Tag Archives: Television

With FXX’s Simpsons World, A Clip Database Comes Closer to Non-Linear Reality

Photo by Michael Underwood / PictureGroup

Photo by Michael Underwood / PictureGroup

For FXX as a cable channel, the arrival of The Simpsons reruns—including a complete marathon of all 552 Simpsons episodes through season 25 starting on August 21—marks a key transition in its brand identity. But given that Simpsons reruns have been proliferate in syndication on local stations for years, and DVD box sets have allowed fans to revisit the most beloved episodes of the series whenever they’d like, the idea of being able to watch eight episodes of The Simpsons leading up to each new episode on Fox on Sunday nights is not necessarily a revelation for fans of the series.

For this reason, the bigger news out of last November’s cable syndication deal between FXX and The Simpsons was the non-linear rights. At the time, this was largely framed in terms of the most basic way we understand the meaning of “non-linear,” which is to say that the series will be available to stream at any time. If we take “linear” to mean a traditional programming schedule dictated by a network or channel, then we have historically understood “non-linear” to mean an environment where audiences can choose to watch a show on their own terms through either video on-demand (VOD) services through cable or satellite providers or streaming platforms like Netflix or Hulu. Accordingly, headlines at the time of the announcement focused on the fact “The Simpsons Will Finally Be Available To Stream” or that “Every ‘Simpsons’ Episode Will Be Available To Stream In August,” as The Simpsons finally became part of a new era of television distribution.

And yet as I wrote at the time, although not exactly in these terms, The Simpsons has always been non-linear as a cultural artifact.

How The Simpsons Should Exist On The Web – Slate

“We don’t think about The Simpsons in terms of episodes, not in our contemporary moment. While I will be happy to revisit various Simpsons episodes in their entirety on FXX or FXNow, and I will on occasion pull out my DVDs and watch a few episodes back-to-back, how we think of and use The Simpsons on a daily basis comes in the form of jokes, bits, and memorable sequences. The Simpsons travels in these bite-sized chunks, and the value of The Simpsons in the age of online streaming should ideally reflect this.”

This is why I specifically called for a Simpsons clip database that would embrace not simply non-linear forms of television distribution, but also non-linear patterns of cultural engagement with the text in question. FXX has been relatively tight-lipped regarding details of what their Simpsons app—which was originally planned to launch alongside the series’ debut on FXX, but will now begin rolling out in October—would look like, but in January FX president of program strategy Chuck Saftler expressed his excitement at what they had planned, but made no specific assurances when I pressed him on the potential for clips to be built into the system.

This lengthy preamble is my way of working through the fact that, as demoed for critics at FX’s day at the Television Critics Association press tour, the newly unveiled Simpsons World app has fully and wholly embraced the non-linear ways The Simpsons echoes in the lives of its fans. With multiple channels of pre-programmed episode streams, the ability to stream any episode, character pages featuring curated clips, and the capacity to read-along with the script while watching any episode, Simpsons World is everything a fan could want.

And with the proposed ability to create and share clips to a range of social networks, it is also the engine for the Simpsons Clip Database I dreamed of.

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Sharknado 2 at TCA: Legitimating the Sharknado

Sharknado2In the past few weeks, I’ve been highly skeptical regarding Sharknado 2: The Second One.

In truth, I have no strong emotional investment in Sharknado 2. I watched the first Sharknado a good week or so after it first aired, and so I missed the social media fever and ended up finding the film itself…dull. Sharknado is not a particularly engaging film—even by B-Movie (or C-Movie or whatever we’re calling it) standards—when it is removed from the context of the Twitter commentary generated around it. And yet the way Syfy has fully committed to Sharknado as an ongoing franchise, diving into licensing opportunities and treating this as a huge cultural phenomenon based entirely on social media fever despite a fundamental lack of evidence anyone other than people on Twitter care about Sharknado (which didn’t make it a failure, but does keep it from being a definitive mainstream hit).

It’s specifically reminded me of the release of Snakes on a Plane: the online fan base that emerged around the film convinced New Line to add new footage and push the film for an R rating, but then the film was a huge box office disappointment, and even failed to generate any significant cult following on DVD. It was a cult film in reverse: rather than struggling to find an audience then building a community of people unearthing a forgotten gem, the cult audience latched onto the film quickly but built a set of expectations that the film couldn’t live up to, and that killed that cult audience potential before it could develop into a long-term commodity. I’ve been convinced for weeks that all of the money Syfy is spending to push Sharknado as something more than a slightly more resonant movie-of-the-week has the risk of throwing good money after a bad movie that won’t sustain this level of franchise-building.

And yet when I arrived poolside at the Beverly Hilton hotel for Syfy’s Sharknado 2 screening event as part of NBC Universal’s TCA presentation, I began to feel somewhat differently. The notion of Syfy bringing one of its monster movies to a press tour was absurd before Sharknado, and yet it felt perfectly natural for the critics to be gathering together to laugh their way through Ian Ziering and Tara Reid’s latest encounter with shark-related weather events. Themed as a drive-in theater, complete with popcorn and car-themed couches and drive-in-style speakers, it was not just “Sharknado at Press Tour”: it was Sharknado as a marquee event, one that brings the channel the very legitimacy this type of movie kept them from achieving in the past.

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Event Series at TCA: Dig and Ascension add fuel to the “WTF is an Event Series?” fire

USASyfy

The label “event series” has always been a confounding one, more a branding exercise than an actual entity from a production perspective. One does not actually make an “event series”: you make a television series or a miniseries, the former of which is open-ended and could return for more seasons and the latter of which is close-ended and will not.

At today’s NBC Universal press tour day, both USA Network’s Dig and Syfy’s Ascension were labeled as event series, and they have a lot in common otherwise: they’re both six episodes, and they’re both so early in production that there was no episodes available to critics in advance. This created a vacuum of sorts, but out of that vacuum came the news that both Dig and Ascension are hedging their bets on their potential for subsequent seasons, neither willing to accept the notion of a close-ended miniseries end of the event series spectrum.

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NBC at TCA: Press Tour and Post-Pilot Changes

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When NBC launches its fall lineups, its shows have the potential to be very different from the shows that were originally sold to advertisers and sent to critics when they were picked up in May.

This is not uncommon. It also doesn’t mean that the shows in question were outright terrible to begin with. But the reality of creating a pilot and the reality of mapping out a season of television are often at odds with one another, and in other cases new producers are brought in to take over a series and have different perspectives on where the series should be heading. At the same time, though, the public nature of this retooling inevitably places those pilots in a different category than those pilots that go through no such “public” changes. When Alexi Hawley departs State of Affairs as a showrunner, or Liz Brixius steps in to take over Bad Judge, or Constantine trades out its female lead for another female character entirely, it creates a different conversation than for shows with more subtle post-pilot changes that would logically occur when a writer’s room is in place and the experience on the pilot has revealed spaces for subtle inflection.

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Lost – “White Rabbit”

losttitle3“White Rabbit”

Aired: October 20, 2004

[I’m going to be taking over The A.V. Club’s TV Club Classic reviews of Lost this Wednesday—in preparation, I’m offering some short thoughts on each of the episodes Todd VanDerWerff already covered at the site.]

“White Rabbit” is the first of what will be many Jack stories, all about a character that doesn’t come with any inherent mysteries. When we meet Jack, he’s centered, focused, and stepping into the role of a natural leader. Whereas other characters are begging to be explored in more detail, an investigation into Jack’s past is less designed to answer a question and more designed to pose one. You thought Jack was a well-balanced individual? Well, guess what: he’s got daddy issues.

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Heart-Shaped Hole: Game of Thrones Season 4 and the Death of Reader Certainty

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Season 4 and the Death of Reader Certainty

June 15, 2014

Here at Cultural Learnings, I’ve been writing Game of Thrones reviews intended to be read by both those who have and haven’t read the books, but they’re unavoidably written from the perspective as someone who has. For the most part, this hasn’t been a big problem, as I’ve never been one to be too concerned with the series deviates from the books.

I remain mostly nonplussed by changes, but they’re tougher to avoid after a fourth season that has shot the books full of holes on numerous occasions. Although the season by and large ended without an outright cliffhanger in “The Children” (which I reviewed in full here), it nonetheless has left book readers in limbo when it comes to at least one major development. It’s an important turning point for the series as an adaptation, and one that will test whether or not those book readers are willing to embrace an environment where the books are no longer a reliable indicator for the story about to unfold, and where their position as arbiters of knowledge is in question.

[Warning: I’m speaking to Book Readers here, so unless you want to risk spoilers for future seasons, stay away if you haven’t read the books.]

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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “The Children”

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“The Children”

June 15, 2014

“You remember where the heart is?”

Each season of Game of Thrones has been an exercise in selective adaptation, but its fourth season has been a feat of adaptive engineering. Working primarily with material from the third book but leaning heavily on the fourth and fifth in certain storylines, it is the season that has emphatically taken the “book-to-season” adaptation comparison off the table.

At the same time, though, the season has been organized around key climaxes taken directly from the third book in the series. Moreso than in other seasons, you could tell the writers were having to stretch storylines to maintain the timing they had established, creating material to flesh out the scenes on The Wall to justify the Battle of Castle Black taking place in episode nine or finding things for Arya and the Hound to do so that their scenes in “The Children” wouldn’t take place until the end of the season.

By and large, I would argue the show was successful in making the season work despite the delaying tactics. This is in part because the storyline in King’s Landing, arguably the most consistently substantial, was built for this timeline, clearly marked by two major events—the Purple Wedding and the Mountain vs. the Viper—with plenty of political intrigue in between. The other reason is that even if the material at the Wall was a bit thin in ways that even last week’s epic showdown couldn’t make up for, the season as a whole maintained a sense of forward momentum. Did this momentum extend to Bran, forgotten for multiple episodes, or to Stannis and Davos’ trip to Braavos? No. But it extended to pretty much every other storyline, and makes “The Children” the most climactic finale the series has managed yet. The inconclusiveness of “The Watchers On The Wall” may have been frustrating, but it guaranteed that there was still lots to resolve even for those of us who aren’t sitting at home with checklists of what’s “supposed” to happen in the episode.

And “The Children” resolved some of it, left some of it untouched, and by and large served as one big—and mostly effective—teaser for what’s to come.

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Game of Thrones – “The Mountain and the Viper”

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“The Mountain and the Viper”

June 1, 2014

“Traditions are important – what are we without our history?”

One of the perils of being a book reader watching Game of Thrones has been the fact that so many of the biggest moments have been “surprises” in the context of the narrative. We look to events like the Red Wedding, or the Purple Wedding, or Ned Stark’s fate on the Steps of Baelor as key events in the narrative, but we can’t necessarily share the anticipation of those events with viewers who have no idea they’re coming.

This is why “The Mountain and the Viper” is such a fun episode as a reader writing about the show. For once, the show has built in its own hype machine, setting up the trial by combat and building suspense for it over the past two episodes. The week off for Memorial Day could have negatively affected momentum, but it’s worked nicely to give them another week to set up the stakes of this conflict. As readers, we may have the benefit of knowing how the battle between Gregor Clegane and Oberyn Martell ends, but at least our anticipation for seeing how the battle plays out onscreen is something that we can share with non-readers.

Just as we can both share the slight impatience created by an episode that waits until the bitter end to get to its eponymous showdown.

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Negotiating 101: Sony, Hulu, and Community Season 6

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 10.17.32 PM

As I wrote in 2012—and expanded on here at the blog—when Netflix was reportedly in talks to resurrect The Killing after it was canceled by AMC, there is reason to be skeptical of reporting that refers to “conversations” or “talks” surrounding a series potentially being resurrected.

It turns out that, in the case of The Killing, those talks were productive – AMC picked up a third season with help from Netflix chipping in for an exclusive streaming window, and Netflix would return once more to pick up a short fourth and final season of the series when AMC chose to end the series. However, for every The Killing there is a Pan Am, or a Terra Nova, which were reported in a similar fashion but amounted to nothing.

There is plenty of logic behind the idea of Hulu having “conversations” with Sony Pictures TV regarding picking up a sixth season of Community. As Joe Adalian outlines at Vulture, Hulu is in need of a big original content splash to compete with Amazon’s money and Netflix’s prestige, and Community has been a strong performer on the service. It’s also the only logical place it could go, given that Hulu purchased exclusive streaming rights, meaning that neither Amazon nor Netflix would be likely to chip in given they would only have access to new episodes. It has long been presumed, since the day NBC chose to cancel the series, that Hulu was its only option.

However, it’s also an option that seems infeasible for a platform that doesn’t have Amazon or Netflix’s deep pockets, and an option that seems particularly infeasible given the contract burden of a sixth-season broadcast sitcom. The value proposition of Community to Hulu sounds great in the abstract, but when translated to dollars and cents behind the scenes it seems likely that the risk may be greater than the reward.

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Game of Thrones – “Mockingbird”

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“Mockingbird”

May 18, 2014

“A lot can happen between now and never.”

This is typically the space where you’d find my review of tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones, but circumstances were such that A.V. Club editor Todd VanDerWerff needed someone to fill in while he was out of town. Accordingly, my review of the episode is located at The A.V. Club instead.

Before I share the link (and a brief taste of the review), though, a warning: while my reviews are typically written for both readers and non-readers alike, this one is definitely more tailored to the specific reader audience, given that Todd does the “Experts” reviews intended for those who had read at least the first three books. So if you’re been reading these reviews as an “unsullied,” be warned that there will be more attention paid to the adaptation and at how it foreshadows future events, even if the outright “spoilers” for what are in a clearly marked section at the end of the review.

Thanks to those who’ve been reading the reviews here this season, and I’ll be back in this space two weeks from now to head into the final three episodes of the season.

Game of Thrones (experts): “Mockingbird” – The A.V. Club

One of the most common complaints about a television season applies to episodes like “Mockingbird.” Whether you prefer “table setting” or “moving pieces into place” as a metaphor, it’s an episode that functions largely to set up events that are likely going to be more exciting or meaningful than the ones within the episode itself.

Such concerns are distinct, however, with Game of Thrones, at least for those of us who’ve read the books (which is most of you, one presumes). Typically, “table setting” episodes are criticized for being too blatant in their machinations, working hard to set up things but resisting pulling the trigger before the stories’ respective climaxes. Personally, I find these episodes interesting when done well, but I will admit that there is something frustrating about an episode that simultaneously feels like a comedown from the episode before and works almost too hard to build anticipation for the episode that follows.

With Game of Thrones, though, we (mostly) know the episode that follows.

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