Theological Slapstick: The Good Place

I can’t recall who suggested I start watching The Good Place, which recently released its finale after four seasons.  I do remember being warned not to look up the show on Wikipedia or anything first; and that was good advice.  The series’ twists and turns are entirely unexpected and it would ruin the effect to know they were coming.  So, at the top of this post, I need to point out—

Here Be Spoilers!

The Slapstick Element

The Good Place opening sceneA TV series about the afterlife is, to the best of my recollection, a novel idea.  There’ve been shows that featured regular visitations from the afterlife, such as Topper or My Mother the Car.  But these were’t about the afterlife, any more than My Favorite Martian was about life on Mars.  They were about events here on earth when visitors from the afterlife intruded.  Those who know more than I about the history of TV may be able to provide other examples; but The Good Place’s approach is at least fairly rare.

The second unexpected thing about The Good Place is the transcendent silliness with which Michael Schur and the show’s other writers imbue the series.  Almost invariably, if something seems profound or weighty, there’s a pratfall (verbal or otherwise) waiting just around the corner.  Even when typical afterlife tropes are invoked, such as torture in hell, they are so exaggerated or understated that one can’t take them seriously.  The characters are also drawn very broadly, to the point of caricature—no one could be quite as perfectly airheaded as Jason, as status-conscious as Tahani, as indecisive as Chidi—except for Eleanor, who serves as our Everywoman hero.

The Good Place yogurt shopThis perpetual wackiness makes the show entertaining, but it also accomplishes some other things.  The silliness of the events and characters prevents us from taking the theology seriously.  It would be hard to present a serious visualization of heaven or hell in an era when there is no general consensus about such things.  But we can all laugh along with the notion that a heaven featuring a really, really great yogurt shop is a bit of a letdown—even if you like yogurt.  It’s hard to be offended or galvanized to argument when the theological features are clearly not meant seriously.

In the moments when the show actually does get serious, the surrounding wackiness also keeps it from getting preachy.  The levity of the overall atmosphere lends the genuinely moving moments a sort of innocent sincerity.  (A fan of G.K. Chesterton, of course, will find that sort of atmosphere immediately congenial.)

The Ending

I’ve seen some lively comments online on how the show ended.  Several people have said they hated to see it end.  It’s true that one is always reluctant to say goodbye to favorite characters and situations.  On the other hand, it’s better for a TV series to close before it’s worn out its original premise and goes into that long slow decline.  Exhaustion of the premises is especially likely to occur when the premise is as bizarre as that of The Good Place.  So I was kind of pleased to see the writers were bringing the show to an end after four good seasons.

Is it a good ending?  Dramatically, yes.  I’m content.  That’s the essential criterion for the show’s creator:  “there’s really only one goal ever for a show finale, in my mind, and that’s to make people who have been watching the show and invested time and energy and emotion in the show feel like it’s a good ending.”

However, the completed work does leave some questions hanging.  Appropriately enough, the leftover puzzles are big issues about the fundamental things.  I don’t mean that the show should have tried to deal with them:  it can best to leave some mystery.  However, it’s entertaining to look at what some of these holes were.  I present them, of course, from my point of view; those who approach the fundamental questions differently may see the gaps in somewhat different ways.

(Since I flew the spoiler alert above, I’m going to assume that anyone who makes it this far has a pretty good acquaintance with the series.)

First Cause

The more we find out about The Good Place’s underlying machinery of the afterlife, the more we may wonder:  Who put this madhouse in place to begin with?

Judge Gen

Nobody seems to be in charge of the whole shebang.  The demons who run the Bad Place don’t have complete power, or they’d have simply gone on happily torturing humans indefinitely.  The Good Place, apparently, is run by a committee of nonentities, who show up only once or twice, make some entirely ineffectual remarks, and flee at the first opportunity to abdicate their responsibilities.  Disputes between the two are resolved by Judge Gen, an irritable, easily distracted entity who seems annoyed by the whole business.

We never do find out who dreamed up the point system that’s used to evaluate human actions.  As Sam Adams’ article on Slate puts it, “Introducing a painless exit from the afterlife allowed The Good Place to punt on some of its biggest questions, like who created the universe (the highest-ranking figure we ever meet, the nearly omnipotent Judge Gen, still feels like she’s enforcing someone else’s rules) . . .”

As the setup comes to seem more and more arbitrary, an inquiring viewer is likely to become more and more perplexed about why this particular cockamamie system should exist, rather than any other.  (Much less “why there is anything at all,” the fundamental question of metaphysics.)

These are the kinds of questions addressed by the traditional “First Causearguments for the existence of God.  Why is there this universe rather than some other?  Why is there this universe rather than nothing?  Ordinarily we sail along day to day without bothering much about the matter.  But because The Good Place is showing us (in its own wacky way) the entities that ought to have the answers, the questions become hard to avoid.  Once the main characters get backstage, you might say, the God-shaped hole in the overall system becomes more and more evident.

A related issue appears when at one point the judge proposes to wipe the slate clean and start over—annihilate all humans who have ever lived and start the new system from scratch.  I found myself wondering, what is the judge trying to accomplish?  What are her motives?  If the idea is to find a better way to deal with the ongoing human population, that’s fairly clear.  But if she’s going to eliminate the humans and start something different, why go to the trouble?  Is there some sort of cosmological imperative that there be a human race, or a life-and-afterlife system?  We don’t have any idea what her motives might be, because we have no earthly (or unearthly) idea why the existing framework is there in the first place.

Unintended Consequences

Carbon footprint graphicOne of the most interesting moral speculations in the show turns up when the main characters are trying to figure out why no humans for centuries have succeeded in qualifying for the Good Place.  The reason, it’s suggested, is that the modern world is so complex that an ordinary human can’t know all the consequences of an action.  If I buy a Coke, I have to consider not only the effect on my budget and my waistline, but also the bottle’s carbon footprint, whether it was produced using child labor or unfair business practices, and so forth.  Every choice is laden with unknowable results—and apparently these are mostly bad, bringing people’s point scores down.

It’s an interesting idea, with at least superficial plausibility.  The modern world is more complex than our pre-technological world, and maybe it’s just grown beyond our ability to manage.  Today we are constantly being told that it’s our obligation to take into account all sorts of remote consequences, becoming so scrupulous that the slightest decision is weighted with ponderous political and moral consequences.

This argument itself is based on some significant moral assumptions.  For instance, it takes for granted that actions are to be evaluated on their results—“consequentialism,” of which the most popular form is utilitarianism.  That’s not the only possibility.  Chidi, for instance, apparently embraces a “deontological” or rule-based ethics.  And then there’s the Aristotelian virtue-based ethics.  What actually drives the main characters’ decisions in the end seems to be the worth or importance of persons, which has something in common with Kant’s deontological ethics (every person must be treated as an end in itself) or, more directly, personalism.

One might also wonder whether the problem of unforeseen consequences is really unique to modernity.  Life has always been complex, and actions have always had ramifications stretching out far beyond what we can anticipate.  It does seem plausible, though, that in a highly interconnected world (“the world is getting smaller”), the effects of a given cause propagate faster and further.

Good Place cast, inquiringThere’s an additional complexity in the The Good Place’s point system insofar as it uses these remote results to judge the person who is acting.  There’s a difference between judging the results and judging the agent.  Traditional axiological (good-based) or consequentialist theories of ethics would not normally hold us responsible for consequences we can’t reasonably foresee.  If someone does something terrible (or, for that matter, something heroic) we take into account the pressures that person was under, which may include their history and experiences; the limits of their knowledge; the effects of outside conditions like drugs or alcohol; and many other factors that might diminish (or enhance) responsibility.

None of this seems to be considered in the point system with which The Good Place begins.  And no wonder:  the point system is presented from the beginning as a caricature of real moral judgment, an oversimplified and somewhat unfair scheme.  But the “new system” we’re given at the end doesn’t really solve that problem either.  Giving the poor humans many lifetimes to become better people is kind, perhaps, but how does it take degrees of responsibility into account (much less resolve the issue of unpredictable consequences)?

Eternity and the Good Life

The driving force of the series’ last episodes is the notion that an eternity of pleasure is itself intolerable.  We get bored, and, we’re told, the tedium gradually degrades our faculties, so that the esteemed philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria shows up as a shallow airhead (“Patty”), to the main characters’ dismay.  The series’ answer is that the system must provide the opportunity to end this eternal lassitude at a chosen time—“die the real death,” as Zelazny might have put it.  The option of ending it all somehow removes the tedium of eternal pleasure and allows us to enjoy the Good Place until we walk through the final door.

The idea of eternity as a bore presents a valid question.  It isn’t a question restricted to the afterlife, either; it points back to the classic philosophical issue of what is a good life for human beings.  The good life, in the classical ancient or medieval sense, isn’t just the absence of wrongdoing or the ability to score arbitrary points; it embodies the idea of a life that is worth living.

For this reason, it’s worth taking a closer look at what The Good Place has to say about the good life.  From the perspective of that question, the show’s final solution looks a bit superficial.  Sam Adams, again, says:  “The idea that going through the door would simply allow a person’s energy to rejoin the universe—as Eleanor took the fateful step, she dissolved into otherworldly fireflies that wafted down to Earth—felt more like New Age goop than moral philosophy, or maybe just a midway point between Immanuel Kant and Dan Brown.”

It’s true that “[t]he way to love anything is to realise that it might be lost,” as Chesterton says (Tremendous Trifles (1909), ch. 7).  But the idea of loving something is curiously muted in The Good Place.  The Good Place as we see it in the show does look boring, but that may be because the writers built it that way.  The focus on simple pleasures like milkshakes lends itself to this—an eternity of sitting placidly and drinking even the best milkshake would be a bore.  With admirable consistency, the screenwriters do apply the same argument to other goods like learning and reading.  But it’s not quite as clear that something like learning is as inherently limited as ordinary (and genuinely good) gustatory pleasures.

Baby kicking its legsEven with respect to the simpler pleasures, The Good Place doesn’t take into account the possibility that becoming bored is a a human weakness—a physiological or psychological failure to continue appreciating something that remains worthwhile in itself.  That weakness isn’t necessarily incurable.  Chesterton remarks:

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy.  A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life.  Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.  They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. . . .  It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.  (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Image 1959), ch. IV, p. 60)

The one factor in the depiction of the Good Place that seems to be understated, oddly enough, is love and friendship—relationships.  The show does make something of personal interactions, mainly in the two romantic relationships, Eleanor and Chidi and Jason and Janet.  But none of the four main characters becomes involved with any other interesting people—despite the plethora of historical figures that might be called on.  (As we noted above, the interesting Hypatia has been deliberately dumbed down for the episode to make a point.)

Steven Curtis Chapman, from The Great Adventure music videoOutside the central four, together with Michael and Janet, there’s no sense of camaraderie or community.  We do not see the potentially unlimited constellations of True Companions—just the one cluster of main characters.  And of course the one big relationship is missing:  that God-shaped hole.  In traditional Christian thinking, at least, God is infinite, and our relationship with God is one time can never exhaust.  Because The Good Place adroitly sidesteps the whole question of divinity, that line of solution to the problem of eternity can’t be explored.

Moreover, the show cheats a little when it suggests that a final dissolution is the real end.  At least one character uses the conventional phrase “moving on”—which undermines that notion of finality.  And what one commentator refers to as “a complete and unknowable end” isn’t quite what we actually get.

For a while, it seems as if Michael Schur is no more prepared to answer existence’s ultimate question than anybody else. But when it’s Eleanor’s turn, the camera doesn’t cut away. Instead, it pans up to the sky above her, a group of ethereal lights floating up into the frame, suggesting that this is what the person that was Eleanor Shellstrop has become. . . . . What that gorgeous final scene suggests is that the best possible reward would be the ability to continue to touch the lives of those we left behind . . .  (Rolling Stone)

Even the series’ best attempt at agnosticism about the good life seems to recede before a sense of good action as in some sense eternal.

The Good Place cast portraitConclusion

The Good Place has been a great show, and I’ve enjoyed it throughout.  Simply giving us an opportunity to think about such matters as these is way beyond what most TV series achieve.  And to do it in a way that’s consistently entertaining is the cherry on the top of the frozen yogurt.

A Pride of Brothers

This week we have a guest post from Peggy Jaeger, a fellow author at the Wild Rose Press.  She’s got a new romance series going, “A Pride of Brothers.”  Since the name of the first book’s hero is Rick, she’s obviously setting off on the right foot.

In today’s post, she talks about moving into writing for a new subgenre.  Over to you, Peggy!

A Pride of Brothers:  Rick

For most of my fiction writing career (all 5 years if it!) I’ve written contemporary romance novels and RomComs, or romantic comedies.  Since these are my favorite romance books to read, it stands to reason they’d be my favorite to write.

A Pride of Brothers: Rick, coverThe publication of my newest book, though, A Pride of Brothers:  Rick, is a bit of a departure for me, writing-structure-wise.  With this book and the two others planned for the series, I’m delving into the romantic suspense lite genre. I’ll explain the “lite” portion in a bit, but first . . .

Writing romance isn’t easy, but there are some tried and true rules you must follow to have a book classified as a romance in any of the subgenres.

  1. You must have a central love interest in the story. It can be between a man and a woman, two men, a woman and a shape-shifting dragon . . . you get the idea.  As long as there is a central love story within the book, you have a qualified romance.
  2. You must have a happily ever after (HEA) ending, or at least a final happy for now (HFN) one. The obvious definition of the first is the classic, And they lived happily ever after, where a marriage and an emotional commitment is solidified at the end of the book.  This used to mean marriage and only marriage.  Nowadays, a romance can have a happy for now ending and still be qualified as a romantic read as long as the people involved in the central love story are committed to one another.  The hope of a lifetime commitment is there, written as a promise, but not explicitly divulged on the page.  Get the difference?
  3. Taboo subjects you must never include as the central theme in a romance are rape, incest, child abuse, sexual abuse—really, abuse of any kind—cruelty, and bestiality.

If you follow these rules you can write a romance.

Pride of Brothers, graphic with quote

The structure of writing a romantic suspense is a bit different.

Yes, you must still have a love interest within the plot, and yes, it still needs to have an HEA or a HFN ending.  Rule number 3 applies to every book, so I don’t need to reiterate it here.

The difference in this subgenre that is apparent, though, is in the name: romantic suspense.

The definition of this subgenre varies a bit, but basically it is any romance novel in which suspense, mystery or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot, or one that features a prominent mystery, suspense or thriller story line.

When I was a teenager in the ‘80s this type of book was called a WOMAN IN JEOPARDY story because the plot centered around a woman who had some kind of danger in her life like an abusive ex-beau, or a stalker.  The implication of the tag line was that a woman needed a man to help her out of the bad situation (the “jeopardy”), and in so doing, they’d fall in love.

Nowadays, that sexist and archaic description is gone, replaced with “Romantic Suspense,” and it’s not only the gals who need help with a problem any longer.  There are plenty of bad-ass female bounty hunters, cops, etc., out there who help the hero with an issue.

Welcome to the 21st century, folks.

So, I promised an explanation of the term romantic suspense lite with regards to my writing.

I didn’t set out to write a romantic suspense when I came up with the story line for the first Pride of Brothers book.  I wanted to tell a frenemies-to-lovers story about two strong and opposite personalities who wound up falling in love.  That’s the romance aspect of the tale.  I had to make them foils, and the plot needed to revolve around something where one of them would need to help the other out of a situation.

What I came up with was a story about a lawyer who fights for disenfranchised women and their children, and a man who was the definition of disenfranchised as a child.  When the husband of a client threatens the lawyer and then subsequently tries to murder his wife and kidnap his son, the hero vows to protect the heroine from danger.  She isn’t convinced she is in danger, but a series of events unfolds that proves she is.  That’s the suspense part.  It’s the hero’s job to keep her safe, even though she can do that on her own.

The reason I dub it a lite romantic suspense is that more than 60% of the tale is the evolving romance between the two protagonists, with about 40% steeped in the actual thriller/suspense part of it.  There is a forced proximity aspect to the storyline, which is a classic romsusp factor, along with knife fights, guns, and kidnapping—all elements you don’t find in your everyday regular small town romance novel.

I am hopeful I’ve done the subgenre proud with the release of this book. It was an absolute blast to write and I can only hope it is enjoyable to readers as well.

Look for book two, A PRIDE OF BROTHERS: DYLAN early in 2021.

Until next time ~ Peg

A Pride of Brothers:  Rick at
Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Apple Books ~Books-A-Million

 

Hallmark and the Small Business

Running a bit behind here.  It’s been a busy couple of weeks.  But at least I’m getting this out in time for Christmas . . .

Countless Christmases

Countdown to Christmas logoI believe this is my fourth year of following the Hallmark channels’ gallery of Christmas romance movies (“Countdown to Christmas”).  Not that it’s humanly possible to see them all.  I believe Hallmark is introducing twenty-three new films this year; and that doesn’t take into account the similar plenitude of programs from the nine previous years of “Countdown.”  In this torrent of trysts, it would be easy for the more traditional fare to get lost entirely, from White Christmas to Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (the truly canonical video version of that story, I’m convinced).

And Hallmark is only the bellwether of an entire subgenre.  Netflix has its own array of seasonal video, so similar to the Hallmarks that you’d mistake one for the other if the branding were absent.  Subscribe to Amazon Prime instead of Netflix?  You can still find plenty of holiday fare, whether traditional flicks or newer Amazon productions.

The trend may be reaching some kind of limit.  The plots are starting to recur faster and faster.  Of course, that repetition makes these movies ripe for satire.  My children pointed me to a Christmas movie script allegedly written by a computer (“Someone Made a Bot Watch 1,000 Hours of Hallmark Christmas Movies and Write a Script”; here’s the original tweet from Keaton Patti).  I doubt this was really a bot at work; it’s too funny.

In any case, it turns out these plot generators are spawning as fast as the movies themselves.  For example, just at the top of my search results I found samples from WrongHands, E! Online, and The Odyssey Online.  Lots of articles remark on the phenomenon.  For example, here’s NPR’s snark-fest on the 2019 Christmas romance crop, Hallmark and otherwise.

Among other things, this mass of Christmas cheer does make the field a useful laboratory for looking at some tropes and storytelling points.  One could probably do a statistically valid survey with this large a universe of data.  Here, I’m just going to focus on one favorite trope:  the small business (or, as NPR labels it, the “adorable small business”).

Small Businesses Are Adorable

The Christmas Ornament coverSmall businesses, especially family businesses, frequently play a role in genre romance movies.  For example, in A Christmas Melody (2015), the heroine has just lost her clothing boutique and spends time in a cozy local coffee shop.  We also go from one small business to another in The Christmas Ornament (2013), where the heroine has been trying to keep her late husband’s bike shop open, but discovers her real passion is baking cookies (courtesy of a new romantic interest who has a Christmas tree shop).  The female lead in The Christmas Secret  (2014) has just been fired from her job, but gets a new one in a local bakery.  (There are a lot of bakers in these tales.  Christmas is cookie season.)

Sometimes the issue is the temptation to “sell out.”  For example, in Let It Snow (2013), the female lead is an executive assigned to overhaul a newly acquired family business, Snow Valley Lodge, into a modernized hipster paradise.  She sees the error of her ways, of course.

The trope isn’t confined to Christmas, or to Hallmark.  For instance, Coffee Shop (2014) gives us a shop that’s an important gathering place in the community, but financially troubled; her former boyfriend wants to bail her out by selling the property to a mall developer.

The sellout motif reaches a sort of reductio ad absurdum in this year’s Hallmark feature Merry and Bright.  Our heroine Cate is doing a good job of running her grandmother’s candy cane company, but candy canes aren’t as big a deal as they used to be.  The romantic interest, a “corporate recovery consultant,” proposes gaining a venture capitalist’s support by expanding the business into other Christmasy candy—chocolates and such.  That’s such a logical idea that it seemed this story would avoid the trope.  But no:  as she’s poised to sign the contract, Cate stops and declares that her grandmother founded a candy cane business, nothing else, and Cate’s determined to stick with it.

I sat there open-mouthed (since I had no chocolates to eat, alas) at the notion that manufacturing candy canes was virtuous, but expanding into chocolates was some kind of betrayal.  The resolution, in which Cate succeeds by interesting an investor in candy canes with new and innovative flavors, failed to convince me that her scruples made any kind of sense.

A Houston Press article from last year snarks up the trope:  “Oh, and every little book store or bakery or community theater can be turned into a resounding success with a little love.”

Variations

On the other hand, we do see some aversions of the trope.  A couple of examples from this year’s batch:

In Picture a Perfect Christmas, our heroine is a photographer who travels all around the world for her work.  She arrives in a small town for the holidays to look after her aging grandmother, and falls for a local guy.  But it’s kind of a relief to find that neither of them has to give up their careers, or found a small business.  It appears she can go right on globe-trotting and picture-taking; she’s just going to come home periodically to a new base of operations.  In fact, the guy and his semi-adopted nephew are going to join her on her next shoot, in Switzerland, a very sensible plan.  It’s kind of refreshing.

Tree bagging from Christmas Under the Stars

Christmas Under the Stars

The male main character in Christmas Under the Stars is fired abruptly (at Christmas!) from his soulless investment banking job, and ends up working in a little local Christmas tree lot that’s going to be razed for development.  He and the female main character save the lot from the bulldozer, as well as solving everyone’s other problems.  But the hero doesn’t become a career Christmas tree salesman; he goes back into finance—only this time it’s in a non-soulless company that specializes in ethical investing.  So an endearing and Christmasy local business is involved, but it isn’t the ultimate destination of either of the main characters.

The Purpose of a Business

What is it that these cute home-town businesses are supposed to have that makes them so adorable?

We have a widespread sense that a small operation is more likely to have integrity than a larger enterprise:  less likely to sell out, more dedicated to its original mission.  We tend to feel that a small business will have less discontinuity between its ostensible purposes—making coffee, selling books, offering Christmas trees—and the way it treats people in practice, along with the necessary purpose of making money.

The Incredibles (2004) shows a comically exaggerated version of this divide.  Bob Parr works for an insurance company, which is theoretically established to help its customers in times of difficulty.  Instead, the institution is so dedicated to denying customer claims that Bob practically has to use guerilla tactics to get a claim honored.  For someone with the heart of a superhero—a “helping profession” if there ever was one—this stultifying job is a pecular kind of hell.

To be sure, a business aims to make money, or it won’t last long.  But those who begin it, or join it, generally do so because they aspire to make an excellent product, or provide a useful service.  Not many lines of business are pure scams.  The trouble is that as the operation gets bigger and older, it seems often to develop a single-minded devotion to making more and more money, even at the expense of the excellence of the product or service.  A small enterprise, by contrast, where the owner may come into daily contact with the persons being served, is less likely to be seduced by that particular temptation.  It’s easier to keep focus on a product that pleases and benefits people—like cookies.

It's A Wonderful Life housewarming sceneAn older Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), lives on that contrast.  The quirky and adorable Bailey Building and Loan helps people acquire their own homes, though it’s not as profitable as Mr. Potter’s cruel cost-cutting firm.

This idealization of small firms is easy for the cynic to sneer at.  Big business is the way of the world, sloppy sentiment aside.  But storytellers are tapping into a genuine issue here.

The Stumbling-Blocks of Largeness

We’re generally told that bigness allows for economies of scale that reduce prices and improve services.  To take an example at random, this article by Ken Doctor (12/6/19) states as obvious (even in a critique of mergers) that “McDonald’s can make burgers a lot more efficiently than mom-and-pop joints in every town can.”  But this truism needs closer examination.

First, not enough attention is paid to diseconomies of scale.  For example, mergers can result in ill-assorted pieces that don’t really work together, offsetting gains that might be achieved by volume discounts.  I’m acquainted with one large company, for example, that is still producing separate reports and maintaining separate books for a subsidiary it absorbed at least ten years ago.

A more direct issue with largeness is that as an organization grows, it seem to require more and more generalized policies and inflexible rules.  A firm of twenty-five people can make room for individualized exceptions; an organization of ten thousand, not so much.  The principle seems to hold true in any kind or organization, whether it’s a private business, a nonprofit, a government, or even a church.  Universal rules aren’t all bad; they can be a necessary bulwark against personal discrimination.  But as the system grows, we have more and more the sense of dealing with mindless machinery, rather than on a person-to-person basis.

Google Dragonfly graphicIt seems a company often starts with enthusiasm about a cool product; but as it grows, the bean-counters take over, and that original spark recedes in favor of merely finding ways to pump up the quarterly reports.  Google, for example, may (sadly) be in the process of making this transition.  The company started out with the innocent motto “Don’t be evil”; it’s now  in trouble for helping China with its totalitarian surveillance state via “Project Dragonfly” (though it seems to have backed away from that project as of July).  It may be significant that Google’s founders have just departed—perhaps signaling the end of that original enthusiasm for making things better.

Mergers and Their Discontents

In addition, as a business gets bigger, it tends to crowd out competitors; and an exclusive concentration on increased profits without a corresponding attention to fairness and decency gives rise to a deliberate drive for monopoly, or oligopoly (market power exercised by a few firms rather than only one).

As fewer and larger firms amass market power, the lack of competition results in higher prices, as well as worse customer service.  If the combination actually reduces costs, none of the benefits actually flow through to the customer.  In my field (telecommunications), I can think of no examples where a merger actually resulted in lower prices for consumers.  And it’s hard to think of any where customer service improved as a result; normally, customer service gets worse.  For an example from another field, the airlines, consider this aggrieved customer’s horror story.

A less obvious disadvantage is that mergers can result in a loss of institutional memory.  A merger frequently seeks to cut costs by dropping redundant staff.  Aside from the minor difficulty of people’s losing their jobs (which seems a common anxiety at Christmastime, right back to Scrooge’s threat to Cratchit about “losing your situation”), this means the people who knew the history may be gone.  More than once I’ve run into a company that can’t find records of what its own pre-merger components did in the past.

You might say that the legal version of the Hallmark preference for smallness is antitrust law, which is designed to keep large entities from abusing their market power in some of the ways mentioned above.  Some contemporary examples of how the antitrust laws are not currently being enforced can be found in a recent article (12/19/19) by Steven Pearlstein.

Bigness is not necessarily bad.  But problems such as these are the characteristic flaws of the large organization, against which one must constantly be on guard.  In the way that a particular profession may have its “occupational hazards”—say, the temptation of lawyers to fall into a barren legalism—an entity may, simply by its scale, be vulnerable to typical failure modes.  The sentimental attachment to small entities is not simply nostalgia; there’s something to it.

The Appeal of the Small Business

We know some of the disadvantages of the small business:  for instance, the local shops in the Hallmark romances are frequently on the verge of failing—reflecting, along with the narrative demand of drama, their more limited resources and hence vulnerability to problems, such as a business downturn.  But what are the advantages such stories play on?

The Christmas List posterFamiliarity.  The direct contact between businesspeople and customers allows for personal relationships.  We see it with George Bailey, making kind-hearted adjustments in payment schedules to help individual customers (a practice for which the hard-charging Potter rakes him over the coals).  An older Christmas romance, The Christmas List (1997), apparently not from Hallmark but fitting the mold, features a perfume saleswoman who know how to figure out the perfect scent for a customer—an unusual sort of personal connection, but a helpful one for the buyer.  If I recall correctly, the proprietor in Coffee Shop had a similar talent for determining the perfect drink for someone.  You can’t give that kind of personal attention when you’re a faceless cog in a call center working from a fixed script.

To be sure, it’s possible to have this sort of personal relationship in a large organization.  A number of the pharmacists at my local CVS, where I show up every couple of weeks for prescriptions, actually know my name.  But on the whole, the further away management is from the actual customers, the easier it is for them to regard customers solely in terms of ARPU—“average revenue per unit.”

Community.  Thus, there’s a certain warmth and welcome—classic Christmas themes—to the bar “where everybody knows your name.”  The local shop can actually engender a close-knit community (the current term seems to be “found family”) capable of mutual support and reassurance.  That was a theme in Coffee Shop; it was also at work in another recent non-Christmas romantic comedy, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (Abbi Waxman, 2019).

Tales of the Long Bow coverConcreteness.  While the intellect has its joys, there’s a particular satisfaction in making something with our hands:  a tangible product whose excellence can seen and felt by anyone.  The types of small businesses featured in the Christmas romances—bakeries, bookshops, farms—do this a lot.  By contrast, a large business often seems to end up dealing in abstractions.  Chapter Five of G.K. Chesterton’s Tales of the Long Bow (1924) contrasts the small farmer who actually raises pigs with the wheeler-dealer who merely trades in them.  You can read the passage here, though you really need the whole book to fully appreciate the force of Chesterton’s point.

One of the key developments in Pretty Woman (1990) is Edward’s transformation from a soulless transactional businessman to someone who can put his assets and expertise behind what is, in effect, a family business.  Initially, his method is to swoop in, acquire a company, split it up and sell off the pieces at a profit—like a stolen car at a “chop shop,” as Vivian pungently observes (see under “Not So Different” at the TV Tropes entry).  But he gets to know the father-and-son owners of the current target and their pride in building ships for the Navy.  And as Vivian softens his heart, Edward changes his mind:  he’s going to support them in building ships for a good cause.  He’s going to make something, not just move money around.

Putting ourselves into our work.  Along with the pride in building something concrete goes the sense that we’re contributing to the good in the world.  The work both expresses oneself and leaves something tangible behind.  Small-town construction company owner Jamie Houghton, in Christmas List (Hallmark 2016, not to be confused with “The Christmas List” above), at 1:47, speaks of “…creating something that means something to you—leaving a bit of yourself in the world.”  The satisfaction of this kind of work is something the Hallmarks are trying to bring back to our attention.  You can put yourself into work for a large organization, too, if the organization allows that much individuality; but it’s harder, for the reasons noted above.

These virtues are so out of fashion that they have an antique feel to us today.  That in itself makes them especially useful for a Christmas story.  As Hallmark incessantly tells us, Christmas looks backward—to traditions, to memories, to childhood.  Ultimately, of course, it looks back two thousand years to the original Christmas.

Small Businesses Help the Plot Thicken

Because of the features we’ve discussed above, the heroine’s bakery or bookshop can serve as a linchpin for the plot.  A financial crisis or other threat to the business, or a decision about how what road it’ll take in the future, gives the characters something to be concerned about.  How each person responds shows their real character.  The heroine’s unsatisfactory current or ex-boyfriend, for example, shows his true colors by endorsing the sellout   He has completely failed to understand the heroine, and thus disqualified himself.  Or the true romantic interest may take off in a similar big-business direction, leading to tension or a temporary rupture between the main characters; but he can change his mind and thus prove he’s really on her wavelength after all.

You've Got Mail, bookshop scene

You’ve Got Mail

There’s an interesting semi-aversion (outside the Hallmark orbit) in You’ve Got Mail (1998).  It’s Tom Hanks’ large bookstore that threatens Meg Ryan’s lovable community bookshop, “The Shop Around the Corner.”  In the end she loses the bookshop; the economic forces at hand are too great.  But as she wanders through Hanks’ larger establishment, she seems to come to terms with it, in a way.  The big-box store can also be a place where children encounter beloved books and people can congregate.  Maybe if the story had taken place at Christmastime, the ending would have been different . . .

Smallness and Christmas

It’s not exactly a new departure, even in economic circles, to observe that “small is beautiful.”  And, as we’ve seen, there are some significant reasons to value smallness and be careful about unlimited growth, even in economic circles.  But it makes sense that this motif keeps turning up in stories that appeal to our homelier sentiments too.

It’s also fitting that the trope comes up so frequently in Christmas stories.  Christmas, in itself, represents the triumph of the small over the large.  One poor couple, without even a home or an inn to have their baby, are ranged against Herod and all his soldiers, and behind them, the Roman Empire.  Yet the child has outlasted them all.  In the Christmas story we see the divine and universal focused down to an intensely personal scene.  Every other small personal triumph can find a home there—even a romance.

At Christmastime, prizing the small may be a cliché – but it’s no accident.

Unevenly Matched

Unbalanced

We’ve looked at a couple of ways a romantic story can go wrong:  for example, an unsympathetic romantic interest, or too much deception.  Here’s another failure mode:  the two characters don’t seem to be evenly matched.  They’re not on the same level.  We may accept the romance, but we feel a little unsatisfied, because one of the lovers isn’t quite up to the other’s weight, so to speak.  We may feel the one doesn’t quite deserve the other; but it’s not so much a matter of goodness as of stature.

An Array of Mismatches

We can spot the kind of thing I’m thinking of in a wide variety of genres.

The Grand Sophy, coverOne of my favorite Georgette Heyer Regencies is The Grand Sophy (1950).  Our heroine, Sophia Stanton-Lacy, has grown up following her diplomat father around the world.  She’s tall, high-spirited, and outgoing; doesn’t worry about the conventions but is very elegant; always good-humored; and quite capable of taking over a household full of tangled relationships and straightening things out in her own inimitable way—a classic master contriver.  The title is an accurate description:  Sophy is a magnificent and delightful character.

Her cousin Charles Rivenhall, though a relatively young man, had to take charge of his hapless relatives and, as Wikipedia puts it, “has assumed since a young age the role of the adult in the household.”  As a result, he’s autocratic and rather harsh.  Having decided to settle down, Sophy sets her sights on him—and we kind of wonder why.  Charles is a dominant, if not domineering character, to be sure; he can literally stand up to Sophy, although she’s perpetually outmaneuvering him.  But he’s not nearly as engaging and interesting a character as she is.  The weakest part of the book, to my mind, is that Charles seems rather dull compared to the colorful, ebullient Sophy.

Dolly and Horace, from Hello Dolly!Sophy’s carefree campaign to corral Charles reminds me a bit of how Dolly Levi scoops up Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! (1964)—and there’s another example.  Dolly is also rather magnificent—charming and clever, if devious.  But what does she see in stuffy Horace?  He has his points, of course.  He’s not a bad guy, at heart.  But he seems rather too tame for Dolly—unless perhaps the point is that she needs a stabilizing force at this time of her life.

Wonder Woman and Steve TrevorThe “too tame” problem is a possibility whenever we get an especially strong-willed and noteworthy heroine.  (And it often seems to be the heroes that are an inadequate match for the heroines—perhaps because a match between an overpowering man and a weak woman would tend to collapse into a stereotype and forfeit our interest.)  Take Wonder Woman.  She’s a hard act to follow, and a hard match to make.  Her 2017 movie barely steers clear of the pitfall.  Romantic interest Steve Trevor isn’t her equal in terms of power, but he is a soldier; he has courage, initiative, and independence.  Still, he’s not really in her league, and while their brief love affair has an important softening and motivating role in the story, it’s almost a relief that he dies heroically, removing himself from contention.  I believe the comics sometimes pair Diana up with Superman, which seems almost too pat; we get a match not just of equally powerful persons, but of equally iconic figures.

At the opposite end from the comic books, we have the classics.  Some readers of Little Women, I believe, are disappointed when the lively Jo ends up with undistinguished middle-aged Professor Bhaer, particularly after having been teased with the more dashing Laurie throughout.  He’s a nice guy, and he makes an important difference in Jo’s career, but he’s not exactly a romantic hero—which is in some degree the whole point.  Or take The Merchant of Venice (ca. 1596-99).  Portia is a wonderful character, but by comparison, her husband Bassanio seems a bit ineffectual and drab.

Further Variations

Heyer actually makes the uneven match a plot element in her novel Bath Tangle (1955).  (Incidentally, the title refers to the town of Bath; a more literal reading would suggest a degree of raciness entirely foreign to Heyer.)  The willful and quick-tempered Serena Carlow (the incongruity of “Serena” with her personality is no doubt intentional) has recently jilted the rough and domineering Lord Ivo Rotherham, and instead become engaged to the more moderate and kindly Major Hector Kirkby.  But it becomes apparent that Serena is rather too much for Hector to handle.  He gradually falls for Serena’s younger and sweeter widowed stepmother Fanny, who reciprocates his sentiments but is aghast at the thought of betraying her dear Serena.  The story shows very effectively that the caustic Serena and Ivo are a proper fit for each other, tempestuous though their relationship may be; while the milder Hector and Fanny work much better as a couple.

The Snow Queen coverHave we been giving science fiction short shrift?  Consider Joan Vinge’s Hugo-winning novel The Snow Queen (1980).  In an adult SF version of the Hans Christian Andersen tale, Arienrhod, Queen of the planet Tiamat, has extended her life using local resources and offworld technology throughout the planet’s generations-long winter period; but as Tiamat moves toward high summer, the black hole gateway used for interstellar travel will be disrupted.  As a way of perpetuating her rule in some sense, Arienrhod clones herself, giving up young Moon to be raised among the Summer clans to become the Summer Queen.  Moon grows up kinder and gentler than her clone-mother.  But she is also determined and dedicated, as becomes evident when she is accidentally transported offworld, interrupting her childhood romance with the boy Sparks (they correspond to Gerda and Kay in the Andersen fairy tale).  In Moon’s absence, Sparks becomes Arienrhod’s hardened, debased enforcer “Starbuck.”  When they are reunited, Moon’s sheer goodness causes Sparks to return to his true self and renounce the Winter Queen.  It’s a great story—but Moon is so genuinely heroic and loving that Sparks, with his long, sordid fall into corruption, doesn’t seem to deserve her; his conversion is a little too convenient.

Little Dorrit, from book's frontispiece

Little Dorrit

This “deserving” issue comes up a lot with the more saintly heroines; for instance, in Dickens, who was fond of such characters.  Maybe it’s just that I’m hopelessly in love with the titular heroine of Little Dorrit (1857), but I don’t think her romantic interest Arthur Clennam is good enough for her; he’s a little too weak-willed and hapless.  Similiarly, the character we remember from A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is the lovely grief-stricken Lucie Manette, not the somewhat stiff Charles Darnay.  On the other hand, Dickens plays and then averts the uneven-match trope in David Copperfield (1850):  David’s first wife, the ethereal and rather air-headed Dora, dies tragically and is replaced by the much more steady and substantial Agnes, David’s childhood friend.

I recall hearing that the ending of The Hunger Games (2008-2010) was disappointing, but when I reached the conclusion, I thought it wasn’t actually so bad.  It developed that my informant was on “Team Gale,” favoring the more dashing of Katniss’s romantic interests, rather than “Team Peeta,” who were rooting for the more plodding and retiring guy who actually wins out in the end.  Personally, I was content to have Peeta succeed; but I can see why some readers might find him too dull for the formidable Katniss.

The Seasoning of Pepper

In this connection, it’s interesting to look at the evolution of Virginia “Pepper” Potts, Tony Stark’s perpetual romantic interest from Iron Man.  Originally Pepper was Tony’s secretary—one of a number of cases in 1960s Marvel comics, somewhat disturbing in retrospect, where superheroes had crushes on their employees (see Don Blake and Jane Foster, Matt Murdock and Karen Page).  As a redhead, Pepper was of course supposed to be fiery, but as a standard-issue would-be girlfriend, she was actually a bit bland.

Pepper Potts and Tony StarkIn the Iron Man movies, however, responding to the tastes of a different era, Pepper has a much larger role.  She replaces Tony as CEO of Stark Industries while the latter is gallivanting around the universe (and arguably does a better job at actually running the company).  In Iron Man 3 (2013), she temporarily wields a superpower herself; and in Avengers:  Endgame (2019), she fights in the final battle in a powered armor suit of her own.

As with a lot of the routine girlfriends of 1960s superheroes, Pepper might originally have been considered too minor a character to be on Iron Man’s level.  But her character has grown over the years—not so much in the sense of character development, as in being given larger and more significant roles by later writers—to a point where we’re quite willing to see them as equals in Endgame, where their marriage seems fully balanced.

The Well-Matched

In contrast to the unevenly matched couples noted above, a lot of classic romances show their main characters to be well-matched.  The ever-popular Pride and Prejudice (1813), for instance, is especially satisfying because we do feel that Elizabeth and Darcy are made for each other—if they can only be brought to realize it.  Their families differ in wealth and status, but the couple themselves seem to be on a par in terms of intelligence, determination, and decency, not to mention stiff-necked standoffishness.

Or take an example quite different in tone, Wuthering Heights (1847).  No matter how much we may dislike both characters (I certainly do), you can’t deny they’re well-suited:  one is mad and the other’s crazy.  Across the pond, Gone With the Wind (1936) suffers a similar problem with difficult main characters, but the romances work (even when they tragically fail):  everyone but Scarlett can see that she belongs with the roguish Rhett, not the mild-mannered Ashley, who is a much better fit with the angelic Melanie, who could have walked right out of Dickens.  Even in Anne of Green Gables, which is not exactly a classic romance, we do feel that mischievous but affectionate Gilbert Blythe can hold his ground, as a character, even by the side of the extravagantly lively Anne.

Miles and Ekaterin

I’m particularly fascinated by the way Lois McMaster Bujold handles her signature character, Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, and his eventual mate Ekaterin Vorsoisson.

You have to know Miles to appreciate why he’s such a difficult man to match.  He hails from an aristocratic family on the planet Barrayar, which has recently thrown off conquering invaders and is still organized along military lines.  Miles desperately wants to become a soldier, but he’s not physically fitted for the role, due to a bioweapon attack on his parents while he was in utero that left him undersized, with brittle bones that will break under any serious strain.

As a result, he has to use brains, not brawn.  And what a brain it is!  Miles has a positive genius for getting himself into completely untenable situations, and then having to frantically improvise his way out.  He always finds the unexpected third way out of a dilemma; at least one other SF character makes it a practice, in a tough spot, to ask herself “What would Miles Vorkosigan do?” He’s hyperactive, honorable, very persuasive, and devious.  In his first excursion he ends up leading a mercenary army, without ever quite intending to.  To call him a dominant personality would be a laughable understatement.

Miles in Love coverSo how do you find this extraordinary character a mate?  We might be inclined to develop an equally forceful and flamboyant female to equal him.  And Miles does, over the course of various stories in the series, carry on sincere if temporary affairs with several military officers (Brothers In Arms), warrior women (“Labyrinth”), and at least one brilliant scientist (Mirror Dance).  But none of these proves sufficient.  Miles is quite ready to settle down—if he can find a woman who’s prepared to take on his complex and Barrayaran heritage.

When he meets Ekaterin in the novel Komarr (1998), she’s struggling to make an unhappy marriage work and take care of her young son.  In personality, Ekaterin is practically Miles’ polar opposite:  she’s quiet and reserved, although she shows more brightness as they begin to interact.  She’s made a conventional Barrayaran marriage and is skittish about causing a disturbance.  Yet the action-adventure climax (which conveniently leaves her a widow) shows she can act decisively and even brilliantly, little as she may think of herself that way.  And, being a member of the same Vor class as Miles, she gets his sense of honor and responsibility.

But is she up to his weight?  Against all appearances, she is.  Her depth matches his “forward momentum.”  Her good sense and willingness to act beyond her comfort zone in a crisis is both a foil and a counterpart to Miles’ conventional loyalties and unconventional tactics (I don’t think he has a comfort zone).  Bujold manages to show us a woman whose strength shows in radically different ways, but whose well-concealed firmness of character puts her on Miles’ plane.  We can have the classic pairing of opposites, and still make them equal opposites.  The result is one of the best SF romances I’ve seen.

The example of Miles and Ekaterin points us to the question underlying the examples above:  In what way is it necessary for a couple to be well-matched, to prevent the pairing from seeming unbalanced to the reader?

An Internal Reason:  Force of Character

A Civil Campaign, coverIt’s clear the lovers can be unequal in many ways without generating the uneven-match problem—and that’s a good thing, since those differences are a primary source of dramatic tension and romantic interest.  (And humor, where the differences trigger comic incongruity; the sequel to Komarr, A Civil Campaign, which carries on Miles’ and Ekaterin’s courtship, is one of the great SF romantic comedies and an all-time favorite of mine.)

The pair can represent rags and riches, as in the traditional Cinderella story or Disney’s Aladdin; they don’t need to be matched in wealth.  Nor is it social status; on the contrary, differences in social status are frequently emphasized, as a proof of just how strong the characters’ love is.  See, for example, Titanic, or Han and Leia (“You think a princess and a guy like me . . . ?”).  Both Star Wars characters are sufficiently distinctive and forceful personalities that their social standing doesn’t matter.

Clearly, we’re not talking about equality in physical prowess.  That works (the Wonder Woman-Superman example above), but we’re equally content with a pairing of brains and brawn, or brawn and beauty, or the like.

Nor is it a matter (in fiction) of similar moral character.  The girl (or guy) in love with the bad boy (or girl) is a classic trope—often ending with the better character redeeming the worse.  To be sure, in the end the couple has to come out at least on the same moral plane of lasting devotion to each other.

But in terms of what we see as making a well-matched romance work internally, within the story, the key dimension seems to be mostly force of character.  The couple has to be able to stand up to one another; neither is entirely dominant.

Hence the obedient Cinderella is matched with a low-key (sometimes to the point of blandness) prince.  A highly assertive Serena or Scarlett O’Hara gets paired with an equally forceful male.  Ekaterin may be less visible than the flamboyant Miles, but she’s not dominated by him.

Phantom of the Opera, movie posterIt’s not simply a matter of equal aggressiveness:  the less assertive of the two may morally overawe the other, so to speak, as in the traditional archetype of the knight and the lady.  Undefeatable or angelic innocence can itself be a sort of power or force of character.  One thinks of Christine Daae in The Phantom of the Opera (at least in the operatic movie version, the one with which I’m familiar), a “hero of compassion,” willing to sacrifice herself and genuinely love the Phantom in order to save her true beloved.

An External Reason:  Distinctive Character

Force of character is an internal reason for considering a couple evenly matched:  a personality characteristic that would be visible to the people in the story themselves.  But I think there’s also an external reason—the author’s or reader’s reason.

What makes a pairing seem well-balanced from the outside is, I think, at least partly a matter of how distinctive the character is.  We’re dissatisfied when a fully developed, well-rounded character is matched up with a mere cardboard cutout or stereotype.  Steve Trevor, or Professor Bhaer, is not quite as fully realized a character as Diana or Jo, whom we’ve seen grow up from childhood, knowing their thoughts and feelings.

This is a narrative reason, so to speak—what makes a good story, as distinct from what makes a good relationship.  And yet the two are closely linked.  I’m not sure you can make a good romantic story (in the sense of one where the romance satisfies us) out of a bad romantic relationship; although one can always, through incompetent storytelling, make a bad story out of good relationship.  A really successful romantic story requires both.

A romance is essentially a meeting of equal-but-differents.  And if it isn’t, it isn’t a real romance.

That Thing You Do!

I recently acquired a new disc of the movie That Thing You Do! (1996), since my copy had gone missing.  The new copy turned out to include an extended edition, with considerable new material (148 minutes, vs. 108 for the theatrical version).  The new version lent additional interest to rewatching a favorite story.

Why It Works So Well

That Thing You Do posterI would say That Thing You Do! (“TTYD”) is an archetypal story about a band—it’s the title photo for the TV Tropes topic Music Stories—except it isn’t quite typical, which is one of the movie’s virtues.

TTYD is basically the story of a “one-hit wonder,” a band that has a single major success with a song but never scores again.  That theme is lampshaded by the fact that the band itself is (eventually) named the “Wonders.”  In the summer of 1964, a college-age rock-and-roll group recruits Guy Patterson to sit in on drums for a college talent show, since their original drummer has broken his arm.  The group briefly rehearses their song, an original by guitarist Jimmy Mattingly, the eponymous “That Thing You Do.”  When they perform the song at the talent show, the audience loves it.  The Wonders proceed to get better gigs; make a recording of the number, which begins to get radio airplay; and are noticed by a promoter, setting them on the road to short-lived stardom.

Part of the fun is simply to absorb the ‘60s music culture, which is lovingly re-created—not the high lives of major stars, but the everyday business of performing.  Tom Hanks, who eventually takes over as their manager, guides them through the nitty-gritty of publicity gimmicks (he hands Guy a pair of dark glasses to make him distinctive) tours, beach movies, screaming fans, and the like.  The amiable cynicism and pragmatism of Hanks’ character grounds the story and makes sure it never spins off into the kind of melodrama all too characteristic of the Music Stories genre.

The Wonders at Talent show performing That Thing You DoTo me, the most enjoyable part of the movie is where we see a song coming together—a moment I always find exciting.  At the talent show, Guy, who hasn’t played in public in a while, is nervous and starts the song faster than they’d played it at rehearsal.  Jimmy, miffed at having his creation tampered with, frantically tries to tell him to slow it down.  But the faster beat works:  kids in the audience start to dance, and the band itself realizes that the song is going over better than in Jimmy’s original mournful, draggy form.  While Jimmy is still fuming at the end—“It’s a ballad!”—they can’t deny the livelier version is a rousing success.

Music and Lyrics, Alex and Sophie with notebookI always love seeing something like this:  a musical piece when it finally gells, when the fusion of the musicians’ talents works to make the underlying soul of the song shine through.  Music and Lyrics (2007), for example, works the same kind of magic, though spread out over a longer period than a single performance.  It’s rare when we get a chance to see the creative process actually at work, right there in front of us.  It’s one thing to see the final end product performed, but to be in on the formation of what becomes a first-rate work is both inspiring and exciting—even when it’s half-accidental and serendipitous, as here; or maybe because that spark jumps forth unpredictably.

Faye and bassist dash into storeThis sense of creative vitality is reinforced by the general high spirits of the characters—that effervescent sense of something new and wonderful.  When their song first gets played on the local radio station, the band members and Faye, Jimmy’s girlfriend, go madly dashing around the town, alerting each other that they’re on the air, dancing around the appliance store where Guy works and turning up the radio full blast.  While the effervescence wanes over the course of the story as the business of music becomes more mundane, we never quite forget that boundless enthusiasm with which the group started out.

Not Your Average Music Story

The typical movie about a band or other performing group tends to follow the same pattern as a certain type of sports story.  (That is, for imaginary bands:  biopics about real groups don’t necessarily track that pattern, bring constrained by history.)  A group of young underdogs gets together, challenges the stuck-up ruling clique, engages in something like a “battle of the bands,” and emerges with a satisfying victory.

Bandslam posterDifferent shows may ring different changes on that model, but there tends to be some competitive moment that brings the story to a well-defined climax.  Take, for example, Pitch Perfect 1 and 2 (2012 and 2015—I haven’t seen the third installment), featuring a motley a cappella group.  School of Rock (2003), with Jack Black and a mob of precocious grade-schoolers, ends with a Battle of the Bands competition.  The obscure but surprisingly good Bandslam (2009) is named for a band competition the scrappy underdogs are determined to win.  (In that film we also get a sense of a song coming together for the first time, at about 1:10.)  If we move to dance rather than singing, there’s the competition at the end of Shall We Dance (2004).  A cheerleading competition caps off Bring It On (2000).  Et cetera . . .

But TTYD is not that kind of story.  The only real competition involved is the talent show at the very beginning.  Rather than moving to a victorious climax, TTYD traces the whole arc of a one-hit wonder band, from humble origins, to a degree of national celebrity, to disintegration under the pull of the band members’ conflicting interests.  At the end of TTYD, the Wonders actually break up, with one joining the military, another running off for a Vegas marriage, Jimmy quitting in a huff due to “creative differences,” and the band in breach of contract (though Tom Hanks’ character placidly informs Guy that “nobody’s going to jail”).  A band that ends in a breakup doesn’t exactly follow the trope.

Yet the story isn’t a downer either.  There are some strong secondary plotlines running through the movie.  One is Guy’s devotion to jazz music (an infallible sign of artistic integrity for a character in a film).  During the Wonders’ peak period of success, he gets a chance to meet, and then jam with, his idol, jazz pianist Del Paxton.  It’s clear that Guy, at least, is going to have the chance to pursue his dreams.  Indeed, the American Graffiti­-style epilogue tells us that each of the four original band members went on to a reasonably satisfactory career (though not necessarily in music).

Faye and Guy, from That Thing You DoMoreover, there’s a well-drawn romance that also runs throughout.  Faye is supposedly Jimmy’s girlfriend, but he’s too wrapped up in his musical ambitions to pay any real attention to her.  Meanwhile, Guy, whose former girl has dumped him for a handsome dentist, is the one who looks out for Faye, makes sure she’s included in the group’s travels, and takes care of her when she’s ill.  It’s positively endearing when they finally get together at the end—and the epilogue describes them as founding a music conservatory together.  The successful resolutions of these ancillary plots offsets the somewhat tragic arc of the main storyline and leaves us feeling good about the characters’ fates, despite the meteoric rise and fall of the group.

The Music

The songs we hear were written specifically for the movie—but you’d never know it.  The songwriters, who include Tom Hanks, Adam Schlesinger, Rick Elias, Scott Rogness, Mike Piccirillo, Gary Goetzman and Howard Shore, pull off an amazing simulation of early 1960 styles.  Even aside from the title piece, they give us dead-on compositions in the style of the Ray Conniff-type pop chorale (“Lovin’ You Lots and Lots”), the solo chanteuse (“My World is Over”), the girl group (“Hold My Hand, Hold My Heart”), the pseudo-Beatles crowd-pleaser (“Little Wild One”), and more.  To my mind, a successful imitation or pastiche of someone else’s style is a noteworthy artistic achievement; the music here lends an authentic-sounding ’60s air to the film.

The title song is an even more remarkable accomplishment.  In the first place, it sounds exactly right to have been a hit around 1964.  In the second place, it’s so good (IMHO) that it holds up even through the dozen or so times we necessarily hear it, in whole or in part, during the movie.  “That Thing You Do” is still on my playlists; it’s irresistibly catchy.

Chords for That Thing You Do (partial)How did Hanks and company pull that off?   For one thing, while the instrumentation and overall sound puts it squarely in the ’60s, the song is not the four-chord masterpiece one might expect.  The chord progressions are more sophisticated than those of the average rock-and-roll song of the period.  Even the brief instrumental introduction uses the chords I – IVm (E to A minor), which is hardly typical—at least if, like me, you have your roots firmly planted in the folk/rock tradition.  There’s more substance to the music than you’d think.

Then there’s the fact that the song never does tell us exactly what is “that thing you do”—what makes the girl so irresistible.  We know she does it, we know the singer can’t live without it, we know he can’t stand her doing it with “someone new”; but we don’t get anything specific.  It’s one of those fruitful ambiguities, where leaving something to the imagination is better than being too  definite.  The listener can picture their own charming trait or mannerism to fill in the gap.  The song keeps one guessing.

Finally, the curious contrast between the rather moody, discontented lyrics of a breakup song (“It’s a ballad!”) and the bright, up-tempo sound and dance beat creates another kind of tension that continues to make “That Thing You Do” more interesting than the unsophisticated setting would suggest.  That contrast, in a way, reflects the tone of the whole story.  There’s lots of enthusiasm, but it burns out; we do get a happy ending, but not the kind of easy victory as in the battle-of-the-bands stories.

Extended Cuts and Deleted Scenes

As the movie’s Wikipedia article indicates, the longer “extended” version fills out the story in several ways.  We get more of Guy’s backstory:  for instance, he’s old enough to have been in the Army, which may explain why he’s more mature than the other boys in the band.  We see more of his relationship with his original girlfriend Tina, and how that relationship unravels (freeing him to link up with Faye).  Other relationships are also followed up in more detail, as with the bass player and one of the girl-group “Chantrellines.”  At the end, it’s clear that Guy gets a new job as a radio DJ on the West Coast, which puts him in a better position (with a steady job) to marry Faye, and also puts him on track for a musical career.

The Wonders, Beatles-styleHowever, none of these elaborations of the basic storyline are really necessary.  The theatrical version of the movie does fine without them.  The extra time for these digressions does alter the pace of the story:  my impression on viewing the extended version was that the experience was slower and more leisurely than with the original, shorter version.  The shorter cut’s brisk pace seemed to better express the bewildering swiftness of the Wonders’ sudden success and equally sudden collapse.  In that respect, I’m inclined to think that in the future, I’ll stick to the original version.  Conciseness can be a virtue.

This parallels my usual reaction to the deleted scenes we often find in a DVD release.  When I go back and watch the deleted scenes, I can see what they add, and why the original plan for the story would have included them; yet in every case I can recall, I could also see the reason they were deleted—I agreed, in the end, that the extra scenes were better cut from the final product.

It may be that the theatrical version of a movie is generally preferable to the extended “director’s cut” (though I haven’t canvassed enough examples to draw that broad conclusion with any confidence).  The exception—naturally—is the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings movies, where the original source material is simply so huge that even three two-hour movies couldn’t do it justice.  I’ll always prefer to watch the longer version of LotR, and still lament that it’s too short.

But for TTYD, I’ll recommend the tighter theatrical version—not to mention the soundtrack album.