A rambling re: songs, and tragic characters, and personal joy.

sam-crowFinished watching Sons of Anarchy last night. I wasn’t as involved with the seventh season as with all the others; while I appreciate the character arcs and have a seriously deep respect for the construction of the story, Jax had become an asshole protagonist and I am so very tired of asshole protagonists.[1] It was nonetheless an incredible work, and I am very glad I saw it; I think it is something I’d like to rewatch if I had time (yes, in its entirety), probably with directory commentary.

But oh, that finale song. (Apparently it’s exclusively streaming through Soundcloud on Rolling Stone until the album comes out, although I’m sure that if Soundcloud is a problem for some reason, *mumble* YouTube.) I have listened to it five times this morning, and am starting the sixth. I am frustrated that I won’t be able to get a copy until February, and every time it gets to the chorus the frustration just melts, because that song hooks me in a way the last season didn’t.

I’ve been thinking about a couple of other, rather less serious series lately–Arrow and The Flash. Partly this is inevitable; I mean, the former features another handsome blond born-to-be-king protagonist whose… whose father was murdered by his mother and her lover… uhm. Wow. Okay, I was just going with the “generic blond hero, comes in a white can” thing before I moved on. There’s more overlap there than I thought.

Anyway, as I was saying: Ollie Queen, protagonist of Arrow, is grimly not getting over all his dead family members. He yells this at Barry Allen[2], protagonist of The Flash, resulting in the following jewel of an exchange:

Barry: My mother was murdered right in front of me, too. But I don’t use my personal tragedies to just torture whoever pisses me off.
Oliver: Well I’m sorry, Barry, but I’m not as emotionally healthy as you are.

Things that are pretty clear, even if not addressed in this exchange: Yes, Ollie, but you’re not trying.

Anyway! After contemplating blond guys with dead families who could frankly stand to stop tantrumming, and how many shows have nominal protagonists who are frankly just there so other people can put up with their bullshit, I moved on to thinking about the shows which actually make me happy. Not just shows that are fun to watch, but shows… hmh. Shows that induce some element of joy?

It’s funny to think of that word in association with TV, I know. But I can’t think of a better one.

But yes, those shows: there’s The Flash, and there’s Leverage. I would need to rewatch Middle Man to figure out if it ever quite hit that point; I don’t think it did, but right now my head is full of music that does not mesh with the show and I haven’t had coffee yet, so I’m not sure. Doctor Who has done it sometimes, but not lately.

Most of these shows… well, they’re not realistic dramas. They range from slightly implausible (Jon Rogers has called Leverage “competence porn”, and openly had Lester Dent’s pulp writing instructions pinned in the staff room) to pure spec. But that’s not it. I think it’s that they’re about heroes, and a very specific type of heroes. Some are superheroes. Some are just… well, they’re only John McClane levels of hero[3], but they’re still in the same stretch. Pulpy? Idealistic (not the characters, but the world or the narrative)? Clean, in the we-are-having-none-of-your-90s-gritty-reboot sense?

There’s something to them, I think. If I can articulate it, I can figure out what it is that makes me happy, and then I will better know how to go looking for it.

[1] Yes, he was suffering. Yes, he had reasons. Yes, he was misled. Yes, he was raised in an environment that did a lot to normalize violence and that left him suspicious of mental health professionals. Yes, it is totally plausible that he be in that place… and his actions due to being in that place while being a protagonist made him an asshole protagonist. This does not erase that he was a tragic hero, by the classical definition. It merely overlaps with it.
[2] I love you, Barry. A++, carry on.
[3] There was a complaint when Die Hard came out that John McClane was too super-hero-y, too comic-book-y. Just saying.

Green and bronze

I’m discovering I’m actually kind of liking Arrow. I was expecting a less obnoxious Batman[1] who beat up fewer poor people and was somewhat better adjusted. And I got that. But I’m getting more, as well.

There’s a sensibility to it that feels deeply rooted in the pulps–Doc Savage with more (and darker) character development, Remo Williams with less camp. The protagonist is not a hero. The protagonist is a vigilante with some very strict rules. I am reminded of Eric Burns’ brilliant description of the old pulp vigilantes, which I may be stuck quoting until the end of time because really, he nailed it:

I need horror turned against evil instead of for evil. I need psychology and mystery blended. I need the supernatural with a veneer of exotic science to handwave it away.

That is so why I’m watching this.

I think the show really clicked for me when Queen’s chasing down the Royal Flush gang and tries to get the guard to not pull the trigger because he wants to see them hurt as little as possible; that episode really came across as explicit acknowledgment that someone who isn’t a good guy can have a good effect. That you can tell stories about someone who isn’t a good guy, that they are doing that. (There are a lot of shows that do this. House of Cards springs to mind. House of Cards, like Pet Semetary, suffers from the “practically all our characters are assholes” curse. This does not make it a bad show, but it certainly makes it a less cheering one to watch.)

I don’t think Queen’s a good guy, not yet. I think he believes at least one good thing (“don’t kill people”), but primarily he’s driven to stop bad guys, and as Huntress so pointedly illustrates, those are not the same things. I think he can become a good guy if he listens to the characters who have a broader moral sense of how to behave and takes time to develop something more than the compulsion to fulfil his father’s quest; I am not sure he will do this.

And I am really enjoying the non-Queen characters. Diggle, who is willing to call Oliver on so much of his BS. Felicity Smoak, with Oracle-like research powers and an inability to actually get the right words out. Quentin Lance (weirds me out every time I see him for looking like such a perfect blend of the Weasel from Lost Room and Boyd Crowder from Justified), because dammit, you need a smart honest cop and it’s a relief to have a foil for the protagonist who isn’t a bad guy. Laurel Lance and Tommy Merlyn and their (admittedly completely unoriginal but nonetheless charming) crusading idealism and well-intentioned stumbling towards adulthood. Even Moira Queen, who is presented completely honestly as being both a criminal conspirator responsible for multiple murders and unquestionably devoted to her family. (I want to see what’s going to happen when those two drives are brought into sharper conflict.)

I even like a couple of the recurring locales–the diner where Diggle’s sister-in-law works, the rustbelt crumble of the abandoned Queen industrial factory. (Admittedly, diners and decaying industrial locales are an easy sell for me.) And the colour-coding of the scenes is not subtle, but it sure is pretty.

It’s not Leverage. I don’t love the characters and I don’t turn to this show when I want comfort watching. But it’s entertaining, and new, and I like the idea of a flawed protagonist who’s got a finite arc to him. So I watch.

[1] My opinion of Batman varies based on the iteration, but I can at the very least say that I have really not been a fan of the recent movies.