Friday, October 28, 2022

The Enemy Of Good

has an excellent post up about Disney's new Star Wars show, Andor. In her opening paragraph she articulates precisely something I've been sensing of late but have struggled to define:

"I'm perhaps not the most discerning Star Wars fan, which is why I don't really get it whenever people get super upset about not liking some new piece of content. I'm generally happy if I derive some sort of enjoyment from it, even if it's not perfect, and I'm okay with not everything being good or appealing to me personally."

For a while now I've been wondering why so many people seem to get so upset when TV shows or movies or games don't manage to be perfect or even excellent. It reminds me of Garrison Keilor's Prairie Home Companion radio show, with its unforgettable tagline:“That's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” 

The Lake Wobegon Effect, as it's now known, is something of a mirror image to the better-known Imposter Syndrome. While it is, somewhat surprisingly to a non-mathematician, technically possible for a majority of a group to be above average, plainly not everything can be. Why we seem to expect such a level of perfection from our entertainment media baffles me.

It's similar to the widely-held belief that "Good enough is not good enough", a ludicrous perversion of language that figuratively makes my teeth grate. Good enough is, by definition, good enough and good enough is what most TV shows, movies and games are: good enough to function as intended, hold the attention for an appropriate period of time and leave the audience at least moderately entertained.

To expect everything to be worthy of a five star review makes a complete mockery of the entire process of evaluation although it might be a straw man argument to suggest that's the prevailing mood these days. Things aren't quite that bad - yet. Four stars still count as a recommendation in most quarters. I have, however, heard it said on multiple occasions that a three star rating means something's not worth bothering with. It's supposedly the mark of the mediocre and we should all have more respect for ourselves than to waste our valuable time on anything so commonplace.

That seems to me more than just shortsighted and unreasonable. It seems smug and smugness is something that always raises my hackles. (No-one likes a raised hackle, least of all me.) At the risk of sounding like someone from a 1970s network TV adaptation of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel, as a general principle I'd prefer to focus on what I like about something rather than on what I think is wrong with it, although I freely admit it's often a lot more amusing to do the latter.

I'm also not suggesting there aren't many egregious examples of poor quality, conception or execution that fully deserve to be called out for their laziness, ineptitude, incompetence or odium. When something genuinely needs to be cut down to size, by all means bring the sharp knives.

I'm just saying there needs to be some sense of proportion. A sitcom with a half-baked set-up that "would never happen" hardly needs to be treated as some kind of crime against culture. Spin-offs and sequels that show familiar characters in an unfamiliar light don't need to be torn to shreds as divergence from holy writ. I think it goes without saying, even though I appear to be saying it anyway, that nothing in popular fiction or entertainment justifies a death threat.

With all that said, it's still not always easy to be sure where to take a stand. Azuriel also has an interesting post up this week, entitled "Commercialization of Evil", in which he discusses the growing tendency for IP owners to make the fullest use of all of their assets by re-purposing characters traditionally known for their villainy in more appealing and therefore potentially lucrative roles.

As I mentioned in a comment on Azuriel's post, I was somewhat taken aback this week to spot, in the children's department in the bookshop where I work , a book called Arkhamaniacs. This little gem features a cast of Batman villains including The Joker, Killer Croc, Bane and Scarecrow, sociopathic mass-murderers all, as the kind of "colorful and wacky characters" little kids love.

By all accounts I've seen, it's a well-written, beautifully drawn, nuanced and satisfying take on the familiar characters we all know from the regular comics. I'd read it. On the other hand, as Azuriel says of the ongoing Disneyfication of Disney's own rogues' gallery, "whatever cautionary tale might have existed in these characters’ stories becomes muddled and unrecognizable through the commercialization process".

Azuriel also observes "We probably should not be relying on Disney movies to teach morality to children in the first place", which is something of a discussion point in itself, one that reminded me of a conversation I had at work this week about Alan Moore and his recently reiterated belief that an interest in superheros can be "a pre-cursor to fascism."  

Deconstructing that would be a whole other post but it's curious to note that Alan actually specifies adults who demonstrate such an interest as the danger, not children, his point being that entertainment more suitably directed at "12 year old boys" is infantilizing when consumed by grown-ups. 

Alan Moore, despite his deep connection to the form, has always been at best ambivalent about superheroics, so nothing he's saying now is either new or surprising. Some of it may even be true. If so, the problem began well before his groundbreaking, genre-busting work on Marvelman and Watchmen

It's tempting to examine that further but before I get sidetracked into a ten thousand word essay on the ironies of an artform that began quite specifically as a means stirring up anti-fascist feeling morphing into a seedbed for future totalitarianism, I'll pull back to the point I wanted to make and the reason I brought all this up in the first place: I believe much of what I consider to be my own personal morality to have been formed by the superhero comics I read as a child.

These things do have a profound influence on the way we think, or at least they can. I grew up reading superhero comics in the period when most of the heroes tried to do the (Socioculturally) right thing most of the time. Sometimes bad things happened but never at their intent. Sometimes they went against the established authorities but only when those authorities were undeniably corrupt. It wasn't far off the days of the Hollywood Western, where you could tell the good guy by the color of his hat.

As I noted in a post about the DC series Titans, things have moved on since then. I was thinking about that only yesterday, as I was watching my current obsession, Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars, as I'm sure almost everyone reading this will know, is a TV series from the late 'aughts starring the wonderful Kristen Bell as the titular Veronica, a high school student who also operates as a private detective. 

I own all four seasons on DVD and I've been meaning to watch it for years but of course it was only when it turned up on Amazon Prime that I finally caught up with this seminal show. As Shintar says about her new favorite, Andor, enjoyable though it is to be able to watch a lot of shows casually, it's even better "to not just enjoy something, but to truly be a fan".

And I am definitely a fan of Veronica Mars. I love the writing, razor sharp and frequently metatextual as it is. The acting is all round excellent, with Kirsten Bell and Jason Dohring especially, pretty much note-perfect. The ensemble cast and the increasingly baroque plot remind me strongly of other shows I love but with the exception of Buffy I'm not sure any are better. I guess I'll have to wait 'til I've seen all four seasons to be sure.

The thing is... all of the characters are arguably just as morally problematic as any superhero. Everyone's choices are always guided by personal ethics, never by collective morality, and the ends are always considered to justify the means. As for abiding by the tenets of civil society, absolutely no-one in the show, hero or villain, hesitates for one second to act outside the law whenever it suits their purpose, even for trivialities.

Veronica herself frequently feels bad about some violation of privacy, breach of trust or plainly illegal act she's engaged in - but only ever after the fact and usually only when it goes wrong and rebounds to her personal discomfort. Worse, experience never stops her doing the same thing again. And she's the exception in being bothered by conscience at all. Most of the rest of the cast barely seem to register the ironies involved in engaging someone to spy on a lover, friend or family member. So long as they find out what they believe they need to know, it's all good.

I'm not exactly sure why I began to notice all of this so definitively. It is the default position for just about every private detective show ever made, after all. I think maybe it was the sheer incongruity of the high school setting combined with the relentless reliance on extra-legal processes required by every investigation. Once I began to notice just how intrusive the actions of the supposed heroes were, how willing they were to lie and steal, break and enter, pass themselves off as officials, create and use false credentials and basically do anything at all to get what they wanted, I couldn't help but notice how very grey the boundaries were becoming between them and the villains.

Even by the standards of these kinds of narratives, the underlying assumption that the law only matters when you're using it to get the result you believe to be right seems jarring. I'm used to seeing the good guys bend the law or even break it but Veronica Mars and her crew barely seem to acknowledge it exists, except when they need a cop to read someone their rights after they've been exposed as a murderer or an extortionist or a fraud. My hope is that all of this is leading, eventually, to some kind of moral epiphany at least for some of the cast. It's a smart enough show for that not to seem like a forlorn hope. And I am only six episodes into Season Two...

Perhaps because I love the show so much, once I'd started to notice these ethical inconsistencies, it set me wondering how common they were in other media I rate highly. The uncomfortable answer is "very". I'm not going to make a list but my feeling is most TV shows and almost all mmorpgs I've enjoyed lately wouldn't hold up to even the gentlest of moral examinations.

And why should they? If we oughtn't to expect all entertainment to be good, why should we expect it all to be.. erm... good? If I don't have a problem with some entertainment media being culturally worthless, why should I balk at its being morally vacuous?

I guess because badly written, filmed, photographed, scripted or acted entertainment doesn't really do much more than waste someone's time, whereas bad role models can ruin someone's life? Then again, who says who gets to be a role model and who decides which role is bad? And does anyone really follow role models, anyway.

Is Veronica Mars even a bad role model? I'm not sure. Yes, she does a lot of things that make me uncomfortable, but she's self-aware, loyal to her friends, always trying to do what she at least believes is the right thing... There are worse ways to be, especially when you're in your teens. And you can cut someone a lot of moral slack after her boyfriend's dad's locked her in a freezer and set it on fire.

I'm not coming to any conclusions here. It's more that once you start noticing this stuff it's hard to stop. Far from making me shy away, though, it makes me want to dig in deeper, which is one of the saving graces of all popular fiction, regardless of quality; the closer you look, the more you see. 

Maybe that's why not being the most discerning of consumers, paradoxically, makes me one of the most invested. I commit very easily, something that makes most of my viewing, gaming and reading experiences more satisfying than perhaps the objective quality of the material deserves.

I'm still playing Noah's Heart, by the way. Every goddamn day.


  1. I do worry sometimes about the way media influences us without necessarily meaning to and without us realising. For example, the first film I ever saw on the big screen was The Little Mermaid, when I was six years old. For a while I was absolutely obsessed with this movie. As an adult, I ended up leaving my family behind and moving to another country just to be with a man. Coincidence? Probably, but the first time I noticed the parallel was still alarming and now I can't help but wonder... 😅

    1. There's a monumental amount of data on these kinds of formative influences but I'm not sure there's much consensus even after more than a century of research. It seems hard to argue against prevailing entertainment trends having some degree of influence on malleable, forming consciousness but to what extent that varies by individual experience is a lot harder to guess. Given the way traumatic incidents can create lasting behavioral patterns, though, it doesn't seem too big a stretch to see that very strong positive reactions, tending to obsession as is often seen in small smal children, might also lay down tracks for future behavior to follow.

    2. Oh CRAP you just made me feel old. I was at university when The Little Mermaid came out...

      As for following a man so much that you moved to another country, I don't think that's that unusual or influenced by The Little Mermaid per se. A lover moving to be close to another is a pretty common trope. Hmm... When I was six, Peter Pan was back in theatres; Star Wars came out right before I turned 8. Of the two, Star Wars was definitely more of an influencing movie than Peter Pan was; I seem to recall having nightmares of crocodiles coming after me for a few weeks after we saw Peter Pan.

  2. Doing my typical "running off in on a tangent" thing...

    "as a general principle I'd prefer to focus on what I like about something rather than on what I think is wrong with it, although I freely admit it's often a lot more amusing to do the latter."

    It's more amusing to read people talk about what is wrong with things too, I guess. Which is why everyone shares the hate. Hate gets clicks/eyeballs. If I say "Ghosts" is a perfectly entertaining sitcom, no one cares. If I instead talk about how it is culturally insensitive or something, then I might have an audience. (The BBC version is better, but the US-made CBS version is still pretty fun.)

    I didn't realize Andor was being called out as problematic. We are absolutely loving it.

    Also Veronica Mars is a beloved show for us. We've watched it through a few times now. In fact I've watched Veronica more times than I've watched Buffy! *gasp*

    But Kristen Bell is a damned treasure. Just don't show her a sloth

    1. Mrs Bhagpuss watches Ghosts, the UK version anyway. She's a huge Horrible Histories fan. I didn't know there was a US version. I don't know if she does. I'll have to ask her.

      Thanks for the sloth link. That's hysterical! Why sloths, I wonder? Never heard of anyone keeping them as pets. I thought they were very problematic in captivity, something a quick Google search confirms. I guess if you have enough money, though, most of those problems can be fixed.

      I really need to watch Buffy all the way through again. It's not on Prime or Netflix any more, so maybe I should buy the box set. I already have the first three seasons on VHS, although technically they were only lent to me - that was over twenty years ago, though, so I don't think the person who lent them wants them back in a hurry...

  3. I think the sheer pickiness that some "fans" exhibit is due to the absurd number of choices we have now. When you have more TV shows than you could ever find time to watch right at your fingertips, why would you ever bother with an average one?

    The problem with that is that if you let the mainstream consensus determine what you are willing to give a chance, you will probably miss out on a lot of things that you would have enjoyed or (arguably worse) spend too much time banging your head on something that just isn't that great to your tastes.

    I also suspect that we all have genres that we are willing to give more leeway than others. My wife will watch darn near any horror movie, as long as it's not simple torture porn, for example. I will watch pretty much anything Star Wars or Star Trek, and I will try darn near any MMO for at least an hour. I also love Godzilla movies, most of which I am more than willing to admit are objectively terrible movies.

    1. The multiplicity of choice creates a whole nested set of ironies, paradoxes and unintended consequences that deserve a series of posts of its own. I'm very wary of engaging with the arguments, though, because they overlap uncomfortably with the kind of "everything was better in our day" thinking that makes my skin crawl. I'd also have to factor in my own, idiosyncratic preference for randomness, something that I know wasn't widely shared by my own cadre and now makes me sound like some kind of aging hipster.

      Just to give one example, I've worked in a bookshop for the best part of twenty-five years and I've been an obsessive consumer of books since I learned how to read but I have never liked or respected either bookshops or the publishing industry they serve, quite specifically because they make finding the books you want to read "too easy". I've always preferred to find my books the way foragers find truffles, sniffing them out in the wild, where they lie, well-hidden and obscure. It's not an opinion shared by many, if indeed any, other readers I've ever shared it with.

      Counter to that, though, I relish the way the internet has put utter obscurity within my reach. Things I would never have known existed now fall into my lap like windfall apples. All I have to do is shake the tree with a search term. It's hard to process the contradictions and as you can see, the moment I even start to think about it, my mind runs ahead, stumbling over the complexities and possibilities.

      I'd better stop now or this comment is going to turn into the first of that series of posts I'm determined not to write.


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