Television

Lights Out

I'm going to be writing more about the show this summer as it finishes its run on NBC, but for now I'll just say this: I'm so thankful for Friday Night Lights--for so many reasons. It was a rare show that took beauty, truth and goodness seriously, and which favored earnestness and simplicity in a medium that increasingly seems to prefer gimmicky, trite, cynical and overblown. I appreciated Lights because of how complicated it was, how hard it was to classify. I appreciated it because it featured the best portrait of a marriage I've ever seen on television.

Portrayals of the Good

We live in a time when "authenticity" is equated with those things or those people who are forthright in their brokenness and messiness, while stable, happy people are sometimes looked upon with skepticism, as if their lack of apparent problems makes them phony or untrustworthy. Our jadedness leads us to a sort of self-reinforcing stasis of raw brokenness, because this is what we believe. This is what we know. But what we really need are models of goodness & virtue in our lives... figures of hope who can motivate us out of the cycle of dreary cynicism.

Turn on the Lights

Turn on the Lights

Lights is a show about contemporary life. Small town, Texas life. Drenched in nostalgia, adolescent angst, and Midwestern truisms (Dairy Queen, sports radio, Applebees), the show bursts forth with quotidian drama. The Emmy-nominated, Peabody Award-winning show is elegant, mature American art, at once a soft spoken tone poem—recalling the literary Frontier of Willa Cather, Horton Foote or The Last Picture Show—and a tumultuous tableaux of soap opera with the kinetic Americana of Thomas Hart Benton or Aaron Copland.

Lost and the Burden of Global Responsibility

As Lost prepares to close the book on it's rather short, "of-the-moment" 6-season run, I think one way we can make sense of its huge international success is by thinking of how it truly did reflect this moment in history--particularly in terms of global responsibility and digital-fueled collectivism. There are of course a gazillion other ways of interpreting Lost, but what follows is my humble attempt to put forth my final theory of the show: not so much a theory about what Lost's monsters and mythologies mean but rather what the show itself means as a show, for us.

The End of the World: Part Three

The End of the World: Part Three

In thinking about the end of the world—the final act of history, the denouement of all creation—we cannot avoid the question of telos: What has this all been for? Toward what end was creation created? And so, as with so many epic stories and grand narratives, we have to go back to the beginning.

Best TV of the 2000s

Best TV of the 2000s

In 2020, will there be TV anymore? Who knows. But on the off chance that the death of television hasn’t been greatly exaggerated and is indeed imminent, we can at least celebrate the good twilight years that were the 2000s. In case TV fades into oblivion or merges with the Internet or something, this wasn’t such a bad decade to have ended on. Here are my picks for the best TV shows of the decade.

Why You Should Watch Friday Night Lights

Why You Should Watch Friday Night Lights

I was born and raised on the banks of the Arkansas River in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a sandy and humid spot to grow up—full of pecan trees and azaleas and armadillos. People were nice, and most everyone seemed to be working hard to support their families and maybe earn enough to put in a below-ground pool. And football was huge. From elementary school on up, it was the thing to do.

Friday Night Lights is Back!

It’s true (at least for those of us who have DirecTV!). Television’s most undervalued show began its third season last night on the 101 channel on DirecTV. Fear not, it will be on NBC as well… just not until sometime in early 2009. I admit it: I pretty much bought DirecTV so I could watch the first run of FNL’s new season. That’s how much I like this show.

Congratulations David Cook!

Kansas City is on a winning streak this Spring. In April, KC's favorite hometown college (The University of Kansas) won the NCAA championship in basketball. Now we have another winner to boast: the newly-crowned American Idol, David Cook. Now if only the Royals can get above .500...

Cook beat "little David" by twelve million votes--a landslide victory even in spite of the judges' effusive praise for David "I can sing the phone book with my eyes closed" Archuleta. Turns out America is ready for an American Idol winner who actually writes and plays music. Imagine that! I hope the Idol handlers can improve Cook's talent (or at least not ruin him)... he already has one album under his belt (his self-released Analog Heart) and the forthcoming major-label debut should be interesting. Maybe he'll do more Mariah Carey covers!

 

Transmedia Superstars

When Scarlett Johansson announced she was going to release an album of Tom Waits cover songs, she was just the latest in a long line of celebrities who have “crossed over” from one media form to another—in her case, film to music. Celebs have been doing this for a long time, but these days it is happening with increasing frequency, it seems. Indeed, the “media-specific” star is pretty much dead; instead, we have “transmedia” superstars—those stars who transcend media forms and disseminate their personality in a multiplicity of forms and outlets.

It’s easy to see why this type of star is increasingly the norm. It has to do with shifts in the industrial landscape of Hollywood and the entertainment business. In a word: conglomeration. Disney was the first Hollywood “major” to introduce the concept of horizontal-integration back in the 50s, when it began cross-promoting Disney’s brand on television, in film, and in theme parks, earning money from each but also from the synergistic effects of the whole enterprise. Then in the 80s, government deregulation paved the way for more and more entertainmnent companies to combine and form massive conglomerates, so that one parent company (Viacom, for example) had control over film companies, TV channels (both network and cable), record companies, book publishers, etc. The result was an explosion of cross-promotion and intertextual dialogues: films based on television shows, television shows featuring the music by so-and-so, books based on films, etc… Throw in the Internet and it all adds up to a convergence in which media forms more fluidly relate to each other, telling the same stories just in different, though complimentary, ways.

Success in this sort of environment lives and dies on the strength of brand—namely brands that are strong enough to thrive on a multitude of media platforms (think The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, or Sex and the City)—and what better brands are there than celebrities? When you see a celebrity’s name on a movie poster, you know what that movie will offer. Quentin Tarantino is a brand. So is Beyonce. And Oprah, well, she’s the mother of all celeb brands.

For these celeb-brands, it makes sense (both for themselves and for the industries that finance them) to expand to as many media forms as possible. If I’m Oprah and I know millions of people will do whatever it is I do (or say), why not have a TV show, an entire TV channel, a magazine, some made-for-TV movies, a book club brand, and so on… In this day and age, there are no longer “movie stars” or “TV stars” as much as there are just “stars”… famous people with their hands in a little bit of everything.

American Idol epitomizes this whole idea. The point of the show isn’t so much to make music stars as it is to make stars. It’s a show about how to become famous; and once famous, its offspring can make money in a variety of ways. Idol alums have sold a lot of records, obviously, but they’ve also made a lot of money for FOX as TV stars, and some of them have become movie stars (Jennifer Hudson), Broadway stars (Clay Aiken, Tamyra Gray), and so on…

Obviously some transmedia careers are better than others, and some “brands” are just not strong enough to thrive in multiple platforms (and sometimes the talent isn’t there). As an example of this whole phenomenon, here’s my list of the best and worst of the transmedia superstars:

Best

  • Beyonce - Media conquered: music, movies, fashion, Jay-Z
  • Miley Cyrus - Media conquered: music, television, movies, live concerts, theme parks, awards shows, magazine covers, basically the whole world.
  • Justin Timberlake - Media conquered: music, movies (he’s actually a very good actor), MTV.
  • Oprah - Media conquered: everything imaginable.
  • Jared Leto – Just kidding! Though he has been in some good movies (Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream) and good TV shows (My So-Called Life), his rock band (30 Seconds to Mars) is pretty terrible.

Worst

  • Jewel - Media conquered: music. Media failures: movies (she wasn’t bad in Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil, but it was totally a one-and-done for her as an actress), poetry (A Night Without Armor, anyone?).
  • Britney Spears – Media conquered: music. Media failures: movies (Um… Crossroads), television (Britney and Kevin: Chaotic was a disaster, though she was pretty good on How I Met Your Mother), motherhood…
  • Paris Hilton – Media conquered: nightclubs, television (The Simple Life), adult video, prison. Media failures: music (one and done with the self-titled Paris), movies (House of Wax), and general classiness.

Idols "Give Back"

Last night was American Idol’s second annual edition of Idol Gives Back—a 2.5 hour telethon extravaganza in which the Idol finalists (eight are left) are joined by scores of celebs, musicians, and—of course—Bono, to raise gobs of money for a couple dozen charities. When they first did this last year, I was pleasantly surprised to see such a successful (and relentlessly money-grubbing) TV megahit using their unprecedented exposure to raise money for charity. What could be wrong with that?

In watching it last night, however, I was left feeling rather less “inspired” and more, well, cynical about the whole ordeal. There’s something very odd about the event. For one thing, it’s the one night of the year in which Simon Cowell’s “humanity” is paraded around as if it were sincere and regular (last night he was “inspiring” a woman with Lupus). But then later he was publicly skewered by Jimmy Kimmel (unloading about Cowell’s man-boobs and v-neck T-shirts), apparently to keep the “Simon is to be hated” continuity in check. Are we to emulate or loathe Simon? I’m not sure.

Or maybe it’s just that the whole thing felt so formulaic and emotionally contrived. Why did I wince during a segment in which all-American girl Reese Witherspoon promotes the Children’s Defense Fund “freedom schools” initiative in New Orleans (as Moby’s “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” plays in the background)? Why is it that I really wanted to fastforward through a heart-wrenching segment in which Forest Whitaker consoled children with malaria in Africa (as Sia’s “Breathe Me” plays in the background)? Why is it that—when Gordon Brown announced from 10 Downing Street that the British government was donating $200 million to the fundraiser—all I could think about was how curiously large Gordon Brown’s ears were?

Maybe I’m just dead inside, but nothing in Idol Gives Back particularly moved me. Maybe I’m just really really cynical about celebrities who talk about “giving back” but then drop $2000/day on personal stylist fees.

During one of many “celeb goes to Africa” sequences of the show, we hear Alicia Keys proclaim the following: “If only everyone could come to Africa, I know it would change them all… It’s crazy when you think about it: how you can change the lives of people forever, for the price of a pair of shoes!” Very true, Alicia! Especially with the shoes you wear—those $400 Jimmy Choos and $900 Manolo Blahniks can go a long way in saving lives in Africa!

And what of the requisite appearance by Brad “my wife is a UN Goodwill Ambassador” Pitt? Wearing a beret and standing shoulder-to-shoulder (and shovel to shovel) with Bill Clinton, Pitt lifts the spirits of a FEMA-trailer community in New Orleans (and promotes his ambitious “Global Green” campaign to rebuild an eco-friendly New Orleans). It’s great that you’re building sustainable low-income housing in the Ninth Ward, Brad, but if you really want to help the impoverished, why not start by auctioning off your excessive array of designer clothes, hats, and accessories?

Alas, I’m probably just bitter about my own failings in “giving back.” Or maybe I’m just cranky because my ears are still burning from the mawkish rendition of the Rent rouser “Seasons of Love” by the Idol finalists (decked out in GAP Red shirts). Or perhaps it’s because I had to suffer through two performances by Miley “Hannah Montana” Cyrus. TWO! Then we were forced to watch Miley and her dad (Billy Ray) return to their Appalachian roots in Clay County, Kentucky to expose the destitution of white trailer people in the hills.

By the way, it’s no coincidence that so many of these segments feature superstar celebs going “home” to the poor, depraved conditions of their childhood. It’s a nice message of “hope” to all those who suffer: someday you might escape the shambles of your lot and become an American Idol! So funny how Idol manages to legitimize their own rags-to-riches mythology, even on a night when the attention is supposed to be elsewhere. Other predictable moments of self-promotion included a segment on Daughtry (“The biggest-selling band of last year”) playing an acoustic song in a Ugandan village, a requisite Carrie Underwood ballad performance (available on iTunes!), and shots of various Idol alums in the audience (reminder: Elliott Yamin is still selling records!).

Of course, to counteract the endless tales of disease and squalor, there was a parade of comedians (Dane Cook, Sarah Silverman, Ellen DeGeneres, David Spade, Jimmy Kimmel, Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, even Rob Schneider) to lighten the mood. And this was a nice touch—because it reminded us that this is, after all, first and foremost entertainment: pop, fluff, trifle…

Idol is a show for our pleasure and consumption, and it’s a show that knows how to make a lot of money for FOX. I guess I shouldn’t be displeased that they also know how to make money by spectacularizing the act of giving a lot of it away.

The Hills Are Alive With Confused Identity

If you’ve ever seen the MTV show, The Hills, you know how utterly unique, interesting, and, well, odd it is. On one level, The Hills is just another MTV teen drama-fest with all the usual trimmings: hot twentysomethings, vacuous dialogue, an orgy of product placement… But there is something very different about the form of the Hills-type shows, and it strikes me as one of the more intriguing “experiments” of post-network T.V.

Essentially The Hills, like its groundbreaking predecessor/model, Laguna Beach, is a “faux reality” docudrama that is equal parts Melrose Place, The Real World, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The plots are simple: rich, beautiful white kids living the jet-set scene in Hollywood and beyond. The Hills centers around Lauren Conrad (who also starred in Laguna) as she pursues a career at Teen Vogue magazine in Los Angeles. The drama of the show comes from Lauren’s various romantic entanglements, friendship/feuds (most notably with Heidi Montag), and mini-crises of the “I ruined my dress” or “what should I wear?” variety…

It sounds trite and passé, right? Well, yes, but something about it is definitely resonating with the youth culture zeitgeist, because it’s the highest rated program on cable television. Season Three just resumed last week, and the premiere episode was 2008’s highest-rated cable telecast—with 4.7 million viewers. Clearly there is something alluring and addictive about this show, which also streams online to an average audience of another 1-2 million viewers each week.

I can only take so much of it, but when I do watch an episode (and I watched last Monday’s “Paris Changes Everything” episode), I am struck anew by the curiosity that is The Hills. It’s such a strange thing to watch “real” people interacting in such a staged/performed/fake (pick your word) way. One could argue that this is what all “reality TV” is, but The Hills takes it to a new level. They flaunt the uber-constructed, un-reality of it all. These kids are living out fantasies and movie scripts and E! adventures in Hollywood, arranged and financed by the world’s biggest pop culture pimp: MTV. It’s about as unreal as it can get—and the MTV producers know it. Question is: do the audiences know it? And more intriguingly: do the stars of the show know it?

Does Lauren Conrad know that any value her “career” at Teen Vogue might hold pales in comparison to the value she—as an iconic commodity of flighty pop-culture fluff—offers the MTV/Madison Ave advertising behemoth? Do Heidi and Spencer know that their “relationship”—its survival or failure—is only important as a plot point or dramatic foil for the ongoing soap opera that is their publicized twentysomething lives? In short: as these “characters” live out their “real” lives, how much of it are they playing for the camera vs. living for their lives? Or perhaps those two have become indistinguishable?

When you watch any given interaction on The Hills, you can see two things very clearly: 1) scenes are setup and scripted, just like anything you see on TV, and 2) there exists some reality, somewhere—some measure of truth to every interaction, expression, and plot development. For example, in last week’s episode, Spencer tracks down Heidi at her picturesque Crested Butte cabin where she is “working on herself” in the comfort of her parents’ comfy abode. I was struck by one scene with Heidi and Spencer at dinner with Heidi’s parents. The scene was clearly setup by the producers to be a high-water mark of awkwardness—and several things Heidi and Spencer say are very suspiciously “straight from a movie.” But in watching the scene you can see—in Spencer’s eyes, in Heidi’s blank stare—that there is some truth to their relationship; they are really going through this tension and awkwardness, on some level. But herein lies the fascinating thing about this show: it fuses reality and fiction on a very cerebral, intrinsic level.

The stars of The Hills are performed characters. But they are performances of real people. “Lauren,” “Heidi,” “Audrina,” and all the rest are avatars for some real girls who are also called Lauren, Heidi, and Audrina. They are the performed selves of some actual selves (and, interestingly, there are also virtual selves at play here in "The Virtual Hills"). But in the end, are they necessarily different?

In this digital, second-life, avatar age, are our public constructions of self who we really are? The girls on The Hills seem to think so. Audrina told TV Guide, "Who I am on the show is who I am in real life.” And why wouldn’t she want to think this? On the show she is a rich, glamorous covergirl who can get into any club in L.A. If she is or ever was someone else in her life outside of MTV, that “self” is now no longer relevant and certainly no longer desired. When you become a character that millions across the world want to be like, who cares who you really are? The glossy, costumed, makeup’d character is who you want to be.

In our Facebook/Myspace/blog culture, who we are to ourselves (our “inner” or “ultimate” Self) is less important than the image we present to the world. Or rather, perhaps who we are to ourselves becomes the self we project to others. In either case, it is clear that our culture is characterized by identity confusion—and The Hills is cashing in on it.

Could it be True? Friday Night Lights Renewed?!

In what could be the happiest news of this Lenten season, reports are surfacing that NBC has decided to bring Friday Night Lights back for a third season! The ink has yet to dry on the deal (which has not been officially reported by NBC), but it appears that the peacock network has teamed with DirectTV for a co-finance, co-airing strategy that will ease the burden on NBC to justify higher ratings for the underseen show. The network has been in similar talks over the past month with several networks--CW, USA, even ESPN--but it appears that DirectTV was the one that finally coughed up the needed sum to make NBC happy. Thank you!

Fans of the low-rated show have been in fearful limbo since it ended its second season on an abrupt, Writer's Strike-induced note last month. Lights has been consistently low-rated (averaging around 6 million viewers) and yet critics have showered praise and awards on the show since it's debut in 2006. A dedicated band of diehard Lights fans have been circulating online petitions and bombarding the offices of Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman (NBC pres) with little "Save FNL" foam footballs over the last several weeks. Whether this little bit of grassroots effort pressured NBC into making the decision to renew or whether it was a band of NBC execs who lobbied hard internally for the show, I don't know. All I know is that Lights is still the best show on network television, and a third season demands to be seen by more viewers.

The New Vigilantes

I recently saw Neil Jordan’s new film The Brave One, which stars Jodie Foster as a Erica Bain, a vigilante killer who cleans up the scum of NYC in revenge for the brutal murder of her husband by a couple of thugs in a park. It’s a very interesting film for a number of reasons—essentially a feminist retelling of Taxi Driver (which also starred Foster)—but its chief provocation is that it offers up a likeable protagonist who kills for pleasure, walking the streets at night in search of (male) sinners who need to be silenced.

Another incarnation of this amoral anti-hero is seen in the show Dexter (now on CBS). A sharply written and well-acted drama, Dexter follows a serial killer (the title character played by Michael C. Hall) who has an insatiable urge to kill those who kill others. He’s as likeable as any character on television and wouldn’t harm a hair on any principled, law-abiding citizen. But when it comes to rapists, pedophiles, murderers, and human traffickers, Dexter is as menacing as Jeffrey Dahmer. The show doesn’t condone or celebrate Dexter’s actions, but it definitely wants us to be on his side. To that end, it offers a “life is horribly complicated” backstory that attempts to explain (perhaps justify?) Dexter’s violent actions. Like Erica Bain, Dexter faced a violent past that made him who he is today: an unstable timebomb with a murderous axe to grind.

These are just two of the most recent examples of vigilante heroes in pop culture, which is just one subset of the much broader trend of moral ambiguity (the tendency of culture today to celebrate “the gray areas”). But none of this is especially novel or unique to the 21st century. I immediately think back to the novels of Dostoevsky that tackled these notions of DIY justice.

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky explores the idea that some men are of an “extraordinary” nature, set apart from, or rather above, the common man. The character of Porfiry interprets the idea in this way: “The ordinary must live in obedience…while the extraordinary have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and in various ways to transgress the law.” In the novel, this concept is embodied in the character of Raskolnikov, a neurotic, distressed student who kills a pawnbroker and her innocent sister. Like Porfiry, Raskolnikov believes that the extraordinary man has a right (not official, but his own) to “step over certain obstacles, and then only in the event that the fulfillment of his idea—sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind—calls for it.” For Raskolnikov, his murderous actions constitute the “stepping over” of an extraordinary man, for in the killing of the wretched pawnbroker many people—if not the whole of mankind—will be better off.

So goes the logic of both The Brave One and Dexter. In each case we find ourselves rooting on the murderous actions of these vigilantes because they are “taking out the trash” so to speak. The disturbing allure of these types of films (and TV shows) is that we all, secretly, enjoy seeing a bad guy get shot in the face or (in the case of Dexter, chopped into pieces and thrown in the trash).

But there is a frightful end sum to this type of vigilante amorality. In Crime and Punishment progresses, Raskolnikov begins to understand that in trying to rationalize his killing through some grand idea, he is deluding himself. He senses the dishonesty of it, and though it proves painful, admits to himself that: “I simply killed—killed for myself.” At the end of the novel (the “punishment” portion in Siberia), Raskolnikov imagines the true implications of the idea that had fueled his former torment. He has a disturbing vision of pestilence taking over the world and producing a race of men who each assume the right to step over and who each find the truth “in himself alone.”

This vision paints a scary portrait of a world governed by relativistic morality. Dostoevsky’s comments that in this world “they did not know whom to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good” prophesy the coming of postmodernism. Of course, the initial cultural manifestation of the “stepping over” idea seems to have been the rise in totalitarianism in the early-mid twentieth century, but Dostoevsky expresses a foresight of what would ultimately come in totalitarianism/modernism’s wake. Once one or two “extraordinary men” step over and take the reigns of a totalitarian authority, the natural outcome is that more and more people view themselves in the same way. Soon, because extraordinariness is so arbitrary and totalitarianism so distasteful, everyone claims the same rights to power and/or truth. Raskolnikov sees something of this future in his idea, and that is why he ultimately discounts it.

Does our culture today see the folly and contradiction that Raskolnikov finally does? Or are we once again romanced by the notion of “extraordinary” men and “above the law” morality? More broadly: is our emphasis on cultural specificity and relativism weakening our ability to even delineate where the “stepping over” lines are? It’s a question and pesky problem that deserves to be discussed.

Politics of Spectacle

I was watching something on Fox this week and was struck by some of the ads I saw for the Super Bowl. The ads were advertising that a full day of coverage on Super Sunday would begin with a morning of Fox News political coverage on “the other big contest” going on: the presidential election. Following this would be the main event: the Patriots vs. Giants. The ad seemed to suggest that together it was a day of utter and extreme Americanisms: our “two favorite pastimes: sports and politics.” Pull up a chair, get some beer and pizza, and revel in the spectacles of debate and conflict and fighting and smash-em-up democracy!

There are many things wrong with this framing discourse of “Super Sunday” (not least of which is the obvious untruth that Americans care as much about politics as we do about sports!), but the thing that most disturbs me is this equivocation of our electoral process with something as airy and insignificant and superfluous as the Super Bowl. Are we seriously trying to say that the current presidential election is mass entertainment? A spectacle?

Unfortunately, this is not really a new trend. For decades now, American media have been turning politics into a spectacle—a three ring circus of strategy, intrigue, danger, rousing victories and epic defeats. Turn on cable news on any given night and you get some grade-A melodrama posing as political discourse.

Exhibit A of the spectacle-ization of American politics happened on Thursday night in (the very appropriate location of) Hollywood. It was the Democratic debate on CNN—live from the Kodak theater (aka the home of the Oscars and nexus of all that Hollywood represents). Did anyone watch this debate? First of all, it was hardly a debate. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were as chummy as any two competing politicians have ever been. There was very little actual debate and even less clarification for the voters.

But it was compelling TV! It was a spectacle! And boy did the stars turn out in force to drive home that point… Every time the camera panned to the audience it focused on another celebrity’s face. Liberal stalwarts Steven Spielberg and Rob Reiner were there, along with familiar faces like Diane Keaton (in her Charlie Chaplin/Annie Hall getup), Stevie Wonder (stood up and cheered a lot), and Pierce Brosnan (wait—can he even vote? Isn’t he British?). But what can explain the presence of Brandy? Or Topher Grace? Or the guy who plays Andy on The Office? What are they doing here? To give CNN the glitz and glamour that Anderson Cooper and Angelina Jolie have tried so hard to achieve?

In any case, it was funny to watch the reaction shots of various B celebrities whenever Obama or Clinton said something about how ridiculously awful George W. Bush has been. It’s almost a Pavlovian instinct for many of them, I think: “Bush ruins everything”=clap and cheer! (because who wants to cheer for boring and complex solutions to issues like healthcare and social security?). It’s much more fun and gleefully vague to “cheer for change”!

Indeed. What fun this all is! There should be an “Election 2008” reality show or something. Ryan Seacrest could host it and every night millions could call in and vote on how well each candidate looked and performed during whatever debate or speech had just happened. It would be a ratings hit for whatever channel it was on, and doubtless way more people would get “excited” about our electoral process (as long as we could text in our vote). And then perhaps one day ads during Super Tuesday will sell for just as much as on Super Sunday. A Super Week of consumerist pop-hedonism/politics! Totally win win.

Jacob Wants Us Lost

I don't know what is going on on Lost (I never really have), but I do know that it is still the most consistently thought-provoking show on television. And the season four premiere last night did not disappoint.

What is most compelling right now (and, to an extent, what has been the most compelling thing about the show since day one) is the way Lost plays with time. For the first three seasons each episode featured a flashback where the mysteries of the shows were broadened and the characters deepened. But now it appears that this season (and I suspect the rest of the seasons) will feature flashforwards--glimpses of the "after rescue" future of Jack, Kate, Hurley, and whoever else makes it off the island. But this raises the question: is this "future" actually the "present"? Is the island in some alternative space-time-continuum? Does what we do now really change our path for the future?

Indeed, the show has a very complicated fixation on time and fate. The whole Desmond deja-vu storyline, for example, has always been one of the most intriguing threads of the Lost web. I really hope the writers have a grasp on all of it and can tie it together semi-coherently as the final few seasons play out.

In the meantime, season four is raising the deliciously provocative question of whether or not our beloved castaways are better off lost or found? Is it really freedom to be "in control" of one's own life? Or are we better off at the mercy of "others"--both seen and unseen? From the looks of it, Lost could quickly become the 21st century version of The Matrix: a sci-fi pop treatise on fate, free will, and the nature of reality.

I'm especially intrigued by this "Jacob" character--the ghost-like, (mostly) invisible force that lives on the island and seemingly calls all the shots. Is he meant to represent some Judeo-Christian deity? Is he a loving or malevolent being? On freeze-frame Jacob looks faintly like Jack's dad, Christian Shepherd (can someone say Jesus!), which is another piece to the puzzle. In any case (Spoiler alert!), I suspect that when Hurley calls out to Jack and says something like "I think he wants us back!" he is referring to Jacob--obviously the source of Hurley's apparent mental asylum issues...

Whether or not this theory is correct (it probably isn't), we can all be happy to have a watercooler show back on TV which we can all wildly theorize about!

Let the Lists Begin!

As you know, I loooove lists... so if you thought I was going to limit myself to one "best of 2007" post on Dec. 31 and that's it, you'd be mistaken! "Best of the Year" frenzy begins today on The Search, and will go through the end of the month (culminating with my top ten movies of 2007 on New Year's Eve!)

So, to kick things, off, and because this category has no risk of missing any latecomer additions, today I'm listing my picks for the best television shows of 2007:

10) American Idol (Fox): What can I say? As trifling as it is, this show is the most compelling television for four months out of the year... I'm addicted.

9) The Hills (MTV): Am I joking? Sort of… But anyone who has seen this show must admit it has a definite “can’t turn away” quality. Plus, from a theoretical, “what is real?” point of view, the show is fascinating.

8) Project Runway (Bravo): Continues to be the most interesting, consistently quality reality series on television.

7) The Daily Show / Colbert Report (Comedy Central): Yes, these are two different shows, but the spirit is the same in both. It's the Comedy Central "newsblock," and it's ridiculously fun to watch.

6) Rome (HBO): HBO's Caesar series only had two seasons, but its great cast (a who's who of British thespians) and classy period melodrama made for some really good, highbrow TV.

5) The Office (NBC): Gets better and better every season… the cast has nailed down the nuances and hilarious quirks of their characters, and the writing is consistently dead-on.

4) Lost (ABC): This show redeemed itself near the end of its third season, reminding us all why we got so addicted in the first place. Can’t wait for its January return!

3) 30 Rock (NBC): Miles above the majority of comedy on TV in terms of sharp, culturally astute humor. Tiny Fey, Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan lead the funniest ensemble cast since Arrested Development.

2) Mad Men (AMC): Who knew AMC was in the business of making amazing one-hour dramas? This 60s period piece (about Madison Avenue ad men, their whiskey and their women) was the best new series on TV this fall—with great acting, glossy eye candy, and sharp social commentary.

1) Friday Night Lights (NBC): I suppose it’s getting repetitive by now, but this show really is the best thing on TV. The acting, writing, production, and general “breath of fresh air” spirit of the whole thing is really unrivaled among network shows. Here’s hoping it’ll survive for a third season!

The Writers' Strike: Doomsday for TV?

For those outside of Hollywood and NYC, the Writers Guild Strike probably seems distant, irrelevant, and maybe a bit superfluous. But soon enough everyone will feel its effects—in the short term (lots of re-runs, sports, and reality TV this winter) and also in long term, systemic shifts in the broadcast media landscape.

To quickly summarize what the strike is all about: in a word, Internet. Last time the WGA went on strike in 1988 it was over home video residuals (i.e. how much per video sold or rented does the writer get?). The debate today is in part over DVD residuals (because writers now get only 8 cents per DVD sold), but in most opinions, the days of DVDs are numbered. Thus, the real focus of the debate between writers and studios is compensation for Internet content. For every streamed or downloaded show on a network website, writers get nothing. This is a problem for them, but the networks refuse to budge.

In one of my classes last week, Greg Daniels (creator/show-runner for The Office) spoke to us about the strike. Earlier in the day he had been on the picket lines with other Office staff, which you can see in this video (he’s the guy with glasses). Daniels told us that the strike was all about show content on the Internet, which networks maintain is solely promotional/marketing in purpose, even though—according to Daniels—the ads on the network websites are twice as valuable per 1000 views as anything on TV. But are the writers seeing any of this money? Not a dime.

For obvious (albeit risky) reasons, the networks and their studios are not conceding or negotiating anything. They recognize that the immense money to be made online is the future, and thus they’re taking a hard-line proprietary stance. If the belligerent posturing continues, the strike could last at least as long as the ’88 strike (5 months) or maybe even longer. All your favorite shows will be relegated to reruns, reality shows will enjoy a reluctant renaissance, and American Idol’s ratings will go higher into the stratosphere than ever before.

In the meantime, the writing talent in Hollywood will be jobless… In theory. But the longer the strike goes on, the more I think the good writers will go elsewhere with their material. Everyone is pretty much in agreement about the fact that T.V. is inevitably going to move online. So why should writers wait for the networks? In the all-access, narrowcast, niche Internet, who needs broadcast networks? Writers may as well circumvent the networks entirely: acquire private financing from a third party, produce the shows independently, market them virally, and exhibit them online.

Lest you think made-for-the-Internet shows are still a long way off, think again. Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (My So Called Life, thirtysomething) have a new show called quarterlife that premiered on MySpace on Sunday and will be shown in 36 webisode installments on www.quarterlife.com. The twentysomething ensemble drama is a fictionalized serial that supplements a larger social-networking site for aspiring artists and creative people in their twenties. Sound like a brave new world? That’s because it is.

Television as we used to know it—a place where shows appeared on certain days and times that we had to tune in to, tape, or miss—is disappearing before our eyes. With Tivo, iTunes, webisodes, and online streaming, we are no longer tied down to a day, time or medium through which we consume media. We determine how we consume an episode of a show. It’s a completely me-centric media experience.

I’m convinced that we are just a few years out from a massive change in our very definition of television.

Soon we will buy most of our TV shows like we do a magazine—either by subscribing for a year or picking it up ala carte. For $20 or $30 bucks we will be able to buy a season of our favorite shows and have access to download or view them exclusively online. And this money would go directly to the people making the show—with no network or distribution middlemen. Thus, if J.J. Abrams announced a new, spinoff Lost series to be shown online to subscribers only, he could feasibly finance it completely himself. It would require Abrams to convince loyal Lost viewers (about 15 million in the U.S. alone) to shell out $20 for a “season pass” to view or download a 20-episode season. This would equal $300 million income for Abrams—more than enough to cover the show’s 3-4M/episode budget. And this is without any mention of advertiser revenue, which in the old model of T.V. was the one and only income source.

Essentially I’m suggesting a new model of entertainment-delivery that is funded solely through mini-contributions from millions of viewers. But of course, this is not a new model at all! It’s called the movies! T.V. and cinema have been converging for decades now in style. Now they are taking that last step of convergence in business: on-demand, web-based, ala-carte everything.

Call me crazy, but this is the future. The Writers' Strike is just hurrying it all along.

Why You Should Watch Commercials

Last week in my Network T.V. Management class at UCLA, our guest speaker was a high level executive at ABC Primetime. He spoke to us about the business side of broadcast television--how the audience of any given show is basically "sold" to the advertisers who then invest in a show for its guaranteed spectatorship. If a show is getting good ratings in the 18-49 demographic, for example, the network will then be able to charge more for the increasingly sought-after commercial ad space. As we all know (or should know), advertising via audience “labor” is the bread and butter of T.V. financing.

A massive spoiler appeared on the horizon a few years ago, however, and its name is DVR. Tivo and friends have altered the industry’s economic landscape in striking ways, and T.V. executives are scrambling to figure out what to do about it. The problem is that with DVR technology, people are able to fast-forward through commercials. And they do. I do. Advertisers notice this and are increasingly demanding that the networks do something about it. Consequently, ABC Primetime has taken the revolutionary step this fall season of being the first network to sell ad space based solely on commercial ratings.

In a nutshell, this striking shift means that ABC (and perhaps the other networks soon) will measure a show’s economic feasibility based only on who is watching the commercials—not the show itself. What does this mean for you? It means that if you use DVR to fast-forward through the commercials of your favorite show, you might as well not be watching (at least in the eyes of the networks, who are always looking for excuses to dump underperforming shows). This may be a bitter pill to swallow, but I'm afraid it is true: your favorite television shows are in danger if you do not watch their commercials.

More generally, however, this shift represents the frantic defensive maneuvers being undertaken by beleaguered media industries in the face of technology and changing audience patterns. Hollywood is trying to adapt its old framework to withstand the erosion that things like DVR, on-demand, video iPod and other technologies are causing. Their worst fear is to become the lame-duck recording industry, which is all but dead now because of its blatant refusal to work with and through new technologies.

It remains to be seen whether or not the ad-based network T.V. model will survive the digital age, and maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe we should be even more purposeful about fast-forwarding through commercials on our Tivos. Maybe we should send the message that the days of “commercial breaks” are over—that we will no longer tolerate being passive ratings demographics or dollar-sign statistics in the ugly ratings wars. Of course, we’d have to concede a trade-off in some way—most likely the acceptance of brand-integration and product placement within our favorite shows. After all, these shows need to be financed somehow.

All I know is that the future of television is completely up in the air (as are the futures of most other media industries), and we the audience will have an ever larger role to play. I have much more to say about it all, so stay tuned…