I Like All Four of My Walls, Thank You Very Much

Writing about House of Cards had me realize how much I hate all the fourth wall breaking that is the latest trend in television.  I blame The Office for starting this vile fad and I can only hope it fades away soon.

The Office gets points for A) being first and B) making it a legitimate part of the show with the pretense of making a documentary.  I guess Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries were first, but I guarantee that The Office is far more influential.  Of course, The Office committed the far worse sin of staying on television far after it stopped being remotely funny or interesting.

Breaking the Fourth Wall is much more of a television trope than a movie one and it mostly infects comedies.  How I Met Your Mother uses it occasionally for a quick joke and I recall it happening in Fresh Prince of Bel Air as well and 30 Rock used it too.  It works better for comedies because it is usually allows a character to point out the absurdity of the situation.  But that is also the problem with breaking the fourth wall.  It feels like you are trying to explain the joke or clue me into the dramatic undercurrents (when used outside of comedy) which I find patronizing and belittling.  As everyone knows if you have to explain your joke it isn’t funny and you probably didn’t do it right.  This failing is most easily observed in House of Cards where all subtlety is drained from the show because Frank Underwood will always turn to you and reveal all.

Now I am writing about this topic because it seems far more prevalent than I recall ever before.  Arrested Development uses it all the time and is almost never funny; just like that entire show.  I wonder if that last sentence will draw clicks to my blog from rabid AD fans.  Parks and Rec basically rips off The Office in every way from its mockumentary setup, awkward comedy and focus on workplace relationships.  Sadly it seems to take its cues from later seasons of The Office when it comes to quality.

The worst offender must be Modern Family which again takes the mockumentary approach, but only when it wants the characters to talk directly to the audience.  The rest of the show is filmed like your typical sitcom.  They have essentially abused the mockumentary device  simply for the ability to break the fourth wall.  I liked the first two seasons of Modern Family, but it has always been clear that this show had not one iota of originality.  And no, a gay couple that is stereotypically gay and also the worst parents in a sitcom ever is not original or edgy.  Cam and Mitchell reek of tokenism and they have always been the least rewarding part of the show.

So are there any worthwhile examples of breaking the fourth wall consistently?  I would say Better of Ted, but in this case Ted is fulfilling more of a narrator role.  Admittedly, the line between narrator and breaking the fourth wall is narrow and I am not often a fan of narrators (show not tell as your elementary school teacher would say).  However, this show was awesome and Ted as narrator was mostly to fast forward the story to get to the next joke.

A quick search on the internet reveals many other shows with fourth wall breaking and I appear to not be the only one noticing its rise in popularity.  As long as it sticks to comedies I think we will be OK; we really don’t want another House of Cards.

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House of Cards… It’s a House of Cards

By which I mean it looks so slick dressed in its post-Watergate jadedness about politics but in the end it has no substance and a strong wheeze can blow it apart.

Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood does an excellent job, but that is a given for Spacey.  It helps that he has by far the best character in the show.  The other standout in my mind is Corey Stoll as Peter Russo the coke head Congressman that later tries to put himself on the straight and narrow.

Everyone else is adequate, with the exception of the actress, Kate Mara, playing Zoe Barnes.  Part of it is not her fault.  Zoe is an awful character falling prey to that most insidious of sexist tropes: the ostensibly powerful female who is in fact nothing of the sort.  See Wheel of Time for many examples.  We are, I think, supposed to see Zoe as incredibly ambitious and, after an argument with the male editor of her paper, not willing to let a man dictate the rules of the game to her.

Unfortunately, this is all undone the minute she lets Frank Underwood sleep with her so that he can then use her to manipulate media coverage.  She is both literally and figuratively a prostitute and Underwood is her john.

The problem is that Mara plays her character with dead eyes and flat expressions.  Maybe the character is supposed to already be super jaded or at least pretending to be; God knows the writers want everyone else to be.  Even when she finally lays out the nature of their relationship to Frank she does it with very little heat.  Yet there are other scenes that suggest Zoe was supposed to be much more naive.  Ready for the filth of DC she would still be surprised by the depths of its depravity, but none of that is developed on.

The other major female character is Frank’s wife, Claire.  She is a cold hearted woman that for some reason runs a charitable organization that does something I think.  It never made sense.  Here is another in the cadre of “too cool for school” characters that is not even bothered by the infidelity of her husband.  That is until she does.

She strikes up an affair with an old flame and then feels guilty about cheating on her philandering husband.  Even worse, when she shows a bit of backbone and confronts Francis about how he has arrogated her career for his own ambitions she eventually backs down.  Some of this is Frank being a Mary Sue (which I will touch on later), but most of it is Claire being far weaker than she pretends to be.  She does stab Frank in the back one time and when Franks finds out about it (“I want to know who lied to me!”) is the best part of the show.

Anyway enough about the characters, what about the plot?  Well the series opens with absolutely transparent and awful character building moments like Frank killing a lame dog.  Similarly, Frank spouts off cringe-inducing lines like “I love my wife like a shark loves blood.”  We can be thankful that the blunt writing starts to recede.  Unfortunately, we still have to suffer from Frank breaking the fourth wall to tell us the subtext of the situation.  I would say the audience is smart enough to not need his handholding, but then there exist people that actually praise this show.

However, the worst part of the beginning of the show is the invincibility of Frank.  He maneuvers everyone to his will with unerring accuracy and he has no opponent even trying to match wits with him.   The theme of the show seems to be that Congress is a dirty nasty place except for the naive dimwits that are Frank’s colleagues.  It makes the first few episodes really boring.

Then comes the Teacher’s Union arc which breathes some life into the show.  Suddenly things aren’t under his control and he has opposition that occasionally surprise him.  Strangely Frank is up against a friend, but not even he seems aware of Francis’ propensity for underhanded tactics.  I personally like my clever manipulator types to be known as a tricky customer and still get people to do what they want.  It’s how I operate after all.  I just find it hard to believe that Underwood has been on the Hill for so long and yet everyone still treats what he says and does at face value.  This seems ludicrous in Congress even if you have no reason to distrust Frank.

Then we move onto the final arc which is mostly engaging because of the Peter Russo character.  Russo is a fuck up and Frank convinces him to put himself back on the straight and narrow.  He does and runs for governor and he actually cares about doing some good now.  It’s a very well done character arc.  Of course, the audience knows that Frank has some reason for doing all of this.  Unfortunately, it again makes no sense.  See, they want Russo to fall from grace again so that the Vice President will step in to run for governor and then Frank can become Vice President.

If this seems far-fetched you are not alone.  First, they entice Russo to the dark side again with a pretty face and some booze.  It was far too easy for a man that had tried so hard to be sober for so long.  Then the chain of events that would lead to a Vice President stepping down and Frank being picked as a replacement is highly unlikely.  The worst of it is that it makes no sense.  Frank felt snubbed for Secretary of State so he enacts a grand plan to become the Vice President of the guy that snubbed him?  Not even taking into account that if he could devise a way to be the VP why even bother with SoS?

Now barring his way to VP is a rich white guy.  He wants Frank to do him a favor before he recommends him as VP.  This favor?  Manipulate the exchange rate with China.  There are like a million plausible things a rich white guy would want from a VP and they chose one that makes no sense.  First off, it’s not even clear how he would make money from this.  Secondly, the VP has no control over monetary affairs.  He should be blackmailing Ben Bernanke.  Third, that still wouldn’t help him unless he could convince old Ben to buy and sell Chinese currency in huge amounts and hope that the Chinese don’t offset it with their own purchases.  Of course, the purpose of this move is blatantly clear and Ben would probably face hearings about removing him from office.  It’s a terrible idea and one wonders how this guy became rich with such shitty ideas.

So that’s where it ends except for a dull plot where Zoe almost finds out about Frank’s dirt deeds.  And by almost, I mean she has nada.  Just more Zoe fail in an entire show filled with Zoe fail.  Nothing good has ever come from people named Zoe.  First I had to put up with Zooey Deschanel (she can’t even get her own first name spelled correctly) and now Zoe.  We should just round up all the Zoes and variations thereof and force them to watch 500 Days of Summer for the rest of eternity.

The ending is as anticlimactic as the rest of the show with Frank promised the VP and none very wise about his murderous efforts to get it.  I really love political shows, but this was not a good one.  This could have been set in a large corporation for all that it really used DC as anything more than a backdrop.  It’s too bad because the production values on this show are extremely high and everything is slickly done and competently acted.  Netflix proved to me they have the chops, but not the writing and neither Hemlock Grove nor Orange is the New Black are doing anything to erase that impression.

Wheel of Time Books 6-8 Review

Lord of Chaos – Maybe my favorite book so far, though 3 and 4 were really good as well.  The best part of this is Rand and the constant muttering of Lews Therin in his head.  The many Aes Sedai courting Rand in this book really set him off and matters are further exacerbated by the creation of the Black Tower as Lews Therin seems to hate channelers of either sex.

Speaking of male channelers, Mazrim Taim makes every scene he is in better.  It is so much more interesting to have a channeler ostensibly loyal to you that just emanates danger than the arrogant chittering of every Aes Sedai in the book.  Jordan thinks he is writing strong female characters yet Taim alone is more menacing than the entire White Tower.

Anyways the Black Tower in immensely cool.  None of the nonsensical rules or weird indoctrination that goes on at the White Tower.  The Black Tower makes you a threat and it does it quickly.  It is all the better when the males surprise the uppity female channelers with magic that they knew, just knew, was impossible.

The other plot here involves Matt and the rebel Aes Sedai.  Matt has turned into my favorite character after a very rickety start and is the only legitimately funny character in the books.  One of the better scenes involves Matt barging in on the newly annointed Amyrlin Egwene.  Obviously incredulous and ignorant, he blusters on managing to convince the women of his stupidity and amaze them with his knowledge all in one go.  The fact that his medallion protects him from their reprisals and thus annoys them to no end is equally entertaining.

We also see signs that Nynaeve is starting to evolve beyond her stubbornness and pomposity.  The girls finally thank Matt for saving them at the end of book 3 and then are indignant when Matt takes it with insouciance.  Nynaeve’s progression will continue in future books and turns one of the most annoying characters into someone you can almost like.

No review of this book would be complete without mentioning the final sequence with Rand kidnapped and held in a box by White Tower Aes Sedai.  Rand had been having things go his way for too long so it was nice to see someone else catch him in one of their plots.  This also brings us to the best magic battle scene in the series yet.  It’s a little chilling when the Asha’man (male channelers) just obliterate the Aiel with casual ease.  It is clear that Rand has brought a new, deadlier form of battle to the land it hadn’t seen since the Age of Legends.  This is one thing that may have been better off forgotten.

A Crown of Swords – At this point the series starts to take a tumble in quality.  Things start to slow down with neither Rand or his enemies really doing much.  This book gets a pass mostly because it has a lot of Matt in it and his interactions with Elayne and Nynaeve are Jordan at his best with the characters he created.

Matt and the Bowl of Winds proceeds along well, it is Rand that kind of makes this book a bit ridiculous.  He goes and derps around with the rebels, almost getting killed in the process.  After being healed from near death he decides this is the time to attack Sammael.  This attack did not seem to require all the planning and positioning of armies he engaged in for the last two books.  It was just teleport some Asha’man to disrupt his defenses and take him out.

The worst part is how the fight with Sammael ends.  They go to Shadar Logoth and Rand is about to kill Sammael when some woman who got lost in the ruins of the city appears and he accidentally kills her and in that moment the evil in the city, Mashedar, descends and kill Sammael.  What a terrible way to kill of a Forsaken.  Also how did that chick survive in the ruins for so long anyhow?  Completely ridiculous and once again we see that all the scheming of the Forsaken seems utterly pointless.

The Path of Daggers – Easily the worst book in the series so far.  The first crime is no Matt, which is especially annoying because we last left him getting crushed under rubble.  The second is that nothing happens.  Jordan spends like a 100 pages walking Elayne and Nynaeve to a spot to use the Bowl of Winds and most of that is Elayne dealing with her obnoxious traveling companions.

You will notice I haven’t talked about Perrin.  That is because he hasn’t done anything of import since book 3.  I am on book ten and he is still sitting around Ghealdan doing nothing.  I feel like Jordan doesn’t like him as much, which is ok because I don’t like him much either, but stop interjecting passages with Perrin that barely advance his plot.  Ruining the flow of more interesting plot lines to do nothing is terribly irritating.

The only redeeming quality was when Rand takes it to the Seanchan.  I like watching the Seanchan in disarray at the new magical tactics Rand is employing.  Also the scene where Rand is using Callandor and rages at the Seanchan is very thrilling and then the next moment you learn he is killing his own men.  Good stuff even if Jordan doesn’t give us any good battle scenes.

Training According to Science, Part 3: The Little Things

Probably the last installment since the field of exercise science is not expansive and I am no expert.

Cardio:

Cardio of some sort has a benefit for everyone, even if mostly doing strength training.  It has been proven to help recovery http://suppversity.blogspot.com/2012/10/cardio-weights-mutual-exclusives-or.html and it creates satellite cells that are the precursor to muscle fibers http://suppversity.blogspot.com/2011/11/hit-your-sattelite-cells-to-increase.html.  There is also a study that show VO2 max being correlated with better nutrient partitioning (whether your body spends nutrients on muscle or fat) http://suppversity.blogspot.com/2013/06/bulking-done-right-what-can-latest-100.html.

So the question is not whether you should do cardio, but how much and what kind?  HIT seems superior in pretty much every way: less effect on strength training, better VO2 max increase, more satellite cells, less time.  Also it is way more fun (and useful) to sprint.  Which doesn’t mean that long jogs aren’t good as well, but I don’t like cardio that much so I want to do as little as possible.  Try not to do it on a training day or do it after and at the opposite end of the day for best results.

Nutrient Timing:

One of the more persistent myths is that you can eat all day and keep your metabolism humming along to burn more calories.  This has been thoroughly debunked now for twenty years, yet I talk to intelligent people that still think it is true.

That said, it’s not completely without merit.  Studies have looked at how you consume your  food during the day; spread out or all at once and at various amounts of protein.  The results seem all over the map with some concluding that a large bolus is better, while others show meals every 3 hours are better.  It also seems to depend on your age as if your body’s response to amino acids weakens as you age.  What is clear is that when you reach a threshold of protein ingested in one meal it turns on muscle protein synthesis and that it takes about three hours for the amino acid concentration to fall again.  At this point another  another bolus of protein could turn MPS on again.  Theoretically a feeding strategy might lead to more muscle growth, but empirically significant results are not available yet.  However, a study on athletes showed that those who snacked gained more lean mass and lost more fat.

More importantly, is your pre-bed meal.  Sleep is vitally important, probably more important than anything but training.  You can make it even better by ingesting some casein protein before bed http://suppversity.blogspot.com/2012/02/32kg-of-lean-mass-over-nigth-w-40g-of.html.  This is a much more significant result than any of the meal frequency studies have shown.  It might even get me to purchase some casein powder if we are talking about 7 pounds of muscle in a year.