This is just Dean-lightening

So for those of you who don’t know, PBS funds a show on youtube called ideachannel. It features some fantastically out there ideas, usually backed by pretty solid evidence. It’s pretty entertaining to watch, and they just did an episode on Community… so… you know I’m all over that. Anyway, take a look. video after the jump. Continue reading “This is just Dean-lightening”


English assignment #2

Today we read a passage in class dealing with television and the corruption thereof of the sacred family time. Afterwards, our teacher asked us to answer this question from the book.

Q: [The author] asks, “How long are we going to keep passively selling our own and our children’s souls to keep Madison Avenue on Easy Street?” (sic) Do you agree or disagree with Mayer’s contention that television has had a largely negative effect on our children and families? Write a paragraph in which you defend one of the following statements: “I believe TV is generally a harmful influence on children and families” or “I believe TV is not all that bad for children and families.” Use specific examples to support your argument.

pictured: your childhood dying.
pictured: your childhood dying.

So this is what I came up with:

I believe TV is not all that bad for children and families. To say it were would be to cast aspersions on such folk as Wilde, Marlowe, and Shakespeare. Television is nothing more than a technologically advanced version of the playhouse where Will Kemp and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men did strut and fret their weary hours. Television is a storytelling medium, with a rich history stretching back as far as language itself. Even when the stories are not strictly educational, still they can teach, in their finer moments, about the underlying truths of humanity – teaching us that we are not alone in the darkness. Television can remind us that there are others like us, laughing, crying, and courageous, sharing with us the rich tapestry that is life – a far better purpose than mere entertainment.

pictured: art.
pictured: art.

So what would you do differently? ^^ I’d like to know.

An Open Letter to ABC and Comedy Central

To Whom It May Concern:

This letter is regarding your decisions to let your content broadcast contract lapse with Hulu in favor of broadcasting streaming content on your own websites.

Your companies are smart, tech savvy and moving forward to be on the edge of modern entertainment. You’ve done an admirable job so far of making sure that your income from advertisement stays reasonably steady, and that your content stays available, reducing the draw for illegal download.

All this leaves me with one question: What bonehead tech company did you contract with to assemble your website and stream your videos?

The websites are overdone, cluttered messes. The videos, when they work, have bugs in the interface that make them almost unwatchable – shading into completely unwatchable. Videos and advertisements sometimes don’t stream at all.

Go ahead – check. Ask your viewers what they think. Watch the videos themselves. Go to your own website. I’ll wait.

I don’t download content illegally. I also don’t choose to support badly put together websites. And since I’m not willing to support your network’s website, I’m not going to buy your content on DVD either – which is sad, because I enjoy having a DVD copy of my favorite shows.

You have good shows, but unless you can get your website together or give streaming licenses to the people who know how to do it (i.e. Hulu), you’re going to lose a lot of viewers like me.

With Sincerest Regrets,


On Film, the Skinner Box, and Television

I usually leave film and television reviews to the professionals. Generally speaking, they understand the media far better than I do. However, there are a few things I’d like to say – some negative, some positive – on the general subject of how film and television works are made, and what trends seem to be manifesting in the process lately.

First, let’s set some ground rules: I’m not here to promote or deride any particular film or series; I may use a few as examples, but by and large I’m interested in the larger picture – the trends and forces shaping modern film arts.

Second, I may need to bring my readers up to speed on some psychological research that’s been done regarding a similar, but off-tangent, media: video and computer gaming. So let’s get that out of the way now, shall we?

Skinner Boxes and Addictive Gaming

B.F. Skinner was a professor of psychology at Harvard. He was also an inventor, author, and social philosopher. Way back in the 30’s or so, while he was still a graduate student, he created the ‘Operant Conditioning Chamber‘, now commonly referred to by the nickname ‘Skinner Box’.

In brief, the box could be used to experiment in the field of behavior deterrence/reinforcement – using animals as the test subjects, of course.

The methodology was simple: use rewards and punishments in carefully controlled increments and timing to train a test subject into or out of the desired behavior.

Fast forward to the modern day, and it’s not too surprising that the creators of video games are very interested in applying Skinner’s research to game creation: after all, games are now focusing on replay factor and MMO subscriptions, rather than single use purchases. Games like World of Warcraft and Farmville are particularly egregious examples of behavioral modification through Skinnerian reinforcement techniques. For more on  this subject, you can check out the Cracked article here, which does an apt and accurate job of bringing this nasty subject to light.

Movies, the cash cow and art form

Movies recently have started very obviously color-coding their films in order to produce the desired emotion: green for an off-kilter effect (Fight Club, The Matrix), blue for horror (The Ring, Saw), gray and washed out for an apocalyptic, gritty feel (The Book Of Eli, Terminator: Salvation). This has nothing to do with art, and everything to do with creating a recognizable tone that the audience will behaviorally associate with other films they’ve seen in that particular genre. Generally the movies that do this follow the color coding of other, successful, predecessors.

Psychologically speaking, until you sit back and really analyze the film, your responses to the film will tend to be influenced by your feelings about that other film. It’s subtle, and very real science, and allows film-makers to be hap-hazard about cluing the audience in to the plot. All that’s needed is a sketchy outline, and we fill in the painting with our minds.

I’m not saying that there haven’t been beautiful and amazing films released, nor that the only ones worth considering are independent – far from it. I just think it’s a worrying trend towards artistic laziness and Skinnerian plot techniques.

Film is still the mildest offender of the three major moving-picture media (games,TV,movies). And don’t be worried that somehow the studios are going to control your brain – there’s no profit margin. Lol.

the Boob Tube and the Skinner Box
When one sees a character one identifies with rewarded, one tends to feel rewarded themselves. When one sees that character punished, that same identification works to make one feel punished. This can form an addictive cycle, forcing watchers to tune in for every episode in order to feel the rush of reward and punishment. This is most prominently used in daytime soaps like All My Children or Days Of Our Lives, but it’s increasingly common in prime-time television. Everything seems affected, from reality programming like Biggest Loser and Next Food Network Star, through the crime genre like Bones and NCIS, to shows like Glee and The Gates.

In the case of the reality programs, the audience feels attached to the outcome because it could be them up there. In the case of Bones, NCIS, and similar shows, the interactions between major characters often occlude the ostensible premise of the show, and create reward/loss scenarios. In the final two examples, Glee and The Gates, the only seeming purpose of the show is character interaction in a reward/loss paradigm, any reasonable course of action being thrown out the window in favor of cheap drama – to the point of the ridiculous.

Final Summary: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Skinner Box

In the final analysis, these shows and games and movies may indeed be using cheap, contemptible and dirty tricks to get us to watch, play, and pay. The question remains, is that necessarily so bad?

I’ve done some waffling on this: I don’t like it when someone tries to get inside my head and condition me to like things. It’s creepy, and it brings up too many Brave New World connotations for me to be comfortable.

On the other hand, I’m a realist, and it seems to me that as long as there is a competitive entertainment industry, there will be attempts to gain market share by any (legal) means necessary. Is it a good thing? I don’t know. But I know it’s probably here to stay.

My opinion is that it’s only bad when the quality of the medium is reduced to the point of honest bafflement over a show’s popularity – i.e. when most of us are watching it, and not knowing why we watch it, or hating ourselves for doing so. In point of fact, most of the shows, movies and games I’ve mentioned are in and of themselves pretty enjoyable – and would be more so if the creators weren’t so pathetically eager to pull out the stops in a cynical bid for our wallets.

So gimme a pellet, Skinner – I’m ready for my box.

Human Target: Good show. No, man, REALLY good.

I just saw the pilot for the new show Human Target.

For those of you who haven’t seen the advertisements, the premise is that the main character, one Christopher Chance, is a private eye who offers a specialized service – he’ll go undercover, flush out the bad guy, and take him out.

I didn’t walk in with high expectations. Matter of fact, the only reason I saw it at all was pure accident. I got up too early for a medical appointment and had some time to kill before getting out the door. Lucky me, because I made a pleasant discovery.

I was blown away by this show. The cinematography was eye-catching, the fight scenes were so realistic and complex I thought I’d stepped into a Bourne movie,  and the supporting cast was made up of people who can act blindfolded and hog-tied – and do it better than ninety percent of their peers. I particularly noticed Tricia Helfer, who played the stunning and complex role of Cylon Number Six in the new version of Battlestar Galactica. Her acting was, as usual, a treat. Jackie Earle Haley was extremely entertaining as Guerrero, Chi Mcbride (who most people will remember from his well-turned role as Stephen Harper on the show Boston Public) turned out with his usual panache as Winston, the Human Target’s agent, and Mark Valley, the Human Target himself . . . words fail me. In a good way.

I mean the show even has a good THEME. A good theme, fer chrissake! smart, catchy, but not trite or inane. . . this is a theme that feels like the theme from the A-team or Paladin (“Have Gun, Will Travel”), where it’s so perfect at setting the mood that it almost doesn’t matter whether the episode is good or not.  Give it a shot. I doubt me you’ll be disappointed . . . but I’ve been wrong before.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Family Guy, An astoundingly well-written… DRAMA?

If I said that it was funny, nobody would be amazed, because that’s obvious to everybody but Sarah Palin and Il Papa. If I said it was entertaining, I’d get a mixed bag of responses, but most would agree. Today I put to you, ladies and gentlemen, a more difficult argument: That Family Guy – as well as being one of the finest comedies, animated or not, to grace the air – is also a surprisingly moving drama, following in the footsteps of such greats as All In The Family.

One can bring to mind many, many episodes with a moving line, situation, or plot element. Enumerating each one, however, would soon prove repetitious and boring. So instead I shall use as an exemplar the most recent episode, called ‘Jerome Is The New Black’. I hope I won’t give spoilers, but be warned anyway. If you haven’t seen it, hie thyself off to Hulu and do so before reading this. This is not a review.

In this episode, we face issues of latent racism, the cultural bias in our country (and many others) against inter-racial sex, and the conundrum of what to do when someone truly loathes everything you are.

The central theme is the search for a new friend to take Cleveland’s place. When Brian asks to join the group, Peter simply responds that Quagmire hates Brian’s guts.

Brian spends the entire episode trying to get Quagmire to like him. He eventually corners Quagmire, pressing for an explanation, since Quagmire’s feelings are obviously not going to change. What follows is one of the most brutally honest tear-downs of a character’s perceived and objective flaws that I have ever seen.

What’s better, it rang true. The audience is moved not only to hurt with Brian, but to agree with Quagmire, which makes the audience hurt all the more. It was truly impressive, a stunning piece of writing I can only wish I had written first – the best compliment a writer can give.

I will not repeat what Quagmire said here. It is far, far better for you to hear it as part of the narrative whole, and judge for yourselves. I sincerely invite your comments after having done so, so long as they aren’t flames about the series. Whether you like the series isn’t what I’m interested in. Simply put, I want to know what you think of that particular scene – the lines, the acting, and so on. How did it make you feel? was the scene (not the series, not even the episode) good? Why?

I hope to hear from you all soon!