Archive for the ‘TV’ Category

The End of Geography (Except, Not)

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When I was young I loved maps. (Not that I don’t now; I still spend a lot of time browsing Google Sightseeing, the book of transit maps from around the world my girlfriend and I bought, and reddit/Map Porn.) As a child I had a puzzle of the United States that I would regularly trace, writing in information of limited importance such as the order of their admittance to the Union. I remember being enthralled at my friend’s CD-ROM street map that covered the entire country.

The intersection of Internet technologies and the traditionally geographically diverse nature of sports has created some interesting issues, and for that matter, maps. This one shows what teams are blacked out in what locations on MLB.tv, baseball's out-of-market TV service.

Of course, today we don’t think twice about being able to pull up a comprehensive street-level atlas of the entire Earth on a portable device the size of a Game Boy Light. Anyone could come up with countless examples of how the world has shrunk even more as the Internet has pervaded our lives more and more.

One might think this would mean that physical location doesn’t matter as much as it once did. In some ways, this is definitely true. It’s easy to get into Singaporean politics, Namibian cricket or Greenlandish hip hop while you lie comfortably in your American bed. This huge expansion of the information one can find if they put a little bit of effort into it is one of the things, if not the main thing, that makes me happy to be alive when I am.

But when it comes to the mass media, I’ve noticed an odd thing: It seems today that location means destiny more than ever.

Take national politics, for instance. Coverage of presidential races is now overwhelmingly reported on by 24-hour cable news networks that deliver the same content whether you’re in Hawaii or Maine. Yet political parties worry about the optics of geography more than ever.

Look at where national nominating conventions have been held. From 1992 to 2004 Democratic conventions were held only in liberal metropolises: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston. Since then the conventions for both parties have been swing-state only affairs: Denver and Charlotte for the Democrats, St. Paul and Tampa for the GOP.

Another area in which geography is playing a larger role is television. Scripted TV shows of the past may have had real settings, but the Milwaukee of Happy Days or the Seattle of Frasier were little more than abstract concepts flavoring the L.A. soundstage environments. While there are still some spectacular examples of this—until you’ve seen the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, you have no idea how much Greenwich Village looks like Disney World’s Main Street, U.S.A.—the phenomenon has lessened as single-camera, on-location shows become the norm. And it’s even more pronounced when it comes to reality TV.

A somewhat-less-than-true-to-life New York City street set from Wizards of Waverly Place.

The Real World is often cited as a reality pioneer and that holds true in its featuring a different city for every season. Because today, it seems like most big reality franchises are somehow location-dependent. You’ve got Pawn Stars in Las Vegas, Swamp People which inspired a bevy of other shows set in the Louisiana bayou, Jersey Shore which did the same for New Jersey, and The Real Housewives of most conceivable upper-class locales, the format of which is now being exported internationally.

The area in which location seems to have taken on the most added significance recently, though, is sports. ESPN and other national media outlets once acted actually national; now their inordinate focus on teams from the very few largest media markets is unmistakable.

Take the Jeremy Lin phenomenon. I think his is an incredible story and it certainly deserves media attention. But you’ve got people like Mark Cuban—the owner of a team in a big, but not huge, non-coastal market, the Dallas Mavericks—saying that it wouldn’t be much of a story if it wasn’t happening in New York. I’m sure Cuban was exaggerating when he said “no one would know” about Lin if he was playing elsewhere. But it seems clear to me that it wouldn’t have developed into the same obsession for the Worldwide Leader.

Interest in consolidating the NBA’s elite talent into the biggest markets seems to be at an all-time high, if the recent demands of players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard to be traded only to alpha cities are any indication. It’s hard to blame young men with boundless fame and disposable income for wanting to live in New York, Los Angeles or Miami. But I do blame certain media outlets for encouraging them by focusing so disproportionately on teams in places like that.

North American celebrity culture in the realms of film, TV, music, comedy, and so forth have always been centered around an extremely narrow group of cities. I don’t have a problem with that—after all, that’s part of what gives those cities their unique attractiveness. But I have always thought it was kind of cool how sports, by the nature of its organization, is a glamorous industry that is quite geographically egalitarian. To ply their trade professionally, a baseball player from Miami could go to St. Louis, a football player from Southern California could go to Green Bay, and a hockey player from Stockholm could go to Calgary, and all of these moves would be considered seriously moving up in the world. I don’t like the feeling that we’re losing that idiosyncratic feature of sports with increased emphasis on big-market teams.

In my opinion, this is particularly unfortunate in the NBA, which has a tradition of placing teams in small cities that no other major pro leagues are present in, like Memphis, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Portland, Salt Lake City, and San Antonio. Before securing a new arena deal this week, one such city, Sacramento, came extremely close to losing their team to Anaheim, in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, which has two teams already. Is this idea of stacking huge media markets with ever more teams a sign of things to come? I hope not, but with the media focus on those areas, it would make a perverse kind of sense for the teams.

The way I see it, national media has two choices about how to approach coverage of a nation- or worldwide sports universe. Either they can identify stories from anywhere in the country that they think, if widely publicized, would have the most wide appeal; or, they can act like a local outlet focusing on the teams with, statistically, the most fans, and push stories about these teams onto the rest of the country that might not otherwise care at the same time. I think they choose the latter far too often. Which frustrates me, because in this day and age, I want to revel in the fact that we’re no longer beholden to local newspapers and TV for our information. And I certainly don’t want to feel like our spectacular modern communication technologies are just feeding me a facsimile of that experience, and about a location I might not even care about in the first place.

Living in the age of cyberspace hasn’t made geography irrelevant—if anything, it’s amplified it. Some of the effects of this are positive and some are negative in my opinion, but either way, I find it pretty counterintuitive at first blush. But as a recent study showing that Twitter connections match up quite tightly with airline routes indicated, the Internet serves as a compliment, not a replacement, for the physical world. Methods of communication may shift rapidly, but human nature has proven much more resistent to change.


Written by Dan Wohl

03.02.12 at 1:53 am

Art, Physics, and Your Place in the Omniverse

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This surreal moment—in which Michael Scott (of the American version of “The Office”) meets David Brent (of the British version)—took place on the American one recently. I thought it was hilarious and apt that they form a hug-worthy bond within seconds of meeting. This was due, I assumed, to them basically being the same person, thrust together by the most divine of chances.

On the website I first saw this at, Nikki’s Finke’s Deadline Hollywood, a commenter named cookmeyer1970 took a less breezy view of it. Although they said they ultimately enjoyed it, they began by saying:

I was very much against this (the two series shared practically the same script for an episode as well as duplicate characters making it, in my opinion, two parallel universes that shouldn’t cross)…

I don’t think the issue of “duplicate characters” really has to come into play—most of the American characters that were adapted from British ones are done so pretty roughly, and even Michael and David have their differences. And by this point, the American show (which has aired 140 episodes) has created a whole swarm of characters that have no equivalent on the British show (which aired 14). But I admit I hadn’t thought about the fact that the first episodes of the two series are identical nearly line-to-line.

Does a fact like that firmly establish that the two “Offices” could not possibly exist within the same plane of being? Should Scott and Brent have destroyed each other like matter and anti-matter the instant they ran into each other?

From a practical standpoint, my answer was: I don’t care. It goes without saying that virtually any TV series requires suspension of disbelief, and as far as potential inconsistencies go, I realize this might be one of the most obscure, technical ones ever. But from a theoretical perspective, I think it’s quite interesting to consider.

You sometimes hear about “the universe” of a particular film, TV series, book, or other work of art. Some of these universes are extremely obvious. Clearly the universe of, say, “The Lord of the Rings” is not our own. But the truth is that literally all stories, even those that might appear firmly grounded in reality, create their own universe that necessarily cannot be the same as our own.

For instance, look at “The West Wing.” Despite relying on ripped-from-the-headlines political issues for much of its drama and intellectual substance, not to mention frequently discussing U.S. history and governmental minutiae, the world it depicted was in some ways as alien as Middle Earth. The show established that Nixon was the last real president its universe shared with ours, and despite incorporating real foreign states into storylines all the time, also invented the countries of “Qumar” and “Equatorial Kundu” to stand in for generalized representations of the Middle East and Africa, respectively. (It also presented a universe in which every human is capable of delivering a searingly witty riposte without a second’s hesitation at any given moment and for any given situation, but that’s another issue.)

Does this mean we should consider “The West Wing” a fantasy? Certainly not. Does it mean we can’t appreciate the voluminous amount it has to say about the real issues in our world? Not in the least. But it’s not our universe, and actually it’s not even particularly close to being our universe.

The divergence point for the universe of a movie or TV show can come from an even more elementary source. Consider the fact that in the universe of any work that involves actors playing characters, it would be fair to assume the actors don’t exist within that work’s universe. The most brilliant, succinct explanation of this concept is found in the underrated existential action comedy “Last Action Hero,” when a kid enters the universe of a Schwarzenegger film. He finds that in a world without Arnold, logic dictates that the Terminator could very well have been played by Sylvester Stallone.

If I remember correctly, there was also a joke on “Seinfeld” once in which Frank Costanza reads about Jerry Stiller dying. This would prove that actors on a show could possibly still exist within that show’s universe, as odd as it would be for George Costanza’s perfect doppelganger to exist and for him to be an actor to boot. But the bottom line is, it wouldn’t be a joke if that wasn’t the case—and it’s only the case in the “Seinfeld” universe.

This idea is a overlapping concept between art and quantum mechanics. They many-worlds interpretation is too complicated, certainly for me, and possibly for anyone, to fully understand, but the basic principle is that every possible outcome of every possible divergence point exists in a universe somewhere within the “multiverse.” In other words, every single thing that could happen does happen, and it creates a new universe when it does. Does this mean that every choice the author of a work of fiction makes determines what real universe, out there amongst countless others, they end up describing? Who’s to say?

(By the way, it’s worth mentioning that the multiverse is, theoretically anyway, not the be-all and end-all. It is “simply” the collection of possible quantum configurations of our universe; it’s conceivable that there are more multiverses, as well as multiverse-type realms in other dimensions, that we don’t understand. The collection of everything, anytime, anywhere, in any dimension, is referred to as the “omniverse.”)

This panel depicting the DC Comics character the Flash existing in different forms in different universes illustrates the "many worlds" concept.

The medium that has undoubtedly explored this concept the most is comic books. Both DC Comics and Marvel Comics have made explicit references to the many-worlds idea and have taken advantage of it in far more ways than just depicting characters with superpowers. They’ve had DC and Marvel characters fighting each other, transported their characters into the Renaissance, and imagined what it would be like if Superman had landed in the Soviet Union rather than America. There was even a storyline in which the Fantastic Four made their way to our Earth, in which Marvel Comics is a company that produces stories about them, to beg “God” (author Jack Kirby) to save a particular character’s life. This is all while within the many-worlds framework, which ends up being an elegant solution to any potential continuity problems—and, incredibly, a scientifically plausible one at that.

I really like the idea that every story that has ever been conceived is part of the actual omniverse. Everything that you have ever imagined has happened. So when it comes to “The Office,” why can’t two office managers, who presided over an episode-long period of strikingly identical events, exist together? It doesn’t make much sense in our universe, but in the “Office” universe? Why not?

The only point I want to make here is this: You can look at the creation of art and fiction as wondrous, magical even, and I certainly do. But you can also look at it in terms of tapping into the most incredible potential realities that science tells us could exist. And I think that’s pretty damn cool.

One of the most amazing stories of “Star Trek” is a Deep Space Nine episode, “Far Beyond the Stars,” in which Captain Sisko has visions of himself as a sci-fi writer struggling to get his stories—about space station Deep Space Nine and its commanding officer, Ben Sisko—published in segregated America. Even if racist editors prevent his work from being published, he insists, his creations still exist because “you can’t destroy an idea.”

It’s the End of MTV as We Know It, and I Feel Fine

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In 1981, MTV was the first to land on the Moon.

The 24th MTV Video Music Awards, held on September 9, 2007, represented some kind of low-water mark in the channel’s history. This edition of the VMAs halved the number of awards, renamed the surviving ones to joky titles like “Most Earthshattering Collaboration” and “Monster Single of the Year” and solidified MTV’s party-all-the-time image by eschewing classier venues like Radio City for the Palms in Las Vegas.

With so many negative MTV elements coming to a head, it may have seemed appropriate when Justin Timberlake, accepting the award for Best Male Artist, expressed what many think is the reason for MTV’s ills. “Play more damn videos!” he said. “We don’t want to see the Simpsons [these ones] on reality television. Play more videos!”

Today, that metaphorical Moon (of places you can watch music videos) looks like this.

I’ve talked to many people my age who feel similarly. I can see why they do, at least at first blush; I’m as nostalgic about MTV as the next Echo Boomer. But I think when it comes down to it, in today’s world, it’s clear that both we and MTV are better off if they don’t bother too much with videos.

Before MTV launched in 1981, music videos had already been receiving considerable attention in the U.K. on “Top of the Pops” and elsewhere. But in the U.S. the format was mostly unknown, consigned to occasional appearances on variety shows, as between-movie filler on HBO and a pioneering program on the USA Network.

Of course MTV changed that, and the music video would go on to alter the direction of film editing and change fans’ sensory understanding of popular music forever. When it began MTV was basically the only place to see videos and therefore one of the best places around to learn about new music. After copycat shows on broadcast networks fizzled, it remained that way for a long while.

But you don’t need me to tell you that that isn’t the world we live in anymore. The Internet in general, and YouTube in particular, has put you, at this very instant, a few keystrokes away from virtually every music video ever produced.

So to sum up: Then, we had a single video at any given time doled to us by a massive media conglomerate whose primary objective was to garner ratings and get us to buy stuff; today, we have instant access to a Memory Alpha-like historical archive of the artform at any time or location we choose. I don’t yearn for the way of the past when it comes to this, and I don’t know why anyone would.

The movement of music away from the television and onto the Internet has been, in my view, an enormously positive development. When it was the dominant source of music videos, MTV was inert, a cultural master you could either choose to submit to or not. YouTube, music blogs, and the rest of the musical Internet is nothing like that. It doesn’t tell you what culture to consume and offer no alternative; it challenges you to seek out the culture that you, individually, will like the best. And if you accept the challenge (and to be sure, it is far more challenging than watching MTV), I think the results tend to be more rewarding.

Again, I’m sensitive to the feelings of those persons who fondly remember the days of “Celebrity Deathmatch,” “Say What? Karaoke” and videos being labeled “Buzzworthy” or “Spankin’ New,” because I am one. But, in this and many things, we shouldn’t confuse nostalgia with the way things should be now.

Nor should it be confused with a prudent business plan for MTV, not that MTV itself needs that advice. I can see a new Lady Gaga video on probably millions of different websites, but the only place I’m going to watch a new episode of “Teen Mom” (well, legally, anyway) is on MTV or MTV’s website. It’s clear that MTV foresaw this long ago, and if it hadn’t rededicated itself to original programming, there is no way it would be in existence today.

I don’t want to imply that I love what MTV is today, though. “Jersey Shore” is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how its reality programming has devolved into being about partying and little else, and the slow descent of “The Real World” to this territory is especially saddening. Even when MTV tries to consciously go against that impulse, the results sometimes to lead to some of the worst scripted programming I’ve ever seen.

That being said, there are positive things to be said about MTV, and I think what it has become—essentially, a channel catering to teenagers and young adults—is a great thing in theory at least. If “The Real World” no longer has many meaningful things to say about a generation, the prolific “True Life” definitely still does, and this year MTV also received the first “Excellent” rating in the history of GLAAD’s Network Responsibility Index which measures channels’ presentation of LGBT characters and issues.

One more point I’d like to address is the contention that a channel shouldn’t be acronymically calling itself “Music Television” if it isn’t about music. To that I say, you should only believe that if you believe AMC shouldn’t show “Mad Men” because it isn’t an “American Movie Classic” or that CBS shouldn’t show anything unrelated to Columbia Records music, since that was the origin of the name “Columbia Broadcasting System.”

Both of those channels, like MTV, realized they weren’t serving unique enough niches anymore, so they evolved. Just as, over the years, music consumers have evolved to embrace new technologies. Sometimes its messy, but I generally think that, in the end, evolution ends up benefiting everyone. I think even Justin Timberlake would agree with that.

Written by Dan Wohl

12.27.10 at 2:48 am

Why Do We Like Watching Terrible Movies (Even When NOT Trapped on the Satellite of Love)?

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From the $3.99 bin.

Most cinephiles I know like to watch bad movies. At least, they think they like to.

The $3.99 supermarket movie bin never fails to be oddly alluring. I speak from experience. My good friend and former roommate once acquired a VHS with a flimsy holographic cover called King Cobra at a Cub Foods in Minnesota. The cover promised “30 FEET OF PURE TERROR.” The back cover informed us that the man-eating beast of the title had a hilariously benign proper name: Seth. For months, possibly years, it laid near our TV, unwatched, but not forgotten.

We toasted King Cobra at parties. We practically sung paeans to it. We looked ever forward to finally watching it, but we put it off until about a week before we left and moved to New York. We had sold many of our possessions, said our goodbyes, and finally realized the time had come. We sat down, popped the tape in, and finally experienced King Cobra.

Guess what? It was not very good. There were definitely moments of incredible, breathtaking cheesiness. But was it really worth 90 minutes of my life? Maybe…but probably not.

The compulsion to not only accept but revel in the worst examples of a given art form is more or less specific to film people. It’s true that the Museum of Bad Art exists, but I am sure that music lovers, for instance, don’t derive the same kind of pleasure from, say, “Freaxxx” by Brokencyde as film lovers do from Plan 9 From Outer Space.

If Grindhouse, the Found Footage Festival and the fact that Armageddon is included in the Criterion Collection tell us anything, it’s that filmmakers and film scholars have a respect not just for the great films but for everything else too. Anyone can write a terrible short story, but the complexity of the filmmaking process makes every movie a small miracle.

I suspect this is why people watch bad movies. It’s astounding to witness the basic elements of film production—the use of expensive cameras, the consumption of precious film stock or digital memory, the recitation of lines from a screenplay someone wrote, special effects of any kind—in the employ of something so unworthy. I think there’s a sense that the work it takes to make a film at all is deserving of respect, and when a filmmaker squanders that work in a spectacular way, something entertaining (if not a little sad) comes about.

That’s my main problem with watching the supermarket bin film, or the Salvation Army-bought VHS, or the made-for-Syfy film of the week: At a certain point it stops being funny and starts feeling sort of depressing. That’s where Mystery Science Theater 3000, the sublime show about a man and his robot friends being forced to watch (and make fun of) terrible movies, comes in.

I won’t spend time talking about how funny it is—that’s already been done by everyone from Steven Spielberg to Neil Young. What I think is really significant about the show is how it makes watching bad movies not just fun but comfortable. Once the comical novelty of watching a bad movie (alone) wears off, you’re left with…well, watching a bad movie. But watching it with the company of Joel (or Mike if you must) and his robot friends puts everything in what I find to be an unexpected and pleasant context: where the films’ badness, ironically, is not the point as much as how we’re allowed to wallow in a cinematic arena we usually can’t stand spending much time in.

The theme music that opens MST3K included a line that I always found a bit odd:

If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes

And other science facts

Then repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show,

I should really just relax.”

It may have never been revealed how Joel or Mike ate or breathed, but to say the show didn’t care about its internal mythology would not be right. The living quarters of several characters are shown. Tom Servo being carried into the theater is explained by the fact that an air vent at its entrance that disrupts his hovering mechanism. Their ship travels through time and to the end of the universe on occasion.

Just like the B-movies it gleefully skewers, MST3K is a low-budget story that still cares about being a story. That kind of earnestness is at the heart of why Ed Wood is remembered, MST3K is so appealing, and the supermarket DVD bin remains so strangely tempting.

Written by Dan Wohl

06.26.10 at 12:52 am