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Writing about China and Eponymous Adjectives

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By Paul French

In the wake of new Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s “Third Plenum” — the first policy-focused general meeting he’s presided over since being anointed a year ago — the term “Orwellian” is once again getting a work-out.* It’s long been and remains a great favorite among China writers: the Great Firewall is Orwellian, censorship is Orwellian, the Chinese police are Orwellian, Beijing’s policy pronouncements are Orwellian Double Speak. But while Orwellian may be the most overused eponymous adjective (an adjective derived from a real or fictional person, as you’d know if you’d been paying attention in your English grammar class), plenty of others are available to the writer on China, beginning with that derived from the name of Orwell’s one-time French tutor at Eton, Aldous Huxley, who has been in the news lately due to sharing the anniversary of his death with JFK (and C.S. Lewis).

There has been, in fact, a lively eponymous adjective debate lately among foreign writers and journalists covering China over whether the PRC is Orwellian (repressive and brutal as in 1984), Huxleyite (psychologically manipulative, a society bought off by consumer goodies and where stability maintenance is the primary concern, a la Brave New World), or a bit of both. Over the years, and over numerous events from Tiananmen Square to the riotous opening of a new Apple store, views have swayed between emphasizing Huxley’s “velvet glove” and Orwell’s “iron fist” (as opposed to Jack London’s capitalistic Iron Heel).

Those looking for more nuanced eponymous adjectives can reach for other terms. When discussing society the Chinese people can be Brechtian and detached from the action, or Pinteresque with extreme detachment in the face of absurdity (you could substitute Beckettian if you prefer). Certainly more than one Chinese Foreign Ministry official faced with an awkward question from a foreign journalist has displayed an admirable Pinteresque pause in the past. The unkind see Chinese society as full of Asimovian robots performing endless Olympics opening ceremonies. For the new China commentator faced with the overwhelming onslaught of China, Daliesque – denoting the surrealism of the whole show – is popular (some have suggested mixing surrealism with alienation to become Murakamiesque, but it hasn’t caught on yet), and the science-minded eponymous adjective lover might see the whole thing as a Baconian cipher (the message being hidden in the presentation rather than the content).

The China debate of course moves fast, and so can at times appear almost Joycean (in the sense of rapid subject change as opposed to lyricism – China is rarely lyrical) and more than one commentator has displayed a Vonnegutian approach, relying on gallows humor to try to decipher Beijing. I myself admit to having reached for the notion of understanding China as akin to going “through the looking glass,” though Carrollian sadly doesn’t really work as an eponymous adjective.

Business writers really like Kafkaesque (well, his books were short) and all that endless shunting from office to office for permits, opaque laws and never getting a straight answer is reminiscent of poor old K. as he strives to untangle the bureaucracy of The Castle. Younger commentators might go for Gilliamesque (surreal and a tad Kafkaesque, in a Discworldy sort of way).

The debate around China’s future brings forth a whole new slew of eponymous adjectives, often written in a Hemingwayesque style. China could be seen as Byronic (seemingly ideal but with a hidden dark side). More often the analysis tends to the Lovecraftian, courtesy of the early H.P. Lovecraft and portending horrible future prospects, or Ballardian, envisaging a definite dystopia with a veneer of science on top (a Ballardian coffee with a Huxleyite cream if you like). Ballard may be onto something as he was at least born in Shanghai; and all those empty swimming pool motifs engendered in his childhood during the Japanese occupation still seem of-the-moment when writers tour those half finished luxury villa developments on Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road. Of course those looking for The Shape of Things to Come in China often reach for Wellsian — and that includes those who predict it’ll all end in a War of the Worlds.

The Victorians are useful when describing China’s factories – Dickensian is perennially popular. But if you really can’t make your mind up about China, then, without doubt, Shakespearian is the eponymous adjective for you. Take your pick – comedy, tragedy, farce? King Lear gets dropped a lot when the leadership is being discussed, as does Julius Caesar, but I don’t think Romeo and Juliet got a mention in the Bo Xilai/Gu Kailai saga.

Of course all this can get a bit tedious, a bit boring, a bit Franzenesque (okay, I made that one up). One hopes of course that the best writing about China should be Proustian (ornate, detailed, rich with memory and recollection), but it’s not always, sadly. And finally, do remember the eponymous adjectives that nobody outside China uses are Marxist, Leninist, and certainly not Trotskyist – but none of them wrote fiction so they’re no fun.

So go ahead next time you’re asked to write an article on China (and with so many words spilled on China you will eventually be asked) – select an eponymous adjective, press send, sit back and relax – someone out there will agree with you.

A very partial list of Orwell-related commentaries on China can be found by clicking here, here, here, here, and here.


Dear Television, SNL SNL-CEO-baby

Saturday Night Live’s Alumni Problem

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Dear TV,

WE’RE TALKING SNL this week, and I’m … excited. Which isn’t a feeling I’ve gotten from SNL in quite awhile. I wasn’t even aware of how much my enthusiasm for the show had waned until I legitimately guffawed at Noël Wells’s Hannah Horvath and Kate McKinnon’s Jessa in the Girls sketch during Tina Fey’s week hosting, an experience recently topped by Beck Bennett’s incredible sketch of the financial wizard in the body of a baby. That was some of the best physical comedy I’ve seen since David Hyde Pierce’s “A Valentine for Niles” and Maria Bamford’s entire oeuvre. So… what gives? Is SNL good again?

A lot of ink has been spent bemoaning SNL’s awfulness over the years, and I’m not particularly interested in investigating the merits of that critique, which I’ve been hearing for as long as I’ve been aware of TV criticism. What does interest me is the persistence of that narrative. If Anne Helen Petersen walked us through how stars use SNL to “thicken” their celebrity persona, I want to think about how the show is dealing with its own image problem: namely, that it’s routinely perceived as being, at best, mediocre TV.

The fact is, the comedy we have available to us on tap these days outperforms SNL on the regular. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are consistently sharper and funnier than Saturday Night Live. Now, those shows use a different format, they’re scripted, they’re not live, and they don’t require that there be laughs every second, but the point is that if I want a topical laugh, Saturday Night Live isn’t where I go for clips. In its own sketch comedy genre, Mad TV was already making SNL look a little passé back in the late nineties, but — to return for a second to AHP’s post on how distribution changes everything — now that we can stream old favorites like A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Kids in the Hall and newer sketch shows like That Mitchell and Webb Look, get all of Louis CK’s standup for $5, and see Bamford’s entire show on Youtube for free, SNL suffers by comparison. This is strange to say of a live format, but it’s just too polished relative to the gritty low-production-value comedy that’s since come to define the experimental, spontaneous and new. Garfunkel and Oates, anyone?) It’s become the slightly square authority where it was once the rebel, and it’s low-octane comedy these days, comedy that’s a little too glitzed up to be much good, and it’s even competing against itself: you can stream the old (and always “better”) Saturday Night Live on Netflix!

SNL’s position as the Jay Leno of comedy isn’t helped by the fact that its alumni have done as well as they have and have aged publicly. It’s hard for people of our students’ generation, for instance, to believe that the Chevy Chase of Community was ever comedically innovative, or young, or game. When asked whether he learned anything from “established” comedians like Chevy Chase, Donald Glover:

Chevy’s like hilarious cuz he will do, um … none of it ever makes it, but he’ll be like, let me show you something really good, and it’s always like an old dude kinda joke, and I’m like oh, and it really helps me with my comedy science, like why doesn’t that work anymore? … It’s kinda like you learn more from a bad movie than you do from a good movie.

Now, Chevy Chase is the SNL alum extraordinaire: his infamous (second) Comedy Central Roast (which Comedy Central buried because it was so vicious, but you can see parts of it here) amounted to a revolt of younger comedians against everything they perceived Chase to represent — namely, the self-serious egomaniacal sellout who made a huge number of crappy movies for the dollars and not the laughs but still considered himself a comedy genius. But Chase is only the oldest and most embittered of a whole slough of aging SNLers who have in one form or another addressed their time on the show and — perhaps accidentally — degraded its image. Let’s face it: comedy fans these days are purists and they’re weirdly idealistic. We believe in the truth-telling power of comedy in ways we don’t believe in much else, and while that isn’t new — it’s a tradition that dates back to long before Shakespeare’s various Fools — it has intensified recently. Louis CK has disciples.

SNL hasn’t typically honored that priestly tradition, and former cast members have a habit of taking self-referential roles that further erode the sacred character of what we’d like comedy to be. Adam Sandler’s later-in-life turn toward serious acting culminated in the appalling Funny People, which explicitly framed his old comedy (much of which was based on SNL characters) as a hollow ploy for bucks without any regard for quality work. Jimmy Fallon’s turn to late-night hosting only confirmed what we always suspected when he broke in every sketch: he likes chatting up celebs and wearing suits. Rob Schneider. ‘Nuff said. Then of course there’s 30 Rock. I genuinely believe my estimation of SNL subconsciously suffered thanks to Liz Lemon’s world-weary cynicism regarding 30 Rock’s TGS, which is clearly an SNL knockoff and never represented as being anything other than pure crap. 30 Rock’s Achilles heel, in my opinion, is that Jack so often turned out to be right: there is no meaning to Liz’s work.

What I’m getting at is that there’s a certain artistic bankruptcy built into the brand of comedy SNL puts out. It’s always billed as a bit of a hack compromise, albeit with very talented hacks (this quality comes through in both Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch’s autobiographies). It’s live, it’s what we could write in a week, it’s what the host could stomach. In the end, of course, the Famous Person is the weak link. Structurally, the host is a built-in generator of comedic mediocrity: he or she is a contaminant virtually guaranteed to dilute the funnies unless she miraculously possesses or develops comedy chops.

And that was all fine until recently: in a way, it was a version of Celebrity Jeopardy! (one of SNL’s most successful ongoing skits). You get to watch the famous people do something different and burnish their celebrity profile, and you’ll laugh! But this side of the equation, the See the Famous Person side, has collapsed too: we have way more access to famous people than we ever had before thanks to Twitter, fashion sites, gossip sites, deleted scenes, interviews, reality TV and paparazzi. We aren’t starved for the phenomenon of a celebrity unfiltered — LIVE! — the way we once were.

But what — I hear you ask — about SNL statesman Bill Murray? He’s the exception that prove my theory that there are just too many SNL alumni running around degrading the brand. One reason we keep hearing how much better SNL used to be is because most of the old cast members have obligingly faded from view, and Murray has in the interim demonstrated a kind of lifelong comedic integrity: a dedication to comedy as an art form that has taken them into serious spaces without ever abandoning the funny or condescending to the audience. This has retroactively branded their time on SNL as purer and more brilliant (I’m talking about the PR narrative here) and so has death: Andy Kaufman, Chris Farley, and Jon Belushi are comedy saints.

But these guys only got quiet and intense with their funny as they got older, and that’s important. SNL comedy has a certain profile that fits it best, and however muted and prophetic its elder statesmen have since grown, that profile wasn’t subtle or understated or melancholy or wise, it was loud and brash. I’m talking Rachel Dratch and Will Ferrell’s wonderful The Lovahs and Carvey’s Church Lady and Ferrell and Gasteyer’s singing duo and Molly Shannon’s armpit-sniffing and Maya Rudolph’s Donatella Versace and Cheri Oteri’s Get Off My Lawn bits. What these all have in common is that they’re buffoonish and, again, loud. But SNL was tapping into another comedic vein in the ironic 2000s. Let’s call its practitioners the Clever Clan. This is the Seth Meyers/Tina Fey/Amy Poehler/Bill Hader/Jimmy Fallon style. It’s smirky. I like these comedians individually (except for Meyers, who I find likable but totally unfunny and Fallon, an incredible performer but an average comedian) but — to return to where I started, which was wondering when my enthusiasm for SNL had waned — they’re a winky, good-looking bunch, and the ensemble effect was more wry than hilarious. I think this hurt the show. Wry is not a mood Saturday Night Live does well. There are, as we’ve seen, simply too many other people doing it better.

Now, no one says SNL has to be great comedy. It isn’t and doesn’t; as I’ve said, the show’s constraints make greatness almost impossible. But it should be good comedy: you should be laughing a few times a night.

Here’s the sketch that made me realize how quietly bored I’d become by SNL — or at least, how far I’d drifted from an actual laugh into Mildly-Amused-But-Sort-Of-Waiting-For-It-To-End-Land:

This made me laugh my head off. The physicality is SO DISTURBINGLY RIGHT. It’s not a clever meta-joke, it’s an in-your-face belly-joke. For Beck Bennett, who’s new to the show, it’s an instant classic and total triumph. What seems to me really wonderful about a few recent SNL offerings is that the cast is willing to go broad with gusto (and without winking). The turkey sketch Annie mentions is one example; so is the possum sketch with Edward Norton. Aidy Bryant is a delight, Cecily Strong is great (though I wish they’d kill that Girlfriends Talk Show sketch), and Bobby Moynihan’s face is a national treasure. (I want Vanessa Bayer and Taran Killam to do a sketch called The Killer Smiles where they play a couple, the Smiles, whose creepy grins have convinced everyone in the neighborhood — wrongly — that they’re serial killers.) It feels, this season, like there’s less eye-rolling and more energy in the room.

Embrace your inner hack,

Lili


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Dear Television, SNL hutcherson

Good, Giving, and Game: Towards a Theory of SNL Hosting

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Dear Television,

WHEN PHIL FIRST emailed to ask if we wanted to cover this week’s Saturday Night Live, he was not optimistic: “It’s a new one, but it’s with WhoGivesAShitJoshHutcherson.” (It was also with HAIM, whose employment of “bass face” merits a column unto itself.) But people do care about Josh Hutcherson — the Youngs care about Hutcherson, and SNL cares about the Youngs, or at least cares about their demo, which is why the hosts and musical guests seemingly oscillate between things 30-something bourgeois hipsters like (HAIM, Tina Fey, Ed Norton, The Alabama Shakes) and things 16-year-olds like (Hutcherson, Lady Gaga, Ne-Yo, Justin Bieber). Then there’s obvious ploy to get anyone over 40 to DVR the show, on display every time they invite a classic host (Steve Martin) or classic comedian (Martin Short, one last season’s best hosts).

So SNL picks hosts to attract demographics, that much is clear. But why do the celebrities pick SNL?

On the surface, the answer is clear: Publicity. Exposure. Promotion, especially for a new movie or album or season of television. But hosting Saturday Night Live also offers the opportunity to add necessary texture, humor, or substance to a star image — to turn “that guy who plays Peeta in Hunger Games” into a national name, something more than sum of his franchise parts.

Star images are the culmination of a star’s publicity, promotion, and textual appearances, but they’re also something more. They’re everything the star says in interviews, every outfit they’re photographed wearing, every appearance they make in films and commercials and award show podiums. But certain sound bites and outfits and appearances are accentuated over others and come to compose the core of the star’s meaning. Julia Roberts did all sorts of things before she was in Pretty Woman, but once she was in that film, it became the foundation of her image, inflecting every choice, every romance, every hairstyle. When she cut and dyed her hair to appear in Mary Reilly, for example, her fans balked. It wasn’t “right,” it was “all wrong” and unnatural — which is another way of saying it wasn’t her Pretty Woman hair, which was the way that audiences wanted to understand her.

We like to think of star images as natural — a reflection, just ever-so-slightly mediated, of the “real” person. But they’re the result of complex strategies of star production: a whole team of people who make decisions about what the star should say, who he should say it to, and how he should say it, and how that will make the star seem to mean a certain thing, like “cool girl” (Jennifer Lawrence) or “your ideal boyfriend” (Ryan Gosling). (I’m not suggesting that J-Law isn’t, in fact, dorky and self-effacing, but her PR team has absolutely told her to amp that performance to 11).

And if star images are products, then SNL functions as a prime, privileged means of image production. It can’t set the image core (at least not for its hosts), but it can inflect that core, give it something like heft and complexity and charisma.

As SNL has aged, it’s amassed an enormous pool of hosts, which means that there are relatively “open” spots in a season, especially for untested non-comedians. But every season, a few would-be stars get their chance. Most of these performers already have something big going for them: a teen franchise (Taylor Lautner), a huge album (Justin Timberlake), or a hit television show (Jon Hamm). But their images, at least at that point, are one-dimensional. Taylor Lautner was Jacob from Twilight and nothing more; Timberlake was a boy bander-turned-solo-pop-star; Jon Hamm was handsome Don Draper.

And then SNL proved that they — or at least two of those listed above — were something more, something bigger and star-worthy.

To excel at hosting, you must be what Dan Savage calls “GGG” — good, giving, and game. Savage uses it to talk about sex, but it applies to comedic performance as well: you’ve got to be a decent actor, you’ve got to give your time and energy to doing it right, and you’ve got to be up for the weirdest shit the writers throw your way.

Timberlake and Hamm are “good” because they are, bluntly, good actors. (Timberlake may falter on the big screen, but that’s usually an issue of casting: if he were playing his Social Network and Bad Teacher roles at all times, we wouldn’t have a problem). They can take direction, they hit their marks, they don’t “break” in reaction to a punchline.

They’re generous to their co-performers (Timberlake was always happy to let Fallon have the joke), but they’re also “giving” in a slightly different way: they learn their lines. It’s clear they’ve rehearsed — that they’re taking this comedy diversion seriously. (I enjoyed parts of Kerry Washington’s hosting turn from a few weeks ago, but she was visibly reading the cue cards 75% of the time).

And Timberlake and Hamm are both “game”: Timberlake was willing to do weird Color Me Badd riffs (before the ’80s were even that cool again) that involved a.) his penis and b.) having sex with his friend’s mother. But it’s more than just the viral hits — watch Timberlake in “The Barry Gibb Show,” from one of his earliest hosting appearances, and see a man willing to own the ‘70s androgynous pantsuit/temper tantrum.

(Right around 37:00 mark).

And Jon Hamm is likable and Jon Hamm-ish throughout his hosting gig, essentially reifying his Jon Hamm-ness, but he’s also so gamely bizarre in skits like “Jon Hamm’s Jon Ham,” about a bathroom stall ham dispenser.


After hosting SNL, the discourse about both Timberlake and Hamm changed. Suddenly, Timberlake was more than just a former Mickey Mouse Clubber who dated Britney Spears and might be the next MJ: he was funny, maybe even smart, with an indelible charisma that you have to battle to dislike. With that sort of layered image, it became impossible to write Timberlake off as just another boy band star turned solo. It thickened his image, made it stick — which is precisely why he’s still around today and not just an aging 30-something with an arguably disappointing third record.

As for Jon Hamm, he became something more than Don Draper. The famous Don Draper satire skit showed just how performative Draper is — how easy, in other words, it is to “play at” being Draper-ish, with the added bonus of highlighting Hamm’s distance from the Draper character. (You don’t make fun of who you are, just who people think you are). Television stars always have this problem: because you see them playing the same character week after week, their star images are overdetermined by their onscreen characters, making it very difficult for them to move on to marketedly different roles. (See: Jerry Seinfeld, the entire cast of Friends, etc.) Unlike movie stars, who only play a role for two hours, television stars are equated with a role for years.

Hamm could have been stuck to Don Draper forever, but he/his people made two calculated and, in hindsight, genius moves: he appeared as a very unsuave, unDraper womanizer in Bridesmaids, and he was very, very funny on SNL. And now he’s a bonafide star, with a Hollywood future that will extend far beyond season seven of Mad Men. He’s charismatic and handsome and talented, but lots of television actors have that. With the help of SNL (and the lack of underwear), however, Hamm built himself an actual star image.

As for Lautner, there’s many reasons why that kid isn’t a star, and lack of trying isn’t one of them. After the success of the first Twilight, his publicity team did a fairly masterful job of promoting his road from scrawny teenager to jacked werewolf, and he was signed to a slew of action roles that promised to make him into the next Tom Cruise. But unlike Cruise, Lautner can’t act. He also has no charisma, or agility as a performer, or even, it seems, a robust sense of humor — all of which were on prime display in his turn as SNL host.

The lesson: SNL can turn you into a legitimate star, but it can also prove that you maybe shouldn’t be one.

Which is why Josh Hutcherson’s turn as host was so quietly delightful. Here’s a guy who, on paper, should be a horrible host. He’s the (relatively) boring straight man from a franchise (albeit a better franchise than most) and his acting, at least in the first one, isn’t noteworthy. If there’s one thing people know about him, it’s that he’s not who they would’ve cast as the hot, strong-armed baker-turned-Katniss love interest.

From the beginning of the episode, Hutcherson was all about redeeming himself. In the first sketch, he roundly ridicules the passivity of his Hunger Games character, and in the digital short “Matchbox 3,” about a crew of subway performers who do their acts in very, very confined spaces, he not only makes fun of his height, but gives himself over fully to the role.

AHP1

(There’s something so winsome about the way he throws his hand in air in the intro).

And then there’s the most bonkers skit on the show, in which Hutcherson brings home his “new girlfriend” for Thanksgiving, only to surprise his family with the fact that she’s….a turkey.

It’s a classic example of weird, end-of-the-night SNL. It’s not funny, exactly, nor is it entirely satire, but Hutcherson’s ability to straight-facedly make out with a turkey should make us consider him as something more than sad-faced Peeta.

Because Hutcherson is, indeed, more than just a franchise star: he was convincing and embarrassed in The Kids Are Alright, and he’s been slogging through bit roles and kid parts since 2003. Like Hamm, Timberlake, and other recent SNL charmers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Miley Cyrus, Hutcherson is a workhorse — in classic Hollywood, they called actors like them “troupers” because they’d paid their dues, often since they were young children, in vaudeville troupes, where they’d laugh, cry, sing, dance, do stunts, and then do it all over again 24 hours later in the next town. They were GGG because their very livelihood depended on it.

Cary Grant was a trouper, so was Judy Garland — and both would’ve made superlative SNL hosts. Because when it comes down to it, SNL is the vaudeville show for the 21st century, with the ability to bring out the best and worst in its hosts. A hosting gig will always provide visibility. But if the performer is a GGG trouper, that gig can also make him or her a star. It didn’t quite happen with Hutcherson, but who knows: given another chance and more, weirder, material, it might yet.

Googling “Jon Ham,”

AHP

20 Minutes into the Future, Week 8 almost human

Robot Revolutions: “Almost Human”

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THE LAST OF THIS YEAR’S new science fiction programs, Fox’s Almost Human, debuted this week, a co-creation of J.H. Wyman and J.J. Abrams, who seems to have his hand in most things science fictional these days. Wyman and Abrams first teamed up for Fringe, a reinvention of The X-Files with less government conspiracy theory and more of Abrams’s distinctive Lost sensibility. Billed as the next stage of police television, Almost Human is much less innovative than it claims, reworking the well-known terrain of the cross-ethnic cop-buddy formula common in the 1980s. Graham Baker’s film Alien Nation (1988), written by Rockne S. O’Bannon and adapted to a short-lived television drama, extended this formula into science fiction by pairing its human detective Sykes with an alien “newcomer” partner in stories that directly confronted issues of racial prejudice long before Neill Blomkamp used the same conflation of aliens and racial “other” in his District 9 to similar ends. In the cross-cultural, cop-buddy drama, the “neutral” white partner’s stereotypical attitudes toward the racial other are gradually eroding so that friendship and new understanding can emerge. The police drama In the Heat of the Night, adapted to television in the 1980s along with the television Alien Nation, paired white and African American cops policing rural and overtly racist Sparta, Mississippi, and gives a sense of what is at stake in such dramas. And long before Alien Nation used the cop-buddy formula to explore issues of racial difference, ABC’s Future Cop (1976-78) explored the idea of contrast between theory and practice in its fraught relationship between veteran cop Joe Cleaver, played by Ernest Borgnine, and his letter of the law robot partner Haven, played by Michael Shannon, now well-known for his work on Boardwalk Empire, whose most recent SF appearance was a General Zod in Man of Steel.

While Alien Nation paired its crusty human cop with an alien, Almost Human pairs hard-boiled John Kennex, played by Karl Urban who plays McCoy in Abrams’s new Star Trek, with an android partner played by Michael Ealy. This, too, is hardly uncharted territory. In the 1950s Isaac Asimov’s detective Elijah Baley worked with robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw in Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, works that have been adapted to screen a number of times. The Asimov film adaptation I, Robot, (2004), directed by Alex Proyas, draws on this formula in its pairing of Will Smith’s detective Del Spooner with the robot Sonny, including the ubiquitous need for Spooner to overcome his irrational suspicious of all robot others. Mann & Machine (1992) tested the limits of this formula to interrogate gender difference when it paired its Detective Mann with a sexy robot partner Eve Edison, played by Yancy Butler, who went on to star as another sexy, supernatural detective in the live-action, comic book adaptation Witchblade (2001-2002). But it is the Canadian television series Total Recall 2070 (1999), taking its atmosphere from Blade Runner although its title from another Philip K. Dick work adapted to screen, that comes closet to the look and feel of Almost Human. Its detective David Hume (Michael Easton) is paired with android partner Ian Farve (Karl Pruner), in a cyberpunk-style future in which the corporate Consortium dominates. Like Almost Human, Total Recall 2070 investigates crimes linked to illegal research and abuses of technologies related to genomics and memory. RocoCop, returning to big screens in 2014, is another antecedent here, which its vision of the formally human Alex Murphy and its plot about a dystopian Detroit destroyed not by rising crime but by the privatization of the police service in the interests of the evil OCP, Omni Consumer Products. Once a character in a satirical film about an exaggerated dystopian future, RoboCop has now become a mascot of sorts for a contemporary Detroit economically abandoned by the rest of the country, a dark city of the science fictionalization of everyday life captured in the documentary Detropia (Ewing and Grady 2012).

Yet just because Almost Human is not original does not mean that it cannot do interesting things with its established formula. Unlike Future Cop, for example, which continually emphasized the necessity of Cleaver’s ability to respond to situations contextually and intuitively over Haven’s overly rigid use of abstract laws, Almost Human in many ways presents Dorian as more human than Kennex. Kennex is the quintessential isolated and cynical outsider cop, well known from police procedurals such as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, and as such doesn’t know how to play well with others. Kennex is also haunted, as such characters always are, by a past in which his human partner was killed, an incident in which he lost a leg and then spent two years in a coma, further emphasizing his isolation from the rest of the world which went on without him. As the series begins, Kennex blames androids for his partner’s death in the familiar formula of rule-based values vs. human values: the android refused to help evacuate the mortally wounded man, explaining that he needed to focus on aiding those “with a better statistical chance of surviving.” Yet as the rather clichéd melodrama over the first two episodes reveals, Kennex is projecting into blame his own guilt for leading the men into what proved to be an ambush; worse, as he discovers using an illegal technology to accessed his memories of that day, they were betrayed by his girlfriend who disappeared after the event.

Almost Human might be a really good series. Our comfort with robots interacting with us as ubiquitous parts of our daily life has increased since the 1970s Future Cop, which articulate then-contemporary fears about humans being replaced with automation. In the neoliberal era of precarious labor we have perhaps become all-too-comfortable with the idea of humans being replaced by machines, evident in our interactions in automated call-center help-lines, our companionship with Siri, and all the other ways in which we perform for ourselves, with machines, tasked once performed by humans, from bagging our own groceries to refilling our prescriptions online. Wyman has said that Ray Kurzweil’s rapture of the nerds articulated in The Singularity is Near is an influence on the show, and so if nothing else Almost Human marks a significant shift from its predecessors in the greater sympathy we have for Dorian: unlike other cross-cultural buddy shows, our identification is immediately with Dorian rather than gradually won alongside the winning over the human partner. Kennex, too, is  won over pretty easily and, contra theories of the uncanny which suggest that we find most disturbing artificial beings that are almost but not quite human, preferring a clear distinction of the evidently artificial and evidently human, Dorian is all the more sympathetic when contrasted with the inhuman coldness of the more recent android models who do not have this “flaw” of programmed emotion and empathy.

The most promising innovation of this series is that it is really Kennex rather than Dorian who is almost human: he has a synthetic leg to replace one lost in the explosion that killed his human partner, and he struggles, as his fitness-for-duty evaluation states, with “psychological rejection” of this synthetic body part. He is also fusing with machines in his memory-recall experiments, and his obsession with vengeance for the attack that killed his partner makes him considerably more rule-bound and rigid than Dorian. Yet Almost Human fails to explore the metaphor of ethnic and other prejudice rooted in this formula, as did the earlier Alien Nation and even Mann & Machine. Dorian objects several times to the term ‘synthetic,’ which Kennex clearly uses as a slur, but thus far the plots of the episodes, particularly the second one about slaughter woman women to create better quality skin for synthetic sexbots, emphasize and reinforce the difference between humans (who count) and androids (who don’t). The episode narratives are thus in tension with the thrust of the series premise, positioning Dorian as the “exceptional minority” except from a prejudice that is otherwise warranted against others of his kind, making the politics of Almost Human potentially more regressive than those of the 1970s Future Cop.

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Uncategorized West Park Asylum, Epsom, Surrey, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

Life Hacks and the Undead: On Urban Exploration, “The Walking Dead” and “Revolution”

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By Brigette Brown

A deserted prison sits in the middle of an open field, fenced in with gates several feet high, and topped with barbed wire for good measure. Padlocks keep possible trespassers from opening the gates but they don’t keep them from climbing the fences and dropping down on the other side. Infiltration is possible despite the walls, locks and fences that say otherwise. It’s easy to get in if you really want to.

Embedded social norms keep everyone in their place because of the fear of what could happen. Boundaries often go untested.

River Tyburn, City of London, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

River Tyburn, City of London, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

That is hardly the case for Bradley L. Garrett and the dozens of urban explorers he chronicled in his book, Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City. Garrett, an ethnographer who spent three years on place-hacking missions in Europe and America, describes urban explorers in his book this way: “Urban explorers, much like computer hackers in virtual space, exploit fractures in the architecture of the city. Their goal is to find deeper meaning in the spaces we pass through every day.” They go to the places they’re not supposed to be, places that are normally off-limits, to photograph and share their experiences. The point is to show that nothing is impenetrable, that beyond the walls set up to keep it out of reach, a secret city exists.

Our experience of the city is more or less dictated by the rules of a capitalist society, and the choices we make to move through these spaces everyday are therefore not our own, but those already laid out for us. Urban explorers choose to do as they please. They challenge the “underlying message of constant and immanent threat promised by neo-liberalism that is used to codify the urban environment for our ‘safety,’” ultimately calling the bluff of that threat.

Decaying structures and ruins hold a special promise for explorers who love to document disused spaces for their aesthetic value, for the image of the post-apocalyptic future and the liberation from the fast-paced urban environment. It’s about the exploration of urban space as much as it is about exploring a period of time; the now, the past and the future locked in an environment that is largely ignored. These confrontations with urban space also include infiltration. Urban explorers enjoy breeching the security apparatus at corporate and state sites and networks, not to damage the property or exploit the system, but to show that there are chinks in every suit of armor. The illusion of security is just that.

But urban explorers don’t necessarily care if the general population engages in these exploits.

Gartloch Hospital, Gartcosh, Scotland, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

Gartloch Hospital, Gartcosh, Scotland, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

The excitement and the possible danger of exploration often exist in the phantasm of our dreams, as fleeting moments of rebellion — boundaries, in actuality, go untested. The adventure comes to us. Our aspirations are played out on our televisions.

Take the mass appeal of The Walking Dead (2010–) or Revolution (2012–), for example. Both television shows run with our fascination with a post-apocalyptic future (something urban explorers are also driven by) and transform our views of the city today into something at once more magical, more dangerous and more exciting. We hold our breath as we watch the stories unfold.

Walking Dead season 3, Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). Photo by Frank Ockenfels/AMC.

Walking Dead season 3, Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). Photo by Frank Ockenfels/AMC.

In The Walking Dead, zombies infest our cities, laws and accepted social practices go out the door, and we are free to roam…anywhere. That prison which had previously been secure, guarded and untouchable is now home to anyone who wishes to take it over. The prison becomes not a place of exclusion, oppression and punishment, but a shelter that functions more like an apartment building, an urban garden and a soup kitchen all in one. The meaning of space has been altered.

The lights were turned off in Revolution, and though the city tries to function as it once did, citizens are more daring and fearless than ever before. They take what they feel is theirs and don’t give it back without a fight. Rather than enslaving people with the imposed practices and boundaries of city life, the post-apocalyptic city works for the people. It’s free.

Revolution season 2, Sebastian "Bass" Monroe (David Lyons) and Charlotte "Charlie" Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos). NBC

Revolution season 2, Sebastian “Bass” Monroe (David Lyons) and Charlotte “Charlie” Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos). NBC

It’s freedom at its most pure and we fantasize about liberating ourselves from the holds of the present. We dream of a world where we can take our own risks, solve our own problems, and do all the things we were told not to. Still, most of us aren’t bold enough to take those risks in real life. We can’t give up our nine-to-five jobs or risk our lives or spend years paying legal fees and avoiding jail just to explore. Boundaries and exclusionary practices are in place to keep us safely tucked away on our couches, not causing problems for anyone, oblivious of the fact that we aren’t really free.

But as Garrett and his fellow explorers tackle boundary after boundary, skyscraper after skyscraper, and tunnel after tunnel, they demonstrate to us what freedom can feel like. Though we can hardly imagine a world where freedom of exploration, discovery and risk are the norm, it is possible to take back our urban spaces by exploring one “new” place in our backyards every now and then, with or without fear, with or without the zombies.

Dear Television, Week 7 AHPimage

In Praise of Quitting

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Dear Television,

I’VE QUIT ONE JOB, I’ve quit two sports, I quit one (very ill-advised) diet. I finish all my books and once I start an article, I can’t stop reading it. But I quit television shows all the time — and more to this week’s point, I quit Homeland before Season Three even started. I quit The Bridge after four episodes; I quit Justified two weeks in to Season Four. I’m especially skilled at quitting teen dramas after two seasons, which is exactly what I did to The O.C., Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars and even Veronica Mars. I quit Breaking Bad, and I will fight you if you try to shame me.

I don’t have any solid quitting policy: there’s no “three shitty episodes” limit or a checklist of unforgivable televisual offenses. It’s usually a matter of atrophy. A show is a priority until, gradually, it isn’t, and the unwatched episodes pile up in my DVR queue like moldering Moneysavers on the front porch.

The atrophy of fandom is nothing new. What I want to suggest with this post, however, is that in the contemporary attention economy, it’s a necessity — an ability to be cultivated and celebrated, not denigrated or shamed. Quitting television shows, especially shows that have betrayed us, is tremendously liberating, almost akin to removing oneself from a toxic relationship. I broke up with Homeland, in other words, and I feel great. 

We all know there’s too much good television. There’s too many good movies, too much good journalism online. But it’s only “too much” because we feel like we don’t have enough time to consume all of it — there’s a bountiful cornucopia of media out there, media that soothes and challenges and compels.

But in order to get to the good stuff, you have to be willing to embrace two contradictory impulses: You must be ruthless, but you must also be patient. You must be willing to allow a show’s voice to develop — to weather a first dysfunctional season, for example, or to reach a point of seriality that “boring” suddenly morphs into “gripping” — but you must also be ready to listen to the voice inside your head that says this makes me feel shitty.

At the beginning of the year, I’m always open to new stuff. A supernatural procedural that blends 18th century historical figures with contemporary crime solving? Okay, fine, sure. I receive some guidance from the people whose job it is to watch every new fall show (A thousand voices telling me to avoid Dads). But with everything else, I follow the mom-enforced dinner rule: take one bite. But I also follow the second part of that rule: namely, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it anymore.

If you’re going to practice this quasi knee-jerk strategy, however, you have to refuse to be stubborn. I hated tomatoes as a kid, and my stubbornness made it so that I didn’t even realize that the watery, mealy things on the top of burgers could be transformed into tangy, complex things when fresh and salted. You thus have to be willing submit (and often re-submit) yourself to a show and its charms. I didn’t like American Horror Story’s pilot; now it’s one of my favorite feminist shitshows on television. I refused to watch a show with Zooey Deschanel; now I’m in love with New Girl’s Nick Miller. I thought any show on ABC Family was regressive bullshit, but then Emily Nussbaum made the case for Switched at Birth and I saw the light. I’m always ready to be convinced of my wrongness, especially if that convincing only takes 42 minutes of my evening. A willingness to be wrong — to admit it, and celebrate seeing the light — might even be a hallmark of a good critic.

But then you also have to be willing to make unpopular choices. Quitting Homeland isn’t all that unpopular: every Sunday night, my social media feeds are filled with those dropping from it like once-manic flies, hoping to escape before the show reaches some lobotomizing stage. But quitting Breaking Bad was much more shameful. The first time I quit, it was because of “Grilled” — an episode that made me feel so anxiously nauseated that I couldn’t describe my relationship to the show as anything other than masochistic. Breaking Bad was filled with what I’ve termed “sticking points in serial television” — episodes that are so profoundly affecting that you can’t bring yourself to go beyond them.

The famous Friday Night Lights episode “The Son” was one of my most significant sticking points. Because of similarities to my own life and experience, that episode generated more than weepy sadness. I cried so hard the computer screen in front of me shook. It was a sticking point, but it wasn’t forever: quitting FNL after that episode, and not seeing what happens to my beloved Matt Saracen, would only make me feel more grief, not less.

But what would I gain from watching more Breaking Bad? People love to talk about the relatability of anti-heros, and I get it some of the time (Tony Soprano, Raylan Givens, Juliette Barnes), but Breaking Bad became one alienating adrenaline rush after another. The seriality pulled me along, but I finished each episode feeling a little more empty than before. Breaking Bad was, somewhat ironically, not all that different from drug addiction: it made me feel shitty, but I couldn’t resist its narrative gravity.

Don’t mistake me: Breaking Bad was doing a lot of complicated, fascinating, and daring stuff, and it’s certainly an excellent show that deserves (nearly all) of the accolades piled on it. I powered through my sticking point — all the way through Season Three — because it’s my job, both as an academic and a writer, to be conversant in these things. But professional obligation only needs to go so far: film critics should probably watch Saw, but do they need to watch all six? To be conversant in European Art Cinema, must I watch every Ingmar Bergman? Or can I just watch a few, figure out they’re not my thing, but appreciate them for what they are?

I needed to watch Breaking Bad, and I needed to be patient with it. But I didn’t need to finish it and feel horrible while doing it.

When you love a show, however, it’s difficult to feel generous towards others who don’t. In the summer of 2010, television scholar Jason Mittell wrote a lengthy piece “On Disliking Mad Men, effectively lighting an academic/quality television fire storm. Mittell works on “complex television” and has published broadly on The Wire and Lost; Mad Men should be a natural fit, taste-wise. But he watched a season, though about it broadly, and decided to stop. Many readers (myself included) begged him to go farther — in essence, we wanted him to understand our own devotion to the show. But our arguments (mostly about characterization, nuance, its treatment of history) didn’t address his fundamental, deep-rooted dislike  It was an unpopular decision, but he stuck by it. He quit, and he felt great.

When a sitcom is no longer funny to you — when you laugh once or twice a show, and mostly yearn for the days when you couldn’t conceive of anything funnier — it’s time to quit. When a show’s racism becomes egregious and or its moralizing becomes consistently ham-handed, it’s time to quit. When you force yourself to watch something just so you don’t feel left out, it’s time to quit. Find a new show! Start a new conversation!

When a teen melodrama has exhausted all possible couplings and resorts to car crashes, the underworld, or unmotivated changes in sexuality, it’s time to quit. Unless, of course, you start to think of it as a wholly different type of pleasure. I think this is what Phil is describing about his relationship with Homeland: it’s bad in the service of (hopeful) good, and he’s willing to suffer for the pay-off. Nashville has always been somewhat bad, but I’m endlessly willing to suffer that badness for the wonderment that is Hayden Panettiere’s storyline. When I watch The Notebook, I fast-forward through the nauseating old people parts; when I watch Nashville, I fast-forward every time I see Peggy or Lamar’s face. I make my own edit, and that edit makes me feel no pain.

Feeling chronically bad or bored or offended is always enough reason to quit a show. But there’s also something to be said for quitting before the show goes off the rails, thereby preserving its immaculate memory in your mind. This strategy involves a mix of clairvoyance and the ability to read entertainment trade journalism. Because sometimes you just know. Your favorite couple has broken up, or gotten together, or someone died, or someone didn’t die. The narrative has run its course, but the powers that be drag it on, hungry for the 100 episode-mark that will allow the series to be sold into syndication and create a huge financial windfall. For these shows, quitting while ahead just isn’t an option: so long as the show’s drawing the numbers the network wants, it’ll keep it alive until the showrunner’s contract runs out. It’s death by slow, overwrought, narratively exhausted torture, and it’s a fate shared by everything from Grey’s Anatomy to The Office.

Alternately, the industry itself gives you all the hints you need to know better. The show switched to a new network (Veronica Mars), it has a new showrunner (Community), it’s being revived nearly a decade later (Arrested Development), or one of the stars is outta there (Downton Abbey). Phil mentioned that his ability to stick with a show is predicated on trust — especially of a showrunner — and the above moves should signal that your trust in a show is no longer warranted. In these cases, a refusal to heed the signs of a show’s demise yields little more than a general distrust of the product you once loved. You didn’t quit, and now you’re bitter.

A combination of clairvoyance, industry news, and access kept me from watching the downhill seasons of so many of my cherished shows, which allows me to live in ignorant, willful bliss.  Veronica Mars and Logan Echolls are frozen in amber on their graduation day, and Carrie Mattheson is the strong, centered woman who said goodbye to Brody at the Canadian border. Unlike Phil, my investment in television is less with the process than the overarching product: he loves watching Homeland try its damndest to “add up”; I find it — especially when watching “real time,” with a week between each episode — infuriating. I don’t like the person I become when I hate a television show and continue to watch it. Instead of disliking myself, then, I just stick to disliking (and abandoning) the show.

Television viewing used to be characterized by its passive inertia: the ability of the network flow to glide you seamlessly from one show to the next. Why make a decision about what to watch when your favorite network has made it for you? A modicum of flow still remains (see, for example, the Netflix timed countdown from the end of one episode to the beginning of another) but most of us dictate our own media consumption diets. But we need to be economical: there’s too much out there to love, so why spend time watching what you don’t?

Don’t misinterpret this as a pass to avoid shows that are complicated or different or slow. We should all expose ourselves to things that challenge us and our tastes, and do so regularly. But we shouldn’t feel like our tastes should hew to everyone else’s: chances are we’re all lying about being caught up, or even liking, a show that we’re supposed to. I love watching television shows, after all, but I also love the liberation of quitting them. You might too.

AHP

¤


The China Blog boxers+saints

Gene Luen Yang on Relying on Stories, Creating Boxers & Saints

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By Angilee Shah

It’s not that the concept of Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints is complex: two volumes tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion from two perspectives.

But within this simple structure, Yang’s graphic novels build a compelling story around a war of identity, set 100 years ago in China. It combines mysticism with the very concrete ways that people decide who they are, in this case a leader in a secret fighting society and a Chinese Christian convert. It has the remarkable effect of allowing readers to explore how stories — saints and spirits — can shape physical events — the blood, gore and battles of history.

A book like this, both approachable and profound, could not come at a better moment. When you can imagine China’s history with foreigners this way, it becomes very difficult to oversimplify the mix of views Chinese people might have today about their spectacular entrance onto the world stage.

Gene Luen Yang spoke with the “China Blog” about Asian and Asian American identity and how people come to embody their stories, and the empathy he felt while investigating the Boxer Rebellion.

Shah: [One of your earlier books] American Born Chinese is about identity and stereotypes in a head-on sort of way. Is Boxers & Saints also about understanding identity?

Yang: I think so. Both American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints come from the same root. Issues of identity and how people construct identities for themselves really interest me. Specifically, I’m really interested in the way people who are caught in between cultures end up negotiating for themselves.

In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized a group of Chinese Catholic saints. I grew up in a Chinese Catholic church that still meets in the San Francisco Bay Area. My home church was really excited about these canonizations because this was the first time that this deeply western church had acknowledged Chinese citizens in this way.

When I looked into the lives of these saints, many of them were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion and their canonization was actually very controversial. The Chinese government issued a letter of protest to the Vatican saying that the Roman Catholic Church was honoring people who had betrayed their Chinese culture. That tension between eastern and western world views and how they existed within the same community, within these Chinese Catholic communities, really interested me.

Shah: If the impetus for your interest in the Boxer Rebellion was the canonization of these saints, how did you come to understand and get into the nuance of this complex event in history?

Yang: From what I’ve read, it seems like the Boxers went through different phases of how they were perceived. Immediately after their defeat, they were seen as backward groups who had succumbed to superstition. Once the Communist Revolution in China got underway, it seems like Communist leaders recast them as patriots, almost as people to be admired. Nowadays, it seems like most modern scholars see them as more complex figures. They embody both some xenophobia and also patriotism.

When I was reading about them, I just felt like their motivation was really understandable to me. It made a lot of sense. I had also read a little bit that compared the Boxer movement to Ghost Dancers here in America. Native American groups, when their cultures were under attack and they felt that they were dying as a people, they came up with this thing called Ghost Dancing. It was really similar to the Boxers, where they believed they could achieve mystical powers by going back to their roots and relying on their stories.

When it feels like a culture is existentially threatened, not just with defeat but with annihilation, these types of things come out. In one way, it’s an act of desperation. But it another way it’s like the stories of the culture embody themselves within these people. I was pretty fascinated by that idea as well.

Shah: Speaking of stories being embodied in people, how much has changed since you began creating graphic novels for representations of Asians?

Yang: I’ve been doing it for 15 years, which seems like a long time to me, but in terms of history it’s a blink of an eye. We’re in the midst of a developing Asian American culture. The term “Asian American” hasn’t been around for a long time. My parents, I don’t think, would call themselves Asian Americans. They call themselves Chinese Americans. It’s only pretty recently that we started thinking of ourselves as Asian Americans.

But there is an emerging Asian American culture where we are starting to tell our stories and make our own music. We’re starting to create a culture that is a subculture of American culture that draws heavily from Asian cultures but is distinct from the cultures of our parents and our grandparents.

Shah: When you starting working on American Born Chinese in 2000, do you think there would have been a market for a book like Boxers & Saints?

Yang: Maybe not. In 2000, it wasn’t just comics about Asian and Asian American issues that weren’t selling. Comics in general just weren’t selling. In the late ’90s, my friends and I would go to these comic book conventions and we’d listen to publishers and artists and authors talk about how we were about to see the death of the American comic book. Marvel Comics, which was — it still is — the biggest comic book company in American, was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time. [They went into bankruptcy in 1996.] People were predicting that if they just blinked out of existence, it would take down the entire American comics infrastructure, that all of the comic stores in America would shut down. The ’90s overall were seen as good times, but within the comic book industry it was a little bit apocalyptic. People were predicting some pretty dire things.

To go from there to now, where every book store has a pretty substantial graphic novel section — where people know what a graphic novel is — it’s pretty remarkable. I do think that some of the reasons that happened are tied into Asian American issues. One of the reasons why comics revived was the growing popularity of Japanese culture in America. Japanese anime and comics, manga, became really popular. For a while, manga was the fastest growing section of the American book market.

It’s gotten to the point that nowadays, I’d say any cartoonist 30 or under draws in a heavily manga style. If you watch TV and look at the American-produced cartoons, like Avatar Last Airbender, which is a Nickelodeon production, and even the latest incarnation of My Little Pony, you can see heavy manga influence on the drawing styles. There’s a blend within modern American cartoon culture, both in animation and comics, of eastern and western styles. So there’s interest in both eastern and western cultures and the way they come together.

Boxers & Saints probably has benefitted from both those things, that comics are no longer a dead media and that there’s this interest now in Asian cultures.

Shah: For people who are interested in China’s history, what’s your number one Boxer Rebellion book?

Yang: The one that I relied on most heavily when I was doing my book? It was Origins of the Boxer Uprising by Joseph Esherick. That was the only one that really took the Chinese side. There were other ones out there but it seems like they were always either mixed in terms of their perspectives or they were heavily European and American. Esherick’s had the most fascinating little details too.

There’s also another one by Ignatius Press that isn’t about the Boxer Rebellion in particular, but it’s called Christians in China. It talks about the movement of Western religion throughout Chinese history. That was helpful as well.

Angilee Shah is an editor and journalist. She co-edited Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (UC Press, 2012), a book of essays about everyday life in China. You can find her on Twitter @angshah.


Dear Television, Homeland, Week 7 jpeg

Trust Fumes: Staying With Homeland

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SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ALL SORTS OF STUFF…

Dear Television,

THIS WEEK, AHP and I will be talking about the virtues and drawbacks of sticking with series that go off the rails. Loosely, I’ll be advocating the position of The Stayer, while AHP will advocate that of The Ditcher tomorrow. But first, a memory:

I will always remember the night that I saw M. Night Shymalan’s The Village at the Hampshire Mall Cinemark. If you haven’t seen this film, it tells the tale of a small, self-governing, utopian community in Olden Times that exists in a kind of negotiated peace with some cloaked monsters who roam the woods at the edges of their town. There’s a virtuous young blind girl (Bryce Dallas Howard), a nefarious mentally-disabled man (Adrien Brody, apparently unaware that he was playing a radically offensive caricature), a puritanical/warm-hearted leader (William Hurt), and Joaquin Phoenix. When a crisis occurs, they have to come to grips, not only with the beasties that stalk in their forests, but with the world outside of their commune.

It’s horrible. The dialogue is preposterously stilted — florid, unrealistic 19th-centuryisms abound, with nary a contraction to be heard. The rituals of the village are goofy. The whole movie is thinly characterized, untextured historical fiction. It all feels like the 19th century made up by a delusional egomaniac. But that’s the trick. The big Shymalan whammy at the end reveals that the reason everyone speaks in stilted, affected old-timey speak is that the film is not set in Olden Times. The village in The Village feels like the 19th century made up by a delusional egomaniac because that’s, within the narrative of the film, what it is. The town exists in a huge, walled-in nature preserve in the present day, and the town’s elders — for some nonsense reason about urban crime in Philadelphia — have raised their innocent children in a giant Live-Action Role-Play environment. And so the weird hiccups that give the film all the credibility of a half-baked Renaissance Faire are actually a part of the texture of the film’s reality. The movie, in other words, is terrible on purpose.

And I loved it. I had to wake my friend up to explain — she was less thrilled — but I walked out of that theater feeling the perverse, perhaps masochistic, thrill that I’d been taken for a ride. The intentionality of that film’s hackishness was exhilarating to me. This director had dared to sacrifice his film to its final, shocking plot contrivance. I’ll not be putting The Village in any top ten lists or stumping for its aesthetic, but, as a pure movie-going experience, it was a rare pleasure. M. Night Shyamalan had made a silly decision, but he was in control of it, and that confidence translated right into my seat.

For the past month, Alex Gansa — the showrunner of Showtime’s Homeland — has been making this argument about his own series. The first four episodes of the third season of Homeland — which premiered at the end of September — were monstrously frustrating. Last year’s second season saw the show focusing attention on bizarre subplots and gobbledygook incidents — Dana Brody’s brush with vehicular homicide, Brody’s stealth Skyping with Abu Nazir, Brody’s slapstick murder of a Gettysburg tailor — rather than playing to the strengths that had made it beloved appointment television. But with the promise of Brody’s departure at the end and a return to the business of the CIA, viewers like me came to season three imagining the new possibilities of a clean slate.

What we got instead was four episodes worth of laser-like focus on Carrie’s mental illness and Dana Brody’s infatuation with another reedy, murderous teen psychopath. (Does Dana not have any girlfriends to warn her about these skeevy dudes?) It was hard to bear, and, by the time that the third episode revealed Brody holed up in a Caracas slum being seduced into heroin addiction by a Disney villain, I was ready to turn in my gun and badge. How was it possible that this show could have so little sense of what it was good at? How could it have so little understanding of what made audiences watch it in the first place? Where were the tense interrogations of “Q & A,” the emotional manipulations of “The Weekend,” the fleet-footed fieldwork and high stakes of “The Smile” or “The Vest,” the shocking violence of “A Gettysburg Address”? What the hell is this?

At the end of the fourth episode, we got our answer. Carrie, in collusion with Saul, apparently, had been working deep cover in order to get close to the heavy who ordered the bombing that ended the previous season. All of it, the first four episodes, the breakdowns, the hospitalizations, all that horrible annoying detritus — it was all an act. We had to sit through it because Carrie had to sit through it. We had to endure it because it needed to be endured for a greater purpose. We had to grow to hate Homeland so that Homeland could earn our love.

Needless to say, I loved it. Like M. Night Shyamalan, Alex Gansa had put me, as a viewer, through an intolerably long stretch of stupid television in order to smack me over the head four episodes in. The willingness to intentionally tank four episodes doubled as an acknowledgment that somebody up there knows what really works on Homeland. And Gansa, bless his heart, minutes after the big twist, called out to anyone who would listen that yes this was all on purpose. He told Entertainment Weekly, for example,

I was an amateur magician when I was in my early teens and my favorite magic tricks were always the ones where the magician makes the audience think he’s made a mistake. Then at the end of the trick you realize the magician has been ahead of you all the time. I hope we came close to that.

Gansa repeated this rationale multiple times in reference to the episode — “Game On” — but not everybody was ready to celebrate with me. A lot of critics felt, rightly, bamboozled, or that the pieces just didn’t add up to the intentional prestidigitation Gansa was claiming. What might have played out as a paradigm shift reminiscent of Lost’s famous flash-forwards ended up landing as smug betrayal — the key difference being that Lost tricked its viewers but never stopped entertaining them. A lot of viewers, however, were just relieved. Totally aside from my cinematic masochism, my feelings about the turn of events were aptly summarized by the subtitle of Willa Paskin’s Slate recap: “I’m so happy, I don’t even care that it’s ludicrous.”

But this is what we do when we love a show: we trust it, even when it doesn’t deserve our trust. Oftentimes this trust is anthropomorphized as The Showrunner. This is, to some extent, I think, at the root of this contemporary mythos. We trust the shows we love because that’s what it takes to tune in week-to-week, and, especially with the visibility of auteurs like David Chase and active social media presences like Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, it’s become easy to attribute that trust to a person. We don’t trust that The Sopranos will end well; we trust that David Chase will end it well, and we hold him personally responsible if it doesn’t. And we do this because to commit to a serial drama like this is to forge a real, if marginal, emotional connection to something. On vastly different scales, we trust our mail to be delivered, we trust our friends to come over and snark at Homeland with us, and, after investing hours of time and — for a premium cable show — a significant amount of money, we trust our television shows to know themselves.

From the original sin of letting Brody live past the first season, however, Homeland has been running on trust fumes. After its tremendous first season, the show has been occasionally brilliant — see, for example, the list of episodes above from the first and second seasons — but it has shown itself to be ruinously susceptible to bad ideas or, more accurately, outlandish maneuvers in service of ordinary goals. The Dana/Finn murder plot, for instance, ended up being an elaborate set-up to, um, humanize Finn, or show Dana the meaning of death and responsibility or something? Homeland loves making grand gestures — the car wreck, the VP’s heart attack — that seem, in the moment, to be major events. The show then revels in revealing that those events were only preludes or previews of coming atrocities. Homeland, in other words, loves running the long con, but they’re not always very good at it. And this insistence on setting-the-table with such bridge-burning flourish often comes at the expense of week-to-week interest or even coherence. And, more disappointingly, it forces us to try to care about characters, events, and situations that are ultimately insignificant or tertiary points en route to something else.

And poor Dana Brody is often the prime mover in these distractions. This wayward teen has long been a poster-child for everything that’s wrong with the series. I, however, have always held out hope for her storylines. This isn’t to say I’ve really enjoyed any of them so much as I’ve believed in the possibility of Dana as a character and thus understood why Gansa and company have been so fixated on making her a feature of the series. A credible version of this show might have dispatched Nicholas Brody at the end of season one or midway through season two in order to re-situate focus on Dana and Carrie as twin protagonists. The show might then seamlessly transform from a taut thriller into the emotionally resonant study of trauma, of inheritance, of longing that was always at its heart anyway. Making Homeland about the ordinary lives of Dana and Carrie in Brody’s wake — going to school, going to work — could have made for a great, humane narrative trick and could have made good on the promise of the show’s title. What’s been so disappointing about this season so far is that, to some extent, this is exactly what it’s doing and it sucks. Pairing Dana with yet another loose cannon boyfriend and sending her on a Bonnie and Clyde ’13 road trip made every note ring false, and sending Carrie down a fake rabbit hole didn’t do any better. Homeland can set the table, but it’s been about a season and a half since they served anything even remotely appetizing.

And this problem is extraordinarily clear when it comes to Carrie this season. “Game On” was an exciting turnaround only if it set us up to get back to business. We should want to see Dana fall in love and deal with her terroristic inheritance; we don’t want to see Dana fall in love with a Law and Order case-of-the-week defendant. Likewise we just want to see Carrie do her job. And the hard-earned reward of that magic trick at the beginning of the season was the suggestion that that’s what we’ve been watching all along. Over the past few weeks, a lot of critics have ventured suggestions as to how to “fix” Homeland, and, invariably, all of these suggestions circle around the desire to put Carrie and Saul and Quinn back in the field, doing what they do. As a viewer, I so want to see these characters pulling off clandestine operations that I’ll accept any trick so long as Carrie-Gets-to-Do-Her-Job is the rabbit Gansa pulls out of his hat.

So, to reiterate, in theory, I am pleased as punch that this show decided to snooker us. Being fooled by a series is not the same as being let down by it. And, in the days after it happened, I was filled with the hope that one day, at the end of a riveting season, we might look back and think, “Remember how much we hated the beginning of Homeland season three? Boy was that worth it!” But, alas, it seems like it was not to be. The episodes since “Game On,” have been, to my mind, fairly gripping, admirably old-school jaunts. Javadi’s murder of his wife and daughter-in-law had some of that bracing violence we remember from early season two, Carrie and Saul’s consecutive interrogations had a little bit of that old two-people-in-a-room tradecraft magic, and, despite still dealing with some rather clunky guilt after accidentally killing a kid in the first episode, the show let Quinn have at least one bad-ass move this week when he precision-capped Carrie to save a mission.

But then there’s the pregnancy. In the episode following “Game On,” it’s revealed that Carrie is not only pregnant, but apparently unhappily so — based on the entire drawer in her bathroom vanity filled with urine-soaked, presumably stinky, used pregnancy tests. Too much, too soon, Gansa. I’m all in favor of tricks, but they’re still a tricky business. Coming off of a fake-out like that, a show needs to either drop the mic or hit the ground running. Liberating that character from the confines of the mental institution only to stick her with this seems like, at best, overkill, and at worst, a misapprehension of what’s compelling about this show. Deepening Carrie by giving her this baby underestimates how much we can and have learned about her by watching her work, and creating this manifestation of her relationship with Brody ties him like a millstone around her neck at exactly the moment we should be letting him go. None of the questions it introduces are compelling, and all of the things it resurrects should stay dead.

Some critics have suggested this pregnancy plot is a symptom of aimless writing. Gansa again defends the show against this charge:

To hear that we’re wandering in the woods is just hysterical to us. This is the season we’ve been really conscious and diligent about plotting every little piece carefully. One of those pieces is Carrie’s pregnancy and it becomes very important in this last sweep of episodes.

I don’t doubt that this was planned. Gansa and his team have not lost my confidence that they’re telling the story they want to tell. And I’m sure Carrie’s pregnancy does have a role to play in the last movement of this series. But the same could have been — and was — said about Dana’s car crash, about any number of other silly diversions. With Lost, the question was always, “Will it add up?” When the answer turned out to be no, it felt like a betrayal. I’ve never doubted that Homeland will add up — I do love watching it try — but, at this point, I just don’t know if I’ll care.

Cryface,

Phil.

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The UC System Is Failing Its Graduate Students

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By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

I have enjoyed the best experience one could possibly hope for while getting a PhD. I feel a little bit guilty for saying that, knowing that it’s a rarity for graduate school to go so well, but the past five and a half years have been relatively smooth ones for me. I was admitted to my two top programs and decided to go to UC Irvine for a PhD in modern Chinese history. I entered in the fall of 2008, before the worst of the financial crisis really hit, which meant that I received a generous locked-in funding package. I found faculty and colleagues who “got” me and haven’t pushed me in the direction of the tenure track, which I’ve always known isn’t for me. I haven’t suffered any significant setbacks or crises that weren’t of my own making (as all of my professors will tell you, I’ve never met a deadline I couldn’t miss). All in all, things have gone better than I’d ever dreamed they would.

And I’ve loved being a grad student at UC Irvine. I’ve studied with amazing professors — not just in the Chinese history program, though they’ve been tops, but also in fields like American history, gender history, and world history. I had the freedom to take classes in those fields because the history department encourages grad students to think beyond their specialties, and while I love studying China, I’m interested in lots of other things, too. I spent three years as part of the editorial team of the “China Beat” blog, a site started by two UCI history professors and their grad students, which enabled me to work with scholars and journalists from around the world. Every year, I talk to prospective graduate students considering UCI and enthuse about the history program at such length that even I realize I need to tone it down.

Here’s what I dislike about UCI: it’s a UC. And I’m finding it increasingly difficult to be enthusiastic about a university system that has so completely lost sight of its mission.

That California has been systematically dismantling its once world-class public university system isn’t news. A number of UC faculty, including LARB founder and UC Riverside professor Tom Lutz, have written publicly about the cutbacks their schools have suffered and the negative effect they’ve had on the quality of education students receive. A UC Santa Cruz grad student recently crowd-sourced testimony about the difficulties of surviving on a stipend of $17,000/year (just for comparison, Yale History offers its grad students fellowships and teaching assistantships that carry an annual stipend of $26,500). Last week, UCI’s Catherine Liu circulated a somber report detailing the collapse of funding for Humanities projects within the UC system. I have seen many professors leave for jobs at other schools, including Ken Pomeranz, one of my own advisors, who had turned down many attractive offers throughout his 25-year career at UCI but finally decided that the time had come for him to leave the UC system.

I could go on and on and on (let me tell you about professors having the phones removed from their offices!), but here’s the latest blow to graduate education in the UC system, the reason that I felt fired up enough to put fingers to keyboard today: the UC Pacific Rim Research Program, or “PacRim,” has suspended (temporarily? who knows) its full-scale research grants. This year, grad students may only apply for a $5,000 “minigrant” to support their dissertation research. The program will award “10 or more” minigrants in this year’s competition, meaning, most likely, one or perhaps two per UC campus.

Since 1986, the PacRim program has offered faculty and graduate students funding to hold conferences and undertake research projects in any discipline. Scanning the list of PacRim recipients since 2004, I spot many familiar names: former UC graduate students who received PacRim funds for dissertation research and have gone on to hold tenure-track jobs at schools including the University of Hawai’i, Penn State, Duke, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And that’s just in Chinese history, the field I know best; the program has supported hundreds of projects in a wide range of disciplines focusing on other countries around the Pacific Rim. PacRim grants have been especially important for UC’s many international graduate students, who are not US citizens and thus not eligible for the prestigious (and better funded) Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Grant.

I received a full-scale PacRim grant for the 2012-13 academic year, which supported me during 10 months of dissertation research in Shanghai. There’s no way I would have been able to move here and undertake that research if I hadn’t won the PacRim grant; though I was awarded two other small grants from professional organizations – together they totaled $4500. A round-trip plane ticket generally costs $1200-1500, so at most I could have supported myself for three or four months on the remainder of those grants. Having the PacRim, which awarded me $18,500, made all the difference in the world, even in an expensive city like Shanghai. Getting the majority of my dissertation research done in 10 months was difficult enough; trying to accomplish all of it in three or four months would have simply been impossible. It takes time to develop relationships and establish yourself at the library and archives here, as well as to figure out everything you need and where to find it. I had done a preparatory research trip two summers ago to familiarize myself with what would be available in Shanghai, but I still spent more time than I expected getting myself established once I arrived for my full research year.

What’s the reason for this latest cutback? The PacRim website explains that it’s “Due to the change in leadership at the University of California President’s Office,” which doesn’t really explain anything. (Janet Napolitano thinks lazy PhD candidates should hurry up and get all their research done in one summer, perhaps?) But that explanation does reflect my perception of the primary problem within the UC system: on an individual campus level, I can’t imagine finding a more supportive environment for graduate training. System-wide, though, there is little support from the top, and as a result, resources erode and morale dissipates. Virtually any time I’m in a group of people from two or more UC campuses, the conversation inevitably turns into a bitch fest with an undertone of “You think you have it bad — wait until you hear about how budget cuts have affected my campus!”

What makes news of the PacRim cuts hit me even harder is that I had actually believed that things might be looking up. When Ken Pomeranz left UCI last year, for example, we quickly got approval to hire a new Chinese history professor in his place—something that would have been impossible under the hiring freezes of several years ago. This has enabled UCI’s Chinese history graduate program to remain a leader in the field and attract new graduate students, who don’t receive nearly as much funding as their colleagues in grad programs at private universities, but who are guaranteed support for five years (a guarantee that wasn’t offered to everyone who entered the program with me). I was also optimistic to see that more funding for travel to conferences had been made available to UCI graduate students, since these professional meetings are crucial venues for forming relationships with other scholars and potential employers.

But my optimism has been tempered by the realization that I was lucky to have received a PacRim grant before the program was gutted. The thing is, I shouldn’t feel “lucky” that I managed to slide in just under the wire and have my dissertation research funded. And students who entered after me shouldn’t see those doors slammed shut with no explanation beyond “change at the top,” and no indication of whether or not that funding will ever return. Programs like the PacRim grant have been shrinking for years, but completely cutting out its full-scale research awards sends a clear message that the university system isn’t committed to offering its grad students the resources they need to complete their degrees. UCI might be able to give me money to attend a conference, but without the PacRim grant, I wouldn’t have research findings to present at that meeting.

When I finish my PhD, I know I will be sad to leave UC Irvine behind — but I also know I won’t feel a single pang about no longer being part of the increasingly broken UC system.


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20 Minutes into the Future, Week 6 Vint 1117

Superheroes and TV IV: Possibilities and pitfalls of contemporary television

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THE TERM TVIII has been used in television studies to describe the state of television in the 21st century. This third state of television comes after TVI, the origins of the medium in a few broadcast networks whose programming was limited to certain times of day, and after TVII, the period of deregulation and expanded consumer choice in the 1980s and beyond when specialized cable channels emerged and network branding became relevant to attracting an increasingly fragmented audience. TVIII describes the era of television content dispersed across multiple platforms and available on-demand rather than on networks’ schedules.

Back in the very early days of the cultural studies of television, theorist Raymond Williams used the term “flow” to describe what he thought was the defining characteristic of the medium. For Williams, flow captured something unique about television that distinguished it from other visual culture such as film, or other sites of long-form narrative such as print. The concept has been so influential that it provides the name for one of the most influential sites for critical discussion of television. Flow describes the way that networks, in competition for the viewing audience, structure not only the individual episodes and series but seek to hold the audience’s attention for an entire evening of programming. Particular for broadcast networks dependent upon advertising revenue — the state of all television when Williams developed this concept — flow is essential to the value the networks offer to advertisers. They seek to hold your attention across the programming segment, which includes watching the commercials. The specific nature of flow changes as the conditions of production change, and broadcast networks have faced particular challenges in this era of DVRs, streaming sites such as Netflix and hulu, and competition from commercial-free cable networks. Although TVIII thus seemed to spell the end of flow, it has instead meant its reinvention as broadcast networks strive to find ways to sustain their audiences. Some of these changes are perhaps significant enough to announce an era of TV IV.

Marvel is an important player in this shifting landscape. Already dominating the big-screen with its popular superheroes films anchored around the Avengers, it has recently moved into broadcast television with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Links between the series and the films strive to gain a crossover audience with frequent references to events from The Avengers film and with cameo appearances of big-screen actors on the small screen. Frequent advertisements for upcoming Marvel films aspire to keep the audience tuned to ABC even during commercial breaks, and this week the show will up the ante once again with the episode “The Well” set in the immediate aftermath of events of Thor: The Dark World. This is an intriguing experiment, capitalizing on the era of transmedia storytelling, and enabling fans to immerse themselves fully in this world with big-screen stories of the major players, and small screen stories of how the blockbuster events of the film are affecting regular people.

Even more intriguing is the recent announcement of four new superhero series to be produced by Netflix in its new deal with Marvel. Like the franchise film success that Marvel has achieved with individual superhero films leading to the Avengers team-up, and then back out again to new individual films, these Netflix series focused on Daredevil, Iron First, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage will culminate in a mini-series event about them joining together to form the Defenders. A number of things make this new enterprise intriguing: first, it suggests ways broadcast networks such as ABC and streaming services such as Netflix could reconfigure their relationship into one of mutual promotion of one another’s titles along the model of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the film franchise rather than continue a relationship of competition for viewers. Second, the heroes chosen for these series suggest promising ways that a larger shared universe of Marvel characters would enable space for something other than the white male heroes dominant in the film franchise. The ABC series already has a more ethnically diverse cast, as I’ve suggested earlier, but the possibilities for the Netflix series are even more intriguing, with one focused on Jessica Jones and another on Luke Cage. Not only would these series be anchored, respectively, around a female and an African American protagonist, but also the origin stories for each of these characters in the comics medium include back stories that comment on the casual sexism and racism of much of that medium’s history.

Another potentially TV IV strategy is the many ways that corporate culture has taken over the spaces that were once the domain of fan cultural production, what Henry Jenkins has called Convergence Culture. Examples of convergence culture include the many ways that websites, webisodes, spin-off comics, and extra-diegetic stories are now created as part of the marking of a series rather than solely created as expressions of fan enthusiasm. AMC is leading the pack in reinventing ways to capture the attention desired in the concept of flow with its use of talk-show series devoted to their most successful titles, ensuring that fans stayed tuned to their station even after an episode has aired. Once again it was a genre series that launched this shift: since its second season, new episodes of The Walking Dead are followed by a talk show devoted to analyzing the episodes as they air, Talking Dead. This year AMC successfully reproduced this format with Talking Bad, devoted to analyzing the final episodes of the most discussed television series at the time, Breaking Bad, which suggests that this relative low-cost way of gaining two hours of viewers based on one-hour of original scripted programming may be more widely reproduced. AMC further strives to keep people from changing the channel with online discussions in its “two-screen experience” — quizzes, extra images, and reminders about previous episodes that interact with the viewer as an episode airs, presumably to keep people too busy to leave the room during commercials.

The youth-oriented network CW, whose brand rapidly seems to be becoming genre television as even its historical teen drama Reign has added a supernatural element, has made the boldest move in these new strategies. Taking one step beyond product placement in an advertising campaign with Ford fiesta, the commercial feature a series of “missions” involving stunts planned using a Ford fiesta, people who aspire to work in the film and television industry brought in to do things such as style an episode or perform a stunt for one of the CW series. Actors from the shows appear in the commercials and the Ford Fiesta proves crucial to their success. The advertising campaign thus promotes both the car and the particular series that is featured in the “mission.” The car advertisement is thus transformed into another kind of entertainment, using narrative to promote self-fulfillment via products in the model of reality programs such as What Not to Where. A partnership between the CW’s superhero series Arrow and Bose takes this one step further in the “episodes” of Blood Rush that screen online and during commercial breaks. A narrative that is similar to fan fiction written to explain what happens in the interstices of a television episode, Blood Rush involves a mission between two minor characters on the series, Felicity and Roy. Like the regular series, the story is released from week to week, with each new episode of Arrow involving a new episode of Blood Rush during one of its commercial breaks. Sponsored by Bose and requiring the use of many Bose products to complete the mission, Blood Rush is not so obviously a commercial as are the Ford Fiesta “missions” but it takes us one step further in blurring the line between advertising and entertainment, product placement becoming the dominant aesthetic.

These various strategies for recapturing the viewing attention described by the concept of flow perhaps presage yet another era of television, in which our attention flows not only across segments from series to commercial to the new series on the same channel, but also across platforms as we flow between scripted drama and scripted advertising, television screen and online screen, broadcast network and streaming site. Whether we should see such developments as promising a richer experience of our chosen narrative worlds, or as a kind of personalized harassment along the lines of a Philip K. Dick story, remains an open question.

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