Tag Archives: HBO

Harry’s Law: flourish or fail?

One test of our knowledge of contemporary culture: can we predict whether an innovation will flourish or fail?

For the record, then, I believe Harry’s Law, the show that debuted last night on NBC, will fail.

The debut suggests I may be wrong.  Harry’s Law got at 7.5 rating / 12 share, putting it ahead of the latest hit show from CBS, Hawaii Five – O.

Harry’s Law has other advantages that should give me pause.  It has a formidable talent in the person of Kathy Bates (pictured) and it was developed and written by David E. Kelley, a guy who knows a thing or two about making hit TV. 

This show has a time-warp quality.  Harry’s Law feels as if untouched by the cable effect. The rise of HBO and the participation of TNT and USA Networks has created new standards of granularity (most recently Nurse Jackie).  TV will never work its way to perfect granularity and a one to one correspondence with the world "out there."  But the ratio is changing.  The cable effect has pushed all TV, even genre TV, to new veracity.

And by this standard, Harry’s Law feels completely "sound stage," a reality created by and for the cameras.  There is veracity here, but it corresponds to the "veracity standard" as that stood in 1990. At it’s worst, this show feels a little Murder She Wrote.

To make matters worst, there is a "crusading do-gooder" thing here that is cringe-worthy. Great and noble white people coming to the aid of defenseless black people?  How very 20th century Hollywood.  It expresses the secret racism of some parties: that the downtrodden depend on them, and their secret vanity: that when people come to the aid of the downtrodden they make themselves glorious. It feels as if Kelley is skirting that horrible Hollywood construction, the one that says the point of social action is not "social action," but the celebration of the do-gooder.  (Surely, this is why so little ever comes from the Hollywood fund raiser.  By week’s end participants have a hard time remembering the point of the event because, well, the point was to revel in their own generosity, and, hankies out, that was performed brilliantly.)

There is a deeper problem.  There are moments when this show has Kelley’s signature whimsy.  Madcap stuff happens.  Weird combinations occur.  When Kelley introduced this to TV, chiefly, I believe, through Ally McBeal, it was fresh and interesting.  Kelley is one of the originators of what Lisa Schwarzbaum calls "magical comedy."

To be sure, we still like to disparate things brought together, on the screen, on the plate, in the ad, in the fashion outfit, in the interior design.  Reckless, unexpected combinations has become one of our cultural signatures.  But we have moved away from whimsy to combinations that are more raw and to use the language of art criticism, "disturbational."  By this new standard, Harry’s Law feels like culture lite.  

Ok, that’s my prediction.  I might be wrong.  I hope I am.  I take no pleasure in the internet sport of trashing strangers.  I am not holier than David E. Kelley.  He has shaped contemporary culture in ways that deserve my admiration.  

My last prediction, that The Good Guys would fail, was confirmed.  Privately, I told a colleague that Undercovers would fail.  (She may or may not be prepared to back me up.) So I am batting 2 for 2.  We shall see how I do with this one.  


McCracken, Grant.  2010.  The Good Guys.  This Blog.  here

Schwarzbaum, Lisa. 1998.  Pleasantville.  Entertainment Weekly.  October 30.  here.

Listen to this

The Wire was a drama that ran on HBO for 50 episodes over 5 seasons, 2002 – 2008. 

What follows is from the opening moments of the first episode of the 4th season. 

A young assassin goes in a hardware store.  She is carrying the nail gun with which she shuts up the abandoned homes in which she leaves her victims. 

She is approached immediately by a salesman, a middle aged, white guy who lays on the sales pitch.  He wants the young assassin to buy the top of the line “Cadillac” nail gun.  It’s costs $650 so he’s pitching  hard.

Naturally, he has no idea is talking to a woman who managed to kill (and entomb) 5 people last week alone.  He thinks he is talking to a neighborhood contractor.

The conversation runs invisibly on two rails, the assumptions of the salesmen and the assassin working side by side.

The salesman calls his nail gun “powder driven.”

“Power driven?” the assassin asks.

“No, powder driven,” the salesman replies.

“Like gun powder.” she says.

He says, “The DX460 is fully automatic with a 27 calibre charge.  Wood, concrete, steel, she’ll throw a fastener into anything and for my money she handles recoil better than the Simpson or the P3500.”

She says, “27 calibre, huh.”

He says, “It’s not large ballistically but it’s enough.  Anything more than that and they would add to the recoil.”

It turns out the nail gun is metaphorically a lot like a real gun.  Or guys being guys, they just can’t resist making the comparison as an act of self aggrandizement. 

But all this gun-ish talk shakes something lose in the assassin.

She says, “I seen a tiny ass 22 drop a nigger plenty of days, man.  […]  Big joints, though.  Big joints just break the bones and you say ‘fuck it.’”  She laughs.

No more metaphor.  The concert is over.  The salesman sees he’s not talking to a contractor.  He’s speechless.  Someone has called his metaphor and raised it.  This is real guns, real violence, a real gangster.

The assassin goes out to the parking lot where her partner in crime is waiting in an SUV.  He asks if the new gun will hold a charge better, and she says,

“Fuck the charge.  This here is a gun powder activated, 27 calibre, full auto, no kick back, never through mayhem, man.  This shit is tight.” 

Her partner laughs and she says,

“Fuck nailing boards.  We could kill a couple of mother fuckers with this shit right here.”   Geez, we can dump the metaphor.  The nail gun isn’t like a gun.  It is a gun.  

Perfect.  Has anything this good appeared on TV before or since?  Now that you have your new iPad, load it up with a little David Simon genius.

Jeff Bewkes and the end of influence

I attended the Advertising Research Foundation meetings today and had a chance to listen to Jeff Bewkes as interviewed on stage by Guy Garcia.

Bewkes is now the CEO of Time Warner, but his remarks were devoted especially to his days at HBO.  And well he should. Over the course of 10 years, Bewkes and his colleague Chris Albrecht changed TV extraordinarily. They changed a lot of American cutlure in the process.

So when Bewkes began talking about the HBO program The Wire, I leaned in.  As did everyone in the audience of 300 people. The oracle was about to speak.

Two things struck me.  It sounded as if Bewkes was saying that HBO quite deliberately broke with the rules of mass media. Traditionally, TV shows have proceeded extensively. They seek a nice broad proposition in the hopes of attracting as large an audience as possible.  The Wire seemed to proceed intensively.  It traded away lots of viewers for a more vivid, visceral relationship with a smaller audience.

Normally, this would look like self indulgence and a kind of ratings suicide, except that something in the world had changed. There was now a new kind of viewer, more mobile, more questing, more prepared to find a show wherever it was and then patient enough to let it build a connection.  In this sense, one of the necessary conditions of the rise of HBO was the rise of a new audience out there.  Whether anyone at HBO was reading Henry Jenkins was not made clear over the course of the interview, but I must assume someone was.

But then a second, more seditious thought occurred to me.  And this was not proposed by Mr. Bewkes, and no one should blame him for my moment of delirium.  I thought to myself: listen (I have to get my own attention somehow), this new, more mobile, more literate viewer holds a more revolutionary promise.  If and when most viewers are active and engaged in this way, wouldn’t this spell the end of influence?

Here’s what I was thinking.  As and when viewers become more free wheeling, more curious, more prepared to stop in at obscure places and to bear with difficult shows, the "early influencer" matters less and less.  Viewers will be possessed of the ability to find their own shows and make their own choices.  They will not look to others to identify and vet shows for them.  Every viewer, or at least more viewer, would act as "masterless" men and women, making their viewing choices by their own lights.

And this would mark an interesting development in the world of media and marketing.  After World War II, the assumption was that in an era of mass media, it was really enough to fill the advertising and production cannons and eventually our messages and show would find their audience.  We might emulate those above us in the status hierarchy, but really the very point of the era of mass media was that it was now possible for Hollywood and marketers to make direct contact.  But as audiences fragmented, it was increasingly necessary to have some viewers leading other viewers.  Someone to play the role of the early adopter. Hence the work of Gladwell and the buzz students.  Hence all that talk of activating chains of influence.  Early adopters were now key to the viewing community, and increasingly key to the advertising research community.

But this is perhaps a temporary condition.  As viewers get better and better, influencers matter less and less.  In a weird way, we will return to the world of mass marketing.  Not because there are fewer, louder media, but because they viewer is so mobile, so charged with his or her own taste, so motivated by his or her interest in what TV has to offer, that the only person most viewers will be listening to is themselves.

It’s just a thought, really.

Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle.  It was reposted on December 26, 2010.