I’ve been trying to write a post about Starz new show Outlander for the month or so; pretty much ever since the first episode went up online at the start of August. The show is great, but I have been having trouble organizing my thoughts into a coherent post. While I am a fan of the book that this series is based on, it is not something I tend to bring up a lot. The thing about the Outlander series is that it is seems targeted at, or at least enjoyed by, women and I am an insecure little baby. It is not something I should care about, but I find it hard not to. The idea that certain kinds of media are inherently masculine or feminine is artificial and limiting. The advertising for the TV adaptation is definitely targeting women, but that shouldn’t stop anybody from watching it.

The press I saw for the show before it aired seemed to be setting up Outlander to be Game of Thrones for women. It is only really similar to that show in that it is based on an extensive book series that can roughly be called “fantasy.” Of course, Outlander’s fantasy is actually just 18th century Scotland, but that is essentially the same thing as far as anyone living in this century knows. Otherwise, the two shows don’t share all that much. (I’ll be honest, I’ve only watched about half of the first season of GoT, but I have read the first four books and I don’t care to watch the things I read played out on TV. It just isn’t my cup of tea.) It does have moments of graphic violence, but they are few and rely in their rarity for their impact. Much of the story is largely pleasant historical fiction. What makes it supposedly for women is that it can largely be called a romance and that the protagonist is a woman. That, though, ignores all the other elements that make Outlander enjoyable.

Anyone who doesn’t tend to enjoy romance shouldn’t let that dissuade them from giving the show a try. Outlander is a story that doesn’t fit neatly into any genre. It has elements of historical fiction, adventure, fantasy and romance. And the romance angle largely fades after the first book. It doesn’t go away; it is an integral part of the series, but the focus shifts more to the historical fiction and adventure parts. The way all those elements come together is a big part of what makes the series so enjoyable.

Outlander also has an excellent protagonist in Claire. She adapts to large parts of her predicament quickly and is generally intelligent and capable. It is also genuinely and truly from her perspective. The book was first person and the show keeps much of her narration, which gives people a clear perspective on her charms and flaws. Like all great character’s, Claire’s flaws really help make her real and entertaining. For example, she is often too free with her comments for the men, and women for that matter, of that age. She also tends to act, at least on seemingly small issues, without putting much thought into the consequences. Claire, coming from the relatively empowered society of WWII Europe, understandably struggles to adjust to the rigid gender roles of the 18th century. While Claire struggles with that, she never stops being the driving force in the story.

The show itself is really good. It is slow, but it is a confident sort of slow. Outlander has a story to tell and it is not going to rush the telling. The crux of the series, Claire being whisked back in time away from her husband Frank, doesn’t occur until nearly three quarters the way through the first episode. They take plenty of time to set up the relationship of Claire and Frank; that relationship is an important factor that is necessary to the bulk of the following episodes. Once the show gets to the past, it lets the viewer get to know the world that Claire has found herself in. It is a largely faithful adaptation of the book, but not one afraid to move some pieces around to make the show on an episode to episode basis. The cast all give excellent performances, the set and costume design is astounding and the sound is terrific. The biggest flaw of the show is the heavy handed narration. Getting Claire’s perspective on the goings on is vital to the show, but in the early episodes the narration simply feels insecure. Claire unnecessarily narrates things the viewer’s just watched, not trusting them to understand the nuances.

Outlander, at least through the first half season, is not the best thing ever. It is a solid, thoughtful adaptation of the novel, but most of the best parts are in the back half of the book. These episodes do a lot of heavy lifting setting the world of this show up, but the break occurs before the payoff. Hopefully the show can nail that payoff.

I’ve Got the Smash Bros Fever

We are one week away from Smash Bros 3DS and I couldn’t be more excited, a huge change from where I was about a month ago. I was excited for Smash Bros then, but not for the 3DS version. All of my excitement was reserved for the WiiU game. Unfortunately, at that time the release day for that version was unknown, while I knew the 3DS one was hitting in early October. I didn’t really care about it, but I was planning on buying it; it’s not like I was going to not play new Smash Bros if it’s available. In the last couple of weeks my outlook has changed entirely. All thanks to the demo that Nintendo distributed.

Since I earned Platinum Status in Club Nintendo (of course I did) I not only got early access to that demo, I got codes for four demos. So shared a couple with my brothers and one with my cousin and we played some Smash. According to my 3DSes internal clock, I’ve played that demo for just short of ten hours so far. With just the demo! I expected the 3DS game to feel compromised, to feel like it had been cut down to fit on the handheld. While the demo is only a tiny slice of what appears to be a humongous game, it didn’t compromised at all. The controls, other than the fact that they are not customizable in the demo, are perfect and the game runs as smooth as butter. It doesn’t look great in stills, but in motion the game looks great. With three people playing, plus one computer opponent, the game didn’t slow down at all. I thought it would feel cramped, but it really doesn’t. Each of the five available characters feel unique, but worthwhile. If the rest of the cast plays half as well as this crew, I don’t know when I’ll ever quit playing Smash Bros.

Those five characters are Mario, Link, Pikachu, Villager and Mega Man. It is a pretty great sample of what the game has to offer. Mario, Link and Pikachu are the stars of Nintendo’s biggest franchises, Mega Man is the highly anticipated guest star and Villager is the representative of Nintendo’s latest upstart hit. It is good cross section of the available fighters. I’m no fighting game expert, so I can’t put together and in-depth evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses, but I did get a general feel for them.

First, the returning characters. Mario is, as always, vanilla. He is pretty agile, has some range and just enough power. I don’t really feel the need to use Mario when other options are available, but he is decent. Link was one of the biggest disappointments in Brawl. He wasn’t that strong, but he was slow. There really wasn’t anything that Link did well that similar characters didn’t do better. If you wanted a heavy with a sword, just use Ike, if you wanted something speedier you could use Toon Link. Regular Link sucked. He is much improved here. He seems to be a little more sturdy and powerful. Pikachu is a character that I’ve never really used. He is an annoyance; fast and just strong enough to cause problems. He feels much like he always has, but I’m not a Pikachu player.

The newcomers, though, are a lot of fun. Villager doesn’t feel particularly effective, but his moves are off the wall enough that he is enjoyable anyway. His tree planting/chopping attack is super unwieldy but also super powerful. He can grab just about any projectile, hide in his pocket and throw it back at his attacker. Figuring out just how to use him is difficult, but the results are almost always entertaining. Mega Man is my favorite so far. His regular attack, his classic buster, is not a particularly effective attack. It can annoy and help keep distance, but isn’t really the centerpiece that most characters attacks are. His smash attacks, though, are almost uniformly excellent. Taking the form of his special weapons from his other games, they are all situationally useful. He is another character that takes some getting used to, but once you figure him out he is great.

Aside from the characters, the demo also lets the player get a handle on some of the new items and weapons. There are plenty of small changes, the baseball bat is not aluminum, and plenty of new additions. The highlight so far is the wind bellow thing; I don’t know what it is called. On the one stage available it is worth almost two kills on its own.

Judging the game simply by the tiny sliver that is the demo, I am almost ready to call it my game of the year. It is a blast and I can’t wait to play the full version.

More on The Office: Ranking the Seasons


After completing my last piece on The Office, I didn’t feel like I wrote all that I wanted to about what is one of my favorite shows. Plus, I kind of felt like that last one got away from me at a few points. So I decided to write another post about the show. The Office is a show that ran for a long time and changed quite a bit while it was on the air. For a sitcom, it was also a show that told coherent stories with most of it seasons. So I’ve decided to rank each season from worst to best.

Season 8 – This is the first post-Michael season, and the show had no direction at all. They replaced with Michael with James Spader’s Robert California, a flatly terrible character. He started somewhat interesting, but the show spent more and more time with him and he never became less of an off-putting cipher. Around his unfortunate presence, the rest of the show felt like it was just going through the motions.

Season 1 – This is like an ugly little vestigial growth on Season 2. Season 1 is only 6 episodes long, and the show has barely begun to step out of the original British versions shadow. By the end of this season the show has started to morph into the great show The Office would become. There really isn’t an outstanding episode here.

Season 7 – Like seasons 5 and 6, 7 is another season with no cohesion. A lot of stories start, but they either fizzle into nothing or a rushed to their conclusions. The return of Holly is great, but her getting back together with Michael comes awfully fast. When Will Ferrell was brought on to be his replacement, everyone knew that it wasn’t a long term solution, but his arc is oddly paced, with him exiting just as fast as Michael. This season doesn’t even have good Jim/Pam stuff to back it up.

Season 9 – At least the show went out on solid footing. There are missteps in the final season, like what the show did to Andy. Really, this season badly mishandles that character. It makes up for it, though, but tells one of the best stories featuring a happily married couple on TV. The tension between Jim and Pam in this season is perfectly believable and within their characters. That relationship had been perfunctory, if still sweet, for most of the last three seasons. Here, it is something worth watching, even if the viewer never really believes their marriage was in trouble. Knowing that it was the end let the show move most of its characters into a happier place for the ending. It is not the best season of the show by far, but it is a solid ending to the series.

Season 6 – This is a season in search of an identity. There are so many abortive or rushed stories in this season. It is just a lot of brief ideas that come and go, with the season itself never really building an identity. Dunder-Mifflin goes from trouble to out of business in about 3 episodes. There is a subplot of Jim getting a promotion, but by the middle of the season things revert with no consequences at all. The only thing this does have going for it are the Jim/Pam episodes. The two part wedding and birth episodes are not really the best the show has to offer, but they are excellent personal episodes that cover ground this show usually avoids. There is scattered greatness in a mostly tepid season.

Season 5 – This season has the show really starting to show its age. The Office becomes a little crazier, significantly less grounded. It has some really strong episodes, like the extended Michael Scott Paper Company Arc, but mostly it is just treading water. The building Andy/Angela/Dwight love triangle comes to a conclusion in the most ridiculous fashion; it also has Holly for the first few episodes and the final malevolent appearances of Jan. Lots of things happening, but they lack the care and cohesion of the first few seasons.

Season 4 – This is the rise and fall of Ryan Howard. There is something missing with Jim and Pam being a happy couple for this season and the first few double sized episodes are badly paced, but once the season gets going it is pretty great. It has some of the darkest, most hilarious episodes in the series (The Deposition and The Dinner Party), but overall quality is not quite as high or steady as Seasons 2 or 3.

Season 3 – This one is just a small step back from Season 2. It adds Andy and Karen to the show, both excellent additions. It also reverses the Jim/Pam dynamic, making Pam the one yearning from the side at the Jim’s relationship. Pam goes through a lot of growing in this season, changing from the mousey secretary from the first two seasons to the more forceful character she would be for the rest of the series. It also ends the long simmering downsizing plot in a satisfying manner.

Season 2 – This one is on the short list of best TV seasons for any show. Each episode is essential to the overall plot. It largely redeems Michael, making him more pathetic than cruel. It also starts to develop the personalities of the supporting characters. You get to know a lot more about the likes of Kevin, Stanley and Creed. There are tons of classic episodes in this season, like Booze Cruise, Christmas Party and Office Olympics. The big draw is the Jim/Pam romance, most of which plays out in this season. It all comes to a head in the excellent Casino Night, when Jim finally makes his move.


The only season that is out and out bad is Season 8; it is almost unwatchable. Otherwise, even Season 1 has some redeeming qualities. Watching this show over the last month, seeing the end for the first time and the beginning for something like the tenth, it really just helps cement for me just how great this show was. Even with its low points, The Office belongs in the upper echelons of the sitcom pantheon.

The Ace Attorney Against the Archaeologist

Professor Layton Versus Phoenix Wright is a crossover game that caters directly to me, featuring two of my favorite DS franchises, which makes me a somewhat sad that I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I had hoped to. All the elements that make both series great are there, but somehow it doesn’t come together quite as well as the games from either. This is not a peanut butter and chocolate situation of two great tastes going great together; these two distinct flavors do not mix as well as one would expect.


It is less a natural failure of mixing these two game series, but a failure of this specific game’s attempt at comingling those two worlds. While it was written by Shu Takumi the creator of the Ace Attorney series, Phoenix and Maya’s inclusion almost seems an afterthought. The structure of the game is much more like the Layton series, but the puzzles aren’t really up to snuff. Outside of the protagonist duos, the game does nothing to leverage the rest of these games excellent cast to help fill out the story. Finally, when it comes down to it, often this game just isn’t all that well written; a big problem when the game is essentially a visual novel.

It starts with Professor Layton and Luke having a girl show up on their doorstep in some sort of trouble. It is the starting point of most Layton games. Trying to help her out, Layton and Luke get pulled into a deeper mystery. And they get pulled into a mysterious book. At the same time, Phoenix and Maya travel from Japan America to England to learn from their legal system. When he gets there, he discovers that he has been put in charge of a case, a case involving the girl that Layton and Luke were protecting. After winning the case, Nick and Maya also get sucked into the mystery.


While there are several cases for Phoenix to try, they are mostly unsatisfying affairs. Mostly because the legal system in the witch trials is pointless. It is annoying to use logic when the system itself ignores it. The rules in a regular Ace Attorney game don’t exactly make sense, but they are consistent. Cases build up to their conclusions. Here they tend to just go on until someone else admits to the crime. No matter how effectively you prove your client innocent, unless you can pin the crime on someone else it doesn’t matter. Yes, they are witch hunts; they have to find someone to blame things on, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying experience.

My complaints about the Layton portions are less pronounced. A lot of the puzzles are less brainteasers and more trial and error. There are also fewer of them than the usual Layton game. They are actually tied into the game more organically than usual, but at the cost of some of the Layton’s series unique charm.


Outside of a cameo by Inspector Chelmey and Constable Barton, the supporting cast is all new. In a lot of ways this is a good thing, it lets the game tell its own story and build an organic way for these characters to interact. Still, the crossover appeal would have been stronger if they would have dug just a little deeper. Why does Flora constantly get shoved aside? Why couldn’t Gumshoe have shown up to bumble around with Chelmey and Barton? Maybe a role for Miles Edgeworth? While they definitely should not have been allowed to take over the game, a few more familiar faces would have been appreciated. Another problem is that the investigation group expands to five people, all of which have to give their two cents at every opportunity. It slows the pace down, particularly since Maya and Luke don’t really have much to do for the bulk of the game.

There are plenty of good things, though. The overall scenario is solidly entertaining, with a suitably Layton-esque escalation near the end. Both Layton and Phoenix get their chances to shine; opportunities to bring their unique skills to the fore. Plenty of the new characters are highly entertaining. There are some interesting advancements to the trial system as well. While letting the player cross exam multiple witnesses at once is kind of ludicrous, allowing the player the use pieces of testimony to point out contradictions to other witnesses is a nice touch.


The game is pure fan service for fans of both series. It doesn’t make either of is separate parts better, but it doesn’t diminish them enough to make them unenjoyable. Plus, there is a good chance that this is the last we see of either of these protagonists. The Layton series is headed off to the unexplored territory of Layton 7, which is not going to be like the previous games in the series. And the Ace Attorney series is heading into the past for Great Ace Attorney, with Sherlock Holmes as a supporting cast member as they try cases in Japan’s America’s Meiji Period. Professor Layton Versus Phoenix Wright is not a perfect game, but it is a fine send off for two of the best new video game characters of the last decade.

Defending the Wii’s Legacy

Despite being the highest selling console of the last generation, I’ve noticed lately that the Wii has the reputation of being a failure. This is very wrong. While the Wii might not have the best library of games, it does have a particularly unique and varied one. The Wii is a console with more delightful experiments than outright masterpieces. Once the player moves past Nintendo’s first party offerings, separating the wheat from the chaff can be difficult, I know. However, there is a lot of good wheat to be harvested from the Wii’s crop of games. Not all of them are for everybody, but there are a ton of really good games. I really hate to see the system remembered as a novelty console with crap games. I am going to take a stand against this misrepresentation. This is the battle I choose to fight; this is my hill to die on.  No really, I just think it is a cool system with a bad rep.


You have to start with Nintendo’s not inconsiderable contribution to their cause. No one else may have been putting their A-Team on Wii games, but Nintendo had probably their best slate of first party titles since the SNES. Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy 2 are both absolute gems; two of the best games ever made. New Super Mario Bros Wii may not be quite that great, but there is little to match the joy of simultaneous 4-player Mario. The Zelda series had both Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, each a somewhat flawed but still terrific game. While I acknowledge the troubles some people have with the controls, I will defend Skyward Sword to my last breath; that game is amazing. The system had a new Punch Out!! game and two Kirby games. It had Metroid Prime 3, the Prime Trilogy release and Other M (which as bad as it is as far as story goes, still plays fairly well). They put out a whole host of solid Mario sports and party games, a bunch of high quality casual titles like Wii Sports, Big Brain Academy and Endless Ocean. They published a good handful of RPGs like The Last Story and Xenoblade. The point is Nintendo simply killed it with will software on the Wii, even if they were determined to leave a lot of the interesting stuff in Japan.

The games not from Nintendo are much more hit or miss, but there is still a lot of good stuff across a ton of genres. The Wii gave a lot of developers a chance to try new things and bring back some old things. There are ton of great Point and Click Adventure games. Many of them are also available on PC, sure, but the ubiquity of the Wii seemed to be a factor contributing to the genre’s resurgence. Thanks to the wiimote working like a light gun, there are also a ton of rail shooters, like House of the Dead Overkill. Some people tried to bring popular genres like FPSs to the console, with some success in games like The Conduit and Red Steel 2.


The point of this wasn’t supposed to just be listing Wii games that are largely good. I could do that for a long time; there are tons of them. This is outlining a new mission statement. I want to use this blog to put a spotlight on Wii games. I want to highlight the excellent software that exists for the console. If I am being honest, this is partially motivated by the fact that a lot of these games are really cheap right now, so picking up interesting sounding title to see how good they actually are is not a cost intensive venture. It is easier to explore a system’s library when the bulk of that library can be had for next to nothing. This is an informal project I am going to keep at for some time. At least until I figure out to capture video so I can start my “SNES kid plays Genesis” series. My goal, such as it is, it to write about at least one unheralded Wii game a month for the foreseeable future.

Persona 2: Innocent Sin


Persona 3 FES is the game that got me into the Shin Megami Tensei mega series. I had been aware of the series before that, but I had never had the opportunity to play any of the games before.  I knew about Persona 2 Eternal Punishment for PS1, but I never saw it in the wild.  The same goes for Nocturne.  Even if I had encountered them, there is a good chance that I would have passed on them; I don’t tend to be a fan of stuff that is “dark.”  But I had heard enough good buzz about Persona 3 that when the re-release was happening I made sure to snag a copy.  It was a great decision.  Since that I had purchased nearly every SMT game, most of them right at launch.  Unfortunately, I often find the games to be as draining as they are enjoyable, so they tend to sit on my backlog.  I bought Persona 2 Innocent Sin for the PSP even though I didn’t own a PSP (my brother did and I did have inconsistent access to it, but I didn’t have one of my own).  It sat on my shelf untouched until a couple of weeks ago.  That was a waste.  I don’t consider P2: IS to be as good of a game as the PS2 Persona games, but it was still an excellent experience.

Persona 3 pulled me in with a solid, thoughtful story.  Yes, it relied plenty on anime clichés, but it was still a well-constructed narrative.  Plus, the Social Links systems let the player feel in control of the protagonist without actually giving the player any control.  The plot is going to play out the same regardless of how the protagonist spends his free time.  Persona 3 kept me playing for 90+ hours with an excellent battle system.  It was tough but almost always fair.  It was all about knowing and exploiting enemy weaknesses while hiding your own.  There were some problems, like the fact that the player only controls the main character, leaving the rest of the party in the hands of the occasionally moronic AI, but it was largely a fine system.


Persona 2 Innocent Sin does not match an excellent plot with a great battle system.  The battle system part fails utterly to hold up its end of that bargain.  The story of Innocent Sin is one of my favorite game stories I’ve ever encountered, but the battle system is at best a distraction and at worst a serious flaw.  It seems interesting at first, but it manages to be both complex and unchallenging.  There are a lot of factors at play with the battle system.  Each character can equip a persona, but they have different levels of compatibility with each of them, other than each characters main persona which only they can use.  However, other than being able to use a persona or not the compatibility doesn’t really matter that much. It costs a little more MP to cast with a poor compatibility, but MP refillers are easy to come by.  Each persona has eight levels and they learn new skills as they level up.  Using them, especially in combo attacks, levels them up.  It is necessary to get them leveled up to be useful, but it also discourages experimentation.  You don’t want to get all new personas just to have no skills.  Learning those combo attacks either requires the player to experiment extensively or to already know about them.  The other big part of the battle system is talking to demons.  This is necessary to get cards needed to make new personas, but mostly it is just tedious.  Some of the interactions between the demons and your party can be very amusing, but once you realize that the demons react the same way every time it starts to feel like a chore.  There are two big flaws with battle system.  The first problem with all of this is that the game is so easy that the player doesn’t really need to learn more than a couple of attacks and then can just cheese through most of the game.  It is just too easy.  The other is that the encounter rate is ridiculous.  You can hardly take two steps without getting drawn into another too easy battle.  It drags the pace of the game to a terrible halt.


The problems with the battles are mitigated with how great the story is.  I don’t want to spoil it too much, but it is just great.  It manages to have well written complex characters and a just balls-out crazy plot.  The game starts with protagonist Tatsuya fixing his motorcycle at school.  After meeting with his teacher, he has a run in with Lisa, a classmate.  She tells him that there are rumors going around about terrible things happening to people who wear the school symbol on their uniform.  Their investigation leads them to a Michel, a punk from the rival school.  Events at that meeting set those three searching for the truth behind the rumors that are becoming true.  Soon they are joined by Maya and Yukino, two reporters looking into the same thing.  Soon it becomes apparent that group has a deeper connection.  Each character has is complex and multifaceted.  Michel tries his hardest to be cool, though deep down he is really insecure and Maya hides her fear behind constant upbeat cheeriness.  They form a genuinely likable party.

Those rumors they are investigating are where a lot of the fun comes in.  It starts as stuff like inter-school rivalries and disliked Principals wanting to be respected and girls claiming they are a pop group.  Soon it escalates to secret societies, ancient prophecies and hidden Nazis.  Just when you think the game has hit maximum craziness, it finds another gear.  It all manages to be justified by the game’s central premise that someone is making rumors come true.  This power gets progressively stronger, so more and more outlandish rumors start becoming real.


Then there is the ending, which is something of a gut punch.  But it does set up the second half of this game, Persona 2 Eternal Punishment.  I’ve got that off of PSN and am eager to see how this story ends.  My only fear is that the localization isn’t up to snuff.  Atlus may be the king of the localization game now, but they weren’t quite there back in the late ’90s.  Just look what happened with the first Persona game.  I am certain the EP is better than that, but I wish the PSP remake would have made It over here, though I understand why it didn’t.  Still, it is half as entertaining as Innocent Sin was, I am sure it won’t matter too much.

The Cruelty of The Office


When I wrote about Parks and Recreation, what was most striking to me was how nice everyone was, that the characters on that showed seemed like actual friends. That contrasts sharply with Parks & Rec’s sister show, The Office. For a comedy, The Office is downright mean. The characters on The Office, for the most part, do not like each other. At all. Though they do grow closer as the show progresses, for the most part the feeling is one of forced toleration, with little affection. Other than some specific relationships, if these characters could never see each other again, they would be perfectly happy. Aside from that, the show puts the characters in awful situations and forces the viewer to watch every uncomfortable, painful moment. That meanness is what makes the show great. One of the big changes from the US version of The Office compared to the British originator is that is it a nicer take. After The Office stopped aping the original and found its own tone, it really came into its own. It became a more pleasant, hopeful experience but didn’t abandon its cruelty entirely.

The bulk of the shows meanness was directed at boss Michael. He was also the source of a lot of the meanness. Even after they sanded off many of his worse qualities, he is still socially awkward and deluded. He is just more pathetic than cruel. His complete lack of self-awareness made many seemingly ordinary situations exceedingly uncomfortable. Especially when it came to his relationship with Jan. It was such a terrible pairing, one deluded man desperate for love and one woman going through some kind of midlife crisis. At first it was just Michael’s overestimating the meaningfulness of their relationship. He thought it was true love; she viewed it as a cathartic, ill-advised fling. As the show went on, events forced Jan and Michael closer together, right up until we got the two of the meanest episodes on the show. The first is the House Party. Michael was constantly inviting Jim and Pam to have dinner with him and Jan. Jim, wisely, constantly put him off. Until Michael forced his hand, leading to the worst dinner party ever. While Jim and Pam plot an escape, Michael and Jan argue and display their wholly dysfunctional relationship. Jan has two of the bedrooms converted into an office and a workspace. Michael sleeps on a bench at the foot of the bed. It is just so awful. While Michael brought this on himself by forcing the issue, both with Jim about the party and Jan with the relationship, you still feel bad for how terrible the whole situation is. The situation is not helped by Dwight crashing the party with his former babysitter as a date. Then there is The Deposition. There Michael is called to testify in Jan’s wrongful termination suit against Dunder Mifflin. There he is forced to sit and watch as the woman he loves and the company he loves both show how little they think of him. Jan reads his diary for the record; they bring up his employee evaluations. For a large portion of the episode the viewer just watches as all that Michael loves is torn down around him.

The true nadir of cruelty in The Office is the episode Scott’s Tots. Long ago, Michael promised to pay for college for a class of students if they graduated high school. Now, on the eve of their graduation, he has to go back to the school and tell them that he doesn’t have the money to pay for anything. Instead of just coming out and saying it, it puts it off as long as possible. The situation gets steadily more uncomfortable as Michael watches them celebrate the contribution that he knows he can’t make. It is a perfectly miserable half hour. The show does dole that cruelty out in smaller doses as the show goes on, but it is almost always forcing the characters to face their worst fears. Upright, conservative Christian Angela ends up married to a closeted gay man. Ryan makes a meteoric rise in the company, but makes horrifically bad choices.

The show does bog down in the later seasons, with Season 7 rushing around to deal with the impending loss Michael and Season 8 dealing with the albatross of Robert California. Really, I love James Spader, but Robert California is a terrible character that takes up too much screen time. But Season 9 rights the ship, so the show goes out on a high note. It largely brings back the tone of Seasons 2 & 3. While by and large the characters are finally allowed to become friends, there is still a lot of genuinely earned drama. Jim and Pan experience relationship troubles when he helps start a business in Philadelphia. Unlike when most TV shows put strain on a couple, this feels truly earned. Jim and Pan argue while staying true to the characters as they had been established for the previous 8 seasons. It is great TV. It also has a maturing Dwight and the disintegration of Angela’s entire life, two solid B plots.

The only fly in the ointment is Andy Bernard. Andy went out on a high note in Season 8, having been broken down as Regional Manager after risking everything for his love Erin before saving the company, and his job, by going to previous CFO David Wallace and getting him to buy Dunder Mifflin. Season 9 throws all of that out the window. Andy quickly abandons the job and girl he fought for the previous season. (I know Ed Helms had to leave to film a movie, but they could have written him out in a better way) He comes back arrogant and vindictive. Andy was always a malleable character, but never this awful. It is hard to watch a character that had been largely sympathetic turn into a villain. It is that cruelty that made the show, but this time the situations feel a little more forced than usual.

The cruelty that had been the shows hallmark makes Finale so memorable, because it lacks it entirely. It is pure saccharine, right down to Erin finding her birth parents. The show always had those moments, the times when joy would surpass the mundane drudgery that makes up the bulk of the show. The best example is the last bit of season 3, when Pam cries to the camera congratulating Jim on his probably promotion only to have him walk in and ask her out on a date. While the cruelty made the show funny, those moments made it memorable. Finale tries to make a 50 minute episode that is just those moments. It nearly succeeds. Suddenly the cast becomes the viewers; their sadness at leaving the office is our sadness at saying goodbye to The Office. It also has one of the best lines in the series with Andy’s “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” That last episode is about saying goodbye to the good old days, and it leaves you feeling satisfied in a way that few shows do. While The Office was never as nice as something like Parks & Rec, in the end it turns out it wasn’t that cruel either.

Top 5 Friday Favorite Movies

Just about the easiest list to do. But since I was planning to do a lot of lists, I figured I’d get the easy ones out first. When I made these Top 5 Friday lists I had planned to get a full year’s worth of them before I started posting, but that project died pretty quickly.

These are my 5 favorite movies, with the one stipulation that I am not putting more than one movie of the same series on this list. That rule exists so that the list wasn’t all Indiana Jones and Edgar Wright movies.


5: Flash Gordon – I saw this movie sitting in a hotel room in South Dakota on a vacation to see Mt Rushmore. This movie is still the most memorable thing from that trip. It is nuts, pure campy, drug-induced, fever dream insanity.


4: Hot Fuzz – Any of the three movies in this loose trilogy (Shaun of the Dead and The Worlds End being the other two) could have filled this slot, but Hot Fuzz is the one I like best. It simultaneously a hilarious send up of buddy cop movies while also being a great buddy cop movie. There are so many layers that I was still finding jokes after a handful of viewings.


3: Porco Rosso – I don’t know that I would say that Porco Rosso is the best Miyazaki movie, but it is certainly my favorite. There is just so much beautiful scenery on display as Porco flies around the Adriatic and so many great characters.


2: The Princess Bride – This film has it all, action, adventure, romance, humor. Somehow it lets viewers know that it is all a story and still gets them to care about the characters. It is constantly destroying suspension of disbelief, but that only somehow strengthens it.


1: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – I know that many will question the choice of this over Raiders, it was a close call, but I get just slightly more enjoyment of each viewing of Crusade than Raiders. It is the perfect action comedy.

What I Read in August ‘14

I did a lot of reading in August. Fresh off of reading the latest Outlander volume, I decided to go back and quickly read through the series. I was really lost for the first half of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood and I wanted to jog my memory. I also continued with reading Sayers’ Wimsey books, which I’ve just about run out of at now, as well as some nonfiction and knocked another tome off of my stack of unread fantasy novels. It was a good month.


The Office of Shadow

Matthew Sturges

I mostly liked Sturges’ Midwinter. Its good parts were really good, but it was all around sort of uneven. Office of Shadows is of similar quality, though it is steadier; it doesn’t have the highs and lows in quality of its predecessor, but I’m not sure I liked it as much. Instead of being a fantasy Dirty Dozen, this is more of a fantasy spy thriller. Except in Midwinter the supposed suicide mission got started pretty much immediately, where the thriller stuff here takes a long time to get moving. The cast is also less enjoyable. Returning character Silverdun is still an interesting character, a man of many talents but filled with self-loathing. His new allies feel like missed opportunities. Sela is a girl trained from birth to kill and Ironfoot is lowborn soldier turned scholar who is plucked from his studies to become a spy. They are at least theoretically interesting characters, but the book doesn’t explore them and their motivations as well as they could. Ironfoot is almost ignored at times and Sela spends her time dealing with a completely uninteresting romantic subplot.

The big danger the Seelie elves, the “good guys” country, face is a weapon being developed by the Unseelie that could tip the balance of their Cold War. The thriller part of book is just too abbreviated. Too much of the book is taken up with the training. It takes just way too long to get the three agents to be agents. Then their spy mission is somewhat short and conspiracies and plots that precipitate the coming conflict are dealt with almost perfunctorily. The biggest problem is that the political situation between these two warring countries is not very well explored. It is hard to get a read on the stakes when the make-up of the conflict is so vague. Still, while I’ve spent most of my time complaining, I actually liked The Office of Shadow quite a bit. Silverdun is a great character, one who has already grown significantly in the last book and grows further here. And the world of Faerie here is interesting enough that I wanted to know more. The Office of Shadow is almost a great book, but it has enough flaws that it ends up being merely interesting.


Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn

Diana Gabaldon

I sped through books 2-4 of Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I’ve read them before; this was a speed reread just trying to jog my memory for what was going on heading into Written in My Own Hearts Blood. Plus, my interest in this series was rekindled by the TV Adaptation (see post coming … sometime soon). I do like each of these books, with Voyager likely being my favorite in the series.

Dragonfly in Amber is interesting because it is the one true tragedy, meant in the sense of genre and not judgment, in this series. It starts by letting the reader know that the happy ending from the first book did not last, then slowly showing how everything went wrong. It also feels like the end of the first chapter of this extensive saga. Most of the characters introduced in the first book are out of the series after this one, with the next book building up the supporting cast again. The sense of inevitability as things go wrong really helps it feel all the more tragic. Still, since it is tragic, it also tends to be an entry in the series that I am not too eager to revisit.

The third book, Voyager, is a pretty big shake up. The book ranges all over the place. It starts with a really neat section where in the present (actually 1968) Claire, Roger and Briana search for records of Jamie surviving Culloden is intertwined with Jamie’s first hand experiences in the 18th century. Once they track him to 1767, Claire does the inevitable and goes back again. After meeting Jamie in Edinburgh, Claire and Jamie’s adventures take them from Scotland to the Caribbean. It is a far reaching adventure that introduces a host of new characters to replace all the ones lost in Dragonfly in Amber. It is a long book, but one with several separate stories going on, starting with the search for Jamie, then Claire and him getting to know each other again and then their experiences in the New World. It is really just a load of fun.

Finally, Drums of Autumn is Briana and Roger’s book. It does have Clair and Jamie settling in the North Carolina wilderness, but the most compelling story is the romance between Briana and Roger. At first it is just her adjusting to living without either of her parents. Eventually, inevitably, Bree ends up also going back through the stones, followed closely by Roger. Drums of Autumn is not as tight a narrative as the previous three books. Aside from the first bit of Voyager, they each covered a relatively short time period. Drums takes place over the course of several years, time enough for Jamie and Claire to turn a bit of North Carolina wilderness into a thriving community. This is the first part of the American part of the series and the first where my memory of the order of events starts to get shaky.

Next month I hope to get through the next two. I am already at the point where I can’t remember what happened in which book, so the next few should be slower going than the more familiar ones.


The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved the Greece – And Western Civilization

Barry Strauss

This was an interesting look at the Battle of Salamis between the Persian Empire and the Greeks. It is a good primer to that conflict, giving the reader a good introduction to the big players in that fight and the political set up that lead to not only the war but the two sides’ manner of prosecuting it. It is hard to say much about nonfiction when you aren’t that familiar with the subject, and I’m not here. That is why one tends to read nonfiction, to gain understanding, which this book does a good job of imparting.  The writing style, though, is good. It is informative, but not dry. It tells it like a story, albeit one with research behind it. While there is enough uncertainty is events that long ago, The Battle of Salamis does a good job of presenting what happened along with a few likely scenarios for how it happened. In all this a good read.


Have His Carcase

Dorothy Sayers

Yet another Peter Wimsey mystery, this one being the second to feature Peter’s love interest Harriet Vane. Have His Carcase is one of the most enjoyable Wimsey stories. It starts with Harriet stumbling across a body while talking a walk along the beach during her vacation. Being a mystery writer and fairly versed in the ways of murder and murder investigations immediately gathers relevant details, which is fortunate since by the time she makes it to the police and the get back to the scene the body has went out with the tide. With Harriet involved in a murder, Lord Peter Wimsey is not going to be far behind. He shows up to help her investigate and renew his attempts to woo her. The two of them work together to get to the bottom of a case that involves a disappearing body, an uncertain time of death and victim with absurd Ruritanian notions.

While I’ve enjoyed Ms Vane’s other appearances, I think this one may be her best. She was mostly just the victim/suspect in her first appearance and in the later Gaudy Night she works separate from Peter almost the entire time. Here the two of them actually work together. They do have some nice chemistry. You can see her appreciation for his talents and exasperation with his idiosyncrasies. He has to try to help her without overwhelming her; to convince her that he is not just there to rescue her. I liked the contrast between their fledgling relationship with the sad and dysfunctional ones of the victim and her gigolo fiancé.

Now Playing August ‘14

I didn’t play a lot of games in August.  I played a few games for quite a long time a piece, but I didn’t really play that many different games.  Lots and lots of hours disappeared into Twilight Princess and Harvest Moon.


Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Shadow Wars – This is a strategy game along the same lines as Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics.  It plays somewhere in between those two games.  You control a squad of soldiers, each with different skills.  While the characters do level up, there isn’t much character building going on.  All of the characters skills are strictly linear.  The big problem with the game is that for most of it one of the characters can practically beat each map by herself.  The cloaked stealth unit Banshee has a knife that can one-shot most enemies and a special skill that lets her take an extra turn.  It is just unfair unless you are dealing with mechanical enemies.  Otherwise, it is a pretty solid game.


Ittle Dew – I kind of want to complain because it is just a real short Zelda clone, but it is also a real good Zelda clone.  Once I got used to the sword swing, the game was just smooth.  It is really funny and has some great animation.  The only problem with game is that it is very short.  There are three mini-dungeons, one big dungeon and the barest scrap of an overworld.  I finished it pretty quickly and it really left me wanting more. I guess that is a good thing.

Castlevania Symphony of the Nightwrote about it here

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princesswrote about it here

Pikmin 3wrote about it here

Harvest Moon Grand Bazaar wrote about it here.  I didn’t actually beat it, but I played a year and a half and feel pretty done with it.  I’ve grown a lot of crops and romanced my gal of choice.  I’m done for now, maybe forever.


Legend of Zelda Spirit Tracks – After I beat Twilight Princess I started in on this.  It is pretty much the same as the previous DS Zelda game, with some improvements and a few inexplicable steps backwards.  I won’t make a lot of progress until after I beat Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright, but it is next on the list.  I still intend to finish my 2nd Quest before the end of the year.  I’ve only got three games left, including this one.

Yoshi’s Island – I am slowly going through this game.  I really respect this game and how just well-made it is, but I don’t really like playing all that much.  It is just a little too slow and pokey.  I appreciate this game more than I like it.

Persona 2 Innocent Sin – This game is great.  The battle system is more complex than difficult, but the plot manages to be both really well written and absolutely insane.  I love it.  I’ll have more to say once I beat it.

Resident Evil 5 – I should have this finished before too long.  Wrote about it here.


Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails – I think I hate this game.  Not because it’s not a good game, but because I am terrible at it.  It is a kind of on rails shooter/platform game.  I’m just having a lot of trouble grasping the controls.  I understand what I am supposed to do, but I am simply unable to do it.  I think I will keep trying for at least the next week, before I give it up for Teslagrad.  Maybe I’ll get back to it at some point.

Pushmo World – I pushed some more mo’s, but there are plenty of mo’s to push in this game.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey – I played this last month, but I didn’t make much progress.  Unlike Persona 1, which I just kind of hate, I refuse to give up on this game.  I will not let it beat me.


Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright – I am so excited for this game.  It is two of my favorite series, both with hazy futures, combined into one last hurrah.  I have been excited for this game since it was announced almost four years ago.  I’m so happy.

Persona 2 Eternal Punishment – I’ll finish Innocent Sin soon and this one is next on the list.  I am determined to beat down my backlog of this series, but it is slow going.

Ys 7 – I’ve little experience with the Ys series, but I’ve heard good things about this game.  It is going into my PSP one I finish Innocent Sin.

Yakuza 4 – Last month didn’t work out, but this game it still high on my to play list.

Metal Slug Series – It has been too long.  I am going to set aside one weekend to play through my Anthology disc.