Cultural Leaders and Laggards, the problem with beer ads

I love this ad.  How quickly bashful behavior gives way to full-on performance.  And how this disappears (when the woman enters the store). And then reappears (when it occurs to our singer that there is a small chance the strangers might actually come listen to him.)

Funny. Human. With lots of little grace notes. The store is brilliantly cast. The singer is that perfect combo of surprisingly good and still terrible.  The way the woman rolls her eyes in “whatever” dismissal when she enters the store to find a man singing.

Beer advertising has been the bad part of town when it comes to cultural creation and creative ingenuity.  TV with the advent of really good shows and new nuance has stolen the lead. Now it can be really painful to move from good narrative to bad advertising.

Beer advertising has been especially trying on the gender theme. As Bob Garfield has pointed out, beer ads treat men in a way that’s patronizing and diminishing. In a really symmetrical universe, men would protest this treatment with outrage and boycotts.  (Or at least roll their eyes in “whatever” dismissal.)

Beer advertising has been tone deaf when it comes to culture. Yes, some guys continue to act like dolts, and all guys treasure moments of deep, unapologetic stupidity at least some of the time. But beer advertising has to wake up and come to grips with the revolutions taking place in the world of maleness.

There are all kinds of things, a new feeling for play, wit, creativity, multiplicity and, yes, performance. Which brings us back to this Miller Lite ad which acknowledges this new development with just the right combo of tender heartedness and ruthless scorn. Very male that.  (Or maybe not.)

Hat’s off to MillerCoors Chief Marketing Officer Andy England and  TBWA\Chiat\Day LA and director Matt Aselton of Arts & Sciences.

Narrative captivity: Losing Orphan Black for want of a half-fan

18706-orphan-black-s2-dvd-new_mediumI am a long standing fan of Orphan Black but this season they lost me.  I tuned in for the opening episode of the new season, and it wasn’t long before my eyes had crossed.

In the new season, it feels as if Orphan Black is being made to labor under the weight of its own complexities.  And with all the clones in motion, these complexities are formidable. And with two seasons in place, there are many additional plot points and precedents to honor.

Tedium, thy name is consistency.

Showrunners Graeme Manson, Ivan Schneeberg and David Fortier must of course honor the story.  Fans, especially, are ferocious in their defense of its integrity.  But the rest of us really are not engaged in narrative book-keeping in any kind.  We love the actress, her clones, and the broad story lines that give her an opportunity to dazzle us with her virtuosity, lend some urgency to the story at hand, identify the goodies and the baddies, and that’s enough for us.

We want some sense of narrative development.  We want our heroine to mature or at least change (or at least clone) as pluckily she survives.  But give us the big picture, not what feel like pages of gawky exposition in which good actors are brought low by the need to belabor plot points.  These moments almost feel like writers and directors clarifying story complexities for their own sake, and when this happens we know that undue complexity has hijacked the show. Narrative captivity, it’s a terrible thing.

We see why this happens.  After a couple of seasons, the people who make the show have mastered the finest plot points better than the best Yeshiva student.  And fans!  Fans live and breathe the show and they often appoint themselves the guardians of the story line.  (“You want me on the wall. You need me on that wall.”)  And in a sense this is like any corporate culture, where the incumbents fall into a gravitational field and eventually can’t believe that everyone doesn’t live there too.

There are a couple of ways of fixing this.  One is to have an ethnographic panel of half-fans.  These are people who love the show but live in distant orbit around it. They know the characters and the major plot points, but they don’t know or care about the very fine details. Writers, directors and show runners can call them up from time to time and say, “So tell me about the show” and they can use this as a chance to recalibrate. It’s a question of optics.  We can hold up the half-fan’s view of the story and change the way we see the show. Or think of it as a time machine.  We can use the half fans knowledge of the show to recover the way we understood it in the first season.

Naturally, half fans, some of them anyhow, will evolve into full fans.  And it will be up to the person running the panel to replace them with more half fans.  In fact we should think of the panel as a bend in the river, a place where half fans slow for long enough for us to quiz them…before they run downstream to full fan status.

I don’t know who want to take this on.  And it would be presumptuous to suggest a name.  So I will.  Dee Dee Gordon could do this brilliantly.  What we need, Dee Dee, is a panel of half fans. As someone starts a new show, they will ask you to empanel this panel, and from time to time they will use it to see their shows (as many, most) others do.  In effect, the half fan panel (now, HFP, because that sounds way more official) is a rope that the showrunner wears around his/her waist while descending into the narrative mine shaft.  A couple of sharp tugs and they can return to the surface.

 

Are you getting better at watching TV?

Yesterday, I suggested we’re getting better at watching TV.

This lead me to wonder: how much TV do you have to watch to get good at watching TV?  And this lead to: how much TV have we watched?

If my figures are correct, we have watched around 30,000 hours by the end of our 20s.   And 50,000 hours by the end of our 30s.  And nearly 70,000 hours by the end of our 40s.  By life’s end (assuming that’s around 80), you’ve watched over 100,000 hours. (I am discounting generational differences.)

Ember

Malcolm Gladwell says we need 10,000 hours to get good at something.   We pass that figure in childhood.

But of course there is no simple relationship between watching and expertise.  “Garbage in, garbage out”, as we used to say.  Bad TV is as likely to “dumb us down” as it was to confer more sophisticated taste.

But I think there is some relationship.  Unless we were truly brain dead, we couldn’t help noticing how bad TV often was, how wooden the characters, how much screen-time was being devoted to that paean to stupidity, the car chase.  In this case, “stupid in” gave us, in some cases, “clever out.”

How many hours did this revelation (the one that said that TV was a little thin) take?  Probably more than 10,000.  (And of course it would in any case.  Gladwell’s figure applies to the pursuit of mastery.  Lying in front of a TV does not qualify.)  That would be mean we come out of childhood as witless viewers, grateful for pretty much anything that’s on.

It begins with a simple act of noticing.  “God, that was a long car chase” would qualify.  Or, in the language of family vacation now applied to car chases, “how much longer!”  And this is the first act of active viewing.  Scrutinizing something we see on the screen.  Seeing that something as a choice, a choice made by someone.  Seeing the choice as something we might make differently, that we could make better.

This begins as a tiny current of consciousness, a small voice in the back of one’s mind.  But eventually there is a kind of acceleration and the viewer shifts more and more from passive to active.  We watch enough (and this “enough” might be 10,000 hours, which would make Gladwell’s condition the beginning, not the end of mastery) and at some point, we go “really, that’s it?”  And now gradually, we begin to use our cognitive surplus, as Clay Shirky would use the term, to do other things.  Now we always see the tedium of the car chase and we begin to use this “interlude” for other acts of noticing and contemplation.  “Why do we only see her left profile?”  “What is the deal with the way he says ‘immediately’?”

The necessary condition for better TV is in place.  Viewers are paying attention.  But the sufficient condition is better writers and producers.  And this is another story.  I think of these people as ham radio operators, desperately pouring a signal into TV land, hoping that someone somewhere will get this subtle bit of dialog.  And eventually a signal returns.

Eventually, viewers and these writers find one another and a virtuous cycle is set in motion.  A number of shows emerge: Hill Street Blues (1981), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997), The Wire (2002), Arrested Development (2003).  TV gets better and by the turn of the century, writers and viewers have found one another.   And now the entire system changes.  With better, richer TV in place, someone has probably logged the hours they need for mastery quite early on.  But the end of your teens certainly.

Thoughts and comments, please.

From scarcity to abundance, the new creative surpluses on TV

22b3d3da86aef9a2ea7ab5c038ec6c15Spoiler alerts for:  
Game of Thrones
Luther, Homeland
The Good Wife
House of Cards
Nashville, Scandal
Arrow, Teen wolf

Rest in peace:

Ned Stark (Sean Bean) on Game of Thrones

DS Riply (Warren Brown) on Luther

Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) on Homeland

Will (Josh Charles) on The Good Wife

Zoe (Kate Mara) on House of Cards

Peggy (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and Lamar (Powers Boothe) on Nashville

James (Dan Bucatinsky) on Scandal

Moira (Susanna Thompson) on Arrow

Allison (Crystal Reed) on Teen Wolf

The characters of TV are falling.  No one is safe.  Zoe on House of Cards appeared to be a character so dear to our hearts, so embedded in the HoC narrative, she was safe from harm.  This made her death on a subway platform in the first episode of the new season especially shocking.

The old convention was clear.  TV was bound by a contract.  Once the audience had connected to a character, once we had identified with that character, the character got a pass.  Nothing bad could ever happen to them.  They were safe from harm.  Especially on a subway platform.  Well, everywhere really.

But now that so many of these TV characters are dying, something is clearly up. Melissa Maerz of Entertainment Weekly sees dark motives.  She believes that shows use these deaths as a way to goose ratings and build buzz.  These deaths, she suggests, may be  “gimmicks.”

Maybe.  We could look at this another way.  In the old TV, characters represented an investment and an achievement.  In spite of its creaky, often predictable mechanics and talent shortages, TV  managed to make a creature we found credible.  Life was created.  (Even if it did resemble the work of Dr. Frankenstein.)

In fact, writers weren’t all the good at creating new characters.  And we, as viewers, weren’t all that good at grasping these characters.  This was, after all, an era of creative scarcity.  In this world, characters got a pass not for humane reasons, but because they were triumphs against the odds.  Once we writers and viewers had conspired to cocreate a character, whew, job done, and let’s not put this miracle at risk.

But these days, show runners and writers are less like Dickensian accountants, and more like drunken lords of endless liberality.  “You don’t like that character, well and good.  How about this one?  Want another?  I’ll work something up over lunch.”  The new creative potentiality on tap in TV is virtually depthless.

Why?  Better writers have come to TV.  All writers have more creative freedom.  Every show runner is eager to take new risks.  They recruit the writers who can help them do so.   Actors are demanding new and juicier roles.  The industry is a little less an industry and now a creative community, where the depths of talent are so extraordinary something fundamental has changed.  This world (and our culture) has gone from one of scarcity to one of plenty.

And we viewers are helping.  We got better too.  We are smarter, more alert, better at complexity, unfazed by novelty, and apparently, so possessed of new cognitive gifts that you can throw just about anything at us and we will rise to the occasion.

We viewers may once have struggled to master the complexities of a show, and resented anyone who taxed us with new characters.  Now that’s part of the fun.  Throw stuff at us.  We can handle it.  Indeed, increasingly, we demand it.  Viewers are happy to meet new characters and see what they bring to existing and emerging narratives.

Perhaps killing off characters is not a gimmick after all.   This might be a way TV manages to keep itself fresh and engage the new cognitive gifts of their viewers.

This is one of the things we can expect to happen as popular culture becomes culture.   TV was once the idiot brother of literature, of theater, of cinema, of the Arts.  No self-respecting writer wanted to go there.

Then, quite suddenly, they did.  (I think of David Milch as Writer Zero, the first man of astonishing talent to buck the trend and make the transition.)  And in the 35 years since Milch made the move, many have followed.  These days just about everyone is banging on the door.  Even people who thought they wanted to write for Hollywood.  And this takes us from that “make-do” model that prevailed on both sides of the camera.  (TV did the best with what it had, and viewers made do with the best they could find.)  Over 35 years, we have seen the death of good-enough TV.

As the migration of talent continues, everything changes.  Creative scarcity gives way to creative abundance.  Pity the shows that have yet to get the memo.  And watch, ultimate spoiler alert, for more of your favorite characters to die.   With our new creative surpluses, there are more where they came from.  Plenty more.

Contemporary culture: 25 years of change in 15 minutes

In the early 1990s, I founded and ran the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum.

On Saturday, I’m going back to the ROM to reflect on some of the changes that have taken in culture in the last 25 years.

And it’s dizzying to see how much is now changing: the home and the family, the way we think about women, the revolution taking place in TV, the way we are now defining the self and the group.  (I have just 15 minutes to talk, so it’s a short list.)

As you will see, this presentation is  less about technology (the thing with which most people lead nowadays) and concentrates much more on the cultural changes that have taken place.  These are, I would submit, every big as large and astonishing as the tech changes.

You can see the presentation here on YouTube.   Like most everyone, my speaking style has shifted from too many words on the screen to images.  The burden of exposition falling to the speaker (me) when speaking (on Saturday).  Apologies when this makes the deck a little cryptic.  Please do come join us if you are in Toronto this weekend.

Two New Rules for TV story-telling (aka things to learn from Being Human)

being human

Let’s begin here:

My Netflix research this fall tells me that the rules for making popular culture and TV are changing.

The cause?  That popular culture is getting better and this means some of the old rules are now ineffectual and in some cases actually counter-productive.

Being Human is a great case study.

This is a study in fantasy and the supernatural.  A ghost, a vampire and a werewolf find themselves living together and look to one another for guidance and relief.

It is a show is riddled with implausibilities.  Characters skip around in time and space.  They morph from one creature to another. The plot lines can get really very complicated.

And the viewer doesn’t care.  (At least this viewer doesn’t.)  The acting is so good that we believe in these characters and we are prepared to follow them anywhere.   Even when the plot tests our credulity, we believe in the show.

The key is good acting.  Without this, Being Human is just another exercise in dubiety.  With it, the show holds as a story and more important it actually serves as an opportunity to ask big questions that attach to “being human.”

There is a second show in SyFy called Lost Girl.  .  This is billed as a supernatural crime drama.  It too is stuffed with implausibility.  Lots of fabled creatures and magical spells.  For me, it’s pretty much unwatchable.

And the difference is largely acting.  The actors on Lost Girl are not bad.  They are just not good enough to deliver the emotion truth on which narratives depend, but more to the point they are not good enough to help Lost Girl survive the weight of its own implausibility.

This condition is actually complicated by the creative decision to have the characters supply the “ancient lore” that explains spells and various supernatural beastie.  I found myself shouting at the TV,

“Oh, who the f*ck cares!  The back story is a) not interesting, b) it does not animate the front story, c) in short, the back story is your problem, not our problem.  Get on with it.  Spare us the pointless exposition.”

(Yes, it’s true.  I shout in point form.  It’s a Powerpoint problem.  I’m getting help.  It’s called Keynote.)

New Rule # 1

The more implausibility contained in a narrative, the better your actors had better be.

If this means spending more time casting, spend the time casting.  If this means paying your actors more, pay them more.  Actors are everything.  Well, after the writers.  And the show runners.  Um, and the audience.  But you see what I mean.

And this brings us to the second new rule for story telling on TV.  The old rule of TV was that actors should be ABAP (as beautiful as possible).  Given the choice between someone who is heartstoppingly attractive and someone who looks, say, like one of the actors on Being Human (as above), you must, the old rule says, choose the actor who is ABAP.  (The Being Human actors are attractive.  They just aren’t model perfect.)

This rule created a trade off.  Very beautiful actors were chosen even when they weren’t very talented as actors.  Indeed, show runners were routinely trading talent away for beauty.  As a result, a show began to look like a fashion runway.  Even good writing could be made to feel like something out of the day-time soaps.

Bad acting is of course the death of good narrative.  Wooden performances can kill great writing.  But real beauty exacts a second price.  There are moments when you are supposed to be paying attention to a plot point and you find yourself thinking, “Good lord, what a perfectly modeled chin!”

In a perfect world, every actress would be Nicole Kidman, perfectly beautiful, utterly talented.  In the old days, when TV makers had to chose they would go for beauty even when it cost them talent.  But here’s the new rule.

New Rule # 2

Do not choose beauty over talent.  Beauty used to be the glue that held your audience to your show.  Now that work is performed by talent.  It’s not that beauty doesn’t matter.  Seek attractive actors.  But beauty will never matter more than talent.  Make sure the talent is there, and then, and only then, can you cast for beauty.  Think of this as a kind of “attractive enough” principal.

Stated baldly, this rule seems indubitable.  What show-runner or casting agent would ever think otherwise?  On the other hand, I dropped in on The CW recently and everyone seemed model perfect with bad consequences for the quality of the work on the screen.

A change is taking place in our culture.  And over the longer term, it will provoke a changing of the guard, a veritable migration in the entertainment industry .  Actors who are merely talented will have a more difficult time finding work.  And, counterintuitively, actors who are blindingly attractive will have a more difficult finding work.  What used to make them effective now makes them distracting.

As popular culture becomes culture, there will be many more changes.  Watch this space.