Monday, November 30, 2009

The problem with "Epitaph One"

-Dollhouse- starts back up tonight. I'm going to pretend Epitaph One never happened.
For the uninitiated, here's the story of writer-producer-director Joss Whedon in a nutshell: early in his career, he worked on notable, quality entertainment. He eventually made his name -- and, frankly, helped to brand an entire network -- by reviving his failed movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a TV series. He grew a sizable, intensely loyal, yet not-quite-mainstream audience through that show. But aside from "Buffy" and its spinoff "Angel," he hasn't had a hit. His reputation is now as someone who makes great shows that fans love but that networks always screw up through a combination of meddling, bad marketing, and general mistreatment of the material (airing episodes out of order, shifting the schedule unexpectedly, airing on Fridays, etc). Still, the fans follow whatever he does, despite the near certainty that any show he makes will be ended early and inconclusively.

Which brings us to his latest, "Dollhouse." Another great concept from Whedon, the show began somewhat roughly but got progressively better. Typically low-rated, the show barely got renewed for a second season. Recently, Fox announced that this second season would be the last; but in a display of generosity, the production has been given time to properly wrap up the storylines, and all episodes will be aired.

As described by the official website, the concept of the show is as follows:

CAROLINE (Eliza Dushku) - code name "Echo" - is an "Active," a member of a highly illegal and underground group of individuals who have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas. Hired by the wealthy, powerful and connected, the Actives don't just perform their hired roles, they wholly become - with mind, personality and physiology - whomever the client wants or needs them to be. Whether imprinted to be a lover, an assassin, a corporate negotiator or a best friend, the Actives know no other life than the specific engagements they are in at that time.

Confined between missions to a secret facility known as the "Dollhouse," Echo and the other Actives, including SIERRA (Dichen Lachman) and VICTOR (Enver Gjokaj), are assigned engagements by ADELLE DEWITT (Olivia Williams), one of the Dollhouse's leaders. After each scenario, Echo, always under the watchful eye of her handler-turned-head-of-security, BOYD LANGTON (Harry Lennix), returns to the mysterious Dollhouse where her thoughts, feelings, experiences and knowledge are erased by TOPHER BRINK (Fran Kranz), the Dollhouse's genius programmer. Echo then enters the next scenario with no memory of before - or does she?

The advantage of that concept is that the show is able to become something different each week - an action adventure, a soapy drama, a murder mystery. And tying it all together were the situations involving the clientele and the employees of the Dollhouse itself. The series did a great job exploring the moral and ethical complications that would arise from a situation like the Dollhouse. (Does voluntary slavery make slavery less immoral? Is it "prostitution" if an Active truly believes she's in love, and isn't receiving direct compensation?) And as with any decent sci fi, the audience is left to ponder analogies in the real world. In other words, this show had a lot going for it. Then came the episode titled "Epitaph One."

[ Here, I suppose I should put a SPOILERS warning, in case you were planning to get caught up on season one DVDs. ]

"Epitaph One" is a strange case. It's unofficial, yet completely official. It was never aired by Fox, yet this isn't a situation of the network mishandling a Whedon series. It was produced due to complicated contractual agreements that separated the network's requirements from the production company's requirements. So while the network never intended to air the episode, it needed to exist for overseas and DVD sales.

Before I dig in any deeper, I should say that I don't think "Epitaph One" is bad in and of itself. It's an interesting concept, and would probably make for a fascinating TV series. But that series would not be named "Dollhouse."

At the time the episode was produced, it was uncertain whether the series would get picked up for a second season; so the episode was written as a de facto series finale. "Epitaph One" takes place ten years after everything we'd seen in the "Dollhouse" series. We're introduced to an entirely new group of characters, and they're seen in a post apocalyptic environment of some sort. As they go about dodging and hiding from some intimidating-looking groups of people, they find themselves taking shelter in what we, the audience, recognize to be the Dollhouse.

All well and good. But then, through a series of flashbacks and some detective work by these new characters, we learn that the apocalypse plaguing Future World was caused by a technological advancement developed by Dollhouse staff and exploited by some of the less-scrupulous elements within the Dollhouse organization.

Again, interesting. But that is NOT what "Dollhouse" is about!

Previous to "Epitaph One," we'd watched twelve episodes of a series that was about the various adventures that these Actives were on. We'd watched a series about a business that operates illegally, providing an ethically ambiguous service to wealthy clients. We'd examined issues of class, gender, and moral relativism. We'd followed a character, an Active, who was unique amongst her peers in ways we were just beginning to understand, and whom we'd hoped held the key that would bring down this exploitative organization. Now we were being told that the series wasn't really about any of these things. What we were really watching was the day-to-day operations of a company that would eventually, inadvertently cause the apocalypse.

By shifting the perspective of the series to this apocalyptic future, "Epitaph One" nullifies the relationships the audience had built with these characters and the subject matter of the series. Essentially, it tells us we've been wasting our time, distracted by the wrong things. We shouldn't have concerned ourselves with the moral and legal implications of indentured servitude, the legal immunity enjoyed by the rich, the value of and right to individual autonomy. No, we should have been thinking about the collapse of civilization!

I understand how the creative team on "Dollhouse" justifies this story. There were seeds planted within the series that allow for this ultimate conclusion. The problem I have with it is that it's a complete thematic departure from the rest of the series. It tells us that everything we cared about for the previous twelve episodes was literally worthless, because this whole ship was going down anyway.

There's an implicit contract between a show's creators and its audience. While the audience wants to be surprised by the direction a show (or any story) takes, those surprises have to fit within the rules that the series has created for itself. "Lost" can become a show about time travel because we always knew there were paranormal elements at work. "ER" can end with an entirely different cast than it began with, because we always knew this was a show about the workings of a hospital. "Epitaph One" breaks our contract with "Dollhouse," because it tells us that "Dollhouse" was actually about the fall of humanity, when we had been led to believe that it was about the redemption of these specific characters.

As the second and final season comes to a close, it will be interesting to see if the remaining episodes try to justify the "Epitaph One" future, or if they ignore it in favor of giving us a satisfying resolution for the characters we've been meant to empathize with all along. My vote is for the latter. As I said back in September, in order to enjoy season two -- and the series in general -- I'm going to have to pretend "Epitaph One" never happened.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Short Story About the UTA List

My first taste of working in the entertainment industry came in the form of an unpaid internship at a music video production company that doesn't exist anymore. The intern station was four small desks pushed together, with three available computers. There were five of us who would rotate computer usage, as fairly as we could, when we weren't active on a task.

One would assume that all five of us were interns, since we all made use of the intern station. This was incorrect. I would eventually learn that one of the five was actually a personal assistant to an executive at the company. There wasn't any space in the office to provide him his own separate desk or his own separate computer, so he was stationed with us lowly interns.

Even when slumped down deep in a chair, Adam was tall. And slump he did, every time he sat; a habit acquired, no doubt, during an adolescence rife with ridicule about his height. His long legs forced his chair a fair distance away from the desks, but his similarly long arms would branch casually back to the desktops. He walked slowly, but got there before you did. His face, always expressionless, gave a false sense of apathy. He rarely spoke, which is why I was able to carry on so long assuming he was just another intern.

But the news came fast, in a one-two punch. The day I learned that Adam wasn't an intern was the same day I learned he was leaving the company. He'd landed a new job, and would be starting the following Monday.

That was a lesson I learned early during my internship. People come and go quickly in the entertainment industry. All jobs are basically freelance, and therefor quite temporary. Even the jobs that sound permanent -- like chairman of a network, or head of production of a studio -- will only get you a decade or so of work. And that's only if you're good at it. With a few exceptions (hi, "The Simpsons"), a hit show is only going to run five to ten years. Most shows aren't hits, so you'll only get half a year of work out of it. Or less. It's a very transient business. Don't get comfortable, don't settle in, don't decorate your cubicle.

When you wrap out of a job, the best way to find your next job is to reach out to friends and acquaintances you've made during previous engagements. "Anything opening up at your company?" you ask them, or "heard of anything else out there?" You'll repeat those questions a few dozen times during your job hunt. And a few dozen times, the response you'll hear is, "I'll put the feelers out." This town is being constantly molested by friends of job-seekers.

But every once in a while, you'll get a less common response: "I can send you the UTA list."


The UTA list is an ultra-secret, clandestine, very exclusive Hollywood job listing... Except that everyone has heard of it, people speak openly of it, and it's not very difficult to get your hands on. Also, you'll never meet anyone who has claimed to have gotten their job from a UTA listing. But everyone seeks it out as if it's going to lead them to their next gig.

The namesake of the list is the United Talent Agency, one of the biggest talent agencies in the business. (Click here for a short list of some of their high profile clients.) UTA will neither confirm nor deny that they're the ones responsible for compiling and distributing the list. It's officially unofficial.

Some people deny altogether that the list even exists, which is preposterous. Of course it exists; everyone has seen it. Whether the job listings are actually legitimate is the point worth debating. Although you can find a copy of the list with a simple web search, it's difficult to trust what you find on the internet. You're better off getting the list from a friend. Who got it from a friend, who got it from a friend... and who knows where it originated? And during this game of telephone, who can say what's been added, removed, or screwed with in some way?

Back in the day, the list got passed around from fax machine to fax machine. That seems like a lot more fun, a lot more like a spy novel. Higher stakes. Assistants and other underlings had to be sneakier about it, had to risk getting caught abusing company equipment.

Now it just bounces around from e-mail address to e-mail address. Yet it retains some of that underground mystique. When you open the file, you find it lacking a heading; nothing in the body identifies it as the UTA list. It begins, simply, "(As of [date])" followed by a couple of warnings. "NOTE: Unless specific permission is given within the listing, DO NOT CALL about positions or to follow up." And, "Please do NOT post this list anywhere online without express prior written permission." I'm not sure how you would acquire such permission, considering "the list does not exist" and you got it from no one nowhere.

Next come the jobs, organized by broad categories (Executive and Management Positions, Assistant Level, etc). They're usually written in vague language, so you're never quite sure where you're applying. (This is not dissimilar to classifieds or Craig's List.) "Once-a-week personal assistant with experience in the film industry needed for feature film screenwriters in Pacific Palisades. Tasks include, but are not limited to: office management/organization, running errands, manage household projects, personal planning. College educated, Mac proficient, good communicator. Send resumes to..."

So you send your resume, and you wait, and you never hear back. And when a friend asks for it, you pass the list along. And so it goes.


"Everyone, be sure to congratulate Adam. This is his last day with us. Starting Monday, he will be Rob Schneider's personal assistant."

"Really?" I asked the nearest available ear. Still so new to the business, this was mind-blowing. Things like that really do happen! "How do you end up getting a job like that?"

"The UTA list," came the response.

"Oh!" my supervisor said with surprise. "So you really can get a job off the UTA list!"

Yeah, maybe. Just that once.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Netflix on PS3: Pros and Cons

At long last, Netflix has made their Instant Streaming capabilities available to owners of the PlayStation 3. As a PS3 owner myself, this is a welcome addition to an already capable machine. It certainly makes their new "It only does everything" slogan slightly truer.

If you own a PlayStation 3 and have a Netflix account, go to Netflix and sign up for the Instant Streaming Disc right away (if you haven't already). You'll need this disc every time you want to watch streaming movies, which is probably a con for some people. Personally, it doesn't bother me that I have to put a disc in the machine to watch a streaming movie. I already use my PS3 as a DVD/Blu-ray player, so I'm used to making the long journey from the couch to the machine when I want to watch something. Netflix and Sony have said that sometime next year, instant streaming will become part of the PS3 software, at which point we'll no longer need the disc. This just adds convenience to convenience in my opinion.

Pro: The disc is yours to keep at no additional cost, and does not count as one of your rental discs. You can continue renting your three movies at a time (or however many you get) by mail.

Con: Poor imagine quality. Whether it's the fault of sub-par internet speeds in the U.S., or just the way the videos are compressed at the source, streaming movies can look pretty bad. This is perhaps not such a big deal for, say, The Ten, which is one of the first things I test-watched via streaming. But when I see that visual masterworks like A Clockwork Orange or Wall-E are available for instant viewing, I shudder to think how much people are missing if this is the only way they'll see them.

It's interesting that in an age when people are demanding bigger TV's with the highest of progressive scan high definition quality, they're simultaneously willing to sacrifice all that quality for convenience. I'm sure that picture quality will improve as the technology advances. I just hope that happens sooner rather than later.

I also test-watched an HD episode of "30 Rock" via streaming. The picture quality was much better, but definitely not the HD quality you receive via cable/satellite.

Pro: The interface. While it could certainly stand to be improved in some ways -- such as adding the ability to type in a search -- the interface works very well. Reminiscent of Apple's Cover Flow, it lines up your movies in the order you've organized them in your Netflix queue, and allows you to easily scroll to the one you want. It also offers you the ability to find movies you haven't added to your queue via category tabs at the top of the screen (new releases, popular, comedy, sci-fi).

Con: Hit-or-miss selection. We're still in the very early days of this method of distribution, and content owners and licensees are still very uncertain about how to proceed. Because of this, Netflix offers a rather limited selection of movies and TV shows for instant viewing. And it's constantly shifting. A movie you've added to your Instant Queue might become unavailable by the time you finally decide to sit down and watch it. Someday this will all be worked out, whether it's Netflix who accomplishes it or not. In the meantime, content availability is difficult to predict.

Pro: No additional fees. With the X-Box 360, you can only stream Netflix movies if you subscribe to the Gold plan for X-Box Live, which requires an additional $50/year. Sure, that's less than $5/month, but extra money is extra money. Netflix on PS3 comes with no additional expenses.

Con: PS3's terrible wireless internet card. This has been a point of contention for me since I first got my PS3. Wireless internet drags on the PS3; system updates and video game downloads take forever. The connection often gets dropped altogether (this happens less frequently now than it used to). To date, this hasn't been too much of an issue; I rarely download games, and system updates are only an occasional thing. But I intend to take full advantage of streaming movies, which is going to severely tax my PS3's wireless card.

My test viewing of The Ten went off without a hitch; the movie played start-to-finish with no problems. But when I attempted to watch Bright Young Things in HD, the stream failed in less than a minute, and was not able to restore itself within three minutes of failing. Concerned about the implications of HD streaming, I queued up an episode of "30 Rock" in HD. That played start-to-finish without any problems. I ran another episode just prior to writing this, and it failed within the first five minutes. It restored after only a few seconds, but still... any interruption breaks the spell a movie is meant to cast. I'm hoping these glitches are something that will disappear quickly as the technology progresses.

(Note: Running a hard wire to my PS3 would be difficult given the layout of my house and the location of my modem and router. Besides, it shouldn't be required; that's the whole point of wireless internet.)

Pro: Every new, legal video streaming service that comes into existence represents a positive step toward quelling piracy and developing a new economic system that will allow the movies and shows we all love to remain financially sustainable.

Netflix is doing something extremely rare: giving customers a value add without increasing the cost of service. While the selection is limited, a great deal of the content available for streaming via Netflix is stuff you want to watch. And one presumes that the quality and breadth of content will only increase as we move into the future.

Netflix's continued push toward streaming content is both a response to and a push toward the inevitable future where media will no longer be distributed via physical materials. Make no mistake, discs will linger for many years. But Netflix, along with iTunes, is leading the way to the future, and providing an early working model for what will soon become the norm.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Will Apple lower my cable bill?

For many years now, I've been looking forward to the day when I could completely disconnect from cable or satellite television providers and get all the movies and series I want delivered to my TV through the internet. There are several entities out there that want to make that happen. Leading the pack are Apple and Netflix. But there are also Amazon and Hulu and Boxee, and who knows what else?

The concept is simple. I should be able to save money by trimming the fat. For the last several years, I've been paying around $100 a month for access to some 400 TV channels. The thing is, I don't watch 400 channels. I set my channel guide to about 20 favorite stations, and rarely have reason to venture outside that range. Of course, those 20 channels are never packaged together in a low cost tier; so I have to keep adding tiers to get everything I want, which leaves me with 380 channels I'll never touch.

So the rumor that Apple is meeting with network executives to discuss a $30/month subscription-based, iTunes-powered TV service comes as welcome news to me. It also makes me extremely skeptical.

That $30 price point sounds too good to be true. Which means it is. I anticipate one of three things happening: 1) the actual cost will end up being higher; 2) the available content will be severely limited; or 3) Apple has no intention of completely replacing your cable/satellite. Any of these possibilities falls short of the ideal scenario where one could save money by trimming the fat.

The problem with rumors, of course, is that they offer so little detail. How would this whole thing work? Would it be instant streaming, along the lines of Netflix and Hulu? Or would it be file downloads, allowing for mobile viewing on iPhones? Would there be limits on the amount of hours you could view per month (a method Netflix originally implemented, then later dropped)?

Reliability would be an important issue. Would every episode of every show be available always, or would older episodes and/or series get dropped with no warning or explanation (another common occurrence on Netflix)?

How would it interface with your TV? According to the rumor, this service would not be tethered to the Apple TV, which makes it sound like it would be just another Hulu: great for when you're at your computer, but complicated to rig to your TV. As tech commentator Alex Lindsay points out, the newest iMacs come with a 27-inch display, which is larger than the average TV was 20 years ago. Apple may be positioning itself as a manufacturer of TVs that just happen to have computers inside of them.

If it is indeed Apple's intention to compete with cable and satellite TV services, then they shouldn't introduce this service without offering everything -- or at least damn near everything -- that those services provide. (I would be particularly impressed if they were able to get HBO and Showtime to cooperate.) Only by offering everything could they entice a sizable subscribership away from cable and satellite. Otherwise, they're asking people to pay an extra $30/month for what can only be a supplemental service. I wouldn't pay for that from Apple, and I wouldn't pay for it from Hulu either.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Variety Show Ad Method

One of my first jobs in television was on a show called "Pepsi Smash." It was a summer concert series on The WB (back when that network existed) wherein popular groups with popular songs would hop up on a stage in front of an audience full of teens and do a couple of their most popular numbers. I was just a production assistant, so the pay was low and the hours were long. But there was free Pepsi! I drank many a can of Amp during those long days.

When the episodes started airing, I was surprised to discover something they included in the broadcast: commercials. The show had as much time set aside for commercials as you would expect in any other broadcast. Despite the fact that Pepsi's logo was visible at nearly every camera angle, that people said the word "Pepsi" throughout the broadcast, and even that Pepsi was the very name of the show, the broadcast still had additional sponsors. While we were shooting, I'd assumed that the show would air commercial free. You know, like in "the old days," when TV shows like "Texaco Star Theater" were named after their sponsors and didn't take commercial breaks so much as pause to have the star of the show deliver a quick sponsorship message to the camera.

"Pepsi Smash" aired in the summers of 2003 and 2004 -- around the same time that TiVo was digging its foothold into the television landscape. The frightening prospect back then -- all the more real now -- is that viewers could easily skip commercials, thereby negating the entire economic system around which broadcast television is based. Shows like "Pepsi Smash," I assumed, were going to be television's response. You can't TiVo past the name of the show.

It's disheartening to think that some day we might be watching "Kraft General Foods presents 30 Rock" or "AT&T's CSI: NY." But on the other hand, I'd prefer such conspicuous sponsorship awareness rather than the attempted deceit practiced in most forms of product placement. You're watching an episode, and suddenly two of your favorite characters erupt into a conversation about how much they like Oreos. The afore-mentioned "30 Rock" has taken so much heat for their product placement that when a storyline featured Tina Fey's character enjoying a Snuggie, she was compelled to deliver the line: "It's not product placement! I just really like it."

To date, I'm not aware of any sitcom or drama being named after a product. For now, let's assume that won't happen. But when it comes to variety shows, that's been a time-honored way to make money. It's a good fit. And I could see reality shows easily going in that direction.

Which is why I gave a knowing smile and nod when I heard about "Family Guy Presents: Seth and Alex's Almost Live Comedy Show." (That's Seth MacFarlane and Alex Borstein.) The half hour comedy special is set to air commercial-free, with brief pauses for the stars of the show to deliver a message about Microsoft's new Windows 7. Yes, just like the old days.

Well, that was the plan anyway, until Microsoft executives saw the actual content of the show and decided it "didn't fit their brand." (Translation: they're scared that people will be offended and then boycott Microsoft.) This is a rather cowardly move for the company to make, and a situation they could have easily avoided by simply watching other Seth MacFarlane shows. He's not exactly an unknown quantity; he has three shows in current production on Fox, and reruns syndicated all over the place. Have you ever seen any "Family Guy" or "American Dad"? You can't exactly plead ignorance about his comedic sensibilities.

Perhaps this is the reason broadcasters wanted to get away from the single-sponsor model in the first place. It leads to a situation where the sponsor has too much power, and can make or break a show with the snap of a finger. "We don't want people associating our brand with these ideas." And just like that, your integrity is gone.

The "Almost Live Comedy Show" will go on. Fox is seeking another sponsor, and new messages will be recorded and integrated into the show. Seth MacFarlane is far too profitable for Fox to toss away this special just because Microsoft wanted out. This is merely a bump in the road.

The show airs November 8. If it's a hit, it could point the way to exactly what the networks have been looking for: a TiVo-proof way of deliver advertising to viewers.