No half measures: Overmuch Maron & hula time

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It seems I cannot watch any tv show without bingeing on it. Very late to the party, I started watching Maron – and am already halfway through. Maron, though, is worth the binge.

Something shorter, like BBC’s Upstart Crow… also worth the binge. Quite funny in that Brit comedy kind of way (which I don’t care for unless I am in the right frame of mind).

Something like Canadian crime show, Motive. Not as worthy, but even that I sat sucking up episode after episode.

In between I pick up new episodes of Tyrant or the very promising The Night Of.

Yet still can’t avoid crap.

There are many ubiquitous things I keep seeing, each time annoying me more. Even the compulsive viewing of Maron doesn’t keep me from seeing the endless nonsense about PokémonGO (Chuck D of Public Enemy fame even tweeted, “If you LOVE POKE MAN go and buy yourself a adult diaper too.”).

I also have not avoided the tiresome tedium of Taylor Swift/Tom Hiddleston/Calvin Harris. All I can say to that: Who gives a fuck? And yet this makes headlines.

Puke. Time for some Tahitian hits. Childhood hula lesson memories, inspired by a Tweet from Marc Maron.

 

Lunchtable TV Talk – Bates Motel

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At first I avoided Bates Motel – for no real reason. I had no expectations going in, and I did not realize until I started watching that the formidable Vera Farmiga is one of the main players. This makes Bates Motel automatically worth at least trying out. Then realizing that Nestor Carbonell is the town sheriff seals the deal.

While I could spread on thick layers of superlatives about Farmiga’s range and talent, I would rather write a brief love letter to Carbonell. I love how he pops up frequently and, of course, is very different in each role – as quality acting requires. Whether he is hero, villain or somewhere in between (as is the case in Bates Motel), he delivers. But what I love about him most of all is looking back on his comedic role in the gone and mostly forgotten Suddenly Susan in the 1990s. A starring vehicle for Brooke Shields (and also starring Judd Nelson and Kathy Griffin), the show was usually stolen out from under Shields and the rest of the cast by Carbonell as Luis Rivera and the late David Strickland as Todd Stities. Together, this duo stole many scenes and kept me watching even when the show was annoying (and believe me – it grew increasingly so). (Interestingly the show also humanized Shields a bit for me – and I had never really cared much for her work before.)

Sadly, Strickland committed suicide at the age of 29 in 1999 (RIP) – but Carbonell, happily, was just getting started. He has turned up everywhere – both in one-time guest roles in popular TV shows and in longer-term appearances, such as a role in one-time network ratings juggernaut, Lost.

With Farmiga and Carbonell at the helm, Bates Motel really seems to work and stand out. Even the sometimes overly dramatic tone and plot are deftly managed in these actors’ hands. Many of the other actors are all right – kind of a go-to list of every non-descript Canadian actor who turns up in every Canadian or Canadian-produced show (for example, Ian Tracey as “Remo” – I stared at him for ages before realizing he was one of the stars of the Canadian legal drama Da Vinci’s Inquest – something that was never shown any time that I lived in the US but did turn up on late-night TV in Iceland). While the actor who plays Norman Bates, Freddie Highmore, should attract more accolades, there are times that his character’s awkwardness and mental illness feels a bit too ham-handed and overacted, making me think that while the part is well-cast, there is a bit too much “putting it on” that does not feel authentic. Highmore manages to balance innocent, sheltered, overprotected son with increasingly unstable, mentally ill “psycho” quite well – he is fantastic at “creepy” – but nevertheless isn’t really the star of the show.

Without the main cast working well together, though, the show would not be nearly as addictive as it is (and it has been addictive). Once I started the first season of ten episodes two days ago, I could not stop and am already caught up (we’re nearing the end of season three).

Television is the new TV – The great disconnect

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A few years ago when I worked in the tech industry, there was a lot of noise about “cord cutting” and how internet technologies could enable consumers to bypass expensive and inflexible cable companies. The vision at the time was just that – a vision that had not quite caught up to reality. But now we’re living in a slightly-different-than-imagined version of that reality. I know a lot of people who don’t have relationships with a cable company, and all their entertainment comes in some form of streaming and they can pick and choose, smörgåsbord style, what they want to buy into (or not). Of course there are still some constraints in terms of internet connectivity – with many people held hostage by the lack of choice in ISPs. But there has never been quite as much freedom to choose content and content source as there is today.

This got me to thinking, though, that even if we are essentially looking at content that we’d traditionally refer to as “television” – the sudden lack of “programming”, the ability to watch whenever and wherever, the ability to avoid advertising (or succumb to more targeted ads), the shift toward creating truly amazing stories and the elevation of “TV” shows to high art or at least something that surpasses two-hour film format storytelling by adding richness, depth, character building and production value – all of this means that we are witnessing the birth of something quite new. (One writer calls it “complex TV” but I would go so far as to argue that it is not TV at all.)

Can we call what we are watching “TV” just because it vaguely follows the same format? When streaming and binge-watching are becoming de facto – and shows are not necessarily created with traditional advertising streams in mind, tethers to certain templates are broken. Creativity is unleashed in new ways and places. We see small-scale, independent online production and exclusively online productions to complement traditional programming. We see “networks” creating original content, which was novel enough when it was no longer the big three American networks – Fox had been in the game for some time. But when paid cable got into the game, quality and diversity (and risk taking) became important. Ratings and audience share became less important. And when ratings still posed a challenge for some shows in one channel, it has grown likelier for another outlet to pick up the production in one way or another (some examples of this include Netflix running with long-dead Arrested Development to produce new episodes and a collaboration between different, non-traditional partners to continue producing critically lauded but ratings-challenged Friday Night Lights and Damages.) Online outlets got involved to become their own kind of networks – with Netflix leading the way and disrupting the whole model of keeping viewers on the hook for months as a story played out week after week on television. Where home entertainment, like DVD boxsets, unleashed the “binge watching”/marathon phenomenon, Netflix and later Amazon Prime were able to produce and release full seasons of high quality content whenever they wanted to (not beholden to any traditional “TV season”). Kicking that up a notch more recently has been Yahoo!’s step into the ring – reviving former NBC, perpetually on-the-bubble comedy weirdness Community.

This is still called “TV content”. But is it? When Netflix or Yahoo! bring an actual TV show from a network back to life through their own channels, is it still TV just because the show came from there? This week’s episode of Black-ish has the four kids talking in horror about how, in the old days, you had to watch content when it was scheduled or miss it forever. No pause button! No choices!

Are the methods by which we watch influencing how these shows are made, when they are released? And if this is not TV any longer, what is it? It’s not programming in the traditional television sense. And when a content provider releases entire seasons at one time, they have changed the entire production process. The content is not consumed, perceived or even built in the same way.

I recently read about how “television writers” are forced to evolve and create an end-to-end story when dealing with a full-season streaming show that is released all at once, while traditional network shows can alter the trajectory of a storyline that does not perform well or is unpopular with viewers (e.g. the storyline in which Kalinda’s husband shows up on The Good Wife. It was not well-received, so the writers scrapped it at their first opportunity). But there are no U-turns or detours when Amazon gives us an entire season of Transparent. In that way, full-season, binge-bait “content dumping” is like the release of a film, only a film is maybe two hours, and a show is 12 or 13 hours (or half that, in the case of half-hour shows) – assuming that any of these content creators decide in the long run to stick with the semi-traditional “duration” lengths. This could change, too. It already has changed to some degree.

As we disconnect from traditional methods of content consumption, we are consuming new things in new ways – we are not watching television any longer, even if we are watching our content ON an actual television.

That’s Entertainment – Binge Viewing

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Funny thing about going on TV and movie-viewing binges – there are so many threads that connect so many things together. This past two weeks, for example, I have not seen a single TV show that did not use a reference to someone being another person’s “wing man”. It started when I went on a Suits-watching marathon, and there was an entire episode in which the characters were excessively quoting Top Gun (which is not even a film with dialogue – just a long series of annoying one-liners). After that, every show has referenced the ubiquitous “wing man” and in some other show (unfortunately I have half-watched so much TV that I don’t remember which show), the characters argued about who was Maverick and who was Goose.

Smaller connections can be seen if paying attention – binge watching allows for sewing together disconnected threads in specific series – but it also allows for small connections and thematic linking between things where there really is no reason to believe there are connection. For example, the obsession with Quaaludes in The Wolf of Wall Street pops up again in HBO’s True Detective, where Matthew McConaughey’s character wants to get some Quaaludes. Not to mention that McConaughey turns up briefly in The Wolf as a drug-obsessed Wall Street guy schooling Leonardo DiCaprio in how to behave (that is, take drugs, more drugs and only care about making money for yourself). And frankly, how often do you hear about Quaaludes in everyday life? Never. Now it’s twice in one day – thanks to entertainment.

TV

In the midst of other things, I have done a lot of wasteful TV and movie viewing lately. It’s on in the background while I do a million other things. There are plenty of other things I have been watching and love (not listed here, such as Shameless, House of Lies, Episodes, Justified, etc.), but I am only listing things that I have not really written much about elsewhere – new shows or things that I have something to say about them.

Among the dumbest or most infuriating shows:

The Following: This show just makes law enforcement look like it is all bumbling idiots, always ten steps behind. But the bad guy never quite seems like he could be smart enough to pull it off. In general the show just makes no sense to me because it is just not believable.

The Fosters: This is classic-style ABC network family programming with a “clever” (or not) title (the titular Foster family are also foster parents) and lots of hot-button topics (lesbian, biracial couple with a bunch of kids – one biological and the others adopted fosters). The good part is that this backdrop is not overdone or made to seem unusual. This is just the way it is. But the storytelling is one step away from overdramatic soap opera with too much shit going on to be real. So I don’t like the show, and both the leads (Teri Polo and Sherri Saum) lack the personal warmth to make them seem like loving parents – they try to oversell it to the detriment of the end effect.

Helix: I keep waiting for it to get better and it isn’t. I felt the same way about Caprica. And is it just me or is Billy Campbell becoming a worse and more false actor as he gets older? The only good thing is the actress who was Kat in Battlestar Galactica. I did not like her that much in BSG, but here she’s tough without the immature, annoying, extreme edge she had as Kat. Oh, and Jeri Ryan is going to show up any minute now, so that’s a good thing, right?

Looking: I don’t know – a show about a group of gay friends in San Francisco. Would be fine as a premise, but it just feels so pointless every week.

The Crazy Ones: I keep trying to watch this and this is not funny. The end.

How I Met Your Mother: I started watching this only around the time that the show was in its sixth season on TV. It could be quite funny for network comedy, but this last season is dragging out in the worst way. Boring and unfunny to an unmanageable degree.

Not bad but not good:

Nashville: This gets worse all the time. I want to like it because I really like Connie Britton. But every storyline is annoying and over-the-top. While all are annoying, the worst one is Rayna’s determination to start her own record label. It belies the whole direction of the music industry – and I refuse to believe that a huge star that this character is supposed to be would be that blind to the trends of the industry. Or that she would be so naive as to not realize the intricacies of the business and getting out of her contract. There is something naive about the whole story – her former label maneuvers against her by making a couple of phone calls (as if it is as easy as that) after we have just heard from another businessman that deals are made and cemented months or years in advance for retail shelf space. And the whole thing comes down to – who the hell needs retail shelf space any more? That’s the thing – why not try to move forward with your new, innovative, fresh label using the new, innovative, fresh tools that the modern music industry is built on? Most people are downloading and streaming. Getting distribution at Wal-mart or wherever is still part of the strategy for a huge star – but a huge, veteran star starting up a label would not be so completely blind to the business end of the business. And if she were, she would have lined up a lot more industry-specific advisers (rather than her sketchy sister?!) to help her plan and get the whole thing off the ground. She would not just mouth off at her music label and leave and decide to fly by the seat of her pants and suddenly find that she is stuck.

If they stuck with the music, this would be a better show.

Trophy Wife: Surprisingly funnier than I expected but still not something I cannot live without. I find myself questioning the man in the story – how is it that he just keeps getting married – and is he so lacking in discernment or so desperate not to be alone or just so open-minded that he married these three massively different women? I can’t figure that out. I mean really – who would marry that second wife? He seems too normal and put together to marry someone like that unless it was a whimsical rebellion after the uptight, driven and mean first wife? I don’t know, I really don’t.

Almost good, but not totally sure:

Orphan Black: I never planned to watch this but recently watched the whole thing – I was entertained, surprised and impressed with Tatiana Maslany’s performance in multiple, quite different roles in the same show. I will give the second series a whirl. I am interested in the ethics of cloning and identity, and this show has started to explore some of the issues that come to light as a result of this kind of scientific experimentation.

Suits: As a kind of entertaining filler, I am enjoying Suits. It can be a laugh, but it’s not classic television or anything. I enjoy the constant movie quoting and references the characters make to other things (Top Gun, Mississippi Burning as examples), but that’s the best it gets for me.

The best shows:

True Detective: By far the best new show I have seen. Understated, great cinematography, great soundtrack, great dialogue and superb performances. The tense relationship between the two leads, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and their outstanding verbal exchanges, makes the show worth watching. I never imagined in my life that I would claim McConaughey had done something great, but in truth, he has actually built a fairly impressive resume without my paying attention. (His role in Dallas Buyers Club was pretty powerful, but I have not seen him do something as inspired as his role in True Detective.)

Movies

I watched a bunch of movies in recent weeks – but I have not really kept track of them. I saw Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave, the recent Mandela movie starring Idris Elba… but there is not much to say about these films. It’s difficult to distill a film into just key points. And films like these – well, they’re kind of Oscar bait, meaning that everyone writes about them.

I saw the film The Wolf of Wall Street, and hated it. Frankly I don’t like stuff like this. Movies in which people behave stupidly, get all fucked-up on drugs and live and die by their own greed and excesses don’t do anything for me. I am only interested in the fact that Kyle Chandler is in a small role as a tenacious FBI agent. He’s just so bloody cute! Happily he will be in a new Netflix series soon.

Netflixization of Entertainment

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“Look in your heart” – “What heart?” –Miller’s Crossing

In keeping with the me-me-me nature of society, entertainment has grown to be more and more personalized and on-demand. Technology enables a lot of things – and watching what you want whenever you want is a big part of that. I’ve been loving Netflix for a long time – as far back as the beginning when a subscription entitled the subscriber to virtually unlimited DVD rentals through the post. I became a convert during a period of unemployment and great sadness, watching four or five movies per day. Netflix enabled that obsessive-compulsive behavior even before the ubiquity of high-speed streaming overtook my life.

Streaming has made things even more “at my fingertips”, more addictive, more dangerous and full of mind rot. I can feel my brain becoming less able at massaging language now – words and constructions that flowed more easily when I was a more dedicated and avid reader. Reading is really where it’s at, but like everything in the fast-food, self-serve, instant-gratification culture and environment I live in, I feel too much impatience when I read. It requires so much concentration – and I am an impatient multitasker.

Streaming Netflix, even more than its DVD subscription alter ego, or even the marathon viewing of box-set DVDs, has spawned a culture of binge viewing. It has also become the decider* for me, telling me what to watch next, mostly based on what is set to expire from Netflix (due to licensing issues). Plenty of things have been sitting in my queue for ages, and I would probably never get around to watching them except that Netflix posts a bright red, emergency-style date warning next to the item in the queue, warning of its impending disappearance. Most recently I ended up watching Miller’s Crossing, Children of a Lesser God (someone please tell me why anyone hires or likes William Hurt) and Pane e tulipani (Bread and Tulips – surprisingly, it made Venice look almost appealing, but Italy is still NOT fooling me).

*I laugh every time I hear or see the word “decider” because it reminds me of George W. Bush and the ridiculous way he phrased things: “I am the decider!”.

I noticed that classics like The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas are also set to expire from Netflix on January 1. Oh, forgive me, Dolly, but your films mostly leave so very much to be desired. In the 80s I watched a lot of shitty movies because, being a little eclectic music-junkie child, I loved Dolly Parton (to the point that I dressed as Dolly for Halloween in third grade) and Olivia Newton-John. Apart from Parton’s turn in the entertaining 9 to 5, neither woman could be said to have great acting talents or particularly rich decisionmaking in their choices. Rhinestone? Xanadu? Two of a Kind? Please.

Also expiring is Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins – one of those films my brother recommended to me during our childhood. Who doesn’t love Fred Ward!? “Just remember – I won it. He’s mine.”