Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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American Vandal

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I have just watched the first season* of “American Vandal”—another proof that it is possible to do something original and worth watching even today, and that there is no need to just dust of every old franchise**, hoping that the “brand value” outweighs the lack of quality and originality.

*Whether this terminology reflects reality remains to be seen. From the closed character, I suspect that the series will remain at one season, and considering its shortness, it might be better labeled as a “mini-series”.

**Something I have spoken negatively of in the past, e.g. in [1].

It is not the best made series ever—not even close. However, it does bring something new to the table, and it does so while giving food for thought. This most notably in the area of due process, but also concerning privacy, the benefits and dangers of social media, press ethics, and organizations sweeping their problems under the rug—all areas where I have considerable concerns about current developments. (Cf. a number of older posts.) Some of these areas are discussed below.

!!!Here be spoilers!!!

A particular disturbing part, obviously, is how one character, Dylan, was originally expelled from school based on scant* evidence, by an entity that served as judge, jury, and prosecutor in one, and how his “conviction” was almost a foregone conclusion based on his previous behavior**. While this example is fictional, it does reflect common practices in the U.S., where there, for instance, have been cases of colleges expelling people under similar circumstances, often in word-against-word situations, using “preponderance of evidence” (or another too weak standard). Considering the effects of a college*** expulsion and the damage than can accrue through e.g. social media and reputation damage in today’s world, the consequences are potentially horrifying—often far worse than the alleged crime or even “crime”. When it comes to actual crimes****, it is vital that proceedings follow a level of due process, rights of the accused, whatnot, that is comparable to that of a real criminal trial—better yet, leave this to the actual justice system, and then make decisions, e.g. regarding expulsions, based on what the results of the justice system were. Even when no crime is present (e.g. with a pure behavioral matter), it is vital that the (real or virtual) roles of judge, jury, and prosecutor are sufficiently separated from each other, and that the “accused” is given sufficient opportunity to defend himself.

*The only evidence against him that was not, at best, circumstantial was a testimony by a witness, which was offset by conflicting testimony by an alibi giver. Neither witness had any obviously superior credibility.

**Dylan was a highly problematic student, and I do not rule out that his past behavior might have been enough for an expulsion. However, he was, as eventually transpired, innocent of the vandalism for which he actually was expelled.

***However, note that the series deals with a high-school expulsion. This is bad enough, but less disastrous both because there are more opportunities to gain back ground and (usually far, far) less money invested at the particular school. To boot, people who are expelled from high-school are rarely among those likely to do well in college, implying that the career effect is considerably smaller: We are still typically talking unemployment and/or low-wage, dead-end jobs, considering the low value of a modern high-school diploma.

****As was the case here, specifically the spray painting of 27 cars with stylized penises.

A somewhat tricky question in the series is that of false accusations—paralleling the considerable problems in the real world with especially, rape, child-abuse, and domestic-violence accusations: While Dylan was originally expelled and facing (real) criminal and/or civil charges*, the “witness for the prosecution”**, who seemed*** to have lied outright, did not face such repercussions—his sole fear being a beating from Dylan. It is possible that any attempt at action against him would eventually have failed due to problems of proving intent; however, it appears that an attempt was not even made. Similarly, in the real world, women who make false rape accusations are often let go with a slap on the wrist, while their victims could have faced many years in jail—and often see their lives ruined even when acquitted. Under such circumstances, there is a severe risk that the system is abused e.g. to maliciously hurt personal enemies who have not committed a crime.

*He was proved innocent by video evidence before the real trial in the real justice system started.

**Whether he should be considered the accuser or just a witness can be disputed, but from the details of the show, the difference is likely uninteresting for the current discussion. (However, in most other cases, witness and accuser are quite different things.)

***At least for some time: A later hypothesis involved a suspect with some similarity in looks, and assuming, as was claimed, that the perpetrator wore a hood, an honest mistake is conceivable. However, this hypothesis only arose some time after the “acquittal”, was not necessarily presented to the school, and certainly remained a hypothesis. To boot, the witness had originally spoken with considerable certainty. (I do not recall the exact formulations used, but it was on the level of “I saw Dylan do it”—not e.g. “I saw who did it; he looked like Dylan”.

As a counter-point, we have the question of witness pressure: The “witness for the prosecution” later spoke of having been under a lot of pressure to say the right things. If that was the case, and if he modified his statements to comply with the pressure, someone of his age should be seen in a more forgiving light. However, we then have to condemn the proceedings even more: Witnesses are unreliable enough as it is and when they additionally face pressure to give the “right” answers, testimony is worth very little. It is vital that witnesses are induced to say what they actually remember—not directly or indirectly moved to say what the prosecution wants to hear. Here we again see the importance of dividing the roles of the “court” appropriately, so that the prosecution is neither judge nor jury. Further, where there is a prosecutor to exert pressure on witnesses, there must be a defender to press back. In this specific case, we had the additional complication that the witness was another student, and therefore in a dependent role visa vi the school staff making the decisions, implying that thoughts like “I must keep Mrs. X happy, or she might give me a poor grade!” could have crossed his mind. Such problems could have been alleviated by hiring external specialists to handle the investigation and decision. Consider as comparison a real trial where a witness is employed as a house-keeper by the DA handling the case…

The problem of organizations sweeping their problems under the rug, has probably not featured in my previous writings to any notable degree. A few words on the topic*: There are many types of problems that can arise when there is too little distance, objectivity, self-criticism, whatnot, present in how an organization deals with complaints and internal problems. The most obvious is that it might be so keen on preserving its imagine towards the outside world that it deliberately does not address problems in the appropriate manner. However, we also have to consider constellations like a superior receiving a complaint about an employee with whom he has developed a friendship, an investigative board containing people with personal ties, a biased treatment due to the feeling that that the target of a complaint is “one of us” and the complainer is “one of them”, the target of the complaint being able to influence the proceedings through inside connections (e.g. through giving someone false verbal information that the complainer never even knows of, let alone has an opportunity to refute), etc.

*Since I am filling a deficit, I will remain mostly abstract. If we look at events in the series, I can point to e.g. the illegal failure to upload certain complaint acts to a public server, an attempt to shut-down an independent investigation/documentary, when it threatened to put the school and/or some staff members in a poor light, suspensions (detentions?) being handed out for potentially (depending on interpretation) having critized the principal, …

A particular disastrous example from my personal experiences, where problems were almost guaranteed and remedies highly unlikely due to a massive conflict of interest: Being faced with a blatant breach of contract, I simultaneously sent a bill to the perpetrator and contacted its trade association with a complaint and a request for intervention. In a horribly misguided system, this trade association on the one hand provided arbitration, certifications of quality, and similar, on the other legal service to its members. The result was that the perpetrator took the bill, sent it to the legal branch of the trade association, which immediately gave the opinion that the bill was void and all related claims baseless*—and thereby tied the hands of the rest of the organization with regard to my complaint and any chance of intervention—if another branch had given support to my complaint, it could have caused severe credibility problems for the legal branch, had I taken legal action to receive payment.

*Beware that such “opinions”, by their very nature, have no actual legal value, give little information on the true estimation of the involved lawyers, and cannot, seeing that the lawyers at this juncture only know a fraction of the information, be a complete legal evaluation. To act in his client’s best interest, a lawyer will have to officially side with said client in a near blanket manner, even when the facts at hand, relevant law, and his actual opinion would go in the other direction. There are cases where the situation is so clear, that he is forced to chose another first official stance than a (real or metaphorical) “not guilty”; however, this is rare. The result is that irrespective of how well or poorly founded the complaining party’s claims are, the legal branch would have started with a blanket rejection, and the hands of the trade association would be tied. The complaining party is, almost by necessity, wasting time by approaching such a trade association.

Correspondingly, any organization who wants its complaint management to be taken seriously, must take steps to minimize such problems (a complete prevention is likely not possible). This could include e.g. making sure that there is a special complaints branch, that supervisors/investigators/whatnot with too strong ties to the target of the complaint recuse themselves, that external helpers are brought in (especially when larger amounts of money are concerned, the heads of the organization are involved, or the matter is otherwise unusually important), … While the presumption of innocence must be preserved in terms of treatment and consequences, the potential guilt must also be kept very clearly in mind during any investigation.

(A more specialized post on the misbehavior of German governmental institutions and their blanket rejection of any type of criticism might follow, especially with an eye on the IRS, the incompetence of which is currently again costing me a load of time. It appears to be a universal law that the more incompetent an organization is, the less willing it is to accept criticism.)

A few words on the final scenes of the series:
After his acquittal, Dylan goes through a brief high and then faces repeated disappointments, including that a very hostile* teacher, who had pushed heavily against him, and even (very incorrectly) attributed the crime as directed mainly against her, personally, failed to give the type of apology that he had pictured. He now misguidedly does commit an act of vandalism against her, by painting a penis on her drive-way.

*Her hostility is not unreasonable, considering their previous history.

It follows a brief sequence on how the expectations of others, the roles we have been pushed into, and similar, can lead to poor decisions, even deliberate attempts to fulfill negative expectations—Dylan thought that others saw him as a villain and correspondingly behaved like a villain. While this is likely only partially true, there are at least two thought-worthy aspects to this issue. Firstly, that we should be careful with our expectations of others and the effects they can, at least sometimes, have. Secondly, that we should beware of potential influence from others through expectations, that we should deliberately counter such expectations (at least when negative), and that we ultimately must take responsibility for our own actions, even if they arose under such influence.

In a disturbing parallel to a recently discussed real case, it is claimed that the police brought him away in handcuffs in the middle of the night, over something as trivial* as a this. Now, I do not know whether this could have happened in the real world; however, I re-iterate how important it is that law enforcement act in proportion to the crime. Not only could this easily have waited until the following morning, it might even have been prudent to just ask him to come to the station at a given time. While I do not agree with the practice of some law enforcements** of letting all crimes below a certain level just slide, this is one case where the main issue might even be considered a civil matter between the two: He pays damages, apologizes, promises to never do it again, and we call it a day.

*To be contrasted with the original vandalism, were a figure of a hundred thousand dollars of damages was mentioned. In the act he actually committed, the cost of cleaning or repairing the drive-way is unlikely to exceed a few hundred dollars, possibly being far smaller.

**Including, in my impression, the German police.

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Written by michaeleriksson

May 30, 2018 at 5:26 am

The rest of Orphan Black / (Follow-up: A few more thoughts on TV series)

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I have now gone through the rest of “Orphan Black” (cf. a recent post)—the overall quality* was high enough to offset the unfortunate story developments. However, while I would recommend the series, it also manages to make every error in the book when it comes to the story lines. For parts of the latter seasons, I had the feeling that the makers watched to much “Lost”** in their spare time. This includes an island (usually referred to as “the island”) with evil researchers, a surprise village, and a monster running around in the woods… The introduction of a 170 years old character, as the evil master-mind, almost had me stop watching—this would have moved the introduction of (still) sci-fi level break-throughs to a ridiculously early time, and in a manner not compatible with previous impressions of the world of the series. To boot, having the evil master-mind be so old, brings nothing to the series***. Fortunately, it turned out that this supposed Methuselah had simply stolen the identity of the (long dead) original founder of his movement and had thereby exaggerated his age by a-hundred-or-so years. Another great annoyance was the entirely unnecessary introduction of some form of low-grade ESP ability in the daughter of “Sarah”.**** It added nothing to the development of events, brought no benefit, and forced the introduction of a fantasy element in a sci-fi series*****.

*Especially Maslany’s acting, but there are also quite a few other competent actors involved, the interpersonal relationships are often developed and investigated in a manner that captures the viewer, and there are a number of funny scenes (notably around “Alison” and “Helena”) that complement the darker sides of the series and increase the entertainment value considerably.

**Another series that would have been better off with less intrigue, fewer competing parties, and whatnot. The supernatural aspects were mostly a hindrance. There is so much that could have been done with just having a plane crash on a deserted island, had the makers had more courage.

***But note that this might have been different in another series or type of series, e.g. a vampire show.

****Really, what is with this obsession with giving children super powers?

*****The fewer “leaps of faith”, assumed deviations from actual reality, whatnot, that is needed in order to make a TV series (film, book, …) plausible (while achieving the intended effect) the better. Having both unrealistic technology and magic in the same work is just unnecessary: We can have flying cars through technology (“Back to the Future”) or through magic (“Harry Potter”), but having both is just silly. A good illustration is the question of languages on different planets or in different time periods: There are sci-fi series who silently assume that everyone everywhere speaks modern U.S. English (e.g. “Stargate”)—except foreigners on Earth it self… There are others who resolve the issue through some type of unrealistically strong translator (e.g. “Doctor Who”) that through some mechanism can translate virtually any language in a transparent manner, leaving the impression that everyone speaks modern U.S. English. The latter require one single unrealistic assumption; the former unrealistic assumption after unrealistic assumption after unrealistic assumption.

The series would have been far better off cutting out three-quarters of the intrigues and secret organizations, having the main target of the clones being simply finding the needed cure, and otherwise focusing mostly on characters, situations, and relationships.*

*Not because these are necessarily the most interesting or entertaining things a TV series can do—one of my current favorite series is “Ash vs Evil Dead”: No, because these are where this particular series had its strengths, and because playing to those strengths would have made it that much better. (I stress, however, that there is nothing wrong with a bit of variety: The strengths should form the bulk, but “seasoning” with someone else is perfectly fine. With “Orphan Black” too much time was wasted on a weakness.)

A particular positive thing was the extensive flashbacks in season 4 (?) that gave more background information, especially regarding “Beth” (the police-woman clone, who committed suicide at the beginning of the series first episode). More: This provided new perspectives, notably with “Beth” moving from a weak-seeming character, who caved in the face of adversity, to a heroic character, laying down her life in the protection of others.

The last episode of a series is often the hardest to make, and suboptimal results are common. With “Orphan Black” (whose last episode I watched less than an hour ago) this was so: The antagonists are defeated in an almost anticlimactic manner half-way through the episode to leave room for an extended epilogue.* This epilogue was satisfying in that closure was reached and there were happy endings (almost) all around; however, it was also too cheesy and gave me the impression of something just thrown together, rather than something carefully crafted. It also manages to throw in another unnecessary error—too many clones. With several hundred clones world-wide, the likelihood that they would have gone undiscovered is small, due to factors like the birthday problem or the Bacon number: People meet by chance, people know people who know people, people land in papers, …, and the more clones are involved, the less likely it becomes that there are no common “birthdays”. (A similar criticism can be directed at the confluence of clones in the one local area; however, here there were a number of coincidental meetings and whatnots, and it would only have been a matter of time before such coincidences would have led to public attention.)

*There is nothing wrong with an extended epilogue, per se. The problem is rather that the antagonists put up so weak a fight that a) the final showdown was hardly worth watching, b) the epilogue (in some sense) came too early. By analogy, consider an evening-filling boxing event where the concluding main fight ends with a first round knock-out.

As an aside, another area (in addition to “tabula rasa”, cf. the original post) where “Orphan Black” is potentially dangerous is the negative take on eugenics: Eugenics does not only bring opportunities, but could actually turn out to be a necessity to rescue humanity from disaster. Every time eugenics is associated solely with mad scientists (evil master-minds, Nazis, whatnot) in fiction, the prejudice in the broad masses increases and its civilized use becomes the less likely.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 6, 2018 at 2:05 am

A few more thoughts on TV series

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I recently got my hands on the first few seasons of “Orphan Black”—and was initially very impressed: A novel concept, wonderful performances* by Tatiana Maslany, and characters put into interesting situations (see excursion below). Series like these prove that it is not necessary to just dust of the same old idea or franchise to squeeze out a few extra dollars. (Cf. previous posts, e.g. [1].)

*She plays a handful of central characters, and another handful of less central, that are clones, managing to bring over so different personalities and traits that, looks aside, they might as well be played by different actresses. She even, on several occasions, plays one clone pretending to be the other in a manner in a realistic manner, actually hitting A-pretending-to-be-B. (Similar scenarios often end up with an actor/actress playing this almost exactly as either A or B, or sometimes trying to do a realistic A-pretending-to-be-B and failing badly.)

However, approaching the middle of the second season, I am less enthusiastic, the series having lost some of its initial strengths and entered several hackneyed conspiracy and intrigue lines. The Dyad institute might be unavoidable, seeing both that its works are central to the premise of the show, including explaining why there are clones, and that some type of antagonist is needed. The Proletheans, on the other hand, are just unnecessary. Similarly, what is the point of turning “Mrs. S” from a more-or-less regular foster parent into an extremely shady, possibly criminal, possibly terrorist, character, with involvement in the clones’ early history? Why not try the novel idea of not having every second character have a “surprising” dark past?

This is paralleled by my very recent watching of the fifth season of “Grimm”: While never a candidate for an all-time great, it remained quite enjoyable while it focused on the “monster of the week” format and the exploration of the series mythology. However, it had had long excursions into global intrigues and whatnot, and with the fifth season this area exploded—as did the cliches. We now have a state of semi-war between various parties, the hero’s former girl-friend going “Dark Phoenix” and working for a secret organization, several secret organizations, an extremely powerful magic child causing trouble,… The destruction of the “Wesen Council” is not only a hackneyed destruction-of-the-potential-saviors/-allies-in-advance, it also very closely parallels the specific destruction of the “Watchers’ Council” on “Buffy”. The events of the penultimate episode took me to the point that I did not even bother watching the last episode—and will not bother with the concluding sixth season. A particular weakness, committed by many other series, is the explosion of the number of originally rare beings (here “wesen”*), to the point that it would be virtually impossible for “civilians” not to be aware of them, had they existed in reality.

*One point that annoyed me from the start: This German import, roughly “being”, is invariably pronounced like the word “wessen” (“whose”). Foreign pronunciations can be hard, but when one specific term is used several-to-many times per episode, the minimal effort of just once asking someone proficient in German for feedback is not too much to ask. (Virtually all German words used in the series are mangled or semi-invented, but most are used in just one or several episodes, and most are used by speakers who, in a real-life scenario, could not be expected to know better. “Wesen” is mispronounced even by the wesen themselves and even by purportedly German characters.)

Not every series has to deal with dark conspiracies, threats to the world as a whole, insurrections against the current order (be it by the antagonists or the protagonists), … Indeed, most series would be a whole lot better if they were left out!

Similarly, not every new season needs to up the stakes, invent greater threats, whatnot.

Similarly, there is no need for a series to continually reinvent it self: Most reinventions work worse than the original and even those that do work well risk alienating the original fan base. Usually*, it is better to stay with a single great concept. True, this can eventually lead to viewers growing tired of and abandoning a series, but nothing lasts forever. Good new ideas that do not fit the original format can be explored in a new series, while the original series runs its natural course at full quality.

*Doing a quick brain-storming, I actually could not name a single exception of a major and lasting change in concept/premise/setting/… that had a positive net-effect. (But I am certain that they do exist. The list of smaller changes causing an improvement, e.g. a strong new supporting character, is considerably longer.) The closest I came up with was “Chuck” and the addition of intersect-provided physical abilities. These made for both many interesting plot developments and a lot of entertaining action scenes; however, I still consider the earlier series more interesting and enjoyable. A case could possibly be made for some of the developments on the various “Stargate” series.

Excursion on “interesting situations”:
As I realized watching “Orphan Black”, one of the things that I appreciate the most in fiction is protagonists being put in (in some sense) interesting and unusual situations (mostly based on their own frame of reference). “Orphan Black” e.g. has the main protagonist among the clones see another clone die—and take over her identity with no previous information. Ensuing experiences include having to get through a hearing about a lethal shooting committed by her police-woman alter ego and trying to keep parts of her “old” life going in parallel to the “new” life. This applies in particular when learning and personal development are involved in variations of the “Bildungsroman” theme. A somewhat recent example is the movie (I have not read the book) “Divergent”: I was fascinated by the heroine’s move from the highly specialized faction she was born in into another and her efforts to cope in the new environment, including having to hold her own against people who had lived in that environment since childhood. Unfortunately, this part of the movie was not explored in the depth I would have preferred—having to leave room for conspiracy and insurgency… A similar trend is seen in “Counterpart” (mentioned as “very promising” in my recent post on “Back to the Future”): Two alter egos (or counterparts…) from different realities meet each other and eventually switch places. Early on these situations are at the core of the series; by now, still in the first season, conspiracies and whatnot dominate.

In all fairness, it could be argued that the use of an “interesting situation” also borders on the hackneyed in the genres I tend to watch/read the most. Consider e.g. how the likes of Bilbo/Frodo or Luke Skywalker are torn out of an idyllic existence for great adventures, how any amount of earth humans are transplanted to unknown worlds (most notably in the “Narnia” series), how the ignorant-of-magic Harry Potter finds himself in Hogwarts with minimal preparations, or, looking at some of my posts on fiction, e.g. the early events of “iZombie”, “Grimm”, and “Orphan Black”. However, this is a point where I am willing to give a lot of leeway—not only because I enjoy the situations, but also because they have a narrative advantage of being able to explain a new world to the viewer/reader without jumping through hoops: Explain the world to the protagonist and the audience receives the same information.* To boot, many of these situations are radically different from another, while e.g. fictional conspiracies have a great degree of fungibility.

*There are examples of doing it otherwise that work well. An extreme case is the “Malazan Book of the Fallen”.

Excursion on (dis)similarity of alter egos: A common problem in fiction is that alter egos are far further apart from each other than they realistically should be. This has narrative advantages; however, it is also potential danger in that it misleads the broad masses on topics like personality development, perpetuating the outdated “tabula rasa” models and their highly negative political influence. “Counterpart” does a reasonable job in that the differences between the main protagonist and his alter ego are small enough to be explained by different events and developments in their lives. “Orphan Black”, on the other hand, shows so extreme differences that the clones basically have no more in common than a group of randomly selected individuals—something considerably less realistic than human cloning.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 29, 2018 at 12:31 am

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When a TV series turns into a zombie of its old self

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Remark: I started this post quite some time ago. A lot of things have come between since then, including two posts on the related topic of franchises and sequels ([1], [2]) that cover at least some of the originally intended ground. Today, I decided to finally get it done—which actually mostly consisted of throwing half the draft out, and making some minor expansions. (The quality, as a result, might be a bit subpar.)

Being home with a summer cold, I spent the morning catching up on iZombie, a crime show with a strong comedic side and one of my favorite TV* series over the last year or so.

*There is also an original comic upon which the TV series is based; however, I have had no exposure to this comic.

This turned out to be a horribly disappointing experience, with the developments I had seen and feared over the last season eventually culminating.

When the series began, it was a wonderful variation of the x-of-the-week theme (s. below), it had a main character who secretly was a zombie*, zombies were extremely rare and unknown to the public, and the actual “high concept” part of the series was not zombies, but the partial adoption of the victims personality and memories by the main character (Liv)**. The latter was used to solve murders, Liv working in a police morgue and combining her access to brains of murder victims with her inside contacts at the police.

*The zombies of iZombie are very atypical, most notably in that they are normally unaltered in terms of intelligence, personality, etc., compared to their pre-death/pre-infection selves. Good: If this had been another bullshit work with mindless, slow moving, and hyper-aggressive brain-eaters, I would have stopped watching after the first episode.

**A side-effect of a zombie eating brains. Extremely unscientific even by the standards of the zombie genre, but it made for good stories.

A typical early episode would revolve around Liv trying to come to terms with being a newly made zombie and practical problems coping, trying to help the police with vital tips without revealing her nature, and dealing with the personality changes brought on by the brain-of-the-week. This resulted in interesting story lines, great comedy, and a large amount of variation.

As time went by, the “newly made zombie” theme unavoidably faded—she was no longer newly made, she had had time to adapt to her new circumstances, and her closest allies eventually found out the truth (the opposite, like with Lois Lane and Superman, borders on the ridiculous).

Unfortunately, the other aspects that characterized the early episodes increasingly and unnecessarily disappeared: The brain-of-the-week theme was weakened in favour of unimpressive arches dealing with zombie crime, zombie organizations, zombie hatred, and the potential revelation of zombies to the public; too many people learned that (specifically) Liv was a zombie for the secrecy aspect of the show to work well; and the sheer number of zombies rose and rose. Towards the end of the latest episode (3.13) a mass infection has taken place, zombies have been announced on television, and no matter what happens next, the original show is effectively dead. If the series continues, it will have about as much in common with its original as an “ordinary” zombie has with the living person who preceded it. I turned the episode off during the TV announcement and I will not watch any continuation.

The changes that iZombie has gone through are, unfortunately, quite common. Of these, the disappearing x-of-the-week in favour of longer arches is the one that depresses me the most, having seen a number of TV series lose* in quality or be ruined outright in this manner. Notable examples include “Stargate SG-1” (planet-of-the-week) and “Dollhouse” (identity-of-the-week).

*However, a series can still grow better despite such a trend: It is quite common that a series sees improvements in the skills of directors, writers, actors, composers, …, over its life (because the old staff improves with experience, because a bigger budget allow better choices, because weak links are replaced with stronger over time, …); equally common is that positives of a show not originally present appear over time, e.g. new recurring villains or interesting (fictional) technologies. These effects can compensate for or even outweigh negative effects. “Stargate SG-1” is an example of this. “Dollhouse”, unfortunately, is not, and ended up wasting the potential to be one of the greatest TV series of all times—with very high scores both as entertainment and “food for thought”.

The x-of-the-week is arguably the highest form of art in television, with the greatest potential reward for the viewers, plenty of room for “artistic aspirations” (or whatever snobbish term you prefer), and with excellent entertainment and variation potential*. If done correctly, we have a viewer who is both brought to think and kept entertained/interested week after week.

*Of course, it is possible to achieve this without using the x-of-the-week format. However, this format more or less forces the makers, if they want to do it well, to focus on quality and to prioritize well-crafted and innovative single episodes over mass production; the repeated variation-on-a-theme allows a greater depth of exploration over the course of the series; and the “x” often brings benefits through opening possibilities otherwise not present. Compare e.g. iZombie with the brain-of-the-week to a hypothetical iZombie just having a zombie solving crime—the latter being a case of a populist “high concept” work without any practical benefits from the “high concept”.

However, it is likely also the most taxing on the writers, who has to come up with something new and original every week, while keeping the quality high. This is likely one* reason why so many series start with an x-of-the-week theme and drift towards story arches**—arches are comparatively easy and can be drawn out with little creativity, but they are also less rewarding for the viewers. In some cases, a point is reached when a show degenerates into a soap opera.

*I will not attempt to analyze the reasons in detail, but one obvious other reason is the wish to keep people coming back to “find out what happens”.

**There is nothing wrong with using story arches. In fact, when done correctly, they can bring a significant extra value, especially in areas like romance, where a single episode is rarely helpful. The problem comes when they take over the show, when more time is spent on parallel arches than on the current episode per se, when a single arch is so dominant that we effectively have a triple or quadruple episode, or similar. “Buffy” is an example of another series with notable screw ups here, e.g. the end of season 5, but that was just a too outstanding series for me to voice strong complaints.

Another common problem is introducing too many characters that work poorly: For natural reasons almost all TV series (even many of the “assembly” kind) tend to start with a small group of core characters that are strong contributors to the shows early success (be it through good casting, careful character creation, or because show with weak initial casts/characters tend to fail early). With time the group of characters naturally gains new members, and while it sometimes loses old (especially among the temporarily intensely recurring)—and keeping the quality up can be hard. Unfortunately, some series do not stop there but appear to simply throw in more and more characters willy-nilly, be it in a misguided effort to create variation or to see “who sticks”. Potentially recurring (let alone regular) characters should be chosen with great care and be few in number. iZombie failed miserably in this regard. To boot, while many of the recurring characters were well cast, others appear to have been chosen based on quality of hair or amount of muscle mass.

A more famous example is “The Big Bang Theory”*: It started with four nerds and a blonde. By now we have another two women, a fifth nerd, and a baby for eight-and-a-half core members—to which must be added a few recurring characters and the normal one-off characters**—and this with a run-time of roughly twenty minutes per episode***. Too boot, the average quality of the cast is not that impressive, with roughly half being reasonably skilled contributors, roughly half being dime-a-dozen. (I will not mention names.) In contrast, “Friends” started with six actors and ended with six-and-a-half (another baby)—and did so with a longer to considerably longer episode run-time. The average quality of the regulars was considerably higher and many of the recurring characters were extremely well-cast and strongly contributing (including Tom Selleck and Bruce Willis).

*This show could also likely serve as a good example of a TV series moving too far from its roots. On the other hand, this can be given some justification through just reflecting the natural developments of the characters and their lives as they have moved from mid-twenties to late thirties. Still, today I watch it more out of force of habit than anything else—and had the series ended a few years ago, it might have been for the best. “Friends”, in contrast, was still kicking ass when it went of air. (Notwithstanding that it too had changed in some ways, over a similar time and age frame.)

**Although these are rarer than in most similar series, likely because there is only so much screen time available.

***OK, “Modern Family” does pull something similar off very well, but it has a higher tempo, a stronger cast, and better stories.

Of course, one of the greatest problems is members of the extended “jumping the shark” family: A series starts to struggle over the years and increasingly desperate attempts are made to keep the viewers through making changes, thereby, more often than not, driving away the old fans even faster. (And without gaining many new fans: People are far less likely to jump in in, say, season eight than in season two…) Instead, a series should pick one of three options (or a combination of them): Let things play out, even at the risk of cancellation; re-focus on the old strengths and hope for the support of the old fans; or call it a day and do something more worth-while.

“Scrubs”, another old favorite of mine, is a good example: It started as a reasonably funny series, which had its greatest strength not in comedy but in the realistic* depictions of hospital life and the problems of hospital workers, and what we could learn from that. Within a few seasons, the serious themes were largely gone, but it had grown a lot funnier. Over time, however, the humor grew weaker while leaving the silliness (of which there had always been too much for my taste). In the end, for the last season, most of the characters were axed and a subset were moved to a new setting** with a new group of main characters—a disastrous end to the show***.

*As confirmed by many who actually work in hospitals and can speak from experience (unlike yours truly). And, no, “realistic” does not mean e.g. shot with a grainy camera, filled with blood, or depicting tragedy—it means giving a depiction that comes close to reality. There is fair chance that e.g. that war or gangster movie that the critics call realistic is quite far from the truth…

**Strictly speaking, the old building had been torn down and replaced, and the role of the hospital changed somewhat, while remaining in the same location. However, it could have played a hundred miles away and virtually nothing in the season would have changed.

***The more the shame, as this last season had shown quite a lot of potential had it been the first season of a new series. They should have killed the original series one season earlier, possibly borrowed (or not…) the odd character, and then set up an entirely new series.

I just hope that BBC does not screw up the upcoming* series finale of “Doctor Who”: This season has not been stellar** and there is apparently a switch of Doctor forthcoming—exactly the type of situation, where so many series try to save themselves through “jumping the shark” or a doing major revamp, but only succeed in committing suicide.

*Back then—by now it is long past. The switch appears to be postponed until the Christmas Special. Doing a brief Internet search, it appears that one of my fears have been confirmed and a woman has been cast. (Cf. e.g. my remarks on women in “Star Trek” in [2].) This is not an automatic disaster—there are women, notably “Missy” Gomez, who might pull it off. The current choice, the unknown-to-me Jodie Whittaker, might or might not have the skill, but even if she does, it is virtually certain that she has been cast for the wrong, politically correct, reasons. (Not only because of general trends, but because the revived franchise has a long history of pushing “gender issues”, starting with the first season and the bi-sexual, Doctor kissing, Jack Harkness, and later his spin-off “Torchwood”—where, based on contents, “Torchwood” could very well be a synonym for “Faggot”…) To boot, The Doctor is simply a male character to me—just like Sarah Jane (or Buffy, or Echo, or Janeway, …) was a woman. Combined with the recent weakness of the series, I am frankly uncertain whether I will give her a chance or just stop watching, pretend it never happened, and not risk damage to the previous parts of the franchise (cf. [1]). (Besides: Why not simply do a spin-off featuring a Time Lady while keeping The Doctor male?)

**In fact, there has been a noticeable drop in episode quality after the Matt Smith => Peter Capaldi switch, but the last season in particular. The current main companion is also the weakest of the entire post-2005 series. (However, Capaldi himself I would likely consider the best of the post-2005 Doctors and definitely the best actor. Then again, he is about to leave the show…)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 28, 2017 at 11:30 pm

Discovery (Star Trek)

with 2 comments

I recently wrote about franchises, sequels, and when it was time to call it a day. A new “Star Trek” series, “Discovery”, following a long gap, brings this topic to my mind again.

TOS* ran for three seasons in the late 1960s. While possibly not very impressive by today’s standard (especially in terms of special effects…), it was a major advance on what had been done in the past and proved enduringly popular in syndication.

*“The Original Series”, a name established long after the original airings.

Apart from an animated series (that I have never seen and cannot judge), there was a drought of roughly ten years before the arrival of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”—which might have been the end of the franchise. This movie was not just highly disappointing*, it was also a poor effort outright, its value derived mostly from seeing more of the beloved characters.

*“Disappointing” in it self merely means that something does not match expectations. Unfortunately, words like “disappointing” and “overrated” are very often used or understood in a manner that ignores the relative aspect. Similarly, “better” and “best” do not automatically imply “good”.

Still, a second movie was made: “Wrath of Khan”, definitely one of the best sci-fi movies ever made till that date. And the ball kept rolling: The next two decades (or so) saw no less than four TV series and movie after movie. To boot, most* of these efforts were very enjoyable, with TNG** being a strong candidate for best sci-fi series of all times.

*The major exception is “Deep Space 9”, where I have on three separate occasions failed to even finish watching the first season.

**“The Next Generation”, the first of the new series.

At this point, we have a very good example of why continuing a franchise or giving second chances can be a good idea: What if the first, failed, movie attempt had been the end?

However, what has happened since gives an equally good example of why a franchise should sometimes be given a rest: The “reboot” movies by J. J. Abrams were not necessarily bad when viewed as disconnected efforts, but they break continuity severely*, and have a feel of high-quality fan fiction rather than a serious continuation. (See also my discussion of “The Force Awakens”, another J. J. Abrams failure.)

*To the point, and this is inexcusable, that most of what had previously been shown on screen was invalidated, simply no longer would happen. (Time travel caused severe changes to the time line.)

This brings us to the first new TV series past reboot: On the positive side, it is set before the events of the reboot (and TOS) meaning that it could still remain in the proper, original, continuity. Further, the “production value” is very high and the actors cast appear to be unusually strong. On the negative side, more or less everything else—I stopped watching half-way through the third episode.

To look at some specific problems:

  1. The main character, Michael Burnham:

    She* is a Human** raised as Vulcan, by now following a hackneyed pattern of an “unusual” heritage that includes Spock (half-Human, half-Vulcan), Belana (half-Human, half-Klingon), Worf (Klingon raised by Humans), Seven (Human, integrated in the Borg Collective as a small child), and probably a few others that do not occur to me at the moment. (And to which two artificial beings, Data and The Doctor, possibly could be added.)

    Unfortunately, the aspects of a mixed heritage that made these characters, and the Vulcan mindset that made specifically Spock, interesting are missing. Apart from a few minor plot points, there is nothing (in the first two-and-a-half episodes) that could not have happened equally with an unusually roguish regular Human, nor any differences in behavior that necessitates or are made more plausible by her Vulcan background—on the contrary, her actions during the conflict with the Klingons remind me more of Kirk than of Spock… (Except in as far that a mutinous Kirk tended to save the day, not get half of Star Fleet destroyed.)

    To boot, her behavior makes it very hard for me build sympathies, with her disputable judgment, discipline problems, surly demeanor, …

    *Despite the name, yet to be explained, the character definitely passes as a woman. While I have nothing against female leads even in traditionally “male genres” (my favorite TV series of all time is “Buffy”…) the extreme number of such occurring today is disturbing, as is the reason—not because this-or-that part would be good for a woman, but because political correctness calls for more women and denounces any type of stereotyping or traditional roles as evil (even when matching reality). Consider e.g. the entirely pointless “Ghost Busters” reboot. We are at a point where a male lead is becoming the exception. In this specific case, the name, Michael, raises the suspicion that the character was originally intended to be male, with a fairly last minute switch taking place. See also the continuity issues below.

    **For reasons of consistency with “Vulcan” and “Klingon”, both traditionally capitalized, I use a “Human” rather than “human”. This with some hesitation, because the former are likely capitalized for some reason that does not apply to “human” (e.g. as a designator of nationality) or spuriously.

  2. There are a number* of continuity issues, the worst being a complete re-design of the Klingon look**. This is the more pragmatically ill-advised as this type of change is known to cause portions of original fans to have fits of anger.

    Similarly, the ships and technology is redesigned in a manner that simply cannot be made to fit within the line of continuity. (Admittedly, the standards of the 1960s make this a hard task; however, “Enterprise”, another prequel to TOS, made a better job and it is unrealistic when “Discovery” is more advanced looking than e.g. TNG or “Voyager” that both play at a considerably later part of the time line.

    Looking at “Enterprise” and TOS, it could safely be assumed that there would be few women around and fewer yet in important positions***. Yet, the first two episodes center on a ship with a female captain and a female first officer (Michael). Barring the ret-con assumption that this ship was an extreme anomaly, this just does not fit. (That the situation during TOS was ultimately the reflection of the real 1960s is beside the point. Similarly, a piece of historical fiction should not just invent female ship captains where none would realistically have been present.)

    *My listing makes no claim of completeness even of what I spotted—let alone what a fanatical Trekkie, taking it apart while actively comparing with guide books or photage from other series, could find.

    **This look changed considerably after TOS too; however, that change could be easily defended on the grounds of the Klingons looking too Human, and the original look appeared in probably just a handful of episodes. The “post-TOS look” was used actively for two decades, albeit with some minor variations, including several TOS movies, and with at least the TNG and “Voyager” crews having at least one Klingon resp. half-Klingon as series regulars for seven seasons each and a handful of TNG movies.

    ***TOS had one female regular, Uhura, but she was a somewhat secondary character and “just” communications officer. “Enterprise” had two, one a communications officer… The second, T’Pol, had a more important role, probably science officer, but she was a (real) Vulcan appointed or lent by the Vulcans to keep tabs on the Humans. Her standing did not reflect the career chances of other women and is probably best ignored when interpolating. For that matter, even the series playing later in the time line (off the top of my head) only saw Janeway as a regular Human Star-Fleet woman in “traditionally male” position. The others either had jobs like ship physician or ship counselor, or are of disputable relevance for the comparison: Belana and Seven (cf. above) were not regular humans and non of them joined “Voyager” through Star Fleet.

  3. The previous series always drew their strength from a great ensemble, with many diverse and charming/interesting/whatnot characters. This does not appear to be the case with “Discovery” (with some obvious reservations for the short run that also apply to much of the rest of this item). Notably, the character I considered the most promising during the first two episodes, Michelle Yeoh’s captain, did not survive into the third… (And neither did the main antagonist.) Going by my surmise, the current main characters, Michael aside, comprise an expressionless alien with some potential, a wet-noddle roommate, and two stern stereotyped officers (the new captain resp. Michael’s superior officer), at least one of which will likely be a caricature douche bag and constant enemy of Michael (most likely the superior officer).
  4. The show does not seem to have made up its mind what to be and jumps in a manner that gives the viewer wrong expectations: The first two episodes starts with a star ship in conflict with the Klingons, is very martial, and pointing to a new and prolonged cold and/or hot war to dominate the series (or at least the season). This would be somewhat in line with older works. However, at the end of the second the mutinous Michael is sent away on prison transport, leaving an expectation of something completely different, possibly a sci-fi version of “Prison Break”. But, no, barely has the third episode started and the transport suffers catastrophic damage, leaving the prisoners to die. Surely, now Michael will step up, use her Star-Fleet skills and save the day? No… Almost immediately they are rescued by a research vessel (the eponymous “Discovery”), where Michael is drafted into the crew as a lowly technician or whatnot. (The adventures of a research vessel puts us on back solidly, almost boringly, on standard “Star Trek” ground.)

    With all due respect: Who writes such utter crap?!?

In a direct comparison with TNG (not necessarily the rest of the franchise), it is notably that almost every episode of TNG had some aspect of making the viewers think, e.g. relating to differences between people or philosophical issues—starting right at the first episode. This was one of the greatest strengths of the series and something that “Discovery” has so far not copied.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 8, 2017 at 12:51 pm

A few thoughts on franchises and sequels

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Being home with a cold, I just killed some time finally watching “Dead Men Tell No Tales”, the fifth and latest installment in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series.

I am left pondering the dilemma of when a franchise should call it quits (from a non-monetary view point–we all know Disney):

On the one hand, this is by no means a bad movie—without the comparison with some of its predecessors, I might have given a very favorable review within its genre. On the other, it is still a pale imitation of what the first three* movies (especially the first) was. It attempts the same type of banter and humor, but does so with less skill. It has a very similar set of characters, some shared, some molded after old characters, but both the character development and the casting is considerably weaker**. The plot is just another variation of the predecessors’, without any real invention. The music is driven by the same main theme, but otherwise the score and overall music is not in anyway noteworthy. (And the main theme is almost annoyingly repetitive when used for so many movies—a key feature of good music is variation.) Etc.

*I have only seen the fourth on one occasion, and my recollection is too vague for a comparison. However, while the first three were basically a trilogy with more-or-less the same cast and characters and a semi-continuous overall story, the fourth and fifth movies were stand-alone efforts with only a partial sharing of characters and (likely) considerably less resources.

**The first movie was absolutely amazing in this regard: Most movies would consider themselves lucky to have even one of Jack Sparrow (sorry, CAPTAIN Jack Sparrow), Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann, Captain Barbossa, or even Commander Norrington; and the quality continued into the smaller parts. The second and third followed suit. In the fifth, Will and Elizabeth have cameo appearances and the vacuum is filled by imitation characters that compare to the originals as glass does to diamond. Sparrow has gone from dashing, cunning, and comedic to just comedic; while the old comedic-relief characters are pushed to the margin. Norrington is long gone and while there is a British commander of some form, he is entirely unremarkable and has very little screen time. The new villain is just a lesser re-hash of (the undead version of) Barbossa and Davy Jones. Barbossa himself remains strong and has an unexpected character twist, but he worked better as the original villain than he ever did as a non-villain.

In the end, I consider the two-or-so hours well spent, but chances are that I will watch the first movie again* before I watch the fifth (or fourth) a second time. To boot, the follow-up movies to some degree detract from the earlier movies, and from an artistic point of view, the series would have been better off just ending after the third movie. (Some argue “after the first”, and the second and third do not reach the level of the first; however, there is much less of a distance, more innovation, and less repetitiveness compared to the later movies.)

*I have not kept count of my watchings, but over the years it is definitely more than half a dozen of the first, with number two and three clocking in at two or three less.

Consider the “Matrix” and assume that the sequels would never have been made: There might or might not have been disappointment over the lack of sequels and/or wonderment what the sequels would have been like—but we would not have had the general disappointment over said sequels. (While actually reasonably entertaining, they were nowhere near the first movie and they do introduce knowledge that actually lessens the first movie.) Would it not be better to have the feeling of having missed out on something than not having missed out and being disappointed? Sequels should be made when they can really bring something to the table*—not just because people want more**. The whole “Rocky” franchise contains one noteworthy movie—the first. The rest might have entertained portions of the masses*** and made some people a lot of money, but where was the actual value compared to just making similar movies starting from scratch? “Highlander”**** was utterly ruined by the sequels, which turned the original from an original fantasy movie with something major at stake to a part of a ridiculous “aliens are among us” C-movie franchise.

*Of course, this is not always something that can be known in advance, especially when matters of taste come into it. Often, however, the case is crystal clear.

**The actual decision will unfortunately be made based on the studio (or some similar entity) wanting more.

***Including a younger version of me: At least the whole Rocky/Ivan Drago thing was a thrill the first time around. A later watching as an adult left me unmoved.

****It is quite conceivable that my interest would have dropped through my own development, as with Ivan Drago; however, even that aside, the sequels utterly ruined the original.

When I was a teenager, one of my absolute favorite TV series was “Twin Peaks”. This series was artificially cut short on a cliff-hanger at the end of the second season—and for several years I (and many others—“Twin Peaks” was a big deal at the time) hoped that someone in charge would change his mind and that we would see a third season after all. Time went by, and the possibility became unrealistic in light of actors aging or even dying. Now, not years but decades later, there is a third season … of sorts. Based on the first three episodes*, it is a disappointment. Firstly, and almost necessarily, it does not pick up where season two ended, but roughly as far in the future as time has passed in real life, and most of the story-lines, events, what-ifs, …, have already played out during the gap. Secondly, many of the things that made the original great (at least in my teenage mind) are missing, including (apart from cameos) most of the old characters—and the old characters that remain are, well, old. Possibly, it will turn out to be great in the end, but I doubt it. Even if it does turn out great, it will not be what I once wished for. Does the sequel make sense? Probably not.

*The season is progressed farther, but I have only watched three episodes so far. I will pick it up again later, and reserve my final judgment until I am either through or have given up.

In contrast, the “Evil Dead” movie franchise, of which I had just a mildly positive impression, has come up with a TV series continuation, again playing several decades after the previous installment. It is hilariously entertaining: Funny, good violence, good music, likable characters. OK, the “deeper” and “artistic” values are virtually absent (just as they were in the movies), but for just kicking-back for half-an-hour it is a gem—and it is far ahead of the movies. Sometimes, an unexpected continuation is a good thing… Similarly, it is not unheard of for a weak sequel to be followed by a stronger sequel (e.g. the inexcusable “Psycho III” and the reasonably good “Psycho IV”; but, true, no sequel at all would have been the best for “Psycho”) or even, on rare occasions, for the sequels to better the original (“Tremors”; although the starting point was not that impressive).

Going into a full discussion of all sequels and franchises that could be relevant would take forever (“Star Trek”, “James Bond”, “Doctor Who”, various horror franchises, various super-hero franchises, …). I point, however, to my review of “Star Wars VII” for some discussion of “Star Wars” and the topic of sequels. I further note, concerning one of the very few “serious” examples, that the “The Godfather III” was another case of an actually reasonably good movie that was simply not up to par with the predecessors (and, yes, Sofia Coppola was one of the worst casting choice in history).

As an aside, reboots and remakes are almost always a bad idea, while the move from one medium to another often fails badly and, even when not, only rarely manages to reach the quality, popularity, whatnot, found in the original medium.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 7, 2017 at 4:02 pm