Author: Jen Krueger

Jen Krueger is a writer and improviser living in Los Angeles. Ask her and she'll proudly tell you she hails from Chicago. Don't ask her, and she'll probably tell you anyway. Jen is the Associate Director of the LA Indie Improv Festival, and runs Friday night indie improv show The Manifesto Show with her team Penguins on the Playground. Jen also hosts, a podcast about pop culture before it pops. She owns one Calvinball, two sonic screwdrivers, and has degrees in Curiosity and Advanced Curiosity.
Jen Krueger: The Twist Ending

Jen Krueger: The Twist Ending

It’s rare for me to watch a movie and not have at least one complaint about it before the credits roll. I’d chalk that up not to me being overly critical of films, but to how incredibly difficult it is for a movie to hold water all the way through yet not also disappoint in some way. Edge of Tomorrow turned out to be one of the rare cases where I was wholly satisfied, but the second the credits began, two guys sitting in my row started loudly discussing why they weren’t. They were disappointed that the movie [spoiler alert] doesn’t have a twist at the end. And while I guess I can’t blame them for expecting it to have a twist given how pervasive twists have been in entertainment over the past few years, I couldn’t fathom why they’d be disappointed the story didn’t have one.

The very nature of a plot twist means it reframes the context of the story it’s in, but if someone’s taken the time to really flesh out a world, develop characters, and craft an intriguing plot, it’s unlikely changing their context at the eleventh hour will strengthen any of those things. While there are many reasons why I could endlessly sing the praises of Breaking Bad, perhaps the biggest one is the fact that every single thing that happened in the show was inevitable because of who the characters were and the roads their actions consequently took them down. The narrative as a whole was a string of dominoes whose end wasn’t necessarily visible at the beginning, but with each piece that toppled it became clear what the next few would be. I love that kind of storytelling, because it lets a plot be delightfully potboiling while avoiding seeming predictable, but it does so without the writers having to resort to throwing a random wrench into the gears just to shake things up.

And perhaps that’s exactly why I tend to dislike a twist at the end of a plot, because (with the odd exception) it’s little more than a cheap, empty thrill employed for the sheer sake of a shock. But by changing the context of a key element of the story just to surprise the audience, a plot twist often also undercuts that element at the same time. There’s always a part of me that feels cheated when I learn a character isn’t who they were purported to be, or worse yet, when I can see who they really are from the outset and have to wait for the story to catch up to the reveal. But with the increasing pervasiveness of twist endings, viewers seem to frequently be doing the latter, leaving writers unsuccessful in their attempts at pulling the rug out from under the audience as a plot approaches its conclusion. And if audiences are so often ahead of the process that these attempts fail, why do writers keep persisting with them?

Maybe because there are so few truly original movies these days. From Marvel Studios to my childhood toys to reboots of sci-fi classics, it’s hard to ignore the fact that we’re living in a golden age for movie franchises. To sell audiences on the idea that there’s something new enough at the heart of properties that have been around in some fashion for years or even decades, employing a twist in concert with basic modernization seems to be the order of the day. And while I do enjoy a number of the not-so-new franchises that have become popular in the last few years, I’d be hard-pressed to ever pick watching an installment of one of them over watching something original that stands on its own. Really, it’s an awful lot like the plot of Edge of Tomorrow. Movies are looking to repeat the same formula over and over while implementing one small change in the hope that it’s enough to yield success, but total deviation from the plan everyone thinks should work is much more likely to win the day in my book.

And despite how much I dislike them, this column unfortunately has a twist ending of its own: it’s my last. Other commitments have made an increased demand on my time and sadly left me unable to continue with a weekly column, but I’ve loved my time at ComicMix and will certainly miss you, dear readers!

Jen Krueger: The Digital Divide – Reading Comics on My iPad

Jen Krueger: The Digital Divide – Reading Comics on My iPad

As someone who has more books than room on my bookshelves to accommodate them, an obsessive collector of cool artifacts of things I love, and a completionist in almost all regards, I don’t think I surprise anyone by saying I love comics. But I have definitely noticed confused head quirks when I admit that when it comes to the question of physical copies versus digital versions, I prefer to read comics on my iPad.

I should preface my preference for comics on a screen by saying this: I hate reading books digitally. On a purely aesthetic level, the size, weight, and smell of a book have always been an integral part of the reading process for me, so an e-book has just never been able to command my focus the same way a physical book does. A progress bar at the bottom of my screen somehow doesn’t give me the same sense of how much is behind and ahead of me that a bookmark in real pages does, and the pagination in general in e-books has always seemed off to me. Hand me an 800 page hardcover novel and I have, with a very small margin for error, a clear idea of the scale of what I’m diving into. In an e-book, the same text seems like it could take up anywhere from 800 to 2000 pages depending on the way it’s formatted.

But the biggest reason I’ve never been able to embrace e-books with gusto is that reducing a book to a file that looks like almost all other e-books takes away an individual book’s character. Hand me an iPad or Kindle and give me a quick glance at a few pages from any two e-books, and I probably won’t be able to easily distinguish them by their author or what work they’re from. Hand me two physical books and give me a quick glance at a few pages from each, and I’m exponentially more likely to be able to not only identify them, but also get a sense of what each book is like. Handing me a physical book is handing me a whole and unique package, and while there’s something tempting about being able to carry around hundreds of texts in one relatively small device, I’d rather sacrifice the space in my bag for fewer works that retain the character of their physical forms.

So if I’m so gung-ho about preserving the character of a book by only reading the physical version of it, why am I okay with filling my iPad with comics? Because the character of a comic is so bold and evident on every page that I don’t feel like I’m losing things in the digital translation. Look at a single digital page from any comic and you’re likely to be able to tell a lot about the work, and the sense of the comic’s character you get by doing that is much more in line with what you’d get from doing the same thing with a physical copy. That makes the big con of e-books moot for me, but this isn’t the only reason I lean toward my iPad when it comes to reading comics. In fact, this con made moot takes a significant backseat to a pro of e-books being made even better when applied to digital comics: I can take hundreds of them with me in one relatively small device.

While I can get by only having a couple books on me at a time, my habit of binge reading means I’d be carrying around an awful lot of trades if I only read physical comics. And since my preference for digital comics doesn’t mean I dislike physical ones, I’ve definitely carried around trades with me before. It takes so much less time for me to burn through a whole trade than it does a whole novel that the benefit of having 5 trades’ worth of comics on my iPad is evident in and of itself, but the volume of comics I’d need to have on me when reading a series isn’t the only problem I found with trying to read the physical versions.

The durability of physical comics, or more accurately the lack of it, is the last big factor in my preference for digital ones. Most trades are an awkward size to fit into the kind of bag I carry with me everyday, and though their size is more amenable to the backpack I take when traveling, they’re often not sturdy enough to stand up to being jostled around amongst the devices and travel paraphernalia I cram into my backpack in preparation for a trip. Where a hardback novel has the heft to take sharing space with a hard-sided headphone case while getting shoved under an airplane seat, and a paperback novel is compact enough to perch in the smaller space on top of the other things in my backpack, I’ve found my trade comic books just large yet just malleable enough to take a beating every time I pack them no matter how careful I am with the bag. But an iPad full of Locke & Key means an entire flight’s worth of reading without giving up the space the physical versions would take up, or the inevitable bummer of seeing them worse for the wear when I get to my destination. So while I’d certainly never turn my nose up if offered a physical trade of a comic, I’ll opt for the digital version if given the choice. Unless the trade is signed or some kind of special, limited edition, of course. That would make it a cool artifact, and I’m still an obsessive collector, after all.

Jen Krueger: The Gaming Sweet Spot

Jen Krueger: The Gaming Sweet Spot

Until very recently, the thought of spending a hundred dollars on a board game would have seemed like madness to me. If it actually is madness, then I guess it’s appropriate that Betrayal at House on the Hill is what had me considering it. It’s a game in which you and your friends explore a haunted mansion by building it out room by room with tiles that reveal objects, events, and traps to test your sanity. Everything changes in the middle when a haunt is triggered to reveal one player as a traitor out to kill the others, and playing it just once at a board game cafe was more than enough fun to make me want a copy of my own. Unfortunately, it’s currently out of print and procuring a copy would mean spending around a hundred dollars for a used set through a reseller.

So what about Betrayal at House on the Hill was so fun that a single experience with it made me actually consider dropping that kind of money on a type of product for which I’ve generally paid no more than fifty dollars? The fact that the mechanics for both the layout of the house and the type of haunt that occurs mean it’s never the same game twice. Knowing that even if I happened to run through all 50 different haunts the rule book contains, the unique layout of rooms and the randomness regarding which player becomes the traitor would keep the gameplay from ever becoming rote. As much fun as it can be to play a classic like Monopoly or a modern hit like Ticket to Ride, whenever I play something of a more fixed state like these, I find myself less engaged with the game itself as well as the other people I’m playing with. There’s never really any surprise to this kind of game, and at a certain point I end up on autopilot. There may be variation in which specific spaces I land on or cards I pull, but the range of possibilities is firmly set from the start, diluting the replay value and leaving me content to play them but never dying to own them.

But as much as I want board games I play to give me a unique experience every time I sit down to them, there are of course games that go too far down that path. Risk Legacy builds on the foundation of the classic game Risk, but is meant to be played by the same group of people 15 times because each session results in the players making alterations to the game based on their specific experiences with it, like scarring a territory with a negative effect on any future combat that takes place there, or naming a territory so that only the player who named it can start in that territory during future games. These alterations are permanent, and affect every session that follows, making every Risk Legacy set that’s sold into a completely unique experience for the group that plays that set. I was pumped to try the game when my friend Art wrangled a group to play. More friends of mine, Farley and Clay, were playing with a separate group around the same time, and as each group got more sessions under our belts, we’d check in with each other about our impressions and strategies for sessions to come. The incredibly customizable nature of the game meant that both of our groups were constantly realizing we’d been doing something wrong due to not fully understanding the understandably complicated rules, but the continuing effect of each session on the ones that follow it make it very hard to rectify mistakes. And though correlation doesn’t imply causation, I can’t help but think any game with such a high level of customizability runs the same (cue groan) risk.

For me, the games that do it right are the ones right in the middle of this spectrum of uniqueness per session. Cyberpunk card game Android: Netrunner gives players a wealth of cards to pick from with multiple expansion packs on the market and new ones released every month, making the possibilities endless when putting together a deck to sit down with a friend and, depending what side of the table you’re on, either hack their servers or foil their hacker. Betrayal at House on the Hill gives a different board and set of circumstances every time, but the rules governing play are constant and basic enough to let the players get them under their belts in a few turns on a first play-through, then simply immerse themselves from that point on. And if a game can be as simple in concept yet as different every time it’s played as Betrayal at House on the Hill, a hundred dollars for a set gives you unlimited replay value. In my book, that’s actually a bargain.

Jen Krueger: Mindless Monster Movies

Before Godzilla had even been out for 24 hours, I was already hearing mixed feedback about it. Some people I know enjoyed themselves while watching it, but the more vocal reaction I’ve encountered is disappointment that the characters and story aren’t strong enough for it to be a good movie. And though I have to preface this by saying that I’ve yet to see it and could end up being disappointed by it myself, I do have something to say to the people that are complaining about the narrative shortcomings of Godzilla:

Get your expectations in line with the movie you’re watching!

Of course, I’m all for monster movies that have characters with dimension and stories without gaping plot holes, but when I sit down to watch something with a kaiju in it, all that needs to happen for me to be satisfied is for that kaiju to rampage. I want to see a city get attacked, and a fight ensue to take down the kaiju (preferably one in which another huge monster or some kind of huge machine is the kaiju’s opponent). If I happen to care about the fate of the humans that serve as the audience’s entry into the story, that’s honestly just gravy.

But as someone who’s usually complaining about hollow characters or narrative shortcomings in other blockbusters, why is it that I don’t take issue with similar problems when it comes to monster movies? Because it’s one of very few genres in which I think the characters are completely secondary to other aspects of the movie. Sure, superhero films must have set piece action sequences and exciting stunts to be successful, but they also must get the viewer to take the hero’s side in those sequences, because even a team of superheroes working together is still a fight involving several individuals against an antagonizing force. Monster movies, though, pit all of humanity against a terror from space or the sea, and the specific characters involved in the fight against them are basically incidental since they could be replaced by any other pilot, politician, or unlucky civilian tasked with the same plan to eliminate the kaiju.

Even with my (fairly low) requirements for a monster movie to satisfy me, there have certainly been some offerings that didn’t live up to my expectations. In its trailers, Cloverfield promised a monster movie unlike any I’d ever seen, but delivered on that promise by barely letting me see the monster. I expected unparalleled destruction, but got far too much time spent with people I didn’t care about running through tunnels. And despite the signs of destruction around the protagonists, I was too embedded with them to get the sense of large-scale damage and combat that I crave from a kaiju. With no real monster money shot, I left the theater underwhelmed and had to wait five years for one that really lived up to what I crave in this genre. With multiple kaiju and a bunch of giant robots, Pacific Rim seemed to never go more than fifteen minutes without showing one smashing into the other, and became the monster movie to which I’ll compare all future offerings.

While Godzilla advertises itself as a single kaiju movie and (as far as I know) has no giant robots as part of the scheme to take it out, it at least makes its single monster enormous and destructive enough to plow through bridges and swat away combat vehicles as if they were pesky insects. It’s enough to get me in the theater, and as long as the eponymous kaiju doesn’t have a silly weakness that brings it down too easily in the end, I’m sure I’ll have a great time watching it. And if all else fails, at least Transformers 4 is only about a month away. It may not have a monster, but it has a giant robot riding a robot dinosaur, which is obviously the next best thing.

Jen Krueger: Hating Superman

Jen Krueger: Hating Superman

I’m going to preface this week’s column by saying I’m going to express what I realize is a very unpopular opinion.

I hate Superman.

I don’t mean that I hate one of the movies, or one of the TV shows, or a particular run of the comic. I hate the character of Superman, because I find him boring.

For me to be interested in a superhero, the hero has to be flawed in some way. Iron Man has been my favorite hero for some time because of how deeply troubled Tony Stark is, from the narcissism and egomania that get him into tough spots, to the self-destructive tendencies that emerge when he’s forced to face the fact that he isn’t perfect. To be the hero he wants to be, he must grapple with a dark streak inside himself, and watching that internal battle is a thousand times more compelling to me than any external battle Iron Man engages in with an antagonist. And even when I am watching him take on a villain, Iron Man doesn’t really prevail because of the powers of his suit. Everything hinges on the man inside the suit using his advantages to the best of his ability, and that ability is sometimes compromised by the man himself. At the end of the day, Iron Man doesn’t even matter as much as Tony Stark, whose flaws have given him a complexity that makes him matter a great deal to me.

Superman, on the other hand, is basically perfect. Sure, there’s a type of rock that makes him physically weak, but to me that’s about as interesting a flaw for a hero as a gluten allergy. But even putting aside his ridiculous physical attributes, Superman continues to be about perfection. His biggest problem is that no one could possibly understand his infallible and unwavering goodness, and that he’s so benevolent he can’t help himself from dedicating his life to protecting the human race. He may brood alone in the Fortress of Solitude, but when all of a character’s contemplation stems from how hard it is to deal with being so darn unflawed, there’s neither complexity to that contemplation nor capacity for change. And while Tony Stark is sometimes Iron Man, with Superman it feels much more like Superman is sometimes Clark Kent. Stark is a person who is humanized by his flaws, but Superman is an alien who sometimes masquerades as a normal person. If Superman will always be Superman, and Superman will never be wrong, I don’t care about watching him fight villains because his external conflicts are no more interesting than that of any other hero, and almost any other hero will have an internal conflict to bring to the table as well.

But why is it that flaws and the internal conflict stemming from them are what make a hero interesting in the first place? Because those are the things that move characters from people I can sympathize with to people I can empathize with. For a long time, I wasn’t a fan of Captain America because he struck me as another hero who is little more than the embodiment of good poured into a red, white, and blue costume. But once Captain America was brought to present day and had to contend with being a man out of time, I was completely engrossed. Trying to find a place in a world that has so greatly surpassed the core beliefs around which his whole identity had been built is an internal conflict rich enough to make me care for Steve Rogers, and more importantly, it invites me to put myself in his shoes by making him vulnerable in a relatable way. I can imagine how he feels because his emotional struggles are universal even if his specific circumstances aren’t, but I can’t say the same about Superman since he has little to no emotion to struggle with.

At this point, I suppose it’s only fair for me to point out there’s technically one incarnation of Superman that I do like, but it’s one so markedly different from any other representation I’ve seen that I honestly don’t think of it as the same character. Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son imagining a world in which Superman fell to Earth in Soviet Russia rather than the U.S. manages to put aside the hero’s perfection by making Superman a tool in a society he wants to actually belong to. Instead of willfully holding himself apart from humanity, Red Son features a Superman who recognizes he’s a cog in a machine and yearns to be something more. Reading Red Son was the first and only time I’ve seen a Superman with that kind of emotional depth and realism, which makes it the first and only time I’ve ever felt I could relate enough to what Superman was feeling to care about him.

Jen Krueger: Permanent Pop Culture

Jen Krueger: Permanent Pop Culture

My friend Dave has decided to get a tattoo of a Recognizer from Tron. It’ll be his first (and probably only) tattoo, and I wasn’t at all surprised that’s what he wanted when finally making the plunge into getting ink. But while it’s far from the first time I’ve encountered the idea of a pop culture tattoo, Dave’s Recognizer is the first instance of a pop culture tattoo that hasn’t made me cringe a little bit.

Don’t get me wrong, I love tattoos. It’s just that, oxymoronic as it may sound, I’m kind of traditional when it comes to them. I dig the old maritime culture of tattoo designs that are like badges of particular skills or experiences, and while I don’t have anything against the idea of getting ink just for fun or decorative adornment, I tend to look at tattoos today more as an opportunity to represent something meaningful and personal. So no matter how well done the tattoos themselves are, whenever I’ve seen photos of Marvel back pieces, Disney sleeves, or Nintendo chest pieces, my first reaction tends to be an assumption that they’ll one day be regretted. As much as I may love certain comics, movies, or games, I’ve found it hard to imagine someone would really want the Avengers, a collection of princesses, or a bunch of video game bosses on them forever.

That being said, I didn’t bat an eyelash when my friend James decided on a Fahrenheit 451 tattoo. Ray Bradbury is his favorite author, and Fahrenheit 451 his favorite Bradbury work, so the burning paper man illustration from one of the Fahrenheit 451 covers struck me as the perfect choice for James when it came to putting an image permanently on his body. But if it’s this easy for me to understand getting a tattoo that references a book, shouldn’t a tattoo referencing a comic, movie, or game be just as easy for me to understand? After all, they’re all pieces of entertainment, and I’m sure there are people who love the Hulk or Ariel or Mario just as much as James loves Bradbury. If I cringe at the idea of a pop culture tattoo but like the idea of a literary one, am I being a snob?

I don’t think so. Because I don’t think it really has anything to do with the content at all. It’s actually about the relationship to the content, and how likely that relationship is to change.

Get me talking about Doctor Who and it’s immediately apparent I’m a huge fan. It’s definitely my favorite show, has been for a number of years at this point, and I’d even go so far as to say the Doctor is one of the best television characters I’ve ever encountered. But no matter how much I love Doctor Who, I’d never consider getting a Who tattoo. Even though I’ll likely always love the episodes I do at this moment, the still-evolving state of the franchise means I can’t be sure I’ll always love the show as a whole. If I put a TARDIS on my arm today and next season goes in a direction I hate, I not only get disappointed by a show I love, I also get a permanent reminder of that disappointment. Comics and video games go through the same amount of (if not more) evolution as TV shows, and though non-franchise movies are less likely to be subjected to it, the popularity of the reboot is high enough that I’d be hard-pressed to be positive a movie I love won’t end up mangled in the future with a remake or sequel.

Books, on the other hand, are obviously much less fluid. Sure, a series of novels can go through as much evolution as a TV show, comic, movie franchise, or game franchise, but with fewer hands at the helm of a series of novels than tend to be involved in most other forms of entertainment, I find it easier to assume I’ll like the next book in a series than I do to assume I’ll like the next offering of something I’ve previously enjoyed in one of these other fields. Shift the focus to stand-alone novels, and I can say with certainty that whenever my feelings about a book have changed, they’ve only become more positive over time. If there was an obvious and simple visual to be pulled from my favorite book, I probably would’ve gotten a tattoo of it years ago because I can be so confident my love for it is a lifelong love.

So what was it about Dave’s Recognizer tattoo idea that kept me from cringing? Knowing that for him, the tattoo is about more than Tron. His love for the movie stems not just from the film itself, but also from the fact that his first experience with it was special because of who shared it with him. This kind of love for a piece of entertainment is the caveat I was overlooking in the past when considering pop culture tattoos, and it’s made me realize there may have been more meaning to some ink I’ve seen and assumed wasn’t very personal. From now on, I’ll look a little harder for the story behind these kind of tattoos. But if there isn’t one to be found, I won’t feel bad about reverting to a cringe.

Jen Krueger: Mass, er, Mask Appeal

Jen Krueger: Mass, er, Mask Appeal

A couple weeks ago, I tweeted the rankings I’d give recent comic book movie baddies when it comes to how alluring I find them. Bane took a solid first place, but the gap between the Winter Soldier in second and Loki in third was miniscule. I jokingly added the conclusion to be drawn is that I’m attracted to men with their faces covered or long dark hair (which often obscures a face in its own right), but the thought of masked villains versus unmasked villains kept popping into my mind days later. I realized that the joke I’d made stemmed out of a true preference for bad guys wearing masks, and started to wonder why I like my antagonists so much more when I can see so much less of their face.

The easy answer, of course, is that wearing a mask makes someone mysterious, and anyone from teenage girls to pickup artists could tell you being mysterious is an age-old way to attract others. It’s just human nature to be curious about what someone is thinking, and the more difficult it is to deduce what that might be, the more curious about it we become. Sure, I still like the Winter Soldier in the scenes where he has no mask on in the latest Captain America movie, but in comparison to his masked scenes, my interest in him was almost halved.

By this logic, popping a mask on a character should be a surefire way to get me more invested in him. I thought about other comic book movies and realized that logic does indeed hold…except when it comes to heroes. Give me a scene of Iron Man in his full suit, and a scene of Iron Man either with his face shield down or the camera POV inside the suit with him, and I’ll enjoy the latter option more every time. I find it much more difficult to care about Spider-Man when he’s in his full costume than I do when he’s not wearing his mask. And as much as I like Captain America in his latest movie, put on his mask and I find him downright silly. But if I love masks on villains, why is my response to masks on heroes the polar opposite?

Probably because I need something much different from a hero than I do from a villain. Ideally I should be rooting for the hero of a comic book movie, and it might seem like this is a pretty easy thing to get the audience to do since protagonists in this kind of film tend to be on an irrefutably “good” mission that more or less amounts to saving the world. But with goals that usually boil down to the same altruistic point, I find the mission of any individual comic book movie protagonist rarely varies enough from other works in the genre to get me invested in the achievement of the hero’s goal. It’s enticing me to care about the individual emotional journey of a hero that will get me truly rooting for a protagonist, and to care about what Tony Stark or Peter Parker or Steve Rogers are going through, I need to be able to empathize with them. Their faces are a gateway to their emotions, so connecting with their internal struggle is infinitely easier when they’re not wearing a mask. It makes them more real, and thus makes it more likely I’ll be able to put myself in their shoes.

And that’s exactly what I don’t want when it comes to a comic book movie antagonist. I want the baddie swearing to burn the world down to seem like he could really do it, but with every piece of emotional information revealed about a villain, he becomes more of a real person and less of a threatening force. If I can put myself into the baddie’s shoes, it’s easier to sense not only what he’s going to do, but also what the limits of his capabilities are. Throwing up a wall between me and a villain’s emotional state in the form of a mask, though, helps to keep the baddie mysterious and unpredictable. Sure, this mysteriousness may often translate into me finding a villain physically attractive, but more importantly it means I find the role narratively attractive.

Narrative attractiveness is much harder to rank, though. I’d definitely need more than 140 characters for that.

Jen Krueger: What Is Dead May Never Die

Jen Krueger: What Is Dead May Never Die

Spoiler warning: read no further if you haven’t caught up with the season two premiere of Orphan Black!

When it comes to character body count by the end of a first season of TV, Orphan Black is no slouch. Considering the hook of the pilot involves a woman witnessing her doppelganger jump in front of a train, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that by the end of episode ten, the list of dead characters is of a decent length and appears to still be growing. But even though the season one finale added Helena to the show’s list of killed roles, the end of the season two premiere scratches her right back off that list seconds before cutting to the credits. Usually I don’t like seeing characters purported to be dead waltzing back into a tale, and I certainly didn’t like it in this case.

I loved it.

A big part of why I generally can’t stand watching supposedly dead characters brought back to narrative life is that faux deaths meant to fool the audience are almost always too transparent. Watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I was surprised the movie would bother trying to convince viewers that Nick Fury was actually dead. Even taking public real world knowledge out of the equation by ignoring the fact that this movie is only the sixth of Samuel L. Jackson’s nine-picture deal with Marvel Studios, Fury is obviously too important to the Marvel Universe to be unceremoniously killed in the middle of the Phase Two releases. Since it’s one of few things I can imagine making Captain America and Black Widow truly trust and rely on each other, I don’t quibble with the movie letting the other characters think the attempt on Fury’s life was successful. But trying to fool the audience into the same misapprehension ruined the emotional resonance this might otherwise have had for me by making the scene in which Black Widow says goodbye to what she believes to be Fury’s dead body seem like it was less about her character than it was about the movie attempting to provide enough evidence to trick the audience into believing Fury’s death. Faux character deaths are too often accompanied by this kind of overt attempt at selling them to the audience, and with a hand clearly trying to pull the wool over my eyes, I’m not likely to look at anything else.

But that isn’t to say I never care about character deaths when I can tell they’re fake. All it takes to get me to feel for characters that falsely believe somebody’s dead is for the story to simply back off the hard sell about the supposed demise. In Pacific Rim, I had no doubt Mako and Raleigh would have a happy ending, but I still got choked up watching Mako think she lost Raleigh in the last few minutes of the movie. I didn’t buy that he was dead, and I may even have thought to myself that Raleigh actually being dead would make the narrative stronger (I know, I know, I have a real dark streak), but I was able to see the ending as a trope of the genre rather than a genuine attempt at surprising me with his survival, because I didn’t feel like the movie was trying to convince me Raleigh was dead. Even when I’m moved by a fake death though, I can’t help but think how much more I’d enjoy whatever I’m watching or reading if the story managed to unfold without clear attempts at fooling me as Pacific Rim does, yet somehow actually get one over on me in the end as well.

And that’s where Orphan Black hits it out of the park. I was genuinely surprised to see Helena stumble into a hospital at the end of the season two opener after watching Sarah shoot her and presumably leave her for dead in the season one finale. The show didn’t treat Helena’s assumed death with any more or less weight than other deaths that had preceded it, and by not trying to dictate my assumptions about Helena’s fate, Orphan Black kept me from realizing there was anything to assume other than Helena’s actual demise. Of course, just successfully surprising me isn’t enough to make me feel positively about a character returning after seeming to die. In fact, there’s probably no faster way to lose my goodwill as a reader or viewer than by surprising me with the return of a character all logic dictates should be dead (*cough cough* Shameless season four).

Giving credit where credit is due, Tatiana Maslany is so phenomenal in every one of the many roles she plays on Orphan Black that I was ecstatic to realize I’d be seeing more of Helena after all. Sure, there are plenty of other clones with which to watch Maslany show off her acting chops, but she manages to portray each role so uniquely that I sometimes forget I’m watching the same actress in several parts. This made the thought of Helena dying feel like a big loss to the cast, and also makes me think I’d even be fine with the show bringing back other clones that have been offed in previous episodes. It’s a rare case in which my emotional investment overrides narrative logic, but when a show gets me this hooked on its characters, I’m more than happy for the narratively dead to rise so that I can be fooled. Heck, pop a blonde wig on Maslany to give her the part and I’d even accept Aynsley being resurrected.

Jen Krueger: Binge Reading Comics

A friend of mine has multiple subscriptions at multiple comic book shops. He gets excited for every new issue, and has been consuming comics this way for most of his life. Try as I might, I just can’t understand this, though not because this fervor for comics is foreign to me. It’s the issue by issue thing that I’ve never been able to come around on.

Maybe some of this stems from the way I was introduced to comics. Years ago, I saw Neil Gaiman do a reading of short story and poetry material at the Printer’s Row Book Fair, and the first booth I stopped at afterwards had the The Sandman graphic novels for sale. It was the first time I’d seen the name of an author I knew on a graphic novel, and having been so entertained by that author only minutes before, I figured I’d give this foreign format of storytelling a shot. I read it in one sitting and couldn’t get my hands on the next trade fast enough. By the end of the month, I’d devoured the whole series and become interested in finding other comics I’d enjoy even half as much as I had loved The Sandman.

But even as a comic book convert actively looking for more to read, I just couldn’t bring myself to start with anything short of a trade or graphic novel because single issues of comics have always struck me as unfulfilling, just bite-sized bits of big stories. (more…)

Jen Krueger: Sitcom Love

Pam Halpert

Pam Halpert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the list of things I originally expected from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, emotional resonance isn’t to be found. With a former Saturday Night Live cast member as the lead, I figured the show would be goofy (in a good way) and peppered with cameos from comedians. While these expectations were met early in the first season, the thing I’ve come to like most about the show is the slowly developing romantic storyline between Jake (Andy Samberg) and Amy (Melissa Fumero). But as much as I’ve enjoyed the pining these characters both think is unrequited, I keep reminding myself not to get my hopes up too much about the future of this storyline since sitcom love rarely flourishes in an enjoyable way.

I’m not sure there’s a single narrative show on TV that doesn’t have at least one romantic storyline, but very few half-hour comedies seem comfortable letting their characters actually get together. The Office was getting so much mileage out of Jim and Pam wanting each other but not being together that even after Jim put his cards on the table in “Casino Night” (sorry, couldn’t resist), the show kept inventing reasons to keep them apart. And though I’m about as big of a fan as you can find of the slow burn approach to the development of relationships in TV, I hate it when the hurdles a couple must leap feel like they’ve been put there just for the sake of adding more hurdles. Jim transferring to Stamford smacked of artificially inserted conflict, and I never bought that he’d bother keeping up a relationship with Karen after returning to Scranton and finding Pam single. And since it was inevitable that Jim and Pam would get together in the end, it drove me nuts that the show was delaying the one thing I so badly wanted to see.

I’m sure the prevailing TV wisdom behind keeping love unrequited (or at the very least, requited but unfulfilled) is that two people pining for each other provides more avenues for conflict than a happy couple does. But to that I say, watch almost any episode of Mad About You. Yes, it’s an older show that’s pretty different from the way sitcoms are today, but it’s also a show that holds up because its characters are solid and the storylines rarely depend on problems between Paul and Jamie. With the exception of the season in which their marriage is on the rocks (which also happens to be the worst season of the show), Mad About You manages to find enough conflict for the Buchmans to face as individuals or as a unit without having to resort to artificially driving a wedge between the two of them.

So if it’s entirely possible to have a happy couple in a sitcom, why do so many shows draw out storylines about couples getting together? Perhaps the difference lies in where the relationships are in the pilot. Mad About You begins with married protagonists, so the show never has to get the audience to root for the relationship to start. When a sitcom spends time building toward the genesis of a romance, though, maybe there’s a fear of viewers losing interest as soon as the hook up they’ve been waiting for finally happens. This would certainly explain the inevitably ensuing forced relationship conflict in the cases where characters actually do get together, like the “problems” Jim and Pam faced in the final season of The Office. But this way of artificially extending the will-the-won’t-they element always strikes me as undermining the depth of feeling established during the rise of a TV romance.

I have to admit, I was surprised to see Jake confess his feelings to Amy in the first season finale of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I expected the show to draw out his pining for her well into the second season, but I was pleased to see Jake fess up sooner than I anticipated. And since the writers not only bypassed some of the romantic roadblocks I assumed were on the horizon, but bypassed them with a scene so sweet that I was genuinely touched by it, I’m hoping the show will continue to put the quality of Jake and Amy’s relationship arc over empty gambits at delaying them from getting together. And if season two starts with Amy welcoming Jake back only to learn he started dating someone while on his undercover mission, let’s just say Rosa’s disposition will look sunny compared to my reaction.