Saturday, November 29, 2014

Batman: Arkham Origins (2013)

People have been telling me I have to play the Arkham games since the first one was released. For years, I've heard that they were fantastic, that they offered the experience of being Batman, that the writing and voice acting were great, and so on and so forth. But I just ignored them, not because I thought they were wrong, but because I was worried they might be right.

Then, last year, I heard something about the third game in the series that made me pay attention. The story is entirely set on a single night when eight assassins are hired to try and kill Batman. And that night is December 24th.

I knew it was just a matter of time. That time, incidentally, was the duration it took for Steam to mark Arkham Origins down to $7.49 during one of their ridiculously amazing sales. I bought it and set out to experience the holiday-fueled mayhem.

A few words of warning before I continue. I am not remotely qualified to review video games. I certainly played my share back in the day, but the day in question was back in the 80's and early 90's. As systems evolved, I mostly abandoned the practice, not wanting to get caught up in yet another hobby. I've played a handful of games on computers, the Game Cube, and the Wii since, but I'm certainly no expert.

That said, I'm more than qualified to talk about Batman and the holiday elements. I'll offer some thoughts on the rest of the experience, but take these with a grain of salt. For better or worse, this is the first modern open world adventure game I've played that doesn't rhyme with "Regend of Helda".

So then. Let's discuss what how this was.

The game starts with a breakout and murder at Blackgate. As you restore order, the game takes you through the basic moves. I was a little underwhelmed at this point: I didn't find the controls immediately intuitive, and I found Blackgate a bit dull (though I liked the Christmas lights). I then fought Killer Croc, and moved outside of the prison....

Suddenly, I was in Gotham. The Gothic architecture was right out of the comics, only given life in three dimensions and in greater depth than I'd ever hoped.


The lights, the decorations, the over-sized Santas and fake gifts on roofs... they didn't take this lightly. The holiday permeates every level of the game's design. The music incorporates familiar holiday themes, too. On top of that, the writing reflects the season. Criminals with a sense of humor reference it left and right, while Alfred is constantly reminding you what day it is.

Like most action and noir stories set around the holidays, Arkham Origins uses Christmas as juxtaposition to make the darker aspects feel even darker. It's no mistake that most of the more disturbing sequences explicitly reference the date or use holiday trappings in their delivery. The effect works here, achieving a genuinely disturbing tone.

From a story and character perspective, the game delivers above my wildest expectations. The writing is top-notch, and you don't need to add "for a game" as a qualifier. It's a great Batman story, regardless of medium. The villains feel complex and believable while retaining their core essences. Batman undergoes a character arc throughout the piece - granted, it's an extremely common arc for him, but it's delivered with such nuance and attention to detail, we'll overlook the fact it's been done before.

I think the larger plot is handled even better. As I mentioned before, the story opens with eight assassins being hired to kill Batman on Christmas Eve. Naturally, I'd expected the game to be structured in a relatively standard "level" manner: you make your way through the assassins one-by-one, then go after their boss. It's a fairly generic video game premise, and I'd expected a similar execution.

Turns out, I was wrong. The story spins off in unexpected directions as the assassins' characters come to the forefront. They're not universally interested in the money or the job, they aren't all part of the main story line, and they don't necessarily get along. The video game plot-line unravels and is replaced by something much more operatic and engrossing.

The voice work helps, as well. The earlier games used the legendary Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill from Batman: the Animated Series. This one replaces them with Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker. Both due an admirable job, with Baker in particular delivering a Joker nearly indistinguishable from Hamill's. The supporting cast is also great.

The game's only major fault is the design of several female characters. The Arkham series, like most video games, was clearly designed by men with teenage boys in mind as a core audience. As a result, women are sexualized to an unnecessary and often baffling degree. Characters who should be lithe are buxom, and their dialogue and mannerisms are layered with innuendo. This type of thing is always obnoxious, but in the context of such stellar writing and a complex world, it's all the more unfortunate.

There are a few other issues I have with the game, but these are more preference. I feel like the armies of gangs wandering the street could have been culled to a third of what's present without impacting the difficulty or opportunity for advancement. The fact you usually can't turn a corner without coming across a half-dozen thugs looking for trouble undercuts the sense of alienation that gives the game its charm. Likewise, while I've gotten the hang of the controls, I still find them somewhat cumbersome.

But these are all ultimately minor issues in a stellar Batman game featuring a story that can hold its own alongside the best of the Dark Knight's tales in comics and animation. Gotham at Christmas is something that deserves to be experienced: consider this one highly recommended.

The Bishop's Wife (1948)

Neither Erin nor I can recall which of us added this to the Netflix queue, so we were going in a bit blind, and were delightfully surprised.

The Bishop’s Wife opens by introducing Cary Grant, who proceeds to step in front of speeding cars while helping old men across the street and rescuing babies and more or less being possibly-magical. He takes a casual eavesdropper’s interest in the woes of a beautiful young woman, Julia, who happens to be the bishop’s wife.

Then we meet the bishop, Henry, at home. Henry is trying raise money to get a new cathedral built, and due to the process and stress of doing so, he’s screwing up his relationship with his family and his faith. He prays for guidance. He gets Cary Grant.

Grant says that his name is Dudley, and that he’s an angel sent to help the bishop. The bishop is naturally skeptical of this.

Dudley proceeds to act as the bishop’s ‘assistant’, even though mainly what he does is charm every woman on screen, including Julia. Once Henry realizes that Julia and Dudley are having a fine old time together, he tries to get Dudley to leave. It doesn’t go well for him to cross a dude with supernatural powers.

Dudley eventually comes clean about the fact that he knows he’s in the wrong: he’s broken the first rule of angel-ing and gotten emotionally involved. To make it up to Henry, he helps solve the money problem, and the faith problem, and gives him a leg up on how to make it all up to Julia.

Everyone goes home happy, except maybe Dudley.

There are some really interesting implications that aren’t answered in this light, bubbly comedy. What happens if an angel falls in love with a human? What does love even mean for an immortal? What keeps an angel’s power in check? Dudley doesn’t seem to have any rules about his powers, he uses them to embarrass people, to pick locks, to get people drunk, to figure-skate impressively and to win a snowball fight. He’s almost a Puck-like figure.

We both really enjoyed this movie, and recommend that more people drop it into their Netflix queues.

While You Were Sleeping (1995)

The most disorienting aspect of While You Were Sleeping now is knowing that Sandra Bullock would eventually star in Gravity, which is a good film but - sadly - not a Christmas movie. While You Were Sleeping, on the other hand, is just the opposite.

For those of you lucky enough to have missed the 90's, the decade was full of movies like this. The rom-com was about as common then as superhero movies are now. This one's no worse than most, but that's a relatively low bar.

This movie starts by introducing us to Sandra Bullock, who plays a character whose main character trait is that she's lonely. Yes, it's Christmas, and she has no one to share it with other than her cat. Also, she wants to travel.

Her job is to collect tokens from people boarding the Chicago subways. The one bright part of her day is when this one random guy comes by. She's never spoken to him, but she falls for him anyway, because she has serious emotional issues.

On Christmas morning, which she has to work because her coworkers have people who care about them, she sees the random guy get attacked and fall onto the tracks. She jumps down and pulls his unconscious body out of the way of the train. The guy lands in a coma, and Bullock follows him to the hospital.

Due to an implausible and contrived series of events, his family winds up thinking she's his fiance, leading to a series of scenarios a cynical person might mockingly call "humorous." She celebrates Christmas with them and winds up being accepted into the family. Everyone just accepts her without question.

Everyone, that is, except for the coma-guy's skeptical yet kindhearted brother, played by the more conventionally attractive Bill Pullman. He's always had issues with his brother, who we begin to learn is a pretty mediocre human, anyway.

She's freaked out by the misunderstanding and wants to set things straight. Unfortunately for those of us watching the movie, this takes an hour and change to get resolved. Even the guy waking up doesn't do the trick: everyone assumes he's got amnesia, and he's dumb enough to believe it.

Needless to say, the movie resolves with her marrying Pullman's character. The fact she knows him only slightly better than his brother at this point isn't brought up. But she winds up with a guy who makes rocking chairs, a family of over-the-top character actors, and a chance to utter the movie's title as the end credits roll.

There are worse romantic comedies out there, but that's no reason to waste your time with this garbage. The movie is cheesy, boring, and moronic. Skip it.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Leverage: The Ho, Ho, Ho Job (2010) and The Toy Job (2012)

Throw The A-Team and Ocean's Eleven into a blender and hit puree, and you get Leverage, a series about four semi-reformed thieves teaming up with a semi-unreformed insurance investigator in order to take on corrupt politicians, heartless corporations, and rich crime bosses to steal back what they've taken from "the little guy." If the concept sounds a touch sappy, rest assured the series itself is a lot of fun. A sentence or two of cheesy moralizing every episode is a small price to pay for great characters (any one of the show's five leads could hold down a series of their own), tightly-plotted stories, and hilarious situations.

In other words, the series is definitely worth your time. The Christmas episodes are, as well, though they're not the best jumping-on points.

"The Ho, Ho, Ho Job" starts like most episodes, with a guest star showing up with a sob story. This time, the wronged individual is a mall Santa Claus who's been framed for a drinking problem and publicly fired. The mall manager who fired him is played by Dave Foley, who's hilarious as a villain who - unlike most of the show's bad guys - isn't entirely beyond salvation (it is Christmas, after all).

If this sounds a tad petty for the world's best thieves to bother rectifying, rest assured it's well below their usual level of crime. But the writers - as well as the characters - are conscious of this, so it's easy to roll with the premise. Besides, there's a lot more going on in this episode.

It features two major twists, one featuring a returning character I was glad to see back (though not surprised in the least). In addition, you get hints of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Scrooge, Die Hard, Miracle on 34th Street, and - in all likelihood - several others I'm missing. This is a Christmas episode through and through, complete with a trivial miracle at the end and heartwarming lines. But it's also an episode of Leverage, so they toss in some geek references, as well, including one that's lacking in subtlety but still too cool not to love.

"The Toy Job" comes at a slightly inopportune point in the series: it's the second-to-last episode, and it wedges in a little extra character development for the finale. Overall, it's a far more conventional episode about the team going after a toy company executive who's run the numbers and determined a few dead kids are cheaper than a recall. The episode is set at Christmas, providing Nate an opportunity to deliver a line I was shocked they neglected to include in the first holiday episode.

Between segments of the con, there's a lot of discussion about the holiday's corporate aspects. The job involves manipulating mass numbers of shoppers and children into wanting a specific toy for Christmas. When Parker expresses some reservations, Nate argues that using marketing to trick the public into wanting a product is precisely what the holidays are about. I can respect that point-of-view.

Still, the writing around Nate's character felt a little off to me throughout this one. I appreciate they were building to the finale, but he came off a little too melancholy in my opinion. He certainly wasn't antagonistic towards Christmas in the last special: why is he suddenly soured on the traditions this time?

This is a good episode, but not quite as good as the first. Neither are among the series' best, but they're still solid Christmas episodes. I'm dropping a "highly recommended" label on this, mainly for the series at large. These are two great hours of television, but that's par for the show.

All that said, if you've never seen an episode of Leverage and are just looking for something for the holiday, I'd encourage you to look elsewhere until you've caught up. You'll still have fun with these episodes if you watch them cold, but it's far better if you're familiar with the characters.

'Twas the Night Before Black Friday

According to myth, a group of early American religious extremists once arranged a feast with an indigenous tribe in New England on the fourth Thursday of November. Soon after, the settlers set out to murder the people and cultures that had welcomed them in order to claim their land. This went on for centuries, and millions died.

We now recognize this slaughter of innocent life in the name of material gain in an annual tradition called Black Friday.

It's become a tradition here at Mainlining Christmas to go out on the night before Black Friday, which we call Black Friday's Eve. We go not as shoppers but as chroniclers, eager to study the changing holiday.

This year, we went early, mainly because the festivities started early. The number of stores opening at 5:00 this year was astonishing. We began a little later: we arrived at our first stop around 7:30 and traveled from store to store until 9:30.

Our first observation was that everything felt quieter than usual. The stores were still crowded, the parking lots still full, but not like other years. There was a sense of routine to the proceedings: this is no longer a new event but rather a national tradition.

There was a sense of loss in the air, like the black magic fueling the night had dwindled. Carts which would once have held big screen TV's were now full of towels, clothing, and other assorted items. Most of the lines we saw seemed downright manageable: we didn't witness even one assault.

There are many likely reasons for the shift. First, the hours of Black Friday's Eve have expanded, disbursing the crowds over a greater length of time. And the increased number of participating retailers meant the crowds were dispersed in space, as well.

Even the exceptions, Target and Walmart, seemed less intense than ever before. The lines there were long - extremely long, in fact - but not like other years we've visited. Not even close.

There were still shoppers, of course. Many shoppers, in fact: it's doubtful most of these retailers have been this crowded since before last Christmas. But everything felt controlled, rational. The lines were long but not massively so.

Then there were the deals. Gone were the truly extreme offers. There were still timed bargains being offered, but they weren't dangled like carrots in roped off sections, at least not that we saw this year. Instead, the markdowns felt like conventional sales. Large sales, perhaps, but sales nonetheless.

The shoppers seemed to respond in kind. The energy we've seen in the past had been tempered. It's difficult to imagine, for example, anyone shooting or stabbing a fellow customer over one of these markdowns. But the Black Friday shoppers may yet surprise us.

We went to Best Buy, Walmart, Target, and Toys R Us, where - I'm embarrassed to admit - I actually purchased something. There was no line, and it was something I'd been looking for. Needless to say, I apologized to the clerk after paying.

We also went to the mall. The experience was incredibly strange. I'd roughly estimate about 60% of the stores were open. There were few or no patterns to this: many stores selling items that would likely be of interest to holiday shoppers were closed while stores with little to offer were just as likely to be open.

Even the larger shops weren't immune to this pattern. Sears was open for business, while the Macy's we passed was closed. There were, however, managers standing in front of the locked doors to apologize and explain that the local union wouldn't permit them to open.

We accepted their apology for not being able to make their employees work on Thanksgiving.

The strange thing was that the closed stores really were what felt out of place. Everything else simply seemed to suggest a normal holiday shopping day. The crowds of people, the busy corridors, the decorated mall... it all felt so normal, even with a massive turkey dinner in our stomachs. The manic energy of past Black Friday's Eves had subsided, but in its wake it had left yet another day of Christmas shopping.

Food Review: Dryck Julmust

In line at IKEA is not necessarily where you first think to pick up something Christmassy, even though all the decorations are near the registers. (Incidentally, I really enjoy looking at IKEA Christmas decorations. I don’t even know why; they aren’t that different. But so many light up!)

This year, however, we ran across this:

“Swedish Festive Drink”

On the back, it adds: “Aromatized Carbonated Soft Drink”

So of course, after chilling per instructions, we had to try it.

What did it taste like? Mostly, a whole lot of not much.

It smells of something that I can’t quite define. Something I recognize but can’t put a name to.

It tastes mostly of water and sugar and that carbonated bitterness common to most drinks containing copious CO2.

There’s a faint taste of something vaguely fruity, but not fruit, like a lollipop flavor. Erin said it tastes like expired, watered down Pepsi. He’s not that far off. The bottle lists both hops flavor and malt flavor, and I guess that must be the vaguely familiar scent and tang.

Neither as bad or as good as we might have hoped, this festive drink fell a bit flat.

A Baby Blues Christmas Special (2000)

Remember the show Baby Blues? Of course you don't. Apparently, it was one of the myriad animated sitcoms that was produced in the past two decades that producers hoped would miraculously obtain the kind of success The Simpson enjoyed, but that wound up being cancelled after half a season. When you think about it, it's a lot like the gold rush. Sure, every now and then a show like Family Guy or King of the Hill will inexplicably pull a nugget of gold out of a mountain stream in Colorado, but for every one of them a dozen Family Dogs and Capital Critters drown while trying to cross the Mississippi River.

Baby Blues was sort of like a cross between Dr. Katz and Dilbert. It was based on a comic strip of the same name, which I've also never heard of.

The Christmas Special was also the series's pilot. At least it was supposed to be: the WB produced it then sat on it. They wound up airing five other episodes then cancelling the series. It was eventually aired late night on Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" a few years later.

This was relatively edgy for a network animated series. It didn't go as far as Family Guy, but it did acknowledge the existence of sex. More than that, the overall tone was a bit more adult. The humor was geared towards its believable portrayal of stress and depression, which made for an experience quite a bit darker than you get typically got from The Simpsons at the time. It was also apparently darker and more mature than the comic's creators wanted, at least if Wikipedia is to be believed.

Structurally, it was presented as a series of vignettes delivering a few jokes and devoting more time towards building characters than plot. There was conflict around the new parents growing frustrated with each other, but it felt like it was there to justify the scenes around it, rather than organically developing out of them.

The episode was well made, and the jokes were generally funny. It tried filling a niche that's typically left empty. Unfortunately, it's left empty for a reason: the show succeeded in being depressing, but that who wants to be depressed watching a realistic cartoon? I absolutely believe animation is an immensely versatile medium, but it generally falls flat when doing something that can easily be accomplished in live-action.

This worked well with Christmas elements, using them sparingly but keeping them present. From the use of the song "Blue Christmas" in the episode's opening to the incorporation of an office Christmas party, they certainly kept the holiday nearby. There was also a sequence showing them going Christmas shopping with the newborn. Christmas was always in the background, but the characters remained the focal point.

The most significant Christmas elements came at the end, when they took the baby for a drive late on Christmas Eve and wound up at a diner several hours away. There was a surprisingly believable nativity allusion, coupled with an "is it Santa Claus?" moment with a great punchline.

All in all, not a bad special, but I don't think the world missed out on anything grand when the WB shut down the series.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Toy Review: Playmobile Santa's Workshop

This set isn't actually called "Santa's Workshop." All that's written on the box is "Christmas" and an item number. But it sure looks like they were going for a workshop effect, so that seems like as good a way as any to differentiate it from the Santa/reindeer set I bought three years ago.

Speaking of the box...

It was pretty smashed up. But it was also on sale for 85% off, thanks to a summer clearance sale at Toys R Us. I wound up paying about $6 for this, which is just under half what I paid for that other set. I figured that was a bargain even if half the pieces were missing (I was even happier when I discovered everything was still in the box).

Open this up, and you're staring at a bunch of bags and plastic panels. You also get directions and a tool for inserting plastic pegs into the larger pieces. Here's a look at the tool and a page of the instructions:

Let me sum that up for you: if you give this to a five year old expecting anything other than a mess, a dozen lost parts, and tears, you're in for a disappointment. This isn't especially hard to put together, but it does require some time and effort. You're going to have to go IKEA on this thing's ass if you want a workshop that looks like the picture on the front of the box.

Surprisingly, your effort is rewarded. While the finished product might not top any "toy of the year" awards, it's a cool playset. The door and windows open and close, as does the mailbox.

Like everything Playmobile produces, it's sturdy. Seriously sturdy: highly-evolved, radioactive cockroaches will be hanging out in these long after the nuclear apocalypse.

Fully constructed, this stands about 9 1/2 inches tall, 12 1/2 deep, and 14 across, including the stables.

Here's a look from behind. I love the mailbox on the side of the stables - that opens up and comes with some miniature letters. And speaking of accessories....

I'm not going to bother trying to list everything. There are three figures, counting the snowman. You also get a decorated Christmas tree, a rocking horse, a ladder, a pile of wood, a cat, and a ton of other things. The quality varies from piece to piece. I really like the cat: Playmobile gives animals a simple neck joint that turns an otherwise boring piece of plastic into something with character.

But my favorite accessory has to be the one with the most potential. I refer, of course, to that hallmark of holiday slashers, the ax:

Seriously - if anyone from Playmobile's design team is reading - thank you.

While I love the extras included, there are a few items that feel absent. First, it's odd they included stables but no reindeer (I guess I'll have to dig up the one I got with the sleigh set). I also feel like Mrs. Claus should have been included. I can't imagine those two would have put much of a dent in Playmobile's profit margin.

This is a great set, but I'm not sure it's worth its original retail price. $40 seems steep given its dimensions, though the pile of accessories help. Even so, $30 feels more reasonable. I remember seeing it as low as $25 around Christmas last year. I'm glad I waited for clearance though: you can't beat six bucks.

Prancer (1989)

I started watching Prancer with quite a bit of trepidation. Erin said, “Well, think of it this way, it’s at least probably better than any other lost reindeer movie we’ve seen.”

While that’s a low bar, I’m happy to report that Prancer not only passes, that it’s overall a pretty good movie despite a lame ending.

I liked the main character from the very first scene. Jessica is a little girl with a big imagination and a bigger mouth. She’s stubborn and angry. She fights with her friends and with her brother and with her dad. She sticks to her guns and never gives up. I really liked her.

One of the big strengths of this movie is that the dialogue feels strangely real, especially the kids’ dialogue. The child actors are fantastic. Jessica’s dad (Sam Elliot) is having economic troubles and trouble caring for her since her mom died, but their relationship is never schmaltzy. It’s full of things unsaid and words said in frustration, then awkwardly taken back. Her aunt has offered to take her in for a while, until her dad gets on his feet, and this is of course not acceptable to Jessica and she spends a bit of time climbing out of windows and being generally ornery to make her disagreement known.

Her relationship with her brother also felt very real to me. I commented to Erin, “Yes, exactly. You threaten physical violence first at that age, then you calm down enough to try to bribe your sibling. But none of that means you would actually ever hurt each other.” (Yes, I have a brother. No, we no longer settle our problems by throwing things. Mostly.)

So, the plot! After we set up Jessica’s home life, her friends, her school and her family, she sees a wandering reindeer while walking home in the woods after some illicit sledding. She becomes convinced that the reindeer is one of Santa’s. There’s an amazing scene where she basically curses out her best friend for not believing in Santa, because it’s all connected, and if there’s no Santa, what if there’s no God, and then how can Jessica’s mother be in Heaven? When the reindeer turns up again injured, she decides to hide him and take care of “Prancer” until Santa can come pick him up.

Shenanigans ensue, but they don’t get wacky until the movie has earned it. The characters and the town are so grounded, and the build slow and steady, that when eventually there are some farcical scenes - centered around the reindeer’s ability to pull a Batman when your back's turned and vanish - I found them hilarious.

Jessica makes friends with the town's resident witch (you explain her character another way. Just try.) when earning money to buy Prancer some feed, and she spends a bit of time avoiding her father and her aunt. Then she writes a letter to Santa to let him know where to pick up his reindeer. This ends up at the newspaper.

Conveniently, Jessica’s favorite Christmas story is “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”.

The local paper runs her letter as a warm human interest story, and then everyone knows about the reindeer. Prancer is captured, Jessica and her brother almost get severely injured trying to get him out, and finally the town comes together to thank Jessica for restoring their faith.

However, at this point hers is shaken. She’s decided it was just a deer all along. Naturally, her father decides to help her release Prancer up on the ridge.

He starts to run, she follows, over the rise and…. the reindeer is gone. Was he one of Santa’s after all? What do you want to believe? Jessica believes.

No, wait. That would have been the awesome ending. Instead, they do that, but add a frickin special-effects Santa sleigh to remove any sense of ambiguity or mystery or thematic closure. Sigh. So close, and yet… so corny.

Overall, though, we both enjoyed this one.

Another Season Begins

For those just joining us... you're late. Pull up a chair in back, and save all questions for the end.

This is Mainlining Christmas, a blog devoted to experiencing the holiday season in its entirety, or as close as the limitations time, space, and mortality permit. Our music collection is daunting: more than 3,000 4,000 holiday songs and counting. As always, 100% of music we listen to of our own volition between now and Christmas will be drawn from that collection.

In addition to thirty pieces of fiction, numerous articles, and several digital cards, our archive houses approximately 330 reviews of holiday specials, episodes, and movies. And we'll be the first to acknowledge that's not remotely adequate. Our goal is to grow into the single greatest repository of Christmas reviews in the known Universe: we're not content at our current volume. If we asked a dozen random people to list the first 20 specials or movies that came to mind when they thought of Christmas, there'd likely only be a handful that we haven't covered... but there'd still be a few, and that's far too many.

With that in mind, you can expect this year to fill several of the lingering gaps. Prancer and Christmas With the Kranks are high on our list: those two have escaped us for far too long. As we continue to expand our horizons, we'll also keep excavating the obscure. There are strange and bizarre additions to the holiday being developed every year, as well as forgotten artifacts from the past.

With that in mind, we'd love to know what you think. If there's a Christmas special you remember from your childhood - or if there's something new you think we should cover - let us know. Either post something in the comments or use the Tipline. We'll add it to our list.

This is the fifth year of Mainlining Christmas. We hope to become as much a part of your holiday traditions as tinsel and fruitcake.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving from Mainlining Christmas

We here at Mainlining Christmas would like to wish all of you a
happy and safe Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

About that Thursday Thing

I've written quite a few satirical articles on Black Friday - it's become something of a Mainlining Christmas tradition. I'm sure I'll write a few more words on that subject this year, but not right now. I want to approach the expanding Black Friday date from a different perspective.

I want to be serious for a minute.

I can't imagine anyone out there isn't familiar with this, but just in case, here's the background: Black Friday has been shifting away from a one-day affair. A large number of retailers, led by Walmart and Target, now open on Thanksgiving. This is a relatively new phenomenon: when we started the blog, we'd never heard of stores opening on Thanksgiving or midnight on Friday. It was on year two that we first went out on Thanksgiving night, resulting in what I still consider one of the best posts we've ever put on this blog. But even then, there were very few stores open earlier than midnight. That's changed in the last three years, and - understandably - a lot of people are angry.

The group Boycott Black Friday has amassed lists of retailers open and closed on Thanksgiving. I'm not going to re-post the whole thing - you can find their complete updated lists on their Facebook page, if you're interested - but here are the first five on each side:

Open ThursdayWalmart
Toys ''R'' Us
Best Buy

Closed Thursday
DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse
Pier 1 Imports

I've also been seeing meme-style photos celebrating stores and their executives for drawing a line in the sand and refusing to make their employees come in on Thanksgiving. For a lot of people, this is becoming a moral issue, and I respect that. Only I think they're going about this in the wrong way.

Here's the thing: the "good" stores aren't really all that good, and the "bad" ones aren't any worse than their competitors. That DSW quote I just linked to - it's bullshit. DSW isn't closing on Thanksgiving because they care about their employees: they're closing because they're a shoe store. The poetic line-in-the-sand stuff is just an attempt to spin a business decision into a ethical stand.

People aren't shopping for shoes at 11PM on Thursday night: they're trying to get a cheap television. Look at the short lists from Boycott Black Friday again: all of those that are open sell electronics, and all of those that remain closed don't (at least not as a major part of their business). Going to the longer lists on their site, the only store boycotting Black Friday's Eve (as we call it here) that actually has much to lose is Gamestop (credit where it's due - if they don't reverse that decision, it represents a pretty impressive stand).

But overall, this isn't about ethics: it's about economics. The choice to open or close on Thanksgiving is as simple as estimating the cost of doing so (including negative publicity) compared with the expected sales.

And here's the punchline: I suspect most of the executives who are opening their stores would love to stay closed. Black Friday sales have been decreasing, even as hours of operation have been increasing. Every minute open represents an investment, which means the ROI for the entire event has nowhere to go but down. On top of that, executives know that most Thursday night sales ultimately come out of Friday: they're redistributing when the money comes in, not increasing it.

So why continue to open on Thanksgiving? It's simple: because their competitors are open. If Target stayed closed, Walmart would pick up the extra traffic. In effect, a portion of Target's Black Friday sales would be redistributed to Walmart on Thursday, along with some of Walmart's Black Friday sales. Walmart would win, and Target would lose a zero-sum game.

Neither side can withdraw, because doing so would open an opportunity for the other to steal market share. With dozens of retailers competing against each other, closing your doors is the same as handing your opponents money. In other words, if everyone remained closed, everyone would benefit. But in that situation, whoever broke the truce and opened early would reap massive rewards, which would force the others to open, as well. Hell, that's how we got here in the first place.

Of course, we could outlaw the practice. If we prevented stores from opening before 5 or 6 AM on Friday, we'd force a ceasefire without damaging the overall economy (like I said, these sales are mostly borrowed from Friday, anyway).

However, there are a few problems. First of all, there's Amazon. Online retailers can remain open 24 hours a day, and they're competing with brick-and-mortar stores, as well. Limiting Walmart is akin to boosting Amazon, whose warehouses are almost certainly staffed around the clock on Thanksgiving.

Even more problematic are the dangers of Black Friday morning openings. Before Walmart began operating on Thursday, there were a number of injuries and deaths resulting from crowds crashing in when the doors opened. Forcing the retail giant back into this model would almost certainly mean more of the same.

Maybe the better option is to accept the change and find other ways of compensating the employees. I assume most people staffed for Thanksgiving are at least paid time and a half, but that's still insulting. I'd be in favor of mandating a minimum wage of $30/hour for retail jobs between the start of the day on Thanksgiving and 6 AM on Black Friday: that should at least cushion the blow to families who are robbed of a Thanksgiving meal and at the same time incentivize a number of businesses to double-check whether or not opening is really worth it. Hell, if we did this at the national level, we could even extend the rule to warehouses supporting digital retailers.

But boycotting stores that open early seems counterproductive to me, and supporting stores for staying closed seems downright silly. Keep in mind I'm talking about boycotting the stores in general: I'm certainly not saying you shouldn't stay in on Thursday. Hell, everyone who doesn't run a holiday-themed blog should skip the Thursday night sales. Those things are brutal, and whatever you save on a big-screen TV won't compensate you for the hours you stand in line to get it.

Also, please don't read this as blanket claim that no one should boycott Walmart. There are plenty of reasons not to shop there. I just think there are better ones than their Thanksgiving hours.