5 Things I Learned From Clarion West

Clarion West co-administrator Leslie Howle challenged Clarion and Clarion West alums to share 5 things they learned from their time at the Clarion workshop. As part of my efforts to transition this blog into a more general “Mike talks about stuff” blog, I’m putting my entry here.

Clarion and Clarion West are intensive writing workshops primarily focused on science fiction and fantasy writing. Students eat, drink, breathe and sleep writing for six weeks, critiquing peers’ stories, writing their own new shorts, learning from industry veteran writers and editors, and participating in a supportive community of other writers, professionals, and professional fans.

I attended the workshop in 2007, following a friend’s fantastic experience at the workshop in 2004. Among my classmates were mathematicians, historians, fashion bloggers, science teachers, lawyers, bakers, truckers, and more. I wrote five stories at the workshop, two of which have now been published. And here, in five short examples, is what I learned, one lesson for each story I wrote.

1) What you try hardest to do well, may be the thing you fail at the most. Don’t worry, it will also be the thing you learn most from.

My first week, I wrote a story called “In His Image.” The premise is that in the near-future, a social movement creates a technology which allows people to become pure hermaphrodites — possessing both sets of genitals and being functionally both male and female. The main character, Maria, a widow and mother of one, discovers that her only son, the last living reminder of her dead husband, wishes to join this group, caught up in their idealism that if everyone undergoes this procedure, it will end all gender and sex-based discrimination. Maria struggles with trying to convince her son not to pursue the procedure, then shows her confused reactions when her son goes through with the procedure and returns half a stranger.

I challenged myself to tell the story from a more difficult perspective — the mother’s, rather than the son’s, as well as making the mother a devout Christian who interpreted things through her religious paradigm. I wanted to tackle gender issues, and familial issues, using the SFinal technology partially to investigate familial reactions to transsexuals who pursue Hormone Replacement Therapy and Sexual Reassignment Surgery.

The result was a colossal failure. I managed to deeply offend several classmates, and had gone over-the-top in my efforts such that the issues I was so intently trying to get right were all spectacular flops. But from the story and the feedback, I learned that when you push yourself on something, failing can be tremendously instructive, and help you do better the next time. I saw the ways that in my effort to spotlight an issue, I’d been too overt, too clumsy, and in failure saw the ways I could go back and do it better. A first draft is a place where you should allow yourself to fail, almost expect to fail.

2) Fun is a very powerful aesthetic, and buys you a lot of trust from an audience.

My second week, I dove into writing a New Weird Superhero short story “Shield & Crocus,” which would become my novel, keeping the original title. The original short story was a piece far too large for its britches. I tried to introduce and develop a novel’s worth of material, but along with that doomed effort, I provided colorful characters, action, and enough Bombasticity that the absolute most common comment of the story was “fun.” We tell stories to challenge, to provoke, to educate, but we cannot forget the entertainment aesthetic. Fun is not the only way to be entertained — being lead to think deeply and contemplate serious issues is a form of successful entertainment, but as Donald O’Conner said,

Now you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite
And you can charm the critics and have nothin’ to eat
Just slip on a banana peel
The world’s at your feet

After all of the deconstruction of the excessive world detail or plotting issues, I was left with the confidence that this setting was fun. It was fun for me to write, and had proven that it was fun for readers, even readers who were not particularly fans of superheroes, the New Weird, or action-adventure stories. Therefore, when I left Clarion West, that sense of fun compelled me to take Shield & Crocus and give it a full life as a novel.

3) Get into a scene, do what you have to do, then get out.

Just as in conversation, I am sometimes prone to verbosity in writing. In week 3 of Clarion West, I tried to focus on scene structure. I wanted to pay attention to the beginnings and endings of scenes. I wanted to make my scenes as sharp as possible, cut out all the flab. In “Kachikachi Yama,” which later sold to Escape Pod, I pushed myself to write short scenes that were as efficient as possible, getting through setup to the meat of the scene, then getting out with momentum pushing forward to the next scene. By making most of the scenes closer to bite-sized, I gave myself permission to not have to do all the setup possible for the scene. Instead, I tried to be a narrative guerrilla — performing hit-and-run attacks with my story, keeping things punchy, so that the very structure of the story conveyed information about my heroine — that she was efficient, sharp, and did not deign to dally.

I was also very happy with what I pulled off in my main character (Usagiko)’s voice, but one lesson per week is the name of the game, so we move on to…

4) For a truly strong relationship-based story, you have to pay specific attention to every single relationship in the story — one-on-one relationships, but also group relationships and relationships in context.

A number of RPGs these days, especially “indie” RPGs, have been using the idea of Relationship Maps. In doing a relationship map, you can visually organize the dynamics between a set of characters in one or more groups. During week 4, I wrote a story called “Three Loves for Horue,” a character-focused drama where in addition to other things, I challenged myself again to write a story without external violent conflict, just internal conflict and interpersonal social conflict.

The main character, Horue, is part of a society where triadic marriage is the norm. For the people of Aehen, a normal marriage is a Husband (male), a Wife (female), and a Mediator (either). Horue is a mediator. When an invading force siezed Aehen, they forced its people into dyadic marriages, just Husbands and Wives. The Mediators were pulled out of their marriages and paired off with one another. And two years later, the invaders leave, stretched too thin to maintain an occupying force in Aehen. Most people go back to their triadic marriages, as could Horue — except that in the two years of occupation, he’d fallen in love with the female mediator assigned as his new life. So Horue finds himself torn between three loves. In the story, I had to establish and develop a great deal of relationships. I had to show Horue’s relationship with each of his spouses (Husband, Wife, and Mediator-Wife), as well as those spouses’ relationships with one another. In order to get to the ending I wanted, I had to show changes in eight dynamics (Horue-Husband, Horue-Wife, Horue-MediatorWife, Husband-Wife, Husband-MediatorWife, Wife-MediatorWife, as well as Wife-Husband-MediatorWife and Horue-Husband-Wife-MediatorWife).

Applying that way of thinking, that I had to show the change in eight distinct but inter-reliant relationships, cast light on the complicated social fabric that underlies every story. Even in stories where the central conflicts were not merely interpersonal, the Relationship Map was as crucial to good storytelling as anything else. If only one or two relationship in any story’s Relationship Map has changed by the end of the story, that story might need another look, or some more focus on character relationships.

5) When Re-decorating the house of a genre, don’t do it like a guest trying to be unobtrusive. Do it like a new owner claiming your own space.

In week 5 of the workshop, I was excited and terrified to write my last story of the workshop, a story that would be critiqued by Science Fiction Legend Samuel R. Delaney. All of the CW07 instructors were awesome, but Chip Delaney is a living legend.

Therefore, I wanted to bust out all the stops. The story I wrote for the last week was “Dancing at the Edge of the Black,” which would eventually become “Last Tango in Gamma Sector,” which appeared in Crossed Genres. I applied my love of Argentine Tango to the genre of Space Opera, and in feedback, I was urged to go all-out in that re-decoration of the house of Space Opera. And so, in re-writes and revison, I made the story as Tango-riffic as I could, from clothing to food to textures and colors. And in doing more and more to re-work the execution of the story as a Tango Space Opera, the story become more distinct, more notably mine, not a Battlestar Galactica ripoff with bad math and a touch of tango.

So there you go: 5 things I learned from Clarion West. The workshop was and remains the single most important game-changer in my writing career thus far, in craft lessons learned as well as connections made with fellow writers who continue to inspire and challenge me, colleagues who are also becoming life-long friends.

So here’s the commercial part — If you’re an aspiring SF/F writer looking for a way to kick-start your career, develop your skills, and make incredible connections, consider applying to Clarion or Clarion West this year.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Narrow Demographic

This is going to get deep into Spoilers, friends.  See the movie, then read this post.  If you’ve generally agreed with my reviews, than just go see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and come back to read this post after.

The film adaptation of Bryan O’Malley’s geek-tastic Scott Pilgrim comic series hit the big screens last week…to unimpressive monetary results, bringing in just over $10 million, 5th place behind 1) The Expendables 2) Eat, Pray, Love 3) The Other Guys and 4) Inception.

Its rating is in the high 80%s, higher than all of the movies which beat it monetarily (except Inception).  It has tons of geek appeal.  So why did it “bomb”?

Here’s the thing — it’s very particular geek appeal.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is for people who (preferably) share several or more of the following traits:

  1. Played a lot of video games as a kid
  2. But they have to be games of the NES to SNES era with MIDI music
  3. And should include a lot of 2-d fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, as well as Legend of Zelda.
  4. Have been in a band.
  5. Follow their town/city’s underground music scene.
  6. Enjoy hyper-kinetic narratives.
  7. Understand what a Bob-Omb is.
  8. Know what a 1UP does.
  9. Watched Seinfeld.
  10. Have had several painful breakups and carry around romantic baggage.
  11. Enjoy expressionistic and highly stylized storytelling.

Moreso than possibly any movie in recent memory, the very celluloid upon which the Scott Pilgrim movie is filmed is comprised of Geekdom.  Geekiness was like oxygen.  The film is densely coded with visual and auditory references to geek culture, from comics to video games, but also to sitcoms and with commentary on the romantic comedy genre.  It starts with a chiptune version of the Universal theme as the screen shows a slowly turning old-school video game graphics rendering of the Universal globe.  The opening credit sequence is rife with visual allusions to video games and comics.

If these references go over your head, Scott Pilgrim may not be for you.  It’s easy to position as a representative narrative for Generation Y (or Generation X, depending on who you ask), which also leads into another point that some have raised. Why, though, do some reviewers find it necessary to rag on the target demographic of a film that they (the reviewer) ostensibly didn’t understand or enjoy?

See, for example, this NPR story, which links to a number of the negative review (more of the film’s target audience than the film itself): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129150813

Did you read that story?  Ok.

So what we have here is a movie that is really most effective for a narrow demographic, and somehow that makes it a bad movie.  Do reviewers pan a romantic comedy when it doesn’t try to appeal to people outside the ‘chick flick’ audience?  Or rag on an action movie when it fails to transcend its genre and compete for an Best Picture Oscar?

What about Scott Pilgrim is it that attracted such rancor in reviews?  Is it the same thing that lead to the film’s mediocre box office performance?  i09.com’s Cyriaque Lamar gives several reasons in this article: http://io9.com/5613417/scott-pilgrim-vs-the-lamentable-weekend-gross-++-what-happened

But I don’t know if I think those reasons quite add up.

Some may call Scott Pilgrim’s “failure” a referendum on geek culture, heralding the end of the Age of the Geek.  I’m more inclined to point at the fact that the film uses a great deal of medium and genre emulation in its cinematography, as the film at turns replicates comic books, video games, the fighter genre of games, sitcoms and the indie drama/comedy. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World leaps nimbly between those styles and referents, and for a viewer conversant with the Recommended Reading/Viewing/Playing, it works.  I’ve never laughed so continually or so un-selfconsciously at a film in quite a long time.

This wasn’t a film where geek culture was being re-packaged for the majority, like the X-Men films or Iron Man or Spider-Man films.  In these cases, a character and/or story well-known in the geek community is re-told and re-purposed for a general audience, adapting it to be more understandable, with a smoothed-out backstory less laden with decades of continuity.  While Scott Pilgrim was adapted and streamlined for the screen, it was still (for me) very much a geeky movie for geeks, and never apologized for it.

It’s also important to discuss the Hipster aspect of the film.  Pilgrim of the movie is less actively a geek than he is in the comics, and instead comes off as in no small part a slacker hipster kid — he has little life ambition, plays in a band, but isn’t any good at it, and only shows agency and energy when it comes to Ramona and then his fight scenes.  There are a number of places where Hipster culture and Geek culture overlap, which I find amusing since for me, at their hearts, Geekiness and Hipsterness are antithetical.

In my evaluation, Geekdom is at its core a culture of geniune enthusiasm.  You “geek out” about something when your enthusiasm shows to a degree which may be seen as excessive to some.

By contrast, Hipsterness for me is about irony — it’s about taking an attitude/position towards something.  Hipsters associate with cultural materials or behaviors, but they do so to comment on them in a kind of Bertold Brecht way — Hipsters drink PBR because of its blue-collar associations, made ironic by the fact that most Hipsters come from decidely white-collar backgrounds — Hipsters listen to music and then take a ‘been there done that’ attitude to it.

Not being engaged in Hipster culture, my ideas about it are nowhere as developed as my thoughts on geek culture — but it’s worth the time to talk a bit about Hipsters for Scott Pilgrim, due to the associations on the part of both the film and the source comic (which delves deeply into the Toronto scenester world).

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World combines Romantic Comedy, Battle of the Bands, Fighting Game and Coming-of-Age tropes and tale-types, positing a world where young men and women have troubled romantic and personal histories as they fumble around trying to learn how to be themselves, but despite that complication, the world can be made simple by the application of the video game logic — Scott Pilgrim can bring his video game experience to bear and literalize the metaphor of “dealing with baggage from your S.O.’s exes” by fighting them in sequence.  Scott Pilgrim literalizes several more metaphors of romance/baggage, from the ex who can still “Get into your head” (the chip) to being your own worst enemy (Nega-Scott!).

Some have discussed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as a musical, but instead of singing, the characters fight — they still have soundtracks that convey the emotions of the scene, but express themselves and resolve conflicts via juggles and 64-hit combos and leveling up rather than in singing.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will likely even out or turn a profit, given the chance that it will develop a strong record of DVD sales and home-release viewing.

If you read this blog, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is probably for you.  I enjoyed the hell out of it, and plan to see it at least once more in theatres, delving deeper into the thickly-laid references.

The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers

The Uprising has begun.

After a year of build-up and promotion, the LXD webseries has debuted (on Hulu.com and on the LXD website).

LXD first caught my attention with the pair of trailers that have been available for quite some time, displaying clips of incredible feats of athleticism through dance and promising a superhero-style story. In the time that has passed since, more details have been unveiled:

Director John M. Chu is the spokesperson for the series, which displays a group of talented dancers by creating a narrative which casts the dancers as superhuman — after all, these people are perfoming at a level which cannot be matched by more than a handful of people around the world. And many of the feats do appear superhuman.

The LXD then is a super-team of people who have discovered their powers through dance and are gathering their forces for…something — which I imagine puts John M. Chu in the role of the Professor Xavier to the nascent Legion. Also, there seems to be a creepy dancer bad-guy who would then be the series’ Magneto. From origin stories to secret powers and a group of heroes seeking out talented youth to train and add to the team, the superhero motifs are already well in-place.

Two episodes have gone live so far, “The Tale of Trevor Drift” and “Antigravity Heroes,” both debuting on July 7th on Hulu and the LXD site. “The Tale of Trevor Drift” is the longer and more narratively meat-y of the two, showing the origin story of a young man whose powers manifest through his skills as a b-boy, which he reveals when he pursues his crush (Alice Wondershaw) at prom and is opposed by her boyfriend, Brendan Broman. (His name is seriously Broman. As in “Bro, Man.” I find this hilarious).

The second episode, “Antigravity Heroes,” focuses on two friends who gain anti-gravity powers when they horse around in an abandoned warehouse. There’s far less characterization, and it’s mostly a showcase episode until the end when the friends are pulled apart by circumstance…and evil plotting. Let’s not forget evil plotting.

As of yet, the narrative is not terribly sophisticated, but I’m intrigued by the superhero framework and consistently amazed by the level of the dancing. Dance Crew as Super-Team is a great metaphor, and I’m eager to see more.

For those unfamiliar with the series, here’s what to watch:

http://thelxd.com — You can watch the first two episodes here, as well as many of their promotional appearances, including The Oscars, So You Think You Can Dance, and their appearance at the TED Talks.

The episodes are also playing at http://hulu.com/thelxd

I think I need their T-Shirt.  When they come for me, I will be known as Turbo, with Tactile Telepathy (via Tango Dancing).

Glee as Fantasy

I posit that Glee is a fantasy television series, in that it can be fruitfully evaluated using a focus on its non-mimetic narrative style to both comment on the traditions of the musical genre (especially the Hollywood Musical) but also in discussing “Music as Magic” and the way that said magic can be transformative, liberating, and revelatory.

From the ubiquitous piano player — “He’s always just around” to the fact that in Glee, seemingly everyone can instantly learn arrangements and choreagraphy and the elaborate fantasy sequences which bleed in and out of the diegesis, we have what could be described by some as Slipstream, some as Urban Fantasy, and possibly even Magical Realism (though less so on that one, given what I see as a lack of a definitive tie to the fairly culturally-specific tradition of Magical Realism).

Why does this matter?

1) If Glee is a fantasy series, then the places/times when it diverts from realism can be seen not as a violation of believability inspiring a rolling of the eyes, but a demonstration of the times when life is not enough and extra-normal storytelling is required. This brings back my beloved Etienne Decroux quote:

“One must have something to say. Art is first of all a complaint. One who is happy with things as they are has no business being on the stage.” — Etienne Decroux

And to paraphrase my former professor John Schmor, Musicals are a complaint that life should be more marvelous — why don’t we just burst into song when mere speech can no longer contain our emotional intensity?

2) It allows Glee to be more easily analyzed in the context of other SF/F musicals such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Once More With Feeling,” Fringe’s “Brown Betty” and so on.

3) It allows the use of the scholarship regarding the metaphors of the Fantastic to be applied t the series. It also enables scholars to bring to bear Samuel R. Delany’s notion of SF/F as a literature that allows for the “literalization of the metaphor” — music is soul-healing, music is empowering, music enables people to express themselves in ways they had previously/traditionally not been able.

These are merely preliminary thoughts. Look for more in time, as I believe this approach is the one which allows me to most effectively analyze the series.

Save The World With Gaming [TED]

There’s quite a Theory — Praxis gap here, but her group has already taken steps along the path she proposes, and it’s a good thing for culture-makers, game-designers, and policy-makers to keep in mind.

I find it especially amusing that the "Social Fabric" she discusses runs along the same lines as the descriptions of social bonds/cohesion that are developed and affirmed by gaming (in my research’s case, it was with tabletop rpgs, a predecessor of MMOs). So I suppose I would count as a part of the “researchers have shown…”

For me, there’s two main points here — identifying that the kind of engagement that MMO players achieve is something that can be well put to work, and also the notion that by imagining our future, we can influence/create our future — which is an idea well-known in the Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction/Theory world. Judith Butler would agree with William Gibson in this, I believe.

The hard thing here is getting enough people to care enough about the games that she's suggesting that they put in the time and effort — then you also have to have a game where the result are directly applied to enact social/technological/scientific/economic change, or that the game has a direct effect on these issues/matters. So there’s a social trick (get the players), a design trick (make it relevant), and a policy trick (do something about it).

But for all the difficulty jumping the Theory-Praxis chasm, there's good ideas worth spreading here, in keeping with the TED mandate. I’ve put “Give a TED Talk”on my list of life goals, btw. Just you wait.

Viva La Wavolucion

I’ve found my way onto Google Wave and am very excited about its potential as a communication/collaboration tool, especially for geeky things.  And by this I’m mostly talking about Role-Playing Games.

Not much of this blog’s content ends up being about RPGs, despite the fact that my M.A. thesis was on tabletop RPGs and I’ve been playing/following RPGs since I was in fourth grade.

Like any new communication technology, one of the first things that people have done with Google Wave, aside from making porn (I can only guess, based upon the general adage) is to see if you can use to it game.  Because when your early adopter set is pretty much geeks, one of the things they’re likely to do when exploring a new technology is get it to roll dice so we can play exciting games of make-believe with our friends.  It’s what we do.

There have been a number of different exploratory attempts along these lines, and I’ll try to create a short round-up here before moving into actual discussion/analysis:

Futurismic

Ars Technica

Game Playwright

The emerging thought is that while Google Wave is in its infancy, its official utility/intended utility is very much up in the air.  The Futurismic post’s title is a paraphrase of Neuromancer, stating “the geek finds its own uses for things.” Much like how Wired commented on how Twitter’s ‘real use’ was decided by its users, Google Wave is being investigated for its various potentials, and Geek communities are pursuing explorations and trails of the technology as a strong next step/sideways development for roleplaying games as collaborative storytelling.

The idea put forward by the Game Playwrights is one of the most interesting, and the one I’ll ruminate upon further.  Using a Google Wave as a persistent artifact of play changes the textual status that of RPGs.  A tabletop RPG doesn’t leave an artifact of play, nor does a LARP.  Each of those could be recorded, by video or audio, but would not represent a polished or total account of the story, instead showing a very fractured account.  But if Google Wave games (or Waveltop, as some are calling them) move towards the ‘script of play’ model that Will Hindmarch of Game Playwrights is suggesting, we may see a move towards RPGs leaving behind readable texts, and this is for me, a very interesting move.

There is certainly already discussion of games past in the RPG community.  From ‘let me tell you about my character’ to game stories like The Gazebo or group-specific stories about how one player is deep in character, using a special voice and cadence, embodying his motions, and saying with a sweeping motion, “Allow me to introduce my cousin”, gesturing to the player of the ‘cousin’ who is in fact…asleep on the couch.  But even the actual play reports lauded in the Forge community among others are less direct than the ‘Wave as script of play’ idea.

If Wave players are using this script of play as their primary narrative reference but are also constructing it in a way that reads like a story/script, this, for me, would make it infinitely easier for players to read about and engage with one another’s stories in a way more consistent with films, television, novels, etc.

Different versions of one module could be combined and sold alongside a module (Buy Keep on the Borderlands, complete with game scripts by the Penny Arcade/PvP teams as well as three other star teams), and moreover, there would be room for groups to emerge as stars/paragons of RPG writing/play moreso than already exists (the stars such as they are tend to be specific game designers, known as designers more than being known as players)  We may even see a re-figuration of the RPG novel.  Could it be that once developed, people would pay to read the polished game texts of well-reputed RPG groups published as e-books/pdfs?  It’s a very different way of monetizing the efforts of role-players, like but rather unlike the efforts of the gaming group who decided their superhero game was taking too much time away from writing and decided to do the Wild Cards anthology novels.

And of course, this need not be monetized, nor is it inevitably going to become monetized.  However, in these early explorations, it’s not hard to see the varied ways that this technology could serve as a breakthrough tool for roleplayers to engage with one another.  It is of course notable that the role-playing done via Google Wave is a notable offshoot of tabletop play, since it will not convey any degree of embodied performance, instead relying on writing as performance,  At least until someone pushes the technology even further and weaves together audio play to cohesive uninterrupted narratives.  (There are a number of podcasts/records of play that take the raw audio of a RPG session and distribute it, but again as said before and restated, the main appeal of Google Wave is the ease with which it allows a seamless narrative text which is both a part of play and a readable artifact that results from play.

I’m hoping to take part in some of this exploration myself, and will comment on that as I can.

Glee = Win

FOX’s new offering Glee debuted a pilot episode earlier in the year and made it available online throughout the summer, and responded to initial positive responses with a very strong and pervasive advertising campaign which continues even now.

It’s impressive to think that a weekly musical television show could get this positive a response, but there are a lot of reasons to love the show.

1) If you are a musical theatre fan, the chance to see it on network primetime is inspiring and delightful.

2) If you aren’t a musical theatre fan, the show offers constant laughs with compelling laughs.

3) Jane Lynch portrays the shows main antagonist, the coach of the national-attention-winning cheerleading team (aka the Cheerios).  Lynch is given reign to cut loose and portray a vicious competitive scheming selfish heel of a character — and she revels in it.  Lynch’s Coach Sylvester is one of the strongest parts of the show.

4) The way that the musical numbers are integrated into the show are mostly diegetic, given the focus on a glee club, but there are some breakout fantasy numbers, such as “Bust Your Windows” when diva-licious Mercedes is rejected by the fashion-forward Kurt, or head Cheerio Quinn’s crazy-go-nuts anthem railing against her treatment by her boyfriend and others in general

5) The showrunners and writers keep on finding new ways of eliciting laughter and delight from the audience.   Last week, we had Jane Lynch in a zoot suit, “I Could Have Danced All Night” sung in a dress shop by the adorable Jayma Mays while dancing, and the glorious Slushee War.

6) The show’s musical selection ranges from classic rock “Don’t Stop Believing” to contemporary hip-hop “Gold Digger” and a strong but not overwhelming sampling of musical theatre numbers such as “Maybe This Time” and “Tonight.”  Upcoming numbers include “Defying Gravity” from Wicked (not the TV show by the same name — that’s another blog post).

7) Characters originally introduced in an antagonistic role are frequently fleshed out into sympathetic characters, including head cheerio Quinn, coach Tanaka, football bully “Puck”, Will’s wife Terri, and even the dread Sue Sylvester has her pensive moments.  Few characters are universally good or universally villainous — our protagonists are flawed, lie and cheat for understandable if misguided reasons, and generally act like high schoolers — even the adults.

8) Despite this ambiguity, it’s very hard not to root for the Glee kids, and most see the dissolution of Will’s marriage as an inevitable precursor to the more-inevitable union of charming Glee coach Will and adorably OCD guidance counselor Emma.

It’s Both Good and Popular!  Amazing!

There are more reasons to love the show, and Glee’s popularity is written nearly everywhere — critical praise abounds, it consistently trends in the top 10 topics on Twitter the nights of its episode airings, and most importantly, it’s ratings are consistently strong, consistently earning a 4.X rating and 7 share and a 3.X/9 among the coveted 18-49 demographic.  The show was the first new show of the season to (publically) receive an order for the back 9 episodes — and the first DVD set (collecting episodes 1-13) has already been solicited).  Another important facet of the show’s success is that the musical numbers from the show are made available on iTunes and consistently reach best-seller levels in that market.  The show is another example of Most Repeatable Programming (ala Steven Johnson), where small moments/reaction shots may be missed without multiple viewings, and it’s easy to see why people would watch and re-watch (including Hulu) given the selfless-smile-inducing musical numbers.

If Glee is able to maintain its current balance of drama and humor, delightful musical numbers and ridiculous antics, it’s likely to survive for several years.  In times of economic and social instability (recession, massive conflict over health care reform, gay rights, etc.), a happy, inspiring show is an easy pick for success.

After all, as the dearly departed Irene Adler, long-time coach of the McKinley Glee Club (inc. during Schuester’s time) saif,

Glee, by its very definition, is about opening yourself up to joy.”

Why Defying Gravity Needs to Not Get Canceled

When I first heard about Defying Gravity, I was surprised to see another space show, following the dead-in-the-water Virtuality which went from pilot to TV-movie backdoor pilot to TV-movie that everyone knew wasn’t going to become a series.

Defying Gravity had a number of similarities to Virtuality — ensemble-sized crew on multi-year mission deep into space, their efforts being made into a reality show for people back on Earth, driving off of interpersonal conflict exacerbated by the enclosed space and mission stress.

However, Defying Gravity has a far milder version of the ‘reality show’ aspect, and lacks the virtual reality material featured in Virtuality.  As a result, the show is much more focused — it’s serial SF with episodic interpersonal plot — originally pitched as “Grey’s Anatomy in space” — the show released on ABC over the late summer, but was only aired for episodes before it dropped off of the schedule — ABC has stated that they they are looking for the best time to air the remaining episodes — meanwhile, the episodes have been airing elsewhere, due to the show’s status as a multi-country, multi-network production.

I hope to see the remainder of the season on television, but I have doubts about the show getting picked up.  It’s likely rather expensive given the sets and FX required, and the show’s ratings were lukewarm when aired — though that’s far from unexpected from a relatively un-advertised mid-summer show with a high concept.  Depending on how its ratings fare elsewhere, it’s possible that even if ABC drops its support, it might continue on.

Here’s why Defying Gravity is cool, for me:  It’s probably the best new straight-up SF show (recently) on television.  The show addresses advanced speculative elements (deep-space missions, plus other SF-inal spoilery things that are very intriguing).  It also sustains and develops strong interpersonal drama, throws in good doses of comedy, and includes the best use of flashbacks since LOST, using a parallel structure depicting the mission crew and other personnel in the years-long training that served as the characters’ introduction to one another and informs their relationship with one another in the ‘now’ segments.

Unlike LOST, the characters are deeply interconnected with one another throughut their flashbacks, meaning that instead of revealing a ‘small world’ setting where disparate characters were more connected than they suspected, the crew of Defying Gravity are shown working through years of interpersonal relationships — it’s two stories that are one and would theoretically come together by the end of the series, when the flashbacks lead up to the start of the ‘now’ part of the show and provide (10-11) years of contiguous storyline.

Back to the title of my post:  Why this show needs to not get canceled — Defying Gravity depicts a future where space exploration brings us into a larger universe, valuing both science for science’s sake; also the love of exploration.  It also introduces and explains SF-inal elements unseen in television, if well established in SF literature.  The SF writing world talks about how film/TV is two decades behind prose.  The ideas get investigated in prose, and go from brilliant innovation to discussed and debated trope, and once well known enough, if the materials that lead into the trope are established in the popular imagination, then it can reach a broad audience to be digested.  Shows like LOST took several years to build up to and introduce SF elements, and Fringe is popularizing parallel/alternate universe theory.  Dollhouse is a possibly-too-complex-for-tv meditation on the possibilities of interfacing with and modifying memories through technology.

It’s all well and good for the SF community to investigate ideas and develop discussion, but it’s a small world, and for those ideas to reach the majority of the populace, either you need a massively popular novel on the level of Stephen King or Dan Brown, or you probably need to make a movie/TV show.   And if shows that further the collective understanding of the culture-shaping ideas that SF produces keep getting canceled, it serves as a barrier to that dissemination of ideas.

For these reasons and because I think it’s engaging on an interpersonal level with strong performances by a fairly-ethnically diverse cast, I would really like Defying Gravity to continue long enough to tell its story, to convey its speculation about a possible future.

Whither The Whedon?

Here we see an open letter to Joss Whedon from The  TV Addict —

http://thetvaddict.com/2009/10/22/an-open-letter-to-joss-whedon/

Rumors from last year have already presented the possibility that Whedon could give up TV and return to an internet-based model as seen in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Dollhouse has been assured a full 13-episode run for the season, but there is no word of picking up the back 9 (ordering more episodes to make a full 22-episode season), and there’s also a rumor from Brian Ausiello that Dollhouse will be benched during November sweeps.  All of this seems to point to Dollhouse not surviving past its second season.  Only time will tell, but the show’s renewal last season was a big surprise to many, and seemed to revolve around the fact that Whedon proved he could make the show for less money (see the post-apocalyptic “Epitaph One” for his example of lower-budget Dollhouse)

TV Addict does some quick math to speculate that a core audience of 2 million viewers buying straight-to-internet downloads at $.99 a pop yields a revenue of just under 2 million dollars per episode.  Add in merchandise sales, DVDs and possible syndication, it seems pretty reasonable.  There are also some other possibilities for budget-cutting, including shooting in video vs. digital (which then reduces the max quality of the material for DVD, a trade-off to be sure).   There’s also the fact that a pilot episode can cost several times as much as a regular series episode due to start-up costs.  Whedon and Mutant Enemy are a reliable entity, known for producing fan-favorite, intriguing material but recent lack of success with TV properties on network TV, which makes them an ideal case study for considering this change in model.

My girlfriend is more knowledgeable and interested in industry/funding/marketing than I am, but she’s in class in California right now — and I’m thinking out loud at least partially as a creator.  Plus, this is my blog.  However, she’s likely to come around and correct some of my numbers and/or add her opinion. 🙂

For Whedon, using a model adapted from/close to Felicia Day’s The Guild may prove as a starting point (and likely informed his approach with Dr. Horrible).  Find investors for start-up costs (Pilot + 8 episodes) and make it go.  Whedon’s fan community would reliably do vigorous viral marketing without having to be asked. Everyone in the geek-o-sphere (amusing name, TVAddict)

A show like this would probably live and die on the efficacy of its marketing campaign.  Dr. Horrible was free to watch for a short period of time, and then became digital download only — it later ended up on Hulu for free and then became available by DVD (with extras, natch).  If this new Whedon show were available online for free for X period of time (a week per episode?), and was also sold via iTunes/etc., would enough people pay to download it to sustain the show’s budgetary requirements?  DVD sales of Whedon/Mutant Enemy material is consistently strong, but without the advertising revenue as a primary source of funding, it’s intriguing to ponder if a high-ish-budget show could survive in this model.  Felicia Day’s The Guild is free to watch/download and pays for itself off of advertising and alliance with MSN (to by knowledge) — but it also appears to be a very cheap show to produce, with less than 10 minute episodes and little to no special effects.

If one production company can do it, doesn’t mean that any others could.  Auteur/Star Power goes a long way in the digital world, but it goes as far as those consistent 2-million-ish viewers, not necessarily further.   The Long Tail Theory probably applies here, where a figure/group famous within a subculture (geeks) can serve as a sufficient base for demand — without being The Next Big Thing like LOST or Heroes.

What Abut Going Cable?

An alternative would be shopping shows to cable networks — where the ratings demands are lower (and therefore, so are budgets, often times).  Cable networks have been making critically-acclaimed shows for a number of years, and in recent memory, challenging shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Rome, The Shield, Mad Men and Breaking Bad have all come from cable networks and enjoyed popularity, critical praise/awards or both.

Whedon’s shows Buffy and Angel survived on 2nd-tier broadcast networks (UPN and WB) rather than the Big Four.  The lessened ratings demands of these 2nd tier networks allowed the shows to survive.  Right now, the descendent of UPN/WB — the CW) occupies that median position, but is strongly branded towards teen girl dramas (Gossip Girl, 90210, One Tree Hill, or dramas that appeal strongly to the 18-25/49 female demographic (SF shows such as Smallville and Supernatural (which help court the beloved male 18-24 demographic).  It’s uncertain if a Whedon show would find a place in the current CW brand — certainly possible, given Whedon’s feminist-friendly approach (for certain brands of feminists, that is — debate continues on the ultimate standing of Whedon’s feminism), but not necessarily an instant match.

There’s a few issues with the ‘Go Cable’ approach.  Here are the big two for me:

1) If a show is on cable, it automatically cuts out a portion of the potential audience.  Some dozens-ish millions of viewers have/watch TV but not cable.  This reduces potential viewers (likely reducing ratings) but also can be seen as inherently elitist — if you’re making shows for cable and have a social agenda (like promoting feminism or critiquing the capitalist system, etc.), you’re already always speaking to a more affluent population (we’re speaking in generalities here — there are better-off households who never watch tv, and there may be less affluent households that still decide to have and watch cable).

2) Ad space on cable networks is going to be sold at different rate sets than ad space on network TV.  This goes back to the basic numbers of who has/watches cable vs. who has/watches network TV.  Depending on the type of cable (basic vs. premium and all permutations), this can change how your show’s budget is determined.   Whedon may be able to make quality TV on a lessened budget, but those limitations inform what kinds of shows can be made.

A modern-day+something cool show is likely to be far cheaper than a futuristic SF or historical/otherworld fantasy show (props, sets, costumes, etc.) — Whedon has frequently done the modern-day+ settings (Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse) but I know as a writer/creator, I would blanche at the limitations of that reality.  Brilliant shows like Defying Gravity may fail to succeed because of budgetary problems like the above.

Wrapping it Up

These questions aren’t quite relevant for Whedon, et al. until/unless Dollhouse meets its end, but they are questions that need to be asked in general about the industry.  We should be asking What purpose do these networks serve? Has technology developed to the point where other models are viable/recommended? What will it take to make those models viable, if they aren’t there yet?

I think I might like to write for TV one day, but by the time I make it there, the landscape may be violently different, just as the publishing industry is going through a major shakedown (price-wars at big-box stores, Borders teetering on the edge, increasing technology for e-readers and digital distribution, etc.)