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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (12/22/08) 8:01pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Police Squad!, The Wire [5x10] [spoilers], Dead Like Me [1x07-1x10]
Books:  Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights [audiocourse], Convergence Culture

Police Squad!
This was the TV show that Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker made after Airplane!.  It was cancelled after six episodes, but became a cult favorite and went on to spawn the Naked Gun movies.

This is the first TV show I've seen that reminds me of Austin's improv scene.  I'm sure part of this is because I recently watched a couple nights of Cochise!, IfE's improvised 70s cop show.  But that's not the only factor.

Police Squad! is very, very plot-light -- you don't get much sense of (say) acceleration or rising stakes or sudden twists at the ends of the acts.  Basically, there's just enough plot to string all the jokes together.  In improv, plot is very, very difficult -- difficult to the point that a lot of improv traditions abandon narrative completely for free-form collections of games and scenes.  I've never seen a long-form with a plot I'd call 'elegant', and I never see anything like the careful construction behind the plots of even mediocre TV shows these days.

The result is that plot tends to be a bit of a mess in most improv I see, and that gives it the same light, episodic feel as Police Squad!  So that's probably part of it.

But I'm betting most of the similarity is from the sense of humor employed.  Many of the jokes on Police Squad! are non sequiturs -- moments of complete randomness that (apart from the occasional giant-foot statue) you never see in television, but that you always see in improv.

Police Squad! also has clear "game" scenes -- I mean scenes similar to sketch comedy, where something funny happens early in the scene and the funny thing gets heightened repeatedly for two or three minutes.  For example, there's a poker game that starts normally (men bet money), then proceeds to something wacky (men bet monopoly money), then proceeds to something wackier (men bet random objects[1]).

Improv is frequently all about 'finding the game' in a scene.  You watch the start of a sketch like a hawk, determine something funny that's going on, and find a way to make it more and more extreme over the course of a few minutes.  Or there's the UCB take on it, where you come onstage with a game in mind, make it obvious to everyone what the game is with your first line, and (again) spend three minutes heightening that premise.  Even if you start in a style of improv that eschews 'game', you come around to incorporating 'game' into your skillset.

By contrast, most television comedy is not game-based.[2]

Traditionally, TV comedies approach humor from a different angle.  For instance, verbal wit is all over the place in TV.  (Think of David Spade's zillion put-downs in Just Shoot Me, or the running catchphrases in Seinfeld.)  Verbal wit is nowhere in improv -- most likely because a good bon mot usually takes time and deliberation to polish, but also because the audience rarely likes to see an improv performer really straining to be funny instead of just committing to the scene.  And that sort of wit isn't found in Police Squad!, either.

Instead, Police Squad! goes for a constant barrage of puns.  Puns are apparently beneath the dignity of TV and improv (apart from the occasional line game), so their presence is neither here nor there in terms of this argument. 

The other kind of TV humor I want to talk about is 'character humor'.  I use this phrase to mean when a show gets laughs just because characters are being themselves.  You don't laugh because Frasier said something funny or because Frasier did something absurd -- you laugh because, yes, that's exactly what Frasier would do. [3]

It makes perfect sense that you never[4] see this sort of humor in improv.  It's a style of humor that takes a lot of time to nurture -- the audience has to see these characters in action for hours and hours and get to know them over the course of months (or even years) for "Frasier acting like Frasier" to feel like a payoff.  Improvisors don't have enough time to set that up that audience rapport in a narrative longform, let alone in a three-minute skit.

And it makes sense that you wouldn't see this in Police Squad!.  After all, the whole series was only six half-hours long.  But even within that run, the show wasn't about setting up characters we'd get to know who we'd laugh with rather than at.  It's about setting up broad and simple characters who can make the jokes work.  Again, I'd say this aligns Police Squad! with improv much more than it does with other TV.

That said, watching this show is a great relief.

God, I've wasted so much time with comedies that desperately tried to convince me of their pop-culture acumen instead of trying to make me laugh.  I've seen so many shows that felt more like writers trying to seem cool than humorists trying to be funny.  Hell, even Arrested Development and Blackadder have grounded protagonists onhand to provide the sort of withering sarcasm that  'takes the curse' off the outsized and silly characters around them.

Police Squad! goes straight for silly, guns for it 100%, and makes no apologies.  If you're too damn hip for it, for god's sake change out the DVD for something that lets you feel cleverer than Police Squad! fans.  The commentary track is exactly what you'd expect.  There's no explaining the jokes, there's no picking out why this or that is clever.  It's almost all Z/A/Z falling about with hearty, from-the-gut laughter.

And thank god for that.

The Wire [5x10] [spoilers]
And now, the exact opposite cop show.

The last disc of The Wire contains "-30-", which is the end of everything, the last episode of the last season.

So.  How does it end?

I guess we could call this the anti-Sopranos ending.  I assume we all know how The Sopranos ended.  I know how it ends, and I have yet to watch the show[5]  If you don't know, skip ahead to the line of hyphens.

The mob drama ends with that notorious cut to black.  The episode answers nothing.  David Chase, pressed about it in what few interviews he allowed, answered nothing.  Different viewers took away different things.  Some figured Tony'd been offed at that very moment, claiming that the show itself included (very cryptic) clues to that effect.  Some (like Alan Sepinwall) figured it was just the end of our window onto Tony Soprano's -- our view stopped at an arbitrary point, and Tony's fictional life would keep on going.

Say what you will about it, it's a glorious upraised middle finger to the traditional end of a show.

The end of The Wire goes all the way the other way.  This show may be dense and demanding -- David Simon has repeatedly said, "F**k the average viewer." -- but it's rarely cryptic.  This is a show that puts the episode's most significant piece of dialog on a title card before the episode begins, fercrissake.  It has clear messages to get across.[6]


So what's the message here?

Honestly, I'm reminded of the first time the Borg show up in Star Trek:  The Next Generation(I know, I know -- bear with me a moment.)  There's a point where the Enterprise lays in a direct hit on the Borg Cube.  A section of the cube blows up real good.  The good guys have inflicted serious damage.

And then there's a horrifying moment where you see the cubical ship begin to neatly heal itself up.  All the torn wiring reattaches.  All the plates reseal.  And soon it's good-as-new.

That's when you realize just how badly the good guys are screwed.

That feels like the apt metaphor here.  You see this sick system, this failing municipal government.  And then you see it take a serious blow.  Carcetti, a reformer gets into the top job.  Daniels, unwilling to juke the stats, becomes police commissioner.  The top drug kingpin in the city gets taken out of the game.  The system has taken a serious blast.  Surely things can't go on the way they were, right?  Surely things have to change?

And yet, like the Borg Cube, the corrupt, ineffectual system somehow seals the breach.  Marlo goes away; Slim takes his place.  Bubbles comes clean; Dookie becomes a junkie.  Nerese and Treintopf knock Daniels out; Valchyk, the ultimate stat-juker, becomes commissioner.  Even Omar has Michael taking his place as the Robin Hood that preys on the drug trade.[7]  Round and round we go, like all the circular images that crop up in the opening credit sequences.

It is a system that preserves itself.  In five years, everything has changed for the characters, but the big picture is still the same.  To paraphrase one commenter, it may not have been the best episode, but it was the right ending.

But that's all basically plot summary.  I'd like to talk about my particular response to the episode.

More specifically:  this episode got me thinking about how a TV show can leverage its denseness.  Let me explain what I mean by that.  If you have a TV show that doesn't hit the 'reset' button at the end of each episode, and you let that TV show run for a long time, you get a lot of source material to draw from.  You've established characters, and locations, and histories.  So it makes sense that, here in the 60th hour of the show, everything is recycled.

The leak at the courthouse is a minor, ignorable character we've seen a few times throughout the show.  The new police commissioner was a central character from way back in season two.  Hell, the corner where Bunk and Kima catch a murder is the same place we saw the murder that started the whole series.  It's like suddenly you get all of this resonance 'for free'.  Even if it were badly written, just the fact that you're seeing these people and places that have been so familiar for so long carries some significance.

And there's also the fact that season five established a fairly elaborate plot.  What this means is that *no* character in season five has a complete understanding of what went down in season five.  This sort of situation -- the fancy term is 'audience superiority', meaning that the audience knows what the characters don't -- is gold for writers, because it lets you set up situations where the characters get surprised.

Why is it good to surprise your characters?

Well, let's set up sort of a 'canonical audience-superior situation'.  A man walks down the street.  Just around the corner, we the audience see a mugger in a dark alley.  Why is that automatically better than a scene where it's just the guy walking down the street?

First off, we know something significant is going to happen.  He'll get mugged?  He won't get mugged?  He'll realize the mugger is his long-lost twin?  Okay, that last possibility is unlikely, but the general principal still holds:  there are a lot of dramatic ways the scene can go, and this draws our imagination in as we project all the outcomes.

There's another possibility:  the man will get killed.

Why do I bring this up?  I want to make the point that surprise inherently raises the stakes of what's going on.  Most people crave safety.  We lead lives that ensure that things don't go particularly wrong.  The average problems we face are the ones we're prepared for, and the outcomes run a limited emotional gamut between 'mild pleasure' and 'irksome inconvenience'.

But when we get surprised?  Then things can go very, very badly.  If the man is just walking down the street, the outcome is pretty much "he reaches his destination".  If the man knows about the mugger, the outcome is "he avoids the mugger".  But if the mugger is lurking there, then it's life or death.

And this contrived example really does apply to the show.  If McNulty doesn't know that Kima ratted him out, then he's going to be surprised when she tells him.  If Templeton doesn't know about the fake serial-killer phone call, he'll be surprised when McNulty tells him.  If Carcetti doesn't know that the serial killer is fake, he sure as hell will be surprised when he finds out.

All these characters find ways to dig themselves deep into trouble, and we just wait for the writers to spring the trap, and we wait to see if these characters can wriggle free.[8]  And even when they *don't* spring the trap, audience-superiority can help the drama.  For example, Levy never figures out that Herc stole Marlo's phone number, but the possibility is always there, and it adds tension to their scenes.

I'll leave the last word to Alan Sepinwall, who writes so damn beautifully about TV that I am driven to despair.  In his review of the episode, he talks about what might be his favorite thing about the show:
"I'm sure somehow, someone's going to figure out how to build on what Simon, and Burns, and Colesberry and Pelecanos and Price and Lehane and everyone else here created.  And I look forward to watching and writing about that show when it comes.  Watching 'The Wire' may have made me terribly pessimistic about the future of our country, but it fills me with hope for the future of TV."

Dead Like Me [1x07-1x10]
Believe it or not, I don't have much to say about this latest batch of episodes.  Disc three includes "Reaper Madness", "A Cook", "Sunday Mornings", and "Business Unfinished".  Bryan Fuller is gone from his show, and with him goes most of the show's ambition.

It does stay entertaining enough.  The remaining staff take the playset that Mr. Fuller set up and find interesting enough things to do with the figurines.  But it feels oddly purposeless.  Is there any really compelling reason why I needed to see Rube take on short-order-cook duties at Der Waffle Haus?  Was there any point in episodes one through six where I thought, "I really need to see Daisy et al run an elaborate con on a dead woman's son!"?

The first batch of shows had a sort of momentum to them, as George's family splintered under the strain of bereavement, as tensions mounted between Rube and his superiors, as George fumbled towards some sort of purpose in post-life.  It was episodic, but each episode was the next piece of the puzzle, neatly ticking off each of the questions I had about the setup and building long arcs for the season.

Now it's just a show.  It's amusing in places, and interesting in places.  The shows are a little more self-contained, a little more reset-button-y.  There are clear moral lessons delivered in voiceover at the end of the show, lessons learned that don't really last from one episode to the next.

I guess I'll watch the rest of season one, probably giving it only half my attention while I fold laundry or something.

Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights [audiocourse]
This is the Teaching Company audiocourse about the Bill of Rights.

This was a challenging listen.  The year's tidal wave of political coverage reminded me of just how little I knew about civics, and this audiocourse seemed like a nice means of learning at least a little bit about American government.[9]

Perhaps predictably, I spent most of the course feeling like I'd accidentally jumped into the deep end of the pool.  I went into this knowing nothing about law, and proceeded through the audiocourse without doing any of the suggested additional reading, so it was a struggle to keep up.  Okay, what was "the establishment clause" again?  Wait, what was Lemon v. Kurtzman?  (Keeping names of cases straight in my head was a particular bugbear, and taking it in via the audio format didn't help.)  I didn't have an existing framework of knowledge to plug these new facts into, so I had to try to latch onto all the facts at once.

All in all, I think I only learned the broad strokes of the material.

I was intrigued by the work that the Supreme Court does -- taking a very spare Constitution and somehow building a logical structure to get from the Constitution's simple (and in many cases, infuriatingly-vague) specifications all the way to the case at hand.  It was surprising to me that there were cases where they had to throw their hands up, say "the Constitution doesn't say what to do here", and effectively punt the problem to the legislature.

I admit, I spent -- I should say "wasted" -- a lot of my time trying to sort out the instructor's politics.  Whenever Professor Finn stated a liberal viewpoint, I assumed it was just a sop to my side of the fence.  Whenver he stated a conservative viewpoint, I assumed, "Ha!  That's what he *really* believes!"  This, of course, says far more about me than it does about him.  I think the teacher was just relating the opinions of the court, and the court has, of course, drifted rightwards with recent conservative appointments.

Frankly, I came away from this audiocourse feeling a lot dumber than when I went in, but I suppose that's mostly a matter of perception.  It just lays out so many questions.  When they start out (say) the discussion about freedom of religion, you think you're on steady ground, but when Professor Finn breaks it down to the question, "Okay, well what *is* religion?", one's brain starts hurting.

Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins
I have a message for all the world's somewhat-inexperienced nonfiction-book writers:  there is no shame in writing a book of essays.

No, really.  Nobody will think less of you if you take a collection of your articles, bundle them up into convenient book-like form, and sell it for a reasonable price at various bookstores.  Nobody will say, "A book of essays?  Bah!  I demand a nonfiction book that presents one contiguous argument, start to finish!"

Convergence Culture is a book of essays.  It's a book of moderately well-written essays with fairly interesting ideas, covering the quirky mutations and restructuring of modern media.  It's the sort of material that the mainstream media -- whose entertainment coverage is mostly Us Magazine-style gossip and weekly-box-office horse-race coverage -- usually has no idea how to approach.[10]  It's as if the entertainment business doesn't realize that their whole business model is getting rewritten.

It's an interesting subject, but the author has done a lousy job of trying to pound his essays into a single argument.  He opens with an introduction where he tells us about 'convergence culture'.  Or rather, he tries to, and mostly fails.  He tries to explain what "convergence" means, but he ends up in the marshes of "I can't tell you what <foo> is, but I *can* tell you it includes <x>, <y>, and <z>."  As for "convergence culture", apparently that includes even more stuff.

And don't even try to sieve a thesis statement out of this introduction.  Maybe it's unrealistic to expect the writer to say, "Here is exactly the precise point I am trying to prove about... about this vague, hand-wavey concept with a neat-sounding name that I just made up."  But I expected some overarching point like "Convergence culture will cause <x>, and I will prove it in this book," or "Convergence culture will prevent <y>, and I will prove it in this book."

Instead of one overarching statement, he goes through a long, meandering list of all the things that "convergence culture" will do for us.  I think "convergence culture" juliennes onions and prevents colorectal cancer in four out of five at-risk patients -- but then again, my memory is unreliable and my attention tended to wander from the page.  After the giant list, he presents an enthusiastic and mission-statement-like sales pitch that doesn't really add up to anything.  If this book has a point, it's nothing more than "Convergence culture is" -- no, wait, let's cut that stupid nonce phrase -- the point is nothing more than "All this new-media stuff is neat."

Then you flip back to the end of the acknowledgements, and it starts to make sense:  "Parts of chapter 1 appeared as 'Convergence is Reality', Technology Review, June 2003."  That is the first of two *pages* of "I copy-pasted this out of an article I wrote a few years ago"-style credits.

Ah.  It's basically all these articles he wrote in the mid-00's, cobbled together into one book.  So of course there's a vague, ungainly introduction that tries valiantly to pretend that this is all a single, perspicacious argument about one thing instead of a shambolic bundle of teensy little observations.  And of course the individual essays get tweaked so that they reference the vague, overarching point he's almost managing to make.

Ugh.  Why couldn't he just say, "Hey, I'm a media professor.  I've written some cool articles about media.  Here they are!"

Seriously:  no shame in a book of essays.

The essays themselves are clever and interesting.  The first chapter -- the one scavenged from Technology Review -- covers the online communities devoted to 'spoiling' the show Survivor -- that is, discovering all the show's twists and turns before the episodes are actually broadcast.  It's a massive collaborative effort, drawing in botanists, weather experts, satellite-photo analysts, and good-old-fashioned wannabe-detectives, and there's a love-hate relationship between the superfans on the spoiler sites and the beleaguered TV-series producers.

It's the first of dozens of media scenarios that couldn't exist outside of today's media environment:  giant, rapacious media mega-conglomerates on one side, and a swirl of amoeba-like grassroots Internet collaborations on the other.  The media conglomerates keep inventing mechanisms for distributing media, the consumers keep inventing mechanisms for playing with media, and there are lots of border skirmishes between them.

It doesn't add up to an argument, but it does add up to an interesting picture.  And it's hard not to get caught up in Mr. Jenkins's brand of rah-rah-soon-we-will-buy-our-cat-food-on-the-Internet enthusiasm.  The changes in American media are indeed fast-moving, and significant, and genuine.  The individual's capacity to learn, to collaborate, and to broadcast has greatly expanded. 

Still:  never discount the future's ability to find a way to be boring and stupid.

Side note:  it was amusing to hear him wax enthusiastic about (say) the Matrix sequels -- or worse, the Matrix video games.  Such projects do reflect the 'transmedia storytelling' ideas he holds so dear.  But they do suck rather categorically -- even those of us who live and breathe the Interwebs thought those sequels were laughable garbage.  But Mr. Jenkins can't help describing how *awesome* these things are because of their novelty.

For next time:  Christmas will eat up most of my media-consuming time.  Or more precisely, I'll wind up watching brain-dead entertainment newscasts and long, tedious stretches of The History Channel instead of anything worth posting about.  But I will pack my DVD of A Charlie Brown Christmas, for what that's worth.

Also I've started reading As You Like It -- many thanks to judovich and saratchka for sending the Arden editions of that play and of Coriolanus for Christmas. :)

Music-wise, I'm still listening to Mendelssohn.  Podcast-wise, I'm catching up on several months of The Economist's American-news podcast.  Nothing too exciting.

[1] Note that this is, therefore, another non sequitur joke.

[2] Many improvisors and sketch-comedy writers argue that *all* comedy is game-based.  This seems reasonable, though I tend to roll my eyes at any such Grand Unified Theory of Funny.  If this is true, then I'd say television comedy is much more *subtle* about the game structures it employs -- the games are nowhere near as close to the surface.[2b]

[2b] To clarify:  I'm talking about narrative storytelling here.  Sketch comedy, of course, almost always has a game structure.

[3] Side note:  I don't particularly like Frasier.

[4] ... or technically "*I* never" -- this is a passive 'you', and I'm only referring to my own experience with improv.

[5] This brings up the side issue of how I can claim to know anything about television when I haven't watched The Sopranos (or Deadwood, come to think of it).  In my defense, I can only plagiarize from Roger Ebert:  I am awed by the number of shows I have seen, and awed by the number I have
not seen.

[6] ... of course, the attitude we're supposed to take towards these messages are left a bit up in the air.  I've seen liberals defend the show for its excoriation of the war on drugs; I've seen conservatives embrace it for its withering takedown of bloated, ineffectual social institutions.

[7] ... in a scene that many people thought took the whole 'cyclical' thing to a ridiculous length.

[8] A side note:  it's also solid characterization, when you show how a person reacts to/deals with the unexpected.

[9] The fact that nekomouser has a copy of the U. S. Constitution on his person at all times may have also been a source of inspiration.

[10] The exceptions to this rule are the TV critics.  Television is going through all sorts of upheaval these days.  It's uncertain how studios will even make money off of television in the future.  TV critics understand this, and so they have more to say about all the sea changes in the world of media. 

Film critics, by contrast, lead a more ivory-tower existence.  The movie business is nowhere near as chaotic and shifty as the TV business:  they still make two-hour pieces of narrative-fiction and distribute them to theaters and DVDs.  So the critics are removed from this whirlpool of media zaniness; it's like they live in a world without the Internet, without ancillary content, and without fandom.  Instead, maybe they peevishly observe that movies are getting stupider all the time, but that's about it.

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