February 1, 2015

Top Ten TV Shows of 2014

As usual, plenty of stuff I didn’t catch up on in 2014 (I’m only just now getting into Orange Is the New Black). But from what I did see, here’s what stood out…

10. Teen Wolf

Yes. Teen Wolf. That movie with Michael J. Fox. Turned into an amazing TV show by Jeff Davis. Yes. Amazing. Well, by Season Three anyway. Season Four, which aired in 2014, wasn’t quite as amazing, but still delivered the goods, including an outstanding cast (especially Maze Runner breakout star Dylan O’Brien), clever writing, and moody direction by Duran Duran music video vet Russell Mulcahy (whom I celebrate here, he really did some wacky/astounding shit back in the day).

9. Sherlock

While not as solid as Season Two – due to a very problematic season opener – the most recent season of Sherlock provided much of the same great writing and performances and, to boot, a worthy successor to Moriarty in Lars Mikkelsen’s deliciously evil Charles Augustus Magnussen.

8. Silicon Valley

In what could have easily been a one-note nerdfest or, worse yet, a completely inaccessible inside baseball wormhole, Silicon Valley instead remembered to deliver jokes. Jokes that were funny because they were funny, not because you did or didn’t know one thing or another about the startup universe. That having been said, it was eerily accurate in its portrayal of the characters and rituals that populate that world, and skewered them appropriately. Mike Judge has still got it.

7. Boardwalk Empire

Sometimes, not often, but sometimes a show knows exactly when and how to end. With a season-long arc that flashed back to our anti-hero’s origins in Atlantic City (with an uncannily Buscemi-esque turn by Marc Pickering) Empire managed to take us out by showing us things we already knew in a way that made them fresh and relevant, while still surprising us in the end. Also gave us one of the most succinct dissections of male privilege when one character says to her male business partner, “Imagine all of the things you want in life. Now imagine yourself in a dress.”

6. True Detective

Though it certainly drew on genre tropes from serial killer narratives and film noir, Detective still managed to create a unique tone, feel, and structure and introduce a singularly fascinating nihilist protagonist to tie it all onto. Not to mention directorial style to spare (witness the incredibly long, action packed tracking shot from “Who Goes There”).

5. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

It could have just been Neil DeGrasse Tyson standing there spouting science and it would’ve been interesting (trust me, I’ve seen him stand there and spout science). But they went and put on a show with an Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future) score and Bill Pope (The Matrix) cinematography and excellent animation and location shoots all to hammer home the value (and diversity) of science.

4. Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Brooklyn Nine-Nine suffered no sophomore slump as it launched into its second year. If anything it picked up momentum with established characters and relationships upon which to build and experiment and emerged as the most consistently funny show on television.

3. Makers

A long overdue exploration of the history of feminism and its struggles and gains in contemporary America. Smartly broken up into an overall look at the struggle and a vertical-specific, if you will, episodic look at women in the military, government, business, Hollywood, etc. Even the episode I was personally the least invested in actually ended up being one of the best. It’s all available on the Makers site which has plenty more to offer in addition to the series itself.

2. Game of Thrones

I should be sick now of dragons and swords and Grand-Guignol levels of douchebaggery, but I’m really not. Part of the reason is that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss keep finding interesting ways to use those tropes to comment on power, mortality, family, obligation, and more. Part of the reason is withering speeches (link is spoilery) like the one Peter Dinklage delivers in “The Laws of Gods and Men.” Part of the reason is just Peter Dinklage, period. Part of the reason is clever-ass foreshadowing that you don’t even realize is foreshadowing (link is even spoiler-ier). But it all comes together into one of the most entertaining, if occasionally harrowing, hours of television currently on-air.

1. Last Week Tonight

There was a lot of skepticism when John Oliver launched his weekly mock-news show on HBO. How could he possibly improve upon his alma mater? How could he stay current when he only aired once a week? Wasn’t this a step backwards?

I was actually psyched to see what would happen when a comedy news organization had a full week to digest what had happened the week before. And while Oliver delivered on that psyched-ness, he brought something to the table that I didn’t expect. Investigative journalism. He also baked in a prankster/activist element that made good use of the web, a rarity in television. What results is the must-watch (or must catch up Monday morning on YouTube – another platform of which they made excellent use) show of the season, if only to be smarter and to laugh, two things we desperately needed in 2014.

Honorable Mentions: Outlander, Fargo, Orphan Black, Agents of Shield, Doctor Who, Bob’s Burgers, The Walking Dead, Parks and Recreation

A Brief History of Real Video Game Movies

In the latest episode of Hotcha Zimzam, I look at the evolution of movies that represent the true video game narrative (I explain what that is in the video) over time.

Any movies that you think fit the bill?

The Master, Moriarty, and the Rise of the Brah Villain

Back in the day, villains like Moriarty or The Master looked like this:

Moriarty

The Master

These days, they look like this:

Moriarty

The Master

Is the replacement of the dignified British gentleman with the snarky, smart-ass young British brah a commentary on current young, white male society, or just a coincidence of appealing to a younger demo with the heroes of said franchises?

Old Sherlock

New Sherlock

Old Doctor

New Doctor

Although if we look at a show like Luther, especially in its second season, we see a lot of the young, white, privileged male as sociopath.

So are young, white males the new, hip villains (at least on the BBC)? The same way Russians were in the 80′s and serial killers in the 90′s? And if so, what does that have to say about our own insecurities?

What I’ll Miss Most About Almost Human

We’ll never get to see how the plot threads Almost Human was developing will come together, and that’s too bad because on top of great chemistry between the leads and what seemed to be an interesting mythology the series was revealing, what I think I’ll miss most of all is how it was revealing that mythology.

There’s a fair amount of traditional exposition throughout the show, world-building on the order of understanding the Blade Runner-esque relationship between humans and their robot servants. But the larger society was always hinted at more than explained (hell, we don’t even find out what city we’re in until the finale). And no better example of this arose than The Wall.

Somewhere toward the end of the show’s brief run, there’s mention of a wall. It’s not brought up in a briefing. No one asks, “Hey, what’s that?”, followed by a lengthy explanation. It is simply a given of this world. Context lets us know that the world on the other side of this wall is a place to be feared. But who or what is on the other side of that wall is not explained. Or why or when it was built. It just is. And it’s been there the whole time the show has been going. And the only reason we didn’t know about it until now that it hasn’t been relevant.

One of the shows final aired episodes involves an inventor seminal to the creation of the robots that drive the show, and it is [spoiler alert - does that even apply to a canceled show?] only at the end of this episode that we even see the wall. And even then we’re only left to guess at why the show’s heroes are shocked to learn that a particularly pernicious piece of code originated on the other side of the wall, or why they think it’s impossible that the criminal they’re chasing would even consider going to the other side of that wall, which is exactly how he evades them.

We’ll never find out where all that was going, but that it was going there without a clear sit down and explain the world session is rare. If it was happening that way because no one in the world of the show knew what the wall was or how it got there or what was on the other side, that would be one thing (essentially, that’s almost all of Lost). But that we were left to the task of discovery on our own, with no character to ask “Hey, what do you mean ‘The Wall’?” was refreshing, and displayed a certain level of faith in the audience, and assumed return of that faith that all would be answered organically, not by Basil Exposition.

I hope other shows take that risk. Of course, given that Almost Human got canceled, I don’t think that’s likely.

I Know I Shouldn’t Like This, But…

In the latest Talking Pictures podcast (subscribe), Kevin Smokler, special guest Justin Sondak, and myself discuss movies that defy our genre expectations. For example, I love me some action and plot, but some of my favorite movies are Lost in Translation, Once, and the Before trilogy, which lack those things in a big, bad way.

What movies do you like in spite of your genre preferences?

Let Us Now Praise Hyper-Specific Toys

Latest Hotcha Zimzam video covers my recent trip to Philadelphia Comic-Con and the extremely specific collectibles therein:

Here’s the other “The Homer” memorabilia in question.

Sherlock vs. Elementary: A Feminist Reading

This discussion gets pretty spoilery, so if you haven’t watched either Elementary or Sherlock, proceed with caution.

When Season Three of Sherlock (now available on Netflix streaming) first aired, Dr. Wife and I had a pretty big discussion on the portrayal of women on the show. While showrunner Steven Moffat has been taken to task before over his portrayals of women, I’d always found Sherlock, given the caveat that everyone on the show is defined in relation to the main character, male or female, to be fairly balanced. But upon further discussion, and comparison to its ugly stepsister in the states, it became a little more complicated.

Let’s take both shows’ approaches to its female characters. Although a relatively minor character in canon, Irene Adler is basically the go-to main female character for most adaptations cos, well, sausage-fest. She’s the Princess Leia of this universe. In Moffat’s interpretation, Adler is a brilliant criminal who, although a lesbian, is brought low by her attraction to a very male Sherlock. Her sense of agency is undercut by her obligations to both him and Moriarty, and the need to be rescued by Sherlock after being thwarted by him.

Rob Doherty‘s Adler has a history with Sherlock established long before we encounter him as an ex-pat living in New York. They had a relationship in which they were mutually attracted to each other’s genius before she was ruthlessly murdered by a serial killer whom Sherlock eventually learns was an assassin working for a mysterious new foe known as Moriarty. When Adler turns up alive and threatened once again by Moriarty he seeks to rescue her only to find…wait for it…[MAJOR MAJOR SPOILER NOW]…she is Moriarty. Adler was simply a persona she adopted to manipulate him.

In its second major gender shift in characterization (the first of which we’ll get to shortly) Elementary re-genders Sherlock’s perennial foe. This is a Moriarty with no less agency than any male interpretation and no less a match for our protagonist intellectually. While in subsequent episodes it becomes clear that Moriarty’s exposure to Sherlock (mostly through correspondence) is “reforming” her, it’s still a reformation that is very much on her own terms. Her decision to break out of jail is very much a decision. It becomes clear she could have broken out at any time. She chooses to be imprisoned. Her agency remains intact, even in jail. This is still an Adler somewhat defined in her relationship to Holmes, but with many more levels of complexity.

Sherlock‘s Mrs. Hudson is probably the most well defined and complex female character the show has to offer, although even she appears to be there to literally serve Sherlock. This is not to say she lacks a rich backstory, and it’s clear that she performs her actions out of a deep debt and devotion she has consciously chosen. So while it’s a stereotypical female role, it’s embodied by a very real person.

Elementary‘s Mrs. Hudson is still largely an offscreen presence.

Molly Hooper exists only in the Sherlock universe and has no real equivalent in the Elementary universe. While an accomplished scientist, much of her screen time is devoted to show how insensitive Sherlock is to her swooning, although she begins to slightly outgrow that role in Season Three.

Sherlock‘s Mary Morstan is also a character of considerable agency, embodying however, the Untrustworthy Woman. For what it’s worth, her deceptions are revealed to be at least in part committed out of a sincere devotion to John Watson. Although even here her most defining characteristics seem to be there to highlight John’s own addiction to danger. Still, she seems to be an equal partner in the emerging team that is herself, John, and Sherlock. We’ll see if/how this plays out in Season Four.

There is, as of yet, no Mary Morstan on Elementary for reasons that will become immediately apparent.

The key differentiator in terms of portrayals of women on Elementary is the fact that Watson has been recast as a woman. (Which is not to say that there could not still be a Mary Morstan, but so far her character has been defined as strictly heterosexual.) But the story of Elementary has been as much about her initial obligation and progressive liberation from Sherlock. She exists first as his sober companion (in this interpretation, his chemical addictions are something he’s recovering from), a position of considerable influence as opposed to his lapdog though she is, as with canon, his intellectual inferior.

Over time, though, she becomes his apprentice, sharpening her skills as a detective and choosing a new life path on her own, granted with considerable influence from her time with Holmes. This most recent season in particular, though, has seen her growth and her agency evolve, as major plot points have included a dalliance with Holmes’ brother Mycroft, against Sherlock’s wishes, and her own agency around choosing to move out explicitly because she needs to be her own person, apart from Holmes, while still assisting him with cases. It is, in fact, Holmes ultimate reaction to this that frames the season finale cliffhanger.

Watson’s growing, evolving sense of agency as a function of self-discovery makes her not only one of the most evolved female characters in the history of Holmes interpretations, but one of the most evolved female characters in modern pop culture.

None of this is to say that Sherlock is a poorly constructed show. Quite the opposite. From a writing perspective, it is actually the far superior show. To most shows on television, actually. Moffat is a master of dialogue and his version, on the whole, is vastly more entertaining. At the same time, his female characters are less nuanced and display less agency and complexity than Doherty’s. Doherty’s vision is serviceable as a show, basically on a level with any of a myriad of CBS procedurals, but attaining levels of feminist portrayal unmatched by Moffat.

So the bind is how to evaluate a show that is scoring on all of the things I usually look for in a show, at least technically and artistically. Which is not to say I don’t look for good representations of women, but I don’t usually consider that an evaluation of artistic merit so much as a social merit. But maybe I should start.

The Wharton Web Conference

I’ll be speaking at the Wharton Web Conference on July 15th. I’ll be giving a talk called Links as Language, which you may know from these parts.

Here’s how it looked in 2011.

I’ll be updating it a bit to encompass some new developments.

This is a big deal for me as it is my first truly professional gig as a speaker at a major conference. More than that, it’s a conference I’ve come to know and respect over the years. Former keynoters have included Steve Wozniak and Felicia Day (whom I actually got to meet!). And last year, Anil Dash gave one of my favorite talks of all time.

This year’s keynote comes from danah boyd. I first heard about her after missing her talk at SX and regretting it for the rest of the week as that’s all anyone could talk about. Glad I’ll finally get to hear her speak.

If you live in or near Philly (or just feel like flying out) and have the means, I highly recommend attending. There are a lot of great speakers, including some who are in my time slot (I’m up against Jessica Ivins and NASA, so I won’t complain if you skip).

Hope to see you there!

Net Neutrality and the Moral Hazard of Game Play

We’re about to enter a world where business will reward being nice. This is rare. And it’s about to all come crashing down if net neutrality is overturned.

Right now, if I want to start a business that in any way involves delivering content, the only differentiator is the quality of my content. I pay the same price to deliver that content at the same speed over the web to the same people. I can compete with the largest companies in the world and pay the same price. Other distribution channels, no contest. The corporations win. But if I want to have someone be able to load my web page, it will cost them and me the same. Which makes the only differentiator pleasing the customer. I, as a content creator/business owner, can focus on that. Not on profit.

If, on the other hand, I cannot afford to compete with larger corporations, I cannot get my business off the ground or, at least, the odds change dramatically. This, generally, means fewer good ideas see the light of day. Worse yet, the wrong thing gets rewarded.

The moral hazard of game play is a concept that asserts the power of how a system is incentivized. For example, in school, you are rewarded for getting good grades, not for learning. So, if you can get good grades another way (by, say, cheating) so much the better. Alternative learning structures, like those that will not advance students until they demonstrate understanding of the material by teaching it successfully, or building something that requires understanding of key concepts, reward actual learning.

Currently, we have an internet that leans toward rewarding customer service, user experience, and quality content and, to be fair, the ability to grow an online audience. You can’t buy your way out of those requirements or, at least, your money isn’t the only path to success. If we lose net neutrality, we’ll create an internet that leans toward rewarding profit. The more money you have, the more voice you will have. Which is how it’s been since, well, forever. So, nothing new but, it was nice to think we could have tried something different.

So, to sum up: Net Neturality = Reward good content and treating customers well. No Net Neutrality = Reward making/having lots of money no matter how you treat the customer (or anyone else for that matter).

Proof of Concept

I’ve started a new podcast with my Empathy Lab co-worker Kayne Lermitte called “Proof of Concept“. Basically we talk about digital strategy from the point of view of our changing tech world. The first episode is, naturally enough, about net neutrality and we discuss the idea that just because a big company might have the right to do something, it doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea. Our most recent episode explores the death of scarcity and how we might make money when content becomes infinitely replicable.

You can subscribe via iTunes or go direct to the source.