[NO SPOILERS YET] Ricky Gervais’ new TV movie, Life on the Road, now on Netflix, suffers from the sort of mortifying errors committed by its protagonist, David Brent, the manager of The Office with whom the movie catches us up.
[TINY SPOILERS THAT WON’T SPOIL ANYTHING] The movie is amusing in some of the main ways the original The Office was. David Brent is an unself-knowing narcissist surrounded by people who see through him. It lacks the utterly charming office romance between Tim and Dawn (Jim and Pam in the US version). It lacks any other villain than Brent, unlike Gareth in the original (Dwight in the US version). It lacks the satire of office life, offering instead a satire of self-funded, doomed rock tour by an unknown, pudgy, middle-aged man. That’s not a thing, so you can’t really satirize it.
Still, Gervais is great as Brent, having honed uncomfortable self-presentation to an art, complete with a squealing giggle that alerts us to his inability to be ashamed of himself. And Gervais sings surprisingly well.
[SPOILERS] But then it ends suddenly with Brent being accepted by his band, by the office where he’s been working as a bathroom-supply salesperson, and by a woman. Nothing prepares us for this except that it’s the end of the movie and Gervais wants to give his character some peace and dignity. It’s some extraordinarily sloppy writing.
Worse, the ending seems way too close to what Gervais himself seems to want. Like Brent, he wants to be taken seriously as a musician and singer, except that Gervais’s songs are self-knowingly bad, in the style of Spinal Tap except racist. Still, you leave the movie surprised that he’s that good a singer and that the songs are quite good as comic songs. Brent-Gervais has achieved his goal.
Likewise, you leave thinking that Gervais has given us a happy ending because he, Gervais, wants to be liked, just as Brent does. It’s not the angry fuck-the-hicks sort of attitude Gervais exhibited during and immediately after The Office.
And you leave thinking that, like Brent, Gervais really wants to carry the show solely on his shoulders. The Office was an ensemble performance with some fantastic acting by Martin Freeman (!) as Tim and Lucy Davis as Dawn, as well as by Gervais. Life on the Road only cares about one character, as if Gervais wanted to prove he could do it all by his lonesome. But he can’t.
Ricky Gervais pulls his punches in this, not for the first time. Let Ricky be Ricky. Or, more exactly, Let Ricky be David.
In 1974, the prestigious scholarly journal TV Guide published my original research that suggested that the inspector in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment was modeled on Socrates. I’m still pretty sure that’s right, and an actual scholarly article came out a few years later making the same case, by people who actually read Russian ‘n’ stuff.
Around the time that I came up with this hypothesis, the creators of the show Columbo had acknowledged that their main character was also modeled on Socrates. I put one and one together and …
Click on the image to go to a scan of that 1974 article.
I have to say that I’m enjoying our new hammy acting style. But hammy isn’t the right word for it, since it implies a lack of craft. So I’ll call it plummy. (The fact that I’m a kosher vegetarian has nothing to do with this.) Our new plummy actors are fully in control of what they’re doing. They’re on purpose pushing it a little further than realness, knowing that we know that they’re doing so.
Had he gone for a Brando-like realism, Wolf would have been as depressing as businesspeople-are-shallow movies like 1959’s What Makes Sammy Run?
Every character in American Horror Story is plummy. Most of the actors on Justified are plummy. Well, the male actors. They get to have way more fun than almost all the women. (The exception: Margo Martindale who played Megs, the Big Bad in 2011. And guess what? She won an Emmy for it.)
I’m not saying this is an unprecedented style of acting. In some ways it’s similar to the old days when stars were visible through the roles they played: You could see Cary Grant behind the lines he suavely delivered, and you could see Marilyn Monroe through her bombshell comedienne roles. Or at least you thought you could.
But the current style of acting is different. These actors are as invisible in their roles as Brando’s generation was. But what they’re making of themselves on screen isn’t intended to be mistaken for real life captured by well-placed hidden cameras. They are clearly playing roles. They’re just playing the hell out of them.
So why the men more than the women? As everyone who has watched TV in the past five years has pointed out, the new great series have been dominated by stories of men struggling with their flaws. The women too often are there to “ground” the characters around them. They are often phenomenal actors — Edie Falcon? Get out of town! — but are just not allowed to push beyond the natural. I’m sure it’s all just a coincidence though.
Mad Men isn’t on this list because I think the acting aims for naturalism, perhaps because we already see the distance between the roles people play within their world and who they might be if they were less constrained by the 1950s and 1960s social norms.
I didn’t watch the Emmy’s, but I still didn’t like ’em. It’s not that I disagree with who got the Emmys (although I do). Rather, this TV year is a disproof of the Emmy’s premise. It has been arguably TV’s greatest year, too big for picking single favorites.
Much of this has to do with the flowering of the “100-hour narrative,” as Steven Johnson calls it. Stir in the way the Internet and the rise of DVRs and on-demand TV have returned control of our interest to us, and you have an amazing year of TV. I’m not even going to be able to list all the obviously great shows: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones. Even flawed shows had their perfections: the plummy acting on House of Cards, the delicious noir-ness of Justified, the incredible acting turns on Dexter. Yes, Dexter. Jennifer Carpenter was consistently amazing on that show as Dexter’s sister, and Michael C. Hall did a great job with a character who at heart was 85% gimmick. So You Think You Can Dance had an astounding year. (Try to ignore the audience sounds, and the Jenna Elfman sounds, for that matter. BTW, I’m also quite fond of this…and it’s not even his best work.) Even The Office had a great last season.
Now you’re going to want to be annoyed with me because I left out shows you thought were great. Good! You’re making my point. This was an amazing year for TV.
And from this set — much larger than these examples — you’re going to pick one best actor or one best drama? Give it up, Emmys. Give it up.
Actually, I take it back: BROAD THEMATIC SPOILERS AHEAD. No plot points, however.
Breaking Bad has become one of my favorite shows ever. Yours too, probably. But it didn’t start that way for me.
The first season was driven by its premise: what would happen if a kindly chemistry teacher had to cook meth to cover his medical bills? (Ok, so that spoiled the first episode for you. Really?) That season was a series of set pieces, the sort of things you’d imagine if you took that as your premise.
The next two seasons were driven (it seemed to me) by the escalating plot and by letting Walter grow into a role, as if the writers said, “What would happen if Walt became a Tony Montana, or a Tony Soprano, except really really smart?”
But in the last two seasons, the show became a living thing, driven not by premise, role, or plot. It has become emergent. And this is enabling it to explore themes — e.g., What is the nature of evil? Is there justice? Can we know ourselves? — without severing those themes from the people who are living through them.
[Still no spoilers] This is how the great dramas have worked. I’m reluctant to make the comparison, but there is no separating the character of King Lear, Macbeth, or Huckleberry Finn from the themes their works explore. Because the themes are worked through by highly specific people, it becomes impossible to decide exactly what the general lessons of the text are, which tells us something about the nature of morality. I like what Emma Smith says in her wonderful podcast lectures on Shakespeare: His plays unsettle questions.
Breaking Bad has become truly unsettling, and not just because of the violence or even because we can see ourselves in all of the characters. It is unsettling because it is pursuing themes through fully realized people in a world with no simple rules.
How Breaking Bad won’t end [SPOILERS about the story so far!!!]
SPOILERS about the story so far!!!
SPOILERS about the story so far!!!
So, here’s how I think the show will end, where “I think” should be read as “I know I’m wrong.”
The most recent episode, Ozymandias, was one of the best hours of TV ever. But one thing bothered me about it: Gomie. We see his body in the dirt, but not his face. The episode didn’t spend a second on the death of the only (almost) unsullied Good Guy in the series.
Now, maybe that’s the point. But it felt wrong. So here’s certainly how the next two episodes won’t go (a.k.a, proof that I am not Vince Gilligan).
I do think Walt has bottomed out and has begun the turn. He’s done the thing that even he has defined as the worst possible: turning Jesse over for a slow death, after tormenting him with how easily Walt could have saved the love of Jesse’s life. (I will accept the argument that ever since Walt poisoned the kid, he’s been running in circles at the bottom of the moral barrel.) But Holly’s “Ma ma ma” (wow, that kid can act!) has made him see that he doesn’t have a family and doesn’t deserve a family. So, he begins to do the best thing he can for his family, which is to pretend to be as evil as he actually is by lying about it having been all his fault, which of course it was. (Genius scene.)
In the final two episodes, I think Walt continues to try to turn things around as best he can. I expect no more rank evil from him. But this show is better than most about showing the consequences of our actions. So, how about this:
This Sunday’s episode begins with Gomez’s family coming to grips with his death. The DEA tells them Walter White was the killer. They’re heartbroken.
Walt comes back from the Bad Guy Protection Service in order to try to set some things right with his family. But just as he is about to take the ricin himself, Ms. Gomez shows up with a gun, fires … misses … and kills Skyler. (Maybe Walt Jr. instead, but I’m not made of stone.) Fade out to twangy Breaking Bad music.
If anything like this happens, you all owe me ONE MILLION DOLLARS.
I’m fairly good at associating the U.S. presidents of my lifetime with the decades in which they were in office. But, I find myself unhinged in time when it comes to the late night talkshow hosts. I am constantly surprised upon hearing, say, how long Leno has been on.
You too? Let’s find out. Here’s a quiz. (All answers authenticated by the experts at Wikipedia.)
Year Steve Allen started The Tonight Show. 1954
Year Jack Paar took over. 1957
Start and end years of Johnny Carson’s hosting of The Tonight Show. 1962-1992
When did Carson move the show from NY to Hollywood?. 1972
What year did the Tomorrow Show (which came on after the Tonight Show) start? 1973.
During what years did the Dick Cavett Show run on ABC as a late night show?Decemver 29 1969-Jan 1 1975, so we’ll accept 1970-1974 as accurate.
What year did Late Night with Letterman start?1982
Whom did Letterman replace? That is, who had been the host of the Tomorrow Show? Tom Snyder.
Who was host of The Tonight Show during most of the years that The Arsenio Hall Show was on? Carson. The Arenio show ran 1989-1994. Woo-woo!
Who was President during the year that Jay Leno first took over The Tonight Show? Clinton’s first year was 1993
When did Conan O’Brien take over Letterman’s Late Night? 1993
What year did Jimmy Kimmel’s late night show begin? 2003
What road served as a bizarre euphemism for “penis,” expressing a ritualized fear of castration, on Carson’s Tonight Show ? Slauson. Carson would give directions that included the line “Go to the Slauson Cutoff ,” followed by the audience co-recitation of “Cut off your slauson.” Hilarious.
What object did Ed Ames accidentally turn into a surrogate penis, resulting in the longest laugh in Tonight Show history? In 1965, he threw a hatchet that hit a target in the shape of man, landing in the man’s crotch. Hilarious.
Do we sense a disturbingly Freudian pattern here? Do trains enter tunnels?
Who played the non-endearing but frequent guest on the Tonight Show who went by the name “Aunt Blabby”? Carson. She was old, hard of hearing, possibly senile, nasty, and not funny.
What game show host had a late night talk show on a major network for a season? Pat “Wheel of Fortune” Sajak, on CBS, 1989-1990
What did Merv Griffin create that is probably known by the most people?The Jeopardy “waiting for an answer” theme music
Name the funniest sidekick on any late night talk show? Andy Richter
Have you ever seen a complete episode of Jimmy Kimmel’s late night show? No.
[Note that I’ve removed all the distributed “in my opinion”s from the following, and instead have concentrated them in this introductory paragraph. The following expresses nothing but my opinion:]
Tonight is the season finale of Mad Men, a show that I think has gone from good to great because it has outlived its premise.
Shows that start out with a strong premise often need a couple of seasons to find their way past it. The Sopranos, for example, initially revolved around the cute premise that a mob boss would have mother issues that drove him into analysis. The Sopranos was good from the beginning, but not because of the premise: the acting was amazing, the cast was large, the relationships were complex. It took a season or two for the Sopranos to develop the tragic sense that made its basic comedy so deep. Dexter likewise has gotten better (unevenly) as the starkness of the premise (decent guy except he has to kill people) has been surrounded by less extreme human drama. The same for the Mary Tyler Moore Show (a working girl who is ok with being single) and M*A*S*H (doctors kept sane by humor in an absurd foreign war).
Now, it may well be that what’s really happening is that it takes a couple of seasons for the relationships to develop that deepen a show. If the best of television has gotten more complex over time (as Steven Johnson argues in Everything Bad is Good for You), then the same is true within a series as well as across all series. TV series let us tell (in Steve’s words) 100-hour stories, and the first set of hours are necessarily not as developed as the later sets. During those early sets, the show relies more on its premise.
For me, Mad Men started out as a totally enjoyable series that focused on reminding us through mores and decor what life in the 1950s was really like. That first season was all about the wall art and the martini lunches. You could almost hear the writers’ meetings in which they’d say things like, “Oooh, you know what would be really cool? Let’s have an embarrassingly pretentious ‘bohemian’ ad guy who dates a black woman to make a statement,” or “Let’s make sure that all the offices have bars in them.” Now in its fourth season, there are plenty of period references, but the show is less about them. It’s about an amazing ensemble grappling with timeless issues within the constraints of their era. It’s blown way past its original inspiration. And that is awesome
[SPOILER ALERT for those who have not seen Season One:] My once concern is the series’ continued fascination with Don’s double identity. In the original idea for the show, that might have been the kicker that sold it to the TV executives: “So you have a show set in the 1950s as they really were. But what’s it about? What happens?” The fact that Don stole his identity long ago and is at risk of being discovered might have sounded like a good answer. But by now for me it’s a melodramatic contrivance that’s out of place in the series’ genuine drama.
The identity theft has shown up in this season. I’m afraid that the finale will come back to that as the cliffhanger. If so, it’s too bad. We don’t need it. There are enough cliffs already; this season has been about the humiliation and cleansing of Don Draper, a long night that is not yet over. Don Draper is fascinating enough without the silly dual identity backstory.
BTW, have I mentioned how much I love the acting? Even January Jones (Betty) is having a good year, perhaps because she’s out of the dramatic center and thus doesn’t have to try to round her character out to a full three dimensions. Every one of the rest of the women are phenomenal, expressing so much nuance and life within and through the limited social roles they are allowed to play — which is itself a heartbreakingly true reflection on the times. And I have to say that Don and Betty’s daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) is amazing. I don’t know how tonight’s episode will wrap up the season, but I do know that we will be watching this phenomenally gifted 12 year old for the rest of our lives.
Christian Sandvig is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk called “The Television Cannot Be Revolutionized.” [NOTE: I am live-blogging, making mistakes, getting things wrong, leaving things out, not spellpchecking. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK and do not assume this is an accurate reflection of Christian’s talk.]
He begins by crediting Gil Scott Heron for the title. He says he’s looking for a research agenda for studying TV, especially three bottlenecks: distribution, search, and genre.
He talks about a 1995 effort to create a cable channel (The Puppy Channel, then Channemals) that was all cute animals all the time. The creator’s market research showed it would capture a respectable 0.1% of the US TV market. So, he went to Rupert Murdoch, Barry Diller, and Ted Turner, but they thought it was “too weird” an idea for cable. He found it’d cost $17M to distribute it himself.
So, says Christian, the creator launched ThePuppyChannel.com. no one is watching it, but people are watching cute animals on YouTube, etc. The bottleneck has been broken, but it still looks like 1995. E.g., YouTube has a Rentals beta and puts ads everywhere. “YouTube is behaving like a television network and not like a tube for you.” The person behind the recent redesign (Margaret Stewart) of YouTube said “We want you to go into passive mode, sit back, and watch.” We used to think that the Net and Net TV were about interactivity.
TV is important, Christian says. A Ball State U study in 2009 looked at what Americans spend their time doing with media. 100% of people use the phone every day. People use video about 6 hours a day in the US. (This includes video on any device.) About 2/3 of views were on YouTube last year. Analysts say YouTube loses money, but Hulu is profitable. One possible conclusion: Dump amateur content.
Christian shows the power law distribution. What would be the ideal distribution, he asks. We don’t want a single producer of media. We don’t want only a long tail because then none of us share any single media content; that would be complete fragmentation. We don’t want only the head, because that’s media concentration, although it would at least give us enough shared experience to have a culture. In fact, says Christian, we shouldn’t be thinking simply about the shape of the curve. If we were talking about monetary income curves, we’d want to do a mobility analysis: How hard is it to move up the curve? It’s not so much the shape as whether you can move up it, he says.
“We seem to be in the process of building two Internets, Christian says, “which is worrying.” Getting your baby video up on YouTube is easy, and you don’t even need YouTube to do it. But, if you want to show the Olympics, NBC has to do a deal with a Net intermediary; if you tried to do it from the server under your desk, it wouldn’t work. History break: Adorno was exercised by the making industrial of culture via things like expensive, complex broadcast studios; the same is happening with the Net because we need expensive, complex hosting/edge-caching services.
A difference between broadcast and Net media: The head of the curve was purposefully built for TV, but emerged for the Net. TV started out with only local audiences because there were no national networks. After a lot of investment and lobbying, after 1962 we have a national TV system, built to satisfy advertisers.
The Net is supposed to be a cheaper form of distribution than TV. Is this true? If you use Amazon Web Services to distribute a video to a million people, is it cheaper than TV? It’s a hard comparison because TV bundles in the costs of building a market. So compare putting on a late-night one-minute infomercial. The costs are surprisingly similar.
Christian asks why more people aren’t doing research on this and on mobility. In part, he thinks, this is because of the way university departments are structured; they don’t always have people combine expertise in media and Net infrastructure.
Second bottleneck: Search. Videos become popular through being featured on distribution home pages, and on recommender systems. Chris Anderson says recommender systems help you find unpopular results. But there’s no reason for a system to design their algorithms that way, instead of promoting more popular systems. These systems look at things like featured videos (which can be paid placements). Steven Wittens in 2009 found that the algorithm tends to match view counts: If you look at a video, it will recommend other videos with the same or greater number of views.
Finally, the third bottleneck: Genre. How do unpopular things become popular? So much on YouTube apes the conventions of broadcast genres. Parodies of television sitcoms. Parodies of newscasts. Does mobility depend on adopting broadcast genres? Is YouTube just the A&R of the tv industry, externalizing the development of new talent?
Christian says he’s surprised that television seems to be going backwards. Distribution: He’s looking for ways to study this. And, he says, policy issues depend on this as well. E.g., Princeton has a distributed, p2p edge-caching system, sans Akamai. Search: See Frank Pasquale, Christian says. Search: Maybe vlogging, video game commentary, or animal videos are the new genre.
Q: Google says it puts user experience first. Are they betraying that at YouTube?Are they serving users by driving them to popular videos?
A: It’s hard, because people’s wants can be trained. Their search algorithms may reinforce popularity.
Q: You set up a dichotomy. TV is still transforming. There are more channels than content. TV is heading to the Net. Why not see this as a convergence?
A: I admit that in the framing I’ve emphasized a question of Internet exceptionalism. But, this, the Berkman Center, is Ground Zero for Internet exceptionalism.
Q: Maybe the conclusion is that people want mass hits and a long tail.
A: We don’t have good tools for arguing about what we want the shape of the curve to be, but we could about mobility.
Q: What about marketing? That makes a big diff about where you are in the curve. Networks are the biggest advertisers of themselves.
A: Yes, marketing is crucial. We’ve also unintentionally made capital requirements for distribution. I’d like a way to host a video that isn’t hugely expensive.,br>
Q: Why not be in the tail?
A: Chris Anderson says it’s finding your niche, but you could also call it total irrelevance. You want everyone to be able to construct culture.
Q: Isn’t BitTorrent the tool you’re looking for?
A: Any p2p performance tracks to page rank. The ones that will perform best are the ones that are popular.
Q: We want more bandwidth for the popular, and less for not popular.
A: We want a route to move from unpopular to popular. If I put it on my host, I’ll get hit if popular zooms.
Q: Could we be going back to the CompuServ model where we paid but the content was good?
A: Normatively, if we paid for it, there’d be a lot of advantages. Right now we have a sender-mostly-pays system, which is why we have edge-caching.
Q: How much does the culture of the users matter, vs. the culture of the distributors? What happens when users start to game the system?
A: One of the best way to find out about the algorithms is look to people who use these services a lot. E.g., the search engine optimizers. And the new users of new media tend to bring forward assumptions and behaviors from the old culture. Cf. Claude Fischer. Amanda Lotts in The Television Will Be Revolutionized focuses on the old industry. It’d be interesting to see how the old TV folks think about the new one.
Q: Content will flow uphill to money. TV has moved toward the Net. We watch when we want. We’ll see a merge of the two technologies. Understanding why some videos go viral would be valuable, because that will attract money.
A: It’s such a challenging research challenge. There are so many factors involved. But, I do want to say that my talk does recognize the influence of money.
Q: [yochai] You are proposing three distinct kinds of research projects: 1. Look at video creators and musicians. Mimi Ito on anime movie videos: they’re not primarily on YouTube. Look at how hard it is for a producer community to reach the relevant audience. And how important is that, normatively. 2. How much does a user see, read, or hear that is not news and that does not come through capital-intensive media? What is the flow of streams that people watch? We don’t know the answer to that. 3. What is the ability to set the agenda for what is broadly viewed as culture? MediaCloud looks at agenda-setting over time. Start with case studies. E.g., find 50 of the 895,000 viewers of the autistic kids YouTube.
A: This talk is a reaction against looking at how artists reach their desired communities. Lots of research is being done on this. How virtuous communities arise is not the most pressing question. More important: Are there new cultural gatekeepers arising?
A: Imagine that the answer of #2 is the 40% spend 50% of their time on content that doesn’t reach more than 100 people…
Q: Anita Elbersee [sp] says that the Web is magnifying the impact of blockbuster media. This gives the mainstream little incentive to be revolutionized. What’s the impetus to change?
A: Chris Anderson’s book doesn’t hold together because what drives things down the tail you could argue the other way, e.g., the recommender algorithms I talked about. So, what’s the incentive? There’s no “charlie bit my finger” lobby. There are beginning discussions about open video standards. I’d like to see more of a counterpoint to the mainstream approaches. The institutional impetus isn’t there. In most user-produced content, you don’t see revolution, nor would you expect to. Maybe I was being naive.
Q: If you kill the edge-caching business, why wouldn’t everyone get what they want?
A: The fact that you have to rely on third party hosting has effects broadly.
This event will be webcast live at 12:30 pm ET and archived on our site shortly after.
Video on the Internet briefly promised us a cultural future of decentralized production and daring changes in form–even beyond dancing kittens and laughing babies. Yet recent developments on sites like YouTube, Hulu, and Fancast as well as research about how audiences watch online video both suggest a retrenchment of structures from the old “mass media” system rather than anything daring. In this talk I’ll argue that choices about the distribution infrastructure for video will determine whether all our future screens will be the same.
Christian Sandvig is a Fellow of the Berkman Center and Associate Professor in Communication, Media, and at Coordinated Science Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He holds the Ph.D. in communication from Stanford University. In 2006 he received the Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation in the area of Human-Centered Computing.
All part of what one might see as the Berkman Center’s recent (past couple of years) theme that the Internet isn’t working out the way some of us hoped. (Note that the Berkman Center doesn’t really have a theme. I’m just pointing to a trend that may be more of a result of selective perception on my part, reflecting changes in my own thinking.)
Note the info about RSVPing if you want to attend, and the fact that it will be webcast live…
HuffingtonPost has a scene from Big Bang Theory with the laughtrack removed:
The stated point is that a show with the laughtrack removed is funnier, but in a different and unintended way. But, the experiment is more provocative than that. (Big Bang is filmed in front of a live audience.)
BTW, Big Bang is on our TiVo list. I sort of like it because it’s good within its genre, as opposed to, say, Two and a Half Men, which is bad within its genre, but also as opposed to, say, Frasier, which was superb within its genre, and as also opposed to, say, Seinfeld which was hilarious as a self-conscious awkward inhabitant of its genre. (Please note that these are what I find funny, not what I think you ought to find funny. Except for Two and a Half Men. Gotta draw a line somewhere :)