Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

What's Geekin' Me Now: Deadwood

With the holiday season coming on, I recently took advantage of Amazon allowing monthly Prime Membership pricing to sign up and get free shipping for my Xmas shopping.  As such, of course, I found I significantly expanded my streaming options for as long as I continued on.  My first act, naturally, was to binge three seasons of HBO's fabled Deadwood in the first week.

Deadwood is a series which ran from 2004-2006 originally, and which I've had recommended to me several times over the years. It's a fairly loose chronicle of the titular settlement from 1876 on, which gives the full HBO treatment to the motley assortment of gamblers & gunmen, prospectors & Pinkertons, and whores & entrepeneurs who come to settle in the camp, looking for escape or opportunity. Deadwood is an illegal boomtown over the border in Sioux treaty lands, and at a deeper level, the show is also a study in how civilization slowly, inevitably evolves from the anarchy of the wilderness. And above all, I've found it to be quite a good yarn.

The nominal star of the proceedings is Ian McShane in an astounding star turn as Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon and driving force behind much of the camp's schemes and politics. Swearengen is many things - a swindler, a pimp, a showman, and a murderer. Above all, he is a steely-eyed. silver tongued force of nature, who can chill with a single look and kill with a word. As he says when staring down Western legend Wild Bill Hickock in one episode, "I got a healthy operation here, and I didn't build it brooding on the right or wrong of things..." In this role of a lifetime (probably), McShane changes hats effortlessly throughout each episode, being at turns charming, sympathetic, practical or menacing. The viewer is never quite sure whether to hate or root for the man, and in the end, often one ends up doing both at the same time, feeling vaguely queasy about it the whole time.
Swearengen's two main foils (through the first couple of seasons anyway) are part-time lawman Seth Bullock (played by Timothy Olyphant) and rival saloon owner Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe).

Bullock is hard-nosed former lawman trying to start a simpler life in a lawless land. But as things happen, his temper and his overzealousness to do the right thing land him into a series of conflicts throughout the series. He's introduced in the first scene on his last day as a Montana sheriff, lynching his own prisoner to stay one step ahead of an angry mob, thus ensuring "due process" is served (or some ass backwards variant thereof). From there, things just seem to get trickier. Olyphant brings a simmering intensity to the role that endears him to the audience as the main protagonist, and this feels like the best work I've ever seen of his. Tolliver is, by contrast, a cool-headed schemer and pragmatist, and Boothe is perfect in the role as the owner of the Bella Union - the Gem's more upscale rival. It's eminently helpful of course that Boothe also has a grin reminiscent of a viper waiting to strike.

The real revelation watching the series, to me though, was the singular performance of geek movie mainstay Brad Dourif, as the camp's harried Doc Cochran. It seems like it would be all too simple to let this role devolve into caricature or perhaps a cliched pastiche of drunkenness, like Doc Boone in the blueprint Western Stagecoach. Instead, Cochran is at once competent, intelligent, empathetic and politically savvy - something one simply never sees in a portrayal of a period sawbones, as far as I can remember. Dourif gives Cochrane a restrained passion and grit that simply make the show better every single time he is on the screen. I actually looked up whether Dourif had been nominated for anything for his performance, and indeed found a Best Supporting Actor Emmy nod from 2003. Seems he lost to Michael Imperioli strangling his girlfriend in The Sopranos though. What can you do?

Far too many other fascinating characters abound in the series - like Wild Bill Hickock, Reverend Smith, or Wu the "Celestial" - to list and appreciate every one. But of course, no attempted review of Deadwood would be complete without mention of Robin Weigert's portrayal of Calamity Jane. She rides into camp with Wild Bill in the first episode, a whirlwind of whiskey and vulgar trashtalk. With all the other women on the show seemingly divided between the stiff "ladies" of the encampment and the hardscrabble prostitutes of the saloons, Jane's foulmouthed savant straddles the lines between these and the men of Deadwood to act as a sort of psychotic chorus moving from scene to scene. I was actually initially quite annoyed by the continuously muttered or shouted onslaught of her "inner" monologue, until it suddenly occurred to me that it's probably much how I sound to the UGG-wearing passersby whenever I try to shop at Target. Afterwards, I found her far more sympathetic and entertaining to watch.
(For what it's worth, I'm sure I'd be poorly suited to life in Deadwood, personally.  Not because of the obvious lack of plumbing or electrical amenities, but rather simply because I couldn't drink that much whiskey in a day and not want to die.)

Wild Bill draws
Most reviewers of Deadwood will point to the language of the series as one of its signature strengths - often invoking words like "Shakespearean". And it's true that most of the characters seem to slip easily back and forth between an almost poetic cadence and a street-level kind of crudity. That said, I tend to think, personally, ascribing too much gravity to the language is an oversimplification of what makes it so good. With the exception of the various vulgarities which were updated to remain contemporary (as curses like "tarnation" no longer hold the same verbal impact they once may have), the language otherwise feels very true to the place and period depicted to me. The blend of thoughtful, flowery speech is no more arcane than dialogue one might hear in HBO's John Adams for example, and being mixed liberally with the sort of plain talk one might also expect in the Black Hills in 1876 brings it very appropriately much more down to earth. If anything, I think it's not a matter of syntax, so much as the fact that it's just damn good writing and dialogue - poetic not in the style of Shakespeare, but rather in the style of The West Wing or other Sorkinian dramas.

If there are any major criticisms of Deadwood, I believe some definite pacing issues arise in the third season, along with some (regrettable) character arcs - or lack thereof.  Boothe's Tolliver is largely sidelined to an afterthought as the main conflict unites the camp (to a vague degree) against miner robber baron George Hearst.  Finally, the series ends not with a bang but a whimper, though the finale wasn't as bad as, say, the Seinfeld finale.  It's perhaps much closer to the 1991 finale of Twin Peaks - eliciting more of a "Wait, what?  Huh..." response when the last credits finally roll.  The possibility of at least one and possibly two feature films to tie up loose threads has been floated numerous times by the series' creators, so we can only hope. 

WARNING TO GMS:  Under no circumstance is it recommended that you attempt to reskin Deadwood for your own RPG group.  Even if your game is set on a frontier, or perhaps even a "Wilderland" do not attempt to use plots from the series as story hooks to engage your players, or invest any time or energy working to  adapt the settlement or its characters into a lively community of NPCs.  Your players will choose to ignore every hook you give them and will decide just to go rafting instead.  

Because they are a bunch of hooplehead c*cks*ck*rs.  

And they'd fit right in in Deadwood.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Monster Mike's Geek Reads: A Hat-Trick of Random!

I've got a hat-trick this time:  three short reviews of books I've read recently that I think are worthy of discussion - one recent release and two that have been around for a while.

My daughter and I were both pretty excited to see this in print.  We're both big fans of Black Widow, and we both reel with indignation that Marvel Studios won't agree to give Black Widow her own movie despite an outpouring of fan support.  Just check the twitter hashtag #BlackWidowMovie if you don't believe me.

So when this book hit the stands, we figured that this would be the story that Marvel could base their Black Widow movie on.  Although the action takes place in the present (i.e. with Natasha Romanova working with SHIELD), a lot of the story has its roots in her Red Room origins and her original mentor, Ivan Somodorov.

 The action in the novel follows Ana Orlova, a Brooklyn teenager who is just trying to fit in.  However, Ana's past is anything but typical.  The daughter of a brilliant Russian quantum physicist, she was subjected to brutal experiments as a young child by Ivan Somodorov before being rescued by Natasha Romanov and placed under SHIELD protection.  In the present day, she has escaped SHIELD custody and is living out on the streets, perpetually haunted by persistent dreams of a young man with an hourglass tattoo.

Natasha learns through SHIELD that children are now going missing all over Eastern Europe, and discovers that her (believed dead) former mentor and torturer is actually alive and up to his old tricks again.  And Ana is the key to stopping him.  Natasha finally catches up to Ana at a fencing tournament where Ana has just bumped into the boy of her dreams - Alex Cross, the kid with that hourglass tattoo I mentioned in the previous paragraph and you already forgot about.  Somewhat predictably, both of them turn out to be harboring latent super-powers similar to the Black Widow's, because super-hero reasons (does it really matter?  Really?).  There is an awkward teen romance between Ana and Alex, of course.  After a short cameo with Tony Stark, the final half of the novel can be summed up as follows: They hunt down Somodorov and confront him in classic Black Widow fashion.

The book is well written and enjoyable to read.  However, it's a little too focused on Ana and Alex to serve as the screenplay for the Black Widow movie.  Still, if you dig Black Widow, you won't be disappointed in this book.  Fair warning - you are likely to find this book shelved under YA Fiction or Teen Fiction, as that was clearly the intended audience for the novel.  Though it's a perfectly enjoyable read for grown-ups, the romantic teen storyline may feel a little cringe-worthy to an adult reader.


I have some pretty huge gaps in my reading history, and Stephen King is one of them.  Sure, I've read The Shining and Christine and Misery and half a dozen other horror titles of his that became movies.  But I've only read the first book of The Dark Tower series, and I have never read The Stand (until now).  These, according to Stephen King buffs, are his truly great works.

The Stand takes place in America, in the immediate aftermath of an apocalyptic super-virus.  The virus is highly contagious and quickly fatal to everyone except a tiny fraction of the population who are mysteriously immune.  The first half of the book chronicles the lives of some of these isolated survivors as they watch everyone around them die, and slowly draws them together through mysterious dreams that lead them toward the messiah-like figure of Mother Abigail; an ancient black woman living out in the prairies of Kansas.  We also get to know other characters.  People with darker natures.  Their dreams lead them toward Las Vegas where Randall Flagg aka The Walkin' Dude is busy working to establish his own new world order.

Eventually, you end up with two very clear camps.  It would be too simplistic to refer to them as good and evil, because there are a lot of subtleties involved, but it makes for a convenient shorthand.  The group of civic minded do-gooders winds up in Boulder  trying to create a livable community and a fresh start on the world guided by the gentle wisdom of Mother Abigail.  The group of win-at-all-costs survivalists ends up in Las Vegas under the dictatorial rule of Randall Flagg.  Once both groups start to get their act together, Las Vegas declares war on Boulder.  However, the war is metaphysical as much as real.

 I don't want to spoil some of the key events that happen later in the story, so we'll leave it at that.  Let's just say that the ending is jaw-droppingly awesome.  I think King hits on some really deep themes in this book - the nature of good and evil, the paradoxes of humanity itself, and at the core, why Utopian societies always fail.  The book is quite long, weighing in at around 1300 pages.  But King is a master of his craft and at no point is the reader left feeling bored or irritated by the length of the book or its languorous pacing.  Not only is it a great story, but it will give you a lot to think about when you are done reading it.


If you're getting tired of the same old recycled tropes and storylines in your reading, you might want to try American Gods.  I guarantee that it's not like anything you've read before.  Although the greater plot is loosely structured around the classic Hero's Journey, it has more in common with a magic mushroom trip at Burning Man than The Lord of The Rings.

Our reluctant hero is Shadow Moon, recently released from prison and alone in the world due to the recent death of his wife, Laura.  He quickly finds employment serving as the bodyguard of a con-man called Mr. Wednesday and soon realizes that his employer is an incarnation of Odin, the all-father.  Their travels around the country introduce Shadow to a host of other old gods and magical creatures - Mr. Nancy (Anansi), Czernobog, and Mad Sweeney - a leprechaun who gives Shadow a magic coin which ends up playing a key role in turning Shadow's dead wife into an intelligent zombie.  In this mythology, the old gods are only as powerful as the belief that people have in them, and in this new-fangled modern age the old gods feel their power waning as the new gods of technology and media take over our thoughts.

But Mr. Wednesday has a plan!  He is trying to rally the old gods to fight a war against the new.  Shadow is abducted by the new gods, but is rescued by zombie-Laura, and Wednesday places him in hiding.  First with a trio of Egyptian gods (Anubis, Thoth, and Bast) in the guise of two small-town undertakers and their housecat.  And later in the strange town of Lakeside, Minnesota where a resident Kobold (Hinzelmann) has blessed the town but sometimes abducts and kills children from the community.

Again, I don't want to spoil the ending.  Let's just say that certain sacrifices have to be made.  One of the satisfying things about this story is that after the climax of the main action, there is a nice epilogue where all of the open plot threads get tied up and laid to rest.  Overall, I'd say this is a masterful work of storytelling.  However, it is not an easy read.  Gaiman's prose is thick and chewy, his pacing can be uneven, and there are some rather psychedelic sequences that will challenge many readers raised on the bland oatmeal of conventional popular writing.


Saturday, December 3, 2016

The CVG Actual Play & Community Theater Podcast 034 - Star Wars: The Long Shot Campaign - Episode 08: You Don't Have To Live Like A Refugee

Episode 34 of The CVG Actual Play & Community Theater Podcast is up and in stores near you (i.e. iTunes)!  

Remember: it's on a different feed from The CVG Podcast and Rhythm & Blues Revue, so you will need to subscribe to this feed separately if you're into it!

The game is Star Wars (Revised d6), by West End  Games

And now a quick breakdown of our characters:

PC:  Gwen DeMarco
Human Slicer
Player:  Chris

PC:  Quint Multra
Human Wrench Monkey
Player:  Jack

PC:  Zahira Tagge
Human Pilot
Player:  Brian

PC:  Zaquesh Rooleg (aka This One)
Gand Findsman
Player:  Nick

Here's the Obsidian Portal Page!

Remember to show your love and support for the Geek out on Patreon!  Actual play episodes don't count for our Patreon contributions, so every time we play a game, you get a freebie!

Music:  "Refugee" by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers