Media Mondays: The Glee Is Gone

My friend Katie recently had a few things to say about Glee. Well, I say ‘recently,’ and I say ‘a few things,’ but I mean ‘three distinct posts over the course of as many months,’ so here, I’ll just link them allGlee happens to be one of the many interests we share: we were both seriously into it at the start, and we both started to loathe it at around the same time. And good Lord in Heaven, is there a lot to loathe. But, for me, it comes down to this:

In the last season, Glee has come to embody the concept of too little, too late.

Let’s be honest: this show was always a guilty pleasure. I had plenty of friends who rather justifiably proclaimed it terrible from the start. I thought it was cute and quirky and interesting, and I’ve always been a sucker for musicals. I knew it wasn’t without its problems, but I was willing to overlook those problems for a while. And the first season had a lot going for it. The show was basically a live-action cartoon, with outrageous plotlines and no real consequences for anyone’s actions, but at the same time, it tackled real teen problems in an emotionally authentic way. Sexuality. Teen pregnancy. Bullying. It wasn’t always perfect, particularly when it came to racial diversity and actual inclusion. There were plenty of genuinely idiotic moments. But at least they were trying. And the show was suffused with a sense of good cheer, good humor, and sheer joy that made up for a lot.

I don’t really know when that sense of joy started to fade away. I don’t know when I officially became sick of Glee’s bullshit. But I do know that this past season has been a long, joyless slog, and unless the writers pull a damned miracle out of their asses and truly, deeply impress me, I’m done. When this season is over, I’m saying goodbye to Glee.

Frankly, I’m not holding out much hope. The writers have had at least two golden opportunities to impress me this season, and they haven’t done it yet. I sincerely doubt they ever will.

This should have been an emotionally resonant moment. It was totally botched. And that's what you missed on Glee!

Case in point: the recent episode on bullying and suicide among gay teens. This has been a huge issue in the last year, and rightly so. Too many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens and college students are taking their own lives, unable to bear the grief they face day after day. I have struggled with depression my whole life. I have been in that place more times than I care to admit. I could have been one of those kids.

So it made me incredibly furious to see Glee tackle the issue in their all-too-typical hamfisted manner.

I can’t point to any one specific part of the episode and say ‘There. That. That’s where they fucked up!’ To be honest, it all felt wrong. The teen who actually attempted suicide – Dave Karofsky – was a fairly unsympathetic character who had been rather awkwardly reinserted into the show an episode or two before. We didn’t see enough of his story to know exactly what he was going through. The actual suicide attempt, and his father’s discovery of his unconscious body, were certainly difficult scenes to watch. But they weren’t as powerful as they could have been. And they were diminished further simply by being on this damn show. I spent the whole five minutes or so wondering how they were going to fuck things up this time. And boy howdy, they did not disappoint.

In the moments that followed, we had a tired old story from Mr. Schue about how he was once caught cheating on a test and thought about jumping off a roof, as well as a half-assed redemption on the part of a recurring character who had actually committed assault against one of the regulars not too long before and should have been in jail. (He didn’t go to jail because Glee is stupid and everyone on the show is carrying the idiot ball at this point. Also there was something about Michael Jackson in there. It’s all kind of blurred together into an enormous pile of awful.) We had a heavy-handed scene in the hospital with Kurt and Karofsky, I guess. To be honest, I’ve blocked that out too. And then we forgot all about it and moved on to the most boring Regionals competition ever shown on the program and the culmination of one of the most idiotic plotlines of the season (which is saying a lot): Finn and Rachel‘s wedding.

I don’t even know where to start. I really don’t. This episode could have been good. It should have been good. Most of the cast is incredibly talented, and they brought real, raw emotion to their reactions to Karofsky’s suicide attempt. But you know what? For one thing, you don’t take a subject like this and turn it into the B-plot in a three-ring circus clusterfuck of an episode. For another, no, Mr. Schue, your stupid teenage overreaction to getting caught cheating does not compare to what GLBT teens face every goddamned day in any way, shape or form. We couldn’t have heard from Kurt on this? Or Santana? Or one of Rachel’s dads, maybe? Someone who might actually have a story relevant to this plotline? Maybe an anecdote that wouldn’t break the emotional tension of these events like a safety pin stuck in a damned balloon?

But when it comes to ‘too little, too late,’ this last week’s episode takes the damn cake.

Sue Sylvester racing gleefully over the biggest damn line you ever did see.

In the last episode of Glee, we were introduced to Wade, a.k.a. Unique, a young trans woman on the verge of coming out, just about to come into her own. She also happened to be a member of Vocal Adrenaline – the chief rivals of Glee’s New Directions. When she came onto the campus to speak with Kurt and Mercedes, it looked like there was yet another confrontation between the rival glee clubs in the offing. Instead, she confessed her true identity and told them that she wanted to perform as a woman at Vocal Adrenaline’s next show. Kurt and Mercedes, sympathetic but fearing that she might be ridiculed, advised against it. Not the way I would have gone, but fine.

Then Sue Sylvester – Glee’s on-again, off-again antagonist – somehow caught wind of this. And that was when I started seeing red.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m pretty sensitive when it comes to trans issues. I get twitchy when otherwise good shows suddenly introduce transgender characters. When it happens on a show like Glee, I get downright pissy. So many shows get the whole thing so horribly wrong, even when they have the best intentions. And I no longer trust the intentions – or the competence – of Glee’s writers or producers.

I’ll put up with a lot of crap. But when you start fucking around with my sisters and my brothers, with our stories and our experiences, when you start exploiting us for tawdry drama or cheap laughs, my fuse gets very, very, very short.

And Sue Sylvester strolled right on in with a lit match. Because her reaction to this latest product of McKinley High’s rumor mill was not to commend Kurt and Mercedes on their kindness and discretion, or to tell them they should have encouraged Unique instead of shutting them down. Well…actually, it was sort of the latter. But for all the wrong reasons. Sue heard the story and thought this was the perfect opportunity to take down Vocal Adrenaline. The audience would see a teenage boy on stage in a dress and heels and the whole club would be humiliated. She even bought some ridiculously high-heeled shoes for them to give to Unique. And Kurt and Mercedes, though obviously reluctant, agreed to pass along the shoes and the message.

Let me tell you all a story. When I was 19 years old, during my freshman year of college, I came out to my friends and family. I finally admitted to everyone I loved that I felt like a woman inside, and I always had. I was supremely lucky: most of them accepted me for who I was. When I went home for the holidays, my parents helped me shop for everything I would need to assume my true identity, to become the person I had always been inside. We set up appointments with therapists and worked to get me on hormones. And then, the following February, I went with my school’s GSA to the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference…and I went out in public as a woman for the very first time. I spent the whole weekend simply being myself. And when I came back, I realized that I couldn’t go back to living a lie. Within a week, I was living as a woman full-time.

I don’t think that would have happened if there’d been a Sue Sylvester waiting in the wings to turn my first experience in public as the person I truly was into some kind of Carrie moment. I’m not sure I’d be alive today if something like that had happened. That first experience at MBLGTACC gave me the strength I needed for everything that came afterward. That strength sometimes faltered, but it did not fail, because it was built on a strong foundation. If that foundation had been undermined from the very beginning…I really don’t know what would have happened.

Unique puts on her boogie shoes.

So when Sue proposed that bullshit, and Kurt and Mercedes went along with them, it truly damned them all in my eyes. No one deserves that kind of treatment. And Sue knows that, damn it! The whole plotline was inconsistent characterization at its worst. Sue’s a bully, but she has shown in the past that there are lines even she won’t cross. The victimization of GLBT youth was supposedly one of them, as evidenced by her decision to resign rather than reverse her decision to expel Karofsky for bullying Kurt and threatening him with assault and murder. Of course, that’s gone out the window before. But she’s never gone this far. It was clumsy writing, clumsy plotting, and unacceptable behavior on the part of several major characters.

If it had ended badly for Unique, I probably would have stopped watching here and there. I would never have forgiven the characters, and to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have forgiven the actors involved for letting their characters go that far. In the end, Kurt and Mercedes did have second thoughts. They ultimately went backstage at the Vocal Adrenaline concert to try and warn Unique about Sue’s plans. And that was when Unique showed us all the kind of person she was – because she refused to abandon her plans. She refused to lie about who she was any longer. She put on her boogie shoes and she went out there in all her glory. And it was glorious. For a moment – just a moment – I saw everything I used to love about Glee come rushing back.

But one good moment doesn’t make up for a season or more of absolute shit. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t. I have been waiting for this moment since this show came on the air. And now that they finally have a trans character on the show – a strong, confident, talented trans woman of color, at that – I find that this victory, if you can call it that, tastes like ashes. I adore Unique, but she doesn’t redeem Glee. I’m not happy that the show is doing this. I’m furious that they’re doing it now. That one of the best trans characters on television is on a show that has long since become a complete train wreck.

Plenty of organizations like GLAAD are celebrating tonight, overjoyed at seeing a character like Unique on television. But I just can’t join the chorus. I’m just not feeling it. The joy is gone, and it won’t come back. I really do wish the show’s entire cast nothing but the best. Many of them are amazingly talented, and they deserve nothing but the best. But as for the show itself, and all its latest attempts to recapture its former glory?

Too little, too late, Glee. Too little, too late.

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Media Mondays: You Actually CAN Say That On Television

If the English language were on Facebook, my relationship with the word “bitch” would best be described as “It’s complicated”. I’m okay with it when it’s thrown at me in a playful kind of way by people I know and trust. I’m definitely okay with it when it’s used in a reclaiming sense. I was a regular reader of Bitch Magazine in the past, and once I have the disposable cash to spend on magazine subscriptions, I definitely will be again. At the same time, it is a slur, and when it’s used in that sense, I’m not really a fan.

On the other hand, I also believe this: if you want to use a certain word, just fucking use it. Oh, yes, that use of the f-bomb was quite deliberate. I really think that everyone is entirely too anxious about the use of profanity on television, the FCC most of all, and while I certainly don’t think Bert and Ernie should be cussing like sailors, I also think we should really just relax and take a cue from British TV. If you want to say ass, or bitch, or fuck, then you should just say it. Maybe set up a system where those words are only used after the watershed, to borrow another concept from our friends across the pond, but for fuck’s sake, just say the words you want to say. Don’t get cute about it.

So when I hear titles like GCB (originally Good Christian Bitches, then Good Christian Belles, now an abbreviation that everyone’s just going to look up on the Internet anyway) or Don’t Trust the B- in Apt. 23, I can’t help rolling my eyes. Oh, to some degree, the words as used in the titles of these shows are definitely meant as slurs, and I can appreciate ABC‘s decision not to expose America’s sensitive eyes to such mind-scouring filth. (Okay, maybe I can’t appreciate that decision without a little bit of snark.) But we’re talking about a word that’s used frequently, including, yes, on network TV, and I think it’s frankly ridiculous that they can’t and won’t just say what they mean.

It doesn’t help that the shows themselves – especially GCB – are just as ridiculous.

All the devils are here. I say devils because I am apparently not allowed to say bitches on television.

And on that note, let’s take a closer look at these shows, starting with GCB. You know what that means: a barrage of catty puns. It’s no secret that ABC is desperate to replace Housewives, its Sunday night juggernaut of the last few years. Since Pan Am didn’t really pan out, they’ve turned to a show that’s much closer to the series they’re trying to emulate, a program all about sex, lies, family and women being completely horrible to each other in the middle of a small, tightly-knit community.

When I first heard of this series, I actually had high hopes. There were rumors of central gay content (and that storyline actually is one of the best parts – read: only good parts – of the show), and of course I’ve adored Kristin Chenoweth for ages and ages. The basic premise of the show – a woman who was the Queen Bee and chief bully in high school returning to her hometown to find the women she’d tormented ready and waiting to make her life a living hell – really intrigued me. I absolutely adored Mean Girls (to the point of quoting it at the drop of a hat, and using it as a major inspiration for a project I’m working on and not quite ready to discuss yet) and this sounded like it could very well be Mean Girls: The Series. Except, you know, in that fresh hell we call adulthood, and right smack dab in the middle of that hell we call Texas.

That hope has carried me through a lot of GCB, but it’s been a few weeks now, and it’s time to admit the hard, sad truth: I’m watching this series for the show I want it to be, not the show it is. The show as it stands is, frankly, not all that great. It’s not even amusing in a trainwreck sense. And that’s a real shame, because each and every actor on it is giving it their all, and there are a hell of a lot of individual things to like. Kristin Chenoweth can play a smiling, backstabbing HBIC (look it up on the Internet, kids) with the best of them, and she is just full of energy and seemingly effortless grace as always. Leslie Bibb does a great job as Amanda Vaughn, formerly the Queen Bee of her high school and now a widow and a single mother forced to return to her hometown in disgrace. The relationship between Cricket Caruth-Reilly (played by Miriam Shor) with her openly closeted husband Blake (played by Mark Deklin) is actually incredibly sweet and interesting – she knows he’s gay, and romantically involved with the man managing his ranch, and she’s okay with it. They’ve chosen to stay together because they do love each other, just not romantically, and because they make such amazing partners in business and in life. Of all the relationships on the show, theirs is perhaps the strongest, the most powerful, and the most free from judgment.

But you have to take the bad with the good, and there’s a lot of bad. It doesn’t really feel like any of the characters are evolving. Any time it looks like the status quo might change, like Amanda might actually find some forgiveness from the ladies she tormented in high school and might actually be accepted into the community once more, those hopes are dashed. And maybe I shouldn’t expect these characters to evolve. You know what, I went through a lot of shit in school (although I was homeschooled during my adolescence), including some physical and emotional abuse that actually does cause me a hell of a lot of pain when I think about it, even now. But I also recognize that that time of my life is over, and thank God for it. I don’t want to go back to that place. Not even for the purpose of gaining some petty vengeance against my tormentors. Honestly, I’d like to think that my tormentors grew up, got over themselves, and became better people as well. And if they didn’t – that’s not my problem. I don’t know if I can forgive. I tend to think forgiveness has to be asked for, and no one’s ever asked for mine. But I can move on with my life. The ladies of GCB clearly can’t.

I may keep watching through the end of the season, but it’s dropped off my must-see list, especially now that Mad Men is back and occupying the same time slot. Like I said: I wasn’t watching it for the show it is. I was watching it for the show I wanted it to be. And I don’t think it’s going to become that show.

The Dream Team?

Don’t Trust the B- in Apt. 23, on the other hand, shows every sign of becoming the show I want it to be, though it’s certainly not there yet. Unlike GCB, I didn’t really have high folks for this show. It sounded like it was going to be patently, gleefully ridiculous and probably misogynistic and horrible, and I was totally expecting it to be the next Work It. My interest was piqued when I realized that Krysten Ritter and Dreama Walker were the leads – they’ve both spent their careers playing a lot of solid supporting characters, and it was about time someone let them take point – but I honestly figured this show would be awful, and it would almost immediately flop, and they’d move on to better things.

To borrow from someone on Twitter whose name escapes me, though: even if the show isn’t surprisingly good (it really isn’t), it is at least surprisingly not horrible. Chloe, the Krysten Ritter character and titular bitch, is an awful person, yes – but she’s not irredeemably awful. There are hints of something deeper, something better, in her character. She seems to genuinely care about the people she calls friends, even if she has a decidedly funny way of showing it. She doesn’t seem to like it when other people mess with said friends. There are tantalizing hints of complexity to her character that might – if they’re followed up on – actually contribute to a decent series.

And Dreama Walker’s June isn’t the wide-eyed farm girl I was expecting, either. That should have been obvious from the moment she was introduced, fresh out of grad school and ready to take her place at a powerful financial company. She was, from the outset, clearly intelligent, and if perhaps she was a little innocent, that could easily be forgiven. Still, it was easy to underestimate her, as Chloe obviously did – but then, victimized by her roommate, June turned around and got even in a truly spectacular fashion. By the end of the episode, she’d clearly earned Chloe’s respect. And mine.

The most eye-rolling aspect of the show, even now, is James Van Der Beek pulling a Neil Patrick Harris and playing James Van Der Beek. It’s pretty gimmicky. But he’s actually kind of funny, and the Dawson’s Creek jokes do not get old. The show is pretty uneven, but it shows a lot of promise. The relationship between June and Chloe is already changing, and they’re already smart, strong, complicated characters. I’m willing to give the show a season to work the kinks out and find its voice. If it’s done well, it could turn into a genuinely amazing series about a complicated but genuine friendship between two very different women. If it’s done poorly, well…hopefully its death will be swift and painless.

But seriously, people: as complicated as my feelings toward the word bitch can be, can we all just agree to say what we mean? It doesn’t matter how good or bad your show is – when I have to use stupid abbreviations just to talk about it, I just feel silly. Get over yourselves, America. The world will not come to an end just because you said the word bitch. In fact, on show after show, you’re already using that word. It turns out you actually can say that on television. So just say it.

If you like what you’ve just read, please consider donating to my summer pledge drive. If you can’t donate yourself, but you’d still like to help, please spread the word about the blog and about the pledge drive itself. The more readers and potential supporters I pick up, the better.

Media Mondays: The PAX East Edition

I’m still recovering from PAX, and as I started a new job (yay!) and got some nasty financial surprises (boo!) all in the same day, well…this is going to be a quick one. So, rather than start the conversation I’ve been meaning to have about GCB, or go into depth on some other show or movie or book or what have you, I thought I’d offer up a few quick thoughts on some games I saw and loved at the show.

Let’s start with my absolute favorite game of the show. Go Home Dinosaurs! is the upcoming offering from Boston-based Fire Hose Games, and it is freaking adorable. The basic play reminds me a lot of Fieldrunners (a mobile game from another local company, Subatomic Studios), and, well…at its core, Dinosaurs is a tower defense game, so the basic mechanics are bound to resemble just about every other entry in the genre. You control a small crew of gophers attempting to protect their barbecue from a steadily advancing army of hungry dinosaurs. The dinos follow a specific path, and it’s up to you to deploy weapons along that route to slow, stop and finally destroy them. Along the way, you gather coconuts which you can use to pay for additional weapons.

Sounds simple, right? Well, there are some additional layers to it: first, each weapon covers a different area. It’s not all about size, either – the freeze ray you can get around the second round occupies an L-shaped space; the meteor magnet you get later on occupies a sort of fat-headed T…a 2 square by 3 square rectangle with one square sticking out of the longer side. In between rounds, you get coins (based upon your kills, the resources left on the board, the number of coconuts you still have in your bank, etc.) to spend on new devices and power-ups; this works very much like a trading card game, actually. You build a ‘deck’ of weapons which are then available to you in the quantities you have purchased – provided you have enough coconuts.

I’m making the game sound more complicated than it is. Honestly, it’s very intuitive and elegant in its simplicity. It’s very, very, very cute and a hell of a lot of fun. It should be hitting the Chrome Web Store this summer, and I’ll almost certainly be buying it.

Next we have Star Command, a Star Trek-inspired game for iOS and Android devices. I got to try it briefly in the Kickstarter Lounge, and it reminded me a great deal of the classic Dungeon Keeper, in a good way. You control a starship drifting through deep space, marshaling your crew to fend off invading aliens and other menaces. Your crew members have different powers depending on their divisions: the people in red shirts are tactical officers, skilled in offense but quick to die if you’re not careful; blue shirts are medical, able to heal their crewmates; gold shirts are engineering, able to repair and upgrade the ship itself. Sadly I only had a few minutes with the game before I had to head off with my friend Ross to practice for our second Omegathon round, but I can see how it could get quite addicted. I’m pleased to note that the game has been fully funded on Kickstarter and it should be hitting the market later this year.

Speaking of the Omegathon, while Zip-It was the harbinger of our destruction, it’s also an incredibly fun game that I cannot recommend highly enough. It’s quick, easy to learn, tricky to master, and an absolute blast – and it easily fits in a purse or messenger bag, so you can bust it out any time you have a few minutes to spare. It’s a worthy addition to Zombie Dice and Cthulhu Dice in my collection of line games.

Last but far from least, there were a couple of really fun additions to the Apples to Apples genre of subjective card-matching games. Cards Against Humanity scarcely needs an introduction at this point, but I hadn’t actually seen the game up close before visiting the Kickstarter Lounge at PAX East, so it was new to me. It’s probably best described as “Apples to Apples for horrible people,” and given my somewhat twisted sense of humor, it seems to be right up my alley. Sadly, they were sold out forever at the con, but you can download the game for free on their site and they should have more physical sets available for sale soon.

The Metagame was funded on Kickstarter a year ago, so it’s not exactly new either, but once again, it was new to me. I got to play it in line with Mattie Brice, Amanda Cosmos and a whole mess of others, and it was a lot of fun. Essentially, as with Apples to Apples, you have one set of ‘question’ cards and one set of ‘answer’ cards – except each of the ‘answer’ cards lists a different game, with basic details like the publisher and the year of release, and the ‘question’ cards ask things like ‘Which game feels more like first love?’ or ‘Which game is more culturally insensitive?’. While most of the cards list video games, there are exceptions to the rule…most notably, and amusingly, the Metagame itself gets a card, meaning that the game is a set that includes itself. (…the math nerds got that one.) It’s probably one of the geekiest games I’ve ever played, and you probably won’t fully appreciate it unless you’re a serious gamer or a game developer, but personally, I loved it.

Those were hardly the only games I saw at PAX, of course, but they’re the easiest to sum up and they were definitely favorites. I’ll probably have more complicated thoughts on the others at some future point – particularly Rock Band Blitz, once I’ve had a chance to play it outside of a demo environment. In the meantime, I definitely recommend checking out all of the above. They’re all pretty much winners.

Media Mondays: Wonder Woman

You may have noticed by now that I kind of have a thing for Amazons. My favorite comic book superheroine, after all, is Wonder Girl, and Wonder Woman herself is a very close second. I go by Themiscyra just about anywhere and everywhere I can, and it’s not solely a Wonder Woman reference. And so it goes. The Amazon label is admittedly a problematic one, frequently co-opted by the less pleasant elements of radical feminism (you know, the folks who basically hate me for calling myself a woman, who gleefully throw pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘him’ at women like me when they’re not calling us ‘it,’ who don’t think we have any place in women’s spaces, that sort of thing), but it’s one I wear with pride nonetheless. I’m a firm believer in the power of archetypes – in our ability to draw strength from symbols deeply embedded into our culture. And the Amazons are pretty damn potent. To me, they represent a strength that embraces womanhood, rather than rejecting or denigrating it, as our popular culture too often does. They represent every last woman who chose to stand up and face the world on her own terms rather than giving in to the pressures of the dominant society. So hell yes, I’m an Amazon. Or, at least, I aspire to be one.

That said, of course, I have to concede the point that the Amazons as portrayed in Greek mythology aren’t necessarily perfect, praiseworthy figures. Some of the legends have them slicing off their breasts to better aim their arrows, taking those men they did not kill as slaves, engaging in sexual congress with men only to reproduce and then abandoning or killing any male children. To the Greeks, these were most likely figures of utter terror…and yet, at the same time, they were also clearly figures of intense fascination, because they keep showing up. The Amazons we know today – mostly through media like, well, Wonder Woman – bear only a partial resemblance to the Amazons of antiquity. That’s something I’ve struggled to accept – to the point of having a visceral negative reaction to the Amazons’ recent appearance on Supernatural. (I won’t spoil the episode, but the Amazons of Paradise Island don’t have a whole lot in common with the Amazons of the Supernatural universe, either.)

Wonder Woman’s history is a bit troubled as well: created by William Moulton Marston, whose work contributed to the modern polygraph test, she was not only intended to serve as the world’s first female superhero, but also as a proponent of his philosophy. The idea was to combine “ideal” female attributes – tenderness, submission, and beauty, most notably – with the power of Superman. Wonder Woman would use this power to encourage submission to loving authority. The early stories are thus rather confused, filled with outmoded ideas and instances of bondage that may or may not have been intended as sexual but certainly come off that way. While Marston’s goals may have been noble, he was definitely still rather misguided, and the execution of his ideas was seriously lacking.

And yet, for all the flaws of her creator, for all the missteps along the way, Wonder Woman became a feminist icon. Maybe it was because she was the most prominent female superhero out there – but I’ve always thought there was more to it than that. Wonder Woman is not without her issues, but nevertheless, she’s an undeniably strong woman who embraces her womanhood. She makes no apologies for who she is. At her best, she’s a warrior and a peacemaker at once, a philosopher and ambassador who falls back on violence only as a last resort – but fights capably and ferociously when she must. Yeah, she does all this in a strapless star-spangled swimsuit (and while I ended up avoiding J. Michael Straczynski‘s run on the comic book, I have to admit that I did kind of like seeing Wonder Woman in pants and a jacket in those promo pictures)…but look past that. Look at who Diana is. There’s a lot to love.

Trouble in Paradise

As I’ve said before, I gave up on comics altogether around the time when DC announced the New 52 – a reboot of their entire universe – and made a number of unwelcome changes to characters a loved a hell of a lot. At that point, I really didn’t trust them to do right by Wonder Woman. They’d already messed up Cassie Sandsmark and it soon came out that they’d seriously messed up Starfire. But my friends have been telling me that the current Wonder Woman run is actually excellent, so I took some time in the last week to see what Diana’s been up to.

Well, she’s…different. So are the Amazons. So’s Paradise Island. There are elements I like. I actually like the tension between Diana and her fellow Amazons. It makes for interesting drama. And while this Diana is angrier than the Wonder Woman I’m used to, she’s still strong and fiercely protective of those she cares about. She has the same powerful sense of loyalty and family and the same willingness to build her own family that I remember. She’s a little quicker to jump into a fight, but she’s still clever enough to avoid one.

That said, there are also things that annoy me. The fact that (as revealed in the second issue) Wonder Woman is now the daughter of Zeus, for one. Wait a second – that’s Cassie Sandsmark’s story. You guys took Cassie’s story and shoved it into Diana’s? I’m not actually angry, because it does open up some interesting story possibilities, but I am a little vexed. And, well…Diana’s living in London now. Which is great. Sure. London. I like London. Except…why the hell is she still wearing a costume based on the American flag? Seriously, that’s the whole point of the costume: she dressed in the colors and patterns of the American flag to try and make a good impression on the United States (then one of the most powerful nations on the planet) when she revealed herself to ‘Man’s World’. I’m kind of hoping this will be explained later on – maybe she chose to abandon the U.S. for some reason. And the idea of a Wonder Woman who belongs to the whole world, not just the U.S.A. (which always did seem a little odd), appeals to me. But for the time being, it bugs me.

And then we come to the Amazons. Boy, oh, boy…the Amazons. This is where my opening paragraphs start to become relevant again.

Yeah, by the way, this is not a comic book for children. In case you were wondering.

Let me explain something about how the Amazons in Wonder Woman used to work: essentially, they were all immortal, and they were all childless. After playing their part in Greek mythology, and suffering temporary enslavement at the hands of Hercules, they retreated from Man’s World to the secluded island of Themyscira, or Paradise Island. Diana herself was actually the only child born on the island, and ‘created’ would be the more accurate term – her mother, Queen Hippolyta, crafted a baby girl out of clay and begged the gods to give her life. The rest of the Amazons went on without children or families of their own. They got to live forever, but only in isolation, without any real opportunity for reproduction.

That’s not the case anymore.

As revealed in the latest issue, the new Amazons hew much closer to the old myths. Oh, they still live in seclusion on Paradise Island – a necessary story detail, as otherwise they would have undoubtedly been overrun, destroyed and/or assimilated into other cultures over the intervening centuries. But they aren’t precisely confined there. They don’t hold themselves completely apart. Instead, at certain intervals, they go out to sea, board ships en masse, have their way with the men there, kill them all, then go home to bear any children that may result from the unions.

Oh wait. It gets better.

Yeah. So this happened.

The Amazons also hew to the myths in that they kill any male children they bear…or at least they used to. Turns out they made a little arrangement with Hephaestus, god of the forge, some time ago. They deliver all their male children to him, he takes them as slaves, and in exchange, the Amazons get weapons from his forge. Because…the Amazons are incapable of forging their own weapons? Okay, okay, that’s probably unfair: Hephaestus makes magical weapons, weapons of genuine power, and I’m sure the Amazons can’t really match his craftsmanship there. Even so…

It turns out that Hephaestus actually treats the kids pretty well. You know. For slaves. He certainly treats them well enough that, when Diana offers them their freedom, they refuse and politely ask her to untie their master. ‘Cause, you know, Stockholm Syndrome isn’t a thing. They point out that slavery is preferable to death – but they’re still slaves. They were still rejected by their mothers, banished from their homes and sold into servitude because of the circumstances of their birth. Because they failed at a test they had no power to pass.

As I said before, the Amazons of myth did, according to some legends, practice slavery. They did, according to some tales, kill or abandon their male children. This is not entirely inaccurate. But it still leaves a foul taste in my mouth.

All things considered, I think I prefer the Paradise Island of Wonder Woman‘s prior runs. The Amazons who used their time in seclusion to study and grow, creating astounding new technologies and becoming better people. The Amazons who, faced with a world that was now entirely capable of finding them, chose to put the best of them forward, to try and bring what they had learned to the rest of the world, to try and improve the lot of their sisters on the outside. While the Wonder Woman of the current series intrigues me, I still miss the Wonder Woman of Greg Rucka‘s run, or Gail Simone‘s: the Diana who found strength in family and friends, who was an ambassador and an idealist first and a warrior second. That’s my Princess Diana. That’s my Themyscira. This new world…I’m not so sure about it yet. I’ll keep reading, for now, but I feel distinctly unsettled.

As a Greek mythology buff, I appreciate the accuracy. But as an Amazon…and as an Amazon who would have been killed or sold into slavery under the new order…I kind of miss my sisters. Even if they were never really there to begin with.

NOTE: Yep. This is SUPER late. I’ve been caught up in PAX East prep, and it’s not likely to get better. I’m going to try and work ahead so the next few posts will go up on schedule, and I may try to do some blogging and tweeting from the con, but I’m probably going to be pretty quiet as a rule. Wish me luck in the Omegathon – and hopefully I’ll see some of you at the con!

Media Mondays: The Hunger Games

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Welcome to Hunger Games week on the blog. In honor of the film’s release, I’ll be posting about The Hunger Games and related matters in every major post this week – Media Mondays, Writing Wednesdays, and Fangirl Fridays. Today’s post is all about the movie itself – how it held up compared to the original book, how well it stands up on its own, and my assorted and sundry thoughts. For the first few paragraphs, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, but later on I’ll be discussing specific details.

For those of you who haven’t yet read the book, here’s a summary: Years from now, in the wake of climate shifts and major turmoil, North America has been reinvented as Panem, a highly stratified and oppressive society ruled from a city known simply as the Capitol. Nearly a century prior to the events of the book, the thirteen geographic districts that lie outside the Capitol rose up in rebellion. In the course of the war, District 13 was wiped off the map, and the Capitol successfully cracked down on all the rest. As punishment for the rebellion, the Capitol demands tributes from each district every year – one boy and one girl, selected at random (though others can volunteer to take their places) – who are taken into the Capitol itself for parades and pageantry before they are at last thrown into a vast arena where they must fight to the death in a massive televised event. The last tribute standing wins a lifetime of wealth and comfort, and their home district receives extra food and supplies for the following year. These are the Hunger Games.

The book – and its sequels – follow Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl from District 12, which is chiefly responsible for Panem’s coal supplies. In the seventy-fourth year of the Hunger Games, Katniss’s sister Primrose is, by sheer chance, selected as tribute, and Katniss immediately volunteers to save Prim from the Games. What follows is quite possibly one of the harrowing young adult novels I’ve ever read, and a frightening and frequently heartbreaking portrayal of a dystopian future. The story and the world it inhabits are deepened by frequent references to Greco-Roman mythology and history: from the very concept of the tributes (which brings the legend of Theseus to mind) to the frequent use of Roman names, the influence of Roman culture on the nation of Panem (the name itself not only a corruption, presumably, of “Pan-America,” but also a sly reference to the Latin phrase panem et circenses, commonly translated today as “bread and circuses“) is crystal clear. The influence is even more pronounced in the world of the film – but I’ll get to that.

Seriously, Entertainment Weekly?

I have to admit that I was extremely nervous when the film was first announced, and more so when I saw the initial photos of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen – heavily airbrushed and altered, until Lawrence was barely recognizable as herself, let alone poor, unfortunate Katniss – published in Entertainment Weekly. The various subsequent interviews with the cast and crew, coupled with the initial trailers, laid many of those fears to rest. The first few minutes of the film destroyed those fears completely. Jennifer Lawrence embodies Katniss, and the rest of the cast is at least serviceable, if not always superb. (Young Amandla Stenberg is the perfect Rue. Liam Hemsworth is a great Gale, even if we don’t see much of him and the brief glimpses we do get are somewhat overwrought. Elizabeth Banks feels a bit underused as Effie Trinket. And if I keep going, I’ll be at this all day.) District 12 and the Capitol are captured vividly. The film hits many of the major points of the book, and in some places, surpasses it.

That said, it is very, very difficult for a film to capture a novel in its entirety – between limited budgets, limited running times, and the need to draw in and entertain complete newcomers as well as existing fans, the transition from page to screen can be very rough indeed. The Hunger Games does show some signs of this strain. The core of my concerns with the film can be summed up in Mightygodking‘s one-sentence review. The book benefits from the fact that it’s written in the first person. We remain firmly ensconced in Katniss’s head. We see what she’s thinking at all times. The film doesn’t give us that internal monologue, and so, at times, Katniss is inscrutable, and her poor acting and awkward moments come off as failures on Jennifer Lawrence’s part when – in fact – she stays completely true to the character.

As a fan of the books, I enjoyed the film immensely, but I must also concede that it’s an incomplete adaptation in places, and my knowledge of the book may be filling in some serious gaps in the story as conveyed in the movie. I would still recommend the film to viewers who have not yet read the original books – but I would also heartily recommend that they read the books as soon as possible.

Okay. That's more like it.

Let’s look at a few of the specifics. WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW.

First, let’s look at one of the central elements of the books: the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta Mellark (her fellow District 12 tribute) and Gale Hawthorne (Katniss’s best friend and partner in hunting and gathering outside District 12’s boundary). Other reviewers have noted that these relationships fall a bit flat and feel a bit hollow, and I have to concede the point – with a caveat: the fact of the matter is that this love triangle isn’t really developed in the first book. It takes Katniss a long time to come to terms with her feelings for both young men – to recognize that she has those feelings at all. In the first book, she is driven first by her need to survive the Games and return to her family; later, she develops some sympathy toward Peeta, and when the organizers of the Games announce a change in the rules which will allow them both to survive, she becomes determined to save his life as well. While it’s virtually impossible not to read between the lines and take note of Katniss’s growing romantic feelings toward Peeta, they’re really not a huge part of the events of The Hunger Games itself. And, frankly, while the love triangle is certainly important, it’s not really the main thrust of any of the books.

The movie makes some missteps here. First, and most notably, a lot of weight is placed on the love triangle, and it doesn’t come off well. Every time Katniss grows close to Peeta, we flash back to District 12, where Gale is staring moodily at the television, watching them getting cozy in the midst of the Games. The audience at the showing I attended laughed every time this happened, no matter what else was going on or what had just occurred. It caused some serious mood dissonance and really took me out of the world of the film.

Second, as I noted earlier, we don’t really get to see into Katniss’s head here. Jennifer Lawrence is playing the character as she was in the books. Fans of the books will undoubtedly pick up on this. Newcomers will not. They’ll see a Katniss who’s acting awkward and cold and strange for no apparent reason. The film does not convey her inner conflict, her true feelings, her innermost thoughts at all. And in that, it fails, and the failure is most notable whenever the love triangle comes into play.

Katniss’s relationship with Peeta – and the way that relationship develops over the course of the Games, and more importantly the things Katniss does to promote that relationship to the Games’ audience – is a vitally important plot point. It had to be included, one way or another. But by shoehorning in Gale’s reactions, by failing to show us what’s actually going on, the film fell short. It was a pretty damn great literal adaptation, but we needed more than a literal adaptation. We needed to see the spirit of the books captured on film. And the movie hasn’t done that – not entirely.

The greatest failure of the movie, however, is this: it fails to convey just how dire the situation in Panem is, and what precisely the Games mean. The movie doesn’t explain that the districts, through their tributes, are literally competing for their survival (or at least a better chance at survival in the coming year) – the true reason for the name “Hunger Games”. The movie spends so much time in the Capitol, with all its garish colors and ostentatious glory, that we don’t even really see how bad the situation in District 12 is, let alone the situation in the rest of Panem. The film shows us the Capitol’s pageantry and cruelty in spades, but it doesn’t go far enough. The moments and the conversations that lay out the history and the present status of Panem simply aren’t there.

Rue, played by Amandla Stenberg - honestly one of the best parts of the film.

That said, there were some absolutely fantastic moments in the film. The death of the youngest tribute, Rue, who had by that time teamed up with Katniss in the arena, is particularly moving. I have to confess that I didn’t really cry at that scene when I read it in the original book. I got a little sniffly, but for some reason my imagination failed to capture the full poignancy of the scene. When it happened in the movie, I broke down sobbing. When, in the movie, the image of Rue lying in a meadow, dead and covered in the flowers Katniss has gathered, prompted open rebellion in District 11 (Rue’s home district, and Panem’s agricultural center), I just started crying even harder. This is a scene we don’t see in the book – District 11 doesn’t rebel at Rue’s death, at least not right away. Instead, they send Katniss a gift (something that sponsors outside the arena can do, but at great cost): a loaf of bread that she recognizes as coming from District 11 because of an earlier, seemingly irrelevant scene in the book. Because that scene, too, was removed from the movie, the riot is a far more effective turn of events…and, honestly, it heightens Katniss’s isolation from her world. She has no idea what she’s done, what effect her actions have had. She doesn’t realize that she is the tipping point for a possible revolution, that Panem’s President and the people who run her society are genuinely afraid of her. And that’s precisely as it should be.

And, while we lose Katniss’s voice, we gain new and truly fascinating perspectives. In a significant subplot, we follow Seneca Crane, the man in charge of the Hunger Games, as he discusses them, organizes them, alters them, and deals with the demands of his audience as well as the demands of those in power, personified in Panem’s President Snow. At the end, Seneca fails to contain the force he has unleashed. He has failed to counter Katniss’s final gambit, the move that breaks the Games themselves. And at the very end of his story, we see him escorted into a room, locked in, and left alone with a dish full of poisonous berries. It’s a perfect moment. It recalls the death of Socrates, and thus, a moment that was only mentioned in passing in the books – and not even in The Hunger Games itself – is given new weight and tied in perfectly with Panem’s Greco-Roman-themed society.

In conclusion, I would recommend the film. I don’t think it’s completely impossible for a newcomer to follow: to the contrary, I think a newcomer could follow it quite well. The changes from the book are largely necessary, and serve to streamline the story. It’s a good movie, any way you slice it. Hopefully it will bring a lot of new fans to the books. And, as I said, as one of the series’ existing fans, I loved the movie. It brought many of the book’s most compelling moments to life, and it offered some very nice bonuses to loyal fans. But it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t complete. See the movie – but make sure you read the books. Trust me. They’re worth it.

Media Mondays: Comic Book Men

Behold the original boys' club.

Though my interest has flagged a bit in recent years, I still consider myself a Kevin Smith fan. Chasing Amy, despite a few problems, remains one of my favorite films. Dogma gets gross in parts, but I still think it’s a great commentary on religion as opposed to faith. Clerks and Mallrats are of course pretty damn great. And while I admit one viewing of Clerks 2 was enough for a lifetime, and Red State wasn’t quite the movie I was hoping for, I still like Kevin. I like what he’s doing. I think he’s the kind of guy I’d like to hang with. And though, as a lifelong Bostonian, I consider New Jersey the Eighth Circle of Hell*, I admit I’d given some thought to heading down to Red Bank one of these days to hit up the Secret Stash.

Comic Book Men, which finished its first season last night, has pretty much destroyed that dream.

In retrospect, I probably should have known what I was getting into the moment I heard the title. The show is aptly named. In fact, if I were a Cosmo-sipping, condescending Carrie Bradshaw type, I would probably say it should have been titled Comic Book BOYS, because these immature louts can hardly call themselves men, but I like to think I’m above that kind of clichéd rhetoric. My criticism of this show begins and ends with the fact that there is a serious lack of any kind of female influence in the world of the Secret Stash. Women are never-seen wives and girlfriends, or the poor ladies who wander into the shop seeking gifts for significant others, or the folks who periodically come in to sell off old comics and paraphernalia, or (and I can literally count these on one hand) that vanishingly rare and oh-so-prized beast, the female comic book fan. If there is even one woman employed at the shop, we never see her. Women are not the target market of the Stash in any way, shape or form. It is no surprise, then, that actual female customers are so rarely seen. I can only imagine they’ve found other, more welcoming shops far more deserving of their custom.

But we’ll get back to that.

This is Bryan. His duties apparently include acting like a total asshole and looking a bit like Alan Moore. HE IS VERY GOOD AT HIS JOB.

I knew right away that something was wrong with this show. Actually, for the first few episodes, that something had a distinct name and face: Bryan Johnson. From the first episode, he acted like a sarcastic, obnoxious douche. He clearly thought he was funnier than he actually was, and his treatment of his fellow employees sometimes bordered on the abusive. When he and the rest of the guys were sent out to a flea market to sell excess merchandise, he actually went so far as to take collectible plates off of fellow employee Ming Chen’s table and smash them just because he could. He finally gave Ming cash for the plates after being told off by a really awesome older gentleman…but then, as soon as said gentleman left, he tried to get that money back.

The only thing that kept me from completely hating Bryan – and for a long time, I did – was his behavior in last night’s episode. See, it turns out Bryan has a five-year-old niece, whom he obviously loves very, very much. In last night’s episode, we not only saw him buying superhero Barbies for her (I’ll be getting back to the Barbies, too), but we also saw him get a tattoo in her honor: a zombified portrait of his niece on her bike, right on his forearm where the whole world could see it. When he showed the tattoo design to his co-workers, they obviously thought he was insane, that everyone would be extremely creeped out by the undead little girl on his arm and his niece would not like it at all. But it turns out that his niece LOVES zombies – that it’s something they bond over – and when she came into the shop at the end and he showed her his tattoo, it was hands down the most heartwarming scene I’ve seen on television all week. The man I’d seen as the outright villain (or at least assholish anti-hero) of the show turned out to be a human being. I still think he’s kind of an asshole, but I have a little more sympathy for him now.

That doesn’t really change the fact that the Stash seems to be a really, really awful place to work, particularly if your name is Ming. See, Ming is kind of the Meg Griffin of the shop, as near as I can tell. He’s there to take constant shit from his co-workers. And, okay, look. He’s kind of a dork. He’s a little awkward, he doesn’t know nearly as much about comics as his co-workers, and sometimes he has really awful ideas. But you know what? I used to be like that. I had my ugly duckling phase. And I’m still awkward and shy and kind of a dork at times. And that’s no excuse – NO excuse – to treat someone like crap. It’s hard to tell if Ming’s in on the joke. Sometimes I think, yeah, he totally is, but all too often I’m convinced they’re laughing at him, not with him. And I have to say, if I were in his shoes, I would be done with that shop by now. No job is worth that level of abuse.

And the fact of the matter is that Ming is one of the most dedicated employees the Stash has. He puts up with EVERYTHING. He seems to do a hell of a lot more work than, say, Bryan. And he’s a lot more on the ball than any of them. In one episode, for example, he came up with a zombie-themed ad campaign (and sale day) for the shop. It ended up flopping, and I think his ideas were a little flawed, but he got one thing absolutely right: on the day of the sale, he was busting his ass out on the sidewalk trying to get customers in the shop, and he was talking to EVERYONE. Men, women, older folks, younger folks, all of them. And time and again, his boss and his co-workers kept yelling at him to target more typical customers, but Ming kept plugging away.

You know what? Ming was right. Zombie fans – geeks in general – come in all shapes and sizes. Men, women, old, young, gay, straight, professional, blue-collar, mime. You can’t always judge a book by its cover. The fact that it’s still news that women like comics, sci-fi movies, fantasy, zombie flicks – the fact that this is a controversial assertion – confuses and infuriates me.

This is a recurring problem with the Secret Stash as portrayed on Comic Book Men. Women are ignored, dismissed, tolerated at best. The products made for women and girls are denigrated – such as the aforementioned superhero Barbies. In last night’s episode, a couple of women came into the shop to sell some Barbies dressed and packaged as various superheroines: Batgirl, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, etc. These were official Mattel products from a few years back, and honestly, they looked great. I have not been into Barbies since I was ten, but I would totally buy them, and I bet I’m not the only one. And Walt Flanagan, manager of the store, flat-out refused to buy them. He refused to believe that any of his customers would possibly be interested in them. Bryan, as I said, ended up buying a couple of them for his niece, but Walt made it very clear – on the show itself and in the podcast studio afterward – that he could not conceive of a world in which he would carry Barbie or Ken dolls, superhero-themed or otherwise, in his shop.

Okay. That’s his right. But this shop sells all kinds of action figures and toys. I’m willing to bet they’ve sold some premium figures that are fashion dolls in all but name. These Barbies were official products, they looked cool, they seemed like they were well made, and they were in excellent condition. I’m willing to bet they would have sold. But Walt rejected them because they were girl toys. That’s what it comes down to. They were dolls, and this shop is for comic book MEN.

To be fair…for certain values of fair…it really, really is. Actual female customers are a rare breed in the shop, and given the sheer amount of testosterone wafting out the door, I can’t say I’m surprised. Especially when you consider the incident that truly infuriated me, the event that once and for all destroyed any interest I might have had in visiting the Secret Stash.

In the fourth episode, a woman came into the shop with her significant other – I’m assuming that’s who the guy walking around with her was, anyway – and it was very clear from the outset that they were both comic book fans and she was shopping for herself. She ended up spending a pretty big chunk of cash on some valuable old comics. The transaction itself went fine – the guys were personable and polite, they rang her up and saw her out the door. But afterward, while discussing the sale on their podcast, they made a bunch of sexual jokes about how “she knew what she wanted” and Ming (who rang her up) “gave it to her”.

Guys, this is a line. It’s a pretty clear line. It’s bright and shiny and painted right in the middle of the road. We used reflective glow-in-the-dark Day-Glo orange. And you just JUMPED right on over it.

Let me be clear: if I were that woman, if I had spent a bunch of money only to find out on national television that the staff who helped me had gone on to make a bunch of sexual jokes about me behind my back, I would be done with that store forever. I would tell all my friends to steer clear. I would do my level best to ensure that they never got any new business. That is not okay. That is not acceptable behavior in polite society. You treat your customers with respect before, during and after the transaction. You treat women as people, not magical unicorns here for your pleasure, not aliens who only rarely deign to descend to Earth. Women don’t shop in the Stash, Walt? Women aren’t your target audience? Gee. I wonder why.

I wanted to like this show. I really did. And there are parts of it I have enjoyed. I actually do enjoy seeing the staff haggle with the people who come into the shop to sell stuff or buy rare items. I like seeing the amazing memorabilia that comes in and the cadre of experts they call upon to assess it. Seeing the staff in full zombie makeup for Ming’s campaign was pretty cool. Watching them film a TV commercial full of all kinds of crazy crap was fun. And, again, Bryan and his niece were the most adorable thing ever. But all things considered, I’m not sure I’ll be back for Season 2. They’d have to make some serious changes to the show and the store. They have some serious, heartfelt apologies to hand out. And I really don’t think any of that is going to happen.

All things considered, I’d rather watch a show about New England Comics. They actually employ women there. And, more importantly, I’ve always been treated with respect. Something tells me that wouldn’t happen at the Stash.

In case you’re wondering, New York is the Ninth Circle, with Satan himself dwelling in the frozen waste of Yankee Stadium, his three mouths forever gnawing on Harry Frazee, Jonathan Papelbon and Johnny Damon. I barely need to mention that Connecticut is the Seventh.

Media Mondays: Once Upon A Time

As you may have noticed, I got a little sidetracked yesterday, and then I was distracted most of the day today, so this week’s Media Mondays post is extremely late. It’s also a bit of a cheat: Once Upon A Time‘s first season is already over halfway done, and most of the reviews are already in. But I’ve been spending most of this time trying to decide whether or not I like it, and why I feel that way, and those thoughts have only recently gelled.

So, short version: yes, I like Once Upon A Time. But not without reservations.

Let’s briefly recap the premise of the show: long ago and far away, the Evil Queen of Snow White fame unleashed a vicious curse upon the fairy tale world, creating new lives for all of the characters we know and love, good and bad alike, and casting them into our world, and more specifically the town of Storybrooke, Maine. The curse would not only change their lives and destinies, but warp their personal stories to prevent anyone but the Queen herself from finding their happy endings. Faced with this terrible curse, the people of the fairy tale world found one small glimmer of hope: the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, who would one day break the spell and set their world to rights. Using a magic wardrobe which could send one, and only one, person on to our world, whole and unscathed, Prince Charming and Snow White sent their infant daughter ahead, hoping against hope that she would find and save them. Years later, that daughter, now grown and going by the name Emma Swan, is confronted with her own son, who she gave up for adoption years ago. This young boy, Henry, has learned all about the fairy tale world and the curse that destroyed it, and he persuades Emma to come with him to Storybrooke, Maine. After some memorable encounters with various people in town – including the Evil Queen, who is now Storybrooke’s Mayor and Henry’s adopted mother – Emma decides to stay and try to bond with her son, despite the Mayor’s opposition and her own distinct skepticism regarding Henry’s beliefs. The story in each episode flashes between our world and the fairy tale realm, gradually revealing more about the show’s characters and their world before and after the curse.

Emma Swan, Hero of Storybrooke

Let’s start with what I like about the show. First and foremost: I love Emma Swan.

This woman is a complete and utter badass. She’s the only one on the show who seems at all willing to stand up directly to the Mayor/Evil Queen. This is not to say that she is without fear, or without emotion: her friendship with Mary Margaret (a.k.a. Snow White) is genuine, and her love and concern for her biological son, Henry, is obvious. Though she was initially reluctant to become involved in Henry’s life, their relationship has grown organically over time, and the thought of losing Henry now is clearly among her worst fears. But she does not let her fear rule her, or sway her from doing what’s right. Whenever Henry has been placed in danger, Emma has conquered her fear, marched right in and saved the day.

And she has never, not once, needed some man to come running to her rescue. Emma Swan is not a damsel in distress. She’s a knight in stylish leather armor. A Big Damn Hero. Not that she’d ever call herself that – from her perspective, she defends the helpless, upholds the law and chases down criminals simply because it’s the right thing to do. Though circumstances have sometimes prompted her to compromise her principles, she always questions herself, always accepts the consequences of her actions, always shows genuine remorse in the face of her mistakes. She isn’t perfect. She’s certainly made more than her share of mistakes. But she accepts those mistakes, learns from them, and moves on. If you ask me, that’s true strength – true character. For all her faults, Emma Swan is an amazing role model, and possibly one of the strongest, most genuine characters on television today.

I. Want. That. Hat.

I also have to give serious props to Regina, the Evil Queen of the fairy tale world and the Mayor of Storybrooke. She’s wonderfully manipulative and deliciously malevolent. Her costumes (particularly in the fairy tale world) are ridiculously awesome, and her plots are intelligent, ruthless, and horribly effective. As Henry’s mother and the town’s Mayor, she makes an excellent foil to Emma; in the fairy tale world, she is omnipresent, weaving in and out of one tale after the next, spreading her dark influence.

Despite her villainy, she is not without a certain human element. Her deep love for her aged father is obvious in the pilot, and while it’s not entirely clear what she has planned for her adopted son Henry (named, notably, after her late father), she does seem to feel some genuine affection for him, and sometimes seems genuinely frustrated and baffled by his open hostility toward her. Her animosity toward Emma Swan seems to have as much to do with Emma’s role as a rival for Henry’s love as any actual threat Emma poses.

Leaving the main characters aside, I love the way the show toys with and reinvents the Disney canon. Their close association with ABC allows them to play freely with Disney’s interpretations of classic fairy tales; thus, their retelling of Beauty and the Beast features Belle and Gaston, Jiminy Cricket is a recurring character, and Maleficent is one of the Evil Queen’s buddies. And yet none of these characters are quite like their counterparts in the animated canon. Even in areas ruled by ostensibly ‘good’ kings and queens, the fairy tale world is not an idyllic paradise. People are routinely pressed into wartime service, or forced into loveless marriages, or faced with all kinds of destitution and suffering. Prejudice, violence and oppression are not the sole province of the villains. Power corrupts in the fairy tale world, just as it corrupts in real life, and while the reign of Snow White and Prince Charming seems peaceful and relatively equitable, they are an island in a sea of chaos. As our understanding of the fairy tale world grows, we are forced to question, again and again, if it’s actually any better than the reality of Storybrooke.

Then, too, there’s this: for good or ill, the women of the fairy tale world seize their own destinies. Cinderella doesn’t simply accept the help of a fairy godmother who miraculously appears out of nowhere – when her tale goes wrong, she makes a deal with the devil to win her happy ending, and has to face the consequences of those actions down the road. Snow White doesn’t simply flee into the wilderness and stumble upon a band of merry dwarves; she spends years surviving in the wild as a thief before she even meets the dwarves, let alone Prince Charming. Belle chooses to go with the ‘Beast’ of her piece to save her father’s realm from annihilation, and rejects the possessive, controlling overtures of her betrothed, Gaston. Red Riding Hood has appeared in a few tales now, offering a few glimpses of her role as a kind of courier or scout and a friend of Snow White’s; her real-world counterpart, Ruby, is similarly omnipresent, tying a number of the characters together. We’ve been promised a Ruby/Red story in an upcoming episode, and I can’t wait to see exactly what her tale might be.

So what’s not to like about the show? Well, the storylines are still somewhat contrived, and some of the writing can be awkward. The show has steadily improved, to be sure, and I’m more than willing to give it a chance to find its footing – lots of series have awkward first seasons. With such luminaries as Jane Espenson on the writing staff, I have high hopes for Once Upon A Time‘s continued evolution. Even so, some stories are still distinctly lackluster. This past Sunday’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast was particularly disappointing; though I enjoyed some aspects of the tale, I was left wondering exactly what Belle saw in her love interest and exactly what kind of message the show was trying to send. The Beast flirted with Belle, to be sure, and was not always horribly unkind to her, but he also threw her into his dungeon upon a whim, and generally treated her too poorly to be worthy of her affection.

And as much as I love the way the female characters of the fairy tale world are portrayed, I find their counterparts in Storybrooke similarly aggravating. Snow White is a badass. Her real-world counterpart, Mary Margaret, is horribly passive, rarely showing Snow White’s backbone in any respect, and hewing closer to the animated Disney princess than her own true self – for heaven’s sake, the pilot even had her releasing a bluebird out a window! I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with kind, gentle female characters, but I’d like to see Mary Margaret stand up for herself more and show a little more inner fire. Ashley, the counterpart to Cinderella, was very much a damsel in distress when we met her, and her legitimate problems with her boyfriend are all forgotten when he surprises her with a proposal. Belle’s real-world counterpart isn’t even really present in her showcase episode. And Ruby’s omnipresence in the town – at the diner, at the bed & breakfast, as Ashley and Mary Margaret’s friend – is virtually her only defining characteristic, aside from her distinctly racy attire and her contentious relationship with her grandmother (whom we haven’t even seen outside the pilot). While I accept that the Evil Queen’s curse distorted their histories and their destinies, I’m not sure I love the way it’s seemingly changed their personalities and left Emma and Regina as the strongest, most active, most interesting female characters on the show.

Still, all in all, I’m still watching, and I expect I’ll finish out the season. While I had slightly higher hopes for Grimm (which has completely failed to hold my interest, to be honest), and I still wish ABC had gone ahead with the proposed adaptation of Fables, Once Upon A Time has turned out to be far more compelling than I expected, and I’m eager to see where it goes. The show has a great premise, fantastic characters, and a hell of a lot of potential, and I truly hope it lives up to its promise.