Geoffrey Long
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Fringe benefits.

FRINGELast night I settled into the couch and watched the two-hour series premiere of JJ Abrams' new series Fringe. As a follower of Abrams' work (I'm a latecomer fan to LOST, I caught Cloverfield in its original theatrical release and his TED talk is one of my favorites) I'd been looking forward to this for months, and I'm happy to report that the final product did not disappoint.

Most critics share the same list of talking points when discussing Fringe: the premiere's US$10M budget (again, that's just for the premiere), how the show feels like an updated take on The X-Files, what the results of this mind-meld between Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci might suggest for their upcoming Star Trek reboot. Kurtman and Orci are best known these days for having written 2007's blockbuster Transformers, although they were also responsible for Mission: Impossible III, The Legend of Zorro, and a whole mess of episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Alias, which is where they presumably first worked with Abrams.

The results are a little different from what one might expect: for starters, the first ten minutes of Fringe are much gorier than anything we've seen on LOST so far, including one particularly 'jaw-dropping' effect (if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about). It's obvious where they spent that film-sized budget – there are so many extremely convincing, high-definition close-up shots of a translucent "visible man" that it's easy to think of this episode as more of a feature film than a television pilot.

The writing only sort of measures up to the quality of the spectacle – the dialogue definitely exhibits notable improvement over Transformers (there's no giant robot saying "My bad", for example) with a few hysterically funny moments of character interaction. The inclusion of a cow into the lab is explained away as a source of near-human tissue samples for experiments, but Bessie's very presence adds a degree of absurd character to the set reminiscent of Mulder's I WANT TO BELIEVE poster. However, some of the general story structure is still fairly weak. The main character, FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), is very obviously a cipher for the audience and is, at least so far, much less interesting as an actual character than either Mulder or Scully. The show opens with a fairly gratuitous sex scene between Dunham and her secret lover, fellow FBI agent John Scott (Mark Valley) that both gives the teenage-boy demographic a cheap thrill and very clearly telegraphs to rest of the viewing audience a sense of cheap doom. All the doe-eyed lovey-dovey treacle that bounces between the two of them is fairly unconvincing, culminating in an absolutely groanworthy "I haven't been very good at this... until you" gush from Dunham (approximately; I don't currently have the clip at hand) and only serves to sketch out Dunham's personal motivation for the rest of the episode after – surprise, surprise – Scott gets infected with the same mysterious flesh-destroying virus that caused all the ooey-gooeyness in the show's opener. Anyone who's seen any dramatic TV shows knows that this relationship is doomed, because a female lead in a serious, all-too-perfect monogamous relationship almost never flies – especially one that is so blatantly trying to replicate the success of The X-Files, where Mulder and Scully's will-they-or-won't-they served as a major dynamic for most of the show's lifespan.

The rest of the pilot follows Dunham's panicked race to save her lover, which opens the door to the show's most farfetched key gimmick – rescuing "this generation's Einstein," Dr. Walter Bishop (The Lord of the Rings' John Noble) from a mental asylum with the unwilling assistance of Bishop's estranged son Peter (Dawson's Creek's Joshua "Pacey" Jackson). It's Bishop's mad scientist vibe that really makes the show work, leading to the aforementioned brilliantly funny inter-character exhanges between Bishop the Elder and Bishop the Younger, Bishop the Elder and the desperate Dunham, Desperate Dunham and Bishop the Younger and so on. Cows are involved, and Harvard (although I found myself wondering repeatedly why they weren't here at MIT instead), and mental institutions, and LSD. One can imagine the hijinks that ensue.

Added into this mix is the Department of Homeland Security's Agent Phillip Broyles, who will (of course) eventually offer this motley crew a regular gig saving the world. It's worth noting that Broyles is played by Lance Reddick, who has appeared in everything from LOST to The Wire to CSI Miami to Numb3rs to Law and Order, but who bears enough of a passing similarity to Heroes' Jimmy "The Haitian" Jean-Louis to give me a chill of forboding the first time he appears on-screen, and I'm sure that was no accident. Fringe has enough conspiracy theories installed in its supernarrative to tick off that requisite X-Filean checkbox with aplomb: there's a secret connection between the virus and the FBI! There may be a vast conspiracy of this fringe science experimentation being done on an unsuspecting public! The government may be involved, as well as Microsoft a massive techno-corporation! Surprise, surprise – the only real surprise is that the creator of such an astonishingly original show as LOST is mining such conventional genre tropes here.

Still, given Abrams' past history I'm more than willing to give him some time to pitch us some inevitable curveballs – I'll admit that I'm a huge sucker for shows like this, and this summer's The X-Files: I Want to Believe made me want to believe that it was time for a comeback for Chris Carter and his agents. While it looks like Mulder and Scully have ridden off into the sunset for good, it's possible that Dunham and the Bishops will pick up where they left off. If they keep building up the supernarrative, develop Dunham into a real character instead of leaving her as the same wild-eyed spastic from the pilot, and continue to enable the Bishops to bring the funny, we could be in for a wild ride.

My final verdict? It may be an X-Files knockoff, but at least it's a pretty good knockoff. What can I say? I want to believe.


Music, cultural theorists and the late work of Groucho Marx.

Ken, this one's for you, coming courtesy of a link in Journalista! and WFMU's Beware of the Blog. In 1969, ABC had a musical variety TV show called Music Scene. When the show ended, they got a very special co-host: the 79-year-old Groucho Marx. Sporting an absolutely amazing hat straight from an MIT graduation, he reminisces about his life and career in a uniquely Groucho fashion, replete with one-liners often delivered with wanton, joyful disregard for the show's other co-host, David Steinberg. Man, I hope I'm having that much fun when I'm 79.

The other thing that I found amazing about the video clips on this page, aside from Steinberg's tie, is the collage of text on set behind Steinberg during the opening. Among other buzzwords of the age like "Pollution" and "Ghetto" and musical terms like "Music Scene" and "Billboard" were "Fellini" and – get this – "McLuhan". Good luck finding "Jenkins" or "Bordwell" on the backdrop of American Idol or Saturday Night Live now!

Wait for the moment about 14 minutes in when Groucho starts riffing on Bo Diddley. Man, they don't make 'em like this anymore.


NYT on Friday Night Lights.

Today's New York Times Magazine features a brilliant essay by Virginia Heffernan on Friday Night Lights and Art in the Age of Franchising:

The fault of “Friday Night Lights” is extrinsic: the program has steadfastly refused to become a franchise. It is not and will never be “Heroes,” “Project Runway,” “The Hills” or Harry Potter. It generates no tabloid features, cartoons, trading cards, board games, action figures or vibrating brooms. There will be no “Friday Night Lights: Origins,” and no “FNL Touchdown” for PlayStation.

This may sound like a blessing, but in a digital age a show cannot succeed without franchising. An author’s work can no longer exist in a vacuum, independent of hardy online extensions; indeed, a vascular system that pervades the Internet. Artists must now embrace the cultural theorists’ beloved model of the rhizome and think of their work as a horizontal stem for numberless roots and shoots — as many entry and exit points as fans can devise.

This is an enormous social shift that coincides with the changeover from analog to digital modes of communication, the rise of the Internet and the new raucousness of fans. It’s a mistake to see this imperative to branch out as a simple coarsening of culture. In fact, rhizome art is both lower-brow (“American Idol,” Derek Waters’s “Drunk History”) and more avant-garde (“Battlestar Galactica,” Ryan Trecartin’s “I-Be Area”) than linear, author-controlled narrative, which takes its cues from the middle-class form of the novel.

This is CMS through-and-through. Excellent, insightful stuff and a good introduction to the type of thing we've been researching in C3 for the last two years.


SNL on the Writer's Strike.

Holy crap, I didn't know Saturday Night Live could still be funny!


Must-See TV: Apple TV or Three-Tier TV?

As I've been working on my THESIS, I've come to appreciate the iTunes video store in an all-new way. The Apple TV device is finally shipping to stores this week, but as my recent behavior has shown, I'm not entirely sure I'm the right market for it. (Me? Not lusting after an Apple product? Horrors!) Some analysts are calling the Apple TV a 'DVD killer', or a 'cable killer', and so on, but what I've found, however, is that I've developed three tiers of TV watching – and there may not be room in this model for Jobs' new baby.

Tier One: Must-See Event TV

Tier One is my 'must-see event TV', where watching the show the night it's on is an event in and of itself. This can either be done alone or with friends, but these shows are my A-1 prime choices, the shows that I look forward to eagerly every week and have to see either in real-time or at a slight delay, thanks to TiVo. The shows I watch this way are 24, House, Stargate, Stargate: Atlantis, and the late, lamented Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. These are the shows that, if they were movies in theaters, I'd be there opening night with popcorn in my hands and an idiotic grin on my face. Fanboy TV? Perhaps.

Tier Two: Reliable Time-Shifted TV

Tier Two is 'reliable time-shifted TV', which is akin to a magazine subscription in my media consumption patterns. I always TiVo all the shows on the first tier, even as I'm watching them, because the desire is there to be absolutely certain I'll catch those episodes, and then to keep them around for a while afterwards in case I want to rewatch them. There are other shows, though, that I'll TiVo for eventual watching, but aren't quite worth planting my butt on the couch in near-real time. This is either due to time commitment, a conflict of other shows, or just a completely untenable time slot. My shows on Tier Two are the new animated The Batman, Mythbusters, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and anything with Jamie "Naked Chef" Oliver in it. These are the shows that, if they were magazines, I'd still dutifully subscribe to them and happily flip through them if I got the chance, but still often pile up in a corner somewhere without being consumed.

Tier Three: Impulse TV?

Tier Three, the newest tier, consists of all the shows I buy off the iTunes store. Now, this last cluster is messy because my iTunes library has shows from both Tier One and Tier Two for various reasons. There are eps of Stargate and 24 that I missed for whatever reason (usually a TiVo sneeze of some sort). The real collection, though, is of a different type of TV – the sort of 'impulse watch' television that's usually associated with channel surfing.

Maybe that's the kicker – that I never, ever channel surf anymore. instead, I iTunes surf.

Many of the shows I've bought off iTunes are ironically shows that I didn't bother TiVoing. This is because I somehow view the space on my house's TiVo as being worth more than space on my hard drive. There are one-offs of shows that I just wanted to try out, like Psych or Raines. But what I'm discovering is that there are also shows that I try on iTunes and then start to buy religiously to play in the background while I'm doing other things. This is a luxury of having multiple machines, I know, so it makes me an outlier of sorts in the market, but it's still a notable phenomenon – while I wouldn't bother TiVoing The Dresden Files, I now have every episode on my Mac. The same with Ghost Hunters, and I have a sneaking suspicion I'm going to wind up doing the same thing with Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.

Are these shows I expect to watch over and over again? Not really. Is this an example of backward thinking? Perhaps. But it's worth something – $1.99 – to have exactly the right engagement-level of content in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

In a way, it's 'Impulse TV' – similar to the impulse buy of just the right magazine or candy bar in the checkout aisle of a grocery store. It's notable that Target has begun to place DVDs at the end of their checkout aisles as well – movies as just another impulse buy, usually for under ten bucks, a cheap hit of content. Usually these films aren't the Oscar-winners, either – they're romantic comedies or stuff-blowing-up guy movies, cheap thrill horror flicks or frat humor films. This is not that dissimilar to the stuff in my third tier – is The Dresden Files the next Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? Hell no. But it's also just clever enough and funny enough to make me want to put it on in the background while I'm doing something else. And when I finish one episode, its easy enough to click the mouse again for another cheap hit – $1.99? It's only slightly more expensive than a Coke! – and get another one. At four bucks for 90 minutes of content, and six bucks for 135 minutes, it's cheaper and more convenient than going to Blockbuster.

Squeezing the Apple TV into the Tiers

This is where the iTunes store starts to creak under its own weight, however. This same pricing structure should also apply to films. Movies are still just too damned expensive for what you get from Apple. Impulse buying takes a hit when it takes so long for the files to download. We're in dire need of a new compression technology that speeds this business up. Once the show starts to play the second my finger clicks that mouse, Apple will see its impulse buys skyrocket. Jobs is no idiot – he's probably howling for the QuickTime team to get that tech on his desk, like, yesterday. But until they get a better system in place, either through some holy grail codec or via some kind of P2P system (or, most likely, a combination of both), serial impulse buying on the iTunes Store is probably going to be relegated to outliers like me.

The second challenge facing the iTunes store is the cost-quality ratio. I want to buy The Prestige, but $15 is too much for a DRM'ed file that is still relatively low-quality. Would I pay $10 for it, or $15 for the HD version of the same film? Probably, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if that was precisely the direction Apple was headed, given the Apple TV's emphasis on HDTV connectivity. Well, all right – this is Apple we're talking about, so it's more likely to be $15 for low-res and $20 for HD – but is $20 worth it for an HD film? Quite probably, yes – especially considering that Casino Royale, the first high-def disc to crack Amazon's top 25 sales chart, is still selling for $27 at the House of Bezos, with a whopping MSRP of $38.96.

This is where the Apple TV might fit in my consumption pattern – for movies. I'm unlikely to spend the extra moolah on TV shows on the iTunes store to stream to the exact same TV that's hooked up to my TiVo, when my Tier One and Tier Two shows are already on that TiVo. If there's a notable difference in quality that's a possibility, but for the most part... Unh-uh. Nor, for that matter, do I want to stream my Tier Three shows to my living room – if I was going to watch those shows in my living room, then I would have just TiVoed them in the first place.

But movies, though, those are a different story. Movies I do want to move from viewing area to viewing area. If I downloaded The Prestige, I would want to watch it both in the living room with friends or on my computer, because that's a media form that crosses tiers. Some shows are also like that, but for the most part these are my Tier Ones and Twos – which means that I'm more likely to pony up the $99 for a copy of Toast 8, which is currently the only place to get TiVoToGo for the Mac, instead of the $299 for an Apple TV.

What would it take for me to make the switch? The firts hurdle is the price – TiVoing all the episodes of Studio 60 would have meant that each episode showed up on my TV every week for free (well, after the price of my cable bill). Obtaining that content through the iTunes store (and, thus, through the Apple TV device) would have cost me $35.00, and would have required me to log into the iTunes store, then "make sure you are signed in to iTunes and then click here to download any episode currently waiting in your queue". I'm astonished Apple, the kings of usability, still require Season Pass subscribers to fire up iTunes every week and then manually click a button to download the content they've pre-ordered, then wait around for the content to be downloaded until they can watch it. This is a gap I hope they'll close with the Apple TV – people like me who are used to their chosen content already being there when they fire up their TiVos aren't going to happily adopt a multi-step acquisition process when they want to see their shows, not to mention the time gap between when the show airs on TV and when it goes up on the iTunes store.

This is not to say the device doesn't have promise – far from it. In fact, just typing this is making me want to rush out and buy one just to try it out, cost and use patterns be damned. That we've come this far already suggests to me that these last couple of gaps will be closed soon enough, which is good for everyone involved. Still, I think I'll hold on to my money just a little bit longer – after all, the next iteration of the Mac OS is supposed to show up this Spring, and who knows what that will hold in store?

Besides, my episode of No Reservations just finished downloading. Gotta go -- my show is (finally!) on.


TiVo, IPTV, RSS...

I just made a throwaway reference to Bill Gates' claim that TV will be irrelevant in five years, but I find myself wondering about what exactly we're going to see replace it.

Me, my own TV consumption patterns have changed due to TiVo in the same way that my weblog consumption patterns have changed due to RSS. It's possible to see a TiVo as an RSS reader for the web – you 'subscribe' to your favorite shows, instead of 'browsing' from channel to channel.

I don't care if the TV show I'm subscribing to is on NBC, Sci-Fi, or Bravo (especially since they're all owned by the same company). TiVo has already demonstrated the ability to suck down webcasts with Rocketboom. It's entirely possible to imagine content delivered through [webcasts/netcasts/podcasts/whatever] alongside regular network distribution completely transparently. As long as the content is of similar quality, IPTV facilitates the circumvention of the traditional network system and all the ridiculous overhead costs inherent therein.

There, in a nutshell, is why IPTV fascinates me. Plenty more of this to come, I'm sure.


Genre in 3 Lbs (or less).

Yesterday William Uricchio, the other co-head of CMS, forwarded on a New York Times review of the new medical drama 3 Lbs, which includes the following nifty tidbit on genre:

A procedural, be it a crime series like Law & Order or a medical show like House or 3 Lbs, is a genre that works by staying within well-marked boundaries. These series wrap a fillip of surprise (patricide, ulcers) into a comfortingly familiar framework. Each episode begins with an average person guilelessly going about the day until fate strikes. On Law & Order, cab drivers, joggers and quarreling couples stumble on a dead body and set off a whodunit. On medical shows, a housewife, soccer coach or a concert violinist suddenly keels over, setting off a whatdunit.

I should try writing one of these just as an exercise. Neat stuff, even if the wholly me-too nature of 3 Lbs makes me completely uninterested in tuning in (Tucci or no Tucci). What can I say? I'm a House man.


IPTV: Super Deluxe!

Interesting things are afoot in the IPTV space – Turner Broadcasting is launching what might be the first high-profile IPTV "station", Super Deluxe. The beauty here is that it's not linked to any existing channel – it's its own entity. Hmmm. This is one to keep an eye on... More as it develops.


Vamping Adult Swim.

Is it just me, or does Adult Swim's new Trinity Blood look almost like a sort of fluffy retelling of Hellsing from the POV of the Vatican?


Lloyd as Lessig on The West Wing!

Wow! Christopher Lloyd is playing Lawrence Lessig on The West Wing! Christopher freakin' Lloyd is playing a public intellectual whom I've met on my favorite TV show. You'll have to excuse me, I'm having a life is pretty freaking cool moment.