Kings

The King is Dead. Long Live the King.
The King is dead. Long live the King. NBC's best new drama is best viewed on Hulu, where it is only interrupted by 15-30s public service ads, because NBC and most ad buyers are retarded.

It’s quite strange to see the TV networks self-destructing alongside the Newspaper industry. The death of the latter is widely accepted as inevitable, while many are still on the fence about the former.

In my opinion, TV is going to become — and is becoming — exactly like radio. In other words, cheaply produced disposable content of no interest ten minutes after it’s broadcast. There’s no TiVo for radio, because no-one wants to timeshift radio — except for NPR (or similar public broadcasters elsewhere), and they give away everything online as podcasts anyway. (And unlike the rest of radio, TV, or newspapers, NPR is gaining market share.)

I started work at the University of Alabama last Monday and discovered that one of the perks of the job is access to free copies of the New York Times (and USA Today, but I’m not sure that’s a perk). Reading the Times is kind of an elitist wank, and being an elitist wanker I tried to actually read a physical copy of the Times for the first time in years. (Pretty much the only time I buy newspapers is when I’m bored out of my skull — e.g. when I was stuck in hospital when my daughter was ill (don’t worry, not serious) a few months back or when I’m flying and run out of interesting stuff to read.)

Penny Arcade describes the situation in a nutshell
Penny Arcade describes the situation in a nutshell

What immediately struck me is how little the New York Times seems to have learned about being a newspaper, let alone a media outlet. I recently saw an interesting video from TED of a fellow who has actually increased the circulation of several European newspapers by redesigning them — not in the purely graphic sense, but in the Apple sense. Design and function being considered synonymous, rather than the former being merely a thin veneer on the latter. It’s an interesting talk, but so short and lacking in detail that I’m not exactly sure whether I would be terribly impressed by the papers themselves. But, I imagine that they might have considered:

  • Abandoning the idiotic broadsheet format (why is it that “good” newspapers must be incredibly inconvenient to unfold and read, unless they’re financial papers?)
  • Figuring out a way to put articles on a single page (why do we have short leaders, and then articles vomited across random subsections of different pages?)
  • Making the paper actually interesting or attractive to look at

This is all of course a tangent from the more important point that the New York Times needs to redefine itself as a vendor of time-sensitive written articles subsidized by advertising, and not a newspaper. (There was a nice little back of envelope calculation on Twitter a few weeks back — if the New York Times could abandon printing altogether the cost savings would allow it to give a Kindle to every subscriber.)

And all of this is beside my original point that Hulu (and other things like Hulu) is going to kill television. It may not actually become a viable business in the process, but TV is dying. Oddly enough, in its death throes it is going through a Golden Age of creativity, as network programmers thrash about desperately looking for ways of attracting audiences and — belatedly — consider that good, original writing might work.

The quality of TV programs in the United States right now is nothing short of breathtaking. Consider that in the last few years we’ve had:

  • The Wire
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Dollhouse
  • Damages
  • The Closer
  • House M.D.
  • Heroes (Season One)
  • 30 Rock
  • The Office
  • Arrested Development
  • You Can Call Me Earl
  • Scrubs (until about season six)
  • Weeds (until season three)
  • Entourage
  • The Sopranos
  • And now Kings

I keep thinking of new shows to add to this list, all produced in the last five years. It’s ridiculous.

There are also-ran TV series made in the last few years (e.g. Life, Saving Grace, or Law & Order: Criminal Intent) that would have qualified for many people’s top ten lists if they hadn’t been facing ridiculous levels of competition. In the last five years, most comedies have — finally — ditched the laugh track, the distinction between “comedy” and “drama” has been removed (including the “drama equals one hour, comedy equals a half hour” rules), “reset to zero” has been discarded: even sitcoms have arc plot — consider that I’ve failed to mention so far such shows as Stargate SG-1, Firefly,¬†Six Feet Under, Lost, and Desperate Housewives. Everybody Loves Raymond — a conventional half-hour laugh track comedy — ranks alongside the best such comedies of yesteryear, and is thoroughly outclassed by innovative shows like Scrubs. Even a pretty-much-ignored show like Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is both more coherent and has better production values than any TV action show made five years ago.

And the best way to watch most of this stuff is online via something like hulu or via iTunes. And yet there are so few ads being sold on hulu that most of the ads I see are 15- and 30-second Ad Council back fill. The networks can find four advertisers to annoy us with hopelessly untargeted TiVo-skippable ads on broadcast, cable, and satellite — but allow us to watch a show in high-def on a computer and we get told to switch off lights to save power and speak up about dangerous teen drivers.

In the long run, TV and newspapers are dead. But there’s money to be made before then if they get a clue. In the long run the iPod is dead too, but Apple is doing just fine in the interim.

Battlestar Galactica Ends

Edit: I can’t believe I misspelled the name of the show!

Here’s my take on the end of the best Science Fiction TV series in history: it hit the right emotional notes, and it was reasonably satisfying, but it was not a worthy ending to the series, and I suspect that as we all go back and watch the whole thing through we’ll find a lot of threads left dangling or essentially forgotten by the writers.

Now, as usual, I’m more interested in what went wrong with the show than what went right. It was very well acted and generally well written, the special effects were unbelievably good, and it took on ambitious themes and generally handled them well. Having gotten all that out of the way, there’s quite a bit to criticize.

Scale

One of the details BSG kept returning to was just how many survivors remained. It starts (if I recall correctly) slightly under 50,000 and eventually drops to around 30,000. This is, in essence, the size of a small town. It seems slightly ridiculous that the writers seem to forget just how small a community they’re dealing with. The political and legal wrangles are treated as though they were taking place in a huge nation, not a small community where pretty much everyone knows everyone. While I can believe that the people in charge might have grandiose notions about themselves (they are, after all, the last remnants of their civilization) it seems like the writers might well have tried to bring them back to Earth from time-to-time. Just what proportion of the survivors constitute the press corps? Rather a lot, it seems.

Technology

The basic assumption in BSG is that humans have pulled back on their use of computers because they went too far and ended up getting Skynet … er, I mean the Cylons … as an emergent behavior of their computer system. OK, I’ll accept that, but you do not go back to analog phones and switchboards. The whole “retro-future” technology of BSG is cute from a production design viewpoint, but it makes no sense from any other perspective. We know that our current level of computer technology has not given rise to Skynet or the Cylons, and presumably the folks living on Caprica can remember that their electronic microwave ovens and pocket calculators never gave them grief. In any event, it’s quite impossible to expect human pilots with no advanced avionics to be able to defeat cyborgs flying computerized spacecraft. But they do. In the end, it turns out that Battlestar Galactica was sufficiently networked that they could just plug a Cylon hybrid in anyway. How odd.

Warning, Spoilers Ahead!

It was God What Done It

Perhaps the worst aspect of BSG was well-and-truly foreshadowed from day one, which is the centrality of religion and prophecy to the story. The final resolution is literally a Deus Ex Machina. We are to accept that the figmentary Six and Balthar are angels of some kind and that Starbuck is Jesus, and that the basic resolution is summed up by “All this has happened before and will happen again” (which was the great revelation at the end of an earlier season). It’s particularly annoying that a show with such a sophisticated take on — say — the nature of terrorism, should come down so squarely and definitely in the “there is one god” camp.

We Will All Go Together When We Go

The worst aspect of the Finale (as opposed to the series itself) is that we’re required to accept that the entire fleet agrees to throw away their technology and become hunter gatherers. I could accept some of the forty-odd-thousand survivors doing this, but every single one? These are people who were fractious in life-and-death situations, and every single one of them is going to give up advanced medicine and hot showers so they can start fresh? I don’t think so. (Having a character say something like “wow, I wasn’t expecting everyone to agree” would be OK in a comedy like Buffy, but it’s just stupid in this case.)

Hurry Up And Wait

The pacing and structure of the Finale are odd too. The rescue is resolved rather quickly, and most of the two hours is spent on scenes which could have been much shorter or simply omitted. It’s nice to have some time to wind down from the very exciting climax, and accept that the journey is over, but it’s not long before we, or I at least, are screaming for them to get on with it. How many scenes of Adama with Roslynn heading off to die (or whatever) do we need to see? (And, the wasting of time in the Finale is particularly galling when you consider just what a waste of time the second last episode was.)

I Knew Honda Was Up To No Good

The closing sequence, where Six (the devil?) and Balthar (the angel?) are speculating as to whether this latest incarnation of human civilization will self-destruct the same way the others all did, is somewhat undercut by the final shot of primitive robots in action in some kind of ad or documentary on a TV set in a store window. Battlestar Galactica (the remake) managed to touch on many complex issues, so returning to a not-so-subtle reminder of the perils of [robot] technology seems almost imbecilic. Not our biggest problem, sorry.

Unanswered Questions

So what the heck were the Cylons doing? Apparently, we’re going to have a spin-off movie or mini-series called The Plan explaining things from a Cylon perspective. I’d be fascinated to find out exactly how they can rationalize Cylon behavior.

And, when they said “All of this has happened before and will happen again” did it include the humans ditching all their technology and becoming hunter-gatherers? Because it sure doesn’t seem like the last two iterations did anything of the sort. And if the answer is no, then the final conversation between figmentary Six and figmentary Balthar makes no sense. (Really, they should have said “it turns out that even after giving up everything, they still ended up recreating Kobol” or something. And instead of ending with footage of ridiculous humanoid robots they had chosen footage of robot planes and vehicles being used in Iraq and Afghanistan…)

And exactly how was Starbuck the harbinger of doom?

Oh, and twelve four digit numbers doesn’t give you a very precise location within our galaxy. That’s plus or minus five light years in two dimensions. So, did the music point to Earth, Alpha Centauri, or Barnard’s Star? (There are quite a few more options, actually.)

Addendum

Another blogger points out that Earth’s fauna and climate were very different 150,000 years ago (I’m kicking myself for not noticing this, but with so many self-contained clangers it’s almost nitpicking to actually consider “facts”). Even if we accept that by 150,000 years ago they mean “roughly 150,000 years ago” and that therefore they picked a time which was by amazing coincidence relatively similar in climate to our own, this doesn’t explain away all the megafauna (mammoths, 25′ tall sloths, sabertooth tigers, wolves the size of horses, etc.) that made it through to the late stone age.

Dollhouse

No spoilers!

The basic concept of Dollhouse — a service that imprints custom-designed personalities into people tailored to clients’ wishes, and then erases them afterwards — doesn’t seem to me to be something I’d want to base TV series on, so, despite being a Joss Whedon fan, I pretty much decided I would wait until the show got axed and then maybe see it on DVD.

Circumstances — in the shape of the everyone in the house getting sick — led us to run out of stuff to watch on TV, so Rosanna TiVoed the current episode (“107” in TiVo parlance — season 1, episode 7) and we watched it together, then immediately went to Hulu to see which episodes were available online, and after watching episodes 2 to 6, we paid $1.99 for the first episode on iTunes.

The fact is, I haven’t really cared for most of Joss Whedon’s shows’ underlying premises. Cheerleader who kills vampires. Good vampire who hunts bad vampires and lawyers. Even Firefly‘s basic setup — tramp freighter eeking a living out on the fringe of an interstellar civilization the crew doesn’t much care for — isn’t exactly earthshaking. What makes Joss Whedon’s shows great is his execution.

To begin with, Dollhouse pretty much lays out all of the moral implications of its central idea on the table. E.g. it assumes that the most common service is prostitution and that it’s a job only someone who had no choice would accept (the “doll” is indentured for five years, after which — we assume — their old personality is restored). It doesn’t disingenuously put forward a whitewashed version and then treat the obviously outrageous implications as shocking twists in later episodes. Pretty much every bad thing that you would assume might happen given the scenario is essentially assumed to have happened at some point or another. Indeed, the beauty of the Whedon’s take on the basic premise is that the technology doesn’t work perfectly. Or maybe even at all.

Oddly enough, the basic premise of Dollhouse is almost identical to the recently (and deservedly) cancelled Christian Slater show My Own Worst Enemy. But My Own Worst Enemy fails precisely because it assumes the technology has always worked perfectly (up until now), that there is no tolerance for glitches, and — worst of all — the technology’s main role is completely senseless — in what universe is it helpful to give your agents cover identities, but wipe their skills and knowledge when they’re under cover?

Next, Whedon clearly has a lot of stuff figured out in a way that the writers of Lost and Battlestar Galactica did not. To begin with he’s actually willing to reveal the answers to questions because he has more stuff to follow up with. Contrast this with Lost which never answers any questions satisfactorily, and simply tosses in more random detail (I’ve described elsewhere as “adding another layer to the onion”). I won’t go into details here since this would just spoil it for you.

Finally, this show is just really well written. There’s no fat in the scripts. In the first scene in the first episode (where Caroline is being persuaded to sign on to become a doll) we get to a point where she’s deciding what to do and then BANG action cuts to a scene which may be a flashback to the way she got into her predicament, but turns out to be one of her engagements. This is not a show you can watch while doing something else — blink and you miss serious plot developments. And there’s a lot of care taken with the different personality “imprints”: when they imprint Echo (the main character) with an expert hostage negotiator’s personality, or a midwife’s, or an extreme sports nut, she is totally credible. It really seems like something that would be hard (on writers, actors, and film crews) to do each week, but so far they’re pulling it off.

I do wonder whether Whedon has a five year arc in mind, or started with the assumption he’d be lucky to survive for one season (it is on FOX after all). Certainly the plot is advancing fast enough for a satisfying conclusion to be reached by the point at which Firefly got axed. It occurs to me that he intends to have the initial arc end mid-season having altered the basic premise enough that the show will take on a rather different form beyond that. We shall see!

HBO on iTunes

HBO’s stuff is going to appear on iTunes. So far, I only see the first seasons of the shows I’m interested in (Rome, Deadwood, and most of all The Wire) but I assume it won’t be long.

The first thing a lot of folks latched onto was Apple being “forced” to be flexible on pricing by making some of the shows $2.99. Since most HBO shows don’t have ad breaks, and sometimes don’t even fit inside an hour, and are made to higher standards than typical network TV shows, this is hardly unreasonable. Two episodes of The Wire equals three episodes of Law & Order. Fair enough.

It’s worth noting that it’s $1.99 for some pretty short format stuff on iTunes, and that many super-long music tracks are “album only” in the music section. So this doesn’t seem, to me, to be comparable to Apple caving to HBO where it didn’t cave to NBC.

Oh yeah, and Cable TV: I think your number is up.

P.S.

By the way, here’s a letter by David Simon to fans of The Wire after wrapping up the final season. It’s a rather depressing commentary on the state of US society and politics.