Sunday, November 30, 2008

Day 330 - "And there was no sunlight, no sunlight..."

This past week, FX's gritty rogue cop drama, and one of my favorite shows, "The Shield" had its series finale. And, not only was it pretty gosh darn amazing, but it was also really, really f-ing satisfying to see. It had the rare distinction -, in a world of never-ending soap operas, reality and talk shows - of having an honest to goodness "we're done here, nothing more to see" ending - something that apparently only shows on HBO and a handful of others have ever been able to pull off.

Television is without question my favorite medium for storytelling. I think a smart, well written, acted and plotted serial drama or comedy (see: Lost, The Shield, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Veronica Mars, Arrested Development, The Office, Battlestar Gallactica [though I haven't loved the past season] is more engaging and entertaining than any movie, play, book, puppet show or personal retelling could ever be. In all great television series you have some of the most well crafted characters and worlds that have ever been seen, something that audiences develop real attachments to. You're not limited to telling your story over the course of 2 1/2 hours*, and as such, you can take your time creating depth and developing all the wonderful details that make your world feel whole, and rewarding to be part of (and on the downside, you get fanboys).

Now the problem is, every single show that makes it on the air (which itself is a daunting task I hear) only has the potential to tell the story it sets out to tell. For every series like The Shield, and the Sopranos, there's a Veronica Mars, and just this past week, a Pushing Daisies, where due to ratings, or any other number of reasons (usually just ratings) the show is canceled before its time, lost forever in an awkward finale that either was cobbled together last minute or an abrupt ending that only hints at a story we'll never see.

This isn't the only problem, either. There are also plenty of shows that go well past their prime. If 24, Alias, and Heroes had ended before their 6th, 3rd, and 2nd seasons, respectively, those shows would probably have made my list of "Matt's Shows To See." Or at the very least, shows I'd recommend to a friend without the caveat "but then things go to shit..."

I was the hardest of the hardcore Simpsons fans for over 10 years. I taped every episode that aired, watched each one of them probably at least three or four times, and was able to quote and/or detail nearly all of them. I remember being furious at the first series of syndicated episodes, appalled at the 1-2 minutes of brilliance they cut from each episode. Then...the show kept going. And going. And it stopped being the funniest thing on television. Now, here we are, almost 20 years after the show debuted, and it's still on the air. And, I'm sorry to say, it's now just a watered down, embarrassing shadow of what it once was.

Of course, the Simpsons is an animated sitcom that has no ongoing story that it's trying to tell, and the same argument for ending the aforementioned dramas can't be applied to it. But it does go to show you that even shows like this and Family Guy also could stand to benefit from an expiration date. And sadly, now The Simpsons will not go down in history as one of the greatest shows of all time, but rather just another show that eventually died because people stopped caring about it.*

In Britain, on the BBC, scripted television shows generally only last a season or two at most, which inevitably lead to most shows - even the comedies - telling a dense, layered story in a handful of episodes, and leaving the audience begging for more while still in their prime. Now I don't think all shows need to end with about 20 episodes (I still find the American Office to be pretty good, though I think its best episodes are behind them), but I do really like the idea of all shows being written with a specific expiration date in mind. I mean, for god's sake guys, when the heck is Ted Mosby finally going to tell his kids HOW HE MET THEIR MOTHER?!?

Now of course, I realize that I'm living in a fantasy world, where money isn't an issue, actors always are willing to stick it out in the shows they star in, and people all take their television viewing habits as seriously as I do (which involves sticking to a tight regimen of chronological DVR and Netflix viewings of all interesting shows, never channel surfing, not watching anything new if one's schedule does not allow for it and NEVER watching a single episode before you've seen the pilot). And I do realize that even my favorite shows like Lost aren't completely (or even vaguely it seems) mapped out when they are shooting the very first episode. But is it that hard for the studio execs, producers and writers to sit down once the pilot has been greenlit, and come to the conclusion: "yeah, 5 or 6 seasons of this and we'll probably be done." The writers will know how long they have to tell their story, and the studio will then know how much time and money they are both investing in and milking out of the franchise. Now all they need is the ratings, right?

Well, ratings might be everything to some people, but for some of the people writing these shows, you have to wonder how they can live with themselves after a certain point? When your lead character is sleeping with the ghost of her dead fiancee or your main character, who at the age of 26 is fighting Doomsday and Brainiac and is SOMEHOW STILL NOT ACTUALLY SUPERMAN*, can you really tell yourself its not just about a paycheck anymore?

And for the shows that don't catch on immediately, but really do resonate with people - isn't there a reason down the line to take a chance now and keep them going, what with more and more people watching shows after the fact on DVD and iTunes? What shows are busy people more likely to take the time to check out? A mediocre show that maybe was once good but goes on for 4 seasons too many, or a great show that ends sooner, and more importantly when it's supposed to?

My point is, a vital part of a show's legacy is its ending. Some people may argue with this theory - I know I've been thinking about it for some time. Can a really good show be undone by a shitty, abrupt, or non-existent ending? Well, yes and no. While I still highly recommend Veronica Mars or Pushing Daisies, even though both shows ended (or will soon be ending) before their time, ultimately a show like The Shield is the more satisfying experience when taken as a whole. VM ended its 3rd and finale season with Veronica walking down the street in an extremely frustrating open ended cliffhanger, which leaves a terrible taste in my mouth when I think back on it.

And while Lost can wow me and have me singing its praises for 6 seasons, if it ends with Matthew Fox waking up safely on Oceanic Flight 815 as it comes in for a landing from "a crazy-ass dream he just had," you had better believe I'll be the first to say that I was definitely a bit too hasty in my undying love for the show. Was it a fun ride? Sure, but hey, you guys didn't stick the landing.

Maybe what I want doesn't make any logical sense from a business point of view. Maybe it just boils down to shows that make money stay on the air, and those that don't get canceled. And in a few rare instances, sometimes a show can bow out just as its popularity has waned enough for the network to let it go. But when the math is kept that simple, so few shows wind up ultimately where they should in the grand scheme of things.

I just want television as medium to achieve the greatness I know it's capable of, or at the very least, hit a few more home runs than it's hitting right now.


Yeah, but I'd still rather be playing: Even though its over a year old, I never got around to playing Assassin's Creed. It shall be played!

*I know it seems like I'm talking about movies or perhaps plays here, but this is actually how long I allow myself to devote to any book.
*Although, technically, what I do with the Simpsons is I pretend the show stopped at Season 10, so I can continue to adore the first decade of it. Jesus, did I just say that?
*Honestly, I'm ashamed I ever watched this show.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Day 322 - "I hear you call my name, and it feels like...home"

There was a point during my half marathon this year in which I got really sick of running. It was about 10 1/2, 11 miles in, when I was past Times Square and was just running along the Westside Highway, the finish line kinda-sorta in the distance, but still too far away to make me feel like I was really almost there. The adrenaline was gone, I was exhausted, people weren't cheering for me quite as hard anymore, and I wanted to be anywhere but in that race. This is basically how I feel right now with my year off.

I'm so close, and yet so far away. I knew from the get-go that this would be a tough month. November, and to a slightly lesser degree September and October are the big release months for all the great games. It's the equivalent of the summer blockbuster season for movie fans, or like, "Spring" for people who are really into that. And I, being the fool that I am, am doing nothing but reading up, watching videos of, and listening to podcasts discussing all of these great games.

I have a little over 6 weeks to go at this point. It's not quite the home stretch, but it's like, the home stretch in getting to the home stretch. Bleh.

Well, here's some fun facts I was thinking about at 3:00AM this morning:

1) I mentioned a while back having dreams of cheating and playing games early on in my year off. Those dreams subsided for a while, but they're back now in full force. I think my mind is mentally preparing itself to hold a controller again. Don't be surprised if I've lost nothing in terms of ability come January.

2) I've bought at least one game for every active* system I have in my apartment in anticipation for January. Mostly used, or dirt cheap, but still, I was unable to keep my game budget to $0 for the year like I had hoped. This, along with my flat screen tv purchase, and having all my systems back in my apartment (I had lent them out until recently) my be contributing to my current levels of temptation and frustration.

3) I've decided on the first game I'm going to play at midnight on January 6th. Geometry Wars. Discuss.

4) I've succeeded in every one of the goals I set out to do for the year (separate post of highlights forthcoming) with the exception of learning to cook 5 new meals. Which is fine. I'm thinking of rolling over the cooking thing into next year once I can play games again. I'll have nights where I invite friends over to teach and cook with me, and in return for that, I will return the favor with some grand 'ol gaming. Who knows? Maybe it'll land me a book deal, or some kind of crossover dual-broadcast show on the Food Network and G4.

5) Finally - sometimes, when no one's looking, there's a good chance I'm pantomiming this:


Yeah, but I'd still rather be playing: Almost anything at this point. But more specifically? Probably some Left 4 Dead. Zombie Apocolypse multiplayer action and tension at it's best. Though hopefully not with this guy:

*PS2, PSP, DS, Wii, 360

Monday, November 17, 2008

Day 317 - "Gonna do it my way gonna do it my way..."

There was a story in the Times Online today about a boy who collapsed after playing the latest World of Warcraft expansion for 24 hours straight. Now, I've joked in the past about personally avoiding WoW because of the countless hours I know I'd lose to it, and the potential to become addicted to the game. But honestly? To be this level of a gaming addict - and by "this level" I'm talking about a person who is being critiqued and quite frankly, made fun of (sorry, kid) by someone who has a blog fashioned around his struggle to not play video games for a year.

Now, the whole issue of 'bad parenting' being mislabeled as a story about 'a game almost killing a young boy' for the sake of a sensationalized news story notwithstanding, I have to say I can't really identify with this kid. Discounting my current 317 day streak of not touching games, back when I was 15 and I had oodles and oodles of free time, and no women or athletic events to distract me, I couldn't pull off that kind of marathon. Anything more than about 4 hours in a row and my eyes start to hurt. Then the headaches follow.

Maybe this doesn't happen to everyone, but I imagine there's some of physical toll sitting in one position, staring at a video screen and not moving takes on the body after a certain amount of time. And you have to ignore that pain in order to continue playing. I don't know about most people, but once pain overtakes pleasure, I'm done. The same goes for drinking, eating, and all those incredible 7 1/2 hour sex sessions women have been known to demand of me.

If nothing else, I'm convinced that I genuinely don't have an addictive personality. The "behavior" of gaming is certainly very rewarding to me - but I guess I'm happy to say I'm always "in control" of my habit. Although this past month's credit card bill (I've been scouring the net for deals on the games I've been holding out on playing for the past 11 months) might imply I could be afford to be exerting a bit more control than I currently am.

Going back to this 15 year-old, it sounds like someone else could use a year off from games. Maybe I can start some kind of program for addicts. Go with the cold turkey regimen. Maybe a little bit of internet browsing and game podcast listening for the ones who gets the shakes. Come to me, my friends. Dr. Shafeek is in the house.


Yeah, but I'd still rather be playing: Outside?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Day 311 - "You're the meaning in my life, you're the inspiration..."

In my twenty some-odd years of gaming, Final Fantasy has hooked me more than any other video game series. Mario? Zelda? Pff - kids stuff. Sure I've played all of them to death, but the Final Fantasies are programmed with my video game (and sometime real life) OCD in mind. I've invested hundreds of hours into battling monsters, leveling up my characters, acquiring rare weapons, raising chocobos (an adorable kind of chicken creature that is essentially the universe's horse) and exploring every inch of the vast game world.

These are the games that I've always had to purchase a strategy guide with, to make sure I don't miss anything. And these the games I have to play twice all the way through - once "just for fun," enjoying the story without worry about missing anything, and then once "for real" to make sure I obsessively commit myself to seeing every single piece of content stuffed into the game. The one saving grace to the hours/days that some might say I've "lost" to these many wonderful games is that they've reassured me that I should never, ever allow myself to go anywhere near an MMORPG like World of Warcraft, if I ever want see my family and friends again.

A funny side effect of spending so much of my child and young adulthood in a fictional fantasy world is sometimes I inadvertently learn about certain literary and religious creations
from a game that uses them as inspiration. The only problem with this is that Final Fantasy takes a lot of liberties with it's usage of said creations. What kind of liberties you ask? Well, see for yourself.

The following is a list of things I've encountered in a Final Fantasy game before I've encountered it (often to my own bewilderment/confusion) in real life:

What I knew it as: A badass piece of armor. For chicks. Usually a skimpy number that you would think actually protects very little of the wearer's body, but you know isn't the case because of, um, magic.

What it apparently* actually really refers to:
Apparently it was the Roman name for the Greek Goddess Athena. Go figure.

What I knew it as:
A badass sword. Lots of bonuses. Could probably do 9999 damage if thrown. Bonus damage towards dragons. Increases coolness 82%.

What it apparently* actually refers to:

In Norse Mythology, a series of major events that including a great battle foretold to ultimately result in the death of a number of major figures, like Odin (more on him later!), the occurrence of various natural disasters, and the subsequent submersion of the world in water. Whoa! That's way cooler than a sword! But if I were making a badass sword I think this would be the first word that comes to mind when it came time to name it (Excalibur is so cliche', although that too appeared in many a F.F.), so I can totally see what those guys were thinking.

What I knew it as:
A badass (seeing a pattern here?) shield. Usually could absorb air attacks, and repelled magic better than anything.

What it apparently* actually refers to:
The shield (or buckler) of Zeus or of Pallas Athena. Apparently the word has come to mean, in modern vernacular, "shield, protection, or sponsorship." So hey, pretty close in this case, eh?

Shiva, Ifrit, & Odin
What I knew it as: Powerful monsters that could be summoned (for enough magic points, and by the appropriator summoner or magic-user) into battle for massive damage. Shiva did ice-based damage, Ifrit fire, and Odin just came in on a horse with a giant sword and sliced shit up.

What it apparently* actually refers to:
Gods (or in the case of Ifrit, a kind of genie - which, if we've learned anything from the power-hungry Jafar, is totally not as awesome as being a god) from various religious backgrounds. Now that's all well and good, but at this point, it doesn't matter how much I read on the subject. The bottom line is the Final Fantasy Shiva is HOT (even though she's COLD as ice - Hi-yo!), and nothing I read on the "real" Shiva is ever going to make me think of anything but this when I hear her name:


Yeah, but I'd still rather be playing: On the Mirror's Edge!

*Thanks Wikipedia!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Day 306 - "'Cause I'm big and important, one angry dwarf and 200 solemn faces are you..."

Five Reasons I Am Very Excited For January, 2009:

1) The Dark Knight on IMAX
Missed it the first time around. Apparently it's coming back in January. I won't make the same mistake twice.

2) The Return of Lost (Season 5)
My favorite show, possibly of all time, returns to the air for 17 uninterrupted episodes, starting in late January. This is the one tv show that, despite having a DVR and potentially more interesting plans on a Thursday night, I almost always prefer to just stay in and watch.

3) I'm Turning 30
Some see this as a scary milestone. I'm pretty excited for it. Less of an excuse to be a lazy son-of-a-bitch (though I will still find time to be that, see below), and maybe start becoming some semblance of a man.

4) I Get to Play Video Games Again
And yes, I am going to play. And how. January also happens to be when I get to enjoy my Christmas and birthday presents. Guess what I'll be asking for this year?

5) I Can Finally Be Proud of the Leader of Our Country Again
Congratulations, President Obama. Make us proud.


Yeah, but I'd still rather be playing: Gears, baby!