What the Frak?

I feel like I've already covered how I feel about general sci-fi multiple times, and should basically just set some sort of macro that automatically copies the first paragraph of this entry every time I write about it. So...me and sci-fi...rocky relationship. There, you're caught up. Sometimes it forces its way into my life, though, mostly because I hang out with a bunch of other nerds. A lot of my friends adore sci-fi, and I'm an avid gamer, which also heartily embraces the genre.

That's how, though before now I've never had more than a passing interest in the cultural juggernaut that is Battlestar Galactica, it has suddenly made itself an unignorable presence. My weekly gaming group rotates through plenty of titles, but a few weeks ago, someone suggested we play the board game version of Battlestar Galactica (released in 2008, with multiple expansions in the years since), and after ascertaining that I didn't require any specialized knowledge of the show to be able to play, I agreed.

Wow, was it fun. Though I like cooperative games a great deal, there's definitely something to be said for games where a subset of the players are secret schemers. On my first playthrough, I was indeed an evil cylon, and had to plot against my buddies without being exposed. On my second, I was an innocent human. Both play styles had their own challenges, which makes the game far more interesting than it would be otherwise.

When you're a human, your responsibility is to make it through the game alive, and to uncover the cylon(s) along the way. When you're a cylon, you try to stay under the radar for as long as possible, throwing up roadblocks without making it too obvious. You won't even know who your fellow conspirators are. There are additional intricacies, because two of your group will have special powers (one political, one military), and they could be on either team. The writing isn't everything it could be, and it's not as fun on the replay as much as some of the other games we've tackled, but for the most part, it's been a solid choice for game night.

Once we were done playing that first game, a couple of my gaming friends wondered at the fact that I'd never actually clapped eyes on the show itself. They decided this was unacceptable, and the next time we hung out, they made sure to set aside 3 hours so that we could plow through the Battlestar Galactica miniseries (2003), which introduced what would later become the regular series on SyFy. Now I could actually get the plot behind the game! For those as in the dark as I was, it's about a solar system of humans destroyed by a race of artificial intelligence called cylons. Cylons have advanced to the point that they can pass themselves off as human, so everyone is under suspicion.

The remnants of the human race escape to a group of spaceships and are now trying to constantly outpace the pursuing cylons and find a new homeworld. There's even an old legend about a place called...Earth. DUN DUN DUUUUUUUN! There's all sorts of political and military intrigue, but for the most part, the miniseries is a fat wad of exposition in order to set up what would come after. It was a little too much set dressing and not enough meaty plot, but I can forgive it in this case. It at least captured enough of my interest so that I've agreed to keep on watching. Who knows, maybe later, I'll become such a fanatic that I start to look like a toaster. That was a cylon joke. Like I said, you can't trust anybody in this universe!

Battlestar Galactica (game): B
Battlestar Galactica (miniseries): B-

Emancipation Snacks and the War of Legume Pronunciation

Hello, Spring! It's nice to see you in all your perverted glory, from loud mating animals to sudden torrential downpours. A changing season is always a time that our culinary tastes shift, and it's exciting to start getting into all the fresh deliciousness that these next couple of months will bring. To that end, hows about you hop on over to the Four Courses site and give Episode 25 a listen? Guest host Tiffany Greenwood and I will be waiting there to welcome you!

Topics include Weber Grill, the joy that peanuts and peanut butter bring into our lives, a history lesson about our friend the potato, and the tasty rituals surrounding Easter and Passover. Please enjoy!

Court of Appeals

It's strange to reach an age where the historical events being dramatized in film and television are ones that I was actually around to witness. To me, they're not "historical" at all. Oh, well. Let's all glide into old age and cultural irrelevance together! One of these historical events to be brought to the screen this season was the "trial of the century", the murder charges brought in the mid-'90s against famous football player and sometimes actor OJ Simpson. The proceedings consumed the entire country's attention, and laid bare the country's social issues regarding race, money, fame, and gender.

Producer Ryan Murphy brought American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson to the FX network, and I was immediately suspicious. Ryan Murphy is, after all, the guy that brought us the histrionics of American Horror Story and Glee, so I was fairly sure that this show would be flashy trash, hitting on all the sensationalist aspects of the case but not having any real value. Maybe it'd be an amusing way to gawk at the more jaw-dropping events that took place, but there wouldn't be any substance to it. I've never been so pleased to be so wrong.

This show was incredible. I had forgotten just how crazy things got during the trial. I was in high school when it was going on, so of course I had more important things to think about than what some dumb adults were talking about. The only real-world interaction I remember is sitting in English class when another teacher ran in to announce that the jury had found Simpson not guilty. Then we went right back to studying The Canterbury Tales.

Rather than just sticking to the antics of the defense team and the media, the show actually takes the time to delve into many of the aspects of the culture that brought about such an amazing result. One episode focuses on the life of prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson, who deserves a thousand Emmy awards for this) outside of the courtroom, having to put up with unwelcome media attention and sexist bullshit from politicians to cashiers. One episode focuses on the jury, and the special hell they endured being sequestered for several months.

Another thing I liked was how balanced the show was as far as showing multiple points of view. It's the most sympathetic portrayal of Clark, for sure, but they also make time to show how Johnnie Cochran (another wonderful performance from Courtney B. Vance) clearly believed he was exposing the ugly underbelly of institutional racism in Los Angeles. Christopher Darden (terrific work from Sterling K. Brown) is pulled in multiple directions, wanting what's best for the African-American community while still determined to put a killer behind bars.

Yes, the headline-grabbing bits that everyone remembers are all covered, but I was just so thoroughly impressed at how thoughtfully this show approached all the facets of this sad and magnetic case. Aside from the reliably lackluster Cuba Gooding Jr. as OJ, the acting is top-notch. And in perhaps the best compliment I can give, both my boyfriend and I really loved it, and we never like the same shows.

American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson: A

Sunrise, Sunset

It's always interesting to compare and contrast the feelings that are inspired by a promising new show, and the feelings that are inspired by an old favorite coming to an end. I recently got to experience both at about the same time when the premiere season of Superstore wrapped up, just as Downton Abbey came to its final episode. The two shows couldn't be more different if they tried, yet they both appealed to me, albeit in different ways.

There were a lot of surprising things about Superstore, not least of which is that it's a new comedy... On NBC... In the year 2016... Which actually works! I know! I was shocked, too. NBC has had a tough time of it lately in the sitcom department. Community, Parks & Rec, The Office, and 30 Rock are gone. They let Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt slip through their fingers. The comedies they've tried have been crashing and burning at an alarming rate. Only The Carmichael Show has any current buzz whatsoever.

And yet, here came this little sleeper about the employees at a big box store (think Target or Walmart) in St. Louis that regularly made me laugh out loud, and always had me looking forward to the next episode. It doesn't do anything groundbreaking; it's pretty much your usual structure for an ensemble comedy. Jokes are a big part of what makes a comedy work, of course, but I'd argue that it's even more important to have a cast with good chemistry, and Superstore had that in spades. Ben Feldman (Jonah) is the straight man, and does a fine job, as does America Ferrera (Amy) as his frustrated manager that he'll probably wind up romantically linked with at some point.

But it's the supporting cast that really shines, particularly Lauren Ash as Dina, the assistant store manager who follows rules with militaristic precision and who harbors a deep crush on Jonah. Mark McKinney is the store manager (Glenn) who manages to be a complete pushover most of the time, but steps up when he's most needed. Colton Dunn (Garrett) is the "token" disabled employee, who delights in lazing around and pitting his coworkers against each other for his own amusement. And hey, there's Nichole Bloom (Cheyenne), who was last seen being a huge bitch in a game I was too chicken to play, but is sunny and dim as the pregnant teen here.

Superstore also manages to walk a pretty fine line when it comes to satirizing actual societal issues, like the well-known inability of low-wage workers to unionize. The show tackles that economic disparity, along with the casual injustices surrounding race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability, without ever losing its sense of humor. I was unprepared for how much I wound up liking this inaugural season, and am pleased that it's already been renewed. NBC is still a tricky beast; it's entirely likely that either the ratings won't be there or the network will mismanage the show out of existence. But for now, I'll sit back, laugh, and enjoy the name-checks of local St. Louis neighborhoods.

Now let's change gears entirely and talk about England in the 1920s! In its first season, Downton Abbey roared into the cultural consciousness and into my heart, garnering one of my rare A+ grades. From there it's been... I guess "inconsistent" would be the most apt adjectives. Some storylines really, really worked, and some really, really didn't. Remember Ivy? Feh.

So for its final season (Season 6), you'd think they'd concentrate on tying up all the loose ends, and for the most part they did. But somehow, they still found time to pull their signature move, and left pointless arcs lying around unattended. How many scenes were devoted to Baxter's decision to testify against Coyle, which led exactly nowhere? How many scenes did we focus on Edith's inability to get along with her blowhard editor before he was finally dispensed with?

Aside from those annoyances, though, they did a very good job in bringing all the major storylines home. The fight that's been brewing between Mary and Edith for several seasons finally comes to a head. The issue of how the house supports itself and the rapidly diminishing servant class is dealt with front-and-center, which I appreciated. And who wouldn't love that dinner scene where Robert's... Let's just say "medical condition" brings an abrupt end to a snippy fight?

Of course, the big deal is how the show was going to leave everyone at the end. Will Edith ever find happiness? Who will finally land Mary's heart? Will Molesley ever win? Will Daisy ever shut up? How will the pairings of Mrs. Hughes/Carson and Anna/Bates turn out? Will Thomas find his place and stop being such a dick all the time? Could someone pass along my phone number to the actor who plays Andy? All of these questions are addressed, except that last one, unfortunately. Downton Abbey went out on a high note, and although there were plenty of sour ones that preceded it, I'll always remember it an amazing and beautiful show.

Superstore - Season 1: A-
Downton Abbey - Season 6: B
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