Television Tribune: Diamonds in The Meh

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By Allen

Television is a unique medium in that the writers and directors are given exponentially more time than any other visual medium to develop their characters and story. Some shows, like Lost and Helix, simply dig deeper and deeper narrative holes for themselves to climb out of in their later seasons, confident that the viewers will be along for the entire ride. I like to say that I’m not a huge fan of this type of writing, but I am hopelessly devoted to at least one of those shows (Hint: it’s not the Syfy original series). Another, more common method of TV writing is what I call the “paint on the wall” method. Most popular serialized shows employ this method, eschewing anything particularly memorable for several seasons of passable, forgettable viewing. This method covers shows like your Law & Order’s, your American Horror Story, and basically every show on USA. These aren’t necessarily two opposite ways of writing, and they’re not the only two types of television. “Paint on the wall” shows tend to have individual standout episodes, and usually benefit from a selected viewing of the best episodes from each season.

One show of this type that has always held a special place in my heart is Modern Family. Even in its fifth season, the writers are still producing one of the most consistently entertaining shows on cable. Designed from the ground up to appeal to the groups that it owes its namesake too, Modern Family is basically this generation’s Full House. The characters are likable, vulnerable, and always teaching each other valuable life lessons, usually just after doing something incredibly humiliating and comical. And like Full House, the average episode is nothing to write home about. It follows traditional sitcom format; there is a misunderstanding, actions taken to fix it, miscommunication, and resolution. Every time I consider removing it from my weekly watch list, I remember how long I’ve been watching, and how deeply it resonates with my own family.

A very recent episode, “Under Pressure”, seemed like just another forgettable twenty-odd minutes. Jane Krakowski (of 30 Rock fame) guest starred, but she wasn’t given much to do other than be shrill and crazy. Jesse Eisenberg was also in a pretty small role, but he was relegated to his usual “douchebag with a heart of gold” archetype. The one standout plot of the episode didn’t involve guest stars at all; it instead focused on the youngest Dunphy daughter, Alex. It’s her sixteenth birthday, but she doesn’t seem happy at all. Precocious as she is, she signs herself up for a meeting with a therapist. I didn’t expect much from this plot, since it’s typical of Modern Family to make Alex seem self-reliant and commanding. However, her meeting with the therapist gets surprisingly personal, and she opens up about her feeling like nobody in her family understands her because she tries so hard to be the best at everything.

I’m not just highlighting this episode because it struck so close to home for me, someone who never felt like he belonged for most of his teenager years. That’s all well and good, but what really struck me was how this was actually a subplot on Modern Family, which usually puts comedy before emotional resonance. There isn’t even a punch line to this subplot. Alex is picked up from her mother at the end of the episode, and they share a tender hug as the credits begin to roll. This dramatic shift from the usual tone of the show caught my attention, and I’ve been a much bigger fan of Alex since then.

Does an episode like “Under Pressure” make Modern Family a better show overall? Not particularly, but it doesn’t have to. For that week, there was nothing better on TV for me. The endless race to be the best, longest-running sitcom on cable is a crowded and pointless one, but touching on delicate subjects like loneliness and growing up one week can really elevate a show’s place in the endless pantheon of “paint on the wall” sitcoms.

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Incidental Insights: Monkeys,Typewriters, and Pokemon

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By Allen
It’s easy to define pop culture fans as hard to please, uncooperative, and fickle. It doesn’t take more than a few seconds online to find an article or forum post filled to the brim with outrage over some minor casting change or game DLC plans. However, 2014 has been shaping up to take the Internet’s hive mind mentality and meld it into some of the most unique experiences we’ve seen. Specifically, the TwitchPlaysPokemon stream and Pivot’s new show HitRecord on TV exemplify this new shift towards collaborative content creation.
The existence of TwitchPlaysPokemon is somewhat of an anomaly. As with many viral sensations, it gained popularity through word of mouth and sheer prevalence in colleges and social networks. Essentially, TPP is a 24-hour livestream of an emulated copy of Pokemon Red being played by the Twitch livestreaming service’s chat window. Every input is entered as it arrives, and the company’s new 20+ second delay on chat commands reaching streams has turned this simple social experiment into a beautiful blend of everything the collective Internet can do given the time and resources. The stream itself is not particularly fun to watch, with the chat guiding Red the trainer into incomprehensible circles and basically every wall around. At face value, there is no inherent worth to watching a stream where approximately 60% of people are trying to make progress, and 40% are trying to ruin the game as much as possible. However, the moment I realized that this project was worth watching was when I realized that they were making serious progress. Just like the old saying about monkeys and typewriters, if you throw enough idiots at a simple game like Pokemon, they will eventually bumble their way to success.
Plenty has been written about TwitchPlaysPokemon, with many comparing its “Democracy/Anarchy” voting system to real life political theory. Originally, the game was always played in Anarchy, meaning that every command is accepted by the game. After enough people complained that no progress was being made, Democracy was voted into play. This meant that every ten seconds, the most voted for command is accepted. Although this lead to plenty of progress (and the eventual finishing of the game), many were disheartened by how boring it made the whole experience. In Anarchy mode, Red’s highest level Pokemon, a Charmeleon named “ABBBBBBK” or “Abby” was released into the wild when the chat guided Red to a PC. Memes surfaced around this time, as well as when they chose the dreaded Helix Fossil at Mt. Moon, which was hence referred to as Lord Helix due to their constant futile selecting of it during battles. They (notice I now refer to the chat as a collective “They”) caught Zapdos with a Master Ball in Anarchy, they jumped off of ledges constantly to impede progress, and so many of their greatest achievements occurred in Anarchy mode. This mode to me represented TwitchPlaysPokemon at its most pure; an unfiltered, unmonitored stream of people contributing to a common goal. This could only be achieved in 2014, with Twitch’s prevalence in not only the new generation of consoles, but in PCs everywhere. It may be frustrating to watch sometime, but like the audience in The Truman Show, we just can’t get enough of it.
Similarly, cable television is finally starting to blend in with this collaborative Internet hive mind. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his deceased brother Daniel started the “open source production company” HitRecord back in 2010. The website allows people from all over the world to contribute audio, visuals, art, and all other types of media to collaborative film projects. Those who simply knew the actor for his roles in 500 Days of Summer and Looper were surprised to see that this side project of his had been optioned for a television series. Broadcast on the new independent channel Pivot, the first season was structured very similarly to the science podcast Radiolab. Each episode was centered on a one-word theme, and each of the films presented were created by the HitRecord community, and introduced or performed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his many friends in the acting business. It was a beautiful season of television to watch grow over time, and the production values of each short film were short of Hollywood professional work. But HitRecord on TV could not exist at a better time than now, when smartphones now allow people to record and edit videos with minimal experience or equipment required. In one particular film for example, in the episode “Re: Money” Levitt and co. reenact a user-submitted story about a relative who tried stealing her family’s fortune, with graphics, music, and script also created by users. By putting this power in the people, beautiful work was created.
Although one is run by basically anyone with a computer and the other by anyone willing to record and submit content, these two new projects represent a huge shift in how we consume and create content online. Had TwitchPlaysPokemon been sponsored or managed by a large corporation, it would never have become the delightful experiment run by thousands that it is today. And if the community of HitRecord weren’t so talented and well-managed, their new show would not exist. I’m not suggesting that putting the power in the hands of the users is how we solve Internet negativity, but it is certainly contributing to a future of togetherness and cohesive vision.