical of post-war, post-modern short story writers, focusing on strained marriages, lost children, and lonely women, who are brought to life with shocking deftness and in prose so beautiful that it rivals that of the author of the collection's foreword, Jhumpa Lahiri.  In "Autumn Day," the narrator is a young army wife who has joined her husband in post-war France and is renting a room in an out-of-the-way farm while they wait for a housing assignment.  The farm is the setting to her introduction to Europe, to the still-painful ravages of the war, to marriage, and to sex.  In "Thieves and Rascals," a couple is informed by their daughter's boarding school that she has run off with a boy for a weekend, and is being sent home.  They spend the day waiting for her, trying to understand her behavior, and bumping up against the predatory nature of relationships between men and women.  In the title story, the narrator, a music teacher who ran off to Paris years ago, is joined by her sister, now wealthy after the death of their parents, and introduces her to bohemian Paris, causing a clash of cultural and sexual expectations.  In "Bernadette," a liberal Montreal couple thoughtlessly condescend to their poor, uneducated maid, but are brought up short when she turns up pregnant.  In all of these stories, Gallant hones her sentences into fine stiletto knives, crafting images, characters, and sharp observations with only a few well-chosen words.  Later stories, written in the 60s and 70s, shift into more experimental styles and discussions of history, such as the French-Algerian war or the French labor protests in the late 60s, that I have less affinity for, and I thus found these less affecting, but they are still magnificently written, and I will certainly be seeking out NYRB's other collections of Gallant's writing.

  3. The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov - There was a time, after reading Lolita and Pale Fire, when I was set to make my way through Nabokov's whole bibliography, but somehow that conviction faded away.  The Luzhin Defense is the first Nabokov novel I've read in years, and it more than whets my appetite for more of his writing even though, as the author notes in his foreword, it's a novel most beloved by readers who don't care for his other work.  I can see how that would be.  The Luzhin Defense, which follows the short, sad life of the eponymous chess grandmaster, is a great deal less coy than Lolita and Pale Fire.  There's still a lot of game-playing here--quite literally, of course, and Nabokov makes much of chess imagery and images of game-playing when he describes Luzhin's early life as an unloving, remote child who only comes to life when he discovers chess, and later his attempts, as an adult, to relinquish the game after his obsession with it leads to a nervous breakdown, and to build a normal life with a woman who falls deeply in love with him.  But the one thing Nabokov doesn't play with is the reader's emotions and expectations.  Unlike Lolita and Pale Fire, it's clear what we're meant to be feeling and how we're meant to react to the characters.  Even straightforward Nabokov, however, is pretty twisty by everyone else's standards, and the novel's tone and register change swiftly, from tragedy to dark comedy and back again, as Luzhin's detachment from reality is used alternately for humor and pathos, and as that detachment begins to shade into mental illness.  This is all handled with such incredible skill that I feel more than a little presumptuous praising it--does the world need me to tell it that Vladimir Nabokov was a damn good writer?  Still, he was, and in the space of only 200 pages brings Luzhin, his wife, and her uncomprehending family to vivid life.  It's also refreshing, given the ubiquity of the sports narrative even in stories about cerebral exercises like chess (for example in The Player of Games, which I read immediately before The Luzhin Defense), to read a novel that doesn't treat its main character's complete immersion in a game, and their inability to deal with life outside of the confines of that game, as something normal and healthy.  I don't know if liking The Luzhin Defense means that I won't like the rest of Nabokov's writing, but I'm certainly feeling motivated to find out.

  4. Fantastic Night by Stefan Zweig - This is an Israeli-published collection of some of Zweig's short fiction, including the novellas Fantastic Night, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Chess Story, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, and Amok.  After loving Zweig's last work and only novel, Beware of Pity, I was shocked to discover that there are some who consider him sentimental and populist, because it seemed that Pity took what could have been a sentimental story and made something sharper out of it.  These novellas demonstrate that Zweig was not always so clever.  Chess Story is the best of the bunch, describing a match between a mercenary, uncouth grandmaster, and an older man, a former dilettante who immersed himself in chess in order to survive torture by the Nazis.  Its comparison of the two players' attitudes towards the game is interesting, but carries a definite whiff of class prejudice.  The older player represents the old world--he was a lawyer for the now-defunct Austrian aristocracy and was tortured because he had knowledge of their concealed money--while his opponent comes from a working class background, and is described as a boor for whom chess is but a means to achieving fame and fortune.  Still, this is by far the least sentimental story in the collection, whose characters are forever vowing eternal love or service, preparing to die for their love, for their sins, or for shame, and writing each other long, overwrought letters about these experiences (all but one story in the collection has a frame narrative, usually a letter or manuscript).  It's also a little disturbing just how frequently the suffering characters are women who do not behave in a socially acceptable manner.  In Unknown Woman, the title character can only consummate her love for the recipient of her letter, a wealthy playboy, by convincing him that she is a prostitute, which eventually leads to her and her child's deaths.  In Amok, a doctor in a German colony first insults, and then vainly tries to save the life of a woman who has become pregnant out of wedlock.  Zweig was a product of his time so I can't blame him for seeing this sort of behavior as beyond the pale (or for recognizing that his society did) but as a product of mine, his emphasis on women's inappropriate expressions of their sexuality, and on the suffering they endure because of them, makes me even less likely to buy into the sentimentality of his stories.

  5. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin - OK, I give in.  For the better part of a decade I've been left out of the party that fandom has been holding for Le Guin.  I admired her, to be sure, and liked a lot of her writing, but I didn't quite feel the overpowering love that a lot of fans seem to have for her writing.  Even The Left Hand of Darkness, which I liked a great deal, left me with some reservations.  Now I've read The Dispossessed and, yeah, I get it, because this is an incredible novel--beautifully written, inventive, and still, forty years after its publication, so very different from any work of science fiction I've ever read.  Shevek is a member of a utopian group that, nearly 200 years ago, left its home on the planet Urras for a hardscrabble but hopefully egalitarian life on its moon, Anarres.  A physicist whose work has long been stymied by jealous colleagues, and whose desire to collaborate with Urrasti colleagues is viewed with distrust, Shevek travels Urras in order to complete his work, to learn about Urras, and to spread the word about Anarresti way of life.  What's most remarkable about The Dispossessed is how effortless it seems when really, Le Guin is doing so many things at the same time: laying out the founding philosophy of Shevek's society, describing the ways in which that philosophy is implemented in every aspect of Anarresti life, and the ways in which human nature subverts and corrupts it, describing various nations on Urras and their reactions to and perceptions of Anarres, as well as the reactions that individuals and groups on Urras have to Shevek's presence, and finally, telling Shevek's own story, from his childhood to his meeting with his partner, to the early stages of his career, to his growing disillusionment with the scientists and officials around him, and his realization that even an anarchist society will eventually develop structures and hierarchies, to his decision to travel to Urras.  All of these elements blend together into a story that is compulsively readable even though hardly anything exciting happens--Shevek's career goes through ups and downs, he's separated from his partner and child and then reunited with them, he is alternately entranced and disgusted by life on Urras.  I also appreciated the complexity of Le Guin's construction of both Urrasti and Anarresti societies.  Though it's clear that she's on the latter's side (and though I think that in one respect, at least, her construction of utopia strains credulity--I don't believe that simply setting out to create a society free of racial and sexual prejudice is enough to abolish it from both the conscious and subconscious levels, as Anarres has done), she doesn't shy away from showing us what's good about Urras, and what's bad about Anarres, and from concluding that even the kindest and most fair society needs to be shaken up from time to time.  The Dispossessed ends on as low-key a note as it began with, but nevertheless I found myself wishing that it had gone on for much longer, so that I could spend more time with Shevek, and on Urras and Anarres.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Now All Doctor Who Until the End

Syfy has not only canceled Caprica, but has pulled it from its schedule, promising to air the first season's remaining episodes some time in 2011.

Look, it's not as if you couldn't see this coming.  Hell, you could see it coming the moment the idea of a space-adventure-less, soap opera prequel to Battlestar Galactica was bandied about, and Caprica's pilot pretty much confirmed that this was not a show interested in wooing either Galactica's fans or Syfy's traditional viewership (which Syfy is now trying to with the just-announced, and hilariously-titled, Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome).  Nor, to be honest, can I find it in my heart to grieve too much for a show that seemed already, in its last few episodes, to be veering towards Galactica's mythology in an all too familiar way.  I liked some things about Caprica, and thought that it had serious problems, and if I ever manage to watch the entire first season I might write about both, but the one aspect of the show that kept me coming back was that it seemed disconnected from Battlestar Galactica, and a lot more thoughtful and interesting about issues--religion and religious fundamentalism, prejudice, terrorism--than Galactica ever was.  In the episodes aired this fall, however, the handling of some of these issues verged on Galactica-esque ham-handedness, and one character was even revealed to be in contact with Six-esque projection.  Which means that even if the second season had happened, I might not have tuned in. 

So what's frustrating to me this morning isn't so much the news of Caprica's death as the fact that that death is just the latest in a long line of flawed-but-interesting science fiction series (with, incidentally, meaty and prominent roles for women)--The Middleman, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dollhouse--that have been killed off over the last few years, leaving science fiction fans with a pretty barren TV landscape populated mostly by shlocky Spy Fi, feather-light monster of the week series, and third-rate Galactica and Lost imitations.  There's a reason that every single show that I've written positively and at length about in the last year has been a mainstream series--because no one is doing interesting, or even particularly watchable, work in TV science fiction, and though things are slightly better for fantasy (I may not like True Blood but I can respect its accomplishments, and I'm looking forward to HBO's Song of Ice and Fire) and horror (please let The Walking Dead be good), I'm not seeing much hope on the horizon for science fiction.  Right now, the only show that approaches decent science fiction on TV is Doctor Who, and that should be a sad commentary even for people who love it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Shire of Shopkeepers: Thoughts on The Hobbit

The most that can be said for the dwarves is this: they intended to pay Bilbo really handsomely for his services; they had brought him to do a nasty job for them, and they did not mind the poor fellow doing it if he would; but they would have done their best to get him out of trouble, if he got into it, as they did in the case of the trolls at the beginning of their adventures before they had any particular reasons for being grateful to him.  There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.
Last week's news that the long-beleaguered production of The Hobbit is finally getting on its way, and that certain roles, including Bilbo and Thorin, had been cast, sent me back to the book itself for the first time in nearly a decade.  I reread The Lord of the Rings every few years, but The Hobbit is less dear to my heart and thus less frequently returned to.  What brought me back this time was the desire to gain some grounding in the text from which to wonder how Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens were going to adapt the novel, which in my recollection was childish and episodic, into something of a piece with their Lord of the Rings trilogy.  With the exception of Martin Freeman as Bilbo (possibly the most inspired piece of casting of the last few years, if only because it's made me realize just how much Bilbo and Arthur Dent have in common), the names being bandied about for the film's major and minor roles left me scratching my head.  Richard Armitage, who has smoldered as John Thornton in North & South and as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood, seems an odd choice to play Thorin, whose only heroic moment in The Hobbit happens off-page, and who is otherwise pragmatic, unromantic, and avaricious.  And to make much of the rest of the dwarfs, who are barely more than scenery in the book, seemed even stranger.  Both choices indicate that Jackson and Boyens are trying to create another fellowship to mirror the one in The Lord of the Rings, and to focus the film on derring-do even though it's mostly through trickery (and a lot of luck) that the day is won.  For a while in the early aughts just about every adaptation of a fantasy novel into film was marred by its producers' thoughtless determination to imitate the epic style and scope of the Rings films, whether or not the source material could support this--the first Narnia film was a particularly bad example.  Looking at the casting for Jackson's Hobbit, I couldn't help but wonder if he was in danger of making the same mistake.

Tolkien's celebrated affinity for worldbuilding means that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings clearly take place in the same invented world, but it's precisely at those points that the two works overlap that the differences between their Middle Earths are most apparent.  There is danger in The Hobbit, and the characters face many merciless, amoral foes.  But evil, which drives the antagonists in The Lord of the Rings, is absent from the book--its villains are merely bad.  There is, as well, no sense of grandeur in The Hobbit, nor of the high stakes that are perpetually in the background, and finally the foreground, in The Lord of the Rings.  Nowhere is the gulf between the two books' tones more apparent than in the chapter "Riddles in the Dark," which Tolkien rewrote when the idea for The Lord of the Rings began germinating in him.  In the chapter's original version, Gollum bets the ring willingly and accepts its loss with good grace.  The new version feels very much as if Bilbo has temporarily stepped into another novel--a grimmer, darker one--which is exactly what he has done, but which leaves The Hobbit, and particularly those later chapters in which Bilbo cavalierly uses the ring (which in the new "Riddles in the Dark" is treated as a character with its own desires, as it is for the whole of The Lord of the Rings), feeling rather wobbly (a similar wobbliness afflicts Gandalf's attempts to explain, at the council of Elrond, why he spent so much time and energy assisting Thorin in his quest to regain his grandfather's treasure, and why this victory was significant in the war against Sauron). 

To put it simply, the characters in The Hobbit don't care about the same things that the characters in The Lord of the Rings do.  They don't want to save the world; they're not interested in vanquishing evil.  They just want to get paid.  The whole novel is driven by money, and the desire to gain or regain it.  The quest driving the novel could easily be reconfigured as one for revenge, or to reclaim a lost birthright, but the dwarfs themselves leave no doubt that what they're after is the legendary treasure of Thror--as Bilbo himself points out late in the novel, to defeat Smaug would take a hero, whereas the dwarfs have brought with them a burglar.  The villain of the piece is a dragon, which many myths and fairy tales link with avarice and possessiveness--to sleep on a pile of gold is the ultimate expression of greed for its own sake--and Smaug, whose reaction to the theft of a single item from his enormous hoard is "the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted," epitomizes these qualities.  The good guys, meanwhile, are banking on making bank--it's never stated out loud, to Tolkien's good fortune, but reading between the lines it's easy to guess that Gandalf is helping the dwarfs in expectation that he will be compensated, and even Bilbo, the most adventurous and least greedy character in the novel (who is also the richest, at its outset), holds on to the note promising him a fourteenth share of the treasure throughout his travails.  There is, on both their parts, a sort of businesslike attitude, like the one attributed to the dwarfs in the quote that opens this post--a sense that, though they would probably still go above and beyond the call of duty even if no money was at stake, seeing as it is at stake, they expect to be paid.

Money, and specifically Thror's treasure, drives much of the plot of The Hobbit.  When Thorin is captured by the forest elves, he refuses to state his business in the Mirkwood, fearing--with, we're led to believe, some justification--that their king will only release him in exchange for a share of the treasure.  When Bilbo and the dwarfs escape the elves and arrive in Lake Town, the people are overjoyed at the return of the king under the mountain, but the master of the town fears for his business ties with the forest king.  Smaug is killed, with relatively little fuss and almost no input from our heroes, several chapters before the novel comes to an end, and what takes up these remaining chapters is a dispute over how to distribute his hoard: the people of Lake Town and the elves initially believe that Thorin is dead and march on the mountain to claim the treasure for themselves; when they discover that he is alive, they demand compensation for the destruction of Lake Town; Thorin refuses, and a tense and volatile siege follows.  The further I read in The Hobbit, the clearer it became that the disconnect between it and The Lord of the Rings wasn't one of tone or complexity, but of subgenre.  Tolkien, who is credited with inventing, or at least codifying, epic fantasy, wasn't practicing it here.  Instead, The Hobbit reads like a very strange cross between sword & sorcery, whose characters are mercenaries rather than heroes, trying to make a buck rather than save the world, and the modern reaction to Tolkien's own conception of epic fantasy, which replaces honor, chivalry, and noble kings with messy political systems whose rulers are more concerned with accruing power and wealth than in triumphing over evil.

In other words, the argument can be made that Tolkien's starting position for both Middle Earth and his take on fantasy was closely in line with what modern fantasy writers are doing today.  That he, like them, imagined a fantasy world in which people sought money and power, and thought only of their own petty concerns.  The difference between Tolkien and modern fantasists is that he didn't like what he saw, and set out to change it.  The Hobbit is quite decidedly set against greed and the desire for wealth, not only through the character of Smaug, but through Thorin and his reaction to regaining his grandfather's treasure.  When Bilbo and the dwarfs are set loose in Smaug's hoard, the effect that the gold and jewels have on them is explicitly likened to a magic spell, a lingering effect of the dragon's presence, and Tolkien uses the same terms to describe this spell that he will later use to describe the lure of the ring.  Bilbo's theft of the Arkenstone is described almost as a compulsion, and recalls Pippin's obsession with, and theft of, the palantir.  Characters who value gold above all things come to a sticky end--Smaug, Thorin (who forgives Bilbo only when he knows that he is dying, and can't take the treasure that Bilbo stole from him to the afterworld), and even the master of Lake Town, who steals the money meant for the town's reconstruction, then dies alone in the wilderness.  Bilbo, meanwhile, learns to relinquish wealth--he gives up the Arkenstone, and his fourteenth share in the treasure, in the hopes of making peace between Thorin and the besiegers, and when he returns home takes only a small reward from the dwarfs, and even leaves unmolested the treasure that he and the dwarfs took from the trolls on their way out.

All this isn't enough for Tolkien.  He doesn't just want to make the point that money is evil.  He wants to say that it isn't even important.  Modern fantasy writers consider characters like the dwarfs in the quote above, who are decent enough if you don't expect too much from them, to be the holy grail of the genre, but for Tolkien, characters who were businessmen rather than heroes were worse than useless.  The final chapters of The Hobbit see the petty concerns of the novel and its characters subtly replaced, making way for the ones that will occupy The Lord of the Rings.  Bard of Lake Town, who is described as grim-faced but steely, and is the descendant of the last king of Dale, is a proto-Aragorn, and when he slays Smaug the people of Lake Town mutter that the master of the town "may have a good head for business ... but he is no good when anything serious happens!"  The novel climaxes with the army of Thorin's cousin Dain about to face off against the joint forces of the men of lake town and the elves of the forest, though the elven king is loath to start a "war for gold."  The battle is interrupted by the arrival of a goblin army, which gives them all something serious, something meaningful, to fight over.  At the end of that battle Thorin is dead, the more open-minded Dain is king under the mountain, Bard is cemented in his leadership role (and later rebuilds Dale), and the first shots of The War of the Ring are fired.  As much as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings differ in tone, at the very end of the first novel one can sense the second coming into being--it describes a world passing from an age of commerce to a heroic age.

Of course, Tolkien was no communist.  Bilbo decides to renounce treasure, but not all worldly possessions.  He still returns to the Shire an even wealthier man than he was before, and his first act upon returning is to drive off those who would claim his property.  Tolkien may not like the pursuit of wealth as a goal in its own right, but he certainly has no objection to being comfortably well off (so long as you don't work too hard to make that money, I suppose).  So in its own way, I find The Hobbit even more reactionary and troubling than The Lord of the Rings--probably because the battle between good and evil feels more remote from my every day concerns than the questions of the role that money and the pursuit of it play in my life.  At the same time, it's a reminder that, for all that we like to mock Tolkien for his linguistic obsessions and compulsive worldbuilding, he had a very definite worldview, which he expressed in his novels with skill and intelligence.  That's something worth remembering even if we don't like what he was trying to say.  I can easily imagine Peter Jackson pouring a heroic story into The Hobbit's mold, and I might even enjoy that movie, or at least find it less disconcerting than I did this reread of the novel.  But a part of me wishes that he will try to tackle the novel as it is, just to see what he, and we, make of it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

On the last installment of my quest to read all of Iain M. Banks SFnal output (I will get to the non-M novels one of these days, I promise), I sadly concluded that though there's a lot that I admire about Banks's writing, particularly his flights of invention, his flashes of humor and wit, and the grand achievement that is the Culture, there's always something a little off about his novels.  They've been, at various points, too shapeless, too sprawling, too caught up in the fun of spinning exotic locations and breathtaking set pieces, and, most crucially, too muddled in their handling of their themes, and particularly of the Culture sequence's repeated questioning of the right of an egalitarian, socialist, humanistic utopia to interfere in the business of other civilizations and impose its values upon them.  Along comes The Player of Games, the second Culture novel, which is as perfectly formed and streamlined as other Culture novels have been meandering, whittling away the complications and digressions which have enlivened, but also weighed down, Banks's other novels to reveal a single, linear narrative and a very straightforward story that arrives at its point like an arrow slamming into a bulls-eye.  In terms of craft and construction, The Player of Games is undoubtedly the best Banks novel I've read, and one of the most enjoyable to boot.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is the Culture's most accomplished and celebrated player of games, a master of games of skill, strategy, and intellect from dozens of civilizations, and he is bored to death.  In Consider Phlebas, the first Culture novel, and in later novels in the sequence, those who oppose it invariably return to the argument that the Culture, an anarchist utopia governed by artificial intelligences, breeds decadence and hedonism in its citizens, makes them soft and vulnerable, and deprives them of a sense of purpose and meaning, and in the early chapters of The Player of Games Gurgeh seems to embody all of these flaws.  He has dedicated his life to the trivial and meaningless, to becoming the very best at artificial competitions with no objective value and no real world purpose, and all it's brought him is unhappiness.  He cuts an unimpressive figure in the novel's first segment, drifting from party to party, and from lover to lover, in a haze of bitterness, envying and undermining the happiness and enthusiasm of those he encounters, desperate for a new challenge.  What soon becomes clear, however, is that in some ways Gurgeh is decidedly unCultured.  He cares about winning.  He wants to be the first to achieve certain victories.  He wants to play for stakes.  In a conversation with a family friend, he muses that one of the games he's mastered was imported from a culture where it was played for wagers of money, where losing a game had real world consequences, often disastrous ones. Did bringing the game to the Culture, where money doesn't exist, Gurgeh asks, diminish it somehow? When a drone he's befriended offers to help him win a perfect game at one of his specialties--an achievement unprecedented within the Culture--Gurgeh is so hungry for the accomplishment that he cheats.

The opportunity to save both his soul and his reputation comes to Gurgeh in the form of a representative of Contact, the Culture's outreach division, who wants him to travel to the empire of Azad and play the game of the same name.  Normally, Gurgeh is told, an imperial system is too inefficient and cumbersome to support a spacefaring civilization, but Azad's empire--ruled by an aristocracy, obsessed with hierarchy, bolstered by codified social, racial, and sexual prejudices, and engaged in the conquest and subjugation of its neighboring species--has survived into this phase of the species's expansion because of the game from which it takes its name, a game that models the empire itself.  All social positions, from the lowliest clerk to the emperor himself, are won by playing Azad, and the philosophy of playing the game successfully is also the philosophy of ruling the empire.  The Culture, having concluded that to attempt to dismantle the empire from without would bring about only loss of life, and cause the survivors to resent their conquerors even more than they did their former oppressors, has chosen a tactic of diplomacy, and dispatches Gurgeh to play in Azad's great games, a months-long tournament in which the emperor himself plays for his throne.

The idea of a game that models reality can't help but resonate with a reader in 2010.  Online multiplayer games like Second Life have sought to mimic the full complexity of reality, while other, more fantastic games derive much of their appeal from allowing players to develop nuanced relationships and alliances.  Writing in 1988, Banks would most likely have been thinking of role-playing games and tabletop games.  In both periods, players of games have had to contend with the accusation that they are investing time, energy, and money in unreal achievements and meaningless victories, and The Player of Games can therefore be read as geek wish-fulfillment: imagine if all your years of playing D&D somehow endowed you with the necessary skills to rule a fantasy kingdom.  There is, in fact, a very familiar fantasy story at the core of The Player of Games, the one about an underdog or an outsider who gains fame and fortune by besting the ruling elite at their own game.  As he would later do in Matter, Banks, by standing outside the fantasy setting and telling its story from a remove, not only changes its genre to science fiction but questions its underlying assumptions--that a game is a good basis for a system of government, that an outsider, however skilled, will be allowed to triumph over the established ruling class, that it is possible change the system by playing by its rules. 

It's interesting to compare The Player of Games to Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, another science fiction story which posits a political system that is structured around, and shaped by, a game.  But where Collins imagines that the system and its basic assumptions can be challenged from within the game (I speak here only of the first book, not having read the sequels), Banks tells a more complicated tale.  Unsurprisingly, Azad the empire is more than willing to pervert the purity of the game in order to ensure its own survival--when Gurgeh meets one of a handful of female players, she informs him that she has little chance of making it past the tournament's first round, which is played in groups of ten, as the supposedly randomized system never places more than a single female player in a group, allowing the other players gang up on her; in The Hunger Games, the protagonists' defiance of the game's rules galvanizes the public watching at home, but when Gurgeh advances to the tournament's higher levels, he is informed that, as a condition of being allowed to play, he will have to participate in the falsification of reports that he has lost.  In fact, to call such acts a perversion of the game is to miss the point, because the purpose of Azad is not to shape the empire but to reinforce its status quo, and though outside interference is sometimes necessary in order to achieve this goal, most of the time the game achieves it on its own.  To win at Azad one must think as an Azadian, to value force of arms over diplomacy, conquest over cooperation, possession over sharing.  And, as we discover while following Gurgeh up the tournament's rungs, the more proficient and successful one becomes at Azad, the more appealing these values come to seem.

There is action in The Player of Games--before opting to politely ask Gurgeh to fake a loss, the Azad government tries to eliminate him by making several attempts on his life, and trying to entrap him in a compromising position with two Azad women--and there are the typical Banksian feats of invention, such as the holy planet on which the final games are held, whose single, planet-girding equatorial continent is repeatedly swept by a moving, never-extinguished wall of fire.  But the business of the novel is the game itself, Gurgeh's repeated matches against the increasingly skilled, increasingly desperate opponents the empire throws at him, culminating with a game against the Emperor Nicosar himself.  The novel is essentially constructed like a classic sports movie, with challenges and setbacks offset by triumphs, and it is a tribute to Banks's skill that he manages to make a relatively long sequence of these--Gurgeh plays six games in the tournament, most of which last several days and sometimes take a whole chapter, or several, to describe--seem effortless and engaging.  Like Walter Tevis in The Queen's Gambit (whose final segment, in which the chess genius heroine travels to Russia to beat the Communists at their own game in a politically charged tournament, bears more than a passing resemblance to The Player of Games), he manages to make the exchange of move and counter-move and the formulation and reconsideration of strategies both thrilling and believable, even though, unlike Tevis, the game he's describing is entirely invented.  What's revealed in these descriptions is how much Gurgeh is changed by his encounter with Azad, the empire and the game, how both make him crueler, more ruthless, more eager for victory.  How they foster in him feelings of possessiveness and sadism that should be foreign to a Culture citizen.  This is overdone at points, but as a metaphor for immersion in a foreign culture, and the loss of identity that can accompany it, the game is quite compelling.

If there's one flaw in The Player of Games, it's that Gurgeh doesn't see what any reader will guess, simply from the novel's sports story shape, and what the narrative itself hints at quite heavily--that there is a political reason for his presence in Azad, and that despite their protestations to the contrary, Contact want him to go all the way to the final round and play against Nicosar.  That final game, unsurprisingly, models a war between the Culture and Azad.  It is in playing this game that Gurgeh, who has by that point become at least partially subsumed into Azad culture, for example participating in the cruel sport of Nicosar's court, and is obsessed with winning the tournament, discovers that he has always been playing as the Culture: "He'd habitually set up something like the society itself when he constructed his positions and deployed his pieces; a net, a grid of forces and relationships, without any obvious hierarchy or entrenched leadership, and initially quite profoundly peaceful."  Playing Azad becomes Gurgeh's way back to the Culture.  Throughout his and Nicosar's match Gurgeh thinks of their game as something intimate and beautiful, but when he speaks about it with Nicosar, the emperor expresses disgust: "you treat this battle-game like some filthy dance.  It is there to be fought and struggled against, and you've attempted to seduce it."  Gurgeh, whose previous attitude to Culture values had been entirely cavalier, is shocked by this glimpse at the naked ambition and lust for conquest that underpin both empire and game into a simple and heartfelt affirmation of the Culture's creed, admitting that though, as Nicosar says, life isn't intrinsically fair, "it's something we can try to make it ... A goal we can aim for,  You can choose to do so, or not.  We have."  The novel's ending reads like a version of War Games in which the game-playing computer not only averts nuclear war by concluding that the only winning option is not to play but also causes the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Instead of starting a war with Azad, the Culture sends Gurgeh to play it, so that it can avoid not only the destruction of Azad but the loss of self that it will incur by becoming a conquering, colonial force.

Of all the Culture novels I've read, none have been so firmly on the Culture's side as The Player of Games.  Other novels have featured sympathetic characters--in Consider Phlebas, the lead and main point of view character--who voice harsh criticism of the Culture, its arrogance in imposing its way of life on others, the near-religious zeal and self-righteousness with which it pursues this goal, its blindness and dismissiveness towards other, not entirely illegitimate, ways of life.  Most other Culture novels involve a certain degree of cold-blooded number crunching on the part of Contact and Special Circumstances, weighing an incalculable loss of life here against an even greater one there, and the chance of some greater good down the line.  This is all a sham, of course--Banks is always on the Culture's side and wants us there as well, but he usually makes us work for that conclusion, and feel a little guilty for reaching it.  Not so in The Player of Games.  Not only is the novel's emotional arc that of a man who loses his identity as part of the Culture, and then finds it where he least expected it, but the novel works very hard to make Azad as cruel and off-putting as possible.  In one sequence, Gurgeh, who is on the verge of losing to his latest opponent and feeling somewhat philosophical about this, is galvanized into playing as he has never played before by a tour of the capital city's slums.  Over some half-dozen pages, he sees indigents dying in the gutters, starving women selling themselves, gangs beating ethnic minorities while a crowd watches impassively, the mad paraded in the streets for the public's amusement, and the poor wasting away in an overcrowded, understaffed hospital.  By the end of the novel there can be no doubt that it is evil, and that the Culture is not only right to try to topple the empire, but justified in its means of achieving this.

Much as I enjoyed The Player of Games, this lack of ambivalence towards the Culture gives me pause.  It reinforces the sense that the reason the novel is so successful and enjoyable is that it aims lower than other Banks novels, and is a great deal simpler.  Part of the fun of the Culture novels is their ambiguity, their cheerful admission that the Culture, in trying its best to do the right thing, may be committing a terrible wrong.  This is not to say that there is no playfulness or subversion of expectation in the novel--on the issue of immersion in a foreign culture, for example, The Player of Games is impressively slippery, simultaneously arguing that it is impossible to embrace one cultural identity without losing another, and that culture imprints too deeply on a person's psyche, expressing itself even when it's supposedly been abandoned.  But it seems almost wrong for a Culture novel not to be ambiguous about the Culture--if nothing else, it seems strange for the second Culture novel to be so cheerfully pro-Culture, especially coming as it does on the heels of the dour, cynical Consider Phlebas.  One needs, I think, some grounding in how the Culture works, from novels like Use of Weapons and Excession, to inject the necessary measure of ambivalence into the novel's flag-waving, and I certainly wouldn't want The Player of Games to be anyone's introduction to the Culture.  It stands to reason that a novel as straightforward as The Player of Games--a straightforwardness that extends to its structure as well as its themes--will be less complex, less subtle, than the ones that ramble and present a problem from many different angles.  Maybe that's the trade-off one makes with Banks, and maybe this is the place to conclude, as I did at the end of my review of Matter, that he will never write a novel that I consider entirely perfect.  Still, The Player of Games leaves me more hopeful about Banks's skill than Matter did, and more eager to seek out more of his novels--if only so I can find in them what's missing here.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2010 Edition, Part 2

After the appetizer, the deluge.  This post doesn't even cover all of the shows that premiered in the last week.  It leaves out the interchangeable lawyer shows (The Defenders, The Whole Truth), the forgettable cop shows (Chase, Blue Bloods, Law & Order: Los Angeles), and the lamentable comedies (Better With You, Raising Hope, Running Wilde).  Which is not to say that the shows I am going to write about have won my heart, or are even going to get the chance to do so.  Though I will probably keep watching at least a few of these to see if they get better (and am still watching Nikita for the same reason, though increasingly asking myself why I bother), there's been, as yet, no Good Wife this season, no show that came out the gate completely irresistible (though Terriers, which has maintained its promising blend of well-crafted characters and slightly sleazy mysteries into its third episode, comes closest).
  • Boardwalk Empire - This is probably a case of high expectations working against a good but not quite stellar show.  Boardwalk Empire is HBO's latest prestigious, no expense spared production.  Plus, it's a period piece about an important time and place in American history (Atlantic City in 1920, the eve of Prohibition, when the city becomes a gateway for bootlegged Canadian alcohol).  Plus, it's a crime drama.  How can one help but expect a cross between Deadwood and The Sopranos?  Perhaps inevitably, Boardwalk Empire fails to live up to such a fantastical hope, but even taken on its own merits, it falls a little short of what it might be.  The historical recreation feels a little honky-tonk.  This might have something to do with the period--the 20s are a weird decade to get a handle on, a period in which the 20th century finally shook off the last vestiges of the 19th but still hadn't arrived at the stylistic and cultural conventions that would define it--and the setting--a resort town naturally gravitates towards the gaudy and kitsch.  But what's missing from Boardwalk Empire is the magic that Deadwood achieved seemingly without trying, of making the visual tropes of a by-then hoary and cliché-ridden genre not only fresh, but lived-in and immediate.  Boardwalk Empire feels historical, and thus remote from present-day concerns, in a way that Deadwood never did.

    This is particularly strange when one considers how relevant the series's topic should be.  The main character is Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a local politician and, as one of his lieutenants describes him, half a gangster, thoroughly comfortable with graft, election-rigging, and vice, but still a kind, warm-hearted man.  As the person in control of the Atlantic City waterfront, he initially sees Prohibition as an opportunity to become rich, as he ups the price of now-illegal liquor and creates supply lines to New York and Chicago.  His new partners, however, are not your friendly neighborhood crooks, enablers of the sins of the flesh who are kind to women and small children, but serious bad guys, with whom Nucky may be too soft to deal.  This should be a familiar story, in an era in which the lessons of Prohibition have been so thoroughly ignored, but instead it feels familiar in all the wrong ways--we know where Nucky and the rest of America are going, how this ill-conceived and high-handed attempt at social engineering will instead create and help to cement the power of multiple organized crime empires that will adversely affect the lives of millions of people.  At least in its pilot, Boardwalk Empire feels as if it's just taking us through that familiar story one beat after another, rather than using a historical backdrop to tell a new, or perhaps timeless, one.  It could be that that's what the show is interested in doing, but so far it seems to be indulging in some of historical fiction's worst excesses--an infatuation with period detail and a sentimental treatment of the past.  When Nucky's reckless protege steals a shipment of whiskey--with the help of a young Al Capone--and kills its couriers, it feels less like a horrible murder than a historical reenactment, too cute and dressed up to be truly affecting.  For all that it's well done--and despite Buscemi's strong presence at its center--so far that's my reaction to Boardwalk Empire as a whole.

  • Lone Star - Another case of a show undermined by high expectations, though this time I'm having trouble seeing where those expectations were coming from.  EW's Michael Aussiello and The AV Club's Todd VanDerWerff have both called Lone Star the best pilot of the fall, and NPR's Linda Holmes has called its abysmal ratings--which have resulted in the first cancellation of the fall--a sign of the American public's ingratitude and lack of appreciation for cable-style quality shows, and a sure guarantee that networks will stop trying to make them.  But a network attempt to ape cable dramas is exactly what Lone Star is, with all the flaws and compromises that implies.  The main character, Bob, is a con man who has been working an oil scam in two Texas towns: Midland, where he has taken in his sweet, working-class girlfriend's parents and all their friends, and Huston, where he's wormed his way into the confidence of an oil tycoon, in part by marrying his daughter.  Raised into grifting by his father, Bob is still partnered up with him, but growing more guilty and more determined to stop the people he's come to love from being destroyed by his actions, and he ends the pilot by breaking with his father and deciding to turn his lies into truth--while concealing his double life and remaining married to, and deeply in love with, two women.

    Lone Star is well made, but at almost every turn it's possible to see that where a cable series would be willing to challenge its audience, this show has been made less threatening, and its rough edges filed off.  So Bob is sweet and tormented (and James Wolk does a good line in staring soulfully at the camera), still under his father's thumb but really an idealistic and loving person determined to do right.  There's no examination in the pilot of his complicity in his actions, of the inherent dishonesty that would have to lie at the very heart of his character in order for him to have so thoroughly deceived everyone who loves and trusts him, and at no point are we invited to feel anything but sympathy and pity for him.  Similarly, his two love interests are both adorable to the point of flawlessness, his father is not just manipulative but emotionally abusive, repeatedly telling Bob that no one will ever really know him or love him, and his Huston wife's rich family are slimy and distrustful.  So no, Lone Star was probably never going to be challenging, quality drama, but it might have been a good high-concept soap, focusing on familial and business intrigue as Bob and his father try to outsmart one another and Bob's two lives come close to colliding.  Instead, the pilot and second episode spend more time and energy on melodrama than they do on con stories, and it's therefore a little hard to see what we missed with the show's lightning-quick cancellation.

  • Detroit 1-8-7 and Hawaii Five-0 - There probably aren't two more different shows starting out on TV this fall, but Detroit 1-8-7 and Hawaii Five-0 have two things in common (three, if you count having numbers in their names): they're both cop shows, and they both take place outside the New York/Los Angeles/Chicago trifecta that dominates the form.  In both cases, the glimpse the shows grant of a new, different location, helps somewhat to elevate them above, respectively, a flawed pilot and a moronic premise.  Detroit 1-8-7 is aiming at the thoughtful grittiness of respected cop shows like Homicide: Life on the Streets and, more recently, Southland.  A strong, and refreshingly diverse, cast helps to bring it part of the way there, but the pilot is undone by its reliance on gimmicks.  The show is filmed like a mockumentary, but instead of stressing the show's realism and immediacy, the style calls attention to Detroit 1-8-7's falseness by being entirely unbelievable--at certain points that camera follows the policemen from outside of a moving car, or dodges bullets being shot at them, and there's never a sense that the characters are aware that they're being filmed and editing their behavior accordingly.  The writers also use the mocumentary format to catch up particularly slow viewers, inserting titles that differentiate the two cases being investigated, and even helpfully informing us that we are in the middle of a hostage situation.  This seems out of step with the kind of challenging, thought-provoking TV the show seems to be aiming at.  Another flaw is the show's unfortunate tendency to lapse into over-the-top humor, as when a rookie detective who has just chased down a suspect stops to take a call from his pregnant wife and begins questioning her about her contractions as his suspect gets away, or when the enigmatic Detective Fitch (Michael Imperioli) interrogates a suspect by staring him down until the street-tough hoodlum starts crying about his poor life choices and calling for his mother.  In general, in fact, I wonder whether Detroit 1-8-7 isn't putting too many eggs in Imperioli's basket, setting him up as the House of detectives--brilliant at his job, but a completely non-functional human being--which would, again, clash with the show's supposed realism.  All told, then, I'm not sure what show Detroit 1-8-7 is trying to be, and I'm not sure the show itself knows, so it's a good thing that it has the setting of Detroit, and its much-publicized troubles, to fall back on as it settles into itself.

    Hawaii Five-0, meanwhile, is about as far from gritty as it is possible to get.  The pilot is the best made, most enjoyable, and most ludicrous I've seen this season, sharply paced but moronically plotted.  It starts with Naval officer Steve McGarrett (Alex O'Loughlin, demonstrating significantly more charisma and screen presence here than he did in Moonlight and Three Rivers put together) being recruited by the governor of Hawaii, who gives him carte blanche to rid the island of an arms dealer who has recently killed McGarrett's father, and I think that's probably enough plot description to express just how ridiculous this show's premise is.  What's important is that McGarrett teams up with a disgraced former cop (Daniel Dae Kim), a New Jersey policeman who moved to Hawaii to be closer to his daughter (Scott Caan), and a green but tough rookie (Grace Park, already paraded around in her underwear twice), and together they fight crime, but in a new and totally awesome way that will probably involve lots of explosions and shoot-outs, even if it's not always the guy who directed the first two Underworld movies behind the camera.  It's a bit difficult to try to sum up my reaction to Hawaii Five-0, because on the one hand, this is a very impressive pilot that gets a lot done--introducing the characters and their sad backstories, putting them together, building the fractious but increasingly respectful partnership between McGarrett and Caan's character, tracking down the arms dealer, and shooting and blowing a lot of shit up--without ever feeling rushed or overstuffed.  On the other hand, this is such a stupid show.  Only two things keep Hawaii Five-0 from sinking under the weight of its stupidity--the sheer fun of the pilot, and the fact that it manages to establish Hawaii as a foreign place where the rules, and the people, are different (this also goes a tiny way towards explaining the show's reactionary slant, with McGarrett forming his team with the express purpose of hunting bad guys without having to deal with the pesky impediments of due process and civil rights, though the scene in the show's second episode in which he dangles a suspect off the roof of a hotel is hard to take).  Neither of these are enough to keep me watching the show, but successful popcorn entertainment is not easy to pull off (as so many other, less engaging pilots this fall have demonstrated), so I can't help but respect Hawaii Five-0 for achieving its goals.

  • My Generation - From the best pilot of the season to the worst (silly me for thinking that there was nowhere to sink from Outlaw).  My Generation is another mockumentary, alleging to reunite with nine twenty-eight year olds who in 2000 were interviewed by a documentary crew on the eve of their high school graduation.  In theory, the concept has some potential, though perhaps not as an open-ended series.  But the execution is flawed on just about every level.  The characters are a bunch of stereotypes who project their issues onto the screen with neon signs.  The queen bee clearly doesn't love her rich kid husband, which we know because she can't remember how long they've been married and, in full sight of the camera, all but propositions a former classmate.  Her husband, meanwhile, is still hung up on his high school sweetheart, which we know because he wistfully watches their old videos and squirms uncomfortably whenever she's mentioned.  The former nerd is now a creep who lusts after his married, pregnant best friend (which we know because he ogles her in the nude), whom he has invited to live in his house while her suspicious husband is away in Iraq, and who longs for children of his own only to discover that he is infertile.  None of them seem to be aware of how much they're exposing to the camera, nor to possess the basic self-editing facilities that you'd expect from a normal, 21st century adult trained by and accustomed to reality TV--which means that the writers don't have to work hard, or at all, to expose their characters' secrets and hidden desires.  What's most unbelievable, and most damning, about My Generation, is that all the characters are still hung up on what happened to them in high school, that their high school friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, and crushes still loom gigantically in their minds, even at the tail end of their twenties.  We all know that American TV has an unhealthy obsession with high school, but it usually expresses this by setting an unreasonable number of shows in high school as it's happening, not by pretending that high school is something you never get over--a proposition that I believe most adults would find both terrifying and pathetic.

  • The Event - Last week, after watching the pilot for The Event, I decided to hold off from writing about it until I'd seen the second episode, because clearly the show wasn't done setting up its story, which involves the kidnapping of a young woman on vacation so that her father, an airline pilot, can be forced to fly a plane into a house in which the president is staying, and a decades-old conspiracy to conceal the existence of nearly a hundred aliens (more or less--the exact nature of these beings is clearly one of those mysteries that the show is going to draw out for a while) who have been held prisoner by the US government since crash-landing in Alaska in 1944.  The second hour, however, does more of the same, frenetically shifting between past and present as it establishes both the series's backstory and its ongoing storyline, in which a previously hidden faction of the aliens begins to take violent action against humanity.  This is clearly the format that the show is going to take--enormous amounts of backstory combined with a fast-paced but opaque present day storyline focused on characters, such as the boyfriend of the kidnapped girl (Jason Ritter, who is usually quite good but falls curiously flat here), who have no idea what is going on and are just reacting to one crisis after another.  Which means that the comparisons to Lost--to which The Event is yet another wannabe successor--are entirely off-base.  Lost didn't have an elaborate backstory.  Its early episodes set up cryptic mysteries but were in no hurry to resolve them--mainly, as we now know, because the writers had no particular solution in mind.  The show that The Event actually recalls is Heroes, which like it was fast-paced and threw huge chunks of information at the audience on a weekly basis.  This would be a red flag even if The Event were half as good as Heroes was in its first season, but the show lacks the superhero series's irresistible hook and emotional punch.  Hereos was never great TV--even at its best it was indifferently written and acted--but it knew how to grab an audience, an ability that The Event seems to lack.  It moves as fast as Heroes did, but is nowhere near as compelling, neither in its story nor in its characters.  Without that ineffable secret ingredient, there doesn't seem to be much here to watch for.

  • Undercovers - J.J. Abrams goes back to the spy game, this time with a Mr. and Mrs. Smith-inspired series about a pair of married spies (Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) brought back in after five years' retirement.  The series jettisons both Alias's convoluted (and eventually nonsensical) mythology and its angsty tone, and both of these choices seem like good things until one realizes that, one, Undercovers is a comedy, and, two, the closest thing to a joke in the pilot is a (male) junior spy who fawns over Kodjoe to an almost romantic degree and considers Mbatha-Raw a distraction.  There are other quips and witticisms, and the two leads have a good patter, but there aren't nearly enough proper gags, or any laugh-out-loud moments, to justify just how frothy this show is.  That frothiness is also expressed in the almost perfunctory way in which the leads get back on the horse.  There's never a sense that they are bored or unhappy in their lives as humble caterers (who live in a palatial and luxuriously decorated home that is extreme even by the standards of TV lifestyle inflation), or that becoming spies again reintroduces a spark that was missing from their lives.  Though the characters tell us that they found it difficult to work as spies after they fell in love, we get no real sense of why they quit espionage, and why they want to go back.  And that's really what's missing from Undercovers--the thrill of living on the edge, and the exhilaration of falling in love.  It's a surface show, and that surface is nowhere near slick and exciting enough to justify watching.  If you want Alias without the angst or mythology, I suggest USA's Covert Affairs--which, incidentally, gives its female lead a lot more to do, and makes her a lot more kickass, than Undercovers does.

  • No Ordinary Family - This is a series that starts out with the deck stacked decidedly against it.  Superheroes, and particularly the superhero origin story, have been hot for a while, which means both that there's a wealth of material that any new iteration is inevitably compared to, and that the audience is a little fatigued by the subject.  Even worse, the show, which sees a typical family gaining superpowers after taking an impromptu swim in a South American river, calls to mind two very specific points of comparison: on the one hand, Heroes, the last television version of the superhero story whose protracted devolution into a shadow of its early success was only mercifully cut short last spring, and on the other hand, The Incredibles, easily the best superhero story of the last decade and a work to which few television series of any stripe could hope to be favorably compared with.  No Ordinary Family doesn't overcome these hurdles in its pilot episode.  In fact, it proceeds with the kind of easygoing glibness that suggests that its creators are, in fact, unaware of just what a tough task they've set themselves, and think they can just walk themselves to an easy victory because, hey, everyone loves superheroes, right?  It's a slow, indulgent hour that hits so many familiar, if not hoary, beats that one almost suspects the writers of deliberate, self-aware irony when they begin it with patriarch Michael Chiklis explaining, to an unseen interviewer (a device used, of course, by The Incredibles), that his story is unusual and doesn't start the way his listener might expect.

    As the hour draws on it becomes harder and harder to gauge whether No Ordinary Family's creators are unaware of how well-trodden the path they're going down is, or whether they think it truly doesn't matter that they're bringing nothing new to such a frequently-told story.  Either way, the result is thoroughly unexciting, mainly because it differs from The Incredibles in one crucial way.  The Parrs were superheroes who had been forced to assume the guise of an ordinary family, and who, though they accepted their new roles with varying degrees of grace, were always wistful for that extraordinary life they'd left behind.  The fact that they were not ordinary, and were in fact somewhat disdainful of ordinariness, was the point of the film (and the source of its uncomfortable subtext).  No Ordinary Family's Powells, meanwhile, are ordinary people who have not yet become superheroes (only Chiklis's character fights crime in the pilot, and is still ambivalent about doing so).  Which means that the pilot is mostly concerned with the family's mundane problems--the Powells' strained marriage, their kids' issues with boyfriends and learning disabilities.  In good hands even this tired material could have been made interesting, but again, this is an incredibly lazy pilot, and neither the writing nor the actors seem to be working very hard to sell their familiar plotlines.  It's almost insulting how clearly No Ordinary Family expects to win its audience over with a concept, not with execution, and I for one have no interest in rewarding that belief.