williamallenpepper

Here's a blog because NOBODY else has one!

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

BOOK REVIEW: THE ARIMATHEAN by Sean Leary

I wandered around an art festival recently where a vendor was selling Nativity scenes – Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and the wise men in Bethlehem – some of which were more whimsical than others. One scene, for example, had penguin figurines standing over baby Jesus penguin eggs.

I was thinking about that as I read Sean Leary’s new novel THE ARIMATHEAN. There is nothing whimsical about this book. It’s a book about Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the Magi, but it is NOT a religious book per se. There’s no sermon, no proselytizing. God is actually barely even mentioned. It’s good versus evil on whatever level works for you. This just feels like an adventure story.

A bloody, gory, fight-filled adventure story. The story imagines that the Magi were actually mystical ninjas from a secret society whose mission it is to protect Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem to give birth to Christ. They are pursued by King Herod and Satan’s demons.

Every adventure like this needs a jaded ex-something-or-other pulled back into the fold, called upon to do what he does best despite his overpowering reluctance. THE ARIMATHEAN has that. The titular Arimathean is an ex-Magi with his own personal demons drawn back For One Last Mission.

There are parts of this book I read while eating lunch that I wished I had not read while eating lunch. This is not a book I probably would have written. Frankly, it’s probably not a book I would have picked up if I didn’t already trust Leary’s talents as writer. (Exhibit 1: Leary’s excellent short story collection EVERY NUMBER IS LUCKY TO SOMEONE) You would NOT hear this story in Bible study class. Lots of swords and axes, blood and pus, violence and torture. The Nativity penguins would TOTALLY freak.

BUT those who object to violence and blood in a “Jesus book” should consider what is actually in the Bible and real religious history. These were violent days. Leary just ups the ante with magic and demons thrown in.

Also, and here’s the thing, this book is UPLIFTING. Gross at times, yes, intense throughout, definitely. But it also has that feel good quality a good adventure story must have. Whether you take that as a “Glory of God” message or just a “it feels awesome to kick evil’s ass” message is up to you. The book puts no pressure on you to choose. Just enjoy the ride whatever way you want.

THE ARIMATHEAN is book one of a planned three-part trilogy. I, for one, am looking forward to this.

I’ve met Leary a couple of times. This is a gifted writer and a nice person. Take a leap. Buy this book.

Advertisements

THE REPLACEMENT WRITER

*Ahem* Me wright gooder.

Erm, no. *Hack* I can do this! I can write. My name and everything. Who’s a good writer! I am!

Wooooo!

Yeah, uh, so, like the regular writer of this blog, like went on strike and stuff.  So, I’m fillin’ in God help me. It’ll be fun. God help you.

All right, so, first, I want to thank Phil Bill for letting me phil fill in. Not that he had a choice. Blog Central Office locked him out. Sucks for him. He had a large coffee and the bathroom is in here.

Anyway, in today’s fog blog entry, we’re gonna clear up a few misconceptions, falsities and lies that have crept up around the blog. We might not be the regular blogger, but we can do this quickly and suck succinctly. Plain, straight-forward talk. Me hate elitist, oh-so-cool text language. Oh, they’re all “u” this and “I h8 that.” and “deoxyribonucleic acid is the key to life-giving medical treatments if only we provide the proper funding to the National Institutes of Health. Yo.”

So here we go: *checks time*. Yeah. Now.

It was this blog that first convinced Hugh Jackman he could do action films AND musical theatre.

The blog is confident that John Kerry will win the November presidential election.

Keira Knightley really needs to stop sending me her underwear.

That never happened.

Yes, it did.

*Shuffles some papers*

We’re still checking the records on that.

Fish tacos and Ben ‘n’ Jerry’s Phish ice cream do not, in fact, play well together.

lkdfldkkjewp-09039ucm DAMMIT, CAT! GET OFF THE KEYBOARD!

Even after all this time, we still still can’t figure out of the classic TV series “Twin Peaks” was intentionally mello-dramatic, poorly acted, or both.

Okay, that’s it. Good blog piece today, guys. Let’s…oh. There’s more? Sorry.

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Apples

Peanut butter

Tuna fish

Light bulbs

Pick up dry-cleaning

Donate plasma

A lonely blue marble rolls hither and yon across the marble expanse of the universe. A ceaseless quest for knowledge. For life. For connection. Where will it stop? Will it ever stop? If it does, what does that mean? The marble is a sphere. We are all the sphere.

Embrace your roundness. Be the sphere.

Woo! Nailed it!

Yeah. I want the other guy back too.

 

IT’S LONELY OUT HERE

If you read my post earlier this week, you know that my book IN THE ST. NICK OF TIME, which was published in print form in 2008, is now available as an e-book. That alone was a big new step in my slow, but steady, progression through the world of self or indie-publishing. (Some people define “self” and “indie” differently; I tend to use the terms interchangeably.) However, I found the expansion from existing only in the print marketplace to existing in both print and e-book stores less stressful than I might have thought. This was thanks largely to the surprisingly easy to use Pressbooks and Amazon’s also surprisingly user-friendly Kindle Direct Publishing.

It also helps that because this book was out in print already, I already had a well-designed cover that, thankfully, transferred well when formatted from an image to be used in print to one that gets ground up by an e-book formatter. The production side, therefore, was not hard at all.

So I got the book formatted and uploaded to Amazon pretty quickly once I got started on it. Then came the selling side. That’s always the sucky side, right? No less true in e-world than in print world.

First, I had to decide on  a price. Production costs are less on an e-book, of course. But the seller (at the moment just Amazon) gets a big cut (35% or 70% depending on the KDP program you go with). And there’s my time and other incidental costs (Pressbooks and KDP are FREE to use, but I paid for the software to write the book, paid a designer to help with the cover, ink to print out drafts, etc.) Still, for me, production costs are relatively low for the e-version (not so much for the print version, sadly) and in the current e-book marketplace, that does seem to drive the cost down. Even on books that really do cost more to produce, readers just expect that an e-book is cheaper to make, so authors and publishers are often compelled to lower prices.

Besides, if most e-books are selling for $10 or $5 or even 99 cents, and they are as far as I can tell,  I’d be stupid to slap a $25 price tag on my e-b00k. I’m not going to sell many books that way.

But still…99 cents? Who is gonna take a 99 cent book seriously? Or $2.99 or $5.99 for that matter? I think all of you with Kindles and Nooks and tablets and whatever will. Because you’ve read these “cheap” books. You know there are stories just as good out there as anything else in publishing, that just happen to be lower priced. The market expects e-books to be cheaper, so they are. The lower price reflects market forces, not book quality.

There is another consideration with pricing IN THE ST. NICK OF TIME that I might not have with my next, new book, which I hope will be coming sometime in 2013. ST. NICK is not a new book. The print version came out in 2008. I think I was out just ahead of the whole e-book tidal wave so I didn’t get in at that time. I’m excited to be in e-format now, but even though that’s new, the book isn’t. In that situation, 99 cents feels okay.

So now the book is formatted. It’s got a price. It’s got a page on Amazon (and eventually other places where the print version already is). Now what? I can hear the Internet crickets chirping already. The Internet is a big place with a lot of books on it. It’s lonely out here in cyberspace. Do people still call it that? “Cyberspace”? Anyway…

The thing is, marketing a print book, a physical thing that exists on a shelf in a bookstore is, in some ways, relatively easy. You can set up a table at a bookstore and a stack of books and sign them for anyone who wants a copy. You can carry it around and wave it in people’s faces. Set it out on your coffee table. Set it out on your neighbor’s coffee table until the cops confiscate it for evidence on the trespassing charge.

An e-book, though, is just a file on a computer. When you walk by the “New Releases” table at your favorite indie bookshop, a snazzy cover might catch your eye and make you stop (whoever said you can’t judge a book by its cover never worked in marketing), but if that same book is on a computer screen and you have to scroll down to find the snazz, well, the effect just isn’t the same. A lot of the same marketing approaches don’t work here. No book signings. No breaking and entering. Initially, it can be hard to know what to do.

But there are things to be done. Many things.

Free book promotions, like what I did with IN THE ST. NICK OF TIME on September 23 (and maybe again in the future…?). Blogs like this one. Twitter. Facebook. Author pages. Direct PDF sales (one advantage of e-books is they are a hell of a lot cheaper to ship) Interviews. Book reviews. And a host of other things I’m still figuring out.

Wish me luck, Internet, as I do all of you with your own e-books. AND GO BUY MY BOOK! (Sorry, I seem to be stuck in self-promo mode this week. It’s like an intestinal virus. Not pretty, but it passes.)

BOOK NEWS: IN THE ST. NICK OF TIME

So, a while back, I wrote this book titled IN THE ST. NICK OF TIME. And now finally you can get it here as an e-book and pretty much everywhere in print.

The book is sort of a Santa Claus story for adults ( because it was about time, I think) set in Santa Claus, Indiana at Christmas. It tells the story of three men having a very crappy holiday. Cameron Jones is a famous author without a recent hit, adrift with emotional problems and the looming loss of his five-year-old daughter when she and his ex-wife move away. His friend Dogwater Hunt is a broke, obsessed alien abductee intent on proving aliens are going to visit Earth on Christmas Eve if the abduction flashbacks induced by holiday lights don’t do him in first. Also, he’d really like a new TV.

And, finally, the third musketeer in our little adventure. The big man himself. Old St. Nick has been jolly for centuries. But he’s tired. So very tired. So Santa quits. Packs up his cookies and milk and moves to Indiana, posing as a relative of Cameron’s ex-wife. The three men end up unwittingly helping each other muddle through the holiday season. To save Christmas, they have to save each other. Oh, and did I mention the imaginary goldfish who swears a lot?

AND GET THIS! If you’re reading this blog on September 23, the e-book version of IN THE ST. NICK OF TIME on Amazon is ABSOLUTELY FREE! Today only! Free! And if September 23 has come and gone already, don’t sweat it, the e-book is only 99 cents. My only request is if you like the book (or any book), leave a review somewhere to help other readers.

NOTE TO YOU INDIE AUTHORS: Yeah, putting your book up for free is uber-scary. This is the first time I’ve done it and it seems strange to just give away my little book baby. But any chance to get new readers is worth it. I think. We’ll see. I’d love to hear other perspectives om this.

ONE MORE TIME: Sunday, 9/23. FREE ALL DAY!  Just 99 cents every other day!

End commercial (I feel icky now, but this book is totally worth it, if I do say so myself.)

YES, BUT IS IT ART?

There are a lot of things that have been labelled “art”. It’s a wildly subjective term, yet there is a whole host of things we as a collective agree is “art”. There is a lot of other stuff that many would call art, to which others would say, “No friggin’ way that’s art.” Or at best’ they’d say, “Man, I just don’t see it. Pass the drugs.

So! Here’s a list of thing. Some have been deemed to art by the masses. Others are  debated, but often called art. And still others are things that no one normally would call art. But art is subjective. The eye of the beholder is an unpredictable bastard.And the funny thing is, with some things, once you put them next to “art”, you start to think, “Well, maybe…”

So here’s the list, in no particular order. You and your friends can debate what is really “art” and what isn’t. Check your guns at the door.

The Mona Lisa
Ground chuck
“Peanuts” comic strips
The Taj Mahal
Fresh cut grass
The films of Laurel & Hardy

The films of the Coen brothers
The Thinker
Mein Kampf
Warhol’s Campbells soup painting
The Communist Manifesto
The Harry Potter books
Fossils
Ancient cave paintings in France
A gourmet meal
Autumn leaves
The Bible
A mountain stream
A high school football game
Any Olympic sport
A crucifix in a jar of urine
The bottle cap collection belonging to Bert from Sesame Street
War
Love
M*A*S*H
Sunday in the Park With George

Pornography
Great Wall of China
Children
Life
Venus de Milo
The show “Lost”
Homey Booboo
Springsteen
Rolling Stones
The Beatles
Justin Bieber
The Grand Canyon
The game Monopoly
The video game Diablo
The video game Grand Theft Auto
The works of Mark Twain
The works of Danielle Steel
In the St. Nick of Time by William Pepper (that was shameful. Sorry.)

CONSIDERING MATTHEW PERRY

One of my favorite bits from classic sitcom “Friends” was just a throwaway gag from a first season episode. The girls – Phoebe, Rachel and Monica – are having a girls’ night at Monica’s apartment while the guys – Joey, Ross, Chandler – are at a hockey game. The girls are sitting on the balcony talking and Rachel, sitting on the railing with a couch pillow wedged behind her back, against the wall, shifts, causing the pillow to plummet off the balcony. There’s a little laugh there and the plot proceeds with whatever the  main storylines were Eventually, the guys come home and everyone is in the apartment. There’s a knock on the door and Chandler answers it. A stranger is there and, without saying a word, hands Chandler the couch pillow and leaves. Chandler gives one of his bewildered looks and closes the door. It’s a small but, to me, very funny (and evidently very memorable) bit.

I was thinking of this as I watched Matthew Perry’s (who, of course, played Chandler Bing) new sitcom “Go On” on NBC. Perry’s a funny, personable guy, but he’s had a tough time finding something good since “Friends” ended it’s run. He’s never really had a big movie career. “The Whole Nine Yards” was probably his biggest commercial hit. And he’s left a trail of dead TV pilots in his wake. “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”, Aaron Sorkin’s high-profile follow-up to “The West Wing” (on which Perry had a meaty guest shot) lasted for one season. The show let Perry try his chops at “dramedy” acting versus straight-up sitcom acting. His character, Matt Albee, head writer for a fictional “Saturday Night Live” type sketch show, was a one-liner machine like Chandler, but with a lot more ego and a little more edge to his personality. I liked the character and the show, despite (or maybe because of?) its many flaws, but a lot of people didn’t. I think if the show had either (1) had more time to grow or even better (2) come out on cable where the expectations for tone and style are different, the show could have been a hit. The ratings it got on NBC were laughed out, but would equal solid hit on cable.

Anyway, I wondered who would show up on “Go On” – Chandler Bing or Matt Albee. Either way, I wasn’t really expecting much, given Perry’s spotty record. I’m happy to say, however, the show’s not half bad. Perry plays Ryan King, a hot-shot sports radio host doing a really bad job of dealing with the death of his wife. The radio station pushes him into attending  group counseling sessions before they will let him go back to work. The group is sort of a less-pretty version of “Friends”, a menagerie of quirky people spanning teenaged to elderly, with a host of problems. Ryan King – a hybrid of Chandler’s one-liners and Matt Albee’s ego – becomes sort of the ring-leader trying to shake these people out of their self-pity, by unorthodox means, much to their counselor’s chagrin. It’s a simple premise that’s been done before. (“The Bob Newhart Show”, “Dear John”, just to name two), but, happily, it works. The downer premise – Perry being unable to properly mourn the  loss of his wife – is played with a light, witty touch without losing any of the heart. Even the quirky supporting cast – always a risk – manages to do its job without going over the top.

This show will never reach “Friends” stature in terms of ratings or cultural icon status. I’m not sure any show can with cable, movies, Internet, Netflix, and video games all competing for our attention. But this show seems to have hit upon a mixture of laughs and enough real emotion to have staying power. At least the first two episodes did. Time will tell, I guess.

I’ve always liked Matthew Perry. I must. Why the hell else would I waste a blog post on him? I’ve even liked his movies (even “Almost Heroes” with Chris Farley and that one with Salma Hayek I can’t remember the name of.) I’m rooting for this show. You should too.

THE SPLENDIFEROUS WAYS WE F*** UP OUR KIDS

I know absolutely nothing about kids. This is unfortunate in as much as I have kids. (Sorry, kids. Here’s another entry for the book you’ll write about me someday.)

But I do know this: a lot of us, even with the best intentions, do an awful lot of things that screw up our kids. Here’s just a few of my favorites:

  • Toddlers in tiaras or anything that requires putting makeup on children to make them look like adults. Outside of Ron Howard, you can’t think of a child star who didn’t go off the reality train at some point can you? There’s a reason for that. Objectifying children for our amusement is at best weird, and often outright creepy. Turns out the movie “Little Miss Sunshine” is practically a documentary.
  • Any variation on the bumper sticker “My kid can beat up your honor student”. What is the message here? Violence is good? Smart people need to be put down? These stickers seem more hostile than funny.
  • Most organized kids sports. Sports are great. Teamwork and striving to sharpen your skills are awesome. Letting adults organize it, however, just mucks it up. Too many hours of practice rather than studying or, gee, just letting kids be kids, doing next to nothing to prevent injuries, and parents brawling in the stands, parents who sneer at teacher salaries and buying paper and pens, but think nothing of spending on a new sports stadium. All of this tells me we’ve lost sight of what’s important about sports.
  • The obvious ones: too much junk food, too much tv, too much staying up late, yada, yada. We all know what are kids shouldn’t do. A lot of the things are things we shouldn’t do either. But we do. So we let the kids do it too. Don’t want to be hypocrites. But, you know, when it comes to be a parent, sometimes “Do as I say, not as I do” can be a valid argument. It’s our job to keep them alive.
  • Misplaced worries. For example, worrying more about the lyrics in their music than about the people they’re listening with. Lectures about clean rooms, but none about drugs. Teaching kids how to take out the garage, but not how to hold a door for an elderly person. Things like that.
  • Blaming video games for our failure to motivate kids to use their own imaginations. I like video games. I played lots of them growing up. I won’t tell my kids not to play them. But instead of letting them sit passively in front of a screen ALL THE TIME, why not help them to understand (1) it took imagination to create that game; (2) playing games can be a springboard to developing your own creativity? Games don’t have to be a passive pursuit. Kids can get ideas for their own stories, games and adventures. Parents need to calm down (a little) about what’s in the games and think more about the educational (gasp!) value of them.
  • Over-scheduling. Swimming lessons. Music lessons. Sports practice. ll good stuff. My kids do many of these things. But all things in moderation is a saying for good reason. School comes first and, just like your job, it’s tiring. Be careful how much you pile on. Some of this tight scheduling could have to do with filling the free time void left by not letting our kids run free after school and explore, unstructured. This brings me to the next point:
  • Adults, stop f***ing up the world so that it is not safe for kids to play outside unstructured. When I was a kid, no one thought much about me and my friends walking to school alone or riding our bikes pretty much wherever we wanted. It’s a different world now. Stranger danger is at an all time high. With guns all over the place – legal and otherwise – you never know when your kid (or you, for that matter) is going to get caught in crossfire. Kids today, including mine, hardly go anywhere unguarded, It’s necessary, but sort of a shame. Having adults around might make kids safer, but it also cramps their style a bit. We try to fill that guarded time with “enriching” activities, but it may that efforts to make our kids more “well-rounded” could actually just dull them a little. Thanks, adults. We have only ourselves to blame for this.

I’m not Dr. Spock (the child-rearing guru, not the Vulcan. I’m not him either.) I’m not even Dr. Phil. (Does he still have a show?) All parents excel at some area of parenting and suck at other areas. Do the best you can is lame advice, but it’s true.  Now turn off the computer and go play a game with your kid.

WHAT EVIL LURKS IN THE FICTION SHELVES?…THE SHADOW STORE KNOWS!

My legions of loyal readers will know that I’ve written a lot about the fate of bookstores, speculating whether they’re doomed or not; offering ideas to help keep them going. So when I saw this article: http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ201209090033 , I couldn’t resist commenting.

It seems the new thing to replace the traditional bookstore model could be stores that are…imaginary?

Ika Bunko is a virtual bookstore “open” now in Japan whose main feature is that it has no actual “books”. Oh, and also it doesn’t really exist as a “store”. Manager Yuki Kasukawa calls Ika Bunko an “air bookstore”. There is no physical presence. No actual store you can walk into. The financial benefits are obvious: no rent, no utilities, no overhead, no expenses, no employees to pay, other than the owners. The benefit for consumers is, what? No walking? No pesky shopping when they’re shopping? There’s no chance of being overwhelmed by the selection, when there isn’t any. No risk of impulse buying at the checkout counter when there isn’t one.

I’m a little confused, but intrigued.

However, it’s not like Ika Bunko doesn’t sell anything. The store publishes a newsletter about books and bookstores, sells merchandise like t-shirts, tote bags and book covers, and host book groups and fairs – all within other, brick & mortar stores.

And, someday, Ika Bunko hopes to start publishing books. When you literally have no physical limitations, I suppose there are no limits to what you can do. Why not Ika Bunko books with blank pages? You don’t just decide the ending, you decide the whole story. Or Ika Bunko movie productions filmed entirely in front of green screens with computer generated actors?

So what do you think of this new frontier in the bookstore story? Is it a way to save the bookstore or destroy them once and for all?

I don’t know.

I’m fascinated to see where this leads. I can totally see this idea spreading to other areas: restaurants that sell the sizzle, not the steak; hair salons that hold the comb up to your head, Fonzie style, and say you look just fine the way you are; grocery stores that sell empty food packages like in my kids’ toys; hookers that sell the promise of sex without the payoff.

Hopes, like the possibilities, are endless. When we imagine, we can dare to do great things…that are also imaginary.

CAPTURING LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE…THEN HIDING IT

The last few years, the way we get our information has been in the news as much as how we use that information or  what it is. We live in a time when perhaps the means of communication and content transfer are as valuable – and closely guarded – as the content itself.

A few years ago, Google got a lot of flack for scanning thousands of books and making them available for free. The desire to make information accessible to all slammed up against the economic interests of some.

Piracy of copyrighted work has been around forever. Bootleg movies begat illegal sharing of music files which begat sharing of e-books without permission. Piracy, it seems, equals evil.

The counter argument is that yes, copyrights are infringed, but the act of sharing is free publicity that actually increases legal sales. Every publisher, especially self-publishers, wrestle with whether to release their books with digital rights management (DRM) in place. I did with In the St. Nick of Time . So has every other writer in the lat few years. People who create – writers, computer programmers, artists, whatever – are very protective of the things they create. Loosening the chains is a difficult prospect to get behind.

When I did the print version of my book, e-books and readers weren’t really a thing yet, though they followed soon after. When I decided to do an e-book, I had to spend a lot more time thinking about how people would access that content and what they would do with it and how I felt about that, not just as an artist, but as a business person trying to make a profit. Was I okay with letting people steal from me, should that occur? Every publisher has had to make that call. It has not always been easy.

Which brings us to litigation. There’s been a lot of it. Music companies sued or threatened anyone with a PC and music file. Microsoft has sued and been sued many times. And, of course, a jury just smacked Samsung with a billion dollar verdict in Apple’s favor for infringing patents. I’m not an expert on that suit, but the gist seems to be Apple sued Samsung for making Galaxy phones that look WAY too much like iPhones. Two companies, dedicated to technology and innovation, then Apple comes along and says, “Hey, your phone looks a little too much like ours.” And the jury agrees and gives them lots of money.

I don’t know if Samsung really infringed. If they did, there probably should be some sort of penalty. But it does seem to me that, like cars (I know I’ll get heat for this), there are only so many ergonomic or aerodynamic or aesthetic things you can do with a phone (or a car) and pretty much all phones (and cars)made today look more or less similar to each other.It’s not because anyone stole an idea, but rather because that look or that method or whatever works best.

Still, creatives tend to assume their thing is the most unique thing in the world. But you know what? The dirty secret is sometimes, it’s not. We can capture lightning in a bottle – a voice that stands out, a killer plot, a phone with cool apps, but we can’t hide it under the bed. It’s too bright. Something else is always going to come along to do the same thing. A new bottle full of new lightning.

Some have speculated that Apple suing Samsung was more about getting at Google’s Android operating platform than about dinging Samsung for similar-looking phones. Part of me gets it, wanting to protect your ideas, preserve your reputation for being on the cutting edge, and protecting your financial stake in what you’ve done. There is nothing wrong with wanting to protect your bottom line. Contrary to popular belief, art and making money are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One doesn’t diminish the other.

If you steal, you’re still a thief, whether it’s a car, a book or a phone design. Still…the free flow of ideas is a seductive and beautiful thing. And maybe, in some cases, there is actually more money to be made the pirate way? I don’t know…

Yo ho ho! And a bottle of rum, matey!

Hey, that sounds good. Excuse me…

STORYTELLING CASE STUDIES: Walter White and The Doctor

The past week saw the season 7 debut of British sci-fi series Doctor Who and the mid-season cliffhanger ending of Breaking Bad which ends its TV run in 2013.xl I was so impressed with both, that I wanted to take this opportunity to do two things: review these most recent episodes and take some time to consider the story telling richness of iconic characters Walter White and The Doctor.

WARNING: SPOILERS MAY ABOUND BELOW. Well, there will be some. Whether they abound or not, I guess, depends how you define “abound.”

Breaking Bad, for the uninitiated, is an AMC drama about a family man, high school chemistry teacher, beaten down by life, who turns 50 and finds out he has cancer. Suddenly faced with the prospect of dying and leaving his family penniless, he hooks up with a former stoner student to cook an insanely pure grade of blue meth. Over the past four seasons, Walt has spiraled downward from nice guy-doing-bad-for-the-right-reasons to bad-guy-on-a-power-trip to where he is now in season five, bad-guy-trying-to-regain-good-guy-self. Problem is, last week’s episode suggests he may finally be busted. Walt is smart. Very smart. But he got careless. His love for Walt Whitman – and his brother-in-law’s lower intestine – could be his undoing.

Walt is not the only bad guy to play a prime role on a TV show. Tony Soprano was pretty consistently a bad dude from the start of “The Sopranos” to the end. Conflicted, sure, but a mobster through and through. Maybe you rooted for him to changed (or maybe you didn’t), but he was pretty much the same Tony from season to season.

Dexter is a “hero” of sorts because he targets murderers and rapists who have somehow escaped law enforcement, always meticulous about making sure his victim is guilty. But Dexter himself has always been the first to say that all he’s doing is directing his blood lust toward society’s dregs so that he doesn’t randomly kill his neighbors and other innocents.

But Walt is unique. He’s the first character I can think of where the series premieres with its central character a clean-cut innocent and devolving into murder and mayhem, challenging the viewer to stay with the show and making that viewer really question if they are rooting for or against the character. That’s a fascinating storytelling challenge. It’s easy to write a good character that readers/viewers want to root for. It’s also easy to write a bad guy that people love to read – why do you think actors always say in interviews they want to play the bad guy? But writing a central character so strong that the viewer stays with him despite (because of?) the increasingly bad things he does? That’s the storytelling olympics, friend. I picture a lot of late-night pots of coffee in the “Breaking Bad” writer’s room. Also whisky. And, oddly, a lazy susan full of cheese cubes.

Anyway, if Walter White is a masterclass in redefining “protagonist”, then The Doctor is a study in tweeking a legendary character in ways that deepen his appeal rather than deflate it.

It would take too long to summarize fifty years of TV history, but in short: The Doctor of BBC TV’s “Doctor Who” is a Time Lord who travels the universe in a  TARDIS that looks like a 1960’s British police call box on the outside, but inside is an infinitely large spaceship that can travel anywhere in time and space. The Doctor has devoted his life to protecting the defenseless. The original “classic” Who ran for almost thirty years, then, after a fifteen year break, returned to TV, and gangbuster ratings, in 2005. The Doctor’s (Did I mention the character can regenerate when mortally wounded? I’ll save that for another time.)

The new show, along with better special effects and, honestly, better acting, has more of an edge. The premise of the new show is that the Doctor’s entire race has been wiped out – by his own doing. He destroyed his own people to end The Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks (giant slugs housed in scary looking metal canisters that like to kill things) Classic doctors tended to be more professorial. Cranky, occasionally petulant, often funny, but ultimately good guys.  The modern era Doctor is angrier and not occasionally egotistical. The heroism and humor are there too, but there’s a lot of rage underneath. There have been a lot more speeches made to the Doctor about getting too big for his britches. And last week’s premiere found The Doctor facing his dread enemy the Daleks again. Kidnapped, surrounded, the Doctor waved his arms proclaiming, “Here I am!” He went on to help a woman realize that she was turned into a Dalek. Then blew her up.

Don’t get me wrong. “Doctor Who” is still great sci-fi fun, but more and more these dark passages are being sprinkled into the mix. It’s a light touch, sure, but still a stretching of the classic Who fabric; a delicate dance for a decades-old formula.

“Writing” is a technical skill; being able to put together words and paragraphs, proper spelling and grammar, in a way that is concise and coherent. “Storytelling” is an art; using writing to captivate, thrill, repel, and otherwise move you in a way that the DVD player manual just can’t. The Doctor and Walter White are just too fine examples of that art.

Go watch some TV.

Post Navigation