Joss Whedon, Philip Roth, and Ed Brubaker: What I've Been Reading and Watching

Dollhouse: The trick to watching doomed shows that you’re likely to love is to wait until their doom is complete. That way, you know what you’re getting into, and you can savor it, or binge on it, or take whatever approach you please. But when it ends early, it’s not a surprise. I’m only a couple of episodes into the first season, and it hasn’t entirely grabbed me yet — it’s still too episodic, too procedural, too disguise-of-the-week for my taste — but it’s clearly going somewhere interesting. Also clear is that the network’s decision-makers were under the impression that they’d bought Hot Girl Wears Sexy Costumes: On TV — a sort of sci-fi Charlie’s Angels — and what they got was something very, very different.

The Human Stain: It’s an interesting partner and (for me) follow-up to Ravelstein, another 2001 novel about a classics professor told from the perspective of his friend. It’s a very different book, of course: Roth’s novel inhabits a variety of characters in a way that Bellow’s does not, and he is concerned as much with studying the particular period, and its tormented culture and politics, as with revealing the central character. There’s also the matter of sex. Bellow touches upon it as a part of human existence; Roth is obsessed with it, seeming to view it as life’s central facet. I don’t think I care for it as much as American Pastoral, which is probably my favorite novel of the last twenty years, but it’s certainly worth reading. Like nearly all the best novels, its primary virtue is the creation of a fully-realized fictional world — populated with characters who seem as real as the people you know — that is easy to imagine existing long before the events of the book start and well after they end.

Incognito: Though it doesn’t quite live up to its supervillain-gone-good concept, Ed Brubaker’s stylish superhero noir at least takes a stab at answering one of the comic world’s most frequently overlooked — or at least unsatisfyingly answered — questions: Why do superheroes choose to do good? And not just to do good, but to do it for free, at the cost of sleep, relationships, etc. In Brubaker’s story, sometimes they don’t, and when they do it’s not always because that’s what they really want, but because that’s the option they have. I’d still like to see a comic book take a psychologically complex look at the genre’s usual device, which is that “good” people acquire powers and end up with a moral compulsion to freely give of themselves in service of what they believe to be (and in the world of comic books, usually is) the greater good. Spider-Man and Batman offer reasonable but entirely too simplistic explanations for why a hero might choose that path, but I’m not aware of any comic that actually spends a lot of time examining the hero’s choice — perhaps allowing him or her to choose otherwise — and how hard it would presumably be to maintain with any consistency. Watchmen did a great job of taking the superhero genre’s greater-good shtick to its logical authoritarian endpoint, but no work that I’m aware of really dives into the gray area of why one would do good, or not, and all the non-hero, non-villain options a superpowered individual might actually have in terms of using his or her abilities. Or, to put it another way: In the real world, if people started to develop superpowers, I suspect few of them would run around in tights fighting other superpowered people in tights. Instead, they’d probably put their powers to some sort of productive and/or selfish use that wouldn’t always be easy to classify as “good” or “bad.”

Because I have a longstanding interest in how video games deal with narrative, I picked up Heavy Rain — a game purported to take game storytelling to new levels — last week. Still haven’t played it yet, but I’ll report back once I do.