2016: This Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Introduction

Who would have thought that we were living through a golden age? Possibly the most depressing thought about what is going to happen to the world in the coming years is the fact that pre-2016 will now be fondly referred to as ‘the good old days’. The days where you could laugh off extremist and racist views as those of a dying minority, safe in the view that progression was inevitable and common sense would win the day. The days where you could watch a video on YouTube called ‘Zeitgeist’ and wonder to yourself who on earth would believe such nonsense. The days where you could call George W. Bush one of the stupidest people in history. Well, those days are gone, because 2016 was the year the internet was made flesh, as complexity, nuance and logic were completely disregarded and replaced with lies, conspiracy theories and reality TV stars.

Even still, at possibly the darkest hour in a few generations, time must be made to review the inane and irrelevant things that occurred this year in movies, TV, music and memes. That is the purpose of this post, and I will do my best to stay on-topic. I’ll be back at the end for more depressing thoughts. Here’s a tip: if the text is in blue and underlined, it’s clickable and will explain what I’m talking about

2016

THE YEAR IN MOVIES!

Movies of the Year (unranked): Arrival, Everybody Wants Some!!, The Neon Demon, Rogue One, Captain Fantastic, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,

Biggest Let-Down: Ghostbusters. There is a theory going around that Sony themselves were the ones to highlight the sexist comments posted on social media about the new all-female Ghostbusters, in order to give the movie marketing a narrative that didn’t revolve around how bad the movie was. I believe this theory.

Guilty Pleasure of the Year: The Brothers Grimsby. Most comedies these days are absolute garbage, so I have no idea why this one got such terrible reviews. I was laughing throughout.

The Annual “Lesser of Two Evils Award” for which movie was the better of two movies that had exactly the same plot: Captain America: Civil War was the best movie this year about a pair of superheroes being manipulated into fighting each other by sinister forces. On the other hand, I barely remember anything about it, which tells me that although Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was bad, it was not necessarily as bad as we all thought at the time.

Amnesia Award for instantly forgettable movie: Several times throughout the year I saw a description of the movie Demolition, starring Jake Gylendhall, and decided that I should sit down and watch it. A few minutes into it, I would realise that I had actually watched it last January.

The (Spoiler-free) Official Verdict On the new Star Wars Movie: I said it this section last year that it has taken me a few years to get on board with the new system of possibly experiencing a new Stars Wars movie every year until I die, but this is what’s going to happen so we might as well get on board. Rogue One is fine, if unnecessary. The opening hour or so is quite boring, but the last 45 minutes or so make up for it. Also, the final scene gives hints as to how the Star Wars series will deal with the death of Carrie Fisher.

Film ad of the Year: The Sun’s front page on June 23rd, combining the newspapers love of leaving the European Union and also its love of Independence Day: Resurgance, which was to be released on June 24th.

The movie was released by 20th Century Fox, which is a subsidiary of News Corporation, which also owns The Sun. Corporate synergy has never combined so many terrible things. (Later on in the year, The Sun would repeat the idea by showing a still of Donald Trump from The Simpsons on its front cover once Trumpy was president-elect. The Simpsons is also produced by a company owned by the News Corporation).

THE YEAR IN TV!

TV Show of the Year: The Crown. It took me a while to convince myself to sit down and watch this show about a young Queen Elizabeth II in 1950’s England, but once I did, it had me in thrall like no other TV show since The Wire. It’s not bingeworthy, and you will not be able to take more than two episodes at a time, but I was at work and looking forward to going home to watch anoth episode.  Set in a time period that we don’t know a lot about, and documenting a class of people that mostly we just assume we understand, in my opinion this is Netflix’s greatest show.

Sitcom of the Year: Bojack Horseman. If I hadn’t watched The Crown, this would be my TV Show of the year. I said it in this section last year, it’s one of the smartest TV shows around today .

TV Disappointment of the Year: The Walking Dead. I only watched the new season because my girlfriend made me put them on the TV for her.

THE YEAR IN MUSIC!

Song of the Year: Portishead – S.O.S.

If ever a song could define 2016, it’s this one: A depressing cover of a song that older people may remember fondly from the early 1980s.

Performance of the Year: The Swedish hosts in the Eurovision.

 

Here’s some 2016 music that I actually listened to and liked this year. Most are from movies, TV shows, and memes, which shows how in tune I am with modern music. All I can say is that you can make fun of Kanye all you want: he makes great songs even when he is quite obviously going through a nervous breakdown.

THE YEAR IN SPORTS!

Game of the Year: Liverpool 4-3 Dortmund. I am still upset that Klopp is not currently the Arsenal manager.

Goal of the Year:

Robbie Brady, Italy v Ireland. I was left speechless twice in two days in June 2016. The first time was when Robbie Brady scored this goal to send Ireland through to the knockout round of Euro 2016. Once the game ended, all I could do was try as best I could to say goodbye to the people I was watching it with in the pub. I went home and began making travel plans to go to Ireland’s next game in France (and against France!), the following weekend. I’m glad I didn’t book anything, because two days later, the Brits had voted for Brexit, and I was in no mood to celebrate anything.

Contrarian Statement of the Year: Leicester winning the league wasn’t a fairy-tale for me, it was downright depressing. All those years of getting depressed about Arsenal’s failure meant nothing, as Leicester showed any old team could do it if they play well. Arsenal can’t even complain about being outspent by their rivals anymore.

 

THE YEAR IN INTERNET!

Tweet of the Year: Those poor stateless kitties. The most poetic illlustration of the absurdity of Britains decision, in one simple tweet.

Tragedy of the Year: The Death of Torrentz. To a certain type of person, Torrentz was an important part of daily life on the internet. A visit in the morning defined what movie/tv show could be watched in the evening. Many people have not recovered from their decision to liquidate, despite the emergence of torrentz2, which is a vastly inferior product.

Stupidest Meme of the Year: Uplifting lists of good things that happened in 2016. Scientific discoveries, pandas multiplying, disease eradication etc. are great, but people who write these things have missed the point. None of those things “happened” in 2016, they were simply the results of decades of work funded by the system that we soon will regard as the good old days.

THE YEAR IN REALITY!

Thing of the Year: The Internet. Like Anakin Skywalker, the internet was supposed to bring balance to the force, and no one really imagined that this would be a bad thing. One would have thought that by making all the information of humankind available to everyone that this would be a good thing, a new enlightenment that freed minds all over the world. Alas no, as all it resulted in was that different people believe in different facts.

Person of the Year: Vladimir Putin. I actually gave him this award in my 2014 version of this review, and all I wrote here was “because the whole world has gone to shite anyway”. How funny was I two years ago? And who would have thought that Russia would end up winning the Cold War?

Idiots of the Year: Liberals. While the world changed around them, the liberal heroes of the internet argued about how to construct a sentence that was in no way offensive. Like many liberals (myself included), we trusted enough in our opinions to know that what we wanted to happen in both Brexit and the US election would just happen. Liberal smugness like this is why the Right hate the Left. To win an argument, it isn’t enough to know that you are right. The Right think they are right too, if that makes sense. There are two extreme groups on the internet: the alt-right, and the always right. Neither are very pleasant.

The “Kardashian Award” for News We Shouldn’t Care About But Was News Nonetheless: Post-election/referendum protests. Many thought these were important, and that it could have led to something. It was just clickbait. A quasi-intelligent version of fake news, offering a glimmer of hope through archaic loopholes and laws, while ignoring the political situation completely. Brexit’s gonna happen, Trumpy will be president. You don’t have to accept it, but for gods sake why did you click on all that stuff about the Electoral College possibly revolting against Trump?


Conclusion

Well, I tried as much as I could to leave the current state of the world out of the mini-rants above, but as you know, the events of this year completely permeated every aspect of our culture, both on- and off-line. Here I have not even mentioned the carnage of Aleppo, nor the horrors of terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany, or even the continuing suffering of refugees all over Europe. None of this is likely to improve in the near future, as well as the state of affairs with regards to climate change. Some of you may have noticed that I have been publishing less on this site recently, and all I can say is that this is a result of the events of this year. The things I write about really are not very relevant or interesting in comparison to things that have occurred in 2016.

That’s not to say I haven’t been writing: I just don’t see the point in publishing. On the night of the Brexit referendum, I wrote a blog about how Germany (I moved there this year) was a quasi-fascist state. I went to bed without publishing it, and I’m glad I did, because by the time I woke up, the United Kingdom was a bone-fide fascist state. A few weeks ago I wrote something about how Westworld was disappointing, but in this climate, who cares? I didn’t publish that either, but I hope to get back on track in 2017 with my usual aim of a new post every two weeks. Thanks to all of you who have read this far, or indeed anything I have written in 2016 or before. I’m not going to say 2017 will be better, but at least we are all now awake to what is happening. It’s not a joke anymore, but that’s not to say it can’t be funny. Have a great 2017, everybody!

 

For those who would like a trip down memory lane, here is my review of the year in 2015, 2014 and 2013.

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2015: Europe Awakens

It would be pointless to pretend that 2015 was not the darkest year in living memory. 2001 was dark, but that darkness was more America-centric than many would dare admit publicly. 2015 pulled the rug of complacency out from under European feet in so many different ways, the events of this year are likely to affect the region for decades to come. At the start of the year there was the calculated atrocity of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, followed closely by the seemingly random pointlessness of the GermanWings plane crash. While Europeans grasped the complexity of both these events, their currency was in jeopardy as the looming sovereign default of Greece edged dangerously over its precipice. As it edged closer, Greece was pulled back decisively, but at a cost that will be felt by the Greeks forevermore. As holiday season began, the Tunisia attacks took place, as European tourists were massacred on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. By August, most of these events were forgotten, and then the photograph of a toddler’s corpse on a Turkish beach was published, capturing in stark imagery just how desperate the migrant wave towards Europe had become. This, and the discovery of a van parked in sleepy Austria filled with the suffocated bodies of 71 migrants (who each had paid handsomely to be smuggled into the EU for protection from certain death) caused a monumental response in welcoming the newly dubbed ‘refugees’ into our borders. While some countries (the UK and some Eastern European nations) were decisively anti-immigration, the consensus was that this was an issue that needed to be solved, and solved together as a group rather than individual nation states. That was until the Paris Attacks on November 13, when Europeans were shown exactly how safe they really were.

These are dark days indeed, and they are not likely to lighten up anytime soon. That’s not to say the world isn’t getting better. Catholic Ireland voted in favour of Marriage Equality, transsexual people finally have a champion (even if she is a quasi-Kardashian), and Ireland qualified for the European Championships in 2016. None of the terrible things that happened in 2015 were solely manifested within that year, 2015 was merely the year that we all woke up to these massive threats and problems that we have ignored for so long. 2015 was the year that Europe awoke to the 21st Century, and finally recognised that the actions of our complacent community have consequences. 2015 will be known as the year that Europe woke up to its place in the modern world, as an actor rather than a passive journeyman. In this line of thought, there is a sliver of light to be found in the darkness of events this year, and this is as good a time as any to bridge into my usual annual review of entertainment nonsense that occurred this year. The connection I think is that this might be a hopeful year despite everything, and we all need cheering up in the meantime. I shall definitely clear all this up in the editing process before publication. As ever, I aim to make this particular post as interactive as possible, so there is clickable goodness available wherever necessary (all links open in a new tab), as well as some embedded content that drove me absolutely mental trying to get into WordPress. Anyway, enough paragraphs: enter the listicle.

 2015 europe

THE YEAR IN MOVIES!

Movies of the Year (unranked): Whiplash, A Most Violent Year, Youth, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, The Force Awakens, The Hateful Eight*, Steve Jobs*, Black Sea, Beasts of No Nation.

*Big thanks to Hive-CM8

Biggest Let-Down: Aloha. Cameron Crowe is one of my favourite directors (I even liked Elizabethtown), but his past two movies suggest he is past it.

Guilty Pleasure of the Year: Furious 7. Garbage, filthy garbage, but it knows what it is.

The “Lesser of Two Evils Award” for which movie was the better of two movies that had exactly the same plot: Starred Up was the best movie this year about a teenager going to prison and meeting a father figure who is serving a life sentence. Son of a Gun, with Ewan McGregor, was most certainly not.

The Official Verdict On the new Star Wars (Spoiler Free): It was a good movie, and a great Star Wars movie. Undue pressure is put on Star Wars sequels, since its first sequel happened to be one of the best movies of all time. The Force Awakens, not The Empire Strikes Back, should be the new benchmark from what to expect from a new Star Wars movie. It took me a while to get here, and just for those who like clicking on arrows, here’s a(n interactive) history of my relationship with new Star Wars, through the medium of Facebook posts over the past three years. The movie script is in development.

THE YEAR IN TV!

TV Show of the Year: Mr. Robot. This let me down a bit in the final two episodes, but it still deserves it based on what went before. Watch an episode of the show, and then afterwards remind yourself that the story was mostly told through the voiceover musings of the main character.

TV Discovery of the Year: Halt and Catch Fire. A stylish 1980’s mash-up of Mad Men and Silicon Valley, this almost got TV Show of the Year (I had it typed and everything), but its second season this year (for all its female empowerment) just wasn’t as good as the first. In coming seasons this show will gain a stronger cult following and eventually break into the mainstream, just like Breaking Bad. I only wish I hadn’t discovered it so early, as now I have to wait so long for new seasons and episodes.

Sitcom of the Year: Bojack Horseman. One of the smartest sitcoms out there, animated or not.

TV Disappointment of the Year: The Man in the High Castle. A very interesting premise realised as a very dull mystery thriller. I got two episodes in, and am satisfied reading the plot synopses of the remaining episodes on Wikipedia.

THE YEAR IN MUSIC!

Song of the Year: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Theme Song!

Yes I am old and have no clue about modern music, but that is not to say the greatest TV theme song since The Simpsons should not be recognised in its own right. Not only is it extremely inventive (the song is an autotuned remix of an interview from the very first scene of the first episode that explains the plot of the show), but it is actually impossible not to sing along to. Uuuuuun-BREAK-able…………………

Here’s some 2015 music that I actually listened to and liked. Note the brevity of this playlist: I’m getting old. Plus, two of the songs were added simply because they were popular: can you guess which two?

It is late, and the Spotify embedded playlist is not working yet, so it is available here should it not work for you: https://open.spotify.com/user/116764751/playlist/2kIJ2pV0EOgEW1jJzCtjyN

THE YEAR IN SPORTS!

Game of the Year: Ireland 1-0 Germany. Because f**k you, Germany! One Long ball punt up the field and that World Cup trophy has lost a bit of its lustre.

Goal of the Year: Shane Long, Ireland v Germany. Because f**k you, Germany.

Transfer of the Century: Anthony Martial, Monaco-Manchester United, €80m. This deal was so bad that Manchester United originally tried to conceal the full fee by proclaiming it as €40m plus add-ons. That these add-ons turned out to be playing for the club a few times and scoring a few goals for France implies United are quite embarrassed about the full fee. As well they should, paying €80m for an unknown French teenager. I don’t care if he ends up being their record goalscoring legend and captaining the club to successive Champions Leagues: the fee is still ridiculous, and has distorted the transfer market for the foreseeable future.

Sports Disappointment of the Year: Ireland in the Rugby World Cup. No further comment necessary.

 

THE YEAR IN INTERNET!

App of the Year: Anything that can use the Chromecast. If you have a TV and wireless internet, just buy a Google Chromecast.

Meme of the Year: Confused John Travolta. Is it me or have good, long-lasting memes disappeared? Everything is a meme nowadays, and then vanishes after less than a day. Anyway, this one is just a month or two old and seems ok. Who cares anyway?

Stupidest Meme of the Year: Condom water balloon. Again, nobody cares, so why not?

“Grandpa Award” in recognition of a Youth Trend That I Don’t Understand: I’m kidding no one: I don’t understand anything anymore. To me, anyone under 27 is a baby talking nonsense.

Thing of the Year: European Borders. They’re back, and they are angry. Due to the Schengen Agreement, in mainland Europe we have come to take the free passage across borders for granted. This year was a rude awakening to the idea that when it comes to social constructs, none are better constructed than territorial borders.

THE YEAR IN REALITY!

People of the Year: The Heroes of the Thalys Train Attack. Failed terrorist attacks obviously do not get the same media attention as successful terrorist attacks. The attacks that succeed have thousands of stories, as thousands of lives were affected forever by what had occurred. The attacks that don’t succeed have only one story: and this one is a remarkable story of bravery, quick-thinking, and luck. If you haven’t heard of these guys, it’s because in the space of about 45 seconds, they reduced the amount of possible stories told about that train ride from thousands to just their one.

Idiots of the Year: Anyone, anywhere, who engaged in Tragedy Shaming. A dark year was turned into a stupid game in the wake of the Paris Attacks, as people online who read the news suddenly became offended that terrorism in France is worse than terrorism in Lebanon. I’m gonna put it out there: terrorist attacks in Paris are undertaken for very different reasons than those for terrorist attacks in Beirut. All people are equal, yes; all deaths are equal, yes; but this is an entirely different issue from treating all terrorist attacks as equal. The tragedy shaming sensation is part of a broader online trend of aggressive (and ignorant) political correctness, and this is set to increase in 2016.

Special Award for Billionaire Pornography of the Year: Mark Zuckerberg. In the birth of his first child, the Facebook founder this year found the perfect crux in his mission to rebrand himself as a real person following the release of The Social Network five year ago. That movie used verbatim legal depositions from Zuckerberg and others as the basis for its script, portraying him as more of a bitter, sociopathic monster rather than the cute, cuddly, Social Justice Warrior that we are now presented with on his Facebook Timeline. Mark is a nice guy because he has a dog. Mark is a good person because he looks after his baby. Mark is a hero because he pledged to give away 99% of his wealth to charity. I am not going to get into the controversy of the Charitable Foundation debate, but I will say that he had already pledged to basically do what he said in that letter, over 3 years before.

And Finally….

The “Kardashian Award” for News We Shouldn’t Care About But Was News Nonetheless: That Apparently Famous Australian Instagram Girl who Quit Instagram. I don’t know her name, and I am not going to google her. Please don’t google her. I don’t want to be responsible for more clicks for her new website. I should really just not mention this at all.


But What’s Next?

That’s all for 2015, but 2016 promises much. In Ireland, we will celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, which was the starting point for our nationalist movement, resulting in the Irish War of Independence and subsequently the Irish Free State and finally the modern Irish Republic. Other notable commemorations include the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Moores Utopia, which is seen as the key foundation stone of our modern understanding of the idea of progress. Also celebrating its 500th Anniversary is the 1516 Purity Law, which has defined the craft of German beer brewing ever since. And if you think there isn’t a blog entry coming up of me trying to link German beer purity to Utopia, then you don’t come here too often. Happy 2016 everybody, and thanks for reading!

The Power of the Binge

Binging is rarely looked upon as something to be proud of, but every time 13 hours of a show like House of Cards is dumped onto our Netflix playlists, suddenly all anyone can talk about online is how fast they got through the whole series. This of course happened in the last weekend of February, where Netflix ejaculated the whole third series adventures of Kevin Spaceys manoeuvring, conniving, murdering and most of all monologue-ing politician (now President) Frank Underwood into the peaceful living-room based habitat of their passive subscribers. The third series of House of Cards had been online a mere 9 hours before I got home from work that Friday, February 27th, yet already there were reviews online about “mid-season” shenanigans and even reviews of the shows final episode, and subsequently the series as a whole.

I had nothing to do that Friday night, so I decided that if I was to achieve nothing else that weekend, it would be the passive consumption of an entire season of high quality (production values anyway) TV. Resigned to the decision, I slipped off my work clothes, laid down on the couch in my underpants and did what Netflix told me to do: I checked out the new series of House of Cards. I’m not proud of it, but I shall boast about it anyway: I watched the entire season over that weekend. Season 3 of House of Cards is much like Seasons 1 and 2: slightly above average TV, but extremely well made. The series as a whole was interesting, but by far the most interesting aspect for me came right in the first episode, and had absolutely nothing to do with Kevin Spacey, or politics, or Washington skulduggery. What was interesting in that first episode is that after a brief check-in with President Underwood and his wife, the story then shifts to a supporting character, Doug Stamper, who had been Underwoods right hand man in Seasons 1 and 2. Injured at the end of the previous season, the first episode is spent mostly dealing with his isolated recovery from injury, and apart from the beginning and end of the hour long episode, the President barely gets a look-in. What is so interesting about it is that this structure of the opening episode of House of Cards Season 3 is only possible because every single person who is watching that episode has the ability to watch all subsequent episodes immediately afterwards.

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Traditional TV

Traditional, conventional TV shows are defined by their constraints. Television networks operate in a two-sided market where TV shows are used to attract eyeballs, and the precise details of the number and demographic make-up of these eyeballs are used to attract advertising money from anyone who wants to advertise during the commercial break of a TV show. In the US, which is where most of the shows anyone watches are produced, a TV drama such as a procedural cop show like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation will be reported as lasting for one hour, yet when you watch an episode on DVD or online, you will see that it actually barely lasts 45 minutes, meaning that if you watched this episode when you were supposed to, during its debut on TV where advertising revenue is greatest, more than 25% of what you were watching would have been commercials.

Writers, producers and directors of hour-long TV shows in the US know this of course, and therefore build the enforced pauses caused by ad breaks into the episodes. If you watch an episode of a 45 minute American TV show online, you can easily spot where the ad breaks would have been. In something like CSI, an interesting clue may be revealed, causing everyone to look at each other, and then the screen fades to black. After a few seconds, the show returns, showing the exterior of a different location, and we are back in business. In a show like CSI, which doesn’t require a massive IQ to enjoy, what will often happen then is a character will casually re-explain the plot thus far to someone else, just in case you forgot who you were while watching ads for Fast and the Furious 10 (or whatever godawful crap is advertised to people who watch CSI). This is done far more subtly in many shows, but the main point is that the revenue model behind the TV industry has always affected the plot and narrative structure of television shows.

I mentioned previously that the highest advertising revenue potential for a TV show exists during its premiere. This is a highly outdated metric, and has led to the death of many a fine TV show, but in any case it still exists to this day and is how the success or failure of a show is measured by TV Networks and advertisers. While many problems exist with this model, I find the main one is that due to the necessity of making sure an entire targeted audience is in the same place at the same time (in front of their TV’s) it requires the show to be played on a weekly basis, therefore staggering the entire series of up to 24 episodes over the course of many months. We are accustomed to the idea of waiting a week to watch the next episode of a TV show, but this too effects how an individual episode progresses, from a narrative point of view. Each individual episode works towards capturing the viewer within its world, and immersing him/her in its atmosphere. Even if the viewer can stay within this world through multiple ad breaks, the effect will certainly not last until the next week, where the viewer continues the series. This therefore means that every TV show under this revenue model has to designate a few minutes of its already constrained running time (<45 minutes) on building up this atmosphere again. This is the origin of pre-opening credits opening scenes which exist simply to re-acclimatise the viewer to the atmosphere of the show they are watching. Those cheesy CSI:Miami opening scenes with David Caruso arriving at a murder scene and delivering a terrible pun exist simply because anyone watching his show hasn’t seen him for a week and needs a reminder of who the hell he is.

It’s obviously difficult to tell a grand, overarching, nuanced narrative over several weeks in this set-up, and this also has an effect on the type of stories that can be told in traditional TV shows. If you ever wondered why a story can be introduced, explored, and resolved in the space of 43 minutes in a procedural American cop show, this is it: same characters, new disposable plot every week. All that is necessary to remember is a vague recollection of the characters, but they will reintroduce themselves at the beginning anyway.

 The Future

This, by and large, is how TV shows have been formulated since their inception in the middle of the 20th Century. The revenue model of the TV industry was a boon on creativity and innovation in storytelling (Twin Peaks being the obvious outlier), and only the eventual realisation by the industry that revenue could be obtained elsewhere, through pay TV channels, DVD sales and subsequently online streaming subscriptions did the makers of TV shows consider that the way things were always done was not the way that they always had to be. House of Cards is produced by Netflix, and will never be serialised on a TV network in any large advertising market, and this removes a lot of constraints to what its creators can do. Further constraints are alleviated by having all episodes available to viewers instantaneously. I mentioned earlier on that I was interested in the fact that so much of the opening episode of House of Cards Season 3 was spent on a supporting character, Doug Stamper. Just imagine this occurring in a highly anticipated traditional season opener, where little was learned about the main characters, and viewers would have to wait an entire week for the next episode. It simply wouldn’t happen, as advertisers and viewers alike wouldn’t be satisfied, and the only reason the people who make House of Cards can do it is purely because of the distribution and revenue structure of their show/product.

Any decent TV show presented to us in the past should be commended, as the makers had to deal with great constraints in order to deliver a quality finished product, but the success of House of Cards and its new online revenue model means that all of the traditional constraints of television storytelling will now be lifted, and the potential of television as a narrative device can truly be explored. An early mover in this department was the most recent series of Arrested Development, released entirely on Netflix in May 2013. The series was much maligned by fans of the show, yet in the near-future it will be viewed as a template for how to produce a binge-watchable show. Its creators knew their hardcore viewers would be finished watching the entire series mere hours after it would be uploaded onto Netflix, and therefore created a series that shifted the boundaries of what to expect from a show: each episode showed the same events of the overarching narrative from different perspectives, meaning events from episode 5 could replay in episode 7, from a different perspective, and change the viewers mind on what was actually occurring in the earlier episode. One binge-watch of the fourth season of Arrested Development is not enough to appreciate the scope of its creators accomplishments. The entire series is a very flawed successful circular reference, but must be applauded for its early attempts to play with the narrative potential made possible by its new distribution method. Interrupted constantly by ads, and subsequent episodes delayed by a week, such storytelling would be possible, and the same goes for much of the latest season of House of Cards. The possibility of binge-watching new TV shows through online streaming may have changed how we expect to watch TV, but also it will increasingly change the nature of the entertainment product we are consuming. That’s right, must-binge TV just became self aware.

It’s A Mad Mad Mad Men World

After having abandoned Mad Men about halfway through its 6th season a few years ago, I reasoned last week that a freezing January weekend was as good a time as any to give it another shot, especially since the show will end this spring and we’ll all soon find out what is to become of poor old Don Draper. I originally gave up the show because it had lost the atmosphere of the first few seasons, and by the middle of Season 5 had become a parody of itself. It turned out, putting a pin in Season 6 and returning to it later over this past week was beneficial, so much so that I am actually looking forward to new episodes this April. It’s decent TV after all, it’s very well made, and its meticulous attention to detail is admirable. One of these details stuck with me more than others however. In the last episode of Season 6, Don Draper at the zenith of his alcoholism hides his drinking by pouring his Canadian Club into a mug at his office. It’s a colourful, psychedelically designed mug and is therefore one that the dour old fashioned 1950s man Don Draper has no business possessing. He knew it too, as he grimaces at this mug as the camera lingers upon it, before he takes one more gulp. The noticeable mug of course bears the logo of the newly rebranded company (Sterling Cooper and Partners) he now works for, and this grimace of course is meant to symbolise both his distaste for his current lifestyle and also his queasiness at his position in the restructured advertising agency. It serves a point therefore, both physically and thematically, but the camera lingers a bit too long on this mug for me to think anything else than they want me to go online and buy it. Continue reading

2014: What Kind Of Year Has It Been?

Scholars in the middle ages were superstitious about the 14th year of a century, as it was perceived wisdom that misfortunes occur more frequently in any year ending in 14. The Moors took Spain in 714, Charlemagne died in 814 (he was quite important back then), 914 saw various famines throughout medieval Europe, and the years 1014, 1114, 1214 and 1314 all saw various military and natural catastrophes that dug deep into the medieval psyche but don’t really seem bad these days (unless The Hungarian Invasion, the loss of Brittany and the Battle of Bouvines mean anything to you). The superstition hasn’t really stood the test of time, probably due to the fact that not many people have lived through two 14’s, and thus interest in the topic is muted.

More recently, 1914 saw the start of World War One, which can be said to have unleashed a three decade period of carnage and destruction that has never been seen before and hopefully will never be seen again. How does 2014 rank in this illustrious company? It was a year that saw the first real threat to the borders of a European country for almost half a century, and also one that saw the European Space Agency succeed in the greatest chase in history, as the Rosetta team managed to catch and colonise Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko after a decade long pursuit. It was a year when One Direction finally overcame the might of Justin Bieber to become the true kings of pre-teen pop merchandising, and ultimately it was the year that the whole world fell in love with Matthew McConnaughey. In this end of year summary I pay tribute to all those that made this year memorable, mostly through the world of entertainment and inconsequence, but always in search of truth, justice, and the American Way. Continue reading

Fight the Dead, Fear the Living: Civil Inattention at the End of the World

As anyone who has reached the age of 30 can attest, the hangovers sure do not get better with age. What make these hangovers almost bearable is the existence of Netflix, and having the unbelievable power of limitless streamed TV shows and movies available while you lie on the couch and hate yourself. After a particularly heavy night last Saturday, my girlfriend and I dragged ourselves out onto the couch at around 2pm on Sunday, and started binge-watching The Walking Dead. The show revolves around a group of people struggling to survive a Zombie Apocalypse, but is far more interesting than that premise sounds. Zombies are slow and stupid, so within a series or two, the zombie threat somewhat stabilises as our survivors learn how to deal with them, and the focus of the show shifts to their interaction with other groups of survivors in this post-apocalyptic world. These interactions rarely end well, and usually involve as many deaths as a zombie attack would have yielded. Maybe I have seen too many post-apocalyptic movies in my lifetime, but I did not find this too shocking. My girlfriend, on the other hand, could not believe that people would be so ruthless to each other when they were all going through this nightmare zombie plague together. They were all human and should help each other survive, she said, why should they act so barbarically to each other? Now, as you may have noticed if you are a regular reader of this blog, I am not the type of person that hears a question and doesn’t at least pretend to know the answer.

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One of the main reasons people congregate together en masse is because more is accomplished when we work together. Human society only really emerged when groups of people stopped wandering around hunting, and made permanent residences where they farmed, growing their own food rather than relying on just killing animals to survive. This led to probably the greatest achievement of the human race, which was how our ancestors removed us from the food chain. When within the food chain, our ancestors survived day-to-day, constantly scavenging for food and living from meal to meal. This is how all other animals on this planet spend their lives. To most animals, the future is merely where the next meal is coming from: it would be pointless to imagine further than that, even if their brains had the power to do so. To us, outside of the food chain, we can imagine tomorrow, and next week, and even do things today that we hope will benefit us years from now. We go to university, invest in the stock market, and commit to a twenty year mortgage.  All of this is backed up by our faith in the power of laws and law enforcers to ensure that society will still be there when this future that we imagine actually occurs.

Further, and I will be blunt; people are not actually supposed to live as close together as we do now. More specifically, we are not supposed to interact so much with people who are not in our own immediate family. Often we forget that we are little more than animals with big brains, but animals nonetheless. Not many animals play well with others of the same species that are not part of their own community. Communities develop from the mixing of two or more families that learn to cooperate, and these communities do not react well to outsiders. This was the same with humans, yet over a period of thousands of years, technological and political advancement have led to the emergence of towns and cities. The idea of a city, with millions of perfect strangers living side-by-side on a daily basis is something that is extremely unnatural  in an evolutionary sense, and one that is unique to humans.

Think of yourself on an elevator when a stranger enters. You both pretend to ignore the fact that you don’t know each other and are trapped in an enclosed space for what can feel like an excruciating amount of time. If you put one of your homo-erectus ancestors in that space with a stranger for the same amount of time, only one of them would be coming out when the elevator doors open again. The awkwardness you feel in the elevator is a kickback to this: your primal urges indicating to you that the stranger is a threat to you. What human society has achieved over the millennia is the strength of will to ignore these urges, and trust that the other person will not harm you, that the hundreds of other people walking down the crowded street with you will not harm you, and will ignore you if you ignore them. This system is known as “civil inattention”, and is once again backed up by the existence of laws and a police force to step in and impose order if it all breaks down.

Back to zombies. I hopefully have conveyed above that two of the main lynchpins of the massively urbanised society are 1) that we have removed ourselves from the food chain and 2) that we can safely live amongst strangers. These advancements are backed up by a system of laws that ensure the safety of all of us in case some deviants may veer from the course of civilised behaviour. In the event of a zombie (or any other kind of) apocalypse, the first thing to disintegrate will be the mechanisms of the state that impose order. The police force and army are not trained to combat the undead, and therefore will be overrun and therefore join them in their quest for brains, swelling the ranks of the walking dead. This precipitates the breakdown of the very fabric of society. When thousands of zombies are baying for your flesh, it is fair to say that we are well and truly back in the food chain. Further, with the breakdown of organised society, no excess food is being produced anymore, and therefore any survivors of the apocalypse must once again scavenge for each meal, living from day-to-day, while at the same time escaping the hoards of zombies who only want to eat human flesh.

Humans are adaptable, however, and this is why we have survived. After a certain amount of time, any survivors will adapt to the situation and forge outposts for themselves, attempting to rebuild a sense of society. Small communities may emerge, but how will they react to outsiders? Any safe haven from the zombie threat has been hard won, and no one wants to give up ground, or share scarce resources. In essence, this reduces the human race to how we were a few hundred thousand years ago, to the level of an animal fighting for territory when confronted with a stranger that is not part of the settled community. Even if the outsider is harmless, it is impossible to ignore the threat, as the times are different and there is nothing to stop one overpowering the other and stealing possessions. What is most unsettling is that even if you don’t believe this, and you believe people would never resort to this, your best strategy for survival would be just to simply assume that everyone you meet will try to kill you and that it is up to them to prove you wrong. Civil inattention is therefore impossible and the collapse of society becomes a mutually detrimental equilibrium in a prisoners dilemma. Survival, from the clutches of zombies and outsiders alike, is the only future in such a world, and therefore thousands of years of our advancement has been destroyed.

I don’t like zombie movies, nor the supernatural in general, yet I liked The Walking Dead. In a similar vein I am not a fan of fantasy, dragons nor magic, yet I have devoured every minute of Game of Thrones and every page of A Song of Ice and Fire. What I find fascinating in all of these is simply the politics involved in societies so vastly different from our own. The Walking Dead in particular makes you realise just how quickly the norms of society could breakdown if just a few hundred million people die, and in the process become zombies that crave the flesh of the living. It really reminds us of how fragile an existence we really live and how far we have come as a species, particularly when lying on a couch all Sunday evening praying for the end of your world.

Benchmarking the Newsroom

Aaron Sorkin’s HBO show The Newsroom deals with the aftermath of a Jerry Maguire-esque epiphany (here) by the formerly vanilla cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), leading him to go on a mission to bring intelligent, informed news to the American people. Anyone who has seen The Newsroom will, after a while, feel like they are watching a story set in a world of fantasy and idealism rather than the real world in which newsrooms actually operate. Audience numbers and corporate pressures to protect business partners are ignored as the staff of this newsroom go about their business of saving America. The show has been heavily criticised for this, as well as the patently liberal agenda visible in every plot point. Sorkin is way past the point where he can make a claim to be non-partisan. This is the man who created President Jed Bartlett in The West Wing, one of the most liberal characters in TV history.

The Newsroom however goes far past what Sorkin attempted with The West Wing, and any show that has gone before it: it is set in the real world, reporting real news. While President Bartlett weighed the consequences of battling genocide in Equatorial Kundu and dragging his country into a war protecting Kazakhstan from the crosshairs of Russia and China, Will McAvoy is reporting news from mid-2010 through fall 2011. Actual news stories, from the BP Oil Spill to Osama Bin-Laden via the Arab Spring and the News of the World phone tapping scandal. Actual news footage from his ‘competitors’ at CNN, FOX, MSNBC and others are shown to contrast with what our liberal newsroom staff think should be done. After a few episodes, it sunk in that what  Sorkin is doing in The Newsroom: he’s benchmarking the news. Continue reading