On the future of television

Last summer, I caught the trailer for a show that was coming that fall on NBC.  It was a show called “Awake,” about a man whose reality fragments into two after a car accident that kills his wife and son (depending on which reality you believe; one dies in each).  It looked interesting.  I never watched it that fall.  I waited until I saw it come available to stream online on Netflix this spring, something which happened after the show was cancelled.  I can see why it wasn’t ultimately successful, although the premise is very interesting; however, that’s not what this post is about.  This is about how television is changing before our eyes.

Less than five years ago, we watched shows on a weekly basis.  We circled dates on our calendars, made sure dinner was consumed by a certain time, and organized our social activities in such a way that we could be home for that specific hour or two on that specific night for the television season to see our favorite shows or those newcomers we got interested in.  That’s no longer the case.  With the rise of accessibility of DVR technology, anyone can record a show and watch it later, as my wife and I do with Game of Thrones and Doctor Who.  Alternatively, you can wait for a show to become streaming on your online service of choice – be it the subscription service of Netflix or the pay-per-show model of Amazon.  For me and my wife – casual viewers – there’s simply no reason to make an effort to stay home and watch a show anymore.  We know it’ll be there later.

This changes not just how often we watch television, but more importantly how we consume it; instead of watching one episode per week, viewers who are more likely to stream also seem to be more likely to watch lump sums of episodes at once.  I would argue that this is a result of how television has changed over the last decade; if you read Alan Sepinwall’s book “The Revolution was Televised,” he details how we moved from the join-in-at-any-episode sitcom of the ’90s to the serialized plot arcs of the ’00s.  A show like Lost is the perfect example of a trend-setter in that regard; Lost was, and still is, one of the most ambitiously continuous narratives network TV has seen, regardless of what a person thinks of how said narrative closed out.  Lost also was a show that happened at the right time; fan interaction online became a large part of the Lost experience if you watched it at the time.  Over time, now, though, Lost has also become a show tailor-made to stream, due to the fluidity of the episodes into each other.  I should note that I was a Lost streamer, and not someone who watched it weekly as it happened (to be fair, it would have driven me nuts).  24 was another key show to push this idea, but 24 made no illusions of being a friendly show to pick up at any time.

We now have shows being developed especially for streaming – Netflix, most notably, has opened its own development studio, first debuting the cynical political drama House of Cards and then the supernatural thriller Hemlock Grove before throwing the icing on the cake with the fourth season of Arrested Development (I have not started watching it yet, but I have watched the other two).  Both House of Cards and Hemlock Grove and adequate shows; they certainly push the envelope more than something on network TV, but as far as the basic idea goes, neither show is particularly unlike things you can find elsewhere.  What makes them different is that they were made specifically to be streamed, to be devoured rapidly, and it shows in how they were written.  Minutes spent on reminding you what happened months ago in Episode 2 while you’re on Episode 14 are gone; you watched Episode 2 yesterday, probably.  The other notable thing I read after House of Cards came out was that a show like that is very friendly to a production crew and actors – because everything is released at once, filming is done rapidly.  I read – and I lack the source on this, but the article I saw about it was on Grantland – that a regular 1-hour network show can have a production cycle of 6-8 months; House Cards’ was 2 months.  That’s a big deal.

Arrested Development might prove the great litmus test for the early era of streaming content; Arrested Development was, after all, something of a failure on network television almost a decade ago.  But in the time since then, the DVD/streaming era rediscovered the show (much as the DVD generation discovered Office Space about ten years ago), and Arrested Development has more or less become regarded as one of the best sitcoms of recent history (which it is).  Arrested Development straddled the line between mass consumption and weekly episodes; the show is full of requisite flashbacks, often done with a strongly humorous flair, while maintaining a certain continuity of episodes that made it, oh, a little difficult (but not impossible) to jump right in.  I’ll be interested to see how the writing of the 4th season may or may not be different from the first three.

Amazon, likewise, is starting their own streaming content, although they’re taking a different approach – they’re launching pilot episodes to view online through their Amazon Prime program, and they will produce full series of the pilots that are best received.  Let’s break that down quick – that means that viewer response will dictate which pilots are produced.  Let that soak in and realize that there’s never been that kind of viewer-production relationship before; the closest we’ve come in the past has been fan momentum to get another season of a show (a la La Femme Nikita).  In this case, Amazon is embracing that concept and encouraging a social networking movement – they’ve said they won’t just go off of views, but also off of likes and how much an episode is shared.  Power to the people!

But as we come into this, I have to wonder with a little trepidation whether or not it’s for the best; while I enjoy the higher production values of television and the move towards streaming content a la Netflix, is this really that different from the way the BBC has produced shows over the past decade?  Calling 13 1-hour episodes all released at once a “season” isn’t that far off from the BBC producing a 6 or 8-hour miniseries that runs over 2-4 weeks, and then doing it again a year later (something they do to great effect; see Luther or Sherlock).  The big kudos I give to the BBC is knowing when to call it quits and let a show be what it is.  Arrested Development is endeared to its audience precisely because there’s not enough of it; on the other hand, the legacy of the American version of the Office is dinged because it limped off into the sunset long after most fans got tired of it.  Likewise, BBC miniseries like Sherlock are treasured because they don’t go on long enough to wear out their brilliance.  I’ll be interested to see if Netflix takes note; both House of Cards and Hemlock Grove are set to continue into additional seasons, although either show could end where it is and be fine.  If the streaming era leads to a higher quality product, great.  But as with any sort of easily accessible media, the temptation to unleash a deluge of programming will be there to tempt us.  We already get season upon season of weekly shows after the candle has burned brightest (see the Office); it’ll be interesting to see how that is treated on the streaming front.

And as far as Amazon goes, I simply have to ask – do we really want the unwashed masses of social media deciding which shows to produce and which to not?  I don’t know…


The Red Wings/Blackhawks – Rivalry Finale

As I write posts here and offer my thoughts about sports, particularly my hometown teams, I’ll probably return on occasion to my firm belief that Detroit has one of the best fanbases in the country.  This isn’t meant to belittle anyone else, and it comes from my experience living in two other metropolitan areas.  I can go on at length for why this might be – struggling economy, need for hope, long team histories, etc – but I can save that for another time.  Today, I simply want to take a moment and acknowledge the end (at least for now) of one of the best rivalries in hockey.

Detroit and Chicago.  Red Wings and Blackhawks.  The two western-most Original Six teams.  Detroit’s an odd place for sports rivalries, in large part because we have a distinct absence of them.  Sports rivalries require, in my opinion, a couple different things – a certain regional proximity, sustained success, repeated meetings of varying conclusion.  Sometimes an intensity of one will outweigh the lack of another (see Detroit/Colorado, late ’90s).  I look at the NFL, for example, where the lack of success makes Detroit an outsider in their division; the other three teams have a three-way rivalry of sorts, whereas the Lions just sit on the eastern-most front of the division.  In MLB, Detroit is better located centrally in the division, but once again lacks a team that trades a strong ill will with them, partly due to the division being so weak.  I won’t even get into the NBA, where the Pistons are awful, but again, when you think Pistons, even in the good years of the mid-00’s, who do you think of as a rival?  Indiana?  It just doesn’t work.  When you think of a rivalry in Michigan, you think of college – Michigan and Ohio State and, to a lesser degree, Michigan and Michigan State.  Part of this is the odd regional rivalry instilled between Michigan and Ohio that has never carried over to the pro sports teams (although I think there’d be potential for an interleague rivalry between Detroit and Cincinnati, but MLB is ignorant to that and is trying to manufacture a Detroit/Pittsburgh rivalry instead).

So what we’ve been left with has been the Red Wings and Blackhawks, which has been a fantastic rivalry.  No two teams have played each other more than these.  They meet frequently in the playoffs and most of their games recently have either been overtime games or decided by one goal, regardless.  While play can get chippy at times, they’re ultimately coached by two of the best, and the respect the teams share for each other is evident if you watch them play or listen to the coaches speak.

All I wanted, as a Red Wings fan this spring, was to see Chicago and Detroit in a playoff series one last time (until they meet for the Cup someday, which would be incredible).  More than that, I wanted it to be a good series; as nice as a sweet 5-game clincher would have been for the Wings, I am ecstatic to see this going to seven games tonight.  I will get to experience the best parts of being a sports fan tonight; the elation and/or disappointment, an evening of being on the edge of my couch, yelling at the TV, etc.  Masochistically, I want this game to go into overtime.  I want it to go into multiple overtimes, because that’s what this rivalry deserves.  This series has been what I hoped for, with both teams experiencing ups and downs that ultimately become irrelevant in the end – it’s a winner-take-all, one game series now, reflecting in a way how the struggles and successes of both teams in the regular season melt away to insignificance once the playoffs start.  The President’s Trophy is meaningless if Chicago loses tonight; the Red Wings’ near-failure to make the playoffs at all is already just a footnote on what has been an ultimately successful season.  And nevermind the minor coaching storylines that I’m not hearing enough chatter about – Quenneville has never beaten the Red Wings in a playoff series (0-5 career), and he also leads active coaches in playoff wins at 79 with Babock second at 78.  Can Coach Q slay his dragon tonight and get that series win against Detroit before they move East?  Or will Babcock get his team locked in like he did in Game 7 against Anaheim?  Babcock has made no secret of the fact that he loves the Game 7 atmosphere, something that was evident when the Red Wings bounced Anaheim; there was no question who was going to win as you saw Babcock’s steely gaze behind the bench against Bruce Boudreau’s shell-shocked helplessness.  Quenneville is a better coach than Boudreau, to be sure, though.

It’s easy to root for Chicago here.  It’s easy to want a coach like Coach Q to get the Detroit monkey off his back, to see a likable Blackhawks team overcome adversity and reclaim their President’s Trophy form, advancing to play the Kings, matching the two most recent Western Conference Stanley Cup champions against each other.  It’s easy to root for Detroit, too.  Babock remains one of the most underrated coaches in the league, an annual Jack Adams snub because he coaches a team that everyone expects to be good.  It’s easy to root for the exciting Red Wing youngsters, a group of rookies thrust into play this year largely due to the excessive injuries the Red Wings saw.

Tonight we’ll see which team has the grit to advance to what should be yet another compelling and lengthy series against Los Angeles.  Last change has been a big deal in the series, something Chicago will have the advantage in.  Speak what you want of Chicago’s momentum having won two straight, but remember also that teams who bounce back to force a Game 7 still lose half of the time.  But it’s certainly hard to like the Red Wings on the road, when they had a chance to close out Chicago at home and managed to collapse in the 3rd period.  Whoever wins, the Kings will have a serious challenge in front of them later this week.  Whoever wins, it’s been a memorable series fitting of a rivalry this old and treasured.  I will miss our annual series of games with the Blackhawks after this year.

On Turning 29

Today is my birthday, and as part of that, I’ve decided to start this blog.  In truth, I’m a terrible blogger.  I think much faster than I type or write, and often don’t want to retread my thoughts for the sole purpose of written recording.  If no one else is going to read it or care, why bother?  But who knows – this will be a multi-purpose blog, so perhaps people will read it for one thing and find value in another.

Aging is a tricky thing.  We feel young for so long and, in truth, we are.  But there are always signs that we’re not anymore.  Iconic sports figures from childhood retire.  Actors that we grew up watching die.  Musicians we listened to die.  Our friends start having babies, signalling that the next generation is starting… signalling that we’ve become old and outdated.  Youth is a feeling of perpetual invincibility; the knowledge that tomorrow can always be a better day, that we’re always improving from a biological standpoint.  Even if we don’t know this consciously, the idea is imbedded in us – a 19-year-old is not worried about how much harder it’ll be to get those six-pack abs when they’re 20, for example.  But as we age up, those concerns creep in.  The knowledge that tomorrow may not, in fact, be a better day; that our bodies have gone from a state of perpetual growth and improvement to the beginning of slow and steady decay.  Those six-pack abs, as a 29-year-old, are more accessible right now than they will be as a 30-year-old.  Our bodies are starting to work against us.  It’s not that this is a condemnation of aging or that we’re suddenly geriatric at 30; it’s simply the noting of a paradigm shift in the way we think of ourselves.  To spend a quarter-century with the knowledge that our bodies and minds are working in our favor and then suddenly start to realize that’s changing… it’s a significant change in life.

I don’t know if the previous generation had expectations the way mine did.  We grew up being told how successful we’d be and being encouraged to make 5-year plans starting in middle school.  We weren’t quite the generation of “there is no second place; everyone’s a winner” mind you, but we were a generation accustomed to a certain degree of affluence.  Not a financial affluence, but a sort of… affluence of hope; it was the 1990s, America was on top of the world, and our parents had been one of the most successful generations in history as the American middle class boomed.  Life was our plan and the world our oyster.  Until the bottom fell out, of course.

I never planned to be a wanderer.  In fact, between my sister and I, no one would have predicted that she’d remain in Michigan while I lived in three different states over a span of six years.  But if life has taught me anything since I graduated from college, it’s that things rarely go as planned.  Whatever plans I had growing up have been tossed aside and shredded.  I’m not really sure I had plans, per se, but I certainly had expectations.  Our parents were the middle class; I think, if nothing else, expected to find jobs that we could hold and count on, at least a bit, while we nurtured dreams before we had families.  I never found that job and, in all fairness, never really nurtured my dreams so much as I simply expected them to happen.  They never did.  My greatest fortune over the past four years or so was that I met the woman who became my wife; the unfortunate flip-side to that was that as I finally gained a level of stability in my life again, circumstances in her life forced a temporary move (for 2 years) and, therefore, a return to wandering.

Perhaps the mistake of my generation, the great conceit we have, is that we assume life doesn’t happen to us, rather that we happen to life.  Growing up, it’s fair to say that I always believed I could effect the changes I wanted and life would sort of bend to my will.  That’s really not the case.  A lot of life is how we deal with what happens to us, rather than what we actually make happen.  But what little we can effect – we have to make good on.  That’s been where I’ve erred in my adult life so far, I think; I have not made good on the opportunities I’ve had to effect my own life.  I turn 29 today and begin my 4th decade of life; I am bad with resolutions, but I think to have the life I’ve always wanted, or at least some shade of it, I need to promise or otherwise pledge to myself that I will do better going forward at making good on the things I can effect, lest I wander in quiet desperation for another ten years.