Tag Archives: Television

An Assemblage of Words in Response to: the Sex Education Finale

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Photo: Jon Hall/Netflix

An Assemblage of Words in Response to is a new, probably ongoing project in which I give myself a limited time period to write words about things.

Sex Education is a surprisingly deep show, in terms of its ensemble.

Otis, the sex therapist’s son turned high school sex therapist, is undoubtedly the show’s lead. And his relationships with his mother, his best friend Eric, and his business partner/romantic interest Maeve are the most important relationships in the show. But as the show introduced other characters, it becomes more and more invested in their lives: while some “clients” appear and disappear in the episode where their problem emerges as an episodic point, others like Adam, Aimee, and Lily become part of the fabric of the show. It adds richness to a show that could have become tired amidst the tropes it deploys in order to stake its claim to ’80s teen movie nostalgia.

But when it comes to its finale, the writers’ interest in their supporting characters couple of hiccups for Sex Education, wherein story developments didn’t necessarily have the effect the writers desired.

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Adapting Skam: Finding America’s Oslo [Part Five]

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Finding America’s Oslo

Part Five

[This is the fifth post in a five-part series about the pending U.S. adaptation of Norwegian teen drama Skam. You can find the other parts of the series here, as well as my other posts about Skam here.]

The general conclusion of the previous post in this series was that the only way to successfully adapt Skam for the American market is to start from scratch. Rather than “remaking” the show, take its production structure and do a new set of interviews, finding culturally specific stories facing American 16-year-olds and build a show around those concerns. There are certain values from Skam itself—a cross-section of gender and sexuality—that could carry over, and chances are that a U.S. version would actually push questions of racial diversity more than the Norwegian series (which, until Mahdi’s introduction in season three, had really only one non-white character in Sana).

Yesterday I noted my skepticism that producers would follow through on this potential, but even if they did there’s a tough question to answer: where would this theoretical series take place?

Hulu’s East Los High, the closest thing U.S. television has to Skam, is set in East Los Angeles, but this is because the show is explicitly focused on representing and speaking to Latino audiences, something that Skam would be unlikely to do given the way it would position the show as aimed at a single niche rather than an age group as a whole. How do you find a location that doesn’t—through some element of demography—suggest you’re aiming at one group of teenagers over another?

Skins faced a similar challenge, and for a brief time it appeared they had settled on Baltimore in place of the U.K. series’ Bristol setting based on its—per MTV—“diverse ethnic groups and socioeconomic levels and urban and suburban areas.” However, by the time the show entered production, it had abandoned that plan: although the show could have easily “doubled” its financially-motivated production location in Toronto for Baltimore, they chose not to, despite having done focus groups with local teens. Creator Bryan Elsley told The Baltimore Sun that

“although we initially considered shooting ‘Skins’ in Baltimore, we have always preferred that the series should have a non specific setting so we are going for a general eastern seaboard environment. This allows us more freedom to tell stories about whatever we think relevant and funny to young people.”

This quotation chills me to my core. The idea of “non-specific” being associated with a show that is ostensibly supposed to be rooted in realist teen experiences is just fundamentally wrong, even for a show like Skins that contrasted that realism with absurdist turns for no particular reason. And yet you can imagine this same logic being used with Skam, built on a rhetoric of “relatability” that is a scourge on actually telling compelling stories through media. It’s a buzzword that my students are constantly using in their papers, arguing that shows are successful because they are “relatable,” but what that term actually means is unclear, and using it as a guide to how to tell stories could risk destroying the fabric of what makes for good television. (And yes, students, this is me telling you need to stop casually throwing the word relatable into your papers and pretending it means anything specific).

And yet “relatability” will fundamentally shape the decision of where a U.S. version of Skam would be set, and could lead to yet another placeless series that fails to understand that stories rooted in any reality are more “relatable” than the obscuring of geographical location to foster some type of illusion of homogenous cultural experience.

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Adapting Skam: Remake vs. Adaptation [Part Four]

 

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Remake vs. Adaptation

Part Four

[This is the fourth post in a five-part series about the pending U.S. adaptation of Norwegian teen drama Skam. You can find the other parts of the series here, as well as my other posts about Skam here.]

Format sales are the heart of the international television market: although the export of shows from the United States or Britain remain significant sources of revenue for the television industries in those countries, other countries which might not be able to export as much of their TV content can still generate significant income by developing formats that can be licensed for use in other markets.

And so rather than suggesting that Skam is getting an American “remake,” it is important to acknowledge the ways this simplifies the exchange happening here. Simon Fuller purchased the rights to create a U.S. version of Skam, but he was really purchasing the format: this includes the show’s narrative, true, but it’s also the transmedia storytelling approach, the production bible on how the show constructs its real time stories, and likely even the promotional blackout that I discussed in part three. What Fuller does with this remains an open question, but he has bought more than the rights to create American versions of Eva, Noora, Isak, and Sana and playing out the same stories but with English language dialogue and fewer references to Russe buses.

And yet that’s often what happens. The challenge with adapting formats is that there are two competing instincts. The first is to make significant changes to reflect a different market, particularly in cases like this one where Norway and the U.S. are—I know this is shocking—very different countries. However, the second is an industrial belief that the reason you use formats is to take advantage of their proven success, a belief that pushes producers to change as little as possible to ensure they’re not wasting the opportunity to have a successful show with minimal additional effort.

The only way to successfully adapt Skam for the American market is to throw out everything but the show’s core values and start from scratch. This is also something that is extremely unlikely to happen, given the context in which it is being developed.

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Adapting Skam: Television or “Television?” [Part Two]

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Television or “Television?”

Part Two

[This is the second post in a five-part series about the pending U.S. adaptation of Norwegian teen drama Skam. You can find the other parts of the series here, as well as my other posts about Skam here.]

In the era of “Peak TV,” there is no shortage of homes for television programming: while not all shows fit in all networks, channels, or streaming services, there are more options for more types of scripted series than ever before.

Skam is not a normal television show, however. Although it is ostensibly a once-weekly drama series as broadcast on NRK, it is primarily a transmedia webseries, distributed and consumed online through the NRK website. This is a crucial part of the format, allowing the show to build anticipation and suspense among its users, as well as reach a generation who is historically watching less and less linear television as their viewing moves to mobile devices.

Skam is built for an era where television content is inextricably linked to the internet, and for an audience that increasingly watches content online: accordingly, there are a wide range of options for its future as television channels become more deeply invested in online streaming, and as internet companies move increasingly into content production. However, all options present challenges compared to the free, open access model established by NRK, which—as noted in part one—is likely impossible in a commercial environment. Even before we consider the cultural challenges of adapting Skam, the industrial challenges are themselves something any adaptation would be forced to navigate.

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Adapting Skam: From Public Service to Private Interest [Part One]

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From Public Service to Private Interest

Part One

[This is the first post in a five-part series about the pending U.S. adaptation of Norwegian teen drama Skam. You can find the other parts of the series here, as well as my other posts about Skam here.]

As noted in my introduction to this feature, the U.S. adaptation of the E4 drama Skins has been a natural part of the dialogue around Skam being translated for American audiences. The case studies are not identical, admittedly: Skins was already in English, and had actually already been distributed in the U.S., meaning that the idea of making a U.S. version was especially redundant. But it happened, and it was a creative struggle, and it’s been used as a touchstone for why a U.S. version of Skam is a bad idea.

It’s important to note, though, that Skins was a commercial television program that found an American home on MTV, a commercial cable channel. Although the show ended up a disjointed mess, perpetually confused over whether it wanted to carbon copy the U.K.’s storylines or forge a new path for its characters, I would argue that MTV was a logical home for the series. Could it have been a better show if it had arrived at a time when Netflix was making original programing, and they were allowed to embrace the racier elements of the story? Perhaps, but I don’t think ending up on MTV was the primary reason it failed. I firmly believe there could have been a good version of Skins on MTV, provided that the creative team had picked a lane, and the executives in charge had been more open to making drastic changes in their approach as opposed to making a shot-for-shot remake early on for no discernible reason.

Skam, however, is not a commercial television program, and that is a huge part of its design. As a production of Norwegian public television, NRK, it is not concerned about selling ads or long term commercial viability. It was designed to connect the network’s public service mission to younger audiences, a vessel through which key issues facing adolescents could be discussed through content that directly connected with those audiences. Its producer is NRK P3, a youth-focused subnetwork of the larger NRK, and its transmedia components are designed to drive traffic to NRK’s website, and invest Skam viewers in the larger project of public media.

And so while Skins’ failures of adaptation were a byproduct of forced errors on behalf of those involved, the challenges facing Skam are distinct, as it is inevitably going to be a public service television show that will be adapted outside of a public television context.

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Adapting Skam: Introduction

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Introduction

April 24, 2017

When it was announced late last year that Norwegian teen drama Skam—which I wrote about catching up on last week—would be adapted for American audiences, I doubt anyone was particularly surprised: it is common practice for producers (in this case Idol producer Simon Fuller) to see international television hits and think of ways to adapt them for the larger and more lucrative American market.

However, while I wasn’t following the show closely at the time, I also doubt many members of the show’s international fanbase were particularly excited. The group of people who care about Skam are not the group who would require an American version to become invested in it: while there are no doubt people out there who would balk at the idea of watching a Norwegian teen drama with subtitles, it seems unlikely that those people know Skam exists, given it remains a niche text outside of the specific circles in which it carries. Perhaps there’s people who have seen the show comes across their Tumblr dashboards and wish there was a way to invest without subtitles, but for the most part an American version of Skam—tentatively titled Shame, the English meaning of the title—exists for people who have never thought for a single second about Norwegian television.

It wasn’t surprising to find some pushback against this news, then—take, for example, this Change.org petition. The people who’ve signed it are effectively offended on behalf of the show, defending it against the suggestion that it is some way lacking such that it requires a “Hollywood” approach. These people have been burned before, with many citing MTV’s failed attempt to remake U.K. series Skins, and I don’t blame them for having a lack of trust in Fuller or the process in general. There are lots of reasons to be skeptical about the idea of turning Skam into Shame, and I have to share their sentiment that it’s unfortunate the show can’t just be enjoyed by a larger audience in its current iteration.

However, the fact is that it can’t. The idea of distributing Skam to the U.S. with English subtitles sounds great in theory, but it faces two fundamental barriers. The first is legal: the show’s substantial use of music is economically feasible because that music is only licensed for broadcast in Norway, and so the vast majority of it would need to be stripped out should it arrive in the U.S. (as compared to smaller markets where the show has been exported in Europe, notably through other non-profit broadcasters). The second, though, is the fact that the show’s target demo has not been trained to watch shows featuring subtitles: while Netflix’s push into local language production might eventually get us there, the fact is that the subtitles are a fundamental barrier to the show reaching a wider audience in the United States, and thus being seen as valuable to potential distributors. Fan subs are going to be the only way the Norwegian version of Skam will make its way to America, and that creates a logical opening for an adaptation.

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Putting Skam into perspective: Narrative focus and Skam’s growing fandom

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This is not a “What is Skam?” article.

The internet was recently flooded with these: although the show started spreading globally in the fall with the release of season three (for reasons I will get into), the past few weeks have seen an uptick of online awareness, albeit still far from the mainstream—this is why some of you might be reading this asking yourself the question I’m saying I’m not going to answer. But if you want to understand why people around the world are seeking out a Norwegian teen web drama, you have pieces from Buzzfeed, Elite Daily, Den of Geek, and even a front lines report from Norway at FADER. The internet is now full up on “What is Skam?” articles (although I’m still waiting for the Vox explainer).

What I’m interested in is how the actual narrative of Skam functions within this globalized distribution environment. Skam’s narrative structure is certainly part of these stories, but their focus is largely in selling Skam as an experience, rather than digging into its narrative on a critical level. I have very much enjoyed Skam, and am suitably glued to the fourth season as it’s entering its second week, but the way its narrative functions has consequences for how its stories get told, and the way the internet has rallied around one of its seasons in particular has created an intriguing question of how the show’s anthology structure balances itself in a final season in the weeks to come.

[Spoiler Alert: So, I’m going to discuss the basic narrative of Skam in this post. In truth, most of the “What is Skam?” posts probably reveal as much as I’m going to, but if you really want to go in fresh (and I recommend this) then you may want to come back once you’ve found a way to watch the episodes.]

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13 Reasons Why is a teen show built for Netflix, for better or worse

13ReasonsKeyArtLast week, media scholar Casey McCormick posted a piece at Flow—where I have also been contributing during this most recent cycle—based on her research into Netflix, with a specific interest in the way they tell stories. I saw her present some of this research last week, and at the heart of it is an interest in what she terms “Netflix Poetics.” While this can take many forms, at Flow McCormick narrows in one element wherein many series “tend to be particularly metafictional, or self-conscious about storytelling,” citing the use of voiceover or direct address in shows like House of Cards or Narcos.

I was thinking a lot about the idea of “Netflix Poetics” as I watched 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s most recent drama series, and the second this year that we could call “Young Adult” programming after A Series of Unfortunate Events. But whereas that series adapts a dark but ultimately whimsical set of children’s books, 13 Reasons Why—developed by Brian Yorkey with Tom McCarthy as the director of the opening episodes—taps into the very real tragedy of Jay Asher’s novel about a teenage girl who commits suicide, and the tapes she leaves behind to call out those she holds responsible. Channeling the type of issue-focused storytelling that’s characterized shows like Canada’s Degrassi, and which emerges more sporadically in teen programming on U.S. cable channels like MTV and Freeform, 13 Reasons Why offers an unflinching consideration of the social problems that would leave someone like Hannah Baker to take their own life.

I have a lot of thoughts about 13 Reasons Why, but more than any other Netflix series all those thoughts are caught up in the fact that it is a Netflix series. Based on both the narrative it presents and the way it chooses to tell that story, both the good and the bad of the show feel inseparable from the context of its distribution. It is a show that feels like it might have only been able to do what it does on Netflix while simultaneously feeling like it encapsulates some of the pitfalls of the rigidity of the Netflix model and its associated expectations. It is a show that is brutally honest about the struggles teenagers face today in ways that are refreshing and important, while simultaneously positioning itself to appeal to the cynical binge culture that Netflix increasingly relies on its original programming to construct.

It is also ultimately very good, and well worth your time, but I want to focus on how it represents a meaningful case study of the distinctiveness of Netflix’s original programming on the level of both the text itself as well as its distribution.

[The following will contain light spoilers for the entire first season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.]

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Cultural Review: One Day At A Time turns a cynical instinct into a culturally-specific triumph

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Michael Yarish / Netflix

On Friday, Netflix debuts a new series from Norman Lear, but I don’t want to talk about either the streaming service or the iconic producer.

This is, admittedly, somewhat counterproductive. One Day At A Time is part of a growing collection of multi-camera projects for Netflix, and thus part of their larger programming narrative—the service continues to expand its profile in the TV industry seemingly every week, and its investment in this “traditional” genre is undoubtedly part of this. And as for Lear, my disinterest in discussing his involvement in this reboot of his 1975 sitcom is not meant as a slight on his legacy or his contributions to this series, which are all deserving of praise.

However, in both cases, I struggle overemphasizing these parties when discussing the myriad strengths of One Day At A Time, a show that thrives in its specificity despite being a product of a culture of reproduction. While Netflix will get kudos for distributing the series, and Lear deserves recognition for his pioneering of a sitcom model imagining television as what Newcomb and Hirsch dubbed “the cultural forum,” One Day At A Time succeeds because it finds purpose and meaning where none was guaranteed, or even likely.

The origins of the series, as presented by Vulture, can be read two ways:

When legendary sitcom producer Norman Lear kicked off the book tour for his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, the head of production and development at his company, Act III Productions, had a thought. “I wanted to get him back into TV to show people how relevant he still is,” said Brent Miller, the Act III executive. “It’s something people miss.” The idea to revive one of Lear’s legacy properties — the 1975 CBS sitcom One Day at a Time — was floated, but with one crucial difference, driven by the results of a marketing survey showing that single Latina mothers are a desirable target demographic: This time, it would center on a Latino family.

The first way is to focus on Miller’s goal of bringing Lear—a television icon—back to the industry, a timely one given the debut of NBC’s The Carmichael Show and the increased focus of ABC’s Blackish into cultural issues during this same period. That goal is admirable, and no one would be upset at the idea of Lear coming back to television.

The second way, however, is to focus on Miller’s actual strategy. Instead of having Lear work on a new series, perhaps partnering with a young writer similar to Carmichael‘s Jerrod Carmichael to develop a new property, the immediate instinct is to remake one of his existing series. Moreover, the choice to focus on a Latino family wasn’t motivated by a perceived lack of representation: it was motivated by a marketing survey, chosen to make the concept more desirable to Sony (the studio that held the rights, and would go on to produce the show) and Netflix (the distributor who would eventually purchase it).

This is not, ideally, how creativity is supposed to work, although it’s typical in the television industry. There’s a suggestion here that Miller—perhaps from past experience—did not believe that an original project from Lear would find a home, and that’s unfortunate if true. But the idea that this had to exist as a reboot of an existing property, and that its focus on a Latino family originated with a marketing study, points to the television industry’s unwillingness to abandon traditional profit motives, even when creating something that can—and, considering the final product, should—be framed as a step forward for representations of Latino families on television, and even when Netflix theoretically should be able to function outside of those logics as a self-proclaimed “disruptor.”

And so the fact that One Day At A Time is a great and meaningful television show is in spite of—rather than as a result of—its origins. Some of this credit goes to Lear, certainly, but it has much more to do with those who came on to run the series managed to turn it into something far beyond what its origins required. There is a version of One Day At A Time that barely goes beyond its initial pitch, telling generic family sitcom stories but with Latino actors, and living up to its promise for Netflix (interested in targeting niche audiences as a subscription-based service) and, on a basic level, to Miller’s initial goal of reviving Lear’s production company. However, what debuts on Netflix Friday is far from generic, and it has everything to do with what happened after the show was initially conceived.

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Cultural Interview: Shameless executive producer Nancy M. Pimental

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Shameless (Season 7) – Photo: SHOWTIME

When Showtime’s Shameless returned last week (which I continue to cover for The A.V. Club), it was months earlier than normal, the second season to air this calendar year. It meant a lot of Shameless in a short period, which reinforced that Shameless has quickly become one of Showtime’s longest-running hour-long series, now entering its seventh season

I had the chance to speak with Shameless executive producer Nancy M. Pimental, who’s been with the show since its first season, earlier this summer, and was mostly interested in how the show is looking to age into its final seasons, however many they may be. The conversation starts with a moment from last season that, for me, could have easily been a part of a theoretical series finale, and moves from there to cover topics related to upcoming character arcs, keeping storylines fresh after seven seasons, and how much they’ve thought about where they want each character to end up when the parties involved decide there’s been enough shamelessness for one lifetime.

Cultural Learnings: In the middle of last season, Fiona walked into the empty Gallagher house after it was auctioned out from under them, and my first thought was that this could have been the very last scene of the series.

Nancy M. Pimental: Really?

Yeah, the house has seemed so crucial to the show, and so the idea of it being a symbol of the end made a lot of sense to me—of course, then they ended up getting the house back, and the storytelling reverted to the status quo, but did you ever think of it as carrying the weight of finality at all?

Wow, no, but that’s interesting. I like seeing things through other people’s eyes, how it landed on them. We did not think it was final—what we wanted to show was just the kind of reality of living where they live, and how everything is a juggling act. So, you’re getting one ball in the air and paying one bill, and then something else ends up creeping up on you. Living in that socioeconomic environment you’re not planning for the future or anything—if anything we were just trying to show reality, as opposed to closure.

Was there any point where you considered abandoning the house, or is the standing set element of it too substantial?

Yeah, I think it’s too substantial. As writers we explore every option—“Oh, would it be interesting if everybody moves into the Milkovich house,” or “What if everybody splits up and goes to live with their respective partners?” I think we definitely explore every idea.

The season did end up playing with that latter idea, dividing up the characters while the house was in jeopardy. It actually made me wonder if you might go through with it, but eventually you did bring everyone back to the house.

You know, the truth is it’s such a fine line, as just practically and realistically as people get older they move away from their houses. I have friends who have kids that are that 16 and 17, and they’re never around anymore, and I think it’s natural and normal. And so we want to tell the truth, but sometimes it’s not great for storytelling, because you do want to see a family unit conquering or overcoming some obstacle.

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