Holiday Binge-Watch: The OA

This is the new show that just dropped on Netflix. It’s eight episodes about a woman who turns up in a hospital after being missing for seven years. The big twist: before she went missing, she was blind. Now she can see. I’m going to discuss spoilers, but try to keep them vague, so it’s up to you to decide if you’re okay with that or if you’re very spoiler-sensitive and you want to come back after you’ve seen it.

From the beginning, this struck me as the most Netflixiest show to ever Netflix. Which is to say, I think with this series Netflix has really cemented what their drama brand is. (Superhero shows aside.) Stranger Things, Sense8: mystery shows that start with one character who knows what’s going on, slowly unspooling the supernatural truth over 8 episodes as we explore more of the side characters and bring them together as an ensemble. The differences with The OA include that we’re not actually sure there’s anything supernatural going on, and the exploring of the side characters is… inconsistent. There are some great moments, but I’m hard-pressed to say there were any side stories given as much care and depth as the main story. Not that I expect them to get as much time, of course, but for instance: Buck is given a conflict in episode 1. It’s never addressed again.

So, yes, we’re not sure there’s anything supernatural going on. The OA tells us there is, but she’s an unreliable narrator at best. And the thing is, I’m fine with stories where the central mystery is not actually the central mystery. I love K-Pax, and in that story, it really doesn’t matter if Kevin Spacey is an alien. But that’s because there’s another point to the story which is much more important. In The OA, it sort of feels like they forgot another point. The entire thing really does hinge on whether there’s something supernatural going on, and then they leave it ambiguous on purpose. They say they have a plan for a season 2 (for any show to get picked up they have to have a plan for at least a couple of seasons) but I’m not sure how they could do that without immediately answering that central question. Which is maybe the point? They think of it more like a cliffhanger? Who knows. But it means the ending feels a little flat because it hinges on a single event that doesn’t revolve around any of the main characters. So if whether or not there’s something supernatural happening doesn’t matter, then what matters is the person in the middle of that event and that’s not someone we know or care about.

My mother had an interesting take, which was that she saw it as the story about the beginning of a cult. A charismatic leader claiming special powers gathers a group of misfits and trains them in a special vocabulary and series of movements. I haven’t seen any interviews with the creators that indicate that was their intention, but it would certainly be an interesting direction for the show to go in. Especially since Netflix kept the show basically a secret until a few days before releasing it, clearly in the hopes that it would amass a cult following. But it would require one major sacrifice on the part of one of the creators. To say more would be too spoilery, but it would be the sort of thing I don’t normally see happen and the sort of risk I’d love for Netflix to take.

If you’re a writer and considering pitching a show to Netflix, this is definitely something to watch to help understand their brand. Otherwise, your enjoyment might depend on your patience and interest in parsing details to create theories, whether or not the show ultimately validates them.

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Midseason Check-In: No One Likes the Shows I Like

Okay, that’s not strictly true. Critics tend to agree with me. But the ratings don’t. I’m trying not to take it personally, but… what’s wrong with everyone?

As we’ve discussed before, shows aren’t so much canceled anymore as just left to end their run. Several of these shows just weren’t given a back nine. There is still a possibility they’ll be given a second season during the May Upfronts, if there’s enough grassroots phone calls and letters, but it’s a slim chance.

Lucifer: I admit I was late to the game on this one, jumping into the second season. I was a little turned off by how polished it all looked. I mean, it’s a homicide show set in the glamorous L.A. The glitz is supposed to be set off by the gruffness of Peter Falk, the outsider who can see straight through the bullshit and get stuff done. He bumbles his way in and everyone underestimates him but he tells the truth and puts the bad guys away, every time. Lucifer wears fancy suits and knows all the celebs and owns a nightclub. Glitz is in his bones. But being part of the world means he’s not dazzled by the razzle – he’s looking right at the hand doing the trick, and the thing he cares about, most deeply, is fairness. He may be the Devil, but his mission is always justice. Plus, he’s funny and educated. The show did get a full season 2, but the ratings are barely better than, and sometimes even with, Gotham.

The Good Place: What should the qualifications for getting into “the good place” be, exactly? Is it enough to say the right things, or do you have to put in the work to achieve them? If someone hands you a charity responsible for helping poor people and you only plunder it a little, do those lives saved go on your CV? What about if you travel the world negotiating peace treaties in order to further your career? Does it count? Should it count? More importantly, why is this show even on the bubble? These issues shouldn’t be reduced to stupid tropes and pithy catchphrases and this show does an excellent job of mining real humor from nuance.

Pitch: The promise of the first female major-league ballplayer. She has to be an amazing ballplayer, which includes getting along with her teammates and the press and managing the business around her. And she has to be an amazing woman, who looks sexy but chaste and speaks truthfully but restrained and never, ever, appears to be trying too hard. Because as far as she’s gotten, if she fails now, no one else will get a chance. Her failure would be a referendum on women. She wants to be an excellent person, but that’s not an opportunity afforded to her, because she is a woman, so she has to be the perfect woman, and perfect women aren’t supposed to play with the big boys.

Frequency: If only we all had a chance to change the past, knowing what we know now. This show can get a little bogged down in trying to make the emotional stories carry as much weight as the crime stories, and I wouldn’t mind if they’d occasionally stop and say, “here is where we are in this investigation, and here is what we need to move forward and change the outcome,” but this is a show where the characters’ actions have actual, tangible consequences that they have to live with, and even if you can get back the happiness that you had, it can’t ever be the same and you’ll have to fight so damn hard just to get to where you were.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Many, many words have been written about how good this show is and how you should be watching. You’re not willing to listen to experts. Maybe I should make a meme about competing shows literally killing their stuntmen or something.

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A Reality Show Host Is Going to be President

I’ve spent most of the day staring hollowly at my computer screen. People calling for my boss keep asking me how I’m doing, and I really wish they wouldn’t, because that’s not a conversation for the phone. I’m so glad I get to see my parents in a couple weeks and hug them. I sent virtual hugs to my writing group this morning.

Are you watching Westworld? I really like it. If you’re unfamiliar with the premise (why are so many people unfamiliar with the premise of an HBO show based on a movie from 1973?), it’s about a super high-tech theme park in the future where you can pay, like, $10,000 a day to go pretend you’re in the old west. The theme park is populated with robots who look and act human (and think they are human) and can take you on an adventure looking for buried treasure or whatever, but also, because they are robots and not people, you are allowed to rape and kill them. The problem is that the robots are slowly becoming self-aware. This past week, one of the robots who’s becoming self-aware woke herself up during maintenance, freaked out the technician, and demanded to know more about herself. He explained that everything she said or thought or did was part of a complex computer program, but she didn’t believe it. So he brought up the program that governed her speech and showed it to her on his tablet. She watched her words appear on the screen just before she said them. She kept trying to get ahead of it, unable to comprehend that everything that she thought she knew was wrong, until her programming froze up and she needed to be rebooted. That’s how I felt watching the news last night and this morning. Everything I thought I knew about myself, my country, how life works in a first-world, modern-day society, was just proven wrong. I keep trying to get ahead of it and I just can’t. I’ve reached the part where I keep getting the urge to laugh, but I can’t explain why. Nothing’s funny.

Here’s a great post about how it’s not about politics.

On Facebook, I said this:

This country has done evil things before. We remain the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons on an enemy. McCarthyism, internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, marital rape not being a crime until 1993, and let’s not forget about the fact that it was founded on slavery and genocide. None of those things destroyed the country. But we carry the scars and wounds today. Some still fester.

It feels like we just lost a drunken bar bet, and now our buddy gets to shoot us anywhere in our body. He’s probably not going to kill us. But the wounds are likely to be permanent.

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Lazy Writer Recipes: Office Cookies

Cookies.png

My cookies are always the talk of the office, so I thought I’d share my secrets:

  1. Get the blue roll. The yellow roll is grainy. Go blue. And the roll. Don’t pay twice as much for the pre-sized ones so the brand can tell you you make cookies too big. Everyone likes big cookies. I usually get 14 from a roll. (If it’s an occasion that everyone is bringing food, like a potluck, plan on one cookie per person. If it’s random, like your birthday, plan on two. Also plan one for each parking attendant or security guard you’ll likely see.)
  2. Make the cookies the night before you need them. I like to have two cookie sheets going so I can swap them out. Scrub the cookie sheets well first.
  3. Bake the cookies at 350 until they’re just a little brown and flat. If they’re inflated, they’re not quite done yet. (Unless you’re just making them for yourself. Personally, I love half-baked cookies, but it’s not a good idea to serve them to other people that way.) Remember that they’ll keep cooking for a couple minutes after you take them out of the oven, so don’t wait until they look perfect – that’s too late. I usually find 8-9 minutes is right if the oven’s pre-heated.
  4. While the next sheet is baking, let the freshly-made cookies cool for at least 5 minutes. Once they’re cool enough, they’ll pop right off the cookie sheet once you touch them with a spatula and retain their cookie shape. Layer them on your serving whatever (I use a wicker tray, above) so you can prepare the sheet with the next batch of cookies.
  5. Once you’ve made them all, turn the oven off and let it cool for a bit. Cover the cookies with tin foil. Once the oven no longer qualifies as hot, put the cookies back in. Make sure the oven stays turned off. You don’t need to bake the cookies anymore, but just being in the oven will keep them pleasantly warmed so the next day everyone will think they’re fresh from the oven. Which, technically, they are, I guess.
  6. Take all the credit. But if someone asks if there are nuts in the cookies, make sure to tell them that they’re from frozen, so they may have been contaminated in the plant. There’s ego, and then there’s playing with someone’s allergies. But people who are allergic will ask.
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Premiere Follow-Up: Part 1

Shows that have received full-season orders: Speechless, Designated Survivor, This Is Us, Kevin Can Wait, Bull, MacGyver

Shows that are canceled: Notorious has had its order cut and will likely end after episode 9

Now let’s talk about why.

We’ve discussed where ratings come from, but now let’s talk about how to read them. First, you need a source. When I worked in production offices, we would get charts from the research department every day that listed the household and key demo ratings for all primetime shows on the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CW). Unfortunately, charts like that aren’t easy to come by outside of production. These days, I read the Hollywood Reporter’s Live Feed for ratings everyday, which means I only get the key demo numbers, but that should be good enough. Let’s look at today’s report on last night’s ratings. Here are the paragraphs on CBS:

The Big Bang Theory made an even transition from Mondays, topping the night with a 3.4 rating among adults 18-49 before the premiere of The Great Indoors. The latest multi-cam effort from CBS opened with a 2.0 rating in the key demo and 9.3 million viewers. Among adults 18-49, it marked a slight uptick from the time slot’s year-ago showing.

Mom returned with a steady 1.6 rating among adults 18-49, while Life in Pieces dipped to a 1.5 rating in the key demo in its new time slot. At 10 p.m., Pure Genius made a rather unassuming debut with a 1.2 rating among adults 18-49 and 6.6 million viewers. For its first same-day showing, it tied ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder and NBC’s The Blacklist in the key demo.

Let’s put it in chart form:

cbs-thursday-ratings

Now, a sharp drop-off like you see after The Big Bang Theory isn’t great, but these numbers are all within the acceptable range. Honestly, Big Bang Theory is a huge show and it would be unfair to expect the other shows to keep up. You always hope, as a network/studio, but you have to be realistic. Now let’s look at ABC:

Elsewhere on ABC, Grey’s Anatomy earned an even 2.2 rating among adults 18-49. Notorious, now with the season’s first shortened order, earned just a 0.8 rating.

We already know that at 10pm, How to Get Away With Murder got a 1.2, because that was in the CBS paragraph. (It can take practice to be able to read these.) So the ABC chart would look like this:

abc-thursday-ratings

Oof. See that dip in the middle? Networks HATE that dip in the middle. You can write off gentle inclines or decreases as people becoming more interested in your network and sticking around or as everyone going to bed (or, in network-speak, you retained your lead-in or lead-out), but dips in the middle are death. That’s why Notorious has a cut order. On top of that anything below a 1.0 really isn’t acceptable for one of the big three networks. Now let’s chart CBS, ABC and NBC all at once:

thursday-ratings

Here you can clearly see that CBS won the night overall. ABC started strong and then dropped a lot, while NBC built slightly. I’m surprised to see NBC dipped for The Good Place, but it wasn’t a lot and I like that show so hopefully someone there believes in it. (This is also how I feel about the numbers for Pitch.) As always, when you’re not the executive in charge and you’re reading this data, the answer to all questions becomes, “we need more data!” Because until an answer comes from the bigwigs, there is not a clear answer. But hopefully this provides some good hints.

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Premiere Week Part 2

Westworld: I felt such a deep, abiding love for this show at the end of the pilot, my fingers were adding it to the season pass list while I was still trying to come to terms with what I’d watched. The themes are similar to the AMC show Humans, in which robots who look like people are given sentience and emotion and grapple with their own humanity. I like that show, too. Westworld is slightly more sci-fi, in that it takes place in a future we don’t recognize as our own (ironically, because it looks like the far past) and we already have an idea for the overall arc of the show and the end-game, because it’s based on a book and movie from 1973. But knowing sorta where it’s going doesn’t in any way diminish the journey. The show promises hidden depths for anyone willing to stick with it and pay attention, and thus far is keeping its word.

Timeless: Timeless could have been a great show, and kept the same first fifteen minutes. For those fifteen minutes, it looks like it might not be as cut-and-dried as it seems at first blush. The bad guy steals a time machine and goes back to… the Hindenburg disaster? Could he be trying to save everyone, altering the timeline that way? Our good guys have to kill 36 people to preserve the present as we know it? Who exactly is the good guy? Now that’s an interesting show. Unfortunately, it’s not Timeless. The bad guy is a bad guy, trying to save 36 so he can kill 45 more important people. Sure, they still manage to change the present in good ways and bad, but the show doesn’t seem interested in giving rhyme or reason to those changes. Really, I’d just suggest watching Legends of Tomorrow instead. I have a friend who works on that show, and they work hard over there to make it fun.

Frequency: This show is way better than it has any right to be. I really can’t find a way to describe the plot that makes it sound good. (I was thinking about how the inciting event – lightning hitting a ham radio – was such a trope that “lightning is magic” can be traced back to Zeus, but now we know how lightning works and how electricity works and there’s no magic in any of this and then I just got tired.) But it’s actually an emotionally charged (ha!) show, with serious consequences for its characters and a very clear mythology. It’s obvious, for instance, why Raimy’s fiance doesn’t know her after she alters the timeline, so it’s not like in Timeless when a character suddenly doesn’t have cancer because the Hindenburg didn’t crash quite the same way and there’s no connection. I’ll at least watch the first couple episodes to see if it keeps up.

Conviction: The reviews I’d read for this show all basically said that while Haley Atwell was very good in it, it’s not a good show. And it wasn’t as bad as all that. It’s a legal procedural, and I don’t know that I’m interested in seeing a microcosm of The Innocence Project every week, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not an audience that does want to see it or that it’s not a solid idea. The characters have maybe a bit too much backstory, but the show isn’t intensely interested in exploring that, so if you skip that last two-minute montage of each of them wrestling with what this case means for them personally, you should be good.

Insecure: I really like Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl so I was very excited for this show. I think I’ll need a couple weeks to get in sync with the rhythm of the show, but it definitely has its identity already and had a lot of really good things to say. You want to hug the character of Issa for your sake, not hers, and it seems totally believable that she’d shrug you off and tell you to fix your own problems, she has enough of her own. But I’ll let her rap her problems to me. Or my problems to me, as long as she keeps my name out of it.

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What Ratings Mean

I was complaining to someone recently about a particular new show I didn’t like but how it makes sense that the network picked it up, because it totally fit with the brand and was paired with other shows that I also really don’t like but are very popular, and the ratings bore out that this was a good decision because it did well. And he asked me how ratings work. Like, how do they know what he’s watching every night? And I forgot that this was not common knowledge.

So: first up, they don’t know what you watch every night, unless you specifically tell them. Some companies like to keep track of what’s trending, so if you use a hashtag on Twitter, for instance, they might keep track of that. But that’s not what we mean when we say “ratings.” (It is what we mean when we say “buzz,” which is an actual thing. If a show has good buzz, a lot of people are talking about it on social media. Real thing.) Ratings are almost always generated by the Nielson Company. The Nielson Company takes the number of households in the country and breaks them down into demographic groups based on age, gender, income, education, geography, etc. Then they reach out to random people looking for households that fit into the various demographic groups. They get a good sample size for each group, and the households in their samples get a box they put on their TV that records information about what they’re watching and sends it back to the Nielson Company. This is not done in secret. The families that are chosen are given a little money in compensation. (It used to be that families would have to fill out diaries of what they watched on TV, but now digital 2-way communication is common.) The results are then projected out to the rest of the population: In other words, if 2% of the households surveyed by Nielson watched a particular program, the assumption is that 2% of households in the country watched it. (This is also, I believe, how ratings work in radio.) The ratings will be broken down by demographic, which is how we know that The Good Wife did well with high-income households.

I recently got home to a letter from the Nielson Company with a dollar bill, which the letter explained was a down payment on my agreeing to answer a phone survey. If I answered my home phone, which I never do, it would have been a very short phone call because the first question is “who is your employer” and my answer disqualifies me from the rest of their survey. (I still used the dollar to buy a candy bar, though. Free food is free food.)

In recent years, DVRs have become more and more common and it’s increasingly uncommon for people to watch shows live. Nielson has compensated by putting out several sets of ratings: Live, Live+1, Live+3 and Live+7. These measure how many people watched the show live, within 24 hours, within 3 days, and within a week, respectively. Advertisers hate anything that isn’t live because people often fast-forward through commercials, but networks are hard at work convincing them those viewers count just as much, because they have to be staring intently at the screen to know when the commercials end and they tend to be the ones who watch so much TV that they can recognize a given commercial and the message with just a couple frames. Last spring, the CW announced a deal with Netflix where current seasons of their shows will be available for streaming 8 days after the last episode of that season airs. The AV Club thought 8 days seemed rather arbitrary, but it was because the CW wants to get the Live+7 numbers. The CW also puts a lot of care into measuring how many people stream their shows, which they sell as their demographic being young, the long-standing assumption being that young people are more “brand-flexible” (willing to try new things) and have more disposable income than people who actually think of themselves as adults. Thus, young people are more valuable to advertisers selling cell phones and personal care products. (This is as opposed to CBS, which typically sells itself on household numbers instead of key demo numbers because they do very well with older audiences. To their credit, older audiences are more valuable to advertisers who are selling prescription drugs and pickup trucks.)

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