Choose-Your-Own-TV-Future: Pantheon University and Amateur Webseries

Two years ago, I was sent an email by the co-creator of webseries Jules and Monty. What I discovered when I went to watch these Tufts University students’ vlog-style reimagining of Romeo and Juliet in a college setting was not simply a charming production but also a meaningful symbol of how the accessibility of web distribution has reshaped the creativity of young producers. Here you have a group of college students who saw an independently produced webseries (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) and its cultural footprint and said “we can do that,” and then went ahead and did it thanks to the help of a campus TV station with an interest in making web content and the mainstreaming of the equipment/software necessary to make it happen.

I wrote about Jules and Monty both on Tumblr and here on the blog, but the students at Tufts—with co-creators Ed Rosini and Imogen Browder now branded as Neat-O Productions—have kept creating. But these creations have taken a different path than Jules and Monty—that show caught on with the fan communities that had emerged around the literary webseries of the moment, generating over eight thousand views of its finale and over twenty for its premiere. But followup webseries Wavejacked failed to ignite in the same way: it was less romantic, pushed the boundaries of genre, and latched onto a cultural reference point—old time radio plays, by way of Welcome to Night Vale at times—that didn’t necessarily appeal to their existing audience. And yet its success should be measured less in terms of views—still over a thousand for the finale, the measure of true viewership—and more in the fact that its creators didn’t just adapt another romance. They told a different story, explored different themes, and made a conscious effort to engage with LGBT representation in the process. The end result could be a bit scattered (in part due to a fragmented release structure), but it would have been easy to just fall into a pattern and they resisted that.

Pantheon University, this year’s production, represents the apex of the idea of college students making their own webseries by combining the media industry happening around them and their own creative impulses. Like Jules and Monty, Pantheon is an adaptation reimagining stories in a college setting, but in this case it’s the sprawling Greek mythology. This gives them the freedom to explore genre, moving between different tones and styles as the characters and their stories shift. They’ve even been inspired by the rise in Netflix’s all-at-once distribution pattern to build a puzzle-like structure, with the episodes released at once and able to be watched in any order (although with a suggested order). If Wavejacked was Neat-O pushing the boundaries of what they were interested in exploring and how they wanted to explore it, Pantheon University is channeling that ambition into creating something truly distinct.

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The strangest thing about Stranger Things is its (potentially) undefined future

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Stranger Things is the latest in a long line of originals from Netflix, a stable that is growing to the point where any one series is no longer really all that pivotal to their brand identity. Netflix doesn’t really put a significant promotional pitch behind a show like Stranger Things: they do some light marketing, some press (if critics/reporters are interested), and then season one becomes a litmus test. If it’s a “hit,” it goes into the list of shows that Netflix will push harder for a second season. If it’s not, it becomes like Marco Polo, which received almost no fanfare when its second season debuted earlier this month.

Stranger Things does pretty well in this litmus test. Critics embraced the show—although it received a slightly lower metacritic aggregate score than Narcos, it also had eleven more reviews in total, suggesting a wider interest in the series from the press. If I had to pinpoint a reason for this, it’s because Stranger Things feels different. Netflix’s series have at times slotted comfortably into existing genres: Narcos into the Breaking Bad anti-hero mold, Marco Polo trying to be a historical action epic, etc. And while Stranger Things‘ cinematic points of inspiration are none-too-subtle, it has less precedent in television, and thus feels novel even though one of Netflix’s first original series (Hemlock Grove) was a spin on the horror genre. The 80s period, Spielbergian, Stephen King-esque take on the material stands out amidst what I once dubbed the “psychosexual horror arms race” ongoing elsewhere in the genre, and the show overcomes some shoddy procedure—more on that after the jump—to construct a compelling milieu, fun characters, and a mythology that draws you in without getting overly complicated.

But there is another litmus test in Stranger Things that I want to focus on, which is this: what kind of television show is this in our era of limited series and seasonal anthologies? At only eight episodes, Stranger Things sits in a decidedly liminal position in an evolving TV industry, and the way the first season ends tells me that even those making the series aren’t entirely convinced where they want this show to fit. It’s a fascinating decision that creates an entirely new “postmortem” conversation about a season of TV: What, indeed, do we want a second season of Stranger Things—all but guaranteed given Netflix has never canceled anything, and certainly wouldn’t cancel something with reviews like this—to look like?

And, perhaps more importantly, do the show’s creators and Netflix feel the same way?

[Spoilers for “season one” of Stranger Things to follow.]

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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “The Winds of Winter”

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[After spending this season, as with last, writing about Game of Thrones at The A.V. Club, I was in Europe during the finale, which meant my colleague Caitlin PenzeyMoog stepped in. But since I’ve reviewed every episode of the series, it seemed odd not to be weighing in, so below are my thoughts. They are from a book reader’s perspective, but ultimately carry no significant spoilers from material yet to be adapted into the series.]

Most television is didactic on some level: while ultimately no show can control how its audiences watch it, it embeds certain codes by which it should be interpreted. In early seasons, it teaches us things about itself, which we will then use to map out the journey as it gets deeper into its run.

Game Of Thrones’ early seasons—pulling from Martin’s own lessons in the novels—taught us that anyone could die, and that no one was immune from the type of tragedy that befalls those in or near or subject to power in Westeros. Its middle seasons amended this lesson to show us that there are no easy paths to power, sidelining characters like Daenerys and Arya on long journeys of self-discovery that distracted from their central goal. It trained us to watch Game Of Thrones as a non-linear exploration of power in its various forms, embracing its muddied morality and considering the consequences that befall all those who lay in its wake.

But television shows change, and with them their lessons. For five seasons, the show trained its audience to be on the edge of its seat wondering where the narrative could go next, but this season has been a retraining of sorts. Suddenly, there need to be easy paths to power (albeit with long roads taken to get there), because the show is near its end. Suddenly the morality needs to become less muddled in places, because the powers of Westeros need to be in a position to unite against the threat of the White Walkers (a “big bad” the show introduced in its very first scene, yes, but then trained us to forget about by developing so slowly). Suddenly, there are characters that can’t die, because the level of investment in their arcs—Jon’s rise from the dead, Arya’s two entire seasons in Braavos, Sansa’s torture at the hands of Ramsay—is too great for them not to play some type of role in the endgame ahead. Game Of Thrones has changed, and its sixth season was about retraining us to watch the more predictable show it’s become.

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Hate To Say I Told You So?: Jane The Virgin’s Finale Non-Shocker

At what point does a fan theory become so ubiquitous that it stops being a theory?

Back in January of last year, as Jane The Virgin was in the midst of its first season, I tweeted the following to my A.V. Club colleague Kayla:

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This was a week after the show’s Latin Lover Narrator told audiences that Michael would believe he and Jane should be together “for long as Michael lived, until he drew his very last breath.” It was a notable piece of foreshadowing for a show that had already shown its interest in exploring the high stakes of the telenovela, and antennae have been up ever since.

But it was later in the second season that Michael’s fate became a larger topic of conversation. And in this case, it wasn’t the kind of explicit foreshadowing that the writers introduced in the first season, but rather a practical reality of the situation that was being established: Michael was too perfect to leave the season unscathed. The life being set up for Michael and Jane following their engagement was too perfect: he was too understanding about the co-parenting with Rafael, he was too willing to accommodate Jane’s neuroses, and he was romantic in ways that are simply not sustainable for an ongoing television series. Jane can’t be as happy as Michael was making her for the show to move forward with wedded bliss as the status quo. Something had to give.

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And people noticed. Some of us simply trolled our Twitter followers, making sure they were prepared for the pending doom (it was what The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum was talking about on Twitter in the hours before she earned her Pulitzer). Vulture wrote a whole article about whether or not Michael was going to die. And the textual evidence was only kept mounting: the couple exchanged their vows before their wedding, for example, which is a telltale sign that something is about to go terribly wrong. And so by the time we got to tonight’s season finale, we were past the point where the antennae were up, and to the point where I turned to my mother—who has only seen the pilot, which I showed her earlier today while visiting—and told her flat out that Michael was about to die.

But as much as something terrible happening to Michael wasn’t a question going into “Chapter Forty-Four” wasn’t a question, I did have a question about it: is it a problem that we all knew it was going to happen?

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CBS vs. End Times: Notes on the Apparent Death of Limitless

If you’re CBS, End Times—the term TV journalists have adopted for describing the collapse of traditional broadcast viewership and the advertising revenues drawn from it—represents a problem.

CBS’ business model, more than the other broadcast networks, has been built around broad-skewing procedurals, generating large total audiences in live, same-day ratings. The network is then able to sell these procedurals both internationally and into syndication, markets that are looking for content that is proven to draw large audiences.

But in End Times, these types of shows are increasingly rare, and same-day (and Live+3) ratings are declining across the board. However, for some CBS shows, this is not an immediate problem: same-day ratings declines for shows that have already run for multiple seasons and sold into syndication—like Elementary or Hawaii Five-0, for example—are totally fine, since CBS will eventually make money on additional episodes through existing syndication deals on that content even if they earn less from advertising revenue. CBS’ problem, rather, is that it becomes tougher to sell shows into syndication when they’re launching in End Times, and where shows are lucky to be drawing above a 1.5 in the demo (or above a 2.0 in Live+3).

And thus a show like Limitless was caught in a bind. On the one hand, its ratings were not terrible in the context of End Times—new shows with lower demographic ratings are getting picked up by other networks, and its numbers were not dramatically different from other new shows at CBS or the other shows in the 10/9c timeslot. It’s also owned by the studio, which means they would benefit from its long-tail in other markets.

However, on the other hand, creating long-term value for CBS requires the show to be enough of a hit to generate a long-tail market, and those markets have not yet reached the point where they are desperate enough to invest in a first-season show that is very clearly not garnering a broad audience. CBS knows ratings are unlikely to increase in subsequent seasons—it almost never happens—and there is no questioning that the show’s after-market value has been irrevocably damaged, and so CBS would appear to be doing something objectively rational in the context of End Times by canceling Limitless: Deadline reports that it’s unlikely to move forward, and is being “shopped” (although I can’t think of any outlet that would pick up a first season cast-off).

I would be sad about this situation under any circumstance as a fan of the show, as I wrote about at The A.V. Club on a few occasions, but End Times is not the only context here. The other context is what else CBS is picking up instead of Limitless. Among these projects is a MacGyver reboot that was ordered to pilot without a script, went through extensive reshoots, and fired all but two of its cast members and hired a new writer in the process of being picked up to series. The network’s pickups are also expected at this point include Code Black, a freshman medical procedural that CBS co-produces with ABC Studios, and which drew a lower average rating than Limitless. Suddenly, what appeared to be an objective financial decision tied to shifts in the TV marketplace becomes something different: how are two actors and a franchise name worth gambling on compared to a show that grew and evolved over its first season, and how does a co-production beat out an in-house production with higher ratings in an End Times environment where ownership was expected to matter more than ever?

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The Empty Cup Awards: It’s About Verisimilitude in TV Production

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As a television scholar and critic, I watch a lot of television. It’s an occupational perk and an occupational hazard, because watching a lot of television means that one develops certain complexes—when you see a particular trend move across multiple series, over months and years, it’s hard not to become a little bit obsessive about it.

I am not lacking for such obsessions, and they are united by a common theme: verisimilitude. Television is not real, of course, but for the most part it is invested in making its stories feel as real as possible, despite the various challenges associated with that task. And for whatever reason, I’ve developed a complex as it relates to failed efforts at verisimilitude: the badly photoshopped family photos, the unconvincing car green screen, the improbably high quality video chat. All of these are there to sell us on the story being told, but all are shortcuts: it would take more time to have actors take real photos, there’s way more logistics in taking out a driving rig, and it’s more efficient to just superimpose a webcam-like angle onto a screen than recreating the pixelated mess we experience in reality. But as much as I understand why this happens, I can’t turn off the part of my brain that gets pulled out of the show when I see such blatant disregard for something my brain has decided is critical, unlike 99.9% of likely viewers.

But of these various bugaboos, there is no doubt that TV characters brandishing empty coffee cups has been my kryptonite. While I traced my first mention of this particular objection on Twitter back to 2012, it emerged most significantly in 2014, when a quick succession of examples led to my decision to start tagging them with #EmptyCupAwards. The following eighteen months or so have turned the #EmptyCupAwards into something of a performance art piece, as I’ve used Instagram to document examples of bad cup acting on television. It’s become a distinct part of my online identity: other critics have sent people with the same affliction in my direction, followers have started seeing it themselves and blamed me for ruining it for them, and I’ve even had people warning me about shows before I get a chance to watch them. For better or worse (probably the latter, although I really do get a kick out of it), people know that I am the one leading a Quixotic crusade against actors who are bad at pretending there is something in the empty cup they’re carrying on television.

So when Slate approached me about writing something related to the Empty Cup Awards, I was presented with an opportunity to work through my demons. I wanted to better understand why this particular betrayal of verisimilitude bugged me more than the others, and why it was it was that these cups so frequently appear empty (or, at the very least, emptier than they should be based on the context we’ve been presented). And, in addition, I wanted to create a definitive statement of my objection, in the hope that elaborating on my concern could release me from the affliction whereby I see people on the street carrying coffee cups and start to guess how much liquid is in them (and yes, this has actually happened).

The resulting video essay—which the good people at Slate did a bang-up job on, to the point where it makes me look even more obsessive than I imagined, which is an impressive feat—is more than a little tongue-in-cheek, picking up on the tone of the #EmptyCupAwards posts in general, but at its core is an argument about the semiotics of coffee-drinking on TV shows, and a consideration of how viewers engage with television’s “realism” in general.

The Most Infuriating Thing* On Television: Unrealistic Acting with Coffee Cups – Slate

*The most infuriating thing on television is definitely its failure to address systemic issues with representation, but SEO gonna SEO.

Someone asked me recently what I would say if some of those who are critiqued for their “cup acting” in this video were to reveal that the cups in question were actually full of liquid, and that this was all in my head. And the truth is we’re past the point where this is about truth: it’s about how the persistence of empty cups has fundamentally altered the way I experience television, and exploring the reasons why that’s happened (and will continue to happen for entirely logical, practical reasons that my brain won’t compute because that’s just how it’s going to be).

While the video ends with a “call to action” related to the #EmptyCupAwards, and I would certainly like to see my little project spread to a wider group of viewers who could spot infractions on shows I don’t watch, the real “call to action” is to anyone who has this or any other pet peeve that shapes their experience immersing themselves in television worlds. If the social era of television gives us nothing else, it should create a space where our individual complexes as television viewers can become shared complexes, and our respective pet peeves can come together to help us better understand why we can’t turn off the part of our brain that pulls us out of television’s fictional worlds.

Cultural Observations

  • Okay, so because this video essay is already longer than I anticipated and looking to make a more rhetorical argument, a few footnotes:
  • From my research (there was research), there are some within the TV industry aware of this problem and insistent on fixing it, which means not all cups are empty. But there’s only so much you could control: all it takes is a last-minute suggestion of adding coffee to a scene, and no time to add liquid to cups. Circumstances are always different, and cups are never a priority (nor should they be, realistically).
  • Not all empty cups are alike: if we don’t see when a character purchased a cup of coffee, we can’t necessarily know how full it is supposed to be, and so those examples are less egregious than in cases where we know a cup of coffee is supposed to be full.
  • The deeper you get into this particular obsessive viewing pattern, the more that the angle of consumption becomes important (this is where I sound the craziest, I think). The fact is that you don’t drink a full cup of coffee at the same angle as you drink an empty one, but that angle is controlled by the flow of liquid, making it an even bigger acting challenge than creating the impression of weight.
  • While coffee mugs and take-out coffee cups are obviously related, they’re not necessarily the same problem: mugs have weight, and are less likely to be filled to the brim, so the differences between an “empty” and “full” cup are less noticeable.
  • Necessary credit to Veep’s Timothy Simons, who filmed a video as part of a crowdfunding campaign for a coffee shop where he proposed some necessary standards for cup acting—should we eventually honor the worst of the worst as part of an actual Empty Cup Awards, my earlier offer of a hosting gig still stands.
  • And yes, this post was written from a psychiatric institution, how did you know?

 

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Keep Your Money, I Got My Own: Lemonade and TIDAL Exclusivity

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As has long been expected after Beyoncé released “Formation” and announced a tour in support of a single song, the full album Lemonade debuted exclusively on TIDAL last night, alongside a visual album debut on HBO (which will also be exclusive to TIDAL after a 24-hour streaming window on HBO’s own services).

Like Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and (to a lesser extent) Rihanna’s ANTI before it, Lemonade’s TIDAL exclusivity fed into the internet’s running joke about the streaming music service, which has struggled to gain a foothold in a marketplace where Spotify was “first” and Apple Music benefits from pre-existing cultural saturation. TIDAL first attempted to differentiate itself based on its streaming quality, but has since focused on its exclusive content, helped by both the immediate social circle of founder Jay-Z and an artist-friendly policy that helps the service attract exclusives like Prince (whose absence from more established streaming services was a significant discourse following his death).

But TIDAL has struggled for a variety of reasons: those who already subscribe to other services (and who have built playlists, gotten used to interfaces, etc.) don’t see the logic of subscribing to more than one, given the relatively small number of exclusives (whereas TV has reached a point where this idea is more palatable); those who don’t subscribe to any services because they listen to music for free on YouTube are growing ever more resentful of paying more music in general; those who actually prefer to buy music resent the fact that exclusive albums like The Life Of Pablo and Lemonade are not (at least initially) available through outlets like iTunes or formats like Vinyl where they prefer to make those purchases. And while The Life Of Pablo did convince some people to subscribe, the album’s eventual release on Apple Music and Spotify (which you can use for free, with ads, unlike TIDAL) actually spurred talk of a class action lawsuit from those angry they’d been tricked into subscribing to the service.

That lawsuit foregrounds how the discursive construction of a TIDAL exclusive has yet to be wholly defined: it’s true that West and TIDAL were never clear whether the deal was long term (not that West is ever clear about anything), but I’m more interested in the way the reasons behind the choice can be articulated. Cynically, exclusive content exists to boost subscriptions, and to help the company’s bottom line when a significant number of the people who sign up for free trials forget to cancel their subscriptions or, in TIDAL’s ideal scenario, enjoy the service and continue to subscribe by choice. But West also used the time The Life of Pablo was streaming on TIDAL to continually tweak the album, the streaming window becoming an extension of the lengthy public tinkering with the album West performed on social media. TIDAL exclusives might be there to drive subscriptions, but they can also serve the artist-friendly brand, giving artists—or, at least artists who are Kanye West and intimately connected with the site’s founder—and their fans hope that it can become a platform for experimental modes of distribution.

The same does not apply to Lemonade: this, like ANTI, is a complete and finished album, and is similar to the surprise release of Beyoncé in 2013 that still launched exclusively, but to the industry standard iTunes Store. The logic there was the presence of the visual album, which required digital distribution, and which at that point precluded the use of streaming services: with both TIDAL and Apple using video—and soon television—as significant parts of their streaming platforms (with Apple the home to exclusive music video debuts like “Hotline Bling,” along with Taylor Swift’s 1989 concert film), Lemonade is an experience fit for the current streaming era, but not one that would have been impossible as a more traditional album release on iTunes. Therefore, it’s easy to read its placement on TIDAL as the most significant effort yet at driving subscriptions through exclusive content (with no clear window on if or when the album will be moving outside of TIDAL*).

* Well, there wasn’t a clear window. Hours later, The New York Times reports that Lemonade will arrive on iTunes at midnight tonight (Monday), per inside sources. Less clear, however, is whether or not the visual album will also be available for purchase as part of the bundle, or whether that content could remain on TIDAL exclusively, which seems like an option. The album, meanwhile, is also now available to purchase on TIDAL, as eventually happened with The Life of Pablo.

But in addition to thinking about the cynical business-oriented decision-making behind Lemonade’s exclusivity, there’s also a narrative of what is being sacrificed by making this choice. This likely includes, at least for the moment, any type of Billboard chart placement: TIDAL did not report its streaming numbers for The Life Of Pablo to Nielsen, meaning that despite obviously being the biggest album release of the year thus far, Beyoncé may not have the number one album in the country unless TIDAL (conveniently, which makes it possible) chooses to report those numbers this week. There are cynical business reasons for this (like hiding how few people are really streaming music on TIDAL, even with exclusives), but it also helps support the idea that TIDAL is doing things differently, and “challenging the status quo”: West eventually celebrated hitting No. 1 with The Life Of Pablo, so they’re not devaluing Billboard entirely, but he did so noting it was the first album to go Number One off of streaming.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 12.45.13 PMThat’s admittedly a bit misleading, given it was available for sale on TIDAL and West’s website and much—and potentially all, as I can’t get a handle on whether or not TIDAL included streaming numbers when the album went wider—of this likely came from Spotify and Apple Music, but it had the highest share of streaming of any No. 1, and Billboard reports noted the impressive feat of reaching “the pinnacle” even after being “available” on TIDAL for six weeks beforehand. It was West and TIDAL saying “We can offer the album on TIDAL, tinker with it for six weeks, and we’ll still go No. 1 when we release the album wider.” Regardless, it creates the potential for releasing an album on TIDAL as appearing “outside” of the traditional industry standard, albeit on a service that very much desperately wants to become an industry standard, and which is run by an artist who is just as much a business at the end of the day.

TIDAL will never be an outright counter-cultural service, but it’s a potential node of articulation as it works to convince the public that its exclusive content is eventually going to coalesce into a competitive advantage in the streaming marketplace. TIDAL is built for a world in which everyone subscribes to one music service or another, but we are not yet in this world, and whether or not the current marketplace can reasonably sustain three major services is still an open question. And while Lemonade cannot alone resolve that question, it certainly brings the conversation around “TIDAL Exclusives” further into the mainstream, and will generate a new wave of free trials they hope we forget about.

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