Whither The Whedon?

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


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.)

“I Remember When SF Was All About Straight Men Doing Stuff.”

At least, that’s my paraphrase of this essay from “The Spearhead”


Have you read that?  No?  Go back and check it out.  Take a walk or go sparring to work out your righteous fury, then come back to read.

Done?  Ok.

The essay in question is both 1) infuriating and 2) about genre fiction and society.  Which makes it a great topic for a blog post!  The essay is one of the writings from The Spearhead, a group blog designed to focus on men’s issues and men’s voices (as response to a perceived ‘cultural gap’ that has ignored men’s voices).  While I agree that part of the ‘let’s all be equal’ agenda must include an analysis of how cultural forces shape men’s perception of the world and define masculinity in a way that is exploitative of men and teaches exploitation of women — I don’t think the Spearhead writers and I agree on the nature of the problem with men’s status in society or how to address it.

The essay starts out with a bang:

“Science fiction is a very male form of fiction.  Considerably more men than women are interested in reading and watching science fiction.  This is no surprise.  Science fiction traditionally is about men doing things, inventing new technologies, exploring new worlds, making new scientific discoveries, terraforming planets, etc.  Many men working in the fields of science, engineering, and technology have cited science fiction (such as the original Star Trek) for inspiring them when they were boys to establish careers in these fields.”

This particular essay focuses on a limited definition of what ‘science fiction’ means, in a Golden Age Asimov kind of fashion, where characters were as flat as the paper they were printed on, little more than mouthpieces for expositing and resolving scientific issues.  Now don’t get me wrong — there’s some great idea work in Golden Age SF — it’s that era that helped develop SF as the Literature of Ideas.  But the genre has developed since then, it has become larger and (to me, more relevant and sophisticated.  We’ve gotten Alfred Bester and Thomas Disch, Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney and Connie Willis.

To begin with, the essay relies upon versions of masculinity that are unsurprisingly as old and outmoded as the SF they rely on.  For “Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech” — masculinity, like SF is about “men doing things, inventing new technologies, exploring new worlds, making new scientific discoveries, terraforming planets, etc.” The author references scientists who speak about being inspired by SF to move into their disciplines.  Of course I agree that  science fiction is instrumental in inspiring and encouraging scientific development.

On the other hand, it’s as if there have never been any female engineers or scientists who have never been inspired by science fiction.  And in other news, all men smoke cigars and drink scotch at work with expertly coiffed hair while wearing fedoras and the only power women have is influencing men through their sexuality while working as secretaries.  No wait, that’s Mad Men.

The author talks about the name change of SciFi as part of a feminizing trend, following the 1998 changeover when Bonnie Hammer assumed control of the channel and began courting female readers.   The 2000s era Battlestar Galactica is positioned as one of the culprits of a feminizing Sci-Fi channel, since the character of Starbuck was changed into a woman.  Strangely, it’s Starbuck the woman who is also Starbuck the cigar-smoking, hard drinking, sleeps with anything that moves.   That part is not mentioned in the essay — instead the author points to an essay by original Starbuck Dirk Benedict, bemoaning the “un-imagining” of Battlestar Galactica.

Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech also talks about the shift in programming towards fantasy and away from science fiction, because “women are more interested in the supernatural and the paranormal than men are.”  Is this supposed to be a biological pre-disposition?  The author then complains about the increasing presence of gay characters on the channel (as a death knell post-name change) — and how that means that it well be less about men doing things.  Does the set of ‘men’ exclude homosexual men in this case?

The author then cites Marvin Minsky, an AI researcher at MIT.  Minsky gives his distinction between general fiction and science fiction as such: “General fiction is pretty much about ways that people get into problems and screw their lives up. Science fiction is about everything else.”  This is a notably reductive definition to be sure, specious at best.  Where does 1984 fit in there?  Winston Smith ‘gets into problems and screws his life up,’ among many others. This depiction of science fiction as the only fiction with ‘real importance’ is an insular isolationist stance that fails to acknowledge that powerful, historically-relevant literature can occur without spaceships or advanced physics.  I like my SF and think it’s had important effects, but it’s not the only game in town, for sure.

“The War on Science Fiction and Marvin Minsky” is representative of the perspective of someone within the world of SF fandom, a part that exists and continues to proceed despite the fact that the mainstream has moved away from them.  Analog Science Fiction and Fact is often noted as the home of this mode of SF, and the magazine continues as it has for decades, admirable for its continuity.  I think we need the scientifically rigorous aspect of speculative fiction, the part that refuses to use handwavium to solve its problems just to get to the point and instead interrogates the ways that the possible could become reality.  Hard SF may not be for me, but it’s an important part of the genre.

A lack of hard science doesn’t automatically make a science fiction story into melodrama.  And I certainly don’t think that either scientific rigor or the science fiction genre is or should be part-and-parcel with outdated gender norms, homophobia and misogyny.

Dollhouse Renewed: Fox Spared Whedonites’ Wrath

Variety.com and i09.com are reporting that FOX has renewed Whedon’s Dollhouse for a second season (information points at another 13-episode season order, and staying on the Friday timeslot).

This means that Whedon’s declaration about swearing off television in exchange for doing internet-based work will probably wait for a little while longer, though Joss has been known to have more than a few projects at any one time.

Execs apparently enjoyed the last couple of episodes (as I did), and were convinced by strong DVR/TiVo numbers and the unaired “Epitaph One” as proof that the show could run on a smaller budget.

No word on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, its Friday night mate. While Dollhouse can run on a smaller budget, Terminator requires CGI/elaborate makeup cyborgs, and may not fare as well, despite/because of its willingness to break format/formula and experiment with structure.

Review: Star Trek

After a long hiatus, the Star Trek franchise returns with the J.J. Abrams-directed re-launch film, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.

Following a Ultimates-kind of model (Marvel’s re-imagining re-launch of classic Marvel properties such as Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men), the new film takes the chance to re-introduce the classic characters of the original series in a way that allows for new growth and storytelling less bound by decades of continuity.

Star Trek is commonly known for its sociological SF slant, but this film is a pure character study. We follow James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) through their pre-histories and their paths through youth into adulthood and the foundation of their friendship. Pine succeeds in capturing the swagger and cunning of Kirk without hamming it up too much, and Quinto’s Spock excels at displaying the conflict between his Vulcan and Human sides. Each member of the cast had the chance to shine in their area, but were also depicted as vulnerable and imperfect.

The design aesthetic for the new Star Trek is the love child of Apple and the new Battlestar Galactica. It’s shiny on top and gritty on the bottom, combining the dirty functionality with the pristine shine. The future is not white-washed or sterile, but it does have the shine of optimism. The graphics were breathtaking, re-capturing the ‘Sense of Wonder’ mode of SF visuals which has been so central to the genre’s cultural impact.

Eric Bana’s Nero is a singularly driven villain who, along with Spock, ties together the plot twists that give us the new continuity. Nero may not go down as one of the franchise’s best villains, but he was compelling in his own right.

The pacing was tight, with slow moments spaced out here and there to give moments for character notes, but the majority of the film was an unrelenting roller coaster ride.

Star Trek is an exciting, accessible, fast-paced character-heavy film that requires no substantial knowledge of the franchise to enjoy, but is clearly a part and doing homage to the long-established Star Trek universe. Critical acclaim and likely box-office success mean that a sequel following the same continuity is very likely, and may also provide support for a new Star Trek television series. Heroes producer and Pushing Daisies creator Brian Fuller has already expressed strong interest in helming such a property, and with the ending of Battlestar Galactica, the role of ‘Best SF show on TV’ is open for competition once more.

Final verdict: Go see it. See it if you’re a Trekker, a casual fan, a SF aficionado, or if you just want a fun two hour ride of a film.

The Matrix: 10 Years Later

On March 31st, 10 years ago, a film called The Matrix hit movie theatres and took the film industry/pop culture world by storm. It lead to copy-cats in content, style, and in technology (The Matrix‘s ‘Bullet-cam’ became the ‘effect to do’ for the first several years of the 21st century in action movies)

It was lauded for its originality, but really, it was a combination of a plethora of influences and cultural properties which helped/help define a generation (Gen X, as the creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski). It was Hong Kong cinema made in the US, it was a live-action anime, it was pop-philosophy and comparative religion, it was cyberpunk and a blockbuster film all rolled up into one.

Transmedia Storytelling

It also launched one of the more successful transmedia properties of the last decade, as indicated by its use as an example in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture chapter “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling)” (Jenkins 2006).

The Matrix universe has grown from one cultural work to include three films, a collection of animated shorts (The Animatrix), several video games (Enter The Matrix, The Matrix: The Path of Neo), including a MMO (The Matrix Online), comic books (The Matrix Comics), and a variety of merchandising tie-ins.

As Jenkins says,

The Wachowski Bros. played the transmedia game very well, putting out the original film to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fan’s hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the video game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game. Each step along the way built on what has come before, while offering new points of entry. (Jenkins, 2006).

In the hands of fans

An intrinsic part of successful transmedia storytelling is the creation of a setting that is generative of many stories. The premise of the Matrix allows for a nearly limitless number of stories to be told in a number of genres (A Detective Story is much more in line with the look and feel of Film Noir, whereas “Program” is steeped in samurai action (Chanbara). Since the Matrix itself is a programmed shared universe, it can be modified to fit different desires and perspectives. Why is it that Detective’s Ash world looked so different than Neo’s world? It’s not difficult to read in the possibility that there are/were a number of servers, with different settings (a noir world, a cyberpunk world, etc.) But even without having to fill in the gaps of the setting by making these readings, there are many different places for a number of stories. This allows for fan creativity to enter into the picture, another essential part of a vibrant transmedia property.

The Wachowskis/WB can lay out the official path of transmedia cultural flow between games and films and comics, but if transmedia storytelling universes are maps, there is space beside the roads and outside the buildings in addition to those official pathways and locations. There is always room for fan-fiction, other games, fan art, vidding, and much more.

I remember playing a home-brewed Matrix table-top roleplaying game the summer of 1999, a game designed by friends so that we could tap into the awesomeness of the Matrix setting, even drawn in as limited a fashion as it was when the only data point was the original film. The mythology/setting of the Matrix had proven compelling enough to lead us to make our own ways to interact with the Matrix universe on our own terms, when not provided with an official outlet. A smart transmedia author/creator will encourage this informal/unofficial play/interaction, as it inevitably leads fans/customers back to the official parts, the ones that convert into sales.

Benefits of the transmedia approach

Unofficial transmedia play is free advertising. It keeps fans thinking about the property and shows/develops their level of involvement and investment. The more you play in the world of the matrix, the more it can matter, and so the more you will continue to play, and the more you will reach out to others to join you.

The Matrix universe was far from the first transmedia storytelling venture. George Lucas’ Star Wars had become comics, video games, action figures, trivia games, board games, memorabilia and more decades before The Matrix. However, The Wachowskis & Co. did utilize new media technologies and digital cultural socialization to further its popularity with a strong online presence. The Matrix Comics were first shared online, and preview videos of the Animatrix were available exclusively on the web before the DVD release.

A transmedia approach also allows a cultural property to become a franchise, with film, television, comics, video games, and other media to be tied in, allowing a tv show to reach out to video gamers and to comics readers, building its fan base with every new node in the transmedia map.

Other properties since have followed the transmedia model, but we can remember The Matrix property as one of the most commercially successful examples in recent memory. While opinions on the 2nd and 3rd films vary wildly, it is hard to deny the economic success and cultural impact of the Matrix property, and much of that is due to a transmedia storytelling and marketing approach.

Review — Done The Impossible

Once upon a time, there was a show called Firefly.  It had fan-favorite Joss Whedon at the helm and a distinct view of the future, a western-flavored future that wasn’t about the people in the shiny organized space ships.  Instead, it focused on the people on the edge, misfits and outcasts.

It was plagued from nearly the beginning by interference from executives, and was canceled in less than a season.

But the fans were not done with the world of Firefly, nor were those involved in its creation.

Done the Impossible is a documentary that tells the story of the Firefly/Serenity-verse, through the lens of fans of the ‘verse.  The documentary is not for the unitiated, instead, it is itself a work of fandom, a gift from a team of Firefly fans (Browncoats) to the community.  With narrations from fans, cast & crew, Done the Impossible talks about the show, the time between Firefly and Serenity, and then the arrival of the film.

In years past, I’d thought that a combined ethnographic/cultural studies analysis of Browncoats would make a good book-lenth project.  I still do, as Done the Impossible has not already done that work.  I’m not very involved with Firefly fandom myself — I watched the series the first time around and told my friends, then sent my DVD set to make its way throughout my friends groups.  But I did not partake in much if any of the intense and highly active grassroots campaigning and guerilla marketing that is discussed in the film.  In this case, I would have the positionality of being one of ‘the Browncoats’ without being as much of an insider as with other groups.

Firefly fandom is intriguing in that we can look at it and confidently say that it was the fans’ efforts which led to the creation of Serenity.  Creator Joss Whedon repeated a line from the series at the first of the Serenity early screenings:

“We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty.”

The line is the source of the documentary’s title, and has become a rallying cry for Browncoats, a reminder of the power of guerilla marketing and grassroots fan activity.

There have been ‘Save my favorite show’ campaigns before, but while the Browncoats’ efforts didn’t bring back the show on TV, since its cancellation, Firefly has had two comic series, a tabletop role-playing game line, a major motion picture, and continues to have a strong and active fan-base.  Browncoats continue to host ‘shindigs’ and other events, sharing their passion of a show that like its namesake, shone brightly, went dim, and then shone again just as briefly.

Don’t look to Done the Impossible for an introduction to Firefly, or even as an ethnographic work explicating fandom in general.  It is a specialized work done from within a fan community for that fan community.  If you’re already one of the flock, then pull out your Browncoat, pour some Mudder’s Milk, and join in the geek-fest.

Another, post-review note, about positionality:   There are many ways to be a fan within a community, different degrees of engagement.  To use Firefly as an example — there are people who watched Firefly and liked it.  There are people who consider themselves fans, but don’t necessarily identify with the Browncoat movement.  Then there are any number of different levels and types of involvement within the Browncoats, from fan-fiction to convention organizing to costuming to fan art to role-playing games to podcasting to guerilla marketing and more.  These people are all members of the fan community to different degrees.  There are a lot of ways to be a fan, within one fandom and across many fandoms.  This becomes readily evident at any general convention, where fans move between groups to share their passion for shows, games, films, comics, and more.

For a fan-scholar, you’re never going to be as into everything as the people you interview/work with.  I may be able to speak most of the dialects of geek (video gamer, comics geek, anime otaku, role-player), but in any given situation, I can’t assume I know more about a fandom than anyone I’m talking to.  They get to exercise mastery of knowledge as a result of their involvement, and in turn, I exercise my status as a scholar and serve to represent fans to members of another community, that of the scholars (who may or may not be fans).  Scholarship in fan studies has always been in an interesting state, given that there are well-established and vibrant fan scholars who may not have the same academic credentials but do similar work.

Questions of power, authority, agency and positionality are never far from any ethnographic study, even moreso in fan studies and media studies.  Scholars are accountable to the public and should always be aware of their cultural power — even though we are a part of the panopticon like everyone else.

Dollhouse “Target” — This is more like it.

Dollhouse’s second episode (third if you count the ill-fated pilot, which since I haven’t seen it, I’m not) “Target” guest-stars “The Middleman” Matt Kesslar as a hardcore outdoorsmen/hunter who engages Echo to be his Perfect Outdorswoman Girlfriend who he rafts with, climbs with, teaches to shoot, sleeps with, then chases across the wilderness trying to kill her.

“Target” was a great improvement over “Ghost” for me, and while it was just as packed as the pilot, it flowed better, was less over-burdened by exposition, despite the fact that it featured Boyd (Echo’s handler)’s introduction to the Dollhouse and explained what happened to Alpha, presumably the first of the Actives in the Dollhouse (given that the Dolls named sofar follow the NATO phonetic alphabet — Alpha, Echo, Sierra).

There’s some creepy-touching bonding between Echo and Boyd, as well as quickly moving towards the ‘Echo’s multiple lives smashing together’ point, which for Alpha was called a ‘Composite Event’ also known as Very Bad.

The episode had more Whedon-esque dialogue, like Topher’s quip to Langdon — Anything for you. Because I love you. Deep, deep man love.”

Or Not-Middleman’s “Is this the best date ever, or what?”

“Target” also features a welcome move with Agent Ballard investigating the events of “Ghost” — if Echo’s assignments become Ballard’s bread-crumb trail, the events of previous episodes stay relevant rather than being one-off engagements that are forgotten once Echo’s memories are wiped.  By having both Ballard and Langdon as POV characters on the series while Echo lacks subjectivity/self-awareness, we get a variety of views on the Dollhouse and the lives of Actives — Boyd’s already forged a personal connection with Echo (which I’d argue goes beyond the individual person she became for the episode, as she’s already compositing and going beyond the personality matrix she’s been programmed with).

The recurring theme of Echo’s adventures on assigment involve overcoming victimization and finding inner strength, which I imagine will be shown as a resurgence of Caroline’s personality or the center for Echo’s emergent individuation.

“Target” gives me more hope for Dollhouse from a critical standpoint, though the premise is still very tricky and much of Whedon’s trademark patter and cleverness is subdued moreso than in Firefly or others.  And even if it does manage to deliver more consistently, I’m not sure it’ll last past the initial order ratings-wise.

We shall see.

Escape From City-17 Part One

The Purchase Brothers have released the first episode of a Half-Life 2 fan video Escape From City-17.

Episode 1:

Now that you’ve watched it — here’s the really impressive part — the first two episodes were made on $500. It’s a marvel how far you can get when people work for the love.

The video liberally uses effects and designs from the video game to great effect (which also serves to make the production cheaper) — the flatline sounds for the Combine Police, the gun FX, and re-works the computer effects of the tripods and Combine ships.

We’ve seen only a bit of characterization so far, but the premise provides more than enough narrative momentum for now.

Escape From City-17 is one of a growing number of professional-level fan videos which, through new media outlets such as YouTube, serve as a training and proving ground for up-and-coming directors/animators/actors. It’s a formula already proven by Felicia Day’s The Guild, LonelyGirl15, etc. Escape From City-17 is additionally impressive due to the effects involved. Rather than having to move to LA (or an equivalent film center–I’m going to speak from a USA perspective) and spend years trying to break in, creators can make their own works, distribute and advertise via YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, etc., and some of them break through. The chance of success may not be any better than breaking in by going to LA, but the opportunity cost is much less, as it doesn’t force creators to up-root and move across the country/world.

This is only the first episode, so we have more coming. The Purchase Brothers have already been in contact with Valve, so I imagine we will see much more from this team.

A Critique of Pure Whedon

On February 13th, we will be introduced to Joss Whedon’s newest television series, Dollhouse.

I’ll be watching it, for my own interest as a general fan of his work, but also to discover if Whedon is able to get out of his rut.  I’ve been a fan since the first season of Buffy, continued on with Angel, and am one of approximately 37 members of the Original Flock (also known as people who watched Firefly on FOX during its original run).  The Church of Firefly now sports many thousand devotees, whose rankings might as well be determined by the number of DVD-loaning-genertions one is removed from the original TV run).  I’m a Whedon fan through-and-through.  But it is a natural part of subcultural fandom to critique that which we love.  One could say that Indie Rock fan culture is entirely composed of such critique (or that might just be my intense reading of Questionable Content speaking).

In addition to developing a reputation as one of the poets laurate for Geek Culture, Joss Whedon, writer of witty banter, producer of an ongoing line of bad-ass skinny super-powered adolescents/young adults, has become painfully predictable in his approach to romantic relationships.

Whedon’s ouvre spans over a dozen seasons of television, dozens of issues of comics, several films, and a troublesome through-line.

In Joss Whedon’s universe, happiness in romantic relationships is inevitably followed by catastrophic death/dismemberment/disaster.

Let’s do a quick roll-call of Whedon’s Greatest Relationship Hits — I won’t be pulling any spoiler punches here, so stand ready:

Buffy/Angel — Fated Doomed Lovers.  A Slayer and a Vampire, it really is poetic.  And ended the first time with Buffy stabbing Angel through the heart and shoving him into a hell dimension just as his soul was restored to him.  Ended the second time when Angel moped off to LA to get his own show.  Failed to start again when Buffy fell in love with Spike.

Xander/Anya — A strange-but-stable relationship ended by cold feet and then kept from re-uniting by a random death in the Buffy finale because, from a dramatic standpoint, a heroic finale isn’t powerful enough unless someone dies.

Zoe/Wash — Happily married, not without their issues, but those issues proved that you can portray a happy long-term relationship realistically and still have it be interesting.  Or it did, until Wash took a Reaver-spear through the middle after having his Big Damn Hero moment.

Colossus/Shadowcat — Pete comes back from the dead and Kitty comes back from being a bartender so they can have a joyous reunion, only so that Kitty can be killed off in the Only-Uncle-Ben-Stays-Dead Marvel universe.

Cordy/Angel — Cordelia Chase, who wins the award for Buffyverse character who has the greatest amount of actual character development (barely beating out Wesley), finally achieves something resembling a happy relationship with Angel before being possessed, killed, returned, then ascending, only to return to bid farewell to Angel.

Fred/Wesley — The sexy and badass nerds of Angel finally get together, only to have Fred hollowed out by a Hell Goddess and used as a vessel.  Strangely, the romance continues with Illyria messing with Wesley’s head in ways that alternate between poignant and sadistic.

Dr. Horrible/Penny — Not that it was hard to see this one coming, given the whole Supervillain thing, but Penny’s death serves as a almost self-referential response to criticism of Whedon’s tendencies.

Most if not all of these dramatic twists make sense within the context of their narratives.  What is troubling is not that any one of those romances ended in PAINDEATHDRAMA! instead of Happily Ever After, but that Whedon’s ouvre seems to intimate that PAINDEATHDRAMA is the inevitable fate of any and all romances.

Certainly, we have a proponderance of narratives that pat us on the head and say ‘Everything will be alright, you’ll meet the right person and it will be beautiful!’, but appreciating and recommending Whedon’s work is harder to do when you take his Love Interest in Refrigerators approach to writing romance.  In discussions of his own work, Whedon is fairly clear that he prefers to show the nuance and darkness in the world, wrapping darkness in a comfy hoodie of whimsy and witty one-liners, but it’s making him into a three-trick pony — and one of those tricks involves the rider getting thrown and stomped to death.

The result of this prediliction is that any savvy viewer/reader would have to approach all of his stories knowing “No matter how much I want these people to get together, if they do, it will probably in one of them getting killed/possessed/turned evil/mauled” — which induces a level of self-aware viewing that can work at counter-purposes with immersing yourself in a show and enjoying it on its own terms.

It’s gotten to the point where the ending of any given romance in a Whedon property seems to have become predictable, which is not something that an artist devoted to developing their art wants to be.  Ask M. Night Shyamalan, who has watched his star fade as he delivers “twist” endings one after another.

So I’ll be watching Dollhouse, but I might as well put my money on Dushku and Penikett’s character’s getting together and then something horrible coming along like clockwork to end the relationship and/or Penikett’s character’s life.  And any relationships between secondary characters are not only just as likely to end in PAIN, but they’re also fairly likely to end in character death.

I’d love for Whedon to prove me wrong.  I’d enjoy his work even more, then, which is saying a lot, because he speaks loud-and-clear to my aesthetic.

2007-2008 TV season post-mortem

Here’s a mostly comprehensive of the scripted shows I watched this last year and my commentary.  More in-depth hashing out of individual shows will likely follow soon.

Pushing Daisies

I watched the pilot to this early, sometime last summer, and expected to cherish the four or so episodes I’d get of it before it got canceled for being quirky, brilliant, and completely unappealing to the majority of TV audiences. Instead, it received rave reviews and had sufficient ratings to earn a full season order early on and then a second season order by the time the short season was done. It would have only been more miraculous if it had been on FOX (for that miracle, see the Terminator comments).

Pushing Daisies takes Bryan Fuller (of Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls)’s quirky morbidity and brings to life the most believable and charming contemporary faerie-tale/folk tale aesthetic that I’ve seen on TV. The omniscient VO narrator should be annoying, trite. But luckily narrator Jim Dale could read the phone book and make it charming. The writing is smart and distinctive, with turns of phrase and repetitions and other elements of a consistent voice that lends to the show’s appeal. The romantic dynamic between leads Lee Pace and Anna Friel provide the ongoing subplot for the series while the duo plus unabashedly profit-centric detective Chi McBride solve murder mysteries in order to collect the rewards, using Lee Pace’s gift for re-animating the dead.

If you are a fan of Fuller’s other work, like faerie tales, appreciate quirky murder mysteries, or have a soul whatsoever, give this one a try.


It’s getting crowded in the police procedural world, what with your CSIs and your NCISes and such. Life sets itself apart from the pack by using an ongoing mystery (Who framed the lead character, and why?) to provide a backdrop for the weekly mysteries solved by leads Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) and Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi). Crews is a police officer who was falsely imprisoned for 12 years, then released with a huge-and-undisclosed cash settlement and a job as a detective. His partner Reese is a disgraced former undercover agent trying to get back in the driver’s seat of her own life.

But really, the best part of Life is that Crews was saved from going mad/evil in solitary confinement by turning to Zen Buddhism, thanks to his lawyer, played by Brooke Langton. He approaches his investigations with an uncommon and charming perspective, focusing on intuition, reading people, and questioning common convention. All of this goes on while he struggles to keep his cool while investigating the conspiracy that put him in jail. Damian Lewis puts in marvelous performances, and the ongoing arc shows the ways in which shows are learning to balance a LOST-inspired long-term mystery while maintaining tension episode-by-episode so that casual viewers can hop in and enjoy.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

This show was supposed to suck. Easy money said that it’d be a trite, second-rate attempt to cash in on a once-successful franchise. Terminator’s technophobia is soo late 20th century, I mean, seriously! Fans were lining up to get their hate on.

Too bad for them that the show is awesome. Lena Headey is a powerful and compelling Sarah Connor, a rival to Linda Hamilton’s portrayal according to some. Thomas Dekker, beloved as almost-certainly-gay sidekick Zach to cheerleader Claire in Heroes turns in a strong performance as the young John Connor, coming into his own as a warrior and a leader. And Summer Glau, while in danger of being typecast, is a fine counter-point to Arnold’s oversized overbearing menace as Cameron, an advanced terminator sent back from the future to protect John Connor. The show is true to the tone and material of the first two Terminator films, and completely ignores the plot of the third while stealing some of the more useful material. Brian Allen Greene shows up later on, and surprises those who knew only his 90210 teen-heartthrob-y-ness by being solid-to-good.

In addition to the fact that this show was supposed to suck, it was also supposed to get canceled right away once people discovered it was awesome. SF/F fans mumbling something about a space western are prickly around FOX and genre shows, but this time around the people calling the shots had their brains on straight and were paying attention to the opportunity they had in bringing the show in during the no-new-scripted-shows drought of the WGA strike, and pushed the HELL out of the show as it was starting up, to great success. The first season only got 9 episodes, but in that time they established a good serial rhythm with building plots, continuous tension and interesting character development, especially with regards to Cameron’s emotional development/learning and the 4th dimensional war being fought between future John Connor and Skynet.

Also, it had the 2nd best use ever of a Johnny Cash song in the film/tv medium, implementing “The Man Comes Around” in the season finale to remind us all how much of inexorable juggernauts Terminators really are.

The Big Bang Theory

The first time around, I didn’t like this show. I watched the pilot and took it as comedy making fun of geeks/nerds without the core of compassion for the subculture(s) that is necessary to not offend me. I allowed myself to be convinced to give the show another try, and found that over time, the show finds the right balance between laughing at nerds for being different and laughing about nerdy things because they’re funny.

This show, with a catchy theme song from the Barenaked Ladies (major geek cred, there), stars four nerdy geeks who work as faculty at USC—in physics, engineering, and whatever Raj actually does. Johnny Galecki is the romantic lead male as Dr. Leonard Hofstadter, who is the most socially capable of the gang, alongside neurotic super-genius Dr. Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and their buddies, would-be-ladies’ man engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), who can’t speak around women without alcohol or experimental drugs.

Their nerdy equilibrium is shattered when blonde beauty Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves in next door. Penny is an average gorgeous woman who moved out from the Midwest to start an acting career and ended up moving in next to Leonard and Sheldon. Leonard is instantly enamored, and the season unfolds as Leonard negotiates between his crush and his friendship with Penny while she acclimates to the area while learning how to understand and befriend the clatch of socially-awkward geniuses.

The show’s stance on the maturity/lack therof regarding geekdom/nerdiness isn’t exactly revolutionary, it refuses to outright condemn the nerds/geeks, and over the season builds towards a bridging of the cultural gap between everywoman Penny (TV everywoman, that is, ie super-hot) and the nerdy quartet.


Oh, LOST. You lost your way in season three, then found it once more thanks to Desmond “Ulysses” Hume and a realization that while the slashers and shippers love the Jack/Sawyer/Kate triangle, the rest of the audience wants to know what the frack is up with the island.

Season four brings us to a crossroads, with flash-forwards to some of the survivors off the island juxtaposed with the arrival of a mysterious freighter of would-be rescuers who of course turn out to have their own agenda with the island.

LOST season four continues to develop Benjamin Linus as one of the best TV villains of the era, and does a much better job of moving forward the plot and explaining things about the island even as the questions continue to pile up.

How I Met Your Mother

I was actually expecting this to be the last season of the show. A lot of the momentum of the third season seemed to be of the ‘lets get things settled so we can wrap up’ variety, but there’s at least one more season to go, wherin I imagine we’ll see the dynamic of the five friends change around once again as they move from being the people of first season towards the versions Older Ted speaks of them speaking to his children. Barney really gets to shine in this season, and we see Lilly and Marshall dealing with the conflicts of being young married adults trying to make it on their own, while Ted flails about trying to find The One.


A lot of shows have a moment that serves as the hook, the moment where you turn to your friend and realize that ‘Holy crap, this is going to be good.’

Chuck’s moment comes before the end of the teaser of the pilot episode when Chuck’s former roommate drops to the floor to the caption of ‘Bryce Larkin – Not an accountant’

Chuck (Zachary Levi) is a mid-twenty-something slacker geek who works at the BuyMore (Best Buy)’s Nerd Herd (Geek Squad) with his best friend, the even-geekier Morgan (Joshua Gomez). He has a loving and supportive sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster), who is dating fellow doctor Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin). Chuck opens an e-mail from former roommate Larkin and inadvertently downloads the entire coded contents of the NSA/CIA data intersect. This makes Chuck a human computer in possession of national security secrets. CIA agent hottie Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) and stone-cold badass NSA killer John Casey (Adam Baldwin) are assigned as his handlers, and the show follows Chuck trying to keep his life together while acting as an unlikely secret agent when he gets flashes of the intersect’s information.

The show’s appeal is in its charming humane depiction of the characters, who all grow and react in a way that transcends the easy formula (even when the plot actually follows formula). Sarah’s cover is as Chuck’s girlfriend, which is complicated by the fact that Chuck is actually falling for Sarah and Sarah has commitment/job issues regarding former partners. The supporting cast of Morgan, Ellie, Captain Awesome and the other characters of the Buy More lift the show above where it might otherwise settle, and the show is at its strongest when both the Spy and Buy More elements of the story are running on all cylinders.

The show probably has a built-in expiration date, as eventually Chuck will learn how to be a competent agent and be no longer the fish-out-of-water slacker geek. But as long as they keep the balance right and stay true to the characters, it’ll be a great ride.

Bionic Woman

The remake of Bionic Woman was supposed to be this big thing from BSG co-executive producer David Eick. Take the popular 70s girl-cyborg-power show and re-do it in a contemporary setting with a new gloss and the Battlestar treatment.

It flopped. Michelle Ryan was uninspired and bland as Jaime Sommers, the writing never really clicked, and the hidden darkness paramilitary world-saving group angle just didn’t work for me. Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar fame provided some edgy menace as cracked first bionic woman, but the show just never really came together. Think of this as the failed counterpoint to Terminator, showing how you do and don’t make a super-enhanced ass-kicking female character work in a TV show.


CW favorite Supernatural continued to deliver solid road-trip action-horror goodness, but also faltered some due to the fact that the network noticed the show’s popularity and did you guess what — Pandered.

PANDERING IS BAD! Write for your audience, sure, but there’s a clear distinction in most cases between knowing your audience so you can write for them and trying to cash in on demographic desires. The introduction of Bella and Ruby was an attempt to put more of a female presence into the show, but neither of the characters registered with (many) fans the way I imagine CW brass intended them to. Each added to the dynamic of the season, and ended up as not quite the characters you imagined them to be, but their addition felt blatant, sometimes forced, when really all you need to make the show great is putting Sam and Dean in a room together and have them be brothers while kicking ass.

The metaplot kicks into high gear in season three, evolving the mythology in cool ways that make the moral landscape of the show even more gray. The ending of the season was the right kind of infuriating cliffhanger, the one that makes you demand the following season immediately.


Heroes was last season’s ‘OMG this show is actually good, and popular too?’ genre hit, and it had a not-insignificant sophomore slump, exacerbated by the writer’s strike. Instead of keeping the Heroes together as a nascent super-team, they split up again and return to a status-quo while secrets about the previous generation of supers emerges, Hiro galavants around in feudal Japan and Peter Petrelli gets a much-needed haircut and a much-less-needed Irish damsel in distress girlfriend.

Adam Monroe makes a great character, and the Hiro in Japan stuff was wonderful, but there was the stench of pandering on some of the plotlines, as well as some serious duds in others – the Wonder Twins plotline turned out to be little more than a vehicle for another character’s arc, and not really in a good way.

The show also continued to slip into objectionable ideology regarding people of color, though it also snuck in some encouraging queerness with the Mohinder/Matt Parkman/Molly family unit.

Heroes has lost some of its luster, but it gave us some very strong episodes and I’m hoping Kring trusts his own voice (and that of Loeb and his other staff) more than thinking he needs to pander to the loudest fans’ voices. I’m all for interplay between creator and fans, but, y’know, done well.

Though, really, just keep putting Masi Oka into dangerous and funny situations so he can say things like ‘Gureto Sukotto!’ and I’ll be there until the show gets canned.


I imagine that in the future of media studies, we’ll look back at the 2007-2008 season and talk about the effect of the WGA strike on shows, which ones survived because of or despite of the strike, which shows were killed by it. Despite the drama on the production side, several gems managed to emerge from the mass, and get enough notice to earn themselves a second-season chance. And that at least is encouraging, especially considering the continuing success of some Spec Fic shows, even as the networks try to re-hash every tired trope they can get their hands on trying to replicate Battlestar Galactica and/or LOST.