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Who am I?

You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Mon, 07 Mar 2005

As I mentioned in my post on Firefly, I also got the DVD set of Wonderfalls in the same Amazon order. And I've watched that whole series now as well. My original review actually stands up pretty well even after watching the rest of the unaired episodes, in terms of describing the overall feel of the show.

I do think it was a pity that the show got cancelled. There were several excellent episodes that were never aired. Fortunately, the creators had a feeling they were going to be cancelled (they actually started their "Save our Show!" campaign before the pilot even aired according to one of the featurettes), so the thirteen episodes produced tell a relatively coherent story that has a happy ending.

I'm not sure whether the show's premise would have held up long term, though. The talking animals schtick is very cute, but the need for the "muses" to be deliberately unclear (e.g. "Save him from her!") to create wackiness and confusion gets more annoyingly obvious throughout the episodes. Of course, when the plot demands it, the muses can also be very clear (e.g. "Take a picture!" or "Lick the light switch!"). So they essentially end up as writer bailouts, letting the writer extricate themselves from situations at will. Or for writers to create ridiculous situations; the entire Heidi storyline, which dragged on for four episodes, was manufactured by the muses for no apparent reason. However, it let us see a lot of Heidi, played by Jewel Staite, who played the cute mechanic on Firefly, so that wasn't so bad.

One thing I noticed while watching the series is that the show totally depended on the wonderfully expressive Caroline Dhavernas. Her annoyance and exasperation with the muses shines through, even as she grudgingly does their bidding. It was even more apparent when I watched a couple of the episodes with the commentary tracks turned on, and even without the dialogue, you could track what was going on just by watching her face. In fact, all of the actors are excellent. I happened across a site that has shooting scripts, and while the scripts are fun to read on their own, they definitely reach a new level of humor with the reading by the actors, either in their comic timing, or their facial expressions, or even just waiting a beat before delivering their lines. The co-creators lauded their actors on the commentary tracks, and I think the praise is well-deserved.

Anyway, yeah. I recommend the series, if you like screwball type comedy with an overlay of existential angst and confusion. Several of the episodes are really funny - I was watching an episode last night and just laughing out loud at some of the dialogue and absurd situations. Plus, it's relatively cheap - $28 at Amazon for all thirteen episodes plus some featurettes - that's $2.22 per episode! Thumbs up.

P.S. Parents are still in town, brain is still dead. No interesting thoughts. I'm hoping to get recharged next week when I head to New York. I've got a ton of backlogged ideas to work on, but just can't quite get started on them.

posted at: 22:42 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/tv | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 24 Feb 2005

[ed. note: As a complete break from the cognitive science type philosophy that has filled this space recently, we bring you a rant about television]

I finally got the DVD set of Firefly last week, and have now watched the whole series. For those of you who don't know, Firefly was a show created by Joss Whedon and Tim Minear. Joss, of course, was the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is probably my favorite TV show ever. Joss also created Angel, a spinoff from Buffy, where he hired Tim Minear, who wrote several excellent Angel episodes and eventually became an executive producer. When Angel and Buffy were drawing to a close, Joss and Tim went off to create Firefly, a show that was a cross between a western like Bonanza and a sci-fi epic like Babylon 5. Yes, it was odd. Fox stuck it on Friday nights in their ratings death slot, and it got cancelled within ten episodes.

I thought the show was okay when it was first on. It didn't really grab me. I watched all of the episodes out of loyalty to Joss, figuring that it would eventually pull together, but it never quite did. It never achieved the sparkling dialogue or the heartbreaking character development that are Joss specialties. So I didn't get around to buying the DVDs for a while. However, when I was buying the DVDs of Wonderfalls, a show which also had its time on the air tragically cut short, I figured I should pick up Firefly as well, as a gesture of solidarity for Tim Minear. And I'm glad I did.

Part of the problem with Firefly was that the network showed the episodes out of order. In particular, Joss created this fantastic two hour movie pilot, where he introduces us to the myriad of characters aboard Serenity. The Fox network decided the pilot didn't have enough action, so they didn't show it. Instead, Joss and Tim had to scramble to put together an action-oriented mini-pilot episode where we are dropped into the middle of things and never really understand what's going on. Watching the real pilot first as intended makes a huge difference in connecting to the characters and giving the audience a chance to find its bearings. If we don't care about the characters, then we don't care about what happens to them, and all drama evaporates. It's all about the characters.

So rewatching the episodes in the proper order makes a big difference. It also makes a big difference to listen to the episodes where Joss does a commentary track, because he presents the big ideas that were driving the show. He had a grand vision of what he was trying to do with Firefly, and with that context in place, the show makes a lot more sense. But he did a poor job of transferring that vision to the screen in the admittedly limited number of episodes that he had. In particular, I think he got sloppy and failed to make the individual episodes as compelling as was needed to establish the franchise.

That's been a Joss failing for a while, though. The brilliance of the first few seasons of Buffy was that individual episodes were satisfying in and of themselves, while also serving to advance the arc. He was always on the edge of cancellation, especially that first season, as one of the first shows on a yet-to-be established WB network. So I think he strived to make each episode individually satisfying and compelling, and then layered an overall season arc on top of those episodes. In the first three seasons of Buffy, he basically had a very specific vision of the season arc, and of the waypoints to making that arc happen. And he'd write the relevant episodes. So when you saw a "Written and directed by Joss Whedon" at the beginning of an episode, you knew stuff was going to happen. He'd shake up the entire Buffyverse, and then leave it to the staff writers to fill out the new implications/consequences of the shakeup with a bunch of standalone episodes, and then when those were played out, he shook it up again. But he never failed to make individual episodes satisfying in and of themselves - they were added an extra dimension of pathos and drama with the knowledge of the series arc, but could stand alone.

Because he'd worked so hard on developing both the individual character arcs and the overall season arc, the season finales were events, where he managed to bring all of his arcs together and tie them all up in one episode. When I go back to some of those episodes now, I'm always amazed at how much stuff he packs into those episodes. The groundwork has been laid all season, and then all of this crazy stuff happens as the floodgates are opened. And because each character was so well-established, it's clear that they have to react to the situation in a given way. The inevitable conflict and drama that ensued as a result of each character being true to themselves is part of what I loved about Buffy.

By season four, though, that was no longer true. Season four has a bunch of individually excellent episodes, but the overall season arc is leaden at best. And, even worse, there are several episodes which have no point other than advancing the season arc. So basically about half of the episodes are a waste of time. In contrast, in the first three seasons of Buffy, even the worst episode would have some brilliant character interplay or some witty dialogue that would redeem it.

Even worse, by the time season four rolled around, Joss was beginning to believe his own hype, as a master show creator/writer/director. He started using his episodes as a chance to be an auteur, using experimental techniques. Hush in season four was basically an experiment in writing a Buffy episode as a silent movie. The Body in season five was a meditation on grief, with no background music and rough handheld camera work. Once More with Feeling in season six was Buffy re-imagined as musical.

Firefly continued to demonstrate this tendency. Listening to Joss's commentary on the pilot and second episode, Joss spent as much time commenting on the different camera angles he was using as on the show itself. He did mention these grand ideas about where the show was going to go. But he lost the importance of crafting each individual episode on the way to his grand ideas. Without the commentary, and as the episodes were originally seen on the air, the show appears kind of meaningless and pointless. Nothing interesting happens, because I didn't really care about the characters as they were presented on the screen. Now Joss might say that he wasn't given a chance to develop the story the way he wanted to, but that's lazy storytelling. Good storytelling doesn't require commentary. It's all out there on the screen. He demonstrated he could do that with the early seasons of Buffy. Unfortunately, he got lazy in the later seasons of Buffy where he had to explicitly lay out the themes he was exploring because he had never shown them on screen; I stole this point from David Hines's review of the season four finale where he says:

the "Slayerettes being driven apart" angle has been done so ineffectively over the season that the writers have had to hammer it on in the past couple of episodes to let us know that yes, they were *trying* to do something, and they hadn't just forgotten quality screen time for the supporting characters *really.* Accordingly, Fury doesn't have much choice but to make his resolution of the mess clumsy, hammering the plotline home even as he resolves it. The characters saying there have been problems substitutes for the problems' adequate development onscreen; this is essentially the writers saying to the audience, "Look, guys, we were *trying* to do something here, dammit."

Another issue with Firefly is that Joss was a total prima donna by this point. A great example is the episode "Objects in Space", written and directed by Joss. In the commentary, he describes the episode as an illustration of existentialist philosophy, dropping in references to Sartre's Nausea. Okay, it's kind of neat that he's figured out a way to project his college philosophy into a sci-fi show, but this was one of the first thirteen episodes of a new struggling series! The show was not nearly established enough to be able to waste one of his first episodes creating a philosophical meditation. He needed to be creating characters that we cared about and story arcs that actually had more than a couple seconds of airtime per episodes. His commentary points out some things that were maybe revealed in passing by the episode, but it's so subtle as to be on the verge of created in a postmodern sort of way.

Anyway. Not that any of this is relevant. I don't need much of an excuse to demonstrate my insanely detailed knowledge of the Buffyverse. So, yeah. I think it would have been interesting to see where Joss was heading with Firefly, especially with the X-Files-esque arc involving River. Apparently Joss was able to acquire the movie rights, so we'll at least get the first set of answers this summer, as the movie picks up six months after the last episode filmed for television. It's a pity, though. I find I prefer well-done television shows to movies. The depth of character and plot development that is possible over the many hours of a television season is much more satisfying than trying to wrap everything up in the two hours of a movie. I wish Joss had been able to rein in his excesses on Firefly, because I think it could have been a jewel of a series. Alas.

P.S. One addendum, a couple days after I originally wrote the above, but before I post it. I think one of the differences between Buffy and Firefly is that Buffy was more episodic. I think Firefly actually works better in a DVD format, because several episodes can be watched in close succession, which allows the viewer to get a better handle on the universe and on the numerous characters. When it was on weekly, it was very confusing, and never developed momentum. I think Joss severely underestimated the difficulty of starting a new show franchise, especially moving to a new network.

If I were him, I would have spent the entire first season introducing us to the characters and to the universe, in effect doing what he tried to do in a single two hour pilot. I think it would have worked much better if he'd started out with a few episodes with just the Serenity crew of Mal, Zoe, Wash, Jayne and Kaylee. Establish them first, establish their identities as the outlaws on the fringe of the universe. Episodes like Jaynestown and the Train Job would have been appropriate for this phase, because the other ship residents didn't contribute a whole lot in those. Then introduce Inara. A few episodes to let that settle in, including Our Mrs. Reynolds for the compare/contrast between Inara and Saffron. Then Book could hop aboard, and another few episodes establishing his character, and exploring some of his background that was only hinted at in the series. Then at about episode 13, right around February sweeps, introduce Simon and River, and, since you've already established the other characters and the universe, you can spend four episodes in a row setting the River arc in motion. Something like that would have been a more measured introduction to the series universe and made it easier for the casual viewer to get on board.

Instead the viewer was tossed into the middle of the universe, with lots of little snippets referring ahead to plots that had yet to be introduced (like the Blue Sun plotline that Joss refers to in the commentary). It was disorienting and offputting, and that's exactly what you can't afford when starting a new series.

Contrast the Firefly approach of starting with too many characters with what happened with Buffy. Buffy started with four main characters, Buffy, Giles, Willow and Xander. By the end of season one, Cordelia and Angel were added. Oz was added to the mix in season two, as was Spike. By season five, there were way too many characters for a newbie to the show to keep track of, but that was okay because the show was already well established at that point. In contrast, Firefly tried to start with as many main characters as it took Buffy three seasons to introduce. No wonder it was confusing.

Okay, I'm going to post this now because I've officially spent way too long thinking about this.

posted at: 23:03 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/tv | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 05 Apr 2004

Never mind
So the day that I get around to recommending Wonderfalls is the day it's cancelled. Check out Tim Minear's site for the official word (and the 180+ people who have written comments bemoaning the show's fate). Fox sucks. Only four episodes of the thirteen filmed made it on air. And Fox gave it no chance, putting it in the worst time slots of its schedule. And here's the best part of all: Wonderfalls' time slot on Thursday is going to a _repeat_ showing of one of the most disgusting reality shows of the season, The Swan, where they take average-looking women, perform extreme amounts of plastic surgery on them to make them "beautiful", and then force them to take part in a beauty pageant, just so they can get those feelings of rejection and image insecurity right back again. It's awful on so many levels that I get angry just thinking about it. And a _repeat_ (excuse me, Fox, an "encore" showing) of that is deemed to be better by the network than an original showing of one of the most interesting and entertaining shows I've seen this year? I mean, I know it's all about money, but the episodes have already been filmed. And as far as advertising, I have to believe that the demographics of Wonderfalls skew towards more intelligent and wealthy viewers than The Swan. You'd think somebody would take that into account. And even if they didn't, giving good shows a chance is how you build a reputation as a decent network (as opposed to the trash reality TV image that Fox has). Seinfeld was a ratings disaster for years before it became a powerhouse. Most critically acclaimed shows take time to find an audience, but when they do, that audience is loyal beyond belief (Buffy and Angel come to mind). Argh. I hate the way TV is run in this country. I'd happily pay a subscription fee to keep shows that I like on the air. But I'm not given the option. In the meantime, I'll have to be satisfied with buying the DVD of Wonderfalls if/when it comes out.

posted at: 14:46 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/tv | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 03 Apr 2004

There's a new show on Fox called Wonderfalls (Thursdays, 9pm, Fox). I like it, which means it's pretty much doomed (c.f. Sports Night or Boomtown). I watched the first episode for a bunch of reasons; the premise (tchotchkes talking to a disaffected clerk in a tourist trap) sounded interesting and similar to Joan of Arcadia, but more importantly, I trusted the show creators. The executive producer is Tim Minear, who wrote several of the best episodes of Angel. One of the creators is Bryan Fuller, who created Dead Like Me, a show that I've only seen one episode of (at a motel which happened to have Showtime), but I really liked the sense of humor and whimsy in that one episode. So I gave it a chance. And I love it.

The main character, Jaye Tyler, got a degree in philosophy from Brown, but moved back to her hometown of Niagara Falls and is now working retail and living in a trailer. She's wonderfully snarky. She snarls at people that cross her, she avoids customers like the plague, and generally tries to avoid making anything of her life. She's got one of those impossible overachieving families of television, but it sets up all sorts of hilarious situations, so I'll roll with it. In fact, the whole sense of humor of the show appeals to me greatly, which, again, means it's doomed, because I know I'm not part of the mainstream humor-wise. Alas.

But in Jaye Tyler, the writers of the show have created an archetype of the disaffected slackers of my generation. In the second episode, she's described as having created "a stressless, expectation-free zone" around her. One of the comments at Tim Minear's site said that they didn't like the show because they didn't understand why Jaye was so angry. They said that Jaye had everything: a loving family, a great education, every advantage it's possible to have, and they didn't understand why "she's determined to try to spite [her family] by taking a dead end job that she clearly hates." I'll step in here and offer my own explanation. Jaye isn't angry. She is, if anything, afraid. She _has_ been given all the advantages in life, which means she has no excuse for failure. The expectations on her are overwhelming. So she consciously chooses to reject those expectations, to create that "stressless, expectation-free zone" around her. By lowering everybody's expectations, she regains the freedom to chart the course of her own life.

It goes further than that, though. Her family are all mythical overachievers - her father is a doctor, her mother a successful writer, her sister a lawyer, and her brother a graduate student. Yet she knows how unhappy they are. She has seen that "success" in the conventional sense does not guarantee happiness or even satisfaction. So she's looking for another path, but one that she can take on her terms, without being judged by the standards of society. Her retail job, her living in a trailer, these are all attempts to erase the slate of expectations and start over, allowing her to define success on her terms.

No, I'm not projecting at all.

It's definitely made me think a bit about my own life. Jaye's situation is viewed conventionally as a dead-end. But then these animals start talking to her, giving her things to do. In some sense, they're giving her a cosmic kick-in-the-butt to get moving (as an aside, it's unclear what makes the animals talk. I think it makes a lot of sense that it's Jaye's own conscience). I kind of feel that I may need a similar kick myself. Not the dead-end part, but I'm too comfortable where I am. I have done such a good job of managing expectations at my job that I am easily able to satisfy all the demands put on me. So it's not that hard, and it's well-paying, and gives me lots of time to do other things with my life. But it's not very satisfying, partially because it's not challenging me. Or I'm not challenging myself. So I feel like I'm waiting for something to tell me what to do next. Hopefully, I won't have inanimate objects actually start talking to me, but I want some sign from the universe. I think. If you see me wearing aluminum foil hats a year from now trying to get the universe to stop talking to me, you'll know I asked for it.

Anyway, back to Wonderfalls. It's already being threatened with cancellation. Tim Minear wrote a plea to viewers to tell their friends to watch, as did Caroline Dhavernas, the actress who plays Jaye. So if you watch television, and you think my sardonic comments are funny, check this show out. Especially if you have a Nielsen box. Which none of us do. Because apparently the way you become a Nielsen family is by answering a bunch of surveys over the telephone. And we all have better things to do than talk on the phone, so when they ask "Do you have some time to take a survey?", we say "No." and hang up.

But still, watch the show. It's still finding its footing, and the plotting is pretty uneven, but it's already a lot of fun, and the dialogue is sparkling. Thumbs up.

posted at: 08:20 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/tv | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 10 Feb 2004

The Apprentice
Okay, I'm not too proud to admit that I've been watching The Apprentice when I happen to be home on Thursday evenings. It's pretty fascinating to see the different strategies towards the challenges that people take; some are free-wheeling, some want to lay out a process and a plan, etc. But the thing that I originally thought was genius was the boardroom scenes where Trump asks them to assign blame for failure. It generally turns into a free-for-all and a lot of bad feelings get raised. And then the teammates have to go back and try to accomplish the next task together. Unfortunately, it appears that the boardroom scenes are so disruptive to team morale that once a team starts losing, they continue losing because they don't trust each other any more. The men lost the first week, and then proceeded to lose the next three weeks, and I don't think it was necessarily because the women were that much more competent than the men. It will be interesting to see if my theory holds up over the next few weeks now that the teams have been reshuffled; will the new Protege team that lost last week continue to lose? I suspect so. Teams are a delicate thing, and it doesn't make much resentment or ill will to totally destroy a smoothly functioning team. And I think that's what we're seeing on The Apprentice.

posted at: 00:24 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/tv | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 22 Nov 2003

What makes a good drama?
So I watch way too much tv. And I was watching Joan of Arcadia last night and realized one of the reasons that I liked the show; there were consequences. Unlike most sitcoms and many dramas, there isn't a big reset button at the end of each episode where everybody ends up happy. People stay pissed at each other for multiple episodes; when Joan's friend dissed her(*) in this episode, it was harsh. In fact, the whole show is about consequences; God asks Joan to do things, and never explains why, but the actions tend to have good ripple effects, reminding us that all actions have consequences that we may not even consider. It's not a show that I really expected to like. I expected it to be something cloying like Touched by an Angel. But it's turning out to be one of the more enjoyable shows of the season. The dialogue needs work, and I'm not sure how sustainable the whole chaos butterfly effect scenario is, but the acting is excellent (especially Amber Tamblyn as the oh-so-believable disenchanted teenager Joan) and I'm planning to continue watching.

(*) I'd been wondering why they'd had one of Joan's friends, Adam, call her Jane all season long. It was kind of cute, just a weird idiosyncratic thing he did that kind of set the tone for his dreamy distracted character. And it paid off this week when she's trying to apologize to him, and he listens and then says "Whatever, Joan" and walks off. Boo-yah. Utter harshness. The first time he uses her real name in the entire series and it's to diss her. Which sets into relief his use of Jane before as an affectionate nickname. I really liked this detail. Obviously. Since I'm writing about it and all.

posted at: 09:52 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/tv | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal