TV 5.0: A Story Cornucopia

Because I knew I’d be dog-sitting Bentley for two weeks, I spent the weeks prior getting a lot of work done with the specific intention of burning out a bit and needing some loaf time. I figured I could spend Bentley time, when not actually interacting with her, reading and catching up on TV (both queues are long). The Yang to the Yin is that, after a goodly break, the work would seem fresh again.

The point is that I’ve been watching a lot of TV. During the day (when not “dogging it”), I’ve read (more about that another post); and in the evenings, I’ve watched TV 5.0.

Which is to say cable-cut internet-streaming wifi TV using downloaded apps from the manufacturer’s online store. We’ve come a very long way (baby).

The way I break it down is:

  • 1.0: Black & White; the birth of TV.
  • 2.0: Color: More life-like (“living color”).
  • 3.0: VHS recording; time-shifting; home libraries.
  • 4.0: Cable: Uncensored, commercial-free content.
  • 5.0: Streaming: Platform agnostic; on-demand.

Each generation brought a new level to visual storytelling, a performance art form that goes back to theatre (if not earlier to poetic readings and news criers).

The first generation brought these visual stories into our homes; the next made them more realistic. (In the second generation I include bigger, better screens and improved television technology in general.)

In the third generation we became more active consumers, watching shows we’d taped and zipping past commercials. We could build home libraries of things we’d taped or movies we purchased. DVDs made it better and made it easy to buy entire TV seasons.

In the fourth generation, Cable broke us free of broadcast networks, introduced new “super” networks, and provided HBO and other “movie” channels. Both the super networks and the movie channels began producing their own content.

A trend with roots in the 1977 miniseries Roots, the idea of a story arc over multiple episodes, grew to the point that TV is rarely as episodic as it once was. Nearly all shows have a linear timeline now. (More about this trend another time.)

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What matters is the confluence of a prolonged form of storytelling, where entire seasons are a primary story thread, and a technology that raises both story creation and story consumption to very high levels.

Never has TV looked so good.

Never has it been so accessible, or so varied, or so vast in content.

The TV stories now are often long and detailed. They are to movies now what movies once were to television: the richer, deeper, better stories.

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One consequence of all the content is the need for new content.

Since no one ever really knows what will succeed or fail, and since TV 5.0 is such a large landscape with room for almost anything, people make some very interesting (and often very worthy) shows.

Of course, Sturgeon’s Revelation always applies. (To everything. Always.)

And there’s always the matter of taste.

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Which is all to say I’ve watched some pretty good TV during the last two weeks. I’ve been trying out this season-binging thing, and have burned through a few worth mentioning.

•••

Russian Doll (Season 1; Netflix) — Natasha Lyonne (who also stars), Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, created (and produced) a wonderfully dark and twisted take on the idea used in Groundhog Day — that the main character keeps repeating their life from a fixed point (and that there is a reason for it).

The comparison with the Bill Murray movie doesn’t really serve, though. The similarity only resides in those main ideas. One key difference is that Lyonne’s character, Nadia, discovers another character, Alan (Charlie Barnett), stuck in the same loop!

Another difference is that it requires dying to restart the loop (Murray’s restarted each day). Also, Russian Doll, despite the title, is absolutely not a romantic comedy.

It is dark and rich and textured and often hysterically funny. The title refers to how each iteration of Nadia’s life gets smaller! It’s worth seeing just for the Harry Nilsson track (and so, so much more).

I really enjoyed this (and will watch it again). A solid Wow! rating.

•••

Atlanta (Season 2; Hulu) — The surreal comedy about (fictional) Atlanta rapper, Paper Boi, created by Donald Glover (who many remember from his role on Community, another surreal sitcom).

I confess I’m a little at sea with this one. Firstly, the show is surreal, which always gives me pause. Secondly, it’s like rap in that I don’t have the cultural background to understand everything that’s going on.

My general question with surrealism: Do the surreal elements come from the heart or the head? I’m never sure whether I’m seeing ink blots or puzzles. Are my impressions and reactions the only expected response, or should I be figuring out what it all means?

All that said, I really like it, and much of it is hysterically funny, so it gets a Wow! rating.

I think it succeeds, despite being surreal, because the characters and contexts are so real and grounded. Other surrealists lack the grounding, so their work seems all noise and confusion (cough, David Lynch, cough).

•••

Electric Dreams (Season 1; Amazon Prime) — Ten fifty-minute stand-alone episodes each based on a Philip K. Dick short story (a description that was an instant sell for me while browsing).

Because there are only ten episodes (and, as far as I know, only one season), I’ve been doling these out sparingly and have only watched the first three.

They’ve been really good, so I give it a provisional Wow! rating. In tone and in content, it’s reminiscent of Black Mirror on Netflix.

It’s been pretty good SF so far (but then they have pretty good source material). I plan to track down and read the short stories.

(Note that Amazon orders the episodes differently than the original UK series did, but order doesn’t matter that much in an anthology. The stories aren’t connected.)

•••

Jack Ryan (Season 1; Amazon Prime) — John Krasinski stars as the well-known Tom Clancy character, Jack Ryan. The very versatile Wendell Pierce plays his boss, James Greer (seemingly just in season one).

It’s kind of weird seeing Jim Halpert from The Office as a former Marine turned CIA analyst. Apparently Krasinski bulked up for the role (he would have had to).

Along with most of the USA, I went through a Tom Clancy phase, but I lost interest once it became the “Ryanverse” (I don’t really understand the fascination with more of the same, especially when the same is kinda limited in scope.)

But it wasn’t bad; I give it an Ah! rating and will watch season two.

•••

The Kominsky Method (Season 1; Netflix) — A sitcom from (the!) Chuck Lorre with Michael Douglas, as a briefly famous actor turned (very successful) acting coach, and Alan Arkin, as his agent and long-time friend.

Lorre (Rosanne, The Big Bang Theory, Mom) is behind most of the writing (and directed the first episode), so along with Douglas and Arkin, there is some high-powered talent here.

The show doesn’t break new ground, but it’s warm and comfortable and easy.

There definitely is a market for us aging folks who enjoy good acting from talented performers “of a certain age” (see Grace and Frankie below). It’s increasingly hard to identify with young heroes.

I give it a low-ish, but warm and comfortable, Ah! rating.

•••

Disenchanatment (Season 1; Netflix) — A third cartoon series from Matt Groening, this one takes place in what appears to be a Medieval setting (but a close look suggests it actually takes place in the future after some collapse of civilization).

This came out a while back, but I remember enjoying it. I meant to watch it again, but haven’t gotten around to it (so much TV, so little time).

I’ve always been a really big fan of Futurama (although my favorite SF cartoon is Rick and Morty), and I’m still a fan of The Simpsons (it’s comfortable, like an old shoe, and it’s not stupid, like other cartoons I could mention).

I give Disenchanted a weak Ah! rating (that may grow with a re-watching and additional seasons).

•••

Travelers (Season 3; Netflix) — Eric McCormack (Will from Will & Grace), and many others, as time-travelers from the future, but with a twist that only their minds can be sent back to inhabit an existing person.

This process destroys the existing mind, so the good guys, to be ethical, only take over minds of people history shows were about to die. (There are bad guys in the future who aren’t so ethical.)

A further wrinkle is that no “traveler” can be sent back prior to the last one, which means the past is progressively closed to the future as they send people back.

I was less certain about the show at first, but it’s grown on me. I give it an Ah! rating. They’ve managed to keep things fresh each season, and I’m looking forward to season four (I hope Kat will be happy with the other guy).

•••

Frankie and Grace (Season 5; Netflix) — Jane Fonda (Grace) and Lily Tomlin (Frankie) plus Martin Sheen (Robert) and Sam Waterston (Sol) as a pair of long-time married couples whose business partner lawyer husbands turn out to be gay and in love with each other.

The first episode involves a dinner out where the husbands announce their mutual love, intention to divorce their wives, and to marry each other. The wives were assuming the big announcement was that both were retiring from their firm.

The show was co-created by Marta Kauffman, who co-created a little show, named Friends, that was kinda popular in its day.

I give it a strong Ah! rating. As mentioned above, it’s wonderful to watch seasoned and talented actors, and, in a sense, these are folks I’ve known a long time. It’s almost like a family reunion.

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On the topic of new content from, in this case, Netflix, a few words on Bandersnatch and Bird Box.

Those words are: Oh. Hell. No. Mos. Def. Not.

In that order.

In the case of Bird Box, it just sounded like a dumb-ass movie, and I’m not really into that sort of creature feature, anyway. Pity to hear Sandra Bullock was pretty good in it; I always did like her.

In the case of Bandersnatch, if I wanted to play a damned video game, I’d play a damned video game. I don’t watch (operative word: watch) stories to interact with them. I watch (again: watch) stories to sit back and let them wash over me.

So there was zero chance I’d ever watch Bandersnatch, even though I really like Black Mirror (give it a definite Wow! rating and recommend it to friends).

It turns out that Netflix recorded all the Bandersnatch choices, which bothers some. As with not having a Facebook account, I’m glad it’s not any kind of issue for me.

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And now it’s more back to (retired hobby) “work,” such as blogging and exploring rotation and tesseracts. (Oh, yes, there will be posts!)

Stay streaming, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

8 responses to “TV 5.0: A Story Cornucopia

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    It’s interesting that, when I was younger and there were only three channels, I watched a lot more TV than I do now. I did used to watch a lot during the early cable years. But as I’ve gotten older and the number of available channels, shows, and access methods have exploded, I’ve become increasingly more selective, to the point now that I only watch a select few. (Right now I’m not really watching anything consistently other than whatever nature or science documentary I can have on in the background.)

    In some ways, I think knowing that the shows are there when I want them has given me a way to endlessly procrastinate on watching them, at least aside from the select few that I’m actually hungry to see.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’ve experienced something similar. I think part of it might just be age and experience. Even good stories can become less interesting over time, more predictable.

      I used to be a “stick with it to the bitter end” guy (because you never know, it might get better or have some good bits plus I wanted to know how it all turned out). But the last decade or so, I’ve been much more willing to bail on something that wasn’t doing anything for me. (Who cares how it turns out.)

      Sturgeon’s Law. And I really do think a lot of storytelling today isn’t very good. There is such a demand for content that lots and lots of sloppy, hacky content is created to fill the need. (One of my next posts will touch on that, in fact.)

      I think for young people, who haven’t trained their intellectual palette yet, such simplistic storytelling works okay. But once your palette evolves, especially if one is interested in the mechanics of storytelling, a lot of that “junk food” becomes… well, junk food, at best. (And nothing wrong with the occasional McBurger and fries.)

      On top of all that, you make a very good point about how the urgency of watching something no longer exists, which can lead to putting off and putting off watching something, even something you want and really intend to watch. (Buster Scruggs sat in my queue for a couple months, and so did Hateful Eight, yet I really liked both films.)

      As I mentioned in the post, my queues are pretty long, which in itself leads to a weird avoidance. As if one needs the big time segment and right frame of mind to sit down and try to get through all that TV. I found that with YouTube. It would take a full day to catch up on various videos that had caught my eye and made their way into my Watch Later queue… which would generate avoidance because I’d know I’d need another day to catch up again.

      That was one nice aspect of dog-sitting Bentley. Nothing to do in the evenings except read or watch TV (by plan). And I’d ramped up to that extended watching period, planned for it in my mind. (Sometimes TV watching is just too passive for me. I need to be doing something.) Which is weird, planning to binge, but I did manage to eat away at the queues.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I think a lot of it in my case comes down to time. Most evenings, I’d rather devote that limited resource to reading articles, books, or other activities than watching TV. I suspect that will change after I retire and have more time to allot. Right now, when I spend a lot of time watching a show, unless it’s uniquely compelling, I have a nagging sense that I’m missing opportunities to be doing something more rewarding.

        But I’ve noticed that I’m not really good at assessing what I’ll enjoy if I actually start watching. It’s not unusual for me to start watching something I’ve held off on because I saw it as marginal, only to become entirely engrossed in it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Most evenings, I’d rather devote that limited resource to reading articles, books, or other activities than watching TV.”

        Yes, exactly. That’s what I was getting at when I said it’s too passive. There is a certain accomplishment in seeing something one wanted to see, but those other activities all accomplish more.

        Even retired that sense still kinda exists. As you say, unless a show is compelling enough to compete with the value return of other activities, there isn’t much attraction.

        “But I’ve noticed that I’m not really good at assessing what I’ll enjoy if I actually start watching.”

        😀 Yeah, funny how that works. And works both ways, right? Stuff looked forward to disappoints, while unexpected gems surprise.

        It’s sort of related to something I discovered back in the video rental days. There were movies where there was just the one copy (or maybe two). Compared to the dozens, or whole shelves full, of the really popular stuff. Often those lonely movies, not very inspiring even after reading the description, turned out to be gems I was glad I’d seen.

  • rung2diotimasladder

    I’m kind of regretting getting rid of Netflix now. Russian Dolls sounds interesting. We no longer have much to watch other than HBO, PBS, and maybe a handful of other TV channels, but PBS seems to be doing the trick for now. Oh, and Amazon, but we hardly bother. I get sick of looking for things to watch and going through all the false starts.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I think you would love Russian Doll! Netflix is pretty inexpensive for me, since I have the lowest one-screen option. There’s enough content there to make it more than worthwhile (for my taste in viewing, that is). That said, I don’t think there isn’t much there on my critical, have-to-have list. (Lucifer, maybe, if the new season ever starts.)

      Hulu is another matter. It has several shows (old and new) I’d hate to lose. A few bucks more a month than Netflix, but already my video bill is reduced from cutting cable.

      Amazon Prime is another one that’s so inexpensive (plus the free shipping and shopping stuff) it’s worthwhile even if I don’t watch that much on it. It does have all the modern Doctor Who, which is big for me, and I’ve really enjoyed watching an episode of the original The Addams Family (I can never say the last word without making it three syllables).

      I do not have HBO anymore, which isn’t a big issue right now, but come 2020 and the third season of Westworld, I’ll have to think of something.

      Very true about looking for things to watch! My queues are long enough that I’m usually more stuck on deciding which to watch, but I know what you mean about trying to find your way among all the new content. I kind of wait for word of mouth to develop a kind of consensus that gives me a flavor of what to expect.

      It’s exactly because of all the articles I read, and the common view that emerged, that I watched Russian Doll in the first place! The title, various blurbs and images, tended to steer me away as not likely my cup of tea.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        We have Amazon Prime, but we got rid of Netflix when we realized we just weren’t watching it. Then we got the Great Courses lectures streaming, but once we finished our Spanish lessons, we stopped watching that too. I guess I’m not terribly picky about TV entertainment lately as I’ve been distracted by household chores and YouTubing flamenco videos. (I have to do a solo for the next showcase!)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It’s true my use of Netflix seems to be streaky. When new stuff comes around, I watch it a lot, but once I’ve burned through the new stuff, there isn’t much there that highly interests me. (There are a few things, but they’re pretty far down the list of other things on other platforms.) I looked at Netflix last night and didn’t find anything there that grabbed me.

        Currently I’m burning through Mr. Robot, a USA show available on Amazon Prime. Interesting show. Maybe not quite a Wow! rating, but definitely an Ah! I’d tried to watch it before on USA, but commercials are just too annoying these days. I have to really love a show to put up with them.

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