Adventure Time

There's a strange cultural marriage going on that nobody seems to be talking about. A billion thinkpieces have been written about reality shows and the effect they have on the landscape of television and how "real" they actually are and if they signal the end of civilization. Comparisons between reality shows and scripted television are a dime a dozen. But oddly, I haven't seen much chatter about the two recent shows that melded the two. Reality competitions are generally out and proud about the "character" their contestants are representing. This is Amber. She's a pharmaceutical rep from Philly who has big boobs, and is convinced she's gonna leave the other contestants in the dust. Crafty editing can make Amber look like a ditz, or a relatable everywoman, or a bitch, but she's always Amber - a person who exists in real life. When it comes to last year's Whodunnit? and this past summer's The Quest, though, the lines get a lot blurrier. These are reality competitions with a healthy dose of scripted material woven into the fabric. That script affects not only the game the contestants are playing (making it a pretty cool sort of interactive play for them), but the personalities the contestants exude as well.

The premise of Whodunnit? appealed to me right away, because why wouldn't it? I've been begging the gaming industry for a new murder mystery game for a while now, but it seems that TV was the one who noticed my pleas. Whodunnit? asked its contestants to solve mock murders via riddles, puzzles, forensic examinations, and alliances with other players. An actor playing the butler functioned as the host, who explained rules and backstory to the contestants, one of whom was actually the murderer. But rather than just scripting material for those two, Whodunnit? took it one step further, and brought the contestants into the story by making them the victims as well. If you didn't do well in solving that week's murder, then guess who the next body is? It was strange to see real people talking about not wanting to die and then winding up lying stiff on the cold slab in the faux morgue kept in the basement. The audience never saw any of the preparation for this, of course - there were no scenes of the producers giving someone the bad news that it was time to perform the scene of their own demise. To us, it was presented as half game/half story.

It was a compelling idea in theory, and most of the game and story design was pretty great. Unfortunately, the one thing the producers could not predict was how the social aspect of the game would play out. Splitting "evidence" into multiple locations meant that no one person was able to figure out everything each week; sharing information was absolutely essential to doing well in the long run. Being adept at garnering information while letting out as little as possible sounds like it would be interesting to watch, and perhaps it would have been, if the bulk of every episode hadn't boiled down to a symphony of whining. "Whyyyy isn't she sharing information with meeeeee?" "Hey, who did you share this information with?" "I don't trust his information." "Could you please go away while I discuss information with so-and-so?" Just about every episode wound up sounding like bickering in a junior high school cafeteria. That one aspect made this show a lot less enjoyable than it otherwise would have been, but it still had a lot to like about it. For the curious, it's a decent Laundry Show, and all of the episodes are currently available to watch on YouTube.

In addition to murder mysteries, I'm also a fan of RPG gaming, at least in some of its forms. I toyed around with World of Warcraft for a while, and have more hours of Dark Age of Camelot under my belt than most. Summer television is mostly a dead zone, so when another story-based-reality-competition show popped up (this time with a fantasy RPG element), I was way more interested than I would have been if this show had debuted in, say, October. I'm talking about The Quest, which pretended that its contestants had been whisked away to a magical realm, full of witches and ogres and invading armies. The winner would be declared the "one true hero". I don't even think they got a prize. The challenges tested the contestants (known as paladins in this context) in a variety of skills, like archery, puzzle-solving, and obstacle courses. Whoever did the best would be given a medal and their heroics would be celebrated by the kingdom (represented by a queen, a sergeant-at-arms, a general helper, and a sinister vizier). Those who did not fare as well faced The Fates, three regal women who applied a final challenge that would spare the paladin that managed to finish first.

Banishment was then decided by a popular vote of the safe contestants. I didn't love that aspect of the show, as it turned what was ostensibly a game about merit into a popularity contest. Not to spoil it, but in the beginning, the big, strong, muscly dudes banded together and quickly voted off three women and a gentle, scrawny guy. There's a reason I don't watch Survivor, and The Quest was starting to look like a nerdier version of it. But then something happened. Once there was a more manageable number of paladins, they began to really act like a party in RPG would. Though they were direct competitors, they treated each other with respect and support. There was no sniping about loyalty or backstabbing. These people were obviously overjoyed to be going through the experience, and were having a blast. A lot of reality show contestants have a constant look of miserable, grim determination, but these people just wanted to be along for the story. That sort of attitude is the most refreshing thing I've seen in a reality competition in a long time. The actors never broke character, and created an engaging world for the paladins that was only slightly diluted for the audience at home. They even set up a sequel, just in case. Though it took time to find its footing, The Quest turned out to be much better than I was expecting, and if a second season does come along, I'll gladly put down the twenty-sided die to watch.

Whodunnit? - Season 1: B-
The Quest - Season 1: B

Song of the Summer 2014: The Winner!

We didn't get much of a summer this year, did we? As someone who has the recent year with triple-digit heat for weeks on end seared into his psyche, this is emphatically not a complaint: It just didn't get very warm this year. Aside from not being able to swim as much as I'd have liked to, that's fine and dandy with me. Bring on autumn, I say! Give me my pumpkin-spiced everything, and nobody gets hurt!

Now, are you ready for the big announcement? Want to hear the song that dominated the airwaves of the popular American consciousness and the brainwaves within my head? Can't wait to find out who stands astride the world, victorious in the inescapability of their powerful earworm? The winner of the 2014 Song of the Summer Contest is...

Nobody. This may be a first. Nothing was that special, or good, or weirdly endearing, or catchy, or anything. And I don't just mean that there is no Song of the Summer for me personally. Just about everyone has let the season pass with a weak shrug. If one song came closest to winning, it'd be "Am I Wrong", which I'm still enjoying. But even being the best of the bunch doesn't really qualify it as a Song of the Summer; it's just a song that I like that got played a bunch this summer.

There were plenty of songs the general public ate up with a spoon that I didn't care for. The aforementioned "Fancy", which was annoying almost immediately, and "Stay With Me", which wore out its welcome in about ten plays, would be prime examples of this. But it's not like I'm willfully ignoring their popularity in order to declare no winners. In taking the cultural temperature on the internet and by flipping stations, I'd say that both songs were plenty popular, but neither of them caught on with the fire of something like "Get Lucky". Maybe I'm not the best guy in the world at capturing the zeitgeist of the music world, but I don't think I'm off the mark here. I mean, look.

So, I hope you enjoyed your summer! I hope you got to travel, or read some fun books, or caught an exciting blockbuster, or started listening to an awesome new podcast, or spent warm evenings lazing on the patio with friends and family with the scent of bratwurst lingering in the air. But as far as music goes, let's just flush 2014 down the memory hole and try again next year.


Before I picked up Welcome to Sweden, which is one of very few new shows to air during this past summer, I read a couple articles enumerating reasons people weren't watching it, all of which I dismissed as dumb. The biggest complaint was subtitles. "Oh, no! This show about Swedish people set in Sweden that also airs in Sweden features people speaking Swedish! How will I ever cope?!?" This is a magnificently stupid reason to not watch a show. Know what's a better one? A hopelessly unlikeable protagonist.

Greg Poehler (brother to Amy and probable love child of Greg Kinnear - I mean, LOOK AT HIM) created and stars in this series based on his real life relationship, for which he actually did move to Sweden. I was really looking forward to watching, in part because there aren't enough shows that capably feature fish-out-of-water plotlines. Starting a new life in a new country has got to be one of the most challenging, surreal, exciting experiences of someone's life, and the subsequent culture shock is ripe for satire. Not knowing what to say in social situations or how to handle an unfamiliar job market or getting flustered with a language barrier all have unlimited potential to tell jokes about. The show practically writes itself! What could sink it? A hopelessly unlikeable protagonist.

A lot of the show elements showed promise. The relationship between Bruce (Poehler) and Emma (Josephine Bornebusch) hits a lot of the same beats a typical American sitcom would, but the addition of purely Swedish elements freshened up the premise. Lena Olin is reliably terrific as Emma's mother, who radiates judgmental disapproval in one scene before warmly accepting a new acquaintance by offering her shrooms in another. It's a well-shot show that takes full advantage of its picturesque locale. But there are some things I can't get over. For example... A hopelessly unlikeable protagonist.

Yes, there's just one problem with this show, but it's a dealbreaker of a problem: I hate Bruce. I don't know if it's the writing (which makes the mistake of turning Bruce into a brash, stupid, rude jerk rather than a bewildered foreigner doing his best to adapt) or if Poehler just isn't a strong enough actor to elevate the material. There are plenty of unlikeable characters on TV that I enjoy, but in those cases, there's always a mitigating factor. No such factor exists with Bruce. The show would dearly like us to be invested in Bruce and Emma's relationship, and for us to root for them to make it, against all odds. But when Emma's mother scoffs to her daughter that she's way too good for this lout, I can't help but think she's right. All the Swedish parts of the show are great, but I don't find Ugly Americanism funny or charming.

Welcome to Sweden was a smash hit in... Wait for it... Sweden. So it's already been renewed for a second season, but as far as one American living room goes, it's the end of the line. I'd happily watch a decent show set in another country, and the situations mined for laughs here are ones I'd very much like to see explored. Just do a better job of casting the American next time.

Welcome to Sweden - Season 1: C+

Mind the App

When it comes to games (especially in the form of apps), the ones that I enjoy the most are the ones that require some brain power. You won't find me mindlessly churning away on a match-3 Bejewelled knockoff or a tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap exercise in speed. I want a game that makes me think. Happily, I just found a couple, though their gameplay is vastly different. For those who like a good story to go with their puzzling, I heartily recommend Device 6. Much like Gone Home, the story is the most important element, making it more like interactive fiction than a traditional game. In Device 6, you play as Anna, who wakes up on a strange island, and must figure out how to get off of it. Much like Myst, Anna encounters signs of strange experiments and nefarious schemes, but never runs across any other actual people. Her memory is spotty, so she must rely on her (or rather, your) wits to find her way out.

What makes this game unique is the full advantage it takes of the platform. Phones and tablets are maneuverable, so the story's text literally wends off in multiple directions, forcing the player to turn the device sideways and upside-down to access certain sections. Nobody's going to be doing that on a television or desktop computer. It's a creepy, immersive experience that has beautifully sleek graphics and haunting sound. Unfortunately, it's a very short game; you could easily tear through it in a single afternoon, and once you've solved the puzzles, there's really no replay value. But with a sticker price of a few bucks, it's more than worth it.

The other app is a more traditional game, focused purely on trivia. Trivia games are all about design. Some are just straight-forward, rapid-fire questions about general knowledge. Some are designed like a game show or party game (You Don't Know Jack is far and away the most successful of this subgenre). This newest one I've picked up is called QuizUp, and it's designed almost like a video game. Rather than answering a potpourri, grab-bag of questions, QuizUp is happy to let you show off your expertise in one particular subject. They have more than 500 categories, from the periodic table to the summer Olympics to How I Met Your Mother. Pick one, get an opponent (either a stranger or challenge a friend), and answer seven questions. The app is available worldwide, and it's been fun to challenge and be challenged by people in other countries. How is any of this like a video game? Well, you level up in each category as you play it. As you attain higher levels, you pick up achievements and nicknames (I'm currently referred to as "Gastronome" for getting to level 10 in "Food"). The game keeps track of your stats, letting you know what categories you excel in, and even giving you a special banner if you're a particularly noteworthy player in your region. I don't want to brag, but I'm one of the top people in Missouri for answering questions about Assassin's Creed. The line to hang out with me forms at the left.

Device 6: A-
QuizUp: B

Cornbread Canaries and the Crêpe of Perpetual Motion

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 8

Summer is winding down, so your Four Courses hosts did a fair amount of eating outdoors this past month. Whether it was patio dining at a restaurant or attending local food events at the park, we were all about soaking up the sun while we can. That seasonal eating influenced a couple of our discussions this month, so go give Episode 8 a listen, either on our site, or via iTunes/Stitcher.

Topics include Katie's Pizza, the specialized lingo of bar drinking, the culture of food trucks, and the recent surge of Cajun and Creole cuisine. Finally, we wrap up with Kyle's thoughts on how a certain actress' contribution to the world of food goes over. Spoiler alert: Maybe she should stick to acting.

I hope you enjoy it, and feel free to mail fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions!
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