The Netflix Effect: Silly Journalism

DC  Comics editor Julius Schwartz had a habit of commissioning covers first, and then telling the writer & artist of the book to work from that cover. It’s a creative approach to fiction, but not ideal for writing the news.

The Ontario Government released a list of the most popular baby names in 2014, and noted that some names seem to be inspired by popular TV shows. The Toronto Star went a step further, and wrote a story about The Netflix Effect, theorizing that baby names weren’t merely influenced by television, but specifically by TV shows streamed on Netflix. Then they attempted to back up their theory.

Dubbed the “Netflix Effect,” the names of characters from shows such as Orange is the New Black are hitting the top 100 or 150 or just making an appearance thanks to the popularity of Internet-streamed series.

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The Leftovers Manufactures Meaningless Suspense

HBO’s newest series, The Leftovers, was created by Damon Lindelof, one of the head writers on Lost. This should raise some red flags.

Lost had its moments: It set up an intriguing premise, and was great at building suspense and mystery. But the mysteries grew and grew, and the resolutions seemed farther and farther away; cliffhangers would tease at revelations, only to see the story move in a completely different direction in the next episode. I gave up midway through the second season, abandoning any hopes I would ever see anything resolved.

The Leftovers starts with a similarly mysterious premise: One day, in a Rapture-type event, people disappear. But with the series starting three years after the mass disappearance, it creates a second mystery: What has happened since the disappearance?

This is an odd sort of mystery, because the characters all know what happened during those three years; as such, The Leftovers seems largely built upon keeping things from the audience. There’s a certain amount of logic to this – while the world of The Leftovers is foreign to viewers, it’s become an everyday reality for the characters within it – but it also requires the script to avoid some obvious topics until they can be revealed in the most dramatic fashion.

A mild spoiler for the pilot follows. Except it’s not really a spoiler, as we shall soon see. 

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Game of Thrones has nothing to say about rape, continues to say it very badly & loudly

There are many choices that need to be made when adapting a book into a TV show or movie. Some things work on the page but not on the screen, and some things simply need to be cut for time. This goes quadruple for a series of books as massive as Game of Thrones – the sheer volume of characters and subplots would render any adaptation a confusing mess. For the most part, HBO’s Game of Thrones has made a lot of smart choices, paring down the cast of characters and streamlining some of the stories. We can quibble about what has or hasn’t worked – someone like Shae gets more character development, while poor Melisandre is stripped of her complexity – but we can agree that some changes are necessary.

Having said all that, it’s hard to imagine that someone would read George R.R. Martins’ books and come to the conclusion that the audience needs to see even more rape and cruelty.

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Breaking Bad’s finale is neat, clean, and tidy. And that’s bad.

Remember Heisenberg?

Before the name was borrowed by everyone’s favourite meth-dealing alter-ego, it belonged to Werner Heisenberg, a German Nobel-prize-winning physicist. My knowledge of science stopped expanding in grade 12, so I can’t possibly explain his contributions to science, but he’s largely known for the uncertainty principle. Loosely speaking, it says that when you try to measure something, you affect that thing, possibly in ways you can’t expect.

Breaking Bad has been largely defined by its attention to unforeseen, or unforeseeable, consequences. It’s most obvious in season two, where the death of an addict results in an airplane crash, but it shows up repeatedly: Walt tries to gas the drug dealers who plan to kill him, but ends up with a prisoner in Jesse’s basement. Skyler only wants to frighten Ted Beneke, but puts him in the hospital instead. Walt and his gang can execute a flawless train robbery, but it all goes to hell when a kid on a dirtbike shows up. Most of the major conflicts of the series arise from Walt thinking he can work with – even control – men like Tuco, Gus, and Uncle Jack, only to see things spiral out of control.

If there were a moral to Breaking Bad, it would surely  be something about hubris; references to Ozymandias were not coincidental. But to reduce the series and its protagonist to a moral lesson is simplistic, and beside the point. Instead, let’s say that Breaking Bad had a principle, and that principle was uncertainty; that real life, real human beings, are messy and unpredictable, and that the more you try to exert control, the faster you lose it. And that in its final episode, it threw aside the principle it had worked so hard to define in an attempt to tie everything up.

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Walter White and the No-Good, Very Bad Nazis

Beware: Spoilers for everything up until the final episode of Breaking Bad.

Todd VanDerWerff wrote a great piece at Grantland comparing the trajectories of Dexter and Breaking Bad. The main point is that Dexter has always avoided making its protagonist the bad guy. Yes, he’s a serial killer, but a) he only kills bad people, and b) he’s a lovable, cuddly guy when he’s not murdering people.

VanDerWerff cites the end of season 2 as the defining moment: After pitting Dexter against the suspicious and driven Sgt. Doakes, the show had two choices: Dexter would be exposed as a murderer and caught, or Doakes – who was essentially a decent guy, despite being a tremendous asshole – had to die. Doakes died, but not at the hands of Dexter, handily absolving the protagonist of breaking his code and killing someone who wasn’t a horrible murderer and/or rapist.

For the first two seasons, Dexter had a real sense of danger: This was a man who needed to kill, who enjoyed killing, even if he tried to abide by a code. While the series has had a few high points since then, the tone has been markedly different: Dexter is the good guy. The audience will always be on Dexter’s side.

This is in stark contrast to Breaking Bad, where Walter White has done some truly fucking terrible things. There’s always an element of justification for his crimes – protecting his family, or simple self-preservation – but they’ve consistently been diluted by greed, entitlement, and anger. No one could fault Walt for killing Crazy 8, who certainly would have killed him if the tables were turned. But what about Jane? Or Mike?

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Game of Thrones 2.4: Bad Boys

I’m not a terribly squeamish person when it comes to violence in my entertainment. I’ve seen a lot of Takashi Miike films, I’ve read American Psycho, and I enjoy some brutal violence and gushing blood when it’s presented the right way. I don’t think any behaviour or act is truly out of bounds in fiction, though its relevance or usefulness to any given story may be questionable. I’m a fan of chasing characters into trees and then throwing rocks at them – whether physical or emotional – because that’s where drama  and character development happen. Continue reading →

The Office solves a problem no one had

Finally, The Office got around to answering the question that was on everyone’s minds after Andy’s  reunion with Erin: What’s going to happen to Jessica?

To be fair, the more prevalent question was probably “Jessica? Who’s Jessica?” Or possibly “What’s the name of that woman Andy was dating?”

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Game of Thrones’ Women Troubles

If you set your story in a medieval-style world, are you obligated to treat your female characters like crap?

This is the question Game of Thrones struggles with, both on page and on screen. Westeros is unquestionably a male-dominated world, but George R.R. Martin has created more intelligent and interesting female characters than the average fantasy author, and for the most part he manages to treat characters of all genders terribly at one point or another. Continue reading →

Parks and Recreation 4-14: Operation Ann

Parks & Recreation defines its characters extremely well. Everyone has a role in the dynamic of the show, and while the nature of comedy & drama demands those roles be stretched and challenged from time to time, the show always knows what its characters are about.

The major exception to this rule is Ann Perkins. Ann started off as a plot device: She wanted the pit behind her house filled in. She volunteered to help Leslie get it done, and followed her through all the bureaucracy and crazy shenanigans that involved. Along the way she and Leslie bonded as friends, and Rashida Jones settled into the role of playing straight man to Amy Poehler’s insanity.

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