Establishing Morality

In addition to establishing setting, character, and plot, it is important, when writing a story, to establish morality. That is, to make sure the audience will consider your protagonists to be on the right side and your antagonists on the wrong. It needs to feel that the protagonists deserve to win.

Obviously, this is not the case in every story: you can have one where both sides are wrong, or the protagonist is a villain, or so on. Only, if you do that, you still need a reason why people should care what happens.

For a simple example of this being done well, I offer the episode Rooting for the Enemy from Milo Murphy’s Law. The idea of this one is that Milo – a middle-school boy cursed with absurdly bad luck – decides to help out his school football team by rooting for the other team, ensuring that his bad luck rubs off on them. It’s a funny premise, but the problem is that this does look a little like cheating. By imposing his abysmal luck on the opposing team, isn’t Milo unfairly influencing what is after all just a game?

The show sidesteps this in a clever and amusing way: they establish that the opposing school is already cheating, since they’ve been purposefully failing all their best football players for years until their team is basically made up of “a group of angry adults.” Not only is that cheating, but it’s a lot meaner than anything Milo does, putting his team in an impossible and rather dangerous position. So, when Milo plays unfair, he does so to redress a much worse unfairness that the other team has done.

This device also serves to one, give Milo a reason to be at the game in the first place (the team specifically asks him to stay away, as his bad luck inevitably spoils their chances, but since they’re obviously going to lose they give him permission to come this time) and two, put his team into a position that would require Milo’s intervention to extract them.

Now let’s look at an example of this done badly: the episode The Mysterious Mare-Do Well from My Little Pony (yes, My Little Pony has its share of bad episodes). The premise is that Rainbow Dash, after receiving praise for saving ponies in need, becomes even more self-absorbed than usual, to the point of being arrogant and careless. Her friends then show her up by creating a masked hero who is better than her at everything, forcing her to confront her bad behavior.

The major problems here are one, that the other ponies never tried simply talking to Rainbow Dash about her behavior, and two, that Rainbow didn’t do anything wrong. The worst you could say is that she was getting careless and rude, but she was still helping people. Also, Rainbow becomes seriously depressed and upset over the situation (she has a history of emotional fragility), but still the others don’t simply tell her what’s going on and even rub it in her face at one point, which is frankly a lot meaner than anything Rainbow does (all the more so because, when they do tell her what’s happening at the end, it takes her all of two seconds to agree with them, meaning the whole rigmarole was unnecessary). It’s jarringly out of character for them to behave this way, and frankly our sympathies are entirely with Rainbow Dash. The episode failed to justify the actions of the ‘good’ characters relative to the actions of the ‘bad’ character.

The Milo episode works because the writers recognized the potential moral pitfall and carefully turned what could have been a liability into an asset, making the story stronger and raising the stakes. The plot device of the other team cheating by keeping their players into adulthood both provides the conflict and justifies Milo’s actions. One side is cheating in a way that could cause real harm, so Milo rectifies it by arguably cheating to help his friends.

The MLP episode doesn’t work because the writers failed to establish the conflict to the point that it would justify the heroines’ actions. This could have easily been solved by simply having a scene of Twilight confronting Rainbow Dash and having her blow her off and by having another scene where Rainbow Dash’s self-aggrandizement actually caused real problems, rather than just being annoying. Those two scenes would have pretty much salvaged the episode by putting the morality of the story on firmer grounds.

The point is that basic moral rules are as important in creating a good story as anything else. If the characters’ actions don’t fit the reaction we’re meant to have to them, the story won’t work.

Brief Thoughts on Danny Phantom

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Danny Phantom is one of those shows that I’d heard a lot of people praising, so recently I watched through it. The story is of a kid who gets ghost-like powers and uses them to fight ghost monsters, while trying to maintain his normal life. So, very similar to Spider-Man. That’s fine; I have no problem with standard set-ups, especially for superhero storylines, in fact I prefer them. Overall, though, I thought it was just okay: not bad, but not really all that good either. It’s frustrating, because I really wanted to like it more than I did, and I can see that the potential was there to make a really fantastic show instead of something rather standard (kind of like Frozen, now that I think about it).

Maybe I’m just spoiled from watching Phineas and Ferb, Milo Murphy, and My Little Pony one after the other, not to mention coming off of Spectacular Spider-ManAvatar the Last Airbender, and the whole DCAU. My standards for animated TV shows are really high right now. But, even so, I wasn’t all that impressed. The characters, with one or two exceptions, weren’t all that interesting or well-developed, the gags were pretty standard, and the plotting was kinda weak. The animation was pretty lame too; very standard Nickelodeon ‘sharp angles, ugly backgrounds, wonky movements.’

And there was some standard PC shibboleths, like the boilerplate feminism, environmentalism, goofy stupid father character, that kind of stuff (though the father at least got some good redeeming moments). One episode flat out made me angry: it was a really stupid, feminist anti-beauty-contest deal with dosage of anti-Medieval snobbery. I haven’t hated a cartoon episode that much in a long time.

That said, the show was pretty good overall; the set-up’s creative and the hero’s powers are very cool. There are some good relationships (especially between the hero and his love interest), and the main villain is great for the most part (he gets a really lame ending, though). I laughed a fair amount (I especially liked a character called ‘The Box Ghost’ who was so minor a threat that his wanted poster read “$2.50 or Best Offer”). There are some really good episodes. I really liked one two-parter featuring the hero’s evil future self. Basically, I’m not sorry I watched it, but I don’t think I would watch it again.

One of my biggest problem with it is that I think it could have been a LOT better if it had been less standard. Like, if they had a more original animation style, more development on the ghosts and the ghost world, made it a little spookier and more gothic, and took things a bit more seriously and didn’t go for the joke quite so often. I’m working on my MLP video review right now, and one of the things I mention is that that show takes itself fairly seriously, in that the characters all act like what they’re doing is important and that they really care about the outcome. There are a lot of jokes, but we always feel like there’s something at stake and that it really matters what happens (even when it’s something as simple as deciding who to take to a party, the fact that it’s clearly important to the characters keeps us engaged). Now, of course the characters on Danny Phantom care about what’s happening and they do get serious at times, but they go for the joke much too often, and a lot of the time it just feels like a lark.

Again, for a show about ghosts, there’s very little atmosphere to it. The haunted house that Phineas and Ferb made to scare Isabella felt more gothic than almost everything here. The colors are too stark, the lighting is too uniform, and the angles too sharp to create any kind of spooky feelings. Yeah, it’s for kids so you don’t want it too scary, but it should be at least atmospheric. There are some exceptions, like there’s an abandoned hospital in one episode that’s pretty good, and a decent Halloween-centered episode that had some good imagery, but for the most part the design wastes the premise. It’s a story about a kid who is half-ghost, whose best friend is a goth; this should be like Saturday-morning Tim Burton instead of just bland, normal cartoon superhero.

Speaking of which, there’s another thing, something I’ve noticed in a lot of stories, which is the self-styled ‘independent, individualist’ characters who are actually completely standard. So, a bit of a big deal is made about how ‘different’ the female lead is, when actually…she’s just a Goth. As a general rule, if your persona has its own subculture, it’s not a sign of your extreme individuality. Now, she’s not a bad character, and like I say I liked the relationship with her and the hero (the idea of a goth chick falling for a ghost is great, though they didn’t really play up that angle much), but the idea that she’s some kind of extreme individualist or drastically original character is just silly. I see that a lot in fiction (and in real life), where ‘daring and original’ generally means ‘might have been daring and original about fifty years ago.’ Like, one of the marks of her individuality is that she’s a vegetarian. Um…how shocking?

Now, compare this with a character like Melissa from Milo Murphy’s Law.

She actually is a very unique and individual character. She’s a stellar student who has “a tremendous portion of my self-esteem wrapped up in my grade point average,” but has such a strong personality that she’ll just tell people to give her money and they do it. She’s sarcastic and highly capable, but is completely unathletic, forgetful of everyday things, and is absolutely terrified of roller-coasters. Her stated career goal is ‘Journalist / Queen of the Universe,’ and she’s memorized the blood type of every US President. So, she’s at once a valedictorian in the making and a junior-high crime boss (though one of the heroes). But there’s not a big deal made of her being ‘different:’ actually, she’s the popular one of the group. You see, she doesn’t have to talk about being highly individual; she just is.

So, Danny Phantom was okay, but just okay. I really liked the premise and I think it could have been a great show with different art direction and stronger writing, but what we actually got is something just above average.

 

Milo Murphy at the Federalist

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My next piece is up on The Federalist: this one about Milo Murphy’s Law, the latest show from Phineas and Ferb creators Swampy Marsh and Dan Povenmire.

If I could make a living writing about philosophy in cartoons, I would be okay with that.

It is one of the core beliefs of western culture that a man’s worth is measured, not by what happens to him, but by how well he faces it. Hector manning himself to face Achilles in a battle he knows he cannot win. Socrates choosing to drink hemlock rather than betray the truth. The saints enduring tortures rather than renouncing their faith. Whatever the turn of fortune’s wheel, a man’s response is what really counts, not the changing clutch of circumstance. Milo is the cheerful, family-friendly embodiment of this doctrine: a middle school Job with a sunny disposition.

By contrast, the modern idea, born of the likes of Marx, Freud, and their ilk, is that circumstance, society, “privilege,” or whatever other pseudo-academic synonym for “luck” you prefer, is what truly makes a man what he is. Whether it is ascribed to genetics, psychology, or economics, it amounts to the same thing: the idea that fortune, not action, determines a man’s destiny.

The antagonists in Milo’s world adopt this deterministic view, such as his classroom rival, Bradley. Bradley resents Milo, not just because his presence promises a disaster in the near future, but more because he’s jealous that Milo gets all the attention. He thinks that, if only Milo weren’t around, everyone would admire him instead.

Except Bradley is a boring, stuck-up grump, something that would remain so even if Milo weren’t around. He’s so focused on competing with his classmates (“In your face, other people!”) and on how they’re supposedly keeping him back that he doesn’t even consider how he could better his situation.

Read the rest here