Things I Liked – August 2019

Hello, and welcome to another edition of Things I Liked in or around the month that I liked them. I always try to do a witty preamble for these and then realise I should just get on with talking about things I liked, that being what I’m here for.

So, uh, here’s some things I liked.

Mind Hunter (Season 2)

Occasionally people will ask me what my guilty pleasure is, and I’ll go off on a long rant about how I find the concept of a guilty pleasure really annoying because it tends to get used “a thing that you like but feel you shouldn’t like for somewhat abstract reasons of social censure.” Basically, it’s how people describe things they enjoy but think are too lowbrow for them (sidebar: it gets used about romance novels a lot and I’m not mad keen on this) and I very strongly believe you shouldn’t feel guilty about enjoying something just because it’s not Proust.

Having said which, there are some things which I do feel genuinely feel guilty about enjoying because I am concerned that they are on some level actually harmful to actual harmful people. Professional wrestling is my go-to example here. Love Island has gone through guilty pleasure and out the other side in that I decided not to watch this year, and probably won’t until they can prove they can at least one season without killing any cast members. And another thing that I think might need to go on the list is true crime.

And the true crime thing is complicated. You’ve got things like Serial which seem to be legitimately concerned with a potential miscarriage of justice, but even then they blur the lines between storytelling and journalism, and often get presented in a very victim-erasing way (although I’ll admit this is kind of damned if you do / damned if you don’t in that, on the other hand, it squicks me out that I can easily remember the name of Adnan Syed but can’t remember the name of the girl he might have murdered, but the other hand, I’m sure her family would rather not be household names). Even further down the “ethics-o-meter” are what you might call the sexy serial killer shows. There was quite a well-publicised one on Netflix recently about Ted Bundy that got thoroughly lampooned by how much it emphasised Bundy’s essential hotness. And those I flat-out avoid because, yeah.

Mind Hunter, for me, skates just close enough to the line that I’m okay with it—although every so often I’ll Google the person they’re talking about and realise that the serial killer in question is still alive, and that makes me feel really odd. I think  one of the factors that lets me enjoy Mind Hunter as a cool “inspired by a true story” crime thing that pushes all the buttons that other stuff that serial killers does is that it’s set just long enough ago that it feels like a period piece. And so the realisation that actually no, this is still within living memory throws me. But there’s enough architecture around it that carries me through. Having said which, I am on some level aware that I’m sort of having my cake and eating it in that most of the time I can tell myself that I’m watching the show for the fascinating insights into the origins of the FBI Behavioural Science Unit, even though deep down I, like everybody else, am mostly just waiting to see which big name serial killer they interview this week.

And to give the show its due, it’s actually quite conscious of that approach to serial killers, and engages with it in a way that doesn’t come across (at least to me) as condescending. The main character obviously has tendencies in that slightly sensational direction – there’s quite a nicely set up sequence where he’s desperately hankering after an interview with Manson even though interviewing Charles Manson will in no way help with the case they’re working on, and when the interview finally happens it’s weirdly anticlimactic because Charles Manson ultimately is just a guy. In fact, “just a guy” is sort of the way it portrays most of the serial killers it presents. From years of crime dramas we’re a very used to the idea that a serial killer is some kind of real world supervillain capable of inhuman feats both physical and mental (Red John in The Mentalist is the poster child for this kind of character). But most of the people they interview are just shit and broken, and yes they’ve done terrible things, but that’s because people sometimes do terrible things, and the really frightening things about terrible things is that they’re not that hard to do.

But none of that is why Mind Hunter season 2 was one of my favourite things on TV in August. In season 2, the Deputy Director of the FBI stands down, due to events of the previous series, and is replaced by a character called Ted Gunn who we have been trained, once again by years of police procedurals and, for that matter, any other kind of institutional procedurals, to assume will be evil, incompetence and dick with the protagonists for no reason or benefits for himself. We’re told he’s a suit, or a pen pusher from city hall, who’s more interested in politics than cracking cases and whenever he interacts with the team he sits there in sinister lightning, with ominous music playing, and you keep expecting him to say “you’ve got to fire the genius guy and make the woman a secretary, and wrap up this impossible in case in six seconds or I’m closing the unit.”

Except, um. He doesn’t do any of that. He’s really supportive and gives them the resources they need and works the politics so that they do what they need to do. And this is fucking weird. But then you remember that Mind Hunter is based on an actual autobiography and is about the establishment of a department within the FBI that exists today, and is well-respected and well-funded. So the story is basically about how representatives of the establishment recognised that what these people were doing is worthwhile and helped them do it better.

I think there should be more of this. I mean, I know conflict is important for drama but popular culture should not be training us to believe that it’s impossible for state institutions to do anything right.

Naturally Tan

I kind of love Tan France. I mean, all the Fab Five are, and the clue is very much in the name, fabulous but Tan is the British one so he is my guy forever. The thing about Tan France’s autobiography and, no offence to Tan, is that he hasn’t had an especially interesting life—sort of his whole deal is that he’s just this kid from South Yorkshire who ran a bunch of business, married a Mormon rancher, and, as far as I can tell, accidentally got cast on a major Netflix show. But everything about this I find really charming.

To be fair, his autobiography feels deliberately, well, British in that there’s clearly quite a lot of things that he doesn’t think are anyone’s business but his own and so he’s going to ignore all that stuff, and instead go on for quite a really long time about why you should never wear a functional belt. It’s basically the opposite of a tell-all autobiography. It’s a polite-chat autobiography, but he’s very open about what you’re getting into, and what he’s willing to talk about, so it’s hard to feel cheated.

In short, it’s an endearing portrait of the Tan France that Tan France is willing to share with the public—it has its carefully chosen intimacies, like his husband’s refusal to believe him about the sizing of his wedding ring, and some experiences with being south Asian in Britain and America (spoiler: they are not always pleasant). But mostly it’s just … nice?

I will say, I picked up in the Audible edition, which is narrated by Tan himself—because I have a particular fondness for people reading their own autobiographies—and I think a lot of its appeal comes from his presentation because you can stick it on in the background as you wash the dishes or make the dinner and it’s like Tan France has come round to your house for a natter.

Obviously your mileage with this will very much vary depending on how much you like the idea of Tan France coming round your house for a natter.

Slay the Spire

Okay, I’m a year late on this one. And for the vast majority of my readership who have no idea what the terms “roguelike” and “deckbuilder” mean this game is a roguelike deckbuilder. What fun. A roguelike is a game that takes place in a randomly generated dungeon and a deckbuilder is a game that is played using a small deck of cards that you add to over the course of that game. Confusingly, deckbuilders as a genre are different from customisable card games in which you have a larger deck of cards that you design for yourself at the start of the game.

The thing I most admire about Slay the Spire is that it contains nothing that it does need to contain. It started out without two playable characters, has since added a third and will be adding a fourth sometime next week. The dungeon has three and a half floors, each with a very small number of possible bosses. But all of these limited sets of interacting pieces work together to create something with a surprising amount of depth.

If I have one criticism of the game, and this isn’t really a criticism of the game, it’s a criticism of myself, it’s that the set of skills you need to be good at the game are non-obvious and don’t necessarily relate to the things you instinctively want to be doing. You want to be saying “ooh, I’ve got a lot poison cards this run, I’ll take more poison stuff and make a poison deck that does things with poisons.” What you need to be saying is “ooh, I’ve got a lot of poison cards this run, I need more front-loaded damage to have a good chance of dealing with Gremlin Nob.”

And actually there’s a weird if deeply nerdy satisfaction in gradually building your mastery of the game, even if it’s a skill that is of absolutely zero practical value in the outside world.

Jenny Nicholson

I watch a lot of YouTube channels, usually of the “I am a person having an opinion” variety. And at the moment I’m super into Jenny Nicholson because her opinions are … kind of delightful? She somehow manages to be snarky without being smug or diminishing the thing she’s talking about, even when the thing she’s talking about is blatantly terrible.

One of the issues with discussing YouTubers is that because these sorts of channels are usually just someone sitting on their bed talking into a camera it’s hard to separate the content from the person. Or at least your perception of the person. So it’s hard to discuss them or recommend them without feeling like you’re projecting way too much onto a stranger on the internet or offering a random human being up for judgement.

Which is to say, I like the YouTube persona that Jenny Nicholson presents, because she seems cool. And I think what I find cool about her (that is, her YouTube persona) is that she doesn’t seem to give a shit if you think she’s cool. I mean she’s done an entire video in which she talks about how much she loves Beastly. Once you’ve done that you can never be cool again. Which is, y’know, cool.

Anyway, here are some of my favourite Jenny Nicholsons to get you started:

She Used To Be Mine

One of my favourite things as someone who knows shit all about either music or theatre is that thing you sometimes get in instances of musical theatre where you’ll have a song that’s structured as if it’s the show’s main love theme, but is actually about something completely different. Sondheim does this all the damned time, see My Friends in Sweeny Todd or I Am Unworthy of Your Love in Assassins.

Back in the mid-to-late-2000s there was a musical version of the indie movie Waitress. Full disclosure, I have seen neither the musical nor the film it is based on, but one of its big numbers is called She Used to be Mine, and it does that thing that I’ve just said I like. So I like it.

SYtbM is a love song that the main character sings to herself in the past. Which is awesome. Also it’s Sara Bareilles, who is also awesome, although I confess I mostly know her because Gravity was used as the backing for a well-known Community fanvid.

And those are the things I liked. As ever tell me about the things you liked in the comments. Or don’t.

Also, I’ve got a book out. Like, tomorrow. Yay. Maybe you could buy it?

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14 Responses to Things I Liked – August 2019

  1. Gillian says:

    SARA B!! She Used To Be Mine gets regular play on my Spotify playlist, along with a few other Sara Bareilles songs (most notably Sweet As Whole when I’m in a *mood*). I adore her voice because it gives me all the feels, plus she sings Winter Song which is one of the few seasonal songs I can actually stand.

  2. Kamala says:

    Three things, I think.

    1) I wouldn’t mind an extended version of the guilty pleasure rant. Does it also apply to guilty pleasure food?

    2) I actually went to a game bar with Erin P. (Hi Erin if you are reading this!) and played two games: Secret Hitler and Tokaido. In the very first game of SH when I was completely clueless as to what was going on I happened to get the Hitler card. I had the very immense pleasure of being selected as chancellor at just the right time by someone who thought I was more confused than I actually was. She was certainly surprised when the fascists won. Heh.

    Below the bar was a game store where I recognized names of games curtesy of this blog. I restrained myself from taking photos.

    3) Sara Bareilles – I was in the same grade as her sister Jenny. When I was 8 or 9 they lived around the corner from me. Once when I went over to play, I rode my bike over and parked it in their garage. When I left I discovered I had a flat tire due to running over a nail in their garage. And that is all I remember.

    HAPPY RELEASE DAY TOMORROW! <3

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I, err, I think that *was* the guilty pleasure rant to be honest 🙂

      Sounds like you had fun gaming with Erin – although hidden traitors are always a bit awkward when you end up being the traitor on the first play through. Even if you can sometimes win through your genuine air of confusion.

      And thank you for the release day good wishes. I think I’ve survived it 🙂

  3. EmmaT says:

    I don’t watch a lot of YouTube channels cause I don’t really remember about them, but I am absolutely watching the Christmas Prince dystopian episode. Reminders are being set!

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I actually finding subscribing to channels really helps me remember that this is a thing I enjoy doing – I’m sure it’s contributing to some vast, crunching YouTube algorithm but I think it’s also good for creators. Hope you enjoy the dystopian Christmas Prince – you’ll next think of those movies the same way again 🙂

  4. Jeanne Hurley says:

    Long ago I had to work with a (just a) guy who became a killer; he thought he was Better and Smarter than Everyone though it turned out he was just shit and broken. But thinking about it still creeps me out more than 30 years later.
    Does one need to watch season 1 of Mind Hunter?
    I am doodling around not wanting to start a new book because Belong arrives tomorrow so have added Mind Hunter to my Netflix queue and Naturally Tan to my audiobook wishlist. Actually a natter from Tan might be what I need to occupy me until Belong arrives. Thanks!

    • Alexis Hall says:

      My god, that sounds completely terrifying and horrible.

      I would definitely watch S1 of Mind Hunter before 2, but they’re fairly short seasons (10ish episodes I think, not 24 or something) and they’re both on Netflix so it’s easy to play catch up. You’ll probably know by halfway through the first episode if this is something you’re going to find it engaging or not.

      Hope you enjoyed a natter with Tan before Belong arrived 🙂

  5. Jill says:

    Ted Gunn actually kind of chilled me. He was dedicated to increasing the importance of the department (whether altruistically or selfishly; probably both). But the way he treated the Anna Torv character – ugh. Controlling and sexist. His “casual” touching of her at the party, as though it was his right. I found him very unlikeable.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I confess I was not alert to that at all – which is entirely on me.

      There’s a sort of base-line background of sexism to the show in general (due to the whole being set in the 70s thing) so I wasn’t super focused on individual instances.

      It’s definitely obviously he’s not some kind of saint or amazing humanitarian, but I did like the fact it wasn’t the typical “oh, he is establishment so he’s evil” thing.

  6. Kelly says:

    A favorite thing in August is that we are another month closer to our first grandchild arriving in early October! There aren’t words for the joy getting ready to love on the new little one is filling us (grandma & grandpa) with. Our daughter is staying healthy and son-in-law hasn’t run screaming into the woods yet, so all is well!!

    AND

    I can now start Billionaire 2, since Billionaire 3 has arrived !! Tried reading 2 and had chest pains from the type of angst. So now I can read straight through to the HEA (?)!!

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Oh congratulations to you and your family – that does sound wonderful.

      And, yes, HEA guaranteed! It’s a journey, but they get there, and I think quite comprehensively 🙂

  7. Lisa says:

    Eep! Belong has arrived on my Kindle I am valiantly trying to hold out till tomorrow when I will have time for luxurious uninterrupted reading. Last night at 10pm I broke and read the prologue (and OMG wow!). So it’s like I’m failing the marshmallow test. But I’m so happy.

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