2023 rapidly approaches and with it, you will see a change in the things I’m putting out (more on that at the end of this post). As a marker of that shift in direction, let’s talk culture. Specifically, let’s review the series that I’ve picked up this year. How good are they? Do they engage the audience and keep you around? What can we learn from them for our own business and creative efforts? I will offer a review, verdict, and a creative lesson on each series.
A.D. Police Files
A.D. Police Files is a three-episode prequel to the original Bubblegum Crisis series. It features the exploits of Leon McNichol, a featured character in that series, when he was a rookie there. In this universe, the A.D. Police are the elite law enforcement arm in Megatokyo, and tackle crimes that involve “Boomers” – advanced robots that are now common.
The series is wild, to put it mildly, especially the opening. When I showed it to friends, they were still talking about how off the wall it was the next day.
Aside from its aesthetic qualities and shock value, the stories in A.D. Police Files are easy to engage with and follow. One of them involves a rogue, high-quality prostitute Boomer. The other involves prostitution of a more human kind but leads to events that wind up stretching the definition of human. The third involves stretching the definition of human – and human suffering – to the very limit.
A.D. Police Files also has that old school 80s and 90s cyberpunk aesthetic that I love. So that helps. Even if you aren’t particularly a sci-fi or cyberpunk fan, it is short enough and packs such an efficient punch for its runtime that you’ll enjoy it.
Creative lesson: Having a shocking, engaging opening matters a lot. When paired with a concept interesting enough to keep an audience, you have a hard combination to beat.
A.D. Police: To Protect and Serve
A.D. Police: To Protect and Serve has a similar concept to its predecessor, but takes place in the Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040 continuity. It also features a completely new slate of characters that don’t appear in its sequel. It is more elaborate, with 12 episodes, and follows the adventures of a hot shot A.D. Police officer and his amnesiac partner. The two of them eventually find themselves embroiled in an immortality experiment that involves the CEO of Genom, the company that creates the Boomers in all of the Bubblegum Crisis iterations.
This series isn’t as wild and crazy as its spiritual predecessor. Because it has a longer runtime, it doesn’t need to be. However, the stories in the first one are a lot more interesting. That isn’t to say that this one’s story is bad. The episodes are decent and the interaction of the characters, as well as the fight scenes, is where this series shines. The villain through most of A.D. Police: To Protect and Serve is also good, because he makes you want to see him fall.
The big reveal, which I won’t spoil, made sense, but also left something unexplained. I wondered to myself: “why would he be in his career if that’s what he was all along?” The ending also felt a bit cliched. You will also notice a decline in the artwork compared to the bloom of the 80s and 90s.
Verdict: Recommend for sci-fi and cyberpunk fans, or if you have the time and inclination.
Creative lesson: As told in Wired for Story, your big reveal needs to leave viewers satisfied and make complete sense with everything that has transpired before. Make sure you plot it out carefully.
All Elite Wrestling
In the summer and fall of 2021, after it began touring again, All Elite Wrestling (AEW) looked like it was on the verge of breaking out into a legitimate mainstream competitor for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). It brought CM Punk back to professional wrestling for the first time in seven years. Bryan Danielson (AKA Daniel Bryan), who main evented WWE’s WrestleMania that year, quickly followed, as did NXT standout Adam Cole. These three signings came on the heels of other notable WWE stars jumping ship.
Story-wise, The organically-built “Hangman” Adam Page finally became champion after two years, defeating old friend-turned-enemy Kenny Omega, a founder of the company. MJF, the company’s best home-grown talent, and CM Punk also began their anticipated feud.
Unfortunately, things declined from there. The company’s quality took a dramatic turn for the worse in 2022.
Everything Tony Khan could do wrong in 2022, he did do wrong. The first (and worst) major mistake he made was in buying Ring of Honor, an old, respected independent wrestling promotion, and attempting to revive it from the dead purely from his fandom, rather than just using the intellectual property and video archive. Then he wasted valuable television time with Ring of Honor stories and feuds that took attention away from his main company and made the programming a clusterfuck.
On the programming itself, Tony Khan failed to feature the right performers, going for the bland-but-athletic rather than the stars on his roster, such as Wardlow, who I covered here as part of an unrelated topic. The champion roster through most of the year was the worst in company history. Page’s reign turned out to be a complete flop.
Finally, his lack of talent management capability came to the fore in the infamous post-pay-per-view blowup from CM Punk in September, which ended in the biggest PR disaster in the company’s history. Punk’s lack of respect for his colleagues and Tony Khan as his boss is palpable in the incident which set off the chain reaction.
It got so bad that I stopped watching. Only now, with the talented and MJF and Jamie Hayter as the company’s men’s and women’s champions, have I begun taking a peek again. I liked what I saw with the feud between MJF and Ricky Starks, one of those star performers who should have been featured far more. The direction going into the New Year finally looks like it’s improved, but some of the negative quirks remain, and it’s far too late to have saved the company from its Disaster Year.
Verdict: Avoid for now (but watch the stuff with MJF and Jamie Hayter on YouTube).
Creative lesson: You better be keenly aware of your roster of characters and how to make them interesting. Undue attention to characters you might like but your audience doesn’t find interesting is a recipe for doom.
The original that spawned all the spinoffs, Bubblegum Crisis first came out in 1987 and was in many ways the peak of the 80s and 90s cyberpunk movement. I’d known of it before but never watched it until this year. Set several years after A.D. Police Files, this eight-episode series follows a group of four mercenary vigilantes who make it their mission to ensure that Genom has a check on its power.
Sylia Stingray is the leader of this group, called the Knight Sabers. She is the daughter of the inventor of the Boomers, so has a personal reason behind her mission, as she hates to see her father’s technology abused and wants to avenge his murder. She is joined by Priscilla “Priss Asagiri,” a small-time rock singer who hates Boomers, Linna Yamazaki a dancer-turned stockbroker, and Nene Romanova, an A.D. Police officer. Each member has her specialty in combat.
We unfortunately don’t get enough character backstories in Bubblegum Crisis as we could, but the group’s missions are fun and intense. The artwork is superb and the soundtrack is still to this day one of the best ever produced for an animated series. Even the English versions (which unfortunately were never released in clean albums) are still good. The series’ biggest weakness is that it lacks a proper ending, thanks to a long and complicated history and feud between its two producing companies. Still, it was my favorite series this year, which is why I spent so much time on all its media, as you can see.
Creative lesson: Watch this to see what happens when you have a good concept and attend to the details on it in story, art, and music. It’s a lesson in how to put a plan together and what its execution should look like.
Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040
The spiritual sequel to the original series, Tokyo 2040 takes place in an alternative continuity to the original. This is a 26-episode production, giving it much more time to tell its story. Unfortunately, it is not always satisfying. While Linna Yamazaki got much more development than she did in the original series, one cannot say that the Priss and Sylia in Tokyo 2040 are improvements from their predecessors. Priss went from a hardcore “badass” rocker and biker with a prankster and even sentimental side to a more generic tsundere. Sylia lost a lot of her elegance and leadership qualities, becoming much more moody and passive without good reason. The artwork (having changed from the 80s and early 90s cyberpunk flowering) and music are also clearly inferior.
Still, there were some things I liked here. Tokyo 2040 did not have the legal problems that plagued its predecessor and was able to develop a coherent and logical storyline as a result. The main villain, Brian J. Mason, gets more time to develop himself than he does in the original, and I liked the climax of the series, with the out-of-control mega Boomer that threatens everything, felt grand and dramatic. The problem came in the lagtime to get there.
Verdict: Recommend if you have the time and inclination.
Creative lesson: Sequel series often fall prey to the standards set in the original. When developing a spiritual sequel in a new continuity, do not neglect the qualities that made them so well-liked in the first place. Do not change for changing’s sake. But do push them in a new direction and plot that was not explored in the original, to give you more room to escape from the tropes that it set.
This three-episode production is meant to serve as a pseudo-finish for the original series. Bubblegum Crash gets a lot of criticism in comparison to its predecessor. The art and soundtrack quality is not quite the same, true. The stories aren’t as engaging, either. Still, Bubblegum Crash did the best it could reasonably do, given the legal turmoil the series found itself in at the time. In the second episode, we saw some development from Priss, where she needed to confront her prejudices against Boomers during a mission. I thought this was the best part of the series. There was also a satisfying final battle to cap it all off. If you’ve watched all of Crisis, you should watch Crash just to get some closure.
Verdict: Recommend if you watched the original series.
Creative lesson: Do the best you can with the means you have available – but it MUST be your best. Do not be lazy.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
Disclosure: I have not watched this series or even a single episode in its entirety. However, I’ve seen enough and know more than enough of Tolkien to leave a review. Amazon’s billion-dollar disaster is undoubtedly the biggest flop of 2022. The original Lord of the Rings trilogy became an instant cultural statement. That hasn’t happened with Rings of Power, has it?
We begin our problems with a legal issue. Amazon didn’t secure the rights to make the series they should have made. The only secured the rights to the appendices in The Lord of the Rings novel. Yet, they set their series thousands of years earlier, in the Second Age of Middle-earth. Had they chosen a Third Age setting instead, such as the exploits of the young Aragorn and his bid to win Arwen’s affection, the producers might have succeeded more than they did. Instead, they chose a setting they didn’t have the full rights to, and it shows. That was the first strike.
The second strike came in the awful storytelling and characters. The producers butchered everything that Tolkien created. Galadriel is insufferable. The Elves and Dwarves are losers. The “Harfoots” (they couldn’t get the rights to the name Hobbits) are as close to the definition of “cringe” as you will ever see in a movie or television series, and didn’t need to be added at all, since they don’t figure into the history of the Second Age. The “mystery” Gandalf, who shouldn’t be there either, adds to the cringe.
Don’t even get me started on the men of Numenor, who have descended from haughty arrogance to a “they took our jerbs” sort of resentment. Don’t believe me? You were warned.
Honestly, this would have been better than the original speech. I did you a favor.
The acting is terrible. The scripting is terrible. The storyline is as big of a convoluted mess as you can get (all those twists and turns…to activate a volcano?). The “heroes,” ESPECIALLY GALADRIEL, are so bad that after you’re done watching them, you just want Sauron to win. And speaking of Sauron, they took him from a dark lord who laid plans for thousands of years and made him into a drifting loser, leaving the “big reveal” at the end an incoherent mess.
The woke nonsense is in truth just the spoiled icing on the rotten cake. This series will go down as one of the most epic creative failures of all time.
Creative lesson: Working with a big intellectual property does not mean you can be sloppy. It will only magnify your failure that much more. You must treat every work with the care as if it’s something no one knows.
A three-episode series set in the original Bubblegum Crisis universe, it takes place shortly after the events depicted in the original series. The episodes follow Branch, an elite investigative unit in the A.D. Police. The first episode follows a Boomer who has fallen in love with his human boss and intrudes on her at home with a proposal. The second follows a series of murders of Boomer prostitutes and comes across one named Eve, who is so sophisticated that she might be on the verge of becoming human. The third involves a political conspiracy.
The first two episodes in Parasite Dolls were very good. I thought the third was a letdown compared to the other two, with an unsatisfying ending.
Being only three episodes long, Parasite Dolls does not have much time to develop its characters, but it uses it as best it can. The main character, Lieutenant Basil “Buzz” Nikvest, accidentally killed a child before the series began, which makes him reluctant to use a gun, setting up a dynamic similar to that seen with one of the characters in the original Die Hard. His wife was killed by a rogue Boomer, too, giving him motivation for what he does. Other characters round him out, especially the Boomer cop Rod Kimball, which forces Buzz to work through his issues with his kind.
There are good setups and payoffs in Parasite Dolls, which is the last Bubblegum Crisis series made to date.
Verdict: Recommend, but the last episode felt a little disjointed.
Creative lesson: Creating a compelling setup and payoff (like with Buzz and his gun) can do a lot over a little time. You can also find good material for a story in the dirty reality of daily life. It doesn’t need to be a sweeping epic involving massive conspiracies and chosen heroes.
Slayers Collector’s Edition Volumes 1 and 2
One of the most popular light novel and animated series from Japan in the 1990s, Slayers now has a reprint I’ve long awaited, and I picked up the first two collector’s edition volumes this year. Both of the books are beautifully-made, with full-color print spreads inside. In total, the first six light novels are covered in these two books. The third one recently came out and I’ll pick it up when I see it.
Slayers is a fantasy series that parodies fantasy tropes, so there is a lot of humor in it. It’s not the kind of serious story you’d find in Tolkien. It does have a lot of fun characters though, whose interactions are even more fun. The main character, Lina Inverse, is by herself a hilarious lens from which to view events.
Each chapter starts and ends on the right note and you will find a lot of lessons here about pacing and the ways to keep readers properly engaged. The fights are well-constructed. Slayers is not as big on lore and world-building as other series in its genre. It tells you enough and that’s it. The exception is in the mechanics of its magic system, but this enhances how the fights go down, rather than distracting from them.
All in all, these stories are punchy, efficient, and well-executed.
Verdict: Recommend if you like fantasy series or just want some humor.
Creative lesson: Well-constructed characters and their interactions are the fuel for any story. They can save a bad plot. In contrast, a good plot can be broken if this element is lacking. See my review on Children of Ruin for more about that.
This two-part miniseries documentary premiered on The History Channel on Memorial Day. Truth be told, I wasn’t impressed with it. It was too short to truly get into all of the things Theodore Roosevelt did in his life. There were just that many of them. Many aspects of his exploits and mindset did not appear. If you want to know about him, you’re a lot better off reading the Morris Trilogy and my series on his life here. Start with my review of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.
Verdict: Avoid. It isn’t terrible, but you can use your time better.
Creative lesson: If you’re going to cover a colossus, you best be prepared to have allotted the time you need to do so properly.
I reviewed this series last time, but now that I’m done with it I want to complete my review. Most of what I said remains unchanged. The way that this series maintained tension throughout its narrative was nothing short of immaculate. This is partially because it’s so relatable. The protagonist, Jugyeong Lim, isn’t worried about high-tech Boomers or evil dark lords. She just does not want her true face exposed because of how badly she was bullied for her looks when she was young. But we understand, especially when she becomes a celebrity makeup artist as True Beauty reaches its endgame, that her exposure was inevitable. It hits and hits hard. Very rarely has the climax of a story kept me as engaged as True Beauty did.
Unfortunately, that climax also exposed some weaknesses in the comic. Jugyeong was so well-built that I get the impression the author didn’t water the other characters, leaving them shriveled. Jugyeong’s boyfriend’s reaction during her ordeal was pathetic, to put it mildly, especially because the controversy embroiled him, too. He is not a coward, but instead of fighting tooth and nail for her, he is oddly subdued and absent. After ignoring no detail in showing us how much he loved her to the point of fault – Aristotle’s excess – his relative absence in her darkest hour was jarring. He said some words of encouragement, but that was it. In fact, her ex-boyfriend helped her during her greatest trial far more than her current boyfriend did.
The ending to True Beauty also fell flat, even though Jugyeong did get through her biggest test in a satisfying way thanks to all she had done earlier in the story.
This climax and ending exposed True Beauty’s biggest flaw. The male leads were so in love with Jugyeong that their characters suffered. It was an unhealthy obsession, truth be told. Suho, previously the most interesting character in the series, turned into a Gary Stu because of it, while Seojun became almost like a jobber until the last legs of the series.
Verdict: Recommend, but be prepared for many annoying romance tropes.
Creative lesson: Building a well-constructed protagonist with hooks that lead the audience into wanting to root for it at the climax – the moment of greatest peril – is paramount, but do not neglect your other important characters. They are also crucial to the plot and they should not become pathetic or inactive at the moment of decision.
This was one of the most eventful years in WWE history, because Vince McMahon, the promoter who turned it into the global juggernaut it is, was forced out of power after a scandal. With his departure, his son-in-law Triple H took over the company’s creative direction. Fans had anticipated this for years and now it had finally come. His departure in July, close to the year’s midpoint, also gave viewers a relatively easy point of comparison: look at the differences in the content between the first and second half of 2022 and you can see the differences between the generations.
I’m pleased to say that even though WWE isn’t exactly setting the world on fire like it did in the Attitude Era, the new regime has improved it a lot. The story with Sami Zayn’s involvement in Roman Reigns’ faction, the Bloodline, is the best thing in wrestling right now.
Meanwhile, other wrestlers are getting the development they need. Stories have improved and people who Vince McMahon fired – who should not have been – have also come back. The War Games edition of Survivor Series was a vast improvement on the Raw vs. SmackDown wars that had taken place in previous years. Triple H also concluded the long-tired Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar feud in a satisfying way with their last man standing match at SummerSlam.
I look forward to seeing what Triple H does during WrestleMania season starting next month. The Royal Rumble should be a lot of fun. And no, Vince McMahon is not coming back, no matter what the rumors say right now.
Verdict: Recommend when you have the time.
Creative lesson: New blood is needed in any long-running series. You must consult new minds and hear new ideas, especially if you’re getting older.
That came out longer than expected! It’s a good preview though, because next year my work will shift much more to education and culture, and far less away from politics. You might have noticed that I’ve been cleaning up this blog a bit. Expect more of that. I’ll make some more specific announcements either at the end of this year or at the start of 2023. I have several concepts that are well-advanced and now with my workload lessening, I’ll have mot time to prepare them for execution.
Read Lives of the Luminaries in the meantime. It’s a great educational gift!