Month: April 2014

Worst Best Picture: Is The Departed Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 2006 winner The Departed. Is it better than Crash?

What is there to say about Martin Scorsese that hasn’t already been said?

He’s arguably the most-acclaimed living director in America. He made Taxi Driver. His reputation speaks for itself, so it’s surprising that The Departed was his first Best Picture Oscar win.

The Departed is the story of two moles: One is a real cop embedded into a fake life of crime and the other is a fake cop raised to infiltrate the police to protect organized crime. It provides the necessary interesting twists and it plays with the idea of loyalty and reality. Even though we know Matt Damon is the fake cop and Leonardo DiCaprio is the fake mobster, it’s repeatedly tough to tell who is in too deep. Kurt Vonnegut said it best: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

There’s also Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and Mark Wahlberg as real cops and a series of standard “tough guys” as Jack Nicholson’s crew of bad dudes from Boston. It’s well-acted and immersive, which is tough to do for a movie about mobsters from Boston. It’s a great movie for a reason, but beyond a different take on personal identity and loyalty, there’s not really a whole lot of message.

The Best Part: There are lots and lots of movies like this. The director of Goodfellas and Taxi Driver should be expected to make a sound mob movie in Boston, but it’s still amazing that a good one came out of the late 2000s. It’s only been a few years, but it already seems like 20 versions of this movie came out in about 10 years. Much like how every TV show about a dark hero is going to have a tough time establishing itself as original for awhile, the mob genre is done for a few decades now.

The Worst Part: It feels a little silly to fill this section in on some movies. The Departed isn’t one of my favorite movies, but it’s an outstanding cinematic achievement. It feels slight to even say this, but it’s the last shot of the entire movie. It doesn’t give anything away to say this: Do you really need to have a literal rat scurry across the screen in a movie about two competing informants? The entire plot of the movie is about mixed identity and the duality of “rats.” We get it. After nearly three hours, we get it.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashLike Crash, The Departed has an ensemble cast. There’s a million people in both movies — well, a million men. Crash paints women as evil and petty while The Departed prefers them to be absent. Only two women in The Departed have more than two minutes of screen time, and only one of them does anything more than have sex with Jack Nicholson. Neither movie is a strong contender to pass the Bechdel test. Is absent better than terrible? I guess so. The Departed makes lots of strange choices. Characters turn on and off racism and homophobia to paint the “authenticity” of Boston, but it’s never consistent or dealt with completely. The movie is mostly lots of bar fights and yelling, but it still comes off less cynical than Crash. Even if you leave out all the good parts and take The Departed as just a mean-spirited view of Boston, it’s better.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Oscars.org

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The Wolf of Wall Street is About Excess and Debauchery: Should You See It?

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Stephanie Feinstein

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see The Wolf of Wall Street?

Spoilers, of course.

First of all, this was a really long 180 minutes, and the first 45 are just 2000’s Boiler Room all over again.

This is a true story: The real deal Jordan Belfort wrote a memoir about how he swindled the hell out of America, and Scorsese decided that would make a good movie. But unlike so many other debauchery-focused films, it lacks reflection and remorse.

This lack of victims, of consequence, of remorse, of pain, are my issues with Scorsese’s latest. The movie spirals down a hole of moral ambiguity, drowning in its own self-righteousness.

“But he gets caught!” You might argue, “He pays for his sins!” I disagree. A 36-month stint in a Nevada white-collar prison does not atonement make. Referring to the incarceration as a respite from his money-hungry life, he feels no remorse for what put him there.

There is a lack of remorse for cheating on his first wife, and we see no repercussions of divorce. There is no aftermath of her marriage, no additional hospitality or hurt. No or media backlash; no paparazzi-fueled tabloids.

When his yacht sinks during a hellacious storm, no one is harmed and only the yacht (which I assume to be heavily insured), suffers. His wife is fine, their friends are fine, no crew is lost. The plane coming to rescue them after the wreck? It explodes, killing three people. Do we see the funerals, the anguish of having ruined other lives? No. He does not even openly acknowledge the explosion, glossing over it in a smooth voice over, paving the way for his reluctant sobriety.

The two scenes that most display the lack of morality and compass do not use yachts, planes, or pussy to make a point. When Belfort Lemmon-ludes up and over at the country club, he chooses to drive his expensive-ass car home, despite a total lack of motor skills. He claims to have made it home without a scratch on himself or the gleaming Lamborghini. As the audience, we believe him until officers show up the next day, ready for an arrest.

If this were a tale of moral understanding and growth, more than just a fender and door would be damaged. In screenplay-land, this is the time to show us a bit of blood on the hood and imply that Belfort cost someone more than just their savings. This moral resolution does not appear; the charges of DWI are dropped without evidence.

Another car, a Mercedes with a passenger, and another great display. During Belfort’s slide further down the amoral rabbit hole, his model wife Naomi LaPaglia (Margot Robbie) challenges his life and he flips his shit. Destroying a sofa in search of his “small stash” (what I assume to be about ¼ pound of uncut cocaine), he buries his nose into the powder before snatching up his eldest child and attempting to flee the property. As expected, the car crashes, and although the child is absolutely not large enough or old enough to be in the front seat safely in an accident, no great harm is done.

As before, if this story was to have a lesson — a moral, an actual resolve beyond greed –that child would not have arrived unscathed. But like so many other things, Belfort’s life continues unruffled, no matter what he is facing.

As for the rest of the film, the side characters are by far the best. Cristin Milioti as the suffering first wife (Teresa Petrillo), has a beautiful emotional breakdown after finding DiCaprio’s Belfort cheating. A recent television sensation (she’s the mother in How I Met Your Mother), she plays the Jersey hairdresser delightfully.

Jonah Hill (Donnie Azoff) is another surprising standout, as I was not really expecting much from him (Protip: To understand how I feel about Jonah, please watch 2008’s Strange Wilderness.) His meandering, pseudo-improvised diatribes are often humorous, but feel disjointed. It was great to see him jacking off at the party, smoking crack, or rip-torn on blow and pills, but the “chops” didn’t feel as genuine.

Anyone out there remember Early Edition? Crime solving with psychic newspapers? Kyle Chandler remembers, as he plays ineffectual FBI agent Patrick Denham in Wolf, making little money and an even smaller impact in the financial world. (His will-they-won’t-they bribe scene is pretty great.). Would the story be stronger if Chandler was again paired with a psychic newspaper? Maybe.

The cameos of television actors don’t end there, as Kenneth Choi (Sons of Anarchy), Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead) and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) make appearances with different ends. The addition of seasoned veterans Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, and Jean Dujardin rounds out the strong cast, but no one can save the film. Even the real Jordan Belfort, cleverly hidden in the end as an announcer in Auckland, cannot give enough gravitas or remorse to save it all.

Best Part: Matthew McConaughey’s Mark Hanna. A single real scene, the introduction of drugs, a weirdly racist chest thumping, and the drive of the all-mighty dollar, McConaughey was better than the movie deserved. I wanted so much for him to return in the end, check up on Jordan, challenge him in some way, but to no avail. The chest-thumping remains, but McConaughey leaves us far too soon.

 2nd Best Part: DiCaprio’s worm flailing at the country club. Hilarious, as well as a great look at an actor not known for his physicality in roles (Gilbert Grape notwithstanding.) The fact it so delightfully mimicked his dancing at his wedding made it all the better.

Overall: In the kidnapping-car crash, Jordan receives a small wound on his forehead, and a trickle of blood is our only real indication of his pain. We see no recovery, no regret, no growth.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort bleeds, but it is never enough.

Should You See It? (Well, now rent it): Sure. I will say that I am super-duper glad I did not see this in theaters, as the debauchery of it all would have been too great, with no great Hunter S. reflection. At home, on the sofa, it’s a great watching experience. The story is surprisingly fun, once you get past all the moral ineptitude.

Stephanie Feinstein yells at her television daily, and you will never change that. You can challenge her at stephanie.feinstein@gmail.com.

Should I Read This: The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry Winner 3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri

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Austin Duck

As the committees announced the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry this month, we find ourselves once again in that season where, all of a sudden, people read a book of poems. Sure, it’s only one (and usually not the best one of the year), but hey one figures, all these poor suckers are writing these books that maybe five hundred people ever read, and if this one has made it atop this year’s pile of dreams (a la the scene in World War Z) we might as well. Maybe we’ll feel something.

If you’re feeling this way, 3 Sections might not be for you. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read it—really, it’s astonishing—but, in 3 Sections, Seshadri grapples not with the known, reducing the world to something we can see or hear or think; there are no easy answers or feelings of beauty or satisfaction in these poems. Yes, they’re beautiful, yes, they’re satisfying, but, in some ways, his subject matter is so foreign, so simultaneously abstract and concrete that even when you make it through a poem, or the book, or the book twice, it seems to have been a dream, a dream you didn’t understand, a dream that gestures and satisfies at the very idea that, if you understood something, you’ve dominated, destroyed, and reconstructed it in your own image; that astonishment and beauty and meaning in the world luxuriate all around us inaccessible, and that that is the pleasure, to see and fail to assimilate it, to feel the meaning slip always through your fingers. Like I said, not, conceptually, a very simple book, nor a book in which the author has much chance of succeeding.

I mean, it doesn’t take a philosopher to see the logical problem of making a book in which poem after poem (each, in and of itself, a meaning machine) concludes unable to make meaning, or makes meaning of not being able to make meaning, not being able to know, always just outside of the world taking place before the mind. Add to that the collection itself, 3 Sections, is not actually delineated into three sections and you wind up less with what you might consider classically as a book of poems (title, body, meaning / title, body, meaning), or a logical piece of work, precisely because both logic and “classical definitions” are ways of understanding the world by categorization and rules, both of which assume that we truly know the world. Rather Seshadri crafts a story about failed attempts, of trying and failing to break into what we think of as the “sensible” world in which we know how to make meaning, precisely because we allow our minds to to categorize and sort things we don’t understand.

What we get instead is a book unable to separate itself out, or, in case some of you think about books as put together by an external author, unable to be separated. While it parses like this—a bunch of short poems, then a long prose piece about commercial salmon fishing, and then a really long philosophical poem—and while each of the pieces does have its own title, its own thud of meaning, we have a singular mind working its way through a singular problem so that the “sections” seem formal rather than thematic, new approaches to the same problem, new strategies that land in different, though (in many ways) equivalent valences of failure of access to the world.

I know that I’ve talked about this book very abstractly, and for that, I apologize. Here’s an alternative way to consider this book and its project: Imagine you’re looking at a very beautiful woman (or man) by whom, inexplicably, you’re filled with an enormous amount of feeling and affection. At this point, if you’re in any way conscious of what it means to fantasize about someone, you acknowledge that there are two paths you can take: 1) you can project your dream of them, all of your ideas and fantasies about who they are and what their life means onto them, or 2) you can accept the frustrating, terrifying reality that they are only, exclusively themselves, and that, no matter what happens, or how much you pay attention, all you will ever come to is that what they are, what they think and feel and what makes them beautiful is entirely inaccessible to you, and that that singularity, that inaccessibility, that inability to ever know something well enough to separate out its parts and to theorize it, is exactly what makes it beautiful and astonishing and worth looking at and trying towards again and again.

In many ways, this is a book of prayers, a book of trances, a book in which, ultimately, things can only be seen exactly and perfectly and separately as they are. It’s not a pleasant book because the mind in the world is not pleasant; the mind wants to steal from the world, to make comfort and simple beauty, and to ask god what’s the meaning of life and to get a satisfactory, comprehensible answer, and the world and god refuse. Seshadri’s 3 Sections is a story of how to live in that refusal.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

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The Need to Achieve: One Finger Death Punch

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Matt Matuszak and Brent Hopkins

In our new feature The Need to Achieve, two friends who don’t always see eye-to-eye evaluate a game they’ve both played just for the achievements. Beating 100% of a game can be both challenging and frustrating… How does One Finger Death Punch stack up?

First up on the list of games we have the dreams of attaining 100% in is One Finger Death Punch, an indie game that came out on Steam this year. The game was developed by Silver Dollar Games, which has a history of making low-budget games that tend to receive equally low-budget reviews. OFDP is the game that breaks the mold and has received rave reviews from media outlets because the concept is simple and pulled off intuitively.

Gameplay

Brent: C-
Matt: D (at best)

Brent: OFDP has you use the left and right mouse buttons to attack stick-men that converge on your character from the left or right side of the screen. One button press yields one punch, and through patterns you complete a variety of levels. This is akin to many rhythm games where memorization and rote muscle movement yield success.

The actual game itself is a bit of a mess. There are three difficulties, around six stage types, and over 100 stages to complete. You unlock special abilities (most of which are horribad) by beating stages. That means you will have to play this game a lot to get everything. This game gets old instantly and the stage variety is misleading, as half of them are filters added to obscure information and the other half are standard levels with either boss enemies or fast-moving weak enemies. This game is a grind and it loses its luster by the time you finish the tutorials.

Matt: OFDP starts off with five tutorial levels to explain that left click hits left and right click hits right. This should take 15 seconds to explain, but the developers must have thought they truly needed to teach everyone the difference between left and right. Once you get through the five tutorial levels, you get to just do the same thing 100+ more times because you’ve already done everything the game has to offer in those first five levels. You spend more time looking at where the enemy is coming from than watching the kung-fu moves your character is performing on the enemies.

Controls 

Brent: A
Matt: A

Brent: Since everything is one-to-one, the controls are as good as the user. You can’t really ask for tighter controls than this.

Matt: I’m going to agree with Brent because left is left and right is right; it doesn’t get any more complex.

Sound/Music

Brent: F
Matt: F

Brent: The commentator in this game is horrible. He uses a fake Asian sensei accent and constantly babbles during the game. Worse yet, even if you turn off the sounds they immediately turn back on when the game starts up. The music was equally grating to me and I found that I instantly turned both off. The in-game sound effects (which you can’t turn off) are OK and help you keep up with the fighting on screen. The whole game is a bit too loud though, and I think Silver Dollar Games tried a bit too hard to make the game feel and sound like a old kung-fu movie and instead just made it sound grating.

Matt: This is the worst part of the game for me; there is no actual sound volume control. You have mute or not mute in the startup, but this data doesn’t save to your local machine so it always turns on when you start the game. The in-game sound effects are OK but the basic breaking or punching sound effects just play over and over again.

Story

Brent: F-
Matt: F

Brent: If there is a story I completely missed it for the last few hours I played this game. You are a stick man and you traverse levels, beat bosses, and learn kung-fu techniques. There is no development beyond that, though I suppose the game doesn’t require it.

Matt: There is no story in this game. You are a stick man that just has to fight the same things over and over again for no apparent reason.

Graphics

Brent: B+
Matt: C-

Brent: The game is very similar in style to the stick man fighting Flash videos made popular by Xiao Xiao in the early 2000s.

We know you all remember this.

This simplicity in design makes the game run smoothly and makes you feel like you’re playing as a stick man bad-ass. There are a variety of animations used, so it isn’t just jab left and jab right. The animations are smooth, though the way the game play works you don’t truly get to take in the action.

Matt: This is a very simple 2D game. There won’t ever be knockout graphics in a 2D game. However, they did a good job with the background imaging — which you will only notice if you can look up for longer than a second before another enemy comes from the left or right. The models for your character and enemies are both differently shaded stick figures.

Achievements

Brent: F
Matt: F

Brent: This is where the money is at. I chose this game without looking at the achievement list and that was a bit of a (huge) mistake. This game has 152 achievements and around half of them are easy to get on the lowest difficulty level. The other achievements are the ridiculous, as they ask you to kill THOUSANDS of enemies in a row on an endless mode with ever-increasing speed. Doing the normal levels with 200 enemies is crap, but trying to do 7000 is tiring to say the least.

Matt: I love out-of-reach achievements, so a game that has one extremely hard-to-get achievement I can appreciate. This game has 25 extremely hard-to-obtain achievements out of 152. 17% of the game’s achievements are near unobtainable unless you play a few hundred hours, and the gameplay isn’t worth a few hundred hours.

Overall

Brent: D
Matt: F

Brent: Too many achievements, repetitive gameplay, and sound that will make you pause and step outside are too much for me to recommend this game for hardcore gamers or achievement hunters. It’s a great casual game for some time-wasting, though.

Matt: Don’t buy this game! There are better games that meet the casual indie genre that have more story in the first five minutes of game than this entire game does. I dreaded having to play this game to write about it and am upset it lowered my average game completion percentage on my Steam profile.

Worst Best Picture: Is Rain Man Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1988 winner Rain Man. Is it better than Crash?

Rain Man is complicated.

Even if you haven’t seen it,  you’re no doubt aware of Dustin Hoffman’s character on a basic level. He plays Raymond “Rain Man” Babbitt, the autistic brother of Tom Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt. It’s an iconic performance that locked up 1988’s Oscar in a way that few individual efforts before or since have.

Rain Man is terrific, but Hoffman’s performance is what really sticks with you when you watch it 25 years later. He sells the distress and the panic and the wonder of the condition so totally. It’s a full figure of a person just as much as “Rain Man” is a shorthand for the condition of autism itself. It’s a delicate topic — many Oscar-winners are about delicate topics, but few are about something like mental illness — and it’s handled in a way that holds up a quarter century later. This is an accomplishment all by itself, and it struck me as similar to the high points of the much-earlier Gentleman’s Agreement‘s handling of race.

In Rain Man, Tom Cruise’s character is forced to reunite with a brother he doesn’t know he has. It combines the classic “road movie” tropes with the “long-lost person” ones as Cruise drives Dustin Hoffman across the country to LA. Along the way he learns a little bit about autism and even more about himself. That sentence feels sappy and reductive, but it’s the high school book report summation of the “feelings” in Rain Man.

Most of the supporting roles have suffered with the passing of time — it’s especially strange to see some scenes where people appear to have never acted in their life just delivering bland line readings — but Cruise and Hoffman play the two sides of human experience so perfectly. Cruise is an interesting choice for a villain here and honestly, a mostly-evil protagonist is an interesting choice overall. It works because there are so many sad pieces to connect in Rain Man. “Meet your brother and try to earn back the three million bucks from Dad’s will” is a pretty fantastical plot,  but “learn to live with your family and your place in it” is something much simpler to understand and believe.

The Best Part: The reverse arcs of Tom Cruise becoming less worldly and Dustin Hoffman becoming a bigger part of the outside world are excellent. It’s the exact kind of obvious development that feels terrible when it’s over-messaged. There aren’t moments where people look into the camera and explain the pain and the difficulty, so they feel less like plot points and more like actual, impactful parts of a life. I always think of the worst version of this: In Man on the Moon, Danny DeVito is forced to say “You’re insane… but you might also be brilliant.” Rain Man is never that insulting.

The Worst Part: Surprisingly, it’s the iconic casino scene. It may be the only one you’re sure to know if you haven’t seen it. Tom Cruise takes his brother to Vegas and exploits his autism to count cards at blackjack. The scene starts with them testing it out on the back of a car. As soon as Cruise is satisfied it will work, they loudly peel out with the cards fluttering in the wind and the dust. The next scene opens with a full montage of both of them getting suits and haircuts. It’s full 80s in the worst way, and it’s ridiculous out of time. It’s bonkers and it immediately dates what is otherwise a really powerful, timeless story. Seriously, watch it.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It is better. I’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s wrong with Crash as a Best Picture winner. Crash is an awkward, meandering few hours of cinema by itself, but it’s when you compare it to the great accomplishments of the artform that it really looks bad. Tom Cruise in Rain Man and Matt Dillon in Crash have similar character arcs. Both men have lives where they can choose to either become better parts of society or continue on in their own ways. Both choose a form of redemption after decidedly not choosing redemption, but Dillon comes off much worse. Rain Man is about bettering yourself for your family, Crash is about needing a miracle just to care about the world at all.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Oscars.org

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: The Short Stories of George Saunders

Author George Saunders

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

George Saunders is one of the greatest short story writers alive today. He is currently positioned to become a household name (well, in houses lined with books), but he has been killing it for nearly two decades. The New York Times hailed his latest short story collection, The Tenth of December, as the “best book you’ll read this year.” Saunders came to the art by a strange path. He graduated from college in 1981 with a B.S. in geophysical engineering and spent some time prospecting for an oil company in Indonesia. He then found a job as a technical writer for an environmental engineering company. By the late 90s, he’d published CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and had gotten a professorship at Syracuse. His unorthodox literary training leads to a fresh and interesting style. Saunders himself describes the phenomenon as “just me working inefficiently, with flawed tools, in a mode I don’t have sufficient background to really understand. Like if you put a welder to designing dresses.”

A welder-designed dress would at least be an interesting and new thing, and that’s what Saunders’ stories are. The humor, language usage, and emotional impact of his stories are what makes them powerful. Saunders employs dark humor and tragicomedy to great effect. This feature of his stories has drawn comparisons between him and Kurt Vonnegut, and like Kurt Vonnegut, some of his humor is laugh-out-loud entertaining, but it is mostly the humor that comes from the sudden revelation of a deep truth, humor that does not manifest in laughter but in a swift body-blow to something a lot deeper in you than simple amusement. It is absurd humor, and it mostly arises from horrifying situations and people living through them as if they were more or less normal. The best example of this humor comes from the first sentence of “The 400-Pound CEO”

At noon another load of raccoons comes in and Claude takes them out back of the office and executes them with a tire iron.

Murdering animals is not ha-ha funny, but the shock of that situation, the world of the story in which a company exists that surreptitiously murders raccoons with automotive maintenance implements, and the realization that, if it were lucrative, there would probably be a company in real life that did exactly that, combine to create a much more profound, more affecting, and less flashy humor than the standard fare.

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You would not believe the profit margin on these things

Another example, from “Tenth of December,” is the interior monologue of a not-too-bright kid who is remembering his runaway father:

Dad had once said, Trust your mind, Rob. If it smells like shit but has writing across it that says Happy Birthday and a candle stuck down in it, what is it?

Is there icing on it? he’d said.

Dad had done that thing of squinting the eyes when an answer was not quite there yet.

Sure, basic humor comes from how stupid the kid is. Stupidity is a very deep well for amusement, but couched and laced throughout that more mundane entertainment is deep emotional involvement. The dad is gone, the kid is remembering his advice, the kid has to deal with being stupid, and the kid is remembering his dad “squinting his eyes” as he most likely thinks about how stupid his son is, which dealing with fatherly disappointment is par for the course vis-a-vis life, but this boy’s father actually kicked standard disappointment up to abandonment.

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Delicious.

The language Saunders favors tends to be simple and immediate, as most of his narrators spend a lot of time relaying the stream-of-consciousness of his main characters, and very few people think with showboating words while navigating the trenches of actual life. The informal style and immediacy add punch to the emotional impact, so the reader experiences what the character experiences with very little processing lag or separation. More so than simple language, the situations and descriptions of the characters creates a massive emotional impact. Saunders does not choose as his subject big heroes and villains. He explores not the grandness of exalted victory or crushing defeat, but the petty brokenness of everyday life and the small consolations wrested from it, which is what most people actually deal with. These small consolations are affecting because they are all we can manage, but also, if we shift our perspective, all we need.

It just so happens that a lot of his stories are science fiction. I got a chance to ask him about his sci-fi chops, and he responded that he wasn’t a superfan (as in, he has not seen every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation), but that he really enjoyed writing in that mode and that it helped break you out of lame writing and bad habits, which, yes, a lot of self-consciously literary books are full of lame writing and bad habits (I really hated the 100 pages I read of that book). Saunders’ writing style is mostly absurd and surrealistic. Many of his stories are full of ghosts, ridiculous people, and nonsensical events. In a decent number of these stories, the enhanced-reality style turns to science fiction. Why am I reviewing this author as a science fiction author if he just dips his beak in every few stories? He is quite simply one of the best practitioners of the form. One of the methods by which SF gains it power is cognitive estrangement, wherein the author presents a reality that is clearly different from the empirical environment of both the author and the reader, but is a plausible extension of it. In this dynamic, the clash between the world of the story and the real world brings heightened clarity to the readers’ perception how things actually are. Saunders’ SF is great at this. It is only a hop, a skip, and a jump into the future, and only extrapolates the technologies and societal norms that form the most rampant pathologies at play in U.S. culture today, namely capitalism and fear. One story takes the form of a sales representative from KidLuv trying to dissuade a dissatisfied mother from returning her I CAN SPEAK!™, which is a molded mask you fit over your infant’s face that, through an implanted speaker, gives the impression that your child can talk. This is of course at the cost of the comfort of the infant. Another chronicles the penalties a man incurs by taking off his shoes to walk more comfortably in NYC, incidentally preventing the advertising sensors in the sidewalks from reading the identification tags in his shoes and projecting the most relevant ads in front of him as he walks.

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Completely implausible storyline.

Another is about a new type of incarceration, where prisoners can opt to go to research stations, receive a MobiPak™ (an implanted drug delivery system) and participate in dangerous pharmaceutical research. The current ascendancy of consumer culture and capitalism make these possible futures all too plausible, and by forcing his readers to consider these futures, he highlights the dehumanizing and unsustainable nature of the present system. Above all, he hammers home the perennial truth, formulated by his forebear, that there’s only one rule: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Read these stories. They hit hard, and they hit deep. Saunders has said that a novel is just a story that hasn’t yet figured out to be brief, and the power behind the brevity of his stories gives a lot of support to that statement. More than anything else I have been reading lately, they have an active effect on what I think and who I am. Read these to be changed, to be awoken. It sounds cliché as all hell to say that, but just because something is cliché does not mean it does not apply, and one of Saunders’ main goals in writing is to break us out of habitual thought patterns and to crack us open to what is really going on – in the world, with other people, within ourselves. If you’re still not convinced, my last shot is one of his quotations about literature, which is one of the most accurate I’ve ever read:

Fiction is a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth. Is life kind or cruel? Yes, Literature answers. Are people good or bad? You bet, says Literature. But unlike other systems of knowing, Literature declines to eradicate one truth in favor of another.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Image: The New York Times

Tough Questions: If You Were On Jeopardy! What Would You and Alex Trebek Talk About?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

If You Were On Jeopardy! What Would You and Alex Trebek Talk About?

Rules are simple: When it finally comes up. When you are finally selected. When you start your ten-day run on America’s favorite game show. When Alex walks over to you and prompts you to tell your life’s story in a few moments. What will you say in the last moments before you make your first million?

Alex Russell

Trebek: You had an interesting run-in overseas?

That’s right. I was 13 and I was lost in Italy. I needed to figure out how to get back to the hotel where my family was, but I didn’t remember anything except my mom’s cell phone number. This is back when pay phones were everywhere, but it’s also so old that Italy was still on the lira. I needed to find some — I guessed about 50 cents worth — of lira. I was really worried and freaked out, but then I found a big bucket of change. I grabbed a handful and went to go make a call when I realized this bucket of change belonged to a lady of the evening. So… that’s how I accidentally robbed what may have been… a professional.

Stephanie Feinstein

Trebek: Stephanie Feinstein, a teacher, comes to us today from humid Memphis. Stephanie, it says here that you made a working loom as a child. Tell us about that.

Me: Well, Alex, as a child I wanted a fully functional, room-sized loom to make small blankets for my dolls. Both expensive and impractical, it was not something Santa was going to bring any time soon. [I laugh, so does Trebek.] So, after watching a PBS special on the Industrial Revolution, I tossed a footstool on its side, set up a weft of acrylic yarn through the legs and handle, and made a shuttle out of cardboard. Then, while watching The Frugal Gourmet, I wove a small lap blanket for Barbie to use on carriage rides. I was about six or seven at the time, and my parents were pretty impressed.

Jonathan May

Trebek: I hear you’ve been editing Wikipedia for a while now. Care to elaborate?

Jon: I’ve been editing seriously on Wikipedia since 2006. Most of my articles cover Austrian and German authors, but I find myself entertaining more and more obscure projects as I go. A lot of people think Wikipedia articles just appear out of the aether, but I probably spend a few hours gathering reliably-sourced material on each subject before I get started. Actually writing the article, putting it into Wiki specifications, and creating citations takes about an hour all together. My next article project is an obscure Japanese silkscreen artist from the early 20th century, so I’ll be hitting the library and online resources hard this summer. Wish me luck!

Mike Hannemann

Mine would be the time I made Barack Obama laugh. He came to my college in… I want to say 2005? He gave a speech in our campus library about the importance of education. It was a pretty decent speech, as I recall. When walking out he shook everyone’s hand and asked for feedback. When he got to me he asked me what I thought about it. I replied with “It was great! But if it gets me out of my American Lit class, I couldn’t care less what you say.” He laughed and said “You missed the point, didn’t you?” This is my Jeopardy! story and I hope, if Obama were on Jeopardy 500 times, he would be reduced to telling the story about some smartass kid he talked to once in Peoria, Illinois.

Andrew Findlay

I have never in my life watched a full episode of Jeopardy!, so to even understand this question, I had to use Google. I ended up reading an NPR article about what it’s like to be on the show. I felt like an alien spy doing desperate pre-landing research to insinuate himself into the cultural life of America. Included in the article was a list of prompt questions you are requested to answer to supply Trebek with banter before appearing on the show. One of them was Brushes with greatness and secret ambitions? We want to hear it. I guess I’ll do that one.

I brushed the greatness of George Saunders. He is the greatest living short story writer. Reading him hits you deep, makes you think, changes you. It is not entertainment, and it is not decoding. It is fresh and harsh and full. It is hard to say how great he is or why he is in so many words. He’s like if you put in a blender the amused old man part of Mark Twain, the “aw shucks let’s discuss mind-shattering truths in real simple talk” part of David Foster Wallace, the hopeful cynicism and tragic humor part of Kurt Vonnegut, and the stark social commentary of all three, then set the blender to amazing.

One of his funniest quotations, just to give a taste (inner monologue of a not-so-bright child):
Dad had once said, Trust your mind, Rob. If it smells like shit but has writing across it that says Happy Birthday and a candle stuck down in it, what is it?
 
Is there icing on it? he’d said.
 
Dad had done that thing of squinting the eyes when an answer was not quite there yet.

Anyway, he came to the Folger Theater in DC to accept the PEN/Malamud award, and I bought tickets. I got drunk beforehand because it’s a good night, cause for celebration, when you meet someone so talented. Attendance was so high that they moved the reading to the church next door, so I ended up schlockered in a church listening to a literary luminary read an excerpt from his latest book (which the New York Times has said is “the best book you’ll read all year”). When he finished reading an excerpt from his book, he took audience questions. He uses a lot of sci-fi in his work, and I asked him a question about it. He said that he wasn’t a superfan, but he enjoyed writing sci-fi stuff and that it was fun and helped break you out of lame writing and bad habits. I swooned. Afterwards, everyone returned to the front hall of the Folger to buy wine and stand in line to have this man put ink in their books. While he was signing, we talked a bit, and I told him about how I read so much now that most of what I think is “Ah. I see what you did there,” but that one story of his in particular took me so completely along with it that I did not have time to think, and it hit me right in the emotional nads (not exact quote). Seems like a really cool guy, but it’s so strange how little I know him and how much I know through his stories.

Brent Hopkins

I think my story would have to be based around moving around so much over the course of my life. Not necessarily living in new areas, but always at least in new apartments and things. I haven’t lived in a place for two years since I was in college and that was because of squatting. I am at about 12-14 different home addresses between two countries so I could carry a conversation about it for awhile.

Backup: My collection of pogs, trading cards, and video games. I would play up the pogs being my true addiction by bringing a carrying case and mat in my coat pocket to challenge Trebek and the other contestants to a commercial break duel.

Symbols and Sociopaths: Hannibal Season 2, Episode 8

hannibal, episode 8

Jonathan May

(As always, massive spoiler alert)

This episode was unremarkable in a number of ways that I do not care to elucidate. We have the character of Margot thrown in, an unnecessary and late-coming red herring if there ever was one. Like most of the women in this show, she merely acts as a soundboard to the male characters, in this case Hannibal. As if to beat a dead horse (ha ha), we also have gratuitous (and not in terms of skin shown) scenes between Hannibal and Dr. Bloom, who has become yet another glass fawn in Lecter’s menagerie.

The dance between Will and Hannibal starts off slow enough in the episode and remains at an agonizingly slow tempo throughout; we learn no new information about their relationship. We head no further down the road of resolution, as we soon should given there are but five episodes left. We still, as I dutifully remind, need to catch up to the frame that opened the season between Jack and Hannibal.

The whole business with Will attempting to kill the social worker sociopath on behalf of the brain-damaged man was abysmal; Hannibal’s explanation of the event concurrent to its unfolding was equally banal. Unless we’re to learn something new through all of this madness, I don’t see the point. The image of the live bird inside the dead woman inside the dead horse was disarming, but just that.

We need to get back to the solid storyline: Hannibal’s eventual discovery and the chase. Throwing in characters at the last minute doesn’t bode well for the arc of the storyline. Let’s hope the story gods bring us back around this Friday.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Hannibal airs Friday nights on NBC. You can read our pieces about previous episodes here.

Image: NBC

Johnny-Come-Lately: America’s Next Top Model, Cycles 9-14

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Jonathan May

Jonathan May grew up in Zimbabwe as a child of missionaries and missed a lot of “important” American things along the way. He chronicles his journey to catch up in a feature called “Johnny-Come-Lately.”

Over the past three weekends, I’ve watched cycles 9-14 of the CW’s America’s Next Top Model, and by God if I haven’t tried to smile with my eyes (“smize”) in the mirror at least a few times during the process. I’ve practiced using my space and being fierce and throwing shade with the very best, Ms. Tyra Banks, in my head. This show would quite literally be nothing without her; she’s never afraid to be goofy and fierce and smoldering, sometimes all in the same five minutes. But that, as she points out, is the essence of being a supermodel: being able to be memorable, yet a chameleon. She emphasizes the three C’s of modeling: catalogue, commercial, and couture. And the girls worship her. Who wouldn’t, with that flawless skin and that bravado?

The show focuses on different types of beauty (plus-size, petite, alien, masculine, strong bone structure) through the different girls picked to enter the competition; every cycle is usually “fair” in its makeup, although that’s a hard task when you’re literally trying to find the most beautiful girl out there. Luckily Tyra and the judges emphasize personality and inner beauty throughout; the girls have to interview and make conversation. They must participate in social graces, sometimes in totally different countries for those girls lucky enough to make it that far. This is very attractive as a quality in the show; rarely does a complete bitch make it to the top two. While being fair to the reality format, the show consistently delivers the message that in order to win in the fashion industry, people need to like you; ergo, don’t be a bitch.

So, we have 13-14 girls who learn about modeling and walking and posing, who get makeovers (there are inevitable tears), who are winnowed down week by week for their participation in challenges, overall attitude and appearance, and weekly photograph challenges. During the course of this madness, the viewer becomes endearingly acquainted with Jay Manuel (creative director of photo shoots) and “Ms. J” Alexander, a fierce modeling coach who works it with the best of the ladies; these two help the girls along to the best of their abilities, but ultimately the girls must want it for themselves the most.

Why do I watch so obsessively? First of all, the judges and coaches show in their own behavior that having a genuine personality is what makes a real top model; girls of all looks and sizes have won the coveted top prize, but they all share the same warmness of a real girl shining through the model. Second, the transformations of the girls are remarkable, both mental and physical; by the end, the girls look and act totally foreign to themselves just weeks prior. The house drama among that many girls of course has its dramatic appeal, but for me, the winners usually aren’t the instigators or the participants in the whole she-said, she-said. Third, girls can literally come from nothing and become something; even the girls who don’t win often receive contracts after appearing on the show. Who doesn’t love a good American Dream story, complete with pretty women? In the end, I like a show that emphasizes the positive aspects of one’s emotional character. I don’t think the show promotes a typical standard of beauty, but rather many types of beauty.

My advice if you want to audition: Know your designers, photographers, and top models. Practice in front of a mirror. Take a look at your wardrobe to see if it’s fresh. And be fierce.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

Bad Last Chapters or How Television is the New Terrible Novel

How I Met Your Mother Finale

 Stephanie Feinstein

Note: Serious spoilers for a bunch of shows, notably How I Met Your Mother, Roseanne, The Sopranos, True Detective, and Breaking Bad.

Devoting seven years to something is a serious commitment. To Hollywood, seven years of marriage is the equivalence of 25 years to mere mortals in lesser zip codes. Seven years of a vice may easily be called an addiction; seven years of school sees a full turn of your DNA. Seven years is literally the length of time one needs to become an entirely new person.

Seven years is too long to hold onto the same story, same ending, same turns. Sure, many an MFA could argue to me that grand books arose out of more than seven years of imaginings, rewrites, and edits, but I shall counter argue that those novels surely found new pathways by the end. An author grows and evolves with his or her work, expanding into the sunshine of new thought and wisdom.

I have a dear friend in the heady throes of editing her first novel for publication, and having known her for more than seven years, she has had to rewrite much as her knowledge and self expanded.

Do not dare to tell me that television writers do not suffer so.

How I Met Your Mother ran for nine seasons, I realize, but it was in its second when I began watching and when the show filmed its ending. According to Alan Sepinwall of HitFix.com, it was also the ending used in the initial sitcom pitch to CBS. It was always supposed to be Robin.

In Austin Duck’s article concerning the teleology of HIMYM, he asserts that the Robin-not-mother ending completes the circular nature of the show, a common feature of sitcom writing. While I will agree that the show, like many others, is highly dependent on circuitous routes within its plot, as viewer and fan, I disagree with the balance of the ending on several accounts. For a show so devoted to wrapping up loose ends, the final episode created more questions. Examples of the queries I have posed to myself and other fans: Who was 31? Didn’t Ted make Robin get rid of the dogs last time? What killed the mother? How long did that illness last? How often does Aunt Robin come over for dinner? So, is Lily a stay-at-home mom now? Does she still work for the Captain? Does Barney have full custody? Did he marry the mother? But I digress from Robin and Ted.

In “Last Forever: How They Conned Us All,” Sepinwall points out that the relationship of Robin and Ted devolves over the nine-season run, turning toxic and incomplete, thus forcing them together at the end leaves the viewer dissatisfied, as we have been told over and over again all the reasons the relationship will not work. I agree, and I use this as my basis for why endings in television are the new terrible novel.

I love terrible novels. Much like Jonathan May loves to hate-watch television, I truly enjoy hate-reading poorly written or executed stories. That may sound harsh, as I have yet to publish anything, much less anything excellent or terrible. But if I can’t be pretentious on a website, then why the hell do I have a degree in literature?

Bad writing can be bad for many reasons: poor editing, bad grammar, sloppy story lines, lost symbolism… the list is really endless. A terrible novel will need more than just bad writing technicalities… it needs to create holes that it cannot fill, force relationships that do not fit, and waste opportunities for symbolism and allusion. HIMYM suffers from a stubbornness to characterization in forcing its ending. The writers cursed themselves from the beginning by deciding exactly how the story would end. A novelist may not be very successful if they begin an epic novel knowing exactly how the story will end, and refusing to ever back down from the singular scenario. Unless one can throw in some seriously killer Edith Wharton twists (Oh, you want to stay Mattie to stay, Ethan? Oh, really? How badly do you want her to stay…?), the completed work will be stilted and forced. If we consider HIMYM as a novel constructed over seven years, the characters have grown in unexpected ways. Lily’s role of mother not only evolves through action, but through reaction, as she steps away from early childhood education into a role of art curator. On screen, the character evolves even further, as Alyson Hannigan has gone through more than one pregnancy in her real life, even when her character was still childless. The written relationship of Robin and Ted blossomed and died over multiple seasons, with varying stages of “this is the last time; I’m really letting go.” In the final season, final episodes, we as viewers witness Ted giving up the role of finder, of hero, of conquering knight. When faced with a vulnerable, scared bride, he is chivalrous, wise, telling her that she is already with the right man. Smiling, Ted explains that he simply must find the right woman for himself, confirming that it is not Robin. For a sitcom, this moment was bittersweet, tainting the usual “happily ever after” endings of today, but I believe that modern audiences want a storyline that can be real. The idea of Ted abandoning the obsessive thought of Robin is comforting to audiences, assuring us that new chances at happiness are possible when we open ourselves to possibility. Ted’s meeting and short relationship with Tracy was sweet, honest, and felt very real. It was also cut awkwardly short to a “And then she got sick, and that was six years ago that we lost her.” “Dad, you should date Aunt Robin!” (Okay, so that is not how the official dialogue went down, but close enough.)

So, the ending of How I Met Your Mother was stilted, forced, and a terrible novel of television. Great until the last chapter, which weirdly dragged, with a cop-out of an ending.

But I’m not done there. How I Met Your Mother is not alone in its novel terribleness. Other terrible novels of television include Roseanne and the “it’s all a damn dream” ending, The Sopranos meets Tristram Shandy‘s inked out page of an ending, and The Wire.

Shut up, all of you. I loved The Wire, and I will argue all damn day that it is far more Shakespearean than Breaking Bad could ever hope to be. Tragic McNulty, the Benvolio-esque Bunk, the shut-the-hell-up-this-is-new-literature showdown between Omar and Brother Mouzone (Michael K. Williams and Michael Potts, respectively)… I love that shit. But the final act of that beautiful play fell flat for me, and left a depressingly Irish-whiskey flavored tang in my throat.

And Breaking Bad! I watched the full run up to the final season in a single summer, with the final season happening in real time. And, I found it less than lackluster. Perhaps it was weak characters, perhaps it was a whole handful of misogynistic men and weak women. But most of all, I really despised the ending. Our final scene of Walter, stripped of his glory as he stumbles among his scientific vats, now worth nothing, tapping the dial fronts of the equipment. Then he falls, a blood stain left across the shiny aluminum surface. Blood loss? Chemical Poisoning? The cancer finally doing him in? We have no idea. (Note: There are not words to express how much I wanted a massive meth explosion in those final moments. I am from the South, and everyone knows moonshine stills and meth labs eventually explode). But instead, we get the soft wailing of an inept police department, with Walter already too far gone to atone for his sins. And what the hell with Jesse just driving into the sunset, just in time to star in Need For Speed? Terrible. The novel equivalent of “To Be Continued” with absolutely no plans for a sequel. Do I have greater hopes for Better Call Saul? Not really. Will I watch it? Of course… that’s irrelevant.

Now, my next television novel that has failed me is really less novel and more first short story in a series. Why are anthologies the new rage? Are we bored with following evolving characters over a span of years, aging and acquiring wisdom with them? Are actors just not willing to commit the time and energy into evolving these characters? I don’t know, but, oh, how I wish I did.

True Detective season one filled a void in my cultural soul that I did not realize was empty. Well, the first seven-and-a-half episodes (There are only eight total.). Being a Southern lady, I devoured the swampy nature, the Louisiana drawls and old-French tones. In college, I randomly attended a lecture series about rural Louisiana Mardi Gras and Easter traditions, strange rituals with masks and pagan origins. I went to find new inspiration for poetry, but the images of those presentations have stuck with me for years. True Detective‘s use of the arcanely ritualistic culture of the backwoods bayou delighted me, and I waited for deep significance of these images to emerge within the show.

Michael Hughes published a great article on io9.com shortly after the first few episodes aired, illuminating a new set of allusions form the writers. In “The One Literary Reference You Must Know to Appreciate True Detective, Hughes cites Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow, a selection of short stories published in the late Victorian era, as being quoted by central characters within the episodes, if not contributing to the larger story. I quickly acquired the text from Gutenberg Press and I devoured the stories, exclaiming every few pages as a new revelation or theory was uncovered to me. (Mask of deception! Women in stone! Repairer of reputations!) I watched the rest of the season waiting for Carcosa to come to light, a Yellow King to be crowned, the wave of insanity to mask us all in truth.

The final episode of True Detective season one was thrilling but flat. A “to be continued” vibe was given, but next season has already been announced to have a new cast, location, and story line. We will no longer be traipsing the back bayous in search of pederasts and twig sculptures. I will not be able to find out: How those scars happened? Who else was involved? How did the old black maid know about Carcosa? Why the spiral? Why did Hart’s daughters have a sexual violence storyline but not? Why did the killer have a British accent for only, like, ¼ of his scenes? Why was his dad tied up? I may never know.

I hope we will never reach a point as society where television sitcoms and dramas replace great literature. In fact, I think the two can greatly benefit from one another. What if we, as intelligent minds of the internet, band together to rewrite television history? FAN FICTION. Granted, fan fiction has been around as long as fans have found disappointment with story lines. But I am calling for a new age of fan-fueled fiction, where the endings are reinvented to be stronger, more beautiful.

You see, my aforementioned novelist friend had a terrible quandary after the How I Met Your Mother finale aired. Her sister, a devoted fan, had missed the initial airing, but my novelist friend was fretting over hoer own disappointment. “I want her to see it, but not the last five minutes,” she lamented. “I want her to turn off the television with five minutes remaining, and then read a chapter I’ve written instead.”

She ultimately did not, letting the writers of the show have their ending.

BUT WHAT IF…

…fan fiction reached a new level. What if those of us with the degrees, sources, and talent band together to override what society has deemed as “appropriate endings?” Because I am dissatisfied with television, even when it leads me on for so very long.

When True Detective fell short of my literary expectations, I sought out fans. Now, I don’t know if I am just unable to locate the hidden fan fiction files of the internet, or if there just isn’t anything out there, but the results were very limited. Yet, the theories presented through the five stories I found were intriguing, provocative, and creative. Still not what I wanted as the ending, but it gave me something.

So, a call to all those who fan fictionalize their television serials, write me new endings! Breaking Bad, The Wire, Roseanne, True Detective, How I Met Your Mother… send it all to me! I will read each personally, and with any luck, the best to my mind will be presented on this site.

You can reach Stephanie Feinstein at stephanie.feinstein@gmail.com.

Image: New York Times