Episodes: Friday mailbag (May 12)

I'm writing this to you from The Bean at 12th and Broadway in Manhattan, one of my favorite coffee shops out there (not just because it's across the street from The Strand, one of the best bookstores in the world). I'm in town for upfronts, which are going to devour my entire life, if previous years are any indication, but I think I can bang out a mailbag newsletter. Let's see what we've got.

Will writes:

What do you think are the best newspaper comics these days, or which ones are doing the most innovative work? I read the paper funnies religiously when I was in middle school (roughly 2004-2007), back when Pearls Before Swine was relatively new and Pastis's work felt really edgy. Over a decade in, that strip is mostly just elaborate puns now, but I don't see anyone trying as much as he did. (Or even going in different directions with old formats, like Cul de Sac or early Foxtrot).


This is a tough one. Some of that is because I've really tuned out of the newspaper comic strip scene in recent years, but a big part of that was because, well, most of them weren't very good at the time I stopped reading. I, too, have loved Pearls and think it's still good for a few great strips every month, but it definitely coasts on silly wordplay a little too often for my tastes. (My general rule of thumb is that after the crocodiles take over, there are only a few great years of that strip left.) Similarly, I used to really love Get Fuzzy, but it feels a little claustrophobic to me now.

The last new strip that really impressed me was Lio, which is sort of a standard answer at this point, because its "every strip has no dialogue!" setup was so self-consciously a Fun Idea. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't still really like that one when I remember to read it. I've also liked The Pajama Diaries when I've checked it out, but I've always had a soft spot for that sort of "slice of life, things progress in real time" comic strip storytelling. (Think For Better or For Worse.) Not everybody does.

To me, the rise of web comics really killed the newspaper strip, because web comics are the natural place to turn if you're a promising young cartoonist looking to enter the business. But at the same time, there's so much less quality control that I've always found web comics a daunting field to start reading. I've never been able to properly get into Achewood, which is right up my alley, for God's sake.

One thing I've noticed is that a lot of newspaper comic strips in the post-Calvin/Far Side era tend to have really, really limited casts, when I think the real strength in newspaper comic strips comes from constantly expanding the cast, as, say, Peanuts did. But what do I know about it?

Andrew asks:

What fiction tropes and concepts (be they narrative or technical) inordinately irritate you in film and television, and why?


I picked this one because I thought I had a good answer, and now that it's a few hours later, I can't remember for the life of me what that answer was. A lot of tropes I find irritating -- like, say, the idea that sitcom characters only hang out with each other, and if they hang out with other people, it's the whole plot of an episode -- are ones that are probably necessitated by the ways that fiction works. Which is not really an answer!

But if I were going to pick a trope that I think has been actively harmful to society, it would be the Chosen One trope. I don't think there's anything wrong with it as a storytelling device, but I think we overdosed on it in the wake of Star Wars, especially, and it became this thing that suggested to a lot of people (ur newsletter writer included) that there's some secret, amazing destiny for everybody on Earth, when for the most part, a lot of us are going to fail at becoming Luke Skywalker.

As I get older, I think we all need to get more comfortable with the idea that we're not the protagonist all of the time. And if you look at the really great Chosen One narratives -- your Star Wars and Harry Potters and Matrices -- they're all bursting with great other characters, who seem to have their own shit going on, whom you can easily imagine yourself as. If you'd rather be Princess Leia or Dumbledore or Trinity than the protagonists of those works, well, that's a cool ambition! But we've, for some reason, internalized the lessons of stories like this as, "If we're doing a Chosen One narrative, everybody in the story should be entirely about focusing all of their attentions on the Chosen One." And that's stupid.

So I guess this could be blown out in even bigger fashion to, "I don't like when stories only define characters by their relationship to the protagonist." One of the reasons I like the movies of Judd Apatow, even when they're bad, is because you really do feel like everybody in those movies has their own stuff going on, even if it's a tiny part. The sooner we learn that we're not the center of every story, the better! You can be at the center of some stories, and you can be the funny best friend in other stories, and you can be the background extra in still others. I swear to God, it will be okay.

I will keep thinking about this and see if I can remember my original answer. I'm sure I have many others I could write about.

Wesley asks:

It's somehow been nigh-on a decade since your Top 100 TV Shows Of All-Time list over at South Dakota Dark. How much churn would that list have seen in the last decade? Which shows would disappear, which would join? And are there any older shows you've caught up with in the interim that would've made the cut?

(The wifi in The Bean is a little overloaded tonight, so I'm not going to risk losing my connection by Googling "South Dakota Dark top 100," but I assure you that if you do, you will be richly rewarded by the thoughts of 2007 me. Who is an idiot.)

I imagine there would be a fair amount of churn. One move I know would be made is I would bump Mad Men into the top 20 somewhere, maybe even into the top 10. (I don't know what I would bump for it, though. Maybe Buffy? But the second I thought that, the second I recoiled a little. So I don't know!) I presume I would bump Breaking Bad onto the list somehow (though it would be much lower on my list than a lot of lists), along with a few other favorites that have debuted since then, like Community and The Americans and Hannibal. I'd be sorely tempted by a lot of shorter-run shows that had very little influence but that I loved, like Halt and Catch Fire and Rectify and Party Down.

But I'd also really want to make sure there was a good sampling of old stuff on there. I'd be much more likely to bump, say, Veronica Mars than I would, like, WKRP in Cincinnati. I think there's still stuff to be enjoyed about older TV, and I'd want to make sure the list reflected that.

In particular, I'd probably try to include Route 66 and The Rifleman, two older dramas I've discovered in the intervening nine and a half years and really loved. Both are good examples of pre-Hill Street Blues dramas, and including the Rifleman would also mean including a Western, which would be a public good all around.

But the list would necessarily have to be different now. When I made my 2007 list, it was still possible to create a TV list that was a little idiosyncratic but which also aspired to be "objective" on some level. In 2017, it's hard to avoid idiosyncrasies, especially when it comes to reflecting the era of Peak TV. Include Veronica Mars in 2007 (as I did), and you're still including a show that a lot of people loved that was definitively in the critical conversation. Include Rectify in 2017, and you have a show that a lot of people loved, but that which the vast majority of people didn't even know existed. It's a tougher thing to do all around.

Maybe I should do it again. Hmmm...

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I imagine I won't be filing any newsletters next week, but stranger things have happened. See you after we have a new fall TV schedule!

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.