critical role and the tender gift of story

You want to know people care about the stories they tell you.

Even I do. I who take such pleasure in divorcing a text from its context; who resented so much, in school, having to wade through the tales of an author’s real life as backstory to what we read. I don’t want this, I would argue. I don’t care who they were. Like with musicians and live recordings, miring a work of art within its own time and culture trapped it, I thought, from flapping free and extending its reach beyond the narrow confines of the world in which it was produced. “I wasn’t in that world, I’m in this one, and this text is speaking to me NOW!”

Critical Role turns that decades-long prejudice of mine on its head, though. And it’s not as though I haven’t engaged with fiction whose creators are still alive! I’ve stood in line with shining eyes waiting for David Mitchell to sign a book, swallowing the lump in my throat as he bought, with doodles, time for my husband to speak to him through his stutter. I’ve blushed five shades of crimson when Guy Gavriel Kay stumbled onto my post about A Song for Arbonne, and read it. I’m aware that there are living breathing people in the world producing work I admire, and that they want me, us, people everywhere to do so.

But that this started out as a work of love rather than as a career, or a path to one…I don’t know, I guess that’s unfair. I’m not knocking people who pursue artistic projects in the hope of bettering themselves in other fields. But the fact that this artistic came about, like DM Matt Mercer says, as a gift to his players…like “all roleplaying games are”…and then for all of them to be willing to expand the number of people allowed into that world, by such great numbers…it’s generous. It feels generous, and in a way that in one’s adult life one doesn’t often have the luck of encountering.

So many of our interactions, after all, are a bridging of gaps, a drawing closer of hearts and of minds, and then a polite cough and a closed door. There are spaces we reserve only for a handful of people — thoughts or emotions, reactions or experiences we share only with those we love. Or only with a handful of select friends. And whereas childhood is about, or can be about, finding as many people as possible to explore those avenues with, adulthood is realizing how many of those avenues are closed to you. And about learning to take that with good grace.

But here, we are allowed in. Not just as paying spectators, even, but as participants of a kind whose welfare…matters, I guess? I dare you to come to any other conclusion after watching DnD Beyond’s interview with Mercer about the end of the campaign. He attaches a hope to this project, above and beyond any success it may create for himself and the cast. All of the cast’s interviews speak to this — and they are all fantastic — but I point to his because he addresses it the longest. (And to be honest, because his crying is infectious.) It isn’t just a hope that the story pleases people. It’s a hope that…people become better as a result? That people are better to each other and themselves as a result? But such sentiments come from somewhere utterly un-self-righteous. Wishing to better people is an easy slogan to slap on your shitty website or church pamphlet. It’s harder to mean it, on- and off-camera. And yeah, I know, most of the 35k+ people watching (live) aren’t in a position to speak to the truth of that, but it kinda feels like he means it? Like they all do. He says he’s protective of this world, very much so, and for once, someone is saying it not out of a desire for IP infringement protection; the material concerns of lawyers and HR teams. He and they appear to mean it out of love. And out of the wish that good might come of it, bolstered by the knowledge that some good already has.

And that’s so goddamn touching. To be cared for, however tangentially, and to be believed in as a possible agent of good in the world. The number of people willing to believe in you like that drops off drastically as you grow older. It’s absurdly moving to be told otherwise, long past the age when you were supposed to stop wanting it.

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critical role : friendship IS magic

What amazes me about Critical Role…the amazement I have yet to find anywhere else…is the choices made in real time in front of you, made without consultation or focus groups, and which choices frequently align with the most emotionally impactful way a scene could play out. I know, I know, this is what, in ideal situations, stories do for us. What live storytelling, which to a certain extent is what tabletop roleplaying is, does for us.

But the ideal and the reality so rarely conincide, and for a whole host of reasons that are tangential to my point. I have hesitated to write about the show — even when I knew it would be a blandly informative info byte, like the fact that the day after the first episode I watched I returned my cable box to my cable provider because I knew I didn’t need TV anymore, if I was now organizing my week around a livestream of a D&D campaign — because it seems, however incorrectly so, not my place. Like it would be rude, intrusive even. Because these people are more…real? I suppose it’s because we watch the team for so long, live (or at least filmed live), and that results in a level of candor, aural and visual, that one rarely receives, even from personalities one follows on social media. Maybe it’s that as I grow older and see the gap close between the person I wanted to be and the person I become, I’m ham-handedly protective of people who seem to be in that same boat with me. I see the chat fly by during streams and think “please no one read it, please don’t let it get anyone down.” It’s the internet and I assume there is nastiness and my fear is that, as it has for so many others, its fever pitch will become too shrill, and fame will become a spotlight to flee. “Please don’t go,” is my refrain, and I suppose I thought that I was helping, by not writing or talking about this group of people whom I very much wish remain doing this for as long as I can.

Hell, maybe it’s that I was accidentally punched in the nose by Darin De Paul and, as I laughingly texted my husband immediately afterward, I shall never wash my nose again.

But decisions that would, in other contexts, be filtered through layer after layer of PR, HR, focus groups, supervisors and supervisors of supervisors, and which likely would get called out and watered down as too mawkish, too sentimental, too this that or the other…they just fucking happen, here, and there is no veto, the emotional dial gets turned up to nine and no big executive (or internet mob-driven) hand is gonna turn it back down on you.

CRITICAL ROLE EPISODE 114 SPOILERS

When Vax unfurls his wings to embrace Keyleth, that is one of those moments. That’s what I was thinking about when I started this post. And also at the 5:03:10 mark, when he…uses a bonus action to look over his shoulder…and he describes what he sees. That’s where I diverge from everyone else I watch things with (barring my husband). That’s where, among peers, as I’m about to cry, someone will quip some inane piece of trivia or roll their eyes about “people pressing buttons” or give me some line about emotional manipulation. That, that level of emotion and my willful embrace of it, not to put too fine a point on it, is why making friends is hard. I want to feel things. And a lot of people my age are deciding they don’t.

So, okay, there’s that.

But in searching for those time stamps I stumbled onto image captures of a moment I missed. Not because I wasn’t watching but because I wasn’t seeing. I knit in front of Critical Role, and I was doing so last night. Not thoughtlessly — I remember where I knit things and what I was doing, and it brings me comfort later, to wrap myself in a shawl and think that when I put those stitches next to each other I was sitting next to someone who, for example, is now dead, and whom I loved. I did this deliberately, you understand — I thought, in the future, I could remember the warmth of these moments spent watching this show, while wrapped in the shawl against the cold.

But because I was knitting, I missed a moment that went mostly unnoticed by the microphones, and thus by me.

When Scanlan burns his ninth level spell to counterspell Vecna — the god-in-the-making, for those of you who don’t watch the show, who has killed multiple family members of the party, in pretty terrible ways — it is an instant and un-nullifyable success. But by choosing to go to that max level, he has lost his chance to use Wish at that tremendous level — and this is why he was hanging onto that spell slot. Because he hoped to use Wish to save Vax, who is doomed to die as soon as Vecna goes down. He died before, but his patron goddess granted him a reprieve, in order to rid the world of Vecna. After that, though, his eyes have to close for good.

And because I wasn’t watching the screen, I didn’t see this:

I just…just…fuck.

notcrying

He just wanted to save his friend and now he can’t and he — he who is not typically, on the show at least, the one crying? — is crying and tries to hide it behind his hands, his giant mug, and…as someone who writes freely about tearing up but tries ferociously hard to avoid being caught doing it…for all the reasons mentioned above…I just. Oh god, oh god, oh god. I didn’t see that. There’s a whole whispered conversation you can read on their lips on-screen, the crux of which is:

“I was saving my wish for you.”

* * *

Neither my husband nor I have any friends who watch Critical Role. I got him into it after I read the Polygon article about the show — after I ditched our cable. But I knew he was loving the same things in it I did when he said, apropos of nothing whilst driving to the grocery store, that that kind of squad, having one, was just fucking awesome. He doesn’t know #squadgoals, but that’s exactly what he was talking about. And this is perhaps more moving, even, than the romantic plotlines doomed to crash to an end as a result of this loss. It’s the loss, too, of a friendship.

We’ve theorized on why we can’t get groups like this together. He points out his growing fatigue with the kneejerk, lambasting criticisms currently aflower amongst our generation. I point out my shitty track record at befriending women, leery as I always am of them intuiting that I am bi, lest they high-tail it as they have (three times) in the past. We both acknowledge that we, at least until recently, live in a part of the country where values tend to be a good deal more conservative than our own; and the degree to which your hearts then align, despite your best efforts, is affected.* And that neither of us grew up in cultures where carefree physical affection — hugs, head pats, etc. — was a thing. Mostly, we figure, we are too old. People’s emotional drawbridges are up by their thirties, and they’re not accepting new adventurers to the castles.

door

It may be something else too, though. We may just be too guarded in our affection. There are plenty of people I’d save a Wish for, but it’s easier for them not to know it. Like being seen crying, it can be — it IS — easier to be on someone’s side without them seeing. You can’t get kicked off the team if no one knows you’re there. In my old office I took the seat by the door, and the always-hot teakettle, in case we had an active shooter situation. My boss knew this but let me keep the seat. They were my people, yes, even the assholes. I almost tackled my boss to the ground once when both of us misinterpreted a nail gun as a firearm. Years ago, when our school district sent around pink slips like candy, I penned righteous letters of praise for all of my teachers and mailed them, unsigned, to the principal to try and protect them. Like with crying, it is easier to love people from a safe distance, unseen.

That is what we love most about Critical Role. That the affection isn’t hidden or wrapped up carefully in snark or sarcasm — both more acceptable trappings, today. It’s out there. It’s visible on people’s faces — it’s running down them. It’s like every bullshit JRPG holding up friendship as the ultimate goal of a story, come to life.

And, because it’s real, it’s not bullshit.

*Also, we may be bad at making this matter less.

mother tongue

aquarium

I wanted to write a post about reading The Handmaid’s Tale as a teenager. How it was my mother who encouraged me to read it, when it came up as an option in school.

But I don’t remember enough.

I can’t tell her about it, now. She doesn’t know it anymore. Might not know me. But I recall not wanting to read the book, namely because I didn’t want to listen to my classmates, like the guy who told me I should fuck dogs if I thought fucking women was okay, weigh in on it. I didn’t want to read it but I did anyway, because my mother so rarely weighed in on what we should or should not read, and she said I ought to read that.

I remember bringing up the butter as moisturizer — “how could you…?” — as an artless segue into a discussion about the ending. (Spoilers.) My mother walked a fine line between the Reviving Ophelia generation of mothers, rightfully concerned about their kids cutting or killing themselves; and the blatant pragmatism of someone who had already considered her future and decided that yes, there were worse things than death. This was accompanied by all these corollaries explaining that then and only then, only in such an environment as that, would it even be conceivable to–

–and I’d cut her off flatly, reminding her that…oh, I can’t remember the pet phrase I had for it. I had a pet phrase for everything. Something about not wallowing in a puddle of my own despair. I didn’t like — abhorred, even — the idea of her treating me even for a minute with kid gloves, as some fragile Ophelia in need of bookshelves’ worth of doctoral opinions about child rearing. (I don’t know where I got the idea that any parenting advice obtained from a book was bad, but there it was. Maybe I just hated the cover, how fragile it made us all look.) But I also wanted her to keep leveling with me the way she was doing, about Handmaid’s Tale. About rape, I guess, and suicide. As far as I knew, no one else’s mom was leveling with them on this — at least not honestly, without the cellophane wrappings of religion or dogma or someone else’s words getting in the way.

If I could watch it with her, I’d thank her for that. For not pretending these things don’t happen. Or that by not talking about them, you can keep them from happening to you. But I can’t talk to her about it, because she’s no longer herself. And I guess, to her, I’m no longer me, either.

IMG_1219

So, anyway. The choice of song during the credits made my skin crawl. Is there a term for one’s skin crawling in the face of too on-point juxtaposition? If someone comes up with one, do let me know. I will then apply it all the times I catch myself biking to or from work, in despair over not remembering a thing — the Italian Cypress species of tree, for example, or Jamie Fraser’s full name — even as I wait for updates from my father on my mother’s bedridden, unknowing, pain-wracked condition.

I was grateful to her for the words she shared with me, after all. It is only right to keep trying to shape myself with them until I go helplessly down the same road she did. Even as I remember her saying that there were, indeed, worse things than death.

I know, Mom.

there is no autopilot

As a kid, I kept waiting to become somebody else. It couldn’t be me that would graduate. That would go to college. I wasn’t that person. It wasn’t that I wasn’t capable of studying — I was a good student and loved school, at least until fifth grade. It wasn’t that I was sick. I was fine. But the part of me that felt “me” — that thought up games and read stories and wrote them — had nothing to do with degrees, bills or expectations. I kept waiting to divide, and send autopilot me forward to jump through life’s hoops, while real me hung back and did what mattered.

As a college student, I was still waiting to retreat to the backseat of my life. Everyone was so full of ideas of who I should be — professors saying I should study this or that; parents hoping I might study something a little more lucrative. Graduate school was the same — “study what I do, only slightly different, so you don’t impinge on my topic!” I wanted their attention and their accolades, so I complied. I studied what I was told to, with only slight adjustments to suit my fancy. I just wanted them to like me. When I did what they thought I should, I was rewarded with their affection, and I was content. Until they drifted off and away, impelled by their own lives elsewhere. So there I sat, with all this knowledge I’d acquired to impress them, and they were gone.

noticeme

Working life, same thing. I had no interest in this last degree I took as part of my job. I took it because my boss said I’d be good at it. I don’t know if I am or not. I thought was, but then everyone who said so left, and not many notice me anymore. I’m 30 now. It’s probably time to stop waiting to divide myself, one public version trotted out to do the boring things expected of adults, one private version reserved for the things I always found value in. I should probably resign myself to what I do, and that I’m the one having to do it, as one entity. It is the time of life to become introspective and depressed, our culture tells us. Sometimes gently, sometimes not.

Except…I’m not depressed. I never stopped doing any of the things I cared about. I just stopped talking about them. The older you get, the more careful you have to be about revealing the things you love to others. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing them. I always worried I would be a bad example to others; that people would hold me up as a cautionary tale. “Don’t become a boring adult like she did!” While it’s true that I would now tell younger me “hey, maybe don’t spend years obtaining a graduate degree in a field which doesn’t move you,” I’d also temper that advice with the acknowledgment that that graduate degree was free (they both were), obtained through fellowships only granted to me, I assume, because I bothered to do all the other boring things like show up and study and get enough sleep to be productive. Etc. etc. And that the stipend it granted me as I obtained it allowed me to subsist through the worst financial crisis to date in my lifetime.

And that…I don’t know. I traveled the world and chose where to feel home was. In this, I didn’t wait for someone to praise me for it, or tell me it was a good idea. (Often they said the opposite, ha.) I chose the people (and, sure, animals) in my life, and their permanence to the extent that I can influence that. Maybe I’m not such a cautionary tale.

realworld

A group of us talk a lot about the messages we received about 90s kids, re: the future. I don’t think it’s sensible to blame the well-intentioned media message of “you can do anything! reach for the stars!” for millennial angst. Messages written in bubble letters on your second-grade classroom bulletin board are not responsible for the sum of the decades that follow. But all the same, there may have been some unrealistic expectations set. Not so much re: the heights to which you might reach, but the heights to which you were supposed to aspire.

We were supposed to want to be great. To fix everything in one fell generational swoop. That is a fine (if necessarily unattainable) goal for a generation, but not for an individual. You can’t be the doctor who cures cancer AND the astronaut who saves the space station AND the rehabilitator of gorillas AND the guy who speaks 100 languages. But those were the goals that were lauded. Those were the goals that were held up as worth aiming for. Such goals were always accompanied by superlatives. The best, the brightest, the most. The most everything. But that’s a terrible goal. There will be nothing of you left, if you spread yourself so thin.

butter

That, I think, is the real hiccup of the (again, extremely well-intentioned!) messages broadcast to kids in the 90s. We may be able to reach the stars, sure, with enough work. But it shouldn’t be our goal to fling ourselves toward all of them — to stab our flag into every boiling mass of rock and gas out there and claim it as our own. To obtain — to demand! — every outcome.

all-the-things

No. Pick one. Let the rest fall aside. You don’t have to be the best and the brightest at everything. You don’t even — and I suppose this is where the originators of those heartfelt messages might balk the most — have to be the best and the brightest at anything. Your value is in no way dependent upon how you measure up to others, intellectually, financially or otherwise. Maybe in thinking as much I am too much the 90s kid still: the shows were just as fond, after all, of telling us how special and unique we all were. But, gooey good feeling aside, they have a point. Doing what you love while still managing to make enough to eat and obtain health care and shelter isn’t settling. It isn’t a cautionary tale. It means you’ve made it. You found one goddamn star and called it home.

Now take good care of your humble rock pirouetting through the galaxy, and try not to fuck things up for anyone else along the way.

captainplanet

complicity

Silence is violence, I know, and I am complicit.

For the second time in two weeks a tragedy has unfurled elsewhere in the world as Critical Role aired live — this time, for the first time, in front of a live audience. And, just like last week, the actors on-screen, working, remained unaware of the tragedy while I, observing form home with smartphone in hand, knew of it. And, like last week, I remained, closing my media channels to the tragedy and just…just cocooning myself in someone else’s laughter.

I’m not proud of it.

I’ve written to congresspeople. Signed things. I couldn’t march at the rally in my town — I had to work. But otherwise, I’ve tried. I’ve told the people I know whose thoughts are harmful how they hurt others. How they might change. I’ve boosted signals, worn tokens of solidarity. But I’ve saved no one, doing such things. And when the chance to retreat from a world on fire presented itself, I took it. Twice in a row, now.

Comics say it well, why they do what they do. They speak of laughter as something powerful, empowering. Life-affirming. But then, comics, typically, are speaking from very dark places when they do their work that makes others laugh. Mentally, I feel like they have already paid their dues, whereas I have not. I am not depressed or oppressed. I haven’t been assaulted — not in this country, anyway — or targeted. I haven’t suffered enough to earn a respite from reality.

But, again, I fell asleep in front of Critical Role, dozing in and out (it airs so late, here), never far enough not to follow along. Waking always to laughter, now not only of nine people but of hundreds. I fled there. I fled there. From what? From the hole I helped dig, by not fighting harder? By not convincing my father not to succumb to his nihilistic worldview? By not convincing my sister not to marry a warmongering racist? I’ve done nothing well enough to deserve a chance to escape the results of failure. Nothing right enough.

The AV Club ran an article today about Jon Stewart reuniting, however briefly, with Stephen Colbert, to cover the Republican National Convention. Its final line rang more bells than I wanted to hear:

“Stewart is one of several guests Colbert has lined up for the next two weeks of infighting and political deals (including Oliver), but we doubt many will be as reassuring as seeing the team that once made the world, if not fixed, then at least funny, teaming back up for a minute or two to take the edge off the nightmare we all find ourselves suddenly living in.”

No comic or actor ever claimed to be able to fix the world, but they at least made it bearable. I haven’t even done that. But I continue to take advantage of their offerings, because the alternative is too bleak. And there is no laughter there.

adulting, critical role, and mercy

My husband and I have friends. They are good people. But when the two of us met, in the dorms in college, it was as part of the fabric of your everyday existence that you met and made friends. Everything — your grades, your job, your relationships, your future — was woven into the tapestry of university life, and that included the friends that you made. They were immediately accessible. Hell, they were right across the hall. In a way not really experienced since you are six or seven or so — too young for playground politics to have divided you up into factions yet — friends are physically a part of your life. You pass them on the street and they ask about your test. They see you with a book and want to know if they should read it too.

Our experience was limited to university settings, but it’s not unique to that. My father experienced the same thing in the military, same age. When everything  and everyone around you is bent toward a more-or-less common goal, you are placed in a much better position to understand, empathize with, and ultimately befriend your peers. When the thing that brought you together ends, it’s not just that are  you scattered to the winds. It’s that the shared experience that enabled you to reach out to people so easily, to make so many of the correct assumptions about their willingness to engage with you, is over.

That’s what adulthood means, among other things. It is a cavernous loss. Maybe you’re too stressed and desperate for a paycheck and some sort of stability, at first, to notice it. But when you catch a chance to breathe you definitely will. Finding friends as an adult is incredibly difficult. All the paths to easy familiarity are gone. As a result, you have fewer friends.

Cackling along with me as the Critical Role party dissolved into laughter on their Twitch stream last night, my husband turned to me through his laughter. “Why didn’t we ever get a group together like this?” he asked. I’d been about to ask the same thing.

criticalrole

I, as usual, was late to the party on Critical Role. I heard about it through an article and tuned in. The next morning, I cancelled our cable TV subscription. If I was rearranging my schedule to catch Twitch feeds now , I figured, cable TV with its so very many layers between me and the people who could benefit from my viewership could bid farewell. (Besides, anything I wanted to watch I could stream through subscription services whose combined monthly payments remained far below a cable payment.)

I have played exactly one tabletop RPG in my life — a riotous game of L5R run by an experienced GM who awarded points for being the absolute shits were supposed to be, as members of the Scorpion clan — but not for lack of wanting to. I could just never find other people who wanted to play. My husband, too, has only played once, and was quickly frustrated by a GM too drunk to do more than fling endless hordes of orcs at a bunch of bored characters.

But both of us delight in the Critical Role exploits — yes, I know, like 20,000 others at a time. It’s the party you always wish you had, right? Enough variety of temperament and taste for awesome story without devolving into petty personal conflict. The saucy, ridiculously ribald bard, the emo druid, the emo rogue, the big lovable brute…I know, I know, everyone has said it before. They’re good at what they do and they did this for fun and now thousands of others can join in. But I guess I always assumed that most of the viewers could watch it and partake in a kind of recollection. “Oh this is like that time when…” “Oh man, he’s gonna make the same mistake I made in that game over spring break when I…” But we don’t have any of that. And more than just appreciating the improv aspect of it (which we very much do, having observed or served comedians in a comedy club for the better part of a decade), or the storybuilding, we spectate the camaraderie. The smirks, jeers and explosive bouts of laughter. We don’t get to resurrect any memories, watching this. There’s no past to look back on. There’s just the knowledge that a handful of people out there are a.) really good at this, and b.) really enjoying doing it. And we pine.

Then last night, when the guest turned out to be Patrick Rothfuss as he’d suggested it might be in his own Twitch stream Wednesday, we got to spectate something else. A writer surrounded by actors, all of them crafters of characters but in necessarily different ways. It was especially intriguing because I’d only first seen Rothfuss’s Twitch feed Wednesday. Prior to that, reading his books, I’d hazarded to imagine that he might seem…I don’t know, overtly earnest or gentle?…in person. But, as he said himself in his stream, he’s got a sharp tongue. Not on Critical Role, though. He was nervous and camera-shy, as I would be too. I wasn’t sure how much of it was that and how much was in-character. Until he got the chance to bring his character out and have The Talk with the druid Keyleth, then experiencing an existential crisis, and I began to pay way too much attention. This is a show, idiot, I told myself firmly. He’s a guest. He’s not talking to you. If he wanted to say anything to the legion of people of whom you’re a part, you should open one of his books. This is not for you. But I listened desperately anyway. “You’re not wrong,” his fatherly warrior tells the druid, of the mess that comes when she does right as badly as it comes when she does wrong. “You’re right. It’s hard. It’s not going to stop being hard, either. Not for a long time.” Comedians joke that people see them and cry “dance, monkey, dance!” In other words, make them laugh. Well, I see authors and want desperately for them to tell me how to be. “Advise, monkey, advise!” Because if everything was all right, I’d be laughing and joking around a table amongst a bevy of like-minded individuals. But it’s not. And I’m not. Please advise.

mercy

I may not be a beacon of charisma and charm in a party, or much of a good shot on the still-new-to-me PS4 controller (again, I was and remain primarily a PC gamer), but I can heal. And I do. More even than in ESO, where I’d recently begun rolling out the heals in a surprisingly enjoyable last-ditch effort to hold our keep in Cyrodiil. In Overwatch, though, I always play Mercy.

Like Dragon Age: Inquisition’s multiplayer mode, Overwatch has pre-recorded character voices and interactions, so the people you move around the map do come with their own verbal take on things. I settle for these, and turn the voice chat volume all the way down. I know better than to use the chat myself, and the only people I ever heard speak were either being dicks or had some horrible audio echo issue (enable push-to-talk, for the love of god!) that made the game unplayable for me. And I always play Mercy. At first it was because her caduceus staff auto-targets, and the PS4 controller was too new for me to be any good at aiming anything that didn’t auto-target. But even after I had a few good runs with Tracer early on (which I mention to point out I have zero qualms with being the dealer of damage in such games), I returned to Mercy. Because if you are good, people want to keep you alive. Because they need you. Because they thank you. Because your play of the day is when you bring three people back to life in a blaze of light, enabling your team to snatch a last-minute victory from the jaws of defeat.

As a rule, I never heal. Ever. I remember whining about the girl being stuck as the healer when The Guild first aired. I whine anytime a girl is the cleric, the priestess, the acolyte. I am not nurturing, I protest. I’m not nice. 

But I will heal the everloving fuck out of you.

I’m not part of a group of dashing voice actors whose exploits entertain thousands every week, and I couldn’t be. I’m not some storied PVPer known even beyond my own guild or server as a bringer of death (like Slade on vanilla WoW, for example), and I couldn’t be that either. I’m not a storied anything.

I do get an awful lot of thumbs-up emotes, though, when I damage-boost a Reinhardt atop a moving car, or fling myself off a roof to get a McCree back in line-of-sight for heals.

I’ll settle for those.

 

stop sheathing your wit, stephen colbert

dammitcolbert

We tried to watch Friday’s Late Show. We failed. Here’s why.

My husband is more forgiving than I. He’d been doggedly trying to keep up with Stephen Colbert’s new show for weeks. I, meanwhile, had abandoned it the week of the show’s obsession with the Pope’s visit. Less because of the presence of religion than because of the infantile fanboyishness attendant upon that religion as trotted out in the show. I kept hoping for him to turn a leaf and to have some useful critique or commentary on the Pope, but no–it was all unicorns, rainbows and choirboy anecdotes. Kthxbai.

However, we tried, last night, to make watching Colbert part of our routine again–namely because it would be better (I thought) than wrestling with the database I had to normalize by midnight. But it was awful. I’m just going to focus on one bit to explain why, though this unrealized potential is a hallmark of the entire hour, day after day, week after week.

The show turned its gaze to several recent revelations delivered by author J.K. Rowling about the Harry Potter series–that she wished she had paired Hermione with Harry, for example, or that Americans would call muggles non-mags. What the show could have turned its gaze to, and only made a half-hearted attempt at, was the ridiculousness of the media’s response to these revelations. In a brief montage of various too-excited morning talking heads, we got to see all sorts of people feign jaw-dropping shock at what were pretty empty epiphanies. “Mind. Blown,” they kept repeating, sometimes miming the explosion going on between their ears. It was ridiculous, and the show could’ve pointed that out in more than a 15-second montage.

Instead, we cut to a kitschy scene involving a camera filming up from the bottom of a cauldron in which Colbert, with the sprinkling of magic dust onto a staged Hedwig-delivered letter, further revelations about the series. The scene was filmed live, not pre-recorded and then played at the key moment, so it may have just spawned from a desire to break out the desk camera. But such desires, if backed up with nothing creative behind them, should be squashed.

Which did not happen here. Instead we got to listen to Colbert expound upon all sorts of harmless fake revelations about Potter, from Snape’s full name (Snapple, har har) to the news that Harry Potter had been seen kissing his own patronus (okayyyy). The flaw here isn’t that these revelations were harmless. It’s that they weren’t funny. They read as some middle schooler’s list of Weird Things That Might Happen in Harry Potter, doodled on notebook paper in front of the lockers before class started for the day. Nothing funny enough to put on national TV. Not by a long shot.

The toothlessness of the jokes was made worse by the inclusion of two lines that were far from toothless–and which showcased all the more keenly what the show could be doing. In criticizing one anchorwoman’s comment that the “t” in Voldemort had been revealed to be silent, “like Colbert,” Colbert listed a bunch of similarities between Voldy’s imagined evil empire and America, stating that they aren’t so different–“after all,” he adds, cutting to a map of Cuba with Guantanamo Bay clearly labeled, “we have our own Azkaban.”

“Holy shit!” I cried, turning to my husband. “This show just became relevant again!” A beat later, Colbert glanced at the map and waved a wand, lilting “Arabo disappearum!” Holy shit indeed.

That is what they should have been doing the entire time. That cuts both ways. That provides meaningful critique, to somewhat counterbalance the feckless jaw-droppery of the newspeople in the earlier montage. Why would you not do that the entire bit? Why would you not put whoever came up with those lines in charge of the entire cauldron routine, and put something with actual weight in there? Colbert is pulling his punches, time and again, trying to appeal to a demographic who the network seems to imagine is too old, tired or dumpy to appreciate biting humor. I don’t know who these people are supposed to be, but I doubt they’re watching.  Familiar with the Colbert of old, they likely never tuned into the new show in the first  place. And this attempt to appeal to them, to bring them back with lame jokes and gimmicky camera angles and utterly shit amounts of social critique, is ruining the show for the people who poured over in droves for the old Colbert.

It is true that there are a number of biases working in me already–a preference for stand-up over improv, for one, and strong affinity for gritty confessional humor instead of third-party point-and-laugh fluff. My husband tended bar in a comedy club for six years; I grant that it (and the free tickets that came with it) colored my expectations in the humor department. But you don’t have to keep it clean and still say absolutely nothing. Look at Jackie Kashian. She should be the polar opposite of Amy Schumer (whom I adore), avoiding as she does next to all talk of itchy assholes, unseemly communicable diseases, or the questionable endowments of previous ex-boyfriends. It should be too clean for me. And yet then, in the middle of your laughter, Kashian can suddenly be referencing–reaaaally delicately, keeping the focus only on her to the point where trigger warning obsessives should hold their damn tongues–the act of being molested as a kid on a bus, and the lasting upset that results from that. And the first time I saw this was definitely a “holy shit” moment. Because the way she does it, I’m still laughing at the bit, but I’m also laughing a little hysterically with relief because she’s talking about being groped by some piece of shit on a bus and I was too and she’s okay so that means I should be too and and and. And it’s NOT toothless. It’s clean but it’s not toothless.

Colbert used to be able to do that. Now he won’t let himself. No, I don’t blame the network; I think he has enough power to push the envelope if he wanted to. But he doesn’t. He’s content to keep pulling his punches. To sheathe them in the bubble-wrap of shitty jokes.

And I’m not taking an hour out of my day to watch that. I’d rather go see Jackie Kashian or watch Amy Schumer or Louis CK on HBO.

People with guts. We need them.