Into the Dreaming Imaginative Fiction from Author, Reviewer, and Writing Coach Christine Amsden

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Dear Netflix

Dear Netflix:

I thought you were different.

I’ve been an ardent supporter of the Netflix brand almost from the start. Well before on-line viewing became more the norm than the exception. Well before your original content made you a serious threat to cable TV. You created binge watching, everyone’s new favorite way to watch TV. And you gave us shows we couldn’t find anywhere else.

Sense8 was one of those shows.

Look, I’m a businesswoman. I get it. I knew Sense8 was unlikely to get the full 5-season arc the creators seemed to want. It’s an expensive show to make — hugely expensive. And it’s super edgy, although well loved for all that.

But while you can’t fully make business decisions based on emotions, you can’t ignore them either. Businesses who can only see numbers and fail to take into account the human element lose big in the long run. I know you know this, Netflix. All I have to do to understand how well you know this is look at your forward-thinking policies on parental leave. It’s a visionary way to support your employees and help them become happier and more productive.

Customers, too, need to feel supported.

Networks have poisoned their viewership through decades of releasing and retracting shows, often with no warning or closure. It has made the consumer wary of investing in new shows, and it has fueled their decision to head to services like Netflix where they can binge watch a guaranteed number of episodes at a time and where, up until now, even the shows with less popularity regularly got renewed.

Look, I’m not saying that you should renew a show costing $9 million per episode for 3 more years. All I’m saying is this: Give us closure.

Closure could be achieved in a two-hour movie. Or one last season. Or something in between.

Closure will give you something more, too. More than fan satisfaction. It will build trust with your audience.

Trust. Something NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, and all the other networks lost long ago. It’s the reason I won’t start watching a show on those networks before it’s been out for at least 2, preferably 3 seasons.

Trust isn’t something you can put a price tag on. If you can become the network that will finish things, if at all possible, even if it’s not in the best, most idealistic way, then your audience will expand by leaps and bounds as more and more viewers decide, “What the heck? I’ll give it a try” to every new show that comes along.

I hope you will seriously consider lending closure to the most fantastic TV show ever produced and in so doing, send a message to your viewers that you know TV watching is more than a business to them. It’s an emotional investment.

Sincerely,

A concerned viewer

Travelers Season 1

Canada is once more proving that they’ve got game when it comes to science fiction television shows. This joint Canadian/Netflix venture was an easy binge watch with an instantly hooky premise and a great cast.

So sometime in the future, things are bad. “Travelers” jump back to modern time by rewriting the brain of some poor schmuck who’s about to die anyway … in an accident or some other preventable way. The future depends upon the age of computers to accurately record the places, times, and mechanisms of these deaths. (The answer to the question: “Why don’t you kill Hitler?” which did come up.) Not all travelers land safely. The journey comes with risks, and there is a real chance of dying.

Of course, our five heroes have no problems … at least, no problems arriving. One ends up dealing with his host’s heroine addiction while another learns that her host had a serious mental disability which essentially means she’s going to die (host brain can’t handle it).

They’re on a mission to save the future, and they’re not the only ones here. That’s one of the things I enjoy most about this story: You get a sense of a much bigger pictures and of a carefully orchestrated scheme. We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

I have 1 complaint about this show. It’s something I didn’t fully know how to put into words until the very end of the season, although I sensed something a little off nearly from the start.

We know almost nothing about these characters’ lives before they jumped to the present (their past).

There’s a great deal of story and character development in the here and now, but the fact that we don’t have a solid backstory, or any backstory at all, makes it hard to understand the true stakes of the situation. I know they’re intentionally trying to keep the future murky, but this strategy backfires on someone like me who thrives on character motivation. Why did they risk everything to come back? What did they leave behind? Was any of it good? Who they are is more than who they have become; it began in their past (in the future).

I hope season 2 will address this gaping hole. I definitely plan to watch and find out!

I’d give this a solid 4/5 starts and recommend it to scifi fans.

Sense 8 Season 2

It’s been almost two years since I reviewed “My New Favorite Scifi Series: Sense8” I made no bones about it, I love, love loved this show! I rewatched it 3 times in the summer of 2015, checked daily for news of its renewal, and felt the greatest relief of my life when they announced it had gotten a second season.

Then I waited. And waited some more.

Then came the Christmas Special, which I didn’t love. As I wrote in that review, this isn’t like Doctor Who — it’s not episodic. The characters can’t just go on a stand-alone adventure and in fact, they didn’t. They honestly spun their wheels and made excuses for not taking action for an entire year, even while Wil and Rylie were on the run and in hiding.

It made me nervous. After all this time, was the show not as good as I had first thought? Had I set it on a pedestal too high for it to reach?

I waited some more.

Finally, a week and a half ago, Snese8 season 2 arrived and … I loved it!!!!!

First, don’t think for a second that taking 11 days to watch this show means anything except that I have kids, this show is extremely inappropriate for kids, they go to bed at 9 and I go to bed at 10. That’s one episode per evening, minus game night. Honestly, I watched this show as quickly as it was possible for me to watch!

Unlike the first season, which had a serious warming up period, season 2 got things rolling right away. The clan is in danger from Whispers and from BPO. They’re working together to learn more and to try to free Wil from his heroin-induced stupor (the only thing keeping Whispers out of his head).

Meanwhile, every character has his/her own things going on — Sun is still in prison and her brother is trying to kill her; Lito is suffering the fallout of coming out of the closet; Van Damn has been noticed by reporters and become a symbol of hope for his people; Kala is unhappy with her husband and the things she’s learning about his company; Wolfgang is in the middle of some Berlin crime wars.

The thing that struck me most about season 2 is that the characters had truly become a cluster. 

There are so many things that are awesome about this that it’s hard to separate!

  1. The science fiction of the show is more real this season, more apparent in every scene and in every action, making even the mundane seem more extraordinary.
  2. The pacing is faster because the interconnectivity of the characters is the most interesting part of the show.
  3. The pacing is faster because even when you’re spending time with characters or plots you’re less interested in, you get visits from characters (along with their baggage) you’re more interested in.

Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about the way the show portrayed the worldwide cluster in this season. When a big event took place in any of the characters’ lives, the others were likely to be present, even if they were just watching or partying. Then they might take over at odd moments, bolstering one another and making each one more than they could be alone.

The cinematography was awesome too, of course, just like in season 1. Seamless transitions from Bankok to Seoul to Berlin to San Fransisco to Amsterdam to … they were all over the world! The amount of work that must have gone into making this show is mind-boggling. And it’s beautiful. It’s stunning. It’s worth it! 🙂

Having said all that … 

I do have a few odd complaints about this season. The biggest weakness in season 1 was the beginning, but the biggest weakness in season 2 was the end. Maybe because season 2 started on such a high note, there wasn’t anywhere else to go? But the last episode was my least favorite of the season, which is a huge problem. (Please note: I liked the episode, it was just my least favorite.) I was left feeling, not curious or anxious or excited, but frankly confused and bewildered. The final sequence of events made very little sense to me.

In fact, confusion was something I felt a little too often through this season. 

I watch this with my husband, and I can’t count the number of times I stopped to ask him, “What did s/he just say?” or “Did you follow that?” The BPO mystery was often revealed through a series of back-and-forth conversations, usually involving Nomi and at least one of the others, and I just don’t get it. Even now I don’t get it. I’m going to rewatch soon (from the start of season 1, actually) and maybe I’ll get it then, but it’s frustrating ot me that I didn’t get it the first time.

All of which means that while I still love this show, I’m not sure that I can say I love love love it anymore. It’s gotten knocked down to a 5-star rating from an off-the charts rating. Okay, maybe 5.5 stars! It’s good. You should watch this. 

Lemony Snicket Season 1

Image result for lemony snicket netflix

Finally, a Netflix original show that is not only great entertainment for me, but great to watch with the whole family! The Series of Unfortunate Events is based on the bestselling books, which I have not read. But I don’t feel like I missed anything by going straight to the cinematic adaptation. These shows were riveting.

First, I have to recognize the fantastic cast. Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf is simply meant to be, but he does not carry the show on his own. The child actors, Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes, were brilliant, and not even just for their ages. I hope to see these two in a lot more in the future. Patrick Warburton as the title character and narrator, Lemony Snicket himself, delivers a wonderful deadpan with hints of real emotion beneath. And on and on. Most of the acting here is overacting, but done to perfection.

Now on to the story: I’ve never sat down to watch a show and been told right off the bat not to watch. Brilliant reverse psychology! The story is intentionally far-fetched and the general tone is, in fact, one of despair. Yet there are moments of levity and somehow the absurdity strikes just the right chord.

This series was just a bit intense for my 8-year-old, thought I suspect she’ll watch it again and enjoy it. My 11-year-old was a bit iffy for the first 2 episodes, but then demanded that we binge-watch the rest in a single weekend. My 8-year-old is prone to being a bit oversensitive and she tends to like shows better the second time she watches them, so my guess is that most 8-year-olds would be okay with this. Just know your kid. I wouldn’t recommend this for children much younger than 8.

True Memoirs of an International Assassin

Austin and I were in the mood for something light this weekend and as if it were planned for us, Netflix released its original movie “True Memoirs of an International Assassin” on Friday.

This movie tells the story of an aspiring novelist working on his first suspense-thriller. Fellow writers, you will particularly enjoy the setup as we catch glimpses of a writer at work. At one point, the characters sit around tapping their feet and checking their watches as the author tries to figure out how the scene will unfold. Loved it!

Then he gets a publishing contract. This part is not realistic, just in case you were wondering, but give it a pass because here’s the setup and it’s really pretty funny: The publisher swore she wouldn’t delete a word and she didn’t. She just added one: “NON” in front of “FICTION” So … this poor schmuck gets kidnapped and carted off to Venezuela where things just keep getting worse.

I really enjoyed this movie. We were even able to watch it while the kids were awake. Note: This movie is not for kids; however, unlike many shows that have unexpected nudity, meaning you have to make sure the kids are behind closed doors and snoring, this was fairly clean. It gave us the opportunity to “chill out” with the kids on chill night — them playing video games while we enjoyed the show.

The laughter wasn’t nonstop, but it was laugh-out-loud funny plenty often enough. I highly recommend.

The Quest for the Three Magic Words

Put simply, the quest for the three magic words is an irksome phenomenon I’ve witnessed in novels with a strong romantic component, characterized by the stubborn refusal to say the words, “I love you.”

In a broad sense, the goal of any HEA romance is for the characters to fall in love, and often the realization of this love is the climax of the story. The dramatic tension in such a story (or subplot) is the constant interplay between that which brings them together and that which keeps them apart. When these forces are in perfect balance, when we desperately want the couple to find true love and happiness but desperately believe in the obstacles preventing such a union, there can be a moment of true emotional pain.

On the other hand, when he loves her, she loves him, they are both acting on this love, showing one another this love, and the only thing holding the HEA at bay is that one or both is afraid of saying three little words, then you have the quest. What is keeping them apart? Maybe he is afraid of commitment or doesn’t believe in love. Maybe she’s been burned before or doesn’t believe in love. (I get a lot of the whole not believing in love thing, especially in the male’s perspective.) Whatever the reason, they would be blissfully happy together if only one or both would pry open those lips and say a few words. Nothing else really needs resolution – there’s no anger, mingled feelings of hatred or jealousy, or even guilt over betraying a deceased love with this new love. (Though I should say that in all of these situations, when the angst goes on for too long, I’m still liable to brand it a quest.) There’s just a refusal to say the words and possibly a fear of commitment (which becomes all the more ridiculous in regency romance novels in which the couple is already married).

As far as dramatic tension goes, this quest quite simply puts me to sleep. In fact, in a straight-up romance with no subplot, I’ll usually stop reading as soon as the story devolves to this quest. Why? Because I know how it’s going to end. Sooner or later, they’re going to say the words and live happily ever after. It’s just not that interesting to find out how he or she finally comes to realize what is already so incredibly obvious. She’s afraid to risk her heart? What? It’s already gone!

I’ll tolerate the quest if another parallel plot such as a mystery or suspense is holding my interest, but even then it often earns an eye roll. This is because of the other issue I have with the quest for the three magic words: In my mind, it is more important by far to actively love someone than it is to say you love someone. Call me quirky if you like, but I guess I’ve taken the old writing advice, “show, don’t tell,” to be more than a useful trick for bringing a story to life. It works in real life relationships – show me you’re my friend, don’t just tell me. Show me you’re an expert, don’t just tell me. Show me you love me, don’t just tell me. Yes, you can say the words too, but in the grand scheme of things it simply is not that important. And that is the key characteristic of the quest for the three magic words – they’ve already reached their HEA. I know it. I feel it. They’ve shown it. They just haven’t said so.

I suppose the point of the quest is to show a person coming to a turning point in his or her life in which they finally realize the truth about themselves, a truth previously blocked by a host of preconceived notions (eg the hero doesn’t believe in love). And since the quest for the three magic words is such a popular part of the romance genre, I imagine that it must work for a great many readers, perhaps readers who have had a different experience with life and love than I have, but for my part, you can feel free to imagine me rolling my eyes anytime you see these words in a review: I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a quest for the three magic words.

Helix Season 2: WTF?

Finished the second (and last) season of Helix and I have no idea what I just watched.

Don’t get me wrong, season 1 had quite a bit of WTF going for it as well. I mentioned as much in my review a couple of weeks ago. But it had a degree of intrigue that had me willing (if not precisely eager) to move onto season 2. And watch season 2 …

Well, you know how you can’t look away from certain things? Like Donald Trump? Helix Season 2 was like that.

I thought (naively) that there would be more development of characters, world, and themes in this season. That we would get some answers. What I got instead was … I have absolutely no idea.

Strangely, despite all that, I’m sad that there’s no third season!!! Not because I could possibly recommend this show to anyone, but because I still have this need to understand WTF is going on.

TV Series Review: Z Nation

 

Just finished watching seasons 1 & 2 (all that is currently available) on Netflix and …

I liked it!

I should probably preface this by saying that I’m not really into zombies. They make no sense. I mean, sure, a disease that turns humans into ravening monsters intent upon biting other humans could be interesting and frightening, but how those same humans stay alive for years without food or water? There are these things called the Laws of Thermodynamics. Just saying. Vampires and animal shape-shifters are much more logical. I’d say zombies are the least sensible fantasy/paranormal/scifi monster.

But if you can set that aside for a moment …

What the SyFy Network (still hate the name) presented us with here is a post-apocalyptic world and a group of survivors on a mission to save what’s left of humanity. I like apocalypses. (That didn’t sound right, did it?) I like heroes. This was an interesting group of characters.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, the action was great, the characters were believable, and survival was not guaranteed. I won’t give anything away, but let’s just say Z Nation took a leaf from George R. R. Martin – who appropriately made a guest appearance in season 2!

As with most series, some episodes were better than others. The pilot got things rolling, though, so if you want to tiptoe into this story, that’ll be a fair test of whether or not you’ll like the rest of the show.

I was worried that after pulling off a great first season, the second would go downhill, but it didn’t. There was a slightly different tone – they had a little more fun with the premise in season 2 and took themselves less seriously. That tone worked for me better at some times than others (as you would expect). What’s important is that the stakes continued to go up throughout season 2, we learned more about what was going on, and by the end I was thirsting for more.

Good news: Season 3 is scheduled for next fall.

Bad news: Season 3 isn’t until next fall!

My only real criticism of this show, aside from the fact that zombies aren’t my favorite trope, is that I think there are some internal inconsistencies. I say I think because there are still some lingering questions that the show’s makers could answer in a way that would make it all pull together. I’m just … well, again, I don’t want to write a review with spoilers. And this wasn’t such a big problem that it will keep me from watching; more a minor annoyance.

All in all, I do recommend this series, especially to those who love apocalypse stories. I’d give it a strong 4 out of 5 stars.

“The Force Awakens” is Okay (Spoiler Warning)

Spoiler Alert: There are a few spoilers in this review. Don’t read if you plan to see the movie.

After a great deal of anticipation and a weekend of watching out for spoilers on the Internet, I had my chance to watch “The Force Awakens” last night. And it was an enjoyable movie, true to the original series in many ways, full of both nostalgia and interesting new characters.

It wasn’t great. And at the risk of inviting bodily injury from many friends and scifi peers — the original trilogy wasn’t great either. It was ahead of its time … trendsetting. The sheer simplicity of the story made it accessible to a wide audience, putting a scifi flick in the mainstream.

Now, 35 years later, I honestly had different expectations. I wanted more depth of character. I wanted the battle between good and evil to mean more, especially in the wake of the final moments of “Return of the Jedi” where Anakin Skywalker rejects the dark side. IMO, that moment is what turned an okay adventure story into a memorable one. But the prequel movies failed to demonstrate how Anakin turned to the dark side in the first place. There was backlash there, enough so that I hoped we’d deal more with light vs. dark in this new movie.

And at first I was hopeful. A storm trooper — Finn — refuses to obey an order to kill innocent civilians and abandons the First Order. What made him turn against his upbringing?

No really, what made him turn against his upbringing? I’m still waiting to find out.

But nowhere was the shallowness of the dark vs light conflict more apparent than with Kylo Ren, wannabe Darth Vader. And in this, too, the problem may be lack of understanding. He’s got a history that was only hinted at in this movie, but a history I needed to know in order to understand his desire to do evil and especially the confrontation with his father.

Luke Skywalker worked very well as a hero because at the beginning of the trilogy he was no one going nowhere. He didn’t have a history. The show became his history. Han and Leia were archetypes more than characters.

But in this new film, I just felt like I was missing things. It wasn’t even immediately clear who the main hero was supposed to be. The cocky pilot, Poe, didn’t end up playing much of a role after his intense intro. And Poe was meeting some old man who for some reason had information on the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker. Who’s the old man and why does he know anything?

There were a number of plot problems like that. The biggest one, IMHO, was R2D2 being in low power mode and suddenly waking up at the key moment for no apparent reason other than the plot said it was time. This movie relied too heavily on coincidence. Han Solo stumbling across the Millennium Falcon is another example. (Though they tried to hand wave that one away.)

The best and worst part of the movie was Rey. I liked her. And I was glad to see a woman in such a strong, central role. In fact, I generally liked that more women were involved in this new movie. And Rey is smart and tough, the way a good Jedi should be. But in a confrontation at the end of the movie with Kylo Ren, she somehow managed to come out on top despite the fact that she had no training in the force whatsoever. It was an unbelievable scene. (I mean that literally.)

I did like the nostalgia. I liked BB8. I’m curious to learn more about Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren. I’ll watch the next movie.

But I’m not going to pretend to be blind to its faults. “The Force Awakens” was okay. And ultimately, that’s all it was.

My New Favorite Scifi Series: Sense8

I have a new all-time favorite science fiction series.

Snese8, which I binge watched over the last week-and-a-half on Netflix, has ousted Babylon 5 from the coveted #1 spot that it held in my heart for over 15 years. J. Michael Straczynski had a hand in both, and there are some similarities in what I love about each, though they are entirely different concepts.

What is Sense8?

First and foremost, Sense8 is a character story. And you all know by now that I am a character girl. In fact, for much of the series the speculative element (the scifi or otherworldly component for those who are not familiar with the lingo) took a backseat to the development of characters and connections.

The premise is not simple, but let me do my best: Eight unique individuals from around the world are suddenly reborn into a cluster. They can share one another’s thoughts, feelings, and memories. They can “visit” with one another (mentally). They can even share one another’s bodies and in so doing share skills.

So there are 8 main characters?

Yes, and dozens of important secondary characters! When I first read about the concept for this show I didn’t know how they could pull it off. How would I keep the characters straight? And how would television portray a largely mental connection?

With these doubts in my mind, I watched the first episode. And do you know what? By the end of the first episode, I didn’t know all their names, but I knew all 8 characters and a little something about them. There aren’t any two who are remotely alike. The creators used a bit of a cheat at first — something I’m familiar with from writing fiction. When you want to introduce a large number of characters at first, you find one important, distinctive characteristic to start from and build upon that. You can even start with something stereotypical, although to avoid cliches you need to build on that. And they did!

Netflix

It is now important to give some credit to Netflix, the one place a show like this could have possibly happened. The show is accused (somewhat accurately) of having a slow pace. Well, there are 8 different primary viewpoints!

But let’s face it, if this show had needed to string viewers along from week to week, it never would have worked. This show is the epitome of what binge watching is for. In fact, if you don’t have time to finish it within the next 2-3 weeks, don’t start watching! Ideally, you could watch it in a weekend, but some of us have jobs and kids and things. 🙂

This isn’t a show you can judge on any single episode. This season was chapter 1 — forming connections. By the end of the first season I know all 8 characters extremely well and I care deeply about their problems. And finally, by the end of season 1, the sense8 are working together, giving us a sense for what it means to be a sense8 cluster.

I told you — it’s not a simple concept. It wasn’t simple for these characters to suddenly belong to a cluster either. It took them time to be fully reborn and understand what they are (although there are still some questions there).

Twelve episodes. One long chapter. But they’re all right there, waiting for you.

Content Warning

Much like HBO, there are no rules regarding content on Netflix. So be prepared to see things you never imagined you’d see on TV. Aside from cursing and violence (which are sadly mainstream), there is sex, nudity (as in full frontal female AND male — kudos for being fair!), and other intimate details you might not have expected.

To be fair to the show, they are presenting the concept that a group of 8 people have somehow just become like one, sharing even the most intimate and private moments. Believe me, this came across!

Watch this show!

What are you waiting for? If you have kids, make sure they’re asleep, if you don’t, just go watch it!