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Monday, October 23, 2017

How to Get a Job at Crunchyroll.

I'm pretty sure everyone has That One Question they get asked a lot, kind of wish they didn't, but at this point they've gotten used to sighing and just attempting to answer calmly when it inevitably comes their way once a week. Mine used to be "Why do you look so pissed off all the time?" but in the last year it's been replaced with a monthly (or more) query about how I got my job writing for Crunchyroll -- which, more often than not, is actually the person trying to figure out what steps they should take to do the same.

Occasionally it really is just someone being curious, and I get that. It's kind of a funny job to find oneself in. But that's rare and usually only comes from outside geek circles. The usual approach is people who are bloggers or writers on their own time, see that I'm doing it, and want the scoop.

The fact of the matter is, my real answer as to how I got my job is not what people want. I got an English degree, worked as a news editor for a major news website for ten years, then spent a few years in the anime industry doing subtitle editing and QC for anime and games. I was first approached to do a couple of guest spots, and then eventually asked to join the news team. I did not come to them; they came to me. And there's no quick path or secret handshake.

You can always keep an eye on Ellation's jobs page, but again, that's probably not the answer you want. Fact is, I can't give you that answer because it doesn't exist. But I can give you some tips to get you in a better position to find yourself in that job eventually.

Any job worth having is like this, incidentally -- and very, very few have a back door and a special knock.

Be a good writer.

Y'okay, this sounds like a no-brainer, but it's not quite what you think. As much as solid writing from a talent standpoint is valued for a news and features writer, you don't have to win a Nobel Prize to turn out news stories on maid cafes. I don't mean talent. That's always handy. I mean from a technical standpoint, you have to know the structure and the craft.

With the advent of self-publishing (both books and blogs -- yes, like this blog), the concept of editing often goes out the window. It's nice to be able to get your thoughts up without a middleman. And, really, if your goal isn't to make money or work for a certain company, it doesn't matter too much if your technical skills aren't A+.

But if you're writing for a professional company, you need to be able to turn out a story and have it fly unedited. I'm not saying there aren't editors. But I am saying that the most anyone should have to do is check that you're on-brand and give it another set of eyeballs. Not a complete overhaul.

Whenever someone asks me how to become a Crunchyroll writer, provided they're chill about it and don't try to blindside me into a business consult, I do go and check any links they may have in their social media. Because while I'm not a job-giver, I do work for a lot of sites and someone somewhere might ask me where to find a good new writer.

Sad fact is, nine times out of ten, the writing is not technically sound. And that's what keeps me from putting people in my Rolodex. If you're a writer and want to move beyond your own blog, improve your writing. Make sure you can follow basic journalistic styles, mind your commas, etc. It makes all the difference in the world.

Learn the difference between self-promotion and badgering.

THIS. IS. DIFFICULT. And for a lot of reasons.

First off, self-promotion is difficult. We live in a culture where we're taught that we need to be humble about our accomplishments and wave off compliments. It's no wonder we all tend to choke up when it comes time to assemble a resume or portfolio -- we're suddenly being told we have to write a three-page paper on the one thing we've spent our entire lives being told not to do.

And if you've got impostor syndrome? Good luck there.

But it is extremely important to get used to promoting yourself and putting yourself forward, especially if you want to work in a field like this. You have to be unafraid to push your work, speak well of yourself, and shop yourself around to a variety of places -- not just the one you want to work for. More on that later.

But this is a double-edged sword. Just as it's hard to do at all, it can also be hard to do right. I've had my fair share of run-ins with people who very much want to work in one of the fields I've found myself in, and they're obviously putting themselves forward to do so. But they come across to all around them as pushy, self-centered, and badgering.

This generally comes from a low-key mindset -- not necessarily a conscious one -- that the people you're interacting with are here to make something happen for you, and that's the end of it. And it can be easy to think that way. But that kind of mindset leads to being ingratiating, obsequious, and -- between you and me -- being talked about only insomuch as people wish you'd calm down or go away.

Approaching these encounters with the understanding that everyone here is in the same position you are, regardless of notoriety, is helpful. Even the most famous writer still wants publicity for their latest project. It's a system of give and take, of talking and listening, of being promoted and promoting.

This may be the subject of a post for another time, but for now, just know that it behooves you to find the willingness to shop yourself around while understanding that the people you're approaching are also doing the same in their own ways, and more will be accomplished if you do for them what you'd like them to do for you in kind.

Be ready to take your hobby less seriously.

The toughest part of being a news and features writer is that you can't always pick what you write about. Some days you'll have to write about a show you hate. Some days you'll have to write a game you've never heard of in all your born days. Someday you may have to sit through all 26 episodes of that one show you said you would never watch because it's a travesty.

But that's the breaks. And one of the great ironies of working in the anime industry in any capacity is that you begin to take your hobby less seriously.

I still love anime and video games as much as I ever did, if not more. But I have also found myself saying "anime was a mistake" about three times a day -- because the more deeply immersed you are, the more you have to leave your bubble. You can't just watch Only What You Like, and you can't just decide you're going to ignore anything that doesn't suit you because frankly that might be this season's Big Hit and You Gotta.

One of the best things you can possibly do if you're interested in writing for a major site that focuses on any one thing is -- ironically enough -- take that thing less seriously. Joke about it. Allow yourself to see the silliness of it. Try to detach yourself from whatever fan rage you can. (You won't lose it all. We're not superhuman here.)

Be ready to be wrong a lot.

The down side to being on a site where everyone sees you is... well... everyone sees you. And thoughts and opinions -- and even facts -- that you had no problem expressing before are going to attract some very angry sorts.

In my year at Crunchyroll news, I've been attacked by strangers from all corners of the globe. Generally types who couldn't follow the advice in the previous heading. If there's a typo because I was tired, suddenly that's all that matters. If you got a factoid wrong because Google Translate was acting up, be ready to not only be corrected, but also see yourself dragged to hell and back and have the quality of the site questioned.

And sometimes, guess what? You really are wrong. And that's the point when you have to put your pride down, remember you're reporting news, and just make the correction and move on.

Don't limit yourself.

The most counterintuitive thing I could say in a blog post about things you need to know to work at Crunchyroll is "let go of the idea of working at Crunchyroll." But it's true. And really, it's true of anything you want to do.

The minute people decide "I want to do such-and-such," they often close out any other options. I know of a person who decided they were going to go to a very specific school for a very specific career, without acknowledging that said school has an acceptance rate of less than 1%. Had this person acknowledged that they could go through one of many other schools, despite the fact that it wouldn't align with their Dream, they could potentially be on their way to the career they want.

Write for wherever you can. If you have a blog, continue to improve it. Write for other blogs that take open calls. Pitch to anyone who's taking pitches. Often, people write for Crunchyroll because they've written somewhere else of note first. S'how I did it.

If it's your goal to have stories appear on Crunchyroll, that's great. But only if you understand that rarely, if ever, is something like this an A-to-B process.

Be kind.

This goes for any career you want.

I know -- knew -- a person who used to be a big-time writer. Probably on things you've heard of, depending where you're from. In recent years, the jobs started dropping off, and said person is having an extremely hard time getting contracts. It's nothing to do with their talent, and everything to do with their attitude.

If you're "fighty," don't take criticism well, or anything else that would make it difficult to work with you in a work setting, you won't get where you want to go. You may get partway there, especially if you're particularly talented. But there will come a point when people decide it's just not worth it.

Note that being kind doesn't mean being a pushover or keeping silent if you are done wrong by. Never let anyone treat you poorly or unfairly in a job, even if it's a job you really want. No job's worth that. But when it comes to the attitude you exude and the way you interact, you will be more likely to get where you want to get if you're pleasant to be around.

And considering Crunchyroll is populated by a bunch of goofy nerds who like sending each other bad memes and dog photos, that's also kind of a prerequisite.

The final point is one you've probably already gathered -- you can't just do this overnight. I have no set of tasks that, when completed, will score you the job. There are no Twelve Trials of Crunchyroll (that I'm aware of). Getting anywhere in a field you love takes work, self-improvement, self-promotion, kindness, character, and a great big sense of humor. And patience. Lots of patience.

If you have all of those, keep writing and keep being vocal and active, and you'll have a far better chance of getting there.

Friday, October 20, 2017

TELEVISION: "Upstart Crow" is ridiculously unnecessary and I like it anyway.

Last year, in memory of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death, the BBC launched a massive array of TV and radio programming. Among the documentaries, restagings, and youngster-geared entertainment was Upstart Crow, a historical sitcom penned by Ben Elton. And out of all the special creations for the occasion, this one has lasted a second season.

If the name Ben Elton is familiar to you, it's likely for one of two reasons: either you know We Will Rock You or you know Blackadder. And if you know Blackadder, you know Upstart Crow. It is, in essence, a re-skin of the Elizabethan season of the Rowan Atkinson starrer, this time featuring David Mitchell as Shakespeare. It also stars Mark Heap as Robert Greene, a contemporary of Shakespeare known historically for (allegedly) penning a posthumously-distributed pamphlet that tears Bill a new one. (In fact, it's the source of the title Upstart Crow, a name Shakespeare is called in the pamphlet.) In the context of the show, Greene is Shakespeare's nemesis, attempting to deliver shame and embarrassment like it's his job.

The remainder of the ensemble cast is fairly large, populated mostly by fellow historical figures but also including an original or two.

The Humor

Ben Elton was not on board in the earliest days of Blackadder; rather, he was brought in starting from the second series, when co-creator Rowan Atkinson said he could either write or act for the series but not both. It was Elton who created some of the show's most enduring elements, including the idea that Blackadder should be the clever one and his servant Baldrick should be an idiot. (In the first season, the roles were swapped.)

Despite the absence of Richard Curtis, Blackadder's co-creator and Elton's collaborator for the second series and beyond, it still feels very similar beat-for-beat. There's a higher usage of linguistic silliness and made-up words -- appropriate enough, given the lead character -- and a significantly larger recurring cast.

In fact, there are fully three "settings" where action regularly occurs, each with its own separate cast of characters. Shakespeare's home contains family and class humor (with Spitting Image veteran Harry Enfield as Shakespeare's historical hot mess of a father). His London home sees him opposite his servant Bottom, aspiring actress Kate, and Christopher Marlowe reimaged as an Ace Rimmer clone. And the Globe puts him amongst his fellow actors, including William Kempe portrayed as a parody of Office-era Ricky Gervais.

Familiarity with the Bard's work isn't required any more than one might have gotten in school, though a little extra knowledge goes a long way. Each episode is based on one of his works, usually culminating in Shakespeare and his wife smoking their pipes by the fire and deciding that the madness of the day would make a good play.

The beats are familiar to Blackadder fans, and though the style of comedy is extremely similar, it often lacks the poisonous bite of its predecessor's deep-cut sarcasm. Then again, our protagonist isn't a scheming snake of any sort. David Mitchell is playing David Mitchell as William Shakespeare, exuberant but slightly anxious and somehow managing to always be caught off-guard by absolutely everything. And while the upstart crow has a few jabs in him, this is a far less snide presentation.

Similarities and Differences

This style choice could go a long way toward explaining the divided opinion on the show -- which received a second series, just now ending its run, independent of last year's Shakespearean festivities. A defanged Blackadder may not seem to have much of a point, as much of its appeal was Atkinson's snide antihero and his wicked turns of phrase. Without that extra touch, it could suffer (and has suffered) from being considered "more of the same."

That said, being "more of the same" is actually what saved it in my eyes. While the sets are slightly better, occasionally including a nicely built Italian garden and with far less wobbly doors, the budget seems to be much the same. The scenes are parlor interiors, some seemingly brought back from the 80s and reconstructed. And a handful of the costumes have been resurrected; Kit Marlowe's "sidekick" Valentine was not only an homage to the late Rik Mayall's Lord Flasheart, he was pretty much wearing his damn clothes.

There's also more time taken looking for guest spots. Blackadder had appearances from the likes of Tom Baker and Simon Jones, and Upstart Crow has welcomed aboard Noel Fielding, Montserrat Lombard, and Emma Thompson. Their roles seem acutely tuned to them, too -- Fielding, for example, appears as madrigal writer and singer Thomas Morley, retooled for the show as something that would feel quite at home in The Mighty Boosh.

And while it is largely a "re-skin," as stated before, this isn't just a Transformer with a new color scheme. The same character elements exist, but are spread out across the show in different ways and paired off differently within and around characters. We also get to see a lot more women in action: Liza Tarbuck is the down-to-earth Mrs. Shakespeare, Emmerdale regular Paula Wilcox is his disapproving mother, and Gemma Whelan (Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) is Kate, desperate for equality but also for a role because it's her absolute dream to be an actress. Oh, and his daughter Susanna is the unsung hero of the series, playing the embarrassed teenager to the hilt.

The Final Verdict

Ultimately, one question will dictate whether you'll want to watch Upstart Crow: do you want something fresh, or do you just sort of miss Blackadder? If the former, you'll likely be disappointed in the retreading of comedy styles, character elements, and even costume and set pieces. But if you just sort of miss Blackadder, it's a bit of a pleasant surprise -- like when you shake the cookie box and find out there were still a couple left.

It's referential, but it isn't High Art. It's entertaining, but it isn't Must See Or Else TV. It knows what it is, and it aims to continue to be just that. And if that's your style, then it's worth a watch.

If it's not your style, though, I recommend you go pick up Slings & Arrows in its place.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

IN-FLIGHT MOVIES: Okay, fine, here's my feelings on "Ghost in the Shell."

I thought I was going to get away with not seeing the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell for like another decade or so. Like I figured eventually I'd trot back to it quietly, regard it from a distance, and go on with my life. But a lot of people have been asking for my opinion of it. Like, more than a handful.

Let's get that first question out of the way.

Initially, the question was what I thought of ScarJo being cast as the Major. To which my answer remains: I'm Lebanese. I can't speak for the Japanese-American population. And frankly I'm glad I can't because it's a very tangled issue.

As someone in the anime industry, I recognize where the discrepancy lies. Japan is, well, populated primarily by Japanese people, so no one there (including the creator) will see a Danish-American actress playing a fundamentally Japanese role as any sort of problem. Or, rather, it's more likely we'll see a lot less people upset. Japanese people are not a minority in Japan, so of course you'll hear more voices being all right with it and wondering what the problem is.

But in the US, where Japanese people are a minority (and similarly Asian-Americans tend to be considered "honorary whites" when it's politically handy), the issue is much different. I can see why Japanese fans living in America would feel hurt and robbed by seeing a character created within their culture -- and originally bearing a Japanese name -- suddenly being "taken from them."

Of course, other arguments pop up. The movie "fixes" this (more on that later), or she's got an artificial body so it doesn't matter, or the argument of whether or not Motoko Kusanagi was "white-coded" in the original art style. And the fact of the matter is... I can't speak to that. And I'm really not supposed to.

So if you're here looking for an authoritative opinion about the casting of the Major from someone with authority... go ask your Japanese friends. Preferably multiple ones because no group is a monolith.

Moving on.

Let's talk about the movie itself.

For those not steeped in the works of Masamune Shirow, know that the source material for Ghost in the Shell isn't just the one anime film that keeps showing up at your local art house theater. I mean, yes, that's part of it. But the franchise consists of three manga, four animated films, three animated TV series, four video games, and three OVA. And many of these function independently of each other. So there's about as much reason to critique plot progression in the live-action film as there would be in, say, any iteration of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I suppose someone very knowledgeable about Shirow's writing could do some deep-cut analysis of the plot... but I'm sure they also already have.

The first thing to note is, across the various media, the Major's personality is quite fluid. In the manga and TV iterations, she's far more outspoken and upbeat than in the films. The live-action film doesn't necessarily create an unbelievable character, but she is pretty much what anyone would typically write for a character in her position. If that makes sense. Tough with a sort of marshmallowy, Blade Runner-y center. It felt almost as though she had been written by someone whose friend had told them about the movie version of Motoko, but who hadn't then gone and seen it for themselves.

Which is... actually how I felt about a lot of it. I wasn't sure whether it was the jet lag, being crammed between two snoring fellow passengers, or something else. But all through my viewing, I felt somehow like I was watching a movie based on a story someone told someone else about watching Ghost in the Shell once. It's admittedly been a long time since I've engaged with the anime, hence my assumption that I was the source of the disconnect. But in retrospect, I'm not so sure.

Other elements of the original do exist, and are plucked from all over the franchise. We have Batou, of course. We have Beat Takeshi as Daisuke Aramaki, the only character in the whole film who ever gave me that magical "oh my God, it's really them" feeling. We also have a 2nd GiG character show up significantly, backwards engineered into the story. Not a bad choice, but a weird one in the midst of many many weird ones.

Counting electric sheep.

Of course, just shy of Blade Runner 2049 and in an era when we are flooded with stories of AI and personal awareness, there was no reason not to go hard with that topic in Ghost in the Shell. After all, it is a major element of the story and the setting. Our protagonist is the fullest version of what the future holds, the film's literal "ghost" in an artificial "shell," but augmentations exist at a variety of levels. And the question of humanity -- what makes us human, how far can we go before we aren't -- is indeed a theme of the franchise. Hence the name.

But dear God, that first scene where we had the meaning of the title hammered through our skull like a wayward railroad spike over and over was painful.

It's a hinky writing move, making the audience feel as though they are being praised for their intelligence when in actuality they are being vastly underestimated. I eventually grew so tired of Juliette Binoche explaining the Major's inner turmoil to me that I bought some airplane WiFi to level up my servants in Fate/Grand Order while I waited for the next big scene.

There were plenty of moments to create some very interesting philosophical discussion, or even to let the moments speak for themselves. Handled well, those could have been powerful, thought-provoking moments. As it stands, everything was laid out very flatly. And occasionally very awkwardly.

Mopping up.

All of the above said, the way events played out in Ghost in the Shell gave me a very distinct feeling that the screenplay was about 30 minutes of plot progression and 90 minutes of trying to explain away the producers' decisions. And it felt messy.

There were ways to handle the casting of the Major. Obviously one would have been to cast a Japanese actress. But even if we for some reason just stick with this, there were ways to write around it. One, I thought they'd done. They renamed her Mira Killian. And while it's not ideal, at least it's better than continuing to call her Motoko Kusanagi as she is played by a Caucasian woman.


Ex. Cept.

God, see, here's the thing. Most of the time I applaud people getting clever and bringing the stuff in the adaptation back around. And I love it when the thing you thought was missing from the origin story is actually totally there, or has been all along. But they kind of screwed the pooch here -- by trying too hard to make sure the Major was the same Major even with the casting discrepancy, they just made it more awkward.

Spoiler: Mira Killian was Motoko Kusanagi, a young Japanese rebel who committed suicide and then had her mind inserted against her will into a shell that looks like Scarlett Johansson. And then she continues her work as The Major while returning to her tiny grieving Japanese mother and. Dear God I don't know, there's just something so awkward about this.

And this wasn't the only case of this. So much of the screenplay feels like the writers were running around after the producers' decisions, trying to patch holes and explain things away in a way that wouldn't get fans too riled up, but there were just so damn many of them. By the end, I came away feeling sorry for the writer more than anything else.

The film as a whole felt like a battle between departments: some wanting star power and flash and bang for buck, others wanting whatever consistency they could hang on to. And the two did not meet in the middle. Which is a shame because they could have.

I'm going to be honest -- I don't think the whitewashing of the Major necessarily had to be a damning move for the film. I understand the Way Hollywood Works. I dislike and resent it, but I understand it. And if the studio wanted a specific recognizable face in spite of the country of origin, to me that would mean putting all the more effort into a solid, careful script. Not one that tries to lampshade the casting, but one that makes the film worthwhile regardless.

On the bright side.

Is there anything positive to be taken away from this? Yes. Some.

Sadly, Ghost in the Shell is probably the worst thing a film can be: it's mediocre. If it were straight-up bad, we could still find some laughs in it. But it just sort of... happens. It's there, it exists. Writing this piece was actually a bit difficult because, as much as I have to say about it, I don't particularly see much point because it's going to kind of fade out.

But it was nice to look at. The sound design was rad. From an aesthetic standpoint, it's a fun ride. If you know nothing of the original series and you just want some eye candy, then you will definitely have that.

Also, like I said. Beat Takeshi is a proper badass and quite frankly the best thing in the movie. And if you stick around long enough you can see him waste some jerks. Which is always fun.

I mean, frankly, I appreciate the original Ghost in the Shell franchise for what it means to anime, and I enjoy engaging in it where I can. I'm not married enough to it, though, that this new version causes me rage. So maybe that's why it's easier for me to sort of shrug and say it exists and that's about it.

I still think the sheer amount of press it got for the casting of Major is the most heated and emotional any talk of it ever got. In the end, the Japanese side of the franchise is what will move forward, anyway.

But should you choose to discuss it or speak on it, bear one thing in mind: no group is a monolith. Speaking to one "qualified" person who gives it a moral pass or fail does not decide it for life. Nor do I think enjoying it, if you did, makes you bad or stupid. Because subjectivity and different experiences are a thing.

I do, however, appreciate that it's opened the door for more discussions on casting decisions. Regardless of the casting being good or bad or middling, and regardless of Ms. Johansson's talent (it's not her fault this went down), the production of this film did poke the fandom nest, and made a lot of things rather evident. How that manifests in future productions, we'll have to wait and see -- but it may become important, as many Japanese studios are creating California offices with an eye to trans-Pacific productions of Eastern IPs.

Should you decide you'd like to try it for yourself, Ghost in the Shell is available on Amazon, YouTube, or Google Play for $3.99, and on iTunes for $5.99.

Monday, October 16, 2017

KARA ABROAD: Coming Home

Today, I leave the hotel in Dulles where I've stayed overnight to catch my breath, and I drive myself home. If I'm smart, I take the scenic route and allow myself to enjoy the ride instead of my first big taste of home being Monday morning interstate traffic. Then I come home, and it's back to normal. And I'm quite happy about that.

I won't lie... this departure has been slightly harder for me than others. With my trips abroad being numerous enough now that I describe them via "how often" rather than "how many," there's no rush to see The Big Sights. There are still things I haven't seen -- someday I'll get to Cornwall and do my Arthurian fangirl runabout -- but those can be handled casually with friends over the course of a couple of weeks rather than checking them off frantically.

A lot of this trip was spent resting. Sitting at my friends' houses, going to cafes and pubs, staring out the window at the clouds and enjoying the autumn chill with some tea. All things I can do at home, but with a different crowd, a different environment, over there.

I'm fairly sure I could never make a permanent move to England. It's classified in the Rolodex of my mind as a place where I escape. Where I sort of sit back, look at my life from a distance, and decide what will change when I've come home. I've gone over for a variety of reasons in the past. To see friends. For convention follow-up. In one case, long enough distant to talk about, I felt my life was over and intended to end it there where I was happy, buying a return ticket only so people wouldn't be suspicious -- but I had such an amazing time that it saved my life and made me want to continue to see what was next.

This time, I was feeling things getting wobbly. My life has changed in so many ways, both for good and bad, opening my eyes to a lot of things I never saw in the world around me. My ability to exist in the field I love, but also the fact that I won't always be accepted in that field by virtue of physical differences that don't affect a person's talent. How lucky I am to have the jobs I have, but also how complacency has made me slip in doing those jobs as well as I could be. The fact that I'm not sure what to do about my future, with the knowledge that that probably is a question I can answer for myself in the right headspace. And to look at those, I had to go away.

Temporarily, I mean.

My uncle once said, quite rightly, that we travel so that we can come home. And it's true. I went to see friends, to see what's important in their lives, and to look at my own life from a distance. It's worked. Not always in fun ways, but it has worked.

In a point in my life when people treat me very oddly based upon the work I do and what they think of it, I was fortunate to spend time with peers -- and to learn that they consider me peers, most importantly -- and learn that this is a common thread. In a time when I felt blocked mentally, I could stumble across one local legend that got my mind turning over again. And for someone like me, who will always worry that she's a hassle to some degree, the amount of hospitality I'm always shown on these trips reminds me that I do need to give my friends more credit for being kind, friendly, and overall lovely.

I can't wait to drive home and take a shower in my shower, make tea in my kettle, see if my guinea pigs remember me... but it's a little hard to be home this time. I didn't burn myself out or allow myself to go without anything I needed mentally, so my only longings are pets, family, friends, and American creature comforts like the existence of Arby's. But those are terms I was much happier to leave on than tiring of a place I love, like a kid who went too hard at the fair.

As a coda, I do want to thank certain people: Mazz and Al for being wonderful hosts and conversation partners near London; Gareth for being the same in Bolton; Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad and Paul Driscoll and Helen Stringer and Amelia Cook for fun and pleasantries and lots of drinks (of many varieties); the Westlake crew for Blackpool and for reminding me of what a solid friend base I have there; and JJ Kelley and James Gent for not being TOO upset that my trip didn't take me to them this time.

I will be back. But for now, I'm home. Or a middling drive from home, at least. And then, with my brain all sorted out, it's time to make some very fun surprises for all of you.

Friday, October 13, 2017

I turn my back for FIVE SECONDS and you assholes are fighting over sauce.

Jesus Christ. All I want to do is go to England and see my friends and eat a whole bunch of meat pies and this happens. I can't leave you guys alone ever.

So in case somehow you've missed even more than I have, Rick & Morty fans are disappointed at not getting their hands on some limited-edition Szechuan Sauce from McDonald's. Confused? Yeah, I've actually marathoned all three seasons so far and I'm confused, too.

The joke was a throwaway in the most recent season premiere, followed by a callback in Justin Roiland's (almost certainly) ad-libbed rant as Rick at the end of the episode. Rick spends a lot of the episode in is own memories, which is the only place he can still get McD's long-gone Szechuan dipping sauce that came out briefly as a Mulan tie-in. And anyone who's a nerd can see where this is going. The throwaway joke becomes a fixation.

McDonald's noticed and decided to exploit it. They bring back the sauce for one day, with no official ties to the show. I mean, it's their sauce, right? Why do they need to? It's independent. No ties.

So check this art out. This is the art of a freelancer who was told to emulate Rick & Morty without getting sued, and to this artist's credit they did good. They did everything one does when told "evoke this but cover our asses." Different color palette, a font that is reminiscent but different in overall construction, and Generic Outer Space. Without the Szechuan Sauce tie, this could refer to a lot of things, but it pings a fan's knowledge and obviously leads the mind back.

So it's important to know this because Adult Swim had no part in the promotion. None. This wasn't a mutual venture -- it was a rare opportunity for a company to cash in on its own product via someone else's popularity.

And, well. We remember what happened. There wasn't enough Sauce. People fought, beat each other up, and (allegedly) traded cars for this shit. And look. I wasn't a big McD's goer in the 90s so I don't even know if it was good. It might suck. But it was madness. And yeah, Rick & Morty is a nihilistic piece of fiction about how ultimately our actions and losses don't matter in the greater universe, but that's no call for this.

But let's break this down a little further. Because what happened next is where it gets hinky in a pair of directions.

Direction 1: McDonald's offers ludicrously small amounts of The Sauce. Weirdly small. As in 'Why even bother' small. I could blame this on poor market research, but no one is this dumb. If an item on your menu is memebait for a rabid fandom, you're gonna notice. And you will be acutely aware of just how big it is.

According to Zap2It, the season premiere pulled in over 2 million viewers -- second only to reigning champion Game of Thrones. Meanwhile, there are currently over 14,000 McDonald's in the United States. If we assume that every Rick & Morty viewer went to get their sauce, each McD's would have to have 142 packets minimum.

That's awkward for two reasons:

1. Not every Rick & Morty viewer went to get Sauce.
2. Less than 150 of anything being handed out is... bad planning for a major chain.

But then something else happened: McDonald's apologized for the snafu and agreed to bring the Sauce back big time this winter.

Except they did so in a targeted post, littered (poorly) with show references, not long after underdelivering and sending massive bottles of the stuff to people (if Instagram is to be believed). If this wasn't a massive ploy, it's extremely bothersome that McD's doesn't seem to mind how much it looks like a massive ploy.

Direction 2: Show co-creator Dan Harmon is being snippy.

After some snarky jokes about the fiasco on his Twitter, some McD's employees called on him to recognize a separation between the company itself and the employees who got thrown in the shit. He didn't respond well at the time, implying that he was the only real victim in the mess and any McDonald's employees are just cross because they're stuck working a shit job.

Time for reflection and some strong words have either brought him around or made him realize that this won't win him any fans. The sad part was that this could have been a good, helpful moment. Speaking against the poorly behaved fans would have served the double purpose of bolstering the employees and pointing out the harm caused by the stunt. There might still be time for him to salvage something, but he lost what could have been a very good window.

And this is all putting aside the fact that this whole debacle was caused over a fixation with a throwaway gag about a one-off promotional item that the people seeking it out might not even like.

Before you all run off feeling I've just proved you can be a snark, I actually have nothing against lining up for limited edition TV related merch. I am a sucker for branding. I love that stuff, and if I were around for a genuine collaboration between Adult Swim and McDonald's, I'd get sauce. That's cool. I'd go into a fast food place and bring back all the Ricks and all the Mortys.

But this wasn't that. This was a company piggybacking with the law on their side off another franchise, and a bunch of confused employees getting screamed at for something they probably don't even know about. It was a big hot mess caused by people getting greedy and frankly nothing has panned out well.

This is the part where I say what I would have done. And uh. I don't know. I probably wouldn't have made the damn sauce. Or I would have tried for a true collaboration. But I probably wouldn't have made the damn sauce.

Y'all please have your shit together by the time I get back.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

KARA ABROAD: That First Trip to Blackpool

Several years ago, I asked a friend who lives in Blackpool what it's like there. His response: "It's shit and the clock doesn't work." Which no one has disagreed with, and yet at the same time I've had people say I really ought to go.

Having never been to Atlantic City I'm reluctant to say Blackpool is the Atlantic City of England... but what little I know of AC seems to back that up. Obviously there's never going to be a true 1-to-1 comparison of any inherently culture-specific experience, but Blackpool is a very long stretch of shops and attractions along a beach with some very specific Things You Do There mixed in.

Sarcasm aside, I did not have a bad time. I can see why someone might not want to live there or go constantly, and I can see where the jokes come from, but if you're with friends it is a Nice Day Out.

Granted I didn't see everything because that would be difficult. But we had a few ticketed events we hit.

Madame Tussaud's Blackpool

Yeah, no. Yeah. As in the wax museum. It's not as big as the mothership location, but the Blackpool stop-in has some interesting rooms.

By the way, if you've never been to a wax museum... it's kind of creepy. Eventually it's less so, but those first few rooms take some getting used to because the majority of the selections are pretty realistic.

For Coronation Street fans, there's an actual pub recreation where you can sit down and watch television with mannequins of the characters. If you don't know the show, don't go in there for long because you will get very confused.

All that said, there are some very cool bits. There's a whole room set aside for Brian Cox, including a hologram of him at one end talking about space and stuff. There's an Abbey Road recreation and a bit of the royal family you can pose with. In fact, a lot of the displays have interactive sections.

Check out their website to see what's on display.

The Blackpool Eye

This is one of those "school trip fodder" stops but it's also very cool. Blackpool Tower is another good old "inspired by the Eiffel Tower" construction, with a history of its own. There's a 4D cinema with a cute little film about how great Blackpool is, a timeline area, and then you go up a lift and go... well... nearly to the top.

At 380 feet, seen above, there's an observation deck with a partial glass floor. (See above.) It can apparently hold the weight of two elephants, but you still go a little wobbly standing on it no matter how reasonable you are.

You can go up a couple more levels and get some amazing views of Blackpool and the beach. Not all the way to the literal top, though; that staircase is padlocked and I'm actually sort of glad.

The set dressing around the trip to the top was fun, but the actual view for miles was the best part. Find out more about it here.

Star Trek: The Exhibition

It's not a proper day out with my friends without a geek outing. There's a very cool Star Trek exhibit on with costumes and set pieces from the series and films. There's also walls of scripts (with the animated series included), a TOS bridge for posing, and a Discovery section.

Oh, and a gift shop of course.

Download the exhibit's app and you can play with some of the exhibits in augmented reality, too. It's a very cute conceit I'm hoping to see continue in other similar exhibits.

You don't have to be a dyed-in-the-wool hardcore fan to really enjoy this and take things away from it. There are tons of deep cut exhibits, but even someone like me who considers it a secondary or tertiary fandom can geek out like an idiot.

More info is on their website.

Rock and Lights

We absolutely didn't see everything because there wasn't that kind of time. There was a circus. There was a ballroom. There was a Shrek stage musical(???). There's a lot.

But I did experience two things that are apparently essential. Firstly, rock. Not music. Not a specific rock geologically speaking. This:

Big fat sticks of solid sugar. Are they edible? Technically. I just ate a smaller one that was chewable under the candy coating. They taste like mint, usually, but there are other flavors. And not all of them have words on them, but many do. You can get some that say YOU WANKER if that's your thing.

Oh, and the lights.

The Blackpool Illuminations run for 66 days every year, effectively extending the beach town's touristy-ness into non-beach season. (So no, it's not Christmas related at all -- it ends in early November, usually.) The light displays feature local art, designs sponsored by popular shops and landmarks, and some frankly crazy junk like random astronauts and an Alice in Wonderland scene with Alice painted up like a mime.

And yes, before you ask, there's a light-up TARDIS.

It's not a posh day out. It's definitely Being A Tourist. And that's honestly fine sometimes. And it's an experience. It's cold and a bit windy and you're tired at the end of it from all the walking but... it's nice. I can see why they went and made a musical about it.

Monday, October 9, 2017

KARA ABROAD: Public Transportation Is Easy and Also Terrible

A bunch of us were on our way to our friend Tina's bachelorette party in Richmond. We were all college students or fresh out at the time, so we weren't doing a lot of driving out of town at the time. There were five of us piled in the car, as I recall. Mary, in charge of directions, was fairly sure of where we were going, but was making backup plans.

"If I can't find the place, we'll ask Charles. If Charles can't, we'll ask Shannon. If she can't, we'll ask Meg, and if she can't I'm getting out and grabbing a hobo because sorry Kara you have no sense of direction."

She's not wrong.

And yet I get around London fairly adeptly. This could be because I have a Region 2 sense of direction, but in all honesty it's because public transport in London is so simple to follow that even I can do it and not end up sobbing in an alleyway.

Still, it's one of the things I get asked about most. Or get told is a reason people can't/won't go to London. They would, but ooh, the tube seems confusing and they're not sure they could do it. Or could I give them lessons. Or some such.

I could. I can. I will. But seriously, you don't need it. Navigating is easy enough that, by my second visit, I was confident enough to run away from my host and go sightseeing out in Rickmansworth.

I mean it. You'll be fine. Really. Here, I'll show you.

The tube itself is color-coded and everywhere.

So, first tip. If you get lost in London? Just keep walking. You will eventually see an Underground sign. And if you get on the Underground, you can eventually get anywhere. Easily. All you need to know at all is the closest tube stop and you're done.

Okay, but there's a bunch of lines that go in a big messy web. Yes, this is true. But they all have names and colors. I mean, think about it. People who don't speak English zip around London extremely easily, so it's got to entail a technique that is largely visual.

Every tube station has a map up front with a grid. Find where you want to go on the grid. Find the closest tube stop. Find you now. Then play connect the dots. All you really have to remember, really, are a couple station names and one or two colors.

"Take the Northern Line to Tottenham Court Road, the switch to the Central Line and take it to Shepherd's Bush" is a lot to remember. Easier? Black train, Tottenham. Orange train, Shepherd's Bush. Seriously. That's it. And if you're worried about which way to go? Massive maps outside each platform that tells you which stops each direction hits.

Oyster cards are good unless they stop working.

I love "set it and forget it" so I bought an Oyster card on my first trip and I still keep it in a bag with my passport for whenever I feel like coming over. Tap it on the big yellow circle outside the tube station, on the bus, on the train (certain trains -- you aren't getting to Wales on this), and you're off. Just, you know, top it up sometimes.

If you're only visiting for a day or two, there's really no need for this. But if you're like me and run away from home for two weeks at a time, and/or plan to be back? It's easier than buying a visitor's pass. Also, Mr. Murphy loves to visit, and visitor cards always break or run out about an hour before my train to the airport.

Mine is especially good because the friends I stay with are outside London -- but they're still on Transport for London, which means taking the train in and back goes on my Oyster and I don't have to stay in the big city if I decide on a quiet day or three in.

They (usually?) account for shutdowns.

In London, the trains always run on time. Except when they don't. Like if there's a strike. Or repairs. Or an accident. But if there's an expected issue, there will likely be buses pulling extra duty.

Now, if you don't like buses, that's not much of a help. And you do sort of have to keep your ears very open in the station, in case a train sort of just switches over in the middle of things. But more often than not, there is a second solution if something has fallen through.

The crowds are the hardest part.

This... you may have gathered.

When it comes to taking the underground, navigation is not a big deal. It's really, really not. You can teach yourself over the course of an afternoon of wandering. What's harder to adapt to is the crush of people, depending on the time of day.

If you're like me and have anxiety or any other issue exacerbated by noise and crowds, you may well need to monitor your travel times carefully and read up on how to get around with the least amount of crush. This... will genuinely be the hardest way to travel. But you may need it.

At present, London is working to alleviate this crowding. They're making walking, biking, and other alternate modes of travel safer so that people who have those options will be encouraged to make use of them. There's also the Elizabeth Line opening next year, which is expected to transport somewhere around 10 million commuters per year.

But for now? You'll have to plan carefully if you Just Can't with crowds. Avoid rush hour if you can, remember what time the various trains start and stop running, and do what you have to to keep from going completely mad.

Honestly, there's something about taking the Underground that reminds me that I'm Here. And I do love England, so reminders that I'm Here are quite nice. Granted there are plenty of reminders that Here is still A Place With People Who Shove Other People, but that's fine.

I completely understand public transport terror. I live in a suburb, and it takes me about half a day to relearn my stuff once I get back. But seriously. Trust me. You'll be fine, and you'll be navigating like a local before long. Or potentially better, provided you don't sleep through your stop.