Society of Trolls

I’ve been following the recent stories about Twitter trolling with great interest. Leaving aside the fact that it is curiously timed just as the Government needs to find a way to justify spying on everybodys online communication (and who didn’t see that coming? To find the needle in the haystack, first you must gather the entire haystack) it reminds me of, of all things, football hooligans.

First, a quick disclaimer. I’m not attempting to justify the horrendous abuse meted out to Stella Creasy and others. And I do make the distinction between that and people calling abuse or trolling on others because they don’t like having their opinions challenged. Happens to me all the damned time. What I’m wondering is not whether it happens, but why does it happen.

There is a fairly famous quote when football hooliganism was at its height in this country in the mid 1980s. The head of the FA, Ted Croker, was summoned to a meeting with the Prime Minister. She asked him outright “And what do you propose to do about your hooligans?”. To which he responded “Not my hooligans, Prime Minister. The product of your society.”

This discussion is reflected in the Twitter trolls debate. It seems to be up to Twitter (or Facebook, or pick your social media of choice) to police the behaviour of people. Now, I’m not defending the company to the hilt – like most social media, they have ignored, accidentally or deliberately or a mixture of both, the potential problems with their platform, but trying to say that the phenomenon of anonymous abuse (misogynistic or otherwise) started with them is wrong.

For some reason, people think that it is OK to try to hide behind anonymous handles and attack people from behind a keyboard. And that is a societal problem, not a technical one. You can’t install some kind of scanner to make the problem magically disappear. (Hang on a minute, that seems a familiar idea.) It raises questions of education, society. The discussion can be expanded into areas like marketing and consumerism, the drip drip drip of messages sent to the population every single day.

But then this is complicated. Politicians don’t like complicated. They like easy answers and quick fixes. And, they don’t like being told they are wrong.

After all, I’m sure that is merely a coincidence that Ted Croker remains the only FA Chairman never to have been knighted.

From the Vaults – XBox Achievements

Introduction: I was clearing out my Google Drive when I came across the following.  I had typed it so long ago (September 2010) that I had forgotten completely about it.  I even stared at it for a couple of days wondering if it was mine.  I figure it is, as it contains a couple of my repeated in-jokes and I think it was put to one side while I created the graphics.  Having found it and re-read it, I found I quite liked it.  So here for reasons best kept to myself is a massively out of date blog entry.)

(A quick aside for non-gamers. Every XBox game has a Gamerscore, out of 1000 or 1250. Points are awarded for completing specific tasks in each game, called “Achievements”, so you might be awarded an Achievement worth 5 points for completing a level and one worth 50 points for completing the game. You can also earn Achievements for performing specific tasks, such as killing three enemies with a single shot. Developers can pretty much make anything an Achievement, they are individually named and are awarded with a little noise and an “Achievement Unlocked” message and the points added to your own personal Gamerscore. At time of writing, I have a Gamerscore of 3900.)

I have a bit of a love/hate thing going with XBox Live Achievements. On the one hand, it appeals to the challenge side of gaming, a way of tracking progress that reaches beyond merely a high score or reaching a certain level. Gamerscore can show how far you have got into a game or just how good you are at it, in a way that a traditional high score tables sometimes can’t. Also they appeal to that slightly OCD sense that many people have and stuff like Pokemon rely on – though they are a bit short of being a Skinner Box.

For every pro, there is a con. Gamers can be a teeny bit obsessive, in the same way that Katie Price is a teeny bit attention seeking, and there has been an entire cottage industry set up around Achievements. For a subset of gamers, Gamerscore is the only true measure of how good a player you are – it doesn’t matter than you have mastered a difficult, intelligent puzzle game when you can rack up 10000 points in a single day. And of course, some people prefer not to actually work for anything, think the world owes them and cheat like absolute lunatics.

I’ve recently been playing a couple of games that get Achievements right and also horribly wrong, Deathspank and Lara Croft:Guardian of Light. Both are well worth the money paid for them, full of content, intelligence and in the case of the latter, some really well thought out puzzling. Having had my Funsquare Super Plus for about six months now, though actually playing it for far, far less of that time, I’ve started to get to the end of games and noticed a few things about Achievements. Basically, they can be broken down into the following categories.

Good Cheevos

Get The Girl, Kill The Baddies

The most obvious achievement type of all – reward for progress through the game. Beat the bad guy, get a reward. Fair enough. Never quite as high as I would like it though – if I’ve ploughed 30 hours into something, I want more than 5% (50G) for the effort you tight wad bastards. DeathSpank is the best example of this I have come across – all but two Achievements are gained naturally through playing the game – and one of them is more likely than not (though see later).

Lateral Thinking

A particularly satisfying reward is one where you come up with what you think is an ingenious idea, only to find that the developers are a step ahead of you. This can be solving a puzzle in a novel way or simply utilising the game environment. The wonderful “Dastardly” Achievement in Red Dead Redemption is a great rewards for a bit of lateral thinking. All I’m saying is it requires a woman, a rope and an oncoming train.

Open to Abuse

ocd

I think the first widespread use of collectibles was in Grand Theft Auto III, where there were 100 packages in various locations around the city. For every ten you were awarded an unlimited supply of a certain weapon. Collect all 100 for a special prize. It was a tough ask, but do-able.

Games have built on this idea – Forza Motorsport 3 wants you to own a car from every manufacturer. A big ask, but possible especially as cars are awarded to you as you progress through the game. The act of playing gets you closer to the goal.

Unfortunately, in this industry of “same as that, but MORE!”, this collectible idea has got out of hand. Take Crackdown 2 for instance. The collectibles list is 500 Agility Orbs, 300 Hidden Orbs, 15 Driving Orbs, 15 Renegade Orbs, 42 Audio Tapes (break down). As mentioned, collecting Agility Orbs powers up your character Agility stats, which is all well and good until you discover that you will be maxed out by about the three hundredth Agility Orb. So another 200 or so to go and worst of all, you have no idea what you have collected and what you haven’t. Crackdown 2 helpfully displays a map of all the orb locations, but with 800 it is impossible to figure out where to go and what to do next. You are left to sit there, painstakingly making your way from one building in 1000 to another, hoping to stumble across that vital item – and when it gets down to the last 20%, you never [i]find[/i] these things, you just happen across them. Just reward the player by updating the map once they hit a certain level or something.

slapbass

Rewards for reaching a certain character level, again, pretty obvious stuff. It is possible to beat a game without reaching certain stages – in RPGs you can generally defeat Xxrath the Infernal God of Cliche without maxing out any of statistical categories. It just takes being close enough to the requirements plus a bit of luck. However, reaching a stage of character development can rewarded as long as one isn’t reduced to endless grinding, repeatedly killing baddies just to get to a certain level – Deathspank, I’m narrowing my eyes at you right now, because Mr Tough Guy was (holds fingers a small distance apart) this close to being a grinding pain.

Bad Cheevos

gordian

There are some Achievements that you read the requirements for and just say what? I’m telling you, 20G is not worth rounding up four mates at a specific place, at a specific time to do an insanely complicated task.

moron

At the other end of the spectrum (oh-ho) there is the Achievement that is insanely, mind numbingly, patronisingly simple to get. Case in point Forza Motorsport 3 gives you 5G for merely playing the game. What kind of Achievement is that?

“Hello sir, I wish to spend £40 on your new game.”
“Why thankyou, have fun!”
“Fun? Why would I have fun?  I do not intend to play this my good man, merely to gaze upon it from afar.”

There is a naughtier kind of Moron Achievement – Lara Croft:GoL has 5G for simply playing in co-op mode. Which on XBox Live requires a paid-for Gold Membership. And for you to come back to it a month after release when the co-op mode is actually made available. So, basically, it costs you to get this one and you can’t get it on day one anyway when everyone else is playing.

wacky

Ah, dear Deathspank. You get so much right, but the Menu Hero Achievement is a kick in the nads. 10G for setting some option sliders. I mean, come on. Achievements are supposed to be for accomplishing something, not for pissing about in a sub menu.

swallow

One of the worst things about modern gaming is that many of them seem so endless. Way back in the day, a game would be done and dusted in a couple of hours. Now, any game worth its salt feels it must provide 20, 30, 100 hours of stuff. And boy, are those developers going to make you see it.

(Incidentally, this need to pad out storylines is largely why plots in games are so laughably bad. Stanley Kubrick did the evolution of man from ape to Star Child in two hours 36 minutes. Metal Gear Solid 4 has nine hours of cutscenes. The plot eventually becomes a twist, which is a twist, which has a betrayal, but then a triple cross where they give you the thing that in a twist they… um… would have given you anyway? I digress and this guy does it so much better.)

A variation on this is in Rock Band 2, where to earn the Bladder of Steel Achievement you have to play all the songs consecutively, without a break, without pausing and without failing a single song. 8 hours. I’m sorry, I have a life. And a need to go to the bathroom occasionally. And an aversion to RSI.

chaining

Ugh. Tying Achievements together, so that completing one Achievement cascades into others. Again, to take Crackdown 2 as an example, you have an Achievement for collecting all Agility Orbs, for all Hidden Orbs, for all Driving and Renegade Orbs. And then another one for doing all three.

ladyluck

The worst type of Achievement above all else, relies on sheer, outrageous luck. Nothing is more frustrating that setting up the conditions to accomplish something and then be foiled by something utterly out of your control. I’m going to cheat slightly and use an example from Lara Croft: GoL. The “Hole in One” reward in the Temple Grounds requires you to put a ball, which is spinning on a pole into a flame pit. To do this, you set a bomb at the right point and then time the detonation so that the ball flies off in the right direction.

Except…

At this point, the game materialises enemies at you. One of which explodes. The upshot is that you spend five minutes battling to a certain point, set everything up perfectly and then fail to complete the task. Then spend another five minutes getting there and fail again. Repeat and repeat through no fault of your own.

I want to be the one that determines the success of my actions. If I stack up 1000 dominoes and they fail to fall, at least let it be through my own mistake. Don’t let me set up the dominoes and then come in and kick half of them away.

Obviously, when I rule the world then I’ll allow on Achievements that are sensible and rational. Hardcore gamers will get a free kick in the head. I’ll even award them I’ll add 100G onto their Gamerscore and award an Achievement. I reckon they would be queuing up.

There used to be a Labour Party there, once

In 1984, Tottenham Hotspur won the UEFA Cup.  Their manager, Keith Burkinshaw, had won promotion, two FA Cups and now a European trophy while in charge of the club.  After this last victory, he was sacked without ever leading the club in another match.  Famously, when leaving White Hart Lane for the last time, he remarked “There used to be a football club there, once.”

After reading the news this morning, I feel much the same about the Labour Party.

Last month, two people won a court case against the Department for Work and Pensions where they had been forced into doing unpaid work for businesses.  Leaving aside the moral, ethical and indeed business related reasons why the taxpayer should not be subsidising massive companies with free labour, the fact is that the Government lost and the people won.  If they wanted to carry on with the scheme, the Government would have to change their rules going forward.  Again, this is how the world works, the rule is wrong in law, you change the rule so it is right, and then carry on.

Yesterday, the Government announced emergency legislation that would change the rules retroactively.  The rules that were found to be illegal last month will now suddenly, magically become legal at the time.  Basically, I’ve burgled your house, been caught, convicted and then the law changed so that not only can I burgle more houses in the future, but I get to walk away with all your stuff.

It is the kind of utterly bullshit ploy that I’m come to expect from this Government, who have taken on the worst habit of the Bush Administration, in that reality is what they say it is.  If a law says what they do is illegal, then it is the law which is wrong and not them. (Effectively politicians see themselves as above the law, which is a very dangerous thing indeed.)  If there are 400,000 jobs in the UK for 2.1 million unemployed, then the laws of mathematics must be wrong because we are frequently told that everyone who is unemployed can get a job.

(You know, a job at Poundland, Tesco, Matalan, Argos or somewhere, where they will happily pay people to work for them instead of, I dunno, picking up labour for free and having it subsidised by the taxpayer.  But what do I know? I didn’t have the finest education money can buy.)

Now this isn’t a go at the Tories.  I’d expect this sort of cuntery from them, the sort of inbuilt reflex that means they have to kick a poor person when they walk past them.  The crucial bit about this, and I’ll quote directly from the Guardian article:

The Guardian understands that Labour will support the fast-tracked bill with some further safeguards and that negotiations with the coalition are ongoing.

There you have it, folks.  If the past few years haven’t demonstrated that democracy is dead in this country, then the sight of the party of the common man, colluding to change the law in an Orwellian fashion in order to deny the jobless of much needed benefits and force them to work for free stacking shelves.  And I say Orwellian in the meaning of the Memory Hole. Not only was the Government right, it always was right.

It often goes unremarked that the Tory treatment of the disabled, the poor and the jobless is merely an extension of Labour policies in the early 2000s.  It was Labour who introduced ATOS tests, free schools.  They forced marketisation of the NHS.  They opened the door to workfare and closed it on civil liberties.

Ah yes, civil liberties.  In a week when Theresa May made noises about demolishing the Human Rights Act, who should spring to her support?  Former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett.

I’m a big believer in the law of unintended consequences being applied to people who are mendacious and stupid. Article 1 of the HRA, for instance, is the right to protection of property.  Article 14 is the right not be discriminated against.  If David Blunkett wants to repeal the HRA, I propose a new law that strips disabled former Home Secretaries of their home and all their possessions.  Just so people can shout at him in the street going “DO YOU GET WHY SOME THINGS ARE IMPORTANT, DAVE?  DO YOU SEE WHY YOU CAN NEVER RELY ON IT NOT TO HAPPEN HERE?”

You know what, I think that I’ll try to get it retroactively applied as well.

Of course, we can always rely on a little stunt or two.  Labour introduced a Mansion Tax bill into Parliament, an exact duplicate of the Liberal Democrats manifesto proposal.  This had the amusing sight of the Liberal Democrats rushing to vote down something they themselves support.  Now ordinarily, I’m a big supporter of that kind of stunt, but I’m afflicted with the disease of consistency, which means as I am against the Bedroom Tax, I have to be against a Mansion Tax.

You see, it is simple.  The Bedroom Tax basically says that if you receive benefits on Friday, and your house is above a certain size, you will be punished by receiving less benefits on Monday.  Through no fault of your own, your house has been deemed above an arbitrary limit, regardless of circumstances.

The Mansion Tax says that if your house is worth £2m on Friday you are fine.  But if it is worth £2m on Monday, then you will be forced to pay a tax.  Through no fault of your own, your house has been deemed above an arbitrary limit, regardless of circumstance.

See? Consistency.

(I’ve no problem with changing the rules going forward, but not punishing those for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

Of course, if Labour had actually thought through their Mansion Tax stunt, they could have used this argument to demonstrate the invalidity of the bedroom tax, but I’m attributing to their leadership a level of intelligence that they, quite frankly, just don’t have.

You see, this is the problem.  There is no use even pretending that Labour and the Tories have any real differences.  It is all a matter of degree.  Labour introduced free markets into the NHS, ATOS testing, privatised many things that shouldn’t have been privatised and turned a blind eye to bank regulation.  All the Tories have done is taken that to its logical conclusion.  Michael Gove, Ian Duncan Smith and Jeremy Hunt are smashing up schools, the welfare state and the NHS like gleeful vandals allowed to roam free, but Labour let them in the building to do it.  Theresa May is attacking fundamental civil liberties, cheered on by one of the most authoritarian Home Secretaries of all time.

All the time, ordinary people, not just the poor or the jobless, but the working people who vote Labour watch in horror as the people they voted for sit back and let the lunatics take over the asylum.

Of course, we could try and show our protest at the polls, voting every one of these idiots out.  But then I’m in a constituency where the Labour majority is 16,000.  Of course, we could have had the Alternative Voting system, which would have been a truer reflection of how things stand.

But then David Blunkett campaigned against that, too.

I wanna be (re-)elected

I am currently watching The West Wing for the first time, blogging my thoughts as I go.  Therefore HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to and including Season 3, Episode 5.

After the, frankly, quite depressing two part season opener up in Manchester, NH we are now in the cut and thrust of a re-election campaign, with Our Heroes fighting on several fronts. First up the investigation into the cover-up of Bartlets’ MS, then we have the struggles of passing legislation with half an eye on the effect on the reelection chances of not only the President, but his Party and finally the day to day running of the most powerful country in the world.

Not a lot to keep an eye on then.

The last two episodes (“Ways and Means” and “On The Day Before”) have shifted the tone from a passive, reserved White House to focus on more aggressive tactics. I like shows with this sort of politicking – to be honest it fits my preconception of the show before watching it, less soapy drama, more backstabbing.

This aggressive stance is shown with Bartlet using his Presidential Veto for the first time against an estate tax (shades of the current UK mainsion tax and estate tax debate) whcih basically turns round and tells the rich to shut the hell up in their $2m mansions. Of course, nothing is ever quite that simple and the gang run the risk of losing an override vote – as their own side in Congress thinks that the Bartlet administration is weak and threatens to derail the whole thing.

This aggressive “our way or the highway” seems to be the way forward in this series. Just as “Manchester, Parts 1 and 2” felt depressingly harsh, these two episodes are also much more confrontational.

None of this is more apparent than with CJ. In the first two seasons, I’ve really enjoyed her character, delivering smart putdowns under incredible pressure and being one of the main sources of humour. She has always, however, had the undercurrent of being one mis-spoken phrase away from falling apart, and when it happened in “Manchester”, her plaintive cry and upset was some magnificent acting from Alison Janney.

From the other side has emerged Kickass CJ. First, she realises that they need to pick a fight with somebody, anybody and goads the House Republicans into opening their own investigation into Bartlet. Secondly, she destroys, live on national TV, an air-headed showbiz reporter who found herself in the White House instead of her usual fashion beat. I can’t help but draw parallels with the treatment of the radio show host Doctor in that a minor character is introduced for the sole purpose of being the recipient of some venom from one of the principal cast but her comeuppance is earned by the end of the episode and CJs comments show the steel behind the sometimes fluffy and klutzy side exterior. It also emphasises that the White House briefing room is a tank of sharks, both behind the lectern and in front.

Speaking of sharks, there was a nice piece of direction and body language when Sam and Toby double-teamed one of the Congressmen with it definitely felt like they were circling their prey. I don’t think we’ve seen too much of Toby and Sam working as a pair (Sam being clearly subordinate) but it was interesting to see the comparatively soft-edged Sam rather than the explosive, harder Toby be the one to suggest that they screw their own side and work with the softer Republicans to get their way.

So, with every main character being a hardass, it is interesting to see where we go from here.

Manchester. No, not that one.

I am currently watching The West Wing for the first time, blogging my thoughts as I go.  So HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to and including Season 3, Episode 2.

Thus we start Season 3 with the two part “Manchester”, starting with the Presidents straightforward answer to whether he would be seeking re-election (“Yeah”) and flowing, via the occasional timeline jump or two up to his formal announcement of running for a second term.

And a very fractious 80 minutes it is, with everybody, well, shouting at each other.  In come three characters to fight the re-election, the spiky Connie, the spikier Doug and the so spikier he should be a hedgehog, Bruno.  They are introduced to a West Wing staff that is clearly stressed out and worried.  Throw in some marital strife between the President and the First Lady and we’ve got a whole lot of bickering going on.

Special praise for Stockard Channing, by the way, who has floated in and out of S1 and S2 like a force of nature.  Feisty, fast and often railing against the protocols and niceties that go with the job of being First Lady.  Loved the various scenes where she was every bit the political equal of her husband, especially when working a crowd on his behalf.  Great to see her promoted to the opening credit sequence for S3.

In the end, it turns out that the reason everyone is shouting is because they are pissed at Bartlet for hiding his MS.  To be honest, I don’t really buy it.  Not because of the performances from the actors, I just thing they were dealt a bum hand with these two episodes.  Things take place outside of the West Wing, in Manchester, NH.  A school room, a bar, Air Force One.  It just adds to the entire feeling of unfamiliarity.  Toby is pissed at a mislabelled poster, which would never have really happened.  CJ is looking to resign after screwing up.  Although the motivation wasn’t right, it was interesting to see the two Bartlets and Leo in full on hardass re-election mode, not realising that their staff were coming to terms with a disease that they themselves had made peace with a long time ago.

It is a hard watch, like I say.  Didn’t really work.  I can see what they were trying to do but… no.  Put it in the can and move on.

Special mention for a sizzling moment of dialogue from the awesome Toby Ziegler, which I think came from the end of Season 2.  Toby and Josh are discussing the various reactions to the news that the President has MS.  Can’t find the exact quote, so I paraphrase:

Josh: Does Donna know?
Toby: Yeah, she knows.
Josh: How did she take it?
Toby: Better than some around here.
Josh: Was that aimed at me?
Toby: Actually. I think it was aimed at me.

Blimey, where did the fluffy go?

I am currently watching The West Wing in its entirety for the very first time, blogging my thoughts as I go.  So HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to the end of Season 3, Episode 2.

I see the story framework of flashbacks and two parters that I liked so much about the end of S1 start of S2, was kept for the end of Season 2 and start of Season 3.  Thematically, it was a very different 120 minutes and in fact, was a pretty difficult watch.

In reality, the end of Season 2 builds a couple of episodes before “Two Cathedrals”.  The storyline of Bartlet suffering from MS reared its head again.  Originally, I thought the appearance of the disease in S1 was a little hokey and unnecessary.  Whether it was intended to set up the story arc for S2 and S3 I’m not sure but it became the focal point of the season climax.

The problem I had was that it wasn’t the focal point.  The writers threw in the dramatic reaction of the likes of Toby Ziegler, who, in a surprise turn, lost himself in front of the President so much I suspected some kind of MS-related guilty secret. The build up to Tobys discovery was superbly handled in a fantastic pre-credits sequence as that magnificent political brain in a bald head slowly pieced together the clues.

Additional to the MS plot line and the decision to both tell the staff and then the world, there was a crisis in Haiti in contend with, a tropical storm threatening the East Coast, bailing out Mexico and then, with sudden swiftness, the death of Mrs Landingham.

It felt like too much was piling in on the story.  I know that the various plot strands of an episode interweave, but the “big” stories are usually given focus and time to breathe and when several stories move together, they tend to be lighter.  These episodes piled crisis upon crisis and when Charlie told Leo of the death of the Presidents secretary, my reaction was “Not that as well!”

I think that trying to carry all their weight overwhelmed things.  The S2 closer, “Two Cathedrals” is a great 40 minutes, but not exactly a fluid one.  It functioned less as a story and more of a series of set pieces.  We are whizzed back and forth in the timeline, between young Jeb being introduced to the middle-aged Dolores Landingham (brilliantly played by Kirsten Nelson) back to the preparations for the public admittance of MS, the funeral of Mrs L and the decision whether to stand for re-election.

“Two Cathedrals” may not have been a story that flowed, but made up for it being being comprised of several fantastic moments, none better than when Bartlet asked for the National Cathedral to be sealed, before delivering an angry tirade at the Lord Almighty.  It is brave speech to put on TV, not least for having part of it in Latin and calling God a “feckless thug” in prime time?  The act of defiance with a cigarette is a great touch – as is the final parting shot at what Bartlet thinks God deserves, his vapid Vice President – “You get Hoynes!”

Then a moment of sheer theatre, a conversation in the Oval Office with the now dead Mrs Landingham. A great little two-hander than left me wishing that the character of Mrs L had been expanded more, instead of being a slightly quirky focal point for comedy.  Her depth was intimated in the S1 episode “In Excelsis Deo” and I thought we could have done with more of that.

Would it be wrong to interpret a conversation with a ghost as Gods reaction to Bartlets earlier rant in the Cathedral?  Why not, I suppose, given the injection of magical realism into a resolutely realistic and grounded story.  The Ghost of Mrs L is the thing that persuades Bartlet that he still has job to do, despite the personal cost to his health and possibly his marriage.  What else was going to get him to change his mind?

Finally something that is a cliche, but when done well, is incredibly powerful – the President deciding to speak to the nation set to music, in this case Dire Straits “Brothers In Arms”.  That piece of music has been used before in my favourite scene in, of all things, the TV series of Miami Vice.  As the West Wing staff anticipate the “No” decision, we are left with the cliffhanger which really isn’t, as everyone knew we would have a Season 3.  Rewatching the clip again, I love the little touches, the way the West Wing staff fall into line behind the President, CJ’s humour and calm (“I can only answer 14 or 15 questions at once”) and then Leos “Watch this…”

Next blog post will be about the two part opener to Season 3 and taken as a triumvirate, I think S1/S2 worked better than S2/S3.  The stories were more focused, the flashbacks less forced and hurried.  As 120 minutes of drama, “Two Cathedrals” and “Manchester” did not reach the heights scaled by their predecessor, but when adding up the individual moments over a 40 minute timespan then “Two Cathedrals” is definitely the standout episode thus far.

Conflict has never been so perky

I am currently watching The West Wing from the start, for the first time, and blogging my thoughts as I go. Therefore HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to Season 2, Episode 17.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned the disappearance of Mandy, a spiky spin doctor who was the ex of Josh Lymon and whose appointment was against Joshs wishes because she was clearly good at her job. As the series went on, Mandy disappeared into the background and it became clear no-one had an idea what to do with the character.

Early in Season Two, we are introduced to Ainsley Hayes, a spiky lawyer who is appointed against the wishes of Sam Seaborn because she was clearly good at her job. Well, as second attempts go, it wasn’t exactly subtle. However, the writers do seem to have got a better idea what to do the second time around.

Hayes is very memorably introduced as the other talking head on a Washington TV show. Sam wanders onto the set, full of chirpy cockiness, sees the young, blonde, female Republican opposite and proceeds to get his arse utterly kicked by her in a debate. This is a source of hilarity for the rest of the West Wing and brings her to the attention of Leo McGarry and the President, who offer her a job.

As plot devices go, it was a little clunky. Why would they offer a Republican a job in a Democrat administration? Why would she even take it? (And no, I don’t really believe the “because the President asks” – even in 2000 things were utterly divided.) But in comes Hayes as a member of the regular supporting cast.

And I like her, a lot. She is clearly there to provide “the other side” in a debate, perhaps even to provide some kind of “balance” for the writers and producers when attacked by the Right wing media. (Which I should rant about at length at some point…)

The character works, in the way Mandy didn’t. Despite appearing as the sort of Republican fem-bot that would end up reading an autocue on Fox News, she can easily hold her own. She also has some interesting little character quirks. In her second episode, she turns up for her first day and is given a crappy office by Leo, way down in the basement – I was wondering her treatment was McGarrys idea of a cruel joke, which seemed out of character for him. As the day progresses she is victimised by just about everybody, – her new boss, the distrustful regulars and then, eventually, her own side, who consider her a turncoat.

It is her own sides action – the delivery of dead flowers, with the note “bitch” – which spurs Sam into realising her poor treatment and arranging for it to be made up to her. (Which yet again, portrays US TVs obsession with HMS bloody Pinafore. I’ve never understood that – it comes up here, it comes up in Cape Feare…) The denouement is a little cheesy, but a relief have what was a little bit … not exactly harrowing, but it wasn’t a nice, fluffy watch.

Since that point Hayes has receded a little into the background. From being a tough cookie, she has been used a bit for comic relief – she was in the State of the Union episode acting a little oddly. The adrenaline high after appearing on TV would be plausible, if she hadn’t been so composed in taking Sam apart on Capital Beat a few months earlier. Same with her attacks of nerves on meeting the President. They seem out of character. At time of writing, she has just popped up in “17 People”, giving an argument against the Equal Rights Act and it is here where the character shines – quickly rebutting Sams arguments and standing up for her point of view, without ever really getting into cliche.

Ultimately, a more than adequate replacement for Mandy. And her obsession with food is hilarious.

Three in a row

I’m currently watching The West Wing from the start, blogging my thoughts as I go.  Therefore HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to Season 2, Episode 10.

There are several well known tropes and styles in US television.  Actually, that is a little unfair, as there are only so many story themes in the world, as well as a number of techniques used to tell them.  That seems an odd thing to say, but there are only 72 keys on a piano, it is the way and the order that you press them that makes for almost infinite complexity and variation.   Three of these tropes are

  • The Season Ending Cliffhanger
  • The Two Part Special
  • Getting The Band Together

Just about every long running TV series will feature at least one example of the above at some point during its run.  With The West Wing, the final episode of Season One, plus the opening two episodes of Season Two pull off the pretty amazing feat of combining all three.

Things start quietly enough at the end of Season One finale “What Kind of Day It Has Been”, with what seems to be a tightly focused episode.  Our heroes are faced with two dilemmas, a rescue mission to retrieve a downed pilot in Iraq and trouble aboard (presciently enough) the Space Shuttle Columbia, which is having problems re-entering the atmosphere after a mission.  Problem is that Toby Zieglers brother is aboard Columbia.

To take a small detour, this latter thing is a bit of a swerve.  Several members of the cast remark to Toby that they never even knew he had a brother, let alone one who had gone into space several times.  This seems massively out of place, even for someone so famously self-contained as Toby.  He is one of the characters that I’ve grown to really like over the first two series – clearly a hard nut, but capable of great moments of quiet subtlety.  I like the way that Richard Schiff plays those moments, generally looking away when he is telling someone something personal and supportive, as if he doesn’t want to let other people see the mask slip.  As the day progresses and President Bartlet holds a town hall meeting that, at times, sounds like a standup gig, Toby tries to hold everything together while worrying deeply about his sibling.

Eventually we get a lovely little series of signals which let him know Columbia returned successfully, played with a light touch.  The President concludes his meeting and the group head for the cars back to the White House.

And then the shots are fired.

There is a sense of inevitability that the story would involve an assassination attempt.  The writers throw in a curveball, as the target of the gunmen is not the President, but his daughter Zoe and his aide Charlie.  The pair have been having a relationship which, due to the fact that Charlie is black, has attracted the ire of white supremacists who have decided to take a rather twisted stand.  Although I haven’t been a fan of the Zoe/Charlie relationship, I thought this was a good illustration of the problems any high profile person and their family faced.  It also managed to have the cliche of a shooting without the actual cliche of it being at the President.

If that episode is all set up, ending as the trigger is pulled, then the two part opener to Season Two “In the Shadow Of Two Gunmen” is a little bit of aftermath, but a whole lot of story.  We discover that the President has minor wounds but Josh has taken a bullet to the chest and is in a serious condition.  From here, the episodes flash constantly between the current timeline, the episode goes back and explores how all the main players were recruited to Bartlet in the first place, starting with Toby and Josh and then moving onto Sam, CJ and Donna.  In between the drama of Joshs fight for survival, the various back stories are explored.

I am a big fan of this way of story telling.  My favourite episode of Firefly is “Out of Gas” which bears a lot of similarities with “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”, a main character shot and close to death, jumping back to how he and his friends met each other.  When done effectively, and here it is done very effectively, the viewer switches back and forth very quickly between darkness and light, concern and comedy.  If the viewer has invested the time in meeting the characters beforehand, it becomes a very powerful emotional rollercoaster.

It is also kind of interesting to see that Josh and Leo become the real power behind the throne.  Bartlet is clearly not sure he has what it takes to be come President, despite Leos faith in him.  Toby is shown doubtful of his abilities.  Josh is working for Hoynes, the prohibitive favourite at that point.  Yet Leo know who to get and how to get them.  Josh knows how to beat Hoynes, and is not only willing to do so despite working for the guy, but absolutely capable.  I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I think Bartlet was sitting fourth in the nomination race when Josh joined him – such a turnaround is utterly remarkable.

I really warmed to Josh during these two episodes, a guy who clearly does his job because he wants to make a difference, not because he wants power.  There is a revealing scene where Hoynes – the future Vice-President – effectively fires Josh because he refuses to keep playing the percentages, demanding that his candidate stands for something.  Leo McGarry pops up as a sort of Grand Vizier, manipulating behind the throne and getting Josh to see what he could do.

The recruitment of Sam and CJ is much more light hearted.  Again, I’ve really warmed to Rob Lowe as Sam over the first series, playing against type as a nerdy, clumsy kind of guy.  He is smart, but also socially inept.  The scene where Josh recruits Sam contrasts what we have seen – two smart, driven operatives – with a couple of guys who were just drifting along in their respective careers.  Sure, they were successful and making money, but they really want to make a difference.  I loved the fact that Sam knew what happened to CJ – initially I suspected some kind of concussion or PTSD, but the reveal that Sam, quite literally had CJs back was beautifully done.

CJ is in clumsy mode for her back story.  I’ll write more about her in another post, but I don’t really like it when CJ is clumsy or dumb.  This isn’t the fault of Alison Janney, more that it just doesn’t feel right.  This is a woman who, in front of the press, is always smart, always prepared and one of the fastest thinkers on their feet you could want.  To have her turn up for work in her dressing gown, half blind and then fall into a pool after getting fired… it just felt that the comedy was forced.  CJ is better than that – though her honesty in the discussion with the Hollywood big shot was hilarious and pure CJ.

The recruitment of Donna was a lovely scene as well – it always seemed odd how she would end up in the White House, being so utterly good at her job while being completely loopy.  As Season Two has progressed, Donna has become much smarter, but it was nice to see the early interplay between her and Josh and the beginning of their relationship.

Finally, I loved the future President in these two episodes.  Martin Sheen showed a real vulnerability throughout, irritable and cranky in order to hide his lack of self-confidence.  The “What’s next?” discussion was brilliantly written and, of course, sets up the final punchline.  But Sheen also showed the quality that made Bartlet President in the scene at the airport – the fact that he would forget himself and offered to accompany Josh to his family.  At the start of that conversation, Bartlet looks small and tired.  By the end, he looks Presidential.

Of course, the whole 120 minutes builds to the final payoff line.  And when it comes, it was a real punch the air moment.  Joshs’ survival was never really in doubt, but the final scene reinforced that the West Wing isn’t about politics, but relationships between people just trying to do a job. The last line elevated the three episodes right up with my favourite TV of all time.

Armed and ignorant

The old saying is that nothing is so dangerous as ignorance.  But with Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, we have an ignorant idiot who is also armed.

In todays Telegraph, he is quoted as saying “We don’t want America to become like England, where some of that nation’s outstanding rifle competitors keep their hobby a dark secret from their neighbours for fear of social disapproval,” said Mr LaPierre. “We’re not going to let the anti-gunners push us into that zone.”

We’ll leave aside the fact that the head of British Shooting described his statements as “absolute rubbish”.  Why is it that whenever the NRA come under fire for their moronic, pathetic defence of the age old right for patriotic Americans to be easily able to kill children using assault rifles, they point to the UK as justification?  Why us?  It is, of course, a useful indicator of their sheer, planet-sized ignorance that they refuse to this place as “England” when they mean “the United Kingdom”.  The UK is a slightly complex beast, being made up of four countries (depending on your point of view) but the overall concept is fairly simple to explain and understand.  A five year old could grasp the concept, unless they have just been shot in the face by someone who has exercised their Constitutional right to walk into a primary school loaded down like Rambo.  It is, of course, beyond the understanding of the head of the National Rifle Association, but then, that level of stupidity comes with the job.

After Sandy Hook, we had the age old discussion about gun control.  The NRA fell back to its usual standbys, blaming Hollywood, videogames, Obama, little green men etc.  Falling back on power fantasises about killing burglars in their homes (ask Oscar Pistorius how that one turned out).  They also said that the immediate aftermath of the tragedy was not the time to have this discussion on gun control.

At the time of writing, since Sandy Hook which happened in mid-December, 1852 Americans have been killed by guns.  (This site keeps a live tally.)  So, about 30 deaths a day since Sandy Hook.  One every 48 minutes or.  It would seem at first glance, that if we were to take the NRA line that “now is not the time for discussion” then,with one death every 48 minutes, there never will be a time for discussion.  Then I had a thought.

If you support the current state of gun control in the United States then you support the killing of children.  You believe that 20 dead kids is a reasonable price for your own personal freedom to pretend that you can freely take another life without consequence.  Ordinary US citizens have proved, time and time again, that they can’t be trusted not to go out and shoot up schools and shopping malls. When a five year old misbehaves, you take their favourite toy away from them until they learn to behave properly. Yet you don’t think this is the case for gun owners.  The right to carry a gun stops at the right to shoot someone else in the face.  You want to protect your Second Amendment rights?  Well, it says you have to be part of a well-regulated militia, so go off and join the Army.  If you want a gun, be a soldier.  The moment you stop being a soldier, you lose the gun.  You want to go hunting, hunt bear.  Not something that couldn’t hurt if there were ten thousand simultaneously flying at you – like quail or duck.  (I mean, seriously, you are hunting a duck?  What is it going to do, use its bill to suck you to death?)  Oh and you can’t drive to it and blast away – you want to hunt, then we’ll drop you in the middle of the Oregon forest to do so. If you want to use a statistic in favour of less gun control and it is wrong, you lose, automatically.  Debate is not shouting louder than your opponent.  If you manage to make Piers Morgan look reasonable and rational, then you are clearly on the wrong side of the issue. Every single one of the current arguments on gun control are based on a) money, b) pathetic power fantasies, c) rampant selfishness and d) a child-like tantrum that the “wrong” President got elected by the “wrong type” of people. And yes, I do know what you are saying when you say that.

Discussion over.  48 minutes?  More like 48 seconds.

Is “Cobra” the most 80s film in history?

Just watching “Cobra” and it seems to me that it is the most 80s film ever made.  Not because it is set in the 80s (obviously it is) but the style, the characters, the script… just about every trope and cliche that it is possible to put into a film makes it into Cobra.

So far we have

  • Sylvester Stallone as the title character which is a cop. A cop who doesn’t play by the rules, but god-damn he gets results
  • Brigitte Nielsen
  • Stallone’s boss hates him, but tolerates his methods, because of the aforementioned results.
  • Cobra lives in a beach front property.
  • Alone.
  • And entertains himself by cleaning his gun.
  • While wearing his mirrored shades
  • Having first shifted a load of Latinos out of his parking space.  They were just sitting there.  In a car. Next to a beach.  For no reason.
  • His partner wears a flat cap.  Unironically.  He almost dies.
  • The bloke who played Sledge Hammer has a minor role.  Can’t get more 80s than Sledge Hammer.
  • Prominent pictures of Ronald Reagan
  • The soundtrack appears to consist of power ballads and saxophone solos
  • There is a montage.
  • Accompanied by a power ballad.
  • Ultra-violence, which is commented upon by one of those liberal media reporter types.
  • Who gets punched in the face. Because this is the 80s, God-dammit.
  • Cobra never takes his gloves off.  Even when in his own house.
  • OMINOUS SYNTHESIZER CHORDS!
  • Lots of sounds of guns being lovingly assembled and reassembled
  • Including an entire montage
  • Also accompanied by a power ballard.
  • Cobra drives his own customised car.  Which makes lots of noise, but doesn’t actually go all that quickly.
  • As evidenced in a car chase where it can’t catch one of those Tetris shaped US sedans of the 80s.
  • The solution to everything is shooting people.
  • Each bad guy is offed with a one-liner
  • 87 minute running time.  (3 minutes longer than Evil Dead II, 8 minutes less than Mad Max 2.  When did films get so long?)
  • Cobra shows his sensitive side and romances the girl by putting a ballad on a jukebox.
  • Fashion shoot! (For character development reasons, of course)
  • Female lead character invites male lead character to bed – soundtracked by yet another power ballad
  • It is dumb. Like, really stupid.  You know how Arnie and Stallone were one man armies in the 80s? It is because extras would line up to be mowed down. Literally, just running in front of machine guns.  There is a bit where Stallone is on the back of a pick-up, killing everyone with one shot.

Basically, the only film that can match it for 80s-ness is Police Academy 3.  Because that features not only jet-skis, but is quite blatantly shot in a location other than that depicted – unless they’ve moved the CN Tower* without anyone noticing.

Shame Cobra isn’t, on just about any level, a decent film.

* Easier to see in the film itself, but in that image, you can see the concrete structure of the CN Tower in the background behind the white building