Friday, January 31, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Jessica Pearson (Suits)

Let's all just take a moment, right now, and appreciate the fact that Gina Torres exists. If you aren't familiar with her work, don't worry, you will be by the end of this article, but for the rest of you, don't lie. You know exactly what I mean. This queen has graced our lives in Xena, Firefly, Angel, Hannibal, and Suits, to name only a few shows, and she is freaking amazing. We should be (and are) so very, very grateful.

Anyway, today I want to talk about the character Ms. Torres plays in Suits, the USA dramedy about really, really, disgustingly attractive lawyers. You see, while this show does follow the usual USA pattern of having two male protagonists who play off of each other and are really adorably domestic and cute and all, this show also has something that very few other shows, movies, or even books have. And it's not just Ms. Torres.

No, this show has an honest to goodness female mentor to a male character. And not one where it gets all bogged down in sex or attraction (thank you, Agents of SHIELD). Nope. This is just a case of a woman who has an amazing career, is brilliant at what she does, and decides to bestow a little bit of her wisdom on a nice young boy, who happens to grow up and work for her. The tables are never turned, she's always his superior, she's always one step ahead of him (or indulging him and allowing him to play in the sandbox), and she's always his boss.

And it tastes so good.

So, for those of you who don't watch literally everything that has ever aired on television (that's an exaggeration, but really not by much), Suits is a cute little show with a weird premise: What if your lawyer wasn't really a lawyer? The two main characters are Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), a college dropout with big ambitions and a bigger brain, and Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), a high falutin' lawyer with the biggest ego. Together, they solve cases, fight evil lawyers, and bring something vaguely resembling justice (but more resembling my sense of disgust with corporate America) to the small screen!

Or, to be more technical about it, Harvey is a bigshot lawyer who works at Pearson-Hardman. The Pearson in that name is for Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres), an awesome lawyer who mentored Harvey all the way from the mailroom up through law school. Now he's just made senior partner at her firm, and Jessica has one last (haha, not really) demand of Harvey: hire an associate.

I have learned a surprising amount about the way lawyers work from watching this show, and while I have no idea how much of it is accurate (probably a fair amount, USA is good like that), at least in the universe of the show, this is how it works. If you're very smart, you get into Harvard Law. If you graduate Harvard Law and are very good, and also pass the bar, you maybe possibly could try to get hired by Pearson-Hardman. Not as a lawyer, but as an associate. Basically a paid intern. Then you spend several years getting spit on by the partners, before you maybe hopefully get put on partner track, and then a few years after that you might make junior partner, and then someday, maybe, just maybe, you'll make senior partner.

Harvey, as a senior partner, now needs to have an associate of his own. He doesn't want one, because he's kind of a misanthrope (respect), but Jessica is forcing his hand. So he does interviews (alongside his implausibly amazing secretary, Donna - played by Sarah Rafferty), and into those interviews accidentally strolls Mike. Mike is avoiding the cops, because he's carrying a briefcase full of weed. Mike has made some poor life choices.

But Mike is also a card carrying genius who passed the bar for the hell of it, and since Harvey likes spunk and brains, and apparently enjoys a project, he hires Mike. And they lie to Jessica about Mike's credentials. Thus the conceit of the show is born. Mike is technically a lawyer, but he never went to law school, so if anyone finds out about him, all of Pearson-Hardman's cases will be called into question. That's the central tension of the show.

And for the first season or so, at least, the real emotional tension in the show has to do with Harvey keeping this huge secret from Jessica. She is his mentor. His Yoda. She is the one who saw a little spark in a screwed up kid and decided to help him. And he's lying to her.

Is it wrong that I love watching Harvey feel like crap? Don't answer that.

Now, Suits is cute and all, but the real thing I want to focus on here is the relationship between Harvey and Jessica. Because, and I can't stress this enough, it is super rare. 

I actually had this conversation with Kyla (from gamEstrogen) a few weeks ago: name any female mentors of male characters who are not relatives or love interests. And here's the thing. While I could name a few, one of which was Jessica, I could only name a few. I don't want to brag, guys, but I know a lot of pop culture. A lot. And if I could only name a few female mentors, especially ones where the mentorship was vital to the plot, well, that speaks volumes in and of itself.

But Jessica and Harvey. That's the relationship they have. She is the one who taught him all his tricks, and he is the heir to her kingdom. It's not really a mother-son relationship, they're not siblings, and even friends is probably putting it a little wrong. There's no other way to explain the relationship that they have other than to say that she is his mentor. And he is gutted by having to lie to her. Then she's betrayed by having been lied to. And it's kind of a little bit wonderful?

Because Harvey isn't shown to be in the right all the time. This really comes down to dynamics of power. Harvey is an upper class white dude. He's attractive (really attractive), rich, powerful, and pretty much the epitome of patriarchal privilege. And who is his boss? Who is his Yoda? Who is the person calling the shots in Harvey's life? A black woman.

If you don't think that is crazy revolutionary, then you need to stop and really reexamine your life.

Jessica Pearson is a black woman running the most powerful law firm in New York City. She has billionaires eating out of the palm of her hand. The best closer in the city used to be her mail boy and is now her not-so-secret weapon. She is a woman in command of her own life. She is not a hot mess. She is not a woman who needs to be saved. She is glorious.

I'm just saying, this is the kind of representation we want on television. Can you imagine being a little girl and looking up at the screen while you watch a show you don't understand (because I barely understand it and I have a Master's degree), and seeing this amazing, smart, beautiful woman schooling all the guys in the room? Can you imagine growing up and wanting to be like that? Doesn't that make you happy?

Sure, there are parts of Jessica's storyline that I'm not super hot on. That's life. And, admittedly, I tend to really only watch Suits in bursts, because it can get a little repetitive. When I do watch, though, I watch it for Jessica. And Donna and Rachel, too. Because these are strong, powerful, beautiful women, who do not apologize for being strong, powerful, and beautiful women.

And that's something I need more of in my life.

I love yoouuuu.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

This Sensitive Horse Girl Is Gonna Kick Your Butt (Immortals)

So I know that I have been a bit of a broken record on the whole Tamora Pierce thing lately (if by broken record you mean "unabashedly singing her praises like a freaking meadowlark). I'm not actually sorry for that, and it's going to continue. I just wanted to let you know that I was aware you might feel like it was getting repetitive.

The thing is, for me, it's not repetitive at all. I get to read these books, these wonderful books with these wonderful characters, and the stories are fun, and the books are progressively better written (for realsies, though, you can tell where the learning curve is), and the female characters are different from each other but still awesome and cool and funny and well written and I just love it all so freaking much. So I'm sorry if you're getting sick of reading about Tamora Pierce books. I'm not. I'm pretty sure I'll never be sick of this.

Actually, I'm mostly getting worried, because I'm now out of Tortall books, and while I'm sure her Magic Circle series is equally good, it's weird and new and I'm scared! Not too scared to put all of the books on library hold at the same time though. Besides, there are like fourteen kajillion of those books, so I should be good for a while.

Anyway, today I finished reading The Realms of the Gods, the fourth and final book in the Immortals quartet, which is actually one of the earlier series in Pierce's Tortall collection. If you're keeping score at home, the timeline (though not the order she wrote them in) goes as follows: Beka Cooper (takes place 200 years before others), The Song of the Lioness, The Immortals, Protector of the Small, and Trickster's. I will actually say that if you have the chance to read them in chronological order (minus the Beka Cooper books, because those mostly stand alone), do it. The books make a lot more sense if you read them in order.

I know that now, because I didn't read them in order. I actually read the Trickster's books first, then Beka Cooper, then Lioness... Yeah, it's been kind of a mess.

Anyways, I've now finally finished all of them, and, yes, everything makes a lot more sense now. I'd been looking at reading Immortals as just another link in the chain between books I liked a lot more and related to better, as sort of an explanation for what happened in those ten years between Lioness and Protector of the Small. But much to my surprise, I found myself really liking them. I mean, it shouldn't have been a surprise. I've liked every single other Tamora Pierce book I've read. But it still somehow was. Good job me, I guess.

The reason I wasn't super enthused in the first place, though, has to do with the main character: Daine. Or, if we're going to be formal about it, Veralidaine Sarrasri. It's a bit of a mouthful, so we're going to stick with the nickname from here out. Daine is kind of the female fantasy heroine I've always hated. Just a little bit. Maybe it's more accurate to say that Daine should be the fantasy heroine I've always hated, but she isn't, and it confused me.

You see, Daine is a nice quiet girl from up north. She grew up with her mother and grandfather (father unknown), and while she's always had a "way" with animals, there was nothing super weird about any of it. And then her family had to go and get themselves killed, and Daine kind of sort of accidentally turned into a wolf and ate the men who killed her family and then she maybe ran away from her village and pretended to be a normal girl for a while but couldn't because dang is she powerful but it's weird power and no one knows what to do with her.

She's had a couple of tough breaks.

And then she runs into Onua, the horse mistress for the Queen's Riders of Tortall, who takes Daine on as an assistant, and Daine is so nice and kind and good with animals that Onua brings her to the capital where she becomes friends with the king and queen and king's champion and everyone important, but she still stays nice humble little Daine. She finds out she has this special amazing magic that almost no one has ever heard of and she uses it to save the kingdom, and everything is super peachy.

That is the first book. And I don't think I really need to elaborate here, but honest to goodness, I can't stand that whole concept and character arc. Tamora Pierce is a good enough writer that I kept going and I even enjoyed it, but oh was I annoyed. Daine (in the first book, Wild Magic) is everything I hate about fantasy heroines. She's beautiful but not aware of it, and earthy, and super duper magical special in a way that no one else is ever, and also all the powerful people love her without question, and she saves the day, and blah blah blah - long story short, she's the sensitive horse girl. I haaaaaaate the sensitive horse girl thing.

For the love of the writer I kept going, though. It didn't hurt that the plots are pretty fun, and I like Alanna and all of the other characters we got to see again. Numair wasn't so bad. So I read a little further. And that's when stuff started getting...weird.

Have I mentioned that I really like weird?

So in the first book, Daine is all magic and powerful because she can talk to animals, and most people really can't do that. She has this thing called "wild magic" which is really rare and weird, but she uses it to fight in battles and stuff, and while it's a little overdone and silly, it's a neat idea and I liked it well enough. But in the second book (Wolf Speaker), stuff starts getting downright strange. This book has Daine and Numair (super powerful mage, Daine's tutor) traveling to the north again to meet up with Daine's wolf pack - you know, the ones who helped her eat the men who killed her family. Those wolves. Nice guys.

The wolves are worried because something is wrong in their area. There is bad magic around, and lots of terrifying immortals - weird fantasy creatures from the immortal realms that have mysteriously reappeared in Tortall and the surrounding lands - preying on the local animals. Daine is determined to help. But this time, Daine's magic starts to go weird. In a good way. Well, in an interesting way.

This time, Daine can't just talk to all the animals, she needs to be able to see through their eyes, or take their shape, or do fifteen other things in order to get out of the situation alive. Which sounds all god-modded and stuff, until you realize that this is a book where the heroine is sleeping in the dirt and constantly trying to remember to turn her ears back to human so she doesn't go deaf, or figuring out how to hide a tail she accidentally morphed into and can't get to go away, or losing herself in a squirrel's mind. It sounds silly, but it's actually really, really compelling to read. Why? Because Daine is afraid. In this book she's genuinely, really afraid. And what is she afraid of? 


For me, that's a way more compelling story arc than being afraid that if the others knew how special she was they'd be uncomfortable with her. Daine's fear of herself, however, her fear that she would one day let go and lose all of her humanity is first of all not unfounded, and second, really interesting to witness. She fights it. She loses sometimes. It's good. It's a good book.

And then in the third book, Daine has to stretch even further, fighting not just with animals and immortals, but now with gods and emperors. This third book (Emperor Mage) has her pitted against the master of an empire, trying to solve a mystery, and being tossed this way and that by gods fighting wars best known to themselves. Daine gets pissed. She learns some more. She becomes more comfortable in her own skin. She never stops being Daine, but the thing that is Daine becomes much bigger and more powerful than ever before. Plus, the climax of the book has Daine going on a rampage through the palace while riding a wooly mammoth and commanding an army of dinosaur skeletons (I did not make that up, it is amazing), so, you know, might want to check that out.

But all of this is just leading up to the last book, The Realms of the Gods, where Daine finally has to face her heritage, and deal with the truth of herself and her magic. You see, the main problem I really had with the series and with Daine as a character was that she was so incredibly god-modded. She's all powerful (but still humble) and super duper special (but it never goes to her head). Mostly, though, I always get a little annoyed by stories where thus and such character is the "only one in the world". Come on.

Which is why, in a sense, I should be pissed about the explanation we finally got for Daine's powers. I mean, admittedly, I think the reveal happens in the second or third book, but Daine herself doesn't get confirmation until book four. She's not just god-modded, she's a literal demigod. Her father, he who was never named in her childhood, is actually the god of the hunt, Weiryn, and her mother, who died years ago mind you, has been taken up as Weiryn's consort and a minor goddess: The Green Lady. Daine's powers are so insanely massive and ridiculously specific because she isn't just some girl. She's a god's daughter.

It really does explain a lot.

That's not why this book is so compelling. It's interesting, sure, but the real thrust of the book has to do with Daine's choices now that she knows who she is and where she comes from. She finally has the answers she's been seeking her whole life. The mortal world is wreathed in violence and turmoil, and she could help. Or she could not. She could stay with her mother and father. She could finally be really safe, finally have her family back, finally be free of the worries and cares of power.

It's not really a spoiler to tell you that Daine chooses the harder road, that of a mortal life, but it is important. That was the moment I really learned to love Daine, because that was the moment I finally saw how far she'd come. She wasn't some wilting little horse girl any more, but now she was a terrifying, fierce, powerful woman, who was going to save the world and kill that freaking Ozorne if it killed her. Which it nearly did.

Daine grew up. And as much as she bugs me in the first book, having read the last one, I kind of can't hold it against her. We're all annoying at thirteen. What's important is what we grow into, and Daine grew up good.

Plus, she did finally end up with Numair. Yeah, there's kind of an age difference there, but who cares! He's dreamy and she's lovely. Mazel tov.

I guess what I'm saying, in the end, is that I judged these books a little too harshly, based on my own general annoyance with a trope. I was wrong. They're good books. And while I still don't really like the whole sensitive horse girl thing, at least Daine kicks some major butt. Enough butt that the gods come down and tell her to cool it. I think that's worth appreciating.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Twenty Pounds of Crazy in a Five Pound Bag (Leverage)

You know how sometimes you love a show so much that you never finish watching it? Like, I still haven't seen the last three episodes of Pushing Daisies. Why? Because after I watch those last three episodes, it's over. There will be no more Pushing Daisies for me to watch. 

And while a huge part of me is super OCD and really wants to cross that show off of my incredibly massive and ever expanding list, there's another sentimental part of me that refuses. That can't watch those last three episodes. That doesn't want the magic to end.

Last week I finally watched the last season of Leverage, a show I have loved since before its first episode, and while the show is now, for me, definitely over, I'm happy to report that it ended in such a way as to make sure it lives on.

Okay that was really confusingly worded. What I mean is that while I have now seen all of the Leverage there is to see, the ending was good. Better than good, it was great. And it ended the same way it started, which means that somewhere out there I get to pretend the show is still going on and the Leverage crew are still out there doing good things, and everything is just fine and dandy.

And I'm going to keep telling myself that even as I sniffle loudly into my comforter. For the record, this isn't going to be a review so much as a love letter. You have been warned.

For the uninitiated, of which there are probably more than a few, Leverage is (was) an hour long heist show that aired on TNT. It follows five criminals who have decided to use their criminal superpowers to help normal people get one over on The Man. It was also kind of weird and kooky and much stranger and less commercial than your average show, even on TNT, and was constantly in danger of being cancelled. Like, constantly. I remember being sure it was over after season two. Shockingly, however, and with much thanks to a healthy amount of product placement (I'm pretty sure that seasons four and five were literally sponsored by the city of Portland, Oregon), the show managed five whole seasons. And that's awesome.

The show has a pretty basic setup - five former bad guys all team up to fight evil in the form of mean nasty corporations and rich people - but the real magic in Leverage wasn't the weekly episodes. I mean, don't get me wrong, those episodes are freaking awesome, and the cons are amazing. It's a show where almost every single episode ends in a Xanatos Gambit (or a Batman Gambit or Xanatos Gambit Speed Chess, but that's getting technical), and where the writing is freaking spot on all the time. I mean, imagine getting to watch Ocean's Eleven every week.  It's so beautiful. I want to stroke its cheek and hold it forever and ever and ever.

Sorry. Got a little creepy there.

Like I said, the real joy of Leverage isn't in the awesome cons or even in watching rich people get what's coming to them (the loss of their money and occasionally jail time) every week. It's in seeing the ways that the characters interact with each other and seeing how being together, helping people, and being a family change them all.

It's part of the conceit of the show, actually. You see, the supposed main character (we'll have more on that in a minute) is Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton). Nate is a former insurance investigator for a major company, and during his time at IYS he investigated a lot of criminals at the top of their fields. He ran into Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman), a stunningly talented grifter who is also a terrible actor when she's not robbing people blind. Oh, and Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane - the reason I tuned in in the first place), a "hitter", or the muscle, who happens to have very strong feelings about why guns are bad and oh by the way he's a gourmet chef. And terrifying.

And then there's Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge), an alarmingly talented hacker and computers expert, who lives off of orange soda and stolen sandwiches (sorry, Eliot), and once missed a con because he was up late watching Doctor Who.

But mostly, there's Parker (Beth Riesgraf), a thief of the highest order (she literally has kleptomania and is in one episode put on Prozac, which cures her, but also makes her mildly psychotic-er). She's deadpan and deeply divorced from the human spectrum of emotion, mostly as a result of her horrific childhood, and she kind of sort of likes jumping off of buildings. Also money. Parker is probably the closest thing this show has to a real protagonist, and we'll have more on that later. Anyway.

Anyway. Nate Ford is the only one of these guys who isn't a criminal, but that's mostly a technicality. When he wants to do a job, and he finds out that he can do it with these specialists, all of them top of their field, he pulls them in. He makes them work together. 

He teaches them how to be good. And in the process, sure, he becomes a little bad. But together they make something. They make a firm. They help people. They help each other. They make a family.

I'm going to let you in on a secret. I came because I love heist shows and movies, and because Christian Kane is dreamy. But I stayed because the relationship between Nate and Parker is one of my favorite things on television, and Parker's story is why the show works at all.

So when the show starts, it obviously has to start with the "meet cute" for all our little criminals. And they all get an introduction that shows you who they really are. We see Sophie being crowned royalty of some tiny European country, Eliot disarming ten men over a baseball card and then casually sipping coffee, and Hardison hacking a hotel and playing Jedi with a bunch of cute girls. And Parker? We see her stealing stuff. Which seems really tame in comparison. Until you see everyone else's reaction to her.

That she's legendary. That she's terrifying. That she is pants-wettingly insane. And here's the thing. The show doesn't disagree with any of those assessments. Parker is legendary, terrifying, and completely insane. She's also a scared little girl who is so afraid of being hurt that she's forgotten how to have feelings at all. She doesn't know how to like things. She's pretty much a feral cat.

And there's a part of me that would be bothered by that, that would kind of hate seeing this awesome female character who's really just scared and needs loved, if that didn't actually describe all of the rest of the characters as well. The only differences here is that Parker is a lot further gone than the rest of them, and that we get to see her come back.

Like when they run a job on a con group doing human trafficking out of Eastern Europe. Parker immediately relates to these kids, who have family and home and shelter dangled over their heads only to be drawn further into a scheme, and she decides to save them. No questions just, "I don't care if you don't help me, I am going back for those kids." And she does. She saves them.

But in that same episode she also stabs a man with a fork and about an episode later she calls a girl fat, and it's clear that our little Parker has a long, long way to go.

The thing is, the character development on this show never stops. It never stagnates because the writers are too afraid of changing the dynamic they already have. It's the rare case of a show where the writers are actually paying attention and willing to go there. Parker has never spent a lot of time around people who get her, so when she does, she starts to change. The show gives us that.

It gives us the first time Parker makes a real friend, one who doesn't do crime. It gives us the first time Parker goes on a date, an actual for realsies date with a nice boy (who happens to be Hardison). It shows us Parker getting excited for Christmas. It shows us how that one date turns into a real relationship, with feelings and fights and growth. It shows us Parker wanting to change. It shows us Parker learning how to like things, really like them. 

But most of all, this show gives us Parker healing. Growing past the wounds inflicted on her, and learning to help other people.

Like there's this whole subplot, that runs through the whole show and is absolutely adorable, where Parker and Hardison had to take on FBI cover identities for a con, but on the con they ran into real FBI agents. Fortunately, the FBI agents were kind of terrible and didn't realize Parker and Hardison were faking. The real FBI agents end up getting credit for all the team does, and everyone is happy. And then they run into them again. And again. And again. 

Each time Parker (usually Parker) has to convince them to help with the con, and each time the agents get the credit. But they never turn out to be bad guys or anything. Just a little dim. One of them, Agent McSweeten, even has a crush on her, awwww. It's doubly funny because this is early Parker, who has no filter and is wildly inappropriate.

Here's the real thing, though. The show doesn't keep this as a simple gag. No, after five years, Parker and McSweeten actually know each other pretty well. Well enough that McSweeten actually comes to her for help. And Parker, far past seeing him as a weird and pathetic loser like she did when they met, likes him. She respects him. He's a genuinely good guy, and she wants to help him.

For a girl like Parker, who puts the crazy in "so crazy I can't even think of an appropriate metaphor", that's huge. And it is so, so gratifying to watch happen.

I'm not going to lie, the finale of this show made me cry. Not because of the fakeout where they pretend everyone died (seriously, who fell for that?) but for the bit after, where Sophie and Nate take a much deserved retirement, and Parker takes over Leverage International. Because that's the point where we see what all this was about. Nate took Parker in. He taught her how to be a daughter, and then he set her free.

I'm having so many feelings right now, guys. All of the feelings.

It's the rare show that is able to admit that people change over time, and allows its characters to grow and develop. But it's the much, much rarer show that understands that people growing and changing isn't the B plot. It's the main attraction. Parker's emotional stability is the reason you watch the show. That and seeing Nate wrestle his demons. Watching Sophie find herself outside the con. Seeing Hardison become a man and not just a little boy playing with his toys. Watching Eliot slow down, stop looking over his shoulder, find some peace. That's what you tune in for. That's the point of it all.

I really do wish more shows understood that. I think there'd be a lot more appealing television if they did. But until they do, Leverage is on Netflix Instant, and I dare you, I just dare you, not to fall in love with Parker. She is, after all, twenty pounds of crazy in a five pound bag.

You crazy kids. (Literally).

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Alexander and the Terrible...Day

Okay, so as some of you know, I have a whole bunch of jobs (because being professionally angry about injustice isn't a particularly lucrative gig - yet), and one of those jobs involves taking care of very small children. Two of them, to be precise, both genders, one quite a bit smaller than the other. It's actually this kid taking care of -ing that inspired me to start Think of the Children! Tuesdays in the first place, because I saw some of the crap that people are putting out and slapping a "children's" sign on, and I got pissed. Like you do.

The thing is, it's all well and good complaining about the movies and televisions shows that we make for children, and trust me, I'm not giving up on that, but you have to bear something in mind here. Most kids, at least most kids I know (and I know a surprising number), get a lot more exposure to media and bias and all that crap through books, not movies and TV shows. Why? Because if you're a thinking, feeling, reasonably invested parent, you're probably already aware of the crappiness of most media. The parents I nanny for are really aware of how much time their kids spend looking at a screen, and seek to monitor it. Keep it as low as possible. That's great!

The flip side of this, though, is that books, for the most part, really aren't all that much better than movies and TV shows for representation. And sometimes, they're actually aggressively worse.

But we're going to hold off on the doom and gloom for another week or so (when we'll be talking about some of my all time least favorite kids' books - I'm sure you can't wait!), and today we're going to discuss a book that I think is absolutely amazing and should be required reading for not just every child, but every high schooler, college student, and grumpy adult. Ever. All the time.

We're talking about Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst, and illustrations by Ray Cruz. I'm actually pretty happy because I don't think anyone's ever tried to top Cruz's illustrations, as well they shouldn't. He's got the feel of the book down perfectly.

Anyway, since this is a kids' book, it's not too hard to summarize. In fact, a lot of you already know about it, or grew up with it, or read it to your own kids. It's been around since 1972, and from what I can tell, it's been resonating particularly well ever since. What's it about?

Alexander. Who is having a very bad day. And then who goes to bed.

That's it.

No, seriously, that's all the book is about. Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair, his brothers get cool cereal box prizes and he doesn't, he gets squished during carpool, his friend is mean to him, his mom packs him a super lame lunch, he gets in trouble at school, he has to go to the dentist, he has a cavity, he fights with his brothers, he has to eat lima beans, he has to take a bath, there's nothing good on TV, and his parents won't let him move to Australia. Then he goes to bed.

I realize that this doesn't really sound revolutionary as far as books go, but allow me to explain. You see, children's literature is usually much more of the perky, "I'll love you no matter what, yes, even if you poop in my jewelry box," and, "Hands are for hugging not hitting!" and "You can be anything you want to be, and screw anyone who says differently!" and "It's okay - no matter what happens it'll always get better," types. Books that are big and primary colored and morally simplistic. Which is, again, fine. In moderation.

Out of moderation, though, and let's be real, if any of you have ever tried to read "just one" book to a toddler, you know what I mean, these books start to grate on your very soul. Their unrealistic representations of relationships, work, family, friendships, potty training - it just starts to make you mad. Not because there's anything inherently wrong with loving unconditionally, not hitting, aspirations, or hope, but because if you feed kids a steady diet of sweet, saccharine moral pablum, they grow up to be, well, jerks.

That, and they end up with grossly unrealistic understandings of the world. They expect it to entertain them all the time. They expect things to work out quickly, because everything's always okay by the end of the book. 

They start to think that there must be something wrong with them, because it's not super easy and fun and colorful and quick. Kids are really fast to internalize stuff like that. And that idea that something is wrong with them? That's the first thing they'll pick up.

Also, it's just annoying for me personally. There's this one book, No More Diapers for Ducky, and in it this little duck comes over to play with her pig friend, but he's in the potty, so she plays without him (he is apparently in there for literal hours), and then she decides that she wants to use the potty. So she takes off her wet diaper and leaves it on the floor and then barges into the potty because no more diapers for Ducky! Yay!

Are you freaking kidding me? Do you, author, know what potty training is really like? POTTY TRAINING IS HORRIFIC AND YOUR BOOK ONLY MAKES IT MORE SO.


The thing about Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is that it isn't easy. It isn't primary colored. It doesn't get resolved in the end. All that happens is that Alexander has a genuinely bad day, and then he goes to bed. You know what his mom says at the very end of the book? 

"My mom says some days are just like that. Even in Australia."

First off, I love this kid because he is constantly wanting to move to Australia, which is rad and I approve of his life choices. Second, I love this kid because he is such a little grump and I relate. But third, I love his parents so, so, so much for that line. Some days are just like that. Because, well, they are.

Everyone has bad days. It's part of being alive. Some days just suck. And you have to choose to have a good attitude to get through them. You have to try. It takes work. And you know what? That's okay. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you. It just means that you had a bad day. That's it. Bad days happen.

These are the books we need more of, to be honest. The books that tell you something you desperately needed to be reminded of, and the ones who do it with a smile and a pat on the cheek. So, you know, everything by Judith Viorst and Dr. Suess. And some other people, I guess.

Next week, like I said, we're going to look at some of the books I hate the absolute most when it comes to children's lit, but for today, we'll end on a high note. Or as high as a note on a post about bad day books can be. Some days are just like that. And if you're having one of those days today, just remember: it's okay. It might not get better today. But you can always go to bed.

I want that on a t-shirt.

I hear you, kid.

Monday, January 27, 2014

What? Why? How? Are You Stupid? (NBC's Dracula)

I feel like someone took a brick and smashed it into my face. Now, part of that is because my "weekend" was hilariously stressful and also productive (if by hilarious you understand that I am being deeply sarcastic), but another part is because I have now finished season one of Dracula, my friend, and I am having feelings.

Negative feelings, mostly, which shouldn't come as a very big shock.

Just to recap, though, for those of you who "have lives" and "go outside" (weirdos), the show we're referring to here is NBC's Dracula. Based on the Bram Stoker novel of the same name, and gleefully ignoring all previous cinematic interpretations, the show stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the titular vamp, who has decided to pretend to be an American named Alexander Grayson and prance around 1880s London with Tesla's electricity models and a desire for human blood.

The basic plot of the show, from what I can gather after having watched every single episode, is that Grayson, or Dracula, has a grudge against the Order of the Dragon, a medieval order of vampire hunters who are the ones who turned him into a vampire in the first place. Why an order of vampire hunters existed before vampires, and why they would want to turn someone into a vampire at all, are questions best left unasked.

Because Grayson is a sneaky SOB, and also kind of weirdly abstract, he decides that the best way to ruin the Order of the Dragon is not to kill them, but to ruin them financially and then, presumably, kill them. Apparently taking their money is the only real punishment he can think of.

It's not enough to take their money, though. He has to take it in style. And since the Order of the Dragon is also an investing club for the rich and powerful (just go with it), and this investing club has put all of their money into oil shares in the Ottoman Empire (again, just go with it), the only sensible solution is to buy up a bunch of Tesla's electricity patents, pretend to be an American entrepreneur, and give London free, experimental electricity that will eliminate the need for oil and therefore render the Order of the Dragon's investments worthless.

Obviously that is the simplest plan one could come up with. Totally.

Grayson can't do this alone, of course, because a plan this complex and needlessly stupid needs a lot of moving parts. To that end, then, he has recruited Dr. Van Helsing (Thomas Kretchmann), who hates the Order of the Dragon because they murdered his family and apparently is a-okay with vampires in this version, and Renfield (Nonso Anozie), an educated American black man who spent some time as a slave and now works for Grayson because of reasons. 

Both Van Helsing and Renfield know Grayson's secret, that he's actually Dracula, and both of them seem to be perfectly okay with helping him destroy the Order of the Dragon. At least at first.

While Grayson is gallivanting in London, however, his eye catches on the lovely Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw), who looks uncannily like his dead wife for plot reasons. By which I mean that their resemblance is never explained at all even a little bit and we're all just supposed to go with it. Naturally, Mina's boyfriend, Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) doesn't particularly like this weird American sniffing around his girlfriend, especially since he's already insecure about their relationship. (Mina's a modern woman who wants a career, while Harker is a working class social climber with ambitions of normalcy. It's wacky fun!)

Also there's Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath), who apparently is in love with Mina too, but less open about showing it because this is 1880s London after all. And apparently Mina Murray is the hottest thing around? No, seriously. Someone explain to me why all three of our emotional leads are in love with the same admittedly nice but incredibly bland woman. Please.

Anyway. Grayson wants Mina, but he also wants to get Harker out of the way. So to do that, he hires Harker to work as his second in command, which enables Harker to financially support a wife, and allows Mina and Harker to get engaged. Good plan!

Then he repairs the cracks in their relationship, only to later seduce Mina into emotionally cheating on Harker, and then yell at Harker, and then crush Harker's job prospects and respectability because he can, and then flip out at Lucy for breaking up Mina and Harker because nothing Grayson/Dracula does in this show makes any freaking sense whatsoever.

I mean, there are other things that happen in the show, but none of them really make any more sense than what I've already outlined.

Grayson starts an affair with Lady Jayne Wetherby (Victoria Smurfit), presumably because he has sexual needs that he can't bring to the sainted Ms. Murray. Oh, but wait! Lady Jayne is actually a legendary vampire hunter...who is utterly incapable of detecting a vampire even when she's having sex with him. I don't know, just go with it.

And Van Helsing is developing a serum that will allow Dracula to walk in the sun, but the science is super vague, and then Dracula starts being a jerk to Van Helsing, and Van Helsing goes off the rails and murders some guy and his entire family and this show is really weirdly bleak but also terrible. Why did I watch the whole season? Why?

Well, I do actually know the answer to that. You see, Dracula is a show that really should work. Honestly, it should be amazing. You've got incredible actors, a fun premise (Dracula, Tesla, and a bunch of evil vampire hunters romping through Victorian London!), and some pretty decent production values. How is this show terrible?

I mean, one reason is definitely that they tried to fit way too much in there. Between the revenge plots and the fourteen kajillion characters and the constantly shifting moral landscape, it's just too much to handle. I needed to read recaps of the episodes I'd just seen right after I watched them in order to figure out what was going on. And I'm still not sure I totally got it.

On top of that, the show is really ambiguous emotionally. I mean really, really ambiguous. It's not so much that you're not sure whether Grayson/Dracula is the good guy or not, it's that you literally have no idea of the objective morality of anyone on the show, because the show refuses to give you enough information to make an informed decision. We know that the Order of the Dragon killed Van Helsing's wife and children, and we know that they killed Dracula's wife and turned him into a vampire, but why?

No, seriously, why?

We have to stop for a second and wonder if perhaps the Order of the Dragon had a good reason to do all that. I'm not saying that killing children is ever okay, but we seriously know nothing here. We are never told or given any indication why the Order of the Dragon decided to murder some nice guy's family and some other dude's wife. And, honestly, I kind of wonder if they had it coming.

Because here's the thing: while I can't tell whether or not the show wants me to like Grayson/Dracula, I really don't. He's a jerk, a pig, and generally everything that I hate in one slicked-back, bad accented package. So it's already kind of hard for me to sympathize with him. But there's an imbalance of narrative here. I know that he hates the Order of the Dragon, but I don't know why they hate him back, and until I know that, I can never really sign on here. And since he is such a jerk, I find myself siding with them.

But the real reason why the show just completely loses me and is completely awful is that no one's decisions, especially not Grayson/Dracula's, make any freaking sense whatsoever. At all. Ever.

Grayson wants revenge on the Order of the Dragon, so he pulls an incredibly long con to get them to go bankrupt, and then decides to murder a bunch of them for kicks, and then immediately go back to the plan like nothing changed? What?

Grayson wants to make sweet sweet love to Mina Murray, so he hires her boyfriend who then becomes her fiance then manipulates their relationship, hosts their engagement party, passively watches them break up and get back together multiple times, then murders the person who actually does break them up (Lucy)? Huh? As Patrick from Piece of Cape put it, "He should be sending her chocolates and flowers, not killing her!"

For that matter, when he kills Lucy, because she's "behaving like a monster", a presumed reference to both her crush on Mina and her sleeping with Harker, he decides to make her into a vampire. Why? If you really hate someone, why the hell would you arrange it so that you have to share eternity with them?

These are only a couple of examples, sadly, of the horrific gaps in logic that run rampant in this show. It's like the writer's team has never actually met a rational human, they've just heard vague rumors and decided to try to imagine what a normal decision making process looks like.

And despite all of this, all of the crap and weirdness and terrible life choices of every single character and the way that the show is really aggressively not as good as it could be, it's still apparently coming back for a second season.

So I think the thing to do right now is to go outside, stare up at the sky, and mutter "Why?" to yourself a few times. It's the only thing I can think of that will help.

Well, that or just changing the channel and watching Sleepy Hollow instead. That works too.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Rosa Diaz (Brooklyn 99)

I have quite honestly been shocked this year by how much I enjoy Brooklyn 99. I was not overly fond on the first viewing - Andy Samberg's character annoyed me and I just wasn't sure that they would be able to pull this off. It looked to me like the whole show was going to be brought down by some annoying white guy jokes, while everyone else looked on and cringed.

As it turns out, I was wrong. And I am 100% okay with that, because that means we get this show. This wonderful, weird, amazing little show. I'm honestly quite grateful for that. Allow me to tell you why.

Brooklyn 99 is a show with a concept so incredibly simple that I am genuinely shocked no one did it before: it's a workplace comedy about cops. That's it. How the hell is this the first major show like that? I mean, The Unusuals tapped some of the same points, and was awesome btw, but since it had a stronger affinity for drama, it got lumped into the already over-saturated cop drama pool. Brooklyn 99 is a comedy, and I don't know if I've ever seen a straight up sitcom about cops before. Have I? I feel like I would remember that.

The real strength of the show, though, is in its characters, and for me, the strength of those characters is in the way that every single one of them, down to the weird terrible ones, is a developed, interesting person. It's like Christmas and magic all at the same time.

I mean, yes, you've got Andy Samberg playing Detective Jake Peralta (actually, they're all detectives, so I'm not going to use that as a modifier, because it'll take too long), and he is kind of really annoying, but get this. That's the point. Jake Peralta is supposed to irritate you. You're supposed to be exasperated with him most of the time. And yeah, you kind of like him, because the show manages to delve ever so slightly into the psychology of a man-child working as a detective who has so, so many unresolved issues and needs a therapist more than pretty much any tv character since House, and I should hate Jake. But I don't.

The thing is, if Jake were the only character with real development on this show, or even the main character, which he seems to be but he really isn't, I would hate Brooklyn 99 with the fire of a thousand suns. I don't hate it because he isn't the main character, and because everyone else on the show is just as developed and just as interesting. You have Andre Braugher glowering in the corner while Chelsea Peretti yucks it up on center stage, and Melissa Fumero tries desperately to brown nose with no success, and Terry Crews is a big old manly man terrified that he's going to get hurt and be unable to provide for his adorable baby daughters. Guh. I love this cast and this story so dang much.

Especially one Detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz).

The reason I singled Rosa out for SFC Friday (and that's not to say that we won't talk about the two other women on this show at some point in the future, because I'm sure we will) is because out of all the female characters I've seen, Rosa is probably the closest to the "strong female character" ideal, the one that everyone talks about and critiques and complains about. And I mean that in a good way. Rosa is the strong female character in a comedy, and it works. It works so dang well. It works because everyone takes it completely seriously.

When I say that Rosa is the "traditional" strong female character, what I mean is this: Rosa is scary. Terrifying, actually. She's got the kind of stare that makes you want to hide behind a desk, she almost never smiles, she hates everyone (openly), and she is very, very happy to use physical force to get what she wants. She's not a woman in a man's world, she's a Rosa in Rosa's world and all of you are unlicensed trespassers. She has a gun. She will shoot.

But she's also got depth. Because even though Rosa is a stone-cold badass, she's also a person, and this show is awesome enough to want to highlight that. 

So we find out that Rosa went to Catholic school for a while, and left, not because she was kicked out, but because she got accepted into ballet school. Of course, she did get kicked out of ballet school for punching ballerinas, but still. We find out that she hides weapons all over her apartment, but that she also believes that people should be treated honestly and well, and that she hates having to lie. Not that she won't, but that she really doesn't like it.

She's loyal - her friendship with Jake has gotten them through a lot of scrapes, and it sustained them both through the police academy - but she's also comfortable with her boundaries - when Jake betrays her trust, Rosa does not hesitate to get her revenge (and oh is it sweet). In short, we love Rosa because as much as she is kind of totally a stone cold bitch, and she would feature very easily in one of Kate Beaton's "Strong Female Characters" comics, she's also a person, and a dang cool one at that.

Plus? She's got female friends, strong female relationships, and doesn't feel threatened by other women. She's not one of those, "No, I don't like women, I like men better," people. She doesn't like anyone, not really. But it's not about her being such a cool woman, and therefore being the exception to the rule that women suck. Rosa is a woman who is cool, and she has women friends and man friends, and she sees no reason why that would be a problem.

However. As much as I love Rosa, sometimes I get the feeling that the show doesn't feel the same. Or rather, that the show doesn't understand why I love Rosa. I love Rosa because she is hilarious and terrifying and utterly unapologetic. But the show seems to think that I love Rosa because she's funny, and I'll love her more if she ends up dating this schlubby white guy with whom she has nothing in common and whose pursuit of her is reaching terrifying levels.

Um, what?

The character in question, Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio), is Rosa's partner. And that's fine in and of itself. Actually, I really love Boyle's character when you view him on his own. He's the perfect counterpoint to Rosa. While she's all traditionally masculine attributes wrapped up in an attractive lady package, Boyle is a very traditionally feminine character, who still manages to be a very good cop. They really do make a great team. It's really funny watching Boyle go on and on about his foodie preferences, trying to be butch and manly and then putting together a dollhouse, or accidentally spewing honesty all over everyone.

The problem comes in with the way that the writers have made Rosa and Boyle interact. Because Boyle has a crush on Rosa. And the writers seem to believe that if he keeps bothering about her, it'll happen. Which is just wrong.

Look, I'm even okay with having Boyle having a crush on Rosa. She's a BAMF, and totally crush-worthy, and one of my favorite running gags has to do with all the guys she arrests being pretty much in love with her. It's not hard to tell why. Rosa is one of those characters where you know she could have either been a cop or a terrifyingly effective and unrepentant criminal, so, again, it makes sense. And it's funny. It just makes you like her more that she always shuts these guys down, quick and efficient. No flirting or prevaricating, just, "Ew. No."

I'm pretty sure that's an actual quote, too. *Swoon.*

But the thing with Boyle is a problem. Boyle has a crush on Rosa, which is fine, but the way he pursues her is really, really unsettling. Oh sure, parts of it are funny on their own. He's obsessed with her, but she terrifies him (understandably), so when she actually agrees to go to a film festival with him, Boyle freaks out and buys a ticket to every single movie, because he doesn't know what she'll like and he's afraid to ask. On its own, funny. But combined with everything else? Weird.

Because Boyle keeps pursuing Rosa even when it's clear she's not interested. Even when it becomes so clear that he can't take a hint that Rosa straight up tells him she's not interested, and Boyle claims he'll respect that decision. He looks like he's going to move on (which would be healthy and normal), and then he pulls some crap like this: "When you do go out with me, and I know you will..."

Ew. No. Stop. Gross. What the hell, guys? When you do go out with me, and I know you will? That's what a stalker says about three days before the police catch him wearing your skin.

I really respect the way that the writers have written this relationship, up to a point. I really loved that Rosa likes Boyle as a person, and doesn't want to hurt him, but has absolutely no interest in him romantically. That's fine. There's no reason why she really should like him, honestly. Yeah, he took a bullet for her, but it was a cop thing, not a romance thing. They have nothing in common. He's not her type. So, yeah, she's going to let him down. She respects him, so she's going to let him down gently, but it's not her thing. She's going to tell Boyle the truth and then proceed to not date him. Respect.

It's just that Boyle doesn't stop. He doesn't stop going after her, and to this point, at least, the writers haven't made it clear that this behavior is not okay. Dude. You tried, she said no, the thing to do now is accept that gracefully and move on.

All this? It's creepy. No. Stop.

I guess what I'm saying is that I love Rosa Diaz, and I feel protective of her. Not that she really needs my protection in story, but I feel like she might need it from the writers. She's such a cool character. She knows exactly who she is, and she likes it. She's not burdened with an over-amount of guilt, she doesn't really doubt herself, and she's completely comfortable with her own attractiveness, physical competence, everything.

Heck, she even goes so far as to intentionally perpetuate terrifying myths about herself because she thinks it's fun. I love that.

What I don't love is the idea that Rosa should in some way change or bend or lower her standards to date Boyle. Because she is genuinely not interested, and the narrative would have to do a lot of work to explain why the hell she should be. Don't go trying to make me think that Rosa is being a bitch for not dating him. She's not. She's being honest. 

When did that become a crime?

Never change.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Whatever You May Think of Him, You Can't Deny He Cares (Luther)

So this is totally appropos of nothing, but did you know that horses are really, really loud? 

I did not. Not until I moved to a horse farm, that is, and now I have a front row seat to how incredibly not stoic and silent horses are. I mean, yes, there was a really loud donkey living down the street from us when I was a kid (I had a weird childhood), but it had nothing on these horses. For crying out loud. Literally. Crying out loud.

Anyway. Let's talk about Luther, season two!

Even though I know that the comparison is largely unfair, I have a lot of trouble not looking for similarities and differences between Sherlock and Luther. After all, they're both BBC crime dramas, both feature incredibly talented casts of BBC regulars, and both of them put a fair amount of effort into making their episodes more cinematic and beautiful and artistic than a lot of crime shows.

But when I do compare them, and I can't really help it, I usually come to the same conclusion. That Luther is smarter, better written, better acted, more sensitive to the realities of the world, a much more realistic representation of people, character, crime, and especially women, and generally an amazing show. And that Sherlock is more fun.

Honestly, I really hate that this is how I feel. Because I'm not kidding when I say that Luther is my Christmas list come true of what a want in a television show. 

The show follows DCI John Luther (Idris Elba), a somewhat disgraced detective with a bad history of mental instability and accidentally murdering his perps. In the first season, he's just coming back on the job after probably maybe killing a guy, and his whole life is in a shambles. His wife, Zoe Luther (Indira Varma) has left him and is in a much healthier relationship with a coworker, Mark (Paul McGann). His friends are all convinced he's about to go off the deep end. His partner, DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown), has been assigned to him and is kind of terrified of him, for good reason. And oh yeah, Luther's closest personal relationship is with Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), a sociopathic murderer.

Suffice to say that the show is a little less than chipper. The second season, which follows directly on the heels of the first, has Luther under investigation again, though this time for the death of DCI Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh), who was a dirty cop that killed Zoe in order to frame Luther for his crimes. Luther, for the record, didn't kill Ian, but he was there when Alice shot him. Alice, having no particular conscience and an unhealthily strong attachment to Luther, admits happily to the murder, then buggers off to hide out in Mexico or something, while Luther stashes Mark (another material witness) in a safe house.

Apparently seeing Zoe's murderer shot is what it took to bring Luther and Mark together. Isn't that sweet?

Funnily enough, though, the real arc of season two isn't about Zoe's death or Alice's exile, or even the ongoing investigation. Instead, it's about Jenny (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), the daughter of a murder suspect from one of Luther's old cases. It seems that Jenny has managed to get herself in way over her head, doing pornography for the mob (I forget which mob, but one of the bad ones, doubtless). Luther rescues her, or kidnaps her, depending on who you ask, and decides to set about rehabilitating her. All while he tries to keep the mob off their backs, investigate murders, and convince his fellow cops that he's not about to start gunning them down or anything.

It's a bit of a tight line to walk, and a huge part of the season has to do with watching Luther painstakingly edge along the border between good cop and dirty cop, as his best intentions threaten to tip him over. Luther isn't in danger because he's too close to the criminal element, his real flaw, as a detective and as a man, is that he's far, far too compassionate for the work he does. And he takes it all far too personally.

You see, the real difference between Sherlock and Luther isn't about the format or the fun or even the race of the main characters. It's to do with the central conceit of the story. Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant man who understands every mechanic of how to commit a crime. John Luther understands why people commit crimes, and ultimately, I think that matters more.

For all that Luther is an unhinged, scary, angry black man of a protagonist (and I mean angry black man in the sense of the old stereotype, which is totally being subverted here), he's actually a deeply kind person. And that is his problem.

Luther can't turn away a person in need. He doesn't like Caroline, Jenny's mother. Actually, I'm pretty sure he hates her. But when she calls him, afraid that her daughter has gotten herself into trouble, Luther can't hang up on her. He has to go looking. When he finds Jenny, and she doesn't want to go with him (which is actually quite sensible on her part - he looks terrifying and she doesn't know him), he can't say no. He can't leave her there, not when he knows how dangerous it is.

When Jenny (SPOILERS) kills a man in self-defence, Luther can't just walk away and let her face the music. He can't even call the police and report it and wash his hands of the matter. He knows that the man was in the mob and that Jenny would be killed before she ever reached a court. He knows that Jenny was scared and being stupid and running. And he knows that he can't leave her to fend for herself.

The difference between Sherlock Holmes and John Luther is compassion. Luther falters and falls because he cares too much about the people under his wing. He loves Jenny like his own daughter, so he perverts justice in order to see her safe. He loves Zoe, and so he watches a man be murdered in her name. He wants to keep the people he loves safe, so he gives information to the mob, so he takes out murderers, so he hides bodies. John Luther is not a nice man, not a quiet man, and probably not a man you'd want to meet in a dark alley, at least not if you have anything to hide.

But he is a good man, a kind man, and a worthwhile one. He does horrible, terrible things, but always for such righteous reasons.

No matter that Luther is determinedly not funny, and rather dour, and sometimes really hard to watch. It's amazing for the simple fact that John Luther is good, no matter what he does to the contrary.

And there's something brilliant and comforting and great about this subversion of the "angry black man" stereotype. Because John Luther is angry, black, and a man, but he's also the one cop I would most like to take my case, were I ever made a victim. I would want John Luther there, because I know he would care about me and my story and getting justice.

I'll trade any number of one-liners, running gags, and zippy action sequences to know that.