Where Pilots Matter?: Amazon’s January 2015 Pilot Cycle

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 12.18.10 PMPilots are not made for normal audiences.

When you make a television pilot, your audience is a group of network executives who make final decisions and test audiences who are used as a barometer of how America will respond to said pilots. It’s why pilots tend to be bigger, and broader, and in general more attention-grabbing—for better or for worse—than episodes that come after.

In this way, Amazon’s “democratic” pilot process—in which they make their pilots available online for audience voting before making final pick-up decisions—is not necessarily out of the ordinary. Writers and producers have always known that their work would need to meet dueling expectations of executives and audiences, so we have yet to see a completely new approach to television pilots emerge from the process.

However, the way each of this year’s comedy and drama pilots—I’m excluding the kids’ shows—engages with the specificity of the Amazon experience has been particularly fascinating for me, even in its subtlety. Part of this stems from the overdetermined nature of the audience feedback within rhetoric surrounding the series: in Amazon’s universe, customers are selecting what shows go on the air. Forget for a moment their Golden Globe-winning Transparent drew the least customer votes and scored the lowest customer scores during its pilot process—in Amazon’s mind, this is about the audience, and so it makes sense for producers to angle harder in that direction and play to their assumed test audience.

Yet this is further amplified by the fact that there is even less clarity than usual regarding what precisely Amazon is looking for. Whereas working with a broadcast network or established cable channel gives you a basic sense of brand identity and programming strategy, Amazon has been all over the map, making it up as they go along. While we can start to see trends in their focus on Transparent’s awards success, we still have no clear sense of who their perceived audience is, or what their demographic priorities are. Do they want shows for men or women? Are they privileging comedy or drama? We don’t even know how many shows they’re willing to pick up, given that they have no “schedule” with empty slots, and have theoretically bottomless pockets from which to fund their move into original programming.

It’s plausible that those creating this cycle of Amazon pilots know more than we do about Amazon’s plans, but the fact remains that the audience is the clearer target, and there are a range of strategies that the pilots unfurl to ensure positive responses and high scores in the areas that they believe count most—or at least count a little—with Amazon.

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Making A Point?: Transparent, Gina Rodriguez, and Visibility at the Golden Globes

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Upon accepting her Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama Series, The Affair’s Ruth Wilson shared the story of her first Golden Globe nomination for the 2007 miniseries, Jane Eyre. That nomination came in the year of the Writer’s Strike, when the 2008 Golden Globes were announced in an Entertainment Tonight-style telecast as opposed to the lavish Beverly Hilton celebration we have come to associate with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s annual “kudos.”

My first reaction to Wilson’s story was a little bit of shock at her bluntness at admitting she had been disappointed to lose that award (to Queen Latifah)—that’s rare. However, upon reflection, her callback to that particular year puts the meaning of this year’s Golden Globes and my shifting relationship with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in perspective.

There are likely a wide range of political reasons why the Golden Globes were unable to negotiate for the waiver that could have saved the 2008 ceremony, and given that the Oscars faced a likely boycott had the strike not ended it’s not as though the HFPA were alone in their contention with the WGA regarding the place of award show broadcasts during the strike (only the SAG Awards, due to Guild solidarity, won a waiver). However, something about the Golden Globes seemed particularly at odds with the climate in Hollywood during the writer’s strike: when the city of Los Angeles is dotted with picket lines, it seems weird to throw a lavish party at the Beverly Hilton.

That narrative of the Golden Globes as a celebration where the booze is flowing and the stars are mingling is dominant in popular press depictions of the ceremony, and it’s in general what made the absence of a televised ceremony so strange in 2008: When the whole point of the Golden Globes is to see the stars attending a dinner banquet that is occasionally interrupted by presenters and acceptance speeches, the absence of the ceremony itself leaves only a series of awards determined by a highly selective, largely unheralded collection of foreign press correspondents who write about the film and television industries. And if the Golden Globes are asked to stand on their merit rather than their showmanship, the house of cards typically falls quickly, as evidenced by Wes Anderson’s tongue-in-cheek acceptance speech for The Grand Budapest Hotel thanking the members by name, a list that either proves their names are unrecognizable or imagined them as gibberish to reinforce our ignorance.

And yet the 2008 Golden Globes Ceremony that wasn’t is a reminder that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association wants the Golden Globes to be more than a party. In fact, it seems right to say upfront that the Golden Globes, more than any other award show, exists as a platform for its voting body to make grand proclamations about the state of film and television. Its two most dominant trends in television awards—fetishizing new series over old, and heralding the arrival of young female stars—have often been derided, but usually with the presumption that the purpose of an award show is to determine the best in a given genre or medium. And, to be fair, this is how the Golden Globes and every other award show in existence tends to frame their purpose, and so we are not unreasonable to question their quick judgments.

However, the fact is that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association wants to have an impact. In most years, this has typically been framed as their wanting to claim responsibility for creating new stars—Keri Russell and Jennifer Garner are among the most commonly referenced—or for influencing the race for the Academy Awards, positioned as they are as a natural precursor. They want to be first, which is why in 2008 they were the first voting body to acknowledge AMC’s Mad Men—in fact, the 2008 Golden Globes remains the only time Jon Hamm has been awarded for his work on the show (which also won for Best Drama), a fact we often forget since we never got to see the surely charming speech Hamm would have given. Through this lens, we could think of what impact the Globes could have had if the winners from that year in both film and television had been able to take to the stage, provided we buy into the notion that a charming speech or a Golden Globe victory carries weight into subsequent award shows.

Mad Men didn’t end up needing the boost in visibility: it went on to win its first of four consecutive Emmy awards at that year’s Emmys with or without Matthew Weiner getting up to thank AMC for taking a chance on his vision or some such. But given how few people watched the first season of Mad Men, and the strength of the show, one could argue the HFPA was attempting to make a statement about this show being worth seeking out even though it wasn’t a big hit or on a cable channel with an existing reputation. As much as Mad Men now seems like a juggernaut in awards circles, it wasn’t when the HFPA nominated it, and they were technically the first to acknowledge it (although SAG followed shortly after with an Ensemble award).

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This is a generous reading, and it’s difficult to accept in the context of an organization that conceivably nominated Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie for The Touristin the Comedy/Musical category, no less—simply because they wanted Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie to show up to their party . And yet it was hard watching this year’s television awards without thinking that the Golden Globes are a key space of visibility, in which the winners in their respective categories are honored not only for the quality of their work but for what their win would communicate to the audience. Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt wins for a sexual assault storyline, acknowledging the story’s impact on survivors in her speech; Matt Bomer, whose winning role in The Normal Heart more visibly captured the horrors of AIDS that were ignored by those in power in the period depicted in the film; Jane The Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez, following in the footsteps of Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera, wins Best Actress in a Comedy Series and reflects on what her success says about Latino/a representation in the media; Maggie Gyllenhaal, winning for her role in The Honourable Woman, lauds the HFPA for recognizing roles for real women, transforming the category into a statement about women in media regardless of whether or not those voters intended it to be.

However, no categories were transformed more than Best Television Comedy and Best Actor in a Comedy Series. The wins for Transparent and its lead actor, Jeffrey Tambor, in these categories were not necessarily surprising: Tambor’s performance as Maura offers the kind of transformation that voting bodies tend to gravitate towards, and the HFPA’s love of the new made the series a threat. The series was critically lauded, and the fact it earned a nomination suggested the Amazon factor—its Prime service has the least visibility among the three major streaming services (Netflix and Hulu being the others)—was not an issue, meaning that path was clear such that the two wins were not entirely unexpected. But there was still something incredibly profound about seeing awards being dedicated to the transgender community, and to the young transgender individuals like Leelah Alcorn (whom creator Jill Soloway dedicated the award to)—to see the show’s own goals of visibility manifesting in the context of a broadcast being watched by millions who didn’t even know this show existed is the kind of signal boost that makes you believe in the value of the charade.

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Again, there’s no evidence to support that the HFPA consciously chose to acknowledge Transparent and Tambor’s work in the interest of creating a platform to help educate a broader audience on the transgender community. However, the show’s politics are built into its premise, and in acknowledging the show the HFPA is embracing that community in much the same way as embracing Jane the Virgin—or Ugly Betty before it—addresses groups and audiences that are marginalized within the media industries more broadly. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the awards for Transparent crafted a narrative of visibility that will transcend the “awards” themselves, and the fact they acknowledged a tremendous show and performance in the process is almost beside the point.

Now, considering the Golden Globes through the lens of visibility creates problems for the HFPA, including the notable lack of overall diversity among nominees and winners, reflecting a general lack of visibility within award circles and in Hollywood more broadly (which this year has been galvanized by the snubbing of Selma by a range of voting bodies—it won only Original Song at the Golden Globes). There’s also the question of what value visibility has when it takes the form of a running comedy bit in which Margaret Cho vaguely revives her 30 Rock role playing a North Korean member of the HFPA. Additionally, while the thread of advocacy continued into the references to the tragic shooting at Charlie Hebdo could be connected to the issue of visibility (and the political undercurrent within the show as a whole), those touting “Je Suis Charlie” were white men like George Clooney and Jared Leto, comfortably representing the Hollywood establishment who themselves are already plenty visible in these settings.

Despite these concerns, however, visibility has given me a new appreciation for the role that the Golden Globes play within the realm of television in particular. The wins for Showtime’s The Affair and its star, Ruth Wilson, struck me on the surface as premature: Wilson’s performance is great, and the show’s premise remains incredibly compelling, but I don’t know if either were consistently strong enough to best The Good Wife or Game of Thrones, both of which I preferred last year. As a result, I can relate to those who felt that the show’s win fit into the category of the HFPA fetishizing the new in a circumstance where there were other shows that offered more consistently strong—or simply “better”—television in 2014.

I liked The Affair a bit—and in some cases a lot, looking in Tim Goodman’s direction—more than those making these complaints, but I see where they’re coming from if they perceive the Golden Globes as the HFPA picking the best shows on television. However, I’ve decided based on this year’s winners that they’re not, or at least I’m going to pretend they’re not. If you instead see the HFPA’s goal as “making a point,” rather than simply rewarding the best show in a given category, here they are acknowledging an ambitious first-year show with minimal commercial upside from a female creator and showrunner, and by rewarding its female lead rightly identified the series’ central appeal within its efforts to explore the gendered dimensions of infidelity as depicted onscreen. They’re not saying The Affair is perfect, and in my head they’re not even saying The Affair is “better” than the other shows in the category: rather, they’re saying that The Affair is worth rewarding, and making the reasons why visible to a broader audience.

To think this way is a delusional exercise, one that presumes singular agency regarding decisions decided by a voting body where everyone voting may well have had completely different reasons for making the voting decisions they did. But more than any other voting body, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has established over time a willingness to expand their voting criteria beyond a generic “excellence,” privileging certain types of excellence depending on the story attached to it. Whereas this has often—perhaps too often—manifested in stories of stardom and novelty, those narratives happened to coincide with the representation of latino/a individuals in the media and the transgender community during this year’s ceremony in ways that suggest the ceremony is not simply a party. This year, at least, the HFPA’s quest for influence coincided with actors and creators who strive to engage with issues beyond the medium itself, creating a framework in which the sometimes wacky nominees and winners can be rethought as a group of renegade journalists pushing against entrenched patterns and creating opportunities for visibility on a broad stage.

Again, I’m not claiming this is necessarily the case. If nothing else, however, this perspective has reclaimed the notion of a “precursor”: what if, instead of signaling a new era where The CW can legitimately lay claim to prestige, where Amazon can claim a victory over Netflix in the Streaming Service Showdown, or where these results can directly influence the race for next month’s Academy Awards, the Golden Globes were a precursor to changes in how groups of human beings are represented and respected in the media? It’s a pie in the sky notion, and it is selectively applied to some communities and not others within this year’s ceremony (and award shows more broadly), but the very idea of it has given more meaning to the madness that is the HFPA’s annual celebration than I’ve ever found previously.

Cultural Observations

  • The way shows “retire” from Golden Globes consideration is occasionally strange—like Mad Men getting erased from the board entirely, even in acting categories—but they’re the only voting body who has successfully bucked the trend of Modern Family domination, so they have that going for them.
  • The choice of Fargo and Billy Bob Thorton over True Detective and Matthew McConnaughey was pretty surprising, but given that the HFPA had already forcibly placed True Detective in the Miniseries category despite HBO’s efforts to pitch it as a Drama Series, there was evidence to suggest they were not picking up what Nic Pizzolatto was putting down.
  • If McConnaughey were to lose the SAG Award, it would mean that the Critics’ Choice and TCA Awards would be the only ones he would win for True Detective, which would be a rather shocking turn of events all things considered (including both the presumed logic of movie stars in television awards and, being fair, the strength of his performance).
  • While no one can deliver a somewhat tired set of monologue jokes as well as Tina and Amy, there remained nothing content-wise that managed to overcome the fact that the Golden Globes doesn’t really require a host. Combine with the tired Interview bit that kept recurring right to the bitter end, not a particularly interesting hosting effort for the pair to go out on.
  • It took me a second to remember why Jeremy Renner—who seemed so disinterested in presenting an award, even before the lame boob joke—embraced Noah Hawley so readily, but then I remembered that his own awards entry point came after he spent time on television with ABC’s The Unusuals, which Hawley created.

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The Limits of Limitations: The Projection List’s TV Problem

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Debuting today, The Projection List is presented as a resource tool: on one site, users can find theatrical, OnDemand, and Retail release dates for what looks generally to be the vast majority of motion pictures. This information is available elsewhere, but often scattered, meaning significant work is necessary to track those dates effectively. Many who write about or follow film are celebrating the site as the resource it strives to be.

However, the site’s choice to include television has created a point of trouble for me, personally. The idea of including television makes sense: many who follow film also follow television, and the retail section logically follows both film and television releases. Television and film share both cultural mindspace and retail shelf space, and so the presence of television is itself logical.

The trouble, however, comes in how the site has chosen to frame its engagement with television. This engagement is limited: in the site’s “About” page under the “Disclaimers” section, it is explained that

“The Projection List is not a network television guide. Not only are cable mini-series and short-run series traditionally more cinematic in nature, they are also much easier to track. Most cable season orders (the number of episodes ordered for any given season) are announced in-full, in advance of each season, whereas the vast majority of network series usually aren’t given a final season order until later in the season (if they aren’t outright cancelled in the middle of a season), thus making the tracking of network shows somewhat more challenging. For a more comprehensive network television guide, see TV.com.”

The fact that the site isn’t willing to function as a comprehensive television guide is not in and of itself problematic: TV.com is joined by other sites like The Futon Critic, which work as quick-glance resources for what’s new on a given night. To take on that task would be incredibly challenging, and so limiting your selection is logical and understandable.

The problem comes, however, in the first part of that paragraph, where the choice to focus on cable series is justified by noting that “cable mini-series and short-run series [are] traditionally more cinematic in nature.” This is further reinforced by the TV list itself, which is currently prefaced with the following: “NOTABLE CINEMATIC SHORT-RUN SCRIPTED SERIES AND MINI-SERIES. NO NETWORK SERIES.”

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Trailer Teasers and Teaser Trailers: The Internet’s Jurassic World Problem

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 5.03.01 PMEarlier today, Vulture—mirroring a lot of other sites, as pictured—proclaimed that “The Jurassic World Teaser Trailer is here.”

It’s not.

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Review: Not Cool and Hollidaysburg bear the mark of The Chair, for better or for worse

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This week, after the documentary series The Chair—which I reviewed for The A.V. Club and covered with multiple interviews here at Cultural Learnings—reached the wrap of production on the two films based on the same script, Starz has made both Shane Dawson’s Not Cool and Anna Martemucci’s Hollidaysburg available on its Starz Play streaming site and On Demand. Viewers who watch both films can then register to vote for who wins The Chair’s $250,000 cash prize, with the results announced on November 8th.

While both films had brief runs in theaters in Los Angeles and New York—and Pittsburgh, where both were filmed—and have been available for digital download since late last month, this marks the best chance for those who have been watching the documentary series to see how the decisions made by Dawson and Martemucci actually influenced the final product. As much as one continues to presume that Dawson’s extensive fanbase will tip the scales in his favor in the end, the survey nonetheless raises a more interesting question of how our reception of these films is shaped by both the broad terms of the experiment—two versions of the same script—and by the behind-the-scenes knowledge we have about how these projects came together.

Accordingly, while the following are reviews of the films themselves, they are also inevitably reviews of how the films function as the “climax” of the “filmmaking experiment,” which is a distinct mode of evaluation that frames the films for better or for worse.

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Genre Boxing: CBS’ Madam Secretary and Battle Creek

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At their core, Madam Secretary—the first new CBS series of the series, debuting on Sunday night—and Battle Creek fit into fairly standard genre boxes.

Madam Secretary is a workplace drama that happens to be set in the State Department, while Battle Creek is a police procedural that happens to be set in a small city instead of a big one. Those inflections are important, certainly, but neither show indicates a significant departure from the generic center.

This is typical of CBS dramas: even The Good Wife, the broadcast drama most often mentioned in conversations about the battle against cable, relies heavily on both workplace drama and legal procedural to plot its episodic and serial storylines. But Madam Secretary and Battle Creek are not as similar to each other when we consider what efforts have been taken beyond those generic centers, where Madam Secretary is much more invested in the lure of the serial in mapping out its story.

Without going too deep into spoilers, Madam Secretary isn’t about Elizabeth McCord being appointed to the position of Secretary of State under normal circumstances; the previous Secretary of State has died, which means she’s inheriting the staff and all of the drama that comes with it. Some of this is workplace awkwardness: Elizabeth did not hire these people, and is an unseasoned politician. However, some of this is also the fact the Secretary of State died under mysterious circumstances, laying the groundwork for a larger conspiracy storyline reverberating throughout the season.

When I asked showrunner Barbara Hall about this, she said “I thought it might be an extra conflict or challenge for her to step into a situation where the person she’s replacing might have actually been involved in something that’s untoward and that the tentacles of that may affect her for a long time. So it’s just another element that it’s hard enough for her to step into this job, but know she’s stepped into it and she’s got unravel some seeds that were planted before she got there.”

She also admitted that some of this instinct came from her previous job working in cable. Madam Secretary already has three elements at play: the day-to-day workplace drama, the family drama about McCord’s husband and two teenage children (who will all be adjusting to political life), and the political drama about the global politics the Secretary of State must face. The show—which is a sturdy procedural with strong perofrmances—doesn’t feel like it really needs a fourth element, but Hall admits that she “had just worked on Homeland the year before, and I had gotten accustomed to getting into these international stories and finding there’s always an extra element when you start lifting up these rocks and looking under what’s going on in terms of the national diplomacy.” Hall also revealed plans to delve into McCord’s past with the CIA, another remnant of her time on Homeland, and something that a more basic version of this show wouldn’t explore.

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These are also elements that aren’t present on Battle Creek, by comparison. In this case, although creator Vince Gilligan—who is stepping aside to let showrunner David Shore take over—is known for his heavily serialized work on Breaking Bad, this script is over a decade old, and it bears the marks of its age in its lack of serial pretensions. It’s a simple setup, about a local detective and a newly-arrived FBI agent who butt heads as they confront the criminal element in Battle Creek, Michigan. And that’s really the show, honestly. There are shades of dark pasts for both Agnew (Dean Winters) and Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel), but the pilot doesn’t lean too heavily on them. There’s simply an ongoing conflict between their philosophies, which will play out as they need to work together to ensure they can do their job and keep Battle Creek safe.

It’s as classic a police procedural as you’re going to see. The setting is its biggest point of differentiation, with everything else focused on execution as opposed to a groundbreaking new premise, a deep mythology, or another “additive” to set the show apart. Speaking to the series’ willingness to engage with comedy, producer David Shore argues “the humor…comes from the fact that it is different from other cop shows. It is the center of a small town. We want to tell small town versions of big-city stories…We want to play with what you’ve seen on TV—you think you know what’s coming, and then we do it completely differently because it’s Battle Creek.” And yet this difference isn’t articulated in the pilot beyond subtle character beats, at least compared to Madam Secretary’s insistence that there’s more to this story than meets the eye with its mythology. It’s one of the reasons why Battle Creek—despite being a “better” show than Stalker or Scorpion (the latter of which I think is solid)—probably isn’t on the fall schedule: whereas Madam Secretary is an obvious thematic fit with The Good Wife, Battle Creek isn’t an obvious fit for anything, even if it could conceivably fit with a large number of shows on CBS’ lineup. It bears the mark of the fact it was developed over a decade ago, and the fact that it seemed even then to be conspicuously constructed as a throwback to a simpler kind of cop show.

It’s a sign of confidence that CBS would launch in the fall with Madam Secretary, but it’s equally a sign of confidence that Battle Creek made an appearance at Summer Press Tour as a key lynchpin of CBS’ 2014-15 lineup despite having no airdate. CBS is leaving a lot of drama to midseason this year, but we live in an era where that’s not necessarily a bad sign.

Madam Secretary debuts at 8:30/7:30c/8:00p on Sunday September 21, while Battle Creek debuts sometime in early 2015.

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Season Finale: The Leftovers – “The Prodigal Son Returns”

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When I dropped in on an episode of The Leftovers at The A.V. Club earlier this season, it was cathartic: after weeks of watching but not writing about the show, it was nice to have a space to confront the series’ opaqueness.

But as I return to confront the finale, I’m wondering if I had it all wrong. On the surface, The Leftovers struck me as a series that begs us to analyze it, full to the brim with characters with uncertain motives building toward something and yet nothing at the same time. What’s the deal with Wayne? What drives the Guilty Remnant? Those questions at first seemed to bear fruit as it related to the themes of the series: even if we ignore the existential question looming over the entire series, these other questions funnel back into the meaning of the departure and accumulated considerable meaning as the season wore on.

That meaning was a smokescreen. It was a powerful one, granted, but as The Leftovers concludes I’m struck by how little separates a show that begs us to analyze it from a show that resists all analysis. Say what one will about Lost, but it wanted us to be invested in its mysteries, and even in the end sought to give purpose to our investment even if that failed to appeal to all viewers. By comparison, however, The Leftovers built a house of cards that it knew was going to burn away by the end of the season, leaving behind characters we relate to because they too were caught up in the construction. They lived through what we lived through, and must equally confront the landscape that revealed itself when the house burned to the ground. It was in those final moments that the show finally revealed its hand, and for the first time as an entire series became legible, and real, and open to the kind of analysis it had nonetheless inspired while resisting such visibility.

And the result was compelling, if also guilty of building a neater circle than it necessarily needed to.

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