Dogs In Space Season 2: A Risk That Paid Off

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my linktr.ee)

Previously, I reviewed Dogs In Space (the Netflix show, again, not the movie on punk).  I was surprised at how good this Sci-Fi parody was, enjoying the family-friendly adventures of uplifted dogs trying to “fetch” a new home for humanity.  Though it had erratic moments, it was well-done, built a continuity, and had some gut-punch moments exploring its premise.  When I saw that Season Two had dropped, I watched it immediately, finishing it in two evenings.

The choices made surprised me -pleasantly so – and are not only good but show the importance of choices writers made.  Sometimes there’s funny, but then there’s funny with meaning.

Season One was a mix of shenanigans parodying Sci-Fi tropes, and continuing plot, ending in the cast of genetically-engineered dogs going through some personal changes.  How would the show deal with so many repercussions in Season Two?  For the writers, the answer was lean the into repercussions full force.

Season Two was almost all about the results of characters’ actions in Season One (and Season Two) having effects, often serious ones.  There was no happy reversal of fortune to establish a norm, no reset button to deliver more of the same.  In fact, parts of Season Two and its entire climax made no sense without having seen Season One.

It was still funny, at times very funny, but it was humor in the context of a developed setting where actions have consequences.  Much of the humor, indeed the theme of the season, was repercussions.

Season Two also explored backstory of the characters and how their personality quirks mean real trouble.  Some of this built the world, some seemed to tie up “spent” plots, and others explored unsavory repercussions of character traits that would otherwise be one-note jokes.  It was as if the authors were saying “that thing you laughed at in Season One is funny in a darker way if you think about it . . .”

Pleasingly, this wasn’t just characters being in a setting pinball machine.  Characters are explored, make choices, and deal with results.  Side characters weren’t forgotten and get to reappear for critical moments – and they just came in and dig their thing with no big “hey, it’s them” fanfare.  The elements of the show’s world mattered.

(I was thrilled one of my favorite side-side characters, the friendly but butt-kicking Saint Bernard Duchess got a moment.  If you want to see a humanoid dog go sword-swinging anime heroine, this is your show.)

I found this continuity-focus a very bold writing choice, and it tells us something about parody.  A good parody (which Dogs in Space is) can keep leaning on its jokes and get a lot of mileage out of that.  But meaningfully embracing the continuity you’ve built and being funny is the real challenge, and Dogs in Space pulled it off, making the show meaningful (while still keeping some dog jokes, of course).

There was still some uneven plotting as Season One had, but this time it seemed to be due to the challenge of having a continuing plot.  A few early episodes just aren’t that interesting, and the final story arc ties heavily into Season One, but it didn’t get foreshadowed well.  I’m sure there were a lot of plates to spin, while keeping the show both funny, serious, and family-friendly.

The emotional bite was also different.  Season One’s gut punches really came more and more near the end of the season, but Season Two spreads them out.  Though the end was quite dramatic, I was never quite sure when an emotional swing would come at me – which made the experience more enjoyable!  All the winding character arcs, backstory, and more were surprising, making the serious elements matter even more.

Dogs in Space Season Two showed courageous writers embracing continuity heavily, understanding it was a strength of what they’d created.  It’s a reminder that even when you’re doing funny, doing funny in a good setting with repercussions gives the audience a deeper experience.  Humor that matters is humor that hits harder and makes the darker jokes more thought-provoking.

Plus, kudos to Season Two’s cliffhanger ending.  It not only expands the universe, but promises even more complicators for our heroic canines . . .

Steven Savage

It’s Not the Genre, It’s The Originality

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my linktr.ee)

I encountered this delightful quote from the author of cookie clicker, aka Ortiel42:

As a fan of indie games, I felt this tweet.  AAA games of guns and guys run together in my head, few of them distinct or interesting.  Much like the all-too-similar AAA action RPGS, they just seem, well, all alike.

But here’s the thing – I enjoy a good shoot-em-up.  I’ve backed Early Access games like the lovely throwback Prodeus.  I downloaded the wonderfully overdone pixelated FPS Project Warlock after seeing a review.  So I’m not biased against games with guns at all.

So why did this quote resonate with me?  I think because the FPS games I like are indie, with that punkish indie feel I treasure.  I don’t have a problem with “gun games” I have a problem when the games seem all alike, like many AAA titles.

It’s not the genre, it’s the sameness.  That’s why that single Tweet resonated with me so hard.

AAA titles can get away with the sameness.  It’s well-produced sameness, well-marketed, with a lot of cultural cachet.  People are going to buy them because everyone knows them and they know what they’re getting, even when bad. It’s much as Serdar notes – in a time of choice you go with what’s known.

AAA titles are also trapped.  Knowing they have to go broad, knowing they have to appeal to everyone, they “sand the rough edges off.”  They’re not chance-takers in many cases, and even the chance-takers risk becoming Yet Another Repeating Franchise.  Sometimes you have to play it safe.

Any game – or media – genre can be made interesting.  My game library has many a fantasy RPG and I delighted in the fantasy-isekai take of the anime The Faraway Paladin.  But these games and media are things that had an edge, a break, something unique.  Just like the razor-raw edges of punk caught the souls of people, I want something to catch me and you can’t do that with blandness.

Even when it’s a genre I actually like.

Still I agree with the original tweet that I want to see games try a lot more things.  Perhaps a skunkworks as opposed to giant years-to-deliver titles may serve companies well.  That may also serve me well in another column . . .

Steven Savage

Everything Everywhere All At Once: Unspoilable Lessons

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I want to do a review of Everything Everywhere All At Once, the science-fiction drama-comedy starring Michele Yeoh. I want to review it as not only is it worth reviewing, the movie has many lessons for writers and media creators. However, there’s a problem – I don’t want to spoil any of it.

There is nothing in the film I want to risk spoiling because even minor things add to the experience. Each time I think “here’s an example” to communicate the feel of the film, it would ruin some of the delights.

Thus a challenge – reviewing a film you shouldn’t spoil to extract lessons we can use. How do you review a movie this good without ruining it a bit?

In a rather Taoist/Buddhist fashion, I’m turning poison into medicine here. I will explain why I shouldn’t spoil things and what those things teach us about making good media. Its “do not dare spoil nature” is a lesson about why it is good.

So you probably know the basics from the ads. Michele Yeoh plays a woman, and somehow multiple universes and martial arts action are involved. That’s it. Now let’s see why Everything Everywhere All At Once works in a way that won’t tell you a damn thing about what happens.

Here’s why the movie works and what to learn.

The Right Cast:  Saying casting is “perfect” is trite, especially when you have, well, Michele Yeoh. But the entire cast is excellent, and dare I say at least one of them eclipses Michele Yeoh. Each person brings their all to the role and creates many personal, subtle moments. It’s these meaningful moments that are things I don’t want to spoil

Use of Location:  Locations are characters all their own as well as tools of narration and backstory. Everything Everywhere All At Once puts its locations to use, even down to the props, as they can tell stories. A poster, table, desk, or piece of junk can all say something to the audience. Location can and should matter – I just don’t want to go into detail because it spoils.

Emotional Truth: The commercials for Everything Everywhere All At Once are quite wild. But in that wildness are some core, powerful, emotional truths – “throughlines” if you were, weaving the wildness together. A good film sticks with you – and a day later, I was discussing not the scenes from advertisements but the characters and their feelings.  And I’m not telling you about those feelings, you have to see for yourself to “get it.”

The Chosen Form:  Building on that emotional truth, one fantastic thing about Everything Everywhere All At Once could be told in other genres. The chosen form (sci-fi action) was just one of many choices with which to do it. I find a good story, a good emotional truth, could exist in any form – and you can tell if it could or not. 

Use of Direction:  Everything Everywhere All At Once is exceptionally well-directed (if you’ve seen any ads, you can tell it has to be). There’s a fearlessness to the wild stylings and effects, a confidence, that makes the film work. Honestly, few directors could have done this – Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert were amfazing.

As crazy as Everything Everywhere All At Once may look, it is rock-solid in what it does – and what we learn from it. Have an emotionally resonant story, implemented well in your chosen genre, where location allows great actors to tell a relatable tale. There’s nothing in it that we haven’t heard before, but it’s done very well.

Now I hope you go out and see it – but afterward, don’t spoil. Leave others to be as surprised as you will most assuredly be.

Steven Savage