Friday, September 30, 2016

2016 Quarter 3 Media Update

The third media quarter of the year is somewhat strange. Most of the big movies have already been released in May and June, and those that are released often end up being disappointing. There's usually not a lot of new good music dropped in the summer, and TV has traditionally been more of a wasteland defined by reality programming (even Survivor started as a summer series).

Some of those assumptions are changing, however, thanks to new networks and streaming services competing for attention, so it seemed as though this summer was busier than most in terms of culture. Combine that trend with a few exceptional events - the Olympics, the dumpster fire of the American election, Canada's collective mourning of The Tragically Hip's last show - and this summer ended up feeling a lot more full than previous years.

Here's what I experienced and what I missed over the past three months, along with some of the things I'm looking forward to over the next three months of the year.

What I Experienced

The American election - I have spent far too much time reading and watching all of the coverage of the American election. The National Conventions took a lot of my attention in July, and even now, I end up spending an inordinate amount of time on what has become an increasingly frustrating battle against common sense and decency.

Any Given Wednesday with Bill Simmons (HBO) - Although I really enjoy Bill Simmons for the most part (save for moments when he reverts to some unfortunately "bro" tendencies), the first run of his new TV show was not particularly engaging, with a couple of notable exceptions, like the combination of Malcolm Gladwell and Mark Cuban talking about sports ownership. Simmons has said repeatedly that it would take ten episodes to start to figure out the format, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for now, but these next few months will go a long way to determining whether I'm going to continue making this show a priority each week.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse (Wii U) - I caught up with two short, colourful, moderately entertaining games that came out for Wii U last year. I have found it challenging to really sink my teeth into new games lately, so these were welcome minor distractions in the meantime.

Ghostbusters - Here are my fuller thoughts on the franchise, but here's the summary of my review of the new one: I enjoyed it for what it was, but I thought it could have (and should have) been better.

The Night Of (HBO) - This summer's prestige mini-series on HBO focused on the criminal justice system insofar as it affects one unfortunate Pakistani young man who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are a lot of themes and images to unpack here - issues of racial profiling, the reality of life in Rikers, perception vs. reality, the effect on the families of the accused, commentary on the way in which we observe these kinds of trials, the inversion of the expectations of the genre - so in that sense, the show was a success.

I will say, however, that there are a couple of narrative disappointments in the final few episodes, and it starts to feel a bit too much like an extended episode of Law and Order when the trial commences. Overall, the three main leads - Riz Ahmed as Nas, John Turturro as embattled lawyer John Stone, and Bill Camp as Detective Dennis Box - carry the show through its few missteps with the help of an incredible supporting cast.

Star Trek Beyond - The third movie in the new Kelvin timeline was an enjoyable action sci-fi romp, but it was not quite as Trek as I hoped it would be. That said, I think there is still life left in this particular franchise, so I'm still looking forward to future installments.

Stranger Things (Netflix) - What else is there to say about the hit of the summer? I think it has been sufficiently analyzed in the many many many thinkpieces that were written, so suffice to say that I cannot think of a time in recent memory when I have so greatly enjoyed not only the show itself, but also the culture that arose around a show.

Switchfoot - Where The Light Shines Through - I was initially mildly disappointed by Switchfoot's tenth album, but much like their last several albums, it has ingrained itself deeper and deeper on subsequent listens. It seems that each time that I listen to it that a different lyric sticks out as significant to my life.

You, Me, and the Apocalypse (NBC) - This is the kind of show that seems to be the perfect product of Peak TV: a British-American hybrid dark comedy with a familiar cast (Jenna Fischer, Megan Mullally, Rob Lowe, and guest stars like Nick Offerman) and a unique premise that is made almost inaccessible through the incredulous nature of the coincidences required to make it work: a number of strangers around the world journey through the last month before a meteor hits the world, during which they each discover that there are some very strange (and implausible) connections amongst the disparate members of the group; think of it as Lost, just with a British twist and and an apocalyptic theme.

I found out early in my experience of the show that it was not renewed for a second season, which I did not find surprising, nor necessarily that disappointing. I am enjoying it well enough (I have four of ten episodes left to watch), but I'm not sure that it would have been sustainable beyond its initial story arc.

Also: Sarah Bessey - Out of Sorts; The Big Short; Rachel Held Evans - Searching For Sunday; NBA free agency; Rio Olympics; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Season 1); Super Mario 64 DS (Nintendo DS); The Tragically Hip: A National CelebrationWeird Al live in concert

What I Missed

There ended up being surprisingly little from the summer that I missed that I want to check out at some point, largely because movies were so terrible this summer. That said, it seems as though cable TV might be better than ever, and that this new TV season might actually be the best in years. I usually give it a few weeks before I check out the new shows, so I'm including a couple here that have already started.

Atlanta (FX) - Donald Glover's new show about rappers in Atlanta has been getting rave reviews, so I'm looking forward to checking it out.

The Get Down (Netflix) - Baz Luhrmann's love letter to New York hip-hop in the 70s has received mixed reviews for its execution, but it certainly does not seem to lack in its audacity.

The Good Place (NBC) - Creator Michael Schur has a strong enough resume - The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine - to incite interest in any future comedic projects.

Hell or High Water - A bank heist western with Jeff Bridges that is starting to get some awards buzz - seems like it's right up my alley.

Mr. Robot (USA) - I had not watched Season 1, so I missed out on Season 2 and had to actively avoid spoilers. Maybe I should plan to catch up with the show in advance of Season 3 next summer.

Pokémon Go - I was never really that into Pokémon, so I had no nostalgic interest in the game. I did not have any intrinsic social interest either, so it was fairly easy to decide not to get caught up in the craze. My wife, however, still gets irrationally excited when she catches a new Pokémon, so I guess I get to enjoy it vicariously through her experience.

Revisionist History - I have yet to listen to the first season of Malcolm Gladwell's first podcast mainly because I spent time catching up on other podcasts.

Suicide Squad - Like Batman v. Superman, it suspect that I will end up watching this movie eventually despite a relative dearth of intrinsic interest in this particular movie or DC movies in general.

World Cup of Hockey - For the first time I can remember since I first became a hockey fan when I was ten years old, I was not fully engaged in watching a best-on-best tournament; in fact, I did not watch even a minute of the action over the past couple of weeks. It's partly because I don't watch hockey as much anymore, and partly because I (correctly) assumed that Canada would dominate the tournament and that it just would not be very exciting.

Also: Vice Principals (HBO); Jack White - Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016; Wilco - Schmilco

Looking forward to

Bon Iver - 22, A Million (Sept. 30) - I was genuinely surprised at how much I loved Bon Iver's last album, so I am really intrigued by the possibilities of this new record.

Alice Cooper live in concert (Oct. 12) - Going to a Cooper concert with my dad - a huge fan of Alice's since the 70s - has been on my bucket list for more than a decade, so I might be a tad excited about this one.

Mascots (Netflix, Oct. 13) - Christopher Guest's newest mockumentary film - his first since For Your Consideration a decade ago (though he did make the brilliant and unfortunately short-lived HBO comedy Family Tree in 2013) - looks like more of the same deadpan dry humour he has been peddling for two decades. Count me in - along with the likelihood of rewatching the others.

The Great Indoors (CBS, Oct. 27) - I feel as though I should be much more excited about a new sitcom starring Joel McHale and Stephen Fry, but it's a multi-cam comedy on CBS from the creative mind behind Tosh.0; that's three not insignificant strikes against it, so there's a lot that it will have to overcome.

Awards season - The buzz has already begun, and I will write a post soon about my thoughts on some of this year's contenders, but suffice to say that it's going to take some effort on their part to make me excited about this year's slate, as it appears to be the most uninspired group since 2011, perhaps aside from Martin Scorsese's Silence.

Arrival (Nov. 11) - Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi about contact with aliens is getting a lot of attention early on in the awards conversation.

Passengers (Dec. 21) - Fall has delivered fantastic experiential science fiction for three years with Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian. This year's entry in the high-concept space sweepstakes is director Morten Tyldum's Passengers, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt as people who wake up early from their sleep on a journey through space.

Also: Brooklyn Nine-Nine - Season 4 (Fox); Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X (CBS); Marvel's Luke Cage (Netflix); Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (BBC, Oct. 22); Doctor Strange (Nov. 4); Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Nov. 18); Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Dec. 16)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Top Survivor Twists

Survivor, the original prime-time network reality TV show, is still going strong, as it returned last week for its 33rd season, Millennials vs. Gen X. Sean Fennessey of The Ringer has a really interesting piece about this year's theme, as well as the status of the show in the television firmament; in particular, he notes that over 16 years, 33 seasons, and 486 episodes that it is now the 16th longest-running show in prime-time - ever (at least by number of seasons).

Last year was a fascinating one for Survivor fans, as Season 31 - Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance - featured what could be considered a seismic shift in strategic thinking in the game thanks to an entire cast of returning players. The traditional system of alliances was replaced by more agile and versatile voting blocs that changed throughout the game, and presented the first really significant social strategic shift in several seasons.

Second Chance was followed on air by a season, Kaoh Rong, that finished filming before Cambodia started filming, but of which CBS delayed airing because of they wanted to fast track Second Chance's airing because of the use of public voting to determine the castaways. Kaoh Rong, therefore, did not demonstrate the new strategic thinking of the show, so this new season will mark the first time that players will be competing under a new strategic schema.

Major shifts in strategy have not come often in Survivor history - by my reckoning, this is probably only the fifth or sixth major innovation in strategy, after alliances in the first season in Borneo, the Hidden Immunity Idol in Guatemala and subsequent seasons, Parvati's play in Micronesia - Fans vs. Favorites, Russell Hantz' villainy in Samoa and Heroes vs. Villains, and perhaps Cochrane's play in Caramoan - Fans. vs. Favorites 2. And while most strategic innovations have come from the players, some of them have come as a result of the changes that the producers have made to the game itself.

Most of the basic rules of the game are the same as they were in the first season: some number between 16 and 20 normal Americans in an exotic location are divided into tribes that compete against one another, with the losing tribe being forced to vote someone out of the game. After 10 to 12 days, the tribes are merged into one tribe, and castaways compete individually for the remainder of the 39 days, voting out their peers until the final remaining contestants appear in front of a jury of the people they voted out on Day 39 in order to convince their peers to vote for them to be named Sole Survivor and to win a million dollars.

But there have been many subtle changes to the game over the 32 iterations of the show, even within the boundaries of that basic format, and I thought it would be worthwhile at this point to rank the innovations that have originated on the part of the producers - the twists to the game.  There are several different kinds of twists included here: some are thematic and some are strategic; some are early game and some are late game; some are social, some physical, and some intellectual. But the common thread is that all of these twists were intended to affect the game by the producers.

Process and criteria for evaluation

I started by listing all of the Survivor twists I could remember, with a little help from the internet (not including the new twist introduced in the premiere of this new season). Some twists were one-off experiments, whereas some quickly became integral to the game and to the strategic development of the game. I chose to group similar twists together to make the discussion a bit more manageable, and I ended up with twenty different twists from the 32 seasons of Survivor.

The next step was determining the criteria that would help me rate each of those twists against one another. As I considered the twists and the game in general, five criteria stood out as more meaningful in evaluating the significance of the twist not only in the context of its season(s), but also in the wider scope of the game.

  • Effectiveness - Did the twist work or was it ineffective?
  • Strategic Impact - Beyond whether the twist worked, how much did the twist affect the strategy of the game?
  • Fairness - Did the twist seem fair to the castaways? Were they able to respond and have some agency in how it affected the game, or was it more arbitrary in how it was implemented?
  • Integrity of the Game - Did the twist violate some of the core principles of Survivor?
  • Entertainment - Did the twist create more entertainment for the viewers?

Of course, each of those criteria are not created equal, and I found that I tended to penalize twists that I felt violated the integrity of the game or fairness for contestants far more than those that were ineffective; I also tended to reward twists that resulted in more strategic impact and that were more effective in how they were implemented in the course of the game with a higher position in the rankings. With those criteria and qualifications in mind, here is my ranking of the twenty twists to the game of Survivor.

20. Outcast Tribe (Pearl Islands, S7) - The idea of having a "ghost" tribe return to compete was thematic to go along with the whole idea of "pirates" in Pearl Islands, but this twist was universally panned as it violated one of the key rules of Survivor - once you're voted out, you're out for good - and because it directly affected the game, as one of the Outcasts made it to the end to appear in front of the final jury. There is a way this twist could have worked - say, if the Outcast Tribe won that they could have joined camp to observe for their time on the jury or stolen something from camp - but having them re-enter the game outright to compete was a mistake.

19. Pre-Game Vote-Out (Palau, S10) - This was another idea that probably seemed better in pre-production but that just came off as callous and mean. Castaways had to do a schoolyard pick 'em of tribes, but the twist was the last two picked would not play. I don't know that either of the two castaways voted off would have stayed that long anyway, but it just seemed harsh to have them not even play at all, and I am glad that Survivor has not brought this idea back.

18. Purple Rock (Marquesas, S4; Blood vs. Water, S27) - The dreaded "purple rock of doom" has become a constant threat as players have used it to attempt to sway people to vote their way, but it has only come into strategic play once - Blood vs. Water - since its inception in Marquesas. In that initial appearance, it seemed patently unfair and arbitrary and it completely caught everyone by surprise, so it seemed to go against the nature of the game. Survivor has since developed far more sophisticated tiebreakers, and even though there is always the threat of the Purple Rock, it usually does not come into play.

17. Medallion of Power (Nicaragua, S21) - It was an interesting concept - that one tribe would get an advantage in a Pre-Merge Immunity Challenge - but it did not get used enough or even considered enough strategically to merit consideration from the producers to use it again. It probably did not help that Nicaragua is widely regarded as one of the worst seasons and worst casts of the series, but I mostly think the Medallion's application was limited, and I think it's fine to keep it as an experiment that does not need to be repeated.

16. Redemption Island (Redemption Island, S22; South Pacific, S23; Blood vs. Water, S27) - Although this twist had echoes of the Outcast Tribe in that it allowed players to continue to compete even after being voted out and thus may have seemed to violate the integrity of the game, it did provide an entertaining space for interactions between contestants, especially in the emotionally heated Blood vs. Water. That said, it is telling that none of the returnees from Redemption Island made it to the Final Three in any season, as it seemed that castaways decided that a player who had been voted out did not deserve the chance to be named Sole Survivor. I cannot say I disagree with them.

15. Tribe Mutiny (Cook Islands, S13) - This was a specific type of Tribe Switch in which the castaways themselves had the agency in choosing whether they would switch or not. It may have affected the game mildly, but it was mostly notable for making Jonathon Penner a really memorable castaway for his impulsive and ill-advised step off the mat.

14. Eliminating a Jury Member (Kaoh Rong, S32) - I can see the strategic value in having the ability for a member of the Final Three to eliminate a member of the Jury; I just did not really care for the twist in regard to fairness or integrity of the game, as I think that the jury members have earned their place in the game and deserve not to have their fate further decided by the remaining castways. It's hard to tell if the twist actually made a difference last season in Kaoh Rong - the only time it has been used - but I did not care for it anyway, perhaps because it may have made a difference to allowing for one of the weakest winners to be named Sole Survivor. I will be interested to see if they incorporate this twist again at some point, but I'm not sure that it really deserves to be repeated.

13. Vote Manipulation (Worlds Apart, S30 and Kaoh Rong, S32) - In recent seasons, the producers have begun to mess around with what had been one of the inviolable truths of Survivor: every player has a vote. In Worlds Apart, it was an advantage of an extra vote at a Tribal Council; in Kaoh Rong, it was the opportunity to steal someone else's vote. While the idea is interesting - particularly as the result of winning an Immunity Challenge - I think that democracy is one of the core values of the game, and I would like to see Survivor stop mucking around with the voting itself; let the players, not the twists, decide the game. Then again, neither instance of vote manipulation has really affected the outcome of the game, so perhaps it's not as effective as it might otherwise seem to be.

12. Super Hidden Immunity Idol (Panama, S12; Cook Islands, S13; Cagayan, S28; and Kaoh Rong, S32) - There are a few recent permutations to the Immunity Idol that have made it more interesting, such as an Idol that can be played after the votes are read (as opposed to before like most Idols), or a Super Idol that consists of Immunity Idols that can be combined to play after the votes are read. Although the Immunity Idol has become a key part of the strategy of Survivor, I do not mind that the producers mix it up a bit, as I do not feel as though the players are "entitled" to the Immunity Idol, but I still think they might be manipulating the idea a bit too much. That said, those manipulations have not yet significantly affected the game other than some strategic posturing in Kaoh Rong, so maybe there is more depth to explore in modifying the Idol's effects.

11. Pre-Existing Relationships between Castaways (Blood vs. Water, S27; San Juan del Sur, S29) - Survivor learned early on after including castaways from previous seasons that pre-existing relationships between contestants were good for television and competition, so it's somewhat surprising that it took them so long to include loved ones in the actual game. Blood vs. Water brought back ten castaways along with their loved ones (spouses, siblings, etc.) to play the full game and provided one of the more memorable seasons in recent memory, at least in terms of entertainment. The second season, unfortunately, was much less captivating, both in terms of entertainment and strategy, but I doubt that we have seen the last

10. Fake Merge (Thailand, S5) - The Merge is breathed in hushed tones of hopefulness and despondency in the early days of the game: "I just want to make it to the Merge". It usually occurs around Day 11 - though it has vacillated depending on the number of castaways and tribes and required jury members - but the game changes entirely when it comes, as it shifts from a group game to an individual game. Survivor has only messed with the Merge once - very early on, in Thailand - but it was memorable, as the tribes were moved to the same beach. One castaway, Shii Ann, made the assumption that the Merge had happened and started making alliances with the other tribe, only to find out at Tribal Council that there had been no Merge - it had not been announced, after all - and Shii Ann was voted out summarily. I wonder if there could be more twists with the Merge coming, since it does seem like a significantly underaffected part of the game at least as far as twists are concerned.

9. Clues to the Hidden Immunity Idol (most seasons that featured a Hidden Immunity Idol) - For as long as there has been a Hidden Immunity Idol, there have been clues as to its location. The clues were more significant early on before players like Russell in Samoa found the Idols without the clues and made them far less important, but they have still made a difference to the game in a wider sense. When players have not outsmarted the producers by finding the idols without clues, the clues have almost always led players to the Idol, the presence of which makes for much more interesting gameplay. Perhaps the most compelling development in recent seasons was in Cambodia when the clues led the player to the Idol in the midst of a challenge, giving an extra level of danger to being discovered.

8. Exile Island (Panama, S12; Cook Islands, S13; Fiji, S14; Micronesia, S16; Gabon, S17; Tocantins, S18; San Juan del Sur, S29) - Exile Island was the second really significant shift in the game, after the Hidden Immunity Idol one season earlier; the two twists became inextricably linked right away, as the producers often either hid the Idol or clues to it on Exile, thus increasing the strategic significance of the choice of which player to send. I'm somewhat disappointed that the show has mostly abandoned the concept after it was changed to Redemption Island, but I would not be surprised to see some form of Exile Island returning to the game at some point.

7. Three or Four Tribes (All-Stars, S8; Panama, S12; Cook Islands, S13; Philippines, S25; Cagayan, S28; Worlds Apart, S30; Kaoh Rong, S32) - Seven seasons have featured more than two tribes, five of which were the result of a choice of thematic tribe division before the game and two of which were organized as such because of the inclusion of returning players. The original tribes did not stay together long, but in each case, the initial alliances had a significant effect on the game in the end, and not just in the way in which the tribes were divided, but also in the fact that the presence of three or four tribes made the early game that much more important since castaways had fewer other tribemates behind which they could hide.

6. Pre-Game Thematic Tribe Division (Amazon, S6; Vanuatu, S9; Panama, S12; Cook Islands, S13; Heroes vs. Villains, S20; Nicaragua, S21; One World, S24; Cagayan, S28; Worlds Apart, S30; Kaoh Rong, S32; Millennials vs. Gen X, S33) - I was actually surprised at how few seasons featured an initial division of tribes according to an external theme, as this season marks only the eleventh season that has featured such a starting gimmick. The early divisions were more obvious - gender and age (or both), but the show stopped dividing along predetermined lines for awhile after the (well-deserved) blowback from dividing by race in Cook Islands (including having to stock the tribes with recruited contestants to do so).

Survivor returned to the idea after a few seasons, but it has only really been in the last few seasons that the idea again has been interesting with the divisions by chief strategy (brains, brawn, and beauty), by nature of employment and lifestyle (white collar, blue collar, and no collar), and now by generation this season. I don't know how much the divisions actually affected each season, per se, but it has made for some compelling television, especially as contestants are forced to deal with perceptions about who they are or how they present themselves.

I doubt we have seen the last of these kinds of pre-game divisions, as there are many other themes the show could explore. Some might be geographical: rural vs. urban or based on birthplace in the US (West Coast/Midwest/Deep South/Northeast). Some might be vocational - Pros (ie. athletes) vs Joes or military vs. civilian. And some might even be determined by Survivor history, like a Tribe or season of winners, or one of people who did not make the jury. If I can come up with half a dozen off the top of my head, you know that the producers have to have way more in their bag of tricks, so we'll definitely see more Pre-Game Thematic Tribal Divisions.

5. Advantage in an Immunity Challenge (Guatemala, S11; Caramoan, S26; Worlds Apart, S30) - Although this twist has not been used that often, it ranks this highly for two reasons: it has become more or less an expected piece of strategy when the food auction comes up; and it has directly affected the winners of almost every season in which it was used correctly. I think it's better to have the way that players obtain the advantage be through a reward challenge as opposed to the food auction (a fact that I think the producers have now realized), and that it is important for the advantage not to come too early or too late, but however it is implemented, the fact is that the challenge advantage - or the possibility that there might be one - has definitely made a significant impact on the game.

4. Pre-Merge Tribe Switch (twenty seasons, starting with Africa, S3) - It often happens around day 10 that the producers of the game like to shake things up and to switch things up between tribes, and the Pre-Merge Tribe Switch is the easiest way to do it. It has occasionally been a surprise to players (particularly in earlier iterations), but now it mostly takes the form of random selection before a Reward Challenge. It does not occur every season, which makes me wonder if it's always planned, or if the producers bring it about as a way to respond to either perceived or actual imbalances in the opening tribes, but whatever the reason for its institution, it invariably affects the game. Original alliances are tested with new connections, and it often seems to happen that one or two castaways are stranded on an unfriendly tribe, making their road to survival that much more difficult - and that much more rewarding if they can pull off unseating one of the members of an established alliance.

3. Final Three (Cook Islands, S13, and every season since except: Micronesia, S16; Tocantins, S18; and Cagayan, S28) - For the first third of Survivor history, one of the immutable truths of the game was that there would be a Final Two - until suddenly, there were Three. It was a huge shift for the game - and one that, although I found it immediately interesting, I also thought was slightly unfair to announce most of the way through the game.

After a couple of experiments with a Final Two, the show has almost always stayed with the Final Three format for a few reasons: it keeps more players in the game for longer; it changes the strategic processes players use to decide who stays; and it provides more drama at the final jury. That said, it has not yet directly significantly affected the final result, as the third place finisher has never had more than one vote cast for them, but I think it has still very significantly affected strategy and helped a number of winners in the end.

2. Returning Players (All-Stars, S8; Guatemala, S11; Micronesia - Fans vs. Favourites, S16; Heroes vs. Villains, S20; Redemption Island, S22; South Pacific, S23; Philippines, S25; Caramoan - Fans vs. Favorites 2, S26; Blood Vs. Water, S27; Cambodia - Second Chance, S31) - These seasons can be divided into two groups - the four seasons that featured a few select returning players and the six seasons that featured at least one complete tribe of returning players. There is little dispute as to the effect that returning players have had on the game: in all of the former, at least one returning player made it to the end, and all of the latter were won by a player who had played before.

I will wholeheartedly admit that they have gone to that well too many times - particularly with a few players - but I'm all for the inclusion of returning players in either format, as I think it makes not only for better television, but for better strategic gameplay. From a game theory perspective, it's always going to be a better game with players who really want to play and who know how to play, and returning players bring both of those facets to the game.

The only time I felt that returning players did not really work (at least strategically) was in Redemption Island, when Russell and Boston Rob came back only a year after Heroes vs. Villains for the third and fourth time, respectively. It was disappointing for strategy that Boston Rob won that season - one of the worst seasons for strategy in Survivor - but it did make for entertaining television, at least.

1. Hidden Immunity Idol (Guatemala, S11 and every season starting with Fiji, S14) - I'm not sure what it's harder to believe: that it took Survivor ten seasons before they introduced the Idol; or that they ever had Survivor without the Idol. The Idol has become a key part of Survivor strategy, and at this point, it would be more of a twist not to include it. There is at least one Tribal Council in each season that is determined largely by the threat of the presence of Idols, and Idols have affected the outcome not only of Tribal but also of the game on more than one occasion.

Because it has become such an accepted part of the game, I would actually like to see a season in which there were no Hidden Immunity Idols, just to see how it would affect players to not have that possible safety blanket - especially if they did not know there were no Idols. It would be a controversial though fascinating decision on the producers, and the fact that not including an Idol would make such waves indicates that it is by far the most significant twist in Survivor.


When I play a (new) board game, I should know the rules of the game before I start; of course, there are many games that include randomized elements like an event deck that are unpredictable until they arise, but I do like to know that there is a part of the game that cannot be determined ahead of time and the possible and/or likely extent of the effect of that element on the rest of the game.

I also like to try to know basic strategies early on, and I have now played enough different games that I can often determine a strategy based on previous experiences. As I know that many people do not have my level of experience in playing board games, when I am teaching a game to new players, I will often try give hints as to possible strategies in my explanation of the game.

Survivor, of course, is much more complex than a board game; it is a complex and immersive social, physical, intellectual, and psychological experience that affects every part of a person's life for almost six weeks in order to win. Players often only get to play once, and although there are 32 previous examples of ways to play and ways to win, there is no one defining strategy for success, and each game is fundamentally different because of the nature of the people playing the game.

With that in mind, particularly in terms of game theory, Survivor necessarily rides a fine line between providing enough twists to keep the game interesting, in terms of both strategy and of entertainment value, and not including so many twists that the integrity of the game is lost. The producers are usually able to discern that line well, but there have been a few seasons in which I would argue that there are too many twists, or that the unannounced nature of the twists was too unfair to the castaways, including the most recently completed season, Kaoh Rong.

In Kaoh Rong in particular and recent seasons in general, it seemed as though the producers were itching to use some ideas they had had for a long time, and it felt at times as though the focus for the castaways was not on outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting each other, but rather the producers, and that's not a great place for the game of Survivor to be. I think that it's okay to have one or maybe two new twists in a season, but the show is currently moving toward playing around too much with the basic format for my liking.

The more recent twists - especially those involving manipulation of a vote or an Immunity Idol - seem a little too gimmicky and are happening too often, and although I do appreciate seeing the ideas that the producers have for the game, I think that Survivor should be a more pure game experience. There is already enough going on in the game to keep it interesting for contestants and the audience without having to introduce a twist every few episodes.

Jeff Probst has said that he would like to see Survivor make it to Season 40, which would mean that it would run for seven seasons after this one that has just started. I think Survivor has a good shot at making it another three years after this one - maybe even longer - but I hope that they use the twists sparingly in the process and spend more time on the casting and challenges of the game, rather than manipulating the proceedings through arbitrary changes to the game - or at least that the twists they do use are more fair in regard to the players and the game itself.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Community 101: Introduction to Television

It was not too long ago that I stated that Community was my favourite television comedy of all time. After recently recommending it to a few people, I decided that it was time to revisit the show myself, starting with the pilot episode. After a week or so of watching a couple of episodes each day, I had a revelation: I should be writing about each season so that I can share my enjoyment of Greendale with others.

I have watched every episode of the first three seasons at least two or three times and each episode in the final three seasons at least once, so I thought it would be fun to reflect on each season as I rewatched it. I decided that I would include a short commentary on the season as a whole and then break down my thoughts into a number of different categories that will be updated each season: power rankings of the main characters (and their romantic encounters), supporting characters, and professors; best meta-moments and cameos, homages, and Troy and Abed moments; and favourite moments and best episodes.

Thoughts on Season 1

Community found its identity early on, but it still took most of the first season for the show to really come into its own. The first season is fairly formulaic in terms of sitcom style, and most of the episodes of the season have a slightly saccharine "everything has been wrapped up nicely and everyone has learned their lesson" sentiment to their conclusions. The show begins to play around with format and to invert some expectations early on, though it does still find itself trapped in a romantic entangle amongst Jeff, Britta, Slater, and Annie (though it does come to an amusing resolution at the end of the last episode).

That said, there are some innovations present here, particularly later in the season as the show begins to fully commit itself to full-on homage in Episode 21, "Contemporary American Poultry". The writers and directors start to play around more with styles of pacing and filming near the end of the season, and the show starts to feel more like it knew what it was doing and who its characters were.

I suppose it makes sense that it was too early to really start playing with the format too much, as most of the focus of the show was on getting to know the characters. The audience - and the writers, for that matter - were just learning who each of these weirdos were, and the comedy came more from the interactions between characters and trying them out in different combinations than through the wacky situations in which the members of the study group would eventually find themselves.

Main character power rankings

Welcome to the initial power rankings of the main characters at Greendale - the nine mentioned in the opening credits. This is an entirely subjective ranking of the characters based on their development as a character, their memorable moments, and their general hilarity. I will be giving rankings for each season as well as adjusting the overall rankings after each season, as several characters will rise or fall based on future events, but for now, this is how I would rank them after Season 1.

9. Dean Pelton - The Dean was not much of a presence in Season 1 other than serving as a nebbish authority figure with a penchant for sexually deviant behaviours. He has a few funny moments, but it took the show a while to figure out how to use Jim Rash in the role. But something awakened in him, and Greendale will never be the same.

8. Shirley Bennett - Shirley has a few great moments - especially as she channels her rage at her ex-husband at "Professor Short Skirt" or she tries not to judge her study group for their religious beliefs - but she is mostly reduced to a background mother hen figure in this season. (She gets a lot more sarcastic and funnier in Season Two).

7. Annie Edison - Annie is mostly a one-note character for most of the season, but she has a few standout moments like the debate tournament and the STD fair.  

6. Troy Barnes - Although Troy starts as mainly as a high school jock who is mostly known for his dull wit, the writers started to figure out about halfway through that the real comedy came from his nerdiness and gullibility. He's not a great character throughout most of the first season, but he improves as the season goes on.

5. Pierce Hawthorne - Season 1 made me miss the days when Pierce was a mostly lovable old guy with a racist, homophobic streak. It made sense to use Chevy Chase - by far the most marketable comedic name attached to a new show - for his trademark physical comedy and buffoonery, and Pierce is surprisingly fun in the first season.

4. Britta Perry - For once, Britta is not the worst; she's actually the best female character in Season 1. The show spends a lot of time establishing her character early on, but it's almost entirely in the context of her relationship with Jeff. It's telling that it takes ten episodes for Jeff to change her name in his phone to "Britta" from "hot blonde Spanish class". (This is not meant to take anything away from Gillian Jacobs' performance; it's just that the character is a little weak early on.)

3. Señor Ben Chang - Oh, the days when Chang was a teacher. The show quickly and smartly recognized that Ken Jeong was comic gold in short interruptions, and many of the best early moments come from one liners from Chang, especially in the classroom.

2. Abed Nadir - From the start, Abed is perhaps the show's most interesting character: a self-aware pop culture geek with little emotional connection to the world around him but who is constantly able to interpret what is happening through well-worn tropes and expectations. He is consistently funny, but he's not the centre of many exploits, so he does not make it to the top rank...yet.

1. Jeff Winger - The viewer's entry point into the wackiness of Greendale is also the show's best character in its first season. He starts off as a total self-indulgent jerk, but he does demonstrate more growth than any other character in the season and provides most of the key conflicts, including the main romantic parallelogram. His paintball performance, however, places him firmly in first for the year.

Romantic Encounter Power Rankings

7. Shirley ("Dreadlocks")

6. Abed (Jenny)

5. Pierce (Doreen, Doctora Escodera)

4. Troy (Annie, Randi)

3. Annie (Troy, Vaughn, Jeff)

2. Britta (Jeff, Vaughn)

1. Jeff (Britta, Annie, Slater, Sabrina, Amber)

Supporting character power rankings

I was actually quite surprised at how few of the supporting characters of the series appeared in the first season. It makes sense, considering how much time had to be devoted to the development of the main characters, but I'm still looking forward to adding to this list in future seasons.

6. Officer Cackowski - The random police officer makes a couple of appearances, most notably when he warns the group about the perils of "Windmill" being included in Pictionary.

5. Rich - "Doc Pottery-wood" is mostly interesting as a foil for Jeff, but he's more interesting in later seasons.

4. Garrett - I'm not sure that Garrett even gets a name in the first season, but he's easily the most visually prominent of the random background classmates.

3. Starburns - He's mostly a one-note joke about styled facial hair, but he has a few funny moments during the season, especially as a deposed fry cook.

2. Vaughn - Britta and Annie both date Vaughn, the shirtless hippie who's best remembered for his hacky sack skills, abbreviating "later" to "lates", and his songs "Getting Rid of Britta" and "Pierce, You're A B". But "we'll always have Tiny Nipples."

1. Leonard - Old Man Leonard is one of the best secondary characters from his first raspberry. "Shut up, Leonard!"

Professor power rankings

7. Doctora Escodera ("English as a Second Language") - Chang's replacement in Spanish 101 does not have much to do, but it's not her fault.

6. Admiral Slaughter ("Beginner Pottery") - Lee Majors barks out orders to the crew of a landlocked ship; no memorable moments here.

5. Coach Bogner ("Physical Education") - Blake Clark plays Jeff's pool instructor and shows no shame in their final (unfortunately memorable) face-off.

4. Professor Holly ("Beginner Pottery") - Tony Hale's granola professor is mostly a one-note joke about "no Ghost-ing", but he makes it funny nonetheless.

3. Professor Michelle Slater ("Introduction to Statistics", "Interpretive Dance", "Communication Studies", "Basic Genealogy", and "Pascal's Triangle Revisited") - Jeff's Statistics Professor is mostly notable for being his on-again, off-again "adult" girlfriend as well as for inspiring irrational rage in Shirley.

2. Professor Whitman ("Introduction to Film", "Debate 109", and "Pascal's Triangle Revisited") - Although John Michael Higgins is reduced to cameos after his amusing take on Mr. Keating in the show's third episode, he has a few great lines and moments along the way.

1. Professor Ian Duncan ("Pilot", "Social Psychology", "Advanced Criminal Law", and "Pascal's Triangle Revisited") - It should be no surprise that John Oliver comes out first here, although I was surprised at the fact that he only appeared in four episodes, three of which aired in the first five. "The Duncan Principle" is hilariously poor psychology, but the template for Duncan's future exploits is well-established here.

Best Troy and Abed moments

Most of Troy and Abed's best moments came in the show's end tags, the non-sequitur sequences that (mostly) had nothing to do with the rest of the episode. Here are my five favourites from the season.

5. Abed messes with Troy ("Advanced Criminal Law") - The first in-episode combination of the two future best friends features Abed misleading the gullible Troy about being an alien - plus it also features the first special handshake between the two.

4. "Somewhere Out There" ("Environmental Science") - Troy and Abed sing a duet to rescue their lost rodent, Fievel.

3. "Troy and Abed in the morning!" ("The Science of Illusion") - One of the more memorable end tags started here.

2. "O Christmas Troy" ("Comparative Religion") - Jeff gets in on the action.

1. "Donde esta la biblioteca" / 101 Rap ("Spanish 101") - The first moment that Troy and Abed were really awesome.

Best meta-moments and cameos

Community came to be known early on for its self-awareness and its meta-nature, often even commenting on that facet of the show through its characters. As such, it makes sense to choose some of the favourite instances of being "meta" from each season. I decided to separate these moments from the best homages, which don't have quite the same "meta" nature but still merit attention.

5. All of the cuts at Glee ("Modern Warfare" and others) - Glee was the breakout hit of the fall that Community premiered, so it felt appropriate that the show mocked Greendale's Glee Club.

4. Buddy tries to join the study group ("Investigative Journalism") - The show returned after the Christmas break with its first big guest star - Jack Black - as Buddy, a random classmate who tries to join the group. It's the first time the show really shows the group from another outside perspective and comments on the sheer ridiculousness of some of the events of the first half of the season.

3. Jeff and Pierce "Wise Up" ("Spanish 101") - It did not take long for the show to find its meta identity. In episode two, Jeff and Pierce perform a montage of various over-the-top (mostly racist) scenes as their response to an assignment in which they are supposed to conduct a simple conversation in Spanish. The key to the comedy of the scene is that it is accompanied by Aimee Mann's "Wise Up", which was previously notably used in one of the key emotional scenes in P. T. Anderson's epic drama Magnolia to great effect; anyone who knew the song from that movie laughed as a result of the juxtaposition of the nature of the scenes of the movie and the ridiculousness of Jeff and Pierce's antics.

2. Abed picks Sixteen Candles ("Contemporary American Poultry") - It's almost impossible to pick one moment from Abed's ongoing references to pop culture, but the one that seemed most representative to me came at the end of the "mafia movie" when Jeff made Abed pick one reference - and he chose Sixteen Candles. But for most of the season, Abed lives in a world of many references, and it only gets better as the season goes on.

1. Mike the Bully ("Introduction to Comparative Religion") - Another layered meta-moment for which the seeds were sown in the first episode when Abed repeatedly refers to, then actually quotes, The Breakfast Club. Anthony Michael Hall, who played the nerd in the 80s coming-of-age classic, plays bully Mike here, and there's even a line about how guys like him were nerds in high school. It was probably the first time that we really realized the full brilliance of what Community was doing in the realm of the meta, but it was far from the last.

Best homages

NR: M*A*S*H ("Investigative Journalism")

5. Good Will Hunting ("English as a Second Language") - Troy has a special skill for fixing plumbing.

4. Animal House ("The Art of Discourse") - Troy and Abed try to replicate all of the tropes of college movies throughout the episode, but the real payoff for the homage is in the final character freezes that conclude the episode.

3. Dead Poets Society ("Introduction to Film") - Professor Whitman wants students - especially Jeff - to "Seize the Day" and stand on their desks (before he finds out the hard way why they shouldn't).

2. Goodfellas ("Contemporary American Poultry") - Abed starts a crime family

1. 28 Days Later, The Terminator, The Warriors, Predator, Die Hard, and more ("Modern Warfare") - The original paintball episode is full of visual references and sly verbal nods to many classic action movies.

Favourite moments

  • Abed is Batman for Halloween. ("Introduction to Statistics")
  • "By Zeus, what sort of jackassery is this?" - Professor Whitman upon seeing the basketball team intrude upon the debate proceedings. ("Debate 109")
  • "He was horny, so he dropped him. Man is evil!" - Annie kisses Jeff to win the debate championship. ("Debate 109")
  • STD Fair ("The Politics of Human Sexuality")
  • Kickpuncher ("Romantic Expressionism")
  • Jeff and Abed drinking montage ("Communication Studies")
  • "I had to send them a message." - Abed ends the chicken chicanery ("Contemporary American Poultry")
  • Troy gets a monkey and names it Annie's Boobs ("Contemporary American Poultry")
  • Annie plays bad cop ("The Science of Illusion")
  • "What's this? Roll of quarters!" - Chang attacks Duncan ("Pascal's Triangle Revisited")

Best episodes

By this point, it should seem obvious which episodes stood out from the season, but I decided to still include my top five episodes from the season along with a short synopsis of what occurs in the episode.

5. "Introduction to Film" - Jeff tries to seize the moment and Abed starts a film class.

4. "Introduction to Statistics" - Annie hosts a Halloween party, Jeff tries to woo Slater, Pierce trips out, and Abed is Batman.

3. "Debate 109" - Jeff and Annie face off against City College in the debate championship, Abed's films come to light, and Pierce tries to hypnotize Britta to help her stop smoking.

2. "Contemporary American Poultry" - Abed turns the study group into a crime syndicate controlling the campus' supply of chicken fingers.

1. "Modern Warfare" - Greendale becomes a war zone when Priority Registration is on the line.

Final Thoughts

Community's first season is one of the better first seasons I can recall, but it also pales in comparison to the two seasons that succeeded it. I have a feeling that it will end up as one of the lower-ranked seasons when I evaluate all of the seasons together, but that's not a knock against it. This season - which represents almost a quarter of the entire run of the season - is definitely worth watching on its own merits.

There are hilarious moments in every episode, and some of my favourite lines and scenes are in this season. The characters have hints of who they will become - other than Jeff, who is essentially fully formed as the primary focus of Season 1 - and the pieces are in place for the future of Greendale early on. It was a great first year of Community college, and it only gets better from here - for a couple of years, at least.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Who Ya Gonna Call?

It came up in conversation recently as a result of my wife playing a upbeat musical playlist that featured Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher" that she had never watched the original Ghostbusters movies, so, thanks to the wonder of Netflix, a surprisingly open Friday night, and plans to finally watch the new Ghostbusters on Saturday, we corrected that egregious pop culture oversight over the weekend.

As I took in both of the original movies as well as the recent reboot, I realized that I had a lot of thoughts about all entries in the franchise and my interaction with it as a whole, so I figured that I would incorporate those thoughts into a catch-all post in which I considered not only my own connection with the Ghostbusters, but also all reviews of each of the three movies with a few personal reflections on the franchise interspersed throughout.

Childhood, faith, and Ghostbusters

A lot of my interest in Ghostbusters as a child came from the Ghostbusters' presence as part of my Saturday morning routine. I reviewed the episode history of The Real Ghostbusters - which lasted for 140 episodes over six years - and I was surprised that I had clear memories of only a couple of episodes - "The Brooklyn Triangle" in particular - although I know I watched the show over those years. I don't remember ever having any of the toys, although I had friends who did, and they were a significant part of my childhood.

Let's face it - this whole "Ghostbusters being a kids' thing" is still strange even three decades later. As I read through the plot summaries of episodes of the cartoon, I was slightly disturbed by the fluency that the show encouraged with the paranormal and the occult. Some of the content is much more benign, of course, but some of the characters and concepts are quite dark, and I'm not sure that any eight-year-old should know who Samhain is.

At any rate, Ghostbusters firmly lodged itself in my childhood pop cultural identity, along with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Gremlins, Transformers, and Looney Tunes. I was somewhat surprised, actually, as to how well I knew the original two movies as I rewatched them. Although I had not seen them in at least fifteen years, I still knew almost every beat, every line, and every musical cue from the first two movies. I didn't think I had seen them that many times, but apparently I had watched them enough to know them almost by heart even after a decade and a half.

That level of internalization of the movies made me think about my relationship with the franchise and in particular how my faith interacted with Ghostbusters over the years. I had purged Ghostbusters (the movie) from my collection and my life when I got rid of all "non-Christian" media in the early aughts in part because of some of the spiritually problematic aspects of the franchise - at least within the context of a Christian worldview. I had even considered not watching the new Ghostbusters in part because the trailer included some elements that I found problematic, such as possession of people by ghosts.

I realized, however, that the content of the movies did not present a clear and present danger to my faith, and that I could watch them knowing what I believe and how the depictions of the movie interact with those beliefs. Those problems are certainly still present, particularly in the emphasis on the occult, but I did not sense the same kind of threat to my faith as I once did in watching the movies.

This post, then, should not be seen as a blanket endorsement of Ghostbusters or a condoning of the spiritual content therein. This is my acknowledgement of the problematic nature of the franchise within a worldview like mine (ie. North American Evangelical) and a warning that the movies are dark at times. At the same time, I feel somewhat similarly toward Ghostbusters as I do toward Harry Potter, and although both franchises do go to some dark places, I'm not convinced that it is impossible for Christians to enjoy movies that take place in these kinds of worlds.

On the same note, however, I personally eschew horror movies because of some of the spiritual content even though there are some people, including noted horror director and Christian Scott Derrickson, who see that genre as not only compatible with but actually encouraging their worldviews. Of course, there is a lot more going on within the horror genre than the spiritual dimension that drives me away - particularly the emphasis on gore and death - but I mention this personal aversion as a way of illustrating that there are not necessarily any easy lines to draw and that this entire process is nuanced and challenging.

Derrickson, it should be noted, is the director of the upcoming Doctor Strange, in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters the realm of the mystical. I will be interested to see how the spiritual content of that movie - and ultimately of the MCU as it explores an element into which it has not yet delved - develops, and to see just how he brings some of his beliefs into that universe and how some of the more problematic pieces of the mystical side of Marvel are disseminated for a larger audience. But I digress - back to the Ghostbusters.

Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters is not only one of the most iconic movies of its time, but of all-time. It was the second-highest earning movie of its year behind Beverly Hills Cop, but with a couple of cinematic rereleases, it now ranks as the second-highest earning comedy of all-time when adjusted for inflation, behind only The Graduate. In that respect, it ranks 34th all-time with earnings of $616 million in today's dollars, but it is impressive even not when adjusted, as it still ranks 109th all-time and was in the top 100 until the end of 2015.

The movie mainly works because of the interplay of the three main characters - Bill Murray as Venkman, Dan Aykroyd as Ray Stantz, and Harold Ramis as Egon Spengler - although the casting was the result of the kind of cinematic serendipity that resulted in Harrison Ford starring as Indiana Jones, rather than Tom Selleck.  Although I knew that the role of Winston was originally written for Eddie Murphy, I was interested to discover that Louis Tully - the nebbish tax lawyer played by Rick Moranis - was originally intended for John Candy, and that Peter Venkman - the role iconically played by Bill Murray - was intended for John Belushi, who passed away before filming was going to start.

Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler have an instantly tangible bond and connection, and from their first adventure in the bowels of the New York Public Library, they are believable as friends and colleagues, though Venkman's disdain for his profession is a little off-putting at times. It is the connections between the three - as well as fourth Ghostbuster Winston, receptionist Janine Melnitz, the unwitting Louis, Sigourney Weaver as Dana Barrett, and even supporting characters like the EPA's Walter Peck and Mayor Lenny Clotch - that truly make Ghostbusters as memorable as it is.

Ghostbusters works because it works as a comedy. It is legitimately funny and full of zingers, one liners, physical comedy, amusing moments, and character-driven comedic moments, and it remains one of the few "sci-fi horror comedies" that has actually worked. The ghosts, while notable, feel significantly secondary to the comedy, and they actually serve the humour of the film. Even in the climactic battle against Gozer, the focus is not on the action of the sequence, but on the comedy therein, whether that's through the one-liners thrown out by Venkman or Zeddemore or the presence of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man as the "destroyer" inadvertently chosen by Stantz.

There are, of course, issues with the movie, though they are fairly insignificant in regard to the whole movie and mostly seem to relate to its age, rather than its content. It feels a little slowly paced at points - though that might be a more modern imposition of pacing on an older movie - and some scenes feel a tad elongated unnecessarily. Venkman's particular brand of womanizing has not aged well, and neither has Winston being the "token" black Ghostbuster, but those can be forgiven to some extent as carryovers from an era gone by.

There were a couple of things I noticed in particular on this time through. I had not really considered before how much this movie is a love letter to New York City. The city is almost as much a character in the film as any of the Ghostbusters, and it is hard to imagine Ghostbusters taking place anywhere else with the same resonance.

I also really noticed the religious imagery this time around. Of course, I always remembered the iconic scene in which Winston and Ray discuss the book of Revelation on the bridge, but I really noticed the respect with which the movie portrayed people of faith - Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish - especially leading up to the final showdown with Gozer.

Ghostbusters is a film that works both on its own merits and as a paragon of American pop culture. It is first and foremost a comedy that uses science fiction and horror tropes to advance its comedy, and it does it well. It has (mostly) stood the test of time, and it rightfully remains one of those movies that is intractable entrenched in our collective pop culture consciousness.

Ghostbusters II (1989)

Ghostbusters II is admittedly more difficult for me to evaluate because of my personal affinity for the movie. It has gotten a bad rap over the years - and not just because of the late 80s hip-hop soundtrack - and it probably deserves more scorn than I would give it. The plot is a little weaker and more implausible than the first movie, and the comedy is a little less overt, but I tend to think that GBII works just fine as a sequel.

Most of the criticisms of the movie revolve around how it repeated much of the plot of its predecessor, but I would argue that, although it used some of the same beats as the first Ghostbusters, it does have its own identity and significance apart from merely rehashing the original. It has some great set pieces - the courtroom, the sewer, the museum - and, even though there are some issues with pacing, the movie mostly has a strong flow (pun intended). The "mood slime" gives a new set of possibilities to the events in New York, and Vigo the Carpathian is a compelling villain (though Peter MacNicol's poor Eastern European accent has not aged well).

The main characters - the four Busters, Melnitz, Tully, Barrett, and even Mayor Clotch - are all instantly recognizable, although they also seem to have grown and changed enough in the years since the events of the first movie. There were some shortcuts taken in some of the characters of the movie - particularly in Jack Hardemeyer, the mayor's assistant who serves the same function to the plot with a similar personality to the EPA's Walter Peck from the first movie - but I am perhaps more willing to overlook those tactics as a factor of the developing a familiar language as a sequel.

Aside from a sense of repetition in plot and character, the other criticism levelled at GBII is that it is just not as funny as the first Ghostbusters. While I agree with that sentiment - it is nowhere near as funny as its predecessor - I find GBII quite amusing, and I think it holds its own as a comedy. It is a fun, enjoyable movie, and although it does not have the same kind of resonance as the first, I think that GBII did a fine enough job in featuring the characters and the comedy and in adding to the Ghostbusters storyline. After all, without it, we would not have seen the Statue of Liberty crossing the Hudson controlled by an NES Advantage (which, in retrospect, seems like it gave much more accurate control to Venkman than it ever did to anyone who played with it on Nintendo) to the sounds of "Higher and Higher".

Ghostbusters "3"

I will say, however, that I am very glad that Ghostbusters 3 never happened. The script was purported to have been floating around Hollywood for twenty years, and I think that Bill Murray was right not to return to the franchise. The ideas that have surfaced since would have merely contributed to the pool of "terrible sequel ideas in the 90s", along with "the Ninja Turtles travel to Ancient Japan" and "Riggs and Murtaugh fight the Triad".

The first famous idea, which is such a 90s sequel idea and oddly reminiscent of Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, involved the four Busters traveling to an alternate dimensional version of Manhattan called "Manhellton" and meeting the Devil. It seems as though the window on that sequel closed around 1995, when there was a cessation of those kinds of sequels being made, before Hollywood decided to start mining every existing intellectual property for opportunities for remarketing a decade later.

There was renewed talk of a Ghostbusters 3 script around 2007, but it seemed as though most of the possibility of any such script went into the production of Ghostbusters: The Video Game, which no less an authority than Aykroyd has said takes the place of the third film. I have not yet played the game, though I hope to track down a copy at some point in the near future to complete my personal Ghostbusters experience.

Ghostbusters (2016)

All of that brings me to reviewing the newest - and likely final - entry in the Ghostbusters franchise, this year's summer blockbuster. Allow me, first of all, to attempt to separate the content of the movie itself from everything surrounding it, to try to give a fair and balanced review of the movie as it was, which is surprisingly difficult considering its context and all of the hoohah surrounding its release. [Here is your obligatory SPOILER ALERT for all content that follows in this section if you have not yet seen the movie.]

The movie does an admirable job of resetting the Ghostbusters idea in modern New York with female protagonists, and I will stand by director Paul Feig's inspired choices in casting with established starts Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy alongside Saturday Night Live stars and movie newcomers Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. I believed in these women, in their friendship(s), and the movie mines a lot of comedy from the interactions between the four.

Each of the four characters are fairly well-formed and established as their own people, not just as feminine translations of the original four characters. There are rough equivalencies to the original quartet, of course, but there's arguably only so far that the context and overall idea (scientists busting ghosts) would allow the characters to go, at least without drastically reworking the franchise. I appreciated all four busters for who they were, although McKinnon and Jones as enigmatic engineer Holtzmann and no-nonsense Patty Tolan do far more with their characters than do Wiig and McCarthy.

The plot (mostly) moves along well and provides serviceable set pieces for the Ghostbusters to learn and apply their new trade, as well as the various entertaining gadgets for busting: a haunted mansion; a subway; a metal concert; Times Square; and an old hotel. The subplot with the mayor, his assistant, and two named but otherwise underutilized men in suits was a little awkward in its editing and presentation, and the movie at times seemed to move either too slowly or to jump a bit too quickly, but it mostly worked.

I appreciated what the movie tried to accomplish in terms of presenting the challenges that females face in the academic and professional world, and I read at least one article after the fact that made me think about all of the subtle ways in which the movie presented critiques of male privilege through the various male characters in positions of authority. I also greatly appreciated that the movie chose not to feature a romantic subplot, instead focusing on the friendships between the four Busters as the relational tension at the core of the movie.

Most of the issues I had with the movie were minor quibbles, including the aforementioned subplot. I thought that Chris Hemsworth's receptionist Kevin - though funny at times - was just a little too dull-witted, and his character's lack of smarts detracted from the movie. I did think, however, that once Hemsworth's character changes for the final third of the film that he made the most of the opportunity and showed some comedic chops that bear notice from future casting directors.

The effects were very well done - particularly compared to the first movie, which had actually been nominated for an Academy Award for its effects; then again, special effects are slightly different now than they were in the early 1980s. I thought, however, that there was a bit too much reliance on CGI, particularly in the last twenty minutes of the movie, and that less might actually have been more for the movie's climactic battles.

As a fan of the franchise, I did appreciate how the new Ghostbusters honored the history of the franchise, particularly by not merely repeating the exact movements of the original (I was really glad they didn't cross the streams, for example). I noticed and appreciated the easter eggs peppered throughout the film and cameos from the original cast, and I felt that they did not really take away from the movie. They provided a meaningful connection to the original, and it was just fun to see how different actors and lines popped in and out of the action.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie for what it was: a summer popcorn blockbuster that entertained me for a couple of hours. The minor issues that exist do not detract from the movie, and I would probably watch and enjoy it again in the future. So why was I at best unenthused and at worst ambivalent about a movie that I would rank around a 7.5/10? I think there are a few factors that contributed to my reaction to the movie: the marketing; the possibilities of what could have been; and the narrative of failure.

Analyzing the reaction to the new Ghostbusters

Part of my enjoyment of the movie was dulled by the marketing campaign ahead of time - especially the first trailer, which undeservedly bore the brunt of one of the worst trolling campaigns in recent memory and ended up as one of the most unliked videos in the history of YouTube. The trailer was confusing, as it began with a reference to the events of the first movie ("Thirty years ago..."), even though this particular movie, as a reboot, had no continuity with that movie. The trailer also gave away many of the comedic moments, so there was less enjoyment than there otherwise might have been had I not known what was coming - a sentiment echoed in this article in which Ghostbusters is compared to Netflix's Stranger Things, which released on the same day.

Much has been made of the movie's marketing budget - reportedly over $100 million - but which I found to be surprisingly muddled in terms of message and method throughout the movie's campaign; even the (sub)title of the new movie - Ghostbusters: Answer the Call - was unclear at best and awkward and ill-chosen at worst. But that muddled marketing reflects a somewhat muddled product, and ultimately I think that the movie did not really have much of an audience as it was crafted.

Consider, for a second, my own status as a fan: I am a male in my early 30s who has fond memories of the original movies and cartoon series, self-identifies as a feminist, enjoys the work of each of the four starring actresses and the director, and generally enjoys the experience of going to the movies - and it still took me two months to go see Ghostbusters, and even then it was in the cheap theaters. If I, as arguably the target audience, was only mildly enthused by the fact that this movie existed, how did Sony expect it not only to make money, but to make enough money (half a billion dollars by Feig's own estimate) to justify being the first of a franchise?

I found myself wondering what the movie could have been had its trajectory not been as predetermined by what studio dictated that it had to be - namely, a CGI-rich action comedy summer tentpole blockbuster that had to be rated PG-13 to appeal to teens and that was intended to relaunch not only a franchise but an entire extended cinematic universe. I think that there were other possibilities for what Ghostbusters could have been, rather than the somewhat timid reboot that it ended up being.

For one thing, there could have been more cosmetic changes that might have had further significance; for example, there could have been more of a change of the team beyond the gender swap. Even though the four characters were "original", I think that they could have gone further with creating new characters or even a new team dynamic with a decision as simple as changing the number of people on the team (or the relative racial positions of the Busters). I also wondered whether a change in location might have been beneficial. New York is such an iconic part of the franchise that it is hard to think about it being set somewhere else, but it might have served to give this entry its own identity other than as a "reboot, but with women this time".

But the main thought I had about a change that might have produced the best results was regarding the style of comedy. Feig has found incredible success with McCarthy, Wiig, and other women in crafting R-rated comedies, and I wonder what this movie could have been if the four leading ladies had been allowed to let loose and be really funny in that way, as opposed to the tamed down version we got. I think there's an "adult" version of this Ghostbusters in a parallel universe that had people howling in their seats like Bridesmaids, The Heat, or Spy, and I really wonder what might have been.

Then there's the problem of the whole narrative surrounding the movie which characterized it as a "failure" even before it started filming. The reason for the reboot seemed to some extent was the failure to make a true Ghostbusters 3 for the past twenty-five years. The trailer was heavily disliked, and internet trolls shaped the conversation around the movie. Even its opening - a robust $46 million, a best for both Feig and McCarthy - was portrayed as a failure because it was not higher.

By mid-August - a month after its release - the narrative was unfairly but fully established, and the new Ghostbusters had its fate sealed as an amusing sidenote in the world of pop culture in 2016. It is unfair, I will admit, to completely dismiss the movie, as it is perfectly serviceable as a reboot and enjoyable both on its own and as an homage and part of the franchise, but such is the world in which we now live: if something doesn't hit big and fast, it's gone and the next thing will take its place. Pop culture is far more ephemeral now than it was in the 1980s or even the 1990s, and unlike the titular spooks and spectres, it does not seem like Ghostbusters will have much of an afterlife.


I find myself ambivalent about the present and future of Ghostbusters. While I would have enjoyed seeing the further adventures of the new crew, I'm not entirely that disappointed that it seems like the Ghostbusters IP might have run its course - at least at the cineplex. I would not be surprised to see an animated version of the new Ghostbusters popping up; in fact, I wonder if, in fact, television might be an interesting home for the entire Ghostbusters universe. That said, I think it's okay that the reboot did what it did and that it will not go any further. I'm not opposed to letting ideas rest once they have had their season - although most Hollywood studios seem to be constantly mining their past successes for future possibilities.

The final question, then, is why Ghostbusters even matters, other than serving as the latest attempt to revive nostalgic feelings from millennials. I think that there is something about the realm of the supernatural that is fascinating to many people, and the ideas surrounding Ghostbusters about exploring those ideas from a scientific perspective represent an ideal seen in other franchises like The X-Files or the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Ghostbusters taps into some interesting places that few mainstream non-horror Hollywood productions have gone, particularly in ways that are palatable or acknowledged as somewhat acceptable for younger viewers, and it provides a (mostly) safe space in which viewers can consider those possibilities. Or maybe it's just that bustin' makes people feel good - it's hard to know.

The science of Ghostbusters was what really drew me in as a kid, the comedy kept my interest over the years, and now it's the nostalgia that drew me back into its world. That said, I don't know that I have much of a need for Ghostbusters in my future; sure, it's fun, but it's mostly an inessential kind of fun to which I may or may not return in the future, and it's not necessarily harmless, particularly within a Christian worldview.

There's not really enough other than the nostalgic enjoyment of the movies to justify returning to them, and although I'm glad I watched them over the weekend - even just for the sake of writing this post - I just don't see Ghostbusters being a huge part of my future. There is, of course, one exception that I would make to return to the world of Ghostbusters (other than, as aforementioned, the possibility of playing through Ghostbusters: The Video Game at some point): whenever there is finally a release of a Lego video game version of Ghostbusters in which players could experience the events of all three movies. That would be a big Twinkie.

Monday, September 19, 2016

TV (The blog)

I have been thinking a lot about TV lately, what with the Emmy Awards happening last night and the completely uninspiring slate of new shows starting to premiere on networks over the next few weeks. But there's another reason I have been thinking about TV; I recently read through well-known TV critic Alan Sepinwall's The Revolution Was Televised, a chronicle of the growth of the "Golden Age of Television" that had its roots in the late 1990s.

Sepinwall, who writes for HitFix, along with his friend and fellow well-known critic Matt Zoller Seitz of Vulture, recently released a book - appropriately entitled TV (the Book) - in which they outlined the best American TV shows of all time. I have not yet read the book, although they have released excerpts about their restrictions - only (mostly) complete, American, narrative television shows were eligible, and duration mattered - their methodology, and their results on various sites.

The critics evaluated shows based on six criteria - Innovation, Influence, Consistency, Performance, Storytelling, and Peak - giving twenty points in each category. They included a hundred shows in their final list, and they have let it slip that the top five - which, as you can find in this article (spoiler alert!), included two comedies and three dramas that are commonly regarded among the best in their craft - all ended up with a tie score. I can understand why they broke the tie how they did (spoiler alert II!), and I am very much looking forward to reading the book. But in the meantime, their work has inspired me to write a post of my own summarizing my own journey with TV.

My Critical Viewing History

My reflections on my journey in the world of prestige television have made it very clear that I really don't have the pedigree to be a TV critic. While I am choosy and critical about what I watch and I have a well-developed sense of what I enjoy and what makes good television, there are a few strikes against me being a true critic of the medium.

For one thing, I'm too young to be a true critic. I did not become a teenager - the point at which I would regard it to be possible to begin to appreciate the nuance and depth of prestige television - until the mid-1990s, so I missed a lot of the early years of prestige television: Hill Street BluesSt. ElsewhereL.A. LawTwin Peaks, and the early years of NYPD Blue. The first time I really remember watching "prestige" television was ER; the first episode I remember watching was "Hell and High Water", in which Doug Ross (George Clooney) tries to save a kid stuck in a flooded culvert. I was captivated, and I watched ER for a number of years afterward as a result.

In fact, I have really only been intentionally attentive to television as a medium for a decade. For the first few years of my TV life (at least, more than Saturday morning cartoons), I was in high school and I did not prioritize watching television outside of The Simpsons and Seinfeld and the rest of NBC's Thursday night "Must-see TV" lineup. I half-watched a number of prestige shows in those years - ERLaw and Order, The Practice, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (mostly because I had a big crush on Miss Sarah Michelle Gellar) - but I was not committed to TV as a medium whatsoever.

I similarly did not give time or attention to television in my first few years of university in part because I had a vibrant social group and in part because I took time away from all media for a few years. Although I watched a few shows here and there over the years between 2003 and 2006 - mostly Survivor and The Joe Schmo Show - it actually was not until the fall of 2006 that I really got back into television. That fall featured one of the best network premiere line-ups I can remember, as 30 Rock, Friday Night Lights, Heroes, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip all debuted on NBC, and I was really hooked. Dexter also premiered that fall - although I did not discover it until the following spring - and by the time I added Chuck to my regular viewing in fall 2007, I had a fairly regular rotation of shows that I followed.

In the decade since, I have continually had shows that I have followed and I have been much more active in following television. I have posted regular updates of shows I have watched over the course of my twelve years of blogging, and many of those updates contain what are now amusing references to shows I at one time was interested in watching (most of which never made it to my queue). It is also interesting that the past decade also marks my time as a teacher (as opposed to a university student) as well as as a husband, so many of my viewing choices and patterns have been shaped by those realities, whether that is limitation of time because of work or limitation of choice because of my wife's interests.

In this process of reflection, I discovered that I do not actually watch all that much television. Sure, I watch about ten different series in a year, but it only works out to a few hours in a week at most - and that includes comedies, variety, reality, and dramatic programming. I was actually quite surprised by just how few dramatic TV shows I have actually watched through to completion, and a little dismayed as I went through my blog archives that many of the shows that are on my "to watch" list have been listed there for at least five years (if not longer).

My Methodology

I already revised my list of favourite sitcoms in recent memory, so I'm taking a bit of a different angle to this blog than Seitz and Sepinwall did in their discussion. Mostly, I'm collating information that I have shared in my years in review and media updates into one master post. I briefly considered separating this list into three categories - "intense" dramas, more "realistic" fare, and science fiction - but then I realized that those differentiations were fairly arbitrary and the process caused more problems than it was worth, so I have grouped all dramas together here.

I decided to use similar guidelines to Sepinwall and Seitz, choosing to focus on completed narrative television (for the most part). I did not necessarily limit myself to American television, but I also did not choose to wade too far into international waters. Most of my viewing comes from the past ten years, though a few examples extend back twenty (or slightly more) years. My goal is primarily to be descriptive, not prescriptive, and to rank the shows that I have watched in their entirety at this point. I have included several lists that are intended to illuminate or comment on some of the gaps in my television watching history.

Whereas the two real critics had a long process in which they ranked series based on those six criteria, my process has been far less intensive. My goal was to rank the shows I have watched to completion in terms of my preference in watching them again. My final rankings were a bit problematic as a result - particularly my top two - but I'm mostly happy with where the shows landed.

Shows not included

There are many notable shows that did not make my final list for various reasons. Some were mini-series that I found it difficult to quantify in the same way because of the intentionally limited nature of the story that they were telling. Even though there might not be much separating these series - including Band of BrothersGeneration Kill (yet to watch); The Night OfThe Pacific (yet to watch); and Show Me A Hero - from some of the inclusions on the list, particularly the prematurely cancelled series, I decided not to include them because they were not intended to last longer than they did. I was not sure where to include True Detective, so I'll just add it here as an addendum to this list; besides, I only watched the first season.

There are some shows that are missing because I have no interest in watching them. There are a variety of reasons that any of these shows are on this particular list, ranging from timing of when they originally aired, the time commitment required to watch them, a lack of interest in either the content, actors, or created world, or in some cases some of the moral issues raised. Here are ten shows - any of which might otherwise factor into this conversation - that I have not watched and which I am not likely to watch: 24; Deadwood; Game of Thrones; The Good Wife; House; Lost; Orange is the New Black; Six Feet Under; Sons of Anarchy; and The Sopranos.

Another group of shows that I did not include are those that I have not yet watched. Many of these shows have been on my "to watch" list for five years (or more), and they vary greatly in my desire to watch them and my shame in not having done so. Some are short series of limited significance; the best example being The Cape, a short-lived NBC superhero series whose main claim to fame and appeal to me is that Abed's infatuation with it in an episode of Community led to the original "six seasons and a movie" hashtag for that show).

Some are shows that rank lower enough on my "to watch" list that I will not likely take the opportunity to do so (like Treme), whereas others are short enough that I just have to prioritize them in my queue (like The Hour). Then there are a few long-form science fiction shows, like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Fringe, that have been on my radar but never with enough vigor to really push their way up in the queue (although we did start watching DS9 this summer thanks to Netflix).

Then there are the Final Five, the five shows that have been on my "to watch" list for at least five years. These are the shows that I am embarrassed to not have watched by this point. I've started all of them, but stopped (often after watching the pilot) despite my interest, usually because I got distracted or consumed by other television. These five, in ascending order to highest priority, are: Mad Men; Battlestar Galactica; Friday Night Lights; The West Wing; and The Wire.

Unfinished Shows

The final group of shows that are not on my list are series that I started watching, but that I did not finish. Some were through choice, some by attrition, and some by some combination of the two, but these are shows that I started but that remain - and mostly which shall stay - incomplete, along with the amount of the show that I actually watched and a short commentary on my reasoning therein.

Boardwalk Empire (almost halfway through Season 1) - I bailed early on this HBO gangster period drama, as there just was not enough there to keep me interested; I also had a glut of "non-wife" shows going on at the time, so it did not make sense to add another. I heard it really got interesting in Seasons 3 and 4, but it just didn't seem worth it to go back to it at that point.

Friday Night Lights (Seasons 1 and 2) - The only show on this list that I want to pick up again, I stopped watching FNL after the second season was abbreviated by the writer's strike and I never picked it up again mainly because I wanted to watch it with my wife, which meant starting over from the beginning. I'm still holding out hope that we might go back to Texas sometime.

Glee (Seasons 1 and 2) - It seems like such a long time ago that I was taken up by the first season of Glee in the course of a weekend. I dropped it partway through Season 2, returned to finish it a few months later, and then never picked it up again and never looked back. It seems odd to me now that this show ever would have been a thing for me, but such was the zeitgeist in 2010, I suppose.

Heroes (Season 1 to late Season 3) - Heroes was my first real TV breakup, so in some ways it was the hardest to leave behind. Even though it was clear that the show had been a mess for two years, I stuck with it until almost the end of the third season. I learned a valuable lesson about relationships with TV shows through my experience with Heroes: it's good to break up with a show early on and to not prolong the separation.

Homeland (Seasons 1 and 2, and 5 episodes of Season 3) - I, like many viewers, was immediately enraptured with the first season of Homeland when it debuted. I was less enthused about the second season, although it still had enough of the DNA of the first season that I was willing to endure some of the largesse of the plot. I tried to keep watching through Season 3, but I eventually fell behind and just never bothered to catch up. Although I heard it had a renaissance in Season 4, I just never returned to it.

House of Cards (Season 1) - I watched the first season of the pulpily delicious Netflix political drama in the course of a week in which I was deliriously sick and at home from work. I had always intended to return to it, but I'm not disappointed that I did not follow it up. It feels like how I never watched the second or third Matrix movies - that the original is better off for not continuing to pursue the story.

Luther (Season 1) - I watched the first season of this intense British detective drama mainly because of star Idris Elba. I started watching season 2 and then never returned to it. I might yet go back to it someday.

The List

After all of those exceptions and exemptions, I ended up with only eleven narrative dramas that I have watched through to completion - a surprisingly low number, and, as I said earlier, one that automatically disqualifies me from ever becoming a "real" TV critic. But I guess I have to start somewhere, so this is my list as it stands. Keep in mind that this is not a list of the "best" TV shows, but rather a list of my favourites, with some consideration of artistry as part of the final ranking.

NR. Dexter - My only true television regret and the one show that I would unequivocally not recommend among the shows I have watched. Despite my wife's admonitions to stop watching the show for many years and my own misgivings about the morality of the show, I kept watching Dexter until its bitter end, which is really only worth watching for how bad it really is. I cannot even recommend that anyone start the series, even if they intend to not watch it all the way through.

10. The Newsroom - Sorkin's critique of cable news started off great in Season 1, faded in Season 2, but then came back in a shortened third season. It has its moments and some great characters, but it mostly feels like a missed opportunity.

9. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - I still have fond memories of Studio 60, despite its status as a punchline in most television critic circles. Sure, it was self-indulgent and silly and maudlin and melodramatic, but I will always have a soft spot for Matt and Danny and the rest of the gang.

8. Doctor Who - I almost divided this into two separate entries - the Russell T. Davies years and the Steven Moffat years - but I decided to include the entire modern run of Doctor Who as one series, and I included it here even though it is not yet complete. The rebooted series has undeniably improved with each Doctor, and I am really excited to see the new series in the new year.

7. The Shield - To date, The Shield is the only Golden Age show I have watched after it was finished (as opposed to watching it while it was airing). I would argue that it is in the conversation of the best police shows of all time, and its use of "real-life" camera as well as the way in which it advanced the anti-hero make it one of the indispensable entries in the development of TV in the new cable age. Still, somehow, it is still underrated, and it's one of those shows that often gets ignored, on the tier below the big three "best shows" (The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad). But The Shield has as much entitlement to that conversation as those three shows do; it has a truly Shakespearean structure with five acts, and Season 5 (with Forest Whitaker as IA officer Jon Kavanaugh) remains among the best seasons of TV ever produced.

6. Justified - Justified is the only "Peak TV" era show on my list (ie. post-2010), and one of the few "intense" dramas on the list. Its combination of western, action, detective, and comedy is pitch perfect throughout its six seasons, and I can easily see myself going back to Harlan County, even if just for brief visits in particular episodes.

5. Chuck - Sure, this spy send-up was campy at times, but it was also incredibly entertaining and heartfelt right until its conclusion. I don't know that I have ever had as much fun watching a TV show as I did with Chuck. It was brilliantly meta- in so many ways, both about its genre, but also about American corporate culture and nerd culture, and it remains one of those shows that was made more special by its constant status on the TV endangered list; the fact that we fans got five seasons remains one of TV's modern miracles.

4. Freaks and Geeks - In some ways, this show is better for having not lasted longer than the one season it was given. It remains a perfect time capsule not only of the time it demonstrates (1980-81) but also of the time in which it aired (1999-2000). It is one of - if not the - best high school show ever aired, and despite its short run, it remains emotionally resonant and pop culturally poignant, up to and including (I'm sure) serving as inspiration for Stranger Things, my favourite show of this year so far.

3. Firefly - If this science fiction show had aired even three years later, I have no doubt that it would have lasted five or six seasons, rather than the fifteen episodes that were produced. The fact that the Verse is still alive and well in nerd culture speaks to how great of a show Firefly actually was (and still is).

2. Star Trek: The Next Generation - You knew it would be somewhere on this list, and it almost ranked "Number One". In fact, I would venture that TNG would be most likely from any show on this list to be my "desert island" series, but I still could not rank it at the top despite my personal history with the show. The first couple of seasons are a little wonky, and even later seasons have a few faltering moments, but it's mostly because of the other show that this lands here.

1. Breaking Bad - The king. Would I actually choose Breaking Bad over TNG if I had to choose? Probably not. But I don't think I could actually rank anything over Breaking Bad, which still remains my measure for any "intense" stories I might choose to pursue in the future and the measure of the success of the medium in general. I honestly do not know that anything will ever top - or even equal - Breaking Bad in terms of narrative and pop culture success - and no, Thrones is not near that mark - and I think that Bad will still be part of our literary fabric in fifty years.


Television is a fascinating medium in so many respects. It demands a level of commitment in time that other media do not necessitate as part of their nature. There is a familiarity and a comfort that develop with its characters that does not happen with movies. And there is an emotional bond that grows that is not really present in any other medium.

For each one of the shows I listed as having watched - including those I watched in part - I have many distinct memories not only of moments from within the world of the show, but also from how my own life intersected with the show. I remember where I watched "Ozymandias", the best episode of Breaking Bad, or conversations about when and why Heroes and Dexter went wrong, or discovering Firefly for the first time.

There is something intimate about television that transcends its limitations, so in that respect, I am glad that I have been as choosy as I have been about the TV I have watched; if anything, I wish I had been choosier. Movies, in particular, are easy to forget, but TV stays with you if you keep watching. Watching television is really like reading books; after all, there will always be more books to read than there is time to read them, and it is easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of classic and contemporary literature that I have not read - or TV shows I have not yet watched.

But although it can feel overwhelming to always be thinking about the gaps that exist in my personal experience of either the literary or television canons, it is important not to be paralyzed by their presence. I acknowledge those shortcomings and I do my best to work around them or through them in both my reading and viewing patterns. I cannot watch more than one show or read more than one book at any given time, so when I finish one, I just have to ask "what's next?" and proceed that way.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) all of these thoughts about my history with the medium of television, for the most part, I am happy with my viewing habits. I do not spend an inordinate amount of time, energy, or money on television, and although it is indispensably part of my media fabric, it is not so intractably so that I cannot go without TV for periods of time.

I'm surprisingly okay with having only a few shows on the go at any given time, and that I choose not to consume a vast majority of the content being produced. Sure, I am embarrassed at times from not having seen those five shows, but all it will take is the right spark and I will start to correct those oversights.

I do wonder how much my list will change from what it is. Each of those top ten have a definitive place in my personal canon, and in some respects, it is difficult to see that list expanding by too much over the next decade. I might add a show or two a year to my "following" list, and if my experience over the past decade is any indication, I will drop several of those shows well before their completion.

I think the best possibility for additions or shifts in my personal list will come from those five shows that have been on my list for years, although there are a surprising number of current shows that could (and/or will) end up in their ranks by the time they finish. There are shows that I am currently watching - Better Call Saul, Broadchurch, Fargo, Sherlock, and Stranger Things - that, if they continue their current trajectories, will easily rank among my personal favourites. Furthermore, there are currently airing shows that have been on my radar to watch (for years, in a couple of cases) - The Americans, Mr. Robot, Orphan Black - that might someday make my list.

Although I lamented not having been born earlier in regard to my inability to become a true TV critic, I would argue that it has never been a better time to be a TV fan. Not only is there more TV being produced than there ever has been, there is more access to more quality TV from the past than ever. Streaming has revolutionized television, and it is truly exciting to be in the midst of the "Peak TV" age.

I think there is a distinct possibility that, much as the early 1980s and mid-1990s marked significant shifts in the history of television, these mid-teens might mark a similarly significant shift in the medium, and it is truly exciting and invigorating to see where it might go. And it will be interesting to return to this list in future years just to see how much it changes for me as I continue to watch and learn. Now let us all bask in television's warm glowing warming glow.


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