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DIGITAL MEDIA FROM THE INSIDE OUT: My focus is digital content -- production, distribution, collaboration, innovation, creativity. Some posts have appeared across the web (HuffPo, Tribeca's Future of Film, The Wrap, MIPblog, etc.). To receive these posts regularly via email, sign up for my newsletter here.

Tuesday
May052015

Ten Things To Know about Today’s Music Biz

I recently organized and moderated two music panels at the Digital Hollywood conference, showcasing the views and expertise of eleven professionals from virtually all aspects of the contemporary digital music business. There were two panels with two discussions (music & YouTube; music and social), but truthfully, this is an ongoing conversation in which music is the canary in the coal mine – trends we see now in music are trends we’ll see throughout the digital media ecosystem.

Many thanks to the panelists, listed below, for their enthusiastic and frank discussions, and apologies that I don’t have direct quotes for attribution. I was busy moderating :) Here’s some of what they said:

The “traditional” music business has collapsed – meaning consumers spend dramatically less on recorded music today than they did at the peak of the business --- whether it’s CDs, downloads, or subscriptions to streaming services. And yet, the ecosystem survives, with money flowing from more sources to more participants.

This was and still is a blockbuster business, with a disproportionate share of the revenue going to the most popular artists. In some ways, the “network effect” has cemented this reality even more than the old days when radio ruled (which, by the way, it still does, sort of).

There are only 300,000 songs that make any money, and 20+ million songs that don’t. That “long tail” can be monetized, but it takes focus and innovation to do so (and one of our panelists has a company that is doing just that). With the cost of production so low, professional musicians now compete with millions of amateur tracks.

We are in the era of music discovery, but most people don't really want to discover anything new. Socially connected apps and streaming services providing many new ways for consumers to sample new artists. And yet, statistically, in the blockbuster music economy, we find that most people don’t actually want to discovery new music. They want to listen to the music that everyone else is listening to.

Now that Everyone (including you) is a brand, all that seems to matter is the size of your audience. Emerging artists are increasingly required to conduct their lives as if they were a commercial brand – connecting with consumers on many different social platforms, and providing content (video, posts, images) well outside the creation and distribution of the music itself, in order to accumulate fans. Partnerships and additional opportunities are now determined at least as much by fan metrics as the music itself. (Ouch!)

Brand partnerships is perhaps the fastest growing source of revenue for artists, with many examples of relatively non-intrusive sponsorships of artists, music, and events emerging. Brands want the cool factor. And they want the exposure potential of the artists’ fan bases.

Social Media Platforms are the Banks; Engagement is the Currency. The savvy artist understands that the levers of their career (building a team, getting a record deal, booking gigs and tours, etc.) depend upon how much currency, e.g., fan engagement they have. In some cases, that is literal currency, because there are numerous ways to purchase fan-count and fan-engagement.

Careers can be made in A Single Event. A tune on a social platform like YouTube (or now Vine, Instagram, Snapchat) can go viral, and sometimes all it takes is attention from somebody with a huge fan base. From Justin Bieber to Shawn Mendes, talent

Radio exposure is still important for an artist, and is one of the best things a record label can get for talent.

Very few people have bad things to say about YouTube, at least in public. Google’s massive video site provides free distribution for every artist, and therefore has the most comprehensive library of music content --- mainstream and niche. Millions of people, especially millennials, use YouTube as their audio streaming service. It’s pending launch of a paid subscription service may be bad news for the Spotify's and Pandora's of the world.

Tidal Will Fail. The high-fidelity music subscription service launched by JayZ and a bevy of blockbuster artists are swimming against the tide, and, our panelists uniformly predict it will not survive. Most of the panelists thought that Apple’s new streaming service, without the “Beats” name, would be one of the survivors, because of its hardware.

Music is inextricably tied to the tech economy, which is why the battle will be slugged out between tech giants like Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc – these companies are fighting versions of this same fight over video, television, books, and much more.

Thanks to my speakers: Take a look at their sites to find out where the business is going.

Wednesday
Apr152015

What's Next? "Music Next" @Digital Hollywood 2015

I'm moderating two panels at this year's annual spring Digital Hollywood Conference, nothing new there -- I've been attending and speaking since the first edition way back in the early 90's. What's new for me this year is the topic -- what's new in the music business.

It all started because one of the standout companies I'm advising in my role as chair of ideaBOOST accelerator -- TuneStars. I was really struck with founder Anthony Shannon's social music app, cleverly calibrated for what's happening now in the music scene for fans, artists and industry types. It's what you'd get if you created a mobile-first version of MySpace married to Linked-in, only better.

Well, as these things happen, I recruited a lot more speakers, and so did Digital Hollywood President Victor Harwood. Before I knew it, I was moderating a second panel in the music track, this one on YouTube & Music, a bit closer to my wheelhouse.

I expect to learn a lot from all the great speakers on my panel and across this great conference, and I know you will too. Drop by if you are attending DH this year, or message me if you want to know more about these great speakers. I'll write a summary after the sessions are over. If you'd like to meet with me at DH, just shoot me a note or DM me. 

Here is the entire MusicNext Forum Track, part of Digital Hollywood, which runs April 27-30, 2015 at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Marina Del Rey, CA. Here are my panels:

1) Tuesday, April 28th -12:30 PM - 1:45 PM Salon III (Live Webcast from this Room) "YouTube and Music – The Meeting Place for Music"

·      Doug McVehil, Head of Content & Programming, Vevo
·      Jeff Daniel, CEO/co-founder, Starmaker; 
·      Daniel Rosen,  Sr. Music Talent Manager, Fullscreen; 
·      Ryan Tomlinson, President, SKEEmatic; Exec. Prod., SKEE TV
·      Dana Shayegan, VP of Music, Collective Digital Studio (CDS)
·      Nick DeMartino, Principal, ND Consulting, Moderator

Speaker Bios and Session Information - Click Here

2) Wednesday, April 29th - 3:50 PM – 5:00 PM, Poolside Tent I - "Music Apps, Social Media and Technology:  The Explosive World of Music Engagement"

·      Brad Sphar, Vice President, Sony Music
·      Madeline Nelson, CEO/Managing Member, Heads Music
·      Heiko Schmidt, CEO, Parasongs
·      Rami Perlman, VP Music Talent & Influencers, theAudience
·      Anthony Shannon, Cofounder & CEO, TuneStars
·      Ian Roberts, Cofounder & CEO, Hive
·      Damian Hagger, co-founder/Marketing Director
·      Nick DeMartino, Principal, ND Consulting, Moderator

Speaker Bios and Session Information - Click Here

 

Thursday
Jan082015

2014 Movies Worth a Look, v.1.0

Amateur movie-lovers like me are at a distinct disadvantage compared to critics, festival programmers and others who have privileged access to cinema titles. But with the Golden Globes upon us and the Oscar nominations imminent, I won’t wait any longer to provide version 1.0 of my favorite 2014 films, even though I know there are some movies that remain to be seen. I’ll post an update in a month when I’ve gotten through the accumulated Netflix and Amazon queues, Film Independent screeners and screenings, and various late theatrical openings here in L.A.

In the meantime, here are those movies that moved me, two dozen in all, roughly in order of preference. Were I forced to pick a top ten, it would come from the first dozen, with many worthy titles in the second dozen.

If you’re interested in my reviews, follow me on Flixster.

First Tier

A Most Violent Year - Chandor's screenplay is perfect, and because of his remarkable skill with both actors and the physical delivery of cinema, this is for me an almost perfect film, a novelistic thriller of a movie that drops us right in the middle of the circumstances of these characters (and their time and place) and lets the back story fill in through the forward propulsion of the story. We learn something about the characters in virtually every scene and every exchange of dialog. For instance, the looming figure of the Chastain character's father, who never appears in the film, plays a larger and larger role as we learn, bit by bit, the precise nature of this marriage and the business that forms the center of the action we experience. Ditto with the complicated relationship between the players in the fuel oil business, the D.A,, the cops, and the mob. Chandor knows that he is playing in the fields so well plowed by The Godfather and its imitators, and his subtle, controlled and engrossing version of a crime drama, in a sense, trumps Coppola's earlier, groundbreaking work (something I never thought I would say). This is an unmitigated triumph of cinema storytelling.

Birdman - Audacious at every level, Iñárritu's breathtaking examination of the wages of fame and pride just blew me away. Start with the fact that here we have the story of a washed-up actor known for playing a superhero, played by, yes, a somewhat washed-up actor known (in part) for playing a superhero. And then, a ferocious depiction of an all-consuming obsession to be both famous and taken seriously, to the point where all relationships are destroyed. And then, a delirious experiment with a camera that swoops and flies in what would appear to be a single uninterrupted shot, which sounds like a gimmick, and certainly is, but still, it works. And then, well, world-class acting that is so raw and funny it makes you want to cry, scream and cringe at the same time. This is, quite simply, the best "movie" movie in a very long time, and I loved it.

Boyhood -If the production history of this one-of-a-kind film seems at first like a gimmick, any concern fades as the experience of this coming-of-age-in-a-dysfunctional-family tale takes hold and never lets go. We marvel at the performance of a child who, before our very eyes becomes a young man. Yes, we wonder how much of this is "acting" and how much of the story is "scripted". I for one also found myself surprised over and over again at the transitions between years, which were seamless and often undetectable. None of this would matter, of course, if the story weren't touching, and as the response indicates, universal. These feel like real people in my life, people I want to know forever. 

Nightcrawler - The set-up draws you in, the idea of an ambulance chaser who captures the horrific violence that we see on the TV screen every night, not the least of which because it is the audience's desire to see this stuff that creates so much value (and money) in the first place. We want to look away, but we cannot. And so we find ourselves sympathizing with a sociopath who has found his calling, a lucrative way to sidle up close and personal to blood and death and a golden opportunity to cross the moral line from observer to perpetrator. The performances vibrate with electrical energy. Gyllenhaal has never been better, hungrier, showier, fiercer.

The Theory of Everything - Redmayne jets into the upper echelons of acting with his depiction of Hawking before, during, and after the deterioration of virtually all bodily functions. Saddled with all of the problems that the biopic form presents, this film nevertheless manages to impart the essence of an amazing human being, and along with it a slight understanding of the science he helped create. Hawking is something of a secular saint, so it's nice to see a few of his imperfections, as well.

Grand Budapest Hotel - This movie brings to perfection all of the elements of Anderson's quirky style -- his meticulous creation of a slightly demented world, his vivid and geometric art direction, heightened and somewhat melodramatic directing style, contained and hilarious set-pieces, singular and eccentric characters, and a very intense focus upon the particular. His ensemble cast delivers scene after scene of delight and reimagined history of the fading of a Europe that may never have been. Anderson creates nostalgia as an end in itself.

Love is Strange - Sachs presents an affecting, modern story of a longtime gay couple whose economic circumstances lead to make-good living situations apart from each other. Complications ensue in a charming, truly beautifully unfolding way, with intense emotions driving great empathy in scene after patient and beautiful scene. Pay close attention to the editing.

Citizenfour - In this stunning exploration of the national security state, we are witness to a real-time unfolding of the Snowden story. With only a crew and her colleague Glenn Greenwald in a Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden, Poitras captures an intimate portrait of the man behind the revolutionary whistleblowing story as it happens -- on the TV screen, in phone calls, and in dialog over several days. Poitras is as committed to the rightness of Snowden's cause as he is, and look elsewhere if you are interested in a debate. But we are presented with much more than an agitprop document here: it is history in the making, and made history as a consequence.

Mommy - Wunderkind Dolan (25 years old & this is his fifth movie) builds wave after wave of intensity in this shattering character study of damaged families trying their best to fit into a society which just seems impossible to navigate. Anne Dorval is amazing as the fierce and wacky Mommy who improvises her parenting and providing skills as a recent widow without much going for her but looks and love. Pilon is amazing as the explosive adolescent Steve, a singular creation for such a young actor. Dolan's sense of pacing, framing, scoring and use of music, and his work with actors is pretty remarkable. This is a career to watch.

Selma - Powerfully told, beautifully acted, intensely rendered story of King's masterful orchestration of the struggle for black voting rights in America, as focused upon the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama. DuVernay is a major new voice in the cinema, orchestrating an complex story, a huge cast, and some very important issues in a way which, like Lincoln before it, illuminates history through the actions of people, some important and many unheralded.

Under the Skin - Johansson kills it in this weird, creepy, commanding sci-fi thriller. Roaming about the countryside of Scotland picking up random men, she seems to be a disturbed and very horny gal until we witness the signature visual experience, which even now is hallucinatory and very disturbing. And so it goes as the audience begins to understand that our Scarlett is decidedly not what she seems. I loved this picture.

Force Majeure - A two-hour therapy session that goes deeper, and then deeper still into the heart of a Swedish family's issues, triggered by their experience of a "planned" avalanche that seemed to be real at the tony ski resort where they are vacationing. Taut, authentic, artfully framed and truly suspenseful, this is a thinking-person's thriller that needs no car chases, serial killers or other overused vestiges of commercial cinema. This is Greek tragedy.

Second Tier (barely)

Ida - Ida's story, the novitiate in search of her Jewish history in 60's Communist Poland, is presented in stark, pristine Black-and-white photography with distance, nobility, and a magisterial sense of pacing. It's almost as if we were watching an artifact from the heyday of Eastern European cinema, Knife in the Water, et. al. The form so perfectly matches the character and story, it nearly took my breath away. I particularly liked the scenes in the tacky, rural nightclub, jazz with a hammer and sickle.

Inherent Vice - Pynchon is obsessed with obsession, dope, paranoia, and the excesses of those who watch, govern and rob us. His characters ramble through shaggy-dog stories of hysterical buffoonery which, nevertheless, carry enough truth to leave you with a deep uneasy feeling about where we come from -- not quite hopeless, but chastened. And so it is with Inherent Vice, in which a crew of badly dressed Los Angeles wack-jobs stumble their way through a 1970's dope-hazed version of "The Big Sleep" or maybe the Altman version of "The Long Goodbye". All the tropes appear -- the brutal cop, the femme fatale, the persistent P.I., the corrupt business men. Strap on the seat belt, folks, and take this ride.

The Imitation Game - Biopics are a doomed form, at least the kind that present the entire sweep of a person's life, required as they are to pluck emblematic moments that together deliver the intended "meaning" to the complex mess that most of us produce as we make our way through life. And so, the worthy goal of memorializing one of the 20th Century's most important scientists focuses singularly upon Turing's role as leader of the effort to break the Nazi Enigma code and hasten the Allied victory. We get a light dusting of other significant aspects of this genius' life -- his theories are the foundation of modern programmable computing, and he was gay, which was illegal, and therefore led to arrest, chemical castration, and perhaps his own suicide. I for one would have liked the story to have included at least one scene of the life of a gay man (rather than the extended friendship dance with Keira Knightly) and some sense of his towering intellect in the nascent field of computer science. Alas, I expect too much.

Stranger by the Lake - Erotic thriller, now that's a niche genre, but leave it to the French. to perfect the form with this truly disturbing gay erotic thriller murder mystery whose form, a kind of uber-voyeur camera, makes the audience feel that they are somehow just as guilty as the perpetrator.

The Immigrant - Gray is a masterful storyteller who brings to life a tortured tale of poverty, immigration, vaudeville, flesh and murder in early 20th Century New York City, aided immeasurably by a wonderful trio of A-list actors. Lurking behind the particulars of Cotillard's journey are the roots of American show business -- a kind of recycling center for flesh and fantasy that illustrates why "polite" society found it so alluring and toxic.

Blue Ruin - Revenge is elevated in this affecting indie film to operatic levels as a drifter gets his shit together to track down the killers of his parents, and won't stop until he makes the world safe for his sister and her family. It is an exceptional journey, taken mostly in the rusty old car that gives the film its title, previously his principal domicile. I like the interplay between the protagonist and his gun-toting Heavy Metal high school buddy alot.

A Most Wanted Man - Spycraft rendered flawlessly in this, Hoffman's last role, this LeCarre focusing upon the struggle against the Islamic enemy in the city where 9/11 was hatched. The delicious ambiguity of who's on what side extends beyond the "enemy" to various factions of the "good guys" fighting terrorism in a world of ever-shifting sands.

The Internet’s Own Boy - This portrait of programmer and Internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz covers a wide swath of recent tech history, including the government's disproportionate prosecution of his misdeeds that led to his suicide and a painful reassessment by those of us who want to regard the Obama Administration as white knights. Coupled with their actions in the NSA and foreign wars, these politicians have delivered a significant betrayal to their legion of youthful (and other) supporters. Swartz was fascinating, brilliant, singular and somehow emblematic of a new generation of activists whose ownership of the means of electronic production has led to a new definition of freedom. 

Dear White People - Come along for this audacious roller-coaster of a satire about race relations among young collegiates in a "post-racial" society (not). The clever trick of this amazing first-time feature is how in skewering stereotypes, Simien manages to avoid falling into the trap of dehumanization. There is a lot of love and lovingkindness underneath the snark. 

Whiplash - We've moved the story form of a sports movie with all of its inherent problems into the world of competitive jazz drumming. Mean coach, brilliant but troubled player, screw-up at the big game, redemption made possible by raw talent, and a little twist at the end. I wasn't as enchanted as my peers with this formulaic and manipulative drama, but I concede that it was well made, kept me on the edge of my seat, and had some pretty amazing performances, certainly Simmons, who is bound to get showered with awards for this and a lifetime of great performances.

Mr. Turner - I fell in love with Turner's work on my first trip to the Tate, where much of this seminal 19th Century artist's work hangs, a bequest to the British people. Leigh wisely realizes that the power of the luminous paintings cannot really be rendered photographically, and so he provides a kind of stand-in beauty by presenting the scenes which inspired Turner, along with an improvisational riff on the scenes of his very unusual life. Here was a very famous guy who managed to do whatever the hell he wanted, blessed as he was with the certainty of his own vision, which was decades ahead of anyone else. His impressionistic renderings of sea and land in his later career predate the French movement that carry that name. And as with all Leigh films, the acting is quirky and the scenes quite alive with sponeneity. Spall snorts and grunts his way into history.

Locke - I found myself wondering how it could possibly be that I was gripped on the edge of my seat, eager to find out what would happen in a film that takes place entirely inside a BMW SUV driving on an English highway at night. Tom Hardy, that's why, with that voice, alternately rough and silken, a bit like Richard Burton's and his physical presence that grabs hold and won't let go. It's a very layered and sympathetic performance as he juggles phone calls between his business associates, wife, offspring, and one-night-stand whose pending pregnancy precipitates the crisis we get to witness. Platforming the great performance are wonderful camerawork and editing.

Yet-to-be-seen movies that may jumble this list include: Wild Tales, Only Lovers Left Alive, Leviathanh, Map to the Stars, and maybe Goodbye to Language I get to see it in 3D.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Dec232014

2014: How (and What) I Read Now

I continue with my series of year-end posts discussing my favorite media experiences of the year with books, my first love. I cannot go to sleep without reading a few pages. I rarely drive without an audiobook in mid-chapter. I never fly without a Kindle-load from my list. The three types of “books” (paper, ebooks, audiobooks) find their way onto my list in various ways.

Books on paper are almost always gifts. Sometimes because of my Amazon wish-list, but rarely any more, since I specify the Kindle edition, and sometimes from the library, especially choices for my book club. Kindle downloads come as gifts now (I’ve trained my friends), but more than anything, they are impulse purchases, usually after reading a rave review or a relentless reminder from Amazon’s collaborative filter. I even tried Hoopla, an app offered via the LA Public Library. (Not so user-friendly.)

As a result, the longer I live, the more behind I get. I just can’t read enough, or fast enough, to get to all those books-in-waiting. Hence, I make no pretense of trying to rank the year’s “best” books as I do with movies and television. These are the titles that brought me the most pleasure in 2014, no matter the year in which they were published. And to which I gave four stars on my trusty Goodreads site, where I review most everything I read. Feel free to friend or follow me there or Facebook to get reviews more quickly.

The Kills (The Kills, #1-4) by Richard House

A war novel with few soldiers and little fighting. A mystery within a mystery. A meditation on fraud and memory.  This and much more, House’s massive story cycle or collection of related books -- shall we call it a quadtych (yes, a very bad neologism) manages despite its 1,000 page length to hold one's attention with a cavalcade of characters, settings, hurling plots and, well, mysteries. It wouldn't work, of course, if the writing weren't so damned good, which it certainly is -- the chilly lovechild of an unholy three-way between Patricia Highsmith, Graham Greene and John le Carré,  and maybe a soupcon of David Foster Wallace's brilliance at making the quotidian feel quite compelling.

The first book, in which a military contractor in Iraq escapes from what becomes the central event of the story cycle -- the fleecing of a multi-million-dollar budget earmarked for a brand new secret city in the Iraqi desert . Is our hero a dupe, under the sway of the puppetmaster who hired him, and who runs the Halliburton-like contract firm?  His misadventures on the run in Turkey and Malta with some German filmmakers made me think of Greene, a bit like The Comedians.

By the time we finish the cycle, though, most of the assumptions about who did what and who knew what are brought into question, or at the least, in very high relief. Down in Malta, we have a diplomatic family in disarray, having fled chaos in Syria, cleverly intertwined with a tale of the Russian Mafia, corporate hit men, private language schools and various factotems who are still trying to figure out what happened to those pursuing our original fugitive.

Hovering above both stories is the tale of a bloody multiple murder which imitates a crime in a novel -- this is the subject of the third book, set in Naples. Baroque double switchback would be how I'd describe that plot. Is everyone lying?

Finally, I would not want to leave out book #2, which is in some ways the most rooted in the point of the whole exercise, since it's set in Iraq and involves a range of men, recruited to run a remote "burn site" in the desert, up until the point when they learn that this is to be the site of the new  and secret "Liberty City." Chronologically, its events come first. Gritty, confounding, confusing, maddening, this is the world of military contracting and the time-honored methods of fleecing governments and exploiting the working class.

If you've got the time, this masterpiece is worth the effort.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I want to deliver a breathless rave of a review about this scrumptious novel, coin a blurbable quote about the incomparable narrative thrust, endearing cast of characters, and pristine depiction of time and place, but my words are not up to the wonderful experience I had reading this book, one of the best reads for me of the last few years. I'd not read Tartt before, but compelled by some great reviews and its appearance on the best-seller lists, I added The Goldfinch to my wish-list and got it for Christmas. Boy am I glad!  Slightly longer than typical best sellers at 700+ pages, I found myself racing through the thing, a hundred pages a sitting, often into the night. Tartt has a gift for storytelling, that's for sure, and I'm glad I opened the package.

Police (Harry Hole #10) and The Son, both by Jo Nesbø

Harry Hole snarls more authentically than most angry, brilliant, alcoholic police detectives. He is one angry Mutha, and with good cause. He seems to be the only Norwegian cop who can actually solve complex criminal cases, but the bureaucracy and the criminal underworld just won't let him do his job, and won't leave him alone when he tries to give up. I love Harry Hole, and I love the tales Nesbø weaves for him to interact with. They are, in many ways, the apotheosis of the Scandinavian police procedural, a genre I have been in love with since the days of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (See this year’s New Yorker profile of Nesbø for more back story).

We have here, indeed, another very complex tale of crime perpetrated against cops, and the solution blocked by other cops, all coming together to reveal the motive, and therefore, the criminal. Thanks Harry. Thanks Jo.

Is there a word for the feeling a reader (at least this reader; at least when reading genre fiction) when you cannot figure out why, but you cannot stop reading? Nesbø is that rare writer, right now at the top rung worldwide, whose mastery of the form is so perfect that the strutwork disappears and the reader is left gasping from the combination of perfectly realized scenes, indelible characters, perfect depiction of place, and thematic importance. What makes one gasp is that each of these elements is revealed through the propulsive and accelerating engine of the narrative, the plot, the sheer storytelling power -- what happens next is the itch and the scratch of this kind of reading.

Certainly, it is made easier by Nesbø’s fluency as a writer, but he isn't showy, he's efficient. Which is not to say mechanical or heartless, I hasten to add, since he (and we) are always aware that he's working in a genre which is almost 80 years old, and to succeed, he must advance the form while maintaining its conventions. Which he does better than anyone writing now. He has provided me with many hours of reading pleasure through the Harry Hole series, and of course, the series that centers on a protagonist over time and many novels is itself a mainstay of the genre. Here, Nesbø introduces a new detective whose qualities seem, at least at first, to be a bit more conventional than Hole's. Until we find that, well, he's a compulsive gambler, rather than a drunk, and his backstory plays significantly in the unfolding of the plot. I don't do spoilers, but let me just say, the last ten pages of the novel not only wrapped up loose ends and plot points, but blew my mind in the process. Jo Nesbø, I think I love you.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Dec222014

2014: The Glorious Bubble of Scripted Television 

End of December, and time to take stock and make lists. Here I go again with a series of posts to discuss my favorite media experiences of the year.

I begin with television, our intimate, ubiquitous, omnivorous medium, which of course now includes digital-native content. (Here are  my 2011, 2012 and 2013 choices).

My focus here is mostly scripted TV, and my, oh my, there is a lot to consider – as many as 350 new and returning scripted series ordered for the 2014-15, and that doesn’t include digital-only networks, which are investing hundreds of millions in new product. Says Variety: “Industry executives are quietly starting to use the B-word” (bubble) with worries that the bubble will inevitably burst.

What’s behind this surge? (besides greed)... well, it’s us – the audience – a “staggering level of engagement viewers now have with favorite programs,” according to John Landgraf, who heads cable’s FX Network. 

Transparent (Amazon Studios) – The irony in this outrageous dramedy of Angeleno family dysfunction is that the most “normal” person in sight is the guy in a dress, namely the divine Jeffrey Tambor, born as Mort Pfefferman, but finally coming out as Maura, a transvestite. His ex-wife, played by Judith Light, is the apotheosis of the Jewish mother, and together they raised a brood of world-class neurotics. Episodes unfold as each of the three kids – Sarah, Josh, and Ali – learn of their father’s new life, and we (the audience) learn via flashbacks of Mort’s journey from college professor with a secret to full-fledged commitment to his emotionally appropriate gender identity. Be forewarned, you have never heard dialog like this on TV, I mean never. Nor had I, at least, ever experienced quite the tone of melancholy, joy, sadness, pain and craziness all jumbled up into a coherent and satisfying package. Bonus: authenticity in the representation of Los Angeles’ many neighborhoods.

The Americans (FX) – Season 2 got even better, as we dive into both sides of the spycraft culture in 1980’s Washington, D.C. under Ronald Reagan. Our KGB agent couple Elizabeth and Philip Jennings and their neighbor, FBI agent Stan Beeman, are tangled in a complex web of missions and actions, believably tied to the real world Cold War struggle we all lived through, but unable to escape their own personal demons, just to spice up the action. The cast is breathtaking, and so are the wigs. I’m particularly fond of Margo Martindale as the ruthless old KGB handler, though we got much less of her this season. The palpable uncredited star of the show is the deadening suburban culture to which both sides have been sentenced and from which the world of spycraft offers an escape. This is a world of truly harrowing assignments, tarnished ideals, persistent doubts, lies, double- and triple-crosses, and yet, love and an odd, asymmetrical form of beauty seeps into scene after scene. This is spy love without the cynicism. 

Peaky Blinders – Seasons 1 & 2 (Netflix/BBC) – A crime family to rival the Corleones, the Shelby clan are Irish ex-pats living in Birmingham after the first World War, clawing their way up from a hardscrabble neighborhood to London over the course of 12 glorious episodes. Led by Cillian Murphy, a monster mobster with one a beautiful screen face and an awesome haircut, this BBC production is typically pristine, with design and photography that often simply takes away the breath -- perfect for a nice weekend binge, which is what Netflix enabled me to do when I was down with a flu. Performances by A-class actors like Helen McCrory, Sam Neill, Tom Hardy and Noah Taylor provide almost as much pleasure as a propulsive narrative tale of intrigue involving British toffs, Irish (both orange and green) IRA terrorists, spies, counter-spies, labor agitators, Bolsheviks, and dueling gangs of Jews, Irish, and Italians.

Silicon Valley (HBO) – Mike Judge nails the geek gestalt of today’s tech start-up culture with laugh-out-loud insanity. Just when these characters teeter beyond the edge of stereotype, we get something so wonderfully specific and crazy that, well, we just laugh out loud. The pinnacle of the season was, of course, the finale, “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency,” which combines so many geek tropes and fanboy obsessions that to simply describe the scenario defies belief, but, believe me, it was delish.

Click to read more ...