kottke.org posts about TV
Damn the Brits! First Brexit paves the way for Trump (ok, not entirely accurate) and now they are currently enjoying Planet Earth II with the sublime David Attenborough while we Americans have to wait until late January 2017, at which point there might not even be a planet Earth on which to watch nature frolic on our living room high-definition displays. But — Jesus where was I? Oh yes: for now we can watch this clip from the Jungles episode of Planet Earth II about fungi, including some great time lapse footage of mushrooms growing, some of which glow in the dark! Also from Planet Earth II: the incredible iguana/snake chase scene and bears scratching themselves on trees. (via colossal)
Perhaps listening to the pulsing, creepy, and foreboding music from Black Mirror is too much at a time like this, but in case you’d really like to wallow, there are several albums of music from the show available on Spotify: Be Right Back, White Bear, White Christmas, Nosedive, and Men Against Fire. I’ve added all five albums to this Black Mirror playlist.
I hadn’t realized while watching, but the show used some top-shelf composers for the music, including Clint Mansell, Max Richter, and Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury (who did the Ex Machina soundtrack).
Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker also put together a playlist of 80s music from the stand-out episode of season 3, San Junipero.
The playlist includes “tracks from the episode, tracks which didn’t make it in (for rights/other reasons)…and a couple which inspired elements of the story”.
With The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles under his belt, Brad Bird is one of the most respected and accomplished animated filmmakers out there. For this video, Kees van Dijkhuizen Jr. pieced together a number of interviews and commentary tracks of Bird talking about how he approaches animation. Among the topics he discusses are the pleasures of sneaking around, the advantages of slowing down, and an appreciation of keeping the lights low.
At one point, Bird talks about how some makers of animated movies create scenarios that are too fantastic and then are, later on in their films, unable to interject a true sense of danger into the plot.
The mistake that people often make with animated films is that they love the gravity-defying aspect of it. But, if you defy gravity and then later on need to feel danger, you have a really hard time convincing the audience.
Contemporary superhero movies, even the good ones, often have this problem, and I wonder if it’s because they are essentially made like animated films with too much of the gravity-defying aspect. With CG and flawless green screens, you can essentially make anything happen on the screen, which somewhat counterintuitively lowers the stakes of what you’re watching.
I thought Westworld was going to have the same problem. The first few episodes were boring because they were set in a world where no one could get injured or killed. Park visitors could roll up to a Western town with a few guns and kill all of the inhabitants without much effort and at no personal risk. There were no stakes and it totally broke the fourth wall. But from the way the last few episodes have gone, it’s apparent the danger will come (from elsewhere) and that having the audience (both of the HBO show and the park’s paying patrons) consider the fourth wall is part of the point.
When Westworld started, I thought Hopkins’ character, park founder Robert Ford, was going to be a relatively minor player, an accomplished but past-prime actor popping up occasionally to function as a one-man chorus interpreting a tragedy for us. But as Evan Puschak shows in his breakdown of the Oscar winner’s performance in a single scene from Westworld, Hopkins is still near the height of his powers and Ford is at the center of the narrative. (Shout out as well to Jeffrey Wright and especially Thandie Newton, who along with Hopkins has been the stand-out performer so far.)
The year’s best action sequence isn’t in a Marvel movie or prestige TV drama, it’s from the first episode of Planet Earth II, which aired in the UK over the weekend. In it, a group of snakes chase a small iguana, which seems at the outset to have a tiny chance of escape.
Good god, that was thrilling. We might have a new champion.
Update: I love Tony Zhou’s cut with the soundtrack from Mad Max: Fury Road (with temp music, he says). Be sure to watch to the end.
Rodney Alcala, who was convicted of killing seven women between 1971 and 1979 and possibly murdered many more, took time out during his killing spree to appear on The Dating Game. At the time, he was a convicted child molestor. The Bachelorette picked him over the other two contestants.
The Bachelorette, Cheryl, doesn’t pick up on any of this. In fact, she ends up choosing Alcala over the other two contestants despite his lackluster answers like, “Nighttime is the best time,” and “I’m a banana… peel me.” However, she cut things off immediately after their one date, claiming that she found him “creepy.”
Imagine if that happened today…the lawsuits and outcry would have shut the show down immediately.
I haven’t quite figured out if HBO’s new show Westworld is any good or not,1 but I’m sticking with it at least through the first season. One of the fun things about the show — ok, maybe the only fun thing, Westworld takes itself pretty seriously — is the western-style covers of rock songs by the likes of Radiohead, Soundgarden, and The Rolling Stones. There’s a mini playlist of the main theme and some of the covers — Paint It Black by the Stones and Radiohead’s No Surprises — up on Spotify.
Oh, and here’s one of the most popular fan theories out there: the multiple timeline theory.
On Conan last night, Louis C.K. had some things to say about the 2016 presidential election.
If you vote for Hillary you’re a grownup; if you vote for Trump you’re a sucker; if you don’t vote for anyone, you’re an asshole.
When I watch Black Mirror, particularly the newest Netflix season, I don’t think it’s primarily classic science fiction or about our relationship to technology.1 What I’m reminded of most strongly is The Twilight Zone and Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, both of which appear on the list of movies, books, and TV shows that influenced Charlie Brooker while making Black Mirror.
I read Tales of the Unexpected when I was a kid, having exhausted all of the other Roald Dahl books in our small town library and one day randomly discovering that he’d written this book of short stories for adults. His use of horror and black comedy are evident in the most celebrated story, Lamb to the Slaughter, in which a woman murders her husband by whacking him in the head with a frozen leg of lamb and then serves the lamb to the police detectives who come round to investigate the death.
Anyway, what I didn’t know was that Tales of the Unexpected was also adapted into a TV show hosted by Dahl himself. I’ve embedded the Lamb to the Slaughter episode above and there are many more of the full episodes available on YouTube.
Over at GQ, Lincoln Michel shares 12 Books to Read After Binge-Watching Black Mirror. Among them:
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Version Control by Dexter Palmer.
Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami.
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang.
Earlier this month, Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker shared 105 cultural artifacts that influenced the series, including some surprises like Fawlty Towers — “often in our episodes, someone is trapped at the center of a dilemma they never get out of, and that describes every episode of Fawlty Towers” — Airplane!, and Radiohead’s The National Anthem, as well as more familiar influences like 2001, The X-Files, and The Matrix. Only a handful of books on the list though, including:
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders.
On Killing by Dave Grossman.
On Twitter recently, Joshua Topolsky called Black Mirror “the show for people who’ve never read any science fiction”. Perhaps that’s because Brooker hasn’t really either?
Soundcloud user kmlkmljkl took the Stranger Things opening title song and mixed it with Childish Gambino’s Bonfire. [fire emoji] [fire emoji] [fire emoji]
(Will they have Lando sing in the upcoming young Han Solo movie? That would be a brave move.)
This SNL Black Jeopardy skit with Tom Hanks is as good as everyone says it is. And it’s not just funny either…it’s the rare SNL skit that works brilliantly as cultural commentary. Kudos to the writers on this one.
Update: Writing for Slate, Jamelle Bouie details why the Black Jeopardy sketch was so good; the title of the piece asks, “The Most Astute Analysis of American Politics in 2016?”
When Thompson reads a second clue for that category — “They out here saying that every vote counts” — Doug answers again, and again correctly: “What is, come on, they already decided who wins even ‘fore it happens.’” With each correct answer, Doug gets cheers and applause from Thompson, the black contestants, and the black audience. They all seem to understand the world in similar ways. “I really appreciate you saying that,” says Thompson after Doug praises Tyler Perry’s Madea movies, leading to an awkward moment where Hanks’ character recoils in fear as Thompson tries to shake his hand, but then relaxes and accepts the gesture.
By this point, the message is clear. On this episode of “Black Jeopardy!”, the questions are rooted in feelings of disempowerment, suspicion of authority, and working-class identity-experiences that cut across racial lines. Thompson and the guests are black, but they can appreciate the things they share with Doug, and in turn, Doug grows more and more comfortable in their presence, such that he gets a “pass” from the group after he refers to them as “you people.”
I am soooo tired of this election and this stupid, lying, racist, sexist, bullying predator of a candidate and the memes but this Arrested Development-style fact-checking of Donald Trump is really pretty good and right in my wheelhouse. I am terrible at following my own advice.
Note: There are some *major* unavoidable spoilers about the finale of season three of Halt and Catch Fire in this post. If you’ve been watching (and you definitely should be), you might want to catch the finale first and then come back.
The final two episodes of Halt and Catch Fire aired last night. The previous eight episodes of the season took place in the mid-1980s with Joe running something like Norton or McAfee in San Francisco, and Cameron, Donna, and Gordon running a dial-up service like Compuserve for playing online video games, chatting, and selling stuff on a nascent Etsy. In the 8th episode, a lot of that changed and the characters headed their separate ways.
For the final two episodes, the show jumps forward to 1990, and in the last episode, Donna brings the four main characters (plus Cameron’s husband Tom, who works for Sega in Japan) back together to talk about a new and potentially revolutionary idea that’s crossed her desk at the VC firm where she’s now a senior partner: the World Wide Web. The five of them meet over two days, trying to figure out if there’s a business to be built on the Web — Joe argues metaphorically that they should build a stadium while Cameron says that no one’s gonna come to the stadium unless you have a kickass band playing (lack of compelling content) and then Gordon retorts that rock n’ roll hasn’t even been invented yet (aka there’s no network for this to run on). The discussion, some anachronisms and having the benefit of hindsight aside, is remarkably high level for a television audience…I doubt I could explain the Web so well.
At the second meeting, Joe, who is a Steve Jobs / Larry Ellison sort of character, has had some time to think about the appeal of the Web and lays out his vision (italics mine):
Joe: Berners-Lee wrote HTML to view and edit the Web and HTTP so that it could talk to itself. The chatter could be cacophonous, it could be deafeningly silent. Big picture: What will the World Wide Web become? Short answer: Who knows?
Donna: Ok, so what’s your point?
Joe: It’s a waste of time to try to figure out what the Web will become, we just don’t know. Because right now, at the end of the day, it’s just an online research catalog running on NeXT computers on a small network in Europe.
Cam: So, you’re saying everything we’ve talked about since we got here has been a waste of time?
Joe: I’m saying let’s take a step back. Literally step back.
Gordon: What is this on the board?
Joe: It’s the code for the Web browser.
Tom: And you wrote it all on the whiteboard.
Donna: The online catalog of research?
Cameron: Full of Norwegian dudes’ physics papers and particle diagrams and stuff?
Gordon: And we care about this because why?
Joe: How did we all get here today? The choices we made? The sheer force of our wills, something like that? Here’s another answer: the winds of fate, random coincidence, some unseen hand pushing us along. Destiny. How did we all get here today? We walked through this door. We don’t have to build a big white box or stadium or invent rock n’ roll. The moment we decide what the Web is, we’ve lost. The moment we try to tell people what to do with it, we’ve lost. All we have to do is build a door and let them inside.
When I was five, my mother took me to the city. And we went through the Holland Tunnel and it was basic, concrete and steel, but it was also my excitement sitting in the backseat, wondering when it was going to be our turn to emerge, it was the explosion of sunlight. And when we exited the tunnel, all of Manhattan was laid out before us. And that was the best part of the trip: the amazing possibility to be able to go anywhere within something that is magnificent and never-ending.
This is the first Web browser, the one CERN built to view and edit research. I wrote it up here for you to see how simple it is. It takes up one whiteboard — that’s basic concrete and steel — but we can take this and we can build a door and we can be the first ones to do it because right now, everyone else sees this…
Donna: …as an online research catalog…
Gordon: …running on NeXT…
Cameron: …on a network in Europe.
Joe: And with this handful of code, we can build the Holland Tunnel.
It’s Don Draper’s carousel speech from Mad Men…but for the Web. And it hit me right in the feels. Hard. When I tell people about the first time I saw the Web, I would sheepishly describe it as love at first sight. Logging on that first time, using an early version of NCSA Mosaic with a network login borrowed from my physics advisor, was the only time in my life I have ever seen something so clearly, been sure of anything so completely. It was a like a thunderclap — “the amazing possibility to be able to go anywhere within something that is magnificent and never-ending” — and I just knew this was for me and that it was going to be huge and important. I know how ridiculous this sounds, but the Web is the true love of my life and ever since I’ve been trying to live inside the feeling I had when I first saw it.
Which is why this scene wrecked me so hard. The Web that they are talking about on the show, the open Web, is ailing, dying. It was like listening to a eulogy at a funeral, this thing that I love, poured the best of my self into, gone forever. Of course that’s not strictly true, the Web is still a fabulous place where anyone can set up a site to do, say, or sell whatever they want, but instead of the promise of small pieces loosely joined, what we mostly got was large pieces tightly coupled. Today’s Web browsers and apps are Holland Tunnels that open up right into shopping malls instead of open city streets. Facebook makes it absurdly easy to start your own blog that all your friends and family can conveniently read, but you give up the freedom to say anything you want, it’s impossible to move those words elsewhere if you’d like (I’m talking with URLs and social graph intact), and they sell advertising against your words & images and you don’t get a cut.
Now, I’m not advocating a Make The Web Great Again policy because the open Web of the 90s had many problems, the greatest of which was a lack of access for anyone without the free time and skills necessary to set up a web server, install software, etc. etc., not to mention the expense involved. Today’s Web is much more accessible to people of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels and as a result you see much more participation across the socioeconomic spectrum, especially in developing countries.
But the open Web enthusiasts and advocates missed an opportunity to take what the Web was in the 90s and make that available to everyone. Instead of walled gardens like Facebook, Pinterest, and Medium (which echo the closed online services like AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve that predated the Web), imagine a bunch of smaller services bound together with open protocols where individuals have both freedom and convenience. At this stage, building an open Twitter or open Facebook is nearly impossible, but it wouldn’t have been 10-12 years ago. I hope I’m wrong, but with all of the entrenched incumbents and money pumping into online services, I’m afraid that time has truly passed. And it’s breaking my heart.
From the BBC, an hour-long documentary on Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer.
You might have assumed that the computer age began with some geeks out in California, or perhaps with the codebreakers of World War II. But the pioneer who first saw the true power of the computer lived way back, during the transformative age of the Industrial Revolution.
Happy Ada Lovelace Day, everyone!
I reported back in February that the BBC was doing another season of Planet Earth with David Attenborough (aka the voice of nature). Now there’s a trailer out (with a Sigur Ros soundtrack) and the show is set to debut in the UK on BBC One later this month. In US? Who knows… probably in 8 months with Ellen Degeneres narrating.
Frontline has posted their 2-hour documentary about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the 2016 presidential election to YouTube.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are two of the most polarizing presidential candidates in modern history. Veteran FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk goes beyond the headlines to investigate what has shaped these two candidates, where they came from, how they lead and why they want one of the most difficult jobs imaginable.
This looks excellent…I might watch this instead of the debate tonight.1
The trailer for the third season of Charlie Brooker’s excellent Black Mirror just dropped. If you haven’t seen the first two seasons, I’d recommend catching yourself up. And did I spy Mackenzie Davis and Kelly Macdonald in the trailer? I did, I did. The new season starts October 21 on Netflix.
Rolling Stone polled actors, critics, producers, and showrunners about their picks for the greatest shows ever to air on TV and aggregated the responses. Some random results:
87. Doctor Who
57. Fawlty Towers
43. The Americans
27. Arrested Development
12. Game of Thrones
That’s really high for Thrones, isn’t it? It’s no spoiler to say that the top two picks are The Wire and The Sopranos…you’ll have to click through to see which order they put them in. It’s been awhile since I’ve thought about what my list of favorite shows would look like, but just off the cuff, maybe (in no particular order):
The Wire, Seinfeld, Arrested Development, Transparent, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Simpsons, Iron Chef, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Doctor Who, The Americans.
A couple of those are definitely not great shows, but they are favorites all the same.
The Simpsons is the longest-running series in primetime TV history. The show’s 27 seasons hold much potential treasure for data scientists. Todd Schneider downloaded the scripts from every show and analyzed which characters spoke the most and where. The results reveal a heavy focus on Homer and a large gender imbalance in terms of dialogue.
The colors of the bars in the above graphs represent gender: blue for male characters, red for female. If we look at the supporting cast, the 14 most prominent characters are all male before we get to the first woman, Mrs. Krabappel, and only 5 of the top 50 supporting cast members are women.
Women account for 25% of the dialogue on The Simpsons, including Marge and Lisa, two of the show’s main characters. If we remove the Simpson nuclear family, things look even more lopsided: women account for less than 10% of the supporting cast’s dialogue.
See also Film Dialogue from 2000 screenplays, Broken Down by Gender and Age.
In a sketch from Monty Python called Argument Clinic, a character played by Michael Palin goes to a facility and pays to have an argument with John Cleese. That argument was recreated for this video using a pair of old school speech synthesizers. Palin’s part is played by the DECTalk Express (aka the voice of Stephen Hawking) and Cleese’s part is played by the Intex Talker. As you can probably hear, the Talker predates the DECTalk by a few years and is more difficult to understand. (via @303)
Vox recently took a look at every single job that Homer has ever had on The Simpsons in an attempt to see where his average salary falls on the economic spectrum in America.
Over the show’s 596-episode run, Homer has had at least 191 jobs. They’ve ranged from executive positions to service jobs, and have dotted the entire economic spectrum, from ultra-rich to the poverty line.
In the list below, we’ve compiled the real-life salaries for 100 of these jobs. Seasonal jobs (like “mall Santa”), and jobs that were virtually impossible to find salary data for (“beer smuggler”) were excluded, as were any repeats (he was an Army private twice, for instance). His full-time gig as a safety inspector is highlighted in yellow, for reference.
He gets a lot of flack, but Homer is actually the most interesting person in America by a wide margin, even though he’s not well compensated for it.
See also Homer Economicus: The Simpsons and Economics.
Speaking of Mr. Rogers, Arielle Bernstein wrote about how the spirit of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood lives on in contemporary advice columns like Ask Polly (now a book!), Dear Sugar, and Ask Andrew W.K.
Rogers offered something different from other TV icons — he used his show as a platform to actually give voice to children: their fears, their hopes, their pains, their purest expressions of joy. Each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood started with the same reassuring sequence showing the host entering his home, slipping on one of his famous sweaters, and changing his work shoes for comfortable sneakers. In this simple world, every question — big or small — was seen as worthy of respect; every feeling — good or bad — was viewed without judgment. Rogers answered questions in an open-hearted manner, often drawing on his own experiences and speaking directly into the camera, as if personally addressing each member of his TV audience. In one episode, he drew a picture using crayons and reflected, “I’m not very good at it. But it doesn’t matter … It feels good to have made something.” In another, the camera lingered on one of Rogers’ dead fish with the curiosity and compassion of a child, imploring viewers to look, telling them that it’s okay to cry.
Today’s advice columnists carry on this same tradition of giving their readers the space to explore emotions they might feel they have to downplay, ignore, or hide from others. At a time when millions of adults are snapping up coloring books, and essays bemoan college students for seeking “safe spaces,” it might be tempting to see the gentler column as an outgrowth of a desire to prolong childhood. But the success of these columns points instead to the very grown-up need for settings where feelings are valued, rather than dismissed, and where the primary human response is compassion, rather than anger.
In an episode of Doctor Who from 2010, the Doctor and his companion Amy take Vincent van Gogh, who was not a commercially successful artist in his own lifetime, to the Musée d’Orsay to see an entire room filled with his paintings. The resulting scene is unexpectedly touching.
This Valley Girl contest that aired on Real People1 in 1982 is quite the time capsule of Reagan-era America. BAG YOUR FACE!!!! I had totally (LIKE, TOTALLY!!) forgotten about that super-80s insult. Is the Valley Girl thing the reason we, like, all say “like” and uptalk all the time now?
Earlier this month, Netflix debuted a number of slow TV shows on their service, including shows about knitting and firewood, which were very popular in Norway. Here’s the complete roster:
National Firewood Evening
National Firewood Morning
National Firewood Night
National Knitting Evening
National Knitting Morning
National Knitting Night
The Telemark Canal
Train Ride Bergen to Oslo
Update: Looks like a few of these programs, most notably Northern Passage and Northern Railway, are not the complete end-to-end shows that were originally broadcast. So, FYI.
Also, these shows are getting terrible ratings on Netflix. Aside from the two shorter shows mentioned above, each show has a rating of only one star. (Further update: Netflix’s ratings are personalized, which means those ratings are specific to me. Others might see 4 or 5 stars. thx, @Rudien)
Ah, my Friday is off to a bit of a rough start, but a phone chat with a friend and the soundtrack for Halt and Catch Fire dropping on Spotify is patching things up nicely.
P.S. Season 3 starts on Aug 23rd. Here’s a clip from the new season:
And another one. I am excite. (via @aaroncoleman0)
The USPS is releasing a set of four commemorative Star Trek stamps on the 50th anniversary of the original series. The stamps were designed by Heads of State and you can buy there here.
Mike Upchurch was a writer for Mr. Show and MADtv but now he’s making these clever little videos with additional actors spliced into the narratives of Cocktail (the Tom Cruise movie) and the Dragnet TV series.
Both feature actor/comedian Chris Fairbanks in the lead role and are noted as “proof-of-concepts” for a series called Electric Television that Upchurch is presumably developing. Someone should greenlight it. (via @dunstan)
Morbotron is a screencap search engine for Futurama. The cap above is perhaps the most popular use case. It also does animated GIFs. See also Frinkiac, the Simpsons screencap search engine.