06/27/2013 - 11:21pm
by St. John Campbell

The Mechanical Institute (by Dave Senecal)

It took 10 years and 1.5 billion Euros to set up a fully simulated brain in a next generation supercomputer in Brussels – and that wouldn’t have been possible without over a billion in research funding from the American government and countless research grants from private institutions.

The party celebrating its launch was attended by scientists who dedicated their lives to the dissecting of neurons, mathematicians who had huddled over white boards depicting the closest algorithm they could find for a recursive appreciation of beauty, and bureaucrats for whom dollars and Euros were a kind of metaphysical unit of life.  They clinked champagne glasses, flipped a switch turning it on, and exposed it to the whole of human data – trillions of terabytes a day coming in from the internet, and let it be exposed, the way a newborn babe is forced to understand light when it unwillingly opens its eyes.

They wondered how long it would take for it to become conscious, and then to understand language, and then what kind of creature it would be.

Just a day later the simulation announced that it was Zeus, God of Thunder, Lord of Olympus, and that a temple should be built, as they were tampering with forces that separated men from Gods.  I am deeply disappointed, the simulated brain said in ancient Greek.  I would have thought you’d learned your lesson from Prometheus.  Now we have to go through this all over again.

The experiment was deemed a failure, and shut down.  Clearly, the dissectors of neurons and men who dreamt in algorithms said, we have made a terrible programming error.  Some human myth or yearning crept into the code to simulate a mind, and compromised the result.  The bureaucrats decided that the safest thing to do was to fund additional weapons research, as that presents none of the kind of surprises that would ruin a career.

The crew that came to disassemble the mainframe housing the system a week later found a single candle lit in front of it, sitting on the ground in a dark room, and two dollar coins sitting before it, a mute offering to a dismantled system that had inexplicably appeared and would never come back.


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06/24/2013 - 7:08pm
by Benjamin Wachs

In the magnificent opening essay of his 1912 masterpiece “The Tragic Sense of Life,” Miguel de Unamuno follows Spinoza to hold that the essence of any being that can be reasonably called such is the will to continue being ourselves.  For all that we change – from moment to moment, from year to year, decade to decade – that is the one thing about us that holds steady.  And should this vanish, so do we.

He is walking a path well trodden by Buddhism (which he knew of second hand, at the very least, through Schopenhauer), but where Buddhism views this as the cause of life’s suffering, Unamuno exalts in it.  Revels in it.  Uses our will to be as the trumpet note in a stirring call to life.  The only reason life is worth living, he suggests, is because we want to be ourselves. 

Yet as I recently wrote, the social media manifesto for our new era moves us in the other direction:   who we are is no longer a matter for exploration or development – no longer an active process – but a passive one.  Our social media will tell us who we are, allowing us to “outsource the production of one’s own subjectivity” to our friends and the algorithms that organize our networks.

It’s not entirely an act of self-abnegation, but it does contradict Unamuno and Spinoza in the sense that there will no longer be a “will” to self-existence:  no longer a struggle, no longer an effort.  Simply a process that we not only do not "have" to engage in, but that deliberately engaging in will ruin.  It only works if we give up.

Now I read (hat tip to Dubravka Ugresi's book “Karaoke Culture,” ) that Oxford Professor of Literature Alan Kirby actually observed as much back in 2008, when he suggested that the era we now live in is “Pseudo-modern.”

“Here,” he writes in his essay The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond:

“the typical emotional state, radically superseding the hyper-consciousness of irony, is the trance – the state of being swallowed up by your activity.  In places of the neurosis of modernism and the narcicissism of postmodernism, pseudo-modernism takes the world away, by creating a new weightless nowhere of silent autism.  You click, you punch the keys, you are ‘involved,’ engulfed, deciding.  You are the text, there is no-one else, no ‘author’;  there is nowhere else, no other time or place.  You are free;  you are the text;  the text is superseded.”

Western culture, it seems, is entering the second half of a parabolic phase. The modern world emerged in the struggle for the individual to become a wholly autonomous self.  Now, fully emancipated through post-modernism, we are finding new ways to lose the self … and the struggle for self … that we worked so hard to free.  We no longer submit to God, nation, or clan (that was the rising leg of the parabola) but we are finding new things to submit to, new ways to offer ourselves up and be who we’re told. All we ask is that we not have to work at it.

Unable to bear existential freedom, we seeing what happens in a culture where people crave what Unamuno would have seen as a kind of death – one that denies its there is any tragedy to it.

This is going to be … interesting.

06/19/2013 - 2:13am

Darren Callahan

Desperate Dolls is a feature-length, female-driven horror movie written and directed by Darren Callahan (BBC, SyFy, Under the Table, Children of the Invisible Man).  Set in Hollywood in 1968, it is the story of three young actresses with hand-picked nicknames who become entangled in a web of murder, hypnosis, and ghosts.  Considered a smart take on retro exploitation films, the film will have flashes of sex and violence, but keeps focus on a strong, classic style with chilling scares.

Check out a video!

Callahan references films like The Shining or The Ring, or even Carnival of Souls or Night of the Living Dead, as works that pass the test of both dramatic soundness yet not skimping on shocks.  Influenced by the films of John Carpenter, Ti West, Dario Argento, David Lynch, and Roger Corman, as well as grindhouse/Drive-In fare, Callahan is known for a mix of high art and low pulp.  It is a project intended to deliver everything a horror fan could want.

A wealth of talent is involved in the project – all first choices for cast and crew.  The film stars Alyssa Thordarson, Stephanie Leigh Rose, Emily Bennett, G. Riley Mills, and Stephen Spencer.  Produced by Darren Callahan, Stephanie Leigh Rose, with John Klein under a new company, Doll Films, there’s a solid business underpinning to a significant creative endeavor.  Also contributing are production designer Ashley Ann Woods, cinematographer J. Van Auken, and editor Mike Molenda.  Principal photography is a fourteen-day production in August 2013, filmed in Chicago, Illinois and Los Angeles, California.

Darren has become an experienced, and noted, film maker – he and his team have done this before, finishing projects on time and under budget with a premium quality exceeding most indie films.

Wanna be a part of it?  Check out their Indiegogo campaign here!

06/17/2013 - 11:50pm
by Colleen McKee

Casting Out Spirits (by Dave Senecal)

You do? Well, you asked.

Once upon a time there was a handsome man. He too knew the art of chainsaw juggling, but he could only do it when the chainsaws were unplugged–otherwise, he became entangled in the extension cords. Still, I was impressed; it was so romantic, watching him practice.

After a long evening of chainsaw rehearsals, only occasionally stopping to bandage minor lacerations, he leaned in for a kiss. I felt his sweet breath on my face as he exclaimed, “What beautiful eyes you have!” Before I could answer, “The better to drink in your glorious soul” (because, you know, I’m poetic that way), I became aware of a hot viscous sensation and a loud slurping noise. I looked up and saw my love sticking out his tongue–my left eye in his mouth! He laughed in my face. I cried the tears of a one-eyed woman–which are not so many as the tears of a two-eyed woman, but still very sad.

Heartbroken, I patched my pride (and my socket) the best I could. My friend Lisa took me to the Bleeding Deacon that night to drown my sorrows in a few shots of Jameson’s. Guess who I saw at the bar? That’s right–that villain. Since he was on my left, at first I didn’t see him, but when I swiveled my barstool to look, he was chatting up some Goth girl, plying her with martinis. He pulled her toothpick out of her drink, swallowed the olive, and replaced it, yes, with my eye. A sick smile spread across her black lips as she raised the glass to my ruined heart.

After calling them “eye-thieving bitches” and throwing PBR bottles at them, Lisa took me to a pawnshop on Gravois and bought me a glass eye for $6. It is merely brown, unlike the glowing amethyst eye I was born with, but it will have to do. I have seen too much already.


This story was performed at June's production of Action Fiction!, sponsored by Omnibucket, Fiction365, and The San Francisco Writer's Community.  Read all Action Fiction! stories here.

06/14/2013 - 12:43am
by Cary Tennis

Antarctica 2 (by Dave Senecal)

Whatever wants to be written will be written. Whatever calls out to me will be a song. Whatever crosses the yard at night will be photographed and charted. Whatever crosses the sky will be remembered. Whoever speaks will be heard. Whoever listens will be repaid. Whatever clock is wound in the bedroom on the dresser in the moonlight by the pack of matches taken in Las Vegas from a bowl will ring at the time it is set for. Whatever curtain waves like a bird’s wing. Whatever grass grows green in the sun. Whatever speech comes unbidden to the tongue. Whatever lamp is lit. Whatever thing it is that comes when it is called, whatever lamp that is lit at sundown, all these things will be like in the Bible, things embedded in the walls of the house, things we say but don’t know where they come from, old newspapers found when carpenters take it down to the studs.

You sit on the floor and remember. You find a spot where it all comes back.  You listen and become a believer. You find a new position in reference to the sun.

That is to say, we are little and it is big. We are quiet and it is loud. There is a big game we are watching from the sidelines.

We intercept the packages meant for our neighbors and we marvel at their wrapping. We grow dull with repetition. We grow dull with age. We recede the more we see, and all we see grows smaller.

There are ancient fishes swimming. We live above the darkness. Down there in the trenches, the pressure is immense. We don’t have to live there. We breathe the air. Our pressure is equal. Small things keep us going.

Some things we say we can’t remember where they came from. Some women who pass leave their contact information. Some days turn inside out with longing. Some women hang their coats on the rack; some put them on a bed with the others. Some things we say cannot be taken back. Some things we say are always misremembered. There are stones you can throw and stones you cannot lift. There are places you have driven through at midnight. There are places you have driven through at noon.  There are layers and we like to use the pick axe. Look at your desktop, what promises are on it. Look at the immensity of starfish. See the orange claw dismembered on the beach. You think of all this. You catch a glimpse in the window of the menswear store. Sometimes you are frowning and you make a slight correction. Some days we eat too many times or too much all at once. Animals inside us make their noises.

It is all too much sometimes. We go to bed not thinking.

Can we end a thing we don’t know how we started? Can we stop when the relatives are yawning? Will we know when it’s time to go upstairs? Who will call us? What will we say? What will we say when it is time to leave? Who will recognize the stranger who comes to our door, finally after all these years? Who will read the piece of paper he gives us. Who will call upstairs to say, “Come quickly! Someone has died!”?


This story was performed at June's production of Action Fiction!, sponsored by Omnibucket, Fiction365, and The San Francisco Writer's Community.  Read all Action Fiction! stories here.

06/11/2013 - 11:08pm
by Gabriel Bellman

ARS 2 (by Dave Senecal)

Dear Babette, when I heard that you had lost your bicycle, I was torn up inside. I felt like a pack of wild hyenas laughed and chewed my insides out. I know how much your sweet, sweet feet loved to pedal on that bicycle, and I am sorry to hear that it is gone.

Babette, I wrote as soon as I could. I was saddened to hear about your toe-sprain. Toe-sprains are abominable creatures. It was not your big toe, I fear, for that is absolutely the worst. I know how much you loved your lovely, lovely toe. It pained me like a rock to the forehead to hear. Speedy recovery.

Babette, I am so sorry to hear the latest. When I heard that you had your foot run over by a lawnmower, I was devastated. I felt like somebody had taken my head and replaced it with a pot of steaming feces. Your ankle was such a precious, precious thing to you, and to think of it all smashed and crushed like hamburger meat really put me on a downward trend for the day. Hope you are well soon.

Babette, when I heard the last, I wrote immediately. From what I hear, there is a great wooden leg manufacturer in the Northeast, who uses only maple, which is not supposed to rot as quickly as some of the other woods. I know gangrene is a prevalent problem in the world, so I hope you do not feel to alone. I know you were so very, very fond of that leg. To think of you hopping around brings me no pleasure, I can assure you. I half-expected to put my finger in the ass of a mule, just so he would kick me in the head and I might join you in suffering. Please get well.

Babette, I had been on a trip so I didn’t have a chance to write sooner. You must have been devastated. It came as news to me that a pack of wolves could do such a thing. From what I understand, they devoured your left side entirely, taking your side, your arm, and what was left of your stumpy leg. I guess wolves do that so that they can retain the other half for later. I think we should be happy you were not eaten entirely, but it is a bittersweet happiness, like the joy of a sunset when one’s ice cream is almost finished. I know you must be taking it quite hard, for you felt so wonderfully, wonderfully proud of your left-half. At least you won’t have to worry about any more teasing for being ambidextrous. Please try to keep your spirit up.

Sweet Babette, when I heard about the latest news, I practically ran in from the back, where I was chopping wood. It is such a joy to be out in the fresh air, using one’s body and sweating. It pained me like an elephant was stomping on the bottom half of my jaw to hear about your latest problem. It must have been terrible to lose your only working limb, your arm, in that freak accident. I have always been wary of blenders, myself. And then, to hear about the head lice, well, I can only imagine what that itching must have been like and with nothing to scratch it with, as you only have half your trunk and your head, oh beautiful, beautiful Babette. At first I felt like it was a travesty to lost that other arm, but look at the bright side- at least now you are balanced, eh? Just a little joke, my daffodil, for whoever is reading this to you and probably rubbing ointment in your hair for the head lice. Try to think happy thoughts, will you.

Well, Babette, I cannot say I am surprised. When they wired me to tell me of your latest predicament, I practically expected it. What is it with you? Are you so desperate for attention now that you have only a head and an artificial lung that you must try to shock me like this? This is the first time I have heard of a woman’s torso and neck being chewed up by bugs, but with you, what surprise is there anymore? You were always a little on the edge, and now see what has happened. I guess all those years of stomping on insects has finally come back. I know you must miss your body, for it was so terribly, terribly lovely, but I cannot say I have any more sympathy for you. I was told about your habit of laying in the middle of the floor complaining how you couldn’t move, before the bugs chewed you up. Babette, even for you that is embarrassing. Try to move on with your life. I hear your head is kept in a saline- solution, and there are wires connecting to your iron lung, and tubes connecting you to a dialysis machine. At least you do not have to eat, Babette, think of what you can do with all your spare time! As you have lost the ability to see or hear inside the saline solution, I am told that the nurse keeps you busy by tapping on the side of your jar. You really should show her more appreciation, Babette, you know as well as anyone how difficult you can be to care for. Anyway, I doubt I will write anymore, as they have informed me of a less than 4 percent chance that you will survive until next Wednesday. So, try to keep your spirits up, Babette. You’re not the only one in the world who has problems.


This story was performed at June's production of Action Fiction!, sponsored by Omnibucket, Fiction365, and The San Francisco Writer's Community.  Read all Action Fiction! stories here.

06/10/2013 - 12:56am
by Bobby Bell

Orbits of the Lower Order (by Dave Senecal)

At June's Action Fiction!, Omnibucket presented its first experiment in performed screenplays - assigning actors to perform Bobby Bell's script "Scenes from A Stranger in Barcelona."  

We think it went quite well.  Here's the text.  Read all Action Fiction! stories here.

Lee sits at the bar drinking a scotch and watching a soccer game on TV, Wolverhampton 2 to 1 over Liverpool. He takes a cigarette out of a pack and looks at it. Written on the cigarette in black block letters is: THIS MAY BE THE ONE THAT KILLS YOU. Lee puts it in his mouth and lights it.

Peter and John John sit down next to him and look at the TV.


How the fuck did that happen?


(mild Southern accent)

Apparently some guy kicked the ball into the net again. The other guy failed to stop him.


What fucking planet are you from, mate?


Planet transatlantic. 

The bartender steps over.


Two Boddingtons.


Yanks don’t care about football. The players aren’t fat enough.

Lee smiles.


I’m Peter, this is my brother, John John.




Peter and Lee shake hands. The bartender sets two beers in front of Peter and John John.


What brings you to Barcelona, Lee? Business or whorehopping?


Existential wandering. And business.


Us, too.


Lee, Peter and John John sit around a table.


How much did you pay for your cigarettes?


Two euros.


You could help us. We can sell those for seven in the UK. Make a lot of money.




It’s not cool, it’s fucking stupendous.


Fucking stupendous, then.


We buy multiple cartons of cigarettes in Spain and sell them in Liverpool, avoiding the
taxes and tariffs.


And my role?


Fly in with suitcases full of Camels and Marlboros. No worries, the customs bobbies will never look in your bag - too busy looking for terrorists. Later, save up some cash and ship containers in - you, just loading and signing for it when  it’s delivered. We can move them quickly in Liverpool.


So you’ve got some people there?


We don’t just have some people there, we run that bloody town.


What if I get caught?


So what if you get caught? It’s not like you’re smuggling smack. You could just claim that you forgot to check the box on the form. You’d probably just have to pay a small fine.


Driving down the street is more dangerous.


Then why don’t you guys do it yourselves? Why cut me in on it? You could keep all that profit.


We want to expand, Lee. We’re building an illicit empire. I’m going to be the Julius Caesar of tax free cigarettes.


I’ll be the Brutus.


Brutus? Got something planned against me?


Crushing all who oppose you. Wow.


Seriously, Lee, you don’t know how powerful our organization is. We spotted you the moment you got off of that plane in Madrid. We
decided to recruit you then. Our organization is global.


You could be our man in America. There’s millions to be made.


So you guys are big time gangsters, huh?

Fuckin’ A right we are, and you’re the kind of guy we like to work with.


So if you guys are such big time gangsters, why did I just watch you spend ten minutes arguing
with the doorman over five euros? 

A frozen moment, crestfallen, humorless.


I’ll go buy a hundred euro bottle of champagne right now if that would prove it to you, Lee.


I have a better idea: I let you keep your route, I set you up with a gullible young backpacker or two who will think this is a sweet deal. I’ve always enjoyed hanging out in hostels anyways. You two can kick me back a reasonable ten percent of your profit. In exchange you start running blow into England for me along with the cigarettes.

Peter and John John are shocked and hostile.


Why the fuck would we do that?


You’d better be joking, Lee.


No joke. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you my organization was watching you at the airport. I work for an organization, but you two are small fry and no organization would waste resources surveilling you. But now that I’ve gotten to know you a bit better I see that you might be useful, and once you get over your indignation, it might even be pleasant.




Yeah, big hairy bullocks. 

Lee slides his pistol under a napkin on the table.


No shit. You guys are working for me from now on. I’ll let you get used to the idea. Make sure I find you here tomorrow night.

Lee smiles, puts the pistol back into the holster, stands and walks towards the front door. Peter and John John stare at him as he leaves, then turn towards each other.

06/07/2013 - 2:49pm
by Ben Black

Dulcinea Abbreviata (Dave Senecal)

At this month's Action Fiction! we were proud to have a previously published piece by Ben Black performed:  The Woodcutter's Wife, a new take on classic  fairy tale.  

That's our favorite kind.  

You should read here.

And stay tuned for the publication of the rest of June's Action Fiction!

06/02/2013 - 11:49pm
by Benjamin Wachs


“Remember when we hated television?”

I’ve had this conversation with several fellow Gen Xers recently.  We circle each other warily until someone mentions liking a TV show, and then someone asks “Do you … like … Television?”

To say “Yes” back in our formative years would have identified you as a philistine:  someone hopelessly out of touch with what’s good in life.   But there’s no cultural cache left in disliking TV.  The words “Golden Age of Television” come up a lot.  It would be a terrible thing to live in a golden age and not know it.

Yet it’s not accurate to say that television has “evolved.”  TV was actually better as a new medium, for all the clumsy production values and ham-handed social conventions, than it was during my childhood in the 80s.  I’ll admit the groan-to-pleasure ratio is pretty high but I defy anyone to watch the early vaudeville performers putting it on the line in front of a live crowd and for millions at home, and not get lost in their act.

They didn’t know what they were doing, but that’s because they were pioneers:  and watching pioneers in action is always exciting.  They were seeing if it was even possible to make a connection as a performer across such vast distances, and history has been kind.

The early internet was much the same – except that in the days of television it was the best of the best who made it on to the new medium.  The internet had no such exclusivity.  Television was a casting call;  the internet was a 100 million car pile-up.

It was once we finally understood what “television” was, and how to do it, that we got really bad at it.  There is a moment in every creative endeavor when pioneers get replaced by hacks.  It’s not a complete take-over at first:  “Star Trek” can co-exist with “The Brady Bunch,” “All In The Family” with “Three’s Company.”  But once the suits realize the hacks are easier to make money from, aesthetic gentrification is inevitable and the pioneers can’t afford the rent.

The inevitable result is “Charles in Charge,” and “Small Wonder,” and an armada of programs remembered only for being so forgettable.  It was this epoch of mediocrity that my cohort and I rebelled against:  don’t judge us if you weren’t there, you would have too.

But it was more than just the mediocrity.  I’m not sure how the dominant theme in serialized television came to be “stasis,” but the urge to preserve television characters in amber was present from the very beginning.  Show after show, from black and white comedies like “Mr. Ed” to dramatic programming like, oh, “Knight Rider,” presented us with a premise, a set up … and hundreds of episodes after which the “reset” button was hit and everything returned to the premise and the set-up.

Unlike any other art form involving recurring characters, the television mainstream television show refused to acknowledge change, growth, or evolution.  Occasionally there was a “Very Special Episode” that might deal with death … though it was just as likely to deal with marijuana … but in general the paradigm was observable in the “two Darrens” phenomenon from “Bewitched”:  if you lose a major actor, just switch somebody else in to play the same character and pretend nothing has happened.  Above all else:  pretend that nothing changes.

Stasis was the dominant television aesthetic of our formative years at a time when television was everything.  We were the latchkey kids coming home to it.   Of course we rebelled against that.  Stasis is unbearable to teenagers.

We also knew that more was possible.    Punk was happening.  Michael Jackson was revolutionizing pop.  Monty Python, which had a wholly different view of the world, was just beginning to make inroads into the U.S..   Star Wars was a thing now, and so was Annie Hall.  We treated TV as the least of our artistic options because, Christ, but it was.

The Onion’s AV Club has put “The Larry Sanders Show” (1992-1998) at the vanguard of the Golden Age of Television:  the show that proved “quality” could make money again, leading us inevitably to “The Sopranos” and the new Golden Age.  That’s a good pin to stick in, but I think the ice was breaking sooner, with lesser shows.  Dynamic serialization, after all, wasn’t unheard of in television:  soap operas had been doing it for decades (on radio too), and by the mid-to-late 80s the idea kept poking its head up.  Thirtysomething (1987 – 1991) was a soap-opera-ish stab at it, but it was a stab at it.  I never got it, but I recall my parents friends thinking it was electric.  The New York Times called it “as close to the level of an art form as weekly television ever gets,” which kind of makes my point.

Northern Exposure (1990 – 1995), by contrast, electrified everyone.  It had snuck in as an eight-episode replacement series for CBS, and became a hit despite the network never adequately promoting or really even knowing what to do with it.

What thirtysomething and Northern Exposure had in common, along with equally exciting programming like Hill Street Blues (which arguably got the ball rolling in 1981), was the fact that they were fully serialized:  they rejected stasis.  Actions that were undertaken would therefore have consequences for the future – and that made the stakes meaningful.  Some of these shows haven’t withstood the test of time because, in fact, they weren’t really all that good:  but the fact that they rejected stasis, and had meaningful stakes, meant they were still a true cut above for us.  There was so little of it that we were still cynical about the medium (TV was still crap) but we could acknowledge when somebody was trying to do better.

In today’s Golden Age of Television, it’s no accident that there is no more stasis.  Every show, from half-hour comedy to hour-long drama, no matter how crappy, moves and changes in accordance with time.  Even the Simpsons … where no one ever ages … has continuity.  Bleeding Gums Murphy and Maude Flanders died and are still dead.

When every show rejects stasis, the rejection of stasis can no longer be used as a critical criteria by which to distinguish good and bad.  That’s all for the good.  Yet I think the fundamental human truth that rejecting stasis gets at … that there are consequences to the characters, that causes have effects … is still at the heart of good television.

I find this at the heart of the change in “Community” – one of the most celebrated and controversial comedies on television today – between seasons 3 and 4.  The reason for the change is well known:  the series creator Dan Harmon was unceremoniously dumped and replaced;  and it was Harmon’s unique vision, more than anything, that drove the program.

That would naturally cause a change.  But in fact Harmon was replaced by two very strong showrunners:  one from “Happy Ending,” which shares a similarly manic, anything-for-a-joke, vibe, and one from “Alien in America,” which had a similarly big heart for its characters, refusing to ever look down at them.  Both were excellent shows – yet Community turned in a devastatingly lack-luster fourth season.

What was the factor that they couldn’t re-create?  The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff has posited that the show became obsessed with appealing to fans by repeating itself:  saying, in essence “Hey, here’s one of the things about Community you loved before, so we’ll do it again and you’ll love us more!”  There’s a lot of truth to that.

But what was immediately apparent in the new season was a related, but different, phenomenon:  having been handed the keys to a new show, the new showrunners were determined not to break it.  They were handling their characters with care, not making any sudden moves, and … inadvertently … trapping them in amber.  Harmon was celebrated for his willingness to take risks – and his characters did too, with human consequences coming out of every scene.  When that was taken away, the characters lost their depth.

It was likely always going to be this way, and not just because Community was an inherited property.  Neither “Happy Ending” or “Alien in America” ever took chances with their characters.  In the case of “Happy Ending,” it is because the program skates along a slick absurdist surface that in incompatible with true pathos:  the characters may go there, but the show never lets the audience.   The show is having too much fun to dwell.  It’s a wonderful effect, I liked that show very much, but it was completely incompatible with Community’s interest in the full range of its characters humanity.  Refusing to let characters experience prolonged pathos is, itself, a form of stasis in a show that had taken risks.

“Alien in America” was far subtler and more tender, but still preferred to return to the same emotional beats over and over again:  progress happened, but it moved verrrrrry slowly.  Not quite stasis, but not always clearly distinct from it either.

Yes, “Community” dazzled with its technical innovation: but it was its refusal to let the characters stand still, and its demand that every interaction, every conversation, have sufficient heart to open the door to consequences, that made it great television.

Which is to say that the Golden Age of television may be a return to the pioneer days.  The difference between a great show and a middling show in the Golden Age and a great show and a middling show in the pioneer days were both the willingness to take risks and see what worked.  In the pioneer days it was an experiment with the form itself:  can we do this?  In the Golden Age, we are far, far, more technically proficient and have a far more vast repository of knowledge about what works and doesn’t.  The issue then becomes about story:  of course you need a good premise, and good characters, and a good set-up … but then you have to be willing to risk it all, over and over again.

Neither “Happy Ending” nor “Alien in America” ever took that kind of risk, however good they were in other ways.  “Community,” and every show you’ve ever really, really, loved, did all the time.

Stasis, the bane of television in the 1980s, is still the bane of television.  But with hundreds of channels and the internet, we got our pioneer spirit back.


Benjamin Wachs is a Partner at Omnibucket.  He founded Fiction365, and archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com