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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Critical Thinking

A writer friend once told me, “You only have so many words.” I’m afraid it’s proving true. Over half of my job is actually writing. No idea how that happened. Of course, it’s not sci fi—it’s not even fiction—but it is writing. This means when Thursday rolls around, I find myself with a dearth of words. Sorry about that.

I wanted to talk about story, though. All this non-fiction has me starving for well-written stories. I don’t necessarily mean an epic saga or a classic hero motif. I mean the kind of story you completely lose yourself to and only after think, “Dang!” The kind you don’t even realize is a good story until it’s over and you can breathe again. There are too few of those around.


For some unknown cosmic reason, Maj Tom (nearly Ret.) and I stumbled upon Justified its first season last year on FX. Based on stories by Elmore Leonard, it follows the misadventures of US Federal Marshall Raylan Givens, played by the charming (if sometimes slightly effeminate) Timothy Olyphant. He starts out in Miami, but before the first scene is over, finds himself exiled to Harlan County, KY, after “justifiably” killing a drug mobster. The biggest problem with this setup is that he is actually from Harlan County. He worked the mines there, his mom died there, his dad was a second-rate crook there…

It’s a far stranger thing to walk into the old neighborhood a new man and realize how quickly the old life can suck you back in. The first season centers around Ava Crowder, the girl he never had but is available now (seein’ as how she just shot her husband), and Boyd Crowder, an explosives expert/thief from Raylan’s mining days. Oh, you caught that? Yeah, the husband Ava killed was Boyd’s brother.

Ava’s shot was justified, but Boyd’s family doesn’t really care about fair. Boyd, meanwhile, sits a spell in prison, finds Jesus, and returns a changed man. Instead of stealing, he gathers around him a bunch of addicts and dealers who want to stay clean. Boyd becomes father and pastor to the lot of them. Raylan doesn’t buy it for a minute.

This season, Raylan’s on-again-off-again with the ex who couldn’t handle his job before, Ava’s fed up with everybody, and Boyd’s drifting after finding the hills were tougher than his faith. We’re introduced to a new family, the Bennets. Mags is the matriarch and crime lord. Oldest brother Doyle uses his position as county sheriff to keep the law off their backs. The eternally stoned Coover is a master at the genetic manipulation of certain less-than-lawful herbal treatments. And Dickie tries to keep Coover out of trouble while limping on the bad leg Raylan took a baseball bat to in high school.

There are three obvious gems in the series: the dialogue, the characterizations, and the actors. The dialogue approaches Whedonesque perfection. I’m not usually one for bad guys. It took me until Sense and Sensibility before I could say I liked Alan Rickman. But I long for Boyd to come on the scene. Mags is just pure unadulterated evil—I spent the entire season trying to figure out if she was a full-on sociopath or just a competitive business woman. The physicality of the actor who plays Dickie is perfect. The only character who falls flat is Winona, Raylan’s ex. But the rest are just amazing. As proof, I just wrote all that from memory—including all the names. I’m terrible at names.

Which leads to the story. I don’t generally like serials. Too much “Let’s see what else we can do to get viewership up.” Justified seasons read more like a miniseries, honestly. Each episode draws you in with the micro—the bon mots and the humor—but subtly builds into an over-arching plot that truly resolves at the season finale.

Standard warning; it is rated PG-13 for language, violence, sexual suggestions. And Timothy Olyphant doesn’t take his shirt off near enough. If you’re okay with that, I’d suggest Netflixing the series, as the second season just finished.

Some other things we’ve seen lately:

Water for Elephants

Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson in a role he actually gets to act in) is almost a veterinarian when tragedy strikes moments before his final exam. He finds himself as a laborer in a traveling circus in the Depression before the owner, August, and his wife/main attraction, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), discover his knowledge of animals.

I liked it. I thought the characters were complex enough to be both interesting and unpredictable. Neither Maj Tom nor I were terribly wild about the whole love-triangle thing, but there you go. We’ll take violence and swearing over adultery. We’re nothing if not fully aware of our hypocrisies.

Red Riding Hood

The chickie from Mama Mia tries to figure out who is the Big Bad Wolf. Okay, you’re probably not going to like it. There’s probably an over-abundance of forlorn glances and romanticized camera work. But I liked it. The story is clever and, at the risk of giving too much away, I did not know the reveal until the curtain was literally pulled away. Most people I talked to didn’t have it figured out, either. I went with Ev (my Christian-fantasy-romance writer friend), so Maj Tom doesn’t have an opinion. Ev liked it, but she’s a Twilight fan, so there you go.


Oh, it was fine. Not spectacular. What do you do with a hero who plays it straight and a villain who’s still finding himself and doesn’t really have a personality? You wait for the hero to take off his shirt and spend the rest of the time thinking about Ironman. As Maj Tom said, it’s a setup for the next one. Perhaps an example of the prequel that needn’t have been made?

Jane Eyre

Ev loves the Brontes. She says they’re Jane Austen with backbone (And yet she loves Twilight. It’s a mystery.). It’s been a while since I’ve seen Jane Eyre (never read it), but this one felt just okay. Maybe because I knew what was in the attic. Maybe because Mr. Rochester didn’t ring true. I can appreciate the story, how all the elements tied together in a nice little grrl-power bow, but I didn’t feel like there was a lot of character in the in-between moments. Like Thor, it was fine.

What story have you seen/read lately that sucked you in and spit you out? What character or dialogue made you consider throwing in this whole writing thing and getting a job aerating lawns? And what hidden gems have you found in the deep, dark recesses of cable?

And, most importantly, do you think they’re really going to cancel Chuck? What are they thinking?!

Yes, Kersley Fitzgerald is alive. And looking forward to seeing Arisia and Snowdog soon.
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