On the Horizon — Mid-season

Here are three speculative and/or genre-inclined shows coming up soon in TV-land. Dollhouse, Castle, and Kings.

Dollhouse

Joss Whedon’s anticipated new tv drama, starring Eliza “Faith” Dushku as Echo, one of a number of ‘Dolls’ — people who have had their memories wiped, live in an idyllic but infantile ‘Dollhouse’ facility, and who, when they become ‘Active,’ are implanted with memories and skills to serve as whatever the Dollhouse’s clients want them to be. This will allow Whedon and the show to explore Dushku’s range as a leading lady, explore the theme of memory vs. spirit/soul, exploitation, human experimentation/human trafficing, etc. The show also stars Tamoh “Helo” Penikett as James Ballard, the FBI agent who investigates the urban legend of the Dollhouse. Dollhouse has been troubled by production delays, disagreements about creative direction, and other issues, but it is on track for at least a nine-episode initial order.

Dollhouse premiers February 13th on Fox.

Castle
Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion, of Firefly and Dr. Horrible fame) is a famous best-selling mystery novelist who is tapped by the NYPD as a consultant when a copycat killer starts committing murders in the same manner as Castle’s books. This creates what seems to be a very promising meta-genre component for the series, since we’ll have Castle interpreting everything through the filter of a crime/mystery writer, and provides a variation on the ‘expert consultant protected by bad-ass detective/agent’ dynamic of shows like Fringe, The Mentalist, Numb3rs, Bones, etc.

Stana Katic (Heroes, 24, Quantum of Solace) plays Castle’s detective handler/inspiration for the protagonist for a new series of books. The show is likely to make good use of Fillion’s range, injecting comedy (From the video preview — “Did you see that? That was so cool!”) and romance (Castle asking the detective out, and her brushing him off while acknowledging the chemistry) into what seems to default to a prime-time hour-long crime procedural drama.

Castlepremiers March 9th on ABC.

Kings
An alternate-present America re-telling of the story of King David, Kings gives us David Shepherd (Christopher Egan) rescuing the son of King Silas (Ian McShane), ruler of Shiloh, a city in the Kingdom of Gilboa, David is welcomed into the court and turned into a hero of the people, wrapped up in politics and power. NBC’s promotion has highlighted the alternate-history aspects of the world, focusing on the monarchic nature of the Kingdom of Gilboa (Shiloh, the center of the story, appears similar/evocative of a New York City or the like).

UNN Breaking News

This show appears to be high-production value, since there will not have to be much in the way of SF special effects, focusing on costuming, graphic and set design to highlight the subtle but fundamental differences between our world and that of Kings. The story of King David should provide enough material for several seasons, depending on how close of a re-telling is planned and how quickly the story is to unfold. Early responses to the pilot script paint it as “bold, bizzare, fun”.

Kings premiers March 19th on NBC.

Battlestar Galactica — The End is Near

After another long hiatus, Battlestar Galactica will be returning to TV for its last half-season on January 16th.  10 episodes (of varying length) remain, as well as a TV-movie called The Plan, which is set immediately following the Cylon attacks on the 12 colonies.

In this remaining narrative space, there are a lot of loose ends to tie up.  The first section of Season 4 had already adopted an elegiac tone, trying together threads, ‘resolving’ character arcs (of course, resolution in Battlestar often comes at the end of a barrel or at the opening of a airlock).

We’ve still got one last Cylon to reveal, a Cylon civil war to finish up, and in my viewing, the most important task is to create an ending which will cause the series to resonate with one of its catch-phrases — All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again.  The show’s coda needs to suggest a teleology that will either lead to a re-playing of its story, or prove itself as the repetition that breaks the cycle.

Just as at the end of Season Three we got to see Earth, at the end of Season 4.0 we got to see the home of the 13th tribe from the ground level, ruins and all.  The Season 4.0 finale seems to make the Flying Motorcycle ending less likely, but we shall see.  The truce between Humans and Cylons is an uneasy one, and I’m sure things will get much worse before they get better, if they do.  I’d feel cheated if the show didn’t end with some kind of equilibrium for the humans, whose entire arc has been about finding Earth and completing their Exodus.  New Caprica was an interruption,

The progress of Ron Moore’s prequel project Caprica means that the Battlestarverse may continue on past the series proper, but I’ll be much happier with the series if it has its own proper ending.

I feel comfortable in calling Battlestar Galactica the iconic Bush Era Science Fiction series (at least, of those produced during his presidency).  It’s fitting that Battlestar will be ending before we get too far into Obama’s tenure as president, as the show is very distinctly a response to the 9/11 political landscape and the Bush administration.  Obama will still of course be dealing with a post-9/11 world, but it makes me wonder what the great Science Fiction epic of his presidency will be.

Return to Leverage

Leverage has arrived on TNT, and we’ve now had four episodes (the pilot which I discussed earlier and three more).

As the show settles into its digs, we can see what the series is likely to look and feel like in an ongoing fashion.  Leverage is clearly over-the-top, trading mimetic realism for the joyous fun of heist and con-man action where Awesomeness is a clear and present aesthetic agenda.

In “The Two-Horse Job” and in “The Miracle Job,” the characters’ backstory is central both to the reason for the team taking each case and also plays out in the interpersonal drama between the leads and the guest-star clients.   Other characters’ investment in the individual jobs waxes and wanes based on their personal beliefs regarding the lines which the team has to cross along the way, which keeps the procedural formula from growing stale.

Leverage plays like a 21st century A-team, but instead of being a group of ex-special forces soldiers, the show draws more upon the caper, heist, and do-gooder fixer traditions of series including Mission: Impossible, Burn Notice and films like Ocean’s Eleven, among many others. The characters are a WASP-y ex-insurance claims investigator, a black geek-chic computer hacker, an Autism-spectrum super-thief, an actress who is abysmal in productions but inspired in confidence games, and a wise-cracking thug.  The actors bring enthusiasm and oddity to their characters, making sure that each character is just a couple degrees off-center for their archetype.

We’ve also been introduced to an ongoing antagonist for the characters in Jim Sterling, played by Mark “Badger” Sheppard.  Sterling is a worthy opponent for our team, having taken over in the job formerly held by Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton), the team’s leader.

One of the main reasons the show is compelling is that for all the heroes’ schemes and plotting, things keep going wrong.  They have a good idea which goes much further than intended, and then they need to come up with a new scam to un-do the earlier scam.  This scrambling and reversal forces the characters to go out of their comfort zones, improvise, and get into more trouble.

Table Talk and The Joy of Planning

The show also plays like a tabletop RPG game, unsurprising since the show and certain traditions of tabletop play draw influence from the same sources.  Each character is an expert in their niche, they have diverse and intriguing backgrounds, and most of all, they bicker and banter over planning in a way that is highly reminiscent of any number of gaming sessions where characters spend more time thinking of the plan than actually executing those plans.

And here’s the thing — in a caper/confidence game situation, the planning is one of the most fun/exciting things.  The architecture of a scam, the construction and unfolding of a human Rube Goldberg machine provides one of the main aesthetic thrills of the narrative mode which Leverage makes its home territory.

Where shows like LOST have used extended flashbacks to provide B-plots for episodes, portraying characters at different stages of their life to show character growth or lack therof, Leverage often goes for quick flashbacks to provide punchlines to jokes our to counter-point/undermine what a character is saying in the present.  Leverage‘s flashbacks are more mad-cap, and provide a fair amount of the sjow’s Over-The-Topness.

Leverage is a show to watch, and has the benefit of Prime-time cable-drama ratings expectations rather than Network Prime-Time expectations.  I doubt Leverage will ever be a big hit, but it may be able to achieve a strong following based on its quirky and compelling over-the-top caper action.

Mediating the 21st Century Geek

In case you haven’t noticed, geeks are big.  Geek culture is big, geek subculture is ascendant, being mainstreamed and both ideologically and commercially incorporated by said mainstream. This trend is not entirely positive or negative, but is complicated, like most things.

For this post, I’m going to be looking at two new TV shows that debuted during the WGA-strike-shortened 2007-2008 broadcast year.  Those shows are NBC’s Chuck and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory.  Both of these shows star characters who I call geeks, though in the shows, they are often known as nerds rather than/in addition to geeks.

First, let’s talk about geeks vs. nerds.  I’ve been reading Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People, which is a cultural studies history of the nerd.  For me, Geek and Nerd are sometimes synonymous terms which refer to substantially overlapping subculture groups.

Here’s the important overlap — Geeks and nerds are conceived of as intellectually inclined, socially mal-adjusted individuals with intense commitment to non-majoritarian hobbies.  Geeks are more associated with fandoms, computers, and media, wheras nerds are more associated with academia and scholarship.

Geeks were the kids who played Magic: the Gathering during lunch.  Nerds were the ones with their noses who spent afternoons at Science Olympiad/Academic Decathalon.  In high school, I was both a geek and a nerd, since I did all of the above.  Geek has become the more dominant term, and is also the one with the greater cultural cache at the moment, given things like Best Buy’s Geek Squad, The CW’s Beauty and the Geek, and the like.

We’ll be bouncing back and forth between nerdiness and geekiness pretty quick here, which is why I wanted to define terms before diving in.

Chuck — Meet the Lovable Geek

In Chuck, the titular character is Charles Bartowski, the head nerd of the ‘Nerd Herd’ at a ‘Buy More’ — TV-world versions of the Geek Squad from Best Buy.  Chuck was an engineering major at Stanford, but was expelled from the school due to the machinations of his former best-friend, Bryce Larkin (who also stole Chuck’s girlfriend away from him).  Five years after his expulsion, we meet Chuck in his aimless path working in the Nerd Herd and hanging out with his even-geekier friend Morgan Grimes.

Chuck is depicted in an archetypal role I’ll call the Lovable Geek.  Chuck is handsome in a goofy way (because everyone important on TV is pretty), kind and intelligent, but awkward around women who aren’t either related or under-age.  For Chuck, being a geek is about being smart and technically adept and interested in things like Batman and Dune and Call of Duty 4.  Morgan serves as a counter-point to Chuck, the Uber-Geek to Chuck’s Lovable Geek.  In Morgan, we see what Chuck could/would be if he had less social acumen.  Chuck is our protagonist geek because he is more accessible, less esoteric in his personality and interests.

The Big Bang Theory — Four Flavors of Geek

In The Big Bang Theory (shortened as TBBT) we find a similar configuration, but with more variants of the geek archetype.  The characters in TBBT are more firmly nerds than Chuck and Morgan in Chuck, but they are also most certainly geeks (they all dress up as the Flash for a halloween party, they play Talisman and Halo, they geek out about acquiring the original time machine prop from the 1960 film The Time Machine.  The four geek/nerds in TBBT are all faculty at and/or employed by Caltech.

The Lovable Geek lead in TBBT is physicist Leonard Hofstadder, PhD.  Leonard is the most socially adept of the four, and frequently acts as the group’s interpreter to the rest of the world (most frequently the neighbor Penny, who Leonard has a crush on).  Leonard and his roommate/friend Sheldon Cooper, PhD are the host for the geeky/nerdy antics of their circle of friends, including Howard Walowitz, an engineer and Rajesh Koothrappali, an astrophysicist.

Leonard’s romantic interest is Penny, a classically pretty bleach-blonde from the midwest who moves in next door to the geek/nerds.  Penny works as a waitress while trying to break in to show business, and is completely ‘Normal.’  She’s Everywoman, frequently the straight woman to the geek’s jokes.

Sheldon Cooper is the Uber-Geek for the show, manifested more properly perhas as the Uber-Nerd.  Sheldon has the highest IQ of the quartet of geniuses, and the complete social incompetance to go with it.  Sheldon is an instance of the double-edge of genius that makes it harder to communicate effectively with the rest of the world.  Sheldon was a child genius, and looks down his nose at those less intellectually capable than he.  Sheldon is the standoffish insular and hermitish geek/nerd, who pulls Leonard away from the rest of the world and more into the realm of calculations and formula and speculation.

Howard Walowitz, the engineer, is the Annoyingly Extraverted Geek.  Howard has no problem speaking to women, in fact he does so all the time, and thinks he’s awesome at it.  However, his confidence comes off as arrogance and the obvious attempts lack any natural charm.  Howard knows about charm and how it’s supposed to work, but is incapable of implementing the techniques he sees from others.

Rajesh Koothrappali is an Indian astrophysicist and the show’s Painfully Introverted Geek.  Rajesh is incapable of speaking to women without either alcohol or experimental drugs.  He represents the ethnic geek, those geeks from recently-developing countries like India, China, South Korea, etc. who are lumped in with the geek world.

Nerds and Race

At this point, I’ll interject with some of Nugent’s theory.  Nugent constructs a continum of racism with regards to nerds/jocks and ethnic stereotypes.  Nugent identifies a Animal<->Machine spectrum, where peoples of different types are conceived as being more animal-like or more machine-like.  Caucasians get to be the ‘norm’ in the middle (yay racism!) with Jocks on the animal side of average and nerds on the machine side.  Africans go further towards the ‘animal’ side due to racist conceptions of Africans and African-Americans as being more animalistic, associated with physical endeavors, etc.  Asians are opposite Africans, placed on the scale towards the Machine side, due to racist conceptions of Asians as being less feeling, more mechanistic and associated with the technical.

Looking at the Flavors

In TBBT, Leonard and Sheldon are conceived as one pair of geek types: Leonard is capable of walking in the ‘average’ world, though his intelligence and geekiness sets him apart.  Sheldon is mostly incapable of walking in the ‘average’ world, cleaving to the world of his hobbies and profession.  Howard tries to court women but is unsuccessful because his confidence is untempered by empathic understanding/skill, while Raj is a ‘great listener’ (he once gets picked up by a girl at a party without ever talking — in bed, she praises his skills as a listener.) who has a mental/emotional block to actually conversing with women.

TBBT portrays four flavors of geek, and it’s no surprise who our romantic male lead is:  Leonard makes efforts to reach out beyond the geek community in initially attempting to pursue Penny romantically, then inviting her into their social group when his initial efforts fail (and by fail, I mean fail to happen at all).  Leonard is the geek interpreter, the middle ground between Penny’s Everywoman and Sheldon’s Uber-Geek.  Normality and Geekdom seem to be portrayed as a continuum like Nugent’s Animal<->Machine spectrum.  As Leonard reaches out towards Penny, his fellow geeks see him moving away from his geek roots.  The show seems to be trying to work out the possibility of a geek dating a non-geek, reaching across the subcultural divide without losing your identity.

On the other hand, Chuck’s interest in Sarah Walker, the CIA agent assigned to protect him, is also a question of identity, but one determined by the Spy Show genre association of Chuck.  Sarah’s cover is as Chuck’s girlfriend, complicated by the fact that Chuck is interested in Sarah and suffers through the fake relationship that he wishes was real.  This shows an uncomfortableness with the world of fantasy and make-believe–of course, for Chuck’s life, the make-pretend life is the boring cover and the real life is the dangerous adventure of a James Bond film directed by Judd Apatow.  Chuck has to keep his spy identity secret from those he cares most about, his sister and his best friend.  The secret makes him closer to Sarah, and if he were to leave the spy business, it’d mean leaving her as well.

Chuck, like TBBT tells a story of a geek coming out of his shell and becoming more confident.  His sister hopes that Sarah will help Chuck regain his confidence and gain some momentum in life.  The spy experience moves Chuck from the role of geek slacker and moving towards the geek-chic Analyst/Field Agent.  It’s a kind of geek fantasy — we have to pretend we’re slackers to protect those we love because we’re actually so cool that it’s dangerous, our technical/cultural knowledge is actually highly important to the world.

California — The Land of Geeks

Another notable similarity between Chuck and The Big Bang Theory is that both shows take place in Southern California.  This makes sense, as California hosts many of the centers of geekdom — San Diego ComicCon, Silicon Valley, Hollywood.  Geeks are a predominatly urban and suburban subculture, thriving in places with a preponderance of hobby stores, technological infrastructure, and media entertainment.  A number of other big cities are also geek-tacular, like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Austin, etc.

Geeks and Cybercultural Technophobia

Why are more geeks being depicted in leading roles in mainstream TV/film?  Here’s a possible reason that you might not have thought of.  Geeks are the stand-in for the technocratic citizen of the possible future, a future where everyone is plugged-in, technically adept without trying, communicates predominantly through non-embodied media.   Ambivalence about geeks is ambivalence about technology.  Returning to Nugent’s Animal<->Machine continuum, geeks are cyborgs–with Bluetooth phones and PDA exo-cortexes, we’re becoming increasingly disentanglable from our technology, and not everyone is happy about this.  Sometimes you want to turn off your phone, put up an away message on G-mail and just go run around in the park.

Leonard is negotiating between the romantic subsection of socialization, the scary embodied world of emotions aka ‘real life’ and the insular world of technology, science, and the mind.  It’s a false Cartesian dualism, but it’s one that continues to be propagated and used as argument against cyberculture.  There’s the fear that if we rely too much on machines, become too technically adept and cybercultural that we’ll lose our humanity, and so we use geeks as the testing grounds for those possible futures, trying to see how we can use the power of technology while remaining human.  It’s cyborg identity theory with geeks as the metaphorical (and sometimes literal–I mean, Chuck has a super-computer in his brain — even though it’s all still a flesh-and-blood brain) cyborgs for society to work out its issues.  And Leonard/Sheldon/Howard/Rajesh are test cases for the different ways that becoming technocrats/scientifically adept might affect our social/emotional capabilities.

Of course, I fall on the pro-geek side, but it’s interesting to see Geekdom not only being commoditized, but also used as a testing ground for us to try to resolve our ambivalent relationship with technological development and the growing role of mediated cyberculture.

Tech, Transmedia and Geek Acceptance

In my introductory post,

http://geektheory.wordpress.com/2008/05/21/hello-world/#comments

Chad made a response with enough meat that I’ve decided to respond in a full post here.

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I’d agree that technology has changed music distribution moreso than a lot of other things, but I think it’d be unwise to dismiss other changes due to technology.

The internet has created vast opportunities for niche communities to form around interests without specific geographic boundaries. Back in the day, fan culture was an underground circuit of mimeographed fan ‘zines and the conventions. Now, fan cultural activity happens substantially (mostly?) on the internet, with vast fan fiction archives, fan vidding and re-mix culture, live forum thread discussion during episodes, and more.

One of the main lines of argument in my hypothetical future dissertation will be to trace and explain how geekdom has come into the mainstream, from a marketing perspective, from a cultural diffusion standpoint, and more. Watching four year old kids come into the Build-a-Bear workshop and get really excited about making a monkey with a Spider-Man or a Batman bear makes it very clear that many superheroes have come around again in a fashion reminiscent of Superman’s overwhelming omnipresence during the 40s, the fact that comics used to have distributions that Marvel and DC would invade small 3rd world countries to have once more.

Yes, geek culture is being tapped as a source for commoditization, but the other side of commoditization is popularization and normalization. Looking at the new tv shows from last year, a substantial proportion were based on speculative fiction premises: Pushing Daisies, Bionic Woman, Chuck, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Journeyman, Reaper, plus a number of shows from years immediately previous. As CGI and special effects become more affordable, the dramatic and cinematic opportunities of genre television became much greater. Companies are making genre shows to make money, but they’re also making <i>genre</i> shows to make money, and as a result, we’re getting more and more genre material in prime-time, where it gets exposure, seeping into the collective unconscious and changes the definition of what fantasy and sci-fi mean in the broader culture. Sci-fi means Flash Gordon, but it also means Battlestar Galactica and LOST. Used to be that SF literature fans bought every book that was published in the genre just to have more <i>stuff</i>. Now, the glut of genre lit means that we get to pick and choose and be really picky. It’s all out there, with people who wouldn’t identify as geeks spending lots of time talking about Lord of the Rings as a way to really talk about how hot they think Sean Bean and Orlando Bloom are and how hot they’d be together.

Geekdom is gaining acceptance the way anything does — slowly and almost imperceptibly. Plus, making jillions of dollars goes a long way towards getting people to listen to what you say. Peter Jackson will be able to make whatever movies he wants for quite a while, until he completely fracks up and loses people a lot of money.

As for transmedia cultural diffusion — Of course not all Buffy fans will buy the board game and CCG and RPG, but a few will, and the kind of RPGing they do will be different than other modes of RPG-ing, mostly because it’ll probably look a lot like the freeform text-based RPGs people do online. And when the transmedia storytelling requires fans of a property/world to jump between media (and here’s the important part) and does so in a fashion that is both inviting and provides good materials in the multiple media but also makes it so that the different manifestations can stand on their own, then we’ll really see the media/cultural crossover. Things like the Matrix series did the transmedia bit, but not as effectively as they aught.

I’ve watched The Big Bang Theory and had a similar response at first, but re-evaluated my opinion when I decided that there is at least as much a loving treatment of geekdom as their is subtle condemnation. This acceptance comes later in the season, when Sheldon throws Penny’s critique of Nerdmabilia back in her face re: her Hello Kitty stuff, Beanie Babies, etc. And while most of the nerd leads are exaggerations of geek stereotypes, it’s a sit-com, so exaggeration of mockable traits is part and parcel with the genre. And at the show’s heart is the promise that love may be able to grow across the seemingly vast cultural divide represented by the hallway between Leonard & Sheldon’s apartment and Penny’s. And as much as the show makes fun of geekdom, it also makes fun out of geekdom. It’s not a paragon of positive representation of geek culture, but it is a representation of geeks as dramatic leads in their own right.

Geeks are still geeks, but many geeks are also the techno-shamans of our age, the early adopters of digital culture and exist in a feedback loop of SF literature and media going back and forth with scientific and technological development. Geeks may not be the 21st century Hollywood starlets, but they are making our computers, our blockbuster movies, and our bestselling novels. Geeks have made a space for themselves, partially out of being dragged in to be marketed and partially by claiming a space for themselves as the vanguard of digital cultural development.