Lunchtable TV Talk – Elementary: Promotion and reinvention

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It seems a fool’s errand to try to describe or review TV’s Elementary. Jonny Lee Miller (he’s great but he’s always a little bit “Sick Boy” to me) as one of many versions (modern and not so modern) of Sherlock Holmes delivers enough entertainment week on week – and the reimagined scene, set in New York with a female Watson (Lucy Liu originally as Sherlock’s sober companion and later his fellow detective), is effective in differentiating it. Supporting cast is also usually effective. I am struck in particular by Aidan Quinn as the police captain, as it seems Quinn has been relegated to a lifetime of playing the put-upon also-ran (Desperately Seeking Susan and Legends of the Fall come to mind) or world-weary police captains (in Elementary and in the short-lived US version of Prime Suspect starring Maria Bello).

In the most recent Elementary episode, I felt a strong connection to a very small scene, in which Quinn turns down a promotion. When asked why, he responds, “My ambition is being met.” He does not want to move. (It turns out in his case that the promotion was more of a way to get him out of his current job and is more a threat/not a choice than anything else.) But the bottom line for me is … how is it wrong when you admit that you are where you are because you want to be there? Isn’t finding the right place and right level of challenge and satisfaction and wanting to stay put its own triumph? We can search a lifetime for what we want to do and never find it. But when you find the thing that makes you happy, at which you have talent and from which you deliver results, do you need promotions and to climb a ladder just for the sake of climbing? The whole system is built that way – and not set up for those who are content with building on the foundation they have already built.

Elementary shows us another path, in fact, in the form of Liu’s Joan Watson. After a successful career as a surgeon, she leaves medical practice to become a sober companion. She eventually finds, in her work with Sherlock, that she is a gifted detective and makes a complete career change. For many this would seem ridiculous – after the years of training, education and practice that go into becoming a surgeon, walking away from it seems improbable. But finding one’s real passion – or a passion that becomes obvious or blooms only in later life – should be … if not rewarded, at least considered.

Having Watson’s career U-turn as a template and evolving example provides an interesting juxtaposition for the way the captain is tied to this career ladder he is expected to climb.

Stat Explosion and Data Overload

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May 18 skewed my blog statistics in a big way. As someone who manages a very niche, limited-reach blog for a corporation in my professional life (obviously not THIS blog), this sudden and brief explosion was an interesting look at what immediately drives traffic (a retweet from a famous person). Or rather what won’t. The corporate blog gets readers, and the number of readers and subscribers grows slowly but steadily. It is such a specialized area that it is not as though it would ever get the kind of readership that even my personal blog gets – and my personal blog is all over the place – personal, lacking in a theme or point and not actively trying to drive anything. It started as a baking/recipe blog when my colleagues (whom I had stuffed to near-death with cookies and cupcakes) demanded recipes. It evolved into a dumping ground for my thoughts and commentary on television, news/current events and all manner of other nonsense. Even if my personal blog had a steadier stream of traffic than my work blog (makes sense because the randomness of my personal blog means that all kinds of Google searches, from Mobutu Sese Seko to white chocolate macadamia cookies, from the benefits of telecommuting, to pictures of brown sugar cupcakes piled high with mounds of maple Swiss meringue buttercream and candied bacon. might lead someone to my blog), I never achieved any great reach.

on the bacon bandwagon

on the bacon bandwagon

Until today, my personal blog’s best stats never reached more than 250 visitors – and that was when I was baking a lot and posting recipes and pictures of cakes. In the absence of that, I maybe get 30 or 40 visitors. I am not that concerned with the statistics on my personal blog – I write it for my own sake and if someone else gets there and likes it, or even doesn’t like it, that’s fine with me.

But this morning, which has felt like a neverending night now that Swedish near-endless light nights are here, I posted an article about how I finally watched the witty and insightful Inside Amy Schumer, despite the misleading, one-dimensional Comedy Central ads for it that had so long turned me off. I posted about the blog via Twitter, which was retweeted from Schumer’s own account, which then led to what is for me an unprecedented avalanche of activity. Suddenly my phone was chiming: ding ding ding ding ding ding because, thanks to Schumer’s devotees (a more pleasant word than “followers”), people were retweeting and favoriting my original tweet. (Yes, I am perfectly aware of how asinine this sounds. A non-Millennial person describing the tweet and retweet process like it’s really serious business just sounds funny – even if it does have its own importance. It’s just not the be-all, end-all.)

But more than that, the link to the blog in which I wrote about changing my mind about Amy Schumer’s show made the blog statistics skyrocket. In a couple of hours, there were well over 1,000 visitors. The downside is that this opens the door to a lot of unprovoked criticism from complete strangers. But then yeah, the world’s full of haters, and that is completely fine. I hate a lot of stuff too. It is also easy to have a knee-jerk reaction (no emphasis on “jerk” or anything) – as I did to the ads, and as the commenter had to my post. But I am sure we are both cool enough people in our real lives.

The only comment on the Amy Schumer blog entry, in fact, was a negative one, basically laying into me for my “judgmental, accusatorial” observations about an ad. But, as I commented back (and I think we’re cool now), most of our judgments and decisions are kind of “split second” in nature – especially to ads. They are meant to appeal to us on some level, get our attention and in 30 seconds to make us want to do something, consume something, watch something or buy something (I won’t even use as strong a word as “persuade” since it’s more like advertisers tease and tempt with an elevator speech – so shouldn’t it be a bit more tempting, somehow?). Of course, I don’t know who the target audience was with the Schumer ads, but it’s not me – and that’s fine. But I still had to see them, and I made a judgment that watching the show might not be the best use of my time. Or that it would be as crass and shallow as the ads made it seem. That is no judgment of the show itself or Amy Schumer. And my writing about it was more like, “Hey, I was completely wrong about this – and the two people who read this blog and generally trust my opinions on these matters should know it. Watch Inside Amy Schumer!”

With a fleeting moment of greater reach, you simultaneously become a lightning strike (gone in a flash) and a lightning rod.

I suppose a celeb retweet or starting/being part of a trending topic is the sort of thing that one has to get to gain some traction. Even if, for example, in this case, it is a bunch of clicks – not “traction”. We all know it but there’s no way to predict whether any social media activity will lead to anything. Visitors to my personal blog are nice – but much like in the corporate blog environment, it’s not like they stuck around and read other things. And for personal writing, it doesn’t matter. I write what I write, I post it online and to a limited extent in social channels, but I am not writing for an audience or to achieve something.

But for the corporate writing, you sort of want to extend the reach – establish yourself as a thought leader – but you cannot do anything to damage your credibility or try to somehow get that reach artificially. It doesn’t work and won’t hold anyone’s interest. For instance I could try to steer the corporate blog in a direction where “celebrity surgeons” (is there such a thing other than the odd Dr Oz and some plastic surgeons who show up on makeover shows??) somehow feel compelled to retweet the content, but while that might extend reach for a day, it is not delivering quality or longevity or even the target audience we’d want to reach.

In a kind of related area…

“Data data data – you cannot make bricks without clay…” –Sherlock Holmes in TV show Elementary

All this discussion of statistics should lead to an action plan on how to take advantage of statistics and visitor data to guide future blog content – “give the readers what they want”. At least this is true for the corporate blog – consumer/user/customer responsiveness and centricity is really the only way to ensure continued growth for something like this.

I have been participating in a Coursera/Wharton School online class about marketing, and this week was all about customer-centricity. Since I work a lot with the ideas underpinning “taming Big Data” to gain customer insights in my freelance work, the whole idea of customer focus as one of the only real ways to differentiate makes a lot of sense – and customer data (overload) is the key to giving users what they want.

Never mind that I am totally distracted listening to the professor, Peter Fader, deliver his lectures, because he sounds too much like Bob Odenkirk – so I am supposed to be looking at a PowerPoint slide describing a couple of case studies of companies that have put customer data to good use, but it’s like I am hearing Saul Goodman explaining customer centricity to me. (And Saul Goodman arguably did put his customers first, sometimes to his own detriment and at his own peril.)

This customer-centric, data-driven approach is finally taking root in all kinds of business segments and industries. As Fader pointed out, direct marketing has always used data to target customers – but now, in the digital age, this data is readily available to almost everyone (I won’t get into the ethics of data collection, privacy, etc. except to say that while it’s great for businesses, it’s creepy for customers – see a recent article about a pregnant woman and Princeton professor who had to go to insane lengths to hide her pregnancy from advertisers, retailers and the Big Data machine.) At first companies like Google and Amazon tapped into user data because it’s in their DNA – I have spent a lot of time looking at how old-style, traditional publishers who lost both revenue and subscribers in the big digital shift are now taking back control their data (they had ceded a lot of it to third parties who started taking an ever-larger share of the pie from them) to target their website visitors, readers, subscribers with content and advertising that is highly personalized. And just today I saw a news report about a museum in London that has begun to use all kinds of data collection (traditional and digital) to continue to attract visitors. As the report stated, “Research is a key part of the museum’s arsenal.”

The application of data and personalization is the next logical step, but I wonder about the quality and longevity of this too. Collecting, analyzing and applying user data can only go so far before people feel as though someone is always looking over their shoulder. I cannot help but wonder if that sense of Big Data infiltrating one’s life will start to feel too much like Big Brother and begin to change and influence consumer behavior?

(As advertised – I rambled aimlessly!)

Why I Changed My Mind: Lucy Liu

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The other day I wrote a lot about Julianne Nicholson (and every time I write “Julianne” I am very tempted to write “Julianne Moore” since she springs to mind first) – which made me think a lot about the cast of Ally McBeal – one of the shows I have disliked most in my prolific television-viewing history. Many actors associated with the show earned my dislike simply because they were in the show. Some have redeemed themselves in other ways – at least partially – including Lucy Liu.

Lucy Liu has a long television history that I won’t recount. Her bit parts here and there in her early career were not memorable or offensive, but only worth mentioning to note that she has been around for a long time, paying her dues.

She has also been in a bunch of high-profile films, like Charlie’s Angels, which I could do without (even if I am quite sure she was, to use a phrase I would never use but am today, kick-ass in her role).  Perhaps more notable – and about when I started to change my mind about her – the Kill Bill films from Quentin Tarantino. Liu owned her role as O-Ren Ishii and is actually one of the more memorable parts of the Kill Bill series for me.

Another role that made me think twice was Liu’s presence in the musical Chicago. The first time I saw it, I hated it but sat through it anyway. Subsequent viewings have softened my feelings – and I have begun to appreciate it. Liu’s role as Kitty Baxter was not huge – but it was another that remains memorable.

I caught Liu’s roles in the inane Cashmere Mafia (not sure that one is forgivable), the sometimes very entertaining Dirty Sexy Money and ultimately a surprising role that I found quite redeeming, Officer Jessica Tang in the underappreciated cop drama, Southland.

Considered, reconsidered: Where I went from just appreciating Liu and feeling she had been fully absolved of her Ally McBeal and Cashmere Mafia guilt to actually really liking her has been her starring role in Elementary with Jonny Lee Miller. Her serenity and subdued smarts play well off Miller’s portrayal of the over-the-top mad genius, Sherlock Holmes. Liu embraces what has traditionally been a male role and turns it into something all her own in the Elementary version of this classic tale.