How Is Technology Changing TV Narrative?

There is a joke that started a month or two ago about how HBO subscriptions were going to cease once Game of Thrones concluded. The implication is that despite a long history of high-quality TV shows – Oz, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Flight of the Concords, Banshee*, and Strikeback** – the station will suddenly have nothing to offer audiences.

This argument reminded me of a PBS Ideas Channel video I shared on how technology is changing TV shows.

It raises an interesting point about how there appear to be more complex narratives in TV shows now. And in light of the conclusion of Game of Thrones, audiences are expecting more from networks that they doubt can be provided.

Of course, there are several problems with this idea. The first is perception. For every Breaking Bad and Justified we have CSI Whatever and the banality of reality TV. So without some hard data on the number of shows and relative audiences, it is really hard to say how real that perception is.

The second problem is that TV shows run a continuum from pure episodic shows, where everything is wrapped up in an episode and the next episode has little to no changes evident to the characters or larger show, through to serials, which have more complex plot lines that often take at least a season to develop and resolve with character arcs building over the course of the entire series. The key word is continuum, as most shows have some aspects of the serial and episodic about them. Again, without breaking down each show on this continuum, and then comparing shows now versus the past, we don’t have any idea of what has changed, if anything has changed.

The third problem is the good old sample or selection bias, especially as it relates to our favourite shows and the shows we remember. E.g. Survivor has been running since 2000 (or 1997 if you are in the UK), yet without looking that up I’d have had no idea when the show started, let alone whether it is still running. I don’t remember it because I’m not a fan. But I will still complain bitterly about the cancellation of Firefly. My frame of reference is biased, so I’m going to remember some shows more than others and think more favourably of some of the ones I remember than others.

The final problem I see is assigning time shift technologies and marathon watching as the driver of a change in our demands for more complex narratives. The idea itself is sound, as I can’t think of thing less interesting than watching the same episode with minor changes in a marathon. That would be like watching 9 hours of hobbits walking. The recording, DVD buying, streaming and subsequent marathon TV show watching would indeed favour shows that have more to them, that more complex narrative that will keep you pressing play on the next episode.

I don’t know that the time shifting, or recording, or DVD buying, or other methods of marathon watching, is driving demand for more complex narratives. As I said above, I think the more complex shows lend themselves more to the marathon than other shows. But if we assume there are more of these shows worth grabbing a blanket and a couch dent, then I still think there are other things at play. I think we’ve seen more avenues for creativity come to the fore, such as Youtube channels, computer games, and the like that didn’t exist a decade ago as they do now. As a result, entertainment such as TV shows has a need to engage the audience on a deeper level. So while episodic shows like CSI Whatever are still huge, they don’t attract the same devotion and fan adoration as a good serialised show. Plus, the advantage of the more complex narratives is that it allows for more interesting characters, plot lines, etc, which in turn allows for better acting, direction, writing, etc, which creates a feedback loop that may one day cause fandom to implode due to awesome achieving gravitational singularity. I’m assuming this will happen when Netflix reboots Firefly.

NB: I hate the term binge-watching and as such haven’t used it in this article. Binge implies that there is something wrong with what you are doing. There is nothing wrong with watching a TV show or movie series you enjoy, so we should stop implying there is something wrong.

* Banshee is criminally underappreciated.

** I stand by including this on the list. Show me another TV show that managed to do more in one episode than most entire action movies with 10x the budget.

Subverting a story and falling on your face

When I sat down at my desk to start work the other day, one of my colleagues came to my cubicle to tell me how disappointed they were with the finale of Game of Thrones. They were soon joined by another colleague. And then another. And then another.

It should be noted that I haven’t watched the show since about two-thirds of the way through the first season. But such is the importance of good storytelling to fans. At least my computer was able to install the updates while I heard about a season of TV I might never watch.

So, what did Game of Thrones do wrong?

How should I know? I don’t watch the show.

What I have managed to glean from several writer channels (see below) and from my disgusted work colleagues is that the show painted itself into a corner. The entire series was meant to be a subversion of the usual fantasy narratives and characters. Our archetypal protagonist was killed off. The archetypal antagonist was removed from power. Our ominous threat that drives the overarching plot… actually, that one appears to have been relatively normal. This makes things interesting but it also creates problems.

At some point, you have to try and make this subversive story have a narrative cohesion that feels rewarding. Otherwise, why are you watching other than to see who gets naked and/or dies this week? Many of the complaints come as a result of the show trying to make that switch to a narrative that could give the Game of Thrones a rewarding payoff.

Clearly, the showrunners weren’t able to do this to the satisfaction of the fans.

Non-fans? Meh.

Update: This post wouldn’t be complete without Lindsay Ellis’ take on things. She raises several points that the other videos don’t, especially the “Fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy” – or more accurately “Hot Fantasy That F**KS” – aspects of the series.

Rex Jameson’s musings on GoTs.

Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Being prophetic is really easy when you make a “kids these days” argument.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is Neil Postman’s ode to the “good old days” before television when entertainment wasn’t ruining everything. TV bad, reading good!

I decided to read this book after it once again started to be referenced as prophetic in the modern age. The first time someone mentioned this book to me I couldn’t help but feel the argument was likely to lack substance – you can amuse and inform at the same time.* What I found in this book was a supposition that isn’t without merit – slogans and sound bites can be influential whilst lacking any substance – but is argued in a cherry-picked and biased manner.

One example is how Postman claims that political campaigns used to be written long-form to influence voters, whereas now (meaning then in 1985, but many say it is highly relevant today) we get political messages in sound bites and 30-second adverts. This argument underpins his work and is at best convenient revisionism, at worst it is naive drivel. To suggest that there is no modern day long form political articles (and interviews, etc) is rubbish, just like the idea that the historical long-form articles he alludes to were well read by the masses is rubbish.

Another example is Postman claiming that media organisations aren’t trying to (in general) maliciously misinform their audience. We know that this isn’t the case. Even at the time this was written there were several satires addressing how “news” is deliberately framed for ratings (e.g. Network, Brave New World, the latter he references in the book). Either he has a different interpretation of malicious misinformation or he just thinks the media are incompetent.***

Now, his idea that we should be trying to educate kids to be able to navigate this new media landscape – instilling critical thinking, understanding of logic, rational thought, basic knowledge so that we are less likely to be fooled – is laudable. I completely agree. I’d also agree that there is a desperate need for this in people of all ages when we have an attention economy in place that is less interested in informing you than making sure your eyeballs stay glued for the next advert. I think this is why Postman’s book has resonated with people, the arguments aren’t without merit. But they are also deeply flawed and problematic.

I can’t really recommend this flawed book, but it isn’t without merit.

Interview with Postman:

Attention Wars:

* This modern review from an education professional sums up this point:
“Instead of striking a balance between the use and over-use of media in education, Postman has completely shut down the debate in the belief that there is no good way to use visual media like the television and film in education. If you take his thesis to its logical conclusion, the number of technological tools in the classroom would be reduced to the overhead projector, the ScanTron grading machine, the copier and the laser pointer, and the field of educational technology would be greatly reduced in the process.”**

** Read this review particularly carefully. The author cites a number of problematic sources for claims made, such as Ben Shapiro, David Barton, Glenn Beck, Jonathan Strong (of The Daily Caller). All are known to deliberately misrepresent their sources (e.g. see my review of Ben Shapiro’s book covering this issue).

***Hmmm, could be something to that argument. As I regularly say, don’t attribute to malicious intent that which could be incompetence.

NB: I don’t normally post reviews of books I haven’t enjoyed (3 stars or more out of 5). It is my intention that this particular review will be one of few exceptions.

View all my reviews

Average Movie Superhero

the-rock-vin-diesel-wrestlemania-33
With the recent spate of superhero movies, it is easy to forget that not every movie has a superhero in it. Even the superhero films aren’t always about someone on steroids (Captain America) or weather presenters (Thor) but are instead about your everyday billionaire playboy (Batman, Ironman, Arrow). So it is easy to forget that feats of superhuman strength are not meant to be the norm in films.

Think about the scenes where the everyday hero is clutching the edge of a building by his fingertips – and I’m sure someday I’ll be able to write their instead of his. Valiantly they hold on to the ledge with one hand whilst the love interest or bad guy is dangling from their other hand. Of course, the hero never loses his grip on the ledge, but the bad guy may slip from his grasp.

We accept that scene as plausible because we have been brainwashed into thinking that the average person can hold their own bodyweight with a single hand for extended periods. Double their bodyweight? They can hold that for the length of a dramatic moment – a period of time that is impossible to measure in real time since dramatic speeches and slow motion really mess with reality.

The problem is that outside of gymnasts, rock climbers, or people who crush rocks with their bare hands for a living, the Average Joe wouldn’t even be able to hold their own weight with a single hand for more than a few seconds. Good luck having any unbroken fingers if they caught themselves from a fall.

Elite grip strength can be measured a few ways, but the Captains of Crush grippers are one easy way to distinguish strong hands. The #1 requires 64kg (140lbs) of force to close, while the #3 gripper takes 127kg (280lbs) and is regarded as world class grip strength. Just for shits and giggles they made a #4 gripper that requires 166kg (365lb) of force to close and has been officially closed by 5 people. Ever.

So let’s just assume that our generic action movie has an everyday hero who weighs a buff 80kg and his falling love interest is a sexy 55kg – because stereotypes. That’s 135kg hanging from the hero’s fingertips, a weight that even a really strong person wouldn’t have the grip strength to support. Two normal sized adults are not going to be hanging onto that ledge for any length of time.

Which brings us to the next amazing feat of strength in this scenario: lifting that falling love interest back to safety. For a strong person, lifting their 55kg love interest should be easy. Patrick Swayze managed it in Road House. A buff 80kg hero could probably clean and jerk a dumbbell weighing that much…. assuming they work out, have some chalk on their hands, were able to get some leg drive happening, had decent technique, and that the dumbbell wasn’t particularly unwieldy. But most falling love interests are a tad unwieldy, not designed for easy lifting – no obvious knurled handles – and there isn’t a lot of leg drive happening when you’re dangling from the side of a building by your fingertips. Yet without fail, the hero manages to get them both to safety. Well, unless it is one of those tragic character defining moments, in which case the hero will be in the same situation later and will find the determination to succeed the second time. Sucks to be the first love interest in that scenario.

Interesting to think about just how many amazing feats of strength are passed off as normal in movies.

One of the annoying things about movies

With the recent spate of superhero movies, it is easy to forget that not every movie has a superhero in it. Even the superhero films aren’t always about someone on steroids (Captain America) or weather presenters (Thor) but are instead about your everyday billionaire playboy (Batman, Ironman, Arrow). So it is easy to forget that feats of superhuman strength are not meant to be the norm in films.

Think about the scenes where the everyday hero is clutching the edge of a building by his fingertips whilst the love interest or bad guy is dangling from their other hand. Of course, the hero never loses his grip on the ledge, but the bad guy may slip from his grasp.

We accept that scene as plausible because we have been brainwashed into thinking that the average person can hold their own bodyweight with a single hand for extended periods. Double their bodyweight? They can hold that for the length of a dramatic moment – a period of time that is impossible to measure in real time since dramatic speeches and slow motion really mess with reality.

The problem is that outside of gymnasts, rock climbers, or people who crush rocks with their bare hands for a living, the Average Joe wouldn’t even be able to hold their own weight for more than a few seconds, especially not if they caught themselves from a fall. Elite grip strength can be measured a few ways, but the Captains of Crush grippers are one easy way to distinguish strong hands. The #1 requires 64kg (140lbs) of force to close, while the #3 gripper takes 127kg (280lbs) and is regarded as world class grip strength. Just for shits and giggles, they made a #4 gripper that requires 166kg (365lb) of force to close and has been officially closed by 5 people. Ever.

Watch this world-class rock climber hold just over double his bodyweight with two hands, not one hand, for time as another example:

So let’s just assume that our generic action movie conforms to long-held stereotypes of protagonists. This movie stars an everyday hero who weighs a buff 80kg and his falling love interest is a lithe 55kg, and they totally get naked in the second act for purely artistic reasons. That’s 135kg hanging from the hero’s fingertips, a weight that even a really strong person wouldn’t have the grip strength to support. Two normal sized adults are not going to be hanging onto that ledge for any length of time.

Which brings us to the next amazing feat of strength in this scenario: lifting that falling love interest back to safety. For a strong person, the 55kg gravity lover isn’t exactly heavy. A buff 80kg hero could probably clean and jerk a dumbbell weighing that much…. assuming they work out, have some chalk on their hands, were able to get some leg drive happening, had decent technique, and that the dumbbell wasn’t particularly unwieldy. But most falling love interests are a tad unwieldy, not designed for easy lifting – no obvious knurled handles – and there isn’t a lot of leg drive happening when you’re dangling from the side of a building by your fingertips. Yet without fail, the hero manages to get them both to safety. Well, unless it is one of those tragic character defining moments, in which case the hero will be in the same situation later and will find the determination to succeed the second time. Sucks to be the first love interest in that scenario.

Interesting to think about just how many amazing feats of strength are passed off as normal in movies.

More guilty pleasures

Sometime during 1994 I bought one of my favourite albums of all time: Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins. Even today (boom-tish) that album sits proudly in my music collection and doesn’t sound dated. I can’t say the same for many other albums I own from the same time period. Superunknown from Soundgarden stands as a classic album, but I find it hard to listen to without having had the death of a pet weighing on my mind. I can only listen to Metallica’s Load if I promise myself I’ll put on one of their better albums straight after. Essentially, for me, the Pumpkins hit on music gold with that album.

I’ve commented before how I’ve essentially stopped being a fan of the Pumpkins, finding their offerings since Adore (which promised so much with the first single, and delivered so little with the remainder of the album) to be more filler than awesome. What I liked about the Pumpkins was not what the Pumpkins have been delivering since.

The 5 Worst Kinds of Album Every Music Fan Has Bought: Cracked.com

Your experiences may vary.

Which brings me to a discussion I was having recently on the Pumpkins album Zeitgeist. Despite buying the album, I’ve never bothered adding it to my digital library, because it only has one or two songs on it that hint at what I liked about the Smashing Pumpkins of old. A lot of fans and reviewers agree with me, with Corgan taking a potshot at fans for not even listening to the album (class act), further claiming the fans only wanted to hear the old music (probably). Anyway, the discussion had started because a couple of people were insisting the reason people didn’t like Zeitgeist was because it was too political or had political overtones.

Um, no.

While I’m not trying to imply that no-one was turned off of Zeitgeist due to the political overtones, it is clearly a long bow to draw to suggest that it was a factor, let alone a big factor, in listeners/fans disliking the album. So why would someone make this claim?

Well, simply, this is another example of people trying to justify their taste. Another guilty pleasure moment. I seem to be raising this point a lot (here on literature, here on genre vs literature, here on good vs popular, and here on guilty pleasures). It is perfectly okay for you to like what you like, there is absolutely no need to try and explain away someone else’s dislike for something you enjoy. Does it really matter if you like something everyone else hates? No. So why bother trying to put it down to political ideology or how terrorists did something…. 9/11….

Worthiness, guilty pleasures, justification: all of these things are actually stopping us from just enjoying stuff. I know I’m guilty of it, but I’m trying to get over myself. The great thing about the internet is that it is full of support groups for people who like stuff. So you don’t have to agree with everyone else on what music, books, movies, art, etc, you like. You can find your niche and create memes, gifs and video clips to bombard all your other friends with on Facebook.

The decline of cinema

theater management

There is only really one thing I miss about living in the city and that is going to the cinema. Of course, I’d miss that even more if there were movies worth shelling out this month’s mortgage repayments to see. The idea of paying big bucks to sit in a seat that has probably been used for sex by strangers, eating snacks that have a 2000% markup, after forgetting your earplugs and going partially deaf, which is a blessing after the pre-movie ads, is just not that appealing. Now Australian cinemas have decided they aren’t charging movie goers enough money and have decided to blame an easy target to justify their cash grab.

Cinema executives have blamed piracy on the recent price rises of ticket prices in Australia. Because of course it is piracy that is to blame, and not the marginalising of the customer base with exorbitant pricing regimes. Nor could it possibly be that people have more alternate entertainment options, including waiting a few months to watch the latest “blockbuster” in their own home cinema. Nor could it be the rubbish that so many movie studios are turning out.

Let’s dissect this nonsense like the original reports in the media should have done. There are many factors at play in the decline of cinema. The first real problem is that there hasn’t really been a change in the proportion of the population that go to the cinema in 40 years, but the number of times per year they go has been steadily declining since the 90’s.

ATTENDANCE
(% BEEN TO THE CINEMA IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS)

FREQUENCY
(AVERAGE NO. VISITS PER YEAR)

audiences_cin_attend_01

audiences_cin_attend_02

So rather than keeping audiences entertained regularly, audiences are clearly becoming more occasional customers. Underneath that general trend are some interesting changes in the demographics of cinema attendance. It is no secret that Hollywood movies are made for teenagers. Teens are a huge chunk of the cinema audience. But, the biggest change in the repeat attendees is in the teen market, which has been in steady general decline since the 70’s. Which part of the market is going to be most impacted by price rises? Go on: guess!

ATTENDANCE RATE
(% BEEN TO THE CINEMA IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS)

FREQUENCY
(AVERAGE NO. VISITS PER YEAR)

audiences_cinxage_rate

audiences_cinxage_freq

Another way to look at this is in the proportion of the population going to cinemas in the age demographics. Below you can see the 14-17 and 18-24 age groups are overrepresented as cinema goers, this starts to even out in the 25-34 group (also known as the settling down and going out less demographic), is at parity in the 35-49 group (also known as the parenthood has stolen my social life demographic), and people over 50 clearly don’t like all the loud noises.

AGE PROFILE OF CINEMA-GOERS COMPARED TO THE AUSTRALIAN POPULATION
OVER THE AGE OF 14, 2012

audiences_cin_genderprofile

So while the proportion of the population that have been going to the cinema each year has been pretty steady across the entire population, it is the number of times people go that is making the difference, especially in that much coveted teen “I want to see explosions and car chases” market. (Interesting aside: when you look at the age group breakdowns you do see that the over 25 audience since the 70’s have generally increased in their likelihood to attend the cinema, but this has been static for most demographic groups since the mid 90’s.) To put some hard numbers on that difference in the number of times a teen goes to the cinema each year, in 1974 the 14-24 demographic averaged 16.4 visits to the cinema, in 2012 that had dropped to 6.6 visits.

Obviously there are a lot of changes in the marketplace that have occurred over this time. TV has expanded, cable TV is a thing now, home rental or ownership of movies is a thing (VHS succeeded by DVD, now being superseded by Streaming, which will probably be superseded by actors coming to your house to perform on demand), computer games have grown in leaps and bounds, the internet, all vying for our attention and wallets. Just look at the change in households with various alternatives to cinema (NB: the game consoles data doesn’t tell the full gaming story, see this for more about that market):

Graph: Proportion of households with computer, Internet, mobile phone, games console and DVD player. The following table provides the data.

I alluded to this above, but one big change has been the home cinema. Some people will remember a time when some cinema screens were actually not much bigger than the ones installed in many homes now. Sound systems have improved greatly over the crappy little speaker that was the drive-in experience. Now we have high quality TVs and projection units that rival anything you can get in a cinema complex, and these come with a pause function, easy access to food that doesn’t kill your wallet nor beat your heart with belly flab, and sound settings lower than jackhammer. Then you have all the other possible entertainment options available, suddenly the list of movies (not) to see just isn’t as appealing.

The one thing cinemas still have going for them is windowing. For the first few months after opening, there is no other (legal) way to watch the film, you have to watch it in the cinema or wait for the DVD release. Although it seems clear people are more willing to wait, let the dust settle after opening weekend, and figure out what is worth watching, whether that be at the cinema, on DVD, when it makes it to TV, or at all. And now I’m going to contradict myself and say that piracy proves people aren’t willing to wait for those other options, preferring simultaneous releases. Both arguments still point out that people just aren’t as interested in paying big(ger) bucks to see movies in the cinema. Of course movie studios and distributors don’t like that idea, since windowing is great for their bottom line, especially opening weekend.

Now the reason for the price rise could be something to do with this chart, showing that 21% of the market is in the highest income households. Cinemas are obviously betting that their price elasticity is low and will take the price increase in their stride. What this ignores is the age demographic data above, which shows a sizeable chunk of the audience may be from affluent households, but that doesn’t mean their teenage bank account is bulging with lots of cash.

Equivalised gross household income quintiles No. cinema-goers (‘000) Share of cinema-goers (%) Attendance rate (%)
Lowest quintile 1,010.6 9.7% 47.2%
Second quintile 1,305.6 12.5% 50.8%
Third quintile 1,879.1 18.0% 66.6%
Fourth quintile 2,106.4 20.2% 75.3%
Highest quintile 2,199.2 21.1% 80.0%
Unknown 1,930.5 18.5% 65.8%
Total 10,431.4 100% 65.2%

So we see that cinema audiences are becoming more occasional consumers, the trip to the movies is a special event, not a regular event. Teens are a big chunk of the cinema market and they aren’t the repeat customers they used to be. This is what happens when you price customers out of the market, you bite the hand that feeds. You also have them turn to other entertainment mediums. Blaming piracy for what is demonstrably a long term trend is a pretty big reach. I’d also argue that piracy is a reaction to consumer demand for lower pricing and simultaneous releasing, so that audiences can consume the movies in the way they want to, not the way they are being forced to, at a price that is commensurate with the utility received (e.g. people pay as much or more for a DVD – less if you consider it a couple or family purchase). If cinemas have anyone to blame it is themselves and their suppliers (distributors and studios). Using piracy to justify a price increase is clearly unfounded.

Of course, what needs to be mentioned is that films are essentially a loss leader for cinemas so that they can make money selling snacks and beverages. This ticket price increase is probably driven through the supply chain rather than by the cinemas themselves. But this also shows how cinemas have to adapt in order to survive. Going out to a movie is an experience. People are more willing to pay for experiences rather than stuff (DVDs). So if cinemas can get serious about screening experience at a fair price, they might get the audience back, or at least stop the decline.

Sources: http://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/research/statistics/audiences.aspx

http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4901.0Main+Features1Apr%202009?OpenDocument

http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/6530.0Main+Features12003-04%20(Reissue)?OpenDocument

Misleading packaging: why reviews matter

FarCry

There is nothing worse than picking up a book, movie, whatever, expecting to be entertained based on the cover. The above example is the movie Far Cry, starring Til Schweiger, in what looks like a cool action flick. The description even makes you look past the fact that this is a video game adaptation, promising a slick action-eer:

An ex-special forces soldier turned boatman is hired by a journalist to investigate a top-secret military base on a nearby island.

The problem with this packaging is that this is a film by Uwe Boll. Til Schweiger is a fantastic actor and a major box office draw card, especially in his home country of Germany. He was also the driver behind one of my favourite films of all time, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Yet not even Til can save us from the worst director of all time.

One of the things that amazes me about Uwe Boll is not so much the fact that he is still making films (petition to stop him making films) but the fact that he is able to attract the money and star power to his movies. You would think that actors would be keen to avoid working with Uwe so that they don’t sign a career death note. But Til, Ron Perlman, Burt Reynolds, Jason Statham, Ray Liotta, Eric Roberts, Christian Slater, Stephen Dorff, Claire Forlani, Leelee Sobieski, John ‘Gimli’ Rys-Davies, and Ben Kingsley (although, Kingsley may be an Oscar winner, but he has appeared in some truly awful films), have all lined up to appear in a Uwe Boll production. Why!?! Rys-Davis has implied that the money is good and Uwe is easy to work for. No mention of exactly how good Uwe is to work with; I’m going to assume running hot and cold hookers and blow.

This speaks to the underlying problem with picking good entertainment. We can be easily mislead with a cool blurb, impressive trailer, a spot at the front of the store, a stand that tackles you to the ground and forces you to buy the movie/book. It is why movie stars are paid big money, because they have a brand that audiences recognise, and that can guarantee box office sales. In publishing you have name brand authors like James Patterson occupying the front of the store because they are reliable bestsellers. And Lee Child was recently shown to have the strongest brand in publishing, with fans following him from book to book more than any other author, because of his reliably entertaining books. Uwe Boll is the opposite of this brand of success and reliability.

Essentially media consumers like us are less likely to try a new author, or watch a film by a new director, or one that stars actors we haven’t heard of, because of the Uwe Boll’s of this world. We want our entertainment to be entertaining – I know, not much to ask really – and we hate being mislead by slick tricks. We see a cool poster or cover, we see a big name actor attached, or read a cool blurb, only to be sorely disappointed. So instead of trying something new, we stick with what we know and trust.

I guess that is why I promote books I’ve read and liked on this site. That is why we need people to review books, movies, TV shows and music. That is why we need to find people with similar tastes to make recommendations to us. If we can’t stop Uwe Boll making films, at least we can tell people about the films that are worth watching.

How Is Technology Changing TV Narrative?

This latest video from the Ideas Channel raises an interesting point about how there appears to be more complex narratives in TV shows now.

Of course, there are several problems with this idea. The first is perception. For every Breaking Bad and Justified we have CSI Whatever and the banality of reality TV. So without some hard data on the number of shows and relative audiences, it is really hard to say how real that perception is.

The second problem is that TV shows run a continuum from pure episodic shows, where everything is wrapped up in an episode and the next episode has little to no changes evident to the characters or larger show, through to serials, which have more complex plot lines that often take at least a season to develop and resolve with character arcs building over the course of the entire series. The key word is continuum, as most shows have some aspects of the serial and episodic about them. Again, without breaking down each show on this continuum, and then comparing shows now versus the past, we don’t have any idea of what has changed, if anything has changed.

The third problem is the good old sample or selection bias, especially as it relates to our favourite shows and the shows we remember. E.g. Survivor has been running since 2000 (or 1997 if you are in the UK), yet without looking that up I’d have had no idea when the show started, let alone whether it is still running. I don’t remember it because I’m not a fan. But I will still complain bitterly about the cancellation of Firefly. My frame of reference is biased, so I’m going to remember some shows more than others and think more favourably of some of the ones I remember than others.

The final problem I see is assigning time shift technologies and marathon watching as the driver of a change in our demands for more complex narratives. The idea itself is sound, as I can’t think of thing less interesting than watching the same episode with minor changes in a marathon. That would be like watching 9 hours of hobbits walking. The recording, DVD buying, streaming and subsequent marathon TV show watching would indeed favour shows that have more to them, that more complex narrative that will keep you pressing play on the next episode.

I don’t know that the time shifting, or recording, or DVD buying, or other methods of marathon watching, is driving a demand for more complex narratives. As I said above, I think the more complex shows lend themselves more to the marathon than other shows. But if we assume there are more of these shows worth grabbing a blanket and a couch dent, then I still think there are other things at play. I think we’ve seen more avenues for creativity come to the fore, such as Youtube channels, computer games, and the like that didn’t exist a decade ago as they do now. As a result, entertainment such as TV shows have a need to engage the audience on a deeper level. So while episodic shows like CSI Whatever are still huge, they don’t attract the same devotion and fan adoration as a good serialised show. Plus, the advantage of the more complex narratives is that it allows for more interesting characters, plot lines, etc, which is turn allows for better acting, direction, writing, etc, which creates a feedback loop that may one day cause fandom to implode due to awesome achieving gravitational singularity. I’m assuming this will happen when Netflix reboots Firefly.

NB: I hate the term binge watching and as such haven’t used it in this article. Binge implies that there is something wrong with what you are doing. There is nothing wrong with watching a TV show or movie series you enjoy, so we should stop implying there is something wrong.

TV shows airing in order

almost human

Recently I wrote about the TV shows that have been keeping me entertained, or at least giving my eyeballs some much-needed exercise. One of the TV shows I’d failed to get into was a little sci-fi on Fox called Almost Human. It appears that the reason I’d had trouble appreciating this new show is that Fox is up to its old tricks.

That’s right, Fox is airing the episodes of Almost Human out of order. And before you ask, I did check to see if Joss Whedon was in any way involved in the show: apparently not. So Fox can’t use the “we have to dick Joss’ show around” excuse, like they did with Firefly, Dollhouse, etc.

Obviously I’m not a highly paid TV executive, so my opinion on this topic is really inconsequential. Unless, of course, viewers of TV shows – that reason TV shows are made, aside from selling ad-space – are regarded as important in any way. Sure, I don’t have a degree in TV programming, but I would have thought airing a TV show in order would be the sensible thing to do. I’m not sure if the degree at MITV, the TV university located next to MIT, can be done online yet, but I would like to see their syllabus to get some idea of the inner workings of TV networks.

I know when I write a story I always like to start with the fifth chapter, then come back to the second chapter after I’ve written six or so chapters. I especially like to do this in a story which has a lot of new stuff in it, like sci-fi, and where there is any sort of story arc. This way you can really do your best to alienate readers and confuse them.

Not being privy to the inner workings of TV networks, it is hard to say exactly why they would do this, or how often they do this. With some TV shows you just wouldn’t notice. Take a formulaic story capsule like CSI Wherever. There isn’t usually an episode or season spanning story line; dead bodies show up, someone puts on glasses after making a pun, someone wears a lab coat near some magic ‘science’ boxes, they get the bad guy to confess during a flashback. So you would never know if they were aired out-of-order – which also raises the idea of them actually having an order to begin with. This is the sort of show you could just chop and change around to suit whatever excuse is used for butchering a show. But you can’t do this to a serialised TV show.

This isn’t just about annoying and confusing viewers. This isn’t about the disdain the TV executives are showing toward the show’s fanbase, you know, those people they need to sell stuff to. This is about a lack of respect for the creators of the show, especially the writers. Someone has gone to the trouble of crafting a story, an episodic story that needs to build upon previous instalments in order to continue to attract fans. Almost Human has enough of a “stand-alone” nature to the show to not be damaged too much by the lack of continuity (WTF is ‘the wall’??) but plenty of shows have been damaged or destroyed by these sorts of airing decisions.

Bring back Firefly!

Update: It appears that Fox has cancelled Almost Human, despite renewing The Following which had similar ratings. This shouldn’t be surprising since the network has essentially been trying to cancel the show since they first aired it. Fox didn’t make the show, so there is some chance a network like SyFy might pick it up.

Other articles on this:

http://seriable.com/almost-human-episodes-airing-order/

http://sciencefiction.com/2013/12/13/almost-human-airs-order-sign-cancellation/

Is fiction actually fiction?

There has been an interesting duo of videos by PBS’ Ideas Chanel. Mike discusses some interesting concepts surrounding fiction, like the fact that fiction is as much real as it is made-up and vice versa. Worth a watch.


The two videos cover a lot of ground, but one of the more important points I’d like to highlight is the idea that we can’t have fiction without reality. We need something to anchor our ideas and make-believe, shared experiences that allow us to understand and accept these fictions. There are plenty of examples of this, but one of the cooler examples is looking at depictions of the future at various stages throughout history. Compare what sci-fi movies of the 50s thought computers would look like now to what they actually look like, and you see a 1950s computer. Our imaginations actually suck a lot more than we think.

But here’s an idea about our inability to imagine the future: what if our imaginations don’t actually suck, but instead we ignore the outlandish imaginings that are actually more likely in favour of stuff we already know? Think about it. Or don’t, I’m not your boss.

Music that lasts

I was recently having a discussion about Zeitgeist. No, not the concept of a spirit of the age or spirit of the time, I mean the 2007 album from the (not) Smashing Pumpkins. I’ve been a massive fan of the Smashing Pumpkins’ music since about 1994 (wow, 20 years!) but have to say that Zeitgeist was the last of their albums I bought and I don’t listen to it, Ava Adore (1998), nor Machina (2000). Essentially, I’m no longer a fan of the Smashing Pumpkins, I’m a fan of their early work only.

What amazes me is you can listen to Gish (1991), Siamese Dream (1993), Mellon Collie (1995), even their b-sides album Pieces Iscariot (1994), and they still hold up really well. With the exception of the song Untitled (from their retrospective Rotten Apples, 2001) and maybe Tarantula (from Zeitgeist), the Smashing Pumpkins haven’t released a song or album that compares to any of the material on those early albums. With the more recent material the songs sound unfinished. When old b-sides sound better than your new a-sides, you really have to question what you’re doing.

But this isn’t just about the Smashing Pumpkins, name a Rolling Stones song released in the last 30 years (i.e. everything post Dirty Work from 1983). Can’t, can you!? They’ve released 5 studio albums and countless – well you can count them, but who cares to – live and collection albums in that time. Fans everywhere dread this announcement at a Rolling Stones concert, “And here’s a song from our new album.”

There are a few factors at play here: the idea of talent and inspiration meeting, the idea that even great artists can’t continue at that elite level indefinitely, and the idea that some art is transitory whilst some is timeless. I’ll leave the first two points for another day, the latter point gives me an opportunity to insult pop music.

Some art, music, TV, movies, books, etc, rise through the charts, become hugely popular, and dominate the media. Then a few years later everyone is embarrassed to talk about those artists and art, digging a deep pit of denial to throw those pieces of crap where they will never be found again. I’ve discussed this before in my article on Good versus Popular, suggesting that popular music/art/things aren’t necessarily good and that time and perspective sort the wheat out from the chaff. Some of the music we enjoy is just because it is played everywhere we go. Some music just filled a hole in the age bracket or life journey, such as Limp Bizkit for all the angry teens, or Placebo with their dark depressing (teen) angst music. A decade on and you’d battle to find anyone who would admit to having bought a Limp Bizkit album, and when I recently relistened to those albums I wondered how I ever listened to that junk.

So what music (or art) lasts? Is it immediately obvious? What lasts isn’t easy to define, because I would never have picked Yellow Submarine to last in the same way that Get Back has. A kid’s song versus a satire of attitudes to immigration in the UK. Would we even listen to Yellow Submarine now if it hadn’t been a Beatles song or bland and inoffensive enough be played to us as kids in primary school? I digress. I think the answer to what will last is often, but not always, immediately obvious. And what lasts is rarely categorised by the prefix* pop.

Take for example everyone’s current objects of pop music derision: Justin Bieber (or Miley Cyrus, whichever you prefer to hate more). Bieber’s music is popular, he’s famous as a result, and I don’t think anyone would argue that his music will be forgotten in 5 years time and laughed at in 10, much like The Spice Girls. Remember them? Me neither. We** already know his music won’t last. And how about an example of something that will stand the test of time…. Wow, this is the part where I admit I’m a metal fan and haven’t listened to ‘commercial’ music in over a decade. I’d say Daft Punk’s most recent work will last, but they have been around for over a decade now, so hard to call them a new artist.

But I will give you another prediction, Pearl Jam will be my generation’s Rolling Stones. They will be still touring long after anyone has realised they still record new albums. And people will go to see them live because of those first few albums that everyone loved and still loves.

Essentially I think that lasting comes down to quality. I’m not talking about the recording studio, production values, or hair gel and dance routines. I’m talking about the quality that arises from talent and inspiration meeting. Bob Dylan’s songs had terrible production and his voice sounds like someone gargling gravel, whilst strangling a cat as their foot is fed into a wood chipper. Yet he had talent and inspiration, subsequently capturing the zeitgeist and lasting (see what I did there). But that music/art has to find a fanbase, whether immediately, or growing it over time as Led Zeppelin did. Now the only question remains: which is better, to last or to grab the headlines for 15 minutes?***

* Yeah, I know, not actually a prefix, more of a noun or adjective dependant upon the context.
** Having not ever heard any of Justin Bieber’s music and only accidentally heard part of a Miley Cyrus song at the gym, I can’t actually judge how good or bad their music is and how long it will last. I’m basing my judgement upon what has happened with previous pop stars.
*** The answer is easy: to last. If everyone forgets your 15 minutes did you even have those 15 minutes?

Entertaining TV of 2013

With many of my favourite shows now back on air for 2014, except the ones that were cancelled, I thought it was a good time to recap what kept me entertained on the small screen in 2013.

Many people have noted the rise of decent TV, leaving behind the days of formulaic plots (e.g. CSI whatever), sit coms that lack the comedy (e.g. Two and A Half Men), dramas that lack plot (e.g. Lost), lame reality TV shows (e.g. Duck Dynasty), and the cancellation of a Joss Whedon show before it got a chance to be awesome (e.g. every show he’s ever made). This is at the same time as movies have failed to produce anything particularly memorable or interesting in quite some time.

I actually have a theory (by theory I mean hypothesis) about why there are fewer and fewer decent movies. It comes down to this little figure:
gender-inequality-in-filmLet’s leave aside the gross disparity between the highest paid actor vs. actress discussion, instead let’s focus on those paychecks. You stick just one of those stars in a movie, just one, and you are going to have a really expensive movie that is going to battle make its money back at the box office. Movie studios know this, so they spend up big on special effects, production values, promotion, etc, to lure people into the cinema. But in an effort to attract as large an audience as possible to make up for this huge spend, they make the movies as bland as possible in order to accommodate a wide audience from around the world. The reason that movie sucks isn’t because it is aimed at 12 year olds, its aimed at 12 year olds who probably don’t understand idioms due to being in a different country/culture.

And this is why we get a list of gems on the small screen, because the writers, directors, and quite a few actors, have realised that in order to tell good stories, they can’t spend huge dollars (unless it is on prime time crap).

Justified

FX_Justified_WP_1600x1200_3

Possibly my favourite show of the past few years. This is not only well written, the entire cast and crew seem to have this knack for creating great TV. Plus, last season featured Patton Oswalt.

Sherlock

I love this show for its wit, humour, modernising of the classic Sherlock Holmes stories, and the casting. Some have accused it of being smug, but I see that as central to Sherlock’s character, thus welcome in the show.

Luther

I read the prequel novel by series writer Neil Cross and it was every bit as good as the TV show. Idris Elba took a break from fighting monsters in giant robot suits in order to make another season of this fantastic crime drama.

Banshee

When I describe this show to friends, they always come away thinking that I’ve described a violent, b-grade, action movie with plenty of nudity. Just another throw back to the pulp novel trash that I also have occasion to read. Well, yes. The problem being? The best new show on TV in 2013, hands down!

Person of Interest

I really enjoyed the first season of Person of Interest. The second season was more of the same but brought more of the very interesting character portrayed by Amy Acker. Season 3 was off to a good start before the non-ratings break. Now that I’ve raised that point, why do we even have a non-ratings period any more? TV watching habits have changed, the networks better change with the times or lose out to the internet… oh wait, they are.

Continuum

I discovered this sci-fi gem by accident. One of the problems I’ve always had with time travel in books, TV and movies is that they don’t deal with the paradox very well. Even in Back to the Future it is almost played for a joke. This series is well written and actually has the paradox central to its story structure. It also helps that Rachel Nichols does a good job of holding the series together.

Revolution

Another post-apocalyptic story, ho-hum. This series has an interesting take on what would be society’s downfall and what would subsequently happen. There is a lot to like about this show, especially Billy Burke as a bad-ass. Although, after the first season, I didn’t see much point in having a second season and won’t be following it.

Arrow

This is one of the few mainstream shows I find watchable. It is pretty much down to the fact that they have some good fights, an interesting premise culled from the source material, and that the actors have done the hard yards physically for the show (especially Stephen Amell and Manu Bennett). Makes me want to build a salmon ladder in my backyard.

H+

Not often that a web series could attract a big name director like Bryan Singer (of the decent X-Men movies fame) to make a series of short scene sci-fi. I’d characterise the series as essentially 48 vignettes with overlapped characters and story, as most episodes can stand alone to some extent, despite being part of a larger narrative.

Archer

Quite simply, this show is the funniest thing on TV. In the proud tradition of cartoon comedies, it is able to do things that other TV shows and comedies can’t, due to financial, legal or ethical constraints. This series is also one of the few with DVD extras that you would actually want to watch. One of the best is when Archer has an accident and is transformed into a character much more like his voice actor, with ensuing gags around this.

Rake

This Aussie comedy-drama has been a consistently witty and interesting tale about a self-destructive Sydney barrister. Normally Aussie humour doesn’t translate well to other parts of the world, but Rake has been adapted for the USA, with Greg Kinnear replacing Richard Roxburgh.

Tried but lost interest:

Almost Human – promising sci-fi that didn’t really capture my attention

The Walking Dead – so sick of that fucking farm!

Marvel’s Agents of Shield – this should have been good, but was meh.

The Booth At The End – interesting premise but didn’t grab me.

The Following – I can honestly say that this series squandered such a great premise with derivative and clichéd story.

The Blacklist – this was interesting only because of James Spader. Needed more than that.

Vikings – interesting but too slow moving.

Hannibal – this was fantastic. I don’t know why I haven’t watched more, but I just haven’t.

What!?! You don’t watch….

The Game of Thrones – after watching the first season I had had enough. You only have to watch this far to see Sean Bean die, so game over.

Breaking Bad – I’ve dropped in and out on this series, watching episodes throughout. I’ve really enjoyed it, but not something I’ve made time to watch all of.

Arrested Development – yeah, I know. I should be a rabid fan.

The Killing – both the US and the Danish Forbrydelsen are slow boil crime shows that I’ve started watching and not continued. No particular reason for stopping, just haven’t gotten to the rest of the episodes yet.

Borgen – have heard great things, but just haven’t gotten to it yet.

Don’t kill books

Reality TV

 

It isn’t just reality TV, it is quite a bit of TV programming that is killing books and, thus, us.

Think about the worst book you’ve ever read. Now remember that, with few exceptions, the movie is always worse than the book. Now think about the best programming on TV being movies and high calibre drama shows. So what I’m insinuating is that the best programs on TV are inferior to just about any book.

For every half-hour wasted watching bad TV, that is 5-10% of a decent novel that you’ll never get to read. Scary, isn’t it!

NB: If people are interested I might write about my favourite TV shows, because not all TV sucks.

TV Shows From Around the World

I was viewing the new series of Sherlock, written by the fantastic Steven Moffat (Coupling, Dr Who, Jekyl), when a thought occurred to me; would the deli be open to sell me an ice cream at this hour? Sadly it wasn’t, which gave me plenty of time to think about how various countries differ in the way they do TV shows and movies.

I present my musings and gross generalities about TV shows around the world.

UK – Talkies.

The best Dr Who – Tom Baker a close second.

When I think of UK TV in general I think very little action but a lot of dialogue. Not much happens in any one episode of UK TV, but all the characters have a lot to say. The best shows – often written by the aforementioned Steven Moffat et al. – are also witty and intelligent.

A great example of this is Dr Who, the David Tennant version. The Doctor is stuck in a life or death situation – lets say its Darleks about to shoot him – and yet he talks his way out of it. Any other country would have him ducking for cover. Another example is the crime drama Luther. This is more an exploration of the main character and his strained relationships and his commitment to solving crimes.

Example: Sherlock, Luther.
Outlier: The Bill (cookie cutter).

USA – Explosions and cookie cutter formats.

Cookie-Cutter was a term invented for this franchise. 

The Americans are terrific at doing formulaic shows. Their crime shows follow the same patterns each episode, the dramas have a list of top topics – also used for identifying when they have jumped the shark – and all their comedies gradually morph into dramas. They also do gun fights and explosions. More bullets are fired in one episode of US TV than in the entire year of all TV shows from the UK and Australia (NB: made up statistic that is possibly true but I’d have no idea).

As a result they can attract audiences in large numbers to watch things go bang. The longer the show runs the less ideas are used in any one episode as the formulae takes over. In fairness, compared to UK TV, series in the US produce a lot more episodes, so writers would have a harder time coming up with fresh material.

Example: CSI whatever.
Outlier: Justified, The Wire.

Australia – Soapies.

Neighbours, the long running steaming pile of dog droppings.

Aussies can’t produce a TV show that isn’t a soapie. We have tried many times, failing miserably to make the show not morph into a soapie. Sometimes we start off with a great premise and even a few episodes that show promise, but it doesn’t take long before we have just another soapie.

I don’t watch Aussie TV any more.

Example: We don’t do anything other than soapies.
Outlier: The little watched Good Guys, Bad Guys.

Western Europe – Gritty and noir.

Unit One making you squirm.

Americans have recently started (re)making European shows with more explosions. They have realised that there are so many well written shows there that they just had to copy them. Since Americans can’t handle accents and subtitles they need to redo the lot. Of course the Americans are then surprised when there is something lacking in their version.

I don’t know why, but gritty seems like a default position in every drama produced in Europe (Inspector Rex doesn’t count). As a result shows can become very dark, but at the same time are generally more substantive.

Example: The Elephant, The Killing, Unit One.
Outlier: All the same soaps and reality TV that they produce like every other country/region.

Canada – USA shows

We’re in Canada Scully; it’s a conspiracy!

If it is a US TV show, it is likely to be made in Vancouver. My theory for this phenomenon is that American actors and stuntmen on TV shows generally aren’t making enough money to afford decent health care. As a result they like to locate themselves in a country that has proper health care available. Just a theory.

One of the ways to spot an Canadian TV show versus an American TV show is how much shooting and explosions occur during any one episode. At one end you have American shows, at the other end you have Canadian shows, and right in the middle are the Canadian produced American shows.

Example: Stargate, Supernatural.
Outlier: Any show that looks kinda American but hasn’t got people shooting someone every 2 minutes.

Eastern Europe, South America & Asia
I’d like to know more as Australians don’t have many of them on our screens.

NB: I’ve tried to be as intentionally insulting to the various countries with my observations as possible. There is a lot of great TV out there, Australia makes virtually none of it, so I’m bitter, resentful and ultimately jealous.