Summer Break!

Hi all — hope everyone’s enjoying longer days, plethoras (plethorae? plethorata?) of tulips, and lots and lots of tv, comic books, regular books, and all of the other pop culture that floats your boat.

TTLP’s posting schedule’s going to be a bit more haphazard this summer, because I’m taking my grad school prelims exams soon and won’t have quite as much regular time for pop culture consumption until I’m doing preparing for them. But I’ll be popping in every once in a while, and will plan to start up again with a more regular schedule in the fall. In the meantime, take some time to amuse yourself with something silly you found at a bookstore, watching the awesomely good Behind the Lights on Netflix, or just curl up with a good podcast!

Jewel Tones, Damasks, and Ninja Turtles: A Vision Board for a Chilly April Afternoon

In which Emily recommends that you take gorgeous costumes, stunning music videos, and happy podcasts as inspiration on this surprisingly chilly day.

So, change of plans. I totally announced last post that I was starting a series of posts about title sequences. But really, I should have known better than to announce future plans for TTLP’s oh-so-spontaneous content-production. This Monday I find myself still overly excited about the Outlander costumes I praised last time, and really very much in the mood to curate bubbly and bad-ass awesome things to improve a brisk spring afternoon. This week, then, in the name of happy-making pop culture, silly links, and powering through the busyness of the last month of the semester, I present: A Vision Board for a Chilly April Afternoon.

Outlander Costumes

Holy Madame de Pompadour, the costumes on Outlander are STUNNING, whether you love knitwear, kilts, and wool

or whether you’re fascinated by the gorgeous fashions of pre-Revolutionary France on display in all the publicity stills for the nascent second season.

John Oliver Sending Ninja Turtles to Yankees Games

While we’re talking about people wearing fantastic things at famous locales…

Dude Watchin’ With the Brontes

Because Kate Beaton is glorious and Anne Bronte is tragically underappreciated.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: The Romance Novel Special

I’m completely in love with this hour of smart ladies amusing themselves, talking romance novels, and taking a very silly quiz.

Another Round: Our First Year

In which awesome ladies Heben and Tracy reflect on a year of podcasting, giggle lots, and discuss the evils of mongooses — mongeese?

“Atomic Number,” case/lang/veirs

After laughing along with the PCHH and Another Round ladies, perhaps it’s time for moody acoustic-y music from the new collaboration between Neko Case, k.d. Lang, and Laura Veirs.

Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period

Or if you’re really digging the bubbly-ness of silly but sincere podcasts, I highly recommend Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period. Honestly, I just found this podcast (thanks NPR One!) and haven’t listened to much of it yet. But that title’s just the most charming thing ever.

Beyonce’s Formation Video

You know you’ve watched this a few dozen times already. But is it possible to watch it too many times?

Enjoy your afternoon!

Title Sequences, Outlander, and Framing Nostalgia

In which Emily talks about desserts, paratexts, and a TV show about the Jacobite Rebellion.

Title sequences are like candy wrappers.

Some are more elegant. Some are more recognizable. Some just make you happy.

But no matter how sophisticated or silly they are, title sequences tell you something about what you’re going to find inside. Like footnotes, they’re paratexts.

(And yes, if you clicked on that link, you might well wonder why I keep comparing paratextual apparatuses to desserts. But wouldn’t you write about dobos tortes and Mozartkuglen if given the choice? A group of delightful medievalists on twitter persist on tweeting about #medievaldonut, and it’s got me associating awesome textual history things with sugar. I can’t help myself.)

Anyway, paratexts deliver text to an audience. For theorist Gerard Genette, the paratext is the threshold. Just like your front step isn’t your house, but you still put out a wreath and a welcome mat to make it look nice, the paratext isn’t the text but it invites you into the text. In books, paratexts are things like title pages, cover illustrations, footnotes, author attributions, copyright pages, introductions, and indexes. They’re everything that’s not the author’s primary content. In television shows, they’re things like closing credits, producer cards, and — yep — title sequences.

I’m fascinated by paratexts. Because they so define one’s experience of a text. I don’t know about you, but for me the pale green of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince emphasizes just how much edgier and creepier that book is than its angsty blue sibling.

And just from looking at the covers, you know that The Royal We is a much more adorably rom-com sort of book than is Never Let Me Go.

Through its paratexts — especially book covers and title sequences — a story first instructs you, as a reader or viewer, how to interpret it. Paratexts give you clues as to texts’ themes, preoccupations, intended audience, and genre. They might even give you approximations of their thesis statements — distanced and coded in visual emblematics, of course. Just about a year ago, Leah made this very point when she wrote about Orphan Black for us.

Of course, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a title sequence isn’t much more than a title. There are certainly enough stylish shows out there that present simply a short title card, with little framing, score, or imagery. (I’m looking at you, Agent Carter.) But a good old-fashioned title sequence is still a true work of art.

So this week I want to start a series of blog posts that take seriously the title sequence as both work of art and paratext. I’m going to turn my attention to a few awesome title sequences, and talk a little about why they work and what they say about the shows they preface. I’ll talk about allusion, about editing, about score, and about imagery. And I want to start, today, with the title sequence that’s had me wandering around my apartment all week humming “Wha’ll Be King But Charlie?

Outlander (a show that’s about to start its second season in a week or so) is an interesting and complicated show about time-travel, romance, and eighteenth-century politics. Claire, our hero, is a WWII combat nurse who falls backwards in time to the Highlands of Scotland in 1743, just before the failed Jacobite Rebellion that attempted to put Bonny Prince Charlie on the throne of England (but in fact led to the Highlands being firmly quashed by the British). Frank is her twentieth-century husband both mourning her loss and trying to figure out how and why she disappeared. Jamie is her eighteenth-century Scottish Highlander love interest, who’s very tied up in inheritance concerns surrounding the lands of the different Scottish clans. It’s a show that I have somewhat complicated feelings about, in parts, but it’s also a gorgeous epic adventure story that privileges the experience of a lady protagonist (who has both gorgeous knitwear and a very attractive love interest) that has been kind of fascinating me in the last week or so.

Because of the rugged terrain of the Highlands, the traditions surrounding history fiction in the wake of Sir Walter Scott’s foundational and hugely popular Waverly, and the capital-R-Romantic notion of the Jacobite cause, it’s pretty common to position the Scottish Highlands as a nostalgic landscape mired in the past. The Highlands, in popular culture, get figured as a rural landscape lost to the mists of time: a landscape still associated with Robert Burns, tartan, and heather on the hill. (For Heaven’s sake, the Highlands of Scotland are the setting of Brigadoon, the weirdest, most nostalgic musical ever to have been written about a time-travelling town stuck a few centuries in the past.) Outlander takes advantage of that nostalgia to great avail — although it does take trauma and hardship really seriously, to complicate any hopes that we or the post-war Claire might have had that the world used to be easier or more simple than it is now.

Fundamentally, for me at least, Outlander is a story about nostalgia. About love, grief, loss, memory, trauma, and our romanticization of both the past. It’s about romantic love, and nationalist spirit, and wistful longing for things past. Centrally, in all of this, it’s about the female experience. And all that comes through, for me, in the show’s GORGEOUS title sequence.

In this title sequence, we’ve got a slow motion montage of the magic and mystery of female-centric semi-pagan traditions, the flora, fauna, and sunsets of Scotland, intimations of violence and of sex, men in kilts, women in forests, and Redcoats firing arms. Take out the Samhain dancing and the 1940s imagery, and it could be something written by Sir Walter Scott. And this imagery sets up the romantic possibility of the show: you know you’re entering into a misty adventure story about bonny lasses and lads with swords and plaids.

What makes this title sequence work so well — and really captures the essence of the show — is the sequence’s FANTASTIC rendition of the “Skye Boat Song.” It’s gorgeous and slow and a bit melancholic: to that end it fits the tone of Outlander. Also, the lyrics beautifully fit the story of Outlander: Claire is a “lass that is gone” who finds herself in-between two times and haunted by the reality of having to choose one over the other.

But what makes the song choice SO SMART is that the “Skye Boat Song” wasn’t written for Outlander. It’s a song that emerges out of the Failed ‘45 — the doomed Jacobite Rebellion. It’s actually a song about Bonny Prince Charlie escaping from the Highlands in the face of Scottish defeat. It’s a song about nostalgia and hope and memory and melancholy: the wistfulness of the Highlanders themselves. The title sequence follows, almost word-for-word, the Robert Louis Stevenson lyrics to the “Skye Boat Song.”

And that idea of being ALMOST word-for-word is what makes this title sequence even MORE awesome. Outlander is a historical fiction that focuses on women’s experiences of the past: complementing that, McCreary presents a rewritten historical text that foregrounds the female subject. Charles Stuart, here, doesn’t “sail on a day.” “She” does.

In its title sequence, Outlander sets out its thesis for a lady-centric consideration of grief, memory, and romance in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a delightful minute-and-a-half of awesomeness.

So give Outlander a shot — or at least don’t skip past the title sequence next time you’re marathoning something!

Happy watching!

10 Reasons to Celebrate Spring by (Re) Watching The Great British Baking Show

In which Emily encourages you to check out / revisit The Great British Baking Show to celebrate the beginning of spring.

It’s starting to feel like spring. Chicago’s dyed the river green, the weather forecast up here in the upper Midwest is showing rain instead of snow, and every time I go shopping I end up having a lengthy internal debate about whether or not I need to buy more jelly beans. (Answer: yes, jelly beans are a delicious but scarce commodity and thus need to be bought whenever they’re available.) Flowers are starting to pop up along my daily walk, and people have begun to deal with their Hamilton fandom by making peep-based dioramas of the show. (No seriously: it’s kind of the best.) What with the warmer weather, the flowers, and March-based cultural festivities, I’ve been in the mood for some spring-y pop culture.

And nothing, recently, has said springtime to me like The Great British Baking Show / Bake-Off (for those of us in the US, the show’s called the Baking Show, because, it seems, Pillsbury owns the term Bake-Off). So this week, we at TTLP want to encourage you to spend some time with the most adorably positive, happy, and spring-y reality competition show in existence. Even if you can’t yourself skip work to go make cakes in a field surrounded by sheep and flowers, you can at least watch nice British people do so.

1. It’s a cooking show that’s entirely about breads, and cakes, and pastries, and pies, and delicious things. This food is intensely aspirational.

2. And all of the bakers have to be amateurs. So it’s also aspirational in that you leave a binge-watch of GBBS completely convinced that if you had five hours free you could totally make your own croissants from scratch.

3. And they make gloriously gorgeous chocolatey breads and weird pancake cakes and fancy Swedish Princess Cakes, all of which look unbelievably delicious.

4. The contestants are the nicest people. They clap for each other when they do well and hug each other when they do poorly. And the talking-head interviews are all like “well, I’ll have to try harder next week.” Everyone seems kind and balanced and humble and friendly. It’s such a nurturing space!

5. Even the judges are kind. Paul and Mary will absolutely point out when your “bake” is off, but they’ll do it while also praising what you did well and acknowledging the difficulty of the task.

6The contestants take criticism extremely well and provide models for how to take critique with grace and confidence. Charming older Scottish man Norman has difficulty making pies and cakes that are adventurous enough for the judges, but he’ll just keep trying.



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7. Also, they’re all cooking in a huge pastel kitchen in a field surrounded by sheep and horses and flowers. The aesthetics of this show are so delightfully twee and just so happy-making. It’s totally pastoral, in that it presents a very romanticized vision of the English countryside that’s heavily predicated on nostalgia and a manufactured vision of the land, but it’s also so comforting.

8. And the hosts are just a delight. Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc are quite the double-act of smart, funny, nice ladies who wander around punning, using funny accents, amusing themselves, and tasting icing.

9. Also, did I mention just how aspirational and delicious all of the bakes look?? Also, awesome. Someone made a three-dimensional cookie dragon.

10. It’s a silly show, with its fair share of nostalgia, pastoral conceits, and weird editing (did we really need to watch a sheep roam around in the middle of a cooking show?). But it’s a kind-hearted, pretty, and happy-making show about good food, nice people, and — implicitly — the idea that Anyone Can Cook!

Happy (re)watching!

Why You Should Really Spend Your Leap Day Watching The 100

In which Emily encourages you to celebrate calendrical oddities by watching a smart, morally complex, awesomely intertextual story about human society in a post-nuclear age.

Holy Kara Thrace.

The 100 is a compelling television show. Yeah, the beginning was a bit heavy-handed. (Although honestly, most pilots are a bit sketchy, aren’t they?) By the end of the first season, though, this CW dystopia had built itself into a complicated, ambitious, and wildly fast-paced story about what it means to be human in the wake of nuclear apocalypse. This Monday, we’ve got an extra twenty-four hours to enjoy. And sure, we’re all looking forward to using that extra day to check things off to-do lists so we can start March with fewer deadlines and responsibilities hanging over our heads. But you can’t spend all of Leap Day being productive. Breaks are important — especially when you have an extra day in your year!

So this year, we at TTLP would like to encourage you to check out The 100 (which is currently — super conveniently! — streaming on Netflix). The show’s airing its third season right now. And to be honest I’ve only seen the first so far. But in that first season, The 100 becomes a self-reflexive, morally complex show about environmental destruction, moral leadership, and the nature of humanity. Moreover, with a fantastic cast of iconic sci fi actors as well as the prerequisite attractive CW folk, The 100 is an (occasionally stressful, yet) awesome and intertextual show that ends up helping unpack we mean when we talk about genre television.

Here then, in honor of weird random holidays and awesome sci fi television, are eleven reasons to spend part of your Leap Day watching The 100.

1. In many ways, The 100 is a classic dystopian story. Ninety-seven years after nuclear apocalypse, a few thousand humans survive on a space station called “The Ark”. Their space-station-centered existence is really reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica — Lt. Gaeta’s even there!

But resources on the Ark are limited and life-support is failing. So a bunch of juvenile criminals (our eponymous 100) are sent down to Earth to see if it is liveable. Even as the Ark navigates political coups, resource shortages, and all of the troubles of an established society, the 100 engage in a much more Lord-of-the-Flies-type struggle to create a stable, just, and moral society in the first place. Drawing upon a tradition of dystopian storytelling, The 100 uses each half of its split cast (the ship and the ground) to explore big issues in a high-stakes environment.

2. Dystopias catch our attention because they become thought-experiments and limit cases. Because a dystopian world has super high stakes, dystopian fiction allows writers to consider philosophical issues in a real-world context. In its first season, The 100 explores utilitarianism, state-sanctioned killing, Marxist economic policies, libertarianism, environmental catastrophe, and religion. Characters argue about guilt and culpability, trust, revenge, redemption, grief, and hope. Ultimately, The 100 becomes a consideration of leadership, of the nature of civilization, and of the value of hope in desperate times.

3. In this dystopian context, The 100 finds a way to explore both the survivors-in-space trope and the rag-tag-group-attempts-to-create-a-civilization trope. With the teenagers, we get Lord of the Flies — or, perhaps more accurately, Lost without the mysticism and weirdness. With the adults back on the space-station, we get Battlestar Galactica — again without the mysticism. The 100 gets to explore the best of both tropes and to revel in the twinned inhospitable environments of post-nuclear, post-human Earth and of space itself.

4. In these parallel dystopias, The 100 is able to stage its own dialogue about leadership, hope, and the goodness of mankind. In the first episode, self-appointed leader of the 100 Bellamy Blake proclaims independence from the Ark, leading a chant of “Whatever the hell we want!” Over the course of the first season then, Bellamy and our other main characters must come to terms with what it means to be a leader and to enforce justice. And to not just do whatever the hell you want.



5. Moreover, The 100 is able to explore the idea of environmental devastation in a way that resonates powerfully with our own era and contemporary concerns about humanity’s impact upon the earth. The inciting incident of The 100 is, in a way, a nuclear apocalypse that devastated earth and its lifeforms. In the first few episodes, we see organisms poisoned or mutated by nuclear radiation. Even more powerfully, there’s a moment where it looked like The 100 was going to straight-out copy the Smoke Monster from Lost. But in the post-anthropocene world of The 100, the Smoke Monster isn’t a mystical island force: it’s acid fog. It’s a show that looks like it’s setting up the mystical weirdness of Lost, but instead imagines what the world will look like after the anthropocene.

6. On that note, The 100 is ridiculously intertextual and — through its casting and its references — becomes a show about genre tv itself. I refuse to believe that acid fog isn’t intended to evoke the Smoke Monster. And this is a show that casts Alessandro Juliani (Lt. Gaeta from Battlestar Galactica), Dichen Lachman (Sierra from Dollhouse), and Henry Ian Cusick (everyone’s favorite Scotsman, Desmond Hume from Lost). With its pedigree of classic sci fi actors and its deep attachment to the tropes of dystopian fiction, The 100 becomes a self-aware consideration of genre television and what we turn to genre television for.



7. While we’re on the subject of Dichen Lachman, the show has a lot of awesome ladies — and is relatively good at diverse representations in general. I have complicated feelings about representation in The 100, but it does enough interesting things that I’m looking forward to seeing more of the show and seeing how the racial politics of the show evolve. The main cast has many people of color and many awesome women. Moreover, I’ve only finished the first season, but I’ve heard tell that the show is currently also working through a queer relationship between two ladies. (Which is always awesome, of course.) To be honest, I think I need to see more of the show to be sure how I feel about its racial politics: although the main cast has a lot of interesting and complicated characters of color, the first season also involves a conflict with a group of threatening indigenous Others who are almost entirely played by people of color. Which is, you know, not exactly great. But with interesting women, diverse main characters, and the potential for queer relationships, I’m hoping that future seasons make good on this potential and show sophistication in their treatment of the racial politics of post-apocalyptic earth. There’s enough good happening here that I remain cautiously optimistic about representation in the world of The 100.

8. Post-apocalyptic earth itself is beautiful and the show itself is beautifully shot. In the ninety-seven years since nuclear apocalypse, the eastern United States has returned to woodland and swampland. Except now there are a lot of bioluminescent butterflies.



9. The aesthetics of the show in general are really engaging. In the final moments of the season one finale (no plot spoilers I promise), we hear Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a Film)” play over the action. This is a show that delights in jamming along to Imagine Dragons’s “Radioactive” but also sits in the discomfort and alienation of Radiohead. And in that combination of abandon and introspection, The 100 becomes a story about what it means to be a teenager — or just a person — in the modern world.

10. Also, while I’m talking about aesthetics, the narrative development is pretty great. The CW has figured out how to plot genre shows. The speed of plot developments in this first season of The 100 reminded me of nothing so much than the second season of The Vampire Diaries or the first season of Jane the Virgin. Like both of those shows, plot ricochets by and character alliances shift, but everything remains highly motivated. It’s super captivating tv.

11. Ultimately, the situation is pretty ridiculously bleak at times, but The 100 isn’t nihilist and despairing. Instead, there’s always room for hope, goodness, love, and courage. The 100 finds space for a belief about the strength and morality of humanity. Yeah, in this show, humanity did stage a nuclear war. But we are not just our baser instincts. Instead, we are also people who manage to re-form civilization out of the wreckage of apocalypse. We are people who love, and protect, and fight for what is right.

So I’m really looking forward to starting the second season soon — as soon as I catch up on episodes of Agent Carter (because Holy Katharine Hepburn, that show is FANTASTIC and TTLP will certainly cover it at some point). And as you’re enjoying your extra day on Monday, why not take some time to check out The 100?

Happy watching!

Happy Galentine’s Day!

In which Emily celebrates finishing the end of Parks & Rec — as well as the impending arrival of the Feast of St. Valentine — by taking a moment to enjoy Galentine’s Day. In doing so, she has some feelings about the awesome lady spies and fabulous lady pilots in Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity.

By the middle of its second season, Parks & Rec had begun to find its feet. First, in “Greg Pikitis,” the show figured out how to mellow Leslie Knope into a likable human being while still giving her space to be the over-enthused, somewhat obsessive, manic government hummingbird that she is.

(Sidenote: The call-back to Greg Pikitis in the last season of Parks & Rec was one of the absolute best moments of the entire show.)

Then in “Hunting Trip,” Parks & Rec threw Andy and April at each other and watched the weirdest, silliest, most unlikely romantic relationship develop between an unspeakably cynical intern and a goofy, shoe-shining man-child.

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But then, in episode 16 of season 2, Parks & Rec presented us with “Galentine’s Day” and, in so doing, completely confirmed its eternal place in my internal queue of comfort-food tv.

In the episode “Galentine’s Day” — Leslie Knope preempts Valentine’s Day to gather together her group of lady friends for an absolutely amazingly wonderful holiday.

“Every February 13, my lady friends and I leave our husbands and boyfriends at home, and we just come and kick it, breakfast-style. Ladies celebrating ladies. It’s like Lilith Fair. Minus the angst. Plus frittatas.”

A non-angsty Lilith Fair with breakfast food? Who could possibly want anything else?

As an episode, “Galentine’s Day” works because the aforementioned breakfast date motivates some weird hijinx around a Valentine’s Dance. But as a thesis statement of the preoccupations of Parks & Rec, “Galentine’s Day” works because it’s about optimism, multigenerational female friendship, and the fact that ladies liking ladies (whether romantically or not) is one of the coolest things ever. In a society that all too often wants us to decide which lady we like best in some made-up competition — do we like JLaw or TSwift? is Poehler better or is Fey? is Anne Hathaway cool or is Emily Blunt? — it feels fantastic to just revel in the waffles, affirmation, and friendship of Leslie’s annual Galentine’s Day celebration.

“Galentine’s Day” gets at what I love best about Parks and Rec: it’s about community and about female friendship. Both of these, the show posits, can be super weird and can steer our protagonists down some truly bizarre side-plots. But they are, fundamentally, powerful, positive forces that we should all seek to cultivate.



With the relationships between Leslie, Ann, Donna, and April — as well as the brilliance of Galentine’s Day as a concept, Parks & Rec joins — for me at least — the pantheon of awesome pop culture about fabulous female friendship. And this year, in advance of Valentine’s Day and in honor of finding something delightful to celebrate when February days get slushy and cold and grumbly, I encourage you to take some time and celebrate Galentine’s Day.

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That’s not to say, of course, that you need to throw your own Galentine’s Day party or brunch. (Although that would be awesome.) But if you’ve got some spare time in the next week or so, why not wander over to that aforementioned pantheon of fabulous female friendships?

There’s something there for everyone. You could go canonical with Celia and Rosalind in As You Like It, whimsical with Anne and Diana in Anne of Green Gables, or mildly passive aggressive with Paris and Rory in Gilmore Girls. Perhaps you love Emma and Maggie in Playing House, or Abbi and Ilana in Broad City, or Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. (Yes, I know that Elinor and Marianne are sisters. It still totally counts.)

Some of these pieces of media allow for queered readings between the ladies (Mallory Ortberg, for example, famously and only somewhat facetiously argued that Paris and Rory and the one true pairing of Gilmore Girls). Other are strictly platonic.


But awesome media affirming female friendship is kind of the best. Especially when it’s cold and slushy outside and you need a metaphorical hug, cup of hot chocolate, and long girl talk. And that’s why this week I’m recommending that you take a break from your busy February life and dive into Elizabeth Wein’s FABULOUS Code Name Verity, in celebration of Galentine’s Day, female friendship, and WONDERFUL narrative storytelling.

Code Name Verity is partly a Scheherazade story, partly a Peter Pan story, and partly a WWII spy story. It’s about unreliable narrators, and about how we tell stories about our own lives, and about heroism. It’s also about kickass lady pilots who fight Nazis. (I am absolutely certain that the two ladies at the center of this book would be total BFFs with Peggy Carter.)

And with these two ladies, Elizabeth Wein tells a gorgeous, sad, and deeply felt story about female friendship.

“It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.”

The friendship at the heart of Code Name Verity is TOTALLY one that you could read as queered. There’s totally lesbian subtext. But there’s also just a fantastic relationship between clever, brave ladies in WWII Britain. Regardless of whether or not you want to ship these ladies, Wein tells a stunning and ridiculously happy-making (but also heartbreakingly sad) story about the power of female friendship even in the darkest of situations. It’s a book about companionship, and about why we tell stories, and about hope. And in that, it might be the perfect companion to your Galentine’s Day celebration.

So take some time, this week, to think about the awesomeness of your favorite lady-friends. Even if you’re not a lady yourself, Galentine’s Day seems like a meaningfully bubbly sort of holiday. And if you need some new reading, I highly recommend that you check out Wein’s fabulous young adult novel about the British resistance in WWII. Happy Galentine’s Day, all!

And happy reading!

Consider the Footnote: On Narrative, Authority, and the Power of Digressions

In which Emily quotes Joan Didion, gets excited about Ada Lovelace, and is really pleased that she’s no longer in the Bismarckian morass of high school politics.

Footnotes are glorious things.

They’re elegantly spun sugar on the top of a fancy caramel-and-chocolate Dobos Torte. They’re perfectly blocked lacework on the edge of a beautifully hand-knit shawl. They’re gorgeously ornamental finishing touches to a lovingly crafted work of art.

They’re also the steady basso continuo of a Baroque aria. They’re the geometric precision of a Velazquez painting. They’re technical prowess and the nearly invisible foundation beneath glitteringly virtuosic performance.

In his excellent The Footnote: A Curious History, Anthony Grafton talks about becoming fascinated with footnotes and the way that they convey authority and expertise in modern academic writing. They are the solid foundation that shows careful thought and that lets you advance your wild new idea about Alice in Wonderland, or Hamlet, or nineteenth-century Prussia, or whatever it is that you have a lot of thoughts about. But footnotes are also deliciously ornamental pieces of whimsy and silliness, where serious scholars let their hair down a bit and indulge in playfulness or only semi-responsible speculation. And they’re places of literary play where GREAT modern writers like David Foster Wallace, Jorge Luis Borges, Susanna Clarke, Vladimir Nabokov, and Mark Z. Danielewski — as well as much earlier AWESOMELY WEIRD writers such as Edmund Spenser, Laurence Sterne, and Alexander Pope — mess with tone, realism, world-building, literary criticism, and the very nature of narrative writing in the first place.

(Of course, every occasionally over-committed grad student also will appreciate the way that footnotes can make it easier to hit a required minimum page count on a paper while indulging in digressions and straying a bit from one’s intended argument.)

Footnotes give authority, power, and foundation but also allow for the display of skill, artistry, and playfulness. They allow for digressions and speculation and personality. At their core, footnotes are digressive even as they represent an author’s act of winnowing. In this, they ask us to think about how we tell stories.

There’s a reason that we narrativize stuff. Our brains really like consuming events in linear, causal patterns. It’s like learning, for example, that WWI happened because of Bismarck and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. That’s a horribly simplistic summary, but it’s not wrong. And it’s simplified so that it can be easily consumed and internalized by generations of high school students who are kind of distracted by their own Bismarckian alliances about who sits next to whom and who likes/hates/has-a-crush-on whom. We winnow facts into narratives in order to make sense of our histories and our identities and indeed our world.

We do this sort of narrativizing all the time. Joan Didion has a great line at the opening of her essay “The White Album” about how “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Her point is about how we narrativize our own lives — as well as tell fictional stories. But seriously. We’re constantly telling stories about our histories, our lives, and our world, and in doing so, we’re constantly sidelining certain issues and ideas. We turn them into footnotes.

But when we tell those histories, those footnotes are still important. They’re where that historian proves that she’s got her facts right, where she builds credibility and authority, and where she hints that the situation is more complicated than she just made it out to be. Maybe she’s more irreverent in her footnotes, maybe she throws a little shade — or maybe she just gives you additional pieces of information to remind you that the world is more complicated that she just made it out to be. And that’s why I love footnotes: they do all sorts of weird and fascinating things with authority and with storytelling.

Fundamentally, footnotes allow historical narratives to stand (providing authority and citations) while also “well-actually”-ing the entire narrative project, reminding us constantly that the world mostly makes sense but that it is also infinitely complex and very very weird. They let us tell stories, but they also make us think about what it means to tell a story. They make us think about how we find Truth in stories and about what parts of the stories we choose to leave out.

In her stunningly clever The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (which I briefly got excited about months ago but only recently got around to finishing), Sydney Padua does AMAZING things with her footnotes.

First off, because she’s working in a comics medium and is playing with the conventions of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century book market, Padua seems to be super aware of the placement of the footnote on the page. Using both footnotes and endnotes, she creates densely complicated stories which force you as the reader to be aware of the experience of reading in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily be otherwise.

What do you read first? Do you read all of the comics then the footnotes? Should you flip between the story and the endnotes or just read the whole story at once and then read all of the endnotes? Should you read the footnotes first? Will they spoil the comics? Padua makes her reader become self-consciously aware of how she’s constructing a story when she repeatedly interrupts whimsical alternate universe steampunky story with her footnotes and endnotes.

Then inside those footnotes, Padua complicates her story by including digressions, she provides citations of primary historical documents, and she clarifies when her fictionalized versions of Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, George Eliot, and the entire nineteenth-century crew do something slightly anachronistic or ahistorical. Giving FASCINATING details about the weird lives of Victorians, Padua’s doing what footnotes do, and doing it excellently.

But the last section of her book BLEW me AWAY. Ada Lovelace kind of is a footnote to history, in a lot of ways. She’s the wildly non-literary daughter of Lord Byron who arguably theorized computer programming decades before the first computer. The Ada Lovelace of popular imagination, Padua notes, “was a supergenius mathematical prodigy and co-inventor of the computer.” At the same time, though, some Babbage scholars grumble that Ada Lovelace didn’t actually do any proto-computer-programming but rather has just become a cipher for the dreams of steampunk-loving feminists. In the last section of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, the character of Ada Lovelace falls, Alice-in-Wonderland-like, into an alternate dimension. In this weird, metaphorized world, Lovelace finds herself literally followed around by a giant asterisk — because, as the footnote reminds us, “Anyone who has read more than a little about Ada Lovelace will become gradually aware of an asterisk that hovers over her status as ‘the first computer programmer.’” The point of this increasingly menacing asterisk, though, isn’t to explode our dreams about an awesome STEM-loving Victorian lady. Instead, as Lovelace finds herself first marginalized and then swelled up by the drawings themselves, Padua plays with the stickiness of narratives of history and the impossibility of ascertaining Historical Truth, even in the context of the eponymous mathematically inclined heroes of the book. Her footnote observes:

“Both of these competing cartoon Avas, Super-Lovelace and Nega-Lovelace, are constructed from the ambiguous jumble of letters, papers, contemporary descriptions, etc., etc., which are the far from mathematically precise stuff of history. A footnote hardly knows what to think!”

Padua doesn’t resolve the true nature of the historical partnership between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, and she doesn’t firmly delineate which parts of computer programming owe their existence to Ada Lovelace. But in this final section, she draws upon Alice in Wonderland, abstract mathematics, and the materiality of the printed book in order to reflect upon the way that we narrativize and construct history — and the authority that we give to these narratives.

We’ll never know exactly what Ada Lovelace contributed to history. But that’s okay. Because, as footnotes remind us, the world is simultaneously cooler and weirder than we imagine.

In The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, Sydney Padua plays with the ornamentation, the self-reflexivity, the authority, the digressiveness, and the playfulness of footnotes. And I loved it. If you’ve made it this far through a post on why footnotes are cool, you owe it to yourself to check out her book.

Happy Reading (and Footnoting)!

Because Few Things Are More Fun than Excavating Ancient Desert Civilizations (So Long As You’re Not Actually Dealing with Sandstorms and Sunstroke)

In which Emily encourages you to take a weekend to immerse yourself in all that’s new and exciting in the world of board games.

I’ve always liked board games. Even through those awkward years when I was too old to get excited about Candy Land but not yet old enough to wax pedantic about Scrabble, board games have always been a good way to while away an afternoon and engage in some friendly competition with siblings, friends, and passersby. Obviously, there’s quite a range of board games and quite a spectrum of strategy- and skill-levels: you can master Sorry! in about five minutes, while my sisters and I STILL make up rules for Risk because we haven’t yet gotten bored enough to read through the entire rule book. But somewhere between Sorry! and Risk, there’s an awesome category of board games that reward attention and strategy yet also understand that their primary purpose is amusement. And that category has fantastically expanded in the last couple years.

Having spent a considerable portion of TTLP’s December-January hiatus deep in the midst of a board game marathon, this week I want to recommend a couple of fantastic  games — and to encourage you to seek out one of these the next time you’re trying to think of something social but geeky to do on a slow weekend.

Ticket to Ride

Holy Nellie Bly, this game is fun. According to the box, it’s based loosely on Phileas Fogg’s adventures in Around the World in 80 Days, but that connection is tied more to a steampunky, 19th-century American aesthetic and less to game play. (Not that I’m complaining — the board and cards are GORGEOUS.) If you’re playing the USA version (different continents have different boards), you’re given a map of America that has a bunch of railways and major hub cities depicted on it. You’re also given destination cards which promise you varying amounts of bonus points if you manage to claim railway routes to connect cities with each other. Then you play a weird version of rummy, finding sets of cards so that you can claim your railways and connect your cities. Game play isn’t ostensibly difficult, but it’s complicated by the fact that 19th-century America only has so many railways, and your opponents are also trying to claim railways. And seriously — the board is steampunky and just beautiful.

7 Wonders

Having control of one of the ancient civilizations that birthed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? Getting to decide whether to invest in cultural institutions, arts and sciences, or military might? Balancing trade, natural resources, and the desire to cement your legacy by building your Wonder? Seriously. If you don’t geek out about getting to be an ancient civilization, then you and I have vastly different ideas about what constitutes a fun afternoon.


At this point, Settlers of Catan (now apparently just called Catan?) is a classic — the first edition came out in Germany 21 years ago. But it’s also an awesome gate way for anyone curious about this new boom in tabletop games. If 7 Wonders is about building a civilization, Catan is about colonialism — or at least, about expansion into a new land. With roads, armies, resources, and a charming, honey-comb-shaped board, you compete against your fellow settlers to achieve the most stable, prosperous settlement on the uninhabited island. Like the rest of the games listed here, game play progresses according to both your decisions and the decisions of your opponents, so your strategy evolves and mutates from game to game and replay-ability is massive.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

(Seriously. I can’t get over just how gorgeous the artwork on these boxes and games is.)

Castles is basically The-Winchester-Mystery-House-Meets-Cinderella’s-Castle: The Game. Ludwig was a Bavarian king who built extravagant faux-medieval castles in 19th-century Germany. Now he’s commissioned you (and your competitors) to build him a new castle — and he’s got some weird requests. You work to build the castle that’s closest to his specifications while remaining within your means. Your competitors work to build better castles and to keep you from getting the pieces (rooms) that you most want. Everyone makes weird and elaborate floor plans for castles with three root cellars and five astronomy towers — or two conservatories and four dungeons — and the like.

Forbidden Desert

You and your compatriots are explorers and scientists looking for an ancient civilization in the desert — but your plane crash-landed! Now you have limited time to excavate the civilization and find its ancient fancy flying machine before you all die from a sand storm or dehydration. In this awesome game by the maker of Pandemic and Forbidden Island you have to team up with your fellow game-players to explore the desert, share water, and collect the scattered pieces of the ancient flying ship before the storm buries you or someone runs out of water. This game is surprisingly hard to win — but it’s SO smartly designed. You get the feeling that if you just logicked it out, you could absolutely figure out how to make everyone play their parts to get through the desert and win. (This one’s probably my favorite of the aforementioned bunch.)

Of course, there are dozens of other wonderful games — I recommended Dominion in one of our first posts, and there’s a whole new world of tabletop games ripe for exploration. But regardless of what you choose to play, take some time in the next week or so and enjoy getting overly competitive about fictional railroads and cities and towers.

Because few things are more fun than squabbling over which one of you has the best plan for getting to the airplane’s propeller before someone dies of dehydration.

Happy Gaming!

We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Programming…

In which Emily announces TTLP’s semi-annual, end-of-semester hiatus.

December’s a lovely time of year. There’s snow, and anticipation of the holidays, and cheesy movies, and gingerbread, and all sorts of delightful things. For those of us in grad school, though, there’s also grading, and seminar papers, and end-of-semester busyness. Now I don’t want to say that seminar papers aren’t delightful (perish the thought!), but the chaos of the end of the semester does put a damper on Kazia’s and my ability to consume new media and write about it. So we at TTLP will be taking our holiday break a little bit early this year — although we encourage you to take this time to catch up on the awesome albeit dark (so we hear) A.K.A. Jessica Jones, the fantastic and clever (we promise) You Must Remember This, or the utterly charming and adorable (and we promise we’ll write about it at some point) Great British Baking Show.

We’ll see you back in 2016, though, with lots of new television shows, books, musicals, comics, podcasts, board games, etc. to have lots of thoughts about!

We hope you enjoy your holidays and have a happy and safe December!

A Cornucopia of Thanksgiving Television

This week, Emily gives you some pointers for enjoying Thanksgiving television over a lazy and food-filled weekend with family and friends.

It’s almost Thanksgiving (huzzah!). It’s almost time for watching Charlie Brown holiday specials, and getting third helpings of pie, and becoming way too invested in the aesthetic merits of hand-turkeys. This Thursday we (here in the States, at least) can all get to arguing about whether we’d rather watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or football. We’ll join together with family and friends and enjoy togetherness and camaraderie — whether we decide to be serious, giving thanks for our blessings, or silly, arguing about who was more embarrassingly bad at Pictionary at the LAST get-together.

Thanksgiving is a particularly comfortable holiday. It’s tinged with nostalgia, but not with all of the heightened expectations of Christmas. It’s tinged with Americana, but not with the fireworky patriotism of Independence Day. It’s a day about gathering together with those you love and taking a moment to eat well and to ignore the seemingly thousands of things on your to-do list. It’s a cozy and warm — and not particularly edgy.

Perhaps that’s why, when I think about Thanksgiving television, it mostly fits in the realm of feel-good tv. Of course, that’s not to say that only optimistic shows have Thanksgiving specials. Mad Men had a bunch of Thanksgiving episodes — and I can’t say that I find the existential ennui of Mad Men very Thanksgiving-y. But when I think about Thanksgiving television, I think about that television that you go back to every year. Sometimes, maybe, you rewatch it with family and friends; other times, you quote it back and forth with your dad while your grandmother watches her Eagles game on tv. Truly iconic Thanksgiving episodes are the ones that you go back to time and time again, quoting, riffing on, and alluding to, until you and your loved ones have developed your own allusive language around the fictional dinners of favorite characters.

So this year, in honor of Thanksgiving, I’ve assembled a cornucopia of Thanksgiving episodes. Like any good cornucopia, there’s no “best” or “worst” — but there’s hopefully something to everyone’s taste. So whether you’re trying to compile your Thanksgiving tv marathon, or just to brush up on your pop culture allusions before you see your Netflix-obsessed cousins again, please enjoy TTLP’s favorite Thanksgiving episodes. And happy holidays!

“A Deep Fried Korean Thanksgiving” — Gilmore Girls (Season 3, Episode 9)

Lorelai and Rory eat their way through four Thanksgiving dinners; chaos, romance, and drama ensue, and Lorelai gets to use her Visigoth material, for once.

“The One with All the Thanksgivings” — Friends (Season 5, Episode 8)

In the same vein of the plurality of Thanksgivings that the Gilmores experience, Monica, Chandler, and the rest of the gang recount their worst Thanksgivings. Joey once got his head stuck in a turkey, Chandler once had a flock-of-seagulls haircut, and Phoebe was once a Civil War battlefield nurse. Also Monica and Chandler say that they love each other (!!).

“The One Where Underdog Gets Away” — Friends (Season 1, Episode 9)

Monica, Chandler, Rachel, Ross, Phoebe, and Joey celebrate their first friendsgiving together, after none of them end up able to go home to their families for the holiday. After an escaped balloon, a missed flight, and a burned turkey, they have a lovely night dining on a lavish meal of grilled cheese. “So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m very thankful that all of your Thanksgivings sucked.”

“Pangs” — Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season 4, Episode 8)

When a building project accidentally disturbs an ancient Native American site, a vengeful spirit comes after the Scooby Gang. Buffy fights supernatural foes, negotiates the complicated politics of Thanksgiving’s relationship to the genocide of Native Americans, and triumphs against the chaos of planning a *proper* Thanksgiving dinner.

“Wasn’t exactly a perfect Thanksgiving.”

“I don’t know, seemed kind of right to me. A bunch of anticipation, a big fight, and now we’re all sleepy.”

“Indians in the Lobby” — The West Wing (Season 3, Episode 7)

Sam and Toby deal with the possible political ramifications of a new way of calculating the poverty line, and C.J. tries to get her head around the systematic oppression of Native Americans. But really, this is the episode where President Bartlet calls the Butterball Hotline.

“The One with Chandler in a Box” — Friends (Season 4, Episode 8)

Monica invites her ex’s hunky son to Thanksgiving (“It’s like inviting a Greek tragedy over for dinner!”), while Chandler spends Thanksgiving in a box to atone for kissing Joey’s then-girlfriend (Joey had reasons. They were three-fold). Paget Brewster (of Thrilling Adventure Hour and five hundred other things) and Michael Vartan (of Alias) guest star.

“Shibboleth” — The West Wing (Season 2, Episode 8)

In which President Bartlet talks about faith, the boys put turkeys in C.J.’s office, and everyone learns what “shibboleth” means.

“Turkeys Away” — WKRP In Cincinnati (Season 1, Episode 7)

“As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

Happy Thanksgiving!