Let’s Talk About Gaming Addiction

Recently the World Health Organization (WHO) has moved to include gaming disorder as part of the 11th revision of their International Classification of Diseases.  According to their website, gaming disorder is defined as “a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”  It goes on to say that, to be classified as a disorder, the amount of gaming must be severe enough to impair a person’s functioning in daily life for a time period of at least twelve months.

My initial reaction to this, of course, was an instinctual dislike.  Video games are one of my primary hobbies, and have been since I was a kid.  So when I heard that gaming disorder was going to be an officially recognized thing, I immediately thought that it couldn’t be good.  And the interesting thing is that the pushback against the classification didn’t just come from people who play video games.  It also came from medical experts who believe that the WHO’s definition of gaming disorder is too vague and too broad.

However, at the same time, the classification does make sense.  There are people out there who definitely spend far too much time on video games, so much so that it starts to take precedence over everything else.  And we are long overdue for a conversation about mental health in this country.  Because while conservative politicians love to blame mental health issues for mass shooting events, they never seem to actually DO anything about it.

But that’s a rant for another time.

Gaming addiction is not a new issue, especially in places like South Korea where it has become such a problem that they even have gaming addiction rehabilitation clinics.  So it’s definitely something worth talking about.  But on the other hand, there’s the media, who have a long and storied history of being slanted against video games.  For instance, here’s this story from the BBC, which was originally titled “Computer game addiction: ‘I spend 20 plus hours a week gaming”.

Pffft…that’s weak.  Get real kids.  Twenty hours is nothing.  You hear me?  Nothing!

In all seriousness, if you actually watch the video, it at least explains that the kid who plays “20 plus hours” a week is part of a healthy crowd of friends.  But if all you see is the headline, your perception of that “20 plus hours” is going to be much different.

And if we’re really going to criticize video games in this way, I think it’s worth noting how we consume another medium: television.  According to this New York Times article from back in 2016, a Nielsen study found that, on average, American adults watch five hours of television a day.  So per week, that adds up to roughly thirty-five hours of television.  Yet we don’t see the WHO coming out with a classification on television watching disorder, or the BBC making a video about people addicted to television.  And the only major reason I can think of for this is that watching television is a normalized thing, whereas video games are still seen as a kind of weird new thing that people don’t understand.

This is to say nothing about the fact that binge-watching is not only a term, but a socially acceptable one.  When “Stranger Things” season 2 came out, over three hundred thousand people watched the entire season in one day.  But of course we’re not raising a stink about this.  We might scoff and say “get a life”, but our condemnation never goes much beyond that.

I should mention here that even the WHO recognizes that the number of those afflicted with this gaming disorder are a very small percentage of the people who play video games regularly.  And I’m willing to bet that, more often than not, the root cause of the addiction lies not with the games themselves, but with something in that person’s life that has forced them to retreat into their hobby.  Because video games are typically used as a way to cope with the stresses of life, something I can attest to personally.  While there are some games that are designed to entice players to keep playing regularly over months and even years, we need to understand that the extreme form of addiction the WHO is talking about is not the norm, especially in a country where the statistic of watching over thirty hours of television a week is accepted without so much as a second thought.

In the end, it’s possible to have an unhealthy addiction to pretty much anything.  And it’s time we accepted that instead of adhering to this stodgy old idea of “everything was better when I was growing up and anything new in these kid’s lives is clearly bad for them”.

Because the world is going to change, whether we like it or not.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of next month for another post, and as always, have a wonderful day.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

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Spotlight: Star Trek Discovery Season 1 (Full Season)

Warning: some spoilers for the first season of “Discovery” follow.  Read at your own risk.

Space…the final frontier.

I mentioned this already when I did a brief review of the first three episodes, but “Star Trek: Discovery” initially inspired little more than skepticism in me.  It seemed like it was going to go too hard into the dark and edgy territory, forgetting what Star Trek’s roots were all about.  But after watching the entire season, I can safely say my fears were completely unfounded.

“Discovery” not only succeeds as a show, but proves that Star Trek still has a place in modern television.

 

Reusing old images is fun!

 

Back when I reviewed the first three episodes, I said that the two-part premiere had some rough spots.  And, looking back on the season as a whole, I can definitely say that it is probably the weakest of the entire season.  It does its job well enough, but it throws a lot of elements at you at once.  It sets the tone for the rest of the season, and gives the crew of the Discovery motivation to do what they’re doing.

I won’t spoil too much, but suffice it to say that Burnham’s character becomes infamous after the events of the two-part premiere.  She’s being carted off to a new prison roughly six months later when her trip is interrupted and she finds herself on-board the USS Discovery on the whim of its captain, Gabriel Lorca.  He offers her a position on the ship, which she initially refuses but quickly comes to terms with what her options are and decides to accept.

At first I thought the show was going to revolve around the mystery of Discovery and what was happening on the ship, because the first episode (episode three) that features the ship gives it a very mysterious air.  But the mystery of what the ship is working on is very quickly revealed.  I wouldn’t call it a detriment though, as most shows that hinge on a mystery like that tend to get drawn out and stale.  Rather, dealing with it sooner allows “Discovery” to move forward and into new territory.  And that seems to be a common theme.  The show shifts and changes as the season goes in, due in large part to some serious re-tooling going on behind the scenes.  The original show runner, Bryan Fuller, was asked to leave the show about a year before it premiered.  Some of his original ideas were left in place, but the show seemed to struggle with them.  Eventually, it seems that the show moved off in a different direction, and all for the better.  The second half of the season is even better than the first.

One of the greatest successes of “Discovery” comes in how it was able to combine the meaningful plots of the older Star Trek shows with the lighter, more action-oriented pacing of modern television.  But what might be an even bigger success is how it managed to create an appealing, engaging cast of characters so quickly.  Paul Stammets, Discovery‘s engineer, is a breakout favorite among show watchers, but I grew particularly fond of Sylvia Tilly as well.

 

Sylvia Tilly

 

Tilly is one of those characters whose defining trait upon first meeting her is her social awkwardness.  She talks a lot when she’s nervous.  Much like my initial reaction to “Discovery” as a whole, I was prepared to grate my teeth and be annoyed by her character, because television shows usually play up this trait so much it becomes annoying.  But Tilly becomes a great character in her own, taking on the mantle of Stammets’ protege.  She is often a source of comic relief, but doesn’t become the useless character I feared she might.  She’s actually given a decent amount to do.  And later on in the season, when Stammets is out of commission for a time, she is given an opportunity to show off what she knows and directly contributes to the success of the ship’s missions.

One of my favorite scenes with her happens fairly early on in the season.  Take a look.

Speaking of characters, it’s also one of the only major places where “Discovery” drops the ball.  Most of the show’s issues can be chalked up to the re-tooling going on behind the scenes and are forgivable.  But there are a couple of character arcs that could have been better.  For instance, Michael Burnham herself, who functions as the lens through which the audience views everything.  I mentioned before that Burnham becomes infamous after the premiere episode, and that’s due to a key choice she decides to make.  Well, at the end of the season the show attempts to tie together her character arc, insisting that she’s learned a lesson about violating principles and that her character is a better person for it.  And that’s nice and all, but I don’t feel like it’s entirely earned.  After the premiere and first couple of episodes, Burnham’s character development is mostly left on the back-burner in favor of the rest of Discovery‘s crew.  Sure, she’s is typically front and center when it comes to the action sequences, but it isn’t really until near the halfway mark when she gets a love interest that her character begins to show more development.  The second half of the season definitely showcases it better, giving her situations of moral complexity that force her to make decisions based on her principles.  But the sudden “I’ve learned my lesson” speech in the season finale seems a little misguided to me.

Another disappointment comes in the form of Discovery‘s captain, Lorca.  When he’s first introduced, there’s a distinct air of mystery around the character.  What his motivations are and why he decided to recruit Burnham in the first place are some of the questions that go unanswered for most of the season.  The only problem is, once the mystery around him is cleared up, Lorca becomes a very one-note character, almost cartoonish in a way.  It’s a disappointing endpoint for such an ambiguous and interesting character.

I could go on and on about “Discovery”, but I’ll spare you the time.  All I’ll say is that it’s definitely worth a watch, especially for those Star Trek fans who have been pining for a new show ever since “Enterprise” ended back in 2005.  It doesn’t do everything right, but everything that is there is damn good.  It’s a first season worthy of the Star Trek name, and I’m glad that they wrapped up the major plot lines in the season so that with the second one, they can go in newer and better directions.

Because let’s face it: an entire show about a war would get tiring eventually.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of March for another post, and as always, have a wonderful month.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Spotlight: Stranger Things Season 2

 

Warning: minor spoilers for “Stranger Things” follow.  Read at your own risk.

Ain’t no hype train like the “Stranger Things” hype train.

If shows like “Daredevil” and “House of Cards” put Netflix on the map when it came to the push for original programming from streaming services, “Stranger Things” is the one that put them over the top, as if to say “dude…this is serious business”.  The stellar first season was a massive hit.  And ever since the teaser trailer for season two dropped during the Super Bowl, the hype train has been steadily chugging along.  So the question becomes, does the second season live up to the first?

 

Spoiler alert: bad things happen to Will this season.

 

The first thing many people will likely notice is the difference in pacing.  Compared to season one, season two does a lot more building up and creating tension before anything really happens.  In fact, it’s not until the third episode when things start to get moving.  And this was a common theme I noticed in reviews: the slower pacing.

There seems to be this weird assumption in critic-land that having slower pacing than before is somehow a bad thing.  I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.  In many ways, it’s a good thing for this season.  It gives us some room to breathe, especially when compared to the breakneck pace things moved at in season one.  It also allows us to view these characters when they’re not under constant threat.  We get to watch them live their lives.  And it’s refreshing to just see some of these characters on a normal day, before everything inevitably goes crazy once again.  This season definitely has a larger focus on inter-personal relationships and conflict.

 

It’s especially refreshing to see Joyce Byers under normal circumstances, as she spent pretty much the entire first season as a nervous wreck on the verge of collapse.

 

Now, this does mean that each episode doesn’t necessarily have that cliffhanger hook that makes you want to keep watching, but that’s fine.  This is the second season.  At this point, we should be tuning in because we’re invested in the characters themselves, not because we have to see what comes next.  That’s something I’ve noticed a lot in modern television, and is particularly evident in broadcast television (i.e. not cable or satellite).  Advertisements for new episodes often are built around teasing a “shocking twist” that you’ll “never see coming” and will “blow your mind”.  Cliffhangers aren’t bad by nature, but if they’re used as the primary hook for a show without any substance behind them (such as complex characters), it just feels cheap and soulless to me.

But I digress.  “Stranger Things” season two introduces us to some new characters as well.  First off, we have new kid Maxine (Max for short) and her step-brother Billy, who basically spends the entire season being a massive a-hole.  Because of her step-brother and her family situation, which we learn a bit about later in the season, Max is a more hard-edged character than the other kids, although she does eventually end up following along with them.  And this is one of my only real gripes with this season.  While I appreciate the injection of new blood into the dynamic of the kids, Max and her step-brother don’t really seem to serve much purpose aside from causing tension within the group (although Max does have a pretty badass moment at the end of the season).

 

Sean Astin also stars in this season as Joyce’s new boyfriend. You’ll likely remember him as Sam from “Lord of the Rings” or from “The Goonies”, one of the movies “Stranger Things” took inspiration from.

 

 

Speaking of gripes, the various plot lines in this season may become a point of contention for some, as certain plots end up more fleshed out than others.  There was one in particular for me that fel underdeveloped.  As season two opens, we’re treated to an action scene with an unknown group of people fleeing the police.  It turns out one of them has psychic powers and a connection with Eleven.  It’s a great opener that entices us in with a bit of action.  My problem comes from the fact that this thread isn’t explored until near the end of the season.  There’s only one episode that centers around these people, and its only purpose seems to be to push Eleven in the right direction.

Oh yeah…Eleven’s back.  Spoilers I guess…although if you saw any of the trailers you already knew that.

Despite the complaints I or others may have, no one can doubt that the magic that permeated “Stranger Things” season one is still here.  Even if the beginning’s slower pacing rubs some people the wrong way, the season ends on a very strong note with some great character moments.  I’m always impressed by just how well-written and acted this show is, especially when it comes to the kid characters.  It’s funny too, because apparently when the Duffer brothers were shopping the show around to different studios, the studios wanted to cut the kids characters out entirely.  And now it’s hard to imagine the show without them.  It’s hard to imagine the show without any of the characters we’ve come to know and love.

And that’s the key thing: characters.  The characters are why we’ll return to Hawkins for season three.

Well…that and the spooks.  Everybody loves the spooks.

 

SPOOOOOOOOOOOOKS

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Procedural Gains? The Value of “Case of the Week” Television Shows

A long time ago, television was different.  Shows mainly focused on the weekly adventures of its characters, very rarely (if at all) connecting them in any meaningful way beyond the initial premise (i.e. “Gilligan’s Island”).  But nowadays we have shows like “Breaking Bad” or “The Walking Dead” which have a single, continuous story going on throughout their episodes.  Television has changed quite a bit.  I wrote a bit about serialized storytelling in television shows a while back, where I basically said that it’s becoming more and more the standard for television shows.  But what about those “case of the week” shows?  You know, all those shows like the “Law and Order”s and the “NCIS”s and even that “CSI” show where it’s imperative that David Caruso put his sunglasses on at the end of each episode.

 

We have sunglasses! Repeat. we have sunglasses! ROLL CREDITS!

 

Well, these type of shows are still around.  “But,” you might be asking, “how are these shows surviving if serialized storytelling is becoming the norm?”  Well, some of them aren’t.  “CSI: Miami” has been off the air for about five years now.  But even so, “CSI: Maimi” went on for ten seasons and the original “NCIS” is still going (they’re on season fourteen as of this writing).  So how did they make it?  How are they still drawing an audience in the age of serialized storytelling?

Part of it has to do with the nature of broadcast television itself.  Since each episode airs at a specific time on a specific night, it’s sometimes difficult for viewers to keep up with an overarching story.  You can watch recent episodes of shows on digital streaming services like Hulu, but a lot of those require a monthly fee.  It’s just simpler to watch a show where each episode is its own story that doesn’t connect the other episodes.  And they’re sort of relaxing in a way.  I’ll admit that I watch some of them back to back when I go back to my parent’s house for a weekend, partially because I don’t have television at my apartment (I do have a handful of broadcast channels, but nothing on them interests me).

But even with this simpler nature, the streaming age is still marching on.  As more and more people gain access to these services and as the internet infrastructure in the United States and other countries gets stronger and stronger, these shows will lose that edge.  If you can watch a show anytime you want, that pressure to sit down and watch at a specific time disappears entirely.  And it seems that broadcast television is aware of that in some way.  More procedural shows have started injecting serialized elements into their DNA.  Lots of crime shows will have arcs that take place over multiple episodes.  A good example of this would be a main character suffering an injury in an episode and then the following episodes dealing with the fallout and limitations of that, all while they go about solving the crime of the week.

And this is something that procedural shows are very good at.  In serialized shows, we see characters always under pressure, always struggling against great odds.  But rarely do we get to see how they’d react to what they’d consider a normal situation.  Procedural shows are actually good at giving us glimpses into the normal lives of their characters, rather than using broad strokes like most serialized shows do.  It actually tells you a lot about a person when you see how they respond to a normal, everyday problem rather than an extreme one.

On the flip side, when serialized shows try something like this it often ends up feeling forced or it messes with the pacing.  A good example of this would be in season three of “Breaking Bad”.  There’s a segment that deals almost exclusively with domestic drama between Walter and Skyler.  And it’s just…boring.  There’s a lot of tension, but very little release.  It doesn’t really go anywhere and it just feels as though the writers were looking for a way to eat up time.  I mean the best moment from that section of the show is Walter bringing his family a pizza.

 

Incidentally, this scene was so popular that the show creator had to make a statement asking fans to stop throwing pizza on the roof of the Walter White house.

 

The strength of procedural shows lies in the myriad ways they can examine their characters.  “Star Trek: The Next Generation” did a wonderful job with the episodes focusing on Data, the resident android.  In a way, we got to know Data far better than any of the other characters on the Enterprise. which made him a fan-favorite from the series.  It would be a shame if we lost that power because television is growing more and more serialized.  That being said, it appears broadcast television has a ways to go before they can compete with the likes of “Breaking Bad”.  In particular, ABC seems to go through new shows like a hot knife through better.  Remember “Time After Time”, the show about H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper?  If you don’t, that’s okay.  It was cancelled after five episodes.  And this happens a lot with broadcast.  I mentioned once that I thought broadcast television was too focused on the plot twists instead of the characters.  And the advertising seems indicate that, with commercials focusing on “that twist you’ll never see coming”.

But progress inevitably continues.  And eventually, they’ll have to catch up…sooner or later.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for my next short story!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Popularity and Controversy: “13 Reasons Why” and the Discussion Around Suicide

You’ve probably heard of the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why”, even if you haven’t actually watched it.  Controversy has surrounded it ever since it was released at the end of March.

For those who don’t know, “13 Reasons Why” centers around the suicide of a fictional high school student named Hannah Baker.  Following her suicide, her friend Clay receives a box of tapes, each with a message Hannah recorded before she died.  In the tapes, she lists the reasons why she committed suicide…or rather the people who drove her to it.  Since the show came out, there’s been a swirl of controversy surrounding it, as people have argued that the show glorifies the act of suicide.

 

 

Now, I’m going to add a disclaimer here: I’ve never actually watched the show myself.  So everything I’m about to say comes from that perspective.  Take that as you will.

“13 Reasons Why” was originally a book written by author Jay Asher, which released in 2007.  Asher himself recently spoke about the book and the show at the Twin Cities Teen Lit Convention in Minnesota.  According to an article on Fox 9’s website, critics have called the plot dangerous because it depicts high school counselors as unsympathetic to Hannah’s plight.  Asher himself says that he’s dealt with criticism ever since the book released and he believes the Netflix show is sparking discussion on an important and difficult issue.

“The only thing that bothers me, is when people try to shut down conversation about it.  To me, that is the most dangerous thing,” Asher is quoted as saying.

Some people even tried to have the book banned when it came out ten years ago.

There’s been a lot of talk about “13 Reasons Why” glorifying suicide, but not much talk on how it glorifies suicide.  Most of the news stories I see talk about how schools are warning parents about the show and encouraging them to have a discussion with their children.  This is all well and good, but I find it hard to believe that the show is somehow glorifying the act of suicide when it is so clearly a tragic story.  And when I watch the trailer I just don’t see the problem.  To glorify something means to represent it as admirable, and I don’t get the sense that it’s trying to make suicide look like the right thing to do.

It seems to me, as an outsider who isn’t really a part of the conversation, that a lot of people are jumping on the controversy bandwagon in an effort to appear socially conscious.  It reminds me of when people buy those ribbons or bumper stickers in support of some cause and proudly put them on display for everyone to see.  In the back of my mind I always wonder, “do they actually care about the issue?  Or is it just a status symbol for them?”  The same kind of thing could be happening with “13 Reasons Why”.  People go on about how it glorifies suicide but they don’t really explain how it does or why they think that.  Instead, many of them say “don’t let your kids watch the show” and just leave it at that.

And that is not a solution.

Here’s the thing: when you present something as “forbidden” to kids, it tends to entice them to find out more.  If you simply refuse to discuss something with a child, then it leaves them unprepared for it when it happens.  They won’t recognize the signs if one of their friends starts to contemplate killing themselves.  And if they don’t recognize the signs, then they can’t help.

Suicide isn’t easy to talk about.  That’s understandable.  But ignoring the subject does more harm than good.

Personally, I’m glad that “13 Reasons Why” has generated controversy.  Controversy can be good because it sometimes encourages discussion.

And discussion is important, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here and follow me on Twitter here.

The Woes of Broadcast Shows

To get started, let’s take a look at this promo for an episode of the show Designated Survivor:

 

 

Nothing unusual here right?  Just an average promo for a television show right?  Well that’s sort of my problem with it.

I stopped watching shows on broadcast television a long time ago (the last show I followed was Fringe, and that ended its run four years ago).  My issue is the kind of thing you see in the trailer.  Instead of actually giving us a clue as to what might happen next, it dwells on the “shocking” twist at the end of the mid-season finale.  “The shot that shocked the nation,” it proudly proclaims before going on to tease “who took the bullet?”  Because that’s the kind of hype these shows are built up on.  How many television show promos have you seen tease a plot twist you “won’t see coming”?

For another example, let’s take a look at the ABC series Scandal.  Scandal‘s main premise is about Olivia Pope, who is a “fixer”…that is, someone who gets rid of problems for people who can afford it (namely the rich and powerful).  Let’s take a look at Wikipedia’s summary of season one:

“Season 1 introduced Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and the various members of her firm, as well as President of the United States Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn) and his chief of staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry). Season 1 focused on the lives of the team members, the relationship between Olivia and the President (her former employer), and the mystery surrounding Amanda Tanner’s (Liza Weil) involvement with the White House, among other cases the team solved.”

It doesn’t tell us much about what happens in season one, but it doesn’t need to.  Scandal clearly started out as a procedural type of show with some recurring elements.  I’ve never watched it myself, but that’s the impression I get from the summary.  For contrast, let’s take a look at season four’s summary:

“The first half of the season focuses on Jake’s arrest for the death of Jerry Grant after Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator. Rowan continues to try to make everyone believe Jake is guilty, which inspires Olivia to find out the truth for herself. After forcing Tom to reveal Rowan as his operator, Fitz, Jake, and Olivia make a plan to arrest Rowan. Unfortunately, the plan fails, causing Rowan to shut down B613 and start eliminating B613 agents. Olivia tries to kill Rowan when she confronts him, but he manages to flee. Abby is now the White House Press Secretary, and is struggling with gaining the respect of Cyrus and Fitz, because they choose to demean her by calling her “Red” instead of Abby. Later in the season, Abby finds herself stressed even more by the presence of her abusive ex-husband, who has been nominated for Virginia State Senator, and she enlists Leo Bergen to help ruin his campaign. Quinn has stayed in contact with both Abby and Huck, in addition to trying to find Olivia.”

Did you get that?  No?  Me neither.  It just sounds like a mess of different plot points.  And that’s not even the entire summary.

Now, to be fair, any show with an overarching plot can sound confusing if you just jump in four seasons deep.  But even so, Scandal‘s season four just sounds like it’s over-stuffed with plot elements.  Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator, but Rowan is the real operator!  They try to get Rowan arrested but the plan fails!  Meanwhile Abby has to deal with office sexism!

Even just watching the preview for the next episode of Designated Survivor gives you an idea of how quickly things can get out of hand.  Pro tip: if you’re only halfway through the first season of your political espionage thriller show, maybe don’t make the Vice President of the goddamn United States your bad guy.  Because honestly, where do you go from there?

And that’s my big problem.  It seems that network television spends most of its time trying to out-“OMG” the competition rather than producing good, solid content.

From 2004 to 2010, Lost demonstrated the potential of serialized television shows.  It wasn’t really until Lost that network television really started to shift in that direction.  The groundwork was laid by shows like X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it was Lost that really brought it all together.  Sure, the show was (and still is) mocked for not giving any real answers to its mysteries, but its strength lay in how fleshed out its characters were.  Over the course of six seasons, you got to know a lot about their lives…almost too much.  But Lost was also known for all the crazy plot twists that happened.  They were all the crazy “water-cooler moments” that people talked about the day after an episode premiered.  And it seems that’s what network television took note of, so now broadcast shows are just a race to get the biggest “OMG” water-cooler moment of the year.

I mean, it might actually be working.  For all the guff I gave Scandal‘s fourth season, it apparently has the highest Nielson ratings of all of them.  But the story is different for Designated Survivor.  On average, the ratings have been dropping ever since the premiere episode.  This plot twist obsessed mindset is not going to be sustainable forever.

One of the most talked about shows last year was Stranger Things, a show that was exclusively on Netflix.  Broadcast television has always had an edge because it’s free, at least in the sense that you don’t have to pay a bill every month to watch.  But as streaming becomes more prevalent and more affordable, broadcast TV might be on the way out.  Instead of having to wait and see what happens next episode, you can just click “next episode” (although you’ll still likely have to wait for new seasons to come out).

I talked about this a little bit when I spotlighted Person of Interest, but one of my major issues with broadcast television is that there’s so much filler content, even in shows that claim to be serialized.  And this is because broadcast networks are obsessed with ratings, which means that they give shows these twenty-odd episode seasons that they are required to fill up.  Now, obviously, it’s nearly impossible to make all those episodes about an over-arching plot without it quickly growing convoluted and incomprehensible, so most shows opt to have filler episodes surrounding the main story.  This is what Fringe did, and while I still very much enjoyed the show, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if the show had been on a non-broadcast network or had been a streaming show.

This format isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s very stifling in a creative sense.  And unless broadcast television changes its ways, I don’t see much of a future for it in the age of on-demand streaming.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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Spotlight: Person of Interest

Television is changing.  With the advent of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, the way we watch our TV shows has shifted.  And now that these same streaming services have begun creating their own shows, the very format of a television show has changed as well.  The length of a television show season is usually around twenty-two episodes or thirteen episodes, depending on the network.  But with Netflix’s Stranger Things, we got a season that was only eight episodes long.  There’s more freedom now to create as short or as long a season as the creators need to or want to.  Shows on broadcast television networks, with their twenty-odd episodes in a season, are starting to feel outdated.

In a sense, you could consider Person of Interest to be a member of the “old guard”.  The show had its run on CBS, which meant that each season (with the exception of the fifth and final) was twenty-two to twenty-three episodes long.  Person of Interest is a procedural crime drama with a science-fiction flair and some spy thriller elements thrown in.  The premise of the show is as follows:

After the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001, the United States government began looking into creating a system that would monitor the public at all times.  They wanted a system that could alert them of any potential terrorist attacks before they happen, giving them a chance to stop them.  Their system is created by a man named Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), but it comes with an unexpected side effect.  The machine sees not just potential terrorist acts, but crimes of an everyday nature as well, crimes involving ordinary men and women.  To deal with this, the machine is programmed to split them into two categories: relevant and irrelevant.

When the show opens in 2011, Finch approaches ex-CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) and offers him a job: help him track down the irrelevant numbers, figure out whether they are a victim or perpetrator, and stop whatever crime is about to happen.

That is the central conceit of the show.  Every week Finch and Reese receive a number (which equates to someone’s social security number), which leads them to a person.  They then do the work of finding that person and whatever it is they’ve gotten themselves involved with.  There is a greater plot thread in play, even during the initial seasons of the show, but it’s not very evident.  In fact, it’s not until near the end of the third season that a massive serialized arc takes shape.  If you’ve ever watched the show Fringe the format is pretty similar: procedural, standalone episodes detailing a “case of the week” and then the overarching episodes which impact the path the show takes as a whole.

The procedural aspect of the show is undoubtedly a product of the broadcast television format.  With twenty-odd episodes to make, it isn’t entirely possible to make them all about the main story, at least without making the main plot convoluted and overbearing.  This is the issue I expect most people to run into with this show, as it is the same issue I ran into later on when the main plot got to be really interesting.  There is a lot of filler in this show, episodes that have no real purpose whatsoever aside from being entertaining for that week.

Personally, I don’t mind procedural episodes that much as long as they’re well done, but I know that a lot of people get bored by them.  However, even when the show is at its most procedural, it is still a technically proficient one.  Gone are the days of X-Files, where one episode could be amazing and spellbinding, and then the next makes you question why you ever started watching the show in the first place.  At worst, the procedural episodes of Person of Interest can come across as bland and unoriginal.

And there are some really great procedural episodes in the show, ones that delve deeper into one of the characters.  For example, later on in the show there’s an episode that takes place almost entirely as one of the characters is dying from a gunshot wound.  At first, you don’t even know it either.  What you initially think is just a flashback to a conversation turns out to be a part of the character’s hallucination.  It’s a gripping episode and one of the show’s strongest in my opinion.  It goes to show that even procedural episodes can surprise you.

The show’s serial episodes are obviously what people are going to remember, and they are definitely riveting.  Initially, the show’s serial episodes focus on the nature of government surveillance, but later on the show’s science-fiction element takes center stage.  The show’s latter seasons focus on the power and dangers of artificial intelligence and grandiose reflections on the nature of humanity.  I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say that one side believes humanity needs to be forcibly guided while the other side believes humanity deserves to make its own choices.

Most of my complaints with the show are minor, although I did have one thing that kept nagging at me.  At times, the show’s procedural nature was at odds with its serialized plot.  This became increasingly evident in one of the later seasons.  Without spoiling too much, the events of one of the season finales requires that the main characters essentially go underground and keep a low profile.  And the first episode of the next season goes to great lengths to make that point, with Reese being scolded for doing what he normally does because it could blow his cover.  However, after all that, some of the procedural episodes seem to pretend that this isn’t even a problem.  Some episodes do make a point of it, with a character saying something along the lines of “you can’t just go in there and do that, you’ll risk exposing your cover!”  But then other episodes have them running into a place, shooting it up, beating the crap out of dudes and the like, and there is apparently no consequence for it.  It created this weird disjunction that once I noticed it I couldn’t stop noticing it.  Maybe I’m just nit-picking, but it really bothered me after a while.  I guess I just wanted to see more of the main plot instead of random, case-of-the-week episodes.

My other complaints are very minor.  Some of the episodes, particularly early on in the show, have weird abrupt endings that seem out of place.  The “plot bubble” effect in the show is strong, meaning that main characters (even bad guys) miraculously escape from harm because their pursuers suddenly have terrible aim with their weapons.  It just seems strange that John Reese can kneecap people with perfect accuracy but at other times can’t even manage to hit the person at all.

My only other complaint has to do with one of the main antagonists of the show.  At the end of one of the seasons, there’s a plot twist that reveals that he was basically planning things for years, working towards things from a time before the show even started.  Which makes no sense when you think about the fact that he had another plan a season earlier which utterly failed.  So that would mean that he knew his plan would fail or at the very least that he had a secondary plan in place in case he failed, which makes even less sense because that would mean he created a terrorist group for no reason.  It’s one of those things where when you start thinking about it, the bad guy’s “brilliant plan” actually ends up seeming really dumb.

In the end though, Person of Interest is a show that is definitely worth watching.  It takes a very nuanced approach to its themes (for the most part), and is consistently well-written.  It’s also not afraid to experiment.  One of the later episodes takes place mostly in the mind of the machine itself as it hypothesizes scenarios in an attempt to find an escape plan for our heroes.  At one point, the machine realizes it’s running out of time, so it simplifies the simulation.  This leads to a bizarrely funny bit where the characters are walking around speaking in strange placeholder dialogue like “flirty greeting” or “general statement of mission success”.

Person of Interest manages to surprise many times throughout its run.  It’s an action-heavy show that’s fun to watch but also has a lot of depth to it.  And I must say that the series finale is one of the most immensely satisfying and powerful finales I have seen in a long time.  It’s definitely worth a watch.  And hey, it’s all streamable on Netflix.  Isn’t that convenient?

Now I’m going to get out of here before I start sounding like a spokesperson for Netflix…

 

Well thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

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