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A Note On The “Last Of Us 2” Leaks (And Spoilers In General)

People have mixed, but intense opinions on spoilers. I know people who will get downright violent if you threaten to spoil something to them. I also know people who just roll their eyes and brush them off, as though they’re no big deal. It’s one of those issues where there’s very little middle ground.

In the age of the internet and social media, it’s almost impossible to avoid them. Some movies, video games, and TV shows can be completely spoiled in a single tweet. There are unmoderated anonymous boards like 4chan where every detail can be spoiled, alongside posts of trolls determined to make ordinary people gouge their eyes out.

Personally, I prefer to read spoilers before I see a movie, buy a game, or get invested in a show. When I saw “Dark Phoenix” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” I read spoilers beforehand. They actually made me more excited to see those movies because I liked what I read.

Sometimes, I make exceptions. I avoided spoilers for both “Avengers: Endgame” and “Breaking Bad.” In those cases, I really wanted to feel the impact when I saw how the story played out the first time. While I doubt reading spoilers would’ve made me enjoy both stories any less, there was an element of impact that I couldn’t have gotten otherwise.

I think a lot of people make exceptions when it comes to spoilers, but sometimes they have an impact that goes beyond spoiling a surprise. That’s what happened recently with “The Last of Us Part 2,” one of the most anticipated video games of the past decade. As someone who played the first “The Last of Us” and praised it on multiple occasions, I was among those brimming with excitement.

Then, an employee at the developer, Naughty Dog, leaked the entire story. Out of respect for those who still don’t want to be spoiled, I won’t go into detail here. I’ll just cite the report by Den of Geek, who also made a concerted effort to avoid such details.

Den of Geek: The Last of Us 2 Leaked Plot Confirmed by Naughty Dog

The Last of Us Part 2‘s story has been leaked. Various clips that showcase nearly the entirety of the game’s story have made their way online. Naughty Dog has recently confirmed the leak via a tweet that asks fans to not spoil the game for others and to avoid spoilers if possible.

The extent of this leak is massive. Not only do these leaked clips include nearly every major cutscene from The Last of Us Part 2, but it seems that fans have also gotten their hands on a leaked level list that details the story structure of the sequel.

Now, I’m going to be careful with my words here because I don’t want to spoil this game for those who don’t want to be spoiled. Even though the leaks have spread on nearly every platform, I don’t want to compound the issue. The primary reason I’m bringing this issue up with The Last of Us Part 2” is because this whole situation with spoilers has some important insights that are worth mentioning.

The biggest insight, thus far, is just how much these spoilers effect the perception of the game. Before the leaks came out, “The Last of Us Part 2” was by far one of the most anticipated games of the year. Naughty Dog’s reputation was very polished and there weren’t many people saying bad things about them.

That situation has been completely reversed.

While it’s hard to gauge every reaction, I’ve seen a fairly consistent pattern. Almost everyone, including those who were very excited about this game, are incredibly disappointed by this. It’s not just that the story was spoiled. The details of that story have rubbed everyone the wrong way.

Without getting into specifics, they effectively undermine some of the most important aspects of the first game. The journey the players took in The Last of Us was a deeply emotional experience. Even if you’d read the spoilers ahead of time, there’s a lot of appeal to that experience. I knew the basic of the game long before I played it. It still had a profound impact on me by the time I got to the end of the game.

With The Last of Us Part 2,” that impact is effectively undercut. The journey that we took in the first game doesn’t matter as much in this game. Everything that made you fall in love with these characters and their struggles is either ignored or overshadowed by something else. For anyone who loved the first game, where’s the appeal in that?

There are also some “political” overtones to the story that have rubbed people the wrong way. I put “political” in quotes because in the world of video games, “political” is usually just code for “political or ideological leanings that I don’t agree.” I’ve never cared much for that. In general, I try to avoid it, but it has become an unfortunate trend in video games, thanks to scandals that have only gotten more absurd with time.

The only aspect of “politics” that I resent in video games, and media in general, is how it tends to hallow out a story. If the point of a story is to just score certain points with certain ideologies, then it renders the story bland and predictable. When done poorly, it becomes outright propaganda.

Based on these spoilers, I won’t say that “The Last of Us Part 2” reeks or propaganda, but the ideological themes are not exactly subtle. While those themes don’t bother me personally, I’ve seen enough internet outrage mobs to know the reaction it’ll incur. That reaction will only obscure any legitimate criticism of the game and its story.

I had not pre-ordered this game, but I was planning to once a new release date was finalized. Now, I’ve no desire to play this game anytime soon. I’ll still follow reviews and feedback. If parts of these leaks prove to be inaccurate, I’ll gladly change my tune. To date, however, nobody at Naughty Dog has denied them. That’s often a sign that they’re real.

To some extent, I’m grateful. I’d much rather learn about this before I dropped over $60 on a game that was only going to disappoint me. During these times, nobody can afford to waste that kind of money. I’ll wait until others play the game to see how the full story plays out. Maybe it’ll work out in the end, but I’m not very hopeful.

It’s a disappointing turn for something that I was genuinely excited about. It also darkens the prospect of this franchise becoming a how on HBO. It’ll be interesting to see how these leaks and the reactions to them effect the sales of the game. If it’s as bad as some dread, then the emotional journey that this franchise took us on could come to an abrupt and tragic end.

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Filed under Current Events, LGBTQ, outrage culture, political correctness, psychology, video games

How Much Agency Do We Really Have?

How much agency do we actually have in our day-to-day lives?

How much freedom do we actually enjoy on a pragmatic basis?

I ask these questions as part of another thought experiment, albeit one that requires more introspection than the others I’ve posed. I think it’s relevant at a time when we’re dealing with a global pandemic that has severely restricted everyone’s agency to significant degrees. It’s also relevant because it’s something we rarely scrutinize.

There’s another reason I’m discussing matters of agency. It has less to do with current events and more to do with frequent criticisms of certain stories. As an aspiring writer and an avid consumer, especially of superhero media, the agency of certain characters is an integral part of that process. You can’t tell a meaningful story without characters exercising some level of agency.

What has become a major issue in recent years is the source, degree, and structure surrounding that agency. I’ve noticed critics and consumers alike scrutinizing who makes the major choices in a story, as well as what role they play, how they look, and why they’re doing what they do. While these are relevant details, that scrutiny can be misguided.

I see it whenever a female character is perceived as having no agency or having too much.

I see it whenever a male character is perceived as being the only source of agency for every major detail.

I see it whenever a character of a different race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation play a role that isn’t just restricted to tokenism.

It has derailed many meaningful conversations about some genuinely great stories. It has also established this standard for some people that if any character with agency happens to be of a certain gender or ethnicity, they roll their eyes and discount the story as pushing some sort of agenda. I find that to be incredibly shallow and short-sighted.

That’s why I think it helps to analyze how much agency we think we have in the real world. It’s easy to quantify that agency within the rigid structure of a story, but the real world is larger, more complicated, and a lot less predictable. How can we determine how much agency we actually have in the grand scheme of things?

How much agency did you have in being born into a particular time, place, or socioeconomic level?

How much agency did you have in falling in love with the person you married?

How much agency did you have in getting the job you have or the career you pursued?

How much agency did you have in finding the friends and social circles you’re part of?

On the surface, it may seem like you’re exercising your ability to choose in these circumstance. I ask that you take a step back and think a bit harder about it.

When it comes to our lot in life, did we really have much say in the economic and social system that we’re part of? Sure, we can choose to not participate, but in doing so, we either starve to death because we don’t have money for food or we become completely isolated from the world and any semblance of social support.

We think we have choices when we go to the supermarket or a restaurant, but how many of those choices are already chosen for us? We don’t always by the cheapest brand of cereal because we want to. We buy it because we have to. In that same sense, we don’t always buy the car we want. We buy what we can afford.

To a large extent, our agency is incredibly limited by our economic resources. It’s limited even more by our social structure, as well. We can’t always do what we want, no matter how depraved. We can’t just walk outside naked, rub our genitals against the nearest person, and yell racial slurs at the top of our lungs. We’d get arrested, imprisoned, or ostracized, at the very least.

Even if what we do isn’t illegal, we still limit our choices because of peer pressure and social stigma. It’s not illegal to watch porn on a public bus, but it will get you odd looks and plenty of scorn. To some extent, we sacrifice some of our agency to maintain an orderly, functioning society. It’s just a question of how much we sacrifice and how much we’re willing cling to.

With all that in mind, see if you can take stock in the amount of agency you exercise in your day-to-day life. You may be surprised by how little or how much you actually have. It may not be the most interesting thought experiment you can do for yourself, but the implications it offers are profound.

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Filed under human nature, outrage culture, philosophy, psychology, Thought Experiment, writing

Bojack Horseman: A Real (And Honest) Face Of Depression

Whenever a TV show, movie, or other piece of media tries to do a realistic take on a serious issue, I tend to roll my eyes and brace myself. That’s because nine times out of ten, the writers and producers of these rarely sincere efforts get things half-assed or ass backwards. Sometimes, they’re not just wrong in their portrayal of an issue. It’s downright destructive. See the first season of “13 Reasons Why” for disturbing proof.

That makes any show that succeeds in portraying a serious issue all the more powerful. By that standard, “Bojack Horseman” is a diamond within a golden crown atop a pile of steaming cow shit. I apologize for the visual, but I feel like that’s the best way to get my point across.

I’ve found plenty of reasons to praise this show since it ended, but being stuck at home for weeks on end has given me more time to appreciate the many amazing things this show achieved. It’s hard enough to get emotionally worked up over a show about real people. To get worked up about a show of cartoon human/animal hybrids counts as a special achievement.

It’s not secret that Bojack Horseman tackles a lot of sensitive issues with varying degrees of sincerity, humor, and tact. The show always tries to entertain, but it also makes a concerted effort to approach these issues in a way that doesn’t feel shallow or half-hearted. Again, see 13 Reasons Why” for an example of how poorly this can go.

I’ve already highlighted how this show gives a well-developed take on the nature of addiction, an issue that is rarely more than plot catalyst for zany antics in most shows. There’s another issue that “Bojack Horseman” handles with just as much skill and it’s one that shows almost always get wrong when they try to tackle it. That issue is depression.

I’m not talking about the kind of depression we feel when a loved one dies, a spouse divorces us, or the show that made us a famous actor in the 1990s gets cancelled. I’m referring to real clinical depression, which is a real medical issue that plagues a lot of people in the real world, including people I know personally.

Now, I understand why depression is so difficult to confront in a half-hour/hour-long TV show. It’s not like the flu or some visible wound that you can treat directly and watch heal. Depression, at its core, is a one-two punch of chemical and mental that complement one another perfectly to make someone miserable to a crippling degree.

It’s chemical in that there are parts of the brain that just aren’t operating properly. The systems that usually make someone happy and content just aren’t working right. They often require medication or extensive cognitive therapy to get that system going again.

The mental part plays off those deficiencies in that they foster this mindset that keeps people in a constant state of doom, gloom, and misery. That mindset often acts as a catalyst for various destructive behaviors, from substance abuse to violent outbursts to self-harm. The effects vary wildly from person to person, but the mentality remains the same.

Where TV shows and movies often fail with depression is two-fold. First, it fails to depict the extent of someone’s depression. Second, it fails to show how it’s properly treated. Just showing someone in a saddened state isn’t the same as showing someone who’s clinically depressed. It only gets worse when that same show or movie tries to treat it as though it has a singular cause.

Sometimes, it’s because a character was abused.

Sometimes, it’s because a character lost a loved one.

Sometimes, it’s because a character didn’t make one single choice that haunts them.

Those are all decent catalysts for character development, but that’s not how depression works. It doesn’t just come from one action or inaction, nor can it be treated by confronting it. You can’t just go on a quest, save the day, and suddenly be a glowing ball of happiness. Depression is more complex than that.

That’s why it was so refreshing to “Bojack Horseman” take a very different approach. Throughout the show, Bojack is shown to have many issues. Depression is just one of them. He’s a substance abuser, a narcissist, and insanely self-destructive. If he went to a therapist, they’d need overtime to treat all his issues.

However, most therapists would agree that Bojack meets the criteria for clinical depression. He’s in a constant state of misery throughout the show and goes to great lengths to alleviate that misery, but often ends up making himself more miserable due to bad behavior and terrible judgement. In essence, his other personal issues often compound his depression.

Unlike other shows, though, the source of his depression is never framed as one particular thing. While he is shown to have abusive parents, substance abuse problems, and crippling guilt from his many bad decisions, there’s never a point where one issue becomes the source.

That, in and of itself, is an important distinction in portraying depression in a realistic way. However, of all the moments that highlight the extent of Bojack’s depression, one episode stands out over all the others. That episode is aptly called Stupid Piece of Sh*t.”

In this episode, Bojack is trying to deal with his previously estranged daughter (who turns out to be his half-sister) and his abusive mother, who is declining mentally in her old age. Like the many other challenges he faces throughout the show, his depression makes this difficult. What makes this episode stand out, though, is how it’s rendered through Bojack’s thoughts.

Through the colorful animation and the haunting voice talent of Will Arnett, these internal monologues give a voice to a depressed mentality the likes of which few shows have captured. It still utilizes a semi-humorous tone, but never stops being real or serious. It’s a powerful insight into what Bojack goes through every day. It doesn’t excuse his awful behavior, but it does provide an important context.

What makes this portrayal all the more powerful is when Hollyhock, his half-sister, asks him about it later in the episode. Like Bojack, she appears to be struggling with that same inner monologue and it’s not a pleasant feeling. She’s young hasn’t lived long enough to make Bojack’s mistakes, which makes her question at the end downright heartbreaking.

That voice in the back of my head that tells me I’m dumb and stupid that’s just stupid, it goes away it’s just a teenage girl thing right. Those voices… they go away, right?

That question, and the way Bojack answers it, cements this episode and this show as one of the best portrayals of real depression in any medium. At a time when we’re all isolated, I think it’s important to understand what real depression looks like. Even if it comes from a show about talking horsemen who sound like Will Arnett, it’s an important perspective that we can all appreciate.

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Filed under Bojack Horseman, psychology, television

How I Came To Respect Red Foreman From “That ’70s Show”

Time, age, and hindsight have a way of changing how you see things. The attitudes and perspectives you have when you’re 35 are bound to be different than the ones you had when you were 15. It’s just part of life, as you get older. The world is such a different place through the mind of a teenager than it is to an adult.

This manifests in many ways, but the one I’ve found most revealing has to do with the way I see old TV shows that I watched in my youth. Some shows age better than others. I recently citedChuck” as one of those rare shows that seems to get better with age. Most shows don’t get that benefit. Some age so poorly that there’s no way they could ever air today.

Thanks to the joys of being quarantined, I’ve had a chance to re-watch and re-visit some of the shows I loved in my youth. Shows like “Chuck” have only reaffirmed why I loved it so much. Other shows evoke a different reaction. One such show is “That ’70s Show.”

When I was a teenager, this was one of my favorite shows. In terms of TV sitcoms, it checked all the right boxes. It didn’t try to revolutionize the genre. It kept things simple, using 70s aesthetics and proven sitcom tropes to make an entertaining show. It never got too extreme. It never tried to cross too many lines. It just tried to have fun with a certain time period and a cast of colorful characters.

Most of the characters were lovable in their own right. My personal favorite was Fez. Some of the best lines in the show came from him. However, one character often stood out even more. In many ways, he was the show’s primary antagonist. He was Red Forman and when he wasn’t threatening to put his foot in someone’s ass, he was a frequent obstacle to whatever scheme the kids had conjured.

In many respects, any sitcom that involves a cast of teenagers needs a character like Red. He embodies the hard-nosed, uncompromising, uncool authority figure. Most of his roles revolve around stopping the kids from doing what they’re doing or punishing them as soon as they get caught. In that context, he’s easy to root against most of the time.

I certainly did when I watched the show in my youth. In fact, Red was one of my least favorite characters in the show because he was just such a hardass. He didn’t have any of the charm or likability as other sitcom dads. Al Bundy might have been a lousy dad, but at least he was funny. Red was rarely funny, his foot-in-ass remarks notwithstanding.

Then, after watching a few episodes recently, I found myself looking at Red Forman differently. I also saw the teen cast differently. While there were certainly times when Red was an unambiguous asshole, those times were a lot less frequent than I remember. In fact, I came to appreciate Red a lot more as I watched the show from an adult perspective.

In hindsight, it’s easy to understand why. When you’re a teenager, authority figures are often barriers to all the things you want to do. They’re the reason you can’t stay out late at night, drink beer, smoke pot, or hook up with your significant other. They enforce the rules that keep you from having all the fun you want to have. They’ll rarely explain those rules. It usually comes down to them being the parent and you being their kid.

This certainly plays out in “That ’70s Show” throughout many plots. I remember watching those same plots as a teenager and rolling my eyes whenever Red Forman got involved. Then, after watching them again, I found myself siding with Red and not just with respect to who deserved a foot in the ass.

When Eric, Fez, Kelso, Jackie, and Donna do something stupid, it’s rarely because of the rules or the authority figures who enforce them. More often than not, they do what they do by choice. They don’t think things through. They think about the consequences to their actions. They are, after all, immature teenagers in the 1970s. They’re more inclined than most to do stupid things for stupid, selfish reasons.

Red Forman may not be the best when it comes to helping them mature, but he’s not wrong for calling them out on it. Most of the time, they are on the wrong side of the dumb-ass equation. Their efforts to eat, drink, have sex, and avoid responsibility are all products of their own immaturity. Someone like Red needs to be there to remind them of that.

Is he the best father figure for helping teenagers navigate their immaturity? No, he isn’t.

Is he better than most of the bumbling dads who tend to populate most TV shows? Yes, he is and he’d kick the asses of most of those dads.

As a teenager, I had a hard time relating to Red Forman. As an adult, I can’t help but respect him. He is surrounded by a lot of dumb-asses and a wife who’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown every other day. The fact he hasn’t put his foot in more asses is a testament to his restraint.

If you need more proof, please see this series of clips. If you haven’t seen the show in a while, then you may find yourself remembering Red more fondly than you thought.

Red Forman may be a hard-ass. He’ll never be father of the year or the first person you invite to a party. However, in a world of dumb-asses, he’s a beacon of order. For that, he deserves our respect.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, media issues, philosophy, psychology, television

Developing Quality Romance According To “Chuck”

The Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has required everyone to get creative in alleviating boredom. At some point, there’s only so much binge-watching you can do with new shows. That’s because, along the way, you find out just how many of them turn out to be utter crap. As such, you find yourself returning to older shows that you haven’t forgotten, but haven’t seen in a long time.

I found myself in that exact position recently. Over the weekend, I was in search of a new show and came across one that I once followed closely. That show is “Chuck,” a quirky, yet endearing spy thriller/comedy/drama from the late 2000s. It’s one of those rare shows that sounds good on paper, but is even better in execution.

The premise of the show is simple. A once-promising young man named Chuck Bartowski is stuck in a dead-end job at a Best Buy-like electronics store, his future having been derailed by getting expelled from Stanford after being wrongfully excused of cheating.

Then, one day he gets a mysterious email from his old roommate, Bryce Larkin, who just happens to be the one responsible for him getting expelled. That email turns out to be a top secret program called the Intersect, a compilation of every NSA and CIA secret ever assembled. It gets downloaded into his brain, making him the most valuable intelligence asset in the world.

It puts Chuck in a strange position that requires him to become a spy under the protection of Major John Casey and Agent Sarah Walker. Action, drama, romance, and various hijinks ensue. The show often has a comedic undertone, but it gets serious in just the right amount to still be entertaining.

I started by just watching the first episode.

Then, I watched the second.

Then, I watched five more.

The next thing I know, I’m already in season two and the show is every bit as fun as I remember. It’s even aged remarkably well. I believe that if this show came out today and was completely unaltered, except for some of the technology, then it would still be a hit. It might even do better than it did when it came out because of just how well every character is handled.

This brings me to the part about Chuck” that stood out most for me while re-watching it. Once again, it has to do with romance. There’s a lot I could say about how this show handles its romantic sub-plots, but I’ll sum it up in a simple statement.

This develops TV romance in a believable, balanced, and endearing way that everyone can appreciate.

A lot of shows have major romantic sub-plots that play out over the entire run of the show. Shows like “Castle” and “X-Files” are famous for drawing those plots out over years. The problem that often plagues these plots is that, by drawing them out, they often become stale. Some even become downright toxic. A show that successfully develops a balanced, sincere, believable romance is exceedingly rare.

I would gladly cite “Chuck” as one of those rare success stories. From the first episode to the emotional series finale, the primary romance that drives the plot of this show is between Chuck and Sarah. It’s set up in the first episode as a ploy for Sarah to get close to the man who possess the intersect, but it evolves into so much more over the course of five seasons.

There are many things that make this romance great, but a big part of what makes it work is how it gets the basics right. It’s a romance that never feels lopsided, forced, or insincere. It’s also not a romance that robs either character of their agency or their personality. It doesn’t move too fast or too slow, either. It evolves in a way that feels real and heartfelt.

Chuck and Sarah isn’t a run-of-the-mill, love-at-first-sight type romance. It’s also not one of those pretty-girl-falls-for-dorky-guy romance either, although that is how it seems initially. It starts off basic. One day, Sarah walks into the store. Chuck sees her and is attracted to her beauty. Call it shallow, but that’s how many romances start in the real world and this one certainly doesn’t remain shallow.

As their relationship and their partnership evolve, each character develops in their own way. Through their romance, we learn where they came from and who they are. Chuck was once a promising student at Stanford who had big dreams that got crushed by forces beyond his control. Sarah is the daughter of a con-man who was recruited to put those skills to use for the CIA.

Both characters have traits and histories that function outside the romance. They each develop along their own path. Chuck goes from being a bumbling, anxious, often-unwilling spy to a determined, capable, and dedicated agent. A big part of that evolution is due to the influence and support of Sarah.

Sarah goes from a simple role-player into someone with her own hopes, dreams, and ambitions. She has plenty of changes to become cold and callous like her partner, John Casey. She chooses to avoid that path and Chuck is a big inspiration for that choice. He makes her better, just as she makes him better. That’s exactly what a healthy romance should do.

As for the evolution of their romance, it’s hardly worthy of a fairy tale. Throughout the course of the show, Sarah and Chuck find themselves caught up in other romantic entanglements. Sarah has a romantic history with Chucks rival, Bryce. Chuck has more than a couple flings that range from a girl working at a sandwich shop to his lying ex-girlfriend, Jill.

Remarkably, none of these side-romances come off as basic obstacles. There are reasons and motivations behind these romantic pursuits. Even if Chuck and Sarah have feelings for one another, circumstances and uncertainties keep them from developing a functioning relationship, at least at first. Eventually, they are allowed to get together, be together, and even get married.

In many shows, that level of maturity is an endpoint. For “Chuck,” it’s another key component of their romantic evolution. That’s a big part of what makes both the series and the romance work. It doesn’t just end when the guy gets the girl. Being in a relationship and consummating that relationship is just part of what makes it function. The show finds a way to work that into the plot and it works beautifully.

There’s so much more I could say about the relationship between Chuck and Sarah, but there’s no way I could capture the full scope of their love story without recounting nearly every episode. That’s why I highly recommend bingeing the show on whatever platform it’s on. Last I checked, the show is on Amazon Prime.

In just watching the first two seasons, it’s easy to see how much time, effort, and thought was put into the Chuck/Sarah romance. It also helps that the acting skills of Zach Levi as chuck and Yvonne Strahovski as Sarah are maximized through plenty of dramatic moments.

It’s a romance that helps develop and benefit both characters over the course of the show. It’s easy to root for them and you really feel it when they’re hit with some devastating moments, especially in the penultimate episode of Season 5. It also shows that balanced romance can be told over the course of a show without it getting stale, hallow, or toxic.

In real life, quality romance occurs when two people bring out the best in one another. Chuck and Sarah prove that over five memorable seasons of “Chuck.” Their love may get messy, complicated, and convoluted at times, but it still feels real and genuine. If you’re a romance fan in any capacity, I encourage you to revisit this gem of a show.

Even if the romance doesn’t do it for you, the show is worth watching for Jeffster alone.

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Filed under Marriage and Relationships, romance, sex in society, television

Why Do We Root For Characters Like Bojack Horseman?

Why do we root for people who do awful things?

Why do we root for the crazed killer in a slasher movie?

Why do we celebrate anti-heroes over traditional, upstanding heroes?

Why do we want people who do irredeemable things to be redeemed?

These are questions are similar in that they have a common theme, but they apply to a wide variety of situations. It feels like those questions have become more relevant in recent years as the standards for quality TV, movies, and characters has risen, which I’ve called the Walter White effect. While it can make for compelling stories, the questions themselves have distressing implications.

I’ve found myself contemplating those questions more seriously after the final season of “Bojack Horseman.” While I love this show and have praised its themes in the past, the final season really pushed the envelope on how far a show could go in telling stories about broken characters.

There’s no getting around it. From the first episode to the series finale, it’s abundantly clear that Bojack Horseman is not a respectable person. He’s a self-centered, narcissistic, alcohol, ego-centric asshole who has hurt people, exploited people, and taken full advantage of his celebrity status. If we knew someone like this in real life, we would never root for them. We’d probably root against them.

However, as I watched this show over the years, I still found myself rooting for Bojack. In following his story, learning about who he is, where he comes from, and how he deals with his problems, I genuinely hoped that he would find some semblance of peace in the end. Even as his sordid deeds started to come to light in the final season, a part of me didn’t want to see him fall, especially when he’d made so many strides.

Bojack isn’t the only character with this issue. There are countless other characters in popular culture, such as Don Draper and Wolverine, who do many awful things throughout their story. I’m a fan of those characters, especially Wolverine. At the same time, I can’t ignore the fact that he’s done terrible things that are on par with Bojack’s crimes.

At the same time, I root for Wolverine. I also find it easier to root for him over Bojack because while Wolverine is largely a product of what others have done to him, Bojack is a product of his own awful decisions.

Bojack has no special powers or excuses, outside being a celebrity. He has his share of issues and circumstances, from verbally abusive parents to substance abuse to legitimate mental illness. However, throughout the show, he’s still the one who makes the choices that ultimately hurt him and his loved ones. Moreover, he spends a great deal of time avoiding the consequences or downplaying them.

This is why I think the final season of Bojack Horseman” was so impactful. While I did often root for Bojack throughout the show, the final season made it a point to remind everyone of the terrible things he’s done. The show is brilliant in how it has everything collapse around Bojack, but not because of circumstance. Once again, his own terrible choices and endless excuses are what do him in.

Seeing him face real, actual consequences for his decisions helped give the show a sense of balance when it ended. Bojack didn’t have a happy ending. Very few characters did. At the same time, he wasn’t killed or endlessly punished. It just left him in an uncertain state where he faced consequences for his past choices. Now, he has to make new choices moving forward.

It’s not satisfying for anyone who’d been rooting for Bojack. At the same time, it’s cathartic for that part of us who wanted him to face consequences for the awful things he’d done. Even so, the fact we rooted for him in the first place is oddly jarring and I think it speaks to a part of our nature that’s difficult to understand.

On some level, I feel like people want to see horrible people redeem themselves. Redemption stories are powerful in both the world of fiction and the real world. I think it’s in our nature to want to see good in everyone, even when they’ve done awful things. The power and desire to forgive is real.

However, does that mean we should let horrible deeds go unpunished? It’s one thing to forgive someone for a lie, but what about someone who abandons his best friend when he gets fired? What about someone who nearly chokes a woman to death in a drug-fueled rage? What about someone who takes advantage of a woman with amnesia?

Those deeds are all things that Bojack did over the course of Bojack Horseman.” There are many others, some of which he never faced consequences for. Even though he’s an extreme example, even by fictional character standards, we still root for him. We still want him to find redemption. I think that says more about us than it does about him.

Awful people will do awful things, but when we see them trying to make things better, it’s hard not to cheer them on. I believe its in our nature to want to see others be the best they can be. The challenge is balancing that inclination to root for them and the need to punish shitty behavior.

Bojack’s story is over, but there are plenty of other characters like him that we root for. It’s not wrong to root for them, but it’s important to maintain a proper perspective. Redemption can be a powerful story. However, can there be any redemption without consequences?

I don’t know the answer. If you have some insights, please share them in the comments.

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The Ambiguity Of Anti-Heroes And How To Make Sense Of Them (According To Overly Sarcastic Productions)

Certain concepts easy to discuss, but poorly defined. You could get 100 people in a room, get them talking about art for hours on end, and at no point will anyone have a clear definition of what constitutes art. For some, it’s a beautiful painting by a long-dead artist. For others, it’s a banana taped to the wall.

The conflict occurs when discussing anti-heroes. I know because I’ve discussed them before. I’m guilty of throwing that label around and attaching it to certain characters. However, despite having a definition, the concept is still poorly defined. It’s so poor, in fact, that you can argue that almost any character with the “hero” is also an anti-hero to some extent.

Like art, it’s one of those things we think we know when we see. Given the sheer volume of superhero comics I’ve read over the years, I like to think I can point out and define an anti-hero better than most. Even with that experience, I doubt my standards are flawless. In fact, I’m fairly certain most peoples’ standards are ridiculously flawed.

I say this because I recently came across a new video by Overly Sarcastic Productions, a wonderful YouTube channel that I would highly recommend for all aspiring writers. Whether you’re writing adventure, sci-fi, or erotica romance, this channel offers invaluable advice and lessons.

My favorite part of the channel is its ongoing series, Trope Talk. It covers a wide range of writing topics, from paragons and pure evil villains to romantic sub-plots and reformed villains. Recently, it tackled the concept of anti-heroes in a comprehensive, colorful way. What made it even more compelling, in my opinion, are the characters it singled out to make the most important points.

There’s a lot I could say about it. Rather than spoil it, I strongly encourage everyone to watch the video. If you think it’s wrong on some areas or missed something, then please make your case in the comments. As both a comic fan and an aspiring writer, I’m always happy to discuss such topics.

If nothing else, I hope that video convinced you to go watch “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” Seriously, even if you’re not a Star Wars fan and utterly despised the sequel trilogy, go check it out. It may not have Baby Yoda, but it has plenty to offer, both for anti-heroes and so many other wonderful things.

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Vision, the Scarlet Witch, and the MCU’s Romance Problem

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Trying to find flaws in the Marvel Cinematic Universe these days is like trying to find a flaw in Mr. Rogers. It’s pretty much impossible, unless you’re willing to be exceedingly petty. Even the most ardent critic can’t deny the success of this now iconic cinematic universe. Such a franchise doesn’t make over $7 billion at the box office by having many egregious flaws.

That said, the MCU is not without its shortcomings and I’m not just talking about underperforming outliers like “The Incredible Hulk” or outright failures like “Inhumans.” One such shortcoming, which I feel has not had sufficient scrutiny, has to do with romance in the MCU. As someone who is a lifelong comic book fan and an admitted romantic, this stands out to me more than most.

It only became more apparent with the upcoming a TV series starring Vision and the Scarlet Witch on the Disney+ streaming service. The romance fan and the comic book fan in me initially liked that idea because Vision and the Scarlet Witch are one of the Avenger’s most endearing and colorful romances in the comics. This is definitely one of those relationships that can carry an entire show.

However, given that this takes place in the MCU, the concept is already on a shaky foundation. While the events of “Avengers: Infinity War” established that these two characters are romantically involved, there’s little in terms of how that relationship developed. As a result, the tragedy that played out in the Battle of Wakanda had little dramatic weight.

It’s one of the few glaring flaws in an otherwise stellar narrative. However, the lack of romantic depth between Vision and the Scarlet Witch is only the most obvious symptom of a much larger problem that has been unfolding in the MCU since the days of “Iron Man” and “Thor.”

Some parts of that problem are pure logistics. Building a cinematic universe on the scale of the MCU requires a lot of moving parts and, as a result, romance was often a secondary concern. Kevin Feige and the creative minds at Marvel Studios opted to prioritize other aspects of character development. Given the MCU’s unprecedented winning streak, it’s safe to say those priorities were well-placed.

It’s only recently that the lack of emphasis on romance has caught up to the MCU. From having Thor break up with Jane Foster prior to “Thor Ragnarok” to horribly mismatched romance between Hulk and Black Widow, there’s a glaring absence of successful, well-developed romances in the MCU.

Even the successful romances, namely Tony Stark and Pepper Pots or Ant Man and Wasp, had much of that success unfold off-screen. At most, a movie would show them getting together or enduring a major conflict, but there would rarely be any moments that fleshed out the romance in a meaningful way. Every bit of development only centered around defeating a villain, which is good catalyst for romance, but not much else.

Now, we’re getting an entire show about a couple who were on opposite sides of the conflict in “Captain America: Civil War” and inexplicably together in “Avengers: Infinity War.” In terms of meaningful romance, this is not a trivial oversight. If someone didn’t know their romantic history in the comics, then they would be understandably confused as to why they ended up together.

Not seen here is ANY hint that these two have been flirting.

It’s the same problem that the original “X-Men” movies made when developing the horribly flawed love triangle between Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine. The narrative in the movies relied too heavily on assuming peoples’ knowledge of the source material in lieu of providing an understandably reason as to why this romance is occurring. Again, that’s not a trivial oversight.

How is anyone who only saw “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War” supposed to buy into the relationship between Vision and the Scarlet Witch? The movies only establish that they’re together. They don’t establish why, how, or what they went through in establishing their relationship. Everyone is just left to assume, which is rarely a good strategy for developing meaningful romance.

Even if the relationship between Vision and the Scarlet Witch were entirely platonic, it would still be quite a stretch to believe that they have a genuinely intimate connection. It’s possible that the upcoming show will help develop that connection, but there’s no getting around how underdeveloped it has been to this point.

The same could be said for other relationships throughout the MCU. Some are so underdeveloped that when intimate moments do occur, they rarely have much impact. Captain America’s relationship with Peggy Carter in his first movie probably had the best foundation, of all the MCU romances, but that only made him kissing her niece, Sharon, feel downright wrong. Haley Atwell herself has said as such.

Romance, even among fictional characters, requires some level of chemistry to go along with the narrative. While that can be difficult to fit into a single movie, it’s not impossible. Movies like “Man of Steel” and the first “Spider-Man” movie were able to establish the necessary chemistry with only a handful of scenes. Such scenes have been absent or underdeveloped in the MCU.

Ironically, the most fleshed out romance in the MCU is between Starlord and Gamora, two characters who aren’t an endearing love story in the comics. I would even argue that the scene in which Starlord sacrifices himself to save Gamora in the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie shows more romantic depth than any other MCU movie to date.

It didn’t take much to show that Starlord and Gamora have chemistry. From their first interactions to the many challenges they overcame over the course of two movies, they developed a powerful connection that just isn’t there for Vision and the Scarlet Witch. That connection is part of what made the events between them in “Avengers: Infinity War” so heart-wrenching.

That same sentiment just wasn’t there with Vision. We knew from the events of two previous movies that Starlord genuinely loved Gamora. We understood how strong it was by the time Thanos entered the picture. There’s none of that present with Vision and the Scarlet Witch. When they face a similar situation, it just doesn’t have the same impact.

It probably helps that Guardians of the Galaxy was a relatively obscure series before the first movie and has little history of iconic romances compared to the Avengers. However, it does show that the MCU is capable of meaningful romance. It just seems incapable of applying it to the more notable couples from the comics.

While such flaws haven’t stopped the MCU from succeeding on so many other levels, it still ensures that Vision and the Scarlet Witch have an uphill battle in terms of proving their romance is more than an assumed contrivance. It’s certainly not impossible, but there’s a lot to develop in terms of chemistry and depth.

Given on how “Avengers Endgame” played out, it may not matter how poorly past romances have been handled. However, the impact it has had in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies shows that there is a place for romance in the MCU. Perhaps Vision and the Scarlet Witch can be part of that with the upcoming show, but it has lot to overcome before it can be the iconic romance that the MCU needs.

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How “Bojack Horseman” Offers A (Refreshingly) Balanced Take On Addiction

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People are complicated. Every person deals with their own set of complications. Some are more serious than others. A person who suffers from crippling addiction doesn’t face the same challenges as someone who has an extreme fear of clowns. Both require different approaches to deal with it and not every person is going to handle it the same way.

I suspect that most people would agree with everything I just stated. Most have probably endured their share of possible complications or dealt with someone who has. It’s one of those basic, but understated facts of life. However, when it comes to complicated problems like addiction and depression, popular media tends to do a lousy job of portraying those problems.

It’s not just that issues like addiction, drug abuse, or depression are overly simplified. The characters involved rarely reflect the complexities surrounding this issue. Look a most TV shows, movies, or books and you tend to get a stripped-down version of these issues. It usually plays out like this.

A character starts the story happy and healthy, but vulnerable and foolish.

Said character makes a few bad choices that triggers the problem.

That character goes through upheavals, losses, and setbacks.

The character hits rock bottom, realizes they have a problem, and decides to get help.

Whatever help they get magically works, the character’s issue is solved, and the credits roll to some upbeat song meant to sell the soundtrack.

I understand most people don’t expect the complex struggles of real people to be boiled down into a half-hour TV show or a two-hour movie. To some extent, these stories sell the fantasy that difficult problems have simple solutions. It’s comforting, but it can be dangerous to those who need help that doesn’t involve magical solutions that leave time for commercial breaks.

Very few TV shows or movies have the time to get into all the nuance surrounding these issues, especially for problems such as addiction. More than any other issue, TV and movies tend to get the nature of addiction very wrong. Addiction, itself, is already subject to all sorts of myths and misunderstandings. That’s even more troubling in the middle of a serious opioid epidemic.

For that very reason, it’s genuinely refreshing to see a popular TV show handle the subject in a more balanced manner. Even if that show involves anthropomorphic horse men that sound like Will Arnett, a little balance goes a long way, especially when dealing with real issues that impact real people.

That show, of course, is “Bojack Horseman.” It’s a show I’ve mentioned and praised before for how it confronts the myth of happy endings. It’s also a show that sets itself apart by lampooning and deconstructing the world of celebrities, happiness, politics, popular culture, and injustice. The fact the show can do this while also being funny, entertaining, and genuine is a testament to the show’s quality and brilliance.

I’ve been following this show since it aired. I’ve watched it grow through several seasons, following a unique path to acclaim and success. I was among those disappointed to hear that the show will be ending after Season 6. I don’t know if there will ever be another show that tackled so many sensitive issues in such a balanced way, but that makes it’s handling of addiction in Season 6 even more impressive.

Since the show’s first season, addiction has been both a common theme and a volatile catalyst. In fact, the very first scene of the first episode makes clear that Bojack has a drinking problem. It’s not subtle in the slightest. When he’s not melting down or mentally torturing himself, he’s drinking heavily or ingesting copious amounts of drugs.

Sometimes, he’s downright creative with drug use.

Throughout the course of the show, this has caused more than a few problems to say the least. People have died. Hearts of been broken. Souls have been crushed, regardless of whether you’re a man, woman, or horseman. These moments have helped give the show a level of dramatic impact that few others have matched.

It has also portrayed addiction with more tact, nuance, and understanding than any show I’ve seen to date. If you or anyone you know have dealt with addiction, then this show “Bojack Horseman” offers a compelling message that’s worth heeding.

Bojack’s addiction issues started off simple, but over the course of five seasons, it has become clear that there’s much more to his self-destructive behavior. It’s not just that he’s a celebrity and celebrities tend to get away with more than most, which the show touches on in some hilariously memorable moments. His life, his upbringing, and his choices have created a complex web of influences that fuel his addiction.

It’s not just that he’s depressed.

It’s not just that his parents were neglectful, hateful, and downright cruel.

It’s not just that he betrayed his best friend, who helped make him a success.

It’s not just that he slept with his best friend’s girlfriend.

There are many other gross misdeeds I could list. A lot happens over course of five seasons and it gets very dark. However, the show never attempts to pin Bojack’s problems with addiction on a singular cause. In Season 6, he attempts to finally confront those problems, but doing so doesn’t mean finding simple solutions. In fact, the solutions are prone to complications of their own.

The first three episodes of Season 6 has Bojack doing something important in the context of treating addiction. It has him look at his life, as a whole, and not just focus on the triggers that inspire his self-destructive behavior. Like addicts in the real world, Bojack learns that there’s no one thing that caused his problems. It’s not a single choice, either. Unlike the light-hearted show that made him famous, life is more complicated than that.

In some respects, drinking gave him the comfort and warmth that his parents never gave him. In others, it allowed him to overcome crippling social anxieties, which only got elevated when he became a celebrity. It wasn’t just that he was dependent on the alcohol to give him a quick dopamine hit to his brain. He came to rely on it, so much so that it incurred more and more complications.

Another part of what makes this portrayal feel balanced is that Bojack’s addictions are never framed as the sole source of his problems. Some of his most regrettable choices in the show happened without the aid of alcohol or drugs. He can’t use addiction as an excuse. Even though he tried to in earlier seasons, he’s not making those same excuses in Season 6.

It’s not a smooth process. Few plots in “Bojack Horseman” play out that way. Bojack struggles with his treatment, which is a novel concept for most shows that tackle the issue. Even when he’s not drinking, it still haunts him. That’s another thing addicts in TV shows rarely show. Once they get treatment, it becomes an afterthought. In real life, treating addiction is an ongoing struggle and always will be.

That’s a tough message for any show to depict, let alone one that needs to resolve things within 22 minutes or 26 episodes. On top of that, the act of not resolving serious issues, such as addiction, means the show can’t have a happy ending. That’s something most shows avoid, but “Bojack Horseman” is different.

On multiple occasions, the show points out how flawed the idea of happy endings are, often in depressing ways. At the same time, though, this is necessary context with which to frame addiction. For someone who has as many issues as Bojack, a happy ending just wouldn’t make sense.

It won’t end like this. It just won’t.

He can’t just come to a profound realization in the backdrop of sad music and suddenly be cured. His story and his struggles keep unfolding. Like real addiction, confronting and treating it is a complicated process that can often last a lifetime. It’s frustrating and depressing, but that’s the nature of life and “Bojack Horseman” doesn’t run from that.

With the second part of Season 6 scheduled for release in January, 2020, the end of “Bojack Horseman” is near. What this means for Bojack, his addiction, and the consequences of his choices remains to be seen. No matter how it ends, the show has achieved a great deal by daring to confront the complications of life that most avoid.

The fact this show can achieve this through a cartoon horse voiced by Will Arnett is an even greater accomplishment. While most people will never be able to relate to a half-man/half-horse former sitcom star, they might be able to relate to his struggles with addiction. Sometimes, being able to deal with things in a quirky, animated show helps make those things less daunting in the real world.

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What “Malcolm In The Middle” And “Joker” Can Teach Us About Deviance

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What makes someone deviant? What turns otherwise normal human beings into the kind of deviants who go onto commit crimes, foster discord, or lash out at the rest of society? These questions are often contemplated by psychologists, police, politicians, and people who just want to live in peace.

The answers aren’t easy, but they often make for compelling movies and TV shows. Some dare to offer answers that are as revealing as they are distressing. That’s part of what made “Joker” such an impactful movie. It’s also what triggered the controversy surrounding its subversive message. I tried to explore that message my review of the movie, but in doing so, I uncovered something surprising.

The themes in “Joker” are more relevant today than they’ve been in years. It makes the case that when people denigrate, marginalize, or ignore those in the lowest rungs of society, they’re going to create the kinds of monsters and supervillains that undermine the current order. Moreover, they deserve the chaos and deviance that these individuals cause.

In “Joker,” Arthur Fleck was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances and societal denigration. While Gotham City didn’t turn him into the Joker, they put him in a position to make those fateful choices. Nobody tried to help him or give him other options. If anything, the help and options he needed were taken away. It was part of what made his deviance both compelling and understandable.

It reminded me of a famous TV show that made a similar point, albeit one from a very different genre and medium. It dared to make that point decade earlier, long before the current controversies surrounding mass shooters in movie theaters and so-called “incel culture.” That show is “Malcolm In The Middle.”

The two narratives couldn’t be more different. One is an R-rated movie that defies the conventions of the superhero genre and explores the twisted mind of an iconic villain. The other is a prime-time sitcom full of funny, cartoonish antics from a dysfunctional working-class family. One is dark and serious. The other is funny and light-hearted.

Despite those vast differences, they convey very similar messages. They both make the case that a callous, negligent society will create deviant individuals within its most disadvantaged. They also highlight how efforts to push them aside or suppress their deviance will only make things worse.

In “Joker,” it turned Arthur Fleck into an agent of chaos who went onto inspire more chaos in others. The circumstances in “Malcolm In The Middle” were very different and a lot more subtle, but the underlying message was still there.

It’s subtle, but it’s there.

From the first episode of the show to its finale, Malcolm and his family are depicted as both dysfunctional and disadvantaged. In some instances, they’re downright destitute. On many occasions, they deal with crippling debt, dead-end jobs, and arrogant upper-class types who look down on them with disgust. More often than not, Malcolm and his brothers get back at them in their own creative way.

Whatever form the antics take, the show never uses the lower-class status of Malcolm’s family to justify their behavior. Much like “Joker,” it establishes that the characters have agency. They’re dealt a lousy hand, but they still have opportunities to make non-deviant choices. They’re rarely forced into deviant acts. Opportunities arise and they exercise poor judgement, to say the least.

The very least.

Malcolm and his brothers didn’t have to lie about what happened to Dewey’s bike in Season 1, Episode 15. They did it anyways and things only escalated from there when the consequences caught up with them.

Malcom and his brother didn’t have to buy their mother a terrible birthday gift in Season 2, Episode 3. They still did and the end result led to them fighting an army of clowns in one of the show’s most memorable moments.

It’s not just the kids, either. Hal didn’t have to resort to unorthodox tactics when coaching Dewey’s soccer team in Season 3, Episode 16. He still did and things only got messier from there.

Lois didn’t have to force Malcolm to getting a job as terrible as hers in order to teach him a lesson in Season 5, Episode 6. She still did and, in doing so, taught him an entirely different lesson about just how screwed people like them are. It’s a message that even found its way into her memorable speech in the series finale.

It’s an important component of the show’s brilliance and humor. Malcolm and his family are a mess. They’re constantly getting screwed over by circumstances, bad choices, and other people who look down on them. However, they never come off as victims, nor do they carry themselves as such. They have opportunities to become less dysfunction, but often squander them.

Arthur Fleck had chances to become something other than a killer clown. There were a number of instances in “Joker” in which he could’ve gone a different path. He simply chose not to and society didn’t lift a finger to help him. If anything, they took away what little help he got.

Throughout seven seasons in “Malcolm In The Middle,” Malcolm’s family finds themselves in similar situations. One of the best examples is in Season 4, Episode 17, which happened to be the second clip show episode. In that episode, Hal and Lois recount the births of their kids as they prepare for the arrival of another.

In every instance, the births are subject to strange and hilarious circumstances. In one of them, Lois goes into labor in the driveway of their house because Francis locked her out of the car. Then, while she’s writhing in pain from the labor, a jogger passes by. She yells out she’s having a baby, but the jogger just ignores her and congratulates her.

It’s funny, but symptomatic of the family’s lot in life. Nobody goes out of their way for them. Nobody offers to help them. It even happens again a few episodes later in Season 4, Episode 21 when Lois goes into labor with Jamie. Even though someone calls 9-1-1 and an ambulance arrives, they don’t get there until after she gives birth. The EMTs even joke about how they stopped for coffee.

Like Arthur Fleck, the society around Malcolm’s family doesn’t care about them. They even go out of their way to avoid or neglect them. In “Joker,” Arthur is repeatedly victimized by both the system and individuals who go out of their way to harass him. His situation is already bad, but these ordeals only make it worse.

Early in the movie, Arthur does show signs that he’s capable of being a decent person. He tried to make a kid on the bus laugh. He entertained sick children at a hospital. He could’ve been a productive, positive force in society. Then, society started screwing him over and bad choices on his part led him to become a dangerous deviant.

While Malcolm and his family didn’t become as deviant as the Joker, they still did plenty of damage with their antics. At the same time, there were plenty of instances that showed that, as dysfunctional as they were, they could still be good and decent to others when given the chance. They just rarely got those changes and society rarely provided the incentives.

It’s a powerful message with respect to what makes people deviant. Some people are at the mercy of bad circumstances, be they poverty, mental illness, or having an overbearing mother like Lois. They’re still capable of being good, but it’s easier for them to become deviant when society neglects them. That deviance only compounds as a result of poor judgement and bad choices.

Yes, they compound a LOT.

There are plenty of differences between “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle.” Whereas “Joker” takes things to the worst possible outcome in the descent towards deviance, “Malcolm In The Middle” manages to maintain a more hopeful outlook. People can still be deviant and dysfunctional, but they can rise above it. The events of the series finale affirm that.

Those differences aside, this movie and this TV show offer lessons and insight into something that all societies must deal with. There will always be a certain level of deviance. There will also be those more inclined to pursue it. It’s just a matter of how to confront it. More than anything else, “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle” shows the consequences of confronting it the wrong way.

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