The Anti Hero Era: Walt & Dexter

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall)

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall)

Television waved farewell to two of its iconic anti-heroes over the past week: Walter White and Dexter Morgan. Although these characters were worlds apart in style and execution, at their core they both embodied the essential oppositions of the anti-hero. After eight seasons each, they will be missed, albeit for different reasons.

The anti-hero is a compelling character type within fiction.  On one level, he or she is a subversion of the traditional hero, devoid of the typically heroic qualities of loyalty, morality, nobility, physical strength and beauty, athletic skills, intelligence or confidence.  The anti-hero is flawed — often fatally — and answers only to him or herself, and their internal values (which may not be values in the truest sense of the word). The anti-hero is the Jungian shadow of the hero, the dark untrammeled self, the cautionary tale of what happens when an individual steps outside the light.

Nonetheless, the anti-hero still gets stuff done, often in the form of revenge or payback, or vigilante justice. Unfettered by a moral framework, the anti-hero can work outside social and legal restrictions, free to act as he or she chooses.  The anti-hero represents a seductive ‘What If…’ for audiences. What if you could make your own decisions? Enforce your own justice? What if nothing else mattered but gratifying your desire for vengeance?

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2012 – The Lists

2012leavingAs 2012 draws to a close, here’s a round-up of the round-ups, the ‘Best Of’ lists of the media that rocked the world over the past 12 months.

1. YouTube Videos

From South Korea to the outer edges of the planet’s atmosphere, the most-watched YouTube videos of 2012 are a truly global collection. Psy’s Gangnam Style became the most viewed YouTube video of all time, and spawned countless parodies. Felix Baumgartner became the man who fell to earth and garnered the most simultaneous views, from everyone watching his record breaking jump live.  And there was KONY 2012, but we’ve forgotten that now.

 

2. Pirated TV Shows

Game of Thrones topped the list of shows that fans, mostly outside the US, couldn’t wait to see. If the US TV networks could figure out a global subscription model, it seems there’s a lot of money to be made.

 

3. TV Commercials

Advertising spots around the world continued to straddle the boundary of entertainment and annoyance.

 

4. Tweets

Barack Obama’s “Four more years” got more than 810,000 RTs, making it the most retweeted comment of the year.  Not even Justin Bieber’s farewell to a dying fan came close.

5. World-wide Box Office

It was the same-old same-old Hollywood doldrums at the global box office this year, with the Top Ten dominated by superheroes, franchises, and superhero franchises. Audiences across the planet responded enthusiastically to big explosions, car chases, sparkling vampires, archers and talking cartoon animals – just as they always do. Only Brave (at no.11) is an original movie, everything higher up the list is based on pre-existing intellectual property.

 

6. Documentaries

Documentary movies provide a fascinating measure of cultural temperature: what subjects resonated with both filmmakers and audiences in 2012? From the riches-to-rags down/up comparison afforded by The Queen of Versailles to the injustices exposed by Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God to the unique experiences explored in Jiro Dreams of Sushi or The Imposter, 2012 gave us a range of insights into the human condition.  I’d also add The Ambassador and Paradise Lost 3 to this list — although they were officially released in 2011 they didn’t reach a wider audience until this year.

 

7. Valuable Movie Stars

Every year, Forbes compiles two lists.  One is of the movie stars who deliver the most return per dollar of their asking price, the other details those who return the least.  The young stars who dominate the MVP list owe their position to the blockbuster franchises they appear in (for a relatively low payday) rather than their audience-pulling clout.  However, with the notion of star power, and the resultant massive paydays, fading into the 1990s in Hollywood, this metric is becoming more and more meaningful.

 

8. Blogs

Despite the rise of other forms of social media, blogging refuses to die.  It’s still the best way for individuals to bypass traditional media – in all its hegemonic glory – and communicate their viewpoint with the world.  Whether you’re a Scottish schoolgirl complaining about the quality of your school dinners, a political pundit, an interior designer or a comic book expert, a blog is as vital as it has ever been.

 

9. Tumblrs

Sometimes, a blog is TL:DR and a picture is worth a thousand words.  That’s where Tumblr rules.  Whether the images are of Hillary Clinton, texts from a dog, face math or cats (LOTS of cats) Tumblr is best way of bringing memes to the masses.

 

10. Music Videos

The migration of the music video from TV to the internet is now complete.  Their short length and instant brand identity makes them an ideal media form for viewing on smartphones or tablets.  This year, Psy dominated YouTube but Carly Rae Jepsen’s lawnboy lust topped the views on VEVO. This is crazy…

 

 

Q: Who Runs TV?

A: Showrunners.

Showrunners are the writer-producers who come up with the concept for a TV show, create a pilot, sell it to the network, staff and cast it, cheerlead it through pick-up and then guide the increasingly complex plot lines from season to season. It’s a tough job. Only an elite few are trusted by the networks to do that job, and, at this time of year, they’re busy bringing their Fall 2013 ideas to the negotiating table.

The Hollywood Reporter’s latest issue is dedicated to showrunners and all aspects of what they do with their 5th annual list of the Top TV Showrunners.

THR’s Top 50 Showrunners 2012TV’s most influential writer-producers come clean about the credits they’d like scrubbed from their résumés, their most absurd notes from execs, their television mentors and the ways they cure writer’s block.

 

No more ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’. Please.


The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

For five seasons, TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras has been inviting viewers to ogle at little girls parading in inappropriate costumes, and encouraging the pageant Moms to exploit their daughters even more for behind-the-scenes exposure. The latest scandal involves a clip showing a three year old strutting her stuff in hooker boots, dressed as Vivian from Pretty Woman.

Is it time to call time on the show? One blog, Pigtailpals, called for its cancellation back in January:

“Toddlers & Tiaras” is a petri dish of sexualization. Little girls are taught, often times forced by their domineering mothers, to act coquettishly, learn suggestive dance routines, wear sexualized costumes and bathing suits, endure hours of hair and make-up, and are even put on restrictive diets in order to lose weight for competition. This is perverse. While TLC continues to air “Toddlers & Tiaras”, the network becomes an agent of this sexualization.

Open Letter to TLC: Cancel Toddlers & Tiaras – Pigtailpals.com

Reality TV has always thrived on the exploitation of its subjects, creating artificial conflict between friends, asking individuals to adopt a “villain” persona, re-editing situations so they fit producers’ proposed storylines. However, the reality format is now well into its second decade, and any adult who signs a release form for one of these shows should be aware of what they’re getting into. It’s a trade off, public exposure for cash. It’s a choice adults make.

Reality shows that revolve around non-consenting minors are a different matter. It’s bad enough that these two and three year olds are forced into the pageants in the first place (no one is giving any kind of informed consent at that age). However, a child beauty pageant used to be a one-off, ticketed event, with stage performances only committed to Mommy’s video camera, and some kind of oversight given to the people watching in the audience. Single men playing pocket billiards? Not welcome. A TV show is an entirely different matter, broadcasting these little girls into living rooms (1.3 million an episode), their sexualized performances preserved for all time in YouTube clips.

The American Psychological Association’s 2007 report on the Sexualization of Girls (here) always makes sobering reading. Sexualization is different to healthy sexuality, and occurs when

  • a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  • a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  • a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making;
  • and/orsexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

The APA’s research suggests the consequences of sexualization in girls include

  • poor grades (“thinking about the body and comparing it to sexualized cultural ideals disrupted mental capacity”)
  • depression (“sexualization and objectification undermine confidence in and comfort with one’s own body, leading to a host of negative emotional consequences, such as shame, anxiety, and even self-disgust.”)
  • eating disorders

All this contributes to a cycle of low self-esteem where a girl values herself solely in terms of appearance and physical attractiveness, but, because she holds herself up to impossible and narrow ideals of attractiveness, she’s doomed to self-hatred. And it will only get worse as she ages.

The fact that child beauty pageants are even allowed to happen, let alone be the subject of primetime broadcasts on The Learning Channel, speaks to the morality of modern America. If this is how little girls are treated, and if this is how TV companies make money off them, think of the delights that are in store for them once they hit puberty and beyond.

Dexter trailer now online

Are they finally going to follow up on a hoodoo plot? Yum!

Representation of Class

Does the predominance of the ‘chav’ stereotype in shows like The Only Way Is Essex mean that real working class people are invisible in the media?

Vajazzled! How Chavs Have Replaced Working Class People on Britain’s TV?

How Does A TV Pilot Get Picked To Go To Series?

It’s pilot pick-ups week! As various bright ideas (A Wonder Woman reboot, anyone?) bite the dust, the WSJ has all the answers about the rather arcane pilot development process used by the US Networks.

The nuts and bolts are simple:

The development process starts with writers making pitches in early summer, submitting first drafts in the fall and revisions at Christmastime. In January, writers hear if the network has ordered up a pilot. If a pilot is picked up in May, there is a mad dash to hire writers, build sets and write additional episodes before a show airs in the fall.

Simple, but expensive, with individual pilot episodes costing millions of dollars to produce. And, if the show is not ordered to go to season, there is no way to re-coup the loss. Even if a show is picked up in May, it can be cancelled by October. Networks have to guarantee a certain number of viewers to advertisers prepared to take a punt on a new show, and if the show doesn’t reach the specified audience, it gets cancelled.

All kinds of things can turn a promising idea into a flop. Casting may not click. A story line that made for a compelling pilot can’t hold an audience’s interest for 22 episodes a season, a fate that befell ABC’s “FlashForward.” Overly acquiescing to focus groups can lead to a bland finished product, producers say. Last season didn’t lead to a single breakout success.

It’s a very hit-and-miss process: throw stuff at the wall (of viewers) and see what sticks. But all facets of the entertainment industry take this approach, according to David Madden, president of Fox TV.

Executives say any artistic pursuit comes with long odds. “Most movies fail, most books fail, and most albums aren’t that good, whether they’re by committee or solo practitioners”.

According to the LA Times, this year will be more competitive than ever, with only 5 of the 22 selected new series expected to run into a second season. TV Dramas have to find their narrative footing – and their audience – with lightning speed if they are to go the distance.

Part of the problem, explain producers, is that digital-age audiences don’t just focus solely on their screens these days. Like traffic cops dealing with distracted drivers who text and blab on the phone while sailing down the freeway, networks executives are facing viewers who are often fiddling with their computers, phones or iPads.

“Most people are watching TV with a laptop on their legs,” said Laurie Zaks, executive producer of the ABC mystery “Castle.” “If you don’t capture the audience in the first two episodes, you don’t have a chance.”

So for all the writers, directors, actors and crew attached to shows that got rejected, the wait and anxiety is over. For those whose livelihoods depend on their show being a success in schedules in the autumn, the nail-biting is just beginning.

The Math of A Hit TV Show– Wall Street Journal
TV Dramas Are Losing Favor With Busy Viewers – LA Times

TV Advertising “Not Dead”

As media forms shift and develop, there is always plenty of hand-wringing about the “death” of one or another, with pundits claiming that viewers, listeners and readers will migrate to whatever is most new and shiny. Well, guess what? Newspaper ads are still with us (although spending is down) in pretty much the same form as when they first appeared in the seventeenth century. Ever get a Penny Saver circular dropped in your mailbox? That type of ad-filled gazette is the direct heir to those early publications, and it still fulfills the same function, spreading information about goods and services on offer.

In its time, television was going to destroy both cinema and radio, but those media forms are still with us. The new kid on the block, the internet, has claimed plenty of our eyeball time, but, as this post in Advertising Age suggests, we still prefer to watch TV, even if that involves watching Snooki:

But most of all, TV is significant. It has such high esteem that our culture has come to conclude that if something is on TV, it must be pretty noteworthy. In fact, even though we have hundreds of channels to choose from now, TV isn’t nearly as democratic as the internet, where anyone with a modem and a computer can create their own website, post a video, blog or tweet.

On the other hand, very few people get to be on TV. To Americans, being on TV means that either: a) you’re someone important, or b) someone important thinks you should be on TV. Being on TV is something to strive for. It’s the reason that people dress up, make signs and act ridiculous just to be on TV for a few seconds with Al Roker.

While surfing the internet is an active experience (you have to choose where to click) TV allows you to lie back and relax, confident that someone, somewhere, has done the selection (the gatekeeping) for you. With Americans still watching an average of 5 hours TV per day, it seems we still have some way to go before we kick the TV habit. For now, it makes sense for advertisers to keep shelling out big money for those 30-second spots.

Snooki Proves TV is More Relevant Than Ever – Advertising Age

Glee: All Publicity Is Good, Right?

GLEE is hitting the headlines on both sides of the Atlantic today, with complaints about this week’s sex-themed episode featuring Gwyneth Paltrow.

The Parents’ Television Council are foaming at the mouth and called in to the Hollywood Reporter to voice their disapproval:

Isett was not a fan of the scene in which Paltrow and several students ripped open their shirts while dancing suggestively to “Do You Wanna Touch Me.”

“If you had a real-life instance of that, I think it’s fair to say the teacher involved would no longer be a teacher,” he says. “But somehow it’s acceptable for a fictional teacher to do this. Again, this is a real problem. Real-world teachers don’t lap dance with their students.”

Meanwhile, the Guardian points out that all royalties from Do You Wanna Touch Me will go straight to the songwriter, convicted pedophile, Gary Glitter, who penned the original hit back in 1973. This could be a substantial sum of money – apart from the TV performance rights, the song is already available on US iTunes. These days, UK TV and radio steer clear of Gary Glitter songs for the very reason that they don’t want to provide him with income, but it seems the producers of Glee aren’t so squeamish about rewarding those who exploit minors – we’re back to the GQ photo shoot all over again. It also seems that Paltrow is keen to promote her nascent career as a singer at all costs, even when it means embroiling herself in a potential scandal.

Parents Television Council Blasts Sex Episode of Glee as ‘appalling’ – Hollywood Reporter
Glee’s Gwyneth Paltrow in row over Gary Glitter cover – The Guardian

American Remakes of British TV

Maria Bello was announced this week as the star who will fill Helen Mirren’s shoes in the U.S. remake of Prime Suspect. Given that American TV drama seems to be full of fresh ideas and talent right now, it seems odd that NBC would even consider rebooting a UK show that is almost twenty years old. However, Prime Suspect has long been seen as the gold standard for both female leads and gritty police procedurals, and will garner eager viewers on the name alone. The Closer has often claimed to be the US version of Prime Suspect, but the only similarity really is the female lead.

Salon.com examines the structural and commercial reasons why a remake of Prime Suspect is unlikely to capture even the faintest of flavours of the original: The British have a completely different approach to making TV Drama to the Americans.

American television, in contrast, has more of a factory mentality. They’re making product to sell into syndication, where the magic number is 100 episodes — enough to fill a daily Monday-to-Friday schedule for 20-plus weeks. Speed and efficiency are of the essence because the networks want to squeeze out 100 episodes and hit that syndication jackpot as soon as possible. All the products have to be made in-house using existing tools and processes, stamped out and rolled onto the showroom floor at the same time each year — otherwise sponsors get restless, and Americans bred to expect instant gratifaction grow surly and betrayed. (It’s September. Where’s my show? I want it NOW!)

This approach does suit the production of law-and-order procedurals, and that means boom time for that special group of background artists (or extras) who play corpses. The Wall St Journal (behind a paywall) reports that seven out of ten of the top TV shows require a steady supply of ‘corpse actors’. It’s cheaper to make up a real human being than produce a corpse mannequin, and there’s always plenty of work. However, a certain skill set is required. “According to New York casting director Jonathan Strauss, however, not everyone can carry off the short breaths required on camera.”

The Problem with American remakes of British shows – Salon.com
Corpse Duty: Keeping A Career on Life Support by Playing Dead – WSJ via Hollywood Wiretap