Tag Archives: Postmortem

Postmortem: Exodus

Betsy and I are still making our way through the Bible, one chapter at a time. A couple days ago we finished Exodus. Some brief thoughts…

Whereas the God of Genesis does a lot of killing in vast and dramatic ways (genocidal Flood, raining fire on Sodom and Gomorrah), the God of Exodus seems smaller, more spiteful and cruel. Examples:

  • He repeatedly “hardens the heart” of the Pharaoh – who would otherwise have let the Israelites go free – explicitly for the sake of his own glory (e.g. Exodus 10:1).
  • He punishes the Levites by having them get out swords and run around and “each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.” They do, and three thousand die. (32:27-28)
  • He believes in “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (34:7)
  • He orders that anyone who works on the Sabbath must be executed. (35:2)
  • etc.

Readers have commented for centuries that the God of the Old Testament seems shockingly bloodthirsty compared to the God of the New Testament, and I knew most of these examples already, so it’s not like this was a surprise. Still, it’s striking to see it spelled out so clearly in black and white.

I was surprised, however, to find that the golden calf created by the Israelites is so ambiguous in nature. I always thought of it as simply an idol worshiped instead of God, and in some respects that is how it’s described. But we’re also told: “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it [the golden calf]; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord [YHWH].’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.” (32:5-6)

In other words, the calf-centered festival where they offered sacrifices was still considered a festival to their original God (at least in Aaron’s mind). I had never heard that before.

The revelation of the divine name “I Am” to Moses is poetic and beautiful, and seems fitting.

I’ve heard people claim that slavery in the Old Testament isn’t wrong, because it’s not like the Southern pre-Civil War slavery we think of today. Well, it may not be the same, but read this divine law and judge its morality for yourself: “When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.” (21:20)

That is, it’s okay to beat your slaves to death, as long as it takes them at least twenty-four hours to die of their wounds.

There’s a single sentence that is ten verses long (35:10-19). I wonder if that’s the record, or if there are any longer sentences later.

A surprising amount of time is spent going over the precise physical details of the Ark, Tabernacle, altar, and so on. I mean, it’s really intense. Six chapters of description (25-30) of the design, followed by five chapters (36-40) of the construction, which is basically a near-verbatim repetition of the design part, except it’s what they built instead of what they’re planning to build.

I noticed, too, that Exodus had much less emphasis on women than Genesis. There was Miriam (sister of Moses and Aaron) and Pharoah’s daughter, and a few others, but all had brief and minor roles. Contrast with the roles of Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah.

I’ve been very critical of Exodus, but I have to stress that my criticism (and, let’s be honest, anger) is not from any dislike of Christianity. It’s the opposite. Because I respect Christianity and expect good things from it, I get very frustrated to see holy books that glorify death and cruelty. I think Betsy feels something similar.

It is a credit to Christians around the world that they can transform even books like these into a force for peace and love. (I feel similarly about nearly all other religious texts, by the way.)

Anyway – as mentioned before, we’re heading to Matthew next. A little New Testament reading will be a nice palate cleanser before we plunge back into the Old Testament again, and Leviticus in particular.

Postmortem: Vacation Books


One of the best things about vacation is having time to read. I finished six books in the past week.

Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. A novel about four kids – ages thirteen, ten, nine, and six – abandoned by their mom in a parking lot, who must travel hundreds of miles with very little money, and without being discovered by authorities (who might split them up to put them in foster homes). This book is amazing, one of those rare stories that starts strong, stays good through the middle, and has a satisfying ending. Good characters, fascinating insight into the dynamics, relationships, and power structures that kids will form with each other when left to their own devices. Ultimately it’s a book about family, but with none of the syrupy sweetness that normally implies. My highest recommendation.

In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki (translated by Thomas J. Harper & Edward G. Seidensticker). Nonfiction about how darkness – the literal kind, a lack of photons – is aesthetically superior to bright light in architecture, art, fashion, and other areas. Tanizaki argues that traditional Japanese aesthetics honored darkness, whereas modern and Western trends have lost the old subtlety of shadow. It’s an intriguing idea, but sadly, the book is mostly just Tanizaki rambling illogically about how everything was better in his day and these young’uns and for’gners are ruining the country. He starts by explaining how he spent tons of money trying to remodel a modern house into the old style, to meet his sense of aesthetics, then explains that Japanese culture embraces shadow because they can accept life as it is and don’t need to change everything. A short book, but shorter if you don’t read it, which is what I’d suggest.

The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński (translated by William R. Brand & Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand). Nonfiction about the last years and downfall of the final Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. A fascinating look inside an imperial court that was largely disconnected from reality, concerned mostly with maintaining its own power and image, warping the truth 1984-style to do so. Courtiers had absurd jobs; the sole duty of one man was opening doors for the Emperor (a more difficult job than you might think, due to fastidious protocol), while another man was charged with cleaning dignitaries’ shoes when the Emperor’s lapdog, Lulu, peed on them. The pettiness of the power struggles, the way everyone fawned over the Emperor like a god, the terrible danger that hung constantly over all of them – it’s a whole other world, recreated with some masterful detective work by the author.

The Essential Kabbalah by Daniel C. Matt. An introductory essay to give context, followed by selections from various Kabbalah texts, designed to give a newbie like me some idea of what Kabbalah is all about. (I’m researching the subject as one of the many sources for Crane Girl). If you’re wondering, Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism, using meditation and other techniques to approach a direct experience of the Divine. Its function is similar to Zen Buddhism, Sufi Islam, and Christian monasticism, though its form is very different, relying heavily on a structure of ten interconnected points called “sefirot” that collectively give insight into the nature of God and humanity. It’s an interesting little book.

The Spire by William Golding. A novel by the author of Lord of the Flies. This story is about the dean of a cathedral who orders a vast tower and spire built at the cathedral’s peak, even though the master builder says it’s unsafe and everyone else in the world says it’s a terrible idea. (Spoiler alert: it is.) While there are some glimmers of quality here, I thought it was pretty bad overall. The Spire retains and exaggerates all the flaws of Lord of the Flies (overly thick allegory, characters who feel more like symbols than people, trying too hard to Say Something Important) but has none of its virtues (clarity, strong plot, likable protagonist, the sense of a profound message). In The Spire, it’s often hard to tell what’s going on, and there’s little reason to try. My vote: skip it.

Lewis Carroll and Alice by Stephanie Lovett Stoffel. A nice little biography of Carroll, packed with photos and reproductions, supplemented with selections of Carroll’s lesser-known writing (like Sylvie and Bruno) at the end. Enlightening and enjoyable. The book did portray Carroll in a very positive light, so much so that I sometimes wondered about bias, but I don’t know enough about the man to judge for myself. Side note: the publishers didn’t bother to put the author’s name anywhere on the front or back cover, which seems like a real slap in the face.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner. A Young Adult sci-fi dystopian novel, in roughly the same vein as The Hunger Games, about a bunch of boys trapped in a giant, mysterious maze from which they must escape, overcoming all sorts of deadly horrors. Except that Hunger Games is fast-paced, tightly written, and engaging, whereas Maze Runner is slow, full of awkward sentences, and spends a long time explaining stuff while nothing much is happening. I read the first few chapters, got bored, and skimmed through the rest to see what the big secret of the maze was. It turns out to be a huge surprise – if you’ve never read any other science fiction, ever. Honestly, I’m not sure how this became a bestseller. It isn’t just that I didn’t like it, it didn’t seem like something that would have wide appeal in general. C’est la vie. (Not pictured in photo above because I didn’t take it home with me from England.)

Read anything good lately?

Postmortem: Genesis

Betsy and I just finished Genesis. It’s … a strange book.

Chapters 1-11 cover primeval, mythic-type events: Creation, expulsion from Eden, the first murder, the Flood, the Tower of Babel. A lot of the best-known Genesis stories come from these early chapters.

But the vast majority of the book, chapters 12-50, are about four generations of rich patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (Israel), and Joseph, along with their families.

It’s striking, first of all, how amoral this section of Genesis is. People do all kinds of things – killing, threatening to kill, enslaving, banishing, lying, cheating, sleeping around – with very little judgment from the text on what is and isn’t okay. In some cases, as when Abraham lies to Pharaoh and calls Sarah his sister, we get the impression it’s a bad thing. Other cases, like when Jacob cheats Esau out of his blessing, feel more positive. In still other cases, as when Lot’s daughters get him drunk and sleep with him, there seems to be no textual judgment at all, positive or negative; it’s just something that happens. Such lack of judgment would make sense in a work of fiction, but in the Bible – which people use as a source of moral guidance – it’s more surprising.

Likewise, there isn’t much about what kind of relationship humanity should have with God. God actually doesn’t appear too often in these chapters, and when he does, his exchanges with humans are very transactional: command and obey, request and provide. Unlike Noah, who was chosen for his righteousness, Abraham seems to be chosen without any clear reason. God simply says, without explanation or preamble: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great” (Gen 12:2). Likewise, Abraham’s descendants seem to inherit his blessing through blood, rather than virtue. Why has God chosen these people in particular? Why would God choose any people in particular? We’re never told, at least not in Genesis. Instead, God seems to be on Abraham’s side because, well, he’s Abraham.

So if Genesis isn’t primarily about laws, morals, or God, what is it about?

Mostly, it’s about inheritance. A lot of time and detail is spent on who marries who, who sleeps with who, sterility and fertility, birth order and birthright, the blessings of the father, and where people are buried. All this establishes the lineage and origin of the twelve tribes of Israel (and other tribes), the ancestors of King David, the blessings of God, and claims to ownership of various lands. It’s practical: I get this land, this blessing, this authority, not you.

From an ancient viewpoint, Genesis makes sense. People want origin stories, and they want to establish claims to what they have. For a modern Christian reader, though, the purpose of Genesis is less clear. A few passages are instructive (albeit troubling), like the Flood and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. And the book does provide important historical and cultural perspective for interpreting the rest of the Bible, including the teachings of Jesus.

But as a standalone book, it’s … well, it’s odd. Interesting and significant, of course, but odd.

That’s my, ahem, professional opinion.

On to Exodus!

Postmortem: Inside Out


Anger, Joy, Disgust, Sadness, and Fear, living it up at Riley HQ.

Warning: Spoilers.

Say what you will about Rotten Tomatoes – when a movie scores 98%, it’s usually pretty damn good. Pixar’s latest offering, Inside Out, scored 98%, so Betsy and I saw it, and I can confirm it’s pretty damn good. For my money, it’s tied with The Incredibles for best Pixar film. And that’s saying something.

The premise is simple. Every person’s mind can be visualized as a mini world, overseen by the personifications of five main emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger (Lewis Black!), Fear, and Disgust. Our hero, an eleven-year-old girl named Riley, has these little guys in her head like everyone else. Of the five, Joy is the leader – or at least first among equals – and the other four all share her goal of making Riley happy.

When Riley and her family move from her hometown (in Minnesota, eh?) to San Francisco, she does her best to cope. It’s a struggle, but she’s a positive kid – Joy has done her work well.

And then one day, Joy and Sadness get yanked out of Headquarters. To get back, they’re forced into a journey across the vast expanse of Riley’s mind. Meanwhile, Riley is left with only Anger, Fear, and Disgust running the show. She has lost the capacity for both happiness and genuine sadness. Her life spirals rapidly. Her relationships break down. She stops caring about anything. Finally, she loses the ability to feel any real emotion at all. She’s dying inside.

They never spell it out, but it’s abundantly clear what’s happening. Riley, an eleven-year-old girl, is sinking into clinical depression.

And if you think that’s heavy, how about the conclusion of the film: that mere happiness is not the goal of life; that sadness and joy are symbiotically linked, like yin and yang, and neither can exist without the other; that Riley can only grow up by accepting that sadness is a fundamental part of who she is.

Pretty adult stuff for a Disney cartoon. I mean, when they bust out the PG rating, you know shit has gotten real.

What's happening to our daughter?

What’s happening to our daughter?

Of course, despite its moments of darkness – and there are many – Inside Out is basically a happy movie, bursting with color, energy, cleverness, humor, and the exceptional polish and attention to detail we’ve come to expect from all of Pixar’s work. And sprinkled in with the humor are genuine insights, as when  a character casually explains that the contents of two boxes – Facts and Opinions – are always getting mixed up, and nobody really bothers to sort them out properly.

Complaints? Well, I have a few minor ones. I think Inside Out‘s vision of the mind places far too much emphasis on feeling, with almost no weight given to reason-based thought. I also got annoyed with the movie sometimes for leaning a little heavily on cliches, as when Riley’s father is shown to be obsessed with sports, emotionally clueless, and concerned with whether he’s angered his wife by leaving the toilet seat up.

But these are small problems, the kind of “problems” that all movies have, merely because you can’t please everyone all the time. The upshot is that Inside Out is utterly brilliant, and if you’ve ever liked anything Pixar has done in the past, I highly recommend this one.

I was planning to end the post here. But yesterday, I came across a negative review of the movie on NPR, by philosopher (and critic?) Alva Noë. Now, obviously reviewers are entitled to their opinions, and I don’t make a habit of writing rebuttals. But in this case I was drawn to respond, because (1) I ordinarily respect what NPR has to say, (2) Noë’s criticisms seem patently absurd, and (3) Inside Out is just so friggin’ sweet.

As befits a philosopher, his main gripe with the movie is philosophical:

Riley is not a person, she is a robot, a complicated vessel whose actions and intentions are controlled by persons — emotions and memory workers — inside of her. Riley is no more an agent in her own right than is, say, a ship an agent in its own right.

He adds that “there is something downright terrifying about this nihilistic conception of ourselves as zombie puppets living in a confabulated universe.”

This criticism seems to misunderstand the basic premise of the story. Of course Riley is controlled by the “persons” inside her – because those persons, collectively, are her mind. The Self is not a single, monolithic whole; it’s composed of various departments and tendencies operating in tandem, which together make up the core of Who You Are.

If having a body controlled by a mind makes you a “zombie puppet,” well, I’ve got some bad news for everybody on the planet. And if Noë thinks Inside Out is nihilistic, I’d hate to see his reaction to Requiem for a Dream.

His other criticisms include:

  • Riley, with her “boy’s name” and love of hockey, is basically a male character, allowing the film’s creators to avoid having to depict a real girl. Yes, because no real girl could like a traditionally masculine sport or have a unisex name. If only she had been named Annabelle and played with Barbies, that would have been a victory for feminism.
  • What should we make of the fact that Anger and Fear are portrayed as male, while the other three emotions are female? Well, mathematically speaking, you have two genders and five emotions, so it’s literally impossible to avoid reducing one of the genders to two or fewer emotions. Would Noë have been happier if Fear were female? If Joy were male? Is there any way to reduce a gender to two or three emotions that won’t cause offense if you take it too seriously?
  • Why is there no racial variation in our internal population? Judging by his reaction to the gender variation, I’m guessing racial variation would be a no-win scenario too. A black man as Anger? No, that would be offensive. What race should be Fear? How about Disgust? What magic combination could please a critic like this?
  • Nothing much happened in the story. Correct. Aside from Riley moving to a new city, having a breakdown at school, cutting off contact with her friend, losing her connection with her parents, running away from home, returning for a cathartic reunion, and learning a profound lesson about what it means to be human, all while the characters inside her head are undertaking an epic journey whose stakes are the soul of our protagonist – aside from all that, nothing much happened.

Maybe it’s telling that, throughout his review, Alva Noë never managed to spell the director’s name right – he called him “Pete Doctor” instead of “Docter.” (To NPR’s credit, the spelling has since been corrected.)

Or maybe he just needs a copyeditor. Hey, Alva. I know a guy.

Postmortem: Amélie


Warning: spoilers ahead. But, I mean, this isn’t Game of Thrones we’re talking about here.

I had heard that Amélie was a bubbly, joyful, heartwarming kind of movie. It was – but it’s also deeper, heavier, even a little darker than I expected. That’s a good thing.

It’s a French film, French-language with subtitles, released in 2001. Nominated for five Oscars. I kept finding little references to it in various corners of the Net, and finally decided I should give it a try. Betsy and I watched it on Sunday.

Amélie is an introverted young Parisian woman with a menagerie of eclectic neighbors, including a brittle-boned old painter who can’t leave his apartment, a grocer who abuses his slow but kind assistant, and a middle-aged woman who obsesses over her long-dead husband. Amélie’s father is distant and cold (think Spock without the charm or the science). She has no close friends and has never formed a serious romance.

Then one day she finds a tiny old box of toys and tracks down its owner, a grandfather who lost the mementos a lifetime ago. She moves him to tears and vows to become an angel of kindness in her complicated little society, enacting elaborate schemes to give people what she thinks they want.

Not all her schemes end well, and even the successful ones remind her of the gaps in her own life. She eventually finds love of her own and must confront her fears of getting close. Of course, it all turns out happily in the end.

The movie has a warm, quirky style that reminds me of Wes Anderson. (The actual director was Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who also directed, of all things, Alien: Resurrection.) A faceless omniscient narrator explains the likes and dislikes of characters as they’re introduced, giving us an insider’s guide to this colorful world.

We learn Amélie’s entire life history, from conception (complete with a photo of the exact sperm that created her) to her mother’s death (caused by a suicidal jumper landing right on top of her) to her unusual hobbies (trying to guess how many orgasms are happening in the city right that moment, as we are treated to vivid footage of the same). Special effects create visual metaphor, as when Amélie literally melts into the floor from emotion, or when we actually see her heart pumping away inside her.

Most of all, I was struck by Amélie‘s boundless energy, endless creativity, and hilarious audacity. Streaks of darkness are often played for laughs, but there’s sadness and magic in her world as well. By the end, I felt lucky to have been a part of it.

Postmortem: The Imitation Game

Alan Turing is one of the patron saints of computer science. I should know. I spent four years getting a degree in the subject, studying Turing Machines, reading about the Turing Test.

I knew the broad outlines of his life: foundational work in the theory of computing, instrumental in cracking the German Enigma code in World War II, chemically castrated for being a homosexual, died soon after by an apparent suicide.

But The Imitation Game – a Turing biopic focusing mainly on his work breaking Enigma – made me see him in a whole new way.

It’s a dramatization, of course, not a documentary, and it certainly takes liberties with the facts. Most notably, it portrays Turing as far more arrogant, antisocial, and humorless than he really was. Certain events are fabricated or exaggerated. And so on. I’m not exactly outraged. They wanted to make a good story, and they did.

For me, the film succeeds on every level. The script is funny, stirring, and sad. The acting (by Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, Keira Knightley as a fellow code-breaker, and really, everyone) is brilliant. Visually, it’s very well done. I’m about as good a film critic as I am a master chef (i.e., not, for those wondering) so I won’t go into enormous detail, but it’s really just a beautiful movie.

Beyond that, it made Betsy and me curious about the actual person, the actual events. What was it really like, cracking Engima? Did Turing really write that letter to Churchill? What was his real relationship with Joan Clarke?

A work of fiction that moves you, and spurs you to learn about the facts. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Highly recommended.

Postmortem: Angel

(Warning: spoilers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.)

First there was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it was good. Then came its spinoff series, Angel. Not a sequel but a companion piece: set in the same universe, and mostly at the same time. Same creator, some of the same characters. Two stories, separate but linked, running in parallel.

I can hardly think about Angel without comparing it to Buffy. They’re similar in many ways: similar dialogue and humor, same crazy twists and sudden deaths, same general idea of kill-evil-monsters-for-Good. But they’re also very different, and it took me a while to figure out why.

I think, fundamentally, the difference is this. Buffy is a show about growing up, a journey from adolescence to adulthood, a bildungsroman. Because it shows life through a youthful lens, the hopes are brighter, the evils are darker, the line between them is clearer, the romances are more dazzling, the battles are more dramatic.

Angel, on the other hand, is a show about adults. It’s not a journey. It’s about figuring out what “good” and “evil” actually mean. It’s about exploring the vast, messy gray area between them. And it’s about understanding our purpose as human beings.

That’s all oversimplifying, of course. The distinctions aren’t as clear as all that. But that’s the basic vibe that I got.

And Angel does do an excellent job of grappling with these difficult questions. For instance, what does it really mean to be “good”? Is it about heroism, bravery, virtue – or is it about helping the most people, by any means necessary, even if you soil your hands in the process? And why, exactly, do we fight? Do we fight to win – or do we fight because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s our purpose, even if victory is impossible? These are adult issues, and they’re handled in an adult way.

Angel also has great characters (like every other Joss Whedon work I’ve ever seen). I give them props especially for taking three of the least likable Buffy characters – Angel (boring), Cordelia (shallow), and Wesley (prissy), and making me love them as much as anybody on television. The original characters are good too – Gunn’s cool, Fred is amazing, Lilah and Lindsey make you root for them in spite of their evil, and Ilyria is, well, Ilyria.

Oh and Connor sucks, but then everybody knows that already.

Gotta mention, too, the series finales. As I said in my other review, Buffy‘s finale left me flat. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Angel‘s finale, on the other hand, was incredible: by turns touching, hilarious, ass-kicking, heartbreaking, and wise. This won’t mean anything if you haven’t seen the show, but Ilyria’s final line to Wesley – “Shall I lie to you now?” – is one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard in a story.

The last line of Buffy, spoken after a great victory, is: “What are we gonna do now?” Full of hope and possibility. By contrast, the last line of Angel, spoken in the middle of a great battle, is: “Let’s go to work.” This says a great deal about the difference between the two shows.

All things considered, I have to say I like Buffy better. The quality’s not as consistent as Angel, and the lows are lower, but the highs are definitely higher. No Angel episode can compare with Buffy’s “The Body,” “Once More With Feeling,” or “After Life.” (Oh, and Angel has more torture. Like way, way more. Really could’ve done with a little less torture.)

Nevertheless, Angel is an amazing show, and I recommend it to anybody. Even if you’ve never seen Buffy, you can pick it up without much trouble.

Anyone else seen Angel? What did you think?

Postmortem: The Professor and the Madman


The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester, is a history book – and probably the most gripping, page-turning, can’t-put-it-down, stay-up-till-2-am history book I’ve ever read. It tells the story of how the Oxford English Dictionary was made, and of two men who were instrumental in making it.

First off, the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) is way more interesting than I ever suspected – and this from a guy who loves words. I had no idea how huge it is: over 300,000 entries, over 20,000 pages, 20 volumes, at last count. Literary quotations for every word. It’s like an encyclopedia for a language. The first edition took 70 years to make. A monumental work.

James Murray (the professor) was head editor of the OED’s first edition. Nothing like the OED had ever been attempted before, and he had no idea if he would succeed. But he knew he and his small team couldn’t possibly do it alone. So they sent out paper slips all over London and beyond, requesting volunteer readers to hunt out all different shades of meaning for all different words in all different works of literature. He was, in other words, crowd-sourcing – a radical idea at the time.

William C. Minor (the madman) was an American born in Sri Lanka, a brilliant surgeon who served in the Army and found himself exposed to the horrors of the Civil War. As he grew older, he struggled more and more with paranoid delusions and powerful sexual urges. He moved to London, shot and killed a man while in a delusional state, and was committed to an asylum, with a room full of books.

While he was there, he received a certain paper slip about creating a certain dictionary…and, with a brilliant mind and abundant free time, he became one of the OED’s most prolific contributors.

The two men’s paths converge from there, and they become close friends, their lives inextricably tangled.

Well-written, thoroughly detailed, meticulously researched, surprisingly suspenseful, The Professor and the Madman is simply a beautiful book. Read it if you can.

(Or, I mean, if you want to. I’m not the boss of you!)

Postmortem: The Legend of Korra

(Warning: spoilers for Korra and Avatar.)

It hasn’t exactly been a secret that Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of my favorite shows of all time. It’s a mass of contradictions. An American cartoon – in an anime style. A kids’ show – featuring revenge, honor, Eastern philosophy, and political intrigue. An epic journey – squeezed into 22-minute increments. A colossal battle of good and evil – with bright colors and funny jokes.

When it ended, fans wanted exactly one thing: MORE. And starting in 2012, they got it.

The Legend of Korra is a sequel series to Avatar, set seventy-ish years later in the same universe. As before, certain people can “bend” (manipulate) the four classical elements, earth, air, fire, and water. Most can bend only one, but the Avatar commands all four, and has some other pretty intense mojo to boot. The first show’s Avatar, Aang, has died, and the new one – Korra – has inherited the mantle of saving the world, keeping peace where she can, drop-kicking bad guys when necessary.

Korra has the same creators, the same premise, the same universe, the same style, even some of the same characters. But does it work?

Betsy and I – who watched both shows together – got to the Korra finale a couple weeks ago. The verdict is yes, it works…and no, it doesn’t.

First, the good:

  • The animation in Korra is much, much better than it was in Avatar. Not that Avatar‘s art was bad or anything, but Korra is simply gorgeous. The characters, the environments, the “special effects”…if they got a bigger budget (as I assume they did), they certainly knew how to use it.
  • The music is great. Not as memorable as Avatar, in my opinion, but still beautiful.
  • Most of the stuff that was cool in Avatar is still cool now. The bending, the Avatar State, the landscape and architecture design, the meticulous attention to detail, etc. And it’s cool to see what finally happened to characters you cared about (Aang, Zuko, Cabbage Guy) and how certain places have changed (mainly the Earth Kingdom).
  • The in-universe technology has advanced a lot since Avatar, and I give them props for keeping things fresh. The weaving of machinery and “magic” is well-executed.

But there are some problems…

  • In the first couple seasons, Korra just isn’t very likable. I know this was deliberate, as she needed room to grow emotionally (and she does), but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.
  • The dialogue isn’t very good. In Avatar, it was snappy and creative. Now it feels mostly functional, people saying what the plot requires in the most obvious way possible. Example: “You’re an inspiration to the world.” -Tenzin. “I’ll always try to restore balance.” -Korra. (Yawn.)
  • There’s something wrong with the dialogue delivery, too. Not with the voice actors – they do a great job. I think the pauses between lines are a bit too long. I know that sounds like nitpicking, but it really drives me crazy.
  • Hate to say it, but Korra isn’t as funny as Avatar. The humor style is the same, but the jokes aren’t as good.
  • I just don’t connect with the characters. Not like before.

That last one is the biggest problem by far.

Don’t get me wrong – I like Korra, Bolin, Asami, Tenzin, even (I suppose) Mako. But who in Korra is as funny as Sokka? As purebred awesome as Toph? As wise as Iroh? As terrifying as Azula?

And when the old characters do show up in Korra, they’re ghosts of their former selves. Zuko is passive, Iroh is a mere caricature, and Toph has gone from smartass-and-cool to just plain, annoying smartass. Only Aang retains any of his former glory. I get that the writers can’t have old characters monopolizing the show, but that doesn’t mean they have to be cardboard cutouts.

Korra had its high points, certainly. The two-parter about Wan, the first Avatar, had a beautiful story and beautiful art. The death of the Earth Queen. The season 3 finale, when Korra went full-on wrath-of-god on Zaheer. The realistic, heartbreaking, and shockingly adult portrayal of what can only be called clinical depression in Korra. And her recovery in “Korra Alone.”

Besides which, this exchange is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen:

“You amuse me. I will make you mine.”

“You mean like a boyfriend, or like a…slave?”

“Yes. Win me prizes.”

But for every great episode, there are four more that are just okay.

And then there are the villains.

I salute the creators for writing villains with complex, realistic motives, beyond the basic Ozai-style “I WILL DESTROY TEH WORLD.” The problem is, it never really works.

Amon starts off intriguing, as it seems like he might actually have some moral high ground…but then it turns out it’s all lies, and they just have a big fight. Unalaq becomes a Dark Avatar, which is an intriguing idea…but it turns into a spirit-fueled slugfest with no real deeper meaning. Zaheer – the best of the bunch in my opinion – just didn’t connect with me for some reason. And Kuvira’s basically a generic dictator.

Which leads me to the series finale.

In a technical sense it was great. Lots of well-orchestrated action, heroic sacrifice, “emotional” moments, lessons learned. The problem was, I didn’t care about any of it.

Look at Avatar.

When Sokka, Suki, and Toph took down the airship fleet, it wasn’t about the explosions. It was about Toph, hanging on for dear life to Sokka, the only real family she’s ever had – her tough veneer stripped away, not a cocky show-off anymore, just a twelve-year-old girl who doesn’t want to die.

When Aang fought Ozai, it wasn’t about the fireworks. It was about Aang’s ethical struggle, his determination not to kill the Firelord, no matter what the cost. And it was about him finally claiming his birthright, finally becoming a full-fledged Avatar. He wasn’t just a fighter anymore; he was a force of nature. But he never lost his compassion.

And when Zuko finally fought the half-insane Azula in the Last Agni Kai, it wasn’t about the charged-up firebending, or the hauntingly beautiful score, or even the Fire Nation throne. It was about Zuko redeeming himself; it was about sacrifice; it was the conclusion of a lifelong mortal rivalry. As they prepared to duel, the atmosphere was simply electric. (Metaphorically, I mean, though it turned out to be literally as well.)

By contrast, when Korra fought Kuvira, it was mostly about the logistics of taking down a giant mech. Yes, there was some sense of Korra trying to redeem herself, and yes, they tried to play up the similarities between hero and villain. But mostly, it felt like empty action.

One final note, the obligatory Korrasami comment. I don’t have any particular feelings about it, except I love that they threw gasoline on the already-intense shipping fire. We’re going to see a lot more fan art, and that always makes me happy. (That, and of course I’m always happy to see positive portrayals of gay relationships.)

Anyway – I’ve rambled on way longer than I ever intended, so I’ll wrap it up. Overall, in spite of all its flaws, I did enjoy Korra, I’m glad it exists, and I respect what they were trying to do. But for my money, it doesn’t hold a candle to Avatar.

What do you think?

Postmortem: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I had heard good things about Buffy. I knew it was created by Joss Whedon, the same guy who did Firefly and The Avengers, both of which I loved. And I noticed it was on Netflix. So I asked my wife – want to give it a whirl?

Sure, why not. Goofy title, strange premise, but we like weird stuff. Could be okay.

Then we blinked, and somehow, months had passed. We emerged dizzy and dazed from the living room. We had binge-watched all seven seasons. 144 episodes. Zero regrets.

Simply put, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen.

Saying that Buffy is about vampires and demons is like saying that Star Trek is about technology and aliens. It’s technically true, but it completely misses the point. The monsters in Buffy are lenses for exploring humanity. And explore it does.

How do I love this show? Let me count the ways:

  • It’s funny. No, I mean really funny. It’s got puns. (“We thought you were a myth!” “Well, you were myth-taken.”) It’s got British snark. (“Look at her shoes. If a fashion magazine told her to, she’d wear cats strapped to her feet.”) It’s got sarcasm – lots and lots of sarcasm. Buffy is funnier than most shows that describe themselves as “comedy.”
  • It has great characters. This is the heart of the show. How the writers convinced me to care this much about a group of fictional people, I really don’t know, but it worked. Which leads to my next point…
  • It will rip your heart out. Buffy deals with sacrifice. Depression. Unrequited love. Growing up. Betrayal. And death: not the comic book kind, but real, honest, brutal, unflinching death. There are times Buffy is genuinely hard to watch, in the best possible way.
  • It has great dialogue. Well, great writing in general, actually. But I guess I’ve sorta implied that already.
  • It has great acting. I’m overusing “great,” I know, but it’s true. Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy) and James Marsters (Spike) are real standouts in this department, though the entire cast is good. Some of my favorite scenes in the series don’t even have any dialogue – their faces say it all.
  • Rocket launcher. Why? Because they can.

Okay, you get the picture. Brian and Buffy, sitting in a tree, etc. So what are my criticisms?

  • The first season is a little rough. Low budget, cheesy effects, slow pace, and the writing hadn’t really hit its stride yet. Only twelve episodes, though, and even some of those are quite good.
  • The series finale. Most fans seem to like it. I thought it was extremely disappointing and deeply, deeply stupid. Sad for such a good show to end on a low note.
  • The occasional dud. Among so many quality episodes, the bad ones stand out all the more. “Beer Bad,” “The Killer In Me,” I’m looking at you.
  • Hit-and-miss special effects. And the earlier in the series you are, the more likely it is to be “miss.” Computer-generated graphics in the 90s? Best not to talk about it.

If you want even more analysis, try Critically Touched, which has an in-depth critical review of every single episode and season. Excellent stuff.

I’ve rambled enough. Your turn. Any thoughts?