The Good Posts: Chapter 2

One of the important things the series deals with is the question of identity. Almost everyone in the series is lying about who they are, at least at first. Eleanor is not the Eleanor Shelstrop she claims to be. Michael is not a “Good Place architect”. Jason is not Jianyu. Everyone is acting roles – sometimes even acting multiple layered roles within roles. At the start of season one, the only characters in the whole series who believe themselves to be being honest to everyone they encounter about who they are are Chidi and Tahani – and as we later discover, they are not being honest to themselves.

The only character in the series who is completely honest, both to herself and to others, about who she is is Janet. And yet Janet constantly has others’ concepts of her identity imposed on her. “Not a girl”, “not a robot”, “not a person” – these are Janet’s catchphrases. She is like so many marginalised groups in that no matter how clearly and straightforwardly she states her identity, she is not taken seriously – the characters treat her as if she fits into the categories they assign her based on her appearance, rather than treating her as who she claims to be – even though, for most of the first two series, she is literally incapable of lying or dissembling at all.

(That said, it’s important not to state that Janet “is” non-binary or trans, for example, because that gives a promise of representation to a marginalised community which the show does not make good on. It’s not a claim that anyone involved with the show has made, but it has been made by some members of the fandom, and it’s unhelpful. We will, later, be looking at Janet in a lot more detail,)

There are questions of identity in the other sense too though – this is a series that is surprisingly diverse in its representation (though not surprising when one looks at the other work Schur has been involved in – Brooklyn Nine-Nine, for example, centres round a straight white man, but its cast is hugely diverse). Of its four main human characters, only two are American (Eleanor and Jason), with the other two being a British woman of Pakistani extraction and a Senegalese man (although both Janet and Michael present as American, and Chidi speaks with an American accent – but in-universe this is explained by everyone being perceived by Eleanor according to what she can understand). Every white male in the series is a figure of malevolent authority (at least in the afterlife – there are minor white male characters in Eleanor and Chidi’s flashback sequences who are decent human beings, though even there they’re in the minority), and our protagonist, Eleanor, is definitely not monosexual (she expresses sexual attraction to multiple men, but also to Tahani and to “real Eleanor” – whether she would self-describe as bi, pan, or possibly just as a straight woman who’s sometimes into women is not made clear in the series).

That said, I have seen a criticism of the series – one that I’m not in a position to judge fairly – which claims that the characters of colour are largely not given the same chance to grow as the white characters, and that the show centres too much on a white woman’s feelings, with the other characters existing largely to perform emotional labour for her. That is not my reading of the show, but it is a reading that exists, and that has been made by people who are possibly more sensitive to these things than I, as a white man, can be.

As well as these obvious representations of diversity, there’s also neurodiversity – while Chidi is never explicitly stated to be autistic, all of his behaviours are autistic-coded, and I would be absolutely certain that any person behaving as he does in real life was autistic. (Again, see Schur’s other current show, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, where neurotypical-coded people are the minority)

The only person in the whole series who is secure in her identity and feels no need to lie to herself or others is Mindy St. Claire, the only inhabitant of the Medium Place. She’s the only human who is never rebooted, she’s always known by her real name (unlike many of the other characters) and she is always entirely honest about who she is and what she’s like. She also understands herself, and her own strengths and weaknesses, in a way no other character does. If, as Lao Tze says, knowing yourself is enlightenment, then Mindy is definitely the most enlightened character in the entire series.

But Mindy has a life that involves no relationships with anyone else at all, and this seems to be something the show sets out to show us – that our identities are defined, not by who we are to ourselves, but who we are in our relationships with each other. The show repeatedly returns to the theme of “what we owe to each other”, and one lesson we can take away is that one thing we owe to each other is ourselves.

Mindy lives a solitary, self-contained life, one in which masturbation figures more heavily than any other interest, and every lesson she tries to teach Eleanor is along the same lines – you have to save yourself and not look out for other people, because no-one will look out for you. You can be kind and friendly, but self-sacrifice should be totally out of the question.

She actually takes a very utilitarian point of view (and we will look at the series’ attitude to utilitarianism and how it relates to its attitudes to society in a future essay) – assuming the negative consequences of an action remain constant no matter what, it’s better to have those negative consequences happen to somebody else, rather than to oneself. This goes against everything that any of the other human characters believe (by the later episodes – both Eleanor and Jason would definitely have agreed with this while alive) but it’s an entirely consistent worldview, and it’s not one which makes her incapable of caring for other people. All else being equal, Mindy would rather everyone was happy, but when someone has to suffer, she would rather it was anyone except her.

And this is where we get to the series’ view of a strong sense of identity as something that is a hindrance, not a help, to becoming the best version of yourself. Early on, Chidi namechecks Hume’s bundle theory of the self, and compares it to Buddhism’s concept of the self. In both these, the self is not something that exists in itself and has properties, but is only something that can be understood in terms of those properties.

So we don’t have a self that is separate from our selfishness or our jealousy or our kindness, we are our selfishness or jealousy or kindness, and there’s nothing else left once you get rid of those things. And by thinking of an “I” that is separate from those things, and by prioritising it over really-existing things, you are bound to be led into sins of one kind or another.

(That said, it’s hard to reconcile that with a series whose basic premise is that souls do exist – after all, in order for there to be an afterlife at all, there has to be something that’s separate from the physical body which carries on existing, and there’s no reason not to call that the self or the soul and have done with it. But the soul in The Good Place is a rather more physical thing than the soul in most religions – very few religious philosophies consider an afterlife where one can consume frozen yoghurt, shrimp, or clam chowder.)

Morality in The Good Place is, very literally, selflessness. And all four of the human protagonists have been punished for selfishness in one way or another. Eleanor was selfish in the most normal sense of the word – she simply didn’t care about anyone other than herself, and behaved that way – and the same went for Jason, whose life on Earth was spent doing nothing but gratifying his own immediate physical needs, but who still believed himself a beautiful soul with unique talents.

Chidi may not appear to be selfish in his procrastinating and equivocating, but he is, in the end, still more concerned about himself and his own internal state than about others – he cares about “doing what’s right” and living up to his own ethical standards, but that seems to be more because of his own excess of scrupulosity than about the effects his actions have on others. He refuses to lie because lying makes him feel bad, not because lying hurts others – and indeed he tells the truth even when he knows it will upset other people, because to do otherwise hurts him.

And Tahani, obviously, is concerned about other people only in so far as they’re giving her the attention and praise she never received from her parents. For her, people exist only to bolster her own ego, not as independent people with their own lives – hence, also, all her superficial namedropping.

And speaking of namedropping, of course names are important in people’s identities, and that’s something we’ll be looking at in the future…

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The Good Posts: Chapter One

[This is the first of a whole series of posts that will be going up, and will eventually be bookified. I’ve written enough of them now to know that I’m not going to just drop this series half way, as it’s basically done so it’s starting to go up now and over the next few weeks]

Welcome, everything is fine. We’re going to talk about The Good Place.

So, why talk about The Good Place?

Well, for a start, it’s quite possibly the most intelligent TV programme created in the last fifty years. Certainly it’s richer with meaning and with ideas than any other comparable US sitcom. This is a series that requires literary analysis, but all the discussion about it online so far has mostly consisted of plot synopses and recaps of the funniest lines.

Even the discussion about it that has attempted some form of analysis has been fairly trivial – it’s noted, for example, that the name of Michael is the same as that of Michael Schur, the showrunner and creator, and found some parallels between the actions of the character and the job of running a TV series.

And this is deeply unfair to the series. The Good Place is doing interesting things, in interesting ways. As we’ll see, later, there’s a lot more that can be said about the character, and the name, of Michael. It’s unfair, but it is understandable – after all, this is a series that’s pitched as a sitcom, whose showrunner is otherwise responsible for series like Parks & Recreation, The Office (US), and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Whatever one thinks of those series, they are not series that admit of much analysis on either the conceptual or the structural levels.

The Good Place is different. It is doing different things, and doing so in a different way.

Just on the most basic level, what other TV series can you remember, ever, which has as major plot points the understanding of Kierkegaard or consequentialism? I’m not talking about stories which rely on those concepts, but ones which explicitly, didactically, say “this is what this philosopher said about this issue” and give pointers for further reading. Yes, the concepts that are covered are ones which are fairly basic in modern philosophy, but they’re still far, far in advance of anything talked about in any other sitcom that I know of.

But also, The Good Place is a remarkably structured piece of work. It has the best use of cliffhangers I have ever come across – it manages, almost every episode, to come up with a cliffhanger which completely turns the whole narrative on its head, but which makes perfect sense within the overall narrative. This is a series which regularly sets up premises which lesser sitcoms could use as story engines to generate years’ worth of good material, and then throws them aside after a single episode – it’s amazingly profligate with its ideas, and there’s a casual confidence to it that only comes from people who know exactly how good they are – this is a series which is more self-assured than anything I’ve ever seen.

Remember that the idea that we see at the very start of the series – with Eleanor turning up in the Good Place by mistake and having to hide her true identity – is one that is entirely plausible as the sole premise of a long-running series. We can easily imagine a series based around the same idea lasting five or six years, with Eleanor getting trapped in increasingly implausible lies, and having to hide more and more outrageous mistakes from Michael.

Instead, by episode seven of season one, Eleanor is out to Michael as the problem he’s been hunting, and even before that we’ve seen several smaller changes of premise. So far, in fact, by the end of season two we’ve had at least six major premises for the series:

    Eleanor trying to hide from discovery

    Eleanor fighting to be allowed to stay in the Good Place after being discovered

    Michael repeatedly rebooting Eleanor, Jason, Chidi, and Tahani and trying to stop them discovering they’re really in the Bad Place

    Michael working with Eleanor, Jason, Chidi, and Tahani against Vicki, and trying to learn ethics while preventing Vicki from discovering they haven’t been rebooted

    Michael trying to get Eleanor, Jason, Chidi, and Tahani through the Bad Place to the Judge, and advocating for them to be allowed into the real Good Place

    and finally (so far) our four principals being in a simulated version of reality, their minds wiped, being given another chance to prove themselves truly good.

We can be sure that season three will have at least two or three new premises as well. Compare this to, say, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schur’s other current show. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is an entertaining series, and produces far more episodes per year than The Good Place does, but while the series does occasionally have a change in premise (for example Captain Holt being reassigned at the end of season two, or Holt and Perralta going into witness protection at the end of season three), those storylines are always finite and always see the status quo ante restored within a handful of episodes (the only changes that seem to stick are those involving romantic/sexual relationships, and those are fairly minor when compared with the dynamic of the series as a whole).

The Good Place goes far, far out of its way to make sure that the very possibility of a reset button does not exist – even as numerous in-story reset buttons get pushed (literally in the case of the one that reboots Janet). The closest it comes to using a reset button is at the end of season one, when all the characters get returned to the state they were at the start of the season. Even there, though, the reset button hasn’t quite been pushed – even though the characters are unaware of their predicament, we the audience are entirely aware of it, and so the experience of watching can’t possibly be the same. Now, instead of watching Eleanor and wanting her to be able to hide the fact that she’s not a good person from Michael, we know that he knows the truth, and we want Eleanor to discover again that she’s really being tortured.

The Good Place may, in fact, be the first comedy series to apply the kind of arc-based storytelling that is usual in soap opera and superhero comics, which moved to SFF TV in the 1990s, and which has recently become de rigeur in “prestige” TV dramas. But crucially, it’s doing this properly, with actual changes made in every episode. Normally, one finds that series made for binge-watching suffer from the problem of plot-blocking – each episode doles out a tiny bit of the puzzle, while having everything else spin its wheels and go nowhere. Compare, for example, the Netflix House of Cards with the British TV series on which it is based. I watched the first four seasons of that show, coming to some fifty hours of TV, and it had roughly reached the same point in the overall plot that the British series had reached halfway through its second series, a total of a little under six hours.

Compared to these plot-blocked series, The Good Place moves at a ferocious pace. Each twenty-five minute episode covers the same ground one would expect from three or four hour-long episodes of even the most compressed drama, and it manages to do so without sacrificing concerns like characterisation. Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, Janet, and Michael, and even more minor characters like Mindy, Vicki, or Sean, are all well enough characterised that any viewer can say what they would do in any given situation. Each has their own manner of speech and attitude towards life.

But even more than all of this, The Good Place is a series that takes ideas seriously, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.

So over the course of this series of essays, we’re going to look at The Good Place in far greater depth than anything else I’ve seen about the show. We’ll talk about the questions the series raises – questions of morality and ethics, of the nature of identity, and what we mean when we say someone is a good person. And as we do so, we’ll see that the series has a lot more to say than is initially apparent, and is examining questions that go to the heart of western culture.

So join us, and don’t worry, everything is great.

Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about identity…

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One Million Views!

At some point today, while I was lying down with a headache, the counter on my blog’s stats ticked over and I got my millionth visitor, roughly a decade after I started this thing (and long after blogs have stopped being A Thing for most people, but I’ll be continuing with this rather than the various forms of social media nonsense).
Thank you to everyone who’s visited, and for making this blog, in a very roundabout way, the way I make my living.
Anyway, here are links to ten of the things I’ve written on here that I think still hold up.

First, here’s my post on Mister Miracle, which I think is the best of the essays in my Seven Soldiers book. It characterises a lot of the stuff I like about my own best writing in that it ties together a *ton* of apparently different ideas. I’m trying to start doing more of that again now, as so much of my stuff recently has been a bit linear. It covers comics, music, science, and politics…

A post I wrote about writing while aphantasic, and how you get round the problem of describing visual elements

A post about Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the song Strange Fruit

An explanation (from 2014, so long before the Brexit horrors) of why I oppose referendums even as I love democracy

A post about Before Watchmen which starts with a quote about the Lib Dems which I’m sure made thematic sense at the time given something which was going on then politically, but now seems *weirdly* out of place.

A post from 2009 about how UKIP are a bunch of lying racists. Back then, most people didn’t realise it, and they would deny it rather than be proud of it.

A post on why you shouldn’t shame people for their penis size

My post discussing whether Rasa Didzpetris was more responsible for the Kinks’ success than she’s credited for — to which Didzpetris herself responded positively!

My guess as to what Superman was singing in Final Crisis 7

And… here’s where I hit a problem. I had several candidates for the tenth post. I was going to link to my Not A Review of Neoreaction A Basilisk, or to my piece on Elvis in the 70s, or to my Mindless Ones piece Howl, or to my Mindless Ones piece on Logopolis. All of those are both good pieces of writing *and* would allow me to draw together thematic stuff from a bunch of the posts above and create an interesting conclusion here.

But I know many trans people, and each of those either has me or someone in the comments misgendering and deadnaming one or more people who hadn’t yet come out as trans (or in some cases them commenting in their deadnames). I don’t currently have the mental energy to go and unpick all the references to people’s deadnames in over 2000 blog posts, and I *couldn’t* edit the comments by other people, but I wouldn’t feel right linking them either. So, they’re posts I’m proud of but right now won’t link to. When I have the spoons I’ll fix them.

So, to finish, my Doctor Who short story The Bogeyman, which was unsuccessful as a pitch to Big Finish, but was later included in an Obverse charity anthology with a bunch of very famous writers, so is probably my most read thing in terms of book sales, and is one of the first pieces of fiction I wrote that I actually liked myself.

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Representation

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the series Brooklyn Nine-Nine recently, even before the news of its cancellation and miraculous resurrection. I started watching it mostly as a kind of methadone for The Good Place, whose creator is a co-creator and executive producer of B99, and it’s definitely not anything like as good a series as The Good Place, which I will argue to anyone who will listen is possibly the best piece of TV ever made.

But Brooklyn Nine-Nine, while it’s a fairly standard sitcom, has become comfort viewing to me, to the point that in the last few months I’ve watched every one of its hundred and twenty or so episodes at least four times. And I don’t watch a lot of TV content normally — Brooklyn Nine-Nine is rapidly reaching the point that it makes up a noticeable fraction of all my TV watching *ever*.

Now, the reason for this is simple and a bit depressing — I’ve been seriously mentally and physically ill for a good portion of this year, and I needed unchallenging distractions, the mental equivalent of junk food. Something I’ll watch when I’m well, like say The Good Place or The Strange World of Gurney Slade or F For Fake or something of that nature, is far less appealing when I’m having the kind of cognitive problems that come along with my illness flare-ups. What I need then is something that’s completely unchallenging and which has a mildly funny joke every two minutes, a story that only lasts twenty minutes, and which repeats the important plot points about three times to remind people where they are after the commercial breaks.

But why *this* particular series, rather than any one of a dozen other similar sitcoms? I hadn’t really thought about that until the campaign to save it.

That campaign spent a lot of time talking about the series’ representativeness and wokeness, and I felt that was rather overstated. Yes, it has a racially diverse main cast (though it does centre on a white man — one who is Jewish and presumably has some Latin American ancestry given his surname, but still, white man), but I saw a lot of people talking about its “LGBT representation” or “LGBTQ representation”, and that’s not really accurate — it has one prominent gay man as a principal character, and has recently revealed another major character to be bi, but there are no trans characters (though there have been a few trans-affirming comments in the last couple of seasons) and literally only two mentions of lesbianism in the entire series (the name of Captain Holt’s organisation, the African-American Gay and Lesbian New York City Policeman’s Association, and a comment from Holt about a male officer’s poor fashion choice — “Boyle looks like a lesbian!”).

On top of that, it has the usual problems of US comedy in that it thinks that all non-US cultures are inherently funny (see for example its treatment of the Swedish police officers from Interpol, or the Latvian culture of Boyle’s adopted son Nikolaj), it’s had a few fatphobic moments, and while it does push against much of the negative culture around the police and incarceration in the US, it still accepts that arresting sex workers and their customers or drug users is a morally reasonable thing for sympathetic protagonists to do.

That makes it sound like I’m critical of the series’ politics — I’m actually not, for a US network TV series. It’s less ethically problematic than almost anything produced by that system, and there’s a running theme of critique of toxic masculinity, and several explicit statements against things like transphobia — it’s a series which is quite clearly trying hard to do the right things, even as it’s made by fallible people in a system which does not exactly encourage nuance, and in two genres (the sitcom and the cop show) which are actively hostile to it.

But it’s nowhere near as representative as people say — except in one way, the way that made it feel most comfortable to me. Because this is the series that has the most autistic representation I have ever seen in a TV series.

Now, before I go any further, I must say that there are no explicitly autistic people in the series. But then, there very rarely are. Autism representation in TV and cinema is in much the same stage as, say, gay representation was decades ago or trans representation is now. If there’s an explicitly autistic character in a TV series, that’s because the TV series is “about autism”, and the character is a zero-dimensional stereotype treated as a problem.

For our representation, then, we look to characters who aren’t stated to be autistic but who just feel like they might be, in much the same way people used to have to look for lesbian or gay coded characters (bi representation hasn’t even extended to coding, often) — but even there, there’s usually only one per series, and they usually fall into a handful of unrepresentative tropes — usually the (white, male, straight) arsehole genius in the manner of House or the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes. While there definitely are autistic people like that, they’re thankfully not the majority of us.

It’s important to note here that there’s a subtle difference between autistic people’s headcanons and medicalising a personality trait. Most of us who are autistic don’t see our neurology as being a medical condition, and we don’t particularly think our personalities need explaining — we are who we are, and that’s OK. But we often have a certain ability to identify autism in others, often before they get diagnosed, something like gaydar. I can think of maybe a dozen people I know who I just assumed were autistic who later realised it about themselves and got diagnoses. There are patterns of thinking and behaviour which are much more subtle than those that are generally picked up on, but which resonate deeply.

And one of the things about autistic people is that we tend to cluster. We don’t always *only* feel comfortable around other autistic people — my own wife is neurotypical, and she’s the only person I know who I feel no discomfort at all around — but we almost always feel *more* comfortable around autistic people than around neurotypicals.

And Brooklyn Nine-Nine feels to me like visiting a bunch of autistic friends. I’m not the only one, either — a site which lists people’s headcanons lists six of the main characters as being read as autistic. I don’t actually read two of them (Gina and Jake) as being autistic myself but it’s not completely out of the question.

And what’s really interesting is that all these characters can be read as having autism that manifests in different ways, which is *something that never happens*. When writing a character who is autistic, or even one that just uses autistic coding, what normally happens is that a writer puts together something that fits the DSM criteria precisely, and has the DSM stuff cranked up to eleven but doesn’t have any of the other tells — they have a bunch of quirks bolted together, with no real observation of what actually happens, which is that most of us kinda-sorta fit into the DSM criteria, but also have a whole lot of other things in varying proportions, all of which tend to cluster, but none of which are universal.

Now, I’m going to take a quick look through the principal cast, and show you what I mean. For those who don’t know, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has an ensemble cast with nine regular characters who appear in (almost) every episode, and also has a bunch of recurring characters. I’m not going to look at the recurring characters, but some of them (like Adrian Pimento and Kevin Cozner) certainly ping my autisticdar.

First, let’s get the white men out of the way, because they’re the least interesting ones here.

Jake Peralta — the protagonist, and one of only two characters (the other being Captain Holt) to appear in every episode. Jake has some Special Interests (ones that are acceptable within toxic masculinity, like the Die Hard films and expensive trainers) but is the most definitively neurotypical character in the series as far as I can tell.

Hitchcock and Scully are both one-note joke characters, who don’t have any depth at all, so aren’t really worth thinking about here.

Charles Boyle, on the other hand, is *definitely* autistic. He’s sensory-seeking with respect to food and taste, he means well but he’s so bad at social cues that he crosses boundaries all the time. He’s “not physically gifted”, and he clearly has sensory stuff around clothing — while he loves to dress up, most of his clothing is… exactly the same stuff I wear. Well, I no longer wear the kind of button-up shirts he wears, because I lost all mine in my luggage once and just switched to T-shirts, but I used to, and the rest of his dressing is precisely how someone who’s trying to minimise sensory discomfort but has no visual aesthetic (like myself) will dress. His family also all dress in this way, behave like him, and have sleep apnoea and psoriasis (two conditions which go along with autism regularly). He’s unaware that others don’t share his enthusiasms, but he’s fiercely loyal to people he cares about (often displaying it too much) and his family go on holiday every year to Iowa. He is, in short, the person I secretly fear that other people must see me as (though I’m not sensory-seeking with food, alas).

Captain Raymond Holt is in many ways Boyle’s opposite — he’s sensory-avoidant to an even greater extent than me, and a line from him, “I have zero interest in food. If it were feasible, my diet would consist entirely of flavorless beige smoothies containing all the nutrients required by the human animal”, is one of the lines I’ve identified with most, as someone who is sensory-avoidant with all the senses except hearing. He has a completely flat affect, and speaks in the overly-formal manner that many of us do (“‘I am feeling trepidation at the prospect of a parent-less existence.’ No kid talks like that.”/”Those lines were lifted verbatim from my childhood diary.”) He has a rigid moral code, and has rules for almost every kind of behaviour (“There are two acceptable sleep positions: on back, toes up, arms crossed or on back, toes up, arms at the side.”)

Holt is also black and gay, neither of which is usually an attribute associated with these autistic characteristics in most fiction, but of course there are plenty of autistic people who are black, gay, or both.

Sgt Terry Jeffers, his subordinate, doesn’t read as autistic to me, but there’s a complicating factor there. Jeffers is, like Holt, black, but he has more aspects of African-American culture in his accent, body language, and so on, and as I’m not as familiar with the nuances of that culture as I might be, he might read as autistic to someone who was more fluent in that culture. Certainly there are quirks of his, like referring to himself in the third person or his yoghurt obsession, which are not incompatible with autism, and his desperation to be liked and his exaggerated facial expressions also fall into that category. While he doesn’t read as autistic, then, he reads as autism-compatible.

Rosa Diaz is the closest thing the series comes to the arsehole genius stereotype I talked about above. She is super-competent, flat in affect, often verbally aggressive, and in short all the traits that characters like House normally display. However, these traits read very differently in a Latina woman than in a white man, due to the normal power differentials. She is also bisexual, and this is one of those traits that seem to cluster in autistic people to an amazing degree (I think there’s literally a 90%+ overlap between the autistic people I know and the bisexual people I know, and I know a lot of both).

Amy Santiago is someone who needs rules and organisation to keep herself together — the kind of person who keeps every aspect of their life ordered as a bulwark against the chaos of the outside world. This is something that is *extremely* common in autistic people, although sadly it’s not a trait I share. She is also extremely unaware of her own physical presence — often doing extremely uncoordinated victory dances, or for example attempting to wink flirtatiously, using both eyes, and accidentally blinking her contact lenses out. She believes deeply in rules, and follows even those rules she doesn’t understand or agree with, because rules exist for a purpose. Again, all *very* common traits in autistic people.

And the final regular in the series is Gina Linetti, a character who is frankly so strange that she doesn’t fit into any category I can think of. She doesn’t read as autistic to me, but she definitely doesn’t read as neurotypical in the broader sense.

So we have a series where four of the main characters *definitely* read as autistic (Amy, Rosa, Holt, and Boyle), a couple more are possibles, and only one character reads as absolutely neurotypical (and even he is someone’s headcanon as autistic, so…). Annoyingly the neurotypical one is the main character, but even so, that’s not something I’ve seen in any series ever, let alone with them being *different* in their autisms.

And that’s why Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been my comfort food, because watching it is like being in a place where everyone is like me in a way that matters. It’s a window into a society where autistic people outnumber, or at least balance, neurotypicals, and what it shows is a world where I could at least be comfortable. Not a utopia, just a group of people I can understand.

There aren’t many people I can understand, and when I’m that ill, I don’t have the mental cycles to spend on processing neurotypical reactions, and so a series where I don’t have to do that is just the thing.

Anyway, yeah. Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Better and worse on representation than it’s portrayed.

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Nilsson: The Point!

After a fifteen-month gap in which Nilsson released nothing at all, The Point! began a massive flurry of activity for Nilsson. Between March 1971, when The Point! was released, and July 1972, Nilsson released four albums — The Point!, Aerial Pandemonium Ballet, Nilsson Schmilsson, and Son of Schmilsson. Three of those four would be Nilsson’s most commercially successful albums — and indeed his only US top forty albums — and two of them (The Point! and Nilsson Schmilsson) are among his most critically acclaimed works.

Yet The Point! seems curiously detatched from the music he would be making even months later.

Musically, it’s very similar to the work he’d been doing earlier — George Tipton once again arranges (for the last time on a Nilsson album of new material), and the style of the melodies is much the same as on Aerial Ballet and Pandemonium Shadow Show, but here the songs are less structured — they tend to be repeated fragments rather than standard verse/chorus/middle-eight structures.

Which is not to say these are bad songs at all — The Point! is a magnificent album — but it’s a whole that’s rather greater than the sum of its parts, and that is in part because of the album’s narrative.

The Point! tells a fairytale-style story which Nilsson had made up after ruminating on the multiple meanings of the word “point” (he was taking a fair amount of LSD at the time) and coming up with a little morality tale. That story became the basis of a TV special — a cartoon narrated by Dustin Hoffman (later home video releases have the narration by Ringo Starr instead), and of this album, which has Nilsson telling the story. Half the tracks here are spoken-word, with Nilsson narrating over George Tipton’s instrumental arrangements of musical themes from the songs.

As such, the songs are in service to the narrative, and so tend not to stand too well on their own. Which is not to say any of them are bad, just that some of them are rather underdeveloped. This is actually something we’ll see on several of Nilsson’s future albums, even his two biggest commercial successes, but it’s apparent that what seems to be happening is that he has good ideas for a piece of music, and then that’s it — there’s less of the interest he had in the craft of songwriting, and particularly in lyrics. He’s moving back to an earlier mode of pop songwriting, one that’s all about the hook, a music of the heart rather than of the head.

While the songwriting is all credited to Nilsson, the storyline for the TV special was actually developed by Nilsson, Norm Lenzer, and Carole Beers, and so it’s reasonable to suspect that at least some of the elements in the story as told by Nilsson were created by Lenzer or Beers . That said, the basic idea was Nilsson’s, and certainly all the actual songs are by him.

The story itself is very reminiscent of children’s books like The Phantom Tollbooth, with many heavily-caricatured characters who exist to make a particular philosophical point (and it’s almost impossible to write about this album without finding oneself also using the word “point”, over and over again, in a variety of different meanings). It’s a picaresque rather than following a more plot-heavy narrative structure, with each individual encounter standing alone and having no effect on subsequent ones. It’s the kind of narrative structure, in short, that can be artificially extended or shortened at whim — the perfect kind for someone trying to create a work that will

Much later, in 1976, The Point! would become the basis of a stage musical, featuring songs not only from this album but from other Nilsson works, and a soundtrack album to that (featuring Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones of the Monkees) would eventually be released. That album is not covered in this series of essays, but anyone interested can find the details in the second edition of my book Monkee Music.

The Point! is a strange outlier in Nilsson’s work generally — as much of a children’s record, if not more so, than a record aimed at adults. Oddly (and almost certainly in part because of the TV special) it became his most commercial album to date, being his first to break into the charts at any level, and peaking at number twenty-five in the US. This was the start of a run of commercial and critical success for him, though it happened at a point when his creative powers were starting to wane along with his marriage, which was at this point showing severe signs of strain.

That wasn’t the only relationship that was nearing an end. While Nilsson and Tipton didn’t fall out, this was the last time the two men would collaborate. After Aerial Pandemonium Ballet, which was essentially a remix album, Nilsson would work with other arrangers and producers, but never return to the “very good friend” who had worked on six albums and a film soundtrack with him.

All songs on the album were written by Nilsson.

Everything’s Got ‘Em
A very simplistic piano-based song, this acts as an overture to the album, introducing the town (“this is the town and these are the people… that’s the way they wanted it, that’s the way it’s going to stay”). Like many of the songs on this album, it’s based on repeating the same few phrases in an almost mantra-like fashion — it’s not so much a crafted song as a couple of fragments bashed together and alternated over a repetitive set of chord changes, played by an unusual set of instrumentation which sounds as much like the arrangements Nilsson’s friend Van Dyke Parks would often use as Tipton’s normal arrangements.

The ’em which everything has got is clarified in the next track — everything in the town has a point, both physical and metaphorical. However, as with much of Nilsson’s material, there’s a real temptation to read a scatalogical or sexual meaning into this, which may well be intended.

The Town (narration)
A piece of narration over a backing track that continues the “Everything’s Got ‘Em” backing. Here Nilsson sets out the basic premise of the story — the Pointed Village, and Oblio’s lack of a point.

There’s a basic pattern to the album, where every musical track is followed by a piece of narrative. These narrative sections manage to fit the songs into a coherent story, but the songs often sound like they were conceived independently and then slotted into place. What’s surprising is that this still works very well — even as the individual songs may not be crafted with as much attention to the sequencing and organisation of the individual elements like verses and choruses as they were before, the overall album is crafted with a great deal of care paid to the macro level of organisation. Half the challenge of making any creative work is not the inspiration or the ideas, but creating a framework, a structure, in which those ideas are placed. Nilsson was always a master of this — even on some of his later albums, where the material is less than his best, he structures the flow of the album in a very controlled way.

These narrative sections are, of course, necessary for the flow of the album, but they don’t really admit of much analysis, so I shall not be dealing with them in any great depth.

Me and My Arrow
Probably the most famous song on the album, this is, depending on whose opinion you ask, either a joyous song about a boy and his dog (which is what the narration sections certainly seem to suggest) or a song about having a penis that’s “straighter than narrow” (an interpretation that’s placed on it by many of Nilsson’s fans, and which I don’t share but which can, just about, be supported by the song’s lyrics). Obviously, this being Nilsson, one can’t completely dismiss the idea that the latter interpretation is correct, given his smutty sense of humour.

I prefer, however, to assume that in this case, even if Nilsson intended the double entendre, he also intended the song to be read on the literal level – and certainly Bill Martin always said that Oblio’s relationship with Arrow was based on Nilsson’s own relationship with his dog, Molly. And taking the song at its face value, this is a quite lovely evocation of the friendship that can happen between a boy and his pet dog, and the companionship one can get from an animal.

Released as a single, this track reached number thirty-four in the US charts. It’s a fun, light, song with one of Nilsson’s catchier melodies, especially in the middle eight, and like much of the album it’s harmonically very simple. Many of the songs here are based on I-IV or I-V changes, and this is no exception, with the I-V dominating the verses, while the middle eight sees a key change up a flattened fourth but a similarly rudimentary set of changes once there ( Em-A7-D-B7).

This simplicity is unlike much of Nilsson’s earlier works, but it works here given the nature of the story being told — this is a story by and for children, and it sounds like one.

The Game (narration)
Another piece of narration, over a continuation of the “Me and My Arrow” backing track, talking about the game of “triangle toss” played by the people of the town, and in which Oblio and his pointed dog have to compete as a team thanks to Oblio’s lack of a point.

Poli High
This is a song which Nilsson used to explain songwriting and song structure in one of his rare live appearances, on The Smothers Brothers’ Summer Show in 1970. This is odd, as the song itself is one of Nilsson’s less impressive works – the lyric mostly consists of the words “poli high, polytechnical high” [FOOTNOTE A “polytechnic” was a type of further education college in the United Kingdom from the 1960s through the 1990s, which awarded degrees but taught technical, practical subjects rather than academic ones. Nilsson was spending a lot of time in the UK in the late 60s and early 70s, and the term would have been in the news there quite a lot as the polytechnics were just starting up.] and “valley low”.

Musically, it’s much more simplistic than one would normally expect from Nilsson, being based on a simple two-chord I-IV repeating phrase (on the “poli high” section) which then goes up a fourth and repeats (for “had a game, had a technical game”). This then shifts up again to the fifth for “Valley high” before moving back to the original changes — essentially making the song a very extended twelve-bar blues.

The lyrics describe, rather abstractly, a game of triangle toss that ends in a draw thanks to rain stopping play. It works well as a part of the narrative, but rather less well as a song on its own. This tends to be the case throughout the album — the songs that are most tied in to the narrative are those which are least impressive as songs, while songs such as “Lifeline” and “Think About Your Troubles” which only have the most cursory connection to the storyline are ones which work really well as songs in their own right.

Luckily, over the course of the album as a whole, Nilsson manages to strike a good balance between the narrative and the songs, creating something which, unusually for a concept album, works as an integrated whole.

The Trial and Banishment (narration)
Another narrative section, in which we hear about how Oblio is banished from the village, thanks to the evil machinations of the Count’s son, who dislikes him because he hasn’t got a point on his head like everyone else. There’s a law that says that everyone in the valley must have a point, and as Oblio doesn’t he has to be sent away, despite almost everyone disagreeing with the decision.

(Arrow is banished too, even though he has a point, as he’s Oblio’s accomplice).

Think About Your Troubles
Easily the best song on the album by some way, this is also the song from the album that is least connected to the general plot of Oblio, Arrow, and the Pointed Village. A simple “circle of life” type song, it tracks the course of a teardrop as it falls into a river, gets swept up into the ocean, gets swallowed by fish which in turn are eaten by bigger fish which are eaten (in defiance of biological plausibility) by a whale, who dies and decomposes in the ocean. The ocean water containing the teardrop is filtered and goes into the water supply, where it becomes part of a cup of tea drunk by the person who cried at the beginning.

Musically, it’s based around a standard three-chord sequence, but with each chord shuffling between the standard triad and the ninth, so adding a little element of harmonic interest while still fitting the general simplistic themes of the album.

It’s a gentle, beautiful, song, typical of Nilsson’s unique viewpoint on life, and simultaneously evokes both deep depression and a moving sense of hope. Nilsson sings the song with a gentle empathy which is quite beautiful, and the whole thing is one of the best things Nilsson ever did.

The Pointed Man (narration)
Another piece of narration, in which we hear about a man who had hundreds of points, “all pointing in different directions”, and so is either the pointless man (because he doesn’t have a singular point) or the pointed man (because he has so many).

Life Line
We move on to the most depressive song on the album, and indeed one of the lowest, most depressive songs Nilsson ever wrote.

“Hello, won’t you throw me down a lifeline/I’m so afraid of darkness and down here it’s just like nighttime” is a typical line from the lyric, and the music matches it – it evokes the feeling of being trapped in a deep hole, simultaneously echoing and distant, but also claustrophobic and enclosed, with the music not moving much and giving the impression of being unable to move.

Much like “Think About Your Troubles”, this uses a simple set of major chords and their ninths, but here they’re used to give everything a cramped feel, rather than the expansive circularity of that song. Even here though, there’s still a certain amount of hope — “won’t you please send down a lifeline”

In the context of the story, the wish for a lifeline is literal — Oblio and Arrow have, literally, fallen into a pit and are unable to get out — but the song itself exists outside that, and one has to assume that, given that this album was written during the beginning stages of the disintegration of his second marriage, Nilsson was at least in part writing about something rather more personal.

Musically, the slow, stately, piano chords prefigure the similar arrangements Nilsson would use for songs like “Without You”, and which would become something of a signature of his work — though this is something Nilsson had already done a little on “Maybe” on the Harry album.

The Birds (narration)
Over a more light, upbeat, version of the musical material from “Life Line”, we get another piece of narration, this one eliding a lot of separate incidents, giving a sentence or two to several different meetings with denizens of the forest — as if Nilsson, in writing it, was getting a little tired of writing the story and was wanting to get through it.

After a little of this, Oblio and Arrow are attacked by a pterodactyl (pronounced terro-dactile by Nilsson, who also seems to think that a pterodactyl is a bird) who lifts them into the air for the next song.

P.O.V. Waltz
This song, more than most of the album, sounds like it was written for an actual musical – a waltz (as the title would suggest), with a fairground carousel feel to it. “Hey, but as long as we’re up here, we might as well stay in sweet harmony” . As with much of Nilsson’s material, there’s an odd mixture of optimism and deep pessimism, combined with a sort of happy fatalism (this is one of the many ways Nilsson’s music resembles that of Brian Wilson, a musician with whom he only briefly and occasionally intersected, but who shared much of his social circle and whose music is surprisingly close to Nilsson’s — Wilson’s childlike expressions of despair in “Til I Die” have a close parallel here).

“Flying high up in the sky I wonder why I think I’m gonna fall”, he sings, and that really sums up a lot of Nilsson’s worldview — and yet even when he’s singing “I think I’m gonna fall”, he’s doing so in a cheerful, light, manner.

There’s actually much less difference between the lyrical moods of this song and “Life Line” than their musical differences would suggest. “Life Line” is about being down at the bottom of a hole (to slightly paraphrase a later Nilsson song) but still experiencing the hope that one might get out, while in “P.O.V. Waltz” the narratorial voice is flying but experiencing a fear of falling. Each extreme of experience contains its opposite within it.

The Clearing in the Woods (narration)
Another piece of narration, with the bird/pterodactyl flying Oblio and Arrow up to a giant egg on a plateau, and the two of them falling asleep, over a backing track based around the “P.O.V. Waltz” musical material.

Are You Sleeping?
A gentle mid-tempo number which manages to sound comforting and familiar. Like much of The Point! it’s based around staccatto chords in strict four-four time — just a keyboard in the first verse, with strings coming in in the “and in the morning when I wake up” section.

The song doesn’t follow a conventional song structure at all — it starts with a sixteen-bar verse, then goes into another section (“and in the morning…”) which lasts eighteen bars (and which refers back to “Me and My Arrow”), before going into a third sixteen-bar section (“there was a time”). It then repeats the “and in the morning” section, but this time extending it to twenty-two bars, before going back to the original verse and then fading with the start of another repetition of “and in the morning”, this time wordless.

Lyrically, this has absolutely nothing to do with the story, and the narrative makes no real effort to incorporate the lyrics — while the “are you sleeping?” goes with the fact that Oblio is sleeping, the rest of the lyrics seem to be about the breakup of a relationship, which is still ongoing but which has become distant. The narrator will always be by your side, but remembers that “there was a time when you were mine”.

While one doesn’t wish to speculate too much about people’s personal lives, the distance in this relationship might have been inspired by the deterioration of Nilsson’s marriage to his second wife, Diane, which would continue for another couple of years but which was already showing some signs of breaking down.

Oblio’s Return (narration)
And here we have the end of the story, in which Oblio returns to the village, and points [ugh] out that everyone and everything he encountered in the forest had a point, if not in the sense of a physical point on their head, then in the sense of a purpose or meaning, and that he too must therefore have a point, and so should not be banished. This is greeted with cheers, and Oblio’s hat is pulled off, to reveal that in fact he does now have a pointed head just like everyone else.

(This is possibly a little bit of a cop-out for a story that’s about the experience of being a misfit — the people all decide to accept him as he is, and then it’s revealed that he’s really just like them anyway, so it doesn’t matter. It would possibly have been better had the story just ended with the villagers agreeing to accept Oblio, and without the cap removal — but then that would have been a slightly less unambiguously happy ending, which might have made the story as a whole less palatable to small children. This is not, after all, a work that is designed to admit of a great deal of analysis, and while it’s interesting to think about what message was being unwittingly sent, the work as a whole is strong enough that dwelling on this at the expense of its many good points would be a mistake.)

Bonus tracks:

Down to the Valley
A non-album single, but one that’s very much in the mode of the material on The Point!, both in style (repetition of a few simple lines of lyric and musical motifs), and largely in the lyrical themes to — travelling down to a valley could very easily have been something that was included in the narrative of The Point!

Musically, indeed, it seems very similar indeed to “Everything’s Got ‘Em”, and seems to have been conceived as a part of this album, but there’s a couple of words that make that different — the “he” in this song “came down from the heavens” to “teach the children how to pray”. Change those lines, and it would fit in with the narrative of The Point! proper, but as Oblio is not Jesus it doesn’t fit the narrative as is.

While it’s built around the same kind of repetition as The Point! proper, this track also highlights more than most how indebted the music on The Point! is to Brian Wilson’s Smile-era music — there’s a definite feel of “Heroes and Villains” to this, especially in the “diddit a diddit” vocal section, and this use of repeated little figures in Nilsson’s music at this time seems like a conscious effort to create something that sounded like Wilson’s use of similar repeated figures in Smile.

The single was, unfortunately, a flop — it’s a fairly defiantly uncommercial piece — but it’s an interesting example of the way Nilsson’s musical mind was working at this point. All of the dynamics of the song is in the arrangement — it’s presenting the same basic musical idea over and over again with different instrumental combinations and numbers of layers of vocals. Even more than Wilson’s music, this sounds like Sandy Salisbury’s version of Wilson’s “With Me Tonight”, which plays the same kind of trick. There may also be an influence here, and in other music on The Point!, from the Beatles’ “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)”, which is siimilarly repetitive and has a similar attitude towards its arrangement.

There are two other bonus tracks on the CD version of the album — a version of “I’ll Never Leave You” (a song that we will deal with in the essay on Nilsson Schmilsson) and a radio ad for the album.

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Health Update

So, to expand on my last post, I’m doing better now. Not *well*, but much, much better than even a few days ago, so I will explain a bit of what’s going on.

I suffer from various chronic illnesses, both mental and physical — I have psoriatic arthritis, psoriasis, asthma, hypertension, sleep apnoea, depression, and anxiety, and that’s just the stuff that I’ve got official notes from the doctors from. I’m also, thanks to my autism, *extremely* prone to paranoia.

In the early part of this year, I was doing fairly well — I had a couple of the most productive months I’ve had in years, and was, if not physically great, physically sound. I then had a bit of relatively minor personal stress — nothing major, nothing worth talking about here, just the sort of thing that sometimes happens. This happened to trigger my paranoia and anxiety, which sent my stress levels skyrocketing.

Unfortunately, all those inflammatory and autoimmune diseases I listed above are ones that get triggered by stress, so I had massive flare-ups of my arthritis and hypertension in particular. And you know what happens if you’re in agony every time you stand up, and you get blood pressure headaches so bad you worry you might have a stroke? That’s right — you get stressed!

So for two months solid I was trapped in the worst kind of feedback loop, with my mental and physical health both making each other worse — and then because I was so ill I ended up breaking commitments I’d made, being unable to campaign in the local elections, missing deadlines… stuff that makes you more stressed and more ill. 

So a minor stressful interaction, of a kind most people would just forget about in a day or so, triggered two months of chronic illness flare-up. 

So for the past two months, I have had to *ruthlessly* triage my life. Literally the only things I’ve done in that time have been either things that allow me to relax slightly and take the edge off my symptoms, or things that were absolutely necessary for immediate survival (so for example there’s a high-paying freelance client I get regular work from. I’ve had to keep taking commissions from him and turning them in on time, because I have to eat and pay a mortgage).

However, for the last few days I’ve been feeling OK. Not good — and I know that if I push myself at all I’ll relapse — but OK. And OK enough to actually do important things that needed to be done *at some point* and had become semi-urgent having been left for two months, like fill in my tax return and get a new washing machine.

That sort of level of thing was beyond me since mid-March, and I’ve been able to do it consistently enough that I’m fairly sure I’m at a new semi-stable level of recovery. I have a few more days’ worth of things like that which need doing, but then I should be in a position to start blogging regularly here again (and to finish a book that I’m contracted for and which is a couple of weeks past its deadline). 

I’m not making any firm commitments, but I felt people deserved an explanation. Patreon backers should still be getting some special stuff *fairly* soon (no promises as to when, but I’ve got stuff in the pipeline which was originally intended for March) and you’ll be seeing a lot more blog posts from me here, assuming no relapses.

It’s very hard for me to really think of myself as someone who is chronically ill and needs to plan his life accordingly, even though I actually *have* been chronically ill since at least 2011 and have been diagnosed as such since 2016 with official bits of paper. I still feel like a malingerer. “It’s only my heart, respiratory system, immune system, and every joint in my body playing up, and me crying all the time and not sleeping properly for two months. I should still be able to do 5000 words a day or so!”

I think I’m *finally* convincing myself that I’m actually ill. Thanks all for your patience while I’ve been battering this into my thick skull. When I *do* return, with luck, it’ll be on a more stable basis, and it should be very soon.

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Apologies for my Continued Absence

Especially to those of you who pay for this blog via Patreon. I *do* hope to be back to full-time blogging soon, but I’ve been quite *astonishingly* ill, even by my chronically-ill standards, for a couple of months — a couple of months which have also featured a book deadline (which I’m overdue on now) and some high-paying but quick-turnaround freelance work that has taken what little energy I’ve had.
(Also I stood for election again and lost again, but nothing new there).
I’m basically broken at the moment. I have a ton of nearly-completed blog post series that I’m not going to post until they’re *actually*-completed blog post series, and I *will* get better soon, but this is the longest period of illness I’ve had in a few years, so I needed to apologise again…

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