Category Archives: Television

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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Louis C.K. was making a TV show: Of course he went into debt

Horace and PeteYou’ve seen the headlines, I’m sure: Louis C.K. went into debt to make Horace and Pete, his self-distributed, star-studded drama series. It came to light during a Howard Stern interview that, ultimately, represents C.K.’s most mainstream marketing yet for the project, and so his revelation comes as an implicit appeal: “buy my show so I can pay back my creditors.”

When I began reading reports about this interview, I made a joke on Twitter that Louis C.K. thought he was Beyonce, but he was really just Louis C.K. A few people thought that I was taking the piss out of him, but I wasn’t, really—I was just pointing out that he drastically misread the current TV marketplace, failing to realize that the “surprise launch” that rocketed Beyonce’s self-titled album to cultural event status in 2013 was never going to work for a TV series; it is impossible to create the type of sustained financial investment he imagined for this project. Being Louis C.K. still means his project was seen, purchased, and now covered by mainstream media, and will likely recoup its costs (and potentially profit) once additional sales and an eventual licensing deal are factored in—however, the idea that he could bankroll the production of additional episodes through the sales from the first four was a classic case of hubris, driven by that healthy combination of ego and entrepreneurism that has generally served him well but “failed” him here.

But the more I read news reports about C.K.’s apparent financial hardship, I struggle with the idea that we’re treating this as newsworthy. Have we forgotten that “going into debt to make a TV show” is actually the dominant way television gets made? Louis C.K. bypassed the studio/network/channel system to make his TV show, but he ultimately ended up funding it the same way everything gets made: you take a short-term loss in the interest of long-term gain, spending more than you’ll make from license fees (or in this case direct sales to consumers) knowing that you’ll eventually make money when the show enters into secondary markets. It’s called “deficit financing,” and while it’s true that these debts are typically not personal, usually weathered by multi-billion-dollar conglomerates who own TV studios, this is fundamentally what C.K. signed up for when he chose to self-produce an ongoing television series.

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The Passion: New Orleans: #ThePassionHalfLive

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The word “live” has value in our contemporary television environment. As actual live viewing grows increasingly less common, events that can promote their liveness—sports, award shows, etc.—have an advantage in the current TV marketplace. There is a belief that those shows, more than others, will draw audiences who will tune in live, and thus consume ads live, and thus make money for broadcasters like Fox.

The trend toward live musicals is an extension of this, and this was undoubtedly the context in which Fox has positioned The Passion: New Orleans. After Grease: Live, Fox has entered into the genre rebuilt by NBC over the past three holidays, and the Tyler Perry-hosted contemporary retelling of the Passion Play certainly wants to be the same type of success. It also framed itself around the idea of liveness, promoting that the event would run rain or shine, and using #ThePassionLive as the show’s hashtag.

But The Passion: New Orleans is not a live musical. It is a live broadcast interspersed with a television adaptation of the Passion Play, recorded in advance and featuring what would appear to be pre-recorded performances. It’s a choice that those involved with the production have discussed in interviews, and lines up with the desire to stage the scenes throughout the city of New Orleans for dramatic effect—logistically, this was not possible to stage live while retaining its geographic diversity, maximizing the idea of tracing the story of Jesus against modern day issues such as police prosecution.

And yet the balance between live and recorded content was somewhat surprising, especially with the chosen hashtag. The broadcast came to resemble a PBS pledge drive, with brief musical numbers—musical videos, really—interrupted by cuts to Tyler Perry, reporting from the crowd following the large cross making its way through New Orleans, and occasional live performances by Yolanda Adams, Trisha Yearwood, and Seal (and eventually Jencarlos Canela, playing Jesus). It’s a practical issue on any level, interrupting any sense of flow and continually disrupting the “story”: while it’s true that the basics of the Passion Play are pretty much common knowledge, any ability for the performers to establish specific characters or create a complete “performance” were rendered impossible by the constant interruptions.

The specific issue, however, comes from the fact that The Passion: New Orleans is not really a live musical despite being discursively understood as one by news outlets and audiences. To Fox’s credit, I can’t find any evidence of them ever calling it that—it has always been framed as a “live musical event,” which is a fair description for the concert/scripted combo that they aired earlier tonight. The “live” segments are comparable to “concert” stagings of Musicals, with minimal staging and focus on the songs themselves. But between the #ThePassionLive hashtag and the recent trend of live musicals, I at least expected more of the actual plot of the Passion Play to take place live, and so there was an aesthetic shock when they cut to the first main number—“Love Can Move Mountains”—and it was clearly taped in advance.

I understand why they would make this decision, logistically speaking, but some of their other choices are more confounding. Why, for example, would they still give the performers headset microphones and ear monitors in these pre-taped segments as though they were performing live, when either the aesthetic distinction (liveness has a clear aesthetic that the overly “cinematic” pre-taped segments diverge from significantly, especially given the huge variety of camera angles) or the time of day would betray the fact they were pre-recorded? Why use #ThePassionLive as a hashtag if the majority of your musical numbers were going to be pre-recorded, and #ThePassion would have served more or less the same purpose?

The answer is that the “promise” of a live musical has marketing value, even if that’s decidedly not what The Passion: New Orleans is. It’s undoubtedly false advertising to focus on the show’s liveness and then have the majority of musical numbers be pre-recorded—some performers never even appeared live under the curtain call—and Twitter chatter certainly reacted negatively when it became clear that the show wasn’t as live as they presumed. But that actually proves Fox’s point that the idea of a live musical will convince people to tune in, and whatever negative reaction comes from those who know enough to understand the difference between live and pre-taped aesthetics will likely be a very small percentage of the audience.

The Passion: New Orleans is not designed to be understood through an aesthetic lens: whereas Grease: Live reveled in its complex staging and choreography, The Passion: New Orleans is about the idea of community and spirituality. It’s about the procession of the cross through New Orleans, and the audience who are there to witness the live concert—it is about feeling, in other words, something that is tougher to achieve at home and certainly tougher for me to engage with given my lack of connection to the Passion Play. It wants to use liveness as a short-hand for togetherness, making us feel like we’re on the streets with the cross (hence the live check-ins), or that we’re among those crying or singing along to the vaguely spiritual pop songs chosen for the show’s jukebox soundtrack.

But while it would be disingenuous to take that experience away from those who felt it, the staging choices were a barrier for me. Too much of the story was told through Perry’s narration, limiting the ability for the songs—already, I must admit, facing barriers created by some questionable choices with the likes of Creed, Evanescence, and Hoobastank—to tap into the meaning of these characters and their story. As someone who knows the basic story but has no particular attachment to it, I would argue The Passion: New Orleans was on some level designed to appeal to me—Perry has framed his involvement as a desire to spread the gospel, rather than just preaching to the choir, but the disconnected narrative limited the ability for the music to communicate the emotions of this story. Specific moments tapped into the symbolic effect of the cross processional and the live audience—Yearwood and Seal’s numbers had the most impact—but too much of the story was trapped in screens, and weakened by the lack of flow (which was inevitable with commercials, but made worse by Perry’s scripted intros and outros from that footage).

I can see why The Passion: New Orleans became a hodge-podge of live and pre-recorded content. The actual story would have been better told if this had been entirely pre-recorded, with Perry’s narration playing over footage from the story instead of interrupting the flow of events. It would have been more focused on character, and it would have avoided the aesthetic dissonance that pulled me—if not its target audience—out of the narrative. But then it wouldn’t have been “live,” and they wouldn’t have been able to use both the commercial appeals of that term as well as the emotional appeal of seeing the cross work its way through New Orleans, and building this as a local event that can be viewed nationally (and internationally on Netflix).

The resulting production fails even basic tests of flow, and I still view too much of the soundtrack ironically to take the production wholly seriously, but it is ultimately a fair representation of Fox’s goals: to tap into a faith-based audience increasingly hailed by the film and television industry, and to extend a reputation for live events that draw advertisers interested in reaching those and other audiences. And so while The Passion: New Orleans betrays principles of liveness, it does so to balance its commercial goals with its spiritual ones, a legible mess instead of an incomprehensible one.

Cultural Observations

  • As far as I can tell, the amount of pre-recorded content is unprecedented for the format—while the report following the procession and the “host” are also in the Manchester Passion (the U.K.’s rendition of the same concept), the earlier numbers are staged nearby, and clearly live.

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Self-Gatekeeping: The Shifting Demographics of the 10/90

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Today at The A.V. Club, I have a piece reflecting on the state of what has become known as the 10/90 model, specifically focused on its fate at FX given the failure of George Lopez’s Saint George earlier this year and the unlikelihood of Partners—which debuts on Thursday night—setting the world on fire.

The uncertain fate of TV’s most radical get-rich-quick scheme – The A.V. Club

What’s become clear since 2012 is that the 10/90 is a form of television development fundamentally incompatible with the FX brand, and with the brand of any channel fostering a creativity-driven environment. In a business that has always been a negotiation between economic imperatives and creative potential, the 10/90 model makes no effort to have that negotiation. It’s the television-production equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme, and it shows in every pained, unfunny minute of Partners’ first two episodes, as well as in the creative struggles of both Anger Management and Saint George.

What struck me in doing research for the piece was how there was an untold story of the TBS 10/90, a marginalized narrative in the broader discourse. FX’s Anger Management was the first 10/90 to draw significant mainstream attention, despite the fact it only barely edged out the record-setting ratings of Tyler Perry’s House of Payne on TBS in 2006. But that show was on a less reputable channel, starring largely unknown actors, and—most tellingly—is primarily aimed at an African-American audience. And yet it also ran for over 250 episodes between 2006 and 2012, and spawned two other African-American led 10/90 sitcoms at the channel: Tyler Perry’s Meet The Browns ran for 140 episodes between 2009 and 2011, and Are We There Yet?—based on the Ice Cube film—produced 100 episodes between 2010 and 2012.

This story became more of a stepping stone for considering the more timely discussion of FX’s relationship with this development model in the final draft of the piece, but in earlier—overlong—drafts I had a line of discussion regarding the demographic implications of the evolution of the 10/90 that I wanted to explore here. Specifically, I want to consider how we can understand the 10/90 as an important space for serving underserved audiences, and how the evolution of the form has drifted away from what seemed like a key appeal of the model early on.

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That was (writing about) Arrested Development: TV Criticism in a Binge-Viewing Era

Arrested-Development-Season-4-PosterThere have been suggestions floating around in comment sections that the Netflix model—the decision to release every episode all at once—eliminates the function of traditional episodic television criticism. With viewers now able to choose the pace at which they watch episodes, potentially watching an entire season of Arrested Development in one session if they’re so inclined, the need for critics to evaluate individual episodes is no longer present. This is doubly the case, some would argue, with the puzzle-like structure of Arrested Development’s fourth season, which further confounds episodic analysis through its choice to emphasize each episode’s connection to a larger story arc one can’t truly appreciate until you’ve seen all fifteen episodes.

We’ve been talking about the former ever since Netflix released all of House of Cards at once in February, and there has been further conversation in the buildup to Arrested Development’s this weekend (including the ridiculous theory that critics are biased against Netflix for destroying their cultural purpose, a claim I responded to here). However, I have to admit that I’m not sure Netflix’s paradigm shift is actually anything close to a paradigm shift. Putting aside the fact that Netflix’s claim we will in the future move to a completely mass-release system of television distribution—which I talked about in a CBC Web Chat last week—ignores a lot of functional realities of the television industry which have permeated even webseries distribution patterns, I still feel like episodic and other forms of television criticism are useful and productive within the space of binge viewing habits.

Any suggestion to the contrary seems to be operating with a very limited conception of how and why episodic criticism is written, which functions in opposition to the ways in which binge viewing can allow us to expand—rather than contract—forms of television criticism in the wake of the binge viewing moment.

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The Apple iPad: Still Not a Television, But That’s Okay

The Apple iPad is not a television, but it wants to be one.

Of course, you could say the same thing about the iPod, and the iPhone, and the Macbook, and the iMac, and the AppleTV (Which is, of course, a small media player that hooks up to your TV as opposed to an actual television). The fact of the matter is that nearly every Apple product, by nature of its connection with iTunes TV downloads, wants to position itself as a replacement for your television (or your cable box). And the iPad, you could argue, is the closest the company has come so far to creating a device that bridges the gap: with a 10″ screen and wireless portability, the device offers respectable size and versatility to be able to sit on the train, download last night’s episode of Glee, and enjoy the ride.

However, the question on my mind is whether the iPad is anything more than a large iPod, and whether the problem plaguing efforts to expand television viewing en masse towards other platforms has nothing to do with size or usability and more due to habit (or problems with the distribution model as a whole). I think there’s a compelling argument that the iPad could offer new ways for people to experience the internet (especially its news capacities) “on-the-go,” and I think positioning the machine as a more portable, more usable netbook is intelligent. However, in terms of the medium I tend to spend the most time with, I don’t know if the iPad would actually change how I want to experience television, even if its price point means that I might end up purchasing one eventually.

I’m no tech writer, but some TV-specific thoughts after the jump.

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Spartacus: Blood and Shrug

After reader David Sigurani asked what I thought about Starz’ Spartacus: Blood and Sand, I realized that I hadn’t really even considered watching it. This week, both Spartacus and The Deep End were eviscerated by critics to the point where watching them seemed kind of unnecessary. However, since David asked, and since critical impressions indicated that Spartacus was so obnoxiously bad that it would prove interesting if not fulfilling, I decided to sit down with the pilot.

What surprised me is not that the pilot is terrible, but rather that the pilot’s terribleness does not necessarily feel like some sort of tragedy. The show has absolutely no sense of subtlety, no character nuances, and a twisted depiction of both how human resolve conflict and express their love for one another, and yet there is so little actual content beyond those factors that I don’t feel as if there is some television travesty on display. Sure, I’d like to see the enjoyable Lucy Lawless on a better show, and I do wish Rome would have gotten a longer run, but I can honestly say that I check out of Spartacus: Blood and Sand with a shrug, and well wishes for those who stick with the show to see how it builds towards a second season that’s already been ordered, and that’s already stocking up on departing Dollhouse staffers.

More on why I’m checking out despite thinking the show could actually grow into something better, after the jump.

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