Tag: Reviews

Mmm, Forbidden Comics

Modified from a post on Brontoforumus, 2015-09-23.


In honor of Banned Books Week, the latest Humble Books Bundle is made up of banned and challenged comic books.

It's not just a good theme, it is, in terms of quality content for your money, the single best collection of comics I have ever seen. I've got a couple caveats about the presentation, which I'll get to in a minute, but it's well worth the price of admission, whatever tier you choose to donate at.

Pay more than the average and you get Heartbreak Soup.

Heartbreak Soup is my all-time favorite comic. Your mileage may vary, but as far as I'm concerned, the list of Greatest Comics of All Time goes Heartbreak Soup, then Maus, then that Spider-Man arc where he has to lift the rubble off him as Doc Ock's underwater base collapses. (No, Watchmen is not in my top three.)

The bundle also has the first volume of Bone. Bone is phenomenal; it's an all-ages adventure story in the classic mold, with influences from Walt Kelly to Carl Barks to Don Martin; it's funny and it's gorgeously drawn. You should definitely get it if you haven't read it yet; it's at the first tier so it can be yours for a penny.

The bottom tier's also got Maggie the Mechanic, which is the other Love and Rockets vol 1. (Heartbreak Soup is the first volume of Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar stories; Maggie the Mechanic is the first volume of Jaime Hernandez's Locas stories.) Maggie the Mechanic is great too, but for my money it's not as great as Heartbreak Soup, or as the other Locas stories that followed. (The Death of Speedy is widely regarded as the best Love and Rockets story; it's in vol 2 of Locas, which is not included in this bundle.)

Bottom tier also has The Frank Book. Jim Woodring's work is beautiful, surreal, wordless, and incredibly detailed. I have six pieces of comic book art hanging on my walls. One is a Quantum and Woody poster signed by Christopher Priest; one is an Uncle Scrooge print signed by Don Rosa. The other four are Jim Woodring prints that my uncle gave me for my birthday after using them in a museum exhibit.

There's some other stuff in there that I don't know as much about. I like Chester Brown but I haven't read The Little Man; I like Jeff Lemire but I haven't read Essex County. I suppose they're probably both pretty great based on their respective cartoonists' other work, but I don't know them.

And The Boys is in there. The Boys is not for me; I'm not a Garth Ennis fan. But if you like the sound of a bunch of asshole superheroes being taken down by a group of regular guys led by somebody who looks exactly like Simon Pegg, you'll probably dig it.

To summarize: it's a great bundle. It's worth buying for Heartbreak Soup, Bone, and Frank alone; I bought it mostly because I'd been wanting to pick up Frank, Essex County, and Information Doesn't Want to be Free by Cory Doctorow (available as an audiobook in this bundle; the only item that isn't a comic book).

So. Great bundle. But. As I said, there are some caveats with the format.

The first of which is, you're probably going to be reading these on a tablet. And some of these comics just don't look as good on a 10" screen.

I was especially worried about The Frank Book given the detail of Woodring's work; this stuff's meant to be read at 8.5"x11" size. But I was surprised to find it actually looks great on my tablet. The full-size book would be better, but it also costs $35 and weighs 3 pounds. And that's the paperback version.

Bone looks fantastic on my screen too.

Surprisingly, of the books I've thumbed through, the one that suffered most was Heartbreak Soup.

Part of that's to do with the ratio. The pages of Love and Rockets are shorter and wider than standard comic book pages.

  • Bone page
    Bone
    Scaled to 325x500
  • Heartbreak Soup page
    Heartbreak Soup
    Scaled to 405x500

So on a 6:10 screen like my tablet's, you're left with some major letterboxing and a picture that is uncomfortably small and looks a little jaggy, and text that can be hard to read. (If, on the other hand, you have a tablet with a 4:3 screen, like an iPad, I imagine the Love and Rockets -- and the other more square-ish comics in the collection -- will look a lot better, and you'll have the opposite problem with the more traditionally-sized comics in the set.)

Perfect Viewer also seemed to choke on the file a bit; after the first few pages, it started pausing for long periods of time on each page turn. At first I thought it was due to the file size (the CBZ version is 675MB), but The Frank Book is even bigger and Perfect Viewer didn't give me any trouble with it. So I don't know why it doesn't like Heartbreak Soup, but it doesn't.

In short, Heartbreak Soup is my favorite comic, but my 10" tablet is most definitely not the best way to read it. Again, your mileage may vary; you may have better luck on an iPad, as noted, or if you're cool with just reading it on a desktop computer monitor, it looks great on my 27" 2560x1440 screen. But if you're looking for comics to read on a widescreen tablet, well, there are still a lot of great books in this set that totally justify the purchase, but don't buy it just for Heartbreak Soup. All that said, though? It's still a great damn comic, it doesn't look that bad on my tablet, and if you don't want to look for it at your local library or pay full price for the paperback version, well, it's still worth a read.

There's another one I looked through that I have a visual complaint about, and unfortunately, it's an important one and the granddaddy of all challenged comics: Crime Does Not Pay.

Crime Does Not Pay is a classic. It's the first and most successful of the 1940's-'50's-era crime comics that led to Senate hearings and, eventually, the Comics Code and most of the industry going out of business. But, aside from simply being popular, controversial, and lurid, it's just plain good, with superlative work from the likes of Charles Biro, Bob Montana, and George Tuska.

It's also public domain. You can find most of the series for free on Digital Comic Museum (though if you can spare a donation to keep the site up and running, that would be swell too).

Given that, it's damned disappointing that Dark Horse did such a shoddy job on the colors.

  • Crime Kings splash page
    Digital Comic Museum
  • Crime Kings splash page
    Dark Horse

The first image is a scan from one of the original 1950's printings of the comic. It's not pristine; the colors bleed, and if you look closely you can see right through the page to the panel grid from the opposite side. And there are marks on the left side of the page where the staples were.

But despite those flaws, it looks better than the second image, from Dark Horse's restoration. The colors in Dark Horse's version look garish.

And it's down to the paper stock. The scan looks the way it's supposed to, because those colors are supposed to be printed on newsprint. The background is supposed to look a little gray or tan, and the colors are supposed to soak in and blend together.

Dark Horse's version looks garish because they kept the original four-color printing process but put it on high-quality, glossy paper (or the digital equivalent of same). The colors look wrong.

But, in Dark Horse's defense, it could have been worse -- at least they didn't re-color it. Have you seen what they've done to their Conan reprints? Photoshop gradients everywhere. The horror. The horror.

"It could have been worse" isn't a great defense, though. When it comes right down to it, I'd rather read the Digital Comic Museum version, even if I can see the grid lines from the other side of the page.

The only problem is, the Dark Horse collection contains issues #22-#25 (don't let the numbering fool you; #22 is the first issue -- in those days it was common, when a publisher canceled a comic and started a new one, for the new series to continue the old series' numbering with a new title), and Digital Comic Museum doesn't have #23-#25. So while you can download DCM's superior version of issue #22 (and #26, and #27, and lots more, on up through #147), if you want to read #23-25 then you're stuck with the Dark Horse version, and you'd better be prepared for a hell of a lot of eye-searing bright yellow.

There are plenty of instances of publishers doing reprints of old comics right -- either by using newsprint or by scanning or photographing the original printed pages -- but this isn't one of 'em, and that's a shame.

But, all that grousing aside, this bundle? If you have never read a comic book in your life, this has three that I would rank as Absolute Must-Read, in Heartbreak Soup, Bone, and Frank. It's got one of the legitimate most important comics of all time in Crime Does Not Pay, even if I've got some gripes about the presentation and you might be better off grabbing a scanned version from Digital Comic Museum. And aside from those, it's got several more that may not be quite so high on the must-read list but still rank as Great.

If you like good comics, you should get it. And if you don't like good comics, you should get it anyway, because maybe you just haven't ready any comics this good yet.

The bundle runs for five more days.

My Favorite Episodes of Millennium

So, as in my previous post of favorite X-Files episodes, this is a list of my favorite Millennium episodes. And, as with X-Files, I haven't finished watching the whole series yet, so I'll plan on updating this post as I go and adding more favorites as I get them.

Monster-of-the-Week Episodes

Season 2, Episode 6: The Curse of Frank Black

A pleasingly spooky, wonderfully minimalist haunted house episode where the true ghosts are loss and isolation.

While it's my favorite episode up to this point in the series, I can't recommend it as a good place to start, because it's not quite as standalone as I'd like; it relies on threads from Pilot, Lamentation, and The Beginning and the End. But you should watch those anyway; they're not just important, they're also good. (See below.)

Season 2, Episode 7: 19:19

The show gets back to the Revelation cultist arc, combining a take on the Chowchilla bus kidnapping with -- because it is 1997 -- Twister. (I was also inclined to blame a popular 1997 film for what I'm going to call the My Heart Will Go On remix of the theme song used as background music throughout the episode, but 19:19 aired a month before Titanic or the single came out, so we can chalk that up to coincidence/something in the zeitgeist.)

The ending is a goofy little bit of deus ex machina, and Lara Means is used as more of a third-act plot device than a character, but the pacing is good and the cat-and-mouse between Frank and the villain-of-the-week is engaging.

Season 2, Episode 9: Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense

While it doesn't quite live up to Jose Chung's From Outer Space, Chung's second appearance is a lot of fun, and a great showcase for Charles Nelson Reilly. While it lacks stop-motion kaiju and its unreliable narratives aren't quite so twisty, it reuses a lot of the devices from that first outing and does a great job of maintaining its tone.

Season 2, Episode 13: The Mikado

I love this one as a time capsule of the Internet circa early 1998 -- a time when connections were slow, a search for "naked girls" would produce hundreds of results, and, most crucially, webcam video framerates were on the order of seconds-per-frame, not frames-per-second.

The hacking scenes are...well, pretty dubious, but probably less dubious than most detective shows' hacking scenes. It makes for a fascinating reminder of how TV shows depicted the Internet in the early days, and it uses the aforementioned video framerate limitation as a very interesting storytelling device.

Season 2, Episode 21: Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me

Four celebrated character actors (Bill Macy, Dick Bakalyan, Alex Diakun, and Wally Dalton) play demons sitting around a table telling each other stories (think Almost Got 'Im from Batman: The Animated Series). I knew this was a Darin Morgan episode before the end of the cold open, and the makeup deserves special praise.

Season 3, Episode 5: ...Thirteen Years Later

Someone's murdering people who are making a slasher movie, improbably based on one of Frank's previous cases, and Kiss guest stars for some reason. It's very meta and very silly; its reach far exceeds its grasp, but it's the first fun episode in season 3.

Season 3, Episode 9: Omerta

This one makes the favorites list entirely because the late Jon Polito is a goddamn delight to watch every time he's onscreen. The rest of the episode -- which concerns the mob, Christmas, a pair of feral women with magical healing powers and, one assumes, magical extremely-well-groomed-and-polite-for-feral-women powers, and an overbearing musical score -- is nothing special. But Polito makes the whole thing shine.

Mythology Episodes

Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot

Introduces the series: Frank Black, his wife and daughter, the Millennium Group, and his police contact Bob Bletcher. Frank having a family immediately sets him apart from Mulder and Scully over on the sister show. We also find out that he's a former FBI agent who had a breakdown and has since moved back to Seattle, and that he's got some kind of minor psychic ability to see what happened at a crime scene. The show also establishes the eponymous Millennium Group and vaguely intimates that it's involved in investigating some kind of Satanic apocalyptic cult, but then the show goes episodic and we get a bunch of forgettable serial killer episodes, and really don't get any development on that idea until episode 13.

Season 1, Episode 13: Force Majeure

I think it's pretty clear, looking at season 1, that Carter and company didn't originally intend for this show to take place in the same universe as X-Files, because they cast a lot of actors who had appeared on that show to appear on this one in completely different roles -- this episode, for example, has Terry O'Quinn, CCH Pounder, Brad Dourif, and Morgan Woodward. All of them are excellent, but it's a little jarring.

Anyhow, this episode finally picks up the Millennium Group/Doomsday Cult thread from the pilot. We get the prediction that the world will end on May 5, 2000, and a sinister old man who's breeding clones to survive the coming apocalypse.

Season 1, Episode 14: The Thin White Line

We get a good hefty chunk of Frank's backstory, and some cat-and-mouse with a serial killer who he put away during his time with the FBI.

Season 1, Episode 15: Sacrament

Introduction of Frank's brother, sister-in-law, and nephew; first signs that Jordan may have inherited Frank's psychic ability.

Season 1, Episode 17: Walkabout

This one gets off to a really strong start, with an in media res opening, the other characters not knowing what's happened to Frank, and Frank himself suffering from amnesia and not remembering what's happened to him the past few days.

The last act doesn't quite live up to the setup, but the beginning is strong enough to make for a pretty solid episode.

Season 1, Episode 18: Lamentation and Episode 19: Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions

Another episode where Frank has a run-in with a killer he's faced previously and a potential copycat, this episode features a threat against his family and the death of a recurring character.

And then the second part, despite centering on Frank's quest to find the killer, appears to be completely disconnected from the first part. He matches wits with someone who may or may not be the Devil, someone claiming to be an angel, and at the end of the whole thing there's no resolution and we're left with way more questions than answers.

To put it another way, 19 episodes in Millennium finally feels like a Chris Carter show.

Season 2, Episode 1: The Beginning and the End

(While this technically picks up from season 1's finale, you can skip that episode; it's basically a middling monster-of-the-week episode with a cliffhanger ending. That cliffhanger ending is re-presented, in its entirety, at the beginning of this episode.)

This is a status-quo-changing episode where a lot happens (even if it relies too much on narrative monologues to establish that a lot is happening): Peter gets fleshed out a little as a character, we finally get a few more hints of just what exactly the Millennium Group is, and the Polaroid Man plot finally gets a resolution.

Season 2, Episode 8: The Hand of St. Sebastian

Peter Watts, Cheryl Andrews, a little more history on the Group and signs of internal struggles.

Season 2, Episode 10: Midnight of the Century

The most thorough look to date at Frank's -- and Jordan's, and Lara's, and, we learn, Frank's mother's -- gift, and the toll it has taken on his family over three generations. It's a low-key, talky one, a Christmas episode structurally and thematically similar to the Halloween episode that had recently preceded it. It's an episode about loss and estrangement and family, and it sells the human element effectively, with spare dialogue delivered impeccably by the cast.

Season 2, Episode 12: Luminary

The show literalizes the metaphor of the season arc, by putting Frank out in the wilderness, alone.

Perhaps surprisingly, separating him from the rest of the cast makes for an excellent opportunity to explore other characters' relationships with him, Catherine and Peter in particular.

We also see more of the Group than we've ever seen before, and they don't come across very well. It makes something of a striking contrast between Frank and Mulder: they're both former FBI profilers, and they're both being manipulated by a shadowy conspiracy, but where Mulder seeks to fight and expose the Syndicate, Frank is trying to join the Millennium Group. Though with this episode, he doesn't seem to be trying very hard.

Season 2, Episode 15: Owls and Episode 16: Roosters

Nazis, Masons, ancient religious artifacts, doomsday cults -- it's Conspiracy Theory Bingo Night on Millennium. (They even work alien abductions and the Kennedy assassination into dialogue, though they don't factor into the plot.)

We're introduced to two rival factions in the Group: the Roosters we already know; they're the ones who think the world is going to end in two years in a biblical prophecy. The Owls, on the other hand, don't believe any of that religious hooey, and instead subscribe to the much more rational and science-based theory that the world is going to end in sixty years when the collision of two neutron stars causes the creation of a new universe. Also, there's another group, and they're Nazis.

Season 2, Episode 17: Siren

A run of strong episodes continues. This one turns on a strong scene between Frank and guest star Vivian Wu, and a glimpse of what Frank's life would have been like if he'd never been recruited by the Group.

Season 2, Episode 20: A Room With No View

A villain from season 1 returns to abduct guest star Christopher Kennedy Masterson and subject him to creepy psychosexual Misery stuff.

If you don't hate Love is Blue before you watch this episode, you will by the end.

Season 2, Episode 22: The Fourth Horseman and Episode 23: The Time is Now

Season finale time! There's a plague that may or may not be the biblical pestilence, Frank's conflict with the Group and Peter comes to a head, Peter gets some flashbacks (where Terry O'Quinn gets to wear a fake bushy mustache over his real pencil mustache, so you can tell that they're flashbacks), and yet another cryptically-named faction is introduced.

And then in part 2 some other stuff happens, but fully ten minutes of the episode is a Patti Smith music video where Lara is tripping balls. Seriously. Ten minutes. It is ridiculous and it is gratuitous and I love it.

Season 3, Episode 1: The Innocents and Episode 2: Exegesis

You might call this a repilot. While last season's plague still hangs heavily over the plot, the show's setting and premise have changed -- and they look a lot more like The X-Files. Frank's back with the FBI and, joined by a female partner, he investigates (against the orders of their superiors, naturally) a CIA conspiracy involving astral projection and clones.

The motivation for the change in direction seems clear: X-Files was at the height of its popularity, and Millennium was on the verge of cancellation. It sure looks like the goal here was to save an unpopular show by imitating a popular one.

Of course it didn't work; this is Millennium's final season. But it still makes for a pretty solid season premier.

Season 3, Episode 6: Skull and Bones

This one's mostly constructed of tropes we've seen before -- Frank arrests a weirdo who turns out not to be the killer but an eccentric who has visions; Emma investigates a creepy empty murder house while an ironically mismatched music cue plays; Peter delivers a couple of purple-prose monologues about how all the shady stuff the Millennium Group is doing is for the public's protection -- but they're well-assembled tropes. We also find out what's happened to Cheryl Andrews since the last time we saw her, and...it doesn't make a whole lot of sense given what happened the last time we saw her, but sure, okay.

Season 3, Episode 11: Collateral Damage

There are some bits in this one that are uncomfortable to watch -- not just the kidnapping and torture, but a show featuring conspiracy theories shared on right-wing talk radio feels a lot different in 2019 than it did in the era the show was made. Much of what made the 2016 X-Files revival uncomfortable is that conspiracy theories that seemed like harmless fictions in the 1990s take on a far more sinister cast in the era of Alex Jones.

That aside? We're back to the Millennium Group/plague plot (and I can't help noticing the symptoms and effects of the plague keep changing). Watts's inner conflict between his loyalty to the Group and his discomfort with their methods continues to be one of the show's richest veins, and it's central in this episode. Here he's pitted against guest star James Marsters, and we see two men on opposite sides struggling with the question of whether the ends justify the means.

My Favorite Episodes of The X-Files

So awhile back I started re-watching The X-Files. It's available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon (that last one's an affiliate link), and now available in a very nice HD remaster. (Apparently the entire series, except the pilot, was originally filmed in widescreen, so the remastered episodes aren't cropped, they're actually expanded -- except, again, the pilot. And also seasons 5-9, which aired in widescreen the first time, but now they're also in HD.)

I'm also working my way through Millennium (which is not available in any format other than DVD and illegal download), and I'll watch Lone Gunmen when I get to that point in the chronology.

And I got to thinking, you know, I should make a list of what episodes are worth watching -- since, let's be honest, there are a hell of a lot of them that aren't.

Now, X-Files episodes are generally broken down into two categories: mythology episodes (the continuity based ones that deal with the overarching plots about aliens and a massive government conspiracy) and monster-of-the-week episodes (the standalone, one-off episodes). Generally speaking, I like the monster-of-the-week episodes better; they have more variety in both content and tone, they're often a lot of fun, and they don't string you along with the idea that they're building toward some kind of grand resolution. (Spoiler alert: there is no grand resolution; the writers are making the mythology up as they go along.) But, on the other hand, there are mythology episodes I really like, and they're fun in their own way despite the continuity being a hodgepodge and a mess.

So I'm going to split this up into two sections: monster-of-the-week episodes and mythology episodes, and in my next post I'll tackle Millennium episodes. (So far every Millennium episode I've liked has been a mythology episode.) And I'll plan on keeping these posts updated as I work through the series, so expect more episodes to be added, and a post added for Lone Gunmen when I get around to it.

Lastly: I'd be remiss if I didn't link to Monster of the Week: The Complete Cartoon X-Files, a webcomic by Shaenon K Garrity which goes through the series one episode at a time and lampoons them. (Most of them. Some are so good that she plays them straight.) Oh, and if you want a really thorough breakdown, you could give Kumail Nanjiani's X-Files Files podcast a listen too.

Anyway, on to the actual recommendations.

Monster-of-the-Week Episodes

I thought of putting mythology first, but the monster-of-the-week episodes are easier to get into for a casual viewer, so I'm going to put those first. These episodes can, generally speaking, be watched in any order and without any knowledge going in besides "Mulder and Scully are FBI investigators who look into paranormal stuff; he's a believer and she's a skeptic."

Season 1, Episode 3: Squeeze

Introduces stretchy bad guy Eugene Tooms, probably the most memorable of the show's many Monsters of the Week, and one of the few to get a second appearance.

Season 1, Episode 8: Ice

An episode in the "People are trapped in a remote location and start turning on each other" mold.

Season 1, Episode 20: Darkness Falls

A good race-against-time episode with killer insects, albeit with kind of a disappointing ending.

Season 1, Episode 21: Tooms

Tooms's second and final appearance; first appearance of Walter Skinner.

Season 2, Episode 2: The Host

Darin Morgan plays a sewer monster called Flukeman, with some of the best monster makeup in the series; first appearance of Mr. X.

Season 2, Episode 20: Humbug

First episode written by Darin Morgan; first episode explicitly written as a comedy; features circus folk. X-Files is always a little uncomfortable when it deals with anybody who's different (be that ethnic minorities or people with disabilities), and I feel a little bit of that here, but I think it also comes across as a celebration of its guest stars.

Season 3, Episode 3: DPO

Giovanni Ribisi plays a slacker teenager with lightning powers who hangs out in an arcade (where the Sonic the Hedgehog music is inexplicably playing even though that is not an arcade game). Jack Black plays his sidekick.

Season 3, Episode 4: Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose

Okay, here we go. If you only watch one episode of X-Files, ever, it should be this one. It's pretty much perfect in every way, and it won two Emmys, one for writer Darin Morgan and the other for guest star Peter Boyle.

Boyle plays a lovable but curmudgeonly old psychic who can see the moment everyone around him dies.

I think I'd give a slight edge to Jose Chung's From Outer Space (also written by Darin Morgan) as my all-time favorite episode. But this one is more accessible.

Seriously, if you haven't seen Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose, you can skip the rest of this list until you've seen it. It's not just X-Files at its best, it's TV at its best.

Season 3, Episode 11: Revelations

Gets into Scully's Catholicism a bit; it's the second religious-themed episode where the leads reverse their roles and she plays the believer against Mulder as skeptic. (The first is Beyond the Sea; it's down below in the Mythology section.)

Season 3, Episode 12: War of the Coprophages

Another episode written by Darin Morgan. It has what may very well be the dumbest premise of any episode (people are being killed by swarms of cockroaches, which turn out to be alien robot cockroaches sent to observe us), but Morgan's script is sharp enough to overcome it. This one's got some of the funniest dialogue of the entire series.

Season 3, Episode 13: Syzygy

Mostly fun for Mulder and Scully being really bitchy toward each other. Guest starring Lisa Robin Kelly and (briefly) Ryan Reynolds.

Season 3, Episode 20: Jose Chung's From Outer Space

The final episode written by Darin Morgan (though he did a rewrite on Quagmire; see below). As noted above, I think this one edges out Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose as my favorite. It's got unreliable narratives within unreliable narratives, men in black played by surprise guest stars, stop-motion kaiju, and Charles Nelson Reilly.

Season 3, Episode 21: Avatar

Skinner episode.

Season 3, Episode 22: Quagmire

Lake monster episode. Mostly forgettable, except for a scene where Mulder and Scully get to talking while they're stranded on an island; that scene was written by Darin Morgan.

Season 4, Episode 2: Home

Okay, I'm going to say it: Home is overrated.

It's impeccably directed (by Kim Manners), and it's possibly the most memorable episode of the whole series. But it's memorable entirely because of cheap shock value.

I think it's one of those episodes you've just gotta watch once, and it will stick with you. It blew me away the first time I saw it. But when I came back to it 18 years later, I was a lot less impressed. (So okay, maybe this one shouldn't be on a list of my favorites. But it's definitely a must-watch episode, so I'm putting it here anyway.)

Season 4, Episode 5: The Field Where I Died

This one's got a few plot holes (how can the Cigarette Smoking Man be a reincarnated Nazi prison guard if he was alive during the Holocaust?), but it's got some great character moments for Mulder, and showcases Duchovny's acting range in a way that most of the rest of the series doesn't.

Season 4, Episode 10: Paper Hearts

Mulder matches wits with a child molester who he helped put in prison. Potential retcons to the story of Samantha's abduction, but then no they don't pan out and that's why this isn't under Mythology Episodes.

Season 4, Episode 11: El Mundo Gira

The Chupacabra episode!

Season 4, Episode 12: Leonard Betts

One of those "Nice unassuming man who starts killing people because he has a weird power" episodes. Also, foreshadows Scully's cancer.

Season 4, Episode 13: Never Again

A Scully-centric episode where she gets a tramp stamp of the Millennium logo and almost hooks up with a guy with an evil Bettie Page tattoo.

Season 4, Episode 20: Small Potatoes

An episode written by Vince Gilligan and guest starring Darin Morgan as a shapeshifter. The highlight of the episode, far and away, is a scene in which he shape-shifts into Mulder and then channels De Niro in Taxi Driver. This is probably Duchovny's finest performance in the show's entire run, and shows he's really got some serious comic chops; everything from his delivery to his body language to his facial expressions is brilliant.

Season 5, Episode 5: The Post-Modern Prometheus

So before I go and recommend this one, there's one caveat I need to get out of the way: this is an episode where two women are drugged and impregnated without their consent, and then the ethical implications of this premise are barely acknowledged.

And it's a shame that this episode has that ick factor hanging over it, because aside from that it's a delight. Carter handles both the writing and direction on this one, and it's an homage to classic monster movies, beautifully filmed in glorious black-and-white and guest-starring Seinfeld's John O'Hurley as its mad scientist. It delivers what its title promises: both a Frankenstein pastiche and postmodernism. It's weird, it's melancholy, it's funny, it's got Cher on its soundtrack, and there's more than one moment that feels like a Mel Brooks homage. If its morality is a little muddy, I'm inclined to be charitable and chalk it up to the episode's heightened reality. The plot doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense, but it's not supposed to; it feels like a dream and it prioritizes style over substance. And it is stylish as hell.

And man, that ending is beautiful.

Season 5, Episode 12: Bad Blood

A stone-cold classic. Vince Gilligan does Rashomon with vampires; guest-starring Luke Wilson and Patrick Renna.

Season 6, Episode 2: Drive

The most notable thing about this episode is that it's written by Vince Gilligan and guest-stars Bryan Cranston. It led directly to their later collaboration on Breaking Bad.

The episode itself is a cross between Scanners and Speed, with a side of Outbreak. Cranston plays Patrick Crump, a man afflicted with a condition that requires him to keep traveling west or he'll die. He carjacks Mulder, and a tense race against the clock ensues.

When this episode was made, Cranston was best-known as the dentist from Seinfeld. Now he's a celebrated dramatic actor. Drive is an important step in that evolution.

Season 6, Episode 3: Triangle

1998's love of swing music and doomed ocean liners combines with time travel and the Bermuda Triangle. In 1939, Mulder fights Nazis aboard the Queen Anne, while in 1998, Scully and the Lone Gunmen try to find him. The two stories mirror each other's plot beats in unsubtle Chris Carter fashion, while some splitscreen shots near the end make for some interesting visual work.

Season 6, Episodes 4-5: Dreamland

Introducing Morris Fletcher (Michael McKean), who switches bodies with Mulder. Hilarity ensues, including one of the all-time best sequences in the series, a riff on the mirror bit from Duck Soup.

Season 6, Episode 6: How the Ghosts Stole Christmas

A haunted house episode guest-starring Lily Tomlin and Ed Asner. There's a bit of a Beetlejuice vibe here, with Tomlin and Asner in the Geena Davis/Alec Baldwin roles.

Duchovny and Anderson do great work here too, from the opening scene where he launches into one of his excited-puppy tales of the supernatural and she just smiles because she's grown to find it more charming than annoying, to the third act where she's paranoid and waving a gun around and he's doing his best Jack Torrance.

Season 6, Episode 8: The Rain King

A fun little "weird shit happens in a small town" episode; Clayton Rohner has a particularly enjoyable turn as an oily grifter who holds rain dances in the style of tent revivals. The third act's got a Back to the Future vibe: like Back to the Future, Mulder plays matchmaker to a nerdy guy whose creepy behavior is depicted as lovable; like Back to the Future, the object of the man's affections falls for Mulder instead; and like Back to the Future, the climax takes place in a high school gym. Scully doesn't do much in this episode, but Anderson's put-upon exasperation is at its finest.

Season 6, Episode 10: Tithonus

This Scully-centric episode about a man who can tell when people are going to die runs a real risk of being a retread of Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose. But Vince Gilligan's script, and Geoffrey Lewis's performance as Alfred Fellig, thread the needle to tell a different story (while still, in its own subtle way, acknowledging Bruckman at the end of the episode). Fellig is not like Bruckman: his powers aren't quite the same (Bruckman could see how people were going to die, whereas Fellig can tell when someone is about to die), and, more importantly, their characterizations are much different: where Bruckman was sardonic and wry, Fellig is haunted and creepy.

Yes, there is a gap here.

I am still working my way through old X-Files and deciding which episodes to put on this list. However, I am also watching new episodes. I will be filling in the rest of seasons 6-9 as I go, but in the meantime here's one from season 10.

Season 10, Episode 3: Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster

Darin Morgan's still got it. A roaringly funny monster mystery guest-starring Rhys Darby, Kumail Nanjiani, and Tyler Labine, featuring Morgan's usual narratives-within-narratives and Mulder's midlife crisis. X-Files at its absolute goddamn finest -- and a pleasingly standalone episode, though longtime fans will enjoy a couple of callbacks to Clyde Bruckman and a nice tribute to the late, great Kim Manners.

Mythology Episodes

These aren't necessarily the most "important" mythology episodes, the ones with plot details that play out through the rest of the series (though some of them are); they're just the ones I like. And anyway, even if you do watch all the mythology episodes expecting them to eventually make sense, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment.

There are some spoilers down here, including character departures.

Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot

Season 1 is a little rough but I love it despite (or because of) its flaws. There's a lot of stuff the show gets right right from the beginning, and the chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson is at the top of the list.

Season 1, Episode 2: Deep Throat

A fun guest appearance by Seth Green and lots of Area 51 stuff.

Season 1, Episode 10: Fallen Angel

Mulder's got fanboys! Introduces abductee Max Fenig, who's something of a template for the Lone Gunmen.

(Max also shows back up in a two-parter in season 4, but it's not on this list because it's boring.)

Season 1, Episode 13: Beyond the Sea

Guest appearance by Brad Dourif; death of Scully's father; first time Mulder is the skeptic and Scully is the believer.

(You could argue that this one's not a mythology episode because it doesn't deal with the aliens/conspiracy arcs, but I'm putting it here because it establishes a lot of Scully's background that is referred to throughout the rest of the series.)

Season 1, Episode 17: EBE

First appearance of the Lone Gunmen.

Season 1, Episode 24: The Erlenmeyer Flask

This is one of those episodes where everything changes, except that it doesn't; everything snaps right back to status quo in season 2: the X-Files get reopened, Scully goes back to being a skeptic even though she's seen an alien fetus in a jar, and while Deep Throat's departure is made out to be a big deal, Mr. X takes over and fills the exact same role in seasons 2 and 3 (after which he's replaced by Marita Covarrubias, who still pretty much fills the same role). Regardless, this one's exciting, and a lot of stuff happens; we've got human/alien hybrids, the Crew Cut Man assassinating people, and the departure of Deep Throat.

Season 2, Episode 5: Duane Barry and Episode 6: Ascension

Scully's abduction and Krycek's betrayal, two plot points that continue to come back up for the rest of the series. It's also got a guest appearance by CCH Pounder.

Season 2, Episode 8: One Breath

Scully's return. She spends most of it in a coma dreaming she's in a boat, but the rest of the cast really gets a chance to shine. There are some great scenes between the Smoking Man and Skinner, Mulder and Skinner, and Mulder and the Smoking Man, and some excellent moments from Mr. X and Frohike too.

Season 2, Episode 16: Colony and Episode 17: End Game

More hybrids; Bounty Hunters; clone colony; first return of Samantha; first appearance of Mulder's father and revelation that he was part of the Syndicate.

Season 2, Episode 25: Anasazi, Season 3: Episode 1: The Blessing Way and Episode 2: Paper Clip

Some really cringe-inducing stuff with Native Americans, but aside from that it's the first appearance of Teena Mulder, and more on Bill Mulder's history with the Syndicate. And there's some Lone Gunmen stuff and a Nazi scientist.

Season 3, Episode 9: Nise and Episode 10: 731

Mulder investigates an alien autopsy video; Scully finds an alien abductee support group (and the first hint that she may have cancer).

Season 3, Episode 15: Piper Maru and Episode 16: Apocrypha

First appearance of black oil; return of Krycek; some more stuff about CSM and Bill Mulder.

Season 3, Episode 24: Talitha Cumi and Season 4, Episode 1: Herrenvolk

More hybrids; more Bounty Hunters; more clone colonies; first hints that the Cigarette Smoking Man may be Mulder's biological father; departure of Mr. X and his immediate replacement by Marita Covarrubias.

Season 4, Episode 7: Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man

A lot of fans hate this one, and I guess I can understand the perspective that it demystifies the CSM in a way that makes him less interesting.

But I don't agree, and I love it, because it's so deliciously over-the-top. And the reason it's over-the-top is that it's all unreliable-narrator stuff; this is CSM's backstory filtered through his own fiction, published in a porno magazine (whose staff changed some of the details), and then related to Mulder by Frohike.

Basically, it's a tall tale, which ties the Cancer Man to the Kennedy and King assassinations and every other alleged government conspiracy of the twentieth century -- and all because he couldn't get his short stories published.

Season 4, Episode 8: Tunguska and Episode 9: Terma

Return of Krycek and the Black Oil; Mulder and Krycek go to Russia.

Season 4, Episode 14: Memento Mori

This is the "Scully Has Cancer" episode. It's loaded up with Chris Carter purple prose monologues. It's also got the Lone Gunmen, clones, and a callback to that episode where she met the other abductees.

Season 4, Episode 22: Gethsemane

The script is generic cliffhanger-finale fare (though the first act has some nice bits with Mulder, briefly, expressing skepticism), but it's got some truly gorgeous mountain shots that make a great argument for the widescreen HD remaster, some of the coolest creature effects of the series, and some great dramatic work from Anderson. But don't get too excited when you see "John Oliver" in the credits; it's not the John Oliver you're (probably) thinking of.

While this episode is the first of a three-parter, I don't recommend the other two parts; they are boring as fuck. All you really need to know is that Mulder isn't dead and Scully doesn't have cancer anymore.

Season 5, Episode 3: Unusual Suspects

The first episode to focus on the Lone Gunmen as its main characters (with Mulder in a minor role and Scully not present at all) tells their origin story and would eventually lead to their own spinoff. Written by Vince Gilligan, directed by Kim Manners, and for some reason guest starring Richard Belzer as Detective John Munch. (Which I guess puts X-Files, Lone Gunmen, and, by extension, Millennium in the Tommy Westphall Universe.)

Season 5, Episode 13: Patient X and Episode 14: The Red and the Black

This is more or less the midpoint between the season 4 finale and the movie, both chronologically and narratively. Krycek, black oil, Tunguska, the Syndicate, Scully's abduction, the Assassins -- it all plays a bit like a Greatest Hits collection. But perhaps most importantly, Mulder's still smarting from the revelations of last season's finale and this season's premier, and doesn't believe in aliens anymore. And I'm always a sucker for the role-reversal Mulder-as-skeptic, Scully-as-believer episodes.

Also introduces Agent Spender. I remember when these episodes first aired, there were rumors in the fandom that Duchovny was planning to leave the show and Spender was going to replace him. Those rumors turned out to be pretty close to true; we wound up with Doggett, not Spender, but Mulder did leave and get replaced with a new agent. Scully even has a similar "she's the believer now and has a skeptic of her own to deal with" dynamic with Spender here that she eventually has with Doggett.

Season 5, Episode 15: Travelers

'50s X-File! Arthur Dales (Kolchak himself, Darren McGavin!) recounts the story of how he and Bill Mulder investigated Nazi alien experiments and fought the most fiendish villains of all: Roy Cohn and J Edgar Hoover.

Season 5, Episode 20: The End

The plot of this one is dumb. The sniper is dumb; the FBI is dumb. The love triangle with Mulder's ex is forced (Diana Fowley? Seriously? Her name is Diana Fowley?); the King of the Hill cross-promotion is forced.

But there are enough great character moments in this one -- CSM and Krycek! CSM and the Syndicate! Mulder and Skinner! Mulder and Spender! CSM and Spender! Scully and the Lone Gunmen! -- to recommend it. And the final scene...even though it turns out to be maddeningly unimportant in the show's future direction, the cast and the photography really sell it as a big moment. Plus it sets up the movie.

X-Files: Fight the Future: The Movie

The movie is, ultimately, pretty inconsequential, partly because it's stripped down to be accessible to moviegoers who've never seen the TV show. It's a lot of stuff we've seen before; aliens and conspiracies and domes and cornfields and bees and black oil and Scully having to testify before a panel and seriously, how many different roles does Terry O'Quinn play in this series, anyway? But it's got some very pretty photography, and Martin Landau is in it, and it's perfectly decent as a big-budget, extra-long episode. And there's a Rifftrax!

Season 6, Episode 1: The Beginning

Picks up the threads from The End (Gibson, Spender, Fowley) and Fight the Future (alien chest-bursters and the virus spread by bees).

But it's more interesting as an inflection point for the series. This is the episode where shooting moved from Vancouver to LA (doing a convincing impression of Phoenix). It also has Spender and Fowley replacing Mulder and Scully as the official X-Files team, and while this change turned out to be temporary, it paved the way for Doggett and Reyes in the later seasons.

Season 6, Episode 11: Two Fathers and Episode 12: One Son

We finally get a resolution to the "Mulder and Scully are off the X-Files" arc, after half a season of flopping around pointlessly. We also see a slew of other threads picked up: the Spender family! The Mulder family! The Syndicate! The Lone Gunmen! Krycek! Marita! Fowley! Alien fetuses and human hybrids! The rebels! At this point the series mythology has devolved into self-parody, but at least it's entertainingly delivered, with the Smoking Man delivering smug, sinister monologues and Mulder and Scully shooting a train.

And then AD Kersh delivers his best line, as he responds to one of Mulder's purple-prose monologues with, "What the hell does that mean?"

What the hell does that mean? indeed, Assistant Director Kersh. What the hell does that mean? indeed.

Cheap DVD's: The Real Ghostbusters, vol 1

So I happened to notice, the other day, that The Real Ghostbusters, vol 1 (affiliate link) was on sale at Amazon for $10.49.

You can also get the complete series for $123.99, which is a screamin' deal if you actually want the full run. But I remember that even at the age of 6 I wasn't too impressed by the season 3 rejiggering of the show, and there's not much sense paying extra for 43 episodes I don't want.

I've watched the first few episodes, and man, it mostly still holds up, but Slimer sure is annoying. To the point where I am beginning to understand why people actually hate this show.

I wouldn't go that far -- I quite like it in fact -- but I can understand it. Slimer is one of those obnoxious comic-relief mascot characters who constantly fucks everything up and yet you're supposed to like him anyway. (He makes me think of Red Foreman's line on That 70's Show: "Gilligan screwed it up. Why don't they just kill him?")

On the other hand, Frank Welker does a great voice for him (which he'd later reuse as Nibbler on Futurama).

Also: The first episode features a group of imposter Ghostbusters. Wonder if that's another deliberate knock against Filmation's Ghostbusters cartoon series, like the show's title, The Real Ghostbusters.

Some other initial thoughts:

  • Good: If you can get over the characters looking nothing like the live-action versions, the designs are pretty great; each one clearly distinct in shape and color. I noticed Dan Riba's name in the credits; he went on to be a prominent artist in DC's animated shows.
  • Good: Great cast, including Frank Welker as Slimer and Ray, Mo LaMarche doing an uncanny Harold Ramis, Arsenio Hall inexplicably getting the part of Winston despite Ernie Hudson auditioning for it, and Lorenzo Music as Garfield.
  • Good: The animation is better than the vast majority of the show's contemporaries...
  • Bad: ...most of the time, but it can get pretty inconsistent.
  • Bad: Slimer. Mostly.
  • Good: But not always. Sometimes Slimer is good, and again, Welker's voice is a delight.
  • Good: The writing. I haven't liked everything J Michael Straczynski has ever written, but this show is solid. It does a good job of expanding the universe from the movie and creating a satisfying world of supernatural weirdness.
  • Good: Thirty episodes for under eleven bucks!

Cheap DVD's: Earthworm Jim

I was perusing Amazon the other day and, under my recommendations, I noticed that it listed Earthworm Jim: The Complete Series (affiliate link). As EWJ is easily one of my two favorite 1990's animated video game adaptations to feature Kath Soucie as a redheaded princess and Jim Cummings as the bad guy, I went ahead and ordered it.

Initial Impressions

The Good:

  • Good animation
  • Great cast
  • Still funny
  • All 23 episodes for only eleven bucks
  • Way better quality than that torrent you grabbed a few years ago that somebody made from old VHS tapes

The Bad:

  • Totally barebones; no special features or even scene selection.
  • If you buy this, part of that money probably goes to Doug TenNapel.

Edna

There's no new Simpsons tonight, so, in honor of the late, great Marcia Wallace, might I recommend breaking out your DVD collection and watching one of these classic Edna Krabappel episodes:

Bart the Lover, Season 3

If there's a better Mrs. K episode, I can't think of one. This shows Edna at her most complex and human -- and Bart too, for that matter. Wallace won an Emmy for this one.

Bart Gets an F, Season 2

And speaking of emotions we don't often see from Bart, the climax of this one -- where he breaks down in tears on finding that he failed his test despite really trying his hardest this time -- shows us a seldom-seen side of both characters, without giving in too much to sentimentality. I love Mrs. K's attempt to comfort Bart -- "I would have thought you'd be used to it by now!" could so easily have come across as sarcastic, but Wallace chooses to read it as a gentle, tender statement. Now that's comedy.

The PTA Disbands, Season 6

So many classic moments in this episode purple monkey dishwasher. It's Simpsons at its satirical finest, highlighting the conflict between teachers and administration, the public's simultaneous desire for better schools and lower taxes, and the terrifying reality that if you pick up some random person off the street, they'll be a worse teacher than Miss Hoover or Mrs. Krabappel. And the resolution is so ludicrous that it can only serve to hang a lampshade on how intractable these issues really are.

Grade School Confidential, Season 8

Mrs. Krabappel and Principal Skinner were in the closet making babies and I saw one of the babies and the baby looked at me.

The Ned-Liest Catch, Season 22

Say what you will about modern-era Simpsons, pairing off Ned with Edna was a rare and legitimately pleasant surprise. It's not the sort of thing I would ever have seen coming, but it makes its own unexpected kind of sense -- two characters who have seemingly nothing in common but their loneliness, but who complement each other so thoroughly and who can each stand to learn so much from the other. This episode highlights how difficult those differences can be, and they almost don't make it as a couple -- but, thanks to an Internet vote, they stay together.

The Propaganda Schlock of Starship Troopers

The last time I saw Starship Troopers was on VHS. I'd have been about 15, so you can forgive me if what I remember most about it is Denise Richards's titties. Which should give you some idea of just how well I remember it, because Denise Richards's titties are not actually in the movie. (Denise Richards's titties are actually important to the theme of the movie. I will be getting back to them in a moment.)

I also remember the film getting pretty mixed reviews on release -- it's quite clearly a big dumb action movie, with extra big and extra dumb, but there was also a vocal contingent of critics lauding it as a brilliantly subersive piece of satire of wartime propaganda. In the years since, it's become a cult hit among people who enjoy it for both -- because it manages a pretty interesting tightrope walk of playing itself totally straight while also being a wicked piece of satire.

More specifically, Starship Troopers the movie is a parody of Starship Troopers the book.

Well, maybe "parody" is a little strong -- again, it plays itself far too seriously to be considered a comedy per se. But it's certainly a movie about crazy, over-the-top wartime propaganda -- and the novel is crazy wartime propaganda (or, almost -- it was too late for Korea and too early for Vietnam).

Heinlein's an interesting dude, and Starship Troopers fills an interesting place in his oeuvre. For a guy who's typically identified as a libertarian, he sure has some weird ideas about only allowing soldiers to vote, and how public floggings are the best tool for disciplining them. With an extra bonus chapter where he really goes off the rails with that public flogging thing and rants about how anyone who doesn't spank their children is stupid.

Starship Troopers the movie gets how ridiculous the book is, ratchets its ridiculousness up to 11, and plays it completely straight.

And while the homages to WWII-vintage propaganda films are great, what it gets most about the nature of wartime propaganda is the dehumanization. Not only Heinlein's choice to very literally dehumanize the enemy by making them giant bugs, but the heroes are dehumanized, too -- and here's where I get back to Denise Richards's titties.

Because the coed shower scene is disquieting.

It goes beyond the obvious ideas of discipline and respect in a coed military and straight on into having a bunch of men fail to even notice Denise Richards as female. And when the Main Guy finally does go for a perfunctory roll in the hay with her, it's all just rote, mechanical "this is happening because it's a movie and the leads have to hook up" stuff.

All in all? Well, to make another Spinal Tap reference, there's a fine line between stupid and clever, and Starship Troopers walks it. It's a winking, biting homage to the source material, that looks and feels like it's a dumb movie made by people who just don't get it. (And it could be both -- there are a whole lot of people involved in making a movie.)

Its cult status is well-deserved -- and even if its comedy is intentional, it seems unintentional enough that it's perfect fodder for Rifftrax.

Which is what I'm headed to see right now, as I write this, though by the time you read it I should already be home. Maybe I'll share more tomorrow!

Formula

I watched Life of Pi tonight.

At one point, I turned to my wife and said, "In the formula, that's what's know as the All Is Lost Moment. Guess that means we're in Act 3 now."

I read an article recently called Save the Movie!, by Peter Suderman of Slate. It's about Save the Cat!, the 2005 screenwriting book by Blake Snyder which defined the formula that seemingly every successful American film since has followed, on down to explaining why Joker and Khan both have such a penchant for gloating at their captors from jail cells.

I really enjoyed Life of Pi. I think it's a great film. But it came with plenty of déjà vu. Hell, it wasn't even the only 2013 film that featured an orphan, a storm, lifeboats, a confrontation with terrifying beasts, and magical realism, and received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.

But formula's not bad, not inherently. Particularly in a story like Life of Pi which is itself about storytelling.

I don't have any problem with Joseph Campbell, either. Well, I mean, his writing gets pretty didactic, but he was a man who loved stories and loved taking them apart and seeing what made them tick and what the great ones had in common.

I do hate the extent to which his work was taken as an instruction manual instead of simple academic deconstruction, though. Which is pretty much how I feel about Watchmen (and how, not for nothin', Alan Moore himself feels about Watchmen) -- a perfectly good, interesting, insightful work that far too many people decided was a mathematical formula.

Which I suppose leads into some sort of irritating movie reviewer's wordplay about Pi. Fill that in for yourself, I guess.

Hank is Dr. Venture's Greatest Triumph.

Spoilers for the Venture Bros. season finale follow.

I read the Zack Handlen's review of The Devil's Grip at AV Club, and these bits stuck out to me:

[...I]f part of this season has been seeing how Dean deals with the fall-out of learning his super science origins, just as important has been realizing that Hank’s goofy enthusiasm actually puts him far ahead of nearly everyone else on the show. In many ways, Dean’s mopiness and stress are easier to relate to, as they seem like the only sane response to the Venture-verse. [...] But sinking into despair, and dwelling on the inconvenience and humiliation, isn’t going to change things.

[...W]hile the Ventures and friends are holding a funeral for Dr. Entmann at the Venture compound, Dean finally breaks down and tells Hank that they’re both clones. To Dean, this knowledge is painful, confirming his deepest, darkest fears about his own validity and place in the world. To Hank: “That is awesome.” While it’s not always possible to find the bright side of things, Hank’s optimism is a healthy, even enlightened way to approach the world. For a long time, Hank Venture looked like the dumb part of the Venture equation, a nice kid whose failure to fully grasp what was happening around him kept him in a perpetual state of Pollyanna-ish bliss. But the truth is, he knows what’s going down, and while sometimes it upsets him, he’s still doing his best to have the time of his life.

This recalls last season, when Hank, hurt that his father was ignoring him to groom Dean as his successor, staged a phony kidnapping to ask him why.

Rusty, in a moment of candor, responded that Hank is too much like him -- he doesn't want the pressure of living in his father's shadow, isn't cut out for the lofty expectations everyone's set for him. Rusty has chosen to give Dean his burden -- and to spare Hank from it.

And we've seen that dynamic playing out. Dean has spent this season wracked with existential dread at finding out that he's literally not the person he thought he was. Hank, on the other hand, knows exactly who he is -- and so he's a clone besides? Well, how cool is that? As far as he's concerned, that makes him more unique, not less.

And Dean smiles.

Like Hatred's disarmingly perfect advice, earlier in the season, that he's the best Dean there is, only moreso, this was exactly what Dean needed to hear. And I'd like to think this is going to be the beginning of him coming out of his funk and becoming -- well, not the same old Dean we knew before, because that would be boring and that's not what this show is about. But to grow and change and maybe even someday become a well-adjusted adult.

Hank's already well on his way there. And he'll be there to help his brother along, because that's what brothers do.

The Venture Bros. is a show about failure. And Dr. Venture, more than anyone else, is a failure. His greatest joys come from willful ignorance and self-delusion.

But amid everything that's gone wrong in his life, he's raised a son who's turned out pretty well, and who's on his way to helping the other son turn out pretty well too.

Course, the fact that his greatest contribution to Hank's success was leaving him the fuck alone to figure out his own way carries its own little ironic sting. But even that took a kind of melancholy self-awareness that Doc shows only at his most vulnerable, a level of empathy he's never shown anyone else before or since, and, for once in Doc's life, was exactly the right choice.

The Sublime Symmetry of FF6's First Act

Well, Terra's turned pink and flown off toward Zozo, leaving me to consider the first five or so hours of FF6. In an era where episodic games are now common, it's striking that the game's first act would have made an excellent Episode 1. It doesn't just tell a satisfying story with a beginning, middle, and (cliffhanger) ending, it doesn't just introduce the premise and most of the major cast while still leaving the biggest stuff for later -- it also plays significantly differently from the rest of the game, and its plot and play beats form a brilliant mirror where the end of the act recalls its beginning.

The Empire invades Narshe, with Terra as a puppet. Terra encounters the frozen Esper, with explosive results. Terra regains consciousness and the ability to think for herself. Locke has to protect her in a battle with a tower defense element to it, with three parties defending from oncoming nonrandom monsters. Terra and Locke flee the Empire, gaining comrades along the way -- and then the party is abruptly separated. For the first time, you see events unfold through characters other than Terra -- and then everyone makes their way back to Narshe. The Empire invades, with Terra and friends defending the city; they have to defend Bannon in a battle with a tower defense element to it, with three parties defending from oncoming nonrandom monsters. Terra encounters the frozen Esper, with explosive results -- and even as she comes closer than ever to discovering who and what she really is, she loses her willpower again and becomes an unthinking beast.

Aside from that, there's the gameplay -- and, notably, a couple of things happen during this portion that don't happen again later.

First, there are the two tower defense-style battles. They're the only two in the game, which is just the right amount. The first one is easy and lets you get the hang of it; the second one's a more legitimate challenge.

There's also the "Choose a scenario" portion. While there are other parts of the game where the party is split up, there are no other occasions where you experience story developments from multiple perspectives.

And it's mostly great! Terra's scenario is pretty bland, but at least it's short. Locke's scenario is another unique piece of game; it's a puzzle that plays to his strengths as a th -- treasure hunter, and it's funny besides. Sabin's scenario is the longest and broadest of the bunch, introduces three new playable characters with tragic origin stories, and takes you through a tour of the game's various locations -- the Imperial Camp, Doma, the Haunted Forest, the Phantom Train, Barren Falls, the Veldt, and the Serpent Trench. Some of it feels half-baked -- the Forest is over in minutes, and the Serpent Trench is just a showcase for then-impressive Mode 7 animation where very little actually happens (and then you have to come back later if you want to get Mog's water dance) -- but a lot of it, like the camp sequence and the Phantom Train, is excellent.

And then there's the character balance -- this is a game that's famous for not having very much of that, but it's hard to tell in the opening act.

Each character has a unique ability -- at least, up until you get Celes and then you've got two magic-users and Terra hasn't learned Morph yet. And most of them are pretty well-thought-out.

Terra and Celes both play like Red Mages in previous FF games -- they can equip the best weapons and armor and cast both black and white magic spells, but they're not very strong as attackers yet at this point in the game, their offensive spells are middling, and their low max MP means they don't get much use out of them at any rate. Celes's Runic is pretty damned useful early in the game when she's the only magic-user in the party and it effectively nullifies bosses' magic; it's not until later in the game that it becomes basically worthless.

Edgar gets decent, but not crazy-high, damage against all enemies with the Autocrossbow. It's a pity the Bioblaster and Noiseblaster aren't much use.

Shadow gets solid-to-high damage depending on equipment, and occasionally will counter with Interceptor, which is the most damaging attack you've got at this point in the game but happens rarely enough that it's not spammy. And Shadow is squishy and dies easily. (And may randomly ditch out on you and make you restore from a save so he doesn't take that Genji Glove you put on him when he goes. That part I'm not so crazy about, but the unpredictable mercenary angle is a neat idea in theory, at least.)

Cyan is nominally a samurai but plays more like the previous games' Knight class: he does solid damage but excels at defense. Early on he's kinda like Edgar in that he's got one very good special attack and two others that aren't really much use most of the time.

Gau has immediate access to more powerful attacks and spells than anyone else in the party, but you can't control him and even if you pick a Rage like Templar that drastically boosts his defense and evade (in versions where the evade stat actually works), he's still pretty squishy.

And then there's Sabin and Locke. Who I guess, if nothing else, at least balance each other, since one is ridiculously overpowered and the other is, at this point in the game, not that damn good.

Sabin is the most overpowered character in the game. You can see where they were trying to make him something of a glass cannon like the Monks in the previous games -- he's got the high attack, high HP, can't equip good armor thing going on -- but even with weak armor he still does a pretty good job of soaking up damage, and he dishes it out like crazy. Aura Cannon is one of very few Holy-elemental attacks you get access to in the game, and it deals high damage to most enemies. And while, like Edgar and Cyan, his other two specials are inferior, they're still fairly useful -- Pummel/Raging Fist ignores defense, and he can suplex a fucking train.

Locke, by contrast -- well, he's decent enough later in the game, but early on he deals low damage, has low defense and HP, and his Steal command isn't worth using. It seems to fail about 75% of the time and, when it succeds, it's usually just a damn Potion that won't even heal the damage the party took while Locke was trying to steal from the monsters instead of killing them.

His scenario's fun as hell -- right up until the part where you start actually having to fight dudes, at which point it turns into Locke mostly being a liability while Celes does all the work.

But, Locke and Sabin aside, the characters' balance is really well-thought-out in the early going.

Course, by the time you leave Zozo you've got Espers and a chainsaw -- but that's a story for another day...