A Geek’s Insider View of the Publishing Industry Pt. 1

Since I’ve been doing my job as a sales representative for a year and a half now, and I continue to get to explain what it is I do, I thought I’d do a series of posts here about my view of the publishing industry, centered on the ‘what I do in my job’ aspects, but also covering things like eReaders, agents/copyright/publication, and so on. For this series I will rapidly switch between my professional hat and my writer hat.

Item the first: Who I’m talking about — I sell to independent bookstores, museum stores, book wholesalers, and some specialty accounts (in a category we call ‘special sales’). My accounts range from online-only children’s bookstores to local mom and pop bookstores to small chain bookstores. My business is, these days, a very small percentage of the overall book business. Independent bookstores (as in not Borders, Barnes & Noble, Amazon or the chain Books-a-Million) comprise only 8-15% of the book business these days. The big money is in fact in the chains and Amazon/online retailers, and more and more in eReaders and the electronic book market. What is important about the independent bookstores is both the local business aspect and the fact that the indies have a strong effect on award recognition and reviews.

What this means, though, is the fact that the people who do my job for Amazon, B&N and Borders are incredibly important and can have a strong effect on a book’s potential. In the book biz, we call these accounts the ‘major accounts’ or ‘national accounts’ — and therefore one can be a ‘major account rep’ which grants a large degree of cache because your company has trusted you with handling a crucial part of the business.

Given that I’m still relatively new (especially compared to people who have been reps for 20+ years), I’m not yet selling to the major accounts, but I do have my own specialties which I have developed to help push our business the best I can. One of the ways I do this is by assisting buyers with social media — this will deserve to be its own post, later on. The other thing I do is take the lead for our Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror publishers, which will also be its own post.

So who are the people at these bookstores? Many of my accounts have been in business for 20+ or 30+ years, and some have become inter-generational now, with the business being handed down or partially run by the younger generation within their family. Some stores are newer, open for a handful of years and one account that opened just this fall — proving that there is more than one trajectory for indies. Most of my buyers are women between the ages of 30 and 65. I have some male buyers but I’d say they are less than 1/3 of my account’s buyers. As a rule, my buyers are tremendously bright, very well-educated, and left-leaning (sometimes notably left-leaning compared to their area). It’s been fantastic to get to know these people who are on the ground-level, selling books in the trenches and doing their best to get good books in people’s hands. They’ve got a combined cache of experience that would fill the Library of Alexandria, and I’ve really enjoyed learning from them.

Many of my accounts are also closely connected to their local school districts, buying children’s books and/or educational materials to sell to educators as a group or individually. This means that my children’s books are an essential part of my business and by selling them, I know that I’m part of enriching the education of kids across the midwest (which warms my heart).

My independent bookstores range in size from hole-in-the-wall to old houses filled with books, bookstores in malls, and bookstore/specialty stores in tourist towns, and more. Each store has its own demographic based on their location and based on the readership which they court. Two bookstores across the town from one another can have wholly different readerships based on their focus as a store as well as their location within a town.

In addition to the indies, I also sell to some museum stores, which is fun because then I get to hang out in the museums/gardens/exhibits. I also sell to some wholesalers — wholesalers buy the books on a higher discount and then re-sell to their own list of retail customers. Some wholesalers are the clearing house for a set of bookstores, some are notably different (one account is a re-binder, that buys paperback children’s books, re-binds them into hardcovers and sells them to libraries), and each of them requires a different approach for selling.

One of the things I had to learn most quickly about this job is how important flexibility and adaptation are to my success. I can have my general strategy, but to get the best orders I can and most effectively serve my accounts, I try to filter the material to present the books with the best potential for the market while also probing to see where there is other demand or where there have been difficulties that are facing a category (‘travel books don’t sell for me anymore’).

Many people are in a gloom-and-doom mode about independent booksellers, but I think that it’s premature at worst and mere anxiety at best. But that’s a whole other can of worms.

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).

Review: V — “Pilot”

I was too young to watch/remember the original V miniseries/ongoing series, but I learned the basic premise growing up as a geek.  I’ll be talking about stuff that constitutes as spoilers, but not really, as ABC is foregrounding the ‘Big Sekrit!’ of the V’s identity even in the previews.  Most of what I’ll talk about is the not-hard-to-find Vs = Obama reading.

The leader of the Vs is played by Morena Baccarin, a Brazillian woman whose looks are easily pushed past beauty to the edge of the uncanny valley, her mixed-ethnicity background easily positioned as ‘exotic’ from a US-American gaze.  All of the Vs who are seen in the public eye would count as attractive, and even in the pilot, the Vs are leveraging attractiveness into manipulation (one sub-plot features the FBI-Agent lead’s son being attracted to a female V played by Laura “Supergirl” Vandervoort).

The Pilot episode gets all the way to the ‘Vs are actually Lizards and trying to take over the world’ stage, with Elizabeth “LOST Juliette” Mitchell and Joel “4400” Gretsch as FBI Agent and Pastor who are witness to a V attack on a word-of-mouth group spreading word of the Vs’ real agenda.

A note — unless you go in looking for the Obama = V reading, it may be rather easy to miss/not think of it.  It’s not that the show pounds you over with it.  The show’s pacing is strong (stronger than the original miniseries in the equivalent section that I watched), and goes quickly to the ‘The Vs are tricking people, time to fight back!’ stage of the story, where our two adult leads will develop a resistance, with assistance from another lead — how quickly he’ll connect with the group is hard to tell.  Interpersonal conflict will come from the FBI Agent’s son getting deeper in bed (literally) with the Vs and refusing to accept mom’s warnings/explanations of the V’s villainy.  This is exacerbated by the fact that until the resistance can get a V corpse to show the lizard under-parts, they don’t have a very strong case.

It was great to see Alan Tudyk in the show, though I don’t think he’s listed as a full series regular.  He brought a great balance of seriousness and levity to the show, remind us how awesome an actor he is (as if we needed any more reminding after “Briar Rose/Alpha” in Dollhouse.

The new version of V seems to be written and executed in a way that invites an anti-Obama reading. The rhetoric of the pilot episode includes mentions of Hope!  Change!  Universal Health Care! and features a charismatic leader of mixed ethnicity.  There’s an interesting degree to which this version of V is a dream come true for the Fox News Opinion Show crew.  Many of the most outrageous fears about Obama are made manifest in the series — The Vs come with a message of hope and change, with people flocking to them, clamoring to be saved.  The Vs insinuate themselves into people’s hearts, but are secretly not who they say they are and will take over and destroy the world.

Basically, the premise reads like an unused script from the Glenn Beck show with space-lizards instead of Chairman Mao.  The show’s basic premise is much as it was in the 80s series (as far as I know/have read), but it just goes to show that as times change, a story can remain more or less the same but be read very differently.  It seems that the new ABC version of V is specifically written to highlight the Vs as Obama reading (the rhetoric about hope and change and universal health care),

Overall, the Pilot isn’t magnificent, but it is a solid start and I’m interested to see how this version continues and develops like or unlike the original.

Now I leave review-land and go into ‘I’m a writer-land’ — I realize that I’d be as interested or possibly more interested in a series where the aliens really were trying to improve humanity’s lot, with conflict coming from paranoia and quibbling over cultural differences/expectations between the Vs and various US cultures.  Basically, if it were a script from Keith Olbermann/Rachel Maddow instead of Glenn Beck. 😛  A story that highlights the tension between a well-meaning group with technological advantage and an ambivalent community that doesn’t want to bow to cultural demands but does want those technologies.  This presents a different metaphor, more analogous to western humanitarian campaigns in the 3rd world/Global South — where cultural imperialism comes part-and-parcel (intentional or unintentional) with humanitarian aid.

Sadly, this would probably not work as a TV show — it would lend itself much less to explosions and gunfights and the like.

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.”

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.)

Why Charles Stross Hates Star Trek…And Why I Don’t

Look, more arguing about SF television!  This time, however, I’m talking about an essay by noted Science Fiction author Charles Stross.  I was first exposed to his work through several of the short fiction pieces later collected in the volume Accelerando.  Much of Stross’s work emerges deeply from the socio-political context of the setting, with notable worldbuilding put into the setting.  I agree with much of what Stross has to say, but my ideas contrast enough to mention.


I’m hoping that you’ve already read the essay before coming back here.

Stross primarily takes objection to the story-making process.  For Stross, space operas such as the Star Trek franchise after the original series or Babylon 5 follow this process (paraphrased here through my interpretation):

Start with the interpersonal drama that forms the narrative’s center, then build a world around those characters that fills out the setting and enables the primary conflict.

The process positioned as Stross’s favorite is as such:

“I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don’t have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects […] And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.”

So here’s the thing — I think both of these processes are valid.  One creates a setting designed to highlight the way that cultural/technological difference creates different social systems and different people who then have conflicts that emerge from those social contexts.  The other creates stories where technological/social context is designed to support the overall character conflict.

Part of why I’m fine with both of these processes is that it’s hard to say ‘interpersonal conflict isn’t important.   All of the worldbuilding ever doesn’t matter if you don’t care about the characters.

Now since I’ve read Stross’ work I know that he’s competent and can follow the process he supports and succeed at telling compelling stories.  But I’m also a notable fan of Babylon 5, the new Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Coming back to the point:  I agree with Stross that if you tell stories where the setting is interchangeable, the dramatic weight of the story can’t hang on that flimsy interchangeable setting.  For me, the important part of Star Wars isn’t lightsabers and death stars, it’s a story about family, temptation, and power.  And it’s hard to ignore universal themes.

However, the kind of SF that Stross is talking about as growing out of social situation, the sociological SF, is invaluable in its own right.  There are many ways of telling stories — some are formulaic and exist only to support the status quo for all its complexity, mixing in ambition and misogyny, institutionalized racism but also love and family.  Others challenge specific aspects of society, or imagine an entirely fabricated society to point out the implications of scientific/social change.  I’d rather tell and support stories that encourage social justice and a curiosity about possibility, for sure, but it’s often hard to get those stories supported/published and to find a balance between getting people to listen to your point of view and preaching/provoking/condescending.

I agree with Stross on the generalities of the argument, but take objection to some of his examples. I agree with the the mention that the time-frame of television is so limited as to leave precious little room for world building and still be able to present the dramatic arcs.  It’s one of the challenges of the form, but doesn’t discount that medium from being valid for sociological SF.

Now for the details.  Let’s start with Battlestar Galactica — much of Battlestar Galactica emerges from its setting, which features a race of sentient beings who can love, hate, show remorse and every other emotion but happen to be synthetically created, grown, and moreover, grown in one of 12/11 models of identical bodies.  Battlestar didn’t focus as much on those types of dramatic questions as some might have liked (myself included), didn’t spend all its time talking about Cylon/human relations or the dramatic play that comes from the survivors of an apocalypse shuffled into a couple dozen starships with all traditional kinship ripped to shreds.  But those situations were present and did indicate the type of characters who emerged from that setting, and influenced the ways that the interpersonal drama unfolded. It certainly won’t stop me from wanting to do my ‘Anthropologists!  In! Space!’ novel which is inspired greatly by BSG but wants to put that sociological focus in the forefront.  Things that piss us off or we think are done sloppily/imperfectly can be just as much an inspiration as things done well (often more).

More examples.  Babylon 5 is deeply interpersonal, but I disagree that it follows the ‘tech the tech so that the tech over-techs’ solutions that Ron Moore discussed at the NY television festival.   For me, the dramatic thrust of Babylon 5 focused on bridging boundaries between cultures with contrasting ideologies, the challenges of being both a member of a species/culture and trying to act as a neutral host enabling diplomacy.  I feel like very few of its stories were resolved with handwavium, and even if the interpersonal drama was foregrounded, those characters emerged out of their science fictional worlds — psychics taken away from their families, leaders driven to bend/break the rules of engagement to defend the people under their command (during a war with aliens that started as a result of a cultural misunderstanding), and more.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is certainly guilty of ‘Tech the tech-tech and reverse the other tech,’ as deus ex machina for many conflicts.  But it also served as my introduction to sociological sf, cultural relativism, and many of the tropes of science fiction which have kept me a fan of the genre and made me appreciate all that it can do.  When the crew crashes up against the Prime Directive, trying to find the balance between spreading their favored paradigm and dictating how other people should live their lives, that for me is part of what makes science fiction worthwhile.

I don’t think all science fiction needs to be intensely sociological.  I appreciate my Star Wars and my LOST and the like.  I can enjoy those shows and still appreciate The Demolished Man, Parable of the Sower, and other sociological SF stories.  Maybe TV isn’t the ideal medium for sociological SF requiring intense worldbuilding, but it may be the medium for introducing people to science fictional elements like multiple dimensions or time travel or genetic modification, which then hopefully prepares viewers/readers for reading the more high-context novels/stories/films/etc.

To come back to agreement, I’m with Stross in noting that SF television has a big challenge in that it has to satisfy the executives who have a final call on whether shows air/continue.  I’m not saying that I know more about what makes good tv than any given network executive — I haven’t been a network exec and I’m not likely to ever be one.  But I would say this to those executives:

You want to make money — one of the ways you may be able to do that is to find auteurs/production companies who have a great deal of cultural/economic cache, and then let them make the shows that they want to make.  Fans are likely to follow them, and the kind of fans that follow those prominent auteurs/teams are evangelical, and will spread their enthusiasm over into other groups.  Groundbreaking, provocative television gets a lot of attention.  Shows like Mad Men, the Sopranos, and more.  Without taking big risks, you cut yourselves off from big rewards.

One of the major problems with the perspective of writers/audiences vs the perspective of executives is that the priorities are completely different.  I want to eat, sure, but as a writer, I want the chance to make statements and incite conversations about possibility, society, and individuals.  And it may be that the executives of NBC, FOX, CBS, ABC and everyone else just don’t care about changing the world, or changing people’s minds’ (other than changing their mind about which tv show to watch and which products from advertisers to buy).  And that’s a systemic problem of the consumer storytelling industry, and deserving of its own blog posts.  Lots of them.

Review: Stargate Universe “Air Part 1&2”

I watched the Stargate film back in 1994 when it came to theatres, and then when Stargate: SG-1 came around, I didn’t bother watching it.  I watched a season-and-a-half or so of Stargate:Atlantis, and was usually amused. But I have many friends who swear by various parts of the Stargate-verse, loving SG-1 and trashing on Atlantis, loving-but-criticizing-Atlantis and not caring about SG-1, etc.

So when I saw that there was a new, supposedly stand-alone Stargate series, I took notice.  The casting of Robert Carlyle in the lead went a long way towards getting my attention, as did the concept.

For those not already in the know, here’s the breakdown:  Stargate Universe is about a group of people who get trapped on an ancient spaceship made by a predecessor species only known as the Ancients.  The ship was designed to tour the universe, and from time to time opens up a dimensional portal (the Stargates, natch) to a habitable planet in the surrounding galaxy.  The Stargate remains open for a finite amount of time, and the ship is on auto-pilot, preventing the heroes from taking control of its route.  Using the gate to get back to Earth or to get from Earth to the ship (called the Destiny) is tremendously-plot-says-don’t-do-it difficult.  The tone seems to be substantially darker than previous Stargate series, prompting people to dub it Stargate Galactica or BattleStargate, likening it to the critically-acclaimed 2004-09 Battlestar Galactica.

The overall formula seems to be (Stargate + LOST) x (Sliders + Battlestar Galacatica) = Stargate Universe — which is certainly not a bad mixture of inspirations.

A more detailed and spoilery review follows:

Continue reading

“It’s a Strange World”

“Let’s keep it that way.”

So ends the first issue of the comic series Planetary, script by Warren Ellis and art by John Cassaday, published by Wildstorm comics.  Planetary started in 1999, and I’ve been reading it since about 2001, just in to the second trade’s materials.  The 27th issue and series epilogue was released today, and now the series is officially complete.

For those who don’t know it, here’s the premise:  John Elijah Snow is recruited by the Planetary Organization, a rich and influential group that acts as Mystery Archaeologists, uncovering and documenting the secret history of the 20th century.  In the first six issues alone, they find 1) the sole survivor of a pulp-era superteam who just barely stopped a cross-dimensional Justice League analogue from conquering our planet 2) A Hong Kong ghost cop seeking vengeance 3) the Monster Island where the remains of Godzilla-style monsters are treated as sacred relics by a Japanese terrorist and his sychophants, 4) Radioactively mutated people and giant ants, and much more.

Part of why I love this series is the way it interfaces with genre.  The series takes the popular literature/culture of the 20th century and says ‘what if this were all true, but it was secret?’ A sense of wonder and deep fascination with the past permeates the book, and in this case, the past is our cultural heritage, and most specifically the cultural heritage of the superhero genre (since the series is published in the medium associated with supers, by a publisher known for superhero comics) — even though in the world of Planetary, superheroes don’t exist in the public eye (Well they kind of do, as Kevin says, but that depends on how much one considers it to be in synch with other Wildstorm continuity).  Snow and the other members of the Planetary Organization go around the world and discover the wonders that were and those that could have been.  Popular literary genres are positioned as thrusts and ripostes of cultural warfare to control the earth.

Each issue tends to focus on one of those genres, with a cover stylized to match.  Atomic SF here, Hong Kong action there, and then over to silver age superheroes and back to pulp mystery.

So if you haven’t read Planetary, you might give it a chance, especially if you like any of the following: 1) genre studies, 2) superheroes, 3) deeply intertextual literature.

I received no free copies of anything from this series, so don’t bother trying to fine me, ok FTC?

New TV Thoughts (and some returning shows)

Glee: I really like that the show is continuing to build an argument for its thesis, seen in the epitaph for Irene Adler in the Pilot. “Glee, by its very definition, is about opening yourself up to joy.” We’ve seen Glee/musical theatre/dancing help a variety of the primary and secondary characters express themselves, find unrecognized talent. In “Preggers,” we see Quinn’s pregnancy introduced, which will allow for the classic narrative technique of using two problems to resolve one another. Terri needs a baby (or thinks she needs one to keep Will), and Will doesn’t want to be a dad (and Quinn would probably rather not have to raise a child at this time). The questions now are when/if Will and Finn discover their respective partner’s lies.

Something to keep an eye on is that most of the antagonism in the show is being conducted by female characters — Terri’s lies, Rachel’s tantrums, Sue’s schemes, Quinn’s plots to reclaim her boyfriend. I hope that we don’t continue to see the women in the show as the ones causing the problems for the cast. However, we do have Sandy’s meddling, Ken acting as a obstacle standing between Will and Emma. Luckily, we also have Emma, who is probably the most unquestionably positive character in the show. The attraction between her and Will is antagonistic to Will and Terri’s marriage, but Terri is still marginally likeable at best, even if it is now easier to empathize with her.

The real winner of this episode, however, was Kurt and his story. After coming out to Mercedes last episode, Kurt comes out of the gates with the “Single ladies” dance in a unitard, rocking out in his fabulosity. He lands the kicker gig and then helps the football team break their losing streak. And why, how? Through the empowering force of dancing…to a music video from a female performer, talking about being a single lady. The best moment of the episode for me, and one of the best of the show so far — seeing the football team break out into the dance, and one of the opposing team’s players getting into it as well. The power of dance compels you!

Eastwick: Desperately Magical Housewives. A re-make/sequel to the Updike novel and/or the earlier TV series, this brings us three women of Eastwick who are stuck in their lives, wishing for a change. A powerful sexy dark man whisks into town to fulfill all their dreams — sex, control, power. The show didn’t really grab me despite some respectable performances. I’m clearly not the intended demographic, and it may appeal to hardcore fans of Housewives and/or Sex and the City, Lipstick Jungle, etc.

Accidentally on Purpose: This one is basically Knocked Up: The Series. Woman in her thirties has a one-night stand with boytoy. One-night stand becomes several week stand, and then she gets pregnant. Boy is homeless and Woman invites him to stay with her while he gets on his feet. Clearly, they will fall in love over a course of stumbling back and forth romantic comedy follies. The performances over the series will determine whether the show is worthwhile or just more execrable crap. How I Met Your Mother works as a romantic comedy series for two big reasons: The amazing work of the actors, and the ridiculousness of the stories involved. Time will tell if Accidentally on Purpose can achieve those reasons or find some of its own. This is also one of two ‘Cougar’ TV shows, along with “Cougar Town.” Cougars are bi now. I know because MTV told me so. 😛

FastForward(preview): I’ve only seen the first 17 minutes of this, since the premiere is tonight on ABC. This adaptation of the Robert J. Sawyer novel has the whole world blacking out for two minutes and 17 seconds, with a vision of 6 months in the future. Our leads so far (from the preview) are two mae FBI agents, one agent’s wife (a doctor), one of the doctor’s colleagues, the doctor and agent’s daughter, and that family’s babysitter. We have John “Harold” Cho as one of the agents and Joseph Fiennes as the other. Sonya Walger (Penny from LOST) plays the female doctor.

ABC seems to be trying to make this the next LOST, but this show’s concept is actually far more contained, since there’s only so long you can go before hitting the six month mark and seeing how people’s futures have changed (or not). The larger question of “why” can provide the show with some longer-term legs, but as with any serial character-driven show, it comes down to the execution of the characters’ arcs.

Returning Shows:

Castle: This was one of my favorite new shows last year: Fillion is a fantastic comedic/dramatic lead, and the Castle/Beckett dynamic is dynamic and story-productive. I was happy to see the famous-writer poker game come back, and was appreciative of Beckett’s quick change to Russian Girlfriend Mode to get in to the underground game. Here we saw flashes of Beckett as taking a cue from What Would Nikki Heat Do? — It’ll be interesting to see if Nikki Heat as a character influences Kate Beckett as a character. I’m imagining that investigating Kate’s mother’s murder will be the arc-plot for the first season (if not longer), and we’ll continue to see Castle and Beckett become increasingly reliant on one another. Whether this leads to them connecting romantically remains to be seen, ala television convention.

And We’re Back

Fall TV is here, and for a number of shows, they’re off to a great start. There are episode spoilers in each case, so be forwarned.

Fringe “A New Day in Old Town” — We meet Agent Amy Jessup as a replacement for Charlie (Oh my God, you killed Charlie! You Bastards!), also allowing 2×1 to serve as a second pilot to introduce new viewers to the concept of the show. Walter’s plans for custard are delightful, especially when juxtaposed with the gross ‘arm deep in guts’ autopsy stuff. We also see Peter lead the charge in moving to change the Fringe division into being pro-active instead of re-active, as well as being willing to hand over dangerous technology to keep the division going. I’m happy to see Peter continue to be a bit darker than the rules/conduct of the division would call for, since it creates more plot and reminds us that he’s not a Good Person in a way that reminds us that he is his father’s son. Even if he’s actually his Father’s Alternate Universe Version’s Son. I’m glad they didn’t extend the ‘Olivia can’t handle her gun’ arc past this one episode. I like that she’s a badass, but having her show (occasional) vulnerability makes her a more human character. It’ll be interesting to see how Jessup fits in with the team, and whether this season is better for Olivia/Peter shippers or for the new Amy/Peter shippers. Or possibly, Amy/Astrid shippers. I mean, after all, we are talking about shippers.

Big Bang Theory We see all the guys with beards (except Sheldon, who has the Evil Universe goatee), and then see Leonard spend the whole episode failing to catch a break until the very end, which then leads directly into the When Harry Met Sally Awkwardness of “We’re friends who just hooked up and now it’s confusing.” I hope as a viewer that they actually write a relationship for Penny and Leonard — they’ve already been laying the groundwork that Penny’s become more geeky/nerdy over the two years. It’ll also provide the opportunity for them to then try to set up Raj and/or Howard.

House: For me, this is the best season opener of the year (so far, and may continue to be so). They completely break format, don’t include anyone in the secondary cast for any substantial scenes (Wilson is as close as anyone gets). House’s arc over the 90-minute TV-movie-esque opener includes enough stubbornness, backslides, acting out and slow acceptance to be believable, and Laurie is fantastic. I’m glad Lydia didn’t turn out to be a hallucination, as it set House up to have a real human experience that he processes appropriately. Plus, Franka Potente is great. I really hope that they actually keep House along this healing arc, where we can see him trying to figure out how to live with his pain, learning how to not push away the people he cares about, and seeing what that does to his Diagnostic approach.

Heroes — I was >< close to dropping Heroes from my watch list. The overall quality has dropped, and the bad has gotten worse, even if the good is still great (Bryan Fuller's brief return at the end of last season was very welcome). The season opener shows some promise, depending on its execution. The Carnival group seems to be set up as a Brotherhood of Mutants-style group, antagonists without being necessarily outright evil. I hope they don't kill off Hero, because he is in fact the heart of the show. Claire seems to be set up to be Wolverina Mars, and one wonders if her friend Gretchen is going to turn out to be more than meets the eye. I was expecting the Nathan!Sylar plot to be drawn out a bit longer, but I do want that decision to come back to haunt people.

How I Met Your Mother — Again, I’m hoping this is the last season of the show. They’re running a little thin on the plot ideas (next episode — The gang finds a stripper who looks Just Like Lily! Hilarity!), but Barney/Robin make a fantastic couple, and will probably dominate the season with the story of their relationship, whatever form it ends up taking/not taking. I’m hoping that they crib a bit from Definately, Maybe and show us a few prospective mothers in Ted’s Architecture class, so we can learn about the Mother before Sagat!Ted clues us in on the mother’s identity. It’d be hard for me to satisfied if they get to the end and then just introduce the mother, identify her, and then not show us why she’s The One satisfactorily.