My Life is Cinema (Part 2)

This post is part 2 of a larger series.  Certain parts of it won’t make a whole lot of sense unless you have read part 1, which can be found here…

                When I was a kid, there was a Samoan princess who lived in the stars.  I don’t remember her name, or any of the stories, just that basic setting.  What I do remember is the feel of soft, Costco brand sweatpants covering the lap I was sitting on and the sound of lounge chairs being moved over a rough brick patio.  I remember a warm summer breeze wafting the scent of gently smoking cigarette butts through the air, and the sight of stars sparking against the night sky as the stories strolled among them.  And I remember the joy of letting those surroundings soak in while my mind traveled with a princess among islands made of starlight.
                The stories were told to me by Penny, a friend of my parents.  In fact, she was the one who introduced them.  I still don’t know if the stories were ones from her childhood or if they were figments of her imagination that she occasionally allowed to go wild.  Either way, her stories of the island princess in the stars were my introduction to the act of storytelling.

                We went over to Penny’s house a lot when I was growing up.  She lived in the neighborhood between Idelwild and Chrissy Caughlin Park.  She and her husband would host poker nights all the time.  I would go with my parents, sometimes I would play poker with the adults, other times I would watch The Lion King in the other room while they played cards; it was then that I learned how to operate a tv and vcr. 

                Penny would make runny baked bbq beans, and serve some store-bought potato salad along with some French bread.  Her husband would make steaks on the grill out back.  If you asked for your steak to be rare, he would basically pick up a raw steak in some tongs on the right side of the grill, flip it over as he passed the steak over the heat and plop it down on a plate on the left side of the grill.  If you asked for your steak well done, you got the exact same treatment.  Every steak was rare and bloody, and the juices mixed with the runny beans to make a soup to be soaked up with the bread.  I hated the food when I was a kid; now it’s one of my favorite meals.

                Penny loved cats, especially Siamese cats.  She had a few different ones through all the years, though the two that stuck in my mind the most were Tinker and Stinker.  Tinker was small, devious, and playful while Stinker was larger, fat, and not overly bright, with eyes that went in every direction except straight ahead. 

Cats were a constant part of Penny’s life… so were Costco brand sweatpants and shirts.  She wore those sweats as often as she could get away with it.  And when you have as little concern for other people’s opinions as Penny did, you can ALWAYS get away with wearing sweats.  She would wear some of them frequently enough, especially around the house, that eventually the thread in them would wear down.  I’m pretty sure there were a few times where the ratio of thread to cat hair had shifted in favor of the felines.

She would chain smoke while she obsessively gambled.  She loved food that most other people would avoid (Eggroll King and Gold N’Silver) and she didn’t exercise.  She wasn’t the healthiest person around, there’s no denying that.  But her mind shined bright and her wit was the sharpest of anyone I’ve ever known.  She was never at a loss for words, jokes and comebacks were ready on a moment’s notice. 

Penny had a sense of self that was indomitable.  She knew exactly who she was and never seemed to doubt it for a second.  Others opinions held no sway with her unless they were the opinions of her friends, to whom she was unfailingly loyal. 

She was an avid reader, infatuated with a good mystery.  She would read book after book after book, always trying to stay one step ahead of the characters and the writer.  Likewise she would sit down with brain-teasers or puzzles, working on them for hours at a time.  She would burn through games such as Myst and Riven in a fraction of the time it would take an average person. 

I tell you all of this about Penny so that you can form a picture in your mind of the stories that she used to tell me of the Samoan princess that lived among the stars. 

A picture in my mind is all that remains for me as far as the stories are concerned…

A picture of lounge chairs on a rough brick patio covered in birdseed, below an ocean filled with islands of starlight far too numerous to count. 

A picture of people sitting around me with their heads tilted back and their eyes fixed on the night sky as a hand reaches out in front of me, pointing from start to star and weaving a tale more full and rich than any tapestry.

A picture of a mind shining brighter than the stars around it, its light shining out through the cracks of an ordinary life. 

That’s the picture that was given to me as an introduction to the world of stories and storytelling.  It’s the picture that taught me that no matter what may be happening in my day to day life, my imagination is capable of anything. 


                Penny passed away a few years ago from cancer.  She hadn’t told me a story about the princess in the stars for nearly two decades.  Though the details of the stories have faded, the picture she left me with hasn’t.  The lessons derived from that picture haven’t faded either. 

                Now the picture of the porch and the starlight islands is a bit ephemeral and far too complicated to include in my Life Is Cinema tattoo.  However, these stories, the storyteller, and their impact on my perception of life, and the stories that it’s made up of need to be included somehow.  So I figure, I’ll keep it simple and fill the first frame of the film with a penny, a little play on words for the woman that taught me never to let my imagination whither; the woman that showed me what storytelling can do for the soul.  


Why is TV Sho* Good (*Not a typo)

            What memorable historic moments come to mind when you think of 1983? For many it’s the start of the Ronald Reagan years, the expansion of free enterprise, or the last time Teresa Mullins smiled.
            But for TV enthusiasts, 1983 was the year where a record 105 million Americans tuned in to watch the series finale of the longest running TV show in history, MASH. Not until the 2010 Super Bowl, did an American based television program attract a larger audience. Mesmerized by the two and a half decade multi-media record, I sought out to discover what made MASH so good?

Quickly, I realized the answer. Absolutely nothing. Sorry white people (plus Wayne Brady).

The show consisted of flat characters with less development than a construction project in Qatar, it had over-used punch lines that make CBS comedy shows look clever, and Alan Alda’s performance makes you feel glad that we lost the Vietnam war. However, what struck me in my distaste for MASH was how good TV has become. 

Personal opinions aside, the facts back me up. Nielsen reports that more people tuned in to “TV” in the past two years than during the first twenty years of the invention of this multimedia tube.

Oh, and that MASH record? It’s obsolete in a broader comparative standard. When you factor in HULU, DVRs, and other forms of streaming media, more people viewed the first season of House of Cards, the end of Parks and Recreation, and the last four Game of Thrones season finales, than tuned in for the MASH finale.

So what made TV so good? Was it an accident? Did we get lazy? Or did TV producers utilize big data and better technology, thus causing the quality of programming to significantly improve?

The evidence tends support the latter. Despite the grumbling from older generations and Michelle Obama (thanks Obama), people are far more active now than they were in the Vietnam era.  During the first lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign, copious amount of data was collected on the state of America’s physical activity levels. Since the MASH days, the amount of Americans going on hikes, swimming, or engaging in some type of physical activity once a week tripled. During the Obama administration, more Americans have stated that working out is an integral part of their lifestyle than during any other time in history (shut up Sarah Palin).

But what’s happened in recent years is that college students and young adults don’t follow up their weekend hike with a pizza and then a nap. According to the 2013 Nielson TV Survey reports, more households are tuning into Sunday premium TV or catching up on their favorite shows.

This is no accident. 

HBO, long known as the go-to for lewd late-night TV and abhorrent 1990’s Pauly Shore movies, understood that their current model of B-list-actor erotica movies would no longer work. With easier access to the Internet and information, the premium cable provider knew they would be fucked if nothing changed quickly.  In a Fast Company interview, Home Box Office CEO, Richard Plepler, explains, “There was no core advantage anymore in being raunchy or scandalous.  We needed to improve our story telling skills and adopt a narrative that would resonate with a broader audience.”

Richard and his Band of Brothers (pun intended) went to work, and they went to work fast. Former HBO Chief Technology Officer, Otto Berke, explains, “We went from having additional writers as an option in the late 90’s, to shows like Curb [Your Enthusiasm] and Sopranos having a dozen writers taking on massive responsibilities. We’d have four writers carving out 10 minute blocks.” Remember that God-awful show MASH? In total, the team had 30 writers over a two-decade span.

One other visceral difference between modern TV and the sit-com laden 80’s and 90’s, is the array of stunning visual effects. This also was no coincidence. Every year TV nerds gather at the Paley Center for Media Paleyfest, which boasts a lineup that consists of actors and producers from the biggest shows. During their “History of TV” panel, execs from CBS, ABC, and Showtime all explained their adjusted budgets to integrate digital effects. Otto Berkes, also a participant on this panel, had the chance to explain, the main driver was consumer trends. People no longer wanted TV to mainly consist of content that resembled their lives, only slightly more horrific or humorous; they wanted a sort of escapism. For the first time since Star Wars and Star Trek, the early 2000 shows of Heroes, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica gave TV producers an idea of what the audience really wanted. Non-acting and writing dollars soared by 155% over the past ten years.

In conjunction, TV viewership has soared over the past decade. Yes, people may attribute this to illegal streams, show-to-web platforms like Hulu, and HBO Now. However, Jim Funk, former SVP of Business Development at Roku, argues that the quality of TV has improved dramatically. At a roundtable last week in San Francisco, Mr. Funk argued, “Replay for plain vanilla, single camera shows, such as Seinfield, the Mindy Project, and New Girl is hassle. You look at Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, and others have a much easier time attracting viewers to view the same content multiple times. I’ve been in the industry for 30 years and I’ve never seen this much excitement” 

And he’s right. People don’t just like TV, they LOVE TV. The internet has become a source for viewers to know the actors, shitty websites like BuzzFeed have given us a “chance” to see which characters we would be, and forums give us a chance to discuss TV plots on end.

This trend, is also, no accident.  The utilization of big data has transformed a plethora of industries over the past 10 years, and TV is no exception.

One household name, Netflix, largely thanks their data geeks for their enormous success. Once known as a company with a ridiculous DVD delivery model that douche-y, small-minded TV talking heads on CNBC would routinely mock; the company now has 62 million subscribers and adds roughly 3 million news users every quarter. The entertainment streaming company just announced a 7 for 1 stock split. In the past 30 years, only Apple has been able to transact such an enormous market value mash up.

Dan Ellis, former Director of Content Operations of Netflix, attributes this success to the hoards of data his old employer collected. Ellis notes, “We knew House of Cards was a success because we had information that consumers continuously searched for Kevin Spacey, old and young audiences loved Fincher, and you had a national audience, who since the Clinton/Lewinsky saga, had a guilty pleasure for political scandals.” Jenji Kohan, the creator of such shows as Weeds and Orange is the New Black, confessed she was amazed by how much Netflix knew about her show even before productions. Kohan claims that Netflix strategists knew the size of their audience, the chance Piper would resonate with females of all backgrounds, and that the use of a transgender star would be an attraction rather than a distraction.

Other networks took note. Recently, in efforts to turn around their poor ratings, NBC expanded their analytics team by 20% and hired 3 different big data companies. ABC’s expansion into ethnic based shows and hiring additional non-white actors can largely be attributed to their studies on the market for un-tapped demographics.

But at its core, TV has always attracted audiences for the same reasons, intrigue and relatability. If you haven’t fallen asleep by now you might remember that I stated audiences didn’t want cookie cutter replications of themselves, and I still believe that. However, now more than ever, we can feel a sense of intrigue as well as relate to TV characters.

The appeal for Game of Thrones is a prime example.  Granted, we have a show with fantastic visual effects, the draw of medieval times, and nudity; but no one can deny the connection we have with these characters and, more importantly, their journey.

This season’s finale and the Red Wedding resonated with us all, because we felt a sense of loss. For the most part, all of us threw away our Edward and/or Jacob T-shirts and became Team “Stark” as the show progressed.  Seeing members of the Stark family struggle through their personal journey, come across new frightening unknowns, and ultimately triumph, kept many of us coming back for more. In fact, GoT enthusiasts will know George R.R. Martin originally pitched his books off the simple premise that his novels would chronicle the growth process of the five Stark children. So it made complete emotional sense that we all felt despair when we knew the time for Stark family members like Robb, Caitlyn, and Ned had come to an abrupt and brutal end.

Aside from our love for the popular HBO show, many of us resonate with TV and its countless characters for a variety of reasons. The camaraderie seen in shows like Entourage, Glee, Sex and the City, and even the dysfunctional Girls are something we slightly envy. The struggle for genuine kinships (or lack of) in shows like Suits, Breaking Bad, Scrubs, and of course Friends also resonate with us because at some time in our lives we have each longed for a relationship, plutonic or more, which either never came to fruition or (after a few trials and many errors) eventually did.

Additionally, no one can deny the intrigue for shows like House and Mad Men; many of us have experienced deep and un-admitted sorrow that our professional success failed to translate into personal happiness.  These shows gave us bigger-than-life characters that were struggling with the same personal dilemmas and troubles that so many of us face on a daily basis.

Apart from the connections taking place in the show, we also have to consider the connections taking place between the viewers. Who doesn’t love coming to work on Monday, discussing the shows with their colleagues, and sharing their excitement or sadness with friends?

We don’t want to admit it because it seems so trivial, but we all feel an emotional loss when our favorite shows end. However, I bring you very good news.  Upon an end to any relationship, your friends assure you there will be other opportunities to love again. TV shows are no different. With the tools of mass data and years of mastering the craft of powerful screen writing, we now live in a remarkable age where TV shows can deliver, in idiosyncratic ways, the opportunity to shine a lens on our deepest thoughts and fears, our grandest ambitions, and our most desired connections.

You thought you’ve seen everything, but you haven’t. In the not-so-distant future, TV will be so good we’ll be able to compare MASH to Bravo reality TV while we marvel at the stories highlighting Jon Snow’s reincarnation into the King of Dragons who rightfully regains his throne.*

Stay tuned.

*Let it be on record that I, Chris Blue, do not necessarily agree with all Game of Thrones theories stated in this blog post.