Tag Archives: Television

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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American Crime puts Pedagogy before Story

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(ABC/Felicia Graham)

A lot of television criticism becomes a critique of execution. Good ideas are put forward, but something’s off: a performance doesn’t quite land, the character logic doesn’t quite track, or limitations of budget or time—basic realities of making broadcast television—stand in the way of telling the story the way they wanted to.

But then you have cases like tonight’s American Crime, which I believe is executing the story it wants to tell at a high level. It’s just not the story I thought they were telling, and dramatically alters the scale and focus of the show in ways that in my experience undercut what made the show so compelling earlier in the season.

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Game of Thrones – “Sons of the Harpy”

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“Sons of the Harpy”

May 3, 2015

As noted last week, my reviews of Game of Thrones have shifted to The A.V. Club, but I will continue to link them here for regular readers. Warning: These are reviews intended for book readers, so if you want to know absolutely no small details about the story as told in the books, you may want to steer clear.

Game of Thrones – “Sons of the Harpy” [The A.V. Club]

This exposition is fairly unnecessary to book readers—although the reduced number of Sand Snakes means that it’s good to know which ones the writers chose to keep, ultimately any fan who watched the video revealing the new cast members this season understood who was who. However, there is another significant thread of exposition in “Sons Of The Harpy” that is one of the rare cases where its presence is just as valuable to readers as it is to non-readers. At three very conscious moments in the episode, viewers are given pieces of history that flesh out characters the show has largely elided to this point, but which are crucial to a prominent fan theory. For non-readers, it’s exposition that one can presume will become relevant as the season and series progress; for readers, it’s potentially confirmation of…

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Season Premiere: Game of Thrones – “The Wars To Come”

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“The Wars To Come”

April 12, 2015

Over the past four seasons, I’ve very much enjoyed writing about Game of Thrones here at Cultural Learnings, and have been privileged to have a wide audience for those reviews. The subsequent conversations have been among my most rewarding, and I want to thank everyone who has read, commented, or otherwise engaged with my reviews during that period.

However, I was given the opportunity to take over from my friend and former colleague Todd VanDerWerff writing the “Experts” reviews for The A.V. Club, and therefore there will be no more reviews here at Cultural Learnings. It also means that if you are someone who has not read the books, these reviews may potentially be something you do not want to read—while they will not explicitly spoil future events, they are written for those who know what’s coming, and may occasionally make references to foreshadowing and other forward-looking developments. I apologize for this, but it’s a byproduct of the opportunity.

However, given that the comments can be a bit more fast and furious over there, I will be posting a link to the review each week, and I encourage anyone with any specific questions or comments to leave them here, and I’m happy to create a side dialogue if anyone desires it. Thanks for reading, and hopefully you’ll still find something of value in the new reviews in the new location.

Game of Thrones (experts): “The Wars To Come”

“We have reached a stage where reader and non-reader are closer than ever before. Each group comes to the text with similar levels of expectation, shaped by their respective understandings of this world and its characters. Readers, admittedly, still come with expectations that are based on what unfolds in the novels past this point, but those expectations have been destabilized such that some of them hold no clear authority over the expectations that non-readers have developed on their own. Where once readers had lengthy emotional connections to the text that outstripped those only recently encountering the story, non-readers may now have been diehard fans for four years, growing in number as the show evolved into a mainstream phenomenon. And while there are more readers than ever before (I certainly didn’t use to see people reading the books on public transit before it premiered), they’re a different kind of reader, one for whom the show was likely the entry point.”

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The Limits of Limitations: The Projection List’s TV Problem

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Debuting today, The Projection List is presented as a resource tool: on one site, users can find theatrical, OnDemand, and Retail release dates for what looks generally to be the vast majority of motion pictures. This information is available elsewhere, but often scattered, meaning significant work is necessary to track those dates effectively. Many who write about or follow film are celebrating the site as the resource it strives to be.

However, the site’s choice to include television has created a point of trouble for me, personally. The idea of including television makes sense: many who follow film also follow television, and the retail section logically follows both film and television releases. Television and film share both cultural mindspace and retail shelf space, and so the presence of television is itself logical.

The trouble, however, comes in how the site has chosen to frame its engagement with television. This engagement is limited: in the site’s “About” page under the “Disclaimers” section, it is explained that

“The Projection List is not a network television guide. Not only are cable mini-series and short-run series traditionally more cinematic in nature, they are also much easier to track. Most cable season orders (the number of episodes ordered for any given season) are announced in-full, in advance of each season, whereas the vast majority of network series usually aren’t given a final season order until later in the season (if they aren’t outright cancelled in the middle of a season), thus making the tracking of network shows somewhat more challenging. For a more comprehensive network television guide, see TV.com.”

The fact that the site isn’t willing to function as a comprehensive television guide is not in and of itself problematic: TV.com is joined by other sites like The Futon Critic, which work as quick-glance resources for what’s new on a given night. To take on that task would be incredibly challenging, and so limiting your selection is logical and understandable.

The problem comes, however, in the first part of that paragraph, where the choice to focus on cable series is justified by noting that “cable mini-series and short-run series [are] traditionally more cinematic in nature.” This is further reinforced by the TV list itself, which is currently prefaced with the following: “NOTABLE CINEMATIC SHORT-RUN SCRIPTED SERIES AND MINI-SERIES. NO NETWORK SERIES.”

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