From an interview with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta:
GUPTA: And one of those 4,900 cases was the case of nine-year- old Hannah Polling, which has been making a lot of news lately. Luckily, we have the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Julie Gerberding here.
We’re talking a lot about autism, as you know. I should remind people that the — my understanding is the federal government conceded that vaccines caused her autism like symptoms. First of all, is there a difference? I mean, does she have autism or autism-like symptoms? What’s the difference?
JULIE GERBERDING, DR., CDC DIRECTOR: Well, you know, I don’t have all the facts because I still haven’t been able to review the case files myself. But my understanding is that the child has a — what we think is a rare mitochondrial disorder. And children that have this disease, anything that stresses them creates a situation where their cells just can’t make enough energy to keep their brains functioning normally. Now, we all know that vaccines can occasionally cause fevers in kids. So if a child was immunized, got a fever, had other complications from the vaccines. And if you’re predisposed with the mitochondrial disorder, it can certainly set off some damage. Some of the symptoms can be symptoms that have characteristics of autism.
GUPTA: Yes, I have a two-and-a-half-year-old and a one-year-old as you know. And you know, you know, you think about this all the time. Are we ready to say right now as things stand that childhood vaccines do not cause autism?
GERBERDING: What we can say absolutely for sure is that we don’t really understand the causes of autism. We’ve got a long way to go before we get to the bottom of this. But there have been at least 15 very good scientific studies on the Institute of Medicine who have searched this out. And they have concluded that there really is no association between vaccines and autism.
GUPTA: Are you comfortable with everything that we know? So you talk about the…
GERBERDING: Well, I’ll never be comfortable with everything we know. I mean, I think we have to have an open mind about this. We know that there’s very little chance that it’s something related to a vaccine that’s going to cause a serious problem for a child. We also know how life saving vaccines really are.
GERBERDING: You know, something like 33,000 children a year are saved from death associated with the vaccines…
GERBERDING: …because of our immunization program. That’s a huge benefit.
GERBERDING: One of the things that concerns me is while the attention is focused on vaccines, in a sense, it means people are not looking for other causes. I mean, we’ve got to keep reminding ourselves that the vaccine story has been one that’s been debated for many, many years now. We keep looking and looking and looking. And we really cannot turn up any information.
By SAM THIELMAN
The Glass Menagerie at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by John Tiffany. Set and costumes by Bob Crowley. Starring Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith.
One of the glorious problems that keeps a play from a second life as a book of poetry (or most plays; I’ll give you the Greeks and the odd, rule-proving exception like Ntozake Shange) is the little differences made by context; Tom Wingfield complains about his overbearing mother and needy sister more than once in The Glass Menagerie, but sometimes he berates Amanda to her face and sometimes he sighs over Laura behind her back, and in the third, most important sometimes, he simply, sadly tells the audience how he feels. The emotional content of these very similar expressions of frustration and resentment and exasperation varies wildly across the play’s rich emotional landscape, and that is why it sucks so often.
I told a friend I was headed up to Boston to see John Tiffany’s production of this play and he made a face I’ve only ever seen before on people who are hearing about a health code scandal at a nursing home or that time you saw a roach at their favorite restaurant. The Glass Menagerie is done badly nearly as often as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and for a lot of the same reasons; its subject matter—suffocating family relations—seems familiar; its subtext—Williams’ sad biography and Tom’s implied homosexuality—seems easy to grasp; and yet, largely because we assume those little parts are the whole of the play, its power slips away so often that we eventually come to wonder whether it was there in the first place.
Tiffany’s most interesting work thus far in a brilliant career is Black Watch, a bitter, elegiac show about Scotland’s answer to the SAS and the SEALS. I say “show” because it was so filled with dance and song that you couldn’t have properly called it a play, but it didn’t conform to the rules of musical theater well enough to belong in that category, either. When the characters needed to sing, they sang, when they needed to dance, they danced; when they needed to die, they died.
A Brit, Tiffany’s muscular approach to Williams’s first masterpiece makes all of the context physical. When Amanda (Cherry Jones) dresses her disabled, cripplingly shy daughter (Celia Keenan-Bolger) to meet a friend of her wayward son Tom (Zachary Quinto) named Jim (Brian J. Smith), she takes the little glass unicorn that Laura loves so dearly (and that everyone else ignores) off the top of its display case, which is probably 18 inches high, and sticks Laura up there so she can smooth out the wrinkles in her dress and help her pad her bra. For another play, literally putting a tragic character on a pedestal would be much, much too obvious, but Tom tells us from the very beginning that we’re seeing things not as they are, but as he remembers them.
Robert Crowley’s set, easily among the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to see, makes this point beautifully. The play’s fire escape—which is also the Wingfields’ porch, since they live in a St. Louis building poor enough to have split its apartments in two, so that one opens onto the interior stairwells and hallways and another opens out the back onto the fire escape (it’s astonishing how many productions misunderstand or ignore this detail)—diminishes upward, each successive story smaller than the one below as it ascends on lines of perspective into the flys. The apartment itself, furnished as a little oasis of period-perfect naturalism, is a pair of hexagonal islands on a still pool of black water, where a curved spike of neon sticks up like a shark’s fin, stage right. The neon lights up, and the spike and its reflection, half in this world and half in the world below, make the moon.
The play and its events, a little more simply, are a burr in Tom’s beautiful memory; an imperfection made of ugly furniture and cheap curtains and bad feelings that interrupt and deform the fantastic landscape of his mind. He tells us at the play’s end that he’s tried hard and failed to tear out this part of his life by the roots, most drastically by abandoning his mother and sister to a life of poverty or worse. “Oh, Laura, Laura,” he says, “I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!” It’s poor poetry, but its artlessness, with Tiffany’s direction and Crowley’s tangible symbolism, gives us the desperation as itself, without mediation.
Oh, yes, there’s also the actor. Zachary Quinto may be doomed to inhabit posterity wearing pointed ears and a tight blue shirt as Spock in J.J. Abrams’ slick sequel-remakes in the venerable-but-still-not-respectable Star Trek franchise, but he seems to like the theater, which is good, because it agrees with him. Quinto’s onstage specialty seems to be a complicated kind of gay self-loathing; at the Signature Theater’s revival of Tony Kushner’s meandering opus Angels in America, he played Louis, a charming man whose partner’s slow descent into torturous death from AIDS proves too much for him, and he fucks off to mutually seduce a confused, closeted, conservative Mormon man. Quinto’s performance was excellent; he was prettier than the actor playing his partner Prior and he played it that way: on the one hand, Louis had a moral duty to stay with his decaying partner; on the other, he didn’t need that kind of grief—he could find a better piece of ass in any bar in Manhattan on any night of the week.
Tom, perhaps obviously, is one of Louis’s ancestors, and Quinto plays him with the same intelligence about the inner mechanics of frustration and anger. Quinto’s Tom hates his job in the warehouse, he hates his mother and he even hates his poor helpless sister for being so fucking poor and helpless all the time. He hates himself most of all. This is a great relief. As times have complicated for gay rights and sexual liberty in general, actors and directors working on this play have tended to play down Tom’s badness, particularly since it’s taken as read that his alcoholism is a metaphor for his homosexuality. This is infuriating for all kinds of reasons—for one thing, alcoholism and homosexuality coexisted quite comfortably in the author, whose autobiography this clearly is—but far worse is what the poor-gay-Tom-can’t-be-expected-to-suffer-like-this productions have done to Amanda.
A recent, wildly overpraised staging of this show came to town with a respected actress in the role of Amanda Wingfield and it was everything you could possibly accuse the play of being: misogynist to the extent that Amanda might as well have been a man in drag, fawning in its adoration of Tom the Martyr, interesting exclusively when neither character was on stage. When Gentleman Jim came to call, Amanda was decked out in the best dress she had and did her level best to seduce an unimpressed Jim in front of her poor, smashed daughter, a scene that was horrifying in its cruelty to Laura but also horrifying in its cruelty to the actress playing Amanda, whose skills were used exclusively to make her character an aren’t-women-disGUSTing caricature. The production’s Amanda alternated between pitiable and contemptible when she wasn’t both. I’ve heard the play’s status as “a memory play” cited as an excuse for this sort of thing but it doesn’t wash. The Glass Menagerie is a play and not a fantasy novel because Tom can’t cut out the truth of it, no matter how hard he tries, and sneering misogyny is not true.
Cherry Jones is, of course, a magnificent performer, but she’s also given the chance here to play a woman in several dimensions. If you have a copy of the play, read her dialogue: it’s not wrong. Laura does need to develop marketable skills or get married; Tom is, actually, on the verge of losing his job; that job does provide every cent of their income. Jones, among the many Amandas I’ve seen, is the first to give the impression that she actually did entertain seventeen gentleman callers in a single afternoon, rather than an unspecified number that has grown in the telling. This interpretation makes so much more sense; Amanda is not Blanche Dubois. She is, in fact, the only character in this play who has honestly dealt with hard reality—her husband, whom she gave up everything for, left her, and she’s had a long time to think about that. Williams imagines her less as delusional white trash than as the deposed royalty of Blue Mountain, Mississippi, and Jones is rightly majestic.
Williams, who was also named Tom, also had a disabled sister, though her name was Rose, not Laura, and she was schizophrenic, not crippled. Their mother eventually had Rose lobotomized to “cure” her, and Williams had to live with not merely the memory of Rose’s disability but the horrible, human consequences of its drastic remedy for the rest of her long, long life. A friend of mine knew the two of them together briefly and described a day out with Tenn and Rose to me at one point. Suffice it to say that I’d drink, too. Celia Keenan-Bolger plays what is likely the least realistic and thus most sympathetic role in the play, and she seem to intuit that she has some room to test the limits of the audience’s sympathy. Like Quinto, she’s walking a knife’s edge; her character is both infuriatingly unself-conscious and endearingly fragile. It’s in the character of Laura that the true darkness of The Glass Menagerie becomes real; when Jim kisses her and leaves, she becomes “like all the other horses,” but, crucially, without any of the benefits. She still can’t type. She’s still not married. Her weakling brother is too much like his father and leaves the family. She and her mother will be women alone during the Second World War, and eventually, the real Rose will have a much more literal version of the procedure Laura invents when Jim breaks the unicorn.
“I’ll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish!” she tells Jim, who looks for a shining moment like he might take the unicorn’s place in the menagerie himself. “Now he will feel at home with the other horses, the ones that don’t have horns.”
As the play closes, Tom observes that “time is the longest distance between two places;” yet Crowley and Tiffany tell us that this play is suspended in time, a pair of little islands on a wine-dark sea in the middle of the Loeb Theater. Above it is the past, where the light comes from but the stairs leading up are too small to climb; below is the future: a pool of black water and the other half of the crescent moon, where the only passable segment of the fire escape leads.
“I left St. Louis,” Tom confesses. “I descended the step of this fire escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space—I traveled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass.”
As Tom and Amanda bicker and Laura crouches, shattered, by the edge of the little island, she gathers up the final piece of her only treasured possession—the horse that is just like all the other horses has been given away to Jim, and all that’s left is the little shard that used to be mounted on its head. And while her brother and mother shout and recriminate as though she wasn’t even in the room, she drops the broken piece of glass, or herself, or Rose Williams, into the water, or the future, where it will chase Tom until she is dead, and beyond, as soon as he next uses the fire escape.
Many people said exactly the wrong thing an effort to get me to watch “Community.”
"It’s so meta!"
"It’s totally off the wall!"
"It’s got a big cult following!"
"The characters are really wacky!"
"It gets really dark!"
"It’s a lot like ‘The Simpsons!’"
These statements all also describe “Family Guy,” a series I detest with every fiber of my being despite having occasionally found it funny, because I know that the part of me capable of enjoying jokes about deaf people and kids with Down’s syndrome is a part that should be chopped off and tossed into an active volcano.
My friend Robert, to whom I owe a great debt, eventually said the right thing. Robert is a world champion bullshitter and I am at least his equal in this regard, and we have spent many a happy hour discussing what makes things funny, and why, and which jokes are best, and whether there is an innate superiority to the visual gag over the pun and so on ad nauseam. I am occasionally amazed that we have not yet been disowned by everyone who’s been in the same room with the two of us.
"Look," he said to me after a long discussion about Christ only knows, "we make recommendations to each other all the time. Sometimes I take yours, and sometimes you take mine, and sometimes we don’t, and that’s fine. Just fucking watch ‘Community.’ You’ll thank me."
Thank you, Robert. You were right.
And you, reader: just fucking watch “Community.” It is sweet and funny and weird and clever and not in the slightest like “Family Guy.”
"Community," at the beginning of its life, wasn’t much more than a weird little number written by Dan Harmon, a guy who’d been fired off "The Sarah Silverman Program," which he co-created, and who was using his buddy Dino Stamatopoulos as a consulting producer/writer/bit player. To be fair, it is a hell of a pilot—witty; just sentimental enough; filled with clearly delineated characters played by worthwhile actors, one an aging movie star (Chevy Chase) and another a likable "Daily Show" comedian (John Oliver), giving it multigenerational appeal. It makes sense to greenlight it, if you ignore the simmering creative tension on the production side.
"Community" is about seven friends at Greendale Community College in Colorado, where each of them has landed by dint of some terrible mistake. Jeff (Joel McHale) is a lawyer who’s been caught with a fake bachelor’s degree; Britta (Gillian Jacobs) is an ultra-PC anti-everything activist who has realized at 28 that she doesn’t have any skills; Pierce (Chase) is a disagreeable, middle-aged, heedlessly rich septuple divorcé with no friends; Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) is a fortysomething housewife abandoned by her husband who wants to sell brownies on the internet; Annie (Alison Brie) is an honor student who had a psychotic break her senior year after getting addicted to Adderall; Troy (Donald Glover) is her former classmate, a football star who ended his sports career in an accidentally-on-purpose "keg flip" mishap; and Abed… Abed (Danny Pudi) suffers from Asperger’s and copes with the world by pretending he’s in a television show. Which, of course, he is.
There’s so much to say about “Community” that most of its evangelists make the mistake of skipping over the obvious: it is hilariously funny. In three seasons, there is not a bad episode, though some are stronger than others. The show’s writing staff is very, very gifted, especially Harmon, Chris McKenna and Megan Ganz, and when the writers craft a rare dud joke, it turns out the cast are both so individually talented and so good with each other that they can make it work on two or three other levels. When the writers and the actors are all hitting their marks together—as is usually the case—it’s stunning. My favorite example of this is near the end of season 1, when Abed has decided that he and Troy (now his best friend) need to have the college experience they’ve seen in movies and TV shows. They walk by the rest of the group to inform them that they’re being hazed by a fraternity they have no hope of pledging. “They’re making us walk around with pretzels in our butts,” Troy explains embarrassedly, “and I put mustard on mine like an idiot.” It’s a great line, but it’s ten times funnier with the combination of Donald Glover’s delivery—the “GOD I locked my keys in the car again” way he explains his decision to put mustard on the pretzel—and the look on Alison Brie’s foregrounded face, as she goes rapidly through what look like the five stages of grief over Troy’s terrible, terrible mistake. That, and the running gag that Troy likes butt stuff.
A lot has been made of the show’s condensation of various movie genre formulae into 22-minute comedies—there’s a gangster episode, a heist episode, a Western episode, a few very inventive sci-fi episodes, and so on–but what strikes me more than anything about “Community” is that it appears to have consumed and most of the films of the “Disney Renaissance” (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin”) and metabolized them into something altogether new and weird and excellent. Everyone in this show, after all, would have grown up on those films, and would probably be reaching exactly the moment when they discover that life is not going to turn out like a Disney movie. This—for many young people, I’d hazard—creates something of a quandary. Are your emotions really worth anything if they’re about getting turned down by the cute guy in your Spanish class or fighting with your best friend, and not about monsters and demons and long-lost loves? Is your entire life bathetic by comparison to children’s fiction?
"Community" solves this problem by keeping the structure and tropes of kids’ movies—the handsome prince, the self-discovery, the triumphs over insurmountable odds—and radically reducing the scale. At one point, Abed teaches the rat in his Environmental Science class to respond to a song—the rat escapes, of course, and Troy won’t help him get it back, because he’s terrified of rats ("I’m not afraid. I choose not be around rats because they are unpopular. Same goes for centipedes and lakes"). Meanwhile, Shirley has trouble with stage fright in her public speaking class, the psychotic Spanish teacher, Senor Chang, enters a crippling depression over failed marriage, and Jeff struggles with whether or not to betray his friends for a good grade in Chang’s class.
None of this, frankly, is that interesting on paper, but the reason “Community” is both a gorgeous, well-wrought, hugely satisfying show and also a borderline flop is that it is zero concept and 100% execution. That is also the reason it will probably get canceled—it just doesn’t sound very good. In practice, it’s not just good, it’s transcendent: Abed has named his rat Fievel, of course, and has taught the rat to respond to the Grammy-winning love theme from “An American Tail,” so the episode resolves in a montage of Shirley overcoming stage fright, Chang reuniting with his wife, Jeff deciding to help his friends at his own expense, and Abed singing “Somewhere Out There” over the whole thing… with Troy returning to help him just in time to come in on the duet. Against all odds and penetrating every protective layer of irony, it is a heartwarming moment. This is a show that triple-dog-dares you not to take it seriously.
“Community” has the distinction—and this is one of the ways in which it is like “The Simpsons,” to which it is frequently compared—of trying to tell as many different kinds of stories as possible. Sometimes they’re stories about Chang (the incredible Ken Jeong, whose character is no longer a Spanish teacher but is still psychotic), or about the hypercaffeinated Dean Pelton (an equally great Jim Rash), who is described, accurately, in the third season as a “pansexual imp.” Sometimes the episodes swan dive majestically off the deep end and take place in parallel universes or as clip shows of episodes that never happened or even, memorably, as one of the more compelling characters’ claymation hallucinations of the Christmas season.
About that last one—the stop-motion episode occurs halfway through the second season, and it offers a rare window into the show’s direct ancestors. It’s in the credits: one of the writers is Stamatopoulos.
Stamatopoulos will probably be lost to television history as the guy who plays “Starburns,” a student at Greendale who shaves both his sideburns into the shape of a star in an effort to give himself some kind of identity (in this, he fails miserably), but he has another, much greater achievement to his name. Stamatopoulos created “Moral Orel,” arguably the darkest and most twisted show to ever appear on television, seriously, ever. It was a sort of cross between the old United Lutheran Church-produced “Davey and Goliath” claymation shorts and a Todd Solondz movie, taking place in a Christian community called, appropriately, Moralton, which is in the exact center of the U.S. in a state called Statesota. The town’s church is in the exact center of Moralton, which is, naturally, populated by the most unspeakable hypocrites and creeps you can imagine and some you can’t. It’s a comedy about crushing, murderous depression and all the horrible things people do to be happy, and it is consummately worth watching (advice from Moralton’s priest to an unfaithful husband: “Just say two It Wasn’t Mes and three I Blame My Fathers. You’ll be fine”) for as long as you can stand it, which will probably not be long. The show aired on Adult Swim, where Standards and Practices objected to it. Let that sink in: a producer on an NBC sitcom pilot ran into trouble with Standards and Practices on Adult Swim, and the pilot got picked up. It is something that could literally only have happened on blink-and-you-missed-him NBC executive Ben Silverman’s watch.
Every time Abed meets his evil twin in his imagination, every time we see Chang talking about his day to his new wife the mannequin leg, every time Annie throws a tantrum so horrible that Jeff tells her she’s acting like a little schoolgirl (“and not in a hot way!”), you get the sense that Stamatopoulos is, if not behind those moments necessarily, amping them up in some way. It is comedy made by and for broken people.
A lot has been said about the show’s heart; it’s all very true. What’s also true, and less reassuring from a devotee’s perspective but somehow very comforting indeed in aesthetic terms, is that there’s a willingness among these writers to tear that heart out and eat it in front of the audience just to prove they’re not full of shit. It’s a quality only the very best TV comedies—“Seinfeld,” “Da Ali G Show,” “Arrested Development,” “Futurama”—have in any real measure, and it’s what gives me hope that the show will not merely survive without getting canceled, but will thrive. Stamatopoulos, along with Harmon, is gone from the program as of the end of the last season. Much as I love both of them, I don’t think their absence from the show will be fatal. I do think it will be nicer, gentler, and less troubling, and maybe that’s an unforgivable tragedy, but maybe it’s not.
You’d have to have been pretty blind to the show’s progress over the last three seasons not to see that it was on a deeply serious, potentially fatal trajectory, largely at Harmon’s behest. Granted, that’s part of the show’s genius: the climactic final episode of season 1 appeared to leave absolutely no room for the writing team to move, and yet the second season is arguably the show’s strongest because Harmon manages to set up a dichotomy—will Jeff and Britta or won’t they?—and then totally ignore it for the rest of the show to no ill effect. As he raises the stakes in season 3 and the show gets crazier and crazier, however, it’s hard for him to keep it grounded in emotions that the audience might on some level share with the characters, and wherever Harmon was going to eventually end up might not necessarily have been a better place than whatever neutering effect the show’s fans—me among them—feel the new production team will have on it. Here’s the thing, though: at least whatever Harmon ended up doing would have been unusual.
So if we’re going to mourn—and having seen the first two totally acceptable episodes, I think we are, a little bit—it’s probably not the show we should be crying for, but the mean, angry, hurt, unhappy part of it; that maybe-it’s-not-really-a-joke that perfectly mirrors the smoldering pain good comedy quenches. Oddly, it’s an agony that just radiates off the show’s main character, Jeff, and it seems appropriate to close with a few of the very best lines in the series—a moment that cuts so close to the bone it makes you gasp a little bit. He’s at dinner with Abed, who’s acting friendly and relatable and indicates that he’d like to have an adult conversation, and so, right before it turns out that the whole setup is merely Abed’s riff on “My Dinner With Andre,” Jeff hits him with this:
“…And I said, ‘No, that’s a girl’s costume!’, and my mom said, ‘It’s fine! Indian boys have long hair and braids, too!’ There was only 45 minutes left to trick-or-treat, so what could I do? I put the damn thing on, and I went door-to-door. And everyone was going, ‘Oh, what a pretty little girl.’
"And by the third house, I’d stopped correcting them. I mean, why draw attention to it, and, honestly, once the shame and the fear wore off…
"I was just glad they thought I was pretty.”
Laugh, you bastards.
Image courtesy of Dennis Culver, who sells it as a poster here
I put this up on another site a couple of years ago, but I liked it then and I like it now. Kushner is one of my favorite writers and I sort of figured I’d never get a chance to pick his brain again, so I kind of asked him something mildly inflammatory in the two minutes I had with him on the red carpet and made sure he was talking into the tape recorder. He is awesome and I have nothing but admiration for his body of work and his personal eloquence.
Me: Is it mostly liberals who go to the American theater?
Tony Kushner: Probably, yes. I mean, I never wrote the [“Angels in America”] to teach anybody anything. When I teach playwriting, I tell my students, “Preach to the converted”—I mean, who else do preachers preach to? Not everybody has to be an evangelist. John Donne and Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t go out and preach to Buddhists or Jews, they preached to Protestants and Southern Baptists. A good preacher isn’t just telling the congregation what it already knows—that would be boring. A good preacher addresses the most difficult thing about faith, which is doubt, and questions that are hard to answer, and goes forward into the darkness with his congregation. If I have to write a play for right-wing people who think that gay people are terrible, it’s going to be a boring play. I’m going to be bored writing it and most intelligent people who know that gay people are NOT terrible are going to be bored watching it. They’d rather sit and home and watch television than go to the theater and get lectured. So if I write a play about gay people for gay people and for people who like gay people, I can say things that are really interesting and confusing and challenging to me, and I can hope that the audience will find the questions interesting and confusing, too, and it will give them something to think about.
Me: It feels like liberals and conservatives don’t even share a language any more.
TK: That’s too evenhanded for me. I think we’re sharing a language. It’s a language of one group of people who want to talk about what’s happening on the ground and what they want to do to address it—”Is there global warming? Are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people losing their homes? Do we need more regulation? How are we going to address the problems in Afghanistan?”—and then there are other people who want to run the same old tape they’ve run for the last thirty years: government is bad, taxes are bad, Jesus is coming to lift us all up to heaven and people should have concealed weapons in elementary school. I know what they’re saying. I think they’re nuts. And I think they’re wrong, and for the most part, I think they’re enslaved to a perfidious and malevolent ideology that is not only threatening our democracy but our continued survival as a species. The Tea Party—those people who get up and talk about how global warming is not happening—are actively helping to commit ecocide. So you know, I don’t think the problem is that we’re not talking to each other. Fuck talk. People who are progressive and have brains: go and vote on Tuesday and make sure that these demented people, these bad people don’t get ahold of Congress again, because we can’t afford it. We don’t have the time to waste anymore.
The combined IQs of all previous entries in Capcom’s venerable series of “Devil May Cry” games might conceivably approach heights reached by one of the less interesting primates on an understimulated day. The gameplay was, nearly literally, all style—your character, Dante, came armed with two guns and a great big sword and the level to which you progressed in the game depended on your ability to alternate between exotic moves and combinations of moves in such a way as to destroy the largest number of rampaging demons as quickly and variously as possible. Until last week, the most recent game went by the charmingly clever title of “Devil May Cry 4” and was remembered fondly by aficionados as a good time to be had by anyone who’d just done too damn much *thinking* that day.
The games were both published and developed by the same company, an increasing rarity in the video game business, and news that Capcom was hiring an external studio to develop the fifth game in the series, which would rework the games’ initial premise as well as the look of the characters, was met with much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“Devil May Cry,” as you may be able to tell from the idiom-soup title, is a game created during that period when a suprising number of Japanese designers were enamored of but not terribly conversant in Western mythology and literature. It was conceived as a spinoff of the long-running and wildly lucrative “Resident Evil” series, which Capcom frequently refers to as a “franchise,” a term that makes a depressing amount of sense given the variations in quality between the dozen-or-so games bearing the name. “Devil May Cry” was originally developed by Hideki Kamiya, who as a designer is very interested in what gamers call the “core mechanic.” His games are not particularly well-written or engagingly acted, but “Resident Evil,” for example, takes great pains to make the process of killing zombies as laborious and taxing as possible; your character takes forever to load her pistol, runs out of bullets very quickly, isn’t a very good shot, etc., and Kamiya puts all of this on you, the player. If you were only a little quicker on the trigger or better with the thumbstick, her reaction time and aim would improve, too. But you’re not. It’s a lot like what would happen if you, personally, were being chased by zombies, and that’s why “Resident Evil” is a good game. Kamiya’s CV, with that notable exception, is mostly about doing things that no human being on earth would ever be able to accomplish simply in the name of looking cool. They’re all at least fun and in some cases transcendent; the cartoony “Viewtiful Joe” actually makes you feel as though you’re physically breaking things when you hit them with a particularly good combo or power move. For some reason it doesn’t matter to gamers that Kamiya has not been involved in the “Devil May Cry” series since its first entry. The game-playing community are always going on about how unjustly maligned their little subculture is, but if you want the truth, some of the most damning criticisms are dead-on: gamers want the same smooth mush they ate last night served up to them tomorrow, because they know about it and they like the taste. They hate change and are resolutely unself-critical, demonstrating loyalty to brands, trademarks and characters above artists and programmers who create characters and make trademarks valuable.
So it was with a certain amount of schadenfreude that I read the news that the developer taking over the “Devil May Cry” series from Anonymous Japanese Developer #4 would be Ninja Theory, an English, Cambridge-based studio that has survived in the world of megaconglomerates eating everything talented by employing skilled voice actors and telling interesting stories with the medium. Dante’s 90’s-anime flowing white locks were buzzed and turned black, his big red coat dirtied considerably, and his environment generally made grottier and more English; this is a game in which you actually have to fight demon-possessed CCTVs.
The best thing about “DmC” (aside from the title, obviously) is its writer, a guy named Alex Garland. I have been following Garland’s career for a lot of years. He wrote a pretty good novel made into a very bad movie by Danny Boyle, both called “The Beach;” he wrote the screenplays to my two favorite movies of Boyle’s, namely sci-fi/monster movie “Sunshine” and the terrific zombie flick “28 Days Later;” he also wrote this summer’s surprisingly good 3D blockbuster-wannabe flop (flopbuster?), “Dredd.” Garland takes most of the game’s initial ideas (some of which are pretty hoary, too—our hero has an identical twin brother named Vergil) and turns them around. The game’s villain is an industrialist who owns unsubtle analogues for Goldman Sachs, Fox News, and Coke; Dante’s sexy sidekick seems to have more depth and complexity than he does; much of the unnamed city in which the game takes place feels a lot like London. It’s a very punky, odd, watchable take on the “Inferno,” with Dante travelling loose equivalents to the circles of Hell until he gets to the game’s final boss. There are plenty of surprising plot twists, and overall it works on the same level as a few really good episodes of “True Blood” or “Battlestar Galactica,” which is to say that it’s compelling and interesting exactly when you’re about to write it off for being too silly.
The aesthetic… well, about the aesthetic. The games industry calls anything predicted to sell more than a million copies a AAA game; this mostly refers to the budget, rather than the quality, but the one can help to improve the other. “DmC” is not a AAA game, but it isn’t a bargain-basement game like last the last three Ninja Theory titles, either, so the developer has been given a couple of bucks to toss around. They’re still working with “midware,” rather than developing all the algorithms and code from the ground up, but it’s the same midware toolkit they’ve used on all their other games, and they’re very good with it. Midware is what you buy when you don’t want to pay a coding team to write your entire game world from scratch. It’s easiest to think of in toy terms: imagine you want an awesome dollhouse, but you can’t afford to pay a Parisian artisian to handcraft the mullions on the windows and carve the pieces of furniture individually. So you shop around, and you learn that there are people out there who can do really incredible dollhouses entirely out of Legos for far less money. Midware are the Legos.
The set of Legos pretty much everyone (well, everyone who is making a game on the cheap) uses these days is called Unreal 3, and it is old. This is mostly a disadvantage, especially if you’re just now trying to learn how to use it, but if you are Ninja Theory and you’ve spent several years in the buy-one-get-one-free ghetto, you know not merely the limitations but the advantages of Unreal 3, and you make a game world that fractures, splits and distorts whenever the hero is in trouble. You carve big floating statues and vast labyrinths of colorful stone and mold flaming, horned, terrifying monsters that leap out at your hero whenever he rounds a corner, wielding his fiery sword.
And this is why “DmC” is a sad game, at least from my perspective: it is just gorgeous, and it is as smart as it can be within the parameters of its terminally stupid franchise, but it is about 1/3 the narrative accomplishment of Ninja Theory’s last game, “Enslaved.” “Enslaved” was one of Garland’s best ideas—an adaptation of one of the four great classical Chinese novels called “Journey to the West,” written in the Ming Dynasty. The game re-sets the story in the far future, and it follows a reluctant hero—played by Andy Serkis—forced to serve a young woman desperate to see her home again. He helps her make her way there, and beyond, and along the way they fall in love. It’s a beautiful game. I cried at the finale. It’s also really buggy and gets repetitive near the end as the developers more and more obviously run out of cash and have to reuse textures, areas, and creatures in order to reach the end of the script. I didn’t care even a little; it’s one of my favorite games and on a list of perhaps three story-driven games I’ll revisit, just to meet the characters again. There’s progressively less and less room for games like it, as evidenced by its obvious poverty, but the best thing about “DmC” is that it suggests that talent will eventually attract money and an audience. Less encouragingly, it suggests that the only way for talent to acquire either of those things is to be assimilated.