Twenty Years Of Teenagers With Attitude

In the summer of 1993, I was ten years old. A lot of my memories of that time have grown fuzzy over the years, but I still remember this pretty vividly: I was watching TV with my family when this commercial came on advertising a brand new show on Saturday mornings on Fox. I don’t think I was really watching Fox at the time. I was hooked on Saturday morning cartoons, of course, but I spent most of my time on the big three networks. This, though…this wasn’t a cartoon. This was a live action show about teenagers (or so they claimed; even then I thought these people looked older than the teens I knew) fighting space aliens, driving giant robots, and transforming themselves into an unprecedented fighting force known as the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and I knew from the moment I saw that first ad that it was going to be pure unleaded awesome.had to see this for myself.

The Dream Team

The Dream Team

So, on Saturday, August 28th, 1993, I tuned in to Fox to see what this was all about. And it was pretty ridiculous, to be honest. I can’t really recall whether or not I thought so at the time. I know it wasn’t long before I realized my obsession with the show was really a little dorky, and the whole franchise was pretty damned silly. But that first episode, regardless of its flaws, was everything I’d been promised and more. It was a flight of fancy that sprawled across genres, touching on everything I was interested in. I was hooked from the moment I heard that pounding theme song. I still think it’s probably one of the best theme songs ever written. It’s just so perfectly suited to the show. Everything that followed – the spandex suits, the superheroic action, the giant goddamned robot/monster fights – was just icing on the cake.

I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was never intended to be anything more than a stopgap, a stepping stone to bigger and better things for children’s programming on Fox. It could be made on the cheap, using footage imported from Japan’s Super Sentai franchise combined with framing scenes shot in the US, but no one expected it to last. In a matter of weeks, however, its popularity exploded. The companies involved in producing the show (and the toy line) could scarcely keep up with the demand. When the cast made an appearance at Universal Studios, 35,000 people showed up, literally stopping traffic. The ratings would continue to soar until, two years later, this cheap little adaptation was turned into a brand new feature film. The franchise would never quite reach those heights again – Power Rangers has in fact been through several periods of decline, and has nearly been canceled three times – but it’s managed to survive countless cast and format changes, and now, with the twentieth anniversary upon us, the return of a number of adult fans to bolster the ranks of the fans that never left, and Saban and Bandai pulling out at least some of the stops to celebrate the show’s legacy, it’s even enjoying something of a resurgence.

This post isn’t meant to be a comprehensive history of Power Rangers, though. That’s Linkara’s job. Rather, with twenty years of giant robots, morphing sequences, and teenagers with attitude behind us, I want to spend some time reflecting on a question I get every so often: just why do I love this show so much? What, exactly, does it mean to me? I’ve never had a ready answer, really, and I’m not sure I have one now. But I can point to a few things.

I suppose it starts with the fact that the Power Rangers were my first superheroes. That’s probably not the literal truth – I grew up in a geeky family, surrounded by geeky friends, and I’m sure I was at least aware of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and so on. But the Power Rangers are the first superheroes I remember following. Like all the best superheroes, they lived by a moral code. The core of it is spelled out in the first episode, Day of the Dumpster, after the Rangers accept their powers: never use your powers for personal gain, never escalate a battle unless forced to, and never reveal your secret identity. The rest of it emerged over time, and (the secret identity thing aside), it reinforced the lessons my parents were already teaching me. Together, they taught me to treat others with kindness and decency, to keep an open mind and never stop learning (and never, ever be ashamed of my hunger for knowledge), to use whatever power I might possess to help others, and to do these things not because they might benefit me (though I believe they have benefited me, in the long run), but because it’s simply the right thing to do. I don’t really consider myself all that heroic, or all that brave, really, but I’ve had my moments. And every time I’ve stood up for someone who couldn’t, every time I’ve found the courage to speak out, every time I’ve done something to make the world better, it’s because a part of me still looks at the world in front of me and asks what the Power Rangers would do. I have lots of heroes to look to these days, including more than a few actual people, but you never forget your first Doctor, you never forget your first Starfleet crew, and you never forget your first superheroes. With apologies to the Lone Gunmen, you don’t watch twenty years of Power Rangers without learning a little something about courage.

There were also characters I identified with very strongly. First and foremost was Billy Cranston, the resident nerd. I was a geeky kid. Scrawny, lanky, weak, withdrawn and bookish. I wore my heart on my sleeve, I wasn’t afraid to cry (or wasn’t strong enough to keep from crying, at least), and I preferred the company of girls. As I’ve said before, I was frequently bullied. So it meant a lot to me to see someone like Billy – someone like me – rise to the occasion and become a hero. He was loved, respected, and defended by his friends, and while he did learn to fight over time, to defend himself and others, his intelligence was still his true strength. Time after time, he applied his intellect to the Rangers’ latest problems, saving the day with a clever solution or a new invention. His love of science, of knowledge in general, was not just tolerated but admired. Of course, David Yost, who played Billy, wasn’t treated nearly so well – he’s spoken openly about the homophobic bullying he faced on set – but, as an adult, that just makes his story resonate on a personal level. Knowing that the man behind the Ranger I identified with most strongly was going through similar struggles with his identity and the reactions of those around him means more to me than I can say. I admire his strength and courage in building a life outside of Power Rangers, in finally breaking his silence and speaking out about the problems he faced, in embracing the fan community even after everything he went through, and in joining the ongoing fight for equality.

Then there was Kimberly Ann Hart. Kimberly never got the best lines or stunts; in TV Tropes parlance, she was most definitely The Chick. But she was everything I wished I could be. Outgoing, popular, graceful, friendly…and, though it took me a long time to put it into words, feminine. She was the girl I yearned to be. Maybe she needed to be rescued a little too often. Maybe she never really got to play the hero the way the other Rangers did. But she was still heroic, and at the same time, she was comfortable with herself and her feelings. Like me, she wore her heart on her sleeve. It wasn’t treated as a weakness. It was treated as a strength. Her compassion, her sensitivity, her love for her friends made her fight all the harder. Maybe she wasn’t the best fighter, but she was committed to the fight. And, like Billy, she was loved and respected by her friends for who she was. She didn’t have to pretend to be something else. In those days, though I didn’t yet realize it, I was spending all my time pretending, and I was honestly awful at it. Twenty years later – ten years since I began my transition – I’ve found my own style. I’m not Kimberly, and I never will be. I’m not much of a fighter, but I’m not that graceful or that girly, either. Even so, just as the Power Rangers were my first superheroes, Kimberly was my first heroine. My first role model.

My shrine to the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Still a work in progress.

My shrine to the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Still a work in progress.

Above all else, though, I love the Power Rangers because they represent hope. They don’t give up, even in the face of insurmountable odds. Even if they lose their powers, they’ll keep fighting. And they inspire the people around them to do the same. Linkara has spoken eloquently of the character arcs of Bulk and Skull, two characters who start out as cardboard bullies and comic relief and ultimately stand up as heroes in their own right. The Power Rangers and their friends represent a shining ideal: the radical idea that, with determination, compassion, unity and hope, we really can overcome anything. I’ve struggled my whole life with depression and despair, and I live in a world that is far from what I’d like it to be. But I maintain hope that we can solve our problems, that we can learn to live in peace and mutual respect, that we can face any dangers that may loom ahead of us. That comes from being a Trekkie, in part. It comes from all the science fiction I’ve read and some things friends and family have shown me. It comes from stories of real people committing acts of extraordinary kindness, compassion and courage. But it also comes, at least a little, from the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

Twenty years later, my beloved franchise is still, by and large, a dorky kids’ show. The quality varies widely from season to season. But I still find myself drawn in to every new episode of Power Rangers Megaforce, even if the dialogue and acting make me cringe now and then. I’m going to Power Morphicon next summer, and I absolutely cannot wait to spend a whole weekend surrounded by my fellow Rangers. One of my most treasured possessions is my Pink Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranger costume, and I plan to add the Yellow Megaforce Ranger as soon as I can. I still love the Power Rangers, and I suspect I always will, no matter how silly I look with my communicator replica and my Power Rangers ringtone when I’m old and gray.

So happy birthday, Power Rangers, and many happy returns. May the Power protect you. Always.

The Ranting Fangirl: Survival Through Subtext

Lately I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to lesbian subtext.

Now, my friend Katie is, as we speak, rushing to the bottom of this post to insist that I’m always thinking about lesbian subtext, as well as lesbian text, lesbian picture books, lesbian cartoons, and lesbian interpretive dance. Before you go read her shameful libel, let me state categorically that this is not at all true. I spend ten percent of my time thinking about sci-fi and fantasy in general. Five percent of my time goes to thinking about my holy crap adorable niece, another five percent goes to thinking about ponies (including unicorns and pegasi), and another five goes to thinking about my cats. Three percent of my time goes to thinking about how it would be so much easier to find clothes and shoes that fit properly if my feet were three or four sizes smaller and I was six inches shorter and a few pounds lighter. And, last but far from least, two percent of my time goes to thinking about corgis and Shelties, and what I’m going to name any corgis and/or Shelties I’m able to adopt someday (Tinkerbell or Stellabella for girls; Puck, Robin or Casey for boys). So, at most, I spend 70% of my time thinking about lesbian subtext. Math.

But I’ve spent the last day or so thinking about lesbian subtext in somewhat more abstract terms, inspired by a couple articles I’ve read recently. The first, an Entertainment Weekly piece tweeted by Roger Ebert (and then retweeted by a Twitter buddy of mine), asks if Merida – the newest Disney princess, and star of the new Pixar film, Bravemight be gay. Their reasoning isn’t great; Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress takes it on here. But a lot of the people who responded to both Ebert’s tweet and the original article objected to the very idea – not only from the generally anti-gay perspectives you might expect, but from feminist perspectives as well. I can’t say I entirely disagree with the fundamental point that heterosexual women can reject traditional gender roles, too; nor do I disagree with the related point that we are not defined solely by who we’re attracted to, and saying “Well, Merida just isn’t into men at all, is she?” kind of undermines her determination to choose her own fate, no matter what that fate may be or who else it might involve. (Please note that I haven’t seen the film yet. I plan to. Soon. But I’m working from only the sketchiest details.)

And yet…

Subtext is important. At times, subtext is vital. Especially when decent text is so hard to find. It’s getting better, to be sure, but there’s still a dearth of compelling, well-rounded gay characters, particularly in children’s entertainment. Sure, Dumbledore was gay…but that was never truly relevant to the saga of Harry Potter, and it didn’t even come out until the last book was printed. And too often, even those meager scraps can be ripped away.

This brings me to the second article. Now, I should preface this by saying that I don’t watch Adventure Time. But I do follow another WordPress blog called Misprinted Pages, and today Stephanie posted a review of the Adventure Time comic book, touching on a “controversy” connected with the show in the process. Said controversy is recapped here, but in brief: about a year ago, there was an episode showcasing some “light lesbian subtext” between two female characters, Marceline and Princess Bubblegum, and the show’s creators posted an online video commenting on the episode, essentially upgrading the subtext to some kind of text, and soliciting fan art and fan responses. That video was later pulled – after an outpouring of support from the online lesbian community in particular –  for reasons that still don’t make a lot of sense. The episode is still in circulation, but heaven forbid the creators openly acknowledge  that two characters in a family cartoon might be gay for each other. (Since the same episode apparently also implies or outright states that another character has been jerking off to a lock of Princess Bubblegum’s hair, I’m not sure how gay characters would cross any lines that haven’t already been left in the dust anyway.)

I know, I know – I’m spending a lot of time talking about stuff I haven’t seen. Insert pithy comment about feeling like I’m hardly ever seen here. I’m pretty sure everyone in the GLBT community is used to this game: go through the hundred or shows on television on any given moment, cringing at the stereotypes and crass humor, bracing yourself for heartbreak whenever a decent gay, bi or trans character happens to emerge, and grasping at subtext wherever you can find it. Hoping against hope that Disney will just admit that the Mystic Force Pink Ranger is gay (short-haired tomboy whose one and only date on the show was with a girl and who openly and enthusiastically agreed with the guys that another female character was hot…come on, people), or that TNT will stop teasing us with Rizzoli & Isles, or that you weren’t just imagining that chemistry between Veronica Mars and Meg Manning. Writing fan fic about Kirk and Spock or Xena and Gabrielle (even if the latter are all but canonical).

I’m not going to say it’s okay, because it’s not. I can count on one hand the number of current TV shows with meaningful gay characters that I actually enjoy. And when it comes to stuff I’d want my future kids to watch? Stuff that would show them that, no matter who they are, there are people like them out there, and they’re beautiful and amazing just the way they are? It falls to just about zero.

I get that it’s annoying at times. I get that sometimes the reasoning isn’t great – sometimes the reasoning is actually insulting. And I guess I’m not really saying that flawed reasoning shouldn’t be challenged. But, at the same time, sometimes subtext is all we have. Sometimes subtext helps us cope. Sometimes it helps us survive. And it’s not enough. Especially not for the gay and bi and trans kids growing up now, struggling to come to terms with who they are, still developing those vital survival skills. But don’t begrudge us our icons. Don’t go telling us our subtext is wrong. Because God knows we need all the heroes we can get – textual or otherwise.

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.

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Fangirl Fridays: Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars is smarter than you. Veronica Mars will ALWAYS be smarter than you.

So. Uh. Earlier this week, I made a stupid joke about Gossip Girl (which is seriously even more ridiculous than it was when it started, and no, I don’t really know how that’s possible). And then freaking Kristen Freaking Bell retweeted me. And then my Twitter feed blew up. I don’t know what effect that’s had on the blog, if any – I definitely haven’t noticed the kind of spike I got when Leigh Alexander retweeted my post on Sex, Gender and D&D – but, well, I’ve been meaning to write about Veronica Mars anyway, and what better time to do it, right?

As I was putting together this post in my head, I couldn’t help remembering some of the initial chatter surrounding the show. See, back in the day, I was a pretty big Smallville fan. (Yeah. That worked out well for me. On the plus side, the show did lead to a truly awesome tabletop RPG.) And, being a fan, I followed this site called KryptonSite. When Veronica Mars was announced, man, you could have cut the snark with a knife. Smallville’s breakout character had been Chloe Sullivan, a cute, snarky blonde teen reporter and conspiracy theorist played by Allison Mack, and here the UPN – which was, at the time, the WB’s direct competitor, though they would later merge the networks into the CW – was creating a show about a cute, snarky blonde teen detective. (I realize I’m using the word snark a lot. I’m talking about Veronica Mars here, so it’s hard not to.) In retrospect, okay, the sass directed at UPN was kind of ridiculous. It was pretty coincidental, and honestly, as much as I love Chloe Sullivan (and she was really the only reason to watch the show…even Erica Durance‘s Lois Lane couldn’t quite compare), Veronica could kick her ass six ways from Sunday. Even KryptonSite came around and created NeptuneSite. But forgive us our trespasses. In those days, all we had were basic premises and publicity photos of Kristen Bell looking spunky and adorable. We had no idea what we were in for.

This was my haircut for like three years running. It did not look as good on me as it does on her.

What we were in for, as it turned out, was a fresh, intelligently written detective series with powerful noir sensibilities transplanted into modern-day Southern California. It was a show about the haves and the have-nots (with Veronica and her dad – formerly the sheriff, recalled after he crossed the wrong people – firmly on the side of the have-nots), about the corruption at the heart of a seeming paradise, about teenagers who had to grow up and face reality way too fast (and the teenagers, and adults, who never really grew up at all). But above all else, it was a show about a girl who lost her best friend, who lost her mother and her social status and everything that had previously defined her, and could have given up, could have given in, but didn’t. Instead, she stood up and pushed back. She refused to accept the bullshit that rained down on her, and she ended up making a difference to a lot of people. Faced with the choice to change or die, she decided to go with change.

Let’s back up and discuss the basic premise of the show: just a year before the premiere, Veronica had it all. Maybe her family couldn’t match the wealth and influence her peers enjoyed, but she was very much part of the in crowd. She was dating the son of the man who first brought incredible wealth to the town of Neptune, California (populated mainly by the insanely rich and the people who work for the insanely rich), she was best friends with that man’s daughter, her mother was a celebrated prom queen from Neptune’s past and her dad was the county sheriff. And then, in a heartbeat, it all changed. Veronica’s best friend, Lilly Kane, was murdered, violently and viciously. Sheriff Mars began to suspect that the Kane family was responsible – at the very least, they seemed to be trying to cover up some of the circumstances of their daughter’s demise. The Kanes, of course, reacted with outrage, and the town’s most influential families threw themselves firmly behind them. Sheriff Mars was recalled, the Mars family had to move out of their long-time home, and Veronica’s mother chose to abandon them entirely. Though Veronica tried to keep going as she had been, her relationship with Lilly’s brother Duncan soon came to an end, and she rapidly became a social pariah. In the end, Veronica was drugged and raped in the course of her last attempt to hang with the social elite (at least for a while), and the new sheriff refused to even investigate the crime.

Like I said: she could have given up at that point. And everything that had happened to her clearly continued to cause her pain, years down the line. But she came back fighting. She embraced her outcast status and, over time, began helping other people in her position, other people who had nowhere to turn. And she did so with style, sass and, yes, snark. She also did so with profound intelligence and a very healthy sense of self-confidence. There were a lot of great characters on the show, and it was, for the most part, very smartly written…but Veronica herself is the number one reason to watch.

I...what? WHAT? THEY SCANNED KRISTEN BELL FOR THIS MINI-BUST. HOW COULD THEY SCREW UP THIS BADLY?!

Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and Veronica Mars was no exception. The series was always something of a cult phenomenon. Though it routinely got rave reviews, it just didn’t capture the audience UPN/the CW wanted, and after a third season that suffered greatly from both Veronica’s transition to college (always a difficult step for shows centered on teenagers) and a lot of misguided executive meddling (including the truly inexplicable decision to slow down the show’s kickass theme song and throw in a really dorky teen drama title sequence), the series was cancelled. There was talk of skipping the show ahead to focus on Veronica’s future career with the FBI or continuing the story through comic books, but none of that ended up happening. And while there continues to be talk of a Veronica Mars movie, and Kristen Bell herself is on record as supporting the idea, so far that seems to be a pipe dream, too.

Honestly, maybe that’s for the best. Yes, I am a huge fan of Veronica Mars. I don’t think we really have an equivalent to Firefly‘s Browncoats (Marshmallows?…), but I’m totally there. I absolutely think everyone should watch this show. And if Veronica ever came back to us, in a movie or a series chronicling her time in the FBI or a comic book or anything, I would totally be there. But did the show really die too soon? I have to admit that I’m not sure. The major plotlines were pretty much resolved. There weren’t a lot of unanswered questions left. Anything else might feel forced.

No, I’m mainly pissed that the show never really got the merchandising it deserved. There was talk of action figures, but aside from some trading cards and a truly awful Veronica Mars mini-bust…there’s not a whole lot left of the show, physically. The DVD sets, of course, but that’s about it. I really want Veronica to join Tali’Zorah and Cassie Sandsmark and Claudia Donovan on my shelf of awesome, but short of modifying an Elle action figure, I don’t think I can actually make that happen. Aside from that, I’m fine with the material we’ve already got. I don’t really need more.

…oh, who am I kidding. If Kristen Bell ever actually gets to inhabit Veronica Mars again, I’ll be watching. What they say about Veronica is true for me, too. I’m a marshmallow.

Veronica Mars is currently available on Netflix Instant and TheWB.com. You can also buy the DVDs. Pick your poison – but do give the show a try. I heartily recommend 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.

Media Mondays: The Fades

Much like Lost Girl, The Fades is a recent import to American television, though it’s of much more recent vintage (originally airing on BBC Three in the fall of 2011) and far, far shorter. Like many BBC series, it’s limited to half a dozen episodes, and four of these have aired on BBC America so far, as part of the channel’s “Supernatural Saturday” lineup, which has typically included such series as the original Being Human, Bedlam, and of course Doctor Who. At this time, a second series has not been officially commissioned, though its chances are good.

The Fades fits neatly into the “Chosen One” sub-genre, joining such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Demons. The premise is straightforward, though as the series goes on, it becomes increasingly bizarre and complex in its execution: the dead are not leaving the Earth. Where once they ‘ascended’ naturally, they are increasingly trapped on the mortal plane, reduced to ghost-like beings called Fades. Worse still, some of the Fades have learned to regain physical form, mainly by consuming human blood and flesh. These rogue Fades are opposed by the Angelics – humans with the ability to perceive the Fades (where most humans cannot, unless they’re in fully corporeal form) as well as other useful gifts. As the series begins, a 17-year-old boy named Paul discovers that he himself is one of these Angelics – and not only that, but one of the most powerful Angelics in living memory, with powers far beyond any of the others. He soon meets said others, who urge him to abandon his family and friends and devote himself full-time to the fight, but he chooses to try and balance his life as an Angelic and a typical teenage boy, despite the inherent complications.

The series has its strengths and weaknesses. Though I’ve enjoyed it so far, I can’t call it an especially feminist show in any way. It fails the Bechdel Test completely, because female characters rarely interact with one another, never seem to have a conversation that doesn’t at least touch on the men in their lives, and are honestly under-utilized, despite some notable and talented women in the regular cast (including Natalie Dormer, late of The Tudors and now playing Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones; and Lily Loveless, most famous for playing one half of Naomily on Skins). My favorite character, Jay (played by Sophie Wu), is a fun, spunky, confident brunette who favors close-cropped hair and striped blazers…and she’s barely defined outside of her roles as Paul’s love interest (and the literal object of his sexual fantasies) and one of his sister Anna’s best friends. We don’t even see most of her conversations with Anna, who is played by the aforementioned Lily Loveless and portrayed as little more than Paul’s snotty, outgoing, popular twin sister. Natalie Dormer’s character is literally killed off in the first episode, and while this doesn’t keep her from playing a part in the events that follow (since the series is about the undead, after all), it doesn’t give her a whole lot to do. She ends up spending most of her time hanging around her ex-husband, who is aware of her presence but unable to perceive her in any meaningful way.

That said, it’s not unwatchable or irredeemable. While I would prefer to see more of the female characters and their interactions with one another, and the regular cast feels quite a lot like a boys’ club, it is a very strongly written show with a truly creepy, sometimes downright frightening atmosphere. The opening credits are perfect for setting the mood, the special effects are weird, fantastic and sometimes quite scary (though also quite gory on occasion, just to warn you), and the actors playing the various Fades move and behave in suitably strange and unsettling ways. Paul’s powers are treated with a blend of wonder and terror touched with a dash of humor, and the show takes a lot of unexpected twists and turns. Anything can happen and anyone can die.

The show’s true strength, however, lies in the relationship between Paul and his best friend Mac. Both of them are unrepentant geeks and social outcasts, which does sort of feed into a male geek power fantasy, but also works surprisingly well with the tone of the series and gives the target demographic an easy point of entry to the world of The Fades. More importantly, however, their relationship is the sort of unapologetically close male friendship rarely seen on modern television. Their bond is powerful and unbreakable, and they genuinely worry for and care about one another, despite the occasional spat. Mac’s role as Paul’s confidant also puts him in the perfect position to provide each episode’s opening recap, explaining recent events to the audience through his webcam and (amusingly) signing off each time with “Nanu nanu“. While these recaps are generally humorous in tone, they also offer insight into Mac’s state of mind, and in the wake of particularly troubling events, they can become quite moving.

It’s rare to see young men on television not only acknowledge other men as their best friends, but also as people they literally need to have in their lives. So often, that kind of close friendship is strictly and exclusively the territory of female characters. Men are generally encouraged to bottle up their emotions and make light of their relationships, when in fact friendship is vitally important to people of all genders. It’s refreshing to see a friendship between two men portrayed as a warm, close-knit and necessary relationship. In that respect, The Fades breaks out of the usual mold, and becomes something quite special.

The show has a long way to go, and if it does return for a second series, I hope more emphasis will be placed on the female characters. Anna’s status as Paul’s twin sister has already come into play and been invested with mystical significance, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if she turned out to be an Angelic herself; even if she doesn’t, new Angelics could always be introduced. While the focus of the series is on Paul, it does edge into ensemble show territory at times, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to follow a second protagonist. For all its flaws, though, The Fades is highly entertaining and a great addition to BBC America’s Supernatural Saturdays. I’ll certainly be watching the last two episodes, and if the show does return for a second series, I’ll happily give it a chance.