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“Home Sick”

December 22, 2015

WARNING: If you have not yet seen Season 5 of Homeland (and intend to) this article is not for you.

Do you remember the early years of Homeland?  I had to watch the entire first two seasons over the course of a week in order to avoid giving myself a panic attack.  I was hanging off my chair wondering how the game between Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody would play out.  They were believable and yet so different compared with much of what had been on television to that point.  I became sufficiently invested in their relationship that I was forgiving about the less-than-stellar season three.  I agreed with the creative team that the Brody character was played out and needed to come to a noble end.  And on the plus side, his departure meant we didn’t have to hear anything further from his annoying self-righteous daughter, Dana.

Season four left me encouraged about Homeland’s future.  The plot continued to explore complex questions of trust, allegiance and security, most of which do not have clear answers.  Carrie was presented with interesting opportunities to test her abilities and her moral fiber.  The brooding Brody energy was picked up and moved deeper and darker as Peter Quinn moved into a bigger role.  While not quite as fresh as the original cycle, the episodes remained above average viewing.

Then came Season five, which appeared to be written by summer interns who had read about Homeland on Wikipedia.  There has been public outcry about the probable loss of Quinn.  I agree there was unexplored territory there and he and Carrie were the ultimate missed connection.  But to me the problem with the series’ direction is much bigger: Homeland lost what made it compelling viewing.  The pacing was horrible, with many stories being rushed to their unsatisfying conclusions.  The gas didn’t go off.  Allison wound up dead in a car trunk.  Numen was released.  Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

The setup had several strikes against it from the beginning.  The location shift to beautiful Berlin was wasted.  It is very difficult to make cybercrime visually interesting.  Real life feelings about Muslims in general and Syrians in particular made the sarin thread even more distasteful.  But there also seemed to be a large amount of extreme impatience behind the scenes.  Characters weren’t shades of grey so much as hunks of black and white stuck together with masking tape.  Gone was the intelligent exploration and layers of complexity, replaced by lazy shorthand and tired narrative devices.  In a few scenes even common sense took a vacation.  Would a clever calculating soul like Allison Carr turn in one beat?  Would Carrie and Astrid enter the potential site of sarin gas production without any backup?  Would the CIA really let Carrie write her own ticket after all the times she went off the rails?

There are glimmers of promise for the future of the show.  Headlines about how best to keep our country safe can provide daily inspiration.  Carrie Mathison remains a rich character wonderfully brought to life by Claire Danes.  Saul Berenson continues to evolve in the hands of Mandy Patinkin from mentor to adversary to respectful colleague. With these building blocks in place, there is still a good chance for Season six to fulfill Homeland’s original promise.  But knotty problems deserve more textured and mature examination.  It took 37 episodes to experience Brody’s tale.  Let’s not be in such a hurry to turn to the last page with Carrie’s next opponent.

The Evil That Men Do

November 3, 2013

Women have long held a place in their hearts for rogues.  Don’t ask me why: I’m a TV junkie not a psychiatric social worker.  Men seemed to get onboard the Anti- Hero Train with the arrival of Tony Soprano.  My theory is they were attracted to the idea of a guy who could eat all the baked ziti he wanted and still get strippers to jump him.  Whatever the initial draw, both genders have cheered on a bevy of bad boys from dedicated murderer Dexter Morgan to meth perfectionist Walter White.  Well, maybe not cheered, but certainly kept hoping they’d get away with their villainy for at least another week.

I admit to preferring my miscreants on the softer side: praying for the soul of Tommy Gavin, daydreaming about mentoring well-meaning Tim Riggins and – um – doing other things with crafty Sawyer that I will not print in a family blog.  But the latest crop of shadowy characters aren’t soft so much as half baked.  It’s as if the network execs ran a book about shadowy characters through Google Translator three or four times and then gave the resulting concepts to their nephews in the mailroom for further development.  With apologies to House of Cards fans, but Spacey’s Underwood is more schoolyard bully than evil genius.  The finale parties for the loathsome-not-in-a-good-way Low Winter Sun must have been less populated than Fort Dodge, Kansas.  And if The Blacklist’s Raymond Reddington was played by anyone other than the master of  intimation, James Spader, he’d do little more than make me want to take a Benedryl.

I have read recent columns calling for the end of the Anti-hero Era, but that does the television landscape a grave disservice.  We can’t have used up our entire cultural allotment of “thrillingly dastardly.”  Would we want a literary world without the next generation of Mr. Rochesters, Tom Ripleys, or Lisbeth Salanders?  (Yes, badass chicks count.)  Of course not.  But the process can’t be rushed just to get something on the air.  Writers need time to dig deeper – say, develop a character with the ingenuity of Nucky Thompson, the charmed luck of Vic Mackey and the sex appeal of Jax Teller.  Now him I would watch.

Dear Network TV Marketing Executives…

October 9, 2013

I have some advice for those of you complaining that it’s hard to get any attention for your network’s new shows.  STOP IT!  I don’t just mean the marketing; I mean the entire concept of rolling out the red carpet and sounding the trumpets just because it’s September.

Clearly it isn’t working for you.  No one could have gone to greater lengths to get the word out about a new show than the promoters of Sleepy Hollow on FOX.  Commercials began airing way back in May.  Buses were plastered with images of Ichabod Crane, who apparently spent part of the last 200 years at Crunch Fitness.  Headless Horsemen roamed shopping malls and public squares in the weeks leading up to the first airing.  The result?  A third place finish by its second week.  Yeah, those ratings were higher than FOX has  achieved with anything since 24.  But that’s a lot of time and money thrown at a passable 3.0.

Honestly, this isn’t working for us either.  Eleven other premiers aired that first week of the so-called broadcast season.  I am an admitted TV fanatic and I’d have trouble telling you what eight of them were.  Maybe three or four of them are right up my alley.  I’ll let you know when they’re made available for streaming.  For now, my DVR is as full as I like it to be (partly because none of my alleged friends got around to telling me how utterly addictive Orphan Black is until I’d missed too many episodes and Netflix only has it on disc so I’m letting Season 1 reruns pile up on TiVO until I have enough to binge watch over a stormy weekend with a bag of Cheetos – the puffy kind).

Look, Mr/Ms Marketing Executive, you and I both know what comes next.  Series that your bosses spent tons of money developing and producing will be canceled.  True, some of them like the sappy and much reviled Lucky 7 will be mercy killings.  But history suggests that a few entires would have lived on happily in homes and offices across the country if they hadn’t had to share the spotlight with so many others.

Imagine if Kellogg, Post and General Mills all put out new cereal once a year at the same time.  Would we have chocolate Frosted Flakes?  Your cable brethren have learned to stagger their season so they are only promoting one new night at a time.  And in case you hadn’t noticed, they are not only stealing buzz, but awards as well.  So go ahead.  Be the first of the big 4 (or are we counting the CW?) to break away from the pack.  Admit that the season as you’ve known it is dead and move on.

Dazzling Delancey – An Inspiring Community Effort

January 14, 2013

I’m delighted to report that the digital upgrade of the Delancey Street Screening Room was completed before the end of 2012 with fabulous results.  This project grew into an inspiring community effort, with the Foundation’s resourceful supply manager and knowledgable theater crew working hand in hand with cutting edge manufacturers and dedicated film professionals.

 

Individual donors —  many of whom tweaked their personal budgets to find money to contribute — covered the cost of installation, including an additional projection booth window.  Station KRON provided the cables, renowned local cinematographer Mike Maley helped the Delancey team with the electrical work and Moving Imagine Technology came up from LA to supervise the equipment testing and training.  With full certification in place, everyone at Delancey’s San Francisco Headquarters is excited to be starting the new year in style.

 

I received a personal tour and demo of the revamped facility and was extremely impressed.  The viewing experience — made possible by NEC, Doremi Labs, and RealD — is positively dazzling.  The new screen provides a cleaner image, even for 35MM prints.  And QSC’s enhanced audio system sends sound towards the audience as well as from the sides.

 

Our work isn’t done quite yet.  To cover the cost of the projector, $10,000 had to be spent from the Foundation’s general fund.  Since this is money that could go towards tires for the moving vans, fresh fish for the restaurant and suits for the graduates starting their job search, tax deductible donations for the Screening Room Project are still being accepted.  If you’d like to play an active role in this successful undertaking by making a contribution (big or small), you can reach the Network for Good secure server through Delancey’s homepage.  Just be sure to write “Screening Room Project” in the “Behalf” box.

 

It’s thrilling to have this precious Bay Area resource relaunch better than ever.  In addition to the digital movie equipment, the space includes a small stage for presentations and a glass enclosed lobby with a wet bar perfect for receptions.  If you’d like to schedule an event, please contact Rebecca Jackson at 415-512-5153.  I look forward to hearing from you after you’ve had the opportunity to see the revitalized venue for yourself.

Tie Me Up, Tie Me In: Merchandising Fan Faves

October 24, 2011

The more web-based series try to conquer new territory, the more they walk along the paths established by their network counterparts.  But that’s what happens when you realize you have to balance your creative genius with actually earning enough money to keep your program going.  There’s no shame in making a monetary move in support of your project as long as it’s a righteous one.  For example, there was a bit of hoopla when cult darling The Guild “sold out” last Christmas.  But it’s a beautifully orchestrated campaign that ties in well with Season 5.  And their licensing deals have helped the long running series stay, well, long running.

With the cost of even simple production going up and advertising dollars harder to find, the fees and royalties paid for using trademarked characters and logos can really punch up a show’s income stream.  According to the MediaGuardian, the television merchandising industry took in over $191 billion globally last year.  The Simpsons, a show with appeal to a wide age group and therefore suitable for a range of products, was at the top of the heap making over $8bn.  That’ll buy a lot of Krusty Burgers (which as far as I know have never actually shown up on a franchise menu).

You can’t just make any old deal, sit back and wait for the bucks to flow.  While wall calendars somehow continue to flourish in this time of Smart Phones, most shows are recognizing that they need to go beyond the typical threadbare Ts and aluminum lunch-boxes and think creatively about merchandising to be completely successful.  You want to expand the universe of your series and select items that are in tune with your audience.  If the conception is inappropriate, you risk the danger of having your latest collectable wind up in a remainder bin between the “Go Diego Go” lead painted boats and the bags of GeoCentral “Sticky Stones” sited for causing intestinal infections.

It’s been a while since I worked in commercials, but I regularly collaborate with my clients on brand integrity.  I admire deals obviously constructed by people who understand their brand image and their target market.  An Adrianna Papell evening gown promoting E! Live From the Red Carpet?  Can’t wait to wear one to my next Oscar bash! The Food Network’s line of kitchenware products available at Kohl’s?  What else would I use for my holiday spiral ham!  Rick Castle’s latest Nikki Heat novel?  At the top of the best seller list where we Castle fans like to see it!  Gunsmoke loungewear, Mighty Mouse wallets and Elly May Clampett Barbies?  Apologies to those who treasure them, but not every combinations of “beloved TV property” + consumer product strikes the right note.

Children’s television is a particularly delicate area when it comes to merchandising.  Almost all of the programming for the younger set is developed with a licensing income stream factored into the mix.  There’s simply insufficient funding coming in from other sources.  But parents get itchy when they sense they are being sold to through their offspring.  Some of today’s Saturday morning favorites are all-too-obviously geared more towards pushing dolls or cereal than entertaining or educating.  In some cases, the product came first, followed by a series of what amount to 30 minute weekly commercials.  You just have to be grateful when the tie-ins include a book, learning game, or toothpaste.  On the plus side, production values are considerably higher than when I was a kid and there are a number of networks completely devoted to little ones.  So at least some of the money is going back into the development pipeline where it belongs.

As for the folks over at The Guild, thanks to a healthier budget they were able to leave the house and shoot on location.  A thrill indeed.  How Felicity Day will feel next Monday when Trick or Treaters deck out in her image is harder to guess.

3D TV: If you build it… then what?

September 23, 2011

Most of the discussion I read about the advent of 3D TV centers on the technological advances.  While LG, Samsung, Panasonic and most of the other major players have already released 3D capable sets, they all require glasses.  Horizontal passive shutters don’t have any moving parts, but you lose half the resolution of your set per eyeball.  The battery powered active shutter glasses produce a superior full picture, but they are considerably more expensive per pair.  And who wants to keep a drawer full of goofy eyewear just so you can have the gang over to watch the Super Bowl anyway?  A glasses-free experience is by most measure at least 5 years away, likely accomplished using a decoder at the consumer end.  But for me, this timeline and indeed this path is almost beside the point.  Many other factors from production to distribution are also going to have to evolve in order for there to be any there there in 3D TV land.

I had the pleasure of attending a seminar about 3D technology at Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco last weekend.  The featured speaker was stereographer Grant Anderson from the Sony’s 3D Technology Center in Los Angeles.  As an established producer, visual effects supervisor and digital artist, his talk focused on the thought process behind directing features, but I kept my television ears on.  More well known directors are shooting in and thinking in 3D, so it’s safe to assume at least a few of them are contemplating how the creative approach involved would work on the smaller screen.

The initial problem is a matter of bandwidth.  Most cable companies already only distribute programming in 1080i or 720p, not full HD.  Furthermore, there is movement towards decreasing that bandwidth to make room for more stations.  3D would require these businesses to reverse course, and we’ve all seen how “quickly” they do that.  Cord cutters shouldn’t be doing their happy dance just yet since many internet providers are starting to put caps on downloaded bytes.  Discs are more likely to be a satisfactory delivery method for 3D content, but it’s hard to imagine that any programming not initially produced in 3D would go through the expense of conversion just to sell what many consider to be a vanishing format.

Let’s be utopian and assume that somehow the bandwidth were to become available.  The next hurdle would be changing the way almost all television is directed.  The smaller screen and home viewing space provide a bigger “comfort zone” than a typical movie theater for viewing 3D without eyestrain.  Nevertheless, the pace, movement and editing would all have to be slowed down.  Standard practices of interchanged close-ups, documentary-style hand-held camera work, and quick cuts could become rapidly sick-making.

Further, there would be a host of new and expensive design considerations.  3D is easier to scale down than up and home theaters, not to mention standard living rooms, provide a much more controlled environment that suits the 3D experience.  However, stage sets would have to convey more depth to support an impactful effect.  And those matte paintings used for low budget background would need to be converted so they didn’t look like, well, matte paintings used for low budget background.

Then there is the storytelling to consider.  Television is still a writer’s medium, after all.  Providing an enjoyable 3D episode would necessarily influence the tales told.  Not every program would be a good candidate for 3D anymore than every feature is filmed that way.  But it’s hard to imagine anything among the current fall favorites as a genuine contender for a worthwhile 3D upgrade. 

So what are we watching on these 3D TVs?  Football?  Clash of the Titans?  Call of Duty: Black Ops?  I realize that for a few of you I have just described the ideal weekend.  But I doubt I’ve summarized a line-up that defines a new industry.  Then again, I would never have predicted a successful Banana Republic clothing line built around a drama with less than 3 million viewers.  So as Dennis Miller used to say when he was still a liberal, I could be wrong.

Character Chatter: Second Screen at a Glance

September 7, 2011

I’m old enough to remember sitting down in the living room to watch television as a family.  When I went off to college, I continued this shared experience, first with my sorority sisters and then with my friends off campus.  My gal pals would join me for wine and cheese evenings built around the viewing of Frank von Zerneck’s latest “Portrait of…” TV movie (Yes, I was quite the little hostess). Now, the solo viewer is king; everyone’s watching something different on his/her own screen.  And the exchanges I used to have by turning to my left or right have moved onto social media and fan sites.  It’s rather like those women who wax their eyebrows off and then draw them back in with a pencil.

Being a devotee of all things television, I knew I had to start taking part in the Social TV sensation.  As a fan of USA Network’s summer line-up, I selected the “Character Chatter” site as the perfect place to begin.  It had it’s pluses: I  didn’t have to dust and there were no arguments over pizza toppings.  And whatever I said was forever memorialized (the “plus” of which is TBD).  I followed up my initiation with a phone chat with Ralph Marx, VP of Business Development for Arktan (and sometime commentator on this site.)  They’re the B2B live blogging service behind “Character Chatter,” pulling together the feeds from Twitter, Facebook, and other sources into a single page per show.

As a communication consultant, I appreciated the dual effect of the site’s organization.  Fans can easily participate in the conversation using their social networking tool of choice and get a fuller picture of what’s being said by the entire community.  Better yet for true enthusiasts, the stars and members of the creative team are all social media users, so their comments end up in the feed as well.  This, as Marx pointed out to me, adds flavor to the content that was never available from my sorority sisters.

From the network’s perspective, their marketing department can better grasp the overlap and connections among comments, turning them from disparate streams into useful intel.   As Marx put it, “Social media is almost too successful. Everyone has their own favorite and it can be difficult to manage the information and gain insight into what’s being said about you.”  A site like “Character Chatter” is a neat solution to the expansion challenge.  While they won’t give out specifics, USA apparently saw an almost immediate rise in “live” ratings.  The network also saw an increased interest among fans and a huge uptick in the time viewers spent on their website.  Because of this shift, USA made a major commitment to the current redesign, which now includes high quality images so you can remember the gleam in Matt Bomer’s eyes while you try to keep yourself together until January.

Another obvious advantage over the “having friends and family to your house” model, is the gabfest continues 24×7.  I logged onto the White Collar page two weeks after the mid-season finale and found messages that were a mere 5 minutes old.  Not every remark is filled with stirring insight, I grant you.  I learned from Marx that the live feed is curated by automation, using spam and negative word filters.  These can’t stop people from repeatedly writing, “I LOVE THIS SHOW!!!!!!!!!”  or simply “AHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!” There is also a curated feed, which is sorted and rebranded by a human.  It’s easier to follow, but significantly less colorful.

I admit it’s been kinda fun to keep an eye on speculation over Max’s murder on Burn Notice and see who else missed Boris on the latest installment of Royal Pains.  I’m not about to give up my Golden Globes Party or Grand Slam Tennis with my Dad.  But I am looking forward to securing some much needed help unearthing those darn pineapples when Psych returns in October.

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