Posted May 24, 2013
into Telly by John Birmingham
An intriguing concondrum arose this morning out of Amazon's Kindle Worlds program. @lostatlunch asked me on twitter "if you red-shirt the original author in an alt-timeline fanfic, will there be a paradox?"
@PeterWJHarrigan didn't so much answer that question as another, entirely irrelevent, but just as fascinating, with a link to this blog entry where he crunched the numbers on the mortality rate amongst various classes of crew member on Star Trek, coming up with all sort of Bayesian shennanigans:
Based on an analysis of casualties that considers the overall total number of personnel in each color of uniform, wearing a redshirt may not be the automatic death sentence that it is popularly considered to be. On the other hand, 18 of the redshirt casualties were security personnel out of a total population of 90; 20% of the security department were casualties. Although wearing a redshirt may not of itself be particularly hazardous, personnel in a redshirt who are members of the security department should expect to pay a high premium on their life insurance.
I'm afraid I failed to pass a single maths exam after about grade eight in high school, but that pie chart speaks loudly to me and it's saying blue is definitely my colour.
Posted May 22, 2013
into Telly by John Birmingham
Roland Barthes was a web 2.0 guy before the web was even a Version 1 thing. Before color TV was even a thing. Roland Barthes was a sneaky French philosopher (is there another kind?) who got away with cutting and pasting his thoughts into discontinuous brain farts, and getting his “readers [to] work as active creators of a text”. He crowd sourced the meaning of his work.
Roland Barthes was also the guy who gave us, by way of Clive James, the modern phenomenon of the TV recap; those long and winding water cooler recapitulations of whatever happened last night on Mad Men, Masterchef, The Walking Dead or, God help us, Embarrassing Bodies.
Sometimes mere regurgitation, but sometimes soaring to heights from which the recap writer can seriously look down on the hacks and script-spittles who stole 48 minutes of your life, the recap has crept into the media landscape and become the bait-of-choice for online media looking to draw traffic to their advertisers’ wares.
There are some recappers (recaptivists? recaptors?) who are so good they achieve a small measure of renown – or something akin to it, a bankable level of attention from the attention-deficit-generation; Ben Pobjie’s masterful Masterchef recaps, for instance, which managed to remind us twelve hours later of all the faff and pointlessness we’d already forgotten, while simultaneously leaching the stage managed shenanigans of any residual dignity they might have maintained. (No much, admittedly)
So now the appearance of a TV series with a deeply invested global audience signals the arrival in tandem of another round of recaps. At the moment it’s all about Game of Thrones.
How do we get from Barthes to Baratheon? Well, in 1957 he published Mythologies, which The New York Times described as “the most reliable and user-friendly source of Barthes’s special variety of fun — the bouillon cube, if you will, of his critical flavour.” In Mythologies Barthes laid the ground for the coming of a myriad postgraduate degrees in pop culture studies. PhDs in the Homer of Springfield, rather than the Homer of Achilles.
Mythologies was, in the truest, laziest style of Rolly, a lucky dip, a collection of scribbles from a literary journal and an attempt to unpack, as we say now, the Cambrian explosion of popular culture after World War Two. Barthes was high-concept lowbrow decades before the first Lad mag was published. He studied “the rise to omnipresence of a hypercommodified cluster of media (magazines, film, radio, television) that was shaping everyone’s lives on the deepest possible level, like a new form of psychological gravity.”
What the fuck does that even mean? Lets ask the New York Times.
In his modest (and non-Newtonian) way, Barthes set out to be mass culture’s Newton: to identify the laws of its behavior, test its stresses, reveal the invisible boundaries of its influence.
Barthes’s basic idea (although with Barthes it’s always dangerous to reduce things to a basic idea) was that the operation of mass culture is analogous to mythology. He argued that the cultural work previously done by gods and epic sagas — teaching citizens the values of their society, providing a common language — was now being done by film stars and laundry-detergent commercials.
In that way, he wasn’t a million miles removed from Clive James much more tightly focused TV columns of the 1970s. James very much saw himself as an intellectual, and more importantly as a poet, who could discern within the surface banalities of broadcast TV, the meaning of much deeper shifts and developments in the society which produced them. He might have been viciously snarky about popular entertainment, but that didn’t stop him taking it seriously as an aesthetic form.
Where the second half of the Twentieth Century was all about an explosion of mass culture, the coming of the internet has enabled its mass critique the “dissection of everything, no matter how trivial”. (In Pobjie’s Masterchef recaps, for instance, even the commercial breaks get a shakedown, these saleable interstices raised to the same level of significance as the primary text, to get a little Barthesian on y’all.)
This happens everywhere now, often in real time. And this critical analysis is often as vital and interesting and consumable as the culture it discusses. Consider, for instance, the way the TV recap has evolved into a nearly independent creative form. So the critical analysis of pop culture has itself become a kind of pop culture. We seem to be approaching some kind of singularity — a collapse of creativity and criticism into one.
It is possible to follow a certain style of TV show without ever tuning in. The twitter feed of Q and A, for example, is every week more engaging than the show that gives it birth. (Although that doesn’t stop me muting it). It is just as possible to enjoy the post mortem critique of narrative television, without ever having seen the originating broadcast. So comprehensive is the modern recap, it obviates the need to watch the show it is recapping.
The joy, the jouissance a blend of “surprise, adventure and pleasure” to borrow from Barthes, is to relive the experience however. To enjoy the story and then have it retold for our childlike enjoyment. As much fun as it might be to watch, the pleasures of recalling it with a likeminded soul are even greater. This holds for both good and bad TV. Possibly even more so for bad. Herein lies the appeal of the recap not so much to us, the readers, but to the media which provides them. When the choice of media is so great as to paralyze us, we retreat to what we already know. And what we know to be held dear by everyone else.
At the moment that means Game of Thrones. A short while ago it meant The Walking Dead, and very soon it will be S.H.I.E.L.D. But for now, our small screen dreams flicker with images of Westeros. I don’t know how many individual recaps the show has inspired, but a Google search for them returns over sixty-four million hits. Most significant media organizations boast of at least one. The best may be Wired.com’s double header written by Laura Hudson and Erik Henriksen.
More than just a riff or retelling, Wired provides a comprehensive meta analysis of both the just-aired ep and the many ways in which it either tracked or diverged from the book. Being Wired, of course, they cannot resist a little techno wizardry, and thus spoilers are blacked out behind the sort of thick, black lines which nowadays characterize 90% of all government documents sought under FOI. Wired, however, lets you removed the redaction with a mouse click.
Hudson and Henrikson – two very Westerosi names don’t you think – break down seemingly every minute broadcast and provide the sort of micro- and meta-analysis that can only be done online, where word length counts for nothing. They even go back and forth to tweak or dispute each others findings. It is the best recap I’ve seen of Thrones.
The second best? Disagree if you will, and you probably will, but the runner up – When you recap the Game of Thrones you win, or you die – is promptly written and published within a few hours of airing every week right here in Brisneyland, by BrisbaneTimes’ Natalie Bochenski, aka @girlclumsy on the twitterz and here at the Burger.
Eschewing the postgraduate faffage of Wired, GC goes for the larfs, while retaining an understanding of what makes great theatre. She avoids the witless recounting of this happened and then that happened, often skipping thematically through the doin’s and a-goings on. She rewards attention payers with in-jokes like “Kate Middleton” and comfortably changes voice whenever the mood or necessity takes her.
Meanwhile Cersei? Bitch be colder than tiles in winter, mmm-hmmm. Cutting Slow Lorus off like that just when he’s trying to be nice.
The trap for recappers is to simply recap. They are, after all, every one of them telling the exact same story. The Boing Boing recap sometimes falls into this hole, reading almost like a high school English student’s breathless but ultimately repetitive and unoriginal report to the class on What I Watched Last Night.
The other trap is timeliness. With so many of these things appearing within hours of the screening time (some of them before the two hour delay between the US and Australian release) there is little point in coming late to the show, so to speak. Again, a Boing Boing fail, but also, surprisingly a problem with the Flavorwire recap. For a site which lives and dies by spitting up prechewed media bites, this is sort of unforgivable. (Although, when the Flavorwire recap does go live, it often suffers from the same weaknesses of mere restatement that dog Boing Boing).
It used to be the case that most broadsheet papers, and many magazines retained the services of a dedicated TV reviewer, again thanks to the example of James and Barthes, but with the business model of the old press under existential threat they are passing from the world. The recap, usually written by enthusiasts rather than specialists is coming to replace them. In a way, they have not so much evolved from Barthes as away from him. He was an outsider who, like James, treated mass cultural as subject worthy of serious critique, but unlike James he had no love of the mass audience. Now, with the recap, and importantly the comment thread and social media ‘shares’ it is designed to ignite, the audience is the analysis.
14 Responses to ‘When you recap the Game of Thrones you win, or you die’
Posted May 20, 2013
into Telly by John Birmingham
Took a few weeks, but I finally got around to watching the pilot episode of Defiance on the weekend. I think we're about three eps into the series now, and the critical reaction on the geek blogs seems fair to middling, with a chance of improvement. There are some pretty tired old story ideas getting tricked up for one more turn around the field. I couldn't believe they were going to go with the whole Romeo and Juliet subplot, but props to them, they did, without a sense of irony or shame. Nolan, the good-looking loner who lives by his own rules (and his weapons, and his awesome martial arts skills) is saved from primetime cliché by a couple of less than admirable personality traits. And it was great to see Julie Benz on screen, still looking superhot and stealing every scene she's in. She doesn't seem to have aged a day since playing Darla on Buffy and Angel.
Joel Naoum, my publisher over at Mometum, tweeted this morning that he found Benz hot, but baffling as a casting choice. "Hard to buy her as mayor. Her youthfulness = gravitas deficiency"
I retorted that it's established very early she feels herself inadequate in the mayor's role, especially given the seniority of her predecessor. Joel, paid that, but said, "Yes, but I feel like we’re not supposed to agree with her."
Still, she's superhot, so shut up.
The storyline? I'm still figuring it out. They avoided the temptation to do an info dump in the first five minutes, leaving viewers to work a few things out for themselves. Some are obvious. The planet's gone to hell since it was invaded. Some less so. I couldn't work out why there were so many different alien races squabbling over the spoils and why they don't necessarily get on. But that will undoubtedly be explained in the next couple of installments.
Or possibly it's already been explained if you've been playing the third person MMO of the same name. The TV shows and game producers are attempting to do something a bit special by developing both the show and a game in parallel. All of the odds are stacked against them, but I haven't heard much of Defiance as a shooter, and I do imagine that the story world's developed much more fully there.
Rockne S O'Bannon, the Defiance show runner, is an alumnus of Farscape, a widely unwatched and even more underrated SyFy channel classic. (They used to shoot it here in Australia, when the dollar was known as the Pacific peso, making production costs much cheaper. I remember watching them film an episode on Bondi Beach when I lived there). The art direction on that show was particularly strong and O'Bannon has brought the same eye to this show. The CGI works really hard, but it works really well to create the impression of a living, chaotic, highly devolved city at the end of the world. It's also amazing what you can do with shipping crates and plastic wrap. The alien races are well realized, and although some of the human characters feel a bit two-dimensional, at least in the supporting cast, the leads are all very strong actors. Benz is probably the standout, which isn't surprising given the strength of her performance under Joss Whedon's direction.
The action scenes ran a nice gamut from intensely personal and muscular combat up to a well staged set piece battle that didn't skimp on the special effects right at the end. If the producers can build on the pilot, there could be a lot to look forward to with this series. I already like it a lot more than Falling Skies, although to be fair I thought that alien invasion series picked up a lot towards the end of the second season.
Posted May 16, 2013
into Telly by John Birmingham
It could be awesome. I know, the premise of a superspook "ex Special Forces, Delta, CIA guy" with a chip in his head that makes him all Super Neo Matrix is too dumb even for me. And my standards are notoriously low.
But the CBS Fall Preview trailer looks kind of cool. The biff is gnarly and muscular and the action sequences admirably kinetic.
We'll see if they can get the stories and character right.
11 Responses to ‘"Intelligence" sounds like it should suck but... but... but’
Posted May 15, 2013
into Telly by John Birmingham
That explains how he survived dying and everything.
Can't believe I didn't see that one coming.
This new trailer will explain all. Or some. Or... well, it's pretty cool anyway, and the way they keep releasing a new one, slightly longer, every day, we should have the entire pilot up by the end of the week.