5 Things I Learned About People From Their Hatred of True Detective Season Two

ps td velcoroRay Velcoro was my kind of guy. He drank a lot, was haunted by personal demons, regretted most of his life, and made bad decisions. I loved him. He had longish hair that was usually greasy, a nice mustache, and he wore a bolo tie. This is a character I cherished for eight marvelous episodes of True Detective Season Two, which I rank up there with my all time favorite television series seasons (it’s a privileged area to be in, populated by things like The Wire Season Three and the first season of The Sopranos).

But thanks to the Internet, I have learned something that, to me, is a bit shocking: I am pretty much all alone in my undying love for True Detective Season Two. As it turns out, most people fucking hated it. With a passion. And, in addition, they hated Ray Velcoro, and that hurts.

So that got me thinking. How could this show that I considered absolutely brilliant and adorable (yes, adorable) be so loathed by the general public. I couldn’t get my head around it at first, even after I read lots of negative reviews. Why all the hate, people? After thinking about it for some time, I believe I have pinpointed five things that I learned about the taste of the general public, and how they led to the bizarre hatred of a show that I believed to be truly excellent. What does the strong disliking of TDS2 say about public opinion? Here’s what I decided:

ps td caspere1. People care A LOT about story.

The plot of True Detective Season Two revolved around some rich guy that was found dead on a bench with no eyes and his crotch blown off. The basic storyline revolved around finding the person that killed the guy. Now, I have to admit something right away – I never really cared about the identity of the killer. Or the motive. I mean, I understood that this was the thing driving the plot, but I was much more interested in enjoying the mood and the atmosphere and the interactions between the characters. If the season ended with no killer being unmasked, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference to me.

But man, oh man, in reading the reviews of the show, I was surprised to see just how frustrated a lot of the reviewers were with the storyline. They were unhappy because it was confusing. And it meandered. And when they started to realize the story, well, wasn’t all that good, they tuned out. They got bored. I think this was the common reaction to the show. The general audience cared way more about who killed Ben Caspere (and who shot Velcoro while wearing a hilarious bird mask) than they cared about if Velcoro was a good or bad person, or if Frank Semyon (the Vince Vaughn character) could outsmart everyone before falling into a downwards spiral that would likely end in his death.

This seems to be what killed TDS2 – the story wasn’t interesting enough to most people. The way the season kept getting endlessly sidetracked (Velcoro’s paternity test, Ani Bezzirides and her hippie father, Semyon trying to figure out how he lost everything, Woodrugh’s closeted homosexuality) wasn’t fun and fascinating like I thought it was. No, it was annoying, because it didn’t push forward the all-important central narrative.

ps td semyon2. People need some kind of comic relief

Let’s face it. TDS2 was not very interested in being funny. Now that said, I personally found it pretty hilarious at times, but that was more in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. There were very few jokes in the show (apart from Vince Vaughn’s corny one-liners that were admittedly cringeworthy) (I loved them) and none of the character possessed anything remotely close to a sense of humor.

And this is important. People need that. They need a break from the gloom and doom. They need Pinkman and Pinkman’s stoner friends and Sal to come in and be funny. Otherwise, it’s depressing.

What’s that you say? You enjoy depressing? Well, me too. Not many others though. TDS2 offered no moments of levity, and that got to people.

ps td bar3. People take things very literally

Now, here, I’m going to get into some specific complaints I’ve seen come up numerous times, and how I feel these complaints say more about the inability of the general audience to see television for the medium that it is (manipulative and aware) then they really say anything about the show.

First, I want to talk about the singer in the bar. You know the one, the girl with the long hair that strummed her jangly guitar and sang really bummed-out death songs. People hated her. HATED her. What surprises me, though, is that people took that character (if you can even call her that) pretty literally. They were annoyed that she was always there, and I’ve read things along the lines of ‘no bar would ever let that person perform’ or ‘someone pull the plug from her microphone.’

See, to me, the bar singer was not really supposed to be there, due to how goofy her performances were and the fact that she was there whenever anyone went into the bar, regardless of the time of day. To me, she was an ominous doomsday figure that operated something like a visualization of the show’s score, or a whimsical touch in which they cast a person to be the soundtrack (and, really, her gloom and doom was so over the top, it really cracked me up). Which isn’t to say the writer and director were brilliant to create her character…it’s just to say, you know, recognize it for what it is (or could have been). She’s mood. She’s the personification of the characters’ deep seeded demons. She’s a filmmaker having fun. But the general audience doesn’t care about any of that: to them, she’s just a shitty and irritating singer in a bar.

ps td velcoro sonThe second example of taking things too literally comes from the complaint I’ve read in a few places that Velcoro’s son doesn’t look like him or the mother. Or a combination of the two. He’s fat and redheaded and doughy and that’s a flaw in the show because, since he IS their son, he should look at least a little bit like them.

I would counter this by saying that this is fun casting on part of the filmmakers. The creators know that you’re looking at the kid actor and trying to see if he looks like Colin Farrell. So they’re fucking with you. Apart from casting an Asian kid or something, they’ve cast someone who looks as far from Colin Farrell as possible, for the sole purpose of keeping you guessing. I found it amusing. Everyone else, it seems, was pissed off.

Television is different from other mediums because it’s really, really able to anticipate what an audience is thinking. They control what the characters look like, how they dress, the lighting you’ll see them in…and because of that, they can play with you a little bit. Mess with you. I strongly feel that the singer in the bar and the casting of Velcoro’s son are two examples of this kind of playfulness (as was the Velcoro shooting that ended episode two/began episode three that people also found unforgivably irritating) and because people just want straight forward storytelling, they become (in that context) damning flaws.

ps td aerial shot4. Any artistic touch that doesn’t quite work is death

So, as I’ve said, I’ve read a lot of reviews. Time and time again, the same complaint was echoed over and over.

The aerial shots of the city. What was up with them?

Again, to return to my personal experience watching the show, yes I noticed the aerial shots, but I didn’t really think much of them. I kind of tuned them out, to be honest with you. Of all the things I could talk about regarding the show, the aerial shots were low on my list. With others, not so much.

It was an artistic decision on the director’s part – an attempt to capture the vibe or labyrinthine quality of the city – and, sure, I’ll grant it to you that it didn’t work all that great. But wow, that ruined the show? Something that amounted to maybe five minutes out of eight hour long episodes?

Oh, but I forgot. It didn’t drive THE STORY forward. And it was different and maybe a little overly stylish, and if you do something like that, then you’re screwed. If you’re going to make a mistake, then do one like Breaking Bad did with the fly episode. Have the characters talk a lot and claim you’re trying to develop them. Because if you do anything that doesn’t advance the story or develop the characters, you could seriously lose the audience.

ps td woody5. We live in a culture where identifying with a work is of the utmost importance.

Sorry to sound like a broken record, but I want to go back to those reviews one last time. Over and over again I read about how Woody Harrelson made season one so good because he represented the audience. He was a normal dude. A dude that asked the questions the audience wanted to ask and acted as our mouthpiece. He represented us. We could identify with him.

This seems to have become the single most important thing in film and television (and maybe even literature, too): the audience must feel an ability to identify with the characters in order to enjoy or appreciate the entire experience.

And in TDS2, there was nobody to identify with. Velcoro was a lowlife loser; Bezzerides was too feministy and angsty; Woodrugh was nuts; and Semyon was played by Vince Vaughn who apparently brings too much baggage with him and made people think of Old School. It didn’t matter how fascinating these characters were (I particularly found Woodrugh to be excellent and was glued to the screen whenever he was yelling at someone or making crazy faces) – they simply lost people because they weren’t relatable enough.

It’s as though the audience sat with these characters and went, “Wait a second…these people aren’t LIKE ME…I cannot identify with them…there’s nobody safe and good at heart…I have no interest any more! I want to see me on this screen!”

In the entertainment culture of the last twenty years or so, giving the audience the ability to identify with characters has been of great emphasis. So much so that people expect, maybe even demand, to be able to identify with what they’re seeing. And when a show like TDS2 comes along and doesn’t offer that (and instead places a certain distance between the audience and the cut off, antisocial characters), people can’t handle it.

In the years to come, I really believe TDS2 will become the appreciated oddity that it deserves to be. It’ll be a cult item. What I fear for is True Detective Season Three. I fear writer Nic Pizzolatto will “fix” the show by giving the audience what it wants. Story. Humor. An absence of unique style. Characters to identify with.

That would be a crime. Maybe if there were more shows as challenging and enigmatic as TDS2 (you have no idea how excited I am about the new Twin Peaks), audiences wouldn’t want everything to be so cookie cutter. And maybe then we’d get a show that not everybody would agree on, and that would be really nice.






On Botching a Post

Life is full of frustration. My life is, at least. My job is driving me crazy (work frustration), the Internet doesn’t work (living in China frustration), and my girlfriend just moved to her hometown over an hour away (the worst, sexual frustration).

But at least I have writing. I can always sit down at my computer and relax myself by working on a story or writing up a quick blog post. Writing takes me away into another world or, alternatively, let’s me make fun of this world. Yes, it too can be frustrating at times, but that’s just part of its nature.

What isn’t so cool is when you fuck up and post something way, way before it’s finished. Which is what I did about a half an hour ago. I was just starting a new post, and I was having a really hard time scrolling down to see the words. In an attempt to scroll to the bottom of the page, I accidentally clicked “Publish.”

And just like that, my unedited, unfinished blog post was up on my front page, as well as being emailed out to followers. I just sat in bewilderment for a few minutes. I wanted to cry. It was like I’d just accidentally emailed my boss nude pictures of myself or something. I wished I could somehow reverse time and restore my blog to its unblemished purity.

Eventually I just deleted the thing. It didn’t even save as a draft so now it’s gone. Lost forever. The post that never was. Which is fine, because I don’t think it was so great anyways.

The sad part is that, at least for today, my salvation from the frustrations of my everyday world has turned into another part of that world. Another aspect. Another crappy thing that didn’t go right. So I suppose this is just a little venting session. Written to completion, proof read, and completely inconsequential.


The Umbrellabator (Umbrella Masterbator) Returns!

ps umbrellabator fourTwo and a half years ago, I first noticed that there was a man masterbating under the Shahe University subway station train tracks.

If that sentence hits you by surprise, just imagine how I felt. It’s one thing to read some words and go, “Whoa, a masterbator under the train tracks?” It’s a whole different thing, though, to see it happening and go, “Whoa! A masterbater under the train tracks!”

Anyways, so two and a half years ago, my girlfriend at the time and I had gotten off the subway train and were waiting outside to get the bus to take us home. The Shahe University subway station is on the Changping Line in northern Beijing, and, like all stations on the Changping Line, it’s raised up above the street because the train tracks go over the city. I fear I did not do a very good job of describing that, so look at the picture below and to the right and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

ps umbrellabator oneNow that you’re looking at the picture, you’ll notice that there’s a dude sitting down underneath the raised train tracks. I took this photo yesterday, but my girlfriend and I saw the same guy in that exact same spot two and a half years ago. It was dark on that day, maybe six at night, but looking across the way, we could clearly see the guy looking at us. He had a weird look on his face and it appeared he was panting like a dog.

I should also mention that his entire lower half was covered by an umbrella. While he looked at us, we could see his body shaking and his arm moving.

“Jesus Christ,” I said, “that guy’s rubbing one out over there!”

“What?” my girlfriend said.

“You can tell. It’s obvious. He’s jerking off under that umbrella!”

Thankfully the bus came soon after and we got out of there. But a few days later, I took the subway on my own, and there he was again. It was earlier in the day this time. He had his umbrella set up to cover himself just as he had a few days earlier. There were lots of people at the bus stop and I could see the guy – who I now call ‘The Umbrellabator’ – shaking and panting.

“He’s doing it again!” I said to myself. “It’s like Three Billy Goats Gruff. Only there are train tracks instead of a bridge, and instead of a troll, there’s an old masterbating Chinese guy!”

ps billy goat gruffI have to say, though, on this occasion, I had some trouble laughing off The Umbrellabator. There were lots of young girls and little kids at the bus stop, and The Umbrellabator appeared to be looking at them while going to town under his umbrella-ella-ella-eh-eh. It was actually getting me kind of upset. I kept looking at the local people around me like, “Yo, isn’t somebody going to say something to this guy? I would but I’m a stupid foreigner who doesn’t know the language and I don’t fit in.”

Of course nobody said anything, and I contemplated a way to alert the authorities or something. But in the end, all I did was tell some people at my school, who promptly did nothing a la Penn State.

To my great relief, The Umbrellabator totally vanished after that second day. And he’s been gone for two and a half years now. But yesterday I had to take the bus, and who was hanging out underneath those train tracks? The Umbrellabator, back for more! This time I decided to take pictures of him, and those are the images you see in this blog. He was doing the same stuff as always, shaking and panting and working away under his umbrella. I walked into the road to take the pictures, and part of me contemplated getting closer, maybe snapping an image of what exactly was going on under there.

ps umbrellabator twoI decided not to. The last thing I want to do is get attacked by a guy who’s publicly masterbating. Which is not a sentence I ever thought I’d type.

So that’s all for now. I will be sure to post updates if anything exciting happens with The Umbrellabator. Till then, have a great day, and if you happen to be in the Shahe University area and it’s raining, do not accept any offers from this man to stand under his umbrella.

Some Explosions, A Psychopath, and Two People that Look a Bit Like Me and My Girlfriend

ps tianjin explosion oneThursday was not a good day here in China. In fact, it was an awful day. It was a day filled with fear, shock, and sadness. It was also a day dominated by social media, for better or for worse. Because all of the horrible things that happened (and some that didn’t happen) would be broadcast almost immediately on the social media platform WeChat, in a series of words and images that made the phone app seem something like a cross between a news journal and a Faces of Death movie.

Everything started one night earlier. Wednesday, at 11:30 pm to be exact. This is when a massive explosion shook the city of Tianjin, located only an hour or two away from Beijing. If you haven’t seen video of the explosion, take a look below. It’s pretty intense.

“Your sister isn’t still in Tianjin, is she?” I asked my girlfriend early Thursday morning, shaking her out of sleep.


“Is your sister still in Tianjin?”

“No, why?”

“Because some warehouse blew up last night. It says seventeen people are dead and a lot of other people are hurt.”

My girlfriend didn’t reply because she fell back to sleep. A few hours later she woke up and checked her WeChat. It was loaded with messages.

“Honey!” she said. “There was a terrible accident in Tianjin!”

I just nodded. Videos of the explosion were circulating all over WeChat. Most of them were the same or similar to the two videos above. There were others, though, ones closer to the accident scene, like this one from a CCTV camera.

“His body still hasn’t been found,” my girlfriend told me, translating her newsfeed into English.

ps tianjin devastationBy noon, we were on the subway and headed into downtown Beijing. Both of us wanted to do some shopping. I wanted to buy some shoes and she wanted to buy some makeup. She was on her phone practically the entire subway ride in, watching videos from Tianjin as they came pouring in. Most were surveys of the aftermath. The burnt buildings. The cars destroyed by the blast. And a few of the videos also showed bodies, scattered around the streets lying still as ragdolls.

This was the first of many times during the day that I questioned some of the ethics of what people were sharing. I mean, it’s one thing to share videos of the explosion or pictures of burnt buildings…but the dead bodies lying around seemed a bit much. As the day went on, things would get worse, though, and more graphic.

We went to a makeup store and Feng Deng (that’s my girlfriend) bought some stuff, and then we went to a little Cantonese restaurant. Before our food arrived, Feng Deng looked at her phone again.

“Something just happened,” she said. “The Wifi is cutting out. I’m not sure what it is, but it seems bad.”

“In Tianjin?”

“No, here, in Beijing,” she told me. A few minutes later her signal picked back up. She read the posts from WeChat moments and said, “Oh my God, they’re stabbing foreigners…”

ps sword guyLet’s just pause for a second to allow that sentence to sink in. “They’re stabbing foreigners.” It’s not really what you expect to hear while waiting for your lunch to arrive. Feng Deng then gave me the details of what was happening. She explained that there had been two incidents.

1. A group of men with knives had attacked people at the Beijing Railway Station.

2. An interracial couple had been attacked and stabbed in Sanlitun.

There were videos for both. The first one is impossible to find now. It was taken in a railway station, and you could just see people running and screaming while guys with large kitchen knives chased after them. The second video is still widely available. I’m posting it below, although I’ll warn you that it’s graphic. It shows a man with a long katana blade standing outside in Sanlitun (an area of Beijing popular with foreigners), and then the camera pans over to show a woman bleeding to death on the street.

I feel a bit guilty posting that. I will also say that there were many, many worse videos and pictures that would come out. The aftermath of the attack had been recorded and photographed by lots of people, and within minutes WeChat was dominated by those images.

“Why are they attacking foreigners?” I asked. I was stunned. I’ve lived in Beijing for three years, and although once in awhile there have been incidents of violence against foreigners, it’s mostly a very safe place to live.

Feng Deng explained that there was some kind of meeting going on in Beijing, although I wasn’t really sure of the details. It possibly had something to do with Japan. She said that these were protests against this meeting. She said that her friends were messaging her like mad, telling her to get out of the city.

“Do you still want to go shopping?” she asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Do you think we’re going to get stabbed?”

It really is a weird moment if you ever find yourself having a conversation like this. In all honesty, I think we were both pretty freaked out. It seemed like there was a real risk, that my foreign-ness was putting us both in danger.

ps sanlitun cone dogWe decided to leave the city and go back to my apartment in the suburbs. Feng Deng went to the bathroom and I, feeling uncomfortable and nervous, took this blurry picture of a dog with a cone on his head.

Anyways, when we got back, a clearer picture of what had happened began to form. As it would turn out, these weren’t coordinated attacks on foreigners because of some meeting. Not at all. There had been no attack in the railway station. That story was a hoax. A rumor. No one seemed to know what the video was or where it had come from. The other attack, though, was very real. A mentally disturbed 25-year-old Chinese man had (from the reports we read) approached an interracial couple, asking if the man was American. He wasn’t. The Chinese guy then said he didn’t like Americans, and as the couple walked away from him, he stabbed the woman in her back. The foreign man (who is French) attempted to defend her and was also stabbed.

ps sanlitun coupleThey were husband and wife. They’d been married only nine days earlier. After being taken to the hospital, the man had recovered. The woman died.

And that hit Feng Deng and I pretty hard. Really hard, actually. There’s an almost indescribable weariness that sets in when the victims of a terrible crime look a lot like you. We had even gone into the city to shop that day. It was eerie, and as I read more and looked at more pictures, I felt a level of heartbreak for that poor French expat that was incredibly deep. I felt like I was looking at myself. And like Feng Deng was the woman in those videos. I kept playing the scene out in my head with the two of us recast in it. Lying awake at 3:00 in the morning, I wished somehow that time could be reversed and that man’s wife could be brought back, and I felt devastated because I knew that was impossible.

So, yeah, Thursday was a bad day. The last I read, 44 people were killed and over 400 were hurt in the Tianjin explosion. That’s tragic. But there’s still an abstraction there, a distance between me and a group of people in another city that were the victims of real chance and circumstance. That were the vicitms of an accident.

Which wasn’t the case with the couple in Sanlitun. I don’t think Feng Deng and I will go to Sanlitun any time soon…not so much because we’re afraid, but more because it would place us even closer to a reality that we don’t really want to face.

Doing More than Two Things in a Day is F**king Impossible

Today did not go exactly as I’d hoped it would. No, not at all. I woke up this morning with what seemed like modest, do-able plans. Here’s how I thought my day would go:

  • Wake up, write a blog post about the awful stabbing incident in Sanlitun yesterday, go to the grocery store, get a haircut, meet with my boss, have a relaxing night.

See? That’s not a lot. I didn’t even have to work today. Expecting to get all these things accomplished is not exactly having delusions of grandeur.

And yet, the day ends in failure. I did indeed go to the grocery store and I did successfully meet with my boss. But that turned out to be all I could do. My hair is not cut, I never got the time to write my blog post on the stabbing (tomorrow), and I looked at apartments online with Feng Deng most of the night, which wasn’t really relaxing and concluded with the realization that we would be spending future nights also looking at apartments. Which means we will be spending future nights not relaxing.

So after today, I’ve concluded that doing more than two things in a day is fucking impossible. That’s the standard I shall hold myself to from now on. Not five or four or even three things. Two. If I get two things done, I will be content with myself. Because expecting to buy peanut butter and listen to your boss talk and get your head buzzed and also write a blog that has some thought put into it…that’s ambitious to the same degree as those people that go on American Idol even though their singing sounds worse than the weird high-pitched squeal my left lung sometimes makes when I’ve smoked too many cigarettes.

Anyways. That’s all for today. It’s 11:30 and time to call it a night.

I go to bed promising myself that tomorrow I will write my post about the stabbing.

And I will do one other thing.

On Blog Neglect and Will Do Percentages

Today is Thursday and I’m finally sitting down and writing something. I know, not the catchiest opening line ever written. It’s been at least a month, probably more like two, since I wrote something on this blog. My excuse would be that I was traveling Europe, but that doesn’t make things much better. When I say I haven’t written in a long time, I say that with some guilt and a lot of disappointment. Because I, like any person that starts a blog in the first place, began this blog with the expectation that  i would actually write in it more than once every two months.

Yes, I’ve been bad, and the worst part is, this isn’t the first time I’ve been guilty of blog neglect. No, on my former blog, Topiclessbar, I posted so infrequently that eventually it just died out. Which is not a fate I would like to repeat here. But this is why writing a blog is tricky. It takes time. It takes dedication. You truly have to prioritize it, which can be difficult. From time to time, day to day, there are always a few things that one must choose to neglect in one’s life, and I’ve found that blogging often becomes that thing for me. I have difficulty neglecting my job or my girlfriend or working on other projects or wasting time or going on a drinking binge. These past few months, those have been the things I’ve prioritized, and while I’ve ended up with a decent raise and a stronger relationship, I’ve also lost hours of my life to the show Hannibal (which stinks, FYI) and I’ve grown a nasty beer gut.

So now I’m going to say the thing I always say and rarely see through to completion – I’m going to make sure I write more on my blog, starting today. That’s a ‘will do.’ Just like I often say ‘I will go to the gym’ or ‘I will eat more carrots.’ Those are other ‘will do’s.’ Sometimes I wonder what percentage of things I say I will do I really complete. On certain days, I would say the percentage must be somewhat strong. I will wash some socks. I will pay the minimum payment on my credit card bill. I can generally get those things taken care of with the proper motivation. But over a full week or, worse yet, a full month, what would happen to my will do percentage as my motivation dwindles and apathy sets in? I believe my will do percentage would probably shrink so badly that virtually everything I want to accomplish in life becomes almost entirely left up to chance. Will I buy vegetables as planned? There’s a 30% chance of that happening. Will I sit down and fulfill my life’s goal of writing a novel? Also a 30% chance, same as the vegetables. Because I’m a dangerously fickle person, and more than likely I will get sidetracked by Buzzfeed or videos of police shootings and the vegetables and the novel will be pushed to the wonderfully abstract time called ‘later.’

So here’s the first will do of this new beginning, if you will – I will start writing more as of today.

Which in turn means I’ll have to start neglecting my girlfriend more. That’s the sacrifice a blogger has to make. No love until the the post has tags, no romance until that blue publish button is clicked.