Wednesday, December 07, 2016

A season of disorientation

I know you have it, too - that place in your house that collects everything, and that, no matter what, seems like it will never be finished. Yours might be the kitchen or your bedside table or the spare room; mine is the office. Sure, there are little pockets of anarchy in various places in our house, but the office is the room that inevitably seems to be the repository for all of the detritus from all of those other spaces in the house and the one that can never seem to get quite to the point of "finished".

Our office happens to hold most of our media, our bookshelves, our computer, all of my teaching materials, our deep freeze, and a lot of storage of personal items, so it's a space that is loaded with a number of different issues in terms of clutter. But last year, I was able to spend a significant amount of time during the summer and fall working through the office in particular, so I was feeling a lot better about its contents and my overall life journey; I even got to the point of seeing past the superficial layer of clutter through to the deeper projects I would want to finish at some point, as I chronicled here.

But things changed, as they are wont to do: I started working (again) as a substitute teacher and, before I knew it, it was June and most of those things that I had dreamed about doing were not only left unfinished, but had been obscured by the junk that I had allowed to build up over the course of the year. By the time I was finished with the school year, I was disheartened and disjointed and just generally out of sorts, a general attitude which has carried on throughout the better part of the past six months, through the first third of the next school year.

It has been a frustrating half-year of fits and frustrations, stops and starts, stutters and successes. It's not like things have been all bad or that I'm feeling entirely unproductive or unsatisfied, but there is certainly an sense of existential malaise that permeates much of my otherwise unoccupied time. I have had good weeks - some of which have even occurred consecutively - but I would describe my overall orientation right now as "out of sorts", a term to which I will return later.

My office, in this regard, serves a metaphor for my life in general; I rarely feel satisfied with my progress therein, and although there are times in which I find myself pleased with where things are at, I see that there are some significant issues with the overall structure. And even though I frequently perceive ways in which I might rectify some of the issues in either my office or my life and I attempt and enact some of the solutions I conjure, I find myself continually struggling not only with the smaller tasks but also the larger picture.

Orientation, Disorientation, and Reorientation


As I have been processing this with my wife in the past few weeks, she used the term "disoriented" to describe herself, and something finally clicked for me with that descriptor in determining my current state. I recently read a book - Religious Nuts, Political Fanatics: U2 in Theological Perspective - in which the author, Robert Vagacs, analyzed the work of U2 largely through the lens of the work of Walter Brueggeman. The particular construct Vagacs applied was Brueggeman's interpretation of the gospel narrative as a cyclical process of "orientation, disorientation, and reorientation".

Brueggeman, Vagacs posits, sees the redemptive nature of God working through this process, which Vagacs then further applies to the career of U2: War, The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree as "orientation"; the 90s triumvirate of Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop as "disorientation"; and the pairing of All That You Can't Leave Behind and How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb as "reorientation". (The book was published in 2004 after the release of Dismantle, and I would be fascinated to see how Vagacs - or Brueggeman himself, for that matter - would interpret the past decade of U2's career in this light. My suspicion is that it has been a period of "orientation", which could mean that we are in store for another period of disorientation with their next album. But I digress....)

The point here - much as I might hope otherwise - is not to delve deeper into the theology and mythology of U2, but to point out that the combination of my wife's comment and my recent reading of this particular book made me recognize that this pattern of "orientation, disorientation, and reorientation" is significantly present in my own life. Allow me to explain.

Rubrics for life


Several years ago, a friend gave me a simple though meaningful rubric to evaluate my life. Her perspective was that if you are feeling good about two of the three areas of life - work, home, and life, in her words - that you're doing well for yourself. I would clarify her specific wording to "vocation, home/family, and life/community", but I think the sentiment remains the same. If you have two or sometimes even only one of those areas going well, you're doing okay in life.

Using this simple rubric in addition to Brueggeman's view of orientation, it is then possible to create a method to evaluate one's own life and to determine which level of orientation applies to one's current circumstances. If, for example, you are in a season in which all three of those areas - vocation, home/family, and life/community - are between "okay" and "good" - you're likely in a period of orientation. If you are in a period in which those three are not on track, it's more likely a period of disorientation. If you are seeing a progression between the two in a positive direction, it's likely a season of reorientation.

I would also argue that there is another layer that can (and should) be applied in this evaluation, which is the emotional, spiritual, and/or prophetic understanding of one's circumstances. It might be as simple as processing one's own feelings about their lot in life, but I have been fortunate enough to have significant experiences with a supernatural sense of direction or purpose in life. I believe that this layer, whether accessed through introspection and self-knowledge or some kind of supernatural revelation - or often a combination thereof - can not only help us understand our season, but it can also contextualize that understanding to the point that it is possible for us to endure challenging seasons with a view of a greater purpose.

Life, of course, is rarely that simple, and it is likely that it is difficult to qualify and quantify seasons of life quite so clearly, but I would posit that it is usually possible to determine an overarching season, even if there are smaller micro-seasons and variations within that overall season. Some people might feel that they live their entire lives in disorientation, but I am fairly certain that even given a certain level of pessimism that even the most cynical souls could determine times in their lives when they were feeling like they were in a season of orientation.

I can, of course, identify periods throughout my life of orientation, when things were going well; I was engaged in enough areas of my three vocations - education, communications, and ministry - to be satisfied; home/family was good; and my life/community was also positive. I know myself well enough to know that I am not in one of those periods now, and that I am, in fact, in a season of disorientation.

Feeling disoriented


There are different degrees to the sense of disorientation, but I have realized that this season of disorientation is at least three years old. I could argue that the entire period of seven years since I was laid off from my first permanent job has been an overall season of disorientation - and I do not think I would be entirely wrong in doing so - but I can also recognize that cycle of "orientation, disorientation, and reorientation" in the midst of these past seven years, so I am going to focus on the more immediate period of disorientation.

The year immediately following my layoff was certainly disorienting, as it was the first time I can remember that something I had started had been terminated by a factor other than a natural ending point or my choice to do so. It was a brutal process, both in terms of the emotions I experienced as well as the way in which the entire employment situation was managed, and I found myself having to navigate a difficult season in which I had to be the most mature despite being the most disoriented person involved. I have written not infrequently about that experience, so I'm not going to dwell on it here, but I mention it as a point of reference for the greater conversation at hand.

I would argue that the following year, in which I had a very challenging teaching position, was ultimately a combination of disorientation and reorientation. The following two years, despite a dearth of teaching position, were ultimately a season of orientation: I was happy enough with my work; I had ministry through church leadership and in directing camp in the summertime; I had great friends and meaningful community; and my home and family life, though at times stressful due to the financial pressures incurred by that lack of work, was positive overall.

The next step, of course, leads me to my transition just over two years ago, when my wife and I chose to relocate ourselves and ultimately enter this current period of life, which has resulted in disorientation. We had enough natural reasons to look at moving back to Saskatchewan - the possibilities of better employment and friends and family here including an adorable nephew chief among them - but we also had a supernatural sense of calling in our discernment process, so we decided to move on faith, thus incidentally inciting this season of disorientation of my life.

As I have begun to process this sense of disorientation, I have realized that it is not only an overall sense of disorientation in which I am functioning, but that the nature of my current employment as a substitute teacher also mandates a daily renewal of that sense of disorientation - micro-disorientation, if you will. I never know where I will be working and what I will be teaching; I likewise can rarely anticipate if and when I will be working or not working, and that level of insecurity has continued to be very challenging for me.

There have been periods in which I have been more comfortable with this unpredictability, but more often than not, it has been a hindrance to me rather than a help. I do what I can to manage myself and my emotions in the midst of this variability, but I am by nature less inclined to function well with this kind of vacillation.

I do recognize, largely by my wife's pointed observations, that even when I am feeling like I am "in a rut" that I still am able to accomplish more than most people - for example, I rarely, if ever, have found myself in an extended Netflix binge session on days on which I do not receive a call - but I have also learned that I cannot measure my successes or failures by the amount of tasks I accomplish or leave on my list. (Well, I might still be learning that lesson, but you get the point.)

I also recognize that much of my disorientation is of my own volition - I chose my career, I am choosing not to change my career, we chose to move back, we chose to leave our church - so this is not intended as a complaint, per se, but an admission of the difficulties, both internal and external, that are contributing to this season of disorientation.

Regardless of the combination of factors that are contributing to this season, the reality is that this is my season and it is practically difficult to see how it will change; I'm not intending to sound (or be) overly fatalistic, but there is no "magic wand" simple fix solution for this season of disorientation. There are, however, steps that I can take toward alleviating the sense of disorientation, which often take the form of conversations with others who know me well enough to help me understand my own condition.

Seeking encouragement


I am grateful for the company of my friends and family who have been subject to my various requests (and demands) for encouragement through this entire process. I can honestly say that I could not have done it without many of them, and their contributions to my life have been invaluable, even in the times in which I may have seemed insufferable or inconsolable. I look to their company and encouragement as a form of self-care, but theirs is not the only help I seek.

I often read books by authors in order to encourage me, whether through echoing the sentiments I have been feeling about life, church, and vocation, or through discussing periods of their own lives in which they have experienced a similar sense of disorientation. There has been a rich tradition of twenty- and thirty-somethings writing about their struggles in the midst of the North American Evangelical church, so I have had lots of company in my journey over the past decade and a half.

In the past, Donald Miller was one of those authors in some of his earlier works such as Blue Like Jazz and Searching For God Knows What, though his recent shift in life has left me with much more of a sense of "self-help" from his work. His most recent book, Scary Close, had significant hints of the old Donald, but I also felt like it was a little inauthentic and preachy at times; then again, I would imagine that people feel the same way about my writing at times, so I suppose I cannot fault him too much for that.

In the past few months in particular, I have found comfort in the stories of female authors of faith, particularly as they have processed the overly misogynistic context of the recent American election. It's not that I eschewed female authors in the past (at least the recent past, at any rate), but I think that the combination of an increased internal emotional sensitivity, the presence of several strong women as mentors and co-sojourners in my life, and the surge in the popularity of female voices in this particular field in recent years has resulted in my focus on actively cultivating a female authorial presence in my life.

I have been encouraged by posts and articles from writers such as Ann Voskamp and Brene Brown, whose books I am currently slowly working through. I have read everything Lauren Winner has written, and passages from her heart-breakingly honest Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, about the implosion of her marriage, haunt me and linger like lines from the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Rachel Held Evans' Searching for Sunday was incredibly helpful in processing some of ways I have been feeling about the Evangelical church. But there is one author whose work cut deeper than any of those others in the past half-year: fellow Canadian Sarah Bessey's book Out of Sorts.

Out of Sorts


Bessey's book, which has the subtitle "Making Peace Out of an Evolving Faith", uses the metaphor of sorting through things like a rummage sale for the way in which she has sorted through aspects of her faith and life. Her conversations, by the way, served as the inspiration for the introductory section (about my office) to this post.

As I read through Bessey's book, which chronicles her thoughts on various aspects of a faithful life such as theology, the Bible, church, community, the Spirit, justice, and more, I was continually struck by how much her journey and her thoughts seemed to echo my own, which perhaps should not have been that surprising considering our mutual roots in the Canadian prairies and our dalliances with Evangelicalism and Pentacostalism.

Bessey gave me the opportunity to experience my own disorientation within the church and in my own life in a new and fresh way, and Out of Sorts felt like the kind of revelation that I had previously experienced in reading Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz or Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis - a seemingly perfect distillation of my own thoughts even though it was expressed by someone else.

Much of the book still stands out in my mind - especially the concluding chapter that serves a prayer over the reader in regard to everything she has discussed in the course of her discussion - but there was one particular fact that stood out: her journey of disorientation, from leaving her husband's job in ministry and their life in Texas for a new life in Abbotsford, BC, took nine years. Nine years.

That number is simultaneously daunting and inspiring. On the one hand, I have been in this season of disorientation for anywhere between three and seven years, depending on the exact measurement, so if nine years is a possibility, I have made significant progress. On the other hand, nine years is a long time, and whatever time I might have left in my process - which, of course, may be far longer than nine years, a number that serves only as an arbitrary marker for the purpose of this comparison, since everyone has a different journey - seems not insignificant and at times overbearing.

In the end, I found her discussions more heartening than heart-breaking, as she not only wrote from the point of view of someone sympathetic to people in that season of disorientation - particularly in regard to the church - but she also demonstrated empathy in the style and content of what she wrote. I knew she knew and identified with my experience from her experience, not just from her interpretation of someone else's experience. Sometimes, it's just enough to know that other people are on the same journey, even if they're in a different season, and it's enough to know that there are people who are journeying with you, which I felt when I read Out of Sorts.

How to Be Here


There was another book that also significantly affected me in a positive way in recent months - Rob Bell's How to Be Here, which is his first book since his unofficial "excommunication" from the Evangelical establishment in the wake of his book Love Wins. (I speak metaphorically, of course, though Bell himself acknowledges that he is persona non grata in many of the circles in which he once traversed.) In the time between those two books, Bell left his church, wrote another book, moved to Los Angeles, and started a new life in which he has a show on Oprah's network and writes screenplays and hangs out with showrunners like Carlton Cuse of Lost.

The things that Bell writes are not revolutionary, nor are they overly complex. He relates stories from his journey that have led him to a new understanding of what it means to fully engage in his life and how to experiencing the moment in front of you. Like much of what Bell has written, it's not groundbreaking or earth-shattering, but there is an almost intangible quality about the way in which he writes that is soothing and reassuring without being reductively prescriptive or presumptive.

What I found particularly refreshing about How to Be Here was how Bell works to simplify the entire process of life in a way that is not condescending toward the reader. He acknowledges the simplicity of the lessons he has learned while still respecting the reality that the process is not simple - not even in his own life. He had to take some significant risks and experience some significant disorientation in order to get to where he is, and he writes about how it was not an easy process. Simple, but not easy - a reality I understand all too well.

The temptation of narrative construction


There were many times over the past six months in which I considered writing this post, but I found myself unable to do so for some reason. I still cannot explain the things that interfered with my composition, much as I find it difficult to identify the factors that have interfered with my various projects and creative endeavors over the past seven years. Despite (or perhaps as a result of) this inability, I have realized that it is enough to admit that I am disoriented, and that my disorientation is enough reason on its own to justify the time and energy it has taken to do something as simple as writing this post.

It seems like this is a lot of words to ultimately come to that conclusion, but I would counter that I have needed to live out the past six months to be able to have the voice to process and express this season in a way that makes sense not only to myself but also (hopefully) to others. Nevertheless, in the wake of a post that has been in composition for half a year, I find myself trying to reach some sort of tidy conclusion without actually having the inclination or the werewithal to do so.

Part of the problem I have been experiencing is the desire to force this season of my life - and this post, for that matter - into some kind of overall narrative, and I cannot quite seem to get it to fit. I imagine that there will be a point at which I will be able to look back on this season of disorientation and contextualize it within the larger narrative of my life, but this is not that point, and I certainly cannot prescribe how this season will fit into the larger narrative of my life.

So my role now is not to construct a narrative, but merely to live and learn through this experience, which is the essential lesson of How to Be Here - live to the fullest in the moment. I recognize that much of what I am learning in this season is valuable not only for what it may yield in a future season, but also for what it is doing in my life at this moment. The point is that I need - indeed, we all need - to receive the seasons given.


Receive the (Advent) Season


Right now, in regard to the liturgical calendar, that season - aside from my personal season of disorientation - is Advent, the month that precedes Christmas. In the church, Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus, and many churches observe four thematic focusses in the weeks leading up to Christmas that accompany and are often derived from the readings of the lectionary: hope, joy, love, and peace (in some order).

I have deliberately observed Advent for the past eight years, and I have found each year that there are different aspects of Advent that stand out to me. One year, it was hope; in another, peace. I'm not yet sure which of the four seems most apparent to me in my life now, but it certainly seems as though I need some semblance of all four right now. I find it interesting that I am finding the space and language to work through this season of disorientation in the midst of Advent, and that I am learning again how to press into a season of waiting, which is an inherently disorienting process.

Waiting is focussing on the not yet and the may be and the might not ever happen. Waiting is wondering and pondering and wandering. Waiting is staying in a suspended space with no guarantees and endless possibilities. Waiting is remaining steadfast in all seasons of life, and so, this Advent, I am waiting for Jesus to show up in the midst of my season of disorientation.

In a sense, I am waiting for the star to appear, or for the angel to warn me about the way I am going, though I acknowledge that it is not likely to be that easy or obvious - even in a metaphorical sense. Everything that Jesus did, including the entire narrative of the Nativity, is intentionally disorienting in regard to established structures of power and expectation, so it seems much more likely that Jesus will show up in the most unexpected places in my life - the manger hidden in the back corner of my heart.

I have to keep focussing on ways in which I am being oriented toward Jesus, and the "Advent"ure on which he is taking me. All I can do is to receive the season, to keep watch, and to let Him work through both this season of Advent and my own season of disorientation.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Community 401: Limitation by Imitation

Ah, Season 4, the "gas leak" season. Showrunner Dan Harmon was fired by NBC after Season 3, which seemed largely due to dwindling ratings and a conflict with Chevy Chase. He, along with most of the creative team of Seasons 2 and 3, were replaced by Moses Port and David Gurascio, two experienced showrunners from another sitcom, but who nevertheless did not know Community and its characters like Harmon and his team did.. As a result, the season felt hollow and forced, like someone was trying to do an impersonation but just not quite getting it right.

I watched through Season 4 when it originally aired, but I had only rewatched a couple of episodes since because I had had a fairly bad memory of the season. As I rewatched it, I was both pleasantly surprised at how tolerable most of the season was, but I was also freshly disappointed by how terrible much of it was. The highs are much lower than the show's previous high points, and its lows are much lower; I would argue that the worst episodes of this seasons - maybe the only episodes I would rather not rewatch - are in this season.

The season has some really great ideas, but it mostly just comes up short and fall flat with its execution. Many of the jokes seem obvious and forced, the timing is off, and there are many moments and ideas that are a little too close to previous seasons to feel fresh or interesting. As comedies go, it's not terrible, but it's easily the worst season of Community by a long shot. It feels most similar to Season 1, which makes sense because it features showrunners and some writers who are just starting to know the characters, much like the first half of that initial season.

Well, at least it was only thirteen episodes long, and, unlike the first time I watched it, I knew that I would just have to get through this season to get to the brilliance of the following season, which was not announced until after Season 4 was completed. Because it was a shortened season, and a weak one at that, I have shortened several of my lists accordingly throughout the post.

Main character power rankings


The overall trend this season was that nuance and character growth were not really to be found outside of Jeff (and maybe Abed?). I wonder whether the show's refocussing on those two was a result of the fact that those two characters were the most developed (and developable?) in Season 1. Either way, it was disappointing to see most characters underused or misused or reduced to tropes that had already been explored in the past.

9. Pierce Hawthorne (Even) - Pierce's decline continued this season, to the point that he did not appear in several episodes. The fact that Abed's "Alter-Pierce", played by Fred Willard in the season premiere, was much more interesting than Chevy Chase's Pierce, demonstrated that the character had run his course.

8. Shirley Bennett (-1) - It seemed again that the writers did not know how to best use Shirley other than her time as Coach Bennett in P.E.E. She was underutilized again, being featured in only a few episodes. Even her conflict with Annie for valedictorian mostly featured her as an accessory to Annie's character development rather than her own.

7. Ben Chang (-4) - Ugh, the "Changnesia" story line. I get why they did what they did, but it lasts way too long and is far too much of a one-joke idea to be strung along as long as it was, considering the fact that the ending was far too obvious.

6. Dean Craig Pelton (+3) - The Dean improved again this season with even more of a main role, starting with the Hunger Deans.

5. Troy Barnes (+1) - Troy is again relegated to sidekick status for most of the season, whether it's to Abed, Britta, or even Annie. In fact, the only storyline that really focusses on Troy - he and Shirley taking Physical Education Education together - features him being terrible at it. Another big waste of a great comic actor.

4. Annie Edison (-2) - I really wanted to like Annie more this season, but they returned her to being more of a whiner and a teacher's pet and seemed to undo a lot of the character growth of the previous two years. Sure, she has a number of story lines  - she playacts at being Jeff's wife; she compromises her values to go along with the Dean's plan to bring in a rich new student; she wants to be Valedictorian - which is more than a number of characters have, but it feels like enough of a rehash to knock her down a couple of spots.

3. Britta Perry (+2) - Britta continues to improve as a character, even in the midst of an awkward relationship with Troy, largely due to her increased confidence as a "therapist". She has some of the funniest asides of the season, and she stays out of the worst storylines while her main plot, hosting a "Sophie B. Hawkins" Dance, actually serves as one of the season's more interesting.

2. Abed Nadir (-1) - It was not easy to knock Abed down a spot, considering some of the things he did this season (his "happy place" in the premiere, the Delta Cubes fraternity, two dates at once, and mapping out the group's origin story), but it seemed like most of his story lines lacked emotional resonance and were too similar to previous events to

1. Jeff Winger (+3) - After two seasons out of the top spot, Jeff returns to the top of the list. From almost singlehandedly winning The Hunger Deans to creating an interdimensional rivalry in his head, this season again pivots around Jeff and his storylines, and he emerges again as the top character of the show. His Thanksgiving with his father William (James Brolin) and his early graduation provided two of the few meaningful moments of the season, so he handily takes the top spot for the season.

Romantic Encounter Power Rankings


Not much happening romantically again, other than Troy and Britta's relationship and Abed finally meeting someone who wasn't a Secret Service Agent or a pixellated villager.

7. Pierce (Actually, not even Eartha Kitt) - What more is there to say?

6. Shirley (Andre) - Married and seemingly happy.

5. Annie (Jeff) - It seems disappointing that Annie is so hung up on Jeff that the only romantic action she has all year - other than Evil Annie and Evil Jeff in Jeff's head in the season finale - is pretending to be married to Jeff at a hotel.

4. Jeff (Annie, Lauren) - On the other hand, the fact that Jeff's main romantic action is flirting with a woman at InspectiCon only to be sabotaged by Annie is only slightly better.

2. (tie) Troy (Britta) / Britta (Troy) - While I do not think that the relationship between Britta and Troy really worked at all thanks to the writing of the season, the fact that they are in a relationship bumps them ahead of almost everyone else. 

1. Abed (Kat, Jessica, Rachel) - Abed's attempt to go on two dates at once at two different dances results in him scoring a date with coat-check girl Rachel (Brie Larson) and the top spot in the romantic rankings for the year.

Supporting character power rankings


Many characters made only passing appearances in this season, if at all, and most of the new characters just were not that interesting, so I reduced the list to five from ten.

Not in this season: Officer Cackowski; Alan; Dean Spreck; Pavel; Rich; Andre

NR: Jerry the Janitor; Annie Kim; Richie and Carl (board members); Gobi Nadir (Abed's Dad); Manager at Senor Kevin's; ; Mysti; Quendra; Dr. Ken Kedan; Todd; Lauren; Annie's Boobs; Annie Kim; Mark (Jeff's lawyer partner); Vicki; Lauren; Balloon Guide; Mountain Man; Alter-Pierce; William Winger; Willy Jr.; Sophie B. Hawkins; Kat; Toby Weeks; Garrett

Off the list in Season 4: Hilda; Subway; Cornelius Hawthorne; Gilbert Lawson; Todd; Starburns; Neil

5. Archie DeCoste - "Pop pop!"

4. Leonard - "Okay, you're on to me."

3. Rachel - "No spoilers."

2. Magnitude - "Diggedy doo?" (After trying to find a phrase to replace "Pop Pop!")

1. The Germans - "If it's one thing Germans don't do, it's hold a grudge."

Faculty power rankings


There was even less time spent in class this year than there had been in previous seasons, so the pickings for ranking faculty were even slimmer than before.

NR: Professor Ian Duncan, who was still absent from the proceedings, despite Britta being a Psychology major.

2. Coach Jason Chapman ("Economics of Marine Biology") - The P.E.E. instructor had a memorable story line with Shirley and Troy, but he still ranks in the lower half of teachers at Greendale overall.

1. Professor Cornwallis ("Advanced History of the German Invasion"; "Intro to Knots") - I had so much hope for Malcolm McDowell when he was introduced, but then he was only used in two episodes - and without any meta-references to anything from his entire storied career. Such a waste.

Overall Faculty power rankings:

17. Doctora Escodera (Spanish, S1)
16. Admiral Slaughter (Sailing, S1)
15. Coach Bogner (Phys Ed, S1)
14. Professor Holly (Pottery, S1)
13. Professor Michelle Slater (Statistics, S1)
12. Cory "Mr. Rad" Radison (Glee Club, S3)
11. Coach Chapman (P.E.E., S4)
10. Professor Sheffield ("Who's the Boss?", S2)
9. Professor Cligoris (Political Science, S3)
8. Professor June Bauer (Anthropology, S2)
7. Professor Whitman (English?, S1)
6. Professor Noel Cornwallis (History, S4)
5. Professor Sean Garrity (Drama, S2)
4. Vice-Dean Robert Laybourne (AC Repair, S3)
3. Professor Marshall Kane (Biology, S3)
2. "Professor" Ben Chang (Spanish, S1)
1. Professor Ian Duncan (Psychology, S1-2)

Best end tags


I made myself pick a top three, but I should say that even the best end tag of this season pales in comparison to the moderate successes of previous seasons.

3. American Inspector Spacetime ("Conventions of Space and Time") - The payoff to Pierce's advice in a focus group.

2. "Damn, I wish Abed was Batman" ("Herstory of Dance") - A one-note joke featuring Sophie B. Hawkins, but funny nonetheless.

1. Puppet Rap ("Introduction to Felt Surrogacy") - "Daybreak" gets a new take during puppet therapy.

Best meta-moments and cameos


Unlike the previous three seasons, it's really challenging to find meta-moments and cameos that worked really well. Most of the cameos and guest actors were underused, and there was little of the sense of "meta" awareness that had characterized and defined those previous years. I ended up finding only one meta-moment that I thought was actually deserving of note.

1. "Don't You Forget About Me" plays in the background ("Heroic Origins") - The 80s Simple Mindsclassic hearkens back to the study group's first episode when Abed repeatedly invokes The Breakfast Club (even if it is a little obvious).

Best homages


There were very few homages this season, and none of the three most significant attempts - a self-aware reference to The Shawshank Redemption at Shirley's house at Thanksgiving ("Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations"), an awkward Freaky Friday storyline ("Basic Human Anatomy"), and, apparently, an attempt to evoke Hitchcock's Rope ("Intro to Knots") - worked at all. That said, there were some that mostly worked, so here are the top three of the season.

3. InspectiCon ("Conventions in Time and Space") - The show did capture the feel of nerd conventions well, in addition to fleshing out the world of Inspector Spacetime.

2. Superhero origin stories ("Heroic Origins") - One of the season's best episodes featured Abed's attempt to trace the group's origin story; although some of it felt forced, it mostly worked, and it does add to the show's mythology.

1. Hogan's Heroes ("Alternative History of the German Invasion") - The group's attempt to caper
like the soldiers in the sitcom set in a German P.O.W. camp was one of the show's best moments.


Favourite moments

  • The introduction to the Hunger Deans ("History 101")
  • Troy, Abed, and Britta's Halloween costumes ("Paranormal Parentage")
  • Britta's morning exit/entrance ("Conventions in Space and Time")
  • The War for the Study Room ("Alternative History of the German Invasion")
  • Oktoberfest ("Alternative History of the German Invasion")
  • Shirley and Troy in PEE ("Economics of Marine Biology")
  • Abed's Delta Cubes ("Economics of Marine Biology")
  • Magnitude tries to find a new catchphrase ("Economics of Marine Biology")
  • Abed's antics with Rachel ("Herstory of Dance")
  • The Crazy Quilt of Destiny ("Heroic Origins")
  • Magnitude gets his catchphrase ("Heroic Origins")


Best episodes


With only thirteen episodes in the season - and the overall lower quality of the season as a whole - there were not enough to create a top five. I ended up with a top three for the season, though I should note that it would be hard for any of these three to

3."Herstory of Dance" - Britta hosts a rival dance and Abed goes on two dates at once. 

2. "Heroic Origins" - Abed's exploration of the group's origins leads to some conflict and some realizations about their time at Greendale.

1. "Advanced History of the German Invasion" - The study group deals with a challenge to their domination of Study Room F.

Final Thoughts


In the end, Season 4 was not as bad as I had remembered it to be. Most of the episodes were tolerable, even if the ideas and dialogue felt a little off, and there are only two or three episodes that are difficult to rewatch. It's still a simulacrum of Community, which - at the time, in particular - was better than no Community at all.

I don't know that I would seek out any of these episodes again, but I probably wouldn't mind watching most of them again the next time I watched through the series. I still own the season for the sake of continuity and completion, and there are enough inspired moments for me to come back to this season. Plus, it just makes Season 5's return to glory that much sweeter.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Community 301: Suspension of Reality

Season 2 was when Community figured out who it really was; Season 3 took it further up and further in and produced some of the show's most memorable moments and plot lines. I will concede that the season's overall level of ridiculousness strains the expectation of reality, but that it actually becomes a benefit rather than a detriment to the show. I still think that Season 2 was the show's best, but it's only by a narrow margin over Season 3 - and I would still take this season over almost any other season of any other show (and certainly over the other four seasons of Community).

Main character power rankings


More than any other season, it seemed as though most characters had their own story line; I suppose that makes sense in the community college setting, since the third year of college is often when students start differentiating among themselves and taking different routes to various careers. Some story lines worked better than others, which to me was the biggest contributor to which characters rose and fall in this season's power rankings.

9. Pierce Hawthorne (-2) - Aside from a couple of memorable moments as "Pillow Man", Pierce's character continued to slide in this season. Even the storyline with his father, which does advance his character, arguably does more for Jeff's character.

8. Dean Pelton (+1) - The dean had a few great moments this year, but perhaps none were more memorable than his descent into madness while filming a commercial. He's finally out of the basement; well dean.

7. Shirley Bennett (-3) - Shirley had far less to do this season with her baby storyline done, and a lot of her character was again reduced to her being a stereotype of a Christian. It was disappointing to see her being underused after it felt like the writers figured her out in Season 2, though her storyline of opening up a sandwich shop did give her something to do.

6. Troy Barnes (-2) - Troy's storyline about the Air Conditioning Repair School was funny at first, but it did not have the kind of punch it needed to. Troy mostly took a back seat to the antics of his two roommates, as will be discussed later on, but I suppose being the messiah of the AC Repair school isn't too bad.

5. Britta Perry (+2) - Britta becoming a psychology major and a "therapist" gave her a strong story arc throughout the season. That story development, along with her being the only person with much romantic action this season, pushes her up the standings.

4. Jeff Winger (+1) - Winger, ever the group's steady anchor, remained the conscience of the group, and he slightly improves his position largely because a couple of other characters faltered.

3. Ben Chang (+3) - From student to security officer to unhinged psychopath dictator, Chang bounces back as the fulcrum for most of the action of the season.

2. Annie Edison (Even) - Annie was awesome again this season, but even her time in Model U.N. , script supervising for the Dean, and role-playing Inspector Spacetime isn't quite enough to put her at the top.

1. Abed Nadir (Even) - Abed was easily the best character again this season, particularly in his manipulation of the Dreamatorium and the Darkest Timeline. Hot. Hot hot hot.

Romantic Encounter Power Rankings


There were very few romantic entanglements this season, and several of them were carried over from Season 2 (or S1, in the case of Annie and Jeff), so this is probably the least interesting season for relationships...other than Britta.

7. Pierce (Stories of Eartha Kitt) - Poor Pierce.

6. Troy (Britta) - Troy gets a couple of points for having something happening with Britta near the end of the year.

4. (Tie) Jeff (Annie) / Annie (Jeff) - The "will they or won't they?" of the series continues, but with a lot less interesting stakes at this point.

3. Shirley (Andre) - Shirley's wedding to Andre is a key development at midseason.

2. Abed (Hilda) - Even though Abed's only love interest could fit on a USB stick, he still got more action than most of his friends.

1. Britta (Subway, Blade, Troy) - Ummm, so Britta became the most interesting romantic character of the show this year.

Supporting character power rankings

There were a lot of characters in this season, including a number of new characters who created immediate impressions in their introduction. Half of the list is new for this season, and most of those will be replaced in the next season, but here are the power rankings for season 3.

NR: Jerry the Janitor; Alan; Dean Spreck; Colonel Archwood; Sgt. Nunez; "Asian Annie" Kim; Vinnie (the French Stewart impersonator); Faux-by / Dopple-deaner; Murray the AC Repairman; The Germans; Blade; Luis Guzman; Quendra; Urbana Champaign; Dr. Heidi; Kim; Toby the Pizza Guy

Off the list in Season 3: Pavel; Rich; Andre; "Annie's Boobs"; Vicki

HM: Officer Cackowski; Changlorious Basterds; Richie and Carl (board members)

10. Magnitude - "You know they're laughing at you, right?"

9. Garrett -"CRISIS ALERT!"

8. Subway - "Eat fresh!"

7. Cornelius Hawthorne - "Welcome to Hawkthorne!"

6. Gilbert Lawson - "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!"

5. Todd - "None taken."

4. Hilda - "I love Abed."

3. Fat Neil - "I did it for love!"

2. Leonard - "No such thing as bad press."

1. Starburns - RIP, Alex.

Faculty power rankings


There were not a lot of professors this season, and two of the faculty who were shown may not have even been professors. Here are the rankings for the season:

NR: Professor Ian Duncan, who inexplicably does not appear in S3 at all.

4. Cory "Mr. Rad" Radison ("Regional Holiday Music") - We're never actually sure if "Mr. Rad" teaches at Greendale or if he just works as the glee club instructor, but I'm going to include him here anyway.

3. Professor Cligoris ("Geography of Global Conflict") - Martin Starr has a memorable performance adjudicating the Model U.N. competition between the Annies.

2. Vice-Dean Robert Laybourne ("Biology 101", "Advanced Gay", "Digital Exploration of Interior Design", "Origins of Vampire Mythology", "The First Chang Dynasty", "Introduction to Finality") - It seems like he probably teaches, so I'm going to include him here, as John Goodman creates a memorable and imposing figure for the newly-revealed School of Air Conditioner Repair.

1. Professor Marshall Kane ("Biology 101", "Competitive Ecology", "Basic Lupine Urology") - The only problem with Professor Kane, played by the incredible Michael K. Williams, is that they did not use him in nearly enough episodes.

Overall Faculty power rankings:

15. Doctora Escodera (Spanish, S1)
14. Admiral Slaughter (Sailing, S1)
13. Coach Bogner (Phys Ed, S1)
12. Professor Holly (Pottery, S1)
11. Professor Michelle Slater (Statistics, S1)
10. Cory "Mr. Rad" Radison (Glee Club, S3)
9. Professor Sheffield ("Who's the Boss?", S2)
8. Professor Cligoris (Political Science, S3)
7. Professor June Bauer (Anthropology, S2)
6. Professor Whitman (English?, S1)
5. Professor Sean Garrity (Drama, S2)
4. Vice-Dean Robert Laybourne (AC Repair, S3)
3. Professor Marshall Kane (Biology, S3)
2. "Professor" Ben Chang (Spanish, S1) [It occurred to me that I should be including Chang's one season of being a professor in these rankings, so I'm slotting him in just a shade under Duncan.]
1. Professor Ian Duncan (Psychology, S1-2)

Best end tags


The end tags were far less entertaining in the third season, as many of them were used to advance narrative purposes. There were still a few great moments, though, but one stands far above the rest.

HM: The unproduced end tag ("Digital Estate Planning") in which Abed programs a new version of Pierce's father playing baseball with Pierce to bring a satisfying conclusion to that storyline. Apparently, Chevy Chase refused to film it, and it was on the last day of shooting, so it was never created.

5. Leonard reviews Let's Potato Chips ("Introduction to Finality") / Leonard reviews frozen pizza ("Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism") - The same gimmick works a little better the second time.

4. Troy and Abed in the Morning...Nights! ("Curriculum Unavailable") - Troy and Abed in the Morning make their second appearance of the season.

3. Carol of the Bells ("Regional Holiday Music") - "Dean, dean, dean dean, dean, dean, dean dean"... Now try getting it out of your head.

2. Greendale TV Charity Drive ("Pillows and Blankets") - The perfect send-up of public programming ends with this send-up of PBS pledge drives.

1. The Darkest Timeline ("Remedial Chaos Theory") - Evil goatees for everyone!

Best meta-moments and cameos


Season 3 continued the meta momentum of Season 2, and many of the show's most meta moments were also its best episodes. I tried to pick moments from each of the homage episodes to represent the best meta moments in the season.

HM: The parallels to Ken Burns' The Civil War ("Pillows and Blankets"); References to George Orwell's 1984 ("Digital Exploration of Interior Design"); the song "Daybreak" (Too many episodes to count), as the smooth jazz track became an instant favourite as soon as it made its first appearance.

5. Subway saves the day ("Digital Exploration and Interior Design") - Sandwich shop Subway turns up as a "corpohumanoid" and provides a link to fellow bubble show Chuck, which used Subway as a promotional sponsor in a similar manner.

4. Inspector Spacetime ("Biology 101") - The show's tribute to Doctor Who starts in episode 1, and it got better from there.

3. Beetlejuice in the background ("Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps") - Say his name three times and he appears...


2. "Where did he come from?" ("Regional Holiday Music") - The show had made fun of Glee in Season 1's paintball episode "Modern Warfare", but the entire holiday episode was devoted to openly mocking the tropes of the high school a capella dramedy, right down the random appearance of a pianist at the perfect moments.

1. The yam's autopsy ("Basic Lupine Urology") - The show's parody of Law and Order was perfect, right down to the moment that guest star Leslie Hendrix delivered her report about what happened to the group's yam, as she had done many times on the crime procedural. Bonus points to Donald Glover's Spider-Man tie hearkening back to the ill-fated campaign for him to play the webslinger in a movie.

Best homages


There were definitely fewer extended homages in the third season than in the second, and there were a few that were more obscure, but the homages this year were a close second to those in Season 2. Some of the homages were to genres, rather than specific movies, but they still work really well.

NR: Film Noir ("Competitive Ecology"); Horror Movies ("Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps")

5. Ocean's Eleven / Heist movies ("The First Chang Dynasty") -  Edited together brilliantly.

4. Super Nintendo role-playing games ("Digital Estate Planning") - Abed - along with gamers like me who had grown up with the genre  - knew how to beat Journey to the Centre of Hawkthorne.

3. Heart of Darkness ("Documentary Filmmaking: Redux") - This was easily the most obscure homage of the series, as it necessitated characters having to comment on the similarity of the events of the plot to the documentary it parodied - Heart of Darkness, about the making of Apocalypse Now.

2. Ken Burns' The Civil War ("Pillows and Blankets") - The battle between Blanketsburg and New Fluffytown is narrated in public broadcasting fashion.

1. Law and Order ("Basic Lupine Urology") - It might be the best homage in the series - and that's saying something.

Favourite moments

  • Cougarton Abbey ("Biology 101")
  • Inspector Spacetime ("Biology 101")
  • Earth 2 ("Geography of Global Conflict")
  • The Darkest Timeline ("Remedial Chaos Theory")
  • Chang's homage to noir detective fiction ("Competitive Ecology")
  • Annie's horror story ("Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps")
  • "He tweeted it!" ("Studies in Modern Movement")
  • "Go, Greendale, Go!" 90s advertisement ("Documentary Filmmaking: Redux")
  • Troy and Britta hugging ("Documentary Filmmaking: Redux")
  • Big Cheddar ("Foosball and Noctural Vigilantism")
  • Troy raps ("Regional Holiday Music")
  • Britta finds the song within herself ("Regional Holiday Music")
  • Troy and Abed are normal for Shirley's wedding ("Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts")
  • Jeff's new swagger (and the Dean's reaction) ("Contemporary Impressionists")
  • Jeff freaks out ("Contemporary Impressionists")
  • The return of the blanket and pillow forts ("Digital Exploration of Interior Design")
  • The war between Blanketsburg and New Fluffytown ("Pillows and Blankets")
  • The opening credits of the Law and Order parody ("Basic Lupine Urology")
  • "Starburns is dead" ("Basic Lupine Urology")
  • The Greendale Seven incite a riot ("Course Listing Unavailable")
  • Greendale Asylum ("Curriculum Unavailable")
  • Everything about the video game "Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne" ("Digital Estate Planning")
  • The heist ("The First Chang Dynasty")
  • Troy and Abed's goodbye alluding to Lost in Translation ("The First Chang Dynasty")
  • The montage that finishes the season ("Introduction to Finality")

Best episodes


Although there were fewer standout episodes than there were in Season 2, there were still five episodes that ranked above the rest, with a couple of honourable mentions

HM: "Regional Holiday Music"; "The First Chang Dynasty"

5. "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux" - Abed's second documentary takes on a much darker tone than his first as the Dean takes Greendale down a dark path in filming a new commercial for the school.

4. "Digital Estate Planning" - The group goes on a 16-bit adventure for Pierce's inheritance.

3. "Pillows and Blankets" - Ken Burns' "The Civil War", if it was about pillow fights and blanket forts at a community college.

2. "Remedial Chaos Theory" - Seven timelines are created by one simple action, but one is by far the darkest.

1. "Basic Lupine Urology" - Community parodies Law and Order in the study group's quest to discover what happened to their yam in Biology.

Final Thoughts


Season 3 is by far the zaniest season of Community. It stretches the bounds of believability, but it stays true to its characters and to the character of Greendale, which makes it work just perfectly. It builds on the first two seasons well, and the groundwork for in-jokes for most of the rest of the run is established in this season. This is why I go Greendale.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Top Board Games of 2015 [Revised]

Earlier this year, I wrote a post in which I identified my favourite games of 2015. Since January, I have played a lot of games (in case you hadn't noticed), including a high number of games from 2015 that I had not yet played as of that post and replayed enough of the games I had already ranked that I thought it would be a good idea to revise that original post with an update of all of the games I have played that were released in 2015 and whether there has been a change in my picks for my favourites or runners-up for each category.

A couple of notes on formatting and categorizing: I decided to integrate a couple of categories ("2-player" and "Game Experience") into the other categories because I thought it would be easier to have fewer exceptional categories. This left me with six categories that were differentiated by complexity, rather than having some categories differentiated by player count, for example There are, as would be expected with any method of categorization, possible arguments with which games fit in which category, but I am happy enough with the ways in which each category breaks down.

I also divided the "filler" category into "filler/light" and "filler strategy" in an attempt to alleviate the problem of having a huge "filler" category. The division is a little awkward, to be sure, since some of the "light" games do have an element of strategy, but I think it mostly works well. If the game is intended to be primarily strategic or requires strategy, it's bumped up a half-bracket to the more complex sibling category, in the same way that there's a difference between "family" and "family strategy".

I also ended up going on a journey in which I categorized my entire collection, wish list, and played games by year of release - the reflections on which I will include in a future post - and I realized that I had to abide by the release dates on BoardGameGeek as the absolute standard, which meant that I had to make some changes to this list. There were a number of games that I included in my last post that were actually released in 2014 - most significantly Eggs and Empires, Medieval Academy, Orléans, Scoville, and Sheriff of Nottingham - so that's why a number of my previously included favourites are absent from this post.

Here, then, are my updated thoughts for each of the six categories, presented in order of increasing complexity. (The numbers in parentheses indicate the number of plays for each game as of the time this post was published.)

Party/Social


Favourite: Codenames (11)
Other social games played: Mysterium (1)
Still want to play: Knee Jerk

No change here - Codenames is still the king of its category, and it continues to be my go-to party game, a fact that will likely not change in the near future other than the fact that Codenames: Pictures has just released and will take a few plays away from the original. I enjoyed my one play of Mysterium - basically Dixit meets Clue - and although I would not mind playing it again, I doubt it would find a place in my collection.

Filler/Light


Favourite: Between Two Cities (6)
Runner-up: The Grizzled (3)
Other filler games played: ; Dr. Eureka (1); Fidelitas (2); Flip City (2); The Game (8); OctoDice (8); Tiny Epic Defenders (1)
Want to play most: Oh My Goods!
Still want to play: Cosmic Run; Seven 7s

This category has by far the highest usage rate on average of any category, and several of these games have been among my go-to games of the past year. They are short, easy to learn and teach, and they have enough possible strategy without being too overbearing for new players.

Between Two Cities is a fantastic cooperative/competitive game, although I could easily see The Grizzled eventually taking over the top spot in this group. OctoDice - a dice version of AquaSphere, a complex game I really enjoy - is my current go-to easy filler game. The Game is exceptionally easy to teach and fun to play for novice gamers, so it seems like it may end up with the most plays of any game in this group.

Filler Strategy


Favourite: Tiny Epic Galaxies (5)
Runner-up: Harbour (5)
Other filler strategy games played: ...and then, we held hands (1); Arboretum (1); Cthulhu Realms (1); Fleet: Wharfside (1); Mottainai (3); Star Realms: Colony Wars (1); Tides of Time (1); Valley of the Kings: Afterlife (1)
Want to play most: Hengist
Still want to play: Biblios Dice; Vault Wars; Xenon Profiteer

After integrating the 2-player games and dividing the light and strategic filler games, this category still ended up being very large. Tiny Epic Galaxies is a great game, but Harbour will also continue to get a lot of play. Almost any of these games, in fact, are great to pull out in various circumstances, and I expect that many of them will see a lot more play in the future. I find myself still wanting to play Mottainai more than I have, as its high learning curve makes it challenging to teach, but I know there is a lot more strategic depth waiting to be plumbed in that game.

Family


Favourite: Floating Market (4)
Runner-up: Cacao (1)
Other family games played: Colt Express (1); Karuba (3); Lanterns: The Harvest Festival (1); Machi Koro (4)
Want to Play: New York 1901

Floating Market -  a fun introduction to worker placement and dice speculation with a fun theme (fruit gathering in Thailand) - ended up taking the top spot after both of my previous favourites here were eliminated from being 2014 releases.

I see Cacao and Lanterns - two visually striking, easy-to-learn tile-laying games - eventually being added to my collection, and either might become my favourite with a few more plays. I had considered purchasing Machi Koro at one point, but I'm not sure about that now. Colt Express and Karuba are fun family games, but I wasn't that enthused by either of them.

Family Strategy


Favourite: Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (17)
Runner-up: 7 Wonders: Duel (11)
Second runner-up: Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King (2)
Other family strategy games played: Among the Stars: Revival (1); Artifacts, Inc. (1); Asking for Trobils (1); Broom Service (1); Discoveries (1); Gold West (1); Loop Inc. (1); Super Motherload (1); Viceroy (1)
Want to play most: Barony
Still want to play: Above and Below; Brewin' USA; Burgle Bros.; Favor of the Pharaoh; Liguria; Mission: Red Planet (Second Edition); Nautilus Industries; Nova Cry; Parfum

This is the largest category with twelve games played and another ten on my list to play, so I felt justified in including two runners-up. I also did not see being able to leave out Isle of Skye from recognition, even though I have only played it twice; it's just such a great game, and I know it will get many more plays now that I have added it to my collection.

I had not yet played Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 when I first published this list, but it probably comes as no surprise that it easily enters as my favourite game of this category for the year. 7 Wonders: Duel was integrated from the previously separate 2-player category, as it is a fantastic implementation of one of my all-time favourite games.

I was somewhat surprised to see that I still have ten games from this category to play, though it does make sense when you consider that half of those ten are not easily accessible to me in a friend's collection. As for the other five, it's not as though I have not had the opportunity to play those games yet; in fact, several of them have been present at my weekly game night. I suppose the main reason I have not yet played them is that I have not seen the need to make them a priority; I would imagine that some of those ten would even be easily dropped off my list and I would barely notice that I did not play them. Time will tell.

Complex / Advanced Strategy


Favourite: The Voyages of Marco Polo (2)
Runner-up: Elysium (4)
Favourite Expansion: Orléans: Invasion (5 - 3 on Invasion, 1 on Prosperity, and 1 on The Duel)
Other advanced strategy games played: 504 (1); Deus (2); Grand Austria Hotel (1); Mombasa (1); T.I.M.E Stories (11)
Want to play most: My Village; Shakespeare
Still want to play: Blood Rage; Council of 4; Food Chain Magnate; The Gallerist; Nippon; Signorie; Steam Works

I think this is the strongest group of games of this list, and I think that with a few more plays, The Voyages of Marco Polo, Elysium, Mombasa, and Deus might emerge as some of my favourite games, period. Elysium remains runner-up because Marco Polo is such a fantastic game, but that should not be seen as a knock against Elysium, which I thoroughly enjoy as a strategic multiple-use-card game.

I also had to include Orléans: Invasion here, as Orléans was my previous favourite before being bumped as a 2014 release. I really enjoy the scenarios included in Invasion, particularly the titular cooperative game; although I have yet to try the solo scenarios included in the game, it has been well worth the investment as an expansion for one of my favourite games.

One note about T.I.M.E Stories, which seems like it should be regarded more highly than it is, considering that it has eleven plays. Those plays represent working through the first three story expansions, during which I was routinely underwhelmed by how it progressed. The "choose your own adventure" style of the game makes it hard to go into more detail, but suffice to say that although I enjoy the idea of the game and I have enjoyed the overall experience that I would not choose it as one of my favourites of the year.

I still have nine games from this category to play, which is not much of a surprise as several of those games would take several hours and an extensive rules explanation to learn and play. I know at least three or four of them are still quite popular and will make their way to my table sooner or later. Some of the others - maybe not so much; then again, some of those nine may continue to fade with time in light of the "cult of the new" habit that permeates the hobby.

Conclusion


After re-evaluating my list of games produced in 2015, I ended up with eighty-eight games on my list, with just over a third of those (29 games and 5 expansions) still on my "Want to Play" list. Of all of those 2015 games, I ended up with around a dozen that have already set themselves apart as some of my favourites not only of the year, but of my collection.

I found it interesting that, between playing games subsequent times, redefining the categories, and moving the 2014 releases out, that only one game that I had listed as my favourite in January (Codenames) remained my favourite.  Most of the shifting came from moving the 2014 releases off the lists - and most of those games are now my favourites from that year - so this shift does not illuminate a change in taste.

My initial suspicion that 2015 was an exceptional year seems to be correct. There were a high number of really incredible games that came out that year, and so far the cohort of games released in 2015 is among my favourites of any cohort released in a calendar year. It might just be that I was even more aware of games from that year and that I have had more access to games recently than I ever had before, but I tend to think that there is something special about the group of games released in 2015.

Even with just under three dozen games left to play from the year, I doubt that there will be nearly as much change from this list as there was from its previous iteration to now if and/or when I play those games. So, aside from the possibility of another post at some point in the future in which I further revise this list (and perhaps also examine similar lists from other years for comparison), I'm calling this finished. In conclusion, here are the games from 2015 that are in my collection and on my wishlist, as well as my top games of the year.

Collection and Wishlist


Games from 2015 in my collection: 7 Wonders: Duel; ...and then we held hands...; Between Two Cities; Codenames; Elysium; Fidelitas; Fleet Wharfside; Floating Market; The Game; Harbour; Isle of Skye: From Chieftain To King; Knee Jerk; Mottainai; OctoDice; Pandemic Legacy: Season 1; Star Realms: Colony Wars; Tiny Epic Galaxies; Valley of the Kings: Afterlife (18)

Games from 2015 to add to my collection, in order of preference: The Grizzled; The Voyages of Marco Polo; Tides of Time; Lanterns: The Harvest Festival; Cacao; Love Letter: Batman Edition; Batman Fluxx (7)

Expansions from 2015 in my collection: Council of Verona: Corruption; Imperial Settlers: Atlanteans; Istanbul: Mocha and Baksheesh; Orléans: Invasion; Pandemic: State of Emergency; Takenoko: Chibis (6)

Expansions from 2015 to add to my collection, in order of preference: Galaxy Trucker: Missions; Race for the Galaxy: Xeno Invasion; Castles of Mad King Ludwig: Secrets; Roll for the Galaxy: Ambition; Dixit: Memories; Concordia: Salsa (6)

Top Games of 2015


Social/Filler/Family Games of 2015 that just missed the Top Five: Cacao; Floating Market; OctoDice

Top Five Social/Filler/Family Games of 2015: Between Two Cities; Codenames; The Grizzled; Harbour; Tiny Epic Galaxies

Complex Games of 2015 that just missed the Top Five: Deus; Mombasa

Top Five Complex Games of 2015: 7 Wonders: Duel; Elysium; Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King; Pandemic Legacy: Season 1; The Voyages of Marco Polo

Friday, November 18, 2016

Doctor Strange...love?

(Or, how I learned to stop worrying and enjoy superhero movies and understand pop culture in a post-Trump landscape.)

I have a few thoughts after watching Doctor Strange last night, some of which concern the movie itself, and others that transcend the movie and its genre, which seems appropriate for a movie that is continually asking its protagonist to look beyond his immediate circumstances. As a preface to what I will share, I enjoyed the experience of watching the movie, and although I was distracted by the faults of the movie, I would give it somewhere in the range of 7 or 7.5 out of 10.

It was visually stunning - perhaps the most incredible spectacle I have seen in cinema since Inception, and easily establishes a new standard for the already-stuffed superhero genre in terms of visual effects and creative presentation. It incorporated the idea of mystical arts into the science of the MCU, and although I was disturbed by the violent first scene, I was mostly okay with how the movie handled death and violence, in addition to being pleased that the movie de-emphasized the occult and black magic elements that Strange used in the comics.

That said, I continually found myself distracted by several aspects of the movie, particularly in the first third before the action really picks up. The script was surprisingly weak, even for a superhero movie, and it left incredibly talented Oscar-nominated performers Benedict Cumberbatch and especially Rachel McAdams with little to do (and left me frustrated with the continuing trend of Marvel movies under-utilizing incredible actresses like her and Natalie Portman as helpmates or damsels in distress despite giving them characters who are ER doctors and astrophysicists).

I recognize that the expectations for the quality of superhero movies - particularly of origin stories - is relatively low on the whole, which is why I think I have heard mostly positive reviews of Doctor Strange; although I have avoided most reviews, I have most often heard the comparison to Iron Man, the movie that started the MCU in 2008. Iron Man set the standard for origins (at least in the Marvel end of the cineplex), and although Doctor Strange comes as close as any individual origin story has to exceeding that initial feat, it still falls woefully short of the mark that was set almost a decade ago.

That comparison makes a lot of sense, as Strange is inevitably compared to Tony Stark; after all, both are rich, arrogant, hyper-intelligent jerks from New York who are humbled by their own mistakes and who have to learn a new way of life in Asia. The weight of that comparison, perhaps combined with my musings about how the movie would have differed if Joaquin Phoenix had stayed on in the role, contributed to my overall initial disappointment with the development of Strange's character, as I did not see the kind of arrogance that I expected to see in him - or at least, I was not fully convinced that he was who they made him out to be.

Once Strange goes to Kathmandu and the plot and the effects pick up, the movie gains a lot of momentum, and Cumberbatch seems a lot more comfortable being a mystically-powered superhero than he did an arrogant neurosurgeon. Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ojiofor elevated their characters (although the controversy of casting Swinton over an Asian actor lingered in the back of my mind), and the movie's final extended confrontation

It's not as though the overall expectations for origins or Marvel movies should be that low, particularly considering the nimbleness of Ant-Man as a heist movie and the WGA-nominated Guardians of the Galaxy as a cosmically epic cousin that also inhibits the more mystical end of the MCU, and I found myself in part disappointed not from what Doctor Strange was, but what it might have been.

The best analogy I can conjure is that Doctor Strange reminded me of the 2015-2016 Oklahoma City Thunder, an NBA team that many experts thought should have won the championship last year. They underperformed in the regular season despite having two of the best players in the league largely in part from having a coach - Billy Donovan - who was still figuring out the professional game after having fantastic success in the amateur ranks.

Then Donovan and the Thunder figured something out in the playoffs and almost beat the best regular season team in NBA history - the Golden State Warriors - before losing three consecutive games to lose the series in seven games. (The Warriors would then, in a bout of cosmic karma, go on to repeat that ignominous feat in losing the Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers two weeks later.) All the pieces finally fit together and worked for the Thunder, but fans of the team and of basketball were left with a sense that, even with as great as they were, they should have been better.

That more or less sums up how I feel about Doctor Strange - even with as good as it was, it probably could and should have been better. Director Scott Derrickson, whose legal supernatural thriller The Exorcism of Emily Rose remains one of the more interesting movies of the mid-aughts, seemed out of his depth at the start, but it seemed as though he started to figure the movie out once he got to the mystical epic portion of the movie.

I know that some of the issues of the movie come from being hamstrung in having to include certain aspects in a superhero movie that introduces a character, but I do think that even with those constraints that there were ways that the movie could have been better. For all of its faults, I enjoyed it for what it was, and for what Strange, who I expect will be much more entertaining in his next appearance, will bring to the MCU both as a character and as a franchise.


Looking at the world through a keyhole


What I found more fascinating was a thought that I had in the back of my head thanks to Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan of The Watch, a pop culture podcast to which I listen regularly. In their recent post-election episode, they discussed watching The Good Place, the newest NBC comedy from Mike Schur, as escapism from the reality of living under the weight of the election of Trump.

Greenwald pointed out that Parks and Recreation, Schur's previous comedy for the Peacock, is a show that seems automatically dated, as its sense of positivity seems entirely out of place as a relic of the Obama era. The two bantered about the way in which Trump's election will affect how we consume media, inspired largely by Ryan's ill-regarded decision to watch Don't Breathe, a claustrophobic torture-horror take on Wait Until Dark, as a way to escape from the reality of the election; as it turns out, movies that once served as escapism for him now took on a new much more sinister identity in a world with Trump and the "deplorables" in power.

As a result of their conversation - though perhaps this might have happened anyway - I found myself watching Doctor Strange differently than I imagine I would have had I seen it either before the election or in a world in which Clinton was elected - looking at the movie through the keyhole of Trump, as it were. There are different aspects of the movie that seemed to be more accentuated because of the changes in the US as a result of the election and the resultant wave of hate crimes, protests, and thinkpieces that have emerged in its wake.

It's not as though those aspects would not have been present had Trump not been elected, or that they are applicable only to Trump, but it seemed as though they took on a different resonance because of the events of the past two weeks. Neither is Doctor Strange is limited to being a simple political allegory, but it is representative of much more significant truths of human nature, in much the same way that The Lord of the Rings was inspired, but was not limited to serving as an allegory of, the Great War.

[SPOILER ALERT!]

I can see how Doctor Strange can be seen as an allegory for the current American political climate, with the good Doctor perhaps representing the Democratic Party: once arrogant and unable to see the faults that would lead to his own downfall, and now humbled and needing to learn a new way of seeing the world in order to become its rightful protector. The villain Kaecilius, in this lens, perhaps becomes an allegory for Trump, with his intent to invoke the power of dark dimension in the form of the interdimensional entity Dormammu comparable to Trump's use of racism and misogyny to channel the dark forces of the alt-right to win the election.

[/End spoilers]

Now, I do recognize that these properties are in development and production for several years, so it's not as though we will actually see mainstream reactions to the new world of Trump for at least a year - if not longer - but the fact is that it is now impossible not to experience pop culture through the lens of the world as it now exists - a place in which hate has been politically legitimated not only in the US but in much of the western world.

I listened to a recent interview with the writer of Arrival (which I plan to see soon) in which he indicated that his movie - about the ways in which governments and scientists deal with an alien presence on earth - does take on a new resonance now, and that director Denis Villeneuve saw the ways in which a movie like this would be prescient regardless of what happened in the election. Even a movie like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story may well find itself interpreted in this light, particularly in an internet culture that revels in hot takes and alternative viewpoints (not unlike the latter half of this very post).

In this sense, Trump's election and the rise of the alt-right, dating back to the inception of the Tea Party in 2008, is arguably equal to the effect that previously significant political and historical events had on the pop culture of their times. Pop culture is not a very old concept, but each decade of the past century of pop culture can point to one or two significant factors that permeate much of the media that are produced in each period.

In the 1920s, it was the post-war boom and Roaring Twenties. In the 1930s, the Depression. In the 1940s, World War II. In the 1950s, it was the early Cold War and the threat of communism. In the 1960s, it was the assassination of JFK, the civil rights movement, the rise of the Hippies, and the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, it was Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, it was Reagonomics and the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, it was the internet, globalization, and rapid changes across the world. In the 2000s, it was 9/11 and the threat of terrorism before the relentless positivism of the Obama administration. And now it's nativism, ultra-conservatism, and Trumpism.

It may take another year or two before we really start to see just how much pop culture responds to Trump (who will continue to serve as an avatar for the entire rise of the alt-right, regardless of his mild protestations to the contrary), but Trump is already affecting our view of popular culture. I will be interested to see just how much the experience of pop culture will be different in this brave new world, and what might happen by the time the sequel to Doctor Strange is released in Phase 4 of the MCU in 2020.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Thoughts from a codependent Evangelical

It's the day after the day after, and the backlash against the backlash is in full force on social media. There are a number of posts encouraging people to move on from any and all political discussion. Some posts are encouraging liberals (a group that is being treated as a monolithic category despite significant internal diversity with much the same fallacy that previously applied to Trump supporters) to chill out.

Some posts are being written with tongue-in-cheek wit, while others have the tone of unspeakable existential terror. Some posts are legitimately trying to help people understand and process their grief, and there are already a lot of posts that are trying to start to determine just what exactly happened to cause this surprise. 

There are an increasing number of Trump supporters who are becoming more vocal in expressing their opinions, and I have had some emerging in my own social feed despite my encouragements to allow those of us who are grieving to have the space to grieve. I have, however, had a couple of very interesting conversations with friends from the conservative side about how I'm feeling and why I'm feeling the way I am, which is in part why I'm choosing to post and to write through this whole process.

It seems that each day of pondering and praying and talking through my feelings with people brings me a new insight to share, and I am happy to have not only the voice to do so but also an established forum in which I can communicate my feelings. All this is to say that the purpose of these posts is not be inflammatory or to try to start an argument; I'm merely trying to process this whole election myself and to try to help others from all perspectives to do the same.

I am definitely still experiencing some grief, but I'm moving toward dealing with the issues at hand. I have begun to pinpoint that one of the hotspots for me is, as it has been for a long time, the connection of faith and politics - in particular the ways in which Evangelicals have engaged in the political sphere in this election, so I think it is an area that merits further investigation from me in regard as to why and how this is such a trigger for me.


The Immoral Majority 


Although I have found the combination of faith and politics to be troubling for some time, going back to the days of the 2004 election, I have found the ways in which Evangelicalism and the Republican party have been intertwined over this campaign to be particularly odious and reprehensible. (I would have used the term "deplorable", but I think that term is gone for good now.)

As I have started to sort through my thoughts on this election, I have come to the realization that as terrified as I am of President Trump and what he may do during his time in power, I realized that I am arguably more afraid of Mike Pence and what he represents: a wave of cold, calculating white Evangelicals that will do whatever they can to take power at any cost that has likely now firmly entrenched itself as the most significant minority group in American politics for the foreseeable future.

This is not about Pence being VP, or even the possibility that if anything were to happen to Trump that Pence would be in power. The power of the VP is limited, and even if Eric Trump's words that Trump would give many of the powers of the President to the VP come true, Pence being VP is symbolic of the greater issue rather than a cause of it. This is about Pence as a symptom of a far more troubling trend than it is about him as a politician or back-up Commander-in-Chief.

Pence, along with similar ideologues like Ted Cruz, helped lead the coalition of 81% of white Evangelicals who voted for Trump - a number that, by the way, exceeds the number from that same demographic who voted for George W. Bush by 2%. That group makes up 20% of the voting populace (or so I've read), and they are now directly responsible for President Trump.

These Evangelicals, particularly the ones in power in the Republican party, used Trump both through and in spite of his buffoonery and immorality to secure the most hard-right agenda that the US has ever seen, and the masses responded to their overly simplistic reductive arguments in droves. There are several reasons why this hits me so hard and why this is perhaps the part of this process that will be the most difficult to grieve, but they all come from the fact that Evangelicalism is my home culture.


An Evangelical Upbringing


Evangelicalism is my primary home cultural influence, other than being Canadian or from Saskatchewan, the heart of the Canadian prairies. My immediate family does not have strong ties to any of our various ethnic backgrounds - Norwegian, Danish, Ukrainian, English, German, even American - but I grew up going to an Evangelical church. Even my perception of pop culture - easily my family's lingua franca - emerged through the lens of Evangelicalism.

We attended a Mennonite Brethren church, so there was a strong cultural influence present in the community, but that culture did not directly affect me, not being Mennonite by heritage. I do, however, readily acknowledge that some of the ways that I understood theology and ecclesiology were significantly affected by my MB upbringing, and that my affinity for certain dishes comes from those roots - an affinity that I am very glad to have in common with my half-Mennonite wife, who enjoys cultivating those culinary connections with her heritage. 

I did have to spend time unpacking my beliefs about Catholicism and Pentecostalism, in particular, as I emerged from that church in my mid-to-late-teens, but I tend to think that much of the underpinnings of the way in which my MB church taught and practiced Evangelicalism were common to most Evangelical churches in our area.

I, like most Millennials, am far less devoted to particular institutions than were previous generations, so by the time I was in my mid-teens, I found myself branching beyond that particular church context and being shaped by the broader Evangelical culture as it manifested in the middle of the Canadian prairies, which is to say theologically and socially conservative or "fundamentalist".

I was heavily involved in parachurch ministry, and I found myself participating in youth groups and activities in churches from various Evangelical denominations: Alliance, Baptist, Mennonite, Pentecostal. You may note that there are no mainline churches - Anglican, United, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Reformed - on that list; we Evangelicals mostly spent time with our own, and we rarely connected with those other Protestant churches, much less the Orthodox or Catholic communities.

A space of dissent


As I grew older, I began to wonder and question many of the assumptions I had made as I grew up in the church, especially in regard to many of the socially conservative teachings of the church. I was twenty when I first really found myself questioning, and ultimately in opposition to, the practices and teachings of a church that I attended. I had to learn how to not trust the church and how to live in a space of dissent, and I would end up practicing that a lot over the course of the next decade.

Little did I know where that journey would lead me over the next thirteen years, but I find myself now in a position in which I am in significant opposition to several, if not many, of the core theological, ecclesiological, soteriological, missiological, eschatological, sociological, political and even moral and ethical presumptions of the Evangelical church as a whole, as evidenced by my vocal opposition to Trump. 

I am part of that 1/5 of white Evangelicals who saw a different way than what was being presented and who did not see a way in which our understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was in any way compatible with either Trump's ramblings or the platform of the Republican Party. I chose personally to support Hillary, although I know not all anti-Trump white Evangelicals did so, and I do not necessarily fault them for that. This is not about being pro-Hillary; it's about the Evangelicals normalizing and accepting Trump.

As a Canadian, I had neither the responsibility nor the opportunity to act on those beliefs other than through conversation (mostly on social media), but I still felt a strong moral imperative to take a stance on certain issues within my own context. And for those wondering if it's easier being a so-called "liberal" Evangelical in Canada: perhaps slightly so, but I doubt there's a huge difference between Evangelicals in the US and in Canada.

Which brings us to where I am now: in a posture of dissent, along with many of my peers who find themselves in similarly unfriendly confines, trying to figure out what it looks like to be part of a church that has condoned and even endorsed Trump's behaviour. Some have long given up on church, and although I acknowledge that that's a shame, I can understand why. 

My future in Evangelicalism


For much of the past year, I have wondered if I would have a future in the Evangelical church in general. For a long time, I was able to find spaces in which I could be myself and not feel like I was compromising in order to stay where I was, but I have observed that those spaces are becoming more and more limited as I continue on this journey.

I have recently realized that several moral and theological positions I hold and on which I would not be able to compromise are enough to likely keep me from being considered for positions with many Evangelical ministries, a vocational path I have long kept open as a possibility in my career trajectory. Those doors are closing, either through my own initiation or theirs, and I don't see that trend changing any time soon.

So, as I process what has happened with Trump and the Republicans, part of what I am processing and grieving is my own place and future within the Evangelical church. And no, there's not a significant difference between what I experience in the prairies and what is happening south of the border in terms of theology and politics; Saskatchewan is easily the most socially and politically conservative province in the country, and the church here is no different.

I grieve the fact that many people are rightfully blaming the Evangelical church for Trump, and that the legacy of the church is now inextricably linked with Trump's own legacy. For the rest of my life, any effort of the Evangelical church to engage with the world is going to receive the response of "why should I listen to you? You are the reason we had President Trump."

Now, it is entirely possible that Trump, like Ronald Reagan before him, turns out to be a passable, if not effective, President, and that he will make changes that will be more in line with the more libertarian beliefs he expressed before engaging in a hostile takeover of the Republican Party and common decency. It might not be likely, but it's possible, so I'm not going to grieve his actions prematurely; the reality, however, is that there is already significant damage done, regardless of what happens over the next four years, and the Evangelical church is tied to Trump, for better or worse.

I will continue to grieve the fact that the Evangelical church has given up all moral credibility with anyone with even the slightest twinge of progressive thought, and that I will spend the rest of my life having to differentiate myself from 80% of the people with whom I share a home culture. It gets a little harder every time someone says, "you're not like those other Christians" because I grieve that I am the exception and not the rule.


Evangelical codependence?


Maybe I'm just in a codependent relationship with the Evangelical church: it continues to baffle me, confuse me, and hurt me, and I still keep coming back because I love the church and I see the good in it. Maybe I'm just a hopeless optimist, but I have heard enough voices who are expressing their discomfort and disapproval of this election within the context of the church to give up on it entirely.

It's not easy to stay in the church when you feel as though you have to dissent in order to maintain personal integrity. When you feel like it's often an ethical compromise just to go to a service on a Sunday morning. When you feel like you have to pick your battles just to be able to be there. When you are legitimately concerned about bringing a friend to church because you don't know what kinds of things will be spoken from the pulpit.

But it's not easy to leave, either, for many reasons. When you see peoples' lives being changed. When you connect with Jesus not in spite of, but through, the worship or the sermon. When you just need to be somewhere you can be known. When you share a prayer request and someone comes over and prays for you. When you see good people who actually don't know any better, and you wonder if part of the reason you're there is to help them see something new, and then you realize that you were actually there because you needed to realize something for yourself.  

I have had too many conversations in which I was able to help people understand things in a different way and too many circumstances I had a meaningful conversation in which someone I thought was closed off expressed admiration for the way in which I shared my point of view. I have had too many meaningful connections to write off the church entirely, and it means too much to me to just leave.

This is one of those times, however, when I do wonder if this could be it for me and the Evangelical church. I could see that this might be the point of no return - the point at which I have too much difference to overcome to stay in the church. I just don't know what the future looks like, and that's something that I find myself grieving.

At the same time, I do have hope, as many of the connections I have made through my time in the Evangelical church over the past three decades are still fruitful and meaningful. I am having meaningful conversations with people who knew me in those fundamentalist years who are observing a change in me and opening up avenues of discussion about how and why I believe what I believe and do what I do in the context of the church. 

I may end up leaving the Evangelical church, possibly even as a result of however this entire process shakes out, but I do know that if I do that it will be with a thoughtful perspective and a heavy heart, that I will do everything I can until that breaking point to find a space of dissent in which I can still be part of the body of Christ, and that I will do everything in my power to help others do the same as they navigate their ways through these troubled times.

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