Genre TV: a golden age or too much of a good thing?

It is a sad fact that there are too many great books in the world, of all genres, that I will never have time to read. I’m sure that I’m missing out on some life-changing classics, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

Star TrekWhen it comes to TV, though, there used to be a time when you could be up on all the great TV shows. For fans of all things sci-fi/supernatural/horror like myself, it wasn’t that hard, because there were so few TV shows that had a sci-fi or supernatural theme. Back in the 1950s you had The Twilight Zone and in the 1960s came The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and in England, Doctor Who. Along the way there were a smattering of other TV shows, notably the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the ’90s, but with only a handful of networks (and the BBC in England) the options were severely limited.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

That’s all changed. Now there seems to be a new network popping up every week, along with new TV shows. When Lost premiered, it reinvigorated the genre by making it commercially and critically viable. As flawed as Lost was, the emmy-winning series showed the powers that be that genre shows could make money and win awards.

Lost

Since then, there’s been an explosion of genre shows. A few decades ago, who would have predicted that two of the most hyped television shows would include dragons and zombies? These two shows, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are worldwide cultural events. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead bring more than just supernatural/fantastical/horror elements: they have high production values, are well acted, and have great writing.

Walking Dead

And these are just two of the latest and greatest. The past couple of decades have given us so many great genre shows, from SyFy’s Farscape and the Battlestar Galactica reboot, to BBC’s relaunched Doctor Who and BBC America’s Orphan Black. I should be happy, right?

Orphan Black Tatiana Maslany

In a way, I’m not. There are SO MANY genre shows out there I can’t keep up. And neither can the people who are writing them. The Walking Dead has given us the derivative Z Nation. The second season of SyFy’s Helix was a mess (a glorious, batshit crazy mess, but still a mess). And Netflix’s Hemlock Grove was half-baked camp. We’ve got a glut of genre shows out there, some of which should have never been made, and others that could have used a little more seasoning.

helixNot to mention that I don’t have the time to watch the vast majority. I’d love to watch The Strain, and there’s a new Salem TV show with Lucy Lawless that looks interesting. But between work, writing, play, family, how could I possibly fit all these shows into my life?

Maybe Hollywood needs to scale back a little — if not in the number of shows, then at least in the number of episodes. In the UK, it’s a common practice for TV shows to be short runs. Each season is perhaps six episodes, and the TV shows only run for a few seasons, if that. What you get is concise storytelling that does not require a lifetime commitment of the viewer. I’d fully support this idea; even the best shows suffer from episode bloat and could use some trimming (I’m looking at you, Walking Dead).

Read this book: After Dark

In the hands of this fiction master, After Dark is nighttime Tokyo reimagined as a surreal noir-ish dreamscape.

after darkI was in one of my favorite bars in Jersey City talking to the bartender Tom about the new insomnia-themed sci-fi novel Black Moon (which is on my shortlist). After a quick tour of books — others and mine — he threw one title at me: After Dark, by Haruki Murakami. Tom said it was strange, offbeat and captivating.

So I tried it. Tom was right.

The best words to describe After Dark is The Twilight Zone. The classic TV series often featured stories, settings, and characters that weren’t outright sci-fi or horror, but were just off-kilter enough to not be truly of this world. That describes After Dark.

The novel is set in a not-so-safe district of Tokyo. The narrator brings us in with a swooping eagle-eye view of the city (pretty after dark altmuch literally). Murakami uses an interesting technique where the narrator is our guide. He is nearly a character himself, though one who is never named or described. Instead he is the all-knowing, all-seeing, and he lets us have a glimpse.

What exactly do we glimpse? A pair of protagonists in their late teens chatting in a Denny’s after midnight. Mari is a 19-year-old student who doesn’t want to go home. Takahashi is a jazz musician on his way to an all-night practice. Mari and Takahashi met months earlier when Takahashi’s friend went on a date with Mari’s beautiful sister Eri.

What we get is a lot of talk between the two — on life, loneliness, alienation. After Dark almost reads like a play. We don’t get much action, but it doesn’t matter. These two characters are compelling.

Once Takahashi leaves Mari the action picks up. Mari gets tangled up with the manager of a “love hotel” where a Chinese prostitute has been beaten. We get glimpses of the dark side of this city, and it’s fascinating.

two girlsThe real strangeness comes when we get to the story of Mari’s sister Eri, the breathtakingly beautiful model. Eri sleeps through the whole book. Except for when she becomes trapped inside a TV.

Yes. That’s right. Trapped in a TV. The brilliance of Murakami is that he could write that and pull it off.

If you choose to read After Dark — and you should — don’t expect plot-twisting thrills. What you’ll get instead is a haunting story about young people on the edge.

(Two Girls image courtesy of www.innakomarovsky.com/blog)

 

Want to kill Hitler? Good luck with that

Attention time travelers, killing Hitler, while noble, may not be as easy as it sounds.
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One of my favorite web sites, io9.com, compiled several literary/TV attempts to kill Hitler, and the results are not particularly encouraging.

In a nutshell, all the literary/TV tries either 1) fail miserably due to the bumblings of the time traveler, 2) end up working, only leading to an even worse outcome, or 3) actually CAUSE Hitler and WWII as we know it.

Now, I wasn’t aware that this was such a common trope. I’ve seen the Doctor Who episode, Let’s Kill Hitler, which actually had little to do with the big bad himself, and was more about developing one of my favorite Who characters, River Song (for a good intro to all things Who, watch the two-parter Silence in the Library). Hitler was quickly forgotten in the first ten minutes or so.

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And I remember watching one of the items on io9’s list – the Twilight Zone episode (in full here) where Katherine Heigl (!) time travels to visit baby Hitler. She’s not there for a friendly visit, and not to give it away, but history incorporates her mission with no noticeable change in the timeline.

Several of the other books/stories/etc on the list are intriguing, and worth a look. Read this clever short story here, in its entirety.

The moral of this story?

Time travel as a dramatic device is great for one reason – there are endless permutations and possibilities. One simple concept – killing Hitler – can be spun in countless entertaining ways. As long as it’s well executed, it will work.