Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Great SF IP Race of the 2010s

"Peak TV" - our current age of hyperproduction of television shows - has continued to grow exponentially, with nearly 500 scripted series airing in 2017 and even more coming next year. It could be argued that this wave of IP hunting started in in the mid-2000s, when shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who revived properties from obscurity with an eerily prescient relevance, but it did not really seem to gain momentum until the end of the decade.

Then, near the end of the so-called "Golden Age of TV", AMC was looking for shows to eventually replace Breaking Bad and Mad Men, and HBO was looking for dramatic hits of their own. In 2010, AMC released The Walking Dead, HBO dropped Game of Thrones, and the next decade of television would come to be defined by those two shows and the style of tentpole IP television-making that they represent (and would inspire).

Now, Dead and Thrones are arguably the two biggest shows on television, and most of the early years of Peak TV has been defined by a preponderance of spinoffs, revivals, and reboots. HBO seems to have its next IP titleholders primed with Westworld - along with the five (!) spinoffs of Game of Thrones that are currently in development - but they're not alone in the race by a longshot. In fact, there is an argument to be made that IP defines television - and pop culture in general - in a way that is more overwhelming than it ever has been.

On the one hand, there's nothing really new here; after all, the 1970s were the original king of sitcom spin-offs, and using previous IP to kickstart a new property has been part of the blueprint of television since its inception. But with the sheer volume of content being produced and the number of new networks trying to establish themselves as players in the game - even Apple has gotten into the fray! - it feels like there is more focus on IP than there ever has been, and that producers are reaching further and further into the depths to find viable IP.

None of this is a surprise, but there are surprises in the kinds of IP that are being converted into television shows. There was no doubt that there would be another Star Trek at some point - and long time fans like me are glad that it truly is seeming to revive the brand (so far) - but there are many examples of IP that viewers did not expect to see rebooted, revived or brought to life in this particular medium: The Man in the High Castle; The Tick; Legion; Fargo; Daredevil (et al.); Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency; The Handmaid's Tale; even Twin Peaks!

And that does not even account for all of the shows based on existing IP that are currently in production, a list that includes, among many others: Blue Crush; Bonfire of the Vanities; Brave New World; The Departed; Four Weddings and a Funeral; Galaxy Quest; Heathers; The Honeymooners; L.A. Confidential; Miami ViceRingworld; Single White FemaleStarsky and Hutch; Stranger in a Strange Land; Watchmen; Witchblade; and even A.J. Jacobs' book The Year of Living Biblically

But despite its already well-established heights, it seems as though the IP race reached another new level this week, as Amazon finally got their Game of Thrones (as Jeff Bezos is long said to have coveted): the rights to make television series based on the world of The Lord of the Rings, an arrangement which is not necessarily guaranteed to include The Silmarillion, as far as I understand. Amazon paid a reported $250 million just for the rights - not including the production costs - but there is little doubt that their investment will pay off when the show airs in a few years.

Now that Tolkien will be television, it seems as though all bets for inaccessible IP are truly off. Maybe Twin Peaks was actually the point at which that happened - honestly, who ever thought that any network would give David Lynch the freedom to do his thing on television ever again? - but now it's certain that truly any existing IP can become a television show.

So, with this brave new world of Peak TV in mind, here are some of the pieces of IP that I think might make interesting shows, along with a quick pitch as to why I think so and what it might look like as a series, including my ideal network for the show. My list ended up skewing heavily toward science fiction properties - perhaps because I have been enjoying several SF shows lately, or maybe because that's where I started and I just got on a roll, so I went with it.

Choose Your Own Adventure - I never would have thought it possible to turn the much-beloved CYOA books of my childhood into a functional reality as a series other than a basic branding, but imagine the possibilities here. A streaming service like Hulu buys the rights and creates a half-hour premiere based on one of the classic stories, only to end the episode with a question that presents viewers with an option. They tweet (or otherwise publicly respond) with their answer, and they produce the next episode based on viewer feedback, and it airs when it's ready. It would be possible to script some of the direction of the show ahead of time, but there would be a fascinating responsiveness in what might not work but would at least provide a fascinating experiment in serialized television.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham - I am somewhat surprised that this post-apocalyptic tale of genetic mutation, religious zealotry, and self-discovery has not yet been made into a TV show, as it seems like its mix of science fiction, teenage angst, and a big ol' mystery box would be the perfect launching point for a series. Combine that with six or so decades of being taught in English classes, and it's not hard to see this novel being turned into a series at some point in the near future on a network like FX (Noah Hawley can handle another show, right?), especially if the religious and political climate continues to seem to warrant indirect commentary.

Crystalis - Video games have rarely (or ever?) made the transition to other media successfully, but there always has to be a first. There were rumours and reports that Netflix was producing an adaptation of The Legend of Zelda series as far back as 2014, but I think it might be more effective to start with a lesser-known IP (although there are some fascinating possibilities with a Zelda series and how it might affect the series' canon). There are any number of obscure action-adventure games from the 8-bit or 16-bit era that could be used as the creative inspiration for a fantasy/sci-fi series - RygarFaxanaduIllusion of GaiaSecret of ManaThe Guardian LegendShining ForceBeyond OasisLandstalker - but I think that Crystalis might be the most interesting. A man wakes up from cryogenic sleep a century after a cataclysmic event to find that the world has reverted to medieval-style magic; he has to defeat monsters in the four corners of the world and find four swords to kill them. This has to be a Netflix show, right?

The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov - Asimov's galaxy-traversing eon-spanning tale of psychohistory was once awarded the best science fiction series Hugo Award over The Lord of the Rings, which is still hard to believe, but it stands the test of time, and it would work well as a limited series-style of show in which each season focusses on a different era of The Foundation with enough connective tissue between seasons to make it interesting. Let's give this one to Apple, so they can spend all of the money making it look the way it needs to look; for that matter, maybe Apple can develop a whole Asimov-verse, including the Robots series or other various off-shoots thereof.

Futurama - It did not make sense to add it to the list, but I could not leave it out entirely, since it still seems ridiculous that no one is bankrolling more episodes of this show. The cast and crew have said they are still ready and willing to make more Futurama, which their recent forays into podcasting and mobile games have proved, so why is no one paying for them to do so? Perhaps SYFY, who recently acquired the rights to the existing 140 episodes, will do so if the reruns achieve good viewership, but it's still very odd to me that in this world of Peak TV that this show has not already been revived...again.

Isaac Asimov's Robots in Time by William F. Wu - There were six books in this mini-series based on the Three Laws of Robotics in which a robot who knew he was going to be destroyed split himself into six parts and sent each part back into a different era of history to hide. There's a great hook here - time-travelling agents hunting robots - and the variety of historical settings (the age of dinosaurs, Ancient Rome, pirates in Jamaica, 13th century China, the Soviet Union in WWII, and Arthurian Britain) would give each season a distinct flavour and interest. This sounds like a SYFY show that might end up kind of a guilty pleasure.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury - Another classic SF novel that seems like it would be primed for development into a limited series - perhaps even a BBC-style series in which each episode runs 90 minutes but still presents a serialized storyline. Let's give this one to FX, the undisputed king of limited series right now.

Race for the Galaxy by Tom Lehmann or Star Realms by Rob Dougherty and Darwin Kastle - Race for the Galaxy and Star Realms are two of my favourite board games, and it would be fascinating to see a board game become a narrative series (after all, Catan was just optioned as a movie). These two games have very well-developed universes - Race is based in part on David Brin's Uplift saga, and Star Realms has already had a novel published - which makes them great candidates for conversion to TV, although there are many other games that might be successful in such an endeavour. I have absolutely no idea who would develop such a property, but AMC has an unusually high success rate on weird concepts, so maybe they should give it a try.

The Rama series by Arthur C. Clarke - I only read the first book of the series - the award-winning Rendezvous with Rama, about an expedition to an enormous and alien probe - but I think this could make for a really interesting series, especially with the right visuals. I think this series might need a bit more space to breathe, so let's assign it to someone who does not have a lot to prove and little to lose - CBS All-Access, maybe.

Total Recall - Sure, there was a recent failed theatrical reboot of the 1990 Schwarzenegger hit - neither of which I have seen, by the way - but does it not seem as though that universe could use a gritty examination over the course of a television series? Maybe this would be a fit for The CW, but I don't know if I would watch it if it were on that network; I might have to rethink this one.

So, there you have ten suggestions off the top of my head (more or less) as to possible pieces of science fiction IP that could be mined for television development in the future. Sometimes, it's kind of fun to let a random thought experiment run away for a while and see where it goes, and who knows? I might be a showrunner in a few years when there are another three hundred shows on the air - or at least I could claim credit for one of these ideas if they ever became reality.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Review: Stranger Things 2

For a week in the summer of 2016, in the dog days after the real-life terror of the Republican National Convention, I, like most of North America, was caught up in the world of Stranger Things. I eagerly anticipated the show's second season, which had a pitch-perfect ad campaign before its premiere two weeks ago. I have had a week to allow Stranger Things 2 to settle after watching the finale, which was partly in an attempt to not have too many immediate hot takes on the show, but also because I just have not had the time to compose my thoughts in a post before now.

I know there have already been a thousand articles and memes and reviews that have been posted in the two weeks since the season's release - many of which I have considered in my evaluation of the season - but I do still feel the need to express my own thoughts on the season, partially for posterity and partially because I do not remember coming across all of the thoughts that I have had over the past two weeks.

I watched the season in three sittings, with three episodes in each sitting. I actually think that Netflix might have done better to release it sequentially in this manner, or perhaps in four segments with two episodes in each (which I know adds up to eight, rather than the nine episodes in the season, but I will return to that point later). I will be discussing the season as a whole, so be ye warned about spoilers.

Overall impression


I really enjoyed this season, sometimes (often?) in spite of itself, and I felt that this was a better sophomore season than I had expected, considering the meteoric heights of the first season, the short turnaround time for this season, and the drop-off that shows with a similarly audacious premise and presence in the zeitgeist have experienced (*cough*Heroes*cough*).

Although the second season does not reach the heights of the first season, it (mostly) captures what made the first season great, which is on one level following the lives of this group of kids and a few people in a random American small town, all the while avoiding the evil burbling beneath the surface. On a deeper level, the totality of Stranger Things is about nostalgia and innocence and adolescence and imagination and learning that the world is not what it is supposed to be, and I felt that Season 2 did capture much of that same feeling as the first, which is why it succeeded as a whole.

I thought that the show did a remarkable job of managing the development of its existing characters -  with a couple of exceptions - as well as integrating the new ones, and that the show's character development is still largely its strength. But despite what I would consider to be the overall success of the season, there were a few missteps along the way (as well as one significant one that I will discuss indepth).

So I thought that the best way to proceed would be to present and analyze what I saw as the strengths and weaknesses of Stranger Things 2, before concluding with some of my thoughts as to how the show could (and perhaps should) proceed for Seasons 3 and 4 and about the season and series as a whole to this point.

Strengths of Season 2


One of the greatest strengths of the show is its tone, as the overall flow and feel of the season (with that aforementioned exception) continues to focus on the kids, Hawkins, and the mysterious goings on at the lab. The homages to other properties, whether explicit (Ghostbusters), implicit (ET, Jurassic ParkRed Dawn), or even just implied (Aliens, The Goonies, The Terminator), continue to enrich the series without overtaking it, and they make it a richer text, especially through the casting of the two famous actors who almost deliberately evoke their previous roles in their performances: Sean Astin as Bob and Paul Reiser as Dr. Owens.

The show's greatest strength, though, is its characters, and many of them continue to shine in Season 2. Hopper is as strong - if not better - than Season 1, and among the kids, Dustin and Lucas really step it up this season. The pairing of Steve and Dustin for much of the second half of the season is surprisingly effective as a narrative device and hilarious, as their scenes provide some of the best moments of the season.

Most of the other new characters are integrated effectively as well: conspiracy nut and private investigator Murray; manic pixie dream redhead Max; and Will, who is effectively a new character after a very abbreviated stint at the beginning and end of Season 1 and who is one of the MVPs of the season.

Overall, Season 2 gave more of the same Stranger Things that made Season 1 one of the best shows of last year. The season (mostly) stays in Hawkins and builds on the world established so well in Season 1, and it seamlessly captures the same nostalgic feel as its predecessor, as well as toeing the line between horror and kitsch and comedy and science fiction and genuine pathos and emotion in a way that few shows or movies have successfully accomplished. If the first season is mostly Spielberg, I think the best way to summarize this season is John Carpenter meets John Hughes, and it was a ton of fun to watch.

Weaknesses of Season 2


There are a few weaknesses, as well, most of which seem to be connected either to the relatively short amount of time between seasons for a project of this magnitude as well as Netflix's seeming reluctance to impose any kind of restrictions upon its creators. They are relatively minor quibbles that I would argue are overwhelmed by the overall positives of the season (with that one exception), but I do still feel the need to record them here.

At times, this season continued the momentum of the first season a little too closely, as it started to feel a bit repetitive - although I would argue that it never quite crosses the line. Perhaps the most obvious example is how Joyce again transforms her house to figure out the puzzle, but the Duffers manage to make it feel slightly fresh - or at least interesting - with the inclusion of Bob (and Will) into the mix.

The pacing also suffers at times, with some story lines feeling rushed and others feeling like they were too extended. The first half of the season felt particularly slow in moments, but it did find its footing after a couple of episodes. It mostly felt like a couple of story lines needed another pass in the writer's room and they just did not have the time to get them to that final level; it's not that the pacing is bad, but mostly that it could have been better, particularly early on. For example, I really thought that they took too long to get to the core of the villain - the "Mind Flayer", another nod to Dungeons and Dragons - and that having a stronger villain revealed earlier would have been more effective for the overall arc of the season.

Although most of the characters were included well, there were a couple of misses on that front. Mike was unfortunately underfeatured in Season 2 (which perhaps makes sense after his starring turn in Season 1), and I missed ancillary characters like Mr. Clarke, who was one of the best parts of the first season. But the biggest miss was Max's older step-brother Billy, whose story was not worth the amount of time devoted to it despite the payoff of a great comic scene and a pivotal narrative scene in the finale; both felt like more of a way to justify Billy's inclusion, rather than being the natural conclusion of the character's arc, and he mostly felt unnecessary.

But one of the main problems I had with this season was, I think, one of the problems that the show has, which is also one of its greatest strengths: Eleven.


The Eleven Problem


Stranger Things has an Eleven Problem, and the problem is that Eleven is almost too good of a character for this show. She was perhaps the most significant reason for the success of Season 1, and I would argue that Eleven is really what makes this show transcend similar attempts at this kind of tone or plot.

It's actually not that often that a science fiction show is able to capture the zeitgeist as effectively and efficiently as Stranger Things did last summer; Lost was probably the best previous example, and before that, it was probably Heroes, which had a similarly rapturous start when it premiered, in no small part due to a charismatic character, Hiro. But Heroes soon realized what Stranger Things seemed to realize early on in this season: they had a character who was too popular and powerful not only for their own good, but also for the good of the plot, and they soon had to find ways to take Hiro out of the action in order to not have him just overshadow and overtake any challenges that came his way.

Now, Stranger Things is set up much more effectively than Heroes was, and Eleven is a much stronger character than Hiro, but the fact remains that the Duffers need to figure out how to deal with her moving forward. She is almost too strong for the circumstances, and they will need to find authentic ways not only to keep her engaged as a character but also to ensure that her powers do not overwhelm the possibilities of the narrative. They did, however, set out a blueprint - for better or worse - as to how her story might unfold with the one major mistake of the season: Episode 7, "The Lost Sister".

The Lost Sister


I am nowhere near the first to write about how the seventh episode of Season 2 did not work, and I probably don't need to spend a lot of time elucidating all of the ways it went wrong. I get that the Duffers were trying to do something different, and I think I see what they were trying to do, but, like the season's other weaknesses, I think it mostly just needed some more fine-tuning, a bit more time to develop, and a pass under Occam's Razor to keep the story lines as simple as possible.

I know the Duffers did a damage control interview in which they defended their decision to include this episode by saying that Eleven's story "completely fell apart" without it, but I don't buy that line of reasoning. It would have been easy enough to use her journey to visit her mother - which already separated her from the group and gave her a revelation about her own family history - as a catalyst for how she needed to change for the final scenes, given a small tweak or two (possibly the death of her mother as a result of the actions of the men).

But my issue is not with the content of the episode, as I think that it was really interesting to get out of Hawkins and to see Eleven growing and developing as a character. My issue is also not in the execution, even though I recognize that it seemed rushed and shoehorned into the rest of the season because it was. My issues are the timing within the narrative and the fact that the episode made Stranger Things feel more like a television show (I recognize that is an odd statement to make about a television show, but I think it will make sense with some explanation.)

It's very strange to me that this episode made it in this season at all, but especially at this point in the season, right after the most climactic reveal yet in the series, as it completely broke the flow of the narrative of the season. I did not notice it as much, since I took a break after the sixth episode, but even still, it felt disruptive and intrusive. This story would have been a great story arc for the start of the third season - especially if it were to be spread over a few episodes, rather than crammed into one - as there was very little from this episode that mattered to the narrative of Season 2.

My other issue with "The Lost Sister" was that it reminded me that I was watching a television show. Of course, I know on one level that Stranger Things is a show with episodes, but it really felt different than almost any other television show that preceded it. It seems as though, more than any one other show, that Stranger Things marked the shift to a new era of television as cinema thanks to the advent of streaming services. Not only did Season 1 not feel like television, but Season 2 was deliberately marketed as a sequel, like a movie.

The way that "The Lost Sister" completely changed the tenor, pace, and tone took me out of the immersion of the show, and even of my immersion in the style of the show that it had been until that point. I still think it would have been fine - arguably even necessary - to experiment with this kind of narrative departure early in Season 3 at a time when they could afford the kind of time away from a main narrative to introduce new characters in a new situation.

Considering Seasons 3 and 4


Stranger Things has, of course, already been confirmed for Seasons 3 and 4, and the Duffers have already indicated that these next two seasons will actually end the series (which I tend to think will be the correct decision). With that in mind, they have also already admitted that there are a few tropes that they need to avoid in Season 3, and I tend to agree that Stranger Things will need to become a different show in Seasons 3 and 4; given some of my previous comments about how the show did not feel like a television show, it is ironic that I think it is beneficial to look at the lessons from successful television shows to make some suggestions for the future of Stranger Things.

Television shows tend to run on story lines that last a season or two, and I think they have exhausted many of those ideas already. I think that the stories of Hawkins have run their course, so it's time to shift the show out of Hawkins. "The Lost Sister" already started doing that, and they might do well to continue to pursue the idea of exploring what is happening to Kali and to the other nine subjects of the experiment in Hawkins. I think that Hawkins will still be a part of the show, of course, but that it will be valuable to expand to the world beyond.

I tend to think, too, that there may be a need to up the stakes early in the season and to find a way to increase the urgency of the situation. One of the best ways to do that, typically, is to severely imperil or even to eliminate a popular character, and I think it would be effective to do so in this case, even if it seems like kind of an obvious choice as to how to ratchet up tension. The question of which character presents a lot more of a challenge, however, as most of the principal characters (the kids) are also largely the reason for the success of the series, and the deaths of few of the characters who are not the kids have the kind of emotional resonance that such a turn should have.

If I had to choose, I would suggest Jonathan as the target, as his unexpected death would cause effects in Will and Joyce as well as reconfiguring the Steve-Nancy dynamic that seems to have otherwise perhaps run its course. I think he's not a really interesting character - certainly less so than Steve - and there is also the fact that the actor who plays Jonathan recently got into trouble with the law over some ill-advised substances, making him somewhat more expendable in regard to a future on the show.

I think that the Duffers will also have to find more effective ways to divide the core group of four boys and two girls (including Eleven). I'm not sure what the answer is, but I think there needs to be a much more significant conflict that arises between them and that possibly has longer-term effects than simply bringing a new person into the group.

In order to facilitate such a conflict, it might be necessary to time jump a couple of years ahead, say to 1986 or 1987, in order to make the kids old enough to have such a conflict (perhaps due to a romantic relationship). Such a jump would place the action in a slightly different age - the era of home video games - and it might give the Duffers the breathing room to not have to worry about cranking out a season on a timeline that would be unfortunately similarly quick to that between the first two seasons.

But I think the main suggestion I have is for the Duffers to take the time to think about what the show is really about and to keep coming back to whatever they determine that to be. Their shorter run time has created a tautness in the narrative that I would argue has been crucial to the success of the show, and it seems to me that they cannot afford to deviate from the core of the show. I am assuming that the focus of the show will shift for Seasons 3 and 4 - and I think I have made a couple of compelling arguments that it needs to - but they need to keep it tight and not try to do too much, but rather to do what they do well - and they do do what they do well very well indeed.

Conclusion


From my list of issues and concerns with how the season unfolded, it might sound like I did not enjoy Season 2, but I in fact really enjoyed it - arguably as much as I enjoyed Season 1. My issues with the season, save for the inclusion of "The Lost Sister", are minor, and even that is a fairly forgivable decision in the grand scheme of Stranger Things. The overall feel of the show far outweighs its flaws, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time back in Hawkins.

I think there is still a temptation to make Stranger Things mean something - and perhaps it does actually tell us something about the world into which it was born and how it has changed even in time between the seasons - but I think that the best way to truly appreciate the show is for what it is: a nostalgically exhilarating and thrilling supernatural adventure seen through the eyes of innocent kids. I feel like spending more time thinking about what it all means within the world that the Duffers have built, or even what it means for the future of television, is kind

I feel similarly toward Stranger Things as I did to the novels Ready Player One and Armada by Ernest Cline: sometimes, it's just a lot of fun to get caught up in a world that is fun and nostalgic and unexpected and allow ourselves to get overwhelmed by it and to not think too much about where it went wrong (although the trailer for the Spielberg-directed movie of the former seems destined to dull some of my enthusiasm for its source material).

Stranger Things is a great story with great characters in a world that I have enjoyed spending around fifteen hours in, and I look forward to revisiting its world not only as it is, but also as it will come to be with the next two seasons of the show. And, at the end of the day, it's not the end of the world; it's just a television show.

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