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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Review: Fox’s Enlisted works itself into one of season’s most promising comedies

Tonight at 9:30/8:30c, FOX debuts the pilot for Enlisted, a new military comedy from Cougar Town co-creator Kevin Biegel, with Men of a Certain Age co-creator Mike Royce on board as his co-showrunner.

I don’t want to talk about the pilot. This may seem strange: it’s the episode that’s supposed to demonstrate proof of concept, establish characters, and get viewers interested in seeing more stories in this universe. It’s also, all told, a solid pilot, one that highlights the bond between three brothers that is undoubtedly the heart of the show, so it’s not as though this is a case of needing to ignore the pilot to get to the good episodes after it. If you tune in to watch Enlisted tonight, you’ll find a well-crafted pilot that makes a clear, amiable case for tuning in next week.

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Cultural Interview: Lauren Iungerich on Writing Her Awkward. Finale [Part Two]

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In the second part of a two-part interview with Awkward. creator Lauren Iungerich, we consider the choices she made once she realized she was writing her final episode of the series (which I reviewed at The A.V. Club here), as well as some of the plans she had should she have remained involved with the show in its fourth season. You can find part one of the interview, where Iungerich reflects on her decision to leave the series, here.

[Spoilers for "Who I Want To Be," the third season finale of MTV's Awkward., throughout this interview.]

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Cultural Interview: Lauren Iungerich on the end of her Awkward. journey [Part One]

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Earlier this fall, I spoke with Awkward. creator Lauren Iungerich about the beginning of the second half of the third season, which was announced earlier this year as her final year with the series. Since then, Iungerich has been a regular presence in the comment section at The A.V. Club’s weekly reviews of the series, engaging with fans and reflecting on the end of her journey. As the season comes to an end with tonight’s hour-long season finale (10:30/9:30c, MTV), I spoke with Iungerich at length about her experience with the series and the end of her Awkward. journey. This is the first part of that conversation, in which she reflects on her departure and her engagement with her audience. Later tonight after the finale concludes, I will have an additional conversation where we focus on how she chose to bring an end to her time on the series. [NOTE: Part Two of the interview is now up.]

In the comments of last week’s A.V. Club review, you made a point to reflect on the contribution of Erin Ehrlich. As you depart the show, are you reflecting back on your collaborators throughout this journey?

Lauren Iungerich: It would not have been half of fun if I hadn’t had Erin by my side. I had an incredible team of people who helped me make the show. Steve Edwards, who was my supervising editor: editors never get credit the way they should. Editing is such an extension of the writing—sometimes you’re rewriting in the editing room, and he was kind of this magic…I don’t know how to explain it, but he really gets my tone, and the tone of the show, which can go from crazy heightened comedy to this emotional pathos. He really understood and connected with the material—I have to take him with me wherever I go. Also Jamie Dooner, my husband, has been a creative force since I was writing the pilot—his jokes and ideas are peppered in from the beginning (like the now iconic cast from the pilot, which was his idea). I don’t know where I would be without these people—as a creator, you’re the one who makes the final decisions, but I definitely had a lot of consultants along the way.

And yet as the showrunner, you definitely have a lot at stake in the show on a personal level.

LI: As I made the decision to leave my show, which was a very hard decision, it’s so interesting for me to reflect on what’s happened with the show and the ownership that has been taken. For myself and the people mentioned above, this show was personal—it was art. For me, personally—and I speak only for myself here—this was an extension of me and a labor of love, and five years of my life such that I can’t explain the amount of work that goes into it. There are different people who come in and work with us for a few months a year: we have the luxury of an awesome team who comes in every season—including those who are going back without me, which is a gift to be able to leave behind opportunity and jobs for amazing people—but even those who work on the show don’t understand what goes into it for those of us who are with it from day one. It’s not just one person who should get the credit, but I’ve definitely been the lone soldier who carries it from beginning to end, which is why this is so personal and why the choice to leave was so incredibly painful.

Now, though, I see it as a business: it’s not this personal thing anymore. And it is a business, and it’s been the best lesson I’ve learned: should you do anything that gets any kind of adulation, validation, good ratings, or an audience, it becomes this thing where everybody sort of wants a piece of it, and wants to take ownership of it. And the truth is the ownership lies with the people who loved it, and there are a lot of them, it was not just me. It’s still hard for me to see the show as a business, because it was so personal: I cry all the time. I cried last night; I cried writing that post about Erin.

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A Singular Success: On NBC’s Curiosity-courting The Sound of Music Live

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The Sound of Music Live is officially a ratings success by nearly every metric imaginable, with the records—Highest rated non-sports Thursday in the demo since ER finale! Most watched non-sports Thursday since the Frasier finale! First time NBC has won five straight nights of primetime since 2002!—flying fast as the magnitude of its success becomes clearer.

I enjoyed The Sound of Music Live. It didn’t actually work as a case of storytelling, harmed by uneven performances by its two leads, but I also think that a lot of those problems were inherent to the medium in which the musical was being experienced. That Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer were unable to sell me on a relationship that I can imagine feeling rushed in 90% of performances of this musical is far from history’s greatest failure; instead, it’s a noble effort that created some decidedly powerful images and a few too many scenes of people speaking lines instead of expressing sentiments. Said problems were better overcome by the three musical theater veterans cast around the two leads—Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, and Christian Borle—and on the whole I would say that I enjoyed the experience both as a social media event and as a unique and ultimately fun television program.

It is also—based on reports in The Hollywood Reporter from earlier this week—likely to fail to meet all of the expectations placed on it by NBC, because I find it difficult to imagine a scenario whereby The Sound of Music Live becomes an evergreen holiday performer in the way Robert Greenblatt imagined it could.

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Improving Without Changing: Adapting The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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My biggest issues with the Hunger Games trilogy were both things that have gone unchanged in the film adaptations. The structural sameness of the three books may have had a purpose, but it particularly affected my enjoyment of the second book, Catching Fire, where it felt lazy and formulaic rather than meaningful. The same can be said for the books’ close first-person perspective, which I found particularly limiting in the glimpses of a bigger conflict in Catching Fire that the perspective gave the books no chance to explore.

What I found most interesting about my response to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence’s adaptation of what I identified as the least successful of the novels back in 2011, is that I liked it much more than its predecessor despite the fact it doubles down on these elements. Some of this has to do with how “first-person perspectives” function differently in literature vs. film, certainly, but I think it’s also a case in which one of the film’s most potentially frustrating choices successfully neutralizes one of the book’s biggest problems.

[Spoilers for the film, and then separately marked spoilers for the series, follow]

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