A question I have started to ask lately is about the relationship between silly and fun. A lot of stories are silly. And that is fine! Silly can be extremely enjoyable. The question is, if you're being silly are you letting us have fun with it or not.
The thing that brought this question to my attention first was the Netflix show Watcher. I want to preface this by saying: it is not good. If I was not a Person Who Watches Scary Things now, I would have avoided it entirely. But I kept thinking, "I like all these actors, surely there is more here than there appears to be and it will all pay off." It did not!
I spent most of it hate-watching (which you know has a special pleasure) and figuring out just why I hated it. Besides the fact that it's from Ryan Murphy. And eventually I found it. The show was very silly. Just utterly ridiculous. None of the characters makes any sense.
And the thing is there is nothing wrong with being silly. There is just one very important thing you also have to be: fun. Watcher was very silly but no fun at all. It would sometimes seem like it was about to be fun, throw in a little Jennifer Coolidge, but even that was oddly tame. All these actors acting so hard but not chewing up the scenery quite enough that you could call it campy or delightful. It played everything so straight but nothing in it was interesting or tense. It was absolutely no fun, pretty godawful, actually.
Since then I have been thinking about it a lot. Especially as I was reading The Family Game by Catherine Steadman, which we will get to in just a second. Like Watcher, it is about terrible rich people. And it is often very silly. But I kept wondering if it was any fun.
Before I get into it, let's share a few examples of what fun is when it works, because it is quite a broad spectrum! I have two that also involve terrible rich people, to stay on theme.
1) The movie Ready or Not. Absolutely silly, just plain ridiculous. It is not hiding its silliness, it is full of jokes and sight gags that let you know, "Yes, we all understand that this is a very silly story" which let you relax and enjoy yourself as it loses touch with reality more and more. You do not ever stop and say, "That couldn't happen," because the movie already knows that! That is not the point! The point is that watching it happen is fun. It is so fun that I have watched it multiple times and honestly I would sit down and watch it again right now.
2) The tv show Succession. Okay you may think this is prestige-y and not silly with Brian Cox and Mr. Darcy and piles of Emmy's but oh it very much is. It will play it totally straight for a scene or two but it can't help but go off the rails. Sometimes in small ways, with the characters' horrifyingly off-color insults, but sometimes in very big ways, like any time there is a party (I will be cringing over that rap until I am dead). It is often absolutely absurd, throwing ridiculous curveballs and big set pieces around all these characters you take such deep pleasure in loathing. The reason that silliness works in the middle of what seems so serious is that it is fun. It lets us laugh and wink and just roll around in how awful the characters are, it wants you to enjoy yourself.
Tonally these two examples are nowhere near each other, even if they both involve hating rich people. (Because hating rich people IS fun!) Fun comes in many flavors. It's not that you can never be serious, but you need to know when to wink and how much.
It is also fine to be totally serious and not silly and not fun. That's fine. We all have an appetite for a serious drama now and then.
The worst thing you can be is silly but not fun at all. When your plot is outlandish, the kind of thing that could be camp, but you play it totally straight. This is confusing to me. Why be so silly if you're not any fun? (WHY RYAN MURPHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO US? This feels like your personal brand!)
So. Back to The Family Game.
There has been a lot of "seems like Ready or Not" and yes there are similarities. The rich people, the new potential daughter-in-law, the concept of a "game." But they're not so similar that it's a problem. (Actually I would take a readalike to RoN any day!) The Family Game was not silly. Not at first. At first it was kind of corny but not silly.
Harry (aka Harriet) is somehow a famous author and somehow engaged to a handsome, rich, perfect man. This is all the more surprising because Harry has A Secret. Now that they're engaged she is finally meeting her fiance's family that she has heard basically nothing about for the year she's been in this relationship. They can be a lot, he says. And right off the bat, the mind games begin.
Harry wants to do the right thing and be accepted. So she plays along. But each time she sees them there is some new gauntlet. Not a gauntlet, a game. They love games. Games where they don't tell you the rules in advance. Games where you don't know what the consequences will be if you lose. And Harry has a lot to lose.
A lot of room for silly, no? But it started so normal, more corny than silly. Thankfully it got sillier the longer we went. Especially how Harry is the absolute most Never Ask Anyone A Useful Question protagonist ever. I wanted to shake her. "Harriet, these people are clearly terrible, will you PLEASE just ask someone a useful question or just stop going to all these family get togethers or maybe just leave when there's yet another horrible game!" Harriet never does.
And the silly gets bigger the further you go. I will not say it's no fun. But I wish it was like 50% more fun. I wish it embraced the silly. (It is sooooo close to getting this, like how there's a subplot involving Harry's father-in-law where she keeps finding herself weirdly attracted to him. Lean into that! Why have it if you're not going to have FUN with it?) Instead what saves it is that even though the pacing with all its excruciatingly slow reveals is very very annoying, it is very carefully done and when all the pieces are together it's very satisfying. You know I will tip my hat to a good plot with plenty of twists and a strong third act. The Games along the way are impressive, I was convinced they would be stupid, so I was surprised and pleased. The Games had some of that fun as we moved along, not too serious, not too silly, but definitely fun. It helped. But still. Next time let's make it a little more fun and then instead of just a "this was worth it in the end" you will get an all out rave from me.
Anyway. It's out now. I did the audio, which they DID have fun with, including some sound effects and things. The author reads it and even though she's a Brit her American accent is passable and you can tell she's enjoying herself. (Again! Fun! It's important!)
Here's some not-advance-copies I've been reading lately that you can find and read, too:
If you can tolerate this truly unlikable protagonist, there's a lot to like here. I know we talk about Unlikable Female Protagonists a lot, but this is an old school Unlikable Straight White Male Protagonist and oh lord he sucks but he is just the tiniest bit human enough to be able to bear the burden of this whole book. Literary enough to annoy a lot of thriller readers, and thriller enough to annoy a lot of literary readers, a nice sweet spot.
Golden age-style locked room mystery. The problem with golden age locked room mysteries is that their solutions are always so complex that they're annoying rather than exciting at the end. This is no exception. But if that is your jam, please enjoy.
I am convinced that you can read a Nina LaCour book as an acceptable substitute for a therapy session.
I have seen absolutely zero coverage of this, which is weird because it's the 2nd in a series, the 1st of which was super popular and a Reese's pick. I thought this was better than Conviction, with a stronger plot and a better emotional center now that we know our main characters better and don't have to sit through all the place setting. Denise Mina is One Of The Best. She also has a huge backlist so if you have not read her, you are in luck. And audio is great if you want the Scottish accent.
The third Highsmith I've read this year (also Deep Water and Strangers on a Train) and they are all just so good and I cannot believe they came out in the 50's. I am enjoying myself so much. This one is the least gay one so far but I didn't even mind!