Thursday, November 27, 2014

Culture Shock 11.27.14: 'The Flash' hits the ground running

"The Flash" season 1 poster
This is the fall TV season when the superheroes took over.

Superheroes already rule the box office, but now they're making a play for your television. Four of the five broadcast networks already air at least one series based on a comic book. The fifth, CBS, has one in development based on Superman's cousin, Supergirl.

Fox's Batman prequel "Gotham" and NBC's "Constantine" join The CW's "Arrow" and ABC's "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD" on the increasingly crowded airwaves, with ABC's "Agent Carter" and The CW's "iZombie" yet to come.

But the breakaway star of this year's pack is The CW's "The Flash." The series based on DC Comics' "fastest man alive" hit the ground running and quickly earned a full-season pickup after scoring the also-ran network's best ratings ever. (Sorry, folks, but there will be more "running" jokes.)

The most surprising thing about "The Flash," though, is how good it is. Coming up on its mid-season break, "The Flash" easily outdistances most of its competition, with the exception of "Agents of SHIELD," which, now in its second season, has upped its game to the point of becoming one of the best things on TV, regardless of genre.

What sets "The Flash" apart, not only from other DC Comics-inspired TV shows but also from DC's movies, is it's actually fun. It feels a lot more like a Marvel/Disney production than it does a typical, ponderous DC/Warner Bros. production.

A lot of that comes down to star Grant Gustin. His dorky-but-likable Barry Allen is closer to Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker than he is to the square-jawed stiff Barry Allen who first appeared in "Showcase" No. 4 back in 1956.

Unlike "Gotham," which has struggled to settle on a tone, or "Arrow," which after three seasons still can't bring itself to call its main character Green Arrow, "The Flash" never takes itself too seriously and eagerly embraces its comic book origins.

Sure there's a lot of science jargon and hand-waving exposition, but "The Flash" doesn't back away from being about a guy who became super-fast after he was struck by lightning and doused with chemicals during a particle accelerator malfunction. I mean, how else is a guy supposed to get super powers? Space aliens don't hand magic rings to just anyone, you know.

You get the feeling watching "The Flash" that this is a show that just might have the Flash face off against a talking, super-intelligent, telepathic gorilla. Then the show rewards you by teasing just that.

Am I the only one who nearly fell out of his chair when the show gave us a glimpse of a caged gorilla named Grodd just a few episodes back?

Like Marvel's movies, "The Flash," itself a spin-off of "Arrow," is seeding a larger superhero universe. Casual viewers won't get all the references, but for longtime readers of DC Comics, every episode of "The Flash" brings a new Easter egg.

The show has so far slipped in the alter ego (one of them, anyway) of the superhero Firestorm, and it built an entire story around two Captain Atom antagonists, Plastique and Gen. Wade Eiling. The same story even name-dropped one of Captain Atom's civilian identities, Cameron Scott.

All these nods to other superheroes, as well as to decades of comic book stories, come across a lot more naturally than they do in "Gotham," with its winking references to future Batman villains. (OK, we get it already. Edward Nygma is going to become the Riddler one day. Did you really have to give him a coffee mug with a question mark on it?)

Yet one thing all these superhero shows have in common is standout supporting players. "The Flash" has two of the best: ex-"Law & Order" star Jesse L. Martin as Barry's childhood guardian and Tom Cavanagh as the mysterious Dr. Wells.

If it can keep up the pace, "The Flash" looks to be in for a long and entertaining run.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Culture Shock 11.20.14: Bullying spoils science achievement

And then the shirt hit the fan....
And then the shirt hit the fan....
The perpetually aggrieved are why we can't have nice things.

Last week, the European Space Agency did something incredible. It landed an unmanned spacecraft, launched more than 10 years ago, on a comet roughly 300 million miles away.

To give you a ballpark idea how far that is, the average distance from Earth to the moon is 238,900 miles. From the Earth to Mars is 140 million miles. And from here to Jupiter is 484 million miles.

It was an amazing feat of science and engineering, and for a little while, those of us who weren't alive for the Apollo moon missions got just a little taste of what it must have been like to watch Neil Armstrong take his "one small step" into the history books.

It isn't likely a lot of people will recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard a probe had touched down on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. With a name like that, it isn't likely many people will remember 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at all. But in the annals of space exploration, the Rosetta mission is a pretty big deal.

That's why it's so frustrating that all some people could talk about afterward was one rocket scientist's bowling shirt. Matt Taylor, the lead mission scientist, made the mistake of thinking he could wear a shirt, made by a friend and given to him for his birthday, during the live Internet feed for the Philae lander's touchdown. Little did he suspect that doing so would make him a target for people who search for reasons to be offended.

The shirt wasn't stereotypical "rocket scientist" gear. It was covered with cartoon images of sexy women holding guns and posing provocatively, the sort of thing you used to see painted on the side of vans. Suddenly, Taylor's accomplishment wasn't the story; his "sexist" shirt was.

The most shrill response came from The Verge, which went after Taylor and the ESA in an article headlined "I don't care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing." ("Ostracizing"? Really?) The article, by Chris Plante and Arielle Duhaime-Ross, goes on to say, "This is the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields."

That sentiment was echoed by other bloggers and on Twitter. It didn't matter that the friend who made the shirt for him, Elly Prizeman, is a woman, who took to her own blog to defend Taylor and thank him for the "sweet gesture" of wearing it on one of the most important days of his life.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, I was taught that women could do any job men could do, that women were just as tough as men, that they didn't need knights in shining armor to protect them and should be just as free with their sexuality as men have always been. That was feminism.

What passes for feminism now, however, says women are afraid to go into science-related fields because male co-workers might wear loud bowling shirts sewn by their female friends. It says those female friends are mindless dupes of the patriarchy. And because I'm a male, this strain of feminism says I need to shut up, "check my privilege" and stop "mansplaining." I'm especially not supposed to have an opinion about what feminism is, nor cite any female scholars or writers who agree with me.

Bloomberg View columnist Virginia Postrel coined a wonderful term for this feminism of constant outrage: "link-bait feminism." Find any slight, real or imagined, no matter how small, and take offense. Blog about it, attach a sensational headline, and watch the outrage go viral. Rarely is the outrage even genuine.

This sort of cynical offense-stoking cheapens feminism and renders it increasingly irrelevant. Only 23 percent of U.S. women identify as feminists, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll. The brand is tainted, because link-bait feminism isn't really about equal rights, equal pay or reproductive rights. It's about a right not to be offended, even if you're only pretending to be offended. That's not feminism; it's Puritanism.

The link-bait feminists won the battle. They bullied Taylor into a tearful apology. But with any luck, this is the overreach that will cost them the war, allowing feminism to become relevant again.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Culture Shock 11.13.14: 'Twin Peaks' is happening again

I'll see you again in 25 years.
True to her word, it looks like Laura Palmer will indeed see FBI Agent Dale Cooper again in 25 years. Whether that's exactly what "Twin Peaks" creators David Lynch and Mark Frost had in mind back in 1990 is another matter.

Laura's prediction, in Agent Cooper's dream at the end of the first season's third episode, was just one of the many cryptic clues dropped during the show's brief, yet groundbreaking run.

When Lynch and Frost announced last month that "Twin Peaks" would return in 2016 for nine new episodes to air on Showtime, the news lit up the Internet like nothing short of announcing a new pope or a new "Star Wars" trilogy. As the giant told Agent Cooper, "It is happening again."

"Twin Peaks" returns to a television landscape radically changed from the one it shook up back in 1990 and '91. Back then, "Twin Peaks" was unique. Now, quirky shows with oddball characters and serialized storytelling that once was reserved for soap operas are virtually the norm.

"Twin Peaks" is in large part responsible for that.

When Lynch brought "Twin Peaks" to ABC in 1990, it was almost unheard of for respected filmmakers to slum in the television ghetto. Now that's common, too, and no one but the most obnoxious art-film snobs looks down on TV.

Yet that's not all that's changed about television in the intervening quarter century.
"Twin Peaks" is many things. It mixes comedy, melodrama, horror, science fiction, urban legends, bleeding-edge physics and Buddhist philosophy into the most compelling murder mystery since Jack the Ripper. "Who killed Laura Palmer" was the second coming of "Who shot J.R.?"

Yet structurally, "Twin Peaks" is deceptively simple. It's a parody of soap operas, and not the nighttime variety such as "Dallas" and "Dynasty," which reigned over the 1980s, but the daytime kind.

Like virtually every daytime soap ever aired, "Twin Peaks" is set in a fictional town with a sordid underbelly. A logging/resort community near the Canadian border, Twin Peaks falls into the long tradition of made-up burghs, from Salem to Genoa City, that attract more than their share of drama.

The show's mood music, courtesy of composer Angelo Badalamenti, swells with overwrought intensity at every romantic interlude. And the multi-generational cast reflects the storytelling necessities of daytime soaps, which traditionally shift their plots toward younger cast members in the summer to take advantage of teens being out of school.

"It is happening again. It is happening again."
"It is happening again. It is happening again."
Beyond that, "Twin Peaks" trades in all of the familiar tropes of daytime drama.

Infidelity? Aplenty. Convenient cases of amnesia? Nadine coming out of a coma thinking she's a teenager and back in high school qualifies. Characters presumed dead who turn out to have faked their deaths? That runs in the Packard family. A shady businessman who owns most of the town and schemes to gobble up or destroy everything he doesn't? Well, of course. "Twin Peaks" even has that most soapy of soap opera tropes, the identical twin who appears out of the blue.

James, a lovesick teen with resting pout face, seems to have just arrived from daytime TV. He goes through soul mates faster than most men do TV channels. He starts as Laura's "secret boyfriend" and moves on to her best friend Donna before the corpse is cold. Next he's on to Laura's identical cousin, then back to Donna and finally into the arms of an older woman, who so obviously plans to Double Indemnity him that we realize it faster than James can say Barbara Stanwyck.

In case all that doesn't clue us in, almost everyone in Twin Peaks is hooked on a soap opera within the soap opera, the amusingly overwrought "Invitation to Love": a parody within a parody.

But can "Twin Peaks" return as the same soap parody it was? In 1990 ABC, CBS and NBC each aired between three and four hours of soap opera programming each weekday. Today they air 3½ hours total between them. The daytime soap is a dead format, wrapped in plastic.

How the soap opera's demise will play into what Lynch and Frost have planned is, for now, just another of their unsolved mysteries. It could even involve a long lost twin.

"Would you like to play with fire? Would you like to play with Bob?"
"Would you like to play with fire? Would you like to play with Bob?"

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Culture Shock 11.06.14: Book reveals Wonder Woman's secrets

"The Secret History of Wonder Woman"
The past year has seen a surprising surge in Wonder Woman scholarship, with about a half dozen books, at least, delving into one or another aspect of the character's rich history. And with Wonder Woman's 75th anniversary still two years away, more are in the offing.

The highest profile entry so far is Jill Lepore's "The Secret History of Wonder Woman" (Knopf, $29.95). Lepore, a Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer, offers what is the most detailed and compelling look to date at Wonder Woman's fascinating and controversial creator, William Moulton Marston, and the women who shaped his life, from his childhood until his death in 1947.

The basics are already common knowledge to anyone with an interest in Wonder Woman and access to Google. Marston, who wrote his Wonder Woman stories under the name Charles Moulton, was a Harvard-educated psychologist and author credited with helping develop the lie detector. In 1941, he turned to comic books as a way of reaching young readers, especially girls, with his vision of a strong, independent woman. And so Wonder Woman was born, appearing first in "All-Star Comics" No. 8 and immediately graduating to the main feature in "Sensation Comics" No.1.

Marston was also a practicing polyamorist with an interest in bondage and discipline. He lived with both his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and assistant, Olive Byrne. He had children by both, and both were instrumental in Wonder Woman's origin. His Wonder Woman stories are filled with episodes of bondage and spankings. Wonder Woman courted controversy from the outset, but especially after Marston's death, when her adventures became Exhibit A in Fredric Wertham's brief against comics.

Lepore takes us beyond the Wikipedia summary of Marston by delving into his private letters and journals, which previously had been seen only by members of his family. The Marston that emerges is more con man than scholar, a shameless self-promoter never above exaggerating his accomplishments in a usually futile effort to get ahead. His lie detector experiments were more pseudoscience than science, and until he created Wonder Woman, his career trajectory was one of downward mobility. Each university post was less prestigious and secure than the last.

Jill Lepore
Photo by Dari Michele
His inability to advance in academia is what led him to popular entertainment as an outlet for his radical ideas, first in the movies and later in comics, aided by the opening provided by Byrne's brother, Jack Byrne, an editor for the pulp magazine publisher Fiction House, which published comics starring one of the most popular pre-Wonder Woman heroines, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.

For all his failings as a scientist, Marston was a successful and manipulative showman, with a remarkable capacity to lure the media to his dog and pony demonstrations. He brought hucksterism to comics long before Stan Lee created his carnival barker persona to promote Marvel Comics.

The deceit that permeated Marston's professional life extended to his family life. The polyamorous relationship at the heart of the family would have scandalized Depression era society, and it appears to have included a fourth member, Marjorie Huntley, whom the Marstons met before they met Byrne.  Secrecy was inevitable, but even the children, at Byrne's insistence, were kept in the dark.

Lepore also places Wonder Woman within the context of competing strains of feminism, finding in her the influence of both 19th century female supremacists and birth control activist Margaret Sanger, who founded what would become Planned Parenthood. Sanger was also Byrne's aunt.

Yet the Amazon heroine herself appears in Lepore's narrative mostly to show how Marston's ideas and home life informed his stories. Lepore's account falls short when she gets to the comics industry. She downplays other female comic characters, such as Sheena, and misses obvious connections. For instance, during a brief stint advising Universal Studios, Marston consulted on "The Man Who Laughs." That film's title character would directly inspire the Joker, but Lepore passes over the opportunity to even mention Marston's connection, however minor, to Batman's arch foe.

That aside, Lepore gives both fans and scholars a lot to digest. This is the start of a reexamination of Wonder Woman and her creator, not the last word.