Tag Archives: SyFy

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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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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Ch-Ch-Changes: Thoughts on January’s British TV Invasion

Ch-Ch-Changes: January’s British TV Invasion

January 19th, 2011

While television in general has become inundated with adaptations of British series, or shows about adaptations of British series, or shows which have been imported from Britain, the past few days have been particularly overwhelming for me. Having put off watching Showtime’s Shameless (a British series being adapted for American television) and Episodes (a show about a British series being adapted for American television) the week before, and then pairing them with a marathon of PBS’ Downton Abbey and Monday’s premieres of MTV’s Skins and SyFy’s Being Human, I gave myself what has to constitute an overdose of transatlantic television.

And, unsurprisingly, I ended up with quite a few things to say about it. The process of adaptation is hardly a consistent one, and its function in these various texts is wide-ranging: It is the subject of satire for Episodes, a topic of debate for Shameless, Skins and Being Human, and a complete non-starter (albeit not without a controversy of sorts, as I’ll get to in a moment) for Downton Abbey.

The response to these various shows has been diverse, but beyond the legitimate concern that the industry has become creatively bankrupt there lies a shifting understanding of change and how we respond to it. Do we want adaptations to be “true” to the original, or do we want them to change in order to find a distinct identity? What, precisely, makes a good adaptation, and does the degree to which a series changes from the original alter our critical focus beyond how we would consider original pilots? And, if it does, should it?

The following is my attempt at answering these questions.

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The End of the Beginning: Thoughts on Caprica’s Cancellation

Brief Thoughts on Caprica’s Cancellation

October 27th, 2010

Battlestar Galactica was so novel because it merged the world of the space opera with the special effects-laden battles that we expect from blockbuster cinema. If the series was only one of these things, I think that it would have been half as popular as it was: the former kept you engaged, while the former punctuated key moments (“Exodus: Part Two” immediately comes to mind).

Caprica ultimately failed – having been canceled earlier today – because it was entirely the former. It was more soap than space, and its heavier science fiction elements were peddling complex identity politics – that Battlestar framed in terms of relationships or terrorism – at face value. In reality, this made for a decently engaging television program that deserved a larger audience, but it’s nearly impossible to recommend the series to someone. With Battlestar there was that sense of surprise, wonder over the notion of a mature, intelligent series featuring aliens and space battles – people tuned in because it seemed like a novelty, the same kind of audience which has allowed Friday Night Lights to become a cult hit as opposed to a forgotten gem. Caprica, meanwhile, is what it is: there’s no surprise, and there’s certainly no punctuation, and so the show was almost destined to fail.

It doesn’t help, of course, that SyFy is moving on with a new project that takes the other half of Battlestar and spins it off. BSG: Blood and Chrome is, as Jeremy Mongeau puts it, “demo-friendly”: it’s going to have plenty of action, deal with younger characters who may be more appealing to audiences, and its effect-heavy production elements are likely to appeal to those who found Caprica slow or “boring.” It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t have found a way to make both spinoffs work, or to build one spin-off that could appeal to both sides of Battlestar’s appeal, but this is the situation that we’ve found ourselves in.

I’ll watch Blood and Chrome out of curiousity, don’t get me wrong, but I am really uncomfortable with the message being sent here. I will not necessarily miss Caprica: some great performances, sure, but the show was uneven and I am not desperate to see how it resolves its first and only season (or even to see the remaining episodes). However, I mourn the idea of Caprica, the notion that a complex science fiction drama series can survive on cable – I don’t blame SyFy for making this decision, but I do anticipate that they will be producing nothing even close to Caprica in the future. It’s all going to be science fiction procedurals like Warehouse 13, science fiction action series like Blood and Chrome (which is the network’s answer to Spartacus), and B-Movies like Sharktopus.

SyFy was the last home for shows like this one: unless someone can convince HBO or Showtime that science fiction is an area they need to investigate, it seems as if we are at a point where smart, complex science fiction truly has no home but in our imaginations and on our DVD shelves.

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Season Premiere: Caprica – “Unvanquished”

“Unvanquished”

October 5th, 2010

Returning to numbers below its performance earlier this year, Caprica seems to be heading for an early death. On the one hand, this disappoints me: as a fan of this franchise, I am interested in seeing where the show might be headed. However, watching “Unvanquished” I realized that I do not feel any particular need for the series to continue. There is a decided lack of urgency to the way we approach the series: I’m co-editing Antenna this month, and I concur with Derek Johnson’s question mark in regards to our anticipation regarding the series’ return (in fact, I couldn’t prepare his piece for publication until I watched the finale, which only happened last night, thus proving his thesis).

What’s fascinating is that “Unvanquished” seems like an incredibly intelligent start to the second half of the season and yet does nothing to make the series seem more exciting; it seems more logically planned out, but logic is not enough to convince me that this show deserves to be saved.

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The Stealth Launch: Lie to Me and Caprica Return on Short Notice

The Stealth Launch: Lie to Me, Caprica Return

October 4th, 2010

This week marks the return of two series which were supposed to remain on the bench for a bit longer.

FOX’s Lie to Me was originally scheduled to return in November, but its third season will slot behind House (where it was last season) starting tonight at 9/8c.

SyFy’s Caprica, meanwhile, wasn’t going to return until January, but the decision was made to pair the conclusion of the series’ first season (10/9c) with the return of Stargate Universe on Tuesday.

As someone who was compelled by Caprica, and who finds Lie to Me to be a solid procedural, I should be excited by these returns. However, both because of a general lack of promotion in one case and a sheer lack of warning in the other, these series risk being missed by their prospective audience. While there is some value to flying under the radar, and it is possible that reduced awareness could lead to reduced expectation, I can’t help but feel that these series are being put in a position where sooner is not necessarily better.

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A Manipulated Medium: Thoughts on Warehouse 13, Covert Affairs and White Collar

A Manipulated Medium: Warehouse 13, Covert Affairs and White Collar

July 21st, 2010

Television is by and large a manipulated medium: whether it parcels a larger story into smaller segments, or presents a series of smaller stories, there is a point where craftsmanship is dictated more by convenience than by sheer artistic merit. Writers take shortcuts, use shorthand, and do everything in their power to make sure that the forty minute running time of an episode manages to do everything it needs to do to service the larger story, or create a satisfying conclusion to the standalone narrative being constructed.

I don’t think this is an inherently negative notion, and do not use “manipulators” as some sort of slur toward television writers, a group of individuals I have a great deal of respect for. However, when it comes to this manipulation, there is a time, a place, and a methodology: there are some situations where writers should simply let their show breathe, where manipulating the story in a particular direction will only damage the series’ momentum, and there are also some ways in which you can manipulate your series which transfers the manipulation from the series’ characters to the audience, something that all writers should avoid at all costs.

While manipulation is a problem with high-concept procedurals (like Lost, Heroes or the upcoming The Event on NBC), it’s also present in the light-hearted cable procedurals which have become so prolific, and I want to use it as a theme for addressing last night’s episodes of SyFy’s Warehouse 13 and USA Network’s White Collar and Covert Affairs, as they each represent a different approach to manipulating the trajectory of a television series.

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Haven – “Butterfly”

“Butterfly”

July 16th, 2010

The second episode of any series is often more telling than its pilot, as it represents the writers’ first chance to give an indication of where the series goes beyond the original concept. This is especially true with shows like Haven which rely on a combination of serialized elements and procedural components, as you start to see the balance take shape when freed from the more blatant exposition required in a pilot.

The two tests that I have for episodes like “Butterfly” are the Serial Extension test and the Procedural Competency test: the former looks at how the show expanded its serialized elements in order to keep viewers intrigued to see the series and its characters evolve, while the latter looks at how it constructs its stand-alone case in order to serve both those serial elements and our general entertainment. I wouldn’t say that, at this early stage, one is more important than the other: we may be enticed to stick around longer should the serialized storyline come together in an interesting fashion, but we’re more likely to quit earlier if the show just isn’t engaging in the stories it will tell in the majority of each episode.

I think that “Butterfly” passes the Serial Extension test with some spooky terminology and a sense of history, but it fails the Procedural Competency test: while certainly not the worst hour of procedural television I’ve seen, the dialogue just isn’t capable of selling this material, and the story’s conclusion is unbelievable not because it involves magic, but because the episode failed miserably at engaging me within its resolution, leaving me skeptical that the series can execute on the small tidbits we’re getting on the serialized front.

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Series Premiere: Haven – “Welcome to Haven”

“Welcome to Haven”

July 9th, 2010

Haven was filmed about a half hour away from my current location in the suburbs of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and so there is a certain novelty to watching the premiere and seeing familiar locales. I worked for three summers driving around the province putting out traffic counters, and so I not only recognized Lunenburg (which doubles as Haven) but also the roads which they drive to get to the town, or the intersection where the main action seems to be located. As a result, Haven came to life for me in a way which kept me engaged – it’s too bad, though, that I’m not sure many other viewers could say the same.

The title of the pilot seems to imply that the series is coming from the perspective of the town, that there exists a fully-formed community which we are being welcomed into. However, the structure of the series is such that Haven is only what Emily Rose’s workaholic FBI Agent needs to see, and what the pilot is forced to establish to suggest that there exists a series about this town. While there are plenty of hints that there is something deeper afoot, and that this place holds a history which could hold meaning for our protagonist, there are no small moments which help define Haven and its residents, no local colour beyond archetypal newspaper men and supernaturally-motivated residents.

We are only shown what they have decided we should see – the result is a functional pilot which fails to excite me in any fashion than the sheer novelty of seeing familiar locations on my television screen, although that novelty and my appreciation for Rose will likely keep me watching for a while.

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Season Premiere: Warehouse 13 – “Time Will Tell”

“Time Will Tell”

July 6th, 2010

Warehouse 13 ended its first season on one of those cliffhangers that I generally despise – like White Collar’s mid-season finale late last year (where it seemed like Peter was the series’ big bad), the show ended on a note which implied a huge change in direction (in this case that Artie had been killed in the explosion at the Warehouse’s entrance, and that Leena was in league with MacPherson) but which in reality was entirely inconsequential. Any uncertainty you have about Artie being legitimately dead is ended within a few minutes, and any concerns about Leena are erased when she continues to appear in the main credits.

I’m fine with the fact that a sci-fi procedural isn’t going to make these sorts of huge changes, but my response to the second season was very much dependent on how they used the uncertainty surrounding the finale to its advantage. While it may be cheap storytelling in a lot of ways, Warehouse 13 has the unique ability to explain away sudden twists under the guise of expanding its catalogue of artifacts with inexplicable powers – while I thought White Collar took a few episodes to recover from the bait and switch, Warehouse 13 uses its pre-existing rules in order to leap frog over the initial uncertainty to confidently map out the season to come. “Time Will Tell” is a strong premiere, although in a different way than I had expected, giving viewers one last glimpse at the first season’s highly personal conflict between Artie and MacPherson before replacing it with a more generic, but also more inventive, narrative.

It’s a decision I think works in the show’s favour, going against the common logic of these types of procedurals by through simplification rather than complication while continuing to embrace the quirky, charming potential within the series’ premise.

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