They grow up so fast. (Gus and Ernie, ten years apart: 2008, 2018; I’m amused that both photos of Gus are blurry.)
(For those wondering, they still look like they did in 2018.)
I tore through the third season of Stranger Things with an abandon that, if nothing else, shows quite how much the show’s formula of 1980s nostalgia, knowing pop culture references and humor continues to work on me. But even as I was on the edge of my seat watching Eleven et al face down The Flayed, the nagging thought at the back of my head kept saying, There isn’t really a lot here this time, is there?
Perhaps it’s a metatextual conceit that the third season feels so much like a retread of the second; that doesn’t seem outside of the realm of possibility at all, to me, although I admit that the metatextual reader in me would have preferred it to be a copy of the first season, as commentary of the way that Return of the Jedi pulled so much from the original Star Wars. But as I watched Nancy and Jonathan circle around the kids as they prepared for a showdown, weapons in hand, I thought, I’ve seen this before, and just a year or so ago. What else does this show have?
That’s not to say there’s nothing new in the third season — Robin is wonderful, and I genuinely loved the Red Dawn meets Terminator riff that is the Russian enforcer. (For that matter, expanding the mythology outside of Hawkins is a move that, in retrospect, was essential even as it seemed surprising at first blush.) Even the corrupt mayor is fun enough. It’s just that the central threat, the final showdown, all of that, seemed overfamiliar and as if the Duffer Brothers were running out of ideas and hoping to fill the gaps with knowing references: “Sure, we did the Mind Flayer last time, but this time it’s people and by the way, look, it’s Back to the Future, everyone!”
I’m overthinking it, of course. The season did its job, and I got sucked it, mainlining the whole thing in a weekend finally. (Comic-Con prep meant I got to it three weeks after release, which made it feel almost passé.) It was fun, thrilling and throwaway, just as everyone involved intended. To want it to be more, perhaps, might just be selfish.
An utterly random thing, but the THR newsletter took a week off for the July 4 weekend, which meant that I didn’t do graphics for a week. I found that I missed it, as strange as that is to admit. When the following week rolled around, I had this moment of excitement of Yes, finally, it’s been forever. Because, apparently, “forever” is defined as “two weeks” in my head these days…
I didn’t expect to like Russell T. Davies’ Years and Years nearly as much as I do; in the years since his Doctor Who run, I’ve dropped away from his work because I soured so much on him during Who, which amplified all his tics and tropes to such a degree that it became difficult to see anything else. When Years and Years was announced, it looked like more of the same, with the gimmicky conceit — the series would fast forward through the next 15 years in six episodes — and a cast of familiar faces that had shown up in other RTD projects.
I was prepared to skip it, but the reviews when it aired in the UK were great, and I was in the mood for something else from a British perspective, having raced through Fleabag and a rewatch of the first season of No Offense. (Now, that show I need to write about at some point.) Plus, there it was, launching on HBO and I could simply just check out the first episode, so what was the harm…?
I was, I confess, not prepared. It does have a lot of the RTD tricks and cliches — he has a very particular view of families and how they work, and a love of pushing ideas into a cutesy absurdity as if he’s not fully prepared to commit to the underlying horror; he’s also breathtakingly sentimental at times — but there’s something winningly chilling about how quickly he takes everything to worst case scenarios and keeps pushing. The first episode offers nuclear apocalypse! And it works, especially because the world continues on afterwards and people start underselling their own responses to the end of the world, even as — especially as — things get worse and worse around them.
That’s one of the things the show does really well; it starts with a nuclear bomb, then goes on to show that, really, that is the least of everyone’s worries, considering things that are actually taking place in the real world today. By the time you get to the fifth episode, where the US airing is now, it’s worryingly close to where the US is now. The “erstwhile,” indeed…
More than anything, the show’s mixture of writerly polemic about how screwed up we are (and how close to being more screwed, not screwed up, we are), kitchen sink drama, and belief that Northern accents denote sincerity and authenticity, reminds me of Threads, the post-nuclear drama of the 1980s, as well as other classic British TV dramas, like Boys from the Black Stuff. It’s all exceptionally watchable stuff, with moments of genuine insight and humor sitting next to over the top camp melodrama; it’s a show that argues that Russell T. Davies deserves to be talked about as one of British TV’s great dramatists again.
It’s also, oddly, a show about the future that feels curiously, unavoidably old-fashioned. But that contradiction just makes me like it more.
What I took away from this year’s San Diego Comic-Con wasn’t how achy I felt at the end of each day — perhaps it’s just me getting older, or perhaps I’m out of shape more than I knew, but boy, did I feel the effects of running around the convention more than I used to, my poor feet — or anything about the excitement of the news announced, or the stress of getting those announcements out as PR folk got very nervous about the whole thing. (That happened a bunch, actually.) Nope, it was about the people I was there with.
I have, for awhile, said that the best part of San Diego is seeing the people I only ever see at the show each year — my THR crew, various folk who work at publishers scattered across the country, across the world — but this year brought that home in a manner that was, for want of a less sentimental term, heartwarming. The highlights of the show for me weren’t panels or booths or anything contained in the convention center at all. (No, nor were they the off-site “activations,” either; those remain exhausting and make the convention seem claustrophobic at times. Sometimes, you just want to leave the convention. And they weren’t the parties either, although those remain a strange and wonderful thrill.)
What I’ll remember — and, to be honest, treasure — were the meals and conversations away from everything, utterly unrelated to work, with people I’ve known for years but never really had the chance to just… sit down and talk to, properly.
Last year’s San Diego Comic-Con was amazingly big for me, personally, for all manner of reasons. I flew into the show this year in a strange state of mind, filled with a knowledge that this year couldn’t compare for obvious reasons, and… as I write this, on the last day of the show and with the memories of the last few days in my head, I think I might have been wrong. This year’s show was, in some inexplicable sense, about being included in a community — or, perhaps, knowing that I have built a community around me and been accepted by it, completely. Words can’t describe what that actually feels like, properly.
By now, I’ve got San Diego Comic-Con coverage down to a fine art. (Writing that ahead of time, as I’m doing, is tempting fate; for all you know, I might actually be having a mild nervous breakdown as you read these words.) I’ve been covering the show as press for more than a decade at this point, which is honestly somewhat surreal to think about, but it’s also allowed me to have a reasonable sense of what is needed and when, and how to do it. I actually — as shocking as it may be to actually admit — enjoy the show now, working it and the surreal experience of the whole thing, and the pressure of work that comes with it.
Part of that is, mind you, that the amount of work I do for THR, who I’ve been covering the show for for the past few years, is significantly less than other outlets. (The io9 days, I still shiver when remembering.) That’s not to say that I’m not actually working, mind you; it’s just that I know what I need to do and I know I can do it. The stress level is significantly lessened from previous visits.
There was, however, one year when I really did pretty much do almost no work at the show. Or, rather, I didn’t do anything immediately. I was working for an outlet I won’t name for fear of embarrassing anyone related to it, but the decision had been made that the approach to coverage would be very different on that year, compared with others. The many of us who were attending on behalf of this outlet were tasked with three things:
As if this didn’t seem breezy enough, midway through the show, I discovered that the third option was off the table, meaning that I could pretty much wander around, talking to people who seemed interesting and taking the occasional photo, and that counted as work.
At this point, I’d been to Comic-Con as press perhaps four or five times, and each year had been a shitshow in a series of new and increasingly ridiculous ways. Suddenly, I was given this surreal gift of being able, essentially, to have a vacation at Comic-Con. It was an utter joy, and even as it was happening, I knew it would never be this good ever again.
(Yet, despite the above, I still think that Comic-Con 2018 was the highlight of all my years at the show.)
It’s the first day of San Diego Comic-Con 2019. (Well, it’ll soon be Preview Night, technically; but that’s the first day, really.) As you read this, I’ll be in the air on the way to the show itself, but I thought I’d share this piece of Comic-Con ephemera — me on Preview Night 2008, looking every bit of the excitable nerd that I was back in the day. (Look at that smile.) I’m pretty sure this is the first year that I covered the show as press.
It’s legitimately difficult for me to overstate how much I didn’t like the movie Midsommar; would it be enough to say that I came out of it immediately suspicious of everyone who claimed that they liked it? Perhaps; I saw a lot of people talking on social media before going into it, and the idea that it was a horror movie that was both beautiful and ultimately uplifting was something that came up again and again, and that just gave me false hope, considering it’s one of the ugliest and most empty movies I’ve ever seen.
I also saw a lot of commentary along the lines of, “This is a movie that will feel cathartic for any woman who’s ever had a shitty boyfriend,” which becomes a somewhat surreal statement considering said shitty boyfriend is drugged, sexually abused and then murdered, the last of which happens at the bidding of his girlfriend, who has apparently undergone a mental breakdown and is partially catatonic. Perhaps I have an unrealistic expectation of how non-toxic other people’s relationships are, or perhaps I have an unrealistic expectation about limits to revenge fantasies. Who can tell?
(It’s worth noting that The Shitty Boyfriend was less a character, per se, than a cypher who had little defining trait beyond Being Shitty, just like the other characters had one defining characteristic — Being Depressed, Being Horny, Being Studious I Guess But Kind Of A Myopic Asshole About It, and for every other character, Being A Member Of A Creepy Cult Where They Act All Mellow But Obviously They’re Astonishingly Fucked Up. Midsommar is not a movie for people who like well-rounded characters.)
More than the misanthropy, the xenophobia and the belief that pastoral imagery is inherently creepy — okay, perhaps we can give the movie that last one — what was most upsetting about Midsommar was how entirely unsurprising it ended up being. Without fail, the movie chose the obvious route, ignoring the option to play against expectation in favor of… Is there such a thing as comfort food horror movies…?
Every generation gets the Wicker Man it deserves, I guess. Except that Midsommar is only fit for today’s generation if you believe that The Kids Today are the butt of every stereotypical joke about avocado toast and safe spaces. Instead, it’s what happens if Morrissey wanted to make a horror movie and embraced all his worst impulses.
I could never have made it as a graphic designer, despite my schooling — I’m simply not good enough, and my brain doesn’t work in those shapes anymore — but nonetheless, I can’t tell you how much I love doing the graphics for the THR newsletter every week. It’s a break from my usual work norm, and a strange puzzle that I enjoy solving every seven days. Here are some more recent solutions.
It’s a week, as you read this, until the start of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. I’m writing this about two weeks earlier. Nonetheless, you’ll all be happy to know that I have already reached the stage of San Diego Comic-Con Stress Dreams.
They happen every year, and it’s always some variation of “Something has come up to complicate the fact that I’m covering SDCC for work, and I have to deal with the problem in some manner that is both inventive and relatively low impact to my stress level and workload.” (For example, this year, the problem was that there was not enough news to report, but we had a certain quota of stories and word count to fulfill, so how do we turn the lack of news into the story that we’re writing about?)
The question is never, “Am I going to get San Diego Comic-Con Stress Dreams?” It is, without doubt, when am I going to get San Diego Comic-Con Stress Dreams?
To be honest, it not happening until three weeks before the show feels like a victory of sorts; there have been years when I’ve had them more than a month out, and just continued to have them on a seemingly nightly basis up until the show itself. (That made for an exhausting run-up to what is, easily, the most exhausting and stressful week of my year, every year.)
Despite the fact that they are, most clearly, stress dreams — and therefore, particularly un-relaxing — there is something comforting about these dreams, when they show up. It feels as if it’s my subconscious checking in with me, and reminding me that SDCC is just around the corner. It is, I’ve come to accept, a reminder that I do still care about all of this stuff, no matter how cynical I may pretend to be, even to myself, at times.