Film, Television, and the Begats (How One Media Franchise Gives Rise to Another)

Written By: Paul Toth - May• 22•14

In the Beginning, There Was Twilight

(Well, not “the beginning,” exactly, but you get the drift)

A few years back, a little novel called Twilight burst on the scene, capturing the undivided attention of millions of thirteen year old girls and thirteen year old girls at heart. At Comic-Con, a screening of the film adaptation—hosted by some of the movie’s stars—had to take place outside the San Diego convention center. If it had been shown inside the complex, the enormous, snaking lines would have fouled foot traffic from one end of the place to the other. Sheer numbers would have made the mobs of besotted Twilight fans nigh impossible to herd. The book’s success spawned endless imitation, and an entire segment, YA supernatural romance, that grew so large that many book stores gave the category its own section.

So, if boundless success and legions of mimics were what came after Twilight, what came before? The answer is simple: Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. For, as surely as Twilight attracted droves of me-to-ers hankering for a ride on the franchise’s ample coattails, it drew from Joss Whendon’s famed series, and did so in a fairly flagrant fashion. I’m not saying Twilight is actually based on Buffy—the characters and storyline are quite different—but key plot elements underlying Twilight definitely appear to have been borrowed from a prominent Buffy arc.

To see how this works, let’s boil Twilight down to its nitty-gritty essence and compare it to Buffy:

  1. Girl meets vampire.
  2. Practically speaking, they’re both young—the girl is a teen, and the boy-vamp at least appears youthful. They’re both also attractive (of course).
  3. The vampire isn’t just any blood-sucking undead, he’s a decent, soulful (in Buffy‘s case, that’s a pun, son) sort, who wouldn’t be caught dead (yes, again with the puns, sorry about that) harming an innocent.
  4. Girl and undead creature-of-the-night are attracted to one another. Huzzah! It’s forbidden romance. Can a beautiful, brooding boy-vamp with really good hair find true love with a (gasp!) mortal? Inquiring thirteen-year-old girls really want to know.
  5. Most of the vamps out there aren’t as nice as our dreamy hero, so he has to protect his mortal paramour. This makes him even dreamier.

Each one of these plot points exists in the Angel arc that dominates the first couple of seasons of Buffy. What are the odds that Meyer came up with all this independently? I’m sure some people think it’s possible—even likely—that this is a case of parallel evolution, but I’m not on board with the theory. Perhaps Twilight’s plotmeister didn’t consciously set out to rip off Whedon, but it’s exactly what she did. If Meyer didn’t watch the Angel arc unfold (multiple times, probably) on DVD and think, sigh, now that’s the kind of story I want to tell, I’ll eat my fuzzy beige fedora. Or, I would if I had one, anyway.

All of this begs the question, so what? Why does it matter that Twilight is a derivative work? Most modern fiction is derivative to some degree, after all. I look at it like this: Noting that Twilight is a derivative work, and pinning down the specific things that make it derivative, is interesting. It’s interesting to me as a writer because I care about the ways in which stories are born, and perhaps it’s interesting to you for the same reason. If not, by all means stop reading, because I’m going to be trundling down this path for the next thousand words or so.

Fans Get Hungry

(For speculative YA, that is)

One thing that makes stuff is intriguing is the multiplicity of ways in which derivations can take shape. As long as we’re on the subject of YA, let’s take a look at another blockbuster franchise: The Hunger Games. The first book’s derivative streak is both more and less apparent than that of Twilight. Instead of borrowing key aspects of its plot, The Hunger Games recycles the premise its plot is built around: A group of children are placed in an isolated setting and forced to kill one another for sport. As it happens, this is the premise of an obscure Japanese novel (also developed as an action film) named Battle Royale. Google the subject, and you’ll see that any number of observers have noted the similarity. Again, it’s not really possible to prove that one work is based on the other, but the similarity is striking.

Even the legendary Harry Potter series appears to have appropriated the central element of an earlier tale. When I read the first book (with my then ten year old daughter) I thought the idea of a wizarding college, geographically isolated and structured along the lines of a classic English boarding school, felt familiar. As it turns out, this feeling was spot on. Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic Earthsea Trilogy
includes a book built around the same notion. Again, I doubt the similarity is coincidental, as the sort of writer who would pen Harry Potter would have been exactly the kind of reader who would pick up Earthsea. The derivation is a good deal more superficial than that connecting The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, though, and nowhere near as flagrant as Twilight‘s copycatting of Buffy/Angel, but it’s clear nonetheless. As we’ll continue to see, the copycat is a creature that exists in a wide variety forms: Some are timid, mewling creatures that might be figments of our imagination, while other are ravenous carnivores ready to swallow any beast unlucky enough to get separated from the herd.

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Something

(Just ask Charles Dickens)

Some of the most interesting cases of derivation are also the most tenuous. Take Mud, for instance, a film about a fugitive from the law who’s befriended by a troubled boy. It’s a finely wrought film starring Matthew McConaughey that seems to have been seen by exactly three people. No, wait. I saw it. Four people. Thankfully, Netflix offers the movie, so it might, in time, find a wider audience.

So, what is Mud derived from? My theory, and it may be wildly off the mark, is that Mud is essentially Great Expectations, Dickens’s class conscious tale about an escaped convict who is befriended by a troubled boy. In both stories, the kid has a miserable home life and coming-of-age, wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl problems—though the chronologies are significantly dissimilar. Also, in both stories, the fugitive proves his loyalty to the youngster who gave him succor, though the protagonist in Great Expectations realizes more concrete benefits from the relationship. Mostly, the plots feel similar. This is probably due to the fact that both include scenes, very early on, in which the boy provides the starving criminal with food.    

To my mind, derivations such as that underlying Mud‘s plot are a good deal more interesting than ones with a more straightforward nature. Let’s contrast Mud and Twilight. The one filters elements of a classic tale to form a story that is largely original in nature, while the other appears to be a fairly simple rip-off of a more imaginative work. The former is almost rendered more enjoyable by its literary lineage—which serves as a sort of “in joke” between writer and viewer—while the latter takes advantage of the fact that its primary demographic doesn’t know any better.

Chronicle, Josh Trank’s 2012 found-footage scifi thriller,
is another film that manages to include derivative elements in a relatively artful manner. In it, three teenage boys come across a weird alien thingie that gives them telekinetic abilities. Over time, the kid’s power grows, and they become godlike. They can levitate, fly, hurl huge objects, and unleash bursts of destructive force—all with the power of their minds.

For a while, everything goes swimmingly, as the teens dazzle their friends with increasingly elaborate feats and zip through the sky under their own power. But things get a tad dicey when one of the guys—the least stable of the bunch—has a sexual mishap and goes off the deep end. And by “off the deep end,” I mean he becomes a murderous psycho. A murderous psycho with godlike powers. Ouch.

Just for a moment, boy and girls, let’s bid the world of contemporary film a fond farewell. We’re going to travel to a wondrous, faraway land called “The Eighties.” It’s a silly, yet charming place, where women wear dress jackets with hulking shoulder pads and people read quaint things called “news-papers.” In this odd, herky-jerky corner of the space-time continuum, a young, obscenely talented writer named Alan Moore is cranking out a comic book called Miracleman. In a few years, one of the Miracleman stories will be collected into a graphic novel called A Dream of Flying, and it’ll be hailed as one of the best works in the medium.

Like Chronicle, A Dream of Flying is about a small group of superhumans whose powers have a common, mysterious origin. The similarities between the two stories are numerous. I’ll call out a few of them:

  1. All of the major superhuman characters are male.
  2. The superhumans band together in a tightknit group and come to enjoy using their bizarre abilities, both as individuals and as a sort of team.
  3. Their powers are mental in nature, but manifest physically. In A Dream of Flying the manifestation imitates physical strength, and in Chronicle it takes the form of telekinesis. In both cases, the characters can fly (superman style, with no wings, jet packs, etc.)
  4. The least mature of the group becomes mentally imbalanced, and then bloodthirsty. Finally, full-on psychosis sets in.
  5. The deranged super-man is responsible for the death of one of the others in the group.
  6. The remaining non-evil member of the group must risk his life in battle against the one who’s lost his marbles. The crazy super-man has an edge in raw power, so his opponent must find a way to win despite this disadvantage—which he eventually does, but only after a considerable body count accrues.

The two works aren’t just similar in terms of plot points, they’re similar visually. Check it out:

 

On the left, we have a panel from A Dream of Flyging, and on the right, a frame from Chronicle. If not for the low-def, found-footage style of Chronicle, the images would be even more similar. Since we’re supposed to be seeing the Chronicle baddie through a home video camera that’s suspended in midair, much of the detail is lost, rendering the individual frames blob-ish. The juxtaposition is actually much more striking if you hold up the graphic novel next to the video as it plays.

In both cases, the deranged member of the super group is suspended in midair through the power of his mind, and in both cases, they’re surrounded by a coruscation of unnatural electrical power. The Chronicle nemesis has just blown the top off the Space Needle, and it looks like severed power lines are sending arcs through clouds of dust raised by the destruction. The Miracleman villain actually emanates electrical bolts, but the effect is essentially the same—a very scary, very powerful bad guy who’s hovering in midair and seething with energy. Check out the relative positions of their legs—the similarity in the postures of the two figures is almost eerie.

While Chronicle doesn’t appear to be an out-and-out rip-off of Miracleman, I wouldn’t blame Alan Moore for being a tad miffed about the level of similarity. I suppose the indignity of kind-of-sort-of having his story stolen is blunted by the fact that several of his graphic novels have been directly adapted for the big screen, and he’s no doubt benefitted handsomely. As a viewer, I rather enjoyed seeing Miracleman serve as the basis for film possessing a flavor that was very much distinct from Moore’s work. I imagine that A Dream of Flying will someday be directly adapted, and the movie will prove entertaining in its own right. Few will realize that an adaptation of sorts has already been produced, and those who do notice probably won’t care. Like many forms of derivation, the Micracleman/A Dream of Flying relationship appears to be benign.

The Begats

(Or, Why I Almost Named My First-Born “Zara of Thamar”)

So far, we’ve looked at the simplest kind of connection a set of related works can have—the one-to-one relationship. A is derived from B. B->A. Or, as I like to say, B begat A. For those unfamiliar with biblical lore, the archaic term “begat” is well known for its use in Genesis, where it dominates what is possibly the most boring stretch of material in the Old Testament. The genealogy of a bunch of noteworthy Hebrews is related, one birth at a time. Here’s some similar verses from the Book of Matthew:

    Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob beat Judas and his brethren.

    And Judas began Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom began Aram.

    And Aram began Aminidab; and Aminidab begat Naasson; and Naasson began Salmon;

And on, and on, and on. For a really long time. Now, aside from containing some killer names like “Zara of Thamar,” this passage is interesting for another reason: its brevity. I mean, sure, it seems to go forever, but imagine how long it would be without the silly-sounding but imminently useful “begat.”

    “Abraham had a son named Isaac.”

    Ick. “Fathered,” is an option, but even “Abraham fathered Isaac” is a relative mouthful.

    So, let’s try expressing the derivations we’ve looked at so far in terms of begats:

    Buffy begat Twilight

    Battle Royale begat The Hunger Games

    Earthsea begat Harry Potter

    Great Expectations begat Mud

    A Dream of Flying begat Chronicle

It’s handy to use “begat” as a catchall, letting it capture both tightly coupled relationships (Buffy/Twilight) and very loose ones (Earthsea/Harry Potter).

As I implied a few paragraphs back, we’re going to look at some relationships that include multiple members: things begetting things that beget other things. Here’s an example that includes a number of well-known (and not so well-known) TV series and movies:

Way back in the seventies (it seems they had TV by then, who knew?) there was a show about an investigative reporter who kept running afoul of supernatural menaces. In the pilot, his nose for news leads him to tribe of vampires who are preying on the good people of Los Angeles. The name of the program was Kolchak, the Night Stalker, and Chris Carter (creator of the X-Files) has admitted that Kolchak served as a major source of inspiration. And the creators of Fringe have come out and said that the show draws heavily from the X-Files (it came up during a panel I attended at Comic-Con).

So, our urban supernatural television lineage looks like this:

    Kolchak begat X-Files; X-Files begat Fringe.

I’ve included a number of other derivations in the diagram, some of which are unquestionably real, such as the Altered States/Fringe relationship, and others that are more of a judgment call, like Torchwood. I’ve left out the obvious Torchwood/Dr. Who tie-in, as the spinoff derivation is a bit different than the types we’ve discussed so far (and perhaps a bit less interesting).

When you consider the fact that both TV series and individual TV episodes can employ derivation relationships, things get kooky. Begats within begats, and so on. Let’s expand our diagram to include a bit of this:

Since rendering this hierarchy, I’ve come up with a bunch of other X-Files begats, but the diagram is already getting a tad cluttered, so I’ve omitted them.

Now that you’ve seen how it’s done, I’m challenging you to come up with some begats of your own. Go ahead. I dare ya!

Next up, we have a “bonus feature”—a scene from a novel I messed around with a couple of years back. In it, the characters come up with the diagrams shown above. It’s in first person, narrated by TED SZABO, a college senior. The other guys in the scene are his roommates, and the young ladies who pay them a visit are KATE ENFIELD, Ted’s girlfriend, and YOLANDA EVANS, the significant other of one of Ted’s roomies. ADVISORY: The scene has a lot foul language.

 

Excerpt: Brick House (warning—foul language!)

I stared at my astro homework, trying to make sense of a proof involving cosmological expansion and inevitable heat death. I’d been over the same page repeatedly, and each time, my head throbbed a little harder. Five hours of sitting in an apartment with my roommates, a stack of textbooks, and an ancient, overheating radiator was about four hours too many.

Aspirin. Must get aspirin. Or beer.

Al and Dean were locked in an intense debate that involved saying begat a lot. They’d pulled up a diagram on Dean’s beefy old plasma TV, and kept poking it with their index fingers. I grimaced. Something about people leaving smudges with their fingertips when all they really had to do was point at a screen bugged me. A lot.

“Fine, look at what happens if we invert the relationship,” said Dean. He reached for the TV, gesturing, and somehow managed to leave a wide, greasy track with two fingers at once. I grit my teeth. If not for the fact that Dean was my best bud, I’d have to kill him. Slowly.

I grunted beneath my breath. And then growled. And then combined the two into a sort of bestial growl-grunt. No one noticed. Astrophysics 451 always put me in foul mood.

Dean soldiered on, oblivious to my pain. “Also, check this out. We should use dashed lines where the relationship is more tenuous.”

Al shook his head, and the weird-ass goatee he claimed to be growing for Halloween wagged in counterpoint. “No… no… on that basis you could drag in just about anything with a supernatural theme, and you’d end up with a genealogy that was meaningless. I mean, do you show third cousins once removed on your family tree?”

Sam, Dean, and I had been cooped up in the apartment all day, working through our respective piles of homework. None of us had any classes scheduled, except for an evening lecture I’d have to hit, leaving us free to hang around the place and get on each other’s nerves. Al, as usual, was a freakish vision of multitasking mojo, noodling away at an assignment while watching television and listening to the radio. Old fashioned cup headphones covered just one ear, so he could still hear the TV. Sometimes he jammed a Bluetooth nib in the “free” ear so he could shoot the shit with some random girl at the same time. As doing homework. And watching TV. And annoying the hell out of us.

I sighed. Time for the voice of reason to intervene and put an end to the screen-soiling madness. “What are you dumbasses bickering about?”

Sam, who had been hunched over his laptop for the last couple of hours, cut loose with a groan. I had to give it to the guy, he was a world-class groaner. The weariness of a thousand soot-blackened coal miners lived in those throaty rumblings. “Oh, not you too. I know how it goes. Once all three of you jump into some dorkfest there’s no way to make it stop. It’ll go the full fifteen rounds.”

I gave Sam a knowing look. An I feel your pain look. “I’m going to hear them out, decide which one is right, and cast the deciding vote.” After scooting a bit closer to the TV, I turned to Dean. “Just give me the Cliff Notes.”

Once again, Sam groaned. A World War Two soldier dying of malaria and jungle rot in the middle of some stinking tropical cesspool might have made that sound. “Yolanda is coming over with some wine her mom shipped from Provence or Florence or some shit. The classy stuff. You need to wind it up before she gets here. I’m not asking for romantic ambience here, or I’d have told her I wanted to hook up somewhere else. I just need to you guys to not drive her off with your geeky BS.”

“Fine, we’ll make it quick,” said Al. “Ted, we’re talking about genealogies. Media genealogies. You know how it’s really obvious when some TV show or movie is inspired by another work—or maybe just rips it off? Dean and I were talking about which franchises are based on what, and started coming up with ways to express the relationships graphically.”

“Right, that’s it,” said Dean. “Except for the part about how Al keeps messing up the whole project ’cause he’s an ass-wipe.”

Al gave Dean a more-or-less good natured punch in the shoulder. “Douche.”

Dean winced, rubbed the injured joint, and punched Al back. “Don’t call me a fucking douche, douche.”

I gave them simultaneous open-handed whacks to the backs of their heads, putting just enough force into the blows to prevent an escalation of the douchery. “Come on! Show me what you’ve got so far. Let’s settle this so Sam and Yolanda can drink some classy shit in peace.”

Dean gave me a mild, slightly glazed look, and turned back to the TV. “Okay, here’s a piece of the Fringe genealogy we’ve been working on.” He picked up his iPad and gave it a tap, causing the cluttered diagram to be replaced with something simpler. Probably an earlier version of whatever they’d been arguing about. “Look, we can settle on the parentage for Fringe. Clearly, it’s The X-Files and Altered States. We have that much from the words of the series creators.”

“Sure, makes sense.” This was typical of the conversational bellybutton lint Dean and Al messed around with. Me too, sometimes, if you must know. If you went about it with the proper gusto, there was really no subject too trite to build an impassioned debate around.

Al nodded, pointing at a labeled rectangle connected to a bunch of other boxes. “The paternity of the X-Files is also pretty well understood—it’s derived directly from Kolchak the Night Stalker. And here we have dotted lines where there’s general inspiration that’s not tied to any specific media property.”

I looked at the connections between the boxes and some cloudy little poofs representing classic Hollywood monster movies, medieval European folk lore, and alien abduction mythology. “Whatever. I guess that all makes sense. Not sure what you guys have to bicker about.”

“Well, we were trying to figure out Fringe’s siblings—the other direct X-Files descendants. And that’s when Dean started getting stupid.”

Stan cut loose with a snort, and I looked back at him. He rolled his eyes. “Oh, just then?”

Al continued. “We agree about Torchwood and Supernatural—they both clearly belong there—but then Dean wanted to drag in all of these other shows with totally goddamn superficial similarities, like Bones.”

Dean gave me what, for him, was a pretty impassioned look. Meaning that his eyes opened wide enough for you to be certain he was actually awake, and his brow rose about an eighth of an inch. “Hey, the X-Files influence cuts a wide swath. Look at how many times the essential Mulder/Scully dynamic has been imitated. That’s a core part of the show, and when other shows put it at their core, I say that indicates inheritance.”

“Oh, give me a break. Do you want to include the Channel Five news because they aired some UFO sighting story?”

The three of us continued in this vein for a hell of a lot longer than I care to admit. Sam was right, pretty much. Once Dean, Al, and I staked out positions, we tended to defend them to the bitter end. And when I say “bitter,” I’m speaking both figuratively and literally. Settling things usually involved the consumption of alcohol, such as Vodka Bitters, and recriminations of the emotionally bitter sort.

I tried to avoid taking sides, positioning myself in the middle ground, but Dean and Al wouldn’t let me. They kept badgering me like, well, some kind of fucking badgers.

“Come on,” said Al, “are you in or out on Area 57? Stop it with the damn waffling.”

 

I mulled things over. I saw both, equally ridiculous, sides, and couldn’t seem to come up with a good reason for going either way. But maybe I could shift the subject a little. “Okay, Evolution is in, right?”

Dean and Al moaned.

“We covered that like fifteen minutes ago,” said Dean. “Yes, of course it’s in. It even has some of the same on-screen talent, so it’s obviously included. What we’re trying to do now is address the more controversial stuff.” He gave me a wry look, nose wrinkling until his weird little glasses went askew. “Comma, dumbass.”

Footsteps echoed in the stairwell, and Sam barked a single word. “Finally.”

He rose from his desk and stretched, raising thick, veiny arms above his head. He gave each armpit a quick sniff. “Yolanda’s going to come save me from you freaks.”

I nodded, relieved. Finding a diplomatic solution to the guys’ ludicrous row had taken on a weird urgency, and I wanted a break. A chance to think.

The girls entered—girls, plural—and I gulped. Yolanda had Kate in tow. I hadn’t expected to see her until the weekend. She wore jeans that looked like they’d been chemically bonded to her like auto paint. I tried to take a deep breath, but it ended up stillborn—a stunted, fucked-up parody of a breath.

“Howdy, male men,” said Yolanda. “Look who I found wandering around on Northwestern. It took a little doing, but I finally convinced this gorgeous babe to come take a study break with us.” She gave me a sly wink that oozed unintentional sexuality. Or maybe not so unintentional. “You can thank me later, Ted.”

I rose, greeting Kate with a peck on the lips before Yolanda could say anything more suggestive. “Hey, hon. I thought you were going to be stuck studying all day.”

“Well, Yolanda can be pretty convincing,” said Kate. As I returned to my seat she headed for the kitchen. She helped Yolanda unloaded a couple of grocery bags. Cheesy snacks to go with the wine. “She kept talking about how all of this primo vino was going to get slurped by you Neanderthals, with no one but her to properly appreciate it. I took pity. I should be able to stay long enough to have a couple of couple glasses, and my Shelley class is best enjoyed with a moderate buzz anyway.”

Kate peered at the TV, taking in Dean and Al’s stupid ancestry chart. “You guys working on something?”

As I started to explain, she came over, rubbing her hip against my shoulder in that light, brief, tease of way that said, Oh my, that was totally accidental. As far as you know.

A few minutes later, I wrapped up by summarizing the points the Dickweed Brothers couldn’t agree on, and Kate gave us a slow, patient nod.

“You guys… I’m speechless…”

While Al and Dean talked over each other, attempting to sway Kate to their respective points of view, Yolanda started uncorking tall, dark bottles with upscale labels. She pulled them from the kind of cardboard containers I’d seen people carrying as they disembarked flights coming in from California wine country.

“Well,” said Yolanda, “I guess we’re going to have use mugs and shot glasses, since you knuckle-draggers don’t have any wine glasses.” She held a large stein up to the light, turning it this way and that. “Are any of these even clean? Disgusting. Massively.”

Before Dean could launch into his usual exposition on the antiseptic qualities of alcoholic beverages over twenty-four proof, Kate turned to Yolanda and said, “Here, let me help you wash some of those.” She waved away Dean and Al’s arguments. “You guys will have to figure this out without me. I recuse myself on the grounds that I’m a normal person.” She made her way back to the kitchen.

Within a few minutes, we were all sipping a blood-red Paccot. Pretty goddamn tasty, in my opinion.

I threw back my head, draining the glass, and shot Kate a smile. “Hey hon, can you get me some more of the pink one?”

“Oh my God, what swine,” she said, smiling back. Kate and Yolanda lounged on the couch, a study in radically contrasting varieties of hotness. Tan, tall, and taut on the left, cappuccino curves on the right. A pair of near-empty wine bottles rested on the battered coffee table in front them.

Sam had taken a seat next to Yolanda, but wandered off a little while later. Now he paced the kitchen, muttering into his cell. The phone rested against one ear, and he had a finger jammed in the other. His face had that tight, furtive look that told me he was probably talking to his bookie.

Dean, Al, and I sat in a shallow arc of desk chairs in front of the TV. Each of us held a tablet that we periodically tapped and swiped, adding segments or annotations to the diagram. The introduction of alcohol seemed to have made our conversation more free-flowing, but even less coherent.

“Hey, how about this,” I said. “What if we, you know, focus less on the overarching genealogy?” I burped—a great, windy blast that made my lips flutter. “And look at some of the episodic derivations.”

“Like?” said Dean.

I stretched the oval representing The X-Files horizontally until it covered about a quarter of the screen. Having given myself some room to work, I sketched some rectangles inside the resized ellipse, labeling them with names of individual episodes. “Look, we’ve got parentage going in both directions. The Goldberg Variation begets Final Destination. And Citizen Kate begets Sons of Katie Elder, which begets Bad Blood.”

“Yeah, good,” said Dean. “I’ve got another one. The Philadelphia Experiment begets Dod Kalm.”

Al leapt from his seat. “Yeah, that makes sense. I’ve got one too. Groundhog Day begets Monday.”

All three of us stood for a while, wine sloshing about in the mugs we held in our free hands. A flurry of suggestions took flight, most of them asinine, as we started hashing out the more questionable ancestral connections.

“Actually, I think Sons of Kate Elder is based on a book,” said Al. “So wouldn’t that be real parent?”

I shook my head. “No. Totally fucking different class of derivation. Look! We can use a different color for direct adaptations from one media form to another.” I felt focused, certain. I knew I’d been sucked into Al and Dean’s whirlpool of frivolous bullshit, but couldn’t bring myself to care. Seduced by geekery. Again.

Kate and Yolanda ignored us, leaning toward one another and speaking in low, giggly tones. Kate glanced in my direction, and Yolanda grinned at something she said.

My jaw clenched. Were they talking shit about me? Probably. A knot of irritation gathered in my gut, but the quart or so of wine I’d just downed gave the emotion a distant, gauzy feel. Clucking hens. Couldn’t they see that modern thought was evolving right before their eyes?

I followed a second lively belch was with a pair of hiccups. “Man, that bubbly yellow one packs a punch!”

“You mean the sparkling cider?” said Kate. She and Yolanda turned back to one another, and Yolanda whispered something in Kate’s ear that caused her to erupt into laughter. Kate doubled over, covering her mouth with a daintily positioned hand. A few seconds later, a hefty burp came from behind it. Not as hefty as mine, but in the same league.

“Oh shit,” said Kate, and then proceeded to laugh even harder, with Yolanda joining in.

Al punched me in the chest. “Pay attention! Which is the one that cribbed from Poltergeist?”

I turned backed to the widescreen. “I’m not sure where you’re going with that. Poltergeist cribbed from some old Twilight Zone episode. The interdimensional rescue part of it, anyway.”

Al and Dean peered at the revised diagram, mulling it in silence.

After a quick trip to the little boy’s room I returned to my seat, energized. I felt a burst of fresh inspiration coming on. “Shit, we haven’t even looked at the paternity of the Fringe episodes yet. Okay… okay… how about, Once More with Feeling begets Brown Betty?”

“Ooo, I like it” said Dean. “The relationship is structural instead of thematic. But now we need to put Buffy on the diagram too.

Al nodded. “Yeah, good one.” He squatted on his chair, a shot glass of wine in each hand. He tried to drink from both simultaneously—a goddamn anatomical improbability at best. “Now, if we’re going to going to put Buffy up there, then we need to figure out whether or not she had any children with the other nodes. I say… X-Files and Buffy begat Grimm.”

This drew a boatload of emotional comments from Dean and I, though we eventually decided we to go along with idea.

“Right, right…” I said, “… son of Buffy.”

 

 

“Okay, you guys,” said Yolanda. She waved her hands until she had our attention. “Kate and I just figured out the rules to a drinking game. Only she and I are allowed to play, or know the rules.”

Kate poured a brightly-hued blush into parallel rows of shot glasses—one in front her, and another in front of Yolanda. We gave them a quizzical look. I had a sneaking suspicion I was once again being made fun of.

“Carry on, carry on…” said Kate, making dismissive gestures. “The game is based on what you guys are saying and doing, so you have to keep going. There you go. Eyes front. No eyeballing the hot chicks.”

Yolanda hissed something to Kate about “balling,” and they both snickered.

“How ’bout we start a fresh one, and come back to this great hairy turd of a diagram later?” I said, looking at Al, then Dean.

“I’m game,” said Al. “What do you have in mind?”

“James Bond?”

“Ooo, ooo, I’ve got it,” said Dean. “Man from U.N.C.L.E. begat James Bond begat Alias begat 24.”

“Holy crap,” said Kate, chuckling. I heard the clink of shot glasses as she and Yolanda began to down their contents, one after another.

“Hmm, I ‘m not so sure,” said Al. “I think the first James Bond movies were direct adaptations of the Ian Fleming novels, and some of the more recent films, too.”

“All right, granted,” said Dean. He nodded, and then drew a long swig from his mug.

I scratched my chin, noting the stubble.

Probably look like shit. Why didn’t Yolanda give me a head’s up? Kate’s as smoking as always, and I look like the bum the other bums call Stink-ass.

“The tie to 24 is kind of lame,” I said. “Not really getting my head around it.”

“That’s because you’re a pinhead,” said Dean, sounding a little boozy. “Look, it’s not a direct derivation, but the similarities are significant. Consider the way the main characters behave as operatives, being in this constant dialog with a handler who feeds them information from a bunch of real-time resources. If you think about it, that’s a crucial, defining characteristic, because the shows all have dramatic peaks that take place during covert operations. It’s core.”

I nodded. A sharp, exaggerated bob of my head that gave me a twinge in the back of my neck. “Right! Well, in that case, James Bond begat Alias begat 24 begat Chuck.”

A fresh firestorm of controversy tore through the room. Was Chuck a direct descendent of 24, a child of both Alias and 24, or a descendent of some other sort?

Our impromptu party lasted well into the evening. Whether or not Kate ever made it to class, I’m not sure. Something else did stick with me, though, and I still think about it now and then, all these years later. Just after we undressed for bed, stretching beneath, cool, fresh sheets she’d found in some forgotten drawer, Kate whispered to me. She brought her lips within a hair’s breadth of my ear, and her breath rippled across my jaw and neck. Warm air. Minty, and freshly scrubbed.

“Ted, I know you’re too wasted to remember what I’m about to say.” Another breath, tender as early morning, third-time’s-the-charm sex. “And that’s why I’m going to say it.”

She paused, and that’s when I went from ninety percent passed out to full-on comatociousness. All I can recall are the first two words of what Kate whispered next.

“Ted, I’m…”

 

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