Tag Archives: TV

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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Cultural Interview: Shane Dawson on YouTube, Not Cool, and The Chair

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There’s a moment in Starz’s The Chair—which debuts on Saturday at 11/10c—where one of the two directors making a version of the same script in a competition for a $250,000 prize is scouting locations at a middle school, and he’s approached by a group of young students who ask to take a picture with him. Taken out of context, it would seem strange for teenage girls to treat a director like a celebrity, but Shane Dawson is not a traditional director. His filmography largely exists on the web, on YouTube channels with upwards of 6.1 million followers, and his involvement in The Chair is about testing how YouTube creators are able to transition into a more traditional filmmaking environment.

Accordingly, there’s more at stake for Dawson in the project than the $250,000 prize—Not Cool, his version of Dan Schoffer’s original script, is a major transition outside of YouTube, and one of the central narratives of the series is Dawson’s efforts to maintain appeal to his young fanbase while nonetheless meeting the expectations of the producers and financiers of the project. Recently featured in a Variety cover story confronting a new era of online content creation, Dawson is also among a group of YouTube creators who are expanding outside their channels in an effort to stretch themselves both creatively and financially, a test of how audiences built in the space of web video can be translated across platforms.

After speaking with Chris Moore, and before speaking to his fellow filmmaker Anna Martemucci, I spoke with Dawson about his decision to be involved with The Chair, his identity as a “YouTube star” in the context of this and other projects, and how the experience has shaped his future plans both on and off YouTube.

Cultural Learnings: In the series, you’re really held up as a representative of the new vanguard of online creators, which are further reinforced by the Variety cover story. Are you comfortable being held up in this way?

Shane Dawson: I think I’ve been around for so long—I mean, it’s only been seven years or something, but YouTube years are like dog years. [Laughs] I think it’s cool that people kind of look at me as one of the originators of online video and one of the pioneers of YouTube because I’ve worked really hard to build an audience and make content that I’m proud of. A lot of the things I was doing on YouTube nobody was doing at the time, and now everybody is doing them, and I think making movies—I know a few Youtubers have done it, and hopefully this movie does well and more YouTubers want to take a risk and make movies, and I’m excited about it.

As your comments suggest, the YouTube form has its limitations, and you naturally want to push beyond it to expand into other creative outlets. What made this the right form of expansion for you personally?

I’ve wanted to make movies ever since I was a kid. I knew that was my goal. I had wanted to make a movie for the last five years, really trying to get funding, and nothing was working out. And then Chris Moore came to me wanting to do something, and then this came up and he said “Hey, maybe this would be great.” And so the thought of having final cut, and it wasn’t my money that I had to put up, I mean—I think I signed up without even writing the script, I was like “Done! Put me in!” [Laughs]

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Cultural Interview: producer Chris Moore on designing Starz’s The Chair

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Starz’s The Chair—which debuts on September 6 at 11/10c—is both a documentary reality series and a competition, so one might be tempted to refer to it as a reality competition series. However, at its core The Chair—which chronicles two filmmakers, Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci, as they each make their own movie based on the same script with the winner earning $250,000—is a filmmaking experiment, similar to producer Chris Moore’s earlier—and soon to be revived, without Moore—series Project Greenlight. The difference is that instead of having a competition to select the filmmakers involved, Moore hand-selected his filmmakers to create the most interesting competition for the documentary, and to develop the movies with the best chance of succeeding as low-budget independent features.

I spoke with Moore about how he went about developing the series, the decision to turn this into a formal competition (rather than just a filmmaking experiment), and how his experience with the series has evolved as the experiment continues into distribution and promotion.

Cultural Learnings: From a “casting” perspective, were you ever considering other options, or did you land on Anna and Shane fairly early?

Chris Moore, Executive Producer, The Chair: I did have a list, although I will take a little bit of issue with the term “casting.” The biggest issue with this—and when we did Project Greenlight years ago—was that we need people to want to see the movies. And The Chair was not designed to be a first-time director thing, so some of the other people on the list were experienced directors, or second- or third-time directors. And I couldn’t talk any of them into it because of the competition nature, and because of the super low-budget nature. And the hardest part of it was that I had to raise all the money independently because people were like “I get the documentary, that’s genius, and I think the idea of two directors making the same script is awesome too, I would watch it.” The thing that I couldn’t get is movie companies, because they would say to me “Dude, how are we going to get our money back on two movies? It’s hard enough getting people to go see one movie, how are they going to go see two?”

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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 you wouldn’t know that given how 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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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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