Monday, September 30, 2013

Cable TV generations

It feels like a weird fall for me as a TV fan, as most of my attention has been devoted to chronicling the minutiae of Breaking Bad for the past two months, along with casually following Dexter's interminable and completely disappointing final season. With those two shows ending, it feels like I'm in the midst of a strange downtime, in which I find myself with little to watch after the end of September, save for the return of Homeland. As I started to think about it, I realized that this is more than a blip in my personal watching - this is actually a generational shift in cable dramas. Let me explain.

Television Generations

I know this seems like a gross oversimplification (and it is, but bear with me), but it does seem that there is a rhythm to the way in which cable dramas are introduced. For lack of a better word, I'm calling it a "generation" - a cohort of shows that are developed, introduced, and ultimately ended relatively concurrently. The Sopranos is, of course, the granddaddy of cable dramas - without it, there likely would not have been anything that followed it, nor would there have been the various networks that now push serious serialized dramas, and we might still have a television world in which the four major networks (I refuse to include The CW) determine the nature and flow of television drama.

The Sopranos preceded the first generation by a couple of years, as it laid the ground work for this model to take place. The first generation was dominated by The Sopranos and its immediate predecessors that started in 2001-2002: most notably Six Feet Under, The Wire, and The Shield. They started to fade as early as 2006, which made way for the second generation, which is just now ending. Popularly, the first two generations are referred to collectively as the "Golden Age" of TV, and I don't think that title is wrong.

The second generation has been headed by Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Dexter, True Blood, and Sons of Anarchy (among others), which mostly came between 2007-2008. (Dexter started in September 2006, but it didn't really get noticed until 2007). These shows are all ending within a year of one another (or two, thanks to AMC's recent extension of Mad Men into 2015), and they are making way for the next generation, which is actually the fourth generation of cable dramas (their "grandchildren", so to speak). The timeline sped up as more networks joined the fray after AMC's smash success in 2007, and there is now less time between generations.

The third generation started in early 2010 with Justified and the Walking Dead, and within a year,
Treme, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and Downton Abbey all premiered, with Homeland a few months later. There were some other shows in this generation - Luck, The Killing and Hell on Wheels most notably - but none that really got much cultural traction. In the past three years, these last two generations have defined television, but now there's a bit of a gap as the next generation comes in

The fourth generation

The networks have understood this process, particularly as it takes 3 to 4 years to develop a new cable drama from idea to pilot to marketing and airing. The kind of creative intensity and authority that is required is demanding, and it takes a while for the right actors to line up. Right now, there are five major cable networks that are involved in the drama process: HBO, FX, AMC, Showtime, and, as of this year, Netflix. (I refuse to include Starz in that list until they have either a critical or commerical hit, and I do not think that the other cable networks like USA, TNT, or SyFy are much more than pulp/genre appeal at this point. I suppose I could be argued into including USA - kind of like The CW is now considered "network programming". But I digress.) These five networks are now defining cable dramas for this generation - and they are also responsible for the majority of Emmy nominations in dramatic categories (save for outlier Downton Abbey).

In the past eight months, several series have debuted to varying levels of commercial and critical success on the big five cable networks, including: The Americans and The Bridge (FX); Ray Donovan (Showtime); Low Winter Sun (AMC); and Hemlock Grove, House of Cards, and Orange Is The New Black (Netflix). (HBO's schedule is full for now and the next few years with third generation projects.) Interestingly, there is one more on the way for the fall - Masters of Sex (Showtime); perhaps the cable networks are more aware now that it is easier to have a show get attention when there are not 25 other new shows competing for media coverage and audience time. Several of these shows have already been renewed for second seasons, and it is likely that almost all eventually will be, as cable networks tend to be more generous with their renewals. These shows have, after all, been subject to significant financial development already, and it makes sense for cable networks to try to give them the airtime they need to earn an audience (which often only happens after a couple of seasons).

Of course, it is too early to tell which of these shows will survive and which will become a footnote in the annals of television criticism, but it is pretty much guaranteed that not all of these shows will last six or seven years. My early bets for continued success are House of Cards (nine Emmy nominations!), Orange is the New Black (significant commercial/media attention), and The Americans (due to be listed on numerous year-end best-of lists and the default "best show you're not watching" now that Justified is more popular). It is probably a good bet that some of the shows that will premiere early next year will become some of the more notable entries of this fourth generation, but we probably will not really know which ones really stand out until the third generation starts to peter out in two or three years. And at that point, we will be speculating on the next generation - or perhaps the next next generation, if it moves that quickly.

The personal connection

Since I really started rewatching TV in the fall of 2006, I have at any time had two or three shows at a time that I could watch on my own. I get maybe an hour or two a week to watch TV that my wife won't watch, which is most of these shows. (Granted, I have more time when I'm casually working, as I am now, but I cannot always count on this benefit. At least I hope not to.) In the past two years, I've made it work because of a staggered schedule: Justified in the spring, Breaking Bad in the summer, Homeland and Dexter in the fall. In addition to Justified and Homeland, I am watching through The Newsroom with my wife, so it kind of counts here (we just started Season 2), and I have been binge-watching House of Cards on my days off (I feel like it only half counts itself because it's on Netflix and I can watch it anytime. But with Breaking Bad and Dexter (almost) out of the way, I'm looking to add to my roster.

Of the current generation (aside from House of Cards), only The Americans and The Bridge are really of any interest to me. I started The Americans, and I think it will emerge as one of my shows; I'll have to check out The Bridge. But the real question that faces any new show I want to look at is whether it would be better to watch it as it happens rather than going back to my two most shameful omissions from the first two generations (The Wire and Mad Men) or rewatching my favourites (namely Breaking Bad or Justified). There's really nothing else from the third generation that will catch me.; after all, if I haven't already taken the time to watch The Walking Dead, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, or Treme, I'm not going to start now.

So here's my thoughts about this fall. I'll finish off House of Cards this week, and The Newsroom in the near future. I'm planning to follow Homeland (hoping that it chooses a more consistent narrative path and redeems itself from its current almost-jumping-the-shark-iness), which will keep me busy until Justified returns in January. My main goal of watching for the next few months is to watch Season 1 of The Americans so I can follow along as of Season 2. My secondary goal will be to catch up on Mad Men so I can enjoy the last two half-seasons as they are aired over the next two years; but even if I end up waiting for a year to watch it, I can still watch the last half of Season 7 in 2015 when it airs. I'll probably end up filling up the extra time with some British shows like The Hour, Luther, and Broadchurch. They should keep me busy until Season 3 of Sherlock premieres in 2014.

Friday, September 13, 2013

On Hollywood, editing, and worldviews

I had a bit of extra time this week, so I took the opportunity to look through My List on Netflix for something to watch. I waded through the list of movies I have intended to watch, but I knew I was in the mood for something different. Finally, I happened upon my "odd documentaries" section of the list, and I found Cleanflix, a 2009 chronicle of the rise and fall of the "edited movies" industry, which was based mainly in Utah from 2000 to 2008. The idea of the industry was simple: some people want to watch movies without all of the smut - graphic violence, nudity/sexuality, foul language - so digital editing software was used to remove the affronting material and make it "family-friendly". The movie tells the tale of the inception of the first company, CleanFlicks, and then details the various commercial developments that occurred in the industry over the following decade. It focuses on one business owner in particular, Daniel Thompson, who was later found guilty of paying for services from two fourteen-year-old girls, but it attempts to give a broad picture of the various legal, ethical, and moral issues raised by the existence of the industry and their antagonistic relationship with Hollywood (particularly the Directors' Guild of America).

A large portion of the movie focuses on Mormons, who are the largest market for edited film, as one might guess from the geolocation of the majority of the stores in business. Prophet Ezra Taft Benson had reprimanded Mormons in 1986 not to watch R-rated movies, so as a result, many Mormons still refuse to watch such movies today. They were overjoyed to find a way to watch these movies without violating their church's teachings, and they are still trying to find ways for Hollywood to release the edited versions they create for airplanes (which, it seems, are becoming less edited now, which can create awkward situations when watching those four-inch-screens in front of you). The documentary is an interesting study of issues such as copyright law, creative ownership, censorship, art, and how faith interacts with entertainment.

How could they edit that?

The issues of creative direction, artistic integrity, and censorship were very interesting, as one of the core accusations of the DGA was that editing the movies violated their First Amendment right to express themselves. Now, I have no idea how a movie like The Big Lebowski - which was edited by CleanFlicks - maintains any sense of plot, much less artistic integrity, if all offensive content is removed; after all, "this is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps" just does not have the same resonance as the source material. It's kind of mind-boggling how many of these movies could actually be edited; take a cursory look at the list of edited films mentioned in the documentary on IMDB and count how many times your jaw drops agape as you try to consider how "that" movie could be edited to be made "clean".

(Note: the YouTube comments include NSFW language, even though the clip itself does not.)

The documentary points out several times the irony and internal inconsistency inherent in the practice of the editing, which often focused more on expressions of sexuality than on violence; for example, much of the gore of Braveheart was left intact, but the single love scene was edited because of the nudity. That is consistent with the general (North) American ethos, though Americans are much less likely to be sensitive to violence and more sensitive to sexuality; this is still perhaps best cemented in my memory from a program on MuchMusic called "Too Much for Much" in the late 1990s that discussed how the animated music video "Paranoid Android" was edited differently on either side of the border (for nudity in the US and violence in Canada). 

(Note: The video is NSFW, as this is the fully unedited version.)

The letter of the law versus the spirit of the law

The list of movies that were edited was astounding, and I cannot actually imagine how a movie like Saw could actually become palatable. I can barely fathom the kind of mental gymnastics that these "clean movie" watchers would go through to allow themselves to consume all manner of material in the guise of still remaining "pure" because the actual scenes were eliminated. For these devout Mormons (and I would imagine a large number of fundamentalist Christians who availed themselves of these edited movie services as well), they could obey the letter of the law, regardless of the spirit of the law. I was fascinated by the ways in which people sought to legitimize the process, or even how they claimed that they had the right to watch clean movies, rather than the versions distributed by Hollywood. It's fascinating on a sociological and moral level how these people can justify their actions and even demand that their particular moral quandary is solved for them, regardless of the legal ramifications of those actions. 

Many of the consumers featured in CleanFlix reasonably argued that from a business standpoint that there is a market, and so it makes sense from a commercial perspective for studios and the DGA and the WGA and the SAG to meet those market demands, but the prevailing idea from the creators seems to be that doing so would dilute artistic integrity, and they are not willing to do that. I am not so sure that their argument is entirely reasonable, as the modifier "gratuitous" (as applied to violence, nudity or the phrase "sex scene") is often used to describe a lot of entertainment that is produced (and rightfully so, I would contend). At any rate, the documentary does well to chronicle the story of the producers, distributors, and consumers, and it raises some valuable questions in the process. Should the studios, DGA, WGA, and SAG approve edited versions? Does the Mormon church need to relax its policy on mature entertainment? Do people have a right to see the movie they want to regardless of the artistic vision of the creator? And so on and so forth.

A personal reflection

My difficulty in reconciling the morality espoused by the subjects of the film with the nature of the industry comes in part from personal experience. I grew up in a house in which pop culture was our lingua franca, but it existed in a paradox. I was heavily restricted in my viewing until the age of thirteen, as the Simpsons were verboten and the Flintstones were anathema due to their misogyny. (ie. My mom hated how the show treated women). At the same time, I was allowed to watch cartoons like X-Men, which featured violence and big-bosomed heroes, and my parents did not have a consistent guideline as to what I could watch; this is ultimately how I watched my first Simpsons episode "The Last Temptation of Homer", which features Bart becoming a nerd and Homer being tempted toward an extramarital affair by an attractive co-worker (one of the better episodes of the series, IMHO).

I never really gorged myself on entertainment during my teen years, and I avoided a lot of really negative stuff, but I also was not the most discerning consumer from either a moral or artistic perspective. (At one point, I loved the movie Armageddon. I was fifteen, but I still should have known better. This is why I tell my high school students that they will look back on their taste in entertainment in a decade and shudder. But I digress.) But pop culture was my language: I could relate anything to an episode of Seinfeld or The Simpsons. I was a glutton for entertainment, and it was arguably my primary focus for most activities. Then, when I was eighteen, I felt a strong conviction to forego all entertainment for a period of time. It lasted throughout most of 2002 and 2003; the only movies I saw in theatres during that time were the Lord of the Rings trilogy and an adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest. I was thorough and evangelistic in my fervor, and sometimes I was kind of a jerk about it too. In my zest to fulfill my calling, some people had a distaste from our encounters, as I seemed a little too rigid. I remember in particular one discussion about the Dave Matthews Band, when I asked questions about the moral implications of listening to their music and angered someone significantly. (Yeah, I know - DMB? Seriously? That's who I was, though.) There were some positives in that period: I had time to build friendships that have lasted a decade, I played a lot of Rook, and I really got to invest in my then-fresh dating relationship - and that's working out okay now.

After moving to a different city, I started to mellow, and I began to feel as though I could reclaim entertainment without sacrificing the lessons I had learned in that time. I even wrote about it eight years ago in a short post entitled "The pendulum swings back a little"; I include it here as a sign of how much I have changed, even though the language is still a little fundy and cringe-worthy. At any rate, I was more aware of what I was watching, how I was watching it, and why I was watching it. My time of tee-totaling had allowed me to build some critical filters that went beyond surface morality and allowed me to look deeper at the worldviews espoused in the media I consumed (and at times to disengage those filters if I so chose). Of course, one might argue that I overcompensated and went too far; that I started (and have laboriously continued) watching Dexter might be used as evidence of that fact. (An aside: why, oh why didn't I stop watching it four years ago? This final season has not been worth the investment of time. But only two episodes are left, so I'll just finish it up.)

The reality is that I am more informed and aware as a critic and consumer, both from an artistic and a "moral" perspective, and I am able to evaluate movies without having the superficial moral concerns cloud my ability to do so. I still often choose to avoid movies with gratuitous violence, in particular, and there are several genres of movies that I do not appreciate as a result of my worldview, but I am far less imperious about my need to tell others of those choices and reasoned in my explication of my viewing habits. I do find it unfortunate that the creators of much media find it necessary to include certain scenes to tell their stories, but I recognize that it is my choice to consume those particular movies or shows, and that if I do not want to see that particular content, it is my job to turn it off. Not everyone can, so they need to make the choices they need to make to be healthy; I am able, in this season of my life, to watch shows with mature content, being fully aware of that content, and to process it appropriately. This does not mean that it does not affect me - I did, after all, dream last night that I was part of the cast of Breaking Bad - simply that I am aware of its effects on me right now, and that superficial morality is not a concern for me.

Of greater import is the worldview behind the material, or the point a film or show is trying to make. Breaking Bad, to take the current cause célèbre, is arguably the most moral show on TV, as it shows consequences to actions; I do state the caveat to people who express a desire to watch it that there are some hurdles to be leapt in stomaching some of the violence of the show. I would not choose to not support a film based on whether it has violence or language or nudity, but based on the quality of its character, so to speak: what it is trying to do. If it is excessively gratuitous or nihilistic or gluttonous in its pursuit of cheap thrills - as most horror films are, for example - there is little difference between a Hollywood film and a pornographic one.

If there is an attempt to educate or inform or evaluate or espouse a cogent point of view- if there is a reason for the film to exist outside of the endorphin rushes it provides its viewers - then I am more willing to watch it, regardless of its particular worldview. This, of course, is not to say that I automatically eschew all action or horror or comedy movies, or that I automatically approve of all "thinky" movies; I am merely stating that I am more likely to watch a movie that is itself thought-provoking and that makes me consider my own perceptions of the world around me. And I would far rather be equipped - and to equip others - to make that decision on my own, rather than having someone else edit it for me.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Top 5: Video games to revive

Kickstarter has provided some great nostalgia lately, with two of my favourite classic less-known games getting sequels after two decades: General Chaos II: Sons of Chaos and River City Ransom: Underground bring back their unique gameplay and update it for a new generation. Mega Man 9 and 10 were great additions to the classic NES series, but there are a few other series that I think would benefit from a new edition after many years. With a cursory search (ie. looking up "Battletoads" on Wikipedia), I found several lists - Game Informer in June 2010Forbes in September 2012, and Complex Gaming in June 2013 - that have already been written on the subject, and they include several of the titles that I had considered for my list. Here are the 8-or16-bit titles included amongst the three lists: Altered Beast, Battletoads (3x), Chrono Trigger, Earthworm Jim, Final Fight, F-Zero, Ghosts and Goblins (2x), Metroid, Mutant League Football (2x), Road Rash, Shinobi, StarFox, Strider (2x) ToeJam & Earl, Wonder Boy, and Zombies Ate My Neighbours. It's no surprise that Battletoads leads the list, and I don't think that any of those titles would be a surprise to any gamers my age or older (and I had thought of several myself before reading those lists). Here are my top 5 series that need to be revived anew:

5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Sure, Konami has been releasing TMNT games all along, but the last great one in the series was Turtles in Time for the SNES. It's time for a new 2D side-scrolling fighter in the spirit of the original TMNT series. Make it happen!
4. Battletoads - I have to include it, or else I lose all screen cred as a classic gamer. But really, I would love to see a new BT title that could actually be beaten.
3. Golden Axe - Sega's classic medieval fantasy series has not had a new entry in almost two decades. I know that there is a lot more to explore in this universe, and I would love to see how it would look.
2. Earthworm Jim - EWJ4 is on its way - or so it has been promised. I have not played 3D for the N64, but the next game needs to be a return to the classic humour and graphics of the 16-bit marvels.
1. ToeJam and Earl - I did not play the Xbox release of TJ&E III, but can we please have a return to the format of the original game? That would be funkalicious.

But in the original spirit of the inspiration of the post - ie. the sequels to General Chaos and River City Ransom - I thought I would also give a short list of my top 5 "forgotten games" that need a proper sequel. Four of them are NES-based action role-playing games, the worlds of each of which could be expanded and explored significantly.

5. StarTropics (NES) - Yes, I know that it is a series, as it had a sequel, but it's even more forgotten than the original. Bring Mike back to C-Island, Nintendo!
4. Forgotten Worlds (Sega Genesis) - Two nameless supersoldiers shoot aliens as the screen scrolls by in this arcade classic. How has this not been made anew by Capcom?
3. Crystalis (NES) - You play as a protagonist who awakens after a century-long sleep following a global thermonuclear war. It was seriously awesome.
2. Faxanadu (NES) - A fantasy-based RPG that featured elves, dwarves, mysterious items, and the World Tree. It wasn't easy, but it had a great storyline and characters.
1. The Guardian Legend (NES) - You play as the Guardian, a robot who explores the surface of a star called Naju who can also turn into a ship and fly through space to defeat enemies. It's still one of my all-time favourite games.

Well, with that, I apparently need to pull out my old NES and play through some classics until Kickstarter comes through with some more awesome nostalgic sequels.


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