From the archives: Television

Or, if you'd prefer, return to the most recent posts.

Oprah, Oona: the miseries of Franzenfreude

Wednesday, 1 June 2011 — 5:29pm | Comics, Literature, Television

There’s a passage in Generosity: An Enchancement, Richard Powers’ novel about genetics and creative writing, that transports us to a prominent talk show from Chicago:

It’s less a show than a sovereign multinational charter. And its host is, by any measure, the most influential woman in the world. Her own story is a remarkable mix of motifs from American creative fiction, from Alger to Zelazny. Say only that she has grown from an impoverished, abused child into an adult who gives away more money than most industrialized nations. She has the power to create instant celebrities, sell hundreds of millions of books, make or break entire consumer industries, expose frauds, marshal mammoth relief efforts, and change the spoken language. All this by being tough, warm, vulnerable, and empathetic enough to get almost any other human being to disclose the most personal secrets on international television. If she didn’t exist, allegory would have to invent her.

Powers calls his daytime doyenne Oona, but we all know he’s talking about Oprah. Here we find our scientific-literary novelist in the fine, familiar predicament of engaging with an outside world where corporate global brands are king. Allegories of real folks are tacky things, but when you pen a Chicago novel about finding the genetic basis of happiness in the anaesthetized age of mass media, there’s no detour around the Oprah problem: you’re writing her into your damned book.

(I’m not sure how well it goes. Generosity is eminently likable, and its Clarke Award nomination earlier this year is one of many reasons why you should pay attention to the Clarke Awards, but there’s an overall sense of Richard Powers for Beginners about it next to the depth of his earlier work.)

Here in the telly-impervious literary fortress of Nick’s Café Canadien, we don’t pay much attention to Ms Winfrey. My impression of Oprah has never been terribly positive: as a consumerist behemoth that uncritically promotes junk science and bad medicine while throwing its financial weight behind the overweening cult of self-help, it has often come off to me as a malignant alien presence from another world. I’m reliably informed, however, that as of last week the twenty-five-year gravity well of The Oprah Winfrey Show has finally pocketed itself into its own precious singularity.

Days earlier, Jonathan Franzen delivered a commencement address at Kenyon College that has since appeared in The New York Times (best read alongside Edward Champion’s notes on the abridgment), the latest variation on Literary Man’s perpetual anxiety over technology’s commodification of human passions. Franzen’s argument—that the casual comforts of the Facebook “like” and the easy requital of our device relationships have inoculated us from experiencing true and hurtful love—came bundled with the delicious irony that we’ve come to expect from everything involving the reluctant superstar of American letters. Scarcely a month ago, The New Yorker ran a magisterial essay of his about scattering the ashes of David Foster Wallace on the island of Robinson Crusoe only to hold it hostage behind the paywall. “Like” The New Yorker on Facebook, said the ransom note—or else.

The timing may be coincidental, but the parallel—rather, the perpendicularity—isn’t lost on those of us who absorbed everything about the Winfrey-Franzen feud of 2001 with unhealthy fascination. Here’s the story: ten years ago, Oprah Winfrey selected Franzen’s outstanding novel The Corrections for the Book Club segment of her programme, something that even her most bitter critics have to admit has been a marvel for moving volumes of contemporary fiction. Shortly after, Franzen voiced his discomfort with being marketed under the Oprah sticker, leading Winfrey to rescind the book selection along with Franzen’s invitation to the show.

You can imagine the media frenzy. High-profile literary scuffles are like classical music riots: we don’t see enough of them these days, and when we do, it’s comical yet reassuring to discover that other people care about this stuff. And here we had, in one corner, an inspirational figure of tremendous accomplishment and national renown; in the other corner—well, Oprah Winfrey.

Continued »

Annotations (4)

IBM’s double jeopardy

Tuesday, 8 February 2011 — 4:09am | Computing, Journalism, Science, Television

A few weeks ago, Colby Cosh—a friend of a friend of sorts who ordinarily writes reasonable things for a chap who still thinks the Edmonton Oilers are a real sports team—penned an article in his Maclean’s blog about Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing machine (“I’ll take ‘Cheap Publicity Stunts’ for $1000, Alex”, 16 January 2011), that I found to be dreadfully uninformed. The thrust of his argument is that Watson is a corporate “gimmick”—a fancy plea for media coverage by the faceless villains at IBM, with nothing of scientific interest going on underneath. Keep in mind that by the standards of this article, nothing in the “perpetually disappointing history of AI” will ever be interesting until we’ve graduated from tightly delimited objectives to Big Problems like the Turing Test:

Every article about Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing device, should really lead off with the sentence “It’s the year 2011, for God’s sake.” In the wondrous science-fiction future we occupy, even human brains have instant broadband access to a staggeringly comprehensive library of general knowledge. But the horrible natural-language skills of a computer, even one with an essentially unlimited store of facts, still compromise its function to the point of near-parity in a trivia competition against unassisted humans.

This isn’t far off from saying that particle physics will be perpetually disappointing until we’ve observed the Higgs boson, or that manned spaceflight is merely an expensive publicity stunt that will never be scientifically interesting until we’ve colonized the Moon: it leans heavily on popular culture as the ultimate barometer of scientific achievement, and it requires both ignorance of methodology and apathy towards specifics.

Colby and I had a five-minute skirmish about the article on Twitter, which as a format for debate is unwieldy as piss. I promised a proper response as soon as I cleared some other priorities off my plate. Those other priorities are still, to my annoyance, on my plate; but having finally paid good money to register my copy of MarsEdit, I’m thirsting for a scrap.

This topic will do as well as any. Reluctant as I am to swing the pretentious hammer of “I know what I’m talking about,” this really is (as the idiom goes) a chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality. Computational linguistics happens to be my onetime research area, popular misunderstanding of science happens to be one of my favourite bugbears, and Kasparov’s anticomputer strategies against Deep Blue happened to make a cameo appearance in the meandering slop of my master’s dissertation. None of this matters a great deal, mind you. One should never be dismissive of journalists from a position of relative expertise; they’re the ones people actually read, and it’s vital to engage with what they say.

(It is a little game we play: they put it on the bill, I tear up the bill.)

Continued »

Annotations (8)

American People Accidentally Enjoy Family Guy

Friday, 14 November 2008 — 3:36pm | Animation, Film, Television

The funniest thing I’ve read all week: “Indian People Accidentally Enjoy Roadside Romeo.” For those of you who don’t know, Roadside Romeo is a Disney-distributed CG production by Yash Raj Films that I have heard described as a Bollywood Lady and the Tramp; you can watch the trailer here, if you dare. It’s also a runaway hit. Amid Amidi proposes that all animation be removed from the nation of India, and I think he’s only half joking:

We’ll try the plan for two years. Don’t worry, good ideas like this take time. When the fine people of India feel they’re good and ready to respect the animation art form, I will personally send over a print of One Froggy Evening. If you enjoy that more than you did Roadside Romeo, we’ll send you Dumbo the following month. If you still enjoy Roadside Romeo, we’ll take more drastic measures like defrosting Walt and sending him over to help you see the light. Either way you’ll finally be able to see that your enthusiasm for Roadside Romeo was one huge terrible fucking mistake. Don’t feel too bad, even animation-savvy countries make mistakes sometimes.

It’s a satirical piece (“Additionally, any DVDs containing animation can be dumped in useless neighboring countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh”), and all the more effective because the plan would garner my full support. Honestly, sometimes I think we need drastic measures like this right here in North America—my fellow Canadians, that includes you—and I can’t think of a better remedial syllabus.

Let’s set Roadside Romeo aside for a moment, since I haven’t seen it. When India pulls off its equivalent of Spirited Away, which earned its way to becoming the biggest domestic success in the history of Japanese cinema by also being one of the best animated features in recent memory, then we’ll talk. Of far greater concern is the link in the last sentence I quoted. The Cleveland Show? This is like milking a diseased cow. Is Seth MacFarlane out of his giggity mind?

I make it no secret that I consider Family Guy a televised disgrace, a cancer upon the storied art form of Walt Disney, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Hayao Miyazaki, Nick Park, Brad Bird, and everyone else who belongs on my abbreviated list. And that’s to speak only of its offence to animation, never mind comedy (or, for that matter, Americana). I’m not sure when it became fashionable to equate “adult” animation with crude construction and crass immaturity; I grew up believing that adults were people who grew up. Maybe this is the same audience that never grew out of the adolescent sensibility of feeling too cool for cartoons.

The Family Guy franchise bothers me considerably more than the usual decadent pop-culture rot because of how it has managed to swindle so many otherwise intelligent people, possibly including Seth MacFarlane himself, into believing that it is in any way clever. It’s dumb-as-bricks entertainment that purports to be smarter than the average bear. It’s like a Dan Brown novel (which makes the ineptitude of Family Guy‘s onetime jab at The Da Vinci Code all the more ironic), though it casts a loftier net. At least trashy bestsellers fill the coffers of publishers who can then make risky gambles on unknown authors. (There was a rumour going around that Doubleday’s recent layoffs happened because they expected the next Brown novel to show up on this year’s ledger, though it was denied.) Family Guy begets more Family Guy, be it in the isomorphic stupid-to-make-you-feel-smart sitcom family of American Dad or the selfsame nucleus in The Cleveland Show. It has no excuse, and I will celebrate when it dies.

One often forgets that Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons attempted spades of pop-culture “references” (as distinguished from parody). Shorts like Hollywood Steps Out have declined into trivial irrelevance for all but the most serious collectors, and I say that as someone who recognizes classic film stars like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson; still, at least the drawings back then were actual caricatures. And one would have to admit that 8-Ball Bunny gets a little stale by the third time Humphrey Bogart’s character from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre shows up to pester Bugs.

True classics like One Froggy Evening will prevail as they always have, as will the best of the parodies—your What’s Opera, Doc?, your Carrotblanca. And there’s no question that there’s a lot of great animation being produced today, be it in North America, India, or anywhere else. The problem is the undiscerning audience that never sees any of it, and is stuck with deplorable examples of what animation can do. Unfortunately, that audience comprises a great many people. Some of them may even be your friends. I fully support their systematic inoculation, and if we have to haul Uncle Walt out of the freezer, so be it.

Annotations (2)

License to Slum, pt. 4

Sunday, 31 August 2008 — 11:42pm | Film, Literature, Star Wars, Television, Tie-ins and fanfic

This is the fourth part of “License to Slum: The Novel of the Movie of the Game”, a pentapartite polemic about media tie-in fiction in which I investigate whether my prejudice against them is just a prejudice. I recommend that you start at the beginning. For the purposes of this episode, I also recommend an earlier post of mine on the subject of fan fiction, “The hack-and-slash fiction property market” (12 December 2007).

In this instalment, I inquire into the the extent to which the sharing of a mythopoeic universe constrains the freedom of the individual author, viz. whether there is a place for genuine innovation between the oversaturation of “canons” and the anarchic multiverse of fanfic.

Continued »

Annotations (0)

Better dead than smeg

Sunday, 4 February 2007 — 6:23pm | Television

Red Dwarf and I have a very long history together. I’m not completely sure it’s my favourite television series of all time, but it’s in the top two (the Diana Rigg seasons of The Avengers being the other candidate).

Briefly, for those of you not in the know: it’s a British comedy in space, and it’s smegging fantastic.

I discovered it during the four-year lull between Series VI and VII, when we were all left with a rather explosive time-twisting cliffhanger. It was the subject of my very first website, which I never properly finished. (Don’t bother looking; it doesn’t exist anymore, but do know that it was created back in the era when website “design” didn’t exist as a proper discipline and frames, hit counters and embedded MIDI files were cool.) This was before Rob Grant and Doug Naylor split up, Chris Barrie left the show, and Naylor decided to go ahead with VII anyway. I bought Grant’s Backwards in hardcover when it first came out. In the sixth grade, I was Rimmer’s “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” alter-ego, Dangerous Dan McGrew (no relation to the Robert Service poem), for Hallowe’en.

I caught the entirety of Series VII and all of VIII (minus the last episode) exactly once, when they first appeared in North America by way of PBS pledge drive marathons. And I never saw them again… foreboding ellipses… until now.

I received the DVDs of Series V to VIII this Christmas, and I’ve now watched every episode, including the reconstructed lost episode featuring the Cat, “Identity Within.” And here we arrive at the point of this post: I think VII and VIII are worth a brief revisit.

If you’ve made it this far, I’m guessing that you are already halfway familiar with the show; if you’re not, go watch it and come back. Consequently, you are also probably aware that Series VII (and to a lesser extent, VIII) have a particularly nasty reputation. Think of the backlash against The Godfather, Part III or the Star Wars prequels, and sprinkle liberally. The argument goes like this: after six seasons of brilliance, the show set standards for itself, and didn’t meet them.

Now, I won’t be one to argue that VII and VIII are on the same level as the first two eras of the show (I-II and III-VI). But they certainly aren’t as bad as everybody who hasn’t blocked them out of their mind remembers.

What surprised me most about Series VII was that the elements that worked were not what I thought they were. First impressions, way back when, was that the Rimmer-centric episodes – “Stoke Me a Clipper” and “Blue” – were the highlights of VII, and virtually everything else was dispensable (i.e. Chloe Annett as Kochanski, a blubbering jealous Kryten, the filmlike lighting and colour-balancing, the crappy CG where model shots used to be).

The second time through, almost a decade later, I’ve come to realize that Chloe Annett was a damn good if underplayed addition to the series, and I can’t believe anybody seriously prefers Clare Grogan’s bit parts as the Kochanski character in Series I and II. The dynamic between her and the blubbering jealous Kryten holds the fort remarkably well for five-and-a-half Rimmer-less episodes as far as character work goes. The film effect worked for me, and I don’t buy the argument that sitcoms inherently have to look cheap and stagy; if they’d stuck to that way of thinking, we’d never have progressed to the sci-fi adventure look and feel of Series III onwards. The crappy CG… okay, it’s still terrible, but I had a lot more sympathy for it after watching the documentaries and discovering that the model work became unaffordable, and their graphics house was a Chris Veale one-man show.

“Stoke Me a Clipper” is still one of the best episodes of the series, but not as great as I remembered. This might have been because after sitting through Series VI’s “Emohawk: Polymorph II” (and wondering why I never before realized just how outright bad it is; it’s easily one of the worst episodes from I to VI), I began wishing that they’d just leave alter-ego characters like Ace Rimmer and Duane Dibbley alone. Not a bad exit for Chris Barrie, but I’m sure we all wish he’d never left. Sure, pre-disaster Rimmer was resurrected for Series VIII, but that didn’t rescue six years of character development tossed out the window.

Speaking of disasters, I didn’t expect that “Blue” would come off as the worst episode of the series. Everybody remembers it fondly for the Rimmer Experience, which is classic, but as for the other twenty-five minutes of the episode, the less said the better. I couldn’t help but think it was a jarring error in the script every time the Cat actually used the name “Rimmer” instead of, say, “goalpost head.” Then again, “worst” might be a bit harsh: “Beyond a Joke” is terrific for its first half – there’s nothing quite like Kryten driving a World War II tank into Jane Austen World – but the rest of it is a wash.

But it’s not like Red Dwarf never had bad episodes before. The problem is that Series VII didn’t deliver any especially excellent ones. Instead, it consisted of several middling episodes with excellent moments (and from time to time, some fairly inert moments). It felt like a bigger kick in the pants when it had four years of expectations to live up to.

On a final note about VII: judging solely by the DVD feature where Chris Barrie reads an early draft of the script over storyboards, “Identity Within” could have been the great episode of the series, were the time, budget and Chris Barrie available to develop it properly. I’m not a fan of the big furry GELFs that we see in “Emohawk,” “Ouroburos,” “Beyond a Joke” and Doug Naylor’s novel Last Human, and there would have been more of them here, but that’s a small price to pay for a solid episode where the Cat finally gets the spotlight.

Series VIII – now that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

I did remember it to be an improvement on VII, and for the most part, I’m still holding to that. “Back in the Red” was originally intended to be two episodes instead of three, and it shows – there’s some extraneous matter I could do without, like the Blue Midget dance and the horrid Reservoir Dibbleys bit at the end of Part II – but those were really minor blemishes on what was otherwise a strong return to form, heavy on both story and comedy.

Series VIII also had, in “Cassandra,” what VII didn’t: a thoroughly balanced episode that I’d be tempted to place in my top ten. It found room for a classic causality-bending story and great character work, and proved that Rimmer’s return to the show need not displace Kochanski.

If there’s one problem that’s specific to VIII, it’s not the revival of the crew – it’s that the half-hour format only really has room for four characters. The Hattie Hayridge iteration of Holly got short shrift throughout most of Series III to V before disappearing entirely. VIII had to contend with six central characters, and while it disguised it well at first thanks to the length of “Back in the Red” and the tight writing of “Cassandra,” it begins to show. Sure, Norman Lovett shows up every now and then and does his Norman Lovett thing, but Kochanski doesn’t get to do much – a real shame, because I think by the end of Series VII, she’d taken up a position in the class hierarchy that we hadn’t seen before, and it showed promise.

And “Pete” was just bad.

As for the ending to “Only the Good…” – which I saw for the first time a few days ago – what I don’t understand is why they threw away a far superior ending that was scripted, filmed, and placed in the Deleted Scenes section of the DVD. Instead, we have a cliffhanger that will probably never be given a proper resolution.

To be quite honest, I think Red Dwarf is over for good. The official word is that any continuation of the television show has been on hold for years now because the feature film is only a studio’s big fat cheque away from happening. But it’s not getting any more marketable with age. Furthermore, whatever film gets made is going to be a standalone adaptation of the Red Dwarf story, not a continuation of the television series – and while this is in many ways the right decision, it’s not so good for giving the fans a sense of closure.

Should Naylor do a Series IX or a one-off concluding episode, it’s encouraging that the quality of affordable CG effects work has finally caught up to the ambition of the show, and the cast (judging by the DVD interviews) isn’t too, too old to revisit the characters. To keep things in perspective, though, it has been almost a decade. In fact, Red Dwarf turns twenty next year. I don’t have my fingers crossed that anything will happen.

Then again, there’s no point in doing a Series IX if the quality of the writing isn’t going to be up to scratch. But there would be quite a real point to making it if it meant the show could go out with a bang.

Annotations (0)

A Link to the Past (older posts) »