Let's talk about Russian Doll by Jerald Pierce

First off, Russian Doll stans, it’s a good show. Not great, not genre redefining or anything. But it’s also not something I ever have the desire to see repeated or expounded upon. It was a nice attempt at something. So kudos to them for the attempt.

And let’s be honest, I spend a lot of time diving into the awful depths of weird scifi/time travel/multiverse/groundhog day stuff on the internet (mostly Amazon Prime, it’s dark there). If I had a choice, I’d much rather watch Happy Death Day’s take on this groundhog day genre (yes, it’s a genre now). Or even Coherence’s examination of multiverses.

Coherence is actually a great example of what this show reminds me of. I love Coherence. Like LOVE Coherence. It’s up there with Primer as one of my favorite scifi movies of all time. But its script is atrocious. I feel like I read somewhere that they improvised a lot of the early dialogue and it shows. It’s an incredibly poorly written movie with an astonishing premise.

In that movie, I feel like I’m able to look past the flaws of the script because I’m so enthralled in the concept of the plot. That’s where Russian Doll fell short for me. I just wasn’t taken enough by what was going on to look past the issues they had in their script. That said, I totally understand people who are. Because, let’s be honest, it’s a concept that has some pretty good innovation to it (especially if you’re not constantly oversaturated with the genre like I am).

But that’s not why you’re here. If you’re reading this (for whatever reason) it’s because you know I have complaints. Before I get into them, let me just say that, yes, I know a lot of these are nitpicky. But they’re also things that should never fall through the cracks, they’re questions that should have answers or have been addressed. Not addressing them, in my opinion, is just lazy. So let’s get into it:

  • Prevention: I’ll start with my biggest complaint that the writers needed to address. So many of the deaths were preventable. And sure, I get that the writers were essentially trying to say that “no matter what they do, the universe (or whatever) will kill them and they’ll start over.” But damn, at least show them try. Show me one loop where they bunker down, stock up and see how long they’ll live. I honestly thought that’s what they were going to give us when Nadia was in the ambulance on her way to the psych ward. This isn’t Groundhog Day where there’s a time limit. This isn’t Happy Death Day where there’s a murderer. This isn’t even When We First Met where the characters can choose to restart. There’s no way that in throughs all of this neither Nadia nor Alan said “fuck this, I’m finding the most secure place I can and seeing if I can survive.”

  • Common sense: Speaking of things that a normal person should think of, how did they never take the time to memorize each other’s phone numbers? You’re stuck in an endless loop and only one other person knows what you’re going through and you’re not going to commit that person’s phone number to memory? Yeah, going to his apartment and buzzing endlessly is a much better plan.

  • The stairs: Ok, now we’re really getting nitpicky. Her aversion to the stairs is complete nonsense. She went down the steps successfully multiple times in the first episode. But after falling down a few times, her realization wasn’t “damn, I’m clumsy as hell” (which she is, watch all of her early, easily preventable deaths)…her response is, whelp, stairs are cursed, better go out the fire escape. Even the time she tried to use the stairs “cautiously,” she randomly decided to cut across someone and tripped and fell. Like, damn, look where you’re going and slow down. Now, sure, this may all be moot if Alan was simultaneously doing something stupid and dying, but hey, writers, don’t be lazy, be interesting. Let Nadia try literally everything she can to stay alive and then let her still die. That’s way more interesting than watching this clumsy, unobservant fool fall over and over.

  • The elevator: This really has no bigger picture impact, but it bothered me. Where was Alan going when he got on the elevator. If Nadia was coming up from the basement and getting off on the first flood. And Alan presumably went up to visit his mom, how does he end up on Nadia’s elevator going up? Did it switch directions at some point? Who knows. Just one of many times things were put into the plot for the sake of being a plot point rather than following any kind of logic.

  • Just a plot point: That brings me to Horse, our favorite homeless guy. Whether or not Nadia gave a shit about him dying was all over the place. Sure, she has bigger fish to fry sometimes, but does she care if he dies or not? Cause taking Alan’s shoes and giving them to Horse won’t keep Horse from dying of exposure. He’s still going to sleep outside and presumably die. (My favorite quote is when Nadia gets her cat from Horse and tells him “We’ve finally got time” as if this shoeless man probably won’t die from exposure that night.) So he’s just there when it’s convenient to Nadia’s plot. Other than that, the writers don’t give a shit and don’t bring him up. Same with John’s daughter. Same with that damn cat. Same with the revelation Nadia has that maybe everyone lives on in their own universe after she and Alan die. Just things that only come up when convenient, but don’t exist if Nadia doesn’t give a shit. And yes, you can say that oh that’s because we’re seeing the story from her perspective and if she’s preoccupied, so are we. And yes, I agree. But that makes Nadia into a very one-track-mind kind of a person, which I don’t think is what the show otherwise tries to say about her.

There are other things, but honestly, I’m tired.

I’ll end by saying this: Lazy, faulty writing doesn’t make me dislike a show. It really only fires me up if the show was good because that’s when you see how much better it could have been. (Lookin’ at you, Doctor Who and Steven Moffat.)

This show could have been much better if they had the constraints of a movie. Cut characters and beats you don’t need. Focus on the heart of the story. Don’t let your characters meander as they figure out what’s going on. Put pressure on the situation, force them into action and make them make hard choices. There’s just so much air in this show and side plots that, sure, maybe add a tiny bit of character development, but really just delay the inevitable.

These are brief thoughts. The end.

What I remember - Pt. 3 by Jerald Pierce

I started writing these mostly because I have an awful memory (reiterated below), so I could have at least some record of things that happened in my childhood as I remember them. But it also serves as a way to force myself to write for fun more than I usually do. No idea how regular this will be. But here’s what I remember:

I want to talk about the cafeteria at Park Tudor. There was one cafeteria on the Park Tudor campus (which I only recently started thinking of as a campus, because it really does remind me of a tiny college). This cafeteria served everyone from 1st grade through high school. They cycled us through in shifts beginning with the youngest. 

The cafeteria was built into a hill, so you entered the building on the second floor that had a balcony with seats where the teachers ate overlooking rows upon rows of tables. That balcony was also intermittently home to the book fair that was always exciting (and always produced zero books that I would read later). From that balcony, you went down this central stair way that split at the bottom: one side went toward the line to get food, the other toward the line where you dropped off dishes.

But neither line really mattered much when we were in 1st through 5th grade because we went straight to our tables. Our assigned tables. Generally each table had one person from each grade. Presumably this was to encourage responsibility in the older kids and while giving the younger kids someone to look up to. Each grade had a responsibility for their table. The 5th graders were the table heads and they received a list of every student they were responsible for at their table. They were in charge. You were supposed to listen to them and they would keep the younger kids in check. 4th grade was in charge of picking up the family style food trays from the line and the 3rd graders were in charge of cleaning everything up at the end. The 1st and 2nd graders were in charge of sitting still and not being a pain in the ass for the older kids.

It was a weird system that, now that I think back on it, was very useful. You never had to worry about clicks forming and excluding kids during lunch—though if you were lucky enough to sit at the table next to a friend, you could just sit back to back and talk the whole time. This also made the older kids responsible for making sure their younger students were eating. If there wasn’t a part of the family meal that they wanted, you could take them to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a salad. There were always options. I never appreciated how isolated we all were from the extremely real problem of kids not having food to eat for lunch at cafeterias all over the country. There was always way too much to go around.

One thing I can’t remember is if there were place settings. I feel like there were and students were in charge of setting them. I also have a vague recollection of a culling like announcement for table assignments were someone stood at the front of the room and announced what table each student should go to, but I could be wrong. I also have a vague memory of us being assigned tables before lunch and then we’d just find out tables when we got there. Maybe both happened at one point? It was so surreal, anything is possible.

We’d sit at these table assignments for a week or so and then switch. It was a constant rotation. I don’t remember really getting to know anyone at my tables, but instead always searching for where my friends were at other tables. The most vivid memories are of sitting at the front on this platform where the last few tables were and sitting back to back with my friend Hillary. It was strange, we weren’t really that close, but we always talked and joked around at lunch. I also remember joking with a friend a few tables away. The brilliant children we were, we figured out that if you mouth the words “olive juice,” it looks like you’re mouthing “I love you.” Endless entertainment. 

Side story: At some point, and I’m only 70% sure it was at Park Tudor, a news crew came to the school to do some report on the school or lunch or…something. But I remember they were filming my table and they specifically told me to just go about eating and not look at the camera. I stared right down the barrel of that camera and ate my hamburger. I hope that video lives on somewhere.

Anyway, it was in 6th grade when we really got the full use of the cafeteria. No more family meal. You could sit with your friends wherever you wanted. Plus, you were finally allowed to use the frozen yogurt machine. Needless to say, there were a few lunches where frozen yogurt was the only thing some of us ate. But there was still a salad bar, peanut butter and jelly, and a glutton of hot food on the line for those who wanted it. 

I didn’t make it to high school at Park Tudor, but I can only imagine what freedoms were added to lunch for the high schoolers. Full run of the kitchen to make whatever they wanted? More likely, they were allowed to drive off campus to eat at Broad Ripple nearby.

Ok, back to classes. Fourth and fifth grades I remember a little better. Mr. Lacy had switched jobs and was now our fourth grade english teacher. Quick aside about Mr. Lacy because I forgot to mention it before. That man 100% put dry ice in his mouth when we were in second grade. My fuzzy memory says he somehow managed to blow smoke out of his ears, but my logical brain now says it was just smoke out of his nose. Either way, don’t put dry ice in your mouth.

But we were upstairs now, away from all the hubbub from the ‘younger kids.’ My random memory from Mr. Lacy’s class? That weird video of an alien singing “I Will Survive” which had just come out and everyone found hilarious. And also Mambo No. 5, which we probably shouldn’t have been listening to if you think about us.

We had Mrs. Wright (I think) for science. (I know she taught science, but I don’t remember if that was her name.) Mrs. Wright (we’re going with it) was obsessed with Greg Maddux. Posters on her wall and everything. I have no idea why, but her room always felt much darker and gloomier than Mr. Lacy’s room. Maybe because Mr. Lacy was my homeroom teacher. But I think I enjoyed science more as a class. I also remember Mrs. Wright warning us of the dangers of leaning back in our chair…which managed to increase the occurrences of leaning back in chairs. Or at least it increased my awareness of it.

And I have no idea who taught us social studies, but I know her(?) room was closest to the 5th grade end of the hallway.

Honestly, I don’t remember social studies in either grade. My only social studies memory is the horrific one from 5th grade that I suffered due to my completely sheltered upbringing. One of the black students (newer, he hadn’t been there from the beginning like most of us had been) pointed to a country on a map we were studying or working on and asked me how to pronounce the name of it. “N*gger,” I said. He burst out laughing. That kind of hard laughter that carried him out of his seat and halfway down the hallway. Obviously he had been pointing at Niger. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure me saying the word “N*gger” was the first time I had ever heard the word N*gger. How weird is that.

That same kid thought he was super cool because he got this liquid from Spencers (I assume) that he could rub together between his thumb and forefinger and when he pulled them apart a smoke-like substance would appear. He was clearly a dork. But I still cringe when I think about what he tricked me into saying.


Fifth grade was when I broke my arm in the dumbest way possible. My grandparents house had a basketball hoop at the end of their long driveway. It was great to have as a kid growing up in the basketball capital of the world and being someone who enjoyed playing the sport. I could always go out and shoot around whenever I wanted to. The only downside was that there was an eternally parked car in the way of the right side of the hoop: The Thunderbird. 

The Thunderbird was an old silver car that I assume my grandfather always thought he’d get around to fixing. It sat for ages. Never moved. It was parked just to the right of the basket, basically on the baseline. I simply played around it. It was never used, so I didn’t really worry too much about errant shots bouncing off the hood or window. No one seemed to care.

My mom wasn’t home one day when I was playing and I wanted to try something. I was taller now and I looked at the hood of that Thunderbird and thought, “I bet I could dunk if I jumped off of there.” That was my childhood equivalent of “hold my beer” and ended just as badly as you’d expect. I think about it a lot and wonder if I could have prevented what had happened. Not by not doing it, which would be too easy, but by maybe taking a couple steps for more momentum so I could jump higher or by not trying to hang on the rim. I don’t know what I envisioned when I mentally saw myself accomplishing this feat. Maybe dunking, hanging on the rim for a second and then casually dropping to the ground like you see on tv. 

I should have known that my hand strength and coordination was no match for the momentum of my body. My hands hit the rim, my feet kept going, and I plummeted. Next thing I know, I’m on the ground, I can’t breath and my arm hurts. I go inside and my grandmother puts ice on my arm until my mother and grandfather get home. I was much more concerned with the fact that it was tough to catch my breath because the wind was knocked out of me—it took me a while before the realization of “I broke my arm” settled in.

My grandfather took me to his hospital. I’m pretty sure there’s no paperwork anywhere for this visit. He took me right in, x-rayed my arm, and set to work. In a move that still shocks me, he took my broken arm between his hands and simply snapped it back together. I still get a little queasy thinking about it. To this day I have moments where I wonder if it healed correctly (or was set correctly). But he’s an orthopedic surgeon, who am I to question him. He put a cast on it and we moved on.

An aside about me and casts: For some school project when I was younger (maybe 3rd grade or second grade) we put a cast on my arm just for fun(?). Cutting it off was awful because the heat from the saw terrified me and I honestly thought they were cutting into my skin. At that moment, I vowed never to have to wear a cast for real, because I never wanted to deal with getting it taken off. Oops.

Anyway, I spent time in 5th grade with a cast on my right arm. Luckily (or not) I was left handed, so I still had to do all of my work. 

Fifth grade was also the first time I got detention. I can’t remember why, but I feel like I thought it was unjust. Then again, maybe I just didn’t like the teacher because I also never read the books for her class and generally just blew off her english class (a theme for the rest of my education, if we’re being real).

Sometime during 5th grade, we took a field trip to this miniature town thing. It was an indoor facility that was setup as a small-scale town, completely run by the students. We got money, there were laws, there was a mayor, there was a judge, there were little tchotchke shops where you could buy snow globes, everything. I, for whatever reason, ran for judge. It was a whole thing. Everyone running for mayor and judge had to prepare a speech to give in the library in front of the whole class, who then voted for who they wanted. Somehow I won. (This instance is one of those times where, when I think back on it, I think that maybe I wasn’t as unpopular as I thought I was at the time. Rather, I had this perception that I was which led me to alienating people and becoming less popular.)

Then the most embarrassing thing happened the day of the field trip. (5th grad was rough.) I had forgotten something in the classroom and we were already on the bus. The teacher—my English teacher, the same teacher who gave me my first detention and whose class I never read for—was nice enough to give me her keys to run back up and grab what I had forgotten from the locked room. When I tried to re-lock the door, the key broke off in the lock. I was mortified. I said nothing to her when I got back on the bus. I just handed her the keys and walked away like everything was fine.

I really, really thank her for not bringing it up and embarrassing me about it.

It wasn’t until we got to the place that I realized how boring judge was. Everyone else had jobs and were going about their fun fake lives and I just kind of wandered around waiting for someone to do something illegal. There were like one or two kids who were cops in the entire place and there was maybe one law: Don’t walk on the grass (aka the green parts of the carpet). One person got caught. I went to my bench and issued a verdict of “pay half of the fine”. I was a fair man, after all. They committed a crime, but they seemed penitent, so I let them off easy. I did nothing else that day. I think I bought a tchotchke.

My mother came by for part of it because it was close to her job. I think she was happy to see her son doing something involving the legal system—following in her footsteps.

What I remember - Pt. 2 by Jerald Pierce

I started writing these mostly because I have an awful memory (reiterated below), so I could have at least some record of things that happened in my childhood as I remember them. But it also serves as a way to force myself to write for fun more than I usually do. No idea how regular this will be. But here’s what I remember:

So I left off somewhere around second or third grade and my inability to distinguish between first through third grades. It certainly doesn’t help that we were all pretty close together in those grades. Fourth and fifth grades are easy to distinguish in my mind because we had classes on the second floor. The second floor was like a privilege. No one really went up there unless they were a fourth or fifth grader. It was a right of passage. One of a few that came along as we neared the end of what was called “lower school”. (I assume we didn’t call it elementary school because it just wasn’t pretentious enough.)

I do remember second and third grade being in the same hallway. Three classes for the second graders and three classes for the third. But the more I think about the divide, the more I’m convinced there wasn’t one and I’m misremembering. I blame that on Mr. Lacy. His…niece(?) was in our class and he always managed to get moved to a new grade right when our class got there. It felt like it happened a lot, but in reality, I’m pretty sure it only happened when he moved from second grade to fourth grade. It was most likely because of some logistical needs on the school’s part, but it certainly felt like he was sent by Kylie’s parents to spy on her. He just seemed to follow us. 

Outside of that, I really don’t remember much from third grade other than the Native American necklaces we made. We were all given “Indian names” and we got to decorate our necklaces with beads and whatever art we wanted. I have no idea if we did it in any culturally sensitive way, but I’m pretty sure the school wouldn’t have cared either way. There weren’t enough minorities around to raise any sort of fuss.

I also remember third grade being right next to the doors to the playground. We’d head out the doors and down the stairs and out onto the open blacktop to play basketball at the full length court, or four square, or get a game of kickball going, or head down to the lower level to play on the jungle gym and swings, or play that game where you throw a ball into the top of this bucket thing and you’d get points for whatever hole it just happened to come out of (no idea), or play tether ball. 

Quick aside about tetherball: It’s a bullshit game that frustrated me to no end. If you were the first person with the ball and you mastered the angles of the game or were just playing against a short person, you would always win. Just hit it so it always went above their head. Easy. I enjoyed games where there was more legitimate competition. Like four square and kickball. Four square had the same potential pitfalls as tetherball if the “king” decided to make rules that benefitted him more than the game. (If that isn’t the perfect representation of the current political climate, I don’t know what is.) Like, if the king said he could spin bounce the ball or slam the ball as hard as they could so the person they went after had to go sprawling to get to it, whatever person he wanted out, was out. Every time. So it became a game of bargaining and trying to win the king’s favor. Which is pretty fun and funny in its own respect.

I was a master at kickball. I kicked harder than most everyone else, I was relatively athletic, and I could throw with enough accuracy to usually hit people. But recess kickball was never as much fun as California kickball in gym, but I’ll get there.

I’m thinking about kickball because I’m thinking about Winston. 

Winston was the lanky, nerdy kid who no one really liked and was the butt of a lot of jokes. It was the way he walked, with this sort of bounce. His legs were unenthusiastic pogo sticks. Long strides, bouncing him up and down and always in a hurry. I feel really bad. Not just because I can’t remember his last name, but because I know Winston started school with us way back in around kindergarten, but I can’t remember for the life of me when he left. I just know that by 6th grade, Nick had taken the mantel from him. Again, we’ll get there. 

I didn’t realize how mean we were to Winston until senior year of COLLEGE. That’s when I heard a friend tell the story of how she suffered a seizure (I believe—again, bad memory) as a child which stunted the grown of a ligament or muscle in her leg. Which caused her to bounce a little when she walked. A little like Winston. It was in that moment I realized that I never took the time to learn about Winston or his bounce. We all assumed it was some weird thing he just did because he wanted to. Not once did it ever cross my mind that it could have been because of some medical issue. That hit me pretty hard. I wonder where Winston is now.

I was never crazy popular myself, but I never had issues being picked in gym. Depending on the game we played, I was usually a pretty high draft pick. We could play any game under the sun in our gym class. Our gym building (yes, a whole separate building dedicated to gym) consisted of three separate gymnasiums: the main one where the high school basketball games happened that had a door at the top of the bleachers to our health room that I am JUST now realizing was a press box; the second gym on the first floor that had a track going around the second level of it that was also connected to a workout machine area; and the second floor gym that was the most pitiful of all. 

I have two memories of that upstairs gym: Playing on those little scooters that would run over your fingers if you got too careless and getting in trouble for calling a kid a “son of a gun”. To be clear, I did not say son of a bitch. The teacher must have thought I had said bitch and the kid who told on me was just censoring me for her sake or something. Well that or the teacher really did have an issue with the phrase “son of a gun”. I don’t remember who told on me, but I’m sure he was a son of a bitch.

The gym with the track was my favorite because we played my two favorite games there. Backboard was essentially dodgeball with foam balls instead of the super bouncy red rubber ones you’re thinking of. But what made this dodgeball better, for those who don’t know, was that you could get people back into the game by throwing the ball off the backboard on the other side of the court. One person comes back if you hit the backboard, two for the rim, everyone comes back if you make it in the basket. I was invaluable in this game. I was the Peyton Manning of this game. That’s not even me bragging, it’s just fact. The danger for most was that they needed to get close to the mid-court line to be able to hit the backboard which, of course, made it much easier for the other team to pick you off. I got picked early solely because they knew I could hit the backboard from behind the opposite free-throw line and even from the opposite baseline. My team was never out when I was on the court. This, obviously, backfired if I got hit and knocked out, but the reward was worth the risk.

The track gym was also home to California Kickball. California kickball has five bases, no force outs, and no limit to the number of people that can stand on a base at one time. The diamond was set up as you’d normally imagine for baseball, but with an extra base out in left field, slightly behind where a shortstop would line up—that became third base with normal third base becoming fourth base. This game was dangerous and we did eventually have to stop playing it. Without force outs, California Kickball quickly becomes close range dodgeball. Rules were instituted so that you weren’t allowed to throw at a kid’s legs, but kids have bad aim. Legs got taken out from under people, falls happened, the game eventually disappeared. 

A note on the idea of being able to have multiple people on one base at one time: Say person A gets a hit for the first time ever and somehow makes it to first base, but then decides they’re too scared to run on the next hit. Person B then joins Person A, but Person B is not allowed to pass them. Person A still has to lead the pack. It resulted in plenty of frustrations the times that Person A got to a base and refused to keep running.

That’s where I come in. Again, invaluable in this game due to my favorite rule. If you kick a ball onto the running track and it stays up there, it’s an automatic home run. I had many. I didn’t try to do anything else other than pummel the ball onto the warning track. Which, also was an entertaining game in and of itself with other sections of the gym class up there running laps.

Now, the largest gym. I don’t remember us being in that gym too much. We played knockout and things like that because it had a ton of basketball hoops, but the only game I really enjoyed was again a dodgeball game. The only difference was that there was a large divider in the gym that could be dropped by the teacher. I can’t remember exactly what the rules were, but I know we tried to get all the balls onto the other side of the divider before it hit the ground. I wish I could remember it more.

Honestly, I’m astounded no one got kidnapped or seriously injured during gym. There were times where we basically got run of the school grounds. Grounds that included 6-ish tennis courts, a football field, two baseball diamonds, and hills and open space galore. And they let us play games like capture the flag. There is no way they kept track of all of us. It’s insane to think about them letting us do that now. No way.

I did love Park Tudor’s campus though. A lower school building (now I believe 3 year olds through 5th grade), a middle school building (6th-8th), a high school that was connected to a science building and music building and auditorium, a building that was just the cafeteria, and the sprawling gym building and sports areas. Oh, and the apple orchard store that sold fresh picked apple goodies (killer cider in the winters).

Park Tudor’s cafeteria is still one of the most bazaar things that exist, but I’ll talk about it, 4th and 5th grade, and more another time.

What I remember - Pt. 1 by Jerald Pierce

I started writing these mostly because I have an awful memory (reiterated below), so I could have at least some record of things that happened in my childhood as I remember them. But it also serves as a way to force myself to write for fun more than I usually do. No idea how regular this will be. But here’s what I remember:

My memory is awful. I can’t tell if it’s a full memory problem or that I forget short term things so often that nothing really get committed to long term memory. I can see someone’s face, speak with them, be introduced to them and walk away and immediately have forgotten their name and what they were wearing.

My coworker and I always joked about it because she would ask if I had seen or spoken to a certain client and I would have no idea if it was the person she was talking about. She’d describe their clothes and I’d stare blankly back at her. It’s actually pretty awful and embarrassing at times. But the point here is that I’m going to try to remember some things from my childhood. I know I have some memories in there, but who knows what they are.


My earliest memories are fuzzy. I know I moved to Indianapolis from Cleveland when I was three (though, now, trying to remember, maybe it was four). My mother and I moved to live with my grandparents while she went to law school. It actually worked out really well. I never remember a time where it felt like she wasn’t around or she was ignoring me for her studies. Which is spectacular considering how needy I was as a child.

I remember these rolling footrests they had in the law school common area where my mother would study. I was magically endlessly entertained by those dirty little boxes as they sailed me across the quiet floor. How did no one kick me (us) out? Maybe they did and I don’t remember, but I know I had a blast. I also remember her taking me into one of her classrooms once. 

I wonder how that was for her. Leaving a career to go to law school while she had me to take care of. I’ve never asked her why she made that decision, though I’ve gotten the feeling on our drive out to my graduate degree adventure that her decision was as passion following as mine is. I wonder if she regrets it. Now that she sees her friends from her past life retiring and starting their second careers while she’s a bit stuck. Is this where she saw herself when she went to law school. I sit here imagining myself as a renowned theatre critic somewhere down the line. What was she sitting in law school imagining? I should ask. 

She got a job offer once. A job that would take her out of town more often. It would have been a big shift in career. She asked me if I’d be ok with it. I don’t know how old I was but I remember it being in the car. Perhaps so we didn’t have to see each others faces. Our family doesn’t do well with honesty and emotion. I’m still ashamed that my first thought was a selfish one: If she travels more often, that means I can stay up and watch tv in her bed! I still said she shouldn’t do it. I wanted her around.

So much of my life is defined by her decision to leave Cleveland. I would have gone to different schools, had different friends, experiences, thoughts. I get lost thinking about alternate realities. The “what ifs” of the decisions we make. How different would I be? Would I recognize the me that grew up in Cleveland with a mother who worked as a civil engineer her whole life? There’s no way to know and that’s annoying.

But that alternate me wouldn’t have gotten to spend as much time with my grandparents as I did. That I’m sure of. My grandfather especially who acted as my de facto father. He led by example and was a pillar of the community and of kindness and insane work ethic that I can never hope to live up to. I’ve only seen him mad once. It was terrifying. I don’t remember exactly what I said or did, but it was said in anger toward my mother and he hit me. I know it wasn’t his full strength, but the unexpected terror of the moment sent me to the ground. No one loved harder than that man. But it’s his easy kindness that leaves the lasting impression among anyone who knew him. No friend was ever left wanting. If you need some cash, he’s got you. If you need a place to spend thanksgiving, the table is already set for you. If you knew Dr. Raymond Pierce, you were a member of his family.

I should have paid more attention during his last few years. It was just too hard to watch the man that raised me whither away. Cancer is a bitch. I’m glad Kaily was around to collect stories and memories from both grandparents. Someone needs to remember, because I pretty obviously won’t. 

The most chilling thing to this day about my grandfather getting cancer? The folder we later found on his computer desk. The same desk he would sit at for hours researching god knows what for the next conference that he would whisk us all away to so he could give a speech and we could enjoy the weather. The same desk surrounded by manila file folders filed to bursting with medical jargon overlapping his distinctive surgeon script. On that desk laid one particular full folder, held together by one of the many rubber bands he religiously kept on his wrist. In his unmistakable, steady hand writing, he wrote: “Colon Cancer”.

It’s hard to think about his death without feeling like the time we spent with him while he was sick or immobile is starting to outweigh the memories of him alive. My memory seems to revel in that fear of forgetting the healthy him. I don’t want to forget the Papa who could bar-b-cue the perfect rack of ribs. No, you don’t understand what I mean. The man made ribs that quite literally fell off the bone. Screw using your teeth, you could hold the bone and use two fingers to just slide the meat right off the end. The secret? A patience that none of the rest of us have. He’d come home from church and immediately start cooking. On Sundays, that is. He went to church every day, but Sunday was the day he’d cook for the family (and whoever rung the doorbell to say hello).

I don’t want to forget all the times he’d drive me places or pick me up because my mom was in school or at work and couldn’t do it. Pick me up from school and drive me all the way downtown to my swim practice. Did I thank him? Dear god I hope so. Even if I did, I was never thankful enough, that’s for sure. He was more supportive than I ever could have hoped for. I wish he was still around. Just one more time I want to hear him say “hey, big boy J!” I want to make him proud and every step I take in my career is to make him proud. I don’t consider myself particularly religious anymore, but I do like to hope he’s watching me and still cheering me on.

My family was my life growing up more than I had realized before that point. I wasn’t good at making friends. That’s a lie, I made friends easily. I was awful at keeping them. But he and my grandmother and my mother were there for me through a lot of shit and I don’t appreciate them nearly enough. 


Focus back on my childhood, though. I still can’t believe that I spent the entirety of kindergarten trying to learn the name “Ms. Vogelgesang” (sp? pronounced VOH-gul-gee-sang) and looking forward to new kids having to try to learn it only for her to get married the summer after she had us and changed her named to Mrs. Ganser. Never has a kindergarten class felt so betrayed. 

Park Tudor was a weird stage in my life. It’s honestly pretty surreal, to the point that I have a deep need to go back and walk around the school to make sure that place was real. Like, did I really get into the school because I tattled on the kid next to me who tried to cheat? Ok, two blatantly weird things about that memory: 1) I’m pretty sure the kid next to me was Terrence and he still got in; 2) Why were they giving an entrance exam to children to get into kindergarten?

Which was only the beginning of that weird year. I don’t remember much about that kindergarten classroom, but I distinctly remember three things: nap time, the wall, and line leaders. At nap time we would listen to tikitikitembonosarembocherrycherryroochipipberrypimbo (sp? ha) falling down a well. It was my favorite nap time story. That kid kept falling down a well and someone would run to get help and it would take forever because they had to say TTTNRCCRPP’s full name when saying that he had fallen down a well. I couldn’t tell you anything else that happens in the story. Does he die because help takes so long? No, cause he falls multiple times (it’s like the boy who cried wolf setup). But I feel like the twist at the end was that the other kid falls down the well and his name is much shorter and that’s better for some reason? Thinking back, why didn’t the people listening just cut the kid off after Tikitiki. “Ok, I know who you’re talking about, don’t say the full name. What did he do?”

The wall was a big dividing wall that was right outside our kindergarten classroom. When we’d go outside to play, they’d have to make sure no one jumped off of it. That was never my goal. My fondness of the wall came from when some of the older kids (I think 3rd grade) would come and read us stories. We had reading buddies. They would bring a book and we’d go sit somewhere on the playground while they read to us. Usually on that wall. That was a fantastic program idea looking back. I hope they still do that. It was really nice to have an older kid come spend time with us and read us stories and just have that experience one on one.

They tore the wall down while we were in kindergarten. We all got a piece. We were a pretty cheap disposal service. I have no idea where that piece of wall is now. With any luck, it got thrown away long ago.

I’m surprised I remember so much from kindergarten. I wonder what Sam Johnson is up to these days. The one kid I considered a friend back then and through most of grade school. 

I couldn’t even pretend to tell you who my first or second grade teachers were. I want to say Mrs. White was one, but I also think she was the teacher of the other kindergarten class. I do remember that our kindergarten rooms were at the far end of the building right by one of the entrances. The first grade classrooms were just up the hall a bit but still kind of disconnected from the rest of the grades. 

Second and third grade blend together in my mind. Second grade was the start of the major construction on the building. They were completely redoing the classrooms, building setup, playground and courtyard. It was a major overhaul. They worked all day. I had headaches a lot and I assumed it was because of the noise. It wasn’t. My eyes hurt because I needed glasses. So the era of huge nerd glasses was born.

It was around second and third grade that I tried to get into boy scouts. I never really felt like I belonged. It seemed like a father/son activity for everyone and I, being an easily embarrassed child, shooed my mother away. We also had to sell popcorn which, let’s be honest, is nowhere near as good as the cookies the girl scouts got to sell. I always joke that I left the boy scouts as soon as they gave me my pocket knife (which we all got so we could whittle box car racers). While true that I did leave right after getting it, it’s not for the implied reason of me just wanting a knife. It was the loneliest I ever felt. Watching fathers and sons work on these things and I had no one. It sucked so I left and never went back. My mother, while constantly pressuring me to do activities and sports, never made me go back. I think she understood.

I also was on the chess club. And maybe a before school or after school game club? These are some of the memories I have trouble attributing to an age or grade. I know I was in the chess club like a nerd and I know there was a club where we played Risk. I also know I did after school where we played the recorder. And I know I made peanut butter and jelly for the younger kids one year. I just can’t remember when those were.

Unsolicited thoughts after Doctor Who's season 11 premiere by Jerald Pierce

Let’s start here: This premiere speaks to every aspect of scifi that I enjoy. It feels real. Like it could happen in my backyard, with people I know and dangers I feel. I read a criticism the other day that said, essentially, that this new feel for Doctor Who felt too much like any other scifi. I’m here to say that’s not a bad thing.

What I loved about this was the fact that it did feel like any other scifi, but instead of some random hero coming to save the day, the Doctor drops out of the sky. And that’s amazing. Give me any scifi movie or tv show and tell me that instead of whoever the real hero is, the Doctor will save the day instead? Sign. Me. Up.

On top of that, Jodie Whittaker is already great. It’s going to take a bit for her to really settle in to being the Doctor, that’s been true of every Doctor. (And it’s less her as an actor and more the writers getting a feel of how to best write for this iteration.) But already she has an innate sense of compassion that is unbelievably perfect for the Doctor. It’s been there in every regeneration, sometimes buried under anger or despair, but the Doctor always fundamentally cares so freaking much. Whittaker, standing over the first dead body of her regeneration, can do nothing but apologize. Apologize that these new friends of hers were dragged into this. Apologize that they had to see this dead body. Apologize that she hadn’t figured things out yet. 

She wants the best for those around her. It’s that simple. 

One thing I look forward to seeing moving forward is the return of the Doctor out-clever-ing the enemy. A lot of times it felt like Moffat felt the need to explain things so much that he got tripped up in trying to logic how the Doctor wins. While on the other side, RTD was always ok saying “well, the Doctor is clever, he did a clever thing and won, duh.” The moment that comes to mind—because I just watched it the other day—is Tennant in “Family of Blood” when he pretends he’s flailing around and knocking into random things in the alien ship. Then, surprise! He actually did a clever thing that means the ship will now blow up. That’s just how the Doctor worked. He was more clever. 

While 11 and 12 felt smarter than everyone around, they really didn’t feel more clever. It seemed like Amy or River or Clara always had to come up with something that put the Doctor in the right direction. 10 had the continual wonderful moments where he was legitimately surprised when he came across someone in the universe that could say/do something he found clever.

(One caveat, I do think, especially with 12, Moffat intentionally stopped the Doctor from flaunting his cleverness. He was more interested in 12 helping people help themselves, or helping Clara help people.)

But anyway, 13 feels clever again. The “don’t blink, bad guy, cause the Doctor is already 3 steps ahead” kind of clever. What’s hard about that is keeping the suspense in the show. Giving us, as an audience, enough to know the Doctor can succeed while letting enough go wrong that it feels like she won’t. Chibnall balances that so well. 

Really, the only issue I have with Chibnall’s script is the end with the villain. It still feels wrong for the Doctor to murder—at least the way this went down. Yes, I say that as a full member of the “NewWho Doctors have always been murderers” club. And really, her turning the tables on this guy and implanting the DNA bombs and letting the guy kill himself after how grotesque and merciless he was, is fine for me. But then her saying that the guy who was seconds from being murdered had no right to kick the guy off the crane…felt insincere.

What gave you the right, Doctor? You, defender of humankind? Timelord victorious? Lives were in danger which gave you the right to out-clever the bad guy and sentence him to death (and yes, she sentenced him to death, knowing full well he’d try to detonate those bombs). But when a human does it, it’s wrong? 

It might just be a mindset thing for 13 that will become clearer as the show moves forward (similar to 12’s insistence that there are some choices that he couldn’t make and he served at the pleasure of humankind). But for now, it feels weird for a murderer to say to a victim “how dare you try to kill the guy I’m trying to kill.”

Anyway, looking forward: I’m excited to see where the TARDIS has ended up. I’m excited to see these 3 friends grow and travel with the Doctor. (Side note: are these the first reluctant travelers since Donna’s first episode?) The Doctor is clever again and it feels nice to trust the writer—I didn’t question for a second that 13 could just casually build a sonic screwdriver. Plus Whittaker is fun and funny and seems like someone who, once she has her TARDIS back, will just want to go experience the universe. See what’s out there. I love that.

I’d be remiss to not mention that the new cameras that they’re using to shoot this season look fantastic, the whole thing feels very cinematic. The absence of a title sequence helped with that. It definitely helped set a tone.

One of the low-key great things that I love about this run has nothing to do with this episode. It’s the secrecy. No idea what the TARDIS will look like. Very little idea what even happens beyond the next episode. Hell, we don’t even have episode titles or who wrote what past episode 2. Something about the mystery just makes me excited. 

Panel Discussion: Race and Culture in Contemporary Casting, Blood Knot and Beyond by Jerald Pierce

On Aug. 12, I had the honor of moderating a panel discussion at American Players Theatre. Their production (and the subsequent review of it from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and petition made mentioning it) sparked a national conversation. It also led to me writing my article "A Casting Controversy Tangled Up in ‘Blood Knot’" for American Theatre magazine.

As a result of the clear desire from the public to talk about the concerns surrounding the casting of "Blood Knot," APT organized a talkback panel following one of their performances. I was brought in as the moderator. Panelists included journalist and critic Kelundra Smith, scholar Khalid Yaya Long, and award-winning actor Stephen McKinley Henderson.

The full panel discussion was recorded by APT and can be viewed on Youtube.

JCS/Hamilton parallels, AKA Why it's Burr's story by Jerald Pierce

Let me clarify something: structurally, Hamilton is as much Aaron Burr’s story as it is Hamiton’s. There’s a Vulture article that lists 20 inspirations for Hamilton and Jesus Christ Superstar is number 4. That might even be too low. The beauty of Hamilton is how well crafted the parallels are between the title character and his friend/rival Burr.

The first thing that is important to realize is how Hamilton and Burr’s stories intentionally mirror each other. Both are orphans (creating an immediate bond between the two), both fight for their country, both are interested in moving up Washington’s ranks to become war heroes, and both eventually get into law and politics after the war. The aspirations for the two men never differ.

The differences come in how they pursue these goals. Burr follows the rules while Hamilton breaks them. Every step of the way sees Hamilton a hair in front of Burr or above Burr because of his willingness to take a chance. While the interest in Hamilton’s plot comes from how he’s willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, Burr’s equally interesting story thrives on the budding jealousy within Burr. This is where an article like Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker article starts to bother me. The plot, or any analysis around the plot, of Hamilton cannot be discussed without Burr. He’s essential. Burr and Hamilton are foils to each other and their successes and failures mean more because of each other.

If Hamilton’s life is the equivalent of the American (or Immigrant) Dream, Burr’s life is the American Nightmare and a much more condemning look at society. Burr is well educated, hard working, and ambitious, but seeing the brash Hamilton consistently surpass him drives him insane. The song “The Room Where It Happened,” while being the most manic of Burr’s songs, indicates a major shift in his goals. He’s tired of following the rules when Hamilton doesn’t. He hates seeing Hamilton getting to be the one who makes major decisions. This eventually drives him to kill Hamilton.

With this, Lin-Manuel Miranda manages to simultaneously throw shade on those who feel entitled simply because of their background and upbringing while shining an overlooked light on the other end of the minorities-in-the-workforce spectrum. Hamilton represents the immigrant (in terms of the musical, a POC) who works hard and shows how great minorities and immigrants are for the country. Burr, on the other hand, represents the minorities still being slighted by the system. Burr is the black kid who does everything right, works hard in school, never gets in trouble, who is still passed over for a job because of the color of his skin or the sound of his name. Aaron Burr represents the frustrations felt by minorities when they feel like they just can’t win. He takes that frustration out in the form of a bullet.

Which, finally, brings me to the JCS parallels. Judas didn’t have to hate Jesus to lead him to his death, just like Burr didn’t have to hate Hamilton to pull that trigger. In both cases the men were friends and trusted allies at least at some point in their histories. In both musicals, the ‘killer’ (Judas and Burr) is the first voice heard by the audience (an intentional parallel by Miranda) and their thoughts/insights are used as framing devices throughout the shows. They double as characters and narrators. In both cases the popularity of their counterpart is both concerning and a bit bewildering. Both Judas and Burr see themselves as doing the right thing. Judas is just frustrated in Jesus’s hoopla and Burr is frustrated in his own lack of success compared to his counterpart. Both men, in impulsive, emotional moments, make a choice that directly leads to the death of their friend. Judas can’t live with himself afterwards while Burr spends the rest of his life trying to live with his choice.

But the most interesting parallel between the two musicals is found in answering Hamilton’s final question: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” I’ll entertain arguments that the answer (and potential protagonist) is Hamilton’s wife Eliza. Considering how much of the show she’s not in during major events, it’s hard to actually agree, but there are valid arguments that after she decides to “put myself back in the narrative” she does actively make it her life’s mission to talk about and spread the legacy of her husband. I get that. But structurally, the answer is Burr.

Maybe it’s just because I listened to the album on repeat too much when the music came out, but hearing the soft, unison, full-cast line of “who lives, who dies, who tells your story” right before the sharp, punctuated hits of the top of the show and Burr’s boisterous voice starting to tell the tale of a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore” it’s easy to see that Burr is the one who is telling the story.

Miranda’s question to end the show becomes a reflection on Judas. Judas, one of Jesus’s closest friends, kills himself rather than live with what he did. Judas dies. Burr, on the other hand lives. In looking at Burr as the one who lives and who goes on to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton, it becomes clear that the entire musical is actually Burr’s reflection on his relationship with Hamilton. It’s Burr’s guiding hand that leads the audience through the historical events and (now here’s a real tell) shows Hamilton’s faults. Burr’s story shows how Hamilton’s impulsiveness both gave him great success, but also led to angering a lot of people, indirectly causing his son’s death, and having an affair. Sure, it’s possible that Eliza would have kept Hamilton’s flaws in her telling of the story, but Burr paints a picture that is much more critical of Hamilton, while showing himself as someone who just couldn’t catch a break—just as Judas paints a picture of Jesus that showed the fanaticism of Jesus’s followers as Judas saw them while Judas paints himself as someone who just didn’t know how to love Jesus.

All of that is to say that you can’t talk about Hamilton without Burr the same way that you can’t talk about Jesus Christ Superstar without Judas. They are both crucial to their respective plots and their perspectives give each story extra depth that’s missing from a simple view of Hamilton and Jesus as the protagonists of their respective musicals.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" reaction by Jerald Pierce

Originally submitted as part of an assignment for Matt Zoller Seitz's Literature of Criticism class at Newhouse.

For better and worse, the live version of Jesus Christ Superstar has changed live musical broadcasts forever. It’s easy to take that statement and turn it into “because it was just sooo marvelous that nothing will ever top it.” It’s really a double edged swoard, especially when considering what’s next. When television execs from all of the major networks sit down to think about what show to do next, I’m interested in what they will choose.

First, I do want to say that JCS was very good and the theatre nerd in me felt so much joy seeing stagecraft executed so well on television (seriously, bless everyone involved in Jesus dying on the cross and rising into heaven—what a weird thing to type). The set was beautifully crafted with its classic JCS/any rock musical scaffolding—though not giving Jesus tables to flip seems like a waste. Then again, I can’t really see John Legend flipping a table. Maybe giving it a light shove, but not flipping it. The point is, the entire musical was incredibly put together, the acting was mostly top notch, the singing was basically flawless, it was visually spectacular, and, thanks to a live audience, it felt electric. It’s obvious why people loved it and are saying that it has raised the bar for future televised musicals.

But here’s the problem: most musicals aren’t like JCS. JCS is a rock musical that naturally lends itself to screaming fans, dramatic staging, and a celebrity like Legend coming in and simply existing as the famous person he is. JCS lends itself to the vibrant concert feel that the creators of this live staging achieved, most musicals do not. Sure, JCS deserves credit for showing the televised musical audience that some shows can be cool and not just the overproduced, cutesy nonsense that was Grease, Hairspray, and Peter Pan when they were televised live. Most musicals (at least the good ones that deserve to be broadcast) are somewhere in the middle.

First, a quick look at the six musicals that make up what can be seen as a new love of televising musicals. Of Grease, Peter Pan, The Wiz, Hairspray, The Sound of Music, and JCS, only Hairspray (2002) had its Broadway premiere after 1975. But even Hairspray is a throwback to the 60s. Televised musicals of modern musicals just aren’t being done. I bring that up because if JCS has set a new bar for televised musicals, only a modern musical will be able to come close to recreating its fervor. I’m talking about having to stage Wicked or Book of Mormon. Julie Taymor directing a staged version of her design for The Lion King could be a smash.

But even these wildly popular musicals don’t bring the electricity that JCS’s rock vibe has. I’ve seen Rent batted around as a possibility for a follow up. The issue is that people forget how much down time there is in Rent. Sure, it’s the quintessential rock musical, but it’s extremely subdued and not something that you’re going to get that same kind of audience interaction with. Even Rent will send audiences back to the politely clapping, barely present audiences of Sound of Music.

At some points off and on over the years Netflix has hosted the musical version of Shrek, Raul Esparza starring in John Doyle’s innovative production of Company, and John Mulaney and Nick Kroll’s Oh Hello filmed on Broadway. These were all filmed versions of the musical (or play) on a stage as would be performed on Broadway or the like. This is where the future of these live musicals should be. A combination of JCS’s ability to create a spectacle on stage with its design and star power with Company’s ability to simply put theater into people’s homes. (This probably means eliminating the excessive commercial breaks.)

So here’s my thing, we shouldn’t look at JCS as a new benchmark for future live musicals. It’s going to be borderline impossible for someone else to hit (again, I think Taymor has a chance if someone gives her a go). JCS is the perfect storm of wall to wall music, in your face rock vibes, and audience excitement matched with star power and talent. It perfectly lends itself to dominate a medium like this in a way nothing besides perhaps Hamilton can. I think the best lesson studios should take from JCS is that audiences don’t need full, built out studio sets. Just film the musicals. Stage them well, set up your camera crews, and let the performers do their job.

“Annihilation” reaction by Jerald Pierce

Originally submitted as part of an assignment for Matt Zoller Seitz's Literature of Criticism class at Newhouse.

I’m going to spend this assignment again writing about two reviews of the same work. There’s an interesting divide between Brian Tallerico’s review for RogerEbert.com and Christopher Orr’s review for The Atlantic of “Annihilation.” Tallerico heaped praise on the film, giving it three and a half stars while saying that “in this recent wave of sci-fi films, it’s one of the best.” Orr, on the other hand, seemed annoyed at every turn of the movie aside from stints of suspense and visual intrigue in the middle of the film.

I find myself somewhere in between and reminded of two instances of criticism I’ve witnessed. The first I addressed in my last assignment, the idea that two reviewers can notice the same flaw but one may find it easy to get past while the other may have his experience significantly ruined by the fault. The same happens here. Tallerico notices the ambiguity and even says the structure frustrated him a bit and notes the movie may provide different meanings for different people. For Orr, that lack of a clear meaning also meant there was a lack of clear content.

The other moment I was reminded of while reading these two articles was a review of a play I was stage managing a few years ago. A reviewer came to opening night and heaped insane amounts of praise on the show, complimenting how complex the show was and saying people would need to see it twice just to understand all of the sophisticated inner workings. He came back. I saw his face after the second viewing and could feel how much he regretted what he said. The show (I know from watching it daily for months) wasn’t complex. It was just confusing.

I get the same feeling here. Tallerico representing the opening night mindset of the reviewer with Orr standing in for the regretful second view. This is why I find myself on the fence about the movie. The elements of suspense, basically everything that happens from the moment they step inside the Shimmer to the moment Natalie Portman’s character is on her own, is beautifully crafted to feel like they’ve traveled to another planet. The constant feeling of impending doom begs me to think that aliens are after them, even though they aren’t. In reality, there’s nothing more dangerous around them than if they had been there pre-Shimmer. Gators and bears still exist, they’re just slightly more terrifying now.

Which, for me--and I guess for Orr, too--makes the ending all that more disappointing. I find myself siding with Orr when looking at everything that happens once Portman gets to the lighthouse. As much as I actually love the mirror aspect (because I a huge fan of sci-fi movies showing aliens learning--which probably stems from the brilliant Doctor Who episode “Midnight”), Portman tricking and killing the alien feels hollow. I have to attribute that to what Orr said: the complete lack of any indication of motive. So far, nothing inside the Shimmer has looked to be done maliciously. Even the mutated intestines that result in the soldier’s body being pulled apart feels like more of an alien “oh, sorry, we didn’t realize your human bodies suck and can’t handle this stuff” than them trying to kill.

So maybe I’m just an alien apologist, but when Portman kills the alien and burns everything to the ground, it feels like a massive waste. This whole movie has built up to this lighthouse that for some unexplained reason has dismembered skeletons as tributes(?) outside. All the buildup for very little payoff and without any indication that the audience should regard Portman’s character as the wrongdoer.

(A quick aside about the skeletons. Are they supposed to represent the other people who were sent on expeditions? Or people who were originally around? Either way, where are their duplicates? If they were duplicated, why didn’t the duplicates make it out? Or did they? Speaking of, why did Kane’s duplicate have so much trouble living outside of the Shimmer? If I was presented this script in my playwriting workshop, I’d have to be thrown out because I’d just keep asking questions.)

Anyway, as creepy and beautiful as the movie was up to arriving at the lighthouse, the climax shed very little light on the rest of the movie. I love puzzle sci-fi movies that work to confuse as much as possible. I enjoy trying to piece together what was going on. But here there seem to be missing pieces, as Orr points out. But still part of me leans toward Tallerico’s conclusion that it was still a massively enjoyable movie and one that other sci-fi movies should aspire to be like. There’s darkness matched with beauty and one of my favorite Natalie Portman performances to date. I think both things can be true: 1. The movie’s ending is confusing and leaves the film without a solid point. 2. The movie is great sci-fi that should be admired for what it does.

"Call Me By Your Name" reaction by Jerald Pierce

Originally submitted as part of an assignment for Matt Zoller Seitz's Literature of Criticism class at Newhouse.

By Jerald Raymond Pierce

It’s an unpopular opinion not to put Call Me By Your Name somewhere in my top 5, 3, 2 or 1 movies of the year it seems. Really, it’s not that I didn’t like the movie, it’s that I couldn’t quite like it as much as everyone else seems to. In Ann Hornaday’s review of the movie, she touches on two of areas I think point to the reasons I have trouble falling as head over heels as everyone else has.

Hornaday points out “the plot of ‘Call Me by Your Name’ isn’t particularly novel.” She goes on to say it’s fine because the greatness of the movie isn’t about the plot being new or unique, it’s about how well the story is told. I get that, I really do. But when looking at this movie in the context of the Best Picture nominees, it’s hard to put it over other movies offering me something new. A new take on a monster movie or a new look at horror movies and racial issues. A different composition of a war-time story or a revitalized coming of age story. Even Three Billboards challenges me to care about some very complex, sometimes downright awful people.

So I want Call Me By Your Name to be more. Perhaps, as Hornaday and others point out, this movie’s skill is in the way it captures the lazy summer days in Italy. The beauty is in the fact that it feels familiar. Despite the fact that I (and many others) didn’t have a truly comparable experience to Elio’s, we feel his aches every step of the way. Still, the plot moved too predictably for me. Of course they struggle to show their feelings. Of course they eventually get together. Of course it eventually falls apart. Of course there’s an uplifting moment from Elio’s incredibly understanding father. From the minute the movie said it was 1989 and showed me two attractive men in that environment, the plot was obvious.

Which still isn’t the most distracting element of the movie for me. Hornaday alluded to the issue after stating that Elio and Oliver are seven years apart in age: “Before readers look up the Italian word for ‘problematic,’...” That may have been easy for some (many) to look past, especially when getting swept up in the beautiful filmmaking, but it became a major distraction for me. Especially in today’s climate, I couldn’t help but wonder if this movie would be received the same way if, say, it was any other combination of genders. An older man and a 17-year-old girl stands out as something that would be particularly thrashed by today’s masses. But here we are, praising the love between a 24-year-old man and a 17-year-old boy simply because, as Hornaday put it, “it is Elio, not Oliver, who is the pursuer.”

What?

I wondered for the duration why we’re so ok with Elio and Oliver’s relationship. And I have to wonder if there isn’t a bit of fetishization (or perhaps just romanticizing) of homosexual relationships that has led to us feeling that this isn’t as disturbing as we otherwise should.

This is one thing I wish had been addressed somewhere in the movie to eliminate it as a distraction. So much of Elio’s experience, his desires and his confusion, were beautifully done, especially the scene between him and his father toward the end of the movie. Not to mention the absolute perfection of the power shifts that happened right after Elio and Oliver had sex for the first time and, to get power over Elio back, Oliver goes down on him for a brief second before closing the door in his face. The ebb and flow of Elio and Oliver’s relationship was so well done that it shouldn’t have mattered the age, the fact that they were two men who had feelings for each other should have been enough.

I can’t help but ask: what if it was a different combination? Would this movie still work?

But again, much like with the idea of a familiar plot, maybe it doesn’t matter because that’s not what the movie wanted to do.

“Next to Normal” @ Syracuse Stage reaction by Jerald Pierce

Originally submitted as part of an assignment for Matt Zoller Seitz's Literature of Criticism class at Newhouse.

by Jerald Raymond Pierce

I saw closing night of “Next to Normal” at Syracuse Stage. I provide that as a caveat in defense of the reviews who, in the case of any live performance, potentially saw something completely different from what I saw. I read both the Syracuse.com review (by Linda Lowen) and the Syracuse New Times review (by James MacKillop). The most glaring issue for both was how they addressed the plot. (I was going to only focus on one, but the New Times review had some glaring misunderstandings about simple plot points and the Syracuse.com one was pretty barebones.)

Both reviews worked incredibly hard to not talk about the fact that the son, Gabe, is dead and a figment of the mother’s, Diana’s, imagination. Hundreds of words were spent dancing around what is really the equivalent of the twist at the end of the first third of a movie—potentially crucial, but not the major twist that the creators giggle about when they write. Gabe’s (non-)existence is merely to set up a more interesting, more devastating unexpected ending. How Diana deals with seeing him is the crux of the entire show, so not addressing it like it’s some big secret (especially almost a decade after it premiered on Broadway), is a waste of time.

Which leads to another aspect of both reviews: a lot of time is spent relaying playbill information. It’s really something I never thought about until recently after some of the readings, but theatre is a visual medium. So, why aren’t they talking about what’s on stage? Yes, it’s interesting that there’s some surprisingly credible star power in the acting pool of this show and yes, it’s interesting that Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey have notable musical theatre careers. But that doesn’t mean the mentions of actors in a review should be boiled down to their credits plus one sentence saying they “dazzle, spark and stun” (Lowen).

Again, not something I really thought of until recent classes, but that descriptor really means nothing. What did they DO that dazzled, sparked, or stunned? I saw the show, and in the case of Glen Seven Allen (the husband, Dan), it was nothing. Judy McLane (Diana, who’s credits are worth noting, because she was in “Mama Mia” for something like a decade) was great, on the other hand, because her performance was so desperate and clawing in a whirlwind of people who just wanted to help, but just couldn’t figure out how.

I don’t understand (well, I do, I’m sure I’ve done it numerous times) how a reviewer can write “At various times on opening night, I witnessed hands brush away tears, heard suppressed sobs and sniffles, felt tension stiffen some theatergoers around me” without once giving imagery of what could potentially drive that reaction.

No mention of a mother dumping pills down the drain at the request of a non-existent son. No mention of a husband and wife getting into a musical screaming match as she asks why he stays if dealing with her is such a pain. No mention of a daughter (Sara Masterson as Natalie, who has the most heartbreaking performance in the show—and whose name is misspelled in Syracuse.com's coverage as of writing this) tearing her own life apart because of the fear that she’ll become just as “crazy” as her mother. No mention of Dan pleading for Diana to talk to him while she stares into the eyes of her dead son. There’s no shortage of devastating imagery to get across what this show does and is capable of emotionally. It’s just not used.

Finally, perhaps unsurprisingly, barely any time was given in either review to the designers beyond basic credits. Which, in my opinion, is both infuriating and the most glaring indication of what these reviewers focused on. At the top of the set, lit as the audience came in and periodically throughout, was a pristine baby’s room. It loomed over everything, unexplained for a long while. It places a lot of questions and amplifies the text in an eerie way since it’s the only “room” we never see entered and no babies are in the show.

On a more “my own review of the show” note, I think director Bob Hupp missed the mark tonally at the beginning. It’s encapsulated in MacKillop’s incorrect thought that Dan drives Diana to “meet psychiatrist Dr. Madden” because he’s “recognizing the seriousness” of Diana making sandwiches on the floor. Both MacKillop and Hupp are missing the fact that this family has been dealing with this for years (16 years, to be precise). This is a family struggling to live a normal life in abnormal circumstances. I think MacKillop misunderstands this because Hupp directs the early moments to be more jovial than the script is capable of. This mostly comes up when Dan is hamming it, almost cartoonishly, for laughs.

A teacher of mine always said to never play the ending—start as far away as possible. I think that’s what Hupp tried to do. He tried to play the opposite of the devastation and wreckage to come. But he missed an obvious opposite of that. It doesn’t have to be light and flippant. I can’t even call what I saw denial, it was closer to a blatant lack of acknowledgement. The opposite of failure—and that’s, in the end what this is, a family failing to be normal—can, and in this case probably should be, hope. Hope the next treatment will be the last, hope things are going to be better.

Book Review: In 'Artemis,' Andy Weir creates new problems by Jerald Pierce

Andy Weir follows his best-selling debut novel The Martian with Artemis, a crime-filled moon adventure. In Artemis, one woman tries to escape her lower class economic position through petty smuggling until she’s offered the chance to change everything by committing one big crime. In this new novel, Weir doubles down on his strengths, which opens the door to new flaws.

Weir has a knack for clever and intriguing first person narrative. His protagonist is once again snarky and foul-mouthed. However, unlike Mark Watney in The Martian, Jazz’s motives for telling this story are unclear. A first-person perspective doesn’t always necessitate a reason for being told, but Weir’s narrator confusingly passes judgement on the readers. “Get your mind out of the gutter” or “What? I like puppies,” the narrator, Jazz, says to no one in particular. Weir gave himself an easy out in The Martian by having Watney recording mission logs. Watney speaking to someone makes sense. Here, that sort of direct address is so sporadic and unfocussed it becomes distracting.

More problematic, though, are the constant comments by other characters about Jazz’s sex life. The city of Artemis is a small town on the moon. Weir clearly establishes of the idea that around any corner is someone familiar. This novel isn’t about interpersonal relationships and the neighborhood mentality on the moon, though. It’s about crime. It’s about Jazz, the 26-year-old woman born in Saudi Arabia who has lived on the moon since she was a child. Jazz is a low level smuggler who gets baited into committing a much larger crime, a crime that unwittingly put the lives of everyone in Artemis at risk. Still, somehow the first conversation she has with almost every person in the book seems to land on the topic of her sex life. It’s odd and feels awkward every time it comes up. If he’s attempting to make a commentary, his point doesn’t land.

This novel, much like his debut, thrives on the danger of living in space. What bogged him down in The Martian was all of the intricate scientific explanation he used to ground the novel in a tangible reality. Here, he backs off the explanation and focuses on the experience. There are still a few occurrences of obsessively specific scientific details where eyes may glaze over, but for the most part he’s content to let Jazz say it doesn’t matter how it works, it just does. He is also helped by his choice to remove the burden of exposition from his characters’ conversations. Instead, most chapters end with expository pen pal letters between Jazz and a friend on Earth.

Despite those occasional snags, Weir’s novel is genuinely fun and unpredictable. He continually puts morality on a sliding scale forcing his audience to decide if doing the wrong thing can ever be right. Weir also delves into economics, theorizing what those in power are willing to do to control the status quo. There are a few instances where Weir’s dedication to the deep themes and the intricate plot lead to Jazz coming across as a stereotypical 20-something plucked from a television show. The story is still gripping thanks to the environment and circumstances Weir provides.

Andy Weir’s new novel isn’t easy to walk away from, nor does it leave the mind quickly. It lingers, positing not only “what will happen next” but also “should it happen at all?” He takes the trials and tribulations of life on Earth and ratchets them up by putting them in the terrifying vacuum of space. Weir once again creates a world almost too specific to be fiction.