Thursday, September 22, 2011

Media update: Fall TV season

Let me take you back five years to the Fall 2006 TV season, the first time I regained interest in network TV in several years. The West Wing had ended its run in the spring, but dramas like House and Lost were engaging their audiences in a new way. Arrested Development had reached its unfortunately premature demise, but it had already begun to spawn a new generation of single-camera comedies like My Name Is Earl and The Office. Even more traditional multi-cam sitcoms, like How I Met Your Mother, were a little edgier and hipper than their aging contemporaries. The new shows were fresh and engaging: Jericho and Heroes followed in the steps of Lost and captivated audiences each week; NBC's twin shows about sketch comedy shows, 30 Rock and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, presented different looks at the industry; Friday Night Lights became the best show nobody was watching; and Ugly Betty brought a new voice to an old idea. (Meanwhile, on cable on Showtime, record audiences were captivated by a serial killer named Dexter.) Fast forward a year to 2007, when networks again took some risks with shows like The Big Bang Theory, Chuck, Pushing Daisies, and Life. Then only a few months later, the writer's strike shortened the season and changed the future of network TV. Some shows survived the strike (Chuck), some were mercifully shortened and allowed to regroup (Friday Night Lights), some kept going in spite of themselves (Heroes and My Name Is Earl), and some were cancelled. Since then, there has been dearth of network TV shows that are engaging audiences, stretching boundaries, and enduring in creative impact. t's not that networks are not trying to be creative: Community, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, Kings, Life on Mars, Glee, and Raising Hope have started to show that there are still fresh ideas in the medium, regardless of their commercial viability. That's partly what makes this fall TV season (and last fall's, for that matter) so disappointing; there were few shows that intrigued me last year, and of those, none really captured my attention (Running Wilde and Raising Hope came the closest, but didn't really catch on for me). This year, it's even slimmer pickings, with only a few shows that even moderately intrigue me. There's only one show that I have considered a "must-try" - Fox's New Girl - and even that looks like it might be weak. Up All Night has the ingredients for being a serviceable show (Lorne Michaels producing, Will Arnett, Christina Applegate, and Maya Rudolph starring), but still seems flat. Person of Interest may become too bound by its conceit, and Terra Nova has equal parts promise and pessimism. Out of all of the pilots, that makes four that I would even consider trying out; meanwhile, there are three shows on cable that intrigue me (Boss, Homeland, and American Horror Story) out of the many fewer cable shows available. It's the second of many terrible years in a row for the networks as far as I'm concerned, and it'll take a lot to convince me otherwise. With that in mind, here's some of my other thoughts about the new fall TV season.

Five shows I'm most excited about this fall:
Chuck - The final thirteen episodes of the series should be fun, with Mark Hamill as a villain.
Community - Still the funniest show on TV, though it's threatened by...
Dexter - Dexter finds religion? Count me in.
Parks and Recreation - Two words: Tammy 1.
Survivor: South Pacific - Yes, I'm still watching it in Season 23. And I still love it.

And two I'm waffling on:
The Big Bang Theory - S4 had its moments, but it was definitely a step back.
Glee - I predict that EW will be running a cover story on "Glee fatigue" by mid-season. The second half of Season 2 drew me back in, but I'm wary, as are many viewers.

Five shows I've been watching over the summer:
The Shield - The last scene of the series is still lingering in my brain.
The Big C - Laura Linney is laughable, lovable, and de-lightful.
Kings - It seems like 13 episodes are not nearly enough to tell this story; why couldn't this have been on cable?
Futurama - The last half of Season 6 really showed that the show is back at full capacity.
Parks and Recreation - I could easily watch 5 or 6 episodes in a row. And I did. Repeatedly.

Ten comedies I probably should be watching regularly: Archer, Bored To Death, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Episodes, Eureka, How To Make It In America, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Louie, Modern Family, and Raising Hope.

Five cable shows to (further investigate and/or) catch up on before their next season: Breaking Bad, Burn Notice, Mad Men, Shameless and Treme.

Top ten shows to watch on Netflix (after I finish Kings and The Big C: Newsradio, Life, Life on Mars, Luther, Jekyll, The Larry Sanders Show, Black Adder, and Mad Men, with Quantum Leap and The A-Team added in for nostalgia's sake.

And three shows that can't come back soon enough: 30 Rock, Futurama, and especially Justified.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Voice

One of the most difficult facets of their persona an artist has to develop is their voice. Writers, singers, painters, dancers, playwrights, actors: all have to learn who they are in a medium. It's what makes reality shows, from audience-judged shows like The Voice or Dancing With The Stars to competition shows like Amazing Race or Survivor so compelling for so many people: each participant is trying to find their voice in that medium. Voice (or style, as it has often been called) is the key to communication and creativity.
The area of artistry in which I work most directly in developing voice is writing, both as an educator and a reflective practitioner. It's a constant struggle to teach students about voice, especially as they are discovering an identity in a new medium of sorts: adolescence. Students have to navigate discovering their voice as they are changing as well as learning about new formats in which they can express their voice. They are forced, by the requirements of the curriculum, to focus almost exclusively on expository essay composition, but there is a wide variety of styles, formats, genres, and even media to which all writers (even high school students) are now almost required to master in order to be successful. There is a fluency in internet research that is now standard, as well as an overwhelming cacophony of existing voices through which emerging voices have to sort. There are multiple media to navigate, each of which has its own cadence and requires its own voice: print, academia, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever social media tool emerges as the next dominant force in the ever-evolving marketplace.
I have, over the past fifteen years of writing (starting with my formative years contributing to and editing the Spark, my high school newspaper), worked to find my voice. Much of that struggle has been chronicled here, often to to the ongoing amusement and/or annoyance of my meager audience, I suspect. I have wrestled through issues of voice as I have presented myself in different media for different audiences with different purposes. Over the years, I have written in two university papers - The Carillon and The Sheaf -as a contributor, editor, and sometime columnist, for my blog, and for online content for Relevant Magazine and Patrol Mag. I have engaged with "side projects" like "Bring Back Vinyl", a blog about music with the elusive Kurtz in 2004-2005; "Hockey Docs", my repeatedly-attempted though ultimately aborted try at writing about hockey; or "Ecclesia Semper Reformanda", a support group for evangelicals struggling to engage with church that met weekly and blogged less frequently than that. I keep coming back to "Life of Turner", which has changed over the past seven years and at various intervals has integrated material that may have been farmed out to one of those side projects at another time, but still has remained fairly consistent (though not constant) over the past 850 posts (including this one). I have worked at adjusting to Twitter and other social media sites like Flixster and Goodreads, each of which mandates a different sensibility, and I'm happy with my voice as it is now.
Of course, I'm not content to leave things be, so I'm figuring out the next phase of my voice. I'm working through launching lifeofturner.ca as its own website and all that is entailed in that venture (it's registered, but not yet functional). I'm looking at whether some of the things I've been blogging would be enhanced or better being replaced by podcasting (such as the media update posts). I'm still figuring out what Hockey Docs looks like and whether that could become a podcast. I'm sporadically writing pieces of a book that I would like to have composed and even published before my 30th birthday (16 months away). A friend and I are considering starting a semi-regular podcast discussion. And I'm constantly interacting with other writers and taking inspiration from how they write and conduct themselves online (most recently Bill Simmons and Grantland.com). The overall goal is that I continue to grow and learn what my voice is and how to express that; in order to do that, I have to continue to evaluate what my goals are, whether I am accomplishing those goals, and whether there is another (or better) way to meet those goals. It's a constant process of evaluation, innovation, and implementation, and I, for one, am glad that there is always new territory to explore.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Approaching equilibrium

September is always crazy for teachers, so as a rule, I warn my friends and family not to expect intentional contact until Thanksgiving (that is, early October here in Canada). It's always a challenge to learn how to balance work and life after a summer of a (usually) relaxing self-determined schedule. Don't get me wrong: I love the summertime, and although I'm not always certain of the pedagogy of taking ten weeks off, I recognize the benefit (and arguably the necessity) of doing so after a long school year. Last year, I had the challenge of not going through the "back to school" routine for the first time since I was four years old; this year has presented the challenge of re-learning how to go through the process after a year away. Not only have I been rusty in my awareness of my own procedures, but I have been adjusting to teaching Grade 7/8 (for the first time) in a split class (for the first time) in a new-to-me school that focusses on accommodating students with special needs (you got it - for the first time). Any one of those factors on its own would be enough to cause me to rethink and rework my expectations, teaching methods, and materials; put them all together, and it's been a wild ride for the past few weeks. Factor in a summer that included several significant family events, a still-relatively-new role in leadership at the church, a number of relationships formed when I was unemployed, and there's a whole lot of life imbalance going on. I've been working through what it means to be at equilibrium, and what life looks like in that place of balance. The real challenge for me has been taking what I learned in my last year of non-teaching and living it out in my current circumstances, especially the need for rest and meaningful relationships. Last year, I had the time to sit back and have the space to work it through; this year, time feels like it's at much more of a premium. I want to be clear: I really am glad that I have this issue, since it means that I have a teaching position and all that goes with it, and this is not a complaint or gripe; it's merely an observation about my life as it is now. It has actually been a very positive process, and I believe that my year of limbo has already had a very positive impact on the early goings of this year. It has been particularly interesting to compare this school year to 2008, when my wife was unemployed and I was starting at a new school, and to realize just how much better we have navigated the territory this time around. I would say that I've only had one or two really difficult days in the past two weeks; that number was much higher several years ago. I had a tough day today because I didn't actually stop and rest; instead of stopping and taking a rest, I allowed a sense of needing to work to dominate my day. Ultimately, I didn't do either well, and I felt unfulfilled for a large portion of the day; it's getting better now (in part because I have worked through things in this post), and I hope this evening will be even better. It seems, for the most part, that new factors have stopped entering my life (though the fall TV season will cause some juggling), and each week it feels like I'm closer to approaching equilibrium. Of course, by the time I actually feel comfortable, something else will come up, and I'll have to work that into the overall equation. That's why it's good that now I'm finding that I enter a state of equilibrium more quickly, efficiently, and painlessly than I have before, and my wife and I are working better as a team than have in our three years of marriage. Life is good, and it's approaching equilibrium.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Space, the final frontier

I have been thinking a lot about space lately. Not "outer space"(though I have been rewatching the recent season of Futurama), but physical and temporal space, particularly inasmuch as it affects me. In the past couple of months, I have ample opportunity to consider space. When my wife and I were travelling to the prairies, we visited a lot of our friends' homes, several for the first time; it was very interesting to see how different people used their spaces, and how their personalities were reflected in those spaces. When we returned home, we had a week in our one-bedroom suite before my father-in-law came to stay with us. He ended up staying two weeks - twice as long as we have hosted anyone before - before transitioning to his short-term accommodations. It was mostly successful, though I found myself almost obsessively cleaning and decluttering throughout his stay and thoroughly exhuming his presence from the house after his departure. The situation was likely exacerbated by the fact that I was also unable to arrange my classroom due to waiting for contractors to finish their work and for other teachers to clear out their materials. Now that most of the distractions are gone, I have a workspace and most of the physical arranging done, and I have already felt the stress beginning to subside. It is a unique challenge to design a space not only for me but also for my students, but I am feeling comfortable in that endeavour.
As I reflected on this recent obsession, I realized how much I have always considered my space. In my house, everything has a place, and I have been that way since I was young. I rarely lost anything, since I had clear definitions of my space. We moved several times from when I was nine until thirteen, and in each place I was not only able to maximize the space, but I found it necessary to do so in order to be able to enjoy myself in that space. With one exception, I moved every four or eight months over the span of eight years after I left home to go to university; in each case, I would have to be settled almost before doing anything else at all, sometimes working throughout the night to have everything the way I liked it. It didn't matter if it was my corner of the cabin at camp or a new house: I needed to be "master of my domain" (to misappropriate the classic Seinfeld phrase) as soon as possible. I know people who can function no matter what space they're in; I have concluded that I am not one of those people, and I would struggle if I had no control over my space(s). I'm going to have difficulty with kids, aren't I?

Post-script/corollary: I have also realized how essential it is for me to have a "third space" other than home or work in which I can be comfortable and have a sense of "ownership". It's an interesting how someone else's space can be shared to become "yours" as your needs dictate. Just a thought.

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