Game of Thrones – “The Lion and the Rose”

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“The Lion and the Rose”

April 13th, 2014

“Blackwater” has often been cited as the definitive Game of Thrones episode, capturing the scale and sheer expense that have come to define the series within television culture. It was also an episode that George R.R. Martin scripted himself, finally seeing the scale he had taken to literature to obtain come to life onscreen (albeit still with a degree of sacrifice to his most ambitious visions for the episode).

At the same time, though, Martin’s scale only rarely manifests as the episode’s bombast. It tends to manifest in minutia, in the sheer detail of individual scenes. This has primarily come in the form of feasts, gallant affairs where Martin revels as much in the food on the table as the people sitting at it. It’s an effort to provide scale not in the form of giant explosions, but in the form of atmosphere—he wants you to feel like you’re there, which is often more about tone than anything else.

It’s something the show has rarely been able to communicate the same way: few scenes have lasted long enough to luxuriate in the environment, and to create that sense of becoming lost in the splendor. The closing sequence of “The Lion and the Rose”—detailing Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding and reception—is one of the first, a carefully designed piece of theater that is all about moving pieces, each more detailed than the next. It’s also a scene that deploys that detail for a specific purpose, crafting a sequence that builds to its conclusion at such a rate that even those who don’t know what’s about to happen know that something is about to happen.

That it’s something both readers and non-readers alike have been waiting for is just the icing on the cake.

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Season Premiere: Game of Thrones – “Two Swords”

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“Two Swords”

April 6th, 2014

“Killed the right people, I suppose.”

The beginning of Game of Thrones’ fourth season is caught in evaluative limbo.

We are past the point where it is a critic’s job to tell you what Game of Thrones is. At this stage, the show is the show, and nothing in the first three episodes of the season—which were sent to critics—changes that. To write an advance review of a season of Game of Thrones is less about evaluating its quality and more about offering vague previews of what’s to come for those who haven’t read the books but nonetheless want some sense of where their favorite characters are headed in the early-going, or for those who’ve read the books and want a basic gutcheck on how certain details were translated. If something in these first three episodes actually changes someone’s mind regarding the series, it would shock me not unlike the Red Wedding shocked non-readers.

This might be the last time I say this. The fourth season marks the first that will begin to actively and aggressively merge material from multiple books, likely resulting in some of the most substantial deviations from the source material to date. As someone whose interest in writing about the show comes in large part based on how the series approaches narratives, characters, and themes from the book in a different medium, we are on the verge of one of the most exciting periods for the series, one where the discourse will take on considerably higher stakes. Will readers embrace the changes? Will non-readers even notice that something is amiss?

“Two Swords” marks the calm before the storm, hence the evaluative limbo—although we are approaching the moment when I expect we’ll see far more interesting ranges of critical response to the series, the season premiere has the series firmly in transition, still holding onto the familiar instability we’ve come to understand. It’s a delicate transition, mind you, and one that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—who doubles as director—handle extremely well, but it’s ultimately a familiar feeling returning to Westeros in season four.

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Series Finale: How I Met Your Mother – “Last Forever”

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“Last Forever”

March 31st, 2014

I want to say upfront that I think the How I Met Your Mother finale was not an abomination. It featured a number of resonant moments, images, and character beats that tapped into what made the series resonate early in its run. When it finally reached the moment the series had been building up to, the chemistry between Josh Radnor and Cristin Miloti was quiet and sweet, and it stands as one of the series’ finer moments. This was a series that set out to tell a non-linear story about love, and delivered a—somewhat—non-linear finale about love, such that no one can claim How I Met Your Mother was a dramatically different show at the end than it was in the beginning.

However, I also want to say that I hated the How I Met Your Mother finale. A lot.

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“Just Remember Me When…” – The Uncertain Legacies of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter

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Exactly a year ago today, I wrote a piece about the experience of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter where I explored the meanings of “following” a Kickstarter campaign as it reaches its goal, arguing for that twelve-hour period as a key space of meaning for fans of the franchise. I framed that experience as the queue for an amusement park ride, but the metaphor had one problem: in this context, what constitutes the ride?

Kickstarting Veronica Mars: A Moment in a Movement – Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture

“As with some theme park rides, the line between the queue and the ride will be blurry in this case: does the ride begin when the Kickstarter reaches its goal? Or when the film is released next year? Or when the film goes into production this summer (since viewers were supporting not the project being released but rather the project existing at all)?”

Around the same time, I was invited by Bertha Chin and Bethan Jones to participate in a dialogue regarding the Veronica Mars Kickstarter, crowdfunding, and fan labor for Transformative Works and Cultures. Within that conversation, which took place in the weeks following the campaign’s success, fellow panelist Luke Pebler rightfully highlights the way uncertainty framed any and all conversation surrounding the Kickstarter around that time.

Veronica Mars Kickstarter and crowd funding – Transformative Works and Cultures

“A recurrent theme in these discussions seems to be, how will it all look once it’s over and the thing kickstarted is complete and released? Will backers ultimately be happy? Will producers be happy? Will it all have been worth it? It’s going to be an excruciatingly long wait to find out, in many cases.”

Ignoring for a moment the subtle irony that we had to wait almost as long for our conversation to be published as Veronica Mars fans had to wait for an entire movie to be funded, produced, and distributed (and Transformative Works and Cultures is fast by academic standards, and should be lauded for its belief in open access publication so I can link non-scholars reading this post to the conversation in question), the uncertainty evident in both my and Luke’s commentary has been the greatest takeaway from the Veronica Mars Kickstarter experience. Until the film was released yesterday, the Kickstarter existed in this state of receptive limbo, and even after the film’s release the questions of value and fan agency discussed in our conversation remain fluid as Warner Bros. struggles to manage digital distribution controversy.

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Risk/Reward: The Crude Experimentation of ABC’s Mixology

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Mixology doesn’t make sense, at first.

During the panel at the Television Critics Association press tour for the series in January, the producers were asked a range of questions about the viability of the show’s premise—documenting ten singles in one night in one bar—before I got a chance to ask my question, which was basically a good-natured way of asking “Did anyone try to convince you not to do such a thing?”

Television development is a game of risk/reward. Mixology represents a substantial risk for creators Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, as it’s their first television show and they’re playing with narrative in ways that most would advise against. As I noted in asking my question, there is no escaping this premise—whereas other shows can throw out their premises (see: Cougar Town) or make significant adjustments to characters as they evolve over time (see: Parks and Recreation, The Office), Mixology is tied to telling one story about ten characters in one night in its first season (which debuts tonight at 9:30/8:30c on ABC).

To their credit, Lucas and Moore were fairly open about the fact that this was a swing. Speaking to reporters, Moore described the process of the show’s creation:

“We just kind of sat down and thought what would be the best show, most interesting show to us, how to do it differently, how to show people, like, meeting and falling in love and that comedy in a different way.  And we didn’t really think about, sort of, the structure of TV and how it works and all of the rules.”

It’s easy to scoff at this—I do it often when film writers move into television, seemingly with no attention to the medium’s specificity—but in talking with Lucas and Moore after the panel it became clear they understand television enough to know they’re breaking some rules. Although the room didn’t exactly buy Moore’s attempt to sell the show as “Lost in a bar,” it was at least a gesture toward the televisual tradition the show leans on, and on principles of episodic and seasonal storytelling the show needs to address to succeed. Mixology has aspirations, ones that make it an interesting experiment in how we connect with characters, and how stakes function in television comedy.

It’s also a show that, six episodes in, makes more sense than it did at first, if not enough to make it a fully successful experiment.

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The Draw of the Docuseries: Showtime at Winter TCA 2014

Speaking to the brand appeal of Showtime’s programming during his executive session, David Nevins emphasized his channel’s appeal to adults…who can afford Showtime.

We are no longer at the point where we can claim that “no one” is watching Showtime: having grown considerably throughout the run of recently-ended hit Dexter, the channel can now boast series—specifically Homeland—reaching upwards of seven million viewers for each episode. Much of that has to do with the rise in non-linear platforms—DVR, OnDemand, etc.—that are more convenient for viewers than various repeats, but it also shows a channel growing its subscriber base. That said, Showtime is still in a small percentage of American homes overall, such that we need to distinguish the brand appeal based on who is spending the money necessary to access the channel on a monthly basis.

Those distinctions are fairly unimportant when it comes to series like Episodes (now airing its third season) or Penny Dreadful (premiering May 11th), the two original series for which Showtime presented panels during their Winter Press Tour half-day. The truth is that if people can’t afford access to watch Episodes or Penny Dreadful, it is unlikely that they will be missing out on anything particularly “important.” Episodes is entering its third season with a fourth already ordered based on the series’ co-production model with the U.K. and its cost-efficient production (which will film primarily in the U.K., and which takes advantage of scripts being written in advance to block out production in specific sets/locations). Penny Dreadful is the new psychosexual horror series from John Logan, starring a motley crew of public domain monsters and continuing what I’ve dubbed the “psychosexual horror arms race” that continues to find traction among audiences with a greater horror tolerance than I contain. Both shows will have their audiences, but both fit comfortably into the kinds of shows that are either available elsewhere or which fit comfortably into existing genres; in other words, they’re not the kind of shows that we would lament being stuck behind the premium cable paywall, in the same way we might think about shows that appeal to minority audiences or feature representations not present elsewhere on the television dial.

It’s different with Years of Living Dangerously (debuting April 13th). First announced to critics at the channel’s summer press tour event, this celebrity-correspondent-led docuseries is about educating audiences on the human toll of climate change. It seeks to take science surrounding climate change and give it a human face, both in the celebrity correspondents—who the panel emphasized will be more effective at communicating these messages than scientists themselves—and in the people whose lives are being impacted by climate change that the series will follow. Presenting the series for critics alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ian Somerhalder, producers were adamant that this was the kind of documentary that could lead to real global change, which landed at Showtime because producer Jerry Weintraub insisted that if you wanted eyeballs, television was the way to go.

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The Apolitical Position: 24, Gang Related, and Resisting Politicization

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Frank Micelotta / FOX

No one on the panel for Fox’s 24: Live Another Day seemed surprised to be questions about politics: 24 was a lightning rod for criticism of its politics, and those politics have become no less controversial four years after the show concluded its eighth season in 2010. Their answer was measured and purposeful, acknowledging the political world they’re working with and promising to reflect contemporary issues such as drone strikes; they also argued, however, that theirs is not a political show. Jack Bauer, they said, is an apolitical hero.

This is not true, but it’s not surprising that the producers would argue this is the case. It’s the classic evocation of encoding/decoding logic, in which the people who create television claim no political intent, leaving any political implications to the whims of the audiences who take the series and run with it. However, it is one thing to say that there is no specific political intent, and another to claim that a series is apolitical. By creating a series that clearly touches on and engages with politics, 24’s producers created a political hero—although interpretations of those politics vary, and I’d agree the show never presented them as explicitly “Political” in the sense of Republican/Democrat, the issues at stake cannot be made apolitical through sheer will. I would accept that 24: Live Another Day does not come loaded with a specific political message, but the idea that a show so steeped in the politics of terror could be apolitical is definitive proof that those who make television will run from the idea of politics as quickly as possible.

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