Monthly Archives: February 2011

Escapism Online

“People talk about escapism as though it’s something nasty but escapism is wonderful.” —Margaret Forster

A pilot, sporting an original series style uniform, on Galactica's flight deck with Viper and Raptor in background

The word escapism dates to 1930s when it was chiefly used in conjunction with films from that period. It was the time of the Great Depression in America, the only industry that was booming was the movie industry. Studios would regularly turn out 50 pictures a year and huge audiences went to see them. It was this phenomena of escaping from the troubles of every day life to a fantasy for an hour or two every week, or even every day, this being before the advent of television.

Today people still go to see films as a retreat from life however there have been and still are films made that pander directly to this desire to leave the world behind. Movies of this genre, escapist films, tend to be fantastic in nature with the action taking place in a screen world that is normally not accessible to the viewer. All films are escapist on one level by their very nature.

An obvious example is the Star Wars series where the theme, and means of escape, is a simple fairy tale. In this case the audience knows how to relate to the central theme of the film because has been familiar to them since childhood. They can empathise with the central characters and see themselves as heroes in their own concurrent fantasy.

Jack Zipes talks about the fourth episode of the series, A New Hope: “The film which was naturally made into a book to capitalise on the cinematic success can be interpreted as a science fiction fairy tale about the evils of totalitarianism…The most obvious symbol of the republican [democratic] virtues is our snow-white princess Leia… It is obvious that the alliance or forces she represents are true-blooded Americans: they are clothed in the traditional American khaki uniforms and behave loosely and good naturedly in contrast to the members of the Empire who are clothed in dark olive resembling the uniforms of the Nazis…Their manner is austere an authoritarian, and, of course, Lord Darth Vader, the dark force behind the throne, is clad in black.”

Another key factor about escapist films is the mood they set. It is larger than life, as opposed to naturalistic or realistic films. In the pictures of the 1930s this was characterised by the influx of European film makers, especially from Germany, who used shadows to great effect, or filmed mostly at night. In these films the screen envelopes the audience and draws them into a world that becomes real for the duration of the film.

In Double Indemnity, there are a number of factors at work which make the film escapist. It was taken from a novel by James M Cain, and the screenplay was written by Raymond Chandler who was one of the best escapist writers of the time and whose detective, Philip Marlowe, has become a symbol of films of that era. Let us attempt to dissect the film to demonstrate how it allows the audience to enter its world.

The film’s title sequence opens with sinister music and a menacing shadow figure walking on crutches. The music is important because it can be used to make us, almost involuntarily, feel a mood and already we begin to be drawn in to the scene. The use of light is important the shadow is suggestive of many things including death. We are tempted in further.

The opening shot is at night. We see a ‘Los Angeles Railway Corp’ sign for a moment long enought to remember it. Then a car careening out of control along railroad tracks, going through a stop sign. This is a subliminal implantation, made possible by the audiences acceptance that the film is in some way real.

The film centres around an insurance agent called Neff. Chandler uses him to great effect by having him play the role of the audience. In other words the individual watching the film takes the place of Neff and sees the world of Double Indemnity through Neff’s eyes. It is a standard device but interesting in this case since not only is Neff ultimately an anti-hero, he is also quite probably gay. He boss keeps on telling him: “I love you”, and at the end of the film, as he lies dying, Neff replies: “I love you too.”

There is a psychoanalytical view that Double Indemnity is very symbolistic, the clipped style neck ties implying impotence or castration. Correct or not it is clear that there are things in the film there primarily to help the audience get their barings. There is the ‘match-snick’ device, where a character lights a match on his thumb nail, which occurs at significant points in the movie and helps the viewer to stay on top of it without getting lost. If the audience did become lost the spell would be broken, the illusion shattered and it would not work as an escapist film. Contrast this with Jean-Luc Goddard whose films compel you to realise you are watching a film in every shot.

The film sees Neff making a telephone call to sort out a renewal for a man whose wife wants to get rid of him. Neff realises this when she enquires about taking out life insurance on him without his knowledge. He conspires with her but he knows he can’t get away with it “I couldn’t hear my footsteps, I was walking the walk of a dead man.”

As part of Chandler’s wider work the film can be seen as an extension of his metaphor of the city for modern life. However what makes the film escapist is its ultra-reality. An intensified reality that Umberto Eco explains as the reason why Disneyland feels more real than a wax museum. It is because of the audience interaction and the induced willing suspension of disbelief.

Massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) let people live out an interactive fantasy existence where virtual riches are there for the taking and death is a mere inconvenience. But are there any fringe benefits to games that could see you spending years of your life clicking rocks?

Runescape, the most popular free MMORPG, has been the subject of much discussion about its effects on children. The game was developed by Jagex (Java games experts), a company based in Cambridge in the UK, and is played directly in the web browser without the need to download a standalone client application. In it you play a human adventurer in a Tolkeinesque world with a very British sense of humor. For example all the names of the white knights are puns, such as Sir Amik Varze, and the game references old British television shows from The Adventure Game to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Until recently Jagex went to great pains to deal with parents’ concerns about the content of the game, even to the point of censoring mild curses such as ‘hell’ from in-game chat. One of the effects of this ‘swear filter’ was to make it difficult for players to exchange personal information, blocking out words such as ‘address’ and ‘telephone’ to allay parental fears of online predators. However, as its community of players grows up, Jagex is attempting to make the game appeal to an older audience and almost a decade after its release players under 13 are now banned and the ‘swear filter’ is now optional. Younger children who signed up before November 2010 can continue to play, but the filter is always enabled for them. However, it’s not very difficult to lie about your age.

The main criticisms of Runescape are that the game encourages stealing, is overly violent, is addictive, pits players against each other, is filled abuse and negative behaviour, encourages gambling, and leads to depression. Interestingly, none of the articles criticising the game seem to take issue with the morality of killing town guards for experience points, although as previously mentioned very few characters stay dead. On the other hand the game has been praised for teaching children about economics, encouraging co-operation, and even for encouraging self-discipline in limiting the amount of time spent playing the game.

Many MMORPGs have their own unique backstory, but an alternative approach is to create a game based on an existing franchise; Star Wars and Lord of the Rings being two of the most successful. These two examples both require Microsoft Windows, but Bigpoint’s Battlestar Galactica Online is another browser based game making it platform independent. What these games have in common is a well established universe which the fans are already familiar with. Both Tolkein and Lucas created epic fantasies where good and bad are relatively clear cut, but Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica is far more nuanced.

So how well do the themes of the series translate into what is essentially a space shoot-em-up? The answer is surprisingly well, for now. Whichever faction you choose to join, it’s a battle for survival, with limited resources, the ever present danger of attack, and only your friends to rely on. The experience system feels refreshingly unobtrusive and while not the focus of the game, the interactions with characters from the series feel right. There’s just one problem. When the game gets out of beta you’re going to be able to spend real cash on resources, at which point the whole illusion will be ruined by people spending hundreds of dollars on upgraded ships and recouping their cost by ratcheting up kills against players who don’t pay to play.

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Posted by on February 27, 2011 in Society, Technology


Gran Turismo

“The camel is a horse made by the designer, after a meeting of the board of directors.” —Giovanni Michelotti

The Ferrari 250GTO is the classic grand tourer; the car you would drive across the Alps to Italy in if you had US$20 million burning a hole in your pocket, life cover, nerves of steel, an understanding partner who was also a mechanic, no children, and a spare 250GTO. Or you could spend between $5,000 to $15,000 on a Triumph GT6+. It may not be a Ferrari, but it has the GT pedigree. It has been described as the “poor man’s E Type” after the Jaguar XK-E that Enzo Ferrari himself described as “the most beautiful car in the world.”

Introduced in 1966, the original GT6 was essentially a Triumph Spitfire with a fastback hardtop and the engine from a Triumph 2000 saloon. The body had been designed by Michelotti in Turin four years earlier. In 1968 the MkII, GT6+ in the US, was introduced with a vastly improved rear suspension. It did 0-60mph in 10 seconds and had a top speed of 109mph. By comparison, the 1962 GTO250 did 0-60mph in 14.1 seconds, although it had a much higher top speed of 175mph.

The O in GTO is for ‘omologato’ which means homologation. In other words it was built to race in a production car class, specifically Group 3 Grand Touring Car Racing. It won its class in the International Championship for GT Manufacturers in 1962, 1963, and 1964. Although the GT6 was never raced, it was derived from the Spitfire GT4 that came 13th overall and won its class in the 1965 24 Hours of Le Mans, beating the Alpine A110. However, just 39 GTOs were built compared to more than 40,000 GT6s, over 12,000 of which were the more desirable MkII model.

Of course you could buy a 250GTO replica but then you’d have ruined a perfectly good Datsun 240Z, a classic in its own right, and you’d be driving around in the equivalent of a plastic bag with Louis Vuitton written on it in permanent marker. Another advantage the GT6 has over other alternatives is the availability of parts (aside from the gearbox). British Motor Heritage stocks a wide range of new parts made using the original jigs.

Triumph GT6 MkII / Ferrari 250GTO
Wheelbase              : 83 in                  94.4 in
Track front            : 49 in                  53.2 in
      rear             : 49 in                  53.1 in
Length                 : 143 in                 173.2 in
Width                  : 57 in                  65.9 in
Height                 : 47 in                  47 in
Length:wheelbase ratio : 1.72                   1.83
Kerb weight            : 1905 lb                2094 lb
Fuel capacity          : 11.7 US Gal            35.1 US Gal
Bore x stroke          : 2.94 in x 2.99 in      2.87 in x 2.31 in
Cylinders              : Inline 6               V12 in 60 degree V
Displacement           : 121.925 cu in          180.203 cu in
Type                   : overhead valves        single overhead cam
Compression ratio      : 9.25:1                 9.70:1
Fuel system            : 2 St carbs             6 Weber 38 DCN carbs
Maximum power          : 104 bhp @ 5300 rpm     296 bhp @ 7500 rpm
Specific output        : 0.85 bhp/cu in         1.64 bhp/cu in
Maximum torque         : 117 ft-lb @ 3000 rpm   217ft-lb @ 5500 rpm
bmep                   : 145 psi                181.5 psi
Bore/stroke ratio      : 0.98                   1.24
Unitary capacity       : 333 cc per cylinder    246.08 cc per cylinder
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Posted by on February 22, 2011 in Motoring


Leather Jacket

“Long hair minimizes the need for barbers; socks can be done without; one leather jacket solves the coat problem for many years; suspenders are superfluous.” —Albert Einstein

Like many boys before me, as I child I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I made Airfix models of Mustangs and Messerschmitts. I went to the Wales Aircraft Museum (closed in 2000) and sat in fighter cockpits. I wore jackets that looked like flight jackets. I had a radio that could receive aircraft transmissions wired up in my bedroom. I even got as far as talking to the RAF about a career, but gave up when I was told my eyesight meant I’d only be able to make navigator.

In retrospect I was lucky. I later encountered a Lancaster tail gunner who had shot down exactly one pilot during World War II. Tail gunners probably had the worst survival rate in the service. The position was exposed, it was too cramped to wear a parachute, and for an attacking fighter it was imperative to eliminate the tail gunner before attempting to destroy the bomber. There can be no doubt that if he had not shot down that German pilot he would be dead. And yet, every night he dreamed the same dream; watching the plane descend, praying for the pilot to safely eject, the ball of flame, and knowing he had taken a life. There are no heroes in war, only survivors.

It is possible to appreciate warbirds, the fastest gasoline engined aircraft ever made, without being a war buff. The North American P-51D, dubbed “Cadillac of the skies“, came about as a result of a British order for additional aircraft since it could not build them fast enough itself. A prototype was to be built in 120 days or less, and the designers furnished with the plans of a recently captured Me109. The order for 320 aircraft was fulfilled at a cost of US$15 million. The ‘P’ in the designation is for its pursuit role, predating the current ‘F’ designation for fighter planes. It used a laminar-flow wing to achieve a much greater fuel efficiency that earlier aircraft, and while heavier than a Spitfire it was also up to 40mph faster when fitted with the same engine. I hope to go up in one of the remaining two seater versions one day.

Another boy with dreams of becoming a fighter pilot was the young J.G. Ballard. A fictionalized account of his early years in Shanghai, where he was eventually interred with his parents in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, is told in the novel Empire of the Sun. The screenplay for the Spielberg film of the novel was written by Tom Stoppard, but it was actually another writer who was brought in to cover who gave the boy Jim a crew-cut and a leather jacket. After watching the film that was the jacket I wanted.

The jacket in question tells another story altogether, that of the American Volunteer Group, known as the ‘Flying Tigers’. This group of volunteers from the air wings of the various services (there was no US Air Force yet) were given honourable discharges and flown out to China under the guise of a group of ‘English teachers.’ There under General Chennault, they were to assist the Chinese in repelling the Japanese. This would have taken place before the US entry into the war, but in practise Pearl Harbour took place before the AVG’s first engagement.

There are some problems figuring out what the jacket used in the film is supposed to be though. First from the colour of the collar it appears to be a MIL-J-7823 (first issued in 1951) at the earliest. AVG pilots kept the jackets issued by their original squadrons so you’d expect it to be an M-422A (issued in 1940) at the latest. Then there’s the CBI patch (visible on the left shoulder). That makes it more likely the jacket in question is supposed to have belonged to a Fourteenth Air Force pilot, but that group didn’t come into existence until 1943 so it’s a little hard to figure out how the jacket might have made its way into a civilian internment camp. It’s not possible to know which it’s supposed to be because the front squadron patch is missing. If it was an M-422A it would have had a patch for one of three AVG squadrons; the Adam & Eves, the Panda Bears, and the Hell’s Angels (the original ones). Otherwise it would have had the 14th AF patch.

On the other hand I just wanted the jacket from the film. In the end I was able to order a civilian issue jacket (including hand warmer pockets) with the right patches, sewn on during construction, from Gibson & Barnes (makers of the jackets seen in Top Gun). Although the film jacket looks almost black I decided to go with authentic brown goatskin. It wasn’t cheap, but I expect the jacket will outlast me. I’ve had it nearly five years now and it’s ageing nicely. But why would anyone want to walk around in a movie prop? It came down to how I strongly I related to the character of Jim, as played by Christian Bale. Spielberg heard the Welsh actor singing Suo Gân and decided to include the song in the film. Jim is an English kid who has never been to England, growing up in a foreign country under the influence of American culture. That’s not so far from my own upbringing in Wales with two English parents, one of whom grew up in New York.

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Posted by on February 20, 2011 in Fashion


Braver Newer World

“It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.” —Henry Ford

Year one of the calendar in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is 1908, the year Henry Ford introduced the Model-T. As expected the media duly noted the 100th anniversary of the event in October 2008, but they missed out on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Brave New World Revisited, in which Huxley concluded that far from being some 600 years away in the future, his dystopian society based on ‘Fordian’ principles of mass production, commercialization and consumerism, was just over the horizon.

Since my attempt at a 50th anniversary retracing of Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries ended with me being beaten to the punch by an American who did it two years early, I should have learned my lesson about trying to sell time-critical articles. This time round I was beaten by Margaret Atwood owing to the 75th anniversary of Revisited having taken place in 2007.

“How close have we come, in real life, to the society of vapid consumers, idle pleasure-seekers, inner-space trippers and programmed conformists that it presents?” asked Atwood. Assuming for a moment that this is what we have become, though she believes there is hope for us yet, might the more challenging question be: “what has enabled us to become so?” The answer is technology. And technology affects everyone, even those who can’t afford to own it. So let us look at the areas of prediction identified by Huxley.

Over Population

It took most of human history for the population to reach 1 billion around the year 1800. It took a little over 100 years for it to double to 2 billion and a further 50 years to doubled again to 4 billion. But growth seems to have peaked. Although we are on our way to 7 billion we are probably not going to hit 8 billion by 2020, and even if we did that would mean the growth rate had remained constant for a century. In practice the world could sustain much larger populations than this, if it wasn’t for the fact that 1% of the population is consuming 99% of the resources.

Quantity, Quality, Morality

In 1958 technology hadn’t yet caught up with Huxley’s predictions, but by 2008 selective human breeding was common place. The first baby to be concieved by in vitro fertilisation was born in 1978 and the practice is now well established. Access to legal abortion has had a profound affect on women’s lives, but the ability to determine the gender of a child at the early stages of development using ultra sound has led to sex-selective abortion. The desire of parents to choose has also led to techniques being developed to pre-select the sex of their child. These could account for there being around 50 million more males than females on the planet. People are still arguing over the morality of it all.

Propaganda in a Democratic Society

As Neil Postman wrote: “Huxley feared those who would give us so much [information] that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.” This has in fact happened.

Propaganda Under a Dictatorship

It has been written that the Internet is merely the passive observer of events in the Maghreb and the wider Arab world, and that these uprisings are the result of hungry mouths rather than technology. On the other hand, the Internet does make it a lot easier to organize a rally. And as Wikileaks has shown, while it’s hard to find the truth on the Internet, it’s much harder to prevent the lie from being exposed.

The Arts of Selling

We live in a world where everyone and their dog now has a least two iPods. My entire record collection fits on a 40GB hard disk with room to spare, and I don’t really see the need to upgrade, but Apple is still making money from iPods. Capitalism relies on built-in obsolescence. In the past this was achieved through lower build quality, but that could result in early failure and associated bad publicity. The solution was to convince people that they must have the latest greatest thing. In truth, a computer made a decade ago is perfectly adequate for the tasks most people perform on a daily basis. But the marketing people have got us suckered in, and even in an economic downturn Apple is posting record profits.


Pop Idol, X Factor, Dancing with the Stars, Justin Bieber.

Chemical Persuasion

Prozac and Ritalin are Soma.

Subconscious Persuasion

Subliminal advertising does not work, but product placement does.


While hypnotism may have cured the odd case of hiccups, the practise of playing audio to terror suspects while they are trying to sleep is well documented, although its effectiveness is not.

Education for Freedom

Education about freedom is now at such a low point in human history that the last British Labour government was able to revoke protection from double jeopardy, habeas corpus, the right to trial by jury, the remaining parts of Magna Carta including the right to due process, without so much as a murmur from most of the population. Some people even signed up for computer chip ID cards.

What Can be Done?

Huxley concludes: “Under a scientific dictator education will really work — with the result that most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.” And indeed, the modern social contract is that the government will protect you from the moral panics so long as you don’t question it, and in return you can have your escapism and be left alone. What indeed?

Ford Model T Facts


  • October 1, 1908 marks the anniversary of the first Model T built for sale.
  • The Model T was the first low-priced, mass-produced automobile with standard, interchangeable parts.
  • The Model T was equipped with a 20-horsepower, four-cylinder engine with a top speed of about 45 miles per hour, weighed 1,200 pounds, and achieved 13-21 miles per gallon.
  • The moving assembly line for the Model T revolutionized manufacturing in 1913.
  • More than 15 Million Model Ts had been sold by May 26, 1927, when a ceremony marked the formal end of Model T production.
  • Henry Ford called the Model T “the universal car,” a low-cost, reliable vehicle that could be maintained easily and could successfully travel the poor roads of the era.
  • On Dec. 18, 1999, the Ford Model T was named “Car of the Century” by a panel of 133 automotive journalists and experts who began with a list of 700 candidates in 1996 and sequentially narrowed the nominees through seven rounds of balloting over three years.
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Posted by on February 18, 2011 in Politics, Society


Hendrix Replica Guitar

“Sometimes you want to give up the guitar, you’ll hate the guitar. But if you stick with it, you’re gonna be rewarded.” —Jimi Hendrix

I’ve been playing guitar for about 20 years now. I discovered Jimi Hendrix in my teens, and I’ll never tire of listening to his music. He’s best known for playing a right-handed Fender Stratocaster reversed for left-handed use. But if you look at my collection of guitars you’ll notice I don’t own a strat. The truth is I’ve never really liked them (or the Gibson Les Paul for that matter). However, it’s been a while since I bought a new guitar, and buying guitars is an addiction.

Fender has made a number of licensed Hendrix copies over the years for right-handed players like me, including a reversed left-handed ’68 Olympic White strat with a mirrored headstock decal (so if you stand in front of a mirror you look like a southpaw). One of those recently sold for $1,800. Now that seems a bit much for a reproduction of poorer quality hardware, with a bridge pickup that actively makes the sound worse. Plus I liked the look of that guitar better when it was temporarily sporting the neck off a Telecaster at the Newport Pop Festival in 1969.

So given that what we’re really talking about here is a novelty instrument, I came up with a solution. Take a $100 Chinese-made strat copy, attach a $100 Chinese-made tele neck to it, get a custom pickguard to get the bridge pickup back at the right angle, and get a custom made water-slide decal with a reversed tele logo. Not sure when I’ll get around to buying the guitar and neck (attaching a tele neck to a strat is a non-trivial task). But given that Fender aggressively pursues unlicensed decal shops, to combat the fake guitar trade, I figured I’d better order one while I could.

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Posted by on February 17, 2011 in Entertainment


WiReD != M2k

“The techno-elite are perhaps the only group advantaged by the new economy. They will be the new lords of the terrain in a Dickensian world of beggars and servants. Just because they think of themselves as hipsters doesn’t mean we should expect them to share the wealth.” — R. U. Sirius

I am currently trying to collect the complete set of Mondo 2000. The successor to High Frontiers and Reality Hackers, M2k was an independently financed magazine published in San Francisco from 1989 to 1998. There were 17 issues in all and a book, The User’s Guide To The New Edge, which Albert Finney can be seen reading in Dennis Potter’s Karaoke. It was published sporadically during much of its life and whenever I happened to be in Forbidden Planet in Cardiff and they happened to have a new issue in stock, I bought it. You may not have heard of it.

But you have heard of WiReD. Also started in San Francisco, in 1993, WiReD is M2k without the heart. I was going to go into a lot of detail on why I feel that way but what it comes down to is that, to the best of my knowledge, M2k never carried a three page fold-out advert for Lexus.


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Posted by on February 15, 2011 in Media, Technology


57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)

“To say something intricate about something as disorganized, confused, and interconnected as an American city, you want to stay for the whole season on a single story.” —David Simon

I am passionate about television, which is why I don’t own a television set. In 1981 there were three terestrial television stations in Britain. I remember the family set we rented had the stations printed above LEDs indicating what you were watching; BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, and, in anticipation of a new service, ITV2. Well ITV2 eventually arrived in 1998. In 1982 we got Channel 4 instead. That station finally went national in 2010 when the Wenvoe transmitter went digital. Previously viewers in most of Wales recieved the Welsh language S4C station instead.

So now we’ve got digital terestrial, satellite, cable, and Internet television. There must be something worth watching? Well there probably is, but finding it is an non-trivial task. The BBC has helpfully put all of its non-populist programmes on BBC Four, which is available without a television license via the iPlayer. But even there I find myself agreeing with Sophie Wilson, that the treatment of subjects barely scrapes the surface. Take, for example, 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Tsunamis. Well I knew eight of them, and I’m not a seismologist.

As much as I like factual programming, my favourite viewing and what I think television does best is long-form drama. The extended DVD release of The Lord of the Rings comes in at just under eleven and a half hours. That’s still shorter than the first season of The Wire. I’m not comparing the two, but if you use the time wisely you can tell a much deeper story with television. The extreme example of this is Coronation Street, which was once like an Ibsen play that never ended.

I’ll go with Robert McKee and say that Aristotle’s Poetics tells you everything you need to know about writing drama. The six required elements in order of importance being plot, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle. McKee argues that most Hollywood films place those elements in reverse order. Here’s my own personal list of some of shows that I think got them right:

Columbo (1971-1978)
M*A*S*H (1972-1983)
Hill Street Blues (1981-1987)
St Elsewhere (1982-1988)
Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
The Wire (2002-2008)
Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009)

The setup is fairly similar for all of them. You could argue that Buffy is basically a “police procedural” (cop show). If you get plot and character right, then a fantasy or sci-fi setting is just a device. I’m going to stop here before this turns into a full-blown essay, but I may come back and write some more at some point. Tip: watch Treme.

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Posted by on February 5, 2011 in Entertainment