WoB Talk

August 10, 2016

Person of Interest (TV): Review

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 4:15 pm

Person of Interest image

Sometimes, you just sort of miss an entire television series, then hear about it slightly after it has concluded from two different sources and decide to try it out. Person of Interest (CBS, 2011-2016) escaped my attention entirely until I came across an article calling it “essential science fiction television.” Shortly afterward, my friend Kevin asked me if I’d seen it. It looked intriguing, so I gave it a try.

Person of Interest is certainly essential science fiction television. It’s a well-written, character-driven show that starts out (as many shows do) as a relatively standard procedural before evolving into something much more challenging. In the process, it presents and develops a number of complex ideas about artificial intelligence and its implications. The show combines good storytelling with thought-provoking content in a way that is sometimes difficult to find on television but is a good example of how effective television can be as a medium.

In its first season, as many have observed, the show is already good, though still relatively ordinary. Its premise is the comfortable old people-with-a-secret-weapon-fight-crime-from-the-sidelines one that governs so many procedurals, not to mention so many superhero narratives. In fact, in its first season, POI is a superhero story in all but name, with ex-CIA operative John Reese recruited by mysterious billionaire Harold Finch to prevent crimes before they happen. The preventative nature of Reese and Finch’s work is the show’s first twist; the second is that Finch is getting his information about these potential future crimes from an AI of his own invention he calls only “the Machine.” He and a partner made the Machine for the US government, which uses it to prevent terrorist attacks. However, as it monitors everyone everywhere, it also detects “irrelevant” future crimes involving (as the narration at the beginning of every episode puts it) “ordinary people.” The government dismisses these people. Finch, who has, unbeknownst to the government, retained access to the Machine, does not. The Machine provides him with only their social security numbers, not indicating whether the “person of interest” is a potential victim or a potential perpetrator. Reese and Finch must help or stop the people of interest while avoiding the attention of a corrupt police department and, more particularly, Detective Joss Carter, one of the few good cops remaining. They also often call on the reluctant help of dirty cop Lionel Fusco, whom Reese has blackmailed into being his inside man.

The first season is, again, already solid, but with every subsequent season, things get more interesting. Carter eventually joins the team, and Fusco begins what will be a long journey to redemption and true investment in his new role of helping people; in the meantime, new players turn up, such as assassin/computer genius Samantha “Root” Groves, seemingly sociopathic Agent Sameen Shaw (who deals with the relevant numbers until she is betrayed by her employer), and an adorable attack dog named Bear with whom every character falls instantly in love. Characters who start off as antagonists end up drawn into the team, which becomes an intriguing collection of broken people fighting in frustrating secrecy to save the world. However, it’s the introduction of a rival AI, Samaritan, that truly tips the show over from “good procedural” to “holy crap, this is some great science fiction.” The Machine, coached by the compassionate Finch, has picked up morality along the way; Samaritan, with no such coaching, sees humanity as something to be “saved” through control, not compassion. POI gradually becomes a meditation on the nature of humanity and morality, control and free will, love and sacrifice, all wrapped up in a suspenseful TV-friendly package.

In my opinion, the best episode is Season 4’s “If–Then–Else,” which I won’t describe because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. It’s one of those television episodes — like, for instance, House, MD‘s “Three Stories,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Body,” and Doctor Who‘s “Blink” — that is simply a work of art in and of itself, an episode that is, plot-, theme-, and character-wise, a perfect storm of narrative effectiveness. Other episodes contain similarly powerful material, but “If–Then–Else” is fantastic from beginning to end.

If you haven’t come across this show yet but are interested in AI-themed stories that play with post-9/11 paranoia and its consequences, Person of Interest is worth trying out. One of its greatest strengths is also one of its greatest seeming contradictions: it tells the story of an AI far more intelligent than any human being by focusing not directly on the Machine itself but on the flawed humans it is working so hard to save without ever having been given a voice of its own.

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August 2, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Rehearsal Script): Spoiler-Free Review

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 9:44 pm

I have some thoughts on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but I’m going to organise them into two documents, one without spoilers and the other with lots and lots of spoilers. If you haven’t read the script or seen the play, this spoiler-free review is for you. If you have, go find the spoilery document, in which I go into a lot more detail.

Harry_Potter_and_the_Cursed_Child_Special_Rehearsal_Edition_Book_CoverOn July 31, 2016, the “special rehearsal edition script” of the dramatic production Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which debuted in London on July 30, was released. A milder version of the excitement attending the releases of the previous Potter books played out, with people attending midnight releases and staying up all night to tear through the book (I was not one of those people, but mostly because I was out of the country on release day). There are, however, some differences this time around, and they’re worth taking into account.

Cursed Child is not a new J. K. Rowling book. Her name is prominent on the cover, but it appears under the much smaller words “based on an original new story by” and is followed by the names of her collaborators, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne. The script’s playwright is, in fact, Jack Thorne (Tiffany directed the play).

Not everyone agrees that Rowling’s writing is stellar, but her storytelling style is imbued with a kind of magic that is lacking here. Yes, the format is very different; this is a play script, not a novel, and therefore, we mostly stay out of the characters’ heads, though we get glimpses of their thoughts via stage directions. We’re used, as readers of the Harry Potter books, to spending most of our time with Harry Potter; here, on the other hand, there seem to be at least three protagonists, and the most engaging of them isn’t a Potter at all. The script is not as polished as it could be, which makes a certain amount of sense, though as an English scholar, I’m a little less forgiving than many will be. Scripts do get published. It is not impossible to edit them. Good playwrights are amazing writers. Thorne’s script seems only so-so as a work of literature, and some of the lines are cringeworthy. I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary, for instance, for the characters to speak the moral of the story aloud. For that matter, I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary for the moral of the story to be so obvious.

I won’t go into too much detail regarding the plot, as there are a lot of potential spoilers looming here, but to take you a few pages in (i.e., about as far as you would get in five minutes or so of reading): we pick up exactly where the novels left off, with Harry’s middle child, Albus, about to start his first year at Hogwarts. He is anxious he’ll be sorted into Slytherin, and Harry tries to reassure him by pointing out that the Sorting Hat gives everyone a choice. On the train, Albus and his cousin Rose — Hermione and Ron’s daughter, who is barely in the play and seems little more than a carbon copy of Hermione — look for a compartment to sit in and come across Scorpius Malfoy, Draco’s son. This is a neat scene because Scorpius is such a great character: smart, anxious, funny, and sensitive to the social difficulties involved in his making friends with Harry Potter’s son. I would gladly spend a whole novel with Scorpius. How absolutely wonderful would a series of book revolving around Draco Malfoy’s son be? How amazing would it be to see Draco as a struggling father striving to come to terms with a child both brighter and kinder than he ever was? There’s almost endless potential here.

The problem is that Albus is not nearly as likable. Shy child Albus is quickly swept away as the play takes us forward, brief scene by brief scene, to Albus and Scorpius’s fourth year at Hogwarts, by which point Albus has become a sulky, self-righteous little brat. Harry isn’t behaving very well either; the two of them constantly misunderstand each other. Harry pulls away from Albus because he’s not as easy to connect with as his two other children, and Albus despises Harry because he’s constantly in Harry’s shadow and sees himself as a disappointment. I know the play was written considerably before The Force Awakens came out, but it’s sometimes difficult not to see young Albus Potter as having a lot in common with young Ben Solo.

Complications ensue, a villain emerges, friendships are tested, and members of both generations must go through some painful experiences, all in service of repairing (with luck) the rift between father and son. It’s a comfortable sort of plot, and there are some twists and turns along the way, but few of them feel unexpected to me. My favourite sequence still seems rather too familiar because I’ve seen this sort of thing before in other stories of the same type (sorry for the vagueness, but I’m attempting to steer clear of spoilers here). That bit, notably, focuses on Scorpius, not Albus.

Another problem is one that carries over from the novels, though it becomes even more noticeable in the play: where are the female characters? Rose seems at first to be important, but she quickly disappears. Ginny and Hermione both have their roles to play, but Ginny is there mostly to chide Harry gently for his lousy relationship with Albus, while Hermione is more or less a plot device. The emotional focus is on the Harry/Albus and Draco/Scorpius pairs. That’s great. Father-son stories are nice, as are stories of friendship. However, the Harry Potter stories famously focus on three friends: Harry, Ron, and Hermione. They are equals in the friendship, and they go through their adventures together. Rose, here, appears to allow the playwright to replicate the triangular friendship of the older generation, but Rose herself is deprived of characterisation and agency and treated mostly as an object of desire. The other female character who could be seen as replacing her as the third angle of the triangle, Delphi, is the Repressive Love Interest Who Comes Between the True Friendship of the Male Leads. By the end of the play, it’s apparent that all the characters who matter as characters are male.

It is entirely possible this all works better on stage. Perhaps some of the awkward dialogue has been dropped or smoothed out. The special effects are probably amazing; the descriptions of them in the stage directions are certainly enticing. If the actor who plays Scorpius is worthy of the material he’s been given, that character is going to be wonderful to watch. I would love to see how the production manages spells, transformations, owls, and the Sorting Hat, not to mention the terrifying scene involving the Trolley Witch of the Hogwarts Express. I’m just not sure all the pyrotechnics will be enough to save the play. It’s got potential. The idea of Harry Potter’s and Draco Malfoy’s sons becoming friends is just begging to be played around with. However, when I’m reading through the script and am constantly being distracted because I’m reminded of things I’ve seen in The Force Awakens, the Very Potter Musical trilogy, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there’s a distinct possibility the story itself may need work.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Rehearsal Script): Absolutely-Filled-With-Spoilers Review

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 9:40 pm

 

I have some thoughts on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but I’m going to organise them into two documents, one without spoilers and the other with lots and lots of spoilers. If you haven’t read the script or seen the play, the spoiler-free review is for you. If you have, you’re in the right place; this spoilery document goes into a lot more detail.

LET ME JUST REPEAT THAT ONE MORE TIME: HERE BE SPOILERS. IF YOU ARE STILL READING BUT HAVE NOT YET FINISHED THE SCRIPT OR SEEN THE PLAY, STAAAWWWP. THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING.

Harry_Potter_and_the_Cursed_Child_Special_Rehearsal_Edition_Book_Cover

 

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a stage play that debuted in London on July 30, 2016. The “special rehearsal edition script” was released one day later. This is not exactly normal for plays. Of course, the whole Cursed Child phenomenon is not exactly normal for plays. However, play scripts do frequently appear in book form, so I’ll be applying the same standards to this one that I would to any other. It should be noted that the producers of this book seem to have been attempting to dodge these standards via the “special rehearsal edition script” label, which tells us we are obliged to be forgiving, as this is just a “rehearsal edition.” Granted, so is every other play published ever, but whatever.

J. K. Rowling’s name is the biggest one on the cover, but Rowling herself is simply billed as one of the three people who produced the “original story” on which the play is “based.” Of the other two, John Tiffany is the play’s director and Jack Thorne its playwright. Rowling’s signature humour and mystery-style plotting are not in evidence here. There’s some humour, and perhaps it works better on the stage, but it falls a bit flat on the page. The plotting is quite transparent. It’s possible to figure out what’s going on very early on. After that, most of the story plays out in a fairly predictable way.

The basic premise has some promise. As in the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we get young Albus Severus Potter, Harry and Ginny’s middle child, about to head off for his first year at Hogwarts. On the train, he and his cousin Rose, Ron and Hermione’s daughter, run into lonely Scorpius Malfoy, already an outcast before he even sets foot in Hogwarts. Rose quickly makes herself scarce; Albus, intrigued by this bright, sensitive boy, stays. The idea of Harry Potter’s son making friends with Draco Malfoy’s son is an intriguing one, especially in light of Scorpius being an instantly likable character. The whole situation becomes even more interesting when Albus is unexpectedly sorted into Slytherin. There’s your central conflict right there, and it’s virtually stuffed with potential.

However, the play skims briefly over the next four years, during which time Albus apparently undergoes a personality transplant. By his second year, he hates his father, is no longer on speaking terms with Rose, sees Hogwarts as a place of punishment, and has basically turned into Kylo Ren. Yes, this script would have been solidified long before the release of The Force Awakens, so this can’t be anything but an unfortunate coincidence, but it’s hard not to notice that we’ve once again got a famous-father-has-a-son-he-doesn’t-understand-and-drives-him-to-the-dark-side-via-neglect story here. True, Albus doesn’t go full Dark Side, but he’s unnecessarily nasty. Harry isn’t going to win any Father of the Year medals either. Neither of them is easy to identify with. Harry, in particular, makes some incredibly boneheaded decisions (including, at one point, bullying Minerva McGonagall, Headmistress of Hogwarts, into spying on Albus and forcibly separating him from Scorpius). Harry Potter may not be one of the world’s great thinkers, but he should assumedly have developed some common sense by the age of forty.

The main crisis of the story involves Amos Diggory’s desire for the Ministry of Magic to use a Time-Turner it has recovered from a Voldemort loyalist to save his son Cedric’s life. Albus overhears the conversation and decides to stick it to his father by dragging Scorpius off to steal the Time-Turner from the office of the Minister for Magic, Hermione Granger. They then team up with Delphi Diggory, Amos’s twenty-something niece, who has a plan for saving Cedric. As you can see, all the characters appear to have taken stupid pills at some point. The brightest of them all is Scorpius, who keeps pointing out how many things can go wrong in a time-travel story. No one ever listens to Scorpius.

The problems with the script are, at this point, multiplying like crazy. The raid on Hermione’s office leads to a pointless and profoundly icky scene in which Albus, all Polyjuiced up to look like Ron, maintains his cover by kissing his Aunt Hermione on the lips (twice) and talking about having babies with her. The time travel probably looks amazing on stage, and perhaps that helps distract viewers from the fact that it violates all the time-travel rules laid out in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Suddenly switching time-travel models because it’s convenient to do so is up there with giving a character a personality transplant because it works for the plot…which, incidentally, happens here too. The mucking about with time causes some changes. On the first go, they’re relatively mild (compared to what happens on the second go, at least), but they involve accidentally breaking Ron and Hermione up. Apparently, the two turn into entirely different people when they’re not together. When Ron marries Padma Patil instead, he loses his love for jokes and becomes a whipped husband (har har har). Hermione, on the other hand, transforms into a truly horrible person. Not only does she not become Minister for Magic, she ends up an embittered, cruel Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher who out-Snapes Snape to a ridiculous degree. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen: all she needs is love! Sadly, this is not the play’s only fun misogyny, but it will do for now.

The trip to the past also erases Rose and her brother Hugo from existence, which Scorpius (still the one character who deserves to survive all this and go on to star in a seven-book series of his own and my God, I want to see a Scorpius Malfoy and the I Don’t Even Care Because Anything With Scorpius in It Will Be Awesome novel) points out, but it doesn’t really seem to register with Albus, who is all, “Cedric is still dead. Let’s go back and try again!” The second attempt is the best because it erases Albus from existence by causing a chain of events that ends in the death of Harry Potter at the Battle of Hogwarts and the triumph of Voldemort. Scorpius finds himself alone in a hellscape in which he is worshipped by the other evil Hogwarts students for his cruelty and his sudden proficiency at Quidditch. Luckily, Scorpius has kept his old personality, and he quickly finds the only person at this appalling new Hogwarts, in which students torture Muggle-borns in the dungeons and forget to wipe the blood off their shoes afterwards, he can trust: Professor Snape.

Hurrah for Snape, but you may be noticing something else by now: this story is dark. It’s unrelentingly dark. Dark can be good, but this much darkness in a Harry Potter story needs some comic relief that doesn’t fall flat, and there’s not much here. Snape provides a bit by being generally awesome and teaming up with post-apocalyptic versions of Hermione and Ron to try and fail to save the world, and frankly, this alternate-Hogwarts section of the play is its strongest part, partly because the mix of darkness and humour almost works here and partly because Scorpius is a much more appealing protagonist than Albus.

However, even this strong portion of the story has its problems. Chief among them is the fact that the eventual culmination of the sequence involves Snape, Hermione, and Ron sacrificing themselves so Scorpius can return the world to normal. I know I’ve seen this sort of thing more than once before in time-travel narratives, and it’s bugging me that I can’t think exactly where, with the exception of the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which Cordelia ensures that Buffy never comes to Sunnydale and turns the town into the same kind of hellscape we get here, only with vampires. In fact, this part of the play follows that episode almost scene by scene, right down to the death of the character who causes the rift in the first place and the sacrifices of several important characters so that the hellscape can be erased. I know I’ve seen the trope elsewhere too. Oh, wait, here’s one: X-Men: Days of Future Past. The idea of killing off one’s protagonists gruesomely in one reality so they can restore another one has, in fact, been done. A lot. I like it, but there are too many echoes here.

Another problem with the play can probably be blamed on sloppiness. Scorpius mentions several times that the Cedric Diggory of this dark reality is a Death Eater, but we never actually see him get this information anywhere. Cedric never appears at Evil Hogwarts. Scorpius seems to have picked up the information offstage. Perhaps this problem is the result of a cut scene, but it’s quite jarring and should have been noticed by an editor.

Once Scorpius has saved the day, he sadly takes the same stupid pills as everybody else and holds onto the Time-Turner instead of giving it to the damn grown-ups, thus setting off the final part of the plot: the revelation that Delphi Diggory is actually the daughter of Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange, and she’s mighty pissed that Scorpius destroyed her nice hellscape. Creating that hellscape has, of course, been her intent all along.

I don’t even know where to start with this bit. For one thing, I guessed who Delphi was and what she wanted way before I should have. Thorne doesn’t seem to be able to handle red herrings with Rowling’s skill. Having a female villain is a nice idea, but Voldemort’s daughter? Really? That sticks us right back in the “morality is inherited” box from which the play seems to be striving to escape by placing a Potter in Slytherin and making a Malfoy delightful. Delphi’s villainy also highlights that fun misogyny again, not because women shouldn’t be villains — scheme away, evil women — but because she’s basically the only major female character who has the potential to be more than a plot device. Aside from Delphi, Hermione is the most prominent, but she’s at the mercy of the plot and well outside the story’s emotional core. Rose at first promises to provide the third angle of a triangle that will mirror the Harry-Ron-Hermione relationship, but she has almost nothing to do and eventually vanishes entirely, except as the object of Scorpius’s desire. Ginny has a decent-sized role, but she seems to exist entirely to encourage Harry to connect with his son. We never actually see her interacting with Albus. Minerva McGonagall has little to do besides scold, and Dolores Umbridge gets only a mercifully brief cameo. Delphi is so obviously the villain in large part because she immediately becomes the repressive force who threatens to divide true friends Albus and Scorpius. There’s nothing to like about her and thus no feeling of betrayal when she reveals her true intent. By the end of the story, our attention is all on the Harry/Albus and Draco/Scorpius pairs. This is a story of male relationships. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it would be nice if the women were more than window dressing and plot machinery. Hell…I don’t think the play even passes the Bechdel test, despite its several female characters.

Incidentally, one thing that does strike me about Albus’s friendship with Scorpius is that it plays out almost like a romance. I would be very surprised if there weren’t already some Albus/Scorpius slash fiction in existence. For a while, I genuinely thought the play might go in that direction. It ultimately provides a coda in which the playwright makes it very, very clear that Scorpius is really into girls, damn it (a cringeworthy line for you: “And yes, logic would dictate I should be pursuing Polly — or allowing her to pursue me — she’s a notorious beauty, after all — but a Rose is a Rose”) and does a wink, wink, nudge, nudge sort of thing about Albus’s attraction to older women (ha ha ha…it’s hilarious that a woman in her twenties took advantage of a fourteen-year-old boy!). So no same-sex relationship for us, despite all the hugging.

Eventually, father-son bonding saves the day, and everybody gets to go home. The climax involves both Harry’s generation and Albus’s, which is nice, but there are way too many characters, some of whom are clearly on stage just because we would miss Hermione, Ron, and Ginny if they had been left behind. Even Draco and Scorpius are more or less shoved aside during the final confrontation. One of the things Albus learns during the play is that not everything is about him, but the climax more or less contradicts that. Oh, and by the way, Mr. Thorne, you don’t need to have your characters state your moral out loud. Holy moly.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate this play with the fire of a thousand suns. There are some good elements. Harry’s confrontations with Draco often work well, and the reappearance of Snape is both amusing and touching. I’m sure the special effects are astounding. Scorpius Malfoy is the friend of my heart and needs to go on more adventures in which he quietly and logically saves the world while Albus indulges in emo sulking in the background. But the whole enterprise is uneven. In the end, the play just isn’t very well written.

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