Tuesday, April 21, 2015

#ISawThatComing: Fringe and Grimm

I think there’s some truth to the notion that there are only so many plots. Seven, eight, twenty-one...it doesn’t matter, the number is much smaller than the number of works published every day. In my genre, Romance, there’s a basic plot structure that all are measured against: Girl Meets Boy, Girl and Boy Come Apart (in some way), Girl and Boy Come Back Together and Girl and Boy Get Their HEA, or Happily Ever After.

Perhaps you’ve heard that Romance consistently pulls in a lot of money for its publishers year after year. There are some stories people can’t get enough of and that’s okay (from my perspective, it’s a good thing). But discriminating readers will still gnash their teeth- or just stop reading- if they feel that they are literally reading the same story over and over again.

As irritating as it is to read the same story again and again, it can be even worse to watch the same story on an infinite loop. (Someone needs to explain to me why television is becoming more and more predictable even as our viewing options increase.) I’ve been able to see through plots since I was ten years old (“Of course Alexis is threatening to tell Fallon that Blake isn’t her real father; she’s the only person Blake loves without any conditions!”) but it probably has gotten worse since I started crafting my own stories. I’ve honestly lost count of how many times I’ve rolled my eyes and screamed at my television, but here are two that stand out:

Fringe Okay, maybe it’s not fair to pick on this show because I watched the @(#@^&!*( X-Files for years before that (and under duress for most of it), but every time I had to sit through an episode of Fringe I was unimpressed. The spooky dreams, the haunted victim of childhood experimentation, the mad scientist, the odd-looking humanoids, the shadowy government agency that might be working for good or evil and ultimately answered to themselves...yawn. And now cue the suspense...but did they know where it was going? (After the series finale, I’m not so sure they weren’t making it up as they went along.)

There's devoted parents...and then there was this guy
Points to the show for adding interdimensional travel? That was actually the final nail in the coffin for me. In an early episode, some reference to traveling between dimensions is made. About five minutes later, the Mad Scientist is having a conversation with his adult son about the time he was very sick as a little boy. “Really, Dad? I don’t remember that.” “I know you don’t, son.” At this point I shook my head. “Yeah,” I said drily, “because this guy’s son actually died and then he kidnapped his son’s double from the other dimension.” My husband thought that was crazy...until he saw a gravestone at the end of the episode which confirmed my theory. Or at least I think it was a gravestone; I didn’t even need to look at the screen to figure out what was going on.

Grimm If we’re going with The Seven Basic Plots, then Grimm is Overcoming the Monster- literally- every week. Nick Burkhardt is a detective in Portland, Oregon who discovers that he’s a Grimm, or a guardian who can see the true forms of human-monster hybrids (wesen) and protects others from them as necessary. Throw in some very old history with the powerful Royals and the fact that many wesen have a grudge bordering on a vendetta against the Grimms, then add that Nick is holding down a normal job while also maintaining relationships with human beings and this should be pretty exciting...but it’s falling short. 

Juliette is Nick's true love...
but it's a shame the show didn't have better reasons to put Juliette with Sean and Nick with Adalind
It’s not just that the dialogue is stilted- with one eye on the screen and the other in a book, my husband can predict what the next line is going to be- it’s that the story beats are so easy to guess even when they don’t make sense. If I see two good-looking actors of the opposite sex alone, it’s a pretty good guess that there’s going to be some romantic entanglement (or that they’re just going to have sex); if they do, there’s a good chance that someone’s going to get pregnant. This will hold even if it’s not in keeping with the characters, and the show will invent some convoluted reason why it will be so. Most recently, Nick's girlfriend Juliette was turned into a Hexenbeist (basically, a witch) to justify a partner switcheroo. It's a weird case of a nonsense plot twist to rush characters into something you saw coming a mile away.

Predictability isn’t the ultimate litmus test. And yet...Grimm is arguably more predictable than Fringe, but I will happily spend time watching that whereas Fringe felt like nails on a chalkboard to me. For me, the key is that I feel secure that Grimm has, basically, an idea of where it’s going in the series, while Fringe made me feel nervous about investing time into something that was going to implode under its own weight (did I mention it was a JJ Abrams’ show?). I’m happy to trade a little bit of finger-snapping surprise if I feel like the journey over all is going to be satisfying.

What about you?

Please be sure to visit my friend Erin Cawood tomorrow as she shares her thoughts on predictability.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The "I Totally Saw That Coming!" blog hop

Whether you write your own stories or whether you read/watch a lot of other people's, you start to pick up on certain themes. You may have become...how can I put this nicely...a difficult viewing partner on more than one occasion. "Hello! That woman is totally going to be the murderer because she just dropped a reference to something completely out of left field that's obviously going to mean something at the end," you sigh. Or "he's totally going to be the murder victim because he's just screwed over everyone in the first twenty minutes." (Okay, that one's really easy.) Or "That's totally someone's long-lost child."

The person next to you may scoff...until you're proven right at the end. Or they'll mutter "Yeah, thanks, I didn't want to enjoy this anyway." Or there may not be a person next to you at this point, because everyone is so used to you seeing through the plots that they don't want to watch anything with you anymore.

Is it your fault that everything's so predictable?

For this blog hop, some other writers and I are going to be exploring predictability: those times when something was so predictable it took you out of the story, and maybe those times it didn't matter because something else about the story (the acting, the direction, the motivation, whatever) was so good. And then some of us (well, maybe just me) are going to be writing about the times when something *wasn't* predictable at all; a lot of times that's a big help, but sometimes it's not enough- and sometimes it's too much (anything that's predicated on too many "gotchas" is missing other essential elements).

It was a dark and stormy night...oh just kill me now.
Here's the schedule for the blog hop. Please visit all of their posts and let them know what you think was the most- and least- predictable of things you've seen or read.

Monday, April 6, 2015

So You're Writing A Self-Help Book...

As you know, in addition to writing fiction and blogging, I’m also a reviewer. I have less time to review now than I used to, but I still pick up the occasional offers. I’ve read my fair share of Self-Help books for review...and I think we need to talk.

Here’s one of my dirty little secrets: I’ve read Self-Help books for years and have some sense of what works. I really, really have no interest in things like Women Who Love Too Much or Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (blech and double blech), but I have enjoyed everything that Zac Bissonnette has written so far (which is a sign of what a great writer he is because I am sooo not his target audience). I’ve also read more guides on fitness than most people know exist, and I not only used to read books on fashion and beauty (or, more accurately, wardrobe advice, cosmetics application and hair styling tips), I used to seek out old, out-of-print guides when I was younger. I mean, I remember sitting in the back room stacks of the Cambridge Public Library in the Eighties reading things that were published in the mid Sixties, and one of my favorite guides on skin care for adolescents was published in the Seventies. And I’ve perused plenty of titles on personal finance, education, programming, time management and organization, among others.

One of my favorite books, and not an exaggeration to say it changed my life
In general, Self-Help text is going to be easy to read because the authors want to throw out as wide a net as possible. This isn’t a criticism; if anything, I’d say this is a requirement, and it should be. There is also not going to be a lot of text, at least relative to titles that are providing analysis and/or history of an issue.

Brevity doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but let’s not get carried away: some of the titles I’ve seen in the last few months would be better as a monetized blog post and not an ebook. If you can’t write more than ten thousand words on a subject, please step back and reconsider whether it’s something you should be putting on Amazon or Smashwords, even if it’s free. And if it’s not free...do you really want to charge ten bucks for sixty pages? Really?

The basic problems these books are trying to help us solve haven’t changed- we’ve been trying to make limited resources do more for centuries, and we’ve all wanted to look taller, thinner and wealthier with high cheekbones, full lips and almond shaped eyes for at least fifty years- so it has to be presented in a way that speaks to your contemporaries enough that you’ll keep them through the end of your short book. One way to do this is through real-life examples, be they testimonials or anecdotes; provide some kind of proof that someone else has taken your advice and been better for it before you clicked Publish on Kindle Direct Publishing’s dashboard. If you are going to talk only about your own experiences, then tell a compelling story about yourself. In other words, be engaging and take me on your journey. Even more importantly, use your skills as a writer to convince me that I can and should follow you on that same path.

...whereas this was one of the worst things I ever read, and I only finished it because it was required for a retreat
It also can’t be overstated how important it is that these things be visually appealing. For certain things, like fitness and grooming, photos and/or illustrations are essential, and I would argue that most other categories are going to benefit from them as well. (No matter what your budget, spend some money on an original cover. A good designer does not have to cost you a lot of money but will be worth their weight in gold.) But if you’re not going to include illustrations, you can still do a lot with your text. Change the font of your section headings, move away from Times New Roman, block of portions of the text (quick tips, lessons, anecdotes, etc.) into boxed sections (maybe with a grey background), create lists and use boldface, italics and underlining when appropriate. Obviously stay professional (emoticons and colored text should always be avoided), but professional doesn’t have to be boring.

The best Self Help is common sense, but that’s not a bad thing. As we’re inundated with garbage science, get rich quick schemes and politicians, entertainers and media figures who profit from making readers and viewers afraid, reminders of common sense can be good things. So if that’s something you want to publish, be proud. Now figure out a way to do it well.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

House of Cards, or Let Things Go Out With Dignity

In 1994, I was watching PBS when a commercial for a rerun of House of Cards came up. Ian Richardson threw Susannah Harker off of the roof of the building while she screamed "Daddy!". I thought it was pretty dark as PBS went, and didn't really want to watch, but the image stayed with me. I learned later Ian Richardson's character went on to become Prime Minister. Not my cup of tea at the time.

Fast forward 19 years later: no one can stop talking about Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in Netflix's version of House of Cards for the American political scene. I'd grown decidedly more cynical in the ensuing years, and the description sounded good enough that I finally gave Netflix a chance (I'm an extremely late adopter). Before my husband and I committed, though, we finally watched the original on YouTube. There were in fact three seasons: House of Cards, To Play The King and The Final Cut. Each of them had four episodes, and I seem to remember that my husband and I got all of that watched in two days. (Shh, don't tell the kids.) We were blown away.

We were equally impressed by the first two seasons of the American show, which tracked pretty closely to the British version (more below). This year, we eagerly anticipated what we assumed would be the final season of the American show...and we were very disappointed. Here's why:

In the original House of Cards, Francis Urquhart is the patrician (not just Conservative) Chief Whip who was a party loyalist and expected to be rewarded by the new Prime Minister with a Cabinet Post. He's insulted when he's told instead that he needs to stay in his current position. He then embarks on a scheme that would make Iago jealous: he manipulates weaker journalists, lobbyists and politicians to not only unseat the Prime Minister but to get himself elected in his place. He is willing to resort to murder, not once but twice, including the young journalist Mattie Storin who became his smitten mistress- at the suggestion of his wife Elizabeth! (Oh, and why was she calling him Daddy as he threw her to her death? Because that turned her on.) His aide Tim Stamper helps him manipulate his other victims, but it's Urquhart who pulls the proverbial triggers. And it works. The viewer is left with a horrible taste of what goes on behind the scenes and the sociopaths who are willing to do it.

Ian Richardson as the calculating, deadly MP- and then PM- Francis Urquhart
In To Play The King, Urquhart finds himself at odds with the liberal and idealistic new king, played by Michael Kitchen. While the monarchy doesn't hold any real power, it is perfectly capable of moving public opinion against the Prime Minister and his party, and Urquhart won't have that. By the end of the series, Michael Kitchen is forced to abdicate in favor of his young son (and regented by his mother, the divorced wife of the king). Was this a play to take on the monarchy itself? Not at all. As Urquhart points out, his family marched down from Scotland in the 17th century to protect the crown when no one had ever heard of the present royal family. This, he assured the soon-to-be-abdicated king, was entirely personal. But some chinks in Urquhart's armor are beginning to show: he has to kill both his newest mistress (also picked out by his wife!) when she gets too close to the truth about what happened to Mattie and then Stamper when he decides he's tired of living in Urquhart's shadow. Urquhart is secure for now, but has he bitten off more than he can chew?

Diane Fletcher as Elizabeth Urquhart, ruthless to the end
In The Final Cut, the answer to that question is clearly "yes". Urquhart may be able to manipulate his own country, but foreign policy is not so easily controlled. Even worse, he has some significant skeletons in his closet from his time in the military: he killed two unarmed men while serving in Cyprus. Against all of this is his desire to secure his legacy and exceed Thatcher's term in office. As he feels younger politicians nipping at his heels, his wife Elizabeth assures him that she's got a plan in place to secure his legacy. Urquhart doesn't realize what her plan is until too late: she has him assassinated during the dedication of his monument. That, she tearfully tells him as he takes his last breath, was the only way that his memory could go untarnished. A satisfying ending to a series that made your jaw drop in every other scene.

Susannah Harker as Mattie Storin, one of the first bodies Urquhart needed to bury
The American House of Cards replaced the To The Manor Born Urquhart with a more Clintonesque Frank Underwood (only his wife Claire calls him Francis): he was born poor, but he was always intelligent and scheming. In the first season all he wanted was to be Secretary of State, but losing that appointment brought out a ruthlessness that ended up causing the death of a weak Representative and the ruin of his young mistress, Zoe. But when the dust had settled, Frank was the Vice President- this much closer to being able to oust the president.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood. Whereas Urquhart was a master of subtlety, Underwood hides behind the confusion he creates
During the second season, he does just that, ably assisted by his wife, who lies about being impregnated by a man who's now a high ranking general (but she didn't lie about being raped) and then worms her way into the First Lady's inner circle and exploits the weaknesses in the First Marriage. The President, no fool, begins to understand just as Underwood has isolated him that he is the author of all of his problems, but ends up turning back to him just as everything falls apart and he decides to resign. Thus, Underwood, who has never won a national election, is now the President of the United States. Oh, and Zoe? She made it a little further than Mattie, but by the end of the first episode Frank's killed her; by the middle of the season he's made it impossible for her friends in the press corps to dig up anything on him. So what could possibly take him down? His chief of staff's obsession with a young prostitute who helped bring down the Representative in Season One, and, just maybe, the cracks in Claire's resolve.

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. Can't you just hear her muttering "Out, out, damned spot!"?
So what happens in Season Three? As in the original, Frank finds that foreign affairs are much harder to manipulate than domestic ones, and the fact that his inexperienced wife is helming negotiations at the UN isn't a plus. On top of that, there's a general election to gear up for, and Underwood is informed that the party leadership doesn't want him to run. His solution: an end run around Congressional authority to begin an ambitious jobs program that will be piloted in D.C. by siphoning money off from...FEMA. When the inevitable storm is due to hit, Frank blinks (he may be a sociopath, but he can make political calculations better than anyone else)...and then realizes he shouldn't have: the storm turns before it can do any damage to the US. But now Frank has the goods to run on, and he's more than ready to take on the well-placed former Solicitor General, Heather Dunbar, with the covert aid of the Assistant Whip whom he's promised the Vice Presidency to, Jackie Sharp. But Jackie, a veteran whom we know has had a major crisis of conscience before, can stomach only so much, and she throws her support to Dunbar. It's a close race in Iowa, but ultimately Underwood pulls out a victory just as marriage to Claire is coming apart. As he leaves for New Hampshire, Claire walks out on him...and so ends Season Three.

Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper. Whereas Tim Stamper's relationship with Urquhart was undone by his ambitions, Doug almost lost everything over his human frailties. Don't worry- he got past that.
Oh, okay.

To say I was disappointed doesn't fully cover it. House of Cards is REALLY good, and it's rightfully credited with having revived Netflix after their PR fiascoes. But after 39 episodes of watching increasingly unlikeable people (however complex) do bizarre things, I'm sort of done.

I'm also sad to say that the writing didn't hold up as well this last season as it did in the other two (maybe the writers are done too). Really, the Russian President would get to terms SO QUICKLY about both troops in the Jordan Valley AND the release of an American prisoner? And they would be negotiating themselves- without aides? REALLY? Obviously, then, we need to throw Putin and Obama into a bunker for a few weeks and see what they come up with. But wait! What about Michelle? Because after those two hammered out everything, an overwrought Claire- the one who is usually calm and controlled- ruined everything...at a press conference.

The character of Claire was my biggest problem with the season. Everyone always says "Lady Macbeth" when they see an ambitious wife, but they meant it with Claire. And that irritates me. Lady Macbeth is easy to write, in part because it's been done so much: Woman gets a taste of the possibility of power she can get through her husband, then pushes her husband to get it, regardless of what literal or figurative bloodiness she'll need to indulge to help him. She does unspeakable things but blindly pushes on until her conscience finally destroys her. And her husband, who's been using her as a psychic crutch, crumbles now that she isn't there anymore.

Some hope...Elizabeth Marvel as Solicitor General Heather Dunbar...
Other than laziness, the reason this gets me in this story is that Elizabeth Urquhart as played by Diane Fletcher is, if anything, the anti-Lady Macbeth. She blithely makes suggestions to further his interests and even helps him commit murder at one point. However, she never shows any signs of remorse; while that may make her more of a sociopath, she's frankly more interesting than the woman who walks around with a fist in her stomach. She is like any other advisor, only she happens to be a woman. And in the end she doesn't have her husband murdered to appease her conscience but to save him, at least in the way that ultimately matters to him.

...Molly Parker as veteran and Assistant Whip Jackie Sharp...
As disappointing as the main female character was, I did enjoy watching both Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), and the Do Not Screw With Me bureau chief Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens) made me smile every time she was onscreen. These were all competent, complicated, ambitious women, some more conflicted than others, but overall dedicated to catching their brass rings. Maybe Netflix can do spin off series on these three if it's going to be extra special greedy?

...and Kim Dickens as Bureau Chief Kate Baldwin
The original House of Cards had an undercurrent of humor in it's otherwise very dark tale of politics and ambition; I'm afraid the same can't be said for it's American counterpart, and that's a shame when it's so much longer. If it looks like this thing is going to be resolved in Season 4, let me know, but even then...well, I'm done anyway.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Aloha, Hawaii Five-O

My parents watched the original Hawaii Five-O when I was very young. I remember my father staring intently at the screen when it was on. This, I think, had something to do with the fact that there were so many Asian-American actors and characters, and in the 1970s that was a novelty on a major network.

When I was on the cusp of eighteen I saw Dr. No for the first time, and while young Sean Connery was as magnificent as you’ve heard, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Jack Lord every time he was onscreen as Felix Leiter. Suddenly Hawaii Five-O seemed a lot cooler to me.

Before Jack Lord was a badass super cop, he was a badass CIA agent who could outsmart James Bond himself 
I’ve written elsewhere about the revival, but the shorter version: it isn’t nearly as well written, conceived or acted, but nostalgia is a powerful thing. (Also, Hawaii is just as beautiful.) When I realized that Netflix had every episode (well, almost) of the original series, my mission was clear: I was going to watch each one.

As of four nights ago, I am done. In many ways I’m better for it, but in some ways I’m ruined.

The show began in 1968, and it was gritty and nuts. Steve McGarrett is already the head of an elite state police force (there was never an origin story on the series) and he has a doozy of a case: a federal agent that he was in the Navy with has been found dead on a beach. The official story is that he drowned during a swim, but the audience knows that hours before he was killed he was in a sensory deprivation chamber (and that scene was genuinely frightening). McGarrett knows something’s wrong: the victim never went to the beach because he was too fair and burned too easily. He died some other way. His investigation leads him to Chinese Super Spy Wo Fat, as ruthless as he is intelligent. McGarrett intentionally puts himself in harm’s way, then goes on to spite Wo-Fat by remaining in full control of his senses long after his other victims broke; McGarrett is a determined son of a bitch. He’s playing a game of cat and mouse with Wo Fat while his team (Dan “Danno” Williams, Chin Ho Kelly and Kono Kalakaua) rush the Chinese agents guarding the facility where he’s being held. Wo Fat gets away, but Five-O captures the American double agent who was helping him. Suspense, international intrigue, investigation of minute details, gut instinct: welcome to Hawaii Five-O.

Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett. Is it just me, or does his hair look even better here than it did several years before?
McGarrett was supported for the first four seasons by Danno, Chin Ho and Kono. All of them were dedicated and skilled, but Williams and Kono were younger and in some episodes needed more of McGarrett’s guidance. In a very early episode, Williams accidentally killed a young addict (or junkie, as they frequently said on the show) in the line of duty. The audience saw exactly what happened, so this wasn’t a mystery. The story was the investigation into what the victim had been doing before, and that ended up clearing Danno. But this was not a happy ending, and McGarrett had to sternly remind Danny that no one said “this was anything but a lousy job”. That episode, out of all of the early seasons, set the tone: this was not a glamorous profession filled with beautiful people, but one that was filled with tragedy and not for the faint of heart.

James MacArthur as Dan Williams, the guy immortalized in the line "Book 'em, Danno" 
Of all of them, Kono had the smallest part. A native Hawaiian, he had deep connections to others in that community and had a lot of street sources. He was also the one most likely to fly off the handle and rush in before thinking. Sometimes that was useful- see his opening credits- but more often he needed to be pulled back. But as far as his personal life, viewers never had a clue.

Zulu as Kono Kalakaua, the young, impetuous cop who worked the native Hawaiian connections
The person on the team we got the longest glimpse at was Chin Ho. A very early episode found him being framed for corruption and accepting bribes. When he came home to his family, we saw for the first time that he was married with five (or was it seven?) children ranging from older teenager to kindergartener. As a fellow Asian-American, I was shocked to see his family presented so...normally in the late 1960s. For Chin, the most painful part of the attack on his reputation was the effect that it would have on them. He begged McGarrett not to talk to his teenage son even though he could have alibied him; like many parents and teens, they were going through a rough patch. In an episode that aired several years later, we saw his oldest daughter as a college student, dating the scion of a crime family (a young Erik Estrada!). Family was huge to Chin Ho, and he had uncles and cousins that provided him with information about both sides of the street.

Kam Fong Chun as Chin Ho Kelly, the one supporting player who actually got a send off when he left.
As for the personal life of Steve McGarrett, other than two episodes at the very beginning and very end of the series, we got very little insight into his early family life. (For the record, he had a sister named Mary and their father was shot by a criminal when Steve was young.) He was a Navy man and then he was a cop, and his jobs were his life. (He also never drank- not once- and he was frequently seen working overnight in his office.) He was “involved” with someone a only handful of times throughout the show, and in the middle of the series it was clear why: what kind of a woman was going to accept for a husband a man who was already married to his job?

For most of the twelve years, the show did a good job of marrying pop culture to crime solving. And when the case was a mystery, they tended to be very good. One of the episodes featured a serial killer who would break into the homes of young women, strangle them and then put blonde wigs on them- after he applied makeup to their corpses. Incredibly creepy to watch. While working the latest development on the case, a crime reporter whose wife was one of the victims insists on tagging along. McGarrett tells him to stay away because he can’t be objective, but the man persists. While investigating the man’s dead wife, they’re tipped off by a cabbie that she was having an affair. Meanwhile, the reporter picks up a tip that the murderer might be making the dead women up in the image of a prostitute he used to patronize. When he tracks down the woman, who’s since gone straight and is pregnant and married, he uses her “black book” to lure the killer to her, then kills the man as he is strangling the woman. McGarrett arrives in time to cart away the dead body, then has the reporter arrested too: he and Danny had figured out that the killer was able to access the women’s apartment’s because he got their keys when he was working for a car wash. As soon as McGarrett picked up on that detail, he knew the reporter had killed his wife: she never learned how to drive, which is why she always took cabs, and that was the real reason he needed to silence the serial killer. Nicely done.

McGarrett reported directly to the governor of Hawaii, and for the most part they worked well together. However, around Season Ten there was definite tension in the air, kicked off by speculation that McGarrett would make a great governor himself. It did not improve when the governor started complaining about Steve’s “Irish temper”. I was shocked when that line was first uttered, in part because viewers knew McGarrett was a very measured character, and in part because it was a shockingly prejudiced thing to say on television, even for the late Seventies.

Richard Denning as the long-serving governor of Hawaii
Five-O was supported by other people outside the force, most especially Che Fong, their forensics expert. The analyses he performed was cutting edge for the time, although I’m told that much of the ballistics information they used has since been discredited. In addition to forensics and the medical examiner, they also called in psychiatrists, and those episodes were guaranteed to be either a spooky or very silly.

Over time, all of the supporting characters cycled out (with the exception of the governor). Kono was replaced by Ben (the story is that the actor used a racial slur and Jack Lord had him fired) and officer Duke Lukela was added as a regularly recurring player. When Ben left, Duke stepped in to join the force. Chin Ho left at the end of the tenth season, and we actually did see him sent off (he was executed while undercover by a Hawaiian mobster who resented him for working for a white boss) and Williams was gone by the beginning of the twelfth. (Given that the show’s most famous line may very well be “Book ‘em, Danno,” it was pretty jarring that his departure wasn’t acknowledged at all.) He was replaced by tough Boston cop (of course…) Jim “Kimo” Carew, Hawaiian native Truck and, for the very first time, a female officer named Lori Wilson. When the writing was good, all of the supporting players were able performers, but when the writing wasn’t there...well, at least they didn’t flub their lines.

Al Harrington as Ben
Herman Wedemeyer as Duke Lukela
The final cast of Hawaii Five-O, including new additions Sharon Farrell as Lori, William Smith as Kimo and Moe Keale asTruck. If the final season wasn't that great, it wasn't their fault.
While the show kept up with the trends (Vietnam, spies, parade bombings, psychics, dreams, handwriting, grifters, gambling cons, Agatha Christie- really, music, past life regression…), there was an undercurrent of racial awareness through the run of the series. While there were plenty of white villains, victims and cons, many of them were Hawaiian. It was impossible not to watch the show and sense the production team’s discomfort over how the Hawaiian people were getting screwed over. To the extent he could, McGarrett stuck up for them. As much as he was a tough, clever cop who believed in the rule of law, he also wanted to make sure the little guy didn’t get the short end of it along the way. As someone who has watched almost every episode of the Law & Order franchise (at least as of last year), it was pretty amazing to see a cop so concerned about making sure everyone got due process. Notably, the show also had two separate episodes about how dangerous guns were; not, in any way, an episode you would see on today’s CBS.

While there were many aspects of the show that spoke to my liberal Democrat leanings, it was in many ways a reflection of its times, and the early shows had plenty of derogatory references to ethnic minorities. (Yes, the N-word was uttered once when Williams was undercover, as was the word “gook” in a very early episode.) Let’s not even talk about the episode that seemed to want to capitalized on the popularity of Blaxploitation films. The references to women were more pervasive and worse; I think it’s fair to see that the writers and producers weren’t early feminists. Oh, and let's not forget the earlier episodes that featured white actors playing Hawaiian roles in what I'll call Brown Face. Uncool.

The last season of the show was pretty weak and ended after only nineteen episodes, as opposed to the usual 22 to 24 the other seasons played. McGarrett finally got to arrest his arch nemesis Wo Fat, but it was among the worst written finales I’ve ever seen. None of the regular supporting cast was featured, and McGarrett ran around in a disguise for most of it. He did get to do a signature clever McGarrett move (he arranged a shadow to make it look like he’d hung himself) but it was, at best, a comic episode in a show that was never known for its comedic flair.

Egyptian-born Khigh Dheigh as Chinese super spy Wo Fat, McGarrett's archnemesis
All of which makes me re-examine the new Hawaii Five-0.

Having watched the old show, I finally understand where Duke and Lori (second season) came from. I also get why they brought in McGarrett’s sister Mary (and later had her adopt a baby). The constant cloud of supposed corruption around Chin Ho and his large extended family is a tribute to the old show, and Charlie Fong is an homage to Che Fong (but it would be nice if he came across as a little more competent). Perhaps most importantly, I’m completely okay now with the break in tradition that got rid of Wo-Fat; sending him out while he was strong was much better than dragging him back periodically to twist his moustache. And in this era of television, it’s a good thing that the supporting cast has more personality and backstory than they did in the original.

But...Alex O’Loughlin is no Jack Lord, and on its best day the writing is much weaker than the writing of the old show on its worst. Perhaps most importantly, the new Hawaii Five-0 isn't saying anything that isn't already being said on television in a lot of places (even if it's saying it in a much more attractive locale). And if there's one thing we've learned from the old show, no one's going to thank you for sticking around long after you should have left. Well, thanks for the memories, Jack Lord and company. When you were good, you bordered on great, and you're a tough act to follow.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The end of the Rockford Files, 35 years later

I hated the idea of my Netflix account until I realized that I could watch every episode of The Rockford Files and Hawaii Five-O with it. The Rockford Files was only six seasons long, so I finished that while I'm still working toward the end of Hawaii Five-O (many thoughts to come on that).

Jim Rockford as played by James Garner was a world-weary, very cautious (you're forgiven for thinking that might mean "cowardly" on occasion) and mostly too-decent-for-his-own-good private detective. But give Rockford a break: he spent five years in prison for a crime he didn't commit until he received a pardon from the governor. Not that it mattered: once a con, always a con, according to many of the people he ran into. All he wanted to do was stay out of trouble and get his $200 a day, plus expenses for honest work. He had some clear boundaries: no domestic cases, and nothing that smelled of organized crime (smart guy). Of course, most episodes found him working a case that he had been dragged into for someone who had as little as he did, which meant that he was frequently short on cash even though he lived in a trailer.

The saying "with friends like that, who needs enemies" could have been something the writers had posted on their walls. Detective Dennis Becker (Joe Santos) begrudged him a phone call and if Rockford reported being shot at he wanted him to produce a witness before he'd file a report. He was also really quick to try and book him on something, and frequently let the even less friendly Lieutenant Doug Chapman (James Luisi) listen in on their conversations for something incriminating.

James Garner as the wry (and did I mention very good looking?) Jim Rockford
While Becker became more supportive after he was promoted to Lieutenant, Rockford's friend Evelyn "Angel" Martin (Stuart Margolin), an ever-hustling con artist, would sell Jim and anyone else out for a nickel. He had no such concept of honor among thieves, and Rockford frequently found himself with a gun in his face on Angel's account.

All of that drama was made up for by Rockford's father, Joseph "Rocky" Rockford (Noah Beery Jr.). He was very simple and could be known to nag Jim (they frequently butted heads about painting and fishing schedules), but he always had his son's back. If only Jim could be convinced to settle down with a nice girl...

In that regard, Rockford was as no-nonsense as he was in the rest of his life. He was highly unlikely to fall into the trap of rescuing the damsel-in-distress (although Kathryn Harrold as a blind stalking victim was irresistible), but he wasn't immune to the femme fatale (Susan Strasberg came thisclose to getting him good). For the most part, though, he was pretty no-nonsense when it came to romance; for the first four seasons, he was on-again, off-again with his attorney Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett). Her departure, coincidentally, signaled the demise of the quality of the show.

The Rockford Files had a much more comedic flair than other detective shows. Rockford certainly wasn't the first detective to throw around clever quips, but because he worked outside of the system he was as likely to roll his eyes and sigh about it as he did so. A lot of the storylines weren't necessarily funny- call me old-fashioned, but murder isn't funny- but Garner's grumbly, sarcastic delivery of his lines would mostly get a laugh. And while Rockford might not have been a felon, he was as much a clever con man as he was a detective. While he may have been more than happy to suss out information at the library (and away from anyone who might have a gun), when he needed to be suave Jim Taggart or Oklahoma oilman Jimmy Joe Meeker in order to triangulate a bad guy, he could do it in a snap. (And someone who has a portable business card printer isn't that reluctant to get in trouble, is he?)

That's a lot of what I liked, but it wasn't perfect. First of all, in most of the episodes there was a car chase; it was as predictable as William Shatner ending up on the roof of a car in T.J. Hooker. While I would still say that the writing was better than much of what's on television now, after a while whenever that came up I'd think, "Huh, that's what they used for filler back then." The rumor is that the damage to the car was one of the things that drove up the cost of the show, which led to some friction between Garner and the network, but I'm not close to anyone involved so I don't really know.

The other star of The Rockford Files
Worse than the car was the fact that the mysteries weren't always that well-conceived. Figuring out who the bad guy was and why they'd done it was usually easy enough, and when it wasn't it was frequently a throw away. The real point of the episode, many times, was to watch Rockford clever himself out of trouble and into catching the bad guy. For four seasons that was fine, but by season five the magic was gone. To the casual viewer (like me), it looked as if Garner wanted less screen time. Understandable, but then it wasn't really clear what the show was about.

Still in all, it was a very good show, just maybe not great. It could be argued that Rockford was a Seventies version of the Forties noir detective, but I don't think he was as bitter or nihilistic. Beneath all of the sarcastic jabs, he was just a guy who wanted to get paid for the work he did, and if he could help the little guy along the way, so much the better. All in all, decent and real, and popular culture is not hurt by such characters.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Interview with Isabella Louise Anderson, author of The Right Design

Although Isabella Louise Anderson's first book The Right Design came out last year, she's been plugged into the Chick Lit community for a while as the founder of the Chick Lit Goddesses. I recently asked her to chat about her work, chick lit in general and her predictions about publishing in the coming year. 

Have you always lived in Texas? Yes, I’m a proud Texan…without the accent.

Why did you decide to split the setting between Texas and Palm Beach? There was no doubt that I wanted to Texas to be part of it, but then added Palm Beach, Florida, because my family has a vacation home there. Having been going there since I was a child, I have a lot of Palm Beach memories.

The Right Design and your upcoming Cards From Khloe's Flower Shop both have a design element to them, yes? Have you worked in the design world? Geez, I wish I could say that I have worked in the design industry, but I haven’t. I knew very little about interior design, but since my parents had recently renovated their house, I learned a lot, which created the job for Carrie in “The Right Design.” As for my upcoming book (due out later this year), I love receiving bouquets of roses, and one day, right before NaNoWriMo started, I got an idea about a woman who owned a flower shop, which was my motivation for “Cards From Khloe’s Flower Shop.”

Do Carrie and Khloe's stories intersect at all? No. Carrie and Khloe’s stories do not intersect, and are quite different.

Calling yourself a Chick Lit author (and reader!) can earn you some eye-rolls. Why do you think that genre is so controversial? Personally, I think it’s silly that it’s even a topic about the genre being controversial. With so many other genres out there, who’s to say that Chick Lit isn’t one, too? To me, just because it might be perceived that our book covers are pink (mine won’t be because I hate the color pink), it and its characters are most of the time predictable, and the books have a happily ever after, is the same as a black cover with blood and a knife on it, in the Mystery section of the bookstore…it’s just a different genre. As for beloved readers of the Chick Lit genre, I love how they stand up for the books they love!

You know and speak to a lot of other Chick Lit/Romance writers. What do people want to write about? Great question! Whether authors write for themselves, their fans, or their characters, the main thing we want to write is a book that will make our readers feel engaged in the story. We want just not only our characters to feel pain or happiness, but our readers, too.

Isabella Louise Anderson
Which books have caused you the most "pain" and "happiness"? Typically, I’m one who likes books, so no book has really caused me “pain.” Though, when a book isn’t written or edited well enough that I can enjoy the story, to me, that’s very painful. Books that cause me “happiness” are the ones that leave me with a happily ever after ending for the characters.

What do you think readers of Chick Lit and Romantic Comedy want to read about? Most of the time Chick Lit books are predictable, but that’s why readers read them—they want to enjoy the fuzzy warm feeling when the book ends, along with the happily ever after.

Which books have left you with the most "warm and fuzzy"? I would definitely say “Blogger Girl” by Meredith Schorr! If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it.

You're an indie writer. What made you decide to go that route instead of the traditional one? While I thought long and hard about self-publishing, my dream to be an author with a publishing house. After “The Right Design” was rejected, there was no doubt in my mind that I still wanted to be an author (no, my dreams weren’t tarnished, just redirected). I had a lot to learn, and that I did! “The Right Design” had a long way to go before it was published, so I hired editors, a cover designer, etc., and didn’t stop until I pressed the publish button. Self-publishing is the best decision I’ve ever made!

At the end of 2014 everyone started talking about how the industry was suddenly hardening and it was going to be much tougher for self-published writers than it had been. If you were going to make some predictions about publishing for the next few years, what would they be, particularly for Chick Lit? To be honest, I’m happy about this. Self-publishing isn’t as easy as it sounds, and I wish some people took it more seriously—like they might if they were published traditionally. As far as the Chick Lit genre, it’s never going to go away. People love the genre because they know that they’re going to get out of it, which is most of the time a happily ever after.

Isabella grew up with a book in her hand, and to this day nothing has changed. She is a member of the Romance Writers of America and has been featured on several blogs. While Isabella doesn't blog a lot, she focuses her time on featuring other writers, along with writing and editing. Isabella Louise Anderson created Chick Lit Goddess to share the love of the following genres: Chick Lit, Contemporary Romance, Romance, and Romantic Comedies! She loves featuring authors and their books. She lives in Dallas with her husband and cat. She enjoys spicy Mexican food and drinking margaritas, and can be found spending time with family and friends, cheering on the Texas Rangers, and reading. Isabella's short story, Meet Me Under the Mistletoe, was featured in Simon & Fig's Christmas anthology, Merry & Bright, in November 2013. The Right Design is her first novel.

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Do business and pleasure mix?

In the author's debut novel comes a story about picking up the pieces, letting go of the past, and finding love along the way--even if morals are tested!

Interior designer Carrie Newman could not have envisioned a more perfect life for herself. She had a great job doing what she loved, wonderful friends, and a close relationship with her sister and brother-in-law. Add in an amazing man who she’d hoped would soon become her husband, and her life was perfect. Until one devastating decision ruins her relationship and changes the course of her life.

Determined to make a new start, Carrie leaves Texas and heads to Palm Beach to pick up the pieces of her shattered and broken life. The last thing she expects is to find herself attracted to her first client at her new job--Brad Larson, who has proven himself time and time again to be caddish.

But there’s something beneath the surface of Brad’s arrogant exterior that keeps her craving more of him--something almost sweet that Carrie can’t seem to resist.

Is Carrie ready to take another chance on romance? And will this new design of her life prove to be the right one?