Tag Archives: Law and Order

Culture churn, aka TV with a very short shelf life

imgresJason Lynch recently suggested that Fox is keen to make Tuesday night a little more robust in the ratings department. There is trouble, apparently, in paradise.

The network’s double-digit declines in the new season are due in part to the anemic performance of its Tuesday night lineup: New Girl and Brooklyn have both averaged just 1.0 in the past two weeks, and Scream Queens plunged to a 0.7 in its most recent episode.

This surprised me because I’ve come to like Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

And I didn’t think I would. I remember telling my friend Richard Laermer that it had no hope of succeeding.

My reasoning: that Andy Samberg’s Jake Peralta character was so much less imaginative than his creations on SNL that the audience (by which I always mean me) would feel short-changed.

I was wrong. I grew to like Jake. He was sweet, funny, quite deliberately adorable. (He connects perhaps to the sweetness trend we noted recently.)

But last week, I had an awful ‘jumping the shark’ moment. Suddenly Jake went from being adorable to predictable. All of a sudden, all the “business” Samberg does (the goofy word play, the goofy scenario building, the goofy self criticism, the goofy pop culture referencing), all of it suddenly felt “done” and a little forced. Brooklyn Nine-Nine was over. For me at least. (And let me hasten to add that I am not claiming prescience here. My prediction that Brooklyn Nine-Nine would fail was wrong. And nothing about the current bad ratings vindicates me. I’m still wrong.)

This sudden shift in my opinion of Brooklyn Nine-Nine made me think about the a Pip Coburn conference I attended a couple of weeks ago. It was filled with investment people, a Rabbi, a poet or two, some journalists, and an anthropologist (me).

Over two days, things got quite remarkably philosophical. We observed how quickly successful companies can descend from profit and glory. And we contemplated the terrifying idea that maybe it is wrong to suppose that robust companies will have a long life span. Maybe, someone suggested (and it might have been Brynne Thompson), maybe we should expect even successful companies to live only a short while, less than a decade or so.

In other words, the idea went, perhaps we live in a world so turbulent, so filled with angry black swans and fleeting blue oceans, so turned upside down by commotion, disruption and creative destruction, that successful companies will only live a little longer than unsuccessful ones. The difference between the good and bad companies won’t be duration but merely (please hold the line for my salute to Ernest Hemingway) that the former “have more money.”

Now, I know what you are thinking. Unless a show is Law and Order or the unaccountably enduring Supernatural, all TV shows, even really popular ones, die young.

Yes, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine is just in it’s third season, unless I’m mistaken. That will mean it was vital and interesting for just two seasons. The fact that it was really vital and interesting (with great ratings and awards) did not protect it from its present decline.

That’s the scary idea. That Wall Street and the world of TV can no longer bank the successes they way they used because they just won’t last. Even as the ratings, reviews and awards pour in, the smart show runner will have to fire up new shows…cause this too shall pass. And soon.

Call it “cultural churn.” But we wear through things faster than we used to. And this must challenge the economics of the industry, which used to rely on the hits to pay for the failures. Now that there is not much difference in their longevity… well, something’s gotta give. It is time to rebuild the model, to rewire the industry, to redouble our creativity. How we make culture is going to have to change.

Pharrell, Happy and how to make contemporary culture

This video has been seen 145 million times on YouTube.

It’s not uncommon to use “real people” in videos.  Sara Bareilles did it recently in Brave.

I don’t know about you, but often this exercise makes me uncomfortable.  These days, I know I am supposed to distinguish piously between “real people” and “celebrities.”  I know we believe “real people =  authentic” and “celebrities = fake.”

I try, I really do. But finally I end up feeling that real people (i.e., you and me) are being patronized.  Clearly, someone in the band stayed up too late talking about crowd-sourcing, fan bases, and the importance of fostering the people.  So the next video just had to have real people in it.

But there are two problems.  First, real people aren’t always very interesting.  Second, they aren’t very real.  The process of shooting  video sometimes provokes what we might call the Karaoke effect.  We are not recruiting real people for the video.  We are recruiting people who have spend a lot of time pretending to be famous people.  So what we really get for the video are people who have pretended to be celebrities now being asked to pretend to be real people.

A different proposition, surely.  In our Karaoke culture, a camera is a dangerous ontological weapon.  It transforms real people into fake celebrities.  And we’re now trapped.  We tire of celebrity culture and wish to escape it.  But here at least  we can’t.  Everyone has felt the vampiric bite of fame.  We may not be celebrities but we can’t ever go back to being “real.”  (Whatever that was, and most anthropologist would insist that “real” is constructed just as much as “phony” is.)

[By the way, this is what it is to live in a media saturated society.  A police detective told me once that he has a hard time interviewing suspects.  They have seen so many Law and Order interrogations, they believe they know exactly how the interview is supposed to go and start answering questions he has not asked.]

BUT MY POINT IS SIMPLE (and I am sorry to have taken 7 paragraphs to get there):  The Happy video from Pharrell does not make me feel this way.  I like watching these people dance and sometimes sing.  Evidently others do too.  That’s the only way Happy could score 145 million views.

The question is why.  What does Happy do differently?  How do these “real people” differ from the real people who feature so prominently in music, marketing and advertising?

Part of the answer is that this video comes from started as a 24 Hour project.  So the producers could choose the best frame out of every 360 frames, as it were.  They had a lot to work with.

Second, most of the people in the Pharrell video are auditioned.  So they are not that real after all.  It looks like the video is an act of perfect spontaneity, that they just took the camera out into the streets of LA, but no. Some of these actors are so good, they accomplished sprezzatura: they concealed their art with art.

But there is some ineluctable mystery here.   These performances are dazzling.  It feels like these people “own” their performances.  And it’s important for us to know why.  Every cultural artifact has something to learn here.  Pharrell and We Are From LA have solved an essential problem.  It’s important to now how

Here are some of my favorite performances.  I hope Pharrell and creators We Are From LA will forgive me this use of these materials.  (Before they object, I would ask that they keep in mind that Nardwaur sent me.)  Also, if the people pictured happen to see this post, I hope they get in touch so that I can name them.

Look for these designations: Eeriest imitation, best dancing, most beautiful woman, scariest handbag, etc.  Slide 18 is for me the  splendid moment.  Two girls swaying in a car.  Perfect.

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I think why this video works so well is that it reverses the polarity of popular culture and the present craze for “real people.”  Too often, the real people are forced-marched into the video, there to Karaoke as best they can.  But in the Happy case, the song goes to them.   These real people are not conscripted.  The “press” runs the other way.

One measure of success: there are celebrities in this video (Jamie Foxx, Steve Carrell, Kelly Osbourne) but they do not matter to the video very much, and almost feel a little additional, as if horning in.  As in, “who invited you?”  Kelly Osbourne is perhaps the exception.  I’ve always thought of her as someone who was merely famous for being famous, but with that weird “air square” she does something somehow sublime and redeems herself.  Less a celebrity and now interesting.  This video has something that is capable of rescuing celebrities from their celebrity.  And that’s saying something.

There were ideas at work here.  Here’s a passage from a wonderful piece in FastCo by Mary Kaye Shilling.

Those chosen by audition had the advantage of getting the song in advance, allowing them to rehearse their moves. But on the day itself, everyone got just one take, including Pharrell. “That’s what accounts for the charm,” says [iamOther VP Mimi] Valdes. “Everyone knew they had one shot–this was their moment to go all out, and we love that.”

“The video’s imperfections, the funny bloopers and mess-ups, are what give it character,” says Pharrell, whose own performances alternated between what he calls “semi-choreographed” (see the bowling alley at 11:00 p.m.) and improvisation. “I’m not interested in perfection. It’s boring. Some of my favorite moments are accidental.”

Lots of meaning makers in the present day continue to have what we might call a “sound stage” mentality.  They manhandle reality for our larger cultural purposes.  But I think this Happy video makes it clear that the more sensible, indeed, the necessary strategy is to let the brand out into the world, there to take on the content, color, and sheer propulsive force of what happens there.

Hat’s off to the following creatives:

Jett Steiger, Jon Beattie, Alexis Zabe, Mimi Valdez, Clement Durou, Pierre Dupaquier, Pharrell, WAFLA, Iconoclast, and iamOther

The Real Mystery of Bates Motel

I am watching Bates Motel (Monday nights, A&E).  It’s engaging and scary.  Tune in if only for the performance by Vera Farmiga which really is astoundingly good.

I came away from last night’s episode thinking there are two kinds of drama on TV right now.  (Yes, there are more than two but indulge me.)  


There’s the police procedural, that work horse of network TV. Law and Order, if you count all 6 versions, now has over 1000 episodes to its credit.  Then there’s CSI, NCIS and Criminal Minds

In all of these, we open with a crime and we close with some kind of resolution.  Chaos breaks into the world and then gets routed out of it. 


Then there’s the another category that forgoes that this narrative and moral clarity.  I am thinking of Bates Motel which is shot through with menace and a mystery never goes away. 

You will say this is the nature of horror.  But this “dreadful indeterminacy” can be seen also in shows like Fringe, Lost, Orphan Black and Dolls. Something is out of kilter, the world no longer spins on its axis, the forces of disorder are building, and we are done for.  


1. Is this a fair contrast?

2. Is the police procedural category diminishing?

3. Is there a second category of the kind proposed here?  (I am perfectly happy to hear everyone say “no.”  This is an open question.)  

4. If there is a second category, what should we call it?

5. Is it growing?

6. Why is it growing?

This is a question for those masters of popular culture, Sarah Zupko, Matthew Belinki, Tara Ariano or Sarah Bunting, and anyone else who wants to prove they are in their league.   

Law and Order in Peril?

Stray signals are important to people who want to keep track of contemporary culture.

Here’s one from today’s Wall Street Journal.

Nordic noir, the chilling, realistic Scandinavian crime fiction that has taken movies and books by storm, is coming to American television.  The Killing, premiering April 3 on AMC, comes from the hit Danish drama “Forbrydenlsen.”

It is not intuitively obvious why there should now be so much Nordic noir in our world.  But to be sure there’s lots.  And I think we can see it moving swiftly, from page to big screen to little screen, signs of its ability to command larger audiences.

The question for the Chief Culture Officer and the rest of us: why?  What is it about Nordic noir that makes it appealing.  Why should this cultural form now threaten the standard police procedurals (Law and Order, CSI, etc) that have dominated TV for so long?  What does the rise of Nordic noir tells us about the state of American culture now?

I am not making this an official Minerva competition, but if someone comes up with a dazzlingly good answer, there’s a good chance they will get a statue!  


Chozick, Amy.  2011.  Something’s rotten in Seattle.  Wall Street Journal.  March 25. (subscription required)